Even before speculation began to swirl last winter over who would take over the head football coaching job at Army, Navy running backs coach Joe DuPaix already had the outcome pegged.
DuPaix knew there was no one better to succeed fired coach Stan Brock than then Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson.
“The day that the Army job came open, I knew Rich was going to get the job,” said DuPaix, who’d been gone from Cal Poly himself less than a year. “No one told me. It was just the right fit. It had his name written all over it.”
With a U.S. Army major for a dad and two brothers who graduated from West Point — one a three-year varsity football player — Ellerson grew up on Black Knights football.
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Having been recruited by Ellerson to play quarterback and then spending another seven years as one of his assistant coaches with the Mustangs, DuPaix knew as much as anybody about Ellerson’s ties to the military academy.
“I just kind of chuckled inside because I knew he was going to go there,” DuPaix said, “and he was going to become one of our enemies on the playing field.”
Almost a year later, that game has come to fruition as Army meets Navy for the 110th time, and the Black Knights (5-6) will reach their first bowl game in more than a decade if they can halt a seven-game losing streak to the Midshipmen (8-4).
The matchup pits Ellerson and a staff containing five of his former Cal Poly assistants against one including DuPaix and head coach Ken Niumatalolo, another former Ellerson-recruited quarterback who took Hawaii to its first bowl game in 1989.
“Our lives are intertwined,” Ellerson said. “I haven’t talked to Joe for a few weeks. We respect the fact that we are going to be friends and our lives are tied together, but right now, we are competitors. He and I are fierce competitors. Coach Niumatalolo and I are fierce competitors. I was with coach Niumatalolo last week, and the last thing we said to each other after we patted each other on the shoulder was, ‘See you after it’s over.’ In the meantime, we have our knees bent, and we are keeping score.”
DuPaix is in the interesting position, however, of being the only former Cal Poly guy on the Navy staff. With Army are Gene McKeehan, Ian Shields, Payam Saadat, Andy Guyader and Bill Tripp, all men who DuPaix coached alongside while he was an offensive coordinator for the Mustangs.
“It’s going to be pretty fun,” DuPaix said. “The Army-Navy game just anyway is such a great environment. It’s America’s game. It’s exciting. It’s tradition. It’s the student excitement. There’s just so much that goes into that game.
“And then to know that Rich Ellerson is going to be on the opposite sideline with some of my best friends — you’re talking about guys we worked together a long time at Cal Poly — and for them to be over on the other sideline coaching our rival team is a very unique situation. It’ll be an interesting dynamic, needless to say.”It was Ellerson who gave DuPaix his start in Division I football.
The son of a high school coach who had been employing the triple option in Salt Lake City since the mid-1980s, DuPaix won a Utah state high school football title and went on to play at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. From there, Ellerson recruited DuPaix to be the quarterback at Southern Utah, where he had just taken the head coaching job.
In Ellerson’s one season at the helm in Cedar City, Utah, DuPaix set an NCAA Division I-AA quarterback rushing record with 1,246 yards in 1996. The Thunderbirds also led the nation in rushing.
Ellerson left Southern Utah to begin a second stint as the defensive coordinator at Arizona in 1997, where he stayed until taking over at Cal Poly in 2001.
“When I got the head coaching job at Cal Poly, he was one of the first guys I called to try and entice to come with me,” Ellerson said. “We were together for seven years at Cal Poly, and he was in a leadership position for us there. I watched him get married; I watched their family grow right around us. His family and my family will be friends for the duration. When he made the choice to go to the Naval Academy, I was excited for him, and I was proud of him.”
Ellerson said he did not contact DuPaix to see if he could woo him away from Navy last year, even before DuPaix released a statement saying he was staying put.
Like DuPaix knew Ellerson was the man for the Black Knights, Ellerson knew DuPaix wouldn’t leave Annapolis after just one season — and wouldn’t expect him to.
DuPaix’s recent arrival at Navy also kept him from expressing interest in the Cal Poly opening, which was filled by former Army offensive coordinator Tim Walsh.
In no hurry to uproot his wife, Monica, and children Madeleine, T.J., Jackson, Scott, Bryson and Cooper, DuPaix said he is comfortable at Navy and enjoys his East Coast surroundings.
That didn’t stop DuPaix from asking about the weather in San Luis Obispo and thinking it would be a nice place to return to, but, more pertinently, his focus is on teaming with Niumatolo to keep their current edge on one of their former mentors.
“I am not at all surprised by the job that any of those guys are doing. They are great men,” Ellerson said. “They have set the bar high for us, but we are in the hunt. We have got their scent and we are coming to get them.”