Bill Connelly's second book, The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time (*The most interesting, innovative, and important, anyway) is due out in the coming weeks. It tells the story of college football's history through the lens of 50 particularly impactful teams. You can learn more here.
In 1951, the U.S. Army got dragged down by a cheating scandal. In the month before the football season began, 90 cadets were dismissed for what amounted to sharing answers on tests. A large number of those guilty were football players, enough that the dismissals took a team that was considered a national title contender and rendered it a lucky two-win squad.
The practice had been going on for four to five years. It came about like your normal frat or dorm cheating arrangement; two groups of students took the same exams at different times, and the second group would “get the poop” from the first group. This wasn’t a practice isolated to the football team, but gridiron stars were a big part of it.
The scandal furthered an academy divide. Football players were often resented for their preferential treatment.
Whatever divides existed before Red Blaik came to West Point in 1941, they had grown since. Blaik was a football man, and a good one. For seven years, he had fought with and antagonized professors at Dartmouth who thought football was taking on too much emphasis. He rubbed plenty of Army men the wrong way as well, despite (or perhaps because of) his honorary colonel status.
But he won.
He took advantage of increased enlistment and military stature during World War II to put together some of the most impressive collections of talent in the sport’s history.
He also had an eye for coaching talent. He delegated and empowered smart young assistants, and 20 of his former assistants became head coaches.
Well, they didn’t just become head coaches.
- Frank Lauterbur (Army offensive line coach, 1957-61) won 23 straight games at Toledo and engineered a No. 12 finish in 1970.
- Eddie Crowder (backfield coach, 1955) inherited a listless Colorado and took the Buffaloes to a No. 3 finish in 1971.
- Andy Gustafson (backfield coach, 1941-47) took on a nothing Miami program and finished No. 6 in 1956.
- At Houston, Bill Yeoman (center, 1946-48) revolutionized offense with his veer in the 1960s, pulled off four top-10 finishes between 1973-79, and influenced young tinkerers throughout Texas.
- Paul Dietzel (line coach, 1948, 1953-54) won a national title at LSU in 1958 and pulled off three top-five finishes in four years. Murray Warmath (line coach, 1949-51) won the 1960 national title at Minnesota, then finished in the top 10 in each of the next two years as well.
- Sid Gillman (line coach, 1948) won an AFL title with the San Diego Chargers in 1963 and revolutionized passing in professional football.
- And Vince Lombardi, Army assistant from 1948-53, is widely regarded as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history.
Football success is addictive.
It boosts campus morale and brings positive PR. It can hook even a service academy. In the name of bringing more success, you find yourself willing to look the other way.
And the Cadets hadn’t simply experienced success. In 1945, they had experienced football perfection.
Many teams have a case for claiming the title of Best College Football Team of All-Time (no asterisk), especially considering there’s not any way to prove such a case wrong. But no one has the case that Blaik’s ’45 Cadets have: In nine games, Army took on six of the best teams in the country and beat them by an average of 45-6.
Army had gone unbeaten in 1944, holding off another strong Ohio State to claim the AP national title, and it was obvious the Cadets were going to be good again. Most of the major contributors were back, and Blaik had added some incredible pieces. But the schedule stiffened up, with a decent Wake Forest replacing Brown and a strong Michigan replacing the Coast Guard.
That was supposed to be an obstacle; it was not. Instead, the season that began six weeks after V-J Day and four weeks after the signing of the treaty that officially ended World War II became a weeks-long victory lap.
Most college football fans have heard of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.
They are two all-time greats, and they won the Heisman in back-to-back years (Blanchard in 1945, Davis in 1946). Davis finished second in the voting in both 1944 and ’45; in three years, he scored 51 touchdowns. Briefly dismissed from the academy late in 1943 after failing a math class, he was readmitted after completing remedial work, eligible just in time to put together one of the most storied careers ever.
In Red Blaik’s You Have to Pay the Price: The Red Blaik Story, Davis’ head coach said, "He was emphatically the greatest halfback I ever knew. He was not so much a dodger and sidestepper as a blazing runner who had a fourth, even fifth gear in reserve, could change direction at top speed, and fly away from tacklers as if jet-propelled." He averaged 11.5 yards per carry in 1944-45. Ridiculous.
And for bonus points in the “I’ve mastered life” competition, he even dated Elizabeth Taylor for a bit in 1948.
