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Interviews - Coach Babe Parilli

The Charlotte Hornets Football Network presents a conversation with former New York Stars/Charlotte Hornets head coach Babe Parilli.

Babe Parilli

Vito "Babe" Parilli was named the head coach of the World Football League's Boston Bulldogs in 1974. The former Boston Patriots quarterback known as "Kentucky Babe" was a natural choice for Howard Baldwin, then owner of the Boston franchise. Later in the year, Baldwin merged his now 'Boston Bulls' with Bob Schmertz's New York franchise and the New York Stars were created. Babe coached the Stars to a 8-5 record when the team transferred to Charlotte, North Carolina-the now "Hornets" finished the 1974 season 10-10. Babe then joined the Chicago Winds for a brief period in 1975 before leaving the WFL. Parilli has played or coached in five professional leagues; the NFL, CFL, WFL, USFL and the Arena Football League. He is now retired from football and lives in Colorado.

CHFN: Who first contacted you about the World Football League, and coaching the Boston franchise?

BP: The first guy I talked to was Howard Baldwin. Howard was the president of the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association. He thought that bringing me to the Boston area would create some excitement for the team and the WFL.

CHFN: On February 5, 1974, the Boston Bulldogs talked wide receiver George Sauer out of retirement. What did you say to George that persuaded him to join the team and the new league?

BP: I had played with George. Out of the clear blue, George retired on his own, right in the prime of his career. He was a sort of an introvert and he wanted to go his own way. When I approached him he seemed interested to come out of retirement but there was a problem because he still belonged to the New York Jets. I had worked out a deal with Webb Ewbank, something most teams don't do, especially between rival leagues, to allow us to get George. I explained that it would be in Weeb's best interest to allow us to sign George and when we did he didn't contest the contract. I let George know that we had signed Gerry Philbin and John Elliott, two holdovers from the '69 Super Bowl team, to contracts and he was interested in making the move.

CHFN: The Boston Bulls merged with the WFL's New York franchise. Why did the two teams merge and what was your reaction to the deal?

BP: The decision was made... I got a call from the owner of the New York team, Bob Schmertz. He owned the Boston Celtics of the NBA at that time. I think the league felt that the New York market needed a strong team and that we would be a better draw there. I didn't really know the real reason why, but I was concerned because I lived in Boston. Eventually, I flew down to New York, met with Bob, and he detailed the benefits of the move-financial and professional. I signed a three year contract.

CHFN: The New York Stars had signed Gerry Philbin and John Elliott. How did they feel about playing in the new league?

BP: They said to me that they had more fun with the Stars than the New York Jets. They were the 'big dogs' of the team and the league. I knew them, they knew me. They really enjoyed it-they had a great time. Those guys were happy campers.

CHFN: The New York Stars held training camp at La Salle University on Long Island. How was your first WFL training camp?

BP: Training camp went very well. Practice was twice-a-day, NFL style camp and the players were excited about getting the league off the ground.

CHFN: What was your impression of Stars owner Bob Schmertz?

BP: Bob Schmertz was a good guy. I really like Bob. Everything he did was first class. I tried to bring Terry Bradshaw to the New York Stars. Bob Schmertz told me, "offer him $750,000". That was a lot of money in those days. In fact, he and his agent came up and we had dinner in the city. Mr. Rooney, I had coached with the Steelers for three years, sent one of his relatives down and he asked me, "are you really gonna steal all of our players?" I backed off. I respected Mr. Rooney too much and didn't want to raid his players.

CHFN: What was it like to play professional football at Downing Stadium?

Downing Stadium was like playing at a high school field. It wasn't much more than that. A poor grass field with old stands on either side. We had to put lights in because you couldn't see the ball when we played. If you stand at one end zone, you couldn't see the other end zone-the lights just lit up the middle of the field. We spent a lot of money getting lights into that stadium. Unfortunately, we didn't have a major league field to play in and go along with the vision of what Bob Schmertz thought the team could be. We were forced to play in Downing Stadium out on Randall's Island in New York City. The stadium had eight candle power for night games, and Bob put a lot of money into it to try to renovate it and make it suitable for professional football. The problem was we couldn't get Shea Stadium, which I couldn't understand, because it is a city-owned property.

