Under Sid Gillman, the Charger Era Came to Pass
To Sid Gillman, retirement is strictly for somebody else. He wants no part of it.
In a coaching career that spanned 52 years, Gillman earned a reputation for creativity that has made him a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a veritable genius at devising ways to move the ball through the air.
As the first coach of the Chargers, who were founded in Los Angeles in 1960, Gillman gave San Diego its only pro football championship when he led them to the American Football League title in 1963. He turned out five division winners in six years, adding to the one he produced for the Rams in the National Football League as a rookie pro coach in 1955. He was the first coach to win division titles in both leagues.
Gillman is 77 now and has been out of coaching two years, but he is still as vigorous as ever and still wrapped up in the game he loves. He has two tape machines to record televised pro games, three projectors and a library of game films that would do justice to any NFL team. Whenever he comes up with ideas that haven’t crossed his fertile mind, he draws up new pass plays.
Gillman’s devotion to football is even conveyed by the swimming pool at his home, located on the grounds of the La Costa Hotel and Spa. It is shaped like a football, with lines along one side that represent the laces.
Sitting in his family room, surrounded by memorabilia going back to his college days at Ohio State, Gillman talked as enthusiastically about football as if he were preparing for next week’s game.
“I tape every game I can get my hands on,” Gillman said. “Every game that’s on TV, I tape it. My daughter, Terry Hill, lives in Eureka, and she has a satellite dish, so she tapes what I can’t get. I try to keep up with what everybody is doing, so if the phone rings, I’ll be ready.”
Gillman said he couldn’t understand why Don Coryell hadn’t returned to football after resigning as coach of the Chargers during the 1986 season.
“I enjoyed coaching so much that I just have to stay with it,” Gillman said. “Don Coryell--I love him, and I think he was a great coach--but I hear he’s going to build a house on some island. He’s going to divorce himself from football, and that’s a mystery to me.
“I just can’t divorce myself from football. I’m at it practically every day. I don’t know how Don is able to stay away from it. I thought he’d come back by now. He’s too good a coach not to.”
And how good a coach was Gillman?
His election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983 answered that question. Since then, he has been voted into the College Football Hall of Fame and will be inducted in New York Dec. 5. He was a star end at Ohio State, then served with distinction as head coach at Miami of Ohio and Cincinnati.
Gillman also is a member of the Chargers’ Hall of Fame, the Breitbard Hall of Fame at the Hall of Champions, the Jewish Hall of Fame, the Ohio State University Hall of Fame, the University of Cincinnati Hall of Fame and the Ohio High School Hall of Fame. That makes eight Halls of Fame in all, which might be a record.
The most impressive testimony to Gillman’s coaching credentials comes from some of his most famous peers.
The late Paul (Bear) Bryant said this when he was a coaching legend at Alabama: “Sid Gillman was the best football mind I’ve ever met. I’ve had players come back to me from the pros and say he was so bright, so far ahead of them, that they couldn’t keep up with him. I’ve had him at clinics and had trouble keeping up with him myself.”
Bill Walsh, while coaching the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl victories, gave Gillman much of the credit: “Our offensive style goes back to the Oakland Raiders’ style of the mid-’60s. A lot of things we do were done at that time, and that goes back to Sid Gillman football.”
John Madden, who had a fine coaching career with the Raiders, named Gillman one of the top 10 pro coaches in his book, “One Knee Equals Two Feet.” The others, in alphabetical order, were George Allen, Paul Brown, Weeb Ewbank, Bud Grant, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, Don Shula and Hank Stram.
Then there were the words of Al Davis, who was on Gillman’s original Charger staff and now is managing general partner of the Raiders.
Said Davis: “Sid Gillman brought class to the AFL. Just being a part of Sid’s organization was, for me, like going to a laboratory for the highly developed science of organized football.”
Gillman, a native of Minneapolis, attended Ohio State “because I thought it would be better to get away from home.” He was the only man to play in the first College All-Star Game in Chicago in 1934 and coach in the last one in 1976.
