Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: Three and Out

Two books about football in one month! I must be ill or something (where "or something" is defined as "insomnia").

All-access books have a relatively long and generally, though not entirely positive reputation. They generally cover only one season. At their best, they're able to provide deep insight into the day-to-day operations of something almost none of the readers will ever experience. Not at their best, they're a good way for an author to write nice things about their sources and what they already believed.

John U. Bacon's Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football actually results from Bacon's three years of access to Rodriguez, what proved to be the entirety of his tenure as Michigan's head football coach. To Bacon's good fortune, those turned out to be three very interesting and tumultuous years, and to our good fortune, Three and Out actually tries to chronicle all of the tumult and drama, both behind the scenes and otherwise. When most of the purported adults involved hate the book and probably its author yet aren't bothering to actually make specific criticisms about its contents, that's a good sign.

Beyond being a fascinating and eminently readable book about life inside a major college football program, Three and Out also is a story about a classic case of bringing an outsider into an existing culture, strong elements of which end up seeing the outsider as an invasive species that must be destroyed. Rodriguez the outsider ends up making a number of missteps that didn't endear him to the existing power institutions at Michigan, even those that, unlike Lloyd Carr, weren't hostile to him in the first place. Carr refused to talk to Bacon for Three and Out, perhaps because Bacon had nothing to offer him, and perhaps because Carr saw how easy it would be for somebody else to read the book and think deeply unkind things about Carr; specifically, that Lloyd Carr comes across as being interested in a successful Michigan program only if it features what Lloyd Carr thinks is important.

In some ways, that's one of the deep ironies in Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez was a West Virginia native who walked on to the football team in Morgantown as a student and eventually became head coach at the school. He won there, almost playing for a national title in 2007 right before being hired to coach Michigan, and could have been there until he retired, like Don Nehlen. In perhaps the most interesting part of Three and Out, though, Bacon writes about how Rodriguez fell afoul of the existing power structure in West Virginia, including Governor Joe Manchin. This sort of upper-level political involvement is the kind of thing that you know happens in university athletics, but it's rare to get a good portrait of it. One of the reasons Rodriguez was willing to listen to Michigan in the first place is there was pushback by Manchin, WVU's President Mike Garrison, and A.D. Eddie Pastilong against Rodriguez for what they viewed as the personal brand he was developing with his success. Rodriguez ended up not winning the political struggles with his nominal superiors, and saw that even when he raised the money for things for his football program he wasn't necessarily going to get them. That kind of thwarting of aspirations is precisely what Rodriguez left Morgantown to avoid in the first place, yet it's what he encountered in Ann Arbor essentially from the day he got there.

The other deep irony I found in Three and Out is the one of the most successful things Lloyd Carr did to put Rich Rodriguez beyond the eight ball actually happened long before the thought of Rodriguez coaching Michigan occurred to anybody, and that's the extraordinarily bare defensive personnel cupboard he left. Carr (in)famously volunteered to sign everybody's transfer paperwork after initially recommending RichRod, which led to a spate of offensive transfers. With RichRod being a spread guru, though, a high degree of offensive changeover was inevitable, especially with the most prominent offensive skill position players, Mike Hart and Chad Henne, exhausting their eligibility. Rodriguez had gone through, and expected, a certain level of ineptitude that first year on offense. What he didn't expect coming to Michigan, and what he failed to adapt to, were personnel deficiencies and coaching struggles on defense. As Bacon's initial plan was apparently to write about RichRod bringing his offense to the B10, the story of the defense ends up under-covered in Three and Out. One of the great "what-ifs" implicitly raised by Bacon's book is what would have happened if Carr hadn't retired at the end of 2007. A great deal of offensive turnover was inevitable, and defensive decline was the order of the day. How much better would a Carr Michigan team have done in 2008 than RichRod's 3-8, and would Carr (or his designated successor) have been able to turn around the Wolverines' defense any faster? Carr's retirement meant never having to publicly face the music for this, and, if he so desired, room for plenty of private backbiting about the new coach's inability to meet the challenges bequeathed to him.

I should make it clear that while Carr comes off quite poorly in the book, it's far from a whitewash of Rodriguez. While he showed some improvement in his handling of various issues, his occasional missteps and clashing with the extant Michigan culture (one which Bacon was a part of and seems to value highly) started with his introductory press conference and continued essentially until almost the end of his tenure at Michigan. In addition to those flaws, he also has a lot more of what I think of as "normal coach" flaws, including profane and angry reactions after losses (in private) and at times letting his personal struggles influence his team unity-building. It's also not quite clear that Bacon sees the deep ironies I found in Three and Out; it's more a work of narrative journalism than a psychological study of RichRod.

For somebody with no Michigan connection who's spent more time singing "We Don't Give a Damn for the Whole State of Michigan than "The Victors" the past decade, I obviously found Three and Out a deeply interesting and enjoyable read. For more on Three and Out, see MGoBlog's tag, which includes a couple extensive Q&As with Bacon.

UPDATE (1/29/12, 2217 CT): Made a couple stylistic and typo edits.

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