Army vs. Navy, 1944: The original game of the century

With the country at war and the dominance of the service academies over the rest of college football, the 1944 Army vs. Navy game was one of the most anticipated matchups in the history of the rivalry. The battle on the gridiron that resulted became the stuff of legend.

As the days ticked down in 1944 for the 46th edition of the Army vs. Navy annual gridiron engagement, the success of the two squads that season had propelled public interest to a fever pitch unparalleled in the series. Breathless media declared the matchup of the No. 1 Cadets and the No. 2 Midshipmen the de facto national championship, and the interest of the public at large seemed to cement that sentiment.

It proved to be the rare case in which the contest completely lived up to the hype.

The 1944 season had unfolded with an inescapable backdrop of the United States at war. The Normandy invasion had taken place on June 6, and the entire country had been transfixed by the ongoing battles to reclaim Europe from the grip of Nazi Germany. That same month, the Battle of the Philippine Sea had marked one of the most decisive victories by the Allies against the Japanese navy in the Pacific theater.

Yet as December began, the national mood had become more resigned. Setbacks in Europe and the bloody, unending battles to take obscure Pacific islands had dampened the summer's optimism that the conflict was nearing its conclusion.

On the home front, football was a respite from the grim news from overseas, and the service academies were the shining stars. As the Dec. 2 Army vs. Navy game approached, the two were the best in the land by a wide margin. For the Cadets, that marked a dramatic change from the recent past.

Through the 1930s, the fortunes of the West Point program had stumbled, then fallen precipitously. A 1-7-1 record in 1940 prompted United Press to describe the Cadets as "a national calamity," and military officials seriously considered mothballing the football team.

Instead, West Point administrators opted to ditch a three-decade-old rule barring a civilian from leading the football team and hired Earl "Red" Blaik – one of the brightest rising stars in the college football coaching pantheon.

Spartan and abstemious by nature (his most profane epithet was "Geez, Katy"), Blaik's soft-spoken manner belied a fiercely competitive spirit. His insistence on fundamentals and timing prompted one player to refer to him as "that metronomic drill devil."

The 44-year-old Ohioan had been a three-sport standout at West Point and later served as an assistant on the staff of Colonel Lawrence "Biff" Jones. It didn't take Blaik long to earn a reputation as one of the sharpest minds in football, and soon after, Dartmouth claimed him as its head coach.

In seven years at Hanover, he led the Indians to a 45-16-4 record that included a 22-game unbeaten streak from 1938-1940. During Blaik's tenure, Dartmouth won its first game ever against Yale, then repeated the feat three more times. In 1941, his alma mater summoned him back to revive the flailing fortunes of the Cadets.

Blaik took on the task of rebuilding the Army football program with one caveat: a suspension of the rule that limited the weight of players to 181 pounds or fewer. Blaik felt this was an insurmountable handicap to the team, given the increasing size of the sport's linemen.

The timing of his arrival at West Point was also fortuitous as it coincided with the onset of World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in Dec. 1941, many college programs were drastically weakened as young men enlisted in the war effort. The academies subsequently saw an influx in talent as programs shuttered and their stars sought out military options.

Two of Navy's standout players in 1944, tackle Don Whitmire and running back Bob Jenkins, had starred on Alabama's powerful squads before the Crimson Tide dropped football in 1943.

Inside-outside_medium

Under those conditions, Blaik's quest to remake the Army football team didn't take long. He led a squad of Cadets that had eked out a single win the year before to a five-win campaign in 1941 that earned him coach of the year honors. As the quality of his players improved, so did the win-loss record, and by the time of the 1944 season, Army was once again a formidable foe.

Led by the powerful running attack of Felix "Doc" Blanchard and Glen Davis – known to the public as Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside – Army pounded its way through the opposition in 1944. By the time December arrived, the unbeaten Cadets outscored their prior opponents 481-28, and only half of the eight teams they had faced were able to eke out a single touchdown. The closest margin of victory had been 20 points.

In fact, heading into the the 1944 rivalry, the Midshipmen's 13-0 defeat of the Cadets in 1943 had been Army's most recent loss.

Navy was a popular preseason pick to win the title in 1944 despite being led by first-year coach Cmdr. Oscar E. Hagberg, who had just returned from a Pacific submarine command. The hopes of the highly touted Middie team to produce an undefeated season in 1944 went awry from the get go.

Navy lost the season opener to a surprisingly stout North Carolina Navy Pre-Flight squad. The Cloudbusters boasted future NFL star Otto Graham and were led in part by a promising young coaching prospect named Bear Bryant. (The team would go on to a 6-2-1 record against a slate made up of almost entirely of military training units). The only other loss on the Midshipmen's schedule was a 17-15 defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

The barometer of Army and Navy's dominance over the rest of college football was another highly regarded team that year: Notre Dame. The Midshipmen managed to best the Fighting Irish 32-13 the first week of November, but the Cadets completely destroyed the squad from South Bend 59-0 a week later in Yankee Stadium. It remains the worst loss in Notre Dame history.

By that point, the 1944 Army vs. Navy matchup was being touted as the "game of the century" in newspaper accounts, and no less than Grantland Rice predicted it would be "one of the best and most important football games ever played." The big question was where it would be played.

