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On the Road Again; "My First Million" Part 6
October 22, 2010 - Charlie Landis
Lock Haven and their Wily Old Coach
The Lock Haven game was one of the three games that got away. We lost 10-7. It felt completely different than all the games played to that point in the season and it marked a turning point in how teams viewed us. Until this game, we were consistently underestimated by our opponents, with the exception of the Carlisle game of course. That changed the night we ran across an old fox from up the river who planned to surprise us early, get a lead and make Alan Cipriani throw to beat us. He wasn’t counting on a smarty pants linebacker to throw a few curve balls at him.
Coach Don Malinak was the Bobby Bowden of the northern tier. In my era, he tried to present an image of smash mouth-lite while injecting a detectable dose of his home-grown trickeration. He enjoyed trick plays both on special teams and offense. As sophomores, we tied the Bobcats on their home field but could have very well lost the game during a fourth quarter rampage by their offense. They were successfully running no-huddle 1.0 and a series of unconventional sets testing our poise on defense when I called time-out as defensive captain. My teammates went nuts in the huddle for stopping the clock for them. But in reality, it gave them pause and allowed us to review their recent sets. We held and preserved the tie. As a junior, I noticed that the Bobcats ran trick plays the second or third time they saw a set they wanted to test.
So the take-aways were: 1. Tim didn’t know this stuff about Malinak and probably didn’t care 2. We were not guinea pigs 3. When they disrupt your rhythm, disrupt them right back 4. They prefer to see a set two or three times before they run a trick play against it
What Malinak didn’t calculate was our experience with his style of play and the degree to which we were not willing to be a guinea pig during Tim’s learning curve.
So it started on the opening kick-off. The kicker was acting real fussy mounting the ball on the tee. He turned his back and tilted the ball to more of angle than I thought was typical for a deep kick. So once I decided that it was going to be an on-side kick, I turned my head away and starting looking around hoping when he scanned the front line, he would think he could squirt it in my general area. He did and I fell on it somewhere around our forty yard line. The Millionaires won the first battle.
In the first quarter we held them several times giving them the chance to punt. Lock Haven had their own unique snap cadence during punts that distinguished them around the state. All other teams treated the punt like any other play with the up back acting like a quarterback yelling “Hut, Hut, Hut etc.” The Bobcats did it differently, they positioned themselves and then the up back just starts counting out loud from one to whatever with no pauses between each number. This small difference allowed them to keep the defense from anticipating the snap making it virtually impossible to block a kick, and giving them about a half second head start on a fake punt.
Why is this important? Our defense called for me to cover the end on their formation during a fake punt that threw to the end. I knew Malinak would figure that out quickly and go for it at some point if the game was close. He knew his end was taller and faster than me so it became an irresistible opportunity for him. So after the third punt, I told Shane Snyder, our defensive end who was very fast, to cover the end if he released for a pass for the rest of the game. He did and Shane made a great play to thwart a fake at some now forgotten point in the game. The Millionaires won that battle too.
The other great battles were won on defense. The Lock Haven offense featured three horses in the backfield and an athletic quarterback with a nice solid line and two tight ends who stood over 6’ 2”. So it was pretty obvious that they planned to run the ball and throw to the tight ends on third down and short. Like all good coaches, Malinak knew our blitz packages were designed to attack the strength of the offensive formation. So he got busy and made plans to run one of his horses away from the strength and into our secondary. One such play occurred in the second quarter on third down. Just by luck, I called the blitz to the weak side of their formation causing Shelb to correct me and try to get it changed during the snap count to his side of the field (luckily for us, it was another long count). We stayed with the weak side blitz and I nailed the running back for a loss, and gave the old boy something to think about. To top it off, either Shane Snyder or Mike Klees knocked their starting QB out of the game in the second quarter.
On offense, things weren’t going well at all. We had one big play, again the Quickie to the right side but this time it was quiet Carl Braggs breaking off a big run down their sideline setting up our only touchdown of the game. The game, our chance for a winning season, was looking real good at half time with the score 7-0, Williamsport.
