July 26, 2021

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Bart Starr resisted giving up his authority over…

14 min read
Bart Starr resisted giving up his authority over...



Several years ago, I read that in 1978 GM/HC Bart Starr went to the board of directors and said he wished to give up his dual position and continue to serve as head coach only. He recommended that the team hire Ron Wolf, then employed by Tampa Bay, as the new general manager. The board, according to the article, rejected Starr’s offer and he continued to serve in both positions. In “My Life in Football,” Starr’s abbreviated autobiography, he says nothing about this incident. But he is openly apologetic about the two dreadful draft mistakes he made in 1979 and 1981: passing on Joe Montana for defensive tackle Charles Johnson and choosing quarterback Rich Campbell instead of safety Ronnie Lott. If it is true that Wolf could have been Packer GM in 1978, I can’t imagine him passing on these stars. Can you? P.S. – I have been a Packer season ticket holder since 1957.

Let’s set the record straight first, it’s not a true story. I don’t remember when and where, but I’ve heard that story, too. I think it was circulated by others – not Starr – who prefer to blame the Packers’ executive committee for the failures of the 1970s and 1980s. Actually, Wolf told me someone close to Starr told him that story. But they had their facts wrong, as far as where Wolf was working at the time, etc., so he knew it wasn’t true. Players from the 1980s, for example, like to blame former team president Robert Parins for the loss of 1980 No. 1 draft pick Bruce Clark. Some have made Parins the scapegoat for just about everything, but they haven’t gotten the basic facts right, either. Parins didn’t become chief executive officer of the Packers until October 1981 and didn’t become president until May 1982. That was two years after Clark signed with Toronto of the Canadian Football League. Plus, Bob Harlan, who handled the negotiations with Clark, says he never even discussed the talks with Dominic Olejniczak, who was the president at the time. Harlan said the only person he consulted with was Starr, who was still the general manager and called the shots on player contracts. It doesn’t surprise me that Starr never mentioned the Wolf story in his autobiography and, instead, took the blame himself for those ill-advised draft-day decisions. In my 36 years as a sportswriter, I might have interviewed Starr more than anybody else and it wasn’t his nature to pass the buck. Years later, Starr talked about how he regretted not hiring a strong personnel man to handle personnel matters. But I’m assuming when he wrote his autobiography, he remembered how strongly he opposed the idea when he was running the Packers’ football operation. When the board of directors voted to strip him of his general manager duties after the 1980 season, he fiercely resisted it. Blindsided by the decision, that was not his finest hour. He ripped the board members, who were his bosses; initially refused to appear at a press conference; and snapped at Lee Remmel at one point to throw The Milwaukee Journal’s Dave Begel out of the room. While Starr and I had a sometimes adversarial, but mostly respectful relationship, he granted me and Press-Gazette sports editor Tony Walter a personal interview only minutes after the announcement. I asked most of the questions and one was if he would insist on retaining his authority over the draft and personnel matters, despite the board’s decision? “Absolutely. I wouldn’t give it up for a minute,” he answered. When he was then asked point blank if he would work for an experienced football general manager, he answered, “Nope, I wouldn’t even think of it.” That vote was taken on Dec. 27, 1980, less than a week after the Packers had finished the season 5-10-1, their fifth losing season in Starr’s six years as coach. The board meeting lasted nearly three hours and might have been the most contentious in club history other than the 1949 meeting over Curly Lambeau’s status. The executive committee had recommended that Starr be retained in both roles, but there was a block on the 45-member board who wanted to fire Starr that day and his opponents all but took over the meeting. I’ve been told close to 20 board members spoke up and few, if any, expressed support for Starr. In fact, when it appeared the votes might be there to fire Starr, Parins, one of the two newest members of the executive committee and also recently elected vice president, proposed the compromise to keep Starr as coach and replace him as GM. Parins’ recommendation passed, but the battle didn’t end there. Starr continued the fight to maintain his control over player personnel and, less than two weeks later, the executive committee all but reversed the board’s decision. It took away Starr’s GM title, but not the duties. Instead, it decided to give both Harlan and Tom Miller the title of assistant to the president, and allow Starr to retain his authority over all football decisions. With Starr resisting the change, some of the most qualified candidates told various media outlets that they had no interest in the job. But I don’t believe Wolf’s name was ever mentioned as a possible candidate. Nor was there any talk about him becoming GM of the Packers in 1978. During the timeframe you mentioned, Wolf resigned his post with the Buccaneers, where he was promised the authority of a general manager, but had lost a bitter power struggle with then coach John McKay and was headed back to the Oakland Raiders. He certainly wasn’t looking to get into another situation where he’d have to fight daily battles with a head coach. What I learned only after I read our corporate minutes from the 1920s into the 1980s – all executive committee, board and shareholder meetings – before embarking on our upcoming definitive history of the Packers was that Starr also insisted on being given the general manager title and complete control over the organization when he was hired in 1975. Following Dan Devine’s departure, Olejniczak learned through an informal poll of board members that they preferred a separation of powers over football and non-football matters with separate administrators in charge of each. In response, the executive committee followed up by drafting a memorandum of understanding where it outlined a plan to hire a football manager, who would double as coach, and an administrator who would be in charge of the team’s business affairs. Harlan appeared to be the consensus choice for the administrative post, but Starr wanted Harlan to report to him not the president or executive committee. Thus, Starr was basically given the same authority that Vince Lombardi said eight years earlier was too much for one person. By the way, smart decision on your part to buy season tickets in 1957. The Packers were hoping to sell out their new 32,000-seat stadium on a season-ticket basis and engaged in an aggressive drive to do so, but fell roughly 8,000 tickets short. Four years later, when they started winning under Lombardi, the stadium was sold out on a season-ticket basis for the first time and many fans have lived to regret that they didn’t buy tickets earlier. You also got a good bargain out of the purchase. When what is now Lambeau Field opened in 1957, the highest-priced season-ticket package cost $14.25 and the cheapest, $6.75. Unless, of course, you qualified for the kids’ section, like I did. Tickets there cost $2.25. Yes, that’s $2.25 total for three games in Green Bay. The single-game price was 75 cents.

