“Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football” by John U. Bacon
Football, American, College
September 3, 2013
4 1/2 of 5 stars (excellent)
A book that explores the landscape of college football through four Big Ten schools was reason enough for me to pick up this excellent book by John U. Bacon. What he did with his unlimited access to the football programs at Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern was chronicle nearly every aspect of the game today. That includes the good, the bad, the ugly, the greed, the passion and the joy that makes millions of fans care about good ol’ State U. every Saturday in the fall.
Of course, discussion of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State could not be avoided and Mr. Bacon handles this matter with the proper amount of sensitivity and objectivity. The main focus on Penn State is the new coach and the players who stayed with the program in 2012 even after the NCAA allowed them to transfer schools without losing a year of eligibility. Even if the reader is not a Penn State fan or looks upon the school and football program less favorably because of the scandal, he or she cannot help but to be uplifted by the unabated enthusiasm and pride these young men have for their school.
As for Ohio State (or should I say THE Ohio State University), they also have problems of their own since they are also ineligible for postseason bowl games, but they have also hired one of the biggest names in college football coaching, Urban Meyer. Their season too has some interesting moments and the intensity of the Ohio State – Michigan rivalry is told with interesting anecdotes.
Which leads me to Michigan. Bacon not only tells of the football team’s comings and goings, but it is through the Michigan athletic program where I believe he is at his best in explaining both the good and bad of college sports. Good in areas such as fierce loyalty by fans, the lack of public funds used for stadiums (he writes scathing commentary on pro teams who use the threat of leaving to secure public funds for facilities) and the sheer numbers of fans who care. Bad in areas such as college athletics becoming more corporate and the continuing milking of these loyal fans for more money. He likens the latter to a frog that is placed in a pot of water and the temperature of the water is very slowly raised until it reaches a boiling point and kills the frog. He asks the rhetorical questions of when the fans will reach that point.
The fourth program analyzed is Northwestern and this one is very different than the other three. Bacon does a nice job of illustrating how Northwestern still is able to maintain its strict academic policies and also be competitive in football. They are the new kids on the block compared to the other three schools, having had many losing seasons until 1995. How they have dealt with the new found success and the people involved is woven into very interesting tales.
Overall, this book is an excellent accounting of four Big Ten programs, each with their own issues and traditions. All college football fans should read this book, especially Big Ten fans and that includes fans of the other eight schools in the conference.
Did I skim?
Pace of the book:
Very good. It never seemed to drag or steer off course. What also helped make this a good read was that Mr. Bacon never stayed too long on the story of one school. Staying on one too long would make the reader forget what was going on with the other three. However, he didn’t jump around too much, so it was easy to follow the saga for each school as well.
Do I recommend?
Yes, especially for Big Ten fans. But even though the book follows the trials and tribulations of four Big Ten teams, all college football fans should enjoy this one.
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