We Reminisce / Dec 13, 2010 / 1:30 pm

Dime Exclusive: Vince Lombardi Transcended Basketball

Vince Lombardi

The story of Vince Lombardi is one that is universally familiar to sports fans. When you hear the name Lombardi you associate it with the Green Bay Packers, Super Bowl championships, the Lombardi trophy and one of the greatest coaching minds to ever live. Don’t get me wrong, this would be an accurate depiction of Vince, but there’s much more behind the man who was known for telling his players, “Winning isn’t everything, its the only thing.”

If you want to educate yourself on the legend of Vince Lombardi and what made him a permanent A-list sports icon, there are many ways to do so. Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss‘ book, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi, has been called one of the best sports biographies every written, and HBO recently premiered the documentary, “Lombardi,” and people are also calling that a winner. But if you want to get the most intimate perspective of Lombardi’s life, “Lombardi” on Broadway is the way to go.

I was fortunate enough to attend “Lombardi” starring Dan Lauria as Vince Lombardi. The play shows the audience that Lombardi was much more than just an intense football coach who the demanded the best from his players. He was also an intense basketball coach who demanded the best from his players. That’s right, Vince Lombardi was also a basketball coach. His first head coaching job was actually as a basketball coach for St. Cecelia’s High school in New Jersey from 1942-1947. His next coaching gig was at his alma mater Fordham University, where he coached the freshman basketball and football teams for one year before committing the rest of his life to the sport of football.

One of Lombardi’s basketball players at St. Cecelia’s was a man by the name of Mickey Corcoran. If you don’t know who Mickey Corcoran is, here’s a brief history lesson. Mickey Corcoran played basketball for Lombardi at St. Cecelia’s for three years. Corcoran went on to become a legendary high school basketball coach in New Jersey and New York for over 40 years. One of his players over the 40 years was Bill Parcells. Corcoran took a liking to the sometimes hardheaded Parcells because he noticed his coaching potential from the beginning and much of Parcells’ success is credited to the teachings of Corcoran. People who know Lombardi most say that the closest coach to him is Parcells.

I was fortunate enough to talk to Corcoran about his relationship with Lombardi and what he remembers about playing for Vince Lombardi the basketball coach.

“He had never coached basketball in his life, he never played basketball,” says Corcoran. “He wasn’t a basketball guy. They gave him 200 dollars to coach the basketball team just to get him to come there and coach… He and I had a great relationship from jump street. When I was in high school, if we weren’t playing a game at night, he’d say ‘call your mother, we’re going out to Sheepshead Bay to have dinner with my mother.’ We did that four or five times, it was really tremendous. He wasn’t the greatest at X’s and O’s; he was just learning the game from other coaches, but he was a great great coach for me and the basketball team. He really was a great basketball coach.

He ripped me pretty good in practice one day. He was all over me like white on rice. I came out of the locker room that same day and he saw me going up the steps and says, ‘Mick, come in here…Today is a tough day, tomorrow is going to be a better day.’ He was a master psychologist. He took me from the depths right up to the top of the world. His best characteristic was his player-coach relationships. I coached for 40 years and player-coach relationships is the most important thing in the coaching business.”

Members of the Toronto Raptors media team were also in attendance on the night that I attended the show. Amongst them was respected sportscaster for the Raptors, Jack Armstrong. Like Lombardi, Armstrong was born in Brooklyn, and coached basketball at Fordham for four years before moving on to coach Niagara for 10 years, nine as a head coach — so to say Lombardi has had a big influence on his life would be an understatement.

“I was an assistant coach at Fordham from ’84 to ’88,” says Armstrong. “My office was in the Vince Lombardi center so everywhere you turned you saw pictures of the Green Bay Packers, quotations, books and I’ve listened to records of Lombardi’s speeches…I coached Cory Carlesimo, P.J. Carlesimo‘s youngest brother, and their father Pete played with Lombardi at Fordham. You would run into people everyday that either went to school with Lombardi or played for Lombardi. As a young coach you try to draw from not just your own sport…We all have the same problems, we all have the same challenges. The rules of the game are different, the sport is different, but it’s all the same because it’s team sports. I think Lombardi could be successful in any era.

As far as the play, I thought it was remarkable. I don’t care if you’re a football fan, or a baseball fan, or a hockey fan or a basketball fan. I think the message is well beyond just football; the message is about taking pride in your work and teamwork.”

The biggest story in the NBA this year surrounds the Miami Heat, and if they’ll be able to find the chemistry to win a championship this year. Lombardi could definitely relate because Hall of Famers Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Dave Robinson all played for Lombardi at the same time and the relationship between the four of them was one of the pivotal plots of the play. So how would Lombardi manage the situation down in Miami?

“He would challenge these guys on a day to day basis to completely strip their minds of ‘me’ and ‘I'”, continues Armstrong. “It’s about constantly caring about each other and coming together against all odds and playing as a family, playing as a unit. I think he would be a lot more forceful than anything you see from a Pat Riley or Erik Spoelstra; but a lot of that has to do with the era we live in now with agents and posses and all that. He would appeal to the pride of particularly a Dwyane Wade who has won. He would say, ‘Dwyane you’ve won, I need you. Your partnership with me is the most important because we have to teach these guys what it means to be a member of the Miami Heat like it would be with the Green Bay Packers.”

Other basketball coaches who have come through to see “Lombardi” include Tom Pecora and Bob Knight, while others from Steve Lavin to Tom Izzo to Larry Brown have marked their schedules for an open spot to see the play when they come through New York. Vince Lombardi is an inspiration to us all, no matter if its on or off the sports gridiron. If you get a chance, go see “Lombardi” on Broadway, you won’t be disappointed. It will be playing through April 2011.

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  • http://www.dimemag.com Aron Phillips

    Amazing article! Great work, Jon.

  • S.A.C.

    @John

    Not to nit pick.

    But Lombardi never actually made that winning quote.

    I know it was famously attributed to him, because that quote used to be behind his desk at one of his earlier jobs, but he didn’t actually say it (or believe that). Lombardi was more concerned with perfect offensive and defensive execution. But that’s another story.

    How do I know? Because the actor who’s playing him on Broadway (who researched the role obviously) said “that’s not actually true”. He also said Lombardi’s various Biographers have concurred.

    Just wanted to point that out, since you otherwise wrote such a informative article.

  • Jon Thompson

    Aron, Thanks!

    S.A.C., I’m actually aware of that. In the play they mentioned he didn’t come up with it but he was still known for saying it to his teams. But yea, you’re right, originally it came from someone else and I can’t remember where they said it came from in the play

  • http://deleted dagwaller

    JT – Great article!

    SAC – good note.