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Original Issue


A visit with a man going over his mail last week and thinking back on 25 years as a head coach with 166 victories and some defeats

Earl Blaik's office on the fourth floor of the gymnasium at West Point contrasts sharply with the gray paint and gray stone of the rest of the building. A bright burnt-orange carpet covers the floor, the paneled walls are black walnut, the lighting is indirect. Blaik's small mahogany desk stands at one end of the room. On the wall to his right is a West Point coat of arms in bronze. On the wall behind him is the only picture in the room—a wartime portrait of General Douglas MacArthur. To an increasing degree Blaik resembles in appearance and manner this man whom he most admires.

In this office one afternoon late last week Blaik sat reading his mail; three tall stacks of it, as befits the traffic coming to a man who has just announced his resignation as head coach after 25 years. In those years Red Blaik's teams have won 166 games while losing only 48. Long green lines of Dartmouth players as well as long gray lines of cadets have passed with success under his molding hands, and Blaik himself has succeeded to that eminence in his profession, never satisfactorily titled, which makes him, in fact, the Head Master of college coaches. The mail of course reflected this. Blaik turned away from it and crossed the room to greet his visitor. They talked for a while about his days as a cadet football player.

"I had the lowest stance of any end in those days," Blaik said. "The tackles used to stand up almost straight, and some of them wrapped black tape around their fists. As soon as the ball was snapped, the tackle would take a swipe at the end." Demonstrating the play, Blaik rose and acted out the motions; first of the tackle, then of the end. "So an end got down real deep, and his first movement was to duck that swing. Then you rushed in." Seated again, Blaik continued. "People today can't conceive how rough the game used to be." He smiled in recall.

Blaik was the first cadet to face Navy in three major sports—football, basketball and baseball. In 1919 Walter Camp named him to the third-string All-America, and on graduation day he was awarded the West Point saber as the outstanding athlete of the Class of '20.

"It was through being an athlete that I got to know General MacArthur. The general was superintendent here and only 39. He had a dignified—some people have called it aloof—air about him, but from the standpoint of cadets he was extremely approachable. His influence was beyond calculation. I've always thought he was the savior of the academy. He stepped up classes and raised standards and supplied the leadership that was needed."

What is the role of football in a university? "If the school and the coach start out from the correct premise, there will never be any question about football's place. Football is incidental to education. It's secondary.

"What worries me about the attempts to de-emphasize football is the way it's done. You can't tell the youngsters, 'Now this game isn't as important as you have been led to believe, and winning isn't everything, you know.' When you do that, you strip football of its essential ingredients—the importance of the game and the will to win. Now it's true that 50 minutes or 50 months after a game is over, it may no longer seem very important. But for those minutes on the field, the youngsters must feel that the game is the most important thing in the world and that their job is to win it."

The key to successful coaching? "Always know what each player can give and demand the very best of him. Now there are ways to demand, right ways and wrong ways, but whenever you tolerate mistakes, you are inviting more. It was very difficult when my son Bob was the quarterback. In everyone's mind he had to be clearly the best choice, and in my own mind he had to do even less wrong than all the others."

It was when his son was quarterback that Blaik's most trying time at West Point came. Most of his varsity squad, including Bob Blaik, were expelled in 1951 for cribbing or for failing to report cribbing, known to them, by others.

Blaik thought of resigning and consulted Douglas MacArthur. The general told him, "Don't quit under fire." Blaik didn't. Last week he explained: "I decided that no good would come of it to West Point if I left and that in the long run I might hurt the youngsters. There was never any doubt, you know, at the time, that I believed in them, and I have never changed my mind." Among the few mementos Blaik keeps are pictures of each expelled player.

And now he was retiring as coach and athletic director at West Point, effective on his 62nd birthday, February 15. There is no single reason: neither health nor differences of opinion with West Point authorities over the rugged schedules and the restrictions on football material available to him, though Blaik may well wonder how the academy will fare in the 1960s if Army falls in with plans now being adumbrated for a "national" football conference of college powers East and West.

"Should it be so inconceivable that a man my age would finally want to leave? Now if we had had a losing season, then I would stay. It would be against my nature to pull out. But as it is, sports at the academy are in the best shape they have been in for years. I just felt it was time to leave."

His thoughts on going away from West Point? "First of all, I shall miss the cadets. You don't leave a place like this without a certain amount of heartache." Then, a lively enthusiasm coming into his voice: "Also I shall miss the fascination of devising the strategy and tactics of the game. There is no game I know that has patterns in it to the degree football does. To see those patterns that represent your thinking unfold successfully on the field gives you a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. You are happy and you feel like patting yourself on the back."

Blaik left the chair by the window, went to his desk, picked up a two-page letter from the center pile. Covering the message part, he showed the letter from Washington—not on official White House stationery, but on the rare, unofficial kind embossed simply: DDE. "I was glad to get one from him," he said. "It isn't just a you-were-a-fine-fellow sort of letter. No, sir. This man played football and coached it, too. He understands how I feel now."