Friday, October 19, 2012

'When Saturday Mattered Most' relives Army football's last great team

These days, the Army football team shows up on the national scene once a year, when it takes on Navy in one of the best rivalries in sports. It hasn't gone well recently, as the Midshipmen have won 10 in a row.

We're left to reminisce about the glory days of football in West Point, N.Y., and there were plenty of them in the first half of the 20th century, before pro football began to overtake the college game in popularity.

Army's last great team was in 1958. That season is detailed in Sports Illustrated writer Mark Beech's book "When Saturday Mattered Most." The title refers to when the college game was bigger than pro football.

Coach Red Blaik is the main figure, and the book explains the challenges he faced first with the cheating scandal of 1951, then with coaching at a service academy and through his retirement at the end of the 1958 season.

That year, he installed a new offense that called for an end -- Bill Carpenter -- to line up about 15 yards wide of the line, which was a big deal back then. Because substitution rules were strict, Carpenter, called the Lonesome End, didn't come back to the huddle between plays to conserve energy. Instead, he watched for a series of signals from his teammates.

It worked so well in the first game against South Carolina that Gamecocks defenders didn't notice what formations the Black Knights were using because they were baffled at how Carpenter was receiving the plays.

On the season went. Only a tie with a tough sophomore named Mike Ditka and Pittsburgh kept Army from a perfect record and a potential national championship. (A quibble: I wish the book had included a roster and the dates and results of the games. It would have been good for reference).

The last part of the book details what the main players have been doing since then. It also goes into the reasons Army succumbed from being a perennial top-10 team to being somewhat competitive -- since going 10-2 in 1996, the Black Knights have only been over .500 once.

It was almost disheartening reading about the divisiveness between Blaik’s supporters and detractors and how quickly Army’s winning percentage descended. Opponents should be as fearful to play the United States Military Academy as they are going against an SEC school.

Alas, that's not the case. Not even close. The Black Knights lost to Kent State, 31-17, on Saturday. Kent is having a resurgent year at 5-1. But let's not kid ourselves. Army's national championship teams of the 1940s would have only scheduled Kent as a breather between Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Michigan and the like.

In 2009, the Army-Navy game was pushed back to the second Saturday in December, a week after the bowl pairings are announced. It would be nice one year if either team was in contention for a BCS bowl, because Army-Navy is the only FBS game on the college football schedule that day. It would make it that much more important.

It's doubtful that will happen, though. As Beech explained in an interview with the Sherman Report: "They’ll never again be No. 1, as they were for about three weeks after they beat the Fighting Irish in 1958. Those days are gone. The same kind of guy still goes to West Point to play football at Army as in 1958 -- a driven, duty-conscious kid who’s interested in a challenge and in being part of something bigger than just a football team. But because of the pull of professional football, the same kind of athlete does not go to West Point, which requires five years of service in the army after graduation."

If you're the type of sports fan who's disillusioned with the big business college athletics has become, maybe rooting for a service academy is the way to go. The equipment and styles of play have changed. But, as the author said, the players haven't.

- Howard Primer


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