UW Health Sports Medicine 

Lucas at Large: Alvarez says Lombardi's coaching transcends eras

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If you're asking if Vince Lombardi could still be successful in today's NFL, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez is answering, "Absolutely, no question. Good coaches are flexible. They adjust.''

Vincent Thomas Lombardi was born on June 11, 1913 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In honor of what would have been Lombardi's 100th birthday on Tuesday -- he passed away in 1970 -- many have reflected on his Hall of Fame coaching career with the Green Bay Packers.

Celebrating his legacy, ESPN named Lombardi as the Greatest Coach in NFL History as part of its series on the top 20 coaches of all-time. TV analysts and sportswriters made up the selection panel.

"When I think of Lombardi, I think of discipline,'' said Alvarez, 66, the former UW head coach, who's a member of multiple halls of fame, including the Rose Bowl and College Football. "I also think of someone who had a great understanding of the game.

"Lombardi was meticulous like Woody Hayes (the former Ohio State coach). The way Lombardi coached football was not real fancy, but it was done right. It was about fundamentals -- that was driven into you -- and you were going to do the same things over and over until you perfected them.

"When I was in high school and college (in the '60s), Green Bay had made the turn and had become the best team in football. Everybody thought of Lombardi the same way; the same way you think of him today. Greatest of all-time? You can't argue against Lombardi.''

But could he survive in today's game?

"I think so because he would have had control of the franchise,'' Alvarez said. "He would have run the team and he would have been as strong as any player on that team. It would be unlike a lot of pro teams where a coach comes in and it's a temporary stop.

"If you don't get along with the $20 million-dollar-a season guy, it's short-lived. If you don't get along with the owner, it's short-lived. That would not have happened to Lombardi. The way Green Bay was structured, and considering how powerful he was, it reminds me of Bill Belichick in New England.''

As far as Lombardi dealing with today's easily-distracted athletes, Alvarez said, "All we ever hear about is how tough he was, but let's not forget about some of the players that he had -- like Paul Hornung and Max McGee. Those guys raised as much hell as anybody.''

One of the time-honored stories in the NFL was McGee breaking curfew and partying into the early morning hours before the first Super Bowl thinking that he wouldn't have to play against the Kansas City Chiefs. But after Boyd Dowler was injured, a hung-over McGee was forced into action.

McGee caught the first touchdown pass and finished with seven catches for 138 yards.

"All of the players respected Lombardi, but they still got away with a little bit, too,'' said Alvarez, chuckling. "Can you imagine today with all the social media coverage if someone went out until the wee hours of the morning before a Super Bowl?  But Lombardi could adapt to that stuff.''

Rounding out the top five behind Lombardi on ESPN's list of greatest NFL coaches was Bill Walsh, Don Shula, George Halas and Chuck Noll. Growing up in Burgettstown, Pa., some 25 miles outside of Pittsburgh, Alvarez was well aware of Noll's success in resurrecting the Steelers.

"I looked up to and respected a lot of NFL coaches, but I really liked Noll because that was a bad outfit that he turned into a great outfit,'' Alvarez said. "I liked coaches who did it the right way with fundamentals, toughness, good defense and hard-nosed football. I loved guys who coached that way.''

Nobody should be surprised, since it was also the Alvarez way of coaching.
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