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I've been in football all my life, gentlemen, and I don't know whether I'm particularly qualified to be a part of anything else, except I consider it a great game, a game of many assets, by the way, and I think a symbol of what this country's best attributes are: courage and stamina and a coordinated efficiency or teamwork.
At many a moment on many a day, I am convinced that pro football must be a game for madmen, and I must be one of them.
Is it possible for one person to label a game-professional football-both a symbol of this country's best attributes and a game for madmen?
Is it possible for one person to be shy, cautious, moody, short tempered, autocratic, demanding, confident, friendly, warm, and considerate?
Is it possible for a single person to evoke the emotions of awe, affection, hate, fear, and respect in the people around him?
Sure, it is. I have known one such person: my father, Vince Lombardi. He had all those qualities. He inspired all those reactions in the many people whose lives he touched. Without ever trying to be complicated or sophisticated, he was that paradox we just talked about in the prologue.
In this chapter, I want to introduce my father to people who never knew him. Throughout the book, I'll make references to episodes from the major phases of his life, so it seems sensible to include a brief biographical sketch for the benefit of those people who have only a vague idea of who "Vince Lombardi" was and why we're still talking about him 30 years after his passing. But let me emphasize that this is not a biography of my father. For those in search of a comprehensive and chronological picture of his life, two excellent biographies already are out there (Vince, by Michael O'Brien, and David Maraniss' When Pride Still Mattered, mentioned in the prologue), as are a number of more focused books, including a lively and insightful write-up of his year with the Redskins (Coach, by Tom Dowling) and my father's own Run to Daylight.
And since much of this book is going to consist of my own reflections on my father's leadership model, as well as my own experiences as a leader, I'll begin this chapter with a couple of selected stories that illustrate the complex, difficult, intense, and rewarding relationship that existed for almost three decades between two guys named Vince Lombardi: father and son.
GROWING UP LOMBARDI
< My relationship with my father was probably a lot like that of other people who spent any amount of time with Vince Lombardi-although, in my case, a bit more intense. The feelings generated within those relationships covered the emotional spectrum, ranging from respect and love on the one hand to intense dislike on the other. And with my father, you could walk that entire spectrum in the course of a five-minute conversation.
I recall vividly an episode that occurred when I was a freshman at the then-College (now University) of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had gone to school early for football practice, but I had hurt my knee and wasn't playing. This was frustrating for me. It was mid-September, the season was underway, and I wanted to be out there practicing with my teammates.
One of those September weekends, the Green Bay Packers, with Coach Lombardi, came to Minneapolis to play the Vikings. I had spent my summers over the last few years doing chores at the Packer training camps, and I had stood on the sidelines at dozens of Packer games, watching the team earn its reputation as the best in pro football. I knew many of the players well, and some I considered my friends. So I looked forward to seeing them again, as I limped into the lobby of the hotel where they were staying. I wasn't disappointed. A group of Packers who were waiting to check in greeted me warmly and gave me all kinds of sympathy for my injured knee.
Then I went up to my father's suite. He welcomed me with a big bear hug and one of his huge smiles. I basked in the warmth of his affection. There was nothing quite like the feeling you got when Vince Lombardi made you feel welcome.
My father knew about my knee, so he arranged to have Dr. Jim Nellen, the team physician, take a look at me. Nellen turned my leg this way and that, pushed and probed with his fingers, and said that although the joint was a little loose, there was nothing else wrong with my knee.
Upon hearing this, my father lit into me. He yelled at me in no uncertain terms to quit babying that knee and start running on it. I was hurt, embarrassed, and reduced to tears. From loving father to demanding taskmaster, in a matter of minutes!
But it wouldn't be fair to end the anecdote there. It turns out that my father made the right call. I ran on the knee the next day, and it didn't feel as bad as I thought it would. I started my first varsity game a couple of weeks later, well ahead of my expected recovery schedule.
The good lord gave you a body that can stand most anything. It's your mind you have to convince.
A second story: At the end of my freshman year at St. Thomas, I made a dumb mistake. Caught up in the pressures and anxieties of final exams, I forgot to arrange for on-campus housing for the following fall. When I got back to school at the end of that summer for football practice, I discovered that I had no place to live.
Well, no big deal. I got together with four of my teammates, and we rented the top floor of a house a few blocks from campus. To the extent that I thought about it at all, I guess I thought that I had come up with a good solution to a problem that should never have come up in the first place. I happened to mention the solution to my mother the next time I called home.
