August 26, 2015
R.I.P. Frank Gifford
Frank Gifford on Vince Lombardi
The Whole Ten Yards, by Frank Gifford & Harry Waters (1993)
Writers have carved careers out of making Vince Lombardi into something he never really was. The man I knew wasn't anything like that myth. In fact, he was one of the most down-to-earth human beings I've ever met. Maybe that's why I never called him "Coach" or "Mr. Lombardi" or, even in jest, "God." To me, and to most of us who really knew him, he was simply "Vince."
When Vince arrived in 1954 to take over our [New York Giants'] offense, we didn't like him at all. He was loud and arrogant, a total pain in the ass. We had a lot of nicknames for him, most of them unprintable. Vince had been a good high school coach at Saint Cecilia's and an outstanding backfield coach at Army, but he didn't understand pro football. He didn't have a clue. He immediately tried to install Red Blaik's offense from West Point, the old option T. The quarterback, moving down the line of scrimmage, either pitches the ball to the halfback or runs it. Now, our quarterback was Charley Conerly, whose days of running with the football were long gone - and he knew it. A lot of the things Vince wanted to do just wouldn't work in the pro game.
When Vince got up to the blackboard, he might have been teaching his fourth-grade math class at Saint Cecilia's. "This is the twenty-six power play," he'd announce. "The twenty-six power play, do you have that, Jack? The first step is for the right guard to pull back. He must pull back, must pull back, must pull back. He must pull back to avoid the center, who will be moving to the offside. So the first step is for the right guard to pull back. Got that, Jack? The first step is back."
We'd look at each other in disbelief. Here's a Charlie Concerly (whom Vince treated in the same way), having dodged bullets in the South Pacific and made All-America at Mississippi and lived through hell in the Polo Grounds, and he's hearing this guy tell him how to do it. You could see Vince was a terrific teacher, but these people had learned most of what he was teaching very early in their careers. They didn't require a lot of teaching. They required direction.
After our training-camp workouts, when many of the players gathered at a local beer joint, everybody began doing imitations of Lombardi. Some of them were quite hilarious. He just seemed a comical character to us, easy to parody. He had huge feet and big, long arms, and all those teeth. Someone once quipped that Vince had thirty-two teeth like the rest of us, but his were all on top. When we weren't laughing at him, our attitude was that we'd survive him. Somehow, this guy would be exposed and gotten rid of. As far as we were concerned, it was just a matter of time.
Then Vince did something both humble and smart. He began dropping by our training-camp dorm after meetings to talk to us about different aspects of the game to solicit our opinions of plays. At first that ticked us off. Charlie, Kyle [Rote], myself, and a few others were accumstomed to coming back to our rooms at the 11:00 P.M. curfew, making the bed check and then sneaking out for a few beers. Now here was this bigmouthed rookie coach with a pasta name blocking our escape.
"How are things?" he'd ask, pulling out a chair from the desk.
Gradually, we felt comfortable enough to tell him. He'd just listen and nod. Then one night he suddenly said, "You know, if you don't mind, I could really use a little help from the older guys." Vince was a very intelligent man who sensed he was in trouble. So many coaches are so full of macho posturing that they'd have tried to tough it out. Vince knew better. What he was really telling us was, "Come on, I need your help."
That changed the whole tone of our relationship. All of a sudden, we found ourselves wanting to help him. We discovered that he was a real guy, a warm, funny guy. He was very Italian in the sense that he loved to laugh, loved his paste, and loved to have a few pops with his players. In later years, following practices, a bunch of us would drive over to his home in New Jersey, and his wife, Marie, would cook up a ton of spaghetti. We'd talk football and watch game films until Marie threw us out.
In terms of offensive strategy, Lombardi and the Giants learned from each other. Take the famous 49 sweep. When Vince installed it, he wanted the two guards who led the left halfback - yours truly - around the end to swing out several yards before they turned the corner. He wanted to be sure the penetration from our tight end blocking their linebacker didn't snarl everything up. Charlie and I disagreed. We felt the guards had to get to the corner as quickly as they could and turn it upfield. We knew that the defensive pursuit in pro football is too fast for that kind of maneuver. As big as Vince's ego was, he listened to us. We ended up running the 49 sweep half his way and half the way we thought it would work. The play turned out to be Lombardi's biggest ground gainer both in New York for me and in Green Bay for Paul Hornung. ...
Vince was famous for his tirades, but many, I felt, were calculated. Especially the ones at our screenings of the previous Sunday's game films. That's when he'd really hammer someone's performance. ... Only once did I witness Vince's theatrics backfire. We had a tough southern running back - I'll call him "Jones" - who, rumor had it, carried a knife around with him. He also performed best when no one got under his thin skin. During one film session, Vince seized on some frames that showed the guy failing to block a linebacker. "Look at yourself, Jones," he shouted, beginning his backandforth number with the projector. "Hear me, Jones? Jones? Jones? Jones?" After about a minute of this, from out of the darkness a very quiet, mean voice was heard: "Run that one more time, Coach, and I'll cut you." Vince gulped, swallowed deeply, and meekly hit the projector's forward button.
Put fifty men together for half a year, and you're going to see a lot of practical jokes. We loved playing them on Vince, just to watch him explode. Like the schoolteacher he once was, he liked to have his pieces of chalk laid out just so before he began a blackboard lesson. And like mischievous schoolboys, some of us would beat him to the meeting room to hide his chalk. Result: accusations, followed by expletives followed, more than once, by the crash of a hurled blackboard.
During practices, Vince hated anyone crowding him. He liked to stand exactly four yards behind whatever eleven guys were working on offense. The rest of us, who were not in the lineup, were supposed to stand at least three yards behind him. Naturally, we took that as a challenge. We were continually inching up to him, which invariably freaked him out. One day he threw down an orange peel to mark the line of demarcation. "Everyone stays behind the orange peel," he ordered. "Get in front of it, and you do a lap around the field."
We took that as an even bigger challenge. Each time he turned to watch a play, we'd push the peel closer to his rear end and creep closer ourselves. Finally, we were right on top of him.
When Vince looked back, he went ballistic. "I said, EVERYONE BEHIND THE BLEEPETY-BLEEP PEEL!" he screeched, his face turning a familiar purple. Then he glanced down and saw where the peel lay. It cracked him up. Of course, as soon as he stopped laughing, he moved it exactly three yards back.