Head coach Paul Brown despised one thing above all else – losing.
In 41 years of coaching football at the high school, college, military and professional level, he had won seven professional football championships, one college national title and six high school state championships. He had won 501 games against only 126 losses.
But on December 28, 1975, his Cincinnati Bengals had just lost to the Oakland Raiders 31-28 in the AFC divisional playoffs. That 1975 squad was probably the best team he coached while in Cincinnati and had gone 11-3-0 in the regular season. Two of those losses came at the hands of the powerful Pittsburgh Steelers who were tearing up the National Football League (NFL) in the 1970s.
He was the Bengals’ head coach, general manager and majority owner. For some reason only known to him, this playoff lose hurt deeply.
Four days later, he telephoned the Bengals public relations director and told him that he was submitting his resignation as head football coach effective immediately. In his resignation, he named Bengals’ offensive line coach Tiger Johnson as the next head coach.
All of this in a normal world would simply be an everyday occurrence of a coach who had been doing the same job for almost half a century decides that he doesn’t want to go through the rigors of coaching anymore. But with this one resignation, it involved two football genius icons – one established and another not yet well-known.
An Offense Like no Other
The Bengals attack in 1975 was tops in the NFL. QB Ken Anderson led the league in passing yards with 3,169 and was also the highest-ranked QB with a 93.9 rating. WR Isaac Curtis finished second in the receiving category with 934 yards/seven TDs while Charlie Joiner added another 726 yards with five TDs. In addition, Cincinnati’s offense ranked number one that season.
Which surprised nobody in the league. The franchise had gained notoriety slowly over the years with their offensive attack. From a ranking of 25th in 1968, the offense was ninth in 1972, eighth the following season and fourth in 1974.
You see, the offense had a genius-in-waiting. And that mastermind outlook just kept improving season after season as the right players were brought into the fold. Gradually, pieces of the puzzle became clear.
The offensive coordinator was a young buck by the name of Bill Walsh. Coach Walsh had been a position coach for two colleges and then the RB coach for the Oakland Raiders one season. He then took the head coaching position of a regional semi-pro club called the San Jose Apaches of the Continental Football League, an early NFL farm-system entity. All of these teams were located in California.
Back in 1963 Brown had examined whether the NFL would entertain an expansion team in another Ohio city. The state had a long history of pro football with teams in Columbus, Canton, Cincinnati, Akron and Dayton. Cleveland at the time had a populous of over 876,000, so he wanted another large city to start a new team. He focused on either Cincinnati (population 502,000) or Columbus (471,000). The elder league had looked at Cincinnati, but no new franchises were planned until they placed a team in Atlanta in 1966.
Brown’s off-season home was located in California where he mainly played golf while collecting his $82,500 paycheck from the Cleveland Browns who owed him for the balance of his contract after getting fired. So, he was well-aware of who Bill Walsh was. When the American Football League (AFL) wanted to expand in 1968, Brown was contacted as a possible major shareholder in the new club. Since he left the head coaching position with the Browns, he had several offers to coach again but most franchises just wanted a coach; and he wanted total control of all aspects of the team just like he had in Cleveland. After several years he decided it was time to pursue grinding out a new season on the sidelines.
But Brown thought the AFL was inferior professional football and not even close to par with the NFL. The saving grace for him was the knowledge that the two leagues had agreed to merge beginning in the 1970 season. Coach Brown realized that he could take on the new Cincinnati AFL expansion team and would only have to compete three seasons in that league before his new team would become an NFL club. And that appealed to him. Plus, he was about to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. This would be a huge plum for the AFL - to actually have a legend either as a head coach or as an owner – or both.
AFL officials couldn’t be happier to have another team plus a legendary coach. What sealed the deal was the fact that Brown would become primary owner. Part of the agreement was that a suitable stadium would have to be built and ready for the 1970 season which got the wheels rolling to build Riverfront Stadium. On September 26, 1967, Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes held a press conference at the Sheraton Hotel to announce the AFL’s newest member: the Cincinnati Bengals to begin play in 1968. Brown told reporters that he realized that a new team would certainly have to experience some tough times, but he was ready to do what he always loved – being a head coach.
But he needed help.
