Allie Sherman is a small, sincere young man who looks like a successful stockbroker. He is thoughtful, introspective, kind, cheerful and prone to exhaustive self-examination. He is that rarest of men—one who is doing precisely what he wants to do, something he has always dreamed of doing since he was a ragged-pants boy growing up in Brooklyn.
He was an unlikely-looking pro football quarterback under Greasy Neale (SI, Aug. 24) of the Philadelphia Eagles. He is now an unlikely-looking pro football coach for the New York Giants but he happens to be one of the best coaches in the National Football League.
He came within a dropped pass and a sprained knee of winning the NFL championship last year, and then broke up the team that had done much better than most fans had expected and almost as well as Allie had thought they would do. He took an enormous gamble by trading a way Sam Huff and Dick Modzelewski, two of the keys to a Giant defense which was not spectacular but was always sufficient to the needs of the day.
Last week Sherman dropped a real megaton bomb when he traded away the Giants' first draft choice—Joe Don Looney—and their No. 1 ground-gainer, Phil King. Looney and Lou Kirouac, a reserve lineman, went to the Baltimore Colts for End R. C. Owens and Defensive Back Andy Nelson.
"We have to go with young backs. In Ernie Wheelwright, Steve Thurlow and Clarence Childs, we have three good ones," Sherman explained, pointedly omitting mention of Looney. "Then we have experience in Webster, Morrison and James. It's an ideal combination."
Besides the "ideal combination" the Giants also have a surplus of receivers and defensive backs. Should they suddenly be caught short anywhere else they have eminently tradable material. So there are likely to be more trades.
Sherman has lived dangerously ever since he took over as head coach of the Giants, because the Giants have only one quarterback—aging, bald, brilliant and brittle Y. A. Tittle. Glynn Griffing, who was No. 2 last year, never proved himself under fire and was released. There are two rookies on the Giant roster this year—small, quick Gary Wood from Cornell, who has the arm and the desire—as he so well demonstrated in last week's exhibition game when he threw three touchdown passes to beat the Philadelphia Eagles—and tall Henry Schichtle, who has not yet shown the spark that enables a quarterback to move a team.
But Sherman is a gambler and a good one and, beyond that, he is technically and psychologically fitted to coach a pro team.
"You get a lift playing for him," a veteran from another club said a couple of years ago after being coached by Sherman in the Pro Bowl Game in Los Angeles. "The guy I played for during the season, all I got from him was a growl if I blew an assignment. When I came off the field in the Pro Bowl after making a good block, Allie made a point of coming over and saying something good. And if I made a mistake, he discussed it and he didn't cuss me. I wanted to play for him. It was different." "The only inventory you have in this business is human beings," Sherman says. "Almost anyone can draw the circles and Xs on the board. But you have to learn that the circles and Xs are people and that you have to operate within their limitations."
Sherman learned the lesson of limits early, because he was himself a left-handed quarterback of limited ability who did not impress his high school coach enough to draw a uniform.
"I always wanted to play football," he says. "I wanted to play from as long ago as I can remember. I finally got a chance at Brooklyn College, but before that most of my football was on sand-lots. I played T formation quarterback at Brooklyn College and that was just when the T took over, so I was drafted by the Eagles because everyone wanted a ballplayer who could operate the T."
When Sherman showed up at the Eagle training camp, he was one of eight quarterbacks Greasy Neale was examining. Since Sherman was thin and looked too fragile to play ping-pong, no one thought he would make the club—with the exception of Sherman.
"I used to lie awake nights and worry about it, but I was sure I would make it," Allie says now. He speaks precisely and carefully and he has an undeserved reputation among sportswriters for talking in clichés. He is fond of certain phrases and they have a ring of Madison Avenue, but when he digs earnestly into a discussion of football the trite phrases disappear. In a dressing room after a Giant game he is apt to discuss the afternoon's action in terms more likely to be used by a pedantic professor. "We were unable to establish continuity in our ground attack," he said once last season. "The impetus of momentum was with the other team."
In an effort to establish continuity in the Giant ground attack this year, Sherman drafted Joe Don Looney, a massive but moody fullback who played for four colleges before being unceremoniously booted off the Oklahoma squad early in the 1963 season. Looney was the Giants' first draft choice; it is safe to say that he would not have been the first draft choice of any other club in the league.
The fact that the Giants added this gamble to the rest of the gambles they have taken since the end of the 1963 season is a tribute to Sherman's predilection for extracting fine wine from sour grapes. Looney spent four days in the Giant training camp before he joined the College All-Star squad. The four days were not particularly indicative of a change of attitude by Looney, who had floored an Oklahoma assistant coach as the immediate prelude to being kicked off the Oklahoma squad.
One afternoon Don Smith, the Giant publicity man, asked Looney to come down to his office to talk to a reporter. Looney refused. Smith sent a messenger back to Looney's room to point out that part of his contract with the Giants requires that he cooperate in public relations, and Looney sent the messenger back with a brief and rude suggestion as to what Smith could do.
"He didn't talk to anyone and he spent most of his time in his room flexing his muscles," one observer at the Giant camp said. "He'll be a problem." Said Sherman, "He looked fine in practice. He can kick the ball very well and he works hard. He has all the physical equipment. Somewhere in his personality is a key you can turn to open him up. Our job is to find the key."
When Looney returned from the All-Star camp with a pulled leg muscle, he still was not overflowing with desire. "He doesn't have a Giant attitude," one player said, and Sherman finally agreed. Allie could not find the Looney key, and now the Colts' Don Shula has the job of hunting for it.
Sherman seldom before has failed to plumb the psyches of football players—both the good and the marginal. He studied them for five years as a second-string quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.
