Sean Payton (and his blown out left knee) will spend Sunday in the New Orleans coaches’ booth, doing what he can to help his Saints beat the visiting Colts. It’s a vantage point usually reserved for assistants, of course, but there have been a few times in pro football history when head coaches have ventured up there – even totally healthy ones who haven’t been trampled on the sideline by a tight end.
Indeed, it’s possible the first to take the plunge – these things can be hard to pin down – was William “Lone Star” Dietz, who coached the Redskins during their Boston days. Before a game against the Giants at Fenway Park in 1934, Dietz, one of the profession’s freer spirits, thought it might be a good idea to direct his club from the upper deck. He had seen other teams avail themselves of an “eye in the sky”; why couldn’t the head coach be that “eye”?
As George Preston Marshall, the legendary Redskins owner, once explained: “He had this walkie-talkie-like thing that he could use to talk to another coach on the bench. This was the first time he planned to use it.”
Before he left to go upstairs, Dietz told his men, “Even if we win the coin toss, I want us to kick off” – and try to pin the Giants deep in their territory. Then he started walking up the ramp that led to the upper level of the stadium. When he reached the top, he looked down and could barely believe his eyes. The Redskins were lining up to receive the kickoff.
He picked up his walkie-talkie and began barking agitatedly into it. “What the heck’s going on?” he said to a coach down below. “I said to kick the ball.”
“We did kick the ball,” the coach replied. “Harry Newman ran it back 93 yards for a touchdown.”
Dietz’s experience didn’t deter the Packers’ Curly Lambeau from doing the same thing a decade later. For a 1943 game at Detroit, Lambeau positioned himself in the press box and, between cigarettes, communicated with the sideline by telephone. Green Bay won by three touchdowns, so he continued the practice for several years – not every week, but many weeks.
“You can see so much more [up] here,” he said.
According to accounts, Lambeau could be as entertaining as the game itself. Just about everything he said, you see, could be heard by the surrounding sportswriters. After a while, he was moved out of the press box and into “a room created by placing a partition through one of the radio booths,” the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported. But even this didn’t create much of a buffer. Here’s Sam Greene’s description of Curly’s antics in the Detroit News:
He sat in front of a telephone connected with the Green Bay bench and poured into the mouthpiece a mixture of orders, lamentations and invective. Tersely and sometimes tartly, Coach Lambeau gave instructions to his assistant, Red Smith, while the Packers were rolling up a 27-to-6 margin before 41,463 spectators. Frequently, he demanded direct speech with this player or that.
“Let me talk to Pete Tinsley.” … “Put Don Hutson on the line.” … “No, I want Buckets Goldenberg. Where’s Buckets?”
Coach Lambeau, screaming and stamping his feet, saw Green Bay set a National Football League record by intercepting nine forward passes (the previous record was seven), but he never let the Packers hear that anything they did was praiseworthy. His was a tongue geared for censure and abuse.
“That’s rotten quarterbacking, I’ll tell you that.” … “Why did he try [play] 28 from there?” … Then, in an aside to the fellows in the press section: “You’re lookin’ at a dumb ball club.”
Then there’s this review of The Curly Lambeau Show from – I kid you not – Lou Grant of the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1944:
After each Bear[s] touchdown he would bang down the receiver, storm to his feet, glare at the scoreboard and scream like an eagle.
“Carelessness … carelessness … carelessness!!!”
That constituted his only printable comment whenever the Bears hit pay dirt.
A handful of other coaches, including the Lions’ Gus Dorais, followed Lambeau’s lead, but most were content to view the action at field level. The Rams’ Buff Donelli probably spoke for a lot of them when he said that Curly’s brainstorm was great in theory, “but they’d have to build a cage to keep me up there throughout the game.”
The last head coach to choreograph a game from on high – voluntarily, anyway – might have been Hank Stram of the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) in the early years of the American Football League. In John Eisenberg’s fine book, “Cotton Bowl Days,” E.J. Holub, the Texans’ star linebacker, tells this story:
“One time Stram coached a game from on top of a tower on the sidelines. This was the AFL, so anything went. He used the tower in practice and liked it so much he decided to use it in the game. He told the equipment manager to hook the thing up and take it down to the Cotton Bowl. Well, the guy hooked it up to his trunk and was driving down Central Expressway and forgot that it was sitting back there up in the air, and he hit a bridge and cratered the thing. He had to get a welder to weld it back together right there on the spot. When Stram got on top of the tower at the game, the people sitting behind him on the 50-yard line started yelling at him and throwing stuff because they couldn’t see. But he stayed up there. The players had to push the tower around when he wanted to move.”
Sean Payton figures to have a little more privacy than Curly Lambeau did, so he won’t have to worry about his effusions being quoted in the newspaper. In fact, he’s going to try very hard not to make a spectacle of himself, he says. He doesn’t plan to be on the field for pregame warm-ups or even to go to the locker room at halftime.
The latter, after all, can be trickier than it seems. One Sunday in New York, Lambeau left the press box at the half to go address the troops, ended up on the wrong “down” ramp and found himself outside the Polo Grounds. By the time he talked his way past the security guard, halftime was over and the Packers were headed back on the field.