Thursday, February 02, 2012

Look Out, Here Comes Tony!

The death of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno produced a sports trivia story that brought back a memory of another gridiron hero and his relationship with Paterno.

The news story, in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, described a small chapter in Packers history new to me.  It seems Paterno almost was hired as the Packers head coach in 1970.  A dozen years earlier, I met one of the men who tried hard to make it happen.

A gentle man . . . most of the time.
Tony Canadeo was an outstanding halfback for the Packers, 1941-52, with a year off for military service. He was the first Packers runner to gain 1,000 yards in a season (1949), and is one of only five Green Bay players to have their jersey number retired.  Canadeo was voted into the pro football hall of fame in 1974. After his playing days ended, he was a popular TV announcer.  He also served on the Packers’ executive committee, which makes the big decisions for the team.

In 1958, because of my first professional job as editor of the weekly paper in De Pere, Wisconsin, I got an invitation to attend a banquet at St. Norbert College.  The college is in De Pere, which is only five miles from Green Bay. Although I didn’t have time to attend all the St. Norbert football games, I ran stories and photos provided by their public relations director.  That year, the Green Knights were undefeated, and my contact said the banquet was a special reward for the players, coaches, and media supporters.  The Press-Gazette sports editor also was invited in appreciation of the paper’s coverage of the team.  Tony Canadeo was to be the banquet speaker.

The PR man said I should come an hour early to a cocktail party hosted by the college president for Canadeo, the Press-Gazette man, and me.  Wow!  Every sports fan in the state knew who Tony Canadeo was, and as a 21-year-old novice small-time newsman I was awed at the prospect of conversing with the great man, a college president, and the leading sports journalist in the area.  It turned out to be an even more intimate gathering.  The Press-Gazette editor bowed out because of a last-minute emergency.

You never know what to expect from a sports star.  A good share of them can be pompous asses.  Others, including some of the most skilled athletes, are regular guys and gals. Tony Canadeo turned out to be one of the latter.  He quickly made me feel comfortable at the little party.  There didn’t seem to be a bit of super-ego in the man.  Far from the tough guy I half-expected, Canadeo was soft-spoken and polite. Ever since that meeting I’ve described him as a good-natured gentleman in discussions of the personalities of sports super stars.

In 1970, according to a story made public only after his death in 2003, Canadeo proved he could drop the calm demeanor and work up a rage with the best of them.

The Packers’ executive committee had fired the coach after a poor season.  When George Allen, their first choice as a replacement, declined the job, the committee interviewed several others and narrowed the choices to successful University of Missouri coach Dan Devine and Paterno, who was building an outstanding record at Penn State.

Paterno had turned down the coaching job with the Pittsburgh Steelers the previous year, but the Packers offered a combination coach-general manager situation.  Paterno apparently liked the idea of that kind of control.  Two reputable people later said Paterno would have taken the Packers job if it was offered, and one public statement he made indicated he was very interested.

The recent Press-Gazette story says Canadeo and another member of the executive committee strongly favored Paterno because the Penn State coach reminded them of Vince Lombardi, the iconic Packers coach.  Paterno and Lombardi both grew up in Brooklyn and were Catholics of Italian descent.  They knew each other dating to the 1940s when they were rival high school coaches.  In the 1960s, Lombardi often consulted Paterno about the abilities of college players.

Despite the Lombardi connection, Canadeo and his associate did not prevail.  The committee voted 5-2 to hire Devine.

When Canadeo heard the news, he became livid, the story goes.  As he left home for the next day’s executive committee meeting, he was so distraught he smashed through the garage door when he backed his car out into the driveway.  A daughter had used the car earlier and left the door up when she came home.  As Canadeo stormed out of the house, he didn’t notice and he hit the garage door opener button, closing the door just before he drove through it.

Devine compiled a dismal record at Green Bay.  Paterno became the top winning coach in college football history.  Perhaps the Packers’ executive board members should have listened to their old halfback who could destroy garage doors with a single mighty burst.


Kay Dennison said...

I love your Packer's stories and this one takes the cake!!!!

schmidleysscribblins, said...

The Paterno story was sad. Perhaps if he had gone to GB it would have been better for everyone.

I never heard of Tony Canadeo. But then I don't follow sports. Aunt Marge would have known who he was, however.

Thanks, Dianne