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Had Vince Lombardi stayed, history might have been rewritten

Jack Vainisi was a pioneer in scouting

Former Packers Head Coach Vince Lombardi
Former Packers Head Coach Vince Lombardi

Karl from Fond du Lac, WI

Fan since the mid-1970s. Always been fascinated with Packers history, including the Lombardi era. One question I always think about: If after 1967, Lombardi continues coaching in Green Bay, how would the 1968 to 1970 teams have done? I know they had some age. But the defense was still good enough with younger talent at some positions. 10-4 or 9-5 type teams? Maybe not champions, but playoff teams with Lombardi driving them like always?

Fascinating question. The 1967 Packers weren't supposed to win and were underdogs for a home playoff game against the supposedly younger and much more talented Rams, but they defied the oddsmakers, dominated the Rams at County Stadium and won their third straight NFL title. In 1968, the Packers had the same 22 starters and finished 6-7-1. Admittedly, the Packers had lost Don Chandler, their kicker, to retirement and his replacements – Jerry Kramer, Chuck Mercein, Errol Mann and Mike Mercer – were a combined 13 of 29 as the Packers lost three games by four points or less. Vince Lombardi, the GM, didn't do Phil Bengtson, his successor, any favors, despite the Packers' desperate need for a kicker. Then again, Mann made 25 of 37 field goals the next year for Detroit and lasted 11 years in the NFL. Mercer was nearing the end of his 10-year career, but he made 7 of 12 field goals in six games with the Packers, which wasn't a bad percentage back then. So, I don't know how much you can blame the kicking game for Bengtson's failures that year. Plus, I can't imagine Lombardi becoming so vexed over the situation that he would have hired an Appleton radio announcer to try and fix the problem as Bengtson did in late November when he accepted an offer from WAPL's Bill Kiss to voluntarily tutor Packers kickers.

With Lombardi coaching, I don't think it can be ruled out that the Packers might have won the Central Division – Minnesota won it with an 8-6 record – and maybe even beaten Baltimore and Cleveland to advance to Super Bowl III. I recognize the Vikings had become a more formidable opponent under second-year-coach Bud Grant. And a lot might have depended on Bart Starr's availability in the postseason. After all, he was the key to the offense by then and had been at his best in the playoffs the previous two years. But Starr had injured his ribs and played sparingly in the final month of the 1968 season. Then again, Zeke Bratkowski was on par with the starting quarterbacks for the Packers' primary challengers in the Western Conference. Joe Kapp was QB of the Vikings, Jack Concannon for the Central Division's second-place Bears and Earl Morrall was filling in for an injured Johnny Unitas in Baltimore.

You're right about the defense. Lombardi had overhauled it during his last five seasons and it was still one of the best in the league, finishing third in fewest yards allowed. It was the offense that struggled, but it also had been ineffectual for stretches during the three-peat. It ranked 12th, eighth and ninth from 1965 to 1967, and then 10th and 11th in 1968 and '69. How much of a factor was age? Starr was 34 and missing more time with injuries. Also, Lombardi's plans to revamp his offensive line hadn't panned out. Forrest Gregg was 35; Bob Skoronski, 34; and Kramer, 32. Defensively, it was less of a problem, but Willie Davis was 34 and Henry Jordan, 33, and both were a year away from retirement.

What I found interesting was an impromptu, poolside press conference Lombardi held in Miami after Super Bowl II. He stayed there after the game to contemplate his future and met with several reporters the day after the game. His comments included the following:

· "The history of Green Bay is in the future, not the past."

· "Some great teams are going to come out of Green Bay in the next four years. We have great talent – more talent than ever before."

· "We have 20 players on our squad that nobody knows much about who are going to be real standouts in the next couple of years."

· "(Don) Horn is going to be a real star of the National Football League. He's going to be another Starr and you can spell that with two r's if you want."

· "This year our halfbacks could run to daylight, but not our fullbacks (Ben Wilson and Chuck Mercein after Jim Grabowski got hurt), although they did a great job for what they are. Grabowski has the quickness and speed of a halfback, something (Jim) Taylor never had."

