How Vince Lombardi's Willpower Made Him Legendary

In 1959 Vince Lombardi finally got the chance he had worked all of his life for - he was now the head coach of a National Football League (NFL) team.

Unfortunately, that team was the Green Bay Packers.

In those days, Green Bay was the NFL equivalent of Siberia. It was a horrible team, in an unknown city, and was almost as cold as Siberia as well!

But Lombardi was grateful for the position.

He grew up in New York as the son of a poor Italian immigrant. This meant Lombardi would face discrimination for most of his life. Back then, Italian-Americans were thought of as hard workers but, unfortunately, were also thought to be "dumb as dirt". 

So they were simply not entrusted to be head coaches. This meant Lombardi was forced to languish as a mere high school coach for years. Despite his remarkable results, he was not even considered by many programs at the next level. 

Luckily, one man was willing to see beyond the stereotypes.

Red Blaik, the head coach at West Point Military Academy (also known as Army), finally offered Lombardi a job to run his offense after witnessing the man’s brilliance.

After being given the position, Lombardi seized his moment. He worked tirelessly to create the best offense in all of college football. And he did.

In Lombardi's first 2 seasons with Army, they only lost 1 game! They were among the best offenses in the country, and Lombardi was sure that these results at the college level would be enough to earn him a head coaching position.


Lombardi was continually turned down for head coaching jobs he was qualified for. Then one interviewer simply told him, “you’d better look around and find something else. Because I’m convinced no one is going to hire an Italian head coach.” [1]


For 5 years, Lombardi would languish as he saw his less-qualified peers continue to get the jobs he felt he deserved.

Then a glimmer of hope finally came. He was offered the assistant coaching job at the New York Giants in the NFL. Still not his ideal head coaching position, but at least he would be coaching at the highest level.

In the NFL, Lombardi was able to put his skills on display for the entire nation. In his second year with the Giants, he led them to the championship game in what would be called “The Greatest Game Ever Played”.

After that season, Lombardi felt he could no longer linger as an assistant coach. It was time to become a head coach - no matter how terrible the team was.

Then, Lombardi got his bittersweet victory as he was offered the head coaching position in Green Bay.


“Uh Dad, Green Bay isn’t even a city on this Map.” 

“Don’t worry, when I’m done with this team, it will be.”

Lombardi inherited a terrible situation in Green Bay.

The team finished last season in dead last.

They had 10 consecutive losing seasons and were only getting worse.

And the once proud franchise was considering moving away from the city.

Things were bleak, but Lombardi was not phased. He came to the team with a passion and drive that shocked them. He had worked so hard to get to that point, and he knew that if he failed, he would never get another chance.

It was do or die. For the Green Bay Packers, and for him. So he walked into his first team meeting on a mission saying:

"Gentlemen we are going to relentlessly chase perfection. Knowing full well we will not catch it because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it. Because in the process we will catch excellence. I'm not even remotely interested in being just good."

This speech captivated the team. Especially the starting quarterback, Bart Starr, who said, "I couldn't even sit in my chair I was so excited!"

Then the team got to work. They worked harder, longer, and with more intensity than any other team in professional football.

“I’ve done 2 boot camps in the marines. And those didn’t even come close to how hard Lombardi’s practices were. We couldn’t believe it, we just thought this guy was crazy.” Said Gary Knafelc, one of the star Green Bay players.

“Guys would lose consciousness right there on the field. There was vomiting and it wouldn’t be uncommon to see a guy just keel over,” said Gary Kramer, another player on the team. “He wanted every once of ability you had, and he would not relent until you gave it to him.”

Typically, this type of coaching is done at the high school or collegiate level when players need to learn discipline and get into better shape. But it was unheard of to put professionals through this kind of torture in practice.

However, all of the hard worked paid off. In their first season, Lombardi turned a hopeless team into a winner - finishing the year with 7 wins and 5 losses.

It was do or die, and Lombardi did.

After that, the Green Bay Packers became a perennial powerhouse. The very next year, they made it all the way to the NFL championship game, falling just 9 yards short of a touchdown that would have secured the victory.

