Great Biography of Bart Starr

51XyD5-M7kL__SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Biographies of sports heroes usually come in one of two forms.  The first is a very shallow, quick, surficial look at the life and sporting career trying to earn a few dollars on the fame of a particular player.  The other is a truly in-depth look and accounting of the life and times of that sports hero.  This biography is clearly in the second category.  It does a phenomenal job of bringing Bart Starr to life for the reader.

Starr’s early life was marred by the death of his brother and subsequently was estranged from his father.  He became a star football player in high school but even there struggled with injuries but by his senior year was an All American.  Unlike most star athletes, however, he was more introverted and self-reflective.

Being an Alabama high school football star he wound up at the University of Alabama.  There he was an on again off again starter and after a back injury his junior year he hardly played as a senior.  His pro football prospects certainly seemed dim.

With recommendations from Alabama’s basketball coach Green Bay selected Starr in the 17th round of the 1956 NFL draft.

Again Starr started out as a back-up and then as an on again, off again starter for the Green Bay Packers.  When Vince Lombardi took over as coach of the Packers in 1959 it took some time for him to win over the coach’s trust as the starting quarterback, but he eventually did.  And the rest is a glorious history of championship football as the starting quarterback for arguable the greatest dynasty in NFL history.

One of the best parts of the biography for football fans is of course Starr’s role as the leader of the Green Bay Packers from 1960 to 1971, with five NFL championships, two of which were Super Bowl’s I and II.  This is a superlative career in an era where quarterbacks called their own plays and defensive backs could mug receivers down the field.

The book does a fantastic job of detailing Starr’s early struggles and his overcoming those struggles to become the undisputed field general and leader of the team other than Lombardi.  It also details his unique relationship with the tough minded Vince Lombardi who ultimately embraced Starr as his quarterback and trusted him in the most critical on-field situations.  While there were a lot of great moments for the team the infamous Ice Bowl where Starr changed the play and called a quarterback sneak to win the NFL championship against the Dallas Cowboys in one of the coldest games every played was thrilling relayed in the book.  And the pressure on the coach to win the first Super Bowl, and the second one is well told here.

This biography also brings out Starr’s unique qualities as a human being.  A very modest, honest, player who didn’t curse or go carousing with the guys, he nevertheless earned the respect of the players around him.  The biography really brings out this humble side of Starr and how it juxtaposed to that of his bombastic head coach and other players.  But he was a very tough competitor on the field, demanding the respect of all around him, including that of his head coach.

Another endearing quality to Starr’s life is he married his high school sweetheart and love of this life Cherry Morton and remained a faithful husband.  The love affair between these two is interwoven through the biography and is refreshing.

After his career he jumped into coaching and broadcasting.  He eventually became the head coach of a then struggling Green Bay Packers team from 1975 to 1983.  Unfortunately his stint as a head coach did not go quite like his football career.  He ended up with a 52-76-3 record as a head coach and the pressures of the job, especially after such a fantastic run as a player, was difficult.  He even admitted he probably was initially in over his head but did not want to quit.

And finally a tragedy.  Starr lost his son to drug abuse in 1988 after Starr and his wife constantly did everything to help him overcome the demon.  He eventually moved to Florida and fell back into his drug habit.  After not hearing from his son Bart flew to Florida and found him dead in his house.  This was obviously a very tragic and painful time in Bart Starr’s life.

The only quibble I have with the book is the claim that Bart Starr is the greatest quarterback in NFL history.  With his five NFL championships and great record as a player, the author makes a great argument.  I am not sure where I would place Bart Starr and he deserves to be mentioned as one of the greatest of all time but I would not place him at the top.  But I did enjoy the statistics are arguments on his behalf.

Any football fan will enjoy this well written and thoughtful biography of one the greatest quarterbacks of all time, one of the winningest quarterbacks of all time, and one of the humblest and good natured athletes of all time.

Bart Starr: America’s Quarterback and the Rise of the National Football League

An “Interesting” Inside Look at NFL Coaches

coachCoaching Confidential provides an inside look at some of the more prominent coaches in the NFL of the past few decades. While there is nothing groundbreaking or particularly new in the book, I still found it to be interesting reading. And there were at least a few background stories that were new to me which I enjoyed learning about.

