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It's been 12 years since the Air Force Academy joined the Western Athletic Conference, and by now a lot of people around the league probably wish the Falcons would go back to where they came from. When they joined the league, the Falcons were just another harmless service academy that filled out the schedule and the stands, but didn't offer much of a threat on the football field. Some observers complained that their admittance to the WAC was pointless, that they added nothing to the league.

Those days are long gone.While the other service academies struggle to reach even .500, the Falcons are winning and prospering, and they're doing it with small, undertalented, unrecruited players and an old-fashioned offense called the wishbone.

If ever there was a year the Falcons seemed certain to slump, this seemed to be the one, what with just three starters back on offense. But last weekend's road win over San Diego State secured the Falcons' 10th winning season in 11 years. They are 6-2 heading into this week's game against Utah. By beating Army in two weeks, they will claim their eighth Commander-in-Chief Trophy in 11 years - including the last four, which is a record - and their ninth bowl berth.

Air Force's record - 89-42-1 since 1981 - is all the more remarkable when compared to Navy and Army, who face the same disadvantages as Air Force when it comes to fielding a major college football team. Navy, 0-6 at the moment, is well on its way to its 10th losing season in 11 years, having posted a record of 34-81-1 in that time, including 11 losses to Air Force. Army, 2-4 this season, has been a little better, producing six winning seasons and a 61-57-1 record, but it has managed to beat Air Force just three times.

How do the Falcons do it?

"I don't know how to explain it," says Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry. "I don't have that answer. I guess we've been real fortunate."

The military academies' football teams all face formidable obstacles, beginning with recruiting. Faced with a six-year military commitment upon graduation from the academy, recruits with pro football aspirations go elsewhere.

"And so many players are eliminated in the recruiting process because of academics," says DeBerry. "We have among the highest requirements in the country. You have to have a score of 1,050 on the SAT or 25 on the ACT and finish in the top quarter of your high school class. You need a good background in extracurricular activities. You have to have held leadership positions in school. It takes a lot more than the ability to play football to get into (the academy). That eliminates a lot of talent from the recruiting pool."

So does the lifestyle. "That's the big one," says assistant athletic director Jim Bowman. Cadets are required to wear uniforms and short hair, carry heavy course loads (21 1/2 hours per semester), to rise at 5:30 in the morning and return to their rooms by 7:30 in the evening. They can't come and go as they please on weekends, and dating opportunities are limited."

Not surprisingly, Air Force rarely signs prize recruits. What recruits they do get are typically undersized. It's not uncommon for the Falcons to be outweighed 30 to 40 pounds per man on Saturday afternoon.

"A cadet has to have a lot of discipline and have education foremost on his mind," says DeBerry. "The lifestyle is not what a lot of young people look for. Not many of our players were recruited by BYU or UCLA. A lot of teams recruit strength and size. We have to develop it here."

Yet somehow Air Force succeeds. There are several possible explanations for this:

- Ken Hatfield and Fisher DeBerry. The Falcons had had five straight losing seasons when Hatfield became head coach in 1979. After three more losing seasons under Hatfield, the Falcons produced 8-5 and 10-2 records. Hatfield left for Arkansas and was replaced by his assistant, DeBerry. The Falcons never missed a beat. "I've often said there isn't a better coaching job done in the country than what they do at Air Force," says BYU coach LaVell Edwards.

Somehow DeBerry has maintained a continuity in his coaching staff that is rare at the academies, which are usually only a stepping stone to better jobs. Only four assistant coaches have left the Falcons during DeBerry's eight years, and two of them became head coaches (including Utah State's Charlie Weatherbie).

"They enjoy the type of player we get," says DeBerry. "They respect the mission of the academy. We are doing more than coaching football. It's a great leadership training school, and (football) provides a vital role in that."

- Conference membership. Army and Navy are independents, but Air Force broke ranks and joined the WAC in 1980. Two years later the Falcons emerged as a force.

"Belonging to a conference has helped us," says Deberry.

The WAC has given the Falcons increased television exposure and a better schedule, all the better to attract recruits and would-be cadets.

- The popularity of the Air Force. "Our society is fascinated with the air," says Deberry. "It has attracted a lot of guys to the academy who want to fly."

Bowman agrees. "It's the space age and all the things associated with flying," he says. "It's the times."

- The wishbone offense. Even Oklahoma finally gave up the seemingly antiquated wishbone in this era of the pass, but the Falcons continue to use it and annually rank among the top rushing teams in the country. Many observers believe the offense is ideally suited to the type of athlete the academy has. The wishbone's success is based on discipline, precision, execution, making quick and correct decisions, and deception - as opposed to size, strength and speed.

"It doesn't require big, powerful people," says DeBerry, who introduced the offense to Air Force as Hatfield's assistant 12 years ago. "It's an aggressive offense. It's based on detail - doing the small things, like the military, to make big things happen."

"It's ideal for the type of kid they get," says Edwards. "They have highly intelligent, highly motivated kids, and you can do a lot in your offense with those kinds of kids."

The wishbone undoubtedly has a played a role in Air Force's success. On the other hand, Navy operated the wishbone for years and Army still does . . .

Whatever the reason, Air Force has beaten the odds to become one of the country's top football teams.