Athlon Archive: The Vince Lombardi I Knew

A longtime friend of Lombardi remembers the coach's softer side and early days

The greatest coach in NFL history — the architect of the Green Bay Packers and the namesake of the league’s championship trophy — died 45 years ago this September.

 

Though more than four decades have passed since Lombardi last coached a game, he remains a giant in the game’s history and an icon for leadership in and out of the sports world.

 

At the time of this 1989 remembrance of Lombardi, the coach was 20 years removed from his final game as head coach of the Washington Redskins.

 

The writer, Tim Cohane, knew Lombardi at Fordham University, where Cohane was a sports information director and Lombardi was a graduate and an assistant coach. Cohane, the sports editor of Look magazine from 1944-65, shared stories of Lombardi’s drive from early in his career, his struggle to find his first head coaching job and his rarely seen humorous side.

 

The Lombardi I Knew

A Block of Granite with a Soul

 

By Tim Cohane

 

Originally appeared in Athlon’s 1989 Pro Football Preview

 

Ironically, since his Green Bay dynasty would do most to perpetuate the legend of the Seven Blocks of Granite, Vince Lombardi was the least publicized man of that immortal Fordham line.

 

As Fordham’s sports information director two years ahead of Lombardi — graduated in 1935, two years ahead of Lombardi — I often heard coach Jim Crowley say, “He is the most underrated player on our team. Smart. You never have to tell him anything twice. Dedicated. He always gives 100 percent. And tough.”

 

In one game with Pittsburgh, a lethal elbow caused him to play most of 60 minutes with a mouthful of blood. Afterward, Dr. Gerry Carroll, Fordham’s team physician, sewed 30 stitches. In a spring practice scrimmage, a blow that punctured the wall of Lombardi’s stomach forced him to live for weeks on cream and poached eggs. But he kept scrimmaging. He also donated his teeth.

 

Looking back on it 30 years later, Lombardi mused: “It was nothing compared to what the Packers have played with. Dave Hanner was an outstanding defensive tackle against the Bears 10 days after an appendectomy. We had to tear the jersey from Bart Starr, whose shoulder and ribs were racked with pain. Offensive guard Jerry Kramer played with enough serious injuries to make the medical books.

 

 

“And we had not copyright on playing with pain. All pros do it. The game is not for men with low pain tolerance. Nor is it for those with a temperament unfit to accept punishment and discipline. To weed out the unfit is a coach’s duty to the fit.”

 

Lombardi’s own attitude toward pain was matched by his dedication as a scholar; the deepest roots in his ability to motivate lay in his talent for teaching. It became clear when he was a dean’s list student in the Bachelor of Arts course, graduating cum laude.

 

The respect for discipline, which he inherited from a father perhaps even stronger-minded than himself, was further molded at West Point under Lombardi’s idol, Coach Earl H. “Red” Blaik, whom he worked under as an offensive coordinator from 1949 through ’53. “If you think you see a military precision in the Packers,” Lombardi said, “you are right. It came from ‘The Old Man’ through me.”

 

Blaik and Lombardi first came together by a coincidence in which I had a part. As sports editor of LOOK, I was at the Biltmore Hotel in New York for the 1948 Eastern College Athletic Conference meeting and went to dinner with Blaik, whom I had first met at Dartmouth 14 years before.

 

“Sid Gillman, our line coach, is leaving to become the head coach at Cincinnati,” Blaik said. “I found out this year that we need two line coaches for two-platoon football. I’ve got the defensive man lined up: Murray Warmath. But I’m looking for an offensive man. Know anybody?”

 

“This is strange,” I said. “About two weeks ago I had a call about a young fellow who is an assistant at Fordham and wants to move ahead. He was a smart, competitive guard there for Jim Crowley. His position coach was Frank Leahy. He was also an honor student.

 

“As a high school coach at St. Cecilia in Englewood, N.J., his teams won seven championships in eight years. He also taught Latin, chemistry and physics. He’s about 35. He’s smart, tough, a madman for work and a born leader. I think he’s your kind of cat. His name is Lombardi. Vincent Lombardi.”

 

“Send him up to see me,” said Blaik.

 

Related: Green Bay Packers All-Time Cover Gallery

 

From the start Lombardi impressed Blaik. Curious, I phoned Blaik for his reaction, and he delivered to me the best sum-up of Lombardi I ever heard: “He’s a rough soul.”

