THAT FIRST SEASON: HOW VINCE LOMBARDI TOOK THE WORST TEAM IN THE NFL AND SET IT ON THE PATH TO GLORY
By John Eisenberg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25, 292 pages
RESURRECTION: THE MIRACLE SEASON THAT SAVED NOTRE DAME
By Jim Dent
Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 320 pages
Most books about football coaches celebrate their success; very few give you an indication of how they achieved that success. “That First Season,” by former Baltimore Sun columnist John Eisenberg is an incisive look at how Vince Lombardi, arguably the greatest of all NFL coaches, came from the division champion New York Giants in 1959 (where he had been offensive coordinator) and overturned the moribund Green Bay Packers franchise, the laughingstock of the National Football League, in every way possible.
Lombardi was more than just an authoritarian. He knew how to make his players feel good about themselves. “We realized that we were going to be good,” said future all-Pro guard Fuzzy Thurston after Lombardi’s arrival “We knew what was about to happen.” Lombardi found several key players out of position (most notably Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Paul Hornung) and instinctively put them in the right positions (Hornung went to halfback).
Most important of all, he singled out a discouraged young quarterback from Alabama that his assistants did not like — “A number two at best, but smart and serious enough to do a satisfactory job in this capacity,” one assistant coach wrote. “I do not believe we can win with him,” wrote another. Lombardi saw in Bart Starr what others did not, namely his work ethic and leadership qualities. Starr would win five championships under Lombardi, more than any quarterback in the last half-century.
A coach with less vision and confidence would have traded or cut most of the players Lombardi started with. Instead the Packers went from a 1-10-1 record in 1958 to 7-5 in Lombardi’s first season. As receiver Gary Knafelc put it, “He was the right man for the right job at the right time.”
A sort of companion book to “That First Season,” Jim Dent’s “Resurrection: The Miracle that Saved Notre Dame” tells a similar story about how Ara Parseghian, perhaps the most neglected coaching genius of the 1960s and 1970s, led a Notre Dame resurgence in 1964. If the word “miracle” in the subtitle seems like hyperbole, consider that the Fighting Irish had had five consecutive losing seasons from 1958 to 1963 — a worse period than anything they’ve gone through this decade — and that under Mr. Parseghian they went from 2-7 to 9-1. They came within the final quarter of the final game of the season of winning the national championship, losing to archrival Southern Cal 20-17. (Notre Dame shunned bowl games back then, believing that they interfered with academics.)
Jim Dent, author of the popular “The Junction Boys,” has picked a terrific subject. Mr. Parseghian (who burnt out from the pressure at Notre Dame after coaching just 11 seasons) won two national championships, but neither of them were as glorious as the one he nearly won in his first year. “The 1964 season,” writes Mr. Dent, ” was not for today but for the seasons to come.”
An argument could be made that the real America can be found more easily at a high school football game than at either the pro or college levels, and Joe Drape makes it in “Our Boys.” To call a book on high school football inspirational is usually a kiss of death, but Joe Drape, a New York Times reporter and author of “Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American League,” has found a story that needs no phony hype. Just as the Smith Center High School football team was embarking on a quest for their fifth consecutive unbeaten season and state championship, Mr. Drape, a native Kansan, moved his family back so he could follow the team and its hold on the community. What he found was the kind of bond that can only be faked in professional football and is all too rare even in the college game. “Our Boys” is like a brighter version of Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights,” where the head coach, in this case Smith Center’s Coach Roger Barta tells his players, “I want you to dream, and to dream big. When you dream big, great things happen.”
When you finish this book, you may feel the same way about it that a Redmen player did at the end of the Redmen’s perfect season: “Enjoy it, guys, because I’m already starting to miss it.” Surely, Vince Lombardi’s and Ara Parseghian’s players felt the same way.
• Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal. His latest book is “Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee” (Norton).