Editor’s Note: This is part one of a five part biographical series on Barney Gill by Russ Crawford. He first encountered Barney Gill while researching his book on American football in France. Gill’s story didn’t make it into the book and was too good not to share. Check back next Thursday for part two.
By Russ Crawford
When Lieutenant Colonel (USA Retired) Bernard A. “Barney” Gill, Jr. passed away on April 17, 2012, the world became less interesting. His passing also closed an important window to the world of Cold War military football. While several books have been written on the military’s use of sport beginning in the Spanish American War of 1898 and continuing through the world wars,[i] little exists in print about their continuation during the Cold War Era.[ii] Therefore, an examination of Gill’s life as a player and coach at various posts in the United States and in France can help to continue the story of the relationship between sport and the military worldwide. His exploits on the field and sideline also crammed into one life a number of extraordinary experiences that few if any others could match, and are worthy of our attention.
During his life in sports, Gill excelled as a three-sport high school athlete, and played Division I football and basketball for the University of Virginia. After being drafted into the United States Army, he played divisional football, and after hanging up his cleats, he began a stellar coaching career. He assisted legendary West Point football coach Red Blaik where he gave the name “Lonesome End” to Bill Carpenter, and for a time was the assistant charged with screening academy game films for former general Douglas MacArthur. After being assigned to Europe, Gill coached the powerful Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) Indians of the United States Air Force Europe (USAFE) league’s France Conference and later in the United States Army Europe (USAREUR) league’s Com Z Conference. During his tenure at SHAPE and later, he also attempted, with little success, to popularize American football in France. After leaving the continent, he served two tours in Vietnam, and as part of his duties there, he escorted several NFL players on a USO tour of the country. He also coached women’s basketball for the Navy, and after his retirement, he worked as the General Manager of the semiprofessional Norfolk Neptunes football team. Later in life he served as the head of an anti-drug abuse council, and created recreation programs for the Veterans Administration. Barney Gill lived a life dedicated to service and to sport, and his story offers a fascinating look at a world that has long-since disappeared.
Much of the material concerning his life as a football coach gathered for this series comes from a series of telephone conversations with Colonel Gill conducted in 2011. While researching the history of American football in France, Dave Madril, a former player for the Chateauroux AFB Sabers USAFE, suggested that Gill would be a good man to contact. The former coach turned out to be the historian’s dream. He was happy to talk about his experiences, and was an entertaining interview subject. A true character, Gill was a man who had done fascinating things and known fascinating people. By the time we spoke, he had reached that age where his internal editor, if ever strong, had largely stopped working. So, he called a spade a fucking shovel, and didn’t worry about offending anyone. In the process of talking about USAFE football, he also reminisced about his life prior to and after his experiences in France. That will make up much of the following posts. The remainder of the information was taken from the online Stars and Stripes newspaper archive and from other online sources.
Like many young people from his generation, Gill’s sporting life began with informal neighborhood games, but he also played football in a community league starting around the age of 12.[iii] He attended high school at Granby High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia where he starred in football, basketball, and baseball. During his time at Granby, he scored fifty-five touchdowns in two years and was named to the All State and All Southern teams. His offensive production as a running back helped lead his team to thirty-four straight wins and three state championships.[iv] Along with leading the state in scoring as a football player in 1945 and 1946, he repeated that feat as a basketball player during both years.[v] He was also noted as being the player to score the first ever touchdown in the Oyster Bowl, a regular season football game held in the Hampton Roads area for children’s charity. The game is now played between Division I universities, but the first two editions featured top high school teams from the East Coast. The first game, sponsored by the Khedive Temple of Shriners International to raise money for their children’s charity, was played between Virginia Beach’s Granby and Clifton (New Jersey) High School.[vi] Gill scored the first and only touchdown of the day for his team, but that was enough to secure victory for Granby by a score of 6-0. He later ironically remarked that “I scored 28 touchdowns in ’45 and 27 in ’46 and the only one anybody remembers is that touchdown in the Oyster Bowl.”[vii]
