Fisher DeBerry received a special delivery one day six years ago. It was a box from the National Football Foundation. Inside were a commemorative football and a letter recognizing his election to the College Football Hall of Fame.
The retired Air Force head coach of 23 seasons from 1984 to 2006 recalled how he ran through the house to inform his wife, LuAnn.
“Honey, can you believe a snotty-nosed kid from a small town in South Carolina is going into the College Football Hall of Fame? We’re going to New York to be alongside all those great coaches. She said, ‘There will be one less great coach there than you think.’ ”
Non-plussed, DeBerry continued with his little-boy joy: “I said, ‘Can you believe in your wildest dreams I’d be in the College Football Hall of Fame?’ She said, ‘I hate to disappoint you, but you’ve never been in my wildest dreams.’ ”
DeBerry laughed at the memory of his bride bringing him back to Earth, but there’s no denying his 2011 enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
In addition to DeBerry’s success in the W-L column, it’s easy to make a case that he provided the blueprint for the revival of service academy football.
The Falcons’ success starting in the 1980s followed the confluence of the Vietnam quagmire and AFL-NFL bidding war that escalated salaries. Both factors dramatically shrank the recruiting pool for Air Force, Army and Navy.
DeBerry perfected the combination of the triple-option offense with a swarming defense to allow lightly recruited athletes to compete with heavily recruited Division I players.
He learned the styles as an assistant at Wofford College and Appalachian State. The success caught the attention of Air Force head coach Ken Hatfield, who brought DeBerry for his first trip west of the Mississippi to Colorado Springs to install the offense in 1980.
By their fourth year together in 1983, Air Force went 10-2 with an Independence Bowl win over Mississippi and finished ranked No. 13 in the nation. Hatfield’s alma mater, Arkansas, called him home.
“Ken had told me he would never leave Air Force unless Missouri – where his wife went to school — or Arkansas called,” DeBerry said. “He wanted me to come to Arkansas, but the (Air Force) athletic director asked me to stay. I wanted to be a head coach, and I realized how hard these kids worked. Everything was in place and the kids appreciated me staying. We didn’t lose any continuity.”
DeBerry’s Falcons won three Western Athletic Conference titles, one WAC Mountain Division title and went to 12 bowl games in an era before the proliferation of bowl games. He posted a career record of 169-109-1.
Three times he claimed WAC Coach of the Year awards in 1985, 1995 and 1998. The 12-1 record in 1985 garnered him three national coach-of-the year awards for a 12-1 season. He collected honors from the AFCA (American Football Coaches Association) in addition to the Bobby Dodd and Walter Camp awards.
DeBerry deflected credit to Hatfield for the foundation they built together, but his longevity at Air Force gave him a lasting legacy that no doubt helped his identity with the College Football Hall of Fame voting.
“We had many chances to go other places, but I respected the mission of the academy so much,” DeBerry said. “I thought it was much bigger than football. You can learn so much about leadership on the football field. We were privileged to coach the great kids we had.”
Air Force’s blueprint has been followed by Navy and Army. Navy has enjoyed great success under Paul Johnson (2002-07) followed by current head coach Ken Niumatalolo (nine years). Army posted its first winning season this year in a decade under Jeff Monken (three years). Air Force (10-3) and Army (8-5) won bowl games and Navy (9-5) claimed the American Athletic Conference West title.
DeBerry’s blueprint was the triple-option offense that relies on finesse and precision to compete against bigger and quicker athletes. Air Force’s reputation attracted special option quarterback recruits. In 1989, Dee Dowis set an NCAA rushing record for quarterbacks of 3,612 yards that stood for 12 years.
Air Force’s offense particularly annually flummoxed San Diego State teams and their fans. In 1989, San Diego State spent spring football and fall camp working on defending the triple option for the season opener with Air Force. Dowis still ran for 249 yards and six touchdowns to lead a 52-36 victory.
Dowis was one of DeBerry’s favorite players, and he was devastated by the news on Aug. 30 that Dowis had been killed in a car crash.
“He didn’t weigh but 152 pounds,” DeBerry said, “but nobody could get a solid lick on him and he could run away from them.”
DeBerry said the key for any coach is finding the right athletes to fit a system.
“We tried to make kids understand they could play Division I football,” DeBerry said. “We told them, ‘You haven’t been offered a Division I scholarship, but at Air Force you can get the best education in America and have the opportunity to play Division I football. Kids liked hearing that. We felt it gave us an edge in recruiting.”
Upon retirement, DeBerry and his wife have settled in Oklahoma to be close to their grandchildren. But to keep active DeBerry, 78, and his wife started The Fisher DeBerry Foundation. The foundation’s emphasis is on helping kids from single mom homes. Money raised sends kids to camps and helps with college and other expenses.
“I had a single mom who worked hard to provide for me,” DeBerry said. “My wife and I thought this was a good thing for us. It’s done better than we anticipated. We’ll continue it as long as the Good Lord gives us health. It seems every year more and more help is needed for kids.”
It’s another blueprint Fisher DeBerry has laid out, giving back to football.