BY ALL accounts, Vince Lombardi’s life was as compelling as his coaching career. The iconic Hall of Fame football coach has been immortalized over the years thanks to his singular and unmatched career as coach for the Green Bay Packers (and, briefly, the Washington Redskins), and the Savannah Repertory Theatre’s production of Lombardi is no exception.
Lombardi was a complex figure, and is seen by many as a standard bearer for football coaches who overlooked racial barriers and ignored the prejudices of the time period. He was also something of a contradiction, whose views on certain things and even his strong language went against his deeply held religious beliefs.
All of this is on display in Lombardi, which also explores the coach’s wife, Marie — a woman who plays an immense role in perhaps one of the greatest sports stories of all time.
“This one is like going back to an old friend,” Hailey says of his decision to do the show, which he’s done before at other theatres around the country. “It’s not all football all the time. If it were a big football play, I would be the last person that you would want to direct it.”
Hailey fell into his directing role in this show by accident, as the original director had to drop out on short notice.
“It’s the best play about theatrical producing I’ve ever read,” he says. “It’s actually more about Vince and his two families. There’s his real family, and then his other family — the Green Bay Packers.”
For those unfamiliar, Lombardi is regarded as one of the great coaches of our time who was groundbreaking in his approach and the motivational speaking he engaged in with players. He died in 1970 after a battle with cancer.
“He was the person who pretty much invented the concept of the motivational speaker,” Hailey explains. “He came along and made it not religion, although he was a very devout religious man who happened to talk like a sailor. There are all of these contradictions about him. We’re putting disclaimers everywhere because [the show] reflects the language that he used.”
Sandra Karas, who plays Lombardi’s wife Marie in Savannah Rep’s production, says she feels that Lombardi blazed trails in terms of coaches being public figures in football.
“It’s fair to say that Vince Lombardi is historically the icon of the famous football coach,” she says. “He made the coach the person that everybody looked to to perfect the idea of running games and the playbook. He became famous just because of who he was. He turned losing teams into winning teams everywhere he went.”
Skip Corris, who portrays the titular coach in the show, adds that his unmatched abilities were “apropros of his striving for perfection, which is a very Jesuit principal.”
One aspect of Lombardi’s life on display in the show is his dismissal of prejudices based on race or sexual prejudice — something he became known for, as it was highly unorthodox for the time period.
“If an establishment wouldn’t allow African American players, nobody went,” Corris says.
“There were a couple of gay players — and this way way before Stonewall — and there were people who badmouthed them. And he got rid of them. He had this intense sense of justice and a strive for perfection. I think that was largely attributed to the Jesuits. He loved the discipline, that freedom through discipline.”
All of these factors are part of the greater legacy of Lombardi, but Hailey and the cast members agree on one thing: he was, at the end of the day, somebody who was revered by his players.
“That’s probably not something we see today, because [players] just go to the highest bidder now,” Karas says. “He would lure guys away from other teams, but they became devoted to him. He was a father figure to them.”
“I don’t think he thought of himself as a ‘social justice warrior,’” Corris adds. “I think he thought of himself as one who strove for perfection. I think that’s his legacy. He has so many adages or sayings, and they live on in every motivational speech. People revere his philosophy.”
The play also explores Lombardi’s marriage and family life, which the cast says was complicated due to his intense devotion to his work.
“He was so focused,” Corris says. “So much so that he neglected his family - not that he was indifferent to them. He was just so focused that he didn’t really pay much attention to them.”
Despite this fact, Marie Lombardi was a major part of her husband’s life and career — “probably more than any other” coach’s wife at the time or even in today’s landscape, Hailey insists.
“You don’t hear about the coach’s wife,” Karas says. “She traveled with the team, the guys knew her all the time, and they confided in her. She missed one game, and he blamed her for losing. That was a relationship that was unusual.”
“She was every bit as revered by the wives of the team members and the families of the team members as he was,” Hailey adds. “She made sure that he felt cared for.”
The dynamic and complicated nature of Lombardi’s personal life and his fervent devotion to his work is something we’ve seen portrayed in fiction ever since.
Take Friday Night Lights, for example. The show’s lead character, a perfectionist high school football coach whose work often overshadows his relationship with his family, is not unlike the great Vince Lombardi in numerous ways.
Even that character’s wife is someone who’s known and loved by the players on the team and is seen as a central figure in their world in many ways.
The similarities between Lombardi’s life and some of the art that followed his death, as well as the obvious cultural impact he has had overall, are testaments to the person he was and the reason his story translates so well on stage.
“Now, [football] is such a big corporate business. But when I was growing up, Lombardi was still around,” Hailey says. “This was not my sport at all. But I knew what it was and who all of the people were. This thing also gives a really fascinating view of life in the ‘60s, and the family life of that era is so well presented in this thing.”
Perhaps the most incredible thing about Lombardi’s legacy is that his career was unbelievably short. His entire career as a head coach lasted just 10 years.
“He died young, and at the peak of his career. His cancer was undiagnosed for years - he didn’t want to get medical testing, and he had colon cancer which people didn’t talk about. At 57, this guy was gone at the height,” Karas says.
“Nobody talks about Tom Landry this way, and Landry was his colleague at the Giants. His achievements were that much greater because he did them in such a short span.”