American football coach
More than three decades after Vince Lombardi's death, books about this legendary and inspiring football coach are still making the best seller list. These books cover not only the details of his life and career but also his philosophy and practical approach to winning, which remains relevant today. His reputation as one of the most consistently successful coaches in professional football, with victories that include the first two Super Bowl games, makes Lombardi a subject of interest on and off the football field. Lombardi was famous for his locker room speeches, which provided his players with enough motivation to win games in spite of the odds stacked against them. As he gained championships, business people took notice of Lombardi's tactics, and often invited him to speak, realizing that the same winning principles could be used in their companies.
The Early Years
Vince Lombardi was born on June 11, 1913, to second-generation Italian immigrant parents. His father, Harry, was known as a big-hearted man, who wanted to give his children everything that he had had to do without in his childhood. They lived in comfortable homes and enjoyed all the necessities of life. Harry and his wife Matilda encouraged their children to seek the education that had alluded them, resulting in all three of their sons eventually receiving a college educations. One of the lessons that Harry passed onto his sons was the virtue of hard work. Thus Lombardi, from a young age, helped his father in the family butcher shop. He quickly learned how to heave enormously heavy sides of meat around the store and how to cut up the carcasses, a job he was not fond of. However, the weightlifting helped to shape his body, an asset that would later come to his aid in his athletic endeavors.
As a teenager, Lombardi fell in love with sports and would drag his friends to Yankee and Dodger baseball games and to the football stadium to watch the Giants.
He also often played sandlot football games, most of which he organized and then dictated the rules, insisting that they be followed correctly. His father encouraged his son's football interests, although his mother did not. She feared that he would be hurt.
When it was time to enter high school, Lombardi decided upon Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception Preparatory Seminary, a school not unlike other local Catholic high schools—except for the fact that the main focus of the school was to turn its scholars into priests, a role that at one time Lombardi thought he wanted to pursue. Lombardi became the center on the school's basketball team, a position in which he flourished. On the baseball team, he played outfielder and catcher. As a baseball player, he was not as adept, but his coach admired his courage. After three years at Cathedral, Lombardi decided against a religious profession and came up with a new plan. He decided to transfer to another high school and play football his senior year with the intention of winning a college scholarship. The plan worked better than he expected.
Lombardi first won a scholarship to St. Francis Prep High School in Brooklyn where he played guard on defense and halfback on offense and was described as aggressive and powerful. He also reportedly played every minute of every game. He was well liked by his teammates and his classmates and earned the respect of his teachers and coaches, who eventually helped him win a football scholarship to Fordham University. On the college level, Lombardi continued to play both offense and defense positions. In his senior year, after a particularly hard fought battle against Pittsburgh, the New York Post ran a feature story about him, referring to him as a New York hero.
First Coaching Position
After graduating from college, Lombardi floundered a bit as he tried to figure out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He had a degree in business, so he first tried his hand at that but was soon discouraged. Next, he thought he would try to obtain a law degree, but after one semester, he knew that was not what he wanted. Then he worked as a chemist for one year, but that also was not something that inspired him. He liked being around young people and thought about teaching and coaching. Then in 1939, Lombardi received a phone call from a former college classmate who asked him if he would accept a teaching job at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey. The teaching position would also offer Lombardi a chance to coach. Lombardi accepted, and this job would mark the beginning of his long, successful career in coaching.
The job at St. Cecilia's was a difficult one. Lombardi had to teach physics, chemistry, Latin, and physical education on top of coaching basketball and assisting with football. But Lombardi later claimed that his eight years at that high school were some of the best years of his life. As a coach, Lombardi was a strict disciplinarian. He studied each sport intensely, breaking it down into systematic and logical portions. Then he taught regimented plays and expected his players to follow his rules completely. A few complained that he held tight reins on his players, but most appreciated his system and enjoyed playing for him. Others noted that he frequently lost his temper whenever a player repeated a mistake. Lombardi was also known for throwing things or kicking when he got angry. However, he was a winning coach, so the dramatics were usually tolerated. When Lombardi later announced his resignation from St. Cecilia and his acceptance to become an assistant football coach at Fordham, the community gave him a farewell dinner.
Lombardi honed his coaching skills for six years on the campuses of Fordham University and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The prospects at Fordham were not very encouraging when Lombardi arrived there in 1947. At that time, the university's football record was so depressing that Lombardi believed that his St. Cecelia's varsity squad could have defeated the college team. He accepted the job, hoping that the head coach position might soon be available to him. Many people at Fordham held the same thought and tried unsuccessfully to oust the head coach, Ed Danowski. Popular sentiment for Danowski made the plan backfire, however, and Lombardi's reputation suffered in the aftermath. The atmosphere at Fordham was ruined for him, however, and after one year he left to take a job at West Point.
