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Gustafson looks back on 18-plus seasons with Packers

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Cliff Christl started gathering oral histories with former Packers and others associated with the team in 2000 and will continue to gather them as Packers historian. Excerpts from those interviews will be periodically posted at www.packers.com

Burt Gustafson worked for the Green Bay Packers for 18½ years, serving four head coaches: Dan Devine, Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg and Lindy Infante. A native of Marquette, Mich., Gustafson won 12 letters at Northern Michigan University in football, basketball and track. He returned to Northern in 1956 as an assistant coach and served until 1961. From 1962 to 1970, he was an assistant under Lloyd Eaton at the University of Wyoming. Devine hired Gustafson to be his linebacker coach when he took over the Packers in 1971. When Starr replaced Devine in 1975, he kept Gustafson, but as a college scout covering the West Coast and Rocky Mountain areas. Two years later, Starr named Gustafson special teams coach, but fired him after the third preseason game in 1978 and had him work as a pro scout. In 1979, Starr named Gustafson director of pro scouting, a position he held through the 1984 season. In 1985, Gregg reassigned Gustafson to the position of administrative assistant in football operations. Gustafson retired in 1989 after working one year under Infante.

On getting hired by the Packers: “I was recommended to (Devine) by Bob Devaney. They had coached together at Michigan State. (Devaney) was at Nebraska. He was a great coach. And we had played Nebraska a couple times when I was at Wyoming. I wanted (to be) defensive backfield coach. I thought I had done very well at Wyoming for eight years, but Dan hired Don (Doll).”

On being a guest at the Packers’ training camps from 1965-67: “I was given an opportunity by Mr. Lombardi to be at training camp three years in a row. So I got to know Mr. Football himself. Hawg Hanner invited me. I was coaching at Wyoming and got to stay in the dormitory, the whole bit. (Lombardi) let me come to the meetings. I’d go to a meeting at 7 o’clock and he had all the clocks set five minutes early. If the rookies came in late, they’d get fined.”

On whether he had any one-on-one dealings with Lombardi: “I’ll never forget taking a ride with him to the practice field. He said, ‘Look at that guy, look at that so-and-so – he swore and Vince seldom swore – he knows there’s a $500 fine for riding on a car.’ The player was sitting on the fender of the car and he reminded the player of that when he got back to the locker room.”

On any other memories of Lombardi: “Willie Wood and I were standing next to one another one time when Willie’s substitute was taking his place during a scrimmage on the running game. The tight end from Utah State, Marv Fleming, had hurt his shoulder. At that time, there were two practice fields out there. (Lombardi) had Marv run around the two practice fields during the entire practice, an hour-and-a-half. And Marv quit running. Lombardi wasn’t even looking at him, but he hollered at him, ‘Marvin, you’re not running.’ Willie Wood said to me, ‘See, I told you coach had eyes in the back of his head.’”

On his early memories of Devine: “My first exposure to Dan Devine as a football coach was at Northern (Michigan) when I was up there. He was the head speaker at a high school coaches clinic one year. Rollie Dotsch was with him because Rollie was coaching with him at Missouri. I was sitting next to Rollie because he and I were friends. He had coached with me at Northern. Dan got up and talked a half-hour on the huddle and then gave the chalk to Rollie. Rollie got up and had to give the rest of the Missouri offense to the coaches. Then one day in a meeting in Green Bay, Dan was up at the board and put a formation up. Red Cochran stopped him and said, ‘Coach, you’ve got to get rid of one of those guys. You’ve got 12 people up there.’”

On the pipeline between Wyoming and the Packers: “One of the interesting things about the coaching staff of the University of Wyoming was that we had four coaches who ended up working for the Packers at one time. Lloyd Eaton was the head coach and became director of player personnel. Paul Roach, our backfield coach, became offensive coordinator. Fritz Shurmur and I coached the defense and he became the Packers’ defensive coordinator.”

On Devine’s hiring by the Packers: “I was told the Packers were considering Bob Devaney when they hired Dan Devine and got it mixed up. The person who told me said that (team president Dominic) Olejniczak made a mistake and called Devine instead of Devaney.”

On whether Devine knew football: “No. I don’t know if he knew it or didn’t know it, but if he knew it, he didn’t apply it.”

On why he thought Devine was successful as a college coach: “I think he got the confidence of the players. That was one of his skills that I have to admit to. And he got a lot out of them in that way. He was clever. He was successful at Arizona State, at Missouri and Notre Dame. He made some bad trades. We know that. He wasn’t very good at that.”

So what happened in GB? “I can’t answer that.”

On whether Devine showed the Packers game films of his teams at Missouri before his first season: “That happened. I kid you not. I sat next to Freddie Carr in the back of the room watching Missouri highlights.”

On whether he was surprised an NFL coach would show game films of a college team: “No, I had heard some other stories about strange things he did before that so I was not surprised. Things he had done at Missouri and Arizona State.”

