Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sports Legends: Vince Lombardi

Vincent Thomas Lombardi, perhaps considered the greatest NFL head coach ever, was born on June 11th, 1913 and died September 3rd, 1970. He was an American football player, coach, and executive. He is best known as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s, where he led the team to three straight and five total league championships in seven years, including winning the first two Super Bowls following the 1966 and 1967 NFL seasons. Lombardi is considered by many to be one of the best and most successful coaches in NFL history. The National Football League's Super Bowl trophy is named in his honor. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. Lombardi played football at St. Francis Preparatory School and Fordham University. He began coaching as an assistant and later as a head coach at St. Cecilia High School. He was an assistant coach at Fordham, at the United States Military Academy, and with the New York Giants before becoming a head coach for the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967 and the Washington Redskins in 1969. He never had a losing season as a head coach in the NFL, compiling a regular season winning percentage of 73.8% (96-34-6), a preseason winning percentage of 78.6% (44-12), and 90% (9-1) in the postseason for an overall record of 149 wins, 47 losses, and 6 ties in the NFL.

Lombardi was born in Brooklyn to Enrico "Harry" Lombardi (1889-1971) and Matilda "Mattie" Izzo (1891-1972) on June 11th, 1913. Harry's mother and father, Vincenzo and Michelina emigrated from Salerno, Italy. Mattie's father and mother, Anthony and Loretta, emigrated from an area several miles east of Salerno. Harry had three siblings and Matilda had twelve siblings. Vince would be the oldest of five children, Madeleine, Harold, Claire, and Joe. The entire Lombardi and Izzo clan settled in Sheepshead Bay.

Matilda's father, Anthony, opened up a barber shop in Sheepshead Bay prior to the turn of the century. At about the time of Lombardi's birth, Harry, and his brother, Eddie, opened a butcher shop in the Meatpacking District. Throughout the Great Depression, Harry's shop did well and his family prospered. Lombardi grew up in an ethnically diverse, middle-class neighborhood.

Church attendance was mandatory for the Lombardis on Sundays. Mass would be followed with an equally compulsory few hours of dinner with friends, extended family members, and local clergy. He was an altar boy at St. Mark's Catholic Church. Outside of their local neighborhood, the Lombardi children were subject to the rampant racism that existed at the time against Italian immigrants. As a child, Lombardi helped his father at his meat cutting business, but grew to hate it. At the age of 12 he started playing in an uncoached but organized football league in Sheepshead Bay.

Lombardi graduated from the eighth grade at P.S. 206, aged 15, in 1928. He then matriculated with the Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception, a six-year secondary program to become a Catholic priest. At Cathedral, he played on the school's baseball and basketball teams, but his performance was hindered by his poor athleticism and eyesight. Against school rules, he continued to play football off-campus throughout his studies at Cathedral. After completing four years at Cathedral he decided not to pursue the priesthood. He enrolled at St. Francis Preparatory high school for the fall of 1932. There he became a Charter Member of Omega Gamma Delta fraternity. His play on Prep's football teamed earned him a spot on the virtual All-City football team.

In 1933, Lombardi accepted a football scholarship to Fordham University in the Bronx to play for the Fordham Rams and Coach Jim Crowley, one of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame in the 1920s. During his freshman year, Lombardi proved to be an aggressive and spirited player on the football field. Prior to the start of his sophomore year, Lombardi was projected as a starter at tackle. Lombardi was undersized for the position (5'8" and about 180 lb.)

In his senior year (1936), he became the right guard in the Seven Blocks of Granite, a nickname given to the Fordham University football team's offensive front line by a Fordham University publicist. In a game against the Pittsburgh Panthers, he suffered a severe gash inside his mouth and had several teeth knocked out. He missed most of the remainder of the game, until he was called in on defense for a successful goal line stand that preserved a 0-0 tie. The Rams went 5-0-2 before losing in the final game of the season, 7-6, to NYU. The loss destroyed all hopes of Fordham playing in the Rose Bowl and the loss taught Lombardi a lesson he would never forget - never to underestimate your opponent.

