Lou Saban Saw History, Histrionics -- Pats' First Coach Not Ready To Retire
CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. - "I'll tell you exactly how it happened," Lou Saban started to say. "Here's how I got the job. It was the winter of '60 and the Patriots were the last team to start and that guy, that Black Jack, that Black Jack Eddie, that old Notre Dame guy who was in charge. Black Jack Eddie? What was his name, anyway?"
There have been so many jobs. So many teams. So many players. So many names. So many bosses. Lou Saban could be excused for not having Ed McKeever's name on the tip of his tongue.
"Right! Black Jack Eddie McKeever!" Saban said. "Anyway, Eddie wanted to get a guy to coach the Patriots who had played under the (Paul) Brown system, and I was one of those. It was Brown's organization, you see. Gosh, I remember Mr. Brown gave us playbooks, playbooks an inch thick ... nobody ever had playbooks before ... and you know the funny thing, Mr. Brown used to take the playbooks back at the end of the season. He must have put 'em all in the attic of his house, hundreds of hundreds of 'em ...
"Anyway, I was a Brown guy."
Right. Lou Saban had been a linebacker for those great Cleveland Browns teams of the All-America Conference in the late 1940s, the Browns of Otto Graham and Marion Motley, but, most of all, the Browns of Paul Brown. And the fledgling Patriots did what they would do for years: take a coach from a winning team and pray that osmosis works as well in football as it does in the laboratory.
Occasionally, it did. Once in a while. Once in a great while.
"The thing is," Saban now said, "we started so late. We were the last team. All the good players were gone. Sid (Gillman) already had his players out in Los Angeles (with the Chargers) and Hank (Stram) had his players with the (Dallas) Texans. Osmosis. It works sometimes, but first osmosis needs players.
"We had tryouts in the city of Boston from one end to the other," said Saban, the memories now returning in a flood. "We had bricklayers, we had carpenters, we had stoker men, and you name it, we had it. We had 125 helmets in one tryout camp and we put a head in every helmet. I remember our first real camp at the University of Mass. out there in Amherst. I couldn't tell you how many players we had out there. We must have had 350."
Seemingly, it has been 34 years of this for the Patriots. The Patriots were the last team in the American Football League, the Patriots had the least money, the Patriots always had to scrimp and scrounge and scour the earth for success. It is the way the team started; it is the way the team breathed for years and years and years.
"Hah-hah-hah!" boomed a Saban laugh. There was a tryout - or was it a practice? - at a school in Lexington "and I swear this is true," he said. "We were out there in our pads and doing our drills when the kids got out on recess and we had to stop! The kids would be getting in the huddles. We tried to shoo them away. A teacher came over and said the school grounds belonged to the kids and not to us, and when it was recess time, it was the kids' time. So we had to get off the field every time there was a recess."
Of course, it's true. Every wacky and wild story ever told about the Patriots is true. Just as every story ever told about Lou Saban is true. Never have the stars had a better cross than Lou Saban and the Patriots - a vagabond first coach for a vagabond team.
"But, to be honest, Billy (Sullivan) tried the best he could to keep it going," said Saban of his first owner. "We didn't have the money to do a lot of things that we wanted to do, but Billy really did his best."
Hah-hah-hah, another booming Saban laugh. With scant finds, the Patriots of that first year had to do anything to find players, so nobody was ever turned away. Saban particularly remembers an anecdote "when a guy named Coughlin showed up at one of our tryouts and he had a coach with him, and the coach said, `I guarantee you, this guy is the greatest lineman you've ever seen."'
"Well, Walter Cudzik was our center then," Saban continued, "and heck, we were in the middle of practice when this guy showed up, so I said, `Heck, we've got an extra uniform back there, put a uniform on.' And this guy Coughlin came onto the field all puffed up and so I said, `OK, let's do ourselves some one-on-one.' Hah-hah-hah. So I said to Walter Cudzik, `Walter, this guy's supposed to be awful good. So do your job.'