Colonel Earl Blaik, the head coach at West Point, was famous for his excellent training of assistant coaches. He was so good that almost every year he had to replace his assistants because they moved on to head coaching positions at other colleges. Blaik's military discipline and natural inclination toward perfectionism matched Lombardi's personality.
|1913||Born June 11 in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, New York, to Harry and Matilda Izzo Lombardi|
|1929||Enrolls as high school freshman at Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception Preparatory Seminary to study to become a priest, where he plays on both the basketball and baseball teams|
|1937||Plays guard for the semiprofessional team, the Wilmington Clippers, from Delaware|
|1938||Plays for the Brooklyn Eagles, a semiprofessional team affiliated with the American Football Association. Later this year, he enrolls at Fordham's Law School|
|1939-47||Works as teacher and coach of basketball, baseball, and football at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey|
|1940||Marries Marie Planitz|
|1942||Vincent, Jr. is born on April 27|
|1947||Susan, Lombardi's daughter, is born on February 18. Lombardi accepts the assistant football coach position at Fordham|
|1949-53||Works as assistant football coach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point|
|1954-58||Coaches the offensive team for the New York Giants|
|1959-68||Is head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers|
|1969-70||Head coach, business manager, and part owner of the Washington Redskins|
|1970||Dies on September 3|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1956||Helped coach the New York Giants to NFL Championship|
|1958||Assisted in taking the New York Giants to another NFL Championship game|
|1960||Took Green Bay Packers to league Championship|
|1961-62, 1965||Coached Packers to victories in league Championships|
|1967||Led Green Bay Packers to victory in first Super Bowl game.|
|1968||Won Super Bowl II.|
|1970||Inducted as a charter member to the Fordham University Hall of Fame. Also has the Super Bowl trophy renamed in his honor. Rotary Club dedicates an annual Lombardi Award to outstanding football linesmen. The NFL named Lombardi their 1960s Man of the Year|
|1971||Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame|
|1975||Inducted into the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame Lombardi's overall professional coaching record was 105-35-6.|
After winning the Eastern championship in 1952, officials at West Point decided to downplay football. About this same time, the executives of the New York Giants had offered Blaik a chance to take on the head coach position,
but Blaik turned them down. Then the Giants, who also needed to fill an assistant coach slot, asked Blaik if they could offer that job to Lombardi; Blaik gave his approval. So in 1954, Lombardi said good-bye to West Point and headed back to his hometown with his first assignment in the professional leagues.
Moving up with the Giants
Lombardi turned forty-one during his first year with the Giants, approaching middle age in professional football. But he still had a lot to prove, and so did the Giants. Steve Owen had been the head coach for the Giants for twenty-three years. His glory days, such as in the 1934 Championship game against the Chicago Bears in a freezing rain, were behind him. Owen had one of his worst seasons in 1953, winning only three games. So the Giants offered Owen a front office job and brought Lombardi in as offensive coordinator, with Jim Lee Howell as head coach, and as defensive coach, Tom Landry , who later led the Dallas Cowboys to several championship games. Lombardi and Landry were as opposite as two people could be, except that they both had strong minds and huge imaginations that served the Giants well. They were very competitive and their respective squads got caught up in the contest to outdo one another.
The Giants reached a turning point in the mid-fifties and went all out, recruiting some of the top college players, including All-American Frank Gifford , whom Lombardi quickly recognized as one of the key players for the Giants' offense. Gifford had almost quit the team the year before and he was not sure Lombardi's arrival would make much difference. However Gifford quickly became his star, helping to take the Giants to first place in the Eastern Conference three years in a row, winning the right to play in the NFL Championship Games in 1956, 1957, and 1958.
If the Giants experienced a turning point upon Lombardi's arrival, Lombardi himself experienced one after successfully completing his fourth year with the New York team. In 1958, Earl Blaik decided to resign as head coach at West Point and most people thought that Lombardi would be Army's first choice to replace him. However, the academy decided to stick with tradition and to hire a West Point graduate. When Lombardi heard the news that he was no longer in contention for the position, he turned his attention to Wisconsin's Green Bay Packers, a team with a long winning history that had suffered through several losing seasons. The 1958 season ended with Green Bay eking out only one victory. Although the executives at Green Bay knew very little about Lombardi, Blaik and Paul Brown , head coach of the Chicago Bears, highly recommended him, and on January 28, Lombardi signed a five-year contract with the team in the dual role of head coach and general manager.
Legendary Years with the Packers
By the time that Lombardi arrived in Green Bay, his knowledge of football was as strong as the best professional coaches in the league. His task in those first few months was to get to know the players. The New York Giants and the Packers were in different conferences, so Lombardi had had little opportunity to see them play. He had been right to choose Gifford as his key player for the Giants, and he needed to find someone similar for the Packers. His intuitions told him that player might be Paul Hornung , a Heisman Trophy winner from Notre Dame. Like Bart Starr , an equally talented young Packers player, Hornung considered quitting the team after suffering through a first miserable year with the Packers. However, something about Lombardi made both players want to give football one more chance. Hornung became Lombardi's left halfback and Starr his quarterback. Both proved to be wise choices.
