Senior College Football Columnist

For Army's former coach, the lingering question is 'What if?'


The mental baggage Todd Berry carried in the 10 years since Sept. 11, 2001, has weighed on him.

"I don't think I've ever told anyone this," Army's former coach began.

It was a story he could not tell, perhaps ever, for fear of being labeled unpatriotic or bitter. How, in the face of a national tragedy, do you describe how your ability to win may have been compromised? You don't, especially at Army. It is a different place, about as far away from a football factory as you can get but still ... Berry is a football coach and looking back at 2001 eats at him.

Todd Berry is currently coach at Louisiana-Monroe, his fourth job since leaving Army in 2003. (Getty Images)  
Todd Berry is currently coach at Louisiana-Monroe, his fourth job since leaving Army in 2003. (Getty Images)  
That team was the last to beat Navy, finishing 3-8. Two years later, Berry was fired with a four-year record of 5-36. Who knows -- if 9/11 had never happened, would things be different? Berry wonders that too. That's why he's ready to tell his story. He's now head coach at Louisiana-Monroe. It's his fourth job since leaving Army in 2003, and he's ready to unload some of that baggage.

First, understand that Berry says he did not receive any orders from superiors to fundamentally alter Army's game preparation after 9/11. That team was distracted enough, which is clear if you read my 10-year retrospective on the '01 team (coming Friday). It produced many of the first soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan following our national tragedy.

It also produced officers, captains of industry and professional athletes. All of them were led by Berry, a 1980 Tulsa grad with a 34-67 career head-coaching record at three schools. Louisiana-Monroe is his 13th stop overall. That's part of the reason he figures it's time.

"So many of those young people I know would have been great Army officers," said Berry, who still keeps in touch with many of his former Army players. "So many of them are divorced and lost their families in the process. A lot of guys got overburdened. It changed them."

To date, no one from that 2001 team has been killed in the Mideast. That's a blessing, because approximately 80 Army grads to date have perished in the conflicts that followed 2001.

"I found myself in a quandary, looking myself in the mirror," Berry said. "The quandary was, do I give up my football time? I always gave up my football time for the military."

By football time, he means practice. Berry distinctly remembers one afternoon practice before a key game when the Black Knights did nothing more than run two miles and do pushups.

"Sometimes I was forced into those," he said. "That was hard for me to decipher, what was the rationale was on that."

He added: "That whole time period after 9/11 I was constantly having to make decisions knowing that I was giving up time frames for military training. Ultimately it still had to be my decision. I wasn't getting orders. I was getting suggestions both ways."

Berry seems to be saying two different things, in that he wasn't forced into the moves but was "getting suggestions." He won't name names because he is still torn and doesn't want to sound bitter. According to records, the commandant on 9/11 was Gen.Eric Olson. Lt. Gen. William Lennox became superintendent in 2001. Current Rice AD Rick Greenspan had the Army AD job back then. Army did not respond to an email and phone calls asking for a reaction to Berry's comments.

Before 9/11, Berry said that in recruiting, "I found myself having to win the kid over. The young people were always the ones we had to convince. After 9/11, it completely switched. Now the kids were the easy sells. They wanted to be patriots. Moms and dads were saying, 'If my son's going to get shot at ...'"

Todd Berry can talk about it now. Enough time has passed for the former Army coach to talk about some of his innermost feelings during that 2001 season.

The aftermath of 9/11 defined Army, all the service academies and the country. But a place like Army is special. That branch is called "the tip of the spear" because Army means boots on the ground, sometimes the first responders, the men and women rooting out the enemy.

"My first year [2000] I remember going into different stadiums on the road and getting booed," he said. "I thought to myself, 'What a tragedy these people don't have a full appreciation of what this place is.' I was disappointed. I don't know if they were booing the Army or booing the opponent.

"When I was at Miami [as an assistant] there was an expectation that that was going to happen. Golly when you're at another university, you expect it at the time. But it upset me at the time."

Berry says he was compelled to take the job in 2000 by then-superintendent Lt. Gen. Daniel Christman, a "dynamic, super-intelligent" leader. Berry, then the head coach at Illinois State, came away from the interview feeling, "if I turned it down, it would be unpatriotic, letting down the country."

Army played in Conference USA from 1998-2004. Conference affiliation turned out to be a mistake. The Knights were outmanned playing a conference schedule. As an independent, the school still somewhat controls its own. Berry's pass-heavy spread offense was not a match either for Army.

Because the academy's mission is to develop soldiers and officers, it found it was overwhelmed even in Conference USA, a non-BCS league. Berry said he played mostly freshmen and sophomores at one point because they were the fastest players on the team.

"Those were the one we had to play because they were the only ones who could run," Berry said. "If we could catch somebody, we'd kill them. We couldn't catch them.

"It was kind of a bad setup. We were in a speed league. We weren't a speed team at the time. Ultimately, I had to make decisions that would impact my job security. I'm proud of those decisions."

Berry says that in his first Army season he had two players he could run a 4.7-second 40 or faster. By 2003, his final season, he had 37.

Still, he realizes that his was a higher calling. He wasn't much successful on the field but he takes pride in the success that he helped develop off of it.

"Somebody called me not too long ago when we got bin Laden," Berry said. "There were so many people at the time who were in a position to get him. When you give them a mission, they drop everything. So many people had lost their families, had them disintegrated in this pursuit of him. Until that got accomplished, that's all they did 24/7."

As for his time at Army, Berry says, "Three-hundred fifty-four days of the year, it was awesome. The 11 days of football were tough."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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