The Iconic Coach | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Iconic Coach

When I think of NFL head coaches, several names come to mind. Depending on your age, you might think of Bill Belichick, Sean Payton or if you are younger, Mike Tomlin.

Football fans near my age will remember Don Shula, Bill Parcells or Dan Reeves. Fans of several age groups might remember Joe Gibbs.

Anyone who studies the history of the game will know names like Tom Landry, George Halas, John Madden and Paul Brown. One coach's near-mythical name rises above the rest: Vince Lombardi.

Lombardi has earned a special place in professional football lore for many reasons.

The Green Bay Packers, whom Lombardi coached from 1959 to 1967, are the only publicly owned, nonprofit sports franchise in the United States. That leads to a special connection from the fans to the players to the coaches that other teams do not have.

But Lombardi is more than just a former Packers head coach. He preached discipline and execution on the field. Green Bay was well known for the Packers' sweep in which players would tell the defense which way they were going to run the play. But even knowing the play, defenses were helpless to stop it. That toughness is rare to find in any era of football.

Lombardi is known for a wealth of quotes as well. Among many famous Lombardi sayings are these:

"If it doesn't matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?"

"Morally, the life of the organization must be of exemplary nature. This is one phase where the organization must not have criticism."

It might be that last quote that has Lombardi reaching true iconic status. In a time when few football teams allowed black players, or they had limits on how many black players could be on a team, Lombardi wanted just the best players regardless of race. Lombardi's stance against racism started with his team. He would not allow it by coaches or players.

Even more ahead of its time was Lombardi's tolerance of gay players. Lombardi's older brother, Harold, was gay, but that fact never changed how much Vince loved him.

In his final football season—1969 with the Washington Redskins—Lombardi coached Jerry Smith and David Kopay, who had a relationship and eventually came out of the closet.

In the book "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi" (Simon & Schuster, 2000, $18), author David Maraniss writes that Lombardi hoped running back Ray McDonald, also gay, could earn a roster spot. McDonald, however, didn't rise to the challenge.

Vince Lombardi died in 1970 at age 57. His legacy has grown larger over time not just because he was a great football coach but because he was an even better human being.

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