Ernie Wright – November 13, 1998
Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers – 1960-1967, 1972
Cincinnati Bengals – 1968-1971
TT – How did Sid Gillman’s offense differ from others that you had seen around the league and others you had played in in college and with other teams?
EW – Well, Sid Gillman’s offense was a passing offense, based on passing first. Especially in defense. When I started in 1960, that was the first year of the AFL and there were 12 NFL teams and the primary thing was running and defense and passing on third down. It was not unusual for us to come out and throw the ball five, six, seven, eight times in a row. Not just throw it to be throwing it, but to develop new patterns. In a way it is kind of hard. We look at football today and we look at the so-called West Coast Offense and that’s what Sid Gillman was doing back then. He was throwing underneath as well as throwing over the top, which made Lance Alworth an All-Pro wide receiver.
TT – His passing offense was more advanced than the other teams. Did he have blocking schemes that were more advanced than other teams as well?
EW – I don’t know, you know. Because I was here for eight years and I didn’t really know much about other teams. I knew that in the play calling we called formation, protection, flair, when the backs are going to be in pattern or blocking. Quite an offense. It had a lot of terminology. It told everybody what to do and of course we always had some sophisticated blocking assignments in the pass protection, but basically it was big men on big men and the backs picking up the linebackers.
TT – What things did the Chargers do offensively that was difficult for defenses to handle? How did you specifically go out and attack a defense?
EW – I think that as well as the passing attack, Sid especially with Paul Lowe and Keith Lincoln, we could get to the outside very quickly. We were the only team for a while running what we called a tackle toss, where the tackle pulls out on a play where there is a toss to the back on that side. Both Ron Mix and I were pretty proficient at doing it. We’d get outside the defense so fast that they were having trouble working with that. The rest of it is just picking apart a defense – studying the game film and going with that.
TT – What were some things that Sid Gillman did to make you a better football player?
EW – He yelled a lot. Well, we always worked on fundamentals. We had, I would think a pretty good line coach in Joe Madro. We did a lot of individual work as well as line work – team, you know. If you play with somebody for a couple seasons, you get a cohesiveness that you can’t find if you’re playing with different guys every week. Because in those days you stayed with a team so long, the team had you forever, practically. There was no such thing as free agency. I mean we had the same offensive line for years and years and years. And there wasn’t a situation we’d see on the field that we couldn’t adjust to. I mean even if they would come up with a surprise defense or something, we could make adjustments on the field. That was a big thing. You know the offense so well that you can make the adjustments. For instance, with the Chargers as opposed to the Cincinnati Bengals I played with, we had to know the blocking on every play by everybody. Not just your position. In other words, if I’m playing left tackle and they call a play and the only thing I know is who I block, or inside gap or over outside, that’s my only rules, then you really don’t understand the whole theory of the play. What it is trying to achieve. But when you have to go to the board and you have to take a test and you have to put down the blocking assignments of everybody against every defense, it gives you a better flair for what’s going on. It makes you appreciate what’s going on. We were taught the technology of football, not just the plays.
TT – What innovations did Sid Gillman bring about during your time with the Chargers?
EW – I think the speed. Let me give you an example. When I was at Ohio State, although I played both ways, coming to pro football I thought I would be a defensive lineman because in college I was considered an impact defensive player. So when I came in the pros I thought I would play defense. Well Sid Gillman took all of the best athletes and put them on offense. His theory was if you have your best athletes on offense, you’ll outscore the other team. So what difference does it make if the score is 48-42, if you have the 48? So his philosophy on football was a little different. In the passing everybody talks about Sid and his ability to run the passing game. The only other person I’ve ever seen that had a knack for the passing game that would be equal to Sid Gillman; I didn’t play for Coryell, but I did play for Bill Walsh when he was the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati. I was amazed how he could, with motion, get the match ups that he wanted to get to have an offensive advantage. If you scout a team and you find who their weakest defensive back is, and everybody has a weak defensive back, what you do four or five times a game is you get in a situation where you put your best receiver on that weakest defender. Sid Gillman was doing that back in the early 1960s. Like I said, everybody is talking about the West Coast Offense right now, but he was doing those kind of things. He knew the passing game. He knew how to set up routes. He was a teacher. I think the big thing is he was a teacher.
TT – One of the things that Gillman changed or introduced to pro football was a full-time strength and conditioning coach in Alvin Roy. He was one of the first full time strength coaches to come in. How did that help and hurt the Chargers?
