Bacon Three And Out Q&A: Intro

Submitted by Brian on 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 amazon.com) 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 (johnubacon.com).

Comments

3rdGenerationBlue

October 11th, 2011 at 10:01 PM ^

Walk a mile in Carr's shoes. You retire after being part of the Michigan football program for decades. You are replaced by someone from outside of the program that fires your entire staff execept one guy. Said replacement makes public statements about needing to "build" a program as if he just took over Minnesota.

Given the circumstances is it reasonable to expect Carr to vocally support Rodriguez?

J. Lichty

October 11th, 2011 at 8:17 PM ^

but, Bacon does not reveal how he phrased his request to Carr.  May be an interesting follow-up, question, though from what I know of Lloyd Carr, don't think how he asked would have made much of a difference.

The Carr stuff is some of the most interesting and heartbreaking story lines of the entire book.

MGlobules

October 11th, 2011 at 5:55 PM ^

Lloyd was preserving a silence about RR anyway--a silence that many people thought spoke volumes. In fact, from one anecdote we've been given about the book, RR asked Lloyd to speak up about the ugly over one very tense lunch meeting.

So Lloyd's silence where a book about RR was concerned may not be so surprising. 

Likewise, Lloyd--getting reports from RR's antagonists--may truly have felt RR was screwing up. Discretion often being the greater part of valor. . .

I say all this as a guy who treasured Lloyd's legacy more than Bo's. (Bo was a great coach, but a scoundrel for many in the UM admin.) The idea that an aging and threatened Lloyd might have been pissy about RR may disappoint me, but it won't tarnish him completely in my eyes. 

Let a few more years pass, and let's see how everyone looks. The only person who isn't going to get their rep back, from what I can see, is Rosenberg. Martin = feckless. I didn't expect Brandon to look to good when all was said and done, anyway. He was hired to come in and play the businessman, make the hard decisions.

 

BRCE

October 11th, 2011 at 7:11 PM ^

That is just who Carr is. He is not gracious when he doesn't get his way. Evidence that suggests this: Dozens of dead-fish handshakes without eye contact after losses, whining about the "crowned field" at Oregon, the search dogs at OSU, etc.

Jim Cnockaert spoke to a journalism class I had in high school and recounted a time Carr put his hands on him in a hotel after he intimated that Jason was not a Big Ten quarterback and was only at Michigan because of his name. There was also once something published about Carr smashing his hand in the bathroom at Metro Airport after returning home after the 1997 Outback Bowl and hearing two men talk about how bad of a coach he was.

He's a bitter man in a lot of ways. Nothing in 3&O will surprise me on that front.

Bando Calrissian

October 11th, 2011 at 11:11 PM ^

How would you react if a journalist knocked not only one of your players, but your own son with a comment like that?  Jim may have had a point, but why should any coach, not to mention any father, put up with crap like that?

Also care to document Lloyd "smashing his hand" at Metro Airport?  Especially when the team took a charter flight that didn't go through the main terminal, if it even landed at Metro at all?

MichFan1997

October 11th, 2011 at 4:37 PM ^

myself, I find the work of John Bacon to be top-of-the-line. I was torn on buying this book (money isn't exactly flowing), but after having read Bo's Lasting Lessons, which by the way, I tore through in about a day, then reading the few pieces on this very site, and ending with this interview piece, my decision was made.

For those of you who ever doubt the ability of granting time to increase your value via interviews such as this one, Mr. Bacon pretty much sold me his book by appearing here today. Now granted, I may have bought it anyways, but this sealed it. Can't wait to read it.

UM Indy

October 11th, 2011 at 4:42 PM ^

The Greg Farrall mentioned is from my hometown, Springfield, Ohio.  Greg's dad, John, is an orthopedic surgeon and repaired my broken shoulder.  John played for Woody at Ohio State.  He's got a whole exam room decked out in Ohio State stuff and when I had appointments he put me in there on purpose!  I know, I know - cool story, brah.

I'm still on the fence about buying this book.  Those three years were just so painful.  Don't know if I want to relive them.  Hearing John's explanation about how the book came about though is definitely making me think about it.

MGlobules

October 11th, 2011 at 4:54 PM ^

he would shut up now and keep shutting up for a very long time. If he is going to salvage even a little credibility--or really had any to begin with--he would put forth his story in print, not freakin' tweet hysterical responses.

He doth protest too much. 

bjk

October 11th, 2011 at 4:57 PM ^

get my hands on the book.

