Another Voice Silenced … FRIDAY CUP O’CHIEFS

His voice sounded like he gargled each morning with gravel. Invariably, there was a cup of coffee nearby and sometimes a cigarette, although he was always trying to stop that habit. This morning routine always came wrapped up with a story.

That’s because there was always a story with Jim Erkenbeck. When you were a Marine that rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and fought in the Korean Conflict, there were going to be stories. When you worked as a football coach for more than 40 years, the stories were going to be plentiful. When you beat throat cancer – Erkenbeck did in 1993 – it leaves a man with memories.

Few had more, or told them as well, as the raspy-voiced Erkenbeck. On Tuesday in his native southern California, Jim Erkenbeck ran out of time for another story. His death robbed football of another one of the characters that wrote the history of the game and passed along the old stories like a town elder or the Chief of an Indian tribe.

Just how old Erkenbeck was when he passed away this week remains a bit of a mystery. Friends say he was 81 years old. In the Chiefs 1989 media guide, his first stint with the club, his date of birth was listed as September 10, 1931. In the 1995 media guide when he was beginning his second tour of duty on Marty Schottenheimer’s staff, his birthday was September 10, 1933.

Whether he was 81, 79 or 77 doesn’t really matter – his vanity about his age never obscured the fact that he was one of the best football coaches around. It was a career where he stepped on every rung of the coaching ladder from high school, to junior college, to college, to the CFL, USFL and NFL. It was 42 years of moving about North America, working for some of the biggest coaching names in the game – Schottenheimer, Don Coryell, Tom Landry, Jim Mora, Jon Gruden and Chuck Knox.

It was a hard life for a young man who was born into the Depression and then grew up in post-World War II San Diego where the city was dominated by the U.S. Navy. Let alone with his stint in the Marines, Erkenbeck held 16 different jobs over 42 years in coaching. The longest he stayed in any one spot was five seasons at the University of California-Berkley in the 1970s.

Some would see that type of resume and wonder why Erkenbeck couldn’t hold a job. But that’s not how things work in football, especially for assistant coaches and especially at the pro level. If the head man gets fired, then quite often the rest of the staff is forced to call the moving vans as well. It’s the guys that keep getting hired that are the good coaches.

As a coach holds that many jobs, there are tales to tell. Just follow along on the chronological trail of his life and its obvious where he got the material to regale his players, fellow coaches, administrators and media types for so many years. “Erk always had a story,” said former Chiefs TE Jonathan Hayes. “He was quite a character.”

It was a character built on the foundation of many steps along the way:

1947-48 – Attended and played football at San Diego High School, where the athletic teams were called the Cavemen.

1949-52 – Attended and played football at San Diego State University, where he was an end, linebacker and fullback. He was part of the Aztecs ’51 team that went 10-0-1, and won the Pineapple Bowl over Hawaii. Graduated with a degree in entomology.

1953-57 – Joined the Marines and spent four years in the service, including action in the Korean Conflict.

1957-58 – Went back to San Diego State and earned a biology degree.

1960 – Began his coaching career as the head coach at El Capitan High School in the eastern suburbs of San Diego. He spent one year in charge of the Vaqueros (Cowboys).

1961-63 – Began his college coaching career at his alma mater, joining the staff of first-year head coach Don Coryell, who also had fellows like John Madden and Joe Gibbs on his staff at that time.

1964-67 – Took over as head coach of the Grossmont College (JUCO) in El Cajon and spent four seasons coaching the Griffons.

1968 – Moved on to Utah State where he spent one year on Chuck Mills’ staff that went 7-3 with the Aggies.

1969-71 – A three-year stint at Washington State was next, working for head coach Jim Sweeney and the Cougars program.

1972-76 – He returned to his home state with a five-year stint at the University of California-Berkley, working for head coach Mike White.

1977 – His first pro coaching job arrived from north of the border, as he became the offensive coordinator of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for head coach Ed Riley.

1978-81 – Moved on to the Montreal Alouettes where he was offensive coordinator for head coach Joe Scannella.

1982 – Served one year as offensive coordinator of the Calgary Stampeders and head coach Jack Gotta.

1983-85 – Joined the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars where he coached the offensive line for a franchise that won two of the three league championships under head coach Jim Mora and GM Carl Peterson.

1986 – After the USFL folded, he joined Mora’s staff as offensive line coach of the New Orleans Saints.

1987-88 – Joined the coaching staff of Tom Landry for two years, handling the offensive line.

1989-91 – His first stint with the Chiefs, where he handled tight ends.

1992-94 – Returned to southern California as offensive line coach for Chuck Knox’s staff with the Los Angeles Rams.

1995-1998 – His second stint with the Chiefs, handling again tight ends, including a young first-round draft pick in 1997 named Tony Gonzalez.

1999-2001 – Moved on to the Oakland Raiders, where he spent three years on the staff of Jon Gruden, handling tight ends. When Gruden left the Raiders for Tampa Bay that brought the curtain down on Erkenbeck’s coaching career.

I have chosen not to repeat any of Erk’s better stories here because I listened to them in conversation, without the presence of a tape recorder or notebook. It was just an old bull sitting around telling a younger bull about the history of the game and some of the most interesting people to ever be part of football.

But without a doubt it helped flesh out the multi-color painting that is the sport of football, and the business of coaching and dealing with players. It helped build an appreciation for the remarkable lives so many of these coaches choose to lead because they love what they do.

Sadly, those types of moments aren’t possible any more, especially around Arrowhead Stadium. The coaching staff is off limits to the media under the Pioli regime, much like coaches are at other branches of the New England-Bill Belichick coaching tree. That the team’s coordinators are allowed to speak each week during the regular season comes only because of an NFL mandate.

I thank the football gods for having had the chance to know Jim Erkenbeck.


4 Responses to “Another Voice Silenced … FRIDAY CUP O’CHIEFS”

  • March 18, 2011  - michael gronfein says:

    I would like to put this on my Facebook


  • March 19, 2011  - Dick Erkenbeck says:

    Thanks for the fine tribute to my brother, Jim.

    He was all you say – and more

    Dick


  • March 21, 2011  - Johnfromfairfax says:

    Bob,

    Thanks for another chapter in the fascinating world of pro football and coaching. He sounds like quite a person and coach. You also bring up a valid point. it is a shame that access is now so limited. It robs all of us of the opportunity to get to know the leaders of the organization up close and personal. too bad really. Keep up the excellent work as always.


  • March 28, 2011  - Ron Labrum says:

    Erk was my coach for just the one year he was at Utah State in 1967 but he was one of my all time favorite coaches.




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