Football Outsiders
Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis

Paul, Vince, and Me

Guest column by Edward Hershey

(Sportswriter Edward Hershey lives In Portland, Oregon. This article is adapted and expanded from a chapter in his memoir, The Scorekeeper, which was a finalist for the 2018 Oregon Book Award and is available on Amazon.)

A couple of weeks after I landed a spot in the vaunted Newsday sports section in 1968, sports editor Ed Comerford called me into his office to say he had a story for me. Two stories, actually. He was sending me to Ohio and Wisconsin to cover two of the hottest topics in the National Football League that summer: the return of Paul Brown as owner-coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, an expansion franchise in the American Football League; and Vince Lombardi's departure from the sidelines after coaching the Green Bay Packers to victory in the first two Super Bowls.

Comerford was skeptical about Brown's ability to come back and Lombardi's willingness to let go. He wanted me to get at how each of these legendary figures was adjusting to his new role.

Brown had been a remarkable innovator who built the Cleveland Browns into a dominant force in pro football after an outstanding high school and college career. He devised the playbook, football's version of orchestral sheet music detailing the specific role of each player on every play. He was also the first to study film of opponents' prior games, hire specialized position coaches, amass detailed dossiers on college prospects, and design protective facemasks. He was the closest visionary pro football had to Branch Rickey, signing such stars as Marion Motley and Bill Willis when few black players were in the league. But after a so-so season in 1963, a new owner of the team he had founded and bore his name sent Brown packing.

Unlike Brown, Lombardi left the sidelines at the top of his game and on his own terms, remaining as general manager and appointing a trusted assistant to succeed him. And I soon realized these were two different situations in other ways, too. A Bengals public relations man seemed pleased by my call and arranged for me stay in a dorm room at Wilmington College in the southeast corner of Ohio where the Bengals were training. The reception in Green Bay was cooler. No dice on staying with the team at St. Norbert College in Appleton just south of Green Bay. The Packers did not let outsiders get that close. Like other writers, I would be welcome at team meals and have access to players and coaches after practice.

A week later -- just a decade after sitting in the snow at Yankee Stadium on consecutive Sundays to will my beloved Giants to wrest the 1958 NFL East title from Brown's Cleveland team (when $2 could get a high school kid into the game) -- I headed to Ohio to seek the measure of the man.

Over the next two days I immersed myself in training camp and made a point of connecting with writers from newspapers in Cincinnati and Dayton. That yielded some valuable perspective and eventually a jackpot. One of them had recorded Paul Brown's opening talk to 120 prospects on the first day of training camp. I watched drills, listened to banter, and interviewed players and assistant coaches.

But I knew the key interview would be with Brown himself. And that almost became a disaster. Our conversation was uneventful until I started getting to the point, reeling off a series of criticisms of Brown at the end of his time in Cleveland, including the assertion that he was so wed to his once-innovative system he refused to adjust to change. "They said that you'd lost touch with your players," I intoned (ending with a flourish that made me sound too much like the bombastic sportscaster Howard Cosell), "that the game had passed you by."

Brown sat silently for a moment and then said, in a soft voice, "Well I'll say this for you, young man. You certainly know how to hurt a guy."

"Damn, I've blown it." I thought. "This is a giant, a man who created sports dynasties. And I've come all the way from Long Island to insult him. Is this the end of my interview and my story?"

Just then there was a knock on the door. A quarterback injured at practice that day needed permission to see a medical specialist in Cincinnati. Brown excused himself and returned several minutes later when he explained the intrusion and then said, "Now where were we?" It was time for a journalistic Hail Mary. "Coach, you seemed insulted by my last question and I want to explain," I said. "Now, I know Bill Wallace was here a couple of weeks ago. This is what he wrote in the paper," and I pulled out a clipping from the New York Times and read Wallace's words.

What pro football wants to know is which Brown directs the Bengals -- the suave genius of the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties or the intractable sourpuss of the nineteen-sixties who lost touch with his players and reality? The answer would seem to be a little bit of both.

"Now I don't know for sure but I'm guessing you and Bill had a lovely conversation. I know you both go way back. But I would much rather ask the tough questions face to face than avoid them and risk insulting you in print." Brown nodded and said, "Go ahead. Ask your questions."

