"The games that year," Oakes said recently, "were played at Shiba Park—which means "Grass Park"—on which there was not a blade of grass, only clay and gravel. My first bit of coaching advice, at half time, was when I observed they were tackling too high. The captain of the team said, 'Coach, what you don't understand is that if we tackle high we fall on the runner; if we tackle low he falls on us.' "
The only innovation of that first season was a fake quick-kick—a fairly elementary ploy. But with it St. Paul's nosed out Meiji University by one point. When Oakes won his second game with hitherto hapless St. Paul's, he was considered the greatest coach in Japanese football, or a reasonable facsimile. As a result, he was asked to coach the Eastern All-Stars. The all-star games, East against West ( Japan is essentially an east-west country rather than north-south), featured the best players of the two Japanese college football leagues. They were played in Meiji Park during the New Year's holidays and were called Rice Bowl games.
Magic by association
Oakes has no illusions about his rapid rise to glory. "They chose me to coach an all-star team because I was the only American coaching in the sport. They felt that because the Americans had won the war they couldn't lose in anything. This thought was very quickly dispelled in the first Rice Bowl game I coached. We were clobbered about four touchdowns to one. The glow was rubbed off. But it was good for my team, because they now realized they weren't going to win just because I set foot on the field."
During the first season the games drew about 50 people, and some of them were ringers. In Japanese universities they have what is known as the cheering party. A sizable portion of the student body goes out for this, and elects its own head, who assigns members to all college events, from athletics to debating and dramatics. The status of any activity is indicated by the number of the cheering party assigned. The ultimate is if you get the band. During that first year Oakes's footballers got about five members of the cheering party and a couple of trumpets, a practical brush-off.
At the conclusion of the game the team would stand in a row in front of its own section of the stands. The Alma Mater was sung and if the team, won, the players stood proudly, helmets in hand. If they lost, they hung their heads in ceremonious abasement.
At the end of the season the team traditionally had two parties, one a tea party, the other a drinking party. The tea party was ultragenteel. Everybody made complimentary speeches. The captain gave his accounting of the season, graciously according the coach full credit if it were a winning season and taking the blame himself if it were not. But the drinking party was something else again, somewhat like an American office Christmas party on a samurai scale.
The team did not drink during the season. They were under rigid discipline, not only physical, but in relationships. Japanese have what Americans would consider an exaggerated respect for authority. All Japan was set up on a seniority basis. When a squad came out to its first practice, the seniors chose their positions, then the juniors and so on. A sophomore or freshman could be great, but he would not get a starting position unless there was something left over.
Oakes recalls that once during a game an official waved a first down for the opposing team. The coach asked his captain to request a measurement, a thing unheard of in Japanese football; the officials themselves called for any measurements that were to be made. When the measurement was made, it turned out the ball was a foot short of the first down. So the official moved the ball a foot ahead and signaled a first down anyway. Authority had to be upheld.
But the drinking party was the safety valve. Japanese custom has it that when a person is drunk he is not accountable, and on this one night of the year anybody could tell off anybody else, and usually did, from the exalted coach and captain on down to the guy who held the starting position that you substituted at.