This isn't his grandfather's Super Bowl

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2010 - 3:15 PM

The NFL has grown exponentially, but Joe Lombardi carries on his grandfather's creed: Play to win.

Joe and Vince Lombardi
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Saints assistant Joe Lombardi will be coachinig Sunday night for the right to hold the trophy named after his legendary grandfather, Vince Lombardi.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. - Vince Lombardi Jr. sat down with his father in 1960 and told him he was going to the University of St. Thomas to major in physical education so he could become a football coach.

The elder Lombardi, who was coaching the Packers at the time, wasn't happy. In fact, he was downright angry.

"He looked at me and said, 'That's fine, but if you do, I will not put one penny toward your education,'" Vince Jr. said Tuesday. "Coaching wasn't what it is today. Not even close. He had higher aspirations for me."

The younger Lombardi never coached. He majored in political science while playing football at St. Thomas. He went on to the University of Minnesota law school, dropped out and then earned his law degree by taking night classes at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. He opened a private practice and served in the Minnesota Legislature.

On Sept. 3, 1970, Vince T. Lombardi died of cancer at 57. Nine months later, his grandson, Joe, was born in St. Paul.

"I remember playing in the snow in St. Paul," said Joe, who moved with his family to Seattle when he was 3 or 4. Joe went on to the Air Force Academy, where he played tight end and began developing a Lombardian-sized desire to coach. This time, it was Vince Jr. who wasn't happy.

"I sat him down and I said, 'If you absolutely can't live without coaching, do it. But if you can live without it, pick something else because there are easier ways to make it in this world than coaching,'" Vince Jr. said. "I guess he decided he couldn't live without coaching."

Sunday, 42 years after his grandfather won the second of his two Super Bowls, Joe will carry on the family tradition as the Saints' quarterbacks coach in Super Bowl XLIV. A Lombardi will be coaching for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

"If we win, I'm sure Drew [Brees] and Sean will get to touch it before I do," Joe joked. "But I'll get to hold it eventually."

After coaching stints at the college level, Joe joined the NFL as a Falcons defensive assistant in 2006. He joined the Saints in 2007. His specialty is watching game film, spotting defensive tendencies and communicating with Brees.

"Joe's a hard worker, he's bright and he seems to be fairly natural at coaching," Vince Jr. said. "So in that regard, I suppose maybe he and my father are the same. He was born nine months after my dad passed away, so maybe there's a little karma there."

After the elder Lombardi passed, Vince Jr. took a job as an assistant general manager with the expansion Seattle Seahawks. He also worked for the NFL management council doing labor relations work, and was a general manager for a couple of USFL teams. He's now a motivational speaker and has written a number of books.

Joe grew up with a replica Lombardi Trophy in the family room, books about his grandfather in the den and a bunch of NFL Films to help him get to know the coach he never met but has shadowed him on every step of his football journey.

"When I was a freshman in college, I'm getting interviewed as a backup tight end who's never going to see the field," he said. "All it was is that I was the grandson of someone famous. You see all these guys who are starters not getting any attention. At some point, you go, 'Hey, I don't deserve all this attention.'"

Joe has learned to deal with the attention, but was pleasantly surprised during Super Bowl media day on Tuesday. As hundreds of reporters buzzed around dozens of players, Joe, who doesn't look like his grandfather nearly as much as Vince Jr. does, stood off to the side talking to just three reporters.

"I walked in here and didn't see a lot of people coming up to me," he said. "So I said, 'Wow, I might be able to sneak right on by this week.'"

Not quite.

Of Vince T. Lombardi's many great quotes, the most memorable is, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." It's a philosophy that's in Joe's blood. Literally.

"There's something pretty neat about there being a trophy named after my grandfather," Joe said. "If we win, it'll be even more special. If we lose, it won't be."

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

  • SUPER BOWL NEW ORLEANS VS. INDIANAPOLIS

    Kickoff: 5:25 p.m. Sunday • Sun Life Stadium, Miami, Fla. • TV: Ch. 4 (1130-AM) • Line: Colts by 5 1/2

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Joe and Vince Lombardi