Friday, May 30, 2014

Football Research on Paul Brown for Pillars of the NFL

Paul Brown, The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University
The research required for Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Won Three or More Championships was extensive. We were determined to produce a book that examined the coaches and their teams and gave readers a look at how each coach got things done.  We also wanted to discuss the players that the greats coaches managed over their careers.  Completely focused on things relevant to football, we also wanted to take the time to introduce the coaches as human beings.  We wanted to give readers a sense of their early days and their backgrounds.  

The trick of course was that most of these great coaches have been dead for a long time and because we were covering ten people whose backgrounds were spread across the country, we relied on many different kinds of sources that could be accessed locally or online.

I believe that the great majority of football coaches and players whose careers are all or mostly pre-Super Bowl Era get much less media attention than those later coaches who were so often filmed and studied. I think ESPN did us all a service with their Greatest Coaches in NFL History that cast such a bright light on the best of the best coaches.  But at the same time,  I think that most modern sports analysts make their judgments through TV and film--two things that are obviously going to favor later coaches.  That's not to say today's sports writers, reporters and others in the media  don't read, but their focus, just like fans, is most likely going to be drawn to what is more readily accessible.  Still, the top ten on the ESPN greatest list only differs from our list of Pillars (selected entirely by championships won) in  two coaches.  We include Guy Chamberlin and Weeb Ewbank and they swap out  these two gentlemen for Tom Landry and Don Shula.  Who can argue with the selection of Shula and Landry? Well, I guess we can for our list of the top ten, but that's for another time. 

Paul Brown

Paul Brown is perhaps the most complex coach in all NFL history.  And by complex we mean difficult to understand.  George Halas had lived and worked through the entire history of the professional game into the TV era.  Curley Lambeau had a similar experience in Green Bay.  Their football lives were changing as well, but that change was spread out over a longer period of time.  Brown's experience was much shorter, but one of constant transition.  When Brown entered professional football, the game was at a great cusp where the rough and tumble sport stepped into a very  modern place.  Many credit Brown with helping to move the game forward. 

Brown had established a brief, but potent Cleveland Browns' powerhouse in the All-American Football Conference before his surviving team moved into the NFL.  He was a great high school, college, military, and professional coach.  His coaching background in Ohio high school and college environments included black athletes so he never hesitated to bring African Americans onto his professional rosters.  He ran his earliest teams under a highly disciplined business-like way and focused a great deal of energy on the mental aspect of the game.  He wanted smart players and was not shy about testing them and using complex playbooks.  He carefully scheduled practices and had very specific objectives for each one.  If what he and his coaching staff had to get done during regular hours didn't get done, it didn't get done. Everyone needed their rest, their time off, and their sleep.  Brown had the will and the intelligence to fix most every team deficiency and that's what he did under any circumstance.  He found a tremendous quarterback in Otto Graham early on and he built one of the greatest football dynasties of all time. 

Paul Brown is memorialized in biographies such as Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Football's Most Innovative Coach by Andrew O'Toole, Paul Brown: The Man Who Invented Modern Football by George Canton, and PB: The Paul Brown Story by Paul Brown and Jack Clary.  There are different opinions on these books, but if you really want to get to know someone, you can read more than one book on them.  Some people didn't like Paul Brown's book PB: The Paul Brown Story because they thought Brown  used it to tell his own side of the story on situations for which he was criticized.  If I want to read a book about God, I usually pick up a Bible.  I never pick up a sports biography thinking I am going to find a Supreme Being.  I liked Brown's book and frankly I like other such autobiographies with the same bias because it seems easy enough to read between the lines if you are somewhat familiar with the story line. When the topics start to get petty, I generally move rather quickly through them, but I don't toss out the book because of a few hiccups. Everyone that is around long enough in sports will have detractors and will also make some big mistakes.  I think when you come upon something that is controversial, you might have to go to several places for the whole story.  

