By the time Dan Devine’s disastrous reign as Green Bay Packers coach and general manager ended after the 1974 season, plenty of Green Bay Packers followers were lamenting what might have been.
What if the Packers had hired the runner-up candidate, Joe Paterno, instead? Where Devine alienated people and made franchise-wrecking trades, maybe Paterno would have thrived and won. Maybe the Packers never would have been the NFL’s Siberia in the ’70s and ’80s.
But now with the biggest scandal in the history of college sports just beginning to unfold at Penn State with former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky charged with 40 counts of sex crimes against boys, “what if” takes on a whole new meaning. What if Paterno had come to the Packers, brought the once highly regarded Sandusky from his Penn State coaching staff, and succeeded? What if Sandusky was in Green Bay, not Happy Valley, in 1977 when he established The Second Mile charity he allegedly used to target his victims?
“You would have hoped for God’s sake nothing like that would have ever happened here,” said Bob Harlan, the former Packers president who was hired to the team’s front office in ’71. “But to be honest, I did think about it when the story came up last week.”
After firing Phil Bengtson as coach two days after the 1970 season ended, Packers President Dominic Olejniczak and the Packers’ executive committee targeted George Allen as the next coach. The Los Angeles Rams had just fired Allen despite his 49-19-4 record.
After that fell through, 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; Paterno; and Devine.
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 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.
Paterno, who had become Penn State’s head coach in 1966, had a 42-10-1 record and back-to-back unbeaten seasons in 1968 and ’69, including wins in the Orange Bowl.
He had turned down the Pittsburgh Steelers for their head-coaching position in 1969, but the Packers offered the dual role of coach and general manager, which Paterno reportedly found more appealing than the Steelers’ job as coach only. Former Packers great Dave Robinson, who played at Penn State when Paterno was an assistant coach, said this week that Paterno has told him he would have accepted if the Packers had offered, and 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.”
Devine had an impressive record as well. In three seasons as coach at Arizona State (1955-57) he was 27-3-1, and in 13 years at Missouri (1958-70) was 93-37-7. He had only one season worse than .500.
Harlan said Canadeo later told him about the executive committee’s vote on whether to hire Devine or Paterno, and his story corroborates contemporary accounts of a 5-2 vote in favor of Devine. Canadeo and Bourguignon were unable to sway the rest of the committee. In his book “The Packer Legend,” former executive committee member John Torinus said Olejniczak favored Devine in part because he was athletic director as well as Missouri’s football coach.
“He could be very convincing in a one-on-one meeting,” said Harlan, who worked with Devine for three years. “I could see how he could have been a good recruiter (in college). If you sent him in at the last minute to talk to a mother and father, him in alone, he could have done that, he had a way about him. And he did have a great record at Missouri.”
Though Devine won the NFC Central Division title in his second season, 1972, his Packers tenure has to be characterized as a disaster. By the time he left for Notre Dame just ahead of the posse in 1974, he had a 25-27-4 record, and a reputation for strange behavior and as a conniver almost constitutionally incapable of telling the truth. He’d also ruined the team’s future by trading away numerous high draft choices in desperate search for a quarterback.
Among other things, Devine routinely disappeared from the Packers’ offices for two or three hours at a time.
“He was kind of a mysterious, odd guy,” said Chuck Lane, who was the Packers’ public relations director when Devine was hired. “He really didn’t know an X from an O, a lot of the assistant coaches rebelled. He claimed he was studying film at night and he wasn’t. He was really just an odd duck.”
His most notorious lie while with the Packers warrants retelling because it’s emblematic of his capacity for manipulation. In the fall of 1974, as his grip on his team and his job slipped, he told a reporter from Time magazine about the awful treatment he was getting in Green Bay because his team was losing.
According to the lead of the article, “Devine has been the target of physical threats, personal insults and professional criticism. He has been sabotaged by assistants, undermined by owners, and harassed by hostile fans, who have literally pursued him and his family to their front door. Early one morning two years ago, the Devines were awakened by a sharp bang: one of their dogs had been shot outside the house. ‘It’s been vulgar, malicious and ugly,’ Devine told ‘Time’ Staff Writer Philip Taubman last week. ‘It just makes me sick.’”
Devine failed to tell the reporter, who never checked, that two years before was 1972, Devine’s one successful season with the team. Why would an angry fan shoot his dog during a playoff season?
More importantly, in his play for sympathy from a reporter (and national audience), Devine left out the details of the shooting. Namely, that he gave his dog free run of land around his home just outside Green Bay, and that the dog had been killing chickens and ducks at the farm next door, which was something of a mini wildlife preserve. Devine also didn’t reveal that the owner had notified Devine and the Brown County sheriff that if the dog persisted, he would take matters into his own hands.
“The next time the farmer hears a commotion in the barn and comes out, and the dog was walking across the barnyard with a duck in its mouth,” said Robinson, who played for Lombardi, Bengtson and then two seasons for Devine. “The farmer shot the dog, called the Brown County sheriff, they came out, called Dan Devine, Devine got the dog, everything was cool, nothing was said about it. When Devine left (the Packers) he said the people of Green Bay were terrible, they shot my dog.”
As general manager, Devine set up the Packers for failure in the ’70s in his futile search for a quarterback. He used a total of three first-round picks, four second-rounders and a third-rounder to acquire three quarterbacks: Jerry Tagge (drafted first round in ’72), Jim Del Gaizo (trade, two second-rounders) and John Hadl (trade, two firsts, two seconds and a third). The most galling was the infamous deal for Hadl, who was 34 at the time. It ranks among the worst trades in NFL history and contributed to the Packers’ floundering for at least the rest of the ’70s.
Yet, it’s conceivable now to speculate the Packers caught a break in hiring Devine over Paterno.
When Devine took the job, he hired two assistants from college to his coaching staff. It’s more than plausible that Paterno similarly would have looked to his staff at Penn State had the Packers hired him.
Sandusky had played for Penn State when Paterno was an assistant and joined Paterno’s coaching staff in ’69. He became Paterno’s defensive coordinator in ’77 and later his heir apparent if Paterno had ever retired.
If the Packers had hired Paterno, would he have brought his fast-rising young assistant to the NFL? And if so, and Paterno had won, and Sandusky had established roots in Green Bay?
As a friend of mine succinctly put it, “A lot of lives could have been ruined in Green Bay.”