10 Questions With Fourth And Long Author John Bacon
Author and professor John Bacon turned some heads recently with his latest book: Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football. The book, set to be released next month, focuses on his time with four Big Ten programs: Northwestern, Michigan, Ohio State, and of course, Penn State. We got a chance to catch up with Bacon and discuss his time in Happy Valley, his book, the NCAA sanctions, and dinosaurs.
Onward State: What inspired you to write Fourth and Long?
John Bacon: People are not talking to fans and players enough about the future of college football. I think they’re getting squeezed out by those who are making a lot of money on it. The Big Ten is the oldest and probably the most stable conference in the United States, and yet in the last few years, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State had NCAA probation of various sorts and fired their coaches. That never happens. In all three cases, my curiosity was seeing how they handled that transition.
OS: Why did you choose Penn State as one of the subjects of your book?
JB: At Penn State, the big part was seeing guys right on the cusp of unprecedented tragedies and how they react from there. Everybody knows the Sandusky story and everyone has their opinions on Joe Paterno. I was very interested to find out if you’re Bill O’Brien, Mike Mauti, Mike Zordich, Matt McGloin, Jordan Hill, what do you do? How do you react?
OS: Tell us about your time at Penn State.
JB: The whole program was a lot closer to falling apart than a lot of people realize between the sanctions and the opportunity for the players to transfer. It was one of the most fun stories I’ve ever covered. It was truly inspiring to see what these guys did. What I saw from the spring game on was incredible.
They spent almost no time focusing on the sanctions, those who left, and the media. It was an insane amount of focus under incredible duress, and that was consistent from Bill O’Brien down to the walk-ons. And the way that Bill O’Brien, Craig Fitzgerald, Mike Mauti, Zordich, John Urschel, Jordan Hill, and all of those guys from top to bottom kept that team together will go down, I think, as one of the most inspiring sports stories of all time.
OS: Are there any stories from Penn State that didn’t make it into the book?
JB: I spent a few days in Nittanyville which got cut from the book. Those guys are great, they’re hilarious. That was a lot of fun. I went to a bunch of classes with John Urschel, which was a lot of fun too.
OS: What are your thoughts on the NCAA sanctions?
JB: No one I talked to trivialized the gravity of the tragedy at Penn State. Jerry Sandusky is first responsible. But as I explain in the book, this is beyond the NCAA. Whenever they’ve dealt with other curious felonies, the NCAA is not the legal authority, which frankly makes sense to me, which otherwise is like trying to assign a serial murder case to a meter maid.
They’re not set up for this, they don’t handle criminal activities. They’re not designed to. If you’re going to ignore all of these scenarios involving student-athletes getting grades in classes they never went to, but all of a sudden you decide it’s in your purveyance to sanction Penn State football, it’s absurd. This is not a football situation.
OS: What do you think about the current state of college football?
JB: I think on one hand you can say that it’s never been more popular. The attendance, the TV ratings, the revenue that teams are experiencing are all at record levels. Now you have conference networks and the Big Ten led the way there. That was not supposed to succeed the way it has. So you can say that it’s never been healthier than it is now.
But on the flip side, my concern is that we’re at a tipping point where both the players and the fans are starting to grumble that there’s too much weight being put on unpaid athletes and they’re squeaking too much from the fans, and I think that both have a pretty good case. If the guys making the money keep pushing this, at some point there’s a threshold where you’re going to lose some people, both players and fans.
Penn State is a prime example. You won’t find a better fan base, but thanks to the unpopular and ill-timed STEP program from 2010 to ’11 to ’12, Penn State lost about 3,000 season-ticket holders all three years, and most of that is pre-Sandusky. If you’re having Penn State fans dropping out, that should be a canary in a coal mine for all of college football.
OS: What Penn State players stood out to you when you were here and why?
JB: I gotta tell you, damn near the entire senior class. Obviously Mauti and Zordich get the lion’s share of credit and that’s deserved, and I think they’re teammates would say the same thing. But Matt McGloin is a hell of a leader and how he responded to the Northwestern challenge was incredible. 22 unanswered points in about 10 minutes. They’re a lot of quiet leaders too of course: Michael Fuhrman, Pete Massaro, Jordan Hill. They’re not all as vocal as Zordich and Mauti. Massaro, I thought, was a particularly good leader. Jordan Hill is a guy that everybody on that team respects. Jordan Hill doesn’t say a hell of a lot, but when he talks, the team listens.
OS: What was it like having so much access to the program during a time of turmoil?
JB: It was fascinating. After a while, people expected me to come back every few weeks. They were incredible welcoming. You got the message quickly that this is not a program that has anything to hide and is not trying to hide anything. They were incredibly nice to me and very honest and up-front. We gained a mutual trust I think and they felt comfortable talking to me and I think that came across in the interviews.
OS: What differences did you notice between the Penn State program and the other three you studied?
JB: Obviously, what Penn State went through. One of my favorite lines that comes to mind is from your men’s volleyball coach. He said, “When I think of Penn State, I think of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” And if there’s one praise I have in my mind about not just the football team but the people that I met, and I met a lot, that stands out as the best motto for Penn State.
What Bill O’Brien did with the lettermen was incredibly impressive. He had 500 people there within about three-days notice and on a Tuesday night. That’s not the usual program, to say the least. So I suppose what I noticed about Penn State versus the others is, when facing the ultimate challenge, you get unified and just support this team. You more than met that challenge. That team was down 0-2 and the fans did not stop one bit. They were rallying for the cause, not running away.
OS: If you were a dinosaur, which would you be and why?
JB: I’m going to have to say a pterodactyl, because I think they can fly. Correct me if I’m wrong. I think I can spell it: P-T-derodactyl. I’ll tell you what, you are not talking to a dinosaur expert, and you can print that too.