John Bacon is a writer, public speaker, and college professor at Northwestern and Michigan who has taken a strong interest in sports — especially college football — over the course of his career, authoring five books on the subject. Last season, Bacon injected himself in four Big Ten football programs — Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan, and of course, Penn State — to write his newest book, Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football.
Bacon published a riveting excerpt in the Wall Street Journal last week and Onward State received an advanced copy for review. Set for a September 3 release, the book provides an inside look at a sport that Bacon believes is at a tipping point for fans for reasons including rising ticket prices, the debate on paying for players, the big business of the NCAA, and more.
While the sections on the other three Big Ten schools are good reads, there is a reason that the largest portion of the book is dedicated to the time that Bacon spent in Happy Valley. The book opens with a telling look at the program’s immediate reaction to the NCAA during some of the most hectic days in Penn State history. Bacon sets a scene of absolute pandemonium as coaches around the nation attempted to “cannibalize Penn State’s roster.”
Many players were worried that Penn State football would crumble as a result of the sanctions and transfers, but Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich weren’t going to let that happen. Here’s one excerpt detailing a meeting that the two had with Bill O’Brien as he tried to impose a deadline for players to decide whether they would transfer (you probably read this in the WSJ):
“You say, ‘Now or never,'” Zordich said, “you’re going to lose a lot of guys. They’ll get scared.”
“And make an irrational decision,” Mauti added, finishing his best friend’s sentence once again. “If we’ve got a deadline, word’s going to get out to the coaches, and their phones are gonna blow up all over again the night before the deadline.”
At that moment, Zordich and Mauti might have been the only college football players in the country with the temerity to question the decision of their head coach — a coach they already respected greatly — to his face.
At the next moment, O’Brien might have been the only college football coach in the country willing to listen.
The second chapter delves into Joe Paterno’s legacy — a topic that just about everyone seems to have a strong opinion about these days. Mauti told Bacon that he was offered money, which is of course illegal under NCAA rules, to play at other schools when he was recruited in high school. Although Paterno did not offer him money, his recruiting pitch was unique from that of any other program:
“The other coaches were always telling me how good I was and showing me the flash, the rings and all that,” he recalled. “With Joe, we didn’t talk about me. He never once said anything about how good I was.”
Paterno was transparent, offering the young phenom nothing more than a chance. “You have a great opportunity here” was all he promised. “After that, it’s up to you what you make of it.” That was it, Paterno’s entire pitch. “All right kid, what are you thinking?”
Before he answered, Mike thought back to Zordich asking if he was coming. “So I just kind of blurted it out: ‘Coach, I want to come here!'”
Rich Mauti’s head whipped around. “Wait a minute, Mike, are you sure about that?”
Paterno walked around his desk and put his hand on Rich’s shoulder. “Aw, shut up, Mauti! You heard the kid’s coming.”
“And that was it for me,” Mike recalled.
But arguably the most telling story about what happened in Happy Valley following the sanctions, what motivated the team to stay intact, is Bacon’s detailing of a speech that Bill O’Brien gave the team immediately following Mark Emmert’s infamous press conference.
“We’re not here to understand the rules. We’re here to follow them,” equipment manager Kirk Diehl recalled O’Brien saying. “It’s my obligation to tell you that you are free to go anywhere you want, with no penalties. However, if you stay, I promise you, you will never forget it.”
John Urschel filled in the rest of O’Brien’s speech: “You still get to play in front of 108,000 rabid fans. You still get to be on TV. And most important, you will still get a great education.”
Bacon’s Fourth and Long goes on to explain how O’Brien, Mauti, Zordich, and some others worked to keep the team together. Mauti told a former Penn State strength coach who tried recruiting him to “go fuck himself.” The three of them, along with strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, ran their own miniature call center, spending multiple days reaching out to re-recruit every player that was considering transferring.
O’Brien had each coach give the players a speech on adversity that they had overcome in their lives and how they handled it. Five hundred lettermen came to campus to convince the players to stay and tell them how big of an impact they can have on Penn State if they do. Rick Slater, a former Penn State walk-on who went on to join Navy SEAL Team Six and take part in the Osama Bin Laden mission, also spoke to the team. Bacon described an inspiring speech in which Slater pulled off his belt, telling the players that he took it from his uniform after his last game as a Nittany Lion and wore it on the mission that killed Bin Laden.
Bacon saw money and power influencing a game that he loved and studied closely, but he also saw something else. He saw student- athletes at the four programs he embedded himself in upholding the ideals and traditions of college football’s storied past. That motif is most evident in his insider view of a post-sanction Penn State football program. Fourth and Long is a must read for college football fans and Penn Staters alike.