April 30, 2017

Wally Lemm Leaves Oilers for Cardinals (1962)

On February 22, 1962 Wally Lemm, who had guided the Houston Oilers to the AFL Championship in ’61, quit to become head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL. The 42-year-old Lemm signed a one-year contract in succeeding Frank “Pop” Ivy, who resigned with two games left in the season.

Lemm had started out more inclined to write about football then coach it. He graduated from Carroll College, where he was a halfback on the football team, with a journalism degree. Following service in World War II in which he commanded a torpedo boat, he became an assistant coach under Hugh Devore at Notre Dame in 1945. It was a quick jump to head coach at Waukesha High School in ’46 and then back to the college level. Lemm was an assistant coach for three years at Lake Forest College, as well as head basketball coach, before becoming head coach in 1954. The team won the conference title in his first year and he left after compiling an 11-4-1 record. From there it was on to Montana State and again, in his first season, his team won a title, gaining the Rocky Mountain Conference championship with an 8-1 tally.

In 1956, Lemm moved to pro coaching for the first time, serving as a defensive assistant for the then-Chicago Cardinals. The team, under Head Coach Ray Richards, had its first winning season in seven years and the defense was a big part of it as the unit intercepted 33 passes and allowed only nine touchdowns. However, in keeping with a pattern in which he didn’t stay in one place for long, Lemm returned to Lake Forest College as head coach in ’57 and came away with another conference title.

After returning to the Cardinals as an assistant in 1959, he moved to the Oilers of the new AFL in ’60. Houston won the first AFL Championship under Head Coach Lou Rymkus, but Lemm resigned to go into the sporting goods business. When the Oilers got off to a 1-3-1 start in 1961 and it was apparent that Rymkus was losing control of the club, owner Bud Adams hired Lemm to take over.

His coaching methods were rather unconventional for the time and made him unpopular with some of his peers. Lemm was low-key and took a relaxed approach with the players and kept the offense, in particular, as simple as possible in order to eliminate the potential for errors. His attitude was summed up in his statement that “football is supposed to be fun and if you treat the players like adults they will usually respond like adults. The game is not really simple anymore because the defenses change so much, but we try to keep it as clear, straightforward and pleasurable as we can.”

The philosophy worked in Houston. The intense Rymkus had sown dissension among the players, but Lemm relaxed the atmosphere. He also returned veteran QB George Blanda to the starting lineup and installed Willard Dewveall at tight end. The defense was simplified and Fred Glick replaced Charlie Milstead at safety, where he had been badly overmatched in the team’s defeats. The results were spectacular – the Oilers went 10-0 the rest of the way and repeated as AFL champs.

Lemm had initially agreed to a contract extension but was frustrated with the front office alignment in Houston despite the team’s success, and with the excuse of being able to work closer to home (he lived in Libertyville, Illinois), he accepted the offer to coach the Cardinals.

While there were rumors that the Oilers were interested in Sammy Baugh or former Dallas Cowboys assistant Babe Dimancheff to replace Lemm, in the end they hired Ivy, making it a straight swap of coaches (he lasted two seasons).

The Cardinals, all-too-typically a losing team, went 6-5-1 in 1960, the first year in St. Louis, and were 7-7 in ’61. Injuries played a key role in the team’s failing to show greater improvement, in particular the loss of star HB John David Crow for virtually the entire year. Canadian Football League legend Sam Etcheverry had moved south of the border after an outstanding nine-year career to take over at quarterback, but his arm was worn out and he was no longer the player he had been in the CFL.

Lemm didn’t have the same initial success as he did in his college stops and with the Oilers. St. Louis dropped to 4-9-1 in 1962. However, the seeds were planted for future success. Etcheverry started the year at quarterback but was replaced by second-year QB Charley Johnson, who showed promise and had outstanding receivers in fleet split end Sonny Randle and dependable flanker Bobby Joe Conrad. Crow was back at halfback and there was a good stable of young backs developing. The defense gave up too many points, but there was young talent in the backfield with 22-year-old CB Pat Fischer and 24-year-old FS Larry Wilson.

In the draft for the 1963 season, the Cards had two first round draft choices and used them to shore up the defense, adding safety Jerry Stovall from LSU and Purdue DE Don Brumm. The team dramatically improved to 9-5. Johnson had an outstanding year at quarterback, setting club records with 3280 passing yards and 28 TDs. Despite again losing Crow to injury for virtually the entire season, Bill Triplett was shifted from defensive back to offensive halfback and was a good replacement, running for 652 yards while averaging 4.9 yards per carry and catching 31 passes for 396 more. Perennial backup Joe Childress became the starting fullback and led the team with 701 rushing yards and grabbed 25 passes. Conrad led the NFL with 73 pass receptions, for 967 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Randle gained 1014 yards on his 51 catches and scored 12 times. Rookie TE Jackie Smith contributed 28 receptions for 445 yards. The line, built around C Bob DeMarco and G Ken Gray, was also improved.

