Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Jerry Izenberg Unplugged - Thoughts about Vince Lombardi - Part II

This is the second part of my interview with the legendary sports journalist Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger about his dealings with former Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi....

He (Lombardi) was a genius in terms of not asking too much (from his players). He had the smallest playbook in football. Forrest Gregg (photo) once told me, "we (Packers) would laugh when he ran our plays. We all but said that we are coming over left tackle - stop us if you can." Forrest Gregg was a wonderful story which tells you more about Lombardi. Gregg had mixed emotions about Lombardi when he first came. The Green Bay locker room was worse than what Forrest had at SMU. He was thinking of retiring because the previous coach had played favorites, and nobody worked. There was a boycott campaign in Green Bay about going to see the Packer games. He (Gregg) was like, "I don’t need this stuff anymore." Then Vince came and he talked to Forrest on the phone and Forrest said, "let me give this guy a try." So he goes out there and the first day Lombardi rips into Paul Hornung and Forrest thinks to himself, "I like this guy, I think I’m going to stick around." Later in that camp Vince is diagraming what would become the Green Bay sweep. So Forrest puts his hand up and says, "Coach I don’t mean to contradict you but you are asking me to pull behind the guard, get all the way around and make an impossible block." Vince looked at him and said, "Well Forrest it might be impossible for you so I will find someone who can." Forrest Gregg ended up making that block for years.

Vince was a wonderful guy. He really was a funny guy. I remember one year I was stuck in Green Bay all by myself over Christmas. They had tied with the Baltimore Colts and they had an extra playoff game. So I go out to the compound to see him and he was sitting there with his first computer. And he's screaming at everybody because he didn’t know how to work it. He said, "I stayed up all last night asking questions to the computer." The kind of questions he was asking the computer were unanswerable because there was no software for it. He said, "I have come to the conclusion that the computer has told me anybody whose IQ is higher than 130 will not hit."

I once had an argument with him that we carried on long distance over a book I wrote. It was a book called "Rivals" dealing with rivalries that moved all of America. Now Vince was a Dodger fan being he was Brooklyn. So he called me up and said, "Gee that is a great book you wrote." And I was like, "Thanks but it wasn’t that good. It was a nice book." So Vince is like, "I’m telling you it was a great book!" So now I ask him what the hell have you read (in the book) and he said to me, "Never mind, I read it. It is great!" And that was Vince, he always had to be right.

I’ll tell you though, I liked him so much. You had to like him cause he kind of favored the New York area writers. When we would come out there (to Green Bay) he would ignore everybody else. He was really such a class guy. I’ll tell you something that a lot of people do not know, there was some maneuvering for Vince to come home and coach the Giants. And he really wanted to come. He wanted five percent of the team. And Helen Mara, who was Wellington Mara’s sister-in-law said, "we work so hard so I don’t see why we should give up anything." The Maras had 50 percent of the stock but nothing ever came of it. The Giants were horrible back then. They changed coaches like they changed socks.

Izenberg then talked about covering the famous Ice Bowl game between the Packers and Cowboys. (photo)
I will tell you two anecdotes that had nothing to do with football but will tell you how cold it was. There was no heat in the press box. It was an old wooden press box at Lambeau Field. It was freezing. In those days they had little heaters with motors that would throw heat. So they would start them up, but they had engines. Some genius decided to put one in the press box and after a while I started smelling something. Here is was emitting carbon monoxide. I told them, "shut that damn thing off."

It was the only time in my entire life at a football game that I drank. It was so cold. As the game ends, some kid jumps on the field and has a saw. The goalpost back then were wooden. This enterprising little bastard is going to chop it up and sell pieces of it. So he is out there sawing. I go back to writing my story, shivering, and when I finish I look and the kid is still sawing. He was not able to cut off one piece because it was so frozen.

Before the game Vince was bragging that some guy sold him a bill of goods to put electrical wiring underneath the turf this way it wouldn’t freeze. So you would put the tarp over it and you turn the electricity on and it keeps the field soft so when you take the tarp off the field will not be frozen. Well the only thing it didn’t calculate is how you get the tarp off because the tarp is frozen to the field. It took them like a half an hour to scrape up the tarp.

Vince was a guy who reacted very viscerally. You know when they played down in Dallas in the game where the Packers intercepted in the end zone when Dallas was driving for the winning touchdown. They had some kind of a thing for the halftime show that went on and on and on. And they had floats on the field and were trying to get them off the field. All of a sudden I see this guy come running across the field banging on the side of one of the floats yelling, "get that fucking thing out of here." It was Lombardi.

Lombardi was often worse when they won than when they lost because his head was still in the game. He was still playing the game and he would get very angry. He was easier to interview after a loss. In a game against the Rams, the Packers just won something like 6-3 and he knew they would have to play the Rams again in the playoffs. So he has them all in the locker room and he is tearing everybody a new asshole. He’s like, "you guys don’t deserve to be Packers." You have to remember, it was a very important thing for these players to be Packers for the pride as much as the playoff money was guaranteed. In those days they didn’t make any money. Now, Lombardi is going on and on and on and Willie Davis (photo) is sitting on a wooden folding chair in front of his cubicle. He was leaning back in his chair hoping Lombardi would not see him. So he is leaning back and leaning back. Then Vince yells, "does anybody here want to play Packer football?" And with that, the chair breaks and Willie goes onto the floor and jumps up and Lombardi looks at him and says, "now see, Willie Davis wants to play Packer football. Who else wants to play it?" I asked Willie if he ever told Lombardi the truth about what happened and he said, "are you nuts?"

Before concluding the interview, I asked Izenberg how Lombardi would have been as a coach in today's NFL....
I think he would have been great because he understood the players and the types of players there are. He understood the world he lived in. And I don’t think he would have had a Terrell Owens, but I think he would have understood today’s players.

Once again I would like to thank Mr. Izenberg for his time...it was very much appreciated!!...

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