Building a Dynasty: Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers 1959-64

The following in an excerpt from the book Lombardi: An Illustrated Life by Chris Havel (Krause Publications, 2011).

The Green Bay Packers’ executive committee sought a strong, forceful football man to be the team’s new head coach and general manager. Lombardi did not disappoint.

A proud Packers president Domenic Olejniczak announced the selection of Vincent Thomas Lombardi on Jan. 28, 1959. The news immediately drew praise from NFL insiders such as league commissioner Bert Bell, and legendary coaches George Halas of the Chicago Bears and Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns.

In Wisconsin, the media heartily approved of the hiring and two members of the Packers’ executive committee – Green Bay realtor Richard Bourguignon and former Packers star Tony Canadeo – struck up quick and long-lasting friendships with Lombardi.

Any doubts or concerns about Lombardi’s motives, goals and commitment to winning were addressed immediately. Following the new coach’s first day on the job, a headline in the Milwaukee Journal pronounced “Coach Lombardi Takes Full Command of Packers.” Lombardi set the tone for his career in Green Bay instantly. He rented a house, hired two assistant coaches, reappointed the front-office personnel, ordered remodeling of the South Washington Street offices, addressed the board of directors, met with the media and attended several other meetings, all  in the first 24 hours.

Further, Lombardi spelled out his authority that first day at a noon luncheon with the executive committee members at the Northland Hotel in Green Bay.

“I want it understood that I’m in complete command,” he started. “I expect full cooperation from you people, and you will get full cooperation from me in return. You have my confidence, and I want yours.”

If anyone on the committee had any lingering doubts, Lombardi boldly set them to rest when he told them, “I’ve never been associated with a loser, and I don’t expect to be now.”

Notably impressed, Milwaukee Journal sports editor Chuck Johnson wrote “(Lombardi) is calmly confident and efficient. He knows what he wants and he has no doubt that he will get it.”

Lombardi began getting what he wanted by assessing the Packers’ current roster and deciding who could and could not help the team win. This required a man of vision who knew what his team would look like, and how an individual player’s skill would fit into the overall scheme. That Lombardi did so without prejudice set him apart.

He wanted the best football players, not the best white football players, or black football players, or blue football players. He didn’t care about the color of a player’s skin. He cared about a player’s character and ability.

“I will absolutely tell you Coach Lombardi had more to do with diversity in the NFL than any coach ever,” said Hall of Fame defensive end Willie Davis. “It wasn’t just about getting more black players. It was about putting – on the field – the best team that you could with the best players you could get. I would say at Green Bay, it was all about the 43 football players the coach could get.”

Davis said Lombardi’s feeling toward racism of any kind could be summed up in two words: Zero tolerance. Whether it was prejudice against any group, Lombardi would have none of it.

“I can tell you truthfully that more than a few players were shown out of Green Bay because they weren’t buying in,” said Davis, an African-American. “Coach Lombardi approached it with such honesty and openness that I can tell you, right now, and I played for (famed Grambling Coach) Eddie Robinson and Paul Brown a couple of years, I have never played for a coach with a greater reason of purpose than Coach Lombardi. It really caused me to want to play.”

Lombardi’s attitude was rare for a NFL head coach at the height of America’s Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The Washington Redskins still had a color barrier in 1960, and other teams also were slow to sign black players, but Lombardi told scouting director Jack Vainisi “to ignore the prejudices then prevalent in most NFL front offices in (Green Bay’s) search for the most talented players.”

Lombardi’s acumen as a talent scout is often underrated. He had the ability to project not only whether a player had the necessary ability, but how that player’s skills would fit into the team.

Davis was a perfect example. Selected in the 15th round of the 1956 NFL Player Draft by Cleveland, Davis languished with the Browns as a miscast offensive tackle. Lombardi saw in the cat-quick Davis the ideal defensive end and traded for him.

“I consider speed, agility and size to be the three most important attributes in a successful lineman,” Lombardi told Davis in an impassioned telephone conversation. “Give me a man who has any two of those dimensions and he’ll do OK. But give him all three and he’ll be great. We think you have all three.”

“He absolutely would not get off the phone until I promised I would come to Green Bay,” Davis said. “Coach Lombardi said, ‘Now, Willie, are you going to come to Green Bay?’ And I gave him a soft answer. He said, ‘No, you’re going to come to Green Bay and play left end for us.’ Well, I went to Green Bay. I can honestly say when I picked up the phone I had no idea I’d be going to Green Bay by the time I hung it up.”