We had a good football team, we won some ball games. The stadium kept the crowds away. We averaged about 12,000 at Downing, but people didn't want to come down to that end of town. You had to pay a toll to cross over the river, and then there were traffic jams leading into the stadium. We got great coverage from the press. I guess the Jets were afraid of the competition and figured out a way to keep us out of Shea Stadium.

CHFN: What was your impression of Howard Baldwin, Bob Keating and Dusty Rhodes?

BP: Howard was a good guy, a good General Manager. He was a young, dedicated guy who was trying to do a good job. Bob Keating was learning the ropes-trying to do a good job. Dusty Rhodes was an exception to the rule. She was a young lady who probably knew more about football than Bob and Howard. She had worked with sports agent Bob Wolfe, and she could memorize all the clauses and concepts of all the players' contracts.

CHFN: The Stars opened the season against the Jacksonville Sharks. 59,112 fans attended the game that was shown on national television.

BP: That was a really an eye opener. We had close to 60,000 fans there. National television. And for a new league that was something to remember.

CHFN: What was your impression of the WFL ball?

BP: Gold with orange stripes. I liked it. The ABA had their ball, we had ours. That was a good idea, a good marketing tool. Kids would love to have a ball like that-you could really see it well when it was thrown.

CHFN: What was the home opener like for the Stars and the coaching staff?

BP: I thought, the first game was against my old fiend Jack Gotta and the Birmingham Americans. I was with Jack in the Air Force, and I got him a try out with the Cleveland Browns before he went up to Canada and became a star up there and a great coach. At halftime we had them 29-3, and I thought, "Holy Hell, I don't want to embarrass the guy." That goes to show you that a game is never won till the final whistle blows. I thought we had that game locked up. There was a good crowd, and we had the people of New York behind us. We had George Sauer, John Elliott, Gerry Philbin and Greg Lens-all former Jets, and the Jets and Giants were losing, so there was a lot of excitement.

In the game, George Mira threw a long pass, and our defensive back tripped over an official, and the ball went up over the lights and the safety lost it-I never saw the touchdown until Dennis Homan had it in the end zone.

NOTE: The Americans came from behind to defeat the Stars 32-29. 17,493 fans attended the game at Downing Stadium on Randall's Island.

CHFN: The Stars went to play the Philadelphia Bell the third week of the season. Again, you're on national television, and playing before 64,000 fans. Were you surprised with the size of the crowds the WFL was drawing?

BP: I was. I think you need to look at football back then compared to now. There is so much over exposure now. In 1974 you didn't have all the multiple games on television; it was a novelty for people to come out and sit in the stands and see a game. Today people stay at home and watch the game on television.

Grace Kelly's brother, Jack Kelly, was one of the original owners of the Philadelphia Bell. He picked me and the coaches up and took us out to dinner at Brookline and he talked about the WFL and the excitement around the city. That game came down to a field goal. We had the game won, and "King" Corcoran completed a pass, and the clock should have expired but it didn't so the officials gave the Bell a chance to kick a field goal. The Bell field goal kicker couldn't find his shoe. Back then they wore different shoes on their kicking foot and somebody took his shoe or he couldn't find it. So he didn't have a shoe to kick with and he went in and missed the kick with his regular shoe. I was pretty upset with the officials on that call.

CHFN: Who were some of toughest teams you played against?

BP: We had a good team. A lot of our losses were only by a few points-games that could've gone either way. Our quarterbacks were Tom Sherman, Gary Danielson and Brian Dowling-all good NFL quarterbacks. I thought Jack Pardee and the Florida Blazers were the toughest. The Memphis Southmen had a good team; John Bassett put a lot of money to creating a good team down there.

