The Harry show comes to prime time
When we last left our hero Harry Wismer he had just introduced Slingin’ Sammy Baugh as the Titans’ first head coach. Now it was time to pick a team. In 1959 scouting was in its most primitive form. When the AFL was to hold its first draft there was a problem. There were no scouting departments. Coaches in the 50’s-60’s were more like US Marine boot camp sergeants than instructors. They had little idea of technical skills. They just motivated players to become better athletes with some rudimentary instruction.
This is not to say that coaches couldn’t see talent. Most definitely could. The problem was understanding the aspects that made players better and the drills players could use to improve. Seeing talent was easy. Teaching the aspects that made a player great in the 50’s-60’s was not.
The first AFL Draft
The AFL plan for the first league draft was an idea that would save the league from having each team hire a plethora of scouts and front office people. This was something that was never tried again not because it wasn’t equitable but rather because it was so equitable that it didn’t differentiate the great scouting teams from the worst. Each team has its own ways of scouting players who fit in their offensive and defensive systems. There are no “one size fits all” scouting systems.
This is the basis of success in the NFL to this day. The ability to scout and develop talent is what separates franchises. The NFL doesn’t want parity (although they say the do). The league wants great teams who can push the level of play to a higher level.
What the AFL did was to first give a single draft pick to each team in its own geographic region. This gave each team the opportunity to pick one star college player in its area. Teams like the Titans (who had few stars in their area) and the Patriots had enlarged areas. Teams could then market a “home grown player” to their fans.
The Titans’ first pick was George Izo, a QB from Notre Dame. The rest of the eligible players were rated by a group of scouts to determine the best 24 players at each position. As a scout today it sounds like a total abomination, but in the early stages of the AFL it was a godsend to teams who were building teams without the aid of scouting departments.
With limited or no front offices available this was the best the AFL could do. So the top eight QBs names were put into a box, and each team picked out a name of their new player. This was done over and over for all positions until each team had 3 full rosters of players. The NFL teams were drafting many of the same players, so only a few of these players were actually signed by each team. The AFL teams also signed players from historically black colleges and universities. This was significant. It gave many overlooked players who had real talent a chance to become stars on the field at a time when there was limited opportunity to do so in the NFL. AFL teams could also sign free agents at will.
Don Maynard is a Texan whose father was a cotton broker. The family constantly moved around. He played a single year at Rice University, then played 3 seasons at Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso). Back in the 1950’s players played both offense and defense. Maynard was a running back and a safety. He was drafted in the 9th round of the 1957 NFL Draft by the New York Giants. In his only season with the Giants Maynard had 12 rushes for 45 yards and caught 5 passes for 85 yards. Maynard was the backup to Hall of Famer Frank Gifford, so he rarely saw the field.
He was a bit of a maverick and a true Texan through and through. The Giants were amazed when they first laid eyes on him. The coaches thought he looked like something out of central casting. He walked into the Giants facility wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, a western style shirt, and a pair of long shaggy sideburns. A true nonconformist, Maynard always did things his own way. Maynard was a strong, lean, fast athlete. He used to stretch before playing, something players rarely did back in his playing days. He never smoked nor drank alcohol, which made him something of an outlier among 1950-60’s athletes.
In 1959 the Giants changed coaches. Offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi went to coach Green Bay, and defensive coordinator Tom Landry became the first coach of the Dallas Cowboys. The team was run by Allie Sherman and Jim Lee Howell. Coach Howell told Maynard to cut off his sideburns. Maynard refused to do so. “In training camp the next year, Allie Sherman chewed me out because my stridin’ on a sweep was too long. ‘Run the play over,’ he says, ‘this isn’t a track meet.’ I told him I covered more ground with one step than most runners did with three. Allie and I didn’t hit it off. A couple of days later I was gone, cut from the squad,” Maynard said.
Maynard went to the CFL that year and played for the Hamilton Tiger Cats. “They cut me, and I went to Canada, to Hamilton. We went to the Grey Cup, which is their championship, and we lost to Winnipeg. Twenty years later my son played for Winnipeg, and they won the Grey Cup. That’s a little bit of personal history that I’m proud of,” he said.
Maynard wanted to play in the states so he kept his eyes open for a chance to play. His scouting report (such as it was back then) said “fast, but butterfingered.”
“I could see all the writings on the wall that there was going to be an American Football League founded by Lamar Hunt and all the people behind it. I read that Sammy Baugh signed with the Titans, and I’d played against him as a college coach for three years. He’d coached me in the Blue-Grey Game. So I wrote to him and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to play for you.’ He knew me pretty good, so I ended up being the first Titan to sign, and I stayed in New York,” he said
The first player the Titans ever signed was Don Maynard, who retired from the NFL as the all time leading receiver in the history of the league with 633 receptions, 11,834 yards and 88 TDs. The TDs were second to only Packers Hall of Famer Don Hudson. Maynard was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1987.
While all of this was going on the Giants weren’t loving the idea of having competition in New York. They had developed a great fan base that only grew when the New York Giants baseball team and the Brooklyn Dodgers left for the West Coast. That left only the Yankees who won so often it got kind of boring. (The New York Rangers and Knicks were awful.)
The Giants played in Yankee Stadium, which was large enough to hold their fan base. The Titans had to settle for the old Polo Grounds to play their games. By the time the league had started the Polo Grounds were vacant for a few years,and no one had bothered to keep the place in shape. The dilapidated stadium was a dismal place to play. It was cavernous with a seating capacity of 55,000. With the Titans often having less than 10,000 fans in attendance the old place felt like a mausoleum. Shea Stadium wasn’t built until 1964, so the Titans would have to play all their home games in the Polo Grounds for three seasons.
