“A man must make himself from whatever he is given. ‘Play the hand you’re dealt’ – it was my first and foremost Knoxism. It means look adversity in the eye, then kick the hell out of it.”
To understand Chuck Knox, it may help to know something of the NFL’s earliest days. The primordial ooze of professional football was constituted of hard men, with lives unlike any today. Men with names like “Mule”, “Greasy” and “Bronko” (not to mention the immortal “Johnny Blood”) who most often came from steel cities and farm towns with little more than a desire to make their way in an unforgiving world. And if they could not use education to do so (as many of them could not), then backbreaking toil and violence for hire (the two fundamental tenets of football in its infancy) would suffice when the ceiling of America ’s overflowing population presented itself to them. Professional sports was not an avocation of glamour in the early 20 th century as much as it was a bitter struggle for survival. It was a way out of Hell.
“You have to understand me and fights. My father always said, don’t come home crying after getting a beating, or you’ll get another beating. He told me, if you’re bigger or equal to him, you should win fairly. If the other guy is bigger, you should grab whatever is near and hit him with it.”
It was into such a world that Charles Robert Knox was born, on April 27,1932, in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. Sewickley was one of a seemingly infinite number of small steel towns in Western Pennsylvania ’s Steel Valley. Knox grew up on Walnut Street in Sewickley, the son of Charlie and Helen Knox. Chuck’s brother Billy rounded out the family. Charlie Knox, as described by his son, was “A short, big-armed, big-necked fellow from Ireland. The part of my build that looks like an ice box, that comes from him…I’ll say this, he was tougher than I’ll ever be.” Knox described Helen Knox as “Tall and big and just as hard, from Scotland. She came over on a different boat. They both migrated west until their paths crossed in Sewickley, where they were married.”
The Knox family had to be tough. Everyone on Walnut Street had to be tough. Charlie Knox found work hard to come by. Helen Knox worked as a maid “for the people who lived on top of the hill – the Alexanders, the Byers, the kind of people whose names you never forgot because they sounded so much richer than yours”, as Knox put it years later. When Charlie Knox finally found employment with the Duquesne Foundry, he signed up for a lifetime of tough work. When his eight hours at Duquesne were done, he’d ride a beer truck. To release the frustration, Charlie Knox would spend many nights out, too late, at the wrong places. And when he did get home, demons were unleashed.
“Old Charlie Knox was a tough S.O.B. He was a big drinker, a tough drinker. He would get mean. I would come over to get ‘Nick” (Knox’ childhood nickname) and I could hear the old man upstairs whaling on him. All those years growing up with Chuck, I never once set foot in his house. Never would.” – Bobby “Mook” Marruca
When Charlie Knox came home from the pool hall or the tavern, Chuck and Billy would feel the sting of his anger. As Knox remembered years later, “He would hit us for coming home late. He would hit us for coming home, period…Sometimes, we would have to climb out of bed and go down to some bar and carry him home in the middle of the night, right about when he was stone drunk and preparing to fight somebody. We would get him inside our apartment and lay him down. Then he would get up and hit us because we hadn’t let him hit the other guy."
Chuck Knox would eventually come to terms with the way his father was – feeling trapped and lashing out against a world of little opportunity. But that was much later. With mines and mills all around him and hostility and violence framing his own world, the young Chuck Knox knew only one thing: He would get out of Sewickley, whatever it took. Football, he had decided, would be his way out.
“He Was Flat-Out Dirty”
CHARLES KNOX – Behold the athlete. Big husky Nick, hustling forward, hard-hitting tackle, a splendid mimic, jitterbug expert, smooth talker. Find him with George or Mook, but you will have to go to Avalon. Steady worker. “Dust yourself” he says. Democrats’ staunchest defender. – Chuck Knox’ Senior Yearbook, 1950
Through high school, Chuck Knox fell in more and more in love with the game of football. It gave him a sense of self, allowed him to express an innate toughness, and kept him away from a very rough home. He played offensive guard and linebacker for Quaker Valley High (where today, the football team plays in Chuck Knox Stadium), and developed a reputation that was essential for any prospective player of his era:
Chuck Knox hit like the devil. And in the words of his friend Tom Sanders, “All the kids tried to stay away from him during drills. He was flat-out dirty.”