· "… we might even go to some type of the old T-formation with three big backs or put (Donny) Anderson out as a flanker."

Would those players' careers have turned out differently if they had played for Lombardi? How many of Lombardi's 12 Hall of Famers, not counting Bobby Dillon, would have been inducted into Canton if they hadn't played for him? After all, seven of them played on the 1958, 1-10-1 Packers – Taylor, Gregg, Starr, Nitschke, Jim Ringo, Paul Hornung and Kramer – while Henry Jordan and Willie Davis were essentially castoffs acquired from Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown; and Willie Wood was a non-drafted free agent. Lombardi admitted to close friends that he wasn't any smarter than other coaches, but he had supreme confidence in his ability to get the most out of each and every one of his players on a consistent basis. Bengtson was an outstanding defensive coach, but didn't have the personality, the judgment or the resolve to win as a head coach.

Rick from Denver

I've often thought about what a loss it was that (Jack) Vainisi passed on at such a young age, given the mutual respect that there was between him and Lombardi. The Packers of the 1960s might have been even better with him backstopping Lombardi on scouting and drafting. Perhaps, too, the 1970s and '80s may have looked quite different.

First, it was Jack Vainisi, not Jerry, who was Lombardi's business manager and top scout for nearly two years. Jerry was general manager of the Bears and vice president of player personnel with Detroit; and he, too, was a good football man. As for Jack, his death at age 33 from a heart problem was tragic. No question, he was as close to Lombardi as anyone in the organization when he died in late November 1960; he was widely respected throughout both college and professional football ranks; and his work on the draft played a big part in Lombardi's success. I never heard anyone from the many players to coaches to scouts to executives who knew Jack say a bad word about him in the many interviews I conducted years back.

Had Vainisi lived would the Packers have won more titles? Lombardi won five in a seven-year span. No other coach in the history of the NFL has won five in a decade. Lombardi lamented until the day he died that he didn't win more. And the Packers couldn't have come much closer to winning than they did in both 1960 and 1963. In fact, Lombardi once said his 1963 team was his best. But, realistically, what were the chances of the Packers winning six, seven, eight, nine league titles in nine years?

A few years ago, I thought Jack Vainisi had a shot at being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a contributor. And maybe he still does. The main drawback, as I saw it, was his lack of longevity. He worked for the Packers for only 11 years. Plus, he was hired after the 1950 draft, died before the 1961 draft, and was hospitalized in Chicago for two months during the 1952 football season while former Bears great and Rams head coach Joe Stydahar assumed his duties preparing for the January 1953 draft. Still, I believed a strong case could be made on Vainisi's behalf if it focused on his pioneering efforts: building a one-man personnel department that led to some of the best drafts in pro football history and also one that helped establish the framework for the much larger personnel departments of today.

Instead, what happened was a number of stories were told and published that inaccurately portrayed Vainisi's role. Those stories credited Vainisi with actually making the picks when he didn't. The Packers' head coaches did. Back in the day when sportswriters were allowed to sit at the table in the big ballrooms where the draft was conducted, Art Daley of the Green Bay Press-Gazette had a front-row seat to the proceedings, at least on occasion. In January 1959 after Scooter McLean had been forced out and before Lombardi was hired, Daley explained how Vainisi would call the shots on the Packers' picks for the first time ever over rounds five through 30. The first four rounds were held in December 1958 and McLean made those choices. "Vainisi has worked up the Packers' draft since he joined the club in 1950, but the head coach made the selections," Daley, the only sportswriter to cover the Packers throughout Vainisi's time in Green Bay, wrote two days before the second phase of the 1959 draft. "Jack will decide the picks Wednesday." I'm sure that's why writers from that period who were still working when I was cutting my teeth in the business referred to the best of those drafts from 1956 to '58 as Lisle Blackbourn's drafts, not Vainisi's. That said, Blackbourn heaped praise on Vainisi for his preparation and credited him with having considerable influence on his selections.

Ray McLean, left, Green Bay Packers coach, raises hand in gesture marking the first choice in the annual NFL player draft, Dec. 1, 1958 in Philadelphia. Seated is Packers chief scout, Jack Vainisi.

