The quips come in sudden spasms. "When I was born," says Jerry Glanville, the coach of the Houston Oilers, "the doctor looked at me and spanked my mom." On a 300-pound player he cut during training camp: "This guy was so fat it looked like someone sat in his lap and didn't leave." On why he would never own a horse: "I don't want to keep anything that eats while I'm sleeping, including a wife."
Nowhere is Glanville's patter more spirited than on his Monday evening radio show. Amid balloons and streamers and clinking glasses in the High Chapparal Room of the Marriott Astrodome, Glanville trades genial insults and talks football with telephone callers and patrons of the hotel. Normally, the ambience of the Jerry Glanville Show is cocktail-party cheery. But on a recent Monday most of the audience seemed glum and slightly embarrassed, like guests at a bash where the host has committed some indiscretion nobody wants to acknowledge. A few fans were angry. The Oilers had just committed a 23-13 loss to the patsy New England Patriots to fall to 2-3, which was a little unsettling for a team many had picked to win the AFC Central Division.
The critiques being thrown Glanville's way bordered on unnecessary roughness. The irate fans lambasted his strategy, his leadership, his manhood. Glanville told them he was thinking of putting out a novelty item called Glanville-in-a-Box. "It'll have detachable limbs," he said. "You can hurl them at your TV during Oilers telecasts."
Finally, an old-timer in the crowd stood up. He wore satin gym shorts and a morning-after stubble. No shirt. "The fans all think you deserve to be fired," he said. "The media say your days are numbered. Well, if a student gets an F, you don't fire the teacher. And, Mr. Glanville, you're the teacher." Glanville set his mouth in a small smile, adjusted his microphone and said, "I want to say personally that I appreciate my son coming to the show."
Lately the mood at the Marriott has perked up considerably. Two weeks ago, the Oilers upset the Bears 33-28 in Chicago, and on Sunday they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-0 at the Dome to move into a first-place tie with the Cincinnati Bengals. Yet Glanville remains as unfazed by the recent good fortune as he was by the bad. He knows those clamoring for his dismissal have simply turned down the volume for a while. "I'm always a game away from a hanging," he says.
Granville had been an NFL assistant for 12 years when the Oilers promoted him to head coach late in the 1985 season. In the four years before he took over, Houston had gone 1-8, 2-14, 3-13, 5-11. "When I got here in '84, we had the nicest guys in the NFL," he says. "Their mamas loved 'em. Their daddies loved 'em. But they wouldn't hit if you handed 'em sticks."
He recalls a 1984 game against Pittsburgh in which half a dozen Steelers jumped offside and flattened Houston quarterback Warren Moon, whose teammates stood around gaping. "It made me nauseous," says Glanville, who was then the Oilers' defensive coordinator. "I knew then we'd never be any good if we didn't protect each other like family."
Glanville re-created the Oilers in his own brash image. He installed a buck-shot four-wideout offense called the Red Gun and instilled a smash-mouth spirit in the defense that some think crosses the chalk line of football propriety. The Oilers became known as the Bad Boys, the Astrodome as the House of Pain. Houston went 9-6 in 1987 and made the playoffs for the first time since '80. Last year the Oilers were 10-6 in the regular season before losing to the Buffalo Bills in the second round of the playoffs.
"Now we're so cocky we'd play Russian roulette with a guillotine," says Glanville. Laughter erupts in a sly cackle from the side of his mouth. Like a prizefighter's laugh. Or a bully's. "Jerry's a very tough guy," says Todd Menig, an old friend. "But he's also a gentle, soft human being. A lot of it has to do with growing up without a father."
Glanville, the son of a Ford salesman, grew up in a Detroit housing project. His parents divorced when he was in the 10th grade, and after that he lived with his mother in Perrysburg, Ohio. Her father and brother were both part-time coaches, and she told Jerry, "Do whatever you want in life, just don't ever coach."
So before graduating from Northern Michigan in 1964, he worked on an assembly line at a Chevy plant and toted 100-pound bags of flour for General Mills. "People tell me I have a hard job," he says of coaching in the NFL. "I don't even consider this going to work." He played linebacker for Montana State and Northern Michigan, where his distaste for history class was mitigated by a love for psychology.
"I'm still mad at my history teacher," says Glanville. "He was such a drone that he cheated me out of 10 years of enjoying the subject. The only reason I majored in psychology was that my first psych professor was full of energy and enthusiasm. I know now you can't accomplish anything without those things."
Those things sum up Glanville in all his parts: shameless grandstander, tireless volunteer who visits the terminally ill, swaggering stoic who strutted into the House of Pain on Sunday after having been bitten on the foot by a water moccasin the day before, irrepressible wise guy who tells trainers, "Never X-ray injuries; X-rays show bad things." This is a fellow who once stopped his car on an interstate after a loss to tell his future wife, Brenda, to take a hike. Brenda's crime was saying, "But Jerry, it's only a game."
Glanville never debunks a story. "My life is partly truth, partly fiction," he says. "I guess you could say it's a contradiction." Glanville didn't come up with that line. Kris Kristofferson did. Glanville thinks Kristofferson is one of the three great poets of the 20th century. The other two are the late folk singer Harry Chapin and country balladeer Jerry Jeff Walker.
"Jerry Jeff is one of my top assistants," Glanville says. In defeat, Walker consoles Glanville on his car CD player. "The man with the big hat is buying," Glanville sings along in a strong but not necessarily musical voice, "so drink up while the drinking is free."
A compact 5'9", 175 pounds, Glanville turned 48 on Oct. 14, but he looks 10 years younger—well, maybe five. He's somewhat disappointingly garbed in jeans, a denim jacket and a quite ordinary striped shirt. But on his feet are what appear to be footballs. In fact, they're boots cobbled out of football leather. "If a player fumbles a lot," he says, "I make him carry them."
