A few weeks ago we asked you for questions for John U. Bacon, author of Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football. We sent him some of those questions, and he was kind enough to answer back.
Back then, I had to say "the upcoming book Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football," but that's no longer the case -- the book is on bookshelves and e-bookshelves now, so get to supporting people who spend their lives writing words, everybody!
In case you think our Q-and-A is uninteresting, here is one with Yahoo!, and here is one with Keith Olbermann:
And he'll also be doing a Reddit AMA on r/CFB today at 1 p.m. if you'd like to ask him your question. Anyway, take it away, John!
Okay, here's a few questions, some from fans, some from me. Go as long on answering or as short as you feel lik
So you chose to write your book about four schools: one coming off the biggest scandal arguably in the history of college sports, one with a relatively minor scandal that still caused the ouster of a coach and culture change, one coming off a BCS bowl win... and one Northwestern team fresh off a 6-7 year. What drew you to the Wildcats?
It's a fair question. At first blush the Wildcats might look like the "Thing that doesn't belong." If you're trying to compete with the Big Ten's "big three," if you will - Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State - Northwestern has one hand tied behind its back, thanks to its smaller university, town, facilities, and fan base, and higher academic standards. Honestly, if we were looking at the "Mildcats" of the 1980s, setting NCAA records for ineptitude, Northwestern wouldn't warrant more than a few paragraphs in a book that purports to examine the soul of college football.
But as you well know, since 1995, Northwestern has fielded a very competitive football program. As I write in the book, "The 2011 seniors had won more games than any other Northwestern class and had gone to four straight bowl games, a first. And there was this surprising statistic: since 1995, only Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin had won more Big Ten titles than Northwestern's three-and Wisconsin had passed the 'Cats only the year before. You could win a lot of bar bets with that one, even in Chicago."
Further, everyone from President Schapiro to AD Jim Phillips to Coach Fitz to Kain Colter is completely committed to fielding a competitive team - without compromising the Wildcat Way - and all of them gave me great interviews.
Okay, so Northwestern football is a lot more interesting today than it would have been two decades ago. But why make it one of the four programs I followed?
This was a great source of debate, for a lot of reasons. I got such great access at Penn State - its players, staffers and coaches - and such great scenes, quotes and stories, we knew we had more than enough to write a book about Penn State by itself.
Second, no one has ever tried to cover four teams in one season, for a simple reason: it requires an insane amount of travel, research, reporting, and writing. As I waited to conduct my final interviews with the people at Ohio State and Northwestern, I asked my editor at Simon & Schuster, Thomas Lebien - who also edited my last book, with great skill -- that this was the way to go. Lebien's vision never wavered. He was clear that, if we addressed only on Penn State, as dramatic as it all was, it speaks only to one team and one season, not the state of the game, or its future. Examining four very different approaches to college football, even within one conference, gave us a great cross-section of the state of the game today.
At Penn State, I focused on the players, who were inspiration in first saving their program, and then their season; at Ohio State, on Urban Meyer, the best-known coach in the league, sitting on the hottest seat; at Michigan, I spent a lot of time with the fans and the band - a big part of the soul of college football - and also assessing Dave Brandon, who is the highest-profile AD in America, in my opinion; and at Northwestern I was able to talk to everyone from President Morton Schapiro to AD Jim Phillips to Coach Fitzgerald to Kain Colter, the team's pre-med quarterback, which put the whole puzzle back together.
After I got those final interviews - which were among the most interesting I've had -- I came to agree with my editor, Lebien, that examining four schools at once was the right move. And once we finished, I was convinced. I hope the readers are, too.
Finally, Northwestern makes a great study in contrast, by itself. As I write in the main Northwestern chapter, titled, "Brainiac Bowl," "If you want to see what a Big Ten school that doesn't care about football looks like, all you have to do is revisit Northwestern between 1972 and 1991." The Wildcats themselves provide a very tidy before-and-after picture.
