As slapdash and dysfunctional as the Green Bay Packers’ draft process was at times during the 24-year, post-Lombardi tailspin, one of their most decisive selections turned out to be arguably their most devastating from a performance and PR standpoint.
Thirty-eight years ago this spring, Bart Starr emerged from the draft room and declared he took “about five seconds” before naming Bruce Clark as the fourth overall pick in the 1980 NFL Draft.
On the surface, it appeared the Packers had not only filled a need, but had landed the best available player. After all, Penn State coach Joe Paterno had called Clark his most dominant player ever and Dick Steinberg, then director of player personnel for the Los Angeles Rams, had compared Clark’s skill set to former No. 1 draft pick Lee Roy Selmon.
Clark was a 6-foot-2½, 264-pound defensive tackle who still had the speed and quickness of a linebacker, his original position at Penn State.
The draft was held on April 29, 1980. One stormy and unforeseeable month later, the shell-shocked Packers learned Clark had signed with Toronto of the Canadian Football League.
Three years later, when the Packers hit rock bottom defensively with the ever-forgettable nose tackle trio of Charlie Johnson, Rich Turner and Daryle Skaugstad, players and fans alike wanted to deflect criticism toward former team president Dominic Olejniczak, the executive committee or whatever other nebulous scapegoat was convenient at the time; when, in fact, the blame lied solely with the football department as it almost always did during that bleak stretch.
Here was the run-up to the Clark pick and the aftermath.
April 17 – With the draft less than two weeks away, I polled six NFL personnel directors and asked them to predict the Packers’ first pick for a column for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
The consensus was Oklahoma running back Billy Sims would be Detroit’s for-sure No. 1 pick; Brigham Young quarterback Marc Wilson might go second to San Francisco, which had started third-year pro Steve DeBerg over rookie Joe Montana the previous fall; and USC tackle Anthony Munoz wouldn’t likely get past Cincinnati at No. 3.
Five of the six personnel directors offered from one to three names as candidates to be the Packers’ choice; the other proposed five names.
Texas wide receiver Johnny “Lam” Jones received the most votes with four. Wilson, Colorado tackle Stan Brock and Clark each received two votes. At the time, Packers quarterback Lynn Dickey had missed the entire 1978 season and all but five games in 1979 because of a career-threatening leg injury.
Steinberg, who would hire Ron Wolf as his personnel director when he became GM of the New York Jets 10 years later, told me, “Jones to go with (James) Lofton would be a pretty awesome tandem.”
Mike Allman, personnel director in Washington and right-hand man for this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Beathard, predicted Clark would be the Packers’ pick. “I don’t think anybody has any reservations about Bruce,” Allman said. “He can physically dominate.”
Tom Braatz, then personnel director in Atlanta and later personnel VP in Green Bay, predicted Brock over Clark because he didn’t believe the Packers were in position to take a player coming off knee surgery. “Clark might be 80 percent, but to take him with the fourth pick – that’s an awful lot of money,” said Braatz.
Steinberg, alone, questioned if Clark was a nose tackle, a position he had played in only five games in his four years at Penn State.
“I don’t think he can play inside where he has to take people on and read blockers,” said Steinberg. He also noted Clark was short for a defensive end, regardless if it was a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.
April 21-25 – At some point during the week, Starr, then the Packers’ general manager and head coach, headed a contingent, which included director of player personnel Dick Corrick, defensive coordinator John Meyer and local orthopedist Dr. H.A. Tressler, and flew to State College, Pa., to meet with Clark and examine his surgical knee. Tressler, according to Starr, pronounced Clark fit to draft.
April 29 –As expected, the No. 1 pick was Sims, who almost single-handedly turned the 2-14 Lions into a 9-7 playoff contender when gifted and talented rookie running backs often had that kind of impact. The 49ers traded the second overall pick to the Jets, who selected Jones, a 6-0, 175-pound receiver and 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the 400-meter relay. The Bengals drafted Munoz before the Packers snatched Clark.
An elated Starr said shortly after the selection was announced that he expected Clark to be the starting nose tackle in the Packers’ new 3-4 defensive scheme.
Meanwhile, Clark in a telephone interview told the Press-Gazette’s Bob McGinn that might be Starr’s plan, but it wasn’t what he wanted.
“I want to be playing five or 10 years down the road,” said Clark. “But nose tackle has the lifespan like a back. I guess I’m not really sold on it.”
Clark also told John Clayton of The Pittsburgh Press that he had reservations about being picked by the Packers if their plan was to play him at nose tackle. Clark told Clayton he would prefer to play a 4-3 defensive tackle or possibly linebacker.
He said nose tackle still seemed foreign to him.
“You never learn the position when you’re stuck in the middle during the season,” said Clark. “It’s not a position you can learn cold turkey.”
