Lambeau and his legacy; Lombardi's equal


Earl “Curly” Lambeau laid the groundwork for all to follow, not only for Lombardi in Green Bay, but across the entire NFL landscape.
Raymond T. Rivard photograph

June 11 marks the 100th anniversary of Vince Lombardi’s would-be centennial birthday.

He is widely recognized as the savior of the Green Bay Packers organization and universally viewed as the best coach to have ever roamed the sidelines in the history of the NFL. In life, Lombardi exuded a palpable and leviathan aura as a strategic mastermind and curt disciplinarian. He was an exceptional leader of men.

Lombardi was vastly ahead of his time with both the intricacies of his offensive and defensive schemes and his superior attention to detail. What distanced him from his counterparts was how he utilized extraordinary motivational skills to get his players to buy in to the mental and physical tactics of preparation.

Lombardi’s gritty reputation as a tireless worker with a championship pedigree still resonate deeply within the city of Green Bay, across the state of Wisconsin and the 31 other cities that make up the NFL expanse.

The characteristics he displayed as the unquestioned leader of the organization – his commitment to excellence, hard work and total devotion to the team and the town itself – are similarly embodied by generations of Wisconsinites and Packers fans in a constant, living tribute to his reputation as a winner.

Lombardi is dwarfed among his players during his first season. Note the lack of the “G” on the players’ helmets.

Being from Wisconsin and identifying as a Packers fan, or more likely both, are special privileges. Other NFL teams may have been successful, sure. Others may have won championships, may have won Super Bowls, may have their own larger-than-life coaches and may very well have equally-dedicated fan bases. But they don’t have Lombardi. And they never will. And that’s what makes Green Bay what it is and why it’s truly a special place in many facets.

Following his death in 1970 and decades after his last game in Green Bay, Lombardi’s championship legacy still reverberates. The ultimate team award in professional football, the Super Bowl trophy, bears his name; the rhythmic and inspirational quotes he regularly barked from the sidelines, as he implored his teams on to victory, helped him teach players the nuances of the game and more importantly, how to live life; today they serve as cornerstones within the mission statements of countless corporations; Lombardi’s succinct musings about teamwork, pride, effort and purpose equally support the views of executive leaders and management as they motivate entire verticals of employees and staff in industries ranging from food service and banking to education and technology.

Lombardi in a reflective state during Super Bowl II

Ultimately, he understood that the game mattered to people, that it brought communities together, that it gave the working class a strong sense of pride. He knew what the game meant to a place like Green Bay.

In many ways Lombardi was Green Bay and Green Bay was Lombardi. He isn’t revered simply for the incredible accomplishments he attained between the chalk lines that he used to patrol in his trademark fedora and horn-rimmed spectacles, willing his teams  - and his town – on to certain glory. Vince Lombardi is revered because he taught people how to approach life’s challenges, how to overcome them and how to succeed – no matter what.

However, Lombardi’s refinement of Green Bay during the creation of a dynasty in the 1960s (which catapulted Green Bay into the modern era of the NFL) may have overshadowed the pioneering spirit and accomplishments of another man who was directly responsible for creating the Packers in the first place and nurturing the organization during its infancy –  Earl “Curly” Lambeau, who came decades before Lombardi also had a vision of teamwork, unity and championships. He was man who tirelessly preened the organization through constant attention and care so that it could survive. A man with an equally vital role in the first chapter of the storied history of the Packers.

Curly Lambeau in his iconic pose.

Perhaps lost in the celebration and remembrance of Lombardi’s special day combined with the looming, highly-anticipated 2013 season, is the story of Lambeau, an equally prominent character in the annals of Green Bay history. A native of Green Bay, Lambeau was a star athlete at East High School in multiple sports. After a stellar prep career he went on to play a season at Notre Dame University under storied coach Knute Rockne, making the varsity roster as a freshman. However, a bout with tonsillitis forced Lambeau to forgo his commitment to the Irish and he returned home to Wisconsin. Some would say he was lost for a time following his departure from the college gridiron.

However, in 1919, while working as a shipping clerk at the Indian Packing Company, he conspired with George Whitney Calhoun (a sports editor at Green Bay’s Press-Gazette newspaper) to form a professional, independent football team. Calhoun used his connections at the newspaper to publish advertisements imploring people to try out for the team. Lambeau initially solicited his bosses at the Indian Packing Company for money to help fund team uniforms and equipment. He was given $500 under the pretense that the team be named after the company.

The Packers were born.

Lambeau threw the Packers first official forward pass and touchdown.

Their initial campaign in 1919 saw them play mostly independent teams (like the Oshkosh Professionals and the Kaukauna Legion) to finish with a 10-1 record. They lost their final game against the Beloit Fairies. During their inaugural season they scored an astounding 565 points while giving up just two touchdowns. In 1920 they compiled a 9-1-1 record while pitching seven shutouts but again lost to the Fairies. Notably, they played home games in Green Bay on Thanksgiving in both seasons. Those two games are the only times that’s been the case in the 33 total in which they’ve appeared during the holiday matchup over the course of the franchise’s history. In 2013, for example, they will travel to Detroit to face the Lions for their 34th turkey day appearance.

Given their absolute dominance over independent teams during those first two years, the Packers were given a slot in the American Professional Football Association (APFA) and would square up with teams from larger cities like Chicago and Minneapolis – while more than holding their own – a theme that’s seemingly carried over through the years. Green Bay finished with three wins, two losses and a lone draw in APFA action. Following that 1922 campaign they were invited to be among the initial charter members of the newly-created National Football League.

