Monday, 13 December 2017 – What I’m Reading – The Wall Street Journal on Jeff Immelt’s 2 Jets

Monday I finished the Vince Lombardi book (When Pride Still Mattered), but didn’t feel like choosing another book right away. So, I searched for books online & caught up on The Wall Street Journal.

The business press has been pounding GE’s former CEO, Jeff Immelt over his use of jets – or, more precisely, 2 jets. While CEO Immelt not only had one jet at his disposal, he also paid for a second jet that would fly along with the first. The idea was that if the first jet broke down, Immelt would have a backup on hand.

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According to the article, Immelt claims that he didn’t know there was a second jet and that he discontinued the practice once he found out about it in 2014. GE’s board claims that it was in the dark about the practice and is investigating. In 2010, a blogger reported that 2 GE jets had landed at Butte, Montana, airport. At the time, GE offered a different explanation for the second plane – that it was for security.

I bet it doesn’t help the board’s mood that GE’s stock has lost over $125 billion in value this year. In my opinion, this likely will go down as a classic case of the entitlement mentality among CEOs.

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12 – 13 December 2017 – finishing David Maraniss’ When Pride Still Mattered (pp. 343 – 504)

Tuesday I almost finished When Pride Still Mattered. However, the Doug Jones – Roy Moore election results pulled me away from the book, so I finished it Wednesday.

IMG_0610On pages 343 through 504, David Maraniss takes the reader from the 1963 NFL season to Lombardi’s death in September 1970. The material in these sections is good and Maraniss holds the reader until the book’s last page. The fact that the reader stays engaged is due in no small part to Maraniss’ gifts as a writer. Consider his description of the 1965 NFL championship game, the last such game before the Super Bowl started after the following season – “…the game was best considered on its own, a faded dream played in the mist and slop, a transitory moment between football past and future” (p. 382).

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“… a faded dream played in mist & slop”

Given the amount that I read, I won’t bore with a blow-by-blow account of each chapter. But a couple of highlights stood out –

One interesting story concerns Lombardi’s gay brother, Harold. Maraniss uses this section to show that despite Lombardi’s conservatism on many points, he was able to accept people regardless of race or sexuality.

Another strong section concerns Lombardi’s retirement from coaching following the Green Bay Packers’ victory in Super Bowl II in January 1968. According to Maraniss, Lombardi was in bad mental and physical shape, as the constant pressure to win had worn on him. Predictably, Lombardi was miserable without coaching and became the Washington Redskins’ head coach for the 1969 season.

***

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Mt. Olivet Cemetery in New Jersey

The final section of the book concerns Lombardi’s illness and death from cancer. Lombardi’s decline was rapid, as he entered a Washington D.C. Hospital at the end of June 24, 1970, and died September 3rd. This material is brief in When Pride Still Mattered covering pages 488 to 499. Lombardi’s end was sad and reading about it moves the reader.

Maraniss does a nice job of summing up Lombardi’s life. He gently suggests that – in regard to Lombardi’s fame – his early death might have only increased his legend –

“It could be argued that Lombardi was dying at the appropriate time. He was in danger of being reduced to a convenient symbol by then, his philosophy misused by all sides in the political debates of that war-torn era. …leaving the scene was a way for him to survive in memory as a mythic symbol, the block of granite and steadfast coach of the glorious Packers, rather than staying around to become an increasingly frustrated coach fighting for relevance in the fickle modern American culture” (p. 497).

Final Thoughts

When Pride Still Mattered is a terrific read. Maraniss covers Lombardi’s life and does so in a way that explains his importance to American culture. I give the entire book an 8.5 out of 10.

 

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Monday, 11 December 2017 – Reading Pages 282-342 of David Maraniss’ When Pride Still Mattered

“…an intolerable disparity between the hugeness of their desire and the smallness of reality” (p. 69, attributed to Ignatius Loyola).

IMG_0610Monday night after the kids went to bed, I managed about 60 pages in When Pride Still Mattered. The material that I read showed Coach Vince Lombardi at high tide, as his Green Bay Packers won two NFL championships (1961 and 1962); as a result, Lombardi’s legend and celebrity grew.