"When I got out of Brooklyn College I had real good grades," he says. "My family didn't want me to be a football player. They thought I was wasting myself. But I sat down and thought the whole thing out and I decided that what I wanted to do in life was coach, and if I wanted to coach, then the best way to learn was to play with the pros. I knew I could make more money doing something else, but my object has never been to make a great deal of money."
Sherman began training himself to be a head coach methodically. After he made the grade as the No. 2 quarterback of the Eagles, he changed roommates every year.
"I roomed with a defensive lineman one year to find out about his job, then I changed to a running halfback and a defensive halfback and an offensive lineman and an end," he says. "I spent a lot of time finding out about their positions and their psychology."
One of his roommates was Tom Miller, an end for the Eagles who is now the publicity man for the Green Bay Packers.
"If I went out for a beer, Allie would lecture me," Miller says now. "He told me that the most important thing in the world was playing good football and I couldn't be good if I didn't train. And he spent all the time we were together asking me questions. I don't think he ever had a thought that wasn't about football."
Allie became very close to Greasy Neale, and it was on Neale's advice that he quit as an active player.
"Greasy knew how I felt," he said. "He knew I wanted to coach. He told me he would let me know when to make my move, and he did after my fifth year. I think I might have taken over as No. 1 quarterback eventually, but a coaching job came up in a minor pro league and Greasy advised me to take it. I took the job and we won the championship and I sat back waiting for the coaching offers to come in, but none did."
With the help of Lou Little, Allie wound up with the Giants, installing the T formation for Steve Owen. When Owen was fired and Jim Lee Howell took over, Allie went to Canada to coach the Winnipeg team.
"I learned a very valuable lesson in Canada." he says now. "At the end of each year, I evaluate my experiences and try to discover what I have gained. I don't think about my successes. I go over my failures. After my first year in Canada I discovered that my biggest problem had been in coaching the Canadian players. I found that I had to learn to gear down to the slowest mind on the team, not up to the quickest. On the Canadian teams, you had American players thoroughly familiar with American football and Canadians who were not and who had to be taught slowly. It is a lesson that is still very useful."
After three years in Canada in which his team reached the playoff three times, Sherman returned to the Giants staff as a scout, then took charge of the entire offense. When Howell retired in 1960, Allie got the top job, although he was Owner Wellington Mara's second choice.
"I wanted the head job," he said. "I knew I was ready. Wellington called me in and said that he had promised Vince Lombardi the job if he were free to take it. If he couldn't take it, I was the only other man they would consider."
Lombardi, then and now head coach of the Packers, could not take the job, and it went to Sherman.
The Giants have done well under Allie's easy hand and his gift for organizing. His practices are meticulously planned and efficient, and although they are relatively short—an hour and 15 minutes usually—there is almost no standing-around time. Pass drills are run in sections—one side of the line at a time and two drills going on at once so that all the quarterbacks work and all the players are in action continuously. A small example of the care with which he plans a practice is a grid he has drawn on the practice field at Fairfield, Conn. This is for blocking and pass-rush drill. The chalk marks indicate lanes for the ends and tackles to stay in as they try to reach the passer; another chalk mark shows the passer where he should set up to throw. This diagram on the turf insures that the defensive ends and tackles take the shortest route to the passer and it gives the offensive linemen a clear idea of the area they must protect. In each scrimmage it makes head-on conflict between the blockers and rushers a certainty.
The Giants will be a carefully prepared, finely honed football team. But even for a coach of Sherman's stature, the negatives outweigh the positives. The loss of Huff leaves a big hole not filled by the return of Andy Robustelli, who can lend guidance but cannot fill all the positions of a shaky defense. A less obvious but a critical loss is Dick Modzelewski, traded to Cleveland. The Huff trade shocked Giant fans, but from Sherman's point of view it was logical. "We needed a quality player to replace Robustelli," Sherman said. "We have good young linebackers and we had to give quality to get it. A few years from now Huff would not have brought much." The quality player to replace Robustelli turned out to be Robustelli. Sherman has tinkered with the line, trying Andy Stynchula at defensive tackle and end, shifting Offensive Guard Ken Byers to defensive end and moving Bob Taylor in at both tackle and end, but even if he arrives at an acceptable solution, it will take time for the defense to jell and there is not enough time in a season. Jerry Hillebrand tried to fill Huff's shoes but was injured. Lou Slaby, off last year's taxi squad, is the incumbent now and he may be the equal of Huff in a few years.
Although Modzelewski never made All-League as a defensive tackle, he was a key on defense because he could protect the impetuous John LoVetere, a tackle who has a tremendous charge but who leaves himself open to traps because of it. A veteran like Mo could close the trap hole for LoVetere; whoever takes his place in the Giant line will lack Mo's experience and his ability to rectify the mistakes of LoVetere.
Too, Sherman must depend on very old or very young running backs. Alex Webster is one of the solidest players in the NFL, but he is 33 years old and was injured last year. Dick James is 30 and small to play the most punishing of all positions—running back. Rookie Fullback Ernie Wheelwright was impressive in preseason games and he fits the trend toward big backs who can block linebackers, but rookies make mistakes. Joe Morrison is a versatile and useful runner, but the Giants need help in the backfield.
And the last and biggest gamble, of course, is on the health of the incomparable Y. A. Tittle. Behind him are novices. With him, the Giants, despite the problems on defense and in running backs, could, given receivers like Del Shofner, Joe Morrison, Bobby Crespino, Frank Gifford and Homer Jones, score their way to another championship. But without him, they would be in trouble.
Sherman is a careful, calculating gambler but he may be trying to fill an inside straight this year.