College football was born in America on November 6th, 1869, when two 50-man teams from Princeton (née College of New Jersey) and Rutgers huddled in a rugby-like scrum on a patch of New Brunswick grass. No helmets were worn; passes were kicked; and players scored goals instead of touchdowns. The game’s rules, bastardized from those of the London Football Association, were a far cry from what you see on ESPN today, but the spirit of the intercollegiate rivalry was unmistakable: when Rutgers won the match 6-4, they ran the Princeton spectators — who reportedly sprinted to their horse-drawn carriages — straight out of town.
In the months that followed, the sport swept the nation, and within 25 years, administrators recognized the marketing potential of school-affiliated football teams: one of John D. Rockefeller’s first tasks for his University of Chicago president was the establishment of The Maroons, the school’s first team. Even in its infancy, few things raised a college’s visibility like praiseworthy pigskin.
Today 120 schools field football teams in the Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision, which is composed not only of the Big Ten (née Western Conference) launched in Chicago in 1896, but also of 10 additional conferences and four “independent” teams across the nation. In total, the member schools bring in annual revenues exceeding $2.7 billion (and offset by roughly half as much in expenses). Head coaches earn on average $1.5 million a year, and six of the 10 largest sports stadiums on earth can be found on American college campuses. Last night, when the University of South Carolina took on Vanderbilt to open up the 2012 season, their contest drew millions of television viewers around the country.
Of these schools, however, only a small handful has managed to build perennially successful (and lucrative) football programs. These lucky few are mostly recognizable to anyone who’s watched ABC in autumn: Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Success in their stadiums became commonplace long ago.
Many fans of these teams will say that a year without a top-10 ranking is a year worth forgetting. Two losses are unforgivable; three are unthinkable. Call it optimism, call it hubris, but it gives them something in which they can believe. It also sets the stage for some Schadenfreude when an especially high profile, historically successful team falters. That’s precisely what occurred over the three years covered in John U. Bacon’s Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football (out in paperback this month), which endeavors to explain how the once-mighty program was reduced to a sputtering mess despite having one of the sport’s most talented coaches at its helm.
An argument could be made that the most interesting character in Bacon’s book is the shadow cast by the University of Michigan’s storied tradition, and the author wastes no time introducing readers to its particulars. If that sounds absurd, here’s some perspective: in 134 seasons, the Michigan Wolverines have won more football games than any other team in the country. Astoundingly, in that time the program has had only 19 head coaches. (By comparison, Alabama’s had 27 coaches over 120 seasons, and Bear Bryant was there for more than a fifth of them.)
Such steady consistency has resulted in an extraordinarily fervent fan base, one known to be “uncommonly loyal and knowledgeable, and gracious toward opponents — even in defeat.” Each week, the Maize and Blue faithful gather to excitedly watch their team compete, often from the comfort of their home stadium, “The Big House,” which is the largest in America and regularly sells out to more than 110,000 people. The school’s reputation is not some storybook trifle but rather the load-bearing wall on which the entire program stands. It’s why the fans show up in the first place.
That said, Bacon’s estimation of the tradition’s allure to would-be student-athletes can at times seem like wishful thinking. While important to establishing a durable fan base and securing the support of the local community, I find it hard to believe that most 18-year-old kids decide which team to play for based on their rosters of yore. Now that dozens of schools boast world-class facilities, what seems to matter most for recruits is whether or not they’ll reliably secure playing time, or whether a particular school is close to their families, or how many alums the school’s sent to the NFL. For me, having come from the University of Miami, a school whose football team came to prominence only after the 1980s, it’s hard to envision an 18-year-old kid from Pahokee or Los Angeles admiring one of Michigan’s old, dead white players from the early 1900s — more likely they grew up watching such modern stars as my school’s Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on TV. But who knows. Maybe things are different up North.
Regardless, Bacon’s grasp of Michigan’s mythology helps to make the book highly readable. Even fans of opposing teams will enjoy the author’s survey. His overview of the program’s most important figures — folks like Fielding H. Yost, their first great coach, and Bo Schembechler, who coined the term “Michigan Man” to evoke the Platonic ideal of a Wolverine sportsman — helps outsiders understand how the place’s reputation grew so large over time. It also serves to reinforce how utterly nerve-wracking it must be to go to work each day hoping to live up to such impossibly high expectations.