That defenders had to pay so much heed to Blanchard gave Davis an almost unfair advantage. Blanchard was a 6’, 205-pounder from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, both a shot-putter and 100-yard dasher on the Army track team. Blaik called him “the best-built athlete I ever saw.” Doc had “not a suspicion of fat on him, with slim waist, Atlas shoulders, colossal legs.”
He also knew what to do with the football in his hands. He didn’t have Davis’ speed, but no one did. He was speedy for his size, though, and he gained the tough yardage. His career stats were spectacular: 1,908 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns in three years. He passed on pro football to become an Air Force fighter pilot.
Writers like Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon poured all the panache they had into poetic passages about “Mr. Inside” (Blanchard) and “Mr. Outside” (Davis). But the stats and results back up the prose: Blanchard and Davis almost certainly made up the best duo of running backs the sport has seen.
What made this team so ridiculous, however, was depth.
Because of loose wartime transfer rules — the service academies were basically able to recruit all-star teams — and because Blaik was relentless in milking every advantage, this team featured plenty of stars from other schools.
Halfback Shorty McWilliams was an All-American for Mississippi State in 1944 and returned to Starkville in 1946; in 1945, he was a backup good enough to finish eighth in the Heisman voting. Fullback Bobby Dobbs helped Tulsa to the Sun Bowl in 1942 and backed up Blanchard in 1945. Guard Joe Steffy played for Tennessee in 1944, when the Volunteers when unbeaten in the regular season again.
End Barney Poole played for Ole Miss and would return to Oxford to lead the Rebels to the 1947 SEC title. End Hank Foldberg played for Texas A&M, halfback Dean Sensanbaugher played for Ohio State, fullback Bob Summerhays would thrive at Utah, etc.
Plus, the show was run by quarterback Arnold Tucker, a steady enough hand to finish fifth himself in the Heisman voting (third on his own team) in 1946.
The skill positions were stocked three-deep with star power, and the line was extraordinary. It featured All-American captain John Green and future first-round pick DeWitt “Tex” Coulter, plus Herschel “Ug” Fuson, an athlete versatile enough to play both halfback and center and star at lacrosse.
Coulter would later say that this team had better depth than the 1946 NFL East champion New York Giants team he would join.
September 29: Army 32, Louisville P.D.C. 0
The season began with a challenging tune-up against a team formed at Louisville’s Air Force personnel distribution command. Louisville unleashed the most aggressive defense it could manage, and it slowed the Cadets down.
Army’s depth advantages were obvious from the start, though. Davis opened the scoring with a weaving, brilliant 87-yard run in the first quarter, but with entirely different personnel coming in for the second quarter, Army scored twice. A 25-yard Bob Stuart punt return set up a two-yard McWilliams plunge. Davis reentered and caught a 55-yard touchdown pass from Dick Walterhouse. Army led 19-0 at halftime and rolled.
October 6: Army 54, final No. 19 Wake Forest 0
Wake Forest barely fell to Tennessee in the first week and lost by only seven to Duke the week after Army. The Demon Deacons would finish 19th in the AP poll after going 5-0-1 down the stretch. But in rainy West Point (you’ll notice Army didn’t have to leave New York too much), Wake had no chance.
Just two minutes in, Fuson burst around left end for a 51-yard score. Davis one-upped him with a 55-yarder, then McWilliams outdid them both with a 79-yarder. Army rushed for 443 yards to Wake Forest’s 78 and scored twice in the first quarter, twice in the second, and three times in the third.
October 13: No. 1 Army 28, final No. 6 Michigan 7
A crowd of 70,000 welcomed Army and Fritz Crisler’s Wolverines to Yankee Stadium for what was supposed to be Army’s first significant test. Michigan’s line play frustrated Army, but star power carried the day.
McWilliams scored on a seven-yard run for Army’s first touchdown, and Blanchard rumbled 68 yards just two minutes later. Michigan’s misdirection offense caused Army some problems, but a strong defensive day from Blanchard kept the Wolverines at bay.
Up 21-7 in the fourth quarter, Army put the game away with a 70-yard sprint by Davis.
October 20: No. 1 Army 55, Melville PT Boats 13
To commemorate the closing of the Melville P.T. Base following the war, Army welcomed a team from the patrol torpedo base to West Point. The Cadets’ second team, which started the game, even spotted the team 13 points. Shorty McWilliams lost a fumble, and Melville’s John Welsh raced 30 yards for a score; later in the first quarter, Welsh ripped off a 60-yarder.
