Q&A with author Mark Beech on Army-Navy game

 On Saturday, we’ll get to see another look at the most unique rivalry in sports when Army and Navy face off for the 111thtime. To say, Army-Navy has a storied past would be an understatement. Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated’s Mark Beech, a second-generation West Pointer, detailed the amazing story of Army’s undefeated 1958 season and its’ legendary coach Red Blaik in his book When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football. This week, I did a Q&A with Beech about, among other things, his book; Blaik and how the sport has changed since that era over 50 years ago.

Q: What is the historical significance to the great Army 1958 season?

Beech: There are some obvious bullet points that answer this question: This was the last Army team to ever go undefeated (the Black Knights finished 8-0-1); the last to ever beat Notre Dame; the last to ever be ranked No. 1, which it was for two weeks in October after the 14–2 victory over the Fighting Irish; the last to finish a season ranked in the top 20 by the Associated Press (the Cadets’ final AP rank was No. 3); and the last to boast a Heisman Trophy winner, with halfback Pete Dawkins.

Beyond those details, though, is the fact that Army finished off the ’58 season with a 22–6 win over Navy on Nov. 29, not quite a month before the Colts beat the Giants on national television in the NFL Championship, a game that changed the landscape of American sports forever. Forty-five million viewers tuned in to watch Baltimore beat New York in sudden-death overtime, and professional football, which had traditionally been a blue-collar sideshow to that point, would never again play second banana to the college game. Within a few years, commissioner Pete Rozelle had won the league its first multimillion dollar TV contract, and the money that teams had available to throw at rookies out of college became too much for kids to ignore. In 1958, Army and Navy each required three years of military service after graduation -- within a few years they would require five -- and that was just too long to wait for fame and fortune. None of the players on the ’58 Army team that I interviewed, many of whom would be considered blue-chippers today, had even considered a future in pro football when they were deciding where to play in college.

So 1958 was really the beginning of the end for service academy football as it had been known for much of the 20thcentury. Air Force, in just its first season as a big-time college program, had also gone unbeaten in ‘58 -- the Falcons tied TCU in the Cotton Bowl -- a testament to how different things were back then. (Navy’s last undefeated season was in 1926.) Army held its own for much of the next decade, with a winning record through the 1960s, but the ‘70s was like falling off a cliff.

Q: What made Red Blaik such a great coach?

Beech: In When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss quotes former Army assistant coach -- and NFL legend -- Vince Lombardi as saying that all he learned about organizing and preparing a team to win he learned from Red Blaik. And if there was a genius to Blaik’s coaching, it was in those two areas: organization and preparation. Besides Saturday afternoons, he only got to work with his players for about two hours a day from Monday to Friday. The only film Blaik’s players watched was the one from their previous game that they watched as a group on Sunday afternoons. His practices were crisp, tightly controlled and hard hitting, and they were organized down to the last detail. He did this by keeping his playbook simple and drilling it relentlessly. You can see Blaik’s influence on Lombardi in the way the latter used to rehearse his signature play in Green Bay, the Power Sweep.

Any inspiration in Blaik’s coaching came from his work with his assistant coaches. It was in the Army staff meeting room that techniques and schemes and game plans were argued over and finalized down to the last detail. Blaik was a pioneer of film study -- he didn’t invent it, but he may very well have perfected it -- and he loved nothing more than to debate the finer points of the game with his staff. He allowed his coaches a tremendous amount of autonomy, but all decisions came from him alone. And they were final. It’s no accident that 22 men who worked for him went on to lead collegiate or professional teams of their own, including Lombardi and Sid Gillman, two men who were instrumental in shaping the modern NFL. Blaik is one of the earliest products of the Miami University coaching tree, and his influence on college and pro football for much of the middle part of the 20th Century  can’t be underestimated.

Q: Where do you think Red Blaik ranks with the all-time great coaches in college football?

Beech: Certainly, he is near the top of the list for many of the reasons I mentioned in answering your last question. But I also don’t have many doubts about his ability to adjust to what the game would become. He was always adapting and tinkering with his schemes, junking the single-wing at Army in favor of the T-formation in 1943 (which, to be fair, many in college football were also doing). But nothing he ever did was quite so brilliant as the Lonely End scheme that he implemented in 1958 -- a Wing T with an unbalanced line and a wide receiver -- which became the sensation of college football and which, overnight, transformed the Black Knights’ offense from a ground-and-pound attack into the top passing game in college football.

Blaik conceived the Lonely End because he wanted break up the eight- and nine-man defensive fronts his team was facing, and to spare his players, whom he felt had worn down in 1957, the punishment inherent in, as he called it, “impact football.” It was basically a spread offense (nothing really new about that) with a wide receiver (nothing really new about that either). But no end in 1958 was split wide on every play, and nobody was split as wide as Army end Bill Carpenter, who lined up at least 15 yards off the line. And there was definitely no end who never returned to the huddle, a twist of the Lonely End that caught the public’s imagination. In addition to unbalancing his line, which forced the defense to choose how to adjust, Blaik also increased the splits between his offensive linemen. (Under the direction of line coach Bill Gunlock, Army was also using a rudimentary zone blocking scheme that season.) The Black Knights’ formation did what spread formations do today: it forced defenses to declare their intentions before the snap of the ball. Were they going to shift over Army’s strong side? How many men were they going to use to cover Carpenter? Army quarterback Joe Caldwell knew all of that before he ever ran a play.

