Monday, March 23, 2015

Lessons from "Concrete Charlie"

Stay down, Frank!

Penn and Eagle great Chuck Bednarik died Saturday morning at the age of 89.

He was possibly the toughest football player ever, and certainly was the toughest Ivy League football player of all time.

And today, there are two very important things Columbia football can learn from Bednarik's life.

He played for Penn before the formal formation of the Ivy League and at a time when the Quakers were a national power and looking to cash in on a major TV contract. Penn reached such heights and started drubbing its traditional rivals so frequently, that the school finally got cold feet and pulled back. It was that pullback that led to de-emphasis of big-time football for the new Ivy League and the eventual creation of the ban on athletic scholarships for its members.

None of that affected Bednarik, as he was already deep into his professional career when the League started business in 1956. But in an weird twist, Bednarik played his pro ball on the same Franklin Field turf where he made an impact as a collegian... even as his college was drifting further and further away from him and from competitive football.

And "drifting" is a kind word for it. From 1956-81, Penn was a very poor relation in the world of Ivy football. In fact, the Quakers and Columbia were basically the best bet to come in last every year.

Then in a shift I've written about here several times before, the Penn administration under then-President Sheldon Hackney decided to get serious about making Quaker football as competitive as the basketball program had become years before.

In the early days of that turnaround effort, then-Quaker Head Coach Jerry Berndt and his new staff put together one of those football alumni golf outing fundraisers that everyone does these days. When putting together the guest list, Berndt and his aides were surprised to see that no one at Penn had really reached out to Bednarik for years. Word was that "Concrete Chuck" had pretty much given up on Penn football years before and would be a very tough sell. Nevertheless, Bednarik did agree to come.

Former Columbia Head Coach Larry McElreavy was on Berndt's staff, was there that day and he told me this story about what happened:

"Bednarik and many of the Penn alumni were very bitter about the past and skeptical about the program's turnaround rhetoric for the future. But the round of golf went well, and then we got to the dinner and the time when they asked for financial support from the alums. And at that moment, Chuck came right over to Berndt and presented him with a Mrs. Paul's frozen food coupon."

Now the postscript to this story is that when Penn did started winning, Bednarik became very much involved in the program financially and in other ways.

The other postscript was that after a one-win first season under the new regime, the Quakers next four seasons under Berndt were championship seasons.

The point for today is that if Columbia alumni think that we're bitter and that our administration has made egregious errors in the past, they're right. BUT, the same was true for Penn. And Penn has become the best football program in the Ivies since that era of Jerry Berndt and the Al Bagnoli years that followed a decade later.

I don't begrudge the Columbia football alumni who may still be as bitter and skeptical as Bednarik was at that golf outing. But I am happy to see so many very truly abused and ignored football alums not succumbing to that bitterness and apathy. The long-time fans know that the hiring of Bagnoli alone doesn't absolve all the past wrongs, but we know that it and the efforts to put together his excellent new staff are the first significant moves for football by this administration for football in many decades. And we know that it's been the lack of that kind of commitment from the top that is the single biggest reason for the team's failures on the field.

There's one more lesson for today that Columbia in particular can learn from the life of Chuck Bednarik.

Remember, he was a soldier in World War II well before he became a college football player. And you know where I'm going with this line of reasoning: America today is filled with good and even great quality football players who also happen to be returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Can Columbia field a team filled with these veterans? No. But the Lions can find one or two of these still young men who can make a difference on the field right away and can enroll today at Columbia for free in the School of General Studies via our exemplary "Yellow Ribbon Program."

I can tell you now that the new coaching staff is fully aware of the GS option, especially for veterans. I can't say, and neither can they, that the staff will be able to rope in any players via this route. But I can tell you they will try.

And it's an effort worth trying, because I wouldn't be surprised to learn there's another Chuck Bednarik out there, willing to prove he can be just as tough in the classroom as he is on the battlefield and the field of play.


Coach said...

Jake: that was a terrific post about Chuck Bednarik and about returning veterans. Really great.
Shelton Hackney allowed the alumni at Penn to make up any shortage of financial aid for the football players, in essence, guaranteeing that no player had to go out of pocket. Ivy League eventually stopped this practice many years later.
Penn's football program skyrocketed instantaneously thanks to an administration that committed itself.

Chick said...

Bagnoli can't win just by waving a magic wand. I have to think all the top "Ivy" recruits were taken before he got to Columbia, even if a waiver on time limits could be obtained. That leaves transfers and GS as a possible offset to a small recruiting class.

If there's no help there, then Bags will really have to work magic to post an encouraging season. I think he can do it. Not talking about number of wins, just a more disciplined, organized, tougher, more inspired squad that builds a foundation for the following years.

It will be very interesting to see how all the variables play out.

Coach said...

Chick- there probably players available in the bottom 2 bands if Columbia were allowed to recruit.

oldlion said...

One of our greatest players in the last 25 25 years, Des Werthman, was as I recall a late recruit. Because he was considered undersized he didn't have many suitors. And he turned out to be sensational.

Coach said...

Werthman was a terrific player. We could use a few more. The problem, however, is that, by league rules, Bagnoli has not been allowed to recruit, for the 2015 class- did not get the waiver, as I understand the situation.
Hope that I am wrong- no clarification from the AD.

oldlion said...

Do we have a new S and C coach?

I remain, very truly yours, Richard Szathmary said...

Oddly, I still remember on a Sunday afternoon as a child watching an interview with Frank Gifford in his hospital bed about the (admittedly "clean") Bednarik hit that "The Giffer" there. And he did come back successfully, thank goodness.

That kind of fierceness in a player would be nice to see. As would for Columbia's linemen the sort of respect Bednarik's hits always engendered in opponents.

oldlion said...

As an old Giant fan I can still remember that hit. Technically it was a legal hit, but it was a blind sided hit which seemed to me designed to end Gifford's career. It was flat out vicious, make no mistake about it.

Big Dawg said...

A great blog recalling a great player.

The higher lesson is the attitude it took to reinvent a Penn program.

I have no illusions about our success potential next year. The majority of our team have 0-20 experience, and the rest chose to come here to a failing program. That is the core of the team in 2015.

But, with Bagnoli and his staff providing the coaching and the inspiration and the planning, I expect to see significant improvement in the morale and the quality of play. We may get beat up physically, but we will play smarter and harder, and I think we have a chance to squeak out a couple of wins.

Bottom line; it's a long process and we are just beginning.