Thursday, March 26, 2009

Army's wartime dynasty

During WWII major organized sports took an enforced furlough in every participating country except the United States. Soccer teams across Europe temporarily disbanded as players and fans alike headed to war. Even England’s F.A. Cup (association football’s original and most prestigious competition) was suspended after 1939 until 1946. But in America the whole slate continued. World Series champions continued to be crowned, the NFL rolled on, College Football illuminated fall Saturdays as always. Young men went off to war and teams lost much of their best talent, but Americans refused to stop playing their games.

Protected by distance from bombing raids and by agricultural abundance from severe want, American society did not face the fear, chaos and lack that made sports both impossible and unthinkable in Europe. There may be more to Americans insisting upon continuing their games, though. I like to think that Americans are so serious about their leisure time because individually and collectively the country has earned the right to relax in seeming frivolities. Rather than a mere distraction from war, ball games actually provided a potent symbol of the society Americans fought to protect.

It is quite fitting that West Point dominated college football's war years. Commentators often point out the unfair basis of Army’s great dynasty. War provided the Cadets a double advantage. While war-aged players from every college team began departing for training after 1942, the service academies could recruit players from other schools, keep them safely away from the fighting, and offer three more years of eligibility. Army coach Earl Blaik felt no compunctions about attracting experienced talent to the academy and exploiting his advantages on the field.

When bruising 6’1”, 210 lb Fullback Felix “Doc” Blanchard arrived in New York for the fall of 1944 he had already turned heads as a freshman at North Carolina. Blanchard was no boy at age 22, whereas few of the players on teams Army faced were older than 19. The young man who shared accolades with Blanchard in Army’s great backfield, Glenn Davis, was a genuine freshman. A high school sensation in several sports, the lean and lanky Californian headed to West Point as the leading scorer and yardage rusher in his home state.

Facing weakened opposition squads and playing behind the blocking of an equally stacked and mature line the Army backfield exploded on all comers. The Cadets were simply loaded. 6’3”, 220lb monster tackle DeWitt Coulter (a product of Fort Worth’s famed Masonic Home “Mighty Mites”) would go on to notoriety in the professional game with the New York Giants after the war. He, too, was in his mid-twenties. Even though Blaik generally benched his better players after securing an insurmountable lead, refusing to increase the deficit unnecessarily, Army struggled to not score. After having not scored on Notre Dame at all since 1938, two lopsided shut-outs in 1944 and 1945 amounted to 107-0. Army gave up only 35 points in 1944, scoring less than 46 on only two occasions. The following season they allowed only 46 points all year while recording five shut-outs.

In the fall of 1946 veteran players returned from the war looking to avenge the heavy losses the Cadets had handed their schools in their absence. But Army’s dominance continued. Certainly the margins began to narrow a little. Michigan gave a scare as Army needed a grueling 77 yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter to finally wrestle momentum from the Wolverines and secure a 28-13 win at the Big House. But the huge shut outs continued over Oklahoma, Cornell, Villanova and West Virginia. The only blemish on the record of Blaik’s great war-era teams came on November 9th at Yankee stadium, as 60,000 expectant fans witnessed the now infamous scoreless tie with Notre Dame. That game would have been an Army victory as well, but for one last-ditch open field tackle by Notre Dame’s legendary, versatile All-American back Johnny Lujack. Blanchard had broken from the crowd and with nothing but Lujack and 40 yards of daylight between him and the goal a touchdown seemed the most likely outcome. Instead, a perfectly timed and doggedly executed tackle at the knees left Blaik’s record for 1944-46 a not-quite perfect 26-0-1.

The Cadets won two AP national titles outright in 1944-45 and shared a third with the Irish in 1946. Blanchard won the Heisman Trophy in 1945 and Davis claimed it the following year. The team posted 13 shut-outs in 27 games while averaging over 50 points on offense – a figure that still looks ugly in our age of pass-first, five receiver set, spread offense insanity. In his career Glenn Davis accounted for a touchdown either rushing, passing, or receiving once every nine times he touched the ball. No other college player has come close to that staggering statistic.

Since 1946 Army has not claimed even a shared national title and has only produced one further Heisman winner, Pete Dawkins in 1958. Today Army teams struggle to even register on the national radar. There is no doubt that Army’s wartime success was rooted in the depletion of other programs and the Academy’s temporary monopoly of national athletic talent. But that hardly matters. Fighting a harsh and costly war against Fascism and Militarism to defend the kinds of free societies where people can waste their hard-earned time and money on ball games because they want to, Americans needed comfort and encouragement. And shouldn’t the Army have the best team during war time?

