A Tribute to Blanton Collier
Master Coach and Teacher
By Robert Drucker
Blanton Collier once stated, "From my boyhood I had always wanted to coach at the University of Kentucky. I'm a guy that likes to coach football, and Kentucky was my school." Photograph by the author.
I have never studied a coach in any sport who influenced me more than has Blanton Collier. For over 30 years, his teachings have guided me in nearly all of my endeavors, and I don't think that I could have chosen a better mentor.
Collier was born in Millersburg, Kentucky on July 2, 1906. Growing up, he took a liking to sports, and he spent much time on the playing field attending to athletic activities. After graduating from Georgetown College (Kentucky) in 1927, he took a job selling bonds for the Kentucky Utilities Company. Soon afterwards, however, he accepted an offer to coach basketball at Paris High School with the understanding that he would also teach academic classes. Collier also coached baseball, track, football, and swimming during his 16-year stay at Paris High. He was remarkably versed in all of these sports, and nothing gave him more pleasure than sharing his knowledge with his students.
Many great athletes and coaches are associated with Paris High School, located in Paris, Kentucky. One of them is Basil Hayden. He graduated from Paris High in 1916. He later was a star basketball player at University of Kentucky, and in 1921 he became the first player in the school's history to be named an All-American. Hayden's death in 2003, at the age of 103, ended his reign as the oldest surviving former UK athlete.
In December of 1943, Collier left Paris High to serve his country in the U.S. Navy. He began his service at the Great Lakes Naval Training Base outside of Chicago, but later he was transferred to the Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland. At the Bainbridge base, Collier was given a job to teach survival swimming. When off duty, however, he took every opportunity he could to watch practice sessions held by the Bainbridge NTC Commodores football team. Collier would later state that he expanded his knowledge of football greatly by studying plays and techniques practiced by the Bainbridge team.
Triggering a most improbable twist of fate, Collier developed an ear infection while he was stationed in Bainbridge. Because of his ear trouble, he was reassigned to a naval hospital in Philadelphia. There, the coach took advantage of his new geographical location by scouting nearby practice sessions held by the Washington and Philadelphia pro football teams. He also frequented college football games in the area, each time recording detailed notes of his observations.
Because of his ear ailment and a need for ongoing treatments, the Navy transferred Collier again, this time back to the Great Lakes Training Station. Upon his arrival, the Kentuckian learned that the Navy football team was holding summer practice sessions on a field close to where he was stationed. Taking advantage of this golden opportunity, Collier took a bus to the practice field every afternoon after completing his naval work assignments. On site, he would record notes of his observations, and later he would analyze them in great detail. It was a free education for Collier, and he made the most of it.
Collier's repeated trips to the practice field drew the attention of Paul Brown, the head coach of the Navy football team at the time. Upon talking with Collier, Coach Brown was impressed by the Kentuckian's knowledge of football and love for the game. Soon after, Collier was reassigned to serve as an assistant coach for Brown. The Georgetown graduate would remain on the coaching staff of the Navy team until he was discharged from military service following the end of the war.
Following his discharge from the Navy, Collier came to the University of Kentucky with the intent of earning a doctoral in Educational Administration there. He also accepted a job to work as an assistant for Bear Bryant, then the head coach of the Kentucky football team. At nearly the same time, Paul Brown accepted an offer to become the first coach of a newly established professional football team in Cleveland, one that would soon after be named in honor of the coach.
In 1946, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) was established, and the Cleveland Browns, were among their eight constituent teams. In 1950, the Browns were admitted into the National Football League after the AAFC folded. Interestingly, under Coach Brown, Cleveland won a championship at the conclusion of their first season in the NFL by defeating the Los Angeles Rams 30-28 on a last-second field goal by Lou “The Toe” Groza.
Not long after Paul Brown arrived in Cleveland, he asked Blanton Collier to join him and once again function as his assistant. But, being a man of integrity, Collier wanted to remain loyal to Bear Bryant, and so he told Brown that he was already committed to coaching at Kentucky. Coach Brown persisted, however, and Collier agreed to discuss the situation with Bryant. Upon hearing about his assistant's opportunity, the Kentucky coach was very sympathetic, and he urged Collier to join Coach Brown in Cleveland. Collier greatly appreciated Coach Bryant's understanding, and soon afterwards he left Kentucky to join Coach Brown in Cleveland.
