Not long ago a relaxed Paul Dietzel sat under the banyan trees of a Waikiki Beach hotel and spoke of his ultimate discouragement as Army's football coach. He said he had made a careful study of the mission of the academy, and, though it pained him to reach such a conclusion, the mission was not compatible with his own desire to make football big time again at West Point.
A few days later in the executive offices of Avco Corporation, high above New York's crowded streets, Earl (Red) Blaik sat at his mahogany desk and said he, too, had kept abreast of the academy football program since he retired as head coach in 1958. Asked if, under present circumstances, he thought it possible for Army to compete again at the high level it reached when he was coach, Blaik replied: "Absolutely."
It was exactly two years ago that Dietzel, one of football's most famous coaches, suddenly quit Army to take the head-coaching job at South Carolina. He left behind him a melancholy troop. Excepting Blaik's unfortunate 1951 team, which was decimated by an academy-wide cribbing scandal and cannot be held responsible for its failings, Army had not had a losing season since 1940 until Dietzel's teams of 1964 and '65 came along. These lost to opponents Army had never been beaten by before (Virginia, Duke, et al.) and suffered the first loss in 30 years to peaceful little Colgate. Army had to fight for its life against Rutgers and VMI. It beat Navy once in four years. No solace could be found, either, in the records of the other academies. None—Army, Navy or Air Force—had had a winning season since 1963.
Now it is spring again at West Point. Grunting guards and crashing pads are heard once more on the plains above the Hudson. But the melancholia has long disappeared. In two years under Tom Cahill, the desperate choice of desperate men to succeed Dietzel, Army has won 16 of 20 games. West Point begins the spring of 1968 with bright prospects and an even brighter hope for the future—and with it is a hope for all service-academy football.
April 29, 1968
That this happened, and how it happened, is one of the more unusual sports stories of the decade, one that marks another turn in the long and twisting history of Army football. It is basically a story about Tom Cahill, a remarkably simple, simply remarkable man, but it reveals a great deal more about what can be expected on the football fields of all three academies in the years ahead—though each goes about its football business with a slightly different attitude and in a slightly different way.
No one at this stage is so bold as to predict a national championship for Army, of course. Colonel Jerry Capka, the athletic director at West Point, says guardedly, "Being No. 1 is not our mission. That would be a fallout benefit." Experience would say he is right. The restrictions and conditions that disillusioned Dietzel, that made Wayne Hardin and Eddie Erdelatz system-buckers at Navy and got them fired despite great success, that contributed to a situation which has, in four years, resulted in two serious cheating scandals at Air Force and done grave damage to the football program there, still exist.
Principal among these are things academy coaches groan over but cannot possibly get around: 1) the postgraduate military commitment is up to five years; to an 18-year-old considering college, four plus five equals half a lifetime; 2) formal declaration or no, the U.S. is at war; 3) since Joe Namath got $400,000 to sign with the New York Jets, every high school quarterback with half a pound of talent dreams of getting his share. When Blaik had Army vying for national championships, the service commitment was just going up from three years to four, the chances were a West Pointer would not find himself being shot at immediately after graduation and Joe Namath was a poor kid in Pennsylvania.
There are other drawbacks. Recruiting is tough because academy entrance requirements are as high as the Ivy League's. There are no crip courses. The daily schedule is harsh, intense—especially in the first year—and the strict regimentation discourages many. The attrition rate is high. At West Point flunkouts, dropouts and physical failures average 25% per class. Among athletes the average is not much better—23%.
The football coach has his team for a maximum of 90 minutes a day. When Hardin was at Navy he gave up practice on Mondays so he could have film studies and blackboard talks. The only time Cahill is alone with his Army players—except on road trips—is during occasional Saturday morning heart-to-heart strolls to Trophy Point.
There is no such thing as redshirting. A cadet cannot take five years to play four. The coach sinks or swims with the material on hand. Consequently, to make ends, guards and tackles meet, coaches spend a lot of time shaping guards out of halfbacks and ends out of hopeless cases.
But the last few years have brought encouraging changes. Because of them, Colonel Blaik believes that football "living within its place" at West Point is not bad living at all and is better than at any time since World War II when good athletes were chartered into West Point and Annapolis by the busload.
To begin with, Army has almost triple the appointments (scholarships) for football that it had when Blaik was head coach. Blaik averaged 18 a year. Though he was his own athletic director, his requests to raise the allotment fell on deaf ears. Army now gets as many as 50 or 60. Coach Cahill is fond of saying that there is a heap of difference between boys who play football and boys who are football players, but the fact remains that availability is up and so, collaterally, is the quality. Of the candidates for appointment who were especially tapped for football, 47 got into West Point last fall. Army's unbeaten plebe (freshman) team totaled 105 players.
