It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium
John Ed Bradley • ESPN (2007)
The thing you're supposed to say when a book is better than any other book of its most obvious genre: it's not a book about ______, it's a book about life and love and loss and the tight spaces where those things collide.
This is the thing you say about John Ed Bradley's It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, the story of the author living the LSU Tigers dream as an All-SEC lineman under head coach Charlie McClendon in the late 1970s. Rather, the story of recovering from that dream after walking away from football, leaving letters from NFL teams on the table.
Our protagonist floats through odd jobs while trying to build a career as a writer, quarantines himself from everything purple and gold, and fades from a world-class athlete into a normal, decaying man. It's Prufrock, set in the Bayou.
Bradley avoids his former coaches and teammates for decades, even when landing work on a story for the local paper about Tigers legend Billy Cannon, a contemporary of many of those same coaches. The book's inspiration came from a Sports illustrated article Bradley wrote in 2002 about finally going to visit Charlie Mac, 22 years after having left the game and three days from the coach's death.
Regret eats at all of us, usually over mistakes we've made or opportunities we've missed. That hurts, but it hurts less over time. But all of us have moments we'll never get back and memories that only sink farther away, that feeling of knowing we'll never be a very specific kind of happy ever again.
When Bradley breaks down and begins checking up on all his old teammates, he finds they've all dealt with the same loss, though in their own ways. One has a golf cart just like Coach Mac's, one needs the LSU fight song to get through physical therapy, one who's since become an inmate cries every time he sees Death Valley, and they all start to realize even Tigers eventually die.
I think of former LSU punter Brad Wing a lot while reading this book. He doesn't seem like a young man particularly troubled by things, but still. His fake punt touchdown against Florida, called back by his own boisterousness, will be remembered by millions of people as the greatest thing he ever did, no matter what he does for the rest of his life. Whatever his heart was doing during that moment, it'll never do it again, not exactly the same.
We can have new bonds and moments that are stronger or deeper or more joyous or sharper, but we can never have that specific shade of great ever again. And we didn't even star in front of maybe the most passionate sports fans in America.
It never rains in Tiger Stadium, not until Bradley returns in the late 1990s for only the third time since he stopped playing, even then coming back only to accept another plaque for being a part of the team he was a part of. It rains then, but it stops.
This is the college football book I recommend even to people who don't like sports.
Football Scouting Methods
Steve Belichick • Ronald Sports (1962)
When I was 17 years old, I was pretty certain I was going to be Theo Epstein. The Red Sox were two years away from an improbable, historical comeback in the ALCS I'd watch at the Delta Zeta House while playing beer pong half convinced what was airing on the projector was the result of a slipped hallucinogen. But even still, I just knew the end result of his employment would be a 27-year-old wunderkind leading a star-crossed franchise back from a century of frustration to multiple championships was going to be the standard-bearer for a generation of analytically minded wunderfans leading franchises across all of the major sports.
But long before I went to a huge, amorphous state school, realized how many hours those guys worked, and gathered you probably couldn't party like Billy Martin and still work in baseball in the 21st century, and even before Moneyball gave thousands of other kids an equally myopic vocational ambition, if anyone asked, I was quick to tell them I was going to be a major league general manager "when I grew up". Or a coach. Maybe both. I mean, did I even play high school baseball, football, or basketball? Well no. But surely the all-knowing intellect of a high school junior with the 10,000 hour rule tried and true for *watching* sports was about all you needed to make those ultimately a reality, right?
Ever humoring my delusions, my father, being the good one that he still is, had remembered reading an article after the Patriots' improbable victory over the 14-point favorite St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI that Bill Belichick had attributed much of his success to his father, the former Naval Academy assistant. Some independent research of his own yielded a lost in time book by the name Football Scouting Methods, published in 1962. He mentioned it as something I'd probably be well served to consume, but the book certainly didn't appear to be available for purchase, nor even easily obtainable.
EBay was 1,000 Internet years old at that juncture (see: 7), and though the idea of buying stuff online still made many uneasy, both my father and I were seasoned pros. We took to eBay with the intentions of locating a copy. And after a few weeks' patience, our luck paid off...and the lone copy we'd see for months sold for almost $100. Reading about the ideological approaches of the man behind the Super Bowl champion taskmaster coach certainly drew some appeal, but not at the kind of figures I'd still balk at paying even in adulthood.
We took our frustrations and instead turned towards trying to hunt down the book through the library system. My father is a multiple degree holder from the University of Texas, and with provisions allowing alums to check out books well beyond graduation, we decided to try to leverage that avenue to obtain a copy. And perhaps unsurprisingly at the school that yielded Daryl Royal, they had a copy. But it would prove ever challenging to obtain.
