On a Friday night last fall, James Marsalis went to Nashville to watch his grandson play in a high school football game. The next afternoon, the former Pro Bowl cornerback drove to a nearby nursing home to visit the coach who had launched him from Tennessee State to the Kansas City Chiefs and a Super Bowl ring, Joe Gilliam Sr.
Gilliam was nearing age 90, but was still lean and alert enough from a lifetime of rigorous work to apologize to Marsalis about having trouble walking. The mentor and the protégé spent a couple of hours together, talking about glorious games past, about famous players of decades ago. When Marsalis rose to leave, promising to stop in again soon, Gilliam offered one of his personal slogans. "Whatever you start, you got to finish," he told Marsalis. "No point starting anything if you aren't going to finish."
Before Marsalis had the opportunity for a return trip, Gilliam died. That was Nov. 14.
With the frantic bowl season now ended, there is time to reflect on an important figure lost in 2012, a man who had followed his own advice. In a career spanning nearly a half-century at Kentucky State, Jackson State, and Tennessee State, Gilliam produced dominant teams, stellar players, and innovative strategies. He compiled all those achievements without ever receiving widespread acclaim -- partly because he served almost entirely as an assistant coach, and partly because during his heyday black college football in the South was rarely covered thoroughly by the mainstream media. Moreover, Gilliam accomplished everything despite the tragic deaths of two of his four children.
For knowledgeable insiders, Gilliam ranked as a genius of defensive coaching. One star pupil, defensive end Richard Dent of the Chicago Bears, had Gilliam introduce him when Dent was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2011. "I wouldn't be going into the Hall of Fame if it weren't for Coach Gilliam," Dent said then. In the days after Gilliam's death, a former member of his Tennessee State coaching staff, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan of the Dallas Cowboys, paid tribute by putting Gilliam's name on his defensive play sheet.
"Joe was driven more than anybody I have ever seen to have perfection on his defense," recalled Douglas Porter, who went against Gilliam during his years as the quarterback coach at Grambling. "He was relentless. He had his team practice until he was satisfied they understood every aspect, and he was there from beginning to end, pushing and prodding, setting the example with his dedication."
Gilliam's record as a head coach -- 22-36-1 during his two early years at Kentucky State and four late ones at Tennessee State -- belies his achievements and significance. He sent 80 Tennessee State players into the NFL, including Marsalis, Dent, and the defensive linemen Claude Humphrey, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, and Joe "Turkey" Jones. He orchestrated Tennessee State's swift and aggressive defense from 1963 through 1983 as a top assistant to head coach John Merritt. During those years the Tigers went 173-35-1, with four unbeaten seasons.
Merritt's presence helps explain Gilliam's relative obscurity. An impresario with a Cadillac and an El Producto cigar, Merritt supplied the charismatic public face of Tennessee State football. He savored the moment every Friday during the season when he could wheel his car onto the Tiger practice field, gather the players around him, and declare, "Gentlemen, the hay's in the barn." But it was an open secret among those people closest to the program that Merritt didn't know his own playbook, or the names of many of his own players. He delegated all the day-in, day-out endeavors to two brilliant assistants, Alvin "Cat" Coleman on offense and Gilliam on defense. And, at least as Gilliam told the story, Merritt made sure that no competing college ever hired Gilliam away. Merritt's version of a job reference was to say, "Can't nobody handle Gilliam but me."
Gilliam was intense, yes, but in no way unmanageable. He was a black man of his generation, which is to say one who had been denied many of the opportunities he deserved and as a result was flagrantly overqualified for the ones he received. Born and raised just north of the Mason-Dixon Line, in Steubenville, Ohio, Gilliam earned Black All-America honors as a quarterback at West Virginia State, and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers. When the coaches there informed Gilliam that he would have to change positions -- for decades the fate of talented black quarterbacks -- he instead went into coaching. With his wife, Ruth, he presided over a household notable for educational as well as athletic excellence, with regular trips to classical-music concerts, overstuffed bookshelves, and weekly family talent shows. The coaching manuals that Gilliam ultimately wrote included quotations from Aristotle and John Dewey.
In a different era, Gilliam would have been a head coach at a major college. Or perhaps he would have been an executive or an attorney or any number of the other professions virtually walled off to blacks during the Jim Crow era. Within the confines of the segregated South, and a North that was slow to act upon its supposed racial tolerance, Gilliam found his niche in the thriving football circuit of small black colleges. The same environment also attracted such master coaches as Eddie Robinson of Grambling, Jake Gaither of Florida A&M, Earl Banks of Morgan State and Marino Casem of Alcorn A&M. Rod Paige, who would later become Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, coached at Jackson State and Texas Southern.
