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Sport Magazine, February 1976

For Wood The Bell Tolled

By Mike Rathet

Only seconds remained and the Jacksonville Express led, 16-10. But the Philadelphia Bell had driven to the four-yard line and in the huddle, quarterback Jim (King) Corcoran was certain he had called the play that would get the Bell into the end zone. He took the snap, faded to pass, then suddenly darted straight ahead. He got no farther than the line of scrimmage before he was steamrolled by the Express. When Corcoran came off the field, Willie Wood, the Philadelphia coach, was more than curious.

"Jimmy, what'd you call?" Wood asked.

"Quarterback draw," the King replied.

"Jimmy," said Wood, wincing, "we don't have a quarterback draw."

"Nobody in the ballpark expected me to run," said the undaunted King.

"You're dead right about that," said Wood.

It was halftime of the Philadelphia-Portland game, and Portland had thundered to an 18-0 lead. The Bell players were befuddled. "You're cowards," Willie Wood bellowed. "You're queers. Pussycats. There's not even one of you man enough to stand up to me right now."

Willie Wood had miscalculated by one. Frank McGuigan stood up and closed on Wood until the two were nose to nose. "You're not going to call me any of that stuff," said McGuigan. "I'll kick your ass right now."

They stood that way for only a moment, then Wood de-fused the situation by turning and walking away.

It was several weeks later. Corcoran was gone. McGuigan was gone. Soon the World Football League would be gone. The WFL owners were meeting in New York to discuss their survival;

the Bell coaches were at their weekly press luncheon discussing their latest disaster. Steak was being served and, in an attempt to lighten the leaden atmosphere, the general manager, Rich Iannarella, offered a small joke: "Anybody here check to see if we can afford this?"

Willie Wood smiled wanly. "The best thing I can be this week," said Wood "is deaf and dumb."

And so it was for Willie Wood - surprises, clashes, embarrassment - in the City of Brotherly Love. All of it subjected to the harsh glare of historic perspective because of the newness of the league and the color of Willie Wood's skin. Willie Wood, once a brilliant star on Green Bay's greatest Vince Lombardi teams, was not only the rookie head coach of the WFL's Philadelphia franchise, he was the first black to coach a professional football team in the modern history of the sport. While the impact nationally was far less than that created by the elevation of Frank Robinson to a managerial position with baseball's Cleveland Indians, in Philadelphia, and throughout the WFL, every move Wood made was subjected to microscopic examination, recorded, analyzed, catalogued. Willie Wood would have been a lot more comfortable without the spotlight. That was apparent late in October in Willie's reply to the question of how he felt about his role.

"What's the big deal," he said, more with an exclamation point than a question mark at the end of the phase. "It was a matter of timing and it'll be a matter of timing that determines whether there are others after me. I would often hear [as a player and assistant coach in the National Football League] guys say blacks would have problems with good race relations between whites and blacks. For something like thirty years we've been playing next to each other. I can't even say whether my being here has any bearing on what the NFL might do. It's another world here. It's possible if I'm successful here it might make it easier. Someone might look at my record, see this guy didn't have any problems and say to himself, ‘Why not?' But I also think certain segment of society wants this to be a flop because of me."

By October 22nd, when the WFL went out of business, Willie Wood was more flop than success. The reasons were many - the WFL, the Bell, the finances, the personnel, and yes, Wood himself.

On paper, the team had compiled one of the poorest records in the league. It was the worst drawing club in the league. Many believed the Bell was an extremely conservative, uninteresting team. Probing beneath the surface reveals not the slightest trace of any racial unrest among the players, who had a genuine liking from Wood the man. But some have reservations about his leadership, although none question his football knowledge. If he lost ground in any area it is because he made mistakes that lowered the tremendous respect the players had for him the day Wood was named to replace Ron Waller as coach of the Bell.

That day was July 30th, and it was unique. Only two days remained before the regular-season opener, and Wood, besides being thrown into a difficult job without much preparation time, had to bear the additional pressure carried by any black man selected to be the first in his field. And this happen to be an emotionally wrenching day for Wood for another reason. While he was being elevated in one part of Philadelphia, Hall-of-Famer Emlen Tunnell was being buried in another part. There was a special bond between Wood and Tunnel, something beyond the bond.

which all players who played for the Green Bay Packers under Vince Lombardi have for each other. Tunnel was the aging black veteran who had taken the black free agent rookie under his wing in all-white Green Bay. But Wood could not attend Tunnel's funeral because he was at the press conference where he was introduced as the Bell's coach. It hurt.

"He was like a brother," Wood explained. "If anybody deserved to be the first black head coach...because of his career, his reputation, his background...Em should have been the guy in that position."

