Legendary Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry is leading a charmed life
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: October 5, 2018
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Fisher DeBerry readily admits he leads a charmed life these days.
DeBerry and his wife, LuAnn, spend six months in Grove, Oklahoma – nearby to their two children and eight grandchildren. They spend the other half of the year in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, at the retirement home they built that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.
Together, the couple devotes considerable time and effort to the Fisher DeBerry Foundation, which is dedicated to the support and education of single mothers and their children. That is a cause that is very personal to DeBerry, who grew up without a father in the country town of Cheraw, S.C.
“I was a single-parent kid and I don’t know what I would have done without my coaches,” said DeBerry, who was honored to give the eulogy at the funerals of the three men who served as important mentors. That would be the Cheraw High football and baseball coach along with Wofford football coach Jim Brakefield.
DeBerry travels around the country speaking at fundraising events for the foundation, which annually sends 500 to 600 youngsters to summer camps. He relies on connections developed during a 44-year college football coaching career to get notable names from his lifelong profession to work those camps.
“We believe if we can get these kids to a camp so they be around the right kind of people and learn a little about leadership, character and integrity it can make a difference in their lives,” DeBerry said.
DeBerry was once the undisputed champion of service academy football, leading Air Force to 17 winning seasons and 12 bowl berths while serving as head coach from 1984 through 2006. The Falcons captured the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy 14 times during the 21-year tenure of DeBerry, who was a combined 34-8 against Army and Navy.
Now DeBerry is a fan of all the service academy programs, rooting almost as hard for Army and Navy as he does for Air Force. He was absolutely thrilled when the Black Knights, Falcons and Midshipmen all posted winning records and earned bowl berths in 2016.
“I’m so happy to see Air Force, Army and Navy football all on solid footing,” DeBerry said during a phone interview with The Baltimore Sun Media Group on Thursday. “I’m not surprised because all three programs are being led by outstanding football coaches and fine men.”
Of course, DeBerry has a special fondness for current Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun, who was a former player and assistant. Calhoun, a former starting quarterback for the Falcons, was tabbed to succeed DeBerry after he retired.
For the most part, Calhoun has continued the successful tradition established by DeBerry, leading Air Force to eight winning seasons capped by bowl berths during a 12-year tenure.
“I was tickled to death when Troy was selected. It was a great compliment to the program that an alum and former player was hired,” DeBerry said. “Troy has done a fantastic job as I knew he would.”
However, DeBerry is just as complimentary of Army head coach Jeff Monken and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, both of whom were once bitter rivals. Monken has resurrected the Black Knights in much the same way his former boss, Paul Johnson, did the Midshipmen.
Army currently holds the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after sweeping Air Force and Navy in 2017. Monken, a Navy assistant under Johnson from 2002 through 2007, is looking to lead the Black Knights to their third straight winning season.
“Jeff understood what it took to succeed at a service academy and has really turned things around at Army,” said DeBerry, who sent Monken a congratulatory letter after he was hired as head coach at West Point.
“I was really surprised to get that note. It was very classy of coach to send that note of good luck,” Monken recently told the Colorado Springs-Gazette.
Meanwhile, Niumatalolo followed in the footsteps of Johnson and took Navy to even greater heights. The Midshipmen have posted winning records in 14 of the last 15 seasons while claiming the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy 10 times since 2003.
“Kenny has done such a tremendous job and is such a great person. He runs a first-class program,” DeBerry said. “We love all those guys and admire what they’re doing. They do it the right way and for the right reasons.”
Riding off into the sunset
There was a time when Monken and Niumatalolo, along with everyone else involved with Navy football, did not have too much love for DeBerry. During the two decades of dominance by Air Force, DeBerry was not afraid to boast and gloat while taking playful shots at the other two service academies.
“They’ve found a new way to count at Navy: O-1, 0-2, 0-3, 0-4 . . .,” DeBerry once famously said.
That statement came during the three-year period when the Midshipmen lost 31 of 34 games from 2000 to 2002. Perhaps the most crushing defeat during that stretch came on Oct. 5, 2002 when Air Force routed Navy, 48-7, at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs. Niumatalolo and Monken stood alongside an angry Johnson that afternoon as the alma maters were played afterward.
