Vince Lombardi: A Coach for All Seasons
By Jack Clary, FCRH ’54
Originally published in the June 1967 issue of FORDHAM magazine
When you’re around Vince Lombardi, you hear him talk about qualities you don’t necessarily expect from an NFL-hardened head coach. Words like “love, tradition, dedication” are an important part of his normal vocabulary.
What, for instance, does dedication mean to Lombardi?
“A person must be attached to something, have a feeling for a thing,” he said recently. “A person must feel that it is the right thing for himself or for his family. Then, perhaps most important, there must be the basic dedication to God. You must recognize that He is superior, that He’s right and that you believe in Him for these reasons.”
He chuckled a bit after he said it. “I sound like a real philosopher but I’m not. This is what I believe in. In my circle of friends and associates, I find it. In football, you learn to love the game before you become dedicated to it.”
There was another one of those words, “love,” again, and Lombardi amplified what he meant.
Tradition of Greatness
“The Green Bay Packers must believe in the tradition that has been established before they can learn to love the team. They must know that all the work they do, everything that happens on the field in the name of the Green Bay Packers is the continuance of a tradition of greatness. The must know this and then accept this.”
How does it happen, a listener inquired?
“I don’t know if there is any sure-fire solution or answer to that question,” Lombardi said after a moment’s thought. “In the Packers’ case, it is by our action. In teaching and coaching a player, he must somehow get the feeling that there is a dedication coming from the top and it must be worth something. The individual player seems to study this idea, look closer at it and soon you find that they are believing that it is true.”
Dedication is a deep principle to Lombardi. It encompasses character, leadership, discipline, knowledge and strength. He told some 2,000 members of the American Management Association in February that “a leader in any field must have character and that character is developed through self-discipline.
“A leader must be able to direct people but he must also be able to make people willing to accept direction. The strength of a company or a team is in the will of the leaders. If the manager is weak-willed, the company will be poorly directed.”
He went a step further.
“You can be dedicated to a principle by doing the same thing as we have done in Green Bay—by exploring it, believing it and practicing it. A good example is the dedicated doctor though let’s not limit it strictly to the professional field. You will find men who feel this way about their company, their particular field or their job. Unfortunately, it has become too much of a custom to ridicule what is termed the ‘company man’ because he is dedicated to a principle he believes in.”
There is no group who believes in this more than do the Packers. When the team was preparing for the Super Bowl game at its Santa Barbara, Calif., camp, Lombardi was peppered with the same question: “Why do you think the Packers can win?”
His answer came with almost too much monotonous regularity to suit those who were looking for a blast of the famed Lombardi fire or some super-secret into what his team would do. “We have tradition, they don’t,” was his answer. “We have something going for us that goes back a lot further than one game or one season. We must sustain this and every man on the team feels the same way.”
Few Can Lead
“Everywhere you look, there is a call for freedom, independence or whatever you wish to call it,” he said. “But as much as these people want to be independent, they still want to be told what to do. And so few people who are capable of leading are ready and willing to lead. So few are ready.”
He agreed with his listener that the rash of demonstrations which have marked the Sixties are leaderless pursuits of freedom through means which, by their nature, are at odds with the tentacles of this freedom.
“We must gain respect for authority—no, let’s say we must regain respect for authority,” he noted. “I think we have lost it somewhere down the line. We have been fighting against all of our individual traditions and now some want individual rights placed above all authority. We must learn again to respect authority because to disavow it is contrary to our individual natures.”
There is no one who will joust Lombardi on the term “respect for authority.” He is not a Prussian as many have indicated. He knows but one way to do a job—the right way, the way he feels is best because he has the mandate to get the job done. There is no one who will argue against his methods because they have met the most common and popular test—absolute success.
It has not been material success alone that has marked Vince Lombardi’s life as a coach. He has transmitted to those under him a sense of responsibility and a feeling of accomplishment.