EW – Well, let’s talk about the hurt first, and it helped in many ways. It hurt because Alvin Roy had been a student of the East German, Communist Block countries training and they did have some massive athletes. But enough research hadn’t been done to know the ultimate effect on the body of these steroids and everything they were taking would have. So in that regard it made us stronger, but it might have been counter productive in later life. What it did do, it too football from being a fat guy, you know fat offensive and defensive linemen, to a more sculpted body of offensive and defensive linemen. Also it helped running backs. One time it was feared that if you lifted weights and all that stuff, you pulled muscles. Well, it proved to be just the opposite. If you are in condition, you don’t have as many pulls as you would normally have. Football today has become a basic 10, 10 1/2 month a year job. After the season is over, most guys take four to six weeks off, but to play today you have to stay in condition year round. That, I think, was the beginning of it because you could see results in body tone, body mass, quickness, strength and he was on the cutting edge of that. Like anything else. The ying and the yang. The good part was it made us stronger and quicker. But also on some guys, who used it religiously, it had a long-term effect that was not positive. It wasn’t a situation where you had to take them. They had them out for you to take if you wanted to. A lot of us just didn’t take them. For instance, when I was playing, I was 6’4” and weighed 270. I was one of the biggest offensive linemen around. I didn’t need to get any bigger. I used to love to workout and lift weights. So I felt I was pretty buffed and I didn’t need anything else because I felt I was stronger than most of the guys I played against. So I didn’t use it. If I had been a smaller guy, I probably would have. But it is like anything else. It has a positive effect. At one time it could have a negative effect later. We find this in medicine all the time, so it’s nothing new. But it was an era for year round conditioning, because with Sid Gillman you had to come to camp in shape. Before that you came to camp to get in shape. So I think that’s why today the athletes are bigger, stronger, faster and better on a general basis. I mean, look at Anthony Munoz son. He is 6’8”, 320 pounds and just graduated from high school. My God, you didn’t see that in the 60’s when Sid Gillman first came out.
TT – The AFL differed from the NFL. There was more passing in the AFL. Why do you think that was the case?
EW – Cause we had to do something to be different. It would have started when most of the “star athletes” out of college were going to the NFL because it was the proven commodity. When you have less talent, you try to get your best talent in the skill positions. To build a football team, it is good to have a quarterback who can win games for you, but he can’t win them all by himself. If you build a team, you want to have a great running back, you want to have a great wide receiver, you want to have an impact defensive lineman and an impact linebacker. If you have got those four or five people, you’ve got the nucleus. Then you get a quarterback. Bart Starr, Bob Griese. No, they weren’t great quarterbacks, they were complimented by the guys around them. So what Sid did, and I will tell you, John Hadl was probably one of the worst quarterbacks I have ever seen in my life. I have told him that a thousand times. He was a running quarterback at Kansas, did not have a strong arm, did not throw a tight spiral. But under Sid Gillman and the quickness of his attack and attacking points on the field, all Hadl would do was get back seven steps and just fling the ball in Lance Alworth’s direction and Lance would out jump everybody and out run everybody. So the idea that you had to do something different in the AFL was solid. If we had gone and played possession football like the NFL was doing in the old AFL days, where you just run the ball, run the ball, run the ball, we would not have had anything to sell. We sold high scoring, a lot of passing, a lot of long runs and it was sort of pooh-poohed by the NFL in the beginning, but when our attendance started going up, it was a part that helped make the merger. Now all the teams are trying to score points…everybody is trying to score points, but you can do it in different ways. That’s the big thing that he did. He put more flair in football.
TT – How did the players feel about the AFL? Was there animosity between the AFL and the NFL at that time?
EW – We were always the step-children. I mean I played against guys in college who went to the NFL and I’m in the AFL, but I said, “my paycheck is bigger than your paycheck.” Overall the NFL had more tradition and more talent than the AFL. It took a while for the AFL to catch up. As witnessed by the Super Bowl in ‘66 and ‘67 when Kansas City got beat by Green Bay. And then Joe Namath in ‘69 beats Baltimore and all of a sudden here we are. So we were looked on as minor league, poor cousin. I will tell you this, that we won the AFC championship in ‘63 against the Boston Patriots 51-10 and we challenged the Chicago Bears to play us, winner take all. Because we had a hell of a team, we felt, and I still believe to this day, we could have beat the Chicago Bears. We had great offense. We had a 25th reunion and they showed the film of the game. I was still in awe of what a potent offense we had. We had Lincoln and Lowe in the backfield. We had Lance Alworth, we had Gary Garrison, we just had a great team. We had the guy from Iowa, Don Norton, we had Dave Kocourek, Mix, we had a great team. We felt, we were ready to bet money, our money, that we could beat the Chicago Bears.
