Will Green Bay's `Pack' Be Back?

Maybe not this season - but fans will still flock to this distinctive, storied football franchise

PICTURE a professional sports franchise with 1,500 owners - none of whom is allowed to profit from shares.

The Green Bay Packers, one of America's most distinctive and storied sports franchises, are the only major pro team in the United States owned by the fans (many of them, presumably, Wisconsin-based). It's also the only one intended to run on a nonprofit basis: According to Mike Reinfeldt, the team's chief financial officer, any profits are to be turned over to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

These distinctions are a reflection of the club's humble beginnings in 1919, when Curly Lambeau founded the team and talked his employer, the Indian Packing Company, into supplying the equipment and practice field.

Two years later, the Packers joined teams like the Canton Bulldogs and Toledo Maroons in paying a $50 entry fee in a regional league that soon gave rise to the National Football League (NFL). Today the Packers, who play at Lambeau Field on Lombardi Lane here (they also play several games in Milwaukee each season), are the last of the NFL's town teams. Their fans, frustrated in recent decades, remain intensely faithful - determined, it seems, to maintain this metropolis of 95,000 as hallowed football turf .

The team's dark-green stadium stands as a monument to Lambeau, who coached the Packers to three consecutive league titles (and six overall), and to Vince Lombardi, who repeated the three-in-a-row feat in the 1960s.

No other NFL team has won three straight titles, even once.

The sense of tradition seemed to simmer in the hot, late-summer air two Sundays ago, when the Packers opened their season with a 23-20 overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

From the stands one could read the great Packer records, etched in gold letters: 11 years when the Packers won NFL titles (another record) and the names of the 18 Hall of Famers, including many from the Lombardi era - Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Herb Adderly, and Willie Davis, among others.

The sense of tradition is not lost today. Lambeau Field is a large, 60,000-seat facility, but the sidelines are shallow and the fans sit close to the game. Ron Wolf, the Packers' new general manager, says, "What you get here is a tremendous sense of `game day' when you walk on that field. You can really feel the people that are in the stands. You can feel their presence.

"There's a sense that this is more than a team to the people here. It's almost like a way of life. And you can feel that."

But there's more to the tradition than winning. Reading between the lines of the great Packer years, it's evident that there have been decades of drought, too. Except for a few years when the Packers have been exceptionally good, for the most part the team has been awful.

Last year's season was typical: four wins, 12 losses. That's why Wolf was hired mid-season, in November.

Wolf came to the Packers from the front office of the New York Jets, but perhaps more significant were his many years spent as a top aide to the Los Angeles Raiders' Al Davis, considered one of the shrewdest minds in the game. Wolf fired head coach Lindy Infante in December.

Now there's a new coach, Mike Holmgren, and a renewed sense of expectation. The latter was thrown for a major loss last Sunday, however, during an embarrassing 31-3 defeat by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Will the franchise turn on the upswing again? Will "the Pack" be back?

From the comments one heard in the stands, it seems doubtful. Vernon Kitzinger from Black Creek, Wis., a season-ticket holder since Lambeau Field was built in 1957, said he looked for a .500 season at best. Ed Lobner, who drives up to Green Bay for every home game from Rockford, Ill., said, "They'll lose more than they'll win."

Packer fans are not so much cynical as stoic. They are used to rebuilding programs that can go on for years, and end in the firing of the latest failed leader.

Coach Infante had done his best. When he arrived from Cleveland in 1988, Green Bay had a handful of players who spent as much time in the courtroom as on the practice field. ("The Pack will go 10 and 6 this year," went one local joke. "Ten indictments, six convictions.")

But although the new coach improved the Packers' decorum, he failed on the field.

Still, Packer fans have filled the stands. There's a long waiting list to buy a season ticket. They are hard-core, traditional fans who thrive on no-frills football. There's no instant-replay, Diamond-Vision scoreboard at Lambeau Field. No cheerleaders.

As one-time sports columnist and now team publicist Lee Remmel says, "Green Bay is about paper producing and cheese processing. This is largely a blue-collar town."

It's also the smallest community to field a major league franchise in any sport. The Packers raised sideline-seat ticket prices $5 per game this year to $27, to keep pace with rising costs. In recent years, the team has added so many expensive, covered seats that they almost ring the stadium. Corporations pay up to $400 per person per game to entertain clients in the skyboxes.

This year the fiscal problems focused on the Packers' top draft choice, Terrell Buckley, who was unsigned as the season began. An All-American cornerback from Florida State University, Buckley threatened to forego football for a career in baseball when his contract talks stalled. It became obvious that the threat was a negotiating ruse: As a reserve outfielder for two years at Florida State, Buckley had batted .154.

Five days after the Packers' opener, Buckley finally ended his 50-day holdout and signed a four-year, $7.1 million contract, the highest in Packer history.

Still, many fans claimed they didn't miss Buckley. His negotiating ploy stuck in their craws. From the 40-yard line, Dave Thomas grumbled, "Let him go play baseball. This is a good seat, but it ain't worth 27 bucks."

Wolf was more conciliatory. "This is a new era," he said. "The only way we're going to get better here is to get better athletes. If we can get this thing turned around, we're going to have some fun in this place."

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