Vainisi starting to get his Packers due
Jack Vainisi probably won't be underappreciated in Green Bay Packers' lore much longer.
On Thursday, ground was broken for a monument to him across Lombardi Avenue from Lambeau Field. Starting later this summer, tens of thousands of fans will pass the monument and learn the basics of the personnel scout who was a prime mover behind the team's hiring of Vince Lombardi and acquiring many of the players who formed the core of Lombardi's championship teams.
But what about Vainisi's place in the larger history of the NFL? If he's been underappreciated for years here, it seems he would have to be the longest of shots to end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he probably is, though his chances can't be completely dismissed, at least not yet.
It all depends on how the Hall of Fame's new contributors committee views its charge. Set up to get behind-the-scenes candidates a better shot at induction, the committee will nominate six candidates over the next four years for an up or down vote.
If the committee looks hard only at front-office executives of more recent vintage, and owners who have built successful franchises as the modern NFL has taken off as this country's most popular sport, then Vainisi's candidacy is a non-starter.
But if the committee looks more closely at scouting pioneers and innovators than it has so far, then Vainisi at least has a chance, if not a great one, now that he's been nominated for consideration for the class of 2016.
First, here's a synopsis of the Hall's selection process now that it has added the contributors committee.
The conventional way to induction is via a series of winnowing votes among the 46-person selection committee, of which I became a member late last year. Starting with a working list of candidates, the selection committee chooses 25 Modern Era candidates in October, and then in November reduces that to 15 finalists.
At the selectors meeting the day before the Super Bowl, that list is cut to five, each of whom gets an up or down vote. There's also a seniors committee that nominates a candidate, who also gets an up or down vote. To get in the Hall, a candidate needs 80 percent or more approvals.
The Hall added the contributors committee for this year's class because it determined that too many deserving candidates weren't advancing deep into the voting process. A contributor is someone who made his mark in pro football without being a player or coach.
Each contributors committee nominee now is fast-tracked to an up or down vote.
For this year's class, the contributors committee submitted two nominations, Ron Wolf and Bill Polian. Both won their votes and will be enshrined this summer. For the 2016 class, the committee will nominate one contributor, followed by two the next year, one the year after, and two the year after that. The Hall then will decide whether to keep or disband the committee.
The upshot is, over the next four years the committee will nominate six contributors. We can glean the leading candidates by looking at the other nine finalists when it chose Wolf and Polian:
Former New York Giants GM George Young; former Washington and San Diego GM Bobby Beathard; Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen; former Dallas Cowboys front-office executive Gil Brandt; former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo; former official and administrator Art McNally; former Cleveland and Baltimore owner Art Modell; former NFL films president Steve Sabol; and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
If the committee chooses only from that group over the next four years, then obviously Vainisi has no chance. Logic says that's what it will do. But the committee is new, so who knows? If it decides to skew more toward personnel men than owners, and considers pioneers who didn't make that final list, then Vainisi might at least have a shot.
Young and Beathard, both strong candidates, are the only GMs left on the finalist list. But I'm equally intrigued by the scouting innovators and trail blazers who came well before them, which Vainisi is among.
Scouting in the NFL was embryonic when the Packers hired Vainisi at age 23 in 1950. Head coaches or, occasionally owners, were the de facto general managers in those years, and most drafted out of football magazines and on advice from a few friends in college coaching.
Vainisi wasn't the first full-time scout in the NFL — that's believed to be Eddie Kotal, who played running back for the Packers from 1925-29 and was hired by the Los Angeles Rams starting in 1946 to travel the country in search of players. Vainisi came along not much after and appears to have made the Packers one of and maybe even the first team after the Rams to set up a system for evaluating and tracking players.
Vainisi in short time established an extensive network of contacts in college coaching to send him scouting reports on players they coached and competed against. By the time he died, at age 33 in November 1960, he had 18 notebooks with detailed reports on more than 4,000 players. They alerted him to players he should look at closely when he hit the road or attended all-star games.
Without getting too deep in Vainisi's case, he has good arguments on his side. For one, he appears either directly or indirectly to have convinced former team president Dominic Olejniczak and the Packers' executive committee to make the franchise-turning decision to hire Lombardi.
And Vainisi was a one-man scouting department when the Packers acquired the players who made up the core of most of Lombardi's teams, including Hall of Famers Paul Hornung, Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo and Willie Wood.
In 1961, which was the first of Lombardi's championship teams, 17 of the 22 preferred starters were players Vainisi helped bring to the team via college or trades. And in 2008, the NFL Network named the Packers' 1958 draft as the fourth-best in league history. That group included Taylor, Nitschke, Jerry Kramer and Dan Currie.
Working against Vainisi is his short career — he was in his 11th year as a scout when he died of a heart ailment about a month before the Packers played in the 1960 championship game. Also, the head coach had final say over personnel during his tenure, though it appears a given Vainisi at minimum had a lot of influence in personnel decisions.
There are other relatively obscure NFL scouting innovators the contributors committee might consider as well. As mentioned earlier, Kotal is believed to be the first full-time, nation-wide scout and played a key role in a highly successful stretch for the Rams. From 1949-56 they were 60-33-3 and played in four championship games.
Bill Nunn of the Pittsburgh Steelers was another trail-blazing scout. The former sports editor of The Pittsburgh Courier opened the NFL pipeline of players from traditionally black colleges in the South, Among his finds who formed the core of the Steelers teams that dominated the NFL in the 1970s were Hall of Famers Mel Blount and John Stallworth, plus standouts L.C. Greenwood, Donnie Shell and Ernie Holmes.
These scouting pioneers, and others, did as much as anyone to make the NFL what it is today, even if details of their work are lost in time. They warrant as hard a look as the more modern football men. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, Jack Vainisi's case will get heard.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.