My interest in the American Football League began when I started writing my master’s thesis on Sid Gillman, the Chargers’ first head coach. I was fortunate because at the time, the Gillmans lived at La Costa, in San Diego’s North County. During my research, and then for a few years after, I was able to spend time with Sid and his wife, Esther. It was a very neat time for me. My girlfriend at the time (and now wife), Kym, often came with me. She and Esther would walk through their beautiful gardens, enjoying the flowers and talking about things ranging from family to football, being married for 60+ years, politics, and having to pick up and move your family with each new coaching position.
Meanwhile Sid and I watched television, talked about the current NFL, or reminisced about his time with the Chargers. I remember watching the 1999 NFL Draft with Sid. He didn’t know much about the draftees, but he still liked to keep track of what was going on in the NFL.
One of the pieces that I love most in my collection was given to me one day by Esther. Knowing that I liked to collect memorabilia, she presented me with one of Sid’s pipes. Aside from the passing game, Sid was well-known for wearing bow ties and smoking pipes. That simple gift meant more to me than she ever knew.
Sid Gillman was 88 years old when we first met. His memory was still sharp, but began fading shortly thereafter. I was able to record four interviews with him. The one presented below is the first of those interviews, and I believe the best. It was done on December 16, 1998, and covers many areas within coach Gillman’s career. I have presented the entire interview for you to enjoy.
TT – How did you get started in football? When did you begin playing?
SG – Well, of course I played as a youngster. I played in high school and was always, as far back as I can remember, oriented as far as athletics are concerned. I was very much interested in them. I played in high school and I played in college, played in professional football and it just carried on through life.
TT – How did you get started in coaching?
SG – Well, that is kind of an interesting story in that my coach, a fellow that I worked with, briefly, to start with. His name was Francis Schmidt, and he was probably one of the greatest minds of anybody that I’ve ever known. I was playing in the all-star game in Chicago. We don’t have an all-star game anymore because insurance rates are so high that if any of those kids got killed, especially if somebody hurt his arm and he’s got an insurance policy of $15 million, you couldn’t afford to stay up with the insurance deal. So they cut it out. But I was playing in this all-star game when my coach wired me and wanted me to come back and help out in spring football practice, which I did do, although I was destined for law school. I thought that maybe I might become a lawyer. But I thought, “Well, we’ll give football a try.” And I went back, this was at Ohio State. I went back and I haven’t seen a law school yet, because I was taken back by football and teaching football and coaching football. I wasn’t interested in anything else after that experience.
TT – Were the offenses that you played in at Ohio State similar to the ones you ended up coaching later?
SG – Not even a reasonable facsimile. It wasn’t close. I played old-fashioned football where it was called single-wing. You had a wing-back and a half back and a running back and a blocking back but there was no I-formation at that time. Actually “I” came in later on. Clark Shaughnessy had a lot to do with establishing the I-formation. We had some great teams at Ohio State at that time. And that’s how it got started. Francis Schmidt, the guy loved to work and I fit right in with him because I was a workaholic. That’s the way she went.
TT – Can you explain how you started off with your offensive philosophy in football, the thoughts that you went into your first coaching jobs with?
SG – It goes way back to when I decided that running the ball isn’t going to win for you. You had to have a good passing attack and some good ends that can catch the ball and quarterbacks that can throw the ball. And the key to the whole thing was scoring points. You can score faster, quicker by throwing the ball than you could any other way. This fascinated me.
TT – Is that something that you learned right away?
SG – It is something that I learned right away. It started right on out. And of course Schmidt, my coach, was pass-oriented. He liked to throw the ball, too. It started kind of with him and the fascination myself. Scoring fast. So that’s just about the way it went.
TT – Who were your greatest influences in football? You mentioned Francis Schmidt.
SG – Well, Francis Schmidt was probably the key. He was the worker and he enjoyed having me around because I worked right with him. So it was Schmidt that really was the key guy in my thinking. Because of the fact that you could score faster, quicker and that was what was happening.