I’m wondering why Bart Starr wasn’t named one of the top 10 QBs of the first 100 years? 9-1 in playoff games, five-time NFL champion, highest playoff QB rating even though three of those games (1962, ’65 and ’67) were in pretty crappy conditions. All he did was show up and win the big games, arguably better than anyone else or at least in the top three with Otto Graham and Tom Brady. Isn’t that how we gauge QBs? He did better in the playoffs than any of those who were named to the top 10. Why would he have been excluded? Regular-season stats? I’ve tried to reach out to several of those on the committee but have not received a response. Would love your perspective. Thanks!

First, let me say this: When I was deeply honored to receive the Bart & Cherry Starr Award two years ago, I devoted most of my speech to all that Starr had overcome to accomplish what you’ve spelled out: From his three years at Alabama, where he started as a sophomore and then basically lost his job; to entering the NFL as a 17th-round draft pick; to three years of being either an understudy or sharing the starting duties in Green Bay; and, finally, two more years where Vince Lombardi waffled over his starting quarterback. It took Starr four years to win his first NFL start and then he became the first quarterback to win five NFL titles. That’s why the point of emphasis in my speech at the Packers Hall of Fame banquet was this: “For any kid or young adult wishing their pursuits or careers were advancing faster than they actually are and getting down or impatient about it, nothing could be more instructive or motivating than Bart Starr’s pursuit of his dream. He epitomized perseverance like few others in his chosen field.” Maybe I should have said, “Like few others in our lifetime.” It’s truly one of the great inspirational stories in sports. I also spend a good share of Chapter 6, the longest in our definitive history, addressing what seemed like a complicated relationship with Lombardi. Take these two quotes, for example, by Lombardi in the last year of his life. 1) “Sonny Jurgensen is a great quarterback. He may be the best this league has ever seen. He is the best (passer) I have ever seen.” 2) “Johnny Unitas has been a great, great, great quarterback. But Starr did the winning in the 1960s. And that is the object – to win.” Lombardi makes the same point you did, on one hand; and then praises Jurgensen as maybe the greatest quarterback in the history of the game, even though he hadn’t guided Washington to a winning season in the five years before Lombardi took over. Before Dallas and Washington met for the first time in 1969 – a matchup of old antagonists, Tom Landry vs. Lombardi, as it was billed – Landry said Lombardi was running the ball more than Washington had done in the past, but also was throwing the ball like he hadn’t in Green Bay. “When you have a quarterback as great as Sonny Jurgensen, it’s only natural that you keep throwing that square-out pattern, which is so hard to stop,” Landry said before the game. You’ve raised an interesting debate. And I’m only guessing, but I can almost hear the discussion in that selection meeting now. On one hand, there were the five world championships as they were called back then. On the other hand, I’m guessing some credited that more to a great coach and a great supporting cast, including 12 Pro Football Hall of Famers as teammates, far more than Brady’s going to have, for example. On one hand, Starr had his best games in the biggest games during the Packers’ three-peat, winning MVP honors in the first two Super Bowls and leading maybe the most memorable drive in pro football history in the 1967 NFL championship, now remembered as the Ice Bowl. On the other hand, he was named the NFL’s all-pro quarterback only once in his career and that was in his 1966 MVP season, and was selected to the Pro Bowl by the head coaches in his conference only once during the three-peat. John Brodie, Fran Tarkenton and Roman Gabriel were picked ahead of him in 1965 and 1967. On one hand, he’s the only quarterback ever to win five championships in a single decade. On the other hand, the role of the quarterback was important when he played, but nothing like the be-all and end-all position it is today. The other quarterbacks who won NFL titles in the 1960s were Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin, who both Lombardi and Starr admitted was the difference in the 1960 title game when the Eagles beat the Packers; Billy Wade of the Bears in 1963; Frank Ryan of the Browns in 1964; Earl Morrall of the Baltimore Colts in 1968; and Joe Kaap of the Vikings in 1969. In turn, when Lombardi came to Green Bay, he built his offense around the left halfback and one play, his particular version of the power sweep. On one hand, Starr still holds the NFL postseason record for best passer rating at 104.8, as you noted. On the other hand, he had some pretty modest stats in some of the Packers’ championship seasons: A 12 to 9 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 1962, 16 to 9 in 1965 and 9 to 17 in 1967. On one hand, I think it’s totally unfair to refer to him as simply a game manager because he was much more than that when he played. On the other hand, many teammates and both opposing coaches and players have said his greatest strength was his preparation and play-calling. With Starr, there were no wasted plays, his backup, Zeke Bratkowski, once told me. Bratkowski coached in the