Coaching carousel in ‘63


Many times throughout a normal work week I get calls from a wide range of people in need of information regarding professional football. Recently, a call really piqued my interest when a media outlet called to confirm a simple fact about one of our Pro Football Hall of Fame members. They were calling to check that coach Weeb Ewbank was fired from his position as head coach with the Baltimore Colts.

Yes, Ewbank was fired by the Colts following the 1962 season. It’s really incredible when you think about it. Ewbank took over the coaching reigns of a Colts franchise that was just one year old in 1954 and quickly transformed them into one of the best teams in the National Football League. It was Ewbank who identified a diamond in the rough named Johnny Unitas and gave him a chance to play quarterback. How incredible was that find? Unitas was playing semi-pro ball for $6 a game when Weeb brought him to the Colts in 1956. In 1958, Weeb was at the helm when he guided the Colts to victory in what many consider to be the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” Ewbank’s Colts won the 1958 NFL championship against the New York Giants. The Colts then repeated as champions with another win over the Giants in the 1959 NFL Championship Game.

Despite Ewbank turning the Colts into one of the NFL’s elite teams, Baltimore owner Carroll Rosenbloom decided to hand him a pink slip on Jan. 8, 1963 after the team finished with a pair of .500 records and one season of an 8-6 mark from 1960-62. Rosenbloom let Ewbank go in favor of a relatively unknown commodity named Don Shula who was the defensive backfield coach for the Detroit Lions. Hindsight is always 20/20, but at the time this was a pretty courageous move. The Colts had not had a losing season since 1956. Rosenbloom stated that the move was entirely his own decision and that the change would “help them win” and did not reflect on the coaching abilities of Ewbank. I speculate that Rosenbloom (and probably the fans too) had become spoiled after the team’s tremendous success in late-’50s and as such grew impatient with anything less than a division title.

The 1962 season was an up-and-down ride for the Colts and Ewbank. Although the team started the season with two straight wins, an injury to halfback Lenny Moore and an aging offensive line began to take its toll on the team. The Colts went through a very rough patch during the middle of the season in which they saw only three wins against seven losses. They hit rock bottom after an embarrassing 57-0 loss at home to the Chicago Bears on Nov. 25. It was after this loss that rumors began to swirl regarding Ewbank’s status as head coach. The Colts rebounded, however, to win their final two games and finished with a respectable 7-7 record.

Following the season Ewbank, who was no doubt aware of that his job with the Colts hung in the balance, offered an optimistic yet cautious statement.

“Right now I’m looking forward to next season,” stated the 55-year-old coach. “I did my best. They (the Colts) haven’t said anything to me. As far as I’m concerned, I’m alright.”

Nonetheless Ewbank was indeed shown the door. It was not an easy decision for Rosenbloom who commented about how difficult the announcement was for him.

“Letting Ewbank go was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do,” lamented the owner after the decision. “I mean this with regret and from the bottom of my heart."

Rosenbloom even offered Weeb a chance to stay with the Colts organization in an unspecified role. Ewbank declined the offer.

It was not long before Ewbank found work again. Almost instantly the New York Titans of the American Football League began to eye Weeb as the team’s replacement for Clyde “Bulldog” Turner, who had been relieved of his duties. The only hang-up was that Ewbank still had two years remaining on his existing contract with the Colts. Things worked out however when Colts general manager Don Kellett released Ewbank from his contract. On April 15, 1963 (the same day that the Titans changed their name to the Jets) Ewbank signed a three-year deal with the AFL’s New York franchise and the rest is history.

Ewbank would go on to lead the Jets to an upset victory in Super Bowl III to become the only coach in pro football history to win championships in both the AFL and NFL. He finally left coaching in a more dignified fashion when he retired from the Jets head post following the 1973 season. He took a job as vice president with the team. In 1978 Ewbank was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

As a side note, the day after Ewbank was fired by the Colts, the Cleveland Browns and owner Art Modell shocked the football world and fired Weeb’s long-time mentor Paul Brown. That meant that the two coaches responsible for five NFL championships in previous 13 seasons were let go in a span of 24 hours.

Imagine that type of news in today’s football crazed climate.

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