Much of the book, but not all, seems to be a little Bill Parcel’s centric as there are chapters on Sean Peyton and Bountygate, a Parcells disciple. There are also chapters on Robert Kraft and his relationships with Bill Belichick and Parcells (along with Pete Carroll). Then there is a chapter about Parcells and his motivational techniques. That is not necessarily bad, but he looms large in this book.
What really got the book off to a good start for me is the story around Sean Peyton getting suspended for Bountygate. While all football coaches at the professional level, almost by definition, must have a huge ego, Peyton is depicted as somewhat obnoxiously conceited. On the other hand, it also details how he put together a Super Bowl winning team from the detritus of a woeful Saints organization already bad but devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Another chapter goes into detail about Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll, and Bill Belichick and their relationship with each other and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. As most know Parcells left the Patriots after clashing with Kraft over control of personnel and a few years later Belichick jilted Parcells and the New York Jets to become head coach of the New England Patriots replacing Carroll. Being a Patriots fan I already knew much of the detail behind this. The videotaping incident also got its fair share of attention in this chapter, and is probably the first real source describing how Kraft felt about it.

This is followed by yet another chapter on Parcells and his motivational tactics…aka…mind games that he used to motivate players. Some of the anecdotes were quite funny.

There are two chapters devoted to very dysfunctional relationships that eventually blew apart. The first is the Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson saga in Dallas. The other is the Dan Reeves, Mike Shanahan, John Elway troika in Denver. A love triangle it was not. Elway hated Reeves and Reeves didn’t love Elway too much either, or so it appears, and Shanahan was the guy in the middle who eventually took over for after Reeves was fired. Elway basically had Reeves run out of town but it remains unclear Shanahan’s role in the situation. Reeves thinks Shanahan stabbed him in the back, metaphorically. Of course Shanahan eventually got two Super Bowls in Denver.

There are also chapters on Joe Gibbs return to the Redskins under Dan Snyder (nothing new here), Tony Dungy’s “lost” Super Bowl after getting run out of Tampa Bay followed by his eventual Super Bowl win with the Indianapolis Colts (likewise, nothing new here), Brian Billick of the Baltimore Ravens getting fired unexpectedly (nothing new here), and Dick Vermeil and his burnout with the Eagles and subsequent return many years later to coach the Kansas City Chiefs, then the St. Louis Rams, and his retirement from the Rams after their Super Bowl win (again, nothing new here).

And we get a glimpse in the last chapter of the world of REX…as in Rex Ryan. Rex Ryan stories are always fun to read because he is such a goofball.

Overall, this book is a quick and enjoyable read if you are an NFL fan. The only drawback is much of these details had already been reported before but there is enough new information here to make it worth the read.

Coaching Confidential: Inside the Fraternity of NFL Coaches

 

Review of Bill Parcells: A Football Life

parcellsThis “autobiography” of Bill Parcells is certainly fascinating, as any biography of such a character should be. Character is a good word to describe Parcells, as he is a character. Arrogant, sarcastic, demanding, profane, psychologist, restless and successful are just a few of the adjectives that describe one of the best professional football coaches of the modern era.

I have always been fascinated by people who make sports their life calling, especially one as demanding as being the head coach or executive of a National Football League team. Parcells has been one of the best with a unique and not always likable style.

This biography does a great job of providing the background of Parcells’s growing up and how being a self-described Jersey guy has colored his personality. His dedication to football and being a football coach is evident in his hopping from job to job at small schools in the college ranks, constantly moving his family and working for little pay hoping for bigger and better opportunities. The demands of his job and the constant moving eventually cost him his marriage, which unfortunately is not that uncommon for coaches. Parcells’s life has certainly been defined by football.

Bill Parcels really made his stamp on football immortality as the head coach of the New York Giants whom he lead from a bad team to two time Super Bowl champion grounded in the philosophy of a strong defense and solid running game. His time with the Giants was not always without its stresses. Parcells was furious when he found out General Manager George Young was essentially looking to get rid of him after his first season, one which saw the team go 3-12. Between the lines it appears Parcells never really got over that.

After eight seasons with the New York Giants and two Super Bowl wins, Parcells stepped down as the head coach. While it is never made clear why he left the Giants, only saying “it was time” he did have a heart condition and it is also clear that Tim Mara selling his share of his team to Robert Tish, ushering in a new ownership group, likely had something to do with this move as well. More than once in the book Parcells exclaims that a change in ownership is a good reason for a coach to leave the organization.

