When I was writing my master’s thesis on Sid Gillman back in 1998, I figured that there were three interviews that would be essential to my research. The first, of course, was Sid himself. Fortunately for me, Bob Hood, a former Chargers employee, introduced me to the Gillmans, and I was able to begin a relationship with them. Next was John Hadl, Gillman’s quarterback for the majority of his time with the Chargers. I was able to get a phone number for Hadl, who resides in Kansas, and conduct a nice telephone interview that I have previously posted on this blog. The third critical interview was with Lance Alworth.
More than anyone else, Lance Alworth was the physical representation of Gillman’s offense. When fans and historians think back to Sid Gillman’s offenses, more often than not, they picture a powder blue-clad Alworth running pass patterns in the California sunshine.
Fortunately for me, Alworth still resides near the San Diego coastline. We met for the first time in his office, and chatted for nearly an hour about what he felt made Sid Gillman tick.
AFL – If you could, in your own words, explain how Gillman and his passing attack changed football from what it had been before.
LA – Well, it is a really difficult thing to do. From my perspective because he’s the guy that I learned from coming in. So I felt like it had always been there. Really, Sid was just so far ahead of his time. We controlled everybody on the field, offensively by what our offensive backs did, how we released from the line of scrimmage. We had passing zones, roaming zones, things that simplified the game, but at the same time made it complicated from the standpoint of learning everything you had to learn. I think that’s when quarterbacks, even today, even Ryan Leaf and Whelihan and those guys, they have a lot of problems with a lot of it because Sid Gillman instituted all that. Then when he started doing all that then the defense turns around and starts doing other things, too to compensate for that. But as far as Sid was concerned, the only reason, and I’ve told him this, the only reason that I feel like I’m in the Hall of Fame is because we had such a great passing attack. We didn’t throw the ball that much, because we also had a great running attack. It was just a well-rounded game and there was not any circumstance that we could get ourselves into that the quarterback could not get us out of with some kind of audible. It was just that simple. We had probably and I’m sure they probably do today, we had 100 audibles. But they’re all simple. So it wasn’t complicated. Then the linemen had certain blocking combinations that I’m sure that you’ve heard about. But Sid was just so far ahead of his time that I think he had the talent to work with us. We did have a lot of talent on our team, but at the same time we got great coaching. If we went out on that field, there was not any way that I felt that anybody could score more points than we could. If the defense could just stop them, we could score enough to win. So that was sort of our whole attitude. As far as Sid was concerned, he was where it all started. I mean that’s where Al Davis came from. That’s where Chuck Noll came from. There are so many guys that are winners today, Bum Phillips. I mean you name them, and those guys have benefited from being around Sid and the way he conducted his offense. His defense I don’t know about because I was on the other side, but I know this; offensively he is the guy that started it all. In both leagues.
AFL – Did Gillman begin throwing a lot more as he came to understand your abilities, or was it not as emphasized until he learned what you could do physically?
LA – No, I don’t believe that. I believe that Sid did what we had to do to win. What he probably did do is he adjusted the game a little bit because we could throw deep very well. And so we went deep more often than maybe a lot of other teams did. But he did that because he felt like we could do it. I mean that was part of his arsenal and part of what he had in his game plan. I could go to the sidelines and tell him what they were doing and ten minutes later he would come over and say, “OK, here’s what we’re gonna do.” And the worst thing of all is going in at halftime. They told us last time, “OK, we’re going to run this particular play. It’s going to be a deep pattern and were gonna run and do this, we’re gonna run this flair action, we’re gonna do this and Lance, it’s one-on-one for you.” And I’m like, “Oh God. Not only do I have to get open, but I gotta make sure I catch it.” So the whole time you’re sitting there at half time you’re saying, “OK, watch it. Catch it. Make sure you watch it.” So those are the little things you remember, but Sid, he understood what was happening. He was just a great coach, analytically. And he spent so much time doing it. I always thought that if Sid had spent the time in another profession that he spent in this one, he would have been one of the richest men in the world. He was so dedicated and he knew it so thoroughly that he just didn’t make many errors. I can remember a few games in college where coaches would apologize to us after the game because they didn’t have us prepared the way felt like not only mentally and physically for the game, but the game plan wasn’t where it should have been. Sid never had to apologize. He was always right on. I remember the one thing that emphasizes this is the year that we won the championship. Boston was doing a lot of blitzing. They blitzed everybody and they won their division. They beat us, I think, in Boston. Or came real close to beating us in Boston. Then we played them out here and we were ready for them. The whole game plan was around Bouniconti and blitzing. When he moved one way or the other, it was wrong. It wasn’t his fault. It was strictly Sid’s design. What we did is they were totally ignoring the fullbacks. And Keith Lincoln had a fantastic football game. And he did because it was designed that way; that was exactly what we were going to be doing.
