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Patrick Barron and The Camera’s Eye

Michigan Stadium at night

Maize Out at the Big House Photo: Patrick Barron

I am hoping to write soon about the Michigan Football season this year and my complicated relationship to the program but wanted to give you some emotional background, and excellent photographs, by pointing to this fantastic post from Patrick Barron.  It is a great mix of life and sports in this weird world of the pandemic.

The Perfect Pass by S. C. Gwynne

Sunday night I was sitting on the couch with my daughter enjoying a blowout win for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Thanks to their high-powered offense, and some ineptitude on the part of the Kansas City Chiefs, they soon built a three touchdown lead and never looked back.

What does this have to do with a book you review, you might be asking.  Well, it has to do with the change in the game of football and the Steelers are a good example of these changes.  Steelers football for years was identified with a punishing running game and a stingy defense.  These days it is more about its star QB Ben Roethlisberger, his favorite target Antonio Brown, and the other weapons he has around him.  Even running back Le’veon Bell, the other star in the backfield, plays an important role in the passing game.

And S.C. Gwynne argues we have Hal Mumme to thank for that.  Gwynne is the author of The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, an interesting story about influential football coach and thinker/strategist Hal Mumme.

the-perfect-pass-9781501116193_hrIn the tradition of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, award-winning historian S.C. Gwynne tells the incredible story of how two unknown coaches revolutionized American football at every level, from high school to the NFL.

Hal Mumme is one of a handful of authentic offensive geniuses in the history of American football. The Perfect Pass is the story of how he irreverently destroyed and re-created the game.

Mumme spent fourteen mostly losing seasons coaching football before inventing a potent passing offense that would soon shock players, delight fans, and terrify opposing coaches. The revolution he fomented began at a tiny, overlooked college called Iowa Wesleyan, where Mumme was head coach and Mike Leach, a lawyer who had never played college football, was hired as his offensive line coach.


In The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne explores Mumme’s leading role in changing football from a run-dominated sport to a pass-dominated one, the game that tens of millions of Americans now watch every fall weekend. Whether you’re a casual or ravenous football fan, this is a truly compelling story of American ingenuity and how a set of revolutionary ideas made their way from the margins into the hot center of the game we celebrate today.

There are basically two threads in the book: one focused on Mumme’s coaching career through high school and obscure colleges before a brief stint at Kentucky in the powerhouse SEC; and another focused on the development of his famous Air Raid offense.

Review: Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football

Before the 2015 college football season began, talking about the “return” of Michigan football might have seemed a tad premature.  After all, the Wolverine’s biggest rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State, still appeared significantly better than UM and poised to accomplish much more this season.

But after three consecutive shutouts, and some rather mediocre play by both OSU and MSU, it very much feels like “Meechigan” football has returned.  Saturday’s game will either confirm or deflate this building perspective.

Despite the title, however, Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football by John U. Bacon is really about the rise and fall of Dave Brandon in the context of Michigan athletics.

Landing Jim Harbaugh as football coach is really the result of the University of Michigan realizing how far it has drifted and how unhappy die-hard fans and alumni had become. Significant leadership changes were necessary before landing Harbaugh was even a possibility.

In fact, the MGoBlog (the preeminent University of Michigan sports blog) review offered a bit of a back and forth on this issue before coming down on the side of “it really was all about Dave Brandon.”

Had Brandon been the only real agent in this story, Bacon’s book would be one more cautionary tale about empty suits. He’s not, and it’s not.

This is Michigan’s story, not Dave’s. Bacon got some extraordinary people to go on the record about what the hell was going on in there. But the book also carefully autopsies every safeguard torn down that could have prevented one bad scion from setting the estate on fire. More importantly, it details the actions and motivations of student leaders, university leaders, thought leaders, and football captains in rescuing the enterprise from the flames.

I agree that there is something bigger than Dave Brandon involved.  If not it could have just been a leadership book about how Brandon screwed up one of the most powerful “brands” in college athletics and one that he by all accounts loved dearly.

But it is the culture and history of Michigan that is the foundation of the rise and return.  Bacon has the access and understanding necessary to tell the story of how football inexplicably became disconnected from this culture and history and how events aligned to allow for a return.

MGoBlog again:

So all jokes aside, Endzone really is Brandon’s Lasting Lessons. Among the core Bacon books, Bo’s Lasting Lessons is the heart, Three & Out is a spin-off, Fourth & Long a companion piece, and Endzone is the sequel. It shows the difference between trying to stage Bo’s lasting lessons (e.g. getting a commitment from Hoke before talking money) and embodying them (e.g. Hackett’s handshake agreement and its 8-hour ordeal).

