When the news came last week that former Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry had made it into the College Football Hall of Fame, the outpouring of positive reactions came from every direction.
And deservedly so. DeBerry took over the AFA program in 1984, after four successful years as an offensive assistant under Ken Hatfield, and guided the Falcons to some of their most unforgettable seasons and moments until his retirement in December 2006. His 23 years as head coach included 12 bowl games, six bowl victories, only two losing seasons in his first two decades, and victories over Ohio State, Texas, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame (three times). His total record of 169-109-1 might be impressive, but take away three losing marks at the end, and those first 20 years added up to a tremendous 156-88-1.
DeBerry's highest-achieving teams obviously were his two 12-1 squads, from 1985 and 1998, and we could argue all night over which was better. Perhaps the '85 team had a better defense, and the '98 offense might prevail in comparing that side of the ball. In both cases, the losses were painful but honorable.
In 1985, if not for quarterback Bart Weiss playing on a hurt leg and halfback Kelly Pittman sidelined by illness, the Falcons might have avoided a 28-21 loss at Brigham Young. In 1998, if not for TCU's then-unknown backup tailback LaDainian Tomlinson coming off the bench in a true "star is born" script, Air Force could have escaped that night in Fort Worth with something better than a 35-34 defeat.
As we join the positive reactions to DeBerry's honor, though, it should be said that Air Force had another candidate who was just as deserving.
That would be Scott Thomas, an All-American free safety on that 1985 AFA team. Thomas was a big-play producer and leader throughout his career, then went on to fly F-16 fighters in the first Gulf War of 1991. He stayed in the Air Force, rising to lieutenant colonel and training young pilots.
Thomas also was on the list of Hall of Fame nominees. He should have made it. He should have been able to go in beside DeBerry. Thomas could've talked about his last game being a bowl victory over Texas, which reneged on a scholarship offer to him (he's from San Antonio), after which he came to Air Force. He also could've recalled what it was like being shot down and rescued behind enemy lines in Iraq. But life isn't always totally fair, so Thomas will have to wait longer for his Hall of Fame induction.
As for DeBerry, having covered his first 17 years as head coach, and all those big victories, I'll have more nuggets to share before his Hall of Fame induction in December. But while his favorite memory might be a late comeback to beat Brigham Young for the 1998 Western Athletic Conference championship, my choice is different.
When Air Force faced Ohio State in the 1990 Liberty Bowl at Memphis, nobody outside of the AFA camp gave the Falcons a chance. Ohio State had just missed going to the Rose Bowl (with a 16-13 home loss to Michigan), while Air Force had to win its final three games (after a 54-7 loss to BYU) to become bowl-eligible at 6-5. At pre-bowl events, the Buckeyes' huge size advantage over the Falcons was practically comical — but it also led to a serious case of overconfidence.
After trailing early, Air Force came back to win, 23-11. And nobody was more thrilled than AFA linebacker Brian Hill, the game's defensive MVP, whose father Billy was Ohio State's trainer.
It was a coaching victory as much as anything, as DeBerry and his staff outfoxed Ohio State. OSU head coach John Cooper was so frustrated at halftime that he left the dressing room to watch the halftime show, which was capped by Lee Greenwood singing "God Bless the USA."
That game, and that accomplishment, say more to me than any other game about what Air Force football has been like for the past 30-plus years. And, with Troy Calhoun in charge now, the program's personality is still the same today.