Sunday, December 18, 2016

Lambright, Part III: Letting the coaches coach

     (Part III)
     The first task Maxie Lambright faced in his first college football head-coaching job -- and his last, as it turned out -- was to assemble a coaching staff.
     He did that brilliantly. One of the hallmarks of his 12-year tenure at Louisiana Tech was that the staff stayed mostly intact the whole time. There were only a couple of changes.

The Louisiana Tech football coaching staff, 1971-78: (from left) Pat
 Collins, Wallace Martin, Pat Patterson, Maxie Lambright, E.J. Lewis,
Mickey Slaughter (photo from Tech's sports information office)
     The second task was to turn from a hands-on, do- everything-myself coach and become the general, the organizer, the overseer of a college program, and to trust those assistants.
     There was no doubt who made the final decisions for Tech football, 1967-78, but talking to the people who remember that time, one theme was "he let his coaches coach."
     Lambright's success -- and many with Tech ties think it is worthy of his being in the College Football Hall of Fame -- also was the staff's success.

     There were a couple of difficult seasons -- a 3-7 shakedown in 1967 and an unlucky 2-9 in 1970. Otherwise,  the Bulldogs were consistent winners and champions. The record in the other 10 years: 90-20-2 (.813).
      Mickey Slaughter was the first hire. As I recall, the day it was announced that Lambright would succeed Joe Aillet as Tech head coach -- the first change in that position since after the 1939 season -- it also was announced that Slaughter was retiring as a pro quarterback to return to Tech.
     That, eventually, would lead to a change in Lambright's offensive philosophy, and Tech would become known as a potent passing team -- even more than it had been under Aillet.
     In 1960, Slaughter had been the first Tech QB to play when Aillet switched from the then-popular Wing-T offense to a pro-style passing game -- with split receivers, and liberal use of the backs and tight end as pass catchers. Tech was among the first teams in the South, maybe the country, to make the switch.
     Mickey set school passing records and in 1963 was a seventh-round draft pick in the almost-new American Football League by the -- honestly -- awful Denver Broncos.

Mickey Slaughter
      Slaughter started 19 games in his first three seasons and had some productive outings, but injuries got in his way. After his fourth season -- curtailed by a shoulder injury -- he was traded to the Oakland Raiders. But he failed the physical, and never joined them.
     So when he received a call from Huey Williamson, retiring from coaching football after Aillet's retirement and about to head Tech's health and P.E. department, asking if he wanted to join Lambright's staff, it was an easy decision.
        Slaughter had played for Lambright in high school (Bolton, in Alexandria), so he knew the coach. But he had a big influence on a coach who was much more of an advocate of the running game.
     Slaughter had learned pro sets and receiving routes from Aillet and even more from his time in the AFL. And so ...
     "He [Maxie] allowed me to install the passing game at Tech," he recalled. "He had some ideas about the running game. We combined to set up the offense we wanted."
      It took some doing. Lambright's option offense had worked so well for Southern Miss; now, with Phil Robertson and Terry Bradshaw -- both sophomores in eligibility -- at QB for Tech, they started the season running some option plays.
      But, as Slaughter noted, "that's not what our talent prescribed. He [Lambright] got to where he liked the passing game, and that's the direction we went more and more."
      Dropback passing, spread formations, varied pass routes became Tech's offensive hallmark again, as it had been under Aillet with Slaughter, then Billy Laird and finally Robertson and Bradshaw throwing. But it was balanced with the running game Lambright loved.
      Robertson, the future "Duck Commander," and Bradshaw, the future Pro Football Hall of Fame QB, each had talent and some high-yardage games in 1967. But they also remained inconsistent.
      Several other factors -- Tech's overall talent level, either inexperienced or not up to the opponents' level, plus injuries and unfortunate breaks, meant a 3-7 first-year record for Lambright, not much improvement over the 1-9 in Aillet's final season -- a shock considering his consistent success over 2 1/2 decades.
     One other interesting aspect of that first Lambright season: who called the plays.
     "Those were the days when the quarterbacks called their own plays," Slaughter recalled. "Terry Bradshaw called his own plays" (and so did Robertson). 
     But, Lambright wasn't comfortable with that. And -- as would become the trend all over football -- a change was made.
     "Maxie came to me one day out of the blue and said, 'You will call all the plays from now on,' " Slaughter said.
     For the bulk of their coaching time at Tech, through a long string of terrific QBs and receivers, Slaughter called the right plays.
     And here is what else:
     "The thing I most admired about Maxie," he said, "that in 10 years, he never questioned one time the plays I called -- whether they worked or didn't work. It had to be hard for him [Lambright had called plays for years in high school and at Southern Miss]. But I could work without his interruption or his comments.
     "It was a really, really good situation. We had some great athletes to execute those plays. We had some quarterbacks who made us look good."
     Those QBs, after Phil and Terry, included Kenny Lantrip, Denny Duron, Steve Haynes, Randy Robertson and Keith Thibodeaux.
     Robertson quit football before the next season; he wanted to go hunting and fishing more than he wanted to play. Plus -- my opinion -- he could see that Bradshaw, going into the 1968 season was going to be the No. 1 quarterback.
     And in 1968, Bradshaw -- raw, tall and obviously still growing, with the strong right arm that few QBs could match, goofy but upbeat and entertaining, potential untapped -- developed into a talent Tech faithful perhaps had never seen.
     That was a huge reason -- plus, the maturation of seniors and juniors, especially linemen, who had been dominated too often the previous two years -- that the '68 season was the turnaround for the Lambright program.
     It ended with a 9-2 record, seven consecutive victories after a 2-2 start, and Tech's first-ever bowl game -- a 33-13 victory against Akron in the Grantland Rice Bowl, an NCAA Division II regional, on an extremely cold day in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
       In 1967, Tech's offense had set school records with 339.5 total yards per game and 209.2 passing. Those marks were shattered in 1968: 459.1 total yards per game, 316.4 passing.
        How good was that? No Tech team over a 49-year period averaged that many yards passing; it was 1996 before that record was broken. It was 22 years before the total-offense record was topped.
         (Of course, in the past 20 years, those high-volume numbers have become routine.)
         That first coaching staff was a nice mix of college coaching veterans and first-timers. Retained from Aillet's staff -- perhaps at Coach Aillet's request/insistence -- were Jimmy Mize (offensive line) and E.J. Lewis (defensive backs). Tony Misita, who had been defensive line coach at Southeastern Louisiana, moved to Tech. The newcomers were all ex-Tech players and graduates: Slaughter, Pat Collins (linebackers) and Pat Patterson (ends/offensive line).
     Collins, from Shreveport (Fair Park High), had been coaching at Airline High in Bossier City; Patterson, from Delhi in northeast Louisiana, had coached at Ouachita High (Monroe) and then Byrd (Shreveport).
     They all recruited the areas they knew, where they had coached. They were personable and diligent, and super salesmen for Tech. Over the dozen years, so many talented athletes chose to compete in Ruston. It had been that way during the Aillet years, too.
E.J. Lewis

