In search of the sport's old ideals amid the roaring flood of hypocrisy and greed, bestselling author John U. Bacon embedded himself in four programs -- Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Northwestern -- and captured college football's oldest, biggest, most storied league, the Big Ten, at its tipping point. He sat in as coaches dissected game film, he ate dinner at training tables, and he listened in locker rooms. He talked with tailgating fans and college presidents, and he spent months in the company of the gifted young athletes who play the game. Most unforgettably, Fourth and Long finds what the national media missed in the ugly aftermath of Penn State’s tragic scandal: the unheralded story of players who joined forces with Coach Bill O’Brien to save the university's treasured program -- and with it, a piece of the game's soul. Here is an excerpt.
Six days before Sandusky was arrested on Friday, November 5, 2011, the Nittany Lions' record stood at an impressive 7-1, with their only loss coming to eventual national champion Alabama. They were riding a six-game winning streak, and life looked pretty good in Happy Valley. But even before the Sandusky bomb hit ground zero, the Penn State locker room was anything but tranquil.
On October 29, Penn State hosted 6-2 Illinois, which had just lost two close games. Neither team could score in the first half, thanks partly to Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden's ineffective play.
"Bolden was having a tough day," linebacker Michael Mauti recalled, "and our defense is going ape---- on the sidelines because they won't put in [Matt] McGloin."
Joe Paterno's son, Jay, coached the quarterbacks and had always favored Bolden, a four-star prospect from a suburban-Detroit prep school. When Bolden arrived in 2010, Jay immediately installed him as the starter, ahead of sophomore walk-on Matt McGloin.
About Joe Paterno, the 2012 seniors had decidedly mixed feelings. But about Jay, I found no such division of opinion. It all came to a head that afternoon.
In the midst of Bolden's breakdown, defensive captain Drew Astorino had seen enough. He picked up the headset to yell at Jay in the press box, "Get that m----------- out of this game right now!"
At halftime, the players made a full sprint for the locker room. "Lot of guys were looking for a fight," running back Michael Zordich recalled. "They'd been waiting for this."
Jay Paterno played right into their hands, storming into the defensive meeting room, yelling, "You m------------! You think you can get on this headset and talk to me like that?!"
In a room full of angry defensive players waiting to explode, Jay Paterno provided the match. The players jumped up and charged him, throwing chairs out of the way to get to him. Were it not for a respected assistant coach pulling Jay out, then holding his hands on the doorjambs to block the players from getting to him, many players believe Jay wouldn't have gotten out of the locker room unharmed.
"That dude," Mauti concluded, "was an example of everything a coach should not be."
In the game's final three minutes, McGloin directed an 80-play drive, capped by Silas Redd's three-yard touchdown to give the Lions a 10-7 win -- Joe Paterno's 409th career victory, thereby surpassing Eddie Robinson as Division-I's winningest football coach.
Six days later, the Penn State players' private unhappiness would be eclipsed by one of the worst tragedies in the history of college sports.
Eight days after the scandal broke, they lost to Nebraska, 17–14, beat a struggling Ohio State team, then got shellacked the final weekend by Wisconsin, 45–7. In just three weeks, they dropped all the way from a possible berth in the Rose Bowl to the lowly TicketCity Bowl in Dallas. What would normally be a disappointment became, in the leaderless program the players suddenly found themselves inhabiting, a dilemma: Should they decline the bowl invitation?
To answer the question, captains Devon Still and Drew Astorino called a players-only meeting in December of 2011 with just one item on the agenda: to stay or to go.
"It was a very diplomatic meeting," offensive lineman Mike Farrell recalled. "We were leaning toward going, but there was a solid faction against. But the arguments on both sides were great. The guys who didn't want to go were saying, 'Hey, we go down there, and our coaches will be freaking out. They don't know if they have a job when they come back, or where they'll be next year. How will they be able to coach?' "
While this discussion rolled on, former all-American linebacker Shane Conlan -- captain of the 1986 national title team, and former teammate of Mike Zordich's father (also Mike) -- was on campus and caught wind of the meeting. He asked one of the players going in to bring out Mike Mauti. "What the fuck are you all doing?" Conlan asked Mauti. "You better get these guys to go. You'd all be seen as spoiled brats."
