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Vince Lombardi started out to be a lawyer. He had all the talent needed: a cold, analytical mind and a streak of sentiment which, in moments of stress, brought tears to his liquid brown Italian eyes. He was, too, a brilliant student. When he finished at Fordham University, he coached St. Cecelia High School in New Jersey in order to earn enough money to pay for his expenses at law school.
The talents which fitted him so well for a career as an attorney proved equally fitting for a head coach. Lombardi analyzed offenses and defenses and, coldly and impersonally, judged the capabilities of the youngsters at St. Cecelia. His half-time exhortations were so sincere and deeply felt that now and then they moved Lombardi himself to tears. This combination of steely football acumen and arrant sentimentalism worked so well with the St. Cecelia boys that Lombardi's teams won 36 games in a row. In the meantime, Vince acquired a law degree, but he never used it. He had become so thoroughly infected with the madness which infects all football coaches that he stowed his law degree in a dresser drawer and went on to coach the freshman team at Fordham, where he had been a member of the famous seven blocks of granite.
That was in 1947. He moved to West Point in 1949, installing an effective T attack for the Cadets. In 1954 he came to the New York Giants to operate the attack of that team and, after last season, he moved into the difficult and demanding job of head coach of the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers are unique in major sports in the United States. Green Bay is a small town, not far from Milwaukee. The town is closer to its pro football team than any other city in the league. Quite a few of the citizens of Green Bay own stock in the Packers. It's as if a town like, say, Little Rock, Arkansas, owned a franchise in the American League. Everyone in Green Bay goes to every home game. Everyone feels perfectly free to second-guess the Green Bay coach. The Green Bay owners listen carefully to what their neighbors have to say, too, because the defection of only a very small percentage of fans can mean the difference between red and black ink on the club's balance sheet.
This civic enthusiasm and participation was a fine thing for creating excitement for the team but an impossible condition under which to coach. The first thing Lombardi did was to make it unmistakably clear that he ran the football team, on and off the field, and that his decisions were irrevocable and, beyond that, not open to question. After the miserable season which had preceded his employment, the Green Bay citizenry accepted this ultimatum in good spirit and have had no cause to regret their acceptance since. Lombardi, consulting no one but Lombardi, traded freely during the off season. Expected to finish last a bit more respectably than the team did in 1958, he now leads the very tough Western Conference.
"My first problem was one of organization," he said the other day. "On and off the field. Then I wanted to strengthen our defense, and I worked hard at it. We got three players in trades with Cleveland which made the difference—or a good deal of it: Henry Jordan at tackle, Bill Quinlan at end and Bobby Freeman in the defensive secondary. They're experienced, tough players, and there's no substitute for experience on defense. When I got Emlen Tunnell from the Giants it took a lot of the coaching load off my back. Tunnell has played defense in this league for 11 years, and he knows the system I use and he has been indispensable."
Defense was particularly important to Lombardi.
"I knew we had to stay close," he said. "We had to be in the game all the way. We couldn't let anyone get a couple of touchdowns ahead and expect to make it up on a couple of long plays. Our offense wasn't that good. So I concentrated on defense."
In his first league game, Lombardi—and his newly assembled old pros on defense—held the Chicago Bears without a touchdown and won 9-6. In his second game he allowed Detroit only one touchdown and won 28-10. Against the San Francisco 49ers, the Packers allowed two touchdowns, but the Green Bay offense, gaining strength from Sunday to Sunday, managed three, and the Packers led the conference 3-0.
You can attribute a good deal of Green Bay's improved offense to Frank Gifford, a tough, competent halfback for the New York Giants who can run exceptionally well and who can pass well enough. Casting about for a Green Bay equivalent to Gifford, Lombardi settled on Paul Hornung. Hornung came to the Packers as a bonus draft choice from Notre Dame, where he had been a quarterback. He was a good Notre Dame quarterback, although he did not operate during the days of glory for the Irish. He ran very hard and he threw the ball with reasonable, though not pro-quality, accuracy. It is almost an axiom of pro football that Notre Dame quarterbacks are not as good as they look and this was, unfortunately, true of Hornung. He threw well for the Packers but that was not, by a good margin, well enough. Then he was moved to fullback to take advantage of his size and strength and he was neither big enough nor strong enough to be a good pro fullback.