Thursday, 4 October 2018

Jack Gilden interview

Jack Gilden is the author of the brilliant new NFL book Collision of Wills about the tumultuous pairing of two behemoths of the Gridiron in Johnny Unitas - the first great Quarterback - and Don Shula, the Hall of Fame coach whose paths crossed together at the now defunct Baltimore Colts.

His novel is a look back at a very different NFL where running was key to success, games were won at the line of scrimmage and a quarterback was a game manager who rarely threw downfield and merely handed off to a tailback.

Gilden successfully weaves a narrative that has an abundance of characters and stories, and charts the changing climate of a sporting landscape going hand in hand with an ever changing socio-political context of the late 1960s in the shadow of foreign wars, political assassinations and freedom of expression.

I was lucky enough to gain some time with Jack Gilden, in the week leading up to the book's release to ask some questions about the book and his takeaways from it.

What was the idea for the book?
When I was a high school student I went to a conference for high school journalists put on by the old Baltimore Colts at their new facility near my school.  There was a famous (famous in Baltimore) old newspaperman there named John Steadman who was very close to the franchise and especially to the old Colts players.  He happened to mention that Unitas and Shula hated each other.  I thought to myself then, 'How interesting that the greatest player and the brilliant coach (he would later surpass George Halas as the biggest winner in league history) spent seven seasons together and never won a title.  Plus they didn't get along.  That's a great idea for a book.'  When I finally started the project (in my 40s) I discovered the discord between the men echoed their nation, which was also in deep conflict.  The men and their times, I felt, offered an origin story for America and professional football in the 21st Century.

- How much research was involved?
There was a great deal of research for this book.  I went back and talked to as many men (and a few women) as I could find who could shed light on the careers and personal lives of both men.  I read as many books as I could on the men, the Colts, football, and the 1960s in general.  I pored through periodicals and newspapers of the era for news that was contemporaneous to the events.  I watched as much film as I could that pertained to the old Colts and to football of the 1960s, including both raw game footage and documentaries so that I could describe the players and the events as I saw them through my own two eyes.

- What were your preconceptions of both Unitas and Shula going into the book?
When I started the book Johnny Unitas was my hero.  I played football in high school for four seasons.  I started off as a quarterback who was under 100 pounds (I was the smallest player on the field in every game in which I ever played).  Unitas's long shot story and rise to unprecedented success resonated with me then as it does now.  As a high schooler I read everything I could about him in order to learn the secrets of his success and apply them to my own game.  In general, however, by the time I entered high school both men were still living and still relatively young, but they were both already mythologized. At that time, they seemed to represent the American virtues:  Hard-nosed toughness prevailing over all, duty, and adherence to the chain of command (as opposed to later day players who seemed to upstage their coaches, their teams, and the game itself.)

- What are your conclusions of the men now?
I found that the men were quite different than what I, and many others had assumed about them.  Unitas was far from a dutiful and unquestioning warrior.  By the time he came under Shula's tutelage he was egotistical and felt he knew more than the coach.  Sometimes his actions were insubordinate, as when he would change or ignore plays that were sent in from the bench.  I also think the pressures of his position mounted on him and caused him to act out in certain ways.  Both men are considered among the biggest winners the game has ever seen, but they were forced to deal with crushing defeat during their time together.  They didn't always handle it well.  After researching them, my conclusions about them are that they were far more complex than the public knew.  They had big egos, and stunning vulnerabilities. They were very good men, incredibly driven to succeed, but at times their emotional weaknesses got the better of them.

- How different is the NFL now to then?
I believe that the NFL of the 1960s represents the apex of both the league and the game.  The sport hit its highest levels then with so many players and coaches considered among the greatest in history all active at the same time.  Unitas, Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, Paul Warfield, Jim Parker, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung...the names go on and on.  In the coaching ranks, there was Lombardi, Shula, Paul Brown, George Halas, George Allen, Blanton Collier, Chuck Noll and Weeb Ewbank.  In the AFL there was Al Davis, Sid Gilman, Hank Stram, and others.  It was extremely hard to make the postseason then.  In '67 the Colts lost only a single game and had the best record in football and still did not make it.  So every game then was filled with great players and coaches, and every single game crackled with import.  The theatre of of it all was so compelling it propelled the sport past baseball as the number one game in America and it had people tuning in for special prime time games...the precursor of Monday Night Football.

