The ‘Giant’ Missed Opportunity

Steven C. Owens
7 min readMar 16, 2023
The New York Giants passed on a Legendary Coach

His famous gap in his front teeth was about the margin of missed opportunity that the New York Giants fumbled to having one of the most legendary head coaches in NFL history. So much so that the Super Bowl Trophy is named after him;

“The Vince Lombardi Trophy”

There are times when Legendary status comes from being overlooked on a coaching staff similarly with Vince Lombardi or cut from your highschool team like Michael Jordan was after his sophomore year, or selected Tom Brady as the 199th pick in the NFL draft and third quarterback back-up on a team like the New England Patriots.

“Now I know I have a Heart cause it’s Breaking”, Tin Man

There is no technical measurement or strengthening test that exists regarding an athlete’s heart. His or her desire to succeed after being pushed aside or determined to be mediocre is the gray area when evaluating talent.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

Vince Lombardi, hired by the Green Bay Packers in 1959 after five seasons as the Giants’ offensive coordinator, was the coach that Wellington Mara, the Giants’ co-owner, thought he could bring back to the Giants in 1960 and again in 1961 in the same position. The only problem, Vince Lombardi wanted to be head coach of the New York Football Giants sooner rather than later. The other issue was that the Giants already were a winning franchise under head coach Jim Lee Howell. Howell had no intentions of stepping down in the next few years and Lombardi had already been putting his feelers out to the rest of the league to see if anyone would hire him as a head-coach. This was the ultimate goal of “chicken” between the Giants and Lombardi. The Mara family were incredibly loyal and although they loved Vince would not let go of Howell until he was ready. In hindsight the Mara’s did not know what they had in Lombardi and probably would make that move had they known the success Vince would bring to the Green Bay Packers. Of course.

At the age of 41, Lombardi became the offensive coordinator position for the 1954 season. Lombardi would invent a new blocking style with the Giants he called “Running to Daylight.” The customary style of blocking at the time was for an offensive lineman to block one particular player for each play with the running back set to enter a specific hole. Under Lombardi’s system the lineman would block in a specific area and take out whomever was in that area. Then the running back would choose whatever hole was open.

The Giants and Baltimore Colts played in the 1958 NFL Championship Game coined “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The Colts came away from that game a 23–17 victor in overtime in a game broadcast nationally that introduced millions to the game of professional football.

One month later, in January of 1959, Lombardi received a telephone call. About a head coaching position. In the National Football League. From the Philadelphia Eagles.

Wellington Mara, one of the Giants owners and a good friend to Lombardi, was soon informed of the Eagles’ offer. Mara gave his friend several pieces of advice;

For one, Lombardi would always answer to someone above him regarding personnel since the Eagles employed a GM.

For another, the Giants’ roster was full of Pro Bowl players whereas the team he would inherit was at the bottom of the standings for good reason.

But the largest obstacle Mara offered proved to be the largest: the Eagles were for sale. There was no guarantee that a new owner would retain any new coaches, especially if Lombardi did not provide an instant turnaround.

FOOTBALL IMITATES FOOTBALL

On second thought…new owner? I resign.

Ironically in 2000, assistant coach Bill Belichick under Bill Parcels with the New York Jets had a similar dilemma that Belichick took under his own advisement and fled. With the New York Jets being for sale and Bill Parcels (then Jets Head coach) stepping down to retire, this left Belichick with an uncertain support system similar to what Mara warned Lombardi with Lombardi’s possible decision to go to Philadelphia in 1959. Lombardi didn’t take the Philly job and Belichick headed to New England. In both cases the rest is history for sure.

Lombardi’s goal was to become the head coach of the Giants — but his current employer wasn’t offering any head coaching position. So, with his first opportunity to become a head coach, he went to church, prayed, thought, listened to his wife Marie, and then decided the Eagles were not the right situation for himself at this time. Mara helped out his decision by matching Philly’s offer of $22,500 thus making him the highest paid assistant coach in the entire NFL.

