Ex-Colts assistant seen as coaching pioneer

In four years as a young head coach at Johns Hopkins University, John Bridgers' football record was not distinguished: 10 victories, 21 defeats and one tie.

There was no place to go but up.

Bridgers, 84, died Friday at his home in Albuquerque, N.M., having left his mark on a number of pro and college sports teams. As an assistant coach with the Baltimore Colts, he helped the club win its first NFL championship in 1958.

As the forward-thinking head coach at Baylor University in the early 1960s, Bridgers dragged the Southwest Conference into the pro-style passing era. And in 1966, he shattered the color barrier in the SWC by playing an African-American player for the first time.

A decade later, as athletic director at Florida State, Bridgers hired a little-known man who would become college football's all-time winningest coach. After 31 seasons at FSU, Bobby Bowden has chalked up 365 career victories.

Not a bad legacy for Bridgers, a man who stumbled at the start.

"John was one of the best people I ever met -- progressive, positive and a pioneer," said Raymond Berry, the Colts' Hall of Fame receiver. Berry played for Bridgers in Baltimore and, during Baylor's spring practices, served as his college assistant for eight years.

"John helped me start my coaching career," said Berry, who went on to coach the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl in the 1985 season.

Yesterday, other former Colts players remembered Bridgers fondly.

"He was a hell of a nice guy," said Gino Marchetti, the Hall of Fame defensive end. "Of course, you say that when anyone dies, but in John's case it's true.

"He was well-prepared, a student of the game and a stickler at times. Once he caught a couple of players coming in [to training camp] late for curfew -- two minutes late -- and turned them in.

"I sulked for a week until I realized that was his job," Marchetti said.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Bridgers attended Auburn University. He served in the Army during World War II and received the Purple Heart. He also began coaching during the war, leading military teams in Europe in 1945.

After the Korean War, where he also served, Bridgers took over at Johns Hopkins in 1953. There, despite a hapless record, he impressed Colts coach Weeb Ewbank, who offered him a job as Baltimore's defensive line coach.

"I became his pet project," recalled Ordell Braase, the All-Pro defensive end. "John stuck with me, kept me focused, and encouraged me to stay after practice and continue working after Weeb blew the whistle.

"He taught me the principles of balance and how to rush the passer and get rid of those blockers fast. John was a really smart guy."

At least one Colts player never let Bridgers forget his highfalutin roots, Braase said.

"At a team weigh-in, [Hall of Fame tackle] Artie Donovan turned to Bridgers and said, 'John, I've played for two NFL teams that folded, but by God, even after all of that, I never thought I'd ever be coached by some guy from Johns Hopkins.' "


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