Gill would also play another high-profile intersectional contest later that year when Granby met Lynn Classical of Massachusetts in the self-proclaimed “Eastern High School Championship” sponsored by the Mahi Shrine Temple from Miami, Florida.[viii] For his skills as a high school grid star, he was later elected to his school’s athletic hall of fame and also the Virginian Pilot’s 50th Anniversary All Time All-Tidewater Football Team.[ix]
As with military contact football, intersectional prep extravaganzas such as the Oyster Bowl have largely disappeared from the world of football. They were done in by the combination of reformers’ concerns over commercialization and overemphasis, and the establishment of state championships and charity all-star games by state high school athletic associations. But from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s, high-profile games such as these raised both money for charity, and the profile of the high school powers that played in them.[x]
Granby during Gill’s time there not only succeeded on the field, court, and diamond, but also turned out a number of athletes, in addition to Gill, who would go on to later prominence. Two of them, Charles “Lefty” Driesell, and Hank Foiles would also score famous firsts. Driesell went on to be the first, and only, coach to direct his basketball team to win more than 100 games at four colleges and retired ranked fourth on the all-time wins list for NCAA basketball coaches with 786. Gill was credited as having given Driesell his nickname, but when asked about his role in starting the moniker, Gill told a reporter “Hey, he was left-handed – giving nicknames isn’t exactly rocket science.” Foiles, the other groundbreaker from Granby, played major league baseball for a number of teams and was the first major leaguer to wear contact lenses during a game.[xi]
After graduation, Gill attended the University of Virginia where he once again was a standout athlete in both football and basketball. During his time as a Cavalier, Gill led the football team in punt returns during the 1948 season with 15 returns for 215 yards and an average of 15.4 yards per return. For perspective, Gill’s 1948 average was better than Tiki Barber’s (later with the New York Giants of the NFL) team leading averages between 1994 and 1996.[xii] Joining the starting backfield rotation as a sophomore, his 5.2 yards per carry average was the second best on the team in 1948.[xiii] Gill continued his strong contribution to the team in 1949 and after the fifth game in his junior season, one which had seen him hampered by leg injuries; he remained the third leading ball carrier with 35 carries for 143 yards and a 4 yard per carry average. He remained the teams’ leading punt returner with 8 returns for 132 yards and an average of 16.5 per return.[xiv] During his two years playing for the Cavaliers, the team won 12 games, lost 5, and tied 1.
During his freshman year, Gill garnered international attention when the Cavaliers defeated a Harvard team that included Robert Kennedy and, more importantly, Chester Pierce, an African-American tackle. The teams’ 47-0 victory was earned in the first integrated game for UVA. On the final play of the game, freshman Gill got in for a dive play and was tackled by Pierce. A photo of the black tackle laying on the white running back was featured in the Stars and Stripes – the first of many times that Gill would appear in that paper. Southern politicians had objected to the integrated game taking place, but the Cavalier’s players unanimously voted to play, and perhaps this was an experience that helped Gill later succeed coaching integrated teams in the military.[xv]
Despite starring for the football team, and also serving as an important member of the basketball team, Gill did not return for his senior year for the Cavaliers. The November 2, 1950 Danville Bee mentioned that “Barney Gill, the former University of Virginia football ace, now is an Army recruit stationed at Camp Polk,” but gave no further details.[xvi] Gill himself mentioned that he “flunked out” and was therefore available for the draft and among the first group drafted for the Korean War (1950-1953).[xvii]
Dropping out of college and being drafted for the Korean War did not slow Gill’s football career, however. While training at Polk, he met several members of the activated 45th Division of the Oklahoma National Guard who had played football for legendary coach Bud Wilkinson at the University of Oklahoma until their unit was called up for active duty. They told the former UVA tailback that “he would play football” for the division team.[xviii] He enthusiastically did so, with considerable skill and success. The 45th Division primarily played other military teams and won every game during the 1950 season, earning the championship of the 4th Army as well as the All Conference Southern Service Title. They capped their season with a victory over Louisiana State College in the Cosmopolitan Bowl by a score of 26-7 in Alexandria, Virginia.[xix] Gill succinctly stated that his team, stocked with experienced college players from Oklahoma and Texas, “kicked the shit out of them.”[xx] For his play as halfback at Polk, Gill was named to the Service All-American team.[xxi] Once again, in addition to his exploits on the gridiron, he continued to play basketball at a high level and was named to the All-Army team in that sport as well.[xxii]
Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published one book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, and has another, Le Football: The History of American Football in France that will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.