The defensive line was augmented by the addition of Brumm and Stovall proved to be an asset in the backfield, along with Jimmy Burson. The linebacker corps, anchored by MLB Dale Meinert, was a good one. Jim Bakken, who had originally joined the team as a reserve defensive back, proved to be a reliable placekicker (and would for the next 15 seasons in St. Louis).

The stage was set for the Cards to contend in 1964 and they battled the Browns to the wire, ending up second in the Eastern Conference at 9-3-2. Indeed, they went 1-0-1 against Cleveland and won three of their first four and all of their last four contests – only a midseason slump prevented them from finishing on top. The team was well balanced. Johnson passed for 3045 yards, although he threw more interceptions (24) than touchdowns (21). Conrad had another Pro Bowl year (61 catches, 780 yards) but Randle missed considerable time with a shoulder injury – backup WR Billy Gambrell performed admirably in his place. Jackie Smith continued his development at tight end with 47 receptions for 657 yards. Triplett was out for the year at halfback due to a bout with tuberculosis, but Crow was back and led the club with 554 yards rushing. On defense, the small (5’9”, 170) but aggressive Fischer intercepted 10 passes and the club ranked second in the league with 25 overall.

The success did not continue as anticipated in 1965, however. After getting off to a 4-1 start, they lost eight of their last nine games to sink to 5-9. The line and receivers were still outstanding, but Johnson, who started out well, was plagued by injuries and seemed to regress. Injuries also struck among the running backs, and they were lacking the clutch play of Crow, who had been dealt away to the 49ers. On defense, the linebacker corps was still a strength but the line failed to rush opposing passers effectively and Wilson and Stovall missed time in the backfield.

The failure to meet expectations meant the end of the line for Lemm in St. Louis. He left with an overall record of 27-26-3 and returned to the Oilers as head coach in 1966 (including Ivy, they had gone through three head coaches since ‘62). While the Cards had some good seasons under his successor, Charley Winner, they were never able to win a division title. Houston, with Lemm back at the helm, utilized a conservative offense and outstanding defense to win the Eastern Divison in ’67, but was decimated by Oakland in the AFL Championship game. It was Lemm’s last hurrah as a pro head coach, and he quit for good following the 1970 season, citing health issues. His overall pro record was 64-64-7 and he was 1-2 in the postseason, with the one AFL title to his credit.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 22, 2012.

 

Charlie Hennigan Deserves a Call to Canton

On February 4, 2012, in Indianapolis, the site of this year’s Super Bowl, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will announce the inductees for 2012. The two senior nominees for this year, Jack Butler and Dick Stanfel, are both deserving of induction in Canton, but again many stars from the American Football League have been forgotten. The “Mickey Mouse League”, which the AFL was called by the powers that be in the more established NFL right up until the New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, brought fans of professional football some of the greatest players ever to grace the gridiron. Unfortunately, despite the depth of talent in the AFL, only one player that played exclusively in the AFL, Billy Shaw of the Buffalo Bills, is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There are several players from the AFL that fans of professional football have campaigned for their induction into Canton. Some of the players on that list have included the following names, among others: Cookie Gilchrist, Johnny Robinson, Paul Lowe, Jack Kemp, Abner Haynes, Lionel Taylor, John Hadl, Winston Hill, Otis Taylor and Charlie Hennigan. All of the players on this list have excelled in professional football and have strong arguments for induction into Canton, but the one player on the list that stacks up extremely well with already inducted members of the HOF, at the same position, is former Houston Oilers receiver Charlie Hennigan.

Before providing a statistical comparison of how Hennigan stacks up with other receivers in the HOF, a little background into how he came to play professional football will make his accomplishments all that more impressive.

Charlie Hennigan attended LSU as a track star, which was a miracle considering as a child he was afflicted with an extended illness thought at the time to be tuberculosis and his parents were told that he would have difficulty with just walking. Hennigan overcame his childhood illness and this was the first sign that he would not let any obstacles stand in his way. While at LSU, Hennigan decided to pursue playing football and transferred to Northwestern State University where he became the star of the team. Upon graduation, no NFL teams came calling and Hennigan became a high school biology teacher in his home state of Louisiana.

Then a glimmer of hope opened when the American Football League announced that they would begin operation in 1960. Hennigan drove to Houston to try out for the Oilers and motivated himself by taping the pay stub from his meager teaching salary to the inside of his helmet. The head coach for the Oilers in 1960 was Lou Rymkus, who was less than impressed by Hennigan, but he caught the eye of the receiver coach, Mac Speedie. Speedie was a star receiver for the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s and knew talent at the receiver position when he saw it. Speedie campaigned on the last day of cuts to keep Hennigan on the team and even threatened to quit if Hennigan was dismissed from the team.