TT – Can you discuss some of the difficulties you encountered between coaching college and pro ball?
SG – Well, the main thing in pro ball was throwing the ball and scoring quick. This was the idea. Against college football it was more run-oriented. People didn’t think too much about throwing the ball in the old days when I was breaking in. They were thinking about running the football until some of us got to thinking that it was kind of a waste of time. We began to throw it.
TT – What do you think were your greatest strengths over the years as a coach?
SG – Well, number one is work. I worked probably harder than most coaches. As a matter of fact, I think that and the fact that I enjoyed throwing the ball rather than running it. I guess throwing the ball was the key and working day and night.
TT – I’ve heard that from many of your players that you were the hardest-working person on the team.
SG – Well, I hope that they appreciated it.
TT – They did. I’ve talked to probably 20 of your players with the Chargers and they were all extremely complimentary, not only of you, but of Mrs. Gillman as well.
SG – Well, that’s nice.
TT – So many of your coaches went on to have extremely successful coaching careers of their own. What were some of the qualities that you looked for in your coaches when you chose them?
SG – Well, the key to the whole thing is to get somebody that will be willing to work. That’s the key to the whole thing. And then to have a guy that was bright enough to learn as much as possible of the system we had so that he could go out and coach it for us, and if necessary go out and get a job on his own. That’s all it is. No magic at all, just work. Work your rear end off.
TT – This next set of questions is about things that you introduced to the game. First of all, you brought in Alvin Roy in 1963 as the first weight training coach.
SG – Yeah, we had the first weight training coach.
TT – What was the desired result that you were looking for when you brought him on?
SG – We tried to make people stronger and larger. That was the key to the whole thing, get them larger, get them stronger. Then we thought that we could block a little better. That was the key thing. As a matter of fact I saw a high school team work out once with weights and that intrigued me. I went back home and went to work right away trying to get a system going of lifting and that helped us a great deal.
TT – That was my next question. Was it a success?
SG – Oh, definitely a success. It was a success in high school football and college football and pro football. Everybody began to copy it.
TT – When did you first begin to learn about weight lifting? Roughly how many years before the Chargers?
SG – Maybe a year or two. I mentioned I saw this high school team in the weight room, lifting weights and I thought what a great thing that would be for us. That’s the way it was. We became stronger and stronger by the day.
TT – Do you think that maybe it hurt because weight lifting was not as well understood at that point? Did you have any drawbacks to it?
SG – No, no drawbacks, none at all. We just carried on as much as we could and everybody fit right in the program. The first time I was connected with any weight program was with a high school team years ago. I watched them work and thought it was going to be a great thing for us. And it was.
TT – When did you first begin to use film as a coaching tool?
SG – Oh, that dates back to my cradle. It was college as a matter of fact, we filmed our practice sessions and carried it over into pros. When I went with the Rams we began to take film of our practices. So it dates way back, almost to day one. Of course it was very simple for me, because my parents were in the movie business. And in those days, this was long before you were born, they used to have Fox Movie Tone News and Paramount and they all had newsreels and I used to clip the football out of those reels. It was against the law, but I did it anyhow. So that’s what started me out. Invariably it was our newsreels which were a big thing in the movie business. People now get television, but years ago you had the Movie Tone. Fox, Paramount, they all had shots of major games and I used to cut those major games out and study them. So that’s what started me out in the movies. And then the fact that I just took the movie camera out on the practice field.
TT – So were you even clipping these highlight reels before you started coaching?
SG – No. I was coaching at the time. Gee, I’ll never forget. I was coaching in college at the time and we were in a training camp and I had a cameraman work with us. He was shooting one day and we noticed that there was going to be a storm. The clouds were so goddamn black, you could hardly see. The guy reminded me of Gene Leff, same mode. I said, “Jimmy, come on down. It looks like were going to have a storm.” Well, before he was able to get down, that storm came up and it was about a 25-foot scaffold and the son of a bitch just flopped on over and the camera and everything just smashed to smithereens. It was just a hell of a thing. Nothing happened to him, thank goodness. He survived, but all our film equipment broke up. I see that in my mind every once in a while. He had just enough room to move in a direction. He was like a rat trying to find the hole and he couldn’t find the hole and he decided to ride down with it. He rode down with the storm. Oh jeez, I’ll never forget that.
