Vince Lombardi was the original. The coach. The martinet. The genius. The manipulator. The winner. The star.
You can take your Don Shulas and Bill Walshes and Tom Landrys and Chuck Nolls and none of them can match Lombardi. Wins and losses don't matter here. Super Bowls don't figure in this equation. Lombardi was bigger than the game of football, period.
Politicians courted him. Businessmen quoted him. Sociologists loathed him.
When the 25th Super Bowl is held today in Tampa, Fla., the winning team will be awarded a sterling silver trophy named after Vincent T. Lombardi. He was a coach who became a myth, a personality who became an icon.
More than 20 years after his death, and 24 years after his first Super Bowl victory, Lombardi's Legacy can still be found in the NFL. No team runs the Green Bay Packers' Sweep anymore, and coach dares to drive his players the way Lombardi once did. But Lombardi remains the National Football League's standard of excellence.
"There has never been any football personality to approach Lombardi in the last quarter of a century," said Steve Sabol, head of NFL Films. "He was the most literate, educated head coach I've met. He could quote Cicero, Virgil, the Bible. He had enormous breadth as a person. He is like the Sea Captain in a Wyeth painting. We'll never see his like again."
Lombardi, who died of cancer in 1970 at 57, was a man who aroused passions, pro and con. Some saw him as a saint, others a moral monster. At his most basic, Lombardi was the coach of the most successful football team of the 1960s, the Green Bay Packers. His one season with the Washington Redskins in 1969 was the epilogue of a 10-year career that yielded a 105-35-6 record, a winning percentage of .740.
"Put simply, he just did a great job in his career as a head coach in the NFL," Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula said. "He influenced a team and the people around him."
Images made Lombardi. On the sideline, the burly man dressed in a camel's hair overcoat and fedora, wearing black-rimmed glasses, steam and invective pouring from his mouth, a team performing his every command.
Words made Lombardi. His voice was resonant and strident, piercing the air, demanding to be heard. "To play this game, you must have that fire in you, and there is nothing that stokes that fire like hate," he once said.
And . . . "Pro football is a violent dangerous sport. To play it other than violently would be imbecile."
And . . . "Winning isn't everything. Trying to win is."
Winning made Lombardi. His Packers won five titles in seven years, including three consecutive championships and the first two Super Bowls over the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders.
"My father was the genuine article," said Vince Lombardi Jr., a motivational speaker who lives in Seattle. "What you saw is what you got. He was no different at home, the office or the golf course. He was consistent in his inconsistency. In his private moments, my father was happy to admit he didn't know much else but coaching."
Lombardi's legacy is composed of personality and controversy, memory and myth. Cleveland's Paul Brown was a greater innovator, and Chicago's George Halas provided the longest-lasting link to pro football's roots in the Midwest, but Lombardi was the media star, a man who personified the game and an age.
It's not that Lombardi was far different than his contemporaries. As a coach, he was known for his ability to outwork his rivals. He often said his job was done before the game. But as a public personality, he was clearly the most charismatic and telegenic personality in the game.
"There is a ghost of Lombardi here, but it's a friendly ghost," said the Packers current coach, Lindy Infante. "There is certainly a Vince Lombardi feeling here."
But in football, the rush of current events quickly pushes aside decades-old memories. Players, coaches and teams are tossed away like yesterday's garbage. Lombardi's methods are no longer applied in the modern game. His style of coaching -- hands-on, dictatorial -- is passe in an age of specialization, although his demand for discipline seems to be back in vogue.
Even Lombardi's luster has faded somewhat. WFRV-TV in Green Bay recently conducted a poll to determine the best coach in Packers history. More than 4,000 viewers responded. The winner, with 40 percent of the tally, was Infante. Lombardi was the runner-up with 32 percent.
"It was really embarrassing," Infante said. "I don't know how anyone in their right mind could not pick Lombardi. I'm not competing with him. That would be ridiculous. No one should re-create that, compete with that, outdo that. That would send someone to a mental institution."
