It seems that coaching at a Service Academy has only recently become a desirable job for coaches looking to grow their career. For some reason, it seems that there has been a historically held belief that if you coach at an academy, you become pigeonholed into a certain coaching style, or you can only work within the constraints of recruiting athletes who have the potential to become officers.
While football, lacrosse, baseball and other sports are disproving this belief with coaches moving on to professional and Power 5 jobs after their tenure at Air Force, basketball will likely prove to be tougher to bring in well-rounded coaching talent who is able to bring Air Force men’s basketball into an era of winning seasons and post-season runs.
All things considered, Dave Pilipovich was a good coach for Air Force. He brought in some great talent over the course of his nine seasons and his players seemed to love him and he accomplished the primary goal of graduating players who would go on to be great officers. However, low ticket sales and a 110-151 record overall just proves how difficult the job is, even for a talented basketball mind.
While you hate to see a coach lose their job, especially one who was great for the players, the truth is that something had to be done. Nathan Pine was brought in to grow Air Force athletics and firings come as a part of the growing pains. As Nathan Pine said, “The bottom line is we have to be more competitive on the court.”
What becomes frustrating is considering that prior to Pilipovich was coach Jeff Reynolds, who went 63-82 over his five seasons as head coach of the Falcons. The powers that be in the athletic department effectively allowed Air Force basketball to flounder for the last 13 years, following a 26-9 season and an NIT run in 2006. While Air Force was trending upwards, they lost coach Jeff Bzdelik to Colorado, who has gone on to the NBA and is now an assistant coach with the Pelicans. For some reason, basketball took a back seat and the standard for success became non-existent. Maybe we can chalk it up to the emerging success of football and hockey. Maybe managing multiple high-level sports was too much for the athletic department, whose background was primarily in the military at the time. Regardless of who’s to blame, we can only look forward.
So what will it take to bring in a truly great coach? The program, as it stands, does not look like an appealing one to take over for high-level coaches. If you look at the other service academies as well, the challenge of recruiting and coaching service academies is certainly not for everyone. Looking at the men’s team is indicative of how lucky Air Force is to have Chris Gobrecht taking the women’s position. I’d be remiss not a mention that Chris Gobrecht did have some ties to Air Force before taking the job. Her son is a graduate, so she understands the inner workings of the Academy much more than most, and she’s also a highly accomplished coach who may have wanted a challenge to cap off a phenomenal career vice looking for something to propel her to the next level.
The men need a coach who is similar in nature. They need someone who works well under pressure and doesn’t necessarily need to use the Academy as a springboard to their career on to bigger and better things. While it may be a good idea to look to someone with some sort of tie to service academy athletics, it would be better to look to someone who has experience growing programs. However, I recognize that I can’t just shoot for the moon and hope that Gregg Popovich will return to his alma mater.
I believe that Nathan Pine has the resources and ability to bring someone to make Air Force a program worth rooting for, but I don’t think it will be a quick process. The search needs to be truly nation-wide and all considerations must be made. At this point, the only way is up, and as Air Force fans, we can put our full faith behind Nathan Pine and the rest of the athletic department.