John U. Bacon likens the proclivities of college football fans to the myth that when frogs are submerged in a shallow pot of water that slowly comes to a boil, those frogs don’t realize when it’s too late to get out.
Science has proven that the frog eventually jumps out of the hot pot. But would the fans?
That parallel motivated Bacon to jump in the proverbial cauldron of major college football, and became the basis of Bacon’s sixth book, Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football.
What began with traditions and built into an empire, Bacon believes, is now becoming another landmark designed for profit — like Times Square in New York City or the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California.
“College football developed as something natural and organic,” Bacon said. “It built itself up decade by decade but it never lost sight of its charm and innocence. Now, in a way, it’s a national face. It’s a wonderful thing that’s been created with traditions, and what used to be Yosemite is has become Niagara Falls. The natural beauty is being commercialized.”
Set for release Tuesday, Bacon wanted to find out what continued to drive the key players in college football — not the bureaucrats, but its citizens: players, fans, even coaches. In that pursuit, Bacon put more than 15,000 miles on his car in traveling across the country, went through at least 20 reporter’s notebooks and admits this:
“We had to guess which games to cover, and we got lucky as hell,” Bacon said. “That’s where the story was.
“The challenge in that was putting it all together, and the fun of it was that we told four different stories.”
While it’s not necessarily a follow-up to Three And Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football — a warts-and-all look at Rodriguez’s tenure of coaching at UM and a New York Times bestseller — Fourth and Long provides another look at the dynamics inside the Big Ten Conference, through the prism of four programs. Bacon focused some of the biggest storylines involving Big Ten football during the 2012 season:
■ A quick bounce back of Ohio State football under first-year coach Urban Meyer.
■ A Michigan football team and athletic department that was shifting from adhering to school’s traditions and promoting a product to pursuing brand loyalty.
■ A suddenly well-kept secret at Northwestern, a school that in is better known for its academic prowess than its football prowess.
■ A Penn State program that was sorting through the wreckage of one of the biggest scandals in college sports.
Among many notable points of the book: former Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti said he was offered money, and declared that he knew for a fact players were getting paid; an unnamed Ohio State employee hoping the program would lose one game in 2012 — if not, the employee said, the pressure in 2013 would be “insane”; and former Michigan athletic department employees questioning the future of the department under athletic director Dave Brandon.
However, the book isn’t without inconsistencies. PennLive.com reported last month that it found three in the book in regards to Penn State, including an anectdote regarding Southern California’s recruitment of former Penn State running back Silas Redd, which included a meeting with a superstar rapper and actor.
"Silas Redd has never met Snoop Dogg, much less received a ride from him in any type of vehicle,” USC posted on its athletic Web site and blog. “USC coach Lane Kiffin picked up Silas from the airport on his recruiting visit. Bacon never contacted Redd or USC to confirm this report before publishing his book.”
The common thread that Bacon found in each program? Tension, whether it was the NCAA, institutional control, the goal of being a money-maker or the growing divide between fans, players, and programs.
“Our timing was uncommonly good,” said Bacon, who is an instructor at Michigan and at Northwestern, and who grew up in Ann Arbor. “It was good last spring, but got so much better when we got into it. I’ve never seen so much tension in the game, and there’s a lot there. The tension, for me, is that for the players and the fans, the love of the sport is irrational. That’s where they’ve got us.”