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ESPN celebrates the 100th anniversary of Vince Lombardi's birth with the "Greatest Coaches in NFL History" series, saluting the finest innovators, motivators, tacticians, teachers and champions ever to stalk the sidelines. Follow along as we reveal our list of the top 20 coaches of all time and document the lineage of the league's most influential coaching trees.
As an AFL coaching pioneer whose success carried over to the NFL, Hank Stram made his mark on the sport as both a winner and an innovator.
Stram's teams won three AFL championships and played in two of the first four Super Bowls, winning one.
His coaching innovations can still be seen in today's game. He is credited for developing the moving pocket, which he used to take advantage of quarterback Len Dawson's mobility. He also was the first to use two-tight-end sets to provide extra protection against the pass rush. On the other side of the ball, Stram was the first to stack his defensive front seven with the linebackers right behind the down linemen.
After growing up in Gary, Ind., Stram played football and baseball at Purdue, where he also would coach both sports. But football was his future. He moved on to work as an assistant football coach at SMU, Notre Dame and Miami (Fla.) in the late 1950s before moving to the pro ranks.
After being turned down by Oklahoma head coach Bud Wilkinson and New York Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry, AFL founder Lamar Hunt hired Stram to be head coach of the Dallas Texans for the league's inaugural 1960 season. Hunt had played football at SMU when Stram was an assistant there.
It turned out to be a smart hire, as the success of Stram's teams helped establish the AFL's credibility before and after the merger with the NFL. The Texans finished second in their division their first two seasons but broke through in 1962 to win the AFL championship.
The franchise relocated to Kansas City and became the Chiefs the next year, and they won another AFL title in 1966. That was the year of the first showdown between the AFL and NFL champions, later to be known as Super Bowl I, a game in which Stram's Chiefs lost to Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers 35-10.
The Chiefs won Stram's third AFL championship in 1969, the final season before the merger was completed. And this time, Kansas City finished the job, beating the Minesota Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl IV and showing that the previous year's Super Bowl win by the AFL's New York Jets was no fluke.
Stram remained with the Chiefs franchise for a total of 15 seasons, making five playoff trips and winning 62 percent of the regular-season games. He also coached the New Orleans Saints for two forgettable seasons (1976-77) that resulted in a 7-21 record. His knowledge of the game and communications skills helped him have a successful radio and TV broadcasting career when he was done coaching.
He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003 and died in 2005 at the age of 82.
-- Kevin Stone
There were a lot of qualities that set Hank Stram apart from other coaches. His honesty. His intelligence. His sense of fairness. His caring nature. Coach Stram was the kind of a guy who knew you, your family and everybody who meant something to you.
And he had a presence. I remember the first time I met him [as a rookie in 1966]. I was intimidated because he was very sharp, well-dressed and the first white head coach I had ever talked to in my life. I was an undrafted free agent from a small black college, but he made it clear that I would get the same opportunity as the players who were drafted. That meant a lot to me, his belief that I deserved a fair shot.
|Hank Stram's Chiefs celebrated three AFL championships and played in two Super Bowls, winning one.|
But that was Coach Stram. We had about eight to 10 players from black colleges on the team when I arrived and Coach made us all feel like we belonged.
In fact, one of his biggest moves was making Willie Lanier our starting middle linebacker in 1967. People forget this but Willie was supposed to be an outside linebacker and Jim Lynch was going to play in the middle. But then Jim went to a college all-star game before we started practicing and Willie impressed the coaches so much that Coach Stram gave him the job.
It didn't matter that Willie had played at Morgan State and Lynch had come from Notre Dame. Willie was the better player, so they wound up switching positions. Not only that, but Coach Stram also made them roommates on the road. It used to be that black players stayed with black players while whites roomed with whites, and we all thought Coach had lost his mind when he did that. But Coach Stram understood that we couldn't win if we didn't know each other. I just wish we could've won more championships when we played for him. He was truly a great man.
-- Former Chiefs cornerback and Hall of Famer Emmitt Thomas, as told to Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN "Greatest Coaches in NFL History" voting panel: Chris Berman, Jeffri Chadiha, John Clayton, Colin Cowherd, Mike Ditka, Gregg Easterbrook, Herm Edwards, David Fleming, Ashley Fox, Greg Garber, Mike Golic, Suzy Kolber, Eric Mangini, Chris Mortensen, Sal Paolantonio, Bill Polian, Rick Reilly, Mike Sando, Adam Schefter, Ed Werder, Seth Wickersham, Trey Wingo.