In somber counterpoint to a bright autumn afternoon, the granite buildings of the U.S. Military Academy loom above the Hudson River at West Point, silently delivering a message of enduring strength. From his old office window in Building No. 639, Army hockey coach Jack Riley, 64, looks out at the river and at a landscape fairly burning with the colors of fall. "Yuh, time for the first game," he says. Then, turning his gaze from the window, he adds, "The last first game."
The first of many lasts this season. Riley will retire in May after 36 seasons as Army's head coach, years in which he seemed as permanent—and as occasionally explosive—as the cannon that dot the campus. Even casual hockey fans, provided they are old enough, remember Riley as the man who coached an underdog team to the first U.S. Olympic hockey gold medal in 1960. The clincher at Squaw Valley was against Czechoslovakia, a game in which the U.S. scored six goals in the final period for a come-from-behind win. That might have been the most important game in the evolution of U.S. hockey (sorry, Herb Brooks) because it set off a hockey boom that produced the talent that, 20 years later, won the gold again. Avid college hockey fans know Riley as the ex-Dartmouth star (he captained the 1946-47 team that won the North American title) who is the nation's winningest active college coach. He has coached only at Army, and his 527 victories (he has also had 331 losses and 20 ties) ranked him as of Nov. 17 second to the late John MacInnes (555 wins) of Michigan Tech on the alltime list. Riley's former players remember him as a straight-talking recruiter and, in his more colorful moments, as a dressing room destroyer of world-class stature. Riley's retirement will end not only a career but also an era. It will not, however, end a legend or a tradition.
Across campus in a new building called the Multi-Purpose Indoor Sports Facility, Rob Riley, 30, one of the five children of Jack and Maureen, sits at a desk studying the detailed schedule of this day's practice. Taped to the office's only window, which looks not outdoors but onto the new hockey rink, is a poster with a photo of Jack and Rob above the caption THE TRADITION CONTINUES. Rob, in his first year as associate coach, will take over as head coach at West Point upon his father's retirement.
"My father's leaving me a beauty of a rink and a bitch of a schedule," says Rob, looking out at the comfortable 2,500-seat heated arena that replaced dingy 55-year-old Smith Rink. That old barn was an icebox with a monstrous (232' X 90') playing surface that to visiting teams looked and felt like Hudson Bay with a roof on it.
December 9, 1985
"I started pushing for a new rink 35 years ago," says Jack, whose efforts weren't rewarded until Congress approved the money and construction began in 1983, at which point Riley decided he would stay to complete one season in his dreamed-of legacy. The new rink is also of intimidating size—200' X 90'—larger than any NHL rink. As for the schedule, Rob shouldn't complain. It's one of the reasons he's there.
"I chose Rob because he had all the tickets, not because his name is Riley," says Carl Ullrich, Army director of athletics. "He was a player [co-captain at Boston College in 1978], a successful coach [49-14-1 and the 1984 NCAA Division III championship at Babson College] and he believes Army can be competitive in Division I."
Can Ullrich be serious? Army competes in Division I of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference, a 12-team league that includes national champ Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and perennially strong Harvard and Cornell. The rest of the schedule is made up largely of Division II teams. Army was 17-13 overall last season but 0-11 in ECAC play. Still, four of those defeats were by one goal and three by two goals. That Army is even close to competitive is amazing. While other schools are telling recruits—including Canadians, whom the service academies can't enroll—"We'll give you four free years and a possible shot at the pros," Army's line is, "We'll give you four years of college, you give us five in the Army." Such a deal. But forthright salesmanship and an eye for a big heart are two of Jack's gifts. With the exception of the post-Vietnam years, when military academies were out of fashion, Riley's teams have generally done well—they have had 26 winning seasons and have made the ECAC playoffs nine times—by "getting the type of kid who can take the life and the discipline here. I tell them you get four years of a great education, $480 a month, and a guaranteed job when you get out," says Riley. "We don't get the finesse players, but we get some great attitudes."
