Even though his only previous head-coaching experience had come on the sidelines at St. Cecelia High School in Englewood, New Jersey, Vincent Thomas Lombardi was hired as the coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers on January 28, 1959.
At his introductory press conference, Lombardi delivered one of the first of many pithy lines he’d eventually become known for: “I’ve never been associated with a loser and I don’t expect to be now.”
And he wasn’t.
The Packers—who were 1-10-1 in 1958 and hadn’t had a winning record in 11 years—went 7-5 and Lombardi’s first year and he was named NFL Coach of the Year. The following year in 1960, they narrowly lost the NFL Championship Game.
In 1961, the Packers won the NFL Championship Game and went on to win four more titles in the next six years, giving Lombardi a total of five titles (including Super Bowls I and II) in his nine seasons in Green Bay.
Though he didn’t win anything during his lone season coaching the Redskins in Washington, Lombardi’s overall winning percentage in all games (playoffs included) was .750, the best in NFL history among coaches with at least 100 victories.
So, though there are probably some folks in New England who might disagree, it’s not really hyperbole to say today is the 60th anniversary of the best coach in the history of the NFL getting his start in the league.
To mark it, we’ve rounded up 12 quotes from Lombardi’s former players, associates, and rival coaches as well as the man himself that paint a picture of the Hall of Fame coach and make it easy to see why the Super Bowl trophy now bears his name.
Lombardi speaking to his team at the start of training camp in 1961: “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
Pat Peppler, Green Bay’s personnel director from 1963 through 1968, on Lombardi’s willingness to make changes: “Vince followed an old formula. And I know he thought this because we discussed it. There was a guy named Jack Adams who ran the Detroit Red Wings for years. He was famous because he was always getting rid of his older players while they still had some value and replacing them with younger players. That was what Vince had in mind.”
Lombardi on the qualities that make a leader: “A leader must identify himself with the group, must back up the group, even at the risk of displeasing superiors. He must believe that the group wants from him a sense of approval. If this feeling prevails, production, discipline, morale will be high, and in return, you can demand the cooperation to promote the goals of the community.”
Former Green Bay defensive lineman Henry Jordan on Lombardi’s version of equality: “He treats us all the same. Like dogs.”
Lombardi on what it takes to be successful in life: “Most important of all, to be successful in life demands that a man make a personal commitment to excellence and to victory, even though the ultimate victory can never be completely won. Yet that victory might be pursued and wooed with every fiber of our body, with every bit of our might and all our effort. And each week, there is a new encounter; each day, there is a new challenge.”
Former NFL player James Jones on Lombardi leaving his mark on the NFL: “There’s a reason the title trophy is named after Vince Lombardi. The iconic leader spent just 10 years as a head coach in the league and accomplished many feats: 96-34-6 regular-season record, a 9-1 playoff record, five championships and the first two Super Bowl wins. There are many other head coaches—including Bill Walsh, whom I’d consider runner-up in this debate—who have done a lot in the NFL, but the amount Lombardi accomplished in a relatively short period of time is what is most impressive.”
Lombardi on being the head of a football team: “Running a football team is no different than running any other kind of organization—an army, a political party or a business. The principles are the same. The object is to win—to beat the other guy. Maybe that sounds hard or cruel. I don’t think it is. It is a reality of life that men are competitive and the most competitive games draw the most competitive men. That’s why they are there—to compete. The object is to win fairly, squarely, by the rules—but to win.”
Former Vikings coach Bud Grant on facing Lombardi: “Okay, well, Lombardi and I didn’t get along. He’s a tyrant, and he coached that way. Great coach, but he coached with fear, and he treated everybody—whether you’re the president or the secretary of the club—with bombastic fear. I had three occasions where I dealt with Lombardi. So my first year with the Vikings, the first game I ever won as an NFL coach, was against the defending champion Packers in Milwaukee. We beat them in a very close game, and I think we only threw for about 80 yards, played good defense, ran the ball, got a couple breaks and won. After the game we’re walking off the field. I’ve always shaken hands after games, but your heart’s not in it. It’s a ceremony. So I put my hand out, and he wouldn’t even shake hands with me. And that was the last time I ever talked to him.”
Lombardi on the key to success after a Super Bowl: “There is a tendency to stay with the players that won the championship—even if he isn’t as good as he was. And it’s the very human thing to do. However, there is no room for that type of emotion. Football is a hardheaded cold business. No matter what a player did last year, he must go if he can’t do it this year.”
Former Packers guard Jerry Kramer on Lombardi’s lasting impact on his players and team: “My team, the Green Bay Packers, won the first Super Bowl because of one man, our coach, Vince Lombardi. He molded us from losers into winners—and into men as well. Most of my teammates have enjoyed great success since they stopped playing football. This, too, is because of Lombardi—the principles he urged on us, the dreams he stirred in us … Yes, Vince Lombardi was perfect for his era. He shouted, bullied, drove us, underpaid us and refused to spoil us. But portraying him as a relic misses the point: He would have been perfect for any era.”
Lombardi on himself: “I’ve been in football all my life and I don’t know whether I’m particularly qualified to be a part of anything else, except I consider it a great game, a game of many assets, by the way, and I think a symbol of what this country’s best attributes are: courage and stamina and a coordinated efficiency or teamwork.”
Former Bears coach George Halas on Lombardi’s philosophy as a coach: “You might reduce Lombardi’s coaching philosophy to a single sentence: In any game, you do the things you do best and you do them over and over and over. Lombardi didn’t surprise or confound you. He just beat you.”