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Lombardi, Vince (1913-1970)

Lombardi, Vince (1913-1970)

No individual meant more to the rise of the National Football League during the 1960s (with the possible exception of league commissioner Pete Rozell) than the legendary coach of professional football's most legendary team, Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers. The 1960s ushered in a new era in professional football: Armed with its first national television contract and rising attendance, the National Football League went from regional curiosity to the most popular sport in America within a decade.

Lombardi's success coaching the Packers from 1959 to 1967 is unparalleled in pro football history. In seven seasons, Lombardi never had a losing season, and he led the Packers to five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls. These achievements, coinciding with the NFL's rising popularity, turned Lombardi and the Packers into national celebrities. Lombardi, who sometimes used harsh methods to instill discipline, became a beloved but controversial figure, caught in the crossfire of the cultural battles of the late 1960s. To some, his coaching represented the best of American leadership; to others, the worst.

Vincent Lombardi was born June 11, 1913 to the children of Italian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. His father Harry, who owned a wholesale meat business, was a stern disciplinarian who presided over a proud, close-knit household. The Lombardis' love of family, the Catholic Church, and their Italian ancestry led young Vince to prepare for the priesthood in 1929. But after three years at Cathedral School of the Immaculate Conception, for reasons he never revealed, Lombardi left to attend St. Francis Academy in Brooklyn on a football scholarship. Lombardi played on both offense and defense, winning both a reputation as a punishing player and another football scholarship, to Fordham University.

At Fordham, Lombardi was often injured and didn't play much until his senior year. In the meantime, he met Marie Planitz, the New Jersey-born daughter of a Wall Street stockbroker. Planitz was the only girlfriend Lombardi ever had, and they married in 1940. Lombardi played both offensive and defensive guard his senior year; he was an anchor of the famed "Seven Blocks of Granite," a defense that gave up only 33 points in eight games.

Despite his reputation as a punishing and emotional player, Lombardi's dreams of a playing career floundered. After two seasons playing semipro football, Lombardi began planning for law school. Instead he accepted an offer to teach and coach sports at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey, a decision that would change his life. Coaching eight years of football at St. Cecilia, Lombardi found his calling. His system, a rigid, organized style that stressed fundamentals, found success on the field. After St. Cecilia, Lombardi became a college coach, first as an assistant at Fordham for the 1947-8 season, then at the United States Military Academy from 1948 to 1954.

Lombardi's career thrived, but he was passed over for many university head-coaching positions, a fact Lombardi attributed to anti-Italian discrimination. In 1954, he accepted a position as assistant coach with the NFL's New York Giants. In four years as New York's masterful offensive coordinator, Lombardi pioneered coaching techniques, especially the use of film to teach players. In 1958, three years after CBS had signed the first contract to show NFL games nationally, Vince Lombardi was named head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

Lombardi inherited a team with eleven consecutive losing seasons, one plagued by a lack of leadership, poor organization, and undisciplined players. But the new head coached awakened the Packers instantly when, at his first team meeting, he announced that anyone unwilling to work hard enough to win should leave the team. Talented players who were once either too timid (like Bart Starr) or temperamental (like Paul Hornung) thrived under Lombardi's un-challenged authority, and in Lombardi's first season the Packers finished 7-5.

But that was only the beginning. From 1960 to 1966, Lombardi's Packers went 103-20-3 and won five world titles. They were a highly disciplined team that won with toughness, not flash. In their signature play, the sweep, offensive linemen pulled away from the line of scrimmage and formed a wall of blockers, smashing open holes for the following ball carrier. The Packers' tough play quickly gained fans across the nation, and their success catalyzed the NFL's advances in the popular consciousness.

During this time, Lombardi became the face of professional football around the world. His book, Run to Daylight, was a bestseller. He became extremely popular on the lecture circuit, espousing not only his theories on football but also society and politics. Lombardi was lavished with praise by some, including many in business, for his intelligence, character, leadership, and commitment to God and family. During the late 1960s, when so many institutions and leaders were under fire, Lombardi was perceived as evidence that old notions of authority remained tenable and desirable. But critics condemned Lombardi as blunt, rude and dictatorial, an antiquated symbol of an outmoded leadership style. This dual public image followed Lombardi for the rest of his life.

Lombardi, however, was not so easily pigeonholed. Scarred by his experiences with prejudice, he was a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement and insisted all of his players be treated equally while traveling in the South. Lombardi also supported gun control. But the coach found the 1960s counterculture and antiwar activists antithetical to the values of order and loyalty he held dear, and spoke out vehemently against them. Like many Americans, Lombardi was trying to make sense of the changing world around him. His complicated evaluation of that world undoubtedly contributed to his popularity across the ideological spectrum, a popularity that allowed both Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon to consider Lombardi as a running mate for vice-president.

In 1968, Lombardi retired as coach of the Packers, but restlessness led him back to football, and he became coach and general manager of the Washington Redskins in 1969. Lombardi soon fell ill, however. Ravaged by cancer, he died with wife Marie by his side on September 3, 1970 at the age of 57. After his death, the NFL renamed its championship trophy after Lombardi, honoring the man whose gridiron success and public persona defined the modern era of professional football.

—Alexander Shashko

Further Reading:

Lombardi, Vince, with W.C. Heinz. Run to Daylight! Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1963.

O'Brien, Michael. Vince: A Personal Biography of Vince Lombardi. New York, William Morrow, 1987.

Wells, Robert W. Lombardi: His Life and Times. Madison, Wisconsin House, 1971.

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