State Your Case: Blanton Collier won enough games to coach his way into Canton.
Nice guys, some people say, finish last. Those people never met Blanton Collier.
Collier was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns for eight years, replacing his long-time friend and mentor Paul Brown after Brown got into an ego-fueled power struggle with owner Art Modell. And got himself fired. Collier was not only replacing a legend he was also replacing the man who first brought him into pro coaching so although it was the career break of his life, Collier told Modell he needed to get the permission of two people before he could accept – his wife and the man Modell just fired.
That’s the kind of guy Blanton Collier was throughout his coaching career. A loyal man who treated his players with respect and everyone he met with a certain kind of human decency you often find absent in successful coaches. But what kind of coach was he?
At the minimum, Collier was borderline Hall of Fame worthy, if not fully so. In eight years leading the Browns between 1963 and 1970, he never had a losing season. Four of those years Collier reached the NFL championship game, winning the NFL title once in 1964. That win came in large measure because of a tactical shift Collier ordered the week before Cleveland was to meet the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.
Long known as a brilliant tactician, Collier proved it when after studying film of the Colts’ high-scoring offense led by Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry (all future Hall of Famers themselves) he realized Baltimore’s No. 1 scoring offense was built around completing short and intermediate routes that found openings in the kind of zone pass defenses Collier favored.
The Colts seldom went deep. Rather, they methodically moved down field, completing one short pass after another because Unitas understood where the soft spots in every zone coverage would be. To combat that, Collier ordered his defensive coaches to switch to man-to-man coverage. The result was a stunning 27-0 shutout victory, the first Browns’ championship win since the retirement of Otto Graham following the 1955 season.
Collier’s team returned to the title game in 1965, 1968 and 1969 but lost to the Packers, Colts and Vikings. They also went 10-4 in 1963, the season Jim Brown set the then NFL rushing record of 1,863 yards by averaging 133.1 rushing yards PER GAME, but failed to make the playoffs because in those days there was only two playoff teams facing off in one championship playoff game.
Overall, Collier’s teams would post a record of 76-34-2, a winning percentage of .691. He reached the title game half of the seasons he coached and never had a losing record. His “worst’’ season was his final one, when the Browns went 7-7 in 1970. Collier retired after that season despite the protests of Modell because his failing hearing had gotten to the point, he told him, that he could no longer hear his players during games.
Collier had struggled with hearing issues since enter the Navy during World War II. Naval testing proved he had only 40 per cent of normal hearing so they made him a survival swimming instructor at the Great Lake Naval Training Center. By then a former high school and small college football player and head coach at Paris High School for 15 years in Kentucky, Collier had dreams of one day coaching on a bigger stage so he began to spend his off time watching the Great Lakes football team practice.
Each day he’d watch practice and take notes, something that caught the eye of the Great Lake’s coach. Paul Brown had given up Ohio State’s head coaching position to join the Navy and been assigned to coach the Great Lake’s team. Brown took notice of this guy watching practice and taking notes every day and eventually made Collier a volunteer assistant. When the war ended, Brown accepted the job of head coach of a startup operation in Cleveland called the Browns. They would dominate the AAFC for four years before a merger brought them into the NFL. They would do the same there, winning a total of seven championship between 1946 and 1955 and reaching the league title game all 10 seasons. Standing next to Brown was Collier, who became his top assistant before replacing Bear Bryant as head coach at the University of Kentucky.
Collier would return to Brown’s side in 1962 and a year later unexpectedly replaced him after Modell fired Brown for refusing to inform him of personnel moves and other decisions before they were made. Brown urged Collier to take the job because he had a family to feed and he accepted.
Collier was the polar opposite of Brown, whose iron grip had begun to rub players as well as Modell the wrong way. In 1963, for example, Brown agreed to allow Collier to create a check off system so his quarterback could change plays called by Brown at the line of scrimmage. But when a local Cleveland paper wrote a story that season about how successful Collier’s system was working, Brown immediately ended it.
With Collier now in charge in 1963, players had more ownership in how the team was run. Although Collier was a task master when it came to executing the fundamentals of the game he was more collegial in his approach to strategy and its implementation. Like Brown, Collier called the plays but he allowed quarterback Frank Ryan, a brilliant mathematician who earned a doctorate from Rice and taught college math courses at Case Western Reserve while playing for the Browns, to change plays at the line.
“Everything had to be perfect,’’ Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham said of Collier’s approach to coaching. “He was a stickler on perfection, but at the same time he had great patience.’’
During his time leading the Browns, Collier intervened in a growing racial split between his players as well, trading and releasing some of the malcontents and ironing out the difference between the others. He also survived the surprise retirement of Jim Brown following the 1965 season after a contract dispute between Brown and Modell convinced the game’s greatest running back to walk away from the sport. Collier replaced him with Leroy Kelly that fall and Kelly rushed for over 1,110 yards as the Browns continued to win.
When Collier finally in Canton only retired following the 1970 season because of his poor hearing he cited one of his communication problems had become being an inability to read players’ lips through their facemasks. Collier had become an expert in lip reading while in the Navy to overcome his hearing deficiencies but modern equipment improvements finally thwarted him. Although he would continue working for the Browns as a scout and quarterback coach he would never again be a head coach.
Among those who worked for Collier was Hall of Fame coach don Shula, who once said of him, “He was not only a great football coach but a great human being. He was a teacher. He really, to me, personified the teacher-in-the-classroom type of coach.’’
Did Blanton Collier last long enough and win often enough to earn himself a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Well, of the 24 Hall of Fame coaches enshrined in Canton only four had better winning percentages than Blanton Collier – Guy Chamberlain, Vince Lombardi, John Madden and George Allen.
Not Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh or Bill Parcells. Not Don Shula or Curly Lambeau. Not George Halas or Tom Landry or Joe Gibbs or Tony Dungy. If a coach’s job is to win, few ever did it better than a man the game has long forgotten, Blanton Collier. Hall of Famer? If you win more often than consistently than 83.3 per cent of the coaches in the Hall of Fame and take half your teams to the NFL championship game that’s enough to suit me.