Glanville is renowned for appearing on the sidelines in black. He screams around downtown Houston in a black-on-black Corvette and a 1950 Mercury, which he calls "my James Dean special." A replica of a Tennessee license plate on the front of the 'vette reads 1-ELVIS. Glanville insists that Elvis "is alive and living in Grand Rapids, Michigan." He knows this because he read it in a supermarket tabloid. Glanville believes everything he reads that isn't about him.
Last year Glanville visited Graceland. He toured every room except the kitchen, which was locked. "I was sure Elvis was in there," Glanville says. "I heard him. I smelled him. He was fixing a peanut butter sandwich." Before a 1988 preseason game in Memphis, Glanville left a pass for Elvis at the Liberty Bowl's will-call window. The King never picked it up, but Granville enjoyed the attention the gesture attracted. Later in the season he left passes to Oiler games for Buddy Holly in Dallas, James Dean in Indianapolis, Loni Anderson in Cincinnati and the Phantom of the Opera at the Meadowlands. "People think I'm crazy," Glanville says, "but I don't have to be. If I can convince them I may be, then I've accomplished all I want."
Criticism, he tells you, glances off him like a deflected pass. Yet he has been feuding with the Houston press since the Oilers lost eight straight games in 1986. Ed Fowler of The Houston Chronicle branded him a "bobo in black," accused him of having a siege mentality and claimed some of his plays were concocted in an LSD laboratory. When Fowler and another Chronicle columnist called for Glanville's firing during the '87 season, he retaliated. Glanville told callers to his show he wouldn't answer questions until they promised to cancel their Chronicle subscriptions. "I only hold a grudge till I die," Glanville says.
He has been accused of encouraging dirty tactics among his players since 1979, when he was the defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. He cooked up a furious pass rush called the Gritz Blitz and ordered the secondary to dive bomb helmet-first on every play. Falcon defensive back Bob Glazebrook once plunged into a pile so ferociously that he broke the arm of teammate Jeff Merrow. Glanville almost teared up when he heard Glazebrook had asked for the X-ray and cast as mementos. "God," he said, "I love pro football."
Glanville knows how to fire up players. In fact, he whips them into a frothing frenzy. "Jerry teaches us to expect everything, but fear nothing," says linebacker Robert Lyles. "We don't go out to hurt anybody. We go out to tackle them hard on every play. If the sucker's moving, our goal is to get 11 guys on him. Put the flag up. Surrender. He's dead. It's over. He's a landmark. It's hit, crunch and burn."
"Just seeing him wear black gets me juiced," says second-year cornerback Cris Dishman. "Black oozes a bad-boy attitude." Dishman may be too bad for his own good. He glowered over injured Minnesota Viking tight end Carl Hinton in this year's season opener, screaming and taunting him. The next week, in San Diego, he received a personal foul penalty that turned a third-and-22 for the Chargers into a first down. Moon took Dishman aside and asked him to tone down his act. So did Houston general manager Mike Holovak. Glanville talked to him, too, but Dishman says, "There's no toning down with Jerry. When you tone down, you're loose, and when you're loose, you're out of a job."
Steeler coach Chuck Noll believes Glanville goes too far. After Houston beat Pittsburgh 24-16 two years ago, Noll stretched the obligatory post-game handshake into a midfield finger-wagging lecture about cheap shots. Glanville had to jerk himself free. "I think Chuck was infatuated with my hand," he says.
On the practice field, Glanville is a sputter of comic agitation, razzing his players into fits of helpless laughter. "Jerry's just a crazy old white man people listen to," says running back Mike Rozier, whom Glanville calls Lassie when Rozier dogs it. Once, when a pricey defensive lineman showed up late for training camp after a contract dispute, Glanville snatched the player's name-plate off his locker and hung it over the door to the lavatory. "Jerry keeps us all sort of humble," says running back Allen Pinkett. "It's impossible to have a big ego here. Jerry says we're family."
At Saturday workouts Glanville holds Kids Day and Pets Day. Sons, daughters and gerbils run routes with their proud papas. "We had to separate Wives Day and Girlfriends Day," says Glanville. "A couple of guys brought both."
For all his loudmouthing, Glanville doesn't talk much about his speeches to church groups, his fight to reopen an inner-city boys' club or his work with runaways, drug addicts and the homeless. He visits the children's wards of Houston hospitals every Wednesday morning, sometimes dragging along players. He practices his bedside manner on cancer patients and quadriplegics, not just kids in for tonsillectomies. "Jerry would come in the middle of the night if I asked him," says Jim Alcorn, chaplain of St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital. "He has incredible compassion toward these kids. He finds a way to touch them."
It's not always a happy experience. "I've seen him stand in the halls in tears," Alcorn says, "I've seen kids die in his arms. Many athletes can't take it—they come and leave. But Jerry isn't smart enough to leave."
At the moment it doesn't appear that he'll be leaving the Oilers anytime soon, either. But he knows that can change. The local press has speculated that Glanville could be replaced by owner Bud Adams if Houston doesn't advance further in the playoffs than it did last year. Glanville doesn't seem dismayed. "You know what NFL really stands for?" he says. "Not For Long."
He utters this while sitting behind his office desk, surrounded by memorabilia of his dead heroes: a liqueur bottle shaped like a bust of Elvis and a traffic ticket "issued" posthumously to James Dean. He reaches back and grabs a recent group photo of NFL coaches. "Six of us get fired every year," he says. "I'm in an elite fighter-pilot group. I know one day I'm not coming back, but I go out anyway. And one day I'll say, My god, they got me, too."
Glanville leans forward, elbows on knees, his mouth resting in one upturned palm. "Till then," he says, "I'll drink up while the drinking is free."