The death of longtime Penn State football coach Joe Paterno Sunday prompted the Green Bay Press–Gazette to a trip with its what-if machine:
Did you know the Green Bay Packers almost hired Joe Paterno as their head coach?
Really, apparently. After the Packers fired Phil Bengtson after three mediocre seasons, the Packers tried, but were unable, to hire recently fired Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen.
That would have been an interesting hire. Allen was hired by the Rams after a successful stint as George Halas’ defensive coordinator in Chicago. Allen had a Wisconsin connection, having attended Marquette University as part of a U.S. Navy officer training program during World War II. Allen was hired, fired and rehired by the Rams before being the full-time replacement for Vince Lombardi in Washington after Lombardi’s death.
It’s ironic that Allen, whose Bears responsibilities included their college draft, was responsible for the Bears’ drafting three Hall of Famers — Mike Ditka, Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers. Once Allen became a head coach, his mantra became “The future is now,” and Allen invariably would trade draft picks for veteran players. (Which may not have been the worst strategy for the Packers given their awful drafts of the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.)
Allen was fired by the Redskins, with owner Edward Bennett Williams famously saying, “George was given an unlimited budget and he exceeded it,” and then a third time by the Rams after two preseason games, with owner Carroll Rosenbloom saying, “He got unlimited authority and exceeded it.” So Allen as a Packer probably would not have ended well, although Packer fans would have preferred Allen’s winning 71 percent of his games to what followed.
So after Allen …
… the Packers interviewed four candidates: Bob Schnelker, who had been an assistant under Vince Lombardi and Bengtson’s offensive coordinator; Arizona State coach Frank Kush; Missouri coach Dan Devine; and Paterno.
It came down to Paterno and Devine.
Two members of the executive committee, Tony Canadeo and Dick Bourguignon, wanted Paterno because he reminded them of Vince Lombardi. Both Paterno and Lombardi grew up in Brooklyn and were Catholics of Italian descent. They knew of each other dating to the 1940s, when Lombardi coached high school for St. Cecilia of Englewood, N.J., and defeated Paterno’s otherwise unbeaten team, Brooklyn Prep, when Paterno was a senior. In the ’60s, Lombardi often consulted Paterno about college players. …
Former Packers great Dave Robinson, who played at Penn State when Paterno was an assistant coach, said last year that Paterno told him he would have accepted if the Packers had offered. A Green Bay Press-Gazette story at the time quoted Paterno saying almost as much.
“There are coaching situations that are unique, and this could be one of those,” Paterno said of the Packers. “It’s a great opportunity.”
But not for Paterno. The Packers’ executive committee voted 5–2 for Devine, who had won 27 games in three seasons at Arizona State and 93 games in 13 seasons at Missouri.
Truth be told, neither Paterno nor Devine nor Schnelker nor Kush would have worked out. (The word “Schnelker” later became a four-letter word for Packer fans who blamed Bart Starr’s offensive coordinator for essentially the faults of the Packers’ offensive players.) Devine accomplished two positive things: (1) his 1972 team won the NFC Central (and then lost to Allen’s Redskins in the playoffs), and (2) he hired Bob Harlan as an assistant.
Devine also accomplished, if that’s what you want to call it, one of the most infamous trades in NFL history — the trade of two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and a third-round pick to the Rams to get quarterback John Hadl. (The trade was known as the “Lawrence Welk trade,” since it involved “a-one and-a-two and-a-three.”) Starr had to clean up that mess by trading Hadl, former All-Pro cornerback Ken Ellis and two draft picks to Houston to get quarterback Lynn Dickey, which meant that Hadl cost five draft picks to acquire and a player and two more draft picks to get rid of him.
Even in the ’70s, though, the majority of successful NFL coaches — Miami’s Don Shula, Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll, Oakland’s John Madden and Dallas’ Tom Landry, to name the four most prominent examples — came from NFL, not college, backgrounds. The Packers’ executive committee labored under the misapprehension that just because Lombardi had been a successful general manager and coach (and truth be told, he was much more successful at the latter part of his title than the former), that his successors could succeed as well.
The fact that Paterno didn’t become anyone else’s NFL coach probably proves that either the rest of the NFL was unconvinced he could be a pro coach (he rejected the Packers after he rejected Steelers’ overtures), or that Paterno decided he had things pretty good in Happy Valley. (I saw Paterno win one of his national championships at the 1983 Sugar Bowl.) But even in the ’70s, the job of acquiring players and the job of coaching players could not be handled by one man, regardless of who answered to whom in the organizational flow chart. (Even in the NFL, coaches are only as good as their players, and the fact that not many Packers the team finally gave up on played elsewhere in the NFL proves that neither Devine nor Starr nor Forrest Gregg could handle the GM parts of their jobs.) Either the Packers’ executive committee was too cheap to hire a GM and a coach instead of a GM/coach, or they drew the wrong conclusion about Lombardi’s success.
