A triumph of imagination: The last golden season of Army football
Army coach Red Blaik's iconic Lonely End offensive scheme may have looked exotic in 1958, but it was grounded in simple, straight-ahead football -- and borne out of desperate necessity.
Start with the man and go from there. In January 1958, Earl Henry Blaik was a month away from celebrating his sixty-first birthday. But at six feet two inches tall, the figure he cut still recalled his form from nearly four decades before, when he had been a sleek 182-pound end on the Army football team. He had kept his body fit through a lifelong aversion to both drinking and smoking, as well as adherence to a diet that was as bland as it was meager-his good friend Stanley Woodward, the urbane sports editor of the
In addition to being a teetotaler, Blaik was also something of a prude. The closest he typically came to vulgarity was the starchy phrase "Jeebers Katy!" Only rarely "Jesus Katy!" But such exclamations were infrequent. Publicly, he hardly ever betrayed emotion or raised his voice, save to issue one of his crisp commands on the practice field. Though he despised being described in the press as "austere" or "aloof," Blaik carefully cultivated his manner of dignified cool. He stood apart at practice and remained mostly mute throughout each ninety-minute session, almost never speaking to his players. His command presence was overwhelming. Despite having been off active duty for nearly forty years, Blaik was known to just about everybody at West Point, including his civilian assistants, as "the Colonel," and they addressed him that way. They did it not just out of deference to the rank he'd held at retirement-he'd been recommissioned in the reserves in the early days of World War II-but also out of respect for his authority.
Blaik's dominance over his program was total. To his players, most of whom were old enough to remember Army's storied, unbeaten national-championship teams of 1944 and '45, their distant and imperturbable coach was not so much a mentor as a living, breathing artifact of Americana. They held him in awe. To his civilian assistants Blaik was a powerful executive, setting agendas and leaving it to them to formulate solutions. He liked to encourage vigorous debate, but his decisions were always final. So compelling was the force of Blaik's personality that it had once brought to heel the man who was soon to become football's most famous authoritarian -- Vince Lombardi, who when 1958 began was just a year away from becoming the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. As Army's line coach for five seasons beginning in 1949, the unpolished and volatile Lombardi could become surprisingly meek in Blaik's chilly presence. Years later, after Lombardi had turned Green Bay into Titletown, U.S.A., he rarely missed an opportunity to say that all he knew about organizing and preparing a team to win he'd learned from Red Blaik.
In January 1958, nobody in college football had been a head coach as long as Red Blaik. Such titans of the game as Amos Alonzo Stagg and Pop Warner, whose careers stretched back into the nineteenth century, were still active when he had landed his first job at Dartmouth in 1934. And the men alongside whom he had dominated the game in the following decade -- Michigan's Fritz Crisler and Notre Dame's Frank Leahy -- had long since departed the arena. A new generation whose legends were still to be written, including Woody Hayes at Ohio State, Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, and Bear Bryant, then making preparations for his first season at Alabama, had taken their place. None of them was more than forty-four years old, but Hayes and Wilkinson had already combined to win three of the last four national titles. Blaik had not won an outright championship at Army in more than twelve years, and his teams hadn't won more than seven games in a season since 1950. Football, it seemed, might finally be passing him by.
The Army coaching staff had begun preparing for the 1958 season on January 1. Blaik absolutely refused to concede that any team in the country would ever outplan, outscheme, or outwork his own, and to drive this point home it was his standard procedure to meet with his assistants at eight in the morning every New Year's Day. The off-season amounted to little more than a few days, from Christmas to New Year's Eve, because each assistant had spent the three weeks following Army's 14-0 loss to Navy on November 30 driving around the country, scouting talent and visiting recruits.
Blaik had used those three weeks to recharge, traveling with Merle to Key Biscayne, Florida, for his first vacation in a decade. He'd gone as much for his health as for the chance to relax in the surf. The raw winters of New York's lower Hudson Valley had in recent years begun to leave him at the end of each season with a chest cold and a deep, bronchial cough. But even the revivifying effects of the sun and the sand could not keep his mind from wandering back to football and to the problem that was plaguing his team.