Revisionist history also has created the impression that Vainisi was constantly on the road scouting and uncovering the gems he drafted. Here, again, Vainisi himself explained on more than one occasion how he operated his department. One of the last times he did, he told Daley how the assistant coaches under Lombardi, as well as administrative assistant and former general manager Verne Lewellen, scouted college games on Saturdays during the season while he organized the reports and those from the many college coaches he had hired as so-called "bird dogs." The college coaches would file reports with Vainisi on their own players and on opposing players they had faced. Based on the minutes of a 1958 meeting, Vainisi told the executive committee that he had 30 college coaches on his payroll, while Packers' financial records show they were paid a little more than $5,000 total that year. Actually, from what I've been able to gather, Vainisi might have spent more time scouting spring – than fall – practices during his annual signing tour of his most recent picks back when the drafts were held in January.

No question, Vainisi knew football. He was a high school standout in Chicago and played as a freshman at Notre Dame. He was no paper pusher. However, like others in his position in the 1950s, he spent more time in the office preparing for the draft than he did on college campuses. My guess is that was because of budgetary considerations. In 1951, the Packers spent a little more than $8,000 on scouting. In 1956, the year before their new stadium was built, they spent a little more than $15,000 on player procurement. Along with his passion for his work, Vainisi's strengths were networking and processing the information he collected. Back in the 1980s, I interviewed over 100, maybe closer to 200, personnel people for a book on the history of the NFL Draft. Thus, I'm familiar with how several of the NFL's 12 teams during that timeframe prepared for the draft and comfortable enough to state that if Vainisi didn't create the model for today's scouting departments, he was at least one of the trailblazers. Obviously, Cleveland under Paul Brown was a well-run organization in all phases. Otherwise, the most legendary of the post-World War II scouts was Eddie Kotal, former Packers player and assistant coach under Curly Lambeau. Unlike Vainisi, Kotal drove thousands of miles a year personally scouting college practices and games for the cash-rich Rams from 1946 into the 1960s. Nobody uncovered more obscure talent than Kotal. Football people from that era told me the Rams' biggest downfall when Kotal was scouting was that they had too much talent, creating perpetual problems with turnover and chemistry.

On the other hand, I don't know how many of the Packers' draft jewels of the 1950s that Vainisi personally scouted. I don't believe, for example, that he saw Bart Starr play in person before the Packers drafted him in the 17th round in 1956. But that doesn't mean Vainisi shouldn't get considerable credit for the pick. From what I've been able to piece together, it might be the quintessential example of how Vainisi's system bore the many fruits that it did. Johnny Dee, the basketball coach at the University of Alabama at the time, was the person who tipped off the Packers about Starr. Dee knew Vainisi from their high school and college days in Chicago and at Notre Dame, respectively; and also knew Packers line coach Lou Rymkus, another Notre Dame product and later an outstanding tackle for Paul Brown. According to Dee, he called both Vainisi and Rymkus, urging them to take a close look at Starr, whose career at Alabama ended in disappointment after a promising sophomore season. That's the shortened and often retold version of the story. But dig deeper and you'll find that Dee's resume included more than just four years as basketball coach at Alabama. He also had doubled as an assistant coach in football when Starr was a freshman and before that played quarterback at Notre Dame. Obviously, Vainisi was aware of Dee's credentials and had Rymkus personally scout Starr at a time when some teams were still drafting their late picks out of Street & Smith's College Football Yearbook. Thanks to Vainisi's thoroughness and connections, the Packers had insight that perhaps no other team had on a quarterback who had lost his job as a junior and shared it as a senior on a 0-10 team. Unfortunately, because of falsehoods planted when there were still enough people living who were familiar with how Vainisi and the Packers actually operated, I think there are some Hall of Fame voters who don't know what to believe. And, if that's the case, it's bound to hurt Vainisi's chances.

