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Ron Fimrite
September 06, 1999
When Pride Still MatteredBy David Maraniss Simon & Schuster, $27.50
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September 06, 1999


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When Pride Still Mattered
By David Maraniss Simon & Schuster, $27.50

This profile of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, which forges a near-perfect synthesis of fine writing and fascinating material, may be the best sports biography ever published. In Lombardi, author Maraniss has a subject worthy of the considerable research and narrative skills he demonstrated in a controversial 1996 biography of President Clinton.

St. Vincent was surely no Slick Willy. In his private life Lombardi was, in the vernacular of his time, a square: He wore hats and galoshes and rain slickers, the latter made of translucent plastic, and played golf and gin rummy and cried and screamed and smoked and sweated and watched Tom and Jerry cartoons and laughed so hard that tears squirted out of his eyes like windshield-wiper spray. He fell asleep in the recliner in his den and snored away until supper.

This is the same man who was the very symbol of the tyrannical coach obsessed beyond reason with winning. He was the genius who took a Green Bay Packers team of perennial losers and whipped it by the sheer force of his will into the holy terror that won five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls, in his nine years at the helm. He was the master of all he surveyed, and in heavily Catholic Green Bay he was called the Pope.

Actually, he was a good deal more complicated than that. And he didn't coin the famous line that is always credited to him: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Maraniss traces that chestnut back to former Vanderbilt and UCLA coach Red Sanders, who first used it, possibly in jest, in the mid-1930s when he was coaching at Columbia ( Tenn.) Military Academy. Lombardi did, of course, believe that winning was the only thing, but not at the cost of cheating or dirty play, which he forbade. In fact, at the start of his career he was so uncertain of the worthiness of coaching that he sought somehow to elevate his job to something approaching the priesthood or the law. Maraniss calls him the "philosopher-coach."

Lombardi was a mass of contradictions. He was an avowed believer in family, but while he busied himself making a family of his team, he sorely neglected his wife, who suffered from depression and alcohol addiction, and their son and daughter. He could be abusive and dictatorial, but he was so painfully shy that, as Maraniss writes, "he had to screw up his courage every day to be a public figure." He was a tyrant without a trace of bigotry regarding race, religion or sexual preference. He loved his players, but he could motivate them by browbeating them to the point at which they temporarily despised him. Then he'd win back their love. "The players understood," said Packers guard Jerry Kramer. "This is one beautiful man."

Lombardi died of cancer at 57 in 1970, possibly, Maraniss suggests, at the right time: "He was in danger of being reduced to a convenient symbol by then, his philosophy misused by all sides in the political debates of that war-torn era. The establishment had turned him into stone even while he was alive, hoisting him up as a monument to righteousness, patriotism and free enterprise. Counterculturists smashed him as a relic of old-line authoritarianism and a dangerous win-at-all-costs philosophy. Both were wrong."

Best Shots: The Greatest NFL
Photography of the Century
DK Publishing, Inc., $30
There are more than 100 photos, some dating to the 1930s, in this handsome collection. A few are classics: Y.A. Tittle, kneeling helmetless in exhaustion, blood streaming from his bald head; Chuck Bednarik pumping his fist in triumph over an unconscious Frank Gifford; Jim Taylor carrying the ball behind a wall of blockers on Lombardi's patented Packers sweep.

Every Down, Every Distance
By Wayne Chrebet with Vic Carucci
Doubleday, $23.95
The New York Jets receiver recounts his rise from undrafted obscurity to the NFL. "When you're a small guy from a small school," he writes, "you pretty much have to beg just for an opportunity to get noticed." Beg no more.

Inside the Meat Grinder
By Chad Brown and Alan Eisenstock
St. Martin's Press, $24.95
Chad Brown, an NFL official, rises to the defense of his colleagues in this account that is written, curiously enough, in the third person: " Chad is an indifferent flyer. He's never afraid, never thrilled, mostly bored." At least he's on a first-name basis with himself.