Ten Questions with Michael Rosenberg

I was able to talk with Michael Rosenberg, the Detroit Free Press columnist and author of War As They Knew It, at an event here in Columbus back in September.  And after our chat Michael was gracious enough to agree to answer some questions via email.  I have finally managed to put that together.  The good thing is it is Michigan Ohio State week so the subject matches very well.  (FYI: I ask Michael ten more questions – this time more focused on football – at my personal blog.

*IE problem now fixed*

So without further ado:

1. How did you convince someone to publish yet another book on the Ohio State Michigan rivalry and/or Bo and Woody?

That was the first challenge of selling the proposal: convincing publisher’s that my book would be different. I really emphasized the social history and my reporting background, and thankfully, publishers understand that even when others have tackled a subject, it is possible to write a high-quality book with new insight and information. Laura Hillenbrand was not the first author to write a book about Seabiscuit
. There have been dozens of Muhammad Ali books, but three of the most recent – David Remnick’s “King of the World,” Mark Kram’s Ghosts of Manila and Dave Kindred’s Sound and Fury
” – were critically acclaimed. Once editors read my proposal (which ran 60 pages) I think they understood that this book was different.

2. As a columnist what did you like the most about writing a book?  What was the most difficult aspect; or the part you disliked?

I love being a columnist, but I find myself rending verdicts and offering a point of view in almost every column, and I really loved the opportunity to just tell a story. There is no judgment in this book – radicals and intense football coaches and even Richard Nixon are not judged by the author. I wanted to take readers inside their heads, to understand why they did what they did.

The most difficult part was the sheer volume of work and the discipline it required. I tend to write columns in pieces, then put them together – I almost never write top to bottom and send it in. Obviously, it’s hard to write a 300-page book that way. Yet I had to keep that approach in order to weave the story together. What happens on page 20 might foreshadow what happens on page 240.

I thought I could write a book, but it’s hard to know until you try it. There were many days when I was not sure I could pull this off.

Questions 3-10 below

3. The book is a unique mix of sports, biography, and social history.  How did you attempt to appeal to fans of all these different styles or genres – to make this more than just a book about college football?

I wanted to write a story that would appeal to everybody, while still giving Michigan and Ohio State fans the kind of insight that they would want in a Bo/Woody book. Weaving the storylines together was tough, but I felt it was necessary – I didn’t just throw in the social history for my own enjoyment. I felt that the era could tell us so much about the coaches and players. They didn’t operate in a bubble. They had to live through what was happening on campus, and it absolutely affected both programs.

One of the toughest writing challenges was figuring out how to tell the stories of the games – without boring anybody, but also without skipping important moments. My hope is that when you get to a game portion, you have become invested in the characters, and so you care what happens to them. I took great care in selecting which plays and sequences to mention.

4. OSU and UM are very different institutions and campuses.  What did you find in researching this period about these towns, schools, and campuses?

They are different now and were much more different then. Ann Arbor was one of the most radical cities in the United States. Bomb craters were built, actual bombs were detonated and corporate recruiters were routinely locked in buildings for hours at a time. Ohio State was known as The Big Farm – it was dominated by rural and working-class kids who just wanted to get an education and weren’t likely to protest. Michigan players told me they felt like everybody on campus was on the left; Ohio State activists told me they felt like everybody on campus was either conservative or indifferent. That’s a generalization, but it shows you how people felt.

5. You detail one particular player’s struggle with drug use while he was playing.  How much of this kind of thing goes on today that we are not aware of?

I’m sure it happens today; it’s obviously still a major societal problem. But at least today, people are educated about drug use, and there is testing. Woody, and Bo to a lesser extent, seemed to think if a kid smoked pot on Tuesday night then they could tell at practice Wednesday. And even if they suspected something, there was not much they could do about it.

There is no doubt some players today use hard, recreational drugs. But I think performance-enhancers and alcohol are probably bigger issues.

6. What do you think is more important on these campuses today: sports or politics?

I would hope it’s politics, especially with the state of the world today. No matter where you stand politically, we’re obviously living in an incredibly tense time. But I can’t say with confidence that the answer is politics.

The biggest difference between 1969 and 2008, in this respect, is that in 1969, football was viewed as a conservative, Establishment activity. Some of the Michigan players in 1969 and 1970 didn’t want people to know they were football players for that reason.

In 2008, football is just entertainment. If a peace activist today told you he loves Ohio State football, you wouldn’t think much of it. That was not the case in 1969.

7.  Bo and Woody are both legends.  In what ways were they similar and how were they different as coaches and as people?

They were similar in so many ways – their commitment to discipline, their stubbornness, their ability to teach technique and motivate players. That is why their teams looked so similar. And it wasn’t some genetic coincidence, either – Bo copied 95 percent of what Woody did and tried to learn from the other 5 percent.

The biggest difference, at least in “War As They Knew It,” is that Woody really saw his program as a model for society. He thought people would see this militaristic unit — everybody following a leader, no individualism, built on work ethic – and learn from it. Bo, on the other hand, just wanted to keep society away from his program. As long as he could coach his guys in practices and games, he was happy.

Well, it becomes apparent over this period that society is shunning, even mocking, the Hayes model. That bothered him tremendously. Schembechler, on the other hand, could keep on focusing on football. That is why he survived and then thrived in Ann Arbor, despite being a conservative in a liberal town.

8. A number of reviewers, myself included, felt that the most compelling aspect of the books was our portrait of Woody Hayes.  As a Michigan grad and reporter why do you think that is?

Well, Bo was an incredibly charismatic and compelling figure. But he was the first to admit that Woody was more fascinating. With Woody, there were so many extremes – he was an absolutist, and there aren’t many of those around. I can’t imagine Bo walking three miles to work to reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil or turning down pay raises when he was making $35,000. Bo was much more pragmatic than Woody. This was one reason why he never came close to losing his players like Woody did.

Woody is truly a tragic hero in the classic Greek sense: he caused his own downfall. Yet he was an incredibly likable character, too, so by the time you get to the downfall, I hope you have a real empathy and even affection for him. Bo never had a downfall, which is to his credit, but that means his story arc isn’t as interesting as Woody’s.

9. How big for Michigan football was Bo’s win against Woody in his first year?

Huge. It meant the players would never seriously question Bo again. He had credibility with them. And it elevated that rivalry to unprecedented heights.

10.  Why isn’t Don Canham a better known figure outside of college athletics?

Well, he wasn’t on TV much, and in our culture we tend to celebrate coaches instead of athletic directors. But Canham was one of the most influential people in the history of intercollegiate athletics, and anybody who worked in college sports from 1968 to 1988 knew it.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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