Spend a day with Air Force head football coach Fisher DeBerry and you will quickly find out what makes the man tick. His priorities are firmly in place and very apparent: faith, family and Falcon football. He dedicated his life to all three.
DeBerry spent 23 seasons as the head coach at Air Force (27 overall including four as an assistant) and he certainly left his mark on the program. The South Carolina native and his Air Force program were the epitome of what is right and good in collegiate athletics.
His record stands alone at Air Force and stands up against the best in the nation. He led 17 of his 23 teams to winning records and 12 captured a bowl bid since taking over as head coach in 1984. His career record of 169-107-1 is the best in school history in terms of games won and winning percentage. He guided the Academy to three conference championships. Air Force won the Western Athletic Conference title in 1985 and again in 1995. In 1998, DeBerry guided the team to its first out-right title and a championship game win over Brigham Young. His 1998 team matched the school record with a 12-1 season while earning him his third coach of the year award. The 1998 squad finished the season ranked 10th nationally.
DeBerry dominated service academy football. In 1999, DeBerry became the winningest coach in service academy football history when AFA knocked off Washington in Seattle. He was an amazing 35-11 against Army and Navy in his career and led the Academy to 14 of its 17 Commander-in-Chief's trophy titles.
DeBerry is a 1960 graduate of Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., where he lettered in football and baseball. After six years of coaching and teaching in the South Carolina high school ranks, DeBerry returned to Wofford, where he stayed two years as an assistant when the school won 21 consecutive games and was ranked No. 1 nationally. It was during a nine-year stop at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., where his work with the option offense began to blossom. Appalachian State ranked in the top 10 nationally three times (1975, `78, `79) in rushing, total offense or scoring offense under DeBerry.
DeBerry was an assistant at Air Force from 1980-83 before the Academy promoted him to succeed Ken Hatfield. Hatfield left for Arkansas after the 1983 season in which the Falcons were 10-2 and Independence Bowl champions.
For that effort, Hatfield was selected national Coach of the Year. Two years later, when Air Force started 10-0 and flirted with a national championship game appearance before finishing 12-1 with a 24-16 beating of Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl, the same award went to DeBerry.
A native of Cheraw, S.C., DeBerry graduated in 1960 from Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., where he lettered in football and baseball. DeBerry played second base and shortstop in baseball and flanker, defensive back and linebacker in football. He is a member of the Wofford Hall of Fame.
After six years of coaching and teaching in the South Carolina high school ranks, DeBerry returned to Wofford, where he stayed two years as an assistant when Wofford won 21 consecutive games and was ranked No. 1 in the NAIA. Wofford played Texas A&I for the national small college championship. However, it was during a nine-year stop at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., where his work with the wishbone began to blossom.
Three times (1975, '78, '79) Appalachian State was ranked in the top 10 nationally in either rushing, total or scoring offense under DeBerry. In 1974, the team ranked sixth nationally in pass defense when he was defensive coordinator. The 1979 team featured quarterback Steve Brown, who ranked third in the NCAA in total offense.
Hatfield hired DeBerry in 1980 as the AFA quarterbacks coach, and that year the Falcons struggled to a 2-9-1 record. Promoted to offensive coordinator in 1981, DeBerry helped the Falcons finish 4-7. A year later, they were 8-5 and pinned a 36-28 loss on Vanderbilt in the Hall of Fame Bowl while averaging 30.4 points per game. They averaged 30.6 points in 1983, and just five days after Hatfield's Dec. 22 resignation, DeBerry found himself promoted again.
At his inaugural news conference as Air Force's fifth coach, DeBerry said, "We have the ingredients here to continue the success we've had. Our players have learned to win. I hope everyone will be patient and give me a chance to be myself."
"Our first goal will always be to beat Army and Navy," he said. "Our second goal will be to win the conference. The third goal is beating Notre Dame. And the fourth will be continuing to go to bowl games."
In 1996, DeBerry served as president of the powerful and prestigious American Football Coaches Association, a 10,000-member organization headquartered in Waco, Texas, and founded in 1922 by Amos Alonzo Stagg and John W. Heisman, among others. Former AFA head coach Ben Martin was the AFCA's president in 1977. DeBerry has also been honored by the Independence Bowl as a member of its Hall of Fame.
DeBerry has received other impressive awards recently for his efforts on and off the field during his brilliant career. He received the State Farm Coach of Distinction award in 2001, joining coaches like Phillip Fulmer of Tennessee and Tyrone Willingham of Notre Dame as recipients. He was also inducted into the South Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. DeBerry also received an honorary doctorate of humanities from Wofford during its graduation ceremony in 2003.
