clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Throwback Thursday: Colts Head Coaches in the 1970s

Throwback Thursday continues looking at the Colts coaches by decade. This week, we look at the coaching disaster that was the 1970s. That is, until Ted Marchibroda showed up.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

As we continue to inch closer to Training Camp and the pre-season, Throwback Thursday will again continue with our look at Colts coaches by decade.

Some of you may remember in my first article in this series, I mentioned that I originally planned to do one article per coach. However, I quickly abandoned that idea after realizing how long it would take. The first two weeks, we've looked at a total of 3 coaches, and two per decade (Weeb Ewbank coached in the 50s and 60s).

This week we'll be looking at five different coaches. And yes, we're only looking at the 1970s.

As a refresher, we last left the Colts coaching history at the end of the 1969 season where the Colts faltered to a very average record, and Don Shula bolted to become the head man in Miami.

Shula was replaced by Don McCafferty, who was promoted up from Offensive Coordinator. McCafferty had been with the Colts since the Ewbank era, and had a well known good relationship with quarterback John Unitas, something that would play a role in later years.

In 1970, McCafferty coached the talented Baltimore squad to an 11-2-1 record and the team reached the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. In what was widely considered the ugliest Super Bowl ever played, the Colts emerged victorious over the Dallas Cowboys.

McCafferty became the first rookie head coach to win a Super Bowl. George Seifert would later become the second with the 49ers.

In McCafferty's second season the Colts again reached the playoffs. This time, however, they ran into the emerging AFC power in Shula's Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins would beat the Colts 21-0, but go on to lose to the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI.

The 1971 season was McCafferty's final season as the team's head coach.

After a 1-4 start to the 1972 year, General Manager Joe Thomas fired McCafferty, reportedly due to Thomas' demand that Unitas be benched, a marching order which McCafferty refused to do.

The following year, McCafferty would be hired by the Detroit Lions where he would go 6-7-1 in his first season. This would turn out to be McCafferty's final season as a coach. In July of 1974, McCafferty tragically suffered a heart attack while mowing his lawn, and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

For the duration of the 1972 season, though, Thomas turned to former assistant John Sandusky to guide the Colts.

Sandusky had been a player in Cleveland with Shula when Ewbank was the coach. Small world.

Upon retiring in 1958, Sandusky was hired by Ewbank as the Colts' defensive line coach. When Shula became the coach, Sandusky remained on staff, but was switched to being the offensive line coach.

Upon the firing of McCafferty, Sandusky was named head coach. The first order of business? Benching John Unitas. According to center Bill Curry (in an interview on the History of the Colts documentary) Sandusky informed Unitas of his benching via a phone call.

After finishing out the 1972 season with a 4-5 record (the Colts finished 5-9) Thomas fired Sandusky and the rest of the coaching staff.

Sandusky would go on to coach with the Eagles as an assistant for three years before joining Shula in Miami, where he was an assistant for 19 years until his retirement in 1994. Former Colts and Giants GM Ernie Accorsi called Sandusky "the greatest coach in the history of the league who never got a chance."

Thomas turned next to former University of Alabama and Miami Dolphin offensive coordinator Howard Schnellenberger. In his first season with the Colts, Schnellenberger was unable to raise the team from the depths of the AFC East. The Colts finished 4-10.

The beginning of the 1974 season (yes we're on our third coach in the Colts first four years of the 1970s) wasn't much better as the Colts began the season 0-3. It was at this juncture that Robert Irsay fired Schnellenberger.

As many of you may be acutely aware, Schnellenberger went on to become the head coach at the University of Miami, revitalizing a nearly dead program. If you've never heard of Schnellenberger and his time at Miami, do yourself a favor and go watch ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary "The U."

Back to the 1974 Colts.

After Schnellenberger was fired, he was replaced by none other than Thomas. The Colts would only go on to win two games with Thomas as the coach.

In 1975, Thomas finally made a good decision and hired former Redskins' assistant Ted Marchibroda, who became the fifth head coach in 5 years in Baltimore. In his first season as head coach, Marchibroda guided the team to the playoffs. While they went one-and-done in Pittsburgh, making the playoffs was a vast improvement over past seasons.

Marchibroda was named Coach of the Year in 1975.

However, the Colts almost didn't have Marchibroda in 1976. Before the season, he resigned due to a disagreement with Thomas.

However, due to his success, and backing from his players, Robert Irsay was able to quell the situation and keep Marchibroda on board.

The team ended up having a successful 1976 season. They improved to 11-3 and won the AFC East again. However, the playoffs were met with more disappointment as the Colts again went one-and-done courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After the 1976 season, Irsay fired Thomas.

In 1977 Marchibroda again guided the Colts to an AFC East crown and a spot in the playoffs. Again, however, the team went one-and-done after losing to the Oakland Raiders on the famous "Ghost to the Post" play.

However, the Colts would wrap up the decade with two seasons finishing in the basement of the AFC East.

Conveniently (for the sake of this series at least) Marchibroda's final season was the 1979 year to close out the decade.

On the surface, the 1970s look like a solid decade for the Colts. Five playoff appearances, two AFC Championship appearances, a Coach of the Year, an NFL MVP (Bert Jones), and a Super Bowl title. Looks pretty good.

When you look at the perspective that the Colts franchise was traded, all of the stars from the 1960s were jettisoned, and that the team had five coaches in five years, it looks a little less bright.

Let's just say the 1970s were a very mixed bag.