George Young, coach, NFL executive, dies at 71

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue called George Young the "Renaissance man of football." Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who played for Mr. Young at City College, called him "the Buddha of high school football." And City athletic director and football coach George Petrides said, "Mr. Young was a true perfectionist who left nothing to chance."

George Bernard Young Jr., 71, died last night at a Baltimore area hospice of a rare neurological disease. He was surrounded by his close relatives and his wife of 36 years, Kathryn Mary Love Reddington Young, who is known as "Lovey." Mr. Young had returned to Baltimore for care after taking a medical leave in October from his position as vice president of football operations of the NFL in New York.

Mr. Tagliabue, who visited his colleague at his bedside Friday, said, "George was a plain-talking, unvarnished football guy who connected with everybody within the [NFL]. He respected integrity, decency and directness. He had a great mind and great patience except for people with big egos or slackers who didn't work as hard as him."

Mr. Young advanced to the league office after 19 years with the New York Giants. As general manager, he led the Giants to two NFL championships. In 1971, he helped coach the Baltimore Colts to their only Super Bowl victory.

In similar fashion, he made Baltimore's City College a powerhouse in the mid-'60s. Former City players still picture their old coach on the sideline: a cherub-faced fellow with tiny glasses, a tide's-out hairline and Yoda-like ears, brow furrowed, body rocking side to side as he shifted his considerable weight from one foot to the other.

Mr. Young's long career in football took him far from the playing fields of Baltimore. But he never strayed from the principles that he practiced here and that brought him success in the NFL: devotion to detail, methodical preparation, a game plan modeled on military strategy.

Mr. Petrides, who played on City's undefeated teams of 1965-66, recalls his first practice under Mr. Young: "He told us, 'I'll teach you everything you need to know about football except the way the ball bounces, and if I had time, I would teach that, too.'"

Said C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a former City center and now Baltimore County executive, "If you played for George Young, you gave more than 100 percent. As an attorney, I'd rather have tried a case against a Harvard Law School grad than against someone who'd played for George Young, because [the latter] would have been well-prepared, tenacious and impossible to intimidate."

Mr. Young was born Sept. 22, 1930, in Baltimore. His father owned the Stag Bar, a tavern at Preston and Aisquith streets; the family lived atop a bakery, across the road. As a youth, Mr. Young attended parochial schools and helped out in the bar, though friends said he never drank or smoked.

At Calvert Hall College, he played football and baseball and excelled academically, graduating in 1948. At Bucknell College in Pennsylvania, Mr. Young tackled history and tailbacks, earning small college All-America honors as a 260-pound defensive lineman. His strength was legend. Friends said Mr. Young could bend a horseshoe five inches with his bare hands.

Extremely nearsighted, Mr. Young refused to wear glasses on the field, a stubbornness that left him barely able to see the action. He learned to sense the flow of a play from the angle of pressure being exerted by rival linemen - a concept he would later teach as coach.

During one game, Mr. Young, Bucknell's co-captain, fell on what he thought was a fumbled ball. The object was actually a helmet - still attached to its wearer.

But Mr. Young's foibles, such as his refusal to acknowledge poor vision, were overshadowed by his mental abilities.

"George had great judgment, not only about football talent but about people," said Nick Schloeder, his college roommate and close friend. "He read you well. He knew what you were, what you weren't and what you were trying to be."

Upon graduation, he gave pro football a try. Drafted in the 26th (and final) round in 1952 by the Dallas Texans, Mr. Young was the last player cut in that NFL team's training camp.

"What I remember about George was his brains," said Art Donovan, a teammate on that Dallas club, which would later become the Baltimore Colts. "He reminded me of [Colts coach] Weeb Ewbank, a schoolteacher type."

A teacher is what Mr. Young became. In 1953, he began a 16-year career as a history instructor at City College. His coaching career began the following year, at Calvert Hall. In five seasons, the Cardinals went 16-22-5 and won the Maryland Scholastic Association title in 1957, for the first time in 22 years.

In 1959, Mr. Young became head coach at City, beginning a dynastic run that produced a 60-11-2 record and five MSA championships in nine years. He drilled his squad mercilessly, timed practices to the minute and preached technique, teamwork and toughness. He scouted opponents with obsessive detail, poring over grainy game films for hours, probing for chinks.

"We started every game 7 points ahead because of his organization," said Mel Filler, a longtime assistant at City.

Mr. Young was honest, his players said, often painfully so.

In 1966, City quarterback Schmoke was a senior, coming off a 9-0 season, when his coach asked his college plans. The player rattled off the names of several Big 10 schools. Mr. Young draped an arm around him and said, "Son, you're not that good."

"George said, 'My sense is that when you leave here, football will become less important to you,' and ticked off some Ivy League colleges for me," said Mr. Schmoke. In 1987, a graduate of Yale University, he was elected mayor of Baltimore.

