Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: Pop Warner (2015)

By Jeffrey J. Miller

Let's start with the name.

Pop Warner. It sounds like a throwback to a forgotten time, doesn't it? Wasn't there a Pop or Pops in every Western you ever saw that was filmed in black and white?

Football coach Pop Warner wasn't the star of any Westerns, although he did live in California for quite a while and for several coached what were known at the time as Indians. He also was one of the great innovators of his sport, and one of its most successful coaches from the game's early days.

It's always interesting to read about someone like that. For his part, Warner did do something of an autobiography at one point in his life. However, it wasn't a particularly complete story and thus paints a less-than-full picture. That left an obvious void.

Jeffrey J. Miller rode in to the rescue. Miller has done some very good work on football over the years; his "Rockin' the Rockpile" is a great source of information on Buffalo Bills history. As it happens, Miller lives in Springville, New York. That was Warner's home for much of his childhood, and he often returned to the small town south of Buffalo frequently during his life. Therefore, a Miller book on Warner is a natural. And "Pop Warner" is a good effort, filling in some gaps in the life of a coach hasn't worked since 1940.

Warner was born in Concord, NY, but moved to nearby Springville when he was 11. Warner remembers that going to Springville was almost like being in New York City compared to sleepy Concord. He played a variety of sports growing up, and eventually headed for Cornell. Warner considered a career in law, but turned out for the Cornell football team in 1892 at the age of 21. He was older than anyone else on the team, thus earning the nickname "Pop." It stuck.

Warner finished his playing career at Cornell and slid over to coaching duties for a while. He figured out a way to coach at Iowa State before the season (training camp started quite early there), and then head to Georgia for a full season there - and get paid by both schools. Both teams prospered under the arrangement, and Warner developed a good reputation as a promising coach. That attracted the attention of his alma mater, and Warner came back to Cornell.

That lasted two years, as Pop jumped to Carlyle - a school in Eastern Pennsylvania designed to provide lessons in life and academics to the Native American population. Warner stayed six seasons, putting together some excellent teams that played the best in the business at the time. Then it was back to Cornell for three seasons, and then back to Carlyle for eight seasons. It was then that one of the greatest athletes in history, Jim Thorpe, turned up for practice. The pair worked well together.

Warner quickly established a reputation as someone who was always trying to figure out ways to win. One time he outfitted a player with an elastic uniform, so that the player could tuck a football under his shirt and then take off for the goal line with it. Then there was the designed play in which a receiver would go out of bounds, run down the field behind a bench, and reappear on the field in time to catch a long pass. These plays weren't illegal at the time.

It's not easy to keep up with Warner's wanderings, but Miller does that as he follows the coach go from Carlyle to Pittsburgh to Stanford to Temple as a head coach. Warner finally was finished in 1939 with 311 wins. Along the way, he came up with all sorts of new offensive strategies, while personally designing improvements in shoulder pads and tackling sleds.

There's not a great deal of information about Warner as a person here. That's not a huge surprise, since he probably made most of his public statements about the sport and apparently spent a great deal of his free time thinking about football. Therefore, the appeal of this book is limited to football fans - but there's nothing wrong with that.

Miller doesn't get too bogged down in details of games involving Warner over the years. The length of the text is about 200 pages, including a handful of pictures. That's about right for a project like this - a quick course in one of the game's greats. The price is a bit high for a paperback at $30 retail, but that's to be expected for a book that fits into a narrow niche. It's a thorough, professional job of reporting and writing.

The name of Pop Warner now is mostly associated with youth football, as leagues by that name have spread across the country. Now those kids will be able to read about Warner himself. The book is a worthwhile addition to the football library.

Four stars

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