A breath of fresh air

September 19, 1976

Ah, peace. Shaky or not, how sweet it is. Ask the embattled Baltimore Colts—the Oakland A's of the NFL—who last Sunday afternoon wiped thoughts of the previous week's chaos from their minds long enough to pummel the New England Patriots 27-13 at Foxboro, Mass.

Baltimore Quarterback Bert Jones completed five consecutive passes for 58 yards at one stage, including two touchdowns to Glenn Doughty; Toni Linhart kicked 28-and 32-yard field goals and Lydell Mitchell rushed for 73 yards. Not bad for a team that only a week before was on the brink of anarchy after its owner, Robert Irsay, had delivered a humiliating postgame locker-room scolding that produced the resignation of Coach Ted Marchibroda. Not bad for Jones and the other Colts, who had threatened to pick up their footballs and go home unless Irsay reinstated Marchibroda at once. And definitely not bad for Marchibroda, who won his power struggle against General Manager Joe Thomas and also seems to have persuaded Irsay to forgo any future attempts at locker-room oratory.

Internal strife has been part of Baltimore's modus operandi ever since Irsay acquired the team in 1972 and installed Thomas as general manager. Two years ago Irsay stormed onto the field while the Colts were being defeated, dismissed Coach Howard Schnellenberger and ordered Thomas to take over. The present troubles started when the Colts were swamped by Detroit 24-9 in their final preseason game, their fourth straight defeat. Irsay, who made his millions in air conditioning but frequently blows his own cool, charged into the dressing room and began to lambaste his players. Says Jones, "I don't know if that was Irsay talking—or whiskey."

Whichever, Irsay was obnoxious and abusive. When one player objected to the tongue-lashing, the owner ordered him to turn, face the wall and apologize—if he wanted to get paid. When Irsay ranted that the coaching staff needed help, though, Marchibroda had heard enough. "If you want a new head coach, go get yourself one," he said. Marchibroda demanded a meeting with Irsay and Thomas, and after a six-hour session at the Milwaukee Yacht Club, where Irsay docks his boat, failed to strengthen his position, Marchibroda resigned.

But on his return from Milwaukee, Marchibroda suggested that the fundamental problem was not Irsay's behavior. "In order to lead his men, any coach must have the authority to call the shots," he said. "This differs from the position held by the ownership and management here. I couldn't tolerate the interference I was getting." While Marchibroda didn't name Joe Thomas, it was clear that his resignation resulted from a disagreement with the general manager—not with the owner.

The relationship between coach and general manager in the NFL varies considerably from team to team, but Thomas clearly takes an extremist position. He believes that the general manager should have total control over all matters relating to personnel, including which players make the 43-man squad. He views the coach as a necessary evil, a push button, an Xs-and-Os guy whose duties are limited strictly to training whatever personnel the general manager provides.

Certainly it is difficult to dispute Thomas' credentials as a judge of personnel. He was the first person hired by the Minnesota Vikings and helped bring in much of the talent that made them a contender. He also was the first person hired by the Miami Dolphins and was responsible for acquiring 21 of the 22 Dolphins who started in Super Bowl VIII, in which Miami beat Minnesota 24-7. But Thomas chafed when the coaches in Minnesota and Miami—Norm Van Brocklin and Don Shula—received most of the credit for their teams' success. So he went looking for a new situation, arranged Irsay's acquisition of the Colts and, for his efforts, was rewarded with what he had always wanted: full control of a team.

Quickly disposing of aging legends like Johnny Unitas, Tom Matte and John Mackey, Thomas began to rebuild the Colts, and last year they went from last place to first in the AFC East. Inevitably, the same old problem arose: the coach—not the general manager—got most of the credit. New Coach Marchibroda, it was noted, had taken the same talent that finished 2-12 in 1974 and produced a 10-4 playoff team. Privately, Thomas admitted he was miffed that the accolades went to his coach.

During the off-season Thomas made some personnel moves that Marchibroda vehemently opposed. "Joe had to show Ted who was boss," says one Colt. Middle Linebacker Mike Curtis, an outspoken critic of the general manager, was lost in the expansion draft, leaving the Colts woefully thin at that position, because the only other veteran, Jim Cheyunski, had knee surgery and still limps badly. This summer Thomas traded Backup Quarterback Marty Domres and his $110,000 salary to San Francisco for a fifth-round 1978 draft choice and cash. Consequently, the Colts have no experienced backup if Jones, who likes to run the ball, gets injured. Meanwhile, no new players were brought in. "I saw the problem," says Marchibroda, "but I didn't know how to handle it." Irsay unwittingly brought the problem into the open when he questioned the coach's competence during his locker-room tirade.

At the Milwaukee meeting, Marchibroda demanded final say over the playing personnel. Irsay sided with Thomas, so Marchibroda resigned. That night in Baltimore Marchibroda met with about 30 Colt players to say goodby. It was an emotional farewell. "Some of the players cried," says Jones. "I would imagine Ted cried, too. I know I did." After Marchibroda left, the players considered a boycott of the New England game but decided to delay any decision until a team meeting the following morning.

The brash Jones, who is the Colts' unquestioned leader, prepared a letter chastising Thomas and Irsay, and he read it to the players at their meeting. They endorsed it unanimously. "I felt it was better to handle the situation that way," says Jones. "If we had left the situation open for individuals to make comments, people could have been hurt. There are a lot of people here who are 'disposable,' so to speak." The public statement was formal but to the point. It said, in part, "Thomas and Irsay may have completely destroyed this team by forcing Marchibroda out the week of the first league game." Jones also issued a few off-the-cuff comments. "Joe is an egomaniac," he said. Jones added that if he were not a player, he wouldn't go to a Colt game. "I hope there aren't 20 people at our first home game, and I would commend Baltimore for it," he said. Jones even placed a call to Commissioner Pete Rozelle to discuss possible solutions to the problem. By the eve of the New England game, Jones had mellowed slightly. "I like Joe Thomas personally," he said, "and he pays me well. But he was wrong this time. I told him I was going to blast him before I did it. I'm not going to say any more now. I've slapped his face enough."

When Marchibroda quit, Thomas reportedly offered the job to Assistant Coach Maxie Baughan. Baughan not only turned Thomas down flat, he threatened to resign. Other assistants also talked of leaving. With the season less than a week away, Thomas, the man who holds coaches in such low regard, suddenly realized he desperately needed them. So he phoned Marchibroda and asked him if he would return. Would Thomas accede to the terms Marchibroda had demanded in Milwaukee? Thomas obviously said yes, so Marchibroda also said yes. Since then Thomas has refused to discuss the matter. One day, in fact, he escaped the press by leaving Colt offices by a fire escape.

On Tuesday morning Marchibroda strode into a packed meeting room and was given a rousing ovation by the Colts. In the uproar Marchibroda couldn't make himself heard. On the night he resigned, Marchibroda had told the Colts that his situation was "like being third and eight or worse." Now, rather than try to shout above the noise, he simply walked to the blackboard and wrote, "First and 10."

Thomas missed Baltimore's victory at New England because of the illness of his wife, but Irsay watched from the visiting owners' box. At halftime Irsay was asked if last week's power struggle could happen again. "It could rain tomorrow," he said. "It rained the other day." For one of the few times in his five seasons as Baltimore's owner, though, Irsay did not make a postgame visit to the Colts' locker room. The players gave Marchibroda one game ball and Baughan another. "If Irsay was here, would he be getting a game ball?" Defensive Tackle Joe Ehrmann was asked. "Now what kind of question is that?" Ehrmann, retorted. Ah, peace.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)