Joe Lombardi’s lineage was once again brought up recently in a feature about the now-New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach.
Included in that story: That Lombardi, also a former Detroit Lions offensive coordinator and the grandson of the legendary Vince Lombardi, got his first job at the University of Dayton while stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
After graduating in 1994 as an acquisitions officer, Lombardi was assigned to work as a program manager on the F-22 program at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where he spent four years.
It’s true. While there, he cold-called UD coach Mike Kelly and, in 1996, joined the Flyers staff for his first coaching position.
We went into the archives to find the first column about Lombardi. Here it is, in full:
Coaching Legacy: Lombardi (Joe) is a UD coach
By Gary Nuhn
Sept. 1, 1996
The call came last January.
The man said his name was Joe, he had played football at the Air Force Academy, was now stationed at Wright-Pat and offered University of Dayton coach Mike Kelly his help as a part-time assistant coach.
“I get a call a week like that,” Kelly said.
Kelly gave his usual spiel – the NCAA has cut down on part-time coaching positions; sorry, no open spots; write me a letter and I’ll get back to you.
Then he hung up and figured he’d never hear from Joe again.
But shortly, here came the letter.
Kelly put it in his files.
Three weeks later, Joe called.
“Get my letter?” he asked.
“Uh, yeah,” Kelly said. “Been meaning to call you back.” (Been meaning to call Bill Clinton, too, to see if he needed any advice on the Bosnian situation.)
Still no jobs, he told Joe, but if you want to come in and talk …
Joe said he did and a couple days later, Joe took his lunch hour and came in.
Kelly was impressed, and he was thinking to himself, “Darn, I wish I had an opening,” when he asked about Joe’s family.
Joe told about growing up in Seattle and was talking about his father when he said, “Dad decided not to try to coach football because it would be so hard to live up to his name.”
At which point, Kelly was hit by a flash.
Joe’s last name was Lombardi.
“In my mind,” Kelly said, “I’m saying, `Like, sure, Vince is your grandfather.’ ”
But he asked anyway.
“Yeah,” Joe Lombardi said.
“Needless to say,” Kelly says now, “I found a spot for the guy.”
You don’t turn away Vince Lombardi’s grandson if he offers to help coach your football team anymore than you turn away Walt Disney’s grandson if he offers to help you start a movie company.
Joe Lombardi, 25, never met his grandfather – he was born in June, 1971, nine months after Vince died – but he has read the books, seen the videos and heard first-hand stories of the man many consider the best pro football coach in history.
“He almost feels more like a legend to me than a relative,” Joe Lombardi said.
Asked if he felt any of his grandfather in him, he said, “Well, he had trouble with directions. He could drive to a place 10 times, but then the 11th time not be able to find it. That’s me.”
But on other things we associate with the grandfather – the temper, the authoritarianism – not so much.
“I certainly don’t have the temper he had,” Joe Lombardi said. “But mostly I shy away from comparing myself to him. To try to base my standards on him would be a recipe for failure.”
One thing he didn’t do – he didn’t try to use his name. Kelly pretty much had to drag it out of him who he was. “I don’t hide my name,” Lombardi said, “but I don’t put it on a billboard, either.”
Although he played tight end at the Academy, Lombardi is coaching nose tackles at UD.
“He’s good, he really is,” said UD defensive coordinator Rick Chamberlin.
`He’s very serious about it. He wants to do it right. He doesn’t have that fiery temper of his grandfather. He’s pretty cool-headed. He gets excited with the guys, but always on a positive note.”
Said Kelly: “He’s exactly what you’d expect from an Academy guy. Very bright. A quick learner. Disciplined. He relates well to the players.
You’d pick him out of any lineup as the “Academy Guy,” too – dark hair, strong jaw, hard eyes. He’s 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, tan and fit; there may be a half-ounce of fat on him. Although he’s not a pilot, he looks as if he just stepped off the set of Top Gun. “He’s not Vince,” Kelly said. “He’s not a blood-and-guts guy. But I think he’s got football in his blood.”
Does Joe in fact have any tiny, leather oblong platelets in his blood?
“It depends,” he said. “It’s certainly a sport I love. But I like what I’m doing in the Air Force, too. I’ll just have to wait and see.”
He owed the Air Force five years after graduating in June, 1994, with a degree in economics. A first lieutenant, he works in the Systems Program Office at Wright-Pat, helping keep track of costs on the new F-22.
“There’ll be times when something comes up and I’m not going to be able to make practice,” Lombardi said. “I might have to fly somewhere on temporary duty.”
You’re saying the country takes precedence over UD football?
“Yes,” he said.
Joe Lombardi was born in Minnesota, the third son of Vince, a lawyer and a Republican state legislator. When he wasn’t reelected, Vince went to work in the front office of the expansion Seattle Seahawks, and those are Joe’s first memories of football – playing catch at age 5 on the practice fields with Jim Zorn and Steve Largent.
Joe’s father worked for the NFL management team that negotiated with the players during the strike of 1982. He then spent two years as general manager-president of the Michigan Panthers, and, after a merger, the Oakland Invaders of the U.S.F.L.
Joe began playing football in fourth grade. He blew out his left knee playing lacrosse as a sophomore in high school, causing him to miss his junior year of football.
As a freshman at the Academy he was on the sideline but didn’t play at the 1990 Liberty Bowl as the Falcons upset Ohio State 23-11. By the senior year of what he calls “a marginal career,” he shared the starting tight end spot.
Now, while older brother Vince is a lawyer and older brother John is coaching lacrosse at Vanderbilt, Joe is balancing two jobs along with his heritage.
In the end, however, Joe Lombardi understands how the coaching business works.
“The name might get your foot in the door,” he said. “But if you’re not good, it doesn’t matter.”