"So Walter just bends this guy over on his back, and Walter did it two or three times. So the youngster is looking pretty bad and then I said to the youngster, `Let's see if you can handle a double-team.' So they stuffed this guy, and so this youngster gets up from the ground, takes off his helmet and just drops it on the ground, then takes off his jersey and drops it on the ground and starts walking off the field, all the while dropping gear - shoulder pads now - all the way back to the locker room, gear on the ground. I'll always remember that."
Butch Songin from Boston College and Tommy Greene from Holy Cross were the team's first quarterbacks ("I think Butch was still playing hockey then, wasn't he? I'm sure he was, in between football") and running backs were Larry Garron, Dick Christy, a so-so back by the name of Jake Crouthamel ("He's still the AD at Syracuse, isn't he?") and the top pick of them all, Gerhardt Schwedes, from Syracuse.
"He just wasn't that good," said Saban. "It hurt us, because he was our No. 1 choice. We kept trying to get something out of him - trade him, anything - but we never could."
A kicker by the name of Gino Cappelletti "called me up and said he wanted to play, and I remembered his numbers from Minnesota," said Saban, "and I said, `OK. Come on in.' Then, when he got here, I could see he could catch the ball in practice and he was a receiver, too, a darned good receiver. Gino, I'll tell you, he was one tough player."
The memories of those first months preparing for the first season are a maze, a haze and a blur.
"We'd play anywhere," said Saban. "Gosh, I remember one scrimmage in a place called ... called Haver-hill? ... right, Haverhill ... and they strung up lights right before the game and it was the darnedest thing. The lights weren't that high and we'd kick the ball and the ball would just disappear in the darkness. You couldn't see the ball! It was the darnedest thing."
Hah-hah-hah! Another booming Saban laugh.
"I remember Eddie McKeever before that scrimmage telling me he wanted the team to march into the stadium in Haverhill, march in like an Army battalion," Saban said. "Eddie said he wanted us to park the bus a half-mile from the stadium and then march that half-mile in formation, you know, to make an impression on the fans. I said, `No team of mine is going to march a half-mile.' We didn't march."
In time a team was formed, a decent team, with good linebackers like Tommy Addison, Jack Rudolph and Tony Sardisco, a better secondary with Ross O'Hanley, Fred Bruney, Chuck Shonta and Clyde Washington, BC's Jimmy Colclough ("Ah, Colclough was very good"), Cappelletti and Oscar Lofton as receivers.
"But we weren't that good on the lines, either offensive line or defensive line," Saban said. "That was a real handicap from starting late - all the good linemen were gone by the time we started."
"But one thing we had was a good (coaching) staff," said Saban, ticking off the names of Mike Holovak, Red Miller and Joe Collier, all of whom would later be head coaches in the AFL or NFL. "And, boy, did that staff work hard. All I can remember is the coaches working day and night, looking at the films, trying to beat the clock, as it were."
The first exhibition season featured a trouncing of the Denver Broncos at Braves Field. And when the first real season opened with a game against those same Broncos, Boston fans were expecting a similar trouncing. The Patriots, though, lost, 13-10.
"Nobody could understand it," Saban said. "But I'll tell you what happened. Our last exhibition game was against the Oakland Raiders and I remember going up to the Oakland coach - oh, what's his name ... the old Navy coach ... right, Eddie Erdelatz - and I said, `Eddie, let's take it easy. We're trying to get our teams together and we can't afford to lose anybody now.' And I thought it was all set. But when the game started, it was vicious. It was a war. A war, I'll tell you. And I think we lost five or six guys in that Oakland game, and right then we couldn't afford to lose anybody, let alone five or six guys."
The next week the Patriots traveled down to the Polo Grounds in New York to play the Titans, owned by legendary broadcaster Harry Wismer and coached by the legendary quarterback, Sammy Baugh. The Patriots won, 28-24, on a bizarre last play when they blocked a punt and defensive end Bob Dee kicked the ball forward into the end zone, where it was recovered for the game-winning TD.