From 1946 through 1953, Blanton Collier was Coach Brown's right-hand man, and everything seemed to be going right for the Cleveland football team. During these years, the Browns amassed an 87-12-3 record in regular season games, won four AAFC championship games, and won one NFL championship game. However, when Bear Bryant left the University of Kentucky to become head coach at Texas A&M following the 1953 football season, Collier was given an opportunity to become his successor. For Collier, this was both a dream come true and a dilemma for him. For years, he had wanted to be a head coach at Kentucky more so than anywhere else. But, he also didn't want to let Paul Brown down.
Collier decided that he would only accept Kentucky's offer if Paul Brown would give him his blessings. At Collier's request, the two gentlemen engaged in a long and friendly talk, and soon after the Kentucky native was back in the Bluegrass State.
Near the end of his tenure at the University of Kentucky, Bear Bryant had established a policy there that greatly restricted recruitment of out-of-state football players. Considering that Collier inherited this policy upon returning to Lexington, his record at UK was rather impressive in my opinion. During his eight-year tenure at the school (1954-61), he compiled a 41-36-3 record. The UK football team also collected some mighty impressive wins under Collier's leadership, including a victory over 15th-ranked Georgia Tech in 1954 and a toppling of 8th-ranked Mississippi in 1955. The Cats also defeated arch rival Tennessee five times, against only two losses and one tie under Collier's rule. And, three of the five Tennessee teams that the Kentucky coach dealt a blow to were ranked in the top 20 by the Associated Press poll at the time of their defeat. In contrast, Coach Bear Bryant, one of the most revered coaches in football history, fell to the Volunteers as a Kentucky coach five times, tied them twice, and beat them just once.
Despite the many successes that Blanton Collier accumulated at the University of Kentucky, he was unable to sustain the level of wins that fans had grown used to during the era of Bear Bryant. Unfortunately, patience among Kentucky fans eventually ran thin, and by 1961 there was much pressure on athletic administrators at UK to pull the plug on Collier. As the Louisville Courier Journal had reported, “the fans were howling for a rougher approach to football with more blood and gore.”
Perhaps feeling the heat from raging fans, the athletic association at the University of Kentucky made a decision on January 2, 1962 to replace Blanton Collier, a decision that I regard in retrospect to have been a poor one. Following collier's departure from Kentucky, he returned to Cleveland, and for a third time he teamed up with Coach Brown. At the end of the 1962 season, however, another turning point in Collier's career came. Art Modell, the team's new owner, fired Paul Brown after it became apparent that the legendary coach would not yield to his authority or follow his new model for the team. Modell was likely also aggravated because the 1962 season in Cleveland had ended in disappointment.
When Art Modell purchased the Browns in 1961, he was a 35-year-old business man and entrepreneur with a vision — to bring a football championship back to the city of Cleveland. The Browns hadn't won a championship since 1955, and Modell believed that the dry spell was the result of Coach Paul Brown not adapting his coaching style to a changing football environment. Brown was a strict disciplinarian, and he expected his players to obey all of his commands and keep negative team issues tucked neatly within closed quarters. Modell, in contrast, wanted Brown to adopt a kinder attitude towards his players and to encourage them to express their thoughts and opinions. This, however, was not Brown's style; his natural drive was to maintain total control, and Modell saw that this tendency of Brown did not rest well with many of his new players. In the end, Modell and Paul Brown could not coexist together, and the Browns' owner felt like he had no choice but to let the coach that his team was named after go.
Despite his firing, however, Paul Brown is regarded by many authorities to have been one of the greatest football coaches of all time, and Blanton Collier likely admired his skills as a coach. In addition to earning many championships in Cleveland, he led the Ohio State Buckeyes to their first collegiate football national title in 1942. After leaving Cleveland, Brown also helped found and coach the Cincinnati Bengals professional team. Following the 1975 playoffs, he retired from coaching, but he remained president of the Cincinnati team until his death in 1991. Coach Brown had been an Ohioan nearly all of his life. He was born in Norwalk, Ohio, and he earned degrees at both Miami University (Ohio) and at the Ohio State University.
After dismissing Paul Brown from the Cleveland organization, Modell offered Blanton Collier an opportunity to become the new head coach of his team. The owner recognized that Collier's caring personality and extraordinary leadership skills could go a long way to restore team morale and bring the Browns back to championship form. Modell also believed that under Collier's caring direction, Jim Brown, Cleveland's best player, would develop his game further and reach new heights.