Luckily for the Oilers and fans of the AFL, Mac Speedie was correct in his assessment of Hennigan’s football skills. Hennigan teamed with quarterback George Blanda, receiver Billy Groman, and running back Billy Cannon to form the high-powered offense that won the first two AFL Championships in 1960 and 1961. The Oilers came close to winning a third championship in 1962 when they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in double overtime of the AFL title game.

In addition to having team success, Hennigan had become a star receiver in the AFL. In his second season (1961), he amassed a record 1,746 receiving yards on 82 receptions for a 21.3 yards per reception average. Hennigan compiled those statistics over a 14-game schedule and surpassed the prior record holder, Crazy Legs Hirsch, who had compiled 1,495 yards in a 12-game season. As a matter of personal pride, Hennigan, who was playing a 14-game schedule, made sure he surpassed Hirsch’s total within the first twelve games of the season to make sure he fairly eclipsed Hirsch’s record in the same number of games. Hennigan’s receiving record stood for 34 years and was broken in 1995 by Jerry Rice and Isaac Bruce, both of whom played a 16-game schedule. Now fifty years later, despite the changes made by the league to increase scoring and limiting defensive player contact, Hennigan is still ranked third on the all-time receiving list for yards in a season, only trailing Rice and Bruce.

From 1961-1965, Hennigan was an AFL All-Star and a perennial league leader in receiving. In 1964, he set another record when he became the first receiver to surpass 100 receptions in a season when he finished the season with 101 receptions for 1,546 yards. He also became the first receiver to have two 1,500-yard receiving seasons in a career. Unfortunately, the record-setting season for Hennigan was the last great season he would have due to knee injuries and the repeated concussions he suffered.

Hennigan called it a career following the 1966 season when he could no longer take the punishment his body had put up with and finished his seven-year pro career with 6,823 receiving yards on 410 receptions while scoring 51 touchdowns in 95 games. While not eye-popping statistics in today’s pass happy NFL, Hennigan’s statistics compared favorably to many of his peers already enshrined in Canton. Hennigan had four career 200-yard receiving games, including the AFL record 272 yards receiving he had against the Patriots in 1961. Only HOF members Jerry Rice and Lance Alworth, with five career 200-yard receiving games, surpassed Hennigan’s record and they required 303 and 136 career games respectively to compile those statistics compared to Hennigan’s 95 games played.

Despite his records and personal statistics, Hennigan has two major obstacles in his pursuit of enshrinement into Canton. The first being that he was an AFL only player and the second being that his career only lasted seven years. Many of the sportswriters that hold votes for the HOF say that the AFL was an inferior league or that a player really needed a longer career of at least ten years to be considered for enshrinement. In reality, it all comes up to a popularity contest and a writer’s personal opinion of a player. Gale Sayers played only five complete seasons in the NFL, yet was enshrined immediately after he became eligible for the honor. It did not hurt Sayers’ cause that “Papa Bear” George Halas personally pushed for Sayers’ enshrinement.

A website campaigning for Charlie Hennigan as a candidate for the Hall of Fame, www.henniganforthehall.com, was started two years ago and compares his statistics to other HOF members – you will be more than surprised how well he stacks up. Several HOF members including Don Maynard, Jackie Smith and Lance Alworth have written letters of support for Hennigan’s campaign stating that he is more than deserving of a bust in Canton, Ohio. Alworth and Smith even added in their letters of support that they studied Hennigan’s route running to perfect their own games, which led them to football immortality. But, Hennigan is still on the outside looking in. Apparently, all of the statistics and letters of support from a player’s peers mean nothing when it comes to the HOF vote. Don Maynard said it best when asked about his support of Hennigan. “I believe Charlie and several other player’s belong in the Hall of Fame, but it falls on deaf ears with the sports writers that vote for the Hall. It’s like having a bunch of plumbers vote for the best electrician.” Hopefully, the sports writers will take up the campaign for Hennigan and other forgotten players of the AFL, who rightfully deserve to be in Canton. Remember it’s not the NFL Hall of Fame; it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Too bad many of the writers on the selection committee forget that.

 

Franchises Returning to Their Former Homes

This Sunday’s St. Louis Rams vs. Cleveland Browns game isn’t generating a lot of buzz. But the significance of the game shouldn’t be lost on the city of Cleveland.

The Rams who were originally founded in Cleveland, will be making their 11th trip back to the city Cleveland. The Rams have a record of 4-6 in Cleveland, since they left the icy shores of Lake Erie in 1946.

The Rams are one of ten current NFL teams, to have ever played an official NFL game in a city they use to call home.  These teams have a winning record of 48-42 in their former cities.