Bright and early the next morning, my father called the dean of students. "Send my son home," he told the dean in a non-negotiable tone of voice. "He's not living off campus." Or that's what the dean told me when I was called in to get the news. Again, I was angry and embarrassed, but my father's word was law. The school found me a room on campus, and I moved out of my "bachelor pad," leaving my teammates behind.
And once again, that's not quite the end of the story. Without the temptations of off-campus living to deal with, I made the dean's list both semesters that year. Meanwhile, of the four guys I had originally arranged to live with, two were back on campus by the second semester, another took six years to graduate, and the last never did graduate. My father, it turned out, knew me better than I knew myself-or, at least, he was able to make a good guess about the pitfalls that might await me if I set up housekeeping with four other sophomores.
Before I can embrace freedom, I should be aware of what duties I have.
Flash forward to about six years later, when I was 26 years old and married with a couple of kids. My wife, Jill, and I traveled to Milwaukee for a Packer pre-season game. As I recall it, I hadn't seen my parents for about six months, and in the interim, I had grown my sideburns pretty long. This was the late '60s, and most males my age had at least a little extra hair on their faces.
I walk into my parents' room-a certified adult, two kids!-and my father barks out, "Get rid of those sideburns!" So I turn around, go back to my room, and shave my sideburns.
Some disputes between my father and me weren't resolved quite so quickly. During my senior year in high school, I mentioned to him that I thought that I'd major in physical education at college because I wanted to be a coach. He fixed his intense stare on me for a few seconds. "That's OK," he said curtly, "but if you do, I'll not put one penny toward your education."
Needless to say, that got my attention. "Well," I asked, "what do you think I should do?"
"I think you should go to law school."
"I'm not going to law school!"
So began a debate that went on for four full years. When I got to be a senior, I realized I had nothing better to do, so I applied to law school, got accepted to the University of Minnesota, and enrolled there. Within a few short weeks, I quit. I decided that I had been right all along: I didn't want to go to law school. My father was very disappointed in me, and in his own way he let me know about it. At the time, I decided it wouldn't be prudent to point out to him that he had done more or less the same thing, dropping out of Fordham Law School after an unhappy year there.
Time passed. I got married, started getting serious about a family and other adult responsibilities, and realized that I needed more education. So I went back to law school at night. This was a terrible grind. Jill deserves enormous credit for holding our marriage and our family together during those four years when I worked days, went to school at nights, and generally was an absent partner and parent.
But what do I remember best about that difficult period? I remember the enormous pride that my father felt in me on that hot June night when I finally graduated from William Mitchell College of Law. "My son, the lawyer," he said to everyone within earshot, grinning that famous grin.
I tend to believe in catching stars, and have been willing to take my chances on the hernia.
Recently, somebody tried to tell me that I had been abused as a child. I thought about that for about two seconds and decided that it was nonsense. When I did something wrong, breaking a rule of the household, I was punished. Punishment could take the form of a firm whack on some part of my anatomy, or banishment to my room, or being assigned some particularly dirty job.
Needless to say, I didn't like getting punished. But you know what? It worked. Pretty soon, I began to make the all-important connection of cause and effect: You screw up; you pay the consequences. I think this was a very valuable lesson, and it's one that fewer and fewer parents seem to be teaching today. I never felt that I was a victim. Instead, I reached the conclusion that there were people out there-starting with my father and mother, Marie-who deserved my respect. And when I gave them their due respect, I started earning their respect back. That's what a lot of my own struggles with my father were all about.
Don't succumb to excuses. Go back to the job of making the corrections and forming the habits that will make your goal possible.
A WINNER'S CAREER IN FOOTBALL
Let's briefly review my father's background and career to see how he formed his leadership habits. Vincent Thomas Lombardi was born on June 11, 1913, to a vibrant and sprawling Italian-American family living in Sheepshead Bay, New York. That neighborhood was a section of Brooklyn that had once been an upper-class summer resort area, but had gradually been transformed into a community for the immigrants pouring into the city through Ellis Island. His father and uncle ran Lombardi Bros., a meat wholesaler, and young Vince got his first business education from his father, who, although more or less unschooled, ran a successful business in a cutthroat industry and an unforgiving city.
When he was 15, Lombardi enrolled at Cathedral Prep, a school run by the Brooklyn diocese for Catholic boys who hoped to become priests. Although Lombardi ultimately left Cathedral and chose a different path for himself, the Church remained a central part of his belief system and his daily ritual for the rest of his life.
