This bizarre new game called football had its eccentricities. Two teams of 25 players attempted to score by kicking the ball into the opposing team’s goal. Throwing or carrying the ball was not allowed, but there was plenty of physical contact between players. The first team to reach six goals was declared the winner. There was justifiable skepticism as to whether it would catch on or would even achieve the credibility to be taken seriously. But when the United States Naval Academy began competing, was there any chance it would not find a similar interest at the military academy to the north? Dennis Michie made sure.
The game’s roots can be traced to Native Americans in the 1700s. The games remained largely unorganized until the 19th century, when intramural games began to be played on college campuses. This was when Walter Camp, a Yale graduate, invented certain rules (such as the system of downs) to provide singularity to the sport. For decades, though, every school played its own variety of football. Princeton students played a game called ballown as early as 1820.
A Harvard tradition known as “Bloody Monday” began in 1827, which consisted of a mass ballgame between the freshman and sophomore classes. Dartmouth played its own version called “old division football,” the rules of which were first published in 1871, though the game dates to at least the 1830s. All of these games, and others, shared certain commonalities. They remained largely “mob”-style games, with huge numbers of players attempting to advance the ball into a goal area, often by any means necessary. Rules were simple; violence and injury were common. The violence of these mob-style games led to widespread protests and a decision to abandon them. Yale, under pressure from the city of New Haven, banned the play of all forms of football in 1860, while Harvard followed suit in 1861.
On November 6, 1869, Rutgers faced Princeton in a game that was played with a round ball and, like all early games, used improvised rules that had as many similarities to rugby and soccer as to the American game of the next century. It is still usually regarded as the first game of intercollegiate football. Rutgers won by a score of 6-4. A rematch was played at Princeton a week later; Princeton won 8-0. Columbia joined the series in 1870, and by 1872 several schools were fielding teams. By 1879, one of them was Navy.
The Midshipmen played their first game in 1879, skipped the next two years, then resumed play in 1882. Vaulx Carter became the team’s first coach in 1882; the following season Navy started a 9-year run in which it had no coach. In 1890, after having posted a 4-1-1 record the year before, it offered a challenge to Army, which didn’t seem much of an obstacle considering Army didn’t have a team. But Michie, a cadet who was later killed in the Spanish-American War, took to action. The one-game season ended with a 24-0 loss to Navy.
The following year Army had its first winning season in its first full season, 4-1-1, including its first victory over Navy. It began the 20th century with a 7-3-1 record, the first of six straight winning seasons. A slight bump in the road was a 3-5-1 finish in 1906. The following year began a streak of 32 straight winning seasons. That included a 1-0 finish in 1918; the season was abbreviated upon the beginning of World War I.
World War II not only did not lead to shortened schedules, but represented Army’s greatest era of national dominance. The soon-to-be legendary Red Blaik took over in 1941. In 1944, the team began a run of three straight national championships, during which time the team had a collective record of 27-0-1. Blaik’s teams also produced three Heisman Trophy winners – Doc Blanchard in 1945, Glenn Davis in 1946 and Pete Dawkins in 1958. UCLA basketball had John Wooden. Army had Blaik. But even under Blaik there were problems; in Army’s near-religious honor-code creed, it was likely the worst possible scenario.
A massive honor-code academic violation was revealed in the spring of 1951. There were accusations that football players were distributing unauthorized academic information. On August 3, the violations were announced and several athletes were implicated in the scandal. Of the 90 students expelled, 37 were football players, including Blaik’s son, Bob. The team’s 2-7 records in 1951 and ’52 were Blaik’s only losing seasons. In the Black Knights’ 42-7 loss to Navy in 1951, the Midshipmen had a 14-0 lead before Army even ran an offensive series. In the 57 years since Blaik’s retirement, only four coaches left with winning records.
One thing the Vietnam era did accomplish was render the military in the eyes of the public – for the first time in American history – the bad guys. And the number of quality players Army, Navy and Air Force were able to recruit dropped like a rock. From 1964 through 1975, the Black Knights’ record was 45-67, including an 0-10 record in 1973, Army’s first winless season since that 0-1 finish in 1890. Navy finished 43-79; Air Force, 56-62-4.
Army had its first post-Vietnam winning record, 7-4, in 1977. The following year, the Black Knights finished 7-3. Homer Smith took over in 1979; the team finished 2-8-1. It was under Jim Young, who was hired in 1983, that Army began a return to credibility. In his eight years, the team finished 51-39-1, including a trip to the Sun Bowl, in 1988. His teams won 57 percent of its games; the last Army coach to exceed that was Blaik, who in 18 years won almost 77 percent of his games (121-33-10).
In the 24 years since Young’s departure, none of the eight coaches – including current second-year coach Jeff Monken – have had a career winning record at Army. Since Bob Sutton took over for Young in 1991, the Black Knights have had three winning seasons, in 1993, 1996 and 2010. The team’s worst run was 2000-2003, during which the team finished 5-42, including an 0-13 finish in 2003. In the last 18 years, the team has only one winning season, a 7-6 finish in 2010.
This season will be Army’s 125th. The rules are pretty well defined, the uniforms are much more, well, uniform, and the only mobs are the teams’ respective fans looking for their own version of blood. Army, along with its fellow military academies, the Ivy League and precious few others, are among the few teams that need not prove that its players ability to count exceeds the numbers of their fingers and toes. Except in the rarest of instances there are no Army players who believe their playing careers will extend beyond their senior years.
But you wouldn’t know it by witnessing players in the weight room or during practice or once the opening kickoff happens. Every game is the Rose Bowl, or might as well be. (The game against Navy is the Super Bowl, of course). The guy trying to keep the quarterback from being sacked can’t say he’s certain, upon graduation, if he’ll be home – or alive – for Christmas.
Army football players for 125 years have all faced the same possible fate. They can’t sneak past four years of school with an undeclared major on the back of a barely legible SAT score. NFL scouts will be at SEC or Big 10 games. The sneaker and soft-drink promoters will be similarly visible, looking for their next paid sponsor.
Dennis Michie had the right idea. One hundred twenty-five years later it remains, set in stone.