[Ed. 9/3 An important note: I received an advance/uncorrected copy of the book this summer and wrote a review (now posted here) in early July, and shortly after sent the below questions to Bacon. He replied this afternoon so here you go. Fourth And Long hit stores today.]
MVictors: One surprise for Michigan fans is that one of the heroes of the book is Buckeye Zach Boren. Given the events with his brother Justin and Justin’s portrayal in 3&O, was there a process involved getting him to talk to you about for this book? Did you address the Justin portrayal with him? Did their old man (Mike, a Bo man of course) get involved and/or clear the way?
Bacon: Interviewing Zach Boren was actually very simple, and straightforward. He was clearly a central part of the Buckeyes’ surprising story, so OSU’s PR man, Jerry Emig – who was consistently helpful — set up an interview with him and several other Buckeye players, staffers and lettermen, not to mention lots of time with Urban Meyer. Zach and I had a very good talk – I was upfront about my books – but on the walk back to Coach Meyer’s office, he turned and said, “Wait, you’re the guy who wrote about my brother in the last book!” He told me he disagreed with my description of Justin, and I gave him my card, offering him a chance to respond if he wanted to. He ultimately declined, but I still respected both his loyalty to his brother, and his professionalism in our interactions, and thanked him accordingly in the acknowledgments.
MVictors: Dr. Dude takes a couple blasts at directly at Dave Brandon [from the book - “I’ll be generous and say, I don’t think Dave Brandon ‘gets it’—but he’s not stopping to ask me or anyone else. I’m not sure where he gets his feedback, or if he gets any at all. It’s full speed ahead.” And later..“Brandon always says he’s ‘building the brand’—but of what? Dave Brandon.] They get pretty personal–were you surprised he went after Brandon directly? Do you expect any reaction from Brandon?
Bacon: I think we see President Duderstadt’s comments differently. I think his comments were less about Dave Brandon personally, than Brandon’s professional work as Michigan’s athletic director. I think you can fairly conclude that if Brandon were still the CEO at Domino’s, Duderstadt wouldn’t care how Brandon went about his business.
It’s also worth noting that that I sought out President Duderstadt, not the other way around. If I hadn’t scheduled an interview, he probably wouldn’t have said anything to anybody about Brandon’s performance. But President Duderstadt has never made it a secret that he’s against the hyper-marketing of college football, so, no, I wasn’t surprised by his conclusions. He’s surely not alone in having strong views about Dave Brandon, but he knows this territory very well, he has uncommon expertise to make such judgments, and the moral courage to do so – which, I’ve noticed, is very rare these days.
Will Dave Brandon respond to Duderstadt’s critiques? Your guess is as good as mine, but if past is prologue, I’d have to guess not. In Brandon’s first three years as Athletic Director, I can’t recall him publicly addressing any questions about his stewardship. That’s too bad, because I’m sure President Duderstadt himself would regard such a reply as fair game – such debates are what academic communities are all about, after all — and I think a lot of people would like to hear Brandon give a serious, thoughtful defense of his policies as athletic director. But I wouldn’t bet the Big House on it.
MVictors: One of the big winners in the book is coach Bill O’Brien & the Penn State players, and you had full access to the team during the season. Their story was fascinating and to me, really gets to the heart of this book. Did you and the publisher have to make a tough decision, that is, whether to focus directly on Penn State for this book? If so, at what point did you make the call to move forward with the book as is?
Bacon: Good question. This was a great source of debate, for a lot of reasons. First, I got such great access to Penn State – its players, staffers and coaches – and such great scenes, quotes and stories, we knew we had more than enough to write a book about Penn State by itself.
Second, no one has ever tried to cover four teams in one season, for a simple reason: it requires an insane amount of travel, research, reporting, and writing. As I waited to conduct my final interviews with the people at Ohio State and Northwestern, I asked my editor at Simon & Schuster, Thomas Lebien – who also edited my last book, with great skill — that this was the way to go. Lebien’s vision never wavered. He was clear that, if we addressed only on Penn State, as dramatic as it all was, it speaks only to one team and one season, not the state of the game, or its future. Examining four very different approaches to college football, even within one conference, gave us a great cross-section of the state of the game today.
At Penn State, I focused on the players, who were inspiration in first saving their program, and then their season; at Ohio State, on Urban Meyer, the best-known coach in the league, sitting on the hottest seat; at Michigan, I spent a lot of time with the fans and the band – a big part of the soul of college football – and also assessing Dave Brandon, who is the highest-profile AD in America, in my opinion; and at Northwestern I was able to talk to everyone from President Morton Schapiro to AD Jim Phillips to Coach Fitzgerald to Kain Colter, the team’s pre-med quarterback, which put the whole puzzle back together.
After I got those final interviews – which were among the most interesting I’ve had — I came to agree with my editor, Lebien, that examining four schools at once was the right move. And once we finished, I was convinced. I hope the readers are, too.
MVictors: You discuss the off-the-field fan experiences through your own eyes, and of course you are an Ann Arbor native and longtime fan of the program. After all you’ve seen and done, do you still consider yourself a fan of the Michigan program? Do you get excited on game days – or did it all change for you somewhere along your path in the media?
Bacon: As I freely confess in the book, having been born and raised in Ann Arbor, the son and grandson of UM graduates, I was a fully committed Michigan football fan before I even realized I had made a choice.
Of course, being a writer, we need to keep our biases in check – there’s no cheering in the press box, after all — but every honest sports writer can tell you which team he first fell in love with, which sparked his interest in becoming a sports writer. For me, obviously, that team was the Michigan Wolverines.
That said, if you were to go back to the stories I wrote for the New York Times in 1999, including the Michigan-Michigan State game (which Michigan lost, 34-31, despite a valiant comeback attempt by a Mister Tom Brady), I don’t think you’ll see any bias in my work. And, beyond freely admitting my feelings for the University of Michigan and its teams in this book, I don’t think readers, especially fans of the other schools, will view my reporting as unfair.
But you’re right: as institutions go, the one I love second only to the United States itself, is the University of Michigan. You can stop cheering in the press box, and you can check your bias in your work, but I don’t think you ever stop being a fan. The only thing that’s changed for me is that now, with all the changes described in the book, I’m a very concerned fan, because I have become convinced that the future of something I have loved so much for so long is being threatened. If the Michigan athletic department continues to alienate the fans, in growing numbers every day – and especially kids and students — it’s not a stretch to say it’s in danger of losing its very soul. And, speaking now strictly as a fan, that would be heartbreaking.