So there was a new Bacon book this year. We need to review this book. I'm going to do this with the expectation that you have either read it already or are going to. You should. It is a Bacon book. You are reading MGoBlog; either you are a person who appreciates Bacon or else a visiting Sparty looking for more trolling fodder, in which case help yourself to the board where I promise you there's plenty. Or better yet, read some Bacon—you're in the Big Ten; this concerns you too. And he says the Red Cedar is nice.
This is not a negative review, even though I have a tendency to focus on the "needs work" aspects—I'm the guy who walked out of The Return of the King after five years of unmitigated Peter Jackson man-crushing and complained that there were too many endings. So apologies to John U., who's higher in my esteem than Mr. Jackson and just about everyone whose quotes aren't emblazoned on a wall somewhere, for the plurality of minuses below.
More Bacon. Ever since Bo's Lasting Lessons, the chance to devour a new Bacon book has been somewhat of an event around these parts. As a Michigan fan it would be tough to follow the unparalleled access and insight into the Rich Rod program accomplished with Three and Out, specifically because that unvarnished snapshot was so starkly antithetical to Dave Brandon's meticulous staging of his Michigan show: You knew at the time that no true journalist would be allowed to see behind the bunting again, so it should only come as a mild disappointment that there is little about the Michigan program in this book that you didn't already know.
Fourth and Long: the Fight for the Soul of College Football is four unequal looks at four 2012 Big Ten programs, or four and a half if you count a mini-treatment that Michigan State and Mark Hollis receive as host of an Ohio State road game. In order of detail:
- Penn State from the point of view of its players, former players, coaches, and equipment managers as they find themselves taking the brunt of the Penn State Awful Thing, and the NCAA's and PSU brass's callow responses to it.
- Michigan from Bacon's own point of view of its fans, as those fans interact with Brandon's corporate-itude.
- Ohio State from the P.O.V. of Urban Meyer as he goes from win to win trying to get Zach Boren to like him, and
- Northwestern as the paragon of virtue.
Bacon set out, as is evident from the title and made clear throughout the book, to examine these four schools from different points of view (players, AD, head coach, and president, respectively), and use the findings to determine if any of the Big Ten's current models for college football are sustainable for college football in general. In it he consistently finds players and fans who "get it" while the people in control seek new and better ways to milk it.
But he could only use what he got from each school. With Ohio State the access was mostly restricted to Urban on game days. He brushes against tatgate but doesn't get into the cars or any other "everybody knows, nobody can prove" things—you have to appreciate that Bacon will never accuse somebody without proof (especially considering he's an avowed Michigan fan talking about Ohio State) but it's really hard to talk about college sports and the competitive problems therein without admitting there are relative bad guys. The Gee quote—"I hope he doesn't fire me!"—is in there in reference to the bloated role of college football head coach in America. The closest he comes to pointing out OSU's exceptionalism in this regard is when addressing the carrying off of Tressel after last year's Game:
"The Buckeyes do not run a renegade program, but they once again demonstrated they don't seem to care if their actions make others think they do."
This isn't a complaint; Bacon handled a sticky situation about as well as he could. With Northwestern he got some key interviews, particularly with Pat Fitzgerald, but no warts (this could be because they don't have any).
With Michigan Bacon was outside looking in, so he used some of the Bacon-usual suspects—Carty, the dueling barbershops, the public comments of James Duderstadt and Don Canham, Brian Cook of MGoBlog, etc. There's also an inside look at the Mud Bowl, and most interestingly, a candid interview with Michigan's band director about Send-the-Band-to-Dallas-gate. I was more intrigued by the comments made by Bill Martin on the corporatization of NCAA football, which I'll come back to. The whole Notre Dame saga is covered. Except for the band's comments most of this is old news to you.
The result is a book that's 52% about Penn State trying to survive 2012, with a bunch of stuff thrown in about some other schools and corporations to underscore a point made clear without leaving Happy Valley.
[After the jump: it's just, like, my opinion man.]
