Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

Let me bounce a few things off of you. Columbia is an Ivy League school, right? The New York Times sports page is about the size of the Chicago Tribune book section, correct? And New York City is in the northeastern United States, huh? So, are you thinking college football yet? I figured not. So it’s somewhat odd that the author, Warren St. John, is such a college football junkie. He writes for the NYT, he lives in NYC, and he went to CU.

But don’t worry; he comes on strong with the college football cred. Check this out, he once made a three-hour phone call to his parents during college. He didn’t say much to them during the call, he just had them set the receiver next to the radio so he could listen to the Alabama vs Auburn game. This was in the early 80’s, before big TV contracts and ESPNU. It was also during the time of $0.25/minute long distance calls (New York to Birmingham). Nutty.

That sets the scene for St. John’s study of sports fandom. If you think this phone incident is a little over the top, then just imagine what his college mates at Columbia thought. They had never seen anyone quite like him. To St. John, this didn’t make sense. He couldn’t believe that all of his fellow students, who had so much in common with him, didn’t share his same love for college football.

This haunts him well into his adult years. So what’s a guy to do? How about revisiting the fandom of your youth and trying to figure out how a completely normal human can lose all sense of rationality on fall Saturdays? In fact, maybe hitching a ride with one of those crazy, RV owning, crimson clad, ‘Bama fans on every Saturday during the 1999 season would do. But, you wouldn’t actually go to the level of buying your own RV and queuing up every Saturday for a spot in the RV lot? Would you?

Well, St. John would. And did! And what ensues is hilarious, disturbing, touching, and enlightening.

Hilarious is saying “Roll Tide” every time you meet a fellow Alabama fan. Hilarious is missing your daughter’s wedding because she had the audacity to plan it during the Tennessee game, then telling everybody in Alabama about it on the 11 PM news. Hilarious is vomiting before the game because you’re so nervous, just to watch.

Disturbing is racism and hypocrisy within the fan base. Disturbing is being afraid for your physical safety because you pull for the other team or disagree with the fan base. Disturbing is fans with guns.

Touching is bonding with fellow humans through the small thread of this common interest. Touching is realizing that a Saturday on The Grove at Ole Miss is so beautiful and special, that it doesn’t matter who wins. Touching is noticing that the things that made you happy as a kid, still make you happy as an adult.

Enlightening is finding out that I may not be so weird after all. Enlightening is knowing that it’s okay not to be dejected after a loss because everybody deals with disappointment a little differently.

This was a great audio book experience. Fun, not too intense, about a topic that really interests me (so I don’t have to think about it that much), and read by the author.

St. John is still a huge Alabama fan and it appears that he stays in contact with a few people that he met during this season of RVing. For example, he bought two tickets to a Yankee’s game from John Ed, the Tuscaloosa ticket broker. He also went to a game the next year with the Bice’s (spelling?), the people who generously invited him on his first RV trip to start this project off.

St. John seems like an approachable, likable, interested sports fan. I could see hanging with him, despite the fact that he still relishes in one of the Alabama victories over Notre Dame (I think it was the 1985 drubbing).


The Blind Side

If you read one football book this year, make it this one! It’s two stories in one. One, call it the main story, is a human interest story about a wealthy, white Memphis family that takes a poor, black student into their home and makes him part of their family. The other, call it the back story, is a technical, information-rich sports story about the profound changes that occurred in football over the course of 20 years, beginning in the early 1980s. Both stories are worthy of your attention and I could not put it down.

The first chapter starts with that fateful Monday night back in 1985 when Lawrence Taylor (Giants) ended the football career of Joe Theisman (Redskins). It’s a riveting account of that moment, but more so a treatise on the effect that LT had on the NFL. LT echoed in the era of the huge, speedy, violent, versatile linebacker/defensive end that wreaks havoc on the offensive backfield. The NFL has not looked back since.

Along with the advent of the super-linebacker, came the offensive reaction to stop these monsters. Since most quarterbacks are right-handed, his blind side, or left side, is most vulnerable because he can’t see much of that side of the field during the standard drop-back. This aspect of the game eventually turned any offensive tackles who were especially skilled in blind side protection into some of the highest paid men in the sport.

Thus far, the attribution for this blind side protection requirement has been laid at LT’s doorstep. But as you find out, it’s more attributable to a confluence of the rise of the passing game (brought about by Bill Walsh) and LT. This confluence came to a head in January 1981, when Bill Walsh’s highly technical offense (Montana, 49ers) came face-to-face with the relentless passion of LT’s pass rush (Bill Parcells, Giants) in a playoff game. Walsh stopped the fiery LT with a makeshift blocking scheme that had left guard John Ayers pulling back from the line of scrimmage to pick up LT. Walsh won, but knew that this scheme would not last forever and what was really needed was a left tackle that could handle the likes of LT without scheming or assistance.

