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Original Issue


It rumbles like a sonic boom but it is simply the laugh of Vince Lombardi, who as the new coach of the Washington Redskins is gambling that he will never be exposed as merely mortal

In Washington, D.C., that self-proclaimed world capital of cosmopolitanism and all-round cool, restaurant diners have taken to rising from their chairs to offer a reverent rattling of applause upon the appearance in their midst of Vince Lombardi (see cover). They circle around and around his table, sometimes cadging autographs or reaching timidly for a handshake or simply drifting a small distance away to gaze. Grown men who would not glance at Mike Mansfield and would absolutely cross the street to avoid Strom Thurmond stand in their tracks on the street as Vince Lombardi strides by, gaping in wonder and joy that the man actually exists. There is even some doubt that all 10 dozen reporters attending Vince's first press conference as boss of the Washington Redskins actually believed his opening disclaimer: "Gentlemen, it is not true that I can walk across the Potomac River—not even when it is frozen."

Now that he has transcended the offices of the Green Bay Packers on Lombardi Avenue (which was named for him) for the Redskins' digs on L Street (which was not), Vince Lombardi has been treated as if he were some kind of home-rule Moses. Of course, he is no stranger to blind adoration: in Green Bay he was widely known as St. Vincent. Recently, when he was asked how he liked his sycophantic reception in the capital, his reaction was vintage St. Vincent. His eyes lighted up—a thousand suns of candlepower and white heat blazing behind those thick spectacles (which just might be made of bulletproof glass). His face split into that enormous grin—all wholesome glee and glittering inlays. And he spoke in that voice which resonates somewhere between a bear's growl and a string of small firecrackers: "What the hell's a Messiah to expect?" he said. Then he laughed—another unbelievable sound that rumbles like thunder from beyond the moon and has been put down in print as "Arararararargh!"

Vince Lombardi knows full well that, however rich the idolatry may be now, his reputation as America's leading Success Symbol and Dean of Champions is on the line in Washington. Insisting that he is spurred less by profit motives than by internal compulsion, he passes off his $100,000 salary and his $500,000 worth of Redskin stock by saying, "I don't need the money. Money I've got. I need to coach!" So he has come out of his own personal purgatory-retirement at Green Bay, where last year he general-managed only and did no coaching at all. He has brought himself—lock, stock and legend—to accept full responsibility for the Washington Redskins, a fun-loving group that last won an NFL championship in 1942, has a dismal record of 126-190-15 since then and turned in an indifferent 5-9 performance last year. It is in this lukewarm crucible that Lombardi has chosen to have his legend tempered for the future. To add audacity to that dubious decision, he coolly promises, "We're going to have a winner the first year!"

So in Washington he makes his stand: the miracle American who symbolizes—no, epitomizes—the advent of the Golden Millennium of Professional Football; the dashing commander of Sunday's mighty swashbuckle and exquisite mayhem, as well as the buttoned-down master of Monday's cool business of putting black ink in the books; Brooklyn-born Italo-American, who is able to fulfill both the purest and the most commercial of Anglo-Saxon dreams, the accumulation of trophies on the playing field and of money in the countinghouse. And all those folk heroics will be up for grabs with the Redskins—to be distorted, disfigured, diminished if he loses. But if he wins he will achieve actual deity at an early age.

Vince Lombardi is a genuinely loquacious man, open and surprisingly ingenuous and perhaps constitutionally incapable of being anything greatly different from what he says, shows or seems to be on the surface. A few days ago, shortly after he had accepted the Redskin job, he sat in one of the team offices at L Street and Connecticut Avenue and talked for hours about his past, present and future.

First, there was this thing about the Lombardi Legend. Oddly enough, it seemed to baffle him. "Legend? Well, yeah, I suppose I thought about my legend before I came here," he growled. He scratched his head. He stared fixedly at the floor. He ducked his chin down toward his necktie. He was silent. Given all the horror stories about Vince Lombardi, the volcanic martinet who reduces monsters to mice, it was hard to believe—but there he sat, simply being bashful about being a legend. "Dammit," he finally burst out, "dammit I'm not a legend, because I don't want to be a legend. One main reason I came back to coaching is that I didn't want to be regarded as a legend. Because one, it's embarrassing as the devil, and two, you have to be Halas to be a legend. George Halas is 74 years old and he's done something for the game. I'm too young to be a legend."

Well, Vince is 55. But geriatrics, semantics and esthetics aside, there isn't much room for argument about the Lombardi Legend in terms of history or statistics. In 1959 he began his role as Emperor of the Green Bay Packers ("Yeah, it had to be autonomy, a one-man deal or it wouldn't've worked at all"). At that time he was a ripe 46 years old and had not had a head coaching job since 1947 when he left St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J. When he arrived, the Green Bay franchise was moribund, approximately bankrupt, and the year before Lombardi the Packers had compiled a dismal 1-10-1 record. The only feasible legend in the region was the amount of booze consumed in the town's 194 bars. So St. Vincent simply won the NFL's Western Conference title in 1960, lost the playoff, then won NFL championships in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967, plus Super Bowl jackpots in his last two years. In a scant nine years as a head coach, Lombardi had a 141-39-4 record, filled up the stadium to the rim every game and made enough money for the team so he could have lined the Packer lockers with gold. To add to all that messianic mystique, last year—the one season Lombardi was not coaching—the Packers were instantly transformed into mere mortals (although they would have grown old with Vince, too) and wound up 6-7-1.

