From Underdogs to Champions: Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers' Rise to Fame

    "That First Season" explores how the legendary coach created one of the greatest teams in NFL history.

    By 1959, there was little hope for the young Green Bay Packers. Decades of losing-record seasons had enraged fans, destroyed morale, and jeopardized the team's very existence. With their future lying in the balance, the Packers needed a miracle—and fast. Enter 46-year-old Vince Lombardi, the ex-offensive coordinator for the New York Giants, and the man who would restore the Packers to their former glory. 

    Vince Lombardi transformed how the Packers played their game, leading the team to five championship wins—including the first two Super Bowls—in the second half of the 1960s. Under his coaching, players like Paul Hornung became household names, and the Packers themselves were considered one of the greatest teams in NFL history. 

    In his book That First Season, author John Eisenberg uncovers the making of this legendary coach, analyzing Vince Lombardi's transformative leadership, dedication, work ethic, and pure love for the sport. Eisenberg proves that while Lombardi and his Packers set incredible records, there is so much more to their story than the victory rings on their fingers.

    Read on for an excerpt of That First Season to see how Vince Lombardi became coach of the Green Bay Packers.

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    That First Season

    By John Eisenberg

    That First Season

    By John Eisenberg

    The Packers’ search for a new coach did not travel in a straight line directly to Scooter McLean’s successor. It meandered through twists and turns, tantalizing fans with possibilities through December and January. Would Curly Lambeau really come back? Would Forest Evashevski, the hottest coach in the Big Ten, really take on the Packers? Those questions dominated speculation in the media and among fans.

    No one outside the team’s Washington Street offices had any idea that a little-known assistant coach with the New York Giants was also a candidate.

    The search actually began earlier, after team president Dominic Olejniczak gave Scooter the bad news in late November. Ole then asked the executive committee to give him a list of possible successors, and requested that Jack Vainisi, the Packers’ personnel director, check on any current NFL coaches who might be suitable.

    Vainisi was an invaluable member of the front office. Just thirty-one years old, he was a keen football observer who had led the Packers’ scouting efforts and overseen their college draft selections since 1951. Most NFL teams cared little about scouting; some just consulted Street & Smith’s College Football guide before making picks. But Vainisi was consumed by the process, to the Packers’ benefit.

    Rotund and outgoing, Vainisi had grown up in Chicago in the shadow of the Bears; players shopped at his father’s deli and occasionally ate at his house. Vainisi earned a football scholarship to Notre Dame, but a stint in the Army and a serious heart ailment ended his playing career. He found another niche in the sport after graduation when Ronzani, one of the Bears who had patronized the deli, hired him as a Green Bay scout. It was immediately apparent he was a natural. Ceaselessly working the phones, he built a nationwide network of insiders who scoured their areas for potential players. He traveled extensively, even carving out time on his honeymoon to check out prospects. His hard work paid off; as inept as the Packers were on the field, they were known as shrewd drafters, having scored with Howton, Dillon, Hanner, Forester, Bettis, and Ron Kramer—all players other teams would take.

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    Vince Lombardi (left) is congratulated by a fan as he leaves the field.

    When Ole asked him to suggest candidates, Vainisi went to work. You had to dig around to find out about NFL assistants, who were unknown commodities, receiving little publicity or acclaim. Vainisi tapped his many contacts in the league, speaking to Bert Bell, George Halas, and Cleveland’s Paul Brown, among others. One name kept coming up—Vince Lombardi, the Giants’ top offensive assistant. Everyone spoke highly of his character, organizational abilities, football knowledge, and forceful personality. His offense was one of the NFL’s best.

    The Giants’ top defensive assistant, Tom Landry, was also a prospect. A young, forward-thinking former cornerback, he had pioneered a popular new alignment. Most defenses had previously featured five or six linemen and two or three linebackers, but Landry invented the “4–3,” built around a “middle” linebacker who roamed the field making plays as the two tackles in front of him occupied blockers and four defensive backs protected against the pass. Led by Sam Huff, a tough and agile middle linebacker, the Giants had a formidable defense.