The Narrative

The material in these sections is interesting, with many hooks to grab the reader. After recounting the Packers’ 1961 championship, Maraniss devotes an entire chapter (#16) to describing an Elks Club banquest in which football’s top people feted Lombardi and acknowledged his coaching prowess.

Then, in Chapter 17, Marranniss discusses how author W.C. Heinz followed Lombardi during the 1962 season to gather material for the book Run to Daylight. The reader also gets vivid details of the Packers’ 16-7 win in the 1962 championship game over the New York Giants at a frigid Yankee Stadium. The last parts that I read focused on “Golden Boy” running back Paul Hornung’s suspension for gambling before the 1963 season.

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Lombardi’s & Heinz’s book

Revealing Anecdotes 

Two anecdotes from the reading particularly “grabbed” me.

First, after the Packers’ championship win over the Giants in 1962, Lombardi was unaware that his wife and daughter had been left behind in New York when the Packers’ plane flew back to Wisconsin. Devotion to family was not Lombardi’s strong suit.

Second, Lombardi generally treated national sportswriters well, but was contemptuous of the local Wisconsin reporters. Maraniss interprets this as both insensitive and Machiavellian; the local reporters could do less to enhance Lombardi’s reputation and he feared that they would disclose key information about the Packers to rival teams.

Two Thoughts Dominate

As I head toward the homestretch with this book, it brings to mind two main thoughts –

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Paul Hornung

First, is the old question, what good are heroes? What do we learn from Lombardi? For me, it’s covered by the Loyola quote at the beginning. Heroes are exemplary. Most of us eventually run up against that frustration where our small realities offer cold comfort next to our huge desires. The hero seems to have escaped this bind by making reality match desire. Lombardi’s story shows us how one person did that, but also shows that he paid a very heavy price to do so.

Second, I think about football’s place in society. Maraniss points out that Lombardi was pivotal in pro football’s movement from its small-time beginnings to the colossus it has become today. But, recent revelations about player health suggest that we will never see football in the ways that we used to see it. So, today Lombardi also represents a past that we can never recapture.

I’m still enjoying this one. I’ll stick with my rating of 8 out of 10.

 

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Sunday, 10 December 2017 – pages 50-59 in Derek Rowntree’s Probability without Tears

Sunday night I felt guilty about spending all of time reading about football. So, I turned my attention back to Derek Rowntree’s Probability without Tears. I’m reading the book to brush up on my research skills to help my academic research. So far, reading Probability is a rewarding experience, even if it is a bit like eating my vegetables.

IMG_0575Pages 50-59 cover how to make basic inferences about probability using what Rowntree terms the multiplication and addition rules. The good thing about Rowntree’s presentation is that he illustrates how the rules using practical examples involving playing cards, dice, and coins (that one imagines flipping). These examples allow Rowntree to make the technical understandable to the reader.

One thing that I’ve had to adjust to is that I do have to perform some basic calculations as I work through the book. I keep searching for paper and pencil, and wishing that I had a calculator handy.

On the whole, I’d give Probability Without Tears 8 out of 10 so far.

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Sunday, 10 December 2017 – reading pages 236-282 of David Maranniss’ When Pride Still Mattered

“He went to mass to repent for his anger… He thought, I’ve got this temper. I fly off the handle and offend people. I apologize. But it’s this temper that keeps me on edge and allows to me to get things done and people to do things. Life was a struggle for him. He knew he wasn’t perfect. He had a lot of habits that were far from perfect. His strengths were his weaknesses, and vice versa” – Vincent Lombardi on his father, Coach Vince Lombardi (p. 246).

Sunday my family had a lot of fun. We took the kids out to do the weekly shopping, played some games with them, and at sundown we walked around the neighborhood to see the Christmas lights. It was fun, but I didn’t do as much reading as I’d done Friday and Saturday.

IMG_0610The material that I covered in When Pride Still Mattered followed Vince Lombardi through the beginning of the 1961 NFL season. Author David Maranniss points out that – even before his Packers won a championship – Lombardi was hailed as a football savant. The legend had been born – and it would grow.

Lombardi & Race

Sunday I started reading about a topic that Marrannis had to address – race. Marrannis portrays Lombardi as a man who was ahead of his time, who chose his players on the basis of talent alone. Also, he states that on road trips Lombardi refused to allow the white Packers to stay in segregated hotels that would not accept the entire team.

