College football was born in America on November 6th, 1869, when two 50-man teams from Princeton (née College of New Jersey) and Rutgers huddled in a rugby-like scrum on a patch of New Brunswick grass. No helmets were worn; passes were kicked; and players scored goals instead of touchdowns. The game’s rules, bastardized from those of the London Football Association, were a far cry from what you see on ESPN today, but the spirit of the intercollegiate rivalry was unmistakable: when Rutgers won the match 6-4, they ran the Princeton spectators — who reportedly sprinted to their horse-drawn carriages — straight out of town.
In the months that followed, the sport swept the nation, and within 25 years, administrators recognized the marketing potential of school-affiliated football teams: one of John D. Rockefeller’s first tasks for his University of Chicago president was the establishment of The Maroons, the school’s first team. Even in its infancy, few things raised a college’s visibility like praiseworthy pigskin.
Today 120 schools field football teams in the Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision, which is composed not only of the Big Ten (née Western Conference) launched in Chicago in 1896, but also of 10 additional conferences and four “independent” teams across the nation. In total, the member schools bring in annual revenues exceeding $2.7 billion (and offset by roughly half as much in expenses). Head coaches earn on average $1.5 million a year, and six of the 10 largest sports stadiums on earth can be found on American college campuses. Last night, when the University of South Carolina took on Vanderbilt to open up the 2012 season, their contest drew millions of television viewers around the country.
Of these schools, however, only a small handful has managed to build perennially successful (and lucrative) football programs. These lucky few are mostly recognizable to anyone who’s watched ABC in autumn: Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Success in their stadiums became commonplace long ago.
Many fans of these teams will say that a year without a top-10 ranking is a year worth forgetting. Two losses are unforgivable; three are unthinkable. Call it optimism, call it hubris, but it gives them something in which they can believe. It also sets the stage for some Schadenfreude when an especially high profile, historically successful team falters. That’s precisely what occurred over the three years covered in John U. Bacon’s Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football (out in paperback this month), which endeavors to explain how the once-mighty program was reduced to a sputtering mess despite having one of the sport’s most talented coaches at its helm.
An argument could be made that the most interesting character in Bacon’s book is the shadow cast by the University of Michigan’s storied tradition, and the author wastes no time introducing readers to its particulars. If that sounds absurd, here’s some perspective: in 134 seasons, the Michigan Wolverines have won more football games than any other team in the country. Astoundingly, in that time the program has had only 19 head coaches. (By comparison, Alabama’s had 27 coaches over 120 seasons, and Bear Bryant was there for more than a fifth of them.)
Such steady consistency has resulted in an extraordinarily fervent fan base, one known to be “uncommonly loyal and knowledgeable, and gracious toward opponents — even in defeat.” Each week, the Maize and Blue faithful gather to excitedly watch their team compete, often from the comfort of their home stadium, “The Big House,” which is the largest in America and regularly sells out to more than 110,000 people. The school’s reputation is not some storybook trifle but rather the load-bearing wall on which the entire program stands. It’s why the fans show up in the first place.
That said, Bacon’s estimation of the tradition’s allure to would-be student-athletes can at times seem like wishful thinking. While important to establishing a durable fan base and securing the support of the local community, I find it hard to believe that most 18-year-old kids decide which team to play for based on their rosters of yore. Now that dozens of schools boast world-class facilities, what seems to matter most for recruits is whether or not they’ll reliably secure playing time, or whether a particular school is close to their families, or how many alums the school’s sent to the NFL. For me, having come from the University of Miami, a school whose football team came to prominence only after the 1980s, it’s hard to envision an 18-year-old kid from Pahokee or Los Angeles admiring one of Michigan’s old, dead white players from the early 1900s — more likely they grew up watching such modern stars as my school’s Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on TV. But who knows. Maybe things are different up North.
Regardless, Bacon’s grasp of Michigan’s mythology helps to make the book highly readable. Even fans of opposing teams will enjoy the author’s survey. His overview of the program’s most important figures — folks like Fielding H. Yost, their first great coach, and Bo Schembechler, who coined the term “Michigan Man” to evoke the Platonic ideal of a Wolverine sportsman — helps outsiders understand how the place’s reputation grew so large over time. It also serves to reinforce how utterly nerve-wracking it must be to go to work each day hoping to live up to such impossibly high expectations.
The book’s actual main character, and someone apparently crazy or masochistic enough to believe he can meet those expectations, is Rich Rodriguez, who Bacon takes care to note is every bit as radical and new as Michigan is traditional and old. Born in a small coal town in West Virginia — an unusually fertile ground for great coaches — Rodriguez is portrayed in Three and Out with equal parts admiration and befuddlement. On the one hand, Bacon makes clear that the man is unquestionably a football genius, the one-time youngest head coach in America and the first to pioneer the spread option, a high-octane offense dependent on speed and stamina over strength and size. (Here’s a typical play.) Yet on the other hand, Bacon shows that the man could at times be oblivious to his public perception, as well as incapable of successfully negotiating with his higher-ups to secure higher salaries for his staff and better facilities for his players.
