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CHAPTER TEN -Getting Off at the Top
CHAPTER TEN -Getting Off at the Top Floor
Earl "Red" Blaik - Chapter 10
Getting Off at the Top Floor
By Hugh Wyatt
With the victory over Navy, the 1958 Army team was the first since 1945 to beat both Notre Dame and Navy in the same season. It gave West Point its first unbeaten season in nine years, the Lambert Trophy as best team in the east, and a third-place ranking nationally. (Interestingly, that year's National Championship was won by the LSU Tigers, coached by former Blaik assistant Paul Dietzel.)
Carpenter, Dawkins and Novogratz were named first-team All-Americans. Dawkins was awarded the Heisman Trophy, the third player coached by Blaik to be so honored. Novogratz won the Knute Rockne and Los Angeles Times awards as the nation's top lineman. (Dawkins would also go on to win a Rhodes scholarship, and while studying in England, would put his athletic talents to use in helping Oxford defeat archrival Cambridge in both rugby and ice hockey).
In many ways, the offense's very success stunted its further development. Expressing regret that he hadn't explored the Lonely End's possibilities further. Blaik confessed, "After we saw an undefeated season in prospect, we went too conservative." Conservatism, he pointed out, is not conducive to experimenting with something new and different, much less exploiting its full potential.
Blaik was also enough of a realist to concede that no new system or formation is any better than the people available to run it. "Proper personnel," he cautioned, "is necessary to make this, or any other attack perform." Fortunately for the "Far Flanker" idea, there was Bill Carpenter. "There would have been no Lonely End," Blaik admitted, "if there had been no Carpenter."
Overlooked amidst all the attention paid to the Lonely End offense was the Army defense, which gave up just 182 yards a game and ranked third nationally.
At long last, with the glorious 1958 season behind him, Blaik revealed the secret of the Lonely End - how Carpenter, who never did enter the huddle, received his signals. The innovative formation had generated incredible interest and excitement, and Blaik's refusal to reveal his secret had only added to the mystery. Blaik finally disclosed that Caldwell signaled the plays to Carpenter through body language - chiefly through the positioning of his feet as he stood in the huddle.
And then, suddenly, abruptly and unexpectedly - at least insofar as the public was concerned - on Tuesday, January 13, 1959, Earl Blaik resigned.
In reality, his resignation was the result of considerable deliberation on his part. One of his first acts following the end of the season had been to get his assistants new contracts for 1959, giving them a measure of security should he resign and his successor choose not to retain them.
The chief reason he gave for his resignation was that an opportunity had been offered him by a long-time friend and supporter to become a Vice-President and Director of Avco Corporation. And that, in Blaik's own words, should have been enough to end the speculation.
But it wasn't. Many observers suspected dissatisfaction at Army's not being permitted to play in a Bowl game may have played a part. True, the Cotton Bowl had shown interest in the Cadets, and the Army players had expressed an interest in accepting a Cotton Bowl bid, but Blaik denied that that was a factor. In fact, he confessed, he really didn't see any point in Army's playing in a post-season game. "After Army-Navy," he said, speaking as a true Army man, "any game is anti-climactic."
His health was also mentioned, and Blaik himself conceded that the harsh late fall weather of the Hudson Valley had taken its toll on him the past few seasons. But health alone, he said, was not enough to make him resign.
The trail ultimately led to rumors of a disagreement between Blaik and the Superintendent over certain academy policies. And although Blaik himself did not go public on the subject at the time, "There was, in fact," he later admitted in his autobiography, "one major area of disagreement between the views of the Superintendent and myself."
The disagreement centered on the Superintendent's publicly-announced policy of "equality for all sports" (sound like any modern-day "educators" you know?). Blaik considered the policy fine in theory - except that revenues produced by football alone paid the bill for all the other sports at the Academy! He saw the Superintendent's goal of "equality" as an unwillingness to acknowledge football's importance, not only to all the other sports, but also - looking back on why he had been hired 18 years before - to the academy's fundamental mission of training winners. First take care of football, he argued. Then you have the luxury of taking care of the other sports.
To ensure football's health, Blaik had requested more appointments for football players. It was becoming difficult enough under peacetime conditions to recruit "blue-chip" high school football players to the highly-structured West Point life - Blaik noted that neither Dawkins nor Novogratz had been highly recruited by other schools - but it was harder still to keep them in the program for four years. Some recruits chose not to play once on board (their appointments, unlike athletic scholarships, did not require them to play football); as always happens, some were injured along the way; some failed to make the grade academically; and some just couldn't handle the demands of military life. For whatever reason, Blaik's experience had shown a 70 per cent attrition rate among cadets originally recruited for football.