The book would still prove elusive to nail down. It'd seemingly be checked out 30 days at a time, then almost disappear, then somehow have a hold on it, despite our best efforts to do the same. Finally, after months on the trail, hitting probably every Half Priced Books in the Central Texas area, and hoping and praying unsuccessfully game theory would fail other eBayers at the zero hour, we finally score the coveted prize from the university library.
I'd spend that weekend devouring all of the 40-year-old pages... and find pretty quickly it wasn't totally what I had in mind. Don't get me wrong; even with the tunnel vision of a 17-year-old, I could appreciate the historical importance of comprehensive attention to detail at a time when scouting wasn't orthodox nor in all cases condoned. But with a lot of the information, let's say dated? And in some cases not fully analogous to today's game (BRING BACK THE STACKED 6-2 DEFENSE), it didn't quite have the impact getting Moneyball nine months later for graduation did to my sportsfan egotist rock star complex.
And yet something about it sat with me. The thoroughness of making note of every minor detail about a defensive formation, their stunts, their tendencies. Though we take some of the intrinsic approaches for granted when we think about how guys like Smart Football's Chris Brown and Football Study Hall's own Bill Connelly approach looking at each snap from scrimmage, trailblazers like Belichick were taking some of the same principles, and formalizing them to a near science long before analytics or any advanced approaches presented the thinking football man with even more tools at his disposal.
Three years later when I was older, wiser, and now completely consumed by the Phalanx/Borg that is college football while at Ohio State, I decided to broach Belichick's "if we weren't already doing it, how would we be doing it" textbook with new eyes. Even with multiple championships to his son's name, the book still hadn't been reprinted (yet) and it took some maneuvering, but ultimately the University of Chicago (!) mailed me a copy through the Big Ten's academic library consortium shared resources system and I was able to give it another stab.
The terminology and formations therein don't necessarily wholesale stand the test of time in full (though Dana Hologorsen sees you, Coach), but many of the philosophies and states of mind are as true as ever. Though Sun Tzu's "The Attack by Fire" chapter may not lend to literally burning soldiers in their camp or using similar verbatim identical methodologies to the source material, that doesn't mean that 20th century Western business types nor military leaders for the last several hundred years have erred in cherry-picking inspiration from the works.
Correctly identifying complacency patterns (both those of the opposition and avoiding your own) and a number of the extremely detailed-oriented best practices endorsed by Belichick still ring true in their own ways, not just in today's football world, but in plenty of industries. The book may read a bit on the dry side at times, but is certainly a necessary read, at least once. If you push yourself to give it additional passes, you might just find yourself learning something new each subsequent time.
Above the Noise of the Crowd
John Forney • Albright & Co (1986)
The sports blogosphere went nuts recently after an episode of Mad Men featured a reference to the 1969 Cotton Bowl featuring Alabama vs Texas A&M. Anyone who's read John Forney's Above the Noise of the Crowd would know that Don Draper and company would have likely fit right in.
Forney, who spent thirty years broadcasting Crimson Tide football over the radio and five years co-hosting The Bear Bryant Show, gives readers a warts and all picture of the free wheeling culture surrounding college athletics through the middle part of the 20th century. No stone is left unturned and an image of what was still considered just a game being run and surrounded by essentially overgrown boys quickly emerges.
In today's world of CEO coaches, millionaire assistants and increasingly media savvy players, its almost charming to read his account of the copious gambling, drinking, and carousing perpetrated by nearly every hanger on of the Crimson Tide. This is a world where well-heeled boosters parade their mistresses at lavish cocktail parties before road games, reporters openly grouse in the press box over wagers going bad before their very eyes, Bear Bryant encourages seniors who just played their last game to "never do anything for free again," and the broadcast crew has awkward run ins with former high school classmates turned entertainer at rowdy gentlemen's clubs.
For all the salacious details that provide this fascinating glimpse of the culture of big time college athletics, Above the Noise of the Crowd is especially important for Crimson Tide fans in its handling of the transition from Bryant to Ray Perkins. As a long time insider Forney is able to deftly paint a somber portrait of Bryant's declining health, retirement, and death, and Forney's own dismissal, a move that caused no small amount of embarrassment to the University of Alabama as it struggled to move forward into a new era.
Published in 1986, Above the Noise of the Crowd has been out of print for some time, though copies are typically available through the usual suspects (Amazon, Ebay, etc.). The real challenge is finding a reasonably priced copy, but for Crimson Tide and college football fans the search is well worth it.
For those of us who grew into our fandom in the post-Bryant era Above the Noise of the Crowd genuinely helps explain how heroes like Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler managed to emerge and thrive despite the official narrative of hard nosed discipline that reigned under the brutal hand of coaches like Bryant. Though Forney is diligent in praising the hard work and discipline that went into creating those heroes and the legendary teams they played on, instead of moralizing over their every move (a la the current furor over Johnny Manziel's enjoyment of his newfound celebrity) Forney simply accepts them as products of their environment, a refreshing approach that is almost completely unheard of these days.