When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football

When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football

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by Mark Beech

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The stirring story of the 1958 undefeated Army football team and the controversial coach who inspired Vince Lombardi


It was the end of an era, the last season before the surge of professional football began to lure the nation's best young student-athletes away from the military academies. That fall, the

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The stirring story of the 1958 undefeated Army football team and the controversial coach who inspired Vince Lombardi


It was the end of an era, the last season before the surge of professional football began to lure the nation's best young student-athletes away from the military academies. That fall, the Black Knights of Army were the class of the nation. Mark Beech, a second-generation West Pointer, recounts this memorable and never-to-be-repeated season with:

  • Pete Dawkins, the Heisman Trophy winner who rose to the rank of Brigadier General
  • The long-reclusive Bill Carpenter, the fabled "lonesome end" who earned the Distinguished Service Cross for saving his company in Vietnam
  • Red Blaik, who led Army back to glory after the cribbing scandal and had the field at Michie Stadium named in his honor

Combining the triumph of The Junction Boys with the heroics of The Long Gray Line, Beech captures a unique period in the history of football, the military, and mid-twentieth-century America.

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Editorial Reviews


If you like football history, get ready to read When Saturday Mattered Most, by Mark Beech (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99). Beech, a West Point grad and a Sports Illustrated writer, tells the story of the 1958 Army team, including Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins. Best of all, he describes how Red Blaik, the longest-tenured coach in the game, tweaked his old-fashioned T offense to take the Black Knights to their last unbeaten season and then retired on top. Beech tells a good story with style and efficiency.

Football began as a college game, and for decades, before the pro game captured fans' imaginations, college-football Saturdays mattered most. For many of those years, the Army and Navy service academies fielded some of the very best teams; Beech, a veteran Sports Illustrated writer and editor, focuses on the 1958 Army team coached by Earl "Red" Blaik. The Cadet football program was decimated by an academic-cheating scandal in the early fifties, and Blaik had been slowly rebuilding the team. Beech shows in fascinating detail how Blaik designed his schemes around the skills he had at hand (many elite athletes couldn't meet the academic requirements to attend West Point). But in '58, Blaik knew he'd brought the Cadets all the way back. Beech provides an extensive context by detailing the scandal and the anguished years it took Blaik to rebuild the program. He also profiles the key players, coaches, and opponents. His research consisted of first-person interviews as well as secondary print sources. Best of all, he re-creates the milieu of honor, dedication, and service to country in which the service academies flourished athletically. A memorable account of a bygone era.
former Sports Illustrated writer and co-author of John Underwood

There are teams and times in sport that deserve an ongoing appreciation, defining as they do the exceptionalism that we love to cheer. The 1958 Army team provided that quality and Mark Beech has put it into words that, like the cheers, resonate. Red Blaik (and Pete Dawkins and Bob Anderson and Bill Carpenter, etc., etc.) would be proud.
New York Times bestselling author of Secretariat&# William Nack

For most of the first sixty years of 20th century, the Army football team was among the best in the nation, fully the equal of Alabama and Ohio State today, and its undefeated team in 1958 represented the final burst of light in what turned out to be its last decade of gridiron magic. In this serious and admirably reported book, "When Saturday Mattered Most," author Mark Beech explores the history of the Black Knights leading up to that year, scandalous warts and all, develops all the characters against the rich backdrop of West Point's storied past---from legendary coach Red Blaik to Blaik's biggest Army booster, General Douglas MacArthur---and spins an eloquent yarn that makes compelling reading from beginning to end of that memorable season. They are all shown here developed in full---with stars Bill Carpenter, the Lonesome End, and Pete Dawkins, the Heisman Trophy winner, leading the way---charging through a year touched by grace and ending in glory.
author of Ted Williams: The Biography of An Am Leigh Montville

Take the drive with Mark Beech up the Hudson River in the Fall of 1958. Admire the foliage on the way. Settle into your seat at Michie Stadium on the gothic campus of West Point and watch the best football player in the country play on the best football team in the country for the best football coach in the country. Cheer along with the cadets. Go ahead. This is a special season, never to be repeated. Black and white photographs from the long ago gain color and life from some terrific writing. Enjoy yourself.
New York Times bestselling author of Our Boys: Joe Drape

Championship seasons are magical, but Mark Beech does way more than make your skin tingle--he makes you understand how the iconic Red Blaik and one of America's greatest institutions have inspired and continue to inspire our nation.
New York Times bestselling author of Semi-Tough Dan Jenkins

