Book Review: Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football

Head coach Bill O’Brien and Penn State are the focus of Fourth and Long. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Too often these days, those in charge of college athletics seem to ask themselves, “Will this get us a bigger television contract?” instead of “Is this good for the long-term health of the sport?” John U. Bacon examines this problem, and so much more, in his book, Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football.

During last year’s college football season, Bacon got inside access to four Big Ten programs—Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Northwestern. With his proverbial telescope, he examines the NCAA’s broken system—administrators exploiting their free labor to squeeze every last penny out of the fans. What will keep readers engaged throughout the book is Bacon’s use of a microscope to deliver behind-the-scenes stories from each of the programs.

Penn State’s tumultuous season is covered in detail. A particularly gripping and dramatic scene involves new coach Bill O’Brien talking with seniors Mike Mauti and Mike Zordich about how to keep the team together after NCAA sanctions essentially allowed other schools to recruit Penn State players.

The current players and coaches had nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky, but they are left to deal with the fallout. Bacon portrays a team that does so admirably. At a time when outsiders were criticizing the university, the players did more for the Penn State image than the school’s administrators.fourth and long cover

The theme that hangs over the entire book is whether college football has gotten too big for its own good. As prices for fans continue to rise and many rivalries and traditions disappear, Bacon notes, “few [among those in power] are even entertaining the possibility that either players or fans might ever call it quits.”

He highlights Michigan’s athletic department as one that is run too much like a Fortune 500 company (Bacon previously wrote about Michigan in 2011: Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football). Schools can raise ticket prices or bring new teams into their conference to get a bigger television contract, but where are those extra profits going? Likely towards higher salaries for coaches and administrators, bigger and better facilities, and more marketing.

“You don’t have to do marketing at Michigan,” former Michigan athletic director Bill Martin is quoted as saying. “We have the fans. We have the support. We have a great reputation. All you have to do is win. If you win, they will come. You just need to make it as affordable as possible for your fans.”

Bacon reminds readers that athletic departments are not businesses (they have no shareholders), and therefore should not be trying to milk every possible revenue stream. Shortly after publication of the book, Michigan announced a new policy regarding student season tickets for the upcoming basketball season, one that may decrease the number of tickets students receive despite the fact that they already paid for them.

Bacon knows the Big Ten inside and out, so his reports from the various schools double as history lessons about the traditions of the country’s oldest conference. Bacon’s big picture assessments coupled with specific anecdotes from the locker room are what make Fourth and Long a fascinating and enjoyable book.

Topics: Books, Football, Northwestern Wildcats

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  • Robert Miller

    Regarding Fortune 500 companies…for years, Beano Cook on the ESPNU College Football podcast said that athletic departments making more money only meant they were going to spend more money, with a net result of zero.