I don’t think that Marrannis does a bad job in the section; at the same time, it was unsatisfying. In reading this material, I felt that Marrannis’ hand on the material was too heavy; that is, the passages said more about the author and American sensibilities when the book was published (in 1999) than they said about Lombardi. Marrannis even goes so far as to repeat a tale (that he admits is unverified) that a suntanned Lombardi was mistaken for a black man one time. My sense was that the “race” material was both a) too short for such a complex issue and b) involved too much interpretation from Maranniss.

Marranniss Covers a Lot of Ground

The other material was more satisfying. Marranniss discusses the key contributions of forgotten Packer scout Jack Vainisi (who died at age 33). He also covers “Golden Boy” Paul Hornung, a playboy superstar who – in Marranniss’ estimation – was something of an alter ego for the straitlaced Lombardi.

Vince Lombardi of the New York Giants' clutches a play chart

Lombardi as a Giants assistant coach

Sunday’s pages allowed Marranniss to explore a number of topics, not just football. In addition to the Vainisi section, he circled back to Lombardi’s family life, his religious devotion, and the New York Giants’ attempts to lure Lombardi back home as their head coach following the 1960 season.

Still Going Strong

I’m still enjoying When Pride Still Mattered. So far, I give it an 8 out of 10.

 

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Saturday, 9 December 2017 – reading pages 135-237 of David Maraniss’ When Pride Still Mattered

Saturday, I had to go to graduation. When you’re on faculty, it’s hard to get much out of still-another speaker and still-another group of graduates. The best thing that you can say about graduation is that it’s a great opportunity to read, which is how I spent the 2+ hours.

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My copy – with markdown stickers 🙂

The pages that I read Saturday took Vince Lombardi from 1951, when he helped West Point’s football program recover from its infamous cheating scandal, to 1960 when he’d established himself as head coach of the Green Bay Packers. So, this phase of Lombardi’s life is critical, because it culminates (after over 20 years of effort) in Lombardi finding the long-sought head coaching job that would make him famous.

Maranniss attribues Lombardi’s eventual success both to luck and skill – “…a thousand flits of fate could have taken him somewhere else…” (p. 190). When Pride Still Matters does a nice job of describing the dire straits into which the Packer franchise had fallen before Lombardi. The book also explains what a strange choice New York City-native Lombardi was for head coach of a team in a small, midwestern city.

“He’s a rough soul” – Army Head Coach Red Blaik on Lombardi (p. 99)

One insight into Lombardi from Saturday’s reading is his total obsession with football, and the extent to which his identification with the game ruled his life. So absorbed was Lombardi that – when both were New York Giants assistants – future Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry “…came to think of Lombardi as a borderline manic-depressive. He gave him the nickname ‘Mr. High-Low’ – because when his offense did well he was sky high; but, boy, whey they didn’t do well, you couldn’t speak to him” (p. 161).

Marannis provides another fascinating insight into Lombardi, in noting that he always told his players that pain didn’t exist, that it was just in their heads. (Lombardi first heard this idea from his father). But, during his own athletic career, injuries constantly plagued Lombardi and he continued to need medical treatments throughout his life. Marannis comments that “It is a characteristic of many leaders that they confront their own weaknesses indirectly, by working to eliminate them in others, strengthened in that effort by their intimate knowledge of frailty” (p. 221).

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Back cover

Predictably, Lombardi’s family life was successful on the surface, but less so behind the scenes. His children suffered his neglect and his wife was never happy. One of Lombardi’s daughter’s Susan’s friends said that the Lombardi’s home was “one of sadness… It was a sad house as soon as you walked in, empty, you could feel the family void” (p. 232). This material interested me, but it wasn’t particularly enlightening, as the first part of When Pride Still Mattered provides the reader with Maranniss’ take on the Lombardis’ home life.

Halftime

So far, I’m really enjoying When Pride Still Mattered. While I have my quibbles, Maranniss has a good sense of what to include and what to leave out. The story moves and the readers is excited to see what comes next. I’ll stick with yesterday’s rating of 8.5 out of 10.

