Tag Archives: Sid Gillman

Don Van Natta, ESPN investigative reporter

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For the second-straight week, the MTTS welcomes a multi-time Pulitzer Prize winner. This time, we have ESPN.com’s Don Van Natta, who’s won three (!) of those awards. In our chat, we talk about how Van Natta could take notes in the midst of a 165-mph hurricane and then churn out a 1,400-word story that helped his newspaper win the Pulitzer, why he turned to sports writing after so many years as an investigative newshound at the NY Times, how over-reporting can help and hurt his stories, and how an investigative reporter spends his days.

Plus, we recount our experiences trying to report and write separate biographies of Sid Gillman at about the same time, and we talk about how tough the book-writing world can be.

My favorite quote from the podcast on how Van Natta operates: “You have to report with insecurity, and you have to write with overconfidence.”

Interviewed on 12-1-14

Here’s the Comfort Inn/Hurricane Andrew story from the Miami Herald we referenced early in the podcast.

And here’s where to sign up for Van Natta’a weekly Sunday Long Read choices.

Clark Judge, Talk of Fame Sports Network/former CBSSports.com NFL writer

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Clark Judge’s new project is fascinating to me, mostly because he, along with the Boston Herald’s Ron Borges and the Dallas Morning News’ Rick Gosselin, have started a radio show that deals strictly with the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the history of the game. Which I love. In our discussion, Judge and I talk about the niche the Talk of Fame Sports Network will fill, why baseball’s history is so idyllic while football’s history is less discussed, whether the Baseball HOF is better than the Pro Football HOF, and how difficult a landscape it is out there for writers who are looking for work.

Plus, we talk about the role and impact of the local sports columnist (as first discussed in Episode 43 with the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s Geoff Calkins). And whenever I get together with Judge, we can’t help but talk about prog rock and prog metal and why that genre of music gets a bad rap. This chat was no different.


Interviewed on 8-18-14

Here’s something similar:

We talked prog rock with Judge. And I talked heavy metal with CBSSports.com’s Jason La Canfora. And ska with Pietasters lead singer Stephen Jackson.

A correction:

During the podcast, I accidently said that the Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Akron, Ohio. Since I’ve actually been there, I, of course, know it’s actually in Canton.

Sid Gillman’s wait for the Miami Hall of Fame

See Sid Gillman's name up there?

See Sid Gillman’s name up there?


Ben Roethlisberger is the most important player to roam the field for Miami University in many decades. I hesitate to call him the best RedHawks/Redskins player ever, though there’s a case to be made that he’s the top quarterback that the school has ever produced. But best ever? Because of former standouts like Paul Dietzel, Mel Olix and Travis Prentice, I’m really not sure.

Either way, nine years after leaving the school for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Roethlisberger was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame on Saturday. Obviously, that’s deservedly so.

Roethlisberger’s* induction, though, reminded me of Sid Gillman, and the reasons it took him until 1991 for the Miami gatekeepers to deem him HOF worthy.

You have to understand that Gillman, to this day, is not well-received by many Miami old-timer alums.

*For the record, I asked Roethlisberger during the run-up to Super Bowl XLV if he knew anything about Gillman for the book I was writing, and he admitted that he couldn’t tell me much.

Gillman was the first in the long-revered Cradle of Coaches, but there are no monuments to him on campus. His likeness will not be made into a statue inside the stadium. There were people who refused to talk to me when I was researching the Sid book because they did not want to discuss the man who left Miami for good after the 1947 season. For the record, that’s 66 (!) years ago.

Sid Gillman made his mark at Miami, but he is also not much more than a blemish on its memories.

“You can have him. [Gillman] owed everybody in Oxford when he left,” Lucy Ewbank, Weeb Ewbank’s widow, said as she attended a Miami football statute ceremony in 2010 (at the time, she was 104 years old, and she lived another 15 months). Her opinions are not atypical at Miami.

The reasons for that are pretty simple. After four seasons of leading the team to a combined record of 31-6-1 record, Sid left Miami to work as an assistant under Red Blaik at Army, and one year later, he returned to southwest Ohio to take the University of Cincinnati head coaching job. Then, he stole many of Miami’s coaches (including head coach George Blackburn) and many of Miami’s best players to join him in Cincinnati.

