50 years after joining Packers, former PR chief savors memories of working with icons

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Near the end of Chuck Lane’s second season as the Green Bay Packers’ publicity director, he faced the most daunting task he could imagine.

It was the morning of what would become the most famous game in Packers history, the Ice Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL championship game on Dec. 31, 1967.

Coach Vince Lombardi’s pride and joy was the new heating system he’d had installed underneath Lambeau Field to keep the field soft and footing sound in cold weather. Sometime that morning the system for one reason or another had failed, and the Lambeau turf was slowly freezing, with the ice line creeping from the north end of the field to the south.

A couple hours before the game Lane was on the field with assistant coaches Bob Schnelker and Ray Wietecha. Someone had to tell the volcanic Lombardi about the disaster. Schnelker and Wietcha were no fools. They told the 24-year-old Lane it was his job.

“I’d rather go in and tell him Marie (Lombardi’s wife) was cheating on him than that his field wasn’t working,” Lane said recently. “He was fit to be tied. He didn’t blow at me, but he was not a happy man. I told him and got the hell out of there.”

Such was the downside, if there was one, of working as PR director for the football coaching icon. Lombardi’s temper was infamous, and players weren’t the only ones to face his wrath.

“You’ve never been hollered at until you’ve been hollered at by coach Lombardi,” Lane said. “But by and large he’d forget it quickly. He’d blow and then he’d come back and the waters had stilled. But he didn’t seem to hold anything against people. He was great to work for.”

Lombardi hired Lane 50 years ago this past week. Lane was 23 at the time, and by the Ice Bowl less than two years later he’d already lived many a young American male’s dream.

He’d been a quarterback in football and left-side infielder in baseball at Washington and Lee University, and after graduating was hoping to play baseball. His hometown Minnesota Twins invited him to a three-day tryout camp along with about 25 other prospects, but he quickly realized he couldn’t hit at a major-league level.

However, through a family connection Lane got a job with Minnesota Vikings owner Max Winter’s promotional company, which handled all the Harlem Globetrotters’ appearances in the upper Midwest. Lane’s primary duties were setting up 50 to 60 Globetrotters games a year, ranging as far west as the Dakotas, as far south as Kansas City, as far east as Wisconsin and as far north as Canada. He had to visit potential venues and sign contracts in the offseason, then travel with the team for the games, usually half a day ahead to do advance promotions.

His traveling companion for the promotional appearances was one of the team’s celebrities, such as Globetrotters showman Meadowlark Lemon, baseball legend Satchel Paige or Connie Hawkins, the basketball great who played for the Globetrotters before entering the ABA.

The Baseball Hall of Famer Paige probably was his most interesting travel companion because of his quirky habits, colorful sayings and long career in Negro League Baseball and the Major Leagues. Paige was nearing 60 at the time and the Globetrotters hired him to draw crowds by signing autographs and conducting media interviews.

Lane remembers that on the long drives between venues, the wiry-built, ageless Paige always had in the backseat a travel bag full of unmarked bottles that he’d occasionally pull out for a swig.

“He’d talk about growing up as black kid in the South,” Lane said. “That was all new to me, I grew up in Minneapolis, I had no contact with any black people whatsoever. He knew a lot of prejudice growing up. He said if you and I were driving along (in the South) and they saw us, a black guy and a white guy, they’d pull us over and beat the (expletive) out of us.

“He’d get up on his knees and turn around to the back (of the car), he’d have his little bag of stuff. I’d hear him clanking around in there. He was trying to drink himself courageous.”

During football season Lane also worked in the Vikings’ press box, where he got to know Packers PR director Tom Miller. While promoting a Globetrotters game in Green Bay in 1966, Lane went to the Packers’ offices to say hi. Unbeknownst to Lane, Miller recently had been promoted to assistant to the general manager. At about the same time, Vikings GM Jim Finks had recommended Lane to Lombardi for the open PR position.

Lombardi left the decision to Miller, though Lane suspects he was just what Lombardi wanted: a young, single guy who could put in a lot of hours because he didn’t have a wife and family. The Packers were coming off the third of their five NFL championships, and Lane would have a behind-the-scenes seat for titles four and five in his first two years on the job.

“I really thought it was the greatest job in the world,” Lane said. “A pro football team, No. 1. No. 2, my favorite football team, the Packers. And No. 3, working for Lombardi, at age 23 with relatively little experience, no experience. To have this opportunity, I couldn’t believe it.”

Lombardi left the Packers after Lane’s second season. Phil Bengtson, who’d been defensive coordinator, succeeded Lombardi and went 20-21-1 in three seasons.

“(Bengtson) was a perfect personality for an assistant coach,” Lane said. “He was very close to the players. As a lot of the players used to say, ‘We’re going to win for good ol’ Phil. Well, now when I hear about that, that’s the death knell. With Lombardi, they didn’t necessarily like him, but they respected him and played like hell for him. They were probably scared to death of him. Phil was in way over his head. Poor guy. He was a good defensive coach, but he was stubborn as hell.”

The Packers replaced Bengtson with Dan Devine. But Devine kept trying to ingratiate himself with Packers beat writers and broadcasters by offering them Lane’s job. Three seasons working with the notoriously conniving Devine was all Lane could take, so he resigned in 1974.

“He was the Count of Rasputin in the castle,” Lane said of Devine. “I didn’t care for the guy in the least and he apparently didn't care for me. Anybody who’d been there before he didn’t care for.”

Lane then worked as Bart Starr’s quasi-agent, booking speaking engagements and appearances. When Devine left for Notre Dame after the ’74 season, Lane led the campaign to convince the Packers to hire Starr as coach. Among his ideas was “A Fresh Start With Bart” bumper stickers that were ubiquitous in Wisconsin at the time.

When Starr got the job he brought back Lane as PR director, and for several years they worked closely together. But as Starr’s tenure unraveled, he blamed much of his clashes with local media on Lane and fired him in January 1980.

“I never thought he’d have the difficulty with the media that he did,” Lane said. “For some reason he failed to come to grips with the adversarial relationship of the day.”

Lane went on to work public relations for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s athletic department and for two teams in the USFL before getting out of football. He returned to Green Bay, where before retiring last year he worked for Humana health insurance and its previous incarnations, first in media relations and later overseeing its agents’ incentives travel programs, which allowed him to travel the world.

“The Packer thing was absolutely wonderful,” he said. “I had an opportunity to meet some wonderful people. It gave me national exposure, and it still opens doors.”

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE