There’s no surer sign of autumn’s arrival than Halloween, when friends, co-workers, and complete strangers greet you in colorfully outlandish costumes, looking to impress you and rustle up some candy while they’re at it. Yet autumn also brings another important American tradition: an unrelenting, glorious spate of football games. Since we’re roughly at the midway point of the professional football season, I thought I’d relay a story that relates to that beloved American sport, and to science teaching.
Not too long ago, I read a fine biography of the legendary late coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi. It was written by David Maraniss, and it’s titled When Pride Still Mattered. (Maraniss is the author of a bio of Bill Clinton, among other works.) The book chronicles Lombardi’s life and career, and presents a vivid image of college and professional athletics in the post World War II-era.
Like many coaches, Lombardi had to pay his dues early, climbing up the ranks from high school to college before eventually reaching the pros. One of his first stops, Maraniss writes, was at St. Cecilia, a Catholic school in New Jersey. Lombardi took a job as an assistant football coach and as a Latin, physics, and chemistry teacher. In fact, at that point in his life, Lombardi would say that he “wanted to be a teacher more than a coach.”
If you know anything about Lombardi’s coaching style, it might not surprise you to learn that he had a hard-nosed and volatile temperament in the classroom. (He wasn’t above throwing an eraser at a daydreaming student, the biographer notes.)
Yet Lombardi also displayed traits in the classroom that would make him a successful football coach. He was intensely demanding. He would challenge his students sharply, which in turn made them covet his praise even more. But above all, Lombardi was methodical, insisting that all the students master a concept before moving on to the next one. Just as he would later require the Packers to run their most famous play, the “sweep,” in practice again and again, working out the flaws.
Lombardi often spent a week repeating a concept until struggling students understood. “He had a great way of sensing whether you were you getting it,” recalled one student, quoted in the biography. “He’d say, ‘I don’t think you really understood that,’ and go over it again.”
The Packers coach, who died in 1970, worked at St. Cecilia for eight years, Maraniss writes. I know that science teachers reading this post would be a better judges of Lombardi’s teaching style, and whether it has any application in today’s classroom, than me. I’m sure that plenty of coaches have drawn inspiration from Lombardi. If there’s a science teacher out there who’s inspired by Lombardi’s work deliniating chemical equations, rather than drawing up plays, more power to them.
And in case you’re wondering, I’m a Minnesota Vikings fan.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.