Out of respect for Paul Brown, Collier hesitated to accept Modell's job offer. Brown, however, told his former assistant that he would be foolish to pass up the opportunity presented to him. And, with Brown's insistence, Collier became the second head coach of the Cleveland football team prior to the 1963 season.
As their head coach, Collier brought a new model of success to the Cleveland football team. As he had done at Kentucky, the new leader of the Browns taught his players to succeed, not through dictatorial power, but through effective teaching, respect, trust, and encouragement.
Collier used to tell his team members that they would win if they could make fewer mistakes than their opponents. As such, the coach held long practices, and in each Collier would teach plays over and over until his players mastered them. No detail escaped the great teacher. And, when Collier saw a player doing something wrong, he didn't lose his cool and blow a fuse like so many coaches do. Instead, he would calmly stop the action and encouragingly say something like, “Let me show you how to do that correctly.”
Collier's humane approach to coaching greatly inspired his players, and they responded with a renewed charge of energy. The Browns finished the 1963 season, Collier's first as head coach, with a 10-4 record, second only to the New York Giants in the NFL Eastern Conference. Jim Brown's play that year was his best ever. The Hall-of-Fame running back averaged 5.74 yards per carry to set an NFL record, and he led the league in rushing for a sixth time. Many folks attributed Brown's record-breaking year to Collier's positive influence. Collier gave the great running back more leeway on the field than Paul Brown had, and with greater freedom to run plays Jim Brown was able to more effectively put his natural talent to work. This was a result that anybody interested in becoming a better leader might want to ponder.
For Coach Collier and the Cleveland football team, the 1964 season was, perhaps, the pinnacle of their success. The Browns finished the regular season with a 10-3-1 record, and not only did they make the playoffs for the first time in six years, they won the 1964 NFL Championship game by thrashing the Baltimore Colts 27-0. This win was a testament to Collier's unparalleled ability to bring out the best in his players. The 1964 Colts were loaded with star power, and they were heavily favored to beat the less talented Cleveland team. In fact, many odds makers had the Colts winning by double digits. But, Coach Collier had prepared his players well for the big game, and he had infused in them a level of confidence and heart that more than made up for their natural deficiencies. And, with Cleveland's championship victory, Coach Collier taught us all that the power of a fighting spirit should never be underestimated.
Following the championship game of 1964, Blanton Collier remained the head coach of the Cleveland Browns for six more seasons. Hearing problems forced the coach to retire following the 1970 playing year, but he ended his tenure in Cleveland with a remarkable record. From 1963 to 1970, Collier led the Cleveland Browns to seven winning seasons, five Eastern Conference titles, two Conference Championships, and one NFL Championship. In addition, the Browns played in the NFL Championship game in 1965, 1968, and 1969, but they fell short in each.
Some may say that Collier's success in Cleveland can be attributed to Jim Brown, arguably the greatest rusher in history. But, as Art Modell had predicted, Collier helped develop Brown to his highest form. And, despite the running back's retirement after the 1965 season, Coach Collier continued to lead the Cleveland Browns to winning seasons up until his retirement year.
In my eyes, Blanton Collier was more than just a football genius. He was a genuine human being who loved to teach, would help anybody willing to learn, and treated all people with dignity and respect. He also was a person of character who cared deeply about his players, and he did everything he could to help them succeed, not only on the football field, but in life.
Coach Collier understood that a person can thrive with weaknesses if his or her talents can be identified and developed. Once Collier heard somebody criticize Jim Brown for being a mediocre blocker, and the coach retorted back insightfully, “Man o' War was a fabulous racehorse. Undoubtedly, he could have pulled a plow, too, but his greater talent was running.”
Despite going nearly deaf during the prime of his career, Collier's love of coaching was so strong that he overcame his handicap for many years. Even after his retirement from coaching following the 1970 season, Collier remained active with the Cleveland Browns organization, working primarily as a college scout. As a coach, Collier did much to advance how football is taught, and today his influence in the coaching world still stands strong. Among his disciples at Kentucky were Howard Schnellenberger, Don Shula, Bill Arnsparger, Chuck Knox, and John North, each of whom went on to become a head NFL coach.
On March 22, 1983, Blanton Collier passed away following a battle with cancer. He was not only a great teacher, but a remarkable human being. Through his display of character, integrity, and noble leadership, Collier left behind a model of excellence for those of us who seek betterment in this world. He was a true role model and a credible mentor, and I give him much credit for helping me, through his influence, become a more complete person.