Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football examines the increasing professionalization of college football.  A passionate collegiate fan, author John U. Bacon delves into the behind-the-scenes lives of four Big Ten programs — Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Northwestern  — delivering a glimpse of football today.

0906_oag_fourth-and-longHighlights From Bill’s Conversation with John U. Bacon

BL:  Very early in Fourth and Long you write that “the world’s first academically based athletic conference, the Big Ten,  now stands as the last best hope for nationally competitive, reasonably clean college football to make its stand.” In this context, what does “reasonably clean” mean?

JB: No one can claim at any level of college athletics, at least in division one, that any league is completely clean. Now of course in the Big Ten only in the last two or three years, the three most stable, three of the seven most winningest programs in college football history — Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State — all had to deal with the NCAA on some level and all had to fire their coaches. Right there you see what used to be so stable is now a little bit rocky and a bit tainted as well. That’s what I’m referring to there as far as reasonably clean.  That said, whats going on in the Big Ten even on an occasional basis cannot match whats going on elsewhere.

BL: You maintain throughout Fourth and Long that historically for reasons having to do with “geography, affinity, stability, and identity college football has been preferable to football played in the NFL.” How has that circumstance been threatened?

JB: Of course those are my beliefs and those of us who love college football much prefer it to the pro-game for those reasons. The people who love college football truly, the players and the fans and this amazing relationship between them — which in my opinion is far closer than any relationship between any players and fans in any league anywhere.  That relationship is threatened by the guys who run the game who seem to have less and less in common with the players and fans who love it.  For example, the Notre Dame/Michigan rivalry was ended with an envelope passed from Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame athletic director to Michigan’s athletic director, Dave Brandon, five minutes before kick-off. Which legally means they’ve got three games left, they’re going to break the contract, with three games notice.  It was all about greed.  Is there a single Notre Dame player, or Michigan player, or fan on either side of that fence said ‘please end this rivalry between the two greatest programs in college football?’ If they’re saying that, I didn’t hear it. The AD’s don’t care.  They don’t care what you want.  They don’t care what the players want. They’re going to move kick-off times to anytime they want.  They’ll have the teams play on Thursday nights.  They’ll change uniforms on you when they feel like it.  If they can sell a few more Adidas, or Nike, or whatever. And they don’t care.

BL: One of the most compelling conversations reported in your book involves Tim Brown.  As a player at Notre Dame he won the Heisman Trophy back in 1987, then he  had a long and successful career as a wide receiver in the NFL.  Were you surprised about which experience he valued more highly?

JB: Not in the least.  It was interesting to see him spell it out so clearly.  As you noted I spoke to him in the press box of the Notre Dame/Michigan game and a very nice guy and very sharp and I say ‘which experience did you like better?’ He said ‘Notre Dame no question.’

He recounts to me a little scene where he is wearing his gown, he is back in a room in his apartment, he is sitting on a box of books saying to himself ‘I have graduated.  I do not want to leave this place.’  Even thought the other side of the fence is a whole lot greener, in terms of money — I mean its millions of dollars, the guys a NFL borderline hall-of-famer he might make it one day.  I’ve talked to Archie Griffin at Ohio State.  Almost any NFL player will tell you that. Its really quite striking, and again my point: the players and fans love college football more than the people who run it.

Bill’s Thoughts on Fourth and Long

Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football must have been painful for John U. Bacon to write.

Bacon acknowledged that he and his friends were enthusiastic college football fans. But by the end of the book, one of those friends invoked “a bad high school relationship” to describe his current connection to the game.

“You keep getting abused, you know you should swear it off, but you can’t get yourself to let it go,” he said.

Readers who find it easy and painless to let go of whatever relationship they’ve had with college football may not get it, but Bacon’s contention is that the realignment of the football conferences and the creeping “professionalization” of the college game has diminished that game’s attraction. He has preferred the college game to the NFL because until recently he has been able to believe that college players feel an authentic connection to the game for its own sake. That they don’t see college football as merely a stepping stone to the NFL. In that vein, he celebrated the Penn State players who stuck with the program there despite the penalties imposed by the NCAA on the basis of the crimes committed by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. He was happy to regard their devotion to the tradition of football in Happy Valley as admirable, despite the fact that overemphasis on the importance of protecting the image of the program and those associated with it was in part responsible for the climate in which Sandusky could sexually abuse children.

John Bacon’s contention that the fans and players are the losers in the increasingly profitable game the NCAA and college athletic directors are playing feels correct, but the football powers have been locked in an arms race for many years. Top-tier coaches have been “earning” more than university presidents for many decades. Assistant coaches have been offering promising teenagers illegal incentives for even longer. Universities have been hitting fans up for preposterous seat license fees for long enough so that although some of the fans may still be outraged, they’re certainly no longer surprised. The numbers and specific conference realignments cited in Fourth and Long may be new, but the phenomenon Bacon describes is not.