Our series on ASN’s 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 3 Vince Lombardi, originally published on Feb. 7.
An unlikely choice for head coach of an underachieving team raised a question that sounds unthinkable today.
“Who the hell is Vince Lombardi?” said a member of the Green Bay Packers’ executive committee in 1959.
A dominant decade later, the answer could be found etched in each trophy awarded to Super Bowl champions since 1971 — the Lombardi Trophy.
Lombardi was 45 when he became an NFL head coach for the first time in 1959. He took over a Packers team that bottomed out in the three seasons from 1956-58. Eight wins in 36 games. Outscored by 360 points. More than a decade since their last NFL title in 1944 and last winning season in 1947.
Lombardi changed all of that.
“I have never been on a losing team, gentlemen,” he said before the 1959 season, “and I do not intend to start now.”
And he never did have a losing record in a career that began in 1939 at St. Cecelia High School in Englewood, N.J. As an NFL head coach for 10 years — nine with the Packers and one with the Washington Redskins — Lombardi compiled the NFL’s best career winning percentage† (.738) since 1933.
An assistant from 1954-58 with the New York Giants who won the 1956 NFL championship, Lombardi also coached at Army and Fordham. He played guard on Fordham’s legendary “Seven Blocks of Granite” offensive line during the 1930s.
“Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it,” Lombardi once told his players. “But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”
And they did. Lombardi’s Packers teams lost once in 10 NFL postseason games. That came in the 1960 NFL championship, Lombardi’s second season. The Philadelphia Eagles beat the Packers, 17-14.
“I’ve always remembered Vince’s speech,” Paul Hornung said to the New York Times in 2011. “He told us, ‘We’ll never lose another championship.’ And we didn’t.”
Lombardi turned Green Bay into Titletown as the Packers won five NFL title games in seven seasons from 1961-67, including an NFL record three in a row (1965-67).
The culmination of those last two titles came in Super Bowls I and II, established when the leagues agreed to merge starting with the 1970 season. Still, NFL owners admonished Lombardi constantly about the importance of beating the upstart league. Years later, Frank Gifford said Lombardi was “shaking like a leaf” when he interviewed the coach before the game for CBS.
“That was a bitter relationship with the AFL and NFL,” Packers guard Jerry Kramer told author Evan Weiner in 2011. “Lombardi got calls from virtually everyone in the NFL saying we were representing the NFL and the pride of the NFL and we couldn’t be beaten.”
Packers quarterback Bart Starr said Lombardi treated the game like a personal mission.
Mission accomplished. The Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, in Super Bowl I and the Oakland Raiders, 33-14, in Super Bowl II. The game marked Lombardi’s last as Packers head coach. He spoke to his players with two words emblazoned on the championship ring he designed — “Love” and “Character.”
In 1969, Lombardi became head coach of the Washington Redskins. More than two decades had passed since the Redskins’ last NFL championship in 1942, and it had been more than a decade since their last winning season in 1955. That would start to change under Lombardi.
The Redskins went 7-5-2 in 1969 and three seasons later played the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII. But Lombardi did not live to see his second NFL team succeed. He died from colon cancer on Sept. 3, 1970.
Three days later, Commissioner Pete Rozelle renamed the Super Bowl trophy in memory of Lombardi, ensuring his name lives in NFL history for all time.