- Why has Weeb Ewbank been lost to history, a man who never lost a Championship game winning 3?
Weeb isn't totally lost to history; he is in the Hall of Fame.  He was also the winning coach in the two most famous and important games in league history:  the '58 Championship Game, and Super Bowl III.  He is the only coach in history who does NOT have a losing record in head-to-head competition with Lombardi.  Even so, he clearly doesn't get his due.  I consider him to be the best football coach in history.  His low-key reputation comes from a couple of factors.  Number one, he was fired from the Colts.  In his era that was an ignominy, and after he left Baltimore no one in the NFL wanted to hire him.  He was forced to go to the supposedly inferior AFL.  To a certain extent, Weeb's strengths are precisely the things that overshadow him.  Number one, he was a superb team builder.  Unlike Lombardi and Shula who both walked into teams that had excellent players already on the roster, Weeb essentially inherited two bankrupt franchises and built both of them from the ground up.  Consequently his winning percentage is low even though his championships are high. He chose all the talent for both of his franchises, including finding and developing two of the games greatest-ever quarterbacks in Unitas and Namath.  His teams were slow to build but ultimately were brimming with depth.  Unfortunately, the charisma of his QB's overshadowed Ewbank.  Both Unitas and Namath were taught to be superb and autonomous play callers by Ewbank, so the public assumed that Weeb had less control of his teams and was less responsible for their successes than, say, Lombardi, who seemed to dominate with a (supposedly) mediocre quarterback in Bart Starr.  (In fact, Starr was superb and extraordinarily accurate.)  In other words, Lombardi was bigger than his teams, while Ewbank prepared his teams to be bigger than himself. 

- And for that matter Earl Morrall, four Super Bowl wins
Actually, Morrall went to four Super Bowls, but won three.  He lost Super Bowl III to the Jets.  Earl was the best player on one of the best teams in history, the '68 Colts.  Earl was MVP of the league that year.  He also quarterbacked the undefeated Dolphins to nine straight victories, more wins than Hall of Famer Bob Griese had that year.  Morrall is lost to history because his very poor showing in Super Bowl III swallows his entire legacy.  In fact, he was a heroic player with statistics that are similar to Joe Namath's.  He deserves to be in the Hall.

- The names that pass through the stories – Lombardi, Ryan, Noll, Namath for example – are amazing, it must have surprised you to see how far this coaching tree extended to current history of the NFL
It is a testament to how great the football was in the 1960s to see how the coaches, players and front-office personnel influenced the game over the next several decades.  Former Baltimore Colts employees dominated football in the seventies and eighties, showing how deep and great that franchise really was. 

- What is your NFL team?
Today I am a season ticket holder and fan of the Baltimore Ravens.  Nothing, however, can supplant the love I had for the Baltimore Colts.

- What are your opinions of the game now? What can be changed?
My opinion of today's game is that it has been watered down a great deal, making it less exciting and compelling than the game was in the 60s.  I think the quarterback position seems to be more important than ever, and yet the modern quarterback is diminished.  With the modern rules designed to protect the quarterback and improve his statistics the position seems less genuine. With so many plays coming from the sidelines quarterbacks are no longer the intellectual leaders of their franchises.  I'm not sure what can be done to change modern football to 'fix' it.  It's just a different game than it was, and not necessarily better.

- What are you working on currently?
I'm currently working on my second book.  Again, it examines the success/failure dynamic.  It is a horse racing story that uncovers issues of drug abuse, mistreatment of a child, and true stories that have never been told.

Collision of Wills is out now from University of Nebraska Press and available on all platforms.

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