For my money, Gil Reich is the best one-year athletic bargain Kansas University has ever had. If you know of one as good, let me know, but you'll need a mountain of evidence. Gil, originally from Steelton, Pa., transferred to KU after a clouded sophomore year at West Point (third in a class of 800). He spent 1951-52 working out, ineligible due to NCAA transfer requirements. In the fall of '52, he was a great football quarterback but was needed elsewhere, so he made All-America as a Jayhawk defensive back.
On to basketball, where he was a starter on the '53 KU team that fell to Indiana by a single point in the NCAA title game. Physically, 6-0, 188 pounds. Personality-wise, instant leadership, Michael Jordan-type of competitor who simply refused to accept defeat.
The long-term contributions and commitment of Gil and wife, Kay, to KU have been enormous. He's never stopped showing his gratitude for what he gained here, including a wife from Leavenworth. But Gil's athletic career here (and perhaps his lifelong devotion to KU) almost never occurred. And that, as radio icon Paul Harvey says, is the rest of the story.
Gil had a good sophomore season at Army in the fall of 1950 as quarterback backup to Bob Blaik, son of head coach Earl Blaik. Many felt Gil would supplant young Blaik as a junior. Bombshell! Cadets were judged guilty of violating the Point's honor code in a cribbing scandal. The code says if you know guys are cheating and don't tell, you're as guilty as they. Gil knew, didn't tell and was nailed with about 90 others, many of them footballers.
Gil's family raised him not to be a tattle-tail; he took his medicine. Rather than face harsh punishment as a cadet, he decided to go elsewhere. Among those guiding him to KU was the late Warren Woody of Chicago, a Jayhawk loyalist who helped recruit guys like Charlie Hoag from the Windy City area. "I've never felt more pain than I did then," Gil once told me. "For years I'd wanted an Army career, even fantasized about making general, wanted to play football at West Point; it was all gone. Here's a kid with all his dreams shattered, totally unaware of how to even pick up the pieces."
It got worse at KU. When then-chancellor Franklin Murphy learned Reich had transferred to Kansas, he took a fierce stand against ever letting him compete here. The ever-involved Murphy declared that KU would not allow into the local program athletes who had left previous schools under a cloud. "I was almost destroyed again," said Reich, "after thinking I'd found a way to salvage some of my goals."
Re-enter the imperturbable Warren Woody. He saw Gil not only as a great athlete but an outstanding young man who some day just might be a valuable addition to his Equitable Life Assurance team in Chicago. Old Warren didn't buy pigs in a poke, believe me. The Woodman got busy and one day he called me to a Hotel Eldridge room he was inhabiting, gave me the phone number to U.S. Rep. Walter Mumma of Pennsylvania and said to ask him about Gil Reich. I did, and Mumma could not have been more favorable.
I never learned how Woody gained the ear of Mumma, but as they used to say in those Nazi movies when they intended to extract info, "he had his ways." The congressmen had been quite upset about the treatment of a Steelton kid he helped get to West Point and had done some investigating. Bottom-line, Mumma had gained for Reich a second appointment to West Point. Even though Gil would have had to start over from scratch, he had been accepted and could return if he chose.
Helluva story, so I wrote it for the next Journal-World, totally unaware that chancellor Murphy had ruled out Reich as a Jayhawk jock (I rather think Woody knew, however). Apparently the chancellor read the yarn about the West Point reinstatement and forthwith declared Gil could do what any other kid on campus did, including play football and basketball.
So the Jayhawks had a great football player on a fantastic team (7-3) which today would be in a bowl game. Then Gil and the late Dean Kelley gave the '53 basketball team as fine a pair of guards as ever graced a college arena. The bad news was that KU halfback Charlie Hoag was All-America bound when he suffered a career-ending knee injury at Kansas State. Gil, who also could play left halfback well, suffered a broken finger he had to keep taped and splinted throughout the basketball season.
Hoag was a key reserve on KU's 1952 NCAA basketball title team, then blossomed brilliantly at the Helsinki Olympics. He was lost for the final three football games and all the basketball season. If superquick Charlie had been able to combine with B.H. Born, Al Kelley, Harold Patterson, Dean Kelley and Reich, KU would have won a second straight national championship. Trust me on this.
Reich was also president of his KU Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, served as an Air Force officer, went with Equitable and became a top-level leader who was the engineer of the firm's retirement program. He earned an engineering degree, by the way. Now living in Savannah where he golfs a lot, he's time and again served KU in vital ways and with Kay has given vast quantities of money.
Thank heaven for Warren Woody, Rep. Mumma and a chancellor sensible enough to change his mind. The Army may have lost a general but the Jayhawks gained a bona fide gem.