Air Force's four-year run has made some into believers
To have a miracle, you must have believers. And where there are believers, there also will be doubters.
In the case of Air Force basketball, where almost all the protagonists in the school's veritable hardwood miracle have been on both sides, that's what has made the past four seasons so delicious.
Four years after this miracle started, the historically terrible Falcons are on a 90-35 run, with two NCAA Tournament appearances, an NIT semifinal berth and a Mountain West regular-season crown. They have not only survived but thrived, even as leadership of the program repeatedly changed hands. Now they must erase the latest doubt about whether they can sustain this run with a new batch of players.
Joe Scott and Chris Mooney weren't exactly believers when they landed in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2000. Scott was taking over an 8-20 program that hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1962 and hadn't even had a winning season since 1978. Mooney, who played for Princeton when Scott was an assistant there, put his faith in his new boss' passion and the system they both learned at Princeton. There wasn't much else to grasp onto.
"Being at Air Force, nobody thought you could finish not in last, let alone win the league or compete for the title," said Mooney, who started as a Falcons assistant under Scott. "I don't think our perspective was to build a great program where we could compete with anyone in the country. We were just trying to get better and utilize the advantages of the Academy."
Scott's Falcons actually won their first game but lost their next seven. They finished that first season at 8-21 and ended the next at 9-19. A 12-16 mark in 2002-03 provided a glimmer of hope -- that is, until the 2003-04 Mountain West schedule was released.
"We were at Colorado State, at New Mexico, home to BYU and Utah, which were two of the best teams, then at San Diego State and UNLV, so we thought were were going to start 0-6 [in league play]," Mooney said with a half-chuckle.
Instead, the Falcons beat CSU, crushed New Mexico in the Pit, routed BYU and then rolled past Utah and San Diego State to get to 5-0. The shocking run ended only when the Falcons, at 12-2, stood atop the Mountain West. First-round losses in the 2004 MWC and NCAA tournaments didn't dampen the overall mood.
Jacob Burtschi and Matt McCraw became believers, but it took awhile for them to come around. Neither had any military personnel in his family, so they never thought they'd go to the Academy when they starting receiving recruiting letters from Air Force.
I really believe we have turned this program now to the point where winning is expected. I think we have a system in place now. It's basically 40 minutes of in-your-face basketball. It relies primarily on great defense, great perimeter shooting and great discipline. With that going into it, I think we can sustain this.
--Dr. Hans Mueh
But the two wound up at the Academy and converged in the fall of 2003 with future teammates Dan Nwaelele, John Frye and Ryan Teets to form the key pieces of the Class of 2007. At first, even as Burtschi started to get to know his new mates like talented sophomores Nick Welch and Antoine Hood, his expectations were modest.
"I honestly thought that [we could have] a .500 record or maybe a little bit above, maybe we have a shot at the NIT," he said of his freshman season.
The players bought in, went 22-7 and reached the NCAAs. Shortly thereafter, the players' faith was tested.
First, Scott departed for Princeton, his alma mater. The Tigers were coming off a 20-8 season and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Mooney inherited the job from his mentor and led the Falcons to an 18-12 season that validated the program's rise. But after that season, he left for Richmond five days after a new five-year contract started, in part frustrated by Air Force's declining of an NIT bid. The Spiders were coming off a 14-15 season in the Atlantic 10.
"Everyone was just blown away," Burtschi said of Mooney's departure in 2005. "It was just unbelievable that he just decided to go. I guess it was back East and closer to family, but it was just crazy. He had a lot of talent coming back and could have stuck around for a couple more years and had a shot at a bigger school."
Jeff Bzdelik was a believer. It was Bzdelik who called the Academy in the wake of Mooney's departure and asked about the job. And it was Bzdelik whose first impression on his new players kept some of them from transferring. In the team's initial meeting, he handed out laminated cards with all his pertinent contact information on them and told his players that he was available anytime, for anything. McCraw still carries the card in his wallet.
