A man in hisearly 50s, with tattoos on his biceps and a nose that had been punched out ofshape long ago, walked into the sauna in Green Bay, Wis. wearing a bathing suitand looked around curiously, touching the walls and the benches and finally thestones to see if they were indeed hot. "This is the first motel I was everin," he said. "My first vacation in 36 years. We got 11 kids, ninestill home, some of 'em big full-grown kids that don't believe in work but onlyin stealing everything I got. So I says all right, I am going to take off aweek and drive up here and see the Packer game. With Bart Starr as the coachfor the first time, it's a historical event. And my wife says she has to stayhome and take care of the kids. That means I got to travel with my sister, whotells me I smoke too much and do everything wrong. But what the hell, here I amin a motel sauna bath in Green Bay, and I'm gonna see the Packers in real life.In case you don't know it, football is what made this town. Who would ever haveheard of Green Bay if it wasn't for the Packers?"
There are otherattractions around Green Bay, of course. The town is a deepwater port, thecountryside abounds in rivers and lakes, the people drink more beer on theaverage than those 100 miles to the south in Milwaukee. Green Bay is also thetoilet paper producing capital of the world and is a meat-packing center—hencethe Green Bay Packers, so called after the old Indian Packing Company, whichback in 1919 put up $500 for the team's first uniforms and provided a pasturefor practice and games.
Paper mills andpacking houses built Green Bay, but the football team put it on the map formillions of fans, like the man in the sauna, who may never have seen thePackers in real life but view them with almost religious awe. The new highpriest of the Packers—41-year-old Bart Starr, quarterback of fiveworld-championship Green Bay teams—has again aroused those fans, who aredreaming big again, as they did nearly a decade ago when their link withdivinity was Vince Lombardi.
Green and goldbuttons and bumper stickers have sprung up reading THE PACK WILL STARR IN '75;THE PACKERS NEED A GUIDING STARR; A FRESH START WITH BART, and so on. Afterspending 16 years as a player of heroic stature in Green Bay, Starr hasreturned to the Packers as general manager and head coach, the announcementbeing made fittingly enough last Christmas Eve. Probably no first-time headcoach has ever put more on the line. "Bart has everything to win, but healso has an awful lot to lose," says Gary Knafelc, a former Packer end whoroomed with Starr for five years and is now in the office-supply business inGreen Bay. "I'm surprised he accepted the job. Bart has such a wonderfulreputation here that people will expect incredible things of him immediately,and people hate to be disappointed."
August 24, 1975
No one is moreaware of this than Starr himself. He did not want his picture to appear on thecover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED this week, not because he is afraid misfortunewould follow (twice before when Starr was on the cover as a player, the Packerswon it all), but because his role as a savior of the Packers is a difficult oneand so far he has coached only two exhibition games. It took Moses 40 years tostraighten out his mess, but Starr has only a three-year contract.
Starr is in theposition of trying to persuade the fans not to expect too much too soon, whileat the same time convincing the players they can do better than the 6-8-0 and5-7-2 records of the past two years under Coach Dan Devine. Also, maybe evenbetter than the 10-4 record of 1972, the one season Starr was an assistantcoach (under Devine), and the one when the Packers won their sole CentralDivision championship since 1967, when Lombardi left.
"People can'tpossibly know what to expect from me," Starr said one morning last week inhis small, tidy office at Lambeau Field. It is not the big office bu√¨lt forLombardi and later occup√¨ed by Phil Bengtson and Devine; Starr has had theoffices rearranged and has moved himself and the other coaches farther down thehall. "I didn't put in an extended apprenticeship like Chuck Knox [of theRams], and I wasn't even all that close to the Packers the last two years."During that time Starr did commentary on pro football for CBS-TV and mainlyearned his living through speeches, product endorsements, his own distributingcompany in Green Bay and a partnership in auto franchises in Alabama. "ThePackers have a long road back to the top," he said, "but on the otherhand"—Starr grinned, the familiar dimple-chin, high-cheekbone grin seen sooften when he accepted countless plaques and trophies—"I would be hurt ifpeople hadn't responded with enthusiasm. I'm a positive thinker, I don't likenegative thinkers, don't want to be around 'em."
Starr pointed toa quotation framed on his office wall, an excerpt from remarks made in a speechby Lombardi: "The quality of a man's life is in direct proportion to hiscommitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field or endeavor.""That's what I believe," he said. "This job at Green Bay is likeundertaking a personal quest for me. I owe a tremendous amount to the Packers.I want to hear them talked about with pride. I wouldn't be coachingprofessional football if it wasn't at Green Bay. I've been offered several headcoaching jobs for more money than I'm getting here, and on teams that mighthave better players, but those teams aren't the Packers."
