Winning Isn’t Everything; It’s the Only Thing

Vince Lombardi? Henry ‘Red’ Sanders? Joe Kuharich? Jim Tatum? Murray Warmath? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A controversial uncompromising statement about the importance of winning has been credited to two successful football coaches: Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers and Henry ‘Red’ Sanders of the UCLA Bruins:

Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

Would you please determine who crafted this expression?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in “The Birmingham News” of Alabama on November 9, 1948. The newspaper reported on a speech delivered by football coach Henry ‘Red’ Sanders of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Sanders spoke to a group of football enthusiasts called the Quarterback Club who had convened for a luncheon at The Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1948 November 9, The Birmingham News, Sanders Gives Prescription For His Grid Success—Material by Jerry Bryan (Assistant Sports Editor of The Birmingham News), Quote Page 22, Column 5, Birmingham, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Sanders wryly told the QBs that coaching today is a day to day proposition and there is no place in football for losing. “I think with the fans winning isn’t everything,” he said. “It’s the only thing.”

Thus, this first instance was a comical barb aimed at zealous fans combined with a commentary on the precarious nature of coaching. Sanders was not presenting a philosophy of life.

There is evidence that Vince Lombardi and other coaches employed this saying in subsequent years, but based on current evidence Red Sanders crafted this expression.

Thanks to researcher Barry Popik who located the above citation and shared it with QI.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Traditionally, many educators and athletics supervisors have de-emphasized the importance of winning and pointed to the greater significance of solid effort and sportsmanship. For example, a speech published in “The Educational Times” in 1898 contained this sentence[ref] 1898 April 1, The Educational Times and Journal of the College of Preceptors, Volume 51, (Address by the Chair Rev. the Hon. Canon Lyttelton), Start Page 168, Quote Page 170, Column 1, Francis Hodgson, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

It is, I believe, customary to say that, when young people win prizes, they ought to be warned that prize-winning is not everything in this world.

In 1912 “The Atlanta Constitution” printed an interview with former President Theodore Roosevelt during which he discussed competition and the U. S. Olympic team:[ref] 1912 February 11, The Atlanta Constitution, The Men Who Try the Hardest Due Credit If They Don’t Win by Theodore Roosevelt, Quote Page C2, Column 3, Atlanta, Georgia. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Of course, it’s a fine thing for us to have the champions of the world on our team and to see them win great events and break athletic records, but for my part I am inclined to give just as much credit to those who go and do their best and don’t win.
Winning isn’t everything.

The above citation was included in the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press within the entry for: Winning isn’t everything.[ref] 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 277, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) [/ref] The saying under examination subverts this adage.

In the financial domain a similar moralistic proverb exists, and the following short comical item from “The Pittsburgh Press”[ref] 1919 February 26, The Pittsburgh Press, Everything with Him, (Filler item), Quote Page 26, Column 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref] and “Judge” in 1919 tweaks the statement:[ref] 1919 April 12, Judge: The Happy Medium, A Digest of the World’s Humor: Money, Quote Page 64, Published Weekly by Leslie-Judge Company, New York. (HathiTrust) list [/ref]

“Money isn’t everything.”
“Maybe not, but right now it’s the only thing I can think of that I really need.”

In 1932 The Detroit Free Press printed another humorous comment about money:[ref] 1932 October 27, The Detroit Free Press, Observations by Robert Quillen, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Detroit, Michigan. ([/ref]

Of course money isn’t everything; but it’s the only thing that strikes 12 when you are in a jam.

An educator’s 1937 essay cautioned colleagues about the unintended lessons taught by school activities. The notion that “winning is the only thing” was viewed critically:[ref] 1937 November, The Clearing House: A Journal for Modern Junior and Senior High Schools, Volume 12, Number 3, Extracurricular Activities and the Curriculum by Edgar G. Johnston, Start Page 144, Quote Page 149, Column 1 and 2, Inor Publishing Company, New York. (Now Published by Taylor & Francis, Ltd.)(JSTOR) link [/ref]

We need to recognize that the values from any school situation are not automatic but merely potential. A pupil may learn responsibility and cooperation from his experience on a student council. On the other hand, he may be learning simply how to do a clever bit of political log-rolling. The boy on the football team may be acquiring ideals of good sportsmanship, fair play, and self-reliance, and the ability to work with others. He may be learning simply that winning is the only thing that counts and that athletics are the most important thing in school.

In November 1948 Sanders employed the expression during a speech delivered in Birmingham, Alabama as mentioned at the beginning of this article:[ref] 1948 November 9, The Birmingham News, Sanders Gives Prescription For His Grid Success—Material by Jerry Bryan (Assistant Sports Editor of The Birmingham News), Quote Page 22, Column 5, Birmingham, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Sanders wryly told the QBs that coaching today is a day to day proposition and there is no place in football for losing. “I think with the fans winning isn’t everything,” he said. “It’s the only thing.”

In February 1950 the saying appeared in the “Tallahassee Democrat” of Florida. Columnist Fred Pettijohn recounted the following dialog. The name “Frnka” looks odd but is correct:[ref] 1950 February 7, Tallahassee Democrat, In the Pressbox With Fred Pettijohn, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Tallahassee, Florida. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Tulane football Coach Henry Frnka recently asked UCLA mentor Red Sanders. “Winning isn’t everything, is it, Red?” To which Sanders replied. “No, it isn’t everything; it’s just the ONLY thing.”