Navy screens as many as 500 names a year and winds up with about 125 on its plebe roster. A coach at the Air Force says. "There isn't a top-flight student-athlete in the country that we don't try to contact." Says Army's admissions director, Colonel Robert Day: "We do not discriminate against athletes."
Army's prep school for servicemen at Fort Belvoir now has a football program that is near to equaling the one Navy established at Bainbridge Prep in 1962. The Air Force has a prep school right on the academy grounds. Candidates who are not admitted this year can enroll in the prep schools, play football in them and start their service academy careers the following year. This is stockpiling, of course, but perfectly legal—and sensible. Other schools redshirt, and a popular way to beat scholastic requirements on the West Coast is to earmark a growing boy for future use and shove him first into a junior college.
Army's enrollment is going up from 2,500 to 4,400 by 1971, and a massive building program is under way. The Air Force is following suit. Navy's enrollment is already 4,100. The importance of recruitment increases proportionately. As usually happens, the outstanding service-academy prospect is also an outstanding athlete, the cream at the top. Facts? Facts: of the 1,054 boys admitted to West Point as the class of 1971, 558 (53%) were captains of one athletic team or another in high school; 165 were all-state or all-conference in their sports; 698 were lettermen; 215 were presidents of their student bodies or senior classes; 59 were valedictorians; 429 were club presidents; 208 were Eagle Scouts.
Nor is it as hard to recruit for the academies as some coaches would have you believe. Frank Lauterbur, an assistant under Blaik and now athletic director at Toledo, believes that there is "a certain type of boy, that rugged individualist who welcomes the challenge" who waits at almost every high school for the call of bugles. He wants to go to the academy because of a Korea or a Vietnam, not in spite of it. He finds Beast Barracks (plebe summer quarters) something to tackle, not to shy from. Coaches like Blaik, who have long dealt with West Pointers, and even those like Hardin and Dietzel, whose experience was relatively short and sour, cannot but praise them. "The finest group of young men I've ever known," says Dietzel.
To get them, the academies recruit all-out, nationwide, year-round. Navy's major asset in this regard is E. E. (Rip) Miller, a 1924 Notre Dame tackle who threw blocks for the Four Horsemen and an ex-Navy head coach who has been assistant athletic director at Annapolis for 20 years. Miller has what he calls his Bird-dog Program, namely, 300 scouts looking the nation over for the boy who can pick up his physics book and run 100 yards with it in 9.5 seconds. Miller spends a lot of time in Washington lobbying for academy appointments. He finds about 300 boys interested in Navy, and from these he winds up with his 125. The objective? "Competing and finishing at the top. Maybe not No. 1 or 2, but at the top."
Army now has its appointment lists computerized—a boy can be informed in January if he has been accepted. It used to take until April for all of the red tape to be unraveled. Often the boy would not wait, preferring to accept a surer offer from another school. But Army does not have a Rip Miller. Instead, it places the athletic directorship directly in military hands, which means a change every three years, and it is often true that the orientation period for the new athletic director lasts as long as his assignment. When Colonel Capka took the job last year, he had not seen an Army football game since 1944.
The Air Force used to have a civilian assistant athletic director, too: Bob James, who is now commissioner of the Mid-American Conference. But when James left, the military took over, and the program has not gone smoothly since. The Air Force Academy, which opened in 1955, has worked hard to catch up with its brother academies. The football program was hurt considerably by the honor-code violations and mass dismissals of 1965 and 1967. Star players were here today and packing tomorrow. But Coach Ben Martin, a Naval Academy graduate, believes in the system—"If I didn't, I wouldn't be here"—and continues to recruit well. Last year's freshman squad of 120 was excellent. "We know they're good," said Martin's freshman coach, Jim Bowman, "because every one of the starting 11 was recruited by Army, Navy or both."
The stern regimen that demands so much of a cadet actually works to his advantage as an athlete. Skip classes? Unlikely. Break training? Impossible. The entire program is athletically oriented. Everybody participates. Army has 19 teams in intercollegiate competition and its intramural program is immense. The plebe football team played nine games last year. Freshman teams at most colleges are lucky to play three. Navy Coach Bill Elias says that 90-minute-a-day practices are restrictive, to be sure, but he never needed more time than that at any other school he coached. Says Army's Cahill: "How much is enough? If you had four hours a day, you'd want eight."
