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CHAPTER TWO - Answering the
CHAPTER TWO - Answering the Call
Earl "Red" Blaik - Chapter 2
Answering the Call
By Hugh Wyatt
Blaik agonized for weeks over whether to accept the West Point job; he was happy at Dartmouth, where he reported directly to the President, a man with whom he enjoyed a great relationship. He was well aware of the importance of a having the confidence of the man in charge. "Sooner or later," he observed, "too many people who know too little about football have too much to say about it. The best a coach can possibly hope for is to report directly to a college president, who has not only the authority but the character to support him so long as he justifies it."
But war was on the horizon, and Blaik, still a military man, figured that when it came, his chances of taking part in it would be greater if he were back at West Point. (Patriotism and service to one's country were still valued, and draft-dodging still looked down on, in the America of that time.)
There was still one problem, though: West Point's height-and-weight restrictions. Since 1931, West Point's recruiting had been handicapped by a Surgeon General's directive stipulating maximum weight per height for military personnel - no exceptions or waivers allowed.
The Surgeon General's directive, based on the fact that slender people generally live longer, was well-intentioned enough, but it made no provision for those individuals who were just naturally more sturdily-built. The "ideal" weight for a seventeen-year-old six-footer, for example, was 160 pounds, and under no circumstances could he weigh over 176. And at six-four - West Point's maximum height limit at that time - his weight couldn't exceed 198! Even at age 22, he couldn't weigh more than 208.
Needless to say, such restrictions were not helping Army football. But here, fortunately, is where one of those accidents of politics worked in Blaik's favor. General Edwin Watson, one of President Franklin Roosevelt's top aides, was a West Point graduate, and he was growing tired of losing bets on Army-Navy games to all the high-ranking Navy people in Washington.
Watson, it turns out, had been instrumental in getting the current Surgeon General appointed, and so he was able to persuade him to revise the restrictions. The new restrictions permitted a 6-footer to weigh up to 201; a man six-four could weigh up to 226.
Just as important to Blaik as the change in height and weight restrictions was the assurance- by the Superintendent himself - that he would report directly to the Superintendent.
Yet still he wavered, until finally, one of his strongest Dartmouth supporters said to him, "Earl, you can't carry on a flirtation like this without getting involved." Blaik realized that he was right, and agreed to accept West Point's offer.
He soon realized the grimness of the situation he had stepped into when at one of his first first team meetings, in leading up to a discussion on tackle play, he asked the squad, "Where are most games lost?"
From the back of the room, someone answered, "Right here - at West Point, sir."
In spring and fall practices, he applied what he called his Spartan approach. There was only one way to do things, and it was his way. "Your appearance on the field," he told his playrs, "signifies you accept what we tell you to do. Otherwise, don't show up."
Blaik drove himself and his assistants as hard as they drove the players. He arrived at his office daily at 8 AM, and worked well into the night. He rarely took a day off, much less a vacation. He was way ahead of most coaches of the day in the time he spent studying film of practices as well as games.
His 1941 team surprised everyone by winning its first four games, and shocked a Yankee Stadium crowd of 76,000 by playing Notre Dame to a scoreless tie. Army lost to powerful Penn by just 14-7 (Penn, under coach George Munger, was then a major Eastern power), and even led Navy - which had lost only to Notre Dame - at the half, before falling once again, 14-6.
Just eight days after the 1941 Navy game, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the U.S. was at war. For West Point, it meant that the course of training would be compressed to three years. It also meant that Plebes (freshmen) would be eligible to play in varsity competition. And the Plebes who entered West Point in the fall of 1942 would form the core of some of the greatest college teams ever to step on a football field.
The 1942 Army team did win six games, but the Cadets still couldn't get past Notre Dame, Penn or Navy. The Army-Navy game - traditionally played in front of huge crowds in Philadelphia - was played that year at Annapolis because of wartime restrictions on travel, the crowd limited to a small number of academy officials, newspapermen, local residents and the brigade of midshipmen. With no West Point cadets permitted to attend, the Naval Academy in the interest of sportsmanship ordered half the midshipmen to cheer for the Army! Their half-hearted efforts at cheering for the foe were to no avail, though, as Navy still won, 14-0.
Another outstanding group of Plebes arrived in 1943, including perhaps the greatest all-around athlete ever to attend the Academy, a Californian named Glenn Davis. And Army football continued to improve. The Cadets shut out their first four opponents, scoring more than 50 points against both Temple and Columbia.
Leading Temple 48-0 at the half, Blaik ordered his players not to score again. So in the second half, Army stayed on the ground, punting on every third down. But Blaik hadn't considered scoring on defense, and when an Army defender intercepted a Temple pass, Blaik watched as he returned it over 50 yards to the Temple one-yard line - where he downed the ball! Realizing that this was an even greater insult than if the player had actually scored, Blaik debated what to do next, finally deciding to pass up the sure touchdown and settle on a field goal attempt by a player who had never before kicked a field goal. Sure enough, though, the kick was good, and Blaik, the consummate sportsman, did some after-the-game explaining to Temple's coach.
Still , for a third year in a row, the Cadets couldn't get past Notre Dame, Penn and Navy. The Irish, behind quarterback Johnny Lujack, walloped the Army 26-0, and although the Cadets at least managed a 13-13 tie with Penn, they lost once again to Navy, 13-0. This time, the Army-Navy game was played at West Point, and this time, with no midshipmen on hand to cheer their team, a group of Cadets was ordered to sing "Anchors Aweigh."
With three seasons at West Point behind him and still winless over Navy, Blaik vowed that 1944 would be the year! To emphasize that point to his assistants, he called a coaches' meeting on New Year's Day, 1944 - at 8 in the morning! Thus did a bleary-eyed group of coaches launch one of the greatest eras in college football history.
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