Mauti returned to the room and asked to speak. "I just talked to Shane outside," he told them, "and he was telling me what it would look like to these former players if we didn't play. If we stand for the values that Penn State stands for, we have to eat it. We have to go. There's no choice.
"So here it is, majority rules," Mauti said. "Who wants to go? Raise your hand, right now."
"Boom," Mike Farrell said. "It was eighty or ninety percent. Obvious."
"Okay," Devon Still said. "We're going."
Facing a nation that had turned on them, at a university that suddenly had no leaders -- with the interim president, Rod Erickson, and the acting athletic director, Dave Joyner, not daring to say a public word on their behalf -- the players managed to conduct a civil town-hall meeting and come to a mature decision. All seem settled.
Until, that is, Mauti walked outside the room to retrieve Dr. Joyner, who had been cooling his heels outside while the players were deliberating.
"'We're ready for you,' " Mauti recalled saying. "He didn't ask me how it went, or anything. He was just all pissed off because he'd been waiting outside for twenty minutes."
Joyner marched to the front of the room, visibly agitated, and said, "I thought I was coming here to talk to a group of men, but I didn't realize there was a bunch of children in here, whining about not going to a good bowl game and getting screwed!"
"Before he could finish that sentence," Farrell recalled, "Devon made a sound, and stood up to stay something. But Gerald [Hodges] stood up first and said, 'Hold up, hold up, hold up! We're in here talking like men, to make this decision, and you come in here disrespecting us!' "
This set Joyner off on another tour of his biography, which they had already heard a few times in his first few weeks on the job. "Everyone was selling him to us," Mauti said. "All-American wrestler, football player, doctor. Look, honestly, we didn't care. We're getting blasted by the media, and Erickson and Joyner were nowhere to be found. Joyner was a former member of the board. The suit was already on him. What we needed was someone to stand up."
Instead, Joyner made an ill-advised argument that, because the school had to pay the NCAA $60 million, the bowl payout was a good way to get some of that back. This elicited more sounds and comments from the players, and the meeting devolved from there. Players complained that Joyner had gone AWOL while the program was getting ripped by the national media, and Joyner repeated his list of accomplishments before becoming the acting athletic director.
"You better show me some respect!" he demanded.
By this time, Gerald Hodges was standing up and pointing back at Joyner. "No, no, no. My father said, 'I'm only going to respect someone who respects me.' "
The two started walking toward each other, creating a commotion loud enough for Coach Larry Johnson Sr., waiting outside, to come into the room, hold Hodges, and literally escort him out.
Finally, Devon Still had his chance to speak. "We already decided," he told Joyner. "We're gonna go." "Oh," Joyner responded.
"From that point," Mauti recalled, "Joyner was apologizing to us. 'We're sticking up for you guys, and we're fighting for you guys out there.'"
"And no one said anything," Zordich said, "because we knew nothing needed to be said. They weren't doing anything to stick up for us. Not on TV. Not on campus. Anywhere."
After O'Brien was named the head coach, the entire senior class told him they did not want to see Joyner or Erickson on the field before the games. Joyner must have felt some contrition -- or embarrassment, take your pick -- because he respected their wishes, not setting foot in front of the team again until the 2012 banquet.
After the Lions dragged themselves to the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas, where they lost to the Houston Cougars, 30–14 -- their third loss in their last four games -- the media chorus declared Penn State's collapse would continue into the next season, if not longer. But Spider Caldwell's right-hand man in the equipment room, Kirk Diehl, saw the seeds of their renaissance after the team's last bowl practice, on December 31, 2011.
While Diehl was cleaning up the locker room, Massaro and Mauti were finishing their rehab. They asked him, "What's going to happen in January?"
