"There are more than a few Rudys in this book," author John Bacon told me in the Press Box at Ryan Field in Evanston last month. He is referring, of course, to Rudy Ruettiger, the Notre Dame walk-on who made good. Matt McGloin, QB of Penn State and now starting quarterback for the Raiders, is one such Horatio Alger story captured in Fourth and Long.
The book by New York Times bestselling author Bacon, subtitled The Fight for the Soul of College Football, chronicles the 2012 season of four Big Ten Teams. Published in September by Simon and Shuster, New York, the book is now in its third printing and available on Kindle.
Bacon follows Penn State football and its players' single-minded commitment to the team and the college the season after Sandusky. He traces the steps of Northwestern's 9-3 season en route to winning the Gator Bowl -- my alma mater's first bowl win in over 50 years! Bacon also chronicles Urban Meyer's first season as head coach of a struggling Ohio State team, steeped in controversy over "tattoo-gate" and selling of memorabilia by its star QB Maurice Clarrett. Finally, and with great fanfare, Bacon covers his own alma mater, University of Michigan, and the year of Denard Robinson (later Devin Gardner) along with the quest to beat arch rival OSU.
It's a compelling read. Bacon's treatise is that college football's downfall will be the monetization of passion. "Almost everything we love about college football is economically irrational: marching bands, alumni bands, tailgating, volunteers... even amateur athletics itself," he writes in a chapter entitled, "It Matters to Us." He notes: "Almost everything that threatens its future is profit-driven."
Bacon talks about honor when he talks about how college players in the Big Ten should represent their teams, with a focus on academics and emerging as real student-athletes. Later, the author notes that student-athletes are supposed to pick their schools for the education and not for the athletic opportunities. He captures the essence of each football program being followed:
The Big Ten has four distinct models to face its future: the pure passion of Penn State's players; the no-nonsense professionalism of Ohio State's coaching staff; the corporate style control of Michigan's money-focused athletic department (Bacon saves most of his venom for the AD Dave Brandon); and the old school, presidential-driven approach of the Big Ten's only private school, Northwestern.
I attended several games of the magical 2012 season of Northwestern with its impressive 10-3 record including the kick-off with Boston College in Boston. It was the first 10-game winning streak since the Rose Bowl Run in 1995-96 (we lost that game largely due to Keyshawn Johnson and USC's offense).
As a journalism student, I was there from 1977 to 1982, including grad school, during which we lost 63 games, and established the longest losing streak in NCAA history. I never really saw a win at NU in the late 1970s. There was only one tie.
"If NU cannot do it with (College President) Morty Schapiro involved, this Athletic Director Jim Phillips, and Coach Fitz (Pat Fitzgerald), then the student athlete concept really is a myth," he told me at the Michigan Game in Evanston. He said the Northwestern team competing is somewhat analogous to the Penn State guys staying, and playing, showing heart in both instances.
By way of disclosure, I also lived in Columbus as a kid in junior high and just after followed the Buckeye's during the Archie Griffin years. Bacon describes Griffin's role as a student athlete, ambassador and president of the Ohio State alumni association at OSU -- embodying all that is great about college football's legacy players and lettermen. He won the Heisman in 1974-75.
Bacon reported on these four Big Ten programs from April of 2012, in the spring, until May of 2013, spending a year on-the-road and in the locker room. He had unprecedented access to the four coaches: Urban Meyer, Pat Fitzgerald, Brady and especially Bill O'Brien of Penn State.
"The Penn State Story is incredible," Bacon told me. "The NCAA levied diabolical sanctions. On paper, leaving (the football program) is better for the athlete, but (in 2012-13) they are staying. It's irrational. Penn State shows the passion of the players and of college football. And that is why we love it!"