In the final year of the Bowl Championship Series, college football will likely find griping at the end of the season. The system has been plagued with problems since its inception in 1998 – worthy teams left out of national championship games, while others didn’t receive at-large bids for financial reasons.
Bestselling author John U. Bacon didn’t seek to change the sport’s postseason structure, he sought to find the good in a game that’s been pushed to the background for decades as greed has been at the forefront of college football.
In Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, Bacon is embedded with four programs – Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Northwestern. The first three are some of college football’s most iconic universities and athletic programs, while the fourth is a bastion of academic excellence that has become a major player on the gridiron.
The past few college football seasons have included some of the game’s most damaging scandals. Bacon is in search of a game-changer that didn’t include hypocrisy, greed and money raised on the backs of 18-to-22-year-olds.
The details inside a troubled Penn State locker room at the height of Joe Paterno’s dismissal are must-read, as is the incredible reclamation project Bill O’Brien managed in the wake of college football’s biggest scandal in history. Bacon paints a picture of leadership that has gone unmatched in the 100-plus year history of Big Ten football.
Bacon argues that athletic departments are being run more like corporations than an athletic arm of a university. Athletic directors are more and more becoming de-facto CEOs who are looking to boost income and bring as much money as possible into the department. It’s a never-ending arms race.
Most of it, Bacon says, can be traced to recent fundamental changes in intercollegiate athletics — conference expansion, exploding TV contracts, sky-rocketing ticket prices and the decline of the game-day fan experience.
In one passage, Bacon makes a trip to the Michigan-Notre Dame game in South Bend and discovers that the game is still an incredible cocktail of fun, anticipation, passion, and pageantry and on and on. It’s not wins and losses fans use to identify themselves with their school, it’s traditions.
Bacon encapsulates Urban Meyer’s childhood and how the Buckeye coach cherished the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, then in the midst of the 10-Year War, and he watches a team buy-in to its coach before his eyes and travel on a journey that results in an undefeated season. Bacon, a Michigan Man, also discovers that Archie Griffin is in fact an exemplary human being, not the Soviet traitor of his childhood.
Fandom makes you think strange things.
Perhaps the finest section is on the Michigan Marching Band, it’s classic fight song “The Victors” and the importance bands have in college football. The tipping point is the uproar of Michigan fans when they find out the band won’t be present in Arlington, Texas, for the Alabama game. Athletic director Dave Brandon then finds a way for them to attend the game.
Throughout the book, Bacon talks to university presidents, head coaches, players and fans. He’s able to sit in on team meetings, eat at training table, attend classes with players and even be a guest at Mike Mauti’s Thanksgiving feast. In the end, he discovers that the players themselves are the last defense in the integrity of the student-athlete.
The book is 352 pages of I-can’t-put-this-down. It’s the work of a college football aficionado who captures the intimate details of the sport we so cherish, but also the ugly underbelly. The common theme inside each program – even Northwestern – is tension. Sometimes it’s with the NCAA, sometimes it’s amongst the university and sometimes it’s spread between both.
Final thought: there continues to be a growing chasm between the powers that be in college football and the players and fans who make the game go.
Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football is authored by John U. Bacon and published by Simon & Schuster. Available for purchase from Amazon and other retailers. You can follow John U. Bacon on Twitter: @Johnubacon.