October 2021

Change Strategies to Achieve Success | A Coach's Story

by Jim Nalepa, USMA 1978

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

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Coach Jim Young was a gifted leader and successful college football coach. He served as the head coach at the University of Arizona (1973–1976), Purdue University (1977–1981), and the United States Military Academy (1983–1990).

In 1983, Young arrived at West Point and inherited a dismal program which had achieved only one winning season in the previous ten-years. Having experienced tremendous success at Arizona and Purdue running a classic "Pro-Set" offense, Coach Young continued that offensive scheme at Army during his first season. Unfortunately, Army continued its abysmal performance; compiling a record of 2 wins and 9 losses, including major losses to Notre Dame, Navy and Air Force. Something had to change. Most college football coaches are reluctant to change strategies after achieving success, but Coach Young knew he had to IMPROVISE, ADAPT, and OVERCOME to ultimately succeed at Army.

With the rise of the National Football League, and increased player compensation, the United States Service Academies (West Point, Annapolis and Air Force) were left at an incredible disadvantage. Top recruits were no longer choosing to attend a service academy because of the restrictive 5 year service commitment following graduation. At that time, only one player had ever successfully served 5 years in the armed forces and then made a successful transition to the NFL — Navy Heisman trophy winner Roger Staubach.


Coach Young had to creatively address the fact that his players were smaller, slower and less skilled than their opponents. The saying "You can't TEACH, size and speed" was especially true at West Point. The greatest high school players now wanted the glory of larger and more prestigious college programs which could ultimately lead to potential NFL stardom and wealth.

Coach Young knew that unless he radically changed his strategy, his team's performance would continue to be mediocre at best. He needed to leverage his team's strengths and build a strategy that capitalized on those attributes. He completed an inventory of his players and concluded that the team's inherent strengths were as follows:

Adapt and Overcome

Coach Young examined his team. He couldn't snap his fingers and change the size of his players, or increase their speed. He could, however, capitalize on his team's intellect, discipline, stamina and will to win.

There was an offensive scheme that allowed for smaller, more disciplined and intellectual players to win on the football field. The offense was called the "Triple Option". Though unpopular in the modern game, the "Triple Option" had been used with great success in championship programs such as Nebraska and Oklahoma in the 1960's and early 70's. It had fallen out of favor because the NFL wanted college recruits to be skilled in the favored "Pro - Set" offense utilized in the NFL.

The "Triple Option" did, however, capitalize on many of Army's talents and attributes:

Coach Young firmly believed that the "Triple Option" would give the Cadets the ability to compete and WIN, but he also needed to re-evaluate his talent and put each player in the right position in order to make this new offense succeed. For the key position of quarterback, he chose Nate Sassaman, a 5' 10'', diminutive former defensive back who had played some "option" quarterback in high school. At fullback, he found Cadet Doug Black on the intramural football team. Doug had been completely overlooked by the previous coaching staff, but his talents fit the Triple Option perfectly.

Leadership, Vision, Results!

Coach Young convinced his team that this new offensive strategy would work and ultimately lead to victory on the field. He provided them with a vision of success and focused their efforts on mastering this new strategy. When they took the field in the opening game of the 1984 season, Army pummeled Colgate 41-15 (a team that had beaten them soundly the previous season). They followed that performance with an impressive tie against Southeast Conference powerhouse Tennessee; a team that was favored by 28 points. In the most important game of all, Army soundly defeated Navy 28-11. Army finished the season 8-3-1 and beat a heavily favored Michigan State 10-6 in their very first bowl game.

The results were undeniable. In spite of his ignominious 2-9 start, Jim Young compiled a 51-39-1 record at Army using the Triple Option offense for the remainder of his tenure; winning two bowl games against Michigan State and Illinois. His performance was recognized by fellow coaches and sports journalists with his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.