Last Saturday afternoon, out of curiosity and a sense of duty, my mission was to follow Air Force's home basketball game against Nevada-Las Vegas.
Not by going to Clune Arena, but alternately watching and listening as the Falcons tried to turn around a rotten January in the Mountain West Conference.
What unfolded was another abysmal, embarrassing performance. Air Force fell behind by 10 points at halftime and staggered to a 59-38 loss to UNLV. Yes, just 38 points at home, only 19 in each half, humiliating regardless of the opponent.
The Falcons couldn't shoot. They couldn't make anything happen in running their offense. They had no inside game. They looked so outclassed, like they didn't even belong. And then, on Tuesday night, they convulsed their way through the final 10 minutes to another home loss, 71-50 to Brigham Young.
That puts Air Force at 0-8 in the conference, 9-12 overall, winless in 2009. Only one of those league defeats has been closer than 11 points, and the average margin has been 16.5 points. And let's not even discuss the idea of a moral victory because Air Force had a two-point lead over an uninspired BYU team midway through the second half. After the Cougars woke up, Air Force sank only one basket in the final 10 minutes.
At this point, you have to begin wondering about head coach Jeff Reynolds' job security. He was fine as an assistant for two years, but the Falcons have slid steadily downhill since he replaced Jeff Bzdelik as the man in charge. And now the crowds that turned the AFA arena into a snakepit have dwindled noticeably. The place was not even half-full (2,743 in attendance) for BYU, which was a guaranteed sellout just two seasons ago.
Early in this decade, Air Force was showing signs of escaping years of mediocrity. Joe Scott, the feisty and strong-willed head coach, had brought in the disciplined Princeton system and had begun recruiting to it.
In his fourth year, Scott led the Falcons to heights they hadn't known for decades, with a nucleus including A.J. Kuhle, Joel Gerlach, Antoine Hood and Tim Keller. That 2003-04 season, they went 22-7, won the Mountain West Conference regular-season title and earned an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Their first-round opponent was none other than North Carolina, but they gave a valiant effort in that game (at Denver, as luck would have it) before the Tar Heels pulled away to a 63-52 victory.
Alas, Scott didn't stay long enough to enjoy any more fruits of his rebuilding years. The head coaching job came open at Princeton, his alma mater and where he had served as assistant before coming to Air Force. He jumped at the opportunity (though it didn't work so well, and he soon found himself back in Colorado as head coach at the University of Denver).
Chris Mooney, who had been one of Scott's assistants, took over at Air Force and went 18-12 and then he bolted for the East Coast, becoming head coach at the University of Richmond.
Then, in 2005, came Bzdelik, whose credentials included coaching in the NBA. Bzdelik was smart enough to know Scott and Mooney had assembled a solid group, led by Tim Anderson, Jacob Burtschi, Nick Welch, Dan Nwaelele and Matt McCraw. Over the next two seasons, Bzdelik led the Falcons to records of 24-6 and 26-9, making March Madness in 2006 (losing to Illinois) and the NIT (reaching the semifinals) in 2007.
It was during Bzdelik's second and final season that my mid-career wanderlust ended and we came back to Colorado Springs. Seeing the great home crowds, and how well the Falcons competed against everyone they played, was like a mirage for someone with more than two decades of different memories.
As enjoyable as Bzdelik's success was, though, that team was laden with the last full class of Scott's recruits. And the outlook wasn't quite so bright for the younger Falcons. Bzdelik knew that, and when the University of Colorado came calling two years ago, he didn't hesitate in racing off to Boulder. Now it's clear Bzdelik wasn't doing much in those two seasons at Air Force to continue building for the future.
So today, the Falcons again look like they did eight years ago, but without the optimism they had then. Today, they're on track to go 0-16 in the league.
That doesn't look like hopeful. It looks more like hopeless.