 

In 1949, with Blaik delegating offensive responsibility to Lombardi, the Cadets won the Lambert Trophy (champions of the East) with a 9-0 record highlighted by snapping Michigan’s 25-game winning streak, at Ann Arbor, and by defeating Navy 38-0 in a game that was a clinical showcase of two-platoon efficiency. Blaik was quietly delighted with “Conquering Longbeard,” as the Latin roots for Vincent Lombardi translate.

 

“But he has a vile temper,” Blaik said. “He becomes profane on the field.” Blaik lectured him: “We just don’t do it that way here. You can’t talk that way to cadets.” Blaik tamed him. For a while.

 

The Packers sometimes felt Lombardi was the first cousin to the Wild Man of Borneo. “I have a naturally explosive temper that I’ve never been able to subdue wholly,” he admitted. “And a seething impatience. In a way, it’s a good thing, maybe. I’ve often wondered whether it’s my greatest strength — or weakness. But I feel the chances are that if I were otherwise, I wouldn’t be as effective.”

 

We spent many hours together at the academy. Because of our Fordham background, I wanted badly for him to succeed, and he knew it. Our relationship indulged strong differences of opinion. One developed into a juvenile shouting match following an Army victory over Fordham that resembled two pirate crews at work with dirks and cutlasses. I maintained that Army had been the instigator, while Vince blamed Fordham. Naturally, he was working for Army.

 

Mostly, though, we had laughs. As a gag, I used to pick an annual silly All-America, named for Bull Pond where Blaik, his staff and a few friends used to camp each August, their only time off. The Bull Pond heroes included Ugh, storied guard from Carlisle, who transferred from Geronimo’s Finishing School in Oklahoma; tackles Excalibur Slim of King Arthur’s Knight School and Yak Blubber of the Igloo Institute of Electrical Appliances; ends Chuckles Axemurder of Bedlam Hall and Nero Fiddle of Hook and Ladder No. 7; and guard Oscar Upchuck of Old Nausea.

 

Even after Vince left Army to serve as the New York Giants’ offensive coach under Jim Lee Howell, 1954 through ’58, I used to read the Bull Pond team to him by phone because his bellowing, infectious laughter was funnier than the team. In 1958, we decided to pick an all-time Bull Pond team, and votes were solicited by mail. Lombardi mailed me his selections with the following letter, dated June 24, 1958:

 

Dear Tim,

 

As you will see from my note, the 1957 team was by far the best. I often wish it were possible to see them play as a unit under the great all-time coach, Blaik Von Leahy of South Bend on the Hudson.

Selecting the all-time team was comparatively simple except for the guard positions. Ugh, of course, stands put. But it took a great deal of thought to pick Oscar Upchuck over Heinrich Schnorkel of Unterwasser U. I guess, however, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for old Upchuck.

With best wishes

 

(signed) Vince

 

After Giants practices, Lombardi used to love to read the Bull Pond selections to Howell, Tom Landry and the rest of the staff. Howell told me on a plane once that they looked forward to it. So I guess I wasn’t the only madman involved, nor was Lombardi.

 

In those years, the Giants were winning or regularly contending for the pro title, usually against the Cleveland Browns, coached by Paul Brown. From those games, Lombardi and Brown developed a deep mutual respect.

 

Meanwhile, Vince was ready to be a head coach, had long been ready and was aching for his chance. Some jobs opened to him that he recognized as posing impenetrable road blocks. So he turned them down. The jobs he did go after passed him by. In some of them I was his unofficial ambassador, with portfolio but without success.

 

General Hubert Harmon, first superintendent of the Air Force Academy, was with me at the bar in Mama Leone’s restaurant in New York one night. He said he was looking for a head coach. I recommended Lombardi. (This was probably the early 50s while Vince was still at The Point.)

 

On the 20th Century train en route to the 1956 Notre Dame-Oklahoma game at South bend, I met by chance with the Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, former ND president, whom I’d known for 10 years. At dinner, he confided that they might want to replace Terry Brennan in a couple of years, which they did, and asked me to recommend a successor. “Unless you want a graduate,” I told him, “you can’t go wrong with Vince Lombardi.”

 

When Southern California was considering at successor to Jess Hill, who was about to succeed the retiring Bill Hunter as athletic director, Braven Dyer, Los Angeles Times writer and Trojan historian, asked for a recommendation. I cited Lombardi. “He’ll make it tough on Notre Dame, UCLA and everybody else,” I said.