Takeaways: There were really two books here: the PSU 2012 story, which Bacon told better than any of the Penn State people who tackled the same subject, and the one he actually set out to write about the NCAA that was frustratingly incomplete.
|Mauti is basically the hero of the story, holding his team together and demonstrating, in the face of the NCAA's hypocrisy, that playing college football and getting a degree are actually highly valued by some people. [Mike Pettigano]|
The best way I can demonstrate the difference in the two books is to contrast the Mauti quote in the last chapter, where he's just found out whether his latest injury will cost him an NFL career, with that from his friend Zordich at the epilogue. Caution: there's effing in both.
"Whoever's trying to kill me isn't getting the job done. But one day, I'm going to punch that fucker in the face.
"I worry about the future of the game, because what they're going to be playing in twenty years will have nothing to do with what we had.
"The suits are ruining the whole thing, for money.
"It makes enough fucking money.
"How much do they need?"
With the first you get the full sense of the resilience of PSU's players and coaches in the face of an NCAA trying to get the other inmates to administer a death penalty for them. With the second you feel like you walked into the middle of a protest on the Diag: Yeah, man, the corporations.
|Google image returns for "Bill Martin Michigan" are about 15% Rich Rod, 10% sailboats, 1% Les Miles, and 1% the other Bill Martin who's a professor with NERS.|
Here's where I come back to Bacon's recent interview with Bill Martin. Bill's a bit of a polarizing figure because he disgruntled plenty of the Canhamites (nevermind that he was a huge improvement from Goss), and for Sailboatgate (nevermind that we dodged a huge bullet because of it). On the other hand—and this is the Bill Martin we meet in the book—he's the athletic director who you knew wasn't lying when he justified the luxury boxes because they'd keep the advertising out and the other seats affordable (the boxes are also the primary factor in Michigan's relative flushness in recent years, in case you were giving Brandon credit for that) (I need to stop with the parentheticals in this paragraph).
Martin's big complaint about the Dave Brandon's Michigan is how much they're spending on marketing:
"You don't have to do marketing at Michigan, We have the fans. We have the support. We have a great reputation. All you have to do is win. If you win they will come. You just need to make it as affordable as possible for your fans.
On the one hand, the very existence of a chief marketing officer on State Street is so intuitively antithetical that Hunter Lochmann and his "Lochdogg" former twitter handle and his power words are running jokes on this site. On the other hand, tell me you didn't cringe at least a little bit at the same "this is Michigan" naivety from the man who thought Carr would retire and all the Bill Cowhers would immediately line up outside the door?
Who's Scrooging Whom?
The complicating factor when you say "the corporations" is it's harder than you think to find a Scrooge McDuck swimming in a silo of gold earned by other people. Money has a way of being used; a free market has to absorb opportunity costs, and accept an adversarial relationship between consumers and providers, and deal with the fact that things in temporary demand will be grossly overvalued unless somebody's conscious gets in the way (it's pretty tough on consciouses too). Bacon does point where some of the money goes: coaches' salaries, like those of CEOs, that have been bloated by the market well past what an operation built to manage amateur athletics between colleges was ever equipped to handle. To point at this and say "that's wrong" is easy, but it's harder when you're culpable.
|Requisite Delany-Rutgers shot time.|
In your head I want you to imagine how many years it will take Greg Mattison to be paid as much at Michigan as Bo Schembechler was for his entire career, the AD stint and Michigan Replay appearances included. Now remember that a big reason—according to Three and Out—Rodriguez was in the market for DCs he couldn't get along with is Bill Martin, not wanting to contribute to the ugly arms race, wouldn't give Jeff Casteel an offer worth moving for. Hypothetically, would you pay an extra $1,000 seat license fee? What about $500?
