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Tim Cook = Phil Bengston?

Tim Cook, the new CEO of Apple, should hope he doesn’t turn out like Phil Bengston.

That’s a name that crossed my mind after hearing the initial news last evening that Steve Jobs has relinquished his duties as CEO of Apple, but wants to continue, as he put it in his letter yesterday, “chairman of the board, director and Apple employee.”

So who’s Phil Bengston? He was an assistant coach working under head coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers. Bengston was named head coach in 1968 – replacing Lombardi, who continued with the team for one year as general manager before leaving Green Bay.

For those of you who are not NFL fans, Bengston took over a team that from 1959 to 1967 under Lombardi won three NFL titles before the Super Bowl era, and then won the first two Super Bowls.

Lombardi didn’t invent football, but he redefined it stressing discipline, hard work, teamwork and an unrivaled pursuit of excellence. His effect on pro football was such that the Super Bowl trophy bears his name.

In 1968 when Lombardi left the sidelines, Bengston was his hand-picked successor and took over the team was chocked full of Hall of Famers – Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke and Willie Davis to name a few.

Under Bengston the record of the 1968 Green Bay Packers was six wins, seven losses and one tie. Lombardi left Green Bay at the end of the season. His three year record at Green Bay as head coach was a mediocre 20-21-1 with no Super Bowl titles.

Bengston’s main problem was that he had the misfortune of following in the footsteps of a living legend.

Any NFL historian can tell you that my Bengston analogy to what Tim Cook faces as he takes on day-to-day operations full time at Apple is a little loose. For instance, more than a few of the Hall of Famers Bengston inherited had just about passed their primes.

Apple is now the most valuable company in the world. It is the world standard for innovation and design in consumer technology. Its “players” – iPod, iPhone and iPad, not to mention iTunes and its Apple Stores – are all on top of their games and have fundamentally changed the way consumers interact and think about technology.

Thanks to the work of Jobs and the team he assembled at Apple, consumers of its products don’t just respect, trust and like the brand. They are as fanatical about Apple as, well, people in Green Bay are about the Packers.

But the Bengston/Cook analogy still holds true in one main way – the only place Apple can go right now is down.

Not that it will anytime soon, but any decision Cook makes in the coming days, weeks or months will make bloggers, pundits and some of those inside the company say, “What would Steve have done?”

Already we are hearing about a short-term and/or long-term demise of Apple, or that Jobs’ exit as CEO will be a boon to Sony, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Samsung or any other tech company you can name, yada, yada, yada.

Jobs and Cook have developed an elite team of designers and innovators that should, for several years, continue to keep Apple on top of its game at least for several years.

Akio Morita, the legendary founder of Sony, is the only other person in my experience who had a similar type of following and success as Jobs has had with Apple. Sony survived and thrived for a few years after Morita no longer ran the company.

But nothing lasts forever.

Apple usurped Sony’s top spot as a technology leader a while ago. That’s a lesson that Cook and Apple’s management team – which still includes Jobs – has to avoid.

About Jobs, remember, he wants to remain chairman and “an employee” of Apple. But no one knows how his illness will limit his participation going forward. One can only wish Jobs well as he continues to battle to regain his health.

One more note if I may: To give you the idea of the contributions Jobs has made in his career, news of the announcement put those two other big stories of the past couple of weeks – you remember – Google buying Motorola and HP exiting the PC, phone and tablet businesses, squarely on the back burner.

Many have argued that decisions by Google, Motorola and HP were all done in reaction to the power Apple, under the direction of Steve Jobs, has over the current consumer technology marketplace.

And that’s only part of Jobs’ lengthy legacy.