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It was reported that he would be a commentator for a San Diego TV station, but a month later he was in Dallas, getting ready to go to work as Tom Landry's quality-control coach. A year after that he was Houston's executive vice-president and general manager, and he also took over as the Oilers' coach five games into the 1973 season. In '74 he was selected AFC Coach of the Year by UPI, after his Oilers went 7-7 and broke a streak of four losing seasons. The next season he went back to being the Oilers' general manager, naming his defensive coach, Bum Phillips, as his replacement, only to be forced out three weeks later by owner Bud Adams—on a power play by Phillips. Bum didn't want Gillman looking over his shoulder, and it was a bit of manipulation that had Sid vowing he was out of the game for good now. Honest.
Until 1977, when the phone call came from Chicago. The Bears, who hadn't had a winning team for nine years, needed an offensive coordinator, and 65-year-old Sid Gillman was the man they wanted. He was on the next plane. Those Bears went to the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons, and when they asked Walter Payton about Sid, he said, "I haven't figured him out yet. I don't know where he gets all his enthusiasm."
One day someone approached Gillman to do some work for the Gray Panthers. "What is it?" he asked. A senior citizens' group, he was told. "It's not for me," he said. "Hell, I live like I did when I was 35. I don't believe in retirement groups because I don't believe in retirement. How long can I keep coaching? How about forever? I'll never walk off the field."
But that's exactly what he did after the '77 season. He wanted to open up the offense. The Chicago brain trust wanted to keep it closed. "Younger coaches with old minds," Gillman said, and he went back to La Costa and his film room.
The next phone call came from left-field. United States International University, formerly known as Cal Western, wanted to know if he was interested in coaching its team—USIU with 3,450 students on its San Diego campus, including 1,500 undergrads, about a third of them foreign; USIU with campuses in London, Nairobi and Mexico City. Sid Gillman working there would be like Henry Ford working at a local garage.
"My president told me to make the call," says Al Palmiotto, USIU's athletic director at the time. "I was practically laughing when I phoned Sid. I mean Sid Gillman, the father of modern offensive football. I said, 'You wouldn't by any chance be interested?' and he said, 'Sure, why not?' "
"What a lucky sonofabitch I am," Gillman said afterward, "finding a place like this for the last years of my life." It was December 1978. He was 67 years old. Four months later he was gone, having signed on with the Philadelphia Eagles to put in a passing attack for coach Dick Vermeil's offense. But what he did in those four months at USIU became something of a West Coast legend.
Three of the coaches he hired—Tom Walsh, John Fox and Mike Solari—went on to coach in the NFL. A fourth one, Mike Sheppard, is now head coach at New Mexico. Two of the players he recruited, quarterback Bob Gagliano and cornerback Vernon Dean, became NFL starters. The '79 USIU team, eventually coached by Walsh, went 8-3, tying the best record in school history.
"Sid put everything together in a month," says Walsh, who now is an offensive assistant with the Los Angeles Raiders. "It was frantic. We were interviewing people in two offices at once. Running 'em in and out. Everyone wanted to come in and meet Sid. We got Gagliano on the rebound from Southwestern Louisiana. [He had left because he was homesick.] When we found him, he was reading gas meters for the city of Glendale."
So Gillman worked for the Eagles in '79 and '80, the Super Bowl season. Vermeil flatly says, "We never would have made it to the Super Bowl if not for Sid Gillman. When we hired him, we hired an encyclopedia."