Author: George Matthews
Originally Published: January 3, 2005

Probably no football coach ever constructed a running attack with more precision, power, and sheen than Jock Sutherland. His teams were power teams; the backs ran with fury behind devastating blocking of the unbalanced single wing.

His teams would begin by attacking the flanks and off tackle by sweeps, cutbacks, and reverses. After the defensive line would widen to compensate, Sutherland then would attack inside tackle and up the middle.

In some ways, Sutherland wanted the center to be the best man on his team. “The running game,” he said, “which is, or should be, the better part of football, depends on split-second accuracy and timing from the center. If the ball gets to the runner a tenth of a second too soon — or too late — the running play may be spoiled. So in looking over my talent I pick a man for center who is never rattled or hurried or upset by anything.”

“Sutherland rehearsed every play as if it were an investment in millions,” wrote Tim Cohane. “He would trace the blocking routes with a stick until the pulling linemen ran them to the inch and split second. No other coach came closer to reducing the running game to a pure science.”

As another sportswriter of the time put it, “There was no chi-chi in Sutherland football.” He scorned frills and fancy stuff. The essence of his attack, which was dubbed the Sutherland Scythe, was the unsubtle, power-animated off-tackle play from the single wing he had learned under Pop Warner. He also introduced the double wing formation, with which Warner had experimented when Sutherland was a player. (Warner initially had been dissatisfied with the double wing, but Sutherland recognized possibilities in it which Warner, and others, would later also recognize.)

“Jock had the finest running attack football has known,” wrote Grantland Rice, “and this doesn’t bar Knute Rockne, Lou Little, Percy Haughton, Hurry Up Yost, Howard Jones, Pop Warner, and anyone you can mention. Jock’s great Pitt teams rumbled and blasted out their yardage in the single wing, unbalanced line attack. When Jock had the horses, which was his custom, the Panthers’ attack was something to behold.”

Sutherland was also a genius of defensive football, and his teams were always powerfully arrayed on that side of the ball. Under his command, Pitt shut out its opponents 79 times (55 percent of the time) in 15 seasons.

“His teams were hard to score on, even when you beat him, as Bernie Bierman, with two of the greatest teams in Minnesota history, found out,” Grantland Rice wrote. “As great a coach as Bierman was, he needed the better material to beat Jock. They all needed better material to beat Jock. No one with inferior material ever drew a decision over Scotland’s greatest football son.”

There was a touch of grandeur to Sutherland. Tall, strong, ruggedly handsome, with a formidable jaw and piercing blue eyes, “Jock Sutherland,” wrote Look Magazine’s Tim Cohane, “had a strength of mind, body, and purpose as unshakable and craggy as the hills enveloping his native Coupar Angus.”

He was a commanding, almost majestic figure, an austere man of few words with a reserve not even his players could break down. To those who did not know him, he could seem forbidding. As a result, he earned a few unflattering nicknames over the years, including “the Great Stone Face” and the “Dour Scot.”

“But in his relaxed hours,” wrote New York sportswriter Joe Williams, “which were not infrequent, there could not have been a more companionable man. His soft, pleasing voice rolled with the thistle of his native Scotland. He had wit and wisdom and a certain grace.”

None of his players ever dreamed of addressing Sutherland, either during their playing days or in later years, as anything but “Doctor.” The fierce devotion and respect they had for him lasted a lifetime.

Sutherland was a stern taskmaster. He sometimes would set the pace for his players by striding up the long steep hill leading to Pitt Stadium and insisting that his players do the same. He admonished those who hitched a ride from a passing car, in his Scottish burr, to “get off that curr.” The penalty for those he caught riding up the hill: extra laps.

Sutherland never criticized a player publicly, and was privately considerate of them, especially in bad times. He was their champion, who fought tirelessly for them, who encouraged them and who rejoiced proudly in every advance each made both during their college days and long afterward.

“Although he was a driver, an exacting teacher, a stern disciplinarian, Sutherland’s players knew he was interested in their futures,” Cohane wrote. “He steered many of them into the professions. They knew also that he was inwardly warm, sympathetic to their problems, always their defender. When they lost, they had a feeling they had betrayed him.”

That didn’t happen often. In his 15 years as coach at Pitt, the Panthers compiled a brilliant 111-20-12 record. Four times, playing a rugged schedule, his teams were undefeated. Five times they were invited to the Rose Bowl. Five times they were recognized as national champions.

Pitt played Notre Dame six times from 1932-1937, and the Panthers claimed victory five times. After a decisive 21-6 loss to Pitt in 1937, Irish Coach Elmer Layden decided “no mas” and reasoned Notre Dame would be better off not playing the Panthers. “I’m through with Pittsburgh,” Layden said. “We haven’t got a chance. They not only knock our ears back, we are no good the next week. I’m calling off the Pittsburgh series.”

Notre Dame was just one of the powerful teams Pitt faced in those years. Sutherland insisted on playing the most formidable schedule possible, and as a result he generally resisted pointing his team for any one game. For the most part, as far as the Pitt players were concerned, one opponent was just like another. They were taught to have a high regard for all of their opponents and to go — as Jock put it — helter-skelter from whistle-to-whistle.

He managed to keep his players at a high level all season by coaching them in a calm, professional manner. Locker room histrionics had no place in his system. There were no known “Win one for the Gipper” pep talks from Sutherland.

