Not long ago a relaxed Paul Dietzel sat under the banyan trees of a Waikiki Beach hotel and spoke of his ultimate discouragement as Army's football coach. He said he had made a careful study of the mission of the academy, and, though it pained him to reach such a conclusion, the mission was not compatible with his own desire to make football big time again at West Point.
A few days later in the executive offices of Avco Corporation, high above New York's crowded streets, Earl (Red) Blaik sat at his mahogany desk and said he, too, had kept abreast of the academy football program since he retired as head coach in 1958. Asked if, under present circumstances, he thought it possible for Army to compete again at the high level it reached when he was coach, Blaik replied: "Absolutely."
It was exactly two years ago that Dietzel, one of football's most famous coaches, suddenly quit Army to take the head-coaching job at South Carolina. He left behind him a melancholy troop. Excepting Blaik's unfortunate 1951 team, which was decimated by an academy-wide cribbing scandal and cannot be held responsible for its failings, Army had not had a losing season since 1940 until Dietzel's teams of 1964 and '65 came along. These lost to opponents Army had never been beaten by before ( Virginia, Duke, et al.) and suffered the first loss in 30 years to peaceful little Colgate. Army had to fight for its life against Rutgers and VMI. It beat Navy once in four years. No solace could be found, either, in the records of the other academies. None—Army, Navy or Air Force—had had a winning season since 1963.
Now it is spring again at West Point. Grunting guards and crashing pads are heard once more on the plains above the Hudson. But the melancholia has long disappeared. In two years under Tom Cahill, the desperate choice of desperate men to succeed Dietzel, Army has won 16 of 20 games. West Point begins the spring of 1968 with bright prospects and an even brighter hope for the future—and with it is a hope for all service-academy football.
That this happened, and how it happened, is one of the more unusual sports stories of the decade, one that marks another turn in the long and twisting history of Army football. It is basically a story about Tom Cahill, a remarkably simple, simply remarkable man, but it reveals a great deal more about what can be expected on the football fields of all three academies in the years ahead—though each goes about its football business with a slightly different attitude and in a slightly different way.
No one at this stage is so bold as to predict a national championship for Army, of course. Colonel Jerry Capka, the athletic director at West Point, says guardedly, "Being No. 1 is not our mission. That would be a fallout benefit." Experience would say he is right. The restrictions and conditions that disillusioned Dietzel, that made Wayne Hardin and Eddie Erdelatz system-buckers at Navy and got them fired despite great success, that contributed to a situation which has, in four years, resulted in two serious cheating scandals at Air Force and done grave damage to the football program there, still exist.
Principal among these are things academy coaches groan over but cannot possibly get around: 1) the postgraduate military commitment is up to five years; to an 18-year-old considering college, four plus five equals half a lifetime; 2) formal declaration or no, the U.S. is at war; 3) since Joe Namath got $400,000 to sign with the New York Jets, every high school quarterback with half a pound of talent dreams of getting his share. When Blaik had Army vying for national championships, the service commitment was just going up from three years to four, the chances were a West Pointer would not find himself being shot at immediately after graduation and Joe Namath was a poor kid in Pennsylvania.
There are other drawbacks. Recruiting is tough because academy entrance requirements are as high as the Ivy League's. There are no crip courses. The daily schedule is harsh, intense—especially in the first year—and the strict regimentation discourages many. The attrition rate is high. At West Point flunkouts, dropouts and physical failures average 25% per class. Among athletes the average is not much better—23%.
The football coach has his team for a maximum of 90 minutes a day. When Hardin was at Navy he gave up practice on Mondays so he could have film studies and blackboard talks. The only time Cahill is alone with his Army players—except on road trips—is during occasional Saturday morning heart-to-heart strolls to Trophy Point.
There is no such thing as redshirting. A cadet cannot take five years to play four. The coach sinks or swims with the material on hand. Consequently, to make ends, guards and tackles meet, coaches spend a lot of time shaping guards out of halfbacks and ends out of hopeless cases.