Davis repaid Lombardi mightily for his belief in him. From 1960-69, Davis anchored the Packers’ defensive line while playing in six NFL title games and two Super Bowls. Davis never missed a game in his career, earning Pro Bowl honors five times. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.

Willie Wood was an undrafted free agent quarterback from Southern California who in 1960 wrote letters to every NFL team requesting a tryout. Lombardi worked out and signed Wood to a contract. Then he moved Wood to defense. As a free safety, Wood was an opposing quarterback’s worst nightmare, grabbing 48 interceptions during a Hall of Fame career. Wood, an eight-time Pro Bowl defender, also returned 187 punts for 1,391 yards and two touchdowns during his 12-year career with the Packers.

In 1960, Bob Jeter was drafted in the second round by Lombardi, who liked his athleticism and attitude. Jeter was a halfback at Iowa, where he rushed for a Rose Bowl record 194 yards on nine carries against Cal. Lombardi switched the 6-foot-1, 200-pound halfback to cornerback, where he played 11 seasons. Jeter finished with 26 interceptions for 333 yards and two touchdowns in his career.

In 1961, Herb Adderley was chosen by Lombardi with the 12th overall pick in the draft. Adderley was an All-America halfback at Michigan State, but he played sparingly behind the Packers’ tandem of Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. But when defensive back Hank Gremminger was injured midway through the season, Lombardi moved Adderley to left cornerback. The decision was pure genius.

Adderley used his exceptional speed, ball skills and size to become one of the NFL’s greatest ball-hawking cornerbacks. He finished with 48 career interceptions, including seven for touchdowns.

In 1963, Lombardi used the 14th pick to draft Dave Robinson out of Penn State. Robinson was a tight end/defensive end at Penn State. Lombardi coveted Robinson, but he didn’t need a tight end (he had All-Pro Ron Kramer) and he didn’t need a defensive end (he had Willie Davis and Lionel Aldridge). He moved Robinson to left outside linebacker where he took over for Dan Currie as the starter in 1964.

Robinson, an effective but seldom used blitzer, had 21 interceptions and joined Ray Nitschke and Lee Roy Caffey to create one of the NFL’s greatest linebacker units of all time.

Davis, Adderley and Wood are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Robinson and Jeter are widely regarded as being among the best at their position in that era. All are black players who switched positions and became stars under Lombardi’s direction.
Lombardi quickly built a powerful team on both sides of the ball. The Packers’ great defenses of the 1960s were menacing. While they never earned a pithy nickname like the Fearsome Foursome of the Los Angeles Rams, or the Dallas Cowboys Doomsday Defense, or even Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain, Green Bay’s defensive units were just as formidable.

Henry Jordan, the Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle, teamed with Ron Kostelnik to anchor the line. Davis and Aldridge were the bookends in Green Bay’s dominating front four. Nitschke, the Packers’ great middle linebacker, was a menacing, larger-than-life figure on the field whose vicious hits set the defensive tone. Lombardi, who admittedly relished football’s physical nature, surely appreciated Nitschke’s rugged, relentless style.
Nitschke was the first defensive player from the Glory Years to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He finished with 25 career interceptions, a testament to his athleticism.

Quarterback Bart Starr once called Nitschke “a classic example of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” because he was so ferocious on the field and so gentle off it. Lombardi could count on Mr. Hyde showing up each Sunday.

On offense, Lombardi recognized Starr’s limitations as a passer, but realized the studious, serious-minded quarterback possessed incredible leadership skills. Starr’s ability to be the coach on the field, and to adroitly execute the game plan, was priceless to Lombardi.
As former Green Bay Press-Gazette sportswriter and Packers’ public relations man Lee Remmel observed more than once, “Bryan Bartlett Starr would carve up defenses with the precision of a surgeon.”

Starr, a 17th-round draft pick in 1956, possessed the football IQ to execute Lombardi’s game plans, and the mental toughness to accept the coach’s criticism. Starr noted that his father, an Air Force NCO and strong disciplinarian, helped prepare him for his dealings with Lombardi.

Starr was a little-used backup until Lombardi arrived, and even then it took awhile for him to emerge. With five games left in the 1959 season, Starr replaced starter Lamar McHan, leading the Packers to four straight wins to close out the year. Lombardi had found his quarterback. From 1960-67, Starr’s won-lost record at quarterback was 62-24-4 and the Packers won six divisional and five NFL titles, as well as the first two Super Bowls. A two-time Super Bowl MVP, Starr was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

Starr was Lombardi’s kind of quarterback because he stayed with the game plan, treated interceptions as anathema and proved to be exceptionally tough and accurate. Starr’s career passer rating of 80.5 was second only to Otto Graham (86.6) when he retired after the 1971 season. He remains the only quarterback to win five world championships.

