Commentary

Hank Stram didn't see black or white

In era of racial strife, Hall of Fame coach leveled field for African-American players

Originally Published: May 27, 2013
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Hank Stram was responsible for many innovations throughout his 17-year career as an NFL head coach, including moving pockets, the two-tight-end formation and a defensive scheme that stacked linebackers directly behind linemen. He also deserves ample credit for the role he played in black players finding more opportunities in pro football. Astute historians understand that the American Football League forged the idea of pursuing talent from small black colleges. Along with iconic figures such as Sid Gillman and Al Davis, Stram proved what those players could do once given a chance to succeed.

As much as Stram may be best recognized as the stocky, well-dressed motivator roaming the sidelines for the Kansas City Chiefs in the late 1960s and early '70s, his best work often was done behind the scenes. Despite having a colorful image that initially intimidated young players, Stram didn't see black and white when he evaluated his personnel. He saw good and bad, strong and weak, capable and incapable. He wanted the best men for the job, regardless of their backgrounds.

When cornerback Emmitt Thomas arrived as an undrafted free agent in 1966, it was Stram who promised him a fair shot at earning a spot on the team. Stram even went so far as to suggest he would cut a drafted rookie if Thomas could prove his worth. It was moments like those that earned Stram the confidence and respect of his players. If he was a man interested in playing politics, he never showed that side to the men he asked to follow him every Sunday.

It wasn't easy for a white man with ample power to connect with black athletes in Kansas City. Most of the African-Americans who played for the Chiefs in the 1960s had known each other for years. They'd competed against each other at historically black colleges in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and developed a deep camaraderie. They knew the only way to deal with racism at the time was to band together. For most, Stram was the first white man they had ever called coach.

Those players -- including future Pro Football Hall of Famers Thomas, Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan and Willie Lanier -- believed in Stram not only because he saw their potential. It was because he also saw them as people. Stram didn't merely want his black players hanging with one another while the whites did the same. He wanted them all to know each other, to understand what made them different and also what made them similar.

Those same players shook their heads in amazement when Stram first announced that Lanier and fellow linebacker Jim Lynch would room together during training camp and on road trips. That shock subsided once the team actually saw those teammates become roommates. This wasn't some great sociological experiment that Stram was attempting. This was a progressive leader doing what he thought was best for his own team's maturation.

This is why "authentic" is one of the first words you hear when asking people to describe Stram. He didn't do things for effect. He did them because they made sense. His creative mind didn't yield huge benefits only when it came to assembling game plans. It also opened the eyes of personnel evaluators when it came to deciding how black players should be utilized.

The most telling example of Stram's impact was his decision to let Lanier run his defense instead of Lynch. The Chiefs had drafted both men in the second round of the 1967 draft, with Lynch, a middle linebacker from Notre Dame, being taken in three picks earlier than Lanier. But when Lynch missed a couple of weeks of training camp to attend a college all-star game, Lanier impressed Stram enough to become the starting middle linebacker, even though Lanier had been projected as an outside linebacker.

[+] EnlargeHank Stram
Malcolm Emmons/USA TODAY SportsHank Stram earned his players' respect by treating them equally.

Think about that for a second. Lynch came to the Chiefs as the winner of the Maxwell Award (as the best player in college football) and he was a product of the most hallowed program in the nation. Most coaches would've waited for him to return from his all-star game, plugged him into the middle of the defense and moved on to the next task. Stram was willing to go with a linebacker from little-known Morgan State, at a time when blacks were pushed toward "speed" positions on the perimeter, for one simple reason: Lanier could do a better job as his defensive leader.

Stories like those tend to get lost in the afterglow of Stram because he was such a colorful personality. He had the natty suits, the quick smile and the forethought to see the value in wearing a microphone while his team beat Minnesota in Super Bowl IV. The easier tidbit to miss coming out of that game was an examination of the respective team photos taken before that contest. The Chiefs had 23 black players on their roster when their picture was taken. The Vikings had 11.

This is only one reason Stram was an unsung hero at a time when race relations in America were as explosive as they've ever been. Most coaches in his day wouldn't have had the nerve to make the moves he did nor would they have believed so much in the potential rewards. That wouldn't have made them any lesser men. It only would have affirmed them as products of the times.

Stram, however, chose a different path. He pushed for innovation and preached about the value of following one's heart. Those beliefs showed up often throughout a career that eventually earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame. They also left a lasting impact on a league that certainly was much better off for having him walk its sidelines.