Jimmy Conzelman: The NFL’s Most Unique Coach

How would you like to have this guy for your football coach? He looks a bit wild-eyed, his hair is a mess, and his suit is severely wrinkled. A long cigarette continuously dangles from his mouth, and an ever-present bottle of Coca-Cola always lurks nearby. The cold weather doesn’t seem to bother him, nor does the heat, but he is so ultra-focused on the game that nothing seems to penetrate his laser-sharp gaze.

While we remember Jimmy Conzelman as the coach of the last Cardinals team to grab an NFL championship back in 1947, his career was simply incredible well before that time. Born in 1898, Conzelman graduated from Washington University in Missouri where he was an All-Conference quarterback.

He was also a member of the prestigious Great Lakes Naval Training Center football team that captured the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1919, when military teams battled for the Rose Bowl crown during World War I. NFL pioneers George Halas and Paddy Driscoll were also part of that powerful squad.

Conzelman Named Coach During Time Out!

Conzelman was one of those triple threats that we don’t read much about anymore. As a quarterback, he could both run and throw the ball, and he was an accurate kicker as well. Conzelman played ten years in the NFL and was named as the quarterback of the league’s “All-Decade” team for the 1920s.

Starting out with the Decatur Staleys in 1920, Conzelman also played with the Rock Island Independents, the Milwaukee Badgers, the Detroit Panthers, and the Providence Steam Roller through the 1929 season. Except for the Staleys, he also coached each of those teams. His ascension to the Rock Island head coaching position came about in a most unusual way.

A substitute entered the game for the player-coach and the new player then shared a message with Conzelman from the owner stating that Conzelman was not only the signal-caller but also the new head coach! Apparently, his predecessor was fired during the game…

Conzelman also became the player/coach, as well as the owner, of the new Detroit Panthers in 1925. While struggling to remain solvent financially, Conzelman was elated when he was able to book a game with the Chicago Bears and Red Grange during the 1925 Bears’ in-season tour. Jimmy figured that he had sold an unheard amount of over 20,000 tickets for the Grange appearance and was pleased when he arrived at work shortly before the game and found long lines wrapped around the ticket office.

However, he soon learned that the fans in line were demanding refunds since it had been announced that Grange would not play in the Detroit game. Conzelman, ever the ethical owner, allowed refunds to any fan wanting one saying: “It looked like the game would pay all the bills for the year and give us a cushion to work with. I was honest, but it hurt. We still played to about 5,000, but it wasn’t enough.”

By 1928, Conzelman, while still toiling as a player/coach, led the Providence Steamroller to the NFL title. It would not be his last league championship.

Conzelman Takes Over the Cardinals

After coaching stints with the St. Louis Gunners and Washington University, where he won three Missouri Valley Conference titles, Conzelman returned to the NFL in 1940 as the head coach of the woeful Chicago Cardinals. At the time, the Chicago Tribune described the new coach as follows:

Conzelman writes for slick magazines, he paints, he directs civic operas, he’s an accomplished musician and he’s a big-league after-dinner wit. But he’ll have to reach deep into his bag of tricks if he hopes to get the Cardinals very far from their 1939 cellar position.  

Under coach Ernie Nevers the year before, the Cards had stumbled to a 1-10 record, and Conzelman was brought in to right the ship. In his first year back in the NFL, the Cardinals managed just a 2-7-2 mark, but one of those wins was a 21-7 triumph over the arch-rival Chicago Bears who had been easily destroying the Cardinals in the recent past.

It soon became apparent that his huge personality could be used both on and off the field to teach, entertain, or just shrug off the oddities of everyday living. Jimmy was a gifted speaker who used his own experiences (whether real or imagined) to deduce the complexities of life.

His favorite target was usually himself, which came in handy when discussing the prospects of leading the struggling Cardinals. Conzelman carefully evaluated different career options offered by his dear aunt in 1940: “Perhaps Aunt Minnie was right. Driving a milk wagon is a nice quiet life compared to driving a football team to slaughter!” 

Jimmy once used his experience as a parent to explain why he was usually trusted and befriended by individuals from all walks of life, including his players:

Anybody can influence me. Take the case of my son. When he was a toddler, he formed the habit of sucking his thumb, and Mrs. Conzelman thought that as the alleged head of the household I should do something about the thumb-sucking. I tried, but do you know that after I talked to my son a few evenings about it, he sold me on the idea, and there we were, both sucking our thumbs. And Mrs. Conzelman then had to get the two of us to break off the silly, but I must say enjoyable habit.

His humor could help his squad through some rough patches in those early years. After a 53-7 drubbing suffered against the Chicago Bears in 1941, Conzelman explained his state of mind:

Don’t get the idea that getting beaten 53-7 by the Bears bothered me a bit. I went home after the game, had a good night’s rest, and a very hearty breakfast. I said goodbye to the missus in the morning and strolled down the hall to the elevator, whistling a happy tune. I was a picture of elegance in my hat, tweed sport jacket, and well-shined tan shoes. Then I went back to my apartment and put on my pants.