I was privileged to see this team play. I was privileged to cast my Heisman vote for Pete Dawkins. I was even more privileged to get to know the General later in life. It was a great football team that deserves its own book, this one.
Kirkus Reviews
Sports Illustrated editor and writer Beech debuts with an account of Army football's last great season, 1958, when the team finished 8-0-1 and declined a Cotton Bowl invitation. There are no structural surprises here. An introduction tells how football fans began shifting their allegiances to the NFL after 1958, how that year was "the end of an era." The author then proceeds through the season, game by game, pausing to sketch settings and biographies of his principals. The leading character is the coach, Earl Henry "Red" Blaik, who retired at the end of the season after a 121-33-10 record at the U.S. Military Academy. Beech portrays the coach as a near-divine presence on the campus (players waited to be spoken to), a man whose assistants always deferred and who maintained a close relationship with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who received game films every week. The author also deals with the great crisis of Blaik's life--the 1951 academic cheating scandal that involved his own son, who was dismissed from the academy along with scores of others--and profiles a number of players, including Heisman-winning halfback Pete Dawkins, the talented runner Bob Anderson and the celebrated "Lonesome (or Lonely) End" Bill Carpenter, who never entered the huddles but stayed far down the line of scrimmage, where he received signals from his teammates. The author deals carefully with the intrateam rivalries and jealousies and relates highlights of each game, sometimes excessively so, with occasional sports clichés ("blaze of glory"). Beech neglects discussion of the racial composition of the lily-white Army team, and the final chapters belong to the where-are-they-now genre. A competent sports book, but a sharper edge on the author's narrative knife would have sliced more deeply below the surface.
Publishers Weekly
In a grand homage to the hard-nosed tradition of Army football, Beech, an editor at Sports Illustrated, recounts a brilliant gridiron season in 1958 when the scandal-ridden Black Knights of Army proved as talented and resilient as any college varsity squad ever. “Red” Blaik, once a young promising coach at Dartmouth in the 1930s and a star end on the old Army football team, assumed control of the Knights football program in the 1950s and resurrected it from a 1951 costly cheating scandal, which ended the careers of 37 members of the varsity, including Blaik’s younger son, Bob, destined to be the starting quarterback. Beech walks the reader with great detail and engaging narrative through Blaik’s bold strategy of rebuilding the Knights with a new far-flanker scheme built on a pounding running game. Assisted by such capable coaching assistants as Sid Gillman and Vince Lombardi, the coach discovers “a more open game” to spare his teams from physical injury, relying on the humble Bill Carpenter as the gifted receiver and the bruising Pete Dawkins as the Heisman Trophy–winning running back to pull off an undefeated 1958 football season. In this memorable sports chronicle of a fabled Army football team at the birth of the space age and the NFL, Beech highlights a remarkable coach and his determined squad in a golden season of redemption and triumph. Agents: Adam Korn and Brian DeFiore. (Sept.)

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Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1




START WITH THE MAN and go from there. In January 1958, Earl Henry Blaik was a month away from celebrating his sixty-first birthday. But at six feet two inches tall, the figure he cut still recalled his form from nearly four decades before, when he had been a sleek 182-pound end on the Army football team. He had kept his body fit through a lifelong aversion to both drinking and smoking, as well as adherence to a diet that was as bland as it was meager—his good friend Stanley Woodward, the urbane sports editor of the Newark Star-Ledger, often referred to Blaik as “strictly a Shredded Wheat man.” A long nose and deep-set blue eyes accentuated his angular, patrician face. And the thatch of auburn hair he kept neatly parted to the side, a provision of his Scottish heritage, as well as the inspiration for the nickname “Red,” which he would carry throughout his life, was almost as thick as it had been the day he played fifty-eight and a half minutes of a 6–0 loss to Navy in 1919. He had been coaching football for over twenty-four years, the last seventeen of them at West Point, but he looked nothing like a man in the waning days of his career.

In addition to being a teetotaler, Blaik was also something of a prude. The closest he typically came to vulgarity was the starchy phrase “Jeebers Katy!” Only rarely “Jesus Katy!” But such exclamations were infrequent. Publicly, he hardly ever betrayed emotion or raised his voice, save to issue one of his crisp commands on the practice field. Though he despised being described in the press as “austere” or “aloof,” Blaik carefully cultivated his manner of dignified cool. He stood apart at practice and remained mostly mute throughout each ninety-minute session. Indeed, he almost never spoke to players. And rather than fly into a rage when he saw someone make a mistake, it was instead his habit to summon the wayward cadet to his side, where he would dispense a quiet, private correction. His command presence was overwhelming. Despite having been off active duty for nearly forty years, Blaik was known to just about everybody at West Point, including his civilian assistants, as “the Colonel,” and they addressed him that way. They did it not just out of deference to the rank he’d held at retirement—he’d been recommissioned in the reserves in the early days of World War II—but also out of respect for his authority.

