The Red Blaik Coaching Tree
You don’t even have to be a diehard Army fan to know that Red Blaik is West Point’s greatest coach. Blanchard and Davis and Dawkins, the national championships, the unbeaten seasons, the epic contests against Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium, the sustained excellence over two decades – you name it, Blake delivered it to the United States Military Academy. He developed great players. He won at the highest level. When he reached the top, he stayed there. That’s more than enough to establish Blaik as an all-time legend of the game.
When you win and achieve on the scale Red Blaik attained, your legacy is both immense and secure. Yet, coaches are teachers, and the surest way for a coach to enhance his legacy beyond the victories and the national titles is to be able to shape assistant coaches and players into the great coaches of subsequent decades. Blaik, by any reasonable measure, has succeeded quite handsomely in this regard. It is an enduring testament to his greatness, and that greatness reflects on how unbeatable Army became during much of the 1940s and ‘50s.
If there’s one member of the Red Blaik coaching tree everyone is aware of, it’s Vince Lombardi. In many ways, it’s fitting that Lombardi received guidance and instruction from Blaik and is known as Blaik’s most famous coaching pupil. Lombardi’s insistence on relentless execution of basic actions in football – blocking and tackling, and getting the seal here to run this play “in the alley” – so fully epitomizes the toughness and physical rigor of Army football at its best. Football was a simpler game in Blaik’s time, but getting men to be supremely fit, constantly motivated, and fully aware of the conceptual components of football is a constant challenge for any coach in any era or circumstance. Blaik excelled in these arts, and no pupil more clearly reveals how well Blaik “coached his coaches” than Lombardi. Meticulous, driven, passionate, hugely intelligent – Lombardi mastered the chalkboard elements of football, but also the psychology of the sport. Blaik gave him the foundation with which to become the greatest coach in NFL history, perhaps rivaled only by Bill Belichick (who, through his father, Steve, also has service-academy coaching roots courtesy of the Naval Academy).
Yet, the scope of Blaik’s influence reaches far beyond Lombardi. “Far beyond Lombardi?” What a ringing tribute to Blaik’s enduring imprint on football in the 20th century.
Murray Warmath won a national title and won the Rose Bowl at Minnesota. Sid Gillman won an AFL championship with the San Diego Chargers and became one of the great teachers of the passing game in football history. Gillman’s ability to demonstrate such expertise in coaching the passing game – something Army didn’t commonly do under Blaik – reveals in a particular way how well Blaik equipped his proteges to flourish once they set out on their own as head coaches.
Another man who magnifies Blaik’s ability to prepare players or assistants for a life in coaching – along the lines of Sid Gillman – is a man who transformed the University of Houston’s comparatively young football program.
Red Blaik coached a man named Bill Yeoman in the late 1940s. Yeoman served for several years as an assistant to another great college football coach, Duffy Daugherty, at Michigan State in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Yet, his first graduate-school seminar at Army came under Blaik in the late ‘40s. After years of observation, study and application, Yeoman developed the veer offense at Houston. This innovation transformed college football beyond description. Texas and Darrell Royal used the veer to win national titles. Other programs, seeking a tactical change-up on offense, also adopted the veer to radically improve their results.
Not to be forgotten or minimized, Yeoman also made the veer work for himself at Houston, where he won three Southwest Conference titles and two Cotton Bowls in the Cougars’ first four seasons in the SWC. One of the players on the 1976 team that delivered Houston its first SWC title and Cotton Bowl win? Art Briles, who is coaching up a storm for Baylor today and revolutionizing the way college football is played in a new century.
Red Blaik’s coaching tree starts with Vince Lombardi and is breathing today through an extended branch named Art Briles. Think about that for a second. Such a reality is striking primarily because these careers – Blaik’s beginning at the end of the 1930s, Briles’s career flourishing 75 years later – cover so much of college football’s history. Blaik’s influence can still be felt in the modern age. Yet, what’s perhaps even more mind-blowing is that the look of Blaik’s offense at Army and Houston’s veer under Yeoman and Briles’s offense at Baylor are all so stylistically different. Yet, all three are knitted together with airtight fundamentals and an understanding of how to move pieces on a chessboard.
This linkage of Red Blaik to Art Briles, across the decades, is beyond amazing… and it tells you all you need to know about the full glories of Army football’s most magnificent era.
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