Author Q/A: SI’s Mark Beech’s book on Army’s last great team and legendary coach Red Blaik

It’s been a long time since Army was relevant in college football beyond its annual game with Navy. As in basically, my entire lifetime. Army’s last great season was 1958. I was born in 1959.

However, back in the ’40s, Army was Alabama and Red Blaik was Nick Saban; Blaik even helped groom a young assistant named Vince Lombardi.

The Black Knights ruled the game. Then after sliding a bit in the early 50s, Army and Blaik had a final blast of glory.

Sports Illustrated’s Mark Beech documents it all in a new book When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football. Army went 8-0-1 in 1958 with Pete Dawkins winning the Heisman Trophy, and “The Lonesome End” becoming the stuff of legend.

Blaik is at the centerpiece of this story. A confidant of  Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the coach was a complex man. He ultimately decided to retire after the ’58 season. Army never reached those heights again.

Beech captures all the layers of the coach and what it was like to play football for Army in his excellent new book. He was gracious enough to do a Q/A.

How did you get the idea for the book?

I have had this idea banging around in my head for years. My father graduated from West Point in 1959—he was classmates with the seniors on Army’s 1958 team, which was the last in West Point history to go undefeated and boast a Heisman-Trophy winner. It was really a magical year. I went to West Point myself, class of 1991, and the idea seemed to be sitting out there calling to me. I’m very lucky that there was a great untold story right in front of my face. Not every writer gets that.

My fascination with this team stems from the time I would spend as a kid poring over the pages in my father’s West Point yearbook, The Howitzer. This was in the 1970s, when Army football was mired in an especially unsuccessful period, and it was amazing to me that the Black Knights had been not just good when my father was a cadet, but truly great.

How big was Army football during the 50s?

It was still big, though not as much of a powerhouse as it was in the 1940s, when coach Red Blaik led the Cadets to five undefeated seasons, two outright national championships and a disputed third title. In the ’50s, Army was regularly ranked, but usually around the margins of the top 10, at best. By 1958 it had been a long time since they had been undefeated and a contender for the national championship.

Red Blaik was a complex guy. And he had this relationship with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. How would you describe him for people who haven’t heard of him?

Complex is a pretty good start. He was austere and aloof. He rarely ever spoke to his players, and when he did, he almost always addressed them by their last names.

He was a beast at preparation and practice. The cadets on his team were only available for drills two hours out of every day, so Blaik kept his sessions tightly organized and very detailed. The Army playbook was not big. Blaik chose to rely on a small number of highly effective plays that he would practice to perfection. He was also passionately devoted to film study, breaking down game footage with his assistants endlessly, searching for any advantage. It’s fair to say he won most of his games before Army ever took the field on Saturday.

He was also a coach of coaches. Twenty-two men who worked for him at West Point went on to lead programs at the collegiate and professional level, including Sid Gillman and Vince Lombardi, two men who were integral in shaping the modern NFL. Lombardi, in particular, was an acolyte of “the colonel’s,” and rarely missed an opportunity to tell people that all he knew about organizing and preparing a team to win he learned from Red Blaik. The influence on Lombardi is especially evident in the way the Packers used to endlessly drill the famous Packers Sweep.

Blaik was also controversial—a fact that remains true even today. Rightly or wrongly, he was blamed by many at West Point for the 1951 cheating scandal, which the evidence shows probably began within his own team. Among the 90 cadets who were expelled from West Point in the wake of the scandal were 37 members of Blaik’s varsity team, including his own son, Bob, due to be the Black Knights’ starting quarterback that fall. The incident remained a bitter pill for Blaik for the rest of his long life, and he only stayed on as the coach at West Point at the urging of his idol, Douglas MacArthur, who told him, “Don’t leave under fire.” Blaik didn’t, and with the 1958 season, he restored Army to what he saw as its rightful place atop the college football heap. He retired after that season, but the acrimony and bitterness remained. Even today, there is controversy at the academy any time there is a move to honor his legacy at West Point.

Would he be able to succeed in today’s environment?

Without question. Blaik was not an innovator—his exploits with the Lonely End offense in 1958 aside—but he was thoroughly aware of movements and trends within the game. He never counted himself a great game coach, and there is some evidence to back up that assessment, but his devotion to preparation and study would ensure his success. I don’t have any doubts on this point.

What was it like talking to some of the former players, many of whom went on to lead interesting lives? How did playing for Army and Blaik shape them?

Bill Carpenter, the Lonely End himself, said that every important lesson he learned at West Point, he learned out on the football field. Carpenter is a fascinating character, a genuine hero and a soldier’s soldier. He’s really worthy of a biography himself, though he told me several times during our interview that if I was trying to undertake such project, our communications would be terminated. He lives at a far remove from most of the rest of his teammates, in a log cabin in Whitefish, Montana, where he retired after he left the army in 1992. He dubbed his house, “The Lonesome End,” and it really fits.

Pete Dawkins, the halfback who won the Heisman Trophy in 1958, has never stopped living a life of remarkable achievement. There’s been so much written about him that when we met for an interview two summers ago I told him that I only wanted to talk to him about football—there were more than enough resources to help me reconstruct his life story! Like the rest of his teammates, he was devoted to Red Blaik. The coach valued Dawkins not just for his abilities as a receiver (he averaged over 30 yards a catch in ’58!) and his determined running, but also for his ability to see the whole field and dissect the game as it was happening. Dawkins, a Rhodes Scholar, is extremely smart and perceptive, and it’s no surprise that he is the one who called audibles at crucial moment during the victories over both Notre Dame and Rice. Talking football with him was one of the most fascinating conversations of my life.

Will we ever see another Army team like the one in ’58?

Unfortunately for myself and other old grads, no. Current Army coach Rich Ellerson has said that his goal for the Black Knights is to be consistently good and occasionally great. And I think that is a very realistic and ideal goal. He’s talking about finishing above .500 most years, and maybe someday winning 10 games or more. If Army does reach something like 10 or even 11 wins, the best ranking I think they could hope to achieve is something around the margins of the top 20. They’ll never again be No. 1, as they were for about three weeks after they beat the Fighting Irish in 1958. Those days are gone. The same kind of guy still goes to West Point to play football at Army as in 1958—a driven, duty-conscious kid who’s interested in a challenge and in being part of something bigger than just a football team. But because of the pull of professional football, the same kind of athlete does not go to West Point, which requires five years of service in the army after graduation.

Anything else?

Only other thing I can think to add is what a sensation the Lonely End was in 1958. Beyond the mystery of why Carpenter never returned to the huddle and how he knew what play to run, it was just a devastatingly effective weapon. Army transformed from a ground-and-pound team—columnist Red Smith described Red Blaik as “the high priest of the overland game”— into a air-raiding juggernaut. The Black Knights actually led the country in passing offense in 1958. Though the offense never again caught on, we can see its lasting influence today in a defensive adjustment that has become a major part of pro football: the inverted safety. Essentially, an inverted safety is one who plays in the flat, just off the line of scrimmage and between the offensive line and the wide receivers. Think Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who has made a living playing in the flat and either dropping into coverage or rushing into the backfield for a sack. Before Bill Carpenter split wide in 1958, nobody had ever seen that.

*****

To here more from Beech, here’s the link to a podcast he did with SI’s Richard Deitsch.

 

 

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