San Diego Union Beat Reporter Covering Chargers – 1961-1986
TT – If you could, please describe the state of San Diego sports when the Chargers came to town in 1961.
JM – I’ve touched on this frequently. I think in 1961 San Diego was kind of in the doldrums following World War II and I’ve always felt that the community needed a catalyst to rally around and the Chargers became that entity in my opinion. They energized the community. They were accepted almost immediately.
TT – Did they have any specific obstacles to overcome?
JM – Facilities was one of the obstacles they had to overcome, if you’ve ever been in Balboa Stadium, you’d know what I was talking about. It was a very old arena that had been built by the WPA years before. It only seated about 18,000 people and the playing surface was dead because it had so many games played there. During their time in Balboa Stadium the Chargers, it was not a comfortable place to watch a game. I always thought it was a great place to watch a game because it had such good sight lines, but I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of how the water closets would overflow and the water flowed down the cement seats. So that’s one of the things the Chargers had to deal with, which they did.
TT – What was the feeling about the upstart AFL in San Diego sports circles at that time?
JM – Well I think there was some people that questioned it. But it was the AFL that made San Diego big league. San Diego had not been big league. When I came here in 1956, I think the biggest thing we had in sports was the Hoover High – San Diego High football game. I remember in my own case, I was covering the Coast League Padres and they gave me a choice of whether I wanted to do the Chargers. I told them I’d think about it, and I thought about it for about 30 seconds. It was an opportunity to get with something that had the cache of being big league. I think San Diego was delighted to have a big league image. This is a community after all, that had always been, particularly in that time, had been in the shadow of LA. It was just the biggest thing we’ve had here, by far.
TT – What was the feeling regarding Gillman and his offense?
JM – Well, I think you have to remember that when he came here, the Chargers proceeded to win like 12 games in a row. They had a tremendous season in 1961. Sid has always been a very advanced guy with offense, with the pass. He’s one of the maestros of the forward pass. The games that they played were exciting. Many of the games in the American Football League were exciting. They scored a lot of points. A big knock on them always was they didn’t play defense up to the par of the NFL, but in a lot of ways they played more enterprising defense in the AFL than they ever did in the NFL. They used blitzes and the NFL was real big in playing a cover one. Single coverage and man against man and the best guy wins. I think there were teams in the AFL that were much more imaginative in their use of defense than some of the teams in the NFL, New England being one. New England had a defensive guy named Fred Bruner who was big on zone coverages and playing blitzes and stuff like that.
TT – So, in essence, the defenses that Gillman had to play against or strategize against could have been more difficult because they were non-conventional.
JM – Exactly. I’m not saying that physically…Man for man they probably weren’t as good as the teams in the NFL, but they weren’t patsies either. I don’t think the AFL wanted really to play all that great of defense in the founding years. They wanted to be entertaining. It’s a business, a theater.
TT – How much do you think that desire to be exciting factored into Gillman’s actual game plan?
JM – I think Sid just wanted to get into the end zone and he was very good at it. He had some great players. He had fine talent. And he always made sure he had good receivers and good quarterbacks and good offensive line. Look at the guys from the Chargers that went into the Hall of Fame. Ron Mix was an offensive tackle, Alworth was a wide receiver. Those are all offensive players.
TT – How did the Chargers offense compare to other offenses in the AFL?
JM – It was the very best. You might look at the championship game in 1963, the AFL championship game. Which is still the only league championship the Chargers have ever won. They used motion and they had a game plan called “Feast or Famine” and they were just very advanced. They were on the cutting edge of everything football did offensively in those years. There were no better offenses than the ones Gillman devised.
TT – Was that “Feast or Famine” a single game?
JM – That was a single game. Each team has game plans and sometimes give them titles and that’s the title he chose for that particular game plan.
TT – Can you explain his strategy?
