Edward Joseph Erdelatz
Born April 21, 1913, San Francisco
Died November 11, 1966, Burlingame, California
Joseph Erdelatz (1877-1962)
Hattie D Erdelatz (Barwick) (1890-1913)
St Mary’s Prep HS
St Mary’s College
Agnes Christine Connor (1914-1998)
Edward Joseph (1941-)
Eddie Erdelatz was a player’s coach in the classic mold. His rah-rah enthusiasm for the game generally plays better in the college game than the pros, but as the first head coach of the Oakland Raiders his irrepressibly positive attitude caused a team that was ragtag, even by early AFL standards, to play at a level of respectability thought to be far beyond them by most league observers. A horrendous start to his second season sent him packing, but he, more than anyone, kept the team above water on the field even if they were drowning everywhere else.
Born on April 21, 1913, Eddie was the only child of Joseph, an immigrant of Croatian descent from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Hattie, the daughter of German immigrants. Less than three weeks after his birth, his mother died, possibly due to complications from childbirth, though a cause was not mentioned in the death notice. Joe Erdelatz worked a variety of jobs on the San Francisco waterfront, from bartender to stevedore, and while he was at work, Eddie was left in the care of relatives and family friends. By his own admission he was a headstrong young child and at the age of seven Joe sent him to live and learn at St. Joseph’s Academy in Berkeley, a “strict” boarding school. Despite the early troubles, father and son remained close throughout their lives, with the elder Erdelatz acting as Eddie’s respected career advisor until Joe’s death in 1962.
Eddie’s athletic skill blossomed at the school, which had been renamed St. Mary’s Prep by the time he reached his high school years. A standout performer in baseball, football, and basketball, he matriculated at St. Mary’s College in 1932 just down the road in Moraga. He broke in at end on the freshman team and was playing on the varsity the following season. By his junior year, he was a prospective All-America candidate when an injury suffered in a game against Washington State ended his year prematurely.
The injury, a twisted knee, was initially thought to be minor, but an enemy shoe cleat had broken the skin on his shin and infection set in. It spread quickly and for a time doctors feared they would have to amputate the limb, but Eddie’s system finally got the upper hand and by Thanksgiving the cast had been removed and he entered the rehabilitation phase of his recovery. In recognition of the high level of play in his shortened season, the Associated Press named him on their All-America honorable mention list.
While the injury was a serious blow to his athletic career and one from which he never fully recovered, it was a landmark event in his personal life. One of the nurses assigned to his care, Agnes Connor, caught his eye and they fell in love. Three years later, they married, and in 1941, their only child, a son, was born. Eddie Jr., would grow up to be a football player like his dad, playing for a time at San Jose State before dropping out to become a police officer.
In the meantime, though, Eddie Sr., worked hard to rejoin the team for his senior season. He was named the Gaels’ captain for a September game against Cal, but he seemed to be at less than full strength. He missed games in October with lingering knee issues and in a late November game against his nemesis, Washington State, suffered a severe shoulder injury that once again kept him out for the rest of the year. Still, he played well enough in limited time to make the AP All-Pacific Coast second team at end.
By January, he had recovered enough to play in at least one post-season all-star game and boxed in the heavyweight division for the school in the spring. He was selected to the College All-Star team that would take on the defending NFL champion Detroit Lions in August 1936, but lingering knee problems kept him from playing.
That fall, he joined his old coach Slip Madigan as a graduate assistant working with the ends and the line in general. As a coach he was unfailingly upbeat and positive, exhorting his players to reach beyond their potential and during the down time he would entertain the team with a singing voice that was said to rival Bing Crosby’s for its beauty and skill. He would stay through the 1937 season, coaching boxing as well as football but was let go the following June as the consequence of a dispute between Madigan and the Gaels’ athletic department.
By September, he had been hired by the University of San Francisco to assist head coach George Malley with the football team and to coach the boxing team. He stayed with the Dons through the 1939 season, but the next year he was back at St. Mary’s coaching the line under new man Red Strader. His return to the Gaels lasted through the 1941 season but by the summer of 1942, the American war effort was well under way and Erdelatz enlisted in the navy. Stationed at the Naval Academy as a lieutenant (j.g.), he took part in a service fitness program before returning to the Bay Area to play football for the pre-flight school, presumably at Livermore. The next year, he was transferred to North Island in San Diego where he served as the fitness officer.
When the war ended, he mustered out as a lieutenant commander, but stayed on in civilian togs to coach the line at the Academy. While there he upgraded the defense in a manner called revolutionary by some, using stunts and loops to rush the passer. He remained at Annapolis through the 1947 season but resigned afterward to take a job with the All-America Conference San Francisco 49ers under Buck Shaw. There, he installed the same line tactics he had used at Navy to great effect.
