Smitty and The Blaster
Warren Smith was the most famous high school football coach in central Illinois by 1958, an innovator of the Single Wing Offense originally created by Pittsburg’s Pop Warner. (Single Wing was the precursor of today’s shot-gun formation.)
In the early ’60s, Smith invented an ingenious training device known as ‘The Blaster,” used to teach running backs to slip-off tackles. John Cage incorporated a Blaster into a “Happening” at the Stock Pavilion in 1968 (See “The Importance of John Cage”). Unfortunately, Smitty became obsessed with running his entire team through the Blaster, with springs cranked to near maximum. And if you got stuck in the device, you had to wait for the next guy running full speed right behind you, to punch you on through to the other side. As a reader of this blog pointed out: “people were not designed to get slammed in the back.”
Everyone called him “Smitty,” except his players who just called him “coach.”
Roger Ebert was a sports reporter for the News-Gazette in 1958, (which was then-owned by Johnny Roselli’s lover—see “Smartest Kids in Town”), when Ebert wrote: “…the royal coach turned into a pumpkin, and the Cinderella Urbana Tigers stumbled and fell…”: as the opening line for a story covering a game they unexpectedly lost.
Smitty blew his top and immediately confronted Ebert: “From this day forward, you are banned from all Urbana sports under my jurisdiction. You can’t buy a ticket to the games.” The ban didn’t stick forever, but it gave Ebert a schooling on Smitty’s explosive temper and somewhat fragile ego.
When I entered Urbana High after winter break in January, 1967, I was on top-of the-world. I had a bass guitar and amplifier and was taking lessons with Jim Brewer. On our annual shopping trip to Chicago, I’d been allowed to select my own wardrobe for the first time. I was wearing blue stovepipe corduroys, only the welts ran horizontal to the ground. (I’ve never seen another pair of pants like ’em since.) They were severely-tapered to the knee, which was great, ’cause I had super skinny rock’n’roll chicken legs. The stove-pipe from the knee down made them look like bell-bottoms, which had not yet become popular. Of course, once the Beatles were seen in bell-bottoms, they took over the jean market for a few years, but I had these pants years before that fad hit. I was wearing blue-suede zip-up boots with Cuban heels, similar to Beatles boots but flashier. My shirt was long-sleeved white and navy stripes with a half turtleneck. Most important, however, was the black leather jacket, double-breasted but cut shorter than a sport coat. Bugsy had found this jacket first, at Kuhn’s in downtown Champaign, and it cost around $100. Very soft lamb’s leather. (I wore it to the first Woodstock, then to Sweden, San Francisco and beyond; it’s in my closet and fits 46 years later!)
But when I stepped into school on the first day in this outfit (expecting oohs and aahs from the multitudes), some chuckle-head pointed at me and yelled, “He’s wearing girlie pants!” This did not phase me, as I knew I was a lot cooler than that nerd.
One day, however, I was walking past the library when I heard a loud voice and some commotion and saw Doug Blair backing up fast, running into the library and being chased by some huge jock from the upper classes. Nobody was helping Doug as he danced around the stacks and ran underneath tables, trying to stay out-of-reach. Finally Doug bolted out the door and out of school. What was that about? Well, I soon learned Doug had written a paper for English class called “Smitty,” and made hilarious fun of our school icon, who was already a commander in the Generation War—on the opposing side. For example: when Faber had showed up with long hair that year, Smitty had thrown him against the lockers and said, “What happened to you, boy?!”
“Maybe I found out there’s more too life than running around a track,” replied Faber calmly. But most people didn’t dare talk to Smitty like that, and George was probably written-off as a lost-cause from that day forth, even though he was one of the stars on the cross-country team. But Doug had really crossed the line with his English paper. And it was just a matter of time before one of Smitty’s devoted players would take revenge.