Behind the green canvas, the Green Bay Packers went through drills at UCSB’s new Campus Stadium in preparation for Super Bowl I. Legendary Coach Vince Lombardi did not want anybody spying on his National Football League (NFL) champions during the week before their January 15, 1967, showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs of the upstart American Football League. He had the fences covered up.
Members of UCSB’s athletic staff, who made their services available to the Packers, were able to peer through the veil of secrecy. Donn Bernstein, the school’s first full-time sports information director, had the task of chauffeuring Lombardi and his wife, Marie, from the airport to the team’s headquarters at the Santa Barbara Inn.
“I was driving along with sweaty palms,” Bernstein recalled, “and Lombardi wanted to know where a church was so he could take Marie to Mass in the morning.” Bernstein confessed he’d have to find out. “I’m just a nice little Jewish boy from San Francisco,” he told the coach, who was known for his devout Catholicism.
Lombardi’s emphasis on physical conditioning (“Fatigue makes a coward of us all”) was evident on the practice field. He pushed the Packers hard. In the evening, the coach showed his social side with friends and trusted sports writers. “He had us for drinks in his hotel suite,” Bernstein said. “It was called the ‘Five O’Clock Club.’”
Santa Barbara’s night life was rather sedate in those days, and that did not change with the Packers in town. Lombardi had the players under a strict curfew. The Packers—with such all-time greats as Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Fuzzy Thurston, Willie Davis, and Herb Adderley—were expected to brush aside the Chiefs with ease, but Lombardi knew the prestige of the NFL would be riding on their shoulders. This was no time to loosen the reins.
Tickets to the game were on sale at the All-American Sporting Goods store on Chapala Street. As a UCSB student living on a tight budget, I could not afford to buy one. They were priced at $6, $10, and $12. The game was played at the Los Angeles Coliseum before 61,946 fans—30,000 short of a sellout. The rigorously prepared Packers prevailed over Kansas City, 35-10. A year later, in Lombardi’s last Green Bay game, they defeated the Oakland Raiders, 33-14, in Super Bowl II at Miami.
Since then, of course, the popularity of America’s most-watched sporting event has soared. The cheapest seat will set you back about $2,000 if you try to make an online purchase for Super Bowl XLV on February 6 at Cowboys Stadium. The turning point was Super Bowl III, when the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts behind “Broadway Joe” Namath, ending the NFL’s domination. Soon, the AFL merged with the established league.
Lombardi’s name still has a commanding presence wherever football is spoken. It stands for passion and perfectionism. The Lombardi Trophy is the prize that goes to the winner of the Super Bowl. There also has been a revival of interest in the man, through an HBO documentary and a Broadway play.
I recently saw Lombardi—based on David Maraniss’s book When Pride Still Mattered—along with Bernstein, who long ago left Santa Barbara and landed in New York. We were impressed by actor Dan Lauria’s portrayal of the coach, and equally so by Judith Light as Marie. “She had this East Coast, aristocratic manner of speaking,” Bernstein recalled. In a flashback during the play, which is set in 1965, Lombardi’s wife laments the prospect of leaving New York. Vince, an assistant with the Giants, yearned to be a head coach, even if it meant going to a chilly outpost in Wisconsin.
Lombardi’s unquenchable pursuit of victory flares in his speeches, but he comes across as a complex man, a mixture of autocracy and sentimentality. The “Five O’Clock Club” is in the set—a Mad Men-style bar in the parlor where Lombardi engages in testy conversation with a magazine writer.
Critical reviews of Lombardi have been mixed. It’s not a blockbuster. As drama, it’s at the level of the Packers’ blowout wins in the first two Super Bowls. Nobody dies, although the Lombardi character does allude to mysterious stomach pains (he died of colon cancer in 1970). But it surely holds a football fan’s interest, and from a historical standpoint, it was fun to watch the performances with Bernstein, the only man in the theater who could say he’d had Vince and Marie Lombardi riding in his car.
GAMES OF THE WEEK: Dos Pueblos High’s streak of 46 consecutive wins in girls water polo will be in danger Friday and Saturday, January 14-15, during the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions. The field includes the top eight CIF Division 1 teams, headed by the top-ranked Chargers, who barely edged No. 6 Santa Barbara, 6-5, in a league game last week. Games will take place at the Dos Pueblos and S.B. High pools.