        Lewis, for instance, worked in southwest Louisiana, where he had coached in high school, and into Texas -- southeast and especially the northeast part. He helped bring in loads of talent for football and track/field, where he assisted Mize. 
     "There was consistency in recruiting," said Wallace Martin, who joined the staff (coaching offensive guards and centers) in 1971 after Misita left for Tulane and the gentlemanly Mize retired from football for the track-only role. "Kids [recruits] felt we would be there."
     On the field, the Lambright staff was much different than the Aillet staff had been. The noise level (Slaughter alone could be heard miles away), the enthusiasm and -- yes -- the profanity in some cases ramped up. Practices were much more physical, rugged hitting sessions, than before.
     Aillet's practices were mostly quiet, efficient and clinical, teaching sessions. George Doherty was the most vocal and demanding of the Aillet staff, exhorting his defensive units in an excitable way. Lewis would bark out enthusiastically, mostly in an encouraging way.
      Misita was such an intense character that when his name is mentioned to players from the early Lambright years, they remember that Tony, well, threw up before every game.     
Pat Collins
     Collins was just beginning to develop the aggressive, fast defensive units that characterized the teams he coached. He would become a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame coach -- inducted last summer -- after a great run of success (including an NCAA Division II national championship) at Northeast Louisiana, where he moved after being passed over for the Tech head coaching job when Lambright resigned before the 1979 season. (That's another story).
      Patterson was the motivational "slogan" guy, creating the banners and signs to remind Tech players. Meticulous and creative and folksy, he talked in clipped bursts. He was a good football coach and loyal to Tech, and he built and coached an NCAA Tournament-level baseball program for a couple of decades.
      But one man united the staff. 
     "In the beginning, he had a bunch of young guys, some with no college coaching experience," Slaughter said. "He had to corral some young coaches who thought they knew more than they did, mainly me."
     "Maxie was the kind of guy you could sit down him and talk to him," said Lewis. "He let you do your thing in coaching. He was a really good teacher, especially teaching running backs to block. Roland Harper [who would star at Tech, then play fullback for the Chicago Bears to team with superstar Walter Payton in the late 1970s] was an example.
     "You could take a chance, do something in coaching and go," Lewis added. "But if he saw something he wanted to change, it was going to be his way."
     Collins was reminded of that one day. He had consulted with several coaching staff on a particular coverage -- I believe it was to walk a linebacker out head-on over the tight end in certain sets. When in a staff meeting, he explained this, Lambright -- in sharp, clear fashion (and we heard tell, not calmly) -- said no, Tech's defense was not going to do it that way.
     And then there was the day when an offense-vs.-defense drill -- Slaughter's unit vs. Collins' -- broke into a full-scale scrimmage. "Two young coaches, both as [bleeping] competitive as anyone in the world, going after one another," Collins remembered.
     Lambright was on another field when he heard the commotion.
     "He charged up that hill [to this practice field]," Slaughter said, "and he was yelling, really giving it to us."
     When practice ended, as the coaches walked toward the dressing rooms, Lambright continued to chew on his top two assistants. "All we could do was keep our mouths shut," Slaughter said.
     And it was not uncommon. Maxie Lambright could be a hard man, with his players and with his assistants.
     "You had to steel your mind," Slaughter said, "that you were going to get your butt chewed out once or twice a day."
     But there was this: "He never took credit when things were going well," Collins said. "He was one of those guys who always knew what he wanted."
     (Next: Not the "designated" choice)


  1. Hello Nico,

    Love reading the stories about Tech in the late 60's and 70's. I was there from 68-71 and rememember all of these great coaches and players. I still see Mickey Slaughter at the Tech games and talk of the old times.

    Phil Israel

  2. From Charles New: There is another reason that Tech won so many games -- it was the party after each home game. Maxie told me to keep the team together after each home game, don't let them go to any other party to get in trouble. He took a lot of chances on some bad boys. My role was to keep them away from trouble (Joe McNeely, for sure).
    We have a get-together every year (first weekend in June, in Shreveport).

  3. From Jimmy Russell: Mickey Slaughter, a man who had a way with kids. I got to know pretty well when he worked at Scotty Robertson’s basketball camp. He could communicate with all ages and they responded and liked him. You are right, he had the volume. He could have gone far in coaching if he had wanted to leave Ruston. He also would have been a great head coach for the Bulldogs.