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Mile-high hopes in high old Denver

Jack Faulkner, the youngest pro coach, has his American League team in first place—and the town in love with him

It used to be that the people of Denver—with a hauteur once reserved for Molly Brown of Leadville—would refer to the Denver Broncos of the American Football League as "the finest high school team in the state." The Broncos were equal to the compliment. As the Mile-high City looked down its mile-long nose, the Broncos, playing to as few as 7,000 fans, lost 20 games in two years and, what's more, looked like losers in their drab brown uniforms and vertical-striped socks. That's the way it used to be.

Sunday the unsinkable Broncos, new pride of Denver, miracle turnabout of the AFL, won their fifth game in six 1962 starts, routing winless Oakland 23-6. They did it in what has become their fashion, with Quarterback Frank Tripucka probing and jabbing with short-and medium-range passes, one for a touchdown, Gene Mingo kicking field goals (three) and a quick-charging defensive line forcing Raider mistakes. They now lead Dallas by half a game in the Western Division and look almost good enough to believe. Denver, believing, is rushing to Bears Stadium to declare the Broncos acceptable.

Contributing to this turn of fortune are: 1) an ownership with a will to spend money and the money to spend—and the foresight to have hired 2) Jack Faulkner, the new head coach with no experience as a head coach who remade the staff and brought about a masterpiece of 3) reorganization, beginning with a change in uniform colors from losers' golden brown to winners' orange, blue and white. In a special rite before the season, the Broncos gathered on the practice field (also new) and ceremoniously burned the vertical-striped socks. But most of all it is Faulkner who, at 36, is two weeks younger than Norm Van Brocklin, whom he replaced as the youngest head coach in pro football. He played for Sid Gillman at Miami, Ohio, and for the 13 years since has been defense assistant to Gillman at Cincinnati University and with the Los Angeles Rams and the San Diego Chargers.

Faulkner is much the Gillman type: a believer in meticulous programming and public relations ("I musta made a thousand speeches the first six months I was here," he said), a strong-minded, personable man, well groomed, stockily built, with a lump nose and a manner just devious enough to be intriguing. Denver sportswriters, who love him, like to imagine there is a touch of larceny in Faulkner. They glow in the retelling of Gillman's charge that he caught a Denver spy writing notes on a Dixie cup at the San Diego camp before the first game of the season (which Denver portentously won 31-21). "I got him, I caught your man," Gillman bleated long distance. "I don't know what you're talking about," answered Faulkner.

When the 275-pound rookie tackle Isaac Lassiter was being sought by the Dallas Texans, who had first rights for his contract, Faulkner was accused of hiding him in Denver. Faulkner denied it, but he did not deny he knew where Lassiter could be found. The Broncos wound up signing Lassiter legitimately, but the episode smacked of skulduggery. "He he he," chortled Bob Bowie of The Denver Post. "That's our boy."

Closer to the truth is the fact that Faulkner is quite strict (though not by comparison with Cleveland's Paul Brown) in his demands for good conduct by his players: no smoking in public places because it's "bad for kids to see," no beer in the locker room or on airplanes, ties and coats on the road, a strict adherence to curfews. "They're all good about it, but sometimes they can make you laugh," he said. "One night at camp I was checking beds when I spotted Goose Gonsoulin and Bob Zeman trying to slip in before I got to their room. When I reached their room there they were—all cuddled up, playing possum. I flipped the covers back and they still had their clothes on. 'All right,' I said, '37 minutes late, a dollar a minute, that's 37 bucks.' They complained, so I called in Bud McFadin. You know Bud. Big, tough, smart. A great leader. He's chairman of the grievance committee. He listened to them for about half a breath and said, 'Awright, awright, $37 apiece. Case dismissed.' "

Faulkner is, besides Gillman, the only head coach in the league who doubles as general manager. He was given free rein and a big bank balance almost from the moment he arrived in Denver last January. He came at the bidding of Team President Calvin W. Kunz, one of the seven moneyed Denver natives who the year before had bought a majority interest in Rocky Mountain Empire Sports Incorporated when it appeared that the Broncos and the Denver baseball club, also owned by RMESI, were about to founder. Chairman of the board and strongest member is Gerald H. Phipps, scion of the richest family in Colorado. In 1961 the Broncos lost $300,000. "We studied the history of the National Football League and the future of the AFL and felt the Broncos would eventually be our moneymakers," said Phipps. "But we decided after that that it was going to take a lot more spending this year."

First of the big spenders

Both Phipps and Kunz took a quick liking to Faulkner, and Faulkner immediately qualified as a big spender. He added three new assistants, all from winning teams: Mac Speedie, end coach from Houston; Jim Martin, formerly of the Detroit Lions, offensive line coach; and Gary Glick, ex-Baltimore Colt, defensive backfield. Salaries were half again greater than those paid to the 1961 Bronco staff of the deposed Frankie Filchock. Faulkner retained Line Coach Dale Dodrill and, surprisingly, made few significant changes in the team.

"We always had the talent," says Tripucka. "But we never had organization. We used to make up plays in the huddle: 'O.K., who wants to run out for a pass?' And on blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage I was up there pointing to the guys on the other team: 'Somebody better get him. Somebody better take him.' When they put two men over the center I was doomed to wind up on my behind, because all we ever blocked was the man on our nose." Tripucka was on his behind often last year, unbefitting a man of his age (34) and paternal accomplishment (six children and a seventh due in January). He began to feel very old at season's end and threatened for the 948th time to retire. With the arrival of Faulkner, he changed his mind. ""Now here," he said, "is an organizer. This team will go now."

Martin taught the offensive line some basic truths about blocking. Speedie did the same for End Lionel Taylor, the best pass receiver in the league, and improved the catching technique of Tight End Gene Prebola. The defensive secondary was reinforced by the purchase of Bob Zeman of San Diego. Tripucka discovered he had still another fine receiver in Bob Scarpitto, formerly with San Diego; and by half time of the first game unsuspecting San Diego, the defending Western champion, was down 24-7. Mingo had kicked a 53-yard field goal, Tripucka had thrown two touchdown passes and the record 28,000 Denverites present (the Broncos must average only 22,000 to break even) were so possessed with the surprise of it all they stood and cheered for 60 seconds as the team left the field.

George Shaw, picked up from the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL when Van Brocklin became disenchanted with him, now spells Tripucka at quarterback. The Broncos throw 85% of the time—or six plays out of seven—but Faulkner would like to cut that down. "Cut it down?" said Speedie, the onetime Cleveland Brown end. "Let's throw more." It is likely, however, that with the return of Halfback Donnie Stone the Broncos will do more with a supplementary running game. They will need this ultimately to beat Dallas.

Faulkner, meanwhile, is never far removed from his small miracle. He talks football constantly. Flitting around Denver in his new Pontiac, he gets so preoccupied that his coaches say he becomes a menace. At dinner with friends, Faulkner can be seen drawing surreptitious Xs and Os on napkins and tablecloths. He goes back to the office nights to watch game films until he is bleary-eyed. His pretty wife Betty, who often finds him asleep on the sofa where he has flopped after a long day that went on into the night, once discovered him asleep at 5 a.m., his infant son John nestled in his arms, baby bottle clutched in his hand. "I guess," she said, "it is not always easy to work wonders."