The framedquotation is but one of the legacies of the late Lombardi around Lambeau Field.Lombardi Avenue runs in front of the place, and a life-size photograph of himis in the Packer Hall of Fame next door. But there are fewer mementos than onemight expect of a man about whom movies have been made and books written, whois adored by multitudes" for his fiercely spoken beliefs that you ought totrust in God, your family and football, in that order, if you want to be awinner, and anybody who doesn't care about winning had best get off the team atonce and might as well quit the game entirely.
The reason thereare relatively few is that the Packers are as rich in history as they are inmoney, the Green Bay Packers, Inc. being a nonprofit corporation owned by 1,728stockholders who don't get dividends. The public stock sale was held in 1950 torescue the Packers from financial ruin, but by then the team already had suchlegendary heroes as Curly Lambeau, Arnie Herber, Johnny Blood and Don Hutson.In 1959, in his first head coaching job, Lombardi took over a Green Bay team inanother of its periodic declines, and, with the exception of the first season,the Packers beat nearly everybody until 1968, the year after Lombardi quit.After that, the years began to catch up with some of the most importantplayers, like Starr, who lingered for a while.
Starr couldhardly be less like Lombardi in personality, though he tends to think the samein many ways. Like Lombardi, Starr is a pretty good golfer, an 80s shooter,although Starr is perhaps a little better. But although both belonged to theOneida Golf and Riding Club in Green Bay they seldom played together. A formerOneida caddie recalls, "Lombardi was always yelling and throwing clubs, andhe played with noisy guys. He'd rather have played with Paul Hornung or MaxMcGee than with Starr, who was too quiet for him. Starr could play a wholeround with a toothpick in his mouth. Another thing, too, Starr usually carriedhis own clubs, in a fairly big bag, and the other guys rode in carts. I'm sureStarr did it just for the exercise. The caddie fee was $3.50."
There is a filmmade by ex-Green Bay All-Pro Guard Jerry Kramer that stars The Lombardi People.Starr is not one of the featured performers, for no reason other than thatStarr is his own person. "I think the title of Jerry's movie is perhaps aplay on words," Starr said. "But it's indicative that there were a kindof people who were able to stay and perform for Lombardi. He demanded so muchthat those who stayed came to believe what he believed—that by attempting to dothings the way he wanted them done, all this effort and dedication wouldtranscend the locker room and stand them in good stead the rest of theirlives.
"Many peoplefrom Lombardi teams have become successful in other fields. But that funnystory Henry Jordan used to tell at banquets—that Lombardi treated us all equal,like dogs—was only true when Lombardi first came here and wanted to see whocould stick it out and maybe become a notch better than they thought they were.If you stayed, you discovered what the man was really about. He began to treatus as individuals. We all had to work hard and keep the rules, but Lombardiknew some needed sugar and some needed salt. I learned a lot from him in thatarea, I hope. Actually, as a coach he was well suited to my personality as aplayer. I didn't need to be a whipping, tongue-lashing kind of quarterback, thecoach took care of that, and we didn't need two like him. I would pull a playeraside and chew him out if I thought it necessary. But I never did it in frontof anybody else, because I believe a man's greatest asset is hisdignity."
As a player Starrhad the reputation of remaining orderly and cool regardless of thecircumstances. "The pattern was that nobody said anything to him in thehuddle unless Bart asked," says Knafelc. "The worst thing Bart eversaid to you in the huddle was 'Hush up.' Bart is consistent, that's his secret.He can be extremely tough, but he does it quietly. Instead of screaming, hegives you a go-to-hell look that says it all."
Six hours beforeStarr's first game as head coach of the Packers—he insists it was not hisdebut, since it was an exhibition, but maybe he ought to claim it anyhow—hiswife Cherry was stacking groceries on shelves in the kitchen of their home inDe Pere, a few miles south of Green Bay. It is a thickly carpeted,upper-middle-class house, a live-in magazine ad. Zeke Bratkowski, who wasStarr's backup quarterback and now is Green Bay's quarterback coach, lives in asplit-level across the street. The other coaches kid Zeke that he lives thereso it is convenient for him to cut Starr's grass and shovel his snow, but infact Bratkowski is one of Starr's closest friends, and their families takevacations in Hawaii together.
An ornamentalfountain spurts behind the Starr house, and a Great Dane grumbles gently on thelawn. The youngest Starr, Bret, 11, blisters rubber on the driveway with hisminibike. Bart Jr., tall and 17, aiming at a college golf scholarship, amblesthrough the house. Cherry keeps smiling as she recounts how she has given upjogging two miles a day, which she found boring, in favor of tennis. A tanned,well-coiffured woman, slim and pretty, Cherry was Starr's high schoolsweetheart. She says her husband demands that his trousers be hung in thecloset in a certain manner and his shirts arranged in order. "Bart is veryparticular about things," she says. One evening while he was gettingdressed Bart was complaining about having to go out until she reminded him hewas on his way to accept a Mr. Nice Guy award.
The Starrs don'tventure into public much unless it is required, but on Friday nights Bart andCherry often turn up at the Oneida Golf and Riding Club for a fish dinner, abeer for Bart, a Tab for Cherry.
