Playing in the NFL is a job. Rooting for an NFL team is a hobby. Owning an NFL team is a business. College football is different. Playing for, rooting for or running a Division I football program is a lifestyle. For more than a century, the emotions of the sport have led to highs and lows with miraculous comebacks and astounding plays mixed with fraudulent schemes and heinous infractions.
New York Times bestselling author John U. Bacon digs into four top college football programs, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern, beyond the X's and O's. In Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, Bacon plunges into the teams from the coaching staffs to the fans to the marching bands to the academics. Through a series of tales during and in between Saturdays in 2012, Bacon explains the details of these Big Ten football programs from the unique access he had on the four campuses. ThePostGame caught up with Bacon, as he explained some of the details of his reporting.
ThePostGame: Where did the idea originate for Fourth and Long?
JOHN U. BACON: It actually came after my fifth book, Three and Out. That was an in-depth, investigation, fly-on-the-wall account of the Michigan football program under Rich Rodriguez. In doing that, it was pretty obvious that while some things were specific to Michigan, a lot of things about college football in general were not being addressed. My hope was to get access again to other programs and get down to the real part of the equation I think is getting ignored. That is, the players and the fans, who are clearly the heart and soul of college football.
No one's ever really talked to them about sanctions, or rivalries, or conference realignment or anything else. Nobody ever consults these people. Without them, there is no college football. The big point there is they're taken for granted by everyone in the equation. The fans clearly are starting to show they have limits and the players are also starting to show they've got limits too. I think these are frogs in the pot of boiling water. They increase it bit by bit. Even the frogs will jump eventually. My question to answer was the fans, the players -– do they have limits where they're going to start jumping too?
TPG: So, what is the 'soul' of college football?
BACON: It's the unique relationship between the players and the fans, which I have always maintained is the closest relationship in all of sports in America or the world. You're on campus, the players are on campus. They go to your classes, your restaurants and bars, your dorms. You run into the big men on campus. That doesn't happen in the NFL or the NBA. The players are irrational about it. Taylor Lewan turned down millions of dollars at Michigan to stay. That's an irrational decision based on passion. I talked to Tim Brown in the book, the '87 Heisman Trophy winner. When he graduated from Notre Dame, he's sitting there in his dorm room saying I do not want to leave this place. He said after the Oakland Raiders, "I do not feel this way." That was after he was making millions and on the verge of becoming an NFL Hall of Famer. Likewise, the fans are irrational. The tailgates, the marching band, the amount of money we give and we pay to the universities' athletic departments. It's not based on mere excellence. You won't see better football -- obviously the Lions, the Bears, the Browns and so on will beat any college football team -- but it's based on the passion these fans feel. Our love for college football is irrational and that is where they've got us.
TPG: Why did you choose these particular four schools, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Northwestern?
BACON: A few reasons. I felt academically, the Big Ten, is a power conference, second probably only to the Ivy League. Athletically, they care a lot more about sports than the Ivy Leaguers do. I felt like the Big Ten is the last best chance for competitive, relatively clean college football. In that sense, the Big Ten, is not the canaries of the coal mine. They're the actual coal miners. If Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Northwestern cannot be competitive, we're on our way to a quasi-minor league. Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are three of the seven winningest teams in college football. Historically, they've been so stable they've been boring. Happily boring perhaps. All of a sudden, the last few years, what's happened? Three of those schools in ended up in some sort of NCAA trouble to varying degrees. And all three of those schools had to fire their coaches. That's not happened, ever. How is each one going to handle its transition? That to me is interesting.
TPG: How open were the coaches to you being around the teams?
BACON: It varied, of course, but on all occasions, I felt like I got unusually good access. Bill O'Brien at Penn State gave me complete access. The trust and faith in his own program at Penn State was extraordinary. I'm in coaches' meetings, team meetings, team dinners, I went to class with the players, I went to their post-game party after their last game. That access there was complete. We all know what it's like to have been a Penn State player in 2012. If you've got to pick one program to follow, that would have been it. We all know about Sandusky and Paterno. The real question is you’re a 20-year-old kid on that team -- what do you do now?
At Ohio State, I got good access to Urban Meyer with interviews before, during and after the season. He was very forthcoming and very direct. His answers, I thought, were some of the more compelling in the book. Michigan did not provide access officially, but I had good access in the previous book, so I knew a bunch of the players already. I also talked to the band and looked at the budget. I had a bunch of accountants break down the budget, which isn't really access, but still fascinating. At Northwestern, I got 90 minutes with the president of the university, interviews with Pat Fitzgerald, the athletic director, the starting quarterback, Kain Colter and defensive end Quentin Williams. In all cases, I got interviews and comments you will not find anywhere else.
TPG: How delicately did you have to treat the situation at Penn State in post-Sandusky State College?
