Hear about an Eagles championship under Neale in our football history podcast.
Greasy Neale was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles when they won back-to-back NFL championships in 1948 and 1949. Greasy Neale is the only coach in NFL history to lead teams to two consecutive victories in championship games by shutout. He also led the Eagles to the 1947 NFL Championship Game against the Chicago Cardinals. That’s three years in a row that the Eagles were in the title game!
Neale played pro football and major league baseball. He even played in a World Series! He also coached a college football team to the Rose Bowl – an historic one at that. There will be more about that later in the article.Embed from Getty Images
HOW DID GREASY NEALE GET THE NICKNAME “GREASY”?
Neale told Sports Illustrated that he received the nickname, “Greasy” as a child. Neale worked in a grease mill as a youngster. He called a school chum “Dirty” and Neale was called “Greasy” in return. The name stuck throughout his life and sportswriters later wrote that his elusiveness on the gridiron contributed to his nickname.
GREASY NEALE PRO FOOTBALL AND MLB CAREER
Greasy Neale was Deion Sanders before Deion Sanders – he played major league baseball and pro football. He often left baseball season early to play football in the days just before the NFL started.
He played with Jim Thorpe on the Canton Bulldogs, and Neale also was a player/coach for the Dayton Triangles and the Massillon Tigers. He often played the entire 60 minutes of each game, on offense and defense. He played under the name “Foster” because he didn’t want the Cincinnati Reds to know that he also played pro football.
Neale ended his playing career with the Ironton Tanks, a team that beat a few NFL teams in exhibitions. When the Tanks folded, many players joined the Portsmouth Spartans, now known as the Detroit Lions.
Greasy Neale also played major league baseball for the Cincinnati Reds. He was a starting outfielder on the 1919 squad. The Reds played in the 1919 World Series against the Chicago White Sox, in the midst of the famous “Black Sox” scandal. Neale hit .357 in the Series. He stated that he believed the White Sox stopped cheating after the first game.Embed from Getty Images
PHOTO: Greasy Neale (far right) at the 1919 World Series.
WASHINGTON AND JEFFERSON ROSE BOWL
Greasy Neale coached the Washington and Jefferson Presidents to an undefeated 1921 season and a spot in the 1922 Rose Bowl. The Presidents took on a powerful Cal team. Most onlookers thought the game would be an easy win for Cal, but Neale’s men fought brilliantly to earn a scoreless tie.
Greasy Neale helped Washington and Jefferson set several Rose Bowl firsts in that game. Charles West became the first African-American quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl. His teammate Herb Kopf was the first freshman. Washington and Jefferson also made history as the smallest school to play in the Rose Bowl, with a mere 450 students enrolled in the school. The school’s athletic director mortgaged his home to pay for transportation to the game.
Perhaps most incredible to note is that Greasy Neale also played for the Cincinnati Reds that season! Can you imagine a major league baseball player coaching a college football team to the Rose Bowl? Greasy Neale made it happen.
YALE ASSISTANT COACH AND HEISMAN TROPHY
Neale served as backfield coach at Yale during much of the 1930s. Two Bulldogs won the Heisman Trophy during Neale’s tenure, Larry Kelley in 1936 and Clint Frank in 1937. It is also fascinating to note that President Gerald Ford was also an assistant coach for Yale during those years.Embed from Getty Images
PHOTO: Yale’s Larry Kelley accepts the Heisman Trophy
HEAD COACH OF THE PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
The Philadelphia Eagles hired Greasy Neale as head coach for the 1941 season. The Eagles sputtered to a sparse 4 victories over the course of 1941 and 1942. In 1943, the Eagles paired up with the Pittsburgh Steelers to form one team, since known as the Steagles. Neale shared head coaching duties with Steelers head coach Walt Kiesling, a less than ideal arrangement. On the plus side, rookie lineman Al Wistert began his exceptional career on the team’s offensive and defensive lines.
The Eagles took flight under Neale after that 1943 season and treated fans to some of the greatest moments in Philadelphia Eagles history. The team narrowly missed out on making the NFL Championship Game in 1944 and 1945 and appeared in three straight title games from 1947-1949.Embed from Getty Images
Philadelphia lost to the Chicago Cardinals in the 1947 NFL Championship Game, 28-21. The Cardinals’ Charley Trippi scored on a punt return, the first punt returned for a touchdown in NFL playoff history.
The Philadelphia Eagles won their first championship in 1948. They defeated the Chicago Cardinals 7-0 in blizzard conditions. The 1948 NFL Championship Game was the first-ever televised NFL championship. Greasy Neale owns the distinction of being the first Philadelphia Eagles head coach to win a championship.Embed from Getty Images
PHOTO: Greasy Neale with Pete Pihos, Steve Van Buren, and Al Wistert
The Eagles won their second straight championship in 1949. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Los Angeles Rams 14-0 in the 1949 NFL Championship Game. The game was played in a rainstorm. The win marked the only time in NFL history that a team won back-to-back championships by shutout.
Despite the team’s success, Greasy Neale was fired after the 1950 season, a 6-6 campaign. The Eagles lost 5 of their last 6 games, although the 5 losses were by a combined 18 points. Eagles owner Jim Clark surprised Neale and fired him via telegram.
Neale never coached in the NFL again. The Eagles dropped to the bottom tier of the NFL. Neale’s firing remained controversial years later.
GREASY NEALE NFL COACH INNOVATIONS
Greasy Neale proved a coaching innovator. He was ahead of his time in many regards. He valued scouting and game film long before other coaches. The Philadelphia Eagles were known for their powerful offense during Neale’s tenure and Neale was a strong proponent of the passing game.
Pro Football Digest quoted Neale as saying that other franchises laughed at him for coming to the NFL draft carrying many volumes of scouting reports. Greasy Neale’s advanced scouting led to drafting star running back Steve Van Buren and boosted the Eagles toward back-to-back NFL championshipsEmbed from Getty Images
PHOTOS: Steve Van Buren retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.
Coach Neale also may have been the first NFL coach to use game film. He said that he paid a newsreel employee $156 for the film of the famous Chicago Bears 1940 NFL Championship Game 73-0 victory. Neale said that he watched the game over and over and designed his offense around study of the film and the players he had. He added that was an essential component to Philadelphia’s championship run. In his acceptance speech to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Neale said that he believed he was only the second coach to use the T-Formation. He alluded to his belief that he was the first NFL coach to use a man in motion.
Neale also liked to pass. He remembered how as a player under Jim Thorpe, the Canton Bulldogs faced a second-and-1. One of Neale’s teammates suggested a run up the middle for the first down, but Neale asked why the team should waste an opportunity to pass on second down when they could run for the first down on the next play if the pass was incomplete. Neale scored a touchdown on the play and stayed true to that philosophy throughout his coaching career.
Neale was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969, introduced by Chuck Bednarik. Bednarik stated that Neale was also noted for the famous 5-4 defense he designed.
LESSONS FROM PLAYING SPORTS
Greasy Neale believed that playing sports builds character and provides life lessons for those involved. In 1951, he told Collier’s magazine that learning the value of hard work and determination was one such lesson. You can read his exact quote in this New York Times article here.
GREASY NEALE NFL STATS AND BIO
- Coached Philadelphia Eagles to two NFL championships
- Played pro football and Major League Baseball
- Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee (1969)
- Coached 10 years in NFL
- Owned illustrious coaching career before the NFL
- First coach to play a Black quarterback in the Rose Bowl
- Highly regarded as a coaching innovator on offense and defense
PHOTOS: The 1948 NFL Championship Game was played in a blizzard. Players helped remove the tarp before the game.
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