Blaik, Earl Henry ("Red")
BLAIK, Earl Henry ("Red")
(b. 15 February 1897 in Detroit, Michigan; d. 6 May 1989 in Colorado Springs, Colorado), college football coach responsible for bringing the U.S. Military Academy into athletic prominence.
Blaik was one of three children of William Douglas Blaik, a blacksmith and carriage maker who later shifted his interests to real estate development, and Margaret Jane Purcell, a homemaker. When Blaik was four, the family relocated to Dayton, Ohio.
Blaik began his athletic career at Dayton's Steele High School, where he played football and basketball and occasionally appeared in drama productions. He was an indifferent student but did well enough to get by. Following his graduation in 1914, Blaik enrolled in the pre-law program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. There he became president of the student body and earned letters in baseball and football. During his junior and senior years, the Miami football team went undefeated, winning two Ohio Conference championships and outscoring their opponents 441–12.
After receiving a B.A. degree from Miami in 1918 and with the United States embroiled in World War I, Blaik won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. He continued to play sports, winning third-team All-America honors from Walter Camp for his work on the gridiron and the Army Athletic Association's Saber Award as the best athlete in his class. Due to wartime exigencies, Blaik's class was pushed through West Point in only two years. He was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, for cavalry training and in 1921 joined the Eighth Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas, as a first lieutenant. With the war over and his prospects as an officer less exciting, Blaik spent a year at Fort Bliss before resigning his commission in 1922. He returned to Dayton and joined his father's home-construction business. On 20 October 1923 he married Merle McDowell, with whom he had two sons.
While working in the family business, Blaik volunteered as an assistant coach with the Miami University football team. In 1926 he took time off to become part-time assistant football coach at the University of Wisconsin, before serving in the same capacity at the U.S. Military Academy from 1927 to 1933. In 1934 he left the home-building business after being named head football coach at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Blaik turned Dartmouth into a regional power. In his first two years as head coach, the team posted records of 6–3 and 8–2, including their first-ever victory over Yale in 1935. Under Blaik, Dartmouth won twenty-two straight games from 1936 to 1938 and unofficial Ivy League championships in 1936 and 1937. Blaik's most famous Dartmouth victory came in 1940, when a confused referee allowed undefeated Cornell University a fifth down in the last seconds of the season's match between the two schools. Cornell scored a touchdown and appeared to have won 7–3, but when a review of the game films confirmed the error, Cornell conceded the victory to Dartmouth. Blaik earned a reputation as a cerebral coach who used a variety of tactics to win. He hired a number of outstanding assistant coaches and approached the game with the philosophy that hard work was the only path to victory. From 1934 to 1940 Blaik's Dartmouth record was 45–15–4, including one undefeated season in 1937.
Blaik left Dartmouth in 1941 to become the first civilian head coach in thirty years at the U.S. Military Academy, whose Cadets' 1940 record was a dismal 1–7–1. After being assured of a direct line of communication to the school's superintendent and a loosening of the weight and height restrictions that were in place at the time, Blaik began the challenging process of turning around the team. His efforts resulted in a 5–3–1 record his first year and were further aided by the United States' entrance into World War II, when freshman cadets became eligible to play on varsity teams and more top athletes arrived at West Point. These included halfback Glenn Davis in 1943 and fullback Felix ("Doc") Blanchard in 1944. With Davis and Blanchard carrying the ball, Blaik's teams began a thirty-two-game unbeaten streak. In 1944 Army boasted a 9–0 record, outs-coring their opponents 504–35 and beating nemesis Notre Dame and archrival Navy to win the national championship. The Cadets, now nicknamed the Black Knights, repeated their performance in 1945. A 0–0 tie with Notre Dame was the only blemish on their 1946 record and cost them that year's national championship, but Blaik being named Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association softened the blow. A narrow defeat to Columbia University in 1947 ended Army's unbeaten streak, but the next week, they began another undefeated string of twenty-eight games. From 1944 to 1950 Blaik's Army teams compiled a 57–3–4 record and became the dominant college football power in the United States.
Blaik faced a low point in his career in 1951, when ninety West Point cadets, including thirty-seven football players, were accused of academic cheating and dismissed for violating the school's honor code. Blaik believed that the punishment was excessive and that the violation was due more to the way tests were administered than to a moral lapse on the part of the cadets. Because of the large number of football players involved, he questioned whether anti-football sentiment was behind the harsh punishment. In Blaik's first autobiography, he titled the chapter relating to the expulsions "The Ninety Scapegoats." His son Bob, the starting quarterback on the team, was one of those dismissed.
Ironically, the "cribbing scandal" probably encouraged Blaik to extend his coaching career. He had earlier gone on record as saying that coaches should retire at age fifty. Now, his program in shambles and his reputation tarnished, Blaik felt the need to prove himself. By the end of the 1953 season, his rebuilt Army team was ranked fourteenth in the nation with a 7–1–1 record. The Cadets captured the Lambert Trophy, the symbol of Eastern football supremacy, and Blaik received Coach of the Year honors from the Washington Touchdown Club. In 1958 Army went undefeated for the first time in nine years, with just one tie marring their record. The highlight of the season was Blaik's introduction of the "lonely end" offensive formation, a strategy that placed end Bill Carpenter wide of the formation as a "far flanker," never entering the huddle. The strategy's aim, which proved successful, was to weaken the opponent's defensive line because of the need to cover Carpenter. Blaik's innovation improved Army's passing game and allowed halfback Pete Dawkins to rack up yard-age with ball carries.
Following the season-ending win over Navy and after compiling a 121–33–10 record during his eighteen years as Army's head coach, Blaik announced his resignation. He said his main reason for leaving coaching was the greater financial reward of private business. He soon became a vice president and director of Avco Corporation, an aerospace company, and later served as chairman of the executive committees of both Avco and Blaik Oil Company. He was elected to the National Football Foundation's College Hall of Fame in 1964 and received the foundation's Gold Medal Award in 1966. He continued his interest in football by contributing articles to magazines and gave the keynote address at the opening of the College Football Hall of Fame's museum at King's Island, Ohio, in 1978. (The museum relocated to South Bend, Indiana, in 1995.)
After a long retirement in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Blaik died at age ninety-two of complications from a broken hip. He is buried in West Point Cemetery in West Point. Blaik's combined Dartmouth and Army career record was 166 wins, 48 losses, and 14 ties. At West Point he coached six undefeated teams, seven Lambert Trophy winners, and two national champions. Three of his Army players (Blanchard, Davis, and Dawkins) won both the Heisman Trophy and the Maxwell Award, and guard Joe Steffy was awarded the Outland Trophy. Sixteen of Blaik's assistant coaches, including Vince Lombardi, Sid Gillman, and Murray Warmath, became head coaches for college or professional teams. More importantly, most of this success was at the U.S. Military Academy. During World War II and the cold war, Americans wanted to believe that their country was protected by the best and the brightest. Army's success on the gridiron suggested that maybe they were. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan presented Blaik with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Blaik wrote two autobiographies: You Have to Pay the Price, with Tim Cohane (1960), and The Red Blaik Story (1974). Jack Clary, Army vs. Navy: Seventy Years of Football Rivalry (1965), includes Blaik's tenure as Army's most successful coach. Cohane, Great College Football Coaches of the Twenties and Thirties (1973), covers Blaik's Dartmouth career. Henry E. Mattox, Army Football in 1945: Anatomy of a Championship Season (1990), gives an account of Blaik's coaching at its best. An obituary is in the New York Times (7 May 1989).
Harold W. Aurand, Jr.