TT – Tell me about the training camp that year, the Rough Acres Ranch.
EW – Well, it was something you had to get used to. Probably the most primitive conditions I have ever seen in a training camp. Field was not level, it was hot as hell out there. There was no air conditioning in the rooms. I think today it would be cruel and unusual punishment. There were rattlesnakes and scorpions. But it was a funny thing. I mean the food was not the best, it was OK. Guys at that age will adjust to anything. What I would adjust to at 24 or 25, I would not have done when I was 30, 32 when I was playing pro football. So you just made the best of it. It was brutal out there. You are in the high desert, it is 100 degrees in the day time. The field was put in for us and the grass wasn’t all in. It was real sandy, so you’d fall in the shit and get all clogged and nasty cuts. Whiter that really attributed to our having such a great year, I don’t know. If I remember correctly, we had a bad year in ‘62. We were good in ‘60, ‘61, had a bad year in ‘62and then came back and started a string of wins. I think we won 12 in a row, or something. I don’t know if Rough Acres was the reason for that or not, but it was very primitive. I am still amazed today that nobody was killed on that little, old highway 8. That little, old road going out there, because the interstate was there then. It was two lanes and in a couple of places they had passing lanes. I remember one day I was doing 80 miles an hour and Lance Alworth passed me. I was in the passing lane and he passed outside in the other lane. So it was a blessing everybody is still alive today. Nobody got killed.
TT – That ‘63 team was probably the best Charger team ever. What were its greatest strengths?
EW – Well that was the first year that the Chargers had offense, defense, special teams, the full compliment. Every aspect of the game was a strong suit. If you matched us up in the five primary areas, against another team, we were probably dominant in all of them. That’s why we won so many games. We won a lot of games. Games were over at halftime, we were up 24, 27 to nothing and all that kind of stuff. Except for the Charger team that lost to Cincinnati to go to the Super Bowl with Dan Fouts, they had a pretty good defense. That ‘63 team, our defense was damn near as good as our offense. So we were running up points and they were stopping the other team. They had that old credo, “three and out.” So we got the ball in good field position. We could strike from anywhere on the field. And of course the closer you are to the middle of the field, the quicker you can run up points. But that was a big thing. We had a great defense. Ernie Ladd, Earl Faison, Chuck Allen, Charlie McNeil, Bob Zeman. We had some guys who could really play defense and we got the ball in good position.
TT – What might some of the weaknesses been of that team?
EW – I don’t know if we really had a weakness. When I look at that team, really there was no glaring weakness. George Blair was a good field goal kicker, very adequate, very good field goal kicker. I can’t remember who our punter was, but he didn’t have to work that much.
TT – It was Paul Maguire wasn’t it?
EW – Paul Maguire, yeah, you’re right. He probably told you he had a 50-yarder, but he didn’t have to kick. We went through games and he never had to kick, for Christ’s sake. I can’t think of any… Let me put it this way. If I were the coach, playing the Chargers and I had a week to prepare for them, I’d have a hard time finding where I wanted to attack. Because you didn’t have any weaknesses.
TT – What adjustments did your offense have to make to adjust to the weakness of Tobin Rote’s arm?
EW – Well, the adjustment was that you went with quicker passes. Tobin was a tough guy, he was a field general. Everybody knew that he could not throw the ball really deep, but by the same token, in Sid’s offense, nobody threw a 60 yard pass. What you would do, you would drop back and throw it. Our wide receivers were taught, when you haven’t even got to the defensive back yet, the ball was in the air. You will run past it, you will put a move on him. So the idea was you throw the ball 25, 30, 40 yards and its a timing thing as opposed to waiting for someone to run 40, 45 yards and then throw the ball 60 yards. That’s what made Tobin effective. That’s what made John Hadl effective. Because neither one of them had a great throwing arm. But it was a timing thing and our wide receivers were just… and it made it better for pass protection because you don’t get the…we called it jacking off the ball. You can edit that out. The worst thing you can do and I had it in Cincinnati when Sam Wyche was quarterback. Jesus Christ, he’d hold on to the ball and wait for somebody to come open. What we did with the Chargers, with Sid Gillman, we would anticipate the person coming open. Lance would be three steps from a guy when John would throw the ball over everybody’s head and Lance would just out run the guy and go get it. So you didn’t have to have, as I said, a great arm. And John never had a great arm. And by the time we got Tobin he didn’t have a great arm anymore either.
