On January 25, 2003, a huge sigh of relief came from friends, family and fans of Henry Louis "Hank" Stram when it was announced he would finally be a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee.
The honor came later than it should have for a man whose enthusiasm and innovations should have made him a Canton "shoe-in" many years before.
Stram was a true fashion plate in an atmosphere sometimes filled with players and coaches who looked like they just woke up. The former Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints head coach acquired his high quality appearance thanks to his father who worked as a tailor.
After attending Purdue University, he worked there as an assistant coach in the late 1940s & 50s and served as Boilmakers head baseball coach before getting becoming an assistant coach at Notre Dame. The vacancy in South Bend was created when Jim Finks left to work for the CFL's Calgary Stampeders.
After stops at SMU and University of Miami (FL), Dallas Texans owner Lamar Hunt came calling and Stram accepted the head coaching job.
Due to the fledging American Football League's small television income (about $110,000 per team in the early 1960s), Stram only had three assistant coaches but did a lot with those limited resources. He acquired talent such as fellow Purdue alum Len Dawson (who had been cut by Pittsburgh) and put together an AFL championship side in 1962 in defeating the Houston Oilers in double overtime on a field goal by Tommy Brooker. The title game unfortunately is more remembered for almost being abandoned because Jeppsen Stadium in Houston didn't have lights and because Texans star Abner Haynes misunderstood Stram's instructions on how to call the coin toss for overtime. Haynes famously told the referee, "We'll kick to the clock," forcing the Texans to kick into a stiff wind and give away possession in a sudden death contest. In hindsight, the error worked out when the two teams had to switch field sides in the second overtime period.
The one-time AFL coach of the year was not only a teacher but a true student of the game who never stopped learning on how to confuse opponents. His innovations included the "Stacked-I" using two running backs and tight end in a traditional I-formation, as well as the moving the pocket on offense to give new options for the passing game. Stram gave credit for creating this innovation (where the offensive line steadily shifts in a curved pattern after the snap to give the quarterback more time to throw) to defensive end Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison of the San Diego Chargers who always put steady pressure on the Chiefs offense.
Stram's 1966 Kansas City Chiefs lost the first Super Bowl to the Packers in L.A. primarily due to a strong second-half by Vince Lombardi's legendary Green Bay squad. One of Stram's favorite stories from the game actually occurred a few days before it. When a reporter asked him how he felt offenses would evolve over the next 10 years, Stram replied that it was likely that the I-formation (or power-I) would replace the split backfield as the primary base alignment. The next day in one of the Los Angeles-based papers, a sensationalized headline stated, "Stram says Lombardi's offense passé."
Stram is often forgotten as a man who was socially "color blind." He made sure his scouting staff examined the traditional African-American colleges for top talent, which led to huge dividends by acquiring countless top players like Buck Buchanan from Grambling. The 1969 Chiefs captured Super Bowl IV in January 1970 in New Orleans with a squad comprised with a majority of African-American players, the first such roster to win a major pro football championship.
Kansas City would continue as a playoff contender until 1974 when he and Hunt parted ways and eventually reached a settlement on the remainder of his contract.
Stram spent a year with CBS-TV and radio in 1975. In a sign of the times where network TV did not use a lot of broadcasters for a Super Bowl broadcast compared to today, Stram left the CBS radio booth with two minutes left in Super Bowl X (Dallas vs Pittsburgh) to call the rest of the TV broadcast with Pat Summerall because color analyst Tom Brookshier had to leave early to be the reporter in the winning team's locker room.
Unfortunately, Stram's return to the sidelines with the Saints in 1976 did not turn out well with only seven wins in two years. The lack of success was largely caused by issues with owner John Mecom Jr.
Stram's firing on January 27, 1978 came as a surprise to many, when you consider that he had already hired a couple of new assistant coaches since the '77 season ended. Fans protested with t-shirts stating, "Don't Yank Hank" but not even the passion of the pre-Who Dat era fans could overturn the front office friction.
New Orleans' loss became the nation's gain as Stram would work for CBS-TV from 1978-93 and concurrently provide expert analysis on Monday Night Football radio with Jack Buck through 1997. America became familiar with many of his "Stram-isms" such as "Fuzzy Cement" (astroturf) and "High Interception" (that from a pass thrown diagonally across the field).
His Saints coverage for CBS included the heart-breaking 1983 season-ending loss to the Rams to eliminate the Saints from playoff contention, the only win for New Orleans in a disasterous 1-15 seaosn in 1980 at the Jets where he praised groups like the Touchdown Club of N.O. & the Saints Booster Club for continuing to travel with the club, and the 1987 win at Pittsburgh that clinched the first winning season in Saints history. Stram proclaimed at game's end, "Saints fans can start dancing on Bourbon Street starting right now."
About a year before his Hall of Fame induction, I told him on the phone that he really was overdue to be in the Hall and his reply was to that made famous by Doris Day, "Que Sera Sera, whatever will be will be. " Luckily for him, his family, and all of us, the induction was to be.
And in fitting fashion, Stram became a pioneer one more time in pro football. Due to health issues, Stram has his acceptance speech pre-recorded and overdubbed to a video timeline. Afterwards he came out on stage to a standing ovation.
While some may remember Stram line such as "65 Toss Power Trap" or "pump it in there baby" from his Super Bowl win when he wore a microphone for NFL Films, I'll remember another quote he gave more. When asked, "How to do you build a football team?" He would usually reply, "Number one, you do it with people, not football players. A man who plays football is not who he is it was he does." This refreshing comment showed coach Hank never lost his common man values.
It was even more fitting that the man once called "King Henry" will forever be among the greats of pro football.
That day in Canton, Ohio on August 4, 2003, became a more lively and distinguished place thanks to Hank Stram, forever "matriculating" in those sacred halls.
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