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How Vince Lombardi was hired as the Packers’ head coach

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Lombardi wanted to coach the Giants, but he tired of waiting

Green Bay Packers
Vince Lombardi during the 1960s.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

All Vince Lombardi wanted was to be head coach of the New York Football Giants.

As everyone that follows professional football knows, that never happened. He ended up coaching the Green Bay Packers and brought that franchise out of the dumps and into the national spotlight once again as the team in the National Football League (NFL) with the most titles. Today, the Super Bowl trophy bears his name.

But his story in pro football began with the Giants.

Vincent Thomas Lombardi, whose friends called him Vinny, was a lineman on the famous Fordham University’s “Seven Blocks of Granite.” Fordham was coached by Jim Crowley, one of Notre Dame’s fabled “Four Horsemen.” After graduation Lombardi played for the Wilmington Clippers (a semi-pro team) while attending law school. This was during the Great Depression and soon he dropped out of school in order to support his family.

A devout Catholic, he was hired as an assistant coach at St. Cecilia in Englewood, N.J., where he also taught physics, chemistry and Latin. According to the book “Lombardi” by John Wiebusch, Lombardi’s salary was a mere $1,000 a year. After three years, he was appointed head football coach and built St. Cecilia into a national powerhouse.

He left St. Cecilia after eight years and was hired as the freshman football and basketball coach at Fordham. The following season, Lombardi accepted the assistant football coach position at Army under head coach Red Blaik. During this tenure, he learned the emphasis of execution and discipline under Blaik; a style of coaching that he parlayed his entire professional coaching career.

By 1953 Lombardi was running Army’s offense. In the meantime, the Giants fired longtime head coach Steve Owen after going 3-9- 0. New York offered the job to Blaik who turned down the opportunity. The Giants then hired Jim Lee Howell and were quite aware of Lombardi because he had attended Fordham with Jack Mara. They asked Blaik permission to speak to Lombardi about coming on staff as the offensive coordinator and running backs coach.

Vince Lombardi of the New York Giants' clutches a play chart
Lombardi at Yankee Stadium as a Giants assistant.
Photo by Fred Morgan/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The Giants years

At the age of 41, Lombardi accepted the offensive coordinator position for the 1954 season. Lombardi would invent a new blocking style with the Giants he called “Running to Daylight.” The customary style of blocking at the time was for an offensive lineman to block one particular player for each play with the running back set to enter a specific hole. Under Lombardi’s system the lineman would block in a specific area and take out whomever was in that area. Then the running back would choose whatever hole was open.

The 1953 Giants were dead last in the NFL in total offense. For the 1954 season, the club jumped to sixth in the league in total offense then to third in 1955. Lombardi was an expert of talent evaluation and switched two-way flanker/safety Frank Gifford (who was about to quit the game) to full time halfback. The magic culminated in 1956 when the Giants won the NFL title, their fourth, while Gifford was named NFL MVP.

At this point, the defense had gained considerable fame under coordinator Tom Landry, but Lombardi was making a name for himself in NFL circles. Back then, coordinator’s did not garner the public recognition and notoriety that today’s assistants generate. But head coaches such as Paul Brown and Sid Gillman knew exactly who Vince Lombardi was – and what he meant to the Giants. Lombardi was also an intelligent man. He was employed by the Federal Bank and Trust Company in Manhattan as an executive during the off-season.

The Giants and Baltimore Colts played in the 1958 NFL Championship Game coined “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The Colts came away from that game a 23-17 victor in overtime in a game broadcast nationally that introduced millions to the game of professional football.

One month later, in January of 1959, Lombardi received a telephone call. About a head coaching position. In the National Football League. From the Philadelphia Eagles.

Eagles’ general manager Vince McNally was in need of a new head coach. His club had limped to a 2-9- 1 record after going 4-8- 0, 3-8- 1 and 4-7- 1 in previous seasons. McNally strictly wanted a coach and not a person who would run the entire show. Coach/General Manager combos were rare in those days, with Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns the only one. A meeting was set up in the train depot in Philadelphia for Lombardi and McNally to discuss the open position.

Normally, the traditional method of interviewing an assistant coach is for the interested club to contact the coach’s GM and ask permission. This was not the case in this scenario - nor was the newspaper contacted about the possibility of Lombardi’s presence on the Eagles’ short list. During the meeting, Lombardi was offered the Eagles head coaching job with a two-year contract worth $22,500 a year. The Eagles had some talent and as an added bonus were about to move from the 33,000-seat Shibe Park into Franklin Field, a 67,000 capacity facility.

Wellington Mara, one of the Giants owners and a good friend to Lombardi, was soon informed of the Eagles’ offer. Mara gave his friend several pieces of advice. For one, Lombardi would always answer to someone above him regarding personnel since the Eagles employed a GM. For another, the Giants’ roster was full of Pro Bowl players whereas the team he would inherit was at the bottom of the standings for good reason. But the largest obstacle Mara offered proved to be the largest: the Eagles were for sale. There was no guarantee that a new owner would retain any new coaches, especially if Lombardi did not provide an instant turnaround.