Also, in February 1950 the saying appeared in “The Cedar Rapids Gazette” of Iowa. The name “Frnka” was misspelled as “Franka”:[ref] 1950 February 10, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, Red Peppers by Pat Harmon, Start Page 13, Quote Page 15, Column 4,Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

From Fred Russell’s column in the Nashville Banner: “Gov. Gordon Browning of Tennessee was talking about a banquet at which he sat between Coach Henry Franka of Tulane and Red Sanders, then of Vanderbilt and now of UCLA. Franka remarked to Sanders, ‘Winning isn’t everything is it, Red?’ And Sanders replied, ‘No, it isn’t everything. It’s just the ONLY thing.’”

In October 1950 the “Los Angeles Times” printed a remark from Sanders. The context revealed that the adage was not spoken with grimness; instead, it was delivered lightheartedly:[ref] 1950 October 18, Los Angeles Times, Indians Far from Bashful at Chow by Art Rosenbaum, Quote Page C3, Column 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Here’s one on Red Sanders, as told by himself this summer at Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) physical education workshop. Speaking about football victories, Sanders told his group: “Men, I’ll be honest. Winning isn’t everything. (Long pause.) Men, it’s the only thing!” (Laughter.)

In 1953 the “Los Angeles Times” ascribed a garbled version of the saying to Sanders:[ref] 1953 August 4, Los Angeles Times, Sportscripts by Paul Zimmerman (Times Sports Editor), Quote Page C1, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)[/ref]

In this respect we’re reminded of the sage remarks of UCLA’s Red Sanders He says winning isn’t the only thing—that it is everything.

In 1954 another football coach employed the proverb in the pages of “The Washington Post”:[ref] 1954 September 14, The Washington Post, Skins Given Big Welcome by Jack Walsh, Quote Page 41, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Joe Kuharich, the coach who succeeded Curly Lambeau, put the crowd of 400 in his hands when he said: “In pro football I’ve learned that winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.”

In 1956 a column in the “Los Angeles Times” about golf betting showed that the money-based version of the saying continued to circulate:[ref] 1956 April 25, Los Angeles Times, Sports Parade by Braven Dyer, Quote Page C1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Of course, money isn’t everything. It’s the only thing; at Las Vegas, at least.

Also in 1956, the “Chicago Tribune” noted that football coach Jim Tatum used a variant expression:[ref] 1956 May 26, Chicago Tribune, In the Wake of the News by David Condon, Part 4, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Jim Tatum, the North Carolina football coach who drew criticism last winter by declaring that “winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s everything,” explained the viewpoint to some alumni in Atlanta the other day.

In 1958 Athletic Director Ike Armstrong of the University of Minnesota attributed a variant to coach Murray Warmath:[ref] 1958 November 18, Daily Illinois State Journal, Gopher Athletic Head Raps Big 10 Aid Plan by Charles Chamberlain (Associated Press), Quote Page 13, Column 1, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Armstrong did not mention his football coach, Murray Warmath. But he did quip: “Our coaches said that winning was not the only thing—it’s just everything.”

In November 1962 “Esquire” magazine published a piece about five pro-football coaches. Vince Lombardi was credited with a crucially different and non-controversial adage:[ref] 1962 November, Esquire, Pro Football’s Bright New Breed by Robert Riger, Start Page 118, Quote Page 178, Column 4, Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans at[/ref]

“Winning isn’t everything,” Lombardi will tell you, “but wanting to win is! That’s what I’m interested in. Soon as I lose I will probably be the first one they ride out of town. Those Green Bay fans are really something. Can you imagine?

In December 1962 “LIFE” magazine published a profile of Lombardi titled “The Miracle Maker of Green Bay, Wis.”. Confusingly, the pointed saying was ascribed to Lombardi:[ref] 1962 December 7, LIFE, Volume 53, Number 23, The Miracle Maker of Green Bay, Wis. by Marshall Smith, Start Page 49, Quote Page 52, Column 1, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

He was just as concerned with conditioning minds as with bodies. “We were being brainwashed.” remembers Jerry Kramer, a 255-pound offensive guard. Lombardi shattered defeatism by preaching “Spartanism” and “total dedication.” He harped on the word WINNING (“It’s a habit, you know”). “Winning isn’t everything.” he liked to say, “it’s the only thing.”

In conclusion, QI ascribes this saying to Henry ‘Red’ Sanders. Several other coaches used the adage after it was circulating. QI suspects that Vince Lombardi did employ the saying, but later he switched to a less acerbic statement.

Image Notes: Figure holding a trophy and three figures on elevated platforms from 3dman_eu at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Mitch Perkal whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to researcher Barry Popik who located the crucial 1948 citation and the February 10, 1950 citation. Also, much thanks to previous researchers: Ralph Keyes, Fred R. Shapiro, Charles Clay Doyle, and Nigel Rees.)

Update History: On August 29, 2022 the November 9, 1948 citation was added to this article, and the text was updated. On September 1, 2022 the February 10, 1950 citation was added.

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