Miami — Henry Stram was a preening, proud fashion plate of a pro football coach. He was a bantam man who paraded along the sidelines in sports jackets flavored with stunning waistcoats, quite often bright red.
He devised revolutionary offensive schemes and was never reluctant to boast about them. So it was, he arrived for the countdown to Super Bowl IV with the Kansas City Chiefs — just 50 years ago — still burning about the putdown he’d received three years earlier by Vince Lombardi.
Now Lombardi fits into my category of great football coaches as the greatest. Not flashy, not flamboyant, The Great Lombardi believed in smashmouth blocking and tackling — and the abilities of his Green Bay Packers to carry out their disciplines.
And Stram and Lombardi had clashed at Super Bowl I in 1967 in the first championship showdown between two still enemy leagues.
Lombardi sizzled with NFL blood in his veins. The NFL was the established league, and it had celebrated the entire season with pompous NFL-50 patches on all the players’ uniforms.
Stram was an American Football League original, boasting of its supremacy. He was proud that the AFL, just seven years in operation had forced the NFL into a merger.
Lombardi had singed Stram with his comments, under prodding, after the NFL’s Packers had outclassed Stram’s AFL Chiefs, 35-10, in what was billed blatantly as “The First Annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game.”
“This is an NFL ball,” Lombardi said, flipping a football postgame in the victorious locker room, “and it kicks a little bit better, and it throws a little bit better and it catches a little bit better ...
“I don’t think Kansas City compares with the best teams in the NFL. “Dallas is a better team.”
Being a messenger for truth, I dashed to the other locker room (I was able to dash then). Lombardi’s scoffing critique was relayed to Stram.
“I don’t think one game is any criterion to decide the strength of two leagues,” Stram told me.
Carrying a grudge
At Super Bowl IV, Stram still openly burned.
“In the first Super Bowl, the players were motivated,” Stram said one morning in New Orleans. “Then afterwards there were some stories about how they played.
“Very frankly, we weren’t impressed with what was said then.”
Hank Stram swaggered through the media conclaves those days before Super Bowl IV. His AFL champion Chiefs were 14-point underdogs to the NFL champion Vikings. The NFL had fallen to the AFL’s Jets and Joe Namath the year before. The AFL had again forced the NFL to accept it as full-fledged franchises in a re-formed, enlarged NFL.
After all, Super Bowl III and the defeat of the NFL’s Colts was, using Stram’s philosophy, was just “one game.”
Stram, the 10-seasons AFL original, unabashedly yearned for revenge. He boasted that his brand was the pro football of the future.
“They’ve never played anybody with our quickness and speed,” Stram said, a putdown of the then-NFL.
He spoke of “The Offense of the ’70s.”
“I’m not trying to sell our offense,” Stram told us. “I definitely feel the trend in the ’60s was a simplicity trend with a basic 4-3 defense and one or two formations on offense.
“I do think the ’70s will have a variety of formations.
“We’ll use as many as 15 to 25 formations in a game. And we put in something new for every game.”
That Super Bowl against the Vikings was going to be the AFL’s last chance to flaunt its style against the NFL and its champions. Stram personally wanted it to be a last hurrah.
Now a half-century after Super Bowl IV, the Chiefs return for the first time all those years to play the play the NFC’s 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. This time, at the highlight of NFL-100, they are American Football CONFERENCE champions
Decades ago, Stram’s prophecy was proven correct. That Super Bowl back then — tinged with unwarranted controversy that quarterback Len Dawson had activities with an arrested Detroit gambler — turned into a laughable rout.
Miked for sound in his fancy wardrobe, Stram chortled that the Vikings were all tangled up chasing Dawson and the Chiefs.
“They can’t figure it out, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
The late Henry Stram was a masterful football coach. His Chiefs — forerunners of pro football’s teams of the 21st century — won Super Bowl IV, 23-7.
They won and earned the last laugh of the NFL-AFL war, adorned in their brilliant red Kansas City uniforms adorned with mocking uniform patches that read “AFL-10.”
By Super Bowl V, the American Football League had transformed into the American Football Conference, and it took a chunk of the established NFL with it.
Now after the 50-year absence, the Chiefs return to the Super Bowl with a fresh, young quarterback .
Patrick Mahomes plays quarterback with a revolutionary, innovative style.
Hank Stram might have chortled all over again.
Jerry Green, a retired sports writer, has covered every Super Bowl for The Detroit News.