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Readers ask: What were the Packers thinking?

A GM cut from the cloth of Ron Wolf, Ted Thompson, and Brian Gutekunst would have helped

Former Packers QB Bart Starr and Head Coach Dan Devine
Former Packers QB Bart Starr and Head Coach Dan Devine

Tony from Wisconsin Rapids

You have done an outstanding job, and I cannot tell you how much I enjoy your articles regarding the history of the Packers. My question for you is how did the Packers get so bamboozled by Dan Devine? From your articles, Devine was a terrible coach, didn't relate well with the players, jeopardized the Packers' future with his horrible trades and negotiated a severance package when he already had a contract in place with Norte Dame?

Thanks for being a faithful reader and, yes, you've accurately summed up my take on Devine. More significantly, most of his players felt the same way, as well as executive committee members Tony Canadeo and Dick Bourguignon, among countless others.

So how did the Packers get so bamboozled as you so aptly put it?

The seven executive committee members at the time were in charge of the search. They were all successful local businessmen, including president Dominic Olejniczak who headed the effort, but only Canadeo had a football background.

Unlike the past three decades where general managers – Ron Wolf, Ted Thompson and Brian Gutekunst – have maintained a ready list of potential head-coaching candidates as an ongoing aspect of their job, it's all but a cinch that wasn't being done by anyone following Vince Lombardi's departure as GM following the 1968 season. That not only was another weakness of the Packers' GM-head coach structure, it probably was even more of a detriment in Green Bay with nobody minding the store or front office on a regular basis.

For example, it was through his networking that Brian Gutekunst had Matt LaFleur's name on their list of potential candidates to interview when Mike McCarthy was fired.

There's a conspiracy theory element to the following story, so I haven't totally bought in, but it certainly seems plausible. Several members of the Packers' organization back then told me over the years that someone locally had mentioned to Olejniczak and perhaps others on the committee that Nebraska's Bob Devaney would be worth looking into as Phil Bengtson's successor, and the Packers mistakenly pursued Devine.

At the time, Devaney had connections in Green Bay through his recruitment of a handful of Green Bay West High School players, including his star quarterback Jerry Tagge. And only days before the Packers switched the focus of their search to college coaches, Devaney's Cornhuskers had beaten LSU in the Orange Bowl to finish 11-0-1. Plus, Devaney's winning percentage over his nine seasons at Nebraska was .811. Devine, in turn, was coaching at Missouri, then a Big Eight rival of Nebraska, and was coming off a 5-6 season.

Think about it. You've got two coaches from neighboring states and the same conference with last names that both start with the letters "Dev," and the Packers hired the one coming off a losing season, as well as owning a worse winning percentage – Devine's was .697 in 13 seasons at Missouri.

One of the people who told me that story was Pat Peppler, who had been running the Packers' personnel department for eight years and was the only football man left in the office after Bengtson was fired. Mind-boggling as it might seem, Peppler knew Devine from their days as high school coaches in Michigan, yet he told me that nobody on the executive committee ever consulted with him during the coaching search.

Peppler said he couldn't confirm the story about the mix-up but knew from other coaches that when Devine and Devaney worked together as assistants at Michigan State, then head coach Duffy Daugherty recommended Devine for the coaching job at Arizona State just to get rid of him. "Devaney was a good coach," Peppler told me in 2011. "But Devine was so bad. He coached the secondary, and he didn't know s--- from apple butter about coaching a secondary."

Give Olejniczak credit for this. He first pursued future Pro Football Hall of Fame coach George Allen, who had been fired by the Los Angeles Rams, despite his 49-17-4 record, eight days after the Packers had let Bengtson go. Olejniczak flew to LA and offered Allen the job on the spot following a roughly two-hour interview. But as it turned out, Allen's wife didn't want any part of living in Green Bay. Thus, he took the job in Washington.