Blaik’s dominance over his program was total. To his players, most of whom were old enough to remember Army’s storied, unbeaten national-championship teams of 1944 and ’45, their distant and imperturbable coach was not so much a mentor as a living, breathing artifact of Americana. They held him in awe and accorded him the respect usually reserved in the army for general officers. To his civilian assistants Blaik was a powerful executive. Instead of dictating policy, he set agendas and left it to them to formulate solutions. He encouraged vigorous debate, and it was only after he had heard everybody out on a matter that he would render his decision, at which point all discussion came to an end. So compelling was the force of Blaik’s personality that it had once brought to heel the man who was soon to become football’s most famous authoritarian—Vince Lombardi, who when 1958 began was just a year away from becoming the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. As Army’s line coach for five seasons beginning in 1949, the unpolished and volatile Lombardi could become surprisingly meek in Blaik’s chilly presence. Indeed, Lombardi came to see his boss as both a mentor and a father figure. Years later, after he turned Green Bay into Titletown, U.S.A., he rarely missed an opportunity to say that all he knew about organizing and preparing a team to win he’d learned from Red Blaik.

The Blaik persona was the result of the nearly four decades he had spent emulating Douglas MacArthur, his idol, whom he had met as a First Class, or senior, cadet in 1919. That was the year the then-thirty-nine-year-old brigadier general, who had risen to national prominence as the second-most-decorated officer of the First World War, had become the youngest superintendent in the history of the academy. Behind Blaik’s desk in his office on the top floor of the cadet gymnasium’s south tower hung an enormous portrait of MacArthur rendering a salute, and any visitor who climbed the steps to the coach’s aerie could not help but notice the physical resemblance between the two men. It was no coincidence. Blaik had been devoted to MacArthur since their first encounter at West Point, when at a formal reception for members of the First Class the superintendent had made a simple gesture of goodwill. Ignoring academy protocol, he greeted the star-struck Blaik and a handful of his classmates, all of them decked out in their full-dress uniforms, with an informal handshake and a pat on the arm. He then offered them their choice of cigarettes—Fatimas or Melachrinos. Never mind that smoking was strictly forbidden for West Point cadets, or that Blaik, then twenty-two, didn’t smoke. It was MacArthur’s effort to put his guests at ease that won him over. From that moment forward, as far as Blaik was concerned, the general could do no wrong.

The two men saw each other frequently that first year. On New Year’s Day 1919, Blaik had been among the first cadets to discover the body of Fourth Class cadet Stephen M. Bird, who had shot himself in the chest with a Springfield rifle. The shooting was obviously intentional; the freshman had tied one end of several feet of string to the trigger and wrapped the other around the butt-end of the rifle, giving himself the necessary leverage to fire the weapon. Bird was apparently distraught over a hazing session from the night before, which began after several upperclassmen had discovered him writing poetry in his room.1 Public outcry over the suicide had persisted through the spring and became especially intense in the halls of Congress. When MacArthur assumed command at West Point in June 1919, the issue of hazing was at the top of his agenda. He appointed seven cadets, including Blaik, to a Fourth Class Customs Committee and tasked them with spotlighting areas of abuse in the treatment of plebes. Among the recommendations made by the committee—of which Blaik was chairman—were that upperclassmen should not be permitted to “lay hands” on fourth classmen and that plebes should not be denied food. MacArthur, who two decades before had been the subject of some particularly brutal hazing sessions as a Fourth Class cadet, threw his weight behind Blaik’s committee, adopting a number of its recommendations.

