Mike Mauti grew up in Mandeville, Louisiana, just outside New Orleans. Mike Zordich grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, on the Pennsylvania border, equidistance from Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
Their fathers both played football for Penn State and went on to play in the NFL. Their dads revered Joe Paterno, as most of Paterno’s players did. When Mike Mauti was born, in 1990, his dad, Rich, wrote a letter to Paterno, saying his only regret was that his son would never get the chance to play for the legendary coach.
Seventeen years later, in 2007, Mike Mauti made his official recruiting visit to the office of Penn State’s head coach. But minutes before he did, he met another recruit outside the indoor practice facility: Mike Zordich, who’d already committed.
“I’ll never forget it,” Mauti said. “The first words out of his mouth are ‘So are you coming or what?’ I’m thinking, ‘You know what? He’s right.’ But I didn’t say anything to him or my dad. I wasn’t planning to commit on that trip.”
Of course, Mauti came to Penn State, and the two became inseparable.
That friendship would be tested—and not by each other, but by the extraordinary circumstances they would face during their years at Penn State. For these two, the moment of truth would arrive in late July 2012.
• • •
By 10:00 a.m. Monday morning, July 23, Penn State’s football players had finished their workout, showered, and gathered in the players’ lounge to watch NCAA president Mark Emmert’s press conference, which was covered by virtually every news outlet in the country.
In a statement the players would long remember, Emmert said, “No price the NCAA can levy will repair the grievous damage inflicted by Jerry Sandusky on his victims. However, we can make clear that the culture, actions, and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in collegiate athletics.”
Emmert then laid out a series of penalties. One erased a wide swath of Penn State’s rich history, vacating all victories from 1998 through 2011—thereby dropping Coach Paterno from the perch of his profession, with 409 wins, down to fifth, with 298. The sanctions also threatened Penn State’s future: a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, and a drastic reduction in the number of scholarships the football coaches could offer recruits, from twenty-five down to fifteen a year, with a maximum of sixty-five—twenty fewer than Penn State’s rivals could give out.
Emmert declared Penn State’s penalties might be considered “greater than any other seen in NCAA history.” Most experts believed they were second only to the infamous “death penalty” delivered to Southern Methodist University, from which the Mustangs had still not fully recovered twenty-six years later.
“Football,” Emmert concluded, “will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people.”
Eight months earlier, on November 5, 2011, prosecutors had arrested Penn State’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on forty criminal counts, including the sexual assault of eight boys over a fifteen-year period, one of them in the showers of Penn State’s football building. That put in motion a series of events that few could have imagined: it exposed the worst scandal in the history of modern sports; it led to the midseason firing of the iconic Joe Paterno; it prompted the hiring of little-known New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien; it resulted in Penn State’s commissioning the Freeh Report, which concluded university leaders knew enough about what Sandusky had done, but cared more about protecting the university’s image than his young victims; and it surely accelerated Paterno’s decline and death—all within three months of Sandusky’s arrest.
• • •
Those facts you probably know. What happened behind those headlines, you probably don’t.
The players, coaches, and staffers in Penn State’s players’ lounge that Monday morning understood immediately that another provision of the NCAA’s sanctions, which got far less attention outside that room at the time, threatened Penn State’s season opener, just six weeks away: the one that allowed other schools to recruit Penn State’s current players, who would be permitted to play for another team that fall without having to sit out a season for transferring. In practice, Emmert had declared open season for opposing coaches to cannibalize Penn State’s roster, and all but encouraged Penn State’s players to jump.
Just minutes after news of the sanctions broke, recalled Mauti, who had already defied the odds by reclaiming his starting position after missing the 2009 season when he tore the ACL in his right knee, and most of the 2011 season when he tore the ACL in his left knee, “Our phones were ringing—blowing up—with ten or twenty coaches calling right off. My high school coach had to turn his phone off because he got forty calls that day asking if I wanted to jump.”
Just a couple hours later, while Mauti met with rookie head coach Bill O’Brien to address Mauti’s fear that the program was on the verge of collapse, University of Southern California assistant coach Ed Orgeron called Mauti. “His kid went to my high school, so I picked up,” Mauti recalled. “He asks me, ‘What kind of guy is your tailback?’ The coach didn’t even know Silas Redd’s name. Are you serious?”
Apparently serious enough to fly Redd—who ran for over a thousand yards in his sophomore year—out to LA, where USC had Snoop Dogg pick him up at the airport in a limousine. Everyone in Penn State’s players’ lounge assumed if the popular and talented Redd left State College, the floodgates would open.
That fear was well-founded. That same day, recalled starting senior defensive end Pete Massaro, an Academic All-American econ major, “One kid was telling me he was going and started listing a ton of guys in the freshmen and sophomore classes who were going to leave, too. I was freaking out. Next thing he said to me was ‘Penn State football is dead.’
“I thought it was the end of Penn State football.”
So did Mauti and Zordich. As was often the case, they had the same reaction at the same time: this will not happen on my watch.
After barely sleeping that night, they got up the next morning, Tuesday, July 24, at six. They immediately headed for strength coach Craig Fitzgerald’s office to meet with him and Coach O’Brien, who didn’t need to be persuaded about the gravity of their situation.
The seniors compiled a list of people they’d heard were planning to leave, and together they concocted a plan they hoped would stop the exodus before it started.
Before they split up that Tuesday morning, however, O’Brien moved to make a major decision.
“Coach was saying, ‘We need to make a hard deadline,’ ” Zordich recalled. “ ‘This can’t go on forever. So I’m going to tell them, by August first, you’re either with us or you’re not.’ ”
It made perfect sense. Not knowing which players would still be on the team for the first game, just six weeks away, would make it almost impossible to conduct an effective practice and could be enough to make an already fragile team fall apart, piece by piece.
“I’m thinking, August first?” Zordich recalled. “That’s one week. This dude’s got balls.” Zordich soon proved he had some, too. After initially agreeing, the more they talked about it, the more compelled he felt to speak up.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he finally said. “The players here don’t know you well enough yet.”
