Even at Top, Lombardi Looked Up
By Shirley Povich
The Vince Lombardi story has ended too soon, his allotted years too few. A dreaded sickness cut down a man who exceeded his renown as professional football's most distinguished and successful coach. Vince Lombardi transcended the game which made him famous and which he, in turn, honored with the genius he brought to it.
To football he gave more than the withering Green Bay sweep and the wonders of the five NFL and two world championships he won in nine years of coaching the Packers. No man has had more impact on the game, and the great legacy left to football by the son of an immigrant Italian butcher was the gift of the Vince Lombardi years.
Football was his power base but beyond his coaching skills he could qualify as one of the remarkable men of his time. The thickset figure of the latter-day Lombardi may have bespoken the rugged product of the football field, but there was vastly more. He was football coach, lecturer, philosopher, tough guy, moralist and practicing patriot who without blush put his voice atop that of the crowd in singing The Star-Spangled Banner.
Football writers, in noting the scope of Lombardi's coaching triumphs and his complete command of his players' loyalties, dwelled often on the Lombardi mystique. At this he scoffed, ascribing all spiritual powers only to the divine, in which his own belief was complete. But others persisted in the belief in his special powers of accomplishment.
In his first and only year as the Redskins' coach, Lombardi walked into a situation that had seethed more than once with sub-surface racial strife. Almost mysteriously, it dissolved in a team brotherhood. Redskin players learned, as the Packers had, that on the practice field Lombardi was a rare mix of harsh and quick disciplinarian and sensitive softie when he learned of a player's limitations.
A less-than-best effort by his good football players infuriated him. But he could easily rationalize an inadequate effort by his inferior players. He made something of a morality game out of pro football, with all its violence, by his steadfast devotion to the rectitudes. With Lombardi, the old-fashioned virtues of hard work and deep faith and team loyalties never went out of style. In the roughest game of them all, these forces were his preachment to his athletes.
In Green Bay, there were individual Packers who loved him and hated him, yet won for him the three straight titles never equaled before or since. "To this day, I don't know whether Lombardi liked me or not," former all-pro tackle Henry Jordan told Milwaukee writer Ken Hartnett, "but we'd go through fire for him."
During the Green Bay years Lombardi was a contradiction to his players. "He was close to us and aloof at the same time," one of them wrote in a book. Yet even those Packers who were not certain they liked their coach said he motivated them to their very best. Thus did the Lombardi mystique thrive. Bill Austin, the Redskin coach Lombardi hand-picked as his successor, relates that several years ago Lombardi sat up until 3 a.m. devising plays that would lick the Cleveland Browns at the strongest point of their defense just for the satisfaction of doing so. The Packers won that game, 47-14.
If Lombardi was plagued by any by-product of his strong dedication to victory it was the prevailing image of him as the curmudgeon autocrat of the practice field, quick to chew out the unfortunate wight, or any group of them, who messed up a pattern. That picture of Lombardi as an insensitive slave driver was a wildly inaccurate one. An instant after his quick angers, the kindly emotions ran deep with him.
The loyalties that Lombardi demanded from his players and his assistants were seated in his own values. Army coach Earl Blaik told of the day West Point had Northwestern beaten until the final seconds, when a 5-yard pass through an errant Army defense beat the Cadets. "I still remember the tears rolling down Lombardi's face," said Blaik. As Blaik's assistant for offense, Lombardi could be absolved of that defensive lapse, but out of team loyalty he could cry at a team defeat.
At Green Bay, as the most famous football coach of his time, Lombardi could find other interests. Concerned citizen Lombardi headed up the Wisconsin Mental Health Association, and also that state's Cancer Fund drive. His transfer to Washington forced a slight change. Lombardi found a vacancy on the board of the District of Columbia Cancer Society.
For his masterful speeches to commercial organizations, Lombardi on his lecture tours could name his own fees. But there were never any for his vastly more frequent public appearances for the numerous do-good causes to which he was dedicated. When his acceptance of a check for a commercial endorsement of AstroTurf was questioned, it was disclosed he had endorsed it over the D.C. Cancer Society.
Years ago, his own fame had become secure. But although he was intent on victory, Lombardi neither spoke of fame nor thought in terms of it. Always, he was a deeply religious man, eager to serve a greatness that was not his own.