Air Force Football Success

By: Mike Burrows Issue: Sports Section: Collaborator Profile

Coaches who believe in Family, Faith, and the Falcons

Air Force Football

Like the medal-winning relay teams in Olympic track stadiums, the Air Force Academy executed a smooth passing of the baton when Troy Calhoun returned to the Falcons to coach their football team after 23 years with Fisher DeBerry in charge.

It was a transfer of firepower.

DeBerry coached the Falcons to a 169-109-1 record, including two 12-1 teams, three Western Athletic Conference championships and a 6-6 mark in bowl games, from 1984 to 2006. He was so successful, so beloved and so respected, he was an immediate inductee into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame after his retirement from coaching. And he knew exactly who his Air Force successor should be.

"The academy couldn't have selected anyone better than Troy. He not only was a natural hire, I was sure he would be a great hire," said DeBerry, the winningest coach in the history of military academy football. "He's certainly off to a great start. I couldn't be happier for Troy and for the academy."

Calhoun, a former Air Force quarterback and a 1989 graduate of the academy, was coaching in the NFL as the Houston Texans' offensive coordinator when the Falcons called and asked him to come home. He was an assistant coach at Ohio University and Wake Forest and had coached with the Denver Broncos before joining the Texans with a promotion to coordinator. He jumped at the opportunity to coach the Falcons, even though it came with the daunting challenge of following a legendary coach.

"Nobody can replace somebody like Coach DeBerry. He was an incredible football coach and such an honorable man," Calhoun, 43, said before the Falcons wrapped up the 2009 season with a 47-20 thumping of the Houston Cougars at the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. "More than anything, look at the great influence he had on a countless number of people, on guys that went on to leadership roles in active duty.

"I talk to him as much as I can. I don't know if there are adequate words to describe the impact he has had on so many lives, mine included."

Three years into the Calhoun era, DeBerry's successor is making his own impact. Calhoun is 25-14 overall, leading the Falcons to 9-4, 8-5 and 8-5 records. He was the Mountain West Conference coach of the year in 2007, his first season, and is the only coach in Air Force history to guide the Falcons to a bowl game in each of his first three seasons. The Falcons have played in the Armed Forces Bowl every year Calhoun has coached them.

"None of that success surprises me," DeBerry said. "Troy was probably the best student of the game among all of my former players. He never went into a game not prepared.And he's the same way as a coach. It showed in the bowl game against Houston. Troy and his staff outcoached the Houston staff. Houston was a 10-win team and was favored. When I was coaching, the Falcons took great pride in never backing away from a challenge. We always met challenges head-on. That bowl game against Houston presented the same situation, and you saw the result."

"Troy was probably the best student of the game among all of my former players. He never went into a game not prepared.

DeBerry might not be as busy as a retired coach as he was when he was leading the Falcons to bowl victories over Virginia Tech, Texas, Ohio State, Mississippi State, Washington and Fresno State, but he's not exactly resting in a rocking chair. Far from it. He and his wife, Lu Ann, are devout Christians devoted to improving the lives of single-parent family members through financial assistance provided by the Fisher DeBerry Foundation. Since its inception in 2003, DeBerry's nonprofit foundation has awarded more than $150,000 in grants to single-parent families and to organizations that support children in those families.

Single-parent families have a special place in DeBerry's heart. He grew up in Cheraw, S.C., without a father.

"Lu Ann and I started the foundation in honor of my mother," said DeBerry, 71. "I was raised in a single-parent family. My mother often worked two jobs to make sure I had opportunities for achievement. We never had much, but I always had enough thanks to her."

"The sole reason for our foundation's existence is to provide life-changing opportunities for as many single-parent families, especially children, as we possibly can. Every year I was coaching and recruiting, it seemed like I was going into more and more homes of single-parent families. Studies show that one of every four kids in this country now lives in a single-parent family, and 87 percent of those kids live with their mother. Somebody has to help those kids and those families. That's what our foundation is trying to do."

DeBerry's foundation awards $500 grants that help pay for needs such as clothing, school supplies, summer camps, scholarships and after-school programs; a few targeted areas of assistance. The foundation awarded grants totaling $40,000 in 2009, and DeBerry loves to tell the story of one person among many who benefited from that generosity.

"A young lady in Colorado Springs needed $486 to travel to Chicago to audition for a college scholarship," DeBerry said, beaming. "She received a $500 grant from our foundation and turned that money into a college scholarship worth more than $100,000. That's the kind of impact we hope to have on a lot of people."

