October 18, 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.

 

Tires, Tail Pipes, and American Football

It was 1985. Down in the stock room at Sears Automotive, the boy in the black shirt and blue jeans assessed the situation. It was more fun than anything he had studied in four years of high school. Lost in a concrete jungle of tires, mufflers, and tail pipes, he still had the radio and his football magazines.

On this early summer Saturday morning, the phone rang. It was Mr. Robertson: “What are you doing here this early?”

“I was scheduled for this morning, Mr. Robertson. From 9 to 4.”

“I’ve got you down for closing.”

“Uh…no sir. Sammy scheduled me from 9 to 4. Jim comes in at 4.”

There was a silence. Then came Robertson’s voice: “If Jim doesn’t show, you’re staying.” And click. 

If he had to stay, then he had to stay. The boy was equipped and ready. He had the radio, the Beatles, Jeff Beck, and his football magazines.

Throughout the course of the day, he agonized over who would be NFL champs. He knew the Chicago Bears were going to be good. He also knew they were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell. Super Bowl Champions? He had to go with the St. Louis Cardinals.

 

Summer 1985: State of the Bears

He continued to ponder the issue throughout that summer: Who’s going to be the NFL Champion? The Cardinals or the Bears?

He knew the Bears were going to be good, but all was not well in the Windy City. Buddy Ryan was calling first round defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry “a wasted draft pick.” On the offensive side of the ball, Jim McMahon was returning from a lacerated kidney that ended his season the previous November. The stocker had some uncertainty about McMahon’s ability to play at full speed. 

Above all, the Bears were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell.

Bell was their All-Pro strong safety, and in his fifth season, he was sure to be entering his prime. Al Harris was one of Buddy Ryan’s holdovers from the pre-Mike Ditka days. He was a reliable linebacker and defensive end, playing wherever he was needed. Harris proved to be handy on special teams as well. He once scored a touchdown on a fake field goal.

Granted, Harris had a replacement. His spot would go to Wilber Marshall, the previous year’s number one draft pick and rated by some as the top linebacker in the ‘84 draft. Bell’s absence, however, was sure to be felt. His spot at strong safety was being taken over by an unknown named Dave Duerson.  Even Marshall was no sure thing, at least not yet. He missed much of his rookie training camp in ‘84, and as a result, didn’t see much action during the season.

 

Summer 1985: State of the Cardinals

The Cardinals, on the other hand, made the stock boy nervous. Roy Green scared the daylights out of him. There was considerable debate over who was the best wide receiver in football. He rated his beloved Redskin receivers as the best: Art Monk, followed by Charlie Brown. He put Roy Green right there with them. 

The stocker considered John Stallworth the best receiver on those great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the ‘70’s. He also liked the San Diego Chargers’ speedy Wes Chandler, who was a 1,000 yard receiver in 1982 while playing only eight games. He was a big fan of the man Chandler replaced on the Chargers: the Green Bay Packers’ John Jefferson, an acrobatic receiver whose career had inexplicably nosedived. There was also, of course, the Packers’ James Lofton, who had both size and vertical speed.

The stocker’s thoughts returned to Roy Green. Green scared him. Every year, he terrorized the Redskins. Every year, the Redskins had to face him–twice. Neil Lomax-to-Roy Green was a lethal combination. A combo that was surely headed for the Hall of Fame.

He considered the other weapons on that Big Red offense. Ottis Anderson was a power running back with the speed to go the distance from anywhere on the field. Pat Tilley was a fine possession receiver. Stump Mitchell was an exciting return man who provided an extra threat out of the backfield. 

The Cardinals had the best offense in football, and they scared the stocker. Yes, the Bears had a better defense–but they were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell. On top of that, Buddy Ryan called William “The Refrigerator” Perry a wasted draft pick. There was dissension in the ranks, and the stocker couldn’t pick Chicago.

 

Flashback: December 16, 1984

Sitting in the stock room at Sears Automotive, the boy remembered the last game of the 1984 regular season at RFK Stadium against the Cardinals. He was there. On that overcast December afternoon, the NFC East crown was at stake. The Redskins took a 13-0 lead on two touchdown passes from Joe Theismann to future Hall of Fame wide receiver Art Monk. Theismann also connected with the 6’3’’ receiver for his 100th catch of the season. Art Monk caught 100 passes in an era when players didn’t catch 100 passes.

The Cardinals woke up when cornerback Wayne Smith intercepted a Theismann pass and ran it back to the 1-yard line. On the next play, Lomax scored on a quarterback keeper. The Redskins countered with a 5-yard touchdown run by future Hall of Fame running back John Riggins. At the half, the Redskins led, 23-7.

The Cardinals flew back with a vengeance. Lomax-to-Roy Green struck not once, but twice. The first touchdown went for 75 yards, and the second one went for 18. The Redskins had enough offense left to produce two Mark Moseley field goals. 

On the last play of the game, the ‘Skins were up, 29-27. The Cardinals’ Neil O’Donohue lined up to attempt a desperation field goal: 53 yards away and the clock ticking downward, with no way to stop. The kick was up, up, and…not up enough.   

The Redskins won, 29-27, and walked away with the division title. The stocker walked out of the stadium with 55,000 other elated fans with hopes of a third straight Super Bowl.  

The Cardinals had nowhere to walk but home.

 

September 1985: The D.C. Football Fiasco

Six months later in the heart of the summer, in a mausoleum of tires, mufflers, and tail pipes, the stock boy believed. The stock boy believed the Cardinals were ready to soar. They scared him–and the Bears were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell.

