Published September 16, 2010
NORMAN, Okla. – These days, Fisher DeBerry prefers to stay at a distance as he keeps an eye on the Air Force program he built.
He doesn't want Troy Calhoun, one of the starting quarterbacks from his 23-year tenure as the Falcons' head coach, putting up with questions about what his predecessor would have done. After 44 years in football, he made a clean break and moved out of town following his retirement from Air Force in 2006.
"I told him it's his baby and I wouldn't be calling," DeBerry said. "It's his program and he needed to put his stamp on it. ... I think it was about time get out of the shadows and let them do their thing."
But given the chance to see his old team without needing to travel far from his lakeside home in Oklahoma, DeBerry isn't about to pass up the opportunity. He plans to watch the Falcons (2-0) play in person when they visit No. 7 Oklahoma (2-0) on Saturday.
The last time he attended an Air Force game was Oct. 17 when the Falcons won 10-0 at home against Wyoming.
He's not sure exactly what sort of interaction he'll have with Calhoun or the handful of players left that he had a hand in recruiting. The 72-year-old DeBerry doesn't want to interfere or be a distraction when Air Force could have a chance at a big win, but he still has a passion for the program where he went 169-109-1 and went to 12 bowl games.
DeBerry now splits time between homes in his native South Carolina and alongside Grand Lake in Grove, where he's near his children and grandchildren in the Tulsa area. The lake is only about 30 yards from his back door, and he can hop in a golf cart and be at the pro shop in less than 5 minutes.
DeBerry said he devotes most of his time to his family and to his foundation, which helps single-parent families. He occasionally returns to Colorado for fundraisers and he's written a book — "The Power of Influence" — to benefit the foundation. He'll also make speeches for another favorite cause, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
On Friday nights, he can often be found watching his grandson play quarterback for a team of home-schooled children in northeastern Oklahoma. On Saturdays, he's either attending games in person or watching on TV from the morning until whenever his wife chases him off to bed.
It'll be his second straight week making the trip to Owen Field. He was a guest of Florida State athletic director Randy Spetman, the former Air Force AD, last Saturday.
Calhoun is also familiar with the state and the university. He was stationed for three years at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City and volunteered for the Sooners, breaking down game film.
"It's just super people, honest, straightforward. They're good workers," Calhoun said. "They like their football a little bit, too."
DeBerry said he keeps up with the Falcons and tries to send Calhoun an encouraging e-mail each week. The two also occasionally talk by phone, and Calhoun has kept some of the basics of DeBerry's successful triple-option attack in what's now a more expansive offense.
"It's totally different than the last Air Force team we played and beat 44-3 (in 2001)," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "It was a different coaching staff. Much more multiple, much better — much better — football team than the last time we played them. ... It's no-huddle and fast-paced and a million formations where before (it was) much more traditional, a couple formations."
Air Force leads the nation with 423 yards rushing per game heading into the second meeting between the two teams. Oklahoma was playing its first game since winning the national title when they first met in the 2001 season opener in Colorado.
Sooners coach Bob Stoops said one thing he remembers most about that trip is how his players stopped celebrating to admire how Air Force's players sang the school fight song with fans even after the loss, and how DeBerry — who he'd "always looked up" to — said he appreciated the gesture.
"If you're in the coaching fraternity, you respect a guy like Fisher DeBerry — his long tenure of success in doing it the right way and with such class," Stoops said.
Looking back, DeBerry said he reflects less on the success he had than on the people that made it happen. He's proud when he sees his former assistants, such as Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, and players doing well.
"I don't remember much about the games," he said. "But I can tell you about every kid that played."