Lombardi's genius was demonstrated in many ways, but the one that his players appreciated the most was the way he reduced each play down to its basic elements. Lombardi threw out much of the repetitive jargon that many coaches forced their players to memorize. Instead of a code system, Lombardi used one number to designate each play. The playbook that each player had to memorize was one-third the size of other coaches' playbooks. He also relieved some of the pressure on the quarterback by having offensive linemen call their own blocking patterns. He was a tough disciplinarian, but he knew the game, and the players admired his knowledge and the way he taught. Having had experience in the classroom, Lombardi knew that he had to make each and every player understand his system of football. Although repetitive, his method of teaching was rarely dull, for he had a way of making everything that he and his players did seem of utmost importance.
Lombardi also drilled into their heads that his players represented the Packers on and off the field. This meant that on trips, they were required to wear their blazers and ties at all times while in public. He also enforced strict curfews and rules of social conduct that they were required to follow. Right before their first practice, as quoted in Michael O'Brien's book, Vince: A Personal Biography of Vince Lombardi, Lombardi told his new team, "I've never been a losing coach, and I don't intend to start here.… I'm going to find thirty-six men who have the pride to make any sacrifice to win." He then added that if any of them sitting in front of him were not capable or not willing to do so, he would find someone to replace them. Later, he confided to one of the veteran players, Max McGee, that he had been concerned that they might all stand up and leave town at the end of his speech.
For the nine years that Lombardi worked with the Packers he never saw a losing season. In those nine years, the Packers played six League Championship games, winning five of them. They also won the first and second Super Bowl games. With Lombardi at the helm, the Packers seemed unstoppable. However the wear and tear, both physical and emotional, on Lombardi began to show, and after winning Super Bowl II, he announced his retirement.
The Last Years
It did not take long for Lombardi to realize that retirement was not for him. He had tried to keep himself busy promoting products for several commercial companies as well as maintaining his responsibilities as general manager of the Packers. As the NFL Players' Association gained strength and threatened to strike, Lombardi became involved in the negotiations. However, this was not enough to satisfy him. So when the owners of the Washington Redskins made him an offer in February of 1969, it did not take long for Lombardi to accept it. He was made head coach, general manager, and part-owner of the team.
Like the Packers, the Redskins were an old franchise that had seen its glory years. Lombardi turned them around, making their 1969 season one of the best in their history. Sonny Jurgensen, the beloved quarterback for the Skins—an excellent passer who had suffered many years with poorly coached defensive teams—became what Frank Gifford and Paul Hornung had been before him. Had Lombardi lived longer, the Redskins may have enjoyed a longer winning streak, but that was not in the plans. On June 24, 1970, Lombardi entered Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC, for tests. The results determined that he had colon cancer. Although Lombardi fought his disease with his usual pattern of strict discipline and prayer, he succumbed to the disease on September 3.
When Football Mattered
What has changed most clearly from Lombardi's era is … the dramatic shift in the balance of power between players and their bosses because of big money and free agency. Would that shift have necessarily led to the Old Man's failure and broken heart? Only if one believes that his leadership style was inflexible and wholly dependent on his not-so-benevolent despotism. But that is buying into the myth of Lombardi. The reality is that behind his seemingly quaint notions of spartan discipline, team love, and obedience to the leader, he was surprisingly adaptable. … Had he livedlonger, he would have persisted in that philosophy, adjusting to the changing times and in so doing making the times bend a little to him. …
Source: David Maraniss. Esquire, September 1997, p. 80.
A story in the Green Bay Press-Gazette on September 8, 1970, stated that at a dinner party at the White House, President Nixon, upon hearing of Lombardi's death, proclaimed that Lombardi was a "man who in a time when the moral fabric of the country seems to be coming apart, he was a man who was deeply devoted to his family … at a time when permissiveness is the order of the day.… he was a man who insisted on discipline … and strength." A few days before he died, Lombardi received a large bouquet of flowers in his hospital room. As reported in David Maraniss's book, When Pride Still Mattered, the card attached to the flowers read: "You are a great coach and a great individual to all of us." The card was signed by the National Football League Players Association.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY LOMBARDI:
(With W. C. Heinz) Run to Daylight, Fireside, 1963.
Vince Lombardi's Pro Football Guide, edited by Ray Stergener, Aurora Publishers, 1970.
Lombardi: Winning Is the Only Thing, edited by Jerry Kramer, World Publishing Company, 1970.
Vince Lombardi on Football, edited by George L. Flynn, New York Graphic Society, 1973.
Coaching for Teamwork: Winning Concepts for Business in the Twenty-First Century, Reinforcement Press, 1995.
Seeing the Win: Why I Believe Vision-Coaching Is Vital to Winning Business Teams in the Twenty-First Century, Dartnell Corporation, 1997.
Winning Is a Habit: Vince Lombardi on Winning, Success, and the Pursuit of Excellence, edited by Gary R. George, Haper Collins, 1997.