"You always try to have an answer for them, but I didn't," Diehl recalled. "I said, 'We don't have the slightest idea. But I know it's going to take you guys, as fifth-year seniors, to hold this team together. When a new coach comes in, it'll come down to how you guys respond to it.'
"And they said, 'Okay, when do we get started?' " The players were in. They just needed a coach.
On Sunday, July 22, 2012, O'Brien got word that the NCAA would be issuing its punishment sometime the next day. The coaches debated canceling the Monday-morning training session, but the players urged them not to. Their summer work had built up to their "max out" day to set their personal records before taking a week off, then returning to start a month of full-blown practice and three months of games.
Monday morning, Coach O'Brien walked through the weight room while the players were lifting to let them know he had just learned the sanctions were going to be announced at ten, right after their training session ended. He told them they would meet as a team in the players' lounge to watch the press conference.
"But that only jacked us up, like we needed to get ready for the news, to prepare ourselves," recalled starting defensive lineman John Urschel, a redshirt junior who was already pursuing his master's degree in mathematics, with a 4.0. "We just had a ton of great, positive energy -- one of the best lifts we've ever had."
After they set a pile of personal bests, when they sat down in the players' lounge to watch Mark Emmert announce Penn State's punishment, their energy was quickly redirected.
"Guys were getting pissed, yelling at the TV," Urschel told me. "It was pretty severe -- a lot more than we thought it would be."
Just two years earlier, Emmert himself had held up Penn State as a pillar of all that was right about collegiate athletics. Just one year earlier, you'd be hard-pressed to find a university or a state with greater pride in its football program, which stressed "Success with Honor" -- and seemed to live up to it.
Now it was the football program that threatened to bring down the very university it had helped build.
For the people watching in that players' lounge the question, stripped down to its essentials, was this: Could Penn State's program, and the traditions that went with it, survive the season intact? Did they have a future worth fighting for?
O'Brien immediately led everyone into the team room, where he draped his left arm over the podium and spoke directly to his shell-shocked squad.
"I just remember how matter-of-fact and truthful he was," longtime equipment manager Kirk Diehl recalled. "He was probably as surprised as anyone, but he didn't sugarcoat it. He said -- and I'll never forget this -- 'We're not here to understand the rules. We're here to follow them. It's my obligation to tell you that you are free to go anywhere you want, with no penalties. However, if you stay, I promise you, you will never forget it.'"
"He really felt for us," Urschel said. "He didn't say anything that wasn't true. He didn't try to minimize what the NCAA had just done. He didn't beg us to stay. But he stressed the positive: 'You still get to play football in front of 108,000 rabid fans. You still get to be on TV. And most important, you will still get a great education.' "
The bond between the new coach and his players had grown stronger, but if O'Brien was going to keep his team together, he still had lots of work to do -- and not a moment to spare.
"Were we in danger of a complete collapse?" seventeen-year defensive-line coach Larry Johnson Sr. wondered aloud. "No question. The threat was as real as it could be."
Given the endless rumors of departures, Mauti and Zordich knew if they were going to keep their team together, they had to do more than just make phone calls and visit their teammates.
"At first, Coach is telling all of us, 'Don't talk to the media,' " Zordich recalled. "Which makes sense. He didn't want us stirring it all up. But when we met again, I said, 'All these people are hearing about how many players are supposed to be leaving and how it's all falling apart. And that's not what's happening here. We're sticking. We're working our asses off. We're together. We need to go out there and tell them that.' "
"The media was making a story where there wasn't one," Mauti said. "Really, no one had left yet. And the guys who had left were already injured or walk-ons or whatever -- reasons that had nothing to do with the sanctions."
Once again, after O'Brien listened to his seniors and weighed the new data, he was not afraid to alter his original strategy. He gave them permission to contact ESPN and offer a statement. ESPN jumped at the chance, inviting the seniors to broadcast their announcement from the practice field Wednesday morning. Live.
