Gillman, Sydney (“Sid”)

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Gillman, Sydney (“Sid”)

(b. 26 October 1911 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; d. 3 January 2003 in Century City, California), football coach best known for his influence on the modern passing game and for being the only coach enshrined in both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

Gillman, one of the originators of the West Coast offense, was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father, David Gillman, owned several movie theaters; his mother, Sarah (Dickerson) Gillman, was a homemaker. Gillman began his athletic career as a star end on the North (Minneapolis) High School football team. To better understand the game, he studied football highlights that he cut out of the newsreels shown in his father’s theaters.

Gillman’s success earned him a football scholarship to Ohio State University. From 1931 through 1933, he played end for Coach Francis Schmidt, becoming team cocaptain and winning honorable mention All-America honors during his senior year. Gillman also participated in the first college All-Star game in Chicago. Gillman graduated from Ohio State with a BA in English in 1934 and became an assistant coach. Under Schmidt, the Buckeyes were known for using a wide variety of offensive formations and running up the score on weaker opponents. Both would remain hallmarks of Gillman’s coaching throughout his career.

In 1935 Gillman married Esther Berg. The couple had a son and three daughters. That same year he left Ohio State and became an assistant coach at Dennison University. He remained at Dennison through 1937 and then returned to assist at Ohio State from 1938 through 1940. In 1941 he was back at Dennison and then spent 1942 and 1943 at Miami of Ohio. In 1936 he also briefly played pro football with the Cleveland Rams.

In 1944 Gillman was promoted to head coach at Miami of Ohio. He inherited a team well stocked with players from the military’s V-12 program. During World War II many colleges had trouble fielding athletic teams because of the large number of male students in the military. Some colleges were chosen as host sites for the V-12 program, where officer candidates would receive advanced training. These cadets were eligible for athletic competition, giving the host colleges a manpower advantage. With this depth, Gillman was able to experiment with two-platoon football, where players specialized in either offense or defense. In order to evaluate his players, he also became the first coach to film his team’s practice sessions. Gillman installed a dynamic offense, which placed emphasis on the forward pass. Between 1944 and 1947, Miami of Ohio had a record of 31–6–1, including a Sun Bowl victory in 1947.

Gillman left Miami of Ohio to spend one year as an assistant to Earl “Red” Blaik at Army, and then, in 1949, he was named head coach at the University of Cincinnati. The Bearcats had traditionally played in the shadow of Ohio State. Gillman brought them national respect. Between 1949 and 1954, Cincinnati earned a 50–13–1 record. Gillman expanded his use of film, having footage of the first quarter of his games rushed to a studio and developed during the second quarter, for half-time viewing. The National Collegiate Athletic Association later banned the practice. In 1955 the association also placed Cincinnati on probation for recruiting violations.

By then, Gillman had left the school and become head coach of the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League (NFL). In his first season, the Rams won the Western Conference but lost the championship game to the Cleveland Browns. His later seasons were not as successful. Retirements, poor drafts, and a feud with the star quarterback Norm Van Brocklin hurt the team. Following a 2–10 season in 1959, Gillman was let go.

Gillman was immediately hired as head coach and general manager of the Los Angeles (later San Diego) Chargers of the new American Football League (AFL). It was with the Chargers that Gillman had his greatest success. The Chargers won the AFL’s Western Division five times during the league’s first six years. Although they won the championship game only once, in 1963, they were instrumental in ensuring the survival of the AFL.

Gillman had always been noted as an innovative offensive coach who relied more than most on the passing game. In San Diego his ideas reached their highest form. The Chargers became the first team to regularly use all five eligible receivers. Gillman stretched defenses vertically by sending speedy wide receivers like Lance Alworth deep on every play. Other receivers ran routes from sideline to sideline, forcing the defense to cover the whole field horizontally. By spreading out the defense, weak spots were created for running plays, and big plays of all types became more common. It was a complex system that pressured the opponent. Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowls as coach of the San Francisco 49ers said: “Sid’s system was as complex as any in history. He had a term for every pass pattern for every receiver. It took years for some people to learn.” Paul Dietzel, who had coached with Gillman in college and had a successful career as head coach at Louisiana State, Army, and South Carolina, once sat in on a Charger staff meeting and left with no idea of what anyone was talking about.

The explosive offense made the Chargers fun to watch, and it often contrasted with the older NFL. For example, in the 1963 AFL championship game, the Chargers rolled up 610 yards of total offense in beating the Boston Patriots, 51–10. One week earlier, in contrast, the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants, 14–10, for the NFL crown—a score that reflected the more defensive-minded nature of the older league. By playing exciting football, the AFL won fans, TV contracts, and credibility. Gillman, intensely watching the action from the sideline in his trademark bow tie, sport jacket, and sunglasses, became a symbol of football for a new generation. His offense became a model for others to follow.

In 1969 a duodenal ulcer forced Gillman to give up the coaching reins, but he remained with the Chargers as general manager. He returned briefly to the San Diego sideline in 1971 and then left the franchise to become an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys. In 1973 he was named general manager of the woeful Houston Oilers. Houston had won just one game in 1972, and when 1973 started the same way, Gillman took over as head coach. In 1974 the Oilers finished with a 7–7 record, and Gillman was named coach of the year.

Gillman officially retired after the 1974 season, with an overall head-coaching record in the pros of 123–104–7. Over the next thirteen years he made a series of comebacks, serving as an assistant coach with the Chicago Bears in 1977, the Philadelphia Eagles in 1979–1980 and 1982, the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League in 1984, and the University of Pittsburgh in 1987. He was also briefly listed as the head coach and athletic director of United States International University in 1979.

Even after his formal coaching career ended, Gillman continued to evaluate game film for others. He was widely considered to be the foremost authority on the passing game and using pass routes and formations to pull opposing defenses out of position. Gillman was named to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1983, the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989, and the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1991. Gillman died in his sleep in Century City, California, at the age of ninety-one. He is buried in Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California.

Gillman’s record as both a college and professional head coach are outstanding. His Charger teams, with their explosive offense and hint of Southern California sophistication, brought credibility to the new AFL. But his main contribution was to the strategic development of football. His use of game film for evaluation and his use of the pass to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically to set up the run were innovative and set the tone for the modern West Coast offenses. Both have had a long-term impact on American football.

The best account of Gillman’s college coaching years and retirement is Sally Pont, Fields of Honor: The Golden Age of College Football and the Men Who Created It (2001). Mickey Herskowitz, The Golden Age of Pro Football: A Remembrance of Pro Football in the 1950s (1974), covers Gillman’s years with the Rams. Todd Tobias, “A Bolt from the Past: Sid Gillman as Head Coach in the American Football League” (1999), a master’s thesis done at the University of San Diego, covers his years with the Chargers. Valuable articles on Gillman’s coaching style are Earl Lawson, “Football’s Man Without Mercy,” Saturday Evening Post (8 Oct. 1955); and Paul Zimmerman, “When Sid Was Caesar,” Sports Illustrated (1 Feb. 1988); and “Screen Gems,” Sports Illustrated (2 Sept. 1991). An obituary is in the New York Times (4 Jan. 2003).

Harold W. Aurand