Mike Holovak is a quiet, curiously gentle man for a football coach. The night before his Boston Patriots play, he eats an early dinner, then secludes himself in his hotel room on the road, or in his own room at home, and suffers.
"I know I am not fit company for anyone," he said in Houston the other day before the Patriots played the Oilers, with the Eastern Division lead in the American Football League at stake. Holovak's voice was soft and seemed ridiculously high for so big a man. "I think a thousand things the night before a game," he went on. "I imagine every kind of disaster happening to us." No matter how lively Holovak's imagination was on the Saturday night before the Houston game, it could not have encompassed all the sorrows that befell him the next afternoon as the Patriots lost to Houston 21-17.
Unlike many coaches in professional football, Holovak does not believe in calling plays for his team. He depends entirely on, and has complete faith in, Babe Parilli, the seasoned quarterback who had led the Patriots into first place. "Parilli knows exactly what he wants to do in every game," Holovak said. "All I would do by sending in plays from the sideline would be to destroy the continuity of his thinking. He knows more of what is going on from the field than I do from the bench. He gets information from linemen and ends and backs that I don't get. What we learn from the press box I can tell him while our defensive team is in the game."
Unfortunately for Holovak, Parilli did not play long on Sunday. A confident, quick operator, Parilli marched the Patriots for a touchdown the first time Boston had the ball. Running the team briskly, he whipsawed the big Houston defensive team with quick slants inside and outside the tackles, then hit flanker Jim Colclough over the drawn-in defense with a beautifully thrown pass that carried 28 yards for the touchdown. At this point Parilli and the Patriots seemed securely in control of the game.
Then, early in the second quarter, Parilli was tackled violently by Houston's Bill Herchman. He left the game with a broken collarbone and was replaced by substitute Tom Yewcic, who had seen almost no action this season. Yewcic, under enormous pressure, did very well, but even though Boston came close, it did not have the closing punch Parilli could have given the team.
Indeed, it took courageous effort for the Patriots to stay as close as they did. The Oilers are strong defensively. The defense, in fact, has been carrying the team, and this has been especially so ever since Halfback Billy Cannon injured his back in San Diego. Cannon is not yet running with the old reckless abandon that brought him the league rushing title last year. But the defense is, and against Boston it blitzed on almost every play. On every fourth play, it put on a super blitz with even the safety man red-dogging. Generally successful, the maneuver did backfire once when Yewcic caught the safety coming in and threw down the middle to Ron Burton, completing a neat 69-yard touchdown pass.
Coach Pop Ivy, in his first year with the Oilers, has turned increasingly to the weird double- and triple-wing offenses which never proved very successful when he coached the St. Louis Cardinals of the National Football League. Unless adjustments are made, Houston may have trouble holding on to its lead against the Patriots—who are enormously scrappy and aggressive, and by no means a one-man team.
This Boston success is clearly a tribute to Holovak. When he took the club over last season Boston had been floundering sadly under Lou Saban, the ex-Cleveland linebacker who now coaches the Buffalo Bills.
"Saban, I think, was too intense for this team," one Boston official said the other day. "He had them wound up so tight they couldn't play well. Mike is a low-key guy. He relaxed them and made a few changes in personnel, and they began to look like a different club."
In the 19 league games the team has played under Holovak, it has won 13, lost four and tied two. Oddly enough, all four losses have been to the AFL's two Texas teams—the Dallas Texans and the Oilers. Aside from Parilli and Ron Burton, an All-America halfback in college, the Patriots are made up of a bunch of players who might be named Joe. Gino Cappelletti, an offensive end who catches short passes very well and kicks field goals, was the sixth best defensive back on the Patriots two years ago. Holovak, who has a sharp eye for the peculiar talents demanded by each position on the team, suggested that Cappelletti be tried at offensive end. Cappelletti responded by scoring 147 points last season, a league record.
Larry Garron, who is as good a fullback as there is in the AFL, came to the Patriots with the nickname of Iron Claws. As a pass receiver, he had hands as soft as frying pans. Holovak put him at fullback, where, instead of having the ball thrown to him, he was handed it. At fullback he could also use his sprinter's speed and his extraordinary power as a runner and blocker.
The other fullback is Jim Crawford, a rodeo performer from Wyoming who has a gentleman's agreement with the club not to ride bulls during the off season although he is still permitted to rope calves and bulldog steers. At the other offensive end is Tony Romeo, who played at Florida State. Romeo is a Baptist minister who meets adversity with an inexhaustible supply of Biblical quotations and who plays football with unchristian violence.
Although one of the tenets of professional football is that championships are won with defense, the extraordinary Patriots managed to lead the Eastern Division half the season with the worst defense in the AFL. Before the Oiler game, Holovak worried about George Blanda's passing attack for Houston, as well he might—his pass defenders had given up more yardage than any other club.
"I don't think we will be able to put any pressure on him," Holovak said, sorrowfully. "He gets rid of the ball so quick. And they block real well for him. We'll just try to drop back and cover all the receivers and let the front line take care of as much pass rush as they can manage. I sure hope it works."
As it turned out, the maligned Patriot defense performed extremely well. During the course of the dank, blustery afternoon, the young Patriot defensive backs intercepted five passes. The line limited the supposedly tough Houston running game to 99 yards, stopping Cannon almost in his tracks.
"I thought they played well," Holovak said after the game. He sounded even sadder than when he had predicted trouble the night before. "They only made a couple of mistakes—but those cost us touchdowns."
Besides the loss of Parilli, a crushing enough blow in itself, the Patriots were deprived of their best defensive tackle in the second half when Jess Richardson, late of the Philadelphia Eagles, protested too loudly on a questionable call by one of the officials. Charlie Hennigan, an Oiler end, fumbled as he was tackled and the Patriots recovered, but the official ruled that the ball had been dead before Hennigan lost possession. This occurred in the fourth quarter, with time of the essence. Richardson, in his fury, brushed the official, who piled calamity on disaster by stepping off a 15-yard penalty in addition to thumbing Richardson out. Later the official told one of the Patriots that it had been a bad call, a generous admission but hardly one calculated to soothe Boston.
"It's been like this all season," Jim Colclough said bitterly after the game. "We fight and fight and fight and every break in the game goes against us. When is it going to change?"
If the breaks begin to come the Patriots' way, the Oilers, who now lead Boston by a half game, may not win their third straight AFL championship. Even without Parilli, the Patriots could replace them.