Now, when Vince Lombardi tried to explain the phenomenon of his success at Green Bay, he began in a brisk, no-nonsense tone: "I'm not an overly modest man. Sure, I'm humble, but I've never been overly modest. What happened isn't so hard to explain." Then he hesitated, cleared his throat and started again, "Now a good coach is a good coach. Right? If you take all 26 coaches in pro football and look at their football knowledge, you'd find almost no difference. So if the knowledge isn't different, what's different? The coach's personality. See?" He paused, then laughed—arararararargh!—and said, "Now how am I supposed to explain my own personality? What am I supposed to say? That I'm a great leader? A mental powerhouse? That I've got charisma?"

He chuckled and then began squeezing his hands together, steadily and with what looked like great pressure. Then he shut his eyes tightly and said, "You cannot be successful in football—or in any organization—unless you have people who bend to your personality. They must bend or already be molded to your personality. See, my Redskin coaches—Sam Huff, Bill Austin, Harland Svare and Lew Carpenter—were with me before, either at the Packers or back when I was an assistant with the Giants. Look, I know damned well I can't coach all 640 players in the league. I'm only one man. I can only be that one man and I've got to have men who bend to me."

All the time he talked, Vince kept squeezing and twisting his hands, as if he were bending someone right there. But even when he is physically still, Lombardi's intensity is a phenomenon to behold. In leisurely conversation he seems constantly to be willfully exerting the force of his personality—on himself, on anyone near him, on the humming flow of traffic outside the window on Connecticut Avenue, maybe on the universe. It is almost like a religious act of Zen discipline. He exerts his personality not so much to control things as to keep himself taut, conditioned, perfectly disciplined. It is a kind of isometric exercise of the will—or perhaps of the soul. But the awareness of Lombardi's will, of the nearly physical intensity of his ego, never quite disappears when one is in his presence.

Despite (or perhaps because of) that almost supernatural tension, Vince Lombardi is a curiously simplistic man, a combined product of the Puritan ethic, a Catholic boyhood, a belief in two-fisted American salesmanship and the Knute Rockne school of evangelism. All these things are mixed up in his life style and in the regimen around his teams. For example: "I believe a man should be on time—not a minute late, not 10 seconds late—but on time for things. I believe that a man who's late for meetings or for the bus won't run his pass routes right. He'll be sloppy." Or: "I like to come up with a thought that isn't just football at least once a week. Once, in Green Bay, I know I started talking on the theme that the Lord gave us certain talents, and if we don't use those talents to their fullest, we're cheating—cheating on the Lord and cheating on ourselves. I bet I talked 15, 20 minutes on that subject." Or: "I never tell a football team anything that I don't absolutely believe myself. I always tell them the truth. I can't even try to deceive them because I know they'd know. I'd know, so they'd know."

Vince Lombardi is not fooling himself—not about himself—for, as he said, with a mild and slightly sheepish grin, "A lot of what I say sounds corny out of context, I know. It's better in the heat of the moment. But it is me. Hell, I'm an emotional man. I cry. I cried when we won the Super Bowl and I cried when I left Green Bay, now. I'm not ashamed of crying. Football's an emotional game. You can't be a cold fish and go out and coach. If you're going to be involved in it, you gotta take your emotions with you, mister."

In Lombardi's words there is the constant ring of personal compulsion, of a consuming commitment to pro football and its players and its whole high-voltage atmosphere. Lombardi's own version of why he quit coaching in January 1968, after a third straight NFL title and back-to-back Super Bowl victories, offers an insight into the weird and unexpected pressure a man encounters at a pinnacle of success. "When I quit," said Lombardi, "I knew I'd never be back coaching. I knew I wouldn't be able to take it again. The pressures were so horrible. You know, the pressure of losing is bad, awful, because it kills you eventually. But the pressure of winning is worse, infinitely worse, because it keeps on torturing you and torturing you and torturing you. At Green Bay, I was winning one championship after another, after another, after another. I couldn't take it, because I blamed myself, damned myself whenever they lost a game. I couldn't ever forgive myself for a loss, because I felt I'd let them down. I felt I wouldn't be able to raise myself to the right pitch for the big games and then I wouldn't be able to raise them to their best effort. I knew I couldn't ever deceive them about it because they were an extension of my personality. So. that's when I decided to get out of coaching." He paused, then smiled quizzically. "You know, if we'd just won every other title or if we'd even lost to Dallas either in '66 or '67, I'd still be at Green Bay. Forever."

