As NFL season kicks off, remembering legendary Jewish coaches Sid Gillman and Marv Levy

Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of “Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game,” the book by Josh Katzowitz on the legendary Jewish football coach. Credit: Photos courtesy of San Diego Chargers, Gillman family, Los Angeles Times; cover design by Scott McGrew (Clerisy Press).

By Robert Gluck/JNS.org 

Growing up in a tough Minneapolis neighborhood, Sid Gillman overcame anti-Semitism to become one of professional football’s most important innovators. 

“Minneapolis, unlike (neighboring) St. Paul, was an anti-Semitic town. St. Paul was more welcoming to Jews. Sid’s wife was discriminated against because she was Jewish. Sid passed away, but I talked to his children while researching the book. They believe he was passed over for coaching jobs because he was Jewish,” Josh Katzowitz, a writer covering the NFL for CBS and author of “Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game,” tells JNS.org.

The Sept. 5 start of the 2013 National Football League (NFL) season presents an opportunity to reflect on the careers of famed Jewish coaches, such as Gillman and Marv Levy, who helped shape the game’s history.

Gillman’s influence on the modern game can be seen in his “coaching tree.” Coaches who either worked with Gillman directly or were associated with him in other ways include Al Davis, former owner of the Oakland Raiders; Chuck Noll, who coached the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl titles; famed college coaches Ara Parseghian (University of Notre Dame) and Bo Schembechler (University of Michigan); Bill Walsh, who coached the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles; and Dick Vermeil, who coached the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title.

Vermeil, who wrote the foreword to Katzowitz’s book, first met Gillman in 1960, when they happened to be sitting next to each other at a football clinic in Reno, NV. Eighteen years later, as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Vermeil brought in Gillman to help his staff.

“Sid influenced the way the game is played today more than any other coach in the history of the NFL,” Vermeil tells JNS.org. “He does not get that kind of credit, but he deserves it. Everything you see in football in the modern offense, at one time, was originated by Sid. He’s been paid respect, he’s in the Hall of Fame, but whenever people talk about great football coaches they talk about Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Joe Gibbs, but you don’t hear them mention Sid Gillman.”

Gillman compiled a 123-104-7 NFL head coaching record for the Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers, San Diego Chargers, and Houston Oilers. Vermeil says Gillman was not only the father of the modern passing game, but also the father of others aspects of current NFL offenses, including formation variations.

“Gillman’s genius in terms of the modern-day offense is undeniable,” Katzowitz writes in his book. “Spreading the field with receivers, running backs and tight ends? Gillman’s idea. Using the long pass to stretch a defense? Gillman’s baby. What NFL fans cheer on the field today can be directly traced back to the Midwestern coach who led the charge of the West Coast offense.”

Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of “Then Levy Said to Kelly... The Best Buffalo Bills Stories Ever Told,” by Jim Gehman. Jewish coach Marv Levy and his quarterback, Jim Kelly, both pictured on the cover, led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Credit: Triumph Books.

In his book, Katzowitz details the culture of anti-Semitism Gillman faced in Minneapolis. Jews were blamed for the city’s unemployment problems.

“Religious leaders invoked hateful language when referencing Jews, and those in the community forbid them from taking part in civic and social organizations. They couldn’t buy houses. They couldn’t take certain jobs. Neither Sid nor Esther (his wife) would ever break away from the anti-Semitic culture of the Midwest. It followed them, haunted them, and changed the track of their careers,” Katzowitz writes.

Yet in 1935, Gillman returned to Minneapolis to work at his family’s movie theater, where he received a present from his cousin—Fox movie reels featuring football highlights. Gillman learned how to operate projectors, and spent much of that summer and long hours during the rest of his coaching career reviewing film. By taking the reels home and studying them, Gillman changed the nature of the NFL coaching profession.

“I believe he was the originator of studying film,” Vermeil tells JNS.org. “He stimulated other peoples’ thinking. I brought him in to coach coaches. He had such a passion for learning, for new ideas, and the overall enhancement of the game, especially from an offensive standpoint. More importantly, he had an overall appreciation for the fundamentals and how the game should be taught fundamentally.”

Gillman is the only coach in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame. 

“I hope Jewish people look at a guy like Sid and take some pride because he was an innovator,” Katzowitz says. 

Marv Levy led the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, but no victories, in the 1990s. A motivational speaker, Levy used his Harvard University education to motivate and shape the careers and lives of many pro football athletes.

Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, Levy is one of only 14 coaches to win 100 games with one NFL team.

Jim Gehman, author of the book “Then Levy Said to Kelly... The Best Buffalo Bills Stories Ever Told,” was a television sports reporter when Levy became the Bills’ coach.

Click photo to download. Caption: The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where Jewish NFL coaches Sid Gillman and Marv Levy are both enshrined. Credit: Coemgenus via Wikimedia Commons.

“I would talk with him once or twice a week during the season,” Gehman tells JNS.org.  “Yet, he was as cooperative and professional with me as he was with the newspaper beat writers whom he dealt with on a daily basis. I respected him for that. And still do.”

After dropping seven of their first nine games in 1986, the Bills replaced head coach Hank Bullough with Levy, the director of football operations for the Montreal Alouettes.

“I knew the names of the players in the room, but I couldn’t have pointed out (quarterback) Jim Kelly or (defensive end) Bruce Smith or any of those guys,” Levy says in Gehman’s book, recalling his first meeting with the team. “What it takes to win is simple, but it isn’t easy. Run, throw, block, tackle, catch, and kick better than your opponent. We’re not going to do it with a bunch of Xs and Os. We’re not going to do it with a bunch of talk. We’re going to go to work on fundamentals.’ And I did point out to them, ‘I’m going to ask three questions for you to answer. I know mine. Where are we now? Where do we want to go? How are we going to get there?’”

Kelly and Smith, both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, would help Levy’s Bills “get there”—to the tune of four straight conference championships.

“We felt that it was the beginning of something special,” Smith says in Gehman’s book, regarding Levy’s start with the team. “We knew his personality was contagious and the fact that he had a great deal of integrity. And if any of that rubbed off on us, we felt that we were headed in the right direction.”

Dick Vermeil believes Levy’s legacy is not tarnished by the fact that the Bills lost all four Super Bowl games he led them to.

“Marv is a wonderful human being and a great coach. Anyone that can take a team to the Super Bowl four times is a great coach regardless if you win the game,” Vermeil tells JNS.org.

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Posted on September 3, 2013 and filed under Features, Sports, U.S..