The relationship between Blaik and MacArthur grew even closer as a result of the superintendent’s obsession with Army football. Two decades earlier, accompanied by his doting mother, Pinky—who would reside in a room at a nearby hotel for the next four years—MacArthur had arrived at West Point a gawky teenager, standing five foot eleven and weighing just over 130 pounds. MacArthur had grown up in the army. His father, Lieutenant General Arthur MacArthur, had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Civil War, and Douglas, the youngest of his three sons, always liked to claim that his first memory had been “the sound of bugles.” Driven by his family legacy, MacArthur would go on to graduate in 1903 as the most decorated cadet in academy history, becoming both the top student in his class and the highest-ranking member of the Corps of Cadets. But for all his academic and military accomplishments, “Dauntless Doug” had never been able to achieve the success in athletics that he craved. As a scrappy, light-hitting right fielder on the baseball team, the highlight of his three-year career had come in 1901, during a 4–3 loss at Annapolis in the inaugural Army-Navy game. MacArthur, notorious for his inability to hit a curveball, went hitless in three at-bats but also walked, stole a base, and scored a run. The closest he had come to playing football was in the autumn of 1902, when he had served as the team’s manager.

Upon his return to West Point as superintendent, MacArthur quickly set about establishing himself as Army’s number-one football fan. Whenever he could make time in his official schedule, he liked to summon Lieutenant Elmer Oliphant to headquarters for a visit. Oliphant was then a young Army assistant coach, but just a few years before, as a member of the Cadets’ backfield, he’d been perhaps the finest fullback in the country, twice named All-America. The office visits were mutually beneficial: MacArthur got an inside perspective on the team, while Oliphant received weekend passes to travel to upstate New York, where he earned as much as two hundred dollars a game playing Sunday football for the Buffalo All-Americans.

Even more than talking about the Army team with Oliphant, however, MacArthur loved to see it up close. On fall afternoons, it was not uncommon for him to leave his office early to walk over to the Plain—the academy’s vast parade ground doubled as a practice field—so he could watch as the coaches put the squad through its paces. There he would walk the sidelines holding his signature riding crop, the same one he’d so famously carried in lieu of a sidearm across the battlefields of France just the year before. He made himself conspicuous, and his presence did not go unnoticed by Blaik, already the general’s committed disciple, who was Army’s star right end.

During the war, MacArthur had been profoundly impressed by how well athletes among the army’s officer corps had performed in combat compared to nonathletes, and he also took note of how greatly enlisted soldiers tended to admire accomplished sportsmen. His love of football sprang from his conviction that the game provided a nearly perfect metaphor for warfare. In this he was hardly alone. Walter Camp, the venerable Yale coach so influential as a framer of the game, often referred to teams as “armies” and the kicking game as “artillery work.” MacArthur took things even further, formalizing the academy’s intramural program at the same time he was broadening and upgrading its academic curriculum, and proclaiming that every cadet would be an athlete, and every athlete would be a cadet. He also vigorously promoted varsity sports, with the goal of raising the academy’s national profile. No longer would Army leave West Point only to play Navy. MacArthur sent his teams out into the world. In 1921 the Cadets made their first trip away from West Point, traveling to New Haven, Connecticut, where they fell 14–7 to mighty Yale in the Yale Bowl. The ambitious young general harbored dreams of luring the nation’s gridiron superpowers to the banks of the Hudson and had plans drawn up for a hundred-thousand-seat football stadium that would sit on the river’s western shore, hard against the rocky bluffs on which the academy stood.2 It was during this time that MacArthur uttered one of his most oft-quoted lines, of which he was so fond that he ordered it carved into the stone portals of the cadet gymnasium:





The young Blaik believed every word. In MacArthur, he saw a man—a great man, in his estimation—who not only loved football but who had also articulated precisely why it was the best game a young man could play, especially if that young man was a soldier. The affinity Blaik felt toward the general was reciprocated, in part because Blaik, never the total cadet that MacArthur had been, was named the best athlete in the Class of 1920—an honor that certainly impressed the superintendent. When Blaik was laid up in the hospital over Christmas after his final game against Navy (an ungentlemanly Midshipman had stuck a finger into his right eye, causing a corneal ulcer), MacArthur sent his personal aide to visit him daily, and even arranged with the academic board to excuse Blaik from his first-semester examinations, a special exception made for a special cadet.

