The Last Season of Weeb Ewbank (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974)
By Paul Zimmerman
Out of Print, available secondhand
Weeb Ewbank is not as well known today as contemporaries like Vince Lombardi or Don Shula, but he holds the distinction of being the only head coach to win an NFL title (with the Baltimore Colts in 1958 and 1959), an AFL title (with the 1968 New York Jets) and a Super Bowl (the 1968 Jets again). In late 1972, he announced that he would retire as head coach of the Jets after the 1973 season.
He stayed with the Jets for a short time as an executive, then briefly coached quarterbacks at Columbia University, but the 1973 season was effectively his last. Paul Zimmerman’s book, as its title suggests, chronicles that final year.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the Jets perhaps generate more books than their record deserves because New York is America’s news and publishing centre. If you were going to have Zimmerman, one of the very best football writers, write about any 1973 team, then you probably wouldn’t pick the Jets. But Zimmerman wrote for the New York Post, so the end of Ewbank’s career was an obvious story.
Zimmerman had already written one of the classic football strategy books with The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football (1970) and this one pioneered the ‘inside-the-team’ chronicle. Chunks of the book come from articles he wrote for the Post that year, which gives it a slightly episodic feel, but the ready-made narrative of an unfolding NFL season provides enough structure to hold it together.
With the Jets coming off three consecutive losing seasons, nobody would have expected 1973 to be notable for anything other than Ewbank’s retirement, and it wasn’t. It was another losing season (4-10). In fact, the Jets would not post a winning record until 1981. That arguably gives Zimmerman better material to work with, as he relates a string of disappointments.
Early in the book Zimmerman covers the beginning of Ewbank’s career, as a high school coach who moved up to college and then the pros, working for Paul Brown at Cleveland before taking over the Colts. Zimmerman takes an enlightening trip to Ewbank’s home town, Richmond, Indiana, where the coach is inducted into the Indiana Hall of Fame. Thereafter the book becomes more diary-like, documenting the selection of Weeb’s successor, training camp, then the disappointing unfolding of the season itself.
Alongside Weeb, whose quiet character emerges slowly, the book gives plenty of attention to Joe Namath, of course. Zimmerman talks about how the quarterback, still one of the Jets’ big stars, played a role in breaking-down racial divides within the team. In the dining room, for example, where players frequently segregated themselves, Namath would often take a seat with the black players, which encouraged others to mix further. That seemingly small gesture can’t be overstated in early 1970s America.
Runningback John Riggins figures prominently, too. The fullback’s mohican haircut attracted almost as much media attention as his decision to hold out of training camp for more money. The stand-off gives Zimmerman a chance to highlight Ewbank the negotiator. The coach had a reputation for stinginess, which is supported here. Riggins eventually settles for much less than he wanted, signing in memorable fashion. Ewbank tells Zimmerman:
“It was the damnedest thing. He signed the contract sitting at the desk in my office. He had on leather pants, and he was stripped to the waist, and he was wearing a derby hat with a feather in it.”
For the modern reader, Zimmerman’s observations on the national anthem and the growing patriotism around football games is interesting. Ewbank describes getting a dozen letters each season complaining that a particular player doesn’t stand to attention during the anthem. The coach says:
“Before a game I want my ballplayers thinking about their assignments and the opponent, not thinking about standing at attention or the words to a song. People don’t realise how much concentration goes into this game. They think you just throw the ball and listen to the thud.”
At Green Bay, for the opening game of the Jets’ season, the pre-game entertainment features the Secretary of Defense inducting 88 men into the US Navy. “It was a sick scene,” writes Zimmerman, “and the crowd, to their credit, booed it.” It’s tempting to wonder whether such a scene would be booed today.
The Last Season of Weeb Ewbank is no longer in print, probably because the coach is not one of the more well-known names. It’s worth seeking out, however, not only for a rare portrait of a legendary coach but also for Zimmerman’s incisive observations and engaging style.