Forgotten: Jim Lee Howell

Posted March 28, 2011 @ 10:55 a.m.
Posted By Mike Beacom

There are those who believe former New York Giants coach Jim Lee Howell deserves to be forgotten. His star left halfback, Frank Gifford, has dogged the coach in a number of interviews, once offering, "He was good enough to know what he didn't know. All he did was blow the whistle and say, 'Everyone on the bus.'"

Howell, himself, often joked about the role he played during the years when Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry served as his offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively. "I just blow up the footballs and keep order," he'd say.

But Howell's contributions to the Giants and to his craft deserve a bit more credit than that. During his seven-year stint as New York's head coach (1954-60), the team never posted a losing record, and Howell's .663 winning percentage ranks 13th all time among coaches with at least 50 games.

It's widely accepted that Lombardi and Landry were wholly responsible for the offensive and defensive play-calling. Lombardi's simplistic approach — which he would later duplicate in Green Bay — overwhelmed Chicago in the 1956 NFL championship game, 47-7. Landry's innovative 4-3 defense — later perfected in Dallas — ranked no lower than fourth in the league in points allowed during his six years under Howell.

But let's not forget: The game has known head coaches who have had some of the game's best coordinators at their disposal, and yet were unable to keep their ship afloat. For keeping order, if nothing else, Howell deserves the right to lay claim to some of New York's success all those years, Hall of Fame assistants or not.

After finishing up an eight-year playing career for the Giants, Howell built Wagner College into a winner in 1949 with a 7-1-1 record — without Lombardi or Landry at his side. That success helped him find his way back to the Giants, for whom he served on Steve Owen's staff.

When Howell assumed the head-coaching job, one of his first tasks was to convince QB Charlie Conerly not to return to his Mississippi cotton farm. Conerly obliged and tossed 17 touchdown passes in 1954 (second most in the league).

That same year, Howell convinced Landry to be a player-coach; two years later Landry moved to the sideline full time. At the time, Lombardi was finishing up his fifth season at West Point. Giants owner Wellington Mara already had been familiar with Lombardi from their time at Fordham, but Howell gave the fiery coach his first NFL whistle.

Those decisions brought immediate improvement; the team upped its won-loss record by four games in Howell's first season. Maybe it had to do with another change Howell implemented.

"… Giants coach, Steve Owen, didn't like to fly," Gifford told the New York Times in 2009, "so we took the train everywhere, even to Los Angeles for our 1953 opener. Three and a half days. We stopped in Wichita to work out. … It was awful. We took the train to Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland that season, but that was Steve Owen's last year. After Jim Lee Howell took over in 1954, we flew."

The following year got off to a rough start. After New York jumped out to a 17-7 lead over rival Philadelphia in the season opener, the Eagles scored 20 unanswered points. New York dropped its first three games and was in too big of a hole to climb out of. Nevertheless the team gave Howell a two-year extension and it paid immediate dividends.

Howell's club raced to a 6-1 start in 1956, including three wins by 17 or more points. In Week Nine, the Giants hosted Paddy Driscoll's Bears and jumped out to a 17-0 lead. But two long Harlon Hill touchdown catches in the final quarter allowed the Bears to leave the Big Apple with a tie. Lesson learned. In the title game five weeks later, New York led 34-7 at half, leaving little hope for another Chicago comeback.

Gifford claimed the MVP with a career year (1,422 yards from scrimmage, nine touchdowns) and the Giants and Howell claimed the franchise's fourth title.

Three consecutive losses to end the 1957 season eliminated New York from the Eastern Division race. The following season, Howell's club beat the Browns in a divisional playoff before falling to the Colts, 23-17, in the game many credit for pro football's explosion.

America's first nationally televised NFL title game also signaled the end for Howell and the club he was building. Lombardi was granted permission to coach the Packers following the season, despite having time left on his contract (Mara often stated he fully intended to hire Lombardi back once Howell retired). After posting a 10-2 record in 1959, New York was clobbered by the Colts in a title-game rematch. Soon after, Landry left to mold the expansion Cowboys.

Howell had been itching to retire, but gave New York one more season; the team's 6-4-2 finish in 1960 (following a 5-1-1 start) only helped to convince him to move on. After announcing his retirement in December, Howell assumed the role of New York's director of player personnel — a post he kept until 1981 when he returned to his native Arkansas to pursue a career politics.

Overshadowed, disrespected and ignored, Jim Lee Howell's greatest crime was recognizing the gifts of two men who later would become legends.

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Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).