January 28, 2010
By the late 1950s, the Green Bay Packers franchise was at a critical juncture. Once one of the perennial powers in the NFL, they had not been over .500 since 1947. The last of the small-city Midwestern teams that had been the bedrock of the league in its early stages, there was grumbling among the hierarchy that perhaps it was time for the Packers to go. The fans were frustrated with losing, and had endured a succession of disappointing coaches since Curly Lambeau stepped aside after the ’49 season.
The most recent of those coaches, Ray “Scooter” McLean, had been forced to resign after a dreadful 1-10-1 campaign in 1958. The directors who ran the team knew that a bold choice was in order, especially after the failure of the genial McLean. While there were several candidates under consideration, respected figures around the league recommended the assistant coach who ran the New York Giants offense, Vince Lombardi.
Lombardi hadn’t been a head coach above the high school level, but he had been an assistant under Red Blaik at Army and Jim Lee Howell with the Giants. He had gained a reputation as intelligent and in the forefront of modern developments in offensive game planning in New York, and had been granted total control of the offense by Howell (Tom Landry exercised similar authority over the defense).
On January 28, 1959 the Packers named Lombardi not only head coach, but general manager – control that the previous coaches hadn’t been given. He made it clear that he was in charge, and that he was used to winning.
The Packers had not been well coached in recent years, but personnel director Jack Vainisi had managed to accumulate some talent. Some of that talent had been misused – most notably Paul Hornung, who had done poorly as a quarterback and fullback – and there were plenty of diamonds in the rough, like QB Bart Starr and FB Jim Taylor. There were solid veterans in All-Pro center Jim Ringo and offensive end Max McGee, and other young players like guards Jerry Kramer and Forrest Gregg (moved to OT), linebackers Ray Nitschke and Bill Forester, offensive tackles Norm Masters and Bob Skoronski, in addition to Hornung, Starr, and Taylor. To that core, Lombardi added rookie Boyd Dowler, a college quarterback who was converted to flanker. He also traded an established star offensive end, Billy Howton, to Cleveland for two young defensive linemen, DE Bill Quinlan and DT Henry Jordan, and also dealt with the Colts for guard Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston. Another acquisition, Lamar McHan, started the season at quarterback. And he acquired 34-year-old safety Emlen Tunnell from the Giants to bring stability to the defensive backfield.
The Packers won their first three games, including a 9-6 home-opening victory over the Bears that had the team carrying the new coach off the field on their shoulders (pictured below). But they then lost five straight games, and Lombardi turned the offense over to Starr for the remainder of the season; Green Bay finished with four wins and an overall record of 7-5. It was good enough for a third-place tie with San Francisco in the Western Conference and was the team’s best showing since 1945.
Hornung’s performance was the most stunning of that first season – he had gone from misfit to versatile standout in the offense, thriving in the option halfback position and handling the placekicking while leading the NFL in scoring with 94 points and the team in rushing with 681 yards. Starr was still developing at quarterback, but had outplayed the veteran McHan. Dowler led the club in pass receiving with 32 catches; McGee was the deep threat, averaging 23.2 yards-per-catch on 30 receptions for 695 yards and five touchdowns. As anticipated, the veteran Ringo anchored the promising offensive line.
The defense emerged as a key asset, with the linebacker corps of Forester, Dan Currie, and Tom Bettis proving to be a very good unit, while backup Nitschke was developing fast. Quinlan and Jordan became stars on the line. Jesse Whittenton emerged at defensive halfback, as did safety John Symank.
The stage was set for a progression to the Western Conference title in ’60 and, in ’61, the first of two consecutive league championships. There would be five NFL titles in all before Lombardi retreated exclusively to the front office following the 1967 season. Several of the young players of that 1959 season would end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As has been pointed out many times, Lombardi was not the most innovative head coach in pro football history, but he was outstanding at adapting other coaches’ methods and was a great teacher and motivator. When it came to the fundamentals, and performing the basics well, Lombardi’s teams excelled. The power sweep was the signature play of his offense over the years, and the Packers ran it with skill because they practiced it relentlessly and executed with precision.
Over nine seasons, the Packers compiled an 89-29-4 regular season record under Lombardi’s guidance, for a .754 winning percentage, and were 9-1 in the postseason. Considering his significant influence on coaching methods and the game in general, his nine years with Green Bay (he also coached one last year in Washington in 1969) seems surprisingly brief. But he set a standard for pro football coaches that others in the years since have sought to measure up to; it is only fitting that the Super Bowl winner’s trophy is named after him.