Dome over Lambeau?!?
Kelly O’Day photos
During training camp in 1966, Green Bay Packers coach and general manager Vince Lombardi floated a most remarkable idea.
We’re thinking about putting a dome over Lambeau Field, he said that August.
Lambeau Field has been renovated and expanded six times over the last 50 years, but there is not and never has been a dome.
Why, then, did Lombardi explore one? Simply put, the weather, long a late-season concern in Green Bay.
In the 1940s, Packers coach Curly Lambeau predicted teams eventually would play indoors. “He was a visionary,” Packers historian Cliff Christl says.
For decades, the NFL rarely scheduled the Packers to play in Green Bay after Thanksgiving. When the Packers were home after Thanksgiving during the regular season, it usually was in Milwaukee, in presumably better weather.
In all but one season from 1924 to 1965, the Packers played their last two regular-season games on the road, again in presumably better weather. From 1950 to 1963, the Packers ended their regular season with two games on the West Coast, at Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1964 and 1965, they played their regular-season finale on the West Coast. The 1966 schedule was to be the same, with two road games to end the season and the season finale in Los Angeles.
But for all that history, Lombardi likely thought back only eight months as he pondered building a dome over Lambeau Field. He likely thought back to Jan. 2, when the Packers hosted the Cleveland Browns in the NFL championship game.
On New Year’s Day, the U.S. Weather Bureau offers this forecast for the next day’s game at Lambeau Field: Snow flurries early, then rain by game time, with northeast winds and a high of 34.
Instead, a surprise winter storm socks Wisconsin early on the morning of the game. The storm dumps 4 inches of wet snow in Green Bay and more elsewhere in the state.
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle never considers a weather postponement.
“You may be better equipped to handle this sort of thing here than any other place in the league,” Rozelle tells the Packers.
At 5 a.m., Lambeau Field manager Johnny Proski and a crew of 75 – mostly teenagers – start removing hay from the playing field. The snow keeps coming, so Proski’s crew uses shovelers and two Jeeps and three trucks with brushes to clear the field.
“This is absolutely the worst I’ve ever seen right before a game,” Proski says.
It takes the Browns’ bus an hour and 20 minutes to make the 38-mile trip up Highway 41 from their hotel in Appleton. They arrive at 11:50 a.m. Kickoff is at 1 p.m.
Wisconsin Gov. Warren Knowles tries to fly to Green Bay for the game, but his plane is diverted because of the weather. The State Patrol tries to drive Knowles from Oshkosh to Green Bay, but northbound 41 is jammed with Packers traffic. So Knowles turns around and heads back to Madison to watch the game on TV.
Packers radio announcers Ted Moore and Blaine Walsh, driving up from Milwaukee, are late for the game. Local broadcaster Les Sturmer fills in until they arrive.
The NFL championship game is played in dreadful conditions.
On the Packers’ first touchdown, the wind blows Bart Starr’s pass short, but flanker Carroll Dale adjusts on the fly. Dale catches the ball at the Browns’ 17-yard line and scores on a 47-yard touchdown pass.
“It wasn’t like on a drawing board, but it worked out all right,” Dale says.
The field becomes a quagmire.
Packers halfback Paul Hornung plods through the sodden turf, careful to not lose his balance as he follows pulling guard Jerry Kramer around the left side on a 13-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The play – like many others – seems to unfold in slow motion.
Between the poor field conditions and the Packers’ defense, Browns’ star Jim Brown can’t get anything going. He’s held to 50 yards rushing on 12 carries in the last game of his Hall of Fame career. The Browns manage only 161 total yards in the game.
Players from both teams are caked in mud, even during postgame interviews.
The Packers win 23-12, earning their ninth NFL championship and their third under Lombardi. It is a day to remember.
Eight months later, Lombardi remembers.
“It’s just in the talking stage,” he says, casually dropping the idea of building a dome over Lambeau Field to keep nasty weather at bay.
It’s not known who’s talking, but Lombardi has explored the idea enough to know a dome would be architecturally feasible.
Truth be told, it would be more a roof than a dome, open at both ends of Lambeau Field. The roof would be retractable, allowing the sun to reach the playing field and allowing open-air games on nice days.
When and if the plan is approved, it would take two years to complete, Lombardi says.
“Snow is a constant threat in the latter stages of the season,” the Green Bay Press-Gazette writes of Lombardi’s reasoning. The next line of the story cites January’s messy NFL championship game at Lambeau Field.
At the time, the year-old Houston Astrodome is the nation’s only domed stadium.
“However, several other cities, including Boston and Chicago, are talking about putting domes on stadiums to be built in the future,” the Press-Gazette reports.
Lombardi’s idea is not big news in Green Bay. The Press-Gazette story is just seven paragraphs long and does not have a writer’s byline, signaling a lack of importance. The newspaper apparently doesn’t pursue the story.
It isn’t until three months later that the notion of a dome over Lambeau Field pops back into the news.
Lombardi is asked about the idea at the Mike and Pen Club’s noon meeting at the Beaumont Inn in downtown Green Bay. He’s making the rare – and most likely reluctant – appearance before the local media group during the Packers’ bye week in early November of 1966.
“That’s just conversation,” Lombardi says of the Lambeau Field dome, quickly dismissing the question without elaborating.
Christl has heard the story, but he doesn’t know how seriously it was considered at the time. However, he’s fairly certain the idea wasn’t dropped “because anyone was worried about preserving the charm of Lambeau,” he says. “It really didn’t have any charm at that point.”
It certainly didn’t. In 1966, Lambeau Field was just nine years old, its plain metal bleachers roughly horseshoe-shaped, with the north end still open.
Lombardi’s dome, of course, is never built. But his idea doesn’t die.
For years afterward, members of the Packers’ executive committee occasionally discuss the notion of putting a dome over Lambeau Field. By the early 1980s, they’re giving it serious thought.
In 1982, the Packers hire a team of architects and engineers to explore the feasibility of putting an air-inflated fabric roof over Lambeau Field. It is doable, they conclude.
The architect’s rendering on the cover of the feasibility study suggests a Lambeau Field that resembles the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis or the Pontiac Silverdome in suburban Detroit, both then among the NFL’s newest stadiums.
With a price tag of at least $16 million – $40 million in today’s dollars – that Lambeau Field dome also is never built.
Yet Curly Lambeau thought one might be necessary some day, as did Vince Lombardi. Never say never.