Chuck Knox: The Last Hard Man, Part Two

After climbing out of the hardscrabble mills and mines of Western Pennsylvania and working his way up the high school and collegiate coaching ranks, Chuck Knox finally got his chance to help coach a professional team in 1963. The process was not always what he anticipated.

“I’m not a superstar. I’m not a hero. I don’t glitter. I survive.” – Chuck Knox

A New York Minute

Knox’ ascent to the “pro” level wasn’t what he might have hoped, at least at first – the Jets of 1963 were recovering from Wismer’s gross mismanagement, under a new ownership collective led by Sonny Werblin. There would be three consecutive 5-8-1 seasons for the team from ’63 through ’65 as they (and Knox) learned to win in the fledgling American Football League. Ewbank, for his part, was frantically busy trying to put a team together – the Jets had lost all their draft picks in a bankruptcy settlement, according to Knox – and as Ewbank said, “We had three teams back then. We had today’s team on the field, yesterday’s team checking out, and tomorrow’s team driving in.”

Assembling a motley crew in New York’s Van Cortland Park, Ewbank and his staff developed a system in which they would shout, “Ruby! Ruby!” if they saw a player with potential. This to discourage violence from those players who were not deemed worthy. Knox later said that “We got guys who had never finished high school, guys who were forty years old…we had the daggonest, toughest crew of characters there was. Some of the meanest guys I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some.”

After the tryout camp ended, Ewbank told the players to expect a call or telegram if they were chosen – no “Turk” to ask for a player’s playbook here. That didn’t stop two malcontents from arriving at training camp a month later, saying that they had never heard from the team, and that they’d be happy to whip anybody necessary to prove their determination. “I love that attitude. But not in guys who, if they couldn’t find a fight with a football player, would settle for a piece of me.” A call to the local police set things right.

Knox was prepared to use more conventional means of scouting, especially in one particular case. The Jets needed a quarterback to get to the next level, and Knox was committed to a young wizard from his own backyard. He had seen this kid playing basketball at Beaver Falls Junior High when he coached at Elwood City, and Knox and Blanton Collier had tried to recruit this kid to come to Kentucky…only to be outdone by Alabama’s “Bear” Bryant. Knox did not intend to be outdone again.

“Chuck was definitely a factor in my coming to the Jets. He was the first one who whispered my name to them. He came from my neighborhood. He spoke my language. I was comfortable with him. He was no bull. It’s funny how people from Western Pennsylvania seem to stick together, but that’s what it was. I was going to a big city, but with Chuck there, I know I would be taken care of.” – Joe Namath

After selecting Tulsa quarterback Jerry Rhome in a special redshirt draft in 1965 and trading his rights to Houston, Werblin and Ewbank turned their attention to Namath on Knox’ recommendation. The true test would be in signing him – Namath eventually turned down a $389,000 contract from the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and signed a $427,000 deal with the Jets, the biggest contract in the history of sports at that time, and one that would change the face of pro football forever.

But that was later. Namath had to grow into the pro game, and part of Knox’ charge was to help him do so. Years later, Knox recalled a game against the Chiefs in Namath’s rookie season. “He was struggling and, as is often the case with kids, the harder he tried, the worse he got. At halftime, the coaches were giving the standard directives about concentration and reading the coverages. After the speeches, I called the kid over.”

”Chuck told me not to worry anymore about reading any damn coverages. He told me to go back to throwing the damn ball like I always had. That’s that way he talked. He said, ‘Pick a guy and let it fly’. That’s all he said. No big strategy. Just throw it. One of the best halftime talks I’ve ever heard.” – Joe Namath

Knox was a pioneer during this time, as well – according to Ewbank, Knox was the first coach to teach offensive linemen to block with their hands. “He was the first person to even out things between offensive and defensive linemen,” Ewbank later said. “At the time, the defense could do anything short of killing you. Chuck changed all that.”

Knox’ reasoning was “Eighth-Grade Sewickley”, as he might say – pure survival. “(It) was simple: Act like you are guarding a guy in man-to-man basketball. Just like you should always stay between your man and the basket, you should stay between your man and the quarterback…Back then, defenders were allowed to grab and shove and twist and everything.” To counter the nefarious head-slap, Knox would hit his linemen over the head with rubber baseball bats until they were trained not to flinch on contact.

These techniques and their teaching were so effective, that it was the line Knox assembled which blocked for Namath and Matt Snell in Super Bowl III when the Jets shocked the Colts and the world in January of 1969. Knox would not be on the sidelines for that game, although he was given a great deal of credit after the fact for that Super Bowl victory.

Knox had moved on to bigger money, and the NFL. It was not the last time he would miss the Super Bowl by an achingly small margin.

Young Lions

”First day of camp, and here comes this new line coach. Doesn’t so much walk as strut; stocky guy; says his name is Knox. I miss an incidental block in an incidental drill, and then I hear this foghorn. ‘Know something, Kowal?’ he says; ‘You’re a sissy.’

