Greatness Beyond the Gridiron

UPDATED: December 13, 2010
PUBLISHED: December 13, 2010

If Vince Lombardi hadn’t become a football coach, he would have become a Catholic priest. The Brooklyn-born altar boy studied at seminary, waking before dawn to attend daily mass. Religion was as much about routine as it was devotion to his church.

He viewed the two vocations similarly, both involving a strong sense of duty, discipline and fatherly leadership. But he left the seminary before taking vows, unable to shake his affinity for football—a violent sport “that furthers the advancement of destructive and detrimental moral results,” according to a seminary essay. As a coach, he could be the influential leader he wanted to be, and he could still yell, stomp and lose his temper and call it passion for his profession.

Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” although he later regretted the win-at-all-costs connotation his famous quote had taken. He never coached a losing season, but Lombardi was about more than winning. Traits such as integrity, honor, obedience and loyalty were just as important to Lombardi as succeeding both on and off the field.

Green Bay, Wis., remains the only community-owned major league professional sports team left in the United States. It was a feat in itself that such a small town could sustain a professional team; as such, Coach Lombardi attained a status next to godliness by turning the 1-10 record Packers into a winning team within two years of becoming head coach in 1959. Lombardi led his Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships, including two Super Bowls. The trophy awarded to the Super Bowl’s winning team was later renamed the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

What made Coach Lombardi so special (and so legendary that he inspired both a Broadway play and motion picture about his life, as well as numerous books) was his use of tough, motivational technique. While he was fire-and-brimstone with his players, Lombardi coached with purpose. He could hold a team together in its darkest hour, inspire confidence both in him and themselves, and ignite their fire to win.

Lombardi Rule: Act with purpose. “I’m not better nor less than the next man. But I always knew what my acts would mean. I was lucky, and I found a singleness purpose early on.”

Vince Lombardi Jr. writes about his famous father in the 2003 leadership book The Lombardi Rules: 26 Lessons from Vince Lombardi—the World’s Greatest Coach. “My father was not only a great football coach; he was also a great leader,” Lombardi Jr. writes. “It was his leadership—his ability to motivate his players, to inspire them to surpass their own perceived physical and mental capability, and his incredible will to win that brought national renown to the man, his methods and his players.”

The future football great was born June 11, 1913, to Harry and Matilda Lombardi in Brooklyn, N.Y. His mother came from an Italian family of 13 children. His father, an immigrant butcher in New York, made a hard living with his hands. As such, the elder Lombardi had the words W-O-R-K and P-L-A-Y tattooed on his knuckles.

Both Lombardi’s parents were disciplinarians—his father would “hit you as soon as talk to you” and his mother “would hit first and ask questions later,” David Maraniss writes in When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. Harry Lombardi preached his triangle of success to his children—sense of duty, respect for authority and strong mental discipline. Harry and Matilda Lombardi expected much of their three sons and two daughters, but none bore more responsibility than their firstborn son, Vincent.

After playing high school football, Lombardi accepted a scholarship in fall 1933 to play at Fordham University, a Jesuit-philosophy all-boys Catholic school in New York. You’ve heard stories of ruler-wielding nuns and no-nonsense priests, and the Jesuits’ strict discipline was no different. Lombardi viewed having respect for authority as one of the highest disciplines. “A disciplined person is one who follows the will of the one who gives the orders,” Lombardi once said.

Lombardi Rule: Respect legitimate authority. “If you’re going to exercise authority, you’ve got to respect it.”

Lombardi gritted, clawed and ached his way to a starting position at Fordham, later to become one of the famed “Seven Blocks of Granite,” a nickname for the team’s offensive line coined by fedora-wearing sports writers of the day. This earned the respect of his teammates, who say Lombardi seemed mature beyond his years, “carrying himself on campus like a young salesman moving briskly on his way to the next call. His shirts and suits were sharply pressed. He toted a snappy brown briefcase with neatly organized class notes and football diagrams,” Maraniss writes.

His playing years at Fordham were formative, with the Jesuit philosophy firmly placed in the holy trinity of Lombardi’s constitution: God, football and family. Jesuits believe perfection comes to those who work hardest for it, and Lombardi was a disciple of that ideology.

Lombardi Rule: Don’t just work harder than the next guy. Work harder than everybody else.

