Coach Lombardi left West Point after the success of the 1953 Season. A lineman in his playing days, Lombardi’s real success at Army came from the offense he crafted as the Backfied Coach. He was hired by the Giants in ’54 for the position now known as an Offensive Coordinator. In 1958 he left for Greenbay.
Peter Vann ‘s explanation of Lombardi’s Royal “3Fs”; comments about schooling by Vince Lombardi and a letter by Vince’s Son indicating that because of Peter’s success his Dad was able to climb the professional ranks – – is at Peter Vann.
By Bill McWilliams
NCAA Rule Change — What made the rule change more difficult for Army was two prior years of rebuilding which had already caused turmoil on the team. Earl Blaik and his assistants constantly shifted players from one position to another, and promoted and demoted between the varsity and junior varsity, trying to strengthen the varsity. Now, just as things were beginning to settle down, the coaching staff had to determine who could perform best playing both ways. It was painful, because players who had just begun to feel they had secured starting positions on either offensive or defensive units found themselves tested again. And while the 1952 recruiting effort resulted in some talented new Yearling players in 1953, a few of the first and second classmen who had struggled through the two prior seasons found themselves shunted aside.
Lowell Sisson‘s experiences prior to the 1953 season typified the Army coaching staff’s scramble to find players best suited to go both ways and provide the team its best overall strength and balance.
In spring practice, Blaik and Vince Lombardi moved Lowell ’54 from end to offensive halfback. His high school senior year in Waterloo, IA, he had been a standout halfback on a state championship team. He was tall and fast, good material for Vince’s backfield.
Then, ten days before the season opener, Lowell received word to report to “The Colonel’s” office. Blaik and Lombardi wanted to see him. He was worried. “Why do they want to see me?” he wondered. Lombardi said, “Lowell, we want to switch you back to end. We wanted to ask you about it, if you would object.” Sisson was surprised, but relieved. “I have absolutely no objection. All I want to do is play football. However I can do it is great “at end or anywhere else.”
In a rather erratic first three games of the season, Army rolled over an out-manned Furman team 41-0, lost at Northwestern 33-20, and after a 0-0 first half, overcame a winless Dartmouth 27-0.
There were, however, interesting footnotes to the win over Dartmouth. Sports writer William J. Briordy, in a 10 Oct special to the New York Times, noted that Peter Vann completed 12 of 15 passes that day, three for touchdowns. Vann’s aerials that afternoon were uncharacteristically short, but that wasn’t important. Two touchdown throws were to Bob Mischak, the only player to receive any All-American recognition at season’s end. The other was to a Yearling named Don Holleder ’56, who in 1954 earned All-American honors at end, quarterbacked the 1955 Army team, and gave his life in Vietnam on 17 Oct 1967. Don’s name now is memorialized in the Holleder Center, adjacent to Michie Stadium.
The Times reporter couldn’t know that there were other matters buried in the history of the 1953 Dartmouth game. Earl Blaik wasn’t a coach who gave emotional, fire and brimstone speeches at halftime. Rather, he was analytical. He identified mistakes and taught his team how to correct them. Not so against Dartmouth. He was frustrated by a flat, lackluster first half and gave his team a tongue lashing.
Blaik’s offensive play routine required the Army center to be the first man out of the huddle after the quarterback called the play. As the center trotted up over the ball, the rest of the team would pause, then break from the huddle, and jog to the line of scrimmage. Not so the second half against Dartmouth, or against any other team the remainder of the 1953 season.
Center “Norm Stephen” ’54 was so energized by Blaik’s blistering remarks, that on the first offensive play of the second half he bolted from the huddle and raced to the ball – and the other ten men followed his lead. The Corps roared their approval, and that pattern continued the rest of the afternoon. A new method for calling up “the twelfth man” had been established. Perhaps it was the spark that lit next Saturday’s fire.
For then came The College Football Game of the Year, “the game never to be forgotten” as Earl Blaik called it – a heart-stopping 14-13 upset of No. 7 ranked Duke at the Polo Grounds.
Tuesday before the game, Peter Vann, who was a confident, pinpoint-accurate, long ball passer at quarterback – and had fast developed into a ball handling magician under Lombardi’s tutelage – sprained an ankle in practice. The injury was a severe blow, for Blaik and his staff knew the Duke contest was pivotal in Army’s attempts to recover from the honor scandal. Peter’s start was doubtful. He was unable to practice during the week. In spite of Blaik’s sixth football axiom, – Games are not won on the training table,- physical therapy became vital.
