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Vince Lombardo continues building on Hall of Fame career at Bishop Watterson

As he nears 500 career head coaching wins, Lombardo looks to keep coaching for the foreseeable future
Photo by Gabe Haferman

Photo by Gabe Haferman

When Vince Lombardo was hired as the head coach of Bishop Watterson’s boys basketball team in 1993, he had aspirations of building the program into a consistent winner.

Lombardo, though, never could have envisioned that he was about to embark upon a 30-year journey, in which he would guide the Eagles to a Division II state championship, back-to-back state final appearances, two regional titles, four regional final appearances, eight district titles, 15 district final appearances, nine Central Catholic League championships and an eye-popping 423 victories.

And on Wednesday, Lombardo will have the opportunity to reach another milestone in his Hall of Fame career, when the third-seeded Eagles face 11th-seeded London in a Division II district semifinal at Hamilton Township.

If Watterson wins this contest, it will be the 500th victory of Lombardo’s 39-year career as a varsity basketball head coach.

“When I first arrived here, there were some issues with the basketball program that needed to be improved,” said Lombardo, whose career coaching record stands at 499-412, after his squad beat 20th-seeded Centennial 77-46 on Friday to improve to 15-9 overall. “But I was intrigued because I saw that we had good athletes, a great community and a lot of pride in our school, so I thought we had the opportunity to have a good program.

“I wanted to get to the point where we were competitive for the CCL title and at the district level on a consistent basis, and then see what we could do beyond that. But when we were just starting out, I never anticipated that I would coach here this many years and that we would have this kind of success. We just focused on having our players give a great effort so they can compete to the best of their abilities, and that’s still our focus 30 years later.”

“It’s not about me”

Humble almost to a fault, Lombardo is quick to deflect praise to the players, assistant coaches and administrators who have aided him along the way.

Lombardo, who is the Dean of Boys and teaches health and physical education at Watterson, was hired by principal John Durant, and credits former principal Marian Hutson and current principal Deacon Chris Campbell for giving him great support.

Bill Bope, Steve Devlin, Alex Golonka, (his son) Jake Lombardo, Jim Ryan and Casey Teeters are Watterson’s assistant coaches, and Doug Etgen has served as the Eagles’ athletics director since 2015.

“One of the things that I’ve learned is that it’s not about me, it’s about our players, and getting them to do their best with the talent they have so we can play to the best of our potential,” Lombardo said. “I’ve always had outstanding principals and athletics directors to work with, and any success I’ve had is because of the quality men who have worked with me as assistant coaches here.”

Lombardo also emphasized that his longevity wouldn’t be possible without the endless and tireless support of his wife, Cindy, and five children, who each have graduated from Watterson.

Kelly (2003 Watterson graduate) served as a team statistician for her father, while her younger siblings Karen (05), Stacy (08), Allie (09) and Jake (12) each played varsity basketball at Watterson.

“My wife is an amazing person and her support and willingness to live with a coach for so many years has been amazing,” Lombardo said. “All five of our kids grew up as part of the basketball scene as well, and getting to coach, and later coach with, my son has been special.”

Building a Hall of Fame resume

While Lombardo is uncomfortable talking about himself, his accomplishments and accolades speak for themselves. Lombardo was named the Central District Coach of the Year in 1999 and 2012, and he was the District 10 Coach of the Year in 2000 and 2013.

“Vince is a legend,” Delaware boys basketball coach Adam Vincenzo said.

After Watterson had captured just one district title (in 1988) before Lombardo’s arrival, he guided them to district championships in 2000, 02, 04, 09, 10, 13, 14 and 21.

“We’ve had some really good battles with Watterson over the years, and Vince is a competitor,” 36th-year Westerville South coach Ed Calo said. “What’s he’s done with that program - building it up to the point where Watterson’s won a state championship and is such a respected program - is special.”

The Eagles advanced to regional finals in both 2004 and 09, before reaching the state tournament for the first in 2013, when they went on to defeat Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary 55-52 in the state final.

Watterson went back to the state final again in 2014, where it lost to Norwalk 65-58.

