According to reports, Robert Irsay activated himself Sunday as the supreme coach of the Baltimore Colts. His coaching credentials may be a bit bizarre -- a spell as a reserve offensive lineman at the University of Illinois, plus vast experience in his air-conditioning business in Skokie, Ill. -- but his authority is impeccable. He owns the team.
It was in Philadelphia, in the third quarter of another losing game for the Colts, their 10th straight, that the owner was seen to desert his box seat and head for the upstairs coaching area with its direct phone lines to the bench. There, he was seen to don a coach's headset -- and not for the purpose of listening to anything.
Irsay proceeded to make third-quarter decisions, the reports said. These included sending a message to Coach Mike McCormack to get Bert Jones out of there, quick, and install a new quarterback, Greg Landry. Jones promptly went out and Landry came in.
Irsay made no admissions about this after the game, and McCormack has limited himself to discreet no-comments, but United Press International says it has confirmed to its satisfaction all reports that Irsay, in a coarse display of authority, preempted the decision-making duties of his titular head coach.
Irsay has a record of this kind of interference, and you can look it up. In 1974, he left his seat to go to the sideline and tell his head coach of the moment, Howard Schnellenberger, that it would be very wise to get quarterback Marty Domres out of there and replace him with young Bert Jones.
Schnellenberger stood up to his owner, refusing to make the change. He later explained that he had had the same quarterback shift in mind, but had rejected it because Irsay had intruded in front of the whole squad, "and I would have lost all stature with my team."
Two years later, his next coach, Ted Marchibroda, told Irsay he wanted no more of the job after Irsay stormed into the Colts' dressing room and castigated his players after their fourth straight preseason loss. Marchibroda's explanation was a simple one: he couldn't tolerate the "front-office interference."
The Colt players and assistant coaches rallied behind Marchibroda, and he returned to the job. But Irsay continued to walk the sideline, offering gratuitous opinions.
The Robert Irsay of his day was the late George Preston Marshall, owner of the Redskins, who easily could top the Colts' owner as a nuisance to coaches. Marshall made certain memorable contributions to the game -- he advised the split of the National Football League into divisions, pioneered the bands and halftime shows, and demanded that quarterbacks be free to pass from any spot behind the line of scrimmage (not just five yards back) -- but he consistently harassed his coaches.
Marshall could have given Irsay lessons in how to use the phones. He was the first to install them in the owner's box, in an era when George Halas had popularized the T-formation. Marshall phoned instructions to coaches on the sideline so frequently that one irreverent writer called it Marshall's "AT & T Formation."
Marshall was on the phones even before his Redskins arrived in Washington in 1937. Previously, they were the Boston Redskins, playing in Fenway Park. It was during that time that Marshall became embroiled in a historic phone snafu with his Redskin coach of the day, Bill (Lone Star) Dietz.
Arriving in the press box for the opening kickoff following some delay because of the crowd and further delay because the cords of his headset were tangled, Marshall was appalled at what he saw on the field. His Redskins were lined up to receive the kick. He reached his coach on the phone and screamed, "Damn you, Dietz, I thought I told you to kick off after we won the toss."
"Where the hell have you been?" Dietz replied. "We did kick off and they ran it back for a touchdown and now we're receiving." What Marshall sputtered is unremembered.
Marshall was quick to remind his coaches who had final decison-making authority. When one of his head coaches, Dud DeGroot, quit after a two-year term, he said he left because Marshall constantly limited his authority and gave assistant coaches more control over the team than DeGroot had.
His first coach in Washington, Ray Flaherty, forbade Marshall to sit on the sideline, but Marshall later appointed coaches who were more pliant, among them Turk Edwards. It was during Edwards' regime that Marshall got in the habit of leaving his seat and going to the sideline to give coaches the benefit of his expertise.
During a losing game in Pittsburgh, Marshall left his box seat to go to the bench and began sending in substitutes in such profusion that a Redskin field goal was nullified because the team had 12 men on the field. Later in the contest, when Marshall was still striding the sideline in agitation, a disrespectful reporter observed, "If George Marshall takes one more step toward that gridiron, the Redskins will be penalized this time for having 11 1/2 men on the field."
The Colts are now 1-10 for the season, but for Bob Irsay it may not be a complete disappointment. He can always tell his grandchildren that he coached in the same league with Tom Landry, Dick Vermeil and Bud Grant. Sort of.