Murphy Takes 5

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Lombardi condemned it as a 'hinky-dink football game'

Posted Oct 27, 2016

Packers have had nine GMs

Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi with Bart Starr (15) during practice for the NFL Playoff Bowl game against the Cleveland Browns, Jan. 2, 1964. Watching is fullback Jim Taylor (31).

Carl from St. Louis Park, MN

If I understand correctly during the 1960s, there was a runner-up game and the Packers played in two of them. Is this correct? And if so, whom did they play and what were the scores?

From 1960-69, prior to the NFL-AFL merger going into effect, the NFL held what it called the Playoff Bowl – more commonly known as the “Runner-up Bowl” – at the Orange Bowl in Miami. The first seven games were played before the NFL expanded its playoffs to include more than just its two conference champions. So the league promoted the notion it was a legit postseason game held at a neutral, warm-weather site, perhaps to quiet the critics who were urging the league to play its championship game in a warm climate.

The Packers played in two of the 10 games as the second-place representative from the Western Conference. On Jan. 5, 1964, after finishing a half-game behind Chicago, the Packers beat Cleveland, 40-23. On Jan. 3, 1965, they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, 24-17, and if the idea for a runner-up bowl wasn’t doomed from the start, Vince Lombardi pounded the nails in its coffin.

Dan from Minneapolis asked about Lombardi’s famous quote after the second of the Packers’ two appearances. Although I’ve read different versions of what Lombardi said, I believe this might be the most accurate: “a hinky-dink football game, held in a hinky-dink town, played by hinky-dink players.”

Three years ago, I went to the Miami-Dade Central Library and read the coverage of the two games in the Miami Herald and The Miami News.

The game program for the 1965 playoff bowl between the St. Louis Cardinals and Green Bay Packers

Against the Browns, the Packers held the great Jim Brown to 56 yards on 11 carries and broke the game open on a 99-yard Bart Starr to halfback Tom Moore pass on what was perhaps the Packers’ most effective pass play of the 1960s. In fact, Lombardi would come to call the play, “The Bart Starr Special.” It was a play where Starr would fake a handoff to the fullback and then either hit the halfback swinging out of the backfield on the left side or the split end on a quick post behind the halfback.

Prior to the game, writers focused on whether the loss of Paul Hornung, following his suspension for gambling, was what cost the Packers their third straight NFL title. Norm Van Brocklin, coach of the Minnesota Vikings, said Hornung “is the difference between first and second place.” And Cleveland defensive end Bill Glass agreed, saying Hornung posed a threat on the halfback option that “really tied the defense into knots.”

Following the loss to the Cardinals the next year, Lombardi was beside himself. The Packers had finished 8-5-1, 3½ games out of first place, and gained a mere 79 yards passing and 52 yards rushing vs. the Cards. “We played like sleepwalkers,” Lombardi fumed in the locker room. “We came out of the huddle like we were dead.” Lombardi even denied that he had previously said Hornung would be an untouchable in trade talks.    

Bill of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., was another who asked about the two games and wondered why they aren’t included with the Packers’ other scores from 1963 and ’64. My answer would be: They probably should be with an asterisk. At the time, the NFL was selling the game as something more than a worthless exhibition, although that’s what it was.

Curt from York, PA

First of all, I love your historical write-ups. Please keep up the great work. Second, I think your recent High Five list left off someone who deserves to be on there. Without Jack Vainisi, there could very well have been no Lombardi in Green Bay. Without Lombardi, the Packers might not have been the powerhouse team of the 1960s. And without the superstars of that era, the Packers might not have survived and there would have been no Favre in Green Bay. Every good thing that happened to the Packers from 1959 can be attributed and/or traced back to Vainisi’s genius. How can he not be on your mountain?

Thanks for the kind words and your interest in Packers history. First, my Mount Rushmore was limited to Packers legends who waffled on retirement, not the most important figures in team history. I thought I made that clear in the first paragraph when I wrote it was a list of Packers “who deliberated the most about retirement.”

Second, I agree with you about Vainisi making a considerable contribution to Packers history, and I have written that many times. Years ago, when history seemed to be forgetting Vainisi during the bleak 1970s and ’80s, I wrote a column suggesting the Packers rename their South Oneida Street practice field in his honor. More recently, I urged that we pay proper tribute to Vainisi in our new Packers Hall of Fame and I’ve written on this website that I believe he warrants consideration as a contributor candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That said, I was always offended in the Hall selection meetings when presenters exaggerated their candidate’s contributions or got their facts wrong in their presentations. That’s happening outside the room with Vainisi. People are overselling his credentials and I hope it doesn’t hurt his chances.