Biographies often fall short of the kind of meat and potatoes coverage needed in research.  We found Andy Piascik's The Best Show in Football: The 1946--1955 Cleveland Browns a great help.  Sometimes in research, a book can help fill in blanks that you don't even know exist.  Books like Andy's help in many ways. Cleveland Browns fanatics ought to have Andy's book.  Another book that is loaded with information that football writers and researchers must find very comforting is Pro Football Championships Before the Super Bowl: A Year by Year History, 1926-1965 by Joseph S. Page.  This is a McFarland and Company book.  For their baseball and football books, McFarland publishes information-laden books on many of the greatest characters and topics. Page's book covers a great topic in a concise disciplined way.  Sportswriter Chuck Heaton's Brown's Scrapbook is short and sweet. And true to form for a book by a sportswriter, Heaton provides his All-Time Great List of Brown's players.


Newspapers are a good source of information coaches and teams.  But the good old days didn't always deliver the goods.  In some of the early reporting on NFL games, the writers had an actual affiliation with the team. They didn't care at all about bias; they were trying to fill seats.  The modern fan might also be surprised by the fact that in the early NFL days, reporters spent much more time covering the college game, which was considered the finest form of football.  The NFL was often thought of as second class to the college game or worse.  Another issue you run into with newspapers, is that you find some stories written by either bored or otherwise indisposed reporters who follow no logical order;  they bounce around from the first quarter to the last to first again to the third and to second and the last, etc. You feel like you are in a Back-to-the-Future movie just trying to find out who won the game.  When this happens you need some aspirin. Nevertheless, when you find a newspaper story on a game or topic that was written at the time of the event you are researching, your heart goes pitter-patter.

Luckily, some newspaper archives can be found online with generous access, but more and more the archive companies are collecting newspaper archives and offering them up in large subscription products.  These can be accessed at select libraries or can be purchased otherwise.

Another excellent source of information on football history is the PFRA (Pro Football Researchers Organization), which  does great work--their Coffin Corner magazine  is a gem--articles are also online. This organization is similar in some ways to  SABR (Society of American Baseball Research).  Researchers from both these sports groups spend endless hours of their own time to get to the bottom of events and players.  

Pillars of the NFL
Paul Brown began coaching the new Cleveland Browns football team after World War II when the All-American Football Conference began. Brown's team moved to the NFL for the 1950 and following seasons.  After Brown developed a tremendous team and was deemed to have one of the top systems in football, teams that needed coaches came to view Brown's assistants as top prospects.  His coaching tree was sprouting new roots, but it is always a challenge to replace good help.  After new ownership took over the Browns, what seemed inconceivable happened.  After the 1962 season, the great Paul Brown was fired from the team that bore his name. Brown left the game, but wanted to get back a few years later.  He created a second team, the Cincinnati Bengals, from scratch in 1968 that was part of yet another league, the American Football League. About this time, the AFL was lined up to merge with the NFL.  Expansion draft rules for new teams represented huge hurdles to quick team development, but the Bengals improved quickly.

Brown coached and managed two different teams that played in three different leagues.  Brown's football life was much more complicated than the other nine Pillars of the NFL.
Copyright 2014 by Sporting Chance Press
 
Pillars of the NFL examines the football lives of Paul Brown and others whom the record book deems to be the best of the best. It was wonderful to have many sources of information to use when crafting the book. Our author has included many references in the extensive end notes provided. 



Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fred Kaiser's Brilliant 24 Hour Run

Fred Kaiser
If you are interested in great PE programs and events that have a long term positive impact on kids, here's one you'll want to study: Lundahl Middle School's 24 Hour Challenge Run.  The 2014 version of the event, the 15th annual, was held on May 24-25. 

The 24 Hour Run at Lundahl Middle School in Crystal Lake, Illinois is a brilliant program that continues today under Fred Kaiser.  This offering ties into the regular PE department program in which students of all shapes and sizes work up to a mile run and then do it once a week. Lundahl like many middle schools is committed to having students who are fit and  the one mile run demonstrates the school's commitment to that.  But Fred Kaiser takes the school's commitment and asks a greater commitment of the kids--and they deliver.