Many former Packers did not forget, even with the passing of time and the dislocations of geography, that Wood spent 12 years with them, participating in eight Pro Bowls and six NFL championships games, plus the first two Super Bowls. The public statements and letters came from Bart Starr, Herb Adderley, Henry Jordan, Boyd Dowler and several others. One of the others said simply; "I couldn't be happier. Much luck and love." It was signed by Marie Lombardi, Vince's widow.

Midway through his first season as a head coach, Wood talked about his relationship with Lombardi: "I used to depend on Vince quite a bit for advice," Wood said. "I respected him - for his experience, for his knowledge. He was someone you could draw from. If you needed tiem, he would make himself available. People have told me, ‘All you guys who played in Green Bay talk alike.' But that's not true. It didn't take much to get Vince off into a tantrum; it takes a lot to get me off. There's no way I'm ever going to be Vince or try to be Vince. It would be a mistake. But because of our association, and my being an admirer of his, I might respond in vcertain situations the way he did. Vince was very strong at organization, he was a fine teacher, he knew people, understood people, had a strong feeling for people. That's what it's all about."

Unfortunately, Wood had neither the experience when he took over the Bell that Lombardi had when he took over the Packers nor the time to build his organization the way Lombardi did. The men may draw on similar strengths, but the stream Lombardi fished in was different than the one in which Wood was forced to dip his pole. And, if Wood had one failing, according to those within the organization, it was his inability to communicate, his inability to understand and motivate and inspire people.

"I like him, said one player just before the league folded. "But he doesn't have a good personality; you can't get close to him. He's intelligent and definitely knows football but he's a new coach, he's made mistakes and he's got a bad temper - show they're mad without losing their cool. This point is to criticize and correct without degrading the person before his peers."

"He's an honest man, sensitive, usually soft-spoken and genuinely nice, I think." Said one member of the Bell front-office staff. "But he seems a little over his head in handling administrative tasks. That hurt him. While there's no animosity between the players and him, there has been a loss of respect." Statistically, one player volunteered that while there were 22 blacks and 15 whites on the team, "that has nothing to do with Willie; if anything he's tougher on the blacks than on the whites."

Where did Willie Wood make the mistake that hurt him? Three specific incidents are cited; 1) The blow-up with McGuigan during the Portland game; 2) the handling of a money issue with linebacker Ron Porter; 3) his misuse and, some say his abuse of Frank Polito, a young defensive back with some local following because he played at Villanova. In addition, critics suggest that Wood made some poor choices for assistant coaches (although they realize he was forced by the pressure of the season being just two days away) and that until he hired Bill McPeak at mid-season the offense really did not have the direction it needed because Wood, once an All-Pro safety, had primarily a defensive background.

The Porter incident is cited as an example of Wood's difficulty in handling the administrative tasks that go with being a head coach. Porter, a former NFL player with Baltimore, Philadelphia and Minnesota, was signed by the Bell to a guaranteed contract. When he didn't perform as well as expected, the front office told Wood that Porter's contract would have to be re-negotiated. He would have to play for $250 a game; if he performed well, he would go back to the salary on the guaranteed contract. Wood was told that the issue was delicate because the club didn't want to lose Porter. It is generally agreed that Wood did not handle the situation well; failing to properly explain management's position and trying to sidestep the management role he was in at the moment by attempting to shift the blame elsewhere. By failing to properly shoulder the burden, Wood left Porter adrift in a sea of emotional uncertainty. Porter elected, under those circumstances, to swim away. And the Bell lost a player who had the potential to help.

While the case rests on second hand evidence, the Polito case has become public. A second-year pro and a starter in the Bell's first eight games of the season, Polito was cut prior to game No. 9 against San Antonio. "Wood called me at home and said he had evaluated the films," Polito explained. "He told me I didn't handle the man-for-man coverages. I didn't think I got hurt that much. I told him I was most disappointed with the way he was letting me know. If he knew when he called me, why didn't he know at practice? He cut Frank McGuigan the same way. It's not right. I always felt one of the things I did best was return punts, but they never let me. I would've played on the specialty teams, but I never got the chance. Maybe he's right, maybe I wasn't doing a good enough job, but when you're two and six, how good can anyone on the team be doing?"

Wood has answered that directly. "We evaluated our films and Frankie graded too low, even in the zone coverages. What we learned was, the whole team wasn't playing the zone too well, and that if we couldn't use it as coverage, then maybe we needed somebody else back there."

Wood opted for two men - Carl Capria and Rod Foster. Capria cut by the Detroit Lions, was the key man in Wood's thinking. Except that Capria decided to go with another NFL team instead of reporting to the Bell. There also was some feeling that Foster was kept for returning punts when Polito might have been better, that Polito's full talents were not exploited. Those who look to create issues, pointed out that Foster was black, Polito white. There was some mumbling among the whites. The racial issue aside, there was strong feeling that Wood had been wrong about Polito and, then, compounded his mistake by not at least attempting to bring him back when Capria failed to show.

