Bacon Three And Out Q&A: Intro Comment Count

Brian October 11th, 2011 at 3:03 PM

image[ED: We're planning a two-parter here, with shorter answers to specific questions posed by commenters in part II. To start it seemed like a good idea to get the background on how this thing came about. Bacon is everything that is not in bold.

*cough* if you are planning on buying the thing you can support the site by purchasing Three and Out through MGoBlog affiliate linkage *cough*]

Most of the “What the hell just happened?” questions I’ll leave for the book, which many of you will likely be reading yourselves in a few weeks. Here, I’m trying to give you information to understand how this book came to be and what I tried to do, not all of which you can find in the book.

So let's talk about how this book came about. You had total unfettered access to Rich Rodriguez? How does that come about? Why would anyone agree to such a thing? What was his motivation?

This book came about largely by dumb luck. With my degree in history (“pre-unemployment”) in my pocket, I got my first job out of Michigan teaching U.S. history and coaching hockey at Culver Academies in Indiana. One of my best students, Greg Farrall, went on to become an All-Big Ten defensive end, and then a successful financial adviser.

We’ve stayed in touch, and in early 2008, he asked for some signed copies of Bo's Lasting Lessons, including one for his former coach at Indiana, Bill Mallory, and another to his boss at the time, Mike Wilcox—who just happened to be Rich Rodriguez’s financial adviser. In fact, when Rodriguez first met with Bill Martin and Mary Sue Coleman in December 2007, they did so at Wilcox’s Toledo office.

One thing led to another, and in July 2008 Wilcox asked me if I’d be interested in getting complete access to Rodriguez’s first Michigan team. I thought about it for a week or so, before concluding I’d be crazy not to jump at this chance.

Rodriguez’s motivation, I believe, was pretty straightforward: by July 2008, he had already been hammered by the press in Morgantown and Michigan, and probably figured he didn’t have much to lose. As he joked at the time, “Charles Manson is also from West Virginia, and right now he’s more popular than I am.” I think he also believed he didn’t have anything to hide, either. So he was willing to take his chances on a guy he’d never met tagging along to tell the story.

The Plan

The original plan was simply to write about the spread offense coming to one of the country’s most conservative programs and publish a series of stories to a national magazine, in the hope of turning them into a book coauthored by Rodriguez, similar to the one I wrote with Bo Schembechler in 2007. But after the team finished 3-9, however, it was obvious the story was far from over, and that I’d need to write it myself. I was looking at sunk cost. If I bailed then, I’d have nothing to show for it. But if I came back for another year, I might have a great story to tell. That same reasoning held after the second season, too. To Rodriguez’s credit, he didn’t flinch.

We had a short legal agreement that gave him the right to read the final manuscript and comment on factual accuracy, but gave me the right to ignore anything and everything he suggested. The final product is mine, and mine alone, and does not have his approval.

I secured a book contract with a great publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which eschews sports writers for high brow authors like Ian Frazier, Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. I felt lucky then, and I still do. They gave me an advance roughly equivalent to a year’s salary. The catch is, of course, the book required three years working full-time, so I’ve spent my life savings to get this done. When I read a few folks online posit that I’m simply out to make a quick buck, I enjoyed a good chuckle. It’s hard to imagine any buck being slower or smaller to make, with no guarantee of critical or commercial success. The book business is notoriously fickle.

I didn’t put one thing in this book just to sell copies. I did not dump my notebook on anyone, providing enough information to make a point and then move on. I kept out more than a few salacious details because they were not sufficiently sourced or they were not relevant to the main questions, and felt like cheap shots.

Likewise, if I was pursuing my own self-interest, the most obvious approach would be to put all the blame on Rodriguez, who is gone and cannot do anything to help me I can think of, and none on Michigan, where I was born, earned two degrees and continue teaching, among other lifelong connections. As I’m sure you know by now, I didn’t do that, either – but if I was trying to please Rodriguez, I can tell you I clearly fell short on that score, too. He has flaws and he made mistakes, and they’re in the book, too.

