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Tuesday, July 10
Veni, Vidi, Vincie
By Jim Murray
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on December 2, 1963.

If you saw Vince Lombardi in a crowd of truck drivers and were asked to guess his occupation, the next to last thing you'd pick would be football coach. But that's all right, because you'd NEVER guess he was a Latin teacher.

Vince Lombardi
Vince Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers to five championships.
Vince Lombardi looks as if he should be climbing down from behind the wheel of a six-wheeled semi and saying "Okay, lady, where do you want the piano?" Or he should be down on the waterfront with a longshoreman's gaff unloading olive oil.

The face is swart and strong. The eyes are friendly but wary. This is a city boy who has been offered the Brooklyn Bridge before. It is not the face of a pedagogue. It is hard to imagine it in front of a blackboard teaching "hic, haec, hoc" the fact that "to, of, with, by, from, since" and "toward" always take the dative and the fact that all Gaul is divided into three parts.

But Vince Lombardi also taught physics. And the last guy who dug both physics and Latin was Leonardo Da Vinci and he wouldn't know an inside-right counter play from a zone defense or a buttonhook pattern.

ESPN Classic
SportsCentury will profile Vince Lombardi, who led the Packers to five championships, including a stretch of three straight from 1965-67, on Friday at 8 and 11 p.m. ET.
Vince Lombardi was a career assistant coach when he came to the Packers in 1959. This job is as anonymous as the signature in a motel registry, and after years of working for Red Blaik at Army and Jim Lee Howell at Yankee Stadium, Vince still had to show his pass to the gateman and stand in line for tables at Toots Shor's.

He had played football at Fordam in a line so tough bullets would bounce off it. The so-called "Seven Blocks of Granite" could have dammed a river without losing a drop and played in so many scoreless ties the scoreboard looked as if it had developed a stutter. The only way they could win was a safety. The line was equal parts Italian and Polish, with names that ran right off the page in the better tabloids and had so many: "i's" and "e's" and "u's" and "z's" that linotypers had to send out for reserves in a Fordam-Pitt game.

Lombardi was a recognized genius at football many years before the public found out about it, since it was a trade secret. But by 1959, the Green Bay franchise had fallen into such despair that it needed either a genius or divine intervention. The team had won one game the year before. It was run by a committee consisting of 13 members, which is the same thing as saying it wasn't run by anybody. It was parked by the side of the road.

Lombardi was out of place in that setting, where you could see cows instead of subways and hear crickets instead of cab horns. Green Bay was as secret as a naval code in war, and draft choices were found wandering all over the hills of Wisconsin with bloodhounds when they were asked to report.

Vince demanded a five-year contract and the general managership. He told the committee he would send for them when he needed them but not to wait around the phone. He went over the list of his personnel and briefly considered trading it off to the Mayo Clinic for their outpatient list. This was the only team he had ever seen that had more whirlpool baths than it had players.

You can always tell a losing team. It has more aches and pains than a bus wreck, and Lombardi first walked through and announced he didn't want to see anybody in the whirlpool bath unless he had already had the last rights. As a result, he has players playing 60 minutes today in such bad shape vultures are circling over them.

His first action reporting to camp was to pick up one of the biggest stars, a player who reported to practice only when the taverns were closed, by the scruff of the neck and slam him against a dormitory wall. He called for the dossier on Paul Hornung and, when they handed him a copy of "Playboy" magazine and said "Open to any page," he set his kickers to pointing the ball at Hornung until he had Hornung too tired even to read "Playboy," never mind to act it out.

It took him two whole years to build a championship team and it took the FBI to wreck it.

Ironically, Vince Lombardi, the New York boy, the city kid who knew all the angles, was way ahead of his league in warning his superstars. In his fine book "Run to Daylight," put together by my friend Red Smith and ghosted by Bill Heinz, Lombardi tells how he laid it on the line to his club. "I had a visit the other day," he said, "from two FBI men. They told me they're keeping a closer watch on professional sports than ever. The Attorney General reads every report ...."

"Any one of you, you meet a man, and he says if it's you, Jim, he's an old friend of Ben Schwartzwalder of Syracuse. He talks about his friend, Ben, and what a great coach Ben is. He's a nice-looking guy and very friendly and he buys you dinner.... He isn't a friend of Ben Schwartzwalder. He's never met him, and he's a hoodlum."

The lesson was lost. The man who could teach Latin, physics or football tripped over simple American morality. Or his team did. Vince comes to the Coliseum this weekend, and he thinks he sees a bare thin crack of daylight still showing for his team to run for this year. When asked if he will make it, he smiles a wistful smile. But if I were George Halas and the Bears, I think I'd remember what Confucius said: "When a crocodile smiles, count your limbs."

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.