As unfathomable as it may have sounded months ago, a summer without fans flocking Oneida Street to watch Green Bay Packers training camp and players not boarding at St. Norbert College is now a reality. Yet, in very different circumstances, such a scenario nearly came to fruition over three decades prior.
The figure behind that proposal? Oddly enough, someone who had helped build up that tradition: Forrest Gregg.
The next in a growing line of individuals looking to change the Packers’ fortunes in the 1970s and ‘80s, Gregg had seen his first two seasons at the helm end in 8-8 finishes and was looking to shake things up for the 1986 season. The most glaring case of this was in roster turnover, releasing long-time Packers like Paul Coffman, Greg Koch, George Cumby and Mike Douglass.
Yet, another target of Gregg’s was the team’s setup for training camp. Even prior to the 1986 offseason, Gregg and the executive committee had discussed relocating the team’s training camp to the campus of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. That plan fell through when Gregg felt the 260-mile trek across the state was too far.
Still, the head coach continued to try and find a suitable summer home for the team. Understandably, the continued talk of moving training camp ruffled many in the Green Bay community.
“I know we’ve got a lot of people who plan their vacations around the Green Bay Packers’ training camp,” Gregg said to reporters in 1986. “It helps the (Packers) Hall of Fame and the economy of Green Bay. I realize that. But this is a football team and a football business. What we must keep in mind is what is best for the team. I will do what’s best for the team.”
One of the head coach’s complaints about St. Norbert College was its distance from the Oneida Street Practice Field.
“The only thing I don’t like about it is the travel back and forth,” Gregg said. “It’s the travel time I object to.”
The first stop for Gregg and other team officials in the spring of 1986 took them to Holy Name Seminary in Madison, which was the preseason camp site for the University of Wisconsin since the early 1970s. Not only would the team be able to practice and board at the same site, Gregg argued training in the state capital would be ideal leading up to the team’s soon-to-be annual preseason contest at Camp Randall Stadium.
However, the practice fields at Holy Name had a recurring problem oddly familiar to the Green Bay Packers franchise. With a lack of a sprinkler system and constant stress from cleats, the clay-laden soil dried fast and created a rock-hard surface eerily similar to what the team dealt with at the infamous Rockwood Lodge in the late 1940s.
“That’s southern Wisconsin red clay,” said Holy Name administrator Paul Stauffacher to the Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wis.) in 1986. “It becomes like baked rock. Cleats don’t work. They (the Badgers) have suffered from foot problems. There has been talk of a sprinkler system but it would have to be so extensive.”
Talk shifted later that summer to Whitewater, where the team and representatives from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater discussed holding 1987 training camp at the southern Wisconsin campus. Northern Michigan University also inquired in that summer.
“They contacted us and we reciprocated by sending (team administrative assistant Burt Gustafson) down there,” Gregg said to the Associated Press in August 1986 about the Packer’s talks with UW-Whitewater. “That’s something we’ll talk about in the offseason.”
Talk around Green Bay, though, did not wait until the offseason. Economic impact studies conducted by the Packers and the Green Bay Area Visitor and Convention Bureau noted the local economy would lose over $1.5 million ($3.5 million in 2020 dollars). Additionally, traffic to the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame doubled on a daily basis during training camp.
Pushback continued into the fall when Green Bay’s Economic Development Authority unanimously approved a resolution urging “the Packer Corporation to remain at home where fans and the economy will best be served.”
“They almost moved this year and no one knew about it,” said Alderman Dennis Srenaski to the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “If we don’t do anything, they may spring it on us next year.”
Despite the pressure, Gregg refused to acknowledge much more than that the team looked into other potential locations.
“To start thinking about next year’s summer camp, that’s sort of ridiculous,” he said at the time. “Excuse me for being rude, but it’s true. I’ve got 15 games left. Every minute of every day is occupied by getting ready for that game.”
Following a disastrous 1986 campaign (remember Charles Martin’s body slam of Jim McMahon?), multiple off-field incidents involving players, and a scathing expose by Sports Illustrated highlighting a deteriorating relationship between the team and the city, talk of moving training camp quieted in 1987. However, Gregg did get a small consolation prize in that the team moved a portion of training camp to Olympia Resort in Oconomowoc, a Milwaukee suburb. The resort offered two expansive polo fields on the southern half of the property and equipment was trucked down from Green Bay.
With the secluded fields with no fans and limited media, Gregg was pleased with the arrangement in Oconomowoc – even going so far as to take a veiled shot at the Green Bay Packers’ typical training camp arrangements in Green Bay.
“So far, I like this very, very well,” he said to the media following one of the first practices at the resort. “It’s quiet here. There’s not the screeching of tires and the sound of horns and trucks passing by. It’s conducive to learning, and I like that.”
For the players, the resort wasn’t so posh, as Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel explained in 2013:
Players were housed all on one floor of the main lodge. They changed in a makeshift area above the old golf pro shop (there were no showers or ice tubs) before trudging the half-mile to the secluded practice area. That first week, they had no cars and an 11 p.m. curfew.
Maybe a dozen reporters stood around watching on the uneven, yellowish-green grass one player referred to as “pasture.” There were no fans in the restricted area other than a few gawkers from the nearby golf course.
Following Gregg’s departure following a 5-9-1 record in 1987 and construction of the Don Hutson Center in the early 1990s, talk of moving Packers training camp has effectively vanished.