Jock is Beautiful

The first issue of The Tin Whistle could not have been more explosive and the first two articles in that first issue actually set the stage for a lot of what would happen for the rest of the year. “Jock is Beautiful,” was written by Charlie Geron, and made reference to a beating inflicted on a prominent member of the U-Club.

The blacks, it seems, had finally taken sides in the jock-longhair conflict Smitty had been fomenting, and decided to side against Smitty and with the longhairs. Charlie also took a swipe at the U-Club Parent’s Association, run by Smitty and the fathers of his white stars.

The other (unsigned) letter to the editor was titled “Racism and Discontent” and mostly concerned the systemic racism in the athletic department, and the fact black parents were never invited to the meetings, most of which were held at Smitty’s house.

“An impending crisis hangs over Urbana High School and no one really realizes the seriousness of the matter,” wrote the anonymous author. “The White racism and Black discontent that are so prevalent in our nation and community is manifested in the actions and attitudes which make Urbana High a potential area for racial disturbances.” These words would soon prove very prophetic.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but those two articles were extremely offensive to Smitty and he immediately called a meeting of the entire U-Club. After they were all assembled, he entered the room and exploded: “I put more niggers through college than any coach in this state!!” was just one of many inflammatory comments made during his emotional tirade. It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize these meltdowns were likely the result of PTSD from his years as a tail-gunner.

Coach Warren “Smitty” Smith.

During most of the speech, Smitty was staring straight at Jim Wilson, who was the starting end at the time, and Harvey Treat’s favorite receiver. In fact, Harvey’s favorite play was a bomb he threw to Jim. So far they’d run the play three times and it had scored a touchdown on all three tries.

It was clear Smitty felt sure Jim had written that letter as he had taken on a rather erudite style recently, likely a result of his being influenced by the oratory of Fred Hampton.

“And if you see some kid with his shirttail hanging out, smoking a cigarette on school property, you have my permission to punch them out,” concluded Smitty.

Although Smitty didn’t actually say “longhair,” I think those final comments were aimed at me and my cigarette-smoking crew. Smitty had watched me grow up because we went to the same Lutheran Church for many years, until I defected, something that would have certainly not gone unnoticed by him. The U-Club meeting was Smitty’s way of declaring war on the counterculture and especially on me and The Tin Whistle; and the first casualty was Jim Wilson, who’d continue suiting up for games for the rest of the year, but would never play football again in his life. Such was the punishment for writing a letter to The Tin Whistle that Jim actually didn’t write! Many years later, John Reinhardt (who was white) confessed that the prophetic letter was his and he left it unsigned because he suspected what Smitty’s reaction to any sort of criticism might be.

Jim Wilson (wearing beret).

The tragedy was that Jim was talented enough to get a football scholarship. He placed third in the State in the high-jump that year and could basically out-jump just about anybody, a great asset for an end. He was around 6′ 4″ and had blazing speed. His dad, a track coach at the University, had been grooming Jim for a possible professional career, but then Jim’s dad died unexpectedly, and then Smitty silently blacklisted Jim off the football team for a crime he didn’t commit. Jim could have folded his cards and given up on life. Instead, he decided to run for senior class president. And you know what? Not a single member of the U-Club ran against him. I think it was an amazing display of their respect and affection for Jim. As well as their realization that maybe Smitty was wrong. But Smitty had been right about one thing: Jim was the alpha male on the civil rights movement in our class. And if he could get a chance, he intended to confront the racism so prevalent in our school at the time.

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.