Lit Tuesday: Fourth and Long

Today’s post is another reading challenge review. The challenge was to read something with a number in the title, so I picked Fourth and Long by John U. Bacon.

I really started getting into football back in college. Was my football team really anything spectacular? Well, no, not really. Anyone who’s a Catamount fan knows that, but there’s always the hope that this will be the year. Or next year will be better. There’s knowing the past and knowing that there’s potential to be great again (even if we were great decades and decades ago).

The thing that really sold me on football, though, is the camaderie, all the traditions, being united by a joint memory, a joint knowledge. All of us alumni went to Western, walked the same paths, embraced the same traditions (well, mostly the same paths and mostly the same traditions), went to class with some of those players that we cheered on. It’s that sort of binding experience that opened my eyes to football if you will. Up until that point, I had only ever participated in the marching band and that was very much an antagonistic relationship through high school.

At the crux of Fourth and Long, the question being asked is this: how long will people accept rising costs to attend college games before they say enough? How expensive will these games get? How much can fans’ loyalties be priced at?

The book focuses on the 2012 season for Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Northwestern. They’re all Big 10 schools and, as some may remember, 2012 was a pretty tough year.

Penn State’s struggles with NCAA sanctions handed down following the Sandusky scandal was chronicled with such heart. I know that I didn’t realize the extent of how the sanctions would hurt the heart of the team, of the school, until reading this. Bacon does a great job of portraying the senior class, who fought tooth and nail to keep their team together and to bring in a winning season. The changes that Coach Bill O’Brien (who came to Penn State from the Patriots and is now the head coach for the Houson Texans) made to some traditions while maintaining the spirit of the program was inspiring to read. How the whole program pulled together to make sure that Penn State football wasn’t lost was simply astounding. How the fans came together, too, to make sure the team knew they were supported–I don’t know. All I can say is, if nothing else, reading this book to understand what that team went through is worth it.

Ohio’s 2012 season was their first season under Urban Meyer. He came to Ohio from the University of Florida and remains the head coach at Ohio. When he took over the program, there was immense pressure on him as Ohio was struggling with some NCAA sanctions preventing them from post-season play and the fans continued to still expect an winning record. He succeeded admirably, leading the team to a 12-0 undefeated record in his first season.

Northwestern is a prestigious private university in Illinois. It’s up there with Ivy league schools in terms of research. They nearly lost their football program through apathy, but turned it around in 1995 when they went on to appear in the Rose Bowl (though they lost to the USC Trojans). 2012 was a season where it looked like they would go on to have another magical year. Sadly, that was not the case, but it was interesting to learn about their history (such as the longest losing streak in Division I football) and how they started to bounce back and keep their team.

Michigan. Now Michigan’s a funny team to read about. Bacon is a Michigan man, having graduated from there. Again, it was great to read about the history and his side of being a fan/alumnus of the school. Michigan, though, was the school he focused on when it came to the financial side of things. Former Domino’s CEO Dave Brandon became the Athletic Director at Michigan and went on to run the athletic department much like a Fortune 500 company. He was not the only AD, though, out there to run their department by maximizing profits and exploiting social media like a business would. But because Bacon went to Michigan, he focused on them.

Is the question of “how expensive is loyalty?” ever really answered through reading this book? No, but there’s a lot of material there to draw your own conclusion. The quote that got me was a Michigan mom saying that for a full ballgame, including tickets, food, and drinks, for herself and her two children was over $500 during the 2012 season. That was more expensive than Disneyworld at that point (and still may be).

After all, college fans are football fans for shared traditions, shared memories, and something a little more than the NFL. Why try to put price on that?

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