At the start of the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had decreed that the service academies' annual rivalry game would alternate between the two campuses for the duration of the conflict. In 1944 it was slated to be played at Navy's home field, Thompson Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, which had a maximum capacity of just under 19,000.

As interest in the game grew, government officials began to consider moving it to a larger venue in order to accommodate more spectators, as well as link it to a new war bonds push. For more than a week in mid-November, the press speculated on the possible new site for the game, with Philadelphia and New York City listed as possibilities.

Grantland Rice predicted it would be "one of the best and most important football games ever played."

On Nov. 17, it was announced the game would be held at Baltimore's Municipal Stadium, a venue with a capacity of more than three times that of Thompson Stadium that had last hosted the Army vs. Navy game in 1924. Tickets to the game were were then made available to anyone purchasing war bonds through the Maryland State War Finance Committee. These sold out within 24 hours, raising more than $58.6 million for the war effort.

On Dec. 2, 1944, a sold-out crowd of 66,659 gathered in Municipal Stadium on a frigid but clear Saturday afternoon to see the much-anticipated contest. The cold temperatures were exacerbated by a brisk wind that blew through the stadium the entire game. The Navy contingent arrived on boats sailed across Chesapeake Bay, and the Army party was carried on troopships escorted by Navy destroyers.

Blaik's pregame speech to his Army team consisted of reading a telegram sent from General Robert Eichelberger, who had been superintendent of West Point two years prior but was then serving in the South Pacific. It concluded, "Win for all the soldiers scattered throughout the world."

The Cadets won the toss but elected to kick off. The first quarter quickly turned into a defensive slog. New York Times sportswriter Allison Danzig noted "the unusual ferocity of the give and take."

Despite a series of turnovers,  neither team could capitalize on the opportunities. Navy finally managed a first down in the final minutes of the first quarter but relied on a Statue of Liberty pass to do it. Several plays later, they were forced to punt again.

Army began to gain momentum in the second quarter when the Cadets' offensive line began opening holes for the tandem of Blanchard and Davis. Army rolled 66 yards on six plays and scored on a 24-yard touchdown run by Dale Hall.

Army led 7-0 – the first time the Cadets had done so in six years – and that was where the score stood at the intermission.

The first half proved costly to Navy. The Midshipmen's standout former Crimson Tide players, Whitmire and Jenkins, were forced out of the game due to injuries. The depletion to the defense would prove critical in the final 30 minutes of play.

In the third quarter, Army blocked a Navy punt and scored a safety when kicker Jack Hansen was downed in the end zone after recovering the ball. The Midshipmen defense stiffened after the kickoff, and a string of tackles for loss and penalties quickly had the Cadets facing third and 47.

Navy's offense picked up where the defense had left off and went on a 73-yard touchdown drive. Army stopped the Midshipmen once on the goal line but Clyde "Smackover" Scott then smashed it across for the score on the second attempt. As the third period ended it was Army 9, Navy 7, and it remained anybody's ball game.

The Midshipmen started the fourth quarter driving for the score that would give them the lead, but Army's Davis intercepted a pass and took it to midfield. The Cadets turned to Blanchard, giving him the ball eight consecutive times on a scoring drive that covered 52 yards. Army 16, Navy 7.

The Midshipmen were forced to punt their next possession, and the Cadets got the ball back on their own 32-yard line. Four plays later, Glen Davis dashed 50 yards for the final touchdown of the game. A few minutes later, the final whistle sounded, and Army had finally beaten its archrival, 23-7.

Despite throwing five interceptions and fumbling the ball three times, Army kept control of the contest from start to finish. The Cadets outgained the Midshipmen 181-71 on the ground, and Navy was only able to complete 14 of 24 passes for 98 yards.

"Our offense just couldn't get going," explained Comdr. Hagberg. "They whipped us, and that's just about all there is to it."

Blaik was his usually reserved self in making his post-game assessment.

"I think it was just a case of the No. 1 team in the country beating the No. 2 team in the country," he said.

Blaik's mentor, former West Point superintendent and then Supreme Allied Commander South West Pacific Area, Douglas MacArthur, wired his congratulations shortly after the win.

"The greatest of all Army teams – STOP – We have stopped to war to celebrate your magnificent success. MacArthur."

The victory earned the Cadets an undefeated season and won them the national championship. The next season, they repeated both feats. In fact, Army would go 32 games without a loss (a 21-20 defeat to Columbia on Oct. 25, 1947). Another five years would pass before Navy would once again claim a victory over its service rival.

Army running back Blanchard would win the Heisman Trophy the next year, and his companion in the backfield, Glenn, would claim it the season following. During their three years together at West Point, the duo combined for a total 97 touchdowns and 585 points. Blaik called them "the best one-two punch that college football ever saw," and it was hard to argue the point.

Blaik lead the Army team until 1958 earning a 121-33-10 record in his 18 seasons at West Point, enduring a single losing season in that span.

Despite the euphoria over the victory, the war soon reclaimed its place in the mind of the public. Exactly two weeks after the game, the German army launched a surprise offensive through the Ardennes Forest that would prove to be the largest and bloodiest battle for the US Army in World War II: the Battle of the Bulge.

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