“Matriculate: To enroll as a member of a body and especially of a college or university.”
To football fans, though, the Merriam-Webster entry falls far short of explaining what “matriculate” really means. Nor does that definition come close to describing the way a loquacious, didactic, wildly entertaining football coach named Hank Stram helped turn those four syllables into a game-changer for an entire industry.
“Just keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys,” said Stram, then the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, 50 years ago this month in Super Bowl 4.
That exhortation is the most magical part of an exhausting, hyperkinetic and unmissable passel of patter the coach lays down in NFL Films’ eminently entertaining and iconic highlight film from the game. The Chiefs are back in the Super Bowl this week for the first time since Stram and his boys won it all in 1970.
If there is a single video most responsible for the NFL’s transformation from sport to theater, a video that busted through the walls and let us all know what was really going on down there in the muck and the mud, the Stram video is it.
His use of the word “matriculating” has also taken on a life of its own. Everyone from legendary play-by-play man John Madden to 24-year-old Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson has used it, even if they’re not quite sure what it means. Urban Dictionary refers to Stram when it defines “matriculate” as “a fancy word used to make yourself more intelligent in a high-stakes situation.”
These days, thanks to the template Stram set down a half-century ago, mic’d up players and coaches are as common as a traffic jam on Monday morning. Back then, however, NFL Films was barely more than a ma-and-pa operation, and the idea of wiring up a coach — in the biggest game of the season, no less — was viewed as bold, if not downright crazy.
Those were the days of the taciturn taskmaster — Don Shula, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll and, of course, Bud Grant of the Vikings, who got out-everythinged that day in a 23-7 loss to Stram and the Chiefs.
“We said ‘Hank, listen, it’s never been done before. You’ll be the first one wired for the Super Bowl,’” Ed Sabol, the co-founder of NFL Films, said in an interview he did with Stram several years later. “And not only that, but your grandchildren, your children (will be able to watch it.) It’s something you’ll never forget.”
Nobody did. And neither Stram, the NFL or NFL Films itself would ever be the same.
On the 50th anniversary of the video, there are a number of delicious ironies developing.
Not only are the Chiefs back in the Super Bowl, and not only is the history-making video getting buzz during this yearlong celebration of the NFL’s 100th season, but Ed Sabol’s son and co-founder at NFL Films, the late Steve Sabol, was chosen to join his father in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year as part of the hall’s special centennial class.
It’s no stretch to say the Stram video paved the way toward getting the Sabols in the hall.
“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, NFL Films didn’t do as much,” the company’s Chris Willis said. “There was a highlight film for each team. There were one or two specials and some weekly shows. But the Super Bowl film was always the crowning jewel of the year.”
As Ed Sabol and Stram remembered in their reminisce about the arrangement, Stram didn’t feel so good about wearing the wire.
“I said, ‘I’ll do it on one condition,’” Stram recalled. “’Nobody in the organization (can) know I’m wired for sound. Because I don’t want it to be a circus.”
It was better than that.
Over 21 minutes, 53 seconds of video gold, there is Stram, rolled-up game plan in hand, fidgeting with his 60s-style skinny tie. He’s fitted perfectly in a crimson vest beneath a black blazer with the Chiefs logo embroidered below a pocket stuffed with a bright Chiefs-red handkerchief.
There he is, arguing and making up with officials, sometimes in the same sentence. He hectors and lectures his own quarterback, Len Dawson — “Throw that thing on the outside, Leonard!” He disses the Vikings — “They look like they’re flat as hell.” He predicts plays that will work with alarming regularity, none more presciently than “65 toss power trap” — the TD-scoring handoff to Mike Garrett that busted open the game late in the second quarter.
Thanks to the magic of editing, to say nothing of the luxury of having a much better team that day, Stram is always right, never wrong — quick with a quip and tart as a lemon. He conferences, cajoles and criticizes with the energy of an aerobics instructor and the wisdom of a warlord. In short, he’s what every coach wishes he could be when the pressure is on.
“His character, everyone just gravitated toward it,” said Greg Bocchetti of NFL Films. “As soon as anyone sees it, you see them light up with humor. You’re laughing with him, laughing at him.”
The Vikings weren’t laughing.
This marked the last official meeting between teams from the NFL and its upstart rival, the AFL. The leagues would merge the next season and all teams would play under the NFL banner. The game came a year after the AFL Jets stunned the NFL Colts in the Super Bowl and proved teams from the new league really could play. But instead of Minnesota delivering a parting blow for the old guard, Stram delivered jabs and the Chiefs delivered haymakers to usher in a new era of football.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the video that started it all, NFL Films is running a feature this week in which current coaches sit down and offer their own commentary while watching Stram at work. It’s a tribute to the coach, and also a reminder of how boldly his stamp is still imprinted on the game a half-century later.
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“The fact that DeShaun Watson says he wants to matriculate the ball down the field sort of tells you what an impact it had,” Bocchetti said.
Stram never sniffed a Super Bowl again. After the 1974 season, the Chiefs fired him, and he finished his coaching career out of the limelight with the sad-sack Saints. He went on to a near two-decade career as a color commentator with CBS.
They picked the right guy. But nothing he said in the booth could ever live up to the frenetic performance he put on during those game-changing three hours on the sideline. To put it in the coach’s own words, he did a “helluva job” that day.
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