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Coaching with conviction: Vince Lombardi's extraordinary success as the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers demonstrates the dramatic difference principle-based leadership can make.

On December 31, 1967, it was 13 degrees below zero with a wind chill of minus 46 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Despite the weather, two football teams prepared to face each other on the frozen expanse of Lambeau Field. The team from Texas, the fearsome Dallas Cowboys, stood frigidly on the sidelines of the football field and, according to Green Bay Packer fullback Chuck Mercein, "looked like earthmen on Mars." Unlike the Cowboys, the players on the Green Bay sideline were accustomed to the harsh Wisconsin climate. But even they were surprised by the unexpectedly brutal arctic conditions. "It's just too cold to play," Willie Wood, the Green Bay Packers' safety said. "They're gonna call this game off."

Despite the weather, kickoff came as scheduled. One would think that the Cowboys couldn't stand a chance against a team that was hardened to winter weather conditions. But according to David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, even Packer players proved susceptible to the cold. Bart Starr, the Packers' quarterback, fumbled the football right before halftime, owing to numbness in his hands. By halftime, the Packer lead was a slim 14-10.

When play resumed, the teams found themselves locked in a stalemate, unable to overcome either the weather or opposing defenses. It was brutal combat on a frozen field of battle. Fingers froze and feet were numb and injuries were an ever present danger as giant men in football armor sought to drive each other into the frozen ground of Lambeau Field. Even the referees suffered. "Bill Schliebaum, the line judge," writes Maraniss, "had his whistle freeze to his lips and lost a layer of skin yanking it loose."

As the icy contest drew to a close, the Packers found themselves behind. A touchdown had given the Cowboys a 17-14 lead. Nevertheless, with 16 seconds remaining, the Green Bay Packers had something the opposing players did not have: the teachings and inspiration of their head coach, Vince Lombardi, a famously stubborn perfectionist, disciplinarian, and leader. Lombardi's uncompromising values and teachings were never so apparent as during that 1967 "Ice Bowl" game.

Under Lombardi's tutelage, the Packers had learned never to give in. They would not give up now. As time ran down, the Packers' offense confidently and methodically marched down the field, the cleats of the linemen clicking and clacking with every hard-fought step on the frozen turf. With only enough time for one last play, Bart Starr stood on the threshold of victory at the goal line. Across the line of scrimmage, the grimly determined Cowboys prepared to defend their territory one last time. Bending over the center, Starr took the snap, paused, then lunged forward behind his offensive line and fell into the end zone as time expired. Against the forces of nature and against a talented and determined opponent, the Packers and Vince Lombardi had prevailed.

For those watching and for the Packer players themselves, "that final [touchdown] drive, more than anything else, was the perfect expression of Vince Lombardi," wrote Maraniss. "The conditions were miserable, the pressure enormous, and there were no fumbles, no dropped passes, no mistakes.... In his speeches Lombardi talked about character in action, and here it was, in real life." So it appeared to legendary announcer Ray Scott. "Of all the games I've done," said Scott, "that final drive was the greatest triumph of will over adversity I'd ever seen."

The "Ice Bowl" was a testament to the teachings and life of Vince Lombardi. Over the preceding seasons. Lombardi taught players the values he learned and embraced himself from youth to adulthood. One of the great leaders of the last century, Lombardi taught that a virtuous existence will aid in the ability to triumph over adversity both in football and in life.

Vince and the Virtues

Lombardi will always be remembered for the amazing Packer victory in the Ice Bowl. But he should be remembered not only for his victories on the football field but for the virtues he embodied: prudence, courage, discipline, and justice; and for his ability to teach that these virtues were not only necessary for success on the gridiron, but also were the foundation of the moral life that made him and the players he taught successful.

Lombardi's education in virtue began early. As a child and young adult he frequently attended church services, becoming a faithful Christian. His religious upbringing taught him that patience and repetition were necessary if one were to become a better person. "The church was not some distant institution to be visited once a week, but part of the rhythm of daily life," notes Maraniss. "When his mother baked bread, it was one for the Lombardis, one for the priests, with Vince shuttling down the block between his house and the St. Mark's Rectory delivering food and tendering invitations."

Vince was devoted to his faith and had a "strong affinity to Catholicism's routine." Throughout his life it was a daily routine for him to drop to his knees and pray. Lombardi's faith was so strong, in fact, that he wanted to pursue the priesthood. He entered a diocesan preparatory seminary, Cathedral Prep, at the age of nine. "The experience brought more discipline to Lombardi's days and instilled in him many rituals he continued into his adult life," notes Maraniss. "He was required to wake before dawn to attend mass at St. Mark's, and his attendance was recorded with X's and O's in a book that the priests checked regularly. Daily mass became a lifelong practice, often cited as evidence of his extraordinary faith.... He was imbued with the notion that success came with faith and obedience to superiors."