Based on my interviews and research that was the extent of Olejniczak's ready list: one name. Once Allen turned down the job, the Packers interviewed three college coaches: Joe Paterno of Penn State, Frank Kush of Arizona State and Devine. Canadeo and Bourguignon pushed to hire Paterno because he reminded them of Lombardi, but they lost out on what was essentially a 5-2 vote.

John Torinus, a member of the executive committee at the time, later said Olejniczak preferred Devine because he had experience as an athletic director at Missouri. Olejniczak thought that would serve him well as GM. And perhaps it did.

Until Devine embarked on his 11th-hour desperation manhunt to find a quarterback, he had hired some good people in the front office – Bob Harlan, Dick Corrick and Bill Tobin, among them – and listened to his scouts for the most part during the draft, leading to some of the best picks in Packers history, starting with John Brockington, Willie Buchanon and Chester Marcol.

Let's not forget, either, that Devine guided the Packers to their only division title between Lombardi and Mike Holmgren, and had a better overall record than Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg and Lindy Infante. But Devine was childishly jealous of Lombardi and obsessed with saving his own hide no matter how much damage it did to the Packers organization.

Thus, most of his players had no respect for him. Basically, what guard Bill Lueck, who played for the Packers from 1968-74, told me about Devine in 2019 was true: "Nobody liked him. You know what it was? We were going to win in spite of him."

Jerry from Atlanta

Would you mind explaining how it was that the fan support for hiring Bart Starr as head coach had such powerful sway over the executive committee? I'm not surprised the fans felt that way (I've talked to several), and I'm aware the team's relationship to the fans is unlike that of any other franchise, but I still don't quite understand how the fans could have been that influential over the executive committee.

First, before I accuse others of being bamboozled on this hire, the question demands full disclosure on my part.

Two days after the Packers and Devine parted ways and less than a week before Starr was hired as his replacement, I wrote in a column for the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "Considering the current state of the Packer franchise, the organization, the players, the fans need someone to rally around and he's (Starr) the logical candidate." I pointed out his lack of experience and named some of the recent great quarterbacks – i.e., Otto Graham, Norm Van Brocklin – who had failed as head coaches. But I was a 27-year-old inexperienced reporter and most everything else I wrote that day was a misfire.

Worse, members of the Packers executive committee were just as blinded by the groundswell of support for Starr as I was.

On the NFL Network's "A Football Life: Bill Walsh," there was a reference to him thinking that he once had a shot at the Packers' job, only to be sabotaged by his boss, Paul Brown. That almost had to be a reference to when Starr was hired in 1974, and it wouldn't be surprising if Walsh applied for the job and thought he had a good chance at landing it. But there's no evidence in our corporate minutes to suggest that he was given any consideration.

Again, without a GM, my hunch is that nobody in the organization had any idea that Walsh might be a rising star in the coaching profession. Moreover, former Packers defensive tackle and then-defensive coordinator Dave Hanner was the only other candidate interviewed, and that was widely viewed as a courtesy interview.

There was no search when Starr was hired, and it was another huge mistake on the part of the executive committee.

He had one year of experience as a coach and none as GM, made some terrible hires when he was putting together his coaching staff, failed at developing players and couldn't arouse his teams to play consistently or above their capabilities. After his first game with the Packers in Starr's seventh season, wide receiver John Jefferson described them as a team that lacked emotion and confidence.

True, Devine's trade for John Hadl was a burden to overcome and injuries to several young, promising players became another obstacle. But Starr's 2-27 record against teams that won 10 games or more, two winning seasons in nine years and 20 losses of 20 points or more were the realities of his reign.

In two of Starr's last three seasons, the Packers controlled their own destiny on the final weekend and blew it.

I covered both games. In 1981, needing a victory to make the playoffs as a wild card, the Packers were overwhelmed by the New York Jets, 28-3. Inexplicably, after the game, Starr, who had no coordinator and was in charge of the offense, couldn't explain why he elected to run left behind backup and undersized tackle Syd Kitson and guard Arland Thompson, a recent street free agent who was starting his first NFL game, on a critical short yardage play when the score was 7-3. Two years later, again needing a victory to qualify as a wild card, the Packers lost to Chicago, 23-21, on a last-second field goal when they couldn't stop a deprived Bears offense – minus Walter Payton – and chose not to stop the clock despite having all three timeouts left.