(With Jennifer Briggs) Strive to Excel: The Will and Wisdom of Vince Lombardi, Rutledge Hill Press, 1997.
Dowling, Tom, Coach: A Season with Lombardi. W. W. Norton, 1970.
Etter, Les, and Herman B. Vestal, Vince Lombardi: Football Legend. Garrard Publishing Company, 1975.
Fage, John Norwood, Vince Lombardi. Pendulum Press, 1979.
Flynn, George, Vince Lombardi on Football. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.
Klein, David, The Vince Lombardi Story. Lion Books, 1971.
Kramer, Jerry, and Dick Schaap, Coach Vince Lombardi's Power to Motivate. Listen U.S.A., 1987.
Kramer, Jerry, Lombardi: Winning Is the Only Thing. Ty Crowell Company, 1976.
Lombardi, Vince, Jr., and John Q. Baucom Baby Steps to Success. Starburst Publishers, 1997.
Lombardi, Vince, Jr., The Essential Vince Lombardi: Words and Wisdom to Motivate, Inspire, and Win. McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Lombardi, Vince, Jr., What It Takes to be Number 1: Vince Lombardi on Leadership. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Maraniss, David, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. Touchstone Books, 2000.
May, Julian, Vince Lombardi: The Immortal Coach. Crestwood House, 1975.
Myers, Hortense, Vince Lombardi, Young Football Coach. MacMillan Publishing Company, 1971.
O'Brien, Michael, Vince: A Personal Biography of Vince Lombardi. Quill, 1989.
Roensch, Greg, Vince Lombardi (Football Hall of Famers). Rosen Publishing Group, 2002.
Schoor, Gene, Football's Greatest Coach, Vince Lombardi. Doubleday, 1974.
Wells, Robert W., Vince Lombardi: His Life and Times. Prairie Oak Press, 1997.
Towle, Mike, ed., I Remember Vince Lombardi: Personal Memoirs of and Testimonials to Football's First Super Bowl Championship Coach as Told by the People and the Players. Cumberland House, 2001.
Zalewski, Ted, Vince Lombardi—He is Still with Us. Children's Press, 1974.
Green Bay Packers. Green Bay Packers History. http://www.jt-sw.com/football/pro/teams.nsf/histories/packers/ (September 28, 2002).
Real Men/Vince Lombardi. Manlyweb. http://www.manlyweb.com/realmen/vincelombardi.html/ (September 18, 2002).
Vince Lombardi. The official website of the greatest coach of all time. http://www.vincelombardi.com/ (September 28, 2002).
Sketch by Joyce Hart
Died September 3, 1970
Vince Lombardi, considered by many to be America's greatest football coach, was in many ways more connected to an earlier era. He achieved his greatest fame in a culture that placed increasing value on youth, individuality, and rebelliousness. Yet Lombardi championed teamwork, faith, and discipline. Lombardi rose to national fame after he took charge of the unlucky Green Bay Packers professional football team. In just eight years, he led the team to four league championships and two Super Bowls. During the 1960s, Lombardi became a national folk hero. His pithy comments about winning and losing were heard and discussed across the nation. For every American who sought to be part of the anti-establishment or counterculture movement, there was at least one other who agreed with Lombardi's widely quoted statement: "It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do, and to win, and to win, and to win."
"I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is the moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle—victorious."
Strict Catholic upbringing
Lombardi was born into an Italian American family that had lived out the immigrant dream of doing well financially in the United States. His father, Enrico, had come to the country from Italy with his parents in 1892, when he was just two years old. A fifth-grade dropout, Enrico "Harry" Lombardi was a hard worker who built a successful wholesale meat business with his brother in Brooklyn, New York. He married an Italian American girl, Matilda Izzo, in 1912. On June 11, 1913, they had their first son, Vincent. The family grew to include five children. Vince was seventeen years old when his youngest brother was born.
Lombardi biographer Michael O'Brien wrote in Vince: A Personal Biography of Vince Lombardi, that "The Lombardis' experience resembled that of most Italian Americans: the supportive, tight-knit family, the nearby relatives, faith in the Catholic Church, and the bitter taste of discrimination." But unlike many children of immigrants, the Lombardis were not poor. They lived in comfortable middle-class neighborhoods, first in Brooklyn, New York, and later in Englewood, New Jersey.
Harry Lombardi was strict and disciplined his children. A perfectionist in all things, he was a devout Catholic. Lombardi remembered that his father taught him that "before you can exist as an individual, the first thing you have to accept is duty, the second thing is respect for authority, and the third … is to develop a strong mental discipline," as quoted by O'Brien. These values were confirmed by Lombardi's education at Catholic schools. For a time Lombardi believed that he would enter the priesthood. He enrolled at the Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception Preparatory Seminary at the age of fifteen. Within two years, however, Lombardi dropped his dream of becoming a priest and transferred to St. Francis Preparatory School. There, he began to pursue a new vocation: football.
