Tommy Prothro should have destroyed the illusion by now, yet still there persists the amorphous, unkind image of the collegiate football coach who takes over an NFL team: zealously enthusiastic, boyishly gauche, short on knowledge but long on ridiculous ambition, his rah-rah cheers grating on the ears of cynical veterans who probably intimidate him.
It is a temptingly easy description of John Ralston, 45, the new head coach of the Denver Broncos, but it misses the mark badly. While Ralston may be as callow as the next new kid on the NFL block, he is unlikely to be intimidated either by the game or its players, and for every occasion of naiveté there is an adamant toughness about his methods which, although they chafe, seem to bode well for Denver's perennial losers, who on occasion have had to duck snowballs thrown by outraged fans.
Now in its 13th year as a pro football franchise, Denver has won stunning, perverse support from its slush-lobbing public, part of which stormed the fences last year in an irate rush on the Bronco bench after one more Denver defeat. On another day, one brave man in his frustration threatened to sock it to a lineman. Deplorable behavior, it is true, but predictable. During their dozen years of varying dreariness the Broncos have yet to experience a winning season. The team's high-water mark was a 7-7-0 split in 1962 (the last year Denver beat the Oakland Raiders), and for the 48 wins compiled by the Broncos since their inception, rivals have hung it on them no less than 114 times. Despite such ineptitude, season ticket sales are at an alltime high and have been in each of the last five years, thus proving the resilient popularity either of pro football or of snowballing.
There are countless examples, of course, of teams that suffered similar misery and ultimately profited by it through high choices in the collegiate player draft, earning a strong-armed quarterback or some other necessary wonder as reward for a wretched season. Not so the Broncos. In the initial seven years of the team's American Football League existence Denver's first draft choices to a man signed with the rival NFL. Since the merger Denver has won just enough games to preclude an early draft choice of Jim Plunkett caliber, thereby sustaining a noncontender's status. It is a common rap around the Rocky Mountains that no Bronco quarterback has ever thrown a pass for 40 yards on less than three bounces.
An immensely likable man who relishes an ever-tougher challenge, Ralston came to the Broncos in January after nine years at Stanford, where his last two teams scored gutsy, wonderful upset victories in the Rose Bowl. In 1971 defense and Plunkett's phenomenal passing knocked off Ohio State 27-17, a team that had been favored by 17 points. Last New Year's Day defense and Don Bunce engineered an even more miraculous triumph, grabbing a 13-12 victory over-Michigan in the last 12 seconds of play.
More than any other contests the Rose Bowls stamped Ralston as the premier riverboat gambler of the collegiate set, a coach who not only would call for the long pass or flanker reverse on first down but on the first snap from scrimmage. Yet it is probably safe to say that the bold approach in football or anything else is slightly foreign to Ralston's true nature, which is as conservative as the next coach's until winning demands opting in the direction of risk. Indeed, Ralston is at once both adaptable and adamant, depending on the frame of reference. Tailoring an offense or game plan to the available talent is an adjustment easily handled. Changes in his methods won't come easily, if at all.
The points on which Ralston will allow no compromise—and the grumbling heard in the background comes from some Bronco veterans—are meticulous attention to every detail, a positive attitude that would outdistance Norman Vincent Peale and reliance on those things from the past that have been successful. Thus, with few exceptions, pro football has been no different for Ralston at Denver than at Stanford, where last week before their exhibition game with the San Francisco 49ers, the Broncos established their third training camp site.
"I thought this was going to be a lot tougher," Ralston said, "but I haven't noticed that much difference. The only thing is that we'll be starting a month earlier and playing a month later than the colleges. It doesn't matter that you're in professional football, you've got to coach to your personality. The game is still the same and you lose just like you do in college—on a fumble or interception. You can't become Vince Lombardi all of a sudden. This is my 22nd year in coaching and I intend to do things the same way I always have."
Ralston's way has been fraught with change for the Bronco players, who have taken to their new boss with varying degrees of esteem. They are not yet sure how to react to his fastidiousness, which can extend to the way his players break from the huddle, take their stances and fire off the line. Lou Saban, who left Denver for Buffalo after five fruitless years of trying to produce a winner, never had included such seemingly trivial items as part of his instruction.
"Lou expected you to be able to adjust to little things without being very explicit about them," said Mike Current, an offensive tackle. "John will take more time for everything. He's very precise. We've been treated more like college players than pros. In many cases it's been good because we got back to some fundamentals, but a lot of the players have resented the little things. The more I see of John Ralston, the more he reminds me of Woody Hayes. He's not as obstinate and overbearing, but things are going to be done his way."
Ralston's biggest change produced the only serious hassle he has yet endured as an NFL coach, one which he handled with his customary unflinching directness. ("If you don't want problems," he says, "you shouldn't be a head coach. You should try something easy, like selling pencils.") It came after he moved the team training camp out of Colorado for the first time in history, selecting Cal Poly at Pomona for the isolated, Spartan environment he felt essential to rigorous conditioning. Team consensus says the camp was both the best and worst any Bronco ever endured. The physical demands, severe enough, were more harsh for the temperature, which reached 112° one day, but nearly everyone on the club admits he is now in the best condition of his career.