Although Lombardi did not pursue the priesthood, his religious habits did not cease. But rather, he preached the importance of a virtuous life, on and off the field. Through the daily ebb and flow of his early religious upbringing, Vince Lombardi learned that, if one wished to better himself, it was prudent to practice regularly and make habitual those things that lead to success.

This understanding of the prudence of regular practice became a singular hallmark of Vince's coaching career. One such memorable image of Vince is during practice sessions. Marking X's and O's on the chalkboard, he would turn and explain that a coach "must be a pedagogue.... He has to pound the lessons into the players by rote, the same way you teach pupils in the classroom." Although Vince made his plays uncomplicated and required that they be practiced often, football practice was anything but dull: "Even in his repetitive drills he had a way of making the mundane seem important." As Maraniss recalled, "Bart Starr was on the edge of his seat, listening--getting it for the first time. All 'the crap' was gone; this was 'right to the bone,' simple, yet 'so refreshing and exciting,' Starr thought."

Football, Lombardi taught, did not have to be complicated. More important was attention to detail, to careful preparation, and an understanding of the basics, or fundamentals, of the sport. "Fundamentals were the foundation of my father's coaching philosophy," Vince Lombardi, Jr. wrote in his book The Essential Vince Lombardi. "At the ground level, this emphasis on fundamentals means you've got to take care of business, which is the guy lined up on your nose." For coach Lombardi, the fundamentals were truly the fundamentals. Even the simplest matter was worth revisiting, if necessary. "One year, after a difficult game in which the Packers struggled offensively," Lombardi Jr. recalled, coach Lombardi "started his lecture by saying, 'Gentlemen, we're going back to the basics. This is a football.' He was only half joking!" Doing one's best, Lombardi knew, meant getting back to basics whenever necessary.

If it is prudent to always do the best one can, then Lombardi was a very prudent man. As Bart Start, the Green Bay Packers' star quarterback, remembers, "the man is a perfectionist, of course, and he was never satisfied simply by a victory. He always wanted us to play as well as we were capable of playing." Starr recalled a game played against the Jacksonville Cardinals in 1962. The Packers won 41-14 but Vince scolded the offense. "At the time," recalls Starr, "most of us thought he was wrong, he was being overly harsh, but when we got home and saw the movies, they bore him out. We had played lousy." Even though the game ended in a victory, Vince prudently pointed out mistakes, expecting the best performance regardless of the outcome.

When Vince coached football and basketball and taught physics, chemistry, and Latin at St. Cecilia, a parochial high school in Englewood, New Jersey, repetition and clarity were part of his teaching style. "He often spent a week repeating one concept until the slowest student in the class understood," explains Maraniss. "He made the subject clear and succeeded in communicating all the essentials so that all the students could get good grades," said Joe McPartland, a former Lombardi student. "He had a great way of sensing whether you were getting it. He'd say, 'I don't think you really understood that,' and go over it again." He was prudent to ensure all students benefited from his teachings.


Vince Lombardi was a thoroughgoing individualist, unafraid of criticism, willing to stand up for what was right, and, if he found himself out of tune with the prevailing culture, willing to courageously defend his apparent anachronisms. He certainly did this on the field. And off the field, too, he let his opinions be known. Wrapped up in football, Vince hardly noticed the growing radicalism of the culture in the 1960s. "As he acknowledged later," author Maraniss notes, "he had been 'so wrapped up' in his own world, in his God and family and especially the Green Bay Packers, that he had not seen it coming, and then 'all of a sudden there it was'--all around him." Vince Lombardi was a standing rebuke to the hippies, the protesters, the Communists, and all the other radicals of the time. "All of this was deplored by Lombardi as a dangerous disregard for authority and an abuse of liberty," writes Maraniss. Importantly, Vince Lombardi had the courage to speak out. He said in a speech to business leaders:
 I am sure you are disturbed
 like I am by what seems to
 be a complete breakdown of
 law and order and the moral
 code which is almost
 beyond belief. Unhappily, our
 youth, the most gifted
 segment of our population, the
 heirs to scientific advances
 and freedom's breath, the
 beneficiaries of their elders'
 sacrifices and achievements, seem, in too
 large numbers, to have disregard for
 the law's authority, for its meaning,
 for its indispensability to their enjoyment
 of the fullness of life, and have
 conjoined with certain of their elders,
 who should know better, to seek a
 development of a new right, the right
 to violate the law with impunity. The
 prevailing sentiment seems to be if
 you don't like the rule, break it.

