The History Of Passion: American College Football

We don’t generally do book reviews. It takes too much time, because you actually have to read a book. No offense. This comes from a former author with two books under his belt. As a 24/7 toiling startup these days we barely have enough time to read our own emails.

I grew up playing WASP sports—clay court tennis, golf, squash, the usual stuff. I also went to a Quaker school that didn’t offer football because it was “too violent”. So my parents chose to let me take my prepubescent frustrations out at the ice hockey rink at 5:00 am throwing elbows at even faster speeds with blades on every kid’s feet.

It was probably a good thing that I didn’t play football. Pardon the French but I would have gotten my ass kicked. I was small growing up, but fast and quick. If I got the ball with a few feet of open moves to make I’d probably take it into the end zone. If I got blind-sided from behind I went down like a sack. Game over.

Somehow I also ended up becoming a shameless lifelong country music fan along the way. Which among other things introduced this WASP to pick up trucks, bass fishing, cut off jeans, and the ritual of west Texas Friday Night Lights. I never really liked high school or college football until I truly appreciated what it meant. For many rural American towns, it’s all they’ve got, and for the especially prodigious it’s a yellow-line highway straight to the American dream. Think Brett Favre (Kiln, MS), Des Bryant (Lufkin, TX), or Julio Jones (Foley, AL), currently the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL at more than $14 million per year. Not bad for a 26-year old kid from Foley.

When I got to college, a few friends and I formed a flag football team on the intramural circuit. This wasn’t senior citizen keg ball. A lot of the kids who played were high school stars who could still bench press 300 lbs. They just blew out their knee one too many times. I was still a late bloomer. But I could still run like hell to the end zone faster than everyone else with a bum knee—because I never actually played football.

Our quarterback was a tall, lanky dude from Alabama who spoke like he was from New Hampshire. I don’t think he’d ever thrown anything but a Nerf ball in his life but his spirals we’re tight and he loved the long ball. Our signature play had a simple math: I sprint towards the end zone as fast as I can, you throw the ball as far as you can, and I’ll run under it. It worked at least 20% of the time. The other 80% had all the drama of a Doug Flutie game winner every time just because we were playing long ball, and it was worth every muscle our star quarterback threw out in his 20-year old shoulder. Apparently when you come from Bama football just runs crimson in your blood.

That tall lanky dude from Alabama became one of my best friends (playing bar music in historic Old Town Key West will be covered in an upcoming column). He’s also become one of the country’s best known sports writers and is currently sitting at #17 on the New York Times hardcover Bestseller list with his new biography on Nick Saban called Saban: The Making Of A Coach, which gives a rare inside look at the iconic coach of one of America’s most storied college football franchises—the Alabama Crimson Tide.

The NFL season opens this Thursday. The college season has already gotten under way. So with deep respect to one of America’s greatest and most historic fall traditions—football’s opening day kick-off—we knew no one was feeling more passionate about the game right now than Monte Burke. Especially since millions of people just spent Labor Day weekend reading his bestselling new book on the beach the week before their own town’s season home opener.

FEH: Baseball may be America’s past time but in most parts of the country football is America’s game. The fact that your new book on Nick Saban is sitting at #17 on the New York Times Bestseller list (between Ann Coulter and Ted Cruz) says it all. What’s with the rabid, historic passion so many people especially in the south have for college football in particular vs. the NFL?

Burke: The NFL is a “city” game. It’s more corporate. There’s more money. College football is more rural in a way. Tuscaloosa, AL, Baton Rouge, LA, South Bend, IN, are not exactly the sticks, but they are not megalopolises either. This makes college football feel, to me anyway, more tribal and more, well, religious. College football is also older than the pro game, and has a richer history. The college game just has a different feel—the bands that play throughout the game, the students who line the stands, the alums. The coaches in college are the high priests. They’re the mainstays. The players come and go every year. The fans are the ones that show up at “church” every Saturday.

FEH: Every other major sport (soccer, hockey, baseball, even cricket and rugby) is a global enterprise. Not “American” football. What is it about America’s history, culture, and mindset that makes football so uniquely American?

Burke: Well, the violence certainly seems uniquely American. But so does the persistence, the hard work, the grit, its complicated nature, its skill, its chaos. The game was really formed by the sons of coalminers and steelworkers. They were every bit as tough as their fathers, and used the game to stay out of the mines and factories.

FEH: Without thinking what are the top five college towns that just say “football” running deep in their blood? We’re betting at least 3 out of 5 are in the South.

Burke: In the South, I’m partial to Tuscaloosa (AL), Oxford (MS), and Athens (GA) for great college football atmospheres. Ann Arbor (MI) and South Bend (IN) are really special too. I’ll throw in one more: Lincoln, Nebraska.

FEH: You recently got a rare inside look inside one of the most historic college football franchises in history. What did the experience teach you personally about how and why some dynasties last while others die off (think politics and company brands here)?

Burke: The ones that last are the ones that don’t rely on the past or reputations. The best of the best are continually innovating, and continually making sure that they have the best staffs and talent and the best facilities.

FEH: Sports medicine, psychology, and science have long changed every sport we play. Now technology is changing everything again. At the end of the day, it’s still about kicking a pigskin between two poles but technology makes teams better which in turn makes football programs more money. Does football feel more like a business franchise at elite programs like Alabama or is it still all about the historic love of the game for the people on the field and in the locker rooms?

Burke: From the fan perspective, it’s still about historic love of the game. From the program perspective, it’s all business now. These are essentially mid-sized businesses. The Alabama football program had revenues of nearly $100 million last year, with good margins and a profit of $53 million. The coaches are CEOs. The raw materials are the recruits. The football facilities feel like Silicon Valley tech company campuses. They service nearly every need of a college football player and are designed to get folks to never really have—or want—to leave. Training, nutrition and medical services are top-notch. The best coaches control all they can—the team, the business side and the public relations.

FEH: It’s a cliche but I’m a rabid hockey fan so my most historic sports moment is Mike Eruzione’s third period goal against the USSR in the Miracle On Lake Placid Olympic ice hockey semi-finals in 1980. What’s your most iconic football memory?

Burke: I’d say the infamous—or famous, depending on what side you’re on—”Kick Six” in 2013, when an Auburn player caught an Alabama missed field goal attempt and ran it back the length of the field for the winning touchdown as time ran out. The play itself was so stunning. The implications were far-reaching. Alabama seemed destined to win its third national title in a row . . . Until “The Kick”.

Monte Burke’s new book Saban: The Making Of A Coach was released on August 4th by Simon & Schuster . We call tails. And we’ll receive. Game on.

About The Author

Monte Burke, a New York Times best-selling author, is a staff writer at Forbes magazine. He has also written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Outside, Garden & Gun, Men’s Journal, Town & Country, Field & Stream, Golf Digest, The Drake and Audubon.

“Saban: The Making of a Coach” is his third book. He has been the recipient of Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” award and an Axiom Award for “Memoir/Biography.” His books have been named “Best of the Year” by Sports Illustrated and Burke graduated from Middlebury College with a B.A. in Religion. He grew up in New Hampshire, Vermont, North Carolina and Alabama. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three daughters.

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