I’m just about finished with John Eisenberg’s excellent book That First Season, about Vince Lombardi’s first year in Green Bay, 1959, when he turned a team that had not had a winning record in 12 years and was coming off a 1-10-1 season that was not only the worst by record in Packers history, but was so far behind the rest of the league in facilities, prestige and attendance that the situation seemed hopeless.
Lombardi, of course, turned the team’s fortunes around immediately, leading Green Bay to winning seasons in each of his nine years at the helm, and six playoff appearances (in a time where 11-2-1 didn’t even get the Pack in the playoffs), and five NFL Championships, including Super Bowls I and II.
Eisenberg provided the background of what the culture of losing had become in Green Bay, detailing the 1958 season and the embarrassing losses in which the team clearly gave up minutes into games. The Packers played in the worst stadium, stayed at second-rate lodging on the road, and scrimped on nearly every aspect of running the team.
Lombardi changed that culture, which was at first a rude awakening for players who were used to the country club training camp and loose practices. He then took largely the same roster — player movement was quite restricted in those days — and maximized that talent to squeeze out a winning year.
This got me to thinking about the best quick franchise turn-arounds of the last 20 years… Not just single-season, but complete switch in the cultures of losing, like what Lombardi did for the Packers, into a winning situation.
NFL: Was there a bigger non-entity in the NFL than the Rams of the 1990s? Five straight losing seasons in Los Angeles, followed by four nondescript years in St. Louis and — suddenly — Super Bowl champions and “The Greatest Show on Turf.“ The good times only lasted for three years — five if you count the resurgence in 2003, and today’s Rams are making the Rich Brooks era look bountiful. But for a complete 180, it’s hard to top what Dick Vermiel started and Mike Martz finished. The Colts deserve high marks here too, as they were bad for years Before Peyton.
NBA: How bad were the Dallas Mavericks in the 90s? Twice, the Cowboys won as many or more games in a season than the Mavs. Ten straight losing seasons, nine head coaches and almost no interest. Enter Mark Cuban as owner and Don Nelson as coach, and fortunes turned fast. Dallas went from NBA Gulag to a perennial 50-plus win playoff team (nine straight and counting), and a place where players want to go. Honorable mention to Cleveland, which has basically ridden LeBron James to its resurgence from obscurity and ridicule.
MLB: I’ll need to see more from Tampa Bay to give them this, but I think they’re certainly going in the right direction. I’ll say the Indians‘ resurgence in the mid-90s, ending years of mostly sixth- and seventh-place AL East finishes, selling out Jacobs Field year after year and putting together one of the most feared offenses in history - so good that Travis Fryman hit eighth in some of those lineups.