CHFN: Tom Sherman was the starting quarterback for the Stars. How would you describe his quarterbacking style?

BP: Tom was a great competitor. He wasn't overly talented but he is the kind of guy who can get the job done. A good team leader - a real good team leader. Not real big kid, but he was mobile and could run-a good field general. I thought he was the best of the three that the Stars had.

CHFN: Who were some of the players that stood out on the Stars?

BP: Matt Herkenhoff. We signed him away from Kansas City. He was one of our top draft picks, and he was Kansas City's top pick. He played 13 years with the Chiefs after the 1974 season. Bob Kuziel was our center; he went on to play for the Redskins. Darrel Bunge, a kid out of Minnesota, was tough. Larry Butler. Bob Gladieux was a rough, tough football player. When you needed three or four yards, Bob was your man. He was a warrior-I liked Bob a lot. Don Highsmith was a good back; he had played for the Raiders. He had more ability than Bob, but Gladieux was tougher. On the defense, we had Philbin and Elliott and they gave WFL quarterbacks a lot of pressure.

CHFN: During a game in the Astrodome, against he Houston Texans, the sheriffs' department escorted John Matuszak from the field. Do you remember that game?

BP: These sheriffs came walking out onto the field and escorted him off. They handed him a restraining order, and he sat on the sidelines. I didn't think he was in great shape 'cause our guys were handling him fine. John Matuszak just sat there on the sidelines. I thought I had seen it all.

When I was playing for the Packers, we traveled to Forbes Field to play the Pittsburgh Steelers. As I was calling a play I heard this big "thud" behind me. I turned around to see that this drunk had run out of the stands and tackled our fullback. Those kind of things happen all the time in professional football.

Babe Parilli
Coach Babe Parilli and Dick Hart watching the Stars defense.

CHFN: What was the Stars place in the New York sports scene, and did the media treat you well?

BP: We got a lot of coverage. The Jets and Giants were losing, and I think we got better coverage than them. I knew a lot of these writers from my days with the Jets.

CHFN: When did you first realize that the WFL was in financial trouble?

BP: I first realized that there were financial problems after the Detroit Wheels came to play us at Downing. After the game I was told the Wheels were disbanding, and that was the first indication that the WFL was in trouble. We were moving to Charlotte. I remember telling the players, at practice, on the field that we had to 'buddy up' and travel down to Charlotte. The guys loved it. They threw us a parade-boy; they were hungry for football down there. Playing there was like playing in the Super Bowl. The fans came out, and we got good support.

CHFN: When did you first hear about the Stars move to Charlotte, North Carolina?

BP: We had beaten the Wheels and Bob Schmertz asked me to come into his office and he told me that the team was moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, and that we had three days to get down there and get settled. We had to play a game that week in Chicago, and Upton Bell had purchased the team from Schmertz and he renamed the team the 'Charlotte Hornets' after the game in Chicago. We had great crowds in Charlotte- 27,000 fans or so.

CHFN: What was your impression of Upton Bell?

BP: I would say Upton Bell didn't have the money to take over the team. He got control of the team from Schmertz, but I don't know how.

CHFN: Do you feel it was wrong for the WFL to go 'head to head' with the NFL?

BP: Sure. I don't think any league should try to take on the NFL. Especially if they are trying to get ratings or a television contract. The WFL should have played a schedule that began in May or June. That way they would avoid the NFL games. You got to have television. Without television you have nothing, you're minor league. One of the things that contributed to the demise of the league was the stadiums. Most of the stadiums weren't very good- Anaheim stadium was good.

CHFN: The Hornets traveled to Shreveport to play the Steamer. What happened regarding the Hornets and their chances of playing that day?

BP: We hadn't paid our bills. The sheriffs department came around before the game and said that we couldn't play the game. I pulled them aside and I said, "Hey, give us the game. Let us play; we traveled all the way down here." So they waited and after the game took all of our equipment. We paid the bill and later got all the stuff back.