Majors in football
Lombardi was a good student at St. Francis, but he was an even better football player. However, he stood only 5 feet 8 inches tall and barely topped 170 pounds. He made up for his lack of size with a determination and ferocity that sometimes stunned his teammates. He won a scholarship to Fordham University, then the nation's largest Catholic university. Football in the 1930s was a tough, sometimes brutal game. Helmets had no facemasks, and padding was minimal. The plays were simple, with few complicated blocking schemes or pass routes. The best teams were those that simply blocked and tackled better than their opponents. Fordham was one the best. Under coach Jim Crowley, the Fordham Rams beat some of the top teams in the country. Though small, Lombardi was a hard-hitting offensive guard on a line that was nicknamed the "Seven Blocks of Granite." It is widely considered the best offensive line in college football history. The Rams came up one game shy of an undefeated season in 1936. It was Lombardi's senior year when they narrowly lost their last game of the year.
Although stories once circulated that Lombardi graduated with distinction from Fordham, in truth he was a fairly average student, earning mostly Bs and some Cs. According to David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, "The highlight of his academic career was an A on the final exam in ethics, which was the school's most rigorous course." In truth, academics were not that necessary for the career that Vince Lombardi had in mind. It was clear to everyone who knew him that he would become a football coach.
At Fordham, Lombardi met the woman who would become his companion for life: Marie Planitz. Lombardi and Planitz were an odd pair. She was the reserved daughter of a tight-lipped German stockbroker, he the rough, unrefined son of a meat seller. The two met in 1935, dated through college, and were married on August 31, 1940. They eventually had two children, Vincent Thomas and Susan.
Rises through the coaching ranks
Following his graduation from college, Lombardi worked for a brief time at a finance company and took law classes in the evening. However, he felt no calling for a life away from football. In 1939 he accepted a position as teacher and assistant football coach at St. Cecelia High School in Englewood, New Jersey. By day he taught Latin, algebra, physics, and chemistry, but in the afternoons he taught his favorite subject: football.
Lombardi became head coach at St. Cecelia in 1942. Over the course of four seasons his teams compiled a record of 39 wins, 7 losses, and 5 ties, with 6 state football championships. In one stretch his boys went 32 games without defeat and ran up 25 victories in a row. It was at St. Cecelia that Lombardi developed his distinctive coaching style. He demanded that his players perfect the basic skills of blocking and tackling. He tolerated no changes from his game plan. Some players complained that Lombardi made them play like robots, but most enjoyed the discipline that Lombardi provided—especially because it brought victory. At St. Cecelia, Lombardi also coached the basketball team to a state title.
With his winning record as ample proof that he could coach, Lombardi was hired in 1947 by Fordham, the university he had earlier attended. He served as the freshman football coach and moved up to assistant at the varsity level the next year. In 1949 Lombardi was hired by coach Earl "Red" Blaik to join his coaching staff at West Point, the Army's military academy. Blaik was a coaching legend, and his winning ways continued at West Point. Lombardi coached the offensive line, and he soaked up Blaik's coaching style, which stressed rigid organization and careful preparation. He also borrowed some of Blaik's favorite and famous expressions, such as "There is no substitute for victory" and "You have to pay the price."
Lombardi left West Point in 1954 to join the coaching staff of the New York Giants, a National Football League (NFL) professional team. The Giants were coached by Jim Lee Howell, who placed Lombardi in charge of the offense. New assistant coach Tom Landry was in charge of the defense. The coaches inherited a low-scoring team with a record of three wins to nine losses in the previous season. At first Lombardi's emotional, hard-driving style did not sit well with professional players, who resented being pushed so hard. Yet Lombardi managed to teach his players the importance of basic skills and flawless execution. His burning desire to win was hard to resist. The Giants soon became an NFL powerhouse. Coaches Lombardi and Landry were seen as rising stars in the coaching ranks. It was not long before Lombardi got the chance to be head coach of his own pro team.
Rebuilding the Packers
Vince Lombardi entered pro football at a time when the game was changing dramatically. It was overtaking both college football and major league baseball as America's favorite sport. Football, with its hard-hitting action, was well suited to television. Beginning in 1955 the CBS network began to televise games to a national audience. In 1956 a new sports magazine, Sports Illustrated, offered regular coverage of pro football. Attendance at NFL games grew from an average of 25,353 in 1950 to 40,106 in 1960. Big name teams such as the New York Giants, the Chicago Bears, and the Los Angeles Rams now had the money to build solid teams with star players. But teams from smaller cities, such as Green Bay, Wisconsin, struggled to stay competitive.
The Green Bay Packers were one of the NFL's original teams, with a history that stretched back to 1919. Ever since 1947, however, the Packers had failed to post a winning record. The residents of Green Bay were said to be the most devoted fans in the entire league. They were hungry for a winner and desperate for a winning coach. So, when Vince Lombardi asked for complete control of the team as both coach and general manager, the team's executive board gladly agreed. Lombardi became the coach of the Packers in February of 1959, beginning what would become the most legendary career of any coach in pro football.
