Or, not so much why coaches matter. Everyone knows why they matter – they tell you what to do, they organize teams, teach plays, make judgment calls and all that necessary stuff that comes with training and athletic competition. It’s more like how they matter that has come into light.
On Tuesday night, I had the privilege of seeing Lombardi at New York City’s Circle in the Square Theatre. I was initially drawn to the play by producer Fran Kirmser, a single mom who seems an unlikely advocate for this project. I do not want, however, to take away from the value of the story, especially as it pertains to female athletes, by focusing on the gender of the producer. Let’s just say that the show was seamless, powerful, and, gasp, a woman is more than capable of producing a play about a male football coach.
The casting of the show was spot on according to people more knowledgeable than I with the life of the legendary coach. I will attest to the fact that Dan Lauria is an actual clone of Vince Lombardi. And I will also say that Judith Light is absorbing and has great comedic timing, though I have no idea how much she emulates Marie Lombardi and how much of herself she brings to the role.
The play’s basic narrative doesn’t deliver any huge surprises. Lombardi was a winning coach, his wife Marie was upset about living in Green Bay, Wisconsin and a story evolved. The essence of the play, however, was the insight into what makes a great coach great.
Both during the play and the talkback after the show, I felt like I was sitting in a man’s world. That somehow only football players or male athletes are privy to great coaches. I wanted to raise my hand and say “no, my coach gets it too.”
Lombardi was a great coach not because he had special knowledge about the game – in fact the play highlights the simplicity of his coaching – but because he actually loved each and every one of his athletes.
I have had so many different coaches in my life – softball, swimming, ballet and most recently running, running and more running. The ones who stand out in a positive light do so because of the two great traits that Lombardi possessed – the will to win, and the power of respect. And I don’t mean a coach that yells and screams and demands respect. I mean a coach who commands respect by first showing respect for the athlete.
I am not sure if a coach has a greater duty to mold an athlete as a person or mold them as a winner, but in my life, the two have not been mutually exclusive. The great coaches I have had in my life have molded me by teaching it’s important to win with character. I cannot attest to how I turned out as a human being (you’ll have to ask teammates, colleagues and friends), but I know that I appreciate the influence these coaches have had on my life. No one has handled me with a “finishing is winning” type of attitude.
Lombardi would yell, but then he would listen. He would establish rules, but then he showed his heart. He demonstrated that a timed joke can diffuse any situation. A memorable one-liner can leave an athlete thinking.
During the talkback it was discussed whether or not Lombardi could exist as a coach today. The answer was that he would have adapted to the times. I wanted to scream out that the entire world of sports does not revolve around football and there are legendary coaches in every sport – both men and women. They might not get the same media attention, they might not get a book or a play, but they leave a similar mark on their teams, their athletes and their disciplines.
On a final note, the key to Lombardi’s success might have been the biggest mind trick a coach can master – it is more important to believe in your coach than to believe in yourself. Self-doubt is too easy to fall into, but a strong faith in your coach allows you to have a steadfast belief in your preparation and the fact that you somehow have an ace in your pocket.
Sitting in the dark theatre, I couldn’t help but admire Lombardi, but more importantly, the show made me reminisce about coaches I’ve had in my life and appreciate their special talents.
Lombardi: A New American Play
The Circle in the Square Theatre
50th Street West of Broadway
90 minutes; no intermission
Starring: Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years), two-time Emmy Award-winner Judith Light (Wit), Keith Nobbs, Bill Dawes, Robert Christopher Riley, and Chris Sullivan.