As a uniquely American spectacle, I cherish all the things about College Football that reflect its national character. It is a shame that the modern game has left the service academies behind. Top athletes should be proud and keen to attend West Point or Annapolis. But that’s their decision. Whether Army football will ever be great again I don’t know. Be we can look back with fond smiles and know that when the U.S. Army stood unwavering for the cause of liberty against the Fascist hordes, its football team swept aside all foes in like manner, setting records that continue to stand up against the innovations of the modern game.

(Sources: John Devaney, Winners of the Heisman Trophy; Sporting News, College Football’s Twenty Five Greatest Teams)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

False pessimism

Whilst trawling a few Auburn blogs recently in order to gloat in their deliciously painful coaching hire fiasco, I came across one post at Joe Cribb’s Car Wash stating that the writer could not recall a single case of “false pessimism” from fans who mistakenly berated what they saw as an ill-considered coaching hire.

Although I don’t like to encourage Auburn, the blogger might well have considered the curious case of Woodrow Hayes.

After the 1950 season Ohio State parted ways with head coach Wes Fesler. Though a highly touted All-American end for the Buckeyes in the late 1920s and general local hero, Fesler had not inspired as OSU coach. Despite a 1949 Rose Bowl championship his 6-3 record a year later, capped with ‘snow bowl’ loss to hated Michigan, proved too much. The university administration feared that the apparent gap between the Buckeyes and their rival to the north might never be closed and decided to look elsewhere for leadership.

Fan favorite and media darling Paul Brown expressed clear interest and the way seemed clear. Brown, a man so astronomically conceited he allowed the NFL franchise he served as inaugural head coach to assume his own name, had succeeded Francis Schmidt at OSU in 1940. In 3 years leading the Buckeyes he amassed an 18-8-1 record and had been gathering significant momentum and national attention before war intervened. Brown left Columbus to serve in the U.S. Navy and after the war accepted the job as coach of Cleveland's new NFL outfit. He gladly applied his local fame, immense personality and undeniable appeal to the success of the pro-game in Ohio. Impressed with his performance and dissatisfied with 6-3 finishes for the state's real team, Ohioans yearned to wind back the clock and resume Buckeye football progress at the point Japanese militarism had retarded it.

Athletic Director Dick Larkins and the university Board of Advisers did not see things in quite the same light. Where Buckeye fans saw wins, confidence, and magnetism, Larkins perceived arrogance and potential power struggles. The committee passed on an incredulous Brown and focused instead on University of Missouri head coach Don Faurot.

After playing for his home state Tigers in the first half of the 1920s Faurot determined to continue in athletics as a coach. Physically diminutive but mentally impressive and possessed of an indomitable drive for victory, Faurot proved a remarkable leader. His 101-79-10 record with three conference championships and four bowl trips in nineteen seasons from 1935 to 1956 stand as one of Mizzou’s better eras. Faurot also originated the T-formation, which dominated offense in the college game during the 1940s and into the 1950s. Faurot interviewed in Columbus and initially accepted the job, but experienced a change of heart upon returning home. He decided to remain in Missouri, preferring to finish his career in the state he had always called home than to take on a new and vast challenge farther north.

Denied his first and second choice, Larkins looked lower down the list. Eventually the search came to one Woodrow “Woody” Hayes, then at the end of his second year at Miami of Ohio. Hayes’ resume did not exactly inspire. He had been an unmemorable lineman at tiny Denison University in Granville, OH before going on to assistant coach/ history teacher duties at Mingo Junction and New Philadelphia High Schools. In three years as New Philadelphia head coach his teams went 18-10-1. Nine of those losses came in 1940, his final year before departing for naval service. The strength of his first two seasons earned him the head coaching job at his alma mater in 1946.

A tumultuous 2-6 start gave way to two consecutive 8-0 seasons, allowing Woody to cash in and move to Miami of Ohio. With the Redskins Hayes again began poorly, going 5-4 in 1948 before a 9-1 run, conference title and a win in the short-lived Arizona ‘Salad Bowl’ in 1949. At both schools the friction caused in his first season by Hayes' demanding and pugnacious style raised eyebrows around campus and beyond. Hayes had to use personal connections to even get his name added to the bottom end of the Ohio State search list and was a long shot at the start of the process. Larkins interviewed numerous candidates better known and with stronger resumes, but Hayes’ bullish confidence served him well when he finally gained the chance to meet the committee in person.

