Andy Wolfrum coaches one of the most unique football programs in the nation. The United States Military Academy Preparatory School (USMAPS if you’re fond of military acronyms) was created in the 1940s so draftees could go back to school and revisit subjects like math and English before applying for officer training within the United States Military Academy, which everyone knows as Army or West Point.
“Over the years, the mission has morphed,” says Wolfrum, who is head football coach at USMAPS. “The prep school is a one-year program designed to make you a successful freshman. You go through the admissions process if you want to come to Army. If your academics are at a level that may need some finishing touches, or perhaps you are all set to come in and then get injured right before reception day, you may end up here.
“Our job is to shepherd students through the process of getting into West Point and becoming successful freshmen. From math to physics to athletics to military personnel, that’s all we are. It’s a developmental model. We meet them where they’re at, educate them and make it so that they’re on-level with their peers heading into next year at West Point.”
As you might imagine, one year doesn’t give USMAPS students much of an opportunity to gel as a football team before moving on to their next challenge. Even junior college coaches typically get two years with a player before he leaves.
Ramping Up For A Single Season
For Wolfrum and his staff — and even the student- athletes — every year is one-and-done. He experiences many of the same challenges year over year, but he is careful to avoid the “Groundhog Day” trap, where everything becomes so similar that everyone loses their edge.
“I have to get better every year at coaching or I’m doing the players a disservice,” he says. “Players go through the program of being recruited, and they’ll come in for a brief three-week basic training, which of course, this year, who knows what that’s going to look like? But most years, it’s brief. It’s about half as long as regular basic training for men who might go direct into West Point. Then we get into academics, and those academics get them ready for next year, just like football does.”
Nearly all of his players will go on to play football for Army, so Wolfrum actually installs the triple option offense and odd front defense or whatever he thinks is appropriate, so the transition is minimal from one year to the next.
“We do our best, knowing that our roster’s going to be probably 50-55 deep in a given year,” says Wolfrum. “I’ll keep any walk-on that I think can help our program, and that doesn’t have to mean on the field. That might mean in the locker room. On top of those young guys, we might have one or two enlisted guys coming out of service who might have two or three years service already. The 18-year-olds call the 21-year-old ‘grandpa,’ but he has real Army experience. Those guys add some depth to the roster and in the locker room and I love it. We’ve done well with those guys, but we have to build a culture, install an offense, defense and special teams, and get going by the end of August just like everybody else.”
Installing the program is also unique at USMAPS because there is no junior and senior class leadership. With a one- year program — which by the way is the same sort of program run at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School and the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School — Wolfrum relies on juniors and seniors from West Point to come in and show the USMAPS athletes the basics.
“But once that training is over, those juniors and seniors have to go to school in late August or early September, and then we are on our own,” says Wolfrum. “We have to identify some leaders — and I say ‘we’ meaning more the military side of the house — and just trust that they’re going to lead their peers. A month ago, they didn’t know who each other was. Three weeks later, after basic training, they’re in charge of each other. Being on an academic quarter system, it allows us to keep our finger on the pulse a little better from an academics perspective. But every four weeks or so, the leadership positions change so that everybody gets a shot at learning how to be a squad leader or a platoon leader.”
Learning the program, the scheme and the culture must also be “shoehorned” into limited time on the field. Wolfrum gets his athletes at 3 pm and must have them off the field by 6:15 pm. The dining hall isn’t going to stay open any later just because coach wants his athletes to practice a little longer.
“So we never go over 20 hours, because that’s just not our setup here, but in the end, academics are what matters, and we’re going to make sure these guys are ready for both football and academics through the whole season,” he says.
The Definition of Winning
USMAPS plays a total of eight or nine games a season, which is admittedly short, says Wolfrum. On top of that, they typically “play up” for most of the season. Last season, they scrimmaged against Ithaca University to open the season and went on to play other teams with older players, like Valley Forge Military College, Army West Point Junior Varsity, Nassau Community College, and others.
Toward the end of the season, Wolfrum’s players begin their experience with their true rivals. USMAPS will face off with the prep schools for both Air Force and Navy. The rivalry between Army West Point and Navy is so intense that the bumper plates in Army’s weight room are emblazoned with “Beat Navy.”
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“By the end of the season, we want to be peaking at the right time when we go play Air Force and Navy,” he says. “Those are always barn burners. I can remember all our games, but every one of those games, they’re great. I wish we could play two seasons, because we’re just figuring out who we are as a football team by the time we reach the end of the season. We’re just starting to click there at the end, and you go back and look at film from eight games ago and you say, ‘Oh my, what were we doing?’”
Throughout the season, Wolfrum and his staff repeatedly emphasize what it means to lead and what it means to win. From a leadership standpoint, remember that these student-athletes are trying to become officers in the U.S. Army. Learning great leadership skills is paramount.
“In our quarter system, everybody’s going to get their shot to be in some kind of leadership role,” he says. “It’s like your basic pyramid leadership. There are maybe seven people in a squad, four squads in a platoon, and a couple of platoons in a company. You don’t need a framework any different from that. If I’m a member of a squad, I just need to show up on time in the right uniform and say the right things. But next quarter, I’m going to be the guy at the end of the line who’s responsible for these six people.
