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True Grit

What Lombardi seemed to have was the ability to make those who played for him do almost anything and for that he was treated with awe. At the height of his fame, Lombardi addressed the American Management Association’s annual conference in New York. “They were finishing the salad course when a murmuring began, and suddenly the crowd was on its feet and the large ballroom exploded with applause,” Maraniss writes. “Lombardi strode to the podium in a dark suit, his hair freshly trimmed, a championship ring shining from his left hand (he loved to wear rings and had just designed the Super Bowl version, which had the word CHARACTER etched on one side and LOVE on the other).” The next day in The New York Times, the reporter covering the event wrote that after Lombardi finished, “the mostly paunchy and out-of-shape audience” seemed ready to “carry Lombardi out on their shoulders,” and then “go out and take on the Kansas City Chiefs.”

Today football coaches are regulars at executive retreats and management meetings. Bill Walsh, Shanahan’s football mentor and the resident genius of the San Francisco 49ers’ football club, “used to go into the Silicon Valley to speak to the biggest computer companies out there,” Shanahan writes. “They would pepper Bill with football questions, and he would pepper them with business questions. They would use his ideas, and he would use theirs.” There is a strong feeling in this country, apparently, that all of us have something to learn from football coaches. But what is that something? That we need to risk our lives to succeed? That we ought to skip our honeymoons to get a jump on that next sales meeting? That the reason Paul McCartney got where he is today is by telling his social secretary to mail out a card twice a year to Julian Lennon?


The answer that football coaches give is that they can teach the rest of us how to build character. “Four years of football,” Knute Rockne once said, “are calculated to breed in the average man more of the ingredients of success in life than almost any academic course he takes.” Football, according to Lombardi, demanded “Spartan” qualities of “sacrifice, self-denial, dedication and fearlessness.” It was based on “the American zeal” to compete and win. It taught perfection, discipline, character, a deference to authority, and, most of all, leadership. In Think Like a Champion, Shanahan divides the principles of success in football by chapter heading: Preparing, Sacrificing, Learning, Detailing, Competing, Communicating, Leading, and so on. This is the kind of message that makes for an inspiring speech, but is it really true?

The most talented athlete ever to play for Rockne, for example, was George Gipp (who was played in the movies, of course, by Ronald Reagan). Gipp rarely went to class. He spent most of his time in bars, betting parlors, and pool halls, and rarely attended practice on the first few days of the week. Yet Gipp was an extraordinary athlete, who, in one of Notre Dame’s most storied victories, had the courage and grit to lead his team over Indiana University while playing with a dislocated shoulder and a broken collarbone. Most of us would consider the difference between Gipp the focused athlete and Gipp the feckless non-athlete a contradiction, or atleast a mystery: we would assume that the two halves of his personality would eventually have to be reconciled. But not Rockne. He pampered Gipp and indulged his numerous escapades.

Vince Lombardi was the same way with his best player, the impossibly gifted running back Paul Hornung. Hornung was a hellraiser in the George Gipp tradition. At one point in his career, he was suspended from football for a year for betting on the game. The sportswriter Dick Schaap once followed Hornung around for a few weeks, and described his typical routine as follows:

Each morning Paul would get up about quarter to nine and be on the field by nine o’clock. They would practice until twelve and there would be meetings to three. At three he’d come home, mix a pitcher of martinis and drink martinis until six o’clock with Kramer and the others. Then they’d go out to dinner, a group of players. Scotch before dinner. Wine with dinner. Brandy after dinner. Then back on scotch. Every day. I lost count by the time it had reached more than sixty just how many drinks he had in that week leading up to the Browns game. Also, he never went to bed before four in the morning, he never went to bed alone, and he never repeated himself.

Did Lombardi care? Not at all. Lombardi had a reputation as a strict Catholic and a fierce disciplinarian, but for Hornung he looked the other way. Paul, he would say over and over, is like a son to me, and when Hornung returned to football after his suspension Lombardi welcomed his prodigal son home with open arms.

Even though Lombardi and Rockne were both telling business audiences around the country that football builds character, they were far too savvy to actually let that idea dictate the way they coached. Rockne knew that to crack down on Gipp would be to lose him—and, in any case, Gipp didn’t need external discipline to succeed. Lombardi realized, similarly, that Hornung was simply someone with two very different and unconnected sides to his personality: the football player and the man about town. Lombardi’s genius, in fact, was to have this kind of insight about every one on his players. Maraniss writes:

He knew that his quarterbacks, Starr and Bratkowski, were not to be yelled at: Bart took it as an affront to his leadership and Zeke was too nervous…. Marv Fleming, the new tight end, was hugely talented, but Lombardi thought that he required constant riding to play at his best. Taylor played better when he was mad at his coach, if not the world. Willie Davis was above reproach; Lombardi shrieked at him once, then explained the next day that he was only “trying to prove nobody is beyond chewing out.” [Bob] Skoronski was sensitive to criticism and best left alone….

It isn’t that great coaching builds character in football players, then. It’s the other way around. Men with different characters play football, and the intelligent coach finds a way to structure his coaching around those differences. This is something, of course, that all great leaders do instinctively; they are blessed with an innate sensitivity to those they lead. But that’s not what audiences want to hear from football coaches—not back in the days of Knute Rockne and not today in the era of Mike Shanahan.


