Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review: Best American Sports Writing 2016

Edited by Rick Telander

It's year 26 for the annual edition of "The Best American Sports Writing" series. Not only have I read all of them, but I've reviewed several of them on this blog.

Sometimes it's difficult to come up with a fresh approach to the review, which can happen in a series of anthologies. But in this case, the angle to take here became apparent pretty quickly.

Translation - the editor really does matter in these books.

Rick Telander gets his turn at putting the book's contents together. He's well-qualified for the job, serving as a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Telander established a good reputation nationally for his work at Sports Illustrated, and his book "Heaven is a Playground" is considered one of the best books of its kind.

Telander sets out the ground rules for his selections in his introduction. He points out that he is interested in entertaining writing, first and foremost. Then he adds, "It's hard for any account of a big sports event or a much-watched game to make it into these pages. Those uber-stories ... have been told and retold in too many places to be original anymore." Telander then writes that he'd rather read about a Chinese student's bike-ride across America than about Tom Brady or Lance Armstrong.

So with that warning, we're off. The 27 selections in the book are all well done, so Telander has followed his own instructions well. I can't say I completely finished every entry - it's a hard sell to get me to read anything on UFC/MMA - but that's more my problem than the writer's in question.

Still, I found myself asking a question as I went through the book. Would this story normally appear in the sports section of a newspaper, or in a sports magazine? It's fair to say the answer on some of the articles would be "probably not" - at least more often as compared to other books in the series.

Which ones? Let's see, there's a tale of two people who a variety of personal problems who open up a bicycle shop. There's a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing, saying farewell to her leg. A teen who uses skateboarding to grow up a little. A hiker on the Appalachian Trail who actually is running, not walking, away from big trouble. That Chinese student who goes for a long bike ride. And perhaps a few others, depending on your definition of sports. Reaction gets personal - in the sense that it's tough for me to get too enthusiastic over any story about snooker, fishing or rugby - even though I've got enough faith in the book's premise to try then all.

There are plenty of more traditional sports stories that would fit in with the classic definition of best sports writing. A piece on Ted Williams' daughter wouldn't draw some in without the baseball connection, but it's really a fascinating look at father-daughter relationships. A story about a woman rower is told in a unique and honest way. There's an article on Africans who come to America in search of basketball scholarships, only to be lost in the shuffle. I particularly liked a story on the Cal Tech basketball team's struggles, and how author Jim Dent (I've read a couple of his sports books) succumbed to some demons.

The 2016 book isn't typical of the series, I guess, so I'll be interested to see how the reaction is. I remember Jane Leavy took a similar approach to her picks in 2011, and it didn't go over as well as some others. But those who open the first page with in an open mind will find some rewarding material that is to their liking.

Four stars

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review: A Spark (2016)

By John M. Davidson

This isn't a full-fledged review of a book. It's more of a heads-up that a book is out there. As I understand it, people sometimes buy gifts at this time of the year.

In 2015, the South Park High School football team had the best season in its history. No team from the City of Buffalo had ever won a Section VI title (meaning the region around Buffalo) in history, let alone gone on from there. South Park did that and much more. The Sparks won a state championship.

The coach of that team was Tim Delaney, who took a few bows for breaking through that barrier - although, frankly, he probably would have rather been watching film of old games. Delaney said that he was reminded of the championship just about every single day of the offseason.

So here's another reminder. John M. Davidson has written a biography of Delaney called "A Spark." That's a fair title, since Delaney went to South Park High School and now teaches and coaches there. But he also took a match to the football program and ignited it so that it could reach new heights.

After a handful of chapters concerning Delaney's youth, the book starts following the many twists and turns of his career. He's bounced around a bit over the years, jumping from youth programs to high schools. Football coaches at all levels tend to lead nomadic lives, but it's surprising just how much that applies to high schools too. But when a head coach switches jobs for whatever reason, he often reaches back into his past for friends made along the way.

Eventually, Delaney worked his way up to being head coach at South Park. That's not a plum job as these things go. There's usually not enough money to support the program fully, and the number of kids with family or personal issues is large. Coaches like Delaney often find themselves buying their players a fast meal, because otherwise those players would go hungry. As you might guess, no one goes into high school coaching to make money. This isn't an aspect of the job that receives any of the publicity, so it's probably the best part of the story.

