WHEN PRIDE STILL MATTERED

A Life of Vince Lombardi

By David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster. 591 pp. $26

This is an astonishingly good book, far broader in scope and subtler in nuance than one expects in a biography of a sports figure, even one as volatile as Vince Lombardi, the near-legendary head coach and goad of professional

football's Green Bay Packers and (for one season before his death in 1970) the Washington Redskins. In When Pride Still Mattered, a title not without irony, David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winner with The Washington Post and biographer of Bill Clinton, sets out to find why a long-dead football coach holds such an extraordinary place in the American mythos.

Like John Wayne, Lombardi has become a symbol of values that traditionalists feel are, or should be, part of the American character. His credo was "God, family, and the Green Bay Packers," in that order, and if Lombardi's wife and children often came a distant third in the mix, as Maraniss indicates, the coach and his followers didn't notice. Character, discipline and will were the gospel he preached to his players and to American businessmen in the motivational speeches he was repeatedly asked to deliver. Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing, Lombardi is supposed to have said (but see Maraniss's fascinating investigation into the origin of that well-worn line), and this is the way to success.

God knows, Lombardi was successful. After 20 years of apprenticeship as a high school coach and a college and professional assistant, he became top man at hapless Green Bay in 1959 and quickly built the Packers into the dominant team in football. He won five National Football League championships in nine years, including decisive victories in the first two Super Bowls ever played. His harsh methods -- bullying players, flaying them with his loud, searing voice, making them adhere to his demanding rules (being on time in Lombardi's lexicon meant being 15 minutes early) -- became part of his legend. "He's fair," said one of his players in a remark that helped build the legend; "he treats us all the same -- like dogs."

The harshness obscured the subtlety of what he was doing. Maraniss says that Lombardi thought of himself as a teacher, even something of a priest, so dedicated was he to his calling. He was intelligent and well-educated. He took Greek and Latin in high school, and as a football player at Fordham when it was a gridiron powerhouse he earned his bachelor's degree in the standard four years while studying cosmology and ontology and ethics under the Jesuits. Lombardi was fascinated by the Jesuit argument that perfection is a goal man can attain if he is zealous enough. He firmly believed that you have an obligation to make full use of the talent given you -- a theme watered down today to the Army's sing-song "Be all that you can be" commercial on TV.

Lombardi devised fewer plays than other coaches but drummed those few into his players' minds through the old concept of rote -- doing the same thing over and over and over again until it became part of them -- and then taught multiple variations on those relatively simple themes. He demanded obedience to his system but within its parameters gave his players the independence and stimulus to improvise. He trained them to be almost unbearably tough but repeatedly spoke of love. And for all the harshness, for all his treating them "like dogs," most of his players looked back on their Lombardi years with love. When he lay dying in Georgetown University Hospital, a stream of his old stars came to pay a last visit, some traveling thousands of miles to spend a few minutes with him.

Lombardi was a bundle of paradoxes. He was a family man who paid minimal attention to his family. He had a bad temper but laughed a lot. Idolized by conservatives, he was a lifelong Democrat. Reactionary in most things, he was an advocate of gun control, and before it became fashionable to do so he believed in respect for blacks, gays and minorities in general. "If I ever hear nigger or dago or kike or anything like that around here," he told his Green Bay players during his first year as coach, "regardless of who you are, you're through with me."

Maraniss tells this complex story deftly, beginning with Lombardi's happy boyhood in Brooklyn. His grandfather was Tony the barber, his father a wholesale butcher, his mother one of 13 children in a gregarious Italian family, almost all of whom lived within a mile or so when Lombardi was growing up in their protective and unavoidable embrace. In high school he studied for a time to be a priest but won an athletic scholarship to Fordham, where he played on a famous line called "The Seven Blocks of Granite." The block-of-granite image fit Lombardi perfectly and became an intrinsic part of his hard-as-nails myth.

After Fordham, Lombardi went to law school, dropped out and found his true calling when an old teammate invited him to coach at a high school in New Jersey. He developed his aggressive style there but honed it to a sharper edge as an assistant at West Point under Army's autocratic Earl (Red) Blaik, a disciple of Douglas MacArthur fond of repeating MacArthur's maxim "There is no substitute for victory."

Lombardi left West Point to move into pro football as an assistant coach with the New York Giants. Maraniss intertwines the success of Lombardi and the Giants with pro football's dramatic rise in popularity in the late 1950s, climaxing with the sudden-death "best football game ever played" between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts in 1958, before Lombardi left for Green Bay and his metamorphosis into national icon. He says Lombardi was a football romantic who believed there was a difference between "paying the price to win" and "winning at any price." He did not believe in cheating. An old Packer said, "Piling on, cheap shots, clotheslining people -- that wasn't our style." Another insisted, "Winning wasn't everything for him. He wanted excellence. There's a difference."

Baseball pundits keep trotting out Jacques Barzun's bromide that if you want to know "the heart and mind of America" you'd better know baseball. When Pride Still Mattered makes it clear that if you want to know latter-day America, the America of Super Bowl Sunday, you'd better know football, too. And Lombardi's place in it. Not that you have to be a football fan to relish this book. Maraniss has a gift for concise explication that omits boring detail. He has amassed a huge amount of research, but uses it with admirable selectivity. His narrative is rich in scenes and personalities and seamlessly catches the sound and feeling of the United States during Lombardi's life: the Brooklyn boyhood, high school and college in the Depression-girt '30s, low-salaried married life in the '40s, struggling upward in the supposedly blissful '50s, success finally in the wild '60s, death from cancer at 57 as the '70s began. It reads like an epic novel. The result is a triumph, a classic American biography.

Robert W. Creamer was an editor and writer for Sports Illustrated for 30 years. His 1991 memoir, "Baseball and Other Matters in 1941," will be reissued in January.