It’s a common theme among those who begin their sporting lives as players and later find fame as leaders of men – Knox was never great, but it was well-known that his hunger for victory was extreme. He would watch upcoming opponents practice, scouting before he really knew what scouting was, and once tore up his arm on a barbed-wire fence running away from a team official who did not appreciate such methods.
What really tore at Knox was that nobody seemed to notice. “Here I was, a senior prep linebacker in football-hot country, and no college was interested.”, Knox recalled years later. But at one of his senior games, a local scout by the name of Tommy “Midget” Perricelli, who was recruiting for central Pennsylvania ’s Juniata College, would see this Knox kid play. Perricelli would also experience the Knox determination firsthand.
“I walk in this locker room and this real tough kid, the toughest kid on the field, walks up to me. He says his name is Chuck Knox. Then he grabs me and starts shouting, “If you just come back for me you’ll be getting a great one”. He’s almost screaming now. I think he’s going to kill me. While this guy is shaking me, I can only think of one thing: I’m coming back. And it will be for him.” - Tommy “Midget” Perricelli
Chuck Knox had finally found a crack in the door.
Escape to Juniata
“You should have heard him in literature class. He once took a Shakespeare reading and turned it into a halftime speech. It was that ‘To be or not to be’ thing. He wasn’t just reading Hamlet, he was coaching Hamlet” – Pat Tarquinio
On August 15, 1950, Chuck Knox waited in front of Prince’s Candy Shop in the Sewickley summer heat for “Midget” to pick him up for the three-hour ride to Juniata College. Knox couldn’t wait in front of his own house because his father opposed the idea of a college education for his son – for Charlie Knox, the mill was good enough for him, and it would be good enough for his son. But having seen what the mill did to his father, Chuck had other ideas. The pull of his father’s voice did carry early on, leading to an episode five weeks in when he tried to leave Juniata, only to have Perricelli come to Sewickley and drive him back to school in a snowstorm. Knox later admitted that he did little in his freshman year except “fight and raise hell”…but two incidents were about to smarten him up.
When Chuck went back home that first summer, “The Old Man” had a job at the mill waiting for him. “It was the longest summer of my life”, he said. “Those damned dirty mills. I’d be working and sweating and the old workers would come up to me and say, ‘See what happens if you don’t get an education?’ They would point to some other young filthy guy, maybe a former local football star, and say, ‘See him? He decided to chase women instead of books. Now, he’s chasing the clock.’ I saw. I saw”, he said.
Knox went back to Juniata after that horrible summer determined to make a go of it in school. What he didn’t know was that he was about to meet the woman who would not only change his life, but help define it.
“On this one Friday night…I saw Chuck for the first time. He was obviously one of those Juniata players who still liked to hang around high school girls. I saw him and was attracted to him and thought, ‘I wonder if this guy is tough enough to ask me to the dance later tonight?’” – Shirley Knox
On that Friday night at Huntington High, one month into his sophomore year, Chuck Knox was indeed tough enough to ask Shirley Rhine to that dance. She got a load of his jitterbug and was smitten. Chuck knew that Shirley was the one. They dated through his second season at Juniata, and things were looking up for Chuck in other ways. He found work as a proctor in one of the dormitories that second summer, made some money, and settled into college life. But as a player, he still carried the fight of his Sewickley days.
“He had been getting fifteen-yard penalties called on us…he just couldn’t stop fighting when he heard the whistle. Now he’s swinging at this kid, and…it cost us a punt inside their ten-yard line. I was so mad after the ref threw Chuck out, I banished him to the team bus, where he sat the rest of the game. The next day in practice, I singled him out in front of the whole team and told him that if he had another late hit called on him all year, I was going to ship his butt back to Sewickley. One more fight, and he’d be spending the next thirty-five years of his life in that mill!” – Juniata head coach Bill Smaltz
Knox finally realized that toughness had its place in football, but that it was intelligence that would move him forward…on the field and in life. He continued to learn and grow as a young man, a process that was accelerated after his junior year when he and Shirley were married. Charlie Knox still didn’t get it – by all accounts, the wedding he wasn’t invited to made him “madder than ever”, but everything changed when Chuck brought his wife and new baby daughter Chris home to Sewickley shortly after his graduation. “I had to go home one last time before entering the work world, to show him that no matter how weak he had made me feel, I found enough strength to grab onto a dream, and that dream had already carried me out of there”, Knox said. “Also, I needed to drop in to see how life used to be, and to show him what he’d missed. In other words, I went home after my senior summer preparing for a fight.”
