Tagliabue finally makes it to Canton as one of 15 in Hall's Centennial Class
Alex Karras, Harold Carmichael, Cliff Harris and Donnie Shell were among the 10 seniors named Wednesday morning to the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Centennial Class of 2020. So were Jim Covert, Winston Hill, Bobby Dillon, Mac Speedie, Duke Slater and Ed Sprinkle.
But they’re not the lead. Paul Tagliabue is.
The former NFL commissioner was one of three contributors to join the Centennial Class, and while his inclusion had been expected it is nevertheless noteworthy. The reason: He failed in four previous tries as a finalist. In fact, he’s the only contributor candidate to be denied since that category was created in 2014.
Since 2015, there have been eight finalists proposed, with only one denied. Tagliabue was that one.
"I always say I worked for the two greatest commissioners in sports," current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said on Wednesday's NFL Network. "Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue."
A polarizing candidate among the Hall’s board of 48 selectors, Tagliabue’s chances to reach Canton seemed remote until or unless that board changed. And it did. The “blue-ribbon panel” that chose the 15 members of the 2020 Centennial Class included 13 of those voters but expanded to encompass NFL historians, Hall of Famers and one notable head coach – New England’s Bill Belichick.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s get to the Centennial Class of 2020.
THE SENIORS (10)
Choosing 20 finalists from a list that originally included nearly 300 names was hard. Naming 10 inductees from the 20 finalists was harder, mostly because all were Hall-of-Fame worthy and 14 had never been discussed by the Hall’s board of selectors. Nevertheless, the process is complete, and it’s complete with notable surprises – like Eagles’ wide receiver Harold Carmichael – and with one who wasn't. That would be former offensive tackle Duke Slater, a five-time All Pro and the first African-American offensive lineman in NFL history. The class was almost evenly divided along the line of scrimmage – with five offensive players, four defensive players and one (Ed Sprinkle) who was a defensive star but played both sides of the ball. As has been the case with recent modern-era classes, safety was a position of choice here, with three enshrined (Harris, Dillon and Shell). But so was offensive tackle, where Slater, Hill and Covert were named. There were two receivers (Carmichael and Speedie) ... and a third who played the position (Sprinkle) ... which left little room for someone else. But that someone was Karras, the former Detroit Lions’ star, and it’s about time.
The surprises: Harold Carmichael, come on down. A second-team all-decade choice at the same position as Drew Pearson(wide receiver), the Eagles' Carmichael was named over him. “I’m numb,” Carmichael said on the NFL Network. Pearson may be, too. With three ends on this list -- Carmichael, Mac Speedie and Ed Sprinkle (yeah, I know, he was known more for his play as a defensive end) -- Pearson was a favorite to be one of them. But Carmichael beat him to Canton, and Eagles' fans can rejoice. Carmichael retired as the Eagles' all-time leader in games played, consecutive games played, touchdowns, catches, yards receiving and receiving touchdowns. Former Chicago tackle Jim Covert was a mild surprise, too, even though he was a first-team all-decade pick from the 1980s. With other linemen like Duke Slater, Al Wistert, Ox Emerson and Winston Hill as competition … and because he’d never been a finalist before … the odds seemed against him. Maybe, but he overcame them. So did the Lions’ Karras and the Jets’ Hill, and hallelujah. Karras was one of three defensive tackles named to the all-decade team of the 1960s. The other two were Bob Lilly and Merlin Olsen, first-ballot Hall of Famers. But Karras? He was never a finalist … until now. That’s because he was suspended by the league (1963) and ostracized by the Hall for his involvement in gambling. But Paul Hornung was suspended, too, for the same offense -- and he was elected to Canton. The difference? Hornung played on five championship teams. Karras never played on one. Winston Hill did: He was a starting tackle for the New York Jets that won Super Bowl III. Moreover, he was the only AFL finalist to make it this far. When Bill Parcells visited the Jets’ training camp in the 1960s, he said he was struck by the greatness of two individuals: Quarterback Joe Namath and Hill. Namath was enshrined in 1985. Thirty-five years later his bodyguard joins him. I'd add Steelers' safety Donnie Shell to this list, too, though he was a finalist in 2002. But that was it. Hall-of-Fame coach Tony Dungy has said Shell would be his first choice for Canton, and this panel must have been listening. He's the fifth defensive player chosen from the Steel Curtain of the 1970s and the second defensive back, joining Mel Blount. "I'm lost for words," Shell said when told. And one more word. OK, two: Mac Speedie. Finally. The former Cleveland Browns' star deserved to be enshrined decades ago but failed three times as a finalist. Now he's in. Life is fair.
