Unitas to Namath, Ewbank always reached goal line

John Steadman

September 27, 1993|By John Steadman

That Wilbur "Weeb" Ewbank coached and won the two most celebrated pro football games of the last 50 years sets him apart. It's a distinction that is his alone to cherish and treasure for perpetuity.

The Baltimore Colts and Ewbank beat the New York Giants, 23-17, in the first overtime the NFL ever knew in winning the 1958 championship. Then, after being fired in Baltimore, he rebounded in New York and took the Jets to a 16-7 victory over a Colts team that was a 16 1/2 -point favorite in the Jan. 12, 1969, Super Bowl.

Both events delivered historical impact. Ewbank was the maestro. He held the baton, planned the strategy and orchestrated the victories. He had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, John Unitas in Baltimore and Joe Namath in New York, to work with, and for personal reasons will not put himself in a position of naming which was better.

Ewbank, still bouncing about the country at age 86, is visiting Baltimore for today's Pro Football Legends Golf Classic sponsored by Larry Brown and Unitas for the Kidney Fund. It's a time for him to contemplate the pleasures of the past, which Baltimore offered when he finally got his first coaching job with the pros at the rather advanced age of 47.

He realizes Baltimore is in line for an expansion franchise if the NFL approves, and he gives the city a strong endorsement, while also aware of his own connection with two competing cities, St. Louis and Charlotte, N.C.

It was in St. Louis where he coached Washington University, his only college position, before being hired as an assistant with the Cleveland Browns.

As for Charlotte, the prospective owner there is Jerry Richardson, whom Ewbank drafted on the 13th round for the 1959 season.

"Jerry was a high-type boy and a hard worker," he recalled. "I remember he scored a touchdown in the title game when we beat the Giants for our second straight championship, the game we played in Baltimore."

The most impressive aspect of Ewbank's career as a pro head coach, embracing 20 years, was an ability to organize a squad, from training camp through the regular schedule, and, of course, to evaluate talent. He excelled at both, using the skills to lift two poor teams, the Colts and Jets, to championships.

He first looked at Unitas, who had been discarded in Pittsburgh without even getting so much as a chance to play a single down in an exhibition game, and recognized the potential. He liked Unitas, saw something in him when others didn't.

"I can't remember Weeb cutting a player who went somewhere else and made an impact," said Unitas. "That's the way to measure a coach. Does he know a player when he sees one? Some of them don't; others do. Ewbank was the best at that."

With the Jets, he had an All-America selection, Namath, deposited in his lap. Namath was the antithesis of Unitas, but Ewbank knew what to do with him. He never tried to change Namath's style of passing or his lifestyle, but accepted the ability he brought with him.

The Jets didn't have a license to beat the Colts in Super Bowl III, but Ewbank knew how to lull the opposition into believing his team was a soft touch and then, when they were "all puffed up like a big toad," to use his expression, lowered the boom.

He got the Jets to play the game of their lives. They were ready. The Colts felt totally superior to the Jets. Such an attitude can be fatal -- and it was. Jets 16, Colts 7.

l,.5l From that momentous surprise, go back to 1958, at Yankee Stadium, when the Colts were preparing to meet the Giants. Ewbank's locker room remarks dealt with how many of his players had been rejected by rival clubs, including Unitas, Art Donovan, Bert Rechichar, Art Spinney, Buzz Nutter, Carl Taseff, Leo Sanford, Ray Krouse, Fred Thurston, Jackie Simpson, Milt Davis and others. He emphasized this was the opportunity to prove how wrongly they had been judged.

It was an inspirational message delivered in the same stadium, the visitors' locker room, where Knute Rockne emoted his famous "Win One For The Gipper" pep talk in 1928 when Notre Dame came from behind to beat Army, 12-6. There was little difference, except the Colts played for money and pride; Notre Dame for the sis-boom-bah glory that went with winning a college game.

Wilbur "Weeb" Ewbank knew his subject, football, and didn't need a road map to tell him how to reach the goal line. He took the players available and extracted the maximum -- which is the most profound compliment that can be paid to any coach, regardless of what sport he's pursuing.

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