Tommy Prothro should have destroyed the illusion by now, yet still there persists the amorphous, unkind image of the collegiate football coach who takes over an NFL team: zealously enthusiastic, boyishly gauche, short on knowledge but long on ridiculous ambition, his rah-rah cheers grating on the ears of cynical veterans who probably intimidate him.
It is a temptingly easy description of John Ralston, 45, the new head coach of the Denver Broncos, but it misses the mark badly. While Ralston may be as callow as the next new kid on the NFL block, he is unlikely to be intimidated either by the game or its players, and for every occasion of naiveté there is an adamant toughness about his methods which, although they chafe, seem to bode well for Denver's perennial losers, who on occasion have had to duck snowballs thrown by outraged fans.
Now in its 13th year as a pro football franchise, Denver has won stunning, perverse support from its slush-lobbing public, part of which stormed the fences last year in an irate rush on the Bronco bench after one more Denver defeat. On another day, one brave man in his frustration threatened to sock it to a lineman. Deplorable behavior, it is true, but predictable. During their dozen years of varying dreariness the Broncos have yet to experience a winning season. The team's high-water mark was a 7-7-0 split in 1962 (the last year Denver beat the Oakland Raiders), and for the 48 wins compiled by the Broncos since their inception, rivals have hung it on them no less than 114 times. Despite such ineptitude, season ticket sales are at an alltime high and have been in each of the last five years, thus proving the resilient popularity either of pro football or of snowballing.
There are countless examples, of course, of teams that suffered similar misery and ultimately profited by it through high choices in the collegiate player draft, earning a strong-armed quarterback or some other necessary wonder as reward for a wretched season. Not so the Broncos. In the initial seven years of the team's American Football League existence Denver's first draft choices to a man signed with the rival NFL. Since the merger Denver has won just enough games to preclude an early draft choice of Jim Plunkett caliber, thereby sustaining a noncontender's status. It is a common rap around the Rocky Mountains that no Bronco quarterback has ever thrown a pass for 40 yards on less than three bounces.
An immensely likable man who relishes an ever-tougher challenge, Ralston came to the Broncos in January after nine years at Stanford, where his last two teams scored gutsy, wonderful upset victories in the Rose Bowl. In 1971 defense and Plunkett's phenomenal passing knocked off Ohio State 27-17, a team that had been favored by 17 points. Last New Year's Day defense and Don Bunce engineered an even more miraculous triumph, grabbing a 13-12 victory over-Michigan in the last 12 seconds of play.
More than any other contests the Rose Bowls stamped Ralston as the premier riverboat gambler of the collegiate set, a coach who not only would call for the long pass or flanker reverse on first down but on the first snap from scrimmage. Yet it is probably safe to say that the bold approach in football or anything else is slightly foreign to Ralston's true nature, which is as conservative as the next coach's until winning demands opting in the direction of risk. Indeed, Ralston is at once both adaptable and adamant, depending on the frame of reference. Tailoring an offense or game plan to the available talent is an adjustment easily handled. Changes in his methods won't come easily, if at all.
The points on which Ralston will allow no compromise—and the grumbling heard in the background comes from some Bronco veterans—are meticulous attention to every detail, a positive attitude that would outdistance Norman Vincent Peale and reliance on those things from the past that have been successful. Thus, with few exceptions, pro football has been no different for Ralston at Denver than at Stanford, where last week before their exhibition game with the San Francisco 49ers, the Broncos established their third training camp site.
"I thought this was going to be a lot tougher," Ralston said, "but I haven't noticed that much difference. The only thing is that we'll be starting a month earlier and playing a month later than the colleges. It doesn't matter that you're in professional football, you've got to coach to your personality. The game is still the same and you lose just like you do in college—on a fumble or interception. You can't become Vince Lombardi all of a sudden. This is my 22nd year in coaching and I intend to do things the same way I always have."
Ralston's way has been fraught with change for the Bronco players, who have taken to their new boss with varying degrees of esteem. They are not yet sure how to react to his fastidiousness, which can extend to the way his players break from the huddle, take their stances and fire off the line. Lou Saban, who left Denver for Buffalo after five fruitless years of trying to produce a winner, never had included such seemingly trivial items as part of his instruction.
"Lou expected you to be able to adjust to little things without being very explicit about them," said Mike Current, an offensive tackle. "John will take more time for everything. He's very precise. We've been treated more like college players than pros. In many cases it's been good because we got back to some fundamentals, but a lot of the players have resented the little things. The more I see of John Ralston, the more he reminds me of Woody Hayes. He's not as obstinate and overbearing, but things are going to be done his way."