Someone who has been involved in the selection process recently told me he was told by a Vainisi advocate that Al Davis had tried to hire Jack in Oakland. Davis was an assistant coach with San Diego when he was hired by Oakland in 1963. Sadly, Vainisi died Nov. 27, 1960, at age 33.

I also heard a presentation at the recent Pro Football Researchers Association gathering in Green Bay basically crediting Vainisi with making all the Packers’ draft picks until his death when Lombardi started making them. There is nothing to substantiate that. In fact, staff members from the 1960s have told me Lombardi had tremendous respect for Pat Peppler, who took over the Packers’ scouting operation in 1963, and leaned heavily on his advice in the draft room, just as he had with Vainisi.

Keep in mind, the drafts or at least the early rounds of them over 10 years between the mid-1950s and ’60s were held in late November or early December. All teams depended on their personnel directors to make strong recommendations.

Does anyone really believe when the 20-round NFL draft was being held as the conference races were heating up around Thanksgiving that Lombardi, or any coach for that matter, was taking hours out of each day to study 250 or more prospects?

Besides Lombardi did little, if any, scouting. He sent his staff members out to scout college games on Saturday, while he spent the day, at least early in the fall, on the golf course. On the road, he had his 5 o’clock cocktail hour to host each Saturday at the team hotel.

Vainisi was basically a one-man scouting operation for most of his 11 years with the Packers. I’m sure he played a hand in the decision to hire Lombardi. In turn, Lombardi promoted him to business manager and essentially made him his right-hand man. Everybody seemed to like and respect Vainisi. Titans of the game like Paul Brown gushed about his draft preparation.

That was Vainisi’s strength – organizing and preparing for the draft. Based on my interviews going back to the 1970s with NFL personnel people, I believe the Los Angeles Rams were the first team to send a scout on the road for weeks at a time visiting colleges and writing detailed reports on players. Vainisi went on the road at times, scouted games in the fall and also some spring practices, and visited colleges when he went on his annual winter tours to sign the Packers’ picks from the previous draft. But based on his own comments in interviews and elsewhere, an interview with one of his secretaries and interviews with people who supplied him with scouting reports, I’ve found little evidence to suggest he was constantly on the road bird-dogging talent like the Rams’ Eddie Kotal.

In 1958, Vainisi explained his operation to the Packers’ executive committee and said he had 30 college coaches on his payroll who were filing reports on players and all those reports were being organized to the point “he felt the Packers had the best information of any team in the league in preparation for this year’s draft.”

Once Lombardi took over, Vainisi told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that the Packers’ assistant coaches along with the college coaches on his payroll would cover more than 300 spring practices while he stayed back in the office and coordinated those reports.

The Packers had terrific drafts in the 1950s and Vainisi deserves the lion’s share of the credit for that.

But let’s not forget he had a lot of say, but little authority. His titles pre-Lombardi were scout, then game and talent scout, and then administrative assistant and talent scout. He was not the general manager and didn’t exercise that kind of authority.

In fact, the Press-Gazette’s Art Daley, who covered the Packers for more than 20 years and wrote about them for close to 70, would sit in on the draft sessions in the 1950s and he credited Gene Ronzani with making the picks in Vainisi’s early years with the team. At that time, the draft was held more than a month after the season ended.

Before the 1953 draft, held on Jan. 22, Vainisi was hospitalized for more than two months from late October to late December, forcing the Packers to hire Joe Stydahar, who had recently resigned as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, to handle their draft preparations. In the end, both Stydahar and Vainisi attended that draft.

That’s not to say Vainisi hadn’t already earned the respect of others around the league for his preparation, even if Ronzani was calling the shots. Daley wrote following the 1952 draft, “Vainisi had player material so well organized that club after club, including the Browns and Bears, frequently consulted the Packer table on questions of eligibility.”

Lisle Blackbourn said in 1979 that Vainisi wasn’t even a salaried employee under Ronzani. It wasn’t until 1954, according to Blackbourn, that he finally paid Vainisi a salary commensurate with what the team’s assistant coaches were making.

The Packers’ best drafts were in the years when Vainisi and Blackbourn worked in concert. Blackbourn, too, had an eye for talent and was later hired as a scout by Lombardi. That said, Blackbourn deflected the credit to Vainisi, saying the Packers “very rarely” went against his recommendations. Then again, unlike the Ronzani years, the early rounds of Blackbourn’s final three drafts were held in the midst of the season.

It’s also important to remember, Vainisi applied for the general manager position before Lombardi was hired in 1959 and didn’t get it. Moreover, the Packers offered the job of GM and coach to Forest Evashevski before hiring Lombardi. How Vainisi handled that entire situation, more than likely, will never be known.

Vainisi’s credentials and contributions speak for themselves. He was one of the NFL’s pioneers in player personnel and he played a huge part in assembling the talent for arguably the NFL’s greatest dynasty. Clearly, his resume needs no embellishment.