As soon as Zordich said it, Mauti decided he was right, and they explained why. Their reasons were both positive and negative: they believed the more the players got to know O’Brien and his program—which they viewed as a long-overdue step into the future, instead of relying endlessly on Penn State’s glorious past—the more likely the players would be to stay; and second, if O’Brien threatened them with a deadline, it might create a panicked rush to the doors.
“You say, ‘Now or never,’ ” Zordich said, “you’re going to lose a lot of guys. They’ll get scared.”
“And make an irrational decision,” Mauti added, finishing his best friend’s sentence once again. “If we’ve got a deadline, word’s going to get out to the coaches, and their phones are gonna blow up all over again the night before the deadline.”
At that moment, Zordich and Mauti might have been the only college football players in the country with the temerity to question the decision of their head coach—a coach they already respected greatly—to his face.
At the next moment, O’Brien might have been the only college football coach in the country willing to listen.
O’Brien looked at Zordich, Mauti, and Fitzgerald, and then back to Zordich, thinking and weighing the options.
No one in that office had time to ponder the irony.
The NCAA sanctions were encouraging “student-athletes” to behave like athlete-students. They were putting the lie to the NCAA’s own propaganda, which officially discouraged transfers because “student-athletes” are supposed to pick their schools for the education, not the athletic opportunities. But there Emmert was, inviting Penn State’s student-athletes to jettison the university that graduated 91 percent of its student-athletes—a big reason many of them chose Penn State in the first place—to transfer penalty-free for bowl-eligible football programs.
Not only did it suddenly fall to O’Brien, Mauti, Zordich, and every Penn State player who stayed to protect their storied program from disintegrating, they could only do so by upholding the very values the NCAA itself could apparently no longer proclaim with a straight face.
In the early-morning hours of December 6, 2009, just a few hours after his undefeated Florida Gators lost the Southeastern Conference title game to eventual national champion Alabama, head coach Urban Meyer woke up, grabbed his chest, and collapsed.
His wife, Shelley, who’d been concerned about his health since he took the Florida job in 2005, didn’t need to be convinced to call 911. An ambulance rushed to take Meyer to the hospital. Doctors determined it wasn’t a heart attack he’d suffered, but they still couldn’t pinpoint the problem.
The day after Christmas that year, Meyer announced he had “ignored my health for years” and would retire as Florida’s coach after their Sugar Bowl game against his alma mater, Cincinnati.
The Ohio native ultimately decided to take a leave of absence for a few months, before returning to lead the Gators the next season to a disappointing 8-5 record. After Florida beat Penn State, 37–24, in the January 1, 2011, Outback Bowl, Meyer again announced his retirement, citing the same reasons he had the year before.
Thus, at the height of his powers, Urban Meyer did what few men in his profession would even consider: he left the game for the TV booth, where he spent the 2011 season critiquing other teams.
• • •
The same fall Meyer spent emerging from his living hell, the Ohio State Buckeyes spent entering theirs.
The Buckeyes’ troubles paled next to Penn State’s, but before the police arrested Sandusky, they were considered big news.
In December of 2010, a few weeks before Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl game, five Ohio State players were forced to admit they’d sold some jerseys, mementos, and trophies to a tattoo-parlor owner. Predictably, he put them on eBay, and there’s your scandal. Compared to the money USC boosters gave to Reggie Bush, and Mississippi State boosters gave to Cam Newton’s father—all in the six figures—“Tat-gate” seemed pretty petty to most people, but to Mark Emmert and his staff, it was serious business.
In fairness to the NCAA, as Bo Schembechler himself once said, “Every single one of those rules came up because some coach was finding a way around them.” This familiar cat-and-mouse game goes back to the inception of the NCAA itself—really, why it was founded—and even deeper, to one of the less appealing aspects of the American character.
“In his 1927 autobiography,” sportswriter John Kryk writes, “[Amos Alonzo] Stagg perhaps wrote more than he realized when he contrasted the difference between the British and Americans in the matter of rules compliance. ‘The British, in general, regard both the letter and the spirit,’ Stagg wrote. ‘We, in general, regard the letter only. Our prevailing viewpoint might be expressed something like this: Here are rules made and provided for. They affect each side alike. If we are smart enough to detect a joker or a loophole first, then we are entitled not only in law but in ethics to take advantage of it.’ ”
And that’s why the NCAA was born: to close those loopholes.
Ohio State had told the players the rules—although the players initially claimed the university hadn’t.
Yet, after Ohio State submitted its own report to the NCAA on December 19, 2010, the NCAA took all of four days to determine that five players would receive a five-game suspension—then allowed them to delay their punishment until the following fall, so they could play in the much-anticipated Sugar Bowl against eighth-ranked Arkansas on January 4, 2011.
The Buckeyes beat the Razorbacks, 31–26.
It soon surfaced, however, that star quarterback Terrelle Pryor had also traded a sportsmanship award from the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, a Big Ten title ring, and—most blasphemous to Buckeye backers—one of his gold pants charms, which Ohio State coaches and players have been given each time they beat the pants off Michigan, dating back to 1934. None of these discoveries increased the NCAA’s penalties, but they did cause Buckeye fans to shake their heads in wonder at such disregard for their vaunted tradition.
Still, the whole thing seemed like a hill of beans until the spring of 2011, when head coach Jim Tressel got dragged into the investigation.
• • •
Ohio State’s Jim Tressel era started on January 18, 2001, at a basketball game against Michigan. That night, when they introduced Tressel as Ohio State’s new football coach at halftime, the Ohio native knew exactly what the fans wanted to hear.
He was hired on the heels of John Cooper, whose record at Ohio State was second only to that of Woody Hayes. But Cooper’s teams lost to Michigan an inexcusable ten times in thirteen years—and in Columbus, you simply cannot do that. And you can’t say the Michigan–Ohio State rivalry is “just another game,” either—which might have been a bigger sin.
