Bridgers takes aim at football criticism

October 06, 1994|By BILL TANTON

We all know what's wrong with football. The game's ills are reported almost ad nauseam.

John Bridgers, who was back in Baltimore this week, has written a book entitled "What's Right with Football." It will be published in the spring by Eason Press in Austin, Texas.

Bridgers spent 28 years coaching football. In the late 1950s, he was an assistant to the Colts' Weeb Ewbank. For four years before that, he coached Johns Hopkins. Later he coached with Paul Dietzel and Chuck Noll.

Counting his time as athletic director at Baylor, Florida and New Mexico, Bridgers worked in football 42 years -- plus the four he played at Auburn.

There's not much about the game that he doesn't know. At 72, he insists there's not as much bad as people think and a lot more good than they realize.

"You'd be surprised how many football players do well in school," says Bridgers, now retired and living in Gulf Breeze, Fla.

"I could go on about players who got to college through football and became successful men. You don't hear about them, though.

"I coached a boy at Baylor named Mickey Kennedy, a 195-pound guard. He studied in France on a Fulbright Fellowship. He got his Ph.D. Now he's head of the history department at a college in South Carolina.

"There are a lot of Mickey Kennedys out there, but nobody ever writes about them."

It's no surprise that some of Bridgers' former Hopkins players went on to big things.

Ben Civiletti became Attorney General of the United States under President Carter. Ernie Bates, Hopkins' first black football player, is now a brain surgeon in California and a trustee of the university.

Bridgers never had a player with more determination than Dick Watts at Hopkins 40 years ago. Watts went on to coach lacrosse for 30 years, 20 of them at UMBC.

What brought Bridgers to Baltimore was "An Evening with Dick Watts," a banquet at which his onetime player was honored.

"I've often marveled at Dick's desire and determination," says championship team [Mason-Dixon Conference] and working in a gas station until 1 a.m. every night. No wonder he was successful in coaching."

In 1976, when Bridgers was director of athletics at Florida State, he hired Bobby Bowden to coach football.

Bowden's Seminoles are the defending NCAA champions, but last summer their program was scandalized because several players had accepted illegal gifts. Sports Illustrated's cover story was headlined: "Tainted Championship."

"That's the kind of thing I'm talking about," says Bridgers. "That made it look like Bowden is running a crooked program and he's not.

"Bobby Bowden is a good person. What happened is that a couple guys from Las Vegas went down to Florida State and told some players they were agents, so the players got some shoes and things through these guys.

"The players were wrong and they were suspended. Bowden didn't know what they'd done until it was over. Neither did his coaches."

With the Colts, Bridgers coached the defensive line -- and what a group it was!

Gino Marchetti and Art Donovan are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The late Big Daddy Lipscomb is a legend. Right end was shared by veteran Don Joyce and a rookie, Ordell Braase.

"The Colts would have cut Braase if it hadn't been for me," Bridgers says. "I talked Weeb out of it.

"Marchetti was the best pass rusher in the business. To this day players copy him. Braase studied Marchetti's moves. He didn't become as good as Gino, but he spent 12 years in the league and played in a couple Pro Bowls."

Donovan, as David Letterman and his audiences were to learn years later, was "a great character and personality, a great guy to have on the team," Bridgers says.

Bridgers has a soft spot for Lipscomb, largely because people forget what a great tackle he was. They remember that he was from Miller High in Detroit rather than a big time college and that he died from a drug overdose.

"Big Daddy wanted to please me more than anybody," Bridgers says. "We went to the Coast in '57 to play the Rams. If we won, we were going to the championship game.

"I was the bed-check coach. On Monday night Big Daddy missed bed check. Weeb fined him $50, which sounds like nothing now, but Lipscomb only made around $9,000.

"Big Daddy paid the fine and apologized. He made 16 tackles that day but we lost the game.

"As we walked off the field, Big Daddy had tears streaming down his cheeks. He said to me, 'I hope you don't think we lost because I stayed out that night.' I told him, 'No, Big Daddy, that's not why we lost.' "

The same year Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom told the players he'd give them $100,000 to split up if they won the division.

"Later," Bridgers recalls, "Gino Marchetti went to Rosenbloom and said, 'Don't offer me money to win. That's an insult. I'm going to give you all I've got anyway.' Rosenbloom never did that again."

So many great memories, John Bridgers says. To him there's plenty that's right with football.

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