Is it really important that the academy football teams be winners? Go to bowl games? Occasionally compete for national championships? Yes, it probably is. There was a time when Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover called the Navy team a "stable of professional football players kept for public entertainment" and said the service academies' sole purpose was "to train officers." The view from the admiral's bridge, dissenters say, was shortsighted for this reason: the "names" that keep the academies in the news, that make them attractive to future generals and admirals, are almost invariably athletic names, those of star athletes who become star officers, like Pete Dawkins and Bill Carpenter and Doc Blanchard. The academy image is sold to prospective cadets and an otherwise uninterested public on the nation's football fields on Saturday afternoon. The service teams should not offer up, week in and week out, the image of failure. They cannot afford to stumble around against Rutgers and VMI. They must beat Notre Dame and Tennessee at least some of the time, and Colgate all of the time. It is not enough anymore to just "Beat Army!" or "Beat Navy!" and claim that was a grand season. Hardin's Navy teams beat Army five out of six, but he had a problem with his image—i.e., bad press—and his victories were not much cushion when Navy threw him out.
Increasingly, the academies recognize the value of national exposure. Navy, which started going to bowl games in 1954, has been four times. The Air Force has been twice. Army is still denied the privilege, mysteriously, but its reserve is breaking down. Army keeps adding seats to little Michie Stadium—the plan is to go to 50,000—and steel to its schedule. In 1970 Army has the kind of schedule no team should play unless it has big ideas: Baylor, Nebraska, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Penn State, Syracuse, Navy. In 1971 it adds Miami and Georgia Tech. By 1970 Army may be good enough to face such a diet of muscle. Last year it was a sound team, and this spring Cahill has a squad filled with promise: Quarterback Steve Lindell throws as if his arm is broken, but his passes get there; End Terry Young is an outstanding athlete; Halfback Charley Jarvis could play for Notre Dame. None of them will be pros, but they help this team acquire a polish familiar to those who used to watch Blaik's.
Earl Blaik had six undefeated teams in 18 years at Army; Navy only one (1926) in recent times and Air Force one (1958). Unfortunately, Blaik's peculiar ability to get exceptional performances out of his cadets and keep the brass from envying him too much could not be handed down to his successors. When Dietzel, who worked for Blaik in 1953, returned as head coach in 1962, he had his own methods, and they failed.
There are still those, however, who cannot bring themselves to believe that an unknown, a Tom Cahill, could succeed where a Dietzel did not. What Tom Cahill does is go along in the Blaikian manner without trying to be another Blaik. He does not fight the system; he is as much in awe of it as he is in control of it. It does not bother him to be treated like one of the guys. He bought a new car the other day and parked it in his reserved spot. He forgot to put on his parking sticker. The MPs gave him a ticket. He thought it was funny.
Under Cahill the Army team went back to being plain old Army. No more Chinese Bandits, no more cadets in the stands wearing silly straw hats. He said he was not the artist his predecessor, Dietzel, was, so there were no more inspirational posters for office and locker-room walls. He did not call acquaintances and sportswriters Stud, Coach or White Stallion. In turn, they did not call him Thermodent Tom. On the practice field you could tell the Army players without a color chart. He did not dress them in jerseys of rainbow assortment to denote rank, status or speciality. No more fruit juice and water given on a merit basis, no more Friday night hot-chocolate breaks with cookies and a red apple, stereophonic music piped into the dressing room or mattresses with fresh white linen for the players to loll on and contemplate the game. The team did not go out to play Navy in shoes painted white.
Under plain old Tom Cahill, that perfect stranger in paradise, Army is dull during the week—the jerseys are pedestrian; the posters say "please put dirty socks here"—and flashy on Saturday. Under Dietzel, whose ways to win worked wondrously at LSU, Army's gimmicks were brilliant but its football was dull. Dietzel's teams eschewed the forward pass and punted on third down. They played containing defense. In Cahill's first year (1966), Army threw 50 more passes than were thrown in any of Dietzel's four seasons. On defense they swarmed. Jerry Levias of SMU was hit by seven cadets on one memorable play last season, and the other four were right there guarding the pile.
Tom Cahill's adjuration to his wife Bonnie when he arrived home with the Army job in May of 1966 was, "Don't panic." He says taking the job was a reflex action; had he had time to think he probably would have refused it. He was 46 and happy to go on as Army's plebe football and baseball coach until the Social Security checks started coming. He had stopped dreaming that Syracuse or Georgia Tech would call up and say, "Tom, we like your style." He had a comfortable house in a commonplace row of brick buildings on West Point's Bartlett Loop, with his name on a green board by the front door. Bonnie liked the prices at the PX. Tom had a cubicle in the coaches' office where he could pile junk on his own desk and squeeze in there himself, and if it wasn't perfect it was permanent.
