Heady & Steady
Ed Baker - A Coach For All Seasons
A Few Things ‘Done Right’ and How It All Began
By Kevin J. Burke ’78
The iron-man Doc Wallace era had come to a close with his retirement from coaching. His herculean run for an astonishing 28 years(1929-1956) as Fords head football coach with all-time-most wins(still standing at 131) hung suspended in the air like a signature Jim Thorpe punt frozen in mid-arc. Now what? The program was quickly sliding into a state of uncertainty, the campus stunned, apparently, by Doc’s unexpected mortality. No preparations for succession had been made before he hung up the whistle. Now something had to be done. The right man had to be found.
And then, like fresh wind to luffed sails in the doldrums, the Fords football ship was gifted with a gust of youthful energy from a surprise source and was soon back on course.
Edward D. Baker arrived on campus from Columbus, Ohio in 1958 to take the helm of a moribund but proud football program. Immediately, Coach Baker was hooked on the quality of the school and its student-athletes.
On his first and only visit to The School (as he fondly came to call Haverford)for an interview, he sensed something special : “From the top down everyone impressed me as being dedicated, well-educated and devoted to giving their best effort to the task of preparing boys and young men for college and for the challenges of life”. After Coach Baker’s first game, the campus sensed something special in him as well.
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He tells the story with a gleaming eye that has just enough sparkle to suggest pride but falls short of bragging. This is, after all, the same paternalistic, soft-spoken field general who now sports a shock of white in his mane but has more color (and hair) than most of the younger men surrounding him, his former players. It’s late February, 2011 at the Villanova Conference Center and Coach Baker, now 80, has returned to Philadelphia from his winter home in Bonita Springs to celebrate the induction of his beloved 1961 undefeated team into the Athletic Hall of Fame the previous evening; and now, another evening of memory stirring tales, laments and laughs. A complete football weekend for the old coach, this evening it’s time for the first-ever football alumni gathering to honor outgoing senior players as newly minted football alumni. The crowd is fascinated to hear from an icon who looks younger and more fit than many of his former players. And except those from the Sixties, most had never met the man with the highest winning percentage in Fords football history.
“Was I ready for my new assignment at The Haverford School?” Baker ponders. “Well, I was eager to leave the Ohio Valley and settle into whatever challenge might be in store in the Delaware Valley”. Being mentored by the likes of Woody Hayes and a young Bo Schembechler (eventual Head Coaches at Ohio State & Michigan) certainly juiced his preparation( more on that later). That first game in September would be crucial to setting the Baker era tone and to reverse the decline in the waning Doc Wallace years and the one year stop-gap coaching of Ken Kingham. Baker had just three weeks to move, settle in, get to know players, students and faculty, make adjustments and game-plan before taking on defending public league powerhouse Frankford. Welcome to Philly.
For that opening game “we worked hard to be ready to do a few things right” was Baker’s simple explanation of what would ensue. The stands were jam-packed with the pent-up expectations of a new season and the thousands of Frankford fans packed into the wooden bleachers were very loud and boisterous. “Waves of eleven-man lines of tough-looking, high-stepping Frankford players flowed up & down the field shortly before game time.
“It was a very hot and humid Friday afternoon. We had travelled via private cars dressed to play when we arrived at the field. One of our cars made a couple of wrong turns in heavy traffic and arrived just a few minutes before the scheduled kick-off. We had a total of eighteen players available for the game – yes eleven on the field, seven on the bench. Our guys were told to do some individual stretching exercises and some jumping jacks and save their energy for the game.
As our team circled up to do some “hand-clap drills” about 5 minutes before kickoff, the Frankford coach came over and asked if we needed a little more time. I was probably kidding myself a little when I said: “No, we’re ready to go”. I could see his concerning eyes counting our players. When he looked back at me with raised eyebrows I said something I immediately wished I had not. It was maybe the cockiest thing I’ve ever said to an opponent: We only need eleven”.
“What happened next was that our best eleven played a better football game than their best eleven and we won the game 20-6. That is easy for me to remember because I have the game ball on a shelf in front of my desk with the date and scores painted in white by one of our players. As the game ended, I was reminded of one our U.S. Marine Corps slogans – “ A Few Good Men!”
Thus began the Ed Baker era at “The School”. He was 27 years old and a seasoned Marine Officer. Over the next 9 seasons, he would amass a 49-21-2 record for a .681 winning percentage, still the best among Fords coaches. He would compile three Inter-Ac Championships, 2 undefeated seasons, an 18 game winning streak from ’64 thru ’66, 21 First Team All-Inter-Ac players( many more 2nd Team and Honorable Mentions) , 4 All-City players, 12 college players from one year alone(1961), and was named Main Line and Philadelphia Coach of the Year. And that was just football. As founder of the lacrosse program in 1963 and as Athletic Director, he cast a far wider spell of success for The School.
