Vince Lombardi will always have a great legacy in NFL annals. The winner of the Super Bowl gets a trophy with his name inscribed on it. That’s what happens when one has the success Lombardi had in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers.
From 1959 through 1967, Lombardi and his Packers were 89-24-4 in the regular season, plus won six Western Conference titles in the NFL.
But it was the postseason that the Packers really stood out under Lombardi. The team was 9-1 and won five NFL championships in seven years, which included 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.
Based on his track record in Green Bay, it’s pretty obvious the Lombardi was a great coach. But Lombardi was also an excellent teacher. In one of my many conversations with Jerry Kramer, he talked about that dynamic.
“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.”
Lombardi taught all of his players, whether it was during team meetings or when Lombardi would meet with the offense and go over film study of the past opponent and the upcoming team that the Packers would be playing.
In those meetings with the offense, Lombardi would sometimes run a play 20 to 30 times to go over the mistakes that were made by his players or to point out flaws of the upcoming defensive opponent.
But before he met with the offense or the team in general, Lombardi always met with the quarterbacks for one hour each day. I wanted to get a feel for those meetings, so I asked both Zeke Bratkowski and Don Horn about what was said during the meetings.
In 1967, both Bratkowski and Horn (then a rookie), along with Bart Starr, all got together with Lombardi to discuss the upcoming opponent.
“We had to be there at 8:00 am to meet with Coach Lombardi,” Bratkowski said. “Then, we didn’t have quarterback coaches. But back then, the quarterback meetings were with Coach Lombardi. It was all him.
“He always started the meetings with the defensive frequencies of the upcoming team we would be facing. We would take notes on the fronts that they ran and also how they would cover.
“Coach was an excellent teacher. He was a great coach, but he was even a better teacher. He was obviously a great motivator, but he also explained how and why certain plays would work.”
Bratkowski talked about one of Lombardi’s techniques for teaching.
“All of his information was on cards,” Bratkowski said. “He didn’t show the cards to us, but he talked about what was on the card. We took notes. That is what we did consistently. Every game we had a notebook, that we ourselves had made.
“We had perforated notebooks where you could take that sheet and use it for the next time you played an opponent. Like Detroit for instance. Then we could see if our information matched up the second time or if they had changed their tendencies.”
In the Green Bay offense, it was also very important that the quarterback could recognize what the defense would be doing on a certain play.
“It was very important for us to call the defense at the line of scrimmage,” Bratkowski said. “Because the team was coached so well, if you called the correct defense, we knew we would be able to call the right play or run an audible that might work. Consequently, everyone was on the same page.
“The information Coach Lombardi gave us was very detailed. We did this week in and week out. Every week, the same procedure. We would talk about the defense and then the offensive game plan.
“He would start with the running game. He would gives our copy of it which we could take notes on. It had all the plays we would run. Then we would look at the passing game.
“One thing about Coach Lombardi, he did not like us wasting plays. Or wasting time outs either. Billy Casper said it best, ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’ That’s basically what the Packers were. It was a simplified, complex offense. There was a lot of repetition. That was the approach.
“The other thing Coach would do was to recommend reels of film to look at. So we would do that. Then we when we watch films with the entire offense, Coach would stop the film and say, ‘Make this note.’ And we did. In our notebook, if Coach mentioned something once we made sure it was noted. If he said it twice, it was underlined.”
Horn recounted the meetings as well.
“The meetings were pretty much business-like,” Horn said. “Although Coach Lombardi would tell a joke once in awhile. And you better laugh. Plus you would get to hear his great laugh. But for the most part it was serious and very productive from a learning standpoint.”
Horn then talked about how the meetings would set the stage for the upcoming game as he and Bratkowski would watch Starr run the offense.
“We could stand on the sidelines and probably three out of five times we could call the same play that Bart would call,” Horn said. “That’s how programmed we were in terms of our game plan.”
At the quarterback meetings in 1967, seeing as he was just a rookie, Horn didn’t chime in too much in terms of play suggestions.
“At that point, I hadn’t earned my stripes yet,” Horn said. “I didn’t play that much until later on in that season. Bart and Zeke might have some suggestions, but I never executed that privilege so to speak.
“I was just a young buck. I was trying to take in as much as I could at the time. I mean, I had come from a college program [San Diego State] under Coach Don Coryell which had a wide-open passing attack. The offensive system under Coach Lombardi was completely different in terms of playing the percentages and using the calculated running game more often than not.”
Starr and Bratkowski did suggest plays during the meetings, however.
“We would suggest things that we liked to do,” Bratkowski said. “You might like certain passes. Or talk about using plays from a different formation. Or think about this play in this situation.
“I remember one meeting when Bart and I were there, and unbeknownst to us, Coach Lombardi had gone into the sauna and was listening to us talk about why this play would work against this particular team.
You could tell that Coach was pleased to see and hear us confer with one another about that aspect of our game preparation. To me, that was the ultimate compliment.”
Bottom line, the quarterbacks and the offense of the Packers were always prepared under the coaching and teaching of Coach Lombardi. The championship record of the Packers under Lombardi amplifies that.
“It truly was a work of art,” Bratkowski said. “Everyone was in concert with one another. This was all built on repetition. Every new training camp, it was like learning the ABC’s again.
“I always looked forward to Coach Lombardi’s dissertation of the sweep. He was like a maestro with that play. You could tell he really enjoyed discussing that play.
“But the whole experience was a great memory to me because it was a great time with him. He orchestrated everything beautifully.”