I realized pretty early in the process that trying to play politics with this would be almost impossible – and probably backfire in any case. So, I settled on the single, simple goal of getting as close to the truth as I possibly could. How close I came will surely be debated in the weeks and months to come, but that was my singular mission, no matter what it costs me.

[Ed: John is too nice to say this but the above section is likely in reference to Michael Rosenberg claiming that he is "misrepresented" in the book because Bacon needs to paint a widely-reviled coach who bombed out in three years as a victim.]

The Book

While the target moved a few times, as described above, when I sat down to write the final version from January to July of 2011, I was not setting out to write a “whodunit,” but as accurate a picture as possible of what it’s really like to be a college football player and coach. And not just for any team: the most stable and successful program in college football, which happened to be going through the three most tumultuous years in its long and enviable history. My reporting includes plenty of inside information on the drama constantly swirling around Schembechler Hall during that time, but if this book is going to have any lasting value I believe it will be because it’s the most intimate picture of college football players and coaches any writer has ever been allowed to paint.

Although some readers will surely debate this, I was not out to take sides. That doesn’t mean everyone comes out equally well, any more than a fair referee can ensure both teams will be penalized equally. But I sincerely tried to call everything as fairly as I could and let the readers sort the information for themselves.

Some have suggested that I must have had an axe to grind with Bill Martin, Coach Carr, Dave Brandon and others. Not true. The first two spoke to my classes several times, and I’ve extolled the good work of all three men in numerous pieces – including an ultimately flattering story on Dave Brandon in Bo's Lasting Lessons, and another on Coach Carr’s body of work, on and off the field, after his team lost to Appalachian State. When I won Michigan’s Golden Apple Award in March 2009, I hoped to ask Coach Carr to introduce me, but he was out of town. He said, however, that he would have been happy to do so, and I believe him. I’m also confident, having seen him speak many times on his dual passions for Mott Hospital and education, he would have done a great job.

That’s why, when I started hearing some surprising claims about the Michigan football family, I did not take them seriously. Most of those stories proved to be unfounded, but not all. When I returned to those sources, confirmed their stories, and connected the dots – to the degree I could -- I was stunned. I took no pleasure in these discoveries, nor in reporting them. As I told my first audience for this book in Chicago last week, researching and writing Bo's Lasting Lessons was a labor of love. Three and Out was labor.

I have tried to report unflinchingly on Rodriguez’s flaws and mistakes, but most people already know those—including his historically horrendous defense, his press conference gaffes, and his denouement at the final Football Bust. Michigan’s mistakes were private. Thus when you read them, the latter will likely be more surprising and make a bigger impression.

To produce this book, I started by filling two-dozen two-sided notebooks, eight bankers’ boxes worth of documents, and taking more than 10,000 pages of single-spaced notes from observing 37 games, hundreds of practices and meetings, and interviewing several hundred people. That effort created over 2,000 pages of copy, which we had to slash to the 438 pages that comprise the final manuscript.

All that cutting forced me to drop all photos and an epigraph from Oscar Wilde that I believe neatly sums up the entire three years: “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”

That’s exactly what I found in the bizarre dysfunction of the past three seasons. I did not encounter any angels, but I did not discover any devils, either. Almost everyone involved made some mistakes – most unintended, some not – but everyone in these pages had redemptive qualities, often quite remarkable ones. People, it turns out, are complicated.

The book, therefore, is not presented as an argument for this side or that. The reviews we’ve gotten so far (here on MGoBlog, on The Wolverine and on seem to indicate it’s being received in that spirit. “The author,” Publisher’s Weekly writes, “doesn’t shirk from acknowledging Rodriguez’s shortcomings as a coach or discussing the players’ disappointing performances.”

The readers, of course, will come to their own conclusions. And, knowing the wide range of independent-minded Michigan alums and fans, I’m sure those conclusions will run the gamut. But before we get too far down the scorekeeping path, I want to say that while that’s surely a reader’s right, it was not the author’s aim.

How close I came to achieving my goal of producing a fair-minded depiction of a marriage seemingly made in heaven that quickly ended in a disastrous divorce—with the best and worst of college football surrounding it—you can decide for yourself.

-John U. Bacon

p.s. Since folks have asked, I will give the first local book talk and signing at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor on Friday, October 28. I will be updating my schedule on my website very soon (


J. Lichty

October 11th, 2011 at 6:02 PM ^

I just finished the book (got it at the Chicago event --- great event -- Bacon was awesome) and understand why Brandon will not like this book.

Although Brandons decisions of this past year are largely vindicated by events related in the book, Brandon does not come accross very well in the book personally, despite his limited appearances. 

He is fortunately and unfortunately exactly as he has been interpreted in this space since he took the job.


October 11th, 2011 at 3:30 PM ^

Question for Brian, John, or someone else who has seen the book - are there extensive graphs/charts/a need for an actual physical copy? I'd prefer to buy the Kindle version, but I've found e-books aren't great when you need to flip back and forth between charts and text. 

I see that John did say he cut out all photographs, so that's why I'm wondering.

Can't wait to read it!


October 11th, 2011 at 3:30 PM ^

Schafer seems to be a decent DC, or at least serviceable. What was the sticking point with him and RR? Any single event, or merely a buildup of conflicting personalities between himself and RR over time? Also, with Greg Robinson: what happened? He never recruited and never took responsibilty (at least in terms of facing the media) for the '09 and '10 defenses, while RR was always trying to answer for their woes (during which, among other things, he made the V. Lombardi comment after Iowa, 2010). How could a head coach allow for that?


October 11th, 2011 at 3:41 PM ^

I don't know if the book covers it, but insiders have hinted that Shafer did not like the position coaches he had to work with, and that RR ultimately decided to side with them over him.  One story that has made the rounds is that Shafer, upon his resignation, agreed to take full public responsibility for the program's demise if RR would admit to him (in private) that Tony Gibson was a terrible DB coach.  Shafer ultimately did take responsibility to the media.


October 11th, 2011 at 4:44 PM ^

That "Shafer is doing a great job" meme appears to work a lot better in relation to last year's team.  Syracuse is 4-2 with wins over Wake Forest  (by seven), Rhode Island (by seven), Toledo (by three), and Tulane by (three).  This with a blowout loss to USC and a narrow FG loss to Rutgers.  While that's better than the Gerg years, the defense is currently 68th in points against.  That line of opponents probably shouldn't lead to 68th.


October 11th, 2011 at 3:58 PM ^

One story that has made the rounds is that Shafer, upon his resignation, agreed to take full public responsibility for the program's demise if RR would admit to him (in private) that Tony Gibson was a terrible DB coach.

If true, that was an awfully crappy deal for Shafer. 


October 11th, 2011 at 4:14 PM ^

The truth will always prevail, as seen in success (or lackthereof) since that all went down.  It all comes out in the wash.  Coaches generally are very prideful people, and Shafer got the admission and self-satisfaction he wanted.  He did not have to compromise his morals or integrity, and moved on.  Shafer absolutely knew that with the assistants forced upon him the defense was bound to fail, so accept the blame and move on to a better situation.  That better situation was Syracuse.  

J. Lichty

October 11th, 2011 at 8:13 PM ^

The general consensus in the blogosphere was that Casteel wanted to stay in WV because his family did not want to leave Morgantown.

That is not true.  He was going to come with RR.  I won't spoil why he didn't and it is one the mistakes that Bacon attributes to RR.

It's nothing salacious, but it is interesting and perhaps fateful and something that was new to me.


October 11th, 2011 at 3:31 PM ^

Can't wait to buy the book.  I anticipate being completely unreachable for hours after the purchase.  I'm intrigued to see the public responses from those involved, specifically Brandon, Carr, and Rodriguez.  


October 11th, 2011 at 3:34 PM ^

because I'm a big believer in keeping it in the family (actually, I remember someone from the B-School's administration telling us this when we were completing some ranking of Michigan back in the day).

I wish BM/ RR never agreed to have John U write a book, because this will ultimately hurt Michigan. I believe this type of thing goes on in almost all organizations when a leader moves on and there isn't a clear new leader and thus shouldn't be a poor indication of Michigan. Unfortunately, I think it will be taken that way (especially by the MSM, who will just quote some of the juicy, negative parts).

I did just buy the book, and will read it, but I wish it were never written.