[i] See Wanda Ellen Wakefield, Playing to Win : Sports and the American Military, 1898-1945 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), Wilbur D. Jones, Football, Navy, War!: How Lend-lease Players Saved the Game of College Game and Helped Win World War II, (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2009), Douglas L. Clubine, “’Better than they were before’; athletics and American military preparedness during the Great War,” unpublished Masters Thesis, East Lansing: Michigan State University, and Steven W. Pope, “An Army of Athletes: Playing Fields, Battle Fields, and the American Sporting Experience, 1890-1920,” Journal of Military History, July 1995
[ii] Kurt Edward Kemper, in College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009) briefly touches on this, as does Russ Crawford in The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1945-1963, (Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), but only in passing
[iii] Mike Connors, “Obituary: Gill was a standout athlete at Granby, U. Va.,” Virginian-Pilot, 20 April 2012 http://hamptonroads.com/2012/04/obituary-gill-was-standout-athlete-granby-uva (Accessed on 3 March 2013)
[iv] Jim Kulpan, Growing Up the Hard Way (Salt Lake City: Warren and Carmack Publishing, 2011) 127
[v] Gary Ruegsegger, “Yesterday’s still here for Class of 1948,” Virginia Pilot, 1 July 2008 http://hamptonroads.com/2008/06/yesterdays-still-here-class-1948 (Accessed on 3 March 2013)
[vi] “The Oyster Bowl is Back!,” Old Dominion Athletics, 23 April 2011 http://www.odusports.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=31100&ATCLID=208387625 (Accessed on 15 March 2013)
[vii] Tony Germanotta, “Whatever happened to…MacArthur’s football watching pal?,” Virginian-Pilot, 9 October 2006 http://hamptonroads.com/node/165161 (Accessed on 5 February 2013)
[viii] John McMullan, “Prep Foes Clash in Yule Revival,” The Miami News, 25 December 1946, 13
[ix] “Bernard A. ‘Barney Gill, Jr. Obituary,” The Virginian Pilot, 20 April 2012 http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/pilotonline/obituary.aspx?pid=157117132 (Accessed on 15 March 2013)
[x] Michael Oriard, “Football Town Under Friday Night Lights,” from Daniel A. Nathan, ed. Rooting for the Home Team: Sport Community, and Identity, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013, 70. See also Robert Pruter, The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control 1880-1930, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2013)
[xi] Ruegsegger, “Yesterday’s still here for Class of 1948,”
[xii] “UVa Records: Punt Returns,” University of Virginia Athletics, http://www.virginiasports.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/081610aal.html (Accessed on 4 March 2013)
[xiii] Robert Moore, “Cavaliers Depending on Sophomores,” Danville Bee, 9 September 1949, 8
[xiv] Associated Press, “DeGroot Seeks End, Halfback Strength for Va. Game,” Raleigh Register, 26 October 1949, 7
[xv] Gary Ruegsegger, “When Racial Barriers Fell in 1947,” The Downtowner, September 2010, 7 http://www.downtowneronline.com/archives/DT092010.pdf (Accessed on 8 August 2013)
[xvi] Associated Press, “Sport Dots and Dashes,” Danville Bee, 2 November 1950, 8
[xvii] Interview with Barney Gill, conducted by Russ Crawford via telephone, Ada, OH, 10 November 2011
[xix] “Camp Polk Wins Title,” Stilwell Democrat, 21 December 1950, 1
[xx] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011
[xxi] Bob Wicker, “Coaching Staffs Play Vital Role in Freedom Bowl,” Stars and Stripes, 7 December 1961, 21
[xxii] “Meet Barney Gill – Our Millionth Lion,” The Lion, June 1973, 18 http://www.ohiolions.org/olptc/sponsorshippins/growthpdf/1973juneonemillionthmember.pdf (Accessed on 11 January 2013)