Roughly 50% of 2014  students joined the program this year.  Essentially, each participant serves as a member of  a relay team that runs a mile at a time over an entire 24 hour period.  During this 24 hour period, the grounds of the school turn into a tent city that is home of hundreds of super enthusiastic kids and a small army of adult volunteers.

Kids who want to participate have to sign on to the program principles, train for months, and  keep logs that demonstrate their consistent efforts. A strict regimen has to be followed. One slip up and your are out and few want to leave the program. Each student will cover between 12-50 miles in the 24  hour run. With students, teachers, parents and local business sponsors involved, the run is a community event. From kids in the science club to the basketball team, a student can grow exponentially in self respect, confidence and maturity.

Kaiser emphasizes the fact that when students make the 24 hour run, they have learned to make a difficult commitment, they have set goals for themselves, they have worked diligently towards achieving those goals, and they have succeeded. For almost all the kids who sign on, the success of this achievement is memorable. We all know that once you achieve one thing, you can parlay it to other things in life that you may want to take on.

In both a symbolic and very real gesture, as the clock winds down to the final minute, the students jog one lap as one team -- all the kids as one rag tag bunch of hot sweaty students. While every effort is made to keep the kids hydrated and nourished, you can see the gas is just about on empty as they make their way to the finish line.

The run is much more than a physical challenge.  Kaiser reiterates the four characteristics of success that he has lectured his students about all year. Kaiser says they had the willingness to risk when they took on the challenge, they were determined to stand for what they believed, they had a commitment to integrity, and they maintained a sense of passion during the entire effort.

You can see the camaraderie on the faces of the kids. The kids know that everyone in the group made it themselves-- mom and dad didn't carry them around the track and no technology gave them a boost or a virtual victory. It was 100% blood sweat and tears.

Kaiser has many great ideas on how to make Physical Education brilliant. He is somewhat of a PE guru and the Middle School father of the 24 Hour Run Challenge that was originally conceived of as a high school event. Not all schools have the right environment for such an event, but it has spread to other schools. Kaiser was named Teacher of the Year in 2008 by the National Association of Physical Sport and Education. See Fred's web page for contact information.

For information on Sporting Chance Press books that entertain and inspire see our web site www.sportingchancepress.com.

History, Sports, and Bullying: The Story of Fred Merkle

Public Bonehead, Private Hero is about one of the most interesting years and events in baseball and American history.  The year is 1908 in the midst of the Progressive Era. Teddy Roosevelt is in office.  There is no radio or television. The Wright brothers are working hard to show that flight might just work for more than a few minutes.  Ford is offering the first affordable car in history, his Model T.  Newspapers are essentially the daily media and there are so many of them steeped in competition, reporters are working desperately for readers.  

History

Public Bonehead, Private Hero concisely sets the stage for the story of Fred Merkle.  The Progressive Era (1890-1920) was a time of political reform and activism.  Muckraking journalists took aim at corruption in politics, unfair competition in business, and women’s suffrage.  Society took a decidedly radical turn when addressing many social ills with modern ideas and means.  No problem was too big to tackle—the income tax was established—prohibition was passed.  Institutions of all kinds were reformed—often with a view toward modernization and efficiency.  After a period of incredible wealth building in the late 19th Century, the wealthy were calling on each other to help solve social problems and the greatest philanthropists had established some of the famous foundations that did so much during the 20th Century.

Baseball

There is a lot going on, but what is getting the most attention is baseball.  Thousands line the streets in mid-afternoon in places like Detroit to watch electronic scoreboards follow the big games.  Rickety old wooden ballparks are being cheaply expanded with more rickety old stands to increase capacity, but crowd control is primitive and ineffective.

In several parks, spectators stand a few feet away from players and umpires.  Often live balls roll into the bystanders and players have to fight to get them back to make a play.  Poor play or an unpopular call by an umpire often gets an immediate verbal response from fans who are only a few feet away.  Occasionally, a player or umpire is attacked with fists or hit with a thrown bottle. A broken jaw here, a concussion there, it's all part of the game.

