The neon lettering on the sign in the deserted parking lot radiates the words Title Town Motel in a warm, insistent glow, bathing the entrance to the motel lobby in pink light. The sign seems unremarkable, but in this case looks are deceiving. For in the irony of its name—followed forlornly by the word VACANCY—the Title Town Motel speaks volumes about the past dozen years in Green Bay, Wis.
The motel is about a mile east of Lam-beau Field, where the Packers play. It is managed by Don Schulze, an engaging man with a tattoo of a skunk of his right arm. Sometimes people ask Schulze why he has that skunk on his arm, but mostly they ask him about the name of the motel. And Schulze tells them, explaining patiently to out-of-town guests just what the Packers once were to the NFL and what Green Bay was, too.
"A lot of the people who come in here don't even know what the name means," Schulze says, jerking his skunk toward the sign. Schulze seems to regard the neon sign with a curator's detachment, as if it were a totem from a lost civilization. And in its way, the sign is that. The ownership of the motel has changed hands in recent years, but no one ever got around to changing the name to something a little more current.
"It's just wishful thinking, I guess, that someday the Packers are going to be up there on top again," Schulze says. "People around here still have it in their heads that this is Title Town, U.S.A., and they can't seem to let the idea go."
Indeed, although Green Bay won the last of its 11 NFL championships in 1967, the town still seems to expect that at any minute the Pack will be back, as if it were saddled up and ready to come riding in from Milwaukee. After the post-Lombardi Packers went through seven comparatively mediocre seasons—first under Phil Bengtson, then Dan Devine—there was such a groundswell in 1975 to make Bart Starr the head coach that Starr himself now describes his five-year stewardship of the Packers as "a mandate" from the people.
Last week, however, Starr's constituency seemed to be on the verge of turning his mandate into a vote of no confidence. Then on Sunday, just when it looked as if nothing could save Starr, a Polish placekicker named Chester Marcol decided to try running back a kick—his own kick—and the Packers amazingly won their season opener 12-6 over the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.
As quarterback of the Packers through the dynasty years, Starr had been the embodiment of excellence, intelligence and tenacity. When he became coach, he served as a living touchstone to the past, and even as the losses mounted, his popularity never seemed to wane. When the Packers opened training camp this year and held an autograph day, it was Starr, despite his 26-47-1 won-lost record, who had the longest lines waiting to get his signature.
But it was not far into the preseason before things went sour. The Packers played a 0-0 tie with San Diego and then lost their next four games. They were shut out three times (including the tie), and in their final three exhibitions were out-scored 69-3. The Pack averaged just 63.6 yards per game rushing for those five games. Against Denver in the only preseason contest played at Lambeau Field, Green Bay reached rock bottom, losing 38-0 and getting booed off-the field. For the first time since he arrived as a player in 1956, Starr was jeered by a hometown crowd, his crowd—one fan even poured beer on his head. And for the first time since he had become the Packers' coach, his job appeared to be in jeopardy.
Probably the only thing that had saved Starr this long was the fact that the Packers are a publicly owned team, run by a seven-man executive committee that has always been swayed by public opinion in hiring and firing. "What it boils down to is the fact we couldn't have hired anyone but Bart Starr," said one member of the executive committee. "The fans, media, everybody wanted Bart. They would have hung us if we didn't pick him. Now they're trying to fire him."
Executive Committee President Dominic Olejniczak had once said, "The fans hired Bart Starr, the fans will have to fire him." Last week Olejniczak issued what amounted to a vote of confidence in Starr. "We're conscious of the fact we've got a responsibility to the fans, who are the stockholders," said Olejniczak, "but there's no way we're going to make a rash decision. We never talk in terms of how long Bart has got to turn things around. I think the people of Green Bay were pleased with our decision when we hired Bart, but this thing is really cockeyed. I guess it's a new world today—produce or else."
Starr has remained outwardly unruffled through all the howling for his scalp, always positive that he can work this thing out. He is the last true believer. As a visitor was about to leave his office last Saturday, Starr made a special point to call after him: "If you ever see us with our heads down, you be sure to let us know." Starr has few real friends in the Packer front office, but those who have known him longest say he has never lost sight of his image, never let the mask down. "He's a great one for giving you a positive image all the time," says one longtime Starr watcher, "but inside, all this talk about his job has got to bother him. He'll come into the office all red-eyed in the morning from sitting up all night looking at films, trying to find a way to turn it around, but he never seems discouraged."
Starr says the booing at the last preseason game was a "humiliating experience" and admits he has gotten tired of hearing rumors about his dismissal. "Sure we get down at times," Starr says, using the royal we. "Anyone would. But we haven't lost our sense of humor. The other night I told my wife that I appreciated her love and support during the difficult times of the past few years. She told me if I didn't turn things around pretty soon, I wouldn't have it anymore."
