Coenen's book recounts the NFL's ascension from laughingstock into pro sports' current blue-chip stock.
Craig Coenen, Ph.D. ’01, who grew up near historic Lambeau Field and is a life-long Green Bay Packers backer, received numerous signs that Lehigh University was the ideal place to earn his advanced degree.
The most obvious was the street sign for Packer Avenue, which runs through Lehigh’s campus. Another one appeared early on in the person of Lehigh history professor William Shade.
As Coenen began graduate school at Lehigh, Shade asked him what he planned to write his dissertation about. Coenen responded: “Something about urban studies, I guess.”
Without skipping a beat, Shade shot back: “You’re from Green Bay, so you must love the Packers and pro football. Why don’t you write about that?”
The rest is history, or to be more accurate, an early history of the NFL. Much like the highly successful sports league that Coenen chronicled, his project grew exponentially from a masters’ thesis into a dissertation into a book, From Sandlots to the Super Bowl
, published by University of Tennessee Press
“It took almost a decade, but it was truly a labor of love,” says Coenen, an assistant history professor at Mercer County (N.J.) Community College. “I had so much help, especially from people here at Lehigh like Roger Simon, my dissertation adviser and mentor, who must have read my manuscript 10 times and always offered terrific advice.”
In the book, Coenen recounts the NFL’s ascension from a cash-strapped laughingstock into professional sports’ current blue-chip stock. Starting in Canton and Massillon, Ohio and ending in Los Angeles with Super Bowl I (in which Coenen’s beloved Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10), Coenen’s book offers an entertaining history lesson on the first five decades of America’s most popular pro sport.
In order to produce the book, Coenen traveled to small towns that were home to some of pro football’s earliest teams (i.e. Canton, Ohio; Rock Island, Illinois; Pottsville, Pa.) and spent part of his fellowship year in 1998-99 living in Columbus, Ohio, literally watching miles-worth of microfilm and practically taking up residence at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I was such a regular visitor that I was on a first-name basis with everyone who worked in the Hall of Fame’s archives,” Coenen recalls.
Working on the book for the past decade has transformed Coenen into an expert on the NFL’s early history. Ask him who was the most influential person during the NFL’s first 50 years and Coenen replies without hesitation, “Joe Carr.”
“Carr was the first real president of the league and helped transform it from a struggling business with insolvent franchises into a league that had successful franchises in major cities,” Coenen says. “The NFL wouldn’t be what it is today without Joe Carr.”
Oddly enough, there could be countless more trips to Canton, Ohio in Coenen’s future. His book has been so well received that his publisher is interested in a sequel that would trace the history of the NFL from the first Super Bowl to the present.
“I’d love to write the rest of pro football’s history,” Coenen says. “We’ll have to see what happens.”
In the meantime, Coenen remains quite busy, teaching five history courses at Mercer Community College as well as a course at Lehigh this semester on United States history since 1945. If that weren’t enough, Coenen and his wife, Susan—who were introduced by Lehigh graduate Grete Haentjens—have a son Teddy, who turns 1 in March.
Teddy, who is named after Craig’s dad, has been a Packers fan literally since birth. He already owns a miniature Brett Favre jersey and sits at somewhere near 64,000 on the waiting list for Packers’ season tickets; Craig is number 19,079 on that same list.
“One of my biggest challenges as a dad will be keeping him a Packers fan,” jokes Coenen. “Let’s face it, we live in the heart of Eagles country here in the Lehigh Valley. But the Coenens are Packers fans; that’s our history.”
Spoken like a true NFL historian.
Lehigh Alumni Bulletin Online