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NFL legend Ewbank dead at 91
Longtime coach led Colts, Jets to historic victories
Posted: Wednesday November 18, 1998 12:56 AM
OXFORD, Ohio (AP) -- Weeb Ewbank, the winning coach in two of pro football's most famous championship games, died Tuesday at his home. He was 91.
The cause of death was not released immediately. The Hall of Fame coach, who attended last Sunday's Jets-Colts game in Indianapolis, was hospitalized briefly last year for treatment of a heart problem.
Ewbank was the only coach to win titles in the AFL and NFL. He coached Joe Namath and the New York Jets over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts 16-7 in the third Super Bowl in 1969, giving the AFL its first title over the more established NFL.
In 1958, Ewbank coached Johnny Unitas and the Colts to a 23-17 overtime win over the New York Giants for the NFL championship. Often called "The Greatest Game Ever Played," it was credited with making pro football one of the most popular American sports.
Ewbank also led the Colts over the Giants 31-16 for the title in 1959.
He posted a 130-129-7 record during 20 seasons as a pro coach. He coached the Colts from 1954 to 1962 and the Jets from 1963 to 1973.
"Weeb combined a low-key style with a flair for the most dramatic of accomplishments," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "He led two of the legendary teams during the era of pro football's greatest growth. But he preferred to stay in the background and let the players take the credit.
"He also was a very good judge of talent. He had flair for finding who could play and who couldn't," he said.
Namath was too broken up to comment on Ewbank's death, Jets public relations director Frank Ramos said. Another of Ewbank's former players, Art Donovan of the Colts, also was too emotional to comment.
"I greatly admired Weeb," Jets chairman of the board Leon Hess said Tuesday night. "He was a man who knew everything there was to know about football organization and player motivation."
Don Maynard, who was the Jets' star receiver under Ewbank, said the coach treated his players like family.
"On Saturdays, he'd let you bring your kids to the workouts," Maynard recalled from his home in El Paso, Texas. "He also let you bring your friends to the dressing room after the game. I remember I brought Charlie Pride and Willie Nelson in."
Born Wilbur Charles Ewbank, the native of Richmond, Indiana, lived with his wife, Lucy, in Oxford. He is survived by his wife, three daughters, eight grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were pending Tuesday night.
Ewbank's death came four days after the death of another New York coaching great, Red Holzman. Holzman guided the Knicks to their only two NBA championships in the early 1970s.
In addition to coaching in two of pro football's most memorable titles games, Ewbank coached the Jets in the famous "Heidi" game in 1968 and the first Monday night game in 1970.
Ewbank was a mild-mannered man who approached football with a curious mixture of emotion and efficiency. Twice, he took over teams floundering at the bottom of their league and built them into champions.
Ewbank's first construction project occurred in Baltimore, where he coached the Colts to consecutive NFL championships. Team owner Carroll Rosenbloom called Ewbank "my crew-cut IBM machine." After each day's workout with the Colts, Ewbank would write a report and file it in the basement of his house.
Rosenbloom eventually fired Ewbank, but recommended him as a coach to Sonny Werblin, then president of the Jets. Ewbank came back to haunt his former team when he coached the Jets over the Colts in the Super Bowl, a victory "guaranteed" by Namath several days before the game.
It was no accident that Namath and Unitas became great quarterbacks under Ewbank, a former college QB who was a student of the position.
"The first thing I did after I got the Colts job was to bring in Otto Graham for almost a week and have him critique every throw in practice," Ewbank told Newsday in an interview last week. "I wanted to get a great quarterback's thoughts."
Despite health problems that included an artificial hip, Ewbank still followed football closely in his later years. He said he watched NFL games every weekend, usually with his wife.
"I get the greatest kick of out Lucy," he told Newsday. "She'll say, 'Why do they call that play?' Or, 'The tackling is atrocious.' She coaches them all."
In addition to his own coaching achievements, several of Ewbank's former players and assistants became successful head coaches.
Don Shula played defensive back for Ewbank in Baltimore and subsequently replaced him as the Colts' coach before moving to greater glory with the Miami Dolphins. Assistant coach Clive Rush later became a head coach, as did Chuck Knox, Charley Winner, Ed Biles and Walt Michaels.
Ewbank, a stocky 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, attended Miami University of Ohio, where he quarterbacked the football team and captained the baseball squad.
Ewbank started his coaching career at Van Wert (Ohio) High School in 1928. Two years later he returned to Miami, where he was an assistant for 14 years.
He remained close to the school his entire life.
"One of the things that we all treasure about Weeb is that he never forgot where he came from," Miami football coach Randy Walker said. "Miami was very, very special to Weeb. It wasn't uncommon to see him out at practice, or of course, at every game."
At the end of World War II, Ewbank became backfield coach at Brown University for one season. He then became head coach at Washington University in St. Louis, where he compiled a 14-4 record.
From 1949 to 1953, Ewbank was an assistant under coaching great Paul Brown with the Cleveland Browns. The team dominated pro football during that period, winning the All-American Conference title in 1949, then capturing the NFL championship in 1950 and Eastern Division titles in 1951, 1952 and 1953.
When Ewbank took over the Colts in 1954, the team was a perennial loser. But within six years, he led the team to two NFL titles.
Among the stars Ewbank developed in Baltimore were Unitas, Alan Ameche, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti, Bill Pellington, Jim Parker and Big Daddy Libscomb.
After being fired by Rosenbloom in 1963, Ewbank helped turn around another staggering franchise.
On the day Ewbank was named coach of the AFL's New York team, the club's nickname was changed from Titans to Jets. It turned out to be a symbolic gesture, because Ewbank eventually got the team off the ground, just as he had with the Colts.
Ewbank retired after the 1973 season, coaching his last game on December 16, the day O.J. Simpson broke Jim Brown's single-season rushing mark and the 2,000-yard plateau for the season on a snowy day at Shea Stadium.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1978.
During his career, Ewbank compared coaching to riding a motorcycle.
"You ride it long enough and you're going to get killed," he said.
Ewbank generally kept his cool on the sidelines, but he lost his temper during the Colts' 1958 championship game against the Giants. Ewbank thought Giants linebacker Sam Huff had jabbed his knees into the ribs of Berry, the star end, so he ran onto the field and barreled into the 230-pound Huff. The coach took a few swings at Huff before they were separated.
"I'm not proud of what I did," Ewbank said.
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