Tuesday, June 11, 2013
His majestic, motivational words, however, are still with us: Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.
It's one of the most famous purely Machiavellian lines of all time -- and believed by many to be the core of the man himself -- but it wasn't original material. The quote is actually attributed to former UCLA football coach Henry Russell Sanders. A few years later, Lombardi delivered it to his Green Bay Packers on the first day of training camp in 1959.
"The thing about Coach Lombardi was that all those sayings, well, there weren't a lot of original thoughts," remembered former Packers linebacker Dave Robinson, who is part of the incoming Class of 2013 at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "John Wayne would say a famous line in a movie, and he'd repeat it to us.It wasn't what he said; it was the way he said it.
Bart Starr, Lombardi's celebrated quarterback, was under center for five NFL titles and was the MVP in the first two Super Bowls.
"He was uniquely, exceptionally organized in everything that he did, and passionate, too," Starr said from his office at Starr Enterprises in Birmingham, Ala. "That's one of the reasons I couldn't wait to get to the next meeting after hearing him talk, or follow it up with a walk-through or practice."
Lombardi, Starr was told, was ranked as the No. 1 coach in NFL history by ESPN's panel of voters.
"Super, that's super," Starr said. "It doesn't surprise me at all."
Lombardi did say this: "Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all-the-time thing. You don't do things right once in a while … you do them right all the time."
The 1958 Green Bay Packers had a difficult time doing anything right, ever. They finished the season 1-10-1, and head coach Ray "Scooter" McLean was essentially escorted from the building. Lombardi, born in Brooklyn and a fierce lineman at Fordham University, began his coaching odyssey at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J., where he worked for eight years. He then returned to Fordham as a coach for two years before succeeding Sid Gillman as offensive line coach at Army under the legendary Red Blaik.
Lombardi worked under Blaik for five seasons, then learned the professional game under New York Giants head coach Jim Lee Howell. Lombardi was the Giants' offensive backfield coach from 1954-58, while Tom Landry, who would go on to lead the Dallas Cowboys to 20 straight winning seasons, was the defensive coordinator for those seasons.
The Packers hired Lombardi as head coach and general manager on Jan. 28, 1959, but only after Iowa coach Forrest Evashevski turned down the job.
From the very beginning, Lombardi was a force of nature in Wisconsin.
"In our first session, he was so strong and dynamic and powerful," Starr remembered. "When we took our first break after 30 minutes or so, I ran down the hall and into one of the offices and called my wife back here in Alabama. I said, 'Honey, we're going to start winning.' I mean, it was that obvious."
Another Lombardism: Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.
Unlike their predecessors, the 1959 Packers were not good losers. They went a respectable 7-5. The next season they improved to 8-4 and advanced to the NFL Championship Game. In 1961, Lombardi's Packers finished 11-3 and beat the Giants for the NFL title. In his nine seasons in Green Bay, Lombardi's overall record was 98-30-4, and then there were those five championships.
Lombardi was an extremely demanding coach, but there was a larger purpose to his methodology.
"He was a tough disciplinarian," Starr said, "but fair and objective. It was all about making you the quality person he wanted you to be. It got better with time because we were all being molded and brought along together."
During training camp of Robinson's rookie year, 1963, the Packers were struggling on kickoffs because Paul Hornung had been suspended and guard Jerry Kramer could only reach the 20-yard line. Lombardi, who had read Robinson's college scouting report, knew he had kicked at Penn State.
"Why aren't you kicking for us?" Lombardi wanted to know.
"I'm trying to convert from defensive end to linebacker, playing some offensive line," Robinson said. "I'm trying to stay in the playbook and master my other positions."
Lombardi frowned and said, "Well, your best way to make this team is as a kicker."
Robinson laughed at the memory.
"Yeah," he said, "so I kicked off that year and the next."
Lombardi, like so many great coaches, carefully honed his fear factor.
"I loved my father to death, and he reminded me of my father," Robinson said. "The minute I screwed up, I knew he was going to drop the hammer. The answer is, don't screw up."
Andy Reid, the new Kansas City Chiefs head coach, spent seven seasons in Green Bay as an assistant. Lombardi's name came up almost every single day of that tenure. Reid heard the stories from those who knew Lombardi well, and he soaked up the history.
"He did it through honesty, hard work and integrity," Reid said recently. "And he instilled that in those players. The players, until the day he died [in 1970], respected him. I'm not going to tell you they loved him at that moment when they were doing all those up-downs and all the running that they did. But the end result was the man that he made out of those guys. That's what they respect the most."
Gary Kubiak, the Houston Texans' head coach, said Lombardi's Packers kept things simple.
"We're in a day and time when things get pretty complicated with the schemes and what you do," Kubiak said. "And yet some of the greatest teams you've ever seen were very simple and disciplined in what they do. So when I think of those two things, I think of Coach Lombardi."
The one thing missing on Lombardi's résumé is a large, prosperous coaching tree like the ones inspired by Paul Brown, Sid Gillman and Bill Walsh. Following Lombardi for three seasons, Phil Bengtson went 20-21-1 in Green Bay. Starr, who went on to coach the Packers from 1975-83, lost 24 more games than he won. Forrest Gregg, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, went 25-37-1 as the Packers head coach from 1984-87.
Lombardi's sheer charisma, perhaps, couldn't be passed along to his players and assistant coaches. And then there is this: Many of Lombardi's best players -- and best leaders -- were African-Americans, long before that was the norm in the NFL. Back in those days, African-Americans were not considered for top coaching jobs.
"That's exactly right," Robinson said. "As the son of an Italian immigrant, he was subject to a lot of racism in New York. The Mara family told him that's why he'd never be the head coach there [with the Giants]. When he got to Green Bay, the racial makeup of the city was almost all white. He was real sympathetic to us black players long before it was politically correct. One of his first acquisitions was getting Emlen Tunnell from the Giants. He was the first African-American inducted into the Hall of Fame.
"He would have made a great coordinator, but black folks weren't getting those jobs back then."
Lombardi chose Robinson in the first round of the 1963 draft.
"He drafted Herb Adderley in the first round in '61, then he drafted me two years later," Robinson said. "I heard he told the board of directors, 'You take care of the finances; I'll run the team. The only color in Green Bay is green and gold.'"
Lombardi's former players all reference his relentless pursuit of perfection.
"He'd always say, 'You're going to make mistakes,'" Robinson said. "But he pushed us play that perfect game. I always said I was going to have a perfect game. But I never did."