Not long after taking charge of the Packers, Lombardi began his mission of rebuilding the team from the ground up. "We're not just going to start with a clean slate," he declared, according to Maraniss. "We're going to throw the old slate away." Lombardi remodeled the team's facilities, declaring that "you had to look good to play good." He schooled the assistant coaches in his system of play so that everyone in the organization operated from the same understanding of how the game should be played. And when he first met with his players, he insisted that they forget all the bad habits that they had learned while losing and remake themselves as a disciplined, winning team.
Lombardi recognized that the Packers did not have the greatest talent in the league. Thus, he set out to create a winning team by working harder than everybody else. He drove his players and his coaches to the point of exhaustion. The only person he drove harder was himself. It was not uncommon for Lombardi to work seventeen, eighteen, or even nineteen hours a day. Slowly, one by one, the players on the team came to believe in Lombardi, but more importantly they came to believe that they could win. When they opened the 1959 season against the Chicago Bears with a nine to six victory, the Packers lifted Lombardi atop their shoulders and carried him off the field.
The Lombardi legend
In his first season with the Packers, Lombardi helped his team to achieve its first winning record in years, seven wins to five losses. The next year the Packers played in the division championship, only to lose to the Philadelphia Eagles. Close was not good enough for Lombardi nor for the Packer faithful. They wanted more. Behind the passing of quarterback Bart Starr (1934–) and the skill of "golden boy" running back Paul Hornung (1935–), the Packers dominated the NFL throughout the fall of 1961. They met Lombardi's former team, the New York Giants, in a championship game that was seen by a record 55 million viewers. The Packers destroyed the Giants thirty-seven to zero, playing a game that many sportswriters described as near perfection.
For the next six years, the Packers were the kings of the NFL. They won championships again in 1962, 1965, and 1966. In 1967 they won the first Super Bowl, the new championship match that followed the merger of the NFL with the rival American Football League (AFL). As the coach of the most dominant team in a sport that continued to grow in popularity, Lombardi became an icon of success in Green Bay and throughout the nation. Lombardi was distinctive in his appearance and public demeanor. He was a man who became known for his earthy quotes about the importance of hard work and winning. He emphasized teamwork over individuality. With these traits, Lombardi provided great material for the sportswriters who helped change Lombardi from coach into legend.
The 1960s were a decade of popular celebrities—such as The Beatles, Muhammad Ali (1942–; see entry), and even President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry). These celebrities were young, photogenic, and "cool." However, Lombardi was middle-aged and square (both physically and morally). He wore thick glasses and had a big toothy grin. He laughed too loud and pushed too hard. He was the farthest thing from slick. Yet, somehow this fact was what made him so endearing. He treated every one of his players the same whether they were white or black. According to his famous quote, cited on the Vince Lombardi Web site, he treated all players "like dogs." He demanded commitment to
Joe Namath: The Anti-Lombardi from the AFL
Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi stood for the old-time National Football League (NFL) values of teamwork, discipline, and keeping the coach in control of the game. In contrast, Joe Namath (1943–), the controversial quarterback of the upstart New York Jets of the American Football League (AFL), stood for the values that were transforming American football and American culture. Namath had signed with the New York Jets in 1965 for the then-huge salary of $427,000 a year. He soon distinguished himself with his flashy style of play and his love for the outrageous. His famous "guarantee" that his Jets would win Super Bowl III in 1969 is widely thought to have announced a new age in American sports: the age of the brash celebrity athlete.
Namath was an excellent football player. Born in Pennsylvania in 1943, he played his college ball under legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant (1913–1983) at the University of Alabama. Namath was a controversial player while at Alabama. He rejected the racist attitudes of the South and openly befriended black teammates. He was once suspended from the team for directing traffic while intoxicated. The New York Jets of the AFL were the perfect professional team for Namath, for the team did not shy away from the media attention sought by their popular and handsome quarterback. Nicknamed "Broadway Joe" by the New York press, he quickly became known as a ladies' man. But he always played well on Sunday.
Namath led the Jets to the AFL title in 1968. His team prepared to play the NFL champion Baltimore Colts in the third title match between the champions of the rival leagues. Many football observers, including Lombardi, believed that the AFL was an up-start league whose teams would fail in direct competition with the NFL teams. After all, Lombardi's Packers had soundly defeated AFL teams in the first two Super Bowls. Yet Namath led his Jets to a stunning 16 to 7 upset of the heavily favored Colts, lending the AFL instant credibility. Soon thereafter the two leagues merged. Namath continued his career with the Jets until 1976, although he never again reached the heights of the 1969 season. He retired in 1977 after a final season with the Los Angeles Rams.
the high ideals of hard work and sportsmanship from everyone around him, and he was rewarded with great loyalty.