On Devine’s problems with many of Lombardi’s former players: “They were smart enough and experienced enough to know that he didn’t know what he was doing. That’s how I see it.”

On whether he knew some players discussed boycotting the final game in 1974 to ensure that Devine would get fired: “That’s correct. One of the players told me.”

On the players’ plan: “They weren’t going to go on the plane (to Atlanta).”

On whether he got along with Devine personally: “Yes, I did. He made unfair use of me as an assistant, but I was dedicated and I was loyal. Tom Miller (then assistant to the general manager) called me in his office one day and said, ‘Burt, you still got that car you rented from Hertz out at the airport for the last six weeks?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t have any Hertz car.’ Then it dawned on me. I had gone and gotten a car for Dan that he said he needed for a scout that was going to visit him about player contracts. Maybe the scout got the use of the car. I don’t know that. But eventually the car got to (Devine’s) daughter. As you know, they lived in Oneida, and the daughter had to go to school in Pulaski. (Devine) had the car for six weeks in my name.”

On Starr: “Here’s what I did one day as director of pro personnel. I got sick and tired of seeing assistant coaches come through the door. So I went into (Starr) and said, ‘Coach, I’ve got to talk to you about something important and you might even fire me for it.’ I said the past so many years we’ve had 27 assistant coaches including myself and it won’t work. He said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘There’s no continuity.’”

On Gregg: “I got along with Forrest. He gave me a job when I needed one.”

On whether he thought Gregg was too unreasonable with his players: “He could have been. He was a disciplinarian and that didn’t go over too well. He was tough. He treated everybody the same way.”

On Infante: “He trusted me. I liked working for him. If there was something he didn’t like he told me right to my face. From a football standpoint, he was the best of the four I worked for. No doubt in my mind. He was tough, but fair. He was a smart guy. He left the defense up to the defensive coaches. He didn’t mess with it. He was strictly offense. It was his offense and that was it.”

On Dave Hanner, Packers defensive coordinator from 1972-79 and leader of the anti-Devine camp among assistant coaches: “He was a smart guy, smarter than a lot of people give him credit for, as far as football is concerned. (But) I think at one point he tried to get rid of me.”

On Cochran, backfield coach from 1971-74: “A very knowledgeable football coach. He knew the game and what had to be done. I had a lot of respect for Red.”

But wasn’t Cochran another member of the anti-Devine camp? “Oh yeah.”

On where he stood: “You can say that (Hank) Kuhlmann, Dotsch and myself were not openly opposed to some of the things (Devine) did. We questioned it. We questioned the (John) Hadl trade right up to the very end.”

On why Dotsch, offensive line coach from 1971-74, and John Polonchek, receivers and passing game coach from 1972-74, remained loyal to Devine even if they knew his shortcomings: “They had Michigan State loyalties. John was very loyal (to Dan).”

So that mattered more than what they thought of Devine’s coaching? “Any criticism they made they were careful where they made it with me.”

On Don Doll, Devine’s highly respected secondary coach, who was fired following the 1973 season: “I think Don was disturbed by a lot of things. He was very impersonal. Very strict. He knew the game of football real well.”

On Roach, Starr’s first offensive coordinator from 1975-76, and why he was fired after two years following successful stints coaching with Oakland and the University of Wisconsin: “Excellent coach. The disagreement over that was – nobody knew who the offensive coordinator was. Zeke (Bratkowski) thought he was, and Bart probably made him think he was. But Bart had told Paul that he was.”

On Bob Schnelker, passing game coach under Devine in 1971 and offensive coordinator under Starr from 1982-85: “Smart. Very smart. Always had a good game plan.”

On Billy Kinard, who replaced Doll as secondary coach and then was given the newly created position of director of research and development by Starr in 1975: “He got fired and still had a year left on his contract. He and I shared an office together, and he sat there with his feet up on his desk all day long and did nothing. He was still there, but not coaching. All I know was that I had to break down all the defensive film for Hanner.”

On John Meyer being named defensive coordinator by Starr in 1980 over secondary coach Dick LeBeau: “Meyer was trustworthy and I think Bart noticed that.”

On LeBeau, Starr’s defensive backs coach from 1976-79: “I liked Dick LeBeau. He helped me with special teams. He had just come from Cincinnati, and he had been the special teams coach there. Dick LeBeau was one of the best coaches I ever saw.”

On Ross Fichtner, Starr’s defensive backs coach from 1980-83: “He was terrible. He may have been a good defensive back in the NFL, but he didn’t teach those kids anything. We all got cars. Everybody on the staff got Buicks from the place on Riverside (Drive). He put 27,000 miles on his first car – and I think his only one – and never changed the oil. We were supposed to get the cars serviced. Boy oh boy.”

Gustafson, 92, lives outside Crystal Falls, Mich. The excerpts above were taken from interviews conducted in 2014 and this week.

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