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”). 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.)

Coach Warren “Smitty” Smith.

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.

Larry Green and Doug Blair backstage at the UHS auditorium.

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.

14 Replies to “Smitty and The Blaster”

  1. Is this s lead in to the Jim Wilson story? If not it sure could be!

    Smitty benched me my entire Sr. year because someone wrote a story in the News Gazzette about a JV game I played in against Danville my Jr. year. I had scored three touchdowns and two extra points, and the headline read: “Urbana JVs whips Danville 24-0, Dilley Stars”. He was furious and I heard he “talked” to that reporter too. Smitty took me in his office to dress me down about the article and then proceeded to tell me how little I meant to him. I almost didn’t go out for football my Sr. year, but my dad insisted and I caved. I got my payback during wrestling season my Sr. year. Smitty served as a scorer at the scorer’s table, and after I won matches by pinning my opponent, I would walk by the table and say to him: “I just pinned another” with a big smile. I could tell by the look on his face It pissed him off but he couldn’t say anything with all the parents there. I won my district and sectional matches and I was seated 2nd in state behind the previous year’s state champion when Gramer, the wrestling coach, fell on me in practice and broke my wrist two week for the state tournament. I always wondered if he did it on purpose!

  2. PS. Jimmy D’Urso and I were out partying our Sr. year one weekend during football season when we decided to stop by the high school on the way home and leave an empty Jim Beam bottle stuck between the Blaster pads. When we got to football practice that next Monday afternoon, the bottle was still stuck there and Smitty had to pry it out!

    1. This stuff is priceless, Dave! Yes, the Great RA will be making a grand entrance very soon, and will suffer the same fate with Smitty as you, but that would be giving away too much too soon…..

  3. I still take great pleasure in the fact that I was thrown out of P.E. class by Smitty in my Junior year, never to return, even though it was “required for graduation. The reason… I wouldn’t remove my “cheap feminine” bangle bracelet for wrestling practice. I told him if I wanted to learn to fight, I’d enlist. and, that sure wasn’t gonna happen.

    1. Good for you Maarten! I suppose that was the one benefits of playing sports in high school … I never had to take a PE class … not sure how they got by that rule.

  4. Smitty was born too late, he belonged to a much earlier era. I was on the 0-9 ’77 team and I’m sure we shaved a few years off his longevity. Those F’ing blasters by the way would never fly these days. If the poor bastard in front of you got stuck, you were supposed to nail him in the back hard enough to get both of you through. If you didn’t nail him hard enough you were likely to get stuck and the next SOB would nail you in the back. The human body was not made to get “nailed in the back”

    1. thanks for your input Tim, I wondered why the Blasters never caught on, it seemed like a good idea at the time…Smitty was forced to resign eventually. He did not go easy into the night and may have even tried to file a lawsuit, claiming he’d been promised lifetime job security. The ’60s were a difficult time for all of us, and I’m sure in his heart Smitty felt he was doing the best thing possible, but he was ruthless in his treatment of imagined enemies, a lot like Nixon in that regard.

  5. I was thumbing through my yearbook and came across a leaflet about Smitty’s boys and what they did to Doug. I remember him as a really sweet guy that used to chocolate to the girls that stopped by his locker.

  6. You people are clueless, Smitty was the best coach that I ever had. If he chewed you out you deserved it for screwing up. He was a WWII vet, a bomber gunner who was wounded badly on a mission over Germany.
    He created his version of the single wing that was very effective against opponents. I was there when Rodger Ebert was writing. The Cindrella story was about a loss to Decatur Eisenhower, our only loss that season, it had nothing to do with the Champaign game which we won 33-0. We were 10 and 1 and undefeated in the Big 12. Roger was a classmate of mine, he continued to cover Urbana sports until he graduated in 1960. Smitty suffered a heart attack during the Mattoon game the week before the Champaign game. Smittty was in the hospital for about two weeks and missed the Champaign game. In Smittys absence the team was coached by Oscar Adams and Bill Linenweber, Herb Sleiger was no where around. I played for Smitty and wrestled at Urbana and at Illinois State. Urbana was Big 12 football champions, Big 12, District and sectional wrestling team champions. Smitty and Oscar Adams were the best coaches and were great teachers. Two of my football team mates went on to play pro football and we had 5 on the News Gazette all state team in 1959. Maybe if you had done a better job you would have had a better experience with Smitty. Prior to Smitty coming to Urbana the school had a terrible win loss record. Smitty once told me all that needed to be done was to get kids to believe in themselves and they would do well. He was key to turning Urbana sports around. That is why so many athletes loved Smitty he contributed greatly to their development. Yes he was tough, life is tough and he gave young men the tools to do well in life.
    Tom Olson class of 60

    1. Thanks for your input Tom. I corrected the info on the game, and I think it may have been Roger’s memory that was faulty. My blog is not an attack on Smitty, and I give credit for many of his accomplishments. However, Smitty declared war on the counterculture when it emerged in the early 1960s and I was on the other side of that divide, although I grew up attending the same Lutheran Church as Smitty, and his son was in my confirmation class.

  7. I read the article about Smitty and was really upset at many of the comments the article stated and various comments afterward. Smitty developed character in many young mens lives and all the bashing of him is really insulting. Let me dispute many of the claims various people state. First, the blaster was never cranked up to it’s maximum resistance. If it were noone would have been able to pass thru it. It was developed to have a player keep their legs churning if it were lineman to drive thru a blocker or a back to secure the ball while being hit while caring the ball or as a lineman drive thru a block. Those that got stuck in the pads were those players who didn’t keep their legs moving. Another reason was for a player to stay low on their blocks. There were six pads (three on each side) if a player stood up straight, more resistance was present due to the player had to go thru six pads instead (if lower) only four. Their were a few players that got stuck and were blocked thru the machine and were blocked thru the blaster. In my experience not one person was speared in the back with a helmet a or viciously attacked by the following player. Did he want to also get thru, yes. Did it take force, yes but no more than what a player would experience during a game. That was my experience with the blaster. As far as Smitty as a coach, he, Sliger, Gremmer and Cass built character in many young mens lives. As we all know life can be a challenge, they taught every individual who put on a Tiger uniform lessons they could carry on thru life. I myself was having trouble in my personal life and Smitty called me into his office and we sat down and talked for awhile about nothing and then he asked if there was anything he could do to help me. I declined but in my mind, Smitty was willing to give himself to help me thru tough times that didn’t have anything to do with football or school. I have tried to carry that kindness throughout my life by just that little bit of caring. Smitty was just as vengeful or caring as any person you will see today even yourself. He stood for and fought for ideas he believed in. I am proud to have had him and the other coaches as leaders and friends. They have moulded into the person I am today and I think I’m a pretty nice guy. Sometimes before people comment about others they should look into a mirror and say how can I make myself better.

    1. Thanks for the input. I changed the comments on the Blaster accordingly. Nobody thinks Smitty didn’t have talent or abilities. Unfortunately, he didn’t adapt well to changing times and by ignoring parents of black players while holding conferences with white parents, and by encouraging jocks to beat-up longhairs, he lost respect among the counterculture kids like me. I guess the worst thing he did was sit his best tight end for an entire season because he was a student activist (James Wilson). But Smitty certainly wasn’t alone in those beliefs and prejudices. It’s hard for people to understand the depths of the culture war that began in the 1960s or how wound up people were about it. I notice the Blaster is still being sold though:

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