Former NFL center, two-time Super Bowl champion, and former Alabama Crimson Tide coach Bill Curry recently gave Hall & Arena insight into the 1968 Baltimore Colts team that fell just short of eternal greatness, the difference between Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, and Bart Starr under center, and what made Vince Lombardi and Don Shula the coaches they were.
H&A: Coach, what made the ‘68 Colts team special?
Curry: It was a great team, even though we didn’t win the one we had to win. The incredible thing is we were 15-1 going into that Super Bowl. That is so hard to do in the NFL. The year before, we had been 11-1-2 and did not even make the playoffs because they didn’t have a wildcard system then. We lost one league game each year, two years in a row, and the only thing anybody remembers in our country about those teams is that we were losers. That’s the tough part of our business. If you get to the big one, you better win it. And we didn’t. The (New York) Jets deserved to win. We turned the ball over which was not something we hadn’t been doing earlier in the year. Our running back, Tom Matte, still holds the Super Bowl record for yards per carry with over 11 yards a carry. We blocked them, but we couldn’t score. Namath had a good day, Matt Snell had a good day, and they possessed the ball against our defense, which other people had not been able to do. The next four times we played the Jets, they did not win. But that doesn’t count. Nobody cares about that.
H&A: Johnny Unitas was the mainstay at quarterback for the Colts, but he was injured for all of 1968. As a member of that offense, what kind of confidence did you and others try to instill in backup Earl Morrall?
Curry: I didn’t really answer your first question properly. You asked what was it about that team that made it great. Like all great teams, we had a mutual respect and love for each other. In football, all the great teams have that. Sometimes the best players win, sometimes they don’t. Usually the winning team in the Super Bowl does not have the best players. They have a bunch of guys that refuse to let each other down, and that’s what we had.
Unitas, in the last exhibition game against the Cowboys in Dallas, threw an 80-yard touchdown toss to John Mackey. And when he went over to the sideline, he said, “Something’s wrong with my arm.” I asked what did he mean. He said, “I don’t know. Right here below the elbow.” He had torn that muscle in half with one throw and he did not play again until the Super Bowl. That’s something I’ve never forgotten.
Next week, we start the season against the (San Francisco) 49ers, we had a quarterback, Earl Morrall, who had just joined us that week. He did not know the snap count, he didn’t know the formations, he didn’t know how to call plays. He would turn to Matte and say, “what’s that split back thing?” Tom would say, “out right split left” and would give him the play. And Earl would turn and call the play with us. And that’s how we started the season. He ended up being the Most Valuable Player in the National Football League. It was miraculous what Earl Morrall accomplished and what our team did to rally around him. It’s sad that we couldn’t finish the job cause it would have been a really wonderful thing for all concerned. But in America, you better finish the job.
H&A: Going into Super Bowl III, the Jets were 18-point underdogs. What was the Colts’ view of the American Football League in general at the time?
Curry: Well, we were surprised at how good they were. We certainly did not take them lightly. They had just had a shootout with Oakland– somehow it’s called the “Heidi” game. It got interrupted. The networks went to a movie about Heidi. It was a 48-41 game. Namath and LaMonica were both going crazy. They were really good offenses, especially. We helped their defense by turning the ball over and missing field goals. Their offense was very controlled, very measured, brilliant game plan. They just kept the ball away from us and scored enough to beat us.
H&A: How did you come to know Namath? Can you go into your relationship with him?
Curry: Well he played in the Senior Bowl. He didn’t play in the college All-Star game. I think his agent wouldn’t let him. But, I was the center and he was the quarterback at the Senior Bowl. I went down there thinking, well “I’m not gonna like this guy” because he had bombed us at Georgia Tech, crushed us. Every football practice starts with center-quarterback exchange drill. We snapped the ball about ten times and he became a good friend and has been a great friend ever since. He’s just a great guy. My wife kept saying she didn’t like him, I said, ‘you don’t know him.’ So when I was at Alabama, we invited him to dinner one night. After about three hours, he left and she turned to me and said, “Well I was wrong, he’s a great guy.” So we love Joe, just didn’t wanna lose to him.