When MacArthur’s tour at West Point came to an end in 1922 and he was reassigned to the Philippines, he wrote to Blaik and invited him to become his aide de camp. The young lieutenant was then galloping horses in the 1st Cavalry Division at dusty Fort Bliss, Texas, where he found himself less than enthralled with the lack of opportunity presented by a peacetime army. In a twist that Blaik would rue for the rest of his life, MacArthur’s letter arrived at his Fort Bliss address the very day his resignation from the army had been accepted by the War Department. By the time the message finally reached him at home in Dayton, Ohio, it was too late to go back. Nevertheless, the general’s invitation initiated a regular correspondence that the two men would continue for the next forty-two years, until MacArthur’s death in 1964. Their letters covered a wide variety of topics, including war and politics, and were at times intimately personal. But always they returned to Army football. In 1924, MacArthur wrote to Blaik from the Philippines to comment on the team, then coming off a 12–0 win over Navy: “I agree personally with what you say that the system of play at West Pont is antiquated, too involved and totally lacking in flexibility and adaptiveness. Had I stayed at West Point, I intended introducing new blood into our coaching staff. Rockne of Notre Dame was the man I had in mind.”

That MacArthur was so well versed in the deficiencies of the Army team from more than eight thousand miles away is a testament to the thoroughness of Blaik’s correspondence, as well as to his abiding passion for the game of football. Immediately upon returning to Dayton, Blaik had gone into business for himself selling real estate and insurance. Within the first year, he had dumped the insurance racket to partner with his father, William, in the elder Blaik’s long-established real estate and home-building concern. But Earl craved the sort of action that the business world couldn’t provide, and neither games of squash nor rounds of golf were enough to satisfy his hunger. Blaik was so bored and restless that he would often borrow his father’s car on autumn Saturdays to drive up to Oxford and watch games at Miami University—where he had played football and earned a bachelor’s degree before entering West Point in the final months of World War I—or he would strike out for Columbus to see Ohio State play in its new sixty-six-thousand-seat stadium on the banks of the Olentangy River. In December of 1923, he and his bride, Merle, spent their honeymoon at the Polo Grounds in New York City watching Army and Navy play to a scoreless tie. The next autumn, he began volunteering as a part-time ends coach at Miami. More coaching jobs followed, first a temporary job at Wisconsin and then a permanent one at West Point. By 1934, when Dartmouth hired him away from Army to become the Indians’ head football coach, his course through life was set.

The game consumed Blaik. He’d been infatuated with it since his days at Dayton’s Hawthorne grammar school, when as a fourth-grader he had formed a neighborhood team, the Riverdale Rovers, and appointed himself its coach, captain, and quarterback. Now that football was his profession, he rarely thought, or spoke, of anything else. It was a labor of love, and Blaik—never a social creature—enjoyed few things more than drawing up game plans or breaking down film, play by play and position by position. He had been one of the first coaches in the country to make extensive use of film study, and his enthusiasm was so great that, even in the off-season, he had been known to phone up assistants after the workday had ended and order them to meet him at the gym so that they could brainstorm with him late into the evening.

In January 1958, nobody in college football had been a head coach as long as Red Blaik. Such titans of the game as Amos Alonzo Stagg and Pop Warner, whose careers stretched back into the nineteenth century, were still active when he had landed his first job at Dartmouth in 1934. And the men alongside whom he had dominated the game in the following decade—Michigan’s Fritz Crisler and Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy—had long since departed the arena. A new generation whose legends were still to be written, including Woody Hayes at Ohio State, Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, and Bear Bryant, then making preparations for his first season at Alabama, had taken their place. None of them was more than forty-four years old, but Hayes and Wilkinson had already combined to win three of the last four national titles. Blaik had not won an outright championship at Army in more than twelve years, and his teams hadn’t won more than seven games in a season since 1950. Football, it seemed, might finally be passing him by.

*   *   *

Tom Harp was intimately familiar with Red Blaik’s abiding passion for detail. Two years earlier, in 1956, Blaik had hired him away from his post as the head football coach at Ohio powerhouse Massillon High to coach Army’s offensive backfield. The job was Harp’s first on the collegiate level, and he spent his opening season performing his duties like a good soldier, carrying out Blaik’s orders. But as Army began spring practice the next year, Harp asserted himself, suggesting to Blaik that he change the way his halfbacks blocked defensive ends on sweep plays. Blaik preferred his backs to throw a shoulder-roll block to either the outside, if the play was going off-tackle, or to the inside, if it was going around the end. Harp, concerned that defenders could read the play by watching the blocker’s approach, wanted the backs to employ a simple bull block, charging straight at the end and standing him up before moving in either direction.

