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CHAPTER SIX - The Tough Get Going
CHAPTER SIX - The Tough Get Going
Earl "Red" Blaik - Chapter 6
The Tough Get Going
By Hugh Wyatt
The last of the expelled Cadets left West Point just two weeks before the start of fall football practice. Now, having committed to staying at the Academy and seeing things through, Blaik was forced to piece together a team that had been almost totally wiped out. Virtually all of his veterans - including his own son - were gone.
With only two players who by any standard could be considered veterans, Blaik was forced to suit up B-squad players and sophomores - "silhouettes," as he called them.
Even worse, Blaik himself was not the same man he'd been. He himself admitted as much. "I could not," he said, "try as I would, coach with my normal enthusiasm, drive, and patience."
And patience, so sorely needed with such an inexperienced group, was what he found himself most lacking in. "I knew they could not possibly do what I wanted them to do," he said. "Yet I went on playing a kind of half-make-believe game with myself that they could."
The season's results were predictable. The cadets lost their first four in a row - to Villanova, Northwestern, Dartmouth and Harvard - before narrowly beating Columbia, 14-9.
After a loss to USC, Army defeated The Citadel 27-6, and dropped a 7-6 heart-breaker to Penn.
"As for the Navy game," Blaik recalled, "well, I was not the only one in Municipal Stadium (Philadelphia) that day who sensed that even the Midshipmen were not getting much kick out of it. They knew the situation. They knew what they were beating." Navy won, 42-7.
From 1944 through 1950, a period of seven seasons - Blaik's teams had lost only three games. The 1951 team had lost seven in one season.
Yet Blaik's respect for his players never wavered. "If they lacked talent," he wrote, "they lacked nothing else. They paid the price of devotion and sacrifice to an almost hopeless cause."
Now, with the nightmare season behind him, rumors began to circulate that Blaik might move on - not necessarily voluntarily. Anyone who has ever been successful knows that there are always those resentful of that success, who lie in wait for him to stumble. In Blaik's case there was what he called "a small, hard core of Pentagon people" - even a few at West Point itself - who would have been delighted to see him resign.
But Blaik, a military man himself, was armed and prepared for those people: he knew too much, and they knew he did.
"There never was any direct pressure on me to resign," Blaik remembered. "There might have been, had it not been recognized by more than one high authority that I was privy to the bungling and evasion which was characteristic of the (cribbing scandal) inquiry and the action and, more important, was in possession of irrefutable documentary evidence to back up anything I said. Also pertinent, I had signed in January 1951 a new five-year contract."
There were, though, some compelling reasons for Blaik to move on of his own volition. There were offers to go elsewhere - in business as well as football - and there were disturbing rumors that West Point might de-emphasize football, as the Ivy League schools had chosen to do.
In fact, shortly after the news of the cribbing scandal broke, Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas had called for an out-and-out ban on football at both West Point and Annapolis. (The Air Force Academy was spared only because it did not yet exist.)
Once again, Blaik relied on the counsel of General MacArthur. At the New York Touchdown Club dinner that winter, MacArthur told him, "Timing is of the essence. Make no move now."
Meanwhile, back at West Point, a special three-man board set up in the wake of the expulsions to investigate the football program had found no irregularities. And when Blaik informed the Superintendent that he had no intentions of resigning, the Superintendent reiterated his support for Blaik, announcing that while West Point would "continue not to overemphasize athletics," at the same time it would make sure athletics had "their proper position" in the total West Point picture.
In other words, there would be no de-emphasis of football.
A letter from General MacArthur applauded Blaik's decision. "I am in entire accord with your decision to remain at West Point," he wrote. "Your decision is good not only for you but for West Point, for athletics, and for the country as a whole."
The outlook on the football field, though, was not so bright; prospects for 1952 seemed every bit as bleak as those for 1951. Nevertheless, the Cadets actually managed to win four of their nine games and tie a fifth. And the four losses were to good teams: to USC, the eventual Rose Bowl champion; to Pitt, which finished 6-3 while playing its usual tough schedule; to Georgia Tech, the unbeaten Southeastern Conference champion; and to Navy, whose final record was 6-2-1.
The season's highlight was a 14-13 upset of a good Penn team which earlier had played Notre Dame to a 7-7 tie.
As for the Navy game, a 7-0 defeat, it could have been much worse, but on seven different occasions the Cadets stopped Navy in Army territory. Five of the stops had been inside the 20, and three of them inside the 10. The game ended with Navy just inches short of the Army goal. "Why it wasn't worse," said Blaik afterward, "I'll never know."
In the two years since the so-called cribbing scandal, Blaik's teams had lost 11 games - as many as they had lost in the previous 10 years.
The 1953 team consisted of a core of veterans hardened by two years of defeat, plus a small but talented group of incoming sophomores.
As Blaik saw it, toughness was not the problem. He had driven his players hard, and they had reponded to the lash. "They were afraid of nothing, awed by nothing, eager to do anything we asked. But in two years, they had played in as upper-classmen - or watched, as plebes - eleven Army football defeats."
The problem was one familiar to any coach trying to turn around a losing program. "I had to convince our team that they not only could be, but should be, winners. I myself was far from convinced for a long, long time that what I was trying to sell them was actually the truth. But I knew I still must try to sell them. The strange thing is, I not only convinced them, but by the end of the season, they convinced me."