JM – Yeah. He was playing New England and New England was a team that liked to blitz and a lot of zone coverages. And he just hoped that by using the motion to draw some of their defenders away from the line of scrimmage. To dictate how the game would be played, rather than to have it dictated to him. Keith Lincoln had a tremendous game in that. He was a tremendous talent. Sid used to say, “He kicks them aside.” He was hard to tackle. Good player and he could really run fast too. He was a tremendous back.. Paul Lowe was great too. I noticed on television the other day that one of the highest rushing totals ever in the playoffs was Lowe’s 160 yards against Houston in the 1960 championship game. I see Paul every once in a while. He’s a cook at the prison near the border. He doesn’t look anything at all like he used to. He was a very svelte, sleek athlete when he was playing. He had a beautiful stride. He’d been a champion high school hurdler and you could just see it in his stride. I still consider him one of the best backs I’ve ever seen if not the best. Judged on a pure skill, I think you’d have to put him in the Hall of Fame. But he’ll never be in the Hall of Fame because so few of the members of the selection committee saw him play.
TT – You touched on it briefly, but how did the talent level between the AFL and the NFL compare?
JM – Well, they used to use… The AFL used to use the word “parody”. They felt that since there was more teams in the NFL than the AFL, that if the AFL just got a certain number of draft choices it would be achieving equality. I think the best measure of that is the Super Bowl. After four games it was 2-2. There was good talent in the AFL. All the matters are pretty subjective, so I think you have to find a measuring stick. The first one we had was the Super Bowl.
TT – How did Gillman influence today’s West Coast Offense?
JM – Well, he’s always been a great guy about controlling linebackers with flair action and stuff like that. He just gave a tremendous amount of thought to the passing game. You realize you have to have lanes to throw in, he was just very advanced in his thinking about the passing game. He had studied it endlessly. I never thought Sid was all that much of an original thinker, really. He was just a guy that would outwork the other guys. He was very good at incorporating the good things that he saw.
TT – That was actually one of my questions, what I’m trying to prove is Gillman as one of the most innovative minds in professional football.
JM – As far as the passing game, I think you could say that. Walsh has credited Sid with being the Father of the West Coast Offense. I think Walsh was being a little kind. Sid understood the passing game and he’s happy to have Walsh pass him that little tribute.
TT – The Chargers were arguably the AFL’s top team between 1960 and 1966, winning five divisional championships in that time. Why were they consistently so strong?
JM – Because I think they were better at recognizing and recruiting talent than the other teams. You know Sid brought to the Chargers all of the skills in the draft that he had learned in the NFL. They had a tremendous talent staff. His first personnel man was Don Klosterman who later would win with Baltimore and Houston. Just a very fine personnel guy, Klosterman’s assistant was Al LoCasale who’s been in football for very many years. He’s now a senior assistant with the Raiders. They were very good at analyzing the talent and recruiting it. And in the beginning, they had Barron Hilton who had a lot of money. When you’re playing pro football, you’re playing money. That’s the reason the AFL survived. It had people with vast fortunes, Lamar Hunt, Bud Adams, Hilton. The NFL was family-oriented, the Meara’s, people like that, the Halas’. Those people didn’t have the fortunes that Lamar Hunt had. Who does? Nobody. They were extremely well funded. Probably any league could have survived had it had a little insight and a lot of money. And the AFL had both. It wasn’t terribly well funded in all of its precincts, but in many of them it was.
TT – Of those five divisional champions, the ‘63 team was the only one to win the AFL championship.
JM – Right. And the only championship this town’s ever won. Won a lot of division championships, but only that one league championship.
TT – Why was that ‘63 team better than the others?
