Commentary

Lombardi bloodlines still Super

Saints' quarterbacks coach hoping to clutch trophy that bears grandfather's name

Originally Published: February 2, 2010
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Joe LombardiSean Hintz/ESPN.comJoe Lombardi, the grandson of Vince Lombardi, has been on the Saints' staff since 2007.

MIAMI -- When he was a college assistant, retracing the famous and ponderous footsteps into which he hadn't even fathomed stepping when he was younger, Joe Lombardi never let himself dream about someday working in the NFL.

And now, here he is, employed by the New Orleans Saints and perhaps less than a week removed from getting his mitts around the trophy named for his iconic grandfather.

"If we win," said Lombardi, the Saints' quarterbacks coach, during Tuesday's media day activities, "there are a lot of people here who are going to touch that trophy before I get my shot at it. I mean, I'm pretty far down the totem pole."

His surname, easily one of the most famous in football history, should ensure that no matter how far down the New Orleans coaching chain Lombardi insists he is, he'll at some point Sunday night get to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy if the Saints defeat the Indianapolis Colts. Joe, 39, is the grandson of Vince, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, the man who won five NFL titles overall, including victories in Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II.

[+] EnlargeVince Lombardi
Malcolm Emmons/US Presswire"He was a heck of a guy, very fair and honest, from what people say," Joe Lombardi says of his grandfather, Vince.
More than four decades later, Joe is attempting to put his own stamp of sorts on a Super Bowl championship.

Vince, who succumbed to cancer in 1970, nine months before Joe was born, almost certainly would be proud.

Even if he probably wouldn't show much emotion. Or so much as crack a smile.

"My father has some great stories [about Vince], and to hear him tell it, he was a tough man," said Joe, the son of Vince Lombardi Jr. "Tough on his players. Tough on his kids. Just tough in general, you know? He lived up to the image, I guess … . But he was a heck of a guy, very fair and honest, from what people say."

Joe is proud of the fact that the Super Bowl trophy is named for his grandfather, and proud of his family's lengthy and pronounced football heritage. His father, a labor attorney by trade, was a prominent member of the NFL Management Council and gained some measure of fame as a frequent league spokesman during the 1982 work stoppage. Vince Jr. also was the general manager of the expansion Seahawks in 1976.

But there never was any pressure, implicit or explicit, for Joe to get into the family business. The road to the NFL, to coaching at the game's highest level, was a highway he had to pave all by himself.

In fact, it wasn't until sometime during his four-year military commitment, following his graduation from the Air Force Academy, where he played tight end, that he decided he wanted to be a coach. While he was at Colorado Springs, people paid a lot of attention to him because of his name.

But not so much after that, he said.

"Here I was, a third-string tight end, probably not even going to get into the game, and people would be around me, interviewing me," Joe said of his humble college career. "And I'd think, 'Geez, there are a lot more deserving guys than me to talk to, you know?' But as time went on, there was enough separation between me and my grandfather that it wasn't nearly as relevant to people. It wasn't as big an issue with people. They'd hear the name and not think as much of it."

Winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLIV, though, would be very relevant indeed to Joe.

After his first NFL season, working as an offensive assistant on Jim Mora's staff in Atlanta in 2006, Joe caught on with coach Sean Payton and the Saints in 2007. He continued as an offensive assistant for two seasons until he was promoted to quarterbacks coach in 2009. Winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy wasn't a conscious pursuit in the beginning, but it now is fairly significant for Joe, who gets to work every day with Saints standout quarterback Drew Brees.

Brees on Tuesday referred to Joe as "very thorough, very intense and very detail oriented." Let's face it; who would expect anything less, really, from Vince Lombardi's grandson?

And although Joe doesn't muse much about being an NFL head coach, he wouldn't mind having his own legacy associated with the most famous surname in league history. Even by degrees of separation.

A few years ago, when he visited Green Bay for a game, Joe visited the Packers' Hall of Fame, but not his late grandfather's home in De Pere, Wis., or even the practice fields that bear his name. But he understands the gravitas, the power and responsibility of being a Lombardi, and conceded Tuesday there was a time he felt compelled to try to live up to the legend.

Said Joe: "I thought that, as a coach and as a Lombardi, I had to have the force of his personality. But I eventually realized that wasn't me."

The father of five children, and wedded to his grandfather's credo that the three things that matter most in life are faith, family and football -- "And definitely in that order," Joe emphasized -- life and livelihood don't leave much time for outside endeavors. He doesn't golf or play tennis, and he has no hobbies.

Football isn't necessarily an obsession, but it does, Joe acknowledged with some candor, pretty much define him. He can't escape his last name -- not that he would want to -- or the lure football provides, even independent of his grandfather's legacy.

"I just go to work every day," he said, "and be the best coach I can be."

And if being the coach to one of the league's best quarterbacks means a win over the Colts on Sunday night, well, Joe will take it. For a long time, he didn't think this kind of emulation of his grandfather would amount to much. Or would mean this much, either.

"But now it does."

"This is," Joe Lombardi said Tuesday, "a one-time fantasy."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.