One of the most interesting books about Big Ten football in recent years was John U. Bacon's "Three and Out," the author's tome about the three years he spent embedded inside the program of doomed Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez.
That book was a page turner and helped introduce Bacon to a much larger audience. A longtime Michigan historian who had previously garnered notice for writing a leadership book with Bo Schembechler, Bacon found himself on the New York Times bestseller list with "Three and Out."
The time Bacon spent within the Michigan program – and the respect and admiration he developed for college football players in general – helped lead to his latest book, "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football," which hit bookstores Sept. 2.
Bacon spent the 2012 season traveling the Midwest with the Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Northwestern programs, garnering valuable insight into the way coaches Urban Meyer, Brady Hoke, Bill O'Brien and Pat Fitzgerald run their programs. His depiction of how Meyer broke through to his 2012 team and helped turn it into an undefeated squad is likely familiar to fans who saw Meyer speak publicly this offseason but still contains new and interesting details about the campaign.
In addition, Bacon talks to fans and players about the seismic transitions – ranging from conference realignment to the new College Football Playoff and more – taking place in one of America's favorite sports.
Bacon sat down with Buckeye Sports Bulletin to discuss the book many fans were talking about as the season kicked off.
Buckeye Sports Bulletin: After writing "Three and Out," what was it that made you want to do this book? Was it based on the time you spent with Michigan?
John U. Bacon: "I would say a few things. It's fascinating getting to know the players, as you saw in the last book, in a way that really no one has a chance to do. Having done that, I kind of felt like, ‘OK, that was Michigan's story, but the story has to be broader than that.' The two groups that no one consults when making all these changes about rivalries and conferences and more are the players and the fans. The whole goal of this book was to talk to the players and the fans in a way that really has not been done before. I feel like we did that, and it was a fun thing to do, to talk to people who don't get asked about these things. Trust me, they have opinions. When it comes to adding Maryland and Rutgers (to the Big Ten) to the playoff, all these decisions that are coming down the pike, they never seem to ask the players or the fans, which is amazing. Not many industries operate that way."
BSB: One thing that came through strongly in the writing both in "Three and Out" and this book is your respect and admiration for the players and coaches. Can you put into words what you've learned about college football players now that you've been inside these programs?
JUB: "Honestly, for the most part, the players get a bit of a bad rap compared to what I experienced as far as the whole student-athlete thing. Everyone always mocks that. I have to tell you, I did not meet all of the players and I did not go to all of their classes, but the ones I met and talked to and followed – and obviously these four programs are a bit exceptional – they were absolutely the real deal as far as student-athletes go. Everyone I saw was making the most of it, and look at the graduation rates – Penn State is 91 percent, Northwestern is 94 percent, I know that Ohio State is up there. On a grand scale, you have to say that is working.
"The players' love for this is irrational. (Former Michigan quarterback) Denard Robinson could have transferred when the Michigan offense changed pretty dramatically, and he stayed. (Michigan lineman) Taylor Lewan could have left for the draft and economically he should have left, but he came back and conducted the Michigan pep band at Crisler Arena that night at a basketball game. The players' love for this is irrational. Don't get me started on the Penn State players. All of them could have left immediately for greener pastures in many ways, but all but a few stayed, and that was based more on the heart than the head, I think.
"We love this about college football, and likewise, the fans are irrational about this. Tailgates are miniature wedding receptions these days. People shell out $500 to $1,000 dollars and more, surely, on these football weekends, and the generosity is incredible. You can't walk through the Horseshoe parking lot or the Michigan golf course or around Beaver Stadium without someone handing you a beer and a brat. That's a wonderful thing. That's where we are our most generous. So the players are irrational, the fans are irrational, and that's kind of where they've got us.
"They know this, and they are increasingly taking advantage of both the players and the fans. I think the class action lawsuits (about video game depictions and concussions) show that players are reaching their limit, and the canary in the coal mine for Big Ten programs is Penn State. Since 2010, they've lost 3,000 ticket holders more or less per year, and that includes this year coming up, I understand. Those guys are the hardcore of the hardcore and they've been filling that place for a long time. Finally, they're saying, ‘The cost is too much, the schedule is too weak, this is crazy.' If at Penn State, people start bailing out, things are starting to change."
BSB: The tagline for the book is about the battle for the soul of college football. Do you hope the book in the end advocates change?
JUB: "I'm not sure it's quite a call to action, but the evidence is there for a call to action. I'm reading Ken Burns' book on national parks, and he describes how Niagara Falls was taken over by commercial interests – souvenir salesmen and tourist traps and all the rest. The big fight was to save Yosemite from being another Niagara Falls, and that's the way I see it.
