Ernie Zampese died this week. He was 89, an offensive legendary genius in the game who never had the title of head coach and the accolades that come with that title.
He made his bones with Don Coryell — the game-changing coach who is currently a finalist as a coach/contributor for the Pro Football Hall of Fame — first with San Diego State (replacing John Madden on Coryell’s staff) and later with the San Diego Chargers, where he was a big part of the Air Coryell passing attack, eventually getting the title of assistant head coach.
In his early days with the Chargers, one of his fellow assistants was Joe Gibbs, who tried to convince Zampese to come to Washington when Gibbs got hired by the Redskins in 1981, but the story goes that Zampese liked life on the West Coast. He would later work as the offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. He would finish his career, ironically, finally with Gibbs as an offensive consultant when the three-time Redskins Super Bowl-winning coach came out of retirement to coach Washington in 2004. His son, Ken, is currently the quarterback coach for the Commanders.
In Zampese’s obituary, it was noted that he had recently been honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame with an “Award of Excellence,” created by the Hall to acknowledge the work of some of the great assistant coaches, trainers, equipment managers and public relations personnel. Zampese was among five assistant coaches who were honored, along with Alex Gibbs, Jimmy Raye, Fritz Shurmur and former Redskins assistant Terry Robiskie (wonder if Deion Sanders can pronounce his name now?).
Their names will be on display inside the Hall as part of the Awards of Excellence exhibit.
I’ll confess this was the first I learned of these Awards of Excellence. This was the inaugural class.
My first question wasn’t this: Why wasn’t Richie Petitbon included in this group? It was: Why isn’t the award for assistant coaches named after Richie Petitbon?
You would be hard-pressed to find a more noteworthy assistant coach deserving of this award than Petitbon. He was the architect of the Washington defenses that went to four Super Bowls, winning three of them, with a cast of players that was significantly different with each championship. And while there were some excellent players on those defenses, Petitbon coached only one Hall of Fame defensive player — Darrell Green. He was Gibbs on defense.
Respected NFL writer Rich Gosselin made the case in a 2018 Sports Illustrated article that Petitbon group led the NFL in scoring defense in 1981, in run defense in 1983 and in pass defense in 1985. Three of his defenses finished in the NFL’s top 5 and two more finished in the top 10.
Gosselin was making the case for Petitbon’s consideration as a Hall of Fame candidate — which doesn’t happen for assistant coaches. He presented Petitbon as a candidate for his “body of work” as an assistant coach and a player. Petitbon nearly had a Hall of Fame playing career.
He was drafted out of Tulane, where he played quarterback, by the Chicago Bears in the second round in 1959 and converted to safety. Petitbon was there through 1968 and wound up with 38 career interceptions for the Bears, the second most in franchise history. He followed defensive coordinator George Allen to Los Angeles and then Washington to finish his career with 48 career interceptions when he retired in 1972. He was a four-time Pro Bowler who was named to the second team of the All-1960s by Pro Football Reference.
Gosselin’s pitch was the combination of the two careers as a player and coach made Petitbon Hall of Fame worthy. I would agree. But there has not been any precedent for that kind of consideration.
This “Awards of Excellence” honor though speaks exactly to Petitbon’s credentials. It’s as if the award was created for him — ergo, my question is why it wasn’t named after Petitbon.
According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s website, the winners are selected by committees for each of the groups. The website stated this was the group that determined the recipients of the Awards of Excellence for assistant coaches: Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren, Jimmy Raye and Terry Robiskie.
Notice anything familiar about those last two names?
The case for Petitbon, who will turn 85, next year, better be made by someone on the committee that considers the second class for the Awards of Excellence, or there will be nothing excellent about it. And they might want to rename it the Richie Petitbon award.
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