Then came the April day when Dietzel packed up for South Carolina. Packed everything in carpetbags, they say at West Point, for his name is not magic there anymore. Among the things he packed and took were five assistant coaches. This was three days before the start of spring practice. The Army brass told Cahill to get some kind of practice going while a new coach was hunted.
Cahill rounded up 19 "assistants"—ex-Army players or guys who wished they had been, who were stationed at the Point and knew a football from a canteen cover. He also had Tad Schroeder, the chief recruiter, and another holdover assistant, Leon Cross. They went around introducing themselves to the Army players: "Hi, I'm Coach So-and-So, what position do you play?" They taught only fundamentals, because they had no idea what system the new coach would use.
Candidates for the head-coaching job were brought in to look the place over and be looked over. Bobby Dobbs, the Texas Western coach, was one. Gene Ellenson, a Florida assistant, and Pepper Rodgers, now head coach at Kansas, were others.
One of Cahill's duties was to show the candidates around. "All Tom cared about was that the academy get the best man for the job," says Bonnie Cahill, an ebullient, frosty-haired lady with four children and a fixed appreciation of her husband. "But the more I saw the more I realized that the best man for the job was my Tom." The best man for the job did not start thinking in those terms, however, until a visiting candidate chilled conversation one day with a question: "Say, Tom, what did you do with those terrific white shoes Army used for the Navy game?"
There are those at West Point who would have you believe it was Cahill's job all along. It was not. It was Bobby Dobbs's. But Dobbs had contract time running and felt obliged to fulfill it. This was just as well for Army, which had heard plenty after sugaring Paul Dietzel away from LSU with time left on his contract.
It is likely that Cahill won the Army players during those anxious, confusing, spring-practice days. He had known them all as plebes. "They called me the plebe mentor," he said, "spelled m-o-t-h-e-r. You mother them through when upperclassmen get them down. Beast Barracks. Dear John letters. You get to know plebes." He says a mutual feeling of inferiority grew to be a bond with the team. "Nobody seemed to want either of us."
Days went by. Weeks. Finally, three days before the conclusion of spring practice, the director of athletics came on the field and made a low-key announcement that Tom Cahill was the new head coach. He almost whispered out the news. People who were there said it sounded like an apology, but the players did not think so. A delegation of them had gone to the athletic director on Cahill's behalf, and they cheered the announcement. Cahill said all right, let's get back to work. The whole thing took about 90 seconds.
There probably never was a head coach who had a first year like Cahill's. He kept telling people to pinch him. "I'm dreaming," he said. He could not believe it was really Thomas Bernard Cahill, Niagara University '42, been nowhere and going nowhere, in the chair once occupied by Red Blaik. He did not think of himself as a great coach. "What is a great coach?" he said. "A great coach is somebody who has good assistants and is smart enough to let them coach." He hired good assistants and prepared to enjoy the pleasure for a season. He had a one-year contract and the vague promise of a future if he had a "successful" season. What is a successful season, he wanted to know. Going 10 and 0? Beating Navy? He did not press for an answer.
He resisted moving into Colonel Blaik's old office, the big one with the high-pile burnt-orange carpet and—so they say—the faint odor of genius. "Scares me, I guess," he said. Harriet Demarest, Blaik's ex-secretary, made it her business to get her new boss in there. "She moved me in gradually," says Cahill. "Letter by letter."
But Cahill did not move his family into Blaik's old house overlooking Michie Stadium until August, and even then he had Bonnie take her sweet time. "Each game we won that fall Bonnie opened another crate of dishes. She loved that house. Every week she found a new room." When Army upset Penn State 11-0, throwing 18 passes in the rain, Cahill told Bonnie to finish unpacking.
"What a bunch of green peas we were," he said. "We used to take crackers and cheese and something to drink for little parties in our room after the games. That was celebrating. We'd sit opposite one another on the twin beds, knees bumping together, and we'd get out the crackers and cheese.
"Then after the Rutgers game we were put up at the Waldorf Astoria. I told Bonnie to break out the cheese and crackers. There was a knock on the door, and the bellhop was there with a great big tray of bottles and fancy things to eat. I said, 'Son, you've got the wrong room.' He said, 'Aren't you Coach Cahill?' I said yes. He said, 'Then I've got the right room,' and he wheeled it in. Boy, I never even got a cold beer when I was plebe coach. I told Bonnie to throw away the cheese and crackers."
On the Tuesday before the 1966 Navy game, at 11 o'clock at night, 2,000 cadets swarmed over the lawn of the house Cahill still calls "Colonel Blaik's" and cheered his name. "Talk about chills," he said, "man, I had chills." That Saturday Army beat Navy 20-7 to complete its finest season (8-2) since Blaik's '58 team went undefeated. In December Cahill was voted Coach of the Year by the football writers, and in January his fellow coaches seconded the motion.
