The only NFL club Paul Wiggin played for was the Cleveland Browns. He was a defensive end taken in the sixth round of the 1956 NFL Draft. Even though he was a native Californian, he fit right in with the Midwest lifestyle.
Wiggin played for legendary coach Paul Brown. He was also in the Browns’ rookie class with fullback Jim Brown although Wiggin was actually drafted the year before.
He was selected and played in the 1957 College All-Star game versus the New York Giants. This annual event pitted a roster of graduated seniors (already drafted) against the reigning NFL champions in a charity game that benefited various Chicago-area charities. This game began in 1934 and played its final contest in 1976. The 1957 version featured rookie quarterback John Brodie, Brown and running back Paul Hornung.
Wiggin’s home town, Lathrop, Calif., built the brand new Lathrop High School and named the football complex Paul Wiggin Stadium. He played for Stanford and then later was their head coach with a freshman quarterback by the name of John Elway. Wiggin was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 2005 from a college career in which he was a two-time First-Team All-American. He then played in the invitations-only Hula Bowl All-Star Game, East-West Shrine All-Star Game, and finally the Chicago Charity All-Star Game before settling in with the Browns.
During his 11-year career in Cleveland, this team captain was selected to two Pro Bowls and was an NFL champion. He first lived in Parma, just south of Cleveland, and then when he settled in as an every-year roster member, Wiggin and his wife moved to the 12-story Commodore Hotel at the corner of Ford Drive and Euclid Avenue. He lived on Washington Boulevard for about six years, and then in Cleveland Heights where his children went to school.
After his playing days were over, Wiggin was hired as the defensive line coach with the San Francisco 49ers for seven years and then became the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, before taking the Stanford head coaching gig from 1980-1983.
Guys who played in this era made the NFL what it is today. They did something called “tackling” and “blocked without holding” and did it for something called “the love of the game.”
In 2013, cleveland.com put together a list of the 100 greatest Browns of all-time. Wiggin was listed at number 42. Today, he is the senior consultant for pro personnel with the Minnesota Vikings, a job he has held since 1992.
DBN sat down with this former Browns’ great to find out about how much money he made playing for Cleveland, what the difference was between head coaches Paul Brown and Blanton Collier, and how he reacted when the Browns left for Baltimore.
DBN: You began your football playing career at the junior college level and then on to Stanford. Why did you start at the junior college level, and how is college football different today than when you played?
Wiggin: As any other young man I thought I knew everything and did not listen to my father. I was not good at academics but was good at athletics. I had to decide about school and had not earned the right to go to a big school. So, I chose Modesto (Calif.) Junior College where my mother and father met. I played one year and got my grades up. Then I was accepted into Stanford. Football back then you played both ways. I was an offensive tackle, defensive end and what you would call defensive tackle today.
DBN: The Browns took you in the sixth round of the 1956 draft. How did you find out you were drafted, by which team, and where to show up for camp?
Wiggin: Well, there was no green room in those days I can tell you that. One of my fraternity brothers woke me up and asked me if there was a team called the Cleveland Browns. I said yes, and he said he thought I was drafted by them. I didn’t report until the next season so that I could work on my master’s degree, which would be my official rookie year.
DBN: Your first professional training camp was at Hiram College. What was that first experience like?
Wiggin: I got there late to training camp. There were four of us drafted by the Browns that played in the All-Stars versus the NFL champs game, including Jim Brown, Henry Jordan and Gene Hickerson. I was the only one out of the four that isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame! We four all got to Hiram the night before the first pre-season game. Coach Brown had all his players study an organizational playbook which wasn’t used during those days. We all had to stay and write down the plays so that we would remember them. Coach was a very organized man, a great teacher and he always had a “why” to everything he taught.
DBN: Was head coach Paul Brown as strict on players as everyone says he is?
Wiggin: (pause) He was really strict. One game against the 49ers I was playing left defensive end and got a penalty. Coach substituted me and I went over and told him what had happened and he told me to sit down. I told him he didn’t understand the defense. He said sarcastically, “I may not understand it but I know who is playing on it and you’re not.” He always had command.
DBN: What is Paul Brown’s legacy to pro football in your opinion?
Wiggin: I am not sure you can pick one because there are so many. He introduced playbooks, the facemask, radios in helmets, taxi squad, which today is called the practice squad. He always thought ahead and had more influence in the game’s development. He was brilliant. I was lucky to play for him. He liked players from Stanford for some reason.
DBN: Did you have a regular job during the off-season?
Wiggin: Everyone did. I was a substitute teacher which offered me the freedom to stop when I needed to report to training camp and then work once again after the season was over. I taught six years at the junior college and five years of high school. Mainly chemistry, math, social studies and history at the high school and P.E. at the junior college.