But you can afford to lack polish when you’re the innovator behind one of the most successful offenses in college sports, so despite his occasional stumbles, Rodriguez managed to secure his fifth head coaching job in 12 years at West Virginia University, his alma mater. By 2000, his first year at WVU, Rodriguez’s offense had become so popular that it had inspired numerous imitators, and his salary had ballooned from $16,000 to more than $700,000.
As head of the Mountaineers, Rodriguez enjoyed a spate of winning seasons and postseason bowl berths. He also repeatedly clashed with the administration over the same old song: his team’s autonomy, his staff’s pay rate, and upgrades to the athletic facilities. While his team was consistently hailed as one of the most exciting ones to watch, national titles proved elusive.
In fact, the last school to win its first national title was Florida in 1996, and everybody who’s won one since has merely padded its trophy case with repeats. Today’s college football championships are for the taking, it seems, only if you’re a top-shelf program that’s held one before, and Rodriguez must’ve known he’d need to coach at such a “destination school” if he hoped to attain a trophy of his own.
So enter Michigan, which in 2008 unexpectedly found itself with its first coaching vacancy in 12 years. Unprepared, the school scrambled through the hiring process and, after failing to lure several of its first choice candidates, tossed out a lifeline to Rodriguez, who had never so much as set foot in Ann Arbor before accepting the job. Such is the program’s draw that, as Bacon writes, “Rodriguez assumed that moving to Michigan would not only rid him of the problems he faced in Morgantown, but would not add any of its own.” Naïve as that idea may have been, it wasn’t the only thing to foreshadow an uneasy union between Rodriguez and Michigan: having failed to secure the confidence of many of the most faithful and influential Michigan backers, the “aw-shucks” Rodriguez blundered at his first press conference by answering “Gosh, I hope not!” to the question of whether he needed to be a “Michigan Man” in order to coach the Wolverines. In Ann Arbor, that’s tantamount to saying you’ve never heard of The Beatles. Months later, he would be reprimanded for using the word “ain’t” in an interview.
Were it so simple that x’s and o’s alone won football games, nearly every school in the country could field capable teams. On the contrary, coaching today demands not only strategic ingenuity and a mastery of motivational techniques, but it also demands a full-time commitment to scouting and recruiting trips, fundraising, alumni meet-and-greets, hometown appearances, summer camp administration, and more. Coaches need to appease requests and demands from parents, assistants, athletic department staffs, and the university’s administration. The NCAA’s byzantine bylaws — which, for instance, allow schools to provide bagels and butter to recruits but not bagels and jelly — must be obeyed strictly.
As Bacon goes on to illustrate in his book — and which I don’t want to spoil for those who wish to read it — Rich Rodriguez’s consistent failure to balance these incredible, numerous responsibilities was what led to his and the school’s problems. We learn that the coach’s cardinal sins amounted not to one egregious offense, but rather to a witch’s brew of PR gaffes, hostile behind-the-scenes administrators, his former employer’s frustrations, his current employer’s impatience, and the quality of the roster he inherited in Ann Arbor. Together, these elements resulted in Rodriguez’s firing following the 2010 season, the last year Bacon followed the team. On the book’s front cover, Entertainment Weekly likens Three and Out to Moneyball, but the more apt comparison is to The Perfect Storm.
One of the book’s additional joys is Bacon’s Plimptonian quest to work out with the Wolverine football players throughout the season. As he proves in one particular scene, the idea that student-athletes coast through college on easy street is an utter canard. And speaking of fallacies, Bacon also finds room in the book to pen convincing arguments against paying players, who can already receive over $580,000 of education and expenses over their four year careers, as well as arguments against the sloppy reporting done by some selfish journalists advancing their careers by disingenuously claiming to “look out for the kids.” One such offender, formerly of The Free Press but now of Sports Illustrated, gets deservedly raked across the coals in this book. That Bacon spares the self-righteous NCAA itself and its quasi-legality from a detailed takedown is forgivable; nobody is likely to write a better such dismissal than Taylor Branch’s The Cartel, which was expanded from his article, “The Shame of College Sports.”
While a casual reader might find some of the book’s tidbits about Michigan traditions or Rodriguez’s career trajectory to be inconsequential or unimportant, astute football fans will agree that the most distinct aspects of football and baseball, America’s two most popular sports, are the outsized roles played by narrative and tradition. You see, both games practically beg for commentators to ascribe storylines and context in order to fill the gaps between bursts of live action. (Try watching a muted baseball game if you don’t believe me.) The games depend on their stories. Unlike the continuous game play in soccer or basketball matches, which force announcers to call second-by-second run-downs of the ball’s movement, baseball and football plays are punctuated by long lulls. See the baseball player who halts his at-bat long enough to scratch his crotch and spit some seeds. See the average football game, which manages to stretch a lean 11 minutes of live game play out for a broadcast lasting 174 minutes.
More often than not, these gaps are filled by stories based on a school’s sense of tradition: its fan base and how it travels, its past players and awards, its legendary coaches (if it’s lucky enough to have any), its rivals, the implications of this game’s outcome or the adversity faced by the team’s individual players — a troubled youth who earns his family’s first college degree, say, or a biochemical engineer kicking the game’s winning field goal. These stories nearly eclipse the games themselves, and fans eat them up. In Three and Out, Bacon serves up a feast consisting of all of these elements and all of these stories.
Image Credit: NMH