The announcement of Hayes as Ohio State’s new head football coach did not spark public euphoria. If it did not quite create the pandemic vocal disappointment recently displayed in eastern Alabama the response was at least analogous. Starting with a 4-3-2 season, in which friction caused by Hayes' coaching methods again became public knowledge, did little to quell criticism. Confidence in the hire remained so low that as late as Hayes’ third season one irate fan paid for a plane to fly over the Horseshoe on OSU’s final home date pulling a banner reading “Bye bye, Woody”. Only delivering the Buckeyes’ first win in Ann Arbor since 1937 ensured a fourth season. Unofficially, Hayes was on notice.

His team could hardly have responded better. In 1954 Hayes finally had the players he wanted for his ultra-conservative pounding run-game. His stout, dedicated team replicated his own work ethic in grinding out a 10-0 Rose Bowl winning season. An AP national championship more than closed the gap between OSU and Michigan that in 1950 seemed in danger of opening into a chasm.

Woody Hayes almost defies eulogy. There is little about him that immediately commands praise except his success on the field. He did choose and train assistants well, and though he often struggled to delegate authority he was rarely served poorly when he did. Many of his assistants went on to coaching notoriety in their own right - Ara Parsegian, Bo Schembechler and Lou Holtz to name only three. Woody’s own game plans evolved little in three decades. His preference for the outmoded T-offense endured well into the 1970s. Only the innovations brought by his staff saved him from being outstripped by younger rivals always keen to prove themselves by outdoing the vaunted juggernaut Buckeyes.

Hayes struck out at his players routinely in practice and on the field. He verbally attacked referees with great ferocity and often embarrassed the university. He typically worked 14 plus hour days, becoming a presence noted by absence in the family home. His wife and son bore with him but must have felt cheated by his unyielding devotion to Buckeye football. Hayes' temper made countless enemies and brought official Big Ten censure on several occasions. Finally, in the 1978 Citrus Bowl Hayes punched Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman after he made a game winning interception for the Tigers. Caught on ABC camera for the nation to see Hayes could not deny his crime, though he baulked from a full apology. A unanimous Board of Advisers decision put Hayes in the unusual position of being fired with a win rate above 70%, five national championships and thirteen Big Ten crowns.

But his players continued to love him. Former assistants and lettermen showered adoration, respect and praise until his dying day in 1985. Schembechler, Hayes’ great rival since taking the Michigan job in 1968, gave his former mentor the most glowing eulogy. Clearly the many tirades Bo received from Woody did not define the teacher in the eyes of his pupil. Players who had been through agonizing practices with no water or breaks, not to mention the psychologically punishing rants and physical abuse, returned praise for Woody’s character off the field. They saw him as a tender and concerned father figure who followed grades and social lives with selfless interest, helping wherever he could in the most practical ways. President Nixon also gave a eulogy at Hayes’ funeral. To many this will detract from Hayes’ standing and credibility, but not many people have a former Commander in Chief call them a friend at their funeral – even if it is R. M. Nixon.

Defining and judging Hayes is beyond the scope of my knowledge and talents. The man was irascible, outspoken and intransigent to say the least. His lack of self awareness almost cost Ohio State as much as his victories gained. And yet people who actually knew him saw past his flaws to something deeper.

Whether or not Hayes was a good man in the grand scheme, one thing is in no doubt. Hiring him as Ohio State head football coach in 1950 proved a good decision. The public despair his arrival in Columbus inspired now seems laughable. Except to Michigan fans.

Here’s hoping Gene Chizik is no Woody Hayes.

(Sources: Lombardo, Fire to Win; WOSU, Beyond the Gridiron; Life of Don Faurot)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Mr Slingin' Samuel Baugh

We lack a definitive, scientific way to determine the best college football player of all time. So, in the interest of fairness and in order to settle a futile dispute, let’s just declare me the final arbiter and agree that it is clearly Sam Baugh.

