Curry: Lombardi's teachings stand test of time

Vince Lombardi was a great teacher, and his players were often afraid to let him down. AP Photo

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from former NFL player Bill Curry's new book, "Ten Men You Meet In The Huddle."

The very first day of my first training camp with the Green Bay Packers, and I was going to be late.

Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr and 50 other guys in gold helmets were already there. Not me. I was going to be late. My first day in the NFL was going to be my last, I was sure of it, because I … was … going … to … be … late.

How could this be happening to me? I had been in Chicago for the 1965 College All Star Game. Now I was in the Milwaukee Airport. The Packers were at our -- their -- training camp about 125 miles away. Short hop. Piece of cake. Except that North Central Airlines had just regretfully informed me that I had been bumped from my flight to Green Bay, and …

Panic has many levels, many manifestations, but the sensation that best sums up the feeling that swept over me was an overwhelming sense of certain doom. No guillotine ever traumatized a soon-to-be headless victim more than the bit of news I'd just received. At age 22, I faced the prospect of returning home to Georgia an NFL reject, forever banned from realizing my five-year-old dream because I had showed up late, tardy, not on time for a Vince Lombardi training camp.

Take a deep breath, Bill. Pull yourself together. Through the years, I have been cocky, even arrogant, about my ability to stay calm and function normally under extreme duress -- that is, to stop panic in its tracks. I can truthfully say that at no time in my life that ability been put to a sterner test.

My only salvation, as things would turn out, lay in the viral obsession with the Lombardi Mystique in Wisconsin that would soon spread across the United States. But I didn't know this at the time. All I could do was hope.

In a firm voice that belied my inner terror, I called for the branch manager of North Central Airlines, who dutifully presented himself, listened a moment, then promptly rolled into his best "Pacify the Jerk" persona. Gazing over my right shoulder as if checking out something more important, he said in a polite but dismissive tone that I was confirmed on the next flight, scheduled to depart the following morning.


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The following morning?

In desperation, I ostentatiously jotted down the manager's name, rank, and serial number … loudly announced that I was now going to be late to Vince Lombardi's training camp on my very first day … and that The Coach would be the first to learn tomorrow that North Central Airlines was responsible.

Obviously taken aback, the hitherto blasé functionary stiffened briefly, then broke out his best smile and stepped around the counter. He grabbed my hand and shook it as if it were a pump handle. He expressed a keen interest in my future, and then started barking orders to his underlings. In short order, he had my luggage pulled and placed in a single engine plane which whisked me off to Manitowoc, where North Central had a van waiting to deliver me to the Packers camp [at St. Norbert College] in West De Pere.

I made it with plenty of time to spare.

The Great Man looked as if he'd been standing, fidgeting, and scowling since before dawn. It was 4:15 p.m. on August 7, 1965, the afternoon of my first day as a Green Bay Packer.

As I approached Vince Lombardi, the famous smile with the even more famous teeth flashed in greeting. He stuck out his right hand, which I took, only to be surprised at the lack of firmness in the grip. I was soon to learn that his gentle grasp was the only aspect of the man that lacked power.

The former member -- at 5'8", 185 pounds -- of Fordham's legendary Seven Blocks of Granite in the mid-1930s was now, at 52 years of age, a living, breathing force field who exuded tangible, visceral energy. I wonder now if he intentionally lowered the squeeze factor of his handshake to put people at ease.

(Five years later, I would find his left hand more compelling as I timidly held it in mine in his hospital room at Georgetown Hospital, three months before he succumbed to cancer.)

Coach eyeballed me and asked, "Are you ready to go to work?" I nodded yes, tried to speak, came up dry, and finally croaked "Yes, sir. Uh, yes. I'm really ready."

Good thing I had rehearsed.

The morning of my second day as a Packer … I heard a resounding knock at my door, but I was too lazy to get up. The best I could offer up was a weak "Come on in." Just one of the other rookies dropping by, I figured. The door opened and there was the last person on earth I expected to see: Coach Lombardi.

