Class of 1971: Vince Lombardi

01/01/2005

(Editor's Note: this feature was prepared at the time of Lombardi's election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.  He was inducted posthumously on July 31, 1971).

Vince Lombardi's Hall of Fame bio page>>>

Lombardi-1 At the age of 40, when most pro football luminaries have made their mark and passed from the scene of a game dominated by young men, Vince Lombardi was just emerging in the pro football world as an assistant coach with the New York Giants .

At 45, he embarked on the mission, the dual job of head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers that would bring him pro football immortality.

Amazingly, he basked in the limelight for only one decade until cancer struck him down just as he seemingly was about to bring about "a second miracle," the rejuvenation of the Washington Redskins.  In a remarkable few years, Lombardi had become the symbol of excellence for an entire sport populated by dozens of progressive, highly-capable leaders.

There have been few teams in pro football history in a more downtrodden state than the Packers when Lombardi was contacted by Green Bay president Dominic Olejniczak about taking over the coaching reins in 1959.  Lombardi had gained a reputation as Jim Lee Howell's No. 1 lieutenant in New York for stylish, thorough and imaginative craftsmanship on offense and certainly had the credentials for a head coaching position.

But Vince held out for complete control, meaning the general manager's job, too, and his demand prevailed.  He had a five-year period in which to turn the Packers' destiny around even the most ardent Green Bay optimist must have wondered if the job could have been done, even in five years.  In 1958, the Packers experienced a miserable 1-10-1 record, worst in the proud club's history. The Packers hadn't been over .500 since 1947 and had not won a divisional title since 1944.

Lombardi-2Lombardi set his plan into action in his very first meeting with the Packers squad. "I have never been on a losing team, gentlemen, and I do not intend to start now!" 

Almost as if the statement was an irreversible command and they had no other choice, the Packers did not have a losing season again during "The Lombardi Era."

Miraculously, the record improved to 7-5-0 in 1959 and then came the first divisional crown in 16 years in 1960.  The Packers did not win the NFL title that year — the only time they failed to win a championship playoff game of the 10 they played under Lombardi — but they did win in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967.

The three straight titles were the first for an NFL team since the playoff system was adopted in 1933 and the Packers followed up their final two NFL crowns with victories in the first two Super Bowl games.

Lombardi-3 Finally in January 1968, just after the Packers had conquered the Oakland Raiders  in Super Bowl II, Lombardi retired as head coach while retaining the general manager's job in Green Bay.  During the next year, when the Wisconsin city renamed one of its thoroughfares "Lombardi Avenue," Vince found the hours "out of action" much more taxing than any of the tense moments he experienced as an on-the-field leader.

So a year later, he made the big move to Washington under strikingly similar conditions to those he faced in Green Bay just one decade earlier.  He held out for complete control and got it.  The team he was taking over had, like the Packers of 1959, not experienced a better-thyan-.500 season in 14 years.  Remarkably, the results were identical, a winning 7-5-2 mark for Washington in Lombardi's first campaign.

Lombardi may not have assumed his primary pro football role until he was 45, but his entire life story was actually a success punctuated one and it is likely that he would have been a roaring success in any one of a number of career endeavors.

Lombardi-muralThe Brooklyn native played his college football at Fordham and, as a 5-11, 200-pound guard; he was a member of the Rams' famed "Seven Blocks of Granite" line.  But he did not play pro football and, instead, came within a whisker of earning his law degree at Fordham when he decided to enter the coaching ranks.

His first Job was at St. Cecelia High School in Englewood, N. J., and he led the school to six state championships in eight years and one stretch of 36 straight wins.  After Installing the T-formation as an assistant at Fordham in 1946, he moved to West Point under Coach Earl "Red" Blaik in 1948 and he stayed there until joining the Giants.

Off the field, he was a most outstanding businessman and citizen.  He authored a best seller, "Run to Daylight" and produced a sales film, "Second Effort," that was in great demand everywhere.  He lent not only his name, but his time and talent, to so many charities that they are too numerous to mention.  Ironically, however, his favorite charity was the Cancer Fund.

Even as the seriousness of his final illness became certain, he served as honorary vice chairman of the Honor America Day on July 4, 1970, because, he said, "I think it is the right thing to do."

Perhaps the best indication of Lombardi's pro football contribution lies in the records of the teams he led.  Neither Green Bay nor Washington had been successful for years before Vince arrived and were not in the seasons after his departure.  The only real success either has enjoyed during that era were the years when Vince Lombardi was in full command.

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