A Life in Service to Country and Football: Barney Gill and Cold War Military Football (Part Four) – Coaching “Over There”

Editor’s Note: This is part four 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, two, and three. Check back next Thursday for the final part.

By Russ Crawford

After the 1959 season, Blaik retired as coach at West Point, and Gill was “advised” that he should look for a new home as well. Once again Colonel Dodds, now the Headquarters Commandant in charge of Special Services for the SHAPE reached out to guide Gill’s career. Still as football crazy as ever, Dodds sought to dominate the USAFE France District, and win the European Championship for his Indians. Gill remembered that Dodds had a friend in the Pentagon Office of Career Management who would help the colonel pick football players to be assigned to his command from among recently drafted young men doing their national service requirement. The players that he would coach during his years there were therefore a fairly diverse group. Since SHAPE was a combined arms command, that included Russ Mericle, a former West Point player, Marion Rushing, a professional football player completing his two-year national service, Jim Maxfield, who had played behind Roger Staubach at the Naval Academy, former college players such as Eddie West of North Carolina State, and even a British military policeman and former rugby player named Brian Brandon.[i]

Mericle, who was a backup quarterback for the Black Knights while Gill coached there, remembered that he played one season for the Indians after being assigned as an aide-de-camp for a general who didn’t really want one. Mostly, Miracle worked for Dodds in the Operations Section of the Headquarters Command. There were, as he remembered it, fifty-four general officers at SHAPE, and only one lieutenant from the army, which was him. Mericle’s presence at SHAPE was due to happenstance in the first place. Assigned to the 3rd Armored Division in Germany, he and his wife were visiting her father who was assigned to SHAPE. While seeing an Ella Fitzgerald show in Paris, he ran into Gill, who helped put the wheels in motion to get the lieutenant assigned to his team.[ii]

When Gill arrived in Paris in September of 1959, the SHAPE Indians had a coach and had already played two games, both victories, so he became the head-scout for the team. He continued to know his way around the press box, and shortly after his arrival he appeared in the Stars and Stripes once again, analyzing an upcoming USAFE championship match between the Laon Rangers, and the Flyers of Weisbaden in Germany.[iii]

By the time Gill arrived in France, USAFE football in Europe was an elaborate undertaking with seven teams, including SHAPE, playing in the France District. The Germany District included another eight teams, and there were seven more in the United Kingdom District. The match between Laon and Weisbaden was to sort out the eventual champion of the league. Each team played a full slate of seven to ten games, depending on whether they made the playoffs. The U.S. Army had their own conference made up of forty-three teams divided into five divisions, and twenty American high schools in France and Germany were divided into four divisions.[iv]

Football, in short, was a major preoccupation of the American military community in Europe. The sport was early as big in Europe as it was in the states, with base or divisional teams taking the place of college football, and high schools filling the same role that they did at home. The games were well attended by whomever among the soldiers, sailors, and their dependents could get away from waiting for the Soviets to enter the Fulda Gap long enough to see a football game. When the Indians, with Gill now on the sidelines as head coach, played the Meinz Troopers in the first Freedom Bowl, this one a clash between existing teams to determine the ultimate top team between the USAFE and USAREUR champions in 1960, more than 32,000 turned out to see the game played at Wald Stadium in Frankfurt.[v] As in 1961, the proceeds from the game (33,000 DM) were donated to relief efforts for refugees from the East,[vi] and also served as a chance to prove to the Germans who the good guys were.

In 1963, the Indians defeated the 3rd Armored Division 15-6 in front of a crowd of around 4,000 spectators, including famous sportswriter Red Smith, whom Gill had met during his press lunches at Toots Shor’s. Smith noted that the teams attempted to replicate the spectacle associated with college football, writing that “a British band played La Marseillaise, a German band played ‘Roll Out the Barrel,’ an Army band played the Notre Dame ‘Victory March,’ and kilted Irish pipers played whatever the Irish play on pipes.”[vii]

Likewise, other smaller bases often had booster clubs made up of players’ families and other interested parties. Though it was not the same at every base, sometimes there were cheerleaders and bands there to help root for the home team. Often, as mentioned previously, the biggest boosters were base commanders and other ranking officers.

The level of play was not even across the USAFE league. The quality of the football team largely depended on how much of a “football freak” the commanding officer was. SHAPE, under Dodds and Gill, were firmly in the that column. Likewise, the level of play between military services was not at the same level. Gill mentioned that the Mainz Troopers, who defeated his Indians 10-0 in the 1960 Freedom Bowl, were made up mostly of players that he had coached either in the 504th, or at West Point. In fine style, he also grumped that the USAREUR teams took football much more seriously than even officers like Dodds. According to the former coach, the army football teams had separate barracks and mess halls, as well as being excused from normal duties. The level of play across the USAEUR league was also superior since the teams were drawn from the divisional level, rather than individual base teams, which gave them access to a larger and more selective talent pool. For the U.S. Army, at least, the comparison of their teams to college squads might be modified to compare the army teams to Division I and the USAFE teams to Division II or III, since at SHAPE, football players were required to work half a day.[viii]

