'Fourth and Long': Big dreams and tough love in the Big Ten

John U. Bacon tells an up-close-and-personal tale of college football's 2012 season


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Author John U. Bacon had a problem when he invited a bunch of friends and acquaintances to rent an RV and drive to South Bend for a Michigan-Notre Dame football game: Too many people wanted to join him on this silly, too-expensive road trip.

He had to turn them away from paying more than $1,000 all together for the opportunity to watch a sport embattled by problems ranging from amateurism to concussions to flawed leadership to the ad infinitum increase in commercialism.


"FOURTH AND LONG:

THE FIGHT FOR THE SOUL OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL"

By John U. Bacon.
Simon & Schuster ($26.99).

This behavior of paying heavily to watch a controversial sport doesn't entirely make sense, and the strings holding college football together have never been thinner. In "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football," Mr. Bacon ponders this "high stakes" situation by following four Big Ten programs: Ohio State, Michigan, Northwestern and, most prominently, Penn State.

He embedded himself at each of these campuses for the 2012 season, earning particularly deep access at Penn State. Though the book takes a macro-view on college football, it functions equally well as a behind-the-scenes capsule of a memorable 2012 season for the Nittany Lions.

Mr. Bacon was there in the locker room before the season-opening Ohio disaster, as well as for the season-ending Wisconsin triumph. He provides plenty of juice, too -- a rebellion against Jay Paterno in 2011 and several unflattering anecdotes about athletic director Dave Joyner to name a couple.

But back to the thrust of Mr. Bacon's story. He says college football works because of irrationality. Fans pay for a far inferior product compared to the pros because of the game's pageantry and traditions and the fact that seemingly normal 250-pound men stand in the corner of a stadium after a home game and belt out the alma mater with the students and alums. He wonders if we might all get smart because of the crises embroiling the sport.

"The entire enterprise of big-time college football is based on the assumption that the player will continue to play, and the fans will continue to pay," he writes. "What would it take for the fans to stop opening their wallets?"

Mr. Bacon is a journalist who has written six books, mostly about football, and is best known for "Three and Out," his best-seller about former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez.

He grew up worshipping Michigan football, later attending the university, and passages of "Fourth and Long" illustrate his appreciation for college football, coming across as though they are pulled from a love letter written by a boyfriend who's still in love but considering his commitment. Mr. Bacon knows he shouldn't still be in love but knows it's unlikely he'll initiate the breakup, regardless of the issues.

Mr. Bacon's strategy is to humanize those issues. Commercialism is Michigan's new athletic director, Dave Brandon, a former Domino's CEO who has raised prices for home games via required donations, and more than tripled the size of the athletic department's marketing staff. The good old days are the Northwestern games played in a bandbox by the lake where the quarterback, Kain Colter, is pursuing medical school. Penn State is the classic underdog, the spurned former favorite of the NCAA.

You might be wondering how all of this fits together. At times, "Fourth and Long" feels fragmented as it darts back and forth between teams. A theme of redemption surrounding coach Urban Meyer and the Ohio State program, in particular, doesn't feel nearly as important as the other subjects, and the book gets bogged down a bit during the segments where Mr. Bacon describes teams' individual games from last year.

But whether it's through that spontaneous road trip to the Michigan-Notre Dame game that reveals the surprising love held by optimistic fans or a validated gripe about the NCAA, he always finds a way to weave back to the central focus.

Mr. Bacon earned all of this fantastic access, and he lets his characters speak for him. Not surprisingly to Penn State fans, two of the loudest, most commendable voices belong to graduated players Michael Mauti and Mike Zordich.

Despite its problems, college football remains a joyride when guys like these are driving. Fans would be smart to hop in with Mr. Mauti, Mr. Zordich and Mr. Bacon and discover that this flawed game can still be a hell of a trip.

 


Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

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