Vince Lombardi has staged a comeback in the past year. The Broadway show, “Lombardi”, is doing well and his old team, Green Bay, is playing in the Super Bowl this Sunday, an event, ironically enough that Lombardi didn’t like. The Lombardi coached Green Bay Packers played in what is now known as Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II. Officially Lombardi’s two teams played in the American Football League-National Football league World Championship Game.
Lombardi thought the NFL title game was the be-all, end-all NFL event.
Lombardi’s teams won the 1967 and 1968 contests but Lombardi didn’t get to touch the Vince Lombardi Trophy given to the Super Bowl winner. The Super Bowl became the Super Bowl in 1969 and the championship trophy was named for Lombardi following his death in 1970.
In the decades following his Lombardi’s passing, the Super Bowl became a uniquely American quasi-celebration/holiday. The Fourth of July is America’s Birthday Party but the Super Bowl is American’s excuse for a party. Supermarkets have Super sales for countless Super parties, but it wasn’t always like this.
Back in 1967, it was just called the “World Championship Game, AFL vs. NFL.” The game was held in the 94,000 seat Los Angeles Coliseum. The ticket prices were $12, $10 and $6. There were 33,000 empty seats. It was the last time a Super Bowl or the World Championship Game was not a sellout.
There were no parties, no weeklong football orgies. In fact, it wasn’t until January 1973 when Super Bowl parties took on a different life. The Commissioner’s Party was held on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California.
The first game was played on January 15, 1967 just 26 days after the final approval of the merger between the National Football League and the American Football League. CBS and NBC televised it using the same television feed but with different announcers. The networks charged $42,000 for a 30 second commercial. The two leagues had to put together a game in a hurry.
The two networks paid $9.5 million to televise the game.
The leagues couldn’t even agree on which ball to use, so they compromised. When Green Bay was on offense, they used the Wilson “Duke” football. When Kansas City had the ball, they used the AFL sanctioned Spalding J5-V.
Today there is still that one feed, but the game is internationally televised. Cities bid for Super Bowls years in advance. Networks put up big money for regular season games so they could get the Super Bowl once every three years.
It’s no longer NFL vs. AFL, NFL advertisers vs. AFL advertisers. CBS vs. NBC. In 1967, the American Football League and the Kansas City Chiefs were considered to be part of a “Mickey Mouse league” by Lombardi and the NFL. Lombardi was among those thinkers (a group which includes Wayne Gretzky. The hockey star used the same term in 1983 in a criticism of the New Jersey Devils) who felt that “Mickey Mouse” was a putdown.
Mickey Mouse launched the Disney empire and the trademark is worth billions globally. Lombardi was partially right using a Mickey Mouse reference back in the infancy of the Super Bowl. There is some irony in that the Walt Disney Company’s ABC- TV division had the rights to broadcast the Super Bowl along with FOX and CBS under one of the past NFL-network television agreements.
Adding injury to insult, Lombardi and his Packers practiced in Southern California before the 1967 championship game not far from Disneyland because the NFL felt that was the best way to sell tickets to the contest The AFL was the Mickey Mouse league and not worthy of being on the same field as the NFL..
“He got a lot of pressure put on him by the other owners of the National Football League. That was a bitter relationship with the AFL and NFL,” recalled Jerry Kramer, one of Lombardi’s Packers offensive linemen. “I’m not sure there still aren’t still some rivalries in that situation.
“Lombardi got calls from virtually everyone in the NFL saying we were
representing the NFL and the pride of the NFL and we couldn’t be beaten.”
Lombardi even had to deal with William Paley’s CBS Television Network and NFL partner.
“I was talking to Frank Gifford years ago and he mentioned that he announced that first Super Bowl,” Kramer continued. “Gifford said he was fairly cool, fairly calm and relaxed and we went over to put his arm on Vince’s shoulder and Lombardi was shaking like a leaf.
“Gifford said that really made me nervous.”
Gifford, of course, was the CBS announcer who played under Lombardi when Lombardi was the New York Giants offensive coach (in 2011 parlance, an offensive coordinator) in the 1950s and represented the NFL.
Neither CBS nor NBC bothered to keep a video of the game.
Green Bay won the matchup and Lombardi was able to exhale. But Lombardi was right in this sense. The NFL was the favored league of the sports media in those days with Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated leading the charge against the AFL. Green Bay won the first two championships and the football media dismissed the American Football League and players like Joe Namath and teams like the New York Jets, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders.
