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Vincent T. Lombardi

Vince Lombardi

[lom-bahr-dee, luhm-]

Vincent Thomas Lombardi (June 11, 1913September 3, 1970) was an American football coach. He was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers of the NFL from 1959-67, winning five league championships during his 9 years. Following a one-year retirement from coaching in 1968, he returned as head coach of the Washington Redskins for the 1969 season. Lombardi's record in the post-season was 9-1, the loss coming in the first of those games, the 1960 NFL championship.

Early years

Lombardi was born in Brooklyn to Neapolitan-born father Henry Lombardi, 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 the age of 15, he entered Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception, a six-year secondary program to become a Catholic priest. After two years, Lombardi decided not to pursue this path and transferred to the St. Francis Prep, where he was a standout on the football team (an activity that was discouraged at the seminary), played baseball and was a Charter Member of Omega Gamma Delta Fraternity. Lombardi remained a devout Catholic throughout his life.

In 1933, Lombardi accepted a football scholarship to Fordham University in The Bronx to play for new head coach Sleepy Jim Crowley, one of the Four Horsemen 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 twenty-five consecutive victories. Frank Leahy, future head coach at Notre Dame, was Lombardi's position coach. In the classroom, Lombardi was a great student and ended up graduating cum laude with a bachelor's degree in business in 1937.

High school

In 1939, after two years at a finance company, semi-professional football (with the Brooklyn Eagles, bulking up to 205 lb., and Wilmington Clippers), and an unfulfilled semester of Fordham's law school at night, Lombardi accepted an assistant coaching job at St. Cecilia, a Catholic high school in Englewood, New Jersey. He was hired by its new head coach, his former Fordham teammate, quarterback "Handy" Andy Palau. Palau had also struggled for two years, failing to make it in baseball as a catcher in the 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. Lombardi and Palau shared a boarding house room across the street from the school 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.

West Point

Following the 1948 football season, Lombardi accepted another assistant's job, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a position that would greatly influence his future coaching style. Lombardi served as offensive line coach under legendary head coach Colonel Red Blaik. 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 not, 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.

To the NFL

Lombardi, age 41, began his career as a professional football coach in 1954. He accepted a job that 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 3-9 record. By the third season, Lombardi, along with the defensive coordinator, a young Tom Landry, turned the squad into a championship team, defeating the Chicago Bears for the league title in 1956. Lombardi relied on the talents of Frank Gifford, whom Lombardi made a two-way player, offensive halfback and his original professional position of defensive halfback.

Head coaching career

Green Bay Packers

In January 1959, at age 45, Vince Lombardi accepted the position of Head Coach and General Manager of the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay had lost all but two of its 12 games (a win & a tie) that they played in the 1958 season. Lombardi created punishing training regimens and expected absolute dedication and effort from his players. The 1959 Packers were an immediate improvement, finishing at 7-5.

In his second year, Lombardi led the Packers to the 1960 NFL championship game, but suffered his only post-season loss when Packer fullback Jim Taylor was stopped nine yards from the end zone by Chuck Bednarik as time ran out. According to When Pride Still Mattered, after the loss Lombardi stated that losing a championship game was unacceptable and it would not happen again under his command. (He would win his next nine post-season games.)

Immediately following that game, Lombardi had an opportunity to become head coach of the New York Giants, once his dream job. After considerable deliberation he 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 (3rd place game) after the 1964 season (officially classified as an exhibition game). Lombardi had earlier expressed an interest in the head coaching job at Notre Dame and on two separate occasions wrote letters to the university to that effect. He never received a reply.

Lombardi went on to accomplish a 105-35-6 record as head coach (.750, discarding ties as was the NFL policy); and he never suffered a losing season. He led the Packers to a still-unmatched three consecutive NFL championships in 1965, 1966, and 1967; winning 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 who had campaigned on behalf of Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (although Lombardi's wife, father and brother were Republicans).

The Lombardi Sweep

As coach of the Packers, Lombardi converted Notre Dame quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung to a full-time halfback. Lombardi designed a play for Hornung based on an old single wing concept--the right offensive linemen swept to the outside and blocked downfield (pulling guards). This was a play that he had originally developed for Gifford that would become known as the "Lombardi sweep" or "Packer power sweep."

The Ice Bowl

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, which became known as the Ice Bowl. 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 one yard line. The previous two plays (44-Dive) to halfback Donny Anderson had gone for no gain.

Following the time out, quarterback Bart Starr ran an unplanned 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 (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", 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.

Washington Redskins

Lombardi stepped down as head coach of the Packers following the 1967 NFL season, staying on as the team's general manager for 1968. He handed off the head coaching position to Phil Bengtson, a longtime assistant, but the Packers finished at 6-7-1 and out of the four team NFL playoffs. A restless Lombardi returned to coaching in 1969 with the Washington Redskins, where he broke a string of 14 losing seasons. The 'Skins would finish with a record of 7-5-2, significant for a number of reasons. Lombardi discovered that rookie running back Larry Brown was deaf in one ear, something that had escaped his parents, schoolteachers, and previous coaches. Lombardi had observed Brown's habit of tilting his head in one direction when listening to signals being called, and walked behind him during drills and said "Larry". When Brown did not answer, the coach asked him to take a hearing exam. Brown was fitted with a hearing aid, and with this correction he would enjoy a successful NFL career.

