And then Gillman retired. ("Physically and mentally drained," Vermeil said.) "I've got to get home," Gillman said. "I've got to spend time with my grandchildren." And two years later Vermeil brought him back again, after the Eagles went from seventh in passing in the NFL to 20th. "I'm too young to retire," said Gillman, who was 71 that season. "Once you've got football in your blood, you can't get away from it."
The motor never stopped. He signed on with the USFL in '83 and '84, first as the general manager of the Oklahoma Outlaws, then as a special assistant with the L.A. Express. He was back with the Eagles in '85 as quarterback coach, then served as an unpaid consultant to University of Pittsburgh coach Mike Gottfried in '87. The Panthers gave him the game ball after they upset Notre Dame 30-22 on the way to an 8-3 season.
"I don't care if he's going to be 80 or 90," Gottfried, who is now an analyst for ESPN, said this spring. "If I'd gotten a head coaching job in the new World League, which I almost did, my first call would have been to Sid."
Once in 1965, when Gillman was riding at his highest, with his Chargers on the way to their fifth AFL Western Conference title, Gillman addressed a booster club luncheon at the Hanalei on San Diego's motel strip. Someone asked him about the money the players were making, always a sore point with Gillman and the players who had to deal with him. He drew himself up and you could see him stiffen, a tough, blocky-looking man in a sports coat and his perennial bow tie. He fixed his questioner with his well-known scowl and his answer was a snarl. "With some of them, football is a vocation," he said. "With some, it's an avocation. You know what football is to me? It's blood."
It was a rather alarming answer, but at the time no one in the audience realized that it could also be taken two ways: as 1) blood; and as 2) in the blood, deeply ingrained, never losing its visceral grip nor its intellectual fascination. Do it all, do it first and do it better, and if someone else is doing something you like, film it and clip it and splice it into your own reel and use it—only better.
The hard edges have softened now, his bitter, furious battles of the past have become subjects for anecdotes. The intellect remains, the total absorption in the pure beauty and geometry and science of what takes place on the field. Oh, you can still set him off. He'll watch a game and he'll notice a coach on the sideline and he'll mutter, "Chairman of the Board."
"There are two types of coaches," he says, "the Innovator and the Chairman of the Board. The Chairman of the Board stands on the sidelines with his arms folded. He knows nothing about what's going on, on the field. If the offensive coordinator left him, he wouldn't know which way to turn. He doesn't wear a headset. Without a headset a coach doesn't know borscht. He'll never make a decision, except maybe whether to go for it on fourth-and-one.
"The other guy, the Innovator, has a headset on and a chart in front of him. He's constantly looking at his chart. He's got everything calculated because he's the guy who has put everything together. He calls everything."
And Gillman was an innovator, one so creative and persuasive that a coach such as Bill Walsh, who was exposed to the Gillman system for only one year, in '66 when he was a Raider assistant, could later say, "Much of what I did I got from Sid Gillman 20 years ago."
And it's all there, on the second floor of that house on Playa Road in La Costa, waiting to be tapped, to be shared by anyone so inclined. "A few years ago, when I was a free agent, I stayed with Sid in his house," says Ron Jaworski, the former Eagle quarterback, who was the NFL's Player of the Year, under Gillman's tutelage, in 1980. "Before I knew it, he had me up in his film room, looking at film for three hours."