Growing up in rural Cheraw (pop. 5,505), where ball fields seemingly outnumber everything but the surrounding watermelon and cotton fields, DeBerry discovered sports as a toddler.
"I had a football field and a baseball field almost next door," he said. "I had no complaints. I'm told that I'd run over to the ballpark in my diapers. That must have been a sight.
"My environment when I was growing up had a lot to do with my interest in athletics. As kids we'd play tackle football on Saturdays early in the morning until noon. Then again from 3 o'clock until dark. Nobody had more fun than us.
"From noon until 3, we'd go to the matinee picture show. My mother would give me a quarter every Saturday for the movies. Back then, you could go to the movies for nine pennies. Popcorn cost you a dime. Soda pop cost six pennies. That's how you'd spend your quarter. The movie would get over, and we'd all race back to the field to play football. In the spring and summer, it was baseball."
His mother made DeBerry make time for piano lessons, too. But those didn't last.
"When I was little," he said, "I was the batboy for the high school baseball team. At the same time, my mother was trying to give me music lessons -- even though she wasn't making a whole lot of money. The baseball team was playing in the state championship game the same night I had a piano recital. I was nine or 10 and I felt bad. I wanted to be at the game."
"I was sitting at the piano, and I had on my best Sunday clothes. But I forgot my recital piece and ran off the stage, threw my bow tie up in the air and ran to the ballpark. We won the state championship and I shagged bats in my Sunday clothes. I think my mother understood."
In high school, DeBerry was a four-sport letterwinner. He lettered five times in baseball, three each in football and basketball and twice in track. He was an all-state selection in baseball and football and played in the all-state football game.
Understand this about DeBerry's dandy career at Air Force. Many of the best players and teams in AFA history have come through his program.
Air Force has had 14 teams that won at least eight games, and DeBerry has coached 10 of them. DeBerry's first team, in 1984, was 8-4 and beat Bruce Smith and Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl, 23-7. A year later, the Falcons averaged 36.2 points and led the NCAA in victories with 12. They were 10-0 and ranked No. 4 nationally until a 28-21 loss at BYU. In the final Associated Press poll, the Falcons ranked eighth. The team also ranked fifth in the final UPI poll. DeBerry's 20 wins after two years still ties as the seventh most in NCAA history. It's the same number that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops posted while leading the Sooners to a national title in his second year.
That 1985 team featured quarterback Bart Weiss, All-American free safety Scott Thomas, linebacker Terry Maki and a sophomore defensive tackle named Chad Hennings. Maki was an All-American in 1986, and Hennings won the Outland Trophy in 1987.
After flying the A-10 tankbuster on escort missions in the Persian Gulf, Hennings played for the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and won three Super Bowl rings.
In 1989, led by Dee Dowis, who rushed for 3,612 yards in his career, formerly an NCAA record for quarterbacks, the Falcons scored 52, 45, 48, 43, 46, and 35 points in a 6-0 start to the 1989 season and finished with their first of four consecutive trips to the Liberty Bowl. Dowis was a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Air Force notched one of its most cherished victories in school history at the 1990 Liberty Bowl. The Falcons were 6-5 when they arrived in Memphis, Tenn., and still smarting from a 54-7 loss to BYU in early November. The bowl opponent was heavily favored Ohio State.
Air Force beat the tradition-rich Buckeyes, 23-11. Late in the fourth quarter, the Falcons scored 10 points in a 16-second span to secure the win. Carlton McDonald, an All-American cornerback in 1992, scored on a 40-yard interception return to clinch it. McDonald, Thomas and Hennings are three of the five consensus All-Americans in AFA history.
The Falcons suffered through a 4-8 season in 1993, but they rebounded impressively in 1994 and finished 8-4 after an 0-3 start. In 1995, quarterback Beau Morgan became only the eighth player in NCAA history to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season. In 1996, Morgan did it again to become the first player in NCAA history to accomplish this feat twice. Weiss and Dowis, along with Keith Boyea (2001) and Chance Harridge (2002) also accomplished it for one season apiece.
DeBerry's players have also been equally successful off the field. Thomas gained national attention during the Gulf War when his plane went down over enemy territory. Thomas used his military and football training to get to safety and was rescued by the Air Force. The former All-American player credited the lessons he learned from the gridiron playing for DeBerry for helping him survive.
Col. Mike Chandler, a 1986 graduate, was recently named the commander of the Thunderbirds at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nev. Chandler also credited his days as a Falcon football player for helping him reach his lofty position.
DeBerry was born June 9, 1938. His wife, LuAnn, grew up just around the corner from the DeBerry home in Cheraw. They have a son (Joe) and daughter (Michelle) and seven grandchildren.