This piece was written for ‘Feature Writing’ at UW-Green Bay in fall 2010.
Vince Lombardi brought greatness to Northeastern Wisconsin when he revived a Green Bay Packers’ franchise from shambles in the late 1950s. It was unknown to the city’s residents that his reach spread farther than the front office of the Packers.
While Lombardi’s most publicized achievements came as head coach and general manager of the Packers, his career in the NFL started years earlier, and continued after he left Green Bay. However, his most lasting contribution to the city may be a decision he chose not to make.
Lombardi was a special athletic adviser to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s founding chancellor, Ed Weidner, and he recommended the university forgo the addition of a football team. It was his football resume that qualified him to make the decision.
In 1954, Lombardi accepted a position as offensive coordinator for the New York Giants. He inherited a team coming off a 3-9 season. The former college head coach had his work cut out for him. In the coming years, Lombardi would take the 3-9 squad and turn it into a championship team, beating the Chicago Bears for the league title in 1956.
It wasn’t until 1959 that Lombardi came to Green Bay. Like in New York, the road ahead was a difficult one. In 1958 the Packers went 1-10-1, a franchise worst. After one year, the Packers improved to 7-5 and Lombardi was named coach of the year. The team improved again the next year, making it to the NFL championship game where the Packers would suffer Lombardi’s one and only postseason loss. Lombardi spent nine years in Green Bay, and when he stepped down as head coach he had a 106-34-6 record, including three-consecutive NFL Championships and two Super Bowl victories, an accomplishment that would later go on to be recognized by a trophy etched with his name.
After Green Bay, Lombardi became head coach of the Washington Redskins. While his time there was limited, he led the team to its first winning record in 14 years.
Even with the NFL Championships, Super Bowls, unmatched playoff records, exquisite regular season records and the naming of the Lombardi trophy, Lombardi’s greatest contribution to a city could be the advice he gave to Weidner.
“Most people don’t know this about Vince, but he was very oriented toward universities,” Weidner said in a 2002 interview with the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “He loved the schools he came from. He always thought it was wonderful that we were establishing a university in Green Bay and was perfectly willing to help.”
Weidner had a board of athletic advisers, but Lombardi was separate from that. While he was an official adviser to the chancellor, Lombardi did not run his ideas by anyone but him. Dave Buss, one of the final three candidates to be the first men’s basketball coach, had to be interviewed by Lombardi to get the job.
“I don’t know how often they met, but they met enough,” Buss said. “Once in a while they got together. I think it was more one-on-one, and I think that it was probably by the phone some of the time. When I saw those two together, they seemed pretty relaxed. That’s why I think it was more than just a professional relationship. I think they were friends.”
Due to their positions within the community at that time, the two became friends and had a mutual respect, Buss said. So, when Lombardi advised that the chancellor consider not having a football team, he listened.
“Vince gave advice that the chancellor took,” Dan Spielmann, former legal counsel for Weidner and athletic director from 1984 to 1994, said. “A college football team in this town would struggle with the Packers. In other words, there is so much publicity, so much interest in football, that a college football team, particularly if you were going to be Division I, would be a difficult venture.”
Some theorize Lombardi didn’t want the UW-Green Bay football program to overshadow the Packers’ team he had worked so hard to bring back to the spotlight. Those close to Lombardi and the university do not consider this a part of his reasoning.
“First of all, Lombardi is much bigger than that,” Buss said. “To even think that a football team at Green Bay would be a threat to the Packers is just nonsense. That is so stupid. Goodness gracious. Is St. Norbert overshadowing the Packers at all? That’s such nonsense.”
Unlike Division III St. Norbert, UW-Green Bay would have to give scholarships to its athletes. Spielmann was the athletic director at Northern Michigan before coming to UW-Green Bay, and football is a million dollar a year sport he said.
“You look at football across the country, there are probably forty or fifty programs in Division I that make money,” Spielmann said.
“The rest all lose money. Of course everybody looks at Georgia, Wisconsin, Ohio State and all the big names, but there are a lot of programs that struggle because of football. In retrospect, I think it was the right decision.”
Buss said it costs so much to run a football that it would hinder the development of any other sport.
UW-Stout and UW-Green Bay are similar-sized campuses with a large number of commuter students. UW-Stout has had a Division III football program for about 90 years, and while there are no plans to discontinue it, UW-Stout Chancellor Charles Sorensen can relate to the process Lombardi and Weidner had to go through during the founding years of UW-Green Bay.
“The program has its ups and downs, believe me,” Sorensen said. “There is an expense. We’re Division III, so we don’t give scholarships. If you were a Division II scholarship program, to be competitive you would have to raise a lot of private dollars to go out and recruit athletes.”
Expenses for football don’t stop at scholarships either. UW-Stout built a new stadium ten years ago, and there was a time when players had to buy their own shoes and helmets.
“There is a cost to it,” Sorensen said. “I don’t disagree with that, but I think it adds more to the campus than the cost.”
Lombardi recommended soccer take the place of football. At the time it was a good fit because it was coming into its own and didn’t require the financial support that a sport like football did, Spielmann said. Soccer was the correct decision financially, but some students feel that the lack of football may take away from their college experience.
Katie Sawyer, a junior communication major at UW-Green Bay, also attended UW-Whitewater, a campus with a traditional homecoming celebration that includes a football game.
“It’s really too bad we don’t have a football team here,” Sawyer said. “Having attended other universities, homecoming week was a really exciting time where the university put together activities for the students to take part in, and it all culminated with the big homecoming football game. It created a lot more school spirit and pride I think UW-Green Bay could only benefit from.”
Just because the campus doesn’t have a program right now, doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be one in the future. UW-Stout added a football program about 40 years after its founding. That same scenario is unlikely for UW-Green Bay though.
“If we had 20,000 students,” Spielmann said. “I think that’s the only way you could really support a team. Student fees would help support it. We’d have to go to a difference conference. I don’t think the Big 10 is going to be it.”
Weidner and Lombardi understood the importance athletics brought to a campus. Lombardi encouraged intramurals for those who were not varsity athletes, but still wanted to compete. Weidner envisioned a university that did only four sports, but had some excellence in those sports. Neither intended their decision to hurt the campus in any way.
“Ed was very smart,” Buss said. “He never put all his eggs in one basket. The athletic part of UW-Green Bay was always important to the survival and the selling of the school. He found funding because he knew how important that could be to the overall picture. There are a lot of presidents who don’t see it that way, but he knew. I think keeping it on track and eventually going over to Division I has added a lot to UW-Green Bay.”
Over the years athletic teams have become synonymous with Division I colleges, none more than the football team. From homecoming in high school to homecoming in college, schools rally around their sports teams. What many don’t realize is the decision behind implementing those teams often isn’t as black and white as it seems.
“If I were asked to start a brand new school I would look carefully at the array of athletic programs I would have there,” Sorensen said when asked about the decision whether to have football. “I think it’s a good issue. I think it’s a debatable issue. Especially for a school like Green Bay that doesn’t have it, would they want to start it? I would think about it thoroughly. There are pros and cons.”