Slowly, Delaney built up the program so that good athletes passed through and thrived in the system. It all paid off in 2015, when the Sparks (so named because the school is located on South Park Ave., or as the street sign outside it reads, 'S. Park') ran through the opposition in a series of dramatic wins. The highlight might have been a semifinal win over Maine-Endwell, which had won the previous 62 games. ESPN's documentary on Maine-Endwell was a little spoiled by the surprise win by the Sparks, but that wasn't South Park's problem.

A book like this has different standards than one that is produced for a mass audience. It's designed to be a nice keepsake of a memorable time. Author Davidson makes a couple of decisions that are at least open for question. There are no details of the games or mentions of players' names along the way, keeping the focus completely on Delaney. The games were so exciting, though, that it really would have been nice for many to relive them here. Davidson also uses very few quotes in the story, even though he talked to many people about the season. That puts a little distance between reader and story that didn't need to be there.

No matter. "A Spark" does its job well enough. I would think anyone with connections to the coach or team will enjoy it, and in that sense the book is a nice little tribute. We should always celebrate such efforts.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review: The Perfect Pass (2016)

By S.C. Gwynne

Football fans probably have noticed a trend in their favorite game during the past several years: some teams are throwing the ball constantly.

Quarterbacks have smashed records for completions and yardage on all levels of the game. The days when a coach worships the concepts of time of possession and establishing the run are dying. Offenses love to cram as many plays as possible into four quarters. It's no wonder college games can last over four hours.

Every once in a while, it's important to ask "How did we get here?" about such transformational developments in any part of life. That's essentially what S.C. Gwynne has done in his book "The Perfect Pass." He has discovered the key to this underreported story, and it's more charming than you'd think.

We like our geniuses to be a little eccentric at times, and that certainly describes Hal Mumme. He loved football, loved to play it in high school and college, and loved to think about it the rest of the time. Mumme worked his way up the coaching ladder when he finished his playing career, becoming an offensive coordinator in Texas El Paso.

That's where he got fired in 1986. So Mumme started over, at Copperas Cove High School in Texas, and tried to do it all over again. But this time, he was going to do it his way - by throwing the football around. And throwing it some more.

Mumme had seen other teams emphasize passing, such as Brigham Young University and Bill Walsh's San Francisco 49ers. The high school coach took some ideas from both places, and added a few wrinkles of his own. Suddenly, Copperas Cove - a traditional doormat - was competitive for the first time in years despite playing bigger schools with better athletes.

That eventually led to a stop at Iowa Wesleyan College of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. If it wasn't the worst football program in America at that point, it was close to it. Mumme took the head coaching job and found a kindred spirit in Mike Leach, who had a number of interests headed by coaching football. Mumme recruited a bunch of players who generally weren't wanted elsewhere, stopped ordering stretching and sprints during practices, and installed his offensive system. Again, Mumme's team won more games than they had any right to win.

Eventually, Iowa Wesleyan got tired of Mumme and his ambition for a bigger and better program, and the coach was told to be on his way. The road led to Valdosta State, where his offense put up astounding passing numbers and his teams could stay with almost any opponent. He stayed five years, and then moved up to Kentucky - a traditional bottom-feeder in the Southeastern Conference. But after some reasonable success, Mumme had a bad season partly due to graduation losses in 2000, and the athletic director who hired him retired. Some recruiting violations by staff members led to Mumme's firing in 2001. He's had other stops at small colleges since then, and now coaches at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi.

Author S.C. Gwynne obviously has plenty of writing talent, having been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He sticks to people and their personalities here for the most part, which is an excellent idea. There are some X's and O's along the way, which may intimidate a few but are probably necessary to tell the story adequately. Besides, most people who pick up a book like this in the first place will handle the technical matters smoothly. The pages go by very quickly, a good sign.

Mumme always has carried a conviction that football should be simple and fun, resembling a touch football game in the backyard. According to Gwynne, it sounds like Mumme's professional problems usually have popped up when he's dealt with others who think more conventionally - on and off the field. Mumme is much more at home with a blackboard or paper, charting the next play.

Football offenses always have tried to get one step of defenses, only to be reeled in eventually. We'll have to see if Mumme's work continues to catch on in the years to come. In the meantime, "The Perfect Pass" is an excellent way to find out where this latest wave of strategy came from, and where the sport might be going.

Four stars

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