Baugh died on December 17th, 2008 aged 94. Here in Fort Worth Baugh is a legend and revered local hero. He is also celebrated by those with a good knowledge of NFL history. Any one familiar with his career is in no doubt that his name belongs in any footballing pantheon of national notoriety. In everything he did on the field, Baugh stood out. But off it he was humility incarnate. He never brazenly promoted himself. It even took the providential intervention of the football gods to bring Baugh’s talent to light at all. Growing up in the central Texas town of Temple the odds did not favor him. Clearly the only genuine star on a woeful middle school team, his coach saw nothing to lose in moving him from end to the backfield before he was either old or big enough to be there. Fortunately his father found work with the Santa Fe Railroad and packed the family off to tiny Sweetwater in west Texas. Playing on much better teams Baugh reached the State High School playoffs twice. But it was as an inspired third baseman that he attracted the attention of Texas Christian University’s baseball coach, Dutch Meyer.

Baugh headed to Fort Worth to play baseball in 1933 with many predicting a big league future. Mercifully, the gods intervened again. Francis Schmidt, after quietly putting together impressive football teams that won two Southwest Conference titles in four years, earned an irresistible job offer from Big Ten giant Ohio State. TCU moved Dutch Meyer over to football as Schmidt’s replacement. One of Meyer’s first acts, and either his most farsighted or fortuitous, was to convince Baugh to follow him. Meyer liked Baugh’s arm, his accuracy and his attitude and saw the young athlete as the key to his system. Perhaps Meyer’s love of baseball gave him a unique perspective on football. For whatever reason, he saw potential in the passing game that his peers did not. He instituted a pass-oriented short yardage system not unlike the more recent not-so-revolutionary ‘West Coast offense.’ With Baugh’s prodigious skill at the heart of operations Meyer’s Horned Frog teams went 29-7-2 in his first three seasons, winning the 1936 Sugar Bowl and 1938 Cotton Bowl. Baugh made the Camp All-America team twice and compiled 3,384 yards and 39 touchdowns. Texas Tech routinely posts such numbers today in their non-conference slate vs. Sun Belt scrub teams alone, but in the mid 1930s such stats literally boggled the mind.

Baugh’s career at TCU provided countless highlights, including a national championship effort at the second annual Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1936. The Horned Frogs ground out a bruising win over LSU by the spectacularly old-school margin of 3-2 (recently displayed for modern audiences by Auburn and Miss. State). On an oppressively rainy January day Baugh punted the water-logged football 14 times for a 45 yard average. But for all his wins with all their air of herculean perfection, Baugh’s TCU fame remains inextricably tied to a fateful home loss against cross-town rivals SMU on Nov 30th 1935. That day Baugh garnered highly deserved praise in the national press. But when in the end he came up short, showing himself mortal.

With the Great Depression showing no sign of abating, folks in North Texas needed something to cheer about. Regardless of the hard times, around 40,000 found the spare change to buy tickets that by kick-off were selling for the prohibitively princely sum of $1.65. No one doubted the value of their purchase as two star-studded teams presented the best of Southwest Conference football to the nation. With Meyer’s Frogs tied for first in the AP poll and Matt Bell’s Mustangs in fourth, both perfect at 10-0, big names headed to Cowtown from every corner. Fort Worth was then an obscure outpost, barely on the map half a century. The Southwest Conference was in its twentieth season but still languished far behind the Ivy League, Big Ten and Pacific Coast Conference in prestige and media attention. But with a Rose Bowl bid at stake New York Sun sports reporter Grantland Rice, a college football legend in his own right, refused to miss the spectacle. Texas football did not disappoint. Rice called the show: “one of the greatest games ever played in the sixty year history of our nation’s finest college sport.”

Led by SMU’s own All-American half-back Bobby Wilson, the Mustangs jumped out to an early 14-0 lead on 73 and 80 yard drives. TCU quickly pulled themselves out of their early slump. Baugh was far from the only star on the team. All American center Darrell Lester and All Conference back Jimmy Lawrence were only two of the other Frogs earning accolades of their own. But the team had only one undisputed leader and darling. Baugh did everything he could to find the win, throwing for 180 yards and a touchdown on 17 of 44 passes. Drops accounted for 8 of his incompletions. Baugh blamed himself, claiming that he threw too hard in an effort to defeat SMU’s tight coverage. Wilson later magnanimously insisted that his opponent’s passes had been manifestly catchable.

