Four footballs bearing the stamp "AFL" on their pebbled hides will be teed up and booted hopefully into the air this weekend on the 40-yard lines of four stadiums spread over the width of the land. When they come down—and this is the only sure thing on the program-professional sport's most ambitious new venture, the American Football League, will be under way.
In anticipation of the historic moment, those responsible would like to make a few things clear:
1) The AFL will not fold before the 1960 season is out.
2) The AFL will perform on a level with the National Football League within three years; within five it will challenge the NFL to a postseason game for the world championship.
Less emphatically, the spokesmen also admit:
1) No, the Boston Patriots cannot beat the Baltimore Colts. Nor can the Los Angeles Chargers, the Dallas Texans, the Houston Oilers, the Buffalo Bills, the Oakland Raiders, the New York Titans or the Denver Broncos. Nor, for that matter, can the New York Giants, the Cleveland Browns or the Chicago Bears, who have been trying for years, so why do people keep asking silly questions?
2) The AFL expects to lose money for three years.
Fortunately, the men who own teams in the new American Football League have a lot of money—transportation money, oil money, hotel money, construction money, all kinds of money—and they seem to enjoy spending it. The cost of fielding each AFL team this season will be approximately $1 million, and the owners know they are going to lose some of that. They are prepared to do so. Each team, in addition to financing its operation, has deposited a $100,000 performance bond with the league office, to be forfeited if the club should drop out.
"We don't expect to collect a single forfeit," says League President Lamar Hunt, who wouldn't know what to do with another $100,000 if someone gave it to him. "We could have had 50 teams operating on a wildcat basis; we picked eight instead that were prepared to see this thing through."
To see this thing through, the American Football League has proceeded in a most businesslike way. The front-office staffs are experienced, almost to a man, in the operation of either American or Canadian professional football. The league commissioner is Joe Foss, who would still look like the lean, bearded hero of the Solomons if he would reduce a little and cease to shave. As a former governor of South Dakota, Foss retains political connections in Washington which have already come in handy in challenging the grip of the NFL. He also retains enough of the old Marine spirit to have slapped $2,000 fines on Hunt, the man who hired him, and Barron Hilton of Los Angeles because their teams started practice a few days early.
The head coaches have had extensive pro experience or else boast unusual college records. Eddie Erdelatz, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers and Navy, is at Oakland; Sid Gill-man, lately with the Los Angeles Rams, is with the Los Angeles Chargers; and Sammy Baugh, the old Washington Redskin, is at New York. Buster Ramsey was defensive coach of the Detroit Lions before going to Buffalo, Frank Filchock of Denver was a pro quarterback with the Redskins and Giants before winning championships in the Canadian League, Lou Rymkus at Houston was a star lineman for seven seasons with the Cleveland Browns and has been an offensive coach in the NFL since 1953. Least known of the eight are Hank Stram at Dallas and Lou Saban at Boston. Stram was an assistant coach at Purdue, SMU, Notre Dame and Miami. Saban, defensive captain of the Browns for four years, later coached at Washington, Northwestern, Case Institute and Western Illinois, where his undefeated 1959 team was ranked second among small colleges in the nation. "Saban," says Billy Sullivan, one of the Boston owners, "is Paul Brown with a heart." In preseason scuffling, the teams coached by Stram and Saban between them have won 10 exhibition games and lost only one.
The sneers and snorts directed at the new league have been aimed at neither the front office nor the coaching staffs, however, but at the players. Since not even the teams concerned knew for sure who the players were until recently, this has taken the form of a blanket indictment of AFL personnel. Yet these "castoffs" and "college kids" represent the strongest part of the AFL rosters.
Some examples: George Blanda, out of retirement after 10 seasons with the Chicago Bears to play quarterback for Houston, is perhaps the best of the older pros in the league. Tommy O'Connell of Buffalo quarterbacked the Browns to their last Eastern championship in 1957 and was the leading passer that year in the NFL; he then quit to go into coaching, possibly because of differences with Paul Brown. Frank Tripuka of Denver has long been one of the Canadian League's leading stars. Tom Greene of Boston, an outstanding pro prospect out of Holy Cross two years ago, was drafted by the Redskins but chose not to play professional football until the new league came along. Jim Swink decided co pass up the pros for medical school after his All-America days at TCU, has now been talked into playing by the Dallas Texans. Ron Waller, a superb halfback for the Rams until injured two seasons ago, now appears healthy and ready to run for the Chargers. Jim Sears, who couldn't make Ollie Matson move over in four seasons with the Cardinals and retired to coaching in disgust, supplies Los Angeles with a terrific defensive halfback. Butch Songin, who will share the Boston quarterback job with Greene, had two outstanding seasons in Canada, then played semi-pro ball around Boston for $250 a game, which is approximately $244 more than Johnny Unitas once received on the Pittsburgh sandlots.