On June 16th, 1937, he graduated from Fordham University. The economic times of the Great Depression offered him little opportunities for a career. For the next two years he showed no discernible career path or ambition. He tried his hand at semi-professional football and as a debt collector but those efforts proved to be failures very quickly. With his father's strong support he enrolled in Fordham Law school in September, 1938. Although he did not fail any classes, he believed his grades were so poor that he dropped out after one semester. Later in life, he would explain to others that he was close to graduating, but his desire to start and support a family forced him to leave law school and get a job.

In 1954, Lombardi, age 41, began his NFL career with the New York Giants. He accepted a job that would later become known as the offensive coordinator position under new head coach Jim Lee Howell. The Giants had finished the previous season, under 23-year coach Steve Owen, with a 3–9 record. By the third season, Lombardi, along with the defensive coordinator, former All-Pro cornerback turned coach Tom Landry, turned the squad into a championship team, defeating the Chicago Bears for the league title in 1956. "Howell readily acknowledged the talents of Lombardi and Landry, and joked self-deprecatingly, that his main function was to make sure the footballs had air in them." At points in his tenure as an assistant coach at West Point, and as an assistant coach with the Giants, Lombardi worried that he was unable to land a head coaching job due to prejudice against his Italian heritage, especially with respect to Southern colleges. Howell wrote numerous recommendations for Lombardi to aid Vince in obtaining a head coaching position. Lombardi applied for head coaching positions at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and other universities and, in some cases, never received a reply. In New York, Lombardi introduced the strategy of rule blocking to the NFL. In rule blocking, the offensive lineman would block an area, and not necessarily a particular defensive player, as was the norm up to that time. The running back then was expected to run toward any hole that was created. Lombardi referred to this as running to daylight.

For the 1958 NFL season, the Packers, with five future hall of famers playing on the team, finished with a record of 1-10-1, the worst in Packer history. The players were dispirited, the Packer shareholders were disheartened, and the Green Bay community was enraged. The angst in Green Bay extended to the NFL as a whole, as the financial viability and the very existence of the Green Bay Packer franchise were in jeopardy. On February 2, 1959, Vince Lombardi accepted the position of head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers.

Lombardi created punishing training regimens and expected absolute dedication and effort from his players. The 1959 Packers were an immediate improvement, finishing at 7-5. Rookie head coach Lombardi was named Coach of the Year

In his second year, Green Bay won the NFL Western Conference for the first time since 1944. This victory, along with his well-known religious convictions led the Green Bay community to anointing him with the nickname "The Pope". Lombardi led the Packers to the 1960 NFL Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Prior to the championship game, Lombardi met with Wellington Mara and advised him that he would not take the Giants' head coaching job, which was initially offered after the end of the 1959 season. In the final play of the game, in a drive that would have won it, the Packers were stopped a few yards from the goal line. Lombardi had suffered his first, and his only ever, championship game loss. After the game, and after the press corps had left the locker room, Lombardi told his team, "This will never happen again. You will never lose another championship." In later years as coach of the Packers, Lombardi made it a point to admonish his running backs if they failed to score from one yard out, then he would consider it a personal affront to him and he would seek retribution. He would coach the Packers to win their next nine post-season games, a record streak not matched or broken until Bill Belichick won 10 in a row from 2002 to 2006. The Packers would defeat the Giants for the NFL title in 1961 (37–0 in Green Bay) and 1962 (16–7 at Yankee Stadium), marking the first two of their five titles in Lombardi's nine years. After the 1962 championship win, President John F. Kennedy called Lombardi and asked him if he would, "come back to Army and coach again"; Kennedy received Lombardi's tacit denial of the request. His only other post-season loss occurred to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Playoff Bowl (3rd place game) after the 1964 season (officially classified as an exhibition game)

As coach of the Packers, Lombardi converted Notre Dame quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung to a full-time halfback. Lombardi also designed a play for Jim Taylor, the Green Bay fullback, based on an old single wing concept - both guards, Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston, pulled to the outside and blocked downfield while Taylor would "run to daylight" - i.e., wherever the defenders weren't. This was a play that he had originally developed with the Giants for Frank Gifford that was occasionally called the "Lombardi sweep;" it subsequently became more famously known as the "Green Bay power sweep"