Our conversation spilled into dinner and he invited me to join him and his wife at his table in the college cafeteria. Then, at 10 that night as I typed some notes, there was a knock at my door. It was Paul Brown. "I thought of something else," he started and then, catching sight of an old Sport magazine clipping about him on my desk, shook his head, smiled and said, "You really do your homework, don't you?"

I filed a four-part series that received major play in Newsday and also national attention twice over -- when it was distributed to papers across the country by a syndicate, and again when Pro Football Digest magazine reprinted it in its entirety. From the start I tried to focus on what had changed and what had not as Brown began anew at an age when most individuals retired.

At one end of the practice field, quarterback John Stofa called signals, lifted the football from an imaginary center and slammed it into fullback Tom Smiley's gut. "No, no, Tom, you got to slide across there," shouted Rick Forzano, an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals, "You're stopping and starting again. You've got to sli-i-ide."

Stofa and Smiley started back to their positions to try the draw play one more time. A slender, almost slight man in tan slacks and T-shirt greeted them at the "scrimmage" line. Unlike Forzano, he did not shout. What he said was inaudible from the sideline only 15 paces away. Then the man was off again, walking back toward the other end of the field where assistant coaches Tom Bass and Jack Donaldson were drilling their men in how to defense the draw play.

Paul Brown glanced toward the sideline and apparently became aware that his unobtrusive travels around the field had been observed. He took a slight detour. "You want to see something?" Brown said. "Look at the two old gals sittin' up there in the bleachers with their straw hats on. They've been up there every day since we started. You know, just before, one of them yelled down, 'Hey, that man's playing too wide.'"

His friends were always entranced by Paul Brown's charm; his enemies enraged by its effectiveness. It is still there. And so is every other facet of the man who won 11 divisional championships with the Cleveland Browns and was fired five years ago because, his critics charged, the game had passed him by.

That first installment allowed Brown to respond in his own words:

"Did the game pass me by?" Brown repeated very softly. "I guess that's for you to decide. I know they all wrote that. But you know, my last season in Cleveland we had a winning year. I haven't changed. If coaching today means going out and drinking and carousing with your players, then maybe the game has passed me by. A man has to do a job in a certain way. I like to think we developed something in Cleveland that had nothing to do with winning and losing. I think we developed a set of principles. A man's principles don't change."

That set up the second part, headlined "Bengals Won't Be a 'Foreign Legion'" -- which was Paul Brown's elocution of those principles in the talk to his team. A half-century later it still stands as a remarkable coaching manifesto.

"In my own heart I think we have the most knowledgeable group of coaches I have ever been associated with. They'll never swear at you. You'll be treated high-grade. But they're not out there to win a popularity contest either. They're out there to do a job. There'll be no sugarcoating or pampering for some college kid. For the veterans, I don't know how you've been handled before or how big a name you have or how big a car or how big a contract; here it's meaningless. The only thing that counts is your dedication to the game, You run on your own gas: it comes from within you. There's no room for political factions here. I don't care if you're a Republican, Democrat, black, white, Catholic, Jew, what-have-you. If you're good enough to make it, you will. If you can't, you won't.

"If you want to see me, come and see me personally. Don't come in bunches. I suggest you call each other by your first names. I want you to call me Paul. We want you to know each other. We have no quotas, no nothing. Nothing but the best player. I've waited five blooming years to get to do this and nobody, but nobody, is going to louse it up. House rules are mad for everybody so we can live together happily. It's a long, hard war. You have to go to every meal. There'll be a $50 fine for missing a meal without an excuse. We're going to live with this thing together. I'm going to be there and I'm not going to ask you to do anything I'm not going to do myself. I ask you to wear a sport shirt to dinner. At the table, keep the meal enjoyable. It's no place for pigs. Try to avoid cliques. Know all your teammates. Class always shows. Watch your language. I don't want to hear careless stuff around the locker rooms.

"Trips to Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton are out of bounds without permission. We'll tell you when you may leave. Write your letters, study your books and sleep long and hard. If you're a high-grade guy you'll get somewhere. If you aren't, you're in trouble. Nothing devastates a football team like a selfish football player. It's a cancer. The greatest back I ever had was Marion Motley. You know why? The only statistic he ever knew was whether we won or lost. The man was completely unselfish.

"We're going to have our problems, and we know it. I want to see that we do our best from beginning to end. And it's not going to take long to see who's a tramp, a boozer, or a barroom ladies' man. I've seen them all. We might be an expansion team but we're not going to be a Foreign Legion. As for smoking, for your own good don't do it. Some of you will, but personally I don't like to see it. Don't come out of a dressing room and light up a cigar or a cigarette. If you want, do it up in your room. Don't set up any love nests in Cincinnati. We're going to find out where you live.