“It reminds us constantly that the way to become a good leader is first learning how to be a good follower. We ask them to do that on the football field, then we turn them loose. We must create a culture here of trusting each other, but also being in charge of each other at the same time. That kind of peer leadership is special, and it’s why we’re important to not just Army football but the U.S. Army in general. We’ll graduate 200 people from the prep school into West Point. That represents about one-sixth of the incoming class that have experiences other than just coming right out of high school, and that’s valuable. It’s valuable not just for West Point or Army football, but for the Army in general, which is why we’re here in the first place.”
On top of instilling qualities required for good leadership, Wolfrum also focuses on winning. But, it’s not the same as the W in the win/loss chart. For Wolfrum and the Army-at- large, winning means doing things the right way at all times to the best of your abilities, regardless of the score on the scoreboard.
“The scoreboard works, and winning is important, but America expects you to win when you go anywhere that you’ve got a job to do for the Army,” says Wolfrum. “Having said that, there’s no pressure on me whatsoever to win against Lackawanna or the Georgia Military Academy. Nobody’s ever called me the next morning and asked me how I let that one get away. I get calls about why we have a guy with a 1.92 GPA. He went to a good high school. He studies hard. That’s when I get calls about winning.
“I’m not sure we’d be preaching the right things if we cared that much about some of these games early in the year. Obviously, during those 60 minutes early in the year, everyone is getting everything done to win that football game, but every one of these guys was recruited to get their shot to show what they have here. So we rotate through players, however many we have at a position. Everyone’s getting their chance, and if that changes the result in the scoreboard, that’s OK. That’s where we fit into Army football and I can take it. I want to see these guys win on Saturday afternoon, but what’s more important is to see them grip their diploma and shake hands with the President of the United States or the Vice President or the Secretary of Defense a few years from now, because that is life-changing.”
Coaching Your Coaches
While student-athletes who play football for USMAPS will be treated to one of the most unusual football experiences out there, an even more unusual experience can be had among coaches.
USMAPS is somewhat traditional in that it employs a head coach (Wolfrum), an offensive coordinator (Chris Nichols) and a defensive coordinator (Justin Weaver). Each of them have terrific coaching and playing experience.
Wolfrum’s father is head coach at Wyomissing Area (Pa.) High School and his grandfather coached at George Washington (Pa.) High School. He graduated from West Point in 2000, served in the Army for six years as an armor and civil affairs officer. He was a tank platoon leader and scout platoon leader for 2-37 Armored Battalion of 1st BDE, 1st Armored Division, and later deployed with that unit in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in May of 2003. He also deployed to Iraq in 2007 as a civil affairs team leader as a member of the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion.
After the Army, he became a defensive GA at the University of Akron, spent three years at the University of Louisville under Charlie Strong and joined Jeff Monken’s Army staff in 2014 before taking the head coach position at USMAPS.
Nichols is a former fullback for Army (class of 2008). He’s responsible for both the offense and all strength and conditioning activities for USMAPS. Nichols graduated from West Point with a degree in Civil Engineering and branching Engineers, and attended Airborne and Ranger School before serving as a Combat Engineer platoon leader in Echo Company, 3-69 Armor Battalion, 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., and during deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
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Weaver spent three years at the University of Wisconsin as the “Beyond the Game” coordinator, assisting student-athletes with the transition to the next level in their lives, including professional sports. He also developed and implemented programs and workshops that enhanced the student- athlete experience. He was also defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at the University of Chicago, and outside linebackers coach at his alma mater Lehigh University, where he also played.
Outside of those three coaches, all other coaches were recently students at West Point. This means that every season, four or five second lieutenants who recently graduated join the three full-time coaches at USMAPS and coach football. Wolfrum does his best to provide a framework for those coaches to give them a chance for success and provide as many resources as possible.
“At that point, I just get out of their way and let them go,” he says. “I don’t know any other coach in America that can take four or five different guys every year, who have never coached before, give them their own rooms, and never visit. What success we have here is because of guys like that, who immediately start giving back to the program and provide a great example for a kid who’s a teen, who is looking at a reflection of himself four or five years into the future, a guy who has come back to really coach himself as a kid. It’s a remarkable thing.
“I don’t know of anywhere else in the country where students can display that level of competence, professionalism and dynamic personality at that age. It’s pretty humbling.”
Playing To Win
Winning is not a moving target for USMAPS football. For student-athletes who attend the one-year program, their goals are lofty, their ambition is tremendous and their attention to detail must be above reproach. And they also must love the game of football.
“Maybe I’m sheltered, but to be around the Army and the team, what a thing it is to identify with people who have your back all the time, who push you to be better because they want to see you be better and because it also benefits them,” says Wolfrum. “Those things are very hard to explain to people who don’t play the game or coach the game. For coaches across the country who train athletes to sacrifice for the good of the team, to give up personal benefit to make things better for the whole, what a society we could have if everybody believed in that a little bit more.”
Being part of a team, playing through adversity, sacrificing for each other, it’s what makes football the greatest game on earth, and no one gets that more than football players and football coaches. The game imparts values and character that’s tough to derive from any other activity.
“Unless someone teaches those values to you, I don’t think you get them,” says Wolfrum. “Some things, you must be taught and it can be awkward or uncomfortable. It’s challenging and it’s ugly, but that’s progress. All coaches know this if they are around long enough, but I think it’s really special here because of the Army Brotherhood. Do you trust us? Are you dedicated to excellence? Do you love us? If you can answer those three questions in the affirmative, you can be part of the Army Brotherhood. So, what are you willing to do?”
This article was written by Paul Markgraff, managing editor of AFCA Magazine.