Knowing all this, Tressel wisely told the crowd, “I can assure you that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field.”
The place exploded. At last, somebody gets it!
Tressel got it—and he proved it, beating Michigan nine out of ten times, including a record seven in a row. He also set Ohio State records for winning percentage in the modern era at .810, tied Woody Hayes’s mark of six straight Big Ten titles, and won a national title in 2002—only the Big Ten’s second since 1968.
Jim Tressel was clearly one heck of a coach. He was also pleasantly professorial—famed for his sweater vest, not his temper—and a great ambassador for the school.
But smoke always seemed to billow up behind him. His previous team, Youngstown State, won three Division I-AA national titles, but one of his stars got in trouble for taking money from a wealthy booster. The school got in trouble, but not Tressel.
When Maurice Clarett played on Ohio State’s 2002 national title team, he later confessed, he took “golf, fishing, and softball as classes,” which is not against the rules, but taking at least $20,000 in benefits is. “I was living the NFL life in college,” he said. “I got paid more in college than I do now,” in the United Football League. But Clarett got in trouble, not Tressel.
When Tressel was being investigated in 2011, a student reporter asked Ohio State president Gordon Gee—whom Time magazine ranked the best in the nation in 2009, the same year he became the highest-paid college president in the country—if he might fire Tressel. President Gee replied, “I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me!”
Even after Pryor and company were caught selling trinkets, it was still chump change—until an e-mail from a former player-turned-attorney leaked to the press, indicating Tressel had lied to the NCAA about his ignorance of the violations—and not once, not twice, but three times. As usual, it was not the crime but the cover-up that did him in, giving even the supportive Gee little choice.
The Jim Tressel era ended on Monday, May 30, 2011, when he “resigned.” But he would get to keep his national title and quickly landed a job at the University of Akron, where he had started his coaching career back in 1975 as a graduate assistant. He returned as their vice president for strategic engagement. It’s hard to know what that corporate title entails, but we do know it doesn’t include cleaning up the mess he left behind.
If the NCAA ran local law enforcement, whenever they pulled over a drunk driver, they would impound the car and let the driver hop in another one and drive off.
All this set up OSU’s thirty-eight-year-old interim coach, Luke Fickell, and the Buckeyes for a historically horrible 2011 season. Ohio State struggled through a 6-7 campaign, including close losses to Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan, Ohio State’s first since 2003, and a final humiliation at the hands of the 6-6 Florida Gators in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. The 2011 Buckeyes suffered the school’s first losing season in twenty-three years, and only its second since 1966.
• • •
Near the end of the 2011 season, Ohio State had to make the most important hire most athletic departments have to make.
Ohio State’s next head coach would be under immense pressure to win. To many Buckeye fans, Tressel’s worst transgression was not getting the team put on probation, but getting blown out twice in national title games.
But could the Buckeyes’ next coach also help the program’s “image problem”?
Unlike NFL franchises, which simply hire the most talented coach available, schools like Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State need to find a head coach who can not only win games, but also win over the lettermen, the loyal alums, and the fans. He needs to represent the entire school and even come to embody it.
Why Ohio State wanted Urban Meyer is obvious: after the prodigal son reached the apex of his profession, the Buckeye backers longed for him to return to his native land. But why would Meyer, a multimillionaire who had already won two national titles, want to leave a cushy job at ESPN to return to possibly the biggest pressure cooker in coaching?
During Meyer’s happy hiatus, he made his first visit to his family doctor in years. The generalist determined in five minutes what the specialists couldn’t diagnose after years of tests: Meyer’s problem was not a heart condition, but merely esophageal spasms and acid reflux, which was resolved with a dose of Nexium, literally overnight. “The next morning,” Meyer said, “I felt like a new man. And it got better.”
But the catch was a familiar one to college coaches: both conditions were aggravated by stress, which the job provides by the bucket.
So why would he jeopardize his renewed health, his revitalized family life, and his rediscovered sanity to return to the sidelines—especially when it would include moving from Florida to Ohio, a trip most retirees make in the other direction?
No doubt additional money and fame have their appeal, but Meyer already had ample doses of both. More likely, having removed his biggest obstacle to coaching, he wanted to get back at it. For competitive personalities, there is naturally no substitute for actual competition. That it was the Ohio State Buckeyes coming after him tipped the scales.
No one understood the importance of “getting it” more than Meyer. He was born in Toledo and raised in Ashtabula, where he wore number 45 in honor of Ohio State’s two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin. He wasn’t recruited by Ohio State, so he played at Cincinnati, then assisted Earle Bruce at Ohio State and Colorado State before becoming the head coach at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida, while graduating 80 percent of his players. But Ohio State had been the team of his childhood dreams. Getting the opportunity to push them back up to their rightful station at the top echelon of the game was, for Meyer, more honor than duty.
When I spoke with Meyer between his first spring practice and summer training camp in Columbus, it didn’t take long to understand why a man who had already won three division titles in six years in the SEC—a conference that was about to extend its streak of consecutive national titles to seven, including the two Meyer had won at Florida—wanted to return to the beleaguered Big Ten, which had won exactly two national titles in the previous forty-four years.
“Growing up in Ashtabula, Archie Griffin, Cornelius Green, Woody—man, that’s all I knew,” he told me. “I mean, that’s all I knew. I’m not even kidding. I learned math by adding threes and sevens.
“But when you talk about Woody Hayes, and Bo Schembechler, and Earle Bruce, it’s the same: you do it the right way, and you do it really hard. And there’s always an academic component in there. That’s what’s special about those coaches: academic integrity, the big, old stadiums, the traditions that all these great schools have here. Growing up, the Big Ten was always the standard.
“To be a part of it again means a lot to a guy like me.”
Meyer believed he would be a wiser coach, too, thanks to the year he had just spent analyzing games in ESPN TV’s booth.