At a time when rock 'n' roll music, the anti-war movement, and an increased expression of sexuality claimed so much of the public's attention, Lombardi worshiped the old-fashioned values of hard work and winning. And people thrilled to his statements on these topics. "Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing," said Lombardi in one of his most famous speeches, quoted on the Vince Lombardi Web site. "You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time." He convinced his players that they could conquer any challenge if only they willed themselves to do so. When the Packers won, people believed that perhaps Lombardi was right. These values made Lombardi a national hero. Interestingly, the quotation most often attributed to Lombardi—"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing"—was not his, according to the Green Bay Packers Web site. It was actually a line from a 1953 John Wayne movie. Lombardi is quoted as saying: "Maybe winning isn't everything, but it sure comes way ahead of whatever is second." The coach also noted that the important thing was making the effort to win.
Life after the Packers
The pressure of building a winning football program began to wear on Lombardi by the mid-1960s. The stress only increased after the merger of the NFL with the AFL before the 1967 season. Lombardi was determined that the Packers would prove their dominance, which they did by defeating the AFL team and winning a third straight championship. Throughout the 1967 season Lombardi drove himself harder than ever before. "Nobody will ever know the kind of pressure it was," his wife, Marie, remembered, as quoted by O'Brien. On January 14, 1968, the team won its second Super Bowl in a row. By this time, Lombardi was worn out by nearly eight months of constant work. Two weeks later, on February 1, he announced his retirement as coach of the Packers, although he would retain the title of general manager.
Lombardi relaxed for a time. He played golf and cards, gave speeches, and accepted awards. He worked hard as the general manager of the Packers. In the end, however, Lombardi missed coaching. He did not want to undermine Phil Bengston, his replacement as coach of the Packers, but he longed to return to the field. So, Lombardi negotiated an uneasy departure from Green Bay to take over the head coach position for the then-lowly Washington Redskins. Fans and sportswriters in the nation's capital were thrilled and hoped that Lombardi would turn their players into a winning team too.
Lombardi began to work his magic with the Redskins right away, leading them to their first winning season in a decade in 1969. But all was not right with the tough coach. Early in 1970 Lombardi was plagued by a recurring illness that was soon discovered to be intestinal cancer. As his illness became public, Lombardi received many letters of support, up to five hundred letters a day. He died on September 3, 1970.
Lombardi's death was greeted with great sorrow. Thousands of people attended memorial services for the beloved coach in New York and Washington, D.C. He was given the NFL's Distinguished Service Award in 1970 and named to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1971. The trophy awarded to NFL Super Bowl champions has been known as the Lombardi Trophy since 1971. His influence continued to be felt for years thereafter, as players and assistant coaches moved on to coaching careers of their own. Lombardi was one of the most influential coaches in the history of football and an important figure in the cultural life of America in the 1960s.
For More Information
Dowling, Tom. Coach: A Season with Lombardi. New York: Norton, 1970.
Kramer, Jerry, with Dick Schaap. Instant Replay. New York: New American Library, 1970.
Lombardi, Vince, and W. C. Heinz. Run to Daylight! Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.
Maraniss, David. When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
O'Brien, Michael. Vince: A Personal Biography of Vince Lombardi. New York: Morrow, 1987.
Vince Lombardi. http://www.vincelombardi.com/home.html (accessed August 2004).
Vince Lombardi (1913-1970) was one of the most successful football coaches in the history of the game. His penchant for winning and doing one's best left a strong imprint on the game, as well as on players and fans.
Vincent Lombardi was born the first of five children in Brooklyn, New York, on June 11, 1913. The son of an Italian immigrant, he was raised in a strict religious Catholic atmosphere. After spending two years studying for the priesthood, he changed his mind and transferred to St. Francis Preparatory where he starred as full-back. Upon high school graduation he majored in business at Fordham University and starred on the football team at guard, where he was a member of Fordham's famous "Seven Blocks of Granite." He graduated magna cum laude in 1937 and worked for a finance company during the day while attending evening classes in law. In 1939 he accepted a position at St. Cecelia High School in Englewood, New Jersey, as an assistant football coach and teacher. He taught Latin, algebra, physics, and chemistry. In 1942 he became head coach, and from 1942 to 1946 he compiled a record of 39 wins, seven losses, five ties, including a winning streak of 25 games and an unbeaten streak of 32.
In 1947 he accepted a position at his alma mater, Fordham, as freshman football coach and one year later moved up to be an assistant at the varsity level. But it was at West Point, in 1949, that Lombardi developed his basic coaching philosophy while he served as an assistant to the most successful college coach in the country: Red Blaik. Lombardi was influenced by Blaik's concept of keeping football simple (blocking and tackling) and of achieving perfect execution by constant repetition in practice. In addition, Lombardi picked up numerous expressions which were to become his trademarks, such as "There is no substitute for victory" (Douglas MacArthur) and "You have to pay the price" (Red Blaik). Working primarily with the offensive line, Lombardi soon established himself as an enthusiastic workaholic, putting in as much as 16 or 17 hours daily.