Every Monday, in an attempt to build confidence in his players, he would conclude his summary of the scouting report on the upcoming opponent by asking his players, "Just who the hell are they, anyhow?"
After an opening game win over underdog Furman, the Cadets lost their second game, 33-20 at Northwestern. It was in their fourth game, in New York's Polo Grounds against eventual Atlantic Coast Conference champion Duke, that they solidified as a team.
Taking a 14-13 lead into the fourth quarter, Army launched a long drive to the Duke 19, where, on fourth down, Blaik ordered a substitute sent in with instructions to go for a field goal. Astonishingly, though, a young assistant named Tiger Howell countermanded Blaik's order, chasing after the substitute and recalling him. And instead of the field goal attempt, the Cadets went for the first down - and failed.
(Howell later recalled that Blaik walked over to him afterward, handed him an Army blanket, and said, "Take this. You'll need it in Korea!")
Now, with under four minutes to play, Duke sprang a reverse good for 73 yards to the Army seven, where runner Red Smith was caught from behind only by a heroic effort by Army defensive end Bob Mischak.
With time-out called and Duke on the Army seven with three minutes left, the excitement in the Polo Grounds was too much for the Corps of Cadets, who streamed down out of the stands and surrounded the field of play.
Three Duke running plays took the Blue Devils to the Army two. Now, with fourth and two, a kicking tee was thrown onto the field, but the Duke quarterback threw it back. No field goal for him - he was going for the touchdown. And with the Corps of Cadets on the sidelines and standing behind them on the end line sceaming encouragement, the Army defenders stopped the fourth-down play - a quarterback sneak - inches short of the goal line.
Now, taking no chances, Blaik called for a punt on first down, but the ball made it only as far as the Army 35.
Duke had the ball once more, this time with only 30 seconds remaining. And when the Cadets batted down four straight Duke passes, the Corps poured onto the field to carry the team off on their shoulders.
"A roar went off that night," Blaik noted sarcastically, "that might have been heard all the way to the Pentagon."
And Tiger Howell? After contradicting the head coach's field goal order, he had suffered through the tension of the final three minutes, and now, while all around him celebrated, he felt only relief. His spirits were helped considerably when Blaik came over to him and told him, "Tiger, you don't have to pack your bags."
Only the early loss to Northwestern and a scoreless tie with Tulane marred the Cadets' record as they prepared for Navy. Starting with Navy's incredible 14-2 upset victory in 1950, three straight losses to Navy meant that no cadet in the Corps had seen an Army win over Navy.
This time, though, there would be cause for celebration. Running for two scores and returning a fourth-quarter punt 70 yards for a third, Kentuckian Pat Uebel became the first Army player in the long history of the series to score three touchdowns against Navy, as the Cadets beat the Midshipmen, 20-7.
After the game, Blaik told his men, "I have never coached a team that gave me more than you did. I have never coached a team that gave me so much satisfaction. Considering all the conditions since 1951, you have done more for football at West Point than any other team in the history of the Academy."
And then Colonel Blaik, normally stiff and reserved as befits a military officer, broke into song. He had barely started to sing when the cheers of his players drowned him out.
West Point football was back.
The Cadets' 7-1-1 1953 record, including their first win over Navy since 1949, represented a major step in an almost unbelievable rebuilding job, and in recognition of it, Blaik was voted Coach of the Year by the Washington Touchdown Club.
Reflecting on the season, the man who had coached the great Blanchard-Davis teams, wrote, "As the season progressed, it was possible for me to state that the '53 squad gave me, as a coach, the greatest satisfaction of all my years of coaching."
Blaik continued to follow the careers of the players expelled from the Academy, taking great pride in the fact that they distinguished themselves wherever they happened to go. Many, but not all, continued to play football. One of them, Gene Filipski - became an All-American at Villanova. Blaik's own son, Bob, graduated from Colorado College.
"They graced every campus that welcomed them," Blaik wrote, "not only as students but as men."
Though ever loyal to West Point, Blaik never got over his resentment at what he called the "inept, callous and sometimes evasive" way in which the investigation of the cribbing scandal was handled. It especially irked him that he was never permitted to place his record of the affair in the archives of the Academy.
"I shall always believe," Blaik said years later, "and not without good reason, that if football players had not been involved in such wholesale numbers, the violations would have been internally resolved."
It is instructive that following the dismissal of the 90 Cadets, West Point ended the identical-test policy that they had run afoul of - "An admission," observed Blaik, "that the system had been a contributing factor."
Years later, General Middleton of LSU, one of the members of the committee sent in to review the investigation, recalled telling the Superintendent and others involved in the inquiry that it was unrealistic to give the same test to two different groups on two different days. To illustrate, he told a story of his having trained a bird dog, using a stuffed sock as a "quail." "As long as I was around," Middleton recalled, "the dog would retrieve the sock and bring it to me." One day, though, Middleton had to go inside his house briefly. When he returned, he found the dog had torn the sock into little pieces - the temptation was just too great. "Don't," Middleton advised the group, "leave a stuffed sock lying around."
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