Chuck Knox was a great football coach, and he deserves to at least have his case heard by the full board of selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He did not win enough in the postseason to deserve induction, in my view. But that should not diminish his legacy.
Knox, who died at age 86 on Saturday, still ranks as the 10th winningest coach in NFL history.
Knox had a lot in common with Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells. Like Parcells, Knox was a giant, powerful personality, a great motivator and leader of men. Like Parcells, Knox was great at turning around losing teams. Knox earned coach of the year honors with the Rams (in 1973), the Bills (1980) and the Seahawks (1984), each of whom were losers before he arrived.
People tend to give coaches more credit for strategy and tactics than for the ability to sell their vision, earn players' loyalty and get their team to buy in and believe.
Former Bills public relations chief L. Budd Thalman has a favorite story about Knox and loyalty. Thalman was in the press box in Cleveland during the Knox era when Browns PR man Kevin Byrne asked him to train his binoculars on the Bills' sideline and explain "who the heck all those people are."
"I said from the left, the first guy is Bill Knox, who is Chuck's brother," Thalman recalled from his Virginia home. "The next guy is Chuck's car guy. The guy next to him is his beer guy. The guy next to him is his wife's car guy. The woman in the fur coat is the wife of the second car guy."
"Chuck had a guy named Tommy Purcelli, who was always around," Thalman said. "There was Big D from Sewickley (Pa.), who was at every game. Then he had a guy who he picked up in Hawaii at a Pro Bowl named Puna Titcomb, who came to live with him. He was sort of an Everyman Friday for Chuck. He'd run errands and pick up the cleaning."
"What it indicated to me was this was a guy who was loyal to his friends," Thalman said. "And he always took care of them. And it was the same with his players."
A big element of Knox's rebuilding job in Buffalo was bringing in veterans, like Isaiah Robertson and Phil Villapiano, who knew how to win and knew Knox's approach. Parcells successfully did the same at his stops.
"Chuck Knox, my first NFL coach, was a hard nose, blue-collar coach," said Bills great Fred Smerlas this week. "He was Bill Parcells 10 years before Bill Parcells. He knew how to tweak a player as well as anyone. One of the great all-time coaches."
"Chuck was a player's coach to me," Bills great Joe Ferguson told The News. "He wanted everybody to do the right thing, and he was probably the most organized coach I had. ... He'd use the words, 'I don't want to break your plate,' which means he was gonna take your food off your plate. It was his way of telling you, you better get better. He would tell you where you stood."
Knox actually won more games than Parcells. Knox went 193-158-1 (.550) over 23 seasons. Parcells went 183-138-1 (.570) over 19 seasons. Parcells won two Super Bowls and got to another. Knox never got there.
How much of that was Knox's fault? Some, but certainly not all. Knox never had the best quarterback in any of his 11 playoff losses. His five Rams playoff teams were quarterbacked by an aged John Hadl, James Harris, a young Ron Jaworski and Pat Haden. They were eliminated twice by Hall of Famer Roger Staubach of Dallas and three times by Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton of Minnesota. Knox probably should have stuck with Jaworski as his QB in 1976, but the reality is owner Carroll Rosenbloom didn't want Jaworski and forced Haden into the starting lineup.
Ferguson was Knox's best QB, and the Bills almost got Knox over the playoff hump in 1980 and 1981. It was a fair fight for Knox at QB with Fergy going against Hall of Famer Dan Fouts of San Diego in '80 and Ken Anderson of Cincinnati in '81. However, Fergy was hobbled on a high-ankle sprain against the Chargers, who won on a late Fouts TD pass.
The Bengals playoff loss was just as bitter. The Bills were driving for a tying TD at the Bengals' 20 in the final minutes when Fergy hit Lou Piccone for a first down. But Fergy didn't get the play off in time. Delay of game was called. It wasn't all Fergy's fault. Piccone and Ron Jessie had been subbed in with 14 seconds left on the 30-second play clock. Had the Bills won, they would have had to go to San Diego the next week, but they wouldn't have had star back Joe Cribbs, who got hurt on a second-half TD run in Cincy.
Knox had four playoff teams in six years in Seattle. He squeezed a lot out of a team quarterbacked by very good-but-not-great Dave Kreig. All of their playoff exits came on the road.
The Hall of Fame is a to-the-victors-go-the-spoils kind of honor. Virtually every coach inducted got there with the help of a Hall of Fame quarterback.
Ex-Chargers coach Don Coryell has been a finalist for the Hall of Fame four times. He was a great innovator in the passing game. But his record is 111-83-1, and he has been voted down each time. Knox went 10-4 against Coryell. Knox, it says here, was a greater leader of men. It would be nice if the Hall's voting system offered a way for more candidates – like Knox and Bills special teams great Steve Tasker, for instance – to be discussed among the full body of selectors. Only the top 15 candidates get discussed, according to the rules.
Ultimately, however, voters have to worry about opening the door to the Hall too wide for every candidate who's considered. If we vote this guy in, how many others will we have to let in as well?
If Knox gets in, that means Marty Schottenheimer has to get in. He was 200-126-1 but went 5-13 in the playoffs. When you think Marty, do you think Hall of Fame? It means Dan Reeves has to get in. He was 190-165-2 and went 11-9 in the playoffs. The Coryell supporters, of which there are many, would probably then get him over the top, even though he was 3-6 in the playoffs with three losses as the favorite. How about Bill Cowher, who won a Super Bowl but lost five home playoff games?
It's hard to get in the Hall of Fame. It should be hard. Knox holds a place of honor in the game, regardless of his absence from Canton.