Monday, February 25, 2013

Review: Sid Gillman (2012)

By Josh Katzowitz

You have to be a good-sized football fan, especially when it comes to history, to know the name Sid Gillman.

Sometimes in the entertainment business, an artist is considered to be more influential than popular. The extreme version of that might be Bob Dylan, who is a musical legend by most standards, but saw his records badly outsold by the Carpenters, who were not musical legends by most standards. Dylan equals Gillman for our purposes.

Gillman had a long and distinguished career in football. He only won one championship, that coming in 1963 with the San Diego Chargers, but he was clearly ahead of his time in terms of the love of the passing game. If you like the current era where the passing game helps teams march up and down the field, you first should nod toward Gillman.

Gillman eventually was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and it's always good to hear about the lives of such people. Therefore, Josh Katzowitz has performed something of a public service, at least in football circles, by writing a biography called "Sid Gillman."

Gillman simply loved the strategic aspects of football. The man was happiest with a projector, watching pass patters develop. He played the game at Ohio State way back in the 1930's, and quickly decided to bypass thoughts of law school and go into coaching. He was successful at Miami (Ohio) and Cincinnati, although he did get bypassed at his alma mater for a job - perhaps because he was Jewish. Different times. Eventually, Gillman landed a job in the NFL as the coach of the Rams, and then bounced to the Chargers of the American Football League.

That championship team was a memorable one. Katzowitz spends a chapter on the title game, pointing out how the Chargers completely confused the Boston Patriots simply by sending a man in motion frequently. It neutralized Boston's famous blitz, and helped lead to a 51-10 romp. That's the AFL equivalent of the 73-0 score in which the Bears beat the Redskins in the title game in 1940. In his days with the Chargers, Gillman had such offensive talents as Lance Alworth, Keith Lincoln, Paul Lowe, Jack Kemp, Tobin Rote and John Hadl. Defense wasn't much of a priority in San Diego, but that didn't seem to bother Sid.

From there, Gillman went on to the coach the Oilers for a while, and then served as an assistant or consultant for several other teams. This was a man who could spend an hour discussing the parts of the center snap at a clinic ... and sometimes did. He also had a long coaching tree that included some of the greats of the business, including Bill Walsh, Al Davis and Chuck Noll.

This is all handled quite professionally by Katzowitz, who covers the NFL for CBSSports.com. He talked to as many people as possible who worked with Gillman. It sounds like the family also was thrilled to have a professional biography done on Gillman, so they cooperated fully. Based on a review posted on Amazon.com, it seems as if those family members are happy with the finished product. That can be a little troubling, since it can be a sign of one-sided praise, but this comes off in a balanced appoach.

There are a couple of minor issues here. The 1960 and 1961 teams are skimmed over very quickly. That's surprising since the teams did reach the AFL title games, only to lose to Houston. A little more background might have made the arc to the 1963 championship that much more interesting. In addition, there are reference to some players on Gillman's teams who politely turned down the chance to talk about him. There obviously is some bad blood there, but no one is saying what it is. That does leave a rather mysterious taste to the story.

It's not easy writing about a tactical genius in football. There are some who will want to know exactly what Gillman did with his offenses, complete with diagrams. However, that's a rather small percentage of the readership; the rest would find such a treatment sleep-enducing. Katzowitz does talk about such matters in general terms without the diagrams, and that comes across after the fact as a good decision that won't quite please everyone.

"Sid Gillman" is a solid, professional job by just about any standard. There isn't a great deal of drama here, and that probably will push away some of the possible readers who only casual football fans. Still, it's nice to have this in the library.

Three stars

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com.

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