A few hours before he had to send his Philadelphia Eagles against the Packers in Green Bay last weekend—an almost sure way to start the new season looking up from the bottom of the standings—Coach Joe Kuharich was trying to reassure himself and anyone else who would listen. "I was reminding the boys that in the opener four years ago we were big underdogs against the New York Giants, too, and we only beat them 38-7," Kuharich said, nervously sliding his glasses up and down in his breast pocket. "So don't be surprised what happens out there. Just don't be surprised."
Nobody was. Playing with a precision that made it appear to be an easy afternoon's work, Bart Starr completed 14 of 18 passes and the Packers beat the Eagles 30-13, exactly matching the pregame spread. The Eagles' frustration was typified by an incident at the end of the first half. Philadelphia was lined up to kick a field goal when the gun went off. According to the referee, nobody had remembered to tell him that the Eagles wanted a time-out.
Bad luck, injuries and errors tracked the Eagles all last season, and they are still hanging around. That this year might be as unpleasant as last was evident almost as soon as the team showed up in training camp. On the first play of the first Philadelphia exhibition game, Quarterback Norm Snead called a play that starts as an end run by Izzy Lang but winds up as a pass. Lang took the ball from Snead and threw the pass, which was intercepted. Snead turned back quickly as if to make the tackle. Without having been touched, he was suddenly on the ground with a broken left leg, his cleats having caught in the turf. "What a dastardly event," Kuharich says. "What an awful tragedy that was. In practice Snead had moved our offense down the field every time. He's a great leader with a terrific arm. He's one of the top four quarterbacks in the league in my opinion, and he was gone without a blow being struck him. But you have to learn to live with these things."
Losing Snead for the entire exhibition season and at least three or four league games was even more of a misfortune to Kuharich than it may seem. To replace Snead the Eagles had only veteran King Hill, who had reported to camp at a ponderous 230 pounds, and John Huarte, who had failed in earlier attempts with New York and Boston o the AFL. So while Hill shed considerable weight and divided playing time with Huarte, Kuharich tried to maintain a reasonably satisfied air in view of the fact that his offense had been deprived of its most important ingredient.
September 22, 1968
"Huarte has had a lot of good training [working behind Joe Namath and Babe Parilli], and where could we have got a college guy with all that knowledge?" says Kuharich. "He's a strong-armed kid. King Hill has been around and knows what's going on. Football is not a game you play strictly with individuals anyhow. In baseball, when Mickey Mantle is up to bat, the other eight guys on his club might as well be asleep unless they're on base, because it all comes down to does he hit the ball or doesn't he. But when a quarterback goes back to pass—I don't care if he's Unitas or who he is—he's got to have a bunch of other guys out there working in his behalf or he's nothing."
However, there is still more to it in the case of Snead. One of Kuharich's major trades, among many, occurred in the off season of 1964 when he sent Sonny Jurgensen and Jimmy Carr to Washington for Snead and Claude Crabb. Jurgensen is perhaps the best pure passer in the NFL. Kuharich has not been allowed to forget that trade. Nor does he wish to, he says.
"My kid is only 29. He'll be around this league for a long time after the other guy is finished," says Kuharich.
There were reports that Kuharich had traded Jurgensen, Tommy McDonald and a few others to break up cliques that grew among the Eagles after their championship year of 1960. "I don't know about cliques, but look at it this way," Kuharich says. "When we make a trade, we think about it first. We weigh all the factors and do what we think is best for the team. Every player has positives and negatives.
"Some of them are fringe areas that don't have to do with anyone's ability. Maybe one guy is not so hot but is good for the team, and another guy is great but not so hot for the team. Then you have to figure what you need and what the other clubs need. You don't give nothing for something very often. All right, so we traded Lee Roy Caffey to the Packers, and in the deal, through a traded No. 1 draft choice, they got Donny Anderson. So we got four good seasons from Jim Ringo and we got a good back we needed in Earl Gros. We traded J. D. Smith to Detroit because they needed an offensive tackle. For that we got Floyd Peters, who has been to the Pro Bowl three times for us, and we got some good years from Ollie Matson, and Detroit hardly got anything from Smith. That doesn't make Detroit stupid. You're never really positive how a trade is going to come out. But some people try to make it sound like all our trades are made by some nitwit."
If Kuharich seems a bit touchy about his trades and about his team, it is because almost any day of the week he can blister his fingers by picking up the Philadelphia newspapers to read the stories about the Eagles. He has been the head coach for the San Francisco 49ers, the Chicago Cardinals and the Washington Redskins, as well as for Notre Dame in a different league, but he has seldom encountered the opposition in print that he has met since he arrived in Philadelphia.
The situation began in 1960, the year the Eagles won the NFL championship under Norm Van Brocklin. When Coach Buck Shaw, a gentlemanly fellow, announced his retirement at the end of the season, Van Brocklin was in favor of the idea and declared that if he were named in Shaw's place he would fire Vince McNally and the rest of the Eagles' front office. McNally, however, was general manager of the Eagles and preferred to keep the job. So McNally brought in Nick Skorich as coach. The Eagles had a 10-4 season in 1961 and then won only five of their next 28 league games.