“I learned what all great programs have in common,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re running the spread, the wishbone, or a pro set, or if they run a three-four defense, or what league they’re in. No, it’s the alignment of the staff. If everyone’s on the same page—if the CEO says this is how it’s done, and nine coaches believe it—you have a shot. If you’re not—if even one position group is off—you don’t, and you’re done.
“That means, when I ask [an assistant] for a quick answer, give me a quick answer. Don’t give me another question. And when I say something, I want it done.
“I need that responsiveness.” Without being prompted, he added, “I don’t have that yet.”
To get that, before 2012 spring practice even started, Meyer and his new assistants were running through practices—without players. “We practiced practice,” he said, taking his already manic levels of preparation to new levels.
The tug-of-war between success and sanity had commenced.
• • •
One obstacle could not be avoided: Ohio State’s probation, which meant they would not be playing in the 2012 Big Ten championship or a bowl, no matter how many games they won.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” Meyer acknowledged. “Completely uncharted waters for myself, and for this program. How do you stay focused without a championship game or a bowl game to play for? But if we have a good year, we can still win the Leaders Division. So that’s number one on our bucket list.
“Number two,” he said, then grinned, “well, you can probably guess,” and it wasn’t hard: beat “That Team Up North,” a phrase borrowed from Woody Hayes, who refused even to utter the “M-word.” (“Show me a good loser,” he said, “and I’ll show you a busboy.”)
As if Meyer didn’t have enough on his plate, he wanted to accomplish something else, too: wipe clean the stain on Ohio State’s reputation—through more diplomas and fewer arrests. He had returned to Ohio State to produce that familiar oxymoron, a professionally run program of amateur excellence.
“The stakes are extremely high,” he concluded. “It’s Ohio State. Do you build up to next year? No, we simply try to win every game we play, every year. It’s Ohio State. There will never be a time at Ohio State that we’re worried about next year. We always want to win now. So, from where I sit, the stakes couldn’t be higher. And you can print that.”
In 1989, on the twentieth anniversary of Bo Schembechler’s first Michigan football team, he invited every Wolverine he’d ever coached back to Ann Arbor, for a long night of stories. The former players sat with their teammates, and each one stood up to give a brief introduction.
While Bo’s first teams introduced themselves, Dave Brandon sat at the table with his 1973 teammates, wondering what he was going to say.
Brandon had grown up in South Lyon, just fifteen minutes north of Ann Arbor, where he became an all-state quarterback, good enough to attract the attention of Bo Schembechler.
Brandon had the good timing to join Bo’s 1971–73 squads, which won 31 games, lost 2, and tied 1, with all three setbacks occurring in the last game of the season at the Rose Bowl or against Ohio State. But the excellence of those teams meant Brandon had to battle all-conference players at almost every position just to get on the field. Bo first tried Brandon at quarterback, behind Dennis Franklin, Larry Cipa, and Tom Slade, all of whom started at some point in their careers. Bo then moved Brandon to scout-team defensive end, where former all-American Reggie McKenzie used him daily as a tackling dummy, then to backup kicker, where he finished his career. Despite hundreds of practices, Brandon got in only one game.
Soon after Brandon graduated, Schembechler helped him get a job at Procter & Gamble’s headquarters in Cincinnati—and that’s when Brandon took off. He rose to chairman, president, and CEO of Valassis Communications, a former Fortune 500 company that sends advertising postcards to some 100 million homes every week.
So, after thinking through his career, when it was his turn to stand up at the football reunion, Brandon knew exactly what to say. His old coach Bo Schembechler liked his response so much, he could remember it verbatim years later: “Brandon gets up—and I’ve quoted this statement a hundred times—and he tells his old teammates, ‘I didn’t get in many games. I wasn’t an all-American like a lot of you guys, or even an all–Big Ten player. Hell, some weeks I wasn’t even on the All-Scout Team! But in the long run, I became an all-American in business.’
“They all cheered,” Bo said. “People, believe me when I tell you, that is what we were trying to teach when I was head coach.”
Brandon moved on from Valassis to work with Mitt Romney at Bain Capital. In 1998, the energetic Brandon won a statewide election to become one of the University of Michigan’s eight regents. The next year Bain took over Domino’s Pizza, which had been on the market for several years, and named Brandon its CEO.
So Brandon went to work simultaneously getting Domino’s ready for an initial public offering (IPO) and courting the University of Iowa’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, for interviews in Ann Arbor. Although almost everyone on campus seemed to believe the popular former business-school dean and interim president, Joe White, was a shoe-in—some journalists actually reported that he’d been named the next president—in 2002, the regents named Coleman Michigan’s thirteenth president. Two years later, in 2004, Domino’s IPO set the valuation record in the “Quick Service Restaurant” category.
After Brandon lost his 2006 reelection bid for regent, he lobbied Coleman and the regents to become Michigan’s next athletic director. Michigan interviewed three current Division I athletic directors, all of whom had played or coached at Michigan, and Brandon, who had never coached or worked in college athletics before. That was also true of Michigan’s previous four athletic directors, and might have worked in Brandon’s favor.
“I’m more than just a pizza man,” he said at the time. “Although I have not lived a career in athletics specifically as others have, I believe I bring a unique set of qualifications, interests, and experiences to the job.”
The Associated Press added, “Brandon said his business background will help him manage an athletic department with a budget of more than $90 million, media and licensing agreements, and fundraising efforts under way in a sputtering economy. ‘I view it as a selling organization for the entire university.’ ”
Universities have in recent years eschewed former coaches and university administrators in favor of corporate professionals to run their athletic departments—a list that includes Oregon, Rutgers, and Notre Dame. Fewer people wondered why Coleman would tap Brandon than why Brandon would want to take an 82 percent pay cut—not counting bonuses, stock options, and the like, which comprise the bulk of a CEO’s compensation—for a job that promised more headaches, more scrutiny, and less privacy than running a Fortune 500 company.
