- Historic Sites
Fifty years ago, Vince Lombardi took over the Green Bay Packers and revolutionized the game of football
Fall 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 3
At the height of Operation Desert Storm in February 1991, former All-American football star Ron Kramer was watching the news on television. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, chief of U.S. ground forces in the Persian Gulf, was detailing an assault by his forces into Iraq, using arrows and diagrams to illustrate the maneuvers. Kramer, who had played tight end for Green Bay from 1957 to 1964, squinted at his television screen. He had seen those arrows before.
“I wrote a letter to General Schwarzkopf,” Kramer says. “I sent ‘49’ to him and told him he had plagiarized Vince. He was at Army when Vince was there.”
Schwarzkopf indeed had played football at West Point, and he wrote back with his memories of the famous coach. The “49” to which Kramer referred was a basic sweep play in which the halfback runs around the flank of the offensive line. It became synonymous with the great Packers teams of the 1960s, and sportswriters soon called it the “Lombardi sweep.”
When Lombardi came to Wisconsin 50 years ago, the Packers were downtrodden and Green Bay was waiting for a hero. Within four years, the squat, emotional, and occasionally corny coach had guided his team to two NFL championships and become one of the most recognizable figures in sports. As the Packers rolled to additional titles in 1965, 1966, and 1967, his persona grew outsized. America in those years was coming apart at the seams, torn by war, protest, and racial discord. Many saw Lombardi’s conservative demeanor and obsession with discipline as a route home to a steadier time, as ballast for a ship pitching wildly in the waves.
Lombardi was much in demand during the off-season, speaking to business groups and civic organizations on the importance of loyalty, sacrifice, excellence, and determination. A motivational business film featured him turning a sad-sack salesman into a dynamo. In 1968 Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon seriously considered Lombardi as his running mate. Nixon was sorry to learn of the coach’s close ties to the Kennedy family. What’s more, Lombardi had joined a group of sports figures pushing for gun control in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s assassination.
A year later, Lombardi took Washington, D.C., by storm, but as the new coach for the Redskins. After only a single season, however, Lombardi was dead from colon cancer. Lombardi had won every year he coached, making it seem as though he could have done it forever if only disease hadn’t cut him down early. And who knows, maybe he could have.
There are many explanations for Lombardi’s success as a coach, among them a keen memory, an analytical mind, and a passionate love of football. Headstrong and tireless, he was determined to get his way and to solve strategic problems. While charismatic in his own way, he was a man whom people naturally feared but admired at the same time. Like the star basketball coach John Wooden, he was known for his homilies and slogans, many of which were posted on signs in the locker room. They might appear preachy today, but at the time they made him seem wise.
Lombardi had been born in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of southeast Brooklyn on June 11, 1913. His father, Harry Lombardi, was a squat, powerful meat wholesaler who had emigrated from Italy and went by the nickname “Tattoos”—a reference to the ink that covered both arms. Written on the fingers of one hand, one letter to each finger, was the word WORK; on the other hand was the word PLAY.
As a boy, Vince considered joining the priesthood. That notion later seemed laughable to his players, who saw more than they wanted of the coach’s profane side, but Lombardi would remain a devout Catholic, attending mass seven days a week before heading to work. “It’s the only way I can control my terrible temper,” he confided to friends. He kept rosary beads in his coat pocket and car. As quarterback Bart Starr was fond of saying, “If you heard Coach Lombardi at practice every afternoon, you knew why he had to go to church every morning.”
Lombardi taught high school physics, chemistry, and Latin for eight years at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey. He developed a teaching philosophy that would form the core of his coaching style: he would explain everything to the lowest student or player, not moving on until everyone understood. With the Packers he would break down his offense in minute detail first for his assistant coaches, then his players.
“He was famous or infamous for his adages on winning, and whether it was the most important thing,” former center Bill Curry says. “He was famous for his records, and for his fire and his profanity and his demanding approach to the game. But not as much for what he did best. What a great teacher does is make you want to please him or her. I’ll never forget what he taught me. That was his greatest gift.”
Lombardi taught his disciples, and they taught theirs, and his philosophies of football and life have passed through a generation or three. In a way, anyone who loves football has been a beneficiary.
One of Vince Lombardi’s strengths, his playbook, was a model of simplicity, a relatively small collection of sheets—maybe an inch and a half thick, where those of other coaches could be four inches—that changed only slightly between 1959 and 1967. But it was built on his astute observations of the game, and it became the standard.