I look up. I stare. This is my second year, and nobody had ever talked to me like that. I wanted to fight the son of a gun right there. I get ready to charge – hell, he’s not much older than we are – but a teammate grabs me.” – Former Lions guard Bob Kowalkowski

In the late summer of 1967, Knox accepted an offer from Detroit head coach Joe Schmidt to coach the Lions’ offensive line. He was given an impressive salary for the time ($24,000 per year), and headed to the team’s training camp at Cranbrook College in Eastern Michigan with a head full of steam and a heart full of dreams. Most of all, Knox felt that he’d been through enough to stop playing games – he would be who he was as a coach, and play no more games. That was the end of it.

What he had “inherited” was yet another motley crew – the Lions had amassed a 4-9-1 record the year before. Once again, Chuck Knox was starting from scratch. Linemen like Kowalkowski and Rocky Freitas (of whom Knox once said, “My biggest question was whether he was a football player or a throw pillow”) would learn the hard way that this new coach would not go for anything but maximum effort. In time, they would learn to love him.

That was down the road.

The Lions saw a bit of playoff action during Knox’ time there, losing 5-0 to Dallas in the NFC Divisional round in 1970. But mostly, what Knox got from his six years in Detroit was the final sanction that he was ready to be a professional football coach. He also got the respect of the players who once despised him. The dilapidated line Knox took over eventually became the class of the league. Freitas became an All-Pro. The line of Flanagan, Freitas, Walton, Cottrell and Kowalkowski played in the NFL for a combined forty-eight years. Nobody questioned Chuck Knox’ ability to lead and motivate anymore.

Now, it was time for Knox to do it with a full team.

“After Knox called me a sissy, I couldn’t stand to talk to the man. But in the winter after his second season there, he heard that I was a good fisherman and invited me with some coaches north on a fishing trip. I was stunned, but I thought ‘What the hell?’

”Once we got there we baited and drank Scotch, baited and drank beer, then threw away the bait and just drank. Finally, when we were alone and pretty sauced, I cornered Knox. I told him, ‘You know, a couple of seasons ago, I wanted to clean your clock. I wanted to kill you, literally kill you, for calling me a sissy.’

“’Really?’ Knox said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me then? I could have explained it to you then. I could have explained about patting some guys on the back and kicking other guys in the butt, and about how I had to check each guy for an inner flame. Call you a name was the best way I knew how.’

“I thought about it for a while and decided – Yeah, I understood.” – Bob Kowalkowski

Ram Tough

”I had coached nineteen years, ten of them as a pro assistant, four of them as a college assistant, five of them at the high-school level. I had just recently been slapped in the face and cast out into football oblivion by a general manager (Detroit’s Russ Thomas), who thought he would never hear from me again. I had never played pro ball. I had not played big-time college ball. I had no big-league connections, and I had more friends in Sewickley than in any NFL town. And suddenly, here I was, the head coach of the fastest team in the fastest lane in America.” – Chuck Knox

After the 1972 season, Knox received two phone calls: One from Detroit’s Schmidt, who told Knox that he was retiring as the head coach of the Lions, and Don Klosterman, the general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, who wanted to fly Knox out to California for an interview for the team’s head coaching position. After trying unsuccessfully to talk Schmidt out of retiring (and being told by Lions’ management that his own assistant’s job wouldn’t be guaranteed), Knox got on that plane. He held little hope, given that the Rams were estimated to be interviewing over twenty candidates for the position of head coach. But in January of 1973, Knox got his first chance to be an NFL head coach after two interviews with Klosterman and Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom.

The 1972 Rams were a confused mess, a 6-7-1 non-entity led by former coach Tommy Prothro and staffed with veterans who weren’t pulling their weight. Knox took immediate action, trading franchise quarterback Roman Gabriel to the Eagles for receiver Harold Jackson. He traded DT Coy Bacon to the Chargers for quarterback John Hadl, who became the NFC’s MVP in Knox’ first year there. In 1974, he would trade Hadl to Green Bay for two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and a third-round pick. He cut the dead weight and gave starting time to talented youngsters Jack Youngblood, Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds and Fred Dryer, creating a terrifying defense that never finished worse than fifth in points and yards allowed during Knox’ tenure. He plucked a talented second-year running back by the name of Lawrence McCutcheon off the inactive list – McCutcheon would run for over 1,000 yards in 1973 and lead the Rams in rushing every year that Knox was in L.A. It was a magical year, the kind of year when everything goes right. Chuck Knox’ 1973 Rams finished 12-2, and Knox was named Coach of the Year.

Knox pulled information and inspiration from everywhere – beating the Cowboys with a Hail Mary read call from Hadl, challenging Falcons head coach Norm Van Brocklin to a fistfight, and telling his players that no excuses would ever be accepted. After the team looked dismal in an 0-3-1 preseason in 1973, Knox addressed his team.

