GREEN BAY – Vince Lombardi would be 99 today.
When the National Football League’s greatest coach died Sept. 3, 1970, at the age of 59, the league had just conquered the color barrier. Unfettered free agency for players was non-existent. The Super Bowl trophy was called just that – the Super Bowl trophy – only to later become known as the Lombardi Trophy.
The AFL-NFL merger was just kicking off that fall.
Monday Night Football was still several years away.
Billion-dollar TV contracts were unheard of, and the possible long-term health problems associated with playing football weren’t considered.
So much has changed since the great coach’s passing.
However, I would argue that for all its differences, the NFL still bears enough resemblance to its pre-merger days that Lombardi and his methods would be relevant.
Lombardi would thrive, just like the league has, for several reasons.
First, Lombardi was a tremendous communicator. He could get his intended message across with scant room for misinterpretation. He knew what he wanted from his assistants and his players, and just as important, they knew it, too.
For all of the portrayals that paint Lombardi as a screaming lunatic, the fact is he was much more complex than that. He understood and treated his players as individuals, but never at the expense of the team. He explained the methods behind his madness – when necessary – and his dynamic and sometimes combustible personality were assets.
Players of any era, I believe, respond to passion. That’s especially true so long as the passion also brings credible, valuable information that can help a player improve his career path.
Lombardi was a dominant personality, an alpha dog in today’s vernacular, but he also was a deep thinker. He didn’t talk to hear himself talk, and he didn’t shout simply for shouting’s sake.
He had a purpose. The purpose was to improve the team.
Lombardi’s ability to effectively communicate was powerful because he had something to say that was worth hearing. Forget what you read about players being lazy. The vast majority want to improve. They want to be coached. They want to be led.
What they detest is being misled, or being made to look foolish on the football field because they got bad or useless information from a coach. That’s when doubt creeps in, mistrust sprouts and defeat sets in.
Lombardi’s ability to communicate was guided by unwavering convictions. He demanded that the game be played a certain way, and he shared his vision with his players in crystal clear fashion. It didn’t mean he was always right, but it surely lessened the possibility of confusion.
Along with his ability to communicate, Lombardi also was an uncanny judge of character and talent. His ability to project college running backs such as Herb Adderley and Bob Jeter into all-pro cornerbacks is just one example. In today’s NFL free agency, and the draft, I suspect Lombardi wouldn’t make many mistakes.
Lombardi turned Willie Davis from a so-so offensive tackle into a perennial all-pro defensive end. He drafted Dave Robinson to play linebacker, rather than tight end. Robinson did both at Penn State.
Lombardi had a gift for talent evaluation.
That gift was augmented by his humanity.
He was among the first NFL coaches to oppose racism. He took it head on with a zero tolerance approach. He made it clear that the best players – whether white or black or gay – would play for him. If a player didn’t like it, he could pack up and hit the road.
He was a complex man. He also was a man for all ages.
Lombardi would be 99 today. After a bit of time to get reacquainted with what the NFL has become I’m guessing Lombardi would be impressed.
I also think he would approve.
Chris Havel is a Packers News expert and national best-selling author. His latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’ Player Autograph Parties the evening before home games.