The Army-Navy Game is unlike anything else in the world of sport. College football is littered with great rivalry games, but nothing can match the intensity of hatred that flows between the Army Black Knights and Navy Midshipmen.
It is unparalleled. It is an identity. Everything, every single day, every minute between the walls of the two academies is geared towards one season-defining game at the end of the season. One man has felt the ferociousness of passion inside both camps, traversing enemy lines, and offering a unique perspective.
That man is Army head coach Jeff Monken.
Jeff Monken has Experienced Both Sides of the Army-Navy Game
“It is the greatest rivalry in sports, in my opinion.”
When discussing the place of the Army-Navy Game amongst the pantheon of great sporting rivalries, his opinion holds perhaps more weight than anybody else. If anyone should know and understand the true magnitude, the sheer intensity, of this most bitter rivalry, it is long-time Army head coach Monken.
The 124th Army-Navy Game will be his 10th patrolling the black and gold — or sand as the case will be this year, with Army honoring the “Dogface Soldiers” with their special edition uniforms — side of the annual season-ending service academy showdown. Monken has a 5-4 record in the game, including five wins in the last seven matchups after their 20-17 win in 2022.
However, his affiliation with the Army-Navy Game runs much deeper than his time at West Point. His qualification to judge the importance and standing of the rivalry game is almost unique. For the serving Army head coach spent a significant chunk of the early millennium on the opposite sideline to the one he now mans. He has traversed the rivalry, a man behind enemy lines.
A long-time coaching compatriot of the great Paul Johnson — the king of the triple option flexbone offense — Monken began his career under the renowned head coach at Hawaii, reuniting with his mentor at Georgia Southern in 1997. When Johnson took the head coaching role at Navy in 2022, Monken followed him to Annapolis, where he was the running back coach for six years.
Alongside Johnson, the now-Army head coach led the Midshipmen to six successive wins in the Army-Navy Game. There was never a one-score game during Monken’s time with Navy, amidst a period of incredible success for the program. The past and present strands of his experience, help formulate an appreciation of the rivalry far beyond many can imagine.
“The experience I had on the other sideline, and certainly the experience that I’ve had here at Army, it’s the same,” Monken begins to explain what being a part of the Army-Navy Game, from both sideline perspective, means to him.
“It is the most intense rivalry, the most intense competition that I’ve ever been a part of. From the preparation to the game itself, it carries over into everything that we do. Everything that surrounds our program, there is a clear opponent that you have.”
It’s August in New York when Monken sits down, virtually, with College Football Network. It’s about as far removed from the cold mid-winter Massachusetts environment that he leads his Army team into for the 124th Army-Navy Game as you can find. We talk before the season begins, but his words are as relevant now in December as they were before a ball was moved in anger.
“When we play that game on that Saturday, there is just this electricity that’s in the air, that’s in the stadium, that’s almost indescribable. It’s like no other game that I’ve been a part of and I’ve coached in three national championship games at Georgia Southern and coached in bowl games, an Orange Bowl, an ACC Championship Game, there is no experience like it.”
Monken is a football coach, but he fits into his service academy surroundings at the Army as though he was born to lead men. Polished in his appearance, the Black Knights head coach is almost presidential with the star-spangled banner hoisted from a golden eagle-topped flag pole over his right shoulder, and the cabinet behind bursting with weighty tomes on many subjects.
The Army-Navy Game rivalry is so bitter, so intense, that it provokes the strongest reactions and emotions in even someone who can carry themselves with such a presidential air. Admittedly, we’re not here to discuss the game — more to focus on Monken’s philanthropic endeavors — but not once during our discussion does he refer to Navy by the institution’s name.
“The other sideline.” “The other academy.” “That place.”
Anything other than Navy or even Annapolis. Monken spent six years of his life at a place he won’t refer to, the name not even remotely emanating from his mouth. If anything truly encapsulates how substantial this rivalry is, that is it right there. It’s not a gimmick, there’s no pause to think, it’s rooted deep in the subconscious not to utter the name.
That sentiment carries across to my questioning about the difficulties of moving across the barricades of a rivalry, settling in behind enemy lines following your defection. Monken spent six years away from that rivalry, bringing significant success to Georgia Southern before he arrived at West Point as Army head coach in 2014.
“Only the challenge that I realized after I got here that I was completely wrong, saying what I said when I was at that place,” Monken responds, before reflecting on his current place on the Army side of the great rivalry game. “I finally got it right.”
Monken has got much of his Army tenure right. He’s the first head coach in Black Knights history to lead the program to three consecutive bowl appearances. Under his stewardship, Army registered consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in program history, and he’s the only coach to have led the team to an 11-win season, doing so in 2018.
The Army head coach has also led the Black Knights to three Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy wins, America’s triangular rivalry series that sees Air Force compete alongside Army and Navy to crown the best service academy.
Monken accounts for one-third of all Army wins in the series, yet heading into the 2023 college football season, the Black Knights carried the longest odds to lift the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
“It doesn’t make any difference to me, it doesn’t make any difference to our players,” he explains his thought process on outside opinions of what his football team is capable of achieving.
“We’re going to battle for that trophy as hard as we can and try and win it. We’ve had our hands on it more often than the other two these last few years and we probably weren’t picked to win it those years either. I think when you get in those games, it doesn’t really matter.”
“All three teams are fighting as hard as they can to get that trophy, and we will be too and hopefully we’ll have it in our possession in December.”
His final thoughts on the matter back in August proved prophetic. When Army takes to the Gillette Stadium field on Saturday for the 124th Army-Navy Game, the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy will be there for the taking for the first time since 2020. The Black Knights surprised Air Force in early November, and a win against Navy will ensure the trophy heads back to West Point.
It adds another layer to a rivalry game that already has more depth than any other out there. Monken has been on both sides of the battle lines, experiencing the intensity of both sidelines. He is qualified, more acutely than most, to pronounce it the greatest rivalry in all of sports. Just don’t ask him to pronounce the name of his opponent in Foxborough on Saturday.