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William Johnson
March 03, 1969
It rumbles like a sonic boom but it is simply the laugh of Vince Lombardi, who as the new coach of the Washington Redskins is gambling that he will never be exposed as merely mortal
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March 03, 1969


It rumbles like a sonic boom but it is simply the laugh of Vince Lombardi, who as the new coach of the Washington Redskins is gambling that he will never be exposed as merely mortal

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Despite (or perhaps because of) that almost supernatural tension, Vince Lombardi is a curiously simplistic man, a combined product of the Puritan ethic, a Catholic boyhood, a belief in two-fisted American salesmanship and the Knute Rockne school of evangelism. All these things are mixed up in his life style and in the regimen around his teams. For example: "I believe a man should be on time—not a minute late, not 10 seconds late—but on time for things. I believe that a man who's late for meetings or for the bus won't run his pass routes right. He'll be sloppy." Or: "I like to come up with a thought that isn't just football at least once a week. Once, in Green Bay, I know I started talking on the theme that the Lord gave us certain talents, and if we don't use those talents to their fullest, we're cheating—cheating on the Lord and cheating on ourselves. I bet I talked 15, 20 minutes on that subject." Or: "I never tell a football team anything that I don't absolutely believe myself. I always tell them the truth. I can't even try to deceive them because I know they'd know. I'd know, so they'd know."

Vince Lombardi is not fooling himself—not about himself—for, as he said, with a mild and slightly sheepish grin, "A lot of what I say sounds corny out of context, I know. It's better in the heat of the moment. But it is me. Hell, I'm an emotional man. I cry. I cried when we won the Super Bowl and I cried when I left Green Bay, now. I'm not ashamed of crying. Football's an emotional game. You can't be a cold fish and go out and coach. If you're going to be involved in it, you gotta take your emotions with you, mister."

In Lombardi's words there is the constant ring of personal compulsion, of a consuming commitment to pro football and its players and its whole high-voltage atmosphere. Lombardi's own version of why he quit coaching in January 1968, after a third straight NFL title and back-to-back Super Bowl victories, offers an insight into the weird and unexpected pressure a man encounters at a pinnacle of success. "When I quit," said Lombardi, "I knew I'd never be back coaching. I knew I wouldn't be able to take it again. The pressures were so horrible. You know, the pressure of losing is bad, awful, because it kills you eventually. But the pressure of winning is worse, infinitely worse, because it keeps on torturing you and torturing you and torturing you. At Green Bay, I was winning one championship after another, after another, after another. I couldn't take it, because I blamed myself, damned myself whenever they lost a game. I couldn't ever forgive myself for a loss, because I felt I'd let them down. I felt I wouldn't be able to raise myself to the right pitch for the big games and then I wouldn't be able to raise them to their best effort. I knew I couldn't ever deceive them about it because they were an extension of my personality. So. that's when I decided to get out of coaching." He paused, then smiled quizzically. "You know, if we'd just won every other title or if we'd even lost to Dallas either in '66 or '67, I'd still be at Green Bay. Forever."

The Lombardi Era at Green Bay ended in January 1968, a comet burned out by the heat of its own brilliance. Free of coaching tensions for the first time in 30 years, Vince found that he was "in seventh heaven; it was absolutely the best off season I'd ever had—yeah, until exactly July 15, the day they came back to start practice." On that day his retirement reverie was transformed abruptly into a nightmare, and even Vince Lombardi was startled at the extremity of the change. "My God, one minute I'm going to play golf that afternoon and the next thing I know I'm canceling the round. I find I can't stand to stay away from practice and I'm down there, trying to stay off to the side and kind of aloof, so I wouldn't be in the way. But I couldn't force myself to do anything but go down and watch practice. And, of course, I knew right then that I had made a horrible mistake by leaving coaching."