Blaik wasn’t known as an innovator, and columnist Red Smith referred to him as “the high priest of the overland game.” But I can’t think of too many coaches in history who have so thoroughly changed the character of their team with such smashing success. 

Q: What is the biggest thing that has changed about college football from 50-plus years ago?

Beech: There’s the money of pro football, which I mentioned previously, that has changed things dramatically, of course. That’s probably the biggest thing, in terms of service-academy football. It helps determine, in many cases, where a top high school player will go to college. The same type of person still goes to West Point to play football -- somebody who’s tough, smart and interested in being part of something bigger than just a football program. But the same type of athlete does not go there anymore. Paul Dietzel saw this as early as 1962, when he left LSU to take over at Army (a move that is unimaginable today). Dietzel lasted only four seasons at West Point.

On the field, there are a bunch of things to love and hate about college football in the late 1950s. The substitution rules were very strict, so it was essentially iron-man football. The Army starters averaged over 53 minutes a game in 1957, which was another of the big reasons Blaik wanted to get his team away from “impact football.” While it’s romantic to think of guys playing both offense and defense, the reality of iron-man football is that it makes for less aesthetically pleasing football. There just wasn’t the level of specialization that there is today, when the game is faster, sharper and in many ways more explosive and exciting. I have to say, I prefer the game as it’s played in 2012.

Q: How do you think college football is worse for some of the changes since that era?

Beech: As a fan of college football, that’s hard for me to say. I love the game, and all of its broad sweep, which goes far beyond the scope of the 120 teams in the FBS and encompasses a whole raft of regional traditions and loyalties, not to mention a rich pool of players and personalities. It’s a great, great game.

Having said that, I’m not wild about how money, and there is a lot of it now, has driven the game toward a winner-take-all system. In 1958, the final AP poll came out in December after the last game of the regular season. There was no polling done after the results of the bowl games in January that determined the national championship. The players at Army all wanted to go to a bowl game and get the chance to play LSU, who won the national title, but the academy turned down all invitations as a matter of policy and that was that. There was frustration in Louisiana and some corners of the SEC about West Point’s decision, as well, but there was no national outcry for a game that would settle matters once and for all. The season was what mattered.

Now, with first the BCS and soon a playoff, some of the traditions and passion of college football -- some of what I love dearly about college football -- may be lost. Teams that don’t make the playoffs and have to accept an invitation to a lesser bowl, what are they playing for? I think we see this effect already in some of the bowl-game upsets we see every year on Jan. 1. The passion just isn’t there in some cases for a team that feels it did not get what it deserved.

I know I’m in the minority with this opinion. And I certainly prefer a playoff to the BCS. But college football is the one sport where every game on the schedule matters. I’d hate to see that lost. Just my two cents.

Q: In your opinion, having gone to West Point; written about it and covered major college football in the past 20 years what do people who have been to other great rivalries probably not grasp about Army-Navy?

Beech: I’m still not sure people realize how big and important it was. Long before the Super Bowl, Army and Navy used to take an extra week off before taking the field. And the pageantry and hoopla around the game was like nothing else in the country. One hundred thousand people used to fill Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium in the freezing cold to watch these two teams play. It was certainly as big as any bowl game, even by today’s standards. It was also glamorous. Presidents weren’t the only famous people who used to attend the game. In 1958, Prince Albert and Princess Grace of Monaco were in the stands -- it was their second Army football game in two years.

The game’s popularity wasn’t just because both Army and Navy were regularly two of the top team’s in college football. Especially in the 1950s, World War II and the Korean War were still fresh in the American memory, and many people were close to somebody who had served in one or both. The military wasn’t yet controversial -- it was widely accepted. And in 1958, the country was fully invested in winning the space race, which had begun with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I in October 1957.

For the Army-Navy game today, it’s hard to overstate how important the game is to the two schools. I’ve lived in Alabama and seen the Iron Bowl atmosphere up close. I was raised in Big Ten country, and know all about Ohio State and Michigan. But I’ve experienced Army-Navy from the inside, and from the bottom of my shoes I am telling you that it is very different. The quality of the football may not be as good as you’ll find in other big rivalry games, but the quality of the effort and desire is unmatched, and it extends to every cadet and midshipman at either academy. There is nothing else on the line but this one game -- no rankings, no bowl invitations, no shots at national championships. But I guarantee that everybody at West Point will see the 2012 season as a success if they leave Philadelphia on Saturday with an Army victory. Same for the folks at Annapolis.

Q: What is the best you think fans of Army and Navy could expect from their football programs in terms of competing with Top 25 opponents?

Beech: Rich Ellerson, the current coach at Army, has said that his goal for the program is to be consistently good and occasionally great. I think that’s a fair goal -- that’s certainly what the Black Knights were under coach Jim Young when I was a cadet in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

But let’s be clear about what Ellerson means by “great.” He’s talking about a nine- or 10-win season, maybe one in which they knock off a ranked opponent. If Army were to manage that, I still don’t see much chance that they would be ranked inside the top 15 teams in the country. For all of Navy’s recent success, its best AP ranking came when the Midshipmen went 10–2 in 2004. They finished 24th.  The service academies just don’t play the kind of schedules anymore that lead to high rankings. So when people at Army talk about being “great” now, they mean something very different from what Red Blaik meant in 1958.

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