"Unitas was a castoff, too, remember," says John Breen of the Houston coaching staff, "and so was Big Daddy Lipscomb. There's nothing wrong with castoffs."
It is the rookies, however, who should turn out to be the real strength of the league, and it is here that the AFL has a marked advantage in its fight to succeed. Where an NFL team can use at the most five or six rookies each year, the AFL teams can promise 12 or 15 steady employment. They can also pay them at least as much money. This attractive combination enabled the AFL to scamper off with half of the 12 first-round draft choices of the NFL last winter and, overall, to collect about 75% of those college graduates that both leagues were after.
Some of the best this season should be Ron Mix, the 243-pound tackle of the Chargers from USC who was Baltimore's No. 1 draft choice; the storied Billy Cannon, whose preseason case of fumblitis doesn't seem to worry Houston a bit; Richie Lucas, Penn State's do-everything back who will play at half for Buffalo this year; Jack Lee, the sensational Cincinnati passer who is learning the pro trade behind Blanda; Ron Burton, Boston's brilliant running back from Northwestern ; Fullback Jack Spikes (TCU), Halfback Johnny Robinson (LSU), Linebacker Marvin Terrell (Mississippi) and End Chris Burford (Stanford), all at Dallas; Houston's big fullback from Ohio State, Bob White; and Buffalo Tackle Gene Grabosky of Syracuse, who now weighs 275 pounds.
Eventually, sharing the cream of the crop with the NFL each year and with a free hand to choose the best of the rest, the AFL should grow up to the National Football League's stature. In the meantime, energy and enthusiasm and a lot of hard work may help hide the difference. American Football League players deeply resent the insinuation that they are something less than real pros and they are out to prove to everyone (including, one suspects at times, themselves) that this is not so.
If there is a major weakness infecting the whole league, it is the shortage of top-grade interior linemen, particularly on defense. "Good big men are just hard to find," says Den-nit Morris, who spent two seasons with the 49ers and now has his work cut out in backing up a less than sensational line at Houston. "We'll just have to develop them as we go along, I guess." Because of this, the AFL is going to be an offense-minded outfit, particularly in its first year.
The three best
Most impressive of the teams in exhibition contests have been Los Angeles, Dallas and Boston. The Chargers have come up with a good quarterback in Jack Kemp, who played behind Bobby Layne on the Steelers. They have ex-Ram Waller, flashy Paul Lowe from Oregon State and Royce Womble at halfbacks, and a fine old fullback, Howie Ferguson, who has moved ahead of rookie Charlie Flowers, the All-America from Mississippi who first signed with the New York Giants. The Charger interior line, including Mix, Sam DeLuca, Orlando Ferrante and Fred Cole, shapes up as the best in the league.
Dallas has perhaps more good rookies than any other team and a solid sprinkling of NFL pros. The first-year men, in addition to Jack Spikes, Robinson (who played with Cannon at LSU), Marvin Terrell and Burford (who set pass-catching records at Stanford), are Linebacker Sherrill Headrick of TCU, Defensive End Mel Branch of LSU and slick Abner Haynes of North Texas State at halfback. Max Boydston and Ed Bernet are two experienced offensive ends, and Paul Miller, the old Los Angeles Ram, may be the best defensive end in the league. There are Ray Collins, a former NFL all-league tackle, Guard Sid Fournet and Defensive Backs Charlie Jackson (Cards) and John Bookman (Giants). Former Baylor Quarterback Cotton Davidson started slowly but has improved so much that Dallas was willing to send Dick Jamieson, who played behind Unitas at Baltimore last year, up to New York to help out the Titans.
Boston, like Dallas something of a surprise, has the two good quarterbacks, Tommy Greene and Butch Son-gin, and a fine pass-catching end from the Canadian League, Jim Colclough. Gerhard Schwedes, the Syracuse star, was a disappointment and has been traded to New York. But Ron Burton, who was possibly the best back in the Big Ten last year, may turn out to be the most exciting runner in the AFL.