TT – Did he have to make any special adjustments himself, Tobin, to adjust to the Charger offense?
EW – Oh I don’t know, he’d been around. We called him Old Saddlebag Face. What adjustments he had to make, I don’t know. But he got the job done that one year. He gave us NFL experience and leadership we hadn’t had before. He had a great air of confidence. John Hadl got it eventually. Somebody trots in the huddle and says, “OK. We’re on the 35-yard line. Give me six plays and we’re in the end zone.” You build that confidence that, “Boy. This guy knows what in the hell he is doing.” In those days he was calling most of the plays himself, I think. So we didn’t have to wait for somebody to come in from the sideline. So everybody in the huddle had a good time, you’re talking together, you’re attacking the defenses as a group as opposed to some yo-yo that’s up in the stands with a flip card saying, “I gotta run this many of this play and this many of that play.” We’d go back to the same play three or four times. If it was working, just wear them out with it. It worked out very well for us.
TT – The team had some challenges to overcome. For example, racial conflicts down in Houston and that area in ‘63. Can you tell me about some of those?
EW – The team never had any racial conflicts within the team itself. We ran into racism in other places. I was at a roast for Sid Gillman and one of the things I said, after I had roasted him for awhile, I really don’t believe Sid Gillman has ever had a prejudiced bone in his body. When I started in 1960, we all knew the NFL had a quota for blacks. There always was an even number of them, so when you were on the road you’d always have two blacks together. There were no blacks that were on the bench. Everybody that was black on the team was playing. They weren’t developmental players, they weren’t reserves, they weren’t back ups. If you were black, you were playing. Sid Gillman, from the day we started, you could room with anybody you wanted to. Sid’s only prejudice was against people that wouldn’t play and wouldn’t work at the game. He loved to be around talented people. He loved to be around people who wanted to win. Even going back to the first time we went back to Houston, 1961, we played the Oilers and then went to Dallas to play the Dallas Texans. And we’re owned by Barron Hilton, Hilton Hotels. They’ve got big Hilton Hotels in both those places. We stayed at the dormitories at Rice because we couldn’t get in the hotel. And in Dallas we stay outside at a godforsaken, little country ass prarie town full of crickets called Grand Prarie, Texas. Because that was the only hotel that would let blacks into it. We were on the third floor and had crickets in the room. I’ll never forget that. So we organized a protest, and the next year, 1961, when we went to Houston, we then stayed in the Hilton. The members of the San Diego Chargers were the first blacks to stay in the Shamrock Hilton as guests. We had some other situations. We were playing in Atlanta and next to the hotel we were staying at they had a mall that had a billiard parlor in it. Billiard things were real big and it had 20 or 30 tables. Of course, being competitive, we wanted to see who was the best pool shooter. So 12 of us or so went over there, half black, half white. The guy working there, we asked for the cues and the balls and the stuff and we saw him on the phone. About 15 minutes later he came back and he said, “some of you guys can’t stay here.” We’re all shooting pool and, “What?” So he said that the owner said that some of you guys…”What do you mean, ‘some of you guys?’” “Well, you colored,” in those days we were colored, “you colored boys, you colored guys can’t stay here.” So we went back to Sid and said, “we’re not playing in the exhibition game tomorrow. If we can’t be treated like human beings, we not going to play a game.” This was a Friday night, the game was supposed to be Saturday night. By Saturday morning the Governor of Georgia, the Mayor of Atlanta, everybody was out there. Making all kinds of problems and so on and so forth. We did end up playing, but it became national news and in it’s way contributed to the progress we see now. And I remember one other incidence that we had; we had an AFL All-Star Game. The first couple were out here, and then we were going to have one in New Orleans. Sid was going to coach the West team. We land in New Orleans and the cabs were picking up the white players and taking them to the hotels and telling us we’d have to find black cabs. So, boom, again, we’re not going to play in this place. So they moved the game to Houston. The next year were flying to the All-Star Game in Houston and Houston’s locked in so we go on to New Orleans and come back to Houston the next day. So we got to New Orleans and now we stayed in the Hilton right across the street from the airport. We got in the can to go down to the French Quarter, of course. And the cab driver happened to be black, he was the next cabby up. And so we’re talking, Dave Grayson, I don’t know if he was with the Raiders or Kansas City then, Earl Faison, myself, might be Ernie Ladd. Then heard us talking and said, “oh, you’re football players. What you did last year has had a tremendous effect on New Orleans. They want a pro football team here. And after you guys refused to play here and was on national press and TV again, they integrated the transportation. Blacks didn’t have to sit in the back anymore. You can get any cab and so on and so forth.” We had in this era of the ‘60s where they had all this civil rights stuff and the marches and sitting at the counters, we had an effect too. And we had an effect in a different way because everybody wanted sports franchises and athletes around. So in many ways we had as equally powerful an effect as students did, but it took all of us to change. But I will say one more time that I have never, in the years that I have been around Sid and his teams, never any inter-team racial – it just was not tolerated. It’s us against them. It’s like being in a foxhole when you’re being attacked. You don’t care what color the other guys is or what gender she might be, if she can help you fight and save your life.
