Vince Lombardi (1913–1970)

Vince Lombardi was one of the greatest professional coaches of all time. Best known as head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967, Lombardi is credited with almost single-handedly resurrecting one of the worst teams in the National Football League and turning it into one of the most dominant teams of the 1960s. Lombardi led the Packers to win the first two Super Bowls, five NFL championships in seven years, and six division championships, and tied a team record of three consecutive championship wins. He came to symbolize excellence, and his demanding approach to coaching came to be seen as a metaphor for life, offering lessons that could be carried over to the worlds of business, politics, and personal achievement.

Lombardi began his professional career as an offensive coach for the New York Football Giants and later coached the Washington Redskins in 1969. As a head coach in the NFL, he never had a losing season. He accumulated an overall career record of 96 wins, 34 losses, and 6 ties, and a postseason record of 9–1, a record that stood until Bill Belichick broke it in 2005 with 10 postseason wins. Lombardi had a regular season winning percentage of .728 and a postseason percentage of .900, with an overall percentage of .740. He coached 15 future Hall-of-Famers, including “Golden Boy” Paul Hornung and dominant quarterback Bart Starr, as well as Willie Davis, Forest Gregg, Ray Nitschke, Jim Ringo, Jim Taylor, Emlen Tunnell, Willie Wood, Sam Huff, and Sonny Jurgensen.

Known for his hard-driving style and tireless quest for victory, Lombardi required obedience and absolute dedication from his players, including arrival on “Lombardi time”: 10 to 15 minutes early. A former high school science instructor, Lombardi brought his pedagogical methods onto the field, driving home points through repetition. He geared each lesson so that the slowest person in the room could understand. His plays were designed to be simple, clean, and understated, and each one contained options for any position in any unexpected situation. The quintessential example of this method was the “Packer Sweep,” Lombardi’s signature play. It involved two guards moving to the outside and drawing defenders to themselves, allowing a corridor of “daylight” for a running back to move through. The play was run constantly, until it became second nature to his players, who were able to run it in any situation, against any team. Lombardi fastidiously overprepared for games and was one of the first coaches to study game film as a preparation tool.




As head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967, Vince Lombardi led the team to win the first two Super Bowls and five National Football League championships.





As head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967, Vince Lombardi led the team to win the first two Super Bowls and five National Football League championships. (AP Photo)

Lombardi was also known for his motivational style. He was known for his transformational locker-room speeches and popularized many inspirational maxims, including: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”; “Anything is ours... providing we are willing to pay the price”; and “You don’t do things right once in a while. You do them right all the time.” During the latter part of his NFL career, he became a sought-after public speaker, lecturing on leadership, character, excellence, and discipline.

His dedication to discipline was deeply rooted in his childhood faith. Lombardi was a strict and lifelong Catholic who attended mass daily and who once considered becoming a priest. His personal philosophy—in football and in life—was shaped by the rigorous Jesuit indoctrination he received at Fordham University. Jesuit teachings on ethics, obedience, and man’s ability to pursue perfection through determination shaped Lombardi’s approach on and off the field.

Despite his reputation as a traditional and conservative member of the old guard, Lombardi’s tenure in the NFL saw the league go from relative obscurity—taking a back seat to more popular sports like baseball, horse racing, and boxing—to explosive popularity, enhanced by greater television coverage and more recognizable stars. The resurrected Packer dynasty of the 1960s played a crucial role in the league’s popularity, epitomizing the myth that any team could win on “any given Sunday.”

Lombardi also helped to equalize the NFL’s treatment of African American and white players. In the 1950s, when many teams were still primarily white, the Packers were one of the first to sign black players. Lombardi had a zero-tolerance policy toward any type of racism on the team, insisting that the only color he saw was “Packer green.” On road trips to segregated cities, Lombardi refused to allow his team to stay in separate hotels. Any segregated Green Bay establishment was likewise off limits to the entire squad. He likewise refused to allow any mistreatment of gay players. He was also heavily involved—albeit on the owners’ side—in the strengthening of the NFL Players Association and the rise of more legitimate negotiations between players and team owners.

Lombardi found success relatively late in life. He became head coach of the Packers at 45, an age at which many coaches are at the height of their careers or beginning to wind down. He began his coaching career at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey, then held assistant positions at Fordham and with the New York Giants, all the while seeking head coaching positions elsewhere. Lombardi believed he was frequently passed over for coaching jobs because of his Italian heritage.

