I am not deaf to these things, and I am not naive," said Paul Dietzel. "I know what they are saying, the things they expect and hope for. This does not frighten me. The prospect of losing does not concern me. I've been down that road. I know what it's like. Golly day, I didn't come up here to lose! These people think this will be a new era in Army football. They are right. This is a new era."
It has been four months since Paul Franklin Dietzel quit Louisiana State University and came to West Point to be its football coach. A fortnight ago his first team, a hand-me-down on which he had done some effective sculpturing, gave a creditable performance in a scrimmage that ended spring practice at the academy. There was room for improvement, but no room for more enthusiasm. Of that there was a surfeit. If the practiced eye could see flaws in the new Army team, the eyes of West Point could see only stars. "Paul Dietzel," said one unconstrained second classman, "is the greatest thing that ever happened to this place."
There were 3,000 people at the scrimmage. General Douglas MacArthur was there in a black Homburg. Ex-Army Coach Red Blaik sat beside him. A few years ago they might have been as big an attraction as the blond Dietzel, the man some people at the academy were calling a messiah and against whom others had already begun a tacit harassing movement. These latter were an influential few who fought the last great despot of Army football, Red Blaik, and see in Dietzel a return to the Blaik tyranny.
But on the surface the interest was sanguine and spectacular. The team that is expected to bring back Army football and to beat Navy slaughtered the scrubs. Dietzel and his staff chortled and cooed, corrected and chastised. The crowd, predictably, reacted with cheers.
May 27, 1962
Dietzel, in fact, rides a wave of cheers. From the beginning he has shamelessly wooed support, and it has come lapping at his feet. He stood in the cadet mess hall the first night and said that every one of his 33 team positions was wide open. Later he had to send his equipment manager to Jersey City to get enough uniforms to outfit the swarm of 140 candidates, one of whom was a 135-pound swimmer. Practices were attended as never before and bleachers had to be set up to accommodate the crowds. A West Point officers Bible study group delayed its weekly meeting 40 minutes to speculate on the terrible things Dietzel would do to Navy. A group of telephone company executives was enraptured for an hour as Dietzel charmed them off his conversational cuff at the Bear Mountain Inn. The dewy-eyed secretary in the gymnasium office said you just had to be impressed—"I mean you don't swoon, exactly. But there's something about him. Like Billy Graham. You know, powerful. And clean clear through."
Dietzel's reputation as a winner has had much to do with his acceptance. His LSU teams went to three major bowls in four years and he was 1958 Coach of the Year. Army, by contrast, hadn't beaten Navy (and a lot of other people) in three years under Dale Hall, Blaik's successor.
Hall was fired in December. Dietzel came in January. It was late for a remodeling, but Dietzel is an incredible organizer. The team quickly showed an urgency of mission, a distinctive willingness to hit. From its lungs poured an uncommon sequence of chirps and yells, most of them coming from the Chinese Bandits, a name Dietzel always gives to his third, or defensive-specialist, team. The Bandits are incurably loud people. They are his football philosophy, and though they are out of place in the West Point lexicon they are there to stay. "The Bandits were mine from the time I was at Cincinnati," Dietzel told skeptical Army officers before he signed his contract. "They go where I go."
Dietzel, who once had coached at West Point under Blaik, dealt hard with Army brass to get what he wanted. But he also suffered personally under the controversy that surrounded his leaving LSU. Both sides were severely criticized—Dietzel for abandoning LSU with four years still on his contract, West Point for pirating away another school's head coach.
"My integrity was attacked," says Dietzel, "but the whole story was never told. I was first approached for the job when Colonel Blaik resigned in 1958. My wife and I had long ago decided that West Point was where we would ultimately like to be. It's a wonderful place to raise a family. But I turned the job down. I wasn't about to follow Blaik. Blaik is a legend. It is not healthy to succeed a legend.
"When Dale Hall took the job we kissed it goodby for good—he was young and smart and his future was bright. It was then that I said I'd never leave LSU. I had to eat those words. I'll never get trapped into a statement like that again.
"The morning Dale was fired Ann and I were at breakfast. Over the orange juice I showed her the headline. We didn't say anything, but we both knew right then what we wanted."
The decisive first contact was made between Dietzel and Joe Cahill, West Point publicity director. Said Cahill: "Unofficially, Paul, you wouldn't be interested in coming up here, would you?" "Joe," said Dietzel, "I just might be." "Is that so?" said Cahill.
When official contact was made, Dietzel was asked to come to the Point for an "interview." He is a gracious man rarely given to testiness, but at this he bristled.
"By that do you mean I am a 'candidate' for the Army job?" he asked from Baton Rouge, where he was preparing LSU for the Orange Bowl game. The answer was yes. "Well I'm not interested in being a candidate," the 37-year-old Dietzel replied. "I'm not a junior high coach out shopping. I don't have to be interviewed to prove I can win."
Dietzel made it clear he wasn't bargaining. No added inducement could keep him at LSU if the West Point job was "close to equal." He took a five-year contract at $18,000 which, with fringe benefits, LSU had already beaten. But the issue was not one of money, as is customary in coaching moves. Dietzel says he left LSU without hard feelings. There was, nevertheless, a move (by "two-bit politicians," he says) to hold him to his contract. The school voted to let him go.
Dietzel says it will take four years to produce at Army. Hall was out after three, but West Point will wait for Dietzel. "I intend to build a football program," he says. "The best one I know how. Build the program you want and the winning will take care of itself."
