A COACH AT HEART is set in a golden age for football, when some of the sport’s iconic moments took place. The late 1960s and 1970s were a time of upheaval of society in general, with war protests, drugs, assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy Jr., empowerment of women and racial minorities, and the beginning of the disintegration of the nuclear family.
Football — and baseball, too — were also transformed as blacks and Latinos began seeing more time on collegiate and professional playing fields. By the end of the 70s, the Title IX court decision guaranteed equal opportunities for women. And professionals began asserting more power through collective bargaining, which resulted in labor disputes and, ultimately, to free agency.
Perhaps the dramatic backdrop is why the action on the field seemed to leave a greater legacy than eras before and after. Great sports events took place in the 1950s and 1980s, too, but few seem as consequential. Over the next week or so, we’ll post some of the top moments in football for the era in which A COACH AT HEART takes place, beginning with the 1960s.
10. Roger Staubach leads Navy’s last hurrah. The last time a service academy team played in a major bowl game was 1970, when Air Force lost to Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. Before that, it was 1963 when the future Dallas Cowboy Hall of Fame quarterback led Navy to the Cotton Bowl. The Midshipmen rose as high as second in the national polls, territory service academy fans can only dream of now. In that dream season, the Middles beat West Virginia, Michigan, Pitt, Notre Dame and, oh yeah, Army. Most of the victories were by comfortable margins, and the only regular season loss was by four points to SMU, and Staubach won the Heisman Trophy. Texas won on New Year’s Day, though, 28-6.
9. Jim Marshall Runs Wrong Way. Marshall was a mainstay defensive lineman for the Vikings but he’s known best for running the wrong way after recovering a fumble in an Oct. 25, 1964, game against the 49ers. He scooped up the drop by San Francisco QB Billy Kilmer and ran to the end zone, but it was the wrong one and the 49ers got a safety. This was no small error, either. He ran 66 yards. What you don’t often hear about is that another great Vikings defensive lineman, Carl Eller, rambled 45 yards with a third-quarter fumble to put the Purple People Eaters up by 10 points. Marshall’s gaffe took place in the fourth quarter, with Minnesota comfortably ahead, then, and they emerged with a 27-22 road victory. Despite the blunder, Marshall was good enough to where some fans have mounted an effort to get him elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Here’s a link to video.
8. Chargers Win the 1963 AFL Championship. The Jets were the first AFL/AFC team to win a Super Bowl, but to a man, the members of the early AFL Chargers believe they would have defeated the NFL champion Bears if given the chance. A lot of commentators agree with them, too. The Chargers drubbed the then-Boston Patriots 51-10. The Chargers that year were coached by offensive innovator Sid Gillman and boasted Hall of Famers in WR Lance Alworth and T Ron Mix, great RBs in Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe, and Tobin Rote at QB. The victory remains San Diego’s only major professional team title.
7. Vince Lombardi Leads Packers to Greatness. The Hall of Fame coach took over a 1-10-1 franchise that hadn’t had a winning season in about a dozen years and immediately got them over .500 in his first year, 1959. But it was 1960 when the Packers hit their stride, reaching the NFL title game for the first time since 1944. They won NFL championships in 1961-2, didn’t make the final in 1963 despite a strong season, won again in 1965, then took the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi left after the 1967 championship and the Packers faded right back to obscurity and didn’t reach such heights again until the arrival of Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre in the early 1990s.
6. Heidi. The Jets and Raiders met in a pair of epic clashes in 1968 as the best teams in the AFL. It was this Jets team which was the first in the AFL to win a Super Bowl. In the first battle, on Nov. 17 in Oakland, New York led 32-29 after a field goal. With 1:05 left on the clock, NBC cut away from its telecast because the children’s film “Heidi” was scheduled to air on the East Coast. But it was viewers in all time zones suddenly left in the dark, just when Raiders QB Daryle Lamonica threw a 43-yard touchdown pass. The Jets fumbled the ensuing kickoff, which the Raiders returned for another score to win 43-32. Faced with a torrent of abuse from fans, the TV networks changed their policies to air all games to their conclusion.
