To his friend and kindred coaching soul, Jack Pardee, Ted Marchibroda would say: "Wait it out. Take whatever anyone throws at you. You've done the best that you can. You know that you can do the job, because you've done it. You don't even question that."
The similarities between what happened to Marchibroda two days after Christmas last year and what popular wisdom suggests will happen to Pardee at about that time this year are eerie. Both experienced wild success; both quickly fell on hard times -- and most of those same fans preferred lynch talk to reason.
No coach in NFL history was more successful more quickly than Marchibroda with the Colts five years ago. Nobody ever fueled such a worst-to-first rocket. What Lombardi accomplished his first season at Green Bay paled in comparison to what Marchibroda accomplished his first season in Baltimore.
All Lombardi did in 1959 was take a 1-10-1 team to 7-5. In 1975, Marchibroda took a 2-12 team to 10-4 and the AFC East Division championship. The next year his most important victory came just before the season began. That personal power struggle with General Manager Joe Thomas ultimately may have doomed both, though Marchibroda was 11-3 immediately after it.
"There's never been a coach in the history of the NFL, that I can think of, who had more pressure on him than I did the first game of the '76 season," he was saying over breakfast yesterday. "Imagine (having forced a showdown that ended with the firing of the man who built the team Marchibroda was coaching) what would have happened to me if we'd lost that game (to New England).
"You can't be afraid to put yourself on a spot -- and I did. We had to win. And before the game started we were under the goal post, waiting to be introduced, and I went up to Bert (Jones) and said: 'This is like starting your first high school game.'
"To me (as a player, in fact, he was the quarterback the Steelers kept the year they cut John Unitas), the greatest thing in the world was to start your first high school game. You look forward to it from, well, from grade one. And when I mentioned that to Bert, that it was like starting his first high school game, he said:
"'Coach, I won that one.'"
The Colts beat the Patriots that day. They won another AFC East championship -- and lost to the nonpareil Steelers again in the playoffs. In '77, they won The AFC East for the third straight season -- and for the third straight year lost the first round of the playoffs. Then came the swift decline that left him unemployed two years after his third miracle.
He has recovered nicely, to the point where he can look back with more smiles than bitterness. Or at least in public. He has two more years left on his contract with the Colts -- and part of it is an agreement not to speak ill either of the team or the owner, Robert Irsay.
"No regrets," he said. "We won three divisional championships -- and that's what you're in the business for.To win championships, not go .500. I always told the players that if we went to Vegas we either were gonna win it all or come home broke.
"Funny. When I look at it now, that's how it turned out. Three championships and finished last twice."
He finished last, for the most part, because the players who made him a genius got hurt. There were 11 in all, including the stud Colt himself, Jones, who missed 25 of the Colts' 32 games in '78 and '79 and threw just 134 passes. Jones was Marchibroda's John Riggins. Like Pardee with the Redskins, Marchibroda had two offensive tackles go down.
There were tragic off-the-field problems. Two of the players had children die and another, Joe Ehrmann, missed as many practices as he made because of a terminally ill brother.Marchibroda's wife Henrietta was seriously injured in an automobile accident just before the start of the '78 season.
As Marchibroda knows so well, most of the coaches considered brilliant are the ones whose best players stayed healthy the longest.
"You win when your superstars carry you," he said.
But you don't ask your superstars to carry you. Or the spear carriers, either. That is one of the commandments of coaching, he said. Odd as it sounds to anyone not regularly privy to an NFL locker room, asking players to win one for the coach is the worst way to generate inspiration.
"Never do that, ask 'em to win for you," he said. "That's the worst thing you can do. No sir. People play for their own personal reasons, for whatever motivates them -- money, love of the game, families or just the joy of playing. Don't ever ask 'em to win one for you."
"It's just something I've come to terms with," he said.
One of his regrets -- and Washingtonians who watched his work as offensive coordinator for the Redskins under George Allen will appreciate this -- is not gambling more.
"You win with 25 hunch," he said, which loosely translated means Larry Brown following Charley Harraway. "But I wish now I'd used a few more gimmicks, reverses, that sort of thing."
What drove him to become a head coach, what drives him to return again, is the occasional moment when teaching and preaching yield unimagined success.
"I remember walking into the locker room when we won the first championship," he said, "when I was able to look at our players and call 'em champs. (Many of them had been part of that 2-12 disaster the season before.) This is what it's all about. I'd remembered reading, as a kid, about the 1914 Boston Braves, who were in last place July 4 and won the penant.
"And here we were -- living that."