Tributes to Weeb Ewbank from Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath last week recalled a remark ably adaptable coach. Unitas, as stiff and straight as his hightop black shoes and bristly crewcut, and Namath, as loose and wild as his white shoes and flowing hair, seemed icons of the 1950s and the 1960s—Eisenhower conservatism versus (safe) countercultural rebellion. Coaching both, Ewbank rode the upheavals in American society and professional football without losing his bearings.
Between Ewbank’s championships in 1958 and 1969, Vince Lombardi’s Packers dominated pro football, and there’s another story. The Pack was definitely considered Lombardi’s team, but it was Unitas’s Colts, and most certainly it was Namath’s Jets. As we contemplate Weeb Ewbank’s place in football history, it seems that he may have inaugurated a new era, with Lombardi marking the end of the old. But actually it’s the other way around.
Despite his radically different temperament, Lombardi followed Paul Brown, pro football’s first officially certified “genius,” and anticipated Tom Landry, Bill Par cells, and today’s congregation of computer-savvy sideline CEOs. Coaches took over college football early, despite repeated pleas to “give the sport back to the boys,” but pro football remained predominantly a players’ game into the 1970s. Defining the boundaries of eras is always messy, but who today would doubt the dominance of coaches, with their hyper-sophisticated offensive and defensive schemes? Can you remember when rookie quarterbacks didn’t need four years to learn the position?
The ascendance of coaches has seemed inevitable, and it was probably necessary for attracting white-collar fans to what had been a working-class sport. But last week, we were reminded of a time when the players were the game, and a successful coach was one who let them play it.
Cut to the Chase
Is it really a showdown if nobody shows? That’s the question begged by last week’s Chase Championships. The season ending women’s tennis event was filler-free, featuring eight former Grand Slam winners, five former number-ones, and Anna Kournikova’s navel. You would think that tennis’s answer to the Lilith Fair could pump some life into Madison Square Garden during the Knicks’ hiatus and the Rangers’ near-sabbatical. You’d be wrong. Despite the window of opportunity, the über-deep field, and a faux Beanie Baby giveaway, the event drew numbers that not even the WNBA would brag about. Average attendance was 9478 per session, with a high of 14,853 for the semis. The scary part? That’s actually up from last year. Makes you imagine the late Bobby Riggs, who knew a thing or two about how to get people jazzed about tennis, looking down on the proceedings with a mixture of sanctimonious glee and genuine sadness. And wondering what it would take to convince Jimmy Connors to challenge Martina Hingis.
Beanball Brotherly Love
Jockbeat’s eyebrows were raised last week when AL president Dr. Gene Budig named Bob Gibson an adviser on base ball discipline. Gibson’s Hall of Fame numbers speak for themselves (two Cy Young Awards, eight All-Star Game appearances, a 1.12 ERA in 1968). What they don’t say is that he was one of the meanest, surliest pitchers ever to toe the rubber.
Think Randy Johnson is nasty? You obviously never saw Gibson.
Former Mets reliever Tug McGraw did. When asked about Johnson’s brushback incident with Kenny Lofton last season, McGraw recalled this incident with the Cardinals’ righty: “I remember when Tommie Agee came into the NL in 1968. [The media] was building him up as the next great center fielder in New York. Down in spring training, Bob Gibson was reading all this, and there were no quotes from Agee in there. Agee was a quiet, humble man. But they compared him with Mickey Mantle, they compared him with Willie Mays, they compared him with The Duke. And Agee’s not asking for any of this. So the first game of spring training, Mets versus the Cardinals. Agee’s the leadoff hitter. First pitch of the game, Gibson drills him right in the coconut. The ball ricochets somewhere, Agee’s flat on his back in the batter’s box. Gibson walks halfway to home plate, looks down at him and says, ‘Welcome to the National League, bru-tha.'”
Jockbeat can’t wait to see how Budig, Gibson by his side, rules on the first beanball war next year.
contributors: Michael Oriard, Allen St. John, Jon Cooper, Jesus Diaz
sports editor: Miles D. Seligman