”Outside this locker room there are thousands of Doubting Thomases. The boat is empty; they have taken not only the life preservers but the oars. Even the rats have deserted us. The only people who will keep us afloat are the ones in this locker room. It’s us against them. And we will not let them win. We will keep it afloat.” – Chuck Knox

From 1973 to 1977, Knox’ Rams won at least ten games every season, won their division every year (making Knox the only coach besides Paul Brown to win his division in his first five seasons as a head coach), and went to three NFC Championship games in a row from 1974 to 1976. Knox’ regular-season record in L.A. was 54-15-1…yet it was never enough for the fans, many of the players and the team’s management. More and more, Rosenbloom displayed dissatisfaction and impatience as Knox failed again and again to get his team past the Vikings and Cowboys and into the Super Bowl.

Former Rams’ defensive end Merlin Olsen shared his thoughts on the Rams’ famed postseason drought years later. “If making it to the Super Bowl is the only measure of a man’s career, that’s sad. If it’s the only method by which Chuck is judged, that’s criminal,” Olsen said. “But I’ll tell you what we thought he did back then…He considered it his first responsibility just to get our floundering team to respectability. He put in a risk-free offense designed not necessarily to win, but to not lose. This worked fine until playoff time, when we faced teams as good or better than us.

”He wasn’t willing to take the chances you have to take to beat teams like that,” Olsen continued. “Therefore, we couldn’t get what we needed to win the big ones. In big games, our risk-free offense turned on us.”

Knox offered no apologies in retrospect, explaining that keeping things simple made sense with a young team. He had taken the Rams from the second division to the precipice, but the precipice wasn’t enough for anyone involved. Rosenbloom became more vocal, questioning Knox’ decision to replace Hadl with James Harris (one of the first starting black quarterbacks in NFL history, and the first to start a playoff game) and dismissing Knox’ conservative strategies. Rosenbloom wanted a vertical offense, regardless of the personnel or the risk. Clearly, the marriage between owner and coach was doomed to failure, no matter how successful it may have seemed on the surface.

After the 1976 season, Knox went to Rosenbloom and said he wasn’t happy. He had heard of a head coaching vacancy in Detroit, and he wanted out of Los Angeles. Rosenbloom responded by telling the Lions that they could have Knox – in exchange for seven of their most coveted players. Needless to say, that “offer” was rejected, and Knox served the last year of his first five-year contract under Rosenbloom just trying to hold the team together. After a divisional playoff loss to the Vikings, Chuck Knox had coached his last game with the Rams.

He just didn’t know where he’d be going next.

Knox actually signed a second five-year contract with Rosenbloom after the 1977 season, but both sides knew the score. Knox had been introduced to Ralph Wilson, the owner of the Buffalo Bills, by Melvin Durslag of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Durslag actually helped broker the deal that brought Knox to Buffalo in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick that the Rams never received.

“We all knew that Chuck was about to be let out by Carroll, who said his offense was putting this town to sleep. Entertainment capital of the world, Carroll said, and Chuck is making them yawn. Chuck was a goner.” – Melvin Durslag

Problem was that Wilson and Rosenbloom weren’t talking to each other, a fallout from an incident in which Rosenbloom had tried to “steal” O.J. Simpson from the Bills. Wilson, Knox and their attendant associates did the deal in Durslag’s house without Rosenbloom’s knowledge. Rosenbloom shrugged, hired Ray Malavasi, and finally got his Super Bowl appearance in January of 1980, when the Rams lost to the Steelers. Once again, Knox’ team went to the Super Bowl…and once again, Knox was nowhere to be found when it happened.

Buffalo Soldier

”Ralph Wilson was a non-meddler, all right. He had ignored this team right to the edge of chaos. Correct that. They had long since passed chaos.” – Chuck Knox

Knox’ Bills played to type – a team in upheaval with dissatisfied players and less-than-optimal ownership that desperately needed leadership. Knox was to provide that leadership again. He first unloaded an unhappy O.J. Simpson on the San Francisco 49ers in a groundbreaking trade which gave Buffalo the draft picks that would later, through use or trade, acquire running back Joe Cribbs and Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. In his five years in Buffalo, Knox created a two-time playoff team from a moribund franchise with a pathetic scouting department and an absentee owner. And it all ended, incredibly, when Wilson refused to give Knox a raise after the 1982 season.

Looking for a change and some stability, Knox took a call from the Rams, who asked him to come back and coach the team that was then owned by Rosenbloom’s widow, Georgia Frontiere. While he considered that offer, he received a call from Mike McCormack of the Seahawks.

Nobody knew it then, but the young Seahawks were on the verge of their wonder years…followed by a long spell of cancerous ownership that would take Chuck Knox down with it.

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 Top Stories