Length of service doesn’t intrinsically convey legendary status, which doesn’t mean Zach Spiker, who left Army last week after seven years to take over as head basketball coach at Drexel, won’t be missed. But there will be no fond, farewell ceremonies at West Point upon his departure. Finishing your last season with a 19-14 record is a nice way to go out, but a career-academy record of 102-112 likely doesn’t mean an arena bearing his name is in the offing.
Nevertheless, there is no disputing the effect Spiker had on the program. When he took over prior to the 2009-10 season, the Black Knights had not had a winning season since 1985. They had never been to the NCAA tournament. In his first season, Army began the season 9-3. The then-32-year-old quickly imbued his team with youthful energy and a commitment to defense. Three years later, Army finished the 2012-13 season 16-15, the Black Knights’ first winning season in 28 years.
Still, the Black Knights’ status as a non-NCAA tournament team remains. In fact, of the original 120 Division I teams, Army is one of just four never to have made it. The others are The Citadel, St. Francis (NY) and William & Mary.
Like the football team, Army basketball has had a couple of legends. Bobby Knight appears in a photo as a 24-year-old in his first year at West Point in 1965 with the same crew-cut look as did his players. In six seasons Knight led the team to five winning seasons, including a 20-5 finish in 1967-68, still the team’s best-ever winning percentage. Ironically, it was only after his first losing season, an 11-13 finish in 1970-71, when he was hired as head coach at Indiana. The rest is history.
One of Knight’s former Army players, Mike Krzyzewski, took over in 1975. In his third season, he led Army to its last 20-win season. A year later the team made its last post-season appearance, in the NIT. A record of 73-59 has left him as the last Army coach to go out with a career winning record. And despite going out with a losing 9-17 record in 1979-80, Krzyzewski was hired by Duke. The rest is history.
There have since been five head coaches, and Spiker is the closest one to have left West Point with a winning record. The coach that immediately proceeded him, Jim Crews, had a 7-year record of 59-140. Like the coach of any military-academy team, intrinsic difficulties in just recruiting are a perpetual problem. Prospective players are first judged by their academic abilities, not their field-goal percentage. Most high-school players of any All-American talent surely have their eyes on the prize – the NBA. But that post-graduate, 5-year military commitment would surely be an impediment to such a goal.
Nevertheless, it always helps when a recruit can be approached by a team coming off a winning season, which leaves Spiker’s eventual successor with an edge none of his immediate predecessors had. Two winning seasons in 28 years and never a single NCAA tournament appearance isn’t a great hand from which to raise. But it’s better than nothing. It’s surely better than most recent history.