After heart bypass surgery and few years away from coaching, Bill Parcells became the head coach of the New England Patriots.
I am a diehard New England Patriots fan and many of my fellow compatriots do not like Parcells because he left the Patriots in a lurch before Super Bowl XXXI after the 1996 season. This was a pretty terrible thing for Parcells to do because he had been secretly working out a deal to leave for the hated New York Jets, which made him, in some ways, a lame duck head coach going into the franchise’s second ever Super Bowl. It was not quite as bad as the suspension and then reinstatement for the playoffs of New England head coach Chuck Fairbanks in the 1978 season where the team lost to the Houston Oilers in the divisional round lead by a coach on his way out the door and no respect among the players. But it was not an entirely classy move either.

But Bill Parcells did make one key decision that turned around the Patriots franchise and lead us to the Super Bowl. Had he made a different decision, who knows what the future would have held for the franchise. In the 1993 draft there were two quarterbacks that were going to go number one and number two: Drew Bledsoe of Washington State and Rick Mirer of Notre Dame. Parcells chose Bledsoe who went on to become a solid starter and part of the resurgence of a moribund franchise. Rick Mirer, while winning Rookie of the Year honors with the Seattle Seahawks, quickly became a washed up bust. Parcells made the right move. And let’s not forget that Parcells took a terrible team and through the draft, free agent signings, and his leadership turned it into a playoff contender.

And then there is the ownership situation. Robert Kraft bought the New England Patriots in 1994 and Parcells was part of the previous regime. It appears that Parcells did not give Kraft the respect he deserved as owner, as mostly what Parcells wanted from ownership would appear to be to just stay out of his way. Kraft, on the other hand, was probably a bit too meddlesome in football operations, which is highlighted by the Patriots selecting Ohio State wider receiver Terry Glenn in the first round of the 1996 draft, against the wishes of Parcells. This is probably the beginning of the end of Parcells’s stay in New England.

Bill Parcells went on to turnaround the Jets organization and make them into a contender and fostering a heated rivalry with the New England Patriots who got several New York Jets’ draft choices because of the way Parcells left the Patriots. After leaving coaching and being an executive with the Jets, Parcells again stepped down.

But like The Terminator, he’d be back, surprisingly with one of the most meddlesome owners in the league, Jerry Jones. He then turned around another ailing franchise, although not with quite the dramatic impact he had in his previous stints. But he did put the Cowboys on the right track after a four year tenure there.

Parcells’s final act was as the head of football operations for the Miami Dolphins where he tried to piece back the organization through hiring the right coaches and the draft. He didn’t have quite the success with the Dolphin’s as he did at other stops but they were certainly in a better place when he left than when he came. The wheels came off shortly thereafter.

Next I want to turn to a few of the major themes of the book that interest me the most.

Does Bill Parcells deserve to be in the National Football League Hall of Fame?

There were several detractors to Parcells Hall of Fame candidacy. The reasons included his less than spectacular overall record of 172-130-1. His job hopping didn’t help his candidacy as some wanted to make sure if elected he didn’t go back into coaching and possibly harm is legacy. He didn’t stay with any one team long enough, except maybe the Giants, to truly establish a dominant legacy with any one team. The most ridiculous argument is that Bill Belichick was with him during his most successful years.

Bill Parcells without a doubt belongs in the Hall of Fame. You can’t even think about the history of the NFL from 1983 to today without Bill Parcells’s being a major part of the story. He won two Super Bowls. And he turned around the fates of four franchises.

He also left an extensive coaching tree include Belichick, Tom Coughlin, and Sean Payton, all Super Bowl winners and many others who have been coaches in the professional and college ranks.

Relationship with Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick was the contractual heir to the New York Jets head coaching job when Bill Parcells stepped down in 1999. But in one of the most bizarre resignation speeches ever, Belichick jilted Parcells and the Jets to take the head coaching job with, of all teams, the New England Patriots. This lead to falling out over what heretofore had seemed to be an extremely strong bond as Parcells brought Belichick along with him everywhere he went and they had great success together. Parcells take on it was “a deal is a deal.”

Here I think Parcells is being a bit disingenuous and inconsistent. First, the way he left New England was a bit classes and he two broke his contractual obligations which lead to a brokering of a deal giving New England several of the Jets draft choices. Second, Parcells himself said that a change in ownership is a good reason for a head coach to be concerned and leave a job and the Jets had just been sold to a new owner.
I suspect, although this has never been stated, that Belichick also wanted to be his own man and since Parcells was set to be head of football operations and still his boss, and he didn’t want Big Bill constantly looking over his shoulder at his coaching decisions and being meddlesome.
I think Parcells feelings were just hurt. It was good to see that they have mended their fences since then.