The Lombardi Era at Green Bay ended in January 1968, a comet burned out by the heat of its own brilliance. Free of coaching tensions for the first time in 30 years, Vince found that he was "in seventh heaven; it was absolutely the best off season I'd ever had—yeah, until exactly July 15, the day they came back to start practice." On that day his retirement reverie was transformed abruptly into a nightmare, and even Vince Lombardi was startled at the extremity of the change. "My God, one minute I'm going to play golf that afternoon and the next thing I know I'm canceling the round. I find I can't stand to stay away from practice and I'm down there, trying to stay off to the side and kind of aloof, so I wouldn't be in the way. But I couldn't force myself to do anything but go down and watch practice. And, of course, I knew right then that I had made a horrible mistake by leaving coaching."

The 1968 season in Green Bay was a miasma of boredom, frustration and defeat, and Lombardi was a dangling man, desperately unhappy. He built himself a soundproof cell in the press box and closeted himself there during home games. "They said I raved a lot in there," he recalled. "Actually, I was very quiet. Very quiet." He went to "meeting after meeting after meeting" of the NFL owners' committee, which was involved in labor negotiations with the players, and that, he said, "absolutely saved my life during that horrible period." There was more than enough time to think, though, and he came to a rather surprising conclusion about why he wanted to return to coaching.

"What I missed most was—well, it wasn't the tension and the crowds and the game on Sunday. And it certainly wasn't the winning. And it wasn't the spotlight and all that. The fame. No, it wasn't. There's a great—a great closeness a football team, you know—a rapport between the men and the coach that's like no other sport. It's a binding together, a knitting together. For me, it's like father and sons, and that's what I missed. I missed players coming up to me and saying, 'Coach, I need some help because my baby's sick.' or, 'Mr. Lombardi, I want to talk to you about trouble I'm having with my wife.' That's what I missed most. The closeness."

In Lombardi's own terms this role of being more parent than employer, more father confessor than professional coach, is the essence of his career (which, perhaps, is the logical outgrowth of Lombardi's boyhood dream of being a priest). "Winning wouldn't be enough to get me back in the game," he said. "But it's how I feel when I hear that a Hornung or a Forrest Gregg or a Boyd Dowler is doing well. You never really let go of these guys, you know. I just heard the other day about a kid I used to coach in high school. I heard he's in trouble. I heard he's drinking, doing a lot of heavy drinking." Lombardi rubbed the three-diamond setting in his huge Super Bowl ring and he said, "It's corny and it'll sound awful in writing, but you just feel bad when you know you couldn't get through to a kid like that."

Now, of course, the immediate question is just how this unique personage of pure sentiment, furious determination and genius for success will stand the trip from his hale-and-hearty Valhalla village in Wisconsin to the tepid ambience of the Washington Redskins. To hear Lombardi talk, he would have preferred the home-town familiarity of Green Bay "if there'd been a graceful way to go back to coaching without murdering a lot of people." There wasn't, of course. Indeed, there really wasn't a very graceful way for Vince to get out of his five-year contract with the Packer organization, either. Nevertheless, Lombardi, who has an almost childlike ability, on occasion, to see the world precisely as he wants to see it, said, "It was important to me how I felt about leaving Green Bay, and I can truthfully say that if the board of directors had insisted on my staying, I would have—happily. They could have condemned me. But they didn't. They released me from my contract when I asked. They probably understood me better than I did myself." Suffice it to say that the Packer board of directors probably understood Lombardi well enough to know that sooner or later they would bend to his personality.

Given Lombardi's own Happy Ending version to the Green Bay episode of the saga, how does he feel about his new beginning in Washington? Absolutely transcendental. "Before I went to Green Bay, I'd had other offers in the '50s," he said. "I didn't take them, and I still don't know why. But when Green Bay came along—I knew—it was right! Now this time I've had other offers. [They were San Francisco last year, Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.] But I didn't take any of them. No, I took Washington." He sat for a moment, musing, with a distant look in his eyes. Then swiftly he clapped himself on a shoulder, and his eyes blazed behind the glasses. "That's the way it was with Green Bay. And that's the way it was with Washington—as if the Lord's hand were on my shoulder and I knew which was the right thing to do."

Clearly, Lombardi has high hopes of turning the Redskins into another victory dynasty like the Packers—someday. "When I say a winner this year, I don't necessarily mean a championship," he said. But he is not pessimistic and he is already designing the Lombardi strategy—and possibly praying for the Lombardi magic to reappear in Washington. "Jurgensen is a helluva passer, and that Charley Taylor is one of the best in the league. I want to take a close look at Gary Beban, too. I'm not sure things have been handled just right down here." Still, no matter whose hand is on Vince's shoulder, the chances of instant success √† la Green Bay probably are not terribly bright.

Yet Vincent Thomas Lombardi is a man for his time—and, certainly, a man for his place. For years Washington's appetite for idealism and its appreciation of romance have been starved on a diet of platitude, bombast and forked-tongue aphorism as dished out by Washington's ruling-class population of politicians, bureaucrats and the captains of vested interests. A few good Ararararararghs! can only be counted as a welcome sound in such an environment.

Washington cannot be faulted for its posture of genuflection upon the arrival of a man carrying a full-fledged legend on his shoulders. And whether Vince Lombardi can keep his legend alive is probably less important than the fact that he is a very happy man to be able to lay it on the line again.