AFL – That was one of my questions actually. In that game did Gillman see something that he could exploit with Lincoln? Was that a specific design?
LA – Specifically designed for Keith. I mean the whole game plan was designed for Keith Lincoln. And it was great because we knew we could win doing it. Particularly when you see it working, and those guys had to be like, “What’s happening?” Because we had played against them, they’d bust us, they’d worn us down. Sid was ready. Not only were the linemen ready with all the blitz calls and things, but I mean offensively when they made a move BOOM! We get a vacated spot. It was because the quarterback did a great job of recognition and it was just all there. At that time I think Tobin was playing and he was an older quarterback. He was really smart and when Sid gave him the game plan, hey, that was it. It was all over. We did really, really well, and I just wish that at those times we could have played against the NFL because we had some great football teams. The best football team I ever played on was the ‘63 Charger team. The best I ever played on as far as talent. I went to the Super Bowl when I played with Dallas and we had a great football team. Not close to the football team here. Offensively, not even close. Defensively, it was pretty equal. But that was the year defensively we set all the records. And the offensive didn’t set a lot of records, but we scored a lot of points. But it was all Sid’s design.
AFL – How did Gillman bring precision to the passing game. How did he adjust things from what they were?
LA – It was really fine tuning it. I think what he did was he broke the field down into three areas, into three specific areas. He drew three lines down the middle, we played the two hash marks, then when they changed the hash marks we had to adjust. Then we were two yards inside the hash mark all the time. It was different than being on the hash mark and running things. We had passing zones. If we threw a 14, 15 yard out pattern, it was always the same distance from the quarterback to the outside receiver. I knew if I was on the far side of the field, the open side of the field, I had to run my pattern so I came back in toward the middle of the field. To run my pattern, to get to the outside so they didn’t make a 30-yard out throw, those are the ones that are intercepted, even today. When they throw the long outs across the field and they make those long passes, it is not designed for that. He designed the game to where you had to get the ball off in a certain amount of time. I had a certain amount of time to get where I was going. I could line up anywhere I wanted to as long as I got to this spot that John and I knew where the spot was gonna be. That was sort of it. I could get there any way I wanted to. I could start out way out if I wanted to, but I had to get over here. I had to get to that spot to make my break in that 2.5 seconds we had to throw the ball. It wasn’t long. It was very precise. And I still see today, I see so many teams that their passing game is not what it should be because they don’t have any passing zones. They are throwing a 30, 40 yard out. And it should be intercepted. If I’m running an out and I don’t run my pattern to where I get into here so he only throws it 15, 20 yards. 20 yards max. It’s sad to see that people haven’t learned over the years the little, simple things that Sid knew years ago.
AFL – What would you consider Gillman’s strengths as a coach?
LA – Dedication. His ability to analyze a situation quickly. Hard work. He is a very dedicated person. He had a hard time with public relations and he had a hard time with the players, getting along with them. Because he’d get irritated because he knew it so well that he didn’t understand how anybody could make a mistake. He felt like the things he was doing were almost perfect and he expected you to be that way. He expected you to work toward that. He wouldn’t accept anything less than that. It really irritated him when he didn’t feel like people were putting forth the effort after he spent the time that he had spent. And you weren’t putting in the effort everybody else was. I felt his wrath many times. A lot of times I felt like I didn’t deserve it and I would get mad about it. But everybody was in that same boat. And it was sad because he was wearing two hats. He was general manager and you had to go in and talk salary. I had one of my best years and I walk in to negotiate salary with him and he starts telling me what a sorry year I had. But you just had to understand that. At that time we didn’t have any agents, we didn’t have anybody that would stand up for us.
AFL – How did Gillman transfer his knowledge to his players? Was he a good teacher as well?
LA – An excellent teacher, because he was one of the first to start teaching with film. He could show you why it worked and why it should work. And when it worked he’d show you, “See?” As an outside receiver I took films home. I had my own projector and I knew what all the defensive backs were gonna do. I studied them enough. I watched their feet and knew every step they were going to take and how they were when they wound up inside, outside, over me, when they had double coverage, where they come from. I mean you learn all that stuff. Sid was great because not only did he show you, he pushed you to be better. I feel like that’s what I needed. I needed the push. I needed to be told I wasn’t good. So I went to show them I was. I think a lot of players need to be patted on the back and asked for gratification. With me, I wasn’t that way. I liked the pats on the back, but what spurred me on more than anything was when they told me I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. “Wait a minute! I’ll work a little harder.” He could touch the right buttons, not on all the people. A lot of people needed pats on their head and that sort of thing. Sid was not one to do that. He would when you deserved it, but he wouldn’t give it to you any other time. Someone else maybe would have gotten a little more out of a person, or he would if he’d possibly treat them a little bit differently. But he treated everybody the same. There were really never any special people. You just never knew when Sid was going to go bananas. He was tough, strong, dedicated. I’ve never seen anybody that spent the hours that he did. The only thing was he expected everybody else to do the same. I wouldn’t want to be a quarterback. Talk to Hadl about that.
