Monday, August 24, 2015

A (Maize and Blue) Nation at Risk: A Review of Endzone by John U. Bacon

Mark Twain, building off a notion from Lord Byron, once said: "It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense."  It is in reading a review copy of ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football (St. Martin's Press, $27,99, available September 1, 2015) that one is profoundly reminded of this notion.   If I had not lived through the era covered by this book, I would have found some of Bacon's notions preposterous and downright insulting to my intelligence.  Instead, Bacon fills in the notions of what many of us suspected with details that somehow are simultaneous gratifying and infuriating.

If you have read Three and Out or Fourth and Long, Bacon's strengths from those books come to the fore again.  Bacon starts, like most good historians, with a clear argument he sets forth to prove in the book.  He proceeds to do this with brief chapters focused on one singular idea or issue.  This allows Bacon's facts to speak for themselves with a minimum of editorializing.  In the end, he presents the actions of Michigan Athletic Director David Brandon and allows the reader to make their own decisions.  What I respect here is that Bacon could easily allow his version of Brandon to descend into cartoonish supervillainy, in part because he knows his core audience would lap it up.  But he never does.  If Brandon comes off poorly in this book, it is because of what he did and the choices he made, not because Bacon chooses to piles on.  If Brandon seems imperious in this book, it is because of the manner in which he acted in front of people willing to call him on it now, not because Bacon casts him in that light without factual backing.  Truthfully, in reading, I was reminded of a phrase first put forward in 1983's A Nation at Risk.  To paraphrase: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on Michigan the mediocre administrative performance that existed in 2010-14, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

One of the things that struck me as I read this is that I am not sure there would be an audience for a book like this among many college football fan bases.  Bacon has acknowledged repeatedly, in previous books and on Twitter, one of the fundamental notions of Michigan fandom: There is a segment of this fan base that isn't happy unless it's unhappy.  But I also think this look back comes at the exact right moment in Michigan's history, needing to wrap up what went wrong over the last four years and explain what went right in December 2014.  It is a public morbidity and mortality conference for the Brandon administration.  (I should also note: Bacon makes a reasonable effort to track the "tipping points" of various constituencies when it came to Brandon.  There are the ones you knew, and will get mad about again, and then there are ones you didn't know about and will make you made all over again.)

If there are unexpected stars in Endzone, they are Michigan students.  Bacon devotes considerable time to Will Hagerup, whose personal struggles during the Brandon Administration make for a compelling story.  Hagerup's story of recovery shows the need for strong mental health support systems and the wisdom Hagerup won during his time at Michigan is a great message.  My soft spot for Devin Gardner also wins renewed backing, for the seriousness of his reflections, but ones seemingly lacking any form of bitterness.  The Central Student Government tandem of Michael Proppe and Bobby Dishell also make for wonderful, plucky underdog characters who win the day because they do what Michigan students have done for years: go hard, bring facts, and never lose faith in your argument if the data is there, even if those in power don't want to hear it.  Bacon's ability to forge relationships with "college kids" is unsurprising, given his work in the college classroom, but the respect he grants them by letting them tell their story in their words is a tribute to knowing how to get the best out of someone.

The most difficult part of Endzone, in my estimation, is resolving the dichotomy between the student-athlete support for David Brandon (built on the notion that he viewed them as his core constituency, which may have been an admirable choice, but not necessarily the wisest course of action) and his seeming hand-waving dismissals of the non-athlete students, the alumni, and fans.  I respect that there may be no simple or straight forward answer to this, in part because each side has reason to feel like they deserve most favored nation status.  Bacon has repeatedly pressed forward on the idea that when you treat your fans like customers, don't be surprised if they act like consumers.  This is repeatedly what has happened in Ann Arbor since 2010.  The question is, will Jim Hackett and his eventual successor be able to restore some of what was lost in the Brandon years. History tells us that if something is broken, it can never be made whole again, just repaired.  The hiring of Jim Harbaugh is a great first step.  We have not had a new season of Football Saturdays to see if we can go home again.  I have hope that we will, but it remains to be seen.

In conclusion, this is an important book for Michigan fans, if not a "fun" book to read.  You may literally yell at people (or empty spaces) when certain notions are revealed.  But it's OK, really, it's cathartic.  Read the book, learn from this chapter of our past, then move forward into the 2015 season in the warming glow of HARBAUGH.


Unknown said...

Looking forward to reading the book.

Superfun Happy Slide said...

The Baconism about turning fans into consumers/consumers then acting like consumers, eventually divorcing the genre of the passion that makes Saturday football the spectacle it has become, has turned into my favourite turns of a phrase. Great review, I'm anticipating this book even more now!

Chuck said...

So there's a lot to say. I'll try my best to be brief, in anticipation of reading the book (I've seen only the excerpts).

1. Rightfully, Bacon has championed the student-athletes themselves. They are mostly superior kids, very hard working, and ordinarily really great students. I expect more of the same.

2. Michigan's student-fans at football games shouldn't get off so easy. For some weird reason, Bobby Dishell comes off as a hero for protesting the general admission seating policy. He's right about that; it was a bad policy. But remember the reason for general admission. It was because the students were so crappy about showing up on time for games, if at all. Ticket prices had nothing to do with that. Students who had already paid for tickets were so casual about them, they just didn't care. Brandon tried to address that. And THAT is on the students, not Brandon.

3. It's pretty freaking ironic, for students to gripe about high ticket prices at the same time they are clamoring for a shiny new $6 million Harbaugh. With the current schedule, a Michigan student can take $185 of their Pell grant money and sell of the MSU and OSU tickets for $250 each. And then write a paper about profits.

4. Dave Brandon -- almost alone in the Michigan administration -- was the guy who stood up to the Free Press in the wake of Stretchgate and the NCAA case. (In which Michigan got pretty much nothing of a penalty for having done pretty much nothing wrong.) Remember "Dave Brandon's pimp hand"? No? They can't seem to remember it at MGoBlog, either. Where they invented it.

5. There are some pretty extreme partisan politics at work on the University of Michigan Board of Regents, and I'll be interested if Bacon was able to tell it all. Exhibit A was the fireworks debacle in the summer of 2014. Brandon's athletic department had a reasonable request; fireworks for the Penn State night game, and also in connection with the Miami University game band show, which featured the band doing the 1812 Overture on military appreciation day. The Regents turned Brandon down, in a public meeting which should have been pro forma, and in the most humiliating way they could concoct. With Regent Larry Deitch claiming that any fireworks in Michigan Stadium might be crazy-stupid dangerous. Deitch must have forgotten that THEY HAD A FIREWORKS SHOW AT THE BIG CHILL HOCKEY GAME in that same Michigan Stadium.

6. I am laughing my effing ass off at the students and alums of our rivals, who sneer at Dave Brandon's alleged commercialism. A bottle of water in Ohio Stadium is the same price as Michigan Stadium. Their seat licenses are effectively more (under a different formula) than Michigan's. And in Ohio Stadium as well as Spartan Stadium, it is wall-to-wall advertising. My favorite in the 'Shoe; Elk & Elk trial lawyers. "Serious lawyers for serious injuries." That's about $4 million in advertising revenue for The Ohio State University's athletics. And Buckeye fans don't care.