The 1970s Were the L.A. Rams’ Most Dramatic Decade
The NFL is back in L.A. for the first time since 1995, as the Rams return to the Coliseum. To stoke the nostalgia, we talked to some of the key players from the team’s winningest, most confounding years. An oral history
You may be too young to recall them. Or you may have arrived in this city long after they were gone. But for a good while, this really was an NFL town, a Rams town, in fact and in spirit. And during one particular decade—the 1970s, before the Raiders threw a wet silver-and-black blanket over things—the Rams were this close to bringing L.A. its first Super Bowl title.
Carroll Rosenbloom was the swaggering owner, intensely invested in his team. Chuck Knox, the son of a steelworker, was the coach, beloved by players and bemoaned by fans for his conservative “Ground Chuck” offense. Still, the Rams won seven straight division titles from 1973 to 1979, compiling a combined record of 75-26-1. In those years they had a stout defense that featured household names (two of which, Merlin Olsen and Fred Dryer, would later become television stars) and an offensive line that plowed holes for 1,000-yard rusher Lawrence McCutcheon. Coliseum crowds swelled to 80,000, and the likes of Cary Grant sat in the owner’s box. But the Rams were also a paradox: a blue-collar team in a glamour town that, maddeningly, could never get past the National Football Conference Championship game.
Amid this, quarterbacks came and went. One was even named Joe Namath. This was all a prelude, though, to the soap opera of 1979: Rosenbloom’s drowning, his widow becoming majority owner while being ridiculed as a former lounge singer who’d married up, the booting out of her stepson from the front office. That drama was off the field; on it, the Rams muddled through a 9-7 season and barely made the play-offs as a wild card. The phrase was apt, as they vanquished their bitter rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, in the first round and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second. And so, less than a year after the owner’s death, the Rams made their first Super Bowl—a milestone the elder Rosenbloom had lived for.
Storybook ending? Not quite. The Rams lost to the dynastic Pittsburgh Steelers and moved to Anaheim in 1980. Raider Nation was soon to follow, but die-hard fans of the Rams remained heartbroken.
Carroll Rosenbloom, a Maryland native who built his fortune manufacturing clothing for the military during World War II, had owned the Baltimore Colts since 1953. Robert Irsay had just bought the L.A. Rams from the estate of longtime owner Dan Reeves. In 1972, in an unusual, tax-saving exchange, Rosenbloom and Irsay traded teams, and Rosenbloom moved from Baltimore to L.A. He was soon splitting his time between his Bel-Air mansion and the team offices on Pico Boulevard. Players reported seeing his helicopter land on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, where the Rams practiced.
Mel Durslag (late sports columnist at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner): “Carroll was a very likable rogue. He was always up to some mischief. If he could screw another team out of a player, he’d do it. But he was kind of generous, too.”
Warren Beatty (actor-director who played a Rams quarterback in 1978’s Heaven Can Wait): “One night when we were in preproduction, I was having dinner at Carroll’s house in Malibu, and Jonathan Winters was there. Jonathan got on a roll and was endlessly hilarious. Carroll and I were going to a Rams practice the next day. He said, ‘Why don’t we bring Jonathan?’ So we got into Carroll’s helicopter and flew to practice and landed right there on the field. We got out, and Carroll was introducing everybody, and Jonathan stayed on a roll. The team is all falling on the ground, howling. Jonathan went on and on and on. Finally they just cancelled practice.”
Fred Dryer (defensive end, 1972-1981): “At home Saturday night, Carroll would pay for the team to stay at the Beverly Hilton, and after our meetings, everybody would go to one of the ballrooms for this huge layout—burgers, beer, soda—a family get-together before everyone went to their rooms and started farting and falling asleep with 15 pounds of cheeseburgers in them.”
Ron Jaworski (quarterback, 1973-76): “Carroll would bring in Don Rickles or Ricardo Montalban or Sammy Davis Jr. or Johnny Carson. They’d come in and have a hamburger and a beer. It was just a little thing before bed check. It was pretty cool to be a Ram in Los Angeles.”
One season into Rosenbloom’s stint as owner, in 1973, he fired head coach Tommy Prothro and hired the Detroit Lions offensive line coach Chuck Knox. Knox would hold his first NFL head-coaching job for five years, during which the Rams went 54-15-1. When it came to NFC Championship games, however, they didn’t fare as well: 0-5. Was it a mental block? The result of playing in a weak division? Or simply that they faced quarterbacks Roger Staubach (Dallas) and Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota)?