In September, with the stocker now in college, the 1985 season began. His beloved Redskins were a team to be laughed at early in the season. On September 9th, on Monday Night in Dallas, they were slaughtered, 44-14.

They returned home on September 15th and won a 16-13 squeaker against Houston. The ‘Skins’ performance was so unimpressive that the Oilers deserved to win. In the upper deck, the stock boy and his father stood and yelled for their Mack truck of a running back: “Go Riggo!!!” The people around them cheered, and a man sitting behind the father and son said, “Go somebody.”

After the game, the dad drove through D.C. as the stock boy shouted out the window. He yelled to some people in their front yard, “Red-Skins!!” One guy yelled back, “Deadskins!” The father and son laughed, because the man was right.

On September 22nd, the Redskins faced the Philadelphia Eagles. The offense was more lifeless than ever, and the Eagles won, 19-6. In that game, the Eagles seemed to have found their quarterback of the future. A second-round rookie named Randall Cunningham raised some eyebrows. 

On September 29th, the ‘Skins went to Chicago. In 1937, their first trip to the Windy City resulted in the Redskins’ first World Championship. The stock boy’s grandfather took the train to Chicago to see Sammy Baugh and the ‘Skins beat the Bears, 28-21, for the NFL Championship. Now, in their 32nd meeting, the Skins were carrying a 1-2 record and something to prove.

The Bears had eight NFL Championships between 1921 and 1963. Now, after a twenty-two year famine and a taste of the playoffs again in ‘84, the city was hungry. The Bears were off to a 3-0 start and coming off a dramatic come from behind win over the Vikings.

The ‘Skins marched up the field on their first two possessions for a John Riggins touchdown and a Mark Moseley field goal. They were looking like the Redskins of old, the Redskins of 1981 to 1983, a Redskins team that for one stretch won 36 of 42 games–one of those wins being Super Bowl XVII. 

With the ‘Skins having gone up, 10-0, Jeff Hayes kicked off. The Bears’ world-class speedster Willie Gault received the kick and sprinted 99 yards for the touchdown. The crowd erupted, and so did the team they cheered for. The Bears scored one touchdown after another. At the half, Chicago led, 31-10. In the third quarter, quarterback Jim McMahon scored on a 33-yard touchdown pass from future Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.

On defense, Wilber Marshall, Steve McMichael, Tyrone Keys, and future Hall of Famer Richard Dent each sacked Joe Theismann. The day was one of those occasions when The Hogs, the Redskins’ famed offensive line, fell short of excellence. The Bears also intercepted Theismann twice, with Ken Taylor and “L.A. Mike” Richardson doing the honors.   

The most noteworthy play wasn’t a touchdown, a sack, or a turnover. Jeff Hayes, the Redskins’ kickoff specialist and punter, was injured on the Gault runback. He was hurt so severely that he wouldn’t play again that season. His immediate replacement was the QB. Theismann punted once, and it became perhaps the most celebrated punt in NFL history. Theismann’s punt traveled one yard.  

Final Score: Bears 45, Redskins 10.

That game sent a message to the football-watching nation: The Monsters of the Midway were on the prowl, even without Al Harris and Todd Bell. As for the Redskins, it was looking like 2-14. To make matters worse, the St. Louis Cardinals were coming to town.   

 

‘Twas the Night of October 7th

The stock boy’s Super Bowl pick was looking good so far. The Cardinals were 3-1, and were second in the league in scoring with 124 points. The Bears were 4-0 and first in scoring with 136, but the stocker wasn’t ready to concede just yet. 

The Cards were coming to town, and the consensus was as unanimous as could be: the ‘Skins were in trouble.  Surely, the Cardinals would raise their record to 4-1 and score some points in the process. Since it was Monday Night Football, the Big Red Birds would be embarrassing the Redskins before an entire nation. 

The stock boy had a paper due the next day, but that wasn’t about to stop him from going. It would be his first Monday Night game in person. He and his father expected the worst, but they still looked forward to being there–something only a diehard can understand. 

On that night of October 7th, the Redskins surprised a nation. They came to play football. Joe Theismann ran for a touchdown in the first quarter, and he later threw touchdowns to rookie wide receiver Gary Clark and veteran tight end Clint Didier. Clark’s touchdown was his first in the NFL. Roy Green caught 4 passes for 65 yards. It was a solid effort, but on this night, the Cardinals needed more.

John Riggins and George Rogers rushed for 100 yards each, and the Redskins dominated from start to finish. The stocker told his roommate the next day: “It was incredible.” 

Final score: Redskins 27, Cardinals 10.

 

1985: The Aftermath

The Redskins turned what looked like a two-win season into a pretty good campaign. They finished 10-6. The Redskins proved to be a turning point for both the Bears and the Cardinals. With their 45-10 demolition of the ‘Skins on September 29th, the Bears established themselves as a team to be feared. The rest of the league had a reason to be afraid. The Bears went on to have one of the greatest seasons in football history.          

After being stunned by the Redskins on October 7th, the Cardinals never recovered. They won just two games the rest of the season.

The Bears went 18-1 and won the Super Bowl–without Al Harris and Todd Bell. The Cardinals finished 5-11.

 

Author’s note: Yes, I was the stock boy. Yes, my Grandfather Haddad took the train to Chicago in 1937 to watch the Redskins beat the Bears for the NFL Championship.