March 14, 2011

1945: Rams Hire Adam Walsh as Head Coach

On March 14, 1945 the Cleveland Rams signed Adam Walsh to a five-year contract as head coach. Walsh, the line coach at Notre Dame, was the brother of Rams GM Charles “Chile” Walsh and succeeded Aldo “Buff” Donelli, who left to join the Navy.

The 43-year-old Walsh had been on the staff at Notre Dame since mid-1944, when he left Bowdoin, where he had been a successful head coach who turned a losing program around - his teams won the Maine Intercollegiate football championship in seven out of eight years. His overall record was 34-15-6. In 1943, Bowdoin suspended the athletic program for the remainder of World War II, and Walsh was allowed to go on leave of absence to Notre Dame.

Going to Notre Dame was something of a homecoming for Walsh. He played there collegiately and was an All-American center who captained the team in 1924 that contained the legendary starting backfield known as “The Four Horsemen”. After college, and prior to going to Bowdoin, Walsh was head coach and athletic director at Santa Clara from 1925 to ’28 and later served as line coach at both Yale and Harvard.

Walsh was a proponent of the T-formation, which was finding new-found popularity at both the pro and college levels in the 1940s. He was fortunate to have a rookie quarterback out of UCLA, Bob Waterfield, who could run the new offense very effectively. There was also HB Fred Gehrke, returning from a four-year stint in the military, holdover HB Jim Gillette, and rookie FB Don Greenword to handle the running game. End Jim Benton was a proven veteran, and the other starting end, Steve Pritko, had played well in ’44. Two more rookies, tackle Gil Bouley from Boston College and guard/linebacker Milan Lazetich, bolstered the line which also added veteran tackle Eberle Schultz from the Card-Pitt combined team of ’44. Guard Riley Matheson was already there, an established talent who had been a consensus first-team All-Pro in 1942 and ’44.

From a 4-6 record in 1944, the Rams went 9-1 under Walsh in ’45. Waterfield had a MVP season, leading the league with 14 touchdown passes (tied with Sid Luckman of the Bears) and 9.9 yards per attempt. He also showed outstanding toughness (he played one game heavily taped due to torn rib muscles) and leadership to go along with his fine passing, and was an asset on defense (six interceptions, tied for second in the NFL) and as a punter. Benton had a sensational year, catching 45 passes for a league-leading 1067 yards (including 303 in one game) and eight touchdowns. Gehrke, Gillette, and Greenwood all finished in the top ten in rushing and the team was top-ranked in that category. Matheson was again a consensus first-team All-Pro.

The Rams won the Western Division and hosted the Washington Redskins in the NFL Championship game on a bitterly cold day at Municipal Stadium. They won, 15-14, and Walsh had a title in his first year as a pro head coach.

While the franchise performed well on the field, it didn’t do so well at the gate. Owner Daniel F. Reeves lost some $50,000 and petitioned the league to allow him to move the club to Los Angeles. Initially turned down by the other owners, an angry Reeves had threatened to sell the team, but the NFL finally allowed the move.

The Rams went west, and faced the immediate challenge of another team, the Los Angeles Dons of the newly-formed All-America Football Conference (AAFC), competing against them for fans and sharing the massive Memorial Coliseum. Under pressure from the commission that governed the stadium, the Rams added two players – first, HB Kenny Washington, who had been a star at UCLA, and then end Woody Strode, also from UCLA – who became the first two African-Americans in the NFL since 1933. They also added HB Tom Harmon, former Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan.

The team was still very competitive at its new location. Waterfield, returning to the city where he had starred collegiately, led the NFL in passing (although by the modern rating method, he finished second to Luckman) as well as touchdowns (17). Benton again led the league in receiving yards (981) and in pass receptions as well (63, which was 31 more than runner-up Hal Crisler of the Boston Yanks). Gehrke had the top rushing average (5.2 on 71 carries for 371 yards).

The team played respectably but not consistently as they failed to win consecutive games until the last two contests of the year. It made for a second place finish at 6-4-1. In the end, the Rams lost even more money in Los Angeles than in Cleveland. Presaging decades of front office upheaval that would characterize the franchise, GM Walsh fired his brother, Coach Walsh, and was then fired himself by owner Reeves, who chose to act as his own general manager. Bob Snyder was hired as coach for 1947, and the team dropped to fourth place with a 6-6 tally.

Adam Walsh left the Rams with a 15-5-1 record as a pro head coach, and a win in the ’45 NFL title game. He returned to Bowdoin (which had always considered him to still be on leave, even after leaving Notre Dame for pro coaching). While not as successful in his second stint with the team, Walsh stayed from 1947 to ’58 and went 63-67-9 for an overall record at the school of 80-85-11.

Following his retirement from football coaching, Walsh served in the Maine House of Representatives and was later appointed U.S. Marshal for Maine by President Kennedy.

While Walsh’s pro coaching career may have been short, his college playing and coaching career earned him later recognition - he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1968 and the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 1976.