That said, no failed coach in team history was more loyal to the organization or poured more of his heart and soul into the job than Starr. Despite Starr's 52-76-3 record over nine seasons, almost all of his players held him in the highest regard as a person until the end.

Mike from Franklin, WI

When previously asked who you believed was the worst Packers coach of all-time, you named Dan Devine. But I'm curious how much thought you gave to handing Forrest Gregg that title. Things just seemed to get so bad for the Packers during his time as head coach. He fostered an atmosphere that led to cheap-shots and dirty plays. He jettisoned quality veterans and brought in players with character risks. He threw out an offensive system that moved the ball pretty well in the early '80s for one that immediately brought about a 4-12 season in '86. Between the poor play, suspensions, and off-the-field incidents the franchise's reputation took a nosedive under Gregg's regime. Am I being too critical of that era of Packers football? Or is there merit to ranking Gregg on par with Devine?

The executive committee hired three of the five coaches between Lombardi and Holmgren. Devine was strike one. Starr was strike two. Gregg was strike three. Bengston was hired by Lombardi, and Infante was hired by Tom Braatz with the executive committee's approval.

To decide which of the batch was the worst could be an endless debate. All failed miserably as GMs, and they all had losing records as coaches, although Devine's was better than Starr's, and Starr's was better than Gregg's.

I would agree with you that the Gregg years became an embarrassment to the organization and the community. Hired to be the reincarnation of Lombardi as a disciplinarian, Gregg's teams were glaringly undisciplined.

Then, as you noted, there was the 1986 season and Gregg's Neanderthal approach to offense. Not only were the Packers winless at Lambeau Field, they scored only three touchdowns in their five losses. Imagine that? If there's a special section in heaven for Packers fans, those who sat through all five of those defeats deserve a red-carpet escort to the front row of its luxury boxes.

Incomprehensibly, the Packers' longest touchdown at Lambeau that year was a mighty 6-yard fling from Randy Wright to tight end Dan Ross. The other two TDs also were thrown by Wright and caught by two of the fastest receivers in Packers' history, James Lofton and Phillip Epps, for all of five and three yards, respectively.

That said, I disagree with your suggestion that Gregg blew up a team that shouldn't have been blown up. He inherited an immobile 34-year-old starting quarterback (Lynn Dickey), a quarterback-of-the-future (Rich Campbell) who already had been written off as a bust only three years after being taken with the sixth pick of the draft, an unsettled offensive line and a defense in shambles largely because of poor personnel decisions under Starr.

The harsh reality is that Starr's Packers had peaked at 8-8. Gregg's mistake was waiting two years to blow up the roster he inherited. A Ron Wolf would have come in and cleaned house immediately. In my mind, that was the decision that doomed Gregg from the start.

Also, consider these quotes from three players who certainly never embarrassed the Packers. Ezra Johnson (forget the overblown hot dog incident, he was an all-out player): "The only thing (Gregg) ever encouraged was us knocking the crap out of somebody and playing hard football." Eleven-year safety Mark Murphy: "He treated everybody the same … If you didn't perform, he let you know. But I liked Forrest." Durable and as dependable as they come, 11-year defensive end Robert Brown: "A lot of guys thought Forrest was tough, but he was a fair man and direct."

In summary, I think Devine lost his team for good after his first minicamp and that he might have been the worst Xs and Os coach in NFL history. At the end of Gregg's tenure, the Packers were bankrupt of talent and it was largely his fault. But I thought his teams overachieved more than Starr's and also were more physical.

The bottom line here traces back to my point about networking. Lombardi told the executive committee when he stepped down as coach that the job of coach and GM of the Packers was too much for one person. And the committee failed to heed his advice for more than two decades.