The book’s actual main character, and someone apparently crazy or masochistic enough to believe he can meet those expectations, is Rich Rodriguez, who Bacon takes care to note is every bit as radical and new as Michigan is traditional and old. Born in a small coal town in West Virginia — an unusually fertile ground for great coaches — Rodriguez is portrayed in Three and Out with equal parts admiration and befuddlement. On the one hand, Bacon makes clear that the man is unquestionably a football genius, the one-time youngest head coach in America and the first to pioneer the spread option, a high-octane offense dependent on speed and stamina over strength and size. (Here’s a typical play.) Yet on the other hand, Bacon shows that the man could at times be oblivious to his public perception, as well as incapable of successfully negotiating with his higher-ups to secure higher salaries for his staff and better facilities for his players.
But you can afford to lack polish when you’re the innovator behind one of the most successful offenses in college sports, so despite his occasional stumbles, Rodriguez managed to secure his fifth head coaching job in 12 years at West Virginia University, his alma mater. By 2000, his first year at WVU, Rodriguez’s offense had become so popular that it had inspired numerous imitators, and his salary had ballooned from $16,000 to more than $700,000.
As head of the Mountaineers, Rodriguez enjoyed a spate of winning seasons and postseason bowl berths. He also repeatedly clashed with the administration over the same old song: his team’s autonomy, his staff’s pay rate, and upgrades to the athletic facilities. While his team was consistently hailed as one of the most exciting ones to watch, national titles proved elusive.
In fact, the last school to win its first national title was Florida in 1996, and everybody who’s won one since has merely padded its trophy case with repeats. Today’s college football championships are for the taking, it seems, only if you’re a top-shelf program that’s held one before, and Rodriguez must’ve known he’d need to coach at such a “destination school” if he hoped to attain a trophy of his own.
So enter Michigan, which in 2008 unexpectedly found itself with its first coaching vacancy in 12 years. Unprepared, the school scrambled through the hiring process and, after failing to lure several of its first choice candidates, tossed out a lifeline to Rodriguez, who had never so much as set foot in Ann Arbor before accepting the job. Such is the program’s draw that, as Bacon writes, “Rodriguez assumed that moving to Michigan would not only rid him of the problems he faced in Morgantown, but would not add any of its own.” Naïve as that idea may have been, it wasn’t the only thing to foreshadow an uneasy union between Rodriguez and Michigan: having failed to secure the confidence of many of the most faithful and influential Michigan backers, the “aw-shucks” Rodriguez blundered at his first press conference by answering “Gosh, I hope not!” to the question of whether he needed to be a “Michigan Man” in order to coach the Wolverines. In Ann Arbor, that’s tantamount to saying you’ve never heard of The Beatles. Months later, he would be reprimanded for using the word “ain’t” in an interview.
Were it so simple that x’s and o’s alone won football games, nearly every school in the country could field capable teams. On the contrary, coaching today demands not only strategic ingenuity and a mastery of motivational techniques, but it also demands a full-time commitment to scouting and recruiting trips, fundraising, alumni meet-and-greets, hometown appearances, summer camp administration, and more. Coaches need to appease requests and demands from parents, assistants, athletic department staffs, and the university’s administration. The NCAA’s byzantine bylaws — which, for instance, allow schools to provide bagels and butter to recruits but not bagels and jelly — must be obeyed strictly.
As Bacon goes on to illustrate in his book — and which I don’t want to spoil for those who wish to read it — Rich Rodriguez’s consistent failure to balance these incredible, numerous responsibilities was what led to his and the school’s problems. We learn that the coach’s cardinal sins amounted not to one egregious offense, but rather to a witch’s brew of PR gaffes, hostile behind-the-scenes administrators, his former employer’s frustrations, his current employer’s impatience, and the quality of the roster he inherited in Ann Arbor. Together, these elements resulted in Rodriguez’s firing following the 2010 season, the last year Bacon followed the team. On the book’s front cover, Entertainment Weekly likens Three and Out to Moneyball, but the more apt comparison is to The Perfect Storm.
One of the book’s additional joys is Bacon’s Plimptonian quest to work out with the Wolverine football players throughout the season. As he proves in one particular scene, the idea that student-athletes coast through college on easy street is an utter canard. And speaking of fallacies, Bacon also finds room in the book to pen convincing arguments against paying players, who can already receive over $580,000 of education and expenses over their four year careers, as well as arguments against the sloppy reporting done by some selfish journalists advancing their careers by disingenuously claiming to “look out for the kids.” One such offender, formerly of The Free Press but now of Sports Illustrated, gets deservedly raked across the coals in this book. That Bacon spares the self-righteous NCAA itself and its quasi-legality from a detailed takedown is forgivable; nobody is likely to write a better such dismissal than Taylor Branch’s The Cartel, which was expanded from his article, “The Shame of College Sports.”
