Old-school rules no longer apply

October 14, 2005|By RICK MAESE

Vince Lombardi Jr. is often asked whether his father could handle today's football player. The players and the dollars have changed so much - could the legend still coach this game?

"Well, I don't know if he could," Lombardi Jr. says, pausing for effect. "My dad would be about 90 years old today."

The coach's son has watched the evolution. Rules mean something different now than when his father was roaming the sidelines more than 30 years ago.

"The whole dynamic has changed so dramatically since my father's time," he said yesterday. "It's hard to compare. I'm afraid - and I'm not happy saying this - but it's really apples and oranges. That was then, this is now."

We were talking about rules and leadership and coaching. They've all been hot topics around Baltimore lately.

It's entirely coincidental, but this week we listened to two leaders talking about leading. Neither was running for office and neither was selling a book. But circumstances brought them both to the same talking points and there they were, laying out coaching philosophy.

You can bend words and context to fit any hole, but I heard different things from Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo and seventh-year Ravens coach Brian Billick. While neither is in favor of clunky rule books that govern the locker room, their attitudes seem somewhat dissimilar.

It made me wonder how the greatest coach of all - that philosopher in the camel hair coat and fur hat - would set rules today. Lombardi Jr. concedes his father likely would have to take a different approach with today's player.

The old coach was guided by an inspirational set of principles that addressed basic tenets like accountability. The message reached the player because a mutual respect existed.

"It was an easier sell back then," said Lombardi Jr., who two years ago authored The Lombardi Rules, a book that took his father's coaching principles and applied them to everyday life. "Guys in the '60s understood those kinds of things. Tell a guy to run through a wall, he ran through a wall. Today, the guy asks you why?"

More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle said: "The rule of law is better than that of any individual." Fewer than five days ago, Billick said: "If you lay too many rules and restrictions on a team, all you're doing is removing their responsibility."

Billick is from a Mike Krzyzewski school of player management. It's not entirely based on hand-holding, but it doesn't include too much black-and-white discipline either. There needs to be a balance and Billick needs to find it quickly.

The Ravens' coach says that rules actually discourage accountability among athletes. "They're doing something simply because that's what they're told to do," he said.

That might be true for some, but it's not for everyone. That's why Terrell Suggs accepted responsibility for getting in the face of an official during Sunday's game. It's also why Ed Reed, who grabbed an official during the same game, shrugged his shoulders and dismissed his own actions.

"You're not going to go back and say, `I regret doing this and doing that,' because you don't," he said.

Suggs and Reed were both fined $15,000 by the NFL, but Billick declined to punish either. He said he'd rather use this as a teaching opportunity.

Professional athletes aren't grade-school children preparing for a spelling test. These are grown men who should understand accountability much more than the athletes that Coach K teaches. Billick should treat them as such.

Discipline and punishment can encourage as much accountability as waiting for a personal revelation. I don't think the league fine bothered Reed too much. Missing this Sunday's contest against the Browns would have, though.

Instead, what's memorable about the crime or the punishment? It instilled the idea of institutional acceptance, rather than establishing no-nonsense boundaries.

"If you respect your boss, your parents, your mentor, you jump through hoops for the guy," says Lombardi Jr. "But if things aren't going too well, you aren't jumping through a hoop. You're deciding to do things your own way."

Anyone can follow rules when a team is winning. Anarchy starts seeping through the vents, though, as the losses pile up. Perlozzo saw that this season, spending four months as an Orioles coach and two months as interim manager.

As the season dragged on, players arrived late to the ballpark. Cell phones would start beeping and buzzing in the middle of team meetings. It irritated Perlozzo, who signed a three-year contract this week to continue managing the Orioles, but he's not about to start taping sheets of paper together outlining new rules.

He has only one, in fact: "Don't do anything to embarrass the ballclub or the organization."

That's all he needs because it covers just about everything. Perlozzo has been in the game his entire life. The players like him, but they also know that the leash isn't long.

Mistakes should breed consequences, not ego massages. That's how it should be in a baseball clubhouse. And that's how it should be in a football locker room. Because that's the way it used to be before coaches took off their whistles and began acting like Dr. Phil.

A few years ago, Nike used some video magic to produce a commercial that featured Lombardi coaching Deion Sanders on a football field. This was when Sanders was known as a me-first free spirit, maybe not the type best suited for Lombardi's stringent system.

When the spot began airing, Lombardi Jr. received a late-night call from an upset writer.

"How could you let your dad's image appear in a commercial with Deion Sanders?" the writer asked.

The coach's son responded: "Hey, Deion can play. They would have worked it out. The best coaches find a way."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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