Gillman was an All-American end at Ohio State, where he was a co-captain in 1933. He chose coaching over the NFL but did play one season as a pro. He commuted from his job as an assistant at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, in 1936 to play with the Cleveland Rams of the AFL--the second of four leagues that bore that name.
When Gillman finished school in 1934, the NFL draft was still two years away, so every graduating college player was a free agent. He signed with the Boston Redskins, who were to move to Washington in 1937, then had a change of heart.
“They sent me a bus ticket to Boston, but I didn’t report,” he said. “I was going to law school.”
As it turned out, Gillman never got there either. He served as a graduate assistant at Ohio State that year and immediately became hooked on coaching.
“Once I became a graduate assistant, that was the end of law school,” Gillman said. “I worked under Francis Schmidt, and he was the biggest influence on my coaching career. He played a wide-open game.”
In 1935, Gillman made his full-time coaching debut at Denison.
“Tom Rogers was the head coach, and he was a wonderful man,” Gillman said. “I named my only son after him--Thomas Roger.”
Even before getting that first real job, Gillman had proven himself a student of football.
“My family had theaters, and I used to clip newsreel film of football games,” Gillman said. “Nobody took films of games, but I made my own film off the newsreels. They used to show big games like Army-Navy, Army-Notre Dame, games like that.”
Gillman’s next step was to buy a projector, and he took care of that while on his honeymoon before reporting for duty at Denison. He and his bride, Esther--they will celebrate their 54th wedding anniversary Sunday--were doing some shopping in Chicago while there to watch the second College All-Star Game.
“We passed a hock shop, and I saw an old 35-meter projector,” Gillman said. “I bought the thing and used it for years. It’s sitting in my garage right now. If I could find the right museum in San Diego, I’d donate it.”
From there, Gillman became a classic study in patience and perseverance. It took him 17 years as an assistant at Ohio State, Denison, West Point and Miami of Ohio before he got a head coaching job at Miami in 1951.
After that, though, success came quickly. It was on to Cincinnati, then the big jump to the pros with the Rams in 1955. His first Ram team won the Western Division with an 8-3-1 record, then lost to the Cleveland Browns in the NFL championship game, 38-14.
Gillman stayed with the Rams for four more seasons, finishing as high as a tie for second place with an 8-4 record in 1958. He was dropped after a 2-10 season the next year, but it was then that the AFL was born. Barron Hilton, the Chargers’ first owner, hired him as general manager and coach.
“Barron was a great owner and a perfect gentleman,” Gillman said. “He never meddled. I was my own general manager, so I was in charge of the whole football operation.
“I think that’s the way it should be. It’s the coach’s funeral. He’s the guy who dies, he’s the guy they bury, so he’s the guy who should run the show.”
Gillman ran the show with such authority that he was categorized along with Brown, Bryant, Lombardi and Woody Hayes as one of football’s absolute monarchs.
One of Gillman’s former players, who has remained nameless, was reported as saying, “Those who prayed before games didn’t ask for victory or immunity from injury. Instead, they prayed, ‘Please, God, don’t let me be the first to screw up.’ They wanted protection from Gillman, not the enemy.”
But as tough as Gillman was as a coach, he was--and is--a warm, witty and caring man who looked upon his players as members of his family. Even those who resented his gruffness at the time couldn’t help but respect him.
Gillman’s original Chargers were a well-kept secret in Los Angeles. They usually played before about 90,000 empty seats at the Coliseum. Still, they won their division with a 10-4 record and they repeated at 12-2 after moving to San Diego’s Balboa Stadium in 1961. They dropped to third the next year, but then won three more division titles and trampled the Boston Patriots in the 1963 championship game, 51-10.
“We started the team with no talent at all,” Gillman said. “But we had a super staff, with Al Davis, Joe Madro, Chuck Noll and Jack Faulkner. Don Klosterman as our head talent scout. That was a high-powered staff.
“We held tryout camps all over America, and every truck driver and bartender showed up. At least we had them around for a few meals. We had a ton of players in camp--100 coming, 100 going and 100 in mind.”