Like Blaik, Harp was an Ohio native who had played football at Miami, where he enrolled in June 1945. That fall, he lined up as a defensive back and a fullback for coach Sid Gillman—who would go on to coach Army’s line for Blaik in 1948—before entering the navy in December.3 At the end of Harp’s two-year tour of duty, he enrolled at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, where his former backfield coach at Miami, Ed Sherman, was the head coach. After graduating from Muskingum in 1951, Harp landed a job as the head football coach at Carrollton (Ohio) High. He took to coaching as if he’d been born to it, winning twenty of twenty-seven games in three years before moving on to Massillon, where he led the Tigers to a state championship in 1954 and a runner-up finish in ’55. His fullback’s build, open face, and easygoing manner combined with all the victories to make him an extremely popular local figure, and Blaik’s contacts in his home state sent word that Harp was a young man worth keeping an eye on. Blaik hired him at the first opportunity, telling Harp he needed a young coach capable of both tutoring running backs and recruiting in the state of Ohio. Harp was all of twenty-eight when he took the job—the youngest coach on the Army staff—with a wife and two little girls, and he arrived at West Point full of ambition. The job was an important step in his career: Seventeen of Blaik’s assistants at Army had already gone on to become college or professional head coaches. The joke in coaching circles was that a two-year stint on the Army staff was one that most assistants would gladly do for free.

Harp’s halfback-blocking proposal prompted just the sort of argument over the details of the game that Blaik relished, and in the staff meeting room located one floor below his office, he subjected his young assistant to a withering cross-examination in front of his colleagues. At one point, Harp, who had quickly come to see the dispute as a chance to make his mark, became so defensive that he blurted out, “Colonel, I don’t think the roll block is worth a darn! At least if we do it my way the defensive end doesn’t know whether he’s going to be blocked out or blocked in.” Blaik pressed, noting that the ultimate benefit of the roll block was that it put the defender on the ground. Harp dug in his heels. Gathering himself to restate his case, he began, “Colonel, I don’t want to be obnoxious about this, but—”

Blaik cut him off. “The word is obstinate,” he said with a gentle smile. “You mean you don’t want to be obstinate, Harp. You’re obnoxious all the time.” The room erupted in laughter, and even though Blaik ultimately rejected Harp’s proposal, the young coach had made the impression he’d hoped for. He soon became one of Blaik’s most trusted lieutenants.

Along with the rest of the Army coaching staff, Harp had begun preparing for the 1958 season on January 1. Blaik absolutely refused to concede that any team in the country would ever outplan, outscheme, or outwork his own, and to drive this point home it was his standard procedure to meet with his assistants at eight in the morning every New Year’s Day. Sitting around the long table in the conference room on that holiday morning with Harp were Dale Hall, the top scout and defensive backfield coach, who had been a halfback on Blaik’s first national championship team at West Point in 1944; Chuck Gottfried, the ends coach, who had been All–Big Ten as a guard at Illinois in 1948; and Frank Lauterbur, the defensive line coach, who two years before in the same role for the Baltimore Colts had been working with NFL standouts Art Donovan and Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb. The off-season had amounted to little more than a few days, from Christmas to New Year’s Eve, because each assistant had spent the three weeks following Army’s 14–0 loss to Navy on November 30 driving around the country, scouting talent and visiting recruits.

Blaik had used those three weeks to recharge, traveling with Merle to Key Biscayne, Florida, for his first vacation in a decade. He’d gone as much for his health as for the chance to relax in the surf. The raw winters of New York’s lower Hudson Valley had in recent years begun to leave him at the end of each season with a chest cold and a deep, bronchial cough. But even the revivifying effects of the sun and the sand could not keep his mind from wandering back to football and to the problem that was plaguing his team.

The loss to Navy was the fourth for Army in the last seven years, the worst stretch of Blaik’s career. Defeat was intolerable to Blaik, who liked to say that there was “a vast difference between a good sport and a good loser,” but it had lately become all the more galling because he felt he was being made to compete with a team chronically short of manpower. The Corps of Cadets in the latter half of the 1950s numbered about 2,500, one of the smallest enrollments of any school with a football team annually ranked among the nation’s best.4 Even the Naval Academy was over 3,800 strong. And where Blaik brought in roughly 25 new football players every fall, his greatest rival regularly welcomed more than 120. As a consequence, Army’s teams rarely went much deeper than their best eleven players—a serious disadvantage in the days of iron-man football, when players lined up on both offense and defense.5 In the season just concluded, during which Blaik’s squad went 7–2, seven of the eleven Army starters had averaged more than fifty-three minutes a game. The Cadets had started fast, overwhelming Nebraska 42–0 in their opener and then downing Penn State 27–13. But after a 23–21 loss to Notre Dame in Philadelphia and a 29–13 victory over a strong and deep Pittsburgh club, they were spent. Army had to come from behind to win three of its next four games, against inferior teams from Virginia, Utah, and Tulane, before being beaten decisively by the Midshipmen. “We expended a year’s supply of football energy in the first four games,” Blaik told Sports Illustrated.

