In Detroit, Joe Lombardi will inherit an offense built around All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson and should feel right at home. (Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)
As the grandson of Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi and son of Vince Lombardi Jr., who worked in a management capacity for the Seattle Seahawks and two United States Football League teams, Joe Lombardi was immersed in football growing up.
But when Fisher DeBerry recruited Joe Lombardi to play tight end at Air Force, he remembers football being secondary.
“Joe wanted to play college football and wanted to be a good college player at a good college program, but more than anything his education was very, very important to him,” said DeBerry, Air Force’s head coach from 1984-2006.
After playing three seasons, Lombardi graduated from the Academy in 1994, and DeBerry said the disciplined lifestyle at Air Force helped him become the “industrious” man he is today.
The Lions will introduce Lombardi, 42, today as their offensive coordinator, replacing Scott Linehan, who was fired on Dec. 30 and will be the playcaller for the Dallas Cowboys next season.
Lombardi spent the last seven seasons with the New Orleans Saints, the last five as quarterbacks coach. His work with All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees — as well as coach Sean Payton — helped him earn the job in Detroit, where he’ll be expected to stop quarterback Matthew Stafford’s regression from the past two seasons, but DeBerry said Lombardi will relate to players for reasons beyond his resume.
“He’s worked with great people and certainly worked hard and certainly has been prepared for every opportunity that he has been afforded,” DeBerry said. “He’ll certainly do a great job there, I guarantee you.
“He’s a very personable guy. He’s a very no-nonsense guy. He’s fun to be around, but he’s a very intense worker and he was that way as a player.”
And even though Lombardi bears one of the NFL’s most legendary names, DeBerry said nothing was handed to him as he climbed the coaching ranks. If anything, Lombardi’s family ties simply show he has good football genes.
“I think he’s earned every opportunity he’s gotten because he’s such a hard working and committed young man,” DeBerry said.
A commitment was exactly what Lombardi made when he chose to attend Air Force because all students are required to serve five years after graduation. However, based on Lombardi’s coaching timeline, he was among a select group allowed out of his service after two years.
During the mid-1990s, the Air Force had too many committed officers, so some were granted early release if their field was overstaffed. Lombardi’s first coaching job was at Dayton in 1996, two years after he graduated.
After three years with the Flyers, Lombardi spent a year coaching at the Virginia Military Institute under then-head coach Cal McCombs, who had previously worked as an assistant at Air Force.
After a year at Bucknell and one with the XFL’s New Jersey Hitmen, Lombardi earned his first offensive coordinator job at Mercyhurst from 2002-05. Then, he jumped to the NFL as a defensive assistant with the Atlanta Falcons in 2006 before joining the Saints.
DeBerry said it’s been a joy to watch his former player climb the coaching ranks, and he thinks Lombardi’s career is still on the upswing.
“He’ll be an NFL head coach one day,” DeBerry said. “I just think he has all the attributes of the great NFL coaches that I know.”
Before that can happen, though, the Lions hope Lombardi can improve an offense that, while potent in terms of yardage, ranked 13th in scoring in 2013 and particularly struggled in the fourth quarter.
In Detroit, Lombardi will inherit an offense built around All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson and should feel right at home. Although Brees steered the Saints’ offense, it moved most effectively with tight end Jimmy Graham, who had 1,215 receiving yards and an NFL-best 16 TDs last season.
During his time at Air Force, DeBerry crossed paths with Caldwell, who was coaching Wake Forest from 1993-2000, and he said Caldwell and Lombardi will help each other in Detroit.
“I think they’re both very hard workers, very industrious,” DeBerry said. “Both of them are very, very smart and I think both of them have unbelievable experience coaching. I think it’ll be a great marriage.”