Lawrence McCutcheon (running back, 1972-79): “Knox believed in running the football, and I think he got a little carried away sometimes. I hate to point fingers, but I think, offensively, we just weren’t imaginative enough. We would play teams coached by Bud Grant and Tom Landry, who were masters at game defenses and analyzing your team. We should have had a ring on our fingers.”
Tom Mack (left guard, 1966-78): “Knox was the best coach I ever played for. He took the time to know the individual players as well as the overall game. The hard part during the ’70s there, Carroll and [GM and Rosenbloom’s consigliere] Don Klosterman were more involved in second-guessing poor Chuck in terms of who should be playing and who shouldn’t be than I thought was appropriate.”
Fred Dryer: “The philosophy was, ‘We’re gonna control the ball and win.’ It was boring, and in championship games, it didn’t work. Rosenbloom was frustrated. Here’s the deal: If you’ve got a racehorse that can win, you race the hell out of him. And you better, because he’s getting older. So this team was all together in ’73. The ’74 Rams were a son of a bitch. We had James Harris at quarterback. Our defense murdered people. We should have been in the Super Bowl about three or four years of the Chuck Knox era.”
In 1975, the Rams’ defense held opponents to an average 9.6 points a game, the second-lowest average for a regular season in NFL history. It was a roster built largely through the draft.
Norm Pollom (L.A. Rams scouting director, 1970-75): “They promoted me from a scout to being the scouting director in 1970, and I drafted [defensive end] Jack Youngblood and [linebacker] Isiah Robertson and [safety] Dave Elmendorf. I was probably more responsible for drafting [linebacker] Jack ‘Hacksaw’ Reynolds than anybody else. He wasn’t fast, he wasn’t tall, but he was very instinctive. [Defensive backs] Rod Perry, Pat Thomas, Monte Jackson—all of those were great players.”
Fred Dryer: “The Fearsome Foursome of the 1960s was Rosey Grier and Merlin Olsen at the tackles, and Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy at the ends. There was a little off period, then Youngblood filled in, I came in, and Larry Brooks came in to create another era. From ’73 to ’77, the Rams were the dominant defense in the league.”
Jack Youngblood (defensive end, 1971-84): “Players in our time didn’t want to talk about the injuries. We either do it, or we don’t. The coaches and the doctors had to trust you. If you get knocked cold, you can’t go back in the ball game. Although, I say that, and I did that.”
THE PIONEERING QB
From 1962 to 1972, the Rams’ quarterback was Roman Gabriel. In 1973, he was traded to Philadelphia as the Rams brought in veteran John Hadl from San Diego. Hadl had an MVP season in 1973. His backups were Ron Jaworski, a rookie out of Youngstown State, and James “Shack” Harris, a former Grambling State star who’d been out of football when he was recruited to the Rams’ practice squad in ’72. Harris would soon become the first black quarterback to start regularly in the NFL.
James Harris (quarterback, 1973-76): “I was in Washington, D.C., working for the Commerce Department. During the off-season, they brought in about ten minority athletes to work in a minority fellowship program to assist athletes in a second career. [NFL scout and former Rams star fullback] Tank Younger called me up and said the Rams were going to need a quarterback—there could be a possible practice squad spot available. I worked out, and they kept me on.”
John Hadl (quarterback, 1973-74): “In my second year with the Rams, I hurt my back. It affected the way I was throwing a little bit. Rosenbloom was out at practice, and he said, ‘What’s wrong with your arm?’ I said, ‘Nothing’s wrong with my arm; my back’s hurtin’ a little bit, but I’ll be all right.’ The doctor, I’m sure, told him those backs don’t heal up. So that’s why I think I got on the trading block.”
Tom Mack: “They traded Hadl to Green Bay for two or three real high draft choices. Jaworski was going to be the quarterback. And James Harris basically beat him out. He was really the first black quarterback that was a stay-in-the-pocket passer quarterback, not a run around-scramble guy.”
Harold Jackson (wide receiver, 1968; 1973-77): “Harris had a great arm. Big, tall guy standing back there. He wasn’t one of the little short guys, where you can’t see him. His ball came right over the top.”
Brad Pye Jr. (sports editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Sentinel): “He got death threats. They didn’t think that blacks could play quarterback.”