Miami hired Woody Hayes, who had to rebuild the program that Gillman had raided, and the bitterness remained for many years. Hayes and Gillman eventually fixed their problems, but I can understand Miami’s disgust with Gillman.

And that is why it took Gillman until 1991 to make the Miami Hall of Fame. The Gillman family believes Paul Brown was one of the biggest reasons it took so long for the school to induct Gillman (since Brown played and graduated from Miami and since Brown and Gillman were pro football rivals that never reconciled, it’s not a stretch to believe that theory is true). For god’s sake, Gillman was already a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, so yeah, it was a bit of a stretch that Miami hadn’t seen fit to recognize him.

One of my most thrilling research discoveries for the Sid book was when, while going through folders at the Miami sports information office, I ran across a stack of letters from 1977 that urged the school’s decision-makers to allow Gillman to enter the Hall.

There had been a reunion for the 1947 Sun Bowl team that year, and Gillman’s former players got to talking about the injustice of their coach not being allowed into the Hall (though it could be argued that the honor is reserved for those who graduated from Miami, and Sid, instead, had a diploma from Ohio State). So, his former players decided to write letters – which I read more than 30 years later – to convince the administration that Gillman should be included.

“There was a very strong flavor for his induction,” Ara Parseghian told me in a phone conversation. “People recognized what they had learned from Sid and didn’t think about the negative things, where he got his ass in a jam.”

The former players penned their thoughts on work stationary ranging from the General Motors Corporation to Century 21 to Stevenson Photo Color Company. There was maybe a dozen of them, and as I fanned them across the desk on which I was working, it was a colorful display that repeated the same thing over and over again: Sid deserves to be in the Miami Hall of Fame. His mark on Miami is obvious for all to see. He needs to be recognized. Do it now.

For a guy who I argue falls through the cracks of NFL history, it’s amazing that old grudges kept Gillman out of the place where the people should have known exactly how much he had meant to the program. But that was Sid. An outstanding coach who had made too many enemies. The wart on the index finger pointing the way forward.

Despite all the success and because of all the drama, the school punished him for many years – deservedly or not.

The best part of the Sun Bowl reunion letters, though, was the immediate response from the administration. John Dolibois, the Miami VP of development and alumni affairs, dashed off a quick note to AD Dick Shrider in which he wrote: “I was literally besieged at the Sun Bowl party about Sid Gillman. I now agree … that his time has come.”

And it did. Just took another 14 years to make it happen.

Why Tommy Tuberville is sort of like Sid Gillman

You have to have love stories like this one, regarding how former Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville sneaked out of Lubbock in the middle of the night to take the Cincinnati job. Well, it wasn’t really the middle of the night. No, it was during the middle of dinner.

Via my CBSSports.com colleague Chip Patterson:

[Texas Tech recruit Davonte] Danzey, along with two other prospects — lineman Sunny Odogwu and receiver Javess Blue — and “eight to 10” coaches went to dinner last weekend as part of Danzey’s official visit to Texas Tech. Tuberville was included in the group, but according to the offensive line prospect, the former Red Raiders’ coach did not finish his meal with the group.

“The waitress brought our food out, and we thought (Tuberville) went to the bathroom, but he never came back to dinner,” Danzey told 247Sports.com. “The next thing I know, the next day, he made an announcement that he’s going to Cincinnati.” …

According to Danzey, Tuberville dodged questions early in the dinner regarding how long he planned to be at Texas Tech.

Now, people might decry the way Tuberville left the program (here’s hoping one of his coaches that night picked up the dinner tab, at least), and I know people in Cincinnati are still upset at the way Brian Kelly left the Bearcats program for Notre Dame and with how Butch Jones left for Tennessee (though neither was as dastardly as Tuberville’s process).

But believe me, this kind of deception has been going on forever. Like, with … oh, I don’t know … Sid Gillman in 1954 when he left Cincinnati to take the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams job. From my biography on Sid:

“I was interested in pro football. Most college coaches aren’t interested. They are two entirely different games,” Gillman said. “But while I was interested in the game, I was more interested in California. When I flew into Chicago, there was a hell of a snow storm and that kind of renewed my California dream.”

The Rams offered $25,000 a year and the promise of sunshine year-round. How could Gillman turn that down? When Esther[, Sid’s wife] heard the offer, she exclaimed, “$25,000! What are we going to do with all that money?” And so, they went.