Gilliam's defenses at Tennessee State operated on two counterintuitive premises. Rather than seeking bulk in his linemen, Gilliam prized speed and agility. Along with Merritt, who recruited avidly, Gilliam looked for tall, sinewy players who had been on their high school basketball teams, figuring correctly that you could add pounds more easily than quickness. Claude Humphrey, for instance, had played basketball and run the 120-yard hurdles at Memphis Industrial High. He arrived at Tennessee State standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 225, and ultimately made All-Pro with the Atlanta Falcons.
It was common in college football to conduct two-a-day practices during the preseason; Gilliam kept them going all season long. It was common in college football to have players run 40-yard and 100-yard windsprints. Gilliam took cardiovascular training to another level entirely, adapting the workouts that Tennessee State track coach Ed Temple used to develop Olympic medalists such as Wilma Rudolph. Gilliam required regular distance runs by all his players, and set demanding requirements -- a 6:15 mile, for instance, for any down lineman weighing between 200 and 225.
Gilliam also was an expert motivator, a master at mind games. He would punish Humphrey through the practice week -- insisting he run sprints and miles with linebackers instead of linemen, ordering him to repeatedly log-roll himself from goal line to goal line -- in order to cultivate a fury to be unleashed on Saturday's opponent.
"I can draw it up in one word: perfection," Humphrey said recently about Gilliam. "The thing about all the practicing we did is that it made you perfect at what you had to do. I can't ever remember Coach Gilliam wasting any time on the practice field. Everything had a purpose and a reason, and he would explain it to you. He didn't just talk to the team. He talked to you like you were an individual. He'd tell me, 'I expect you to be better. I hold you to a higher standard than those other guys.'"
While Gilliam played a major role in developing the kind of speed-rushing ends who now terrorize NFL quarterbacks, he looked for strength and pugnacity more than speed alone in defensive backs. The archetype was Marsalis, who stood only 5-11 but had great strength in his arms, hands, and chest. Gilliam enhanced those attributes with a regimen of isometrics, designed to make Marsalis even tougher without making him muscle-bound and less flexible. Having fine-tuned his prodigy, Gilliam used Marsalis to pioneer the bump-and-run style of pass coverage, which meant jamming a receiver at the line of scrimmage and battling him until the ball was thrown. (Under college football rules of this period, in the late 1960s, contact was permitted anywhere downfield until a pass was airborne.)
As a former quarterback himself, Gilliam understood well how to frustrate one, and he excelled at disguising coverages, only rolling his defensive backs into final position as the ball was about to be snapped, too late for any audible. It didn't hurt that defenders like Marsalis got to practice against the pro-style offense that Cat Coleman had devised and quarterback Eldridge Dickey executed.
Gilliam's own experience trying to be a black quarterback in the NFL, though, anticipated some of the most somber chapters of his personal and professional lives. Dickey, selected in the first round on the NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders, was switched from quarterback to wide receiver during his rookie preseason, and within three years was out of football altogether and headed into a downward spiral of drug abuse. (He did get sober and become a minister before dying in 2000.) After a dazzling career at Tennessee State, Gilliam's son Joe Jr. was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and won the starting quarterback job in 1974. Benched after leading the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record in his six starts, Gilliam Jr. slid into drug use, crime, and homelessness. Though he recovered from addiction, he died in 2000 as one more embodiment of athletic opportunity denied.
While Joe Gilliam Jr.'s rise and fall was well-known among football fans, a less visible tragedy had visited the family years earlier. During the 1967 football season, his 20-year-old sister Sonia had committed suicide. A dean's list student and drum majorette at Tennessee State, she had struggled with depression before falling to her death from a dormitory window ledge. Just days after her death, Joe Gilliam Sr. returned to the Tennessee State sideline to coach against Grambling. Afterward he said he could not even remember the game.
His coaching career went on until 1992. After that he wrote several books and operated a football camp. Craig Gilliam, the brother of Sonia and Joe, Jr., saw directly how their father persevered, because he spent several years as a fellow coach at Tennessee State. "I always remember when I was a quarterback in high school, my sophomore year, and I was having trouble," Craig recalled in a recent interview. "Daddy said to me, 'The measure of a man is directly proportional to his ability to handle adversity.'"
Samuel G. Freedman, a columnist for The New York Times, is author of the forthcoming book "Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Game and Changed the Course of Civil Rights," to be published in August 2013 by Simon & Schuster.