BACON: You would think very delicately, but honestly, the players, the staffers and the coaches, they were almost relieved, I felt, to speak openly and honestly and give their views on what was going on. They had to stay behind party lines for so long in the public eye that to speak in a candid way -- Mike Mauti has said this in the York Daily Record -- our conversations were actually therapeutic for him and others. In that sense, the floodgates were open. One of the great lines is Mauti talking about how they used to hang people at the Centre County Courthouse. He said, "Give me the rope." They have no love for Sandusky. The vast majority of that team did not even know who he was when all this happened. That doesn't mean what he did wasn't heinous and tragic.
People should pay. But making the players pay to me is like boycotting the Olympics to take it out on the Soviets. It's picking on the wrong guys. They were careful about Joe Paterno. They have respect for him. Their dads, brothers and uncles played for him. They were honest that the Paterno their dads had in the 1970s and 1980s was not the Paterno they were getting in 2011. Hate to say it, but he was a figurehead coach and not part of team meetings, coaches' meetings, play-calling and often did not know the players' names. They were careful, but upfront about that, as well.
TPG: What was it like going to back to Michigan and writing about the program again with a different coach?
BACON: It was in some ways very similar and very different. Last time, I had complete access. This time, I did not. It really isn't for any reporter in Ann Arbor these days. I knew the program very well and I knew the players very well. Clearly, Brady Hoke has done one hell of a job. I talked to the players and the fans and he is universally popular, which is very rare at a school like Michigan. I'm not sure if even Bo [Schembechler] in the 70s was as popular as Hoke is now. Bo always had critics, and Hoke does not have very many.
I had a bigger view on more of the macro side of it with athletic director Dave Brandon than the coach and the players compared to what I did with Ohio State and Penn State. The reason is very simple. Brandon is probably the most high profile athletic director in the country. He's also the former CEO of Domino's Pizza. He's kind of this new model of the corporate CEO as big time athletic director. I wanted to see what the pros and cons of that are. The pros are very simple. His teams are winning, in basketball and football and other sports. They're raising record amounts of money. The budget has gone from $100 million to $137.5 million in just three years. And they've got a surplus of endowment. The flip side is it's got some fans feeling cold by the corporate approach and how long-time loyal fans are getting squeezed out by corporate guys who want floor seats for basketball. The question is what price do you pay. It's more intangible, but it's real.
TPG: Ohio State, like Penn State, was playing in a season after controversy, although not to Penn State's magnitude. What was it like reporting on that team, which could not make a bowl game?
BACON: Ohio State makes the most obvious bid for winning, not quite at all costs, but they are the most concerning about winning of these four and not necessarily about appearances. I witnessed them putting Jim Tressel on their shoulders between the first and second quarters of the Michigan game last year. He's the reason this team is about to go 12-0 and can't go to a bowl game, yet there he is on their shoulders. I don't think this would happen at Michigan, Penn State or Northwestern. A guy like that would not be celebrated a year later.
The flip side is I think it's one of the hottest seats in college football outside the SEC and maybe including the SEC. The pressure of being head coach; they've fired every coach since World War II. They don't retire, they get fired. That's not true at Michigan. That's not true at Penn State. That's not true at Northwestern. It's a very tough place to play. The expectations are the highest at Ohio State. Tressel's biggest flaw in those fans' minds was not his NCAA violation, but losing two out of three chances at a national title. That is a pressure cooker, man. I wanted to see how Urban Meyer would handle that, especially after his health problems at Florida. He not only wanted to run the table, but he also wanted to do so while being a good dad and not losing his health or his sanity. That's asking a lot.
TPG: Northwestern does not have the history of winning the other three schools have. How did reporting on that program differ?
BACON: The Northwestern side was a feel-good story to write. Everything is working the way you'd hope it would, and the fact that Northwestern could go 10-3 last year and all three were fourth-quarter losses, says a lot about what's possible. And they've got a 94 percent graduation rate. All college football fans should be rooting for Northwestern. If Northwestern can't succeed with a committed president, athletic director, coach, a great quarterback, who's also a premed major, Kain Colter -- if all that is not going to work at Northwestern -- it's never going to work. If it can't work at Northwestern, it's one step closer to a glorified minor league.
TPG: What are some of the details of Fourth and Long that people cannot find else?
BACON: The main thing is the fly-on-the-wall stuff. Inside access at Penn State, inside access to Urban Meyer's thinking, inside access to the machine that Michigan athletics is, inside access at Northwestern from the president to the players, but also inside access to the fans. It's the only book I'm aware of where the fans really speak out and you hear them every chapter. They've got a lot to say. The people who are usually ignored are the players and the fans, but in this book, they get center stage. It's not a policy paper. It's not just an argument. These are stories.
TPG: What were some of the surprises you found during the reporting?