Merkel Game

Merkle was a 19-year old New York Giant ballplayer when he was slotted to fill in for the injured veteran first baseman, Fred Tenney, in a key game against the Chicago Cubs on September 23, 1908.  In a hard fought game, Giant ace Christy Mathewson and Cub star, Jack "the Giant-Killer" Pfiester battled to a 1 to 1 tie into the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds. 

With two outs and Moose McCormick on first, young Merkle singled to right keeping the Giant's hopes alive.  Steady Al Bridwell sent Pfiester’s first pitch right at the ducking base umpire, Bob Emslie, into center field for a hit.  Moose trotted home for the game winning run, but Merkle broke for the clubhouse about mid-way between second and first.  The modern fan knows that the runner on first must touch second to insure the run counts because a force out would negate the run.  But Merkle and pretty much every other baseball player of the day didn't see it that way, because that particular rule, Rule 59 had not been enforced in those circumstances --on balls that were driven out of the infield.  Up until that time, it was just a point of discussion in a newspaper article and between Johnny Evers and umpire Hank O'Day in a game on September 4, 1908 when the base runner had done the same thing as Merkle.  In that game, Evers had made the point about the force out to O'Day, but O'Day ruled that he had not seen the runner miss second base. 

It was as if Evers was allowed to play the hidden ball trick on Merkle with a ball that had been in his mitt for three weeks.  Evers quietly waited for just the right moment to make an issue of the rule and the right moment came when the Giants had apparently prevailed on September 23 and umpire Hank O'Day was in residence. 

The reason why Merkle and others ran directly for the clubhouse the second a game ended at the Polo Grounds was because much of the crowd emptied out of the stadium through the field.  (We include a photo of the crowd exiting in the Polo Grounds in Public Bonehead, Private Hero and it’s an eye opener!)  Players found themselves in a melee of thousands of fans--many in various states of intoxication. These fans would often want to "critique" the ballplayers’ play. It was worse for the umpires.  Thus, once O'Day made his call that Merkle was out (base umpire Emslie did not see it), he also ruled the game a tie rather than continue into extra innings due to the crowd on the field.  Many Giant fans went home thinking they had won the game. 

The Giants players didn't blame Merkle. But the newspapers pounced on Merkle with merciless venom and ridicule--making him the scapegoat of scapegoats.  Merkle had made a bonehead play and within a day or so, Merkle had received the appellation, "Bonehead Merkle" that would stay with him everywhere he went for the rest of his life.  The tie game would be made up at the end of the season and the Cubs would win the game to add more fuel to those who condemned Merkle for doing what every other base runner was doing at the time. 

A normal run of the mill baseball season would have American fans buzzing about their team, their heroes and their games. But 1908 turns out to be something special. In both the American and the National Leagues, several teams are neck and neck in the standings as the season winds down.

Bullying Lesson is Center Stage

Public Bonehead, Private Hero is about American history and culture, baseball, society, and the tragic media and fan attack on Fred Merkle.  After the “Merkle” game, the newspapers hung poor Fred Merkle out to dry and christened him bonehead for life.

There was no justice for Fred Merkle, he had to live with the bonehead stigma for decades.  But late in life, the press and many in the baseball community paid tribute to Merkle as a man who played well on the field and should not have been attacked for the play.  In the past decade, many more people have come to defend Merkle's legacy as more light has been cast on his life and baseball in muckraking 1908.
Merkle dusted himself off as much as he could from the ridicule that followed him through life, and despite difficulties he went on and raised and supported his family in the American way throughout both the Depression and World War II.  

Public Bonehead, Private Hero examines one of the most dynamic sports stories of all time.  Merkle's "bonehead" play continues to live on in posts and articles that issue almost daily.  The author, Mike Cameron, covers the exciting historic times, the baseball season and Merkle game, and continues with the story of a bullied athlete.  Availability

For questions on special large purchases or adoption in classroom settings contact us at: lmj.norris@sportingchancepress.com

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Comparing the Greatest Coaches in NFL History

Steve Bowers of WNWS 101.5 FM
Sporting Chance Press author Patrick McCaskey was interviewed yesterday on Steve Bowers' popular drive time radio show on WNWS 101.5 FM in Jackson, Tennessee.  McCaskey was asked about the current NFL play versus the early days, the origins of the league, how the game has changed, and many other issues that are addressed in Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships.  

