Uncommonly Good Books Read by Two Common Guys – When Pride Still Mattered

Nate:  Today we’re talking about the book, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi” by David Maraniss. I enjoyed learning more about Lombardi, especially since the most prominent image of him seems to be him yelling at his players on the sidelines of Packers’ games. It was interesting to see who he really was, and who he was influenced by in the coaching profession – from his college days at Fordham playing under Jim Crowley, to Red Blaik when he was an assistant at Army, and even General Douglas MacArthur, whom he had a great deal of respect for.

Dave:  And all of those influences shaped him. Not just the coaches, but also his devout Catholicism. His influences all had to do with discipline, and showed only one way of doing things. Any other way was wrong. And that was how he was as a football coach – it was either his way or the highway. I was a kid when he was coaching all those great Packer teams, and I didn’t like him much. Of course, he beat the Chiefs in the first Super Bowl, so that didn’t help, but he just seemed like a mean tyrant. After reading the book, you see that there was another side to him – one that really cared for his players despite all the bluster.

Nate:  You’re right. Not only did he love his players, but his players really loved him. Despite all the yelling and the back breaking hard work, the players knew he was pushing them to be their best, and that he was turning them into winners. And he knew which players he could push more than others. For example, Paul Hornung was one of his favorites, but he yelled at him mercilessly. And he did it because he knew Hornung could take it. But he didn’t do that to everyone because he knew that some players couldn’t handle that, and wouldn’t respond to it. I think that’s something that any good coach knows how to do, and Lombardi was a master.

Dave:  Speaking of Hornung, I thought it was crazy that, when he was called to active duty in the military, Lombardi called President Kennedy and had his service days changed so that he could play football for the Packers on Sunday.

Nate:  That was Lombardi’s personality.  If he wanted something to happen, he would make it happen, and if he was refused for whatever reason, he would have nothing to do with you after that.

Dave:  He was also the first coach to be a kind of philosopher coach.  He had his own book and speech that he gave on various occasions talking about his philosophies on life and success.  Now it seems like every coach that experiences some success comes out with a book detailing their philosophies, but Lombardi was really the first to do that.

Nate:  His success certainly stemmed from his philosophies, and the work ethic he imposed on his players, but he had some incredible players as well. I think there are about a dozen players from his great Packers’ teams that are in the Hall of Fame.

Dave:  True, but it’s worth noting that those Packers’ teams were truly great TEAMS. Some of those guys might not have had the careers they had if they had played for another coach, in another system. Bart Starr comes to mind as someone who was not the best quarterback in the world, but knew how to play within Lombardi’s system and had great success. Something else that struck me was some of the bizarre stuff he did around contract negotiations with his players.

Nate:  I know. He would play mind games during negotiations, and made it so that the players were almost afraid to approach him about new contracts or raises.

Dave:  And when Jim Ringo brought an agent to his negotiations, Lombardi left the room for a few minutes, came back and informed the two of them that they could now discuss a new contract with the Eagles because he had just traded Ringo to Philadelphia. That was how serious he was about not dealing with an agent. Obviously this was before the players union became as powerful as it is now, but it showed how he was old school and was not a fan of the “new” way of doing things. He died young, but you wonder if he had lived another twenty years how successful he would have been dealing with different rules, and whether or not he would have been able to stand it.

Nate:  He was only in his fifties when he died of cancer, but like you said his views already seemed to be outdated.  His worldview in general just didn’t seem to be in tune with what was going on in the 1960’s in this country. I really don’t know how successful he would have been. In his one year with the Redskins he dramatically increased their win total, but he knew he was going to need more talented players. We’ve talked about the talent he had on the Packers and he knew he didn’t have that kind of talent in Washington. It would have been interesting to see him working with the modern athlete under the new rules, and not having the kind of control he had in Green Bay. Lombardi was definitely a control freak, and not having complete control probably would have driven him crazy.

Dave:  Do you think Vince Lombardi is still the iconic figure he once was?

Nate:  I don’t know. His influence might be diminishing the further we get from his coaching days. But there certainly is something to be said for having your name on the Super Bowl Trophy. His name is always in the consciousness of football fans that hear about the Lombardi Trophy and see the old NFL films of him at the chalkboard diagramming his famed sweep play.

Dave:  I think one of the most interesting things is how quickly he became a national icon. He had made a bit of a name for himself within the football world as an assistant at Army and for the Giants, but when the Packers hired him to be their head coach, a lot of people wondered who in the world Vince Lombardi was.

Nate:  Yeah, but you’re right – it didn’t take him long to enter the national spotlight. Within two years of taking the job his team was playing for the NFL Championship, and following that season they won five of the next seven championships. Within three years of taking the job he was one of the hottest names out there. Everyone wanted a piece of him, and everyone knew his name. His was definitely a meteoric rise.

Dave:  In 1968 both Nixon and Humphrey even considered him as a Vice Presidential candidate. That’s how far his influence went.

Nate:  So who do you think would enjoy this book?

Dave:  Well, I think it definitely would appeal more to football fans, but also to someone wanting to read about a person who worked their way up through the ranks to the highest level of their profession.

Nate:  I agree. I don’t know if he’s someone you’d want to model yourself after, as he had many flaws and could be a walking contradiction in terms of his values and priorities. He had a strained relationship with his kids and wife despite the fact that he claimed family was of utmost importance. But he was certainly an interesting individual, whose prominence in the sports world can’t be understated.

Dave:  Absolutely. If you’re a sports fan, or especially a football fan, you would enjoy reading this book.