He became the offensive coach for the New York Giants in 1954. Called the “New York Football Giants” so as not to be confused with the baseball team of the same name, the team did not have a field of its own and played at Yankee Stadium. Lombardi became part of a now-legendary coaching trio, featuring Tom Landry as defensive coach and Jim Lee Howell as head coach, which had no losing seasons. The Giants won the Eastern Division in 1956 and 1958 and won the NFL championship game in 1956. They lost the 1958 championship to the Baltimore Colts 23–17, a battle that became known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played” due to its excitement and intensity. It marked the first time an NFL championship game went into overtime, and the first use of the new “sudden death” rule, where the first team to score in overtime would win the game, ending it automatically. The game was also broadcast on national television, helping to drive the subsequent explosion in football’s popularity. It was during this period that Lombardi developed some of his trademark plays, including the power sweep (later known as the “Packer Sweep”) and the belly 26 reverse pass.

Lombardi became head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 1959. He also signed on as general manager, guaranteeing himself complete autonomy in club matters. Green Bay had had several losing seasons during the last decade, culminating in team low of 1 –10–1 in 1958. Lombardi immediately instituted a brutal training regimen, discouraging water breaks and inadvertently sending three players to the hospital with heatstroke. Nonetheless, the Packers enjoyed their first winning season in 11 years with a record of 7 –5. Green Bay was so unaccustomed to success that Lombardi was carried off the field after the team won its season opener. He was also named NFL Coach of the Year. Almost unanimously, the players credited Lombardi with the team’s success, asserting that his relentless driving style resulted in faster, quicker, more toned players who were motivated alternately by admiration, anger—and the fear that someone better might take their job.

The Packers won the Western Conference the following year, earning Lombardi a new nickname from the locals: “The Pope.” Green Bay lost the NFL championship game to the Philadelphia Eagles 17–13, when Eagles veteran Chuck Bednarik tackled Packers running back Jim Taylor and literally sat on him for the remainder of the game until the final seconds ran out. It was Green Bay’s first title game since 1944 and Lombardi’s only play-off defeat with the Packers.

In 1961, the Packers went 11–3, winning the Western Conference for the second year in a row, and prompting Green Bay residents to dub their city “Titletown USA.” Green Bay beat the New York Giants 37–0 in the NFL championship, playing before a sold-out crowd and a television audience of 55 million. Paul Hornung ran for 89 yards and scored 19 points, an NFL championship record. Quarterback Bart Starr threw three touchdown passes. Afterward, Lombardi received a congratulatory phone call from President Kennedy. The Packers again beat the Giants in the NFL title game the following year, a win Lombardi attributed to his team being, simply, “mentally tougher.” The game was notable for its roughness, the rock-solid frozen field, and the numerous player injuries. In a 1961 Look profile, writer Tim Cohane called Lombardi “certain to become one of the greatest coaches of all time, if he is not that already.”

In January 1967, the Packers made history by beating the Kansas City Chiefs in the first Super Bowl. The game drew the largest television audience ever to watch a sporting event. Originally called the NFL-AFL World Championship game, the game was an attempt by the NFL to make peace with its competitor, the American Football League (AFL). This set the stage for an eventual merger of the two leagues, which had begun to compete for players.

The following season, the Packers beat Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL championship, commonly referred to as the “Ice Bowl,” for being one of the most exciting—and one of the coldest—games in pro football history. The temperature in Green Bay was 13 degrees below zero; the on-field wind chill was 46. The field was frozen solid, the players wore long underwear and gloves, the game film camera broke, and the journalists’ typewriters froze. Linebacker Ray Nitschke had frostbitten toes. Despite the conditions, the Packers won in the last seconds on a sneak play by quarterback Bart Starr, who ran in the game-winning touchdown. The team again made history that year, beating the Oakland Raiders 33–14 in Super Bowl II.

Under increasing pressure to win games—all games, be they preseason scrimmages or Super Bowl championships—Lombardi was physically and mentally tired, and in poor health. He retired from coaching after Super Bowl II, staying on as the team’s general manager. He seemed lost without coaching, though he kept busy with out-of-town speaking engagements and took cameo roles in two films, Paper Lion, and a promotional film called Second Effort. Richard Nixon even considered Lombardi as his running mate on the presidential ticket, but soon discovered that Lombardi was a Democrat and a Robert Kennedy supporter. In 1969, unable to stay behind the scenes, Lombardi accepted a position as head coach and executive vice president of the Washington Redskins. Washington was overjoyed to have him. He led them to a season record of 7–5-2, their first winning season in 13 years.

