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Gillman devised his own terminology and teaching aids—the 11 coaching points of the aerial game, the five offensive passing lanes. Every route bore a single-digit number, and he would simplify the play-calling to three numbers. For instance, his favorite pattern, an 848, would be the X receiver, or split end, running an 8: a 22-yard post; the Y receiver, the tight end, running a 4: or a 12-yard turn-in; and the Z man, or flanker, mirroring the same 22-yard post (an 8) on the other side.
In 1962 he took a heavy-legged, triple-threat back from Kansas, John Hadl, whom Detroit had drafted as a runner, and developed him into one of the game's great touch passers. He turned Lance Alworth, a flashy halfback from Arkansas, into the deep thrust of his attack, a wideout who pierced the AFL's zone defenses like an arrow.
His cut-up reels were for individual study ("There's not a thing that happens on the field that I don't have a reel for," he says), and the point of the whole system was to simplify. "Why complicate things?" Gillman says. "If it's an up, call it an up, not something exotic."
The Gillman system spread like branches of a tree throughout the world of football. His assistants on those early Chargers, Chuck Noll and Jack Faulkner, took it to Pittsburgh and Denver, respectively, then Faulkner took it to the Rams as their special assistant coach. Al Davis and Al LoCasale took it to Oakland, where it rubbed off on Walsh. Kay Stephenson, Dan Henning and Don Breaux all had been quarterbacks for Gillman at San Diego, and his ideas followed them to Buffalo and Atlanta and San Diego and Washington. As head coach at Miami of Ohio and Cincinnati, Gillman had groomed such future coaches as Bo Schembechler, Dietzel, Bill Arnsparger, Johnny Pont and Ara Parseghian. And then there was the Florida State connection.
Bill Peterson, who became the Seminoles' coach in 1960, was outmanned in talent and faced with a schedule loaded with SEC heavies. He knew he had to learn the passing game to survive. He attended every Charger camp, learning a system that became his own system at FSU. Occasionally he would bump into an eager young line coach from San Diego State named Joe Gibbs.
"The Chargers' practice field was a favorite place for young coaches to run up to," Gibbs says. "I'd follow their line coach, Joe Madro, around wherever he went. They'd share everything with you. The techniques were what I wanted to copy. I'd think, Hey, man, those guys are great!"
Breaux's contact with Peterson at the San Diego camp earned him a place on the FSU staff in 1966. When Breaux left a year later, he recommended Henning to replace him. When a vacancy opened up for an offensive line coach, Breaux called Sid to recommend someone who knew the drop-back passing game. He came up with Gibbs, who was hired in 1967. The Seminoles ran the San Diego offense, and the roster of assistants who worked in that FSU program reads like a who's who of football coaching: Henning, Breaux, Gibbs, Don James (University of Washington), Bill Parcells (Giants), Ken Meyer (Jets, 49ers, Seahawks) and of course Bobby Bowden, whose Florida State offense these days bears a striking resemblance to the old Sid Gillman operation.
In his darkened room in the house on Playa Road, Gillman still grades and analyzes and breaks down the tapes, occasionally putting up an old cut-up reel of film "to refresh myself."
"If there's anything new in the game," he says, "I want to know about it." Is there still room in the game for a man who will be 80 in October? Is there someone out there who would like his offense coordinated?
"Oh, yeah, sure, they're all rushing to hire an 80-year-old coordinator," Gillman says. "Quality control? I'll tell you something about quality control. It's only as good as your quarterback. If he goes down, you can take your quality control and shove it."