Gillman, Sid(ney)

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GILLMAN, Sid(ney)

(b. 26 October 1911 in Minneapolis, Minnesota), football coach best known for his influence on offensive strategy and tactics.

Gillman, the father of football's modern passing offense, was born into a Jewish family in Minneapolis. His father, David Gillman, owned several movie theaters; his mother, Sarah Dickerson Gillman, was a housewife. Gillman became passionate about football and film at an early age. He was a star end on the North (Minneapolis) High School football team and, cutting football highlights out of the newsreels shown in his father's theater, he made primitive game films from spliced footage.

From 1931 to 1933, Gillman played football at Ohio State University (OSU). In his senior year he was named co-captain of the Buckeye team and won honorable mention All-America honors. After graduating from OSU with a B.A. in English, he worked as a graduate assistant for the Buckeye football team. In 1935 he married Esther Berg; the couple had a son and three daughters. He also became an assistant coach at Denison University in 1935. The following year he played professional football for the Cleveland Rams of the American Football League (AFL) while coaching at Denison.

Gillman's college coaching career included assistant coaching positions at Denison from 1935 to 1937 and also in 1941, Ohio State University from 1938 to 1940, Miami University of Ohio from 1942 to 1943, and for the U.S. Military Academy in 1948.

He was head coach at Miami of Ohio from 1944 to 1947 (with a record of 31–16–1) and at Cincinnati from 1949 to 1954 (with a record of 50–13–1). As a head coach, Gillman was known for producing winning teams, running up scores on inferior opponents, and pioneering or adopting coaching innovations. An early advocate of the platoon system, he also won recognition as an expert on option blocking, a simplified blocking scheme that allowed backs to run through holes as they developed. An outspoken proponent of using film as a coaching tool, he became the first coach to film practice sessions. His reliance on film reached new heights at Cincinnati. When he rushed first-quarter game film to a studio so that he could review it with his team at halftime, however, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ruled that this use of film constituted an unfair advantage. The NCAA also placed Cincinnati on probation for recruiting violations in 1955.

Gillman left Cincinnati in 1955 to become head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, marking his debut as a National Football League (NFL) coach. In his rookie year, the Rams played in the league's championship game for the first time in three years, losing to the Cleveland Browns 38–14. Gillman also started the league's first film exchange program. He managed only one other winning season with the Rams, resigning after a 2–10 campaign in 1959 with an overall record of 28–32–1. He achieved greater success as the head coach and general manager of the Los Angeles (after 1960, San Diego) Chargers of the new American Football League. The Chargers became a model of success for the rest of the league, winning five Western Conference championships in the league's first six seasons. Although the Chargers lost consecutive title games to the Houston Oilers (1960 and 1961) and the Buffalo Bills (1964 and 1965), they won the 1963 championship in spectacular fashion, amassing 610 yards of total offense in a 51–10 victory over the Boston Patriots. Gillman's overall record with the Chargers was 87–57–6.

As coach and general manager, Gillman was a tough, driven perfectionist. Charger coaches' meetings featured loud, heated arguments, usually at Gillman's instigation. After the Chargers posted a 4–10 season in 1962, he held the team's next training camp at Rough Acres Ranch, a grassless patch of desert that had to be cleared of rattlesnakes before each practice. He was just as assertive with his fellow head coaches. His pregame ritual with Kansas City head coach Hank Stram included throwing Stram's game plan on the ground and stepping on it. He also continued the take-no-prisoners attitude that had characterized his college coaching career. During a 56–10 trouncing of Denver, whose head coach, Jack Faulkner, was Gillman's former assistant, Gillman went for a superfluous two-point conversion in the game's waning moments. Gillman was also tough on himself, working longer hours than any coach in the professional ranks. He displayed limitless enthusiasm, and he thrived on the strategies of the game.

The innovative offense Gillman installed as the Chargers' head coach remains his greatest legacy. The Chargers became the first team to regularly use all five eligible receivers in pass patterns, and they were also the first team to send a receiver deep on almost every play. Gillman's aggressive passing offense attacked every part of the field, stretching defenses vertically with long bombs to wide receivers and deep passes to tight ends, and stretching defenses horizontally with quick strikes to the sidelines. Reversing a popular axiom, he stated that the Chargers "passed to set up the run." Yet Gillman was also obsessed with stretching the defense with the running game. He pulled tackles to lead sweeps for all-league running backs Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe, with Hall of Fame tackle Ron Mix usually leading the play.

After 1965 the Chargers fell to a perennial third-place finish in the AFL West. Resigning as head coach in 1969 because of a perforated ulcer, Gillman was employed as the team's general manager when the NFL and the AFL merged in 1970. He returned as head coach for ten games in 1971. Despite repeated "retirements," he continued coaching for sixteen years. As the head coach of the Houston Oilers from 1973 to 1974 (with a record of 8–15), he ended an eighteen-game losing streak and won AFC Coach of the Year honors in 1974. He also worked as an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys (1972), Chicago Bears (1977), Philadelphia Eagles (1979–1980, 1982), and the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League (USFL) in 1984. He spent four months as the head coach and athletic director of United States International University (1979) and helped as a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh (1987). Public recognition of Gillman's accomplishments increased as his coaching career neared its end. Elected to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1983, his selection as a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989 made him the only coach enshrined in both. He was also enshrined in the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1991.

Gillman remains an important figure in the history of football for several reasons. Few of his peers matched his .814 career winning percentage (81–19–2) as a college head coach. As a professional head coach, his record was 123–104–7. Gillman was also an influential figure in the early development of the AFL, the only league that successfully challenged the NFL. His many innovations overshadow these accomplishments, however. While Paul Brown, Tom Landry, and Bill Walsh were more successful than Gillman at winning championships, Gillman deserves to be rated with them as one of the game's greatest innovators.

Todd Tobias, A Bolt from the Past: Sid Gillman as Head Coach in the American Football League (1999), a master's thesis published at the University of San Diego, provides a full-length account of Gillman's coaching career in the AFL. Bob Curran, The $400,000 Quarterback (1965), includes a more succinct account of Gillman's influence during the AFL's first five years. David L. Porter, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Football (1987), contains a biography of Gillman. Bob Carroll et al., eds., Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (1999), provides an account of Gillman's coaching career. Valuable articles include Earl Lawson, "Football's Man Without Mercy," Saturday Evening Post (8 Oct. 1955); Paul Zimmerman, "When Sid Was Caesar," Sports Illustrated (1 Feb. 1988), and "Screen Gem," Sports Illustrated (2 Sept. 1991); and Bob Wolf, "Under Sid Gillman, the Charger Era Came to Pass," Los Angeles Times (16 Aug. 1989).

Thomas Schaffer