BOOK REVIEW: Fourth and Long | The Fight for the Soul of College Football

Kyle Rowland's picture
October 3, 2013 at 12:28p
Fourth and Long by John U. Bacon

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.

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Hovenaut's picture

I hate that Bacon is a M...igan man, he's a good writer with a fair perspective on both the sport and the B1G.

Eager to pick this book up, thanks for the rundown Kyle.

hodge's picture

"Athletic director Dave Brandon then finds a way for them to attend the game."

It seemed more like Brandon did it as an attempt to save face after the monolithic outcry that he'd effectively neutered a fantastic matchup by (A) playing it in the soulless "JerryWorld" and then finally (B) essentially telling Michigan's band they weren't included in his plans.  
I haven't finished the book, but it seems to me like he really paints Brandon as the CEO hell-bent on profit, even if it's at the cost of diluting the traditions that make UM football what it is.

M Man's picture

The relationship between Brandon and Bacon is chilly.  Owing entirely to Brandon's intense desire to control all messaging, versus John's equally intense desire to tell true and compelling stories.  Brandon will not allow his Athletic Department or affiliates to help sell any of Bacon's books.

mh277907's picture

Mr. Bacon stopped by our tailgate for a few hours last year. He asked a lot of questions and wrote a lot of stuff down so I am anxious to see if any of my friend's quotes made it in the book. He was a really nice guy and I enjoyed having a beer or 8 with him.


jfunk's picture

The one thing that's bugged me so far about the book, and I noticed this in Three and Out too, is Bacon's tendency's to go off on tangents. One example that sticks out for me is he goes off on a quarter page spiel about Craig Krenzel and how he's originally from Michigan and was a Molecular Genetics major. All of this just leads up to Krenzel saying that Urban Meyer will do well in Columbus. There really wasn't a need for all the background on Craig. Other than that, I've really enjoyed it so far. Right now I've been splitting time between Fourth and Long and The System.

Scotch: It may be too early to drink it, yes; but people it is never to early to think about it.

Hovenaut's picture

Able to pick this up this morning at the local library, have some afternoon reading in store prior to tomorrow night's game. 

M Man's picture

I spoke with John last month.  He is looking forward to an Eleven Warriors Q and A.  He thinks as highly of 11W as I do.