Two of the most iconic figures in the history of professional football could not have had more different personalities. Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay packers was a brash, outgoing, larger than life figure. Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys was quiet and soft-spoken.
Each put their own imprint on the NFL, forever changing the way the game is played. Yet for all the differences, Landry and Lombardi were forged from the same NFL stock, as assistant coaches with Jim Lee Howell’s New York Giants of the 1950’s. With Lombardi overseeing the offense and Landry the defense, the Giants of Gifford, Huff, Brown and Conerly were one of the pillars that the NFL dynasty of today were built on.
Award-winning writer Ernie Palladino brings football fans back to that time, and looks at the Landry-Lombardi legacy, in his new book Lombardi and Landry: How Two of Pro Football’s Greatest Coaches Launched Their Legends and Changed the Game Forever (Skyhorse Publishing).
Big Lead Sports spoke with Palladino about his book and what fans should know about these two great coaches. their personalities and why they are still relevant to the NFL today.
Big Lead Sports: What was the most surprising thing people will learn?
Ernie Palladino: I think on Lombardi’s end, the most surprising thing is that, at the beginning, he turned from being a dictatorial assistant coach at West Point to one who would actually talk to his players and mold his system to their skills and desires with the Giants.
BLS: Anything specific that comes to mind?
EP: One story that sticks out comes from his first training camp. He initially insisted on having the quarterback option in his playbook, since it worked so well at Army against the lesser college players. But Charlie Conerly, by then an aging and creaky quarterback, wanted no part of getting obliterated by the likes of Ed Sprinkle and the other great defensive linemen of the era. So Conerly refused to call the option in practice and scrimmages. Lombardi eventually sensed the resistance to his college strategy from Frank Gifford and Conerly, among others, and actually sought them out later that camp for advice. And you know what? He changed his playbook. Took out the plays that plays they didn’t like, put in plays more conducive to their personalities. That’s a far cry from how he handled himself in Green Bay, where his word and his ways were law. But he showed some uncommon [for him] flexibility there.
BLS: What about Tom Landry?
EP: I think the whole idea that he fell into coaching by accident is fascinating. He had designs on going into the oil business with his industrial engineering degree. But Steve Owen used him as a translator for his broad-stroked defensive theories, and when Howell came along, he hired Landry as a player/coach. It wasn’t until 1956, really, that Landry decided he might give head coaching a shot, and then just for a couple of three years until he got fired. After that, he’d go into the oil business. By the time he did get fired, 29 years down the road, it was a bit late to get into the oil business, though he did run an insurance firm with his son.
BLS: How did they flip strengths once they became head coaches?
EP: Actually, Lombardi didn’t flip. He hired Phil Bengston to run the defense, and he continued to run the offense. But he did learn a great deal about defense from Landry, and that knowledge led him to put all his best athletes on that side of the ball. Although he had great talent like Ray Nitschke, Willie Wood, and those guys over there, he never did become a great defensive coach. Landry, on the other hand, had such an analytical mind that he became a fantastic offensive coach as well. In fact, one of the first things he did when he got to Dallas was to design an offense to beat his own 4-3 D! He made a regular practice of putting backs in motion to create confusion, and had his offensive linemen stand up straight before they went into their stances to shield the backfield from the defense’s view for a split second, lessening the pre-snap recognition time that set his defense off from others. Ingenious stuff for the day.
EP: No. Landry had zero concerns about being passed over. He was all set to go home to Texas and get into the oil business. But then his name started getting around as a genius and, bam, he got two offers. Bud Adams was starting the Houston franchise in the AFL, and he wanted Landry badly, and almost got him. But Wellington steered him to the Murchison brothers in Dallas before the NFL even awarded that city a franchise. So he was set. And if he hadn’t had those offers, he was going to go happily into the oil business in Texas. Either way, he was dead-set on going home.
BLS:Was either considered as a replacement for Jim Lee Howell?
EP: Well, as silly as it may sound, that threesome put Wellington Mara in a tough position. Lombardi was definitely ready to become a head coach by 1957, but how do you get rid of a head coach in Howell who had just won a championship in 1956? Then, Lombardi gets an offer after ’58 and goes. So the handwriting is on the wall, but Howell has had no serious thoughts about stepping down. Can’t get rid of a head coach who just took you to two title game appearances in three years. So Howell sticks for ’59. They go to the title game again, and Landry goes. And a couple of weeks after Landry takes the job in Dallas, Howell announces that 1960 will be his last year. Wellington was pissed, but what could he do? Wellington had great loyalty to his people, and Howell was one of them. He wasn’t going to fire him at any cost, and certainly not to promote as yet untested assistants.
EP: Oh, yeah. Wellington said you could hear Lombardi from five blocks away, and you couldn’t hear Landry from the next chair. Howell called them “As different as daylight and dark.” Lombardi constantly prodded his players, yelling in film sessions, screaming on the practice field. Landry would barely say a word, and Gifford said that when he did get up to the blackboard for his classroom sessions he was “as boring as hell.” They never lost those traits.
BLS: What was a quiet Texan like Landry like in New York?
EP: Landry and his family actually enjoyed their time here. He and Alicia often took the kids to Central Park and the museums and such. But deep down, he was a Texan, and he and his wife wanted their kids raised there. New York was basically a very pleasant, professional stopover for them. But they were always intent on going back home.
BLS: Which do you think Giants owner Wellington Mara considered his bigger loss: Landry to Dallas or Lombardi to Green Bay?
EP: Losing Lombardi was by far his biggest regret. Wellington called letting Lombardi get away his biggest mistake, and when Howell finally stepped down he made an effort to lure Lombardi back from Green Bay. He had a deal with the Packers that the Giants would get first dibs on him if Howell ever left, but the Packers reneged. And Lombardi wasn’t about to leave, either, after taking the Packers to the 1960 championship game. He’d grown to love his players and knew he had the foundation of something big. Wellington never figured he’d get Landry to stay, anyway. Landry wanted to go home, and Wellington would have had to offer an inordinate amount of money to keep him. And even at that, Landry was so intent on heading back to Texas, he might have gone for less just to get back home.
BLS: Which would have made the better head coach for the Giants when Howell stepped aside?
EP: Lombardi, definitely. The Giants were a New York kind of team – grizzled, hard-nosed – and Lombardi was a New York guy with all the same qualities. He and Wellington had grown to be great friends, and Well would have given him all the leeway he wanted short of running the organization. And, unlike Allie Sherman, Lombardi appreciated Landry’s defense enough that he’d have found someone with a Landry-like philosophy to run that side of the ball, as opposed to systematically destroying it as Sherman did. Lombardi never, ever, would have suggested trading guys like Rosey Grier and Sam Huff until they were on their last legs as players.