Vincent Thomas “Vince” Lombardi (June 11, 1913 – September 3, 1970) was an American football coach. He is best known as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s, where he led the team to three straight league championships and five in seven years, including winning the first two Super Bowls following the 1966 and 1967 NFL seasons. The National Football League‘s Super Bowl trophy is named in his honor. He was enshrined in the NFL’s Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
He played football at St. Francis Preparatory School, and later Fordham University. He began coaching as an assistant and later as a head coach at St. Cecilia High School. He would later become an assistant coach at Fordham University, the U.S. Military Academy, and 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 an impressive 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 and Matilda “Mattie” Izzo on June 11, 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. Henry 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, Sheepshead Bay, organized football league.
Lombardi graduated from the eighth grade at P.S. 206, aged 15, in 1928.[note 1] He then matriculated with theCathedral 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.[note 2] 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.[note 3] 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 — to never underestimate your opponent.
On June 16, 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.
St. Cecilia High School
By 1939, Lombardi wanted to marry his girlfriend, Marie Planitz, but, at his father’s insistence, he needed a steady job to support himself and a family. In 1939, Lombardi accepted an assistant coaching job at St. Cecilia — which closed in 1986 — a Roman Catholic high school in Englewood, New Jersey. He was offered the position by the school’s new head coach, Lombardi’s former Fordham teammate, quarterback Andy Palau. Palau had just taken over the head coaching position from another Fordham teammate, Nat Pierce (left guard), who had accepted an assistant coach’s job back at Fordham. In addition to coaching, Lombardi, age 26, also taught Latin, chemistry, and physics for an annual salary of under $1,000 at the high school.[note 4] Andy Palau left for Fordham in 1942 and Lombardi became the head coach at St. Cecilia. Lombardi stayed a total of eight years, five as head coach. In 1943, St. Cecilia’s was recognized as the top football team in the nation, in large part based on their victory over Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit-run school considered one of the best teams on the American eastern seaboard. Brooklyn Prep that season was led by seniorJoe Paterno, who, like Lombardi, would rise to legend-status in football. At St. Cecilia, Lombardi became the President of the Bergen County Coach’s Association.
In 1947, Lombardi became the coach of freshman teams in football and basketball at Fordham University. The following year he served as an assistant coach for Fordham’s varsity football team, but he was arguably the de facto head coach.
Following the 1948 football season, Lombardi accepted an assistant’s job, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a position that would greatly influence his future coaching style. Lombardi served as offensive line coach under legendary head coach Earl “Colonel Red” Blaik. “As integral as religion was to his (Lombardi’s) sense of self, it was not until he reached West Point and combined his spiritual discipline with Blaik’s military discipline that his coaching persona began to take its mature form.”Blaik’s emphasis on execution would become a trademark of Lombardi’s coaching. Lombardi coached at West Point for five seasons, with varying results. The 1949, 1950, and 1953 seasons were successful. But the 1951 and 1952 seasons were not successful due to the aftermath of a cadet cribbing scandal (a violation of the Cadet Honor Code) which was revealed in the spring of 1951. As a result, 43 of 45 members of the varsity football team were discharged by administrative order. ”Decades later, looking back on his rise, Lombardi came to regard …” Blaik’s decision not to resign “… as a pivotal moment in his [own] career” — it taught him perseverance.Following these five seasons at Army, Lombardi accepted an assistant coaching position with the New York Giants.
New York Giants
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.
Green Bay Packers
For the 1958 NFL season, the Packers, with five future hall of famers playing on the team,[note 5] 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).
Including postseason but excluding exhibition games, Lombardi went on to compile a 105–35–6 (.740 winning percent) record as head coach, and he never suffered a losing season. He led the Packers to three consecutive NFL championships — in 1965, 1966, and 1967 — a feat accomplished only once before in the history of the league (by Curly Lambeau, Co-founder of the Packers, who coached the team to their first three straight NFL Championships in 1929, 1930, and 1931). At the conclusion of the 1966 and 1967 seasons, Lombardi’s Packers would go on to win the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers to championships in five of seven seasons.
As coach of the Packers, Lombardi converted Notre Dame quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung to a full-time halfback. Lombardi designed a play for Hornung based on an old single wing concept—both guards pulled to the outside and blocked downfield while Hornung would “run to daylight” — i.e., wherever the defenders weren’t. This was a play that he had originally developed with the Giants for Gifford that would become famous as the “Lombardi sweep” or “Packer power sweep”.