For once, the elder Knox seemed to understand. “My father saw the baby, he saw how the piece of him had become someone else, a New Knox. It was as if my father recognized in that one little child all I had accomplished and all I was searching for. After twenty-one years, it was only through a little baby that my father finally saw me.”
Now with a college degree and a wife and child, it was time for Chuck Knox to put it together for his family. He knew that he was not a player at the NFL level, but a desire had been planted…he though that just maybe, he could make it as a coach.
Learning the Ropes – Ellwood City, Wake Forest and Kentucky
“I guess I was a little intense, but you have to understand the situation: Western Pennsylvania football was big, and this school was small. Nobody believed in us. It was kind of like every situation I’ve been in, before and since. We didn’t have a chance, so it was my job to find one…I may not have departed there with a bunch of wins, but I left with that little football program thinking big. Sometimes, that’s just as important.”
Immediately after graduation, the only job Knox could find was as an unpaid assistant at his alma mater – followed, soon after, by the opportunity to be “a full-fledged underpaid assistant coach at Tyrone High”, as Knox put it. He made ends meet by teaching during the day, selling cars at night, and waiting for his break. Fortune smiled upon him in the form of a classified ad he saw in a local newspaper for an open high-school coach position in a Pennsylvania town called Ellwood City. Knox remembered that “I knew Ellwood City from my days at Sewickley. It was another tiny fifteen-thousand-person mill town just down the river. I also knew Ellwood was the smallest school in its division, so it was always playing bigger teams, always the underdog. My kind of town, Ellwood City was. And it needed a football coach.”
Throughout his life, Chuck Knox would never stop coaching the underdog, and nobody knew more about living the phrase. He got the Ellwood City job and continued his journey as a teacher and a coach. After a few years at the high school ranks, he received a call in March of 1959 from Paul Amen, the head coach of Wake Forest. When he was told to take the call that day at Ellwood High, he was teaching general science and was busy de-gutting a frog.
Amen wanted to speak to Knox about an assistant position. He wanted someone from western Pennsylvania, as Wake Forest wished to increase their recruiting presence there. Setting up an interview with Amen over the phone and rushing home to tell Shirley, Knox realized one thing: he’d have to get on a plane to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Never having flown before, he spent the next few hours quizzing his wife on the vagaries of concepts like “standby” (if ever there was a man who refused to go through life waiting for reservations, it was Chuck Knox), and prepared himself for the trip and yet another venture into the unknown.
Knox was going up against two coaches who had been recommended by revered Army coach Red Blaik, and he didn’t know what sort of a chance he’d have. What he had going for him were two recommendations…and his wife’s cooking. Longtime Wake Forest assistant Ken Meyer had recruited one of Knox’ players at Ellwood City and came away impressed after an all-night film session at Knox’ house, which ended with a marvelous breakfast cooked by Shirley Knox.
And when Knox was in Amen’s office, Amen called Bill Smaltz, the Juniata coach who had once booted a hotheaded linebacker named Knox off the field after one too many late hits and was now coaching at North Carolina State.
“Bill, this is Paul Amen over at Wake. I got a question for you.”
“Doing just fine, Bill. The question is, being from western Pennsylvania, and knowing the hundreds if high-school coaches up there, if you had to hire one from that area for your staff, who would it be?”
Silence. Incredible, drawn-out, sweat-producing silence.
Amen put down the phone, and in his most solemn military manner, he turned to me.
“Said he would take this fella named Knox. Chuck Knox.”
Knox was told to go home, and that Amen would call in three or four days. When the call came, it was to offer him the position of line coach at Wake Forest …at what turned out to be a pay cut. Knox weighed the stakes on both sides and didn’t hesitate. He took the job immediately.
