Short Relief: Lombardi could teach LePage a lesson

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In my hometown of Englewood, N.J., the local Catholic day school was St. Cecilia. It had a strong sports program. In 1939, St. Cecilia hired Vince Lombardi to teach Latin, chemistry and physics, and to be an assistant coach of its football team. Lombardi stayed at St. Cecilia for eight years, five of them as head coach.

Lombardi went on to coach at Fordham University, West Point, and for the New York Football Giants, before becoming the head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 1959. He thought that, because of anti-immigrant prejudice and his Italian heritage, he might never be given the chance.

As a head coach of the Packers for eight seasons, and the Washington Redskins for one, Lombardi won 96 games and lost 34, or nearly 74 percent. His Packers finished first in six out of eight seasons. His streak of nine consecutive, post-season wins was not equaled until Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots won 10 in a row from 2001 to 2005. The Super Bowl trophy is named for him.

Lombardi combined military discipline with almost religious fervor for the game. He was a demanding coach who inspired great loyalty in his players. He was also an innovator.

He introduced the concept of rule blocking, where an offensive lineman blocks an area instead of a defensive player, and the running back runs towards any opening that develops (a technique Lombardi described as “running towards daylight”). He developed the Packers’ power sweep, where two guards pull and lead the running back around the end.

He was also a practical philosopher. Some of his philosophy strikes me as handy at the moment. Among his principles were: “Running a football team is no different than any other kind of organization – an army, a political party or a business. The principles are the same;” “People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society;” “There is something in good men that yearns for discipline;” “Praise in public. Criticize in private,” and  “Real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back.”

It would be hard to pretend that the first months of the LePage administration have not been bumpy. Ordinarily, this period is the political honeymoon when a newly elected governor has unprecedented leeway to operate. It should have been all the more so for our governor, given that we face serious problems and he has a governing majority in the Legislature.

Instead, three months in, a group of eight Republican state senators wrote a letter publicly criticizing the governor for dissipating the focus of his administration with self-inflicted wounds and impolitic remarks. Perhaps the senators went to the governor in private beforehand. If so, whatever happened there did not prevent them from publishing their letter.

It may be easier to lead a sports team than a political campaign or state government. The goal of athletics is clear and objective. The rules are simple. Teammates are united in a common purpose. The coach is a benevolent dictator. It is relatively easy to tell which players, practices, plans and plays work, and which do not.

Winning an election is more difficult. It is hard enough to motivate people who agree with you to go to the polls and vote, much less sway the minds of those who may not be disposed in your favor.

Governing is even more so. It is hard to direct and control a democratic, multi-branch, multi-agency organization. Especially when one of your co-equal branches is populated by elected officials who have their own agenda and their own constituencies to serve. It is hard to know which policies and practices have what effect in a large, complex society.

My advice to LePage is to refocus on what I understand to have been the general message of the last election: reduce our dependency on government while providing greater opportunity for our people to provide for themselves.

More specifically, streamline government. Where we have three layers of government, eliminate one. Continue consolidating schools and extend the effort to the university system. Expedite the business permitting process. Follow the private sector and the federal government’s lead and transition to a pension system that combines a sustainable defined benefit plan with a 401k-style plan. Implement welfare reform.

At the same time, promote business and industry that fits with Maine’s competitive advantage over other states: our natural beauty and quality of life. Nurture our fledgling information technology sector and encourage it to work together with our composite materials and wood products industries. Convert the campuses that we mothball in the process of consolidation into innovation and enterprise centers. Promote Maine as a four-season destination for healthy, outdoor vacationing.

Accomplishing just two or three of these goals would be cause for celebration.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.