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Books | Sports

August 28, 2011

Before They Were Legends

Before Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry won Super Bowls as head coaches, they were assistants together in New York. Ernie Palladino looks back.

Tom Flynn

Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry both were legendary NFL coaches. Before then, for a brief time, they both were assistant coaches for one fortunate franchise, the New York Giants. In the mid-1950s the two had free reign under Giants head coach Jim Lee Howell to direct their half of the gridiron: Lombardi, the offense; and Landry, the defense. Each departed the team for head-coaching jobs around the same time—Lombardi to Green Bay prior to the 1959 season, and Landry to Dallas in 1960—and in their collective absence, as their own careers ascended, the Giants gradually fell to depths from which they fully returned only after a quarter of a century of relative misery.

Ernie Palladino. Photo by Brill De La Merced.
"Today's free agency would have driven both men mad. Absolutely mad."

Ernie Palladino. Photo by Brill De La Merced.

Gelf Magazine interviewed Ernie Palladino on his forthcoming book on the duo, Lombardi and Landry: How Two of Pro Football's Greatest Coaches Launched Their Legends and Changed the Game Forever. The interview—in which Palladino discusses how the book was borne of failure, where his subjects would have fit in today's NFL, and his own knowledge of football gridiron tactics—was conducted via email and phone, and edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: How do you think Landry and Lombardi would do as coaches today, given their respective styles?

Ernie Palladino: I believe both could be successful, but they each would have had to undergo drastic changes in the way they did things. An imperious coach like Lombardi doesn't work in this era, where players are paid at least the same as their coaches—and, in the case of stars, way more. I'm not saying Lombardi couldn't have changed—we saw Tom Coughlin do it from 2006 to 2007—but I don't think he would have embraced it at all. He probably would have quit before he made such a change.
As far as Landry goes, he was a quiet guy. He would have had to engage his players more, something that went totally against his introverted personality. He may also have been a bit too inaccessible in his teaching style to keep the attention of today's pampered players. Also, I'm not sure how much of a motivator he was. He believed in intense preparation and self-motivation. That doesn't really work today.

Gelf Magazine: You think Landry and Lombardi could be successful, but would have to change. Of the two, who would be more likely to change?

Ernie Palladino: As for who is most likely to change, I can't ever believe Lombardi would have been willing to give that much. True, he had to change going from assistant to head coach. But it was a change to the more drastic dictatorial type. His change in demeanor from college coach to assistant coach was interesting, but that was done more out of necessity.
This is a man who believed wholeheartedly in his faith and his methods, and the fact that his dictatorial style was what the Packers needed then, and always. I can't ever see him becoming "a player's coach," so to speak. So I really believe that Lombardi would have quit long before the need to coddle athletes became standard operating procedure. Imagine the recruiting pitch: "We've got great facilities here! Heating coils under the field. AND I'M GONNA WORK YOU TILL YOU DROP!" Yeah, that'll bring 'em in.

Gelf Magazine: What first gave you the idea to look at the two coaches in conjunction? Obviously they were on the same staff with the New York Giants, but you're the first person to write a book looking at their common background and how it shaped both of them and, ultimately, the NFL.

Ernie Palladino: The idea actually was born out of a failed proposal. I had written a magazine piece about the Giants' legacy of great defensive assistants—Landry, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, etc. After looking at my notes, I thought I had the makings of a book. I had never written a book before, so I said, "What the heck? Give it a shot." So I researched how to write a proper proposal and sent it off to Mark Weinstein at Skyhorse after an introduction from Ralph Vacchiano, whose book Mark edited. Mark got back to me and said what I had was actually two books, one of which would never ever sell because it involved many of the Giants' least-successful years that nobody wants to read about.
But, he said, I might have something with Landry. If I could combine him with Lombardi—same staff, same time—I might have something. Of course, there's a whole Lombardi wave going on now with the Broadway play, the HBO documentary, When Pride Still Mattered, etc. Besides, the story of their stints as assistants with the Giants had never been told in book form. It's part of many biographies of the two, but never told as a singular story. That made it unique.
Mark gave me a totally free hand to tell the story the way I wanted to, from anecdotes to research to book structure—I actually was influenced structure-wise by David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter, about Korea, which I was reading at the time the proposal was approved. My only mistake was reading Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken near the end of the writing and having to stave off waves of feelings of inadequacy after that. But I got through it, and the finished product is in your hands.