That was Lesson No. 1 for the younger Riley. When, at the end of the first week of practice, Rob questioned the skill level of the team, his father set him straight. "You'll be amazed at what these kids will give you in a game," Jack says. For decades Army has stolen games away from teams with more talent, often winning with West Point's only natural advantages—discipline and conditioning. "Getting in shape for some kids means cutting down from a case of beer to a six-pack. Here everybody's in shape," Jack says.
"I've heard my father say he'd rather lose with the kids he has than win with prima donnas," says Rob, who is developing the same preference. At a recent and fairly typical Army practice, players were checking one another all over the ice. Two fights broke out. "A player said to me, 'Coach, if we keep this up, we'll lose half the team,' " said Rob. "I told him, 'Be on the other half.' "
At another practice, a player had the temerity to tell Jack, "You should stop practice and correct us more."
"If I did we'd never get anything done," snapped the elder Riley, whose personality and coaching technique recall two former Army coaches, Vince Lombardi and Bobby Knight. "Vince was one of the most religious men I've known. Went to Mass every day and always put his family first," says Riley, who talks of Lombardi with a reverence suggesting that he sees the man's achievements as being, somehow, out of reach.
Riley passed up several better-paying jobs—including the American Hockey League presidency—to remain at Army for the sake of his family. "I thought it was a great place to raise kids," he says. It certainly was a great place to raise hockey players. Riley's eldest son, Jay, starred for Harvard, second son Mark captained Boston College, youngest son Brian co-captained Brown and daughter Mary Beth captained the women's hockey and soccer teams at St. Lawrence.
But Papa Riley seems more comfortable talking about his similarities to the volatile Knight. Here is a man Jack can relate to. "Once Army had the two worst losers in the country. Me and Bobby Knight. Between us we almost wrecked every dressing room on campus."
Former player Skip Hettinger, '58, tells of the time Riley "turned around and slammed his fist through the glass door to the engine room in Smith Rink."
Jay, who as a youngster used to go into the Army dressing room between periods, remembers the time "my father put his foot through a portable blackboard and couldn't get it out."
And Rob recalls the time, after a 1-0 loss to Wisconsin, that a school official tried to console Jack by saying, "That was a great hockey game," to which the elder Riley responded with "Great game, my [bleep]. We lost." He then proceeded to tear the dressing room door off its hinges.
Jayvee coach and former Army player Larry Pallotta, '76, tells of the time two years ago "when we'd just received our new video equipment. Jack was so mad between periods of the Union game—we were losing—that he threw a stick. The stick broke the bottom shelf of the TV table and there was this tremendous crash, and the TV and all the equipment fell on the floor. Guys are trying not to laugh, and Jack turns and whispers to me, 'Did I break it?' " No, but Army went on to win the game 5-4.
All that is about to end, though. In the dressing room before this season's opener with Toronto's Ryerson Tech, a game Army would win 5-0, Jack lets Rob do much of the talking. (Although Rob is not a smasher of blackboards and TV tables, he says, "I share my father's unwillingness to accept defeat.") As he paces the locker room, Rob talks to the team with a dispassionate coolness, sticking strictly to technical matters and shunning emotional appeals. "On neutral zone forechecking, the first man has to skate through the puck carrier," says Rob.
Jack does not seem too interested in neutral zone forechecking. For decades one of his most reliable pregame pump-ups has been "Fellas, make believe you're playing the officers."
Just before the Cadets take the ice, Jack strolls through the dressing room while delivering a rambling pregame monologue: "Fellas, we're skating four lines to their three, so set a fast pace. We'll go in short shifts. They can't skate with us...and, fellas, on the power play you don't have to pass the puck a hundred miles an hour...." He hits on yet another basic—"Fellas, we need a man in the slot at all times"—and then he leaves the room.
A manager walks in. "The Zamboni's got one lap to go," he says.
As the players stand to take the ice, Jack goes back into the room. There is one more thing. He says it quietly. "Fellas, don't forget that tonight we're opening a new rink and we're starting a great new era in Army hockey."