You don’t need to be a football fan to know Vince Lombardi’s immortal line: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
The legendary coach relied on that philosophy 50 years ago to turn the Green Bay Packers from a raw, undisciplined squad into the near-flawless team that went on to win the first two Super Bowls.
Plenty of books have been written about Lombardi and his career, but author John Eisenberg was interested in just one year — 1959, the year the coach first came to Green Bay. Hence, Eisenberg’s book, “That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory” ($25).
Even with seven future Hall of Famers on the roster, the team was coming off a 1-10-1 record that included a humiliating 56-0 drubbing by the Indianapolis Colts. Under Lombardi’s iron-fisted rule, the Packers posted a stunning turnaround the next season to finish 7-5.
To document what happened that year, Eisenberg interviewed dozens of former players, pored over newspaper records and studied more than a dozen biographies and autobiographies.
The result is often engrossing. He provides detailed play-by-play highlights of all 12 games, and he gives us keen nuggets about what the players were thinking and feeling.
That information would be great for a book subtitled “A Detailed Look at the Packers’ 1959 Season.” But the subtitle Eisenberg chose creates a different set of expectations, and readers may be disappointed when those expectations go unfulfilled.
The subtitle suggests that we’ll learn Lombardi’s secrets — what did he do that no one before him could do? What is it that made him so tremendously effective that the NFL eventually named its Super Bowl trophy in his honor?
Certainly, Lombardi was a no-nonsense coach who dictated a my-way-or-the-highway philosophy from Day 1. He demanded perfection, he enforced discipline like a drill sergeant and he motivated through fear.
But deeper questions remain. If all it takes to produce a winning team is to constantly berate players, insult them in front of the team and force them to repeat drills for hours, surely every coach would do exactly that.
There must have been something else, some additional intangible. But we don’t get a whiff of what that elusive secret was.