SI Vault
Paul Zimmerman
September 02, 1991
For offensive guru Sid Gillman, the secrets of football are in the highlights
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September 02, 1991

Screen Gem

For offensive guru Sid Gillman, the secrets of football are in the highlights

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In the second-floor study of his house in La Costa, with the bright California sunshine fighting to pierce the carefully shaded windows, 79-year-old Sid Gillman is putting together history's greatest study of offensive football.

There are maybe 500 cans of film in that room, gray cans for reels that show passing, blue for runs. Cut-ups, they're called, identical patterns and maneuvers excerpted from miles of raw footage and painstakingly spliced together. Want to see the quick post? Well, pull up a chair and watch John Unitas to Raymond Berry or Bob Griese to Paul Warfield or John Hadl to Lance Alworth. Watch the finest passers and receivers who ever played the game run an hour of quick posts, or any other pattern.

There are individual game tapes on the shelves, stuff from the modern era, when tape took over for film as the coach's best friend. Gillman, who set the tone for modern offensive football three decades ago, uses the tapes to evaluate the current crop of quarterbacks, to analyze the trends in the game, to break down each team's offense. He saves what he likes, discards what he terms "ridiculous." A couple hundred sheets of loose paper—diagrams, notes, ratings—represent his gleanings from those tapes. They will go into the 100 or so loose-leaf notebooks on another shelf, some of them containing 150 pages or more—50 years of offensive football.

Spend a few hours in that British Museum of football, breaking down tapes with Gillman, watching his pencil fly, trying to keep up with a mind that is constantly ahead of his fingers, a mind that is racing, always racing, racing ahead of all the people who came after him and tried to duplicate his system. Put yourself through an afternoon of that and you stagger out into the La Costa sun like a drunk, your brain reeling. Or maybe you're met downstairs by Sid's wife of 56 years, Esther, who has prepared coffee and sandwiches.

"Been watching football with Sid, huh?" she says, smiling.

"Have you ever done it?" you ask.

"Oh, sure," she says. "I've done it for 56 years. I love it. Sometimes Sid will see something and he'll yell, 'Esther, come up here! I want you to look at this.' "

Occasionally, Gillman will shut off the projector or VCR, get up and open the shades and let the sun in, and stare outside and ask, "Why am I doing this? I'm almost 80 years old. Why am I evaluating these quarterbacks?" Then he'll darken the room again and sit down and turn on the machine. "Well, why not?" he'll say. "What else would I be doing? It's my life, what keeps me going."

They've tried to get him out of the game. Too crusty, too mean, too tough for the owners to handle, they've said. Yes, they've tried many times, and each time Gillman has drawn a deep breath and said. "Well, that's it, it's been a good career." And then the phone would ring, and a week later there would be a story in the papers like "Sixty-one-year-old Sid Gillman has been hired...." Or 67-year-old Sid Gillman, or 76-year-old Sid Gillman.

He left San Diego late in 1971, after 12 years as coach and general manager of the Chargers, when he tried to challenge owner Gene Klein on the structure of the team. "Anytime a guy tries to put a gun to your head," Klein said, "the results will be the same." Said Sid: "I've got a big rear end. I'm going to spend the rest of my life sitting on it. I'm out of football and enjoying life."

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