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Book Review: That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory

Posted by Chase Stuart on August 12, 2011

Vince Lombardi has been a football icon for half a century. Lombardi and W.C. Heinz penned Run to Daylight in 1963, a blueprint for success for football coaches at all levels. Five years later, Jerry Kramer's diary, Instant Replay, offered the first real insight underneath the veneer of the coaching legend. David Maraniss' book, When Pride Still Mattered, first published in 1999, set a new standard for sports biographies.

Last December, NFL Films and HBO created a documentary exploring the life and career of the great coach. Two months earlier, the coach came to Broadway in the fantastic play Lombardi -- which I had the pleasure of seeing -- loosely based on Maraniss' work. In February, Al Pacino is going to "Hooah", mail-it-in, and over-act as Lombardi in an ESPN documentary to be aired the week before the Super Bowl.

Perhaps no coach has been as idolized and well-chronicled as the man whose name is on the Super Bowl trophy. ESPN and NFL Network have played certain clips so many times that you can close your eyes and hear sports anchors mimic the phrase ""a seal here...and a seal here." With so much on the great coach, what separates John Eisenberg's That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory?

Eisenberg's book barely touches on all the success of Lombardi and the '60s Packers, but rather explores the season that set the stage for greatness. The 1958 Packers were a train wreck that went well beyond the playing field, but the statistics do an adequate job of explaining the situation: Green Bay ranked last in points, points allowed, net yards per pass, first downs and rushing touchdowns, while ranking second to last in net yards per pass allowed, first downs allowed, rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed and yards per rush allowed. With a 1-10-1 record, the Packers had reached rock bottom. That's when Lombardi arrived.

A part of the book is available on Google Books, including a great excerpt found here, detailing Lombardi's actual arrival in Green Bay.

Reporters were waiting inside the terminal, hoping to speak to [Lombardi]. A newsman from a small radio station asked for a one-on-one interview. Ole [Dominic Olejniczak, former mayor of Green Bay and president of the Packers at the time] tried to usher Lombardi away, saying this wasn't the time, wait for the press conference tomorrow. "This way," Ole said, gripping Lombardi by the shoulders to maneuver him. Scotter [the nickname for Ray McLean, the Packers' coach in '58] would have shrugged and gone along with the team president, but Lombardi put his foot down.

"No, no, this way," he replied, tugging free of Ole. "This man called me when I was in New York, and I promised him an interview as soon as I got here. He's going to get it." Mara had warned Lombardi to beware of meddlers, know-it-alls who hovered around, hoarding power and intimidating coaches. Lombardi wasn't about to put up with them. He wouldn't tolerate meddling any more than he would tolerate a softhearted player who didn't care about doing a job well. Wanting it known, immediately and indisputably, that this lousy team was his now, he turned and spoke to the radio man for several minutes while Ole and the directors waited silently. It was, indeed, a new day in Packerland."

Eisenberg's great book touches on a subject that's always fascinated me -- one of the most unique teams in league history. The '58 Packers had seven times as many future Hall of Famers as wins. Quarterback Bart Starr, running backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung, offensive linemen Jim Ringo and Forrest Gregg and linebacker Ray Nitschke were all on that woeful Packers team. So was defensive end Len Ford, who had starred for 8 years in Cleveland before playing his final season in 1958 with Green Bay. When Lombardi arrived, the cupboard was far from bare. In addition, two other key players pre-dated Lombardi in Titletown. The best player not yet in the Hall of Fame, Jerry Kramer, was a rookie on the '58 team, while star wide receiver Boyd Dowler had been selected in the 1959 draft over a month before Lombardi was hired. When Lombardi did arrive, he brought in future HOFers Emlen Tunnell and Henry Jordan. Tunnell was an aging safety whom Lombardi knew from his days with the Giants, while Jordan was just beginning his stellar career. Eleven members of the core of the '60s Packers (excluding Tunnell but including Lombardi) ended up in Canton. But half of that care was there pre-Lombardi; the only players Lombardi actually added to the team were Jordan via trade, and then Willie Wood, Willie Davis and Herb Adderley.

But few think those players made Lombard; rather, Lombardi turned those players into Hall of Famers. And that's what Eisenberg's book is about. It's hard to imagine Hornung getting a bust made of him had Saint Vince never joined the team. While he probably shouldn't have been selected in the first place, he would have likely been a bust if not for Lombardi's influence. Hornung was selected by Green Bay with the first pick in the 1957 draft, but he failed miserably his first two seasons. Instead of being a superstar capable of playing multiple positions, he looked like a tweener who was mediocre anywhere he lined up. As Eisenberg notes, in one game in 1957 "an attractive young woman approached him on the bench and asked to have her picture taken with him -- during the game! Her request was audacious, but Hornung stood and posed with her, a move some teammates and fans interpreted as clear evidence of his priorities." In reality, Hornung's Hollywood persona was a cover against the insecurities he was feeling as a professional. "Discouraged, Hornung had started to contemplate giving up football. With his looks and personality, he could go to Hollywood and star in movies, or sell real estate back home in Louisville, Kentucky, where he would always be a hero."

But Hornung wasn't the only lost future Hall of Famer on the '58 team. Jim Taylor struggled with the playbook and failed to see much playing time. The atmosphere under coach Ray McLean was miserable, and it culminated in a 56-0 bludgeoning at the hands of the Unitas Colts. One could have made a reasonable case for benching and cutting ties with pre-Lombardi version of Bart Starr. On the other hand, the book is fantastic for pointing out Lombardi's flaws, never mentioned by the current media. Lombardi viewed Starr as a low-upside guy, the sort of ideal backup quarterback who wouldn't kill you with mistakes but lacked any real talent. He was constantly trying to replace him with either Joe Francis, an athletic player who played some halfback, or Lamar McHan, a physically gifted, strong-armed quarterback who couldn't produce on the field for over a decade. It's interesting to read about how Lombardi really liked Starr but just didn't think he had the upside to hand him the job.

You'd never guess it, but reading the book had me comparing Lombardi to Leach -- in a good way. Leach, former coach at Texas Tech, had remarkable success in a pass-heavy offense in college. A couple of the ways Leach overcame a talent disparity included simplifying the playbook and practicing the same plays repeatedly. Despite traditional notions of a pass-heavy offense, Leach wasn't out to trick anyone. He would call the same plays over and over again, and had confidence that if his team executed the play well, it would work. Well, that was the power sweep in the '60s. As Eisenberg notes:

His playbook would be staggeringly simple, one-fourth the size of Scooter's, totaling around forty plays. And the plays were as basic as white bread - runs off tackle, up the middle, and around end, passes to receivers of the middle, toward the sideline, and out of the backfield. The alignment wouldn't change from play to play.... "If you block well, execute, and eliminate mistakes, this is all you need," Lombardi said. "It doesn't matter that the other team knows what is coming."

On the surface -- and even a few layers beneath -- it's hard to think of two coaches less similar than Leach and Lombardi. But I think Leach's success in today's game shows that Lombardi's style would still work. Tricking the opponent is great, but with the right plays and the right execution, an offense can be unstoppable. I think a lot of coaches with their enormous playbooks end up causing information overload; it's a lot harder for a player to perfect 400 plays than 40. The game has obviously become much more complex since Lombardi's time, but I think a few coaches could still learn a thing or two from old Vince.

As you can tell, I highly recommend Eisenberg's book. As an added bonus, he's a big fan of PFR. I met a him a few months ago, and he's a passionate fan of NFL history. He also has a book coming out that I'm sure JKL will want to read, detailing the football war between the Dallas Cowboys and the Dallas Texans of 1960 to 1962.