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Vince Lombardi—The Teacher as Coach

There are times in a leader's life when that leader is defined by what he or she does or does not do in a particular moment. Looking back at successful leaders, we sometimes assume that they were always good, always made the right decision, or always said the right thing. One such moment came for Vince Lombardi when he became the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Today the success of the Lombardi Packers is legend, and so we have to peer into the history books to recall what a woeful team they were when Lombardi became their coach in 1959—the year before, they had won only a single game.[4]

The Long Climb

For Lombardi, coming to the Packers was the culmination of a long climb from Fordham University, where he had been a lineman, one of the seven blocks of granite, on a winning football team. After considering the priesthood, Lombardi eventually started his coaching career modestly—as the head coach of St. Cecilia's basketball team. He felt that he "wanted to be a teacher more than a coach." And teach he did: "physics, chemistry and Latin," all rigorous subjects. He was also the assistant football coach. (His basketball team posted a winning record in Lombardi's first year.)[5]

After eight years at St. Cecilia's, where he eventually became head football coach, and a successful one at that, he moved to the collegiate ranks at Fordham and later to Army as an assistant to the legendary Red Blaik. He then became an assistant coach for the New York Giants and finally, 5 long years later, moved to the Packers. While the job might not have been a prize to other coaches, it was heaven to Lombardi, and so it was with great excitement, mixed with apprehension, that he introduced himself to the team at summer camp.

Quintessential Lombardi

According to his biographer, David Maraniss, Lombardi had rehearsed over and over again what he would say to his new team. He began with the practical—taking care of the playbook and always being on time. He would keep practices short, no more than 90 minutes twice a day, as Red Blaik had done. There would be a difference, however: The practices would be tightly planned, and the players would know what they were "supposed to be doing every minute." As a result, Lombardi wanted his players on the field and ready to go at exactly the appointed hour—"prepared" and ready to learn.[6]

Then he launched into what has become known as the quintessential Lombardi lesson, which has sometimes been lost in the legend of the fiery coach's rhetoric. He spoke of how he—the coach—would "be relentless" in pushing them to try, try, and eventually succeed. His expectation for them was that they would keep in shape. He by example would do the rest—the pushing, the prodding, the yelling, and, of course, the teaching. When Lombardi finished, the room was silent until Lombardi dismissed them. Moments later, the coach pulled aside one of the players and asked how he had done. Max McGhee, the All-Pro veteran, responded, "Well, I'll tell ya, you got their attention, Coach."[7]

What Lombardi had done was put the onus of winning upon himself. He took the pressure off them as players and carried it on his own shoulders. Of course, the players would have to work hard and abide by the rules, but Lombardi would take care of the rest. He would challenge each player privately to elevate his own expectations of himself, and the entire team collectively would benefit. Sly fox that Lombardi was, he pushed and pushed, but with the tacit approval of the players, who believed in themselves enough to feel that they could succeed.

Teaching the Sweep

Lombardi was first and foremost a great teacher. His greatest football lesson was the powerful motion to the strong side of the field, right into the teeth of the opposition. It became known as the Green Bay Sweep, and from this formation Lombardi devised a number of running and passing variations that would keep the other team off balance and his team in control. It was important, Lombardi said, for a team to have one play that the players felt they could run and run well; it would become, in our parlance, the "go to" play—one that would do more than gain yardage, it would instill confidence and rally the team..[8]

The Legend Speaks

In their first year under Lombardi, the Packers finished third and Lombardi was named coach of the year.[9] In his second year, 1960, the team captured the league championship, and in his third year, 1961, the Packers took the NFL title—the first of five titles. The team capped its final two seasons under Lombardi with wins in Super Bowls I and II, games that in those days were little more than afterthoughts because it was believed that the AFL, the upstart rival conference, was not up to NFL standards. (Super Bowl III would change that perception when Joe Namath led the New York Jets to a win over the Baltimore Colts.)

Winning brought fame to Lombardi and, not surprisingly, offers to join the lecture circuit. Lombardi crafted a speech built on "seven themes."[10] All of these themes are relevant to who Lombardi is as a person; three of them tell us about him as a leader.

  • Discipline. Speaking during the tumult of the sixties, Lombardi did not really understand the divisiveness that those times provoked. While he could be faulted for not listening to what young people at the time were rebelling against—war, conventionalism, and materialism—his words on the need for discipline are timeless. People, according to Lombardi, want to be led and will respond to and appreciate a leader who instills discipline.[11]

  • Leadership. Educated formally by the Jesuits at Fordham and informally by Red Blaik at West Point, Lombardi had seen leadership close-up. In fact, while he was at West Point, he got to know General Douglas MacArthur when he gave MacArthur private screenings of Army football games.[12] Lombardi said, "Leaders are made, not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile." Leaders need to balance "mental toughness and love." Toughness emerges from discipline; love emanates from loyalty and teamwork.[13]

  • Character and will. Leadership is built upon character and will. The Jesuits taught Lombardi that character and will are linked forever in a virtuous cycle—character "superimposed on" will, and will "as character in action."[14] Lombardi concluded:

The character . . . is man's greatest need and man's greatest safeguard, because character is higher than intellect. . . . [T]he new leadership is in sacrifice, it is in self-denial, it is in love and loyalty, it is in fearlessness, it is in humility, and it is in the perfectly disciplined will.[15]

Relevant Legend

The question arises as to whether Lombardi has any relevance in today's world. The answer is, of course![16] His strength of character and his determined spirit are timeless, but for those of us looking at leadership communications, in his ability to teach and to coach (and with Lombardi they blend together), his example stands the test of time.

[4]David Maraniss, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 191.

[5]Ibid., pp. 67-87 (quote on "teacher" vs. "coach," p. 69).

[6]Ibid., pp. 216-217.

[7]Ibid., p. 217. Much has been written about Lombardi's motivational style. The last paragraph on page 157 of this guide refers to Lombardi motivating players by raising their own personal expectations. A former player discussed the idea during an ESPN documentary on great coaches.

[8]Ibid., p. 222.

[9]Ibid., pp. 228-230.

[10]Ibid., p. 400.

[11]Ibid., pp. 404-405.

[12]Ibid., p. 145.

[13]Ibid., pp. 405-406.

[14]Ibid., p. 406.

[15]Ibid.

[16]Ibid. Maraniss raises this question about Lombardi's contemporary relevance in the Preface pp. 13-14.


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