Another book about Vince Lombardi? After the autobiographical Run to Daylight! (with W. C. Heinz) and Jerry Kramer's Instant Replay, both established classics of their kind, and after a dozen lightweight magazine and paperback imitations coming at the embattled reader like so many linebackers in the wake of Lombardi's death, haven't we had about enough?
Well, no. For Coach: A Season with Lombardi by Tom Dowling (W. W. Norton, $6.95) is not just another book about the man who put together professional football's finest team in the sport's most exciting decade. For a couple of reasons, it is the most consistently interesting and revealing of the lot. One is that the author, neither sports-writer nor retired pro, stands removed from his subject. A Harvard graduate who has worked in government agencies, he carries the credentials of the knowledgeable fan, which is not a redundancy. Second, his season with Lombardi was not with the miracle worker of Green Bay but with the man who spent a difficult year—"the most rigorous test of his combative nature," Dowling calls it—attempting to make the Washington Redskins a respectable team.
So we wind up with Lombardi, warts and all. In a moving preface written after the coach's death Dowling comments, "I would like to say fiat-out what I hope this book makes clear: that I admired Vince Lombardi and was personally fond of him." But if Dowling's heart is in the right place, he does not wear it on his sleeve. To Lombardi's idolaters some of the book makes painful reading, for the author's expressed intent is to "tell what that year was like—the good with the bad, the glory with the humiliation and defeat."
We see it, game by game, on the field and off: the Roman Catholic prelate of Green Bay doubting that Lombardi was a happy man, seeing him happy, "truly at ease," just once, when he was excelling at a word game in Latin; opposing coaches looking to get even for those years when Lombardi dominated the sport: Lombardi, talking of the years he waited to become a head coach: "I know I lost some jobs because of my Italian heritage"; discontented Redskins, finding Lombardi thoughtless in the way he handled some men; the team at a crucial point in the season, seeming to come apart, about to break under Lombardi, "Afraid to win, [they] preferred to pay the price of mediocrity."
December 7, 1970
But the point is the team did not break. The point is that Lombardi gave Washington its first winning season in 14 years. The point is that over and again—and this was before his death—players spoke of Lombardi's fairness, his knowledge of the game, almost as though he were the first fair, knowing coach in their experience.
Dowling worries, with proper citations, about the simpleminded, Middle American identification with Lombardi, the tendency to transfer the tough lessons of football, a game, to the tough propositions of life. Lombardi did not always discourage such attitudes. (The Democrats wanted him to run for the United States Senate; there was talk he would be drafted as Richard Nixon's Vice Presidential candidate. No kidding.)
But here is Lombardi saying, "We are our brother's keeper, I don't give a damn what people say. If people can't find work, whether it's their fault or not, you've got to help them, clothe them, and house them properly, and try to get rid of the problems that have held them back." On racial prejudice: "First of all, to feel that way is wrong, and second, it's good football not to feel that way."
Here is "tough, autocratic" Lombardi saying of a player rumored to be a homosexual that he would be given every chance to play football because he was a victim of prejudice. Hailed for producing the same seven-and-five record with the losing Redskins he had done in his first season with the Packers, he noted certain differences: "Great changes have taken place in the country.... There's more tendency to question now than there was 10 years ago. The father complex is not around anymore."
There is humor, too. Lombardi clowning, cracking purposely corny gags. Marie Lombardi needling her husband when he complains of an arthritic knee: "You've got to be mentally tough," ("It seemed to me," Dowling writes, "that the Lombardis had achieved that rare American ambition, a happy marriage.")
"At midfield," Dowling sums up, in a paraphrase of the coach's view of Paul Hornung as player, "Lombardi was harsh, merciless, egoistic, inconsistent and often even mediocre, but within the 20-yard line he had greatness. He did what he had to do. His life was an extraordinary act of will, of discipline, of ceaseless driving. The yardage inside the 20 was always tough; for Lombardi in 1969 it had been tougher than for most, but he had never flinched, had just kept pushing. Hell, there was no other way."
I was lucky enough to play football for Lombardi and unlucky enough to play against him. I don't suppose any two men who knew him will see him the same way, but I recognize the man in this book, and that is an achievement. Vince Lombardi is no longer alive. But thanks in part to this fine book, neither his spirit nor the legend is dead.