    The Giants had won an NFL title in 1956 and consistently contended for the Eastern Division title with Landry and Lombardi in charge of their units. The head coach, Jim Lee Howell, joked that with such sharp assistants, “All I have to do around here is pump up the balls.”

    Landry, just thirty-four years old, was clearly a head coach in the making, while Lombardi, forty-five, was at a point where some NFL teams might think he was too old to be a first-time head coach; it had taken him longer to rise through the ranks, and he had been passed over a few times. But Bell, Brown, and Halas all endorsed Lombardi as the one the Packers should hire.

    A short, square-shouldered bulldog of a man, Lombardi was an indelible character with an array of extreme qualities, an intense Italian American incapable of not leaving a strong impression. He had light-olive skin, close-cropped dark hair, and a prominent, triangular nose. When he smiled, gaps showed between his upper front teeth and a rectangle of deep creases formed around his mouth. His expensive clothes and round frame glasses gave him a scholarly air, as did his abilities as a blackboard instructor; he could take up the chalk and make complex offensive tactics and philosophies easy for players and other coaches to understand. But his buttoned-down appearance masked his temperamental, loud, demanding personality, which was legendary among those who knew him. Impatient with players who fell short of perfection, he bristled and snapped like an exposed electrical wire during practices and games, uncorking sprays of sarcastic profanities that could reduce hulking linemen to tears.

    A lifelong resident of the New York area, Lombardi had grown up in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay neighborhood, the eldest son of immigrant parents. His father, Harry, a meat wholesaler and devout Catholic, attended mass every day, and now Vince, after attending Catholic schools, was also a daily communicant. Harry had been a stern but affectionate father and Lombardi exuded similar qualities as a coach. If he knocked a player down with criticism, he picked him up later with a pat on the rear.

    He had played college football in the 1930s, his strength and innate fierceness enabling him to survive as a five-feet-ten, 175-pound guard on a Fordham University offensive line known as the Seven Blocks of Granite. Too small for the NFL, he considered entering the priesthood after college but instead worked for an insurance company, played semipro football, attended law school for a year, and married the only woman he had seriously dated, a stockbroker’s daughter named Marie. They had two children, a son, Vincent Jr., and a daughter, Susan.

    In the late 1930s he took a job as the offensive line coach at St. Cecilia’s, a Catholic prep school in Englewood, New Jersey, where he also coached basketball and baseball and taught physics, chemistry, algebra, and Latin, all for seventeen hundred dollars a year. After a promotion to head coach, he won six state titles in eight years, shouting, demanding, praising, pushing—never allowing his players to give less than their best.

    Setting his sights on becoming a major college coach, he left St. Cecelia’s in 1947 to join the staff at Fordham. Two years later, Army coach Earl “Red” Blaik, one of the nation’s preeminent football men, called him about a job. Blaik had won two national titles, fashioned a thirty-two-game winning streak, and always fielded strong teams. His approach was devastatingly simple. His players were well conditioned and mentally tough. The team’s playbook was slim but allowed for few mistakes. Army beat you not with offensive wizardry but with ferocious blocking and tackling.

    Many of Blaik’s assistants became head coaches elsewhere, and after Sid Gillman left for the University of Cincinnati, Blaik heard from many coaches wanting to work for him. None excited him. His friend Tim Cohane, the sports editor of Look magazine, suggested he call Lombardi; Cohane had been the sports publicist at Fordham when Lombardi played there. Blaik interviewed Lombardi, and although Lombardi had neither played nor coached at a major college, “I knew he was ready. I saw the sparkle in his eyes,” Blaik said later. “I could tell he had a good knowledge of the game, much more than just an ordinary mentality, and an unusual amount of imagination. Right then, as a young fellow, he had that special quality of being able to electrify a room.”

