The Dan Devine Dilemma

hunterYou either loved him or you hated him and to listen to most of his ex-Packer players today, they hated him. But in 1972, when Green Bay won the Central Division Title, most of them, if not loved, at least backed their coach, while many the young men who played for Devine at Missouri and Notre Dame came away with a lifetime admiration.

So how do you reconcile the dichotomy? Is it just a matter of once the Packers started losing in 73 that his players turned on him? Not so. Many on the team backed Devine to the last pitiful gasp, a 10-3 loss on a muddy field in Atlanta in December 1974 that followed a week in which a vote of confidence had been called for in support of the coach by the faithful on the team, while the other half threatened to boycott the game in a mutiny. Though most Packer fans prefer to write Devine off as a villain of epic proportions in Green Bay history. the answer to the mystery of Dan Devine is complex.

In the course of researching my book, The Green Bay Packers The Dan Devine Years 1971-74, a common thread among the men who played for Devine is that they came away feeling he had deceived them, which is not a usual result of a player-coach relationship. Disappointment at failure, frustration and outright hatred, are not uncommon, but the phrase liar is an unusual one. I’ve heard it applied to NFL Hall of Fame Coach George Allen as well. What did Devine and Allen have in common? Like Vince Lombardi, they often used emotional ploys to motivate their teams, which is what led to some conclusions about the evolution and eventual devolution of Dan Devine’s relationship with his players in Green Bay.

Devine was a College Football Hall of Fame coach. And in order to succeed at that level, you have to be able to deal with adolescent young men who are often times little more than boys. In the process, Devine, no doubt, developed psychological tactics to motivate and manipulate his college players. Remember the Green Jerseys Game at Notre Dame? It sounds silly, but it worked. Devine employed these same devices in Green Bay to great success in 1972, but when the program went south on him in 73, it left a bitter taste in his player’s mouths.

So what happened? Just exactly what did Devine do or say that pissed these guys off so much? The common thread seems to be that he treated them like 18 year old college freshman instead of professional football players. Here’s a prime example. Devine was the first NFL head coach to schedule an off season mini-camp. At the inaugural session in 1971, he honked off the Lombardi veterans, who still numbered a dozen, by showing them film of his Missouri squad and telling them that this was how football was to be played. Oh-oh.

Devine struggled in the shadow of Lombardi. He did not pay proper homage to the great man either, complaining that it irked him to have to drive to work every morning on a street named for his predecessor. This unattributed expression of frustration may have been taken out of context or misquoted, but you get the idea. Lombardi had left behind an enormous legacy. It had devoured Phil Bengtson as it would Devine. But in 1972, Devine pulled off a miracle, coaching the Packers to 10-4 Central Division winning season. But the shine was off the trophy before the season even ended.

In the first round playoff game versus Washington, Devine took away the play calling duties from Quarterback Coach Bart Starr who had been n integral part of the team all year. The resulting 16-3 loss may have been inevitable as the Packers were overmatched on offense by the veteran Redskins’ defense, but it upset many of the players and led to Starr’s resignation after the season.

Another factor in the Devine-Starr season ending feud may have been that Starr was getting an inordinate amount of credit for the team’s success in the press and among the fans. Devine stated that he tendered a letter of resignation to the team’s Executive Committee after the season, an indication of the pressure he was feeling and pique he was already exhibiting, chafing, not only, under the legend of Lombardi, but the specter of Starr, the heir apparent in waiting.

Back to the 72 season, I’ve talked about that in detail in a blog you can find here, but to briefly recap, Devine benefited from a smattering of Lombardi veterans, including Dave Robinson and Ray Nitschke who provided locker room leadership as well as on field skill. Defensive Coordinator Dave Hanner, another Lombardi holdover, and Starr, who was the de facto offensive coordinator, or co-coordinator with Devine, were also major assets. But the strength of the team was a cast of young pros that included all-stars running back John Brockington, cornerback Willie Buchanon and kicker Chester Marcol. Youth dominated the team and according to contemporary newspaper accounts and quotes from the ballplayers themselves, Devine provided inspirational leadership.

