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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,015

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This is the grave of Red Blaik.

Born in 1897 in Detroit, Earl Blaik was the son of a contractor and Scottish immigrant. So he hardly grew up rich in Dayton, where the family moved when young Red was a kid. Blaik was very good at football, still a pretty new sport at this time. He was able to attend college at Miami (OH) to play football for three years. Then he made a big move. He was able to get accepted in the U.S. Military Academy and so could play for Army for the last two years of his college career. Army was a power with two recent national titles to its name; Miami was a regional school. So this was a big step up in competition. He was a third team All-American there. Blaik then graduated in 1920 and went into the Cavalry for two years before he could get out of the military. After that, he returned to Ohio and worked with his father.

But being a construction guy was not where Blaik saw his future. He wanted to be a football coach. At this time, most college teams had full-time coaches but a lot of the assistants were part-timers. That’s how Blaik started, back at Miami for the 1924-25 seasons. Then he coached part-time at Wisconsin in 1926. Then he went back to Army and was a part-time coach between 1927 and 1930. He reached full-time status in 1930 and stayed for another four years. Dartmouth hired him as their head coach in 1934 and he would remain there through 1940. He was pretty dominant in the Ivy League, at one point having a 22 game winning streak.

By 1940, Army wasn’t the power it had been earlier. It was being outclassed by schools who took football seriously. Army had serious height and weight requirements that made it impossible to compete on the lines. Navy had gotten rid of its restrictions for the very reason that it wanted to win. And by 1940, it had the better football program, which drove Army nuts. So in 1941, it hired Blaik to revitalize the program. He took the job on the condition that the height and weight requirements would go. They did and Blaik rebuilt Army into the great power of the World War II era. He won the national title in 1944 and 1945 and did not lose for a remarkable 32 games in a row between 1944 to 1947. The reason the team didn’t win the title in 1946 was that it tied Notre Dame 0-0 (ah the excitement of pre-passing football) and so finished 2nd.

Blaik was an innovator. He started moving out the two-way players and created the modern specialization for the game. Under Blaik, at least by the late 40s, you played one position, not two. And you worked at that position, become a specialized expert. To say the least, this was a critical advance. Blaik coached some of the greatest college players of all time. Doc Blanchard won the Heisman in 1945. Glenn Davis won the Heisman in 1946. Pete Dawkins won it in 1958. Blaik coached 11 future Hall of Fame players at Army (as well as 1 at Dartmouth). Among his assistant coaches who would later helm program include Sid Gilman and a guy named Vince Lombardi.

Not everything was super smooth the whole time. In 1951, most of the team was kicked off when they violated the school’s honor code by cheating on tests, which really is a beyond unacceptable violation at the military academies. Of the 90 students evicted from the Academy, 37 were football players. One of them was Blaik’s own son, who was the team’s starting quarterback. Now, if you were going to hire an actor to play Red Blaik in a 2005 ESPN movie about this incident, who would you hire? That’s right, you’d hire Scott Glenn, who did play him in the movie. Hard to argue with that choice. Also, not surprisingly, this was Blaik’s only losing season.

Blaik wasn’t really a Colonel, despite what his grave says. He was in the reserves as a colonel, and he was known as “The Colonel” by his players. But he never served actively outside of his brief time after graduating from the Academy.

In 1948, Blaik also took over the position of athletic director for Army. By 1958, he was ready to move on and make some money. He stepped down as coach that year and AD the following year. He was well-connected, a coaching legend and who didn’t want to hear coaches tell stories? So Avco, part of the military-industrial complex, hired him in 1959 and worked there for the next several years. I’m not precisely sure what he did there, but I bet a lot of it was just telling stories and making everyone feel good about being in the room with such a legend. He died in 1989, at his retirement home in Colorado Springs, at the age of 92.

Red Blaik is buried at the United States Military Academy Cemetery, West Point, New York.

At this point in time, Red Blaik’s 166 coaching wins makes him tied for 48th all time, with Brian Kelly. Of course he didn’t coach as long as lot of these guys. If you’d like this series to visit other coaches near Blaik’s victory total, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Georgia Tech coaching legend Bobby Dodd is in Marietta, Georgia and former Alabama and Duke coach William Wade is in Durham, North Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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