"Lombardi told us, 'Gentlemen, years from now when the fur coats your wives are wearing are tattered and the rings you are wearing are tarnished, the things you'll remember most are the people you're associated with.' "
-- Bart Starr
The Green Bay Packers have spent the last 18 seasons wandering through the blizzards of winter, like a lonely, homesick clan, in search of that Lombardi magic.
The Pack is Back, they like to say, and if you don't think they mean back to the days of Vince Lombardi then you've got your wool cap strung too tight.
In nine seasons as coach, Lombardi led the Packers to five league titles (1961-62-65-66-67). The locals swore he could make ships sail on dry land.
The Packers have tried everything to rekindle that spirit and with each new failure, the Lombardi legend grows a little bit more.
Their stadium sits on Lombardi Avenue, right next to the Lombardi Plaza shopping center. Across the street from the stadium, you can hear Lombardi's voice on tape and read his sayings at the Packer Hall of Fame.
"Fatigue makes us cowards," says one. "Desire is a hate for your opponent," says another.
Four coaches have been hired since Lombardi went to the Packers' front office after the 1967 season. The first was a Lombardi assistant (Phil Bengtson) and two others were former Lombardi players (Bart Starr and current Coach Forrest Gregg).
Only Dan Devine, who coached Green Bay from 1971-74, wasn't at some time an employe of Lombardi's. Yet even Devine says he tried to use the same slogans on the same locker room chalkboard that Lombardi used, but admits, "I don't think I got it across the same way."
The Packers have won a total of one playoff game in the 18 seasons since Lombardi won Super II in his final year as coach. They haven't been awful since Lombardi, just mediocre, which is an awful thing to be. Their post-Lombardi record is 110-138-8 and, consequently, even though the weather rarely is in the 60s here this time of year, fans' thoughts always are.
Max McGee, the former Packers split end who caught two touchdown passes against Kansas City in Super Bowl I and is a radio commentator for Green Bay games, says, "I know that Vince did not want anyone to succeed after him. He was very egotistical. How would he have felt if Phil Bengtson had won the Super Bowl? Don't get me wrong, Vince liked all of the publicity and he deserved it. He could have continued to win consistently (in Green Bay after he left), but he couldn't have continued to win championships.
"We all got old together and you can't keep winning, drafting 28th every year. I'm not sure that Vince didn't know all of this."
Jim Taylor, the former Packers running back (1958-66) now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, watches from his home in New Orleans and says he doesn't understand the Packers' inconsistency, "how they win one week, then lose by three touchdowns the next."
Willie Davis, the former Packers defensive end (1960-69) also in the Hall of Fame, watches from his home in Los Angeles and says, "I feel a little hurt and sadness on Sundays now when I hear the Packers' scores on TV or read them in the newspaper. It's like something hanging over me. And it seems to have gotten progressively worse."
The Packers are 5-7, again streaking toward nothing but the offseason. The Pack is Back, all right -- seven games back of the unbeaten Chicago Bears.
Tackle Greg Koch, who has been in Green Bay for nine years, says, "Truthfully, the players are getting fed up with (mention of Lombardi). Just the other day, even Forrest said he was tired of hearing the name Lombardi. The worst thing is, we've had the players here over the years. We just haven't done anything with them."
"How many times have I heard the name Lombardi?" says guard Tim Huffman, a fifth-year Packer. "After every loss.
"I don't mean to be disrespectful, but the name Lombardi means nothing to me. When he was performing his miracles here, I was learning to walk and to speak. The man's been dead for 15 years, right? I haven't noticed him performing any miracles over the past 15 years, so he must have been human, right?"
Only a few of the facts keep the Packers from being accurately called the Franchise That Died With Lombardi. The facts may say that Lombardi was Green Bay coach for nine seasons (1959-67), then left the sidelines in 1968 to concentrate solely on his role as Packers general manager. He then left to become part owner/coach of the Redskins for one season (1969), then died of cancer at 58 in 1970.
But who remembers that Babe Ruth played his last year with Boston? Memories are that way.
If the current Packers have grown irritated of hearing about the past, the past Packers have grown even more irritated with the inadequacies of the present.
McGee says, "I remember Lombardi walked into the locker room in his first year (1959) and the first thing he said was, 'If anyone doesn't want to play winning football, get out now.' Nobody moved. Nowadays, all of these guys would walk out of the room. You better have a lot of cabs ready outside."
The Packers had one month-long stretch of embarrassment this season. Their starting quarterback, Lynn Dickey, benched himself for inefficiency. Their coach, Gregg, reportedly kicked over a trash can in the locker room after one loss. One of their assistant coaches reportedly threw a soda can at a linebacker in the locker room following another loss.
"The pressure and frustration mounts and there is a breaking point," says Dickey, a Packer since 1976. "An incident of some kind will usually occur."
Earlier this season, cornerback Mossy Cade was charged with second-degree sexual assault for allegedly attacking a woman at his Wisconsin home. The incident occurred 13 months after receiver James Lofton and a teammate whose identity was never disclosed were accused by an 18-year-old dancer of assaulting her in a Milwaukee tavern. The woman has petitioned for charges to be filed.
Several weeks ago, the Packers lost a three-point lead in the fourth quarter to the Bears in a manner that has become painfully typical:
One Packer, Phillip Epps, inexplicably made a fair catch of a punt at the Packers' four-yard line; then a teammate, guard Ron Hallstrom, was beaten for a sack in the end zone for a safety.
On the ensuing free kick, Joe Prokop (who since has been released) shanked a poor punt that allowed a sizable return; then linebacker Brian Noble tried to tackle running back Walter Payton around the shoulders. Nobody tackles Walter Payton at the shoulders. He bounced off for a 27-yard game-winning touchdown. Chicago 16, Packers 10. And to think Green Bay used to own the fourth quarter.
