An Eye on the Future: Army Coach Jeff Monken Embraces Analytics, Old School Football, To Create A Fearless Business Lesson
Perhaps no other sentence sums up what Jeff Monken is doing as the head football coach at the United States Military Academy at West Point, better known by their popular name: Army. In the five-plus years since Monken has taken command, he’s turned the Cadets into one of the most ruthlessly efficient football teams in America.
And he’s done it by embracing the most popular fad of 21st-century sports—analytics. Monken and his team have turned the science of football probabilities into intelligence on the field. Whether it’s fourth-and-two or a one-score game late in the half, Monken and his team have crunched the numbers, know the odds, and are going with what they know.
It’s a joy to watch, and I’ll be streaming their game against Morgan State on Saturday. A couple of weeks ago, Army took the vaunted Michigan Wolverines to double-overtime on the strength of their triple-option offense and a commitment to play aggressive. Last year, Monken rode that philosophy to the highest third-down conversion percentage in college football at 53.8 percent. They also converted a staggering 85.7 percent of their fourth downs (also first in the nation) and led the nation in time of possession at 38:50 per game.
Is it any wonder why you should love watching this guy coach?
What I appreciate about Monken’s philosophy is that it leans heavily on the strengths of his team. The Cadets are a throwback to a different era of football, one where the forward pass was as rare as a man walking on the moon. Yet here is Monken, merging big data with big backs to create one of the most frustrating football teams on the planet to play against.
Now, analytics in football isn’t new, and Army certainly isn’t the only team to leverage them in-game planning and preparation. Where Army stands above everyone else, however, is in how they use analytics to make in-game decisions before the game is ever played.
The team receives customized breakdowns of each week’s opponent that recommend when to kick, when to go for it on fourth down, and even when to go for two after a touchdown. When Monken and his staff arrive at those moments in-game, there’s no discussion or panic on the sideline—just the cool execution of a decision long since made.
Think about that: while other teams script the first 15 plays, Monken and Army have a script for the entire game—one built to help them succeed in the most stressful and impactful situations!
Having a plan is the prerequisite for executing a plan, and—unsurprisingly—it makes sense that Army plans like nobody else. From the moment they walk on campus, each player on the football team is expected to one day become an Army officer, and the model of leadership, organization, and preparation that they’ll encounter in that “real world” will seem awfully familiar to the world they now inhabit.
The Cadet players say the approach gives them confidence. There are no wasted motions, no panicked decisions, just a determined approach to be the best-prepared team on the field. And while I loathe to ever compare what happens on a football field to what happens on the field of combat, I can’t help but admire and appreciate the synergy and alignment of where these young men are today and where they will be tomorrow.
While I love the message Monken and his team send, I can’t help but ask myself a few questions—and I think they’d be helpful for all of us:
As a leader, how much am I really preparing? There’s a temptation to believe that looking ahead more than fifteen minutes constitutes forward-thinking, but true preparation is more than just anticipating situations or circumstances but choosing how to respond and take advantage of them.
Likewise, am I holding my teammates and fellow leaders accountable to prepare? The success of the team is dependent on each person doing their job. We achieve our best when we prepare. Winging your way to Greatness is not only inadvisable, but it’s also impossible.
I don’t know what the rest of the season will hold for Army but I know that whatever the results, it won’t be due to unpreparedness. Coach Monken and his staff will have their men coached up, clear-headed, and ready to execute their roles.
And that’s why I’ll be rooting for—and learning from—them all season long.