    Blaik hired Lombardi and mentored him in all aspects of the coaching craft. Lombardi learned how to organize a short, useful practice, analyze game film, prepare for a big game, and motivate players. After watching Lombardi explode angrily on the practice field, Blaik lectured him on managing his temper. “At first he didn’t have control of his emotions. He was explosive,” Blaik said later. “But while he was immature, he could overcome it because he had such a dynamic personality.”

    Lombardi adopted Blaik’s straightforward philosophy. Football didn’t need to be complicated. The best players were fit, disciplined, and tough, willing to inflict and endure pain. They could win by mastering a small set of basic formations and plays, executing so crisply it didn’t matter if the other team knew what was coming.

    Lombardi also favored discipline, routine, and hard work. His workday began at 8 a.m. and often didn’t end until midnight. His focus and drive bordered on maniacal. Obsessing over a new offensive wrinkle one day, he forgot to put on his pants after practice and left the locker room wearing just his underwear; a security guard told him to go back and finish dressing. After driving to work with Marie and a male friend one morning, he absently leaned over and gave the friend a “bye, honey” kiss. His mind was always on football. Forever diagramming plays and debating their merits, “he was in another world when he was playing around with X’s and O’s,” Blaik recalled.

    Thinking all along that his future lay in college ball, Lombardi paid little attention to the NFL. But then the Giants tried to hire Blaik to replace their longtime head coach, Steve Owen, after the 1953 season. Blaik turned the Giants down but suggested they hire Lombardi to run their offense under Jim Lee Howell. Lombardi took the job after Blaik endorsed the move. Blaik wasn’t going anywhere, and if Lombardi, now forty, was ever going to become a head coach, he needed to move on.

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    Halfback Paul Hornung, one of Lombardi's best players, would win both the Heisman Trophy and the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award.

    Lombardi got off to a rough start with the Giants. Some veterans didn’t care for his sarcastic, critical style, and the offensive linemen practically revolted when he showed them his blocking system. They previously made blocks according to the defensive alignment, but now their assignments would be dictated by the offensive play-call. And instead of blocking a specific man, they were assigned a space and told to block any defender who entered it. Lombardi later recalled that when he unveiled the concept, “I could tell from the way they looked at each other and from their air of resignation that they were skeptical of this ‘college stuff.’ They thought I was crazy.”

    But Lombardi won over a new generation of Giant blockers who mastered his system and played with the jaw-rattling toughness he demanded. They became the heart of his offense. Eschewing the pass-happy schemes that had become popular, Lombardi designed a simple power attack built around a strong running game, with a sprinkling of surprises mixed in. Like Army, the Giants ran few plays, but ran them flawlessly. In the 1956 championship game they rolled to a 47–7 victory over the Bears on an icy field at Yankee Stadium.

    The key for Lombardi was finding a use for Frank Gifford, a former Southern Cal star floundering as a pro. Owen had put him at defensive back, but Gifford was a nimble runner, effective receiver, and could throw. Lombardi put him at left halfback in a four-man backfield and designed plays that utilized his varied skills, such as the halfback option, which looked like an end sweep until Gifford stopped and threw downfield. In 1956 Gifford totaled more than fourteen hundred rushing and receiving yards, leading the league.

    After the 1957 season, in which the Giants finished second in the Eastern Division, Lombardi was approached by the Philadelphia Eagles about becoming their head coach. They offered a short-term contract with the possibility of an extension if the team won. Lombardi had dreamed about the chance to run his own team, but Giants owner Wellington Mara talked him out of going. The Eagles had meddling owners who would interfere, Mara warned. Lombardi turned down the offer and received a raise from Mara.

    Now, a year later, the Packers were interested. Vainisi mentioned Lombardi to Ole in mid-December 1958. Ole already knew the name, having seen Lombardi at a coaching clinic in Ohio that fall. Tony Canadeo had suggested they attend the clinic to check out other coaches. Lombardi had commanded the classroom, exuding self-confidence.

