Within the pantheon of football gods these two men represent Apollo and Dionysus. The ever exuberant Vince Lombardi and the stoic Tom Landry. From 1954 through 1958, these two men were two sides of the same coin, Coach Lombardi as the offensive coordinator and Coach Landry as the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. In the book Giants: What I Learned About Life from Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, Pat Summerall recounts the 1958 season when as a kicker, a defensive end, and a player expected to fill in on offense, he was coached by both men.
I am not old enough to remember watching a Lombardi coached team play, but he was part of my life. My Italian-American grandmother, a serious football fan, taught me that Lombardi was the epitome of a football coach. As a kid, the reverent way people talked about him made it clear, Lombardi was a legend, gone, but not forgotten. And, during the 1980’s, ESPN could have been the Lombardi channel, as NFL Films featuring the legendary coach were in heavy rotation.
But, on Sundays, a tall soft-spoken Texan in a sport coat and tie, wearing a fedora, got my vote for Ultimate Football Coach. Landry’s discipline inspired confidence. I never, ever, not once in my life felt that a Tom Landry coached Cowboy’s team wasn’t capable of winning a football game. As long as they weren’t playing the Giants, I was happy to watch those teams work under his leadership.
Remarkable in Their Similarities
As larger than life figures, their differences in personality tend to mask the similarities. But, Summerall makes a point of highlighting the traits that they shared.
Both were men of faith. Lombardi went to mass every morning. The unwritten Landry code was Faith, Family, and Football. Their level of devotion was a demonstration of a shared belief that although perfection is not attainable, striving for it is worthwhile.
Both men considered themselves to be teachers. Their teaching styles were different, but both believed that their players needed to understand why something was to be done a certain way, before they could properly perform. Consequently, no detail was too small, whether it was Lombardi calculating the length of the first step the end should take to make a block or Landry making sure the center knew how many times the ball had to spin, so that when it was placed, the laces faced away from the kicker. The result of their teaching was precise thinking by the players. On those few occasions, when a player was faced with a situation that he could not think his way out of, Lombardi liked to say, “Well in that case, you react like a football player.” Landry, the engineer, would finish his lectures by saying, “And if you do it my way, we’ll win.”
For both men, character mattered. The values and habits of their daily behavior revealed who and what they were. Lombardi’s character, in his own words: “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time.” Landry’s character led Hollywood Henderson, no saint during his playing years, to say: “Landry was easy to dislike. He was easy to criticize. He was easy to make fun of. But when it is all said and done, you want to be like him.”
You could do a lot worse than to ask yourself WWLD…What Would Lombardi Do or What Would Landry Do. Both men had an absolute intensity, focused on improvement. How many of us can say that we have really ever tried to give 100% effort both physically and mentally to any given project. It’s easy to imagine these two men, as father figures, looking at your performance and finding ways for you to improve. Who can doubt that Lombardi gave every ounce of strength and all of his commitment to help his players…his family. Who can doubt that there was purpose behind Landry’s discipline and lessons to learn from his emotional control. If leadership is a sacred trust, these men understood that and did their best to honor it. In this they were the same. No man is perfect and there is no perfect coach, teacher, or parent, but there is value in striving for perfection.