You talk to his former players, you get the Lombardi feeling. They became heroes at the tail end of an era when sports reporting was in many ways sports mythmaking. Head to Milwaukee, keep going north and follow the road into the freezer known as Green Bay, population 62,888, according to the 1960 census. There, you would find the Packers. They were the Davids against the Goliaths. They made up this little team from this little town that whipped the big boys from Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
They had charisma. A golden boy named Paul Hornung, a cool quarterback named Bart Starr, a poet on the offensive line named Jerry Kramer.
"We were always Lombardi's Packers," said Forrest Gregg, an offensive lineman who is now athletic director at Southern Methodist University. "We reflected Lombardi's personality."
Lombardi's personality was volatile. He had an awful temper, yet cried easily. He drove his players relentlessly, yet talked of love. His wife Marie swore he would die of a heart attack. Friends were not immune to his temper tantrums. The players came to expect them.
"He had a great fire, a great passion, a great honesty," Kramesaid. "There wasn't any question where Vince Lombardi stood or what he believed in or what he was ready to die for."
When Lombardi came to Green Bay in 1959, he was 46, aobscure coach in a league still seeking prominence. He had been one of Fordham University's Seven Blocks of Granite, a stocky guard in an era of leather helmets and single wings. He learned to teach and coach at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J., and served as an assistant in the late 1940s and early '50s with Fordham and then Army under Red Blaik. From 1954 through 1958, he was the offensive coach of the New York Giants, while Tom Landry served as the team's defensive coach.
Notre Dame, Southern California, Washington, Stanford and Air Force rejected Lombardi's application to become a head coach. Lombardi rejected an offer to coach the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958 before finally landing in Green Bay. The Packers, who won one game in 1958 and had not had a winning season in 12 years, were a shell of the greatness achieved under their founder, Earl "Curly" Lambeau. Bart Starr, the Packers quarterback, remembers vividly the first meeting between Lombardi and the team. The coach talked about hard work, confidence and alertness. He promised to find players who would make any sacrifice to win, who would follow rules and who would be, above all, professionals.
"I ran down the hall to call my wife back in Alabama," Starr said. "I told her that things would be different and we would win. I knew that after five minutes of listening to Lombardi."
Within a decade, the Packers were the country's most revered team, pro football was America's dominant game, and Lombardi was the most famous coach in sports. Consider this: On Sept. 15, 1968, CBS-TV pre-empted "The Ed Sullivan Show" to televise a simply titled special, "Lombardi."
"The time was right," Hornung said. "TV was exploding. It seemed like all of America loved a winner. The country embraced him as a king, the head of a posse."
Lombardi reflected a slice of his time. He was a conservative in era dominated by the Vietnam War and generational and racial strife. He stood for old-fashioned values. He took political, patriotic stands, especially during his one season as coach of the Washington Redskins in 1969. He railed against "hippies." He was embraced by the Nixon Administration.
"He coached and became popular in an era with flower children and the Vietnam War," Sabol said. "He kept alive old-fashioned values like hard work and discipline, yet he took the idea of love and put it on the football field."
Love is not a word heard around most football locker rooms, but it was used freely and passionately by Lombardi. He was convinced that a team was bound by more than the color of jerseys and the outcome of Sunday afternoon games. Lombardi was a fiercely religious man who prayed each morning to St. Jude or the Sacred Heart.
"He wanted us to be better human beings," Kramer said. "Hcared for us as human beings. He believed in us. He was a very positive man. I like to call him a positive wizard."
Lombardi liked his football plain and simple. One defense -- foudown linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs in man-to-man coverage. Two offensive formations. Compared to today's modern teams, the Packers were a Model T. But they moved forward like a plow cutting through snow.
"Vince didn't like multiplicity. He liked simplicity," said HanStram, whose Kansas City Chiefs lost to Lombardi's Packers in the first Super Bowl. "He might have not even liked the modern game enough to coach it."
In his time, Lombardi ran the offense, Phil Bengston ran thdefense, and that was that. The Packers coaching staff consisted of only six men. There were no coordinators or special teams coaches, no fancy playbooks filled with schemes or trick plays.
"I don't see another Lombardi today," said Bengston, who waLombardi's successor as Packers head coach. "They go at it entirely different. A typical NFL staff has 11 coaches. Well, jeez, I can't imagine him sitting in a meeting like that. He let me turn in a report on the defense once a week. I don't think he ever read it."