H&A: How would you compare Namath, Unitas, and Starr? What about each made them special?
Curry: Joe had a lot more talent than either one of the other two, physically. He was just tall and imposing and had an incredible release, and quickness, and a brilliant football mind. Physically, and in terms of presence on the field, he was a lot more imposing than Bart or John. But what they had was some sort of special charisma so that when they stuck their head in the huddle, everybody knew we were gonna win. And we almost always did.
H&A: Two years later, the Colts defeat the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V. Even though Baltimore emerged victorious, there’s always been this somber feeling about the 1970 Colts. Did the loss to Jets make it to where nothing could make up for that?
Curry: I think it would have helped a lot if we had played a decent game on offense (against Dallas). Our defense won that Super Bowl V. We had an incredible defense. The offense just got wasted. That was embarrassing. We dumped the whole load on special teams and defense and would not have won the game if we would have had a normal defense, but we didn’t. We had Mike Curtis and Ray May and Ted Hendricks. Good gosh, all those guys. Jimmy Duncan and Jerry Logan and Rick Volk and the Cowboys and nobody else could make an inch against us. Thank goodness for that. But it was embarrassing for offensive players and we felt sort of bad that we dumped it on our defense. But we won the game and that counts. We were obligated to try to be happy, but none of us has ever been very happy with that outcome.
Oh yeah, Bubba Smith. I didn’t mention Bubba. Bubba didn’t hurt.
H&A: The head coach of Super Bowl V winning team was Don McCafferty. He often gets lost in the shuffle among championship coaches. What did he bring that brought team over the hump? What was his impact?
Curry: Well, he was a forceful personality, but he was calm. He never flipped out. Both Lombardi and Shula were volatile. They would go off on you, and we knew that. And you didn’t want that to happen. “Mac” was calm, but you better do your job. He would fire you in a heartbeat if you weren’t doing your job. We got killed early in season, Kansas City came to Baltimore and sacked Unitas 10 times and he fired the offensive line coach. Course all of us were embarrassed, the offensive lineman, because we felt we got our coach fired. He hired another guy that was a great coach, and we ended up winning the Super Bowl. He was decisive and tough and really smart, especially offensively. But he didn’t have the pizazz the other two did.
H&A: You played under coach Vince Lombardi and coach Don Shula. What about each stuck out to you?
Curry: Lombardi has the best playoff record in NFL history. His playoff record is 9-1. Shula has the best won-loss record for league games in the history of the NFL. They both have a few things in common. No. 1, neither one of them would tolerate racism at all. So if you come onto that the field or into that locker room and behave like a racist, you’re gone– instantly. And everybody on the team knows it. So I think that’s their strongest suit. They knew how to build relationships. Football is a team game, it’s not a game that caters to racists, or to white supremacists, or to people who look down their noses at other folks. You learn how to get along with everybody or you don’t stay. And, when you have that as a starting point, and you can throw your heart over the bar…you can do it every time. If you have a beef with a teammate, you look him in the eye and tell him the truth. You don’t look down your nose or call him names or point fingers or blame somebody else.
The second thing is they both taught each one of us to take responsibility for our actions. A leader is a person who takes responsibility. A real leader never makes excuses. Never blames somebody else. Never points fingers. And we had a bunch of guys that did business like that. And of course the obvious: execution. We practiced so hard, so long, that we felt like we were ahead of our opponent because we had repped our stuff so much. In Shula’s case, he was the first NFL coach I’m aware of who really emphasized special teams and had a special teams captain. So we beat people on special teams a lot. Lombardi had a special charisma. When he walked in the room, he could shake you up. They each had unique features but they shared the basics. Real leaders take responsibility and teach young men how to take responsibility. H&A
All photos courtesy Indianapolis Colts
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