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Touchy subject

Not a part of the NFL of the past, the postgame handshake between coaches is now a hot-button topic

Email|Print| Text size + By Jim McCabe
Globe Staff / December 16, 2007

Devoid of color, but saturated in character, the photo has hung on a wall in whichever corner of the pro football world Ernie Accorsi has called home. For him, it represents a golden age of professional football that was built upon unshakable pillars of mystique.

George Halas on the right, Vince Lombardi to the left.

Dressed in shirt and tie beneath a top coat, each man also wears a fedora and a smile, and what is caught on film screams mutual respect, their right hands extended onto the other man's left shoulder.

"I love that picture," said Accorsi, whose association with the NFL stretched from 1970 to 2007 and included general manager stints with the Colts, Browns, and Giants. The photo of two icons - Halas of the Chicago Bears, Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers - epitomizes everything about a time when personal relations were built face to face, not BlackBerry to BlackBerry. But it is what Accorsi knows about that photograph that provides an important distinction from today's landscape.

The handshake and meeting took place before a Bears-Packers game.

Accorsi knows that because when the pounding and the scream ing and the pushing and the shoving was over in days of yesteryear, competitors rarely stuck out a hand. Not the players and certainly not the coaches, from Halas and Curly Lambeau, to Lombardi and Paul Brown, and to legends who followed. What's more, they were never questioned, either.

Oh, how Bill Belichick should have coached in that era, because when his duties are done today and the final seconds have ticked off in the Patriots' game against the Jets at Gillette Stadium, it will be his midfield meeting and handshake with New York's Eric Mangini - his onetime protégé - that will elicit more scrutiny than anything that happened on the field.

"High-fives? I really haven't thought too much about that [or even] cartwheels," said Belichick, breaking into a rare grin.

From his perspective, Mangini said, "I don't expect to do anything outside the norm that I do every game with every head coach that I play against."

Which is shake hands, almost on cue. It strikes some old-time NFL guys as strange.

"Bill doesn't have to do it," said Bud Grant. "But he knows he'll be vilified if he doesn't."

Old-school philosophy
During a Hall of Fame coaching career with the Minnesota Vikings that garnered four Super Bowl appearances and 11 division titles, Grant never wavered.

"I never shook Halas's hand or Lombardi's hand after a game. That was my volition."

Now 80 and still a daily presence around the Vikings' offices, Grant sighs softly and concedes his philosophy has gone the way of the drive-in movie and the drug store soda fountain. But he won't back down from what he believed in.

"You were expected to play out there, to work up a certain lather against the other team," he said. "If you were in a fight and when the fight was over, if you lost and you could be happy, then I believe you didn't get prepared for the fight. I don't believe you can change colors that quickly. You can't be a chameleon."

Like Lombardi and Halas, Grant said he would cross paths with the opposing coach before the game, "but I'd tell him, 'After the game I'm not going to shake hands.' "

It wasn't personal; it was the competitive landscape and no one seemed to take offense.

"I didn't see [Colts coach] Weeb Ewbank cross the field to shake [Giants coach] Jim Lee Howell's hand at the end of the OT game," said Accorsi, referring to the legendary 1958 NFL Championship game won by Baltimore.

"George Allen never shook a coach's hand after the game. I know that," said longtime NFL general manager Ron Wolf, whose sentiment is echoed from a Dallas perspective because Gil Brandt saw things similarly when he worked with another NFL coaching icon.

"Tom Landry didn't feel he had to go across the field to shake hands," said the Cowboys' longtime director of player personnel.

Yet you will uncover Noah's Ark before you find any evidence of media condemnation of Halas, Lombardi, Brown, Grant, Allen, Ewbank, Howell, or Landry for not shaking hands after a game. What's with that? Why does the media analyze the Belichick handshake and rip him if it's deemed lame or insincere?

"Because," said Jerry Glanville, "it is fashionable and we are a much more loving country."

His response drips with enough sarcasm to draw a 15-yard penalty from the PC referees, but the colorful and sometimes outrageous coach of the Oilers and Falcons thinks the postgame handshake should be tossed onto the football scrap pile, right there with leather helmets. The fact that a mere handshake becomes a story that frequently casts Belichick in a bad light makes it more personal to Glanville, now 66 and the head coach at Portland State, but still a fan of the Patriots' coach.

