In December 1974, WTMJ’s own Larry McCarren was ending his second year as center of the Green Bay Packers when he discovered he had a new boss. A man who was perhaps had more heart for the job and for the Packers than he had experience and preparedness for it.
Bart Starr, the five-time championship quarterback with the Packers, was about to learn just as much about coaching as his players would learn from him about the game.
“You got to remember, the man took the job with zero experience, but it was almost by public acclimation (that he took the job),” said McCarren on WTMJ’s “Wisconsin’s Morning News.”
“People wanted Bart Starr to be the next coach of the Green Bay Packers…took (the job) with no experience and then learned the hard way on the job.”
A job that Starr, who passed away at 85 years old, didn’t succeed in – if wins and losses are the sole determination of success in the NFL. In nine seasons, he only once led the Packers to the playoffs.
But if you ask anyone who was close to the Packers at that time, they realize the cupboard was bare after personnel moves his predecessor made, including the John Hadl trade which left the Packers bereft of the picks they would need to rebuild.
While the Packers rebuilt their offense around quarterback Lynn Dickey and Pro Bowlers James Lofton, John Jefferson and Paul Coffman, the player personnel department did not successfully stock a quality defense to match – though not completely through fault of their own, or Starr’s.
“We couldn’t play any defense because at that time things were getting in the way,” said McCarren.
“Like somehow, some way, a first-round draft choice goes to Canada. Somehow, some way, we’re letting real fine football players on the defensive line go to the USFL…we’re letting those things happen and there wasn’t a lot Bart could do about that.”
As McCarren put it, Starr tried to make up for it with what he did have at his disposal: A philosophy of combining discipline and a caring presence.
“He wasn’t Vince Lombardi, but there’s a real misconception about Bart’s coaching…that he didn’t work you hard enough,” said McCarren.
“I played for Dan Devine, I played for Bart, I played for Forrest Gregg who was known as a tough guy, and I will tell you Bart’s practices were without question the toughest of the bunch.”
But before and after the on-field practice time – and even in those first days after he got the job in December 1974 – Starr showed the human side that has been so widely shared and discussed after his death.
“I was just a nobody, and yet, a couple days after he gets the job, I’m in the locker room kind of getting dressed to go work out and Bart walks up and shakes my hand like we’ve known each other forever and says ‘How’s your wife Becky doing?’ ” said McCarren.
“And I know I wasn’t singled out, Bart made it a point to know everything about everybody on the roster so that he can make that first impression, and boy I tell you what, he did.”
In the end, Starr’s numerous 8-8 seasons and the 5-3-1 strike-shortened campaign in 1982 were the best he could get out his half-talented team, and he paid the price in being fired on Christmas Eve, 1983.
“I thought he was coaching his best at the end, unfortunately we never got it done. I didn’t think he let us down as a head coach, I thought we let him down as players,” admitted McCarren, who never lost his love for Starr as a coach or a man.
“People feel privileged to play with him, but I feel more privileged to play for him.”