January 14, 2012

1954: Weeb Ewbank Becomes Head Coach of Colts

The Baltimore Colts had been formed in 1953 out of the debris that had been the Dallas Texans franchise of ’52. The original Colts had been part of the All-America Football Conference from 1947 to ’49, and when the AAFC was merged into the NFL, it was one of three clubs (along with the Browns and 49ers) to be taken into the older league. For the Colts, it was only a one-year stay as they went 1-11 and folded.

Fans in Baltimore held out hopes for a return to the NFL and, once it was apparent that the Texans wouldn’t survive, Commissioner Bert Bell announced that, if they could sell 15,000 season tickets in a six-week period and locate viable ownership, they would become the league’s twelfth franchise. The ticket goal was reached in a month and a group headed by Carroll Rosenbloom was approved to operate the team. Don Kellett was appointed general manager and Keith Molesworth, ex-Bears quarterback, became the head coach. The fans were enthusiastic but the team went 3-9 in its first year.

On January 14, 1954 it was announced by Kellett that Molesworth was being shifted to the front office as executive vice president (in essence, chief talent scout) and his replacement would be Wilbur C. “Weeb” Ewbank, who turned 47 prior to the ’54 season.

Ewbank had, since 1949, been an assistant coach under Paul Brown with the Cleveland Browns – his hiring made him the first of Brown’s assistants to become a pro head coach (the Colts were reportedly also interested in Blanton Collier, who eventually succeeded Brown in Cleveland). His coaching experience stretched to the high school and college levels, as well as the military. Ewbank went to college at Miami of Ohio, where Brown was a teammate on the football team. He became head football coach at Van Wert High School in 1928 and ’29, a losing program, and then moved on to Oxford McGuffey High School, both in Ohio. He was reunited with Brown as an assistant at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in 1944, where he was also basketball coach in 1945 before being discharged from the Navy. After going into college coaching after World War II, he entered the pro ranks in Cleveland.

“I accept the job as a challenge,” said Ewbank at his signing. “I hope to institute the same principles that made the Browns champions.”

Rosenbloom said, “I believe we made an ideal choice selecting Ewbank.” His actions would belie that statement over the next few years, and the stocky head coach was often on shaky ground as he attempted to fulfill a five-year timetable to producing a championship team. In the end, however, Ewbank would prove Rosenbloom’s initial reaction to be correct.

There was talent to lay a foundation with in 1954, but there was also plenty of room for improvement as the team again went 3-9. The Colts scored just 14 touchdowns over the course of the season. Star HB Buddy Young accounted for the most with five and the all-purpose talent was also the team’s leading rusher with 311 yards. Another ex-AAFC star, HB George Taliaferro, had a lesser year due to a knee injury. QB Gary Kerkorian was an accurate passer but lacked arm strength and was clearly not a long-term answer at the position. End Dan Edwards was the top receiver, but jumped to Canada the following year. Rookie end Jim Mutscheller would pay dividends in future years, and two other rookies broke into the lineup on the offensive line, C Buzz Nutter and G Alex Sandusky.

The more promising platoon was the defense. Two ex-Texans, DE Gino Marchetti and DT Art Donovan, were joined by DE Don Joyce on the line. LB Bill Pellington, halfbacks Carl Taseff and Don Shula, and safety Bert Rechichar all had talent (Shula also brought a knowledge of the game that would make him a successful head coach later). Young, Marchetti, and Donovan earned selection to the Pro Bowl and, in addition, the 29-year-old Donovan was a consensus first-team All-Pro.

Ewbank proved to be a good judge of talent (and effective at bringing out the best in that talent), as was Molesworth on the scouting side of the organization, and over the next few years the roster would develop accordingly. 1955 brought FB Alan Ameche, the Heisman-winning first round draft choice out of Wisconsin who led the NFL in rushing as a rookie and was the key to the ground game until an injury ended his career in 1960. It also brought another pick in the first round of the draft (in the form of a bonus choice) in QB George Shaw from Oregon. Baylor HB L.G. “Long Gone” Dupre, C/LB Dick Szymanski of Notre Dame, and tackles Jack Patera from Oregon and George Preas of Virginia Tech were other draftees who would have an impact. Slow-but-steady offensive end Raymond Berry caught the first 13 of an eventual 631 career passes. Baltimore’s record improved to 5-6-1.

