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Oral History: Willie Wood

Willie Wood remembers Lombardi, Bengtson, Devine


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 ***.*

Willie Wood played safety for the Packers from 1960-71. Wood signed with the Packers as a rookie free agent after playing quarterback and defensive back for Southern Cal during the one-platoon era in college football. He went undrafted and wrote letters to a handful of teams, but only Vince Lombardi responded. Wood was selected to eight Pro Bowls and was named an Associated Press first-team All-Pro five times. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.

On signing with the Packers: Wood – "I wrote (Lombardi) a letter and the next week I got a response saying they would be in town and that I should hold off signing with anybody until I talked to him."

On personnel director Jack Vainisi's role in his signing: Wood – "He was very helpful. The things that Coach Lombardi wanted to do for his players, he'd send them to Jack Vainisi."

On his first training camp: Wood – "Nobody ever said anything to me. So I didn't know how I stood with Coach Lombardi or anybody else. I know when I survived the first two cuts, I felt my chances were getting better. I played behind Emlen Tunnell my rookie year."

On making the club as an undrafted rookie: Wood – "I remember when we were getting down to the final cuts, some of the players were teasing me about making the team, saying things like, 'I hope you have all your clothes packed because when we get back to Green Bay, you're gone.' Coach (Lombardi) pulled me over one night and said, 'Don't let anybody fool you. I'll bet you're going to be a Green Bay Packer for a long time.' It was like a vote of confidence for me."

On Tunnell's influence: Wood – "He was a lot of help to me. He knew all the little tricks. How to read patterns, things of that nature. He was my mentor. I'd go every place with him. Em was a big shot. He was sort of a high roller. Everybody always expected him to pick up the tab when he was out and he usually didn't disappoint them."

On what he thought was the best of Lombardi's teams: Wood – "I thought the '62 team was our best team. We started feeling our hits in '65, but we were able to win. In '66 and '67, I just thought we were winning on pure experience, not that the team was that great."

On staying at nearby Fort Benning before preseason games in Columbus, Ga., in 1961 and '62: Wood – "(Lombardi) said he wanted to stay some place where everybody could stay together. When we went to New Orleans for an exhibition game, we had to stay in a different hotel. There was no other option. We had to stay at the black hotel or get the hell out of there. But (Lombardi) said when the contract runs out, he wasn't going to make the Southern trips anymore."

On the Packers playing home games in Milwaukee when Wood was playing: Wood – "I thought we always played well down there as a team. We had to share the locker room with the baseball players. My locker was Hank Aaron's locker. So I'd leave him notes from time to time."

On Lombardi as a disciplinarian: Wood – "There were rules and regulations that he adhered to. Anything relating to the violation of those rules, he'd tighten up on you. Anything else, he was very supportive. If guys had family problems and stuff, he was the guy you went to."

On Lombardi's pre-game speeches: Wood – "He was very good at it. Generally, they were short. Pre-game speeches are designed to motivate you and for the most part he did. I've seen some guys I'd recommend that they didn't do it. All of his were inspiring to the point that you'd look forward to his little pep talks. They were about life in general. He'd associate a story with life itself and he'd tie it into football. But you could probably use it any place."

On Lombardi's role in creating team chemistry that was conducive to winning: Wood – "He was responsible for everything that went on there. It was his team and we were his people. He had complete control over everything. He was a great communicator. All my conversations with him were of a personal nature. We never talked strategy. He let Phil (Bengtson) do all of that."

On Phil Bengtson as a defensive coach: Wood – "I thought Phil was a great, great defensive coordinator. I thought he had a great defensive mind. He was a genius in the way he prepared, his philosophy. If we had problems in the first half, he could make adjustments right away. I thought he was the finest assistant coach."

On Lombardi's role with the defense: Wood – "It wasn't often that he'd say anything to the defensive players. He handled the offense and Phil Bengtson was responsible for the defense. Very often, he (Lombardi) wasn't even aware of what we were trying to do defensively. We'd have meetings and from time-to-time he'd walk into the meetings and chew us out for things the defense called for us to do. He just wasn't aware of what the defense was doing."

Lombardi had that little involvement with the defense? Wood – "Every now and then he'd jump on some defensive players, and most of the time he was wrong and he'd have to admit it in the meetings. He'd apologize."

On fellow safety John Symank: Wood – "He was tough. That was his M.O. He was very physical."

On Hall of Fame cornerback Herb Adderley: Wood – "He was more athletic than anybody we had. He had skills and the mental toughness. A lot of killer instinct in him."

On Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Robinson: Wood – "Very smart. Very athletic. Didn't break down very much. He was exceptional."

On Baltimore's Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas: Wood – "I always had the feeling he understood his offense, understood the game, understood the defense. He understood everything. He seldom made mistakes. So if you played against him, you could not afford to make mistakes. He knew where the weaknesses were and tried to hit you on them."

On Bengtson's failing as a head coach (Wood said he didn't think the players took advantage of Bengtson as much as Bengtson worried about it and sometimes overreacted in meting out discipline): Wood – "As a head coach, I thought it was maybe a little too much for him. I think he sometimes was afraid of that (not being a tough enough disciplinarian) and would strike out (at us) in situations that were uncalled for."

On Dan Devine as a head coach: Wood – "I didn't like him. I didn't think he knew football. I was surprised how they could have hired this guy. He couldn't convince me that he knew what he was doing football-wise. He never really talked football to the team. He'd talk about other stuff, general things about the locker room, order. From time to time, he'd tell us anecdotes about things they did in Missouri. That's what killed me about him. The first time he showed us films of a kickoff team it was at Missouri. All the guys were just floored."

On Devine's motivational skills: Wood – "He didn't have anything. Look, I don't know who hired him or why. He could get those jobs, but I looked at him and said, 'I don't know who hired this guy, but he doesn't know what he's doing.' He maybe had good people with him and was able to put things together. He depended heavily on his assistant coaches in Green Bay. They were the ones who did the coaching. He didn't do any coaching at all."

On whether Devine was intimidated by the Lombardi legacy: Wood – "He'd tell us the Green Bay sweep was really his play and Vince Lombardi got it from him. That's the kind of things he'd say. I don't know if he was trying to belittle Coach Lombardi or enhance his position or what. I don't know. But as a result I didn't like him."

On whether Devine belittled his players: Wood – "We went down to play the St. Louis Cardinals and he told the paper that if (the Packers) had a guy like Larry Wilson, they'd have a much better team and a much better defense. All the guys brought it up to me. That didn't really surprise me. He and (secondary coach) Don Doll were too busy harassing the players; they never got around to coaching." (Note: Wilson played safety for the Cardinals from 1960-'72, the same years Wood played for the Packers except that Wilson played one more year. Both were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)

Wood, 77, lives in a nursing home in Washington, D.C. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2006. The above excerpts were taken from interviews conducted in 2000 and 2001.

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