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Ebony Magazine, November 1975

And Still Another 'First'

Willie Wood becomes pro football’s first black head coach

He had played in six National Football League championship games, two Super Bowls and eight professional All-Star games, but somehow they all seemed to be dwarfed by this one moment. So it was understandable that Willie Wood was just a bit nervous last July as Philadelphia Bell owner John Bosacco told a press conference that effective immediately, the former All-Pro safety was head coach of the World Football League's Philadelphia franchise. The first black head coach in modern pro football. Forget that it was the WFL; this was history! Not since 1925 when Fritz Pollard coached the Hammond Pros of the NFL had a black person been selected - or even seriously considered - to coach a professional football team. In fact, it was not until 1965 that the NFL hired its first black coach.

The appointment was particularly significant for Wood. He had begun his pro career 15 years earlier as an unwanted, undrafted quarterback out of the University of Southern California at a time when black quarterbacks weren't even scouted.

But there was also a sad irony to Wood's selection. For awhile he was making history in Philadelphia, one of his closest friends and one of the sharpest minds in pro football, Emlen Tunnell, who in 1965 became pro football's first black assistant coach, had played with Wood in Green Bay for two years before retiring from the game in 1961.

Under the tutelage of master strategist Vince Lombardi, Wood and Tunnell soon became astute students of the game. So much so that as early as 1969 their names were frequently mentioned whenever the subject of a black head coach in pro ball was discussed. But the NFL dragged its feet and it took the formation of a new league to get someone black into a head coaching position.

So Wood spoke with mixed emotions when he told reporters in Philadelphia: "For years there have been qualified (black) people. It's unfortunate that this happened the day of Em Tunnell's burial. It's hard for me to accept this without mentioning him. I spent my first two years at Green Bay under him, and modeled my play after his."

Aggressive, combative and intelligent, Wood became the defensive "quarterback" for Lombardi's Packers soon after breaking into the starting lineup. In fact, it was Lombardi who encouraged - even asked - Wood to look into coaching after his playing days were over. "We had a long talk in the mid 60's about what it takes to be a coach," says Wood, who is a native of Washington. "The idea we eventually came to was that I would join him as an assistant coach with the Washington Redskins after my playing days were over." Lombardi's death in 1970 cancelled the Redskins deal, but Wood was contacted by the fledging San Diego Chargers who had asked him to quit his job as a teacher in Washington and join their staff as a defensive backfield coach. "The experience was good," Wood says of his three-year stint at San Diego, "but if a person is going to broaden himself he has to work with people who are willing to give him more consideration and responsibility.

Frankly, I didn't think I got that in San Diego." With three hard years of coaching experience under his belt, Wood felt that it was time to move on to bigger things. He applied for the position of defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Colts in hopes of getting the experience which would eventually qualify him for a head coaching spot. As a coordinator (there are no blacks in this position) Wood would be second in authority to the head coach when it came to player personnel movement and delegation of responsibility among the assistant coaches. The Colts rejected his application. "I was set down because I didn't have the experience - and justifiably so," says Wood. "So I took the job in Philadelphia to get the experience as a coordinator."

Bell owner John Bosacco had other ideas about that. An admirer of the Lombardi school of football philosophy, Bosacco was impressed with Wood's 12 years of experience in Green Bay, and figured that his expertise and experience were just what the Bell needed. Bosacco hired him as the defensive coordinator for the exhibition season, then privately asked him to apply for the head coaching spot left vacant when Ron Waller resigned. Wood consented, and three days before the regular season opened it became official: Wood was the head man. But with a small staff (Herb Adderley on defense, Leroy Kelly and Frank Gallagher on offense), and an equally stingy budget, Wood realized that his headaches were just beginning. "You find out real fast that over here (WFL) you've got to do more than coaching because you're short of personnel. Most head coaches in the NFL spend most of their time on offense and with the quarterbacks, and that's an idea situation,: says Wood, adding "but this is not the ideal situation because we can't hire the staff like you have in the NFL because of the budget." Despite his team's 2-4 record by the middle of September, Wood says he did not feel pressured or defeated. "Had I come into the NFL and lost two games, there would be some question as to whether or not I had the ability to coach. But in the WFL you lose two games and they say you're rebuilding. So, in that sense, a lot of the pressure is taken off." Still, Wood says he wants to produce, despite the limitations of personnel and money. After 12 years under Lombardi, production is all he knows. In fact, Wood admits that 90 percent of his coaching philosophy comes from his former Green Bay mentor. "I draw a lot from my past experience, but in terms of dealing with football and people who play football, I utilize most of what I saw with the Packers."

Wood feels that the day of the black coach in the NFL is "just around the corner," though admittedly that corner may be a long one. "You'll have to go to the college ranks if you're talking about experience," he says. "But I know of a lot of guys who are qualified. You've got Robby

(Eddie Robinson) down at Grambling who's doing a helluva job. Earnell Durden at San Diego - he coached at Compton Junior College, Long Beach State, UCLA, the Los Angeles Rams and the Houston Oilers. You've got Al Tabor with the (Cleveland) Browns. He coached at Southern University, Texas Southern University, Wiley College, Fort Valley State and four years with Cleveland. You have the kid up in Pittsburgh, Lionel Taylor. I don't know, man. What does it take?"

Wood says that he'd like to return to the NFL, as a head coach and eventually as a general manager ("in about seven years"),although he still admits to being bitter over his failure to get a job in the NFL. "There's still this question about experience," he says. "They don't even have a black coordinator in the NFL, how are you going to get experience? Hell, they hired Van Brocklin. He never coached anyplace. They hired Bart Starr. He never coached anyplace. They've hired a lot of guys who were never head coaches anyplace."

With that, Wood pulled on his blue and gold coaching cap, politely excused himself and headed out of his office toward the practice field. "When do you think you'll be ready to take a head coaching job in the NFL?" he was asked. Still walking, Wood answered, "Oh, in about four months."

"Why four months?" He stopped halfway down the steps and smiled: Cause that's when the season will be over!" He chuckled, as he disappeared through the tunnel.