Murphy Takes 5

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The most bizarre two-week stretch in Packers history

Posted Jun 29, 2017

A fired Gene Ronzani refused to say goodbye


Packers coach Gene Ronzani sits at his desk with his assistants (from left to right) behind him: Hugh Devore, Chuck Drulis and Scooter McLean.

If it wasn’t the most bizarre two-week stretch in Packers history… Well, let’s just put it this way: It would be hard to imagine anything topping it.

You be the judge. Here’s the timeline, from Nov. 23, 1953, to Dec. 6, 1953.

Nov. 23 – On the Monday after the Packers turned the ball over six times and succumbed to San Francisco, 37-7, before a crowd of 16,378 at Milwaukee County Stadium, the executive committee treated the players and coaches to a luncheon at the YMCA. Following the lunch, the 11-man executive committee went into a meeting and the players went to practice.

Nov. 25 – At 6:30 p.m., the night before Thanksgiving, the Packers’ executive committee gathered in attorney Fred Trowbridge’s office in the Bellin Building, according to the minutes of the meeting. The members voted to appoint a committee to meet with head coach Gene Ronzani on Friday morning, two days later, and inform him that the Packers wished to terminate his services, but he could choose to resign instead and receive his full salary through Feb. 6, 1954, and termination pay of $7,500 that was spelled out in his contract. The full committee appointed members Fred Leicht, Verne Lewellen and Trowbridge to handle the matter. Ronzani was in his fourth season and the Packers were 2-6-1 at the time.

Nov. 26 – The Packers lost their Thanksgiving Day battle to Detroit, 34-15, at Briggs Stadium after blowing a 15-7 halftime lead. The Lions improved to 8-2 with the victory and would go on to win the NFL championship.

Nov. 27 – The executive committee convened at 10:25 a.m., again at Trowbridge’s office, and the three members of the committee assigned to handle the coaching matter reported they had briefly talked with Ronzani, but he refused to resign or even discuss his situation with them and left the building.

At that point, Dominic Olejniczak, another member of the executive committee, left the meeting and spent considerable time on the phone talking with Ronzani before finally convincing him to resign. Ronzani transmitted his resignation and the committee voted to accept it. The meeting adjourned at 11:55 a.m.

At 1 p.m., the Packers’ board of directors met at the Hotel Northland, where Ronzani informed the 18 members who were present that he had submitted his resignation as head coach, vice president of the executive committee and member of the board at 11:50 that morning.

Ronzani, who had compiled a 14-31-1 record as Packers coach, immediately left the meeting. It was adjourned at 1:30 p.m.

In between the two meetings, team president Russ Bogda announced Ronzani’s resignation and said his three assistant coaches – Hugh Devore, Scooter McLean and Chuck Drulis – would be in charge of the team for its final two games on the West Coast and share authority equally.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette reported it would be the first time in NFL history that a team would have three head coaches serving at once.

Nov. 28 – The players had a second straight day off. The Press-Gazette reported practice would resume at 3 p.m. Sunday. It also reported that Bogda and the three interim coaches refused comment. Ronzani told the paper that he wished the Packers “the best of luck in the future.”

The Milwaukee Journal reported the next day that two candidates had submitted formal applications on Saturday: Tom Hearden, former coach at Green Bay East High School and St. Norbert College who had helped coach the freshman team at the University of Wisconsin that fall, and former Packers star Clarke Hinkle.

Nov. 29 –The Packers’ executive committee held a Sunday morning meeting at the team’s office building on South Washington Street and voted to fire Drulis as one of the three interim coaches, according to The Journal. Bogda and former team president Lee Joannes were assigned to speak to Drulis, according to the minutes.

Behind closed doors, scout Jack Vainisi reported to the executive committee that Drulis had told him to watch his back because his job was in jeopardy and to make copies of his scouting reports to protect himself. McLean vouched that he had overheard the conversation between Drulis and Vainisi.

Bogda met with the players before their Sunday practice and told them, according to the Press-Gazette’s Art Daley, “We’ve had our troubles this season, but remember that all of Green Bay will be backing you all the way in your last two games.”