Lombardi’s goal was to become the head coach of the Giants - but his current employer wasn’t offering any head coaching position. So, with his first opportunity to become a head coach, he went to church, prayed, thought, listened to his wife Marie, and then decided the Eagles were not the right situation for himself at this time. Mara helped out his decision by matching Philly’s offer of $22,500 thus making him the highest paid assistant coach in the entire NFL.

For 1959, Giants head coach Jim Lee Howell had three years remaining on his contract. The Giants management team of Wellington and Jack Mara knew quite well that both of their assistant coaches would make fine head coaches, but the Mara family was very loyal. The Giants were a winning football club every year under Howell, who never had a losing season. During his tenure, the Giants won two Eastern Division titles, played in the championship game three times and captured the 1956 NFL title.

His expertise on draft day was well-chronicled as he had an ability to read talent. He was an asset to the franchise. However, the Maras wanted to know how long Howell wanted to keep being head coach.

His answer? He didn’t know how long. Finish his contract, get an extension, leave the game early – he just didn’t have any answers. The Maras were in a pickle. They wanted to offer the head coaching position to one of their prized assistants with the notion that they would become a head coach in waiting. This would keep one - or the other - on the current coaching staff to one day become the next head coach.

Running back Kyle Rote had made an observation about the Giants’ coaching staff. One day, he was walking down the hall and into a room to his right was Lombardi breaking down film with his offensive players, down the hall to the left was Landry going over situations with his defensive players, and then down the hall into another room was Howell reading a newspaper. Howell’s job was to be the diplomatic leader between the boisterous Lombardi and the mild-tempered Landry. Oh yeah, and be the team’s head coach.

High powered trio plot Giant strategy (L to R) defense coach
Lombardi (right) with Jim Lee Howell (center) and Tom Landry.
Photo by Fred Morgan/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Off to Green Bay

In the meanwhile, the 45-year-old Lombardi was wondering about his future. He dearly wanted to become a head coach, and particularly wanted to become the Giants head coach. But he wasn’t getting any younger and wondered if his opportunity to be a head man would ever come; or if he waited for Howell to finally step down he might be on the wrong side of 50. At this time he entertained whether he should pursue the banking business full time where he had a vice president’s position already waiting.

While the Giants had clinched another Eastern title and a defeat in the championship game in 1958, the Packers had gone 1-10- 1. Their head coach Scooter McLean was forced to resign.

What the Packers Board of Directors wanted in McLean’s stead was a type of boss for a coach – one who could be the GM as well as head coach.

Packers’ president Dominic Olejniczak had inquired to several NFL coaches about Lombardi; and each gave a glowing review. Olejniczak approached Lombardi at the January NFL draft in Philadelphia. Lombardi then met with Olejniczak and Packers great Tony Canadeo, who sat on the Packers’ board. Lombardi had a plan outlined for the two men of how to resurrect an ailing franchise into a competitive team. His preparation had been conceived one year earlier when the lowly Eagles had come calling; and Vince had planned out an itinerary for making a bad team into a respectable club.

This impressed both men. Lombardi even talked contract duration and money without even being offered the job. The thought process for all three was for Lombardi to take on the reins of both GM and head coach – which Lombardi coveted.

All of this had taken place only because Wellington Mara had given the Packers permission to talk to Lombardi. But, with one condition: the Giants could have Lombardi back whenever Howell stepped down. Olejniczak agreed to the terms.

The Packers then flew Lombardi to Green Bay. Once there, he met with the Packers director and vice president who interrogated him on items of administration, coaching techniques, player acquisitions and team discipline. The next step was to sell the Brooklyn native on living in a small town and their excellent school system for Lombardi’s two young children.

Lombardi was offered $36,000 a year to coach the Packers, along with a five-year contract. Included were bonuses for where the team finished in the standings each year and as much as $5,000 when the club finished first in the division. At the time, it was considered to be an incredibly rich contract for an NFL head coach.

Lombardi accepted and the other board members agreed in concept. Next up, the board of directors had to approve - oh, and Lombardi’s wife Marie had to agree to leave the big city life of New York for the pastures and seclusion of dairy country. When Lombardi approached his wife and kids, he brought out a map of Wisconsin. Green Bay wasn’t even printed on the map. Once the Lombardi family approved, the coach then had to take the matter to Wellington.

What the coach wanted from Wellington was to have his boss tell him that Howell had a specific timeline and that in a certain determined year Lombardi would be head coach of the Giants. Instead, Mara encouraged his good friend to take the position. Mara knew that Vince had to be the boss no matter where he coached, and the money was too good to pass up. Plus, one day Lombardi would be coming back with a single phone call.

Mara promised Lombardi that when Howell was done with coaching, he would offer the job to him first. After all, the Giants were his team, his players - and his town.

Voting Lombardi in by the Packers board of directors was not exactly a done deal. Several members wanted Curly Lambeau back, although Lambeau was happy being retired. Other members wanted University of Iowa head coach Forrest Evashevski whose Hawkeye team had just won the Rose Bowl. Other members asked who the hell this fellow Vince Lombardi was exactly.