DeBerry and his wife are tireless fundraisers for their foundation, raising money through an annual golf tournament in South Carolina, through an annual 5-kilometer run and walk in Colorado Springs and through an annual banquet in Denver featuring the coaches of the state's four Division I football programs. DeBerry also is a speaker at several Fellowship of Christian Athletes fundraising events each year.

So much for relaxing in retirement.

"The reason I retired from coaching was to spend more time with my family, with my (six) grandchildren," DeBerry said. "And being retired from coaching also allows me to put more effort into the foundation and help the Fellowship of Christian Athletes more. I'm still busy, believe me."

DeBerry recently published his second book, "The Power of Influence," as a fundraiser for his foundation. The book is a compelling 35-chapter look back at the extraordinarily successful DeBerry era of Air Force football as seen through the eyes of his assistant coaches and his players, many of whom have been in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan since their graduation from the academy. Woven throughout the book is the all-important responsibility of being a positive influence on people around you, especially on America's youth.

"When I think of Coach DeBerry's staff, I think of great Christian people completely dedicated to their coaching profession and to mentoring and molding young men into leaders," wrote Chad Hennings, an All-America defensive tackle for the Falcons who won the 1987 Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman and later played for three NFL championship teams with the Dallas Cowboys after flying combat missions in Iraq during the first Gulf War.

"I believe the strongest bonds between men are forged through adversity. The memory of one man, one leader, can help guide you through all of life's future battles," wrote Marc Munafo, an Air Force halfback who graduated from the academy in 1987. "I was lucky. I played for Fisher DeBerry and the United States Air Force Academy."

"What would my life be like if I hadn't played football for Coach DeBerry? I thank God that I don't have to answer that," wrote Col. Dave Hlatky, an F-16 fighter pilot who graduated from Air Force in 1989 after starring as a guard for the Falcons.

DeBerry salutes everyone but himself for the Falcons' stunning success when he was their coach.

"I'm in awe of what we were able to accomplish," he said. "I was blessed to be surrounded by the best coaches and players you could ever want. We didn't get the blue-chip players in recruiting, but I can assure you we always got the blue-chip people. Faith, family and the Falcons. That was the foundation of our success, and I think it showed." DeBerry was coaching a triple-option offense at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., when he came to Air Force in 1980 as the quarterbacks coach on Ken Hatfield's staff. Hatfield hired DeBerry to help fuel the Falcons' transition to the triple option. A year later, DeBerry was promoted to offensive coordinator. Following the 1983 season, a year in which the Falcons went 10-2 and Hatfield was named national coach of the year, DeBerry succeeded Hatfield after Hatfield left Air Force to coach Arkansas, his alma mater.

There was a smooth passing of the baton then, too.

Air Force's first team with DeBerry in charge went 8-4, including a 23-7 pounding of Virginia Tech in the 1984 Independence Bowl. A year later, the Falcons bolted to a 10-0 start and rose to No. 4 in the national polls. They finished 12-1, including a 24-16 victory over Texas in the 1985 Bluebonnet Bowl and a share of the WAC title, and DeBerry was named National Coach of the Year. The Falcons also were 12-1 and WAC champions in 1998, when they blasted Washington 45-25 in the Oahu Bowl. That team's only loss came in a 35-34 shootout with Texas Christian.

At the finish line, after a remarkable 23-year run, DeBerry's Air Force teams were a combined 35-11 against archrivals Navy (17-6) and Army (18-5). DeBerry guided the Falcons to victories over Notre Dame in 1984 (21-7), 1985 (21-15) and 1996 (20-17 in overtime). Hatfield handed him a strong program when he passed the baton, and DeBerry made it even stronger.

I never went into coaching for money or prestige or ego. It was always all about the players, just like it is now with Troy."

"The fact that I stayed at the academy so long tells you how much I love the academy," DeBerry said. "It was a hand-in-glove fit for me. I was that comfortable. I had the best coaching job in the country at the best school in the country. I never went into coaching for money or prestige or ego. It was always all about the players, just like it is now with Troy."

Calhoun's vision for the future of Air Force football is clearly connected to the legendary coach who handed him the baton after the 2006 season.

"To sit there and say there is no way Air Force cadets in Mountain West Conference sports can't frequently experience winning seasons, I just don't agree with that," Calhoun said. "There's evidence that tells you why that can occur, and that's what we are going to do."