Amen liked Knox’ attention to detail and his intensity…what he found worrisome was the “CHUCK” tattoo from his high school days. Seems that the Walnut Street Gang were getting tattoos to prove how tough they were, and Chuck joined right in. Wake Forest was a Baptist university, and there were very strict rules regarding the decorum of coaches. No drinking. T-shirts under the open-necked coaching shirts. You answered the phone a certain way – “Wake Forest University, Chuck Knox speaking.” Knox tried to hide the tattoo on his arm with longer and longer sleeves, until the team doctor convinced him to get it shaved right off. Two days before his first recruiting trip, driving for seven days with Ken Meyer.
As Meyer later said, “Why did Chuck cut that damn thing off right before a trip? I’ll never know. But he couldn’t drive the damn car, because he couldn’t hold his right hand up…Coming home, right about West Virginia somewhere, the stitches finally split. Blood everywhere, a guy with an open wound in the front seat of my car. It was some trip.”
Knox was rough, but ready to learn. And teach. Wake Forest would see the genesis of his most interesting coaching tool – one that would stay with him long into his Seahawks days.
“I would enjoy watching his players come running when he blew his whistle, hooting and hollering and ready to fight. But there was a problem. Chuck kept wanting to jump in there and demonstrate blocking techniques on them. I told him to be careful just how far he went. He didn’t have pads, he didn’t have a helmet, and they did. I told him that sometimes players, in what they claim is extra effort, will go out of their way to pop a coach.” – Paul Amen
Knox felt that he wasn’t doing his job unless he was in the trenches, butting heads. Presiding in a high tower with a clipboard and a whistle, as much as that may have worked for some coaches, wasn’t ever going to be Chuck Knox’ style. Of course, any coach who mixes it up with his players without a helmet will pay the price. “I have all kinds of scars on my forehead from overzealous players who wanted to take a shot when they saw a coach in a three-point stance with his hat turned backward”, Knox said. Proof that you can take the boy out of Sewickley…
The first thing Knox had to master at Wake Forest was the art of recruiting – specifically in Western Pennsylvania, where word had spread about the local boy who had made good.. As he recalled later, “We were never on the kind of budget where we could simply fly up to Pittsburgh and rent a car for a couple of weeks. We would borrow a car from some alumnus and drive it up through Royal Oak, up to Staunton Military Academy, up on to Winchester, hop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, make some calls off there, turn around and do it all in reverse.”
More intriguing were the backdoor recruiting stories in those days. National Letter of Intent Day wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye in the early 1960’s, so all hell would frequently break loose when several schools were bird-dogging the same player. “We had a lot of back-stabbing and badmouthing going on, a lot of everything happening to convince poor high-school kids to save some coach’s job. I’ve seen coaches publicly call each other liars. I’ve seen fist fights between coaches in school auditoriums, right in front of cheerleaders”, Knox said.
But by all accounts, nobody recruited Western PA better than Chuck Knox. He spoke their language, and the parents of those athletes – so often the descendants of the same life Knox himself grew up in – would welcome him in as one of their own. And as he put it, he had a few rules for recruiting, “The Eighth-Grade Sewickley Way”:
- You can buy the father, but never the mother. “Some fathers would rationalize and go for it. The pitch sounded good. But don’t dare try it on the mother. The difference is, the mother is willing to get on her hands and knees and scrub that floor so her son can go to a good college. Money to her is nothing.”
- Talk to the kid like he’s already at your school. “Say things like, ‘We just had a barbecue here today with all of your future teammates. We missed you.’”
- When he comes for his one official visit, leave nothing to chance.“When the kid flies in, do you have a good route planned fro the airport to the school? Will you drive him through the nice part of town, no matter how remote it may be from the actual school? And for Pete’s sake, does everybody know his name?”
In his two years at Wake Forest. Chuck Knox learned a lot about recruiting, a lot about coaching, and a great deal about life. So much so that he was ready when the next call came – from the program coached by a man who would prove to be his ultimate mentor.
