Forrest Gregg, the iron-fisted disciplinarian who coached the Bengals to their first Super Bowl, has died, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was 85.
After the 1970s ended with two 4-12 seasons, Bengals founder Paul Brown sought to revive his talented but lackluster team with organization ringed by fire and toughness. His eyes fell on a familiar face that shared a similar background.
Gregg had been an AFC Central rival until Cleveland fired him as head coach late in the 1977 season. When Brown was leading Cleveland to the NFL’s first dynasty during the 1950s before the Browns fired him, Gregg was the Packers’ second-round draft choice out of Southern Methodist and started on Green Bay’s five championship teams while gutting out 188 straight games. After Paul Brown’s good friend, former Packers head coach and then Washington head coach Vince Lombardi called Gregg a “player’s player, coach’s player,” upon his retirement, Gregg joined Brown in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the game’s great tackles.
Gregg, at age 47 still Hall-of-Fame physically imposing and fresh from beating cancer the first time, hammered in his foundation during a 6-10 season in 1980 and then watched them soar to an NFL-best 19-6 over the next two seasons that included a Super Bowl berth.
“The Cincinnati Bengals were a bunch of pearls without a string until Forrest Gregg came along,” Bengals strength coach Kim Wood told a reporter that Super Bowl week.
With quarterback Ken Anderson winning the 1981 league MVP and passing title, what is considered to be the best Bengals team ever put up a franchise-best 12-4 record and won an iconic AFC championship title in the second coldest game ever before losing to the upstart 49ers in Super Bowl XVI.
Former guard Dave Lapham, heading into his 34th season as the Bengals radio analyst, has been summing it up best for four decades. He also did that day in Pittsburgh as Gregg’s left guard when the Bengals clinched the 1981 AFC Central with a win over the Steelers
“It all started with him,” Lapham had said to The Cincinnati Enquirer in the Three Rivers Stadium locker room. “He was what we needed. It’s been said a million times. The disciple. The conditioning. He made us get into shape mentally and physically and made us believe we could win games again. Just unbelievable leadership on his part.”
Two years later on Christmas Eve Gregg stunned the Bengals when he announced he was taking the job that no son of Lombardi could turn down.
Packers head coach.
“No matter how many times he yells at you or kicks you in the pants, you still respect him,” Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth said on that day. “I respect him more than any other man or coach I’ve known. He took an average team and made it into a champion.”
According to Lapham, Gregg nearly had a second run with the Bengals when the tenure of successor Sam Wyche ended abruptly eight Christmas Eves later. But at the last minute Gregg decided to stay as SMU’s athletic director.
Gregg, who tamed cancer twice and tangled with Parkinson’s for the last eight years of his life, brought that toughness to the Bengals locker room and never was it more apparent than in the Freezer Bowl on Jan. 10, 1982 with Riverfront Stadium encased in minus-9 degrees. After playing in the coldest game ever on the last day of 1967 in the NFL title game in 13-below Green Bay when his Packers offensive line dug in on fourth-and-goal with 13 seconds left to beat Dallas in the “Ice Bowl, Gregg made it 2-0 under zero with a 27-7 win over the Chargers that put the Bengals in the Super Bowl.
“Forrest said it was going to be like going to the dentist,” Lapham said after the game. “You weren’t going to like it, but you had to do it, so let’s just concentrate on getting through it.”
Cornerback Louis Breeden recalled Gregg making them practice outdoors in the week leading up to the game. “He didn’t keep us out there very long,” Breeden said. But long enough that Breeden wondered, what the heck are we doing out here?
The answer went all the way back to 1960 on an icy mud match in Philadelphia, where the Packers’ bid for an NFL title ended on the Eagles 10 in a 17-13 loss. The way Gregg remembered it on the 20th anniversary of the Freezer Bowl, Lombardi never practiced indoors again on the way to five championships.
“If there’s one thing I learned from Lombardi,” Gregg told Bengals.com, “it was if you’re going to play outdoors, you have to practice outdoors. I think that helped us more than anything because we got more reps, more plays in that week outside.”
There has been some debate if Lombardi ever called Gregg the best player he ever had. Some give that honor to running back Paul Hornung. But there’s no question Lombardi put him in the upper echelon.
“Watching him perform, watching him execute those assignments, you get that good feeling, and he has all the requisites,” Lombardi once said of Gregg. “He’s big enough and, although he’s not quite as strong as either Bob Skoronski or Norm Masters, at the other tackle, he’s strong enough, and he handles people like Gino Marchetti of Baltimore, Jim Houston of Cleveland and Lamar Lundy of Los Angeles, who are some of the best defensive ends in this league.
“He’s a fine downfield blocker, too. His speed isn’t great but he’s very quick off that ball and he has that mental sharpness to adjust quickly to sudden situations. He has that knack of getting in front of that runner and, with his excellent sense of timing, of making the key block … When you combine all this in an offensive tackle with his ability and willingness to play guard you’ve got quite a man.”
Bengaldom couldn’t have agreed more.
“It’s a sad day here. My memories of Forrest are very special. He not only was the coach of the team, but we were also good friends. As a coach, he was very successful here. We had good people, good players and he got the best out of them. He was demanding. The players didn’t try to cut corners. They went out and did what they had to do, and what we were doing worked. We were somewhat ahead of the curve at the time. It saddens me greatly that he’s gone and I express sympathy to Barbara and his children.” Bengals President Mike Brown