The game winning score came out of punt-formation on a fourth down heave from the TCU 37 yard line with seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. In those days an incomplete pass to the end zone counted for a touchback, so with nothing to lose SMU called pass and Bob Finley lofted the ball down field. In addition to his outstanding offensive play and consistent half-century punting Baugh was also a standout defensive back. He knew the pass was coming and was the closest TCU man to the action when who else but the irrepressible Wilson made a twisting catch, falling backwards over the goal line. The helpless Baugh could only watch aghast. He responded by driving TCU down the field before stalling at the 30. On the ensuing SMU drive Wilson gifted Baugh one last chance by fumbling at the Frog 18. TCU reached the opposing 25 yard line as the clock expired, leaving Baugh within sniffing distance of goal in a crushing 20-14 upset. No. 45 could do many things, but not bend time.

Grantland Rice, with his usual propensity to over-dramatize, captured the game’s frantic final moments, writing that Baugh’s “passing attack was eating up ground when the whistle blew with SMU supporters almost in a panic against the deathly machine gun fire.” Boston Globe writer Bill Cunningham summed up Baugh’s immense talent in a folksier fashion, penning words now immortal to every TCU fan: “Mr. Slingin’ Samuel Baugh can chunk that cabbage. He throws that plaything in all modes and tenses, short or long, high or low, hard or soft.”

Yes sir, Sammy Baugh could do it all; but not that day. Rice and sports writers of his ilk have always looked to make immortals of a few men. In reality, the appeal of our best athletes is surely that they are only men like us. Humility remains Baugh’s noblest and most admirable characteristic.

Baugh played for the Washington Redskins from 1937 until 1952. I won’t sully the pages of this blog with too much pro-football talk - If you want that, see the New York Times obituary – but a brief look at the NFL’s records pages speaks volumes for Baugh’s lasting impact on the game. He ranks first or second in multiple categories including most seasons leading the league in punting, passing, completions, completion percentage, pass attempts, yards gained, and lowest percentage of passes intercepted. He holds the NFL record for average gain per completion in a single game. His career average yards per punt is the NFL’s second highest and his single season average the highest. When the sun sets for its final time Baugh will still be the only player to have thrown four touchdowns and intercepted four passes in the same game (unsurprisingly achieved against the Detroit Lions – 1943). Most impressively, Baugh is the only name that appears consistently on the NFL’s all time record lists predating the 1960s. His athletic accomplishments stand up to rigorous comparison with the best of today’s game. Off the field, he surpassed them all.

Baugh spent years at the top of the professional game in the nation’s capital, but he remained a small town Texan to his core. He spent as much time as possible with his wife and children on their land in Rotan, Texas and retired there to peaceful quietude as soon as his playing days were done. Baugh was no recluse though. He unabashedly expressed due confidence in his ability, for humility is certainly not self deprecation. Probably the two most famous Baugh stories capture this contrast most acutely.

In Baugh's first Redskins practice head Coach Ray Flaherty approached his highly touted QB and said:

“They tell me you’re quite the passer.”

“I reckon I can throw a little bit,” Baugh answered.

“Show me,” Flaherty challenged. “Hit that receiver in the eye.”

Baugh came back like a flash:

“Which eye?”

For all his tongue-in-cheek assuredness, Baugh never demonstrated the self-congratulatory egotism that mars the modern game. He never signed any balls in the end zone with sharpies hidden in his sock for the purpose. He never swaggered, brayed, crowed, or strutted. Baugh did not win the second annual Heisman trophy, probably because the Southwest Conference in 1935 did not command enough national respect. That honor went to Yale end Larry Kelly, a man who notoriously lacked Baugh’s down-home graciousness. Baugh established the SWC as a recognized power, blazing the trail for another Horned Frog, Davey O’Brian, to earn the league’s first Heisman in 1938. Acknowledging Baugh’s accomplishments the SWC invited Baugh to a dinner for all its Heisman winners in 1995, the league’s valedictory year. Asked by Fort Worth Star Telegram writer Whit Canning how he felt sitting beside the likes of Doak Walker, Earl Campbell and Andre Ware, Baugh replied with a wry but serious smile:

“I feel like the bastard at a family reunion.”

Can anyone imagine Terrell Owens saying that?

(Sources: Dan Jenkins, Greatest moments in TCU football history; Fort Worth Star Telegram obit; New York Times obit;; Redskins tribute; Boston Globe and New York Sun)