"We were on the staff together [special teams assistants for the Detroit Lions in 1976]. We were bachelors together," said Glanville. "We skied together. We hung out and went on vacations. But when we coached against each other, we never ran over to swap spit."

Eye-catching moment
There was no postgame handshake ritual in place in 1959 when sports television was still a work in progress, but Frank Chirkinian figured what the heck. Why not focus in on Cleveland's standout defensive end, Lenny Ford, as he approached Philadelphia's heralded two-way tough guy, Chuck "Concrete Charlie" Bednarik, after a fierce game.

"Here comes Ford, a huge man, taking off his helmet and sticking out his hand," said Chirkinian, then a director for CBS, later the legendary producer of its golf telecasts. "And Bednarik coldcocks him."

Surely, the NFL came down hard on Bednarik, right? Wrong. It was Chirkinian who got screamed at, by his boss at CBS, Bill McPhail, who in turn had gotten an earful from the NFL commissioner, Bert Bell, for getting such a tight close-up of the punch.

"[Bell] had a rule," said Chirkinian. "He didn't want to show fights."

Fast-forward nearly 50 years and oh, how times have changed. Network sports directors wouldn't dare miss a tight close-up of the postgame handshake, which picked up steam in the mid- to late '70s, and when a story line exists such as the frosty relationship between Belichick and Mangini, it's even juicier. CBS will broadcast today's game and the sports voice and face of that network, the esteemed Jim Nantz, concedes he knows what will be at the end. He's just not sure how it got there.

"I wish I could pinpoint the one seminal moment that made us, as viewers, [insist] they do it and we see it," said Nantz. "But we in the media, all of us, have applied the pressure on the principals to [shake hands] and the directors have fallen in love with the shot. We cover and try to interpret what we see."

Much to the chagrin, it can be said, of some men who are now in the media, but forever will be coaches at heart.

"Really, it's an irritation more than something you want to do," said Jimmy Johnson, who coached the University of Miami and the Dallas Cowboys to championships and works now as a pregame analyst for Fox NFL Sunday. "No [coach] wants to do it."

Johnson concedes he did it on most occasions, though begrudgingly ("You don't want to be rude," he said), but laughs about those times when he didn't. Against Eagles coach Buddy Ryan, for instance. "I didn't do it the time he put the 'bounty' on my kicker." And with Bill Parcells, Johnson said he would merely wave, "but it was no big deal."

The wave was a Landry staple. Opposing coaches knew that was all they were going to get from the Cowboy leader after a game. No disrespect intended and in that era, no disrespect was taken. Grant subscribed to a similar code of conduct, which is no surprise, because he played for and idolized a legend who acted similarly - the great Paul Brown.

"Paul Brown told me he would usually wish a coach good luck before a game, then tell him he wouldn't meet him after the game," said NFL historian Jack Clary, who wrote "PB: The Paul Brown Story" and for years was a sportswriter with the Boston Herald. "With these coaches, the minute the game ended, they were living the game over again. Bill Belichick is like that and I see so much of Paul Brown in him, which is no surprise, because Bill's dad [Steve Belichick] loved Paul Brown."

Clary remembers covering major league baseball games when good friends Casey Stengel and Al Lopez "would never shake hands" before or after a game.

No one - not reporters, not fans - has complained about baseball managers not shaking hands after a game. That's just the way things always have been in baseball and Johnson isn't so sure football wouldn't be better off with a similar landscape. It was that way once, and truth be told, there was a push to make it permanent.

No shake? No problem
Had some owners had their way, Jim Finks and not Paul Tagliabue would have succeeded the legendary Pete Rozelle as NFL commissioner in 1989. But having lost that power struggle, Finks settled for chairman of the competition committee and being old school, the general manager of the New Orleans Saints was hardly enamored with the "Ickey Shuffle," the postgame prayer circle by players, and other acts that he felt compromised the league's competitive tenacity with fans.

With the deaths of Halas, Lombardi, and Brown, the league had undergone a sort of changing of the guard in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s and an "entertainment" mentality seemed to be taking over. In the spring of 1991, some 10 years after the competition committee had first raised the issue of whether postgame meetings at midfield should be banned, Finks rekindled the issue. He recommended rules against showboating, postgame handshakes, and players fraternizing. "Coaches can wave to each other," Finks said at the time, "and get out of there."

