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Chief of the Chiefs gets well-deserved spot in Hall

By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003


Hank Stram was the cockiest, most quotable, most outrageous, most fancy attired football coach I ever knew. Next summer, with a bust that should be K.C. Red instead of Canton Bronze, the 80-year-old rooster from Purdue will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"My high school coach warned me," Stram said from his palatial home on the Tchefuncie Bayou in Louisiana, "to never go into coaching, saying it was nothing but a chance to get fired."

Stram did get fired -- twice -- after a 15-season Hall of Fame run with the Kansas City Chiefs, champions of Super Bowl IV, and then by the Saints, partly because the 0-26 Tampa Bay Bucs went to New Orleans and dominated 33-14 on Dec. 11, 1977, first-ever win ever for a franchise that, a Roman-numeraled eternity later, would rule Super Bowl XXXVII.

"That was not among my happier Sundays, because no team wanted to be first to lose to those original Bucs," Stram said, "but I felt good that (coach) John McKay got a gorilla off his back.

"I first knew McKay when we were kids at Purdue, before he changed to Oregon. Another of our Boilermaker teammates was Abe Gibron (former Chicago Bears coach and onetime defensive line assistant to McKay with the Bucs). I met a lot of huge men in my life but none of them could eat more, or more diversely, than Abie.

"But the far bigger, more important fact for Henry Stram is that I've lived a charmed life, being married forever to the only girl I ever loved and being able to do a job I truly loved with the Chiefs. I'm feeling good even now. Had some eye problems but that has cleared up. I'm a lucky fellow."

Stram was an unforgettable portrait as chief of the Chiefs. Wearing fancy red vests and clothes tailored by the most renowned rag merchants on Earth, he strutted Kansas City's sideline like a combo of Patton and Napoleon.

Always with rolled-up game plan in hand, the chap from a tough Indiana town called Gary would pound Lenny Dawson, Buck Buchanan, Willie Lanier and his other K.C. players with criticisms both harsh and laudatory.

Dawson, his quarterback, was also a Purdue guy who calls Stram "an amazing piece of work, one of the most creative and self-confident people I've ever known." It will be Lenny who presents Hank in July on the Hall of Fame steps in Canton, Ohio.

Stram had never been a head coach when, as a University of Miami Ohio assistant, he was summoned by then-youthful franchise owner Lamar Hunt. They became the Dallas Texans at 1959 inception, playing in the American Football League, but Hank and Lamar and company soon chose to elude competition with the NFL Cowboys and move to K.C. to become the Chiefs.

"I don't know if anyone was more important in the AFL's 10-year battle for credibility that led to the historic merger with the NFL and the league we now enjoy," Hunt told the Associated Press, making a statement that probably curled the greasy hair of Oakland Raiders originator Al Davis, self-styled godfather of the upstart league.

"Hank won three AFL championships," Hunt said, "and got us to two Super Bowls, winning one. When he was elected to the Hall, I jumped straight up out of my chair and cheered." Lamar, like Davis, still owns his old AFL team after 43 years.

During his Saints coaching time, Stram -- ever the slick operator -- wooed an army of contractors, craftsmen and architects into building him a Louisiana mansion across Lake Pontchartrain near Covington. I went there once and most unforgettable, among a flood of luxuries he and Phyllis enjoy, was the little peacock's clothes closet: big enough for a football scrimmage and to hold Hank's stylish array of duds.

After the Saints let him go, Stram became a CBS-TV commentator and was terrific. Ironically, for several seasons he did Bucs exhibitions games on local television, calling plays for the long-suffering franchise that cracked his kingdom in New Orleans.

Hank was always lobbying for another NFL coaching job. He schmoozed Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse, hoping, as Bucs leaders kept falling like battered dominoes, that the old Kansas City hero might be granted a new stake. Never happened, but it still was a "charmed life" for Henry. Still going, too, as his Hall of Fame induction approaches.

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