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An Ivy League Lombardi gets a Big Ten jolt
Roy Blount Jr.
October 18, 1971
This time last year Coach Bob Blackman had 250 offensive formations and was sitting pretty. This year he has 250 problems and is flat on his back.
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October 18, 1971

An Ivy League Lombardi Gets A Big Ten Jolt

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Even so, after spotting the Buckeyes 14 points in the first five minutes, the Illini kept on coming, rolling up 23 first downs and 414 yards in total offense to Ohio State's 15 and 292. Wells, with all his timing problems, ran for 58 yards, passed for 198 and kicked a 37-yard field-goal. With five seconds remaining in the game, the Illini still had enough ginger left to pick up an illegal-forward-pass penalty on their second hair-raising long-lateral-off-a-short-pass play of the quarter. Considering that the UPI had picked Ohio State to win 55-7 "or maybe 65," the game was no great disgrace to the heritage of Red Grange.

It was another loss, though, and now Blackman is faced with the chore of convincing his team that it is not as bad as its record indicates. Such boosterism is hard for a coach, as Blackman says, "because what you're looking for is perfection. You watch a play on film, and instead of patting the 10 boys who performed well, you're jumping on the one who made a mistake." But the Illini are tired of being jumped on by opponents. They are also, Blackman says, "tired of hearing me talk about Dartmouth."

Blackman has trouble not talking to reporters about Dartmouth because they keep asking him an obvious question: are the Illini having so much trouble mastering his multiple offense because they aren't as smart as his players at Dartmouth? While at Dartmouth, Blackman was widely quoted as saying, "I don't want to be condescending, but Ivy League schools draw a superior student who can absorb and assimilate quickly." Wells says the plays last year "were simple, like 2, or 5, or 23." This year he has to spend 2� hours a day aside from regular practice sessions just going over the Blackman system of plays, which entails vast series of detailed blocking assignments, backfield shifts, receivers' cutting assignments, letters, numbers and terms like "dive," "trot" and "black."

Blackman wants Wells to be able to throw, like Washington's Sonny Sixkiller, before his receiver begins his final cut, and he wants the receiver to be able to look up at the last moment and take the ball over his shoulder. Black-man wants to pull off an occasional double-fake end-around pitch play, with precisely outlined blocking. So far what has happened more often is backs illegally in motion, and receivers in the open but the ball even more in the open, 10 or 12 yards away. Blackman has declared that he just doesn't have what he needs in the way of offensive backs, and that Wells—though he's a "fine boy, what every man would like his son to be and his daughter to bring home"—just doesn't think quickly enough on the field. Blackman has cut his offense's complexity way back. "I haven't been able to do lots of things I'd hoped to do," he says. "I have enough on my mind just getting people to count up to four properly before they move."

But Blackman resents any suggestion that he is trying to impose Ivy League thinking on Big Ten brains. He expounds the academic excellences of Illinois and he explains what he meant when he said a couple of weeks back that he had some second-stringers last year at Dartmouth who could help him this year at Illinois: "There are players every year in the Ivy League who could play anywhere in the country. And last year's sophomores at Dartmouth, many of whom were second-stringers, were the best class in the school's history. We also have a number of boys here on this squad that would be a credit to any Ivy League institution. Besides, it takes more than just native intelligence to make a good football team—it takes discipline. That doesn't mean players who salute every time they see their coach, it means players who make every little move exactly the way they've been coached to do it. That can't be taught in one practice. It takes boys who've grown up in the system."

On the wall of Blackman's office hang these words of Vince Lombardi: "Winning is not a sometime thing. It's an all-time thing.... Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing." There are bound to be better days ahead for Bob Blackman and Illinois, but at the moment the former Lombardi of the Ivy League has a lead weight on his chest.

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