“I can’t think of many jobs in the world that I would pick up and leave that great company and great brand for,” he explained, “but this is one. . . . I love the University of Michigan. I loved it when I was here as a student-athlete, [and] I’ve been connected to it ever since in one-way or another.”
He started working well before his official start date of March 8, 2010, effectively assuming office after the announcement was made on January 5, 2010, and he’s been on a mission ever since. If you send him an e-mail at 2:00 a.m., he often responds by 3:00 a.m. After he inherited the ongoing NCAA investigation of Michigan’s football program’s practice limits, he put on a veritable clinic of damage control through public policies and press conferences, causing his standing to soar among Michigan fans.
In former football coach Lloyd Carr’s final years, Brandon had heard the masses grumbling about Michigan’s slide into mediocrity. Then he heard that low roar rise to full-throated shouting when Carr’s successor, Rich Rodriguez, finished his three seasons at Michigan with a 6-18 record in the Big Ten. Brandon was determined to do something about it.
If Michigan fans wanted more wins, he concluded, Michigan needed the best facilities and the best coaches. To get those things, he concluded, they needed to make more money to pay for them.
One of his first acts in office was to install gigantic, pro-style, four-sided scoreboards for the hockey, basketball, and football facilities—two four-thousand-square-foot versions for Michigan Stadium, the “Big House”—for an estimated $20 million. More recently, in late 2012, Brandon announced a master plan to renovate ten facilities and build seven new ones, including a field hockey renovation project for $10 million, new lacrosse facilities for $12 million, a pool expansion for $20 million, a new rowing/strength and conditioning center for $25 million, a new multipurpose gym for $30 million, and a new track facility for $90 million—plus “The Walk of Champions,” which will create “one complete, contiguous athletic experience that will be as impressive in its scale as it is in its vision.”
The department estimated the entire master plan would cost $250 million in 2012, but when he discussed it with the Regents in mid-2013, Brandon concluded the figure would be closer to $340 million.
Brandon’s not afraid to make sweeping changes in personnel, either. As he’d promised he would in speeches to alumni groups, he soon let over 85 of the department’s 275 employees go, paying a couple million for buyouts, then increased the staff to 308. In those same speeches, he often mentioned his first hire would be a chief marketing officer, which reflected one of his principal missions, and changed the director of human resource’s title to chief talent officer and had her report directly to him.
If Brandon isn’t afraid to spend money, he has redoubled efforts to raise it, too, first by tripling the department’s development staff, from nine to twenty-eight full-time fund-raisers to help cover the department’s operating budget, which has grown from $100 million during the 2010–11 fiscal year to $137.5 million just three years later. (These figures do not include the capital expenditures above.)
Brandon also raised revenues by creating or increasing “seat licenses” for football, basketball, and hockey and closed off virtually all Michigan facilities to the public. The athletic department now charges for corporate events in the skyboxes ($9,000), for wedding receptions on the 50-yard line ($8,000, or $6,000 for one hour), and for school tours, which Michigan had provided free for decades.
Brandon’s style might not please everyone he deals with, but he delivers what he promises. Under Brandon, the department increased its operating surplus to $15.3 million in fiscal year 2012, 72 percent higher than the previous fiscal year. In 2012, the Michigan football team alone generated $61.6 million in profits, second only to the University of Texas, which has the considerable advantage of its exclusive twenty-year, $300 million TV deal with ESPN.
Brandon has delivered more than dollars, too. After hiring Brady Hoke in 2011, the Michigan football team beat Notre Dame on the last play of the Big House’s first night game, defeated Ohio State for the first time since 2003, and won a thrilling overtime game over eleventh-ranked Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, Michigan’s first BCS bowl victory since a young man named Tom Brady beat Alabama in the January 1, 2000, Orange Bowl.
In the 2011–12 school year, Brandon’s first official full year on the job, the hockey team earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament; the men’s basketball team won a share of its first Big Ten title since 1986; and the following fall, Michigan’s other twenty-nine sports combined to run a close second behind Stanford, and ahead of such perennial all-sport powers as Texas and UCLA, in the Directors’ Cup, which Michigan has never won.
If the Michigan athletic department had issued a 2012 annual report to its shareholders, it would have been the shiniest publication in college sports, packed with enough good news to make the competition envious. By those measures, its creator could be considered an all-American athletic director.
The Wolverines are not alone in spending millions, of course, engaged as they are in an arms race with the Buckeyes and the Southeastern Conference that shows no signs of slowing down. In Brandon’s speeches to alumni clubs, service groups, and the press, he has been unabashed in laying out a simple equation: if you want titles, this is what it takes.
• • •
But it can come with some unexpected prices.
On Friday morning, April 20, 2012, while I watched workers set up the stage for the groundbreaking ceremony for Penn State’s $104 million hockey arena the day before their football team’s spring game, I took my weekly call from Ann Arbor’s local sports-talk station, WTKA.
This being six days after Michigan’s spring scrimmage, I assumed the morning hosts would ask me how Michigan’s second-year coaches, who favored a pro-set offense, were meshing with soon-to-be senior Denard Robinson, the consummate spread-offense quarterback. So I was a little surprised when Ira Weintraub and Sam Webb asked me about the Michigan-Alabama game, scheduled more than four months away, on September 1 in Dallas.
It was already being hyped as a clash between two tradition-rich programs, both ranked in the preseason Top 10, and two tradition-rich conferences. But it was bigger than that, because the schools had struck a deal with the Dallas Cowboys’ celebrity owner, Jerry Jones, to play the game in his shiny, new, $1.15 billion, state-of-the-art pleasure dome, nicknamed Jerry World.
They called the game the Cowboy Classic, a four-year-old version of the former Kickoff Classic, and it had come to represent the apotheosis—or nadir, depending on your view—of all that modern college football was becoming: the colossal, professional stadium; the seemingly endless corporate tie-ins; and the orgy of interest in a game between amateur athletes.