Lombardi was the first coach to get soft-bellied quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, one of the league's premier forward passers, to get into the best condition he could. He coaxed former All-Pro linebacker Sam Huff out of retirement. He even changed the team's uniform design to reflect that of the Packers, with gold and white trim along the jersey biceps, and later a gold helmet with an "R" inside a circle, similar to the famous Green Bay "G" monogram. The foundation Lombardi laid was the groundwork for Washington's early 1970s success under former L.A. Rams Coach George Allen. Lombardi had brought a winning attitude to the Nation's Capital, in the same year that the nearby University of Maryland had hired Lefty Driesell to coach basketball and the hapless Washington Senators named Ted Williams as manager and led the club to its only winning record in Washington (86-76). It marked a renaissance in sports interest in America's most transient of cities.

Illness and death

During the summer, the hearty Lombardi suddenly began to feel less than his vigorous self. He was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in late June 1970, weeks before training camp for his second season in Washington. Although a long-time sufferer of digestive tract problems, Lombardi had avoided going to the doctor for colonoscopies, and this delay may have hastened his illness and eventual death. He was treated at the Georgetown University Hospital, but by the time it was discovered, the cancer had rapidly spread from his colon to his liver, peritoneum, and lymph nodes. The attending oncologist described it as the most virulent case he had ever witnessed (Maraniss, "When Pride Still Mattered"). He died ten weeks later on September 3, 1970 at the age of 57.

Many made long journeys to attend his funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, and hardened football veterans wept openly at the service, held on September 7th. Honorary pallbearers included Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Willie Davis, Tony Canadeo, Wellington Mara, Dick Bourguignon, and Edward Bennett Williams. President Nixon went so far as to send a telegram of condolence signed "The People."

Just a week after his death, the NFL's Super Bowl trophy was renamed the Vince Lombardi Trophy in his honor, first awarded after Super Bowl V. Lombardi was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame at its next induction ceremony in 1971.

Vince Lombardi is buried next to his wife and his parents, in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Middletown Township, New Jersey.

Legacy

Vince Lombardi has become virtually synonymous with the NFL. This began during his career: he was featured as the face of the NFL on the cover of Time on December 22, 1962 as part of the magazine's cover story on "The Sport of the '60s." Lombardi's players were wholeheartedly devoted to him, and his emphasis on hard work and dedication endeared him to millions who admired his values.

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" is the principle that one should arrive 10-15 minutes early, or else be considered late.

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."

Lombardi's grandson, Joe Lombardi, is an offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints. Vince also had a brother Joseph, who was active in the National Football Foundation and college hall of fame. Joseph died in 2005.

Honors

  • In 1967, Highland Avenue in Green Bay, home to the Packers' Lambeau Field, was renamed for Lombardi.
  • As part of the Lambeau Field renovation, a statue of Lombardi now stands on a plaza outside the stadium, in an overcoat grasping a program, as he did often on the sideline.
  • In 1972, the Green Bay School District named its new junior high school (later a middle school) "Vincent T. Lombardi Junior High (Middle) School." It is located on Green Bay's southwest side.
  • There is a Vince Lombardi Square (with a plaque dedication in the sidewalk on the square) near Sheepshead Bay Road and East 14th Street in Brooklyn, New York.
  • Also in Brooklyn, there are two places in the Bensonhurst area, which are dedicated or rehonored in Vince Lombardi's honor: P.S. 204 on 15th Avenue and 81st Street is unofficially named the Vince Lombardi Public School, and the entire Bensonhurst stretch of 16th Avenue is dedicated by the City of New York as "Vince Lombardi Boulevard."
  • The Vince Lombardi Service Area and park-and-ride is the northernmost rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike at mileposts 116E on the Eastern Spur and 115.5W on the Western Spur.
  • The Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University is named in his honor.
  • The Vince Lombardi Cancer clinic at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay is named after him.
  • The Vincent T. Lombardi Center at Fordham University was named for the coach.
  • The Rotary Lombardi Award is given annually to the best college football lineman or linebacker.
  • The football field at Old Bridge High School in Old Bridge, New Jersey is called "Vince Lombardi Field." It has been called this since the 1970s, the field in Palisades Park is also known as "Vince Lombardi Field." His brother Joe attended the rededication ceremony in the 1990s.
  • Lombardi is a recipient of the Silver Buffalo Award, the highest adult award given by the Boy Scouts of America.
  • Immediately renamed following his death in September 1970, the Vince Lombardi Trophy is given to the winner of the Super Bowl annually by the NFL.

See also

References

External links

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