While a casual reader might find some of the book’s tidbits about Michigan traditions or Rodriguez’s career trajectory to be inconsequential or unimportant, astute football fans will agree that the most distinct aspects of football and baseball, America’s two most popular sports, are the outsized roles played by narrative and tradition. You see, both games practically beg for commentators to ascribe storylines and context in order to fill the gaps between bursts of live action. (Try watching a muted baseball game if you don’t believe me.) The games depend on their stories. Unlike the continuous game play in soccer or basketball matches, which force announcers to call second-by-second run-downs of the ball’s movement, baseball and football plays are punctuated by long lulls. See the baseball player who halts his at-bat long enough to scratch his crotch and spit some seeds. See the average football game, which manages to stretch a lean 11 minutes of live game play out for a broadcast lasting 174 minutes.
More often than not, these gaps are filled by stories based on a school’s sense of tradition: its fan base and how it travels, its past players and awards, its legendary coaches (if it’s lucky enough to have any), its rivals, the implications of this game’s outcome or the adversity faced by the team’s individual players — a troubled youth who earns his family’s first college degree, say, or a biochemical engineer kicking the game’s winning field goal. These stories nearly eclipse the games themselves, and fans eat them up. In Three and Out, Bacon serves up a feast consisting of all of these elements and all of these stories.
Image Credit: NMH
1. “And if I perish, I perish.”
Anna Solomon is not the first person I would’ve expected to write a Jewish novel.
I met Anna seven years ago – we were both students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – and while I knew Anna was Jewish, it wasn’t the first, or second, or even third thing I would’ve expected her to mention about her identity. Writer. Woman. From Gloucester, Mass. All those would have come first.
Her fiction, back then – and we had this in common – was scrubbed of any obviously Jewish characters or themes. The short story I remember most from workshop, which eventually became “What Is Alaska Like?” (One Story, April 2006), is about a chambermaid in Blue Lake Lodge, a roadside motel on Boston’s North Shore.
“There was no lake at Blue Lake,” Anna writes in the story. “The Lodge was a stucco motel on the Clam River, about an hour north of Boston. The stink came twice a day with low tide: mud and mussel shells and half-eaten crabs baking in the sun like the darkest casserole. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the smell, but these tourists from Ohio would stuff their faces into the sink like there was an answer in there. They wore visors that got in their way. ‘Sewage?’ they’d ask me. ‘Sulfur?’ ”
Her characters are Darlene and Jimmy and Ellen Crane. Even her rivers are treyf. It feels about as far from a depiction of Jewish experience as I can imagine.
Which is why, I’ll admit, I was surprised when I learned that Anna’s first novel, The Little Bride, released in September, is the story of Minna, a Jewish mail-order bride from Odessa, Ukraine, and her marriage to Max, a rigidly Orthodox Jew living on the “Sodokota” plains in the late 19th century. It’s about Am Olam, or “Eternal People,” a little-known historical movement that began in the 1800s, when immigrant Jews moved to the Western states and founded communal, agrarian colonies. Its most vivid scenes are Jewish, involving prayerbooks, teffilin, and kippot. The inscription is Hebrew: V’ka’asher ovadet ovadeti, “And if I perish, I perish.”
It’s a book that’s Jewish in its kishkes.
I sat down, recently, with Anna at a Park Slope, Brooklyn, coffee shop. We talked about her tenure a decade ago as National Public Radio’s Washington, D.C. bureau chief, when she spent 10 days in South Dakota producing a story about ranchers and the farm bill – an experience that would provide much of the scenic grist for her novel. (“I was totally blown away by the South Dakota landscape, especially the land near the Missouri River, the rolling hills – it feels like the motion is in the earth itself. And the air, how it just constantly seemed to be moving in one direction … very hot, gusting, dry air. I felt like I was in the middle of a continent.”) She recalled the afternoon she spent riding around with U.S. Senator Tom Daschle in his SUV. (“He’s just like he seems: short and friendly; speaks like a politician.”) We covered her approach to research. (“I’m not, as a reader, interested in how many buttons a dress had in the 1970s compared to the 1920s – so I don’t care as a writer.”) But we returned, time and again, to thorny questions of Jewish identity.
“I’m still getting used to the idea of getting called a ‘Jewish Writer,’” Anna said. “What does that even mean?”
2. “My Hair Got Curly”
Anna Solomon was one of only a few Jews at my son’s bris in Iowa City. Most of my friends from Workshop who came weren’t Jewish. As it turned out, we couldn’t even find a moyle to perform the ritual circumcision. The closest one lived in Chicago, some three hours away, and couldn’t drive to our home on Shabbat, the day of the ceremony.