Seen as an up-and-comer the Academy lured him away from San Francisco in 1950 to be the Midshipmen’s head coach. Given a four-year contract providing an estimated $15,000 per year, Erdelatz took over a squad that had been woeful since the war. Navy went just 3-6 his first year, but all was forgiven when his team beat Army for the first time in seven years and the Academy rewarded him with a new five-year pact to replace the original contract. The team was no better in 1951, but they beat Army again and that was good enough.
The Middies broke through in 1952, going 6-2-1, beating Army for the third straight year. The Orange Bowl invited them to play on New Year’s Day but the Academy brass said no. By now, Erdelatz was thought to be one of the top defensive minds in the country and was added to the coaching staff of the all-star team that played the NFL champion Detroit Lions the following August.
Great things were expected from the team in 1953, but they disappointed, losing to the Cadets and going 4-3-2. After a scoreless tie against Duke that year, Erdelatz made a lasting contribution to the football lexicon saying a tie was like “kissing your sister.” Not that he would know, having no sisters.
After the letdown the previous year, Erdelatz was cautious when predicting success for his team in 1954, but the Middies beat all expectations inspiring their coach and the press to call them “The Team Named Desire.” They went 8-2, beating Army as an underdog and just falling short against Notre Dame, their other main rival. This time, when the Sugar Bowl came calling, the Academy said yes and the Middies thumped Mississippi, 21-0, finishing the year at number five in the Associated Press poll.
With his success came more attention and the job offers followed. The Los Angeles Rams were the first in line, with rumors suggesting they had offered a contract that included a salary of $25,000 to $30,000 per year. The Navy athletic department countered by offering another five-year deal at an estimated $17,000 per year.
The Middies had another fine season in 1955, going 6-2-1, though a loss to Army dampened spirits somewhat. Still, the press considered Erdelatz to be a top candidate for the Philadelphia Eagles job as well as for the University of California and USC. And in time-honored fashion other schools started to poach his assistant coaches for better paid positions.
Navy continued their success in 1956, beating Notre Dame for the first time in Erdelatz’s tenure, but a tie with Army gave them a record of 6-1-2 and, as a result, the Academy brass turned down an offer to play in the Cotton Bowl. To this point it had been all smiles between Erdelatz and his superiors, but this time he responded to the decision with unhappiness and while he stayed on another two seasons, the relationship never seemed to fully recover.
Still, he was given a new five-year contract after the season to replace the old one and in 1957, the Middies had the best season of his tenure in Annapolis, beating both Notre Dame and Army, finishing with a 9-1-1 record, beating Rice, 20-7, in the Cotton Bowl, and earning another number five ranking in the year-end AP poll.
In early 1958 another rift appeared between Erdelatz and the Academy. He interviewed for the Texas A&M job under the impression that the Navy brass had approved of the visit. Afterward, he reportedly found out the Aggie athletic department had not, in fact, cleared the interview with the Academy and there was rancor on all sides.
Possibly as a result, Navy had a relatively down season that year, finishing 6-3, losing to both Notre Dame and Army. With discontent growing, Erdelatz resigned abruptly the following April, just after the start of spring practice, citing “personal reasons” and frustration with the leadership at the Academy, particularly athletic director Slade Cutter.
He finished with a 50-26-8 record and had been the longest-tenured coach at Navy to that point. In his eight-year run he had become one of the most respected college coaches in the country and earned a reputation as someone who valued efficiency over working late into the night. He said, “we want the game to be fun for our players and coaches. There is no such thing as 7am coaches’ meetings at Navy. We have plenty of time for golf on our staff.”
Others concurred adding, “His practices are beautifully organized. There’s not a minute wasted and that’s important at a service academy. For another thing, those kids on the team are crazy about him and because of that he gets the absolute maximum out of them.”
He and his family immediately moved back to the Bay Area and Erdelatz took some down time, helping youngsters with cerebral palsy at a local swim center while waiting to see what offers might come in. And they did come in. He soon received an offer to coach the line for the Redskins and he said he had heard about some athletic director jobs, but he wasn’t interested in any of them and was content to wait for the right deal. Later in the year, Barron Hilton of the American Football League’s Los Angeles team said he was a front-runner for their head coaching job, but Erdelatz said no. Rumors about jobs at Boston College, Illinois, and Florida followed, but went nowhere.
In December, he was considered a favorite for the vacant Cal spot and he said he was definitely interested. But the school couldn’t make up its mind and the decision-making process stretched well into January. In the meantime, the city of Oakland was vying for an AFL spot and Erdelatz was considered a natural fit for them. When Cal made the surprise choice of hiring New Mexico’s Marv Levy as their new coach, that left only the new Oakland team and when they offered him the job on February 9, he took it.