"He really had us as his family, so that was great," McCraw said. "That clinched it pretty much. Time for school was approaching. I wasn't really extending out to find new schools. We definitely had come too far, not only as a basketball program, but as people, to give up on it now."
Bzdelik loosened up the strings on the tightly wound offense, creating more freelancing opportunities for talents like Hood and Nwaelele. He also loosened up the strings in practice, sometimes starting a flag football game or taking the team on a bowling trip as ways to help shake the monotony of basketball within the military construct, which was memorably breached on Selection Sunday in 2006 when the Falcons learned that they had snuck into the NCAA Tournament.
"As soon as we came up [in the bracket], I was shocked. I just sat there for a second," McCraw said. "Then I ran into the hallway because everyone was screaming, and Jacob Burtschi just tackled me. Right there on the floor. We were two guys, just rolling around on the floor, so happy."
In 2006-07, Air Force had 90 percent of an epic campaign. After the Class of '07 was strengthened by Welch -- the MWC co-player of the year who injured his knee and redshirted to join the class -- the Falcons were ranked as high as 11th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. But they collapsed at the end of the season, losing their last three regular-season games, and a loss to Wyoming in the conference tournament opener sealed their NIT fate.
The Falcons, in a far cry from the seniors' early days when a home crowd numbered in the hundreds, rode three straight Clune Arena appearances into a spot in the NIT semifinals in Madison Square Garden. The one-point loss to Clemson ended the season, and ended the careers of McCraw, Burtschi and their cohorts. It wasn't the final loss for the program, though.
Bzdelik left Colorado Springs this past spring to take over at Colorado, which finished 7-20 last season. His departure was the Falcons' third in four years, a crippling blow to any program trying to sustain its success. The school's athletic director, Hans Mueh, attributes the losses of the three coaches -- all to programs that, at the time, were worse than Air Force -- as a flattering convergence of market forces.
"It really doesn't surprise me [to lose those coaches] because success will breed that sort of movement," he said. "I think it's actually a tribute to Air Force that we have had such interest in the coaching staffs we have had here at bigger programs."
Jeff Reynolds is a believer, in part because he spent two years as Bzdelik's assistant and in part because Bzdelik encouraged him to take the Academy job.
Reynolds is realistic about what he has inherited: a program that has some good pieces, but is very young and, for now, rebuilding.
"I think the expectations in the short term might be a little unrealistic," he said. "Look across the country at teams that have [lost as much talent as Air Force has] and look at the roller coaster or the early bumps in the road those young men suffered in trying to keep things at that level."
One thing Reynolds might do is end the almost-annual coaching roller coaster in Colorado Springs. A winner at both the Division III and Division II levels, this is the 50-year-old Reynolds' first Division I head coaching job and he says he wants to stay "as long as they want me to be here." The Academy gave him enough funding to hire a good staff, and he believes aggressive recruiting and smart scheduling will be the lifelines that help keep this Air Force miracle alive.
It won't be easy. Beyond the recruiting challenges, the success of the past four seasons also has created scheduling issues as no one wants to come to Clune, where the Falcons have won 56 of their last 58 games.
So, entering Year 5 of the renaissance, there's still so much to do. The Falcons have never won a Mountain West tournament game, let alone an NCAA Tournament one. The big question for the present, though, is whether the level they have achieved in the past four seasons is sustainable. Air Force very well may have a system now that can survive turnover from those who run it, but the Falcons now need to prove their system can thrive without the original players who made it.
"I really believe we have turned this program now to the point where winning is expected," Mueh said. "I think we have a system in place now. It's basically 40 minutes of in-your-face basketball. It relies primarily on great defense, great perimeter shooting and great discipline. With that going into it, I think we can sustain this."
If Reynolds and his charges do indeed do that, we'll have to ask how long a miracle lasts before it's no longer a miracle.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.