DBN: You grew up in California. How difficult was it to adapt to the State of Ohio, the climate change and the people of the Midwest?
Wiggin: It wasn’t that different. I got married to my wife, Carolynn, in college and when I first came to the Browns we lived over a grocery store named Hilinka’s over in Parma, which was a small town. We loved the family who owned the store and got along great with them. Cleveland was a big place and just took some time getting used to how to travel the streets. But the area was full of nice people who loved their Indians and loved their Browns.
DBN: What were you doing when you heard Coach Brown was fired after the 1962 season, and what was your first reaction?
Wiggin: We all had heard rumblings and knew that Coach Brown and (owner) Art Modell did not get along. There was no friendship between them. I was somewhat surprised when I heard the news, but wasn’t blown away by it even though we were always winning through all those seasons way before I got there. But the past few seasons we seemed to be falling short despite not ever having a losing record. I was at Stanford in their training room and someone told me.
DBN: When folks think about the Browns in the 1960s they think of Jim Brown. Does it bother you that he is the only player anyone ever mentions from that era?
Wiggin: It doesn’t bother me - I was honored to play on the same team. He was a good player and a winner. Great player. He deserves all the applause. He was sometimes difficult off the field and it was not his nature to compromise, which provided some tension between him and Coach. But I loved Jim Brown on Sundays.
DBN: You were a vital part of the 1964 NFL Championship team that killed the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in the NFL Championship Game. Leading up to that game all anyone talked about was how good the Colts were. As a defensive player, how much was the defense concerned about how to contain the likes of Raymond Berry, Johnny Unitas and Lenny Moore?
Wiggin: We were a 17-point underdog and (Browns) cornerback Bernie Parrish said we could win. There was enough of a belief in that and so when the game rolled around we were confident. We were a good team on both sides of the ball and on special teams. Once the Colts’ fans came to town they were really confident and noisy. Would I have bet that we would win by 27 points? Of course not. But we thought the game was just as much ours no matter how many great players they had. We had great players, too. (Linebacker) Galen Fiss played a perfect game and (receiver) Gary Collins caught three touchdown passes. We took out their two main pass rushers in the game with double-teams which basically eliminated their defense and then our defense played great.
DBN: Blanton Collier was hired as the new head coach and was at the helm for the 1964 NFL Championship Game. How was he different than Paul Brown?
Wiggin: Coach Brown was technique oriented and Coach Collier was a human behavioral guy. Blanton knew details and would motivate you to win for him and love him. The respect for Paul Brown was a different feeling and number one he had command of people. When either one spoke everyone listened. I got thrown out of a game against the Vikings, and at the next practice Blanton came to me and told me he was going to chew me out in front of the whole team so that I would be prepared. Coach Brown would never have given me warning.
DBN: The Browns were the only NFL team you played for. That seems to never happen today. Why?
Wiggin: Free agency and simply money is such a factor. I would have liked to make more money when I played obviously. My rookie contract was for $8,000 with a $500 signing bonus. My last year I made $27,500. But what I loved was the camaraderie with my teammates and knowing every year they would be there. We played hard and played because we loved the game. I would not trade any of that for any contract.
DBN: What can you say about the equipment used today versus when you played for the Browns?
Wiggin: The technology is so much advanced, especially the helmets. But everything else is just about the same. I go into the Vikings locker room and they wear the same shoulder pads that I wore. Thigh pads, knee pads – not much different. The helmets are a lot heavier, but safer.
DBN: George Halas of the Chicago Bears was known for making his players supply their own cleats. Did this happen to you?
Wiggin: In Paul Brown’s opening speech to his team every year, he would tell all of the players that the team would supply them with one pair of cleats - brand new. Players from other teams have told me they were required to buy their own, but not the Browns. Coach would go on to say that if one pair wasn’t enough we could supply our own, but every year we got a brand new pair. And he told us to shine our own shoes. You see on TV today players on the sidelines and there is someone who shoots water in their mouths – not in my day. You shined your own shoes and you got your own water.
DBN: You were named head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1975. As a defensive-minded coach, how fortunate were you to have coached greats such as Willie Lanier, Buck Buchanan, Jim Lynch and Emmitt Thomas?
Wiggin: We were not very good on offense and had problems scoring early on. The defense was getting old. Buchanan was almost 37. I wish I had done a better job in Kansas City because their fans were so devoted to that team and wanted another winner. I replaced Hank Stram, which was hard to do.
DBN: You were able to become head coach of your alma mater Stanford in 1980. How much difference was the college atmosphere than that of coaching players who were paid to play?
