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Mike Vandermause column: Should Bart Starr have coached longer?

Apr. 19, 2014
 
Bart Starr coached the Packers for nine seasons. File/Press-Gazette Media
Bart Starr coached the Packers for nine seasons. File/Press-Gazette Media
Former Packers quarterback Lynn Dickey throws a football out to the crowd of students at Oconto High School during the Tailgate Tour earlier this week. / Kent Tempus/Gannett Wisconsin Media

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No one could blame then-Green Bay Packers president Robert Parins for firing Bart Starr following the 1983 season.

After all, Starr had produced just two winning seasons and one playoff berth in nine years as head coach. When the Packers suffered a last-second 23-21 loss to the Chicago Bears in the 1983 regular-season finale with a playoff berth on the line, Parins had had enough.

Starr, the most popular player in team history after quarterbacking the Packers to five championships in the 1960s, was unceremoniously dumped to make way for new coach Forrest Gregg.

But the Packers’ moribund ways continued. Gregg never had a winning season before bolting for the Southern Methodist job four years later, and Lindy Infante’s teams produced an even worse record.

There is one small school of thought that Starr, then 49, was growing into the job, and had Parins given him a little more time, the Packers could have turned around their fortunes in the 1980s.

“We were becoming a pretty good football team,” said Lynn Dickey, who was the starting quarterback under Starr for seven seasons. “If we could have come back in 1984 and got some defensive help, because we really struggled (in 1983) defensively, if we could have come back with that offensive group intact, I think it would have been a whole different story.”

Starr had built a potent offense in the early 1980s behind Dickey, receivers James Lofton and John Jefferson, and tight end Paul Coffman. The Packers were the NFL’s No. 2-ranked offense in 1983.

“We were kind of on the cutting edge of throwing the football,” said Coffman, who along with Dickey and Lofton are participating in the Packers’ Tailgate Tour this week. “Obviously the San Diego Chargers were kind of the first to really air it out. Lynn was so accurate passing. I think our offensive line did a great job of giving him time. … It was a very diverse offense, a lot of different weapons.”

No other team in Packers history can boast having four players with at least 50 catches and 600 receiving yards in the same season. Lofton (58 catches, 1,300 yards), Jefferson (57, 830), Coffman (54, 814) and running back Gerry Ellis (52, 603) accomplished that in 1983, something not even offensive-minded Packers head coaches Mike Holmgren and Mike McCarthy have produced.

“I’d put those guys up against anyone playing the game today,” Dickey said of his offensive weapons in the early 1980s.

But the Packers’ shaky defense was ranked last in the NFL in 1983 and ultimately cost Starr his job.

“I did find out one thing,” Dickey said. “If you score 30 points and give up 35, it won’t work.”

The Packers suffered a late-November 47-41 overtime loss to Atlanta that season before allowing the Bears to drive the length of the field for the game-winning field goal in the final 2 minutes in what was Starr’s final game as coach.

A victory in either of those games would have sent the Packers into the playoffs and allowed Starr to keep his job. Instead, they finished 8-8 and tied for second in the NFC Central.

“You look at an 8-8 season and you realize how easy it could be a 10-6 season,” said Lofton, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003. “You can look at a couple of games here or there, a couple of plays, and it’s unfortunate. Bart was such a great coach and such a great man.”

It would be presumptuous to say Starr would have guided the Packers to a deep playoff run if he held his job into the mid-1980s. But as it turned out, keeping him around would have been a better alternative, based on the poor results generated by Gregg and Infante.

Starr was better as a coach late in his tenure than at the start. The Packers went 21-19-1 in his final three seasons, including a playoff victory following the 1982 season.

In his early years, Starr was battling inexperience plus the devastating effects of the John Hadl trade made by previous coach Dan Devine in 1974. That deal cost the Packers five high draft picks and set the franchise in a deep hole.

But not even Starr, all these years later, questions Parins’ decision to fire him. Starr readily admits he wasn’t ready to be a head coach when he was hired to replace Devine in 1975 and makes no excuses for his 53-77-3 career record.

But some of his former players still wonder what might have been.

“If we could have won that game against the Bears that year, I think it would have prolonged a lot of our careers in Green Bay,” Coffman said.

The Packers’ offense slipped out of the top 10 by 1985 and Gregg, seeking a fresh start, cut Dickey and Coffman before the 1986 season.

The Packers had just one winning record in the eight years after Starr was fired, and it wasn’t until Holmgren was hired in 1992 that the team’s fortunes turned.

Starr never coached again, but he left an indelible impression on his former players.

Dickey called Starr “one of the best people in the whole world that I ever met.”

Added Coffman: “Bart, what a great man. Not only a great player, but just what a great person.”

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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