Lombardi and Landry: How Two of Pro Football's Greatest Coaches Launched Their Legends and Changed the Game Forever

Lombardi and Landry: How Two of Pro Football's Greatest Coaches Launched Their Legends and Changed the Game Forever

by Ernie Palladino

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Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry could not have had two more divergent personalities. Yet, while working for the New York Giants in the mid-1950s under head coach Jim Lee Howell, the pair formed what still stands as the greatest set of coordinators on one team. Given their personalities, one might have likened Howell’s job to that of Dwight Eisenhower’s as the general struggled to control the egos and politics of his allied subordinates during WWII. But for some reason, Lombardi and Landry worked almost seamlessly, leading the Giants to the top of the NFL. In the five seasons the two men coached together between 1956 and 1959, the Giants appeared in three championship games, winning the NFL title in ‘56.

Both coaches would go on to NFL stardom, Lombardi with the Green Bay Packers and Landry with the Dallas Cowboys. But it was during their years as Giants coordinators that they developed the coaching philosophies they would employ later in their careers. For Lombardi, it was the reliance on the running game that started with Frank Gifford and would continue in the “Packers Sweep” days of Paul Hornung. For Landry, it was his own invention of the 4-3 defense that led to the “Flex” defense of his Super Bowl winners in Dallas. How they developed their ideas, and how they were allowed to implement them, was a testament not only to their genius, but Howell’s willingness to let them handle the strategic matters while he looked after the big picture.

In Lombardi and Landry, veteran sportswriter Ernie Palladino takes an in-depth look at these two legends’ formative years in New York, offering up a vivid, revealing portrait of two brilliant coaches just coming into an understanding of their formidable powers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628730944
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 09/01/2011
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 986,158
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 12 - 18 Years

About the Author

Ernie Palladino is a sportswriter with nearly fifty years of experience. He spent thirty-three of those years at the Journal News (Westchester, N.Y.), including twenty covering the New York Giants as a beat reporter. Presently, he writes Ernie Palladino’s Giants Beat for Scout.com, part of the Fox Sports Blog Network. He lives in Staten Island, New York.

Read an Excerpt



As different as daylight and dark. Jim Lee Howell couldn't have pegged Vinny Lombardi (he wasn't really known as Vince until he reached Green Bay) and Tom Landry any better. Nor could Wellington Mara have described them more accurately than when he claimed one could hear Vinny "from five blocks away," but you couldn't hear Landry from the next chair.

Together, they formed an intellectual dream team — the brainiest, most strategically sound, and academically able set of assistants anywhere. But it easily could have gone the other way, for theirs was not an easy partnership. Better to describe it as complicated. Given their diverse personalities and an inborn competitiveness that pitted each against the other as much as their upcoming opponent, they could have been at each other's throats every day of the five seasons they spent together. If not for Howell's adept handling of his two budding Einsteins, the whole arrangement might have failed.

"[Their relationship] was good-natured, I think," said Vince Lombardi Jr., who witnessed their interactions from the training camp sidelines. "I don't think it was in bad faith or anything of that nature. But, of course, while the offense did well, the defense was really the core of that team in many respects. So I'm sure there was some of the pushing and pull of that.

"I think they got along. I think there was respect. But I don't think there was a closeness there. No."

Vince Jr., of course, viewed their relationship from the eyes of a teenager. Alicia Landry had a much different view as the wife of the defensive assistant.

"Vinny was a lot lower-key as an assistant than when he went to Green Bay as a head coach," she said. "He was a jokester, and I thought the world about him.

"But they were competitive. Each had the offense and the defense, and they each wanted their half to be better. But Marie and Sue Howell and I all got along great, and we were all sure that all three of [the men] were equally important."

They could not have been more different in temperament, character, or even spirituality. Though both were God-fearing men, they wore their religion in different ways. Landry was a church-going Methodist who would come to a life-altering epiphany while attending Bible classes after the 1958 season. Lombardi, born and raised in the Roman Catholic Church, took Holy Communion daily for as long as he could remember, and helped priests as an altar server well into adulthood. "They probably could have gone to church together," Frank Gifford said.

