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Chris Chase

Review: HBO Sports produces another winner in 'Lombardi'

Chris Chase
Shutdown Corner

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At the start of "Lombardi," the HBO documentary on the legendary football coach that debuts Saturday night, Susan Lombardi tells the story of her father explaining to the family that they'll be moving from New York to Green Bay, a city they couldn't find on a map they had at home. The goal, Vince told his daughter, was to put the town on the map.

What this 90-minute documentary shows is that Lombardi just didn't put Green Bay on the map, he put the NFL there too. Those dominant Packers teams of the 1960s and the larger-than-life presence the coach cast over the burgeoning league is chronicled with interviews, rare clips and an occasional voiceover from Lombardi himself. It's another winning documentary by HBO Sports, which, despite the greatness of ESPN's "30 for 30" series, is still the best in the game.

"Lombardi" doesn't break new ground -- the coach's life story was captured in-depth in David Maraniss' 2000 book "When Pride Still Mattered: The Vince Lomabrdi Story" and has been retold countless times over the years -- but there's plenty here for a Lombardi devotee or an NFL fan whose familiarity with the coach doesn't go much further than knowing he coached the Packers more than 40 years ago. There are clips in the piece that even Steve Sabol hadn't seen.

It's all covered in the doc, from Lombardi's heavily tatooed father who instilled a work ethic into his son, to the future coach's devotion to the church, to his days as a college football player in Fordham and his subsequent assistant coaching gigs at West Point and with the New York Giants.

The history lesson is welcome, but it's the stories told along the way that make "Lombardi" stand out. There's the tale one of Lombardi's high school football players (class of 1944) shares about how the coach showed the team a football on the first day of practice and said it was the last they'd see it for two weeks. (It's one of the many remembrances that make you think the writers of "Hoosiers" had read a Vince Lombardi biography or two.) There's Bart Starr's excitement in the retelling of one of his first meetings with Lombardi and Sam Huff's similar thrill as he describes coming out of retirement to play with Lombardi and the Washington Redskins.

The details of Lombardi's oft-forgotten year in D.C. is one of the highlights of the film. Most of us have heard all about the Ice Bowl and how Lombardi famously treated each player differently during his career, but hearing about the coach leaving Green Bay for another shot at glory elsewhere is ground that hasn't been covered as much. It also makes viewers think of another Packers legend who recently did the same thing.

There are other modern parallels in the Lombardi story, too. Though Urban Meyer's resume can't stack up to the Packers' coach, one can't help but think of his recent resignation from the University of Florida as this documentary recounts Lombardi's stress with the job and troubles at home because of the all-consuming job as head football coach. They say football coaching in 2010 has become a 24/7 gig. Lombardi was doing the same thing 50 years ago.

As the doc shows, the famously rigid coach was more flexible than his reputation gives him credit for. He was demanding, put people on "Lombardi time" (10 minutes early is five minutes too late) and was a bear to be around on bad days, but he consulted players for advice, had friendships with opponents and was ahead of his time in his treatment of black players during the 1960s. "I'm not the complete autocrat as everybody thinks," Lombardi says in the film.

His family might disagree. For Lombardi to become the perfect coach, he had to sacrifice becoming the perfect father. "Lombardi" contains revealing interviews with the coach's son and daughter, who fondly remember their father but share how he was absent for much of their lives while down the road at Lambeau Field watching game film. The film does well not to turn the interviews into a session on the psychiatrist's couch, though. It's all presented very matter-of-factly, as Lombardi himself would no doubt have liked.

There's a bunch of laugh-out-loud moments in the doc, as former players recount incidents with the coach. The best one comes courtesy linebacker Dave Robinson, who describes how Lombardi reacted to his game-winning defensive play in the 1966 NFL Championship Game.

The score from NFL Films composer Dave Robidoux is pitch-perfect and Liev Schreiber's narration is as solid as always.

"Lombardi" debuts on HBO on Saturday, Dec. 11 at 8 p.m ET and 8:30 p.m. PT. It will air numerous times throughout December and will be available On Demand from Dec. 13 through Jan. 10.

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