Other than politicians, he may be the most quoted, and even mis-quoted man in America over the last 100 years. His name adorns the championship trophy of the league he helped grow from a sports afterthought to the leader of a multi-billion dollar industry, Happy 100th birthday to “The Coach,” Vince Lombardi.
Having worked on the Tony-nominated play that was produced by Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, I spent more time “around” The Coach than most people who knew him both personally and anecdotally and the lessons learned in the process were amazing. While many think of him as a fire and brimstone yeller. In reality he was most revered for his quiet teachable moments after losses with his players. While the great people at NFL Films captured him often times just pacing the sidelines and ranting, in reality at those points his work was done in meticulous pre-game preparation, and he left the game itself to those who would play it. His yelling was more of cheerleader at that point than coach. He was a man who loved a joke and loved to laugh. He understood the value of controlling the message and handling the media at a time when such practices were misunderstood or mis-managed in getting the message out . He understood the value of television and mass media as a tool to grow his brand…hence the reason why this uber coach allowed himself to be one of the first to wear a mic on the sidelines and sat down every week for an in-depth TV show well before Hard Knocks was in vogue.
Lombardi was a deeply religious man, but he also understood that he was a man constantly battling his own inner faults. He did pray every day, but he prayed for forgiveness of his own shortcomings more than for God to help the Packers in on any given Sunday…that he left it to his players and the staff he had assembled. He didn’t motivate through fear or intimidation as much as many believed…he motivated through teaching and repetition and hard work. He was old school in a reflection of his work ethic, but he was extremely progressive n thought…the Packers tried to devise a heating system to keep Lambeau Field from freezing for example, and he was constantly looking for new technological ways to improve the game. He may not have used twitter, but tablets on the field, The Coach would have loved.
In many his workaholic approach was his undoing, but it is an attitude embraced in the workplace today…sacrifice family and personal life to get ahead. That may still not be a good thing, but it is tolerated probably more than it should be. That was reflected in the fact that Lombardi did not have a great relationship with his family and of course in the fact that he neglected his health to the point where a very treatable form of colon cancer if caught early was what ended his life at a very young age of 57.
The Lombardi quotes and his work ethic are followed by many leaders in corporate America today, and his style was idolized by coaches around the world, including one of his greatest fans, Sir Alex Ferguson, the recently retired coach of Manchester United. Many wonder could Lombardi, who many saw as old school, have coached in today’s environment? What we learned from those around him, and what comes through in the play, was that Lombardi the man was one of great compassion, more probably than what was understood in his time. He was the first to have an African American a chance at middle linebacker, he was tolerant of players personalities and adapted and motivated to whatever got a player to focus. Some have spectated that the recent buzz around gay athletes may have driven a coach like Lombardi over the edge. In reality, his surviving brother Harold, is gay, and Lombardi was much more tolerant and accepting of alternative lifestyles than any would have predicted. He was a master at motivation, and had a great understanding of overcoming adversity and finding ways to succeed.
These days the Lombardi brand is closely guarded by his son Vince and others, and the recent success of the Green Bay Packers both on and off the field has given “The Coach” more positive exposure than he might have had in recent decades. The difference in the Lombardi brand today is really how it is viewed vs. in previous decades. He is much more revered as a motivator and a teacher, which is what he loved to be known as, than a get it done at all costs coach.
June 11 is a day that also holds some extra karma for me personally, as my good friend Jimmy Dempsey, as big a Packers fan as there is and a fierce devotee of “The Coach,” will enter memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for a bone marrow transplant that will keep him with us for decades to come. Jimmy got to see the play, and understand the man, much better in recent years than he did when Coach Lombardi was on the sidelines, and that better understanding will probably help him in his drive to succeed and recover from a harrowing experience as well.
In all likelihood The Coach would not have wanted to make a big deal about his Centennial, but hopefully many other business, brands and organizations recognize all that Lombardi truly stood for…a drive to succeed, a commitment to being the best, compassion and understanding of those around you, and the ability to teach and learn from others…today and through what should be a year-long celebration of his life.
Happy Birthday Coach, and best to all who keep his spirit and passion alive. He was a man not fully understood by all in his time, but his core values are needed and revered more today than when he was winning championships in Green Bay.