Ralston's biggest change produced the only serious hassle he has yet endured as an NFL coach, one which he handled with his customary unflinching directness. ("If you don't want problems," he says, "you shouldn't be a head coach. You should try something easy, like selling pencils.") It came after he moved the team training camp out of Colorado for the first time in history, selecting Cal Poly at Pomona for the isolated, Spartan environment he felt essential to rigorous conditioning. Team consensus says the camp was both the best and worst any Bronco ever endured. The physical demands, severe enough, were more harsh for the temperature, which reached 112° one day, but nearly everyone on the club admits he is now in the best condition of his career.
While Ralston, impervious to the heat, drilled his men, he couldn't ignore the overt griping voiced by defensive captain Dave Costa, a disgruntled nine-year veteran who had come to camp unsigned and who made no bones about wanting to be traded, preferably to Buffalo. When he was leg-whipped by a rookie during drills on an especially hot day, Costa rebelled, berating both the rookie and, in his words, "the chicken drill." Shortly afterward Ralston sent Costa out of camp in a cab. While it wasn't announced, it is probable that Costa was suspended, thus lowering his market value, before he was traded to San Diego for a No. 3 draft choice and Eddie Ray, a running back who will have a tough time making the 40-man roster.
"There are only two things I ask," Ralston says, "loyalty to the organization and its community and a willingness to work. Dave Costa and I just had an impasse as far as what it takes to play winning football."
While they produced the kind of explosions often heard in a basic training platoon, both Pomona and the confrontation with Costa achieved the results Ralston wanted. Nearly every Bronco, although friendly to Costa, agreed that Ralston took the only course available. This includes Floyd Little, Denver's NFL rushing champion, who told Ralston, "Hang in there, coach," immediately after the Costa flap.
"He's got a pretty good approach," Little says. "Get everyone tired and leaning on each other. It creates unity, and a little more of that won't hurt us. I've gotten to know more of our younger players this year than in previous camps. I don't like the running we have to do after practice, but if that is what it takes to get there, I can suck it up for another 15 minutes. We've had pretty good unity on this club, but I feel Ralston augmented it because he's personally involved. He's part of it. He wants to see the fire in everyone's eye."
As one of the Broncos' most dedicated team leaders, Little also gave the new coach a boost when he told other players, "Hey, let's do it. We owe it to him to try. We'll see what happens and then make our decision in December. This is the only way Ralston knows how to get the job done, and we owe it to him to give him 100%."
It hasn't all gone Ralston's way, which is to be expected in a situation that calls for sacrificing exhibition game victories for the more important chore of studying players and the harsh unfamiliarity of cutting some of them from the roster. Even in the friendly surroundings of Stanford, Ralston lost two players to knee injuries: Jerry Inman, a swing man in the front four, went down in obvious pain, while Tommy Lyons, an offensive guard, worked through the entire practice and ran off the field before his leg locked on him. Ralston's exhibition debut ended in a 41-0 loss at Washington. The following week he saw his team lose to the Cardinals 17-13.
"We've got to change some attitudes here," Ralston said, "and that isn't easy. We were leading St. Louis at halftime, but I could tell we were out of our comfort zone. We didn't expect to be leading 13-0 at the half—it's like a hacker who plays the front nine at one over par. You know what's going to happen to him on the back nine. The difference with the good teams is that they're angry they're not ahead 30-0. The great fighter isn't the one with the big knockout punch but the guy who hits his opponent eight times as he's going down to the floor."
Sunday in San Francisco there were blatant indications that some attitudes had already changed and that the Broncos were getting Ralston's message. With Charley Johnson, the 11-year veteran Ralston got from Houston, passing superbly in the first half and a suddenly pressed Don Horn throwing equally as well in the second, the Broncos won 27-24 over the 49ers, whom Ralston reasonably did not expect to defeat. "I was pleased with the effort," he said, "because it was a week ahead of schedule." He also was cheered when his team voted to give him the game ball. "This one I'll really cherish," he said.
It should not be implied that John Ralston has come to pro football and found it devoid of new experiences, for his situation is essentially a cram course that would be easier to master were he less sensitive, and less embarrassing were he less honest.