As for Vainisi's relationship with Lombardi, the two worked only one draft together and the results were mixed. The No. 1 pick was Tom Moore, a big, fast, talented back who had the misfortune of playing in the shadows of Hornung and Taylor; and then suffered what was likely a stress fracture in his foot before doctors had the capability to properly diagnose what proved to be a career-ending injury. The second-round pick was Bob Jeter, who blossomed into an outstanding cornerback but not for another six years. Apparently unbeknown to Lombardi and Vainisi, Jeter had signed with Hamilton of the Canadian Football League before the Packers drafted him. Jeter didn't sign with the Packers until 1962 and didn't start until 1966 after he was moved to defense from wide receiver. Fifth-round pick Dale Hackbart played one season and two additional games in another for the Packers; and 13th-round choice Paul Winslow played one year, although his blocked punt in the final game might have been the Packers' biggest play of the 1960 season. Fourteenth-round selection Jon Gillliam was cut by the Packers, but played seven years in the AFL.

I think when you look at that 1960 draft and also the 28 picks Vainisi made in the 1959 draft, it offers perspective on the changes that overcame pro football and the draft after Vainisi's death. To take nothing away from Vainisi, from his first draft in 1951 through his last in 1960, the Packers had 12 No. 1 picks. Here was where they fell in the first round: 5, 4, 7, 3, 4, 5, 8, 1, 4, 3, 1 and 5. That's 10 top-five picks. Over the next eight years while Lombardi was still with the Packers, here's where those first-round picks fell: 12, 14, 14, 13, 7, 10, 9, 13, 9, 25, 5 and 26. Over that span, there was one top-five choice. Yet the Packers drafted two future Pro Football Hall of Famers in the first round, Herb Adderley and Dave Robinson; also Gale Gillingham, whom both Starr and Gregg told me was the greatest guard in team history; and Fred Carr, one of the most gifted athletes in Packers history and a three-time Pro Bowl pick.

You can't compare 12-team drafts to 26-team drafts. When the Packers had that great draft in 1958 where they landed three future Pro Football Hall of Famers, they had five of the first 39 choices. In 1960, the year Lombardi landed Moore, Jeter and not much else, the NFL added a 13th team and eight new American Football League teams were born and competing for players. In the January phase of the 1959 draft, Vainisi made his selections between 55 (a second-round pick today) and 349. Only three of his choices made it in the NFL and only one was a standout: halfback Timmy Brown of Ball State selected in the 27th round and cut by Lombardi after one game. Still, I might give Vainisi a decent grade for his only draft just because Brown finished his career as the Eagles' second-leading, all-time rusher to Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren and also their all-time leading kickoff returner in yards gained. What's more, three other small-school backs – George Dixon of Bridgeport State, Bill Butler of Tennessee-Chattanooga and Dave Smith of Ripon College – also made a splash in the pros. Dixon is in the CFL Hall of Fame; Smith finished fourth in rushing in the AFL's first season, playing for league champion Houston; and Butler played 11 games for the Packers in 1959 and lasted six seasons in the NFL mostly because of his special-teams play.

Also, I know Lombardi had enough respect and a close enough relationship with Pat Peppler to have tried to lure him to Washington when he left Green Bay in 1969. Peppler had taken over as the Packers' personnel director in 1963 and the executive committee thwarted Lombardi's efforts six years later. Bottom line: Vainisi couldn't have performed his duties any better, but Peppler did a good job, too, on a less than even playing field.

As for the 1970s and '80s, I'll try to address that in the near future. But the failures of those decades had nothing to do with Lombardi or Peppler.

Buddy from Seaford, DE

Do you know that No. 89 was not used after Dave Robinson? Dave had a close relationship with Dad Braisher and he would not give 89 to any decent player who might make the team.

No, I didn't know that and this might explain why. Robinson last played for the Packers in 1972. Braisher, who joined the Packers in 1956 as equipment manager, retired after the 1976 season. By then, he had issued No. 89 to wide receiver Charlie Wade, who had been claimed on waivers 10 days before the 1975 opener and wore it for two games before suffering a season-ending injury; and a year later to wide receiver Ollie Smith, who wore it for two years and 25 games. Fifteen players have worn No. 89 since.