Vincent Thomas Lombardi (June 11, 1913 – September 3, 1970) was one of the most successful coaches in the history of American football. He was the driving force of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1968, helping the team capture five National Football League (NFL) championships during his ten-year tenure. Following a one-year retirement, he returned to coach the Washington Redskins during the 1969 season. He owns a 9-1 record in the postseason; his 90 percent postseason winning percentage is the highest in NFL history. A member of the famous offensive line, the "seven blocks of granite" at Fordham University, Lombardi displayed the kind of mental and physical toughness for which he was known as a coach, and which his teams characteristically displayed. Beneath that toughness, however, Lombardi formed a bond with his teams that was uncharacteristic on most professional sports teams.
Vincent Lombardi was born on June 11, 1913, in Brooklyn, New York to Neapolitan-born father Enrico "Harry" Lombardi (age two), a butcher, and Brooklyn-born Matilda Izzo, the daughter of a barber, whose parents had immigrated as teenagers from just east of Salerno in southern Italy. Vince Lombardi was raised in the Sheepshead Bay area of southern Brooklyn, and attended its public schools through the eighth grade.
In 1928, at age 15, he entered a preparatory seminary, a six year secondary program to become a Catholic priest. After four years, Lombardi decided not to pursue this path, and transferred to the St. Francis Preparatory High School, where he was a standout on the football team (an activity that was discouraged at the seminary). Lombardi remained a devout Catholic throughout his lifetime.
In 1933 Lombardi accepted a football scholarship to Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, to play for new head coach Sleepy Jim Crowley, one of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" at the University of Notre Dame in the 1920s. Lombardi was an undersized guard (5'8" 185 lb.) on Fordham's imposing front line, which became known as the "Seven Blocks of Granite." It held Fordham's opponents scoreless several times during a string of 25 consecutive victories. Frank Leahy, future head coach at Notre Dame, was Lombardi's position coach. In the classroom Lombardi was, at best, a slightly above average student. He was awarded his bachelor's degree from Fordham in June 1937, five days after his 24th birthday.
In 1939, after two years of unfulfilling jobs, semi-professional football with the Brooklyn Eagles (bulking up to 205 lb.) and Wilmington Clippers, and a semester of Fordham's law school at night, Lombardi gladly accepted an assistant coaching job at St. Cecilia, a Catholic high school in Englewood, New Jersey. He was hired by its new head coach, a Fordham teammate, former quarterback "Handy" Andy Palau. Palau had also struggled for two years, failing to make it in baseball as a catcher in the New York Yankee farm system. Palau had just taken over the head coaching position from another Fordham teammate, Nat Pierce (left guard), who had accepted an assistant coach's job back at Fordham. In addition to coaching, Lombardi, age 26, also taught Latin, chemistry, and physics for an annual salary of under $1800 at the high school. He and Palau shared a boarding house room across the street for $1.50 each per week. In 1940, Lombardi married Marie Planitz, a cousin of another Fordham teammate, Jim Lawlor. Andy Palau left for Fordham in 1942 and Lombardi became the head coach at St. Cecilia. Lombardi stayed a total of eight years (five as head coach), leaving for Fordham in 1947 to coach the freshman teams in football and basketball. The following year he served as an assistant coach for Fordham's varsity football team.
Following the 1948 football season, Lombardi accepted another assistant's job, at the West Point, a position that would greatly influence his future coaching style. As offensive line coach under legendary head coach Colonel Red Blaik, Lombardi worked long hours and refined his leadership skills. Blaik's emphasis on execution would become a hallmark of Lombardi's NFL teams. Lombardi coached at West Point for five seasons, with varying results. The 1949, 1950, and 1953 seasons were successful, but the 1951 and 1952 seasons were poor and mediocre, respectively, due to the aftermath of a cadet cribbing scandal in the spring of 1951, which severely depleted the talent on the football team. Following these five seasons at Army, Lombardi accepted an assistant coaching position with the NFL's New York Giants.
Lombardi, age 41, began his career as a professional football coach in 1954. He accepted what would later become known as the Offensive Coordinator position for the NFL's New York Giants, under new head coach Jim Lee Howell. The Giants had finished the previous season, under 23-year coach Steve Owen, with a woeful 3-9 record. Lombardi and Defensive Coordinator Tom Landry needed only three seasons to turn the squad into a championship team, defeating the Chicago Bears for the title in 1956. Lombardi relied on the talents of Frank Gifford, whom Lombardi switched from defense to offense as a pass-option player.
Lombardi was not content as an assistant coach, and in January 1959, at the age of 45, he accepted the position of head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers. The Packers were dismal, having lost all but two (one win and one tie) of the 12 games they played in the 1958 season, but Lombardi felt that his coaching skills were up to the challenge. Lombardi immediately began building his reputation as an extraordinarily demanding coach, creating punishing training regimens and expecting absolute dedication and effort from his players. The 1959 Packers were an immediate improvement, finishing at 7-5.
In his second year, he led the Packers to the 1960 NFL championship game, but suffered one of his only two post-season losses when Packer fullback Jim Taylor was stopped nine yards from the end zone by Chuck Bednarik as time ran out. In the weeks following this game, Lombardi had an opportunity to become head coach of the New York Giants, at one time his dream job. After some anxious internal deliberation, he graciously declined, and the Giants hired Allie Sherman instead. The Packers would defeat the Giants for the NFL title in 1961 (37-0) and 1962 (16-7 at Yankee Stadium), marking the first two of their five titles in Lombardi's nine years. His only other post-season loss occurred to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Playoff Bowl (third place game) after the 1964 season.