Jerry Kramer, a Green Bay guard, characterized it this way before the Super Bowl: “I feel that his Sunday every guard in the National Football League is depending on me not to let him down.”
Kramer’s guard running mate, Fuzzy Thurston, added his thoughts: “I don’t want some guy to come into my steak house, point at me and say, ‘you played on the first team to lost to the AFL.’”
Lombardi Lays Down the Law
Eight years ago, it is doubtful whether or not these men really felt that way. When Lombardi came to Green Bay in 1959, he inherited a team that had won only one of 12 games the previous season. It was wrought with cliques and personal troubles. When he met his new team for the first time in training, Lombardi laid down his first principle: “There are trains and planes going out of here every day and any man who doesn’t want to work will be on them.”
Then, he put his personal credo to work. The weak went, the discontented soon followed and the disenchanted never saw the start of the 1959 season. Those who remained believed in what Lombardi taught them and before the end of the first season he had re-established within them a deep-seated faith. It was the basic foundation that was to become pro football’s greatest dynasty.
Lombardi never had the league’s best talent. He gave some of his players something over and above their fast legs, strong arms and nimble reflexes. He gave them a respect for each other, a strong sense of self-discipline and a deep-seated affection for the traditions that made them want to win. From these came the rightful bounty of material benefits that are deserving of anyone willing to make the personal investments. These too often are looked upon as the real reason why the Green Bay Packers have established their tradition of excellence.
To believe otherwise is to go against the principles Lombardi and the Packers have demonstrated. He is as proud as a father when he talks about the “character” of his men. When the Packers defeated Baltimore in a playoff for the Western Conference title in 1965, Lombardi used the word when someone asked him why he won.
“The team has character, fine character,” he said. “Things happened that might have stopped other teams but they ignored them and went on to win.”
“Character,” Lombardi said, amplifying the word, “is just another word for having a perfectly disciplined and educated will. A person can make his own character by blending these elements with an intense desire to achieve excellence. Everyone is different in what I will call magnitude, but the capacity to achieve character is still the same.”
His ideas, convictions and language give him away. He is a builder of men.
The Insignis Medal was given to Vince Lombardi on May 8, 1967, not only for his outstanding career in sports but really for his outstanding career as a person. The citation read:
In honoring Vincent Lombardi of the College Class of 1937, Fordham faces an embarrassment of riches. On which of the many men who are Vincent Lombardi should its Insignis Medal be pinned? On the master planner, the fearsome strategist of attack and defense—Alexander in a football jersey? Or rather on the field tactician, capitalizing on his enemies’ mistakes and shrewdly covering his own—Napoleon without the hat? On the merciless opponent, but gracious victor? Or simply on the ablest, most respected, and most successful coach in football’s brief history?
All these he is, as surely as he is Fordham’s. Yet we are certain he will permit his Alma Mater to honor him today for none of these gifts, but rather as a sharer in her own proudest tradition, an example of her most elusive goal—as a great teacher. This, too, is Vincent Lombardi.
His teaching has many voices. The acid staccato in the locker room; the gentle menace on the playing field; the swift bark to the bench; the anguished cry of outraged virtue at the refs. Above all these, however, rises the steady, drilling voice, explaining, expounding, repeating, explaining: the whole man, head cocked forward, hands punching out, almost visibly transferring his vision, his determination, his strength, his absolute confidence to each of his players.
By the reach of television his classroom covers a whole nation. Sunday after Sunday all of us have watched him work. Untried kids and tired old men have learned from him. They have learned that men like Vincent Lombardi know how to fight, how to win, how to lose. Above all, they and all of us have learned that only with such men is the whole greater than its parts, that a team, a real team, is like all creations of love—a thing of wonder.
In A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More advises a young friend of his to be a teacher. The young man asks, “And if I was, who would know it?” More’s answer fits Vincent Lombardi, the great teacher we honor today. “Who would know it? You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public.”