- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

“I have never been associated with a loser, and I don’t expect to be now.”

Vince Lombardi, Jan. 28, 1959

When the Green Bay Packers introduced their new coach 48 years ago this week, there was no dancing — or skidding — in the streets of the NFL’s smallest city. A local broadcaster seemed to sum up the reaction of most fans by inquiring, “Who the [heck] is Vince Lombardi?”

By the time he stepped down as coach in 1968, the “i” in Lombardi’s name could have stood for idol or icon in Wisconsin’s snowy precincts.

And when he died of colon cancer two years later after coaching the Washington Redskins for one season, the league promptly named its biggest hunk of hardware after him. In Super Bowl XLI on Sunday, the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts will be playing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

How did an obscure former assistant coach at Army and with the New York Giants become revered by many as St. Vincent? Simple — by winning two Super Bowls, five NFL championships and six divisional titles in nine years, all the while personifying toughness and resolve to the nth degree in a decade when permissiveness reigned.

Only one other coach embraced success as firmly. Paul Brown’s old Cleveland Browns won 10 consecutive league or division championships in the All-American Football Conference and the NFL, but those came in the days before television boosted pro football into the national consciousness.

When the Packers hired Lombardi, not everyone was pleased. Forrest Evashevski, the highly successful coach at Iowa, had been considered the favorite. Jim Trimble, former coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and subsequently a winner in Canada, had some support. And Curly Lambeau, who had produced Packers powerhouses in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, seemed to be campaigning to get his old job back.

Whoever the new man was, his task would be daunting. Like the Redskins, the Packers had morphed into mediocrity in the 1950s — and worse. Under the likable but ineffectual Ray “Scooter” McLean, they were a franchise-worst 1-10-1 in 1958. Green Bay mourned, attendance declined and there was talk of moving the club to Milwaukee or some other Midwest metropolis.

What was a town of 68,000 doing in the league anyway? To Lombardi, a native New Yorker who played as one of Fordham’s Seven Blocks of Granite in the 1930s before becoming a coach, the place must have seemed like Hicksville USA. But soon he would transform it into Titletown USA.

Lombardi was standing in his kitchen when the phone rang shortly after the Giants lost the memorable 1958 NFL championship game to the Baltimore Colts in overtime. The caller was Jack Vainisi, the Packers’ personnel manager, who was conducting his own unofficial search for a coach.

“I don’t have the authority to make this call, but I’m curious to know whether you’re interested,” Vainisi told Lombardi, according to David Maraniss in “When Pride Still Mattered,” his superb 1999 biography of Lombardi.

There were only 12 head coaching jobs in the NFL then. Lombardi, who had given some thought to abandoning football for a career in banking, was interested.

Vainisi relayed this information to club president Dominic Olejniczak and the Packers’ board of governors. Olejniczak solicited opinions from Bears founder George Halas, NFL commissioner Bert Bell and Army coaching legend Earl “Red” Blaik. All of them told him the same thing: “Lombardi’s your man.”

Undoubtedly, Lombardi had reservations about leaving the nation’s biggest city for tiny Green Bay, but surely he saw it as fertile football ground. After a bit of haggling, Olejniczak gave Lombardi everything he wanted: a five-year contract at $36,000 annually, the joint titles of coach and general manager and absolute control of football matters.

So the deed was done. In his first season, barking orders and booting backsides left and right, Lombardi improved the Packers to 7-5 and gained NFL coach of the year honors. In his second season, the Packers won the Eastern championship but lost the NFL title game to the Eagles 17-13.

“Don’t worry about it,” Lombardi told his chastened troops afterward. “You’ll never lose a championship game again.”

And, of course, they didn’t. Green Bay won titles by beating the Giants in 1961 and 1962, the Browns in 1965 and the Dallas Cowboys in 1966 and 1967. In the latter two seasons, they added championships in the first two Super Bowls, bashing the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland. In Lombardi’s nine seasons, the Packers were 98-30-4 — and 9-1 in playoff games.

The names of his star players live on in memory and, in some cases, the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Fuzzy Thurston, Jerry Kramer, Henry Jordan, Ray Nitschke, Max McGee and Boyd Dowler. Plus two stalwart defensive backs from the Washington area, Willie Wood and Tom Brown.

Yet Lombardi didn’t consider any of them to be stars. Said Jordan, famously and affectionately: “He was very fair. He treated us all the same — like dogs.”

And then it was all over. Lombardi stepped down as coach two weeks after winning his second Super Bowl without really giving a reason. After twiddling his thumbs as general manager for a year, he accepted Edward Bennett Williams’ big-bucks offer to run the Redskins. In contrast to his first press conference with the Packers, attended by exactly 17 reporters, the one in D.C. was packed. Said Lombardi, a gap-toothed grin on his face: “I can’t really walk across the Potomac, even when it’s frozen.”

In his only season, the Redskins climbed from 5-9 to 7-5-2, virtually the same record as his first year in Green Bay. Then the voracious cancer laid him low in the summer of 1970, and on Sept. 3, his life shockingly ended at the age of 57.

Vince Lombardi was gone — but never to be forgotten.

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