Tony DeMeo

When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss

When you talk about great coaches, of any sport one name that is sure to surface is Vince Lombardi. Of course there are other great coaches like John Wooden, Bear Bryant, Red Auerbach and Joe Paterno who are also icons. But Vince Lombardi was something special. He transcended the game of football. Lombardi’s tedious rise through the coaching ranks is an odyssey of epic proportions. His battle against ethnic prejudice on the way to legendary status makes the story even more powerful to anyone who has faced the ugliness of bigots. This is a great story for any underdog or anyone who has had the odds stacked against them because they didn’t fit in with the “cool crowd” or maybe was a little different than the cookie cutter version of what companies were hiring.

David Maraniss has done a great job of bringing Vincent Thomas Lombardi’s trials and tribulations to life in an easy to read portrait of a special man. Maraniss says Lombardi symbolized the quest of the working class man in America, he was their hero.

Lombardi’s childhood was dominated by the church. Vince was a devout Catholic and even thought about becoming a priest. He learned in his early years the value of hard work and discipline, two of the ingredients that forged the Lombardi Philosophy.

Lombardi played guard at Fordham University and was one of the “seven blocks of granite” that were the heart of the Rams success. Vince was coached by Sleepy Jim Crowley one of Knute Rockne’s famed Four Horsemen who won the National Championship at Notre Dame in 1924. So Lombardi had a great teacher who was a direct link to another coaching legend Knute Rockne, who many believe to be the greatest college football coach of all time. Crowley built his team on quickness, toughness and precision. Lombardi also embraced this football style and also the Jesuit style discipline.
After graduating from Fordham, Lombardi started his coaching career in Englewood, New Jersey coaching The Saints of St. Cecilia, a small catholic high school. Vince took over a good team but in three years he lost only one game. Repetition was the secret of Vince’s success. He drove the Saints relentlessly and they won big. But now he wanted to move to the college ranks so he applied everywhere but there were no takers. But he finally got a chance at his alma mater as the freshman coach.

Lombardi lasted two years at Fordham and then was let go by the head coach because of personality conflicts. His career was in jeopardy but was saved by an old teammate, Wellington Mara, who recommended him to another coaching legend Earl “Red” Blaik of West Point.

Coaching under Blaik was like going to coaching school and Vince was a sponge. Blaik was about organization, structure and discipline. Blaik made attention to detail an art form. Blaik was also the master of the game plan. Blaik was about making the game plan as simple as possible. There was never a wasted play in Blaik’s game plan. Lombardi took Blaik’s principles and they became the very foundation of Vince’s Philosophy. Blaik also taught Lombardi to tame his ferocious temper.

Lombardi’s next stop was to become offensive coordinator of the New York Giants a team owned by the Mara family. The defensive coordinator was a pretty good coach as well, Tom Landry. The players were not impressed with Lombardi at the beginning but his knowledge eventually won them over. He studied the pro game and wasn’t afraid to listen to the players’ suggestions.

In 1955 Lombardi tried for numerous college head coaching positions including West Point but never even got an interview. Mara wanted Vince to stay after a successful 7-5 year in 1954, so Vince stayed with the Giants. The Giants won the NFL Championship in 1956 but still no interviews for Vince.

Finally in 1959, after the Giants lost the greatest NFL game of all time to the Colts, Lombardi got his shot at a head coaching position. He was hired as Head Coach and General Manager of the Green Bay Packers. The Packers were the epitome of ineptitude. In 1958 they finished the season 1-10-1. Lombardi got his chance and wasn’t about to blow it.
Lombardi traded his star wide receiver to build his defense. It also sent a message that no one was safe. Lombardi declared the “Discipline was the foundation of learning” and went about instilling discipline into the Packers. He installed the Power Sweep which came to symbolize the Green Bay Packers under Vince Lombardi. The Packers learned Lombardi was a master teacher and taught the logic behind every play. He was also a stickler for details. His attention to the little things was a new concept to the boys of Green Bay, but he pounded it into them. He preached that “Repetition was the road to excellence” and he used repetition as his way to build his team.

Lombardi turned the Packers around immediately and had a 7-5 record in 1959 and was voted NFL Coach of the Year. But that was only the beginning in 1960 The Pack went 8-4 and lost in the NFL title game on the last play of the game. That was the only time Lombardi would lose a championship game. His record was 9-1 in Championship games.

Lombardi won his first championship by steamrolling the Giants 37-0 in 1961 only in his third season with the Packers. The Packers won again over the Giants in 1962. In nine years as head coach of the Packers they won five NFL titles. This is all the more amazing considering that The Packers were mired in mediocrity for decades.

Vince Lombardi was more than NFL titles and Super Bowl Trophies. Vince Lombardi was about an ideal, a philosophy that if you worked hard and dedicated yourself to excellence you could succeed in sports, business and in life. He wasn’t a saint nor was he a savior but he was an inspiring man and David Maraniss captures this inspirational story in the book When Pride Still Mattered.

This book is a must read for any coach or leader. If faced with a turnaround situation; it is a how to book. If you are a football fan or just a fan of the American dream you’ll love this book.