Already, after that first game, he had displayed his penchant for preparation and dogged determination, traits that in 4 short seasons led him to his first undefeated milestone. 1962 running back and MVP Grafton Reeves of that first unblemished season:
“To produce an undefeated team without recruiting like our opponents, and after a losing season the year before, was an inspiring accomplishment. Every player on that team learned one of life’s lessons; if you work hard, pursue a goal with passion, believe in yourself and your teammates, and never give up, you can achieve your dream.
Thanks for teaching us this, Coach!”
Ed Stringer, an iron-man in his own right – 1961 captain; team, league and City MVP; eventual Captain of North Carolina Tarheels and participant in the Gator Bowl – offers more precise insight:
“Several times in my (Fords) career, Coach Baker stopped practice to offer a technique tip to a player. Don Reese, our QB, was having trouble throwing a roll out deep pass. Coach stopped practice, took the ball from Don and showed him how to do it with his hips aiming down the field as he got ready to throw. Don worked on the tip and in our next game he completed the pass for a touchdown.”
Famous for imploring his players to “keep it heady and steady, boys, keep it heady and steady”, one can imagine the reassuring demeanor of the cerebral history teacher. But perhaps the real magic for this field general who preferred to create history, not just teach about it, is evident in ways that taught the value of unity.
“Coach Baker and his lovely wife Marilyn” continues Stringer, “invited the players and our dates to their home on nights after our games and we’d eat popcorn and watch films of that day’s game. This became our weekend ritual. I think this made us an undefeated team – the bonding experience.” Adds Baker with that twinkle in his eye “no player was ever critiqued or criticized during Friday night films with girlfriends and popcorn; that was reserved for Saturday morning film sessions.”
Two film sessions in less than 24 hours… undefeated season… coincidence or just “heady and steady” preparation…?
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Baker was an accomplished athlete in high school, teaching himself to pole vault and good enough to earn the right to play football at Denison University. His first impresario and idol in life was his high school football coach, a Marine infantry officer fresh back from Iwo Jima and the Pacific campaign. Coach Rodd was ram-rod disciplined, energetic and physically demanding; a young Ed Baker lapped every bit of it up and then some, integrating his idol’s ideals into all phases of his future successes. Rodd had even gotten Baker a job as an usher at Cleveland Brown games where his fertile mind thrilled to the exploits and innovations of the legendary Paul Brown who had assembled a who’s who of the 40’s: Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Lou ‘The Toe’ Groza, Mac Speedie and others. “I was hooked on football”, Baker emphasizes, “as it was meant to be played.”
Coach Rodd introduced Baker to his old idol, now head coach at Denison University, Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes. After being invited in for one half-time chalkboard “chat” where Woody lambasted his players for “slacking” ( although ahead by a sizable score), Baker was hooked. But when he arrived the next fall, Woody had moved on to new challenges at Miami of Ohio, a notorious breeding ground for
top coaches. Baker settled in as a Health & Physical Education major and to test his pluck & skills against men returning to campuses across the nation as veterans of the Great War. It was the “ boys” versus the “men” and Baker succeeded not only on the gridiron, but also as a starting goalie for the lacrosse team his Junior year, his first in the sport, a feat that would have positive consequences years and decades later for Haverford.
By Baker’s senior year of college, the Korean “Police Action” had conflagrated into war, and a draft situation loomed for all boys of age. A graduate student assistantship at Ohio State was secured upon graduation , and once again Woody Hayes figured into Baker’s formation. Hayes by now had ascended to Head Coach of the Buckeyes. Baker secured a draft deferment to begin graduate studies in Phys Ed. It was through the Director of Graduate Studies in Physical Education at OSU that Baker and the Haverford connection emerged.
In February 1958, it was the Director’s cousin from Philadelphia,
James H. Burdick, who had written, asking his cousin in Ohio if he might have a candidate to recommend to fill a coaching and teaching position at The Haverford School. The coaching job was for football.
Four years earlier, Baker’s luck with deferment had run out and he decided to leapfrog being drafted into the army as a regular, so he applied and received acceptance to the Officer Candidate program in Quantico, VA. Not surprisingly, it was the Marines for him.
“The leadership training was very good; for the next four years I was proud to serve as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps with duty in this country and beyond the seas”.
But with 2 young children and a wife back in the U.S.( his orders for his last post in Okinawa were for fourteen months - without dependents), Baker now began to think hard about his family and his future. He would return to OSU, complete his Masters and begin a career in secondary education.
