The Army football program had failed. More specifically, the program had failed to follow the Red Blaik era with the excellence the Cadets had come to expect. In the three seasons following Blaik’s incomparable 18-year run in West Point, new coach Dale Hall went a modest 16-11-2, never winning more than six games in a single season. It’s true that being the successor to a legend is a thankless task. Being “The Guy After The Guy” is almost always difficult, because in almost all cases, the legend casts a shadow so large that the new man in charge doesn’t have a chance of measuring up. Nevertheless, time had run its course, and so when Hall left West Point, Army had visions of reclaiming lost prominence
The program rightly felt it made a home-run hire in 1962 when Paul Dietzel came to West Point. Dietzel, you might recall, had previously coached at LSU, where he made three New Year’s Day bowl games, winning two, and produced three seasons with nine wins or more. In 1958, Dietzel coached the Tigers to the national championship. The team that finished third in the nation in that same 1958 season? Army, in Blaik’s final, mystical, magical season, with Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins carrying the ball and the team on the field.
The point was plain: When Dietzel made his way to the United States Military Academy, just as Navy was developing momentum under a quarterback named Roger Staubach, the idea of leading West Point to renewed gridiron glories was hardly foolish or unreasonable. The age of the service-academy program with a low ceiling had not yet arrived. Therefore, yesterday’s results can’t be viewed through a present-day lens. Army was not expected to be a slightly-above-.500 team back then; it was expected to be better than that.
Dietzel couldn’t deliver the goods.
Army just couldn’t sustain momentum under its newly-arrived national championship coach. The Cadets were 7-3 in Dietzel’s second season in 1963, and their game against Navy that season remains one of the most talked-about contests not just in the history of the Army-Navy Game, but in all of college football history. Yet, as memorable as that 1963 season might have been, Army couldn’t back it up. The team fell to 4-6 in 1964 and 4-5-1 in 1965. Dietzel’s career – so ascendant a few years earlier – had stagnated, and he sought a new landing spot at South Carolina with the Gamecocks. Army turned to Thomas Cahill, a relative no-name in the profession and a man who had not previously been a head coach at the Division I-A level. When Cahill’s first season dawned in 1966, Army football had been humbled. Doing something bigger and better than Dietzel’s 1963 season just didn’t seem realistic – at least not in Cahill’s maiden voyage.
Army surprised lots of people in 1966.
Two teams handled Army – decisively – in 1966, and they were both extremely formidable. Notre Dame was the best team in the nation that year. The Irish tied Michigan State, 10-10, in one of the sport’s most hyped and most infamous games, due to Notre Dame’s willingness to settle for a tie in the latter stages of the contest. Yet, that tie – on the road in East Lansing – helped the Irish finish No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. Ara Parseghian won his first (and not his last) national title in South Bend.
The other team which whacked Army in 1966 was Tennessee. The Vols didn’t win the SEC, but they came very close, losing only once and tying once in league play. Tennessee lost to Bear Bryant and Alabama by one point, 11-10, and by one score to Ole Miss, 14-7. Just a few bounces of the ball could have put Tennessee in the national title hunt at the end of the season. As it was, the Vols won the Gator Bowl and completed one of their stronger seasons in the 1960s.
Notre Dame and Tennessee combined to score 73 points against Army in 1966, en route to blowout victories (35-0 for the Irish, 38-7 for the Vols). Yet, the story of the Cadets that year is that in every other game, their defense dominated as well as a defense realistically could.
Army didn’t play pushovers, either. The Cadets faced a rookie coach at Penn State in 1966. Yes, that was the first season as PSU’s head coach for one Joseph Vincent Paterno. Army also played Rutgers, Pittsburgh and California – keep in mind that Cal had made the Rose Bowl less than a decade earlier. Then, of course, came the Navy game. All in all, Army played eight games other than those against Notre Dame and Tennessee. The Cadets, in those games, allowed a grand total of 32 points. Doing quick math, that’s an average of 4 points per game.
Pitching three shutouts, allowing no more than seven points in four other games, and allowing under 10 points in all eight games, Army’s defense established a standard close to absolute perfection. Adding to the enormity of the Cadets’ feat was the fact that the offense averaged just 14 points per game in 1966, never exceeding 28 points and scoring more than 21 in only one contest. Given that Army didn’t accumulate huge scoreboard advantages early in games, opposing offenses didn’t have to abandon their game plans or take the field in compromised situations. Army’s defense frequently took the field knowing that it possessed a very small margin for error. In every game except Notre Dame and Tennessee in 1966, that defense stood tall. The result was an 8-2 season which eclipsed Dietzel’s best year at West Point. Thomas Cahill had made quite an impression on the Army football family.
Just in case many people in the college football world felt that Cahill would not be able to catch lightning in a bottle, he replicated that 8-2 season in 1967. It’s true that he suffered through a humiliating 0-10 season in his 1973 swan song, but Cahill won the first Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy in 1972, and he also produced five winning seasons in his eight years at West Point. When you consider the fact that Army’s next three coaches – Homer Smith, Lou Saban, and Ed Cavanaugh – produced one winning season among them in the next nine seasons (1974 through 1982), Cahill’s career stacks up favorably.
He didn’t win national titles or lead Army to unprecedented heights, but Cahill – especially in 1966 – mended Army football a lot more than many were willing to believe he could.