The first clue was sealed in his memory.
When Bart Starr picked up a copy of the Green Bay Press-Gazette on the morning after Vince Lombardi was introduced as the new head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers, the name did not immediately register. Like the vast majority of Green Bay fans, Starr knew little about his new boss beyond the most recent line on his resume: offensive assistant for the New York Giants. But when he saw a photograph of Lombardi in the paper—his piercing eyes smiling through eyeglasses, exposing the gap between his two front teeth—something clicked in his mind.
The memory was still fresh and vivid: After leading the Packers to a touchdown in a pre-season game against the Giants at Boston's Fenway Park in 1958, Starr was jogging off the field when he noticed a burly assistant coach with graying hair screaming "at the top of his lungs" toward the New York defense, castigating the unit for allowing the score. The man's intensity was hard to miss—even in a meaningless pre-season game eventually won by the struggling Packers—and Starr was struck by the fact that an offensive coach could be so animated about the defense.
The face was unmistakable.
It was him, a realization that landed "like a lightning bolt."
When Starr suddenly realized the same figure who caught his eye in Boston was staring out from the front page of his morning paper, he knew the Green Bay Packers, burdened by the weight of 11 consecutive non-winning seasons, by the accumulated gloom produced by all those years of futility, poor discipline, and low expectations, were in for a rude awakening.
Several weeks later, the new coach convened his quarterbacks and a few other offensive players for a three-hour meeting inside a classroom on the second floor of the Packers' headquarters, the first session of what amounted to a spring mini-camp.
"Good morning," he said, scanning the room where the athletes sat quietly in folding chairs. "I'm Vince Lombardi."
Nothing about the Packers would ever be the same.
From the first moments, Starr and his teammates could tell the new man was different, which was good, because they desperately needed a large dose of different. His demeanor was direct, confident, cerebral, commanding. He never raised his voice. The way he spoke and comported himself reminded Starr of a military officer, and for a young man shaped in such a mold, this seemed like a very good sign.
"Immediately you had a strong feeling about the quality of the man," Starr said.
After Lombardi walked around the room handing out new playbooks and took up a position near the blackboard, chalk in hand, he said, "We're going to take a giant step backward, gentlemen."
The first milestone in the transformation was a dramatic simplification of the offense. As he asked the players to empty their sculls full of McLean's mush, they noticed that the new playbook was less than half the size of the old one. The point was clear: They were going to do a few things and do them all well.
In contrast to Scooter's unnecessarily verbose wording, which often left his quarterbacks overwhelmed, Lombardi introduced a new play-calling terminology boiled down to two digits: one number for the formation, another for the hole. The new system transferred the calling of blocking assignments from the quarterback to the offensive linemen and gave the quarterback much greater latitude to react to the defense.
"This was such a radical change," Starr said. "He threw out all the crap. And you're thinking: Man, does this make sense or what?"
As he diagrammed several plays, Lombardi was able to manipulate the chalk without losing eye contact with his players, a little detail that impressed Starr.
Then, in what amounted to a verbal mission statement, he clarified the purpose of his Green Bay Packers.
"Gentlemen," he said, "we are going to relentlessly chase perfection….knowing full well that we won't catch it, because nobody is perfect…"
Starr was on the edge of his seat, soaking up the message like a sponge.
"…but we're going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process, we will catch excellence."
The words tumbled in Starr's mind as Lombardi paused and moved closer, close enough to see the fire in his eyes. Starr would always remember the pause, the perfectly timed theatricality of it, the way it heightened the sense of anticipation pervading the room.
"I'm not remotely interested in being just good."
In a moment pregnant with possibility, gleaming with the sort of ambition the Packers had sorely lacked, the pulsating life force of Vince Lombardi reached deep inside Bart Starr and grabbed him in a way no one had ever grabbed him before. He was so fired up he wanted to stand up and cheer.
"We were all just blown away," he said. "It was so inspiring…such an exciting moment."
When they took a break for lunch, Starr rushed downstairs to a pay phone and placed a long-distance call to Cherry at their off-season home in Birmingham. "Honey," he said excitedly, "we're going to begin to win."