Chuck Noll and Vince Lombardi were two of the greatest coaches in NFL history, but they were very different. Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s. He was hard as nails on his players and he motivated his team with emotional talks. Noll coached the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s and 1980s. He was direct and a man of few words. But both coaches accomplished two objectives: 1. Created the toughest team in the NFL. 2. Created the most fundamentally sound team in the NFL. And with those objective, came championships.
Lombardi’s catch phrase, “winning is everything,” has often been misunderstood to mean that winning by any means is acceptable. But his players would likely tell us that the “any means” had more to do with their training than things they would do to opposing teams. By sacrificing their bodies and routinely using every ounce of energy in practice, they became a formidable team on the field. Lombardi sought to have his players better prepared than any other team.
Noll’s catchphrase was “whatever it takes.” Again, it’s easily misunderstood. Noll expanded on the notion to say that “whatever it takes to become the best team” was his meaning. For Noll, like Lombardi, it was all about sacrifice for the team, work for the team, playing your role for the team.
For both Lombardi and Noll, their focus on toughness and fundamentals was demonstrated and forever remembered in two of pro football’s greatest highlights.
Packers’ 1967 NFL Championship Game: The Ice Bowl
The Packers played the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL Championship on the last day of the year in 1967. The Packers had a secret weapon-Mother Nature. Few NFL games have been so well celebrated and memorialized. The Packers had seen plenty of cold weather before this game, but the so-called “Ice Bowl” was the start of much of the lore and legend surrounding Lambeau Field. From this game forward, Green Bay fans would not just tolerate the cold at Lambeau, they would relish their “frozen tundra.”
The Cowboys were leading, 17-14, on the Packers’ frigid home field in the fourth quarter. With only 4:50 on the clock, Lombardi’s offense looked 68 yards downfield to the goal and began a 12-play drive for the win. They would need almost every second.
A determined Bart Starr completed a pass out in the flat to Donny Anderson for a 6-yard gain. Chuck Mercein found enough running room outside for a first down. Starr tossed one down the middle to Boyd Dowler over the 50-yard line and Cornell Green who was struggling with his footing was able to grab and throw Dowler down hard on the tackle to the frozen ground. It was nip and tuck all the way. Anderson received a handoff from Starr, but was tackled in the backfield. It was second down and 19 yards to go for a first on a field that was quickly becoming an ice skating rink. Starr looked around and tossed Anderson an outlet pass that the halfback turned into another 12-yard gain. Starr followed with another short pass to Anderson who gained the first down. Chuck Mercein was targeted next and after the catch he ran the ball down to the Dallas 11-yard line. Mercein had the hot hand and took a handoff from Starr and ran it up the middle to the 2-yard line. Anderson rushed to within inches of the goal and a first down. The tough, determined Cowboys’ defense stuffed two Donny Anderson runs. Time stood still as Starr went to the sideline and told Lombardi since the backs were slipping, he would take the ball himself on a wedge play, which normally goes to the fullback. Lombardi famously responded, “Then do it and let’s get the hell out of here.” As Starr jogged back on the field, the tension in the stands was almost unbearable.
Starr stood behind center with 13 seconds remaining at the 1-yard line with no time outs. He raised his hands to quiet the crowd and the ball was snapped on a quick count. Jerry Kramer jumped out at the Cowboys’ big defensive tackle Jethro Pugh, hitting him low, followed by Packer center Ken Bowman hitting Pugh high. Cleats scratched on ice and Pugh was driven backwards. Starr shadowed Kramer and plunged into the end zone for the score. Mercein, who thought Starr was going to hand off to him, trailed the play and raised his arms in the air so the officials knew he was not pushing Starr into the end zone-an infraction that might have caused the Packers the game. Millions watching thought Mercein was signaling a score! The fans realized that Starr had scored and in the midst of an arctic field of dreams came the deafening roar of the crowd. Chandler kicked the extra point and the Packers won, 21-17.
The Steelers Defining Moment
The defining moment that ended the string of frustration and put the Steelers into a new winning way came at the end of the divisional playoff game on December 23, 1972. Pittsburgh had the ball on its own 20-yard line with just 1 minute 20 seconds to go trailing the Oakland Raiders 7-6. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw was no miracle worker in those days and five plays later, the Steelers were still 60 yards from pay dirt with only 22 seconds remaining. Bradshaw threw over the middle to “Frenchy” Fuqua, but Raiders’ defensive back Jack Tatum crashed into Fuqua and the ball with such force that the ball flew backward like it had been redirected by some unknown hand. Franco Harris grabbed the ball off his shoelaces in stride and eluded tacklers on his way to the end zone for the score and the win. The play was called the “Immaculate Reception.” Although the Steelers went on to lose the AFC Championship to the Dolphins, they made an impression with football fans, their competitors, and most importantly, themselves. They had arrived. Noll’s Steelers were winners and now with the Immaculate Reception, it seemed like they had fans in high places.
Harris personified what it meant to play fundamentally sound and give it everything he had. Although he was apparently out of the play, he kept his head in it and when the ball bounced off Tatum he was able to pick it up and run for the score. The extra point gave the Steelers a 13-7 victory.
In the waning moments of both games, the players took stock of themselves and played solid fundamental football as a team.