"Here at camp you go to your room at 10:30 or thereabouts. At 11, turn out the lights. There'll be nightly bed checks. If you sneak out after bed checks you'll be fined $500. If you're late to practice or a conference, you'll be subject to disciplinary action. -- a $50 fine for the first 15 minutes, $100 for the first half-hour and $100 an hour thereafter. There'll be a $100 fine for missing a plane, plus having to pay your own way to the game, and a $200 fine if you don't come home with us without permission. It's an automatic $500 fine for anyone who loses his playbook and your subject to fine or dismissal if you don't know the material in this book. Maybe I've given you the wrong impression about these fines. But I think I had to hand out three fines in all the years I was with the Browns. It just didn't happen. I hope I never have to fine a ballplayer. Eleven times I've taken teams through to the pro championship game and I've got a pretty good idea of the kind if player it takes to get there. That's why I've taken the trouble to explain these things."

Part 3 quoted coaches and players on their impressions of the man.

Al LoCasale, a veteran assistant charged with summoning released players to "bring your playbook" to Brown's office, said he was struck by how his new boss delivered the bad news. "He makes it as painless as possible," LoCasale reported, "and he's as honest as any coach I've ever seen. You know there's a big difference between telling a man 'You're not good enough,' and saying, 'We don't think you will make it here.'"

Days before he became one of those released, Hal Rooney, a free-agent safety from Syracuse, reflected on the difference between his time with the Bengals and his experience in Dolphins camp a year earlier. "You know what the coach told us at our first meeting in Miami?" he said. "He told us that if we brought girls to camp just to make sure we brought them to his room first. Can you imagine that? And then the assistants were always asking if they could buy you a drink. A player doesn't want that. You have to be able to look up to a coach. Paul is tremendous. I couldn't believe it when I met him. After what I read I thought he would growl like a bear or something. And here was this mild-mannered man. A few guys tested him. They're not here anymore. One came to camp and started mouthing off about how much salary he wanted. They just sent him away."

Veterans too offered praise. "I never saw a man like this before," said Bobby Burnett, a one time Bills star running back trying to come back on a reconstructed knee. "He never gives you too much. One play -- just one play -- in the morning and another in the afternoon. It's all so planned." And former Chiefs middle linebacker Sherrill Headrick told me, "Paul just doesn't run us out as fast as Hank Stram did. With Paul, you can tell he's travelling toward one goal. He knows when he plans to reach it. I don't know when and I don't think the other players do, either. But Paul does and you can feel it."

Part 4 assessed the team's chances and how Brown was likely to handle the inevitable string of defeats any expansion team suffers. He acknowledged that paring the Cincinnati roster required adjusting his standards. "When you go to lop off in a couple of departments," he said with a self-effacing laugh, "you can't do it because before you're through you won't have anyone left to work with." And at times he waxed philosophical, even sounding a bit like Casey Stengel when he assessed the short-term prospects of a trio of 22-year-old rookie running backs at the top of the depth chart: "They'll get ripped, but I'd rather go with them if I have to go through a ringer because they've got their future ahead of them."

My series concluded with this anecdote about a local newsman who called over to him from the sidelines during practice seeking an interview: "Can you stay 'til after practice?" replied Brown, and when the reporter said he couldn't Brown walked over and spoke with him. "Can you imagine Vince Lombardi doing that?" a bystander asked. "I can't imagine Paul Brown doing that," another responded.

And then I was off to Green Bay, where I had a very different approach in mind. My idea was to spend several days watching Lombardi and talking to just about everybody but him because I felt he was unlikely to diverge from what he'd expressed in a sheaf of clippings I had. I checked into a motel in Green Bay and drove the 30 miles to St. Norbert. Since it was Sunday there was no practice. An assistant coach I happened upon, Mike McCormick, said that coaches and reporters gathered for a cocktail hour every day at five in a dorm that served as Packers summer headquarters.