Lombardi’s Packers hosted the Dallas Cowboys in Green Bay on December 31, 1967 in the NFL Championship Game of 1967. This became known as the “Ice Bowl” because of the -13°F gametime temperature. With 16 seconds left in the game and down by 3 points, the Packers called their final time-out. It was 3rd and goal on the Dallas 2 foot line. In the huddle, with the game on the line, Starr asked Kramer whether he could get enough traction on the icy turf for a wedge play and Kramer responded with an unequivocal yes. Quarterback Bart Starr came over to Lombardi on the sidelines to discuss the last play and told him he wanted to run a 31 wedge, but with him keeping the ball. Lombardi told Starr to ‘Run it! And let’s get the hell out of here!’ Lombardi was asked by Pat Peppler what play Starr would call, to which Lombardi replied, ‘Damned if I know.’ Starr returned to the huddle and called a Brown right 31 Wedge, but with him keeping the ball. Kramer moved before the snap and blocked Jethro Pugh low and Ken Bowman hit Pugh high as Starr followed them into the end zone for the Packer lead and eventual victory.
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 1969with 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.
Lombardi got quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, one of the league’s premier forward passers, into the best condition he could. He coaxed former All-Pro linebacker Sam Huff out of retirement. He even changed the team’s uniform design to reflect that of the Packers, with gold and white trim along the jersey biceps, and later a gold helmet with an “R” inside a circle, similar to the famous Green Bay “G” monogram.
The foundation Lombardi laid was the groundwork for Washington’s early 1970s success under former L.A. Rams Coach George Allen. Lombardi had brought a winning attitude to the Nation’s Capital, in the same year that the nearby University of Maryland had hired Lefty Driesell to coach basketball and the hapless expansion Washington Senators named Ted Williams as manager and led the club to its only winning record in Washington (86–76).
Lombardi was introduced to Lawlor’s cousin, Marie Planitz. When Marie announced her ardent desire to marry him, 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 31, 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 27, 1942, their son, Vincent Harold Lombardi (Vince Jr.), was born and on February 13, 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.
The three constants throughout Lombardi’s life were sports, particularly football, family and religion. His father was a daily communicant throughout his life and his mother’s favorite picture of him as a child was on his Confirmation. When Lombardi was 12, on Easter Sunday while serving as an altar boy, “… amid the color and pageantry scarlet and white vestments, golden cross, scepters, the wafers and wine, body and blood … that the inspiration came to him that he should become a priest …”, which when his mother, Matty, got wind of, she bragged about it to her neighbors. Lombardi attended mass on a daily basis throughout his life.
During his tenure at St. Cecilia, Lombardi attended mass every day and “prayed for calm and control: of his temper and …” his wife’s drinking. When Lombardi became head coach of football in 1942, he would lead his team to Sunday mass before each home game. At St. Cecilia, Lombardi shared an office with Father Tim Moore wherein it was not unusual for Lombardi to interrupt a conversation and request to go to Confession and which Father Tim would oblige him right in the office. During his stay at Green Bay, Lombardi once emerged from his office and appeared before his secretary, Ruth McKloskey, wearing “… all these priest robes on, and he had amiter with a tassel, everything.” Each day on his way to work for the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi would stop at St. Willebrord and “offer a prayer in case of unexpected death: ‘My God, if I am to die today, or suddenly at any time, I wish to receive this Communion as my viaticum …’”. On the morning of the dedication of Lombardi Avenue, Lombardi remarked, to his 37 member entourage, he was pleased to have gotten them all up to attend morning mass. Lombardi was also a 4th degree in the Knights of Columbus.
In 1960, on at least one team, a color barrier still existed in the NFL. But Jack Vainisi, the Scouting Director for the Packers, and Lombardi were determined “to ignore the prejudices then prevalent in most NFL front office in their search for the most talented players.” Lombardi explained his views by saying that he “… viewed his players as neither black nor white, but Packer green”. Among professional football head coaches, Lombardi’s view on discrimination was not de rigueur in the midst of the American civil rights movement.
An interracial relationship between one of the Packer rookies and a young woman was brought to the attention of Lombardi by Packer veterans in his first training camp in Green Bay. The next day at training camp, Lombardi, who had a zero tolerance policy towards racism, responded by warning his team that if any player exhibited prejudice, in any manner, then that player would be thrown off the team. Lombardi, who was vehemently opposed to Jim Crow discrimination, let it be known to all Green Bay establishments that if they did not accommodate his black players equally as well as his white players, then that business would be off-limits to the entire team.Before the start of the 1960 regular season, he instituted a policy that the Packers would only lodge in places that accepted all his players. In the all-white Oneida Golf and Riding Country club, of which Lombardi was a member, Lombardi demanded that he should be allowed to choose a Native American caddy, even if white caddies were available. Lombardi’s view on racial matters was a result of his religious faith and the prejudice he had experienced as an Italian-American.
