Joe Lombardi on coaching football: ‘I felt like I couldn’t live without it’

Joe Lombardi comes to the Lions after seven years with the New Orleans Saints, the last five as the quarterback coach for Drew Brees.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport/USA TODAY Sports

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — It seems only natural for the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi to be driven toward a career in football.

But that wasn’t always the case for Joe Lombardi, the Detroit Lions’ new offensive coordinator.

Lombardi, 42, actually was encouraged by his father, Vince Jr., to pursue another profession, just like Vince Jr.’s famous dad — the late Green Bay Packers’ coach from the 1960s — had pushed his son to go in a different direction.

Vince Lombardi Sr. won five NFL championships in nine years in Green Bay, including the first two Super Bowls (1966 and ’67), and is widely hailed as one of the greatest coaches of all time.

However, he told his son, who wanted to get a degree in physical education and follow in his dad’s footsteps as a football coach, that he wouldn’t pay for his college education under those circumstances.

Instead, Vince Sr. demanded that Vince Jr. go to law school, which is exactly what the son did.

Vince Jr., who later ended up with front-office jobs in professional football, had similar advice for his son, Joe, who played tight end at Air Force from 1992-94.

"He said, ‘Do something else. There’s a lot of stress involved. It’s hard on the family,’" Joe Lombardi recalled his father telling him.

I knew when I became a coach that no matter how well I did, I was never going to be Vince Lombardi.

Joe Lombardi

Joe was on the road to following that advice at one point.

"You don’t go to the Air Force Academy with the thought you’re going to be a football coach," he said. "But when I graduated and that first football season came around where I wasn’t involved with a football team, it felt like something was missing.

"My dad said, ‘Look, if you can live without it, don’t coach. If you can’t live without it, then I don’t know what to tell you.’

"I felt like I couldn’t live without it."

In reality, Joe’s father was really the one to blame for instilling that in him at a young age, even if it was unintentional.

Vince Jr. was an assistant general manager with the Seattle Seahawks before becoming the president/GM of the USFL Michigan Panthers, who played their home games at the Pontiac Silverdome.

"He was in management. He wasn’t necessarily a football guy," Joe said of his father. "But I think that certainly had a profound influence on me because I was always around football.

"I remember being 4 or 5 years old and throwing the ball around with (Hall of Fame receiver) Steve Largent at the Seattle Seahawks’ training facility, and I remember being a ball boy for the Michigan Panthers back in the USFL days, watching (receiver) Anthony Carter and (quarterback) Bobby Hebert throwing the ball around.

"Those memories were so good for me, I think that’s one reason I was drawn to football."

Lombardi never knew his grandfather, who died of cancer a couple years before he was born.

Joe’s father told him a lot of stories about Vince Sr., who’s said to have been as tough and demanding as a father as he was a coach.

Joe also remembers watching the videos from NFL Films of his grandfather working the sideline at Lambeau Field.

Coming from such a well-known family has its benefits, but there can be a lot of negatives, too. Joe said his father prepared him for the inevitable expectations and comparisons for someone with the Lombardi name.

Vince Jr. had gone through it when he was growing up. Being Coach Lombardi’s Son, people assumed he should be a star athlete.

"I knew when I became a coach that no matter how well I did, I was never going to be Vince Lombardi," Joe said. "I don’t have that pressure hanging over my head. I’m just going to try to be the best Joe Lombardi that I can."

And he’s no ordinary Joe.

Lombardi comes to the Lions after seven years with the New Orleans Saints, the last five as the quarterback coach for Drew Brees.

Lombardi’s only experience as a coordinator was nearly a decade ago at tiny Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania. This will be the first time that he’s ever called plays in the NFL.

Nevertheless, Jim Caldwell, the Lions’ new coach, hired him because he considers Lombardi to be a "cutting-edge guy."

Not only is football "in his blood," Caldwald said, but Lombardi’s background with the Saints, who won the Super Bowl four years ago with an innovative offensive system, made him attractive at this time.

"I was looking for a guy that had been a part of a cutting-edge system, where they had been accustomed to not only putting up numbers and scoring points, but the most important part of that is winning," Caldwell said. "I think he’s on the verge of having a great, great career."

Lombardi’s lack of play-calling experience evidently doesn’t concern Caldwell.

"When you’ve coached the quarterbacks, the entire offense runs through you, every bit of it," Caldwell explained. "Often times you have as much say-so (on play calls) as anybody because you know what he (the quarterback) likes and he doesn’t like."

Lombardi, meanwhile, has been preparing himself for these new responsibilities for a while.

"It puts a little extra pressure on you," he said. "I think certainly the last few years I’ve always been in that mode of, ‘Hey, what play would I call here?’

"As we’re setting up the game plan (during the week), it’s very situational. ‘In this situation, here’s what we are planning on calling,’ and then you have your game-day adjustments based on how the defense is playing you and what you expected.

"It’s something I certainly feel I’m ready to do."

In many ways, he was born to do it — even if his grandfather might have preferred that he become a lawyer.