The head coaches have had extensive pro experience or else boast unusual college records. Eddie Erdelatz, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers and Navy, is at Oakland; Sid Gill-man, lately with the Los Angeles Rams, is with the Los Angeles Chargers; and Sammy Baugh, the old Washington Redskin, is at New York. Buster Ramsey was defensive coach of the Detroit Lions before going to Buffalo, Frank Filchock of Denver was a pro quarterback with the Redskins and Giants before winning championships in the Canadian League, Lou Rymkus at Houston was a star lineman for seven seasons with the Cleveland Browns and has been an offensive coach in the NFL since 1953. Least known of the eight are Hank Stram at Dallas and Lou Saban at Boston. Stram was an assistant coach at Purdue, SMU, Notre Dame and Miami. Saban, defensive captain of the Browns for four years, later coached at Washington, Northwestern, Case Institute and Western Illinois, where his undefeated 1959 team was ranked second among small colleges in the nation. "Saban," says Billy Sullivan, one of the Boston owners, "is Paul Brown with a heart." In preseason scuffling, the teams coached by Stram and Saban between them have won 10 exhibition games and lost only one.
The sneers and snorts directed at the new league have been aimed at neither the front office nor the coaching staffs, however, but at the players. Since not even the teams concerned knew for sure who the players were until recently, this has taken the form of a blanket indictment of AFL personnel. Yet these "castoffs" and "college kids" represent the strongest part of the AFL rosters.
Some examples: George Blanda, out of retirement after 10 seasons with the Chicago Bears to play quarterback for Houston, is perhaps the best of the older pros in the league. Tommy O'Connell of Buffalo quarterbacked the Browns to their last Eastern championship in 1957 and was the leading passer that year in the NFL; he then quit to go into coaching, possibly because of differences with Paul Brown. Frank Tripuka of Denver has long been one of the Canadian League's leading stars. Tom Greene of Boston, an outstanding pro prospect out of Holy Cross two years ago, was drafted by the Redskins but chose not to play professional football until the new league came along. Jim Swink decided co pass up the pros for medical school after his All-America days at TCU, has now been talked into playing by the Dallas Texans. Ron Waller, a superb halfback for the Rams until injured two seasons ago, now appears healthy and ready to run for the Chargers. Jim Sears, who couldn't make Ollie Matson move over in four seasons with the Cardinals and retired to coaching in disgust, supplies Los Angeles with a terrific defensive halfback. Butch Songin, who will share the Boston quarterback job with Greene, had two outstanding seasons in Canada, then played semi-pro ball around Boston for $250 a game, which is approximately $244 more than Johnny Unitas once received on the Pittsburgh sandlots.
"Unitas was a castoff, too, remember," says John Breen of the Houston coaching staff, "and so was Big Daddy Lipscomb. There's nothing wrong with castoffs."
It is the rookies, however, who should turn out to be the real strength of the league, and it is here that the AFL has a marked advantage in its fight to succeed. Where an NFL team can use at the most five or six rookies each year, the AFL teams can promise 12 or 15 steady employment. They can also pay them at least as much money. This attractive combination enabled the AFL to scamper off with half of the 12 first-round draft choices of the NFL last winter and, overall, to collect about 75% of those college graduates that both leagues were after.
Some of the best this season should be Ron Mix, the 243-pound tackle of the Chargers from USC who was Baltimore's No. 1 draft choice; the storied Billy Cannon, whose preseason case of fumblitis doesn't seem to worry Houston a bit; Richie Lucas, Penn State's do-everything back who will play at half for Buffalo this year; Jack Lee, the sensational Cincinnati passer who is learning the pro trade behind Blanda; Ron Burton, Boston's brilliant running back from Northwestern ; Fullback Jack Spikes (TCU), Halfback Johnny Robinson (LSU), Linebacker Marvin Terrell ( Mississippi) and End Chris Burford ( Stanford), all at Dallas; Houston's big fullback from Ohio State, Bob White; and Buffalo Tackle Gene Grabosky of Syracuse, who now weighs 275 pounds.
Eventually, sharing the cream of the crop with the NFL each year and with a free hand to choose the best of the rest, the AFL should grow up to the National Football League's stature. In the meantime, energy and enthusiasm and a lot of hard work may help hide the difference. American Football League players deeply resent the insinuation that they are something less than real pros and they are out to prove to everyone (including, one suspects at times, themselves) that this is not so.
If there is a major weakness infecting the whole league, it is the shortage of top-grade interior linemen, particularly on defense. "Good big men are just hard to find," says Den-nit Morris, who spent two seasons with the 49ers and now has his work cut out in backing up a less than sensational line at Houston. "We'll just have to develop them as we go along, I guess." Because of this, the AFL is going to be an offense-minded outfit, particularly in its first year.
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