When I asked Anna what she remembers about that day, she recalls talking another writer through it. He had never been to a bris and was, to say the least, “very uncomfortable.”
Standing in my living room in Iowa City that day Anna was an insider.
Growing up in Gloucester, she in many ways was not.
As it happens, I spent many summer weeks in Gloucester as a kid. To me, Gloucester was the Wreck of the Hesperus, the Gorton’s fisherman, and the reef of Norman’s Woe. Ten Pound Island and the Yankee Clipper fishing fleet, offering half-day trips for cod, pollock, and cusk. Gloucester was the small restaurant on the approach to Bass Rocks that my grandfather called “Goo Foo” – the d’s had long ago fallen off the signboard, and no one ever thought to replace them. I knew it as a tourist, yes, but I also knew it before Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm brought George Clooney to town, making it a permanent stop on Hollywood’s on-location tour.
Anna, meanwhile, knew a very different place, a mix of working class and patrician New England, ethnically Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic, and Protestant. Her dad was an art dealer. Her mom, a teacher. Both had doctorates in education from Harvard University. Anna, a “white, privileged female,” should have fit right in.
Only, she didn’t.
She recalls sensing this as early as kindergarten, when her teacher often asked her to write her name on the board: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. (She has since dropped “Greenbaum,” her father’s surname, to make it easier for readers.) “It was a very Jewish name to write on the board,” Anna told me. “I think at that point, I started to feel the difference.”
Anna’s family was active in the local conservative synagogue, Ahavath Achim. Her parents led Shabbat services. Her mom was the first female president of the synagogue. Anna went to Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah. In high school, she played lacrosse, and began to stand out in more obvious, physical ways. “All the girls had straight, blondey, browny hair, and little noses,” she recalls. “My hair got curly.”
Things like sailing and skiing came naturally to other New Englanders. Anna’s family had to work at them.
“I was aware of myself being Jewish,” she said. “And it was important for me to fit in to a non-Jewish society.”
Anna’s early short stories, she told me, reflected this.
“The first short story I published in Shenandoah, ‘Proof We Exist,’ is about a 70-year-old WASP man living in Maine, with the last name Seed,” she says. “I was writing about the people I longed to be and not the person I was.
“I was so far from writing about myself,” she continued. “It took me a long time to do that. Even when I first started writing about young women, they were not Jewish. It took me a long time to open up to that aspect of my identity.”
“In my writing, I’ve gotten closer and closer to the things that really matter to me.”
3. Russian Dolls
The Little Bride is a beautiful book. In some ways, a writer’s book, with intricate, deeply moving language, powerful symbolism (one my favorite scenes depicts Minna, a new bride, literally blindfolded during her wedding reception), and vivid metaphor.
“New York is like being in the middle of a parade where everyone has been called home, all at once, in all different directions,” Anna writes.
And: “He was thin in the way of cellar insects, as if made to slip through cracks.”
“He was the sort of man that could locate praise in a bowl of teeth.”
There is a playful, riddle-like quality to the prose that, to me, evoked Russian dolls — “She dreamed the kind of dreams that seemed to be dreams of other dreams” and “He was like a boy actor playing a man actor playing a boy” and “He was like two men, the miner and the mined … and the mined man was two men, too, one stripped empty, the other filled back up with rage” — suggestive of the selves that we hide within ourselves.
More than once, I found myself nodding along in recognition. “So a decision was made. Or rather a decision was not not-made, and she came to Odessa by not not-coming.” Sure. That’s the same way a dozen years ago I moved to Washington, D.C.
Yet The Little Bride is also a sweeping historical novel about a Jewish woman’s journey: from the crowded streets of Odessa on the northwest shore of the Black Sea, Imperial Russia’s fourth largest city — where Jews faced four horrific pogroms in the 19th century — to the vast, harsh plains of South Dakota. The middle of a continent. Where Jews were largely unknown.
The narrative is in some ways reminiscent of biblical narrative. Minna leaves the land she knows and goes forth into the unknown, just like Abraham. She struggles to conceive, like Sarah. Max’s two sons, Jacob and Samuel, evoke Jacob (the angel wrestler) and Esau (the rough hunter), respectively, and, like the biblical Jacob, each prove capable of devastating betrayal.
In Judaism, memory is an obligation. Zachor. Remember that we were slaves in Egypt. Remember to keep Shabbat. Remember the Holocaust. In The Little Bride, memory sometimes feels fungible, not quite reliable. “Like any moment one waited for,” Anna writes, “Minna did not experience it so much as she saw herself experiencing it, so that as soon as it was over her memory of it was already made.”