"It's been that way for us for years," said Ezra Johnson, nine-year Packers defensive end. "The bug comes up and bites us."
Maybe things aren't as bad as when Johnson was fined $1,000 in 1980 for eating a hot dog on the sidelines during a 38-0 preseason loss to Denver. And certainly that did not reach the bottom of the Packers' barrel, which was hit back in 1922 when the team was disciplined for using college players under assumed names and Curly Lambeau, promising to obey the rules, bought the franchise back with his own 50 bucks.
You can add to the 1985 embarrassments the further embarrassment of giving up two touchdowns to Chicago's William (The Refrigerator) Perry, the 308-pound defensive tackle/short-yardage specialist.
"There's incredible frustration," says Huffman, the guard. "Everybody here wants to excel, but we end up getting ridiculed in the national press because we give up touchdowns to a 320-pound pig."
There are paper mills scattered all about Green Bay, a city of less than 90,000 people. It's a good thing, too, since you need pages and pages to chronicle the Packers' post-Lombardi failures.
Bengtson, who had been Lombardi's defensive coordinator, produced a 20-21-1 record in three seasons as his successor. He had inherited an old team. At the time he resigned, he was suffering from a bleeding ulcer.
Now retired and living in San Diego, Bengtson says he felt no pressure from Lombardi's presence. "Vince gave me a couple of suggestions on coaching," he says. "He was sympathetic with my situation and our personnel problems."
Devine, now working for the Sun Angel Foundation, a fund-raising group at Arizona State University, says people today think he followed immediately after Lombardi.
"They always seem to forget Phil," Devine says.
Devine took over for Bengtson in 1971. In his first game at Green Bay, a wide receiver was pushed out of bounds and hit Devine, breaking the coach's leg. One year later, Devine led the Packers to a 10-4 Central Division title, but lost in the playoffs to the Redskins, 16-3.
The low point of the hardly Devine days was certainly the 1974 trade to acquire John Hadl, the sore-armed veteran quarterback of San Diego, in exchange for five top draft picks. It's known to some cynics as the Lawrence Welk trade, since Green Bay gave up, they say, "A one, a two, and a one, two, three." (Translation: Green Bay yielded the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in 1974, and the team's top three picks in 1975.)
Hadl threw nine scoring passes with 29 interceptions over the next two years, then was part of the trade with Houston that brought Dickey to Green Bay. Prior to the last game of the Packers' 6-8 season in 1974, Devine announced he had agreed to become head coach of Notre Dame and departed Titletown with a 25-27-4 mark.
Devine now says, "When I left (Green Bay), I had a better team than anybody realized."
The Packers then hired Starr, the quarterback from 1956-71, who led Lombardi's five title teams. If you can't get Lombardi back, you can at least get a piece of him. It was a good move for public relations, a bad move for the Packers' future.
In eight seasons, Starr compiled a 52-76-3 record. It was nostalgia that got Starr the job, then it was nostalgia that allowed him to keep it so long.
Starr, who is now working with the city of Phoenix in trying to lure an NFL franchise to that city, says his coaching inexperience hurt him. After retiring as a player, he stayed on as the Packers' quarterback coach for one season under Devine, then went into private business.
"I had not planned to coach," Starr now says. "They approached me."
Starr's Packers were plagued by the fact that injuries caused Dickey to miss more than 30 games over the years. The scouting department also made a draft blunder that resulted in the team selecting its supposed quarterback of the future, Rich Campbell (of California), in the first round of the 1981 draft.
Campbell lasted just three years. He threw 68 passes, of which nine were intercepted. He now is a seminarian in Oregon.
The Packers' biggest problem since Lombardi, Starr says, is that they have lacked a dominant leader. The Packers are unique in that they are the only publicly owned franchise in the league. The team has 1,780 shareholders and is governed by a seven-man executive committee, none of whom is paid for services. During a stock drive to help raise funds for the team in 1950, one share of stock cost $25, and it costs $25 today.
"If you look at any sport, the dynasties don't last without great leadership," McGee says. "When you take Lombardi from the Packers, you take away the great leadership."
Says Starr: "The team needs someone who is football-oriented and who is committed to the success of the whole football operation. You need somebody who could maintain the continuity that is necessary for winning. It doesn't necessarily have to be someone in the coaching slot, but someone who would be like an Al Davis. John Madden leaves, Tom Flores comes in and they (the Oakland-Los Angeles Raiders) keep winning. That's not an accident."
Judge Robert J. Parins, team president since 1982, declined to return calls. Tony Canadeo, team vice president, refused to comment for this story.
"I don't think it's any one thing," Gregg said recently, when asked about the Packers' woes. Gregg was hired prior to last season and led the Packers to an 8-8 record in 1984.
Someone suggested that the memory of Lombardi, who once called Gregg "the finest player I ever coached," might be haunting these Packers.
Gregg, the former tackle, said, "I wouldn't say it's haunting. If it bothers anybody, winning now would change that. Those memories won't go away and they shouldn't because they are good memories."
It was only six or seven years ago, Dickey says, that he saw a bedsheet banner in Lambeau Field that read, "Vince never would have done it this way."
Dickey has been with the Packers for half of the post-Lombardi era. He says, "It's been a constant battle just trying to get to .500 and even that won't get what we want. When you have to fight for your life just to get to .500, there is something wrong."
Once upon a time, the snow would fall in Wisconsin and Lombardi's Packers would win. Football weather, they called it.
When the snowflakes fall now, 18 seasons later, nobody calls it football weather. They just say it's cold. Very cold.