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Leo Novak

Leo "Ooch" Novak: "The Man with the Most Fight Wins"

In the magazine The American Boy, published in 1922, is an article by Walter Dunn on Leo Novak, coach of the Washington High School Tigers in Cedar Rapids.  During a span of less than 24 months in 1920-22, Novak's team had won two state football championships, two state basketball championships, two state tennis championships, one state wrestling championship, two state track meets, a national basketball championship and a national track championship, first place in an American cross country run at Philadelphia, and the high school title at the Penn relays (where Washington’s two-mile relay set a world record for a high school team).  What Dunn could not have known was that Novak's next two years at Washington High would be equally impressive.

Much of Dunn’s article focuses on Novak's teaching philosophy, his system for getting the best out of the young men in his program.  Novak believed that every boy in high school was a prospective athlete and he urged everyone to try out, no matter how "green" or awkward.  He did not expect immediate expertise; but he did demand "diligence and regularity of practice." Novak’s no-nonsense attitude toward discipline and hard work was ideally suited for young men who read about Frank Merriwell at Yale and believed in the power of character and the "fighting spirit."  Novak's appeal to that generation should be evident as we listen to his own words:

Any boy can become at least fairly good in track.  All he needs is a willingness to train... I look for fighting spirit.  A football man must be eager for scrimmage.  A track man must be willing to throw in every bit of energy he's got.  He must be anxious to train, willing to punish himself if need be.  When two men of equal speed meet on the running track, the man with the most fight wins.

A boy without fighting spirit never will make a really good athlete.  He is nearly as bad as the boy that is yellow.  Thank goodness, that type of boy is pretty scarce.  I try to encourage and develop fighting spirit, but once I am convinced a boy is yellow I waste no time on him.

Most important of all, I must have boys of character.  They must be dependable, honest, regular in practice, conscientious.  They must follow advice.  Most athletes are't 'born'; they are 'made' by hard work.  A boy who realizes the value of discipline develops the fastest.  For this reason I find that boys who respect their parents are more likely to get ahead.  When I heard a boy refer to his father as 'the old man' I knew he has some things to unlearn.

I am strict in a final particular, no tobacco.  Some good athletes, I'll admit, use tobacco.  But how much better they would be without it!

The commitment and resourcefulness that Novak sought was certainly evident in one of his teams hoping to compete in a track meet at Ames.  They had no money for train fare so they acquired three automobiles for the 125-mile trip.  Before they got halfway to Ames, two of the autos broke down.  The boys hiked across country to a railroad track, jumped on the first westbound freight train, made it to Ames, and won the track meet.

Novak already knew something about trains.  During his sophomore year of high school, he dropped out of school and began working on the Milwaukee Road trains, shoveling coal.  After three years of hard physical labor, Novak enrolled in the Coe Academy, finished the college prep program, and entered Coe in the fall of 1912.  His freshman year at Coe he played fullback, but in 1913 he was moved to tackle, playing on an undefeated team that gave up zero points the entire season.  The following year he starred on the famous "Point-a-Minute Team," Eby’s first season at Coe, and in 1915 Novak was captain of the Crimson and Gold.  During his three years on the varsity, he played in only two losing games.

After post-graduate work at Notre Dame and Iowa State, Novak became the athletic coach Washington High School.  During those eight years he produced a competitive record perhaps unsurpassed by anyone in the history of high school athletics.  His football machines were virtually unbeatable.  In the three-year period, 1919-21, Washington won 28 of 29 games (one 0-0 tie) and outscored their opposition 1,065 to 48.  The team became so powerful that few Iowa teams would play them.  In 1923, they defeated a strong Shenandoah squad by a score of 115-0.  Since the score was already 50-0 at half time, Novak had first team change into street clothes and intended for the second team to play out the game.  But at the beginning of the third quarter-as Novak later recalled the scenario-the opposing coach shouted insults at Novak and his team.  Angered by these remarks, Novak had his first team suit up again, and they proceeded to score another 65 points.