On the sands of Key Biscayne, he obsessed over how to spare his team the punishment inherent in, as he called it, “impact football.” Blaik’s greatest success at Army had come running the ball out of a Power T formation, which he had installed at West Point in 1943 after two years of running the single wing. He favored a tightly packed T—a seven-man front, the quarterback under center and the running backs lined up three abreast (a fullback flanked by halfbacks to the left and right) about five yards behind—not only because it allowed ball carriers to hit their holes at top speed, but also because it greatly reduced the need for a single dominant back and still provided opportunities for offensive deception, for ball fakes and option plays (though not as many as did the single wing). Army was the era’s preeminent three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team. The defensive counter to the T was to position as many players as possible within five yards of the line of scrimmage in order to stop the run. By the latter half of the 1950s, most teams accomplished this with either a 5-2 or a 5-4 defensive alignment, with five down linemen and anywhere from two to four linebackers. The 5-4 was commonly known as the Oklahoma Defense, made popular by Bud Wilkinson and the Sooners, and its third and fourth linebackers were actually rolled-up cornerbacks who played off the outside hips of the defensive ends to present opposing running backs with a nine-man front. Blaik knew from hard experience that a team lacking depth would wear down quickly if it insisted on running the ball headlong into such a wall. To defeat the Oklahoma Defense, he decided that he first had to “dislocate” it, especially the rolled-up cornerbacks on the ends, who made it so hard for his backs to bounce their runs to the outside.

Blaik admired the version of the T run by Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty, who within two years of taking over from Clarence L. “Biggie” Munn in East Lansing, had led the Spartans to a victory in the 1956 Rose Bowl. Daugherty, widely respected as an offensive innovator, ran the Power T but augmented it with variations that featured unbalanced lines—a guard, two tackles, and an end on one side of the center; a guard and an end on the other—as well as wide receivers and slot backs. Such sets were hardly new. Wide receivers, especially, were almost as old as football itself. But as Blaik considered Daugherty’s various schemes, he began to wonder. What if a team lined up in nothing but unbalanced wide-receiver sets, making them constitute the entirety of the offensive attack? And what if the receiver—in Blaik’s words the “far flanker”—was positioned far wider than was normal?

Unbalancing his offensive line, Blaik knew, would not only give his offense overwhelming force on one side, but it would also compel the defense to make a choice—whether to remain in its normal alignment, conceding the advantage to Army’s running game on the strong side, or to shift players over Army’s extra blockers, leaving itself exposed to a play that went the other way. Splitting the end extremely wide on the strong side would break up the defensive front: It would draw coverage either from the cornerback on that side or from the safety on that side, who would have to be replaced in the deep secondary by the other cornerback. It would not be possible, in other words, to both cover the far flanker and maintain the integrity of the defensive secondary unless a player was removed from the defensive front. “And this man,” Blaik wrote years later, “could not be spared, because we still had all our backs in close attacking deploy.” Blaik couldn’t remember another scheme like it in his twenty-five years as a head coach, but he knew instinctively that it would work. With an unbalanced offensive line and a far flanker, he felt he had discovered a way to spread out defenses, thus opening the field to his offense, whether Army wanted to run or pass.6

Blaik told nobody of his plan when he returned to West Point. Instead, when he met with his staff on New Year’s Day, he simply gave his coaches a week to come up with their own solutions to Army’s manpower problem. At the ensuing meeting, he listened quietly to their proposals. After the last one, he stood, walked to the front of the room, and diagrammed his new formation—unbalanced line, far flanker—on the chalkboard. “This is what we’re going to run this year,” he said.

His assistants exchanged questioning looks. None were impressed. “That’s not very much, Colonel,” said Tom Harp. “It’s just an unbalanced line with a wide receiver.”

“But he’s way out there,” said Blaik, tapping his piece of chalk on the board where he had placed the far flanker. This response was met with silence. Everybody had seen something like it before, and nobody thought it would make much difference.

Blaik ended the meeting soon after, ordering his staff to reconvene after lunch. His mind was made up, but he wanted to make his assistants understand. He was counting on them, after all, to help him build an attack around the formation. “Let’s go up to Michie,” he said, “and we’ll see how it looks up there.”

