The Vikings are taking their new Curly Lambeau offense to Green Bay on Sunday in search of the 500th victory in games that count in 59 seasons of existence. The Purple gladiators have served us well, with a 479-397-11 (. 546) record in the regular season, and 20-29 (. 408) in the playoffs.
It took the expansion Vikings until their eighth season (1968) to reach the playoffs, meaning our heroes have been part of the field 29 times in the past 51 years. Not too shabby, when you consider the longtime rivals over the same 51 years: 21 playoff appearances for the Packers, 15 for the Bears and 12 for the Lions.
Yet, as another milestone event beckons, it causes a baby boomer to contemplate how these past six decades might have turned out, if Minneapolis-St. Paul interests had not reneged on a strong role in the fledgling American Football League and remained among eight AFL teams for the inaugural 1960 season?
What if Charles O. Johnson, the executive sports editor of the Minneapolis Star and Morning Tribune, had not been so virulently opposed to the AFL, and joined with his man Sid Hartman in using Chicago Bears owner/coach George Halas to gain a promise of future NFL entry?
What if Charles O. and Sid had been fully on board with Max Winter, Bill Boyer and the Skoglunds (H.P. and his son John) in maintaining Minneapolis-St. Paul as a launchpad for the AFL?
The first six franchises were announced for the AFL on Aug. 14, 1959: Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Houston and Dallas. Buffalo became the seventh, and then Boston the eighth right before the first draft was held in late November.
So enmeshed was the Twin Cities that Winter was in charge of setting up a convoluted first AFL draft for college seniors. And get this? The early rounds were to be held at the Minneapolis Tribune Quarterback Club, at the Pick-Nicollet Hotel, following coach Murray Warmath’s talk and “movies’’ of the Gophers’ season-closing game with Wisconsin (11-7, Badgers).
(Note: That was the game where customers leaving Memorial Stadium could find Murray hanging in effigy from a tree outside a campus dormitory at the conclusion of a 2-7 season.)
The plan to have representatives of the eight franchises announce their draft picks Monday at the Quarterback Club blew up over the weekend, when Winter said he was switching his allegiance to gaining an NFL expansion team.
A month later, the Skoglunds still were saying the Twin Cities were committed to the AFL, but Charles O.’s campaign had been successful in taking away local support. At NFL meetings in January 1960, Dallas received an expansion franchise for that fall and Minnesota for 1961.
Oakland was named as the AFL replacement for Minneapolis-St. Paul on Jan. 30, 1960. So, the easy way to soothsay what-might-have-been is to compare the Vikings to the Raiders.
Easy, but not helpful to this make-believe AFL scenario. That team also would have been the Vikings, since Max was a fan, but the first coach here, Norm Van Brocklin, was winning the MVP for the Eagles in 1960, and Bert Rose was delivered here as the first GM because of NFL connections.
My contention — again, based on Charles O. and Sid being fully on board — is that Sid Gillman would have been hired as coach/GM for the Minnesota Vikings of the 1960 AFL.
Phil Bengtson, a Green Bay assistant, had turned down a Minnesota AFL offer in mid-November 1959, before chaos erupted. Gillman was fired as coach of the L.A. Rams on Dec. 12, 1959.
Gillman was Sid’s boyhood hero in north Minneapolis. He was an innovator of the passing game. Max could’ve had Sid on the phone to Gillman 10 minutes after he was fired; locked him up before he was hired by Barron Hilton, owner of the AFL’s Los Angeles Chargers.
We would have had Gillman, the man who coached Van Brocklin, not Van Brocklin, as the first coach here. We would have had a coach so committed to offensive wizardry that once while watching film of a successful play said to Bum Phillips, “This is better than making love,’’ and Bum replied: “Sid, either I don’t know how to watch film, or you don’t know how to make love.’’
We could have had the true Godfather of the Pro Passing Game, if only Charles O. had embraced the AFL, and Max had turned loose Sid Hartman to get Sid Gillman.
These mythical AFL-bred Vikings also would have given us a championship, since a true championship is winning all a team is allowed to win in a season.
1963, AFL Championship Game: San Diego Chargers 51, Boston Patriots 10, meaning Gillman’s high-flying team won all it could win.
Amazingly, six decades later, we still can ask:
Sid, why didn’t you hang up on George Halas, embrace the AFL and go get us Sid Gillman?
We await Sid’s response.