With the Eagles stinking up the joint this year, we are looking back at some of their worst teams ever. Next up, the 1968 squad. In the photo at left are, from L-R, head coach Joe Kuharich, team treasurer Ed Snider (yes, that Ed Snider) and owner Jerry Wolman.
The 1968 Eagles are famous for one game, the game in which Santa Claus got booed. That was the final game of the season, on December 15th against the Vikings. But you’ll have to forgive Eagles fans if they weren’t really in a festive spirit. The season could not have possibly gone worse.
It started with the coach. “Joe Kuharich couldn’t sell iced tea to a Tasmanian at a dried up water hole,” wrote Sandy Grady in the Philadelphia Bulletin. He had been hired in 1964, and even at the time it was a poorly received choice. After all, Kuharich was at the time best known for being the only coach to have a losing career record at Notre Dame (a distinction he still holds). Incredibly, new Eagles owner Jerry Wolman gave Kuharich coaching and GM duties, and signed him to an unheard of 15-year contract. He instantly started making foolish moves. He traded fan favorite Tommy McDonald for two guys only their mothers could recognize. He traded Hall of Famer-in-the-making Sonny Jurgenson to the Redskins for a steady but unspectacular Norm Snead.
He did have one year of glory, a 1966 campaign that saw the Birds go 9-5 and finish 2nd to the Cowboys. But things went downhill fast after that. They went 6-7-1 the next year, and then the bottom fell out. The team opened the 1968 season with a 30-13 loss to the Packers. The Cowboys would humiliate them twice in 3 weeks, 45-13 and 34-14. In a battle between pitiful Pennsylvania teams, they lost to the Steelers 6-3. Philadelphia let out its frustration on Kuharich, wearing “Joe Must Go” buttons and even hiring a plane to fly a “Joe Must Go” banner over the Franklin Field.
By Thanksgiving day, the team stood at 0-11 and coming off a 47-13 loss to the Browns, looked like they were headed for an 0-14 season. There would be quite a silver lining in doing so: they would therefore have the number one pick in the draft, and acquire the electric OJ Simpson out of USC. Needless to say, they botched this opportunity too.
It poured rain nonstop for two days before their Thanksgiving day game against the Lions, and the teams played in a mess that came to be known as the Mud Bowl. In the end it was Eagle kicker Sam Hall booting 4 field goals to lead the Birds to a 12-0 win. Buoyed by their success, the team then came back to Philly and knocked off the Saints, 29-17, led by Tom Woodeshick’s 122 yards (he led the team in rushing that year with 947). It was a disaster. Needing only to lose their final three games, they had instead won 2. With the Bills already having finished their regular season at 1-12-1, the Eagles had cost themselves OJ Simpson before they even took the field for the infamous Santa game.
Say what you will about Eagles fans, they are nothing if not loyal. Almost 55,000 of them came out to Franklin Field on a snowy 28 degree day (Wind Chill 15) to cheer on a team so pathetic that it couldn’t even lose when it needed to. After a listless first half that ended in a 7-7 tie, the halftime Christmas pageant was set to begin. But the field had turned to muck, and the float Santa was supposed to be on got stuck in the mud. Furthermore, no-one could find Santa (Rumor had it that he got drunk). Whereas in Miracle on 34th Street, the real Santa took over for the drunk Santa, in this case the real Santa had decided not to attend this game (hard to blame him). The Eagles brass, desperate for a Santa, picked 20-year old Frank Olivo out of the crowd. Despite his 5’6″, 170 pound frame, he had decided to wear a Santa outfit that day. (You can read a great ESPN piece on what Olivo is up to today here.)
As this meager, skinny Santa ran around the field waving at fans, they began to boo. Olivo described it years later.
“At first I was scared because it was so loud. But then I figured, hey, it was just good-natured teasing. I’m a Philadelphia fan, I knew what was what. I thought it was funny.”
The booing soon turned into snowballs, as fans pelted him from the upper deck. Olivo took it all in stride, saying that he laughed it off. Nonetheless, when the Eagles asked him if he’d do it again the next year, he answer, “No way. If it doesn’t snow, they’ll probably throw beer bottles.”
The Eagles went on to lose the game 24-17 and finish the season 2-12. Their consolation was the third pick in the draft. The Bills got OJ Simpson, who would rush for 11,236 career yards. The Eagles took Leroy Keyes, who would rush for 369. With the 4th pick, the Steelers took Mean Joe Greene. Kuharich was fired in the offseason, when Wolman sold the team to Leonard Tose.
Nonetheless, he continued to get paid for the remainder of his incredible 15-year contract. Kuharich passed away from bone cancer on the same day the Eagles played in Super Bowl XV against the Raiders. Eagles GM Jim Murray visited him in the hospital a few days before, right before the Eagles left for New Orleans.
“The man is lying there devastated by that disease, and you know he’s in agony, and all he can do is wish us luck. The team that fired him, the city that crucified him, he’s wishing them nothing but success. There are more records in this life than winners and losers. And I’d love to have his report card.”