Budd Bailey

College football fans can exhale now. They've made it through another off-season. The beginning of autumn means that teams are back on the field and fans are back in their seats. And if those fans need something to keep themselves occupied between game days, they can read two entertaining new books on the college game.

Authors Brian Curtis and Warren St. John have taken completely different approaches, but both offer in-depth looks at the sport, and both serve their purposes very nicely. Curtis goes behind the scenes in Every Week a Season: A Journey Inside Big-Time College Football. St. John doesn't get near a player or coach in Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Journey into the Heart of Fan Mania, but he does manage to capture the obsessive devotion of college fans.

I don't think it's a coincidence that both books concentrate on football in the South. Pro sports were slow to move into the South, and colleges filled in the gap. That fan enthusiasm shines through in both books and should have you ready for the opening kickoff of your team's next game.

MAKING THE TEAM
Curtis takes a fairly conventional approach in Every Week a Season. He picked nine teams before the start of the 2003 season and essentially moved in to each university for a week to get a sense of its team's routine. The teams profiled are Colorado State University, the University of Georgia, Boston College, the University of Tennessee, the University of Maryland, the University of Wisconsin, Louisiana State University, Florida State University and Arizona State University. There are a couple of obvious common threads in the nine programs. First, the coaching staffs of big-time football programs do a ton of work during a typical week. Not only is there film to watch, a game plan to develop and practices to coach, but coaches also must work on recruiting in their spare moments. Except for recruiting duties, the same workload applies to the players themselves; it's easy to wonder how anyone can have time to give academic chores enough attention with all the demands of football season.

Second, a head football coach is really more of a CEO than anything else. A coach has to deal with the media, meet with recruits, worry about the academic progress of players, talk to donors, etc. It's quite instructive to see how different people approach the job. Some, like Nick Saban of LSU, would be happy if everything but football disappeared from the job description, while others, like Bobby Bowden of Florida State, are particularly good at managing activities that have little to do with football.

FANDEMONIUM
In Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, St. John has a different but equally entertaining agenda. He grew up a big University of Alabama fan (are there any other types?) and didn't lose that intensity when he moved into adulthood, although it was a little tougher to keep up with the Crimson Tide when he was living in New York City and writing for the New York Times. St. John found himself curious about the people who drive to every Alabama game, home and away, in recreational vehicles. Who were these people who would show up two or three days before games? Why were they willing to accept the abuse that comes with being a visiting fan, complete with verbal taunts and the occasional egg thrown at the RV? Was there really a couple who missed their daughter's wedding because it conflicted with an Alabama game? So St. John joined them. It took time to become accepted by the group since its members are a little wary of an outside world that yells, Get a life! at them.

St. John started by hitching a ride to a game with a couple from South Carolina. Eventually, he bought his own RV to join the group. It's a diverse crowd that ranges from chicken farmers to retirees, from graduates of the school to just plain fans. All yell out Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, which is part of an Alabama fight song. By the way, the parents of the bride mentioned above really do exist, and they are quick to point out that they did make it to the reception after the game.

St. John does a fine job of taking us through an eventful season and excels at capturing the experience of being a college fan. It doesn't really matter that the season in question is five years old. For once, the spectators are the stars of the show.

Budd Bailey works in the sports department of the Buffalo News.
 

College football fans can exhale now. They've made it through another off-season. The beginning of autumn means that teams are back on the field and fans are back in their seats. And if those fans need something to keep themselves occupied between game days, they can read two entertaining new books on the college game.

Pat Summerall was playing catch-up from the day he was born. Summerall: On and Off the Air is the veteran broadcaster's almost painfully honest look at a life full of ups and downs. Summerall's parents split while his mother was pregnant, leading him to bounce from family member to family member during his childhood in Florida. His career in sports couldn't have been more unlikely, as he was born with a right foot so twisted that doctors had to break the bones to point it in the right direction. Told he might not be able to run normally, he nevertheless played football and became, of all things, a kicker. Summerall played in the NFL just as the league was starting to bloom. After a decade in the pros, he almost stumbled into a second career as a football broadcaster in the early 1960s just as television's association with the NFL was about to explode. He became one of the best in the business: His minimalist style of play-by-play was the perfect complement to John Madden's expressiveness, and two covered eight Super Bowls over 20 years. Summerall tells many stories about his glory days with CBS, and some of them have alcohol as a component. He paid the price, becoming an alcoholic and ruining his liver, before finding sobriety and faith relatively late in life. I entered this world a little twisted, he writes, and it took a while longer than anticipated to get me completely straightened out.

Pat Summerall was playing catch-up from the day he was born. Summerall: On and Off the Air is the veteran broadcaster's almost painfully honest look at a life full of ups and downs. Summerall's parents split while his mother was pregnant, leading him to bounce from family member to family member during his childhood in […]

Bob Knight is the subject of a fine biography by Steve Delsohn and Mark Heisler, Bob Knight: An Unauthorized Biography. Knight has won three national championships and an Olympic gold medal during a stormy career that's taken him from Army to Indiana to Texas Tech, making friends and enemies by the bushel along the way. The central question about him always has been whether the ends (championship teams, a clean program) justify the means (intimidation, verbal abuse, etc.). The authors don't come out with a direct answer; they are too busy interviewing as many people as they can find to comment on the events in Knight's career. The resulting book is a balanced look at a life that almost forces people to choose sides.