After Lombardi graduated Fordham, he actually struggled to find his calling. His teammates figured he’d enter the business world—on account of those sharply pressed suits he wore—but Lombardi wasn’t much of a businessman. He had no desire to go back into the family business with the man who bore “work” and “play” on his knuckles. The future football legend lacked the talent to make a full-time living playing professional football; he played instead for the second-rung American Professional Football League’s Brooklyn Eagles. So, Lombardi began his career teaching high school physics, chemistry and Latin, while coaching football and basketball.

Several years later, he returned to Fordham as an assistant football coach. “Lombardi was in his element. Football as religion. The T (defense) as catechism from which he preached. And God was in the details,” Maraniss writes in When Pride Still Mattered.

On the field, he developed a reputation for being a tireless coach, conducting grueling training camps and demanding absolute dedication from his players. And it took every ounce of his players’ allegiance to endure Lombardi’s taxing practice sessions. Lombardi himself was so committed that he’d run the same play continually, barking out “Run it again!” anytime there was a mistake. Lombardi expected perfection, or as close as any flawed human could achieve.

Lombardi Rule: Chase perfection. “If you settle for nothing less than your best, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish in your life.”

Lombardi coached college football for six years at Fordham as well as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point until he received an invitation to the big leagues—working as assistant coach for the New York Giants. He was part of a holy trinity of football—Jim Lee Howell as head coach, Lombardi as offensive coach, and a young coach fresh from Texas named Tom Landry as defensive coach. His hard-edged style was a contrast to Landry’s soft-spoken approach, but effective nonetheless. Landry would go on to coach Green Bay’s biggest rival, the Dallas Cowboys.

Lombardi worked longer and harder than anyone to earn a head coaching position in the NFL. He was 45 and never a head coach—professional, college, high school or otherwise. He longed for that role—to be the one in charge. He later wrote in a November 1968 article for Boys’ Life magazine, “those were 13 very long years, especially for a fellow with a naturally explosive temper and a seething impatience.”

His opportunity came in 1959, when he left the Giants and moved west to Green Bay, a place he once described as God-forsaken. With his leather briefcase of football diagrams, he packed up his wife, Marie, and children, Vincent Jr. and Susan, and entered the era of his greatest purpose, as head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

In his nine seasons coaching the Packers, Lombardi made men of his players. In doing this, he promised to be relentless. “With every fiber of my body, I’ve got to make you the best football player that I can make you,” Lombardi told his players. “And you’ve got to give everything that is in you. You’ve got to keep yourself in prime physical condition, because fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

He instituted West Point time, later known as Lombardi time, which meant 10 minutes early. As such, player curfews were strictly enforced while on the road. He fined players who came in minutes late. He wanted his players to represent the team well, so players had to wear team blazers and ties while traveling.

Lombardi believed a person’s character is made up of small, everyday decisions to do the right thing, as well as larger prevailing traits, such as respect, humility and responsibility. “Character is just another word for having a perfectly disciplined and educated will,” Lombardi told management students at Fordham in 1967. “A person can make his own character by blending these elements with an intense desire to achieve excellence. Everyone is different in what I will call magnitude, but the capacity to achieve character is still the same.”

He continued with a chuckle, “I sound like a real philosopher but I’m not. This is what I believe in.”

Lombardi Rule: Write your character. “Improvements in moral character are our own responsibility. Bad habits are eliminated not by others, but by ourselves.”

By developing his players’ character, teaching them discipline and giving them self-confidence to achieve more than they thought possible, he brought five NFL championships to Green Bay in nine seasons. While other coaches knew more about the “x’s” and “o’s” of the game, no one knew his players’ psychology better than Lombardi. He developed people, not players.

The coach retired from Green Bay, briefly, before joining the Washington Redskins. But by this time, Lombardi was not up to the challenge. Shuffling in and out of the hospital, Lombardi was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. Lombardi died in 1970 at age 57, 10 weeks after diagnosis. Fans flocked to his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. He was survived by his parents, his wife and children, and of course, his status as a legend.

His son says his father’s legacy is of leadership, not necessarily football, “because it wasn’t what he accomplished but how he accomplished it.” He did it with honesty, integrity, heart, dedication, and most important, unconditional love for the game of football.

It was the great coach’s religion—where Catholicism left off, football began.

Journalist, podcaster and southpaw Shelby Skrhak is the former director of digital content and social media for Before joining SUCCESS magazine, Shelby launched the weekly suburban newspaper Plano Insider, and covered topics ranging from cops and courts to transportation and fashion. Her handwriting should be a font.