The disappointments: Drew Pearson and Al Wistert. Pearson was one of two first-team all-decade choices from the 1970s not in Canton. Teammate Cliff Harris was the other. Now Pearson is the only first-team all-decade choice not in the Hall, and don’t ask me what happened. He's also the only member of the 1970s' all-decade offense -- first and second teams -- not be enshrined. Then there's Wistert. He played nine years. He was an All-Pro for eight of them. He also was captain of the Philadelphia Eagles teams that won consecutive NFL titles in 1948-49 (both by shutouts) and was an all-decade choice. Entering this process, the feeling was that he and Duke Slater were the favorites. Slater made it. Wistert did not, and I’m waiting for an explanation there, too. And where were linebackers Randy Gradishar and Tommy Nobis? I'm still looking. Raiders’ fans must be crushed that wide receiver Cliff Branch didn't make it, too, especially when receivers comprised 30 percent of this group. But he lost out to Carmichael among modern-era pass catchers. Former Hall voter Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune used to tell me how the Chargers said the player they feared most on the Raiders of the 1970s and ’80s was Branch. Until now, he’d never been a finalist, and maybe his exclusion here fast-forwards his candidacy in the future. I’d say the same for three Green Bay Packers – Verne Lewellen, Cecil Isbell and Lavvie Dilweg – but I’m not that optimistic. This was their best … and maybe last … chance to gain the recognition they deserved. The Packers had more finalists (4) than anyone else, but only Dillon was elected.
The bottom line: History was served, with four representatives from the pre-modern era (prior to 1960), and that’s good. But there was only inductee one from the 1920s and ‘30s – Duke Slater -- and that’s disappointing. So is the exclusion of Wistert, who would’ve turned 100 this year (he died in 2016). I thought he belonged at or near the head of the pack. The Hall’s panel disagreed. The Chicago Bears were served, too. They had two seniors nominated as finalists (Ed Sprinkle and Jim Covert), and both made it. “This was the most thorough vetting of candidates in the Hall’s history, and it needed to be," said our Rick Gosselin, one of the 25 voters who chose this list. "Our charge was to scour 100 years of professional football and find the most deserving candidates have slipped through the cracks. All 38 finalists for the Centennial slate were Hall-of-Fame worthy, but we could only choose 15.”
THE CLASS OF 2020 SENIORS
HAROLD CARMICHAEL, WR – Philadelphia Eagles (1971-83); Dallas Cowboys (1984).
JIM COVERT, OT – Chicago Bears (1983-90).
BOBBY DILLON, S – Green Bay Packers (1952-59).
CLIFF HARRIS, S – Dallas Cowboys (1970-79).
WINSTON HILL, OT – New York Jets (1963-76); L.A. Rams.
ALEX KARRAS, DT – Detroit Lions (1958-62); (1964-70).
DONNIE SHELL, S – Pittsburgh Steelers (1974-87).
DUKE SLATER, OT – Milwaukee Badgers (1922); Rock Island Independents (1922025); Chicago Cardinals 1926-31).
MAC SPEEDIE, WR – Cleveland Browns (1946-52).
ED SPRINKLE, DE/LB/E – Chicago Bears (1944-55).
THE CONTRIBUTORS (3)
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue headlines a group that includes former New York Giants GM and five-time NFL Executive-of-the-Year George Young and Steve Sabol. Tagliabue’s inclusion is bound to provoke criticism, mostly because he was elected not by the board of selectors that four times rejected him (including 2017) because of his handling of the concussion issue ... but by a specially-formed panel picked by the Hall. And that makes him a controversial choice. Nevertheless, he presided over labor peace, billion-dollar labor contracts, the introduction of free agency and the expansion of the NFL from 28 to 32 teams, and he was also the guy who convinced then-commissioner Pete Rozelle to fight the USFL when that league sued in the 1980s. So, yes, he had an impact on history. Now he’s in the Hall, and so are Young and Steve Sabol. A couple of years ago, a Hall-of-Fame consultant asked why Tagliabue and Young weren’t the first two inductees as contributors after that category was formed in 2014. He said they should have been in. Well, now they are.
