If Joseph Lawrence Kuharich had written his own epitaph it might have read, "Born in South Bend, anointed by Knute Rockne with a pat on the head as a 10-year-old 'townie,' became a head coach at Notre Dame, and died on Super Bowl Sunday. What a day to go!"
The square-rigged son of an immigrant coal miner from Croatia had the satisfaction of a temporary conquest of cancer, and it took a massive heart attack to still his emaciated body, at age 63.
The clan gathered in already sad Philadelphia Eagles' territory on Wednesday -- Commissioner Pete Rozelle to deliver the eulogy, Jerry Wolman, Kuharich's benefactor and believer in his philosophy about stability for coaches, and Eddie LeBaron, the charm-sized quarterback who shared the battle against the odds when they were both with the Redskins.
Sports history will record Kuharich as the only losing coach at Notre Dame, a professional coach who lost more than he won, but in life Kuharich clung to the conviction that there is not that much difference between victory and defeat.
He demonstrated at the University of San Francisco that he could produce a perfect (9-0) record when he had quality players such as Ollie Matson, Gino Marchetti, Dick Stanfel, Red Stephens, Ed Brown, Bob St. Clair, Roy Barni and Joe Scudero, all of whom made the transition to professional football that same season. Characteristic of Kuharich's rollercoaster career, San Francisco dropped football that year.
In Washington, Kuharich's slogan of, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going," sustained him as he tried to win under Redskin founder George Preston Marshall, who threw money around as if he were afraid of it being intercepted; limited Kuharich to three assistants, and denied him access to the talents of black players in an era when "Hail to The Redskins" ended with "Fight for old Dixie."
Kuharich not only developed Matson at San Francisco, he later drafted him while head coach of the then Chicago Cardinals.
He had a wry understanding of the ego-bruising hazards of his profession and once cited a bit of humorous verse to make his point, about a coach who died and presented himself at the gate of heaven. The last few lines went, ". . . and St. Peter rang the bell. 'Come in and pick up your harp,' he said. 'You've had your share of hell.'"
Kuharich was among the pioneers who contended, "Any National Football League team can beat another on any given Sunday." Of course, it wouldn't wash with long-suffering Redskin fans.
Nevertheless, at the 1958 Welcome Home luncheon for the Redskins, he was trying again with the following verse:
Success is failure, turned inside out --
the silver tint of the clouds of doubt.
And you'll never know how close you are;
You may be near when it seems afar.
So stick to the fight when you are hardest hit;
It's when things go wrong that you must stick.
Curiously, owner Marshall, notoriously impatient with losing coaches, granted Kuharich the longest contract in Redskin history -- for five years -- four months earlier. And despite a subsequent 4-7-1 record, when Notre Dame asked permission to hire Kuharich, Marshall consented, though he previously had assailed college coaches for not honoring contracts, and colleges form making overtures to coaches under pro contracts.
Kuharich had a 17-23 record at Notre Dame from 1959 through 1962. Yet when he became unemployed he not only was favored by a rookie NFL owner, Jerry Wolman, who bought the Eagles in 1964; he was granted the first $1-million contract, to be coach for five years and general manager for 15 seasons -- $49,000 annually as coach and $60,000 a year as general manager.
As if he foresaw that Tom Landry and Bud Grant would become examples bolstering his argument for long-range security of coaches, Kuharich said, "Admittedly, it's a precarious profession at present, but it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, I'd say in about 20 years it won't be.
"Why do coaches get fired? For various reasons. Sometimes it's the ownership . . . or the fans . . . or the writers . . . or men with influence in and around the organization. Granted, the same groups always will be with us; I still feel an educational process is going on. More and more informed people will look to the answers to the questions: What does the team look like? Is it well drilled? How do the players conduct themselves?
"The more they understand the game, the more they'll know what constitutes a good coaching job -- win or lose."
Resolute in his conviction, Kuharich ignored the suggestions of armchair quarterbacks and left for the coaches of posterity the advice, "Don't listen to those fans in the stands or you'll be up there with them."
Kuharich ended up there after first alienating the Eagle fans by trading Sonny Jurgensen to the Redskins for Norm Snead, then managing only one winning season, in 1966. What he didn't count on was Wolman having a losing streak in the construction business and having to sell to Leonard Tose in 1969.
Kuharich offered to return money to help Wolman out of his financial plight, but it was too late to save Wolman. Kuharich had 10 years left on his general manager's contract when Tose took over, but as Kuharich planned to settle in California there came the cruel irony of being stricken with bone cancer in his first year of retirement.