As a coach, Gill held his own with the “professionalized’ army teams and contended for the European championship often during his years in France. The Indians won the USAFE title in 1960, his first year as the head coach, with a record of 11-0, but fell to the Mainz Troopers 10-0 in front of 32,000 fans at Frankfurt in the first Freedom Bowl that determined the championship of American forces in Europe.[ix]

His team repeated in 1961, going 11-1 for the season, with the one loss coming after his team was ordered to forfeit a victory against the Rhine-Main Rockets for using ineligible players.[x]   Gill had been warned by the USAFE athletic office that thee of his players, who were stationed at a small Army installation a few miles from Paris, were not eligible to play for SHAPE, but he played them anyway. He argued that he faced an unfair disadvantage since his team could only draw on “750 personnel in the SHAPE headquarters” while other teams had entire bases, or divisions, from which to recruit.[xi] Though that loss was perhaps an indication that Gill had his own professionalizing tendencies, the successful season included the defeat of the Alconbury Spartans 39-12 for the USAFE championship. Despite the location of the game in England, the Alconbury commander presumably could not order the referees to make up a twenty-seven point defecit.

In 1961, instead of having a playoff between the champions of each league, the military decided to stage a contest between the all-stars chosen from USAFE and USAEUR, while keeping the name Freedom Bowl. Gill was tapped to coach the USAFE team, and brought along Curtright as one of his assistants. USAEUR defeated USAFE in the contest 13-0, and Gill remembered that the game was likely lost before the teams took the field.[xii] He claimed that when SHAPE sent Colonel Stuart Hoskins, who had been an All-American at the University of Richmond, to a pre-game rules meeting, the Army officer allowed the USAEUR to use their rules for the game. At the time, USAFE followed collegiate rules that forbade free substitution, but USAEUR, which boasted “six or seven West Pointers,” according to Gill, allowed players to enter the game at any time. Hampered by playing under unfamiliar conditions, Gill’s team put up a good fight in front of 60,000 fans, including several general officers, but failed once again to win the big one.[xiii]

After joining the Com Z conference of the tougher USAEUR league in 1962, the Indians continued to win and posted a record of 9-2, before losing 34-12 to the 24th Infantry Division Lions, a team that SHAPE had defeated 20-19 in an earlier game.[xiv] Gill was unhappy over the rematch, feeling that since his team had defeated the Lions earlier, the tie breaker should have gone to them.[xv] Perhaps because of his disappointment over having to play a rematch against the Lions, Gill backed out of assisting Jack Shilling, the Bud Wilkinson trained coach of the 24th Infantry Division, in the annual Scholarship Bowl played between USAUER all-star teams, claiming “pressing duties elsewhere.”[xvi]

Gill and the Indians ran into more trouble in 1963, finishing tied for third in the league with a 7-3 record. That season would be the coach’s last at the helm of the Indians.   Despite his inability to defeat army teams in the Freedom Bowl, his tour in Europe had been very successful. In four seasons as head coach, his teams won thirty-seven games and lost only six. As mentioned above, the only loss the Indians suffered while playing in the USAFE league was a forfeit, and one of the losses in USAEUR was in a let-down game to a team that had already been defeated.

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.

Notes:


[i] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011.
[ii] Interview with Russ Mericle, conducted by Russ Crawford via telephone, Ada, OH, 9 January 2011.
[iii] Mike Lucas, “USAFE Football Finalists Lauded by SHAPE Scout,” Stars and Stripes, 19 November 1959, 21.
[iv] “Football Standings,” Stars and Stripes, 26 November 1959.
[v] Bucky Fox, “When Army football won its Freedom,” Stars and Stripes, 13 November 1981, 23.
[vi] “1961 Freedom Bowl,” Printed by the Heidelberg Post, December 9, 1961, 3.
[vii] Red Smith, “Football Francais,” Stars and Stripes, 27 October 1963, 21.
[viii] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011.
[ix] Jack Ellis, “Mainz Tips Indians, 10-0, in Freedom Bowl,” Stars and Stripes, 5 December 1960, 20.
[x] Ralph Bennington, “SHAPE of ’62 Football Outlook: 11 Teams Probably in USAEUR,” Stars and Stripes, 29 June 1962, 21.
[xi] “SHAPE Forfeits to Rhine-Main, Ramstein to Wiesbaden,” Stars and Stripes, 7 October 1961, 20.
[xii] Jack Ellis, “USAEUR Stars Win Freedom Bowl, 13-0,” Stars and Stripes, 10 December 1961, 21.
[xiii] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011.
[xiv] Jack Ellis, “Lions Rip Tribe 34-12, for USAEUR Title,” Stars and Stripes, 3 December 1962, 20.
[xv] “Lions, Indians Clash Today in USAEUR Playoff,” Stars and Stripes, 2 December 1962, 21.
[xvi] Bob Wicker, “South Opens Ulm Camp, Shilling Maps Strategy,” Stars and Stripes, 4 December 1962, 21.

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