There was a time, especially in the pre-Super Bowl era, when it was mostly quiet on the National Football League’s news front for most of the offseason.
When the NFL Championship Game was played before Jan. 1, the first two months of the year could pass without almost any pro football headlines. For example, the Green Bay Packers never changed coaches over their first three decades and basically had only one assistant coach prior to World War II.
Nevertheless, there were years that came in with a bang for the Packers and here are what were arguably the most memorable in terms of off-the-field news through the first six weeks of a given year.
1. 1950 – The new year started with Curly Lambeau and his third wife, Grace, spending time at their Malibu Beach, Calif., home and club president Emil Fischer enjoying the good life at Miami Beach’s Surf Club. This was one month after Lambeau had survived a heated board of directors meeting where he was promised a new contract.
However, he hadn’t signed it and was still at odds with some of the board’s members.
“No group of men can meet from 12 (noon) to 1:30 (p.m.) once a week during the season and operate properly a corporation like the Packers,” Lambeau said upon his return to Green Bay on Jan. 10. The next day rumors swirled that Lambeau was interested in becoming general manager of the Los Angeles Rams.
Behind the scenes, he also was working with local businessman Vic McCormick on his own plan for a stock sale, one that would offer for-profit shares and turn the Packers into a private corporation.
Meanwhile, when the NFL convened on Jan. 19 for a meeting to discuss further expansion and realignment following the absorption of three All-America Football Conference teams, there was an attempt to turn the Packers into a “swing team” for scheduling purposes, which would have ended their annual home-and-home series with the Chicago Bears. Lambeau vehemently argued it would kill the rivalry and perhaps ruin the Packers financially.
In the end, he prevailed and the Baltimore Colts were made the swing team in a 13-team NFL, while the Bears and Chicago Cardinals were split into opposite divisions and deprived of their home-and-home series.
The annual college draft also was held during the meeting and the Packers selected quarterback Tobin Rote of Rice in the second round.
Back home, as the NFL meetings wound down, Rockwood Lodge, the Packers’ training quarters, was destroyed by a fire, which started in the middle of the afternoon on the day of a rare January thunderstorm. Caretaker Melvin Flagstad blamed the fire on faulty wiring. He survived by jumping out a second-story window, while his wife and two of their young children ran to safety.
With the Packers seemingly embroiled in turmoil, things reached a climax on Feb. 1, when Lambeau resigned 30 years after he had co-founded the team to become coach of the Cardinals.
Less than a week later and 37 days into the new year, the Packers introduced Gene Ronzani as Lambeau’s successor. That same night, Packers stockholders met and authorized the sale of roughly 9,500 additional shares of stock to be sold on a non-profit basis.
2. 1969 – People close to Vince Lombardi knew by training camp the previous summer that he regretted turning over the coaching reins of the Packers to focus on his general manager duties. By the end of the 1968 season, rumors were swirling that he was actively looking for a new challenge.
At the Super Bowl in Miami, there were published reports that Lombardi was going to take over the Philadelphia Eagles. A week after the Super Bowl, Lombardi fueled rumors about him becoming Major League Baseball commissioner. “I think I would have to listen to an offer,” he told ABC’s Wide World of Sports. In Madison, Democrats were sending up trial balloons about Lombardi running for a high state office.
Meanwhile, on the Packers’ front, not much seemed to be happening. A report circulated that Lombardi was ready to begin a rebuilding effort by trading Ray Nitschke, and Forrest Gregg officially announced his retirement, but Lombardi had to little say about either.
Then came the NFL Draft on Jan. 28.
Despite still being general manager of the Packers, Lombardi sat it out while coach Phil Bengtson went against his scouts’ advice by selecting defensive tackle Rich Moore in the first round and following it by taking guard Dave Bradley and wide receiver John Spilis with his next two picks.
It might have been the worst draft in Packers history.
“The worst part was that we went through the process like we always did with Vince and Vince let us alone,” Pat Peppler, director of player personnel at the time, said. “We got it all lined up on the board and Rich wasn’t up there. But when our selection was up, Phil jumps up and says, ‘We’re going to take Rich Moore.’
“He thought he had another Merlin Olsen. I was as upset as I was with anything that had happened in the draft up till then. I left the room and Vince met me sort of in the hallway. Vince knew I was (upset). He said, ‘Pat, I’m sorry, but it’s Phil’s team.’”
Indeed it was. Before the weekend was out, the Washington Post reported Lombardi was headed to the Redskins to become coach, general manager and part owner.
The Redskins wasted no time scheduling a press conference for Monday afternoon, but had to cancel it. For the next three days there was no bigger national news story than Lombardi’s coaching plans as the Packers deliberated over releasing him from his contract.
Finally, it was Thursday before the Redskins rescheduled their press conference and made Lombardi’s hiring official.
