By Elli Wohlgelernter
Innovative football coach Sid Gillman, who died Jan. 3, 2003, was not only a leading authority on passing theories and tactics, thus revolutionizing the game with his downfield-passing schemes; but his original use of analyzing film footage to prepare for football games fundamentally altered the way all future coaches would get ready for their next opponent.
“He was so far ahead of his time, people couldn’t totally understand what he was doing,” said Bill Walsh, the father of the West Coast Offense and considered an offensive genius himself. “He was one of the great offensive minds in football history…There’s a lineage between Sid Gillman and what you see on the field today.”
Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis knew Gillman well. “Sid Gillman was the father of modern-day passing,” Davis said. “It had been thought of as vertical, the length of the field, but Sid also thought of it as horizontal. Sid used the width of the field.”
Gillman had one other initiative that changed not only football, but American culture: It was he who first suggested the idea of a “Super Bowl” between champions of the NFL and AFL. As coach of the San Diego Chargers, Gillman assembled a team in 1963 that many believe was as good as any in the NFL.
San Diego’s best offense ever
After going 11-3-0 in the regular season, averaging 29 points a game and leading the AFL in seven offensive categories, the team destroyed the Boston Patriots in the 1963 AFL Championship Game, 51-10.
Many said those Chargers were the best offensive team ever, and would have given the NFL champion Chicago Bears a real fight.
“We had one of the great teams in pro football history, and I think we would have matched up pretty well with the NFL,” said Gillman. “We had great speed and talent, and I think at that time, the NFL really underestimated the talent we had.”
But NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle wanted no part of it, not wanting to give credibility to an upstart league trying to muscle in on his turf. Writing to Rozelle that a game between the two champion teams would be a great idea, Gillman cited Pope John XXIII’s Second Ecumenical Council, which had begun the year before and which declared that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God.”
Said Gillman: “Pope John was a great man because he recognized the other league.”
Rozelle wrote back: “Yes, but it took a thousand years.”
Gillman was born and raised in a traditional kosher home and he worked as a movie theater usher at his father’s theater. After showing the weekly newsreels, Gillman would remove the football segments and take them home to study. Gillman was the first coach to analyze game footage, something practiced by all coaches today.
“During our honeymoon in 1935, Sid bought a projector for $15 at a pawn shop,” said his wife, Esther. “He was only going to make $1,800 that year [in his first coaching job], and we couldn’t afford it. I thought I would kill him.”
Gillman played college football from 1931-1933 at Ohio State University, where he was named a Grantland Rice AP All-American honorable mention in 1932 and ’33. He also played in the inaugural College Football All-Star Game against the Chicago Bears, before a Soldiers Field crowd of 79,432. The game ended in a scoreless tie.
Playing and coaching
Gillman played one year in the National Football League for the Cleveland Rams, then began coaching, first as an assistant coach at Denton University (1935-1937, 1941), Ohio State (1938-1940), and the University of Miami of Ohio (1942-’43), before being named head coach there (1944-1947). He led Miami to a 31-6-1 record, including a 13-12 victory in the 1947 Sun Bowl.
After a year as assistant coach at Army in 1948, Gillman was named head coach at the University of Cincinnati (1949-1954), which he led to three Mid-American Conference titles, two bowl games, and a 50-13-1 record. The result was a remarkable .814 winning percentage (81-19-2) for his college coaching career.
In 1955, after failing to receive the Ohio State head-coaching job – which Gillman suspected was because he was Jewish – he moved to the pros as head coach with the Los Angeles Rams, where he compiled a 28-31-1 record from 1955 to 1959. He led the team to the NFL championship game in 1955.
When the American Football League started in 1960, Gillman was named head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, who moved to San Diego in 1961. He led the team to five Western Division titles, the league championship in 1963, and an 82-47-6 record in the first six years of the league’s existence.
He also coached the Houston Oilers in 1973-’74, winning Coach of the Year honors in 1974. He finished with a 123-104-7 professional record. He became an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1979, remaining with the club for three seasons, including their Super Bowl year in 1980.
“We would never have gone to the Super Bowl without Sid Gillman,” said the Eagles coach, Dick Vermeil. “His mind would never turn off. He made all my coaches better.”
Gillman is also credited with putting names on the backs of jerseys. He is the only coach elected to both Pro (1983) and College (1989) Football Halls of Fame.
Shortly before he died in his sleep, Gillman had a bed placed in his office, so he could be surrounded by the plaques, footballs and other mementos from his career.
– Elli Wohlgelernter is a veteran journalist with experience in the U.S. and in Israel, and was Sports Editor of the Encylcopaedia Judaica, Second Edition