The difference was that Landry found peace with his Lord, while Lombardi found both comfort and conflict.

In the quiet of his bedroom, inside the walls of the church, and out on the street, Lombardi asked his God questions that, more often than not, went unanswered.

He wanted to be a good father to son Vincent and daughter Susan. He wanted to be an attentive husband to Marie. But how could he with the hours his job required? There was always the next opponent to prepare for, the next film to study, the next practice to run. How could Lombardi bring a priorities list that read "God, Family, Football" into balance so the family would not feel lonely and forgotten?

He wanted to be a good man, made in his God's image. Love thy neighbor. But he coached a sport that fed upon violence. Hit the hole! Knock that linebacker into next week! And he coached that violent sport with vigor. Yelling. Cursing. Many of his players eventually recognized he loved them, that the abuse was designed only to make them better football players. But still, there was a brutality to it all. In later years, Packers tight end Gary Knafelc would say Lombardi worked his players so hard that "when he tells you to go to hell, you look forward to the trip."

Lombardi prayed for patience.

"In many respects, my father wasn't always pleased with who he had to be to be successful; the demanding and the pushing [that it required]," Vince Jr. said. "The time he spent in conversation with his God was an attempt to reconcile the two — what he knew to be a good person and what he knew he had to be to be successful. The conversations with his God were, in many respects, an attempt to come to some kind of reconciliation."

Whether Lombardi ever did find that balance between God and football is debatable. He never did subdue his temper, a major reason why colleges never warmed to him as a potential head coach. He never did find the patience for which he prayed. But he did find a way to relate to his players, and many of them, like Gifford, came away loving him for making them great.

During his Green Bay years, Lombardi rode noted hell-raiser Paul Hornung relentlessly, fining him untold amounts of cash. But he turned the womanizer's life around, and Hornung never forgot it. Hardly a letter writer, Hornung did express his gratitude in a missive to his coach as Hornung prepared to leave Green Bay for expansion New Orleans on February 23, 1967:

"I want you to know that I have always felt closer to you than any coach I have ever had or ever hope to have. I believe the greatest thing I have learned from your 'Football' has not only been the idea of winning, but WHY you want to win! Each and every ballplayer who has had the opportunity of playing under your guidance in some ways will always try to mirror some part of your personality."

In his first year with the Giants, Lombardi was almost universally disliked among the team's veterans, some of whom had dealt with far worse than some ill-tempered coach while serving in World War II. The yelling didn't really register much with Charlie Conerly, who had his rifle shot out of his hands by a Japanese sniper during the Marine invasion of Guam in 1944. Who did this big-mouthed guy think he was, full of bluster but devoid of any pro experience? Did he really think that rinky-dink Army offense was going to work? Gifford, who later became one of Lombardi's greatest friends, called him "loud and arrogant, a total pain in the ass."

Though the bombast continued, Lombardi adjusted. After some initial, failed attempts to gain their trust that first camp, Lombardi visited some of his key players and asked for help. What plays did they like to run? What were they comfortable with?

To Lombardi, winning was far more important than getting his own way.

"We would listen to him and he would listen to us," Conerly said.

He made accommodations to age and skill sets. He bent. And in return, the players gave him their loyalty and attention. Though he would become more aloof from the players as a head coach, with these Giants he drank, played cards, and communed as a human being.

While the players still caught a heaping helping of his tyrannical manner on the practice field, they eventually became comfortable enough with him to exact their own form of revenge. More than once, Lombardi walked into a meeting room only to find the chalk he had meticulously laid out beforehand had vanished. The players roared as their foil spat accusations and expletives before a hurled chalkboard ended the entertainment portion of the day.

Adaptability became Lombardi's greatest strength.

"He was one of the few coaches who could coach individually," Gifford said. "There were great coaches over the years who couldn't change his tactic because of one guy or his attitude. You can't coach individually because football's a team game. But he was great that way. He could make players play who wouldn't have played for somebody else."

