Success did not come easy for Lombardi. He toiled in obscurity for decades, coaching high school football, college football, and then working as an assistant coach with the New York Giants. It took him twenty-five years to land his first job as head coach of a pro team with the Green Bay Packers.
Lombardi was born on June 11, 1913. In school, he played football, baseball, and basketball. Through sports, he learned that a player who practiced hard and played with fierce determination could often beat a more talented player. It’s a lesson that carried over into his coaching career.
At Fordham University, a Catholic school run by Jesuit priests, Lombardi was a defensive lineman. In 1936, Lombardi’s defensive line allowed just one rushing touchdown the entire year and became known as the Seven Blocks of Granite.
After graduating, Lombardi played minor league football and worked for a meat company before accepting a teaching job at St. Cecilia’s High School where he coached basketball and was an assistant coach on the football team. He married his college sweetheart, Marie Planitz, and in 1942 was promoted to head football coach. The team lost its first game under Lombardi. They didn’t lose again the rest of the season. In eight years under Lombardi, the team won six state championships.
In 1947, Lombardi returned to Fordham. He was passed over for the head coaching job, but was offered a job coaching the freshman team. He led them to an undefeated season, and then accepted an assistant coaching job at West Point under Earl “Colonel Red” Blaik. Blaik, who stressed hard work and spartan discipline, was a perfect mentor for Lombardi. Blaik was one of the first coaches who studied film of his opponents, a technique that Lombardi quickly embraced.
When the head-coaching job opened with the New York Giants, Lombardi applied and was passed over once again, but he did become the team’s offensive coordinator. Tom Landry, the future head coach of the Dallas Cowboys was hired as the team’s defensive coordinator. The Giants enjoyed tremendous success under Lombardi and Landry, and many fans consider the 1958 Championship Game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts to be the greatest NFL game ever played. The Giants lost the game in overtime, but Lombardi was finally offered a head-coaching job in pro football with the Green Bay Packers. The rest is history.
Before Lombardi arrived, the Green Bay Packers had gone fourteen years without a winning season, and for the previous three years they’d won only one game each season. In nine years under Lombardi, the Packers won five NFL Championships, including the first two Super Bowls.
Aside from his two Super Bowl wins, Lombardi’s most impressive victory was the 1967 Championship Game vs. the Dallas Cowboys that has come to be known as the Ice Bowl. With the temperature below zero, and a wind chill factor of minus 46, the Packers trailed late in the fourth quarter. Green Bay quarterback, Bart Starr, followed a block by Jerry Kramer into the end zone to win the game as time ran out.
The principles Lombardi embraced appear revolutionary by today’s standards: hard work, discipline, personal responsibility, sacrifice, commitment to winning, leadership, an emphasis on simplicity and basics, and zero tolerance for laziness or bad attitudes. Coach Lombardi held his players accountable for their actions and did not accept excuses for losing. Indeed, when the team lost, he blamed himself. Lombardi didn’t just teach football, he taught life. In the process, he became an American icon.
Lombardi was a devout Catholic and told his players that their priorities should be first to God, second to their wives and families, and third to the Green Bay Packers. He attended Mass daily and led the team in prayer after every game. He had his championship rings inscribed with the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin, and his players’ rings contained the words “Run to Win”, from one of St. Paul’s epistles.
After his second Super Bowl win, Lombardi retired from coaching to work as a general manager for the Packers. He grew restless after a year, and returned to coach the Washington Redskins in 1969. The Redskins enjoyed their first winning season in years under Lombardi. Shortly thereafter, Lombardi was diagnosed with cancer. He died on September 3, 1970. He was fifty-seven years old.
What It Takes to Be No. 1
Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all-the-time thing. You don’t win once in awhile. You don’t do things right once in a while. You do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.
There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game and that is first place. I have finished second twice in my time at Green Bay, and I don’t ever want to finish second again. There is a second place bowl game, but it is a game for losers played by losers. It is and always has been American zeal to be first in anything we do and to win and to win and to win.
Every time a football player goes out to play his trade, he’s got to play from the ground up — from the soles of his feet right up to his head. Every inch of him has to play. Some guys play with their heads. That’s okay. You’ve got to be smart to be No. 1 in any business. But more important, you’ve got to play with your heart — with every fiber of your body. If you’re lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he’s never going to come off the field second.
Running a football team is no different than running any other kind of organization — an army, a political party, a business. The principles are the same. The object is to win — to beat the other guy. Maybe that sounds hard or cruel. I don’t think it is.
It’s a reality of life that men are competitive and the most competitive games draw the most competitive men. That’s why they’re there — to compete. They know the rules and the objectives when they get in the game. The objective is to win — fairly, squarely, decently, by the rules — but to win.
And in truth, I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for — needs — discipline and the harsh reality of head-to-head combat.
I don’t say these things because I believe in the “brute” nature of man or that men must be brutalized to be combative. I believe in God and I believe in human decency. But I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour — his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear — is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.