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. In 1985 football coaches must be philosophers first and foremost. Just listen to the "color" analysts on this weekend's professional games and you'll hear something like this:
"Well, John it's third and short; what's Coach Shula's philosophy in this situation?"
"The beauty of his thinking here, Pat, 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, John is proven correct.
Ironically, Lombardi hself, 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 Sartrean exposition of absolute freedom. On the other side of the argument (and scrimmage line), Lombardi, seemingly contradictorily (but only seemingly so), heralded the linebacker's total liberty to obliterate that daylight, ergo the ballcarrier.
The late Green Bay Packer's 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 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" galore, like the third down pass-catching halfback. There are run specialists and pass specialists on defense as well. Recently many teams have adopted a two place-kicker philosophy: 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 clearly be termed Orwellian: Big Coach (not the quarterback, as in days of yore) calls all the plays from the sideline. Only three out of 28 NFL teams (and fewer and fewer college squads) grant their field generals the freedom to chose the offensive plays.
Unlike many of the great thinkers who preceded them, today's philosopher-coaches embrace monotheism; also, atheism has no place in the locker room. Indeed, most have advanced this theory a bit by syllogizing thusly: If there is a God and if he cares about mankind, he must logically be an avid, activist 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 television 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 somehow integrate and homogenize these numerous and diverse schools of thought. An anthology of Eric Hoffer-like aphorisms ("No pain, no gain", "Newspaper clippings don't make tackles," etc.) would also be handy.
Perhaps someday soon we will see Bill Walsh or Tom Landry rushing out onto the field to argue an official's call screaming, "C'est absurde!"