When Jim Burdick’s letter arrived, it offered what sounded like a great opportunity: “I hope you will have an opportunity to find out for yourself through an interview at an early date that Haverford is without a question one of the very outstanding boys’ preparatory schools in the nation. We bow to no one insofar as our record for preparing boys for college is concerned and of more importance the school does a tremendous job in giving its students a basic training for life.”
Just one week later Baker and his family visited the school and found it to be “everything Jim Burdick said it would be and more”. The contract was soon inked by Dr. Severinghaus and the eager young coach would begin teaching and coaching in September. But first, there was some personal schooling to finish.
OSU had extended Baker’s Graduate Assistant job through the summer and he could continue to take courses for free under the G.I. Bill.
Besides American History to prepare further for his teaching post at Haverford, two other courses intrigued the excited Baker. Coach Woody Hayes was offering a graduate studies course in the Theory of Football and one of his assistants, a young Bo Schembechler, would be teaching The Fundamentals of Football, in which students actually donned helmet and pads and hit each other.
Turns out Baker was also a pretty good handball player and was often invited by Hayes and Schembechler to play. Because of this acquaintance, Baker had access to two of football’s keenest minds of the time.
“What a competitive experience those handball games turned out to be! I told Bo of my assignment to Haverford School football next fall. He had been a high school coach and knew of the challenges at that level.
And one of Woody’s fundamental approaches to the game had always been “Do a few things right and you will win”. Bo sat down with me and we agreed on a few good offensive plays and a reasonable defense that would provide everything we needed to win, providing we “did things right”. Always remember to KISS: “Keep It Simple Stupid” he advised “.
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After that first improbable victory at mighty Frankford, the Fords struggled, losing three and tying one, needing two wins to secure a winning season. Beating Pingry (NJ) added necessary fuel for the final showdown.
“During the week of preparation prior to our final home game against
Episcopal Academy, it felt like I was holding the reins on runaway horses. And that’s what it turned out to be – a runaway”.
The Haligoluk tells it best: “The second half saw Coach Baker clean his entire bench, with the Haverford second stringers running at will through Episcopal’s defense. When the final gun sounded, the Fords had amassed a 54-12 runaway victory, the highest score in the rivalry
Baker credits those first athletes he met on campus for setting the decade-long tone of success. “That small band of determined athletes
in the fall of 1958 seemed to set a proper tone of good work ethic for seasons to come. And even though we suffered through our only losing season (1960) two years after that good beginning – the desire to prepare to win never waned in what would be a winning decade of football.”
The positive lesson gleaned from that ‘60 losing season “for all of our underclassmen was that we learned how much we hated to lose. That disappointing season set the tone for a season that turned out to be a magnificent turn-around.”
Ben Elliot ’62, All Inter-Ac receiver and eventual speech-writer for President Ronald Reagan wrote later of that undefeated 1961 team:
“We proved impossible is possible by capturing Haverford’s first Inter-Ac championship since 1951 and completed its first undefeated season since 1944” (only the second in school football history). Baker and his boys would do the same in 1965, securing his legacy as one of Haverford’s finest coaches ever.
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At the conclusion of his first year on campus, Baker was also rewarded with the Athletic Director job. He had played Goalie in lacrosse for Denison University, was given the reigns to the Ohio State team while an undergraduate, and had even defeated his old college coach in a win over Denison. This experience and affinity for lacrosse caused Baker to introduce this little-known and curious game to Haverford boys “who seemed to be at loose ends finding a spring sport of interest”. That was 1962, and in 1963, lacrosse was deemed an official sport at Haverford. By 1968, led by Ted Peters, an All-Inter-Ac football center, and girded by the solid foundation laid by Baker, the Fords won their first State Championship. Since its founding by Baker, Haverford School lacrosse has won several State Championships and even a National Title and has never had a losing season.
By 1967, colleges came calling for the affable heady and steady coach.
In his prime, with four kids, the promise of free college education for each, and a strong desire to challenge his skills afresh at the next level as a college Head Coach, the time seemed right for a move. Haverford’s dear loss was certainly Kalamazoo College’s sweet gain. Haverford would survive and thrive upon Baker’s well-stocked store of winning ways now deeply embedded in the Haverford athletic consciousness. His towering leadership was acutely missed until filled a few years later by Baker’s favorite and most well–respected adversary, Coach Mike Mayock, who while head coach at Malvern Prep had suffered more than a few defeats under the pressure of the heady and steady Baker attack.
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Ed Baker had commanded the best decade of football in Haverford’s history. While it was unfolding, those who lived through those seasons knew the school was experiencing something special – perhaps its best run ever. The proud twinkle in the old coach’s eye returns with unmistakable fondness: “I will share with you what Marilyn and I have always known – those years from 1958 through 1967 – we never had it so good!”
The record indicates the same was true for Haverford.