Packers.com Staff Writer Mike Spofford makes the case for Curly Lambeau.
Do you call him the most compelling figure in team history, or the most influential, or the most important? Maybe it’s all of the above.
Lambeau wore so many hats. A Green Bay native, he co-founded the team. He saved the franchise in 1922 by buying it back from forfeiture, and then rallied local businessmen to purchase stock the next year to keep the team afloat.
He played and was the team’s first captain, as well as its first head coach. Just the thought of one individual as a player-coach is hard to grasp. It couldn’t be done today, of course, nor in any recent time. Lambeau is an unforgettable representative of a bygone era. He didn’t just hold a number of titles and jobs, either. He excelled in them.
During Lambeau’s decade as a player-coach (1919-29), the Packers never had a losing season. Then in the two decades he coached, following his playing days, the Packers had just three losing seasons (1933 and the last two, 1948-49).
In all, the Packers won six championships on Lambeau’s watch – three straight from 1929-31 and three more in 1936, ’39 and ’44. The last three required NFL Championship games, and Lambeau nearly won a seventh crown, but the Packers lost in the NFL title game in ’38.
In fact, he almost had eight – and four straight – but in 1932, when the league title was still decided by the standings and not a postseason game, Lambeau’s 10-3-1 Packers lost out to the 7-1-6 Bears because ties didn’t count. Count the ties and the Packers’ winning percentage that year was .750 to the Bears’ .714.
In any event, the six titles are the most of any coach in league history, and they were exactly half of the franchise’s total until Mike McCarthy and Co. added No. 13 last season.
Lambeau is a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he’s got the league’s top stadium named after him. Plus, his nickname is such a part of his identity that more people probably know Babe Ruth’s real name than Lambeau’s. (It’s Earl, with the middle name Louis).
There aren’t many individuals who could have played football for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, and lined up in the backfield next to George Gipp, only to have it be a mere footnote to his life story.
What more could be attached to one man?
Sure, it all ended with some animosity, and Lambeau wound up coaching elsewhere to conclude his NFL career, but Vince Lombardi coached elsewhere, too, and Brett Favre played elsewhere, even for a division rival. It happens.
Without Lambeau stewarding the franchise through its first 30 years, there’s no telling what, or if, it would be today.
Packers.com Editor Vic Ketchman says Lombardi is the man.
He saved the franchise. That’s why Vince Lombardi is the most important man in Packers history. Hey, some would say he’s the most important man in the history of professional football.
Green Bay has a football team in the NFL today because fate deigned to bring Lombardi to this town in 1959, and those Packers fans that lived through the dismal years between Lambeau and Lombardi know that opinion to be fact.
The Packers were a listing franchise when Lombardi arrived. The team had won just four games in the previous two seasons, which closed out a grim decade that included two wins in 1949 and ’53, and three wins in ’48, ’50, ’51 and ’57. When wins numbered just one in ’58, the men on the Packers board of directors knew the future of the franchise was in jeopardy. They needed a dynamic figure to reverse the team’s fortunes.
It wasn’t just the team’s fortunes on the field that were suffering, as more than just the Green Bay temperatures were dipping into the teens. A game against the 49ers in ’56 drew just 17,986. The Colts drew just 18,713 in ’53. Attendances for games in Milwaukee were even worse, including 9,657 for a game against the Redskins in ’52.
Lambeau was at war with the executive committee in 1949, which caused him to attempt to assemble a group of investors to purchase the team and move it to Los Angeles. He was unsuccessful in that attempt and for the first time in franchise history the Packers would have a head coach other than Lambeau, and that began nine torturous years that cast the future of the franchise in doubt.
It all came to a head following the ’58 season. The Packers needed a man of strength and vision, and the team turned to Lombardi, the New York Giants’ offensive coordinator and considered to be one of the top assistant coaches in the game. Another such coach, of course, was the Giants’ defensive coordinator, Tom Landry. The two men would later meet in consecutive NFL title games, the second of which is the “Ice Bowl,” a game that defines the Packers and Green Bay.
Lombardi delivered five league championships, including wins in the first two Super Bowls. During the Lombardi years, a new stadium, later to be named for Lambeau, was filled with adoring fans and Green Bay became the epicenter of professional football. In the span of nine seasons, Green Bay went from a team in danger of losing its team, to the toast of the football world.
Who did it? Lombardi did it.
In the process of winning all of those championships and saving football in Green Bay, Lombardi became more than a regional hero; he became the sports heartbeat of a nation and the face of a game whose popularity he helped explode.
“If there was no Lombardi, you’d have to wonder if we’d be here. If there were no ’60s, would we have made sense in the ’70s? I don’t know you’d make it through,” said Packers Vice President Jason Wied, Green Bay born and raised and one of the team’s naturally bred historians.
It’s a popular notion that winning the Super Bowl means more to the Packers than it does to other teams, because the trophy that goes with winning the Super Bowl bears Lombardi’s name.
What if Lombardi had been hired to coach another team?
OK, fans, so who's right?