Gillman, though, couldn’t help but burn some of the bridges he had built so sturdily in Cincinnati. The same way he denied he was leaving West Point for the Bearcats until he actually got on the plane, Gillman said he would not leave Cincinnati. And the story goes that in one of the final days of his tenure, Gillman was meeting with boosters when he was called away to the phone. When he returned, he said, “Gentlemen, I’m here to stay. I’ll continue at UC indefinitely and put this program where I want it.” Thirty minutes later, he received another phone call. After that one, he returned to the group and said, “Gentlemen, I’ve just accepted a job as head coach of the Rams.”

Arguably, Sid’s version is worse than Tuberville’s, but at least he showed his face one last time before leaving. And at least Sid had the decency to make a funny story out of it.

The reviews are in (not really)

Bob Hunter of the Columbus Dispatch, wrote a column about the Sid Gillman book the other day where Hunter explores the news I uncovered in that Sid Gillman was offered (and accepted) the Ohio State football job* before it was rescinded in favor of Woody Hayes because Gillman was Jewish.

Despite that positive column by my buddy, I’ve had some nasty reviews so far for the book (note: these photos were sent to me by friends).

Witness:

And:

The correct response here: Sigh.

*I have received a couple emails today that tell me the story about Sid Gillman and the Ohio State coaching job is absolutely true. People hearing it from people who heard about it from Sid himself.

Like I wrote in the book, even though it wasn’t covered in the press at the time or since, the story, in my opinion, probably is true.

Sid’s better half

When I first decided to write a book about Sid Gillman, I knew he was what my grandma Essie would call “a character.” When you’re writing a biography, that kind of unique personality is essential. Sure, Gillman was one of the most innovators in pro football history, but you can’t spend 300 pages solely discussing the fact he’s the only person that resides in the pro and college football halls of fame or the intricacies of his vertical offense or why the 1959 season with the L.A. Rams went so badly awry.

He can be a football wizard, but in order to possibly write a compelling biography, he can’t be boring.

No, he has to be the first coach to room his white players with his black players, he has to be the first pro football coach to spring a team-wide steroids ring, he has to be a bastard, he has to be a sweetheart, he has to be a family man who spends most of his time watching football film. He has to be a contradiction and an enigma. He has to be the kind of guy who can inspire hatred and love and wonder and annoyance in the same conversation with the same person.

For better and for worse, he’s got to be a character who can carry a book.

And it helps if he has the kind of wife like Esther.

I never met Sid, who died in 2003, but I almost had the chance to meet Esther.

In doing research and interviews for my first book, Bearcats Rising, I spent some time with a charming former University of Cincinnati football player and a city of Cincinnati icon named Glenn Sample. Since Sample played for Gillman in the early 1950s and because he loved the Gillman clan, he kept in touch with Esther, even 60 years after they first met. Sample told me that they exchanged Christmas cards – actually, the same goes for former UC player Nick Shundich, who actually lent me a few of those holiday mementos while I researched this book – and while I interviewed Sample about Sid (long before I thought about writing a book about him), he told me he would send me Esther’s address.

The plan for me was to write Esther a letter and ask if I could interview her about her husband. For a woman in her late 90s, she was still remarkably sharp, and her oldest daughter, Lyle, later told me that Esther could have told me enough to fill an entire book because she was still so vibrant.

But, from what I recall, I procrastinated. Interviewing Esther was not really essential to Bearcats Rising, and I never pressed Sample to get me the address. Thing is, when you’re thinking about interviewing a 97-year-old woman, it’s best not to put it off until next week. But Esther didn’t die. Sample did. And with him went the chance to touch base with Esther.

After a few starts and stops, I started researching Sid Gillman in the summer of 2010, and I was dismayed to discover that Esther had died in February of that yea and was buried on Super Bowl Sunday.

Even though she loved sports before she met Sid in high school, she wasn’t into football (though she was a big Red Grange fan). Nope, this was a girl who loved attending hockey games and listening to Jack Dempsey fights on the radio (she sobbed after he lost to Gene Tunney). Sid eventually turned her into a football junkie, and after they were married*, she spent many evenings eating her dessert in the garage while watching game film with her husband.

