Friday, January 24, 2020

Review: Head Ball Coach (2016)

By Steve Spurrier with Buddy Martin

Football coaches sometimes are the dullest people in sports.

They are the ones who brag about how many hours in a day they work, who never say anything interesting, and don't have much of a life outside the 120-yard playing field.

And then there was Steve Spurrier. Say what you want about the Head Ball Coach, but he wasn't dull.

Spurrier liked having fun on the field, and what's more fun than scoring points? He unleashed offenses wherever he coached, and the results followed: several conference titles, and a national championship.

What's more, he had some fun along the way. Spurrier put it plenty of hours, but wasn't above sneaking off to the golf course for a while when he had some down moments. The veteran coach even liked to take a day or two off when time permitted during the season (perhaps during a bye week) and recharged his batteries.

Spurrier wasn't above throwing a few funny quotes at the opposition. For example, when Florida State had a bit of a scandal involving its players and footwear, Spurrier said FSU now stood for something else: Free Shoes University.

Those qualities come out in "Head Ball Coach," an autobiography written shortly after his retirement from football in 2015.

Spurrier had a rather charmed life when it came to football for the most part. Florida wasn't much of a team when he arrived as a player in the 1960s, but he did more than his share to turn that around - winning the Heisman Trophy as the nation's best player. That earned him a spot as a No. 1 pick of the San Francisco 49ers ... where he sat as the backup quarterback to John Brodie for most of his career.

All that sitting gave him time to learn about the game and ponder his future, and when his playing days were over he smoothly moved into coaching. Spurrier climbed the usual ladder, which included a stop in the United States Football League with Tampa Bay. He actually won games at Duke - no small accomplishment at the time - and moved on to Florida. Spurrier turned the Gators into national powers. As you'd expect, there are plenty of stories about his days there.

After going 122-27-1, Spurrier decided he wanted a new world to conquer and accepted a job as head coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins. He found out the hard way that pro ball wasn't so easy to dominate, particularly when the owner is Daniel Snyder. The chapter is about that stop in Washington is quite brief, and tossed aside as if Spurrier doesn't really want to go back there mentally. That might be the biggest disappointment in the book.

Then it's on to South Carolina. There were no national titles there, but the Gamecocks won plenty of games and made bowl appearances during Spurrier's ten-plus years there. He left when he felt like he wasn't doing a good enough job - in midseason, which is rare enough to be interesting.

The book is something of a goodbye to a successful part of his life. Spurrier hands out plenty of credit to the players and coaches he encountered along the way. His family gets its own chapter at the end; the wives of football coaches all should be candidates for sainthood. There are a great many games and scores that get the once over here. That may work for big fans of Spurrier, who followed his career closely, but it's a little tougher to be involved in the tale for those who watched from a distance. A few coaching tips and philosophical thoughts are thrown in for good measure.

"Head Ball Coach," then, is a pleasant enough is a bit guarded read, and his fans in Florida and South Carolina certainly will enjoy hearing about the big wins from the past. Whether others will find it compelling is another story.

Three stars

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Friday, January 17, 2020

Review: The Making of a Miracle (2020)

By Mike Eruzione with Neal E. Boudette

Right man, right place.

Mike Eruzione will be the first person to tell you how that particular phrase can describe the biggest moment of his life perfectly.

Eruzione scored the game-winning goal in what probably was the most dramatic sporting event of the 20th century: America's win over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Team USA went on to win the gold medal in that tournament two days later.

The players and coaches will be remembered forever. The team went its separate ways immediately after a stop at the White House after the Olympics, but they always will be linked by their participation in those Games.

Here we are, 40 years later, and we still remember the details vividly. And, 40 years later, Eruzione finally has gotten around to writing his autobiography, "The Making of a Miracle."

Eruzione begins his story with tales of origins and place. He was part of a big family, filled with relatives who got together on regular occasions and filled up whatever house they happened to be in. The center of attention was Winthrop, Mass., a insular suburb of Boston that probably would be called a classic American community. Eruzione was a good athlete growing up, but not a great one. He was about to play small college hockey in Massachusetts when his sense of timing first came into view. A scholarship opened up at Boston, and coach Jackie Parker offered it to him at the last minute. The pair stayed together through four straight Frozen Four appearances.

