Remembering the Packers First ‘NFL’ Coach

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | feb. 2019

In 1912, Joe Hoeffel captained the undefeated UW-Madison Badgers. This photo taken outside Camp Randall Stadium. Photo courtesy of Jim Jameson.Here's to the Packers new head coach, Matt LaFleur, who, by this writer's count, is the eighteenth person to serve as the team's on-field supervisor and the team's nineteenth head coach — twenty-first if you want to get technical.

“What?" Eighteenth? Twenty-first? Those guys on the radio and TV said he was only number fifteen!"

Clearly, that's a matter of how you count your coaches.

Things got a tad crazy a couple of months back, for instance, when Mike McCarthy was fired with 75 percent of a failed season in the books. That's when offensive (careful where you put the accent) coordinator Joe Philbin took over on an interim basis. Was Philbin the “Head Coach" of the Packers? “Interim" or not — for four games — he sure the heck was.

Coach Number “Two"

And that brings us back to the inglorious 1950s, when the Packers spent nearly a decade on the bottom rung of the NFL ladder — stepped on by pretty much every other team in the process. Heck, their 1-10-1-1958 season was so blasé it spawned the great line by sportswriter Red Smith that the team had “underwhelmed ten opponents, overwhelmed one and whelmed one."

That decade's revolving-door of Packers head coaches was just about the only entertainment the team offered during the stretch.

Things started off okay. Sure, Curly Lambeau had quit or been fired or both after a lackluster 1949 campaign where the team went 2-10. But in came the dashing Gene Ronzani — former Marquette Golden Avalanche and Chicago Bears player — to save the day.

Ronzani wasn't a Green Bay kid like Lambeau, but he hailed from Michigan's UP and most folks up there were Packers fans after the Town Team era. Save for a cup of coffee as Notre Dame's backfield coach in 1945, he'd played and coached in the Bears organization since 1933. In February, 1950, he was named the Packers “second" head coach.

Following a legend like Lambeau wasn't going to be easy for anyone, but Ronzani struggled mightily to get the team back to the NFL's upper echelon. He posted 3-9 seasons in 1950 and '51 and started the '52 season with a 6-3 record before losing the next three and wrapping things up at .500.

Ronzani's '53 season was his comeuppance. With a 2-6-1 record going into a nationally-televised Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit, the Packers were crushed 34-15 — surrendering 27 points in the second half alone. Ronzani resigned the next day.

The remainder of that year's games were “co-coached" by Ronzani's assistants, Hugh DeVore and Ray “Scooter" McLean. Packers coaches three and four if given their due. Except they were really coaches four and five for anyone paying attention. DeVore and McLean ended the season with two more solid losses.

In 1954, Lisle Blackbourn took over the reins adding to the misery while posting a 17-31 record through the 1957 season. In 1958, someone for some reason gave Scooter McLean another shot at it, producing that most-underwhelming season.

In Packers' history, however, McLean doesn't even get Grover Cleveland's distinction; he's only counted once as a Packers coach.

A 1921 Green Bay Press-Gazette headline makes it pretty clear: Joe Hoeffel was considered the Packers head coach that year, the Packers' first in what would become the NFL.Lombardi et al

1959 ushered in the Glory Years as Vince Lombardi became the team's fifth, seventh or eighth coach. Lombardi erased the futile fifties — producing enough literature on the legendary coach, his players, the era and the glorious moments to fill a country library.

Things were pretty straightforward after that. Replacing Lombardi was his longtime assistant, Phil Bengsten, who went 20-21-1, or .448, from 1968-1970. Dan Devine followed, 1971-1974, with a 25-27-4 mark and a .481 winning percentage. Devine even earned UPI “NFC Coach of the Year" Award in 1972.

Next up were Lombardi Legends, Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg — officially coaches number eight and nine. Two guys couldn't have been more different in their approach to coaching, but still end up in nearly the same spot in terms of success. The gentile Starr would be given nine seasons and produce a record of 52-76-3 or .406. The edgy, Bears-and-Mike-Ditka-hating Gregg would last four seasons with a record of 25-37-1 and a .403 winning ratio.