"What I remember about that," said Saban. "Oh, yeah, that blocked punt! Sammy wasn't only a great passer but he was a great punter, too. And what I remember was Sammy walking across the Polo Grounds field after the game, just pulling his hair, and cursing, `A punt, a blocked punt!' I couldn't understand why Sammy wanted to punt the ball; it was the last play of the game.
"Ah, that was a crazy year, that year."
The memories flood back.
"We just never wanted to look bad; we wanted to show we could play so the NFL wouldn't make fun of us," and how "it was the beginning of the pass; we sure as hell threw the ball; Sid was out there in Los Angeles just throwing the ball and we had to keep up with his Chargers," and how he'd step onto the field before a game, especially Braves Field "and I'd always look to see how many people were there in the stands, because we knew the more people there were, the more money." And on and on.
He said it was amazing, that first year of the American Football League, "but the most amazing thing is something that people never mention, that I don't think has ever been written, and to me, this is one of the most remarkable things in sports history.
"The eight teams in that league all survived. They couldn't do that in the All-American Conference where teams folded and teams merged, but the eight teams in the AFL all survived. It's remarkable. Eight teams from vastly different circumstances. I mean, (Lamar) Hunt had money in Dallas and (Bud) Adams had money in Houston and Ralph (Wilson) in Buffalo always had good crowds, but the Patriots struggled, and Oakland, and Harry Wismer was shaky in New York, and Denver had problems, but all eight teams made it to the National Football League. I think that's absolutely remarkable."
Just as Saban is remarkable. His first season in Boston ended at 5-9, and just when he was able to shore up his defensive line by bringing in Houston Antwine and Jim Lee Hunt, "and we were starting to have a team," he was fired. It was early in his second season, Billy Sullivan telling the press in the Hotel Kenmore that Mike Holovak would take over.
"No hard feelings," Saban said. "I think Mike went on and won seven in a row and Mr. Sullivan owned the team. He could do what he wants. I've always felt that way."
Saban has had practice with that, for sure. He went on to Buffalo and coached those Bills of Jack Kemp, Daryle Lamonica, Elbert Dubenion, Cookie Gilchrist and the rest, even coming into Fenway Park three years after being fired by the Patriots and beating Boston in a snowstorm for the AFL Eastern Conference title.
Eventually, Saban was fired in Buffalo and moved on to Denver, "where things were so bad, people were going around the city passing the hat to raise money to save the Broncos from leaving town. We raised $1.9 million in a short period."
In time, Saban helped rebuild the Broncos, who are now as strong as any franchise in the NFL.
Saban has been out of pro football for nearly two decades, and his memories of Buffalo and Denver seemed far clearer and happier than those of his short span in Boston. The Patriots, it seems, were almost just another job, of which Saban has had so many.
"People joke about it," said Saban of his itinerant career. "They laugh about how many jobs I've had."
Even he has a hard time listing them, from high schools in Florida a few years back to a junior college in Nebraska to the last debacle, as Milwaukee's coach in the Arena Football League, from which he was fired this summer.
"The owner's son was running the team - he was still in college, 20 years old, I think - and we had some disagreements," Saban said. "Then a few games into the season, matters came to a head and there was almost a riot. It was not good."
He has been a substitute teacher for years near his home in Florida, going into classrooms two or three times a week, high schools and grammar schools.
"People can't understand that," he said, "but I say, `I've got to keep my mind working.' "
Saban visited Buffalo last month, appearing at booster clubs, on talk radio and TV shows. Saban found time, however, for a more important task.
"There's a junior college down in the southern tier (of New York) and the school president said he wanted to start a program," Saban said. "I believe only two junior colleges in the entire New York state system play football and they want to make this school the third. This will be tremendous for me."
Lou Saban took the job. He will be coaching football once again, just as he has been doing for the last 44 years.
Lou Saban turned 73 years old last month.
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