But the reason he left Cathedral was his other great passion: football. The priests who ran the school strongly disapproved of football, which they condemned as violent. Vince switched to St. Francis Prep, Brooklyn's oldest Catholic school, where he was able to play competitive football for the first time. He reached his adult height and weight as a teenager, so he could hold his own physically. But more important, he discovered an intensity about football that almost guaranteed that he would play while more talented athletes with less drive stayed on the bench.
Brains without competitive hearts are rudderless.
Lombardi enrolled at Fordham University in the fall of 1933, football scholarship in hand. Fordham was a cloistered, intense environment, run by members of the intellectually rigorous Jesuit order. The priests pushed him hard, perhaps for the first time in his life, to think about the world and his place within it. The Jesuits believed that humans could perfect themselves through hard work and dedication to excellence, principles that guided Lombardi for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, Fordham's football coach, Jim Crowley-made legendary years earlier by sportswriter Grantland Rice as one of Notre Dame's "Four Horsemen"-pushed Vince as a football player. As it turned out, Lombardi was both injury-prone and not a particularly gifted athlete. But Fordham had good teams in the mid-1930s, and the defensive line (including an intense guard named Butch Lombardi) achieved regional celebrity as the "Seven Blocks of Granite" that refused to yield to its opponents.
After college, my father cast about for a purpose in life for two years. He didn't want to work in the family meat business. He enrolled in Fordham Law School (his father's idea!), but abandoned that effort after a year. Finally, in the fall of 1939, he took a job at St. Cecilia, a parochial school in Englewood, New Jersey, where a Fordham classmate hired him as an assistant football coach. It wasn't a full-time job, of course: Lombardi was also expected to teach physics, chemistry, and Latin. My father wooed and won his girlfriend, Marie Planitz-whose conservative Irish-German family wasn't so sure about an Italian son-in-law-and the building blocks of his adult life were now all in place: religion, family, and football.
I was born on April 27, 1942. There was apparently some confusion about whether I was to be named "Vincent Thomas Lombardi, Jr." My father seems to have insisted that I take his father's first name, Henry, as my middle name. My mother agreed, and I, of course, had no opinion on the subject. So I'm not a "Jr.," although I've usually gone by that name simply because it avoids a lot of confusion.
That was the same year that my father became head coach at "Saints" (as it was known locally) and began to build a local reputation as a football coach. At one point, Saints ran off a string of 32 unbeaten games, an astounding accomplishment for a relatively small parochial school. Lombardi parlayed this success into an assistant coaching position at his alma mater, Fordham, which he took up in the summer of 1947. (This was a few months after my sister, Susan, was born, rounding out our family.) Two years later, in January 1949, he took yet another assistant position, this time at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he worked for head coach Colonel Earl H. "Red" Blaik.
Blaik was yet another formative influence on Lombardi. Blaik was devoted to football; it was more or less his entire life. He loved studying films of games, a relatively unknown technique back in the late 1940s, and worked his coaches and his players hard. He was both rigid and flexible, and he had a gift for making complex things simple, traits my father successfully imitated. Blaik also was a personal friend of General Douglas MacArthur, and my father was sometimes assigned the task of showing Army game films from the preceding Saturday to the aging general in his eagle's nest atop New York's Waldorf-Astoria Towers.
In 1954, my father broke into the professional ranks when he took a job as an assistant coach for the New York Giants. He had hopes of getting the Giants' head coaching job, but wound up as the offensive assistant to Jim Lee Howell. By this time, Lombardi felt that he had a lot to contribute to a football team's success, and at the Giants' summer training camp in 1954 he introduced his ideas to some skeptical pros. Eventually, both sides met in the middle, for the benefit of all. Lombardi learned how to work with very gifted professional athletes, and the athletes were reintroduced to discipline and hard work.
Howell had the benefit of two extraordinary assistants: my father on offense and player-coach Tom Landry on defense. Both went on to lead professional teams to great successes-my father at Green Bay and Landry at Dallas. They turned the Giants into winners, and other teams took notice. In 1957, the Philadelphia Eagles asked my father to take their head coaching position. It was tempting: After all, there were only 12 such jobs in the world, and the other 11 were spoken for. But the Eagles were in disarray not only on the field, but off the field as well. After much agonizing, he turned the Eagles down, hoping for an opportunity with a team with a better management structure.
That opportunity came at the end of 1958, when one of the worst franchises in the NFL, the lowly Green Bay Packers, asked Lombardi to take over as their head coach. The once-proud Packers had just finished a miserable 1-10-1 season, the worst in the team's history. Lombardi knew he was in a strong bargaining position, and he took full advantage of that knowledge. He signed on as coach and general manager, which effectively gave him complete operating control over the team.