Paul Hornung was treading water when Lombardi arrived. The Notre Dame star and Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback was having trouble finding a position in the pro game. Hornung’s reputation as a late-night, carousing bachelor wasn’t helping his image. Then Lombardi arrived and saw something special in Hornung. His respect and admiration for “The Golden Boy” was no secret. Neither was the fact that Hornung’s talent, versatility and unflinching confidence were keys to the team’s success. Hornung was renowned for his outrageous lifestyle, but it was his willingness to work and to lead that made Lombardi proud.

Hornung had a nose for the end zone, and Lombardi deployed him accordingly. Hornung scored 72 touchdowns during his Hall of Fame career. The halfback-kicker totaled a league-record 176 points in the 12-game 1960 season. Lombardi called Hornung “the greatest clutch player” he ever coached.

At fullback, Lombardi deployed the physical and punishing Jim Taylor, whose style was exactly what Lombardi looked for in his fullback. The future Hall of Fame back was a runaway locomotive that produced five straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Lombardi said, “Jim Brown will give you that leg and then take it away from you. Jim Taylor will give it to you and then ram it through your chest.”

Taylor’s fierce style provided an element of toughness on offense that was similar to what Nitschke’s rugged brand brought to the defense. The offensive line remained largely the same under Lombardi. It featured: Bob Skoronski, left tackle; Fuzzy Thurston, left guard; Ken Bowman, center; Jerry Kramer, right guard; and Forrest Gregg, right tackle. “Forrest Gregg is the finest player I ever coached,” Lombardi said. Gregg, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and Pro Football Hall of Famer, starred for 15 seasons as a tough, tenacious and undersized (6-4, 249) technician. He is regarded as one of the NFL’s greatest at his position.

Lombardi, the old lineman, valued his offensive line and strived for flawless execution from it. Gregg, the very best of a dominant unit, almost always delivered without fail. When injuries along the line forced Gregg to play guard for a stretch in 1965, he was selected “all-league” at guard by one major wire service, and “all-league” at tackle by another. He also appeared in a then-record 158 straight games from 1961-67.

Kramer and Thurston powered the Packers’ feared power sweep. While Kramer was one of the Packers’ most talented players, Thurston was one of the most resilient. Each served Lombardi’s greater purpose.

Kramer’s strength and athleticism – coupled with Thurston’s grit and reliability – created one of the NFL’s greatest guard tandems. They also were a great example of Lombardi’s insight into players’ psyche.

Whereas Lombardi frequently encouraged Kramer, he routinely chastised Thurston. The story goes that Lombardi did so because he realized it was what each needed to succeed. Kramer, a bit of a self-promoter, sought his coach’s approval and tended to sulk if he didn’t get it. Thurston, the self-deprecating one, rationalized that Lombardi berated him in front of teammates because the coach knew he could take it.

Together, Kramer and Thurston enabled Starr, Hornung and Taylor to become the only Hall of Fame offensive backfield in NFL history.

Tight end Ron Kramer, a multi-sport star at Michigan and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, also played a key role in the offense. Kramer, as the tight end, was responsible for executing the key block in the sweep. Carroll Dale, Boyd Dowler and Max McGee were the main receivers under Lombardi, who preferred receivers with good size, good hands and good route-running ability. A desire to block wasn’t optional.
Lombardi instilled in his players a belief that they would win.

“That’s one of the things I’ll always remember,” Davis said. “He was so confident we would become winners. He told me that in our first conversation and he meant it. He said, ‘Willie, let me tell you one thing: We’re going to be winners.’ He said it with such force and strength and clarity – with such single-mindedness of purpose – that I believed it.”

On July 23, 1959, before the start of training camp, Lombardi addressed his players in a deep, gravelly voice that resonated with authority.

“Gentlemen,” he began, “we’re going to have a football team. We are going to win some games. Do you know why? Because you are going to have confidence in me and my system . . . By being alert you are going to make fewer mistakes than your opponent . . . By working harder you are going to out-execute, out-block (and) out-tackle every team that comes your way.”

When the meeting was finished, Starr immediately called his wife, Cherry, and said, “Honey, we are going to begin to win.”