After a little time in minor-league pro hockey under a tryout contract, Eruzione decided to try out for the 1980 Olympic team - and made it. There he joined such future NHL players as Neal Broten, Mark Johnson, Mike Ramsey, and Ken Morrow - all of whom were coached by Herb Brooks, taking a year off from duties at Minnesota to guide Team USA. The book gains steam, at that point, as you'd expect - even though you know how the story turns out. Eruzione says when his friends want to kid him, they point out that his game-winning shot against the Soviets was three inches from missing the net and making him anonymous.

There have been good books (ones by Tim Wendel and John Powers, for example) about the run-up through Lake Placid, and the story hasn't lacked for coverage since then. What's somewhat striking here is how much of a bubble Eruzione and his teammates were in. They thought they were just playing a hockey game. They didn't realize that they were firing metaphorical shots in the Cold War, which was at a tense point because of the Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan.

One of the striking points of reading this now is that the game of hockey has changed so much in the past 40 years. The Americans essentially used the game of speed, passing and puck possession that the Soviets first displayed to the West in the Canada-USSR series in 1972. Now everyone plays that way, and most of the physical nonsense that was preached in the 1970s has been left in the history books.

Once life calmed down for Lake Placid, Eruzione decided that a gold medal was a tough act to follow. He passed up the chance to play in the NHL, and instead has been Mike Eruzione for a living. Good move. He's still in Winthrop, and seems more than happy to chat with anyone who asks about Lake Placid. Mike gets to see the gang for a variety of reasons on a fairly regular basis - they probably didn't guess for a while that they would be linked forever .

"The Making of a Miracle" has its charms, and it is told in a friendly if compact style. There are those who have consumed all available stories about Team USA's win, and they won't find a whole lot here about the road to Lake Placid that's new to them. (I will confess to being in that minority.) However, for those who weren't around at the time or never bothered to consume any of it, Eruzione's book is a good catchup on what all the fuss is about and why we cherish the moment.

Three stars

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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Review: Chuck Noll (2016)

By Michael MacCambridge

You might have heard a lot about the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. Coming from a 1-13 season in 1969, the Steelers built up their base of talent quickly and won four Super Bowls between the 1970 and 1979 seasons.

The Steelers sent a huge contingent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton when all was said and done. Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Mike Webster and Jack Ham have all been inducted.

Someone had to coach those guys, of course. Sure enough, Chuck Noll led the Steelers to a 4-0 record in Super Bowls. It was part of a record of excellence that lasted almost a quarter-century in Pittsburgh, one that will be remembered for the lifetimes of their fans.

It's interesting that the players have become more famous than their coach, which probably isn't true for most dynasties. Part of the "problem" is that Noll was never good about talking about himself, and didn't really like doing it anyway. He went to work, did the best he could, and went home. Day after day.

Therefore, Noll's story is something of a doughnut - we never knew what was in the middle of it. It took Michael MacCambridge to supply the filling.

MacCambridge put together a biography called "Chuck Noll" over the course of three years. It answers the basic questions about the now-legendary coach. What was he like? What did he value? Who surrounded him?

The author spent three years tracking down people and facts surrounding Noll, who died a few years before this book was completed. He was a smart man from Cleveland who loved to teach - indeed, he probably would have been a teacher if he didn't find his way into football. It led to a playing career with the Browns, and from there he went on to coach. Noll eventually became an assistant coach with the Baltimore Colts, and was a hot commodity as a potential head coach after the Colts' 1968 season that ended with a surprising loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III.

The Steelers convinced Noll to take over the coaching duties there, and slowly he brought professionalism and judgment to the organization. It took a few drafts to build up the base of talent, but Pittsburgh was in the playoffs in 1972. In January 1975, the Steelers won their first-ever Super Bowl. Western Pennsylvania had always been a blue collar area associated with mining and manufacturing, and it had always loved its football. Now it head a team to celebrate, and Noll was the primary reason why - even though he'd be the last to take credit.