3. 1922 – On Dec. 4, 1921, the Packers finished their season in Milwaukee with a non-league game against Racine, hoping to make enough money in what was billed as a battle for the state championship to reduce that year’s financial losses.
In the process, they got caught using University of Notre Dame players who had eligibility remaining under assumed names. The next day, the Racine Journal-News reported on it. “Green Bay has several Notre Dame men from this year’s lineup with her,” the paper noted in its game story.
A week later, Notre Dame’s Athletic Board met and ruled the players ineligible for future competition for playing in a professional game against Racine.
As January unfolded, pressure mounted on American Professional Football Association president Joe Carr to boot the Packers out of the league. Meantime, J. Emmett Clair, who held title to the Green Bay franchise, had moved back to Chicago and severed his ties with the Acme Packing Co., which had been granted the Green Bay franchise in August. In turn, stockholders of Acme Packing elected new officers to oversee the deeply in debt company.
On Jan. 23, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported it was unlikely Clair would field another team in Green Bay, but that he might retain title to the franchise and use it to start a new team in Chicago. At the same time, the paper reported Lambeau was meeting with local businessmen in an effort to keep a team in Green Bay.
On Jan. 28, at an APFA meeting in Canton, Ohio, Clair apologized for breaking the rules and volunteered to withdraw Green Bay’s franchise. League owners essentially booted the Packers out of the league, but left the door open for them to reapply with one caveat. Teams would have to deposit $1,000 in the future as a guarantee against breaking league rules.
4. 1935 – On Jan. 4, club president Lee Joannes, who had been given title to the Green Bay franchise by NFL owners almost two years earlier, announced he was optimistic that business and industrial leaders would raise the $10,000 needed to reorganize the Packers and keep the team in Green Bay.
In mid-December, Joannes had called a meeting where he bluntly told those on hand, “You have been invited here tonight to decide whether the Packer football team shall be retained here, or whether you want to throw it overboard.”
At that point, the Packers had been in receivership for 16 months after losing a lawsuit to a fan who had fallen out of the stands at City Stadium during a game in 1931.
Over the first month of 1935, the Press-Gazette optimistically reported on the progress of the drive until on Jan. 30, The Green Bay Packers, Inc., was organized to replace and assume the assets – player contracts and equipment – of the Green Bay Football Corporation.
Joannes announced the new corporation was made possible when creditors of the old one agreed to accept $6,700 for claims that had totaled $12,332. The stock sale had raised more than $11,000 up to that point, leaving the new corporation with about $3,500 to start preparing for the 1935 season.
At the same time, Lambeau, as usual, was having success recruiting new players in the final offseason before the first NFL draft and pulled off his biggest coup 50 days into the new year when he signed Alabama end Don Hutson.
5. 1992 – This was a tossup with 1959, when the Packers hired Lombardi. The difference was there was little reporting on the coaching search in ’59 until Lombardi was named on Jan. 28.
In 1992, by contrast, newly hired general manager Ron Wolf conducted a coaching search that was thoroughly covered throughout. It also was the first time a football-trained executive conducted a Packers coaching search unless you count Lombardi’s appointment of Bengtson as his successor in 1968.
Wolf fired Lindy Infante on Dec. 22 and held a face-to-face interview with Bill Parcells on New Year’s Day. Wolf and Parcells were well acquainted with each other, and the assumption was that if Parcells wanted it, the job was his.
While Parcells mulled his future for roughly 48 hours before taking himself out of the running, Wolf jockeyed for position in the Mike Holmgren sweepstakes.
Holmgren, the hottest commodity in the league among up-and-coming young assistants, had six suitors. He had interviewed with Wolf on Dec. 29, but also had interviews with the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh, and had three more scheduled.
So there were twists and turns still to navigate.
Wolf was in Hawaii scouting the Hula Bowl, Parcells announced he had changed his mind about coaching again and was now interested in the Tampa Bay job, and Holmgren had spent two days and seven hours interviewing with Indianapolis.
All of this was being reported round-by-round when Wolf quickly made his move and offered Holmgren the job. Holmgren accepted, to the surprise of some, if not many, and was named Packers coach on Jan. 11.
Before the end of the month, he had hired most of his staff, including his coordinators, Ray Rhodes and Sherm Lewis. It was a move that also drew more attention than most assistant coaching hires because it marked the first time in NFL history a team had hired two African-American coordinators.
Then Wolf set out to improve his roster.
On Jan. 30, he completed his first trade, acquiring tackle Tootie Robbins from the Phoenix Cardinals for a draft pick. Eleven days later, exactly six weeks into the new year, Wolf made his second trade. It appeared to be a huge gamble at the time, but turned out to be a blockbuster.
He gave up a No. 1 draft pick for second-year quarterback Brett Favre in a deal that arguably turned out better than any other in NFL history.