Cahill is a tall, big-shouldered Irishman with straight black hair, a Neolithic jaw and dark eyes set in large dark circles. He looks like a young Primo Camera. He drinks too much coffee, he smokes too many cigarettes and he would rather choke than brag on himself. He says he was a three-sport letterman at Niagara because he had nervous feet and that his play as a big, slow end made such a hit that the school eventually gave up football. He says the thing he remembers most about Niagara was how the priests kept him out of trouble. Just before graduation he got caught coming through the window at 3 a.m. His punishment was to copy an entire book. He began at 9 p.m. and copied until 7 a.m., and just before dawn he decided to check the title of the book. It was Selecting a Mate in Marriage.
He eventually made a good selection, and he and Bonnie settled down to being coach-and-wife at The Manlius School near Syracuse. He had strong teams and sent many fine players, including Bob Kyasky and Bill Carpenter, to West Point. Before long Earl Blaik had an eye on Cahill. "He was extremely able even then," says Blaik. "You could tell he was good with youngsters, and when we'd sit down to talk shop he talked an intelligent game." After eight years at Manlius and two at River Dell High in New Jersey, Cahill joined the Army staff in 1959.
Today the contrast between Cahill and other Army coaches seems doubly stark. Blaik was royalty at West Point, an aloof glamour figure as congruent to the academy as good posture. Dietzel was an interloper who could not rid himself of that mark. Cahill just goes along being what he already was: one of the gang. He drops around to chat with secretaries and clerks and to bum coffee, and he invites them up to watch films of Army's games. When they come, he will likely be the man at the projector.
The stories he tells are studies in reverse heroism. Early last season in a game with Stanford, Army punted from its 36-yard line though trailing 20-17 with less than five minutes to play. For the first time since he took the job, Cahill got booed. Really booed, by 31,500 people crammed into Michie Stadium. "That was some voice," he said. "Whew!" But shortly after the punt, Army's 150-pound halfback, Van Evans, ran back a Stanford kick into scoring position, and Army pulled the game out. A cheerleader with tears in his eyes came up and apologized to Cahill, for himself and the corps, for ever doubting.
On Monday at the practice field Cahill listed five logical reasons for ordering the punt. A colonel said he was impressed. Had Cahill actually thought of all those things in that split second on the sidelines? "No," said Tom, raising his eyebrows. "I thought of them at the Officers' Club after the game."
West Pointers believe that Cahill wins where Dietzel could not because he comes closer to dealing with the cadets in the prescribed manner. "He speaks our language," All-America Linebacker Townsend Clarke once said. Trainer Ed Pillings says that Cahill may not be fire and brimstone, but he is certainly not hot-chocolate breaks, either. At Camp Buckner. where practice begins in the fall, Cahill told one 220-pounder—they are rare at West Point—to pack it up because he was not ready to give his all. A couple of fun-lovers known as The Purple Clouds were sent back for not getting down to earth.
Though basically a kindly man. Cahill refuses to coddle. "A cadet is like any red-blooded American boy," he says. "You give him something, he'll take it. Don't, and he won't miss it." What Cahill started giving was scrimmages on Wednesday. What he took; away was truck rides to the practice field—the team walks now—and he said if they wanted orange juice and a newspaper on Saturday morning on the road they could go down to the lobby and buy them. No more room service. A manager complained that the team had had to eat near-raw chicken one night at dinner. "Son," said Cahill, an ex-infantryman, "did you ever sit in the bottom of a trench with mud up to your eyeballs and nothing to eat but C rations?"
Cahill keeps the players loose. They loved it when he said before the 1966 Navy game, "I don't know how you slept last night but I slept like a baby. Apparently I'm so green at this game I'm not aware of the full impact of it."
In view of past breakdowns, it was easy to believe that 1966 was beginner's luck and that Army would be back struggling to stay above .500 in 1967. It did not happen. The 8-2 season was followed by another 8-2 season, though Army lost to Navy in its last game. Nor is there a significant breakdown in sight. Cahill is building on solid ground the academy way.
Around Colonel Blaik's old house these days there seems to be no wonderment at Cahill's success. Not so long ago 9-year-old Betsy Cahill wrote The Coach of the Year Story. She said, "Once there was a man who loved football. His name was Tom Cahill. He was a great man. He got many rewards. I think he loved the boys he coached. This man was my father. How do you like that?"
Of all people, it is Tom Cahill who seems to have shown that the service academies can have successful football programs under present-day conditions. And how do you like that?