TT – You were also the first coach to allow black and white players to room together on the road. Can you explain your philosophies behind that?
SG – Well, it was a simple thing. They all decided to room together. We just got together and had a meeting and discussed the situation with them and told them we just had to live together. That’s all. We played together, we had to live together. And they accepted it, without question. We left the movie one night because the owner of the movie came up and told me, “Coach, you’re gonna have to get your boys up in the balcony because we got a big crowd coming in and you gotta move up.” I said, “We’re not moving any place.” I told him, “We’re not moving anywhere because of black and white, see.” I told him, “We’re not moving any place. If we have to move, we’re moving out.” And he says, “Well, I can’t help it.” So we just took our squad and got the hell out of there.
At this point Bob Hood, a Chargers staff member from 1962-77, joined in the conversation.
BH – Sometimes we went and all sat in the balcony just so there wasn’t any problem. The whites would sit where the blacks had to sit, rather than embarrassing the blacks.
SG – But we just collected our whole team and told them, “We’re leaving, getting the hell out of here, because it’s not a place we want to be.”
TT – And that was in Atlanta?
SG – It was in Houston, wasn’t it?
BH – That one was in Houston. We had another incident, remember in Atlanta. It was in 1964 and we played… Do you remember when we played in Memphis and we flew on that crappy plane that Johnny Gough got, that constellation? We stayed in Jonesboro and we played in Little Rock. And then we stayed in Jonesboro, we went to Kansas City and we finished in Atlanta. And Atlanta didn’t have a team yet. We played in a little stadium called Wickham Stadium, stayed in a Hilton out by the airport and Ernie and those guys , we all went next door. I went with them to the bowling alley to play pool. Keith Lincoln, Lance, all of us were playing pool and they came up in the pool hall and asked the blacks to leave because they weren’t allowed in there to play pool. You had to have the mayor come to breakfast the next morning because the guys said they weren’t going to play. You had it in the all-star game, I think it was the same year. But 1964, it was the preseason Sid. My eyes were big. I came from California and didn’t know what segregation was. But that happened in 1964. We stayed in a Hilton and right next door was the bowling alley. Ernie and those guys, Ladd and Luther we all were there, playing. The whole group left just like the movie theater, and the players came to you and said they were not going to play the game. That’s when they were trying to get either and AFL or an NFL team in Atlanta. I remember that. I remember that, at the time I was 19, 20 years old.
SG – Well, we were at training camp when we decided that we weren’t going to have any segregation and I discussed with members of the squad and they all agreed. I tell you. They all took a black roommate and every one of them was tickled to death to do it. We had some great kids, no problem at all. And the next time that we had a problem was the all-star game. Cab driver would only take our all-stars a certain distance. And he stopped the cab and said, “It’s time to get out now.” Our kids decided, “The hell it is. This isn’t time to get out. We haven’t reached our destination yet.” So they went back to the hotel and packed. And I caught a bunch of them walking out of the hotel and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Then I nailed a few of them and we discussed the thing with them and got it settled and went and played it in Houston. We played it in Houston.
BH – That was before New Orleans had a team, too.
SG – Yeah.
TT – You had problems with some of your hotels as well, didn’t you?
SG – We didn’t have too many problems with the hotels. Do you recall any problems with the hotels?
BH – I think Barron kind of eased the way on that.
SG – Listen, when I was coaching the Rams, the black football players could not travel with us. We had to put them up with families. They couldn’t go to a hotel in the South, below the Mason-Dixon Line. We had to take all our black kids, and we had a few of them, and get a place for them to stay in a private home. I’ll never forget that. That’s when it all started.
TT – Did you ever face any pressure for having so many black players on your teams? You had a lot more than most teams.