From some of the previews (03 Blue 07) I've seen, I get the impression that folks that originated the Freep Jihad by alerting RR haters to problems inside the AD's office may still be safely hidden in the woodwork, or that people who know who they are still are. I wouldn't consider this episode over if people who already put their personal vendettas above the well-being of the program once are still sitting within striking distance of the beating heart of Michigan football. I wonder at the psychology of those who want to "put it all behind" before anybody even knows what happened in the first place; how can you know the dangers are over?

I think that putting a lover of Michigan athletics and football, and a man of excellent reputation like John Bacon, on the AD's institutional shit-list would be a perfectly horrible idea. As bad as scheduling OSU in October.

jmblue

October 11th, 2011 at 5:18 PM ^

I wonder at the psychology of those who want to "put it all behind" before anybody even knows what happened in the first place; how can you know the dangers are over?

A lot of people simply don't want to revisit a very painful episode in the program's history, especially when the program now appears to be on the upswing and the fanbase unified. I've got no problem with Bacon cashing in on his hard work, but I'm not terribly motivated to relive all the 3-9 ugliness.

bjk

October 11th, 2011 at 5:48 PM ^

has hit the nail on the head so far, to all appearances. M is on a good path. There's no reason to nurse old grudges that will interfere with that success.

On the other hand, I am nervous at the possibility that people who don't have their first loyalty to M, people with blood on their hands, are still sitting close to the head of the AD office table, capable of stabbing us in the back yet again.

I have no disrespect for those who don't feel a need to stick the old horrors up their nose again. I'm different in that, while I'm all in with Hoke, I'm still curious to look backward to see if it's possible to tell whether those lurking problems that screwed us in the past are truly over.

BlueVoix

October 11th, 2011 at 6:02 PM ^

I think it's probably impossible to weed out everyone in an athletic department that has personal grudges and isn't necessarily 100% committed to anything.  You see that in other athletic departments (Ole Miss, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Maryland) and you see that in just about every office across the country.  People do stupid, spiteful things, because people are stupid and spiteful.

Not really possible to get 100% buy-in from everyone.

J. Lichty

October 11th, 2011 at 6:25 PM ^

for all his personal deficiencies - and a few shine in this book - Brandon's strengths are where Martin failed.  Brandon will control message above all else.  He will not let these divisions happen.  That is why, even though it wasnt RR's fault - having nothing to do with the product on the field, (which I think even Brandon thought would keep getting better) RR had to go.  The situation had become too toxic as Brandon said.  The players couldnt focus on their jobs because they were always having to defend their coach.  The coaches couldnt focus, because if they sneezed, they would be accused of trying spread germs.

BlueFordSoftTop

October 11th, 2011 at 5:40 PM ^

I study history with expectation that it is possible to avoid repeating unfortunate events.  One lesson drawn is that from here forward we cultivate our coaching staff mindful of succession.  Yet we still must avoid the sort of coaching inbreeds some [Bacon?] allude existed, for example, with Rodriguez and Gibson.  After reviewing MGoBlog posts, I have opted to buy the book which, along with a few scotch and waters, I hope will shed insight that I can act upon as a donor.  Money, not kidneys.  0.02

scooterf

October 11th, 2011 at 5:48 PM ^

This just went from "probably going to buy that" to "pre-ordering it tonight" after reading this and some of the previews that have popped up lately.

WolverineHistorian

October 11th, 2011 at 5:56 PM ^

I've read pretty much any book written about Michigan football that's been published in the last 40-50 years. But I'm torn on reading this one.  I don't want to relive the last 3 years.  We had about 100 different winning streaks go up in smoke and I saw UM not make a bowl for the first time in my entire life.  I grew up where an 8-4 season at Michigan was considered rock bottom and it was enough to put Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr on the hot seat.  The last 3 years?  I can't even put into words what that was. 

However, it could answer some questions about what the hell was going on while I was pulling my hair out and Michigan was clearly not looking like Michigan. 

J. Lichty

October 11th, 2011 at 6:28 PM ^

I just finished the book and I think that Bacon is overselling the negatives about RR.

Maybe Bacon needs to do this to make it seem like he was being evenhanded, but RR should not be upset with this book.  He comes accross as a very good man, a very good husband and father, and a very good coach.  His failings are more in execution than in spirit - the Groban thing being a great example. 