The flaw in the thinking was this. The AFL was signing players out of the same college pool as the NFL and the AFL coaches like Weeb Ewbank, Sid Gillman and Al Davis came out of the NFL. The AFL has had the same TV money available to them as the NFL thanks to David Sarnoff’s anger at losing the NFL contract deal to his CBS rival William Paley. Sarnoff’s NBC was the AFL’s bank and the Sonny Werblin used some of Sarnoff’s money to sign Namath.
The name Super Bowl came by accident and it came from Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, the man who founded the AFL because he could not get an NFL team in Dallas.
“It was one of the spur of the moment things,” said Hunt. “No one ever said what are we going to call it? It was one of those things that just came out of the mouth. It was not too inspired.”
Hunt was home one day watching his children play with a ball when he first uttered the words.
“They each had a Super Ball that my wife had given to them and they were always talking about them and I just used the expression Super Bowl and it was an accidental thing and it seems to have caught on.”
But NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle didn’t like the name nor did NFL owners. Still, the game had no name and no one had suggested anything else. In fact, there was no Super Bowl Committee. It was Rozelle’s idea to call the contest, The AFL-NFL World Championship Game.
“Everybody said, that’s a corny name,” Hunt recalled. “But the members of the committee started using that name and one thing lead to another. After the second game, it was formally adopted.”
But Hunt did talk to Rozelle, and Hunt the visionary who founded the AFL was very persuasive and Rozelle listened.
“Lamar talked to me after the first couple of games and told me his daughter had a funny ball, a toy. She’d bounce it. It was a super ball,” remembered Pete Rozelle in September 1990. “He said why don’t we call it the Super Bowl?
“Well to me, you know when I was in high school (in the 1940s), super was a big word. You know this was super, that was super. I thought that sounds a little corny, but then finally, I decided this was worth a shot and it course it has a totally different connotation when used on the game today. We decided to do it then, so we started calling it that and it really caught on.”
Rozelle did not recall any formal discussion on the name. It just became the Super Bowl by 1969 despite the fact that he didn’t really like the name.
As far as the Wham-O Super Ball? It’s shelve life was considerably less than the Super Bowl. It was a toy made Zectron. Chemical Engineer Norma Stingley found that when formed at 50,000 pounds of pressure, Zectron becomes uncontrollably bouncy. Wham-O began producing a ball made of Zectron in 1967, the same year that Super Bowl I was played between the Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers. After only a few years, the “double-top secret” formula for Zectron was copied by Wham-O’s competitors and the Super Ball floundered. The Super Ball was out of production by 1976.
Today the Super Bowl means millions of dollars for the airline industry, the hotel industry, the rent-a-car industry, the restaurant industry in the host city and the TV industry. The league uses the promise of awarding a game to a city if that town builds a new stadium. The Super Bowl is one of the few events that brings out of town money to a sporting event.
On January 12, 1969 the Jets- Baltimore Colts match up in Miami sold out just minutes before kickoff. The Jets victory that day might have been crushing for old line NFL owners, but even Rozelle in the NFL Publication, The Super Bowl, Celebrating a Quarter of a Century of America’s Greatest Game, admitted the Jets upset that day mushroomed interest in football.
The Jets-Colts game was the turning point in the popularity of the Super Bowl. The National Football League and the most of the football media thought the old league would just be better all the time.
The New York Jets were the free spending rebels from the rebel league. New York quarterback Joe Namath had a large contract, wore long hair and played in white shoes. The Colts quarterbacks, Earl Morrall and Johnny Unitas both had crew cuts. Namath was known as Broadway Joe, a nickname given to him by former Colt and Jet offensive lineman Sherman Plunkett. Unitas was known as Johnny U and wore black high top shoes.
Namath had a public perception of being a playboy who enjoyed New York life to its fullest and was a braggart. Unitas had little to say.
While Ewbank was studying films of the Colts and analyzing why the Chiefs and Raiders lost, Namath was talking and was ahead of his time as a trash talk pioneer. Except Namath only said two things and was probably only echoing what his coaching staff and teammates were thinking.
Namath said there were four quarterbacks in the AFL who were better than Morrall, the Colts starter and then said, “We are going to win this game. I guarantee it.”
Ewbank had to convince his Jets to keep quiet and play football and not say a thing about beating Baltimore. He was in one way seeking NFL respect but in another way laughing to Super Bowl. Weeb knew his Jets could win and the AFL was a quality league.