The loss to Navy was the fourth for Army in the last seven years, the worst stretch of Blaik's career. Defeat was intolerable to Blaik, who liked to say that there was "a vast difference between a good sport and a good loser," but it had lately become all the more galling because he felt he was being made to compete with a team chronically short of manpower. The Corps of Cadets in the latter half of the 1950s numbered about 2,500, one of the smallest enrollments of any school with a football team annually ranked among the nation's best.* Even the Naval Academy was over 3,800 strong. And where Blaik brought in roughly 25 new football players every fall, his greatest rival regularly welcomed more than 120. As a consequence, Army's teams rarely went much deeper than their best eleven players-a serious disadvantage in the days of iron-man football, when players lined up on both offense and defense. In the season just concluded, during which Blaik's squad went 7-2, seven of the eleven Army starters had averaged more than fifty-three minutes a game. The Cadets had started fast, overwhelming Nebraska 42-0 in their opener and then downing Penn State 27-13. But after a 23-21 loss to Notre Dame in Philadelphia and a 29-13 victory over a strong and deep Pittsburgh club, they were spent. Army had to come from behind to win three of its next four games, against inferior teams from Virginia, Utah, and Tulane, before being beaten decisively by the Midshipmen. "We expended a year's supply of football energy in the first four games," Blaik told
On the sands of Key Biscayne, he obsessed over how to spare his team the punishment inherent in, as he called it, "impact football." Blaik's greatest success at Army had come running the ball out of a Power T formation, which he had installed at West Point in 1943 after two years of running the single wing. He favored a tightly packed T -- a seven-man front, the quarterback under center and the running backs lined up three abreast (a fullback flanked by halfbacks to the left and right) about five yards behind -- not only because it allowed ball carriers to hit their holes at top speed, but also because it greatly reduced the need for a single dominant back and still provided opportunities for offensive deception, for ball fakes and option plays. Army was the era's preeminent three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team. The defensive counter to the T was to position as many players as possible within five yards of the line of scrimmage in order to stop the run. By the latter half of the 1950s, most teams accomplished this with either a 5-2 or a 5-4 defensive alignment, with five down linemen and anywhere from two to four linebackers. The 5-4 was commonly known as the Oklahoma Defense, made popular by Bud Wilkinson and the Sooners, and its third and fourth linebackers were actually rolled-up cornerbacks who played off the outside hips of the defensive ends to present opposing running backs with a nine-man front. Blaik knew from hard experience that a team lacking depth would wear down quickly if it insisted on running the ball headlong into such a wall. To defeat the Oklahoma Defense, he decided that he first had to "dislocate" it.
Blaik admired the version of the T run by Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty, who within two years of taking over from Clarence L. "Biggie" Munn in East Lansing, had led the Spartans to a victory in the 1956 Rose Bowl. Daugherty ran the Power T but augmented it with variations that featured unbalanced lines -- a guard, two tackles, and an end on one side of the center; a guard and an end on the other -- as well as wide receivers and slot backs. Such sets were hardly new. Wide receivers, especially, were almost as old as football itself. But as Blaik considered Daugherty's various schemes, he began to wonder. What if a team lined up in nothing but unbalanced wide-receiver sets, making them constitute the entirety of the offensive attack? And what if the receiver -- in Blaik's words the "far flanker" -- was positioned far wider than was normal?
Unbalancing his offensive line, Blaik knew, would not only give his offense overwhelming force on one side, but it would also compel the defense to make a choice -- whether to remain in its normal alignment, conceding the advantage to Army's running game on the strong side, or to shift players over Army's extra blockers, leaving itself exposed to a play that went the other way. Splitting the end extremely wide on the strong side would break up the defensive front: It would draw coverage either from the cornerback on that side or from the safety on that side, who would have to be replaced in the deep secondary by the other cornerback. It would not be possible, in other words, to both cover the far flanker and maintain the integrity of the defensive secondary unless a player was removed from the defensive front. "And this man," Blaik wrote years later, "could not be spared, because we still had all our backs in close attacking deploy." Blaik couldn't remember another scheme like it in his twenty-five years as a head coach. With an unbalanced offensive line and a far flanker, he felt he had discovered a way to spread out defenses, thus opening the field to his offense, whether Army wanted to run or pass.