So now the question is this, which I posed before Northwestern's second game against Vanderbilt, when the Big Ten was already 5-5 on a very bad day:
"It wasn't just Northwestern fans or Big Ten backers who should have been pulling for the Wildcats, however, but every person who cares about college football. Because if Northwestern could not compete with this squad, this coach, this athletic director, this president, and this approach, then the entire enterprise of college football would be taking another big step toward becoming a glorified minor league."
The Wildcats are clearly doing everything the right way, right down to its 94-percent graduation rate. They represent our idealized view of college football -- and if that can no longer work, then you might as well open the floodgates and start a bona fide minor league.
The 2012 Wildcats represented an excellent test of the values most college football fans hold dear.
You write about how Northwestern limits itself to academically capable students, and how while this would appear on the surface to hamper a school, the Wildcats have used it to their advantage, both recruiting on-field leaders and as a university. It worked last year to the tune of 10 wins. Do you see a bigger future for Northwestern, where it's possible to compete with the big boys year-in, year-out, or is sustained above-average play the ceiling?
To address your first point, it's probably easier to quote the book:
"Consider this: the coaches at the big-time programs would never take a job like Northwestern's. The Wildcats have all the obstacles those coaches have worked so hard to get beyond, including a small stadium, fewer fans cheering for your team than your opponents, rare coverage by the national media, second-class facilities, and none of the academic back doors many teams have traditionally used to get their stars through school. Yet the team still graduates 97 percent of its players-a higher rate than that of the student body at large-and it would be higher still if the formula counted the team's fifth-year engineering students.
"Most coaches believe Northwestern is the toughest place to win in the Big Ten-and Northwestern's record up to that magical 1995 season stands as solid proof.
"Yet, all those reasons are exactly why Fitzgerald loves coaching the Wildcats, even declining overtures from Michigan's Dave Brandon after he fired Rich Rodriguez in 2011. Fitzgerald is competitive, but he agrees with the priorities of his alma mater, which proudly places academics ahead of athletics in funding, facilities, and favoritism. He even claims the university's higher standards make it easier for him to produce winning teams-something no one who had not played at Northwestern would ever claim."
As for the near future, I can't recall the Wildcats being better poised to make a serious drive than this season. They've got a skilled senior quarterback, a supporting cast that has gone to a bowl game every year and finally won one, and they're coming off a 10-3 season. Further, while they play most of the big boys, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are all coming to Evanston. Barring an onslaught of injuries, the ‘Cats should be very competitive this year - and I wouldn't be shocked if they find a way to win it all.
As for the long-term future, that's harder to predict. I cannot imagine a better trio for NU football than President Schapiro, Jim Phillips and Coach Fitz. When NU inevitably has to start replacing those guys, it could get tougher.
The bigger threat, though, is the arms race, led by Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten, that could leave the rest of the league in the dust. If that happens, the entire enterprise will be a lot less charming, and interesting to watch.
You argue in your book that Ryan Field is one of the most enjoyable, if not the most enjoyable, place in the Big Ten to watch a football game. I guarantee you 98.7 percent of Wildcats fans disagree with you. What positives do you see in our homey-yet-somehow far-too-large-for-Northwestern stadium?
98.7 percent? This surprised me! When you're accustomed to watching games in sold out coliseums in Ann Arbor, Columbus and State College, Ryan Field feels like a charming throwback, but not if that's what you're used to, apparently.
To clue your readers in, this is what I said about watching a game at Ryan Field:
"If the Big House is impressive, the Horseshoe intimidating, and Penn State's Erector Set just plain loud, Ryan Field might be the Big Ten's most lovable home. At times, it felt less like a Big Ten Saturday than a high school Friday night, the kind that takes place in small towns all across America, where everyone comes out to support the team and see old friends.
