Fifty years ago, Vince Lombardi took over the Green Bay Packers and revolutionized the game of football
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.
“I can almost go page by page,” former quarterback Zeke Bratkowski recalls. “It was the length of about a legal pad, green, with a very flexible cover. Obviously it had tabs—you know, by topic, starting with basic information, formations, cadence—then got into definition of defenses and so forth.”
Lombardi wouldn’t simply hand his athletes a full playbook each summer. Instead he would start at the beginning—a painfully deliberate process for some of the veterans—and the players were expected to copy the plays for themselves as he scribbled on a chalkboard. “You were responsible for drawing everything up as he drew it up on the board,” former receiver Boyd Dowler remembers. “He’d draw up plays against different fronts and coverages. And in longhand, he’d give you different coaching points. You learned it by doing it.”
In meetings every day, his offensive players would insert another page, additional packages of runs or passes. The defense went through a similar process, though their playbooks were simpler and less hallowed. At the end of the year, the players would give the pages back, lest they leave the team and be tempted to offer Lombardi’s plays to an opponent.
During the season, the Packers carried these playbooks around like dog-eared, coffee-stained bibles, studying them in the evenings and turning them into flesh-and-blood plays on the practice field. “I can still remember like it was yesterday,” says Ron Kramer. “I can tell you any defense they play, how to block it. And that’s mostly due to Vince Lombardi’s thoroughness.”
Lombardi used colors to denote formations—brown meant the fullback was stationed directly behind the quarterback, for instance, while red meant split backs—a system he brought with him from his days as an assistant with the New York Giants. His numbering system on running plays was just as basic: one number for the ball carrier, another for the hole. If Starr called “43 Double Pinch,” the 4 back would run through the 3 hole. The “Double Pinch” defined a blocking pattern. At the beginning of Lombardi’s first season, 2 stood for the left halfback, 3 for the fullback, and 4 for the right halfback. He soon changed to a two-back system, and thereafter used 2 for the fullback and 4 for the halfback.
Any words in the play call tended to refer to blocking assignments or pass routes. “Easy” told an end to block the outside linebacker on his side. “Take” put a tackle on the outside linebacker. “Snapper” meant the center blocked a linebacker. It was a welcome simplification over the Packers’ previous system of terminology. “In the years before Lombardi, the quarterback came into the huddle and he might call ‘49 B-0 Pop George Greg,’” Kramer recalls. “That means the on-guard pulls, the off-guard pulls. B is ‘the back blocks.’ The quarterback had to call everybody’s block. It made it so complicated, it was unbelievable.”
Imagine communicating those long strings of words under the ticking pressure of a two-minute drill. Instead of making the quarterback verbalize all the assignments, Lombardi diffused responsibility to all 11 players. The quarterback would say one word, and the other 10 had to know their splits or blocking responsibilities on the play. “So Bart could come in and say, ‘OK, Red Right 49 on two,’” Kramer explains.
“It gave us the responsibility of knowing the whole play,” Dowler says. “We had better knowledge of the big picture, rather than, ‘All I have to worry about is what I’m doing.’ It gave us ownership of the offense, so to speak.”
Lombardi foisted just one fundamental change on his offense. With his team struggling in 1959, the first-year head coach went from a three-back base set to a two-back set, converting one halfback into a flanker. The result was much more like the offenses we see today. Other than that, a player like Starr who stuck around for all of Lombardi’s nine seasons in Green Bay saw little change to his offense.
Lombardi never believed that “outcoaching” an opponent meant coming up with a play they’d never seen before. Rather he wanted his players to be technically sound, maybe even perfect, in the limited number of plays they ran. “Some people try to find things in this game or put things into it which don’t exist,” Lombardi once remarked. “Football is two things. It’s blocking and tackling. I don’t care anything about formations or new offenses or tricks on defense. You block and tackle better than the team you’re playing, you win.”
The Packers drove opponents crazy. Defensive coaches would break down their film and see that Lombardi wasn’t doing anything too innovative. Yet no one could stop him. “I knew a lot of guys from Texas,” says Dowler. “The Cowboys had all this computer stuff. I’d hear, ‘You can line up in split backs, and we know what you do.’ Finally I’d say, ‘Yeah, well do something about it.’ We weren’t tricking anybody.”
It wasn’t necessarily that the Packers had better talent, though their talent was more than adequate (thanks in part to Lombardi’s personnel assessments). It wasn’t that they “wanted it more,” a common refrain in sports that is usually meaningless. The key was repetition. Rookies would come in first each summer to begin their indoctrination into the Lombardi system and the playbook. The veterans would show up maybe a week later, and they too would start from scratch.
Lombardi would hold up a ball and proclaim, ‘Gentlemen, this is a football.’” And wide receiver Max McGee, the designated cutup, would pipe up and say, “Slow down, would ya, Coach? You’re going too fast.” Then the frivolity would be over, and the Packers would set about learning the playbook from A to Z. More important, they would practice the plays endlessly, until they became reflexive.
“We may not know any more about football than most of the other coaches in the league,” Lombardi once said, according to Bob Rubin’s Green Bay’s Packers: Return to Glory. “But if we can put everything we know together so it makes good basic sense and then drill-drill-drill it into them . . . that kind of coaching can make winners out of losers.”
Adapted from The Official Vince Lombardi Playbook by Phil Barber. Copyright © 2009 by becker&mayer!, LLC. Used by permission of The Lyons Press.