Lombardi & Landry: The Path of Two NFL Coaches From New York to the Hall of Fame

Ernie Palladino |

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.

Composite Image, clockwise from top left: Vince Lombardi, 1959, when he was offensive backfield coach of the New York Giants; Tom Landry, 1954, as a Giants defensive player; Tom Landry in 1961, after he became head coach of the Dallas Cowboys; Lombardi, bottom left, head coach of the Green Bay Packers cheers his team at the 1965 National Football League Championship. AP/File photos

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.

Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry were allowed to shine under the laissez-faire coaching style of New York Giants head coach Jim Lee Howell, center. This photo shows the Giants Coaches at Bear Mountain, New York in Sept. 1959. Tom Landry, defense coach is pictured on the far left. Lombardi is not pictured. AP/RH

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.

Carlos Garcia, of Dallas, snaps a photo of friends in front of the Tom Landry statue outside the Dallas Cowboys stadium before the start of the game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys in 2009. After beginning his career as a New York Giants player and then defensive coach, Landry went on to coach the Dallas Cowboys for nearly three decades. (AP Photo/Sharon Ellman)

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.

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