Book Reviews: “When Saturday Mattered Most” and “Soldiers First” Books About Army Football at West Point

Gridiron greats: Two new books take a lively look at West Point’s legendary football program — then and now

This hasn’t been a great season for Army football. At press time, we still didn’t know how the December 8 Army-Navy game would play out, but for the rest of 2012, the Black Knights logged only two victories. In a compelling new book, Sports Illustrated writer Mark Beech takes a nostalgic look back at the greatest season in Army gridiron history. When Saturday Mattered Most (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99) focuses on 1958 — the last time West Point had an undefeated season. (Actually, it was the last time any of the service academies pulled off that feat.)

But the book is about more than one championship team. Beech, a second generation West Pointer, writes how this storied season — which preceded the rise of big-money professional football — signaled the end of an era, both for the academy and collegiate sports in general.

earl red blaik

when saturday mattered mostAt left, Army football coach Earl “Red” Blaik sits in his office beneath a portrait of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Right, the cover of Beech’s book, When Saturday Mattered Most

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Throughout most of the 1940s and ’50s, Army football reigned supreme. Not only were national championship contenders produced almost every year, but the coach who oversaw the program through most of this era, Earl “Red” Blaik, became one of the most influential coaches in the history of the sport. It was not only Blaik’s extraordinary winning streak that made him such a standout, but also his one-of-a-kind mentoring abilities. Iconic Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi was just one of 13 Blaik assistants who left West Point to manage their own teams. 

In the book, Beech delves into the personalities behind the plays. Sometimes dubbed “Saint Blaik” — he didn’t drink, smoke, or curse — Army’s head coach was still a force to be reckoned with. “To his players Blaik was a hard-driving, unforgiving martinet, and he was so universally loathed by the cadets that they bestowed upon him the unaffectionate nickname ‘the Whip,’ ” writes Beech, adding that a group of players got together and threatened to quit if the “abusive treatment” didn’t let up. 

History buffs will love the juicy tidbits about Blaik’s long relationship with General Douglas MacArthur, who he first met when he was a cadet. For years, Blaik would travel to the general’s suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan for counsel and spirited postmortems of each game. He considered his tête-à-têtes with the general so important that once, after getting a flat tire near the George Washington Bridge, he left his wife on the side of the road with the car and hitchhiked to meet his hero.

soldiers first

In Soldiers First (Times Books, $26.00), New York Times sportswriter Joe Drape takes us inside the world of today’s Army football program. The story focuses on the efforts of head coach Rich Ellerson, who, “in his wistful moments,” Drape writes, “believed that the service academies could be on the vanguard of a magical and virtuous renaissance of college football.” Drape followed the Black Knights through their 2011 season and reports, in compelling detail, about the extraordinary demands placed upon these young men, as well as the unique life lessons they learn.  

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