Bill Parcells mentioned him when he retired as coach of the New York Jets. Mike Sherman unavoidably recalled his legacy when he took over as the new coach of the Green Bay Packers. The great mentioners of professional football seem to evoke his memory every time there is a coaching change in the league, or whenever a player or coach behaves in a style that contrasts with the ways of the Old Man. It has been 30 years since Vince Lombardi died of colon cancer at Georgetown University Hospital at age 57, yet even today he is often the figure against whom current events in the NFL are measured.
Part of Lombardi's lingering presence can be explained by his incomparable success on the field, leading the Packers to five championships in nine years in Green Bay, including the first two Super Bowls, and then bringing the Redskins their first winning campaign in 13 years during his lone season in Washington. But more than the wins he accumulated, Lombardi represented a philosophy, a way of handling himself and his players, that set him apart. Is that philosophy still relevant in the modern NFL, the league of rap musicians and mercenary millionaires, of power-broker agents and cell-phone-toting quarterbacks and beeper-clad safeties? Where could Lombardi fit in the NFL so brashly portrayed in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday"--aside from the portrait of him hanging behind Al Pacino on his office wall?
That theme of Lombardi past and present is one I've been dealing with regularly in the last few months while traveling the country on a tour for "When Pride Still Mattered," my biography of the late coach. After every speech, the first two questions thrown my way are predictable and interconnected, and usually in this order: First, Could Lombardi win today? And then, What would Lombardi think of today's players?
My first response is usually, "Well, he could not win today if he used the same old plays his Packers relied on in the '60s." This is, of course, a flippant answer, but it is a way of underscoring the difficulty of comparing people and events from different eras. The famed Green Bay sweep, which Lombardi trained his Packers on day after day, year after year, even running wind sprints out of the sweep formation, would probably not work today even with his proficient teaching style. The linebackers of the new century are too big and fast; they would catch Paul Hornung from behind before he could make that cut behind guards Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer. But my next answer is that Lombardi would find a way to win, even if that meant adapting to a new system. He was, in the end, far more flexible than the stereotypical image of him allows.
When Lombardi first came to the pros, arriving from West Point to run the offense for New York, the veterans at Giants training camp literally laughed behind his back when he tried to teach them variations from Army's playbook, with quarterback bootlegs and delays that had no chance of working in the pro league. He quickly realized his mistake, went around to halfback Frank Gifford and quarterback Charlie Conerly and the other guys and asked them to help him, and soon enough he was leading the most effective, and balanced, offense in the Eastern Conference. Behind his gruffness there was an adaptable football mind.
He was still adjusting at the end of his career. When he reached Washington and inherited Sonny Jurgensen at quarterback, the same coach who had spent his career perfecting the run suddenly became a happy bombardier, and Jurgensen, who had played with Norm Van Brocklin at Philadelphia and for Otto Graham at Washington, two of the great quarterbacks of all time, said that he never played his position better than during that one year when he was coached by the old fireplug guard from Fordham. At the end of their first year, Lombardi said that Jurgensen's best completion percentage ever was just a warmup, and that now that he understood the system he should connect on 75 percent of his passes. After watching the Kansas City Chiefs take apart the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970 Super Bowl, all he could talk about to Sonny was how he had figured out a way to fool the Chiefs' new defense by flooding zones and forcing mismatches on the linebackers. This was the subject of the last conversation Jurgensen ever had with Lombardi, who was on his deathbed.
Yes, well and good, he would change his plays, but how would Lombardi deal with the freewheeling, fearless and filthy rich modern ballplayers? I usually answer this by saying that he would do anything for the chance to coach Brett Favre or Deion Sanders, two of the more freewheeling characters in the game today. The strait-laced Lombardi would respect them because of their talent and indomitable spirit. When I saw Sanders re-enter a game this year with a bad hamstring pull, only seconds after an announcer had declared him out for the year, I thought to myself, "The Old Man would love that!" And Favre, who earlier in his career had struggled with an addiction to painkillers, spent all of last year playing with a badly mangled thumb, adhering to a philosophy Lombardi learned from his father Harry, that "pain is only in your mind."
It is hard to imagine Lombardi not fuming at the sight of a mediocre defensive lineman dancing with self-celebratory delight after making a routine tackle in the second quarter with the team trailing by 14 points. One of the many sayings attributed to him (it had also been put in the mouth of fellow coaching legend Paul Brown) is something that he supposedly said to the great kick returner Travis Williams in 1967 when Williams danced after scoring a touchdown: "Travis, the next time you make it to the end zone, act like you've been there before." As the story goes, that was all that needed to be said.
But the larger truth about Lombardi and players is that the guys playing the game today are not by nature all that different from the ones who played in the 1960s. They were mostly narcissists then as they are now, young men who loved to party and drink and break training rules whenever they could. The Packers of the glory years engaged in legendary drinking contests, one of which ended with linebacker Dan Currie being carried out of a bar semiconscious while the imbibing champion, Thurston, celebrated by doing pushups on top of a piano. Wild Bill Quinlan, a defensive end for Lombardi, did not get his nickname for nothing, nor did linebacker Ray Nitschke, who was called "Wildman." And Lombardi's favorite player was his prodigal son, Hornung, who set the standard of sybarritic behavior and was suspended by the league for a year for gambling.
What has changed, dramatically, is the relationship between players and coaches because of money and free agency. In Lombardi's era, players had little power and few options and their identities came from their teams, not their drawing power on the open market. They might not play hard or well for a coach they did not respect, but they could not do much else about it. Today, the common lament of coaches is that they have no choice but to put up with players who are dogging it or not buying into their system.
One major league baseball coach called me after reading my book and said he had always taken solace from the story about Lombardi and Jim Ringo's agent. The story was that one day Ringo, the great Packers center, walked into the office with an agent, and Lombardi took one look across the table, excused himself from the room, and returned a few minutes later with the announcement, "Gentlemen, you are talking to the wrong team. Mr. Ringo has been traded to Philadelphia." The baseball coach said that he and his manager used to sit around retelling that story. "We'd be sitting around almost daydreaming about it, saying, 'Wouldn't it be great to do it like Lombardi did?' You know, just once, have some jerk player come in and start making demands and us just saying, 'Hey, screw you! You're outta here! Gone! Traded!' We just can't do that today."
The problem with the story is that it is not true. Never happened. Ringo wanted to go to Philly, his home town, and Lombardi had been thinking about trading him for months. The salary discussions took place with an assistant. But it was a great story, and Lombardi allowed it to persist, he later acknowledged, because he wanted to instill fear in players and agents, something that he knew would become increasingly difficult to do in the new era. Even Lombardi had to just pretend once in a while that he was Lombardi.
David Maraniss is the author of the best-selling book "When Pride Still Mattered, A Life of Vince Lombardi," published by Simon & Schuster.