Publication Date: Sept. 2011
Hollywood may have its share of Schwab’s Drugstore discoveries, but there are no better success stories than those which New York produces. Liza Minelli sang (we don’t recognize Sinatra’s hijacking of that wonderful song), “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” — but they’re more than just fanciful lyrics.
As the Giants gear up for this season’s final showdown against the Dallas Cowboys, there’s one tale of “making it” in New York that’s worth remembering: The ascension of Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry to legendary coaching status with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys (respectively). Those two men weren’t born head coaches. They had to work their way up the ranks. And they did that right here, as New York Giants assistant coaches under Jim Lee Howell from 1954-59.
“Lombardi and Landry: How Two of Pro Football’s Greatest Coaches Launched Their Legends and Changed the Game Forever” chronicles the NFL’s greatest duo in the formative stage of their professional coaching careers. Without the Giants, and without the unprecedented power Howell handed over to his two geniuses, the names of Lombardi and Landry may only have become famous in their side careers in banking and oil.
Instead, they went on to make their names in the league’s two most unlikely outposts. For the bombastic, innovative Lombardi, it was Green Bay, a long-time loser — the end of the NFL earth where coaches threatened to send their troublemakers and underachievers. For Landry it was Dallas, a city that had yet to be awarded a franchise when he signed a contract with hopeful owner Clint Murchison after the 1959 season.
Success? Oh yes. Lombardi won five championships, including the first two Super Bowls, between 1959 and 1967. In fact, the winner of the Super Bowl each year is now awarded the “Vince Lombardi Trophy.” Landry’s career with the Cowboys lasted 29 years, taking his team through a rough infancy to league dominance with five NFC titles and two Super Bowl victories in the 1970s.
New York holds power. New York delivers interest. New York, in many cases, offers opportunity for the lucky ones.
And none of it would have happened without the confluence of good fortune, technical know-how and a patient head coach in Jim Lee Howell. He doled out strategic and organizational responsibility to them while keeping their sizeable egos in check. It was an arrangement — Lombardi coaching the offense, Landry the defense — that could not have happened anywhere except in New York in that era.
Hall-of-Fame end Kyle Rote related in a training camp anecdote just how detached Howell was from the daily grind. Walking down the hallway of the coaching offices, he spotted Lombardi in one room, reviewing footage from a previous game. In the next office, there was Landry, doing the same.
“Then I walked past Jim Lee’s office, and there he was, reading a newspaper,” Rote recalled.
By and large, New York is a place that one works up to, and back to. Those who really know their stuff gain entrée into the greatest city in the world. But for the lucky few who actually do their training in New York, big things can await outside its borders.
Ask anyone in finance, journalism, fashion or any other field, really, how desirable New York internships are to a bigwig looking for a leader in, say, Kansas City or Omaha, or even San Francisco or Los Angeles. Maybe it’s the pressure of the city. Perhaps it’s the equity one builds under the city’s spotlight. That’s how it was with Lombardi and Landry.
Might the loud, Brooklyn-born Italian and the quiet, cerebral Texan have been afforded the same head coaching opportunities had they coached in Pittsburgh or San Francisco? Probably not.
New York holds power. New York delivers interest. New York, in many cases, offers opportunity for the lucky ones. Another coach never would have given Lombardi and Landry such extensive responsibility. It just wasn’t done in those days.
In fact, you don’t see it to that extent in this current era of head coach as ultimate micro-manager. And, indeed, Lombardi and Landry never accorded any of their assistants with such autonomy. But both took advantage of the leeway Howell gave them, and transferred it all, with Hall-of-Fame success, into head coaching greatness in the NFL’s hinterlands.
Liza was right. If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere. Lombardi and Landry turned two Nowheresvilles into NFL landmarks, all after starting right here.