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Friday, 8 December 2017 – Reading pages 1- 134 of When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss

“Lombardi, a certain magic still lingers in the very name. It speaks of duels in the snow and the cold November mud” – John Facenda, narrator for NFL Films, sometimes known as The Voice of God (p. 14)

IMG_0608Friday it was cold and snowy here in Mobile. And I had a lot of time to read. Both are unusual. After finishing A.W. Boudreau’s One Cop’s Journey, I still wanted to lounge on the loveseat and lose myself in a book. So, I cast about and found When Pride Still Mattered, which had been sitting on my shelf for four years. I started reading and continued until after 12:30 a.m.

***

In November 2013, my wife, my late sister, and I went over to Atlanta to see South Alabama play Georgia State in football at the Georgia Dome. Before the game, we went to Decatur and visited one of my favorite places in the world – the amazing used book store Book Nook.

While there, I found a $2.99 copy of David Maranniss’ When Pride Still Mattered. I’d seen a copy in a co-worker’s office and – when I asked – he said that it was good. So I bought the book. Then it sat on my shelf. For whatever reason, it just didn’t bubble to the top of the list until Friday.

***

Maranniss gets off to a shaky start. He notes that he’s borrowed the title from a Richard Ford novel that uses the phrase in reference to Lombardi and that Ford “intended it with a certain irony” (p. 13). Oh no, I thought, Maranniss is going to waste 500 pages on snark, moving his opinions to the center of the story.

Even worse, as Chapter 1 begins, Maranniss includes an awkward description of Lombardi’s father –

“He had a face that reminded one of a full moon, a round ball that surely would bounce on the sidewalk if it could be yanked off his shoulders. His thin lips, slatted eyes and disjointed nose seemed painted on, or imagined – as if they had been made by looking up at the moon and creating facial features from shadows of gray on a white-lit orb” (p. 15).

Gag. At this point, I was wondering what else was on the bookshelf.

***

Fortunately, Maranniss soon rights the ship. He occassionally shifts back into clunky prose, and – at times – gets in the way, injecting too many of his opinions into the story. But such passages are rare. What emerges instead is a fascinating story of an extraordinary, deeply-American life.

Maranniss sees Lombardi as an outstanding person, but he also tries to strip away the myth. He constantly refers to two sets of myths 1) those surrounding the man and 2) those surrounding the supposedly-simpler era in which Lombardi lived.

Maranniss recounts Lombardi’s early life and the sometimes-lucky breaks that resulted in Vince becoming one of Fordham University football’s famed “Seven Blocks of Granite” in 1936. Surprisingly, after graduating, Lombardi wasn’t so different from many young people in that he floundered for a couple of years. Then, a Fordham teammate called and asked Vince if he’d like to be an assistant coach and teacher at a New Jersey high school. Vince was on his way.

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Lombardi at Fordham

***

Lombardi’s life was not all that it seemed. His marriage was often rancorous and marked by Vince’s obsession with football and long absences from home. (“I wasn’t married to him one week, when I said to myself, Marie Planitz, you’ve made the greatest mistake of your life,” (p. 74), Mrs. Lombardi once said). Sadly, Marie lost two baby daughters and had a drinking problem. Maranniss does a decent job of exploring Lombardi’s home life, though I wish it got more attention.

Even more frustrating is Maranniss’ very-short account of Lombardi’s lack of service in World War II. Vince received three draft deferments for three different reasons (for teaching (1941), for dependents (1943), and for age (1944)). Maranniss states that many men in similar circumstances still served. The reader wants to know why a man who often stressed duty (and who later coached at West Point) was not in the service. But perhaps that story has been lost to time.

***

In the late 1940s, Lombardi began to move up the coaching ranks. First, he returned to Fordham as an assistant coach and then he began coaching West Point’s offensive line, at a time when West Point was the U.S.’ premier college football program. Lombardi’s association with West Point head coach Red Blaik was crucial to Lombardi’s development as a coach.

***

My reading ended early Saturday morning with a section on the infamous 1951 West Point cheating scandal, in which 43 of the 45 varsity football players were expelled. Maranniss does a great job on this section and I could not go to bed before West Point’s investigation concluded. The next chapter (#8) is going to be about how West Point’s football coaches managed after the scandal.

Obviously, I was not thrilled with When Pride Still Mattered’s first few pages. But I stuck with the book, and I’m glad that I did. Maranniss redeems himself and his book. So far, I’d rate When Pride Still Mattered as 8.5 out of 10.

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