On game days, Mr. Young had his players wear coats and ties, shine their football shoes, polish their black helmets. Anyone caught smoking, on or off campus, found himself running 25 laps around City's track - more than 6 miles - and then was cut from the team. When report cards came out, Mr. Young demanded to see them first, recording each grade before players left school.

Academics took priority, said a former player, Bob Terpening, now executive vice president of the Indianapolis Colts: "If he saw you between classes, and you were limping, he wouldn't ask about your injury, he'd ask about your grades."

On weekends, Mr. Young packed up his proteges - plus prospects from other high schools - in his Chevy Impala and drove to colleges, seeking scholarships for the bunch. Though considered frugal, he was known to kick in $100, should one of City's own come up short for college tuition.

"He was the father and we were his family," said the Rev. Raymond Banks Sr., captain of City's team in 1964, who became a minister at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore. "Now God needs a new coach, and George Young heads the list."

"George always said that the most important thing he did was work with kids," said Bob Patzwall, who played for Mr. Young at Calvert Hall and later coached with him at City. "It wasn't what made him famous, or what paid him the most money, but it was where he felt he made the most impact."

His death hit hard, said those who knew him.

"I heard he was ill, but this brings tears to my eyes," said Glenn Ressler, a former Colts lineman. "Of all the coaches I ever had, something about him was very, very special."

Mr. Young joined the Colts' staff in 1968, scooped up in mid-career by Don Shula after impressing the head coach with a free-lance scouting assessment.

"I saw in him intelligence, warmth, compassion and a guy who wasn't afraid to make a decision," Mr. Shula said recently. "The more you put on his plate, the more he'd be looking to do."

Frank Deford, a longtime acquaintance, summed up Mr. Young's life as "a classic mixture of planning and serendipity. George was a very cautious man; he was happy being a teacher, but because he was in the right place at the right time, and others sensed his intelligence, he was wrenched out of the world that he so carefully aligned for himself, and led down a different path that brought him even greater happiness - though he was reluctant to admit it."

Mr. Young never craved fame, said Mr. Deford, a Baltimore native and commentator for National Public Radio.

"There was no vanity in George; he didn't need his name in the newspaper. He just liked figuring things out. That was his life," said Mr. Deford.

Promoted from the Colts' personnel department to assistant coach three games into the 1970 campaign, he retooled a beleaguered offensive line that carried the Colts to their only Super Bowl championship.

"We [players] all liked George but had no idea he was as smart as he was," said Bill Curry, then the Colts' center. "Lo and behold, after every game, he gave us index cards evaluating our blocking in great detail - like, 'Why did you step with your left foot on this play?'"

Mr. Young and his linemen quickly bonded. Two days before Super Bowl V, Mr. Young and defensive coach John Sandusky nearly came to blows when the latter made a wisecrack about the offensive line. "I thought the two big men were going to have a fistfight on the floor of the Orange Bowl," said Mr. Curry, who broke up the argument. "George was just defending us."

Mr. Young spent 3 1/2 more years with the Colts, was fired and then followed Mr. Shula to Miami, serving five years as the Dolphins' director of pro personnel. In 1979, armed with recommendations from Mr. Shula and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Mr. Young was named general manager of the New York Giants, the league's flagship franchise.

There, he rescued a moribund club, drafted marquee players Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor, and led the Giants to two Super Bowl championships (1987 and 1991), four conference titles and eight playoff appearances.

Five times, Mr. Young was named NFL executive of the year (in 1984, 1986, 1990, 1993 and 1997.) In 1998, he left to accept the post at the NFL offices.

In many ways, George Young - who had two master's degrees - never left the classroom. "He was always coming up with a historic parallel that explained a current situation and made you say, 'Oh, now I understand,'" said Jim Miller, director of business operations for the Chicago Bears.

Each spring, when asked if the Bears are close to signing their top draft picks, Mr. Miller trots out a classic George Young line: "Nobody gets serious about contracts until Bastille Day [July 14, approximately when NFL training camps open]."

In 1987, Mr. Young drove the media to distraction by likening New York's defeat of Washington for a Super Bowl berth to the victory of Alexander the Great over Darius of Persia in 330 B.C.

Hard-nosed at the negotiating table, he was soft-hearted when it came to his longtime friends. Mr. Young and his wife shared the camaraderie of their Baltimore friends at an event years ago at the Baltimore Country Club. In 1987, after New York won a Super Bowl, Mr. Young threw a party not for the Giants but for his "home" team.

At that gala, the host gave a short toast. "We spend most of our lives seeing old friends at wakes and funerals," Mr. Young said.

"We wanted to have a party without that."

Mr. Young is also survived by his mother, Frances Boland of Timonium; a brother, Joseph Young, also of Timonium; and two step-brothers, Jay Young of Bel Air and Michael Boland of Phoenix, Ariz.; and seven nieces and nephews.

A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated Tuesday at an undetermined time at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street. Burial will be private.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the George B. Young Scholarship Foundation, c/o the National Football League, 280 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017.

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