JM – It was just an extraordinary football team that had a lot of balance as AFL teams were measured. That team had some very fine defenders. They had Ernie Ladd at 6’9”, 325, nobody could block him. He was a giant. And then they had Earl Faison, a very good defensive end. They had a great linebacker, Chuck Allen, very good competitor. They had good pass defenders. In ‘61 they had set a record for interceptions with Claude Gibson and others. Charlie McNeil, he’s the father of Lori McNeal, the tennis player, was a tremendous safety in the early 60’s. You never saw a guy tackle better in the open field than he did. He’s dead now. He took his own life. Tobin Rote was near the end of his line in ‘63, but he had a mastery of the game. He’d played on championship teams in Green Bay and Detroit. He knew how to play. He understood the game. Didn’t have much arm left, but he could make up for it, like so many can now.
TT – What specific challenges did the Chargers pose to their opponents? In Gillman’s attack, what did they do directly that was tough for the other teams to defend against?
JM – Well, they did just about everything. I don’t know if they had one thing that stood out so much. I remember a lot of balance they had. They could run. In the early ‘60s they had two of the ranking rushers in the league in Lincoln and Lowe. Alworth is probably as good a receiver as ever lived. Dave Kocourek was a good, useful tight end in the early ‘60s. They could play a little defense, they had a pretty good kicking game. Paul McGuire was a hell of a punter, the guy that you see on television. George Blair was a pretty good place kicker. They were always so well prepared. Sid didn’t prepare for one team like he did another. He realized you had to look at every game differently. Not everybody in that time did, I don’t think. The Chargers were always extremely well prepared. Plus Sid was insightful. Sid’s a very insightful guy. He could read guys. He could read a guy like Hank Stram. He’d know that when Stram got behind, he’d start to blitz. So Sid would do things to combat the blitz.
TT – Al Davis and Jack Faulkner were both assistant coaches under Gillman and went on to take over the Raiders and the Broncos. How did their teams come to resemble the Chargers offensively after they took over?
JM – Well, I don’t think they did. I don’t think the Raiders resemble the Chargers at all. Davis was a very good assistant coach. He has very pronounced ideas about how teams should proceed. He always played a very simple offense and a very complex defense. And he likes to think that he was the first guy that ever sent both backs out into the pass patterns. He’s had very strong opinions about how to play offense and I think he still has many of them. He didn’t like to throw the ball before the receiver made the break, because he thinks that breeds interceptions. In order to do that, you have to have guys that can pass block until the sun goes down. So Al would always get these huge guys that can hang in there, with long arms. That’s still the way they play. I’ve always thought that was the great strength of the Raiders, that they had a system, thus they could draft to it. They knew precisely the kind of guys they wanted. And their system didn’t change. It hardly has changed to this day, which I thought was a strength. Maybe the game passed them by a little bit in recent years, with more scheming by offenses. Davis always liked to throw the ball deep, so they had Warren Wells who could catch them, Lamonica who could throw the ball. So I don’t think the Raiders resemble the Chargers in any degree at all.
TT – What about the Broncos?
JM – They were probably closer. I think that Faulkner used a lot of things that he learned from Sid, but he had been with Sid for so many years. You know, he played for Sid. But he didn’t have the funds that time in Denver that Sid had.
TT – What role did Gillman play in the merger of the AFL and NFL?
JM – I think he championed Davis becoming the commissioner. I remember one night I’m in Houston and had just had an AFL meeting and Sid had got in a big row with Joe Foss. Sid had traded Faison and Ernie Ladd to Houston and after he made the deal he complained that he had been forced to do it by tampering by Bud Adams. So Foss negated the deal, which was just about Foss’ last act as AFL commissioner. Foss didn’t know anything about football, but he was a great image for the league because he was so wholesome. He was a real good guy. He still is, he’s still living. During that weekend I was spending some time with Sid in his hotel room and it was becoming quite clear that Foss would not be remaining as commissioner for very much longer. Sid bet me a buck that I couldn’t name who he’d like to see as commissioner. And I bet him a buck and I named Davis and took his buck. Davis was great for the job. The guy has an instinct for the jugular. And he exercised it. He went for the NFL’s quarterbacks. He forced the peace. But I don’t think Sid had a profound influence… I don’t think he did a great deal to dictate the merger. Only in that he assembled strong teams and he was a… When Hilton gave him the money, which he didn’t always do, he was persuasive in attracting draft choices. There were years when the Chargers didn’t draft the best players. By then Hilton had cut back on how much he wanted to spend. So they just drafted the guys they felt they could sign, not always the best players.