The right conclusion would have been to hire a head coach with a primarily pro background, an assistant from a successful NFL team, like Lombardi, former offensive coordinator of the New York Giants. Not until the late 1980s did they finally hire a GM before a coach, and, well, they got the choices right on the second, not first, round. Mike Sherman’s term as GM/coach proved they got it right before, and of course after they fired Sherman (technically twice).
The announcer who got to cover the results of years of managerial ineptitude was Jim Irwin, Wisconsin’s iron-man announcer, who died Sunday night. Consider Irwin’s schedule after he moved from WLUK-TV in Green Bay to WTMJ radio in Milwaukee:
- He did the morning sports report on WTMJ. That, of course, meant getting up before dawn.
- On fall Saturdays, he went to Madison to announce Badger football. He split play-by-play and color with Gary Bender until Bender went to CBS in 1975.
- On fall Sundays, he went to Green Bay to announce Packer football. He did color with Ted Moore and then Bender before getting the play-by-play job in 1975.
- In the winter (after a stint announcing UW–Milwaukee basketball, working with, of all people, Bob Uecker), he announced Badger basketball until 1979, when he replaced Eddie Doucette as the Bucks’ radio voice. Some weekends, he had a Badgers–Packers–Bucks tripleheader.
- Irwin occasionally stood in for Uecker on Brewers broadcasts because of Uecker’s ABC-TV commitments and, during one summer, when Uecker missed time after heart surgery.
Unfortunately, much of Irwin’s Packer and Badger work chronicled ineptitude — not his, but the teams he was covering. During the 1970s, the Badgers had two winning seasons, and the Packers had two winning seasons. In 1988, the Packers were 4–12, and the Badgers were 1–11. Current Badger announcer Matt Lepay said he had a great experience working with Irwin on his last two years of Badger football, even though those two years featured exactly three Badger wins.
Irwin did have some Badger highlights, including three 1980s bowl trips:
Irwin also got to cover the Bucks when they were the fourth best team in the NBA in the early 1980s. (Unfortunately they could never get past the Celtics, 76ers or Lakers.) As an NBA announcer, Irwin was a world champion referee-baiter; I remember him yelling at officials from his courtside seat while doing play-by-play.
Irwin was certainly a homer. But that’s really what Wisconsin fans want, or have gotten used to, dating back at least as far as Milwaukee Braves announcer Earl Gillespie. Wisconsin sports fans want their announcers to want their teams to win; objective down-the-middle announcers don’t last too long here. (And team announcers should want their employers to win if for no other reason than their own professional interests.) Midwest sports listeners generally and Wisconsin sports listeners specifically will forgive not terribly descriptive play-by-play, but they will not forgive lack of passion. There was never a question who Irwin wanted to win.
Either because of Irwin and partner Max McGee’s popularity, or because the announcers CBS had do Packer games were so bad, for years Packer fans would watch CBS (or NBC if an AFC team was playing at Lambeau Field or Milwaukee County Stadium), but turn down the sound and listen to Jim and Max. For years, the pair would do something you’re unlikely to hear again — take calls from fans at the half, sometimes a dangerous thing to do in this state given what usually accompanies Packer games.
Larry McCarren, who worked with Irwin and McGee for their final four seasons, described their style:
“They were part of the fabric of Packers games,” McCarren said of Irwin and McGee, who worked together for 20 years. “They were as much a part of the game as the coin toss, kickoff, blocking and tackling.
“Jim, his individual style, fairly folksy, clearly he was a Packer fan. The thing I really admired about him, the talent I thought was really unique, he could up the intensity without turning up the volume. Some guys that do play-by-play, you can tell something important’s going on, something big’s going on because they just talk louder or holler louder. With Jim, it was intensity that grew and you could tell it was coming right from his core.”
The 25 years of Packer ineptitude Irwin was sentenced to cover was made up, however, by his final seven years, when, miracle of miracles, the Packers became pretty much an instant contender, highlighted by Super Bowls XXXI and XXXII.
I got to meet Irwin at the unveiling of the 1996 Packers highlight video at the Weidner Center in Green Bay, where Irwin’s career highlights were showcased. Irwin and McGee retired after the 1998 season, when Irwin brushed off his 612 consecutive Packer games as being nothing special because, well, “there was no one else.” Had Irwin not been able to announce a Packer game, he added, “You want to see panic, that would be it.”
Irwin also had the ability to laugh at himself. The opening of the “Stories of the Strange” segment of WTMJ’s former Green House show, included Irwin saying “Phil will have allllllll of the stories …” then, laughing, he added, “I’m imitating myself.”
Most Wisconsin-raised announcers around my age grew up listening to Irwin because of all the sports he did, something you’ll probably never see again. (Irwin’s former workload is currently filled by four announcers, WTMJ’s Greg Matzek, Lepay, the Packers’ Wayne Larrivee, and the Bucks’ Ted Davis.) None of us probably consciously patterned ourselves on Irwin (who grew up in Missouri as a fan of Harry Caray), but all of us probably sound something like him. That’s a pretty good tribute to Irwin if you think about it.