Interestingly enough, Green Bay played those first three seasons in Hagemeister Park which was essentially a sandlot field on the north side of Green Bay. It was located directly across the street from Green Bay’s East High School where Lambeau had starred during his prep career. The field (and subsequently the team) were originally sponsored by the local Hagemeister Brewery in a practice which predated the current multi-billion dollar naming rights industry that permeates the NFL of today.

Lambeau, the player.

Lambeau was a popular player for the Packers as a halfback from 1919-29, operating as both the primary runner and passer. This was typical of NFL teams during the period that ran the single wing offense.

As such, he’s credited with throwing the Packer’s first official forward pass, first official touchdown pass and he also kicked the first field goal in team history. According to Pro Football Reference, during his decade-long stint as a player he started 50 of a possible 77 games. He registered a total of 12 all-purpose (via rush, pass or return) touchdowns. Lambeau booted six field goals and tacked on 20 extra points during his career, finishing with 110 total points scored. While those numbers may seem low by today’s standards, early period professional football games during the Prohibition and pre-World War II eras were often slugfests with a minimum of protective equipment and an excess of braun. Given the disparity between competitive teams and the ones who routinely were shellacked by the Chicago Staleys and Akron Pros of the world, it wasn’t unfathomable for a lower tier independent team to score 40 points or less – in an entire season. Comparatively, Lambeau’s 110 career points were quite an accomplishment. He’s still ranked 53rd on the Packer’s all-time scoring list.

It should be noted that Lambeau had already taken on the role of coach earlier in the decade during the 1921 campaign, leading the Packers to respectable finishes but never winning an NFL title. They came close, falling in the 1927 NFL title game. Lambeau hung up his cleats for good in 1928 and began coaching the Packers regularly in 1929.

Lambeau, the coach.

His inaugural season as the full-time head man in Green Bay saw the Packers finish with their first NFL championship. The Green Bay defense registered an incredible eight shutouts in 13 games. Lambeau led the Packers to a second title in 1930. Green Bay’s third straight NFL championship in 1931 capped a spectacular run which saw the team win a total of 34 games while losing only five with just two draws. During this streak the Packers won 30 games in a row, a lofty record that still stands today.

Notably, Green Bay’s initial three consecutive NFL league crowns are just one of only two times a professional football team has accomplished the feat; the other being turned in by Lombardi who won a trifecta of NFL championships (including the first pair of Super Bowls) from 1965-67. Lambeau would win three more NFL titles (1936, 1939 and 1944) during his career on the sidelines for the Packers and finish with a total of 209 wins against 104 losses with 21 ties. With a .668 winning percentage he is firmly entrenched as the winningest head coach in Green Bay history. During his tenure he coached players such as Arnie Herber, Johnny McNally and Don Hutson – all members of the Hall of Fame.

However, the team that was regularly dominant for extensive stretches in the late 1920s through the early 1940s saw a steady decline, coincidentally tied directly to the retirement of Hutson. At the time he held nearly every major receiving record and some still stand today. Some argue that Hutson was

Don Hutson was one of the best … ever.

better than Jerry Rice – in a leather helmet. Coinciding with his departure from the game was the Golden Age of Expansion following World War II which peaked as returning and retired members of the military spearheaded a period of economic growth in across the nation. Housing, education, employment and families experienced a significant spike.

Mirroring the economic growth embraced by a blissful, post-war America, Lambeau instinctively purchased Rockwood Lodge on behalf of the Packers in 1946. He made the move so the team would have a permanent home for offseason training camp; he saw it as a necessary investment in re-establishing Green Bay among the elite.

Lambeau hadn’t won a championship since 1944 and the purchase of the sprawling country compound on a limestone peninsula cost the team $32,000, an exorbitant amount at the time. This move was met with anger from the Packers board of directors and is widely regarded as the final act that contributed to his demise as the coach of Green Bay.

However, in retrospect and despite the initial resentment, the acquisition of the new property and attempted establishment of training camp ultimately were recognized as groundbreaking front-office practices and served as a barometer for teams moving toward setting up their own respective offseason programs.

Lambeau in front of the lodge.

As the NFL became increasingly competitive following the war, the move, in retrospect, can be seen as extremely innovative. In 1948, the Packers suffered their first losing season since 1933. In 1949, Green Bay won just a pair of games, by far their worst season in team history and Lambeau resigned. He would go on to coach the Chicago Cardinals and the Washington Redskins for four more seasons combined but managed to win just 12 games.

He was fired by Redskins owner George Marshall after an altercation in a team hotel in 1954 thus ending the career of arguably (along with Vince Lombardi) one of the best coaches ever in the history of the NFL.

Lambeau led a comparatively quiet life in retirement, which saw him elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1961 as well as become a charter member of the NFL Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1963 . On June 1, 1965, he passed away suddenly while visiting a friend in Sturgeon Bay,

Lambeau was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the inaugural class of 1963.

Wisconsin. Three months later the Packers honored him by naming their second city stadium Lambeau Field. It’s a name that adorns the hallowed field in Green Bay- where the ghosts of teams past live on in eternity- and always will.

Lambeau is widely credited with inventing the forward pass, establishing daily team practices, implementing pass patterns and travelling to away games by plane – all which are standard routine in the NFL today.

As we celebrate Lombardi in special fashion on the centennial anniversary of his birth, we should also take a look at Lambeau and appreciate what he’s meant over the course of time and during the period that preceded those great teams of the 1960s dynasty. Green Bay’s inception and the stewardship of Lambeau was unquestionably a critical period in the timeline of the franchise.

In terms of the number of championships he won, his indelible impact on the NFL through modern times as well as his influence on the Packers organization from the the beginning, Lambeau undoubtedly should be regarded as Lombardi’s equal.

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