When most boys fantasize about a career in sports, they see themselves as heroic athletes. Bob Blackman held a different dream. For as long as he can remember, he wanted to be a football coach. Today, 33 years after taking his first college coaching position, Blackman is still pacing the sidelines.
''It's very rare that a college coach coaches on through to retirement,'' the Cornell mentor observes. ''Bear Bryant and one or two others are about the only ones I can think of, other than myself, that are in that category.''
For the past six years, Blackman has labored happily ''far above Cayuga's waters,'' to borrow a phrase from Cornell's alma mater. Before arriving in upstate New York, he made stops everywhere from a Naval training station to the Big Ten Conference. It was in Hanover, N. H., however, that he experienced his greatest success and became a nationally recognized coaching figure.
In sixteen years at Dartmouth he compiled a 104-73-3 record and fielded three undefeated teams, including a 1970 squad that was the last Ivy League team to be ranked in the top 15 nationally.
The native of DeSoto, Iowa, has not fared nearly so well since returning to the Ivies from Illinois, but the former ''College Coach of the Year'' has no regrets about assuming his present post.
Not long ago Blackman bought a lot in Hilton Head, S. C., where he and his wife someday hope to build a retirement home. For the time being he's ''playing things by ear,'' coaching because he finds the profession every bit as rewarding as it was nearly 200 victories ago.
''There's great satisfaction in seeing teamwork and unity develop in a group that started off very uncoordinated,'' he says. ''I enjoy that as much as I ever did.''
Blackman would recommend his livelihood to others, but not without first making an important point. He feels anyone interested in college level coaching should realize that an informal apprenticeship system exists. This means starting at the bottom, often as a graduate assistant living on a hand-to-mouth income, and gradually working your way up.
''There's no question that some of the young guys I know, who are well organized and have a lot on the ball, would be far better off financially in another profession,'' he states.''On the other hand, there are tremendous rewards, including the opportunity to enjoy a college atmosphere and college campus. More than that, however, is the chance one has to share the enthusiasm and hard-to-describe comradeship that emerges in a group working toward a common goal. And in the Ivy League, you often see players graduate and go on to highly successful lives.''
As one of the few coaches to direct both Ivy League and Big Ten football programs during his career, Blackman is well qualified to compare the two experiences.
''The emphasis on football is the No. 1 difference,'' he explains. ''Playing football in the Big Ten is more of a job, to a certain degree. A player has to be out on the practice field every day to keep his scholarship.
''In the Ivy League, there are no strings attached. Somebody you may have recruited very heavily may get there the first day and decide not to come out for football, and if he demonstrates financial need he still gets aid. Everybody plays for one reason: because he enjoys it. He's having fun playing, and that's the way college sports should be.''
Even though Blackman cites a major philosophical difference, he's quick to clear up some misconceptions people often hold. ''I think there are Ivy League players who would do very well playing in the Big Ten or anywhere else. And by the same token, there are Big Ten players who would be a credit academically to any Ivy League school.''
Another misconception, he believes, is that there is less pressure on Ivy coaches. Pressure is largely self-imposed no matter what the setting, and he finds the challenges of beating a Harvard or Yale just as great as those involved in facing a Michigan or Ohio State. A coach, after all, works 365 days for 10 or 11 Saturday afternoons, and that makes every game a final exam of sorts.
Though Blackman's Illinois teams were 29-36-1, the record is somewhat deceiving. He consistently kept the Illini in the conference's first division and actually recorded a 24-11-1 conference record against teams other than Ohio State and Michigan.
The presence of those giants made it tough on everybody, particularly since, at the time, the Big Ten's exclusive contract with the Rose Bowl forbid teams from accepting invitations from other bowls.
At various times, Blackman was approached about taking pro jobs, but always passed on the offers. He's always preferred coaching student-athletes, starting in 1949 when he took over at Pasadena City College. He had played briefly at nearby Southern Cal until a physical condition ended his playing days. From his junior college coaching at Pasadena he moved on to the the University of Denver and then to Dartmouth in 1955.