Ron Jaworski: “James and I became good friends. We were roommates at the Beverly Hilton the night before games. He would bring his hate mail. We would laugh because there was nothing else you could do. None of that stuff ever bothered Shack. He just lined up and played.”
Harris: “The Rams had great fan support. My support—I had some good and some bad. This was still the time when there were no blacks starting in the NFL. They had [quarterback] Joe Gilliam in Pittsburgh, but being the only guy starting in the league and realizing how many good players were denied, you couldn’t help but feel that at any time it could be your last game.”
Mack: “The coaches wouldn’t let Harris ‘audible’ [change the play at the line of scrimmage] unless the end of the world showed up. I always thought that was lousy as hell. I think they were scared to death that the owner would jump all over them if they let him wheel and deal like most quarterbacks do. So they’d stay with the same play no matter what. And Shack was as sharp as anybody.”
In 1975, the Rams finished 12-2, and Harris threw for more than 2,000 yards. But he was injured late in the season, and Jaworski started the first-round play-off game against St. Louis, which the Rams won, 35-23. In the NFC Championship game against Dallas, Knox put Harris back in as starter. The Rams lost to the Cowboys, 37-7.
Norm Pollom: “Harris got well, and so Chuck had a thing where if a starter got well, he played him. Harris had a terrible day against Dallas. I often thought if he’d stayed with Ronnie [Jaworski], we might have gone all the way.”
Ron Jaworski: “The 1975 play-off game against the Cardinals, I wasn’t told I was starting until they were singing the national anthem. Harris was injured, but he’d practiced all week. They hadn’t made a decision. There was never a situation where someone was anointed the quarterback. There was always the pressure to perform.”
Jack Youngblood: “Jaworski would have been our quarterback had he not thrown a beer bottle at Don Klosterman. We were having beers and burgers one Saturday night. The boys were at one table, and Klosterman had some VIPs with him at another table. Apparently Klosterman made some off-the-wall comment about how Jaworski couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle. Jaworski, he picked up the beer bottle and just spun around in his chair and chucked it at him.”
Jaworski: “I’m not sure I necessarily threw a bottle at him. These stories get embellished sometimes.”
THE ’SC ROOKIE
In 1976, a rookie quarterback arrived: USC’s 5-foot-11 Pat Haden, a Rhodes Scholar. The Rams finished, 10-3-1. Haden started the 1976 NFC Championship game against Minnesota, which the Rams lost, 24-13.
Harold Jackson: “I’m not saying that Pat Haden couldn’t get the job done, but James Harris was the quarterback, and we was winning pretty good.”
Shirley Knox (wife of Coach Knox): “We went to dinner at Carroll’s house quite often. This particular night, he had a few of his friends there, and he said, ‘Let’s everybody vote for who they’d like to quarterback the Rams.’ Everybody voted for Pat Haden except for myself and Chuck.”
Jackson: “We found out that Chuck had been told by Carroll that he wanted Haden to start. We go to Minnesota for the championship game. We were down on about the one-inch yard line. We had a quarterback sneak, and they stood Pat Haden straight up in the air, almost. We felt like if Harris had been in the ball game—big old guy—he could have gotten the ball in the end zone, and we would have won. We tried a field goal; Minnesota blocked it and took it back 90 yards.”
THE NAMATH EXPERIMENT
Before the 1977 season, Rosenbloom signed 34-year-old Joe Namath to deliver a Super Bowl to Los Angeles. Playing on arthritic knees at the end of his career, Namath lasted all of four games. Harris and Jaworski were both traded.
Brad Pye: “I was on the top black radio station: KGFJ. They had a press conference at the Century Plaza. Rosenbloom was speaking, and I held my hand up to ask a question. He said, ‘OK, Mr. Pye, what do you want to say?’ I said, ‘Now that you have signed Joe Namath, does that mean you’re going to trade Shack?’ And he said, ‘Mr. Pye, you don’t matter. This is my team; I do what I want with it.’”
Fred Dryer: “Nineteen seventy-seven was all about Carroll’s move to bring Namath in, and Chuck’s not wanting it. That’s what Chuck allowed to dominate his last year as head coach. That year was disastrous. Joe wound up here standing on the sideline in the rain while we got beat by Minnesota, 14-7, in the only Mud Bowl in L.A. Rams history. The momentum that had been created by the Rosenbloom purchase of the Rams had dissipated.”
