So the era of Buck Shaw ended. I think he got a bad shake. He had to be a miracle worker to win seven games with the makeshift club he had on the field most of the year, but Tony Morabito thought, along with everyone else, that we would at last win a championship, especially after we won seven exhibition games in a row. If you lose when the owner is convinced that you will win someone has to go, and it is always the coach—or the quarterback.
Under Buck Shaw the 49ers had been known as the country club of the West, and I suppose Tony wanted to destroy that image for us, as well as for everyone else in the league. He hired Red Strader, who was as strict and carefully organized as Buck had been permissive and relaxed.
One of Strader's principal assistants was Red Hickey, who had been a Ram coach. Hickey couldn't have agreed more with Strader's philosophy. We used to joke that we went from country club to concentration camp. Team morale suffered. In 1955 we won four and lost eight, and Strader told Morabito that this was a fair measure of the talent on the club, although it was essentially the same team that had gone nine and three in 1953 and 7-4-1 in 1954. So Morabito fired Strader and made Frank Albert, who had been an assistant under Strader, the head coach. Maybe he thought Frank would go back to the old relaxed days, but it did not quite work out that way.
In Frank's mind, I suppose, was the old idea that the 49ers were always the bridesmaids and never the bride. That had been true for four years in the AAC when Paul Brown's wonderful Cleveland machines won every year. In those days there were the happy-go-lucky second-place 49ers and the businesslike champion Browns, and Frank decided to change the image of the 49ers to one as near the Browns as he could manage.
When Albert was a quarterback I doubt that it ever occurred to Buck Shaw to send a play in to him. Frank, as I have said, was a feel quarterback. When he began to feel pressure from a defensive line—something only the quarterback on the field is in a position to pick up immediately—he would instinctively call a draw, or whatever he thought would defeat the pressure. If the defenses were outside, he went inside. If they played tight, he went deep. Not because the playbook or the frequency chart said so, but simply because Frank felt it in his bones.
As a coach he completely changed his philosophy. For the first half of the season he called the plays from the sidelines. Once, with fourth and one on the other team's 45-yard line and with the stands howling, "Go, go, go!" at the top of their lungs, he sent in the punting team.
"If you had been the quarterback, would you have punted?" a writer asked him after the game.
"No," said Frank, "but it is different when you are a coach."
Albert changed again, though. At mid-season he began to think like Albert the player. The club responded by winning four of six games and set the stage for the most successful 49er season of all—1957.
That was also my best year in pro football up to that time. I led the league in passing and won the Most Valuable Player award. But it was a sad year, too. Tony Morabito died during the first half of a game with the Chicago Bears; we heard about it in the dressing room at the half. We sat for 15 minutes in silence and then went out and beat the Bears. We were behind 17-7 when we were told about Tony, and we won 21-17 in two of the most emotional quarters of football I have ever played.