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Harland Svare, Giants champion linebacker and defensive coach, dies at 89

Harland Svare
Wellington T. Mara, owner of the New York Giants of the NFL, and Giants head coach Allie Sherman, right, pose with Harland Svare, who was named Giants defensive coach, Feb. 15, 1967, in New York City. (AP Photo)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Harland Svare, a starting linebacker on the Giants' 1956 NFL championship team and later the team's defensive coach – and who met his wife when she worked for the Giants - passed away on April 4 at a nursing home in Steamboat Springs, Colo. He was 89. Svare's death was reported by the New York Times.

Svare entered the NFL as a 17th-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Rams in 1953 out of Washington State University. After two seasons with the Rams, he joined the Giants prior to the 1955 season.

In coach Tom Landry's innovative defense, Svare lined up at left linebacker, next to Hall of Fame middle linebacker Sam Huff. He started all 13 games in 1956, including the 47-7 rout of the Chicago Bears in the championship game. Svare also played in championship games loss to the Baltimore Colts in 1958 – the "Greatest Game Ever Played" – and 1959.

That Giants defense of the late 1950s is one of the most celebrated in franchise history. In addition to Huff, that unit included Hall of Famers Andy Robustelli and Emlen Tunnell, as well as Jim Katcavage, Bill Svoboda, Cliff Livingston, Jimmy Patten and Dick Lynch.

Svare played in 89 regular-season games with 79 starts, including 70 games with 61 starts for the Giants. He had nine career interceptions that he returned for 229 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown in 1959, and recovered five fumbles. Svare blocked a late Detroit Lions field goal attempt to preserve a 19-17 victory, which led to the Giants overtaking the Cleveland Browns to reach the 1958 N.F.L. championship game. That season, he was named a second-team All-Pro.

Svare also played in four playoff games, including the 10-0 victory against Cleveland in the 1958 Eastern Conference Playoff that lifted the Giants into the following week's championship game.

Svare was 6-0 and 215 pounds, which was light for a linebacker even in 1956.

"Svare didn't have a muscle in his body, but he possessed remarkable intensity," Frank Gifford, the Giants' Hall of Fame back, wrote in "The Whole Ten Yards," a memoir written with Harry Waters, Jr. in 1994. "He became known as a smart linebacker, and to be a smart linebacker in Tom Landry's defense, you had to be very smart."

How smart was Svare? When Landry left the Giants after the 1959 season to become the Dallas Cowboys' first head coach, Svare took over as defensive coach – while still starting every game in his final season as a player. Svare retired after the 1960 season and remained as the Giants' defensive coach under Allie Sherman in 1961.

The following year, Svare returned to the Rams as their defensive line coach. Midway through the 1962 season, he was named the team's head coach at 31 years, 11 months old. Svare was then the youngest head coach in the NFL's modern era, a distinction since eclipsed by Lane Kiffin of the Raiders and Sean McVay, the Rams' current coach.

Svare's teams went 14-31-3 before he was fired following the 1965 season. He returned to the Giants as their defensive coach in 1967 and 1968 before spending the 1969 season coaching under Vince Lombardi with the Washington Redskins.

In February 1971, Svare was hired as the San Diego Chargers' general manager. He added the head coaching duties with four games remaining that year. The Chargers were 1-6-1 in 1973 when Svare resigned as coach with an overall record of 7-17-2. He was fired as general manager after the 1976 season.

After leaving football, he founded an institute devoted to physical therapy and promotion of good health habits.

Harland James Svare was born on Nov. 15, 1930, in Clarkfield, Minn., in the rural southwest part of the state. His father, Rolf, and his mother, Inga (Niebokken) Svare, were farmers.

Because he was from a state with a large Scandinavian population, he became known as Swede Svare. However, he was actually of Norwegian descent.

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 to Giants owner Wellington Mara, died in 2008.

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