Air Force graduate Joe Lombardi carries on legendary family name in NFL coaching career
By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: August 7, 2018
NEW ORLEANS, La. (Tribune News Service) — Joe Lombardi never met his iconic grandfather, but an important lesson was passed along from the famed patriarch.
“My grandpa told my dad, my dad told me — don’t get involved in football,” said Lombardi, the grandson of coaching legend Vince Lombardi and a 1994 Air Force graduate. “But you grow up around it, it gets in the blood.”
Lombardi is entering his 23rd season of coaching and 10th with the New Orleans Saints, where as quarterbacks coach he serves as the right-hand man to one of the best right arms in NFL history — that of Drew Brees.
“Joe is a guy that is extremely intelligent, very innovative,” said Brees, who has worked beside Lombardi for seven seasons and is on track for the most prolific passing career the game has seen.
Suffice to say, Lombardi didn’t follow the family’s advice. Though he certainly tried to stay away.
After playing tight end for coach Fisher DeBerry’s Falcons, Lombardi graduated from the academy and was serving as an acquisitions officer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base just east of Dayton, Ohio, when he worked his schedule free of afternoons to serve as a volunteer assistant defensive line coach for the University of Dayton.
“It wasn’t until I was out of the academy and those first falls came around and I wasn’t part of a football team and I really missed it,” Lombardi said. “So I had the opportunity to go coach at Dayton and I liked it. So when my service was up, I pursued it full time.”
From Dayton (1996-98) he went to VMI and coached tight ends and tackles in 1999. Then it was Bucknell for a year. Then a year in short-lived XFL before spending four years at Mercyhurst as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
In 2006 he latched on as a quality control defensive assistant with the Atlanta Falcons, and he landed a spot as an offensive coach the New Orleans Saints the next year — first as an offensive assistant before taking over the quarterbacks role in 2009. He’s been with Sean Payton’s team ever since, with the exception of two years spent as offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions from 2014-15.
Lombardi certainly wasn’t alone in pursuing a coaching career after playing for DeBerry.
His roommate on active duty at Wright-Patterson was Steve Russ, who went on to play in the NFL, serve as defensive coordinator for Air Force and is now also in the NFL as linebackers coach for the Panthers.
Another of Lombardi’s close friends from his playing days, Steed Lobotzke, is the offensive line coach at Air Force.
Russ, Lobotzke and Lombardi serve as godfathers to each other’s children.
Lombardi’s first NFL break came when former Air Force teammate Chris Beake, now with the Denver Broncos, was an assistant with the Falcons and helped get him the interview that opened the door.
“Fisher’s program was so good that you have such a good experience and, really, a lot of guys have gone into coaching. A surprising number,” Lombardi said. “You don’t go to the Air Force Academy thinking you’re going to be a football coach, but we had such a good experience and some guys got the experience, so there’s a number of us guys out there coaching.”
Though Lombardi was advised not to follow the family career path, in many ways he has walked it in perfect sync with those who preceded him.
Vince Lombardi’s formative years in coaching were spent at West Point, as he assisted Earl “Colonel Red” Blaik’s Army teams from 1948 through 1953 before launching his NFL career that eventually led him to the helm of the Green Bay Packers.
Joe’s father, Vince Lombardi Jr., was heavily involved in football, as an assistant to the general manager for the Seattle Seahawks, the vice president of two USFL teams and as a labor negotiator for the NFL. But like Joe, he didn’t put all his eggs in the football basket, earning his law degree and serving as a Minnesota state legislator.
“When I finally decided to do it, my dad said, ‘There are more good coaches than there are good coaching jobs. So you better have a backup plan,’” Lombardi said. “I’ve been fortunate enough so far that I’ve been able to make a living out of it. We’ll see how much longer I can keep it up.”
Now a father of seven — four boys and three girls — Lombardi has his advice ready when the next generation considers entering what has become the family business.
“No, no, no, no,” Lombardi said. “But my oldest is already asking.”
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