Vince Lombardi is famous for saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” And for years there’s been some controversy over how the legendary coach intended the statement he is now synonymous with.
While it is true that Lombardi did indeed repeat the statement often throughout his career, it’s also true that he spent a lot of time trying to explain that his words were taken out of context.
“I wish to hell I’d never said the damned thing,” Lombardi once told a reporter. “I meant the effort… I meant having a goal… I sure as hell didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”
So why did Lombardi repeat the phrase so often if it was something he knew could be easily misunderstood?
First, Lombardi used it to motivate his players with a sense of urgency. He wanted them to understand just how ruthless the business of professional football was. If the players and coaches didn’t win and win now, they’d be fired. Period. That was the nature of the business and Lombardi didn’t shy away from reminding his players of this reality.
But Lombardi had another, more compelling, reason for repeating his famous statement. He felt it bluntly conveyed an important message for society at large. That is, Lombardi looked around late-1960s America and saw too much apathy, which he despised. He felt too many people had lost their competitive spirit and he wanted them to once again strive for excellence.
Here’s how Lombardi put it…
Our society, at the present time, seems to have sympathy for the misfit, the ne’er-do-well, the maladjusted, the criminal, the loser. It is time to stand up for the doer, the achiever, the one who sets out to do something and does it. The one who recognizes the problems and opportunities at hand, and deals with them, and is successful, and is not worrying about the failings of others. The one who is constantly looking for more to do. The one who carries the work of the world on his shoulders. The leader.
We will never create a good society, much less a great one, until individual excellence is respected and encouraged.
Being part of a football team is no different than being a part of any other organization—an army, a political party. The objective is to win, to beat the other guy.
You think that is hard or cruel—I don’t think it is.
I do think it is a reality of life that men are competitive, and the more competitive the business, the more competitive the men. They know the rules, and they know the objective, and they get in the game.
And the objective is to win—fairly, squarely, decently, by the rules, but to win.
Each of us, if we would grow, must be committed to excellence and to victory; even though we know complete victory cannot be attained, it must be pursued with all one’s might.
The championships, the money, the color; all of these things linger only in the memory. It is the spirit, the will to excel, the will to win; these are the things that endure. These are the important things.
— Vince Lombardi, as quoted in Vince Lombardi Jr.’s book, What It Takes to Be #1
When you read the above statements from Vince Lombardi and you think about the message he’s passionately trying to convey, it sounds an awful lot like John Wooden’s and Nick Saban’s dedication to “the process” combined with Pete Carroll’s passion for relentless competition.
Lombardi’s point is clear: We must never fall into apathy or complacency. Instead, we must strive. We must strive for excellence, strive to constantly get better, strive for victory. That’s what makes a winner.
Whether we win or lose in an individual battle, it’s the desire to achieve, the will to compete, and the courage to strive that fuel us towards greatness.
(A previous version of this article appeared in the Sports for the Soul newsletter on February 2, 2017.)