Blaik told nobody of his plan when he returned to West Point. Instead, when he met with his staff on New Year's Day, he simply gave his coaches a week to come up with their own solutions to Army's manpower problem. At the ensuing meeting, he listened quietly to their proposals. After the last one, he stood, walked to the front of the room, and diagrammed his new formation -- unbalanced line, far flanker -- on the chalkboard. "This is what we're going to run this year," he said.
His assistants exchanged questioning looks. None were impressed. "That's not very much, Colonel," said Tom Harp, Blaik's young offensive backfield coach. "It's just an unbalanced line with a wide receiver."
"But he's way out there," said Blaik, tapping his piece of chalk on the board where he had placed the far flanker. This response was met with silence. Everybody had seen something like it before, and nobody thought it would make much difference.
Blaik ended the meeting soon after, ordering his staff to reconvene after lunch. His mind was made up, but he wanted to make his assistants understand. He was counting on them, after all, to help him build an attack around the formation. "Let's go up to Michie," he said, "and we'll see how it looks up there."
During the American Revolution, the Continental Army built West Point as a fortress to prevent British ships from sailing up the Hudson River and dividing the colonies. The academy sits on a rocky promontory along the Hudson's western shore, around which the river bends sharply to the east before continuing the journey south to its terminus in New York Harbor. The terrain rises majestically from the water's edge to the west in a series of cliffs and plateaus. On the first plateau, nearly two hundred feet above the Hudson, is the hub of the academy, which includes the cadet barracks, the academic buildings, and the gymnasium, as well as the Plain, the vast parade ground where Army played football from 1890 until 1923. On the second, looming more than one hundred feet above the first, is the Cadet Chapel, stately and immense with its broad bell tower, separated from Michie Stadium to the west by the still waters of Lusk Reservoir. The landscape, seemingly all gray stone and cliff, is solemn and forbidding, never more so than in the dead of winter. It is with good reason that cadets refer to the cold months after the Christmas break as the "Gloom Period." Everything at the academy is shrouded in gray: the sky, the buildings, even the cadets themselves, clad in their uniforms and overcoats.
The afternoon Blaik took his staff up to Michie was just such a day. Snow was falling, and it was bitterly cold. As Tom Harp trudged up the steep hill from the gymnasium to the stadium, he mulled over the Colonel's plan. He still didn't think much of it, but like almost everybody else inside the Army program, he was in awe of the old man, who always seemed to be right when it came to football. Harp knew, too, that Blaik would have the final say. If Blaik had committed himself to the far-flanker concept, then Harp knew he would have to, as well.
But Harp didn't really begin to get excited about the formation until a line of scrimmage had been scratched out in the snow. Blaik had brought more than just his coaches along for the demonstration. He'd also drafted the staff of Army's practice squad -- then known as the B Squad -- and coaches from the plebe, or freshman, team. Blaik lined everybody up in what was essentially an unbalanced wing T formation. To the right of the center were just a guard and the weak-side end; to the left, a guard, both tackles, and the far flanker, who was split about fifteen yards wide. In the backfield, the left halfback lined up as a wingback, just behind and outside the left hip of the outermost tackle. Like the other members of the varsity staff, Harp had no idea the flanker would be set so wide. The typical split for a receiver in those days was not much more than seven or eight yards. Harp looked around at his fellow coaches, who were standing quietly in the falling snow. A few of them were grinning.
Now that Blaik had their attention, he explained that he didn't yet have any specific plans drawn up for how to put his idea into action. The one thing of which he was certain, he said, was that even though teams typically split a receiver wide only in passing situations, he felt it was crucial for Army to maintain a sound running game from its far- flanker formation. Nobody was objecting now. By the time the Army assistants followed Blaik off the snowy field and back down the hill, they had already begun to consider new possibilities.
The staff would have just over eight months for planning and research before Army opened its 1958 campaign against South Carolina on September 27 at Michie Stadium. Spring practice would be the laboratory for their first experiments.