My Green Bay Packers Mount Rushmore
Of all the blogs and columns I’ve written, this one might be the most controversial. No other topic I’ve written about will likely cause so much disagreement in my beloved home state as this one.
That includes my advocacy of low tax rates to promote economic growth, my assertions that federal government policy is causing too much uncertainty among the people who make hiring decisions, and my belief that if we want to save our entitlement programs from financial ruin, we’d better reform them soon.
Perhaps none of those views is as controversial in Wisconsin as the one I’m about to articulate, because if I were to build a Green Bay Packers version of Mount Rushmore, the artist would chisel the faces of only one former player, and not any of the players you might think. I’ll explain my reasoning later on, but you’ll no doubt notice that my Packers Mount Rushmore does not include the likenesses of Don Hutson, Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Reggie White, or Aaron Rodgers.
So to spark your interest, and no doubt raise your blood pressure, here are the four men whom I consider the Packers equivalent of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt — the men who were absolutely vital to the survival and success of America’s most unique sports franchise.
Ironically, the only player on my Packers monument also happens to be the man who started it all, my fellow Green Bay East High alum Curly Lambeau (he graduated a couple of years before me). He’s not there because of the 10 years he played for the Packers, he’s there for leading this team to six championships as head coach; for refining the passing game (he basically invented pass patterns); for courting and signing the greatest player in franchise history, the aforementioned Don Hutson; and for finding multiple ways of keeping the once rickety franchise afloat financially. To accomplish the latter, he had some help from astute businessmen, but everything else was accomplished due to his own genius and passion for football.
Lambeau would eventually leave the team in a dispute, which occurred in the early stages of the team’s first prolonged winning drought, and even though he gave serious thought to moving the team to Los Angeles, there would be no Packer Sundays, or Lambeau Field, without him.
I could limit this section to a few precious words because anyone who has the Super Bowl trophy named for him needs no explaining, but Vince Thomas Lombardi is considered the game’s greatest coach for reasons that go beyond five championships, a regular season winning percentage of 73.8%, and a playoff winning percentage of 90%. His beliefs, which are reflected in several famous quotations, are still proclaimed by motivational speakers in business seminars, conferences, and boardrooms.
My favorite Lombardi quotation speaks to professional dedication: “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” That might strike some as being too “about the job,” but remember the same man also established each player’s priorities — family, religion, and the Green Bay Packers.
Perhaps the best testimony about his ability to motivate people came from Paul Hornung, one of 11 Lombardi-era Packers who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. About 15 years ago, before the recent induction of linebacker Dave Robinson, Hornung stated that of the 10 Lombardi-era Packers who were then in the Hall of Fame, the only players who would have been in the Hall with or without Lombardi were cornerback Herb Adderley and offensive tackle Forrest Gregg. The rest of them needed Lombardi to get there.
My favorite legend about this legendary coach pertains to the time he phoned President John Kennedy — the two had met during the 1960 Wisconsin presidential primary and Lombardi had Kennedy’s private phone number — and asked for the commander in chief’s help in getting Army Private First Class Paul Hornung temporarily relieved of his duties at Fort Riley, Kan., in time to play in the 1961 NFL Championship Game. Of course, the request was granted and, of course, Hornung went on to star in the Packers’ 37-0 victory.
A congratulatory Western Union telegram, dated Jan. 1, 1962, from JFK to Lombardi is now prominently displayed in the Packers Hall of Fame. Can you name another football coach who had the private phone number of the president of the United States?
For younger fans who’ve only followed the Packers since the mid 1990s, it’s hard to explain how much disarray this franchise was in before Ron Wolf was named GM. In quick succession, he started adding the names that would be associated with the team’s return to prominence — particularly Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre. Reggie White would come a year later via free agency, but the foundation had already been set.
It wasn’t always a smooth ride. In fact, after a career-ending injury to star receiver Sterling Sharpe, most people thought the Packers were up against it. However, the loss seemed to help Favre because it enabled him to focus on reading his receivers’ progressions rather than feeding one ego, and he began to spread the ball around more. Many observers disparaged the team’s 1995 draft, but it plugged enough holes to send them on a run of three straight appearances in the NFC championship Game, two Super Bowl appearances, and one NFL championship.
You can link Wolf to successful periods of three franchises — the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland Raiders, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (he drafted Doug Williams and LeRoy Selmon), and the Packers. His departure from the Raiders basically coincided with their decline, so I’ve always wondered whether Wolf, not Al Davis, was the real reason for their three-decade run of success. They certainly missed him. So did the Packers until Harlan decided to bring back one of Wolf’s protégés.
This is perhaps the most controversial selection because fans of Brett Favre probably will have a stroke, but the fourth and final face on my Packers Mount Rushmore is none other than current GM Ted Thompson. Anybody who has the guts to jettison one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise, in part because he believed he already had the next legend in the making, deserves a spot on this monument.
The decision to trade Favre and move on with Aaron Rodgers ensured the Packers would extend their current run of success for another decade. Think about what would have happened if Thompson had caved during the summer of 2008 and agreed to take back Favre, who had announced his retirement just months before. Aaron Rodgers probably would have been traded or left via free agency, Favre would have retired in a couple of years anyway, and we’d still be searching for the next franchise QB. Sure, we might have gotten lucky with a Colin Kaepernick or a Russell Wilson, but I’d still take Rodgers over both.
Thompson might as well be called the counterculture GM because he doesn’t trust anybody over 30. He understands that in this brutal game, the production of most non-quarterbacks tends to fall off (in some cases dramatically) after age 30, and that’s the reason the Packers stay young. As a result, the Packers keep winning, and they maintain their ability to compete financially.
In placing so much emphasis on the management side, I recall something Corey Chambas, now president and CEO of First Business Financial Services, told me when I first interviewed him. I asked what First Business looks for in a business when it considers lending money. The primary thing is quality management. Without it, a business has no chance to succeed and justify the bank’s faith in the organization.
That’s why my Packers Mount Rushmore has the aforementioned men. Shout-outs also are in order to Jack Vanisi, who helped draft the core group of Lombardi-era Packers before dying of a heart attack at age 33, and to Bob Harlan, who hired both Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson after foolish attempts at giving head coaches total authority. (Listen to Vince Lombardi’s comments when he relinquished the head coaching job; even he knew the game had become too complex for that particular model, but apparently nobody in Green Bay was listening).
Go ahead and take your potshots at some of my selections, but history is on my side. Whenever the Packers have enjoyed quality management, they have prospered on and off the field.
Who would be the four people on your Packers Mount Rushmore?
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