I peeked through the kitchen window and pressed my ear to the screen, hoping to hear the conversation that was going on in our backyard in Greenwood, Ark. Three University of Arkansas assistant football coaches were sitting on a dilapidated picnic table, sipping Cokes and listening intently as my dad preached the gospel of the single wing formation. I was 13 or 14 and my father was Grady J. Robinson Sr., coach of the Greenwood High School Bulldogs—an old-fashioned coach and an avid proponent of the short punt formation, the flying wedge and a variety of trick plays. Two or three youthful assistant coaches from Frank Broyles's staff usually dropped by our house or the school gym each spring during their annual public relations and bird-dogging tour of western Arkansas high schools. It was the spring of 1959 or maybe it was 1960, and we had no way of knowing that each of these men, who then worked and trained under the disciplined eye of Broyles, would someday head his own powerful, nationally ranked football team.
It was exciting to see these men in my own backyard. A Razorback coach was the nearest we could come to a real national celebrity in those days. In the late '50s there was an air of expectancy and enthusiasm surrounding the Arkansas football program. Coach Broyles had brought the team into national prominence for the first time in years, and every kid in the state who had ever tugged at an elastic chin strap on an old Rawlings leather helmet, including me—especially me—dreamed that someday he would wind up in Fayetteville (pronounced Fed'vull) wearing low-cut shoes and a maroon jersey and carrying the pigskin for the Razorbacks.
Down deep in our little hillbilly hearts, though, most of us felt that we weren't good enough. We slow-footed smalltown boys with names like Lester and Cecil just didn't seem to fit the mold of a Joe Paul Alberty, a Paul Dudley, a Danny Brabham, or a Wayne (the Thumper) Harris. Who could hope to compete, either in talent or in name, with Lance (Bambi) Alworth.
It was not just winning football that Broyles introduced to Arkansas, it was the modern era. A new style. Under Broyles, the Hogs were playing a quick, swarming defense and talking constantly of technique; they practiced, and played, modern, hard-hitting, precision football.
On the other hand our own Greenwood Bulldogs, a powerful team in those days, with a record of 27 and 2 from 1958 through 1960, played a backwoods version of mid-'40s ball. In 1958, the Bulldogs were undefeated and ranked second in the state. My dad was selected for the Arkansas high school all-star football coaching staff. Therefore, the Razorback staff made it a point to drop by and chat with coach Grady during the early spring. They dressed collegiately, with sport coats and open collars, and they arrived in a big black Oldsmobile 88. My dad wore his old khaki pants, a J.C. Penney sport shirt, a faded baseball cap with a G on it and a whistle around his neck. My mama claimed that he took off that whistle only for his Saturday night bath, which he took in the portable washtub in front of the kitchen stove. (Actually, he also took it off Sundays, hanging it around the bedpost during Sunday school and church.)
Dad sat in an old lawn chair as the three young coaches perched on the picnic table like birds on a telephone wire. Dad smoked Prince Albert roll-your-own cigarettes and could roll one while yelling at a kid who missed a block and never spill a speck.
"Coach Robinson, you got any young men here in Greenwood that you think can play in the Southwest Conference?" asked one of the coaches. I edged closer to the screen door hoping to hear something like "Well, that youngest boy of mine is just in the ninth grade, but, in spite of his skinny legs and lack of coordination and obvious fear of contact, he might have fairly good hands."
But Dad never said anything like it. He always told the truth. "Naaah," he growled in that gravelly voice after pausing to inhale, "we play country ball down here. We just grab 'em by the nap' of the neck and sling 'em to the ground. Not a kid in the district that can play real football."
The Razorback coaches laughed. "But, Coach," they pleaded, "you haven't lost but two in three years. Surely you must have some football players around these hills somewhere!"
"No competition. We lucked into a few wins last year, but we don't have any real players...just good coaching," he added and then winked.
"Now, Coach, you don't have to politic us, we're not on your schedule. What about that Blair boy from last year?"
"Tommy Blair, your high-scoring all-state halfback!"