The Biggest Step
Blanton Collier is best-known as the man who coached the Cleveland Browns to a 79-40-2 record from 1963-1970. He led the Browns to their last NFL Championship in 1964, never had a losing record, and has been a finalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But when Knox met him in 1961, he was the brilliant head coach at Kentucky. Collier spent eight years with the Wildcats in-between his stints in Cleveland – he was one of Paul Brown’s assistant’s there before – and ran a pro-style program that was a perfect training ground for a young coach like Knox who would eventually spend over thirty years in the NFL. What Blanton Collier taught Chuck Knox was invaluable, and Knox knew it. Recommended by Collier assistant Bill Crutchfield, he was hired as a line coach. Problem was, Collier wasn’t quite sure which line.
“I knew that when he accepted me as a University of Kentucky assistant, in the long run it would be the break of my career. But it wasn’t certain at the start that there was even a job I could fill. When Collier interviewed me, he wasn’t sure whether he was looking for an offensive or defensive line coach. The offensive line coach at the time was Bill Arnsparger, and he was willing to take either position. Because my specialty was offensive lines, he went ahead and gave me that job and moved Arnsparger to the defensive line. Guess who later drew up the brilliant defenses of the great (1970’s) Miami Dolphins teams? Bill Arnsparger. In that sense, Collier’s decision was a break for both of us.”
In truth, Knox was walking into a Murderers’ Row of coaches – Collier’s former assistant Don Shula had recently left Kentucky for a job with the Detroit Lions – and along with Arnsparger, the staff included five future head coaches (Knox, Arnsparger, Howard Schnellenberger, Leeman Bennett and John North), a player personnel director (George Boone) and one of Tom Landry’s long-time assistants in Dallas (Ermal Allen). Presiding above it all was the brilliant Collier - as Knox described him, “The most academic of all coaches, a theorist with a 150 IQ, (and) the only coach in history who needed to keep squelching rumors about his moving to the state capitol to become superintendent of schools.”
Collier was the one who made Knox realize that coaching was teaching, and that teaching was, above all, the ability to inspire learning. What he learned was that his players were good enough if he was good enough to teach them. From Blanton Collier, Chuck Knox learned that without accountability, coaching is impossible. From Collier, Knox learned that honest discussion among a coaching staff was the only way that a staff’s value would be fully realized – Collier would occasionally bring in half-baked plays and ask his coaches to review them just to see if they could sniff out a loser. From Collier, Knox learned that sometimes, the simple turn of a phrase could make an enormous difference.
“He came in once after looking at films of a loss, after our offensive linemen let people get through them. He said, ‘I don’t understand how we can teach these principles and then look st the films and see that the players aren’t getting it done’”
Having learned his theories by then, I looked down and said, ‘Doggone it, I’ve just got to do a better job’”.
He said, ‘Well, you’re working pretty hard. Maybe you just need a different approach. When talking about blocking, you always use the phrase, ‘follow-through,’ and it’s not sinking in. Instead, why not try a more descriptive term. Why don’t you call that technique a ‘stick’? See if that registers with them.’”
I went out there all charged up and told my players, ‘I want all of you to stop trying to ‘follow through.’ I want you to start ‘sticking.’ ‘Stick’ through the other guy, stick it to him. Forget about all else but stick, stick, stick.’”
That day in practice, and for the rest of the season, we were sticking defensive linemen all the way up into the stands.
It was Knox’ finishing school…and the frosting on the cake was applied just in time. Collier left Kentucky for Cleveland after the 1962 season, but he had enough time and enough faith in his young assistant to make a call to Weeb Ewbank of the AFL’s embryonic New York Jets. The Jets had been the New York Titans since 1960, but bad play and underfunded ownership left them as a ward of the league until Sonny Werblin bought the team, renamed it, and brought in Ewbank from the Colts’ dynasty. Collier told Ewbank that Knox would be a great offensive line coach for his Jets, and Ewbank made the call. Knox enjoyed relative security with Kentucky, but he could not turn down a chance to make the leap to the culmination of his football dream.
After a long, improbable journey, Chuck Knox was going to the pros.
Stay tuned for Part Two…when Chuck Knox recruits the AFL’s biggest star, learns quite a bit about mercurial team owners, and shows a young Seattle Seahawks team that winning is fundamental.
All italicized quotes in this article are taken from the book “Hard Knox: The Life of an NFL Coach” by Chuck Knox and Bill Plaschke. ©1988, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.