Ted Lewis: ‘Lombardi’s Legacy’ to have captive audience

By TED LEWIS

Advocate sportswriter

Born nine months after Vince Lombardi died in 1970, Saints quarterback coach Joe Lombardi never knew his legendary grandfather.

So over the years he’s absorbed everything he could about the man whose Green Bay Packers won five NFL championships.

But ESPN’s Seth Markman believes Joe — and the rest of us — will hear something new Thursday night.

That’s when “Lombardi’s Legacy,” airs following the unveiling of the top five NFL coaches of all time (you can guess who’s No. 1). It all coincides with what would have been Vince Lombardi’s 100th birthday next Tuesday.

“We’re going to look back at his legacy and lasting impact on the league,” said Markman, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer. “I can tell you, we’ve gone through a lot of stuff just to see what we could find that hadn’t been seen before.”

As it turned out, they did find something in the NFL Films archives — an in-game audio tape of Lombardi coaching.

“My dad (Vince Lombardi Jr.) has talked to me quite a bit about my grandfather and I’ve read and watched so much I feel like I know him,” said Joe Lombardi, who counts among his most-prized possessions a framed game plan from Vince Lombardi’s days with the Packers. “But I’m very anxious to hear that tape.

“It sounds pretty neat.”

There’s lots to like about the rest of the show as well.

Chris Berman will host the show along with former Packers’ guard Jerry Kramer and Mike Ditka.

Why Ditka? He never played for Lombardi. In fact, he was a member of the archrival Chicago Bears for the first six years of his career.

But Ditka is also a Lombardiphile.

Back in 1999, his last year as coach of the Saints, Ditka joined historian Stephen Ambrose and Davis Maraniss for a discussion of Maraniss’ definitive biography of Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered.” Ditka spoke movingly that night about how much he admired Lombardi’s character and other qualities of leadership, so much so that he had only three pictures in his office — George Halas and Tom Landry, his coaches with the Bears and Dallas Cowboys respectively, and Lombardi.

Markman said he didn’t know that, but Ditka’s respect for Lombardi had struck him so much that he wanted Ditka on the show.

Hall of Fame Packers quarterback Bart Starr also appears, along with several former and current NFL coaches.

Markman said Joe Lombardi, who has been with the Saints since 2007 and has been in coaching since he graduated from the Air Force Academy, will be referenced as continuing his grandfather’s legacy, although had Vince Lombardi lived to see Joe become an adult, he might have disapproved of his chosen profession.

“He wouldn’t let my dad coach,” Joe said. “So he probably wouldn’t have let me either.”

One thing Joe is sure of — his grandfather would have been as successful now as he was in the 1960s because of his ability to adjust to changing times, even though according to a story Paul Horning told him Vince Lombardi never cottoned to the idea of players making more money than he did.

Making Vince Lombardi relevant to the ESPN’s core audience — men under 40 — is a prime purpose of the show.

“If you’re under 50, Vince Lombardi is someone you know only through clips,” said Markman, who happens to be the same age as Joe Lombardi. “To young people, he may just be a name on the trophy.

“But we believe everyone who watches this will learn a little bit.”

There’s one story they won’t hear.

In 1969, after he had left coaching and spent a year as president of the Packers, Lombardi, at the urging of Jim Taylor, met with Saints owner John Mecom who offered him a piece of the team if he would return to the sideline.

But Lombardi wisely surmised that he couldn’t work for Mecom and instead took the same post with the Washington Redskins, whom he guided to their first winning season in 14 years before cancer took his life a year later.

Vince Lombardi coaching the Saints?

The mind boggles at how the course of history would have been changed.