Houston, Buffalo and Oakland shape up as the middle teams. George Blanda, Lee of Cincinnati and Texas A&M's Charlie Milstead give the Oilers great depth at quarterback. White is barely ahead of Dave Smith (Ripon) and Doug Cline (Clemson) at fullback, while Charlie Tolar, who played with Northwest Louisiana and the Pittsburgh Steelers, filled in extremely well when Cannon was bothered by an injured knee. Hugh Pitts of TCU was good enough as an NFL rookie to move the Rams' huge Les Richter over; then he quit football to study for the ministry. Now Pitts is back and Houston has him. Dennit Morris is another fine Oiler linebacker. The secondary is good and in Mark Johnston, a rookie corner back from Northwestern, Houston may have one of the outstanding stars of the future. John Carson, the ex-Redskin end, is a fine receiver. But Houston's offensive line is weak.
Despite the presence of Tommy O'Connell and Richie Lucas at quarterback, Buffalo has not come up to expectations. Defensive Backs Billy Kinard and Bill Atkins and Ends Dick Brubaker and Tom Rychlec are all experienced pros. But the interior of the Buffalo line, while huge, is loaded with inexperienced athletes, and Lucas may be the only good running back Buffalo has. At Oakland, Erdelatz has come up with a real sleeper at quarterback, Tom Flores of COP. Kept out of both the NFL and Canada by a shoulder injury, Flores had given up football; then Erdelatz talked him into working on his passing, increasing the yardage carefully until he could throw hard again. Now Flores is all right—good enough, in fact, to keep Babe Parilli on the bench. The Raiders also seem to have plenty of defensive talent but hardly anyone who can run with the ball.
The weak teams are New York and Denver. Sammy Baugh's main problem, as one might guess, has been to find a passer. A number of candidates failed, and now Jamieson, up from Dallas, may turn out to be the man for the job. If not, the quarterback will be ex-Michigan Stater Al Do-row. Sid Youngelman, the old defensive tackle star for the Browns and Eagles, and ex-Giant Guard Bob Mischak are set in the middle of the line, but the offense has bogged down because of a shortage of blockers and running backs. Blanche Martin, the No. 1 fullback from Michigan State, and Don Maynard, a swiftie who spent one season with the Giants, may be the best the Titans have. Denver, which lost five exhibition games by big margins, has a horde of ex-Canadians, led by Frank Tripuka at quarter, Halfback Bob Stransky and Fullback John Brodnax, and it is hoped they are hardly as bad as the scores show. Filchock, experimenting, used 46 players in each of the early exhibition games, which could account for the one-sided results.
Regardless of how well the teams perform on the field, the owners are assured of regaining a big chunk of their $1 million investment even before the season begins. An unusual television contract with ABC guarantees each team $250,000 for the year. Advance ticket sales have been remarkably good, in the main, ranging from 4,000 ($125,000) at Denver to 15,000 ($400,000) at Los Angeles. There are those who say that Denver is the league's weakest franchise, primarily because it does not have behind it the tremendous wealth of the other seven clubs. But Rocky Mountain Empire Sports Inc., which is what Bob Howsam calls his group, has been operating the most successful minor league baseball franchise in the country for years. Because it owns its own park, it has far less overhead than the others. And in Denver, as everywhere, the newspapers have blessed the new league with strong promotional support.
What the AFL counts upon most, however, is the popularity of pro football. It is in this area that the AFL differs so markedly from the old All-America Conference, an abortive attempt to cut in on the professional football dollar back in the days following World War II. The trouble then was that there actually weren't many pro football dollars. Today there are, and it is to the rival NFL that the AFL owes a deep vote of thanks. In pioneering professional football, in bringing it up from a grubby infant to a booming, lucrative giant of a business, the NFL created a market into which the AFL can now step without having to wonder where the next customer is coming from. The next customer is already there, shut out of the park in New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco (where Oakland will play) by sellout crowds. He is waiting anxiously at Houston, Boston, Dallas, Buffalo and Denver to see in person the kind of football he has been reading about and watching on TV for years.