On Jan. 29, 1959 the Green Bay Packers officially made Lombardi their head coach and general manager with a 26-1 vote. The hiring drew little notice in the New York papers nor anywhere else in the NFL world. This simply was an assistant coach, one whose only head coaching experience was at a high school, was hired to take on the helm of one of the NFL’s worst franchises in the smallest market.

Lombardi offered a prediction of his team: instant improvement and to never have a losing season. He was hard but fair with his players while the Packers went 7-5- 1 his rookie campaign. One of his first acts was to inform the Packers board of directors that he was in complete command of the franchise. Next, he took Olejniczak’s parking space.

After that season, Wellington asked permission to talk to Lombardi. His request was granted but only in private. The two decided to table the matter of him returning to the Giants as head coach. At this time, Mara firmly believed that the Giants would always be able to get Lombardi back. After all, he was a New Yorker.

About that return to the Giants

Before the 1960 season, Howell decided he had had enough of professional football and told the Maras in a private meeting. Tom Landry had already taken the head coaching position of the expansion Dallas Rangers (later renamed the Cowboys) the year after Lombardi left, and so now the Giants were without a head coach. The Packers, meanwhile, would go on to win the Western Conference title with an 8-4- 0 record then lose to the Eagles 17-13 in the 1960 NFL Championship Game. Lombardi had taken a horrible team, and just like he outlined had made them into a winner.

The timing would have been perfect if Lombardi had simply been patient and stayed. He had two years left on his contract with the Giants and now exactly two years later, Howell was hanging up his whistle. With that, Mara then contacted Olejniczak about getting Lombardi back as the two franchise leaders had agreed upon and promised. However, the Packers president reneged on their deal. He told the Maras that he would rather lose both legs than to lose Lombardi.

With Green Bay’s success plus the All-Star roster that Lombardi had accumulated and developed, it’s doubtful he would have returned anyway. Plus, he was a man of integrity. Paul Brown told him that coaches who jump from team-to- team or league-to- league for bigger contracts would start the habit of almost every coach to do the same. Lombardi didn’t want to be the one mentioned as to where that scenario began. Plus, Lombardi enjoyed the power his Packers had bestowed upon him with also being the GM – something he would never have with New York.

So now, the Giants didn’t have Landry or Lombardi as their next head man.

The Giants, as is their habit of promoting within, advanced offensive coordinator Allie Sherman to head coach and announced it at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Sherman was strictly an offensive mind. He invented the man in motion that is so prevalent in today’s game. He was an excellent game planner but had very little affection for the defense nor its players. He didn’t hire a defensive coordinator, but instead left those duties to certain players: Andy Robustelli (defensive line), Harland Svare (linebackers) and Jimmy Patton (defensive backfield).

For the first two seasons the Giants remained competitive with Howell’s roster as the entire focus now was on the offensive side of the ball. Sherman’s offense made Lombardi’s look like a high school system as his team’s rolled up huge numbers in total yardage and points scored. New York went 10-3- 1 in 1961, 12-2- 0 in 1962 and 11-3- 0 in 1963. Each season ended with loses in the NFL Championship Game, the former to the Packers and the latter to the Chicago Bears. For his efforts, Sherman was named Coach of the Year in 1961 and 1962.

However, in the following years the franchise would trade away the very core of their championship teams such as LB Sam Huff, DT Rosey Grier, OT Phil King, DT Dick Modzelewski, CB Lindon Crow, OG Darrell Dess, LB Cliff Livingston, RB Mel Triplett and CB Dick Nolan. Former first-round draft choice OG Lou Cordileone was traded to the 49ers for 34-year-old QB Y.A. Tittle. In addition, many players retired such as RB Kyle Rote, DE Robustelli, HB Frank Gifford, FB Alex Webster, CB Patton, K/P Don Chandler, DT Jim Katcavage, S Dick Lynch, OT Jack Stroud, LB Svare and K Pat Summerall.

After appearing in the title game three consecutive years, the Giants hobbled to a 2-10- 2 record in 1964 for the franchise’s first losing season since 1953. After four more losing seasons - including a horrid 1-12- 1 campaign in 1966 (even the expansion Atlanta Falcons had more wins) - Sherman was fired.

The Giants limped through the 1ate 1960s, the entire 1970s and early portions of the 1980s with arguably some of the worst teams in franchise history. The club would only make one playoff appearance during the years 1962-1983. The franchise also selected an excessive amount of draft busts during this period with horrible head coaching hires such as Bill Arnsparger and John McVay.

During this same time period, the Packers won the NFL title in 1961 and also 1962, then won three NFL titles in a row from 1965-1967 plus captured the first two Super Bowls (which at the time was called the AFL-NFL Championship Game). This meant the Packers won two championships in 1966 as well as 1967 – the NFL title plus the Super Bowl title. Lombardi was named Coach of the Year twice, had a 9-1 playoff record and a 96-34- 6 regular season record. He was inducted into the 1971 Pro Football Hall of Fame class along with what has become known as the greatest class to enter the Hall; which includes Jim Brown, Norm Van Brocklin, Tittle, Robustelli, Bill Hewitt and Frank Kinard.

One can only wonder if Vinny Lombardi had become the head coach of the Giants - as promised - what the franchise’s fate would ultimately have become.