MacCambridge collects stories from those associated with those teams, and it's amazing how many co-workers say they never had a one-on-one conversation that lasted more than a few minutes. But many of those same people found themselves paraphrasing Noll in terms of passing on life lessons, such as how striving for excellence should never be a part-time portion of your personality.

Apparently visitors to the Noll household could tell what was important as soon as they walked in the front door of his home. There were family photos everywhere, while football mementos were stashed elsewhere. Chuck was the curious sort, always searching to become an expert at flying or photography or stereos or something else. And when a member of the extended family needed help, Noll was there to provide it.

All of the family members contributed to the book - Chuck himself when he was alive (he died in 2014 after a long battle with Alzheimer's), wife Marianne, son Chris and niece Joanne all were extraordinarily open in discussing the family's life. About the only person of consequence who didn't talk to MacCambridge was Bradshaw. The quarterback apparently still hasn't come to terms with his feelings about his coach, which is more than a little sad.

It's as simple as this - you won't read a better biography than "Chuck Noll." It fills in the gaps in his personality that were public knowledge at the time, and it explains why those Steeler teams were so good. Fans in Pittsburgh certainly have been reading this book since it came out. Those of us who are late to the party will enjoy it thoroughly as well.

Five stars

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Sunday, January 5, 2020

Review: No Way But to Fight (2020)

By Andrew R. M. Smith

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days." It's interesting that the first part of the line is the one that usually gets repeated, if only for the author of the new story to point out that it isn't true.

Let's give credit, then, to Fitzgerald for the set-up for a new book on George Foreman called "No Way But to Fight." There certainly was a second act to George Foreman's boom days.

Andrew R.M. Smith delivers an almost scholarly look at the life of the twice heavyweight champion, and that in itself is rather funny. After all, Foreman seemed to only have a passing acquaintance with the educational system of Houston during a childhood that was mostly noted for its poverty. What happened from there was almost stunning in hindsight.

Foreman signed up for the Job Corps, an anti-poverty program in the Johnson Administration, and had three square meals a day for the first time in his life. He became big and strong enough to attract attention from people who were running amateur boxing programs. It led to a gold medal at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, with George waving tiny American flags in the ring after the victory. Remember, that was the Olympics of the protests of Tommy Smith and John Carlos, so Foreman made an impression.

From there, a pro career was a natural next step. The quality of his opponents was rather poor, but he beat up on all comers and eventually earned a title shot against Joe Frazier. As Howard Cosell screamed out in the blow-by-blow description, "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" In less than two rounds, Foreman was world champion. But then he ran into Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974, losing one of the most famous boxing matches in history. Foreman soon retired, and the story seemed over for 10 years.

Or was it? Foreman became a preacher and decided to use boxing as a way to raise money for charitable efforts. It was a curiosity at first - a 38-year-old starting up the mountain again - but the wins against mediocrities kept coming. And Foreman discovered he could make people laugh along the way, making him more acceptable to boxing fans than the sullen personality he offered to the public the first time around. So there was joy when Foreman hit the highest peaks of the sport again.

This is rather dramatic material. It's only sweetened by the fact that Foreman sold his share of the profits to a grilling machine for more than $100 million after getting out of boxing for good. Boxers are not known for their money management skills, but Big George did fine on this one.

Smith certainly put in the time on this project, which began as a doctoral dissertation. He interviewed Foreman several times, and scoured all sorts of sources for information. The footnotes section of the book goes on and on - detailing Smith's large task.

Still, the book is missing something - fun. Foreman had so many transformations over the years that it's difficult not to smile when thinking about him now. But that quality doesn't come across too well here. The only time that the writing has some flair is when some of the big boxing matches in Foreman's career are described.

Part of the problem is that there are virtually no fresh quotes here - even though Foreman must have provided some in the interview process. Many of Foreman's opponents, such as Ali and Frazier, have passed on, but a little outside perspective might have been nice.

I have used this analogy elsewhere - "It has all of the notes but none of the music." It works on "No Way But to Fight." The book will fill a need for information about all of Foreman's life story, but it's not quite as good a read as it could have been.

Three stars

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