Enjoy this exclusive interview between director Mark Shanahan and actor John Ottavino, who will play Vince Lombardi in LOMBARDI, our Script in Hand reading for February 2024.
MARK: You’re the dad of a Major League Baseball player, current Mets and former Yankees pitcher Adam Ottavino, and you’ve certainly done your share of coaching. What do you think the secret is to helping a young athlete live up to their potential?
JOHN: Baseball and football are games of tasks. Coaching is the process of leading players through the steps necessary to accomplish those tasks most efficiently and then working endlessly to make those actions habitual.
The youth coach’s additional job is to release the player that is inside the kid. There are a lot of bars on the cage that can hold a player back. Fear of failure is one. Fear of looking bad is another. The desire to be a star the first day out and the inability to wait for the process to do its work is a big one. Wanting to do too much is a real killer. A coach needs to find a way around all of these.
A coach needs to know what to say, what not to say, when to pat on the back, when to kick in the butt, when to yell, when to shut-up, what to celebrate and what to condemn and through it all, needs to be consistent and stick to the process.
Finally, a coach needs to understand that he doesn’t play. The players play. Coaches have a specific job and if they want their guys to win, the coach better do his job.
Coaching is very hard. There is no such thing as a natural. Making players takes years and there will be the highest highs and the lowest lows along the way.
MARK: Were you surprised to learn about the intricacies of the coach’s relationship with wife Marie? How does Marie Lombardi cope with her husband’s drive in the play?
JOHN: Although my parents weren’t like them, but I know a lot of couples who are. Marriage is a different kind of teamwork. Marie is from the same culture as Vince. Vince isn’t a mystery to her. I don’t want to speak for Antoinette, who plays Marie, but I think it comes down to- “let the boys play, but keep your muddy cleats outside the house.” And, “When the game is over, come back to the REAL world.” I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet she learned to stick up for herself when she felt put-upon at a very young age! But as I say, family is a team, too. The Lombardis, Vince and Marie, were a team.
MARK: You’re an Italian American from Brooklyn. Do you see any recognizable traits between you and the great coach considering some aspects of your shared heritage?
JOHN: Actually, quite a few. Let’s start with economics – Lombardi’s father had his own business – a butcher shop in the meat packing district. I grew up in a family business – stone cutters in Brooklyn. Both the Lombardi family and mine were effected by the Great Depression. Vince would have been 16 in 1929. My father was 8. They saw bread lines, soup kitchens, and all sorts of sorrows. The guys who had their own businesses were somewhat insulated from the crash because, as my father said, “I knew my father would never be laid off because he had his own business and we knew that when the times got tough, we, as a family, could work 7 days a week, 24 hours a day if that is what it took to make that business survive.” The Italian laborers who came here and who built the city came here to work and make a better life for their families. They came here to work because there was no work for them at home. Work was a gift. It was the way forward for the family.
Then there is the Italian immigrant aspect in which FAMILY matters. You see your extended family all the time. You work together, you eat together, you argue, you fight, you laugh and again, when the going gets tough, you pull together as a team. It is your team and you do not ever embarrass that family. You do not let them down.
Thirdly, it’s Brooklyn. The whole world lives in Brooklyn. You live in Brooklyn, you learn from every culture. Whatever fear there is of “the other” that is built into human wiring disappears when you play in the street with kids from every background. You hear a lot of different ideas, eat a lot of different foods, laugh at a lot of different jokes and figure out what is at the center of humanity at a young age. You learn to understand and to deal with people. You learn what people want.
Then, there is the Catholic upbringing. Growing up in the Catholic religion meant going to Catholic school every day and to church every week come hell or high water.
Finally, we Brooklyn Italians are loud. We don’t keep a lot inside. Not a lot of ulcers in my community. When I was in a play in college the director said to me, “John, why are you yelling all the time?” I said, “Hugh, I’m not yelling. This is how we talk at home. If you don’t speak like this, no one hears you.”
Lombardi was loud too.
MARK: In the play, writer Eric Simonson paints a portrait of Lombardi as driven coach who is also a deeply devoted family man. How does this equation help explain what made the great coach tick?
JOHN: FAMILY and TEAM, TEAM and FAMILY. They are the same and you NEVER want to let the family or the team down. In my son’s pitching lab he has about a dozen jerseys on the wall of players with whom he’s played – several of whom are going to the Hall of Fame. They all have messages to him written inside the number. The word “brother” shows up a lot. So does the word “battle.” So do the words “lead and follow.”
Teams become families… brotherhoods… people with whom you will go into battle and in whom you have the confidence that they will not let you down and the certainty that you will not let them down. Players and members of strong families go through fire together.
MARK: Lombardi is sometimes said to have remarked, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” If indeed he said that- how do you feel about this statement?
JOHN: I saw an interview with Lombardi in which he talked about that quote. He said that he was not talking about the results, but about the goal and the process that leads to it. I’ve heard pro athletes say, “If you’re not trying to win, then what then hell are you doing out there. You gotta want to win!,” and if you are going to be any good at a sport, you better want to win too.
However, every coach knows that sport and life are very much alike.In both, you can do everything right and still get the wrong answer.Infuriatingly, the other guy can do everything wrong and get the answer you wanted. BUT, in both sport and life, when you do everything as right as you can as often as you can, then you have the best chance of getting the best answer the best number of times.
By saying “Winning is the Only Thing,” I believe he was saying, “You have an obligation to give your best effort, the best way every time out and if you are not willing to do that, then get the hell out.”
MARK: What’s the thing you think about most when you think about Lombardi’s legacy?
JOHN: To me, Lombardi is a guy who knew how to squeeze the most juice out of the orange. Whatever team he was handed, he made better. He understood the job and “the system,” needed to do it. He stuck to his guns. He was consistent. He was straight forward. He was himself. He wanted the best for his teams, his players, his family and himself as well. Ambition, thinking, doing, keeping the faith lead to… great outcomes.
Catch him if you can.