Wiggin: It is a different level. They are much younger men who for the most part are just removed from high school. And money never enters the atmosphere of the team. But there are other distractions, such as studying other subjects that are not football, and dorm life, and life without parental supervision. Stanford had a lot of bright kids. Our defense needed to improve to compete. And at the college level you have a lot of people who want to tell you how to do your job.
DBN: You were John Elway’s college coach. Did you see the professional quarterback in him and think he might be a great pro quarterback one day?
Wiggin: Elway was the best in the business. I didn’t recruit him but was happy that somebody got him to us. He was the best player listed in the USA his senior year of high school. I saw him throw one ball, and was hooked on him being a special player. He had command on the field and in the huddle, a special winning attitude and was always confident. None of his success has surprised me.
DBN: How did you learn that the Browns would be moving to Baltimore, and what was your reaction?
Wiggin: I was disappointed when I heard the news. But as a former player we had a formal understanding of Modell. He wanted the Browns to play in Cleveland forever but wanted a better place for the Browns. Other pro teams in the city got new buildings and yet the Browns did not, and it just seemed he couldn’t wait any longer. I was already working with the Vikings when I heard they were going to Baltimore.
DBN: You have been in the consultant side of pro football now with the Vikings. What are some differences in the NFL than when you played?
Wiggin: All of the buildings and facilities are fantastic today. At Cleveland we had two rooms, and now there are buildings just for specific needs. The money is so much different. Who would have thought that you could play and get paid in one contract an amount that you didn’t have to work ever again? The game has also evolved with strategy and complex formations on both sides of the ball. When I coached with the 49ers I was one of seven coaches. The Vikings have 23. The 49ers had one secretary, one GM, one trainer, one security guard, one equipment guy. Now, we have 7-8 trainers and a full staff of office people.
DBN: The NFL has a hard salary cap whereas most of the other pro sports leagues do not. How has this structure helped the league and its member franchises?
Wiggin: The teams share the revenue on most things. If you buy a Vikings hat all of the teams split the profits. There are a lot of things that aren’t shared such as your own stadium with skyboxes, concessions, parking, stadium advertisements and such. But I was a Cleveland Brown and I fought for my city, my teammates and for our fans. We had loyalty with our city and the team. You didn’t let anyone talk bad about Cleveland. We fought for it and we defended it.
DBN: As a defensive mind, why do you think the NFL rules committee keep making changes to the game that appear to always help the offense and make it harder for the defense?
Wiggin: Why do you think? Scoring. Americans don’t like a 6-0 game. They like 38-35 games. Anytime you can suppress the defense, you promote the offense.
DBN: How did you find out that you were going to become a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and who was the first person you told?
Wiggin: John Ralston said I belonged in the College Hall. He was on the committee. He was an assistant coach at California when I played at Stanford, so he was able to see me play and was inducted into the College Hall himself. Bo Schembechler of Michigan said no and that I had not even graduated from college and could not be a candidate. Ralston asked Schembechler if that was the only thing keeping me out and he said yes. Then he was shown that not only did I graduate but I had my master’s from Stanford. Then there wasn’t any other obstacles. The first person I told was my wife, Carolynn, who I have been married to for 62 years.
DBN: If you could change one thing about the NFL, what would it be?
Wiggin: I don’t think in those terms. The league has a modern status now and probably should change as the game changes. With the Browns, we had 420 players in the league and today with practice squads and injury lists there are over 2,000. That is a bunch of players to pay.
DBN: The NFL draft is how most clubs build their rosters. Do you feel free agency is still a relevant method to add players at needed positions, or has this allure began to lose its affect?
Wiggin: Free agency is still a viable option if you do it right. It is a valid method to improve your football team. But you have to have solid thinking and scout intelligently. Just because a player has one good season does not mean you open the vault to him. Teams today must have known needs and can use free agency to fill them - which then helps you on draft day if you have already filled a need.
DBN: What are your fondest members from playing with the Browns?
Wiggin: Teammates are front and center. We had some great players and some great teams, which forces a bond when you win especially a World Championship. I played for some great coaches on a great franchise. At the time, the Cleveland Browns were the New England Patriots of our day. Every team respected us and knew we could win any game. We had a 37-man roster and often I felt that I was always the 36th man, but our focus was on winning and we did it as teammates and as friends – friends which I still keep up today. And somehow the money did not seem to matter so much. When I retired, the Browns gave me a Rolex watch and inside it had already been insured to a value of $9,500. When I saw that, I realized my new watch was worth $1,000 more than what I made as a rookie. But we played because we loved the game. I was fortunate to play for the Browns.