For 1959, Giants head coach Jim Lee Howell had three years remaining on his contract. The Giants management team of Wellington and Jack Mara knew quite well that both of their assistant coaches would make fine head coaches, but the Mara family was very loyal. The Giants were a winning football club every year under Howell, who never had a losing season. During his tenure, the Giants won two Eastern Division titles, played in the championship game three times and captured the 1956 NFL title.

What to do. Stay with the Giants or leave?

His expertise on draft day was well-chronicled as he had an ability to read talent. He was an asset to the franchise. However, the Maras wanted to know how long Howell wanted to keep being head coach.

His answer? He didn’t know how long. Finish his contract, get an extension, leave the game early — he just didn’t have any answers. The Mara’s were in a pickle. They wanted to offer the head coaching position to one of their prized assistants with the notion that they would become a head coach in waiting. This would keep one — or the other — on the current coaching staff to one day become the next head coach.

KNEEL OR KICK THE FIELD GOAL

The 45-year-old Lombardi was wondering about his future. He dearly wanted to become a head coach, and particularly wanted to become the Giants head coach. But he wasn’t getting any younger and wondered if his opportunity to be a head man would ever come; or if he waited for Howell to finally step down he might be on the wrong side of 50. At this time he entertained whether he should pursue the banking business full time where he had a vice president’s position already waiting. The Mara’s knelt hoping to go to overtime where Lombardi would stay as an assistant until Howell decided to retire. Lombardi went to to Green Bay.

GREENER PASTURES

Green and Yellow worked just fine for Vince

Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side. In the case of Vince Lombardi the uniform was certainly ‘greener’ and yellow of course. The Giants knew the passion of Lombardi but were loyal to a fault to Howell. Ironically Bill Belichick who left the Jets to coach the Patriots in 2000 adopted the opposite philosophy regarding talent. He believed that it was better to let go of a good player earlier rather than then hold on until it was too late. The Giants held on to Howell too long and allowed Lombardi to walk.

No coach in National Football League history achieved more success in less time than Lombardi did during his nine seasons in Green Bay. He won five NFL championships, including Super Bowls I and II, and compiled a remarkable 89–29–4 regular-season record. When Lombardi arrived in Green Bay in 1959, the Packers were coming off their worst season ever, a 1–10–1 finish, and hadn’t had a winning record in 11 years. His first year, the Packers finished 7–5, and he was named NFL Coach of the Year. The Packers narrowly lost the 1960 NFL Championship Game and then captured their five titles in just seven years.

THE LAST HURRAH

Lombardi with the Washington

Lombardi resigned as coach of the Packers on Feb. 1, 1968, to focus on his duties as general manager. He was released from his contract as GM on Feb. 6, 1969, so he could return to coaching in Washington. Including his one season there, his overall winning percentage in all games, including the post-season, was .750, the best in NFL history among coaches with at least 100 victories. In fact, John Madden is the only other coach to have a winning percentage above .700.

“You might reduce Lombardi’s coaching philosophy to a single sentence: In any game, you do the things you do best and you do them over and over and over,” said George Halas, coach of the Chicago Bears for 40 years and winner of more than 300 games. “Lombardi didn’t surprise or confound you. He just beat you.”

THE LAST DAYS

The legendary coach was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., on June 24, 1970. Within roughly 24 hours, a biopsy from a proctoscopy was performed and the diagnosis revealed an anaplastic carcinoma in the rectal area of his colon, according to David Maraniss’ 1999 book, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.” Three days later, a team of surgeons led by Dr. Robert Coffey removed a two-foot section of Lombardi’s colon.

At 7:20 a.m. on Sept. 3, 1970, only 71 days after Coffey conducted his initial examination, Lombardi was pronounced dead in his hospital bed at age 57. Lombardi’s decision to leave the Giants at age 45 was foretelling as he would only live 12 years which could have been wasted waiting for the Giants to install him as head coach.

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Steven C. Owens

Writer of life lessons sprinkled with meaningful sports and history editorials.