It's been 20 years since coach's death, but his name still is synonymous with toughness, winning


January 27, 1991|By Bill Glauber

Vince Lombardi was the original. The coach. The martinet. The genius. The manipulator. The winner. The star.

You can take your Don Shulas and Bill Walshes and Tom Landrys and Chuck Nolls and none of them can match Lombardi. Wins and losses don't matter here. Super Bowls don't figure in this equation. Lombardi was bigger than the game of football, period.

Politicians courted him. Businessmen quoted him. Sociologists loathed him.

When the 25th Super Bowl is held today in Tampa, Fla., the winning team will be awarded a sterling silver trophy named after Vincent T. Lombardi. He was a coach who became a myth, a personality who became an icon.

More than 20 years after his death, and 24 years after his first Super Bowl victory, Lombardi's Legacy can still be found in the NFL. No team runs the Green Bay Packers' Sweep anymore, and coach dares to drive his players the way Lombardi once did. But Lombardi remains the National Football League's standard of excellence.

"There has never been any football personality to approach Lombardi in the last quarter of a century," said Steve Sabol, head of NFL Films. "He was the most literate, educated head coach I've met. He could quote Cicero, Virgil, the Bible. He had enormous breadth as a person. He is like the Sea Captain in a Wyeth painting. We'll never see his like again."

Lombardi, who died of cancer in 1970 at 57, was a man who aroused passions, pro and con. Some saw him as a saint, others a moral monster. At his most basic, Lombardi was the coach of the most successful football team of the 1960s, the Green Bay Packers. His one season with the Washington Redskins in 1969 was the epilogue of a 10-year career that yielded a 105-35-6 record, a winning percentage of .740.

"Put simply, he just did a great job in his career as a head coach in the NFL," Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula said. "He influenced a team and the people around him."

Images made Lombardi. On the sideline, the burly man dressed in a camel's hair overcoat and fedora, wearing black-rimmed glasses, steam and invective pouring from his mouth, a team performing his every command.

Words made Lombardi. His voice was resonant and strident, piercing the air, demanding to be heard. "To play this game, you must have that fire in you, and there is nothing that stokes that fire like hate," he once said.

And . . . "Pro football is a violent dangerous sport. To play it other than violently would be imbecile."

And . . . "Winning isn't everything. Trying to win is."

Winning made Lombardi. His Packers won five titles in seven years, including three consecutive championships and the first two Super Bowls over the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders.

"My father was the genuine article," said Vince Lombardi Jr., a motivational speaker who lives in Seattle. "What you saw is what you got. He was no different at home, the office or the golf course. He was consistent in his inconsistency. In his private moments, my father was happy to admit he didn't know much else but coaching."

Lombardi's legacy is composed of personality and controversy, memory and myth. Cleveland's Paul Brown was a greater innovator, and Chicago's George Halas provided the longest-lasting link to pro football's roots in the Midwest, but Lombardi was the media star, a man who personified the game and an age.

It's not that Lombardi was far different than his contemporaries. As a coach, he was known for his ability to outwork his rivals. He often said his job was done before the game. But as a public personality, he was clearly the most charismatic and telegenic personality in the game.

"There is a ghost of Lombardi here, but it's a friendly ghost," said the Packers current coach, Lindy Infante. "There is certainly a Vince Lombardi feeling here."

But in football, the rush of current events quickly pushes aside decades-old memories. Players, coaches and teams are tossed away like yesterday's garbage. Lombardi's methods are no longer applied in the modern game. His style of coaching -- hands-on, dictatorial -- is passe in an age of specialization, although his demand for discipline seems to be back in vogue.

Even Lombardi's luster has faded somewhat. WFRV-TV in Green Bay recently conducted a poll to determine the best coach in Packers history. More than 4,000 viewers responded. The winner, with 40 percent of the tally, was Infante. Lombardi was the runner-up with 32 percent.

"It was really embarrassing," Infante said. "I don't know how anyone in their right mind could not pick Lombardi. I'm not competing with him. That would be ridiculous. No one should re-create that, compete with that, outdo that. That would send someone to a mental institution."

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