It's easy to conclude after reading this biography that Knight would have benefited from a little discipline from his bosses early in his coaching career. Maybe then he could have controlled his behavior and remained just as good a coach. In any case, Knight remains a fascinating character, and Delsohn and Heisler deserve credit for this fascinating portrait. Budd Bailey works in the sports department of the Buffalo News.

Bob Knight is the subject of a fine biography by Steve Delsohn and Mark Heisler, Bob Knight: An Unauthorized Biography. Knight has won three national championships and an Olympic gold medal during a stormy career that's taken him from Army to Indiana to Texas Tech, making friends and enemies by the bushel along the way. […]

Don Haskins only coached in one Final Four, but it was arguably the most important such appearance in history. Haskins led the Texas Western Miners in 1966 when the team started an all-African-American lineup against an all-white Kentucky team in the final. The result has been called the Brown v. Board of Education of college basketball. Texas Western (which changed its name to the University of Texas at El Paso the following summer) won the national title, and segregated teams were instantly on their way out.

That game was the subject of a recent movie that shares the title of Haskins' autobiography, Glory Road. Haskins, a no-frills personality if there ever was one, tells the overdue story about how a team from El Paso came out of virtually nowhere to change the game forever. Haskins loved to coach, and he liked to win. He did both with boys' and girls' prep teams, and won several hundred games once he took over at Texas Western.

Haskins has a simple yet eloquent explanation as to why his team had five black starters: I just started my best players. Isn't that what coaching is all about? It didn't occur to him to do anything else. It's nice to get his memories on paper in this entertaining memoir, written with Dan Wetzel.

Budd Bailey works in the sports department of the Buffalo News.

Don Haskins only coached in one Final Four, but it was arguably the most important such appearance in history. Haskins led the Texas Western Miners in 1966 when the team started an all-African-American lineup against an all-white Kentucky team in the final. The result has been called the Brown v. Board of Education of college […]

Prolific sportswriter John Feinstein is back with Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four. The book is structured around a typical week at the NCAA semifinals and finals, but that's merely a framework to let Feinstein talk to some of his favorite basketball personalities and share some good stories. Feinstein obviously enjoys the company of basketball people, and he gets them to open up. Everyone from Bill Bradley to Mike Krzyzewski to a UNC benchwarmer gets a chance to talk about the Final Four. The conversations go in a variety of directions, such as when former coach George Raveling explains why he owns the notes that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used in his 1963 I Have a Dream speech in Washington, D.C. (Raveling was a bodyguard who stood behind King during the speech).

The format also gives Feinstein a chance to express a few opinions along the way. For example, he rips the concept of a play-in game, in which the 64th and 65th-ranked teams square off away from the rest of the tournament (the game is played in Dayton, Ohio) for the chance to get beaten up by a top seed in the first round. Feinstein would rather see the field simply go back to 64, or failing that, have the last two at-large teams meet for a full-fledged spot in the Big Dance.

If I had the chance to trail anyone around the Final Four, Feinstein would be near the top of my list. Since that won't happen, this book is an excellent substitute.

Budd Bailey works in the sports department of the Buffalo News.

Prolific sportswriter John Feinstein is back with Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four. The book is structured around a typical week at the NCAA semifinals and finals, but that's merely a framework to let Feinstein talk to some of his favorite basketball personalities and share some good stories. Feinstein obviously enjoys the […]

A sensational 1973 tennis match is the centerpiece of Selena Roberts' book, A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game, a smart review of King's career and the rise of women's sports during the past 40 years.

Roberts, a New York Times columnist, shows that King and Riggs had much more in common than one might think. Both came out of Southern California, liked attention and weren't part of the country club set. Riggs was a former Wimbledon champion who saw a chance for a second act in his sports life by challenging women. King, meanwhile, had been struggling to turn women's pro tennis into a lucrative business. She accepted Riggs' challenge after he beat another Wimbledon champion, Margaret Court, and The Battle of the Sexes was born. King took the match seriously, while Riggs concentrated on the hype, neglecting to sleep, train or practice. King thrashed Riggs.

While King's tennis record (20 Grand Slam singles titles) is superb, she'll be best remembered as the person most responsible for the growth in women's sports, and as one of the three most significant cultural figures from sports in the 20th century (behind only Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali). Riggs, meanwhile, was remembered until his death in 1995, so both participants got what they wanted out of the match.

Title IX, the federal legislation mandating equal funding for women's sports by universities, soon followed. Though the playing field isn't completely level prize money isn't even, and women's team sports have trailed individual sports in popularity at the pro level it's much better than it was in 1973. A Necessary Spectacle shows that the road to gender equality has taken some bizarre turns, but that the destination was worth the drive. Budd Bailey works in the sports department of the Buffalo Daily News.

A sensational 1973 tennis match is the centerpiece of Selena Roberts' book, A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game, a smart review of King's career and the rise of women's sports during the past 40 years. Roberts, a New York Times columnist, shows that King and […]

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