But that was enough fun. Army scored four times in the second quarter — Blanchard twice on short runs, Davis twice on long runs. Up 27-13 at half, Army scored twice more in the third quarter, then the backups piled on two more scores in an abbreviated fourth quarter.
October 27: No. 1 Army 48, final No. 13 Duke 13
Duke would go undefeated against teams not named Army or Navy in 1945, but the Blue Devils suffered a program-worst 35-point defeat in front of 42,287 at New York’s Polo Grounds. The deficit was only that small because of penalties: Army gained 524 yards and scored seven touchdowns but had a couple more called back.
McWilliams opened two minutes in with a 54-yard touchdown run, Bob Stuart and Blanchard scored twice each (once on a pass from Davis), and Davis added a tally. It was obvious to the 42,287 in attendance, almost from the kickoff, how the game was going to end up. It was 28-0 at halftime before Army reserves let Duke find a little bit of an offensive rhythm.
November 3: No. 1 Army 54, Villanova 0
Army and Villanova played for six consecutive years between 1943 and 1948. Final score of these six hours: Cadets 240, Wildcats 0.
The only encouragement ‘Nova could get from playing Army in 1945 was that the final score wasn’t as bad as it had been the year before, when the Cadets laid a devastating 83-0 score on the board.
The total yardage from this one was almost inhumane: Army 506, VU 25. Blanchard romped to two early scores, then scored two more later on. Villanova had one first down, even with the Army backups playing a considerable amount of the game.
November 10: No. 1 Army 48, final No. 9 Notre Dame 0
Again, this wasn’t as bad as it had been the year before. Reeling from a loss to Navy a year earlier, Notre Dame came to Yankee Stadium and got destroyed, 59-0. In 1945, having held Navy to a scoreless tie, the Fighting Irish came in more confident, and it made a difference … for a few minutes.
It was just 7-0 after one quarter before Army began to pour it on. The Cadets scored twice in the second quarter, then Barney Poole blocked a punt, setting up a 21-yard Davis score. For the day, Davis had three touchdowns, Blanchard two.
Notre Dame gained 184 yards and threatened a couple of times. But against the second-best team in the country, Army gained a cool 441 yards and cruised. Again.
November 17: No. 1 Army 61, final No. 8 Penn 0
Army would finish with two games in Philadelphia. The trip to Franklin Field didn’t seem to bother the Cadets. Against a rock-solid team that had rolled over everybody but Navy, Army rolled up 61 points despite playing its third-stringers quite a bit. Army once again scored on its second play, rushed for 383 yards, and gained 139 yards on six pass completions.
These were legitimately good teams that Army was humiliating.
December 1: No. 1 Army 32, final No. 3 Navy 13
Because of the war America had just won, the 1945 Army-Navy game might have been one of the most celebratory sporting events in the country’s history.
A crowd of 102,000, including President Harry S. Truman, packed Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia, which is now the site of a trio of professional ballparks in south Philly: the Wells Fargo Center, Citizens Bank Park, and Lincoln Financial Field, which continues to house Army-Navy games regularly.
What might have been the best-ever Navy team battled this incredible Army team to a draw for three quarters. The Midshipmen proved resilient and became the first team all year to score on Army’s first team.
The problem: Those three even quarters were the last three. Army had already taken a 20-0 lead in the first 15 minutes. The Cadets took the opening kickoff and took seven plays to set up a Blanchard touchdown. Then Blanchard scored again. Then Davis went 51 yards.
From that point forward, Navy outscored the Cadets, 13-12. And that was an achievement. They got to within 20-7 and 26-13, but they couldn’t get any closer.
The buzzer sounded in Philadelphia, ending the run of maybe the best college football team in history.
The 1946 Army team would be quite a bit weaker. A lot of the key additions to the 1944-45 squads had either run out of eligibility or headed back to their original schools, leaving Blanchard, Davis, Arnold Tucker, and not nearly as many other stars. The offensive output fell from 46 points per game to 26, but Army kept winning.
The Cadets’ win streak reached 25 games until Notre Dame held them to a 0-0 tie midway through 1946, and the unbeaten streak stretched until 1947, when Columbia pulled off a 21-20 upset.
Blaik hired great coaches, attracted great talent, and won with it. Army went 2-7 in 1951, the year of the cheating scandal, then rebounded, going 8-0-1 in 1958, his final season.
The confluence of personnel rules, national sentiment, and the most dynamic backfield duo ever helped Blaik to create a perfect football team in 1945.