May 27, 2010

1968: George Halas Retires as Head Coach of Bears

By the spring of 1968, George Halas was a 73-year-old man with a bad hip that was hindering his mobility (it was a legacy of his brief major league baseball career with the Yankees back in 1919). Yet it was still something of a shock to pro football fans on May 27, 1968 when he announced that he was retiring as head coach of the Chicago Bears after a total of 40 years.

It is hard to do justice to the pro football career of “the Papa Bear” in just a few paragraphs. It has been said that Halas didn’t invent pro football, it just seemed that way. His involvement extended beyond a single franchise – he was a significant figure in the development of the entire NFL. Halas was present at the 1920 organizational meeting of what would become the National Football League, representing the Decatur Staleys. From that beginning, as a player, coach, and business manager, he became a part-owner of the team in 1921, when the Staley Starch Works decided to forego operating a company-sponsored football team, and moved the franchise to Chicago.

After a year as the Chicago Staleys (A.E. Staley provided Halas $5000 in startup money with the stipulation that the Staley name be kept for a year), Halas rechristened the team the Bears after working out a lease agreement to play at Wrigley Field, home of major league baseball’s Cubs. He retired as a player in 1929 and also gave up coaching, handing the reigns to Ralph Jones while working out business matters with co-owner Ed Sternaman. After buying out Sternaman, Halas returned to coaching the team in 1933 and left for a second time in 1942 to join the US Navy during World War II. Once discharged, he again took up coaching in 1946 and retired following the ’55 season. He came back one last time in 1958, after having effectively maintained control while longtime assistant Paddy Driscoll was head coach.

While Halas had the ultimate job security of owning the team, the fact was that he was an outstanding and innovative coach, leading the Bears to a title for the first time in 1921 and the last time over forty years later, in 1963. In all, he coached the team to six championships, with at least one in each of his stints (1921, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1946, 1963). They also won championships under Jones (1932) and co-coaches Luke Johnsos and Hunk Anderson (1943), with Halas still a major presence in the running of the club.

Halas pioneered in the development of the T-formation with man-in-motion, assisted by Ralph Jones and University of Chicago coach Clark Shaughnessy. He was the first coach to hold daily practices and regularly analyze game film of opponents. He was an outstanding judge of talent, of coaches as well as players, surrounding himself at all times with able assistants (most notably Driscoll, Johnsos, Anderson, George Allen, and Jim Dooley) – and Halas also pioneered in the use of an assistant coach as an “eye-in-the-sky” during games. The results were reflected in a 318-148-31 record (.682) with a 6-3 postseason tally. The Bears had winning records in 34 of his 40 seasons on the sideline.

Off the field, Halas was a party to many rules changes and innovations that helped the league to gain appeal and improved the game (use of hashmarks, allowing passing from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, structuring of the league into divisions with a championship game concluding the season, etc.). He also recognized the value of revenue sharing among the teams for the good of the overall competitive balance of the league and the significance of radio and television as tools for popularizing pro football.

As a coach, Halas was a strong disciplinarian and an emotional leader who was notorious for storming up and down the sideline while berating referees during the course of a game. He took criticism for being tight with money and complicit in the unofficial color line that kept African-American players out of the NFL during the 1930s and 40s. However, he also was the first coach to allow a black and white player to room together on the road (Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo) and could be generous to players in need (during Piccolo’s ultimately losing battle with cancer, Halas reportedly paid all of his medical bills).

There were contradictions, but there could be no question that George Halas set high standards for later generations of coaches and showed farsightedness in moving the league forward. The influence of “the Papa Bear” is still felt decades after his death in 1983 – and some 90 years after he helped found the NFL.