Wellington Mara (the Giants owner) sent a letter to AFL commissioner Joe Foss in a self-serving attempt to build cooperation with the league. To build this mutual respect between leagues the Giants insisted that a gesture of good faith would seal the deal. Just two little favors would bring peace and harmony, at least in the short term. They were (A) void the contract fullback Charlie Flowers had signed with the Los Angeles Chargers after the Giants thought they had secured his services and (B) Move the Titans to a different city. “It is our opinion that every city is a one-team city,” Mara wrote.
The Titans did not take this assault on their franchise lightly. Harry Wismer responded to the letter with a memorandum of his own to the “Lord Mara.” Harry wrote in part. “I violently disagree with the Giants’ view about a one-team city. I also resent the lack of confidence the Giants have in the people of New York.” From this point on Harry Wismer had a near pathological distrust for the Giants. He was paranoid that the Giants would stop at nothing to destroy the Jets.
One of the minority owners of the Titans was Clark Clifford, who had political connections and was an advisor to President Kennedy. Wismer called Clifford up one day and asked him to talk to the President for him. He wanted to know if the President could use the Department of Justice to investigate the Maras. Harry was sure the Maras went to the parking lot of the Polo Grounds during Titans game and slashed tires to discourage people from attending their games. Unfortunately the President was tied up with more serious matters like the Cuban Missile Crisis at the time.
The games begin and so do the hardships
Despite the fact that Harry had signed the largest sports TV contract in history, money would always be a problem. The league was getting $1.785 million its first year, but after league expenses each team only received $150,000 for the year.
The Titans opening game at home against the Bills drew a paltry 5,727 paid attendance. Harry viewed the game from the owners box along with his wife and the Bills’ fabulously wealthy owner Ralph Wilson. Wilson was aghast at the meager crowd in the Polo Grounds. At half time the marching band came out and started playing “Everything’s coming up roses.” Wilson told a confidant “So I’m looking up at this empty stadium and Harry turns to his wife and says “Listen hon, they’re playing our song.”
That first year the home and away attendance totals were 221,285 people. The Titans led the league in scoring with 382 points but gave up 399. The Titans won that first game 27-3 over the Bills. After that game the defense fell apart. The Titans lost their second game, a home game to the Patriots 28-24, when they fumbled a punt that was returned for a TD on the game’s last play.
The Titans were 7-7 in each of their first two years under coach Sammy Baugh. That mediocre 14-14 mark stood as the best record by a head coach of the Jets until Bill Parcells was hired in 1997. Parcells is the winningest Jets coach by percentage with a 29-19 record .604%.
The bowling industry fell apart in the middle of 1960, wiping out most of Harry Wismer’s fortune. The team lost $250,000 the first year of operation, which left Harry scrambling for financing.
By the middle of 1961 Harry was out of money. He could no longer afford to pay Sammy Baugh’s salary of $28,000 a year, so he just stopped paying Baugh mid year. The team would hire taxis to get the players to the stadium, then not pay them. Taxis refused to grant players rides after that unless the players paid upfront. Many times four or five players would climb into a taxi together to share the expense.
It got so bad that the Titans players feared their paychecks would bounce. When the Titans handed out the paychecks players would immediately run to the bank to get their checks cashed before the money ran out. Harry was frantic to find investors to fund the season, but he was not shy with the money when he had it. He took Titans QB Al Dorow to visit the garment district to raise funds. Dorow waited outside when Harry went into the office but he could hear them through the door.
Dorow said “they had quite the conversation, Harry was yelling and screaming and the other guy was the same way. He gave us the money and we jumped into a limo and went to a Haberdasher (clothing store) where Harry had his suits custom made. He ordered six or eight new suits. I saw a sports coat I liked for $75 and Harry said you like that you got it” Then I found a pair of alligator shoes; I’d always wanted a pair of alligator shoes but they were $125. Harry said, “You want them; they’re yours.”
Harry was an enigma as a person. He could be the biggest jerk known to man, then do something so nice to someone he hardly knew. A former employee once said, “One minute you’d want to kiss him for his kindness and a few minutes later you’d want to hit him over the head with a chair.” Murray Goodman a Titans publicity man, said, “I’ve never seen anybody like Wismer. He had multiple personalities which could run it’s course in an hour’s time. He could be a charmer, kind, vicious or mean.”
Harry’s biggest problem was himself or I should say his ego. His wild mood swings left people wondering who they were dealing with. Harry knew the TV industry and sportscasting, but he had no idea of how to market the team. The fans would watch the game and find players they could root for, but in Harry’s mind he was the selling point for the franchise.
Friends who knew Harry well really liked him. They loved his enthusiasm, tolerated his constant need for attention, and avoided him when he was in a dark place in his mind. A friend was quoted in Sports Illustrated saying about Harry, ‘‘If you knew Harry for a month or two you’d hate him. After a year you would reverse yourself; if Harry only let his accomplishments speak for themselves instead of himself speaking for his accomplishments he’d be much better off.” Another friend in the same article said,“ Harry’s the greatest contact man in the United States. He’s always maneuvering, if he had someone to curb him he’d be a very great man.”
Harry did love himself and to him he was the Titans. If you requested a picture of the Titans through the mail you would receive back a picture of Harry, not the team. The owner’s picture dominated the team’s ticket advertising with the quote, “It’s my pleasure to bring more major league sports to the New York fans,” which was written over his photo.
The end for Harry
Here comes Sonny