Gelf Magazine: Can you draw a modern analogy to Landry or Lombardi? A guy whom the Giants once had as an assistant who might remind people of Landry is Bill Belichick.

Ernie Palladino: You can certainly say that, and Bill Parcells in his way was like Lombardi.

Gelf Magazine: Parcells is an interesting character when looking at Landry and Lombardi. Parcells had no bones about ripping even his biggest stars in practice, and certainly Lombardi didn't, either. And Parcells was a defensive guy like Landry. Quite a bit has changed even since Parcells coached the Giants, though. The coach's relative standing in the organization and position of power can be challenged by players making a lot more than them.

Ernie Palladino: It's not just salary, it's the salary cap. To a guy like Lombardi, it wouldn't have mattered if he made more than the guy or less than the guy—if he thought the guy was a disruptive force, he'd cut him, and that would be the end of the matter. You can't do that these days because you have financial issues that go along with cutting a player. It's called dead money. The last thing that you want on your salary cap is dead money—having to be charged that salary or a portion of that salary against your available money for a guy who is no longer playing for you. The bigger the star, and the bigger the salary, the bigger the hit you're generally going to take.
Today's free agency would have driven both men mad. Absolutely mad. The key to Green Bay's and Dallas's success all those years was consistency of the respective core of players. They were locked in there, and both Lombardi and Landry could rely on guys like Starr and Staubach, Nitschke and Lilly, Hornung and Dorsett for long periods. Again, I'm not saying winning would be impossible, but both would have to embrace the free-agent system and change their personalities—and perhaps their expectations, which were always high—drastically. I don't think either guy would ever bend that far, though.

Gelf Magazine: We had a shorter window, due to his death in 1970, to gauge Lombardi's ability to transition, but with Landry you had several decades to see that. In Landry's later years, he didn't show much ability to relate to the modern player.

Ernie Palladino: No, he didn't. I think that's very significant that he believed, like Lombardi, in his system and how he ran things. You'd find yourself out of a job if you weren't performing, but he never said much to anybody, even the player, about whether you were performing. Either you did your job or you didn't. That never changed.

Gelf Magazine: What were the keys for you to get back to an understanding of these two when they were with the Giants, and especially, for this book, into the circumstances around which they left the Giants?

Ernie Palladino: Certainly talking to the remaining old players was key. And believe me—there aren't that many of them left. It's not as gargantuan a task as you might think; it's a very select group at this point. I had to talk to as many as who would talk to me. I got guys like Rosey Grier and Frank Gifford who were very accommodating and fun. Alicia Landry, Tom's widow, was a delight to talk to. Talking to the players and the family members, you get a lot of perspective of the life and times surrounding them.
But as for the hard facts, these players, you put 50 years' distance between their playing days and now and its hard to get them to remember specifics. They gave me a lot of general feelings, so the specifics from the book really came from research, and I basically camped out at the New York Public Library. I just sat among the microfilm and the books. I got my hands on every book I could, and countless clips and columns. Reading all the old columnists and old writers was interesting in itself. It was also exhausting. I'm not a real fast reader, and you're taking notes while you're doing this and it was very time-consuming.

Gelf Magazine: Listening to old football broadcasts, you notice the difference in the broadcasters' terminology as compared to today. When you listen to Jon Gruden saying, "They're playing a Tampa 2 defense," and then explaining it, that's a lot more description than the old announcers saying, "the defenders are lined up in a wave" or something similar. In your book you get inside the "umbrella" defensive scheme of Landry and the play-calling systems of Lombardi without being so technical that only a coach would want to read it. It was important that you got inside their strategy, which is really what was distinguishing them during their time with the Giants.

Ernie Palladino: I have a distinct advantage: I don't understand football strategy at all. And I had a lot to do just to simplify it for myself. I read a lot about the umbrella and the seven-man line and how it went from seven to six to five and finally the 4-3 defense. You couldn't put me in front of a blackboard and say outline this play—I wouldn't know where to begin. So I think going into it with a layman's knowledge of it, not a coach's knowledge, helped me keep it simple and hopefully conveyed well to the common fan as opposed to the coach.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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