- Reviewed by Rene A. Henry
When Saturday Mattered Most” by Mark Beech (Thomas Dunne Books division of St. Martin’s Press, 288 pages, $25.99) is the story of Col. Earl “Red” Blaik, the legendary football coach of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and his team’s remarkable undefeated 1958 season.
Author Mark Beech, a second-generation graduate of West Point and a writer and editor at Sports Illustrated, does an outstanding job of taking the reader behind the scenes and the inner sanctum of one of America’s greatest football coaches. He also focuses on the team’s undefeated 1958 season which he calls “The last golden season of Army football.” It also was the Blaik’s last season as a coach.
The book is a “must read” for any West Point graduate. I recommend it to all college football fans. And it is a book for the shelves of sports libraries.
Beech brought back a number of memories for me. I spent 1957-1958 on active military duty assigned to the athletic department at West Point. For nearly four years prior to that I had been the sports information director at both The College of William & Mary and West Virginia University. With my experience I was assigned to Joe Cahill, who held this position at West Point. I wrote and produced media guides and the 1957 home football programs as well as those for the Notre Dame and Navy games in Philadelphia. Since I could type 96 words a minute on a manual typewriter, during the games I did the game play-by-play recap in the press box.
During the 1940s, Blaik’s teams won or shared three national championships and had five undefeated seasons. His staff included 22 men who went on to be head college or professional coaches including Vince Lombardi and Sid Gillman. By 1958, nobody in college football had been a head coach as long as Blaik yet he retired at the age of 61 – young when compared to many head coaches today.
Beech devotes a chapter to each game during the remarkable season and cites how innovative Blaik was as a coach. He writes of Blaik’s great success running the ball out of a Power T formation he installed in 1943 with a tightly packed seven-man line and three-abreast running backs. His defensive counter was to position as many players as possible within five years of the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
In 1958 Blaik introduced the “Lonely End,” called by some writers as the “Lonesome End.” With an unbalanced line in either the wing T or straight T formation, end Bill Carpenter was stationed 15 yards out as a flanker. Special signals were devised so he did not have to return to the huddle after every play. He joined two of Army’s greatest running backs since the 40s era of Glenn Davis and Felix “Doc” Blanchard – Bob Anderson and Pete Dawkins, both of whom became All-Americans.
As young boys, the two had health problems. Anderson’s family moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida when he was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. Dawkins, who was awarded the Heisman trophy, had been diagnosed with a slight case of polio. He was captain of the Army team, president of his class, Brigade Commander, a Rhodes Scholar, elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, earned a Ph.D. at Princeton, honored in Vietnam, and retired as a Brigadier General. He also found time to be assistant captain of the West Point hockey team.
The author gives the reader an insight into the personal relationship Blaik had with General Douglas MacArthur that began when Blaik was a senior cadet in 1919 and MacArthur, the second-most-decorated officer of World War I, at 39 was the youngest superintendent in the military academy’s history. Their relationship grew even closer because of football. Behind Blaik’s office desk was a large portrait of MacArthur. He corresponded regularly with MacArthur and sent him copies of every game film.
In the Spring and Summer of 1951 the coach was devastated by what Beech calls “the greatest calamity of his career” when 37 football players were involved in an academic cheating scandal, including his youngest son, Bob, who was scheduled to be the starting quarterback. West Point had adopted the Honor Code Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1779 for my alma mater, William & Mary: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.”
In all 83 cadets who either cheated or failed to report it were dismissed. “He had always promoted his team as the embodiment of the West Point ideal,” writes Beech. He says it not only stained Blaik’s “carefully cultivated professional reputation” but “More significantly, it shook the faith of the nation in one of its most trusted and beloved institutions.” Beech says it was MacArthur who convinced Blaik to remain on as coach after the humiliating scandal.
Blaik and his coaching staff were always faced with a lack of depth. The number of football recruits each year had been cut to 24. With only 2,500 young men, the academy had one of the smallest enrollments of any college football team that was annually ranked among the nation’s best. In December 1957 He sought to have the allotment increased to 35. One month later his request was cut to 25 by Superintendent Lt. Gen. Garrison H. “Gar” Davidson. Beech writes about how the two men clashed almost immediately in 1927 when both were assistant coaches.
In 1932, Davidson was named head coach, the youngest in West Point history. Blaik, who wanted the job, had turned down offers from Princeton and Ohio State and stayed for one season before becoming head coach at Dartmouth. He returned to West Point in 1940. Davidson blamed the 1951 cheating scandal on an “overemphasis on football” and admitted later he would have preferred for Army to play only an Ivy League schedule. According to Beech, when Davidson became superintendent the personal rivalry escalated into a struggle over the future of Army football.
Beech writes that that the academic rigors and rigid discipline of West Point life were unlike that of almost any other college player. He says that there was little difference between the life of an Army football player and the schedule of any other in the Corps of Cadets. Every morning the cadets rose at 5:50 a.m. reveille, stood at formation 10 minutes later, dressed for 6:30 breakfast, cleaned their rooms and were ready for the first class of the day at 7:55. The final academic period ended at 3:15 p.m. and players had to be dressed and ready for practice by 4:00. Even on game days at home the players followed the routine of everyone else in the corps.
Following the 8-0-1 season in 1958, Army was being solicited to play a bowl game. While the Naval Academy had played in two bowl games and the Air Force Academy was ready to accept an invitation, Army continued its policy of not playing in a post-season bowl game. Army was ranked #3 in the final Associated Press college football poll, behind national champion LSU and Iowa. It was the highest ranking since 1950 when Army was #2 behind Oklahoma.
The “Lonely End” offense led the nation in passing offense and tied for second in scoring offense with 29.3 points per game. The defense, which allowed just two rushing touchdowns, ranked third in total defense and fourth in scoring defense with just 5.4 points per game. The scoreless tie in the game with Pitt – the only blemish on the schedule – probably cost Army the national championship.
While his players did not have competitive advantages, Blaik and his coaching staff certainly did. The athletic department and other resources at West Point had a wealth of free, talented active military manpower available that even professional teams could not afford. Since the academy was open to the public, Blaik had the practice field blocked off by a wall of canvas so no one could spy on him. It was guarded by military police. He had U.S. Signal Corps cameramen take movies of practice every day and they were processed and on his desk by 8:00 p.m. for the coaches’ evening meeting.
The Signal Corps strung telephone lines in stadiums of out of town games between the field and the coaches’ box and had them guarded by MPs so they could not be tapped. To prevent any player from getting sick, he had water from West Point transported to the site of all away games. The player were forbidden to drink anything but what was served them. He generally had Air Force pilots on his staff who could fly to cities to scout future opponents. While the U.S. Naval Academy sports information office paid for regular postage to mail its press releases, West Point used free franking privileges.
On January 12, 1959, Blaik submitted his resignation. He and his wife retired in Colorado Springs where he died in 1989 at age 92. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1964 and his record of 166 wins, 48 losses and 14 ties includes three consecutive national championships in 1944, 1945 and 1946.
Charleston, WV native Rene A. Henry now lives in Seattle, Washington and is the author of eight books. He writes on a variety of subjects and many are posted on his website at www.renehenry.com.