Jack Youngblood: “It rained in Southern California for what seemed like a month. You’ve got years of cow manure growing the grass, and after this monsoon, it turned into a stockyard. It smelled like cow manure, it felt like cow manure, and it tasted like cow manure.”
THE BOTCHED HIRE
After the Mud Bowl defeat, Knox was fired, and Rosenbloom brought back head coach George Allen, a defensive-minded guru who had molded winning Rams teams in the late ’60s before building his legacy with the Washington Redskins. The gambit proved a disaster. Rosenbloom fired Allen during the 1978 preseason. Meanwhile, fed up with an outdated Coliseum, Rosenbloom readied to move the team to Anaheim.
Wendell Tyler (running back, 1977-82): “When Allen came, he didn’t give water breaks, and then he had us running sprints. And the veterans weren’t going for that.”
Mel Durslag: “The guys in the front office kept knocking George to Carroll. I was invited there for lunch one time. I’m standing there with George in the cafeteria line. He orders a bowl of soup, and he says, ‘Can I have some crackers?’ And the guy says, ‘The crackers are at the other end of the line.’ So George says, ‘What the hell kind of organization is this? You’ve got soup on one end of the line and crackers on the other.’ He was peculiar, but he was a very good coach.”
Al Wisk (broadcaster, 1978-79): “Part of the mystique of sports is believing your team can be champions. The Rams’ failures in the play-offs may have destroyed that mystique. So in the late 1970s, Rosenbloom was trying everything he could to get the Rams to win in the play-offs and improve attendance. The move to Anaheim was the last one of those three Hail Mary passes: Namath, Allen, Anaheim.”
Despite the pre-season turmoil, and with defensive coordinator Ray Malavasi promoted to head coach, the Rams went 12-4 in 1978 but, once again, lost to Dallas, 28-0, in another NFC Championship game at the Coliseum. Three months later, on April 2, 1979, Rosenbloom drowned while vacationing in Florida with his wife Georgia. Despite rumors of foul play related to Rosenbloom’s gambling interests, his death was ultimately deemed the probable result of a heart attack while swimming.
The son was suspicious…
Steve Rosenbloom (assistant to the president, 1972-79): “I was down there on the next plane. When I saw the ocean, it was very rough, which is not the normal Miami area surf. I asked some people, ‘Was the ocean as rough yesterday as it right now?’ And they said, ‘Yeah.’ That’s when I said, there’s something rotten here. He wouldn’t have gone in that water by himself. Or, he changed the habits of a lifetime. Whatever it is, we’ll probably never know. If somebody was involved, they would have said something on their death bed.”
But others weren’t…
Dr. Clarence Shields (team physician, 1973-95): “Maybe Carroll had some health issues that weren’t disclosed. I know that he had bypass surgery sometime in the ’70s. He did have heart disease. I had a feeling that might have been behind some of his win-now mentality.”
The funeral was a star-studded affair…
Al Wisk: “Comedian Jonathan Winters was the emcee of Carroll’s memorial service. I remember waiting for my car afterward and standing with Jimmy Stewart, who was waiting for his car. Warren Beatty was there with Diane Keaton.”
The wife took over…
Fred Dyer: “You’ve got this woman who knows nothing of sports. There’s all this bullshit that she’s a scratch golfer. She was the owner’s wife, way in the fucking background, and suddenly she owns the team. Nobody’s saying a woman can’t own a football team. But people were criticizing that particular woman.”
THE FIRST LADY
Georgia Rosenbloom was said to have met her sixth husband, Carroll, at the Palm Beach estate of Joseph Kennedy in 1957. In 1979, she went from behind-the-scenes Bel-Air socialite to front and center as the new Rams owner. Most people around the team had figured Carroll was grooming his son Steve to take over someday. Instead Georgia—to whom Carroll, presumably for tax reasons, had bequeathed 70 percent ownership of the Rams—fired her stepson. A woman owning an NFL team? In her first season the Rams did something they had never done: They made it to the Super Bowl, with an unknown quarterback named Vince Ferragamo.