Brandt remembers the meeting and understood Finks's concern.

"Say you lose, 47-9," said Brandt. "It is awfully hard for a coach to shake hands. One of you is happy, one of you isn't. You've just lost a game. Everyone seemed to agree to no more handshakes."

There was also the stark reality that in such a competitive landscape, it was only natural that some coaches didn't like one another. Some league officials felt it was a recipe for disaster to encourage a stage where they were expected to shake hands and, in fact, it was clear that some strong-willed personalities just didn't want to do it.

Glanville, for instance.

"I was in the league for 21 years and I don't think I shook 21 hands," he said, and all these years later he doesn't deny that there was animosity with some colleagues, chief among them Sam Wyche.

"I never shook his hand. Who would? And who cares?" said Glanville.

Joe Gibbs had his issues with Glanville, but they hardly stood alone. So, too, did Mike Ditka and Forrest Gregg, coaches of the Bears and Packers, respectively. Years earlier, Green Bay's coach, the usually reserved Bart Starr, refused to shake the hand of Chicago coach Neill Armstrong, incensed at the way the Bears had continued to blitz despite a large lead. Heralded for his sportsmanship, Don Shula nonetheless refused to shake hands with first-year Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin, who put his regulars back in against the Dolphins' scrubs to try and win an exhibition game. Shula and Ryan had games when they failed to exchange handshakes, so, too, Shula and Ditka.

It's a competitive landscape, folks, not youth sports.

"Don't think for a minute that all 32 coaches love each other," said Clary. "But they don't need to shake hands to prove they have respect for each other."

While league officials in 1991 felt as Finks did so far as excessive celebrating went, Tagliabue told him that there was not going to be a rule against postgame handshakes and fraternizing. In fact, the league wanted to see it, thinking it made for a better image.

"Coaches have never been prohibited from shaking hands with each other," wrote the NFL's senior vice president of communications, Greg Aiello, in an e-mail. "As a league, we encourage good sportsmanship."

So does that mean Halas, Lombardi, Brown, Allen, Landry, and Grant, among others, were devoid of sportsmanship? They didn't shake hands after games. What's more, Grant told his players they couldn't shake hands with the opposition, either.

"I had to explain why, when they were rookies," said Grant. "I'd tell them I didn't believe they could just turn [the competitive fire] on and off. Pretty soon they'd be older players and they'd explain it to the younger players."

Chirkinian remembers that landscape and said Halas took it a step further. "He wouldn't let his players offer a hand to help an opponent up off the field," he said. "He told them, 'I'm paying you to knock people down, not pick them up.' "

Bad sports? Not at all, according to Clary. He said Halas and Lombardi were good friends, but while they would embrace one another off the field, never would they shake hands after a game. Their competitive nature wouldn't allow it.

"They're football coaches and they've always lived in their own little world," said Clary. "They want to win. For them, that's the only reason to play the game."

Legends escaped criticism

Writing for the Green Bay Post-Gazette in 1948, Art Daley discussed the historic rivalry between Halas and the man who laid the foundation for the Packers' aura, Lambeau. They had coached head to head upward of 45 times since 1921 and Daley noted, "The two coaches never have congratulated each other after a game."

Get that? Never. Yet neither man's icon status is chipped and the media never took offense. Halas is revered in Chicago, Lambeau is such an endearing figure in Green Bay that the team's field is named after him. Lombardi? His name is bronzed forever as a symbol of excellence and the mere mention of it leads coaches to snap to attention. Brown. Landry. Grant. Not a one of them chose to shake hands after a competitive football game, and their legends are intact.

Belichick? He does shake hands, but apparently not in a manner that meets with the media's approval, so he's branded a bad sportsman. What gives?

"A lot of what goes on today models a different society," said Chirkinian. "We're a little more tolerant of each other and that's good. But personally, I kind of liked it the other way."

So do many others within the insular world of professional football, where it is accepted as a rough and brutal environment ("I don't know of another business that is as competitive as the NFL," said Brandt) that demands a physical and mental commitment that isn't for the faint of heart. If handshakes aren't exchanged, so be it.

"If we're worried about things like [a postgame handshake], then we're worried about the wrong thing," said Glanville.

Jim McCabe can be reached at jmccabe@globe.com.

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