Penn State had moved Clark from defensive tackle to what he called middle guard in a five-man defensive front four games into the 1979 season. Less than a month later, Clark tore a ligament in his right knee in a game against the University of Miami and underwent surgery.
Bear in mind that also was a time when NFL nose tackles were vulnerable to high-low double-team blocks by the two guards on quick passes, being cut-blocked while engaged with another blocker and getting chopped down from the back or side while chasing a play, all things that have since been outlawed.
At the end of the first day’s selections, Corrick told me the Packers started with three contingency plans. Plan A was to take Clark if he was available. Plan B was to take Jones if Clark was gone. Plan C was to take Colorado cornerback Mark Haynes if Clark and Jones were both gone.
Corrick said the Packers had too many questions about Wilson and flunked Munoz on his physical because of his three knee operations.
Starr, on the other hand, told me the Packers were working on a trade with Washington for the 18th pick – they had the 26th choice, acquired from San Diego, to use as trade bait – to draft Wilson until the Oakland Raiders grabbed him at No. 15.
All along in numerous interviews I had with scouts, many of them expressed reservations about Wilson’s stork-like physique – he was 6-5, 204 – and that he was more a polished passer than a strong-armed franchise quarterback in the mold of Terry Bradshaw or Bert Jones.
In fact, before the draft, one of the Packers scouts had told me, “(Wilson) looked like a survivor from the Bataan Death March, but it didn’t bother him on (game day).”
Following the selections, some scouts also revealed Wilson had slipped even further in their minds because of growing concerns over his impassive personality and leadership qualities.
Although Wilson never really established himself as a starter in 10 NFL seasons, the 1980 draft otherwise turned out to be deep and talented.
Among the 28 first-round picks, Munoz and wide receiver Art Monk, taken 18th by Washington, became Hall of Famers. So did center Dwight Stephenson, drafted in the second round by Miami.
Eight other first-round picks became Pro Bowl players, including Sims, tight end Junior Miller (7th choice), Haynes (8th), defensive end Jacob Green (10th), center Jim Ritcher (16th), linebacker Otis Wilson (19th) and cornerback Roynell Young (23rd). The eighth was Clark, who made the Pro Bowl with New Orleans in 1984.
More on that later.
Ray Donaldson, a third center, was drafted in the second round and selected for six Pro Bowls.
May 6 – The Packers introduced Clark to the local media at a hastily scheduled press conference at Lambeau Field. At first, the Packers scheduled the press conference for the next day, but were forced to change it because of a mix-up. Clark had to get back to Penn State for a class and couldn’t stay.
“I’m an easy man to get along with,” said Clark when asked about reports that he preferred to play linebacker. “They’re set at linebacker and they need me at nose guard. That’s fine…I’m willing to give it a shot.” Clark also was asked about a Los Angeles Times story published that morning where scouts had supposedly panned the Packers for taking a “lame tackle” over a much-needed quarterback. “I’m not a lame tackle,” Clark shot back.
What about Green Bay’s small African-American population, a concern of other black players at the time?
“There weren’t too many blacks at Penn State,” Clark answered.
What about money?
“I’m going to stay out of those things like Mr. Starr,” said Clark. “My agent can take care of that.”
Money should have been no object for the Packers, either. The previous night they reported a record profit of $1.85 million.
May 11 – A newspaper report out of New York quoted Dr. James Nicholas, longtime orthopedist for the Jets, as essentially saying he had flunked Clark on his physical. “Clark had a very serious ligament injury,” Nicholas said. “I’ve never seen a guy play effectively with that.”
May 23 – Richard Bennett, Clark’s Washington, D.C., attorney and agent, told me in a telephone interview that morning his client would skip the Packers’ spring camp. Rookies were scheduled to report that night and just a day earlier, the Packers said they expected Clark to be on hand and to participate in most drills.
Bennett said Clark was staying home because the two parties were too far apart in contract negotiations. Bennett also told me that he had held preliminary contract talks with Toronto and had informed Packers corporate general manager Bob Harlan of the development.
May 28 – Harlan learned from a reporter that Clark had signed with Toronto. Later, Starr was walking off the practice field on what was the second day of the veterans’ spring camp when Corrick broke the news to him.
Roughly two hours later, Starr held a press conference. He accused Bennett of using Clark as “a guinea pig.” He blasted Bennett for not giving the Packers a chance to match Toronto’s offer. Starr also defended the Packers’ handling of the negotiations, although he admitted he never feared losing Clark.
Meanwhile, Rick Matsumoto wrote in the Toronto Star that Clark simply didn’t want to play in Green Bay. As for Harlan, he said he had taken Bennett’s CFL threat seriously, although he had not talked to him in five days.
May 30 – Upset over Starr’s comments, Bennett accused him of being “hysterical” and called Starr’s charge that he had selfishly used Clark “ridiculous.”
In the same telephone interview, Bennett told me that while Harlan might have conducted the negotiations, he believed Starr had set the parameters and it created problems in the talks.