Balancing football and family was even harder. Lombardi was often distracted, so much so that he'd sometimes walk into the wrong house as his mind drifted deep into the Xs and Os. But he wasn't so distant that he couldn't dole out punishment to a rebellious teenager who had just brought home a bad report card. A substandard grade — young Vincent received his share — might get him grounded for the next marking period. Breaking a house rule might mean the abrupt introduction of his father's hand, a favored punishment in many households of the day.

"Somebody tried to tell me I was abused as a child," Vince Jr. said. "I said wait a minute. If you mean that when I broke a rule of the house I got spanked, yeah. But I'm not dumb. I learned pretty quick — don't break a rule, you don't get spanked. Those are good lessons, ones I'm not sure the next generation is teaching their kids."

He'd bring his son to training camp to serve as a ball boy. Vince Jr. would catch it there, too, just as bad as the players, if he didn't round up the balls fast enough. About the only peace he found was on the sidelines on game days, probably because his father was focused on other more pressing matters, like beating an opposing defense.

For his daughter Susan, who struggled with a learning disability, Lombardi would often brush her hair at night, counting the hundred strokes with her. When together in the car, they'd play games where they each picked out letters in street signs.

Lombardi had no shortage of love for his children, or for Marie, despite their loud and frequent arguments. Time was the issue. Time would always be the issue, for Vince Lombardi was driven to coaching excellence. He wanted nothing more than to become a great football coach.

God, Family, and Football remained in constant conflict.

"Sometimes, he'd forget those priorities," Vince Jr. said.

Tom Landry was quite different in that respect as well. Landry had come to coaching quite by accident, and never truly expected to become much more than an assistant until the Murchison family offered him the head coaching job of the expansion Dallas Cowboys after the 1959 season.

"He never intended to be a coach," Alicia Landry said. "He was going to go into industrial engineering, but [the Giants] asked him to be a player-coach and he enjoyed it. And then they asked him to stay on as the defensive coach."

The balancing act wasn't that difficult for him.

"He always said God came first, and then family and football," Alicia Landry said. "Of course, during the season, we kind of waited a little bit. But he did all of his after-hours work at home. You read about coaches who spend the night in the locker room. Tommy thought those who spent too much time there weren't working on the right thing.

"He made an absolute effort. We had breakfast together every morning and dinner together every night. He stayed up late and watched film and worked on his game plan, and it worked out really well. I never felt we were deprived of our father and husband because he made a big effort to stay part of the family.

"He had breakfast, he went to work, he came home for dinner, and he went down to his study and he worked there. I wanted to go down and watch some films with him, but he kept running them back and forth just when they'd get interesting. It drove me crazy."

Trips to New York's museums and Central Park from the Concourse Plaza Hotel, the social hub where the Landrys and many of the Giants took up their in-season residence just steps from Yankee Stadium, became regular events for the family, which at the time included Tom Jr. and daughter Kitty. Another daughter, Lisa, would arrive in 1958. Tom Jr. often played catch with Kyle Rote Jr. in the sprawling park.

For the children of a football coach, the upbringing could not have been more normal, a feat engineered by a couple of evenhanded parents. Tom Jr., being only five years old when his father joined the coaching ranks in 1954, did not go to training camp like Vince Jr. did, however.

Other than that, Landry made it a point to be around.

"I think they had it as normal as anybody could have," his wife said.

Their marriage had a storybook quality to it that endured through six decades until Landry's death in 2000. They met only because of the insistence of Alicia's friend, a member of a University of Texas sorority she had pledged as a freshman in 1948. But once they did, they were destined to be together.

Love at first sight?

"It almost was," Alicia said. "We met on a blind date arranged by one of the actives. I had pledged a sorority, and this girl, Gloria Newhaws, her boyfriend was Tommy's best friend. And I refused to go. And she said, 'Well, you're going because you're a pledge and I'm an active,' so I went.

"I just thought he was great. We dated after that. Even after we were married, we had a date one night a week. Thursday night was my night."

Date night lasted all the way through his coaching career with the Cowboys and beyond. And when his teams traveled, Alicia came along, even if it was just to the Bear Mountain, New York, training grounds the Giants occasionally used during the regular season.

"We had a fantastic time together," she said.