Maybe he is upset because there is an element of pathos present, although, I have to say as someone who liked him while he was here, but agreed that it was time for him to go, that I like him even more after this book.

jaws4141

October 11th, 2011 at 6:53 PM ^

Rich Rodriguez wasn't qualified to coach at Michigan.  Lloyd Carr knew this and was decent enough to not publically criticize Rodriguez.  If Rich Rodriguez cared about the University of Michigan he would have never granted Bacon total access to the program.  What kind of football coach does that?   Rodriguez knew he was over his head and basically threw Michigan under the bus.   It was oblivious that he couldn't coach.  Even if everything in the book is true it doesn't excuse Rodriguez's inability to make adjustments and piss poor game plans.  His record at Michigan says it all.  Mike Leach said it best when someone told him that Bob Davie was a good coach.  He said a monkey could be head coach at schools like Notre Dame and Michigan and have a winning record.  Apparently a monkey would have done a better job than RR.  15-22 is a joke.  Rodriguez is a joke.  Thank god Dave Brandon is a hell of allot smarter than most people on this blog.

 

nyc_wolverines

October 11th, 2011 at 8:01 PM ^

Learning that Lloyd lobbied for RR makes sense... He oversaw The Horror and was the genesis of the worst hiring decision in U of M history...

In my mind, the 1997 team will always be a tribute to Moeller's efforts and recruitment.

 

Edit: since I was hit for trolling, might as well finish my thought: Gary Moeller's short career does not get the attention it deserves. He was a brilliant coach, hired solid assts and kept the recruiting pipeline stocked. I am deeply disappointed the incident led to his complete dismissal. Most of you all here don't remember Gary and his tenure, or followed him post-Michigan, including his brief time as HC of the Lions before Matt Millen became GM of the Lions.  

Mblue96

October 11th, 2011 at 11:12 PM ^

Moeller was HC when I was a student here...and his teams were quite sophisticated offensively.  I believe he was his own offensive coordinator at the time.  His offensive philosophy was pretty aggressive.  They had power running but also a great passing game, and frequently threw on first down.  I remember whenever M got a turnover, a favorite tactic of Moeller's was to take a shot at the endzone right away.  I actually think that M under Hoke and Borges are headed back to that kind of an offense.  Unfortunately he had a few 4 loss seasons (I remember LC getting quite a bit of heat as the DC during those years) and that night in Southfield(?) which ultimately led to his dismissal...or he could have been HC well into the 2000s and maybe avoided the ill-fated RR experiment to begin with.

TheThief

October 11th, 2011 at 7:13 PM ^

Clicking on the hyperlink takes me to the hardcover edition. When I clicked on the kindle edition I did not notice mgoblog in the url. If I click on the link on mgoblog and then click on the kindle edition link in amazon will mgoblog still benefit? I would like mgoblog to benefit, but I want to purchase the book on my kindle, so I have it as soon as possible.

mGrowOld

October 11th, 2011 at 9:00 PM ^

I would love to ask John if he felt the shift in recruiting in-state (percieved or real) had to do more with Dantonio or with the anti-RR factions working against him.  It would seem to me that the fastest way to get a coach killed would be to go to your High School coaching contacts and "warn" them against sending kids to coach you want outed.  If you choke the pipeline of talent you'll ensure failure and if that's your goal (sick as that even sounds to me to type it) then I wouldnt put it past people with an agenda to do so.

Bando Calrissian

October 11th, 2011 at 11:33 PM ^

Got my copy today and I'm ~100 pages in.  This book is marvelous, even knowing what happens in the end.  Bacon at the top of his game for sure.

Also love that the first few chapters, aside from the RR background material, are essentially weeks 1-4 of Bacon's course on college athletics.  All that was missing was the Markovits "sports space" stuff.  Brought back a lot of great memories of smashed cell phones, baked potatoes, and french fries.  

Don

October 12th, 2011 at 6:34 AM ^

that's a good indication to me that Bacon is even-handed and unbiased in his observations.

As for what his book reveals about LC and RR, it only confirms this obvious fact: people are complicated, contradictory, and frequently can be surprisingly self-destructive in certain situations regardless of how smart and insightful they may seem otherwise. All people have tender spots or hot buttons that, when pushed, can unleash unpleasant aspects of their personalities.

It's almost impossible to keep this in mind considering the outright mythical status Bo has ascended to since his passing, but the fact is that Bo was frequently a completely obnoxious dick to people around him—including his second wife Millie—if he didn't get his way or if somebody didn't agree with him. He wasn't called "Little Woody" for nothing. However, that doesn't contradict the fact that legions of people also loved him dearly, especially most of his former players.

Lloyd Carr has proven over and over his love for UM, and has continued to do so after his retirement. I think he's fundamentally a good man, and many of his players have a very high regard for him. That doesn't mean that he doesn't have a dickish side if he doesn't get his way. Coaches at that level are highly aggresive individuals, and they don't achieve at that level by being waffling and conciliatory.