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In somber counterpoint to a bright autumn afternoon, the granite buildings of the U.S. Military Academy loom above the Hudson River at West Point, silently delivering a message of enduring strength. From his old office window in Building No. 639, Army hockey coach Jack Riley, 64, looks out at the river and at a landscape fairly burning with the colors of fall. "Yuh, time for the first game," he says. Then, turning his gaze from the window, he adds, "The last first game."
The first of many lasts this season. Riley will retire in May after 36 seasons as Army's head coach, years in which he seemed as permanent—and as occasionally explosive—as the cannon that dot the campus. Even casual hockey fans, provided they are old enough, remember Riley as the man who coached an underdog team to the first U.S. Olympic hockey gold medal in 1960. The clincher at Squaw Valley was against Czechoslovakia, a game in which the U.S. scored six goals in the final period for a come-from-behind win. That might have been the most important game in the evolution of U.S. hockey (sorry, Herb Brooks) because it set off a hockey boom that produced the talent that, 20 years later, won the gold again. Avid college hockey fans know Riley as the ex-Dartmouth star (he captained the 1946-47 team that won the North American title) who is the nation's winningest active college coach. He has coached only at Army, and his 527 victories (he has also had 331 losses and 20 ties) ranked him as of Nov. 17 second to the late John MacInnes (555 wins) of Michigan Tech on the alltime list. Riley's former players remember him as a straight-talking recruiter and, in his more colorful moments, as a dressing room destroyer of world-class stature. Riley's retirement will end not only a career but also an era. It will not, however, end a legend or a tradition.
Across campus in a new building called the Multi-Purpose Indoor Sports Facility, Rob Riley, 30, one of the five children of Jack and Maureen, sits at a desk studying the detailed schedule of this day's practice. Taped to the office's only window, which looks not outdoors but onto the new hockey rink, is a poster with a photo of Jack and Rob above the caption THE TRADITION CONTINUES. Rob, in his first year as associate coach, will take over as head coach at West Point upon his father's retirement.
"My father's leaving me a beauty of a rink and a bitch of a schedule," says Rob, looking out at the comfortable 2,500-seat heated arena that replaced dingy 55-year-old Smith Rink. That old barn was an icebox with a monstrous (232' X 90') playing surface that to visiting teams looked and felt like Hudson Bay with a roof on it.
"I started pushing for a new rink 35 years ago," says Jack, whose efforts weren't rewarded until Congress approved the money and construction began in 1983, at which point Riley decided he would stay to complete one season in his dreamed-of legacy. The new rink is also of intimidating size—200' X 90'—larger than any NHL rink. As for the schedule, Rob shouldn't complain. It's one of the reasons he's there.
"I chose Rob because he had all the tickets, not because his name is Riley," says Carl Ullrich, Army director of athletics. "He was a player [co-captain at Boston College in 1978], a successful coach [49-14-1 and the 1984 NCAA Division III championship at Babson College] and he believes Army can be competitive in Division I."
Can Ullrich be serious? Army competes in Division I of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference, a 12-team league that includes national champ Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and perennially strong Harvard and Cornell. The rest of the schedule is made up largely of Division II teams. Army was 17-13 overall last season but 0-11 in ECAC play. Still, four of those defeats were by one goal and three by two goals. That Army is even close to competitive is amazing. While other schools are telling recruits—including Canadians, whom the service academies can't enroll—"We'll give you four free years and a possible shot at the pros," Army's line is, "We'll give you four years of college, you give us five in the Army." Such a deal. But forthright salesmanship and an eye for a big heart are two of Jack's gifts. With the exception of the post- Vietnam years, when military academies were out of fashion, Riley's teams have generally done well—they have had 26 winning seasons and have made the ECAC playoffs nine times—by "getting the type of kid who can take the life and the discipline here. I tell them you get four years of a great education, $480 a month, and a guaranteed job when you get out," says Riley. "We don't get the finesse players, but we get some great attitudes."
That was Lesson No. 1 for the younger Riley. When, at the end of the first week of practice, Rob questioned the skill level of the team, his father set him straight. "You'll be amazed at what these kids will give you in a game," Jack says. For decades Army has stolen games away from teams with more talent, often winning with West Point's only natural advantages—discipline and conditioning. "Getting in shape for some kids means cutting down from a case of beer to a six-pack. Here everybody's in shape," Jack says.
"I've heard my father say he'd rather lose with the kids he has than win with prima donnas," says Rob, who is developing the same preference. At a recent and fairly typical Army practice, players were checking one another all over the ice. Two fights broke out. "A player said to me, 'Coach, if we keep this up, we'll lose half the team,' " said Rob. "I told him, 'Be on the other half.' "
At another practice, a player had the temerity to tell Jack, "You should stop practice and correct us more."