The phone rings.Bart has promised football tickets to some people who drove up to the stadiumin a camper that afternoon and encountered him in the parking lot. Bart arriveshome at that moment in his Lincoln, rushes into the house and says he has foundthe people four tickets, thus winning their Mr. Nice Guy award. Bart sits downand tries to grin. It is now about five hours before the exhibition gamenon-debut, and he is acting calm and patient but is clearly nervous enough tolick the wax off the coffee table. The floor shakes in a series of shudderingslams. "First time I heard that, I thought it was an earthquake,"Cherry says, "but it's only Bart Jr. hitting his punching bag in thebasement. Notice how Bart thought of the perfect place to hang the bag, underthe den." "I'm a very emotional person, but I hide my emotions,"Bart says. "My father was an extremely hard-nosed master sergeant. I wasintroverted as a kid." Starr is now one of the smoothest after-dinnerspeakers who ever toured the circuit, but he has refused nearly all requestsfor speeches and endorsements since he took the Green Bay job. Starr says heapplied for the job after Devine resigned to become head coach at Notre Dame.Dominic Olejniczak, president of the seven-man executive committee of Green BayPackers, Inc. since 1958, made the Christmas Eve announcement that Starr hadbeen hired. "I thought you'd never ask," Starr said to laughter at thepress conference. Mr. O., a former mayor of Green Bay and old pal of Packersfounder Curly Lambeau, had cast the deciding vote against firing Devine earlierin the year.
A story goingaround town is that in the divisional championship season of 1972, Starr asquarterback coach called the plays from the sideline right up until the playoffwith the Redskins in which Devine called the plays and the Packers lost. Starrsays that story is exaggerated, and that he quit at the end of the seasonsimply because he was not content to be an assistant coach. (He had retired asa player in July 1972 after two shoulder operations.)
Starr inheritedsome problems he would as soon have done without, but √¨f they hadn't existedthere might not have been a Green Bay coaching job open in the first place. Thecontroversial trade in the middle of last season for John Hadl—the NFC's Playerof the Year with the Rams in 1973, benched by the Rams in 1974—provided thePackers with an experienced quarterback but deprived them of first, second andthird choices in last winter's college draft and of first and second choices in1976.
"When I gotover the shock of being traded by the Rams, which was a total surprise to me, Iwas sort of flattered by the price I had brought," says Hadl.
Another problemwas last year's deal for All-Pro Linebacker Ted Hendricks. At Green Bay,Hendricks' salary was jumped to $125,000 from the $48,500 he had made atBaltimore, and his option clause scratched out. This year Starr and Hendrickswere "several hundred thousand dollars apart" in their negotiations,and Hendricks has moved on to Oakland. All-Pro Guard Gale Gillingham, 31, quitthe Packers early in training camp, saying he had lost his desire. CornerbackKen Ellis walked out of camp a couple of times over contract disputes,embarrassing Starr by leaving the second time shortly after Bart had praisedEllis in a speech to the team.
But Starr alsoinherited a good defensive unit. The only coach Starr retained from the oldstaff was Defensive Coach Dave Hanner, who now has the unusual title ofassistant head coach. General Manager Starr has handed out titles andresponsibilities in a way that shows either great confidence or none at all.Bob Harlan is the corporate general manager who negotiates player contracts,and Tom Miller, the business general manager, takes care of the otheradministrative details. "I don't want to get deeply involved with businessaffairs," said Starr, "and I wonder if I could sit and haggle with aplayer and his agent for two hours and then be objective about that player onthe field."
Green Bay playerssay that Starr and his staff have been associated with winners and there is noreason to think this relationship will not continue. In fact, the first timethe Packers got the ball two weeks ago in Starr's exhibition game non-debutagainst Buffalo, rookie Willard Harrell ran back a punt 82 yards for atouchdown. A joyful Starr, showing as much emotion as a cheerleader, raced outto the hashmark to congratulate Harrell. Green Bay defeated Buffalo 23-6.
Last Saturdaynight in Milwaukee the Packers won again, squeaking past their traditionalfoes, the Chicago Bears, by a score of 13-9. But Green Bay's lack of artistrymade it easy for Starr to refrain from superlatives. Bobby Douglass, the Bearquarterback, turned out to be a Packer hero when one of his passes wasintercepted in the Green Bay end zone near the end of the half. Hadl then tookthe Packers 80 yards for seven points and a lead they never lost. His play gaveStarr some satisfaction, and Harrell again turned in a creditable game, rushingfor 45 yards in 12 attempts.
No greatquarterback has ever been a notable success as a head coach in the pros,although Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Otto Graham and Sammy Baugh havetried. Starr says he has never considered the reason, but friends say hementions it from time to time. "One thing is, those men coached in bigcities, not in a community like Green Bay," says Bratkowski. "Green Baycould be a Utopia for a coach, and Bart is staying straight on the sidewalk.Just like always, he'll make it."