Phil Bengtson’s Sad Denouement

Phil Bengtson’s career arc was an odd one in the suddenness of its downward end. Phil was an All-America tackle as a senior at the University of Minnesota in 1934, playing on unbeaten Golden Gopher squads under Coach Bernie Bierman in both 1933 and 1934. Future coaching legend Bud Wilkinson was the quarterback on that 1934 team.

Although offered a contract to play for the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1935, Bengtson instead began his coaching career as the line coach for Don Faurot at the University of Missouri that year. Although the Tigers had been winless in 1934, Faurot turned the team into a winner in one season with his innovative Split-T offense that relied on the option play. Bengtson spent five years at Missouri before leaving to join another coaching legend, Clark Shaughnessy, who was taking over at Stanford in 1940. A year earlier, Stanford had finished 1-7-1, but converting to Shaughnessy’s T offense, the team went undefeated in 1940. Shaughnessy was replaced by Marchy Schwartz in 1942, and Bengtson went into the military where he served from 1942-45.

Discharged in 1946, Phil returned to Stanford as Schwartz’s line coach in 1946. Five years later, Bengtson joined the NFL as the line/defensive coach of the 49ers under Buck Shaw. Phil worked for San Francisco for eight years under Shaw and his successors Red Strader and Frankie Albert.

In 1959, of course, Bengtson was hired by Vince Lombardi as the Packers’ defensive coach, and Phil reached his pinnacle, establishing a championship defense that would allow just 15.9 points per game over the next 12 years, finishing first in fewest points three times, second four times and third two times. His pass defense was especially stingy, permitting the fewest pass yardage in the NFL six times. Phil was also the only one of Lombardi’s assistants to serve for all nine years of Vince’s tenure.

That loyalty and effectiveness was rewarded when Lombardi named Bengtson his successor as coach in 1968, with Phil ascending to the GM position as well a year later. From this point on, Bengtson’s career took a nose dive. He was miscast as a head coach and a terrible GM. Fired after three years as coach, Phil was hired by Sid Gillman as the Chargers’ defensive coach in 1971. However, new San Diego GM Harland Svare fired Gillman 10 games into the season. Bengtson was reassigned to the scouting department in 1972 and then given a leave of absence to serve as the Patriots interim head coach for the last five games of that season.

In January 1973, Bengtson was released by New England and then fired by San Diego three days later. In a nice turn, new Patriots’ coach Chuck Fairbanks rehired Phil as an “executive assistant” in February of the same year. Bengtson did some scouting for the Patriots through 1974 and then dropped out of football at age 61. Such a loss; he was a brilliant defensive coach, one of the greatest in NFL history, and his career just ended abruptly. It’s surprising that no team hired this defensive virtuoso through the rest of the 1970s.

Twenty years later, Bengtson died of cancer in 1994.

1968tpbengtson2  1969tpbengtson

1970tpbengtson  1972tpbengtson

All custom cards but 1968 are colorized.

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