The Lindy Infante era followed, generating some moments — especially the “Cardiac Pack" of 1989, which won 10 games and lost 6. Though they fell short of the playoffs, their November 5 Lambeau Field-late-game win over the Bears made instant replay fans out of most Packers Backers when “upon further review" Don Majkowski's touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe was counted.

Following the '89 season, Infante — coach number 10 by “official" count — would win “AP Coach of the Year," “Sporting News Coach of the Year" and “UPI NFC Coach of the Year." Two seasons later — after posting a 4-12 record and amassing an overall .375-win record — he was toast.

Another Winning Stretch

1992 brought Mike Holmgren and a run through the 1998 season with the team going 75-37, .670. Two Super Bowl appearances, a star-studded roster led by Brett Favre and Reggie White, a whole lot of joy and on-field derring-do restored the luster to Titletown. By 1999, Holmgren had moved on to Seattle.

Holmgren's replacement, Ray Rhodes, lasted one .500 season before Mike Sherman took over as coach number thirteen. Sherman's tenure, 2000-2005, produced 57 wins to 39 losses, .594.

In 2006, Mike McCarthy took over as the team's “fourteenth" coach. At a book signing and talk shortly after his hiring, this writer was asked his thoughts on the new coach. “McCarthy seems to be a low-to-ground, hard-working guy," I said, “A 'what you see is what you get kind of guy.' I think it's a good hire."

McCarthy would enjoy the luxury of two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and rejuvenate the team, while continuing nearly-regular post-season playoff appearances. At the end of the 2010 season, he'd lead his team to victory in Super Bowl XLV.

Eight seasons later, on December 2, 2018 — minutes after a 17–20 Lambeau Field-loss to the lowly Arizona Cardinals — he was shown the door. Not since the '53 season, had a Packers head coach ignominiously departed before the season ended — leaving an assistant in charge.

McCarthy would close his Packers coaching career with an impressive 125-77-2 record and a .618 winning percentage — behind Lombardi, Holmgren and Lambeau in all time winning percentage.

That First Coach, Though

So, the guys on the radio and TV and the internet, too, all have new Coach Matt LaFleur as the fifteenth head coach of the Green Bay Packers. That means that for all their frustrations, Hugh DeVore and Scooter McLean (1953) and Joe Philbin (2018) don't exist.

But even if you toss them out as “fill-ins," you almost have to count Matt LeFleur as the team's sixteenth head coach. That is, if you want to give Joe Hoeffel his due.

Who? Joe Hoeffel?

Yes, Joe Hoeffel, the coach of the first Packers team to play in what would become the National Football League. Curly Lambeau was the captain of that squad, sure enough. But Joe Hoeffel was its coach — a fact born out throughout the pages of the Green Bay Press-Gazette that year.

Now, to be certain, the captain of a football team in those days was more a field general — managing the team's strategy; he wasn't the figurehead of today. But by every newspaper, early team record, “Dope Sheet" and other documentation … Joe Hoeffel was the team's first professional league coach.

In 2001, now-team historian, Cliff Christl — then a sportswriter for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel — researched the topic and presented his findings in “The Coffin Corner" — the official publication of the Professional Football Researchers Association.

To be sure, Joe Hoeffel was no “fill-in." In 1912 — the same year the modern rules of the forward pass were introduced — the Green Bay native was captain of the University of Wisconsin-Madison eleven. At year's end, he was named All-American by Walter Camp. His hometown held a banquet in his honor in late-November that year.

After graduation, Hoeffel coached at the University of Nebraska before returning to Green Bay where he coached the East High team in 1916. Curly Lambeau was his star player. He later joined the family's business and remained a resident of Green Bay until his death in 1964.

Now, adjusting the record books at this late date would be a major undertaking, but forgetting about the Packers' real first coach … Curly … err, Joe Hoeffel … isn't right, either. It certainly impacts Lambeau's overall record.

But acknowledging Hoeffel makes Matt LeFleur the Packers sixteenth head coach for real.

We won't further confound the issue by mentioning Bill Ryan and Jack Dalton — Packers coaches during the town team days in 1919 and 1920!

Or, will we?


Follow the adventures of Denis Gullickson and his merry band of Green Bay Theatre Company board members as they battle certain elements at city hall in their effort to convert the former Schauer and Schumacher furniture store buildings into a working downtown arts and performance center. Better yet, get involved at gbtheatrecompany@aol.com.

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