DT Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb was claimed off waivers from the Rams in 1956 and became a highly-successful Ewbank reclamation project. Another new arrival was rookie HB Lenny Moore from Penn State, an outstanding outside runner who could also be used with extreme effectiveness as a flanker.

But the most significant addition of all arrived in the form of an unheralded quarterback out of Louisville, Johnny Unitas, who was drafted in the low rounds and cut by the Steelers in ‘55 and was playing semipro football when the Colts gave him a call. The Colts were looking for a backup for Shaw, but when the starter went down with a leg injury five games into the season, Unitas stepped in and showed great promise. That promise would blossom into greatness over the next few seasons.

The Colts held steady at 5-7 in ’56 despite the influx in talent, and they were not improving quickly enough for Rosenbloom. The impatient owner had considered Ewbank’s five-year plan to a title to be too slow to begin with, and a third straight losing record had the coach’s job in jeopardy. It was widely reported in the media late in the season that Ewbank would be fired. A long Unitas-to-Mutscheller touchdown completion pulled out a win in the last game, apparently giving the coach a reprieve, but when Buddy Parker abruptly resigned as head coach of the Lions on the eve of the 1957 preseason, there was speculation that Rosenbloom would hire him to replace Ewbank (Parker went to Pittsburgh instead).

The Colts turned a corner in ’57, winning their first three games and remaining in contention until losing the final two on their annual West Coast swing to finish out of the running at 7-5. Rookie first draft choice Jim Parker out of Ohio State moved directly into the starting lineup at left offensive tackle. Unitas, in his first full season as starting quarterback, had a breakout year and led the league in passing yards (2550) and TD passes (24). Berry topped the NFL with 800 receiving yards and Moore placed fourth with 687 and also led the league in yards from scrimmage (1175) and touchdowns (11). Mutscheller had the most pass receiving TDs (8). Marchetti, Donovan, and DHB Milt Davis were consensus first-team All-Pros and joined Unitas, Ameche, Mutscheller, and Rechichar as Pro Bowl selections.

The stage was set for the Colts to go all the way in Ewbank’s fifth year, as planned, in 1958. They did, compiling a 9-3 record and winning a thrilling overtime championship game over the Giants. In ’59 they again went 9-3 and defeated New York to repeat as champions.

When Baltimore started off at 6-2 in 1960, it seemed as though the Colts might make it three straight. However, the defense began to show its age, the running game was not as effective (especially after Ameche suffered a career-ending injury), and Unitas injured his back and, while still able to pass well, was less mobile and thus more vulnerable to pass rushers. The team lost four straight to close out the season with a disappointing 6-6 record.

In the follow-up to the 1960 season, there was talk about dissension among the players, although age and injuries seemed more the culprit in the team’s decline. Ewbank had always tended toward regimentation (no doubt a trait influenced by Paul Brown) and could drive both the team and himself very hard. In the 1958 Championship game, he showed a fiery streak when Berry caught a pass and was pushed out of bounds near the Baltimore bench. Feeling that the Giants’ middle linebacker, Sam Huff, was guilty of a late hit on his star end, the 5’7”, 182-pound coach went after the 230-pound linebacker. While players quickly intervened to break up the altercation, it was a display that won Ewbank respect from his players (although he later expressed regret and made light of the incident).

Following two more mediocre seasons, in which the Colts went 8-6 and 7-7, Ewbank was finally dismissed by Rosenbloom. 33-year-old Don Shula took his place, and Ewbank moved on to the newly-renamed and refurbished New York Jets of the AFL for 1963, where he performed another major rebuilding job that culminated in a championship.

In nine years as head coach of the Colts, Ewbank compiled a 59-52-1 regular season record and, most importantly, was 2-0 in the postseason with the two NFL titles. The less-than-overwhelming overall record reflects the years of building the team into a winner (as would also be the case later in New York). In 1978 he was honored for his coaching efforts with induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.