Dan Devine, a hall-of-fame football coach who never quite fit the mold, died Thursday at his home in Tempe, Ariz., after a long battle with heart problems. He was 77.
By all apparent standards--his college teams won more than 74% of their games--Devine was one of the most successful coaches in the country.
Often, however, particularly in his last two assignments, he found himself defending his coaching, his career and his style.
“I don’t understand,” he said once. “I’ve stood across the field from [legendary coaches] Bud Wilkinson of Oklahoma and Bob Devaney of Nebraska. I’ve beaten their teams. And they say I can’t coach?”
That wasn’t what they were saying when, in 1955, at 31, he took over a an average program at Arizona State and turned it into an immediate winner, coaching the Sun Devils to a 27-3-1 record in three seasons.
Or at Missouri, where in his 13 seasons the Tigers went 93-37-7, winning two Big Eight championships and four of six bowl games.
Lombardi a Tough Act to Follow
That caught the attention of the Green Bay Packers, who had decided after three seasons, that Phil Bengtson was not going to be the next Vince Lombardi. They hired Devine as coach and general manager, and in Green Bay, one of the cradle cities of the National Football League, Devine began learning that winning wasn’t everything, it was the only thing.
At Green Bay, after a honeymoon first season, the Packers inspired cries of “The Pack is back!” in 1972, going 10-4 and making the playoffs.
Credit for that season, however, went largely to glory-years quarterback Bart Starr, who had abandoned a comeback and joined Devine’s staff as quarterback coach--and play caller.
Starr went on to other things the next season--he came back two years later as Devine’s successor and had problems of his own--and the team never was quite Devine’s again.
Players giggled at his habit of keeping his whistle in a jar of alcohol, and during a player strike in the summer of ’74, veterans gathered at the sideline of the practice field and hooted at Devine as he sent replacement players through their paces.
By Packer standards, Devine should have been judged at least a middling success. This was a team, after all, that had had only two winning coaches in its long and storied history, and Devine’s 25-27-4 mark in his four seasons was better than three of the other losing coaches.
Devine wasn’t Lombardi, though--wasn’t anything like Lombardi, who had taken the Packers to the heights in the ‘60s, winning five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls. Green Bay expected more of the same.
Devine couldn’t deliver that and when the situation became untenable, he, in one of the more memorable maneuvers in coaching history, not only cheated the hangman but stole the rope.
On the morning after the final game of the 1974 season--the Packers had lost to the Falcons in Atlanta the day before, finishing with a 6-8 record and three successive defeats -- reporters gathered at Packer headquarters, anticipating the announcement that Devine was being fired.
Instead, they encountered a jaunty Devine, decked out like a leprechaun in not-quite-matching green sport coat and trousers, who blithely announced, “I’m going to Notre Dame.”
And off he went to South Bend, where he regained his winning ways, leading the Fighting Irish to a 53-16-1 record in six seasons, three bowl victories and the national championship in 1977. For that, he was mildly acclaimed.
At Notre Dame, the bookish Devine was following a highly popular, highly visible Ara Parseghian, and he encountered much of the same kind of resistance he had experienced at Green Bay.
Not only was he not Vince Lombardi, now he also wasn’t Ara Parseghian.
It was the season opener for the Irish in 1975, Devine’s first game as Notre Dame’s coach. Boston College kicked off and Devine sent in the first play. The players in the huddle turned and looked to the sideline, puzzled. They didn’t recognize the play because, as it turned out, it was one used by Devine’s old team, the Packers.
Devine quickly acquired a new nickname among the players, most of whom had been recruited by Parseghian: Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling French detective of the “Pink Panther” movies.
Followed Instincts to Key Victories
Despite some skepticism, Devine regained his touch at Notre Dame, where he plucked fourth-string quarterback Joe Montana off the bench on a hunch, then watched Montana rally the Irish from a 14-0 deficit against North Carolina to a 21-14 victory.
Devine never could adequately explain that decision.
“Just a feeling,” he said.
In another coup, this one planned, Devine snookered USC in their game at South Bend during the national championship season of 1977. As Notre Dame students demonstrated around a huge Trojan horse, Devine sent his players out for the pregame warmup in their standard blue jerseys.
Then, the Irish stormed the field for the kickoff wearing green jerseys and ultimately trounced the Trojans, 49-19.
After his six seasons at Notre Dame, Devine quit coaching. He eventually went back to athletic-department jobs with his old schools, Arizona State and Missouri, and was elected to the National Football Foundation’s college Hall of Fame in 1985.
Born in Augusta, Wis., Devine earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Minnesota at Duluth in 1948 and a master’s in guidance and counseling from Michigan State.
He underwent quintuple bypass surgery in February 2001, then had another operation days later for an aneurysm, and had been ailing ever since.
His wife, Jo, who had multiple sclerosis, died in 2000. Devine is survived by his son, Dan Jr., a junior high football coach in Columbia, Mo.
A funeral will be at 10 a.m. May 17 at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Phoenix.