During the American Revolution, the Continental Army built West Point as a fortress to prevent British ships from sailing up the Hudson River and dividing the colonies. The academy sits on a rocky promontory along the Hudson’s western shore, around which the river bends sharply to the east before continuing the journey south to its terminus in New York Harbor. The terrain rises majestically from the water’s edge to the west in a series of cliffs and plateaus. On the first plateau, nearly two hundred feet above the Hudson, is the hub of the academy, which includes the cadet barracks, the academic buildings, and the gymnasium, as well as the Plain, the vast parade ground where Army played football from 1890 until 1923. On the second, looming more than one hundred feet above the first, is the Cadet Chapel, stately and immense with its broad bell tower, separated from Michie Stadium to the west by the still waters of Lusk Reservoir. The landscape, seemingly all gray stone and cliff, is solemn and forbidding, never more so than in the dead of winter. It is with good reason that cadets refer to the cold months after the Christmas break as the “Gloom Period.” Everything at the academy is shrouded in gray: the sky, the buildings, even the cadets themselves, clad in their uniforms and overcoats.

The afternoon Blaik took his staff up to Michie was just such a day. Snow was falling, and it was bitterly cold. As Harp trudged up the steep hill from the gymnasium to the stadium, doing his best not to slip on the icy ground, he mulled over the Colonel’s plan. He still didn’t think much of it, but like almost everybody else inside the Army program, he was in awe of the old man, who always seemed to be right when it came to football. Harp knew, too, that Blaik would have the final say. If Blaik had committed himself to the far-flanker concept, then Harp knew he would have to, as well.

But Harp didn’t really begin to get excited about the formation until a line of scrimmage had been scratched out in the snow. Blaik had brought more than just his coaches along for the demonstration. He’d also drafted the staff of Army’s practice squad—then known as the B Squad—led by head coach Barney Gill, a captain on temporary assignment to the academy’s athletic department, and coaches from the plebe, or freshman, team. Blaik lined everybody up in what was essentially an unbalanced wing T formation. To the right of the center were just a guard and the weak-side end; to the left, a guard, both tackles, and the far flanker, who was split about fifteen yards wide. In the backfield, the left halfback lined up as a wingback, just behind and outside the left hip of the outermost tackle. Like the other members of the varsity staff, Harp had no idea the flanker would be set so wide. The typical split for a receiver in those days was not much more than seven or eight yards. Harp looked around at his fellow coaches, who were standing quietly in the falling snow. A few of them were grinning.

Now that Blaik had their attention, he explained that he didn’t yet have any specific plans drawn up for how to put his idea into action. The one thing of which he was certain, he said, was that even though teams typically split a receiver wide only in passing situations, he felt it was crucial for Army to maintain a sound running game from its far-flanker formation. Nobody was objecting now. By the time the Army assistants followed Blaik off the snowy field and back down the hill, they had already begun to consider new possibilities. The staff would have just over eight months for planning and research before Army opened its 1958 campaign against South Carolina on September 27 at Michie Stadium. Spring practice would be the laboratory for their first experiments.


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Beech

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When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mark Beech does a superb job of taking the reader back to a time when the priorities in college football had nothing to do with getting players ready for the pros. Imagine that. This book was recommended to me by a friend with ties to West Point. I'm a college football fan, but didn't know that much about Army football. I learned a lot and would recommend it to anybody who enjoys football, sports in general or 20th century history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have always been a fan about Army football, but this book taught me so much more about Army in the past. It even helps me with watching the games now. Would recomend to anyone with intrest in football at all.
PRC54 More than 1 year ago
An outstanding account of Army's magical football season of 1958. Beech takes you behind the scenes with descriptions so vivid that you'll feel that you're standing on the sidelines or in the locker room re-living some of the most heartfelt and glorious moments in Army football history. In between his detailed accounts of each game that season, he backfills with superb character bios of not only the main protagonists of that team, but also some of the lesser known, but equally colorful players and coaches. He captures the ideosynchrasies and complexities of the head coach, Red Blaik, as well as his pure football genius. It is remarkable that an undermanned, under-sized team of players who had to carry the burdens and stresses of daily military academy living could have achieved such success on the field of play against the football powers of that day: Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Pitt, South Carolina (among others) as well as academy arch-rival, Navy. It is doubtful that we'll ever see a team faced with so many physical and mental challenges come as close to perfection ever again. Beech's book is a gift to the world of sportswriting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago