John Eisenberg – That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory

John Eisenberg – That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory

I read this shortly before the Packers began the 2019 season, their first under new head coach Matt LaFleur. This book takes on an added poignance with quarterback Bart Starr’s recent passing at age 85. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, just a well-told story about the beginnings of one of the sport’s major dynasties.

The team was dysfunctional at every level after finishing the 1958 season with a 1-10-1 record, still the worst in team history. Head coach Scooter McLean, though generally liked by his players, was not much of a coach or an administrator, and was fired. The Packers’ unique ownerless structure was also hurting the team. As a shareholder corporation, the team was run by an executive committee of mostly local notables who had few compunctions about meddling with personnel decisions and other football matters. Retired Hall of Fame running back Tony Canadeo was an exception on the committee, and without him Lombardi might never have been hired.

At the time Lombardi was the New York Giants’ offensive coordinator. In his mid-40s, he was a bit old to be considered for a head coaching job at that point, and though he wasn’t overly excited about relocating to the NFL’s equivalent of Siberia, he knew it might be his only shot at running his own team. One of his conditions was a weakening of the executive committee, and absolute say over personnel matters.

As Lombardi looked over game film, he saw that he was inheriting some talented players. Packers scout Jack Vainisi, who would die in 1960 at the age of 33 of a heart attack, was an unheralded genius who drafted eight Hall of Fame players who played for Lombardi. Players like Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Paul Hornung, and Jim Ringo had occasional flashes, but previous management did little to develop their talent. Lombardi’s famous discipline changed that virtually overnight.

Having set the stage, the book then goes week by week through Green Bay’s first season under Lombardi. They beat the Bears in the opener, the perfect way to ring in the new era. An early winning streak was followed by a longer losing streak, but the Packers still finished with a  7-5 record, their first winning season in years, and a six-win improvement in just one year. Lombardi’s Packers would go on to win five championships over a seven-year stretch, including the first two Super Bowls.

Again, there is nothing groundbreaking here, but Eisenberg has produced a quality work of history about an important part of pro football history. Better, its intended audience is all football fans, not just homer Packers fans.

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