When the team went to New York on Friday for a final, light workout in the Polo Grounds, Vann was up to half speed. The practice plan included drop-back passes, the quarterback’s typical three steps back and throw, from the T-formation.
Blaik, ever sensitive to opposing teams’ and sports writers’ intelligence gathering, didn’t want anyone to know Pete might not be able to play against Duke. He and Lombardi also didn’t want Pete to aggravate his injury. Each time he took a practice snap from center “Norm Stephen”, Blaik and Lombardi were close beside him, one on each side, fading back with Peter, ready to catch him, to ensure he didn’t reinjure his ankle. They also were concealing the injury from prying eyes.
Their caution, and Peter’s determination and persistence, paid off. The next day, Peter Vann played perhaps the game of his life, along with a small band of cadets who had labored two and a third seasons learning how to consistently win. Vann’s game against Duke accelerated his rise to football glory at Army. Under Lombardi he sharpened his ball handling wizardry, which repeatedly confused and misled defenses. By the end of the season, his pass completion percentage climbed to 56. Lombardi was drawing Peter’s best from him, and when Lombardi left West Point, Peter continued along the path laid out for him. In 1954, Vann was eighth in the nation in total offense, named second team All-American, and ninth in Heisman Trophy voting.
The 14-13 decision over Duke was the victory of a truly inspired team. Memories of the 1953 Duke game are vivid for those fortunate enough to have been in the disappointingly small crowd of 21,284, anticipating a Blue Devil walkover. Earl Blaik had spoken to the Corps during the noon meal on Thursday and stirred them as he never had before. Referring to what some had seen as a growing division between the Corps and the football team in the years preceding the cheating incident, Blaik intoned, “The Corps and the football team are one unit. You cannot separate them.”
The Corps’ preparation for the game had been more than unusual, including a “silence” imposed by the cheerleaders at the meal following Blaik’s talk. The “silence” which began after the traditional pregame sendoff of the team – proved potent. The cheerleaders had put a cork in the bottle of more than two years of pent up frustration. When the Corps completed its subdued, strangely silent, pregame march-on at the Polo Grounds, and the last man double-timed onto the first step of the stands, the men in gray exploded out. They shook that old stadium almost non-stop in the sunshine and shadows of that Indian summer afternoon. This was also the game in which a band of enterprising 1954 and 1955 cheerleaders first rolled out and fired the now-traditional Army victory cannon. The first blast of the cannon culminated months of planning and scheming, in which the cheerleaders prevailed upon COL “Red” Reeder, the Graduate Manager of Athletics, to grant them Corps Squad status to obtain financial support for their spirit-inducing initiatives.
Memories of Duke 1953 are equally vivid for the men on Army’s small squad. “Jerry Hagan” ’55 quarterbacked the cadets 76 yards on the ground for their first touchdown, with the running of Tommy Bell, Pat Uebel ’56, “Fred Attaya”, and “Mike Zeigler” ’54. Bell, who hadn’t played since the season opener because of injuries, tore straight ahead through the Duke line nine yards for a first-quarter touchdown to put Army ahead 7-0. He remembers at game’s end being lifted off his feet onto the shoulders of deliriously happy men in cadet gray, and being carried off the field, excited and exhausted. He also remembers that his little Irish mother attended the game and “after seeing the Corps carry him off the field” told Tommy she decided she, too, was a fan of his. Tom was off and running toward All-American recognition at the end of the 1954 season.
Big, handsome, fleet-footed Yearling “Patrick Uebel”, playing left halfback, remembers taking a 5-yard flare pass from Peter Vann, in the right flat, and weaving 38 yards down the sidelines for the second Army score, to put the cadets back in the lead to stay, 14-7. But his touchdown against Duke was only the beginning for Pat that year. Against Navy, he scored all three Army touchdowns in a magnificent win. Two of those touchdowns came on identical running plays from the Navy 5- and 3-yard lines, plays that bedeviled Army opponents nearly all season, and involved flawless ball handling and faking by Peter Vann, “Gerry Lodge” ’54, and Pat Uebel.
Ralph Chesnauskas ’56, a Yearling guard who played 60 grueling minutes, remembers the two extra points he kicked. The second one gave Army the margin of victory. Outwardly, he was icy calm.
“Freddie Attaya” remembers Vince Lombardi’s shouted advice to him as he ran onto the field in a third and seven situation. “Run the gauntlet” yelled Lombardi.
