Posted: 7:05 p.m.
It's Lambeau Week. There has to be at least one history lesson.
The Bengals haven't been to Green Bay's Lambeau Field in the regular season since 1995, the longest stretch of any NFL team. But when they finally return Sunday, they bring two of the league's connections to the NFL equivalent of Yankee Stadium.
Lambeau is Lambeau because of Lombardi and Lombardi came to Lambeau 50 years ago in part because of Bengals founder Paul Brown. After letting go Scooter McLean following a one-win season in 1958, Green Bay ownership phoned the legendary coach of the Cleveland Browns looking for a candidate and Brown gave them the name of the offensive assistant who got the Giants to run to daylight.
Vincent Thomas Lombardi.
After that 1959 season at a league meeting, Brown met Lombardi for lunch and they were accompanied by some of the Packers owners and Paul Brown's son Mike.
"That's when it was first clear to me that my father had recommended Lombardi for the job," said Mike Brown, the Bengals president. "My father saw him as a young coach. He was outgoing, personable, deferential to my dad. My father thought of him highly. He was good at it. He thought the Giants were a well-coached team. Their coach was Jim Lee Howell, but it was Lombardi on offense and (Tom) Landry on defense behind the scenes and my father recognized that.
"He thought he was a very good coach and my father didn't say there were very many good ones."
Seven years later Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski sat in the Lambeau stands as a 12-year-old shivering in the minus-13 degrees of the Ice Bowl and watched the crowning moment of Lombardi's legacy when quarterback Bart Starr knifed behind guard Jerry Kramer and past the Cowboys for one yard into the frozen end zone with 13 seconds left for Green Bay's third straight NFL title and fifth in seven seasons.
"It became Titletown after he got there," Bratkowski said of Lombardi after Thursday's practice. "He had this big, booming hearty laugh. You could see his smile light up and when he would laugh you could hear him all over. He was very, very friendly man. Very family oriented."
Bratkowski was part of the family. His father, Zeke, was Starr's backup and that meant he could hang out with his dad at the Saturday practice the day before a game. The man with the toothy smile and loud laugh would run his meat hook of a hand through Bratkowski's hair and ask, "How you doing, Bobby?"
Brat would say something like, "Fine, Coach." He wasn't afraid of him but, awe is more like it. He can still remember those Thanksgiving Days when the Packers and their families would eat together and Lombardi would go around the room.
"You could just feel his presence," Bratkowski said. "Maybe you didn't see him come in the room, but you would know he was there. He had that much presence as a man. His players are still in awe of him today. Very few of them call him, 'Vince.' My dad adored him and still calls him, "Coach Lombardi."
Zeke Bratkowski is going to be there Sunday because it is Packers Alumni Day and Bob has been to some of these events where the Lombardi stories flow.
His favorite one concerns either Paul Hornung or Max McGee, he can't remember. But whoever it was kept missing curfew and Lombardi kept jacking the fine. Finally, Lombardi came up with the biggest number he could possibly think of in the next warning.
"And if you still think it's worth it to go out," Lombardi said, "call me because I want to go too."
If Lombardi deferred to Paul Brown, Mike Brown deferred to both as a 25-year-old out of Harvard Law School about to join his father in pro football with the Browns. Mike Brown watched Lombardi through the years and grew more and more impressed.
"What he did to his teams is made them adhere to a very high standard," Brown said. "It wasn't what they did that surprised you. They were able to do a number of things so well that no matter what you did they had the counter for it. They didn't care what you did."
The Browns shared a few meals with Lombardi down through the years and Mike enjoyed watching their comfortable banter.
"He and my father both had a good sense of humor, which people don't attribute to them; they think of them in other terms," Brown said. "They enjoyed telling stories like guys do. Stories about football. Stories about life. They were comfortable with that kind of exchange."
Bratkowski also saw a guy that not many did. He would see Lombardi, no, make that hear Lombardi chew out players during practice in legendary stereo. Then when the young boy would be in the locker room with his dad, he would see Lombardi go up to each player he scolded and put an arm around them or offer an encouraging word.
What Paul Brown thought was an inaccurate portrayal of Lombardi fueled what was probably his most public showdown with a media member. It came at Wilmington College when the Bengals were at training camp in the late 1960s.
Leonard Schecter had written a scathing profile of Lombardi in Esquire that Playboy said showed Lombardi "so single-mindedly committed to victory that he drove his players as ruthlessly as any general would in a battle."
That was hot for the '60s and Howard Cosell would later say the story upset Lombardi so much that he never got over it. When Lombardi's mother called in tears, it shook her son to the core and had him thinking about getting out of coaching.
When Schecter showed up at Wilmington to do a story on Brown, the coach stared at him in his conference room off his bedroom where he met the media and lit into him.
"Are you the one that wrote that story on my friend Vince Lombardi?" Brown asked.
When Schecter said, "Yes," Brown said simply, "Get out."
Lombardi would be dead of cancer before 1970 was out, but his reputation grew as big as Brown's and even more when they put his name on the Super Bowl trophy. But Mike Brown said that didn't bother him or his father.
"My dad thought Lombardi did it honorably while there were others that were good coaches but not so honorable, and others that were honorable and not so good coaches," Mike Brown said. "It was timely to honor him. I like the fact the trophy is called the Lombardi Trophy. I think it ties into the history of the National Football League in a way that helps tell the story."