1949 Army Football: No Heisman, No Problem
You have to really know your Army football, inside and out, to get this trivia question right: What were Army's three unbeaten and untied seasons under Red Blaik?
Sure, 1944 and 1945 are easy enough to call. With Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis -- Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside -- Army used its two greatest players of all time to put the college football world at its feet. You might then think that the 1946 season was another unbeaten and untied season, but you have to remember the legendary scoreless tie with Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium in one of the genuine college football "Games of the Century."
You might think that the 1958 team, with the school's third Heisman winner, Pete Dawkins, also registered a completely unblemished season. No, there was one tie in 1958, at Pittsburgh.
If you look through the historical record, Blaik managed to go unbeaten in 1948 as well, but Army tied Navy in the final game of the season. In 1948, as in 1958, Army finished 8-0-1.
So, in which other season besides 1944 and 1945 did Army produce a perfect 9-0 campaign? The answer is 1949. What makes that season special in Army history? One particular game combined with one very special coaching staff which knits together so much of the history of football -- college and pro -- in the 20th century.
Red Blaik's offensive coordinator in 1949 was a man you might have heard of: Vincent Thomas Lombardi.
Blaik's defensive coordinator didn't become as famous as Lombardi, but he's still recognized as one of college football's distinguished coaches, a member of a very select fraternity: Murray Warmath, a man so good he was able to win a national championship with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, in 1960.
Just stop to consider how much that 1949 Army coaching staff knitted together the history of the sport of football in the 20th century. Blaik was mentored by George Little, a coach who lacked a larger-than-life reputation but was quietly excellent in his time (the teens and the 1920s at various schools). Little was one of the first men to establish Miami University, also known as Miami of Ohio, as "The Cradle of Coaches," a reality that would become more established and prominent thanks to Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian, and Bo Schembechler.
Lombardi's imprint on football remains too great to easily or breezily describe in a few sentences. Generations of players and coaches regard him as the gold standard by which all other coaches are measured, Bear Bryant being the collegiate equivalent. Proteges of his, such as Forrest Gregg, reached the Super Bowl as a head coach (Cincinnati Bengals, 1981 season).
We just spoke about Bear Bryant, who made his name most centrally at Alabama but also at other schools in the South and also at Maryland. Alabama's fiercest non-state rival is Tennessee, and in the decades before Bama roared under the Bear, the Vols enjoyed their richest and most fruitful period under The General, Robert Neyland.
Interestingly enough, Neyland was a West Point man, having played for Army from 1913 through 1916 before serving as an assistant coach from 1919 through 1924. However, Neyland found his head coaching home at Tennessee, starting well before Blaik's Army tenure began and continuing into the early 1950s, just a few years before Blaik retired. (Neyland interrupted his coaching career to serve the United States in World War II.)
Neyland inspired men in much the way Bear Bryant did... only earlier. One of the many men influenced by The General was Warmath, who played at Tennessee and then joined his mentor as an assistant coach for two separate stints (before Neyland left for World War II and after he returned). In 1949, though, Warmath -- in one of those fascinating intersections of history -- made the move from Tennessee to Army, inverting what Neyland had done decades earlier. Warmath coached Minnesota for 18 richly successful seasons, bringing the Gophers into the 1970s.
Blaik. Lombardi. Warmath. Two national champion collegiate coaches, one mentored by a Tennessee icon. The other coach -- the guy in the middle -- is merely recognized as the greatest NFL coach who has ever lived.
Not bad, 1949 Army team. Not bad.
Coaches can coach their brains out, but of course, Army -- without a Heisman winner that season (Leon Hart of Notre Dame won the trophy in 1949) - had to play well, too. Safe to say, the team did just that, giving up a combined total of just 68 points over the course of the season, with Warmath coaching up a storm on defense. Army allowed more than one score in just three of its nine games. In those three games, Army allowed no more than 14 points. In two of those three games, Army scored at least 40. This team faced only one close shave, a 14-13 win at Pennsylvania on Nov. 12, in the next-to-last game of the season. Yes, even then, college kids probably looked ahead to the next game on the schedule (Navy, on Nov. 26). Some things never change with 20-year-olds.
The most significant and memorable game from that 1949 season was clearly the Oct. 8 thumping of Michigan. Army marched into Ann Arbor's Big House -- it was very big even then, with over 97,000 in attendance -- and stopped the Maize and Blue, 21-7.
Realize this about Michigan at the time: The Wolverines had a 25-game winning streak heading into that game. Fritz Crisler went unbeaten in his final season in 1947, finishing his decorated career. Bennie Oosterbaan had the mother of all debut seasons as Michigan's head coach in 1948, winning the national championship. Michigan would need almost 50 years to win another one under Lloyd Carr in 1997.
Army was taking on a storied program at one of its historical peaks... in its own stadium... and won decisively. West Point took an early lead with a long and punishing scoring drive, setting the tone for everything that was to come. On that afternoon, Army and its All-Star coaching staff knew how special a team it had.
You can and should celebrate 1944, 1945, and 1958, and three Heisman winners who made the Red Blaik era so special in West Point. Just be sure to remember 1949 as well.
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