Editor’s Note: This is part three 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. Click here to read parts one and two, and check back next Thursday for part four.
By Russ Crawford
After completing his basic training, Gill volunteered for airborne training and was sent to Colorado Springs. His commanding officer noticed the leadership qualities that the nineteen-year-old soldier had developed in athletics, and recommended him for Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Georgia. After being commissioned a second lieutenant, he was sent to the 82nd Airborne Division, but in addition to practicing the finer points of exiting an airplane in flight, he also remained involved with football.
It was while serving at Fort Bragg, North Carolina that Gill met Colonel William Dodds, his commanding officer with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in 1953 and 1954.[i] Dodds, whom Gill described as being a “football freak,” would influence the course of the young officer’s career until the mid 1960s and beyond. The colonel, who had seen Gill play, urged him to become a coach, and when the young officer accepted that offer, he became the only non-field grade officer to coach teams for the “All American Division”. Gill remembered that his C.O. was not the only football crazy member of the division, which played in a five-team conference, and mentioned that “incredible sums” were bet on the games. One Mess Club sergeant allegedly bet $5,000 dollars on the team, and Gill held that such betting helped morale, if the team won.[ii] Presumably morale at Bragg was high, as the new lieutenant proved to be as good a leader from the sidelines as he was on the field, coaching the 504th to the Divisional Championship.[iii]
While serving with the 504th PIR, Gill was drafted to play for the Baltimore Colts, but decided that he would rather remain in the army. Shortly thereafter, Dodds finished his tour as C.O. of the 504th and transferred out to duty in the Pentagon, which left the young officer in a bit of an awkward position.[iv] Without his mentor around to protect his position, he found that the new commander of the 504th was less enthusiastic about the game and Gill found himself as a young officer surplus to the requirements of the regiment. He ended up spending a year in Saudi Arabia on detached duty, which, as he later told a Stars and Stripes reporter, was “the only year in my life that I didn’t see a football.”[v]
Upon his return from the Middle East, Gill languished at Bragg. He had asked the new commanding officer to allow him to coach again, but in his absence, a “former All American at Mississippi” had taken over the reigns of the team. Now something of a square peg in a round hole, he remembered that he was given “shitty jobs,” until Dodds reached out from the Pentagon to rescue him. Without consulting the lieutenant on his machinations, Dodds offered his young protégé the chance to go on temporary duty (TDY) as an assistant coach for the Black Knights of the United States Military Academy at West Point, which was one of the premier college football programs in the nation at the time.[vi]
According to Gill, legendary West Point coach Earl “Red” Blaik habitually brought in former All-American football players on 90 day TDY assignments to work with his football team. Though Gill had never made the honorary team, he had come to the attention of West Point basketball coach who saw him play during his time at OCS, and wanted to add the two-sport star to his team for a playoff game. Gill joined Blaik’s staff as a temporary assistant and scout during the 1957 season and spent the next three years at the Academy.
Gill made the transition from TDY to permanent duty as a result of a flap involving Paul Giel, a former All-American football and baseball player at the University of Minnesota. Giel had been slated to take one of the two permanent positions in the Athletic Director office that opened when Eddie Crowder, a former All-American quarterback at the University of Oklahoma, left to be an assistant coach for the Sooners. When Blaik learned that Giel, who was still on active duty, was about to be drafted by Major League Baseball, he got “pissed off” and offered Gill the position instead.[vii]
As part of his coaching assignment, which also included heading up the junior varsity team, Gill was placed in charge of scouting. In addition, he was sent out on Monday afternoons to talk with reporters at Toots Shor’s, a famous Manhattan restaurant and lounge. Already a “character,” the assistant found that he interacted well with the press and in return got good ink from them. It was during one of these sessions in 1958 that Gill made his most famous mark on football history, coming up with the name “Lonesome End” for cadet end Bill Carpenter who remained near the sideline and did not take part in the team huddle. After using the novel arrangement against South Carolina on September 27, Gill drew up the formation for writers at the weekly press gathering at Toots Shor. When reporters pressed him on how Carpenter knew if it was a run or a pass, the coach refused to answer. In a time before widespread audible signals used to call plays at the line, Joseph Sheehan of the New York Times posited that Red Reeder, the long time equipment manager might have adapted baseball signals to tip-off the end, but Gill managed to give only name, rank, and serial number to the assembled reporters.[viii]
Gill also earned good ink because he could be depended upon to come up with a colorful quote. On an upcoming match against Colgate that President Dwight Eisenhower would attend, he told reporters that “Last year, we nosed out Colgate 55-46 with Prince Ranier and Princess Grace watching up at the Point…If Colgate ran wild for them, Lord knows what they’ll do for the president.”[ix] Of Monty Stickles, an end from Notre Dame, he quipped that “I knew that he was a great end before I ever saw him play…Because when I shook hands with him at a dinner, his forefinger jabbed me in the elbow.”[x]
A captain by this time, Gill had also mastered the coachly art of “poor mouthing” his team and heaping praise on the opposition. During his years at West Point, the cadets were always bruised, beat up, or sometimes felled by the flu. West Point opponents were overlooked, the best athletes he had seen, well coached, and in general, set to mop the floor with the Academy team. Despite his fears, the Plebes went 20-5-2, including an undefeated season in 1958, while he assisted Blaik. His head coach, who sent assistants to handle reporters, and apparently shared the aversion that many coaches have for the press, likely approved of Gill’s approach that avoided giving opponents any bulletin board material.
