Review: That First Season, by John Eisenberg


That First Season, by John Eisenberg. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2009. 292 pp. $25.00 (paperback).

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“Honey, we’re going to start to win. The guy talked about perfection!”—Bart Starr phoned to tell his wife about the new coach, Vince Lombardi, on the first day of quarterback camp in 1959 (p. 76). Starr was a struggling quarterback for a perennially losing team, the Green Bay Packers, which had posted a franchise-worst 1–10–1 record the previous season under coach Ray “Scooter” McLean.

As a coach and assistant on the college and pro levels, Lombardi was a consistent winner, and he made clear from the start in Green Bay that mediocrity was unacceptable. “Gentlemen, we’re going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because perfection is not attainable,” Lombardi had told Starr and five other quarterbacks vying for the starting position. “But we are going to relentlessly chase it because, in the process, we will catch excellence. I’m not remotely interested in being just good” (p. 76).

After starting the season 3–0, Lombardi’s Packers lost the next five games. But the rookie coach soon showed that he knew what it took to inspire his team to play better, ending the season with four consecutive victories and a 7–5 record. It was the Packers’ first winning season in twelve years.

In That First Season, John Eisenberg, a sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun, elucidates in an engaging style the principles Lombardi instituted in Green Bay, the principles that lifted the team from the doldrums of defeatism and laid the foundation for five National Football League championships, including the first two Super Bowls.

Although Lombardi insisted that his players be superbly conditioned, his more fundamental concern was that they learn to think and act like winners. From the start, he demanded that everyone, from team executives to players, buy in to his no-nonsense football philosophy. “[W]e’re going to win some games,” Lombardi told his new team before their first full-squad practice. “Do you know why? You are going to have confidence in me and my system. By being alert, you are going to make fewer mistakes than your opponents. By working harder, you are going to out-execute, out-block, and out-tackle every team that comes your way” (p. 92).

Despite Lombardi’s past success, however, his new players needed to see his reputed football know-how and innovative schemes work on the field before they would be convinced that his way was a winning way. Starr saw the light in short order. Eisenberg explains that, in a game against the Baltimore Colts, which the Packers lost (the last time they would lose in 1959), the team ran and threw the ball well, and Starr experienced something of an epiphany:

Some of the possibilities Lombardi had discussed during the week had crystallized right in front of him, the holes and receivers opening up just as Lombardi had said they would. Wow! Starr had been impressed with Lombardi all along, but his appreciation soared even higher. There was no doubt the man’s offense could roll over defenses. That gave Starr confidence, sent an electric charge through his body. If we run the plays right, we’ll move the ball. We will! (p. 224)

Eisenberg focuses throughout on Starr, whose battle to become the starting quarterback summarized the team’s roller-coaster season. Lombardi found Starr to be a bright, studious, hard-working quarterback who otherwise was mistake-prone and too mild-mannered to command his teammates in a huddle. Under Lombardi, Starr was inspired to push himself to achieve his highest potential, and to demonstrate that he was the quarterback who could turn the Packers into winners. Eisenberg details how, as the season progressed, Starr gained confidence under Lombardi’s system: He passed terrifically and showed leadership, barking out plays, firing up his teammates, and even gaining confidence to tell them to “shut up and listen” (p. 265).

Eisenberg highlights Lombardi’s simplified offensive playbook, a key facet of his coaching strategy. His system was one-fourth the size of McLean’s, amounting to some forty basic plays. “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” (p. 78).

From that first season onward, Lombardi’s offenses would rack up yardage and points. Fullback Jim Taylor recalled that Lombardi would have the Packers grind out one first down after another rather than attempt long-yardage passes. “It was so simple, but people couldn’t stop us because we were so good at it” (p. 271). Starr regarded Lombardi’s system, which “thrived on planning, preparedness, and logical thinking,” as “incredible” (p. 245).

In addition to providing the team with a pared-down yet highly effective playbook, Lombardi emphasized the importance of efficient execution and of every player understanding the nature of his own job. He detailed plays, diagramming them on a blackboard and spelling out every player’s role on every snap. Lombardi wanted the players not merely to act but also to understand what they were doing and why. As Lamar McHan, who competed with Starr for the starting quarterback position, put it: “I’ve always had coaches who told me to do things, but didn’t tell me why . . . Lombardi tells you why” (p. 102).

Eisenberg liberally sprinkles That First Season with players’ recollections of McLean’s program in contrast to their recollections of Lombardi’s. For instance, whereas McLean allowed veteran players to sleep late while rookies practiced, Lombardi demanded that veterans attend every practice and meeting, honor all curfews, and tap their full potential. Jerry Kramer, a veteran player whom Lombardi prohibited from skipping practices before the season began, recalled that he “just wouldn’t let me go, refused to let me slide. And he was that way with all of us. If you weren’t using any part of your talent, he wanted it. He wanted everything. It drove you crazy, and there were a lot of hurts and a lot of pain, but it was all worth it” (p. 272). And whereas McLean underused a top talent at the time, Paul Hornung, once sitting him for an entire game (which they lost 56–0), Lombardi made Hornung a centerpiece of his steamrolling offense.

Eisenberg says a few words about Lombardi’s personal life, portraying him as a man devoted to his family yet whose mind was never far from football; and he occasionally mentions Lombardi’s off-the-field relationships with his players.* But, for the most part, Eisenberg sticks to his topic: the essential elements of Lombardi’s early success. He shows that Lombardi demanded the pursuit of perfection from his players, that he appealed to their intelligence, and that he provided them with a system of success, enabling them to turn their fumbling franchise into one of the most successful teams in the history of professional sports.

In light of this story, it is no wonder that Lombardi was elected Coach of the Year in 1959 and that he is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along with eight players from that first team, including Starr.*

Endnote

* For a lengthier discussion of these dynamics, see David Maraniss’s insightful biography on Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered (Simon & Schuster, 2000, 544 pp.).

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