Starr's fortunes began to slide last year, when the Packers suffered one crippling injury after another and finished with a 5-11 record. Eight starters were lost for all or part of the season as a result of injuries that led to surgery, and one result was that Green Bay's offense ranked 25th in both scoring and total yardage among the NFL's 28 teams. Another was that the Packers' defense was the league's worst against the run.
When deep divisions erupted in his team last season, Starr maintained his characteristic aloofness, allowing himself to be drawn into only one dispute. It was a revealing episode. Wide Receiver James Lofton, who had been booed early in the year, gave a Green Bay crowd the finger on one occasion and later referred to the local fans as "a bunch of——." Director of Public Relations Chuck Lane, who had been with the Packers 14 years and was one of Starr's closest confidants, rebuked Lofton publicly for his behavior and then was amazed to have Starr chew him out for criticizing Lofton. Months later, long after Lane assumed the incident had blown over, Starr had Lane fired. Lane was crushed by what he still considers an act of betrayal. "Bart has turned into one hell of a vindictive guy," he says, "a 180-degree turnabout from the man I knew in 1974. Every time I made a speaking appearance or went on one of those radio call-in shows during the past five years, I was defending Bart at every turn. I don't think anybody has ever defended a coach with less ammunition than I had."
Starr also fired Defensive Coordinator Dave Hanner at the end of the 1979 season, and despite Hanner's 28 years with the Packers as a player and coach, Starr didn't offer him another job in the organization. Just when the calls for Starr's head were the loudest last week, Fred vonAppen, the Packers' defensive line coach, announced he was resigning over a matter of principle. VonAppen reportedly was unhappy when Terry Jones and Bob Barber were cut over his objections (Jones, in fact, was re-signed the day after vonAppen resigned), but it was evidently a hot dog that made vonAppen decide that the Packers couldn't cut the mustard.
Following the fiasco against Denver, vonAppen learned that Defensive End Ezra Johnson had been eating a hot dog on the sidelines during the second half. Johnson said he didn't mean anything by it. "I was just hungry," he said. "I didn't wave it around or anything." Johnson was fined $1,000 and apologized to his teammates, but vonAppen apparently wanted more.
"I was deeply disappointed and upset about the symbolism of something like that," vonAppen said. Then he quit, saying only that he had no hard feelings toward Johnson and generally leaving the impression that his grudge was against Starr. "I'm sure some people feel this is extreme," vonAppen said, "but they don't know all that was involved."
"We didn't need that," says Starr of the resignation. "Fred is a man of high principle, but principle is one thing, principle without honor another."
Starr says things like that. One minute he'll be talking about the shotgun offense, and the next thing you know, he's talking about honor and glory. He is still a trim, attractive man, although he has aged perceptibly over the past year. More than anything else, it has been injuries that have grayed Starr's hair. Green Bay opened its season with 13 players on injured reserve, including starting Offensive Tackle Mark Koncar, Quarterback David Whitehurst and second-year Linebacker Rich Wingo, the player around whom Starr had hoped to build his new 3-4 defense. Wingo is out for the year, following back surgery.
With all that as prologue, it was obvious that there was a good deal more riding on the outcome of Sunday's game with the Bears than early foot in the Central Division race. There was a surprisingly festive sellout crowd in Green Bay. The Packers showed their usual lack of consistency on offense, scoring only six points on Marcol field goals of 41 and 46 yards, but the defense seemed to grow stronger as the game progressed. Walter Payton, the Bears' thunderous running back, was limited to 65 yards in 31 carries, and Chicago was held to a pair of field goals by Bob Thomas. At the end of regulation play the score was 6-6.
Then something truly remarkable happened—a play Packer fans will remember through the long winter ahead, a play that may have preserved Starr's job for another year. Chicago received the kick-off to begin the overtime, but Green Bay's defense was unyielding, and the Bears were driven back to their own three-yard line before they were forced to punt. Packer Quarterback Lynn Dickey, who had been sacked four times, lofted a pass from midfield to Lofton for 32 yards. After three running plays, Marcol, who hadn't kicked in a regular-season game since last Nov. 4, when he suffered a leg injury, trotted out onto the field and lined up for a 35-yard field-goal attempt.
The ball never really had a chance to gain altitude because the Bears' defensive wall had closed in by the time Marcol's leg swept into the ball. It came off his foot, disappeared for a moment into a sea of bodies, then popped out suddenly and fell directly into his arms at the 24-yard line. For a moment Marcol seemed confused, but then his legs began to move, his arms started to churn, and he found himself steaming around left end, heading for the end zone. All alone. Touchdown.
It was something. And it meant that, for a while at least, there'd be no vacancy in the coach's office in Title Town, U.S.A.