Thanks to younger Irsay, this time he won't need horseshoe

John Staedman

January 29, 1992|By John Steadman

That Ted Marchibroda would want to return to the employ of a bizarre football ownership, which once fired him, is a development that (1) seems implausible and (2) causes some well-intending friends to wonder if he needs to be committed for his own well-being.

But hiring Marchibroda is a winning score for both coach and team. He'll do for the franchise what it desperately needs: create stability, professionalism and will utilize his own competent touch in bringing out the best in a young quarterback.

In being re-introduced as the Colts head coach, Marchibroda showed where his heart is when he mentioned how pleased he was to be back with the Baltimore Colts. Then he remembered it was Indianapolis, not Baltimore, and hastened to correct himself.

The Marchibroda geographical gaffe will be one of the few mistakes he'll make. He's made-to-order for a team that won only one game a year ago and is an ongoing embarrassment to itself and the National Football League.

There's a difference this time. He's working for the son of Bob Irsay, first name Jimmy, and that will be more conducive to establishing a relationship that will be entirely different than what he knew in Baltimore.

The longest night of Marchibroda's life happened Sept. 2, 1976, after the Colts lost an exhibition to the Detroit Lions in the Pontiac Silverdome. What transpired in the dressing room was so disturbing it led to Marchibroda quitting his job for three days and commissioner Pete Rozelle being asked by a friend to intervene.

Rozelle helped restore some temporary sanity to the situation, but a power struggle ensued between Marchibroda and general manager Joe Thomas, the man who brought Irsay to the NFL. Marchibroda won, with Thomas getting fired at the end of the 1976 season.

Back to the Lions and Colts meeting. After the Lions had beaten the Colts, Irsay, the father, all charged up, entered the locker room and berated players and coaching staff. He told safety Ray Oldham to "go stand in the corner over there."

Actually, Oldham had played well but was being erroneously punished, much the way a teacher used to tell a disruptive child in a classroom to "stand in a corner." A bad scene, one that every witness to the events that unfolded may never forget.

Meanwhile, tackle Joe Ehrmann had collapsed and was hyperventilating. Doctors were so concerned they summoned an ambulance to transfer him to a hospital. The players were worried about Ehrmann and here was the owner putting on a post-game show that stunned them almost beyond belief.

Young Jimmy, the son of the owner, was so hurt he cried. He was a mere lad of 15 and even attempted to apologize for his father's conduct on the team bus as it pulled away from the stadium.

Now Jimmy Irsay is the general manager and has a sensitivity that speaks well for his mother, Harriett, who has since divorced her husband, a development that occurred after the Colts were carted off to Indianapolis.

Marchibroda and Jimmy Irsay will get along famously. Father Bob has become more settled and, for the most part, permits his son to make the decisions. This, no doubt, gave Marchibroda reason to believe he'll be happy again coaching a team with horseshoes on its helmets.

"Most of my problems in Baltimore were with Joe Thomas," says Marchibroda. But not all of them. It wasn't Thomas who disrupted coaches and players. In fact, it was believed that when Marchibroda had his peace-seeking meeting with Irsay aboard the owner's yacht, "The Mighty I," that instead of taking on the owner he emphasized his problems with Thomas.

And why did Thomas, who had hired Marchibroda, suddenly become a rival instead of sharing in the coach's accomplishments? Well, in Marchibroda's first year, he set a NFL record by taking a team that was 2-12 in 1974 and turned it around with a mark of 10-4. That has never been done -- not before or since.

In his first three Baltimore seasons, Marchibroda won the divisional title and the Colts were impressive, with the likes of Bert Jones, Lydell Mitchell, Don McCauley, Toni Linhart and a defensive line, known as the Sack Pack, which comprised John Dutton, Fred Cook, Mike Barnes and Ehrmann.

Thomas became disenchanted with Marchibroda after he earned Coach of the Year honors and was being hailed in testimonials all over the country -- even being elected to the Polish American Sports Hall of Fame.

Too bad. "Yes, we really had something pretty wonderful going then," said Marchibroda. "My troubles were with Joe, not Bob." That's true -- but only to a point.

Marchibroda can coach. Players like him. He is innovative and imaginative, without relying on gimmicks. What brought on his demise in Baltimore? "In the end, I didn't win," he answers. "It's that simple. But I proved I can win and that is important."

Indianapolis Irsay is Jimmy, not to be confused with the Baltimore Irsay, who was Bob. Marchibroda, age 60, has been through the football wars and knows what he's letting himself in for as he signs on again with the Colts.

But this time it's a different Irsay he'll be associated with on a daily basis. That gave the job an appeal that wasn't there before.

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