Lombardi stepped down as head coach of the Packers following the 1967 NFL season, staying on as the team's general manager for 1968. He handed off the head coaching position to Phil Bengtson, a longtime assistant, but the Packers finished at 6–7–1 and out of the four team NFL playoffs. Lombardi returned to coaching in 1969 with the Washington Redskins, where he broke a string of 14 losing seasons. The 'Skins would finish with a record of 7–5–2, significant for a number of reasons. Lombardi discovered that rookie running back Larry Brown was deaf in one ear, something that had escaped his parents, schoolteachers, and previous coaches. Lombardi observed Brown's habit of tilting his head in one direction when listening to signals being called, and walked behind him during drills and said "Larry". When Brown did not answer, the coach asked him to take a hearing exam. Brown was fitted with a hearing aid, and with this correction he would enjoy a successful NFL career.

In the fall of 1934 Lombardi's roommate Jim Lawlor introduced him to his cousin's relative, Marie Planitz. When Marie announced her ardent desire to marry Lombardi, her father told her that he did not want his daughter marrying an Italian, a prejudice against his heritage he would face more than once in his life. Lombardi and Marie wed, nonetheless, on August 31st, 1940.

Marie miscarried her first child with Lombardi. The "terrible effect" this had on Marie caused her to turn to heavy drinking, a problem she would deal with on more than one occasion in her life. On April 27th, 1942, their son, Vincent Harold Lombardi (Vince Jr.), was born and on February 13th, 1947, their daughter Susan was born.

"He seemed preoccupied with football even on their honeymoon, and cut it short to get back to Englewood ... 'I wasn't married to him more than one week', she later related, 'when I said to myself, Marie Planitz, you've made the greatest mistake of your life.'" Lombardi's perfectionism, authoritarian nature and temper, instilled in his wife a masterful ability to verbally assault and demean Lombardi when he verbally abused her. His children were not immune from his yelling. When Lombardi had not lost his temper, he would often be reticent and aloof.

Lombardi's grandson, Joe Lombardi is the current quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints. In the 2009 season, he helped lead the Saints to win the trophy bearing his grandfather's name and Drew Brees to win a Super Bowl MVP award.

As early as 1967, Lombardi had suffered from digestive tract problems, and he had refused his doctor's request for him to undergo a proctoscopic exam. On June 24th, 1970, Lombardi was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital, and tests "revealed anaplastic carcinoma in the rectal area of his colon, a fast-growing malignant cancer in which the cells barely resemble their normal appearance." On July 27th, Lombardi was readmitted to Georgetown and exploratory surgery found that the cancer was terminal. Lombardi, with Marie at his side, received family, friends, clergy, players, and former players at his hospital bedside. He received a phone call from President Nixon telling Lombardi that all of America was behind him, to which Lombardi replied that he would never give up his fight against his illness. On his deathbed, Lombardi told Father Tim that he was not afraid to die, but that he regretted he could not have accomplished more in his life. Vince Lombardi died at 7:12 a.m. on September 3, 1970. He was 57. He was survived by his wife, parents, two children, and six grandchildren.

On September 7th, the funeral was held at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. Approximately 1,500 people lined Fifth Avenue and between 39th and 50th Street, Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic. Terence Cardinal Cooke delivered the eulogy. In attendance were team owners, Commissioner Pete Rozelle, past and present members of the Packers, Redskins, and Giants, former students from Saints, colleagues and players from West Point, and classmates from Fordham University, including the remaining Seven Blocks of Granite. Lombardi was interred in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Middletown Township, New Jersey.

During Lombardi's illness, Marie had already "sanctified" her husband. After his death, Marie dwelt unceasingly on his life and accomplishments, so much so that Vince Jr. accused his mother of exaggerating Lombardi's significance. Susan, for all her misgivings about her relationship with her father while growing up, came to realize, long after his death, that she had a truly wonderful childhood and upbringing, and that she loved and missed her father. Vince Jr., like Susan, had his own conflicted views of his relationship with his father as late as 1976. Using his father as a model, he eventually became a paid speaker, and author of several books on leadership. Marie Lombardi died twelve years later in 1982 at age 66 and was interred with her husband.

"Lombardi time" is the principle that one should arrive 10 to 15 minutes early, or else be considered late. Vince Jr. viewed an integral part of his father's success was in stressing effort more than on fixating on failures.

Source: Wikipedia

This work released through CC 3.0 BY-SA - Creative Commons

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