Jack Riley, a longtime West Point hockey coach who guided a team of bickering amateurs to a startling gold medal in the 1960 Winter Olympics, died on Wednesday on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. He was 95.
His death was announced by West Point.
At a time when professionals were barred from all Olympic sports, the 1960 United States hockey team consisted of 17 amateurs, all from Massachusetts or Minnesota. They received pocket money of $7 a week and had to pay their own expenses. Four showed up for the training camp at West Point by paddling canoes up the Hudson River.
Riley worked his Olympic players to exhaustion. Their progress was so erratic that three weeks before the Olympics, in Squaw Valley, Calif., they lost to a Minnesota amateur team, the Warroad Lakers.
At the last minute, Riley brought in three new players and cut three. (The last player cut was Herb Brooks, who went on to coach the 1980 United States Olympic team to another unexpected gold medal.) There was already tension between the Minnesota and Massachusetts players, and now many threatened to quit. Riley told them if they did quit, he would go to the Olympics without them.
They stayed, and were transformed, winning seven games on their way to the gold medal. In a four-day span they upset Canada, 2-1; the Soviet Union, 3-2; and Czechoslovakia, 9-4.
“I didn’t think we had any kind of shot to win it all,” he told The Boston Globe in 2000. “We had to scramble to put a team together. We didn’t have any money. Guys had to take time off from their jobs. We went into training camp and some of our best players didn’t come. This caused us some big problems.”
After the United States won the hockey gold medal in 1980, defeating a powerful and overwhelmingly favored Soviet team along the way in Lake Placid, N.Y., a feat celebrated in the movie “Miracle on Ice,” Riley was upset that his team had been all but forgotten.
“We were the first team to beat the Russians,” he said, “and the Russians were just as good then as they were in 1980.”
John Patrick Riley Jr. was born June 15, 1920, in Medford, Mass., and was raised there. He played hockey at Dartmouth before and after a four-year stint as a combat Navy pilot in the Pacific during World War II. He received a degree in economics from Dartmouth in 1947. He also played in the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
He coached at Army from 1950 to 1986, and over the years became close to West Point coaches like Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells in football and Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski in basketball. Riley’s career record was 541-242-21.
Going to his final practice, he said, “was like going to my own funeral.”
After his last game, he said, “I’m kind of a cocky guy and always have something to say, but I couldn’t talk to the team in the dressing room. I started to talk and quit after one sentence.”
With that he turned over the team to the associate head coach and new head coach, his son Rob, who held the job until 2004. Another son, Brian, is now the Army hockey coach. Jack Riley later moved to Marstons Mills, Mass., on Cape Cod.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Riley took special pride in Army athletics. Just before he retired, he told The New York Times: “Hockey players at the Point have had the reputation of being wiseguys like me. But I’m proud to say we’ve had more generals who were hockey players than any other sport.”