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Laughs on the Line


By Richard B. Kline

The fourth time he tried it, the guard leading the blocking made good contact and drove his man out of the play. Scrambling to his feet, he smiled wanly at the big, curly-haired man who had been watching. "Sorry I took so long, Ted," he said.

"You had me worried, fella," was the quick reply. "I thought you were fond of him."

But the twinkle in Ted Schmitt's eyes let the lineman know he was being kidded again. Schmitt, in his three years as varsity line coach at Harvard, has come to be known as a kidder. The label fits him well because he wants it that way; kidding is part of his coaching technique. A lineman himself for eleven years, Schmitt knows that line play is always rough, seldom noticed, and never remembered. Since the lineman must cat some mud, the problem is to make him like it, so Schmitt tries to keep him laughing. Although Schmitt is the first to admit that his humor on the field would fall flat in the drawing room, the tedious work of assaulting a metal blocking machine makes his audience extremely receptive. "If you look hard, you can find something funny in almost any football situation," says Schmitt.

Schmitt's kidding is reserved for those players least likely to crack the headlines, no matter how good they are. These are the interior linemen, that small group of big men who line up from tackle to tackle. An average day as Soldiers Field might find Schmitt starting out on Jumbo Jennings ("...we just don't have any bigger pants"), switching to Art Pappas, ("Are you sure you wouldn't like to be a fullback again?") and then moving over to Bob Stargel, who carries the ball from time to time on the tricky "tackle around" called the "Stargel Special" Schmitt watches the wind sprints closely and when the speedy Stargel doesn't win his heat, likely he will hear Schmitt snort, "That big caboose is slowing down that Stargel Special."

Subdued and softspoken off the field, Schmitt sometimes winces when he reflects on his humor of the previous afternoon. He works hard at his trade and sometimes wonders if he is going at it in the right way. "I'm always trying to strike a balance between the funny stuff and hard work. Sometimes I wonder if I'm succeeding." A look at the record indicates that his technique has merit. When Schmitt came here in 1950 as an aide to Lloyd Jordan, the whole Harvard team was eating mud. The Crimson had scored one victory and lost eight times the previous year. The team's record didn't improve much in 1950--one victory and seven losses--but the rebuilding process was under way. During this period, Schmitt probed among the junior varsity linemen, seeking players who had what he looks for in a lineman: some football instinct, much patience and a lot of heart. That search netted two players, Joe Shaw and Cy Thompson. Many techniques of line play must be learned by rote, and Thompson and Shaw were willing to devote the time and the effort, Schmitt says. They contributed heavily to the varsity's much-improved 1951 record of three wins, five losses and one tie. "When Joe and Cy were done they both were good football players," says Schmitt. That simple statement is the highest praise a player can get from him. "Since I've been in this business, I've learned that a coach who loses confidence in a player might just as well go out and start selling insurance. He's through."

Schmitt never thought of selling insurance, but once he seriously considered becoming a dentist. When he entered Pitt in in 1934, Schmitt had that in mind. Soon, however, he was advised that he didn't have the right type of hands to become a dentist; dentists need hands like mechanics and his were judged too small.

It is paradoxical that a physical shortcoming should disqualify him, because other physical gifts had brought him there in the first place. A 220-pounder, many colleges sought Schmitt after he had made a name for himself as a tackle at Carrick High School in Pittsburgh. Schmitt decided on. Pitt because it was closer to home and Jock Sutherland was producing great teams there.

Sutherland had a backfield coach named Josh Williams helping him. Schmitt never realized at the time that he would join the same Williams fourteen years later to try to pull Harvard football out of the doldrums. Nor did he realize that a star performer on the Duquesne team which upset Pitt in 1936, an end named Joe Maras, would also become an associate. "That Pitt-Duquesne game was really rugged," Schmitt recalls. "Joe once told me that the morning after the game, he couldn't get out of bed." The 1936 Pitt team, despite the loss, went on to play in the Rose Bowl; and the following year the Panthers were undefeated.

When he was ready to graduate, Schmitt had already decided to try coaching as a career. He got the idea from his high school coach, who had encouraged him to go to college. "He showed me that a coach often can do more than just teach a fellow how to play football," he explains.

In his decision to become a coach, Schmitt had not reckoned with the professional football leagues, which had become very much interested in him. When the leagues approached him, the money and the chance for additional experience which would aid him as a coach were too enticing. He played for three years as a lineman with the Philadelphia Eagles. During those years, he had the chance to play every interior line position--center, tackle, and guard. That experience holds him in good stead now, since his pupils can present him with few problems which he hasn't faced personally.

While playing pro football, Schmitt also served as head coach at St. Joseph's Prep School in Philadelphia. His pro experience helped him there, too, because he had learned much about passing from his teammate, Davey O'Brien, one of the best passers football has seen. "They originated the modern passing game down in Texas, where Davey came from. I got a lot out of being able to watch him in practice," he says. After completing his procareer, Schmitt went on to become head coach at Sharon Hill (Pa.) High School, where he remained from 1941 to 1948, except for three years in the Navy during the war. He returned to Pitt as assistant line coach in 1948, and was appointed at Harvard in 1950.

In his two years here, Schmitt has been working with Jordan on what he calls "meat and potatoes" football. He explains it this way: "Just as the basic part of any good meal is the meat and potatoes, so are fundamentals the foundation of a good football team." Harvard is coming along fast, he thinks, but the Crimson is still a long way off. Since laying a good base of fundamentals at Harvard looks like a long-term proposition, the 35-year-old Schmitt, his wife and two young sons, have settled down to a long stay out in Waltham. Schmitt hopes some day to become a head coach at a college, but he realizes that he first must lay a base for himself in the college coaching field. In Schmitt's mailbox almost every day are reasons why he wants to continue in coaching. These are invitations to the weddings of the men with whom he has worked, who have appreciated his lighthearted approach to the rugged business of football. Schmitt has made himself a popular coach by being more than a coach; the men who work under him feel they can come to him with more than just football problems and they often do. They know they can expect a wisecrack, but always with some good advice as well. If they intend to invite him to their weddings, however, they had better schedule them in the off-season. Right now, Schmitt is much too busy with the Harvard football team, trying to keep it winning by keeping it laughing.

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