With the upcoming enshrinement of Dave Robinson, 11 members of the Glory Years Green Bay Packers will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“And Coach Lombardi. That’s an even dozen,” said receiver Boyd Dowler, who joined Lombardi in Green Bay in 1959.
That’s half of a team’s starting allotment, which is obviously a lot of talent. So, would the Packers have won as big as they did had someone other than the great Vince Lombardi coached the team?
“Would we have won five world titles with somebody else? I doubt it,” said Dowler, one of several Glory Years Packers participating at the Packers Hall of Fame Golf Classic last week. “I think we would have won. But would we have won five? That’s a tough question. I kind of doubt it. I have some teammates that would say, ‘Hell, yes, we would have.’ I wouldn’t say, ‘Hell, no,’ but I would say probably not. Vince brought that much because he was able to get the same out of us. Basically the team was the same for nine years and he got the same commitment, the same hustle, the same desire, the same concentration, the same ability to make plays when we had to. He got the same out of us beginning in 1959 that he did in 1967. That’s hard to do. That’s hard to keep people’s attention for that long. We ran the same plays. We never got fancy. He never tried to trick anybody. ‘Here we are, stop us.’ Most of the time, it was good enough.”
Legendary guard Jerry Kramer pre-dated Lombardi and also was part of all five of the championship teams. He speaks with passion about the man who would have turned 100 on June 11.
“No. No. No,” Kramer said when asked if the team would have become the game’s enduring dynasty without Lombardi. “He was the energy, he was the burn, he was the hunger, the drive, the want, the fire. He was the attitude. He brought all of that with him. He brought a special spark to the organization, and you played because of that and because of him.”
His former players point to the team’s fortunes before and after Lombardi. In 1958, with the nucleus of the future powerhouse in place, the club went 1-10-1 under Scooter McLean, end Gary Knafelc pointed out. And in 1968 under Phil Bengtson, the three-time defending champions failed to make the playoffs.
“Evidently not because we lost the next year,” Robinson said when asked if the team could have won big without Lombardi.
Center Ken Bowman, on the other hand, thought the talent was good enough to win big – assuming the coach didn’t screw up things. He pointed to the 1972 club coached by Dan Devine, which featured a juggernaut rushing attack of John Brockington and MacArthur Lane. That club won the NFC Central but lost the playoff opener at Washington when Devine stubbornly kept running the ball into the teeth of the Redskins’ gimmick 5-1 defense.
“There are folks on that team that belong in the Hall of Fame when you look at the caliber of players from other teams that have gotten in,” Bowman said. “Would we have, with that caliber of players, won with any other coach? I think there’s a pretty good chance that we would have with that talent as long as the coach did not get in the way. We had a chance to be successful but not as successful because Lombardi was a great orator.”
While Lombardi’s reputation was that of a yeller and screamer, that paints only half the picture. Several of the players pointed to Lombardi’s ability as a master motivator who said what needed to be said.
“His great attribute was he was able to separate his emotions when it came to handling players,” receiver Carroll Dale said. “Even though he was a very emotional individual, he somehow was able to control what none of the other coaches could. (For other coaches), if you won, everything was A-OK, and if you lost, they’d be very critical. Coach Lombardi was able to reverse that. He was able to chew butt when you won big. Fuzzy (Thurston) was quoted one time as saying he went into the locker room after a game and thought he’d gone into the wrong locker room with all the yelling and screaming going on. Somehow, he was able to do that and I think that was one of his great attributes.”
Robinson, too, has numerous fond memories of Lombardi. He’ll have to keep them to a minimum for his Hall of Fame induction speech. The Hall wants the speeches kept to 10 to 15 minutes; Robinson’s first draft ran about 45, he said.
“I lost my father at an early age – my freshman year of high school – and I was looking for somebody who reminded me of my dad,” Robinson said. “Vince was that. He loved his family. He was real firm and strict. When we were winning, nothing was too good. He was just a great guy, very kind-hearted, but when it was time to punch you, he could do it.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.