Review: When Pride Still Mattered

When Pride Still Mattered

When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Summary: The biography of Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi, showing a man striving for excellence in, and caught in the tensions of the three priorities in his life: faith, family, and football.

Growing up a Cleveland Browns fan in the 1960’s, if there was any team that quenched our hopes in the Jim Brown era, it was the Green Bay Packers quarterbacked by Bart Starr, with Hornung and Taylor in the backfield. And behind it all was legendary coach Vince Lombardi, for whom the Superbowl trophy is named, a coach with a consuming drive to win, characterized by the quote, “Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.”

David Maraniss is another author in the mold of George Will and David Halberstam, writing political biographies of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, but also fine pieces of sports writing including a biography of Roberto Clemente and this work on Lombardi. He traces the rise of Lombardi, the son of a Sheepshead Bay butcher, through his playing days at Fordham (one of the Seven Blocks of Granite, even though an average, but intense, player at best), through his first high school coaching positions, returning as assistant coach at Fordham, then five years at West Point under Red Blaik, perhaps the most formative in his development as a coach, and then the years as an assistant with the New York Giants, alongside fellow assistant Tom Landry. By this time, in 1959, he was in his mid-40s and beginning to despair of ever getting a head coaching position, wondering if his Italian name and heritage was working against him.

But Marannis’ biography goes far beyond football. Lombardi was a deeply religious man, whose outlook was profoundly shaped by Catholic educators, notably ethics professor Ignatius Wiley Cox, S. J. whose teaching defined character as “an integration of habits of conduct superimposed on temperament, the will exercised on disposition, thought, emotion, and action.” In both New York and Green Bay, he attended Mass daily, carried a rosary with him, and counted a number of priests as close friends. There was a continuity between his religious aspirations and football, as Marannis notes:

“The fundamental principles that he used in coaching–repetition, discipline, clarity, faith, subsuming individual ego to a larger good–were merely extensions of the religious ethic he learned from the Jesuits. In that sense, he made no distinction between the practice of religion and the sport of football” (p. 245).

He was also a family man, deeply in love with Marie, and yet the constantly fought, and she struggled between devotion to Vince’s coaching success, and deep depression, alcoholism, and occasional overdoses. He struggled with his relationship with his children, particularly his son and namesake, Vincent. The demands of NFL coaching made him a more or less absentee father, who rarely attended his son’s games.

Perhaps his struggle with an explosive temper revealed the tension he wrestled with to be true to his aspirations of faith, family and football. His son Vincent said of him:

“He went to mass to repent for his anger….He thought, I’ve got this temper. I fly off the handle and offend people. I apologize. But it’s this temper that keeps me on edge and allows me to get things done and people to do things. Life was a struggle for him. He knew he wasn’t perfect. He had a lot of habits that were far from perfect. His strengths were his weaknesses and vice versa. He fought it by taking the paradox to church. It went back to the Jesuits and the struggle between the shadow self and the real self–your humanity and your divinity. He saw that struggle in clear and concrete terms.”

When Lombardi reaches Green Bay he takes a losing  team and turns them into winners in a season, championship contenders the next and champions by the third season as head coach and general manager of the Packers. Marannis portrays him as a relentless teacher with the ability to simplify things in the minds of his players so they knew exactly what was expected of them, typified in the “Packer sweep”. He demonstrated skilled psychological insights, pushing one player, coaching another, being like a son to Bart Starr. One of the fascinating sidelights was his commitment to racial equality, and even his sensitivities to homosexual players on his teams.

Lombardi reached the pinnacle of coaching success with his victories in the first two Superbowls. But things were changing. The league and its players were changing. He was tired. After a year as just General Manager, he became coach for the hapless Washington Redskins, once again turning them into a winning team in one season. Sadly, that is all he had. Marie was the first to notice and fear the worst. On September 3, 1970, he “ran to win” one more time, passing away from a particularly malignant form of colon cancer.

Marannis portrays a complex, multi-dimensional man, who called out the best in players wherever he coached and yet struggled to connect with his own children, who never questioned the faith in which he was raised, but often struggled to live up to its tenets, who adored and constantly squabbled with his troubled wife. He gives us a richly textured biography of a man whose life could not adequately be captured by anything less.