Having this courage to take a stand on important issues in public, Lombardi would probably say, stemmed from the practice of the very same virtue on the field. After all, football is a dangerous sport. Each player on each play must face an opponent who, within the rules of the game, will do anything physically possible to obstruct his progress. It takes courage on each and every play. It also takes courage to continue forward in the face of adversity. Thus, Vince's insistence on winning was, in fact, an insistence on having the courage to have the will to win. As a result, Lombardi emphasized the point that he didn't want "good losers." "I don't want any good losers around here," Joe McPartland remembered him telling the squad every year. "If you think it's good to be a loser, give the other guy the opportunity. Good losing, he said, was just a way to live with yourself. It's a way to live with defeat."


Success, Lombardi knew, required a dedication to temperance, and temperance required a disciplined mind. As coach of the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi insisted on individual and team discipline. Certainly his dedication in his religious beliefs contributed to his view on the matter, but his experience as an assistant coach at West Point confirmed for him the importance of discipline in football. The game on the gridiron is, as is famously said, a game of inches. Consequently, Lombardi learned and later taught that a careful, disciplined approach was a key to success. At West Point Head Coach Colonel Earl H. "Red" Blaik was fanatically insistent on analyzing plays on film, looking for ways to improve his own team while probing for weaknesses in opponents. After hiring Lombardi, he quickly convinced the enthusiastic young coach of the importance of this type of disciplined and detailed preparation. Every movement was scrutinized, including how the upper body was positioned and where the feet were placed.

"It's surprising how many players tipped by the position of their feet, the angle of their body. You could tell whether it was a wedge play, pass play, dive play, sweep," Lombardi said. "You see whether a lineman can be had to the inside. You make notes on paper and put books together on the formations and the personnel." This kind of preparation was revolutionary at the time. "Such comprehensive analysis and adjustment would become routine among football coaches decades later, but it was rare then," Maraniss observed.

As coach of the Green Bay Packers, bringing this kind of dedication to temperance and discipline to a hitherto very lackadaisical and undisciplined team was a major part of the Lombardi program. The great coach, for instance, insisted on strict curfews. Just how strict was brought home for star Packer players Max McGee and Paul Hornung during the team's first training camp under Lombardi in 1959. "Vince's rule was that you had to be in bed each night by eleven, with your lights off and your clothes off," Hornung recalled during an interview with former Packer great Jerry Kramer for the book Lombardi: Winning Is the Only Thing. One night during training camp Hornung and roommate McGee decided to press their luck with regard to the curfew, returning from a night on the town to their room at St. Norbert College as the clock chimed 11:00. As they walked into their room, "there was Vince, standing in our room, taking bed check," Hornung recalled. Lombardi, famed for his temper, was not happy. "It'll cost you a hundred and fifty each," he told the tardy players. "What for?" Hornung asked, thinking they had made it to their rooms on time, if only just barely. "We're in our room." To Lombardi, though, the rule had clearly been violated. "You're supposed to be in bed," he admonished. "That's a hundred and a half," he said again before walking determinedly out of the room.

Hornung also found out, on another occasion, that Lombardi insisted on discipline and temperance in public too. The team was in Chicago the night before a game against the division rival Chicago Bears, and Hornung and a date were at the Red Carpet Restaurant for dinner. The couple intended on having a drink before dinner, and the girl suggested they sit at the bar. Hornung knew that coach Lombardi had strict rules against his players sitting at bars, but the coach wasn't there and, so, who would know? At that, the couple took their seats at the bar. As they were doing so, Hornung mentioned Lombardi's rule, saying, "It'd be something if Lombardi walked in here right now." And that's just what happened. "I got my martini and took my first sip," Hornung recalled, "and the girl did a double-take and said, 'Oh, my God, there's Lombardi!'" This time the indiscretion cost Hornung five hundred dollars.

To Lombardi, discipline and temperance needed to be habits outside of football, in everyday life. According to Vince Lombardi, Jr., the great coach once remarked: "What we do on some great occasion will probably depend on what we are; and what we are will depend on previous years of self-discipline."

At other times, players could not be reformed. In such cases, Lombardi knew he had to make the tough call, for the good of the team, and remove the player who could not, or would not, live up to the Lombardi standard. Cheating and poor sportsmanship in particular raised his ire. According to Maraniss, "When one of Lombardi's defensive backs tripped a receiver in frustration, he immediately yanked him from the game, even though the referees did not see the violation."