Although Michigan did not sell out its allotment of 17,500 tickets for the Sugar Bowl a couple months earlier, the athletic department had no trouble selling all 25,000 tickets for the Cowboy Classic, before they could even offer them to the general public. They were gobbled up entirely by Victors Club members: first to those with the most “priority points” (which they accumulate largely through donations), down to those with just one priority point. Thousands of fans with no priority points got shut out.
It was all the more impressive because the tickets for the Cowboy Classic weren’t cheap: $125 for a seat in the rafters and $285 for one on the 50, plus $80 for parking across the street. Jerry World also offered standing-room-only tickets, which one website packaged with vouchers for a beverage, a hot dog, and a bag of chips for $89—and sold more than twenty-three hundred of them.
“Let’s put it like this,” the ever-quotable Jerry Jones said the week of the game. “I’m going to compare it even to the Super Bowl. They’re two different events—but this is the hottest ticket . . . of any game or any event that we’ve had at that stadium.”
Michigan would net $4.7 million for the Cowboy Classic matchup with Alabama, the highest payout ever for a Kickoff Classic/Cowboy Classic season opener. After the department publicized that fact, fans were surprised to hear Brandon announce he would not be sending the Michigan Marching Band to the game because the athletic department couldn’t afford the $400,000 travel expense. That decision lit up sports-talk shows across the state.
If one symbol separates college football from the NFL, it’s the marching bands. When the band plays, all the alums in the stadium travel back in time to their college days. Some fans angered over the decision included big donors, who ultimately stepped up to cover half the cost of the band’s trip. Leaving the band behind for a big game proved not to be an option—at least in 2012.
As the arms race escalates, Brandon does not seem terribly interested in slowing down to ponder it all. He is too busy pressing full steam ahead. “I don’t talk the past,” he said several times in his first year as Michigan’s athletic director. “I create the future.”
He might just be right.
If the future of Penn State was in the hands of its players, and Ohio State in the hands of its new head coach, Michigan’s was in the hands of its new athletic director.
In the early eighties, while Penn State was winning national titles, and Ohio State and Michigan were winning Big Ten titles, the Northwestern Wildcats were setting a record of their own: the longest losing streak in NCAA history.
After the Wildcats finished second in the Big Ten in 1970 and 1971, behind only Ohio State and Michigan respectively, they couldn’t manage even one five-win season for almost a quarter century. Northwestern’s stadium seats 47,130 people, less than half as many as Michigan’s, Ohio State’s, and Penn State’s, but they hadn’t sold it out for a single game since 1963. In 1978 and 1980, Northwestern’s attendance for the entire season was less than what Michigan attracted for a single game.
The football program came by its incompetence honestly: from the top. In 1981, after the team had lost its twenty-ninth straight game, Northwestern’s then-president, Robert Strotz, told the student paper, “I think having a bad football team can help academic standards.” Apparently, President Strotz believed a losing squad could convince the high-browed that you must be serious about school, or else your football team would surely be better.
Spend any time in Evanston and you’ll be struck by how every single alum—no matter when he or she graduated—can recite the president’s quote verbatim, more than three decades later. His words are carved that deeply into their collective psyche.
“He actually came out and said that publicly!” said Eric Chown, ’85, equally amused and appalled—a typical reaction.
Not surprisingly, given such support, the week President Strotz said this the Wildcats lost that Saturday’s game to Michigan State, 61–14, and the next one to Ohio State, 70–6, to extend its record losing streak to 31—and fuel rumors they would soon be dropping out of the Big Ten. When the team hit 34 straight losses to secure the record, the students tore down the goalposts and, in the spirit of a Bronx cheer, started chanting, “Lake the posts!”—then rushed the white pipes down Central Street and into Lake Michigan.
Since the “Mildcats” went 35-128-1 during Strotz’s fifteen-year reign, you have to assume he, at least, was thrilled.
Apathy was in their DNA. The few fans who showed up to see loss after loss after loss had a favorite cheer: “That’s all right, that’s okay. You’re going to work for us someday.”
• • •
It wasn’t always that way.
Unlike Ohio State and Penn State, who were the tenth and twelfth teams to join the Big Ten, respectively, Northwestern is a charter member, forming the world’s first academically based athletic conference in 1895 with Michigan, Purdue, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
The Chicago Maroons, led by Amos Alonzo Stagg, took seven of the Big Ten’s first twenty-nine football titles. But by the midtwenties, the boys from Northwestern got the upper hand on their Southside cousins, which accelerated the demise of the Maroons. When they finally dropped out of the Big Ten after the 1939 season, Northwestern assumed the mantle of “Chicago’s team,” until the NFL’s Bears captured the public’s attention for good in the 1950s.
Along the way, the Northwestern “Purple” became the “Wildcats,” so named by a sportswriter for their tenacity in a 1924 game against the Maroons. They took five Big Ten titles by 1936, won the 1949 Rose Bowl, and usually beat Michigan and Ohio State a few times each decade.
Until, that is, 1972, when the Dark Ages descended upon Evanston.
The seeds of the Wildcats’ awakening were planted in 1991, when they hired Gary Barnett from Colorado’s 1990 national-title staff. One of his first recruits was a young man from Carl Sandburg High School on Chicago’s South Side named Pat Fitzgerald. Few would have guessed it then, but together those two would change Northwestern’s fortunes.
When Northwestern introduced Barnett at a basketball game, he told the crowd, “We’re taking the Purple to Pasadena!” Since the Wildcats had made only one appearance in the Rose Bowl, in 1949, it sounded crazy—but he believed it. Even crazier, his players did, too.
“Losing so much was sort of a badge of courage,” former athletic director Rick Taylor (1994–2003) told me. “I never bought into that. The university would never allow such failure to continue in any other field, so why ours?”