Most people with any knowledge of football know what happened over the course of the next decade, and I've already mentioned those remarkable events in the introduction to this book. I'll have a lot to say in subsequent chapters about how Lombardi accomplished these feats and what leadership lessons we should draw from those accomplishments.
My father's professional life was devoted mainly to making his teams successful. (He didn't tolerate outside interests interfering with his players' dedication to their game and certainly wouldn't have put himself in that situation.) So when I refer to my father as a leader, a manager, and a businessperson, I'm referring mainly to his experience as a football coach and executive.
As the Packers' general manager, Lombardi ran a tight ship, and he ran it conservatively. He effectively dominated the Packers' seven-person executive board, a result of his success on the field, his generally recognized insight into people, and his forceful personality. (He could be a hard man to argue with.) In addition, though, the board gave Lombardi a lot of latitude in part because he and its members were philosophically in tune. My father's reluctance to award big contracts, for example, dovetailed neatly with the board's own fiscal conservatism.
I was a fly on the wall for most of those years in Green Bay, and I got the opportunity to see how my father ran his organization. He was an effective delegator, especially-as we'll see in Chapter 7-when it came to things not directly related to the success of the team on the field. He found ways to compensate in areas where he didn't have much experience, especially at the outset of his professional coaching career. He didn't hesitate to ask questions when he didn't understand something, and he didn't tolerate answers that he considered half-baked.
Some front-office workers never stopped seeing him as intimidating and authoritarian. But others realized that he welcomed respectful challenges, especially when someone could make a strong case that he was wrong.
You can call me a dictator. The fact is that I am reluctant to take any step that doesn't have the wholehearted support of my whole staff.
He hated wasting time. He ran tight, agenda-driven meetings that began-and ended-on schedule. Meetings focused on exchanging information and decisions, and decisions were final.
A meeting is only a means of communication. Its purpose should be to produce a change in procedure. This procedure could be in knowledge, attitude, behavior, or skill. In our meetings, management gives information, it collects information, it pools information, and it discusses the best way to approach the problem. We have one hard and fast rule: Once the group is agreed upon the method, there is no deviation until the group agrees to the change.
In other words, no second-guessing and no backbiting, a policy that fostered solidarity and loyalty among his assistants. He further earned the loyalty of those assistants by paying them well and using their time wisely. And, of course, everybody loved being associated with a winner.
In the years that he served the Packers as coach and general manager, he limited his outside activities mainly to the occasional product endorsement and speaking engagement. (The number of opportunities to do both, of course, went up sharply as the Packers crept into the national consciousness as winners.) At first, he spoke primarily to local groups, but as he became a national figure, he spoke to groups across the country. At first, he favored gatherings at which he felt some natural kinship with the people- such as Catholic charitable events-but over time he accepted more offers to speak to organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and other industry groups. His themes remained consistent, even as his platform got bigger. The advice he gave to the fund-raisers at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1962 could have been replayed years later at the NAM convention:
In order to succeed, this group will need a singleness of purpose, they will need a dedication, and they will have to convince all of their prospects of the willingness to sacrifice.
For most of his career, my father didn't get involved in any other outside activities. One exception came in 1968. He was persuaded to play himself in a motivational sales training film distributed by a Chicago-based company. I'll cite his comments from that film at various points in this book, since it presented a pretty concise summary of his leadership model. Called Second Effort, the film showed an earnest, but hapless, salesman being shown the ropes by Coach Lombardi. The plot was almost nonexistent, and the acting was pretty amateurish. (I told my father that he was no threat to Richard Burton or Paul Newman; in response, he demanded to know what he should have done differently to turn in a better performance.)
But any weaknesses in the acting or the story line turned out to be unimportant: The film was a runaway success. It sold 10 times more copies than most films of its type-more than 8,000 units-and earned my father a significant amount of money in royalties. "Not bad for four days' work" I heard him chuckle on more than one occasion. The film is still in demand today, and I have the royalty checks to prove it.
He stepped down as Packer head coach at the end of the 1967 season, retaining his general manager's job. Although he needed a break and a change, he realized quickly that he had made a serious mistake. After a year of self-imposed idleness, he surprised the football world by announcing that he had agreed to serve as the head coach of the Washington Redskins, a team run by the celebrated lawyer Edward Bennett Williams.
We're going to have a winner the first year.
