Book Review: Sid Gillman

Are good football coaches inherently prone to being somewhere between out-and-out jerks and very hard to get along with? I’ve contemplated this question before, for instance in my review of the Bill Walsh bio The Genius. One of my favorite little stories is Jimmy Johnson divorcing his wife when he left the University of Miami job to become head coach of the Cowboys, because he understood that he couldn’t be a decent husband and the kind of coach he wanted to be.

Sid Gillman was a fine football coach. He is a member of the college and pro football halls of fame particularly for his work as head coach at Miami University and the University of Cincinnati, with respect to the former, and as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers, with respect to the latter. That includes a strong record of innovations related to the passing game, particularly with the Chargers. As documented in Josh Katzowitz’s Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game, he also did a marvelous job of burning his bridges. The record:

  • When he left Miami to take the Cincinnati job, he also took a particularly large number of assistants and other athletic department officials;
  • When he left Cincinnati to take the Rams job, he did so only after assuring boosters of his intent to stay after news of the Rams’ potential interest in him broke;
  • In Los Angeles, he benched and alienated quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, who’d led the Rams to the 1955 NFL title game in Gillman’s first season;
  • With the Rams, he eventually ran afoul of the Dan Reeves-led ownership group with his at times imperious “my way or the highway” attitude; and
  • Everywhere he went, he treated as though it was his birthright that his football team got everything it needed and wanted, including particularly lavish spending and minimal attention to petty details like the NCAA’s amateurism and educational requirements.

Especially when reading about his departure from Cincinnati to the Rams, the name Bobby Petrino came to mind. Granted, Gillman was a devoted husband (or at least his wife was utterly devoted to him), so he never had anything as humiliating as the Jessica Dorrell incident, but he fits the familiar Petrino archetype of the offensively-gifted coach with an at-times selective sense of loyalty.

More than anything else, Gillman’s groundbreaking work was really the systematization of the passing game. For many reasons, the intellectual development of the mechanics of the passing game, such as it was, was neglected. What Gillman did was to understand the geographic principles of the football field and to intelligently apply them to actual football. He’s best known for the vertically-inclined nature of his offense. His most prominent protege in that regard was probably Al Davis, who took that philosophy with him to Oakland and ordered it implemented for decades, though there have been others (Dick Vermeil, another one of them, wrote the foreword).

His application of that to his own teams was initially successful, but then his approach didn’t seem to work quite as well. His Rams made the title game his first year, then finished under .500 three of the next four seasons.  His Chargers teams made five of the first six AFL title games, winning only once, but as the overall quality of the new league improved, success became more elusive. He would coach again in San Diego after initially stepping down in 1969 due to health concerns, and then in Houston for a year and change, winning coach of the year for finishing 7-7 only to find himself the loser in a power struggle the next season. He was 63 by that point and would not have another head coaching job, though he popped up in various places, including with the Philadelphia Eagles under Vermeil (where he uttered the quote I noted) and with the L.A. Express of the USFL. His most interesting tenure would be as athletic director of U.S. International University in San Diego. His head coach there was Tom Walsh, future mayor of Swan Valley, Idaho and B-and-B owner turned Raiders offensive coordinator, and one of Walsh’s assistants was John Fox (yes, that John Fox).

As for the book, Gillman’s family (he passed away in 2003) seemed to cooperate extensively with Katzowitz. It’s a better book because of that cooperation. While his irascibility still comes across, the end result is probably somewhat more sympathetic to Gillman than it could have been. One thing that’s hard to know is just how much Gillman’s Jewishness counted against him. It doesn’t seem to have much, if at all, in the NFL, but he seemed to think it hurt him in getting better collegiate coaching jobs. Was he really a serious candidate for the job at his alma mater Ohio State that went to Paul Brown? Gillman thought he was, but it’s hard to know for sure. His hometown of Minneapolis in the 1920’s and 30’s was not particularly friendly to Jews, and it’s possible his religion prevented him from getting Big 10 jobs. Gillman was devoted to football more than his family. His wife was devoted to their family and him, in something like that order. Gillman’s children seem to like him a lot despite his general neglect, serving as defenders of his reputation; he certainly took his son being gay a lot better than Tommy Lasorda did. The book is not technical, so if you’re a coach looking for what Gillman did in that regard, you won’t find that here. Organization is generally highly chronological; to the extent it steps away from that at times, those are generally infelicities.

For more on the book, see Katzowitz’s website. Included on there are links to more reviews, including that by Chris Brown of Smart Football.

Recommended for what it is.


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