As for Wood not telling Polito face to face about his being released, Corcoran also spoke about that when he was told he was no longer needed. "What really made me mad was Willie told me they were releasing me, but he didn't have time to talk about it," Corcoran said. "He didn't have time. There were guys on the practice field who thought I was gonna start Saturday's game [just three days away]."

Wood parried such complaints by saying, "Every guy we cut thinks he's doing a good job, that he should stay, that he should be able to talk to me for an hour. If I stop to talk to all of them for as long as they want, I'd never get anything accomplished. And everybody knows there's a lot to be done here." Wood was correct about that. But there was a big difference between the Polito case and the Corcoran case, which had a long history of ups and downs. During training camp, Corcoran had been fined $2000 by Waller.

Corcoran also had some other things to say, not to complimentary about the Bell operation, which emphasizes some of the problems Wood had. Turning his cannon on the offense, Corcoran said, "It's been a nightmare. I've never been with a team that had so little offense. We went having the best [the previous year under Waller] to having the worst. They became so conservative we became the league joke. When I had an arsenal - every kind of play you could think of. Here, I had a few plays. It must've been easy to defend against us, we weren't doing a whole lot."

Although some of that griping has it basis in sour grapes, there is also some basis for the gripe. As a Lombardi exponent, Wood stressed the Green Bay philosophy. Take four or five plays, execute them perfectly, and that's all you need to win. That's if you have the personnel, as Lombardi did with the Packers, to make it work. Wood had no such personnel with the Bell. And having so few plays, anytime there was faulty execution, failure was guaranteed.

The contract hassles and confrontations about who should be playing did not help. "The nature of our product has been uncertainty," Wood acknowledged during the season. "Guys come to work and wonder if there's work the next day. You want to put in a game plan, concentrate on your opponent, but...how??

In his own frank assessment, Wood knows he didn't exactly ring the bell. "I inherited a situation here and under normal circumstances things would have been different and done differently," he said before what proved to be his team's last game. "As a coach, you like to do well and I'm disappointed. But because you want to do well doesn't mean it's going to be that way right away. But I do believe if you have plans and give yourself time, they'll work out. I know there was one big negative. I'd like to be better organized. As a player I never thought much about it. As an assistant coach [at San Diego], I never thought much about it. As a head coach, it's imperative."

He also recognizes that a football team can operate well only in a harmonious atmosphere, and accepts that that wasn't fully the case with the Bell. "I think part of your job is to provide a good working atmosphere," he explained. "Players are temperamental and if the atmosphere isn't good, the results will be very negative. If you have harmony, the guys will perform for you. But when I came here the club was having problems, the season was starting. I had to make moves.

I made moves I might not make under normal circumstances. I didn't have time to search for the people that were the best qualified. I took the best qualified people from what was available."

What was available wasn't good enough, and at 3:45 p.m., October 22, 1975, General Manager Iannarella walked into the Bell's practice quarters and, his voice cracking, relayed the news being announced in New York: The WFL was closing its doors. The news hit Wood so hard that he declined to talk for several hours. When he finally regained his composure, he summed it all up. "I put my reputation on the line when I took this job," he said. "I committed myself to building something for the next three or four years. We had to take one step backward before we could take two forward. But too many people wanted victories right away. I don't think the team I took was very good. Anybody who thought we could win with what we had at the beginning was dead wrong. We had pro-Waller and anti-Waller groups, leaving one team in two pieces. I tried to groove the spirit, add some players. We could have been on our way if this hadn't happened.

"I was honestly encouraged. I felt we had accomplished so much. Then Rich came in and told us it was over. I can't say I was shocked, but I suddenly realized how hard I had been rooting for an underdog. I realized a whole lot of people - good people - were suddenly out of work. A great idea had gone to dust."

That may be the WFL's epitaph. It certainly shouldn't be Willie Wood's. He made some mistakes, but he worked at his job, and even some of the critics within the club would like to see him get another opportunity to succeed. "You have to take into account there was a tremendous pressure," said a player. "You know, being the first black coach, and then everything else. It may all be due to the pressure. It may take time, but I think he can do it. I really think Willie Wood can make it as a head coach."

There is no question in Wood's mind, but it's only natural that there wouldn't be. And, while he discounts pressure, he has suggested in everything he has said and done that the fuss surrounding his selection, even though far removed from the blinding spotlight of the NFL arena, has been an unwelcome hitchhiker on the road he has traveled. That road now can lead only to the NFL. Willie Wood certainly would seem to be eminently qualified to be a defensive assistant, as he was at San Diego. Logically, Wood would seem to be ready for a step up to defensive coordinator.

Down the road? From all the evidence, it would seem that the potential of Willie Wood, grasped immediately by Tunnel, molded by Lombardi, matured by the WFL experience, remains a solid commodity for the future market The future guarantees there will be black head coaches in the NFL. Don't eliminate Willie Wood from the list of candidates..