SG – No. I didn’t have any problems. None what-so-ever. We had some high-class guys. Tank Younger and guys like that. We had a bunch of them and they were first-rate guys. So we didn’t have any problems. We didn’t have any problems when they weren’t allowed to live in a hotel.
TT – What kinds of things did you have to do differently coaching the Chargers than you did with the Rams? What kind of things did building a new league at the same time cause?
SG – Pretty much the same. There wasn’t any difference in the football. The football was the same. We probably threw the ball more than most people. I’m sure that’s true because we wanted to give the fans a thrill, so we threw the ball a little more than anybody else. Basically there wasn’t any problems.
TT – That was actually my next question. Why was there more passing in the AFL than the NFL?
SG – Well, that was one of the reasons. Instead of running the ball, we knew we could start the cash register going a hell of a lot faster when we’re throwing than when we’re running. So we just decided that we’re going to throw the ball and not run much.
TT – Most of the teams were that way in the AFL. Most of the teams threw a lot more.
SG – Well, I think they probably did. Of course we were so successful at the time, throwing and everybody was willing to grab onto our theory at the time and so we would grab onto theirs if they had something good that we could use.
TT – What were some other differences between the AFL and the NFL at that time?
SG – Well actually, there wasn’t a hell of a lot of difference, except the passing game. We didn’t have the size and experience player-wise, but there wasn’t a hell of a lot of difference.
TT – Did you play a role in the merger of the AFL and the NFL?
SG – I think I did. I think I did. As a matter of fact, I have talked to Esther about this so often. It was going to be a nip-and-tuck battle, and the National Football League we had a meeting. American League and the National League met and we couldn’t get together for some unknown reason. It was just impossible, like the Israelis, we couldn’t get together. The National Football League people, Chuck Noll and five or six of them got up and walked out of our meeting because they weren’t happy with the way things were going. I went to Chuck Noll and half a dozen of the people that were on the National Football League and tried to get them back in the meeting. Pete Rozelle came to the meeting and we discussed merger at the time and I played a major role in keeping them together, getting them together. But hell, it was so long ago.
TT – So many of the players have told me that Rough Acres was their most successful training camp.
SG – They hated it. I guess they did. It was great. It was a great experience for us. Hood can tell you more about that. It was a real fine experience. Lousy food, snakes all over the place, God Almighty. It served its purpose.
BH – You used to have me make champagne. Do you remember that? That was salt water with lemons. We called it the champagne break. That was pre-Gatorade.
SG – That was even before Gatorade.
TT – Why didn’t you do more of those retreat-style camps more often? Where you got away from everything.
SG – Well, we couldn’t find the spots, as a matter of fact. There were very few areas that were conducive to pro practice and players. We had …
BH – We were at USD and went from there to Rough Acres and then we went from Rough Acres after that one year we went to Escondido.
SG – Escondido, oh yeah. But then we went to the University of California.
BH – Then we went to University of California San Diego after that.
SG – That was our best training camp.
BH – They still are there… Oh, I missed one. We went from Escondido to Irvine, University of California Irvine. That was a wonderful training camp. That was a good training camp.
SG – We bounced around, couldn’t settle down to a real good training camp. But we had enough good areas that weren’t too bad for us.
TT – During that 1963 year Tobin was quarterbacking most of the time.
SG – Yeah, he started us off.
TT – Did you have to rearrange your plays at all because of the weakness of his arm?
SG – No, we threw short with him. But he was good for us. He didn’t throw too long, but he was accurate as hell, just accurate as hell. Hell of a player.
BH – Quite a leader too.
SG – Oh yes he was. He was fine. Well-experienced.
TT – The Chargers went to the division championship five times in the first six years of the AFL. What made that ‘63 team better than the other teams?
SG – Well, personnel-wise. You’re talking about Keith Lincoln, you’re talking about Lance Alworth, you’re talking about…we had some top, Ernie Wright. We had some top players. There were no bad players among them. They were all pretty good. Ernie Wright was terrific. Ernie, I got him out of Ohio State. But I think…John Hadl and Ron Mix, my God, we just had outstanding players. They could play today. The only problem we would have probably would be defensively because we’d be too small. You gotta be 300 pounds to play defense this day and age. But we could play pretty well today.
