Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Guest Review: Fourth and Long

Summary: In search of the sport’s old ideals amid the roaring flood of hypocrisy and greed, bestselling author John U. Bacon embedded himself in four programs—Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Northwestern—and captured college football’s oldest, biggest, most storied league, the Big Ten, at its tipping point. He sat in as coaches dissected game film, he ate dinner at training tables, and he listened in locker rooms. He talked with tailgating fans and college presidents, and he spent months in the company of the gifted young athletes who play the game.

None of Bacon’s discoveries is more poignant than this: the last, true defenders of the student-athlete ideal are the players themselves, who, even as money changes everything around them, are left to carry the future of the league, the game, and more than a century of tradition on their backs every fall Saturday.

Fourth and Long reveals intimate scenes behind closed doors, from a team’s angry face-off with their athletic director to a defensive lineman acing his master’s exams in theoretical math. It captures the private moment when coach Urban Meyer earned the devotion of Ohio State’s Buckeyes on their way to a perfect season. It shows Michigan’s athletic department endangering the very traditions that distinguish the college game from all others. And it recreates the euphoria of the Northwestern Wildcats winning their first bowl game in decades, even as they do honor to the student-athlete ideal.

Most unforgettably, Fourth and Long finds what the national media missed in the ugly aftermath of Penn State’s tragic scandal: the unheralded story of players who joined forces with Coach Bill O’Brien to save the university’s treasured program—and with it, a piece of the game’s soul.

This is the work of a writer in love with an old game—a game he sees at the precipice. Bacon’s deep knowledge of sports history and his sensitivity to the tribal subcultures of the college game power this elegy to a beloved and endangered American institution. -- Simon & Schuster

When FOURTH AND LONG: THE FIGHT FOR THE SOUL OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL by John U. Bacon was released last month, it caused quite a stir here in Central Pennsylvania. Excerpts from this book were everywhere and, as a Penn State graduate, I couldn't get enough of the juicy details. I haven't had a chance to read this book yet, so I passed it along to my dad first. I knew he'd get to it right away. Here are his thoughts:

In FOURTH AND LONG: THE FIGHT FOR THE SOUL OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL, author John U. Bacon focuses on the 2012 football season for Big 10 teams Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and Penn State. Bacon embedded himself to various degrees into each program to provide insider information. Michigan probably provided the least opportunity for Bacon while Penn State gave him the most access.

Bacon used stories about these four storied programs to emphasize what makes college athletics unique – what differentiates them from professional teams. He also discusses the threats to this uniqueness such as new conference alignments, too many bowl games, higher prices, more TV access to games and the loss of long time rivalries. He used the example of the decision to add Rutgers and Maryland to the Big 10 as being more about money than about the interest of the fans and athletes.

The author looked at each university from a different perspective. At Michigan he concentrated on the Athletic Director, Dave Brandon and his CEO approach to running the athletic programs with his emphasis on profit at the expense of the fans and student-athletes game day experience. Although Bacon didn’t get great access to the Michigan program, he is a Michigan graduate and has formed strong opinions on the direction of the athletic programs. He also gave the reader some insight into the strong rivalries Michigan maintained with Michigan State, Ohio State and Notre Dame. The recent cancellation of the Notre Dame annual game is another example of ignoring the desires of the fans and athletes.

For Ohio State, Bacon focused on new coach Urban Myer and his approach to having his coaching methods accepted by the team. Bacon makes the case that Myer’s undefeated first season will put immense pressure from fan expectations going forward. The reader also got a view of the rivalry with Michigan from the Ohio State perspective.

At Northwestern, the author emphasized athletic success under Coach Pat Fitzgerald despite the strong academic environment. Bacon carried the academic theme a little further when he emphasized the overall academic strength of the Big Ten as compared to other conferences such as the SEC.

The story about Penn State focused entirely on the NCAA sanctions imposed after the Jerry Sandusky scandal and how the team under new coach Bill O’Brian handled them throughout the 2012 season. Bacon was very critical of the NCAA sanctions. A large portion of the book focused on Penn State. I suppose that the controversy surrounding the program and the willingness of the players to talk freely was a little more interesting to write about than the less controversial subject matter at the other universities.

FOURTH AND LONG is a story about college football and the direction it’s moving. Bacon uses stories about the athletics at Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and Penn State to show the uniqueness of the college game. Although I found a few factual errors in the book, the overall premise of the book is sound. Most football fans would enjoy reading FOURTH AND LONG; however Big 10 fans and graduates of one of these four universities would find the book most interesting. As a Penn State graduate I found the Penn State stories extremely revealing as to how the student-athletes and coaches handled the tragic scandal.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book and to Booking Pap Pap for his terrific review.


bermudaonion said...

I've been interested in this book ever since I saw an excerpt in The Wall Street Journal. As you know, I love college football but it seems to be tainted lately.

Kelly-Belly said...

Sounds like a good one to keep in mind for Christmas presents for some of my guy friends. Thanks for sharing. : )

Beth F said...

I know what you mean about this book being everywhere in central PA! I haven't read it but I like Big Ten football. I didn't read it because I feel so overloaded with the Sandusky scandal.