“For me the most frustrating matter was that they ask Bob Harlan, a fine gentleman and nice man, to negotiate a contract, but they don’t give him any power or leeway,” said Bennett. “Bart Starr assured Bruce and I more than once that he had nothing to do with figures or contract. He said he was in charge of the football end. But as soon as Bruce signs a contract, I see where Bart Starr comments extensively on our opening negotiations.”
Clark also criticized the Packers while talking to a reporter with the paper in State College, Pa.
“All along I thought they’d have a professional attitude and handle themselves well,” said Clark. “I guess I was a little naïve. I’m used to Penn State, where everything is first class.”
The Packers heard Clark received $1 million over two years from Toronto, which was coached by their former safety Willie Wood. Other sources said those numbers were high.
Bennett told me the Packers hadn’t offered Clark as much as Washington gave Monk, another of his clients and a player drafted 14 slots later who had already signed.
Nov. 14 – Bruce Clark was one of two defensive tackles named to the CFL’s all-Eastern Conference team.
Dec. 27 – Starr was stripped of his GM title during a contentious two-hour 45-minute meeting of the Packers’ board of directors following a 5-10-1 season. Shortly thereafter, Harlan was promoted to assistant to the president.
July 22, 1981 – With Clark entering his second and what figured to be his final season in the CFL, he told the Janesville Gazette he wasn’t going to play nose tackle in the NFL and, therefore, wasn’t likely to play for the Packers.
He also reminisced about his short visit to Green Bay a year earlier and said he wasn’t impressed with the city, echoing what many players, black and white, were saying at the time. Just as it had been during the grim 1950s, Green Bay was considered the Siberia of the NFL.
Worse yet, it had a lousy team with a number of discontented players.
June 10, 1982 – New Orleans obtained Clark’s rights from the Packers in exchange for its No. 1 draft pick in 1983.
Clark played defensive end for the Saints for seven years in a 3-4 scheme and registered 39½ career sacks. He ended his career with Kansas City in 1989. Clark’s best season was 1984 when he had 10½ sacks and made the Pro Bowl.
The Packers used the draft choice a year later to select cornerback Tim Lewis, whose promising career was cut short by a neck injury in his fourth season.
What went wrong for the Packers in this long chain of events?
Harlan has consistently told the same story in several interviews over the years, including one last month.
“As soon as we drafted somebody, I got the name of the agent and his number, and that day that player had an offer on the table,” said Harlan, Clark included.
Did Harlan lowball Clark?
“No, that wasn’t how I operated,” he said.
If anything Harlan was optimistic about the negotiations, partly because the Bengals had taken Munoz the pick before.
“I loved it when Cincinnati had the guy in front of me,” said Harlan. “I know Mike Brown would lowball him and I’d look good.”
Had he previously negotiated with Bennett?
“(Clark) had the same agent that Steve Atkins had the year before,” said Harlan. “We negotiated and it went on and on and on. I think we signed him close to the start of training camp. We had good negotiations, but it took a long time.”
Did Olejniczak or the executive committee set limits in the negotiations or interfere in any way?
“No, I never included Ole in my negotiations,” said Harlan. “If I was having trouble with someone, I’d go to Bart. I wouldn’t put the executive committee into the Bruce Clark thing.”
Harlan said it wasn’t until after Clark signed in Toronto that he was told the nose tackle issue was the hang-up.
“Someone who knew Bennett, or maybe another agent, called and said, ‘That’s why he’s not coming to Green Bay,’” said Harlan. “I said to Dick Corrick, ‘Did Bruce ever mention that (in the pre-draft meeting in State College)?’ He said, ‘Not a word.’ And I said, ‘You told him he’d be our nose tackle?’ ‘Yeah.’”
Was Harlan hearing from agents and especially African-American players back then that they didn’t want to play in Green Bay?
“Yeah, it was a problem at that time,” he said. “(But) Bennett never said to me (Clark) didn’t want to come to Green Bay.”
At 6-2½, Clark’s stock might have dropped several slots, especially in a deep draft, if he had informed teams in advance he didn’t want to play nose tackle. Also, if other teams projected him as only a 4-3 defensive tackle and not an end in either a 4-3 or 3-4, the pool of teams interested would have shrunk even more.
Could Bennett and/or Clark have gotten wind of that and decided not to voice any objections about playing nose tackle prior to the draft?
“Oh yeah,” said Harlan. “I don’t think we would have ever taken him if he had said he wouldn’t play nose tackle. Bennett probably said, ‘Let’s get drafted up there and then make a deal with Toronto.’”
Worse yet, if Steinberg was right about Clark not being a good fit at nose tackle – the Rams were reigning NFC champions and he was widely considered one of the more astute personnel people in the game at the time – Starr and his football staff had tried to fit a square peg in a round hole.