Football Coaches-cum-Philosophers

Football Coaches-cum-Philosophers

Vince Lombardi, George Halas, and Knute Rockne were football coaches, period. They devised game plans, forged strategies, and molded men. Despite ruling their teams with a Nietzschean "will to power," they were never thought of as anything but football coaches. Today they would be as obsolete as the flying wedge. Modern football coaches must be philosophers, first and foremost. Listen to the color analysts on next weekend's professional games and you'll hear something like this:

"Well Troy, it's third and short; what's coach Belichick's 's philosophy in this situation?''

"The beauty of his thinking here, Joe, is that he studiously avoids the dialectic altogether. I suppose you could call him an existentialist: he's liable to do anything.'' As the play is called, Troy is proven prenicient.

Ironically, Mr. Lombardi, the archetypal coach, may have unconsciously sown the seeds of the modern philosopher-coach. Students of National Football League history describe his pithy "Run for daylight'' tenet as a thinly disguised Sartrian exposition of absolute freedom. On the other side of the argument - and scrimmage line - Lombardi, in a seeming (but only seeming) contradiction, heralded the linebacker's total liberty to obliterate that daylight, ergo the ballcarrier.

The late Green Bay Packer mentor is also famous for his Nietzschean insistence on excellence and superhuman exertions by his players. (Some scholars insist he was not molding men, but supermen.) "Winning isn't everything,'' Lombardi averred. "It's the only thing.'' That philosophy (it was not recognized as such in his time) has had a profound influence on 20th-century NFL thought.

Modern football has also been influenced by Karl Marx, who foresaw a century ago that in its advance stages the sport would resort to specialization and an increasing division of labor. No one plays "both ways" anymore. In fact, hardly anyone plays one way the entire game. There are "special teams" and "situation players:" like the third-down, pass-catching halfback. There are run specialists and pass specialists on defense as well. Many teams have adopted the philosophy of two place kickers: one for field goals and extra points and another for kicking off.

As football has grown exponentially more complex, schools of thought have proliferated. One trend can be termed Orwellian: Big Coach (not the quarterback, as in days of yore) calls all the plays from the sideline. Precious few NFL teams (and ever fewer college squads) grant their field generals the freedom to choose the offensive plays.

Unlike many of the great thinkers who preceded them, today's philosopher-coaches embrace deism. Atheism has no place in the locker room. Most have advanced this theory by syllogizing that if there is a God and if He/She cares about mankind, He/She must logically be an avid fan of gridiron gyrations. Post-Super Bowl interviews with winning coaches are always sprinkled liberally with praise and credit to the Almighty, who seems to throw His support to a different team each year.

Like a playoff-bound squad on a winning streak, philosophy is gaining momentum in the NFL. During a recent pre-season game, one TV commentator observed: "Will you look at the size of that left tackle; well, that's been the Raider philosophy: huge linemen."

Probably the next great intellectual upheaval in professional football will be an attempt to integrate and homogenize these numerous and diverse schools of thought. An anthology of Eric Hoffer-like aphorisms ("No pain, no gain" or "newspaper clippings don't make tackles") would also be handy.

Perhaps some day soon we will see Mike Tomlin or Pete Carroll rushing out onto the field to argue an official's call screaming, a la Camus, "C'est absurde!"