CHFN: The WFL had reports from various teams about players going without pay. Did you ever have that problem with the club?

BP: Players never had a problem, except when Upton Bell took over the team and moved it to Charlotte. All the players took a pay cut to save the franchise.

CHFN: The team was 10-6 at one point and then lost the last four games to finish 10-10. What was the mood among the players when the team was losing and the WFL was having so many problems?

BP: The games that we lost were by three or four points. There was never a huge let down or anything like that. The team was always upbeat. We played a twenty game season and those guys never let down once.

CHFN: When the team finished 10-10and in second place, the WFL playoffs began without the Hornets. How did the players respond to that?

BP: When the WFL season ended, we finished 10-10 and beat out Philadelphia for second place. We were supposed to be in the WFL playoffs but we couldn't afford to fly to Orlando to play the Blazers. The WFL worked out a deal where the Philadelphia Bell would go to Florida. We had a team party at Len St. Jean's house after the season ended and the players approached me and said that they would play in the playoffs for free-they wanted to go down and take on the Florida Blazers. I told Upton this and he said, "let's get 'em together", but it was just too late. Money wise we couldn't give the players anything.

The guys were great. They wanted to go down and play the Blazers without receiving a penny. The WFL was a great football league, and I've been in six of them. The WFL was very much like the USFL. There were good players and I think we had young stars, veterans and a lot of exciting other players.

CHFN: In 1975 the WFL reorganized and the Chicago Winds contacted you about coaching their team. How tough was it to leave Charlotte?

BP: It wasn't too tough. We finished 10-10, and then couldn't play in the playoffs due to money. The Winds played two exhibition games. One game in Soldier Field against the Jacksonville Express we had lightning bolts coming down on us. It was pouring rain, and I think there were one or two thousand fans running for cover. We lost the game-we didn't have much of a team. The conditions that night were unbelievable. It was scary. I thought to myself, "some one's gonna get killed out there." We had maybe a few thousand fans there that night.

CHFN: Who first contacted you about coming to the Chicago Winds?

BP: Frank Mariani. I went out there and thought I had a good contract, a three year contract, in Chicago. Then Abe Gibron, who was a local hero with the Bears, got fired, and management couldn't get fans in the stands, so they called me in and told me they were going to hire Abe. I said, "Wait a minute. I got a three year contract." They said they would honor it, but they never did. Later I sued the Winds, and won, but I never got the money because the team and league had folded.

CHFN: Did you bring a lot of personnel to the Chicago Winds?

BP: No. There was already a team in place there. But by then all the major talent had gone. The guys like Jack Dolbin, Virgil Carter, and so on. We had an inferior team. Mark Kellar was probably the best player the Chicago Winds had that year. I don't think there was any mystery why the fans weren't coming to see the team, but the owners couldn't understand that. They hired Abe Gibron, hoping to get some fans in, but they struggled. I don't think they had the money. We had one owner, Dominic DiMatteo, of Dominic Stores, who probably could've bank rolled the whole thing but he was a minority investor. As far as the other guys, I think they were just there for their ego.

CHFN: How would you summarize your experience in the WFL?

BP: At that time there was room for a new league. The players that came in there were as good as the NFL, and they thought it was going to be another NFL. I honestly believe that there was room for two leagues then. The players, when they were paid, made some good money. We paid John Elliott and Gerry Philbin about $60,000-which was more than they had made with the New York Jets. Tom Sherman and Brian Dowling were signed for about $35,000, but that's nothing compared to today. We needed stronger ownership. If the WFL had played a shorter schedule, with fewer teams, we would've fared better. A schedule from May through September would have worked. It was a good league, and we had some great players. Many fine memories.

NOTE: The Babe Parilli interview was conducted by Jim Cusano and Richie Franklin. This interview originally appeared on the World Football Hall of Fame Web site and is used with permission. This interview is property of the Charlotte Hornets Football Network and may not be used without the written consent of the Web site owners.