Steve Rosenbloom: “My father wanted me to run the team, but he told me his wife would own the team. He said, ‘She’ll go to meetings in a social way.’ He didn’t see that we would cross paths in a way that might be disruptive. She wanted me to quit, and I said, ‘No, you’ll have to fire me.’ It was strange because my father felt there was no place for my wife, or his wife, or other wives to be coming into the office. We had secretaries there working, and he felt that would be a disruptive event. He read me the riot act because my wife had to come to the office on a couple of occasions. That’s just how he felt about it. So when Georgia would come to the office when he might be there, she would check in with the receptionist and have to wait.”
Mel Durslag: “Carroll had made a big deal to move the team to Anaheim. They had promised him an awful lot of land in the parking lot there to develop for business. And Carroll was going to get real fat on this real estate deal in the parking lot. He died, and Georgia never got the real estate deal through.”
Jack Teele (Rams vice president of administration, 1978-81): “I would phone the house, and a butler would answer or whomever, and they’d say, ‘She can’t be reached right now.’ Meanwhile I’ve got a $500,000 deal waiting with some player or some sponsor. When I finally told her I was leaving, she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Georgia, I can take yes for an answer, I can take no for an answer, but I can’t take no answer.’”
But the Rams were winning…
Wendell Tyler: “I was focused on staying healthy and getting a better contract. Back then I was a starter, and I was only making $40,000. When Ray Malavasi took over as coach, he shook it up. He put me in, he put Vince Ferragamo in, he put Billy Waddy in. He started implementing the young guys.”
Al Wisk: “They had a couple of injuries in the first half of the ’79 season. Ron Jessie was a great wide receiver, and he was injured. They had a third-string quarterback because both Ferragamo and Haden were injured. So here they are, 5-6, and Ferragamo comes in and they get hot. They end up going to the play-offs again. They went in as a wild card team. They face their nemesis in Dallas. I remember that game vividly. Two minutes to go in the game, Dallas is leading, and Ferragamo hit Billy Waddy for a 50-yard touchdown with less than two minutes left on the clock.”
Lawrence McCutcheon: “That ’79 team, we were not as talented as the teams before then, in my opinion. I think we had to win four out of the last five games to get to 9-7. We won a couple of games that we probably shouldn’t have, and all of a sudden you get that adrenaline flowing, and you start thinking, ‘We’ve got a shot at this thing again.’”
THE SUPER BOWL
After finally winning an NFC Championship game, the Rams faced defending Super Bowl champs the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Rose Bowl on January 20, 1980, before a record crowd of 103,985. The Rams were heavy underdogs in Super Bowl XIV but gave the Steelers fits. Famously, Youngblood played the game with a broken fibula. Final score: Steelers, 31; Rams, 19.
Dr. Clarence Shields (team physician, 1973-95): “We made a brace for Youngblood that allowed his ankle to go up and down, but he wouldn’t be able to turn it sideways, which would move the fracture. That would never happen today.”
Fred Dryer: “The funny thing was, we matched up really well against Pittsburgh. They didn’t do anything. Terry Bradshaw was walking back to the huddle; we were ahead, 19-17. They were frustrated because they couldn’t move the ball. And I yelled over to him, ‘What are you gonna do now?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Fuck, I don’t know.’ They hit two bombs. Bradshaw threw two beautifully thrown balls. But our coverage was there.”
Al Wisk: “The Steelers had already won the Super Bowl three times, and they had probably nine players that ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Two things prohibited the Rams from winning the game. One was, Nolan Cromwell had intercepted a ball from Terry Bradshaw, and there was nothing but air in front of him. He just couldn’t hang onto the ball. And then Ferragamo had moved the Rams into Pittsburgh territory late in the game, and he was intercepted by Jack Lambert. Billy Waddy was open in the end zone waving his arms, and Ferragamo didn’t see him.”
In the Summer of 1980, Georgia Rosenbloom married her seventh husband, Dominic Frontiere, a composer and onetime head of the music department at Paramount Pictures. In 1986, in connection with a scandal involving the scalping of tickets for the 1980 Super Bowl, Frontiere was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. In 1988, Georgia filed for divorce but kept her married name. The Rams played at Anaheim Stadium from 1980 to 1994, until Georgia moved the team to St. Louis. The St. Louis Rams won a Super Bowl in 2000. Georgia Frontiere died of cancer in 2008, at 80. Earlier this year owner Stan Kroenke won league approval to move the Rams back to Los Angeles. The team’s Inglewood stadium is being built at an estimated cost of $2.6 billion. The Rams have high hopes for their rookie quarterback, Jared Goff.
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Los Angeles magazine