It teaches that loyalty out of love is greater than loyalty out of fear and that either is a weak substitute for morality. It teaches that candor is virtue, that authenticity is recognizable, and that a person or a program’s aspirations are every bit as important as their accomplishments.

[bctt tweet=”If you have a connection to U of M, Endzone is a must, and a times brutal, read. “]

If you have a connection to the University of Michigan, Endzone is a must, and a times brutal, read. Bacon’s contacts, sources, and understanding of the university allows him to tell the inside story and it is a compelling one.  Watching Brandon drive the car in the ditch is horrifying and page turning in a can’t look away fashion.  The incredible dedication of Michigan leaders, students, alumni, and fans which leads to the eventual hiring of Harbaugh is also compelling. I am not a graduate of the school but simply a lifelong fan of the football team and I found it educational and fascinating.

If you are not an alumni or far, however, it is still a interesting look at how leadership and culture work; and how they impact results in big time college athletics.  Leadership, marketing, communications, organizational culture, etc. all play a role in how Michigan football wandered away from its values and culture.

As Seth notes, albeit in brackets, the book did feel rushed and disjointed at times. Copy editing errors, repetition and choppiness undercut the story. Endzone could have been shorter and more powerful, IMO.  Your emotional connection to the university will play a big role in how forgiving you are about the rushed nature of the book.  For me it knocked it from a 5 star to a 4, but I could see those with less of a rooting interest being more critical.

But if the book isn’t rushed to press, the publisher misses the powerful tie-in of this season of football where Harbaugh is riding high and discipline, integrity, and loyalty are once again making Michigan, Michigan.

My Goodreads rating: 4 of 5 stars

(View all my Goodreads reviews)

Four Books on "The Game"

Today will mark the 110th meeting of Ohio State and Michigan football teams otherwise known as “The Game.”  As a lifelong University of Michigan fan I have to admit I am not looking forward to it.  The utter collapse of the Wolverines offense has sucked all the joy out of the season. The fact that Ohio State’s new coach Urban Meyer has not lost a game and looks to notch its 24 straight win in Ann Arbor makes it all the more painful.  But in this game anything can happen and every Michigan fan in the country is hoping against hope that somehow their team pulls an upset for the ages.

As a way to mark this occasion I figured I would provide an opportunity for those of you unfamiliar with the history and tradition of this storied rivalry to read and learn about it.  Since I have reviewed a number of books on the subject here over the years, herewith a recap:

Three and Out:

Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football

by John Bacon

Three and Out sm

Buy It

My Review:

For most Michigan fans (myself included), that makes this book particularly painful. It is like watching a replay of your car accident in slow motion, on repeat. You know both the ultimate end result and the final score of every painful game and yet you force yourself to read the excruciating details as you relive the nightmare.

But if you are simply a fan of college football, or interested in big-time college athletics more generally, it is a fascinating read. Ohio State fans might find it entertaining and strangely cathartic.


Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football by John U. Bacon

This review was originally posted at National Review Online’s sports blog Right Field.

Five years ago, the University of Michigan football team was headed into its final game of the season 11–0 and ranked No. 2 in the country, facing 11–0 and No. 1 ranked Ohio State. “The Game” had become “The Game of the Century” and everything was on the line: a chance to beat archrival Ohio State; a national-championship-game invite; and an opportunity to put the capstone on Lloyd Carr’s Michigan career (one that had steadily lost its glow since his 1997 national title).

On what seemed like the precipice of greatness, however, the program instead fell into darkness with wailing and gnashing of teeth.

With eerie symbolism, legendary coach Bo Schembechler died the day before The Game. The next night, Michigan lost in heartbreaking fashion, 42–39, and then lost again to USC in the Rose Bowl, 32–18.

The following season, the Wolverines (ranked No. 5) lost to Appalachian State in one of the most stunning upsets in college-football history. This downward spiral was briefly interrupted by a 9–4 season and a win in the Capital One Bowl. But the next three seasons would prove to be perhaps the ugliest and most difficult in the long history of Michigan football.

And John U. Bacon found himself with the kind of access unheard of in modern athletics. The result is a remarkable book: Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.

Lloyd Carr retired at the end of the 2007 season and Michigan eventually hired West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez. In one of those quirks of fate, a former student of Bacon’s worked for Rodriguez’s financial adviser. This connection led to the idea of Bacon’s writing a couple of articles about the spread offense coming to Michigan, and then maybe collaborating on a book.

It is the height of understatement to say things did not work out as planned.

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