“Vince is a great coach who covers everything really well,” said Ryan, who has assisted Lombardo during his entire tenure at Watterson. “When you look at his record, the championships we’ve won and his longevity, I’d say he’s definitely one of the best coaches in the state of Ohio.”

Lombardo, who has led the Eagles to a 69-28 postseason tournament record, was inducted into the Watterson Athletic Hall of Fame in 2021.

“Vince is one of the most respected coaches across central Ohio and the entire state, because he wins with class,” DeSales boys basketball coach Pat Murphy said. “He hasn’t changed much over the years. Like Woody Hayes, he has tough, physical teams, who basically say ‘You know what we’re going to do, now come and try to stop us.’”

Defensive guru, mentor and teacher

Lombardo is known first and foremost as a great defensive coach, whose teams play physical man-to-man defense and also effectively utilize a variety of deceptive and disciplined zone formations.

“Vince is one of the best I’ve ever went up against,” said Watterson girls basketball coach Sam Davis, who previously was the head boys basketball coach at Gahanna Lincoln, Hartley and New Albany for more than 20 seasons combined. “He’s a great defensive coach. He controls the tempo and takes teams out of their comfort zone.

“His zone (defense) is a beautiful thing to watch. I’ve seen Vince beat teams that he’s had no right beating, athletically.”

Despite handing out more than his fair share of lumps to opposing teams over the years, Lombardo is well-liked by the vast majority of his rivals.

“Watterson’s one of our biggest rivals, but Vince has been a mentor and a great role model for me,” St. Charles coach Mike Ryan said. “We’ve known each other for years, and Vince is still as passionate about the game as ever, and he’s probably the best defensive coach around.”

Beechcroft boys basketball coach Humphrey Simmons echoed Ryan’s sentiments.

“I still haven’t beat Vince yet, but I like and respect him,” Simmons said. “When I first started out, he went out of his way to help me. Vince was holding summer leagues back then, and he invited me to them and showed me the ropes.”

In addition to teaching his student athletes the game’s fundamentals and elaborate defensive strategies, Lombardo also has imparted countless life lessons.

“We always go into games with great game plans and never get out-coached,” said senior post player Ryan Rudzinski, who is being recruited to play football at Ohio State as a preferred walk-on. “Coach Lombardo does his fair share of yelling during practices, but it’s all good because he’s making us better, and he makes a lot of funny jokes along the way, too.

“He’s great at teaching life lessons. I remember one time after I had a not-so-good practice, I went to hand coach a piece of pizza with one hand and I dropped it. Coach then elaborated on the importance of always using two hands, not only in basketball but also when it comes to pizza, and that’s something I’ll never forget.”

A “solid” basketball player

Lombardo learned a lot of valuable lessons while being raised in Reynoldsburg by his parents Vincent and Sally, alongside his younger siblings Vickie, Valerie, Vaughn, Van and Victor.

His father played basketball at Steubenville College in the late 1940s and early 50s, and his love for the sports was contagious to the rest of his family.

After also competing in baseball and football for several years, Lombardo focused solely on basketball while attending St. Charles, and he served as a starting wing player for the Cardinals under longtime coach Wally Teeters his senior year.

Lombardo graduated from St. Charles in 1978 and then played a year of junior varsity basketball at the University of Dayton, where he earned a degree in physical education in 1982.

“I like to say I was a solid player, but most people would say that I was mediocre,” Lombardo said with a chuckle. “My claim to fame is that I played behind Marquis Miller, who graduated a year ahead of me and went on to play at Ohio State. I like to say that I made him what he was, because he blocked about 1,000 of my shots.

“Playing JV ball at Dayton was a lot of fun. And they were so impressed with our group that they dropped the program the following year. That’s when my focus went from playing to working toward becoming a coach.”

Learning the ropes

Lombardo was the Fairborn Central Junior High School coach during the 1982-83 season, before serving as Marion Catholic’s JV coach the following season.

And in 1984, Lombardo became Marion Catholic’s varsity boys basketball coach.

“I had a lot of respect for my high school coaches, and coach Teeters was my greatest influence, because he’s a class guy who ran a first-class program,” Lombardo said. “He showed me how to have a program of quality while treating his players well, and I was fortunate to get to play for and learn from a guy like him.