Nov. 30 – The Packers practiced that Monday morning, but a blanket of snow prevented them from getting much done. Ronzani and Drulis spoke to the players briefly. After practice, the executive committee held a luncheon for the players at the YMCA cafeteria.

Dec. 1 –The Packers left on an 11 a.m. Chicago & North Western train for San Francisco with a transfer in Chicago. And, lo and behold, Ronzani joined them on the train.

During the stopover in Chicago, around 3:30 p.m., Ronzani told The Associated Press, “I’m not a member of the party, naturally, but I’m interested in some of the players and if I can give them any tips, I’ll be glad to.”

The AP also reported Ronzani had done just that as the players awaited their train for San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the executive committee met at the Northland for two hours and mapped plans for hiring a new coach when the season ended.

Bogda also reported to the committee that Ronzani “had removed from the Packer office considerable property belonging to the corporation, and certain correspondence, scouting reports, and play diagrams.” The committee voted to have Trowbridge write Ronzani and ask that the property be immediately returned. Bogda reported that Drulis had agreed to resign and his resignation was accepted as of Nov. 29.

Dec. 2 – Daley reported in his “Sports Cocktail” column in the Press-Gazette that Ronzani had closeted himself in the Packers’ office building from 12:30 p.m. the previous Friday, shortly after he had met with the board, until 10 a.m. Tuesday, about an hour before the Packers’ train departed.

“Granting a little time to clean out his desk, etc., Ronzani should have been cleared out by sometime Saturday,” Daley wrote. “His presence ruined all chances of the co-coaches to prepare for the San Francisco game and accustom themselves to the change. The heat was fierce in the Packer office these past few days.”

Oliver Kuechle of The Journal reported Bogda was surprised to learn that Ronzani was on the train with the Packers and quoted him in that day’s paper as saying, “It’s all a little embarrassing perhaps, but there’s nothing we can do.”

Dec. 3 – The Packers arrived in San Francisco at 5 p.m. and headed to the Sonoma Mission Inn in Boyes Hot Springs, Calif., about 50 miles north of the city. Devore and McLean had hoped to hold a practice that evening, but it was rained out.

Ronzani arrived on the same train and headed to a downtown hotel, where he told a reporter, “Why shouldn’t I come out here?” He added, “Remember, I had planned on this trip anyhow. I like California.” He said he planned to spend a day at the racetrack, attend Sunday’s game and then head to Los Angeles, where the Packers were scheduled to play the Rams in their final game on Dec. 12.

Dec. 4 – With just two days remaining before their game in San Francisco, the Packers returned to the practice field for the first time since Monday. The Press-Gazette quoted Devore and McLean as saying, “Everything is swell.”

Dec. 5 –The Packers stayed at the Sonoma Mission Inn and faced a 50-mile bus ride to Kezar Stadium the next morning.

Dec. 6 – With Ronzani watching from the press box, the Packers suffered their worst loss of the season, bowing to the 49ers, 48-14, in a steady rain that turned the field to mud. “I certainly didn’t expect that it would be that bad,” Ronzani said of the score.

Before the game, he said he had offered to call the Packers’ plays, but members of the team’s board of directors forbid it. Instead, Ronzani spent the game calling the plays for the reporters around him.

When Packers quarterback Babe Parilli threw an interception that the 49ers’ Rex Berry returned 30 yards for a touchdown, Ronzani told those within earshot, “That’s what coaches get blamed for. All season long, I’ve told Parilli and Tobin Rote not to scatter arm their passes. It’s better to eat the ball than to throw it up for grabs.”

Ronzani also grumbled at one point that he was unable to get a feel for how the players felt before the game because he was barred from talking to them. “I don’t know,” he said. “I couldn’t even go into the dressing room.”

The Associated Press reported the Packers players held a dinner for Ronzani after the game.

(Postscript: The Packers lost to the Rams, 33-17, the following Saturday in their final game and finished 2-9-1. The Los Angeles Times reported the morning of the game that Ronzani was going to watch it from the press box, but there were no sightings reported afterward, or none that could be uncovered anyway. A month later, Lisle Blackbourn was hired as Ronzani’s successor.)

 
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