February 1, 2010

1950: Curly Lambeau Leaves the Packers

February 1, 1950 marked the end of a significant chapter in Green Bay Packers history as Earl “Curly” Lambeau resigned after being the team’s only head coach, going back even before the franchise joined the NFL in 1921. It was the end of a sometimes tumultuous and often successful reign that was undermined by the need for Lambeau to cede more and more control of the team he had founded due to financial considerations.

The story of Curly Lambeau and the Packers began in 1919, when he was in college at Notre Dame playing under legendary Head Coach Knute Rockne and backing up the equally legendary (and ill-fated) fullback George Gip. Because of his ability as a passer, Rockne moved him to quarterback, but a tonsillectomy forced him to leave school. He never went back, taking a job in a meat packing plant in his hometown of Green Bay instead. Glad to be making an income but still wanting to play football, he obtained the backing of his employer, the Indian Packing Company, to field a company team that played others in the area. They were good, often winning by huge scores.

In 1921, the company, which had been bought by the Acme Packing Company, paid for entry into the fledgling National Football League (then called the American Professional Football Association). The team held its own on the field but was in a precarious financial situation, resulting in a corporation being created in 1923 that sold stock to keep the franchise afloat.

Meanwhile, with Lambeau as player-coach, the Packers became the first pass-oriented NFL team. The rules were not favorable to developing a passing offense in the 1920s – passing could only be done from five yards behind the line of scrimmage; an incompletion out of bounds, or two incomplete passes in the same series, meant giving up possession; and the ball was more round and far less sleek than its modern counterpart. Yet Lambeau had the Packers throwing from any point on the field, on any down, and by 1929 they were fielding a championship team.

Lambeau stepped aside as a player in ’29, as the club went 12-0-1 and won the first of three consecutive league titles. Acquiring players who often were considered malcontents with other teams, he won with eventual Hall of Famers Cal Hubbard at tackle, guard Mike Michalske, and the speedy and carefree halfback Johnny McNally (aka Johnny Blood).

In the 1930s, with the arrival of divisional play, rule changes that opened up the passing game, and a slimmer football, the Packers regularly contended in the NFL’s Western Division and won three more championships in 1936, ’39, and ’44. The passing tailbacks who succeeded Lambeau, Arnie Herber and Cecil Isbell, were outstanding and the arrival of trailblazing end Don Hutson in 1935 gave them pro football’s best deep threat to throw to.

Off the field, the franchise still faced recurring financial difficulties. The situation became more acute after 1945 – Hutson retired, and the rival All-America Football Conference (AAFC) went into operation, driving up the cost of talent. The team’s performance began to suffer, and the Packers sank to 3-9 in 1948, the first losing season since 1933 – it was the precursor of things to come. The colorful and excitable Lambeau was increasingly in conflict with the directors who ran the club, especially after buying the Rockwood Lodge outside of town in ’47, a training facility where the players were also housed. Moving the players out of town rankled, and there were complaints that Lambeau’s outside insurance and real estate activities were interfering with his coaching duties.

The financial situation was once again so desperate in 1949 that an intrasquad game was organized for Thanksgiving Day that pulled in enough cash to keep the club afloat. The Packers went 2-10 and the conflict between Lambeau and the team’s directors reached the breaking point. A week before his resignation, the Rockwood Lodge burned down, a symbol of the coming break between founding coach and franchise.

The team’s directors wasted no time in replacing Lambeau with Gene Ronzani, the first of three ineffective head coaches in what became something of a lost decade in the ‘50s for the club. The unwieldy leadership-by-committee structure proved ineffective, and when Vince Lombardi was hired as head coach in 1959, he was also made general manager and given necessary control of the club with outstanding results.

Lambeau also wasted no time in moving on, taking over as head coach of the Chicago Cardinals for the 1950 season. The team went 5-7 in his first season and was 2-8 when he was let go in ’51 after more losses on the field and bickering with the front office. After two seasons in Washington, his coaching career ended following a 6-5-1 showing in 1953. Adept at running single-wing offenses, Lambeau had difficulty adapting to the T-formation, and it showed in the won-lost records.

The bitterness that marked his departure from Green Bay and the mediocre showings with the Cardinals and Redskins can’t overshadow what Lambeau accomplished in 29 seasons with the Packers. His record was an outstanding 209-104-21 for a winning percentage of .668, and the team won six championships in that span – since that includes years when the postseason didn’t yet exist, his playoff record was just 3-2. Of those 29 seasons, only three of them ended with a losing record – two of those being Lambeau’s last two years with the team. Adding in his overall tally as an NFL head coach, he was second only to Chicago’s George Halas at the time with 226 wins against 132 losses and 22 ties. Moreover, his approach to the passing game helped set the stage for today’s aerial-oriented offenses. And he found ways to keep the Packers operating as other small-city Midwestern teams dropped away.

While Lambeau expressed an interest in returning to coach the Packers in 1959, the directors didn’t take the idea seriously and hired Lombardi instead. But Lambeau’s contributions were not forgotton; upon his death in 1965, Green Bay’s City Stadium was renamed Lambeau Field. Just prior to that, in 1963, he was a charter inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.