Ross of Seattle also asked about Vainisi and how he got his job with the Packers at such a young age. Vainisi played freshman football at Notre Dame so he knew the game. And Ronzani, who had hired him in 1950, was a family friend of the Vainisis from his days with the Chicago Bears. Jack’s dad owned a combination grocery store and delicatessen on Wilson Avenue in Chicago, where many of the Bears hung out, including Ronzani.

Andy from Richfield, Minn., asked about Vainisi’s relationship with Lombardi. I think what Lombardi said about Vainisi following his death, says it all: “I have lost a close personal friend.”

Gene Ronzani (left) in an undated photo.

LJ from Chicago

I was wondering what’s the official count on Packers GMs. The Packers media guide makes reference to Ted Thompson being No. 9. I’ve seen articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that puts the number at 11. And why wasn’t Gene Ronzani counted in the media guide?

What I can tell you is that I revised the list for the media guide in 2015 to reflect only those who actually held the title of general manager. There may have been times when coaches exercised similar authority to a GM, at least from a football standpoint, but my reasoning was that without the title they weren’t the GM.

For example, Curly Lambeau was the team’s one-man football operation from the time the Packers entered what is now the NFL in 1921 through 1949, but he wasn’t given the title of GM until 1946. Bart Starr was stripped of his GM title following the 1980 season, but continued to maintain authority over the team’s football operation. Tom Braatz was executive vice president of football operations from 1987 to 1991 and had many of the responsibilities of a GM, but not the title or the authority that Ron Wolf was subsequently given.

Lambeau was simply listed as the team’s coach through 1939, although few others in the history of the NFL ever exercised as much authority as he did. Lambeau was elected to the executive committee for the first time in 1940 as second vice president and was re-elected in 1941 as the sole vice president. In 1946, he was given the title of general manager in addition to those of coach and vice president, and he held all three through the 1949 season.

When Ronzani was hired in 1950, he, too, was added to the executive committee and given the title of vice president, which he held until he was fired with two games remaining in 1953. But team president Emil Fischer made it clear when he announced Ronzani’s hiring that he would not be given the title of general manager, although he would have authority over football decisions.

Verne Lewellen was the first general manager who wasn’t also the Packers’ head coach. He was GM from 1954 through the 1958 season, although in many ways he was a mere figurehead because of interference by the executive committee. Vince Lombardi was GM and coach from 1959 through the 1967 season and then GM only in 1968 or, more precisely, until he took the job in Washington in February 1969.

Subsequent coaches, with the seasons listed when they also held the title of GM, were Phil Bengtson (1969-70), Dan Devine (1971-74), Starr (1975-80) and Mike Sherman (2001-04.). Those who have been GMs only were Ron Wolf (1992-2000 or, again more specifically, from Nov. 27, 1991, through May 31, 2001) and Ted Thompson (2005-present).

That’s nine GMs in all.

Nik from Milwaukee, WI

Who was the last City of Milwaukee player before Marwin Evans to make the Packers’ regular-season roster? How many Pro Bowl Packers before Josh Sitton have gone on to play and start for the Bears? And vice versa. Jim McMahon doesn’t count because he didn’t start.

As you probably know, Evans was born in Milwaukee, but played high school football at Oak Creek, a Milwaukee suburb. So are we talking Milwaukee natives or products of City of Milwaukee high schools? Plus, when you see hometowns listed in record books and on websites I think sometimes they reflect where a player grew up and other times the location of the hospital where they were born.

My initial reaction would be to say the answer is linebacker Keombani Coleman, who played for Milwaukee Tech High School and 12 games for the Packers in 1993. But he was born in Los Angeles. On the other hand, running back Steve Avery, who played one game for the Packers in 1991, was born in Milwaukee and like Evans played high school football at a suburban school, Brookfield Central.

Derrick Harden, a strike replacement player in 1987, was born in Milwaukee and played at Milwaukee South Division High School. Other than Harden, I believe the last Packer to be born in Milwaukee and also play for a Milwaukee high school was back Wally Dreyer, who played for Blackbourn at Milwaukee Washington High School and then 12 games for the Packers in 1950.

To be honest, I’m not sure what the answer should be.

As for the second part of your question, two of Lombardi’s Pro Bowl players, Lee Roy Caffey and Bob Jeter, were traded to the Bears and started for them. Center and blacksmith by trade Ed Neal represented the Packers in the first Pro Bowl in 1950 and played in four games for the Bears the next year, but my guess is he didn’t start.

As for Bears Pro Bowlers, hard-edged middle guard Ray Bray played in 12 games for the Packers in 1952 and I’ve been told he started, although they didn’t list defensive starters at the time. Steve McMichael and Julius Peppers were two others.

Let me know if I missed anybody.


 
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