BACON: I would say probably the biggest surprise was how closely the Penn State program was from completely imploding, to the point where they might have been six weeks from not being able to field a team. In one part of the book, a freshman tells Pete Massaro, the academic All-American econ major defensive end, two dozen of the freshmen and sophomore class, the future, are all going to bail that day, including him. It's an amazing list and he tells Pete Massaro Penn State football is dead and Massaro goes away thinking our team is over. That next week was just madness. They fought like crazy, the seniors and coaches, especially, to keep that team together. They lost a couple of guys, but they didn't lose a quarter of the team. Even when they went 0-2, they still didn't give up. Everyone thought they would and they just kept getting better and better. The way they fought in the Northwestern game, the Wisconsin game and others, is one of the most inspiring sports stories I've ever witnessed.
TPG: In an era of such controversies in college football, what positives can readers take away from this book?
BACON: If you want to go for a macro surprise -- the micro would be Penn State -- the macro surprise is almost all the players I met believe in the ideals of college football more than the NCAA does. The NCAA, itself, to me is hypocritical marketing organization. The players, almost all of them, are actually true believers. They go to class, they graduate. Look at Penn State, they all could have left, they all could have transferred, but almost all decided to stay even though they weren't going to a bowl game. John Urschel, the offensive lineman, had a great line. He said, "Hey, I gave them my word. You don't have much else beyond your word, you know?" What other coach, athletic director, big time commissioner or NCAA official can actually match John Urschel's integrity? The players have the integrity here and so do the fans in my opinion. That was the most surprising and reassuring aspect of the whole thing. Johnny Manziel gets all the press right now. The guys that I met were not him. They were the opposite.
TPG: Of these four teams, which was the most exciting to be around?
BACON: I have to tell you they were all exciting in their own ways, and they might not have been very exciting ten years ago. Penn State, it's the sheer energy of this unheard-of situation. Also, of course, Bill O'Brien. He's running your offense, he coached Tom Brady, and he can turn a two-star walk-on named Matt McGloin into the Big Ten leader in almost all categories. That was fun watching that process. At Ohio State, the interesting thing was seeing a team that was 6-7 become a team of world-beaters against teams like Nebraska and Penn State that beat them the year before. Urban Meyer admits that he did not have his team until the fifth game of the season. He told the guys at breakfast the day of the Michigan State game you're not letting us coach you. Let's start a new tradition. He raises a glass and says let's give a toast to open hearts. You could see in the fourth quarter that team become a team.
At Michigan, seeing them beat Michigan State. They didn't even score a touchdown. Other years they may not have been so happy about it, but the relief was unbelievable. They ran onto the field. In the NFL, the game would be a dog with like 13 penalties and no touchdowns. When you throw the emotions in of the Michigan-Michigan State game, a regional rivalry that goes back a century, the energy of what that really is to those people was evident. At Northwestern, seeing them win their first bowl game since 1949 was awesome. They were saying that to themselves in January, they were saying that to the world in July at Big Ten Media Days. They were hanging that out pretty far and saying anything short of that will be a disappointment. You're taking a risk when you do that. But they tore that monkey apart last year.
TPG: If you are a five-star recruit graduating high school in 2014 choosing between these four programs, which one are you playing at next season?>
BACON: Oh, man, that's a hell of a question. You probably can't go very wrong. I know that Ohio State's got a graduation rate of over 70 percent and Urban Meyer seems serious about that. Penn State obviously has Bill O'Brien, who is clearly a players' coach. Parents love him, players love him and he's a great coach. Northwestern, you could end up on Wall Street. Fitzgerald has to be one of my favorite guys in college football. Michigan, on and off the field, speaks for itself. You're asking the wrong guy. I went to Michigan. There's no way in hell I'm not going to Michigan, but if I was not born and raised here, boy, because I went to Michigan, I'll probably say I wouldn't go to Ohio State.
TPG: What team is your favorite to win the Big Ten this year?
BACON: I'll take the team that I think is obvious to pick. I think that Michigan is starting back its rise. I think with Devin Gardner next year, they might be playing for a national title. I think Michigan in the Legends Division will probably win it, and Ohio State in a more obvious bet will win the Leaders Division. Then you've got this crazy situation Michigan and Ohio State can play two consecutive Saturdays. This year is the last chance it could happen and I think it's going to happen. I think the trap game for Michigan, and I've already circled it on the radio, is the Northwestern game November 16. That's a game I know the Northwestern guys will want revenge. Ohio State, the reason to vote against them I suppose, is when they went 12-0, there were about five shaky games in there.
TPG: Some critics have pointed out some possible inaccuracies in your book, obviously your report of Silas Redd being picked up at USC by Snoop Dogg being one of them. Do you have anything to say to anyone who may have any doubts in your reporting?
BACON: Silas Redd, I got that from the Penn State players on August 28 and again October 31. I stand by my sources and my reporting ... Mike Mauti has a quote in the York Daily Record when asked if it was all true stuff: "It's all true stuff," he said. "We lived it." That was his quote.
Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football by John U. Bacon is published by Simon & Schuster. It is available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow John U. Bacon on Twitter @Johnubacon.