I started up out of the bed, snapping to attention out of habit. He smiled at my surprise, then invited me downstairs to a meeting room. There I sat for two hours with the Oracle of Football, Leadership, and Winning. I was lucid for the first time since my arrival and had a notion of just how lucky I was to be getting a private tutorial.

It quickly became apparent that I wouldn't need the playbook I had brought along. Coach left his closed. Instead, he opened a yellow legal pad and began to draw his now famous set of systematized plays in an orderly, concise fashion.
The films, tapes and DVDs of Coach Lombardi drawing the Packer Sweep on a blackboard are among the most familiar of all instructional images to coaches, teachers, and businessmen to this day. In the "America's Game" series on Super Bowls from NFL Films that made its debut in 2006, the Super Bowl I story features a long segment of him standing at the blackboard delivering his Packer Sweep lecture. Many of today's fans, born long after Lombardi was gone, amaze me by quoting him.

His voice was clear and measured. He didn't distract with asides, nor did he make mistakes. His sure hand, orderly mind, and clear language described actions in terms a child could understand.

The Great Man then proceeded to teach me the famous Green Bay Packer Sweep. He drew and talked, talked and drew, each act seeming to drive the other.

    "The sweep's our basic play. Everybody knows it. Everybody expects it. Everybody thinks they can defend against it. To prove them wrong, we have to execute … perfectly.

    So, if the defensive tackle on the side we're going to lines up head-up or on the inside shoulder of our guard, you make an "even" call. You'll have to yell to be heard, and you can't turn your head because smart middle linebackers will be watching your every move. If you do anything that gives any kind of hint, they'll overplay that side and stop us cold.

    Now, if the defensive tackle lines up outside our guard, you'll shout "odd!"

    "Even" means you block the tackle to the play side, and "odd" means you block the middle linebacker. The play side offensive tackle hears your call and blocks the man you don't block.

    Got that?"

I'm nodding my head up and down, saying to myself, "Yes, I do! Yes, I do!" And I really, honestly did. I think …

Great teachers make you want to please them. When you do, and when they acknowledge it, you feel a surge of adrenalin and your senses heighten. Lombardi understood all of this and pressed on.

"Our system is complete, simple, and comprehensive," he went on. "We can attack the whole field. We have very little trickery. We really don't need it."

He summarized, "We win with execution. Something works, not because it's a brilliant piece of strategic or tactical thinking, but because our team has practiced the same plays, the same movements, and the same fundamentals over and over and over again."

How great a teacher was Vince Lombardi? The best way to answer that is to tell you that, 43 years later, I remember each one of the plays he outlined for me that day. I can draw each assignment, make the calls, and teach their installation. I remember the coaching points for the guards, tackles, and tight ends. I remember it all, as if it were yesterday.

That's how great a teacher Vince Lombardi was.

Vince Lombardi's approach to football was modeled on the fundamentals of his deep and profound Roman Catholic faith. Every day he reminded us of the priorities that must guide us: "Your religion, your family, and the Green Bay Packers will be your priorities as long as you are here! And in that order!"

As surely as he believed in daily celebration of the mass, he believed in daily practice of assignment, alignment, and execution. Faithful attendance to the details of football liturgy was basic. There was order, a logical progression for every aspect and concept. Salvation was to be found in victory, on the gridiron and in life. And just as the Holy Fathers had taught him, there would be no shirking personal responsibility.

The one distinction I noticed between Vince's football religion and the real one is that his was less forgiving of human frailty.

The stark difference between a Packers football service and the Catholic mass that Coach attended so, well, religiously, was that he conducted the former with Pentecostal zeal and Southern Baptist hellfire and damnation. Fear was the dominant theme.
He was honest and upfront about it:

"I will make you into a football player! I will put the fear of God in you! I will use fear to get what I want from you! I will make you afraid of me!"

And he did.

Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is currently the head coach at Georgia State University, which is slated to begin play in 2010.