*The two spent their 1935 honeymoon in Chicago so he could observe a college all-star game at Soldier Field. It rained during the game, and though she used a newspaper as a de facto umbrella, her powder blue wedding dress got soaked.** She also lost her purse that day. Doesn’t get much more romantic than that, am I right, ladies?

**Why she was wearing her wedding dress to a football game, I don’t really know.

She learned football from Sid, but following Sid around and bearing his children weren’t the totality of her life. Esther also loved fashion and going out on the town to mingle with strangers and friends. She loved meeting people, learning about them, making them feel comfortable in her presence. One of her daughters called her another Jackie Kennedy. She was a housewife, but only in the loosest sense of the word.

“This has been my career,” Esther said in 1996. “These are my people. At first, you have to understand. There has to be love to begin with. And understanding. Sid made it very easy for us to love football. He brought it to the family, but he didn’t force us. He made it so interesting for us by bringing film home and teaching us this play and that play. … I loved doing it. It’s an old-fashioned phrase, but I think we were a happy family, and I think that contributes to his success. The man can’t do it alone and the woman can’t do it alone. I didn’t do it because I was supposed to do it. You do it because that is the way to do it.”

One of my most favorite discoveries in my research was finding her recipe for what Sid’s Cincinnati players called Jewish Spaghetti (“It was the hottest stuff in town,” Shundich said). Starting when the two lived in Granville, Ohio, Esther took it upon herself to host Sid’s college players for huge spaghetti dinners. It fostered a sense of family, and it gave the Gillman’s a good excuse to use their window screens as pasta strainers (hopefully, Esther sterilized them beforehand). Anyway, I discovered her recipe for the spaghetti sauce in one of the multitude of newspaper articles that had been written about Mrs. Sid Gillman, and I gleefully put it in the book. It’s irrelevant to the larger story, but that tiny detail has made me happy ever since.

Esther was gorgeous when she was young, and she grew up to be a very handsome woman. In some ways, I fell in love with her during my research and writing, and I talked to a number of people who felt the same way.

“She was an angel,” said Dan Pastorini, who played quarterback for Sid in Houston and had an, um, somewhat love-hate relationship with him. “She was the soft hand in that whole deal. She knew everybody’s name. She knew every player and every player’s girlfriend. She was like the den mother. To put up with that guy for that many years, she had to grow wings.”

Damn, I wish I could have met her. Her kids were great to speak with, but getting to Esther would have been akin to interviewing Sid (mostly because she would have been a better interview than Sid). I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance. And I’m sorry I didn’t follow up with Sample.

Because even though Esther was basically a football wife and mother, she was exceptionally versatile and interesting. She was, at her very core, a character who could carry a book.

Sid Gillman and his love of jazz

When I first got into the book-writing game, I thought you could throw all your research, all your interviews, all your written words into your masterpiece of a tome. And there it would stick, all your thoughts (every single one) for all the book-reading public to consume.

I had all the space in the world, right? So, I figured, why not mash all the good stuff in there? Somebody gave me an excellent quote that didn’t really fit the context or the narrative? Shoehorn it in. I discovered a story that’s too good not to include somewhere? Make room for it. Or, in the case of my first book, I’d done too much reporting on a season not to include the whole freakin’ thing, no matter how irrelevant that slate of games was a half-decade later? Fold it up like origami and stuff it in. I was writing a book, dammit. Pile that sandwich high and shove it down the reader’s throat.

But here’s the thing: 300 pages or 100,000 words really isn’t all that much. Yes, it’s an enormous mountain to climb when you’re at the base and you haven’t conducted interviews or written a single word. But when you have dozens of folders stuffed with research and an entire flash drive filled with transcribed quotes – and you have hundreds of stories that need to be resurrected – those pages and words disappear faster than your oxygen at the mountain’s peak.

And with my latest book on Sid Gillman, I had too much good fodder. I couldn’t use it all, and then, after turning in my first draft, I was told I had to cut about 30,000 words from the manuscript. I had to lose most of an American Football League section. I had to cut out some good stories. I had to delete some fantastic quotes. Really, it wasn’t much different than editing down a 25-inch newspaper feature story into a 15-inch hole. I had to keep what was absolutely essential. A good quote or a strong story wasn’t enough. I had to be selective – and that’s what I learned going from Bearcats Rising to Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game.

