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Lombardi Helped Change Redskins' Culture

His name evoked grandeur, for he was revered like no other coach in NFL history. Former NFL Films narrator John Facenda encapsulated the man's God-like reputation by saying dramatically with his customary oak voice, "LOM-BAR-DI."

That's Vince Lombardi, who coached the Redskins in 1969, one of the most memorable seasons in the franchise's 75-year history.

The Redskins finished 7-5-2, their first winning campaign since 1955 and only their fourth in about a quarter-century.

Just as importantly, the coach who detested losing, once saying "there's only one place in my game, and that's first place," transformed a perennial doormat into a team that walked with a swagger.

"We were in awe of him," said Redskins Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. "He had won, and he knew what it took to win. It didn't take me any time to understand why Green Bay was successful."

Lombardi arrived in Washington after coaching the Packers for nine seasons (1959-67), a period when Green Bay was the most feared team in the NFL. The Packers won two Super Bowls, five world championships, six Western Division titles and 73 percent of their games during his reign.

He was the Packers' general manager during the 1968 season, after which Redskins president Edward Bennett Williams lured him out of coaching retirement.

After Williams introduced him at a press conference on Feb. 6, 1969, at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel in Washington, Lombardi responded with brashness: "Gentlemen, it is not true that I can walk across the Potomac. Not even when it is frozen."

Lombardi accomplished many other feats, one of which was to command constant respect from his players. He was also a no-nonsense disciplinarian who leaned on his players psyche to get the most out of them.

"Vincent T. Lombardi was the greatest, and it probably took us six weeks to figure it out," said Carl Kammerer, a Redskins defensive end from 1963 to 1969. "He got in your face, and everybody would hear him say, 'Mister.' His voice would ring everywhere.

"But as soon as you realized that all he was trying to do was get you to play at a level above where you were satisfied at playing, he knew that there was more in you, and he was going to get it out. He had that kind of spirit, fire and desire."

Assistant General Manager Bobby Mitchell, who was then in his first season as a Redskins front-office executive after a Hall of Fame career as a Redskins receiver, said: "He would earn respect by pushing you right to the breaking point. But he knew just when to pull you over and hug you and say, 'I'm starting you in the game, I expect you to do this.' He'd release you from your anger, and it was just amazing."

Lombardi inherited a team equipped with offensive weapons in Jurgensen and wide receiver Charley Taylor, another future Hall of Fame inductee, and tight end Jerry Smith.

The coach drooled over Jurgensen's powerful right arm and ability to deliver gorgeous, accurate spirals that had made him the best pure passer in the NFL at the time.

Although Lombardi had coached Bart Starr, another Hall of Fame quarterback, during Green Bay's glory years, he once said Jurgensen "may be the best the league has ever seen. He is the best I've seen. He hangs in there under adverse conditions."

In training camp, a rookie running back named Larry Brown also impressed Lombardi.

But the coach saw that Brown was slow getting off the ball and learned that he was deaf in his right year. Lombardi had Brown fitted with a hearing aide so he could react better to the quarterback's signals.

Lombardi had little to work with on defense. He thus talked linebacker Sam Huff, a Redskins from 1964 to 1967 after a star-studded career with the Giants, out of retirement and into becoming a player-coach.

The Redskins won four of their first six games, then endured a stretch of two losses and a tie, before finishing the season 3-3. A 17-14 victory over New Orleans in the next-to-last game assured the winning season.

Jurgensen was extraordinary, throwing for 3,102 yards and 22 touchdowns and completing 62 percent of his passes. He made the Pro Bowl, as did Brown, who gained 888 yards rushing, the league's fourth-highest total, and was a runner-up Rookie of the Year voting.

Smith, cornerback Pat Fischer, linebacker Chris Hanburger and center Len Hauss also earned Pro Bowl honors.

Jurgensen loved playing for Lombardi, saying he had "great teaching skills and simplified the game more than any coach I ever played for."

Lombardi believed in doing simple things with consistent excellence rather than complicated things poorly, requiring players to practice plays over and over again until they executed them flawlessly, as the case with his famous power sweep in Green Bay. His practices were concise and intense.

"You had to enroll in the way he was going to approach the game," Fischer said. "We had to practice hard, and he wanted total concentration. Once in a while, he used that violent method of assailing someone.

"But it was almost by design, just to remind people that it was possible that if you don't concentrate 100 percent, this is what's going to happen. He would say, 'We're going to practice for an hour and 45 minutes, now give me 100 percent. I want to practice as close to perfect as we can.' "

By season's end, it was widely believed that the Redskins were en route to greatness under Lombardi.

But at the same time, his body continued to break down from what was diagnosed as a malignant form of colon cancer. He died at age 57 on Sept. 3, 1970, just before the start of a 1970 season when the Redskins fell to 6-8.

"It was devastating," said Brig Owens, a Redskins safety from 1966 to 1977. "I don't think there was a guy on our team who didn't shed a tear. We knew we had the privilege of being in the presence of someone really great, and that we had the privilege of being coached by him."

Lonbardi was enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 1971.

On Sept. 23 of this year, when the Redskins wore throwback uniforms against the New York Giants to mark Washington's 75th anniversary, the helmet was yellow-colored with a maroon "R" logo.

The Redskins used that helmet style during the 1970-71 seasons, and Lombardi was the inspiration behind it.

He pushed for the logo, which sat inside a white circle with Indian feathers hanging down from the side, because of its similarity to the "G" on the helmets worn by his Green Bay Packers for many years.

Unfortunately, he never got to see the new logo because of his death before the 1970 season.

Michael Richman is a freelance writer who specializes in Redskins history. His email address is mikerichman@redskinshistorian.com.

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