By 1974, nasty, vendetta-like rumors about Devine’s personal life were swirling around Green Bay. Devine would later blame disgruntled ex-employees of the team. At the same time, a campaign to replace Devine with Starr was underfoot. All the while, Devine was employing a myriad of college tropes to attempt to motivate his team, which had in the span of two years, gone from one of the youngest in the league, to old by football standards.

What’s not common knowledge is that Devine was a tough coach in the Lombardi style, a man who sought to motivate by criticism and pushing his players hard, even taking his gripes about ballplayers to the press, which naturally didn’t sit well. Just ask Joe Montana who was benched numerous times due to breaking Devine’s stringent rules at Notre Dame. Ed Blaine, who played for Devine at Missouri in the early sixties and later for Lombardi, said that Devine’s style was much in the tradition of Lombardi, which in itself, was not uncommon in that era. He pushed his team hard and when it collapsed at the end of the 74 season, the players mutinied.

Still, nearly half the club was in Devine’s corner, including future Hall of Fame linebacker Ted Hendricks. A vote of confidence was held, but did not carry the day. Still, everyone thought he would be back to fulfill the last year of his contract in 1975. Instead, Devine shocked the team by leaving for Notre Dame the day after the season ended. Apparently, he did not even make an announcement to the team. They were informed through the press. You can imagine how the guys who’d backed him felt.

Devine had used a variety of contract extensions and carrot and stick, praise and demeaning tactics to motivate his players. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It certainly had in 1972 and in key games in 1974 that included upset victories over Minnesota and Los Angeles who would meet in the Conference Championship Game that year. But when it failed, it failed big. Coupled with Devine’s callous farewell, it’s difficult to find a player willing to say anything good about him today, though there are a few.

Safety Jim Hill, who became an immensely successful broadcaster in California, has nothing but praise for Devine. Ted Hendricks remained a friend throughout the rest of Devine’s life. Then again, Ted got out of Green Bay after that one season and went to the Raiders where he was part of three Super Bowl Championship teams, while the rest of the Packers were stuck in Siberia, as Green Bay was known in those days. Scott Hunter, who suffered more than most from Devine’s carrot-stick psychology, is a class guy whose only public criticism has been concerning the play calling in the 72 playoff game. Most of those who supported Devine during his tenure, are now muted, saying tepidly that he wasn’t cut out for the pro game, while the majority are outspoken in their contempt for the man.

And then of course, there’s the infamous 1974 mid-season trade for John Hadl that cost the team a slug of draft choices. Devine’s early brilliance in drafts and trades was linked directly to Personnel Director Pat Peppler, who left for Miami after the 72 Draft. On his own in 73 and 74, Devine stumbled badly, scoring only once, though it was huge, when he scooped up Ted Hendricks for a song and a dance. And even when Starr failed to sign him, Hendricks defection to Oakland bought the Packers two number one draft choices in the days when the NFL was busy stomping down free agency.

But in strictly looking at Devine’s coaching in Green Bay, it was a mixed bag.  In 1972 and for much of 74, Devine did an outstanding job of coaching. 1971 and 73 were a washout and the team’s collapse at the end of 74 may have been a result of factors beyond Devine’s control due to an unprecedented battle for control of the team at all levels, from the locker room to the coaching staff and Executive Committee.

From this, a mythology of incompetence has attached itself to Devine in Green Bay and is perpetuated by his ex-players and the Green Bay sports press who are ever willing to let the former demi-gods of Green Bay make unquestioned statements and print them as fact. The Green Bay press has, in fact, gone out of its way to try and belittle Devine as a college coach as well; a thesis that does not bear out.

Devine was deeply flawed as  a professional coach, but he battled against almost insurmountable odds in Green Bay due to a fan base, Executive Committee and press that were worshiping at the altar of Lombardi. A less thin skinned individual might have handled it better, but the personality quirks that Devine is excoriated for in Green Bay, are virtually synonymous with college coaches who have achieved his level of success. Check out Woody Hayes, Frank Kush and Joe Paterno to name just a few.

Why do I continue to write about Dan Devine? Because his 72 Green Bay team was the one that made a Packer fan out of me for life and it seems that everyone still alive who was associated with that team is determined to rip it apart because of their personal issues with Devine. In the words of Don Henley and the Eagles, I think it’s time to Get Over It and instead of grousing, honor this amazing team and everyone involved with it, which includes Dan Devine. Thank you and that’s my rant.