My buddy Paul’s eight-year-old son recently informed him that he won’t need to attend college.
Paul: “Oh, really? What are you going to be when you grow up?”
Son (evenly, with an air of certainty): “Ninja.”
Now that’s an imagination a good teacher can work with.
When a conversation turns to great teachers, what memories come to mind? My own thoughts turn to anecdotes involving various teachers. Most teachers I remember fondly were the ones who had a sense of humor, set high expectations, yet were fair and consistent. They cared.
They were also patient. There was the third grade teacher who spent one-on-one time with me on a math concept. She spent several gentle minutes on an explanation, before asking me if I understood. My averted eyes must have belied the nod I gave her because as I stood, she said, “No, you don’t! Don’t get up yet.” It struck me how she was pulling for me to grasp the concept.
Then there was the seventh grade nun who had a knack for the right kind of discipline. There was a serious kid in my class by the name of Richard who was maybe the smartest person I knew. He got teased some for not being the coolest kid, but he was fun enough to be around.
“Wait- do that again!!!” Two or three of us had snapped to attention when we saw him shoot a BB about twenty five feet- from what appeared to be a closed fist. He reached into his pocket and produced a new BB. He inserted it into a tube, pushed it down with the head of a long narrow screw, and shot it at the side of the brick school building.
“Let me see that!!!” He opened his hand, and showed us. It was a transparent Bic pen. The insides had been removed, and a spring from a click-pen rested against a spacer that sat on the cap at the back end. When Richard inserted a BB into the writing end of the pen (now empty), it landed on the spring. He used the head of the screw to tamp the BB down, compressing the spring. For some reason, those Bic pens had (still have?) a tiny hole halfway up the side. Richard stuck a pin into that hole and through the end of the spring near the BB to hold it down. When he removed the pin, the spring released and the BB shot out of the pen. Ingenious.
“Make me one!!!” Each of us came to school the next day with BBs, and the correct type of Bic pen. Richard had springs, pins, and screws. We shot at the brick wall, at pine cones, at trees…
It’s not hard to imagine how the excitement mushroomed. Several boys began bringing pens, pins, screws, springs and BBs to school. Richard fashioned maybe a dozen shooters. Our teacher quietly noted the BBs that began to appear on the classroom floor. They collected around her desk, at the front of the room, near the chalkboard wall.
“I have an announcement to make,” she told the class one day. She had our attention. “I have a friend who works at the FBI. They are able to take fingerprints from small items. They are going to identify who is responsible for all of the BBs that have been appearing lately.”
Of course, it was a bluff. But we were naïve, and we bought the story (wistfully: “it was a simpler time…”). Obviously, the ‘hammer’ had to come down, sometime. Anyway, she had every student in the class walk up to her desk, with his back to the class, one at a time. We were to tell her if we were responsible. It was our chance to avoid big trouble. Each boy walked up, said no, and returned to his desk (I think she had boys go “first”.) When Richard walked up, he remained at the teacher’s desk for several moments. Their hushed conversation was longer than any of the others. Surely, he’d confessed.
This was quickly confirmed. I don’t recall Richard getting into a whole lot of trouble. Life pretty much went on as before. As I reflect on Richard and that teacher, I assume she laid down the law, and also tried to channel his curiosity and resourcefulness. Good for her, and for Richard.
Photos of Jim Brown with coach Blanton Collier fascinate me. Perhaps football’s finest player ever, Brown of course was extremely proud and dignified. For all of his flaws, he lived by a code of honor, and men forged a degree of respect from him only by earning it.
When Brown was photographed during his playing days, he was often alone, and very serious. A photo of him on the sideline before a game would commonly feature a self-assured smile as he prepared for battle. When you see photos of Brown with other players or coaches (or civil rights figures), he seems to either be imparting an equal measure of respect to them, or he again appears as a solitary figure among the group.
Look again at the photo of Brown and Collier posted here. It is a fairly common representation of the two together. There is a portrayal of mutual respect- but there is also an indication of a deeper bond, one rooted in the love of a father and son. A finer testament to the leadership ability of Blanton Collier could not be depicted.
Of course, one size does not fit all. Paul Brown’s rigid, dictatorial style had worn thin among most of the Cleveland Browns players. He had ‘lost the team.’ The Browns’ “young, vibrant owner” (per Sports Illustrated, ca. 1963) only exacerbated the problem, of course, by currying favor with the players as he aligned himself as the anti-PB. But a few players were still loyal to Brown, and preferred him to Collier.