The 1968 season in Green Bay was a miasma of boredom, frustration and defeat, and Lombardi was a dangling man, desperately unhappy. He built himself a soundproof cell in the press box and closeted himself there during home games. "They said I raved a lot in there," he recalled. "Actually, I was very quiet. Very quiet." He went to "meeting after meeting after meeting" of the NFL owners' committee, which was involved in labor negotiations with the players, and that, he said, "absolutely saved my life during that horrible period." There was more than enough time to think, though, and he came to a rather surprising conclusion about why he wanted to return to coaching.

"What I missed most was—well, it wasn't the tension and the crowds and the game on Sunday. And it certainly wasn't the winning. And it wasn't the spotlight and all that. The fame. No, it wasn't. There's a great—a great closeness a football team, you know—a rapport between the men and the coach that's like no other sport. It's a binding together, a knitting together. For me, it's like father and sons, and that's what I missed. I missed players coming up to me and saying, 'Coach, I need some help because my baby's sick.' or, ' Mr. Lombardi, I want to talk to you about trouble I'm having with my wife.' That's what I missed most. The closeness."

In Lombardi's own terms this role of being more parent than employer, more father confessor than professional coach, is the essence of his career (which, perhaps, is the logical outgrowth of Lombardi's boyhood dream of being a priest). "Winning wouldn't be enough to get me back in the game," he said. "But it's how I feel when I hear that a Hornung or a Forrest Gregg or a Boyd Dowler is doing well. You never really let go of these guys, you know. I just heard the other day about a kid I used to coach in high school. I heard he's in trouble. I heard he's drinking, doing a lot of heavy drinking." Lombardi rubbed the three-diamond setting in his huge Super Bowl ring and he said, "It's corny and it'll sound awful in writing, but you just feel bad when you know you couldn't get through to a kid like that."

Now, of course, the immediate question is just how this unique personage of pure sentiment, furious determination and genius for success will stand the trip from his hale-and-hearty Valhalla village in Wisconsin to the tepid ambience of the Washington Redskins. To hear Lombardi talk, he would have preferred the home-town familiarity of Green Bay "if there'd been a graceful way to go back to coaching without murdering a lot of people." There wasn't, of course. Indeed, there really wasn't a very graceful way for Vince to get out of his five-year contract with the Packer organization, either. Nevertheless, Lombardi, who has an almost childlike ability, on occasion, to see the world precisely as he wants to see it, said, "It was important to me how I felt about leaving Green Bay, and I can truthfully say that if the board of directors had insisted on my staying, I would have—happily. They could have condemned me. But they didn't. They released me from my contract when I asked. They probably understood me better than I did myself." Suffice it to say that the Packer board of directors probably understood Lombardi well enough to know that sooner or later they would bend to his personality.

Given Lombardi's own Happy Ending version to the Green Bay episode of the saga, how does he feel about his new beginning in Washington? Absolutely transcendental. "Before I went to Green Bay, I'd had other offers in the '50s," he said. "I didn't take them, and I still don't know why. But when Green Bay came along—I knew—it was right! Now this time I've had other offers. [They were San Francisco last year, Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.] But I didn't take any of them. No, I took Washington." He sat for a moment, musing, with a distant look in his eyes. Then swiftly he clapped himself on a shoulder, and his eyes blazed behind the glasses. "That's the way it was with Green Bay. And that's the way it was with Washington—as if the Lord's hand were on my shoulder and I knew which was the right thing to do."

Clearly, Lombardi has high hopes of turning the Redskins into another victory dynasty like the Packers—someday. "When I say a winner this year, I don't necessarily mean a championship," he said. But he is not pessimistic and he is already designing the Lombardi strategy—and possibly praying for the Lombardi magic to reappear in Washington. "Jurgensen is a helluva passer, and that Charley Taylor is one of the best in the league. I want to take a close look at Gary Beban, too. I'm not sure things have been handled just right down here." Still, no matter whose hand is on Vince's shoulder, the chances of instant success � la Green Bay probably are not terribly bright.

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