 

Same when Bill Leiser, San Francisco scribe and Stanford almnus, discussed a successor to Chuck Taylor, who was moving up to athletic director at Palo Alto.

 

Why they all passed him by, I have no idea. Perhaps because he had been a head coach only in high school. Perhaps because his talents were known mainly among the pros and among relatively few college people. Vince always suspected his name might have something to do with it.

 

Once night in the mid-1950s after a Rose Bowl game, we drove out to a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley and kicked it around for about three hours.

 

“I know I can coach,” Lombardi brooded, “but the right people never seem to know. I’m 43 now. I’m not getting any younger. Maybe I’ll never get my chance.”

 

That just couldn’t be. Finally the door opened in 1959, when he was 46. The once mighty Green Bay Packers had taken a lease on Skid Row. Jack Vainisi, then business manager, was empowered to search out a new coach. For advice he went to men he knew would know. Bert Bell, the NFL commissioner. Paul Brown. Red Blaik. From all he got he same answer: Lombardi.

 

Within three years Skid Row bloomed into the Palace Gardens, which Kramer later dubbed Camelot. Five world champions in seven years. A dynasty that erupted from a dynamo. Twenty years later, the Lombardi Packers remain the standard by which all the great modern teams are measured. It would be silly to categorically call Vince the all-time best. But did or will anyone ever leave a greater impact?

 

I used to get to Green Bay a couple of Sundays a year, and I never saw Lombardi team lose. Afterwards, we’d go out to dinner with friends, his only in-season relaxation. We’d have a few scotches. We’d render a duet of “The Fordham Run,” unmelodious but loud. Or he’d ask me to recite his favorite poem: Grantland Rice’s tribute to the Granites. It was titled “Old Gibraltar.”

 

As with many geniuses, complexity rode position to Lombardi. He could be domineering, arrogant, abrasive, harshly realistic. He could also be conciliatory, courtly, kind and sentimental. He could be ruthless. Yet, in his acceptance speech at the first testimonial in Green Bay after his first world title, he shocked his audience by breaking down into tears. They had never suspected this side of him.

 

Almost invariably, the old Green Bay heroes of Lombardi’s day agree that his relationship to them was that of a harsh but deeply caring father, an amalgam of fear, respect, hate and love. He was the first coach, this menace pacing the sidelines, who ever attributed the success of his team to the players’ love for one another.

 

At dinner after a 1961 game with the Bears, I saw Jim Ringo, who felt he had played poorly at offensive center that day despite the victory, approach Lombardi like a prodigal and receive encouragement. (Three years later, when Ringo sought to negotiate a contract through an agent, Lombardi traded him before sundown.)

 

As the championships piled up, so did the pressures. Strong as Lombardi was physically, he blacked out a couple of times. After he gave up smoking, he began to put on the weight. All this contributed to the bad press he called down himself in his later years with The Pack. He must have been at his worst the day he answered Arthur Daley, Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist of The New York Times and a fellow alumnus, “Arthur, how can you ask a stupid question like that?”

 

Next time we were together, I chided him: “With your mind and will and success, this situation with the writing media is not making you look very smart.” He replied: “You are right. I’ve got to mend some fences.” Which he did.

 

The labeling of Lombardi as the arch-apostle of “winning is everything” is inaccurate, but it was his own fault. “I never meant that,” he said. “I meant that a total commitment to winning is everything.” He didn’t make that clear enough to enough people.

 

Although the story has been told thousands of times, it can’t go unmentioned in the recollections of a friend. As a boy, Lombardi studied five years for the Catholic priesthood before he decided he did not have a vocation. But he remained an almost daily communicant.

 

“Prayer has always been necessary to me,” he said. “It was part of my upbringing. Without it, I never could have taken the pressures of coaching.” Publicly, however, he tried to steer interviewers away from the subject of his religion.

 

After The Pack bounced Oakland around 33-14 in the 1968 Super Bowl game, Lombardi resigned as coach but stayed on as general manager. After one year, however, he accepted the challenge of rebuilding the Washington Redskins. He got off a promising start with a 7-5-2 record but was stricken by cancer and died Sept. 3, 1970.

 

There is still a host of memories around (my) house. Files full of clippings. Magazines. Books. The Packer blanket and 1961 world championship tie clasp, shaped like a football. But I guess my favorite is the postcard of the Coliseum he sent me from Rome the winter of 1962: “Having a beer and pizza at the half. The score: Lions 8, Christians 7.”

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