Halftime as a visitor at Lock Haven was like trying to fit fifty guys in the bottom bunk of a bunk bed. The hosts made the untiring effort to assure that ambiance was everything. These lovely accommodations were located under the home field grandstands. Out of pure hospitality, the hosts cleaned the cramped spaces with a water hose just prior to our arrival assuring a climate controlled seat and a fragrance similar to the cellars of the region after hurricane Agnes. Visiting players were greeted by the Bobcat faithful offering courtesies that I always thought served as the model for the frequent flyer programs major airlines offer to their most coveted flyers. It was a litany of kindnesses; free food, directions to your next destination, commentary on your play and appearance, and lessons in sign language. We were apparently among their favorite guests as the ground was thick with fans eager to please. The J. Arlington Painter Field was as appropriately named as a Bassett Hound named after British royalty.
The game came down to the decision by Malinak to either lose the game 7-0 or win on the ground. He had tried a few of his favorite plays; a reverse flea-flicker and a few TE dump passes, but the score remained in our favor. So in the fourth quarter with his starting quarterback knocked out of the game, Malinak buckled up and decided to ride his three studs, who were killing time until wrestling season started, to the win. And so it was. A critical drive brought them somewhere past mid-field, out of field goal range and to the decision to go for it on fourth and short. Everyone knew it was going to be a pile-up. They ran a sweep to my side and just as I was going to make the play I get hit just enough by at least one pulling lineman that the back was able to break the tackle and convert. A few plays later after running wild on the other side of the line, those fearsome Bobcats were inside the ten yard line heading for the touchdown that won the game for them 10-7. The game came down to one drive of smash mouth football that they won and we left the field 4-2-2.
Steelton-Highspire and Reading: Hurting Us and Making Us Like It
There are events in your life that you chalk up to character building. My first one required two hours on a football field and $0.25 for the program to keep the story straight for a lifetime. The beating we took on October 29, 1977 against Steelton-Highspire was as complete as any I have seen on any Saturday since. I once watched Nebraska pound Army 77-0 in the early 1970’s, and Penn State did pound Cincinnati 80-0 since our day in the barrel, but we could have played that Steelton team 100 times and never won. We were overmatched on the field and on the sidelines, including on defense for the only time in my twenty varsity games. It was sobering and among other firsts, my only time when I saw Coach Mayer with no answers.
Paul “Babe” Mayer was the varsity linebacker and offensive interior line coach during my time at WAHS. There is a long list of attributes that made him memorable to all of his players. Every day at practice his attire and appearance was virtually identical, sporting vintage Pennsylvania-style cotton shorts pulled clearly above the waist, a cotton T-Shirt meticulously tucked in the shorts and a high performing whistle. His picture in the game programs was the perfect image of him as coach. He was intense. He was all the way in, never took a day off. Babe was on the clock and lived by it. Everything we were taught had a purpose and it was explained to us: what it meant if you executed correctly and the consequences to the team if you didn’t. Then when the whistle blew, he expected violence following his teachings. He was a linebacker coach in the era of Jerry Sandusky in the state of Pennsylvania, so this was serious business.
One of the few sources of humor was listening to Babe develop his name for you. He had a personality tick that practically required him to add a long “e” sound at the end of your name. If you were fortunate like me, it was a painless thing. But trust me, Tim Shelb didn’t want to be called Timmy, and Blair Soars never sounded right coming from Babe’s mouth. It was always hilarious to hear a name for the first time from Babe because you were in his world and that became your identity.
His management of his relationships with his players is exactly how I manage my relationships with my colleagues in my professional life today. Everyone who played for Babe knew he was on your side and that you earned his support through your commitment and execution. He also put his players in the best possible position to succeed. He maintained your focus by maintaining his which was only available to you by playing football for him. Once off the field, his life was his, and yours was yours.
First impressions mattered with Babe. During my sophomore year he apparently needed a few guys to stand in for one of his favorite drills. The drill had one LB confronting three linemen and a running back. He would stand behind the LB and identify a lineman to block his LB and then have the running back follow the block. The LB was expected to shed the block and tackle the running back for a gain that if multiplied by four would be less than ten. He loved this drill, so out of kindness he allowed me to actually play LB after getting pummeled by the upper classmen as a blocker. The first two or three times as LB, I laid out the running backs apparently to his great joy. When we were summoned back to the JV end of the field, he just wailed about what he had seen to Coach Kriner as we were jogging back. Coach Babe put me on the varsity kick-off team as a sophomore and Coach Kriner played me every down at LB during my JV season.
