Review of Pop Warner: A Life on the Gridiron

Miller, Jeffrey J. Pop Warner: A Life on the Gridiron. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015, 209 pp. + Index. $29.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Kate Aguilar

Growing up in the Region, a colloquial term for the northern part of Northwest Indiana where the largest North American facility for U.S. Steel resides, I never put much thought into the fact that our youth football league was called “Pop Warner.” All I knew was that to participate in Pop Warner football was a rite of passage. The city I grew up in was a football town. Between 1962 and 1998, the high school team won 314 games and four state championships. The head coach Don Howell, who took the helm in 1966 and coached for 33 years, led the team to three of those state championships, along with ten semi-state titles, eleven regionals, and 13 consecutive sectional titles. Howell was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame in 1992.

BrickieTo the small city of Hobart, football was more than a sense of pride. It was a badge of honor. It was a bridge between the past and the future. As former defensive coordinator Tom Kerr explained, “This place is a testament to everything that happened here before.” Kerr was talking, specifically, about the Brickie Bowl, the community’s beloved football field. A field USA Today picked as the “third best place to watch high school football in America.” ESPN, in 2008, followed suit naming it the sixth best high school football stadium in the country.

The Brickies, as the high school sports teams were called, were named for the brickyards historically located in Hobart, along with the bricklayers who had worked there. The grit found on the field represented the community’s strong work ethic off of it. Hard work was a part of the town’s DNA. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), in fact, had pumped money into the town during the Great Depression. An article on the Brickie Bowl notes “about $25,000 went into labor costs to build the field, with the first shovel going into the ground in 1937.” U.S. Steel “donated the steel for the light fixtures,” a rarity that made the Brickie Bowl one of the first in the area to host night games.

To the daughter of the city’s head basketball coach – a sport with significantly less fanfare and accolades – even I was aware that history and some good ol’ fashioned hard work were on Brickie football’s side. The football program’s motto – “All my life, I want to be a Brickie. Work! Work! Work!” – embodied the spirit of the city and the team. What I didn’t know at the time was that Pop Warner was not exclusive to Brickie football; it was a national non-profit organization committed to stimulating youth football worldwide. To a sports fan and a proud Brickie, I thought Pop Warner was ours. Now a scholar of sport and history, I know better, and, yet, it still seems fitting to imagine Warner – a man who changed football and his own life through a little bit of luck and a whole lot of hard work – as a Brickie. Like Hobart High School football itself, perhaps the mythology is always more appealing than the truth.

Pop Warner Cover

McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015

Jeffrey J. Miller’s Pop Warner: A Life on the Gridiron similarly grapples with the mythology in the making of a football legend. As he explains in the preface of the book, his preliminary interest in Glenn “Pop” Warner “only scratched the surface of the Warner mythology” (p. 1). In seeking to learn more about one of the winningest college coaches in American football, Miller was shocked to discover only one book had been written about a man “credited with providing the blueprints for the game as we know it today” (p. 2). Mike Bynum’s Pop Warner: Football’s Greatest Teacher (1993) was “essentially a ghost-written autobiography,” thus both enhanced by and limited to Pop’s perspective (p. 2). Miller’s work seeks to provide a “fuller picture of Pop’s personality and private life than was previously available” (p. 2).

To do so, Miller starts at the beginning. Chapter one delves into the history of Warner’s family, including his birth to a Civil War cavalryman and a school teacher in 1871. Although football was not well established yet and therefore baseball his first love, Miller provides insight into how a young Warner learned to use his strength and determination to ward off bullies in the Western New York town of Concord (p. 6). Chapter two explores how Warner became a football player, a decision that was as much the product of fate as it was fearlessness. After gambling his money away while playing baseball, he got the idea to write his father for additional money on the premise he was enrolling in Cornell University Law School. His dad sent the money and to save face Warner enrolled and headed off to college in 1892. Chapter two centers on his chance meeting with the captain of the varsity football team on his train ride to Cornell, who invited him to suit up for a try-out. On the gridiron, Warner was given the nickname “Pop” because he was the oldest player on the team.

Chapter three tracks Warner’s journey from a player to a coach, and how his love for football eventually nudged out his love for baseball and his (brief) legal career. Chapter four reveals how Coach Warner made his way back to Cornell, after coaching first for Iowa State and the University of Georgia, two experiences that demonstrated his imaginative approach to the game. He was able to create a way for him to coach at both institutions in the same season. Experience with Iowa State and the University of Georgia gained him national notoriety. It was at Cornell, however, where he honed the skills that would make him a coaching legend: a commitment to hard work, “exacting execution,” and innovation (p. 28). Although he left Cornell because his assistant coach was lobbying for his job, it was because of this school that he got a chance to play the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which would provide him one of his most notable and formidable players. “‘The Indian boys,’ he confessed, ‘appealed to my football imagination’” (p. 34). Chapter five looks deeper into the history of the school and Warner’s involvement with it, including how he adapted to players with less of a physical presence on the field through trick plays. Success on the gridiron translated into more power off of it as he was promoted to athletic director. The promotion afforded him and his wife, Tibb, year-round accommodations. Tibb was described as reserved and “seeming uncomfortable around children.” Miller highlights this observation while suggesting this may be why the couple had had no children of their own (p. 47). Later in the work, though, he would talk of how Tibb took care of players, showing them great care and hospitality.

