Stram, Henry Louis (“Hank”)

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Stram, Henry Louis (“Hank”)

(b. 3 January 1923 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 4 July 2005 in Covington, Louisiana), football coach whose strategic innovations earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Stram was born in Chicago to Henry L. Stram and Nellie (Boots) Stram. His father abandoned the family’s Wilczek name while wrestling for a circus; he later became a personal tailor and salesman for an upscale clothing company. Stram’s mother was a homemaker but opened a restaurant after her husband’s death in 1938. Stram lettered in football, baseball, basketball, and track at Lew Wallace High School in Gary, Indiana. Although he was only five feet, seven inches tall and 135 pounds, he played halfback and, upon graduating from high school in 1941, won a football scholarship to Purdue University.

Stram started for the Boilermakers as a sophomore in 1942 and played well enough to be invited to the College All-Star Game. Before that game, however, he entered the U.S. Army Air Forces and served for the duration of World War II. Stram returned to Purdue for the 1946 and 1947 seasons, and while he remained a starter, a severe ankle injury limited his effectiveness. In addition to playing football, he won four letters in baseball and was awarded a Western Conference medal as a scholar athlete. He graduated with a BS in physical education in 1948.

Stram remained at Purdue as a graduate assistant on Stuart Holcombe’s football coaching staff. To supplement his income, Stram also played one season of minor league baseball. In 1949 Stram was hired by Purdue’s athletic department to work full-time on the baseball and football coaching staffs. Under Holcombe, Purdue’s football team became noted for its open, complex passing offense, with the quarterbacks Dale Samuel and Len Dawson both winning All-American honors. In baseball, Stram served as the Boilermakers’ head coach from 1951 through 1955, securing a 53–58–2 win-loss-tie record. In November 1953 Stram married Phyllis Pesha, a former Purdue drum majorette and campus radio personality. The couple had six children.

After the 1955 season Holcombe resigned as head football coach. When the Purdue athletic director declined to make Stram his successor, Stram left to serve as offensive coordinator at Southern Methodist University. After one season there, he spent two years at the University of Notre Dame, and in 1959 he assisted at the University of Miami. At all of his coaching stops, Stram was seen as an offensive innovator and an excellent molder of quarterbacks.

Following the 1959 season Stram was approached by the Texas oil millionaire Lamar Hunt, who had been a reserve end at Southern Methodist while Stram was coaching there. For several years Hunt had been trying to persuade the National Football League (NFL) to grant him a franchise for his hometown of Dallas. When Hunt realized that other would-be owners were being similarly rebuffed, he decided to start his own league, the American Football League (AFL). Hunt offered the thirty-four-year-old Stram the position of head coach with his Dallas Texans.

For years critics doubted whether the quality of play in the AFL measured up to that in the older NFL. The Texans at least looked professional, as, having inherited his father’s appreciation for suits, Stram insisted that his players be well groomed and wear coats and ties on the road. On the field, Stram was tactically innovative. In 1960 most teams used the T formation on offense, with running backs spread laterally behind the quarterback, while using four linemen and three linebackers on defense. Offensively, Stram instituted the I formation, lining up running backs behind the quarterback. He also developed the moving pocket, with offensive linemen shifting right or left along with the quarterback. Defensively, Stram developed the triple-stack defense, where linebackers were positioned directly behind the linemen, and experimented with other formations.

In 1962 Stram’s third Texans team won their division with an 11–3 record. Led by Stram’s old Purdue quarterback Dawson, the Texans then defeated the Houston Oilers in sudden-death overtime to win the league championship. The nearly seventy-eight-minute marathon was then the longest game ever played. Following the victory, Hunt relocated the franchise to Kansas City and named them the Chiefs. By 1966 Stram was utilizing sixty-five different offensive formations, and the sophistication of his playbooks led him to start the now universal tradition of holding off-season minicamps. Stram also developed an excellent reputation as an advocate for African-American players, and he reveled in creating mismatches, such as by lining up tall receivers against short defensive backs. Stram won a second AFL title in 1966, beating the Buffalo Bills in the championship game, and the Chiefs were invited to play the NFL champion Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl. The Packers won, 35–10.

Stram’s most important season in Kansas City came in 1969. Although the Chiefs finished second in their division, they were able to work through the playoffs and win a third league championship, earning the right to play the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. This was the last AFL game, as the NFL had agreed to a merger with its upstart rival league beginning the following year. Super Bowl IV was also momentous because the NFL persuaded Stram to wear a wireless microphone during the game. Fans thus heard the excited Stram urge his team to “matriculate” the ball down the field, and the Chiefs in fact did so quite often, beating the Vikings 23–7 and, in the eyes of many, fully legitimizing the AFL.

Stram was the only coach to remain on the sideline for the entire history of the AFL, and he won more games and championships than any other coach. As the Chiefs entered the NFL and the 1970s, however, the team aged, and star players retired. They won a last division championship in 1971 but lost to the Miami Dolphins in another record overtime game, this one lasting over eighty-two minutes. After the Chiefs went 5–9 in 1974, marking the Chiefs first losing season since 1963, Hunt fired Stram.

Stram became a broadcaster for one year, then returned to coach the hapless New Orleans Saints in 1976 and 1977. With a 7–21 record there, Stram logged a final coaching record of 136–100–10. In 1978 Stram returned to the broadcast booth, often teaming with Jack Buck on CBS radio and television. Unlike many former coaches, Stram was talkative enough to be a successful color commentator, and he was noted for his ability to predict which plays would be called. For years, serious football fans would watch football on Monday night on television with the volume off, listening instead to Stram and Buck on the radio.

Stram’s health declined in the 1990s, mostly due to diabetes. By the time of his 2003 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, he was confined to a wheelchair and had to give his acceptance speech by video recording. Stram said, “I’ve lived a charmed life. I married the only girl I ever loved, and did the only job I ever loved.” Stram died in Covington, Louisiana, on 4 July 2005 due to complications caused by diabetes. Strategically, he is remembered as a coach who changed the way football is played, while his style and class helped give the AFL the recognition and respect it needed to survive.

Articles and a newspaper clipping file on Stram can be found at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Stram collaborated with Lou Sahadi on his autobiography, They’re Playing My Game (1986). Joe McDuff, Winning It All: The Chiefs of the AFL (1970), is a good account of Stram’s most famous team, while Stram is quoted extensively in Jeff Miller, Going Long: The Wild 10-Year Saga of the Renegade American Football League in the Words of Those Who Lived It (2003). An obituary is in the New York Times (5 July 2005).

Harold W. Aurand