Not surprisingly, the tryout camps produced little. But Klosterman did an outstanding job of rounding up rookies and NFL castoffs, so the team Gillman sent out for its AFL debut was better than most in the fledgling league. It had two league leaders in passer Jack Kemp, later to become a big name in politics, and punter Paul Maguire, now an NBC sportscaster, plus the No. 2 rusher in Paul Lowe.
“We just couldn’t draw in L.A.,” Gillman said. “Sometimes we had more people on the field than in the seats. You almost wanted to introduce the people in the stands instead of those on the field.
“Even when we moved here, it was a struggle. We had a beautiful, sleepy little town, a service town, but about all we had was weather. We had to start from scratch, and for a while it seemed like we spent more time on promotions than football.
“When I first walked into Balboa Stadium, it was a mess. There were cement seats, and not many of them, no dressing rooms, no restrooms to speak of. But the city spent a lot of money to fix it up, and we had close to 35,000 seats. The fan support wasn’t perfect, but it was better than L.A.”
After the Chargers won the AFL title in 1963, their one regret was that they couldn’t challenge the champion Chicago Bears of the NFL to a showdown.
“That was probably our greatest team,” Gillman said. “There was no better end than Lance Alworth and no better lineman than Ron Mix. Those are Hall of Fame guys. There was no better guard than Walt Sweeney and no better pair of running backs than Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe. Our championship game that year was perfection.
“I really felt that we could have beaten the Bears.”
It probably was just a coincidence, but the Chargers won their only championship after Gillman moved their training camp from the University of San Diego to a place called Rough Acres Ranch in the mountain retreat of Boulevard. They had trained at Chapman College before their one season in Los Angeles.
“Boulevard was in snake country,” Gillman said. “We didn’t stay in a resort. There was no way you could make a resort out of that place. It was miles away from anything, and that was good for us at the time because we had a young team.
“One day a couple of the players had a Ping-Pong game going, and when one of them reached down to pick up the ball, out came a snake from a little crevice in the building. After that, I had them plug up every little hole they could find.”
Despite the Chargers’ great success that year, Gillman decided that one taste of Boulevard was enough. He moved them to Escondido in 1964, and they went on to UC Irvine in 1969 and U.S. International in 1974 before settling in their present site of UCSD in 1976.
At the time Gillman entered pro coaching, the standard theory was to rely primarily on the running game. He took the opposite approach.
“The big play comes from the pass,” he said. “The runners get you the first downs and give you ball control, but if you want to score, you have to pass.
“Our concept was to use the entire field, 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. This stretched the defense and made it harder to cover the five receivers we sent out on every play. All of the receivers’ routes were compatible, so the quarterback had a choice based on what he saw downfield.”
Gillman’s Chargers had quarterbacks such as Kemp, Tobin Rote and John Hadl and receivers such as Alworth, Gary Garrison and Dave Kocourek. Given his masterful game plan to work with, they drove opposing secondaries up the wall.
Illness forced Gillman to retire temporarily during the 1969 season. He returned in 1971 but resigned after 10 games because of a disagreement with owner Gene Klein.
In 1973, Gillman became general manager of the Houston Oilers and took over the coaching duties after five games. The next season was his last as a head coach, and he bowed out in style. For his feat of transforming the 1-13 Oilers into a .500 team, he was named the NFL’s coach of the year.
In 24 seasons as a head coach, 18 in the pros, Gillman compiled a record of 173-117-8. He was 123-104-7 in the AFL and NFL and 50-13-1 at the college level.
Between 1975 and 1988, Gillman coached or scouted for the Chicago Bears, Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL, the L.A. Express of the late U.S. Football League and the University of Pittsburgh. He also served briefly as athletic director at USIU.
Gillman’s last affiliation was with the Chiefs last year as an evaluator of college quarterbacks. But even though he is now a free agent, he is as busy as ever.
“I’m never going to leave this game,” he said. “I just won’t quit. Football is my life.”