TT – When you went into the ‘63 championship game against the Patriots, Keith Lincoln had one of the best playoff games in history. Did you plan on using him that much in that game?
SG – Oh yes. He’s the best we had. We couldn’t play without him. He’s just a great player.
TT – But did you center the offense that day just around him?
SG – Oh, pretty much so.
TT – What was your game plan going into it?
SG – Well, it was play action passes as a matter of fact and motion. We probably started out with more motion than any other club in the league, because they usually “dogged” (blitzed) a hell of a lot. And when you dog, you change your coverage. So we forced them to change coverage and that’s truly what happened in that ball game. The fact that they were forced to use motion and when they did, that’s when we really got to them.
TT – A few more questions on your offense. How did you attempt to use the tight end in your offense? You used it a lot differently than most coaches did at that time.
SG – Well, we used it as a key receiver and blocker. It was a combination of blocker and key receiver. (Dave) Kocourek was made to order for that because he could block and catch the ball. He was of reasonably good size, not very big, but reasonably good size. He was a heck of a player.
TT – How much of your offense do you think you personally designed and how much do you think you got from another coach?
SG – Oh God, I don’t know what we got from another coach. But I think most of our stuff was homemade. I didn’t mind stealing anything from anybody if it would help us. That’s just about what it amounts to in this business. Watch these successful clubs. Anything that they have that’s good, that you think you can use, just grab it. Forget it.
TT – Many of your players have told me that you stretched the defenses with your passing game. Can you explain that to me?
SG – Well, what we did was widen our outside ends. So often you see these outside ends, wide receivers are awful tight. Now that confines the area behind them. What we did is move them out. That gave us a lot of passing room, a lot of receiving room in there. That gave us the width of the field and we threw long because we had Lance Alworth and stretched the field straight away. So we just stretched the field horizontally and vertically. There are some clubs that do that now. No major deal there.
TT – How were you able to take advantage of when they widened the hash marks on the field?
SG – Well, it was great because when they split the field up it gave us seven areas. We call that the Field Balance Theory, where were going to have a guy between the sidelines and the numbers, were gonna have a guy on the numbers, were gonna have a guy inside the numbers, then were gonna have another guy in the middle of the field. Well, you don’t have enough people to handle all of those areas, but at least we’ve got good balance if we’ve got half the areas. Control half the areas, we’ve got a hell of a passing game going. But we call that Field Balance Theory and it’s very important to our passing game because if we widen them out, we had areas behind them, we had areas to the inside. If we went deep we had the field to throw into.
TT – How has the game opened up offensively since your time with the Chargers?
SG – Well, anymore the game is a game of looks. In fact, I talked to Dick Vermeil this morning. They won last week. We decided a long time ago that pro football is a game of looks. You take one play and you run that one play ten different ways as against ten plays. What we’ve done is simplify the whole process by spreading the field and creating these areas that we can throw into. But it helps us in throwing into those different areas. Field Balance Theory. If we can get a guy in every one of those areas, then we can control the field.
TT – How do you think you influenced today’s West Coast Offense?
SG – Well, I think that we’ve influenced it because number one, we have created a good short passing game, which is important. We got backs and ends that can run and catch, that’s the key thing. You gotta have a guy that can catch a football and run with it after they catch it. That’s the 49er theory. So that’s basically what it’s all about.
TT – So it’s really as much pulling certain types of personnel.
SG – That’s right, and then having guards who can run and block, trap and block. That’s essential. So that’s about what it’s all about. We’ve been successful throwing the ball because we used a mirrored system. We put two guys the same distance and the guy that’s open will get the ball. If we widen two guys out there and if one is open we’ll get it to him. If there isn’t anybody open, that’s where our tight end comes into effect. He’s in the middle getting free somewhere.
Todd Tobias runs the blog Tales from the American Football League where this article was originally published on November 7, 2011.