Sports coverage is too often about lazy comparisons. We're always looking to find "the next" this; "the future" that. The latest NBA high flyer isn't simply superb -- he's Jordan-esque. José Bautisa didn't merely hit the ball 500 feet for the Blue Jays this past season -- he exhibited Ryan Howard-like power. Every coach is the mirror image of another coach. Every player possesses the physical attributes of one or two others who came before him.
Doesn't Bill Belichick's demeanor remind you of Chuck Noll's? It's amazing how Ichiro sprays the ball like Rod Carew. On and on it goes.
Hence, what has shocked and amazed me over the course of the current NFL season is not how Rex Ryan, the Jets' loudmouthed coach, talks uninterrupted for hours without pausing to rest his gums. No, it's how, in this golden era of sports comparison, no one has made the most obvious one of all.
Rex Ryan is Abe Gibron.
Abe Gibron is Rex Ryan.
Never heard of ol' Abe, the Chicago Bears' head coach from 1972 to '74? Do yourself a favor, set aside my column for a second, open up another window and watch this -- one of my all-time favorite NFL Films offerings. Gibron wasn't merely the worst coach in Bears history. He was a walking, talking, stumbling, drooling, beer-gutted cartoon of a man who could never keep his pants up for more than three minutes and who invented curse-inspired adjectives that belong in their own dictionary. In his three seasons as an NFL head coach, Gibron never came close to Ryan's success, going 11-30-1 with a roster burdened by faded veterans, semi-talented rookies and myriad hacks. But when it comes to flamboyance, oomph and gusto (and, ahem, pant size), Gibron and Ryan are one and the same.
"I don't know much about Rex Ryan, but Abe was definitely ... different," said Bob Pifferini, a former Chicago linebacker. "He was the only coach I ever played for to put bounties on the other team. You'd get paid to take out a quarterback or running back.
"One time we were playing St. Louis, and for some reason Abe hated the Cardinals' kicker and the way he watched his balls travel after kickoffs. So Abe turned to me and said, 'I want you to put their kicker out of the game.' Well, I did what I was told. I took out their kicker. And Abe never paid my fine."
Like Ryan's, Gibron's players were fiercely loyal. They considered the former Pro Bowl guard to be one of them -- a man who understood and appreciated what it meant to battle every Sunday. After dropping a blowout to Detroit in 1972, Gibron told the media, "Listen, they may be S.O.B.s, but they're my S.O.B.s," and the words were dead on. Gibron ripped his players during games, often irrationally, but would kill any outsider dumb enough to do the same. "He ran wind-sprints with the linemen during practices, even though he was enormous," says Ernie Janet, a former Chicago guard. "How many coaches did that?"
Gibron's genuine claim to fame, however, wasn't football acumen, but ungodly consumption. When he died in 1997, his New York Times' obituary was headlined, ABE GIBRON, 72, NFL COACH, WIT AND LOVER OF GOOD FOOD. Here was a man, according to Janet, who "ate a whole hamburger in two bites." Who would walk through Chicago's Italian section and finish off two meals before sitting down for his actual meal. Who, quite literally, had the cafeteria workers at the Bears' training camp soak bratwurst in beer. "Then, when practice was over, Abe would grill 'em," says Bill Martell, the team's longtime equipment manager. "He'd eat them like they were fries."
"Every time you went to dinner [with Gibron]," Lou Groza once said, "it was a banquet."
When Jim Finks, the Bears' rookie general manager, hired a new coach after the 1974 season, many rightly assumed Chicagoans had seen the last of Abe Gibron. Chicago opened up against the Colts the following year, however, and Gibron purchased a ticket to sit with the fans and watch some football.
He assumed nobody would care.
He assumed he would be largely ignored.
Upon entering Soldier Field, Abe Gibron was presented with a standing ovation.