College football is the giant tail that ought to be wagging the relatively small dog of pro football but for some inexplicable reason never seems to see itself that way. The college game has roots and loyalties that go back decades before the pros and still inspires the kind of unbridled devotion that can only be imitated in National Football League stadiums. As a coach tells author John U. Bacon, “You can't manufacture tradition.”
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Pro football, at least in its present form, couldn't exist without the colleges acting as a cost-free minor league system for them. College football, on the other hand, has — and could again — flourish without the pros. And yet, as two remarkable new books — “Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football” and “The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football” — make clear, in becoming an appendage to the NFL, college football has corrupted every ideal it claims to represent, from academics to sportsmanship.
In "Fourth and Long," Bacon, author of a superb account of a coach and football program over three turbulent seasons at the University of Michigan in "Three and Out," takes on four Big Ten schools — Ohio State, Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan again — during their 2012 seasons and off-seasons that almost seem to have been created by a TV producer trying to combine reality with horror.
If you're looking for feel-good stories about college football, look elsewhere. Bacon is a journalist who loves his conference and his sport and is angry at the abuses committed in their names, from the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse crimes at Penn State ("the worst scandal in the history of modern sports") to the sanctions for "improper benefits" that kept Ohio State out of the national championship race in 2012.
"College football is getting to be like a bad high school relationship," says a former player interviewed by Bacon, talking about the agony of Michigan fans who fear their program is slipping into the second rate. "You keep getting abused ... but you can't get yourself to let it go."
Bacon does see hope for the Big Ten in the Wildcats of Northwestern, a school renowned for academic excellence that finished the 2012 season 10-3. "With (head coach) Pat Fitzgerald in his seventh year, the Wildcats had the kind of stability that Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State could only envy." (Let's hope Northwestern's 5-7 record in the season just completed was an aberration.)
In "The System," Jeff Benedict, an ace investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated, and Armen Keteyian, the lead correspondent for "60 Minutes Sports" on Showtime, don't go as deep into the game as Bacon does, but they cover wider ground, looking at major programs all over the country, from Miami to Notre Dame to Southern Cal. They raise a lid on issues that have been mostly rumors in the mainstream sports media. These include "black box" recruiting slush funds, "janitors" ("unseen, unsung heroes of college football who clean up players' scandals"), "tutors" (who do the school work for players and, according to an NCAA report, "socialize" with the players off campus) and "hostesses," often the first face a recruit sees when making an official campus visit. ("For a high school recruit, it is like having a weekend date with a college girl.")
Even college sports' so-called governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, does not escape unscathed. As one victim of the NCAA's heavy-handed investigative methods and arbitrary punishments put it, "There just aren't any rules when it comes to due process and the NCAA."
But "The System" is far from an indictment of all college football. The chapter "Built by Bama — In a Class by Itself" examines in detail how Alabama head coach Nick Saban has developed what he calls "The Process" and his assistants call "The Blueprint for Success," an ethic that begins with academics and is as much mental as physical. As the coach told one of his stars, "If you're not doing it in the classroom, you're going to have a problem with me on the field."
In Saban's words, "Performance is about how you think, communicate and respond. … And these elements can be taught." New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick describes Saban as "One of the best around, that's Nick. … When you write those 'personal evaluations' of players, every once in a while you come across a player, 'Strengths: All, Weaknesses: None.' ... Weaknesses? Uh,I didn't see any."
For one night, (the night the Crimson Tide defeated the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame for the championship of the 2012 season) everything glorious about college football was on display. The vivid pageantry, collective excellence, communal celebration and fierce competition provided the grand spectacle only NCAA football played at its highest level can deliver. One could almost forget the unremitting pressure, the scandals haunting the sport — the bidding wars for top recruits; the booster payoffs; the horrific injuries; the academic cheating; the rising tide of criminal acts; the brute fact that the young men who sacrificed on the field were interchangeable pieces who received exactly none of the billions of dollars of revenue the game generated. Almost.
At a time when most major athletic departments operate in the red — Benedict and Keteyian estimate that more than 90 percent lose money — true fans can only shake their heads wondering why such a system is geared to produce only a relative handful of athletes for the NFL.
And yet, neither "Fourth and Long" nor "The System" is depressing. By showing us how deep corruption runs in college football, the authors are also showing us why we care so much, and all there is that deserves to be saved.
Allen Barra writes about sports for TheAtlantic.com, The Daily Beast and the Wall Street Journal. His latest book, "Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," is due out in the spring.
"Fourth and Long"
By John U. Bacon, Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $26.99
By Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, Doubleday, 432 pages, $27.95