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An exit too big to ignore 

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What you will read here wasn't planned this way.

The idea was to make a grand entrance two weeks from now, hopefully with ex-compadre Rich Tosches making the irreverent introduction and, one more time, tossing insult-grenades in every direction, as only he can.

After that, my first order of business as the Colorado Springs Independent's executive editor would have been to inform the Pikes Peak region that the Old Ralph Routon would be no more.

Perhaps I'd offer an occasional look at the Colorado sports scene, when news or circumstances would be deserving. But not a steady diet. Been there, done that. And done that. And done that, for 24 long years, over at the, uh, other paper.

The script for the New Ralph was taking shape until Fisher DeBerry spoiled all the fun by stepping down.

After all, as anyone in Colorado Springs should know, the Air Force Academy changes football coaches about as often as evangelical leaders are exposed by their gay prostitutes.

And don't say that's a bad comparison in terms of news value. Ted Haggard might have commanded large audiences, and his story did keep CNN, MSNBC and FOX happy for a few days, but I don't recall the New Life Church founder attracting 40,000 or more assorted saints and heathens to Falcon Stadium on any given Saturday.

Look at it another way. What single person has been most cheered and revered by Colorado Springs over the past quarter-century? What person did more to unify the masses behind a common cause, regardless of political, social or religious affiliation?

(Sorry, Douglas Bruce. This is where we could insert Carly Simon singing, "You're so vain / You probably think this song is about you.")

The answer is DeBerry, the Southern gentleman whose ironic philosophy Air Force running the football, not throwing it worked wonders for a generation.

He deserved to go out on a better note. But perhaps he realized his dream ending wasn't meant to be. He knew the world was changing. His honest feelings and his religion had gotten him into trouble in recent years. He couldn't write the final act. So, at 68 years young, he retired.

What would Old Ralph have said? Same as the New Ralph will say now.

DeBerry deserved a better farewell, emphasizing his great moments instead of magnifying the final few seasons. The academy mishandled this one, even if unintentionally.

If DeBerry really is leaving on his terms, as everyone insists, why has everyone acted this way? Why was it such a hasty announcement? Why did he read a simple statement and leave without answering questions? Why weren't players and staff brought in to show their support and emotions?

That's old news now. The next question is whether Fisher DeBerry's replacement can come close to maintaining Air Force football's place as, truly, Colorado Springs' team.

The answer is yes. Perhaps not exactly the way DeBerry did it, but probably by changing very little.

You can't call it a broken program. Not when the Falcons came within one play of winning at Tennessee to start the 2006 season. Just seven days later, Florida came within one play of losing on the same field.

Look where Florida is now. Better yet, look where Florida will be Jan. 8 playing Ohio State for the national championship.

We don't have to go any deeper than that. Old Ralph might have, but that was a different time and a different pulpit.

New Ralph hopes Air Force handles the next head coach's debut better than DeBerry's ungraceful exit.

If the academy makes the right decision (and works harder to avoid killer schedules with no late-season breaks), the Falcons can become the toast of Colorado Springs again.

If not, New Ralph will be more than willing to break loose from the real world and fire away, just like old times.

What the academy should realize, after the past few years, is that Colorado Springs can survive without Air Force football being hugely successful. People don't have to shell out $27 to $35 a ticket just to leave their food outside, go through security and see the Falcons taken apart by Brigham Young or TCU. They can go to more Colorado College hockey games, concerts or Sunday brunches.

There. So much for the sneak preview.

See you in two weeks, when the real party begins.

Don't worry, Tosches. You're still invited.

Ralph Routon will join the Independent as executive editor in just a couple weeks.

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