Vince Lombardi got his first taste of the NFL, when he became an offensive assistant under Jim Lee Howell of the New York Giants in 1954. Before then, Lombardi built his coaching resume by coaching at at St. Cecilia in New Jersey for eight years (five as head coach), two years at Fordham University (his alma mater) and five years at Army under legendary head coach Red Blaik.
Lombardi was basically the offensive coordinator for the Giants under Howell, as he built the offense of the G-Men around running back Frank Gifford. In the five years Lombardi was running the offense for the Giants, the team became very successful. In 1956, the Giants won the NFL title and Gifford was the NFL MVP. In Lombardi’s last year in New York, the Giants played the Baltimore Colts in the NFL title game, but lost 23-17 in sudden-death overtime.
By then, Lombardi’s coaching talent was well known throughout the NFL and he was endorsed by both Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns and George Halas of the Chicago Bears for the head coaching job with the Green Bay Packers. A meeting between Lombardi and the Packers was arranged by Jack Vainisi, who was in charge of scouting in Green Bay, and before long Lombardi was both head coach and general manager of the Packers starting in 1959.
The Packers had finished 1-10-1 the year before Lombardi arrived in Green Bay. Plus, the 1950s as a whole had been an abysmal decade for the Packers, as the team was just 32-74-2 before Lombardi came to town in 1959.
As bad as the results were on the field, Vainisi had accumulated a lot of talent for the Packers in the NFL draft in the years prior to Lombardi’s arrival. Vainisi had drafted players like Bill Howton, Bobby Dillon, Dave Hanner, Bill Forrester, Jim Ringo, Max McGee, Forrest Gregg, Bob Skoronski, Hank Gremminger, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Ron Kramer, John Symank, Dan Currie, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and Jerry Kramer.
All told, Vainisi drafted six players (Ringo, Gregg, Starr, Hornung, Taylor and Nitschke) who would later be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while two other players, Jerry Kramer and Dillon, certainly belong in Canton as well.
When Lombardi looked at the film of the offense of the Packers from 1958, one player in particular caught his eye. It was Hornung.
When I talked to Jerry Kramer about the arrival of Lombardi in Green Bay, he made a point of talking about why Lombardi was so enamored with Hornung.
“When you talk about Paul, you have to remember how critical he was in the decision that coach Lombardi made to come to Green Bay,” Kramer said. “If you think back, Bart Starr was methane. He was colorless, odorless, tasteless and virtually invisible. We didn’t know who Bart was then.
“Bart was competing with a few other guys like Babe Parilli, Joe Francis and Lamar McHan. Bart was back and forth the first couple of years after Lombardi became the coach.
“But I do remember Lombardi saying, ‘That Hornung was going to be his Gifford.’ And remember how critical the sweep was to the Lombardi offense.
“As coach said quite often, ‘This is a play we will make go. This is a play we must make go. We will run it again and again and again.’
“So Hornung may have been the key to getting Lombardi to come to Green Bay.”
The power sweep was indeed the signature play for the Packers under Lombardi. The early success for the Packers running that play supports Kramer’s supposition. For one thing, the power sweep averaged 8.3 yards-per-carry the first three years the Packers utilized the play.
The Packers became a force in the running game during that time, as the team averaged 178 yards a game on the ground from 1959-1961. Taylor gained 2,860 yards during that time, but Hornung was the star of the offense for many reasons those first three seasons under Lombardi.
During that same time, Hornung gained 1,949 yards rushing, plus scored a whopping 28 touchdowns on the ground. No. 5 was also the kicker for the Packers and Hornung led the NFL in scoring for three consecutive years from 1959 through 1961.
Like Gifford did in 1956, Hornung won the NFL MVP in 1961, as the Packers won their first NFL title under Lombardi, as the Packers beat the Giants 37-0 in the first NFL championship game ever played in Green Bay. Hornung scored 19 points in that game just by himself.
Winning became a habit in Green Bay under Lombardi’s leadership. In Lombardi’s first year with the Packers in 1959, the team finished 7-5, which was the first winning record for the team since 1947.
The Packers went on to an 8-4 record and the Western Conference title in 1960, but lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960 NFL title game 17-13. The game ended with Taylor being tackled on the Eagles’ 10-yard line by Chuck Bednarik as time ran out. That would be the only loss that Lombardi and his Packers would ever have in the postseason.
In the regular season during his tenure in Green Bay as head coach, the Packers were 89-24-4, plus won six Western Conference titles. But it was in the postseason that Lombardi and his team really shined. After that loss to the Eagles, the Packers went on to win nine straight playoff games, which included five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls.
That included winning three straight NFL titles from 1965-67. No team in the modern era of the NFL has ever duplicated that.
Is there any doubt as to why the Super Bowl trophy is named after Lombardi?
After spending a year as just the general manager of the Packers in 1968, Lombardi left Green Bay to become the head coach of the Washington Redskins in 1969. The team went 7-5-2 that year, which was the first winning record for the Redskins in 14 years.
Lombardi tragically died of colon cancer in 1970, at the young age of 57. A year later, Lombardi was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There is no doubt that Lombardi was the best of the best in terms of being a football coach, but he was more than that. He was also a leader of men, both on and off the football field.
Just ask Kramer.
“Coach Lombardi had a tremendous impact on my life,” Kramer said. “The fundamentals that he taught us were fundamentals for life. They were about football, but also about business or anything else you wanted to achieve.
“You would use the Lombardi principles. He believed in paying the price. He believed in hard work and making sacrifices for the betterment of the team. His principles were preparation, commitment, consistency, discipline, character, pride, tenacity and perseverance.
“Those things are still helping me today.”
Kramer also talked about Lombardi’s doctrine about life in general.
“Coach Lombardi use to share a philosophy about life with us,” Kramer said. “He said, ‘After the game is over, the stadium lights are out, the parking lot is empty, the fans have all gone home, the press has done their job and released their information, you are finally back in the quiet of your own room looking at the championship ring on the dresser. The only thing left after that was to have a standard of excellence in your life. Make sure that the world is a better place because you were in it.’
“The coach taught us to leave a positive impact on society,” Kramer said. “The world would be a much better place if we did that. That’s what I have tried to do all these years.”
Kramer then talked about Lombardi’s background which helped him achieve great success in the NFL.
“Coach Lombardi read ancient Greek and Latin, plus taught chemistry and algebra,” Kramer said. “He was a very bright man. In a lot of ways, he was more like a teacher, as opposed to a coach. He believed that he was a teacher, first and foremost. For him, teaching and coaching were one in the same.”
Yes, Vincent Thomas Lombardi was a great coach and a great teacher. But he had an additional attribute. He was also a great man. A man who molded great football players to be sure, but more importantly than that, he molded great people.
Jerry Kramer and so many other men who played under Lombardi are a testament to that.