"I've been to every conference stadium, and I've liked them all except the Minneapolis Metrodome, which the Gophers leased from 1982 to
2008-marking the only time a Big Ten school had to rent its "home field" or play indoors. All but two of the Big Ten stadiums were built before the Great Depression, and at the risk of sounding older than I am, they don't build 'em like they used to. Even today's technology can't give a building character-or memories.
"But of all the league's great stadiums, the south end zone at Ryan Field might just be the best place in the Big Ten to watch a game."
More specifically, I love how you can see Lake Michigan from the press box, how the grounds are manicured, and, as I wrote, "Just past the south end zone, opposite the locker room and the foot- ball building, the grounds crew has built an arced ramp of grass that runs up right to the stands, which form a parallel arc. The first row of seats sits about five feet above the field, close enough to feel the speed of the game, but high enough to see what's going on-with nothing in between but a three-foot-high chain rope. The space between player and fan shrinks after a touchdown, when the lucky Wildcat often runs up the grass incline toward the crowd."
It's integrated with the town, and the environment; it's relatively small and intimate; it's cheap and family friendly, and it's fun. You don't see kids playing together at too many Big Ten stadiums any more, which is why, of all the places I wrote about in Fourth and Long, it was about your endzone my University of Texas-educated editor said, "When I read this, all I could think of is how much fun it would be to take my young sons there."
I might kindly advise you Wildcats to appreciate what you have. There's no place like it in the Big Ten.
Does the fact that the Big Ten seems to have figured out something close to "the right way" to do amateurism justify all the other stuff in college sports, and is it possible to make it not just a Big Ten thing?
No, one conference doing it pretty well - and really, very well, in my opinion - does not justify the many excesses in college football. Could the Big Ten's standards spread? Yes, but only if the NCAA got serious.
I believe that the Big Ten is probably the last, best place for competitive, reasonably clean, academically-based college football to make its stand - its teams are more competitive than the Ivy League teams, and more respected, by most reporters and insiders, than their SEC counterparts - but as I write, "the NCAA's leaders seem entirely unable, unwilling, or both to pursue the stories those of us inside the industry hear constantly. They rarely act on such rumors until local reporters, working with a tiny fraction of the NCAA's resources, do the job for them and shame the NCAA enforcers into action. This familiar cycle does little to bolster our faith in the enterprise. (Mark Emmert and the NCAA declined to answer my questions.)"
"They're not serious," [Penn State linebacker Mike] Mauti said. "If you really wanted to discipline the teams that are doing the cheating, if they really wanted to cut out the corruption, they'd do their investigations and punish the schools that do that. It can't be that hard. Everyone knows who they are.
"But they have to want to go after the cheaters. It's not up to the public to determine that-it's for them. Otherwise, what is the NCAA for? What do they do?"
The answer: Make money.
From the comments:
After spending so much time around college guys, do you think public perception undervalues the notion of "buying into" a program philosophy? Overvalued?
Yes, I do. I think we are bombarded with so much of the bad news of big time college sports - from Reggie Bush to Cam Newton to Johnny Football - that it's very hard not to be cynical about the entire enterprise. As the great Lily Tomlin said, "No matter how cynical you get, you just can't keep up."
But that's why I loved writing this book - and felt, from my last one, that this one needed to be written. I was granted inside access to these unique tribes of players and fans, and it was very reassuring.
As I wrote, "We need to be together. We need to share something we care about with strangers. And to fill that need, you could do worse than Big Ten football.
"I've spent four of the past five years following Big Ten football players at close range, and I can tell you that, with few exceptions, they are hard- working, honest guys who care deeply for their school and their team- mates. For many fans, when their favorite running back breaks through the line into the end zone, then simply hands the ball to the ref and celebrates with his teammates, he represents our cherished Midwestern values at their best.
"One Wolverine fan who lost his dad at a young age wrote to Michigan's athletic director that "Michigan football is my father."
"A foreign concept, perhaps. But not to us.