AFL – How did Gillman’s offense change during the time you were there?
LA – I can’t say that it really changed while I was there. It became easier for me to understand and follow and accept because if he tells us it is gonna work, it worked. You just went ahead and did it. I got to the point where I didn’t question him anymore. I knew if we went out on that field and we did what he told us we could do, we could do it. And we would do it, and we would score some points. Hopefully we could score enough to keep the other team from winning. I don’t believe that it changed in any manner the whole time I was there. He would adjust game-to-game with what we were doing and very seldom did we go into a game that followed another that we did something very, very similar. You just didn’t do it. Because we had a game plan for everybody, they still do, I’m sure. But we had a game plan for every team and it was really different because each defensive scheme was very different.
AFL – How do you think Gillman influenced what is today the West Coast Offense?
LA – He was the originator of the West Coast Offense. That’s where Coryell learned everything. Coryell spent time on our field. He came down and stayed with us for two or three years during training camp. That’s where his whole offense came from, his whole philosophy, everything came from Sid Gillman. There is not anyone at this point in time, in the game, or that has been in the game, that I think provided as much and gave as much to the game as Sid has. You look at all the people that are playing, including the coaches that played with him, players that played with him, the systems that have come about because of him, and they’re all based on him. They’re all based on the premise that Sid had, and that’s he didn’t mind putting the ball in the air when we needed to. We didn’t put it in as much as we would have if we were playing today, because we had such a great running offense. We had some great running backs. We had a great offensive line. They just nailed them. Sweeney, I’ll tell you what’s really funny. We threw the ball fairly often. We didn’t have many long passes called back. The reason why we didn’t is because we would get in the huddle and say, “OK guys, I think we can get them, but no holding.” And everybody would look over at Sweeney and say, “NO HOLDING, WALT! OK, SUDS? Don’t you hold, you sum bitch.” Walt was really one of the players that, he was a great guard. He never got the recognition he deserved, but he should have been a middle linebacker. Oh yeah. He would have been a terror. He would have been the equal of…What’s the guy from Chicago?
AFL – Butkus?
LA – He would have been equal to him, or even better. He could run, he was quick, he was fast. He weighed 250 pounds. Mean. They put him at guard because we needed him for the running game. He could pull and be around the corner real quick. It worked. He didn’t like it. And I do feel like he was miscast. The game would have remembered him a long time, if he would have played middle linebacker. Yeah, he was that good. He was that talented. Unfortunately he never got to play that position. I saw him challenge Butkus at a golf tournament. Told him at the golf tournament. First time we were there, we hadn’t played those fellows, but we were playing in Chicago that year. Challenged him physically to a fight and Butkus wouldn’t even dare. He backed off, Butkus did. Then, he told him, he said, “I’m gonna hunt you up every play. I’m gonna hunt you with every weapon.” And he did. You watch the film. He just obliterated him every play. He was after him. Ask Sweeney about that. See what happens to him. Sweeney was tough.
AFL – What role, if any, did Gillman play in the merger of the AFL and the NFL?
LA – I would say the only part that he played in it was by making us the team that he did and because we did have the offensive schemes and we did score a lot of points. And we did those things and we became watched. People started paying attention to us because of scoring points and because of the games. A lot of it goes back to Sid because he exploited the defenses and brought in the system that worked. Other than that, there might be some things that I am not aware of, but I wasn’t really aware that much of what was happening.
AFL – Tell me about the strength of that ‘63 team.
LA – There weren’t any weaknesses. To be honest, there wasn’t anything, I mean special teams…If anything the only thing that we really lacked was a great field goal kicker. *** See End of Article*** We had a good field goal kicker, but we didn’t have a fabulous one. Other than that, every position that we had, they were fine athletes and players. It was offensively and defensively a great team. Then they started to break them up. After a while Barron Hilton was made head of the chain when his father died, Barron Sr. Barron Jr. became the head guy and what he had to do was give up running the team. And get away from it. When he did that, they started cutting down on all the guys they drafted. When I came here we had seven guys that went to the All-star game and were great athletes. I was like, “Wow! Man!” There was only like 40 guys that go to the All-star game, seven of them were San Diego Chargers. They went out and got the guys that played. It was great. It was a lot of fun. Those were fun years.
AFL – I’ve been told that you and your leaping ability compensated for Tobin’s weak arm. Was that a conscious effort on your part?
