It stands to reason that a coach who had the championship trophy of his sport named after himself would have to be a great coach, maybe even the greatest of all. That is where we must begin with Vince Lombardi whose namesake, the Vince Lombardi Trophy, is given to each year’s Super Bowl champion. Indeed, Lombardi had a .673 winning percentage coaching against fellow Hall of Fame coaches; only John Madden’s has a better head-to-head record at .691. Lombardi’s overall winning percentage of .740, though, tops all other coaches, including Madden’s .731. Most important of all are those five NFL championships that Vince packed into a seven-year stretch. That separates him from everyone.
Lombardi was born in Brooklyn and played football at Fordham under Sleepy Jim Crowley from 1933-1936 as a 5’8” 180-pound guard. Vince was one of the famous Seven Blocks of Granite line that gave up just 26 points in his senior year. In the next two years, Lombardi played some semipro football with the Brooklyn Eagles and the Wilmington Clippers and attended law school for one semester before dropping out. In 1939, Vince took a job teaching science and coaching sports for St. Cecilia’s High School in New Jersey, where he introduced the T formation. In the eight years from 1939-1946, Lombardi drove tiny St. Cecilia’s to six state championships and won 36 straight games at one point. In 1947, he returned to his alma mater as the freshman football coach for one year until he was offered a chance to join Red Blaik’s staff at West Point. Lombardi spent six years under the revered Blaik at Army with the Cadets going 38-13-3 despite the Honor Code scandal that decimated the team in 1951. Under Blaik, Lombardi learned to focus primarily on the handful of things you do the very best and try to hone them to perfection.
In 1954, Lombardi moved up to the NFL when fellow Fordham alumnus Wellington Mara helped bring him to the Giants as the team’s offensive coach under new head coach Jim Lee Howell. Howell preferred to delegate responsibilities to his coaches, which works very well indeed if you have Vince Lombardi coaching your offense and Tom Landry running your defense. This group led the Giants to an NFL championship in 1956 and back to the title game in 1958, when the Giants fell to Johnny Unitas’ Colts in Sudden Death in Vince’s last game for New York. With the Giants, Vince joined a veteran team and had to learn how to communicate with professionals. At first, he tried to force plays on them he thought would work like the Wing T quarterback option, but soon found that grizzled quarterback Charlie Conerly had no interest in running that play and getting creamed by large defensive linemen. Lombardi adjusted his offense and won the respect of his players in New York.
In 1959, he took over the 1-10-1 Green Bay Packers, a team that had not had a winning season since 1947. He told the New York Times, “I’ll take the Giant offense with me and use it with the Packers as personnel permits.” As it turned out, Green Bay had much more talent than was evident, but the team needed direction and a workable system. Lombardi provided that. In building the Packers’ offense, Vince only needed to add guard Fuzzy Thurston off the scrap heap and receiver Boyd Dowler from the draft to the existing players; the five Packer Hall of Fame offensive players were already on the roster. The defense wasn’t so complete, but Lombardi quickly changed that. At the time, only Vince and Cleveland’s Paul Brown were both coach and GM of their teams in the NFL, so Lombardi had complete freedom to improve Green Bay. From Cleveland, he acquired three-fourths of his defensive line in trades, including Hall of Famers Willie Davis and Henry Jordan. He already had four fine linebackers, including Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke, and by bringing in veteran free safety Emlen Tunnell from the Giants, his secondary was decent. Later he would add free agent Willie Wood at safety and cornerbacks Herb Adderley and Bob Jeter through the draft. Wood and Adderley would be Hall of Famers.
Thus while Lombardi added some talent, his major upgrade was in coaching. He once noted, “Coaches who can outline plays on a blackboard are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their players and motivate them.” He told his players, “One can never achieve perfection, but in chasing perfection, one can achieve excellence.” He insisted on that pursuit of excellence through repetition and practice. In another of his sayings, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. 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.” The offensive system he installed was, on the surface, as simple as possible, and stood in sharp contrast in the 1960s to Tom Landry’s shifting, multi-set passing offense in Dallas. His view was that football was in essence blocking and tackling, and his offense was run-based, featuring fewer plays than most teams ran. The complexity was in the multiplicity of options possible off of each basic play. The line took the defenders in the direction they wanted to go, using Lombardi’s “option blocking.” The running backs then had to read where the hole opened up and cut back into it. Run to Daylight was the title of Lombardi’s own football book, and his teams ran 12% more than the league average. On pass plays, receivers were expected to read the defense and break off their routes accordingly.
