- The Washington Times - Monday, August 3, 2009

Football has been a vast wasteland at the United States Military Academy for at least the last 12 seasons. Over that span, under six baffled head coaches, the proud Black Knights stumbled to a 27-100 record and defeated Navy exactly twice.

Much too long ago, however, the Black Knights of the Hudson had one of the nation’s best college programs. From 1944 through 1950, they were 57-3-1 and won three national championships under famed coach Earl “Red” Blaik with such All-Americans as Glenn Davis, Felix “Doc” Blanchard, Arnold Galiffa and Dan Foldberg leading the way.

Everything changed Aug. 3, 1951, when 37 football players were among 90 cadets who were expelled for “cribbing,” i.e. academic cheating. One of the players was quarterback Bob Blaik, the coach’s son.

Across the nation, screaming headlines all but knocked the Korean War off front pages. Col. Blaik had coached at his alma mater for 10 years without a losing season, but the 1951 season produced a 2-7 record with losses to three Ivy League opponents and a 42-7 drubbing by Navy as he struggled to rebuild.

The Black Knights rebounded in seasons to come, but the shame and blame lingered long after. Never again would Army win a national title. In recent years, the mere idea has seemed laughable.

Blaik first learned an academic investigation was under way three months before the August announcement when 12 players requested a meeting and told him they were suspects in a probe that had been conducted for nearly two months by a tactical board of junior officers in the Corps.

The coach was well aware that the academy’s Honor Code called for dismissal of anyone giving or receiving assistance on an exam. But why had he not been told of the investigation earlier? That night Blaik headed for the home of Superintendent Frederick A. Irving, awakening him by tossing pebbles at his bedroom window in what sounds like as scene from a bad movie.

“This may be a catastrophe, and it demands the most mature judgment,” Blaik told him, according to Hugh Wyatt’s 2000 biography of the coach.

The next day, Blaik’s son told his father that he and many others in his junior class were guilty of the violations. The coach’s reaction was entirely predictable: “My God! How could you? How could you?”

The tactical board sent its report to the superintendent June 8. Inexplicably, the panel never consulted Blaik.

“Nor was my request granted to appear before the academic board,” Blaik said later. The coach had reason to suspect an anti-football bias in the probe. Over the next two months, he made several trips to the District to plead with Pentagon officials to reconsider the dismissals.

Army Secretary Frank Pace Jr. appointed a three-man review board that upheld the verdicts. Years later Gen. Troy Middleton, a member of the panel, told Blaik it was because seniors who were interviewed stated the entire Corps would resign if the 90 dismissals were overturned. This was sheer baloney, but apparently the three reviewers swallowed it.

President Harry S. Truman signed an order approving the dismissals. Many of the men involved had not themselves been guilty of cheating but knew what was happening. That was enough. Like Shoeless Joe Jackson in the Black Sox baseball scandal that broke in 1920, they, too, were going, going, gone.

Academy officials asked Blaik to make no public statement on the matter. Forget it. Several days later, at a crowded news conference in New York, the widely respected coach stood taller than ever.

“I know [the cadets] are men of character,” Red Blaik said. “No man in Washington has the right to send them out of West Point with anything other than an honorable discharge. I consider an administrative discharge a gross injustice. My entire endeavor from now on will be to see that these boys leave West Point with the same reputations that had when they came in.”

Blaik stayed on as Army’s coach for eight more seasons and ended his long career with another undefeated season in 1958 as the Cadets finished 8-0-1, whipped Navy and produced a Heisman Trophy winner in halfback Pete Dawkins. But from the gloomy spring and summer of ‘51 until the day he died in 1989 at age 92, it’s likely that he never again enjoyed football quite as much.

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