“They weren’t giving the AFL anything,” he said years later. “I thought there were two great teams in Super Bowl I and II. They were fine ball clubs. I don’t think there has ever been much better material than they had at Kansas City. They had great athletes and the Raiders were a good football team.
“In both games, they let themselves get upset. In the first game, they had an interception in the third quarter and the Chiefs weren’t any good in the ballgame after that after Green Bay scored. Then the Raider game, they had a dropped punt and a recovery and then they weren’t in the game anymore.
“When we went into out game, we said no matter what happened, we weren’t going to let it upset us. Whether it be an official call, an interception, a fumble or what. Why we weren’t going to let that upset us. We were going to stick to the game plan.”
But one thing Ewbank didn’t count on was Namath sounding more like Muhammad Ali than the average football player.
Ewbank brought the Jets to Fort Lauderdale to work out prior to the game. The Jets stayed at the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel where Namath was given the same room that Vince Lombardi used the year before. The Jets trained at the New York Yankees Fort Lauderdale spring training complex and he was given Mickey Mantle’s locker. Twists of fate?
Maybe, but Namath broke the athlete’s code. He guaranteed a win. Ewbank was not amused.
“We had gone down there as 17 points underdogs which I liked,” he recalled. “I told the guys don’t pay any attention to what I say because I want to try to make it 21 if I can. Don’t you guys do anything to stir them up. Well, I could have shot Joe when he said that.”
But Namath and the Jets were confident and really believed they were better than the Colts.
“That’s true and I understood Coach Ewbank,” said Namath. “The next day I saw Coach Ewbank and he said my goodness these guys (the Colts) are overconfident and I have been working on that and here you are giving them fuel to get fired up for the game.
“I simply said, Coach if they need clippings to fire them up, then they are in trouble. That was that. He made me aware that he was very upset that I had said what I did and I felt badly about it after that. Fortunately we won.”
The Jets did go out and won 16-7. The AFL had arrived nearly 10 years after Hunt and Bud Adams decided to go ahead with their plan.
The Jets apparently didn’t think too highly of the Tiffany Trophy the organization received for winning the game. The team left it behind in Miami’s Orange Bowl in a backroom and returned to New York.
“The important thing was we won,” said Namath.
Namath, Ewbank and the rest of the Jets permanently etched the term Super Bowl into the American mindset. Namath, the quarterback, became a TV host, sex symbol, rebel, hero and salesman.
“I don’t know how much money the Super Bowls means,” Hunt admitted. “I wasn’t smart enough to copyright the name. That was a fatal mistake. No, I’m kidding.
“If we thought about copyrighting it, I am sure somebody would have taken the name. It is copyrighted now. But it’s all from a child’s toy ball.”
Even Rozelle years later would admit the “Super” name probably played a major role in the event’s success.
What would have happened to the NFL without its June 1966 merger with the AFL? Tex Schramm, the longtime Dallas Cowboys President and a chief architect of the merger along with Hunt, thought pro football would have been in shambles. There would have been no Broadway Joe guarantees, no Steelers, no 49ers or Cowboys, no Lombardi to talk about.
“I think football was on its way to self destruction with the two leagues,” said Schramm. “Both sides were spending themselves into bankruptcy and there were only four or five clubs that could remain really competitive.
“Teams were drafting players not on the basis on whether or not they could play but whether they could be signed. Whenever that happens then your sport is in trouble and that’s the way we were headed then.”
At that time there were 15 NFL teams and nine AFL clubs. Instead of two
entities in a financial battle, the merger brought an end to the 1960s
version of soaring player cuts and solidified an industry that was gaining more and more popularity annually.
“The merger started the most successful growth period in the National
Football League. Because of the rivalry that had been built up with the American Football League, we were able to create the Super Bowl,” Schramm explained. “The Super Bowl kind of put the icing on the cake and the interest in the National Football League kept rolling until it was the most popular spectator sport in the United States.”
The ghost of Lombardi will be on display during Sunday’s big game between Green Bay and Pittsburgh. The Lombardi Trophy will be shown off around 10:15 Eastern Time on Sunday night. Lombardi will be back for a day but in a sense, he has never left. There is the turnpike stop near the Meadowlands, the play on Broadway, the old adages and of course, the Lombardi Trophy. All of which is a bit odd considering that Vince Lombardi really didn’t want to be at the Super Bowl.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble ‘s xplana.com, kobo’s literati or amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was edited for length by Greg Tyler, Editor of the Sport Digest.