Franchises Records at their Former Home

Team Former City Moved W-L 1st Game Back
Result
Cardinals Chicago 1960 3-6 1965: Bears L 13-34
St. Louis 1988 7-3 1998: Rams W 20-17
Chargers Los Angeles 1961 7-10 1970: Rams L 10-37
Chiefs Dallas 1963 1-4 1975: Cowboys W 34-31
Colts Baltimore 1984 4-2 1998: Colts L 31-38
Lions Portsmouth 1934 1-0 1934: Cin Reds W 38-0
Raiders Oakland 1982 Didn’t play in Oakland until they moved back. ¹
Los Angeles 1995 Haven’t played in Los Angeles since.
Rams Cleveland 1946 4-6 1950: Browns L 28-30
Los Angeles 1995 Haven’t played in Los Angeles since.
Ravens Cleveland 1996 8-4 1999: Browns W 41-9
Redskins Boston 1937 7-4 1944: Bos Yanks W 21-14
Titans Houston 1997 6-3 2002: Texans W 13-3

¹ The Raiders played an exhibition game in Oakland in 1989, they lost to the Houston Oilers 21-23.

 

Charley Hennigan Has Third 200-Yard Receiving Game of Season (1961)

The Houston Oilers, defending champions of the AFL, looked as though they wouldn’t defend their title very effectively when they got off to a 1-3-1 start in 1961. However, after owner Bud Adams dismissed Head Coach Lou Rymkus and replaced him with Wally Lemm, the team caught fire. On December 3, they hosted the top team in the Western Division, the San Diego Chargers, at Jeppesen Stadium. The result was a convincing 33-13 win, spurred by four George Blanda touchdown passes with three of them to flanker Charley Hennigan.

Hennigan was one of the key offensive performers behind Houston’s success, and on this day he caught 10 passes for 214 yards. It marked his third 200-yard game of the season, on the way to accumulating an overall pass receiving yardage record that would last for 34 years.

It hardly seemed likely that Hennigan would become a successful pro football player when he arrived at the team’s first training camp in 1960. He had drawn scant attention from the NFL when he came out of Northwest Louisiana in ’59, and had played briefly in Canada. Hennigan was teaching high school Biology in Jonesboro, Louisiana when he decided to take a shot at the new pro football league and signed with the Oilers. Fast but thin at 6’1”, 187 pounds, he didn’t do much in training camp or the preseason, but gained an advocate in assistant coach Mac Speedie, the former star end for the Cleveland Browns who coached the Houston receivers.

In the 1960 season opening game, Hennigan scored the first touchdown in team history on a 43-yard pass play from Blanda and had four catches for 85 yards in the first half – and then suffered a separated shoulder that required surgery and kept him out of action for three weeks. He came back to catch 44 passes for the Oilers in ’60, and did much more in 1961.

The team may have started slowly, but Hennigan didn’t as he went over a hundred yards in each of the first seven games, and twice went over 200 yards with a high of 272 yards on 13 receptions on October 13 at Boston. Two weeks later he caught 9 passes for 232 yards at Buffalo.

In all, Hennigan ended up with 10 hundred-yard games on the way to a season total of 1,746 yards on 82 receptions (a 21.3 average gain) with 12 touchdowns (his three against the Chargers were his single-game high). The yardage total was finally exceeded in 1995 by both Jerry Rice of the 49ers (1,848) and Isaac Bruce of the Rams (1,781), and of course they did it in a 16-game season as opposed to 14. Oddly enough, Hennigan was even shut out in one game in ’61.

Hennigan and split end Bill Groman, who caught 50 passes for 1,175 yards and 17 touchdowns (equaling the record at the time, held by Don Hutson and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch), helped the Oilers to accumulate a team record 4,392 yards through the air (not exceeded until 1980 by the Chargers). QB Blanda threw for 3,330 of those yards, with a then-record 36 TD passes.

While Hennigan’s yardage total was eventually exceeded, the three 200-yard games in a season have not. Nor have the seven consecutive hundred-yard performances, although that was tied by Michael Irvin of the Cowboys in 1995, when, with 11, he also became the only NFL receiver to exceed Hennigan’s 10 hundred-yard games in ’61 (three others have also had 10). Granted, the level of competition in the AFL in 1961 was not on a par with the NFL or as high as it would be in just a few more years, but the numbers remain impressive decades later, when rules changes have significantly opened up the passing game.

Houston ended up winning nine consecutive games under Coach Lemm to finish the season, compiling an overall 10-3-1 record to again place first in the Eastern Division. They faced the Chargers, 12-2 and easily the best team in the West, in the AFL Championship game, which the Oilers won by the surprisingly low score of 10-3.

While Bill Groman’s numbers dropped off significantly after ’61, Hennigan remained one of the AFL’s best receivers and again led the league in pass receiving yards in 1964 (1,546); the same year that he set a record with 101 receptions.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on December 3, 2009.