"Oh, that Blair."
"Our records show he made all-state and was the second leading scorer in Arkansas and we hear he runs a hundred in under 10 seconds."
"Yep, he can run pretty fair. But he just weighs a hundred and sixty pounds. He'd get killed up there."
I was always a little disappointed and just a little irritated at my dad for being so unenthusiastic about local prospects. But, looking back, I realize that, more often than not, he was right. He had been coaching since 1934 and had learned his football during the late '20s. He coached what they called schoolhouse football. Schoolhouse ball was small-town football. Playground ball in pads. Farm kids practiced only one school period a day and then rode the bus home to do chores. They had perhaps 10 or so plays. Players went both ways, offense and defense, and they wore high-top shoes (Tommy Blair wore high-top shoes in '58 and ran wild). And the defense had no idea what the opponent was going to run on Friday night because scouts were unheard of. Films? Only at the movie house on Saturday night. Defense was therefore simple. "Now, Tankersley, you line up about right here, son, and whatever you do, don't let anybody run by here carryin' a football, you hear?"
"Yes, sir, Coach."
And Tankersley didn't.
Simple though it was, it was also a highly entertaining brand of football. Reverses were frequent, as were fake reverses, cross-field laterals (pronounced ladruls) on the kickoff and my dad's classic "Line Play." On this one, the team would break out of the huddle single file, but instead of lining up on each side of the ball, every player except the center would trot off toward the sideline and go into his three-point stance. Then, depending on the reaction of the confused defense, the center would turn slightly and snap the ball to a distant member of the backfield who would head toward the least defended area of the field. The center, who in some formations could double as a pass receiver, had to be smart and was usually a player who had made it as high as the Bluebird reading group.
Entertaining though it was, Dad's brand of football did have its drawbacks. During the '50s and early '60s, modern, technique football began to filter slowly into Arkansas from Oklahoma and Texas—hard-nosed, "stick your helmet in the sternum and drive 'em to the turf ball, low-cut shoes, face guards, weight training, timed 40-yard dashes, two-way platoons and entire coaching staffs dressed identically.
In those days the big Arkansas high schools were playing split-draw ball with wideouts and wingbacks. (Today Greenwood plays modern football, too, of course, and has ever since the mid-'60s, when coach Charles Sadler came along to assist my dad.) The rawboned farm boys were no match for the beefed-up, weight-trained technique players who snapped the ball on a quick, disciplined count of "set, hut! hut!" At Greenwood we continued to use the more colorful, though time-consuming, method of snap count, which went "Get ready, get set, signals, one, two, three, four." If the snap count got as high as four or, heaven forbid, five, a lineman could get cramps waiting for the play to begin. Small-town, single-wing, "grab 'em by the shirt and sling 'em to the ground" football was not sufficient training for the big time up at Fed'vull.
But it was a wonderful era, a great game for our days. There were some outstanding athletes and many whose desire, commitment and will to win could compare with those of the greatest All-America. Every kid in town got a chance to play football, even us skinny kids who loved to avoid a direct hit. We dated cheerleaders just like real players and, what's more important, never suffered a single knee injury.
Recently, while watching the weekend college football wrap-up, I saw three well-known coaches, each from a different part of the country, being interviewed. Suddenly it hit me. These were the three coaches who some 26 years ago sat in our backyard talking to my dad. Dad must have passed along some sound advice, for each has coached a No. 1-ranked team; two have had seasons as national champions; two have coached Heisman Trophy winners; two have had undefeated seasons; all have sent numerous players to the pros and one has the the highest winning percentage among active college football coaches. Not a bad legacy for Frank Broyles...and for Dad.
Who are these coaches, the men who were in our backyard that day listening respectfully as my dad tried to persuade them to go back to the single wing?
Hayden Fry of the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Johnny Majors of the Tennessee Volunteers.
And, yep, Barry Switzer of the Oklahoma Sooners.
Grady Jim Robinson is a St. Louis-based professional speaker and free-lance writer.