It once was No. 1 vs. No. 2, now it’s much leaner times

First part of a two-part series

In Dublin, Ireland, Navy gets thrashed by Notre Dame. At Michie Stadium near the vigorous Hudson River, Army loses to Northern Illinois.

Navy had risen to a level of competence with Coach Paul Johnson and a schedule of teams that made winning manageable. But Johnson went to Georgia Tech. And now losing football games slowly row down the Severn River and too often visit Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis.

Army’s Glenn Davis (41) and
Doc Blanchard (35).

Army pared back its schedule. Pared it way back. And still the Black Knights of the Hudson can’t qualify for a bowl game because they haven’t been able to win even six games.

The annual Army-Navy game still draws a sellout crowd, but none of the national polls are moved by the outcome.

It wasn’t always so.

It was in 1944 that the college football world had the nation’s interest by the throat and wouldn’t let go. And the one game that drew such attention that it was anticipated weeks in advance was No. 1 Army vs. No. 2 Navy.

Both service academies were sending many of their graduates straight to Europe and the battlefields of World War II or to the Pacific and the sea and air battles against the Japanese.

The civilian public listened closely for the nightly news about the happenings in Germany, France, England, and wherever the hold of the Nazis was gradually being eroded by the Allies. And then that public would move their radio dials to see what Walter Cronkite or Walter Winchell had to report on the happenings in Guam, the Coral Sea, or on Midway Island.

The magnificent Army team was coached by Earl “Red” Blaik. When the bands played “On Brave Old Army Team” and the misty-eyed public’s neck hair stood on end, it was for a team that was 8-0 and had beaten Notre Dame’s midwestern powerhouse.

Army had a pair of running backs in Felix “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis that were known as “Mr. Inside” and “Mr. Outside” for their ground-gaining exploits. Both Blanchard and Davis would become Heisman Trophy winners.

Blaik had been helped by NCAA rules that allowed athletes enrolled at other schools to receive appointments to West Point and continue their schooling and football careers with Coach Blaik.

Army teams had Barney Poole, an All-America defensive and offensive end while playing for the University of Mississippi. Poole would be one of the few athletes who played college football for more than four years. His two seasons at West Point were not counted against his eligibility. Poole helped keep Army as the standard bearer in college football and is in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Blaik had three-year quarterback Doug Kenna, who was at Ole Miss as a freshman but was given an appointment to West Point and played for Blaik as a sophomore, junior, and senior. Kenna did well enough that he is in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Blanchard at first went to North Carolina, where his mother’s cousin, Jim Tatum, was the coach. After a season with the Tar Heel freshmen team, Blanchard enlisted in the U. S. Army. He was sent to New Mexico for training before his father, a well-known physician, got him an appointment to West Point.

Blanchard was a three-time All-America under Blaik.

in his three seasons playing for Army, the Black Knights went 27-0-1, with the well-chronicled 0-0 tie against Notre Dame being the only game West Point didn’t actually win.

Like Blanchard, Davis was a heavy-hitter for those three Army teams that combined for a 27-0-1 record. In his three years, Davis scored 59 touchdowns and has a record that still stands today. In 1945, Davis averaged 11.5 yards per carry, an amazing stat. He was a three-time All-America football player and also played baseball, basketball, and ran track for the Black Knights.

Blanchard and Davis would appear in their football uniforms on the front cover of a 1946 edition of Life magazine.

In 1944, the Naval Academy came to the December meeting with Army as the No. 2 team in the land. The Midshipmen had a 6-2 record, losing only once to a college team. The Navy season had begun with a loss to North Carolina Navy Pre-Flight, a group in training for World War II. Otto Graham was the Pre-Flight quarterback and the coach was Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Georgia Tech had trimmed Navy, 17-15, for the Midshipmen’s lone loss on a schedule that had wins over Notre Dame, Penn State, Purdue, and nationally-ranked Duke among others.

One of the most-decorated player on the Navy roster was Clyde “Smackover” Scott, a superb runner from Smackover, Arkansas.

Ben Martin would later become the head coach at the Air Force Academy. Other players whose exploits helped gain recognition from organizations like the Associated Press, United Press International, and Helms Foundation were tackle Don Whitmire, halfback Bob Jenkins, and Dick Duden.

Whitmire and Jenkins had been standouts on Alabama teams before entering the Naval Academy when the Crimson Tide dropped football.

Fabled sportswriter Grantland Rice was one of those calling the coming meeting of No. 1 vs. No. 2 the “Game of the Century”. Rice wrote it would be “one of the best and most important football games ever played.”

However, the location and the stadium where the game would be played had not been chosen.

President Franklin Roosevelt was mindful of the times. Rationing was the rule for many commodities. And spending extra money for gasoline, meals, and lodging for a distant football game wasn’t palatable.

Roosevelt had stated that for the remainder of the war, the game would alternate between the two campuses. In 1944, it was Navy’s turn to host the game. But Navy’s Thompson Field could hold only about 18,500 fans.

When many in the sporting world wanted to see the game firsthand, less than 20,000 seats wouldn’t be enough.

Roosevelt bent. A larger stadium and its crowd capacity would be linked to a new war bonds sales push. And the game site would be Baltimore’s Municipal Stadium. A ticket was available to anybody buying War Bonds through the Maryland State War Finance Committee. All the tickets were sold the first day, and over $58 million was raised to help finance the war.

Over 66,000 lucky fans crammed into the stands for the December 2 kickoff. Blanchard did Army’s kickoff duties. And when his boot was fielded by Navy’s Bobby Tom Jenkins, a reporter quickly wrote to his editor: “There never has been a sports event, perhaps never an event of any kind, that received the attention of so many Americans in so many places around the world.”

Servicemen crowded close to shortwave sets in many parts of Europe. The same scenes could be documented in the Pacific and along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.

As one wordsmith wrote: “This was a game played by boys training to soldiers and sailors for the benefit of battle-hardened soldiers and sailors dreaming of being boys once again.”

The afternoon at Municipal Satdium was bitter cold . . . and it was windy as well. A few faint snow flurries blew through.

The marbled ground was hard to negotiate for the runners.

Scoring was kept to a minimum for the first three quarters.

Army clung to a 9-7 lead when the fourth quarter opened.

Navy’s Whitmire and Jenkins had been injured and had to be removed. Their absence became critical in the fourth quarter.

Blaik was going to let the game fall at the feet of his best players. The Black Knights had possession on their own 48 to begin a drive. With Blanchard carrying on seven plays of a nine-play drive, Amry surged ahead, 16-7. Blanchard had gained all but four yards on the 52-yard march to points.

The next time Army got the ball, it was Davis sliding through a small crack in the Navy front line and then sprinting to a 50-yard touchdown that put the final brand on a 23-7 win for the Black Knights.

Navy had disrupted the Army offense often enough to intercept five passes and force three fumbles. But the Army defense was all but impenetrable. Navy’s total offense total was only 169 yards.

When the Army team got back to the warmth of its dressing quarters, there was a telegram waiting for Coach Blaik.

“The greatest of all Army teams. We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success.” The wire was signed “MacArthur” . . . as in Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

The game has lived up to all the words written about it . . . and all the world-wide interest in it.

Army had completed another undefeated season. The Black Knights were the national champions. Army would claim still another unbeaten season and national championship the next year.

Blaik coached on through the 1957 season and compiled a 121-33-10 record in his 18 years at West Point.

Both Army and Navy are in danger of repeating losing seasons here in 2012.

But in 1944, both were college football titans . . . ranking No. 1 and No. 2 . . . and playing in the “Game of the Century”.

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