Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: Season of Saturdays (2014)

By Michael Weinred

Here's a lesson about jumping to conclusions when it comes to books.

"Season of Saturdays" looks rather straight-forward in its cover description. Michael Weinreb must have picked out the most important 14 games in college football history, and then thoroughly reviewed them in the book.

That's not quite what we have here. Luckily, it's probably better this way.

Weinreb has bigger things in mind. He essentially points to important trends in the game's history, and then picks out milestone games to prove his point. There isn't much play-by-play involved in the game descriptions. In fact, sometimes the game is beside the point, and that gets into a lively discussion about the sport.

For example, the Jan. 1, 1962 Rose Bowl matched Minnesota and UCLA. The game really didn't matter in one sense. What mattered is that Ohio State was the Big Ten champion that year, and passed up the chance to participate in the game. You can imagine how that went over with then-coach Woody Hayes. That's not happening now, not with the economics involved.

It is all part of the argument that has been part of college football for generations, and stays with us to this day. Should institutions of higher learning be involved in this level of athletics? Is it keeping with the mission statement of the college or university? Probably not, especially considering the fact that most schools lose money on athletics, and many have broken rules involving academic integrity in order to win football games.

Yet Weinred still finds the sport itself thrilling. He's feeling a little guilty about that, but not too much. It's partly because football serves a great connection between a university, the students, alumni and the surrounding city/town. Weinred grew up around Penn State, so he knows something about that subject. It's also because the games can be so darn exciting.

There are plenty of interesting aspects to the story told here. A subplot is the entire "Who is No. 1?" argument that has been a part of the game since, well, forever. One is the 1984 Orange Bowl featuring Nebraska and Miami. You might remember that Nebraska came within a point of tying the game in the final seconds. A tie, still possible in those days, would have given Nebraska the national championships in the polls. But Tom Osborne went for the win, and failed. It remains a fascinating decision, just like Notre Dame's action to accept the tie against Michigan State in 1966..

Then there's the curious case of Texas-Arkansas in 1969, when President Nixon announced that the winner of the game would be the nation's best team - even though Penn State was just as undefeated as the other two teams. Weinreb hints that politics might have had a roll in that move; there was an election to be won in 1972, after all.

The book goes in other directions from there. The author points to the Miami teams of the 1980s as ones that did whatever it wanted on and off the field, breaking the mold in that area. Then there's the rise of the passing game involving coaches such as Mike Leach and Steve Spurrier, who used the pass to set up the run instead of the other way around.

Finally, there's the unpredictable nature of the game, best shown by Auburn-Alabama last year. Alabama's coach was/is Nick Saban, master of taking as many variables out of the game as possible and perhaps the best college football coach ever. Even he couldn't compensate for the moment when an Auburn player ran a missed field goal back more than 100 yards for a game-winning touchdown on the final play of the game. Those moments, and there have been a lot of them, have made the sport special.

Weinred has clearly done his homework, and he never comes off as an apologist for the game. It's short but generally to the point. You might not like the personal stories about Penn State, but they work pretty well here. "Season of Saturdays" is a worthwhile read as we get ready for another season.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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