The key to the whole offense was the Power Sweep; it was the lead play that every opponent knew they had to stop. Lombardi told George Flynn for Vince Lombardi on Football, “There is nothing spectacular about it, it’s just a yard gainer. But on that sideline when the sweep starts to develop, you can hear those linebackers and defensive backs yelling, ‘Sweep! Sweep!’ and almost see their eyes pop as those guards turn upfield after them. But maybe it’s my number 1 play because it requires all 11 men to play as one to make it succeed, and that’s what ‘team’ means.” The Packers practiced the play thousands of times and would run it repeatedly in each game.
The play itself dated to the single wing era of Lombardi’s college days and owed a lot to the power attack of Jock Sutherland. Lombardi simply updated it for modern football. As with everything else about him, the key was its sophisticated simplicity. Packer players had to be intelligent because each play presented a great many possible options for each player depending on what the defense was doing. In the passing game, not only did quarterback Bart Starr read the defense, but the wide receivers had to read coverages as well and could change their routes in response. The blocking scheme of the Packers was known as option blocking, i.e., take the defensive man in the direction he is leaning. The hole for the runner may open in a different spot than where the play is planned to go ostensibly, so the runner must find the hole, make the right cut, and “run to daylight” as Lombardi phrased it. The sweep itself could be run to either side, and while the sweep was designed to go around the end, the runner would cut back inside if that was where the hole was. The ability of halfback Paul Hornung to throw an accurate pass made the play that much more effective; it was one more option the defense had to defend against. They couldn’t come up too fast or Hornung would throw the ball over their heads. Then, once the defense got too comfortable defending the sweep, the Packers would hit them with the “sucker” or influence play which looked like a sweep but was actually a fake and was run as a slant play up the middle.
With this offense, Green Bay twice led the league in scoring and four times were in the top two. On defense, the Packers allowed the fewest points in the NFL three times and eight times in nine years finished in the top three. Beyond all that, Lombardi’s teams played nearly error free and six times finished on the top three in turnover differential. What that led to were title game appearances from 1960-1962 with championships in 1961 and 1962. In 1963, the team went 11-2-1 but fell short in its quest for a three-peat by losing twice to the Bears who finished 11-1-2. Lombardi’s men started a new run in 1965, won the first Super Bowl after the 1966 season and went for the three-peat a second time in 1967. Although the team was aging fast, they put together one last playoff run for the old man culminating with the legendary Ice Bowl and won Super Bowl II going away for their third straight title.
Lombardi retired as coach soon after, but the strain of watching the team lose without being able to do anything about it got to Vince. He resigned as general manager in 1969 and took over the Washington Redskins who had not had a winning season since 1955. Washington did not have the store of untapped talent that Green Bay had in 1959. Lombardi had to build a running game from scratch with rookie late round draft pick Larry Brown and trade acquisition Charley Harraway. All in all, Vince turned over half the roster in 1969, brought in nine new starters and led the Redskins to a 7-5-2 record. In 1970, though, he was diagnosed with cancer and died during training camp. It’s interesting to speculate how well Lombardi would have done in Washington, but it’s almost certain that it would have been a step down from Green Bay. Even if he would have had as much success as George Allen had with the Redskins from 1971-1977 — a .691 winning percentage, five postseason trips, one Super Bowl appearance, but no championships – that would have been a downgrade for Lombardi and his pristine reputation.
With his death, Lombardi’s career consisted almost solely of his spectacular run in Green Bay. Because of that success, there have probably been more poor imitations by Lombardi poseurs at all levels of football than any other coach. Coaches who think they are motivating their players by screaming at them miss the humanity and the magnetism of Lombardi. While there have been many great coaches such as Paul Brown, Don Shula, George Halas and Joe Gibbs, there have been very few with anything like the charisma of Lombardi. Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells and John Madden are three who come to mind, but all pale in comparison to Vince who is still quoted regularly in pop culture, who was featured in a popular series of Nike ads in the 1990s, 25 years after his death, and who was the subject of a sold out Broadway show in 2010, 40 years after his death. Among football coaches, there will never be another Vince Lombardi.
(Adapted from NFL Head Coaches.)
First two custom cards are colorized.