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CHAPTER EIGHT - The Road Back to
CHAPTER EIGHT - The Road Back to the Top
Earl "Red" Blaik - Chapter 8
The Road Back to the Top
By Hugh Wyatt
Once the elation of the stunning Holleder-led defeat of Navy wore off, Coach Blaik was faced with the fact that he still had a quarterback problem. In 1956, though, after briefly toying with another switch - an attempted move of halfback Bob Kyasky to quarterback - Blaik settled on junior Dave Bourland.
Perhaps because Blaik felt Army's best chance for success in 1956 was an emphasis on defense, the result was inconsistency and imprecision on offense. Over the course of the season, the 1956 Cadets committed 40 fumbles, losing 20 of them. "We were the fumblingest team I ever coached," he would recall.
After an opening-game breather against VMI, the Cadets beat a good Penn State team 14-7. But over the next two weeks, they fell 48-14 to Michigan, and 7-0 to Syracuse. (Syracuse and Army used to scrimmage each other in pre-season, and Orangemen coach Ben Schwarzwalder, noted for his unusually hard-nosed teams, said he and his teams actually acquired their reputation by emulating Blaik's Army teams.)
Following those two defeats, the Cadets snapped back to win two straight, over Columbia, 60-0, and Colgate, 55-46. The latter game, although perhaps a crowd-pleaser, was from Blaik's critical point of view, "the worst exhibition of run-sheep-run football I ever saw."
A win over William and Mary and a loss to Pitt sent the Cadets into the Navy game with a 5-3 record.
Coach Blaik should have realized that things were amiss when on the way to the stadium in South Philadelphia from its overnight quarters north of the city, his team was held up by a mid-city accident that snarled traffic in all directions. Although many a high school coach has experienced similar glitches in getting to a game, this was the Army football team, en route to the biggest college football game of the year. And with more than 100,000 people already in the stands waiting, the Cadets arrived at Municipal Stadium a mere 30 minutes before kickoff.
As the Navy team was wrapping up its pre-game warmups out on the field and heading back into its locker room, Blaik was attempting to get into his. Finding the door locked, he pounded on it. It opened a crack, and from within, a security guard peered out. Not recognizing Blaik, he informed the coach, "You can't come in here!"
"The hell we can't! This is the Army football team!" Blaik shouted, lowering his shoulder and pushing his way past the startled guard and into the locker room. "It proved what we could have done," Blaik wryly observed later, "had the rules not required us to play with a ball."
He was referring to the fact that in the game itself, Army continued its ball-handling carelessness, fumbling eight times and losing the ball five times. Still, the Cadets managed to take a 7-0 lead into the fourth period, but one last fumble deep in Army territory led to a Navy score, and the game ended in a 7-7 tie.
Army finished 5-3-1. Navy, 7-1-2, accepted a bid to play in the Cotton Bowl.
In 1957, Army introduced an outstanding pair of halfbacks in 6-2, 205 pound sophomore Bob Anderson, from Cocoa, Florida and 6-1, 195 pound junior Pete Dawkins, from Royal Oak Michigan, and finished with a record of 7-2. Despite the seven wins, though, the season was considered somewhat less than a total success because of the opponents to whom the two losses occured: old nemesis Notre Dame and service rival Navy.
The Cadets opened with a 42-0 victory over Nebraska and followed up with a 27-13 win over Penn State, a team which had yet to beat Army in all their years of rivalry. Next came Notre Dame, in Philadelphia.
The Irish, featuring such future professional greats as running back Nick Pietrosante and tight end Monty Stickles, trailed 21-7 with 17 minutes to play, when Blaik - in those days of two-way football - decided to give his starting unit a break. He expected his subs to give ground while the starters rested, but he expected them to do so slowly and grudgingly, and he could only watch helplessly as Pietrosante spoiled his strategy, bursting up the middle 65 yards for a touchdown. Another quick Irish score brought them to within a point, but when Notre Dame missed the extra point, the Cadets still held on to a 21-20 lead with only minutes to play.
But faced with a 3rd and 8 from its own 20, Army elected to throw - over the middle - and quarterback Joe Caldwell's pass was deflected into the hands of Pietrosante. (A point worth noting is that in those days of limited substitution, since coaches couldn't routinely run plays in and out with substitutes, quarterbacks truly were "field generals," given great latitude to call their own plays. In all likelihood, the decision to throw was Caldwell's, but characteristically, Blaik refused to blame his quarterback. Instead, he merely referred to the play afterward as "an ill-advised pass.")
Whatever its cause, the interception set the stage for Stickles. Hailing from Poughkeepsie, New York, just 20 miles from West Point, Stickles had hoped to attend West Point but was turned down because of bad eyesight. He nonetheless managed to sight in the goal posts and kicked a last-minute field goal to down the Cadets, 23-21.
The loss hurt Blaik, who called it "the hardest I had to take in my twenty-five years as head coach." Compounding the pain of the loss was the heavy criticism he received for his third-quarter substitution strategy, not to mention the ill-fated pass from deep in Army territory, while ahead by a point late in the game.
Pitt came next, and the Cadets won, 29-13, enjoying good success running what Blaik called his "Bazooka" series, an unbalanced line set which had had some success against Notre Dame. When the Panthers overshifted in response to Army's unbalanced line, Blaik alternated between balanced and unbalanced lines, and attacked Pitt to the short side..
Next up was Utah, featuring an outstanding passer in quarterback Lee Grosscup and Coach "Cactus Jack" Curtice's wide-open attack. Army prevailed 39-33, but Grosscup threw for 316 yards - quite a lot back then. Several days later, Curtice called Blaik and suggested, jokingly, "We ought to take that show on the road!"
The Cadets took a 7-1 record into the traditional season finale, against a 6-1-1 Navy team that had been upset by North Carolina and tied by Duke.
Despite Blaik's opinion of Navy as the toughest team on the 1957 schedule, the Cadets' 14-0 loss to the Midshipmen was no easier to take. "One of the reasons," Blaik noted, "why a defeat in an Army-Navy game or any traditional finale is so difficult is that the defeated have a year to think about it. In contrast, early defeats are cushioned by the urgency of concentrating on the next game."
Coach Blaik didn't wait long before laying his plans for 1958. And what a year 1958 would be!
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