Which brings me to Gillman’s love of jazz.

Gillman was an accomplished piano player. His mother started him on lessons when he was 7 years old and living on the north side of Minneapolis. He got good enough on that spinet to join a few bands in high school and college and keep himself well-styled.

“When I was in high school,” Gillman once said, “I was the best dressed man because of the extra money I made.”

Obviously, he didn’t make it a career (though he once held a summer job playing the keys at a honkeytonk during prohibition where he collected tips from a glass dish that sat on top of his piano). But it was an important facet of his life for quite a while. In fact, the first time he ever encountered his future wife, Esther, was when he was sitting behind a baby grand, providing the background music of a Sweet 16 party many decades ago.

I write about his piano-playing in the book, even if it became just a passing fancy once he grew to be a big-time football coach. But one of the concessions I had to make for the final draft of the book was to exclude Gillman’s love of jazz. It was intriguing and compelling – at the very least, it helped round out his character – but quite honestly, I couldn’t figure out where to place it in the book. Never could find a home for his obsession with jazz. Or, as one feature writer from the late 1960s penned, “To Sid, jazz is the elixir, the cure-all, the youth machine, even in defeat a precious ennobling balm to the spirit.”

Gillman loved jazz so much that one writer who penned an article entitled “The Old Man is the Hippest“ couldn’t stop himself from gushing about Gillman’s top-notch 33 rpm vinyl collection – which featured mostly jazz artists like McCoy Tyner, Nina Simone, Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck and Fatha Hines (with the exception of Simone, who died four months after Gillman in 2003, I know nothing about any of these musicians, though Brubeck is still apparently alive and well at 92 years old).

As for rock music, here’s what Gillman had to say in 1968: “No musicianship. The big trouble is that most rock n roll musicians are terrible. On the other hand, some of the Beatles songs are great, very pretty and they sound fine when good musicians play them*, like a Buddy Rich or Wes Montgomery or Quincy Jones. Rock n roll is still young, still groping and maybe something good will come out of it. But as yet they don’t have much of a game plan.** It just isn’t very interesting.”

*Is Gillman saying here that the Beatles weren’t good musicians? That’s kind of what it sounds like. But hey, at least none of them played the clarinet, am I right? (Don’t worry, you’ll get there in a minute.)

**Even when discussing one of the other loves of his life, Gillman just couldn’t stay away from the football analogies.***

***To further illustrate that point, here’s what Gillman once said about his idol in high school, a near-blind pianist named Art Tatum: “Tatum was the greatest of them all. He commanded that keyboard like a quarterback calling a perfect game. When Tatum improvised, he was Unitas, Starr, Van Brocklin rolled into one.”

In one of those feature stories from 1968, Gillman was asked to name his all-time all-star jazz team. Though I couldn’t figure out a way to shoehorn the results into the book, I present it to you here. Because it was a passion of Gillman’s, and because … why the hell not?

  • Piano: Oscar Peterson (“But I want some backup pianists in there – Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Denny Zeitlin, Bobby Timmons, Red Garland and Billy Taylor.”)
  • Guitar: Wes Montgomery
  • Saxophone: Cannonball Adderley, Bud Shank, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan on baritone
  • Clarinet: None (“That’s a lost instrument. You just don’t hear much good clarinet anymore.”)
  • Trombone: J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, the whole Stan Kenton trombone section
  • Bass: Ray Brown (“Who else?”)
  • Trumpet: Dizzy Gillespie, plus Miles Davis, Nat Adderley, Clark Terry and Bobby Bryant
  • Drums: Buddy Rich
  • Vibraphone: Terry Gibbs
  • Singer: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Buddy Greco
  • Co-coaches: Quincy Jones for composing and Shorty Rogers for arranging
  • Team captain: Dizzy Gillespie
  • Consultant: Duke Ellington
  • As Gillman said at the end of that recitation: “There’s my team. Have tux, will travel.”

    In reality, the all-time all-star jazz team is a detail that’s probably only worth the 1,200 words I just dropped on it here (and it’s probably not even worth that). Which is why you won’t find it in the book. But that’s OK. This particular detail didn’t deserve to make the book. My only regret with the exclusion, though, is this: I just wish I could have figured out a way to write about Gillman’s disappointment with that era’s music – with the birth of rock n roll and the death of the clarinet.