Lombardi, though famous for his dedication to temperance and discipline, was no less dedicated to fairness and justice. This dedication was evident in his approach to bigotry. Racism, Lombardi knew, was not only distasteful but in its basic collectivism was intrinsically unjust. It would not be tolerated within the Green Bay Packers' organization. "If I ever hear nigger or dago or kike or anything like that around here, regardless of who you are, you're through with me," Lombardi warned. "You can't play for me if you have any kind of prejudice." Moreover, under Lombardi, team rules forbade players from frequenting businesses that wouldn't serve blacks. Any of the taverns, restaurants, or hotels that wouldn't allow black players into their establishments would be off limits to all team members.

Under Lombardi's leadership, the previously hapless Packers became legendary for their dominance on the gridiron. The team won the NFL championship in back-to-back years in 1961 and 1962. The team again won the championship in 1965. After that, the team famously took the first two Super Bowl championships in 1966 and 1967. So successful were Lombardi's Packers teams that the league honored the coach by naming the Super Bowl trophy alter him.

Still, Lombardi's success on the field was, perhaps, exceeded by his impact on those who knew him. He was so respected that players would do almost anything not to disappoint him. Bart Starr, the Packers' famous quarterback, was among those who, even when injured, continued on just so as not to disappoint the coach. "I remember I played an exhibition game against Cleveland with a shoulder separation and, I'll admit it, I played lousy," Starr recalled. "But, jeepers, my shoulder was killing me. And [Lombardi] came up to me during the game and said, 'Good God! You're playing like you're crippled!' And I didn't say a word to him about my shoulder because I had too much respect for him."

Coach Lombardi also overawed Jerry Kramer, the Packers' all-pro offensive lineman. "I knew the emotions he aroused in me: Awe, love-hate, respect, gratitude and, certainly, fear. Very few things in life have frightened me, but Vince Lombardi did," Kramer said. "Not physically, of course. I feared his disapproval."

Perhaps the greatest testament to the man who was Vince Lombardi came from legendary NFL player and longtime Monday Night Football announcer Frank Gifford. "Vinny believes in the Spartan life," Gifford once noted. He believed in total dedication, in getting the job done no matter the time and effort needed. "I saw the movie, Patton," said Gifford, "and it was Vince Lombardi. The situation was different, but the thought was the same: We're here to do a job, and each and every one of us will put everything we've got into getting the job done. That was Vince. Patton believed in reincarnation. Who knows? Maybe it was Patton who coached the Packers."

The Quotable Lombardi

"I will demand a commitment to excellence and to victory, and that is what life is all about."

"A good leader must be harder on himself than on anyone else. He must first discipline himself before he can discipline others. A man should not ask others to do things he would not have asked himself to do at one time or another in his life."

"American freedom--and I mean freedom, not license--could be lost ... unless the values underlying that freedom are thoroughly understood and embraced by our leaders."

"People do not lack strength, they lack will."

"Mental toughness is many things and is rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with the perfectly disciplined will, which refuses to give in. It's a state of mind--you could call it 'character in action.'"

"Winning is not a sometime thing here. It is an all-the-time thing. You don't win once in a while, you don't do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time."

"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

The Lombardi Effect
Pre-Lombardi Effect



1956 4 8 0
1957 3 9 0
1958 1 10 1 Worst record in Packers history

 Lombardi Years


1959 7 5 0 First winning season in 12 years
1960 8 4 0
1961 11 3 0 NFL Champions
1962 13 1 0 NFL Champions
1963 11 2 1
1964 8 5 1
1965 10 3 1 NFL Champions
1966 12 2 0 Super Bowl I Champions
1967 9 4 1 Super Bowl II Champions

In 1958 the Green Bay Packers set the standard for failure. That changed with the coming of Lombardi. "I have never been associated with a loser and I don't expect to be now," the great coach told reporters when he took the job as Packers' coach. Arriving in Green Bay in 1959, Lombardi remarked: "We're not just going to start with a clean slate. We're going to throw the old slate away." Lombardi did just that, turning the formerly hapless team into winners, bringing NFL and then Super Bowl championships to Green Bay--AKA "Titletown, USA"--in five of his nine years as head coach.

Denise L. Behreandt, a native of Wisconsin, is a lifelong Packer fan and admirer of Vince Lombardi.
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Author:Behreandt, Denise L.
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 13, 2005
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