“We were thoroughly embarrassed,” Niumatalolo would later say. “It was a great awakening for our whole program. It ignited the program.”
Johnson would supplant DeBerry as the king of service academy football, leading Navy to victory over Air Force from 2003 through his final season in 2007. Niumatalolo would extend the winning streak to seven before the Falcons finally turned the tables in 2010.
There has been speculation DeBerry was pushed into retirement after it became clear Navy had ascended Air Force as the dominant service academy football program. DeBerry says he departed on his own terms after spending 27 total years in Colorado Springs.
“There comes a time for everybody to hang it up,” he said. “I was getting tired of Navy telling recruits I was too old and would be retiring soon.”
Family was the main reason why the old coach put away the whistle. He and LuAnn missed their son and daughter, who had both long since moved away from Colorado Springs, and were determined to watch the grandchildren grow up.
“We put in 44 years and had done a decent job of raising other people’s children. It was time to spend quality time with our own children and see the grand kids play sports or participate in activities.”
Daughter Michelle is married to Fred Sabatini, head coach of the NOAH Jaguars in Tulsa. NOAH stands for Northeast Oklahoma Association of Homeschools. Last year, Sabatini led NOAH to the National Home School Association Championship in Panama City, Florida.
Son Joe DeBerry played baseball at Clemson and was a third-round draft choice of the Cincinnati Reds in 1991. DeBerry was part of one of the more infamous trades in Major League Baseball history, getting sent to the New York Yankees along with Paul O’Neill for Roberto Kelly. O’Neill batted .303 with 185 home runs as the starting right fielder for Yankees squads that captured four world championships.
DeBerry roomed with future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter at the Triple-A level, but multiple injuries curtailed his once-promising career after six seasons in the minors. He saved enough money to buy farmland in Grove, Oklahoma, which is why his parents now live there.
During the six months he spends on the South Carolina coast, DeBerry hangs around with an impressive collection of retired college coaches that live in the greater Charleston area.
They include three former football head coaches – Ralph Friedgen (Maryland), Tom O’Brien (Boston College, N.C. State) and Bobby Johnson (Furman) – along with two former basketball head coaches – Les Robinson (N.C. State) and Bobby Cremins (Georgia Tech).
“We all meet up for breakfast every other Thursday at the Okra Grill,” said DeBerry, whose grandson recently caught a bunch of red drum while fishing with Friedgen.
DeBerry is back in Colorado Springs this weekend for the Air Force-Navy showdown along with the promotion ceremonies for two former players. Andre Johnson, who played running back and quarterback for the Falcons, is becoming a Colonel. Rodney Lewis, a fullback during the DeBerry era, is rising to the rank of Brigadier General.
“What I’m most proud of during my career is what my former players have become in life,” DeBerry said. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t get a letter, email or phone call from a former player. It makes you feel like you did some worthwhile.”
In fact, that ability to impact the lives of future leaders is the main reason why DeBerry turned down offers from major conference schools and stayed at Air Force for almost three decades.
“We felt like what we were doing was meaningful and important. We didn’t chase the dollars,” he said. “We felt we were doing something great for this nation by helping with the leadership training of future military officers. There is no better place to learn about leadership than the football field.”
While in town, DeBerry will speak to a large gathering at the Broadmoor Hotel as part of a fundraiser for his foundation.
“I always impressed upon our players that it was vitally important to give back so I am practicing what I preached,” DeBerry said. “At the end of each school year, my wife and I held a final barbecue for the seniors. I gave each one a bible with the Air Force football insignia and told them they were going to have rough times in life and could always find help and support in that book.”
DeBerry and his wife both just turned 80 and celebrated by participating in an event at their foundation headquarters in Las Vegas that set a symbolic goal of raising $80,000. They have been married for 53 years and the longtime football coach has never been in charge at home.
“I do whatever my wife tells me to do. I just say ‘Yes ma’am. That policy has worked pretty well for an awful long time so I see no reason to change it,” DeBerry said with a laugh.
DeBerry will return to Colorado Springs later this season to participate in a ceremony honoring his 1998 football team, which went 12-1 and captured the Western Athletic Conference championship.
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