Vince was reminding his fullback of a drill he put his backfield through in practice. Running backs, carrying the ball pressed against their gut, ran hard between two lines of eight players each. The ball carriers’ forearms protected the ball, and their hands tightly gripped opposite ends of the pigskin, every player in the gauntlet aggressively tried to “tackle the ball.” Freddie ripped the middle of Duke’s line for nine yards and a first down. When he came off the field, Lombardi rushed to hug him, telling him he had done a great job.
A right-handed passer, rolling eight yards deep, to his right to throw, Peter was confronted by Duke’s hard charging, All-American left tackle Ed Meadows. Peter cocked his arm to throw as Meadows closed in but had to slow and reverse direction, slanting to his left toward the line of scrimmage, to evade Meadows’ charge. As he lunged past, Meadows grabbed for Vann’s right arm, and Peter instinctively switched the ball to his left hand. Meadows then caught hold of Vann’s right arm, but Peter, still moving to his left, pulled free and threw a short, wobbly, but accurate left-handed strike to “Freddie Attaya”, good for 17 yards to the Duke 43. A left-handed throw by a right-handed passer kept the drive moving.
“Gerry Lodge”, converted from guard to fullback during spring practice, remembered the Duke game for a different reason. He played fullback on offense and guard on defense when Army was in a six-man line, and moved into linebacker when Army went to a five-man line. On defense, he played alongside the few linemen who were in the game nearly the entire 60 minutes and was in Army’s dramatic goal line stand following Bob Mischak’s game-saving tackle. With first and goal on Army’s 7-yard line, the cadets held Duke on a fourth down quarterback sneak from the two, with 40 seconds to play.
Throughout the final two minutes of play, especially during Duke’s four thrusts at the Army goal, it was almost impossible to hear or think because of the roar from the crowd. Cadets had come down out of the stands, were pressing around the Army bench and close to the sidelines, imploring their defense to hold.
Army’s always thorough scouting reports helped exploit Duke’s weaknesses and patterns.
“Gerry Lodge” remembered what Blaik had told the team. When the Blue Devils get inside an opponents’ 10-yard line, they run the ball between their own tackles on 95% of plays. And when they get close to the goal line, they run quarterback sneaks. Prior to the fourth down play, a Duke assistant threw a kicking tee onto the field, indicating a field goal attempt.
Lutz picked up the tee and threw it back, disdaining the field goal.
“Gerry Lodge” had seen his teammate, left guard “Dick Ziegler” ’54, playing magnificently all afternoon, often absorbing the energy of three Duke blockers because of his hard charges in the middle of their line. As Duke huddled for Lutz to call the fourth down play, “Gerry Lodge” said to Ziegler, “Remember, he’s going to try to sneak.”
Lutz did, but he was met by a wall of white jerseys. Army took over on downs, inches from the goal line, while the Corps of Cadets shouted their frenzied approval. But the game wasn’t yet over. On first down, “Freddie Attaya”, on orders from Blaik, punted from deep in his end zone. Duke had 30 more seconds and four more plays from the Army 37-yard line – all passes – all knocked away. Peter Vann, Army’s quarterback, batted away the last pass in the end zone, a pass thrown by Gerry Barger, Duke’s quarterback, to starting quarterback Worth Lutz.
Army football fans had one other lasting memory to take with them -Bob Mischak’s incredible, game-saving tackle just prior to Army’s goal line stand.
With two and one half minutes left in a game that was already emotionally and physically exhausting, Duke took the ball on downs just inside their own 20-yard line with Army leading 14-13. Worth Lutz knew he needed a long gain. His team didn’t have the energy for a long, grinding drive, so he called a double reverse. Lutz handed the ball to halfback Bob Pascal, indicating a sweep around Army’s left side. Pascal then slipped the ball to “Red” Smith, Duke’s speedy All-American candidate, heading in the opposite direction. Army’s defense over commited, and Smith broke into the secondary. After sidestepping a linebacker, he was in the clear, ten yards beyond pursuing Army defenders, sprinting toward the southeast corner of the field.
Earl Blaik years later described reactions on the Army sidelines.
“We on the bench and the Corps of gray in the lower stands behind us shot to our feet in sudden silent, stunned consternation. Smith looked home free. I felt our heads were being pushed down once more into the ashes of 1951.”