October 11th, 2011 at 6:07 PM ^

The choices weren't just between RR and a Lloyd guy.  The most popular candidate at the time, by far, was Les Miles. If we had hired Miles, I don't think we'd have gone through anywhere near the brutal transition we did.  Miles may be a scumbag of a person, but he is a very good coach.  I think he'd have done very well here.  Miles's coaching philosophy is a lot like Hoke's: find the best coordinators you can and delegate a lot to them.  On the plus side, we now have a HC with that philosophy and who isn't a shady guy.


October 11th, 2011 at 6:18 PM ^

Enough with calling it out as the prime example that the football program needed a shake up. Upsets happen when good teams have bad days and underrated teams perform beyond expectations. I'll counter with the equally tired meme about the same Michigan team beat Florida at the end of Urban Meyer his only bowl loss.

Voltron Blue

October 11th, 2011 at 4:45 PM ^

If some of these things never came to light, perhaps we'd be bound to repeat it.  If this can be the impetus for this never happening again, then ultimately, it can be for the greater good.

In the ways in which it could potentially hurt Michigan, it's possible that Hoke is home running things so well that we will outrun it.  Whereas, with RR, his own mistakes combined with the massive headwind to create failure.  In this case, perhaps Hoke has the antidote instead of the catalyst.

Or at least I hope, on both counts.


October 11th, 2011 at 8:14 PM ^

Hurt Michigan far more than this book ever could have. Whether you were a RR supporter (I am not) or not it's really hard to imagine Michigan experiencing long term success based on his 3 years there. I know others on here will disagree with me, but I really think that the program was setting itself up for a Notre Dame like roller coaster had Rich stayed. It wasn't ALL Rich's fault, but he certainly did himself very few favors along the way.


October 11th, 2011 at 3:37 PM ^

As I've said, I don't think I'll read the book, as revisiting 2008-2010 seems like masochism to me. But, I'm sort of fascinated that what started as aspiring to be a co-authored suck-job of one man's revolutionizing of the B10 got turned into something actually potentially trenchant by the various turn of events. I'm sure John is somewhat happy about that (I'm not implying he's happy that Michigan did badly, but happy that his subject actually became interesting).


October 11th, 2011 at 7:34 PM ^

I really wasn't, but I suppose I can see how you'd think that. His avatar does feature a rather prominent and unfortunately placed phallic symbol.

Anyway my point was that using a term like "suck-job" implies that the commenter has determined that Bacon went into the project with a distinct editorial bias, and that there's something wrong with that. Since (most of us) lack access to the book, I think such a determination of bias is premature (there's another double entendre).


October 11th, 2011 at 3:39 PM ^

book in the near future.  Maybe in the distant future after some time has passed and the "wtf was that" in my head calms down.


I think I'd like this to just be a footnote in Michigan's Football history.


IMO Rich Rodriguez was just plain nieve about Michigan, the Big Ten and didn't surround himself with quality coaches.  That was ultimately his undoing.


October 11th, 2011 at 5:00 PM ^

RR didn't succeed enough on the field, and likely still wouldn't have even with full support (I don't think alumni buy-in would be enough to fix the D).

That said, if there's something rotten in our athletic department, I'd rather know about it so we can guard against it next time. Eventually, Hoke will do something that will piss somebody off, and he shouldn't have to worry that pissing off the wrong faction will get him submarined.


October 11th, 2011 at 5:37 PM ^

had he surrounded himself with good coaches, he probably would have won more.  Ergo, he wouldn't have lost so much support so fast and would probably still be UM's coach.


He essentially tried to scheme and recruit in the Big Ten with what, one coach who had ever done that before.  Many of his early comments scream that he just didn't understand how much bigger, stronger and faster Big Ten teams are vs the Big East.


October 11th, 2011 at 7:46 PM ^

And my point was that this book is still important regardless of whether or not Rodriguez can be fairly blamed for on the field failures, because of what it reveals about Michigan's culture.

My one quibble with your statement is that, from what other posters with access to the book have revealed, RR didn't lose support by losing (at least not inside the program) - he never had support to begin with, and that reveals something toxic about the program.