- - Thursday, December 15, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

The NFL Network did a special Wednesday night on the year that Vince Lombardi coached the Washington Redskins, and it was an important program.

That one year Lombardi — after coaching the Green Bay Packers to six NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowl titles — coached the Redskins is truly when the franchise changed direction.

George Allen gets a lot of credit, rightfully so, for the culture change he built within the organization — a passion for winning — when he became coach in 1971.

But it was Lombardi who, after 15 years without a winning season, truly changed the culture in that one unforgettable season in 1969.

It was under Lombardi, who passed away in 1970 from cancer at the age of 57, that losing went from the norm to unacceptable.

And as much as players loved Allen, those who played for Lombardi in Washington that one season have spoken of him in reverential tones.

“When Lombardi got here, it was like, “God has arrived.’ He was in charge of every room he walked into. He was like no one we had seen before in Washington,” Sam Huff told me in an interview for my book, “Hail Victory — An Oral History of the Washington Redskins.”

Huff had retired after the 1967 season, tired of the mediocrity, but when Lombardi was hired, he wanted to come back.

“I couldn’t take it anymore, what happened to that football team,” Huff said. “I didn’t want to be part of that. I wound up on a flight with Lombardi. I said to him, ‘I’d still like to play.’ Lombardi asked me if I really thought I could still play and I told him yes. He said, ‘I need you to play for me.’

“So we struck a deal for me to be a player-coach,” Huff said. “At the time, I wanted to be a coach. It was hard work, but it was quite an experience for me to sit in meetings with Lombardi and see the man in action and learn all about him.”.

That, perhaps, is what is more remarkable about Lombardi. He was here for one year, and, while it was a winning record after 15 years without one for the Redskins, no one was holding a parade for their 7-5-1 season. Yet the impact his very presence seemed to have on grown men is evident perhaps more so in that one season in Washington than his entire tenure in Green Bay.

These grown men — NFL players — got a minute with Lombardi, and it has lasted a lifetime.

“It was great to play for Lombardi,” Hall of Fame linebacker Chris Hanburger told me. “I think most of us had a certain amount of fear and certainly respect for Lombardi. You really didn’t know what he would be like, other than what we had seen and read. And that was enough to put a little fear in you. But he was a wonderful human being. He had a good sense of humor and could communicate with the players well.

“It was a pleasure to play for him” Hanburger said. “I think he laid the foundation for the Redskins that took place in later years, especially for the players who stayed here. I enjoyed being around him.”

Not everyone in Washington was a fan. Center Len Hauss looks back on the year he played for Lombardi as one of his toughest. “For me, I didn’t really appreciate his style of coaching,” he said. “I’m not saying he wasn’t a great coach. But I didn’t care for his methods.”

But Hauss also believed Lombardi’s greatness transcended the football field. “Lombardi was a big influence on the franchise,” he said. “He was an impact-type of person, and he made an impact on the organization. He was a great man. If he had been a writer, he would have been one of the best writers. If he had been a car salesman, he would have been the best at that, too.”

No one, perhaps, was as affected by the arrival of Lombardi than quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. What had first appeared to be an oncoming car wreck — Jurgensen’s party lifestyle vs. Lombardi’s discipline — became a marriage built on respect and desire for excellence.

Jurgensen flourished under Lombardi’s coaching. “He was a great leader.” Jurgensen told me. “Nobody came close to him. It was unfair to have him around all the time. What an advantage you had. He turned the franchise around.”

Remember that when you are talking about the glory days of George Allen and the Super Bowl era of Joe Gibbs.

In just one year, Vince Lombardi built that foundation.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

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