Also added to his duties at West Point was a weekly trip to deliver game films and help interpret them for retired general Douglas MacArthur at his Waldorf Astoria apartment.[xi] MacArthur had been another football freak since his days as Commandant of the Military Academy, when he required intramural athletics for all cadets, and allowed the plebes to leave campus to follow the football team. His oft-quoted maxim that “Upon the fields of friendly strife, are sown the seeds, that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory,” pointed out that he not only loved the game in and for itself, but saw it, as did many military leaders of his generation, as a means of building strong soldiers to defend the nation.[xii]
In 2006, Gill told Virginian Pilot reporter Tony Germanotta that “I became a pretty strong confidante with Gen. Macarthur.” Recalling his early years as a water boy at Granby, Gill mused on how far he had come from those days as “this barefoot kid from Ocean View and MacArthur.”[xiii] He also remembered that MacArthur’s wife Jean would bring drinks and snacks for the two as they dissected the previous week’s game film.[xiv] MacArthur’s grasp of the game and his knowledge of its players was immense. “He knew every damn player by name,” Gill remembered.[xv]
Some misadventures occurred while Gill was coaching the plebes. In what should have been a triumphal return to the University of Virginia ahead of their game with Army, he had his car broken into and lost his briefcase containing his notes and a film on the Virginia – North Carolina game. The car was eventually found, but the scouting materials were never recovered.[xvi] Blaik managed to arrange for another film exchange, but his presence in Alumni Hall, where alcohol was served, at 22:30 might have given Blaik cause for a stern conversation with the former Cavalier.
Gill never mentioned that event, but did recall that the head coach did have one stern talk with his assistant. When stories of player parties taking place in Gill’s Bachelor Officers Quarters room at the academy reached Blaik’s ear, he called the captain into his office and gave him an “ass chewing.” Ever ready with a glib answer, Gill remembered that when Blaik asked him if there was any fornication occurring during the parties, he replied “There might be fornication going on, but there’s no fucking!”[xvii] Gill did not mention whether this brought some humor to the situation, but given Blaik’s reputation, it would be hard to imagine.
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] “Commanders of 1st Airborne BCT, 504th PIR,” 82nd Airborne Division Association, Washington, D.C. Chapter, Minutes of the General Membership Meeting held Saturday, 3 January 2009 Accessed on 27 May 2013 at 82ndairborne-washdc.org
[ii] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011
[iii] Wicker, “Coaching Staffs Play Vital Role in Freedom Bowl,” 21
[iv] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011
[v] Wicker, “Coaching Staffs Play Vital Role in Freedom Bowl,” 21
[vi] Mark Beech, When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012, 3
[vii] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011
[viii] Joseph Sheehan, “Army Eleven Launches Space Man,” New York Times, 1 October 1958, 47
[ix] United Press, “Army Fears Colgate May Be Up for Ike,” Stars and Stripes, 30 October 1957, 18
[x] Joseph Sheehan, “An Unsolicited Tribute,” New York Times, 30 October 1958, 38
[xi] Tony Germanotta, “Whatever happened to…MacArthur’s football watching pal?”
[xii] Stephen Ambrose, “MacArthur as West Point Superintendent,” in William Leary, ed., MacArthur and the American Century: A Reader, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 21
[xiii] Germanotta, “Whatever happened to…MacArthur’s football watching pal?”
[xiv] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011
[xv] Fred Barnes, “The Best Preparation for Battle: The glorious tradition of football and service at West Point,” Wall Street Journal, 14 September 2012 http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10000872396390444017504577646571574336862 (Accessed on 10 February 2013)
[xvi] Associated Press, “Scouting Notes Stolen,” New York Times, 7 October 1958, 46
[xvii] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011