John Bacon, Author of Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, answers some questions about his book and the current state of the sport.
Q: The book focuses on four Big Ten programs at the crossroads; Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Northwestern. All four tapped tradition in different ways to overcome crisis. What does that say about college football?
A: No sport in the world has the depth of tradition that college football has, nothing even comes close.
The RichRod experiment proves that you just can’t plug in a hotshot coach in a hotshot program and assume that, like an appliance, everything will work great.
Although Bill O’Brien was an outsider, he relied on players and the letterman to rally the tradition of Penn State.
At Ohio State, they went with a guy [Urban Myer] who grew up in the state, grew up as a fan and coached with Earl Bruce.
Brady Hoke at Michigan coached with Lloyd Carr during Michigan’s last national championship season.
At his first press conference, he underscored that,“…this is Michigan.”
You don’t have that line in your head if you didn’t know what Michigan is about.
Pat Fitzgerald says in the book, ”I don’t know what it’s like to play at Ohio State or coach at Ohio State, I don’t know what it’s like to be Ohio State. I know Northwestern.”
If he didn’t know Northwestern like he does, he wouldn’t be successful there.
Q: Is it puzzling that while these schools are renewing their programs with tradition, the Big Ten is abandoning tradition with its latest expansion?
A: The Big Ten had been the most stable of all the conferences and it was a shock to see them add Rutgers and Maryland.
It’s just like the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry ending. No fans or players asked for that series to end but that’s how modern college football is run.
I have faith in the players and fans, they are the true believers. While the guys who are running things are just trying to sell the whole thing for a buck.
My concern is that if you keep doing that, the part of the game that people love will disintegrate in the process.
Q: Many college football fans enjoy the college game more than pro football. Do the people running college football risk angering their core fans?
A: College football fans are fans of college football.
According to a Michigan Athletic Department survey, only 9% of season ticket holders have season tickets on any other pro sport.
College fans are cheering for things that are very specific.
In the NFL, you’re cheering for a logo that might change any day, and a team that might move depending on finances.
The more they make college football like the NFL the more they risk alienating their fans.
Eliminate the differences and college football risks becoming a minor league for the NFL.
Why does Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State get a 100,000 fans while the NFL teams in their areas get half that?
Fans aren’t cheering excellence; the worst NFL team could crush the best college team.
College fans cheer passion, they cheer romance, and the current business model threatens to kill that passion.
Q: Many fans are becoming disillusioned with the changes at the stadium experience. Are prices changing the relationship between the fans and college football?
A: Michigan began selling out games in 1975. What drew people was the passion of the fans and players. It wasn’t dependent on electronic scoreboards or a “wow” experience.
The passion was organic and genuinely authentic. The college football fan experience is special.
Michigan fans see things that they love in their team very deeply, it’s not brand loyalty; it’s a belief.
The fear is that the people running the college football are tampering with something that shouldn’t be tampered with.
Q: College stadiums now have private suites, club seating, and seat licenses. What do players think about these changes?
A: When players see the money sloshing around and how much is spent on travel and entertainment for the athletic department while they can’t afford to take their girlfriends out to dinner after the game, they start wondering how this thing really works.
Q: Are athletic departments in danger of losing touch with the everyday fan?
A: There are some things that are very popular; the night games and the alternate jerseys are examples of things that people enjoy. But there are some decisions that people question. The decision not take the Michigan band with the team when they played Alabama caused an outcry from fans so much so that the decision was reversed.
Bo Schembechler always had his finger on the pulse of his teams. Sometimes that talent is missing during decision making at the athletic department.
Some of the mistakes that have been made could have been avoided with a little more consideration for everyday fans.
Q: Is college football doomed?
A: I don’t think it’s doomed but it’s very fragile, like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite before they became national parks.
If we keep doing what we’re doing it, what took years to grow can end up the equivalent of a parking lot.
Everything that college fans love, things that were developed by players and fans will disappear if we’re not careful.
If we’re going to preserve it, now is the time.
The fans get it, they‘re still true believers. For their sake, it would be sad to see college football diminished.