"Our love for college football is irrational-and that's where they've got us."
Whether it's wise or not, Big Ten fans, more than any other, I believe, buy into their teams, including their values.
Fitz seems to understand that media exposure is important in growing the program, even he'd probably rather keep things private. Was the program more open to this than the others?
They were ultimately very open, and that was essential to telling the Northwestern story. Honestly, they have nothing to hide, and a lot to show off - but I was impressed and even a little amused that everyone I talked with, from President Schapiro to Jim Phillips to Coach Fitz and Kain Colter, was more worried about being portrayed as being Holier than Thou than having anything ‘exposed.'
I must say, though, that Ohio State was very open - Urban Meyer was admirably straight-forward in our talks - and Penn State gave me complete access. It's a rarity, for sure, and - I hope - a real treat for the readers.
Your book focuses on the NU-Vandy game from last year. Can you give us any inside info/thoughts on the Vandy cancellation from the coaching staff/Jim Phillips? I'd love to hear their unguarded thoughts on that.
Here's my take in the book, from the fans, the Vanderbilt coach and President Schapiro:
"By 5:00 p.m., the Bluestone had finally filled up, with the bar about evenly divided between Northwestern purple and white, and Vanderbilt black and gold, often at the same table. As one Northwestern fan said, "This is the Friendly Bowl."
"A Vanderbilt fan proudly quoted their coach, James Franklin, saying Vanderbilt should lose players only to Cal, Stanford, Notre Dame, and Northwestern. It was a point of pride for both schools-right up to President Schapiro.
"The Association of American Universities (AAU) has only sixty-two members, Schapiro explained, and only twenty-six are private schools. When you take out the seven Ivy League schools in that group, and such universities as Emory, Brandeis, and Washington University in St. Louis- all of which play in a Division III league with Chicago-you're left with exactly seven private members of the AAU that play Division I football: Duke, Tulane, Rice, USC, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Northwestern.
"When people ask me why don't we play our peer institutions in foot- ball," Schapiro told me, "it's because there are only six! There just aren't a lot out there.
"But I believe you are who you play, so it's nice to play other schools that are different from the mainstream.
"We like playing Vanderbilt."
Unfortunately, Vanderbilt apparently didn't like playing Northwestern enough to keep from cutting the series off in the off-season. Why isn't exactly clear, but the result is: one of the more charming rivalries has been cut short - and, as usual, not because the fans or the players wanted it to end, but an athletic director did, probably due to material motives. This closely mirrors Notre Dame's decision to cut off its celebrated series with Michigan.
Thus, I conclude in the chapter on the Michigan-Notre Dame game and rivalry: "Notre Dame would replace Michigan with teams like Wake Forest and Clemson, while Michigan would replace Notre Dame with-well, probably teams like Wake Forest and Clemson, if not Central Michigan, Western Michigan, and Eastern Michigan.
"But within that equation, Notre Dame was making a couple of bets: first, that the athletes, who had come to Notre Dame partly to play teams like Michigan, wouldn't raise a peep, and [ND AD Jack]Swarbrick was surely right about that; and second, that all those RVs that Michigan fans drove to South Bend could readily be replaced by RVs driven by fans from Virginia or North Carolina or Georgia Tech.
"The players don't have any real choices. But the fans do, and whether they're willing to keep shelling out a thousand bucks for a football weekend-or will start spending their Saturdays going to soccer games or mowing their lawns-remains to be seen.
"The NFL was created as a business to make money, but the college game was supposed to have higher ideals. That was getting harder to argue. With each year, each season, and each decision, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the people who love college football have less and less in common with the people who are running it."
So, while I came away from my year embedded with these four programs thoroughly impressed by the people who play college football - particularly those at Northwestern - I also couldn't help but be very unimpressed by many of the "adults" who run the game, who don't seem to care much about the players or the fans.
I hope the good guys win this battle - and with it, the soul of college football.