Michael Oher had the physical attributes to be just such a left tackle. He was a huge, strong, fast, mobile wall of humanity; but he was mired in the Memphis public school system, which meant basically that he didn’t go to school . One day, in like 2002, Michael’s guardian (named Big Tony, note that I did not say legal guardian either) decided to find a better place for his son and just brought Michael along. He drove the two kids across Memphis to a primarily white, evangelical Christian school called Briarcrest. The two kids could not have been further from the prototypical Briarcrest student if they had tried, but Big Tony got them both enrolled.

It just so happens that Briarcrest has a lot of wealthy, interested athletic boosters. Sean Touhy is one of those. He is a Memphis businessman and former record setting point guard for Ole’ Miss. His daughter went to Briarcrest and he is sort of an athletic counselor and coach’s assistant for the school. Sean is married to a headstrong former Ole’ Miss cheerleader, also has a son named Sean Junior, owns a bunch of Taco Bells, and is the Memphis Grizzlies color analyst. Sean just seems to hang around the Briarcrest athletic facilities a lot, he eventually befriends Michael, and introduces the rest of his family to the shy young man.

Everything unfolds from there and you are let into this world of football, high school politics, NCAA rules, and race relations in Memphis. It’s a strange story. It’s also very current. Michael Oher is still at Ole’ Miss if I’m not mistaken. This book really sucked me in. I loved it.

If you like football, you will like this book. In fact, if you have a pulse, you’ll like this book. Lewis brings a few things to the table, in my view, that make him a sports author worth reading. First, he brings a quantitative, analytical approach to explaining the whys and wherefores of his thesis (I like quantitative and analytical). Second, he brings a genuine care and concern for honoring sports and their import in American life (I honor sports). Finally, he is a great storyteller. He delivers the back story with a tone of resolute detachment that has a chilling effect at times (case in point, chapter one on LT/Theisman) and he retells the main story with a lot of passion for the characters.

Great stuff, grab it and read it.


The Rest of the Iceberg

I have always been interested in this guy. My interest is rooted in a foggy memory of him quitting the football team at Ohio State (now The Ohio State University) back in the early 90’s because they would not let him study enough. I thought, wow, this guy must have some standards. He talks about this incident and takes much of the burden on himself. Smith admits that he skipped classes in early summer and wanted to back out of certain workouts so he could catch up. This caused him to butt heads with Coach Cooper and the new emphasis on physical conditioning, so Smith just quit. It was a completely uncool move by Smith and I actually feel sorry for Coach Cooper and his assistant, both of whom were implicated by a scathing SI article. But then again, Cooper was a bumbling idiot when it came to football.

Smith is arrogant, I’m talking really arrogant. But, I didn’t expect anything different from this book. He’s very intelligent with great athletic gifts. He starred at Ohio State and in the NFL. He’s very accomplished and this is, after all, his autobiography, so just by the fact that he undertook this project means he probably has some sort of “exaggerated sense of his own importance” (Mac OSX dictionary). It’s a pretty basic retelling of his life. Well, at least the first 181 pages are. The last 40 pages are Smith sounding off on a variety of topics that he is pretty well-versed in. These topics range from why athletes are not overpaid to religion in schools.

Let me analyze a couple quotes from the book.

The college scouts were making regular stops at the school (his high school) and my list of favorites was narrowed to five: Ohio State, Michigan, Miami (Florida), USC, and UCLA. I thought these schools would give me the chance to excel both on the field and in the classroom. I had wanted to be a doctor since I was a young boy and all of these universities had highly rated medical schools.

I guess that last sentence portrays why Notre Dame was not on the list, they don’t have a medical school. But why not consider them Robert? It’s less than four hours from your home, has a great football program (in the middle of the Holtz revival), and is highly respected academically. Maybe it was because you knew you would not see the field with Ricky Watters, Jerome Bettis, Rodney Culver, and Tony Brooks competing for carries. Hmmm, just a thought, but maybe I’m the arrogant one.

How about this one regarding “overpaid athletes,” quoted in the book from a USA Today article that he wrote.

If Americans didn’t spend so much time watching and reading about sports, then athletes wouldn’t be paid as much as they are. It’s a shame, but I’m sure more Americans know who the center for the LA Lakers is than those who know who the Senate majority leader is.

Well, I can’t really take issue with this. It could be because I never complain about overpaid athletes since my top two spectator sports are professional golf and college football. In golf, participants are paid for performance. In college football, participants are not paid. So, I guess I don’t have anything to complain about. Cool.

Or, it could be that I don’t take issue with this because I don’t know who the Senate Majority leader is (Harry Reid). But then again, I don’t know who the center for he LA Lakers is (Andrew Bynum). What does that make me (don’t say village idiot)?

I don’t recommend this book. There are much better football books out there and I think of this as a niche book that may be interesting to people from Ohio or people that want marijuana legalized. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it. I liked it because even though I don’t agree with many of Smith’s views, they are thought provoking. Additionally, I do love college football and there was a lot of good stuff here that I did not know. It was good just to see Tyrone Willingham’s name because Ty was Smith’s first running backs coach when Smith started with Vikings. I always liked Ty.


