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Fifty years after his first season as coach of the Green Bay Packers, it's pretty difficult to find fresh material on the legendary Vincent T. Lombardi. That didn't stop author John Eisenberg from trying, though.
In "That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory" (Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $25), the Baltimore Sun sports columnist recalls Lombardi's first year on the job in Green Bay, from his surprise hiring through a memorable season that built the foundation for the championships to come.
Eisenberg does a nice job of setting the stage. The Packers were horrible before Lombardi arrived, with 11 losing seasons in a row. The small town was passionate about football -- the team had been an NFL power in the league's early years -- but losing was taking its toll, and some questioned whether the franchise could survive.
Leadership was a major issue. Coach Ray "Scooter" McClean was more interested in playing poker with his players than in shaking up the complacent team. Enter Lombardi, then 45 and a successful assistant coach with the New York Giants. He had no head coaching experience, and Packer executives had initially focused on finding a big name. But the ambitious Brooklyn native, fearing it would be his last shot to be a head coach, won them over with his no-nonsense approach.
In 1959, the emerging NFL's mostly part-time players sold insurance and cars in the off-season, and many were more interested in partying than football during the regular season. Lombardi was determined to change the culture. Studying film from the previous season, he identified several players with potential -- Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung stood out -- but also saw an undisciplined, poorly conditioned team. That would soon change.
For many Packer fans, a number of stories in "That First Season" will be familiar. There's the wonderful but oft-repeated anecdote from a team meeting in which Lombardi stresses the basics while holding a football aloft. "We're starting at the beginning. Gentlemen, this is a football." Receiver Max McGee quickly raises his hand. "Coach?" he asks. "Can you not go so fast?"
Unfortunately for Eisenberg, many of the larger themes that have made Lombardi so fascinating have already been explored, most notably in the outstanding biography "When Pride Still Mattered" by David Maraniss. If you haven't read the Maraniss book, "That First Season" is a worthwhile warmup 50 years after an unlikely Midwestern town became the epicenter of professional football for a decade, thanks to a coach who would settle for nothing less.
Scott Gillespie is the editor of the Star Tribune editorial page.