The Wildcats finally emerged from their twenty-three-year slumber in 1995, the same year Henry S. Bienen became Northwestern’s fifteenth president. While Bienen certainly didn’t seek to transform Northwestern into an Ohio State wannabe, he didn’t confuse failure on the football field for academic excellence, either.
Although Barnett’s first three teams finished sixth, tenth, and tenth in the Big Ten, the 1995 Wildcats stunned Notre Dame in South Bend for the first time since 1961, then beat the Wolverines in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1959, followed by victories over Wisconsin, Penn State, and Illinois to finish the Big Ten season undefeated for the first time since 1936.
The impossible had happened: the Purple was going to Pasadena. The entire nation cheered on the ’Cats, who were celebrated on the Wheaties box.
The next year, rather amazingly, the Wildcats beat Michigan again and won a share of another Big Ten title.
The school raised $20 million for long-overdue stadium renovations and started planning for a new indoor practice field, too. “Given our facilities,” President Bienen said, “Gary’s been recruiting with one hand tied behind his back.”
The arms race, it seemed, had been joined.
The stadium was renovated, and an indoor practice facility, Trienens Hall, was completed in 2001, but that didn’t stop the Wildcats from a vertiginous fall back to earth, finishing eighth in the eleven-team Big Ten in 1997, and dead last in 1998, with an 0-8 conference record.
If any of the Big Ten’s “big three” had gone 0-8—in any year, for any reason—the local papers would have plastered the unbearable disaster across the front page and put the actual Apocalypse on the second.
But at Northwestern, a funny thing happened: not much.
No one freaked out. They didn’t search their souls to determine where they had lost their way. They didn’t wonder what deep-seated flaw in their collective character the winless year had revealed.
When the Wildcats win, it wakes up the whole campus. But it’s a bit of a lark. Nice, but not necessary. The day after the Wildcats finish a winless Big Ten season, the faculty and the students wake up and walk across the street to one of the greatest universities in the world.
After Barnett left Evanston in 1999 to return to Colorado as the head coach, Northwestern hired Miami University’s Randy Walker. His arc mirrored Barnett’s, peaking with a Big Ten title in 2000, followed shortly by a return to tenth place two years in a row.
When the fifty-two-year-old Walker died in 2006 of a heart attack, Northwestern hired his understudy, thirty-one-year-old Pat Fitzgerald. The promotion made Fitzgerald, Northwestern’s only nonkicking all-American between 1982 and 2000, the youngest Division I head coach in the country, by a full five years.
If Northwestern has a golden boy, the flat-topped, square-jawed Fitzgerald is surely it. No one could understand Northwestern, and how it works when it works best, better than Pat Fitzgerald.
If Meyer’s marriage to Ohio State makes perfect sense, the same is no less true for Fitzgerald and Northwestern.
Consider this: the coaches at the big-time programs would never take a job like Northwestern’s. The Wildcats have all the obstacles those coaches have worked so hard to get beyond, including a small stadium, fewer fans cheering for your team than your opponents, rare coverage by the national media, second-class facilities, and none of the academic back doors many teams have traditionally used to get their stars through school. Yet the team still graduates 97 percent of its players—a higher rate than that of the student body at large—and it would be higher still if the formula counted the team’s fifth-year engineering students.
Most coaches believe Northwestern is the toughest place to win in the Big Ten—and Northwestern’s record up to that magical 1995 season stands as solid proof.
Yet, all those reasons are exactly why Fitzgerald loves coaching the Wildcats, even declining overtures from Michigan’s Dave Brandon after he fired Rich Rodriguez in 2011. Fitzgerald is competitive, but he agrees with the priorities of his alma mater, which proudly places academics ahead of athletics in funding, facilities, and favoritism. He even claims the university’s higher standards make it easier for him to produce winning teams—something no one who had not played at Northwestern would ever claim.
If it is, in fact, harder to win the Wildcat way, it’s surely more fun when they do, as just about every Hollywood script about the underdog will attest.
Not only does Fitzgerald know Bienen’s successor, President Morton Schapiro, would never say, “I hope Fitzgerald doesn’t fire me!”—he knows athletic director Jim Phillips wouldn’t say it either. Fitzgerald makes roughly $1.3 million a year—significantly less than the $2 million Division I head coaches average at public universities, and about the same as President Schapiro. There’s a message in that. At Northwestern it’s clear the football coach works for the athletic director, the athletic director works for the president—and the relative power accrues accordingly.
The question is, Can that chain of command produce a football team that can beat Michigan or Ohio State?
• • •
When Fitzgerald became Northwestern’s head coach in 2006, it took him two seasons to lift the Wildcats from 4-8 to 9-4. But, just like Barnett and Walker, he found success hard to maintain in Evanston, where his teams steadily slid down to eight, seven, and six wins, capped by four straight losses in progressively weaker bowls. The last point was a touchy one for the Wildcats, who had won just one bowl game—in 1949.
“You look on my shelf over there,” Fitzgerald told me, sitting at a table in his office, “and we have two stuffed monkeys.”
“The first one goes back to 1995. We hadn’t beaten Iowa in something like twenty straight years. [Twenty-one, actually.] One of our teammates, Chris Hamdorf, went to Iowa City High, so his parents bought us all stuffed monkeys before that game. We beat ’em [31–20]—and our guys destroyed those monkeys!
“My first time back to Iowa City as the head coach, seven years ago, I brought that monkey out. We beat ’em again [21–7, in an otherwise disappointing 4-8 season]—and our guys destroyed that monkey in the locker room after that game. So, that monkey was two for two.
“The new monkey, the big one, is for our bowl game. We’ve brought that along for the last four bowl games.”
The problem was, the new monkey was undefeated—and therefore unharmed—and had been around long enough to start feeling more like a gorilla on their backs.
But in the summer of 2012—with their head coach secured through 2020, a $220 million budget set aside for a new facility on the Lake Michigan shoreline (one designed for all students, not just varsity football players), $24.6 million coming in from the Big Ten alone, more than Notre Dame’s $15 million from NBC, and a four-year president in place who understood what athletics could do for Northwestern—hopes were once again high in Evanston.