The Last Coach

I sit here on the eve of Thanksgiving reflecting on how timely my reading of this book has been. It’s already been a highly emotional time in my college football fandomania and I have a feeling that the emotions will build into a frothy frenzy three days hence on Saturday. You see, Bo Schembechler died last Friday on the eve of the once-in-a-lifetime clash of #1 Ohio State vs. #2 Michigan – and this Saturday, Notre Dame plays USC in easily the most important game that Notre Dame has played in over a decade. I am fortunate that my reading of this book coincides with these momentous occasions because the confluence has intensified my emotions and awareness of how this game affects my life.

Because of where I grew up, I really had no choice but to be a fan of college football. Check out the link below. Do you see that town right smack-dab in the center of the trip from Columbus to Ann Arbor called Findlay, OH?

Columbus to Ann Arbor

That, my friends, is my hometown and I spent the first 18 years of my life there. It is 95 miles from Ann Arbor and 92 miles from Columbus, and you gotta go through it if you are making the trip on gameday. It is the epicenter of one of the greatest sporting rivalries ever – Ohio State vs. Michigan. It is a town influenced as much by the Detroit-centered auto industry as it is by the rich agricultural heritage of Ohio. I think fandom is about 67/33 in favor of the Buckeyes, but my brother says its 80/20.

If that wasn’t enough to burn the passion into my brain, then I went to the University of Notre Dame to usher in the Lou Holtz era and cheer on the Irish to a National Championship in my senior year (1989). Needless to say, the fact that college football remains a huge part of my life from Labor Day through the Saturday after Thanksgiving shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

Yes, I am a college football apologist. I will defend my passion for college football in the face of frequent onslaughts from its detractors. Yes, there is hypocrisy, injustice, graft, greed and controversy that have no place on a college campus. But for every negative story, there are as many stories of hope, maturation, and community. That brings us to this book about the Bear, arguably the greatest college football coach of all time. You get both sides of the story about college football, the seedy and sacred, the pain and the joy.

This book starts out with a great history of college football. Believe it or not, the roots of college football are in the northeast. The original football machines were the Ivy League teams and Rutgers. But by the 1930’s the SEC had a firm grip on the game and still does to a certain extent, especially if you ask the pollsters and ESPN.

Bryant was a star at Alabama and started his coaching career at Maryland (1945). He turned that program around in one year and went to pull turnarounds just as incredible at Kentucky (1946-1953) and Texas A&M (1954-1957). When he came to Alabama in 1958, he was already a legend.

Shortly after his arrival at Alabama in 1958, he told his team this:

He told his players that he had come to Alabama for “one reason. To build a winning football team. We are going to do two things. We are going to learn to play football, and we are going to get up and go to class like our mamas and papas expect us to . And we are going to win. Ten years from now, you are going to be married with a family, your wife might be sick, your kids might be sick, you might be sick, but you will get your butt up and go to work. That’s what I’m going to do for you. I’m going to teach you how to do things you don’t feel like doing.”

That was classic Bear Bryant and this book is full of some great quotes and motivational speeches. But it’s not a Bear Bryant love-fest. In fact, Barra’s book appears to be a balanced portrayal of the coach. He gives equal time to the triumphs and tragedies in the Bear’s life and digs deeply into both sides of his defining moments. You get all angles on the Junction Boys, the hasty departures from his first three coaching gigs, and the accusations of fixing the 1962 Georgia-Alabama game. But that only gets you about half way through the book because you have not even touched on the last 20 years of his tenure at Alabama. It’s in this 20-year period from 1963 to 1982 that the legend is cemented.

In those 20 years, Bear Bryant won five National Championships, 12 SEC Championships, and was named Coach of the Year twice. It was an astonishing two decades of coaching but resulted in zero Heisman Trophy winners, which is even more of a testament to his prowess and emphasis on team play. He won championships while running a pro set and an option. He won championships while integrated and segregated. He won the five National Championships in the same era as Ara Parseghian, John McKay, Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes, and Joe Paterno. He blew them all away (although his record was 0-2 against both Parseghian and Devine – fire up Irish!!).

He was a tortured soul and Barra does not paint him as a saint. He was tough on his players and he took losing hard. He also brawled with other coaches and had a rocky relationship with the media. If I were to compare him to a coaching icon of my generation, I think an apt comparison may actually be Bobby Knight. Bryant never hit players or abused fans like Knight, but he was a polarizing force in the game and had the rapt attention of the national media. As with Knight, he was the center of his sport for decades while chasing the record for all-time wins and he had no shortage of off-the-field issues. However, near the end of his career, Bryant became somewhat repentant. There are documented instances of him apologizing to those he felt he wronged, lamenting the fact that he had not lived much outside of football, and at one point seeking some spiritual council from a former player.

He retired at the end of the 1982 season and died a month later in January 1983 at the age of 69. So no, he did not have much of a life outside of college football. And no, Alabama football has not recovered from the loss but for that blip in 1992 when Gene Stallings led them to the National Championship. But yes, you gotta read this book if you are at all interested in college football.