Then, from out of the pack of pursuers, came left end Bob Mischak. He had an angle on Smith and rapidly began closing the gap at the 50-yard line. By the time Smith crossed the Army 20, Mischak had closed to 3 yards. The Army stands were coming alive, shouting encouragement to him, but it was important that he not commit too soon. Blaik held his breath, muttering to himself, – “Not yet! Not yet!” As Smith crossed the 12-yard line, Earl Blaik was saying “Now! Now!” Bob Mischak leaped far and high, caught Smith around the shoulders at the 10, and downed him on the 7-yard line.
Earl Blaik remembered Bob Mischak’s game-saving tackle for the rest of his life.
“In somehow catching and collaring [Smith], Mischak displayed heart and a pursuit that for one single play I have never seen matched. Yet his feat, one of the great defensive plays of football, would have soon been forgotten, had it not been for the [goal line stand that] followed.”
In the locker room after the game, Earl “Red” Blaik, his eyes glistening with tears, presented Bob Mischak the game ball. As he handed the ball to Mischak, Blaik, a man of few but always impressive words, said simply, “Don’t ever give up.”
For nearly 15 years afterward the story of Bob Mischak’s tackle against Duke was part of West Point’s Military Psychology and Leadership Course – as an example of the power of motivation.
One day, at the end of the 1953 season, Bob Mischak was told to report to the office of the Athletic Director. Quietly, without ceremony, he was handed a certificate saying he had been named to the National Broadcasting Company’s All-American team.
The evening following the Duke game, Peter Vann entered the hotel elevator and headed out for a bite to eat. He was alone when the elevator stopped at the next floor. The door opened and in stepped Vince Lombardi – alone.
As the doors closed, Lombardi, still elated over the game’s outcome, once again complimented Peter on his play that afternoon. Then, after a brief exchange about where Pete was going, Vince reached for his billfold and handed Peter a $5 bill. “Here,” he said, “go buy yourself a beer – and don’t tell the Colonel.”
Army went on to their “football miracle” that year, winning four of their remaining five games, a record marred only by the 0-0 tie at Tulane. The sterling 20-7 win over Navy – a story in itself – capped an emotional season of inspired football, and put Vince Lombardi back on his mountain top.
But this was a special team, a team of heroes without individual stars, with different heroes each Saturday, all playing for the love of the game, a team about which the famed sports writer Grantland Rice said, “They came up the hard way, and there probably has never been a team with a finer spirit.”
In the locker room after the win over Navy, with no newspaper reporters present, players on the 1953 team heard marvelous, complimentary words from Earl Blaik.
“I never coached a team,” he told them, “that gave me more than you did. I never have coached a team that has given me as much satisfaction. Given all the conditions since 1951, you have done more for football at West Point than any other team in the history of the Academy . . .”
As the years went by, Earl Blaik frequently noted that coaching the 1951 – 53 Army teams brought him the greatest professional satisfaction in his career. Vince Lombardi‘s step to glory on the professional gridiron began in earnest during those three years. Under Earl Blaik he learned what was necessary to turn adversity to triumph, and he applied those lessons to great effect at Green Bay.
By observing Blaik, the irrepressible Lombardi also improved his ability to organize, discipline, and inspire a team. “My – football is your – football,” he later wrote Blaik. “My approach to a problem is the way I think you would approach it.”
Recalled Blaik, “He may have learned a few things during our years together, but he didn’t learn that magnetism at West Point. It was always in him. You don’t put magnetism into people.”
Jim Lee Howell, the New York Giants’ head coach who hired Lombardi after the 1953 season at Army, said, “If Lombardi can do that kind of job in three years at West Point – he could do a helluva job in the pros where he would have an experienced base to work with.”
For the men who played on those Army teams, and particularly in his last backfield, there would be memories of a complex, fiery man, who came to West Point as a “diamond in the rough.” They undoubtedly would agree with the words about Vince Lombardi, penned by one of his great players at Green Bay, Jerry Kramer. In his book, Instant Replay, Jerry wrote, “Lombardi was a cruel, kind, tough, gentle, miserable, wonderful man whom I often hate and often love and always respect.”
In memory of Richard “George Inman” ’52, who was killed in action leading his platoon to safety on “Pork Chop Hill”, in Korea, on 7 Jul 1953, three weeks before the armistice was signed. Dick was a letterman on the 1951 Army football team.
This article is based on the author’s research for a forthcoming book, A Retum to Glory: The Untold Story of Honor, Dishonor, and Triumph at the United States Military Academy, 1950-53.