LA – No. It was the only way I could catch the ball. All I was trying to do was get to the ball and I don’t think Tobin had…at times he threw it hard and it was there. Other times he’d just sort of throw it up and it was sort of like playing basketball. When the ball goes up you sort of know where it is going to come down and you can either run and get it or you can slow down a little bit. It is just eye-hand coordination. I don’t think there’s any compensation, I think that just happened to happen at that time.
AFL – Did the offense change at all because he couldn’t throw a 60-yard bomb?
LA – No. Because I’ll tell you something, when we threw bombs, we never put them up 60 yards. Even with Hadl we never put them up 60 yards, because I made my break at probably, 16, 17 yards down the field. Between 14 and probably 18, that’s where I would make whatever move I was going to make to go deep. If I was going deep, it wasn’t a long pass. We didn’t arch it up. Occasionally they did. But we didn’t arch it up and throw it up there forever, it wasn’t a line drive, it was just maybe anywhere from 25-30 yards long. They weren’t the long because of the timing that was involved. We had really good timing.
AFL – And it was that way regardless of the arm strength.
LA – Regardless of the arm strength. The only thing that hurt Tobin was when he was late throwing it. Sometimes you were because he was back there dodging people or doing something, and he’s gotta put it up. If you do that, then you were ready. Tobin didn’t have the strongest arm, when he played because it was the end of his career. He had a bad elbow. But the could still put some zip on the ball. It wasn’t as bad as everybody makes it out to be. I think it was just one of those things that happen. It really wasn’t my jumping ability or anything else, it was just the fact that that was where the ball was. I think anybody who wanted to catch it would have done the same thing I did. I just had to go up to get it, I had to go up higher than them to get it because everybody had a chance for it.
AFL – Is there anything that most people fail to recognize when they are discussing Gillman that the players had seen? Something that just isn’t brought up like it should be?
LA – I just feel like they don’t really give him the credit that he should receive. So many of the offenses today still run the same identical plays and patterns if they’re winning. If they’re winning football teams then they use a lot of his offense still. It has integrated with other stuff as it came down the pike because what happens is as I said earlier, you do a lot of things offensively and the defense does things to compensate for it. Then the offensive changes and goes ahead for a while and the defense comes back again. So you have that constant back and forth all the time. But Sid’s always worked because it involves involving the key guys locating the key guys on the defense and on the offense making sure that we do certain things. It is the little, bitty things that Sid spent an awful lot of time on in teaching us. It’s like the tight end releasing inside or outside. That has a bearing on what’s going to happen to the safeties. Who’s going to cover what on the safeties. If he makes an inside release the weak safety may cover it. That leaves the strong side safety available for the strong back. Making a release outside makes the strong backs and then send the back on the outside so we got three on two. There is so many little, bitty things that mean an awful lot to the game. I just don’t feel that Sid has got the recognition that he deserves for what he contributed. And for the amount that everybody that looks at him, they don’t really realize the amount of time and effort that he put into it. Today, if you go talk to him, that’s all he talks about. He’s what, 86, 87? That’s all, I mean today. If you came see him today, you can imagine what he was like when he was younger. He was the same way. Almost like a maniac, he was just totally consumed with making things work offensively. He loved to see things happen and to have it happen the way that he drew it up. Then he could sit and show you. “OK, this is what we are going to do and why we are going to do it.” And he was always right. I feel like the reason I am where I am as far as the Hall of Fame is concerned is because Sid knew enough about the game and I got thrown to enough that I could get in there. I don’t feel like we threw probably like they do today. I think I caught 13 in one game; that’s the most I ever caught. But I never really got thrown to that much. If I got thrown to three, four times a game, then it was pretty good. I’d get thrown to more in the rain. The times I caught a lot of passes was always in the rain. I loved to see the rain coming because I knew they were going to throw it to me. It’s been great. Sid’s the reason why a lot of guys are there, because we got recognition, because we won. And we won because of Sid Gillman. I don’t think there is any higher praise that you can say. He’s a winner. Thank goodness he was on our team.
*** March 29, 2013***
I read Todd’s post today with the interview that we did back in 1998. Sid was truly an innovative coach.
One things jumped out at me from the interview, and I wanted to better explain something I had said, as I would hate for it to be misconstrued. At one point we were discussing the kicker on our 1963 championship team, and I had said that a great kicker was the one thing that our team lacked. In fact, George Blair was our kicker and he was fantastic. George led the AFL in field goal percentage in 1962 and 1963, before an injury ended his career prematurely.
What I had meant was that as George was a drop-back kicker, as were all other kickers at that time, we didn’t have the 50+ yard field goal threat that teams do today with the soccer-style kicking that became popular shortly after George retired.
My apologies to George, a great kicker and teammate!