Hunter Lochmann will be happy to correlate the two, and what college football fans need is for our greatest anti-Lochmanns—and John U. Bacon is certainly on anybody's short list for the Anti-Bullshiters League—to separate them, show fans exactly how their milk is pasteurized, and whom it's feeding. The book does a little bit of that, but when he does so it's usually Brian Cook (Big Ten expansion tete-a-tete with EDSBS and the Jerryworld revelation) he's quoting. With the former—probably because that point is broken up by an unprintable Gotye video—Bacon left out the current destination of all that cash from cable's communist bundling system: massive building projects at the big schools (and, not mentioned by any of these parties, the Division I-ization of schools that shouldn't be able to afford it, which has further complicated reform efforts).
How to put the genie back in the bottle, though a nearly impossible question, is what I felt this book signed up for and ultimately didn't deliver. Brian even asked Bacon in the Q&A this very question, and got back "what is the tipping point for fans?" Bacon later did provide an answer in an article he wrote last month for Yahoo Sports:
What football and basketball players need is what baseball and hockey players have enjoyed for almost a century: a viable minor league, so players who don't want to be college students, and prefer to be paid in cash instead of scholarships, can do just that.
In the article he makes a strong case that simply paying players just adds fuel to the money-grubbing fire. Bacon's method for forcing the NFL and NBA to make these leagues is to bring back freshman ineligibility.
Let's Talk About the Fixes
I'm getting off the topic of the book now but to answer that, I don't think restricting freshmen from playing is at all plausible simply because the schools wouldn't agree to it in a million years.
|I've been refraining all week from making fun of what a dump Spartan Stadium appears to be compared to Michigan's facilities because I find Mark Hollis's austerity in service to his fans preferable to shiny natatoriums, a sentiment echoed by Bacon when visiting MSU.|
College hockey isn't a great model since OHL teams use some pretty shady tactics to defeat their draft picks' college eligibility, and Canadians' passion for their minor league hockey teams is like that of college sports in the U.S. and soccer in Europe: long, passionate relationships that pre-date television. Baseball's minor leagues are hideously unattended and a drag on MLB franchises' bottom lines. What they can take from the NHL and MLB is they're allowed to draft players and leave them in college. The NFL—not NCAA—created the arbitrary three-years-out-of-high-school line because that's the point when the players have matured enough that the teams won't waste many investments. The ability to tuck developmental prospects in college—and end up with a more educated workforce I might add—serves the same need, and serves every other need except the orthodoxy of amateurism.
I've made the point before that most of the value in a Terrelle Pryor jersey is credited to Ohio State—Johnny Manziel is a small national franchise but it's still mostly Texas A&M fans who buy Johnny Football. No minor league is going to have 100,000 seats and the players who are passionate about playing on the big stage but not passionate about earning a college degree are still going to sign with Alabama and put their hands under the table. As is abundantly clear in the book, college football is an immensely valuable thing to its fans and its participants: a minor league wouldn't have a chance, and the players would rather pretend to be studying generals than make a taxable $14,500/year in an empty stadium with sub-par talent. Almost universally, athletes desire to play on the biggest stage possible and the only guys they ever want to be more talented than their opposition are their teammates. You can offer an alternative to college; they won't go.
If we take the approach that the free market is instructive, the stuff going on in the SEC might be the most plausible model: give the players a little extra cash from non-program sources and let them have agents (the NFL can decide which agents get licensed). EA Sports shouldn't have to drop their game; they should pay the players a small sum for their likenesses.
Go Read It.
I can't believe Penn State fans haven't eaten this thing up. Ohio State fans will probably hate it, since despite Bacon's best efforts to echo Bill O'Brien's relationship with his players in Urban Meyer's own attempts to win over his team (which he does, with wins), Zach Boren comes off the same way Borens always come off, and the rest of the Buckeye stuff is essentially game recaps and Bacon's musings on the gorgeous Big Ten campuses of Evanston and East Lansing. Northwestern fans will shrug and give Pat Fitzgerald and their A.D. and their president another hug. As for Michigan fans, we're left feeling pretty much as a I imagine Bacon did when trying to complete an impossible task: shut out from the vital stuff for fear we might expose something.