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Lombardi defined by Jim Murray column

Some fine details about the Lombardi era days


We'll stick to questions about the Lombardi era this time around.

Rick from Denver, CO

Several times in his columns, Vic has mentioned his admiration for the sports writer Jim Murray. This has jogged my memory of a quote in one of his articles. The Packers had already clinched the Central Division in 1967 and had just lost a game late in the season to the Los Angeles Rams, who were in a dogfight with the Baltimore Colts for their own division. Many thought the Packers would have been further ahead and just lying down and losing this game, yet, the Packers went down with all guns blazing. Afterwards, in his column, Murray gave tribute to our team and its coach. I remember at the time wondering how the greatness of a man and his team could be so well summarized in just a few short sentences, but now cannot find or recall the exact quote. Could you find that quote for me? I'd love to read it again, and I think it would provide some insight on the 1960s Packers to some of the younger and/or more casual fans.

Rick, you've got all the details correct, but I think it was the full column more than one quote that made it one of the most memorable pieces ever written about Lombardi. The column appeared the day after the Packers lost to the Rams, 27-24, in the second to last regular season game of the 1967 season. Murray started his fifth paragraph as follows: "But it is the measure of the man that he went all out Saturday to win a game he would have been far better off losing." His follow-up paragraph read: "And yet, Lombardi's team went down with all guns firing, the flag still flying, looking for ways to clobber the Rams and stopping the clock to do it." Murray later wrote, "I don't care what your profession is, if you don't have any respect for it, you'll never be any good at it." Coaching, Murray noted, may not equate with some other more worldly jobs. "But to Vince Lombardi, it's HIS profession," Murray continued. "He would quit before he would dishonor it." Murray's final two graphs read: "Not Saturday. Vince Lombardi's face was suffused with pride. All he lost was a game. But he hadn't tried to sell the Green Bay Packers with one wheel missing or the engine failing.  He hadn't come into town with a plastic team craftily disguised as the real thing. His team lived up to the warranty. No one wanted his money back. No one hollered for the Better Business Bureau. His critics have said Lombardi doesn't belong in this century. And they are right. Pride in workmanship like that hasn't been seen much in this century. When you bet on them, buy a ticket to see them, or invest in them, V.T. Lombardi guarantees you are getting the original, the genuine Green Bay Packers, not a shoddy imitation. Let those who criticize him ask if THEIR product could stand that rigid inspection lately." Murray's column was, in large part, a defense of Lombardi following a blistering story that had appeared that month in Esquire magazine. The story was written by Len Shecter, a freelance writer who had portrayed Lombardi as a ruthless martinet.

Phil from Ashland, WI

I read that Jim Ringo was traded while his agent was waiting to negotiate a contract with Lombardi. Supposedly, Lombardi traded Ringo because he sent an agent rather than negotiating himself.  Do you know if there were other reasons for his departure? It seems to me that even Vince wouldn't get rid of such a key player just for this.

Ringo was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles on May 5, 1964. He personally broke the news on an Easton, Pa., radio station. Ringo lived there during the offseason. Pat Peppler, who was Lombardi's personnel director at the time, tells me the story about the agent was myth. The 1963 season had been Ringo's 11th with the Packers and he was named a starter in the Pro Bowl for a seventh straight year. He also was the Associated Press first-team all-pro center for a fifth straight year. But Ringo was listed at 232 and his playing weight might have been closer to 220. Teams were starting to play more odd defenses with a tackle over the center's nose and Ringo was overmatched. He also was 32 years old. What's more, he was one of the few players who hadn't bought in to Lombardi's preaching about diversity. According to Peppler, Lombardi had initiated trade talks with Philadelphia while concurrently he instructed Peppler to negotiate a new contract with Ringo over the phone. At some point, Ringo told Peppler he either wanted $25,000 or he wanted the Packers to trade him. Within an hour after Ringo had issued his demand, Lombardi completed the trade and called Ringo to inform him, again, according to Peppler.  "… no agent was involved," said Peppler. "I think the major factor was that Vince felt Ringo couldn't be as effective and he needed a bigger center. And Vince was always thinking about replacing the older players." For Ringo and backup fullback Earl Gros, the Packers received linebacker Lee Roy Caffey and a first-round draft pick. Ringo played in three more Pro Bowls for the Eagles, but Caffey was a talented linebacker on Lombardi's last three championship teams. After the trade was announced, Lombardi said, "There are two ways of doing it. One, you wait until you are dead on the bottom and then trade, and the other you make your changes as you go along. I prefer to make the changes as we go."

Dan from Oxnard, CA

Can you offer some insight into how the Packers came to sign Willie Wood as a free agent and why nobody drafted him? Given that the draft had more rounds and fewer teams back in those days, I'm curious about how that could have happened.

