Football Hall of Famer, Banks excelled most in game of life


October 28, 1993|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Staff Writer

Earl Banks was much bigger than the game of college football.

He was an institution, a motivator, a philosopher, a giant man with a heart to match his size.

Banks also was a great football coach. He won't be mentioned in the same breath with Stagg, Rockne or Bryant, but his former players held him in the highest esteem.

"He was one of the best college football coaches in the country," said former University of Maryland and Dunbar coach Bob Wade, a defensive back at Morgan under Banks. "His coaching style would have made him competitive in any arena, even against the best, because Coach Banks, along with coaches like Eddie Robinson and Jake Gaithers, were the elite."

"They had to work with what was given them, conditions and facilities that were not the equal of upper division colleges," said Wade.

Banks, 69, died yesterday morning after the car he was driving crashed into a barrier at Franklin and North Payson streets.

When Robinson, Grambling's own coaching legend, heard the news yesterday over the phone, there was a minute of silence. His voice then cracked.

An old friend and nemesis was gone.

"Football has lost a great performer," said Robinson. "A great player, a great coach, a great person. Earl Banks was more than just wins and losses. Earl Banks was about people. He was about influencing young black men, and helping them to make positive contributions to society."

Banks coached at Morgan State from 1960 to 1973. During that time, his home was a hotel for players who couldn't find or afford on-campus housing. He and his wife Essie fed them. Often, Banks dipped into his own pocket and gave them cash.

These are probably NCAA violations now. Banks just considered it survival.

"Each year, he would take a couple of guys home," said Pete Pompey, Morgan's quarterback in 1960 and later Dunbar's national title-winning basketball coach. "That's the way he was. Coach Banks talked as much about life as he did about football. That was important to him. He wanted us to learn from his tough times."

To understand why Banks' loss leaves a void, you have to know of his life and his times.

Banks grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s. He grew up on welfare, without a father, fighting for his place in a society that, at best, was reluctant to accept him. He had two brothers and a sister and a mother who instilled in him the desire to better himself. Right from the start, it was not easy.

He had to fight through his brothers to attend school. He hung out with a gang called the Raiders.

"The school was on 39th Street," Banks recalled recently. "I lived on 31st. I had to pass 35th. That was gang territory. Sometimes, I would run all the way from school to our building. You had to be in a gang to survive."

Charity came in the form of food stamps. Banks got a blue stamp worth 25 cents for his lunch. He was humiliated at picking up supplies with a little wagon. He cleaned the neighborhood streets of litter because that's what children on welfare did, and played football with a tin can.

Football became his way out.

And Banks never forgot where he came from.

"The stories," said Wade. "The man always had stories you could learn from."

"He always wanted to do something for his athletes, especially those that came from single-parent families," said Robinson. "I remember when we first started the series with Morgan in 1968, Earl took a lot of the money from the game and gave it to the urban league. The money from those games helped send 175 kids to college. That says a lot about Earl's character."

So does this:

Banks once got the attention of University of Iowa football coaches by delivering forearm shivers to a goalpost at an Iowa practice.

He eventually achieved All-America honors at Iowa as a short (5 feet 7), squatty (220 pounds) guard. He was good enough to join the New York Yankees in the All-America Football Conference, given a shot on the word of his pal, Buddy Young, a budding star in the pros. But a knee injury cut short Banks' pro career and sent him into coaching at Maryland State (now University of Maryland Eastern Shore), where he was a line coach under Skip McCain.

Banks intended to stay at Maryland State only a short time; he ended up coaching there nine years before moving to Morgan in 1960 replacing the legendary Eddie Hurt.

That began the Golden Era of Morgan football.

Banks went 3-3-1 in his first year. The Bears improved to 5-4 in 1961, then took off. In a seven-year period from 1962 to 1968, Morgan went 56-5, had three unbeaten teams and a 31-game winning streak. In 1965, the Bears beat Florida A&M, 36-7, in the Orange Blossom Classic at the Orange Bowl to finish 9-0. A year later, they went 8-0, and won the college division national title by beating West Chester, 14-6, in the Tangerine Bowl.

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