Published: January 16, 2011
This Shipp was launched in land-locked Middle Tennessee.
Born in 1929, career trade winds took Ken Shipp around the sports’ world multiple times.
Although Shipp’s “dream boat” sports career permitted him to rub shoulders with the likes of American football legends Paul “Bear” Bryant, Joe “Willie” Namath and Archie Manning, there was no doubt when it came time to quit coaching in the National Football League, he would retire to hometown Murfreesboro.
“I could have stayed in the bright lights, in New York, Miami or New Orleans, but I always knew I would return to my roots, the best hometown in the world,” Shipp, 83, navigated back across the trail waters of a colorful life that’s spanned parts of two centuries. “Murfreesboro, make that Middle Tennessee in general, is made up of some of the classiest, most caring folks I’ve been privileged to know.”
Although Shipp associated with the rich and famous, he didn’t grow up in “silver spoon” or “silk stocking” environments.
“Mother (Bessie Shipp) was a local legend, not as a wealthy lady, but a hard-working business woman, who as a single parent, had to provide for three growing boys,” Shipp sailed back in time.
Our interview took place in Murfreesboro’s legendary City Café. Few present-day diners know that before City Café landed at its present downtown East Main Street location, it was the site of Bessie Shipp’s Café.
“Mom’s open-face steak and gravy plate lunch became a local legend, that’s how good her cooking was,” Shipp floated back to the days he worked as a restaurant delivery boy.
“The first Shipps Café was over at the old Hosiery Mill, and we catered lunch to those hard-working folks who couldn’t take an hours’ lunch,” Shipp added. “One day I got in big trouble, as I was walking a big box of lunches over to the Mill, when I stumbled and all that good food went wasted on the ground. …
“From there, we moved to near Goldsteins, and then Mother moved the restaurant to where City Café is today,” Shipp shared. “As you walked in our front door at this location, the serving counter was on the immediate right, where I mostly worked as a server. The kitchen area was in the room to the right, where City Café customers are now served.”
Business was brisk at Shipp’s Café during the 1940s.
“One day, there was a long line of customers standing out on the street, including some travelling out-of-town folks, and Mom asked some of the local lawyer diners, if they’d hurry up and eat their meal to make room,” Shipp recalled. “But instead of just finishing their dessert, the lawyers, including Wylie Holloway, picked up their cobblers, took them outside, sit their plates on fenders and hoods of cars, and finished eating outside – that astonished Mother, who went outside, and said she didn’t mean for them to take their food outside. We all got a good laugh out of that.”
The last Shipp’s Café location was in the old James K. Polk Hotel, located on East Main Street where a bank now stands.
But a maturing boy can’t work forever at his mother’s café.
After matriculating at Middle Tennessee State, he worked there professionally as an assistant football coach starting in 1951. His college coaching days took the Southern wry-witted Shipp to Trinity University (1953-57), Florida State (1958), Tulsa (1961-62), South Carolina (1963), Miami (Fla.) from 1964-67.
His break into professional football took the boy from the Midsouth to the Canadian Football League with the Montreal Alouettes.
His entry into NFL coaching ranks started in St. Louis, where he worked as an offensive coordinator with the then St. Louis (football) Cardinals in the 1960s. From there, he hit the bright lights of New York where Shipp was named head coach of the New York Jets in the tenth week of the 1975 NFL season.
A New York sports writer described Shipp’s ascent to coaching fabled Jets’ quarterback Joe “Willie” Namath, who had become a national sports star as an amateur quarterback at the University of Alabama after being recruited by college coaching legend, the late Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“The sixth coach in Jets’ history, Shipp had been the teams offensive coordinator since 1973 and is a major factor in the continuing dominance of the Jets’ passing game. He is particularly noted for innovative thinking which has kept the Jets’ offense potent,” the sports writer wrote.
But it wasn’t Namath’s Super Bowl win against the old Baltimore Colts that Shipp credits with being the former NFL super star’s greatest accomplishment.
“His greatest deed came after retirement and subsequent marriage. It was when Joe’s two daughters, while attending University of Alabama (Namath’s alma mater), insisted that Joe complete his 10 hours needed to get his degree, in order to walk down the graduating aisle with them,” decreed Shipp. “That’s when I told Joe: ‘That’s the best thing you’ve ever done!!’”
Shipp’s proverbial “ship of life” came in 1968 when he entered coaching ranks of the NFL.
“I remained with the St. Louis (football) Cardinals for three years, working on offense game strategy for Cardinal head coach Don Coryell, before moving on to New Orleans where I was privileged to work with quarterback Archie Manning,” Shipp sailed back in time. “Coryell was one of the great genius offensive minds of the NFL.”
During his two years, 1971-72, as a Saint’s assistant coach, one of Shipp’s major responsibilities was the development of the vast talent of Manning, father to present-day NFL star quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning, both Super Bowl winners with the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts respectively. Archie never won a Super Bowl while toiling with the low-achieving Saints.
But Shipp has remained friends with the Manning family, including bringing Archie and Peyton to appear more than once for fund-raising benefits with the Boys & Girls Club of Rutherford County.
“Life in the NFL can be hectic, but glamorous,” Shipp accounted. “You make wonderful friends, such as Joe and Archie, but I always knew I would come back home where Mom reared us from proceeds from her famous steak and gravy plates at Shipps’ Café.”
It was long-time hometown friendships, Shipp hailed, that brought him home from the NFL … with a mission!!
In 2004, Shipp joined two other MTSU alumni, retired U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon and congressional chief-of-staff (also now retired) Kent Syler in drafting and implementing new U.S. laws protecting college athletes from unscrupulous sports agents.
“While I was active in coaching at the college level, I ran off several of these type sports agents,” Shipp accounted.
The Sports Agent & Responsibility Trust Act, co-sponsored by Gordon and U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne (former Nebraska football coach) made it unlawful for sports agents to sign student-athletes to contracts to represent them with bribes or misleading information.
“It was long over-due legislation,” Shipp described. “Now, maybe college athletes will think more about their own responsibilities of following the rules – maybe think twice or three times about leaving college and getting that degree.”
Shipp credits “that degree” from MTSU with launching him to elite U.S. sports status.
“Bart and his staff have always listened to the people, and Ken Shipp provided us with the facts and data needed to draft and ultimately pass this legislation to offer increased protection to amateur college athletes,” Syler confirmed.