Last Oct. 31, Paul Wiggin, the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, was fired. It was Halloween, when things go bump in the night, but for Wiggin horror struck in the morning. Summoned to a 10:30 a.m. meeting by K.C. President Jack Steadman, Wiggin unexpectedly was greeted by Lamar Hunt, the team's owner, who just 8� hours earlier had decided to give Wiggin his walking papers. At the very moment Wiggin heard his fate, his wife Carolynn was playing tennis with Steadman's wife Martha, who knew—but hadn't told Carolynn—that the Chiefs were firing her husband that morning.
Steadman, whose association with the Chiefs began when he was an accountant for Hunt's Penrod Oil Co., had written down the things he planned to tell Wiggin on Hunt's behalf—step by step, like so many debits. Among them was: "Paul, it's getting rough out there and it's going to get vicious before it's over, and because of that we're going to make a coaching change." The news of Wiggin's dismissal triggered an outburst of emotion throughout the Chiefs' Arrowhead Stadium offices. Secretaries, PR men, assistant coaches and players were shocked. Many wept. When the news got out, Mona Campbell, the switchboard operator, was besieged by calls from irate fans; Wiggin, they said, was a martyr. Letters received by the Chiefs and the
Kansas City Star
almost unanimously lauded the immensely popular Wiggin and ripped management, even though the Chiefs were 1-6 at the time and Wiggin was leaving with an 11-24 record for his 2� seasons.
The day before, the Chiefs had been drubbed by Cleveland 44-7, a particularly humiliating defeat for Wiggin, who was a standout defensive end for the Browns during his 11-year playing career. Nevertheless, Wiggin's firing was promptly labeled a panic move. At the start of the season, the K.C. management and coaching staff had prepared the local media, as well as the fans, for the inevitable: 1977 would be another lean year for the Chiefs. Not only was Kansas City saddled with the NFL's toughest schedule but its 43-man roster also included 27 players with less than four years' experience in the pros. Worst of all, the Chiefs were still suffering from six straight terrible drafts conducted by Wiggin's predecessor, Hank Stram, who himself would soon be fired as the head coach of the New Orleans Saints.
Kansas City's fortunes ebbed after its stunning victory over Minnesota in the 1970 Super Bowl. The six subsequent drafts produced an abundance of stiffs, one convicted felon and only five players who remain on the Chiefs' roster. Stram compounded his ruinous drafts with equally horrendous trades, most notably one which sent Defensive Lineman Curley Culp and a No. 1 draft choice to Houston for Defensive Lineman John Matuszak, who played only a season and a half in Kansas City before being peddled for two draft choices, neither a No. 1. Another first-round choice was wasted in a deal for George Seals, a defensive lineman who played just five games in a Chiefs uniform. In effect, Stram's blunders cost Wiggin his job.
"The tragedy for me was that I was fired in the middle of the year," Wiggin says with bitterness. "I wasn't even good enough to finish out the season. And I did a lot of things right. I'd like to do a lot of things over again, but there isn't a guy in America who wouldn't. I bit the bullet during a very tough time in this team's history. If someone someday says, 'Paul, you played a part in the return to glory of the Kansas City Chiefs,' I'm not going to modestly say, 'Bull.' You're damn right I did."
In hiring Wiggin, the Chiefs had purposely selected a man diametrically opposed to the pompous and arrogant Stram, who had coached the team for 15 seasons. Credibility and faith in the team's future were of prime importance to the franchise, because when Wiggin was signed, the Chiefs seemed to be headed nowhere. The fans had been turned off. In fact, season-ticket sales had fallen from 72,885 to 65,564 during the last three years of Stram's regime.
The 43-year-old Wiggin, whose long suits are honesty and candor, was hired on Jan. 23, 1975. He was promised patience and three drafts by Hunt and Steadman. When Wiggin's first two Kansas City teams limped home with 5-9 records, Hunt and Steadman reaffirmed their "patience and three drafts" commitment by adding three years to Wiggin's contract at $65,000 per year, plus perquisites. Seven games later, the promise was broken.
"If only I hadn't been fired off a sheet of paper," Wiggin says, shaking his head. "When you're dealing with a human being, you should look him in the eye. You don't have to write down why you fired a guy. You better know why you fired him. I'm still wondering, really, why was I fired? What did I do to get fired? I'd like to know.
"I felt I was in total control of my emotions when it happened. I didn't cry or beg or ask for a press conference. I just sat there and accepted it. I did tell them that some of the problems I was being fired for happened long before I ever got there. I said, 'I know one thing, nothing I say is going to get my job back. I just want to say what I feel.' Then I was kind of sent to my room. I asked them, 'What do you want me to do? Do you want me to go home? Do you want me to stay?' And they said, 'Do whatever you want.' "
Wiggin returned to his office, an opulent, paneled suite that Stram had had designed to his specifications. The office hardly suited Wiggin's temperament or taste. Of a mirror on the wall, a newsman once said, "Henry used that to check his necktie; Wig uses it to see if his shirt is tucked in." Wiggin collected his personal effects and packed up the log he had kept while he was with the Chiefs. He wryly noted that the last page in the last binder was dated Oct. 31.