By soul and by poll

Coach Lou Saban has his orders and, as Stanford learned, Army is shaping up
September 30, 1979

Stanford, North Carolina, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Navy—that would be a mean collection of opponents for a Top 20 team. So what does a squad that was 4-6-1 last season think it's doing playing such juggernauts? Delusions of grandeur? Remembrance of past glory? In the case of Army, probably a goodly helping of both. But then, what was West Point doing upsetting 17-point favorite Stanford 17-13 last Saturday? And at Palo Alto, no less. The Cadets' defense, outweighed by 30 pounds a man, was pushed all over the field, but it held the Cardinals at bay long enough for plebe Halfback Gerald Walker to run 71 yards for what proved to be Army's winning touchdown. "We needed this one," said Lou Saban, Army's much-traveled new coach. "Most of us around here, coaches and players, hardly know each other."

A bigger question, however, is, how will Army fare in the years ahead under Saban? Which begs yet one more question: Just what is Saban, 57, doing at West Point, anyhow? Although he has impressive credentials—he was twice AFL Coach of the Year when the Buffalo Bills won league championships—he is his profession's man in motion. He walked out on contracts with the University of Maryland, the University of Cincinnati (where he stayed all of 14 days as athletic director), the Denver Broncos and the Bills. In fact, when Army hired Saban he had four years left on his contract with the University of Miami, prompting the comment that West Point, of all places, had hired an AWOL. Discussing his string of sudden departures, Saban, a circumlocutionist of high rank, says, "I'm only responsible to the people who hire me. Should they want to express their feelings, they have every right to. I've never felt I had to explain why I left. My daddy used to say, 'The more you stir, the more it smells.' "

Saban, 57, has a five-year contract with Army, and he says he intends to stay at the Point for the duration.

One reason to believe that he might hang around this time is Athletic Director Major General (ret.) Raymond P. Murphy, who personifies the new look of sports at Army. The captain of the 1941 West Point football team, Murphy became the academy's first permanent athletic director two years ago as a result of recommendations in a report called "Department of the Army—West Point Study." Quoting passages of the study from memory, Murphy says, "Excellence in athletics is as inherent to the mission of the Military Academy as excellence in studies and military training." The plan now is to rebuild football to national eminence, not just for the image of West Point but for the entire army.

This being the government, there is yet another study to back up the recommendations of the first. Nearing final form after two years in the making, this survey is being done by Superintendent Lieutenant General Andrew J. Goodpaster's Civilian Public Relations Advisory Committee, which is composed of 10 volunteer P.R. experts and chaired by Kerryn King, senior vice-president of Texaco. The committee queried West Point faculty, staff, cadets, parents of cadets, the Association of Graduates, members of Congress, government officials, members of the media, the general public (via a Roper survey), high school guidance counsellors and more than 5,000 secondary school juniors and seniors, and concluded that the majority of respondents regarded football as one of the cornerstones of West Point and thought it important that Army's team succeed. In sum, the Point is committed by soul and by poll to bring cheer to its fans, particularly the disgruntled Pentagon brass, who have suffered through five losses to Navy in the past six years.

Despite the surveys, Saban got only a couple of concessions when he took the West Point job following the firing of Homer Smith after last season's 28-0 loss to Navy. He was allowed to hire two additional full-time assistants, bringing the total to eight, plus two part-timers, and all cadets have been granted a second hour of free time each afternoon, which allows football players to get to practice earlier. But the key to success will be recruiting. "We have to recruit 10 to 15 times harder than a regular college to get young men who can do the math required at West Point," says Saban. "Our coaches visit 150 to 200 high schools, and if each coach comes back with at least 30 names, we have a list of 300 to 400—the blue-chippers, No. Is and question marks. The list soon shrinks. First, can they make it academically? West Point is demanding. The youngsters out there practicing have had a tough day already, and they're concerned about getting back to the books."

Another obstacle is the five years of service required after graduation. This obligation makes it virtually impossible for a West Pointer to play pro football, and as Murphy says, "We've run into a lot of youngsters we'd want here, but it's that glimmer of hope that they might make the pros that stops them from coming." Army lost three such prospects this year, "and they waited until the last minute to say no," Saban says.

One of the players willing to make the commitment was Walker, the hero of the victory over Stanford. A native of Greenville, S.C., Walker, 21, served in the Army in Korea before coming to West Point. Although weighing only 177 pounds, he ran through Stanford for 121 yards on 17 carries, which led Saban to commission him "a superplayer."

There has been talk that West Point and the other service academies will ask Congress to waive the five-year commitment for a graduate who can play pro ball. Instead of serving his tour at one shot, he would put in his five years over a span of 10, six months on duty, six off. "There's a strong desire on the part of many people at the academies to see if that can be worked out," Goodpaster says. "But so far there has been no real basis for optimism."

Another fact of life at West Point is the high rate of attrition. "The selection procedures are still not adequate to give us assurance in advance," Goodpaster says. Of the cadets—1,267 men and 130 women—who enrolled this year, only about 900 are expected to graduate. Most of those who leave do so in the first half of the first year. Six of the top 46 football prospects recruited for the class of '83 have already resigned.

Resignees aside, Saban seems content. He has a West Point cast of mind. He has just finished reading William Manchester's biography of MacArthur, American Caesar, and is now pondering the hypothetical Soviet attack on Yugoslavia in Sir John Hackett's The Third World War. On the practice field, he will make a reference to military science and apply it to football. "We use the circular-envelopment type approach," Saban says, meaning that like Grant before Richmond—or Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn—he works with what he has. He has installed the veer offense because it "poses problems defensively for an opponent. You can isolate people more than in the power-type football I've been exposed to."

It was just such an isolating play that beat Stanford. Walker followed the block of Fullback Dino Harris, who took out Middle Linebacker Frank Dispalatro. "Stanford was caught in double coverage on the outside," Saban explained, "and when we broke it up the middle, the one block, fullback on linebacker, freed the runner."

Earlier he had said, "A great advantage here is that the youngsters are fine students and grasp ideas quickly. I've asked my coaching staff" to be as innovative as possible." One of Saban's innovators has already discovered that Mike Rodemers, a varsity soccer player, had used up his eligibility in that sport. Rodemers now kicks off for Army and regularly sends the ball soaring over the end zone.

Before the Stanford game Goodpaster said, "I don't think the long-term goal of winning three out of four games is in our grasp now. But it's a goal, and we're not going to fall on our swords if we don't. But we're going to knock off one or two big ones." The General's tactics seem to be working fine—just ask Stanford.

PHOTOThe job at Army is Saban's fourth in four years.

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