While Ralston, impervious to the heat, drilled his men, he couldn't ignore the overt griping voiced by defensive captain Dave Costa, a disgruntled nine-year veteran who had come to camp unsigned and who made no bones about wanting to be traded, preferably to Buffalo. When he was leg-whipped by a rookie during drills on an especially hot day, Costa rebelled, berating both the rookie and, in his words, "the chicken drill." Shortly afterward Ralston sent Costa out of camp in a cab. While it wasn't announced, it is probable that Costa was suspended, thus lowering his market value, before he was traded to San Diego for a No. 3 draft choice and Eddie Ray, a running back who will have a tough time making the 40-man roster.
"There are only two things I ask," Ralston says, "loyalty to the organization and its community and a willingness to work. Dave Costa and I just had an impasse as far as what it takes to play winning football."
While they produced the kind of explosions often heard in a basic training platoon, both Pomona and the confrontation with Costa achieved the results Ralston wanted. Nearly every Bronco, although friendly to Costa, agreed that Ralston took the only course available. This includes Floyd Little, Denver's NFL rushing champion, who told Ralston, "Hang in there, coach," immediately after the Costa flap.
"He's got a pretty good approach," Little says. "Get everyone tired and leaning on each other. It creates unity, and a little more of that won't hurt us. I've gotten to know more of our younger players this year than in previous camps. I don't like the running we have to do after practice, but if that is what it takes to get there, I can suck it up for another 15 minutes. We've had pretty good unity on this club, but I feel Ralston augmented it because he's personally involved. He's part of it. He wants to see the fire in everyone's eye."
As one of the Broncos' most dedicated team leaders, Little also gave the new coach a boost when he told other players, "Hey, let's do it. We owe it to him to try. We'll see what happens and then make our decision in December. This is the only way Ralston knows how to get the job done, and we owe it to him to give him 100%."
It hasn't all gone Ralston's way, which is to be expected in a situation that calls for sacrificing exhibition game victories for the more important chore of studying players and the harsh unfamiliarity of cutting some of them from the roster. Even in the friendly surroundings of Stanford, Ralston lost two players to knee injuries: Jerry Inman, a swing man in the front four, went down in obvious pain, while Tommy Lyons, an offensive guard, worked through the entire practice and ran off the field before his leg locked on him. Ralston's exhibition debut ended in a 41-0 loss at Washington. The following week he saw his team lose to the Cardinals 17-13.
"We've got to change some attitudes here," Ralston said, "and that isn't easy. We were leading St. Louis at halftime, but I could tell we were out of our comfort zone. We didn't expect to be leading 13-0 at the half—it's like a hacker who plays the front nine at one over par. You know what's going to happen to him on the back nine. The difference with the good teams is that they're angry they're not ahead 30-0. The great fighter isn't the one with the big knockout punch but the guy who hits his opponent eight times as he's going down to the floor."
Sunday in San Francisco there were blatant indications that some attitudes had already changed and that the Broncos were getting Ralston's message. With Charley Johnson, the 11-year veteran Ralston got from Houston, passing superbly in the first half and a suddenly pressed Don Horn throwing equally as well in the second, the Broncos won 27-24 over the 49ers, whom Ralston reasonably did not expect to defeat. "I was pleased with the effort," he said, "because it was a week ahead of schedule." He also was cheered when his team voted to give him the game ball. "This one I'll really cherish," he said.
It should not be implied that John Ralston has come to pro football and found it devoid of new experiences, for his situation is essentially a cram course that would be easier to master were he less sensitive, and less embarrassing were he less honest.
"I'm not afraid of being outcoached as much as I am of being outknowledged," Ralston says. "You've got to learn your own players first, and that may take two years. Then you've got to know the personnel of the other 25 teams. That's why I haven't been in any hurry to make a lot of trades. It is really suicidal to try horse trading when you don't know the horses."
Apart from Costa, the only major trade Ralston completed was the one with Houston's Bill Peterson, the NFL's other rookie ex-college coach, for Johnson. Remarkably, the deal cost Ralston only a draft choice.
Quarterbacking is an enduring historical problem—19 have played the position for the Broncos—but in light of last week's performances Ralston sees a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. "I'm a great one for goal-setting," he says, "and I don't think you'd ever set a goal for a pro team that did not include making the playoffs. I think that would take a 10-4 record. It might seem unrealistic, but we feel it's within our grasp if we work. Anything less, saying we'll do it in three years or so, is unfair to our older players."
Another Bronco solidly in Ralston's corner is Jim Turner, the field-goal kicker of the Super Bowl Jets who was traded by Weeb Ewbank after the 1970 season. "He will be successful," says Turner, who played for Ralston at Utah State. "I think John's biggest challenge right now is to learn the mood of the professional athlete. If he can do that, then half the battle is won, because pro and college athletes aren't in the same ball park. I can understand some of the resentment. I guess I'd feel the same way if anyone started telling me how to kick, but a lot of pro vets will look at a college coach and not give him the benefit of the doubt. If they'll look at the coach as a coach, these meticulous things won't matter."
In which regard the Broncos might remember their history and consider the words of Roger Cowan, a Stanford defensive lineman who was watching their workout during the week. Asked if he had enjoyed playing for Ralston, Cowan replied, "Man, I loved the guy. We won it, didn't we?"