Phil Handler: The Worst Coach in NFL History May Have Also Been One of the Best!

As you scroll through the list of NFL head coaches and their overall records throughout history, you’ll find his name last.

Dead last.

But if you check into his brilliant resume and his coaching accomplishments, you’ll discover that this two-time NFL champion may have been one of the most valuable performers in his chosen profession.

His name was Phil Handler and his coaching regimes included some awful head coaching stints balanced by some key unsung assistant roles that helped two different clubs claim NFL championships. In other words, his pertinent value was not always splashed among the headlines of the sports pages, but rather deep in the strategy rooms of the NFL.

You're Too Small!

Philip Jacob Handler was an undersized guard from Texas Christian University who was just 5-11 and 190 pounds when he reported to the Chicago Cardinals in 1930.

The legendary Ernie Nevers was the coach of the Cardinals at the time and after taking one look at Handler, he said to the rookie (according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram): “You’ll never make it kid. You’re too small.”

A native of Fort Worth, Handler was a three-year fixture at guard for TCU coach Francis Schmidt, earning All-Southwest Conference honors and All-American honorable mention in 1929. The Austin American-Statesman called Handler “the immoveable mass” and reported: “Handler is one of the fastest linesmen in the conference and TCU opponents won’t soon forget the hard plunging and charging of this purple ace.”

Naturally, the verbal rebuff of Ernie Nevers regarding Handler’s size provided some useable incentive for the determined guard. Handler not only worked his way onto the Cardinals’ roster but stayed there until his retirement as a player seven seasons later.

Along the way, Handler proved to be a nuisance on both sides of the ball and secured All-Pro accolades four times. Not bad for a man considered too small to be effective in the NFL! The La Crosse Tribune described Handler as “one of the outstanding linemen in the National Football League.”

Handler and Hubbard Exchanged Blows

Handler was a student of the game, always watching, always learning, and always ready to accept his role on the field. Despite his lack of size in the middle of the Cardinals’ front line, Handler was never intimidated by bigger players. During a 14-6 loss to the Green Bay Packers in 1933, Handler became entangled with a much larger opponent as reported by the Kenosha Evening News:

“During the argument between the officials and players, Cal Hubbard, 265-pound Green Bay tackle, and Phil Handler, 215-pound Chicago guard, exchanged blows. Curly Lambeau, Green Bay coach, and Paul Schissler, Chicago coach, and players of both teams rushed off the benches onto the field. Spectators also joined the melee, and policemen and ushers had to help clear the field before play was resumed.”

Handler’s leadership and experience on the field were recognized by Cards head coach Milan Creighton in 1935. The veteran Handler injured his wrist in an exhibition game on September 1 against the local Calumet All-Stars and was faced with a long recovery time. Creighton promptly named Handler as the line coach of the Cardinals, a position he would retain until his retirement as a player after the 1936 season. 

Even then, as a player/coach for two campaigns, Handler continued to study the game. One of his biggest influences was his TCU coach Francis Schmidt and Handler recalled how Schmidt was ever-vigilant in his approach to the game.

“One thing about Schmidt is he never quits trying to learn more football,” Handler told the San Bernadino County Sun in 1935. “He carries a notebook with him all the time and will take a high school team’s play if he thinks it will work!”

shows Phil Handler on the left, symbolically handing over the football to Buddy Parker when the co-coach experiment for the Cardinals ended.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune circa 1949. The photo shows Phil Handler on the left, symbolically handing over the football to Buddy Parker when the co-coach experiment for the Cardinals ended.

NFL Coach Needs To Be A Listener

When the 1937 football season dawned, Handler was no longer on the field but became a full-time assistant for the Cardinals under coach Milan Creighton. A series of nagging injuries in the latter years of his career helped support his decision to move out of the trenches.

However, Handler did toy with the idea of coaching on the collegiate level, even lending a hand to the TCU staff during its spring drills in 1937. But, his heart, and his mind, remained in the NFL as he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that year about the main difference in the two levels of play:

“There’s a lot of difference between coaching young, anxious boys and trying to teach something to a professional. In the latter league, a coach has to be better at listening than at talking.”

Slow Talking, Clear Thinking Fellow

Handler took over the line responsibilities under Milan in 1937 and 1938, remained on board with Ernie Nevers in 1939, and then joined the staff of Jimmy Conzelman from 1940-1942. When Conzelman left the Cardinals after the 1942 season, Handler received the head coaching nod from owner Charles Bidwill on July 3, 1943.

At the age of just 34, Handler would be the youngest head coach in the NFL. The Chicago Tribune described him as “a quiet, earnest, sincere, slow-talking, clear-thinking fellow whose loyalty to the team and the National Football League has stretched over 13 years.”

Handler’s initial effort was not a resounding success. In fact, it was horrible as the Cardinals finished 0-10 with a depleted roster that Handler just could not fill with few talented players due to the military commitments of World War II.

Now, here’s where the legacy of Coach Handler became a bit tarnished. Due to the aforementioned war effort, the Cardinals merged with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1944 with Handler serving as co-coach with Walt Kiesling of the Steelers. Nothing went right for the Card-Pitts in 1944 as the club also finished 0-10. So, should Handler rightfully absorb the combined 0-20 records for 1943 and 1944 when the latter of those two seasons was with a partner coach? Of course—and that is just the way the NFL record books document his performance.