"We have a beautiful, natural national park (in college football) in some ways. This thing was built over 150 years. Millions upon millions of people love it. But because we love it, they know they can charge us for it, and the more they charge us, the more it starts losing its charm. If we're not careful before too long, it's going to look like Niagara Falls. At that point, it becomes something else, and you can almost never turn that around."
BSB: One of the things that you wrote most strongly about in the book was the difference between when the Big Ten added Nebraska and then added Maryland and Rutgers. The first one people thought made sense, the second one everyone was scratching their heads. Is that another example of a data point you're talking about?
JUB: "Exactly. The point is that it's not, ‘Get off my lawn.' It's not that fans are against any and all changes, but there's changes that make sense and fit the spirit of the model, and there's changes that clearly seem to be driven by money and money alone. The national parks have evolved, but you don't need to see Walt Disney taking over the Grand Canyon and adding rides.
"There's a reasonable debate to be had about expansion, but that debate is being steamrolled by what is happening now. How many people thought, ‘Maryland and Rutgers, let's do that'? What does it tell you about Maryland's situation, where they ignore their open meetings act to get all that pushed through? They knew damn well it would be unpopular. That's an ACC founding member in 1953, and they have great rivalries with Virginia, Duke and North Carolina. They didn't want it any more than Big Ten fans wanted it, but obviously no one was asking the fans.
"And just as important, nobody was asking the players. The book ends on that, where even Penn State linemen are saying, ‘Gee, if you're a Nebraska softball player, why would you want to be flying to Rutgers for a weekend series?' That makes no sense. Just like the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry collapsing because Jack Swarbrick realized he could make a few more bucks playing different teams. What Notre Dame players or fans were consulted about that? If you keep doing it that way, sooner or later it rots underneath you."
BSB: It's clear from the book you enjoy the fun part of college football as well, taking road trips and seeing the local watering holes. That's what college football is all about.
JUB: "Exactly, and think about this. In the NFL, you have concrete (stadiums) that change every 30 years and they charge the taxpayers for it. There's no connection there. It means nothing. Ohio Stadium has been there since 1922. Michigan Stadium opened in '27, Ryan Field – all of them go back to before or around World War II, and they're not going to move them. They're surrounded by trees, they're surrounded by two-story homes, they're surrounded by all kinds of traditions and great old bars and restaurants that everybody loves.
"Crunchy's in East Lansing, that was fantastic. In Michigan, you have the Brown Jug. I love Plank's in Columbus. That's part of the culture, too. I had a great experience wherever I went. I visited Evanston, South Bend, East Lansing, Michigan, Columbus and Penn State, all great stops. There are a lot of concerns written in this book and a lot of problems cited, but it was a dream season that I got to live. I hope, using the national parks analogy, we're not the last generation to enjoy that in its greatest form."
BSB: Do you have faith that won't happen in the end?
JUB: "I know the spirit is there, the desire is there. Lord knows all my friends' kids are photographed on Facebook in their baby college gear. The question is, will the money still be there? A family of four at Michigan – and I'm sure it's similar at a lot of other schools – it's about a $500 day without a hotel and without a restaurant. Disney World costs less than that, and Mickey never loses. And if you lose the kids, why would they care about it 10 or 20 years from now?
"A lot is made of the students' atmosphere (at games), which seems to be an issue at a lot of places. One theory is, how many of them went to games when they were 10 years old? How many of them got a taste of it when they were 5 and saw the band for the first time – the Blue Band at Penn State, Script Ohio at Ohio State, the Michigan marching band? Habits are very hard to form and very easy to break. It takes three or four generations for the habit to sink in, and it takes one generation for it to be broken."
BSB: You did spend time inside each of these programs. So what did you learn about the Ohio State culture and the current Ohio State program when you came down to Columbus?
JUB: "First thing first, they were very open to me. I talked to Urban Meyer a few times before, during and after the season – including a couple of lengthy interviews before and after – and what impressed me the most about him is if I asked him a question, he gave me an answer. He didn't filter it, he didn't measure his words, he didn't run it past PR – he answered the damn question. That was refreshing. He takes a very similar approach with his players. You might not always like it, but he's telling you the truth, and that's good.
"I thought it was very interesting hearing him talk about how, ‘We weren't very good when the season started. I wasn't happy about how the players were not letting the coaches coach them.' He was very direct about this, which makes for good reading, that's for sure.
"Also, the people I met at Plank's were a blast. The people I met in the parking lot (at Ohio Stadium), they were all very good to me. It was fun. I wasn't wearing my maize and blue on my sleeve, but I wasn't hiding it, either. They still served me beer and brats, and none of it has killed me yet! That, to me, is Big Ten football at its best."
The original interview was shortened to fit the original space.