Vince Lombardi is immortalized in stone for a reason. Raymond T. Rivard photograph

6 days to Green Bay Packers football: Vince Lombardi

With 6 days left until the start of the NFL season, our countdown to the big day continues.

Thursday, Sept. 4, is the day when the Green Bay Packers travel to Seattle to take on the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks.  

Over the  course of the next 6 days we focus on the number that represents the days remaining … and for today we take a look number 6.

Yesterday we took a look at number 7, a number worn by Don Majkowski, one of the Green Bay Packers’ most popular quarterbacks and exciting players ever to “Don” a franchise uniform.

So, today we move away from Majkowski at number seven and take a different turn in our countdown.

We move on to the most revered, honored and decorated coach of all time, not only in Packers franchise history, but in NFL history …

Vince Lombardi.

Why Vince Lombardi?

Well, other than the fact that there have been only four players in the past 64 years to wear #6 - Kevin DorseyRyan FlinnDerrick Frost and Graham Harrell - Vince Lombardi was the sixth coach to head up the Green Bay Packers.

There’s not much more that we could add to the volumes written about the greatest NFL coach.

That’s why we’ll let John Maxymuk, the author of “Packers by the Numbers: Jersey Numbers and the Players Who Wore them,” tell us about Lombardi’s years with the franchise:

Much like Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” has been the character most written about in literature, Vince Lombardi who coached in the small hamlet of Green Gay has been the subject of continual analysis by football writers decades after his death.”Horatio, what the hell is going on out here?” George Halas and Curly Lambeau were prominent in the establishment of both teams and the National Football League itself, but they are not recalled much today, Tom Landry and Don Shula were contemporaries of Lombardi who both went on to coach successfully for close to 30 years, but neither is still as commonly lauded as their long-deceased rival, Lombardi.

Paul Brown, Chuck Noll, Bud Grant … the great coaches come and go, but Lombardi endure above all of them. He is quoted and noted continually and even was portrayed by actor Jerry Stiller in a series of Nike ads in the late 1990s, 25 years after his death.

Why?

In a word, winning.

“Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time.”

Vince Lombardi is the patron saint of winning in America across all fields, not just football. In football, he is so much of an icon that the league championship trophy is named after him.

Only Halas and Lambeau won more NFL titles (six) than Lombardi’s five and the did so over a much longer time period. His five titles in seven years was an amazing display of excellence. As he put it, “One can never achieve perfection, but in chasing perfection, one can achieve excellence.”

Lombardi’s last two championships were won in the first two Super Bowls, and as the first occurrences of that annual American extravaganza they will always be remembered. Moreover, he died relatively young, without the opportunity to sully his coaching mastery of the 1960s in Green Bay with a lower level of success in Washington.


Lombardi was always a teacher at heart and began as a high school teacher and coach in New Jersey. He progressed slowly through the assistant coaching ranks from Fordham to West Point to the New York Giants.

In New York he teamed with Tom Landry during the late 1950s to give the Giants probably the best set of offensive and defensive coaches in league history. Head coach Jim Lee Howell stepped back and assumed the role of delegator-in-chief while the Giants achieved success on the field and won the NFL title in 1956.

Lombardi was a very popular with the Mara family who owned the team and was the heir apparent to take over when Howell retired, but Vince couldn’t wait. He took the head job of the 1-10-1 Packers in 1959, and in one year turned the team around.

In Green Bay, he sorted out the talent on hand and put players in the position where they could best contribute to th team. Those he dumped could not contribute, he got rid of and replaced them with a player who could.

“I will demand a commitment to excellence and to victory, and that is what life is all about.”

His skills for organization were prodigious, and he had rigorous work habits.

The offensive system he installed was, on the surface, as simple as possible and stood in sharp contrast in the 1960s to Tom Landry’s shifting, multi-set passing offense in Dallas.

His view was, “Fundamentals win it. Football is two things: it’s blocking and tackling.”

His was a run-based offense featuring fewer plays than most teams ran. The complexity was in the multiplicity of options possible off of each basic play.

The line took the defenders in the direction they wanted to go, using Lombardi’s own devise of “optional blocking.”

The running backs then had to read where the hole opened up and cut back into it.

“Run to Daylight” was the title of Lombardi’s own football book and “run to win” was a phrase he took from the Bible.

On pass plays, receivers were expected to read the defense and break off their routes accordingly.

On defense, players had to use their brains to react quickly to the offensive play.

“You teach discipline by doing [something] over and over, by repetition and rote, especially in a game like football when you have very little time to decide what you are going to do. So what you do is react … instinctively, naturally. You have done it so many time over and over and over again.”

Lombardi trained his men to be physically fit because “fatigue makes cowards of us all” and “the harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.”

His most familiar line, of course, is, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

What always struck me about that saying was that it was meaningless. It would be like saying, “Football isn’t just exciting, it’s thrilling.”

There isn’t much of a distinction in terms there. Sportswriter Paul Zimmerman insisted that the actual quote from Lombardi after the 1962 championship game was the more coherent “Winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.”

The original line itself has been attributed by some to various college coaches from the early part of the 20th century. It reliably was traced back to 1940s Vanderbilt coach Red Sanders by Lombardi biographer David Maraniss.

Sanders still used the phrase when coaching UCLA in the 1950s and happened to share an agent with screenwriter Melvin Shavelson.

When Shavelson was writing the screenplay for a 1953 film, “Trouble Along the Way,” starring John Wayne as a football coach, his agent mentioned the phrase.

In Green Bay, it would become one of Lombardi’s aphorisms. What it was taken to mean was “win at all costs,” but that is not what Lombardi meant. He did not believe that the end justified the means, but rather that proper direction and dedication would lead to the desired end.

Lombardi was no saint. He yelled and screamed and berated his players and staff to get them to improve. In his resignation letter from the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi wrote that, “the championships, the money, the color; all of these things linger only in the memory. It is the spirit, the will to excel; the will to win; these are the things that endure. These are the important things, and they will always remain in Green Bay.”

As he once told his quarterback Bart Starr, “The quality of any man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence.”

Through Lombardi’s commitment, the Packers excelled.

Posthumously, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971 and the Packers Hall of Fame in 1973.

The following are the Green Bay Packers players who have worn #6 since 1950:

  From To AV
Kevin Dorsey 2013 2013 0
Ryan Flinn 2005 2005 0
Derrick Frost 2008 2008 1
Graham Harrell 2011 2012 0

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