This time last year Coach Bob Blackman had 250 offensive formations and was sitting pretty. This year he has 250 problems and is flat on his back.
Last year Blackman was at Dartmouth, producing another of his perennial champions and enjoying a reputation as the Vince Lombardi of the Ivy League. By the time the season was over he would have his third undefeated team, his sixth Ivy title, his second Lambert Trophy and a No. 14 national ranking.
This year he is at the University of Illinois, where he has yet to become known as the Vince Lombardi of the Big Ten. After going 10 years at Dartmouth without being held scoreless in a game, Blackman watched his team lose to Michigan State 10-0, North Carolina 27-0 and USC 28-0, then drop two more, 52-14 to Washington two weeks ago, and 24-10 to Ohio State last Saturday. With unbeaten Michigan coming up this week followed by formidable Purdue and Northwestern, it should be November before Blackman finally wins one. "I'm afraid people are going to start thinking I'm not the miracle man I was supposed to be," he says.
Blackman has never specifically claimed miraculous powers and in fact has been asking Illinois fans to "combine their enthusiasm with realism" since he took the head coaching job last December. But he does have a history of rising up out of the depths.
When he came down with polio at the age of 19, he went a couple of months without being able to swallow, much less walk. Now he jogs with only a slight limp and swallows enough to rank as one of the roundest-faced coaches in the nation. When he took over the head coaching job at Monrovia (Calif.) High School in 1946, the team had not won in two years, attendance averaged something under 200 and the bleachers had been condemned. Within three years he had taken Monrovia to a 10-1 season and a final-game turnout of 15,000.
From Monrovia, Blackman went on to achieve the same sort of thing at Pasadena City College, the University of Denver and Dartmouth. At Dartmouth in 1957 he observed, "Every place I've ever gone to coach, the team was at rock bottom. But I've always been fortunate in having a championship by the third year." That was at the beginning of his third year at Dartmouth, in the course of which he won his first Ivy title.
Still, Blackman has never been 0 and 5 before (he lost his first four games at Dartmouth, but upset Harvard in the fifth on national television), much less faced the very real prospect of running it out to 0 and 8. He came into the 1971 season with an admirable 22-year record of 150-49-8, sixth in percentage and fourth in wins among active major-college coaches. Eight or 10 more years like this one and he is going to be in trouble lifetime.
How does it feel to be going so bad after all those years of supremacy? "I don't think I've ever been quite so disappointed and frustrated in my life," he told the press after the Ohio State game. He also confides that an esophageal hernia, which never gave him any trouble at Dartmouth, makes him feel this year like he has a lead weight on his chest. But by and large he answers questions about his own state of mind by expressing concern about how other people are reacting. These other people boil down to two groups, his team and all the people around the state who are, so far, buying "Win With Blackman" buttons and game tickets decorated with Blackman's full-color photograph.
The team? The team, Blackman says, "is capable of beating 90% of the colleges in America. But we are our own worst enemy." Never once last year did his Dartmouths allow an opponent to take over the ball beyond the opponent's 40. In the Illinois opener Michigan State got the ball beyond its 40 not once but 13 times. The Illini defense has been strong, but the offense keeps losing the ball because it keeps making mistakes. As the general said of his firing squad after they all missed the condemned man, "They just don't execute."
This is the kind of day it was against Ohio State, for instance: a pass bounced off the helmet of the intended Illinois receiver into a defender's hands; a short pass to a wide-open receiver in the end zone was thrown off-target; on a draw play the fullback inexplicably fell down on being handed the ball; a pass was overthrown on a beautifully breaking play that should have gone for a 60-yard touchdown; two Illinois drives stalled inside the Ohio State 10 (one when Quarterback Mike Wells and Halfback Darrell Robinson ran into each other on the two); and there was a prevailing gray spot in the middle of the orange "I" formed by the Illinois card section (through binoculars the spot appeared to be a dad—it was Dad's Day—who either was not issued or would not wear the requisite orange bib).
Even so, after spotting the Buckeyes 14 points in the first five minutes, the Illini kept on coming, rolling up 23 first downs and 414 yards in total offense to Ohio State's 15 and 292. Wells, with all his timing problems, ran for 58 yards, passed for 198 and kicked a 37-yard field-goal. With five seconds remaining in the game, the Illini still had enough ginger left to pick up an illegal-forward-pass penalty on their second hair-raising long-lateral-off-a-short-pass play of the quarter. Considering that the UPI had picked Ohio State to win 55-7 "or maybe 65," the game was no great disgrace to the heritage of Red Grange.
It was another loss, though, and now Blackman is faced with the chore of convincing his team that it is not as bad as its record indicates. Such boosterism is hard for a coach, as Blackman says, "because what you're looking for is perfection. You watch a play on film, and instead of patting the 10 boys who performed well, you're jumping on the one who made a mistake." But the Illini are tired of being jumped on by opponents. They are also, Blackman says, "tired of hearing me talk about Dartmouth."
Blackman has trouble not talking to reporters about Dartmouth because they keep asking him an obvious question: are the Illini having so much trouble mastering his multiple offense because they aren't as smart as his players at Dartmouth? While at Dartmouth, Blackman was widely quoted as saying, "I don't want to be condescending, but Ivy League schools draw a superior student who can absorb and assimilate quickly." Wells says the plays last year "were simple, like 2, or 5, or 23." This year he has to spend 2½ hours a day aside from regular practice sessions just going over the Blackman system of plays, which entails vast series of detailed blocking assignments, backfield shifts, receivers' cutting assignments, letters, numbers and terms like "dive," "trot" and "black."
Blackman wants Wells to be able to throw, like Washington's Sonny Sixkiller, before his receiver begins his final cut, and he wants the receiver to be able to look up at the last moment and take the ball over his shoulder. Black-man wants to pull off an occasional double-fake end-around pitch play, with precisely outlined blocking. So far what has happened more often is backs illegally in motion, and receivers in the open but the ball even more in the open, 10 or 12 yards away. Blackman has declared that he just doesn't have what he needs in the way of offensive backs, and that Wells—though he's a "fine boy, what every man would like his son to be and his daughter to bring home"—just doesn't think quickly enough on the field. Blackman has cut his offense's complexity way back. "I haven't been able to do lots of things I'd hoped to do," he says. "I have enough on my mind just getting people to count up to four properly before they move."
But Blackman resents any suggestion that he is trying to impose Ivy League thinking on Big Ten brains. He expounds the academic excellences of Illinois and he explains what he meant when he said a couple of weeks back that he had some second-stringers last year at Dartmouth who could help him this year at Illinois: "There are players every year in the Ivy League who could play anywhere in the country. And last year's sophomores at Dartmouth, many of whom were second-stringers, were the best class in the school's history. We also have a number of boys here on this squad that would be a credit to any Ivy League institution. Besides, it takes more than just native intelligence to make a good football team—it takes discipline. That doesn't mean players who salute every time they see their coach, it means players who make every little move exactly the way they've been coached to do it. That can't be taught in one practice. It takes boys who've grown up in the system."
On the wall of Blackman's office hang these words of Vince Lombardi: "Winning is not a sometime thing. It's an all-time thing.... Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing." There are bound to be better days ahead for Bob Blackman and Illinois, but at the moment the former Lombardi of the Ivy League has a lead weight on his chest.