Before a game he would tell his players what he wanted them to do. At halftime he would inform them if they had failed to do that. If they were losing at halftime, he wouldn’t whip them into a fury by screaming at them, pleading with them, or shedding tears over the calamity about to befall the old alma mater.

Consequently, Sutherland’s teams didn’t rush out of the locker room in “a lather”. He simply didn’t believe in furious football — the fighting, crying, hysterical kind of football. He wanted his players to fight hard all the way. But he didn’t want them to play with their heads whirling and tears of rage in their eyes. That wasn’t his kind of football. His teams were known for their slamming, hammering, power football. But the force they exerted was a precision that called for clear, cold thinking rather than emotion.

Sutherland, a native of Scotland who, according to legend, played in the first football game he ever saw, is Panther football’s all-time crown jewel. Both as an All-America guard for Pittsburgh during a brilliant four-year playing career under Pop Warner, and later as a Hall of Fame coach whose dominating teams were knighted as national champions five times, he set impeccable standards of excellence at Pitt.

Sutherland became a larger-than-life figure not only at Pitt but throughout the college football world. When he died unexpectedly of a brain tumor in 1948, the city of Pittsburgh and the sporting world mourned the loss of one of the truly great men in sports.

“Jock, above all, was a leader,” said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an editorial upon his death. “This impressed you at once on first meeting him. Character, restraint and sincerity were written in his bearing. “There is nothing anybody can say about the passing of Jock Sutherland that isn’t felt in the heart of every man and woman in Pittsburgh. In any list of the district’s assets, he was close to the top.”

Johnny Sutherland was one of seven children born to Mary Burns Sutherland, a descendant of the poet, Robert Burns. When his father, Archibald, suffered a fatal internal rupture trying to save the life of a fellow worker pinned under a fallen girder, Mary Sutherland sent young Johnny to America to join relatives here and escape from a life of certain poverty in Scotland.

When he arrived in America, the 16-year-old Sutherland was determined to educate himself and get ahead. After working his way through several prep schools, including one job as a night policeman in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, he entered Pitt’s School of Dentistry in 1914.

During his early years in America, Sutherland focused his sturdy, 6-4, 210-pound frame on soccer, the game most popular in his native Scotland. But when Joe Duff, the Pitt football coach in 1914, got one look at this tall, strapping Scot, he convinced him to try his hand at football.

By the second game of the season, “Jock,” as he came to be known, became a starting guard. He flourished at the game. Like a bridge player who understands the system behind the play, Sutherland sensed the reasons for the moves on the gridiron, and he developed into one of the greatest guards in Pitt history. He became an All-American under Pop Warner, who succeeded Duff as head coach in 1915.

During his four years as a player, Sutherland only tasted defeat once; the Panthers were undefeated in his final three seasons, and were recognized as national champions in 1915 and 1916. Sutherland also had a perfect record, as both a player and a coach, against Penn State. The taste he acquired for victory as a player would carry over into his brilliant coaching career.

After a tour in the Army, during which he coached several camp teams, he accepted an offer in 1919 to become the head coach at Lafayette College. He spent five years at Lafayette, producing an Eastern championship team in 1921 and defeating Pitt twice in a row. In 1999, 97-year-old Joe Marhefka, a backup halfback on that 1921 team, recalled that the main thing most Lafayette players learned in that training camp was how much they wanted it to end. Marhefka recalls that Sutherland was a “very strict fellow who wasn’t very friendly at all.”

When Pop Warner left Pitt for Stanford in 1924, Sutherland returned to his alma mater as head coach, where he remained through the 1938 season. During those 15 years he won five national titles (1929, 1931, 1934, 1936, 1937) and took his teams to four Rose Bowls. He left Pittsburgh in 1939 to coach the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1940 and 1941. But there were those who said he was never happy there. The war came and he joined the Navy. Then in 1946 he accepted the head coaching job with the Steelers. He was home again in Pittsburgh.

“It’s strange,” Art Rooney, legendary owner of the Steelers, recalled. “But shortly after we announced the signing of Jock Sutherland, we started to sell tickets like never before. He was a magic name in Pittsburgh. It was right after the war and no one, not even Sutherland, knew what players we would have, but the Pittsburgh fans had faith in this coach.”

The news took the city by storm. Before the Steelers played a single game in 1946, tickets to games at Forbes Field were totally sold out through 1949.

Sutherland’s approach was all business. Before Paul Brown had ever heard of playbooks, Sutherland had used them. Sutherland made extensive use of game films and introduced the Steelers to the concept of classroom sessions for players.

And for Art Rooney, who really hadn’t known Jock before he hired him, was practically in awe of the man. Rooney gave Sutherland free hand in the operation of the Steelers. Rooney learned more about the administration of the game in those two years with Sutherland than he had ever learned in his life.

After Sutherland’s sudden death in the spring of 1948, Jock’s assistant and disciple, John Michelosen, was hired as his successor. Michelosen stuck with the single wing for four seasons despite the fact that every pro team and almost every major college had abandoned it for the T-Formation. Following the 1951 season Michelosen was let go and the Steelers put the single wing to rest.

George Matthews
Deer Lakes Youth Football

Sources:
2003 Pitt Football Media Guide
The Morning Call Inc., Allentown, PA – 4/4/99
The Pittsburgh Steelers – A Pictorial History By Pat Livingston, published 1980 Jordan & Company.