February 14, 2011
On February 14, 1958 the Philadelphia Eagles announced that Lawrence “Buck” Shaw had been hired as head coach. The Eagles most recently had endured two disappointing seasons under Hugh Devore.
Since Earle “Greasy” Neale, who built the club into a two-time NFL champion, was let go in 1950, the team had gone through four head coaches, from Bo McMillin, who resigned after two games in ’51 due to health reasons, through Wayne Millner, Jim Trimble, and Devore.
The 58-year-old Shaw had been a star player under Head Coach Knute Rockne at Notre Dame (where he was a teammate of the legendary George Gipp) and, with Rockne’s encouragement, went on to coach at Santa Clara, Nevada, and North Carolina State before moving into the pro ranks as the original head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in the AAFC in 1946. “The Silver Fox”, as he was dubbed due to his full head of gray hair, stayed at the helm for nine years and his record with the 49ers, who became part of the NFL in 1950, was a solid 71-39-4. From there, he had become the first head coach at the Air Force Academy, and resigned after going 9-8-2 in two seasons.
While it was publicly stated that Shaw was signed to an extended contract, it was actually a one-year deal with an option on both sides for a second (the term was at the coach’s request). Shaw also had business interests in California and made clear that he would handle his coaching duties from June through December only, which, even in an era in which pro coaching was not yet a year-round occupation, was still somewhat unusual.
Fortunately for Shaw, while the team had played poorly in the previous three seasons (a combined 11-23-2), they had drafted well. The first four picks in ’57 alone proved valuable to the team’s future – FB Clarence Peaks from Michigan State, Wake Forest HB Billy Barnes, HB Tommy McDonald from Oklahoma, and QB Sonny Jurgensen out of Duke.
While Jurgensen started some games in his first year and showed promise, the new coach made clear at his introductory press conference that, in emphasizing the passing game, he intended to obtain an experienced and accomplished quarterback, and did so with the acquisition of 32-year-old Norm Van Brocklin from the Rams (The Dutchman was unhappy with the LA organization, especially Head Coach Sid Gillman, and was threatening to retire if not traded).
Peaks and Barnes both saw substantial action in ’57, but Coach Devore had taken criticism for his handling of the diminutive McDonald. Too small to play halfback (5’9”, 172 pounds), the coach stubbornly resisted suggestions that he be moved to flanker until late in the season. The immediate results were spectacular, and under Van Brocklin’s tutelage, McDonald developed into an outstanding deep threat.
Shaw was soft-spoken, rarely raising his voice, and acted much as the organization’s CEO, letting his strong group of assistants handle the details. Offensive line coach Charlie Gauer was highly regarded, and Van Brocklin largely directed the offense. Jerry Williams proved to be an innovative and highly-effective defensive assistant. Shaw handled administration (which he did ably), made personnel decisions, and set the overall tone.
With a new home field (the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field) as well as head coach and quarterback, the Eagles looked to improve in 1958. The record (2-9-1) was actually worse than in ’57, but the team was in the process of rebuilding and did show signs of turning around.
Van Brocklin threw the ball well (and often – he led the NFL with 374 pass attempts and 198 completions), and was an outstanding team leader. Barnes joined The Dutchman as a Pro Bowl selection, leading the club in rushing with 551 yards and gaining another 423 on 35 pass receptions. McDonald caught just 29 passes, but 9 of them were for touchdowns and he gained 603 yards for a 20.8 average gain. Pete Retzlaff, who had been buried on the depth chart at halfback after being obtained from the Lions, was nurtured by Van Brocklin and blossomed into an outstanding end – he caught 56 passes to co-lead the NFL along with Baltimore’s Raymond Berry. Veteran end Bobby Walston continued to be a reliable receiver and also handled the placekicking.
The team had been sound defensively under Devore, and contained solid players in DE Tom Scott, DT Jess Richardson, LB Bob Pellegini, HB Tom Brookshier, and safeties Jerry Norton and Lee Riley. However, players at the other positions proved less adept. Such was also the case with the offensive line, where former All-Pro linebacker Chuck Bednarik had moved to center, but holes remained elsewhere. As Van Brocklin said after the season, “We bled for linemen. After last year, Barnes and Peaks are lucky to be alive.”
The personnel were overhauled as needed (they traded or released 20 players in 1958), and the Eagles improved to 7-5 in 1959 and 10-2 in ’60, when they won the NFL Championship. Important acquisitions included rookies J.D. Smith (OT), Joe Robb (DE), and Gene Johnson (DB) in 1959 and Maxie Baughan (LB) and Ted Dean (RB) in ’60 as well as veterans Stan Campbell (G) and Don Burroughs (FS).
Shaw made clear prior to the 1960 season that it would be his last, and he went out on top (he is pictured at top celebrating with #11 Van Brocklin & #60 Bednarik). In making his retirement official the day after the Eagles won the championship, he said “I can’t think of a better time to bow out. I can’t soar any higher than being head coach of a world championship professional football team. It was a distinct pleasure coaching the Eagles, and I can’t pay too high a tribute to this 1960 team. It was a team of tremendous desire, a team that just would not accept defeat.”
Shaw returned to California and retirement with a 90-55-5 overall record as a pro head coach (AAFC and NFL) and 2-1 in the postseason. He was remembered long afterward as a quiet but firm gentleman who demanded top performance and molded a championship team (McDonald compared him to Bud Wilkinson, his coach at Oklahoma).
Much to the consternation of Van Brocklin, who believed he had been promised the job, assistant coach Nick Skorich was named as Shaw’s successor. After contending in 1961, the injury-plagued Eagles dropped to the basement in ’62 and ’63. They would not return to the postseason until 1978.