Last year the NFL, which has been growing like a cyclone, averaged 43,617 customers at each of its 72 league games. The AFL can break even with just half that number. Denver can do it with 20,000. In Houston, where the Oilers have to pay heavy rental, plus renovation costs on a high school stadium, the figure reaches 25,000. At Dallas and Los Angeles, where AFL teams will play in the Cotton Bowl and Coliseum, respectively, rental costs and the promotional expense of combating NFL franchises run the attendance figure necessary to achieve financial success up to 30,000.
"We aren't quite that ambitious," says Bud Adams of Houston, who owns his own oil company and whose father owns large chunks of an even bigger one, Phillips 66. "If we can get 20,000 a game we'll be happy."
"Next year," points out Hilton, who owns 50% of the Los Angeles stock, "our operating expenses will go down. Teams which have had to pay for the expansion of stadiums will not be faced with that again. We can carry much smaller preseason squads, since by then we will have a solid basis upon which to build; this year everyone had to look at all the football players he could get in order to find enough good ones. We won't have to furnish and equip offices, as we have had to do this year. And our attendance should rise. In three years we'll be operating in the black."
Whether or not the AFL approaches NFL quality on the playing field—and there are many who feel that only the expert will be able to distinguish any real difference—is not as important as whether the new league achieves a measure of balance within its own organization. Imbalance, as much as anything else, killed the All-America Conference; there was the unbeaten Cleveland Brown juggernaut at one end of the ladder, pursued more or less closely by the San Francisco 49ers, and such ragged have-nots as the Chicago Rockets and Miami Seahawks at the other.
The AFL owners are determined not to repeat this folly. They know there will be strong teams and weak teams. Superior coaching, more astute front-office management, sharper scouting and the luck of the draw invariably permit one group to rise above another. It will take a spirit of cooperation unheard of in professional sports to insure equality, within reasonable bounds, on the playing field, but the AFL has at least made a start. Gate receipts will be split 60-40, a big advantage to the weaker clubs. Oakland, last team to join the league, has been promised first choice of NFL rejects when the rival league cuts its squads. Trades, which were more like gifts, sent quarterbacks to the needy from teams overloaded with quarterbacks. Still, the men in charge of the AFL are human, too, and it would take less than a cynic to wonder how long this miracle of self-sacrifice can last. As Sid Gillman says, "Sure, we want the AFL to be balanced—but we prefer it balanced in our favor." And this theory of selfless devotion to a common cause would be more convincing if Denver should suddenly win a few games.
If the AFL actually succeeds in abolishing the weak links, then Houston, Boston, Buffalo, even Denver, face relatively few problems. The spectators are there—2,500 once turned out for an intrasquad scrimmage at Buffalo, while last weekend at Dallas a mob of 51,000 turned out to see the Texans beat Houston in a charity exhibition game, 24-3. It is in the cities where AFL teams will directly buck the NFL that the real test will come.
In Los Angeles, where the pro football appetite seems insatiable, the Rams have been unimpressive in recent seasons, even less impressive in 1960 exhibition games, and the strong young Chargers could well steal some of their followers. New York loves the Giants, but simple football hunger, abetted by curiosity and the desire to see someone play when the Giants are sold out—or on the road—could keep the Titans going until Harry Wismer and Sammy Baugh build up a team. New York is too good a market, particularly for television, for the AFL to permit a loser there.
The biggest test
But in a way the most crucial city is Dallas. It is there, in a city barely big enough to support one pro team in addition to SMU, that the AFL must prove its ability to produce good professional football entertainment under the most critical gaze. While the Dallas Texans have looked very good, so have the new Dallas Cowboys of the NFL. The Texans should have a winning season; the Cowboys probably will have a losing one, but only at the hands of such box-office wizards as Johnny Unitas, Bobby Layne and Frank Gifford. It is a tough nut to crack, and the AFL is fortunate that in Dallas they have the man to crack it—Lamar Hunt.
In his quiet, modest way Hunt is perhaps the strongest—as well as richest—of the men who have organized the American Football League. He has a tough, probing intellect, unquestioned integrity and a great deal of native stubborness. "I don't know much about this football business," says a Dallas man, "but I know the Hunts. And I can tell you that if the AFL folds, the last man standing will be Lamar Hunt."
When informed that one of the old-line NFL club owners had predicted the AFL would last "just as long as that Texas oil money holds out," Hunt smiled and said, "I hope he doesn't hold his breath until we go broke."