There were times when twisting, circular sentences left me scratching my head, grappling for meaning. “Knowing the opposite of a thing,” Anna writes, “often seemed to Minna to be the same as knowing the thing itself.”
More often, the Lewis Carroll-like prose landed effortlessly, with a flash of insight: “They were never almost anywhere but the place they’d been a half hour ago.”
It’s a description of a ship crossing an ocean. But it could be almost anything. A person seeking a job. A couple having the same old fight.
A couple of yeshiva bochers, talking about the nature of God.
4. “It’s only a cross”
In The Little Bride, Anna tells the story of Jewish characters struggling to live Jewish lives, trying to understand what that means, and in that way, her writing is much closer to her experience. These are the characters she has been waiting for. Or, maybe, these are the characters that have been waiting for her.
“She learned to concentrate on not concentrating,” Anna writes of Minna, “to let her mind spread out, puddle-like, far enough from the body that the body was forgotten. Or at least silenced. A calm fell over her limbs. She wondered if this was prayer. If prayer was nothing more than a giving in, like sickness — if you weren’t required to believe, only to stop struggling.”
Reading this, it’s impossible for me to not hear echoes “Is My Toddler More Jewish than Me?”, a recent article Anna wrote for the Jewish parenting website Kveller.com, in which Anna writes about her conflicted relationship with Judaism, made more acute as her toddler, Sylvie, embraces Jewish ritual with the passion and joy of a zealot.
“Maybe we’re complicating what could be simple, if we stopped trying to figure it out,” Anna concluded in the blog post. “Maybe, instead of working so hard to protect Sylvie from our own experience, we should open ourselves to hers. We, after all, are the ones who sit or stand in synagogue now and have no clue where we are. We focus on the cantor being too operatic or the siddurs too outdated because we are new to the synagogues, yes, but also because we are scared of just being there, not as Sylvie’s parents – thinking, figuring – but as ourselves.”
There is a scene, toward the end of the novel: an accident has destroyed the family’s sod home, leaving it in ruins. Minna and Max are taken in by a German couple, Christians. Living in their home, Max feels assaulted by the cross hanging above the door.
“They expect us to look at this little man,” Max says, indignant.
“Motke,” Minna says, “it’s only a cross. … There is no little man.”
In Minna’s rejoinder, as in Minna’s name, I recognize Anna.
“Why am I Jewish?” Anna told me in Park Slope. “Why am I here and not in church? I don’t know that it matters if I come to religion as a Jew or a Catholic or anything else. I do it as a Jew because I am a Jew.”
This is, at its core, a novel about Jewish questions, Jewish experience.
But it is also, as with some of Anna’s early stories, more broadly about choice. Specifically, Minna’s choices. Whether to leave Odessa. Whether to stay with Max. Whether to return to him.
Thinking about this, I’m reminded of my favorite definition of theme, from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Theme, Burroway explains, is not what a novel is about, but, rather, what about what it’s about.
The Little Bride is a novel about choice. But what about choice?
“She had a choice,” Anna writes. “Which Minna used to think was the same as freedom.”
In fact, The Little Bride suggests, paradoxically, the opposite may be true. Max, who lives by a strict set of rules — God commands: what to eat, what to wear, how to act; there are few, if any existential questions — may just have more freedom than Minna.
By way of explaining, Anna posits the following scenario. Say you are teaching a creative writing workshop. You could tell your students: “Just write for 15 minutes. Something. Anything.” This, though, can be paralyzing. So instead, have them write for 15 minutes describing a barn from the point of view of a man whose has just learned his son has died – the classic John Gardner exercise.
“They suddenly have parameters,” Anna says. “They can just go.”
“You could love anyone, [Minna] thought, if you needed to,” Anna writes. “And in a curious way, not in spite of her need but because of it, because she was hungry and trapped, she felt safe.” Safe, in a moment when there are no decisions to make. Trapped, and therefore free.
“I am fascinated by people who join up — it could be Orthodox Judaism or the hard core punk scene — but they join in a very extreme, very intense, total way, and the idea is about following the rules. There’s a lot of liberty in that — a lot of comfort in it … I have a deep understanding of the appeal that kind of faith and fervor can hold.”
Here, Anna segues.
“In my early years as a writer,” she says, “I felt like I had to write. But some part of me wanted to stop. There was a real appeal for me to do something where the answers were provided … just to have a job or be in a community where it was clear what I was supposed to do. That would’ve been easier.”
“At its base, there’s this relationship to writing itself. Writing is so scary and unknown. When writing fiction, no one tells you what to do. There’s terror in having freedom.”
The Little Bride is, in this way, a novel about writing. Which brings me back, Russian doll-like, to the Anna I knew in the first place.