The right program or not, Dietzel knows that among the sprawling body of brass at West Point there has been since the early days of Red Blaik a minority element that resents what it considers unhealthy catering to football. Blaik was a monolith and very tough to block, but there were skirmishes even he could not win—attempts, for example, to take two of his fine teams to bowl games (the 1946 team, last of the Blanchard-Davis strain, and the 1958 team, with Pete Dawkins and the original Lonely End).
Dietzel apparently has not suffered a major setback yet, and he maintains a discreet silence on things that might be an issue, but he is aware that the Chinese Bandits were hard for some traditionalists to swallow, and that his masterfully precisioned practices have been lampooned for the horn-blowing and the whoop-whooping that characterized them. He knows, too, that his habit of standing in the middle while the practice rotates around him has been sneered at as "a three-ring circus."
But mostly Dietzel is a threat to the dissidents because he represents the Blaikian image of Big Football; infinitely more approachable than Blaik, perhaps, but a new Blaik nevertheless. This the minority will try to subvert. They will probably have no better success than they had with Blaik, providing Dietze's football teams win.
To this end, Dietzel already has made grandiose plans for recruiting. A huge map covers one office wall; in a multiplicity of colors, it shows areas to be attacked. No state has been overlooked. "This is a national academy, not an eastern school," he says. Hall's 1961 roster was stocked with 28 Pennsylvanians.
To those perennially embarrassed by the parade of patsies on the Army schedule, Dietzel says this: "We will, within five years, be playing the toughest schedule in West Point history." If they are good enough, the Cadets will also go to bowl games. Dietzel, who for his unfailing smile is known as Pepsodent Paul, will appear on a weekly New York television show in the fall, providing the sponsor does not sell liquor or cigarettes, neither of which are on the Dietzel hit parade of exemplary products.
A first on DietzePs list upon arrival from Louisiana was a pilgrimage to the top of the Waldorf Towers in New York where General MacArthur lives. This was more than perfunctory. MacArthur is an abiding friend of Army football; he and Blaik are in frequent company. Dietzel also called on Blaik, with whom he shares a mutual regard. Blaik once called Pepsodent Paul the world's greatest recruiter—"If he so much as gets his feet under the supper table with a boy, the boy is his." Dietzel said Blaik was "one of the three great men" to influence his life. Then they dissected each other's football. Blaik called Dietzel a "gimmick coach" for his Chinese Bandits. Dietzel wondered aloud if the Lonely End wasn't a gimmick, too.
During Blaik's long term the football office became a sanctuary. Hall could not reduce its austerity and frequently took visitors outside to escape the prevailing aura of the great man. Now from the office walls where MacArthur once stared down are gay cartoons of Oriental types in football uniform, a life-size picture of the 1958 LSU team, and on the coffee table is a richly bound volume, What I Know About Football by Paul Dietzel. The book has 350 empty pages.
In the house that Blaik built at the end of Partridge Place in the area known as Snob Hill, Ann Dietzel, the coach's lovely wife, has refurbished and effected a marvelous new cheer. The recreation room is decorated with colorful reminders of the golden days at LSU. A cartoon Uncle Sam points his finger at the onlooker: "Uncle Sam Wants You—To Be a Bandit." Neighborhood kids romp freely in the backyard.
"If you knew Blaik you liked him," said one intimate. "But you had to know him. Dietzel you like right away. Takes you about 10 seconds." Part of the Dietzel attraction at West Point is that he is a departure from the soldierly—the first non-Army man ever to hold the job—and is not inclined to be changed. Military protocol dismays him. In the bachelor officers club where he recently lunched he had to interrupt one eager communicant with a kindly advisement: "Please, captain, don't call me sir. I think you're talking to my father."
Nevertheless he is such a compelling personality that what might be a social failing passes notice. He is, in fact, a fashion piece and the brass is eager to show him off. "Dietzel projects, and this is a bonus we didn't count on," said one official. Within one hour of a recent afternoon, Dietzel talked with a long line of high school prospects, then charmed the jug ears of General Omar Bradley, who had come to the practice field unannounced with the Board of Visitors.
But the clincher in Dietzel's acceptance was the cadet corps. They are taught to be analytical and are not easily swayed. However, despite his penchant for gee whiz epigrams ("You can learn more character on the two-yard line than you can anywhere in life"), Dietzel touched the cadets' vanity. The football Dietzel plays, unlike the man, is drab and defensive. ("I would rather have a dull victory than a spectacular defeat.") He likes field position football. He will punt on third down and he will almost never pass. Yet the impressed cadets who play for him submit happily to a rigorous schedule that outregiments West Point itself.
Among the coaches there is a marvelous rapport, as if everyone is thinking how great it is to be one of the gang. Dietzel conducts his meetings in a democratic banter, everyone getting his say, but there is no doubting who is chairman of the board. On the field his mostly southern cadre wheedles and cajoles and chastens, offering both prologue and epilogue to the thudding of pads and the grunting of players.
A bird colonel watching the final scrimmage said wonderingly, "This team doesn't look like it could move the ball a nickel, but it has guts. Somehow I don't think it'll ever be disgraced." A handsome woman late arriving asked a young cadet to point Dietzel out to her.
"That's him over there," said the cadet. "The tall blond fellow whose feet don't quite touch the ground."