Why Vince Lombardi Had It Wrong
If pro football had a face of God, it would look exactly like Vince Lombardi.
He’s the most revered sculpture on the gridiron’s Mount Rushmore — and deservedly so.
Lombardi won the NFL championship five of the ten seasons he was a head coach, including the first two Super Bowls. Despite taking over two cellar-dwelling teams prior to his arrival — first in 1959 with the Green Bay Packers and then in 1969 with the Washington Redskins — he never suffered a losing season.
Lombardi is lionized — not only for the way he coached and his no-nonsense philosophy — but for the man he was. Lombardi was a larger-than life character who symbolized honesty, integrity, hard work, and faith. To those around him, he as also father-figure, a teacher, a poet, and above all else — a motivator.
He was also one of the most quotable sports figures in history.
Lombardi shared many powerful words and phrases over the course of his life that resonated with millions, including many people who had no connection whatsoever to the game of football. Arguably, the most famous quote of all attributed to Lombardi over his storied career reads as follows:
Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. [See Footnote]
The message is clear — do whatever it takes to win.
But go back and read that quote again. First, you’ll notice that the prose is confusing. It’s even contradictory. After all, if winning is “the only thing,” then winning would certainly be “everything.” But Lombardi is alleged to have said “winning isn’t everything.” Got it?
Well, neither do I. But let’s move on.
The Lombardi quote tersely contradicts another equally famous sports quote, this one from old-time sportswriter Grantland Rice, who famously said:
It’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
Vince Lombardi and Grantland Rice are clearly at odds. The question is — can both men be right? If not, then who has the more righteous credo, expressive of the virtue that’s most important?
Tomorrow night, many parts of America will celebrate the return of a Friday night ritual — the high school football game.
Towns and cities in stadiums large and small will fill to capacity with crowds and band music. Players in gladiator uniforms will storm across green fields. Those they gaze to for guidance will have given speeches, mostly echoing the granite Lombardi creed.
This is the time of year when ballfields everywere will be blanketed by the collective frenzy of winning. It will be manifested in screaming parents on soccer fields, bloodthirsty antagonism, and young people — some barely old enough to understand the objective of the game — being musketed onto fields like cannon fire.
I wish that I could be a high school football coach — even if for just a season. My doctrine would not be about winning.
If blessed with the opportunity to inspire the young, I’d chose to coach the very worst high school football team in any city or state. Give me that team, give me the group of young people who hasn’t won a football game in years. Give me the roster of players that is undersized and lacks confidence. Give me team that knows they’re going to get destroyed almost every week.
Please. I beg. Give me the opportunity to speak to them, to teach them, to motivate them, and to inspire them. Not that I would turn things around. Not that I would magically transform that losing team into a winning team. I could not do that. I would be incapable of doing that. But at the end of the season, even though my team may not win many games, perhaps none at all, they would become better people. And they would all have one hell of a good time losing a shitload of ball games. I promise you — we’d have the happiest 0-11 team in the universe.
I realize how delusional this must all sound. I do not mean for it to be so. So let me explain.
Here in Las Vegas, the local newspaper puts out a special ”Football Preview” section this time of year. All the high school teams are profiled with write ups. The teams are ranked, the stars are highlighted, and the coaches are interviewed. The coaches’ quotes are just about always filled with cliches, drivel having nothing to do with reality. The coaches always vow to win and are usually overly optimistic about their prospects for the upcoming season.
Sure, winning is good. It can be fun to win (but not necesssarily). Looking at the bigger picture, for every winner there’s a loser. And a lot of these same coaches pontificating about winning a bunch of ball games this season are going to be dispirited and deflated along with their players and students when the leaves begin to fall.
The 1976 film The Bad News Bears isn’t really about sports at all.
Rather, it’s a scathing expose on American suburbia, depicting the very essense of our culture’s obsession with winning no matter what the endeavor and no matter who pays the ultimate cost. This vastly underrated and largely forgotten movie follows the story of a little league baseball team in southern California. But it could just as well apply to high school football today or any sport where young people are propelled into the competive seas like giant schools of krill, pummeled with the warped mentality that the most important thing in life is to defeat the other guy.
My team wouldn’t personify this perversion about achieving victory in every competition and conflict. To the contrary. My team would come to exemplify other things. More important things. More valuable lessons. My team would be about working together. My team would be about trying out new ideas. My team would be about doing what’s least expected, when you least expect it. My team would be about creating surprises. My team would be about having fun.
Want some specifics? Okay, here they are: We’d throw the ball every down…..we’d run weird offensive formations that have never been seen anywhere before…..we’d run double-reverses and Statue of Liberties……we’d blitz the other quarterback with all 11 guys…..we’d put anyone on the field that wanted to come and join the football circus…..we’d try onside kicks…..we’d run fake punts……and when we got our collective asses kicked when the game finally ended, we’d figure out which one of our players gave the best effort and we’d carry that player off the field on our shoulders just like it was Lombardi’s final game with the Packers. That’s right, the scoreboard might right 44-0, but the band would be playing our fight song, our fans would standing and cheering, and we’d be celebrating just like we won the national championship.
Imagine the look on the faces of the other (winning) team?
The bottom line is this. With the typical coach giving the usual Lombardi-esque talks, we’d probably have lost 44-0 anyways. The worst team gets humiliated no matter what. But a loss need not be a humiliating experience. Indeed, it could be a celebration.
Everything in life depends on how you look at it.
Alas, Vince Lombardi may have believed that winning was the most important thing. But I have come to realize there are things that are far more lasting and meaningful.
[Footnote] — Actually, this quote should be attributed to UCLA football coach Red Sanders, in 1950. However, Lombardi used the same quote many times. He reportedly meant to say, “Winning isn’t everything. But the will to win is the only thing.”