Starting work months behind the league’s other teams, Erdelatz and general manager Chet Soda went to work looking for assistant coaches and players. With the aid of an allocation draft where the team was allowed to select players off the other clubs’ rosters, the Raiders gathered more than 70 for training camp when it opened in July. Most league observers thought the team would be the worst in the loop and when they lost their first two games badly, their observations appeared to be validated. Even worse, line coach Ernie Jorge suffered a mild heart attack after the second game and was out for the rest of the season recuperating.
But the Raider coach wasn’t easily discouraged. Despite a bout of laryngitis in late September, he redoubled his efforts, making a number of lineup changes and working to get the best out of each of his players. A nail-biting win over the Oilers, the league’s eventual champion, in their third game showed that his team could play with anyone and a big win in Dallas two weeks later earned the Raiders even more respect and some reporters started thinking of Erdelatz as a coach of the year prospect.
For the rest of the season, the team hovered around the .500 mark and was still within reach of a spot in the championship game in November, but a home-and-home sweep by the Chargers ended those ambitions. However, while the product on the field was pretty good, given the circumstances, attendance was awful and the eight team co-owners were at odds with each other. As early as mid-October, rumors that Erdelatz wanted out began to circulate and later in the month he was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer, perhaps brought on by all the stress.
In early November, he was rumored to be next in line for the Giants job and shortly after, another story appeared saying he was threatening to leave if he wasn’t given the GM job. Despite all, he stayed through the season with the Raiders compiling a 6-8 record and a third place finish in the Western Division. His efforts impressed beat reporters enough to earn him a second-place finish in the coach of the year balloting, behind Houston’s Lou Rymkus.
When the ownership squabbling came to a head in January 1961, he said he wanted nothing to do with the GM job but wanted to remain as coach if the restructured ownership team would have him and they did. But the team had trouble signing their draft picks, they were still going to play in San Francisco which would hurt them at the gate, and they suffered a rash of injuries in August while losing three of their four preseason games badly. When the team lost their first two regular season games by a combined score of 99-0, the owners felt they had no choice but to fire Erdelatz and install assistant Marty Feldman in his place.
Out of work, but still feeling the urge to coach, he said he was looking at offers from three unnamed colleges and had applied for the Army job. When nothing came of that, he traveled to St. Louis in January 1962 to talk to the Bidwills about the Cardinals job, but that fell through, too. By mid-1962, he had accepted a job as vice president in charge of public relations for a pair of title insurance firms in the Bay Area and said he was done with football.
He did provide instruction for a football clinic in the area and was mentioned in connection with openings at Cal and Stanford over the next couple of years, but by now it was clear he really was done with the sport. Now in his 50s, he quit smoking in 1964 and dedicated himself to his new job and his grandchildren.
In October 1966 he was named to the board of directors of both PR firms, but just a couple of weeks later he underwent surgery for a “possible abdominal malignancy.” The test for cancer was positive, but his prognosis was thought to be good. However, on November 10, he began hemorrhaging internally and died during the subsequent emergency surgery, at the age of just 53.
His friends, family, and the football world at large was shocked and deeply saddened at his passing. Center Jim Otto said, “I thought very much of Coach Erdelatz. When I first joined the Raiders I wasn’t sure pro football was all it was cracked up to be, but somehow he was able to make it meaningful to me. He just had that something which made you respect him. He taught me an awful lot about football. We’re sure going to miss him.”
Raider quarterback Tom Flores added, “I just can’t believe it. I had heard he was doing so much better. He gave me my last chance in professional football. He was just a wonderful person to play for. The players always came first with him and they put out for him in return.”
Guard Wayne Hawkins said, “Anyone who ever played for him really appreciated what he did for his players,” and assistant coach Tommy Kalmanir agreed, saying, “There were times when he spent his own money to see his players got the best that was available.”
An old boss, Brother Albert, the former president of St. Mary’s said, “He was a showman with an enviable ease and a rapport that won him friends at a moment’s notice.”
More than 300 people paid their last respects at his funeral including Ernie Nevers, Frankie Albert, Jack Christiansen, and Raider owner Wayne Valley, and the California State Senate formally honored him in a ceremony on January 3. In passing, he left behind his wife Agnes, son, Eddie, Jr., and three grandchildren.
Played end at St Mary’s College
Stayed at St Mary’s as assistant coach
September 7 – Hired by University of San Francisco as assistant coach
July 8 – Hired by St Mary’s as assistant coach
August 28 – Hired by US Naval Academy as assistant coach
March 7 – Hired by San Francisco 49ers as assistant coach
January 11 – Hired by US Naval Academy as head coach
April 9 – Resigned from head coaching position at Naval Academy
February 9 – Hired by Oakland Raiders as head coach
September 18 – Fired by Oakland Raiders