The Packers signed Wood in 1960 when the NFL draft consisted of 20 rounds. There were 12 teams and 240 total picks, about the same number as today. Wood had doubled as a quarterback and defensive back at Southern Cal. Keep in mind that was during the one-platoon era in college football when players had to play both ways. Why wasn't Wood drafted? He was listed at 5-10, 175. At either position, he was undersized. He was quicker than he was fast. Thus, he got a bad rap for his lack of speed. He also said several years later that he had suffered some injuries at USC. In addition, John McKay had just completed his first year as head coach there and he didn't consider Wood a pro prospect. No doubt, Wood also was hurt by the fact he was African-American. There weren't many blacks playing in the NFL at the time and teams weren't exactly looking to add more, especially if the price was going to be a high draft pick. But Jack Vainisi, the Packers' head scout, had received some good reports on Wood and reached out to him after Wood sent letters to NFL teams asking for a tryout. In fact, Wood said years later the Packers were the only ones to offer him a contract. I can't emphasize enough how important it was to Lombardi's success that he had an open door policy when it came to race. Other NFL teams might have had quotas for black players, but not Lombardi. During his three-year championship run from 1965-67, he had up to six black starters on defense and four are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That's how the Packers won three straight: Not so much with offense, but great defense.

James from Milwaukee, WI, and Marin from West Lawn, PA

James asked: How come Vince Lombardi and his assistants were not part of any team photos from the 1960s? Marin asked: Why did Vince Lombardi not pose with the Packers in the official team photos?

Like minds. Very interesting, not to mention it's an intriguing question. I had no idea so I asked Chuck Lane, whom Lombardi hired as publicity director in 1966. Chuck said he never discussed the matter with Lombardi and certainly wasn't about to make an issue of it. But Chuck speculated that it probably had something to do with how Army and/or the New York Giants had done things when Lombardi was an assistant coach. Sure enough, Ryan Yanoshak, a member of the athletic staff at West Point, tells me neither Head Coach Red Blaik nor his assistants appeared in Army's team photos from 1949-53 when Lombardi was an assistant there. Lombardi probably revered Blaik more than any other football coach. I think Lombardi embraced the philosophy for the rest of his coaching life that if it was good enough for Red Blaik, it was good enough for him. That said, Lombardi appeared in team photos with the Giants from 1954-58.

Randall from Green Bay, WI

I have a question concerning our LBs during the Lombardi era. I am gratified seeing Ray Nitschke and Dave Robinson given all the recognition they have. However, I have long wondered why their immediate predecessors never have received much recognition. I'm thinking especially of Dan Currie and Bill Forester. As I recall, the Packers LBs were considered one of the league's best even before Nitschke and Robinson entered the scene. Why haven't those earlier LBs landed in the HOF?

Good question. Shows some insight into your knowledge of Packers history. Bill Forester played from 1953-63. He was first named defensive captain in 1956 and Lombardi kept him in that position when he took over. Forester also was elected to the Pro Bowl after each of Lombardi's first four seasons and started the game in 1961 and '62. Moreover, Forester was first-team Associated Press all-pro from 1960-62. Just based on that brief summary, I'd guess he has a better resume than some of the linebackers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame from that period. Dan Currie was the Packers' No. 1 draft pick in 1958, ahead of Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and Jerry Kramer, and at first it appeared Currie might be the best of the batch. He played for the Packers from 1958-64 and made AP, UPI or NEA first-team all-pro each season from 1961-63. Not long ago, I watched a replay of the Packers' 1962 NFL championship victory over the New York Giants and thought Currie might have played even better than game MVP Ray Nitschke. Forester was a converted defensive lineman so he didn't have great speed. Currie injured his knee in 1962 when he was blindsided by Hall of Fame receiver Tommy McDonald and probably was never the same. Thus, Currie was a premier player, but only for about four years. Bottom line: I think the Hall of Fame got it right by inducting Nitschke and Dave Robinson. And I'm not so sure that as good as Forester was that Lee Roy Caffey wasn't an improvement simply because he was faster and a better athlete. Caffey, too, was a Pro Bowl pick his first year with the Packers. We shouldn't overlook Tom Bettis, either. He was the Packers' No. 1 draft pick in 1955 and people forget that it took Nitschke almost four years before he supplanted Bettis as the starting middle linebacker. Bettis was a good player and then coached in the NFL for more than 20 years. Even in 1961, he filled in when Nitschke went in the service and there probably was little drop-off.

Jerry from Orlando, FL

I have a Green Bay Packers check, dated 4-7-59, signed by Vince Lombardi. The check is made out to Tom Miller. I acquired the check, obviously, for the Lombardi signature but was wondering who Tom Miller was.

Miller spent more than 30 years with the Packers. He played in two games as an end in 1946 and then rejoined the team in 1956 as publicity director. In 1966, Lombardi promoted Miller to assistant general manager. In 1975, newly hired head coach and general manager Bart Starr restructured the organization, making Bob Harlan corporate general manager and Tom Miller business general manager. Then in 1981 when Starr was stripped of his GM title, Harlan and Miller were named assistants to the president and given more authority on the business side. Miller was close to Lombardi and probably handled a lot of routine matters for him. Later, Miller served as liaison between the front office and executive committee and had a close relationship with most of the influential members of that committee. Miller retired in 1988 and was elected to the Packers Hall of Fame in 1999 as a contributor.

