Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football

In the twilight of a cool, early October evening last year, along with my son, son-in-law and 7-year-old grandson, I sat in the upper deck of Beaver Stadium, watching Penn State eke out a 43-40 win in four overtimes against my alma mater, the University of Michigan. The game had many of the things that make college football unique among our American spectator sports: a noisy and passionate “whiteout” home crowd of nearly 108,000, an improbable comeback by the Nittany Lions in the closing seconds of regulation and enough blunders by both teams to fill a lengthy reel of lowlights. In Fourth and Long, a passionate defense of the game he loves against the forces that threaten to undermine it, journalist John U. Bacon offers a persuasive case that these and other endearing (and enduring) qualities make it something truly worth saving.

Bacon’s book follows four Big Ten football teams – Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern – throughout the 2012 season, the dawn of the post-Paterno era at Penn State and the first year of Urban Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State, itself serving out an NCAA probation. While it’s a fast-paced, entertaining read that doesn’t feel at all padded out, Bacon probably could have stopped with an examination of those programs. His look at Michigan mostly gives him an opportunity to savage Athletic Director Dave Brandon, someone who has brought the marketing mentality of a corporate CEO to the job, relentlessly squeezing every dollar he can from loyal fans to support an athletic department budget of $137.5 million this year. In the case of Northwestern (where, along with Michigan, Bacon teaches journalism), he’s mostly concerned with the effort the school (the smallest member of the conference by far, and its only private university) has made to remain competitive against the league’s behemoths.

What’s most compelling here is the story – told with a real insider’s eye and feel – of the effort to salvage the Penn State football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Bacon has little sympathy for the hypocritical NCAA sanctions that allowed players to transfer immediately to other schools (as star running back Silas Redd did to USC), what he calls “a death sentence, by slow poisoning.” Instead of actually imposing that sentence, as it had on SMU in 1986, Bacon describes how the coaches from other schools, who lurked in the apartment and dormitory parking lots in Happy Valley attempting to buttonhole wavering players, served the NCAA’s desire to “let the vultures finish the job for them.” Though Bacon recognizes the importance of new coach Bill O’Brien’s smart, inspirational leadership, especially after the team dropped its first two games before winning eight of its final 10, he’s equally generous toward fifth-year seniors Mike Mauti and Mike Zordich, acknowledging the indispensable role they played in stemming the outward flow of their teammates before it really began.

But it wasn’t only the beleaguered Penn State team that faced a crisis in 2012, as Bacon explains in this succinct indictment of college football today: “The sport was under attack for myriad sins, including academic fraud, the exploitation of amateur athletes by millionaire coaches and athletic directors, a profoundly corrupt bowl system and the rank hypocrisy of the NCAA.” For the most part, however, he deals with these issues only glancingly. His focus throughout the book remains on the teams, and as a result, he doesn’t address the class action lawsuit brought by current and former basketball and football players against the NCAA, challenging the uncompensated use of their names and likenesses in lucrative merchandise sales, nor the National College Players Association, an organization that seeks to act as an advocate for student-athletes.

What Bacon, who grew up in Ann Arbor and graduated from Michigan, understands and captures best (demonstrated in a delightful account of a tailgating weekend with friends at the Michigan-Notre Dame game) is the atavistic loyalty that impels college fans to support their teams from generation to generation, win or lose, in a way that’s unmatched in professional sports. “College football fans don’t just love football,” he writes. “They love college football – the history, the traditions, the rituals, and the rivalries that surpass those of the pro game.”

And now we’ve reached the end of another football season, one that saw Penn State, Michigan and Northwestern struggle, while Ohio State embarked on what looks like an extended run of Big Ten, and even national, dominance. It’s the last season before a new playoff system replaces the current BCS Championship, generating even greater riches for successful programs. Next year also will mark the arrival of Maryland and Rutgers in the Big Ten, an expansion that’s purely money-driven in Bacon’s view. No misty-eyed sentimentalist, he recognizes that these powerful trends are probably irreversible, even as he longs to preserve the values at the game’s core.