His penchant for hard work and organization for detail paid off when he was hired in 1954 as an assistant to Jim Lee Howell of the New York Giants. Vince was in charge of the offense, and Tom Landry, future coach of the Dallas Cowboys, was in charge of the defense. It was here that a pattern emerged which was to follow Lombardi in future years, that of inheriting a poor team and turning it into a winner. The year before Lombardi went to the Giants, they had lost nine of 12 games and had scored the fewest number of points in the league. In the five years that Lombardi was an assistant with the Giants, they never had a losing season. Part of the reason was Lombardi's decision to build the offense around untested Frank Gifford, who had been used primarily on defense the previous year. Gifford possessed great speed, hands, and blocking talent, along with the ability to pass, and Lombardi created offensive plays which used these skills to such an advantage that Gifford was nominated to the pro bowl all five years that Lombardi was with the Giants.
By 1957 Lombardi had become a desirable coaching commodity to other professional clubs, and in 1958 he accepted a five-year contract as head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Cast into the leadership role of a professional head coach for the first time, Vince changed from a coach who was quite openly friendly with the players to more of an aloof leader whose violent temper soon became his trademark along with his supposed passion for winning. (The slogan "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing, " has been unfairly attributed to Lombardi, when in actuality he believed making the effort was most important.)
Having only won one game the previous year, Lombardi's Packers proceeded to win seven games his first year and thereafter won six divisional titles, five National Football League championships, and two Super Bowls (I and II). His success during this period placed him at the pinnacle of his profession, and he was looked upon as the master of the game. While much of the credit should go to Lombardi, it should be noted that he inherited an ideal situation in Green Bay. He was, as they say, the right man at the right time.
At this time, Green Bay was looked upon by others in the league as Siberia, with few attractions for players since there was little to do except play and think football. This fit in quite well with Lombardi's spartan ethos. Added to this was the fact that the public liked Lombardi so much that players had little chance of doing anything besides football, since Lombardi was notified by fans wherever the players turned up—within or outside of curfew. The team Lombardi inherited actually wasn't as bad as the previous year's record might indicate; it had a solid core of talent ready to be developed. Chief among them were Paul Hornung, who possessed all of the qualities of a Frank Gifford and who could also kick field goals, and a 16th-round quarterback draft pick named Bart Starr. Both became all stars and legends.
With several top draft choices and shrewd trading, Lombardi surrounded himself with players who were willing to take his tongue lashings to go the extra yard in order to become winners. He treated all players the same ("like dogs, " one player remarked) and never had the racial problems some other teams had at the time. So formidable was the Packer running attack that today the term "The Green Bay Sweep" is etched in football terminology.
Exhausted after the 1967 season, Lombardi retired as head coach and stayed on as general manager of the Packers. It wasn't long before he realized his mistake, and in 1969 he left Green Bay to become head coach of the Washington Redskins. He soon led them to their first winning season in more than a decade.
Lombardi was a popular public figure in America and was looked upon as a spokesperson for values which many felt were being discarded during the permissive 1960s. Businessmen, politicians, and church leaders looked to him for direction. Earl Warren, retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, noted, "He had the ability to build the kind of character we need in these times." With such a following, it came as a shock to the public after the 1969 season to learn that Lombardi had intestinal cancer. Over 500 letters of encouragement a day poured in from the across the country, including a telegram from President Nixon. On September 3, 1970, Vince Lombardi died. Thousands poured out for his funeral, which was held not only in Washington, D.C., but in New York as well.
After his death Lombardi was inducted into the professional football Hall of Fame and today is honored by having his name adorn the trophy awarded to the NFL Super Bowl champions. His reputation as a man far exceeded that of a coach. In 11 seasons as head coach he won 149 games; in contrast, the winningest football coach was Eddie Robinson of Grambling State University, who set the record in 1985 with 324 victories.
Instant Replay (1968) and Winning Is the Only Thing (1971), both by Jerry Kramer, and Lombardi (1971) by John Wiebusch give good descriptions of what Lombardi was like to players and acquaintances. Tom Dowling's Coach: A Season with Lombardi (1970) describes his last year of coaching for the Washington Redskins and his realization that talent—not just effort alone—wins football games. Run to Daylight (1968) by Vince Lombardi is an account of the 1967 football season and is enlightening for its visualization of a typical season with Lombardi. For those interested in Lombardi's coaching techniques, see Vince Lombardi on Football, George L. Flynn, editor (1973). A look at Lombardi and his impact on Green Bay players 20 years later is provided in Distant Replay (1985) by Jerry Kramer and Dick Schaap.
Flynn, George L., The Vince Lombardi scrapbook, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1976.
O'Brien, Michael, Vince: a personal biography of Vince Lombardi, New York: Morrow, 1987; Quill, 1989.
Vince Lombardi: memories of a special time, United States: October Football Corp., 1988. □