Dave from Savage, MN

I have in my mind that I heard or read that Lombardi once ran the sweep something like 28 times in a row in one game. Any chance that it is true? (Thank you for your column. I expect that a lot of people appreciate it as much as I do. When I grew up I think the history of the games was second in importance to us to the actual competition. Nowadays it seems the games and history fall behind celebrity, rumormongering and merchandising. Thanks for helping with my history fix.)

Dave, thanks for being a reader. The Power Sweep with the halfback carrying to the strong or right side of the formation was clearly Vince Lombardi's signature play, especially when Paul Hornung was in his prime from 1959-62. Lombardi also had a weak-side sweep where the fullback carried to the left. In 1961, '62 and then down the stretch again in 1965, the Packers won NFL championships by running the ball and mixing that with outstanding defense. I don't know what kind of internal stats they kept at the time, but I don't think they ran the sweep to excess. I recently watched a replay of the 1961 championship game and, as I recall, the Packers didn't run the Power Sweep for the first time until only six minutes remained in the first half. In fact, I can't remember the Packers scoring on a sweep in a championship game. Hornung ran 13 yards around left end for a TD in the 1965 title game against Cleveland, following Jerry Kramer, but that wasn't a sweep. I was told by Zeke Bratkowski, the backup quarterback, it was a play put in for that game, and he didn't think the play even had a name.

Steve from Fort Myers, FL

I may be wrong about this but don't know any way to check and thought you might be able to help. I seem to recall Bart Starr used to line up the offense at the beginning of a game and air out a throw that with recurring regularity turned into a touchdown pass on the Packers' first play from scrimmage. Do you remember this?

I remember Bart Starr throwing for a fair number of big plays on third-and-short when he caught the defense napping with his play calling, but not throwing TD bombs early in games. That wasn't Bart's forte. Anyway, just to be sure, I asked stat guru Eric Goska, who has done detailed studies of Packers play-by-plays and written statistical books about the Packers. He tells me Starr threw a touchdown pass on the first offensive play twice in his career: Once in 1961 for 78 yards and on another occasion in 1965 for 27 yards. He informs me Starr threw a touchdown pass on the Packers' opening drive 10 times in his career, including just three other bombs that covered 50 yards or more in addition to that 78-yarder.

Jim from Green Bay, WI

What is the single most important accomplishment about Vince Lombardi's NFL record that stands out above all other NFL coaches?

Five world championships in nine years and, really, it was five in a seven-year span. Let's compare that to the Super Bowl dynasties: Pittsburgh four championships (one short of Lombardi) in six years; San Francisco, five championships (same as Lombardi) but in 14 years under two different coaches; Dallas, three titles in four years (two short of Lombardi). Even the "Monsters of the Midway," the Chicago Bears of the 1940s, won only four in seven years. The only team that might compare would be the Cleveland Browns with four straight championships in the old All America Football Conference (1946-49) and then an NFL title in 1950. But how good was the AAFC overall?

David from Paragould, AR

Just finished watching "Full Color Football -- The History of the American Football League." Liked the feature on Ben Davidson. I think he played one season with the Packers, but then what happened?

The Packers acquired Davidson from the New York Giants for a future draft choice late in the preseason in 1961. Davidson had been drafted by the Giants in the fourth round and was a rookie. Davidson, who was listed at 6-7, 260 at the time, didn't play much behind starting defensive ends Willie Davis and Bill Quinlan, but he appeared in all 14 games. A year later, Lombardi traded Davidson to Washington for a future draft pick, again during training camp. Davidson played two years with Washington then made a bigger name for himself during his eight years with the Oakland Raiders. He was famous for his handlebar mustache and Joe Namath's comment that he was the dirtiest player in the AFL. Davidson started for the Raiders against the Packers in Super Bowl II, but he certainly didn't distinguish himself. Charlie Nobles of the Miami News wrote that Davidson looked a beaten man in the locker room after the game. Nobles also asked Davidson how he thought he fared against Packers left tackle Bob Skoronski. "I put in 60 minutes out there, that's all I know," said Davidson. "I couldn't say for sure how I did." I think the quote speaks volumes. That said, Davidson might have helped the Packers down the road if they had held on to him.

John from Ticonderoga, NY

I was almost 14 years old when Coach Lombardi died. It was the first time I remember feeling really sad over someone's death. How would you describe the feelings of Packers fans in general when the news of his death was announced?

I think most people felt like you did. I remember being saddened by the news. Just a year earlier while I was still in college, I had attended the first Pro Football Writers Dinner and had a chance to meet Lombardi for the first time even though he had lived through the backyard and down the block from us when he first moved to Green Bay in 1959. At that dinner in February 1969, he seemed like a picture of health. So I think it was hard for me to believe that he could be dead within 20 months. It was big news when he died, but also keep in mind things were vastly different from today. There wasn't around-the-clock news. I'm not sure if any of the Wisconsin papers even sent a reporter to New York to cover his funeral. The coverage here was probably limited to a fairly brief wire service story and maybe 60 seconds or so on the evening news.

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