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Flashback: 1958

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 29 edition of Army Football Game Day.

1958: A gallon of gas cost 24 cents and a loaf of bread was 19 cents … Nathan’s hot dogs were 25 cents a pound … VISA and American Express cards were introduced … the first Pizza Hut opened in Kansas City … the New York Yankees won the World Series for the sixth time in the decade … Arnold Palmer won the first of his four titles at the Masters … and Army football introduced the “Lonely End” formation, which led to an 8-0-1 mark, a ranking of third nationally in the final AP and UPI polls, and the Lambert Trophy as the top team in the East.

The late 1950s were a tranquil time – sometimes referred to as the “good ole days.”  There were some great moments in sports in 1958, and Army football was at the forefront of the action under legendary coach Earl “Red” Blaik. He compiled a 121-33-10 record at West Point as his teams gained notoriety rolling over defenses with their hard-nose running game during his 18 years at the helm.

Considered one of the finest coaches in the history of the sport, Blaik reversed Army’s football fortunes shortly after being hired late in 1940. Like his national championship teams of 1944, 1945 and 1946, the 1958 team proved to be one of Blaik’s finest as it captivated audiences far and wide in the same vein as the Touchdown Twins (Felix “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis) regaled fans with their exploits on the “fields of friendly strife” in the mid-1940s.

Returning today to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the team of 1958 was led by first team All-Americans Pete Dawkins, a Heisman Trophy winner and Rhodes Scholar; Bob Novogratz, the nation’s outstanding line; and running back Bob Anderson.

The 1958 season was Blaik’s final year at the helm, and once again he showed his innovation as he shifted the emphasis to vary his attack to loosen up defenses stacking eight-man fronts against the Cadets’ vaunted T-formation. The legendary mentor drew up an unbalanced line with the end split wide on the strong side.

It was pointed out to Blaik by one of his friends at a conference that though the concept was unique (the end was 15 yards to the right or left of the center), he would eventually get tired with the limited substitution rule. Players in that era went both ways – offense and defense – so one can understand the dilemma facing Blaik.

“Conditioning and strength were more important then because we had to play both ways,” noted Harry Walters, a senior back on the 1958 team. “We were tested on both sides of the ball, and it was a real challenge.”

“In the two-platoon system, the academies (Army and Navy) had an advantage because players were fit,” explained Novogratz.  “We had fun because we were in such great shape and could play 50-55 minutes. It was an equalizer that was lost with the platoon system.” 

A tiger for efficiency due to limited practice time at the Academy, Blaik came up with a time saver after waiting for his end, Bill Carpenter, to return to the huddle during practice before running the next play. Blaik told Carpenter, who went on to close out his career as a three-star general, to stay on the flank and the pattern would be signaled to him to save time.

A very simplistic signal calling device was installed to relay the plays to Carpenter, who stayed off by himself. They were communicated to him by the position of quarterback Joe Caldwell’s feet. The first-year signal-caller would stand in back of the huddle and relay to Carpenter a running or passing play by which foot was forward. If the play was a pass, Carpenter, who was always on the wide side, would break and the backs, either Dawkins or Anderson, would relay hand signals as to which pattern to run. 

“We had about five to six hand signals, but I had to use my left hand to relay signals to Bill,” explained Anderson, elected in 2004 to the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. “If the ball was on the right hash mark, Bill would be wide to the left and depending upon what I touched – my ear hole, face mask, belt buckle, thigh guard, knee pad or to reach down and adjust my socks – signaled the route.” 

“If you look at football now, every team in the country is running the same formation - unbalanced line, wide receiver, flanker back,” noted Carpenter. “It gained a lot of attention, particularly because Col. Blaik was known for ‘three yards and a cloud of dust.’”

Army’s secret weapon and new concept of attack, dubbed the “lonely end formation,” captivated the nation.  The Cadets outscored their opponents, 264-49, highlighted by a 14-2 road win at Notre Dame and 22-6 decision over Navy in the season finale in Philadelphia, Pa.

That year, Army threw the ball 187 times and its 1,550 yards through the air was almost double what it compiled the previous two years.  The Cadets rushed for 1,830 yards and 23 scores while compiling 38 total touchdowns including 13 via the pass.  

“No one could figure out how plays were relayed to the “Lonely End,” commented Walters. “It was surprising how much work went in to find out the signals. But no one could put the combination together.”

Famous sportswriter Red Smith wrote in the 1958 Army-Navy program that “our war machine broke both the Japanese and German codes in World War II but this wasn’t revealed until hostilities ended; Army’s method of communication with the lonely end is, similarly, a military secret.”

The complexion of the game has changed, the rules continue to be refined, but the chapter that the 1958 team wrote for Blaik’s swan song on the sidelines left an indelible mark that still stands the test of time.

Novogratz remembers that Blaik’s “talks before a game and at halftime were stimulating.”

Walters noted that Blaik “could freeze you from 100 yards away by just looking at you. “His approach to the players was what made them play better. He would tailor his approach to fit that player’s need. The button to make me play harder was by making me angry. He would steer anger my way and watch me perform better.” 

Carpenter summed up Blaik’s role as coach when he said, “He was the type of guy you would do almost anything for, and is probably the best teacher I have ever had. I learned more about life from him and his system then I learned in all the classrooms in the world.”  

The 1958 team will walk once again on the hollowed ground of Michie Stadium, and the ghost of Blaik and their former teammates will be alongside them as they remember the path they cut to glory 50 years ago as Army’s last unbeaten team.

Mady Salvani is an Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.

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