In the 1923 season Novak's team followed a trip to Sioux Falls, S.D. with a week-long, two game road trip east, defeating two of the premier high school teams in the nation:  Toledo Waite (10-0) and Harrisburg, Pa (26-21).  Because few local fans could travel such distances to see the team play, the games were reported on a "gridgraph" mounted on the exterior of the Gazette newspaper building.  There was an outline of a football gridiron, including yard lines, and an object, representing a football, being moved along the gridgraph according to telegraph reports relayed from the stadium.  Although Novak's team could have justly laid claim to the title as national champions, they accepted the challenge to a post-season game with Scott High of Toledo, Ohio.  The Tigers were defeated 24-21.  Novak lost most of his starting players to graduation, but he fielded an equally powerful team in 1924, winning the national championship with a 6-0 victory over duPont High of Louisville, Kentucky and a 19-0 victory over the team from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Although Novak became most famous for his accomplishments as a high school football coach, he had comparable successes in other sports.  Despite not having played basketball at Coe, Novak was a careful observer of the game, and during a seven-year period, 1917-1924, his teams at Washington won 122 games and lost only 10.  In 1921 his team won the Stagg Interscholastic tournament and were the acknowledged national champions, defeating West Lafayette, Indiana, 43-19.  His track teams won the Stagg Interscholastic meet in 1922 and again in 1924.  Bab Cuhel, Washington High’s leading sprinter, made the 1924 U.S. Olympic team. Given Novak’s incredible record, it is easy to understand why Knute Rockne described him as "the greatest interscholastic coach of his time!"

But Novak's successes also aroused jealousies and serious reservations about his recruiting tactics.  Critics point out, for example, that his football roster was dominated by men 18-21 years of age.  Although Novak was not breaking any regulations, the pressure from the Iowa High School Athletic Association and opposition from some groups in Cedar Rapids led Novak to resign from Washington High School.  He and his wife–Josephine Brandeau from Dysart, another 1916 Coe grad--moved east.  After one year with a Virginia high school, Novak in 1926 accepted a position at West Point, remaining there until his retirement from coaching in 1949. 

Although Novak's first love was always football (and he did coach the Plebe football team for several years), his primary coaching responsibilities were basketball and track.  He was the head basketball coach at West Point for 13 years.  He had a career winning percentage with the Cadets of 69%, and in his final two seasons (1937-39) his teams had a combined record of 24 wins and 4 losses.  But it was in track that his teams truly excelled.  Novak always had a high regard for the value of track.  When he was a high school coach, he believed in year-round conditioning, and he required all his athletes to go out for track.  The sport caused few serious injuries and required minimal equipment.  During the 1940s, his West Point teams won five cross country championships and 15 team titles in national track competitions.  He also coached two world record holders in track: Carl Jark, discus thrower, and Jim Schultz, who set a word record for throwing the 35-pound weight.

Leo Novak died on September 16, 1961 at Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., two years after his wife Josephine had passed away.  They are both buried in Cedar Memorial in Cedar Rapids, returning to a town where he had once shoveled coal for a railroad company.  Shortly after his death, Colonel Jack Novak, one of Leo’s three children, wrote the following description of his father's final days in a letter to Willis Lamb:

It seems hardly possible that a little over two weeks ago we were bent on making Leo as comfortable as possible in the face of the doctor's reports on his worsening condition.  How clear we can still recall the last night spent with him as none of us slept all night, including Leo.  Or just one short night previous when he sang for us the Coe songs as we had forgotten the words of "push a da pen and sling a da ink."  And when we asked him why they wrote about the chapel and one hall in the song.  He answered that when the song was written there wasn't [anything else] there to write about.  So these were among his last words as well as several sentences about Knute Rockne [Novak had been an honorary pall bearer at his friend’s funeral in 1931]. He called him the "expert."  It was interesting how his mind was sharp right up to the end.  Alice Rudd had sent him the Coe football schedule in a letter that day and we asked him if he wanted us to read it to him.  He nodded yes, although he couldn't talk at the time...

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