He was putting the "Lombardi Legend" on the line. He had never had a losing season as a professional coach. The Redskins were an average team, playing .500 ball for a dozen years, and they had not won a championship for almost 30 years. Once again, as he had a decade earlier in Green Bay, Lombardi turned things around, mostly through the force of his own personality and through the heroic efforts of a small group of talented Redskin players who understood and bought into the Lombardi vision. Together, they led the team to a respectable 7-5-2 record in the 1969 season.
As it turned out, it was my father's last season. He was taken ill in the spring of 1970 and hospitalized in June with intestinal distress. The grim diagnosis: a virulent cancer of the colon. He died on September 3, 1970, and the football world-and a good piece of the larger world as well-felt the loss.
LOMBARDI AS LEGEND
When he held his first news conference in Washington as the newly appointed head coach of the Redskins, there was considerable excitement in the nation's capital. The Redskins were not quite as hapless as the Packers had been 10 years earlier-but they desperately needed help. And by all accounts, Lombardi was the man to give it to them. "In Green Bay," as one sportswriter reminded the world at that time, "he was widely known as St. Vincent."
What would Lombardi tell the 100-or-so journalists who had assembled to hear his maiden D.C. press conference? "Gentlemen," he began, "it is not true that I can walk across the Potomac River-not even when it is frozen."
When a group of old friends in Bergen County, New Jersey, began trying to arrange a "Vince Lombardi Day," they sought his counsel. "I don't think Vince Lombardi is important enough to have a day set aside for him," my father wrote to the group, in a gentle effort to head off the event.
Being considered a living legend was "embarrassing as the devil," he told a Sports Illustrated writer. "Nobody wants to be a legend, really," he told another writer.
Well, I knew my father pretty well, and I think he actually had mixed feelings on the subject of being a legend. He enjoyed mixing with presidents and corporate leaders; he savored the opportunities that his belated fame had afforded him. He loved being associated with a hugely successful franchise and was willing to accept his share of the credit for that success. He had no fear of being "found out" and being revealed as a fraud, as so many celebrities later confess to having felt when they first achieved success. He knew he was good. There was nothing to find out.
"I'm wrong just about as often as I'm right," he wrote modestly of himself. Sometimes he stressed how important luck was, in the era of parity in professional football. "Like a golfer who remembers each shot," recalled the late Steelers owner Art Rooney, "Lombardi remembered all the breaks of the season that went in his favor, fumbles recovered, punts that rolled out of bounds instead of into the end zone."
Again, I take all this with a grain of salt. He never talked about luck with his players; he talked about preparation. And on more than one occasion, he used the parity argument to make exactly the opposite point: Luck doesn't favor the lucky; it favors the prepared team. "In pro football," he once told an assistant, "the balance of personnel is so even that the difference between success and failure is player control-in every phase."
So again, we have a paradoxical, somewhat elusive figure at the heart of this book. My father made forceful statements-statements that he obviously believed-that were contradictory. He sometimes said less than he intended to say and puzzled his listeners. He sometimes said more than he intended to say and had to beat a quick retreat. For all of these reasons, we will have to proceed carefully as we attempt to tease his leadership model out of the things he said and did.
Red Blaik, the head coach at West Point who taught Lombardi much of what he knew about coaching football, once made an ear-grabbing statement about my father: "Lombardi," Blaik said, "is a thoroughbred with a vile temper."
Looking through some of my father's papers after his death, I found some more observations by Blaik. In May 1966, Fordham University honored Vince Lombardi with its Insignis Medal, an award that my father found enormously gratifying. The speaker who introduced my father that night was "Red" Blaik. His comments, which follow in their entirety, set up much of the discussion that will follow in later chapters:
- He is volatile, and of a temper which he controls like a thermostat.
But he is also mellow and rich with affection that he shares with
players, friends, and even at rare times with rivals.
- He is a demanding fundamentalist, intolerant of those who fail to meet their own potential. But he is also a tireless teacher who respects the intellect and spares no effort to make a depressed [Bart] Starr into the great quarterback he is.
- He is motivated to success-to win, if you will-not for personal glory but rather for the personal satisfaction that comes from great accomplishment.
- He is strong willed and on occasion tactless, but never one to state that he "was misquoted."
- He is capable of warm fellowship, but believes strongly that respect is the essential ingredient that cements successful human relations.
- He is fearless and of great candor, but he also knows it takes a special emotional and mental drive to overcome the personal fallibility that one knows who must make the great decision.
- And with it all, he is strictly a human guy, with an infectious personality-moody on occasion, but always buoyed by proud family ties, unfailing dedication to his friends, to his church, and to his high principles.
I think this is an apt description of a reluctant legend-and more important, a leader.