Filling the Voids of a New Team
The Bengals received 40 veteran players in the AFL allocation draft. With the pending merger, beginning in 1967 the college draft would be a common event instead of separate like in previous years. Cincinnati was awarded the second overall pick in the first-round, and the first pick in each subsequent round throughout the 17-round draft. Their first-ever pick was center Bob Johnson, whose number would eventually be retired. TE Bob Trumpy was taken in the 12th round and would be a key component in the upcoming seasons along with RB Paul Robinson in round three (who became the league’s Rookie-of-the-Year).
Brown hired Walsh to run the offense and gave him almost unlimited rein to develop the passing attack and game plan each week. Through the years in Cincinnati, the offensive line was never good enough to sustain blocks in the passing game and the team’s QB, Virgil Carter, was an accurate passer but did not have great arm strength to push the ball deep. So Walsh developed out of necessity an offense designed for shorter passes with a higher percentage of completions.
By 1971, Walsh was calling all the plays and had total control over the offense. The Bengals used plenty of man in motion, crossing patterns, short passes to the running back, and misdirection in the rushing attack. All of this was by design developed by Walsh to accommodate his personnel.
From 1970 to 1975, Cincinnati had captured the AFC Central Division title twice and had come in second place two of those years with three playoff appearances. The offense was clicking and had great success. The only thing wrong with the Bengals’ 11-3-0 1975 season was the Steelers’ 12-2-0 record nestled in the same division and the fact that Pittsburgh had defeated them twice that year.
Walsh Exits Cincinnati
Bill Walsh wanted to be a head coach one day. He assumed that when Paul Brown would finally hang up his whistle and spend his time strictly as the GM that he would become the next head man.
So, the news that Brown had resigned as head coach did not surprise Walsh. The fact that the offensive line coach, Tiger Johnson - a man who had only been a position coach his entire pro football coaching career - was named as the next head coach, the update was devastating to him. Walsh had been with the Bengals eight years and was a coordinator. The very year that Coach Brown stepped down was the very season that the offense was ranked number one in the entire league. In addition, Johnson had worked under Walsh.
Walsh decided that he would never become an NFL head coach if he had to wait around more years lingering in Cincinnati. In order to be seriously considered for a head coaching vacancy at some point, he decided to leave the Bengals.
Several days after Johnson was given the head job, Walsh told Brown in his office of his intentions to leave. Brown was irate and stated that Walsh could not leave because he was still under contract. Walsh left anyway - visibly upset.
In the interim, numerous clubs called the Bengals and asked about Walsh’s availability to which Brown gave them all a negative review. Walsh would later learn that the year before several clubs had called Brown and asked to interview the gifted coordinator for their head coaching vacancies, but Brown either said no to the requests or simply did not pass along the messages.
Because Walsh was the offensive coordinator with the Bengals, NFL rules prohibit assistant coaches from making a lateral move to another franchise; so he was named the assistant head coach with the San Diego Chargers for the 1976 season. The following year after his Chargers stint he accepted the head coaching position with Stanford University in which that team went 10-3-0 his first year.
In 1979, Walsh stayed in California yet again and was named head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and installed his West Coast offense. His coaching was not simply a new way to run an offense, but rather an innovative way to coach a football squad.
Tiger Johnson would go 18-15 as head coach of the Bengals before resigning after a 0-5 start in 1978. He would become a position coach for three more teams before retiring in 1990 and never became a head coach again.
As fate would have it, Walsh’s 49ers would meet Brown’s Bengals in Super Bowl XVI at the conclusion of the 1981 season and defeated his former boss 26-21 for that franchise’s first Super Bowl title.
Bill Walsh’s legacy is all around the game of professional football including his influences on modern offensive strategies. His San Francisco 49er teams would capture three Super Bowls and he was named the NFL Coach-of-the-Year twice. He was also named the head coach of the NFL 1980s All-Decade Team. Walsh won 92 games and lost 59 with one tie for a .609 win percentage. In 1993, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 1999 he became the 49ers vice president/GM.
One can only imagine where the Bengals would have gone if Walsh had been named head coach and stayed all those years plus the championships the City of Cincinnati missed out on.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.