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.
Further Reading on Vince Lombardi
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.
Additional Biography Sources
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.