Michigan vs. Army is a guarantee game — it guarantees worry for both coaches
By JOHN FEINSTEIN | The Washington Post | Published: September 4, 2019
They both have football printed on their DNA.
"I have no idea what my life would be like without football," Monken said this week. "It's all I've ever really known. I don't like it, I love it. I live it."
There's one other similarity between Harbaugh, in his fifth season as Michigan's coach, and Monken, who is in his sixth season at Army: When their teams play Saturday for the first time since 1962, both will be hoping it won't happen again any time soon.
"Not exactly chomping at the bit," Harbaugh said, when asked if he'd like to see a rematch with the Black Knights."
"Ditto," Monken said to the same question.
The reasons the coaches aren't eager for a rematch, however, are very different: Harbaugh gets a headache thinking about facing Army's offense and the discipline that Monken has brought to his program. Monken's reasoning is more direct: "If they play their best football, there's almost no way we can beat them," he said. "They're bigger than we are, faster — just more talented. They have guys who are going to play in the NFL. We don't have one guy on our roster who was recruited by Eastern Michigan, much less Michigan."
This isn't your typical coach-speak about an opponent. It's all true. And then there's the rest of Monken's thought: "All that said, there's no one on our schedule our guys don't expect to beat. We know our execution has to be perfect; we can't make mistakes — turnovers, penalties — and we have to stick to every assignment. I know Jim will make his guys understand what they need to do to beat us. But we believe, we're going to win."
For evidence that this isn't coach-speak either, one only needs to look at Army's game a year ago at Oklahoma. The Black Knights almost pulled off what would've been one of the season's most stunning upsets, taking the Sooners — who would go on to make the College Football Playoff — into overtime before losing, 28-21.
Army actually drove the ball to the Oklahoma 30-yard-line with two minutes to play in regulation and the score tied before being stopped. The Black Knights kept the ball out of the hands of Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray most of the game, controlling the ball for more than 44 minutes and running 87 offensive plays to Oklahoma's 40.
"We've looked at the film of that game repeatedly and we'll look at it some more before Saturday," Harbaugh said. "I don't have to tell the players how tough these guys can be. It's self-evident."
Army is one of seven teams on Michigan's schedule that finished last season ranked in the top 25. The Black Knights didn't lose again after the Oklahoma game, winning nine straight to finish 11-2 and were ranked 22nd in the final Associated Press poll.
"We're playing seven teams that were ranked and nine that went to bowls," Harbaugh said. "But since the spring we've had to carve out extra time for Army. Their offense isn't just different, it's so much about ball control. That doesn't just affect your defense, it affects your offense. You make any kind of mistake it's magnified because you probably aren't going to see the ball that often over the course of the game."
Michigan comes into the game ranked seventh nationally and its goals are the same as they have been since Harbaugh took over at his alma mater in December 2014: Win the Big Ten title and reach the CFP. Harbaugh is 39-14 since his much-ballyhooed return (the first book on his Michigan tenure was published before he coached a game) but hasn't reached those goals — or beaten Ohio State.
Monken arrived at Army before the 2014 season with a simpler goal: return Army to respectability. The Black Knights had been consistently terrible throughout this century: one winning season since 1996 and 12 straight losses to Navy starting in 2002. It took Monken two years to turn it around — the Navy string reached 14 — but Army is now 30-10 since the start of the 2016 season; has beaten Navy three years in a row; won three straight bowl games; and won the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy (which it hadn't previously won since 1996) the last two seasons.
"I don't want to say that mental toughness was the thing we had to work on most when we got here because you can't survive at West Point if you aren't mentally tough," Monken said. "Our guys expected to compete hard, but I don't think they necessarily expected to win. That's what we had to change. Now, we have guys in the program who have been part of winning for the last three years. They know how to win and what it takes to win. And when we don't win, they wonder why we didn't win."
For the last several years, Army has played one power school every fall: home-and-home with Stanford; a game at Penn State; a game at Ohio State; a game in Texas against Notre Dame and last year at Oklahoma. Next season, Oklahoma will come to Michie Stadium.
Army will get $1.5 million to play at Michigan and has games on future schedules at Wisconsin, at Tennessee and at LSU — all for big guarantees.
"I think we should play one of these every year," Monken said. "It's good for recruiting, it's good financially and the kids want to take on this kind of challenge. But one is enough. We don't need to play a Murderer's Row schedule."
Michigan does play a Murderer's Row schedule but recruits players who expect to wear NFL uniforms, not Army uniforms. Both coaches understand that difference.
"I think all of us understand who these guys are," Harbaugh said. "They're as tough or tougher mentally than anyone we're going to play."
All that said, Michigan will be expected to win going away. Monken knows that if the Wolverines are at their best, his team could be in for a very long afternoon. But Harbaugh knows if his team is at less than its best, it could be in for a difficult day.
And when it's over, regardless of outcome, the two coaches will shake hands, wish each other luck and hope to see one another soon. Just not from opposite sidelines.