A sudden change for the better

Soft-talking Wally Lemm has led Houston from last to first with kind words and a smart defense
November 27, 1961

Some five weeks ago a small, quiet man named Wally Lemm left his wife with a houseful of sporting-goods equipment to deliver and went to Houston to take over the head coaching job for the Houston Oilers. The Oilers, defending champions of the American Football League, rested ingloriously in last place in the AFL Eastern Division. As of this week, the Oilers, who on Sunday overwhelmed the New York Titans 49-13, are in first place, Mrs. Lemm has delivered the sporting goods, and it is doubtful if her husband will ever return to his sporting-goods business in Libertyville, Ill.

Lemm took over the Houston team from Lou Rymkus, an extremely vocal disciple of rugged football. Under Rymkus, the Oiler practice sessions were grim affairs. "If you smiled it was like you had committed a crime," says Quarterback Jacky Lee. "If a guy laughed, Lou would stop practice and lecture us on being hard-nosed. You don't get that way from lectures. You either are or you aren't. As far as I'm concerned, I think better and learn things quicker when I'm relaxed. I think most players do."

This philosophy fits perfectly with Lemm's. "Pro football players," he announced on the day he arrived in Houston, "like anybody else, do their jobs better when they like their work." Then he set about making the disgruntled Oiler players like their work.

"I had seen the team only twice this year," he said, "on television. My general impression was that they were not hustling and that the defense was not nearly diversified enough. When I got here, I made no personnel changes for the first two weeks. I looked at a couple of game movies to find out about the players I hadn't seen before, and that first week I put in more defenses."

Lemm, who had coached the secondary defense for the Oilers last year, is regarded in football as one of the best defensive coaches around. In 1956, when he coached the defensive secondary for the Chicago Cardinals, his unit intercepted 33 passes and allowed only nine touchdowns, a league record.

Quick transition

He installed five basic defenses, with variations of each, completing most of the work within the first week. "The kids caught on pretty quickly," he said. "I had worked with most of them at one time or another." The transition in the Houston defense was immediate and remarkable. The team had allowed an average of 169.6 yards rushing per game in the five games they had played before Lemm came. In their next game, the first under Lemm, they met the Dallas Texans, a club which had set a single-game AFL rushing mark against the Rymkus-coached Oilers on October 1 with 398 yards on the ground. Against Lemm's defenses the same Dallas team could gain only 126 yards as it lost 38-7. The Oilers have now played five games under Lemm and have allowed only 85.6 yards a game rushing.

"Only two clubs have kept a drive going against us since Wally took over," says Houston's other quarterback, old George Blanda, a pro for 11 years. "The defense is getting the ball for us. And it's not all defense. You listen to a coach telling you how bad you are, you finally begin to believe it yourself. The club had lost confidence when Wally got here."

Billy Cannon, the Oilers' fine running back, was even franker in discussing how he felt under Rymkus. "That guy would drive you nuts," he said. "I never scrimmaged as much in my life as I did under him." Rymkus, in his driving desire to create the toughest team in the league, scrimmaged the Oilers twice in the last week he was head coach. Once the season is under way, most professional teams don't dare scrimmage. The attrition of game play is enough without taking additional chances.

Probably the most compelling reason Bud Adams, the Houston Oiler owner, had for firing Rymkus was his use of personnel. After his first two weeks Lemm made some player changes that have helped his team measurably. "John Breen does a great job of scouting for us," Adams said. "He got us the best last year and we had as good or better a draft than anyone else this year. We signed eight out of the first 11 of our draft choices, but by the time the season started, Lou had gotten rid of them."

The last cut Rymkus made before the season started was a halfback from the University of Houston named Claude King. King had played very well during the exhibitions and, more important in a league in which building attendance is paramount, he had caught the fancy of the Houston fans. The day it was announced that Rymkus had cut him, Jack Scott, the Oiler publicity man, spent six hours talking on the telephone trying to placate irate season ticket holders who threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Then Scott got a phone call from Rymkus, who threatened to punch him in the mouth because stories in Houston's afternoon papers had been critical.

After he began running the team, Lemm recalled King. The first time King carried the ball in a game he went 17 yards for a touchdown. "I guess the thing that really frosted me was Lou's insistence on keeping Charlie Milstead at safety," Adams said. "I'm no football expert, but in the first game we lost, against San Diego, the Chargers ate Milstead up. I didn't say anything. Then the Texans beat us, and they took advantage of Milstead, too. I asked Lou about it after that game. We had a good defensive back named Fred Glick sitting on the bench. Lou said he'd try him. Then we played Buffalo, and Milstead went all the way again and we got beat again. I talked to Lou some more about it and he said Glick was ready now and he'd use him against Boston. We should have won that game, but Milstead went all the way again and they tied us 31-31."

Notable adjustments

It was after this game that Adams fired Rymkus. Two weeks later Glick was playing safety under Lemm. Lemm made a few other player adjustments, the most notable of which was installing Willard Dewveall, formerly with the Chicago Bears, at the tight end post. Rymkus had wanted to cut Dewveall, but was stopped from doing so only on a direct order from Adams. Against Boston, in the game that put the Oilers into first, Dewveall caught five passes and scored the touchdown that put the Oilers out in front to stay.

Last week in practice the Oilers laughed and kidded and worked hard. Once the offensive unit blew a play; a linebacker yelled, "Same sloppy bunch!" and the team broke up. That was one of Rymkus' favorite expressions.

"I'm glad I took this job," Lemm—who conceals tensions behind his advertised belief in enjoying football—said after practice. "I worried about it for three days before accepting but some coaching friends of mine told me I'd be crazy to turn down the opportunity. The first couple of weeks I was here I worked so hard I didn't begin to worry until Friday. Now I take those pills for the butterflies on Wednesday. Before the season ends, I'll probably be taking them on Monday."