Lombardi's methods weren't universally embraced. He waportrayed by some as obsessed with winning, an outdated authority figure who was anything but sporting. Sportswriter Robert Lipsyte said, "To make America the Green Bay Packers and the NFL the planet Earth, is a fascist rhetoric." Author James Michener said Lombardi inspired a "reign of terror" in sports.
Michael O'Brien, author of "Vince: A Personal Biography of VincLombardi," provides a more sober perspective.
"Vince Lombardi had some serious weaknesses, but he hagreater strengths," O'Brien said. "He was authoritarian and verbally abusive. But he was a man of outstanding character, an outstanding teacher, an excellent motivator, a man capable of kind acts to others. They made him out to be unsportsmanlike. But he was a sportsman. He didn't teach dirty football."
Lombardi was a perfectionist who would not accept mental errors. His views on physical pain were perhaps the most controversial aspect of his reign. When Marv Fleming broke a bone in his foot, Lombardi said the tight end could play, because the break did not occur on a weight-bearing bone. Lombardi was brutal, but he also coolly judged which players he could push, and which players he could not. He urged Hornung to play with strained knee ligaments and claimed defensive end Lionel Aldridge was "loafing" because he had not run a week after having a cast removed from a broken leg.
"The biggest misconception of all was that everyone was in fear of him," Hornung said. "What he proved was that fear was the greatest motivator of them all. If you're in fear, you'll perform better."
Winning. For many, this became the ugly side of Lombardi. The slogan, which he never stated but which was often attributed to him -- "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" -- seemed to define the Lombardi creed. When that philosophy filtered down to pee-wee football level, many social commentators became appalled.
"People chose to take that motto and twist it around and use ias something to demean him," New York Giants owner Wellington Mara said.
Even Lombardi's own players say the philosophy has been warped by the passage of time.
"Lombardi never said that winning at all costs was justified,Kramer said. "The philosophy is that making every effort to win is justified. Winning is only justified fairly, squarely, decently by the rules."
After his retirement, Kramer recalls watching high schoocoaches subvert Lombardi's philosophy. It made him furious.
"These coaches thought they knew what Lombardi stood fowith yelling, screaming and tirades," Kramer said. "I said, 'Hey, someone has made a terrible mistake here.' At that level, you understood there was a distortion."
Lombardi's philosophy of winning applied to grown men, paiathletes who reaped financial awards from a game.
"Those of us who make a living in football understand that it's bottom-line business," Infante said. "Winning is everything. Had Lombardi not won, he would not have been a legend. If you win, you survive. If you lose, well, it's a tough way to make a living."
Lombardi won and survived. He took a team from a small citymade it a champion and became a legend.
"My dad passed away before his time," Vince Lombardi Jr. said. "I know that contributes to people seeing him as being a larger figure than he might have been. But I think a great deal of my dad's popularity has to do with the fact that he was at the right place at the right time. My dad had warts. But he knew himself. He knew that come hell or high water, he'd do things his way."
A look at Lombardi
All-time winning percentages
Vince Lombardi ranks first in winning percentage among all NFL coaches with 100 or more victories (including playoffs). Here are
the top six:
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..W-L-T.. ..Pct
Vince Lombardi.. .. 105-35-6.. ..740
John Madden.. .. .. 112-39-7.. ..731
George Allen.. .. ..118-54-5.. ..681
Don Shula.. .. .. ..298-137-6.. .676
George Halas.. .. ..325-151-31.. 672
Curly Lambeau.. .. .229-134-22.. 623
GREEN BAY PACKERS Year.. .. W-L-T.. ..Playoffs
1960.. .. 8-5-0.. ..Lost NFL title game
1961.. ..12-3-0.. ..Won NFL title
1962.. ..14-1-0.. ..Won NFL title
1964.. .. 8-5-1
1965.. ..12-3-1.. ..Won NFL title
1966.. ..14-2-0.. ..Won NFL title, Super Bowl
1967.. ..12-4-1.. ..Won NFL title, Super Bowl
WASHINGTON REDSKINS 1969.. .. 7-5-2