Monday, July 02, 2007

Jerry Izenberg Unplugged - Thoughts about Vince Lombardi

On Monday, June 25th I had the honor to interview legendary sports journalist Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger....Izenberg has been reporting for 56 years and is one of only four reporters to cover every Super Bowl (the other three are Jerry Green of The Detroit News, Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald, and David Klein formerly of the Star-Ledger and now a writer for a pro football newsletter).....Izenberg still writes 20-25 columns a year and covers the Super Bowl and Triple Crown races....he has written numerous books including "No Medals for Trying" in which he spent a week with Bill Parcells and the New York Giants....another of his books is "The Greatest Game Ever Played" which detailed the epic game 6 NLCS battle between the Astros and Mets....

At the beginning of the interviewed I asked Izenberg to discuss the most interesting person he interviewed when dealing with the NFL....he said there are so many that it was impossible to just focus on one I decided to ask him about Green Bay Packer head coach Vince Lombardi....for the next 30 minutes Izenberg told enthralling stories about the late great coach...I want to thank him for his time - it is much appreciated...below are his words and thoughts about Lombardi....I give you Jerry Izenberg - Unplugged....

One of the great Lombardi quotes will tell you what has happened in pro football when he said, "is this a game for madmen and have I become one of them". I got to know him when he was a coach with the Giants which is where our friendship began even though I had known of him from St. Cecilia’s in Inglewood and when he coached up at West Point under Red Blaik. In those days we did not have coordinators, we had backfield coaches who really ran the offense and a defensive coach who ran the defense. On a remarkable staff, Vince and Tom Landry held those positions for the Giants.

You have to remember how he was shaped. Vince was shaped by the fact that he was always trying to catch up and then suddenly he was way ahead of everybody else and that posed another set of problems because he wanted to stay there. When I said he was trying to catch up, you got to remember, this guy coached high school football as a mature man. He went back to Fordham as a freshman coach. (His classmate when he was student at Fordham was Wellington Mara.) He had done nothing at Fordham to make you think that he was going to go anywhere else. He was getting very impatient. He noticed that all the assistant coaches on Red Blaik’s staff turned over every two years because they got full-time jobs as head coaches. So he interviewed at West Point and Blaik took him. The first year he jumped on some cadet. I believe he was coaching the freshmen and Blaik called him aside and told him "We don’t do that here. And if you want to get anywhere in this business you better remember that and hang on to your temper." It is hard to believe that he did. Can you imagine what his temper used to be like? So he did temper it a little bit.

The huge disappointment. Maybe the biggest disappointment of all came when other assistant coaches got different (head coaching) jobs. And Lombardi was a candidate for a job at Wake Forest. Now this is the south and we are going back to the late 40s early 50s. And you know that a lot of things are very slow to change. He interviewed and he was quite excited about it because other coaches from that staff (at Army) got jobs and he fully expected that he would get the Wake Forest job. A guy down there in North Carolina called him up and said. "Vince I have to tell you I don’t want you play out a charade. They had several number of people interview and you were one of them but they are not going to give this job to anybody whose name ends in a vowel." Now whether the guy was right or wrong, Vince had believed him, and he did not get the job. It was a tremendous blow to him. And years later it was the reason that he and (Green Bay Packer) Willie Davis were close. This is how that friendship started. Willie came to Vince and asked for the day off from practice which is like asking for instant canonization. You don’t get that from Lombardi. So Lombardi asked him why he wanted the day off. Davis said he had to go to Milwaukee to get a haircut. Vince said, "Mister you get a haircut here like everybody else." Davis told Vince that, "Emlen Tunnell and I do not get haircuts here. They guy won’t cut our hair." So Vince told Davis to come with him after practice. So he goes to the barber, and he has Willie with him, and they step into the barber shop. The barber is like, "hey coach, we gonna have a good team this year, blah, blah, blah. So what do you think, a light trim?" And Lombardi said, "Nah, I don’t think I need anything. Just cut this guy’s hair (referring to Davis)." And of course the guy did. And after that, the black players could get their hair cut in Green Bay. He later told Willie that all came about because his name did end in a vowel and what happened to him with the Wake Forest job. He said, "we had to be just a little bit better everybody else. Me in my time, and you in your time. You just got to deal with it and don’t let anybody take it away from you." That was just one little side of Lombardi. I’ll tell you about another side to Lombardi that people don’t know.

Nelson Toburen played for Green Bay in the early Lombardi years and broke his neck in practice. Lombardi went to see him in the hospital and he said, "what you going to do, you can't give up?" And Toburen had a good attitude and said I think I want to be a lawyer. The story I got was that Vince had called someone at Marquette and got Nelson in on a free ride and never discussed it with anybody.

Vince had that competitive fire in him. He's in the living room on the floor playing marbles with his grandson and Marie (his wife) is looking at him and the kid starts to cry. She asks what's the matter and he said "grandpa is winning all my marbles." So she mumbles very softly, "for Christ-sake let the kid win" and Vince said, "the world is not like that Marie."

I want to give you a background of who he was. His father was an immigrant and Vince became the head of the family because his father was older and not too well. Well Vince's brother Joe Lombardi played guard for Vince at St. Cecilia's and the big game every year was Englewood High against St. Cecilia's - Thanksgiving Day - traditional. Vince had a curfew so he would go around to all the player's houses and they better be in bed at 10:00. So he gets to his mother's house and his brother is mopping the kitchen floor. Vince says, "what are you doing up?" Joe said, "well Mom said that tomorrow is your end of the season party and Mom told me to clean the kitchen floor." Vince said, "well I told you to be in bed." Joe later told me, "here I am mopping his mother's floor for his (Vince's) party and he tells me I am not playing tomorrow." I don't know if he finally let him in the game but he was harder on Joe than anybody else.

So Vince had suffered, but he comes down to the Giants as the backfield coach which means he is the offensive coach. He tells the players he is going to put in a play that was very successful for him in college called the halfback option. All the Giants laughed. They said, "we don't need a college play." They weren't afraid of him yet. Anyway the halfback option turned out to be the play that became famous in New York because Frank Gifford threw the passes.

He was a terrific organizer. He was hard as hell, but they (players) loved him. So Wellington Mara gets a call from Philadelphia saying they want to speak to Vince about the head coaching job. Wellington tells Philadelphia that Vince is not interested. Wellington then goes to Vince and tells him that he just turned down your permission to talk to Philadelphia. Vince was like, "why did you do that?" Wellington told him, "this is not the job for you. I'll tell you win to go. Believe me and I will help you." Three or four years later the Green Bay job opened up and Vince was cool to the idea. He was a Brooklyn guy and to go live in Green Bay, Wisconsin - he could not imagine that. But Wellington told him, "you better take the job. Believe me. The reason you got to take this job is that I know the guy who is the head of all the stockholders. And I told him about your temperament and he is going to let you call every shot." And that is how the Packers were born. In his second year, he got them to play Philly for the championship and they lost. I remember him telling me afterward, "this will never happen to me again."

Tomorrow, part two of Izenberg's thoughts about Lombardi

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