Monday, January 09, 2012

Book Review: A Team for America

Well, I'm finally back in the saddle. Sort of, at least.

College football during the Second World War was kind of an unusual enterprise, what with that whole military draft thing resulting in males of collegiate age being called up for service. If you look at, say, the final AP Poll for 1944, you notice a bunch of "schools" like #3 Randolph Field, #5 Bainbridge Naval, #6 Iowa Pre-Flight, and more of the same ilk mixed in with more familiar names like Ohio State and Notre Dame. Then again, even a school like Notre Dame was not the typical undergraduate institution it had been in, say, 1941, but was instead largely devoted to Navy and Marine training.

That was true of essentially all of the top twenty teams in the country. Many schools dropped football, simply because they didn't have enough healthy men of the proper age. Those that didn't were the beneficiaries of an influx of those military trainees, who were then also subject to the whims of military training. For instance, 1943 Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli played in only six of Notre Dame's ten games before being activated for military service. Eligibility rules, which were previously fairly strict, were modified, permitting freshmen eligibility and letting transfers play without the need to sit out a year.

For purposes of Randy Roberts' A Team for America, it's worth a reminder that those were predominantly Navy and Marine training bases, and pretty much the only defender of The Long Gray Line was, well, The Long Gray Line itself, the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The problem had been the Army gridiron team had recently not been a great defender of the Gray against the Blue. Army hadn't beaten Navy since 1938, and the Cadets had bottomed out in 1940 with a 1-7-1 record. It's really there that Roberts' book begins, as he tells the story of the growth and development of the Army gridiron squad beginning with the hire of USMA grad Earl "Red" Blaik.

The Blaik hire was the beginning of a process where Army did essentially what many other formerly-quite respectable institutions have done. Lou Holtz reportedly recruiting Tony Rice and his poor SAT score to Notre Dame as a Prop 48 player who didn't come close to meeting even Notre Dame's relaxed admissions standards is an old story. The first challenge was simply hiring Blaik in the first place; Army had a policy of requiring football coaches to be serving officers, and while Blaik was an alumnus, he'd been out of the Army since the 1920's.

That surmounted, Army then had the problem of acquiring more talented players, one subject to two additional challenges: first, that entering cadets had to meet certain height and weight limitations that made it difficult to recruit players of the size even then normally found on the offensive and defensive lines, and second, ensuring that players had the academic wherewithal to survive and stay eligible at West Point, a school with a demanding enough daily schedule, mathematically and scientifically rigorous classes, and constant examinations that could make a player's eligibility a question from week to week.

Well, we know how the story ended. Army recruited and managed to keep enough great players like Mr. Outside Glenn Davis and Mr. Inside Doc Blanchard, and beat Navy en route to an undefeated season in 1944, where A Team for America ends.

Roberts, a professor of history at Purdue who's written books on other sports topics from the first half of the twentieth century, tells the story well enough. The book is well-researched, including interviews with the surviving members of the Army teams of the early 1940's, and, as you'd expect from a professor, includes footnotes and an index. From the subtitle, I expected more on Navy and the game itself, but this is really a book about Army's rise from 1940 to 1944 and Navy is present primarily as a foil. That's not a criticism of Roberts or the book, mind you, just a note that you should be aware of what you're getting.

Recommended for what it is, even though it doesn't escape the the problems of most football books.

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