But what made Babe a special coach were the things that were overshadowed by his obvious traits. He was the best at listening to his players during the game and adjusting the defense accordingly. His conversations were virtually always constructive if not tactical, with the notable exception of my blown call at Carlisle. I appreciated it more as a senior when I had more access to him during the games and saw his high level of investment in the team, the defense and his players. This skill made him 19-1 versus the offensive coordinators we faced as far as I am concerned, looking back on my two years of being part of his defense.
But he met his match in Steelton too. Steelton was 8-0-1 when we played them and they were loaded. It was parent’s day too. Their two best running backs were injured and out for the game. I convinced myself that we would have a chance. I had no idea who we were up against in Coach Mickey Minnich and quarterback Arnell Reid. I had no idea until the second play from scrimmage.
Coach Mayer installed one last blitz package for the Steelton game. It called for me to line-up behind our nose tackle, Mike Hostrander, and blitz to disrupt the middle of the line with expectations of big tackles for losses in their backfield. It worked perfectly once, the first time. It worked well a second time. Then they punted and apparently regrouped on the sideline to vanquish it for the rest of the game. We played ten other teams. Only about five were able to slow our blitz packages even with the benefit of half time adjustments. The other half of the schedule really never was able to adjust. Steelton under Minnich was like the Borg of Star Trek adapting by the next time they saw it.
Then they were able to deploy their game plan based on what they had seen from their scouting reports. Must have been good information; they dialed a final score of 34-7. I can tell you what I saw but my memories of Arnell Reid with me between him and the end zone are sparse. To play LB for Coach Mayer, you were asked to read through the guard to the QB. Reid was so fast that by the time you read through the guard the backfield was empty and the game was being played in your peripheral vision. He had moved down the line and was in the process of skewering our defensive ends. It was brutal.
Special teams also provided a brutal moment I haven’t seen duplicated since. In the first quarter in the brief period as a scoreless game, we punted and witnessed a freak event that defined the tone of the day. Our punter made a respectable kick that unfortunately was given the option to impact the earth. This impact apparently accelerated the rotation of the earth to a degree to allow the ball to travel on the bounce about 10 yards up field back towards our punter and away from eight or nine faithful Millionaire special teamers who had spent a season making tackles. The Steelton returner did the math, liked his odds and ran up field to catch the ball in full stride, or approximately at 19.67 miles per hour. He was in the end zone instantly after one or two head fakes. They went for the two point conversion and made it. Thereafter we took a heavy dose of Arnell Reid to the mesmerizing effect of not knowing if Blair Soars rumbled in on a 30-pop before or after they scored their third touchdown. It was 21-7 at the half.
The only chance we would have had would have been an offensive shoot-out keeping their offense off the field. That was never going to happen without Cam. They did seem to have the tendency to fumble, in fact, early in the second half, they did. We were unable to capitalize and they proceeded to pound us in front of their proud mothers.
The Reading game was a beating of a different type. Reading scored a big win against us too but it was more about their coach making the same decision Coach Malinak made two weeks earlier than a serious across the board talent differential. Unlike Malinak, their coach didn’t wait until the fourth quarter to start with the running game. And he had a completely different talent pool to hatch his plan. Twenty-one of their starters were just the same level of good football players we had seen all season. The difference was the twenty-second player, a tackle named Dave Pacella who was a legitimate talent at right tackle. We played at an old stadium in the pouring rain. It started to rain especially hard in the second half. They had seen the Steelton tapes but lacked the athleticism to wear us out the way the Rollers had. They were plenty good, but nothing we hadn’t seen before. In fact the halftime score was only 7-0, Reading. In the second half, their coach made the decision to run on the right side of their line in the general direction of their stud tackle and let the chips fall where they may. For any of you who have ever looked into a mirror, it meant my side of the line would see a lot of action. By their third touchdown I was covered in mud, grass, chalk, fertilizer and blood, all the cosmetics of a successful running game. Unfortunately, it was the other guy’s running game. Blessed with the great skill of recognizing the obvious, several of my teammates confirmed during the last extra point to the refs and any of the Reading players within earshot that “at least they are not scoring on my side of the line”. Their illusion of being a Division I football prospect was still intact and we slipped to 4-4-2. We scored seven points; I stopped counting their points at thirty.
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