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LAST FALL, I WENT TO THE BROADWAY PLAY LOMBARDI, BASED ON THE coaching life of Vince Lombardi. The scene I liked best, a real firecracker of a scene, had fullback Jim Taylor in Lombardi's office discussing (that's one way to put it) his contract with his coach, who was also the G.M., de facto salary capologist and long-term franchise planner. Chris Sullivan, who played Taylor, told Dan Lauria, who played Lombardi, that he didn't like the way Lombardi was paying the young players more than he was paying the old warhorses like him. Lauria (Lombardi) told him, in effect, to mind his own business. Sullivan (Taylor) said it was his business.
Lombardi yelled at Taylor. Taylor yelled at Lombardi. Spit flew. Real, honest-to-goodness spittle from one man onto the other, faces 10 inches apart. "I wanted the scene to feel dangerous, but I wanted it to feel real," Sullivan told me after the show. "From everything I know about the coach and his interaction with players, that was real."
For greatness to happen in any walk of life, creative tension must be a part of it. For greatness to happen in football, great players must be in the locker room, and a coach's my-way-or-the-highway ethos has to be simmering somewhere beneath the surface. A coach and a player have to be willing to challenge each other, and the players have to embrace change. Look at Lombardi and his entire roster. Or Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw. Or Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Bill Parcells and Phil Simms. Bill Belichick and Drew Bledsoe. And so on.
"The one thing any good coach has to have," Parcells says, "is the respect of his players. And at the same time, some fear. Those players have to know you can fire them."
On the 50th anniversary of Green Bay's 1961 championship, we know why the Packers won five league titles in a seven-season span and established a run of greatness that's never been surpassed in modern football history. Lombardi arrived in 1959 and took over a team that had won eight games over the previous three seasons. He drilled them into shape mentally and physically. He had good players, very good players—five Hall of Famers on offense, five on defense. Yet when Lombardi had to fire (or trade) someone, he never hesitated. In 1963 after center Jim Ringo wanted an agent to negotiate his contract, Lombardi promptly traded the future Hall of Famer to Philadelphia. In 1967, after a long string of arguments with Taylor about money, Lombardi shipped the great fullback to New Orleans.
But I've always thought Lombardi was pigeonholed as a drill sergeant who ran a football team. That's unfair. Lombardi's method was one of tough love. And there was a method to his madness. Ask his players. Ask Bart Starr. He'll tell you that the day after getting chewed out by Lombardi, he would come to work and be likely to hear, "Today's going to be a great day, and we're going to have a great practice, Bart."
Lombardi wasn't just a good tactician. He was a psychologist. Maybe it's no coincidence that in the nearly half-century of football since he finished coaching in Green Bay, we've seen so many good coaches be the same kind of mind-benders. Jimmy Johnson, who directed the Cowboys to two Super Bowls, majored in psychology at Arkansas. After one long interview I did with Johnson early in his Dallas days, he thought he might have said too much, been too open with me. As I got up to leave, Johnson warned with a wary smile, "If you screw me, I'll squash you like a squirrel in the road." The message—the same one he'd give a player he was entrusting with a big play, I'm told—was consistent with the man. And was reminiscent of Lombardi and what he expected from his team
Consistency was a big word with Lombardi. "Winning is not a sometime thing, it's an all-the-time thing," he said. "You don't do things right once in a while. You do them right all the time." When you think about why his Green Bay teams have been such a beacon for coaches and players at every level of the game, that quote sums it up. It's cornball but true. For Lombardi and his legion of disciples, winning is the ultimate and only goal—and you can achieve it if you work hard enough at it.
That's the legacy of those 1960s Packers. You're downtrodden, you change the culture, you educate the players to do things the right way, and you win. And you don't stay satisfied after winning once. You win again and come back with the same ethos. And you win again. And again. And again.
It's harder today, of course, when coaches and players can carve out such a good living at the game that they can ask themselves, "Why am I getting up at five in the morning every day and beating myself silly at this when I never have to work another day for the rest of my life?" Barry Sanders walked away at 30 and Bill Cowher at 49 because they had options that players and coaches didn't have 50 years ago.