Bill Parcells and Robert Kraft

Another difficult relationship that has since seemed to be repaired is the bad relationship Kraft had with Parcells when he took over the ownership of the New England Patriots. Parcells’s famous line “if they want you to cook the dinner, they ought to let you buy some of the groceries” is a classic. Of course a coach wants a strong say over the draft and other roster acquisitions and Kraft not handing more of the personnel responsibilities over to Parcells was a mistake. Parcells, on the other hand, did not communicate well with Kraft and presumably left in him in the dark and even had intermediaries speaking on his behalf. This is not a healthy way to run a football team. Both made mistakes. This is another relationship I am happy to see, if not fully patched up, at least each acknowledging mistakes were made and both regretting how the parting of Parcells from the team came about.

Conclusion

The one quibble I have with this book is the prose is not always as clear as it could be and sometimes I had to read something twice because of it. It was also written in the third person, which was a bit odd, but I eventually got used to it. Parcells voice is loud and clear in the book, nevertheless.

Overall I would heartily recommend the book to any NFL fan as it tells the “Football Life” of one of the most interesting and important coaches in the history of the game.

Parcells: A Football Life

 

Review of Bill Polian’s The Game Plan

untitledBill Polian’s The Game Plan is a mixed bag for this reader. Much of what he talks about in the book is either common sense or a bit dry, especially when he goes through the process of hiring a coach or choosing Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf as the number one pick in the draft. Even the talent evaluation sections seem a bit mundane.

Where the book is most interesting and engaging is where he talks about his stints with the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, and his time building the Indianapolis Colts. His chapter on finally convincing Jim Kelly to sign and play in Buffalo and the construction of a team that went to the Super Bowl four times in a row (and lost) was quite interesting and Polian clearly has a soft spot in his heart for his tenure with the Bills and coach Marv Levy.

Equally engaging is when he talks about his time with the Colts and clearly points out the implications of the salary cap on a team’s construction. There is only so much money to go around so once the Colts decided to build a superior offense around Payton Manning, meaning you also had to spend more money on that side of the ball, the salary cap hampered what they were able to do on the defensive side of the ball. Tony Dungy was the right coach for the Colts because his defensive scheme allowed for players who didn’t need to be superstars. But nonetheless, the history of that team shows you that the defense was always we weak link with the exception of a few outstanding players.

Being an avid NFL fan I am glad I read the book but only found parts of it particularly interesting – those parts being the personal stories about the personalities and teams he was involved with.

The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team

The 1985 Chicago Bears from a Fan’s Perspective

untitledThis is a book written about the 1985 Chicago Bears from a fan’s perspective.  The fans of the Chicago Bears in their 40s today have a dearth of positive experiences to hang their hat on.  They have mostly been in the cold purgatory of failure and embarrassment.  Thus the 1985 Chicago Bears is not only deeply nostalgic for their faithful fans, but the only positive highlight of the Super Bowl era Bears.

I found the fan’s perspective and the author relaying his chance to actually attend the Super Bowl and his reminisces about being a hard luck Bear’s fan a very engaging aspect of the book.  He does a great job of showing what it was like to be a young “adult” in 1985 and experience the excitement of being able to see his favorite team in the Super Bowl.  At the time this eager young cub thinks every football season will be just like “this one” with the Bears winning and competing for championships. Then years later that bitter realization that it was all just a brief fling followed by signs of promise but failure, then slippage into perpetual hibernation.

Cohen does a fantastic job of telling the story of the 1985 Bears from the player’s perspectives too.  The hatred between Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan, the 46 defense and its goal of taking out the “head” or quarterback, the defiant Jim McMahon, and the rotund and entertaining William “The Refrigerator Perry, and let’s not forget that dreadful Super Bowl shuffle.  Then on a sadder note, Walter Payton’s anger over not scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl is addressed too.

And finally the book does a fine job of getting the reminisces of many of the Bears’ players years removed from their glory season.  From quarterback Jim McMahon, Mike Ditka, Gary Fencik, and Steve McMichael, among others, we understand how deeply important that one glorious season was to their legacy.  And then to be acknowledged as the greatest defense of all-time just put icing on the cake.

While I am not a Chicago Bears fan I did enjoy the book.   It is a must read for Bears fans and a fun read for football fans, especially those who remember Super Bowl XX.

 
Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football