But that would prove irrelevant. As they would win 5 championships over the next 7 years – something no other team has done in NFL history. In the process, the city of Green Bay became nicknamed "Title Town", and Vince Lombardi became legendary.


Vince Lombardi is arguably the greatest coach there has ever been in the game of football. His name is written into the trophy given to the Super Bowl champions every year, and the city of Green Bay is infinitely greater thanks to him. 

Given this, it is unbelievable to think about just how close he was to never even becoming a head coach at the collegiate level. 

So, let's unpack the Lombardi story to see how he was able to overcome the prejudices of his era, and become legendary.


After the Green Bay Packers lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in Lombardi’s first ever championship game, he addressed his team after the game was over:

“Gentlemen, we got beat today. But I can tell you right now, we will never lose a championship game again.”

And they never did.

This response represents how Lombardi responded every time he was passed up. All of those times he was passed over for head coaching positions, or was even told, “no one is going to hire an Italian head coach,” he never accepted that fate.

Even though he was a successful assistant coach, he never settled.

He knew he could lead a team to greater heights as a head coach. It was his destiny. So he never celebrated coming second, he held onto the pain of not reaching his true potential, and used it as motivation to push even harder.

In life, we are given countless opportunities to settle for the good things we have, rather than work for the great things we know are possible. Then we justify settling for "second place" because second place is practical. [2]

Do not be seduced by this path.

There is no shame in settling for a comfortable life if that is what you truly want. But be honest with yourself – if you dream of more, do not lose sight of it.

Don’t settle for what’s practical, work for what’s possible.


Vince Lombardi did not stick to the status quo.

His first speech as a head coach was to a team that finished dead last in the entire league. Yet he was talking about chasing perfection!

What right did a first time coach talking to a team of losers have to chase perfection?

But the pursuit of perfection was one of Lombardi’s principles. He didn’t care about the team’s record, he didn’t care about its inexperience, and he didn’t care about what he “should” say as head coach.

He cared about helping his players become the best they could possibly be. 

That is why he put them through painfully tough practices.

That is why he made them show up 15 minutes early for everything.

And that is why he kept pushing them even after they became a winning team.

He never made decisions based on what others were doing; he made decisions based on deep principles that he developed over a lifetime.

Strong principles create strong willpower. You will face many difficult decisions on the way to your goal.

You will have to push yourself when you are tired.

You will have to resist when you are tempted.

And you will have to sacrifice what you want now, for what you want most.

But strong principles will give you the willpower you need to make these tough decisions. They will guide and motivate you to reach your destination, even when the path is treacherous. [3]

So determine your principles, and never compromise them.


“The beginning of the week he’s very tense…I don’t see him Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday at all. It must be very hard to do what he needs to do, and to do it alone.” – Marie Lombardi

The untold story of Vince Lombardi is the terrible toll his work took on his personal life. 

Throughout the course of his career he spent as many waking hours as possible coaching. His mind was always on the team, the result from last week, and the upcoming opponent they were facing this week. 

His mind was so focused on the game, in fact, that sometimes he would get home from work and try to get into the wrong house!

This focus on football meant his personal life suffered. 

He wasn't able to be the great husband and father that he wanted to be. This caused a lot of pain to his family, but ultimately they accepted the fact that Vince was destined to be a legendary football coach - and that path required sacrifices.

Whatever greatness you seek, understand that it requires sacrifices. For Lombardi, that sacrifice was his family's happiness. He probably should never have become a husband and father given what his true priorities were. 

You will probably not have to make as big of a sacrifice to accomplish what you want in life, but be sure you know what's truly at stake. You do not have an endless supply of willpower. Trying to "do it all" is a sure recipe for disaster. [4]

So set your priorities and be prepared make sacrifices.


Vince Lombardi was a football genius. But it was not his genius that made him a football legend - it was his willpower. Those who are unable to reach their dreams are not always the ones who fail.

More often it is those who stop pushing and settle for "good". Those who begin to compromise their principles and make decisions based on what others are doing. And those who are unwilling to make the hard sacrifices necessary to achieve excellence. 

So ask yourself, are you willing to commit to excellence?