One thing that many people want to know about the top NFL coaches is just how are they alike and how they differ.  Author Patrick McCaskey talked about how all the great coaches were dedicated  and they worked very  hard to recruit good players and apply themselves to preparation.  In this way, McCaskey suggested that the great coaches who practiced their craft in the early days of professional football would likely be successful today.

Yet, the differences in the great coaches are many.

For example, Paul Brown was a man who had great confidence in his ability to organize and run an organization.  He believed very strongly that players needed intelligence to play at a high level and they needed to focus on learning--whether it was developing skills, learning his play book (he was an early proponent of such books at every level of play), or operating with precision on a highly disciplined team.  He also wanted men of character and he famously said:

“If you are a bum, a boozer or a chaser, I have no interest in you making our team.” 

Brown accomplished these things in his own style.  He laid out his program in a long lecture at the beginning of each year. Much of his approach, he used when coaching at every level: high school, college, military, and the pros.  He stayed away from attempting to motivate players so much with emotional talks.  Few of the greatest NFL coaches were good at it.  He kept to tight schedules and respected everyone's time in the organization.  He demanded excellent behavior on and off the field.  He maintained an emotional distance from his players.  Essentially, his program was highly organized and disciplined to an extend that had not been seen in professional football before his entry into it.  


When the great Doug Atkins rebelled against Brown's authoritarian ways and parted company with the great disciplinarian, he was signed by George Halas, another of the greatest coaches in NFL history.  Halas was able to essentially manage the big man very well and they worked together for many years.


Weeb Ewbank was an assistant under Brown who learned a great deal about organization and coaching from Brown.  But, Ewbank, another one of the greatest coaches in NFL history,  was an extremely patient man and his management of two very different quarterbacks, Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath, demonstrated his desire to coach and manage under a very flexible approach.  

Chuck Noll who played for Paul Brown was exposed to his methods and he certainly applied many of them albeit in his own way.  Yet, Noll's approach was very different. When Noll began his work with the Steelers, he insisted that they draft Joe Greene first.  Greene had a temper, he could get frustrated with teammates early on, and he did not bring a calming influence to the Steelers.  But Noll knew that Greene was a player who would make everyone better--he would insist on it.  Noll was willing to have  Greene act as a catalyst for change--as a coaching assistant in some ways. Noll was also a lineman and linebacker--more of a physical presence to the team, where Brown had played quarterback in college and was small.  Brown could intimidate, but it was in what he said. 

Joe Gibbs was another great coach, but he was very different from Paul Brown.  Gibbs's assistants would say that when they went to work for Gibbs, their nights were like nights in LasVegas--no clocks because the time didn't matter.  Gibbs was so intense that his staff needed to dedicate themselves entirely for months at a time.  Brown and his staff were in bed and fast asleep about the time Gibb's staff was just warming up.

Bill Walsh was cerebral like Brown and his military background along with certain hardships in his early life helped make him a very tough coach.  However, he was also prone to doubts about his own abilities, certainly early in his professional head coaching career.  Walsh had worked with Brown in Cincinnati when Brown had started up the Bengals.  Walsh had earned a reputation there as a good coach with quarterbacks. Temperamentally, the men were so different in fact that according to some sources, Brown would not recommend Walsh as a head coach.  

Lombardi is an excellent coach to compare with Brown.  Lombardi motivated his men with emotion.  Lombardi, like Brown, was a successful coach at the high school and college levels before entering he pros.  And like Brown, he insisted on a high level of discipline.  Lombardi believed he could take players with the right attitude and character and mold them into a high-achieving team.  This seems common enough for great coaches, but in Lombardi's case, talent was secondary.  You have to wonder whether anyone other than Lombardi would have had the patience and confidence in Bart Starr to keep him leading the team in the early days. 

