The story of Tom Hearden
Janson Mancheski – author of, “Shoot for the Stars: The Tom Hearden Story.”
BY RICH PALZEWIC
Tom Hearden is a name that most Green Bay fans haven’t heard. That’s because he was never a head coach for the Packers, but by all accounts was as close as a person could get.
With the 50-year anniversary of Vince Lombardi’s hiring in 1959 fast approaching, I wanted to look deeper into the story about how the legendary coach got to Green Bay – or more importantly how he almost didn’t make it here.
Janson Mancheski, the author of “Shoot for the Stars: The Tom Hearden Story,” says it’s probable that only one out of 100 Green Bay fans would know the name of Hearden.
In my brief time as Packerland Pride editor, I’ve talked to countless people on this matter and only a few were familiar with the former Green Bay East High School coach. I hadn’t known about him until I recently read Mancheski’s book.
Hearden might have prevented Lombardi from becoming the head coach of the Packers if he hadn’t suffered a stroke in the summer of 1957.
He played college football for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, then professionally in the National Football League as a halfback for the Packers for five games under Curly Lambeau (1927-28) and the Chicago Bears under George Halas a year later.
Hearden then moved into the coaching ranks. After his stint at East he was hired at St. Norbert College in De Pere, going 40-14 in his time there in the middle 40s to early 50s. Then, he became an assistant coach with Green Bay in 1954 and UW-Madison in 1956.
“If you think about it,” Mancheski said, “Hearden is probably the only guy – at least the only one I know – to play for Rockne, Lambeau and Halas in his career. I can’t think of a more historical trio than those three, so he was influenced by some great coaches.
“The impression I always got from my dad was that Hearden was a good clubhouse guy and a great motivator with his speeches. He wasn’t like Lombardi where you hated him at the time until the end of the year when you loved him. He was more of a tactician and learned his fiery oration from Lambeau, who was a master of that.”
Janson’s late father, Alvin “Al” Mancheski, played under Hearden at East and had a successful coaching career himself. Al was a halfback during East’s 36-game winning streak achieved under Hearden in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He also played at UW-Madison under head coach Harry Struhldreher (quarterback of Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen) during the 1941-42 and 1946 seasons, and then coached on the Badgers’ staff in 1947. Mancheski was named the Wisconsin High School Coach of the Year in 1965 and was enshrined into the Wisconsin High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1980.
“My dad used to always tell me stories about Hearden and Lambeau,” said Mancheski. “East High would be practicing and the Packers would be warming up outside the field. When my dad was playing at East he told me that Lambeau and Hearden would always talk through the fence. They didn’t think of the Green Bay players as anything but bigger versions of what they were. They never hero-worshiped back then.”
With Lisle Blackbourn struggling in the last of his four years as head coach in 1957, it was a forgone conclusion that he would be let go after the season. Although not officially ever hired for the job, Mancheski said that his father and late Packers’ historian Lee Remmel always talked about how Hearden would have definitely been named the next head coach had he not suffered his stroke.
“My dad was also good friends with Remmel,” Mancheski said. “They’d sit in the press box to scout opposing teams and they would always chit chat. They’d share stories and both were on the same page that Hearden would have been named the next head coach in 1958. Packers’ historian Cliff Christl and I are good friends, too, and he told me that he got in a few conversations with Lee before he died and confirmed things as well. It was basically a done deal.”
Since Hearden and Al Mancheski became close friends, Janson always left himself to think, “what if?”
“I thought to myself many times that if Hearden had gotten the head job for the Packers, he would have had my dad as one of his assistants since they were close friends,” he said. “It’s almost like it was solidified. I grew up thinking that my dad could have been like (assistant coach) Phil Bengtson and been on the staff.”
Left without Hearden as a possible head coach, the Packers picked Ray “Scooter” McLean to be the interim head coach for the 1958 season, where he went a franchise-worst 1-10-1.
When Iowa head coach Forest Evashevski declined an offer to coach the Packers after McLean’s disastrous year, Lombardi was hired Feb. 3, 1959.
As Mancheski pointed out, both Blackbourn and his predecessor Gene Ronzani were both on four-year contracts, so even if Hearden struggled in 1959 as head coach he most likely would have been around for three more years. If Lombardi had not come to Green Bay when he did, it was thought he would become the head coach of the New York Giants very soon.
That brings up another common question: Could Hearden have made the Packers into winners like Lombardi did?
“My dad, Cliff and a number of others have noted that because of scout Jack Vainisi’s drafting in 1956-59, the Packers were loaded with future Hall of Fame talent,” added Mancheski. “With a proven winner in Hearden, and as someone familiar with most of the players, he would have turned the Packers into winners as well – perhaps not to the successful extent of Lombardi, but who knows?”
During his time in Green Bay as a scout (1950-60) Vainisi was responsible for drafting Forrest Gregg, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, Jim Ringo, Bart Starr and Jim Taylor.
Including current Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy, there have been 14 head coaches for the Green Bay Packers. It’s a good bet had Hearden not suffered a stroke that ended his coaching career, he would have been standing on the sidelines as head coach, too; and what’s even more interesting, Lombardi probably wouldn’t have set foot in Green Bay.
Editor’s notes: With permission from Mancheski, pieces of information from “Shoot for the Stars” have been used in this feature for historical purposes.
“Shoot for the Stars” is a work of historical fiction. This means that while staying true to real life events and historical accuracy as much as possible, some of the family names, circumstances, places and dialogue were altered for story-telling purposes. Much of the book is based on the stories that Janson and his father Al talked about before he passed away.