There were some lean years during the early 1940s. Coach Jimmy Conzelman of the ’47 champs liked to recall a southside Chicago fan’s vocal reaction to the downtrodden team (and an injured player) during that time:

The Cardinals were losing 28-0 when our halfback was knocked out. Four Cardinals went over to carry him to the bench on a stretcher, but on the way, they tipped it over. A disgusted fan yelled out, “’Didn’t they learn youse nothin’ in colliatch? Youse ain’t even good pallbearers!”

    Cardinals Win 1947 Championship

    Conzelman was not always humorous, but he was keenly aware about how his emotions could influence his team. All-Pro back Marshall Goldberg once said about Conzelman: “He had a temper and once in a while, he let it go. But he was always planning some sort of joke or innovation to keep things going.”

    After the Cardinals finished a combined 6-15-1 during 1941 and 1942, and rosters were thinned out by the war effort, Conzelman decided to retire from football. However, he returned to the Cardinals again prior to the 1946 season and began one of the greatest stretches in team history. During his absence from 1943 to 1945, the Cardinals finished 2-32-1 overall. But in 1946, with Conzelman back in charge, the Cardinals rebounded with a 6-5 league mark, followed by 9-3 in 1947 and 11-1 in 1948.

    The 1947 team won the NFL title while the 1948 edition dropped the championship game to Philadelphia in the infamous “Snow Bowl.” Following the 1948 campaign, Conzelman left football again—but this time for good. So, what was so unusual about Coach Jimmy Conzelman? Those who played for him on the Chicago Cardinals provided perhaps the most accurate insight:

    Lineman Vince Banonis: “He was a great psychologist who always seemed to come up with something unusual to give us an edge in a game.”

    Defensive Back Red Cochran: “I thought he was extremely smart. He was a great guy, a fine motivator, and was laid-back as far as his coaching. Most importantly, he knew football and how to handle people.”

    Halfback Charlie Trippi“Playing for Jimmy Conzelman was like playing for your father. He had such a tremendous personality and made every player feel important.”

    Tackle Chet Bulger“Jimmy was a great storyteller. When we’d go to New York, he’d take us to his favorite restaurant called Toots Shoor’s. He’d go in there, take over the piano, and entertain the crowd. He had a great deal of charisma.”

    Both a Coach and Entertainer

    Charles “Stormy” Bidwill, son of the late Cardinals owner Charley Bidwill, recalled traveling with the team as a youth when Conzelman was the coach and told the Chicago Tribune: 

    Those were the days, and Jimmy Conzelman helped make them. On those train trips, he’d entertain us with his funny stories while he drank Coke by the case. I was always sorry they never put pianos on the trains because you knew how Conzelman loved to play the piano all night long. Whenever Conzelman was telling a story or playing the piano, there was always a crowd of people who loved life and good times.

    Tackle Chet Bulger remembers Conzelman’s smoking habits: “He would inhale a cigarette, with smoke coming out of his nose and mouth at the same time. We don’t know if it ever came out of his ears!”

    Veteran Marshall Goldberg once recalled an unusual motivational tactic used by his coach: 

    We had a game scheduled in Los Angeles against the Rams and Jimmy called me in before the game. He told me that I had been playing well and that if I kept up the good effort and we beat the Rams, he would give me a $500 bonus, but I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody. That was a significant amount of money in those days. Well, we beat the Rams and I earned the bonus.

    We all went out to dinner and then there was a rumor that someone had received a $500 bonus. I hadn’t said anything, but as it turned out, everybody had been called in by Jimmy and he told them the same story. We all received $500 bonuses for winning that game!

    Jimmy Named NFL Coach of the Year

    Following the 1947 championship season, Conzelman was named the NFL Coach of the Year, an honor which later prompted well-deserved praise from Eagles’ coach Greasy Neale whom the Cardinals defeated in the title game: “He always had a bold, imaginative attack, solid blocking and tackling. Jimmy was as good as they came.”

    Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch perhaps summarized the career of Jimmy Conzelman best when he penned this simple, but accurate, description of the coach on August 27, 1969: “Ah, this Irishman with the Dutch surname has had the gift of the blarney, a graciousness which made him the best of fellows socially, wonderful press copy as a coach and—in that vexing capacity—a man who knew how to steam up or relax a football team.”

    James Gleason Dunn Conzelman passed away in 1970 at the age of 72. He remains, to this day, the last coach to lead the Cardinals to an NFL championship, and that was back in 1947. However, he was able to enjoy the honor of being in just the second class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he was inducted in 1964.

    Thank you for sharing your time with us on the Sports History Network. Please join us next time when, in honor of the opening of NFL pre-season sessions, we’ll take a look back at the early days of pro football training camps…back When Football Was Football! 

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    Author and Host - Joe Ziemba

    Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago.  Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.

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