The neon lettering on the sign in the deserted parking lot radiates the words Title Town Motel in a warm, insistent glow, bathing the entrance to the motel lobby in pink light. The sign seems unremarkable, but in this case looks are deceiving. For in the irony of its name—followed forlornly by the word VACANCY—the Title Town Motel speaks volumes about the past dozen years in Green Bay, Wis.
The motel is about a mile east of Lam-beau Field, where the Packers play. It is managed by Don Schulze, an engaging man with a tattoo of a skunk of his right arm. Sometimes people ask Schulze why he has that skunk on his arm, but mostly they ask him about the name of the motel. And Schulze tells them, explaining patiently to out-of-town guests just what the Packers once were to the NFL and what Green Bay was, too.
"A lot of the people who come in here don't even know what the name means," Schulze says, jerking his skunk toward the sign. Schulze seems to regard the neon sign with a curator's detachment, as if it were a totem from a lost civilization. And in its way, the sign is that. The ownership of the motel has changed hands in recent years, but no one ever got around to changing the name to something a little more current.
"It's just wishful thinking, I guess, that someday the Packers are going to be up there on top again," Schulze says. "People around here still have it in their heads that this is Title Town, U.S.A., and they can't seem to let the idea go."
Indeed, although Green Bay won the last of its 11 NFL championships in 1967, the town still seems to expect that at any minute the Pack will be back, as if it were saddled up and ready to come riding in from Milwaukee. After the post-Lombardi Packers went through seven comparatively mediocre seasons—first under Phil Bengtson, then Dan Devine—there was such a groundswell in 1975 to make Bart Starr the head coach that Starr himself now describes his five-year stewardship of the Packers as "a mandate" from the people.
Last week, however, Starr's constituency seemed to be on the verge of turning his mandate into a vote of no confidence. Then on Sunday, just when it looked as if nothing could save Starr, a Polish placekicker named Chester Marcol decided to try running back a kick—his own kick—and the Packers amazingly won their season opener 12-6 over the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.
As quarterback of the Packers through the dynasty years, Starr had been the embodiment of excellence, intelligence and tenacity. When he became coach, he served as a living touchstone to the past, and even as the losses mounted, his popularity never seemed to wane. When the Packers opened training camp this year and held an autograph day, it was Starr, despite his 26-47-1 won-lost record, who had the longest lines waiting to get his signature.
But it was not far into the preseason before things went sour. The Packers played a 0-0 tie with San Diego and then lost their next four games. They were shut out three times (including the tie), and in their final three exhibitions were out-scored 69-3. The Pack averaged just 63.6 yards per game rushing for those five games. Against Denver in the only preseason contest played at Lambeau Field, Green Bay reached rock bottom, losing 38-0 and getting booed off-the field. For the first time since he arrived as a player in 1956, Starr was jeered by a hometown crowd, his crowd—one fan even poured beer on his head. And for the first time since he had become the Packers' coach, his job appeared to be in jeopardy.
Probably the only thing that had saved Starr this long was the fact that the Packers are a publicly owned team, run by a seven-man executive committee that has always been swayed by public opinion in hiring and firing. "What it boils down to is the fact we couldn't have hired anyone but Bart Starr," said one member of the executive committee. "The fans, media, everybody wanted Bart. They would have hung us if we didn't pick him. Now they're trying to fire him."
Executive Committee President Dominic Olejniczak had once said, "The fans hired Bart Starr, the fans will have to fire him." Last week Olejniczak issued what amounted to a vote of confidence in Starr. "We're conscious of the fact we've got a responsibility to the fans, who are the stockholders," said Olejniczak, "but there's no way we're going to make a rash decision. We never talk in terms of how long Bart has got to turn things around. I think the people of Green Bay were pleased with our decision when we hired Bart, but this thing is really cockeyed. I guess it's a new world today—produce or else."