|Charles Aqua Viva / National Football League|
|Sid Gillman's coaching helped Lance Alworth (19) and John Hadl (21) put up big numbers in the Chargers' passing game.|
Note: The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, "THE LITTLE LEAGUE THAT COULD: How the AFL changed the NFL forever." The book will be published by Rowman-Littlefield and is due out in 2010.
For a league that lasted only a decade -- in comparison, the NFL has been around since 1920 -- the AFL certainly had its share of coaching legends.
Four men stand above the others: Hank Stram, Sid Gillman, Lou Saban and Weeb Ewbank.
Stram won three of the 10 AFL championship games (1962, 1966 and 1969). Gillman's offensive acumen represented everything that was cutting edge in the sport. Saban turned around a struggling Buffalo franchise and made it a two-time champion. Ewbank merely won the most important game in AFL history.
Here's a look at these four coaches:
Stram: Salesman and innovator
Stram was the biggest winner of them all, leading the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs franchise to three AFL championships and victory in the final Super Bowl played between the AFL and NFL before the merger. Stram went 85-44 in the AFL.
Stram built the Chiefs from scratch. An assistant coach at the University of Miami, Stram earlier had coached at SMU, where Lamar Hunt was a backup. When Hunt started the AFL, he looked at hiring some NFL head coaches or assistants to run the Texans, but met with much resistance.
Obviously someone willing to start up a new professional football league had no qualms about gambling on an unproven college coach who had never run his own team. So Hunt met with Stram and, realizing their visions for the franchise and the AFL itself were similar, he hired Stram.
"We were awfully lucky," Hunt said of Stram's hiring after Tom Landry and Bud Wilkinson said no to taking over the Texans. "He had never been a head coach before and you never know how that's going to work out. In our case it worked out tremendously.
"I think Hank is really symbolic of the coaching style and the coaching personality of the American Football League. Maybe he never would have gotten a chance anywhere else. Hank personified the American Football League. He was a salesman. He was an innovator. He wasn't afraid to try new things.
"I think it worked out great for his career, too, because he ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He deserves to be there."
Gillman: Original guru
No one is more responsible for the emergence of the passing game as the key weapon -- and attraction -- in pro football than Gillman.
Al Davis? Coached under Gillman.
Bill Walsh? Studied Gillman's principles.
Simply put, Gillman was the originator of the modern passing game, be it the West Coast offense and its multiple variations, or the motion attack, or the varied downfield routes and timing patterns being used today.
"Absolutely, without question," former Chiefs president Carl Peterson said. "Sid was a true giant in our business. He was probably the most innovative offensive mind in our game."
To Gillman, the guys who threw the ball and the ones who caught and ran with it were the backbone of the sport.
"The big play comes with the pass," he would say. "God bless those runners because they get you the first down, give you ball control and keep your defense off the field. But if you want to ring the cash register, you have to pass."
So Gillman's teams passed ... and passed ... and passed.
Saban: Buffalo and (way) beyond
Few coaches led a more nomadic life than Saban, which seems appropriate because he guided three AFL franchises in the 1960s.
Along with leading the Patriots, Bills and Broncos (in the AFL and NFL), Saban also worked the sidelines at nearly a dozen colleges. The only head coach of three AFL clubs, Saban won back-to-back titles with the Bills in 1964-65, and after his four-year stint with the Broncos, he returned to western New York for a bit more than four seasons.
A man for all football seasons at any venue.
"I've coached at all levels, covered the gamut, and I've never really seen any difference," Saban once said. "My coaching techniques are pretty much the same, with some adjustments for what younger players can and can't do."
Saban did just about everything he could with the Bills.
"It all came together under Lou Saban," said Booker Edgerson, a starter for all of Saban's tenure in Buffalo, when the cornerback had 16 interceptions. "One thing about Saban, if you weren't doing a good job, he'd take you out of the game. If Jack Kemp was having a bad game, snatch him, and put Daryle Lamonica in there. And if Daryle wasn't doing good, he'd take him out and put Kemp back in. That's what Lou Saban did. He said it's all about winning, it's not about who's playing first string and who did this and who did that. It's all about winning."
Ewbank: Little big man
Ewbank was the only coach to win championships in the NFL and AFL. He was the head man in two of football's most significant contests: the Colts' overtime win against the Giants for the 1958 NFL crown, and the Jets' shocker against the Colts in Super Bowl III.
He was recommended to owner Sonny Werblin by Jimmy Cannon, the renowned sports writer and columnist in New York, after the Colts fired Ewbank. On the day Werblin made the announcement, the team name was changed from the Titans to Jets.
After front-office turmoil that resulted in bounced checks and rotating rosters, Ewbank would bring stability to one of the AFL's key franchises.
In a few years, he'd also help bring equality to the upstart league.
"Weeb was a great coach and a great organizer," said Hall of Fame receiver Don Maynard. "He kept things in perspective. I don't think we ever worked out more than two hours. He could get more done in two hours than most coaches could in four."
A squat, roundish man at times referred to as a troll, a munchkin or even a fire hydrant, Ewbank stood tall among his peers. Ewbank's brilliance on the sideline led to his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 1978.