Hall of Famer Banks gets due and gives it, too

John Steadman

January 17, 1992|By John Steadman

Dealing in honesty, never deception, Earl Banks has chosen to live the way he played and coached football. Direct. Head on. No hypocrisy or trickery. Fair and equitable. Every man, black, white or polka dot, got the same treatment.

The College Football Hall of Fame, aware of his extraordinary abilities and citizenship, reviewed the record, examined personal achievements and voted to elevate him to a place among the all-time coaching elite.

So Banks is to be included in the same regal assemblage that lists among its honor roll the names of Knute Rockne, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Frank Leahy, Bob Zuppke, Jim Tatum, Dick Harlow, Earl "Red" Blaik, Dr. Eddie Anderson (his coach in college) and 106 others dating back to the inception of football more than a century ago. Or, to put it another way, they are with him.

In this momentous moment of elation, Banks was thinking of two men -- both white and Jewish -- who shaped his future and, without them, isn't sure he would have found his way in life. There was Leonard Sachs, coach of Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago; and the owner of a drug store, Jack Luvin, in Iowa City, Iowa. Both were there when he needed them in an important bygone era and the impressions they made are still with him.

"What Leonard Sachs did for me led to how I coached," he said. "He was white and coaching an all-black school. But he taught us respect. He told us about hurdles in life and you had to get over them. Nothing worthwhile is easy. It's not the offense or defense but the work a team puts into it. I always told my Morgan squads not to expect any magic plays from me."

Yes, but what else did Sachs do and what made him the coach he was? "He had played for the Chicago Cardinals in the National Football League in the 1920s. An unusual thing, he coached us in football and then in basketball season coached Loyola University," Banks recalled. "But he taught us discipline and good conduct. If he saw a kid with a cap on in the hallway at school, he'd knock it off his head. And to do that to a black guy usually meant war, but not with Coach Sachs. We knew he was teaching us to respect ourselves and other people, too."

And then there was Jack Luvin, who had a drug store near the Iowa campus, where Banks enrolled in 1946 after service in the Army. Earl was the only black on the team and decided it wasn't the place to be. "I used to go in this drugstore for a soda and stand around reading the newspapers and magazines for free and then put them back in the rack.

"At Iowa in practice they told us to pair off in blocking drills. But I was left alone. None of the players were interested. I figured I can't handle this. So I told Jack when I went in the store I was packing to go home. He told me, 'Well, they've been playing football at Iowa for almost 100 years and what'll be said about you is you couldn't take it.' So I went back and stayed and earned my way on the varsity."

Banks grew up in Chicago with his high school classmate and teammate, the late Claude "Buddy" Young, who preceded him into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1968 as a player after an extraordinary career at Illinois. They were inseparable. "Growing up, Earl lived in what could be called the 'High Ghetto' and I was in the 'Low Ghetto'," Young used to say.

In fact, it was Young, who interceded and went calling on Dr. Martin Jenkins, then the president of Morgan State University, in and told him that Banks, who was an assistant at Maryland State College, was available and would make an ideal successor to the retiring Ed Hurt. That was the way it evolved as Banks proceeded to earn distinction for himself and Morgan over the next 14 years -- showing a winning record in each of those seasons.

As a poetic and personal twist, Banks and Young were picked on the 1943 Illinois All-State High School team by Pat Harmon, sports editor of the Champaign (Ill.) News Gazette. Now Harmon is curator of the College Football Hall of Fame, in Kings Island, Ohio, and yesterday was the man who announced Banks had received the highest honor that can come to a college coach.

But how did Banks get from Chicago to Maryland State, in Princess Anne, Md., where he was a line coach? "That happened because Dr. John T. Williams, the school president, had been at Kentucky State and had tried to recruit me. When I got to Princess Anne, I couldn't believe it. A lot of students camped out. Buildings were old. The dining room had a pot-bellied stove. I had never seen anything like it. This was 1950 and segregation was a problem but you had to hurdle it. You know, I learned to love Maryland State. I cried when I left there."

At Morgan, he put up a career mark of 96-31-2, had a 31-game winning streak, won the Orange Blossom Classic in 1965 and the Tangerine Bowl in 1966. Thirty-six of his players at Maryland State and Morgan went into pro football and one of them, Willie Lanier, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and at least one other, Leroy Kelly, will eventually get there, too.

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