Similarly, Lambeau approached the game as more of an athletic exercise of will at times.  He was hard driving and made frequent changes to his roster, but he did not appear to view it so much as a mental exercise.  But like Brown, Lambeau was in control of his team--at least for most of his tenure in Green Bay.

Perhaps most similar to Brown is Bill Belichick who was raised in a kind of military environment at the Naval Academy at Annapolis where his dad taught PE while coaching and scouting for the football team.  Belichick is in some ways a throwback to Brown in his super disciplined "just do your job" organization.  Yet in some ways, Belichick calls for a kind of 360 degrees constant evaluation of team and organization that would probably seem odd to Brown.   

And perhaps least like Brown was Guy Chamberlin who won four championships in the first decade of the NFL.  Chamberlin was more of a purest in his athletic interests.  Chamberlin was tall and tough--the kind of player who loved playing hard on both defense and offense.  He was a player coach for almost his entire career and each win had stains, bruises, and blood that recorded his efforts.  Within a year of when  Chamberlin could no longer play football any longer, he ended his football career.  He did not see professional football as a viable career choice.  Brown on the other hand was at  home with coaching as a long term career choice.  Most all of Ohio paid homage to Paul Brown as the greatest of coaches in what was the capital of football. Chamberlin returned to his family farm in Nebraska and for the most part, lived out his life in relative obscurity.

You can look at any one of the top ten coaches in Pillars of the NFL and compare their coaching approach to the other nine and you would see certain basic shared fundamentals, but there are very many working variations on just how the job got done.  Perhaps that's one of those things that makes sports very interesting and engaging. In the end, each coach took his own approach and was true to his own personal beliefs in what it takes to win.  

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey, grandson of Papa Bear George Halas. More information.
 



Tuesday, May 27, 2014

When Belichick and Parcells Coached the New York Giants



New York Giants

In 1963 the Giants lost the NFL Championship to the Chicago Bears.  The Giants had won a league championship and five conference championships in 8 years.  But between 1964 and 1980, the best the Giants could do was to earn a second place finish in the NFC East in 1970.  However, a new General Manager, George Young, was hired in 1979. He would begin a series of personnel moves that would right the Giants. 

In 1979, Bill Belichick moved on to the New York Giants where he would stay until 1990.
When Belichick was originally hired, the head coach was Ray Perkins who held that position through 1982. Perkins’s staff included Bill Parcells as defensive coordinator. He joined the team at the same time as Belichick.  Perkins was a very tough, hard-nosed old fashioned coach.  His best year was 1981 when he led the Giants to a 9–7 season.  Perkins left the Giants after the strike-shortened 1982 season to take over the University of Alabama head coaching position that had been vacated with the retirement of Paul “Bear” Bryant, the celebrated Crimson Tide coach. 

Parcells replaced Perkins as head coach in 1983.  Belichick worked with special teams, then linebackers, and finally in 1985 he took over as defensive coordinator.  Belichick played a crucial part in the Giants’ two Super Bowl titles under Parcells--one for  the 1986 season and the second for the 1990 season.

Belichick and Parcells

Belichick and Parcells were miles apart in their personalities and coaching styles.  Parcells exuded a physical toughness and presence that was matched by a sharp tongue that he used liberally to cut his “adversaries” off at the knees.  He was intimidating and he could motivate men to play at their best regardless of how modern or pampered they might have been.  He was an explosion of biting humor and folksy quotes.  Parcells used the nickname “Doom” for Belichick—saying that when it came to Belichick: "His glass was usually half-empty."

Belichick matches mind-power with physical preparation and practice that melds into his team’s psyche.  His players buy into his team-first system, know their place, and play their part.  By being in control of his emotions, Belichick is also able to coolly coach his team during a game and make adjustments. 

Parcells worked at the emotional center of coaching, relied heavily on those around him, and attracted much attention.  Belichick hides his emotions and logically instructs his players to play their roles flawlessly.  Belichick relinquishes control in most areas reluctantly and he has developed a consistent program that varies little from year to year.  He hides from the spotlight in oversized sweatshirts.  He conducts “close to the vest” news conferences.  However, like Parcells, Belichick insists that everyone respect his position as head coach and for him that means that he is the primary contact for team information.  In New York with Parcells, Belichick coached a gifted group of athletes that included Pro Football Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson.


Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press.
Material taken from Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey, grandson of Papa Bear George Halas. More information.

The Greatest Game: New York Giants versus Baltimore Colts in the 1958 NFL Championship

Greatest Game Program


Game Background

The Baltimore Colts played the New York Giants for the NFL Championship on December 28, 1958 in Yankee Stadium in front of 70,000 fans in the stands and  40 million TV viewers.  The Colts did not seem anxious.  Nor were they affected by the millions that would view the game on television.  
 
For many growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Colts' quarterback Johnny Unitas would come to be the archetype for the quarterback.  With his clean cut looks and brush cut hairstyle, he would also be the face of football.  After his father died when Unitas was a boy, Johnny U. helped support his family by working before and after school.  He went to church regularly.  He toughed-out injuries.  He practiced harder than most players.  He commanded attention in the huddle.  He gave the game everything he had.  He wanted to win them all.  Personal honor and glory took a back seat to his team’s accomplishments.  Even his Lithuanian family name, “Janaitis,” had been hammered out in translation to “Unitas” many years before as if to fit the destiny of an “All-American” quarterback of the era.  

The Giants had won the championship in 1956 and had a cadre of excellent players who would challenge Unitas and the Colts.  New York included the superb Hall of Famers Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Rosey Brown, Andy Robustelli, and Emlen Tunnell.  Gifford was a versatile receiver, rusher, and defensive back.  Middle linebacker Sam Huff was a tremendous force in the Giants’ defense.  He loved to play tough and stuff the best running backs in the NFL.  Tackle Rosey Brown was a big man whose quickness gave opposing teams fits.  Tunnell was in the later part of his career in 1958, but he was a talented defensive back and punt returner who was known as an “offense on defense.” 

The Giants were directed by Jim Lee Howell who took over as head coach in 1954.  Howell was a good head coach with two great assistants: offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator Tom Landry.  

At quarterback, the Giants had one of the best, Charlie Conerly from Ole Miss.  Conerly started out at Ole Miss in 1941; he went into the Marines and fought in the Pacific in World War II; and returned to Ole Miss afterward and graduated in 1948.  He was a 27-year old rookie when he began his pro career in the days before facemasks and he would play into the modern era of television.  Conerly took a beating on some Giants’ teams that offered him little protection.  Enough was enough and after the 1953 season, he went back to his home in Clarksville, Mississippi, to farm.  When Howell was made head coach, he went down to Clarksville and talked Conerly into returning.  Howell and his assistants got to work and created a team that could protect their quarterback.  Conerly would lead the Giants to the NFL Championship in 1956 and to the Championship game again in 1958 and 1959.  
Although Conerly was clearly the number-one quarterback for the Giants, Howell always started Don Heinrich for the first offensive series of each game.  Ostensibly, this was done so that Conerly would have the opportunity to view the defense before going into the game.  

When Conerly and the Giants had beaten the Colts in the regular season, Conerly wrote that his team “outgutted” the opposition. It was a sentiment that a hundred newspaper writers may have had after such a game, but because it came from Conerly, Colts Head Coach Weeb Ewbank used it to rile his players in the days leading up to the championship.  Unitas had not played in the Giants’ 24–21 victory that inspired Conerly’s words.
The Giants knew something about guts; they had to defeat an excellent Cleveland Browns team in the last game of the season and then beat them again in a divisional playoff game.  The Giants featured a well-balanced offense and a tough defense that could grind out wins on other team’s mistakes.  They shut out the Browns, 10–0, in the divisional playoff game to get to the championship game against the Colts. The Colts won the West Conference outright just ahead of the Bears and the Rams.  Ewbank’s team had a high octane offense that averaged over 30 points a game. 