Before the 1964 season the franchise was sold to Jerry Wolman, a young businessman and sports nut who for a while seemed to be trying to buy the United States. Wolman began hunting for a coach. Naturally, the name most often suggested in Philadelphia was that of Van Brocklin, who was then coaching at Minnesota and had done well with an expansion club. Over a period of several months Wolman interviewed nearly 20 candidates. One was Kuharich, who was working in the NFL office. When Kuharich was hired, the rumor spread that accepting him as coach had been a condition of Wolman receiving the franchise. That rumor was based on nothing more than that Kuharich is a friend of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
"I didn't apply for the job," says Kuharich. "The first couple of times I talked to Wolman I thought he was just asking my advice because I had been in the league office and knew the coaches and players pretty well. I understood there was a lot of pressure to hire this certain person as coach. But then Wolman said he wanted me. So what am I supposed to do? I took it and started renovating the team. A team that had won five games in two years needed plenty of renovating."
Under Kuharich the Eagles were 6-8 in 1964, 5-9 in 1965, 9-5 in 1966 and 6-7-1 last season, when they finished second in their division behind Dallas. But Kuharich's relationship with the Philadelphia press, and consequently with the fans, has fluctuated between poor and atrocious. There were cries of outrage when Wolman gave Kuharich a 15-year contract as general manager of the Eagles. Last spring Coach Kuharich's contract expired, but General Manager Kuharich took care of that by rehiring his favorite football mind. The simple elegance of that maneuver drummed up a thunder of complaint from members of the Get Rid of Kuharich Club, which had hired an airplane to fly over Franklin Field in December trailing a sign that said: "Goodbye, Joe Baby." Not that Kuharich cared. The club has only 500 members, and he can keep reinstating himself as coach until 1978.
That allows Kuharich plenty of time to polish up new non sequiturs, of which he is an acknowledged master. Talking to his kicker, Sam Baker, in the lobby of a Green Bay hotel the night before the Packer game, Kuharich used one of his favorites. "Sam," he said, "that is a horse of a different fire department." Once Kuharich was asked whether it was difficult to trade for a first-rate quarterback. Kuharich delivered a 10-minute oration on the subject and ended by saying: "So you see, gentlemen, trading for a good quarterback is quite rare but not unusual."
Kuharich's flair for using semantics as a trampoline has aroused the Philadelphia press to attacks that edge up to hysteria. "Those guys got their job to do. They can say what they please," says Kuharich. "The thing is, they all think they're critics. They can't tell you who won or lost without getting the score wrong, but they love to pretend they're experts. When Gene Mauch got let out as manager of the Phillies, they congratulated themselves for helping to get him fired. When we beat Dallas last year, they wrote long stories about what we did wrong. But when I give the needle back to them, they can't take it. So I don't spend too much time with them. What's the use of spending an hour with guys who don't know what you're talking about?"
Wolman has been Kuharich's patron through all these petty conflicts. He has defended Kuharich to the point of getting into fistfights with fans in the stands. "Joe Kuharich is a different man than you or I," Wolman says. "We have our ups and downs. But nothing ever happens that will affect Joe's thinking." Wolman has been generous to Kuharich and his staff. However, that generosity could be forced to stop. There is a chance that Wolman might lose his franchise.
The problem lies in the dizzy realms of finance, although the basic part of it is easy enough to understand. Wolman owes more money than he's got, and his creditors are threatening to collect. The trouble started when Wolman took a $5 million beating on a 100-story office building in Chicago. He became trapped in a tight-money market. His creditors claim he owes some $35 million, including $90,000 each to the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers for visiting-team guarantees from games played last season.
Attempting to avoid bankruptcy, Wolman and his attorneys have invented several plans that would protect the 52% he owns of the Eagles. Morgan Guaranty Trust of New York loaned Wolman $6 million with 100% of the Eagle stock as collateral. The latest plan calls for the Yellow Cab companies of Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., the Spectrum Sports Arena, Connie Mack Stadium and other of Wolman's holdings to be used to pay off Morgan Guaranty and other debts and buy up the remaining 48% of the Eagles' stock, which would then be used as collateral for a new loan. The Philadelphia franchise earned more than $840,000 in each of the past two years, but the profit vanished in loans to Wolman and severance pay for former Vice-President Ed Snider, fired with 12 years remaining on his contract.
Whether Wolman keeps the franchise or not, his friend Kuharich cannot lose. Kuharich's contract is with the Philadelphia Eagles Football Club, Inc. at $60,000 per year no matter who owns the club. With that sort of backing, Kuharich can afford a little bad luck on the field. As Kuharich says: "You win some, you lose some, and some you teeter-totter." If the Eagles can manage to teeter-totter in even half their games this season, they will be lucky.