WEST POINT, N.Y. — More than an hour before the kickoff last Saturday, one of Air Force's oldest football followers stood in the stands of Michie Stadium, watching as the Falcons and Army warmed up before their annual service-academy game.
Retired Lt. Gen. Winfield "Skip" Scott has been a fixture around the Air Force Academy for more than a quarter-century, going back to his years (1983-87) as one of the finest AFA superintendents. Nobody has deeper ties to service-academy football than Scott. He played on great teams at Army from 1946 through '49, and two of his sons played at Air Force. (One of them, Dave Scott, a standout AFA defensive end in the late 1970s, was sitting with his dad.) Another son went to West Point before advancing to two-star general in the Air Force.
Skip Scott might be 83 now, living in Colorado Springs, but he didn't hesitate in making this trip back to see another AFA-Army game. And after climbing up nearly 30 rows in one of the Air Force sections, he totally ignored the damp chill next to the Hudson River as he reduced this game down to two succinct sentences.
"This game is our season, right here," Scott said. "This is the one we have to win."
He acted like he wanted to be out there on the field one more time, but not in an Army uniform 60-plus years later. He might cheer for Army during any other week, but not on this day.
Meanwhile, a few rows away, another familiar face took his seat. Cal McCombs was a defensive assistant coach at Air Force from 1984-98, and was defensive coordinator for the Falcons' 1998 team that went 12-1 and won the Western Athletic Conference title. He went on to become head coach at Virginia Military Institute (1999-2005), then was an East Coast scout for the Denver Broncos before retiring.
Now 65 and living in Virginia, McCombs and his wife Lynne (a former longtime educator in Colorado Springs) made the seven-hour drive to reunite with many of the Air Force coaches who were cadet-athletes during his time on the AFA staff.
Like Gen. Scott, McCombs realized how important this game was to Air Force. He also knew it might not be easy, as he recalled some tense afternoons (wins by 7-3 in 1992 and 10-6 in 1994) in this stadium.
As it turned out, the drama on this day didn't last long. Army built a 6-0 lead, but Air Force started making big plays on both sides of the ball, and the Black Knights simply couldn't keep up. This was a huge game for Army, and everyone around West Point fully believed this would be the breakthrough year it would sweep Air Force and Navy to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1996. Instead, the Falcons wound up coasting to a 42-22 victory, more impressive because it came after three straight painful losses, especially a week earlier against Utah.
Air Force also had its own goal in mind. Not since 2002 had the Falcons won that CIC Trophy, which they owned for 13 out of 14 years until Navy took control of the academy series.
AFA head coach Troy Calhoun, despite much progress in re-establishing Air Force's success since 2007, hadn't been able to capture that trophy, and he had tried not to make it a total obsession. But when this game was over, and the Falcons lined up in front of the band, cadets, fans and many former players to sing the AFA song, it was obvious how much it meant to have that CIC Trophy again. Not to mention a trip to the White House for Calhoun and the Falcon seniors.
We'll see how far this Air Force season (6-4) goes now, with two expected wins against New Mexico and Nevada-Las Vegas followed by a likely trip to the Independence Bowl on Dec. 27 in Shreveport, La., to face an Atlantic Coast team. (Clemson, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State have been mentioned.)
But with that Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, the Falcons already have one goal secured. And it's a big one.