    At Vainisi’s suggestion, Ole called Bell, Halas, and Paul Brown. They repeated their praise. Lombardi, they said, was an innovative strategist and dynamic leader who believed in discipline. Bell, who desperately wanted the Packers to improve, said he was “a great believer in desire and proper conduct; you’ll like him.” Halas said, “I shouldn’t tell you this because you’re liable to kick the crap out of us, but he’ll be a good one.” Paul Brown told Ole the Packers might not be able to pry Lombardi away from the Giants because he was a lifelong New Yorker liked by the Mara family. If he stayed put, Brown said, he probably would succeed Howell as the Giants’ head coach.

    Ole phoned Mara and asked for permission to speak to Lombardi. Mara denied the request and suggested Ole consider Landry. But Ole persisted and, after several conversations, finally obtained Mara’s permission.

    Reached at his home in Fair Haven, New Jersey, Lombardi told Ole he was interested. Lombardi and his wife had a heated discussion later. A tall, blue-eyed blond with an attention-getting figure, Marie Lombardi had never lived anywhere other than in and around New York. She and Vince had many friends, led an active social life, dined out, went to sophisticated nightclubs. No less strong-willed than her husband (she barked back when he snapped at her in the harsh tone that caused players to crumble), she hadn’t minded the idea of Vince coaching the Eagles, just down the road in Philadelphia; maybe she and the kids wouldn’t even move. But Green Bay was the middle of nowhere.

    Green Bay?! Green Bay?!

    Look, Marie, I don’t know where this will lead. But I’m going to listen to what they have to say.

    Deep down, she knew they would go, had to go, if the job was right. Her blustery, football-obsessed husband had frustrations and insecurities like everyone else, and his involved getting older without having been a pro or college head coach. Howell, his boss, was two years younger, and like most NFL head coaches had been hired before turning forty. Lombardi, forty-five, wasn’t out of time yet, but as the years passed, he felt increasingly restless, pent-up, and anxious; it frustrated him to be full of ideas about how to run a team, yet unable to execute them.

    Starting at his age meant he might get just one shot to run a team, which was partly why he had turned down the Eagles—he didn’t want to waste his shot on a situation so rife with problems. This Packer job might fall into the same category, he feared. But his only other choice, at least as of now, was to wait for Howell to retire and then take the Giants’ job, a scenario that might not play out for years.

    Before considering the Packer job, Lombardi had to finish coaching the Giants in 1958. They beat Cleveland on the final Sunday of the regular season to force a one-game playoff for the Eastern Division title, and then shut out the Browns to win the playoff. On the last Sunday of 1958, a national television audience of 40 million watched them play the Baltimore Colts for the championship. The Giants were favored to win their second title in three years, but the Colts jumped ahead, 14–3. The Giants rallied to take a 17–14 lead in the fourth quarter and had the ball in the final minutes, but Gifford fell inches short on a third down and the Giants punted. Johnny Unitas led a drive that produced a field goal forcing overtime, and then drove the Colts to the winning touchdown.

    Disappointed to lose what Sports Illustrated called “the greatest football game ever played,” Lombardi started his off-season job at a bank a few days later. Coaching pro football wasn’t a full-time job for assistants, many of whom worked outside the game in the off-season to augment their meager salaries. Lombardi experienced a profound change as he went from the shattering noise of a championship football game to the quiet purr of a bank, but he needed the money to maintain his family’s standard of living, and he enjoyed the professional environment. Hired by the bank’s sales office, he checked out other jobs in the building and wondered if he might like such work if his coaching career fizzled. A dapper dresser and quick learner, he felt he fit right in.

    His phone rang again in early January when Blaik resigned at Army after eighteen seasons. There was a flurry of talk about Lombardi replacing him—he was ever a logical candidate—but Army eventually stuck to its tradition of hiring only West Point men to coach its football team. Yet another opportunity had eluded Lombardi. It made him more frustrated. He knew he was a good football coach, and knew exactly what he wanted to do if he was ever fortunate enough to take over a team. He was confident enough to assume an opportunity would come, but whenever a dark mood struck, he wondered if it was possible he would end up working at a bank.

    Want to keep reading? Download That First Season today.

    That First Season

    By John Eisenberg

    All photos courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt



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