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”). I don’t think the device is still in use at Urbana High, although they are available online for around $2,000.
Smitty ran his entire team through the Blaster and if somebody got stuck in the device, he got hit by the next guy running full speed, punching him through to the other side. This could be a somewhat painful experience. And it should be noted, the primary point of the Blaster was training backs to go low, avoiding the top row. (Today, however, emphasis is placed on spin moves over powering through every opponent.)
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. Very few people had any clue of the combat missions he flew as a tail-gunner, and PTSD wasn’t even on the radar yet.
When I entered Urbana High after winter break in January, 1967, I was on top-of the-world. I had a cherry-red Gibson SG 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. (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. I was wearing blue-suede boots with Cuban heels and side zippers. 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 coat first, at Kuhn’s in downtown Champaign, and it cost around $100. Very soft lamb’s leather. But when I stepped into school on the first day in this outfit (expecting oohs and aahs from the multitudes), some chucklehead from a lower class pointed at me and yelled, “He’s wearing girlie pants!” This did not phase me, as I knew I was cool.
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 had poked fun at 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 to 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.