In view of such a high rate of loss, Blaik argued that 35 yearly appointments should be earmarked specically for football players. Assuming that the 70 per cent rate of attrition were to remain unchanged, that would mean that only eleven of the original 35 would still be around to play as seniors - scarcely an excessive number by major college standards.
Blaik insisted that this was essential to address a recruiting advantage enjoyed not only by civilian opponents, but also by Army's chief rival, the Naval Academy, whose student body had 1200 more men than West Point's (and, by extension, more slots available to football players). Besides that, a brand-new contender for the sort of student-athlete coveted by the service academies was on the horizon: the Air Force Academy was gearing up to play varsity football.
Yet in spite of Blaik's appeal, the West Point Athletic Board actually cut his request to 33 appointments per year, and the Superintendent proceeded to chop it still further, down to 28. In the face of such an apparent rebuff, it is not unreasonable to conclude that, having twice brought Army football back from the depths, Coach Blaik did not choose to be the man in command when it hit bottom again. Surely, his continued presence as Army's coach would be seen as his acceptance of the cuts, as sanctioning the weakening of Army football.
So the greatest coach in West Point's history - a true giant of American football, at the top of his game - resigned.
What a record he left behind:
His overall record at Dartmouth and West Point was 166-47-14.
In his 18 years at West Point, he compiled a record of 121-32-10. And when one realizes that 11 of those 32 losses took place in the years 1951 and 1952 alone, when his team was decimated by the so-called "cribbing scandal," his record is all the more remarkable: taking away those two disastrous years, his 16-year record was 115-21-9.
He was twice Named National Coach of the Year...
He coached 6 Unbeaten Teams...
3 Heisman Trophy Winners...
8 Top-Ten Teams, including...
2 National Champions (1944, 1945)
2 Second-Place Finishers (1946, 1950)
1 Third-Place Finisher (1958)
1 Fourth-Place Finisher (1949)
1 Sixth-Place Finisher (1948)
1 Seventh-Place Finisher (1954)
20 of his assistants went on to become head coaches themselves...
Paul Amen... George Blackburn... Chief Boston... Eddie Crowder... Paul Dietzel... Bobby Dobbs... Sid Gillman... Jack Green... Andy Gustafson... Dale Hall... Tom Harp... Herman Hickman... Stu Holcombe... Frank Lauterbur... Vince Lombardi... Johnny Sauer... Dick Voris... Murray Warmath... Bob Woodruff... Bill Yeoman
Two former assistants, Dietzel (at LSU) and Warmath (at Minnesota), went on to win National Titles as head coaches. Two others, Gillman (Chargers, AFL) and Lombardi (Packers, NFL), would win professional championships. Lombardi would win two Super Bowls.
In 1964, Coach Blaik was installed in the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame.
In 1969, he was named a Charter Member of the Athletic Hall of Fame at his alma mater, Miami University of Ohio, entering with an elite group that included football greats Paul Brown, Weeb Ewbank, Ara Parseghian and John Pont, and baseball's Walter Alston. (As the first Miami graduate to be named Coach of the Year, Coach Blaik probably did as much as anyone to earn Miami its nickname, "Cradle of Coaches." Subsequent Coaches of the Year with Miami ties have been Woody Hayes, Dietzel, Parseghian, Pont and Bo Schembechler.)
In 1986, Coach Blaik was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan.
Coach Blaik died on May 6, 1989 at the age of 92, and is buried at West Point, near the entrance to the Post Cemetery.
Accused by his critics (and what coach has ever been without them?) of being stern and rigid, Blaik never denied the charge or apologized for it. "There can be no such thing," he said unapologetically, "as a football coach who is 'an easy man to play for,' because those are contradictory terms. I certainly was no exception to the rule."
Blaik's statement on the subject is universally applicable: "Good fellows are a dime a dozen, but an aggressive leader is priceless."
One such leader, General George Joulwan, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Bosnia, summed up for the Pottsville, Pennsylvania Republican what Blaik - and Blaik's leadership - meant to him and his career, recalling why, as a highly-recruited high-schooler out of Pottsville High School, he had chosen West Point over dozens of other schools. "I attended West Point because Coach Blaik said football was secondary to graduating and becoming an officer in the Army. I liked that! It was a vision beyond football. It was an interest in me as a person with a future!"
Coach Blaik lost his wife of 66 years, Merle, in 1984. She was, he said, "the perfect football wife."
"She always accepted the ceaseless demands of coaching on my time," he wrote, "and took as much interest in my players as if they were her own sons - as one of them was. She aged through the games even more rapidly than I did, and, if it is possible, she suffered even more anguish from, and was even more intolerant of, defeat. She paid the price."
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