How Joe Paterno Almost Coached the Packers

Packers history is chock full of what ifs, and this one's a doozy: what if the Packers had hired Joe Paterno as their head coach? It was a very real possibility.

In January 1971, Paterno had just wrapped up a disappointing (by his standards) 7-3 season with the Nittany Lions. Paterno had interviewed with the Pittsburgh Steelers about their head coaching position the year prior but turned it down, leaving the Steelers to hire Chuck Knoll. 

Now the Packers, just a few years removed from the end of the Lombardi era but hungry for a return to success, were very interested in the 44-year old Paterno.

Paterno met with the Packers’ executive committee on January 13 and said afterward “We had a nice talk. We discussed the job. They told me what they were looking for. That was it. Any other comment has to come from Green Bay.”

Coachspeak was apparently alive and well in 1971, but Paterno’s private comments about the job are much more telling. Packers defensive great Dave Robinson, a Penn State grad, says Paterno told him he’d have taken the job if it had been offered.

It wasn’t. Then, as now, the Packers made their decisions privately and quietly, announcing on January 14 that the committee had selected Dan Devine as the next head coach. But that selection wasn’t supported unanimously.

It was later revealed that two of the seven member executive committee had voted for Paterno as the next head coach, including Hall of Famer Tony Canadeo.

Canadeo and Dick Bourguignon, the other committee member who voted in favor of Paterno, had one significant reason for supporting the college coach: he reminded them of Vince Lombardi.

The two had very similar backgrounds. Both were from Brooklyn, both were Irish Catholics, both had deep roots in high school football. In fact, the two first became aware of each other when Vince Lombardi’s St. Cecilia high school squad gave Joe Paterno his only loss as a high school senior playing at Brooklyn Prep. Their relationship continued into the 1960’s, when Lombardi often looked to Paterno for advice on college players.

But Paterno didn’t get the job, and it’s probably a good thing for his own sake and for that of the Packers. After Lombardi’s retirement and death, the Packers tried and failed several times to find another coach who could also serve as general manager.

Phil Bengston tried it and failed, as did Devine, Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, and Mike Sherman. The lesson is obvious: most coaches do not make good general managers, and Paterno, with no pro football experience, likely would not have been an exception to that rule.