The Greatest Game

The 1958 NFL Championship Game would come to be known as “the Greatest Game.”  It was a seminal contest of two of the best NFL teams ever assembled and it delivered incredible drama to an expectant, bourgeoning TV audience.  
After several miscues on the first series, Unitas drove the Colts down to the 25-yard line on the strength of a long pass to Lenny Moore.  The Giants’ defense stalled the drive.  Kicker Steve Myhra attempted a modest field goal, but the Giants’ defensive standout, Sam Huff, charged in and blocked the kick.  When the Giants got the ball, quarterback Conerly immediately connected with Mel Triplett.  Frank Gifford moved the ball down into Colts’ territory on a long run.  When the Giants’ drive stalled, Pat Summerall kicked a 36-yard field goal.  
In the second quarter, Gifford fumbled and the Colts’ jumbo-sized tackle, Big Daddy Lipscomb, recovered the ball on the Giants’ 20-yard line.  After a series of hard-fought short gains, Alan Ameche was able to score from the 2-yard line and the Colts took the lead, 7–3.  Unitas led another scoring drive that featured mostly running plays, but he hit pay dirt with a toss to his top receiver and fellow-perfectionist, Raymond Berry.  As the half wound down with the Colts leading 14–3, Huff tackled Berry out of bounds right near Ewbank.  The Colts’ coach did not like it.  Words were exchanged and the short stout coach was said to take a swing at Huff who was one of the toughest men in the league.  In Ewbank’s Goal to Go book, he writes that he pushed Huff rather than hit him.  Regardless of what exactly happened between the two, there were plenty of players and coaches to keep the David and Goliath apart, and the half ended with all parties still in one piece.  Commissioner Bert Bell did not levy any fines over the play.  
The second half began with a Colts’ drive that brought them to the 3-yard line. Four attempts to score failed.  The goal-line stand invigorated the Giants.  On a Giants’ drive, Conerly threw a bomb to Kyle Rote who lost possession of the ball when he was tackled at the Colts’ 25-yard line, but his teammate Alex Webster picked it up and carried it all the way to the 1-yard line.  After Triplett scored on a 1-yard plunge, it was Colts 14–Giants 10.  

The Giants came at the Colts again in the fourth quarter.  A strike from Conerly to Bob Schnelker took the ball down to the Colts’ 15-yard line.  A toss to Gifford gave the Giants another score and after the extra point, the Giants led, 17–14.  

The Colts did not give up, but they did not have much success either—at least for a while.  They missed a field goal.  They took over on a fumble only to have another drive stall on the Giants’ 27-yard line.  New York had the ball and a 3-point lead with less than three minutes to go.  Gifford was stopped a yard shy on a third-and-three play that could have iced the game if it had resulted in a first down.  The Colts were back in business after a Giants’ punt from their marksman Chandler brought the ball down to the Colts 14-yard line with a few ticks more than two minutes to go.  Unitas managed the clock perfectly by throwing high-percentage passes to Berry that brought the ball down to the 13-yard line with seconds left on the clock.  It was just enough time for Myhra to kick a field goal to push the game into sudden death overtime. 
The Giants got the ball first in overtime and went three and out; they missed a first down by only inches.  Chandler pushed the Colts back to their 20-yard line with a perfect punt.  Unitas orchestrated a drive that was perfect football drama.  On almost every down, Unitas called a play that ran counter to what was expected.  Instead of a pass, the Giants’ defense faced a run around end or a draw play.  When possession would seem to call for the conservative play, Unitas threw it across the middle.  When the Colts were in short field goal range at the 9-yard line, Unitas surprised everyone including Ewbank when he threw another pass that brought the ball down to the 1-yard line.  Unitas gave the ball to his fullback Alan Ameche who ran in for the winning touchdown. The Colts won the “Greatest Game, 23–17. 
 
On some plays Unitas had gone against his coach’s wishes based on adjustments that the Giants made on the field that gave the Colts an opportunity.  That was OK with Ewbank.  Ewbank was honored as UPI NFL Coach of the Year for 1958.



Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press.
Material taken from Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey, grandson of Papa Bear George Halas. More information.