Vince Lombardi is considered by many to be one of the best head coaches in the history of the National Football League (NFL) – if not the best, certainly the most well-known. His accomplishments were legendary – literally. He made such an impact on the NFL that the most coveted team award in the sport is named the Vince Lombardi Super Bowl Trophy.
He was known for his hard-edged approach to coaching – and to life. He demanded total dedication and maximum effort. His practices were grueling. He often said that the only place that success comes before work was in the dictionary. As much as Lombardi emphasized physical hard work and attention to detail, his greatest impact came from his focus on character and mental toughness.
The result? His Green Bay Packer teams won five league championships in the 1960’s – including the first two Super Bowls.
What made Vince Lombardi the coach – the man – that he was?
Lombardi was born on June 11, 1913, the oldest child of Enrico “Harry” Lombardi and his wife Matilda “Mattie”. Both of his parents were Italian immigrants who settled in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn. Vince, his siblings, and all Italian immigrants were subjected to harsh ethnic discrimination. Their Catholic faith held a prominent place in their lives and culture.
At 15, Vince entered a six-year program to become a priest, but changed his mind, transferring to St. Francis Preparatory high school, where he played football. Being named to the all-city team led to his earning a football scholarship to play at Fordham University in the Bronx. He played on Fordham’s much vaunted offensive line – nicknamed the Seven Blocks of Granite. In his senior year, Fordham lost to NYU, a team they were expected to easily defeat. The loss kept Fordham from the Rose Bowl and taught Lombardi a lesson he’d always remember – never underestimate an opponent.
After college, Lombardi began his coaching career, accepting a position as an assistant coach at St. Cecilia Catholic School in Englewood, New Jersey. He would eventually be named head coach. His coaching career saw him move to Fordham University, then the Military Academy at West Point and ultimately becoming an assistant coach for the NFL’s New York Giants.
Lombardi was with the Giants for five years. The Giants had a winning season in each of those five years, winning the league championship in 1956. Even though he was not the head coach, Lombardi’s influence on the team’s success was recognized across the league. He had become a highly sought-after commodity. Next stop? Head coach of the Green Bay Packers, signing a five-year contract in 1959.
Lombardi immediately set the tone for his team. He was in charge, demanding a commitment to hard work, teaching sound football, and instilling a philosophy of excellence and achievement in his players and staff. As stated, the results validate Lombardi’s leadership style.
Vince Lombardi was a fearless brand. In turn, he built the Green Bay Packers into a fearless brand – in the 1960’s and beyond. Lombardi embraced his passion for achieving excellence. He discovered his calling – his purpose – was to be a leader of men in the form of a football coach. Persistence was a characteristic instilled in Lombardi from his early childhood – a common trait of immigrants and their descendants.
Lombardi’s no-nonsense hard-nosed approach was apparent to anyone who followed professional football. Yet his passion for conformity and control extended beyond sport. He preached respect for authority and the rule of law. Lombardi became a model of successful leadership, gaining fame and fans as his teams dominated and the popularity of the NFL skyrocketed.
Richard Nixon sought to capitalize on Lombardi’s success and image only to find out from John Mitchell, a Nixon adviser, that Lombardi was a Kennedy man, a progressive on civil rights and a supporter of gun control.
Those Lombardi traits were no doubt surprising to many – clearly, they were to Nixon. However, they are easily explained when looking at Lombardi’s life. As a child, he was harassed as an immigrant, a Catholic, an Italian. His experiences showed him the impact of such prejudice.
In 1959, during his first season as head coach of the Packers, he lectured the team on intolerance. “If I ever hear n—r or dago or kike or anything like that around here, regardless of who you are, you’re through with me,” he said. “You can’t play for me if you have any kind of prejudice.”
When the Packers traveled in the segregated South, Lombardi demanded they stay together as a team, using his position to eliminate any thoughts of separate lodging or restaurants for blacks. There was actually a time that the olive-skinned Lombardi had gotten so much sun that he was mistaken for a black and refused service. He realized that his experience paled in comparison to what his black players were subjected to – yet it helped crystallize his commitment to equal rights.
Lombardi was as loyal as he was demanding. He truly cared about his players, their needs, their positions, their value. As tough as he was, his players knew that he ‘had their backs’. That’s a powerful leadership trait and another reason that his players responded so well to his coaching demands.
After leading the Packers to victory in the first two Super Bowls (called the NFL-AFL Championship Game at the time), Lombardi took a two-year hiatus from coaching. He returned in 1969 to coach the Washington Redskins to their first winning season in years.
Sadly – and suddenly – Lombardi was diagnosed with an aggressive form of colon cancer in June of 1970. He died just 10 weeks later on September 3rd.
Vince Lombardi was – and is – a fearless brand. His legacy will live as long as there is sport, and likely longer than that. His tough approach might not be as accepted in today’s NFL. However, the principles of his leadership are sound and are as applicable today as they were 50 years ago and 50 years from now.
Hard work pays dividends – Lombardi was serious when he said success only precedes work in the dictionary. He preached the need for hard work physically, “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.” as well as mentally, “Mental toughness is spartanism with qualities of sacrifice, self-denial, dedication. It is fearlessness, and it is love.”
Chase perfection – For all of his focus on chasing perfection, he knew that wasn’t a possibility. However, he also knew that if we don’t set our goals higher than we think we can attain, we’ll certainly cheat ourselves. He put it this way, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
Be persistent – There is no failing if a lesson is learned – even if the lesson is simply ‘keep going’. Again, in Lombardi’s words, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, its whether you get back up.”
Winning matters – and it’s a habit – Vince Lombardi valued winning – after all, he muse, “If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?” Another of his thoughts about winning is that it is repeatable. “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while… you don’t do things right once in a while… you do them right all the time. Winning is habit.”
Vince Lombardi is a legend and his success is undeniable. What we can do is learn from his legacy, strive to be our own fearless brand, and achieve greater success than we thought possible.