Vincent Thomas Lombardi was born on June 11, 1913, to (Enrico) Harry and Matilda Lombardi, in southeast Brooklyn, New York. Vince, the oldest of five children, was part of an enormous, tightly knit, extended Italian brood, particularly on his mother’s side, the Izzos. He was often called on to babysit his younger siblings and kept his cousins in line as well. Authoritarian by nature, he developed into a natural leader, the value of discipline being drilled into him by family, school, and church.

He joined his first football league at 12, drawn to the game’s toughness, violence, and cultivation of mental endurance. Intending to pursue the priesthood, he enrolled in Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception and played with a local sandlot team on Sundays. After realizing he had no calling to the priesthood, he enrolled in St. Francis Preparatory School in Brooklyn. He played football for a strict disciplinarian coach who once forced his squad to walk home rather than allow them to misbehave on the team bus. Still, Lombardi was his own worst critic and took pride in strong on-field performances even if the team lost. He was unanimously elected class president for four consecutive years.

Lombardi won a football scholarship to Fordham University, where he became one of the famed “Seven Blocks of Granite” that composed the Fordham Rams’ front line. Though he was the least known of the group and considered the most underrated by his coach, he distinguished himself as a tough, hard worker, treating every practice and game as a battle. He valued what he found to be the “selfless teamwork and collective pride which accumulate until they have made positive thinking and victory habitual,” as quoted by biographer David Maraniss. In the United States of the 1930s, with the NFL still in its infancy, college football was the bigger draw, particularly the New York schools. The Fordham Rams became local celebrities of sorts, covered by all the major local sportswriters and frequently selling out the Polo Grounds.

Although he never made the pros, Lombardi played briefly for the minor league Brooklyn Eagles, and later for the Wilmington Clippers in Delaware. He coached the football team at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey, realizing during his time there that coaching could be his life’s work. He could shape young talent, cultivate excellence, and, like the priest he had once wanted to be, serve as a “father figure and a leader.” Known for his strict discipline and fiery pep talks, he insisted that his players attend mass before every game.

He married Marie Planitz on August 31, 1940, cutting their honeymoon short to get back for the St. Cecilia’s first football practice. They had two children, Vincent Henry and Susan. He was a dedicated father but frequently remote and distant, and a harsh disciplinarian at home.

Lombardi joined the Fordham coaching staff as an assistant coach in 1947, his influence immediately apparent on the field. He left in 1949 due to administrative pressure that de-emphasized football at the school. He became an assistant coach at the United States Military Academy at West Point, coaching under the revered Colonel Earl H. “Red” Blaik. Blaik was a huge influence on Lombardi. He emphasized discipline and order and analyzed game film. Blaik was also one of the first coaches to implement the “two-platoon system,” which allowed players to play only on offense or defense (previously a player would have played both).

Lombardi passed away from colon cancer on September 3, 1970, at the age of 57. He received an outpouring of support during his illness, including an encouraging phone call from President Nixon. His funeral reflected the same spirit, drawing a crowd of more than 1,500 people lining the streets of Manhattan.

Lauds and recognition poured in, both before and after his death. Perhaps the most significant is the world professional football championship trophy, awarded to the winner of the Super Bowl, which was renamed the “Vince Lombardi Trophy” in 1971. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. In 1960, the city of Green Bay renamed a street after him, “Lombardi Avenue.” In 1970, the NFL named him the “1960s Man of the Decade,” and in 2000, ESPN named him “Coach of the Century.” The Georgetown University Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center was established in 1970. He is the subject of the 2010 HBO documentary, “Lombardi,” and of a 2010–2011 Broadway play of the same name.

He also had his critics who questioned his harsh methods, something that still continues today. Overwhelmingly, however, he is remembered as one who pushed his players beyond their limits and emerged victorious. As biographer David Maraniss wrote in his biography, When Pride Still Mattered,

Many yearn for Lombardi out of a sense of longing for something they fear has been irretrievably lost. Every time a sporting act seems graceless and excessive, every time a player dances and points at himself after making a routine tackle, or a mediocre athlete and his agent hold out for millions, whenever it seems that individual ego has overtaken the concept of the team, the question can be asked: What would Lombardi do about this? Why isn’t there anyone like the Old Man out there anymore?

—Mariah Gumpert

References

Eisenberg, John. That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory. New York: Mariner Books, 2010.

Maraniss, David. When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

“Vince Lombardi.” Pro Football Hall of Fame. 2011. http://www.profootballhofcom/history/release.aspx?release_id=1805 .

VinceLombardi.com. Family of Vince Lombardi c/o Luminary Group, LLC. 2010. www.vincelombardi.com