I am reminded of an Everybody Loves Raymond episode (an underrated comedy series, in my opinion. Better than Seinfeld.). Raymond and his brother encounter a stranger, who is tracking down their father. The father has always been gruff and unyielding to his boys, shaming them publicly and calling them old-school names of mockery such as “Nancy-boy.” He is ecstatic over reuniting with the stranger. The two immediately embark upon a bonding binge, attending ball games and the like. The father proudly introduces him to the men at the lodge. Raymond and his brother learn that the stranger was once a young trainee under their father at work. How could Dad shower him with the love he’d withheld from them their entire lives?
They sons are beside themselves. They work up the nerve to challenge their father, when he walks in the house with the stranger. He’s calling the guy – a full grown man, like his sons- “Nancy-boy.” He delivers a withering verbal assault upon him. The sons are taken aback- but even more so when the stranger accepts the abuse, and thanks the father for showing him the errors of his ways! The sons realize their father always did treat them as he had treated the stranger; they just didn’t respond the same way.
Above all, Blanton Collier was a patient teacher. He was Paul Brown’s right-hand man on offense, from the days they’d been stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station on Lake Michigan, near Chicago, during World War II. PB had noted the unidentified man’s daily presence at the fence, observing practices and taking notes. PB suspected espionage by an opponent; he quickly came to realize Collier’s motives were pure. The cerebral Kentucky high school coach’s intentions were only to learn from Ohio State’s championship coach.
Paul Brown soon invited Collier to join his staff, and would bring him to Cleveland. The bond between the two extended to their personal lives; their families regularly vacationed together in the offseason.
Blanton Collier made an immediate impact on the fledgling Cleveland Browns of 1946. Otto Graham was their star quarterback out of Northwestern University (and on-field nemesis of Paul Brown’s Buckeyes); Collier taught him how to run Brown’s Wing-T offense. (One Paul Brown biographer I have spoken with actually maintains that while he was extremely innovative, the coach ran an environment that recalled that of inventor Thomas Edison: the master received credit for the ideas of his assistants.)
Collier remained with Paul Brown until 1954, when the University of Kentucky came calling after it saw Bear Bryant leave Lexington for Texas A&M (on his way to Alabama in 1958). Fired after eight seasons, Collier returned to Cleveland for the Browns’ 1962 season. Then the previously unthinkable happened.
Paul Brown was fired by Art Modell. It was done during a newspaper strike, which many felt provided the owner some cover since the papers were the deliverer of sports news in those days. Modell wanted Collier to be the new head coach, but the loyal subordinate refused to speak with him for two weeks. Eventually, they met, and Collier reached out to Brown for his permission to accept the job. Brown quietly consented; Collier had earned the opportunity. However, it was clear: that would be the end of their relationship. No more contact, no more shared family vacations. You were either with Paul Brown, or against him.
Whether Paul Brown had been treated fairly or not, there was no denying the Cleveland Browns responded incredibly well to the leadership of the teacher, Blanton Collier. He broke down the duties of every position on the team- both on offense and defense. His knowledge of technique surpassed that of his assistant coaches.
Collier was fascinated by the 1960 Maxwell Maltz book, Psyco-Cybernetics. It was a personal development book that highlighted the mental picture each person has of himself. A distant sub-field of Cybernetics, it holds that performance can be determined by mentally visualizing success as much as by practice. Collier incorporated Psycho-Cybernetic concepts into his coaching.
From the beginning, Collier was an ardent student of the game, immersing himself in film study. From that, he had now begun instituting the concept of “option blocking.” The idea was that the blockers on offense would decide how to block and where to move the defensive players based on how the D was aligned.
In stark contrast to Paul Brown, Blanton Collier was a patient listener. On some levels, he treated players as equals. He felt it was his job to make the players understand and execute. He treated all players the same, with respect and with high expectations. His demand was for the same attention to details he had, and maximum effort.
A prime example of Collier as a listener was with Jim Brown. The fullback never shied away from contact when it was necessary, but he was also blessed with the ability to outrun a defense. To his chagrin, Paul Brown didn’t waver from his approach of running his star into the middle of the line. Blanton Collier opened up the offense for the frustrated Jim Brown, running him on sweeps and even having him stop and throw the ball a few times. He encouraged his fullback’s input into the plays they would run for him each Sunday.
Jim Brown loved Blanton Collier. They could be seen sitting together, discussing strategy, or walking arm-in-arm off the field. True, Collier had a hearing problem (from his childhood, although some believe the condition first appeared later), but Jim Brown’s affinity for Collier elevated the coach to something approaching father-figure status.
During the 1969 season, Blanton Collier’s deafness had become too debilitating. Crowd noise during games in Cleveland overcame his hearing aid, and he was unable to communicate with the assistant coaches on the phone. He knew he needed to retire.
He’d put his stamp on the Cleveland Browns, most notably as the head coach of their 1964 championship team. He did it by not only coaching for his own success, but by leading his men as a gifted teacher.
(Photo of Collier and Brown by James Drake/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)