Lombardi unveiled his 1959 team in a hard-fought 9-6 victory against Halas’ Bears in front of 32,150 fans at City Stadium in Green Bay. Lombardi’s team followed it up with back-to-back victories to make it a 3-0 start. The Packers lost five straight but, with Starr under center, finished strong at 7-5, which was good for third place in the Western Conference.

Lombardi was voted professional Coach of the Year in a landslide. Meantime, his former boss, New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, was thinking about replacing head coach Jim Lee Howell. Mara approached the Packers about Lombardi’s availability, and Olejniczak even allowed him to talk to the Giants, but nothing came of it. Ultimately, the Packers rewarded Lombardi for a job well done – and his decision to stay – with a $10,000 bonus. He bought Marie a mink coat.

The Packers built on their success, and in 1960, surprised the NFL by going 8-4 to capture first place in the Western Conference. Green Bay met the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFL Championship on Dec. 26 at Franklin Field. The Packers out-played the Eagles but lost 17-13 in a game that was close to the final play. In the waning moments, the Packers drove the field but fell short when Taylor was tackled by linebacker Chuck Bednarik at the Eagles’ 9-yard line as the game ended.

Afterward, Lombardi addressed his team in an even, matter-of-fact tone.

“Perhaps you didn’t realize that you could have won this game,” he said. “We are men and we will never let this happen again … Now we can start preparing for next year.”
Lombardi’s Packers never lost another elimination game.

Green Bay owned the NFL and captivated the country by winning consecutive NFL Championships in 1961 and 1962, and as always, Lombardi was the catalyst.

In 1961, the Packers went 11-3 to easily outdistance second-place Detroit (8-5) in the Western Conference. Then they atoned for the Eagles’ loss by hammering Lombardi’s former team, the Giants, by an unceremonious score of 37-0 in front of 39,029 at City Stadium.

In 1962, the Packers were even better, finishing 13-1 to dominate the Western Conference and set up a rematch with the Giants in the NFL Championship game. The Packers won 16-7 in front of 64,892 fans at Yankee Stadium.

Lombardi’s popularity soared. During the 1962 season, he co-authored the book, Run to Daylight! with Wilfred Charles (W.C.) Heinz, a freelance writer who had been a reporter, war correspondent and sports columnist for the New York Sun.

Lombardi’s insight into his players was especially intriguing. Here are a few excerpts from Run to Daylight!:
Bart Starr: “Tense by nature, because he’s a perfectionist. I’ve never seen him display emotion outside of nervousness. Modest. Tends to be self-effacing, which is usually a sign of lack of ego. You never hear him in the locker room telling ‘I’ stories. He calls me ‘sir.’ Seems shy, but he’s not. He’s just a gentleman. You don’t criticize him in front of others.”

Paul Hornung: “Can take criticism in public or anywhere. You have to whip him a little. He had a hell-with-you attitude, a defensive perimeter he built around himself when he didn’t start out well here. As soon as he had success, he changed. He’s still exuberant, likes to play around, but serious on the field. Always looks you straight in the eye. Great competitor who rises to heights.”

Jerry Kramer: “Nothing upsets him, so you can bawl him out anytime. He’s been near death, but he’s happy-go-lucky, like a big kid. Takes a loss quite badly, though . . .”

Willie Davis: “A hell of a young man. Very excitable under game conditions. A worrier. Before a game he’s got that worried look, so I try to bolster his confidence. He’s not worried about the team losing – he’s got confidence in the team – but he’s worried about how Willie Davis will perform . . .  about not letting the team down. In Willie Davis we got a great one.”

The 1963 season was supposed to be the Packers’ march for a third straight NFL Championship. Instead, it began with Hornung’s one-year suspension for his involvement in a betting scandal, and it ended with the Chicago Bears going 11-1-2 to edge the Packers (11-2-1) for the Western Conference crown.

The 1964 season was going to bring a chance for redemption, but a slew of injuries, mediocre play and two one-point losses wrecked the season. The Packers limped in with an 8-5-1 record, good for a distant second behind the 12-2 Baltimore Colts.

A decade that started with such promise was now going sideways, and Lombardi would have none of it. Losing was not an option.

Order Lombardi: An Illustrated Life today for just $26.40.

2 thoughts on “Building a Dynasty: Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers 1959-64

  1. I will right away take hold of your rss as I can’t find your e-mail subscription link or newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Please let me know so that I may subscribe. Thanks.

Leave a Reply