“(Former Marion Catholic football/girls basketball coach) Frank O’Grady also was a mentor to me, and I learned a lot while working with my assistant coach, Rick Schuler, at Marion Catholic, as well.”

Lombardo led Marion Catholic to a 76-120 overall record in nine seasons, from 1984-93, including an 8-9 postseason tournament mark.

“Coaching at Marion Catholic was a great opportunity and a great learning experience for me,” Lombardo said. “When you’re young, you think you know a lot, but this is where I learned a lot of lessons about how to handle teaching young men in different coaching situations.

“We were a very small school and we didn’t necessarily have great basketball players, but we had great kids, and we played hard against a lot of good teams with great coaches.”

Soaring high with the Eagles

In 1993, Lombardo began molding Watterson into a program that was known for its stout defensive play and rock-solid fundamentals.

The Eagles won only five games during the 1993-94 season, but gradually improved to the point where they went 19-5 overall, won a CCL title and advanced to a district final in Lombardo’s third season.

“It’s important to play tough defense, take care of the basketball and play intelligently on offense, because that’s something you can always do well regardless of your skill level,” Lombardo said.

After the Eagles won five district titles and advanced to a regional final twice in 11 years from 2000-10, they cemented Lombardo’s legacy as one of central Ohio’s all-time best coaches by capturing a state title in 2013 and reaching the state final again the following year.

“I’m amused at how teams have labeled us a certain style over the years, because we’ve evolved what we do based on our skill level, and when the talent has been here, we’ve opened up more,” Lombardo said. “We were a shot or two away from advancing to the state tournament in 2004 and 2009, and I’ve learned over the years, that you have to be both good and a little lucky to win the tight games in the tournament.

“Competing in the state tournament is something I hoped might happen ever since I was a young guy going to watch tournament games at the Fairgrounds with my dad. I wish every coach would have the opportunity to go to the final four, because it’s a lot of fun and a great experience for everyone involved.”

Leaving a lasting legacy

Even after becoming one of Ohio’s all-time winningest boys basketball coaches, Lombardo hasn’t let his success go to his head or skew his priorities.

“Vince’s whole life is about family and basketball,” said his wife of more than 38 years, Cindy. “He loves his family and he loves the game of basketball. He has never stopped trying to be the best husband, dad and now grandfather that he can be, and he has never stopped trying to be the best coach he can be. He puts his family first and he puts his players first.

“He doesn’t care about records, achievements or honors. He cares about the young people he has been blessed to know, coach, develop and love.”

Allie said her father’s dedication to his craft has been a blessing for his children, and three grandchildren: Makenna (age 13), Rosie (3) and Lucas (one month).

“It is impossible to imagine our lives without Watterson basketball and we are so grateful,” Allie said. “Being a coach's kid has enriched our lives in numerous ways. We are the luckiest kids in the world because of who my dad and mom are outside of their roles as coach and coach's wife. They never let us forget that we were more important than the game. My dad's records speak for themselves as a coach, but they pale in comparison to who he is as a father.

“Our dad showed us through his coaching that we should be in the moment while always holding the possibility of someday. He always gets every ounce of talent out of a group, so watching our dad’s teams… is magical each and every season. As adults, we try to always see the present struggle with the endless possibilities of what could be. This has made us all better people, all because our dad chose to be a high school basketball coach.”

Lombardo, 63, said he isn’t even thinking about when he’s going to retire.

Right now his focus is on leading the Eagles to a victory over London, so they can advance to another district final. The winner of the Watterson-London showdown will face second-seeded Caledonia River Valley or seventh-seeded Granville in the final 1 p.m. Saturday at Central Crossing.

“I’m still enjoying coaching and I’m getting along well with our young men, so I will keep doing this as long as I stay healthy,” Lombardo said. “As long as I feel like I can continue being a positive factor in these young men’s lives, I don’t have an end in sight.

“The lesson that I learned a long time ago is that this has never been about me. It’s always been about the kids, and making sure they have a great experience while playing to the best of their potential.”

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