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Bill Belichick has eclipsed Vince Lombardi

Bill Belichick, right, has been called the Vince Lombardi of our time. [AP photos]
Bill Belichick, right, has been called the Vince Lombardi of our time. [AP photos]
Published Oct. 4, 2017

TAMPA — No name echoes in NFL history like Lombardi. The Super Bowl trophy bears the name.

But the name Belichick will echo, too.

Bill Belichick is our Vince Lombardi.

Or maybe Lombardi was their Belichick.

Forty-seven years after his death, Lombardi, who coached the Green Bay Packers to five world championships, still mesmerizes those looking for an affirmation of hard work, desire and triumph. And so, in his own hooded way, does Belichick, who also has won five world championships.

"Five and five," Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian. "Simple math."

They are separated by the years and their styles. Lombardi was offense. Belichick is defense. One roared in a way that made his words famous and players run through walls for him. The other is stoic, seemingly with the personality of a body snatcher, but with a pencil behind his ear during games to help make notes. Student and teacher at the same time, like Lombardi before him.

Run to Daylight vs. Do Your Job.

Lombardi or Belichick?

Belichick or Lombardi?

"Absolutely, it's a valid comparison," said Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author David Maraniss, who wrote When Pride Still Mattered, the definitive Lombardi biography. Maraniss also wrote the introduction to The Education of a Coach, the late David Halberstam's book on Belichick. "You could say it either way if you took either one and I don't think you'd get too much of an argument."

Lombardi is more mythic than Belichick. The name still makes Football America stand at attention.

"Whether he changed the practical nature of football, I don't think he did that," Maraniss said. "But he lifted the game. Football was changing and Lombardi was the patron saint of that, football's rise in overtaking baseball as the national pastime. He was really the symbol. He ushered in the modern era of football."

Belichick is decidedly un-mythic. People who aren't Patriots fans don't talk of him in hallowed terms. They talk about Belichick cutting corners, cheating. And his greatness wouldn't shine as bright if it wasn't for a sixth-round draft pick named Tom Brady.

I'd still take Belichick over Lombardi on game day.

But it's hard to believe he'll ever be thought of like Lombardi.

"Yeah, but 20 years and people will be saying the same thing about Bill," Polian insists.

It's easy to focus on how different Lombardi and Belichick are, and how different their eras were. Salary cap versus no salary cap. Roster turnover versus less roster turnover. More specialization versus less specialization. Belichick has the tougher job.

But Lombardi could have cut it today. He'd conquer. He'd motivate. He'd adapt.

"He was a master psychologist," Maraniss said. "And he was way ahead of his time in terms of social issues such as race and sexuality."

No one is close to Belichick in today's NFL. He has changed the practical nature of football. He is the master builder, switching out personnel from year to year and approaches week to week. He has altered the way men in his profession do their jobs, more than Lombardi ever did. Belichick points more to Paul Brown, the great Cleveland Browns coach and football pioneer, whom Belichick spoke of during a conference call Monday.

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"I never really knew Vince Lombardi, so I would have a hard time commenting on that," Belichick said. "But what Paul Brown did when he was coaching in the '40s, '50s and early '60s, people who I've talked to who were with him at that time, played for him at that time, say what he did today was very similar in terms of our preparation, practice schedules, practice drills, zone breakdowns, game planning. ... What Coach Brown did 60 years ago is pretty similar to what we do today."

David Maraniss was asked if Belichick could have cut it in Lombardi's time.

"Oh, yes, absolutely," Maraniss said. "He learned everything from his father, who was in that era of Lombardi. I think almost he would have rather coached then."

Lombardi was the son of a butcher. Belichick is the son of a legendary coach and scout. Lombardi and Belichick, so different, but with so much in common.

"The common thread between them is preparing a football team," Polian said. "They're teaching, educating, completely different, but arriving at the same thing. Situational football, knowledge of the game, innate intelligence."

Lombardi at a chalkboard, mapping out the famed Packer sweep, so simple in design, but liberating in its precision and execution.

Belichick at the walkthrough the day before the Patriots won the Super Bowl over Seattle, Belichick standing in the end zone with an undrafted rookie cornerback named Malcolm Butler, showing Butler exactly what to do if Seattle happened to run a certain play on the goal line — break hard on the inside, don't let the receiver cross your face. The next day, Butler broke hard on the inside, didn't let the Seattle receiver cross his face — and won the Super Bowl.

Lombardi vs. Belichick.

Who would win that game?

I'll go with Belichick.

"In that era, Lombardi. In today's, Belichick," Maraniss said.

More important, what would they name the trophy?

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029