Lombardi brought Blackbourn back as a scout
“Who is Lisle Blackbourn?”
If there was a Jeopardy category titled “Packers History,” it’s a question that would likely stump many a contestant if given only the following clue.
“The Only Former Head Coach Rehired by the Team”
Blackbourn coached the Packers from 1954-57 and rejoined the organization in 1964 as a scout.
During his four seasons as coach, Blackbourn compiled a dismal 17-31 record and left a trail of bad blood behind.
He was 54 years old when he was hired by the Packers and had never coached in the pros. His relationship with his players turned sour in his second season and never improved. Blackbourn also said years later that he was required to meet with the executive committee every Monday noon and answer questions about the previous day’s game. “Sometimes they’d clap, sometimes they’d boo,” he said.
He was eventually fired Jan. 6, 1958, while on a scouting trip to Mobile, Ala. Fred Trowbridge of the executive committee called Blackbourn at the Senior Bowl and asked him to resign. Blackbourn rejected the euphemism and insisted that the Packers announce he was fired.
But, clearly, Vince Lombardi held Blackbourn in higher regard. Six years later, Lombardi hired him to scout college prospects for a new scouting pool the Packers had helped form.
Blackbourn had been a successful coach at the high school and college level for 30 years before he was hired by the Packers the first time and was well connected.
It was on Blackbourn’s watch that the Packers drafted 11 players who became key starters on at least two of Lombardi’s championship teams. The list included Hall of Famers Forrest Gregg and Bart Starr from the 1956 draft; Paul Hornung as the first overall pick in 1957; and the Packers’ biggest one-day draft haul ever – Dan Currie, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and Jerry Kramer – over the first four rounds of the 1958 draft, held a month before Blackbourn was fired.
Now that the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s voting procedure has opened the door a little wider for contributors, there’s a movement afoot to promote the candidacy of Jack Vainisi, the Packers’ talent scout from 1950 until his death in November 1960 at age 33.
Vainisi certainly warrants consideration. If the Hall is ever going to honor a scout, Vainisi and Eddie Kotal would be the strongest candidates. They were the leading pioneers in the field and might have uncovered more rare talent than any two NFL scouts ever.
Kotal, hired by the Rams in 1945, was the first scout to live on the road for weeks if not months at a time driving from college to college in search of players. Through his efforts the Rams landed three of the most unheralded Hall of Famers of all-time: Andy Robustelli, a 19th-round draft choice; “Night Train” Lane, an undrafted free agent; and Deacon Jones, a 14th-round pick.
Kotal, by the way, played for the Packers from 1925-29 and served as an assistant coach from 1942-43. Also, he and Blackbourn both played at Lawrence College in Appleton, Wis., in the early 1920s.
Vainisi had a hand in selecting 16 of the 22 starters on Lombardi’s first championship team in 1961.
But too often history is viewed in terms of black and white, or good guys and bad guys.
While Vainisi deserves all the credit he gets for his role in helping build Lombardi’s dynasty, Blackbourn should at least share in it.
During Blackbourn’s years as head coach, Verne Lewellen was general manager and Vainisi held the title of administrative assistant and talent scout. All three played a role in the draft, although Blackbourn once said they usually agreed with Vainisi’s recommendations.
Actually, it was Blackbourn who expanded Vainisi’s role and paid him a salary equivalent to the assistant coaches.
Blackbourn also was the one who declared after the first day of camp in 1956 that Starr, a 17th-round draft pick, had already jumped out at him, and he remained in Starr’s corner throughout their two seasons together.
“He was very gracious and very kind and extremely helpful as a coach to me,” Starr said four years ago. “I thought he was a good teacher.”
Lombardi, in turn, paid Blackbourn the highest testament when he hired him in 1964 as Green Bay’s CEPO scout. CEPO (Central Eastern Personnel Organization) was the Packers’ first scouting combine.
Story by Cliff Christl, Courtesy of the Green Bay Packers.