There have been other NFL coaches with horrific records in the league’s history. For example, Faye Abbott coached the Dayton Triangles to a 0-13 mark in 1928 and 1929. Then, in more modern times, Marion Campbell struggled through nine seasons with three teams in the 1970s and 1980s to compile a 34-80-1 mark. A pair of Lions’ coaches, Rod Marinelli (10-38) and Marty Mornhinweg (5-27) also steered near the bottom dwellers in terms of winning percentage with marks of .208 and .156 respectively.

Even future NFL Commissioner Bert Bell endured some difficult times, going 10-46-2 from 1936-1940 coaching the Eagles. John McKay suffered an awful start with Tampa Bay in 1976 and 1977 when he finished with a 2-26 record to start his tenure with Tampa. He did rebound to conclude his overall career with a 44-88-4 mark but many cannot forget that difficult beginning which was one of the worst starts ever. Poor Phil Handler managed to top, or should we say bottom, all of those marks.

These Hands Weren't Made to Carry a Briefcase!

After stumbling without a win in back-to-back winless seasons in 1943 and 1944, Handler suffered through another ugly experience in 1945, finishing 1-9. After 22 consecutive losses under Handler, the Cardinals bumped off the Chicago Bears 16-7 on October 14, 1945. The win also snapped the Cardinals 29 game-losing streak, the longest in NFL history!

Jimmy Conzelman was coaxed back into leading the Cardinals in 1946 and turned the team into NFL champions the following year. Instead of discarding Phil Handler and his 1-29 head coaching record, owner Charles Bidwill rewarded his loyal and talented staff member as an assistant coach from 1946-1948. During that time the club emerged as the top team in the league, winning that title in 1947 and then returning to the championship game in 1948 where the Eagles edged the Cards 7-0 in a blinding snowstorm.

But the coaching merry-go-round continued for Handler in 1949 when Conzelman retired for good. Handler was handed the unenviable task of serving as co-head coach once again, this time with Buddy Parker. Would this provide the opportunity for Handler to improve his hideous won-loss record?

With virtually the entire roster back from the powerful 1948 squad, the Cardinals nonetheless stumbled out of the block with a 2-3 record prompting President Ray Benningsen to discontinue the co-coaching arrangement. Handler was sent to the front office, while Parker was given full control of the club. Most reference statistics indicate that Handler was 2-4 as the co-head coach during 1949, but it was actually 2-3, boosting his lifetime mark to 3-32! 

By 1950, the legendary Curly Lambeau was brought in as the next head coach of the Cardinals and Handler was surprised when he was asked to return to the sidelines from his slot in the team’s front office. A delighted Handler told the Chicago Tribune: “I enjoyed scouting players, teams, and signing players.

But the more I worked at it the more I sort of felt like baseball’s Charley Grimm when he said, ‘These hands weren’t made to carry a briefcase.’ When Curly came back, I made up my mind I’d like to get back into coaching. Believe me, if he hadn’t invited me to take the line coaching job, I would have asked him for it!”

Still the Worst Record Ever

Handler’s final call to the head coaching ranks occurred in 1951 when Lambeau was forced out with two games remaining. As usual, Handler was ready and split his last two contests to conclude his head coaching career with a 4-33 record, a .108 winning percentage, and still the worst ever!

Handler left the Cardinals after the 1951 season but stayed in Chicago with an assistant coaching role with the Bears. Handler remained with the team through 1967 and was part of the staff that led the Bears to the 1963 NFL championship, the second for Handler as an NFL coach.

Sadly, he passed away in 1968 at the age of 60, but he was doing something that he loved. Handler had suffered a pair of heart attacks in early 1968. Then while watching the Bears secure a 17-16 win over the Los Angeles Rams at the end of the regular season, Handler succumbed to a fatal heart attack. 

As David Condon of the Chicago Tribune wrote of Handler’s nearly 40-year NFL career: “Phil Handler wasn’t one of professional football’s original settlers. But the original settlers still were staking claims, and still very much the pioneers, when they welcomed the small lineman from Texas Christian into their fold.

Handler lived to see professional football develop into the world’s greatest contact sport. When Phil Handler died, professional football had evolved a long way from the game that Phil embraced in 1930. Phil himself was a witness to all the giant strides taken by the game. His contributions were many.”

Although his head coaching record was dismal due to very challenging circumstances, as an assistant, he won two NFL championships and was a participant in over 170 NFL wins for his teams while coaching for over 30 years in the NFL. He worked under several head coaches, absorbed numerous offensive schemes, and developed many All-Pro players.

He was a coach widely respected by his players because he had been there in the trenches, understood the physical challenges, and patiently dished out large samples of concern, teaching, and friendship.

In fact, upon his death, the Civic Center Bank and Trust Company in Chicago commissioned a large portrait of Handler to honor his service to the bank as an organizing director. Quite unusual for a football coach, but then again, Phil Handler was quite an unusual person!

Thank you for joining us for this episode of “When Football Was Football” on the Sports History Network.

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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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