Harland Svare, who played linebacker in the celebrated defense that brought the New York Giants to three NFL championship games in the 1950s, became the youngest head coach in modern NFL history at the time when the Los Angeles Rams employed him in 1962 names, died on April 4 in a nursing home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He was 89.
Svare’s death was confirmed today at the Yampa Valley Funeral Home in Steamboat Springs. His son-in-law, Cory Anderson, said the cause was listed as respiratory arrest, although he had tested negative for the coronavirus.
Svare played for eight professional seasons, his first two with the Rams before joining the Giants in 1955, and was praised for his football knowledge at a time when he was “Dee-fense!” from the stands at Yankee Stadium, home of the Giants.
Svare played in an innovative line-up installed by the Giants’ defensive coach Tom Landry, with four downlines instead of the usual five- or six-man lines, a strategy to obstruct the growing emphasis on short passes.
Svare stood on the left linebacker and stood next to Sam Huff, the middle linebacker, whose ferocious approach portrayed in the CBS documentary “The Violent World of Sam Huff” enchanted defensive play.
Along with Bill Svoboda and later Cliff Livingston on the right linebacker they played behind an excellent front four, with Andy Robustelli and Jim Katcavage on the ends and Roosevelt Grier and Dick Modzewleski on the tackles, and for a secondary with Emlen Tunnell and Jim Patton in safety and Dick Lynch on the corner.
The Giants defeated the Chicago Bears, 47-7, in the 1956 NFL championship game, then lost to the Baltimore Colts in the memorable title match of sudden death in 1958 and again in 1959.
At 6 feet and 215 pounds or so tall, Svare was relatively below par, even for a linebacker of his day.
“Svare had no muscle in his body, but he had remarkable intensity,” recalls Giants’ Hall of Fame Frank Gifford, recalled in “The Whole Ten Yards” (1994), a memoir written by Harry Waters Jr.
“He became known as a smart linebacker and to be a smart linebacker in Tom Landry’s defense you had to be very smart,” Gifford said.
Svare became the Giants’ defensive coach in 1960, even while he continued to play, after Landry left to become head coach of the expansion Dallas Cowboys. He retired as a player, but remained the defensive coach under Allie Sherman when Sherman succeeded Jim Lee Howell as the Giants’ head coach in 1961. The Giants again went to an NFL title game that season and lost to the Green Bay Packers. Svare then left to join the Rams as a defensive line coach.
He was named head coach of a losing Rams team in the middle of the 1962 season without any experience of head coaching at college or professional level. At 31 years, 11 months old, he became the youngest head coach in the modern era of the National Football League, an award twice overshadowed by Lane Kiffin (31 years, 8 months) hired to lead the Oakland Raiders in 2007, and by Sean McVay, who holds the record as the youngest (30 years, 11 months) when he was named by the Rams in 2017.
The Svare Rams went 0-5-1 for the rest of the 1962 season, then set losing records for the next three years. Svare was fired with a coaching record of 14-31-3.
He was again the defending coach of the Giants in 1967 and 1968, joining the Washington Redskins in 1969, overseeing their defense under coach Vince Lombardi, the offensive coordinator of the former Giants who forged a Packer dynasty . Lombardi died of cancer in the summer of 1970, and Svare again had no coaching job.
But he was hired by the struggling San Diego Chargers as their general manager in February 1971, replacing Sid Gillman, who remained as the head coach.
Svare also took over coaching late in the 1971 season and his Chargers went 2-2 under him.
In November 1972, the Chargers’ owner Eugene Klein shocked their fans when he gave Svare a new five-year coaching contract, although the team continued his lost ways. The Chargers ended 4-9-1 that season.
The 1973 loaders were 1-6-1 when Svare resigned as a coach, his teams had gone 7-17-2. After that season, the NFL fined $ 40,000 in total against eight Charger players, as well as Klein and Svare. The players turned out to have drugs and Svare and Klein were punished for lax supervision. The union did not disclose the nature of the drugs, but Svare said it was marijuana. However, at least one of the fined players said he had taken amphetamines.
Svare was dismissed as general manager in January 1976.
Harland James Svare was born on November 15, 1930 in Clarkfield, Minnesota, in the rural southwest of the state. His father, Rolf, and his mother, Inga (Niebokken) Svare, were farmers. He was a lineman in Washington State and was selected by the Rams in the 17th round of the 1953 NFL draw.
Being from a state with a large Scandinavian population, he became known as Swede Svare, which was probably pleasant on the tongue, although of Norwegian descent.
Svare had nine interceptions in the career pass, one for a 70-yard touchdown run and recovered five fumbles. He blocked a late Detroit Lions field goal attempt to maintain a 19-17 win, which led the Giants to overtake the Cleveland Browns to reach the 1958 NFL championship game. He was named a second team All-Pro by United Press International that season.
After leaving football, he set up an institute dedicated to physiotherapy and promoting good health habits.
Svare is survived by his daughter, Mia Anderson; two granddaughters; and a brother, known as G.O. His wife, Annette (Colangelo) Svare, whom he met when she was the personal secretary of the Giants’ owner, Wellington Mara, died in 2008.
Looking back on his time as a head coach, Svare felt that despite his knowledge of the X’s and O’s, he was not well prepared.
“I know I was old at the age of 31 to deal with the football problems,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “But I also know that I didn’t treat people well at all. I was immature. I was inconsistent, too inconsistent.
“Nobody likes to be criticized,” he continued, “but unless they’re pointed out their mistakes every time, soccer players just don’t develop, no matter how much talent they have.”
As for how he should have behaved, “I would be a tough guy with a warm heart.”