The early months of 1969 were remarkable in Washington sports.
On Feb. 21, Ted Williams, the superb but iconoclastic hitter, agreed to manage the ever-hapless Senators whom he would turn into winners for the first time in 16 seasons. In March, Maryland hired coach Lefty Driesell, a move that began the area’s transformation into the college basketball hotbed that it still remains. But the true shocker came 45 years ago today when the peerless Vince Lombardi left Green Bay’s front office to coach the long-downtrodden Redskins.
This was not a Hall of Fame quarterback feinting at coaching like the man he replaced, Otto Graham. The Redskins were suddenly working for the dynamo who had prodded the Packers to five championships in seven seasons before retiring after Super Bowl II.
Remember the delirium when Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs returned to the Redskins after an 11-year retirement in 2004? Try doubling that “savior” belief and you have an idea of how Lombardi was greeted when it was announced that he would coach the Redskins, who hadn’t made the playoffs since 1945 and hadn’t been winners since 1955.
“It’s not true that I can walk across the Potomac,” Lombardi quipped at his initial press conference before adding, “even when it is frozen.”
The noted taskmaster certainly had no intention of allowing the Redskins to remain frozen in mediocrity.
“I will demand a commitment to excellence and to victory,” Lombardi said. “Why did I choose Washington among offers from other cities? Because it is the capital of the world. And I have some plans to make it the football capital.”
Cornerback Mike Bass, who almost made Lombardi’s defending champion Packers as a 12th-round draft choice in 1967, knew all about Lombardi’s tough love teaching methods. And after getting into just two games in two years with Detroit, Bass was thrilled when he got a call from the Redskins shortly after Lombardi’s arrival in Washington.
“Sure I was intimidated by Coach Lombardi, but he scared everybody,” Bass recalled. “He was the father figure that you just wanted to hear say, ‘Good job.’ I had learned a lot from being in his training camp, things like concentration, making sure that your hips are right and that you know where your help is coming from. He said that a DB had to have a short memory. He said, ‘Show me a DB who never gets beat and I’ll show you a DB sitting on the bench.’ When he cut me, Coach Lombardi told me, ‘You can play in this league.’ That’s all I needed to hear. And when I got the chance to try to make his team again, I played every practice like it was a game.”
Bass was far from alone in reacting that way. Sonny Jurgensen, the hardly-chiseled Pro Bowl quarterback whom Graham had allowed to skip some conditioning work, was so happy when Lombardi didn’t mention his weight during their first meeting that he reported to training camp in the best shape of his career. And Jurgensen did up-downs and the rest of the demanding drills with his teammates.
“Coach Lombardi was a players’ coach, always fair,” said safety Brig Owens. “He said that if you could handle his pressure the games would be easy. He was right. If you couldn’t handle his pressure he got rid of you. His commitment to excellence, success and team was contagious.”
The Redskins quickly learned that to Lombardi being 10 minutes early to meetings meant that you were 10 minutes late.
“Coach Lombardi treated everyone equally, like dogs,” defensive end Carl Kammerer said with a chuckle. “He’d be screaming in your face and you had to realize that it wasn’t personal. He was just trying to get the best out of you, what you owed yourself and your teammates.”
Lombardi realized that Larry Brown, his eighth-round draft choice was late coming off the ball. The coach sent the rookie to get his hearing checked. Turns out that Brown was deaf in his right ear. With a hearing aid installed in his helmet, Brown ran for 888 yards, the second-most in Redskins history to that point.
Washington, which had lost seven of its last nine to finish 5-9 in 1968, started 4-1-1 under Lombardi, losing only to powerful Cleveland. Routs by defending NFL champion Baltimore and Dallas and a tie with lowly Philadelphia dampened any postseason dreams, but on Dec. 14, the Redskins edged visiting New Orleans to improve to 7-4-2 and clinch their first winning season in 14 years. The loss to the Cowboys in the finale couldn’t spoil the joy in the locker room and in the city.
“I loved talking football with [Lombardi],” said Jurgensen, who led the league in passing. “He simplified the game of football. He could communicate and teach it like no one else I’ve been around. [Packers quarterback] Bart Starr had told me that Vince would make the games fun because we would be so well-prepared. He was right. It was the best passing offense I played in. That was my favorite season.”
In part because it was so singular. What no one knew was that Lombardi had cancer. Just 17 days before the start of the 1970 season, he died at 57. The Redskins slipped to 6-8 under Lombardi’s assistant, Bill Austin. They would become contenders under coach George Allen in 1971 and champions for coach Joe Gibbs in 1982, but Bass believes, “If coach Lombardi had lived, we would’ve won and kept winning.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.