The Leeman Bennett interview - part 1
Denis Crawford begins his interview with the most unsuccessful coach in franchise history with a look at Leeman's background in the NFL and early success with the Falcons before even contemplating the Buccaneers.
Every writer has a weakness. Some lean too heavily on clichés rather than biting the bullet and coming up with something original. Others feel compelled to show off their education by stringing together a litany of prose from a veritable cornucopia of verbiage. My weakness is that I often blur the line between making what I think is a valid humorous point and taking a cheap shot at somebody.
I don’t like taking cheap shots, but I have. Usually, it is not until I have looked back weeks and months later at my column that I realize, “Hey, that wasn’t a very nice thing to write.” I especially feel guilty because I have not met or spoken with most of the people I write about.
A couple of years ago while doing research on the Buccaneers of the 1980’s I was able to speak with a man that I felt I had treated quite harshly. It turned out to be one of the most pleasant interviews I have ever participated in.
The man’s name is Leeman Bennett.
I know that many of us were not heartbroken when Leeman Bennett’s tenure as Tampa Bay head coach ended in 1986 after a 4-28 record. However, in speaking with the former coach I realized that to confine his life to two football seasons is patently unfair.
If history teaches anything it is that there are always two sides to any story. Here is Leeman Bennett’s side as told in an interview on May 20, 2006: While it is true that Leeman Bennett was out of the NFL when Hugh Culverhouse tapped him to succeed John McKay in 1985, he did not exactly just fall off of a turnip truck. Bennett brought an excellent resume and solid reputation with him.
Bennett played in college for Blanton Collier at the University of Kentucky. Collier, who went on to win a NFL Championship with the Cleveland Browns in 1964, had a reputation as a mentor of coaches. In addition to Bennett, Don Shula, Bill Arnsparger and Chuck Knox assisted Collier on the Wildcat sideline. “He (Collier) recruited me to play quarterback and he was definitely my mentor,” Bennett said. “It was my graduate school. Everyone who coached me there went on to become head coaches.”
After graduating from college, Bennett spent one year under Collier until the older coach moved on to Cleveland. After spending a few years at Kentucky, Bennett moved through the ranks with assistant coaching positions at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Cincinnati and the Naval Academy. Bennett joined the NFL in 1970 as a backfield coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and moved the next year to the Detroit Lions.
In 1973 one of his former coaches at Kentucky, Chuck Knox, hired Bennett to coach the wide receivers with the Los Angeles Rams. Over the next five seasons the Rams had one of the more prolific offenses in the NFL and made it to several NFC Championship Games. Sadly, the Rams never got over the hump and made the Super Bowl. Despite the setbacks, Bennett built quite a reputation for himself around the NFL.
After paying his dues for a decade and a half, Bennett was hired to coach the Atlanta Falcons in 1977. “At that time, I was the youngest coach in the League, and I came from the Rams where we had been very successful,” Bennett recalled in explaining his first head coaching job. “I was advised not to take the Atlanta job but I think I was very fortunate to have the opportunity. There were only 28 teams and I think you have to take the chance when it comes.”
Bennett did not inherit a team with a lot of talent in Atlanta, but he sold the team on ball control and defense. That in itself was quite an accomplishment. “I guess the most difficult thing is changing the attitude,” Bennett said of his first challenge with the Falcons. “Move from a thought process of ‘We can’t win,’ to the thought process of ‘We will win.’”
“To do that (get player buy-in) you need some players to make unexpected plays. Players will think, ‘Here we go again,’ so you need to win a game or two to get buy-in. When we played the Rams, they had just signed Joe Namath and there was a lot of hype surrounding them. We beat them to open the season (17-6) and that kind of got everybody to believe our philosophy was fine and we went on to have a decent year.”
That’s putting in mildly. In 1977 the Falcons finished 7-7, gave up only 129 points (the all-time NFL record for a 14-game season) and Bennett walked away with the Coach of the Year award. The “Grits Blitz” as the Falcon defense became known, helped keep the Falcons competitive until Bennett got the playmakers he needed on offense.
Quarterback Steve Bartkowski, running backs Williams Andrews and Lynn Cain and receiver Alfred Jenkins catapulted the Falcons to the playoffs in 1978, 1980 and 1982. Unfortunately, the Falcons never advanced past the divisional round of the playoffs and Bennett was fired following the 1982 season even though he was the only Falcon coach at the time with a winning record.