They went over their notes and divided up the lines. "You'll say this, and I'll say that." And that was it. But right before they went on camera, they asked a few teammates in the weight room if they wanted to come out to show support. Everyone there said, "Sure," and walked outside.
Well, almost everyone. When math major John Urschel saw them, he asked, "Do you guys have notes?"
"Do you know what you're going to say? Because this is going live. It's going to go everywhere. It's going to be big."
"Jeez, John," Zordich said. "I was doing fine until I talked to you! Now I want to shit my pants! Thanks!"
Armed with Urschel's unconditional support -- he walked out with them -- the two seniors bravely stepped outside anyway to face the ESPN cameras, surrounded by thirty-some teammates who had interrupted their workouts to join them.
"We want to let the nation know that we're proud of who we are," Zordich said into the camera. "We're the real Penn Staters. We have an obligation to Penn State, and we have the ability to fight for not just a team, not just a program, but an entire university and every man that wore blue and white on the gridiron before us."
"No sanction, no politician, is ever going to take away what we have here," Mauti said. "This is what Penn State's about -- fighting through adversity -- and we're going to show up every Saturday and raise hell. This program was not built by one man, and this program sure as hell is not going to get torn down by one man."
Three minutes after they started, they were done.
"Good thing they taped from the chest up," Zordich told me, "because my right leg was shaking the whole time!"
ESPN ran the piece in its entirety many times, which generated dozens of comments on air, hundreds of e-mails, and a wide range of reactions. Some expressed nominal support for the players, who had nothing to do with the Sandusky tragedy. Others called them everything from "Paterno apologists" to "child rapists." And still others pointed out that only thirty teammates stood behind them, unaware they had come out spontaneously and the rest were in class, where they were supposed to be.
But all these reactions missed the point. The public and the press are so accustomed to consuming packaged hype pumped out by PR people that when we finally witnessed something rare -- unscripted authenticity -- we missed it. For all the official promotional spots constantly telling us how committed student-athletes are to the ideals of college sports, and how those ideals prepare them for life, when we saw the real thing, we didn't see it for what it was: a group of young men defending the fundamental values of intercollegiate athletics.
If the public missed it, Penn State's coaches caught it.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. was sitting in his office when he saw the players walk out onto the grass field below. An hour later, he heard that they had made a statement. When he watched it, "I was impressed. I was emotionally charged that these young men knew it was about a lot more than football."
By inviting players to admit that playing football was more important than remaining at their university, the NCAA sanctions, quite unintentionally, had given Penn State's players an opportunity to prove the opposite.
"I think, at that moment, our team got solidified," Coach Johnson said. "I think guys who might have thought they were in were really in after that.
"I think it was critical. I really do."
"Everyone who's still here," Urschel told me, "has made a choice."
A clear one. As Leo Tolstoy said, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
The players who were unhappy departed for a wide variety of reasons: family or opportunity or freedom from sanctions or just better weather. But the ones who stayed all stayed for the same reasons. They knew what they were up against, but they also knew why they wanted to stay: for Penn State, for the football program -- past and present -- and for the coaches, but mainly for each other. A little over a week after the sanctions hit, the players who remained shared an uncommonly uniform set of beliefs.
"People think we're gonna lose games, that we'll be lucky to go six and six," Zordich told me at the time. "People think we forgot how to play football. They don't know us! This team is stronger than it's ever been.
"Our whole thing is -- all this crap -- we've been the ones suffering the consequences. When we talk in public these days, we walk a fine line. We can't say much. But somebody has to pay the price for what we've been through. We can't do it through the media. We can't do it in the courts. So we will do it on the football field.
"We've done all this, we've got to make it worthwhile. We can't do all this, then say, 'Seven and five is good enough.'
-- Excerpted by permission from Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football by John U. Bacon. Copyright (c) 2013 by John U. Bacon. Published by Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow John U. Bacon on Twitter @Johnubacon.