The surprises: Steve Sabol. He’s been a contributor finalist every year since that category was formed, but he never was a top finisher – and not because he wasn’t worthy but because another Sabol – his father, Ed – already beat him to Canton (2011). Both worked for the same company – NFL Films. His father founded it, and Sabol perfected it. And both had an enormous impact on the popularity of the game. Steve once said that if only one had to make the Hall, he hoped it would be his Dad. And it was. But now father AND son are there. People who might nominate Tagliabue here haven’t been paying attention. While the former NFL commissioner was denied four times as a finalist, including once as a contributor, he was a heavy favorite to make it through this process.
The disappointments: What happened to Ralph Hay? He was the owner (Canton Bulldogs) who organized the first meeting of teams that would comprise the American Professional Football Association – later known as the NFL. Without him, there is no NFL. So how do you exclude him? Someone? Anyone? He’s the first page of the first chapter of the NFL. Yet he’s not in Canton ... where that meeting occurred? Wow. And where are Bucko Kilroy and Art McNally? Both were among the top finishers when the Class of 2019 contributors were chosen, yet neither made it to the finish line. Again. Kilroy was a decorated player, innovative scout and club executive who served the NFL for 64 years, while McNally is regarded as “the father of instant replay.” I don’t care what you think of replay. As the league’s supervisor of officiating, McNally changed the NFL – and all sports – by making replay an officiating tool. That alone should gain him entry to Canton. However, the Hall has a blind spot for NFL officials. There’s only one in Canton, former supervisor Hugh “Shorty” Ray, and he retired in 1952.
The bottom line: Tagliabue and Young were easy to predict. Both were multiple finalists as modern-era candidates. Sabol's induction wasn't as easily anticipated, though he had strong support within past contributor committee meetings. But I'll be honest: Though there's no doubt Sabol is ... and has been ... Hall-of-Fame worthy, his choice over Hay was a bit of surprise, mostly for the reasons already expressed.
THE CLASS OF 2020 CONTRIBUTORS
STEVE SABOL, administrator/president – NFL Films (1964-2012).
PAUL TAGLIABUE, commissioner – NFL (1989-2006).
GEORGE YOUNG, contributor, general manager – Baltimore Colts (1968-74); Miami Dolphins (1975-78); N.Y. Giants (1979-97); NFL (1998-2001).
THE COACHES (2)
No suspense here. Hall-of-Fame president and CEO David Baker announced Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson last weekend on national TV.
The surprises: There’s one: Cowher. He’d never been a finalist before the Centennial Class panel convened, while three of his competitors – Don Coryell, Tom Flores and Johnson – had. In fact, Coryell had been a five-time finalist and was one of two coaches in 2019 to reach the final 15. Flores was the other. Cowher won one NFL title. Three others in this group (Johnson, Flores and Buddy Parker each won two), while Dan Reeves went to four Super Bowls. OK, so he lost them. Marv Levy was 0-4, too, and he’s in Canton. With 190 regular-season wins, Reeves ranks ninth all-time among NFL coaches. Cowher (129) ranks 20th and Johnson (80) 59th. Then there’s Mike Holmgren. Like Cowher, he won eight division titles. Like Cowher, he won one Super Bowl. Unlike Cowher, he took two teams to the Super Bowl and was there three times.
The disappointments: Coryell heads the list. Some felt that because he came so close in 2016 – graduating to the Final 10 – and because he’s a multiple finalist he had a shot. He didn’t. Neither did Buddy Parker, who’s the coach who last put the Detroit Lions on the map. If that seems like a long time ago, it was. He coached the Lions to three championship games (1952-54), winning two of them. People mention how Cowher went to two Super Bowls and won one. Well, Parker went to three league championship games and won two. He deserved better.
The bottom line: Most people have no problem with Johnson or Cowher, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have questions – and most involve Cowher, the only coaching finalist with a regular-season winning percentage of 60 or above (.623). People simply believe there were others – most notably, Parker – who should have gone in ahead of him. They also wonder why someone who was never a finalist until now was chosen over three others who were. Me? I wonder when Dallas owner Jerry Jones puts personal differences aside and names Johnson to the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. There are 22 members in the team’s Hall of Fame. Johnson is not one of them.
THE CLASS OF 2020 COACHES
BILL COWHER – Pittsburgh (1992-2006).
JIMMY JOHNSON – Dallas (1989-93); Miami (1996-99).
The Centennial Class will be joined in the Class of 2020 by five modern-era players elected on Feb. 1, the Saturday prior to Super Bowl LIV.
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