The second thing that laymen think they can learn from football coaches is the secrets of motivation. Most of those who buy Shanahan’s Think Like a Champion will be businessmen and managers who want to know how to create a dedicated, hard-working, loyal workforce—who want to know how to build morale. But it’s not clear that what football coaches know about motivation is any more useful than what they say they know about character.

Once, in the 1920s, Rockne took his Notre Dame team down to Georgia, into the heart of anti-Catholic, Ku Klux Klan territory. In the locker room before the game, he gave his usual passionate speech about pride and dedication, then suddenly lowered his voice. Robinson writes:

Arriving at this climax, Rockne slowly removed a crumpled telegraph from his pocket. In silence he stared at the words on the missive. Then he began to read aloud: “PLEASE WIN THIS GAME FOR MY DADDY. IT’S VERY IMPORTANT TO HIM.”

It’s from Billy,” Rockne said, referring to his beloved six-year-old son, the team’s unofficial mascot. “He’s very ill and is in the hospital.” When Rockne finished, some of the players “began to cry, while others jumped up from their perches and swore they would annihilate Tech just for Billy. Indeed, that’s exactly what they proceeded to do.”

Billy, of course, was at that moment back home in South Bend, the very picture of health. This story seems like a parody of a half-time speech, but the truth is that football coaches play these kinds of psychological tricks all the time. They manufacture antagonisms. They find mildly incendiary quotes from opposing players and blow them out of proportion. They send “messages” to their team by disciplining or firing players on some flimsy pretext. Do they care that their players will see through these ruses? Not really. Football seasons are very short, and the tenure of the average player is not much longer, which means that the long-term consequences of treating your players like small children are minor. Maraniss writes that once at a tense moment during contract negotiations with one of his star players, Bob Skoronski, Lombardi

rose from his chair, walked around the desk and affectionately rubbed his tackle’s crew-cut scalp. The tactic silenced Skoronski and settled the debate—a pre-emptive strike that compelled Skoronski the following year to open by saying, “Coach, I want you to sit in that chair and not come over and touch me during these negotiations.”

Shanahan confesses that he spends long hours trying to figure out how to keep his players as close to their hotel as possible while the team is on the road. At the Super Bowl one year, he cordoned off the second floor of the hotel and filled it with games—air hockey, pool, pop-a-shot, ping-pong—so the players would have no reason to wander out from his supervision. “And it was all free,” he exults. “Our guys loved it.” It was almost as big a hit as Shanahan’s two-free-movie brain-wave. “These guys,” Shanahan writes, “they’re making millions of dollars, and they go nuts for the two eight-dollar movies and the sixteen dollars in savings.” In the coach’s universe, players are naive dupes, to be patronized in the name of winning. What coaches want from their charges is something very specific—and something that no one else outside the game would ever want from an employee: that for a period of a few hours on an occasional fall afternoon they sacrifice all concern for their own well-being for the good of the team. That is not to be confused with morale-building, which is a long-term process. This is more like the inducement of temporary hysteria.

Knute Rockne, in the 1929 season, suffered from a life-threatening blood clot in his right leg, and was confined to a wheelchair. Before Notre Dame’s game against archrival Carnegie Tech, Rockne was wheeled into the team’s locker room, accompanied by a writer, Francis Wallace, and a physician.

In the rear of the locker room Francis Wallace stood next to Dr. Maurice Keady, who had been attending to Rockne’s case. Dr. Keady turned to Wallace and shook his head. “If he lets go and that clot dislodges and hits his heart or brain,” he whispered, “he’s got only an even chance of ever leaving this room alive.”

No sooner had Dr. Keady confided this morose assessment to Wallace than Rockne started to speak. His voice was surprisingly strong, and he didn’t falter. “A lot of water has gone under the bridge since I first came to Notre Dame,” he began. “But I don’t know when I’ve ever wanted to win a game as badly as this one…. I don’t care what happens after today. Why do you think I’m taking a chance like this? To see you lose?” He paused for a moment, then his voice rose to a shout and he literally spat out the next words. “They’ll be primed, they’ll be tough. They think they have your number. Are you going to let it happen again? You can win if you want to.” There was a brief pause as Rockne drew a deep breath. Then, in rapid-fire fashion, he unleashed a barrage of barked challenges.

Go out there and hit ‘em, crack ‘em, crack ‘em, smack ‘em! Fight to live. Fight to win, win, win, win!” …In that 1929 locker room Rockne’s words sent the players rushing for the door as beads of sweat poured from their impassioned coach’s face. Realizing that Rockne was choked with emotion, Dr. Keady felt for his racing pulse. Wallace, a writer sometimes addicted to hyperbole, didn’t exaggerate in the least when he later reported that “Rockne wanted to win more than he wanted to live.”

The truth is, of course, that all the great football players and coaches feel that way. They’ll play and coach without kidneys, and while passing kidney stones, and after twenty-three operations, and with life-threatening blood clots and in freezing cold weather, and after throwing up on their agent’s shoes. That’s what makes them good at football. Whatever lesson there is in this for the rest of us is a mystery.

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