5. “Games of the Century.” One of the lamest showdowns in the history of college football took place in 1966, when Michigan State and Notre Dame, both undefeated, played to a 10-10 tie. Notre Dame had possession in the fourth quarter, but instead of calling plays to get the Irish in position to win the game, coach Ara Parseghian chose to run out the clock. According to Life magazine, the coach said his players fought hard just to tie the game, and he didn’t want to ruin their effort. The Irish ended up as national champions, anyway, so the decision worked in the strategic sense. The following year came a contest that was more like it, when traditional rivals USC and UCLA met with the Rose Bowl on the line. The match pitted two eventual Heisman Trophy winners, Trojans RB OJ Simpson and Bruins QB Gary Beban. Simpson won it with a 64-yard TD scamper in the fourth quarter. The Trojans won 21-20 and went on to win the national championship with a Rose Bowl victory over Indiana. In 1969, Texas and Arkansas were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 going into their season finale. The Razorbacks led 14-8 in the fourth quarter and had the ball at the Longhorns seven-yard line, but threw an interception. The Longhorns’ wishbone, held in check most of the game, came alive They worked the ball up to their 43, but were faced with a fourth and three. QB James Street, a runner who was the father of baseball pitcher Huston Street, completed a 44-yard pass that set up a game-winning touchdown. President Richard Nixon actually declared Texas national champions after the game.
4. Jets Win the Super Bowl. Brassy New York QB Joe Namath was already known as a character, but he cemented his legendary status when he guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III over favored Baltimore and delivered a 16-7 conquest. Namath did his part, throwing for 206 yards and helping to build a 16-0 lead. The Colts managed just one fourth quarter score. The NFL and the public always saw the AFL as inferior, though perhaps more fun, but Namath and the Jets exploded that notion for good. What gets lost in the Super Bowl story was that the Jets had to survive that second titanic battle with the Raiders in the AFL title game.
3. The Ice Bowl. There have been cold weather games since the New Year’s Eve, 1967, NFL title game between Dallas and Green Bay, but none have quite captured the public imagination the way this one did. It was 13 degrees below zero at game time at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, and the players played anyway and, for some reason, 50,000 fans showed up to watch. And they stayed to the bitter-cold end, too, as the home team marched down the field — described as a sheet of ice — and scored the winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak by Bart Starr with 16 seconds left in the game. The Packers would thaw out and later win Super Bowl II in warmer climes.
2. The League is Born. The dominant force in professional sports was created in 1966, when the NFL and AFL agreed to merge. The AFL was becoming a viable competitor to its more established cousin, and the powers that were saw no reason to kill the goose that was starting to lay some golden eggs. Such thinking on that an other matters paid off splendidly over the years. According to the NFL, owners Tex Schramm of Dallas and Lamar Hunt of Kansas City met secretly in the spring of that year, and the merger was announced, with a 28-team league to begin play in 1970. That October, Congress blessed the merger by giving the league an antitrust exemption. Well, they made it to 26 teams by the time the merger became official, and the addition of Seattle and Tampa Bay delayed until 1976.
1. The Super Bowl Monster is Created, and Will Soon Take Over Your Life. The merger talks also led to the creation of the game with the Roman numerals, the marketing tour de force that is one of the major annual events in the lives of Americans. Seriously, your existence revolves around Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah, July 4 and the Super Bowl. Even if you’re not a football fan, Super Bowl Sunday will affect you in some manner. You’ll go to a Super Bowl party to socialize and watch the commercials, or you’ll tag along with a spouse or significant other, or your kids will watch the game at home, or your regular television programming will be messed up. The advertising messages and promotions we see on TV or at stores are often tied to “the big game.” Fan or not, the game touches every American in some way. The funny part of the Super Bowl as cultural phenomenon is the game itself is often kind of meh. Or it downright sucks. Of the 48 contests so far, maybe 15 or so have been worth watching for the general fan — someone without a rooting interest in either team — while a dozen have been decided by more than three touchdowns (and two or three more if you don’t count extra points)! The World Series and NCAA men’s basketball tournament have a far better record that way, but only the most diehard baseball and hoops fans plan their lives around them.
So that’s the 1960s list. As a preview, A COACH AT HEART will touch on “Heidi” and the Raiders, who figure into many of football’s great moments from the late 1960s through the 1970s and into the 80s.