Lombardi's unrelenting coaching philosophy paid off with a remarkable 105-35-6 record as a head coach, never suffering a losing season—his 1959 team was 7-5, after taking over a 1-10-1 team from 1958, and his 1969 Redskin team was 7-5-2, coming off of a 5-9 season in 1968. He led the Packers to a still-unmatched three consecutive NFL championships in 1965, 1966, and 1967, and also helped the Packers handily win each of the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi's popularity was so great that Richard Nixon supposedly considered him as a running mate for the 1968 election, only to be reminded by an advisor that Lombardi was a Kennedy Democrat (although Lombardi's wife, father and brother were Republicans).
As coach of the Packers, Lombardi drafted a lightly-regarded quarterback from the University of Alabama in the 17th round of the 1956 college football draft, 199th overall, Bart Starr, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career. He converted Notre Dame quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung to a full time halfback, running a play in which his offensive linemen swept to the outside and blocked downfield. This was a play that he had originally developed for Gifford that would become known as the Packer power sweep. The pulling guards, Jerry Kramer and "Fuzzy" Thurston, became perennial All-Pros in his system.
Lombardi stepped down as head coach of the Packers due to illness following the 1967 NFL season, staying on as the team's general manager in 1968 and handing off the head coaching position to Phil Bengtson, a longtime loyal assistant. Lombardi's restlessness and competitive drive led him to return to coaching in 1969, this time with the Washington Redskins, where he broke a string of 14 losing seasons.
Lombardi was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in late June 1970, before his second season in Washington, and was treated at the Georgetown University Hospital. By the time it was discovered, the cancer had spread from his colon to his liver, peritoneum, and lymph nodes, and he died just ten weeks later on September 3, 1970. Many made long journeys to attend his funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, and hardened football veterans openly wept at the service, held on September 7. Honorary pallbearers included Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, former Packer defensive end, Willie Davis, Tony Canadeo, Giant President, Wellington Mara, Dick Bourguignon, and Edward Bennett Williams. President Nixon sent a telegram of condolence signed "The People." Lombardi was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971, and a week after his death, the NFL's Super Bowl trophy was renamed the Vince Lombardi Trophy in his honor. He is buried next to his wife and his parents, in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Middletown Township, New Jersey.
One of the most famous games in the history of football was the NFL championship game of 1967, in which his team hosted the Dallas Cowboys in Green Bay on the last day of the year. This became one of the strongest rivalries in NFL history with the Packers beating the Cowboys the previous year with a defensive goal line stand with 28 seconds left preserving their tenth NFL championship. Now a year has passed and the two teams met again in the cold house of Lambeau field. The game time temperature was a frigid -13°F (-25°C), with an estimated wind chill factor of -47°F (-43°C). The game has come to be known as the legendary Ice Bowl. The Packers jumped to an early 14-0 lead via two touchdown passes from Bart Starr to Boyd Dowler. But Dallas came back in the 2nd quarter to force two fumbles leading to a touchdown and a field goal. The halftime score was 14-10. No one reached the end zone in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, halfback Dan Reeves threw a 50-yard strike to Lance Rentzel to give Dallas a 17-14 lead.
The Packers took over on their own 32 yard line with 4:50 left on the clock. They engineered a 68-yard drive in 12 plays, driving all the way down to the two-foot line. With sixteen seconds left in the game and down by three points, the Packers called their final time-out. It was third and goal on the Dallas 1-yard line. The previous two plays (44-Dive) to halfback Donny Anderson had gone for no gain. With no times out left and sixteen seconds left in the game, Lombardi had to decide whether to kick a game-tying field goal or go for the winning touchdown. He eschewed the chance to tie the game and went for the victory. Following the time out, quarterback Bart Starr ran an unplanned quarterback sneak, with center Ken Bowman and right guard Jerry Kramer taking out Dallas defensive left tackle Jethro Pugh; Starr scored the touchdown and won the game. The play (31-Wedge) actually called for Starr to hand off to Chuck Mercein, a little known fullback from Yale University (brought in at midseason after being cut by the New York Giants) who had played a major part in propelling the Packers down the field on the final drive. But Starr, feeling the field was too icy and the footing too precarious, decided to keep the ball and dive in himself, surprising even his own teammates. Mercein said he raised his hands into the air as he plowed into the pile (expecting the handoff), not to signal "touchdown" as many later speculated, but to show the officials that he was not illegally assisting Starr into the end zone. Lombardi, explaining why he had not chosen to kick a game-tying field goal, said of that play, "We gambled and we won." Two weeks later, the Packers would handily defeat the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II, Lombardi's finale as the Green Bay head coach.
In addition to Lombardi's contributions to the history of professional football, Lombardi is legendary for his coaching philosophy and motivational skills. Many of Lombardi's speeches continue to be quoted frequently today, and he is well known as being unequivocally committed to winning. One of his most famous maxims is "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing," although he did not coin the phrase and the exact words he used are disputed. Lombardi time became the principle that a person show up ten (others say 15) minutes early or else be considered late. Lombardi's players were wholeheartedly devoted to him, and his emphasis on hard work and dedication endeared him to millions who admired his values.
Lombardi is also credited with introducing the concept of Zone Blocking to the NFL. In zone blocking the offensive line players block as a unit, instead of individually man-to-man, as was the norm up to that time. The running back then was expected to run toward any hole that was created. Lombardi referred to this as "running to daylight."
All links retrieved August 14, 2014.
Class of 1970
|Pro Football Hall of Fame
Class of 1971
Class of 1972
Ray (Scooter) McLean
|Green Bay Packers Head Coaches
|Washington Redskins Head Coaches
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