“We have everything we need to be a champion now,” Fitzgerald said in late July. “And we have some things that no one else in the country can say they have.”
Like Barnett, Fitzgerald actually believes this. And he leverages Northwestern’s advantages through clever recruiting, usually bypassing the four- and five-star players Ohio State, Michigan, and the SEC scoop up, to secure recruits who are strong students, captains of their team, and from winning programs. They also have to commit to Northwestern early and expect to stay for five years to develop as players and graduate. If Fitzgerald can find all that, he believed the Wildcats could compete with anyone in the league.
If the football gods could give him something extra—such as a senior class not just willing but eager to meet on their own time to ensure they’re getting the most out of their team—Fitzgerald believed they could beat anyone and perhaps claim their fourth Big Ten banner since his junior year.
Fitzgerald’s confidence in his alma mater was admirable—but was it misplaced? Did Northwestern truly have enough to compete with the best in the Big Ten? And even if they could battle the big boys, could they do so without losing their values—or their sanity?
Having dropped one win a year for three straight years—with the next stop being the dreaded “bowl ineligible” five-win season—2012 was sure to provide some answers.
• • •
Other teams would fight for the 2012 Big Ten title, of course, including Michigan State, which had leveraged its football prowess after World War II to join the Big Ten and become a world-class research university, and Nebraska, which had sacrificed over a century of success in the Big 12 conference to escape Texas and its stability-shattering TV deal, to join a conference it barely knew. Was it a mistake? The 2012 season would offer plenty of answers there, too.
If all these players, coaches, athletic directors, and presidents would be under tremendous pressure in 2012, it was nothing compared to the scrutiny college football itself would receive.
The sport was under attack for myriad sins, including academic fraud, the exploitation of amateur athletes by millionaire coaches and athletic directors, a profoundly corrupt bowl system, and the rank hypocrisy of the NCAA. By 2012, college football had attracted more critics than the IRS—and not just the usual skeptics such as Murray Sperber and Rick Telander, but writers like Taylor Branch and Joe Nocera, who usually focus their lasers on Capitol Hill and Wall Street.
“I swear,” Charles P. Pierce wrote in April 2012, “the NCAA uses a dictionary from beyond the stars. It’s taken longer than it did for golf and tennis, and even longer than it took for the Olympics, but the amateur burlesque in American college sports is on its way to crashing and the only remaining question is how hard it will fall. The farce is becoming unsupportable.”
It was no longer just college sports’ critics who were saying this, either, but former players—who were pushing class-action lawsuits to redress financial and physical exploitation—and the fans, whose seemingly boundless passion for college football appeared to be approaching some boundaries, after all. The exponential increases in ticket prices, seat licenses, and TV time-outs were testing the loyalty of even the most rabid fans, who were starting to foster an embryonic protest that showed signs of growing into a full-scale revolt.
The lines were beginning to form. On one side, the players and the fans—the true believers—wanted to keep what they had, while on the other, the suits—athletic directors, league commissioners, the NCAA, and TV—were trying to extract more and more from the very people who comprised the heart of the enterprise.
• • •
In the eye of this storm sits the Big Ten.
The Big Ten might be the nation’s oldest, biggest, and richest conference, but could it catch up to the Southeastern Conference on the field, where the Big Ten had fallen woefully behind? Or had the locus of football power, like the Midwest’s economy and population, moved to the South and West, where academic research and NCAA rules didn’t seem to be such high priorities?
Given the Big Ten’s unique place in the pantheon of college football—the exemplar that has combined academic power, athletic prowess, and commercial popularity, with a minimum of miscues before 2010—the conference, its twelve-hundred-plus football players, and 17.5 million fans aren’t merely canaries in the coal mine. They’re the coal miners.
The Big Ten has four distinct models to face the future: the pure passion of Penn State’s players; the no-nonsense professionalism of Ohio State’s coaching staff; the corporate-style control of Michigan’s money-focused athletic department; and the old-school, presidential-driven approach of the Big Ten’s only private school, Northwestern.
If the Big Ten can’t compete while keeping its programs clean and complementing the academic mission of its schools, then no conference can. The entire enterprise will have to be deemed a failure.
The world’s first academically based athletic conference now stands as the last, best hope for nationally competitive, reasonably clean college football to make its stand.
When Urban Meyer declared that “the stakes couldn’t be higher,” he was discussing the Ohio State Buckeyes season ahead, but he could have just as easily been discussing the entire sport.
The Fight for the Soul of College Football
Fourth and Long
The Fight for the Soul of College Football
In search of the sport’s old ideals amid the roaring flood of hypocrisy and greed, bestselling author John U. Bacon embedded himself in four college football programs—Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Northwestern—and captured the oldest, biggest, most storied league, the Big Ten, at its tipping point. He sat in as coaches dissected game film, he ate dinner at training tables, and he listened in locker rooms. He talked with tailgating fans and college presidents, and he spent months in the company of the gifted young athletes who play the game.
Fourth and Long reveals intimate scenes behind closed doors, from a team’s angry face-off with their athletic director to a defensive lineman acing his master’s exams in theoretical math. It captures the private moment when coach Urban Meyer earned the devotion of Ohio State’s Buckeyes on their way to a perfect season. It shows Michigan’s athletic department endangering the very traditions that distinguish the college game from all others. And it re-creates the euphoria of the Northwestern Wildcats winning their first bowl game in decades. Most unforgettably, Fourth and Long finds what the national media missed in the ugly aftermath of Penn State’s tragic scandal: the unheralded story of players who joined forces with Coach Bill O’Brien to save the university’s treasured program—and with it, a piece of the game’s soul.
This is the work of a writer in love with an old game—a game he sees at the precipice. Bacon’s deep knowledge of sports history and his sensitivity to the tribal subcultures of the college game power this elegy to a beloved and endangered American institution.