Growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., there was only one college football team for Brent Thompson.
"We had only one FBS team," The Citadel coach recalls. "And that was Army."
West Point is located about 33 miles down the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie, and Thompson and his family used to make the drive south on Route 9 to storied Michie Stadium, home of the Army West Point Black Knights. Thompson even went to the Army football camp when Jim Young was the coach in the 1980s.
"If I had my druthers, I would have gone to West Point, for sure," Thompson said. "Because it is something special ... I had hopes, but those were only dreams, because my grades didn't reflect the ability to get into West Point."
Thompson ended up at a another military school, Norwich University in Vermont, where he played defensive back and majored in peace, war and diplomacy. He considered a career in the military before becoming a football coach.
Thompson will journey home to the Hudson Valley this weekend when The Citadel renews its rivalry with Army West Point. Victories over Army in 1991 and 1992 are a huge part of Citadel football history, and the teams haven't played since a 25-24 victory for the Black Knights in 1994.
But coaches in the two programs share common interests — coaching at military schools and teaching triple-option football.
"A lot of those guys are good friends of ours," Thompson said of Army coach Jeff Monken and his staff.
"In the last three or four years, we've gotten pretty close with those guys," he said. "We've gone up to visit them a couple of times, and they've been down here a few times. We're very familiar with them, and they do an outstanding job both in coaching their guys and their schemes."
The Citadel (0-3) and Army (3-1) were not originally scheduled to play each other this season. But when the coronavirus pandemic scrambled the 2020 college football season, the two military schools were able to agree on a date.
After the Southern Conference pushed its conference slate to the spring, The Citadel opted to play four non-conference games this fall. Army, which plays football as an FBS independent, was able to put together a 12-game slate, including games with Air Force, Navy and SoCon member Mercer.
That's why Citadel coaches had no problem hosting Army coaches on a visit last spring and engaging in Zoom calls after the pandemic shut down spring practices and in-person visits.
"If you know a team is on the schedule, you wouldn't normally do it," Thompson said. "There are certain things you don't ever really give away. But because we didn't have any plans to play each other, we were pretty open with them, and they were pretty open with us. That's part of the reason I like to visit with them. They are good guys to learn from, and they are not afraid to tell you what their thought process is. And we try to reciprocate when they come down here.
"I'm a firm believer in learning from one another. I have nothing to hide, and there's nothing I probably have not stolen from somebody else anyway. So it's comforting to know there are other people like that out there."
Monken is familiar with The Citadel from his years at Georgia Southern (1997-2001 as an assistant, 2010-2103 as head coach) when the Eagles were in the SoCon. His staff is dotted with coaches from Wofford (Nate Woody, Shiel Wood, Greg Gasparato), Georgia Southern (offensive coordinator Brent Davis) and The Citadel (quarterbacks coach Cody Worley). Davis even played at The Citadel for two years in the 1990s before transferring to Georgia.
Aside from their bond as military schools, Army and The Citadel are part of the small fraternity of college programs that run the triple-option. That means something, as well.
"Absolutely," Thompson said. "We are all in this together for a lot of reasons, and we face a lot of the same challenges. Schools like (Division II) Harding, Lenoir-Rhyne when we there, Army and Navy and Air Force and The Citadel, we all have some sort of disadvantage to overcome.
"We create our own fraternity and try not to let the secrets out. You need to develop those friendships because you don't know at what point you will need their help with a scheme or a film you need to watch."
Thompson said The Citadel often bumps against Army West Point and the other military academies on the recruiting trail.
"All the time," he said. "It can be very difficult to recruit against them because they can recruit sheer numbers, while we are limited to 63 scholarships on the roster. It can be very challenging, but I never try to discourage a young man from going to the academies. It's one of the best things you can do."