John Meyer, former Packers defensive coordinator under Bart Starr, dies at 78

Notre Dame alum brought the 3-4 defense to Green Bay

Former Packers linebackers coach and defensive coordinator

John Meyer, defensive coordinator under Bart Starr and the coach who introduced the 3-4 defense in Green Bay, died Wednesday, Nov. 4. Meyer was 78.

Meyer was hired as linebackers coach in 1975 as an original member of Starr's staff. In 1980, he was elevated to defensive coordinator and switched to a 3-4 alignment. The 3-4 was introduced to the NFL in 1974 and was becoming the wave of the future. Over Starr's first five seasons, the Packers won more than five games only once and the defense never ranked higher than 14th in yards allowed.

In Meyer's first season as coordinator, the Packers drafted Bruce Clark with the fourth overall pick with the intention of playing him at nose tackle and making him the centerpiece of their 3-4. But Clark signed with Toronto in the Canadian Football League and the Packers finished 25th in defense.

The next two years, Meyer produced a top 10 defense and the Packers improved to 8-8 in 1981 and then 5-3-1 in strike-shortened 1982, when they made the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

With the Packers' offense still struggling – it ranked 23rd in 1981 and 12th in 1982 – Meyer was given much of the credit for the team's improvement.

"We have a lot of good players on defense and he utilizes their talents," receiver James Lofton said at the time. "Sometimes you get coaches who want to take the credit. He seems the opposite of that. He's a player's coach." Tackle Greg Koch said, "To me he has that rare quality of being a firm disciplinarian and you still like the hell out of him."

Meyer was only 40 years old at the time and there were those who thought he was on path to be an NFL head coach. "Bill Arnsparger at Miami, Bud Carson, Joe Collier at Denver, they're top guys. They've been defensive coordinators for maybe 10, 15 years and some were even former head coaches," said Sam Rutigliano, who had led Cleveland to the AFC Central Division title a little more than a year earlier. "I think some day he'll (Meyer) be an outstanding head coach in the National Football League."

In fact, in January 1983, Meyer interviewed for and was believed to be the leading candidate to replace Lee Corso as coach at Indiana University. Bob Knight, a friend of Meyer's and basketball coach at Indiana, and Bob Skoronski, an Indiana alum and captain of Vince Lombardi's last three championship teams in Green Bay, were pushing Meyer for the job. "John is one of the people I've talked to who understands a lot about coaching and competitive success," Knight told the Green Bay Press-Gazette only months earlier.

But Meyer took himself out of the running to stay in Green Bay, where he would be left with a depleted defensive line that might have been one of the worst in NFL history. First, the Packers rebuffed defensive end and former No. 1 draft pick Mike Butler's contract demands and he signed with Tampa Bay of the United States Football League. Then in the opener, unsung nose tackle Terry Jones was lost for the season with an injury.

While the Packers offense ranked in the top 10 for the first time in 16 years, dating to the Lombardi era, Meyer's defense plummeted to 28th and last in the league. The Packers finished 8-8 and Starr and his assistants were fired.

The Packers' defense would improve in the years ahead under Dick Modzelewski and Hank Bullough, but when Packers Hall of Fame safety Mark Murphy, who played more than a decade under all three was asked, who was the best of his coordinators, he said, "I really loved John Meyer. I loved his personality. I loved his passion for the game and the way he taught it. If a guy needed to be yelled at, he would. If another guy couldn't handle it, he'd handle it differently. I think he coached the personality of the player to get the most out of them."

Meyer left coaching after the housecleaning in Green Bay, but helped out with the football programs at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., and St. Ambrose in Davenport, Ia., while remaining a resident of the Green Bay area.

A native of Chicago, Meyer played football at the University of Notre Dame, played a year with the Houston Oilers and began his NFL coaching career with New England at age 25, following a career-ending injury.

He is survived by his wife, Loretta, and three daughters. Ryan Funeral Home in De Pere is handling the arrangements.

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