Lombardi’s unprejudiced attitude was not confined to his players, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Lombardi was aware of tight end Jerry Smith‘s homosexuality, and upon arriving in Washington, told Smith in confidence that it would never be an issue as long as he was coaching the Redskins. Smith flourished, becoming an integral part of Lombardi’s offense, and was voted a First Team All-Pro for the first and only time in his career, which was also Lombardi’s only season as Redskin head coach.Lombardi invited other gay players to training camp, and Lombardi would privately hope they would prove they could earn a spot on the team. At the Washington Redskins training camp in 1969, Ray McDonald was a gay player, with sub-par skills, who was trying to make the Redskin roster again, but this time with Lombardi as the Redskins’ new head coach. Lombardi told running back coach, George Dickson, ’I want you to get on McDonald and work on him and work on him – and if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you’ll be out of here before your ass hits the ground.’
Illness and death
As early as 1967, Lombardi had been a sufferer of digestive tract problems, but he had refused his doctor’s request for him to undergo a proctoscopic exam. On June 24, 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 27, 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 fromPresident 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. He died on September 3, 1970, aged 57.
On September 7, the funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 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, including the remaining Blocks of Granite.[note 6] Lombardi is buried next to his wife Marie and his parents Harry and Matilda, 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.
“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.
In 1973, the 1-hour Lombardi biographical TV drama on ABC, “Legend in Granite” was released. It starred Ernest Borgnine as Vince, focusing mostly on his first two years as Packers head coach (1959–1960). NFL Films and HBO produced a film about Lombardi that debuted Saturday, December 11, 2010.
A play titled Lombardi opened on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City in October 2010, following an out-of-town tryout at the Mahaiwe Theater inGreat Barrington, Massachusetts. The production starred Dan Lauria as Lombardi and Judith Light as his wife, Marie. The play received positive reviews, as did Lauria’s performance.ESPN Films announced that they will be making a film chronicling Lombardi’s years as coach for Green Bay, set to be released in February 2012.
The high school in the 1980 movie Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was named after Vince Lombardi.
- On May 1967, Lombardi “… received Fordham’s highest honor, the Insignis Medal … for being a great teacher”
- On January 13, 1969, he was inducted into the Knights of Malta at St. Patrick’s.
- Inducted into the Fordham University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1971
- As part of the Lambeau Field renovation, a 14-foot statue of Lombardi now stands on a plaza outside the stadium, in an overcoat grasping a program, as he did often on the sideline.
- In 1968, Highland Avenue in Green Bay, home to the Packers’ Lambeau Field, was renamed Lombardi Avenue.
- In 1969, the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) awarded Lombardi with the Jack Mara sportsman of the year.
- The Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University is named in his honor.
- One of the Green Bay School District’s schools is named the Lombardi Middle School.
- The football field at Old Bridge High School in Old Bridge, New Jersey, is named Lombardi Field. The football field in Palisades Park is also known as Lombardi Field.[unreliable source?]
- A plaque dedication installed in 1974 in the sidewalk on a square (unofficially called Vince Lombardi Square) near Sheepshead Bay Road and East 14th Street in Brooklyn, New York.
- There are two places in the Bensonhurst area, which are, or were, dedicated to Lombardi at one time: P.S. 204 Vince Lombardi Elementary School, and the entire Bensonhurst stretch of 16th Avenue was once dedicated by the City of New York as “Vince Lombardi Boulevard”[unreliable source?]
- The Vince Lombardi Service Area and park-and-ride is the northernmost rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike, at mileposts 116E on the Eastern Spur and 115.5W on the Western Spur. Outside the gift shop is a plaque about his life, which notes that he is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Middletown, New Jersey.
- The Vincent T. Lombardi Council, No. 6552, Knights of Columbus, in Middletown, NJ is named for him.
- The Vince Lombardi Cancer clinic at Aurora Health Care is named after him.
- The Vincent T. Lombardi Center at Fordham University was named for the coach.
- The NFL’s Super Bowl Trophy was renamed the Vince Lombardi Trophy
- In 1970, the Rotary Club of Houston created the Lombardi Award, which is given annually to the best college football offensive, or defensive, lineman or linebacker.
- In 1969, Lombardi received the Silver Buffalo Award, the highest adult award given by the Boy Scouts of America.
- Lombardi was enshrined in the NFL’s Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
- Lombardi was elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1976.
- Lombardi is a member of the Washington Redskins Ring of Fame.
- Induction into the American Football Association’s Semi Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1988
- In 2008, Lombardi is inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame
- Lombardi appeared on a U.S. Postage stamp first issued on July 25, 1997.