NFL for 26 years, into the 1990s, and he said when coaches started calling the plays, quarterbacks would often run something right into the teeth of the defense. Starr, on the other hand, called his own plays in the huddle and sometimes changed out of them more than 20 times a game at the line of scrimmage, Bratkowski added. Play-calling was as important as any aspect of a quarterback’s job when Starr played. Which raises this point now that quarterbacks almost never call their own plays unless they call an audible. One of my criteria when I was on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee was whether a player would have been a star at any time, for any team, in any system. That was my pitch when I had to make the presentation for James Lofton. Obviously, because of the way the game has changed, it was fair for the committee members to ask: What kind of quarterback would Starr be today? That would have been an unfair question when he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but not in this case when the job of the committee was to compare quarterbacks from all eras. Here’s one other point along the same lines from those championship seasons, 1965-67: Bratkowski was 8-1 in games, including 1-0 in the playoffs, when he started in place of Starr or replaced him with the score tied or the Packers trailing by no more than seven points. The bottom line here is: What’s the definition of greatness? And everybody has their own. You’ve placed a premium on winning championships and made several good points. My feeling is and I wrote this once before, championships should be only one of many considerations in judging quarterbacks. John Elway won two Super Bowls at ages 37 and 38, but none in his first 14 seasons. Would you argue he was a better quarterback in his last two years than he was in his prime? Trent Dilfer and Nick Foles won Super Bowls. Are they better than Dan Marino? Is Eli Manning as good as Peyton Manning because both won two Super Bowls? If the 10 quarterbacks on the NFL’s Centennial team had been picked based solely on championships, I believe these would have been the selections with their number of titles listed: 1) Brady, 7 (only 6 at the time of the vote); 2) Starr, 5; 3 (tie) Red Dunn (he was the last QB in Curly Lambeau’s Notre Dame Box to line up and play much like a T-formation QB), Sid Luckman, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, 4; 7 (tie) Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Troy Aikman, 3; 10) Bobby Layne, 3, but loses on a tiebreaker because he was injured and didn’t play in the 1957 NFL championship. The debate here could go on forever. But what I don’t understand is why Packers fans seemed to have been upset only over Starr’s omission? The two most decorated Packers from the 1960s, aside from those who made the team, were Herb Adderley and Willie Wood. They received numerous plaudits when they were playing for being the best at their positions on championship teams that won with defense more than anything. Yet they didn’t make it either. Or what about Paul Hornung? Lombardi called him his “greatest player.” Ron Wolf, who was on the committee, and I have talked about that. Hornung’s rushing and return stats might not compare to Gale Sayers’ numbers, but without Hornung, the Packers might not have won two of their first three titles under Lombardi. Sayers, who played in 68 games compared to Hornung’s 104, never played on a championship team, yet he made the all-time 100. Personally, I think Sayers is the greatest breakaway back that I’ve ever seen. At the same time, Lombardi is the only coach in NFL history to win five NFL titles in a decade and he considered Hornung not only his best player, but also “the best all-around back ever to play football.”

Greg from Strawberry Plains, TN

I wrote sports in Green Bay in the late 1970s. The rumor was that Chuck Lane, PR director for the Packers at the time, lobbied in a strong way to have Bart Starr as the head coach. Anything to that story? I believe if anyone had an inside scoop on something like that, it would have been you. If true, how much influence would Lane have had with the decision-makers at the time?

Chuck Lane left the Packers as public relations director following the 1974 season to take a job working for Starr as his marketing director. Lane could no longer tolerate working for Dan Devine. After serving as quarterbacks coach in 1972 under Devine, Starr had resigned after that season and spent two years as a television analyst for CBS. You’re right, it was generally understood that Starr had hired Lane to orchestrate a campaign against Devine and to promote Starr as a candidate to replace him. I don’t know that the plan was necessarily aimed at the executive committee, as much as to build a public groundswell so the committee would have little choice other than to name Starr once Devine departed. When the 1974 season ended, the Packers’ executive committee was ready to fire Devine when he accepted the head coaching post at Notre Dame. The Packers, in turn, interviewed two candidates for their opening: Starr and Dave Hanner. And fans got their wish: Starr was named coach. When I asked Lane if he was hired for the purposes you mentioned, he told me, “I had a great deal to do with getting Bart Starr his job. He knows it, I know it and the executive committee knows it.”

https://www.packers.com/news/bart-starr-resisted-giving-up-his-authority-over-personnel-matters