How Lombardi almost became Eagles coach

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A statue of legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi at Lambeau Field.(Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

As Philadelphia's scarred football fans will again be reminded on Sunday, the Eagles have won none of the XLIX Super Bowls.

But had things worked out differently 57 years ago, they might not only possess a Lombardi Trophy or two by now, they might have had Vince Lombardi himself.

Sports history often pivots on seemingly inconsequential acts. And if the legendary coach hadn't abruptly changed his mind in 1958, subsequent NFL history might have had a distinctly green-and-silver hue.

That January, a year before the Green Bay Packers hired him, Lombardi agreed to become the Eagles head coach. Had New York Giants owner Wellington Mara not intervened or Lombardi been less thoughtful, it's easy to imagine Philadelphia and not Green Bay winning five NFL titles in the 1960s, including the first two Super Bowls.

"Lombardi coaching the Eagles. That would have been something, wouldn't it?" Vince McNally Jr., whose father was the Eagles GM in 1958, said this week.

According to Lombardi biographer David Marannis and other sources, the fateful scenario began after the 1957 season.

The defending-champion Giants had blown an East Division title by dropping their final three games. Lombardi, their ambitious 44-year-old offensive coordinator, was frustrated and eager to advance his career.

On Jan. 11, 1958, Eagles general manager Vince McNally fired coach Hugh Devore, whose teams had gone 7-16-1 in two lackluster seasons.

McNally initially wanted Buck Shaw. The two had met many years earlier. When the silver-haired Shaw coached Santa Clara, the Philadelphia-born GM had been an assistant at rival St. Mary's.

Shaw, now at Air Force, had spent the previous three decades coaching in sunny California and he balked at coming East. He'd be interested, he said, only if he could spend off-seasons on the West Coast.

Eagles ownership - a large and often dysfunctional group of local businessmen and civic leaders that the newspapers dubbed the "Happy Hundred" - wouldn't agree to that concession and McNally turned elsewhere.

"It doesn't surprise me that Daddy tried to hire Lombardi," said Katherine McNally, the late GM's daughter. "He knew him very well and he really liked him."

Lombardi was one of the league's best-known and well-respected assistants. He and defensive coordinator Tom Landry were such an effective pair that Giants head coach Jim Lee Howell often joked that his job consisted of making sure the footballs were properly inflated.

But while he'd interviewed for several head jobs, including Wake Forest and Notre Dame, Lombardi remained an assistant.

When McNally contacted him, he was receptive. When the two city-born Catholics quickly agreed on a salary of $22,500, Lombardi was on the verge of accepting.

His interest spiked, McNally called on NFL commissioner Bert Bell - a former Eagles owner - to close the deal.

According to Marannis' "When Pride Really Mattered", Bell telephoned Lombardi at home in New Jersey on a Saturday. Sometime during that conversation, Lombardi agreed to coach the Eagles.

Word traveled quickly in the 12-team league and within a few hours, Mara, the Giants owner, was on the phone with his coordinator. If he'd stay in New York, the Giants would match the Eagles salary offer and increase the amount of his life-insurance policy to $100,000. Besides, Mara told him, Howell was 53 and talking about retirement.

Then he hit Lombardi with the deal-breaker. "They'll never let you run the team they way you want to," Mara said.

He had a point. Philadelphia's ownership was an unwieldy mess. There were factions. There were meddlers. The head of the group, Frank McNamee, even had another job. He was Philadelphia's fire commissioner.

"One day we were having an owners meeting at the Warwick [hotel]," Art Modell, the late Browns owner, told the Daily News in 1995. "Frank was in the middle of a speech and heard fire engines. He stopped talking and ran to the window to see which way they were going."

Lombardi wavered, promising to reconsider. In the meantime, Mara's wife, Ann, phoned Marie Lombardi. "Don't leave," she pleaded.

Devoutly Catholic, Lombardi, at his wife's request, retreated to St. James Church in Red Bank, N.J. He sat alone in a pew for hours.

"Don't pray," Marie had advised him. "Think."

The next morning, Lombardi called Mara.

"I think you're right," he said. "I won't take it."

He stayed with the Giants for another season, Then in January 1959, Green Bay made him coach and GM.

The Eagles eventually convinced Shaw to take the job and in 1960 he led them to an NFL title, ironically with a championship-game victory over Lombardi's Packers.

But Shaw left after that season and Lombardi's genius soon manifested itself in Green Bay. His eye for detail and talent quickly transformed the Packers into a dynasty.

It's true Green Bay had talent when he arrived - Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Ray Mitschke, Forrest Gregg. But he'd have found some in Philadelphia too. Future Hall of Famers Sonny Jurgensen and Tommy McDonald, for example, were both picked in the '57 draft.

That same draft, by the way, included another historical twist that will torment Eagles fans forever.

Philadelphia, needing a running back, selected Clarence Peaks with the seventh overall selection.

One pick earlier, the Cleveland Browns took Jim Brown.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz