Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game (Clerisy Press, 2012)
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Sid Gillman is the only coach in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame, and yet he remains far less well known than contemporaries like Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown. Though Brian Billick explains in the introduction that Gillman’s reputation among coaches is “second to none”, Josh Katzowitz’s biography seeks to spread his name more widely.
Though Gillman won just one title – the 1963 AFL Championship – his influence on football is still felt today. The book’s subtitle is “father of the passing game” and that’s no exaggeration. He was an early proponent of stretching the field horizontally, by spacing out receivers, and vertically, with complementary pass patterns. An often-repeated anecdote tells of the time Gillman, as head coach of the AFL’s San Diego Chargers, sent an assistant to consult a maths professor about the geometrics of passing routes.
The AFL had a gunslinging passing style that contrasted with the staid, run-focused NFL of the 1960s. Although it was the AFL that joined the NFL, today’s NFL plays AFL football and, in particular, Sid Gillman football. A major influence on Chuck Noll, Dick Vermeil and Bill Walsh, among others, Gillman is the man to think of whenever you see a tight end split the defense with a seam route, or a halfback flare out of the backfield.
Katzowitz does a nice job detailing Gillman’s innovative approach in the opening chapter, which covers the Chargers’ 51-10 hammering of the Boston Patriots in that 1963 title game. Gillman neutralised the Patriots’ blitz with a man in motion, shifting the strong side of the offense and forcing the defense to change responsibilities on the fly. This is a standard tactic today but was completely new at the time and it baffled the Patriots. Gillman, known as a passing guru, tore them apart with a ground game that picked up 123 yards on two carries as the Chargers took a 14-0 lead inside four minutes.
I could read a whole book of this stuff, honestly, but that book is The Games That Changed the Game, which also opens with a chapter on that AFL Championship Game. This book is a biography and it soon settles into the story of Gillman’s life and career. The coach grew up Jewish in a Minnesota that was, at the time, rife with anti-Semitism. He met his wife Esther while they were both teens and they married after he got his degree. While Gillman worked his way through the coaching ranks, from college to the pros, Esther supported him and their growing family.
Gillman’s children had a strong impact on the book, providing lots of material. What emerges is a driven man, obsessed by work and often absent, but still loved by his family. His determination to win could be offputting, however. It’s striking how many people didn’t want to speak to Katzowitz – even decades after crossing paths with Gillman.
There are incidents such as the use of steroids by Chargers players that help to explain why. The drugs weren’t banned in the 1960s, but there was growing awareness of the risks of taking them. Some players remain angry with Gillman, feeling that he was willing to take unacceptable risks with their bodies in order to win. Other players, and Gillman’s family, say he would never do such a thing and that, at worst, he turned a blind eye.
Gillman’s complexity is that he was a man of principle who sometimes sacrificed those principles in the name of victory. His flaws are open to interpretation, particularly because he never wrote a book that explains his side of the story.
The book would have benefited from more attentive editing. It’s occasionally repetitive, and in one case strangely contradictory. On page 116 Katzowitz writes: “After [Woody] Hayes took the Ohio State job – the position Gillman apparently recommended for Hayes after an anti-Semitic establishment wouldn’t give it to Gillman – their hatred expanded.” However, a few pages earlier, Katzowitz concluded that Gillman was probably only a fringe candidate for the job and, furthermore, even if he had been denied it, he was unlikely to have recommended his biggest rival. The truth will never be known, but it is odd to repeat a story having already concluded that it was unlikely to be true.
Small quibbles aside, this is an engaging read. Gillman’s story is a crucial part of the history of football and this well-researched biography does a great job of explaining why.