Epic battles and aerial attacks and disciplined platoons and field generals have long been in sportswriters’ ready arsenal of stock clichés. But what if a small-college football team had a chance to taste the real thing?
That’s what new Jacksonville University Head Coach Ian Shields was thinking when he opened the Dolphins’ 2016 preseason drills at historic Camp Blanding, Florida, a National Guard post that was federalized as a World War II training facility and sent some 800,000 troops to Europe and the Pacific.
“Venue-wise, I wanted to get our guys away. We wanted to create a dramatic separation from the routines of the college campus,” Shields said. “Camp Blanding was perfect.”
Set on 73,000 acres of North Florida scrub about an hour southwest of the university, it boasts 50 live fire ranges for small arms, mortars and artillery, as well as a maneuver area designed to accommodate a light infantry brigade plus an aggressor battalion.
Blanding was plenty big enough and remote enough and hot enough to encourage Shields’ players to “put their cell phones in their pockets, so to speak … to focus on forging relationships and expose them to some Army problem solving,” including a session on Camp Blanding’s leadership reaction course.
Shields is no stranger to the hooah culture, having served as offensive coordinator at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, from 2009 to 2013, when Army led the nation in rushing two years in a row. So when he took the job at JU earlier this year, Shields seized the opportunity to introduce his new team, including 50 incoming freshmen, to “some Army values – especially those values having to do with discipline, trust, accountability and dependability.
“The bottom line is ‘teamwork,’” added Shields, himself a former Oregon State quarterback and team captain. “Talented young men about 18 to 20 are naturally going to have some ego, and we come here to start closing the gap on that. Our system is not a ‘me’ system; the star of the team is the team.”
Coach Shields reinforced those themes with a series of evening motivational speakers, including Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, former West Point superintendent.
The Dolphins’ gridiron boss is not the only recent addition with strong ties to the Long Gray Line; Shields convinced former Black Knights’ Head Coach Rich Ellerson to join him in Jacksonville as defensive coordinator. And he offered the wide receiver coaching gig to 1st Lt. Trent Steelman, a record-setting West Point quarterback who just last year participated in the Baltimore Ravens’ preseason camp as a free agent pass catcher.
A Reservist, Steelman leans on his academy background to help his new charges with “time management, a heavy academic load and JU’s high standards.” He especially identifies with those of his players who were “overlooked in high school (recruiting) and are in an underdog role.
“I am drawing from my football experience, in general,” Steelman said, “but I’m especially keen on coaching our younger players’ handling of adversity, the daily struggles (and) how to respond to the busy mix of class, family and football.”
As a new coach, Steelman applies lessons he learned as a maintenance platoon leader with the 3rd Infantry Division every day. “It was a different environment,” he said, “but a great opportunity for personal growth. It was still about leading people with so many different personalities and backgrounds.”
Ellerson, whose 30-year coaching resume includes that five-year tenure at West Point, had also been at the helm of the California Polytechnic State University Mustangs program for nearly a decade, notching a 52-38 record and being named NCAA Division 1-AA Coach of the Year.
Sweating under a broad-brimmed hat, coach’s whistle dangling from his neck, Ellerson was taking wide strides, a tackling dummy under each arm, as he walked off the field at the end of the Dolphins’ first practice day.
He wore a smile as wide as the Florida panhandle.
“I have realized I love coaching football,” said Ellerson, 62, noting that he could instead be “traveling around the world” or “doing other retirement things.”
An unabashed patriot who relishes his friends-and-family connection to the Army, Ellerson notes that he is “the son, brother, father, nephew and prospective father-in-law” of West Point alumni.
“And I am the nephew of a retired U.S. Army sergeant first class,” he added proudly.
Among the athletes hoping to become Saturday performers for the Dolphins are at least three whose parents served or are serving in the armed forces: Michon Sobers (Army), Trip Chauvet (Air Force) and Emon Smith (Navy).
Sobers’ mom, Pentagon-based Lt. Col. Toy Sobers, gave birth to the freshman wide receiver at Fort Hood, Texas; his dad, West Point grad Lt. Col. Art Sobers, is an air defender now retired from active duty.
Freshman defensive back Chauvet is the son of Lt. Col. Keith Chauvet II and Heather Chauvet. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and recently returned to the States from Guam, Chauvet is a biology major whose father is an Air Force special ops pilot presently attending the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama.
Smith, a member of JU’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, is a senior who is expected to start at safety. The aviation major was 7 when he lost his Navy pilot father, Ensign Evin Smith, to Lou Gehrig’s disease. A family friend and neighbor, Air Force veteran Scott Hall, immediately took Emon under his wing, teaching him to play football and being a “second coach and a second father.” Hall also guided Smith in obtaining his private pilot’s license and “tried unsuccessfully to get me to go Air Force instead of Navy,” Emon joked.
The football support staff is seasoned with others whose family military history runs deep and wide, none more so than JU’s Director of Sports Medicine Doug Frye, whose father was a Soldier and whose battle genealogy can be traced to pre-Revolution days. Two of Frye’s forbears even fought in the Civil War, one on each side.
Dolphin sports information specialist Nolan Alexander’s Army Ranger cousin, Capt. Bobby Spencer, is presently deployed to Afghanistan, and the team’s new director of football operations, Brooks Armstrong, is the proud grandson of an Army Vietnam veteran.
Those military ties continue throughout JH, which was actually named for a military man: Army Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Florida’s first governor and seventh president of the United States.
As University Provost, Dr. Donnie Horner, a retired colonel and former West Point football player, puts it: JU’s respect for the military is “in our DNA.”
The faculty and staff’s veteran population includes retired Florida National Guard Brig. Gen. Mike Fleming, the school’s senior vice president for university relations and development, who, as a recently discharged Marine sergeant in the 1970s, used the G.I. Bill to obtain his bachelor’s degree.
He points out that the Dolphins are members of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Yellow Ribbon Program. As part of the program, some 750 colleges and universities nationwide guarantee zero out-of-pocket tuition costs for veterans, spouses and dependent children eligible under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.
Retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Mike Mitchell, posted as JU’s veteran student coordinator, then works hand in glove with the JU registrar to ensure maximum credit transfers. He’s also the one to point once-uniformed students to the campus’ USO-staffed, vets-only space called the “Defenders’ Den.” A trend on college campuses nationwide, such centers are places student veterans can relax and get some advice about going from the battlefield to a classroom. They can also get support and find a sympathetic ear if the transition is more challenging than expected. They can also find support through the Student Veterans of America, which has chapters at 1,391 schools worldwide.
One student veteran, former Staff Sgt. Michael Eyl, who expects to graduate next summer and plans to pursue a business career in the Pacific Northwest, encourages Soldiers to take full advantage of tuition assistance while they’re still on active duty. “I wish I had known more about it,” said the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran. “But once here, the G.I. Bill housing allowance means that I don’t have to worry about rent – or added tuition cost since I study at a Yellow Ribbon school.
“In the very early stages,” he continued, adjusting to college life “was a little bit confusing. But I have not run across a lot of things I have been disappointed in. And I’ve never received a bill in the mail.”