TT – How was Sid seen by his players? Did they realize that they were an important part of changing football at that time?
EW – No, no. Shit, we were just doing what we were supposed to do. You have to look back on that historically and put it in perspective. In fact, a lot of us were really pissed off at Sid because Sid was head coach and general manager. We had a good year, what did we go 12-2 that one year. Then you’d go in and ask for a raise and here’s the coach that’s been praising you for being such a great player and you ask for a raise and he’d say he can’t give it to you because you’re not a good football player. So I think that drove a wedge between some players. Ron Mix goes to Oakland, Lance goes to Dallas, I go to Cincinnati, Paul Lowe goes to Kansas City. That head coach and general manager is too tough a position to put your coach in because before it didn’t make any difference, but after we were world champions and we knew we were good. To be told you’re not good, you don’t deserve more money, it drives a wedge between the coach and the players.
TT – Go back to 1960. Tell me about those first tryouts for the Chargers when they were bringing in every bartender and dump truck driver and every big guy in town to come.
EW – I was in the third group of collegiate guys to come and then they had one more group of about 10 or 12 after I got there. They had work outs. I heard about it. They had work outs for every stiff in the world. We were at Chapman College in Orange.
EW cont. – For instance, Paul Lowe was not part of the team picture because there was another guy there that had number 23. He was a college guy I played against, he was from Washington when I played at Ohio State. He was a good running back, and so was Paul. It was kind of funny when we starter out. I think we started three of our first four games were on the road. You probably heard this from a lot of guys. We’d play somewhere and get beat. Play the next game and get beat. Then we fly into whatever the next city is and there’s a bus there. There’s a bus full of football players that we’d never seen. So Sid had got somebody to go out and bring all of these other cut NFL players, or whatever. So it was like going back to two-a-days and we’re three games into the season. So we said, “I’ll thin about the Canadian Football League, you got Americans there coming and going.” There was in the first year a lot of turn over and what happened though, we had a lot of guys that had been NFL players that were supposed to be the nucleus. And we had more talent than was thought, because Paul Lowe, Ron Mix, myself, we ended up starting our first year. For instance, Paul Lowe was just on the team as a back up running back to Ron Waller who had player with the L.A. Rams. And we played Denver and he scored five touchdowns and the rest is history. But I run into guys now who said, “I was on the team.” But shit, I can’t remember. There were so many guys coming and going it wasn’t even funny. I remember the nucleus. I remember the guys that played every week, but the rest of it…It was quite and experience to get off the bus and see an extra bus with 40 more football players.
TT – Is there anything that people really overlook when discussing Sid Gillman?
EW – No. He’s been pretty well picked and poked and analyzed by so-called football experts. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He was an innovator. He still as a great eye for talent. God just gave him a knack when it comes to football, football talent, and what to do with the few people you possess. I was looking at an old program and our original coaching staff you had Sid Gillman and four assistants. You see a team picture now, they have got as many assistants as they do players, which also made us a close knit team. We worked together. Sid knew each one of the players and worked with each one of the players and you don’t find that today. Today you got the offense, the defense, you got special teams experts. It’s a lot different. But Sid was… he loved to play poker. We had a bunch of guys that played poker all the time and Sid would come in and play with us. You wouldn’t find that today. You wouldn’t find a coach… It’s kind of funny too, because we’d get a poker game going and everybody’d strip down to their underwear and sit around a bed. You know you have a bed to sit an lay on and pull chairs around the other bed as the card table. Sid Gillman would come in there and pull his pants off, sit down and play poker with us like he was one of the boys. Sid is quite a person. He is quite a person.
TT – That ends my questions. Thank you very much, I appreciate your time.
EW – OK. I hope you have a good time with your paper.