Sid’s silent minority

In the course of arranging interviews for my Sid Gillman book, I came across a number of people who didn’t want to talk. Most who refused didn’t want to speak to me on the record or off.

This didn’t happen when I was interviewing for my first book, Bearcats Rising – well, that’s not true; one old University of Cincinnati running back named DeMarco McClesky, one of the better players in the 1990s, declined to talk to me through another former player. But for the most part, I found that when I told someone I was writing a book, they were more than happy to talk for as long as I wanted. And even the ones who normally were terrible quotes transformed into great talkers.

Hell, Rick Minter – who probably got screwed out of coaching UC in the Big East and had a real reason to be bitter – sat with me at a Frisch’s restaurant for three hours discussing things good and bad as I asked him tough questions about his job performance. And then he bought me breakfast afterward.

But for this book, there were a number of people (and they were from very specific areas of Sid’s life) that refused to speak about him. Ask just about any coach currently working in the NFL or anybody retired who knew of Sid or worked for him, and they’re likely to go on for hours extolling his virtues.

Then, however, I tried to talk to former Chargers receiver Lance Alworth, a Hall of Famer who was probably the best receiver in AFL history and who played under Sid. I called him at least three times at his office in California and left three messages (some on his voicemail, some with a secretary). I never heard back.

I tried to talk to former Chargers quarterback John Hadl and reached him at his office in Kansas. He said he would have to think about whether he wanted to engage with me, even though he said he and Sid were extremely close (after playing for Sid in San Diego, he hired Sid as his offensive coordinator when Hadl coached in the USFL). I told him I’d call him back for an answer. I did. Left him a voice mail. Never heard back.

I got Earl Faison, one of the best defensive players for a time in the AFL, at home. He said very politely that he had no interest in speaking with me. I tried to talk to old Miami (Ohio) personnel through an intermediary. No dice. I tried to talk to Bengals owner Mike Brown, and with the exception of an innocuous off the record remark, he had no interest (though, to be honest, he was helpful in confirming one small detail in the book).

And hey, I understand. Sid was not well liked by many of the players he coached (you should read Dan Pastorini’s comments in the book), and there were quite a few people who believed that Sid screwed them at some point in the past. In some cases, those people are probably correct.

I can understand why Alworth would be mad and Hadl and Faison and Mike Brown and those Miami alums wouldn’t have good memories of Sid (although a number of those who didn’t talk to me did talk to a researcher and AFL enthusiast named Todd Tobias, who wrote his Master’s thesis on Sid – a manuscript that helped me immensely).

And I wonder how much of it had to do with Sid’s long reign as the general manager in San Diego. He got that job in 1960 along with his head coaching job when original L.A. Chargers general manager Frank Leahy had to resign because of health issues. Sid wielded that GM power like a machete to whisk away his players’ requests for raises just as quickly as he cut down their dignity in the process.

That, of course, was Sid’s job, but that doesn’t mean some players didn’t despise him because of it and that some of those players that despised him couldn’t separate Sid the GM from Sid the coach (in many ways, those two roles are diametrically opposed in the matter of player relations).

As former Chargers running back Keith Lincoln told me, “You’re a professional. You’re doing your job. You’re not going to get a better paycheck anywhere else. What do you want to do? Quit? You’re not going to quit. Some people have to bitch and complain just to be happy. There were some that would grouse, “[Sid] acts like it’s his own money.’ But he had a job he was doing too. I never begrudged him that.”

Obviously, some did. And some still hold a grudge 45 years later. And some, either because they didn’t want to be on record praising the guy or because they simply hated him all these years later, simply didn’t want to talk about it.

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