TT – Sid Gillman was the first professional coach to room black and white players together on the road. What were the racial tensions in pro football at that time?
JM – They weren’t profound in the early ‘60s. I can’t remember any racial incidents until they were playing an AFL all-star game in Houston and some of the black players complained that they were being discriminated against. This was a long time ago. I can’t remember all these things, but they moved the game. The AFL moved the game to New Orleans. I don’t remember that the whites and the blacks didn’t get along. It seemed like they got along pretty well to me. Sid always fostered kind of a family atmosphere. He always took his wife with him on trips. You know, we didn’t have that many guys either. When you only have 33 guys on a team, you become a lot closer than you do if you have 52. You get to know everybody. I don’t remember that there was much militancy in those days, other than the incident that I just mentioned. And when they asked those guys to room together it was routine. Nobody complained about it. They just accepted it. Sid being Jewish might have had something to do with it, he probably experienced a little discrimination himself. We saw some of that. There were other coaches who would call him a dirty Jew and things like that, Eddie Erdelatz being one.
TT – With the Raiders?
JM – Yeah.
TT- In ‘63 Gillman hired Alvin Roy as pro football’s first strength and conditioning coach. What was the feeling of the team when Roy came in and introduced his philosophies?
JM – There were some problems. In ‘63 as you remember, the Chargers were holding training camp at Rough Acres Ranch, out near Boulevard. I remember Don Norton, one of their receivers, suffered a back injury lifting weights and had to take him to the hospital in San Diego. That’s a long way. They just had to load him into the truck and cart him off. But I thought the players accepted Roy’s… He was a very personable guy. I think they accepted his philosophies. Until they found out if… I don’t know if they really understood much about anabolic steroids in those days. They didn’t realize what they were doing I think. Roy had been a student of Russian weight lifting methods and he knew. But when the word got around that taking those steroids could diminish them sexually, then they had second thoughts.
TT – How common was weight lifting in football at that point?
JM – Not at all, not at all common. It was unique, I think in professional football. There was no weight lifting then. Since its accepted. The high schools do it now. People have accepted that it just helps to be strong if you want to play football. But Roy was big into that. He felt that through taking the steroids you would reduce the bulk in your stool and to exercise you could turn it to bulk, to pounds and strength and muscles. I don’t take steroids, so I am not all that much an expert. But I think a lot of the players loved seeing how they were becoming strong and defined. Cut as you might say. One that probably wouldn’t would be Houston Ridge. You’re familiar with his case right? He filed a lawsuit against the Chargers contending that he had been made vulnerable to injury by what had been prescribed for him by the Chargers. He still lives here. You might give him a call. He’s a very nice guy, paints houses. Boy was he strong. He was strong without taking the steroids. You’re familiar with the suits Sweeney has had against the Chargers. They weren’t forcing that stuff down anybody’s throat either. I remember in the ‘60s in training camp, Sid would stand up and say to everybody, “take your pink pills.” And they were steroids, really. And they took them.
TT – What was Gillman’s greatest legacy to the game?
JM – His greatest legacy? Oh, I think you’d have to say he was a master of the passing game. He gave it more thought than others. Plus, nobody could outwork him. Sid was a very, very hard worker. Unbelievable. He was able to work very long hours and during the day he’d take about an hour nap and he’d wake up refreshed and go after them again. Sid’s legacy, he was a front runner in many areas in football, including watching film. He was probably one of the first guys to… He’s still peering at them. He was probably looking at them while you were with him. He gets a big kick out of it, I think. And he’s always been big into that. He was willing to do things that others wouldn’t. For instance, the weights… So many things, the film… Tactical
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