Remembering Colts revolt

1976: A week before the start of the season, Baltimore coach Ted Marchibroda walked out after a dispute with management, and his players threatened to follow.

Pro Football

September 09, 2001|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There is an electric air of anticipation around Baltimore as the Ravens conclude their preparations to open the 2001 NFL season in defense of their world championship. This euphoric feeling is in stark contrast to the atmosphere surrounding the training camp of the Baltimore Colts a quarter of a century ago.

"Rebellion" rather than "repeat" was the word most often heard among the 1976 Colts, rallying in support of their coach, Ted Marchibroda, who had resigned a week before the season opener in a power struggle with general manager Joe Thomas.

Quarterback Bert Jones, who spearheaded the Colts' rags-to-riches on-field transition from a 2-12 record in 1974, when Howard Schnellenberger was fired after coaching three games, to 10-4 and an AFC East title in 1975, remembered making a call to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.

"I said, `Pete, you'd better get your rear end down here or you might have big trouble. We might not play in New England on Sunday,' " Jones said. "I heard this big gasp and then Rozelle kind of laughed nervously and asked, `Are you serious, Bert?'

"I told him I was dead serious. Rozelle said, `Bert, don't do anything irrational. I'll see what I can do.' "

No one is sure what role Rozelle may have played in restoring order, but for three tumultuous days in September, there was serious concern whether the Colts would start the 1976 season.

The bucolic scene at St. Mary's Seminary in West Baltimore, where the team held its preseason workouts, was worthy of Andrew Wyeth's brush. But the turmoil and festering unrest among the players belied the tranquil setting.

"At this point," tight end Raymond Chester said at the time, "we could resurrect Vince Lombardi and it wouldn't help. They've destroyed the team."

Thomas soon added a comic touch to the doom and gloom. Cornered by the media, which was searching for answers concerning his missing head coach, Thomas sought refuge by barricading himself in the dormitory lavatory and then eluded the pursuing media by retreating down a rickety fire escape.

Meanwhile, team owner Robert Irsay remained incommunicado, drifting in his yacht, The Mighty I, on Lake Michigan. In a terse statement the previous night, he told The Sun, "Marchibroda expressed his concern about the Colts' system of running the football club. He requested the system be changed or, otherwise, he would resign. Based on his request of the entire Colt system, I accept his resignation."

Marchibroda had sought more input in player personnel decisions, particularly after the team had traded linebacker Mike Curtis and quarterback Marty Domres after the 1975 season and received little in return.

But Irsay hastened Marchibroda's departure following the Colts' desultory performance in a 24-9 thumping by the Lions in a preseason game at Detroit.

"Irsay came into our dressing room, screaming and cursing," recalled star running back Lydell Mitchell, who owns a bakery firm with former Pittsburgh Steeler and fellow Penn State alumnus Franco Harris. "He had face-to-face confrontations with me, Ray Chester and Bert Jones. He singled out a couple of guys and told [safety] Ray Oldham to stand in a corner.

"True, we played terribly, but Mr. Irsay didn't realize we kept our offense as basic as possible. We weren't going to show all our tricks when it didn't count. He just overreacted."

Jones was less diplomatic. "I didn't know if Irsay was talking, or letting his whiskey have a chance," he said.

The final straw came when Irsay demanded that Marchibroda fire his coaching staff, and the assistant coaches joined the player protest."That exhibition game in Detroit was a very small part of it," recalled Marchibroda, who lives near Williamsburg, Va. "My first year in Baltimore, Joe [Thomas] and I talked all the time. We were on the same page, with no interference from the front office.

"But everything changed that off-season. Joe stopped talking to me. I wasn't that demanding. I just couldn't get things I wanted. Players were going out the door, but no one was coming in to replace them. I couldn't blame Mr. Irsay. It was all the misinformation Joe was giving him.

"We even argued over the little things. I remember Thomas telling me the first year that making money is more important than winning games."

While the Colts conducted practices in the absence of their coaches, Irsay summoned Marchibroda and Thomas to a peace summit aboard his yacht. But the meeting only strengthened Marchibroda's resolve to hold out for concessions.

"Once we started talking, I knew Irsay would back Joe," said Marchibroda, who is the sole survivor among the three.

His stand helped solidify the leadership roles of Jones, Mitchell, Chester and strong safety Bruce Laird, who used their strong voices and personalities to unify the team and urge Thomas and Irsay to end the stalemate.

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