Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: Rough Magic

Another book about college football, another book listed by an ESPN college football reporter as one of his five. Last time, it was Meat on the Hoof, recommended by Gene Wojciechowski, while this time it's Rough Magic: Bill Walsh's Return to Stanford Football by Lowell Cohn, recommended by Ivan Maisel.

In Rough Magic, Cohn tells the story of the 1992 Stanford Cardinal, the first year of Walsh's second tenure as head coach at Stanford. At the time, Cohn was a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Walsh granted him almost unlimited access to the team and coaching staff to, well, chronicle the year for the book. Call it another example of the Breaks of the Game model. I was worried Maisel, a Stanford alum, was overrating a book about his alma mater, but thought Cohn did an excellent job of giving a portrait of a coach and his team. Make no mistake, this not a book about a team like John Feinstein tried to make Next Man Up, but instead about a coach and his team.

Full credit goes to Cohn for using his access very well, and to his good fortune Stanford ended up having a good and interesting season. Expectations were fairly low, but the Cardinal ended up going 10-3, including a bowl win over Penn State. Interestingly given Walsh's reputation as an offensive guru, Stanford that year was driven more by its defense than the passing game, as the offensive line struggled to block for QB Steve Stenstrom, who also didn't cotton on as quickly as Walsh hoped to the complicated passing offense.

I really enjoyed reading Rough Magic, but as I think back to it I'm not sure quite how valuable reading it was. I felt like I already sort of knew Walsh from The Genius, in particular, and the impression I got from Walsh was consistent with the Bill Walsh I felt like I already knew. The portrait is definitely more detailed than a full-life bio like Harris's book, but I'm not sure it's interestingly different. That said, I can't think offhand of any other Breaks-style books on a single year of a college team, and Cohn does tell that story as well in a slightly less-complete fashion.

Rough Magic only covers the 1992 season, and does not cover the 4-7 and 3-7-1 1993 and 1994 Stanford seasons when Walsh's less college-oriented background and assistant coaches may have been more of an issue.

Recommended to people who think they'd enjoy it.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Book Review: Meat on the Hoof

I must admit I was not familiar with Gary Shaw's Meat on the Hoof until I saw that Rex Ryan recommended it (though it was mentioned in this Howie Long profile by Dr. Z). Now that I've read it, I can see why Gene Wojciechowski would include it on a list of the top books on college football.

Meat on the Hoof is the story of Shaw's experience playing (practicing, primarily) for Darrell Royal's University of Texas Longhorns football team beginning in the fall of 1963. The "meat" of the title refers to Shaw and his fellow football players, as they were winnowed out from the opening intake to the smaller number who'd actually see the field for the Longhorns varsity.

That winnowing process was, at least back in those days, the result of a simple numbers game. Texas, per SWC rules, could give out 100 football scholarships. A class like Shaw's would have 45 freshman, of whom 40 would be redshirted. Obviously Texas couldn't recruit and keep 45 players every year with a 100-scholarship limitation. To make room for the new meat, the Texas coaches essentially conducted psychological (and physical) warfare on the players, turning football into a struggle of persistence and will over body. The winners were those who could sublimate physical pain and continue to perform, and the healthy. The losers were those whose desire or physical ability didn't measure up to the coaches' standards, and the injured.

The injured are a particular point of concern in Shaw's book. The clearly seriously injured were perhaps the best off: they went off to do rehab and seemed to disappear from the thoughts and minds of the coaches. Those not clearly seriously injured were the worse off, as a seemingly key part of the winnowing process was systematically denying medical attention to anybody except a varsity first- or second-stringer who'd already passed through the winnowing process. That deaths were not a more regular occurrence was part fortune, part a testament to the durability of the human body, and part the result of players reaching a point where they decided they had to go outside the bounds of the football team to get medical attention.

The situation was even worse for those lower on the depth chart. Slip below the fourth team, and you were excluded from the regular practice and sent to run "shit drills." Keeping in mind the numbers game, players down that far were, in that merciless logic, an active drain upon the football team's scarce resources. They couldn't be simply be cut, by the rules, so the "shit drills" were designed to force them to cut themselves, particularly by running what Shaw describes as drills whose sole intent seemingly was to create injury-causing violent collisions.

However it happened, injured players disappeared from the scene; like those deemed physically or mentally not strong enough, they were removed from the boundaries of the team. The coaches removed them from their universe, and the remaining players, whom the coaches praised and demeaned in what Shaw portrays primarily as psychological motivating tactics rather than critiques of talent and technique, followed their leaders' examples, shunning their former friends.

At the top of the pyramid was the man Shaw refers to as Daddy D, Darrell K. Royal himself. DKR was an Olympian figure to whom the players were simply meat. His personal charm and political skills, and particularly time off the practice field, were reserved for those over whom he did not have complete authority: recruits, parents of recruits and current and former players, and boosters. That authority was exercised at a remove: in seemingly arbitrary shifts of the depth chart, and by the passel of assistant coaches who actually spent time with the players in smaller group settings, almost all of whom were cut from the same mold as the man himself.

Reading Meat, I expected it to end like Scott Turow's One-L, in which the author tells his story but leaves out that he was one of the elite few who triumphed over the others. Shaw does indeed make it farther than most, but not to the end. After missing most of his junior season with a shoulder injury, he returns and is assigned to the thankless task of scout team duties, at which point he decides he's had enough, and joins the more than two-thirds of the rest of his class in leaving the football team before exhausting his eligibility (and generally the university as a whole as well).

While the players officially were entitled to their scholarship for their entire tenure, the numbers game meant the coaches were never eager to remind them of that fact, and so players tended to give up their scholarship and schooling when they left the football team. The psychological work done by the coaches plays a role here as well: many players considered themselves football players first, second, and third, and college students maybe fourth, and without football, being a student wasn't always sufficiently fulfilling.

Shaw did not seem to have a particularly happy adult life after the publication of Meat in 1972, being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and spending a decade on the streets. His main legacy now is the book he wrote, so what should we think of it?

We're now close to a half century removed from Shaw's freshman season, and obviously there have been big changes since then. Players look a lot different: his UT team was all-white, and there aren't many 6', 196-pound defensive tackles playing major college football these days. We may condemn Nick Saban for over-signing, but the 25 man/year and 85-total scholarship limitations mean anything he (and others) do in running off players is small potatoes compared to what Texas (and, to be fair to Royal, other high-profile programs) did. At the same time, though, the cult of manliness still rules college football, and still takes a regular toll. As a non-player, I really can't say one way or the other, but will only note that stories like Shaw's make me as a fan deeply uncomfortable about football as a whole and extraordinarily glad I went to a high school and college where football was not a factor and leave it at that.

Recommended to those who think they'd enjoy it.