Chapter six and seven explore Warner’s departure from Carlisle to Cornell, only to return again three years later in 1907. While Warner would gain a love for football at Cornell and a confidence in his ability to lead, he would recall years later, “It seems worthy of note that in some thirty years of football coaching . . . the only place where I had unpleasant years was at my own alma mater” (p. 73). Chapter seven, in particular, looks at Warner’s blossoming relationship with future Olympic great Jim Thorpe upon returning to Carlisle, which Miller categorizes as “perhaps the greatest coach/player relationship in the history of organized sport” (p. 75). For that reason, chapter eight looks more closely at the correlation between Warner’s innovative mind and Thorpe’s “vast talent,” although Warner ultimately left Carlisle after a Congressional investigation spurred by student complaints found he had a “demoralizing effect” on the school (p. 112).

The University of Pittsburgh immediately offered him a job, softening the blow. Chapter nine looks more deeply into these years, which made Warner a “genuine gridiron wizard” (p. 137). By 1920, football was becoming “big business,” second only to major league baseball. In Warner’s first five seasons, the University of Pittsburgh Panthers won 92 percent of their games, further cementing his preeminence in the sport. Chapter ten, however, shows how Stanford eventually lured the coaching great out to California, convincing him of his ability to build its program and allowing him to first send ahead a coaching staff while serving out the rest of his contract at Pitt (p. 131-132). Chapter ten also explores Warner’s promotion of himself and the sport through books and articles. Like Walter Camp, the father of American football, Warner’s love for and promotion of the game would prove as significant as his style in shaping it for future generations (p. 152). In fact, his love for the game would connect him to other coaching greats like Knute Rockne. Chapter eleven and twelve cover his work at Temple and San Jose State, with thirteen discussing his retirement years and his legacy. Both his retirement and legacy proved intimately intertwined with Jim Thorpe.

In his own words, Miller set out to provide a fuller picture of the man, in part to set straight the mythology. In this goal, Miller’s work is, quite simply, a touchdown. The book does far more than glorify all that Warner did for the game, including his signature single and double wing formations, “the three-point stance for backfield men, the cross-body block, the bootleg play, the screen pass, improvements to shoulder and thigh pads, and improvements to tackling dummies and blocking sleds” (p. 195). It shows how a man initially nicknamed “Butter” for his plump frame would come to value quick thinking over brute strength through his own battles off the field and because of the countless and quite different types of players he directed and confronted while on it. For this reason, the number of coaching greats with direct ties to him remains far more impressive than his individual contributions. The book ultimately shows that Warner did not only change the game; the game also changed him. It provided him a passion and a purpose that, like the pigskin, he ran with.

Like the man, the work is not without limitation. Miller’s choice to let each school, job, and (what feels like) game drive the narrative, at times, keeps him from more fully exploring some of the people and the period that make Warner’s story possible and compelling. In this light, Kate Buford’s work on Jim Thorpe, Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe, could prove instructive. Buford’s biography is both wonderfully complex and timely in that she explores the legend and the racial and political climate in which he came to be one. Miller’s aim, while admirable, would have benefitted from a more thorough analysis of the national and sporting climate, placing Warner more carefully in conversation with predecessors like Camp and, eventually, a younger generation.

Pop Warner remains noteworthy, however, because like the Brickie Bowl it bridges the past and the future. Despite limitations, it shows us the man and in doing so provides further insight into how he and others helped transform the sport into America’s game. For this reason, Pop Warner’s name and legacy live on. His place as the fifth winningest Division I coach of all-time – which does not take into account his wins at Iowa State – has ensured his spot in football history and among coaching lore (p. 197). But it is a speech for the Junior Football Conference (JFC) in 1934, Miller argues, that would lead to his most enduring legacy. After Warner was the only one to appear and speak at the banquet due to weather, giving a rousing speech on the value of sportsmanship and athletic competition, the JFC realized a partnership with the great leader could benefit both the organization and the sport. In 1934, the JFC became the Pop Warner Football Conference. “Today there are approximately 325,000 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 16 participating in Pop Warner leagues as players or cheerleaders in 42 states and several countries around the world” (p. 196). It is true that, to a young girl in the Rust Belt, I knew little about Pop Warner the man. But I did know Pop Warner football. I knew what it stood for, and I saw, first-hand, the kind of athletes it produced. Every Friday night they ran out onto the Brickie Bowl chanting and determined to “Work! Work! Work!”

Last week I got to drive back through Hobart, to visit my old stomping grounds. I was disappointed to find the Brickie Bowl no longer in use, even while so much of the town looked exactly the same. Then I finished Miller’s work and realized perhaps that is the magic of this football-loving town and Pop Warner, the man. The ability to stand firm for something and, yet, evolve. The ability to be both larger than life through the actions of everyday people who, like the sport itself, continue to move forward without fear of looking back. Every Friday night, the team takes the field and puts it all on the line. Yes, Pop Warner appeared just a name in my memory. But clearly we knew him after all.

 

Kate Aguilar is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Connecticut where she studies racial formation, gender, sport, and political culture in the post-1945 U.S. Taking as a lens the University of Miami’s football team, the Hurricanes, her dissertation analyzes the central place of the sport and the city to the 1980s development of the New Right; a focus that makes evident the significance of the Global South and the diverse racial, national, and transnational histories of South Florida and the Caribbean to Ronald Reagan’s particular brand of conservatism and the masculine national identity it fostered. She can be contacted at katelyn.aguilar@uconn.edu.

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