In his own way, Landry was just as deeply religious as Lombardi. Methodists don't carry rosary beads, but Landry held a deep belief in God throughout his life. His father was the superintendent of the Sunday school of the mission church that stood across the street from his house, and young Tom was no stranger to their services.

He and Alicia went to church every Sunday. But in the offseason of 1958, Landry got involved in a Bible study class in Dallas at the invitation of a friend. At first, the man of great intellect questioned the veracity of the Scripture passages the group read, discussed, and reread. Eventually, he even came to question whether he truly believed and accepted Jesus Christ's words and message.

So Landry started researching Christ, looking for the impact of Christ's life much like he looked for strengths and weaknesses in his defensive schemes. What he found was the man's influence on millions of people. And there was a peace to that which he never found as a casual churchgoer.

It took Landry more than a year to conclude that bringing Christ into his life was more important than football. But once he made that choice, he became an active Christian, eventually chairing the Billy Graham Crusade that opened Texas Stadium in 1971 and witnessing frequently before organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

He remained the same quiet Tom, however.

"He wanted to turn his life over to Christ, and so he did," Alicia said. "But he was always nice and good and honest. It wasn't any huge change in his personality as far as I could see. I'd always seen that side of him."

Devotion was never an issue for either Landry or Lombardi. Nor was carousing.

"I'd gone to the same church since I was four years old, and I'm not drawn to people who carouse," Alicia said. "Most of our friends are wholesome, and most were Christians.

"Vinny was a devout Catholic, and he wasn't cheating or drinking, either. But his voice was louder."

* * *

Lombardi and Landry never socialized together. Lombardi spent most of his off hours in the house he bought for his family in Oradell, New Jersey. As much as Landry was also devoted to his family, he could just as easily be found on the golf course, where the coach settled even deeper into his quiet universe.

"We played a lot of golf together," former Giants public relations director Don Smith said of Landry. "He was a pain in the ass. He used to be my partner, and it was hard to get anything out of him that might help the match."

That might have been due to Landry's "do unto others as they would do unto you" life credo. He didn't particularly like taking advice from those who knew less than he did, which by his reckoning was just about everyone. Even as he aged, his self-confidence on the golf course, racquetball court, or film room remained so high that one proffered advice at one's own risk.

"He was so quiet," said Dan Reeves, Landry's former Cowboys running back, offensive assistant, and frequent golf partner. "In golf, he wasn't going to be telling you all kind of things. If you asked him something, he'd give you an opinion. But he fought it because he didn't want somebody else telling him what to do. You'd better not say, 'You know, Coach, you better keep your head down on that one.' You kept your mouth shut."

In 1989, the year after new Dallas owner Jerry Jones fired the only coach the Cowboys had ever known, Wellington Mara's son and eventual successor, John, and three of his brothers found themselves in the same grouping as Landry at an NFL Alumni Best-Ball outing at Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale, New York. John had just scored himself a piece of personal history, holing an eagle from 120 yards out. Flushed with excitement, John and his brothers frolicked with high-fives all around as Landry sat placidly in his cart. Finally, the old coach looked up.

"That was exciting," Landry deadpanned.

And that was Landry all over.

"Very quiet," John Mara said. "Lombardi was not that way. Very gregarious. Talkative and loud. Two completely different personalities."

But Landry was quite different at home. Alicia Landry remembered her husband as an intuitive, interesting conversationalist. Humorous, even. Not withdrawn by any means.

"He really wasn't," Alicia said. "He was very witty and very smart. I think smart people are witty because they get it. But he was very witty, very interesting. He was just a different person at the training table than he was at the dinner table."


Excerpted from "Lombardi and Landry"
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Copyright © 2011 Ernie Palladino.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents

Prologue IX

Introduction XIII

1 Strange Bedfellows 1

2 The Master and His Disciples 31

3 Summer 1956-Seeds of Something Special 55

4 The Season Starts 87

5 Blips and Baubles 109

6 Finally, an Offer 133

7 Beating the Browns 147

8 The Not-So-Greatest Game 169

9 Lombardi Moves On 187

10 Home to Dallas 201

11 Where it All Went 223

Epilogue 255

Bibliography 267

Acknowledgments 273

About the Author 275

Index 277

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