By the time I arrived Lombardi was holding court in a corner of the room. Principal topic of the day was not football but golf because the final round of the PGA Championship was on a television at one end of the room and his friend Julius Boros was winning. I hung back, pondering whether to say hello. No need. Lombardi had spotted me. I watched him whisper to a colleague and gesture in my direction, igniting a chain reaction. One assistant asked another and another until the question reached McCormick, who sent word of my identity back in the other direction. Then I could see Lombardi asking his friend and biographer, the journalist Bill Heinz, about me and getting a blank look. That was when looked over and said in his familiar boom, "Hello, I don't believe we've met!"

I introduced myself without explaining my exact mission. My presence didn't escape Lombardi's notice again at the training table for breakfast Monday morning at dawn. "Is he staying here?" I overheard him ask a press aide. As planned, I did my best to stay out of his view and we did not exchange another word that day or the next two. I interviewed the new coach, Phil Bengtson, as well as quarterback Bart Starr and a slew of Packers greats from a dynasty about to fade, chatted with beat reporters as I had done in Ohio, and mingled with locals in town.

There were two questions to consider. The first and most definable was whether Lombardi's absence from the sidelines during games and hands-on approach at practice would impact the Packers. It would be the equivalent now of pondering how the Patriots might adjust if Bill Belichick left.

The veteran players insisted the culture he had created would survive his departure. "The older guys know what it's like to lose," linebacker Dave Robinson said, "and everyone here knows what it's like to win." All-Pro defensive back Herb Adderly said the desire to perpetuate that success would motivation enough. "It's a funny thing about money," was how he put it. "The more you get the more you want. Knowing the money's there waiting makes you want to work that much harder for it. Each year we come here thinking we have a better team that can do it. Any place else, guys get old. Here there are always younger men to fill in."

But unstated was that those newcomers would not be coached by Lombardi -- and enough players attributed the team's success to his presence to make me wonder. "We have had a man who was able to motivate even to the point that you were never satisfied even with winning," Starr said. "He told us, 'Anybody will get to the top one time. But the real test is your ability to stay there. That's the mark of a champion.'" And Jerry Kramer, the guard and placekicker whose collaboration with writer Dick Schaap on a best-selling book called Instant Replay made him a double celebrity, sounded almost wistful. "I don't think I was fully aware of what we had going here until the last couple of years," he said, "and I'm becoming more and more aware of it with each day."

But what about the second question? How would his new role impact Lombardi himself? Almost everyone agreed he would find it difficult to adjust to his new behind-the-scenes role, reinforcing what I thought I saw watching him. When Lombardi hosted University of Arkansas coach Frank Broyles and his staff at practice one morning, the offense was going through a drill. He diagrammed the blocking scheme and then said, "They've put in a new wrinkle this year. They're smarter than I am!" sounding like the don in a gangster movie as the others forced an obligatory laugh. Another day, with the team practicing in a fierce downpour, few fans were there. But a block in the distance I spotted a stolid figure in a rain slicker standing motionless and watching intently. It was Lombardi.

By Wednesday I was ready to head home, armed with evidence that Lombardi was already uncomfortable out of coaching (something affirmed a year later when he left to coach the Washington Redskins before his death at 57 from cancer in 1970). But I stayed for the daily 5 o'clock gathering. I was just a bit smug about how much I had gleaned without speaking to Lombardi and wanted to thank him for the hospitality the team had extended to an interloper from New York, fully expecting that I would have to remind him of who I was.

The usual coterie of coaches and writers surrounded him and I waited for an opening. The television was tuned to the Mike Douglas talk show. When Douglas introduced movie star George Hamilton, who was often in the news as First Daughter Lynda Baines Johnson's escort, I heard a voice boom out, "My god, that guy's hair is almost as long as Ed Hershey's!" It was Lombardi's way of letting me know that he was still totally engaged. Far from forgetting my name, he knew what I was up to all along.

* * * * * * *

Postscript: I had breakfast with Paul Brown the day the Bengals' first season ended with a 3-11 record, a day the Packers edged the Bears to finish 6-7-1 in Vince Lombardi's last game as GM. In 1969, he coached the Redskins to their first winning record in 14 years, the start of a resurgence that led them to the 1972 Super Bowl two years after he died of cancer.


5 comments, Last at 13 Aug 2018, 10:54am

2 Re: Paul, Vince, and Me

Really enjoyed this. Not too much is written about Lombardi's transition before he left for DC. One minor correction that's in a couple places: St Norbert's College (where the Packers still stay for the first part of the preseason) is in DePere and only five miles south of Green Bay. It only seems like 30 miles between Green Bay and DePere.