Three and Out by John U. Bacon: Book Review

On the copyright page of John U. Bacon’s Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28), there is a note that reads: “This book has not been approved, endorsed, or sponsored by any person or entity involved with the University of Michigan.”

No kidding.

Bacon’s inside look at the University of Michigan football program has reportedly angered many of the key characters—former coaches and players, athletic directors, the University president, Rodriguez—and Wolverine fans will revel in the details of how Rodriguez was hired and what eventually led to his demise. The greater value of this book, however, is the picture it paints of big-time college coaches and athletes on and off the field. And what a fascinating picture that is.

Through a friend of a friend, Bacon—a freelance journalist, author, and a teacher at the University of Michigan—was granted unrestricted access to the Michigan football program during Rich Rodriguez’s first season in Ann Arbor, in 2008. When that season ended with a 3-9 record, Bacon realized the story was far from over, and he and Rodriguez extended the deal for another two years.

I’m not sure whether any reporter has ever had Bacon’s level of access to a major college football program or if any will in the future. Bacon exploits this opportunity, reporting from the sidelines, the locker room, practices, meetings, and just about anywhere else Rodriguez or his players might go. The demands on the coaches and athletes are startling. Sure, there is a lot of glory that can come from being in the limelight that Michigan football offers, but I doubt too many college students would want to switch places with quarterback Denard Robinson or many wanna-be coaches would like to fill Rodriguez’s shoes after reading this book.

Rodriguez’s stresses went beyond that of a typical coach. Bacon traces the fracturing of the Michigan football family to the death of its “godfather,” legendary coach Bo Schembechler (with whom Bacon co-authored a book), in November 2006. The following year was the last for head coach Lloyd Carr, and Bacon depicts athletic director Bill Martin’s sloppy search for a replacement. Going down a list that seemed to change by the day (Kirk Ferentz, Tony Dungy, Greg Schiano, Les Miles), Michigan eventually hired West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez, considered one of the top minds in his profession.

Rodriguez’s last three West Virginia teams posted 11-win seasons with two BCS bowl victories (though Rodriguez had been hired by Michigan and did not coach the last one), with Rodriguez’s innovative spread offense breaking all sorts of records along the way. With all the tradition and resources Michigan has to offer, it was reasonable to expect Rodriguez and the Wolverines would do great things.

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way, and Bacon was there to witness everything. He chronicles the missteps before Rodriguez had even coached a game in the Big House, such as the West Virginia buyout fiasco and fumbled introductory press conference. The Detroit Free Press report on Michigan’s practice violations receives a thorough examination as well.

Undoubtedly the biggest off-field problem during the Rodriguez tenure, however, was the powerful faction that wanted someone else leading the winningest program in college football history. Bacon explores this throughout, but was unable to get an interview with Lloyd Carr. Without getting Carr’s side, Bacon couldn’t reconcile why the same person who first recommended Rodriguez to Martin may have undermined Rodriguez behind the scenes.

Winning solves a lot of problems, though, and Rodriguez could have quieted most of his critics by avoiding a three-win debut season and second-half collapses in the next two. Bacon doesn’t try to sugarcoat the losses and doesn’t shy away from criticizing some of Rodriguez’s questionable off-field decisions—in addition to the press conference gaffes Michigan fans are familiar with, Rodriguez didn’t show his face enough in public, costing him the chance at gaining supporters he could have used when things went bad.

Three and Out readers will learn that despite the PR blunders and constant questions about whether he was a “Michigan Man,” Rodriguez came off as a seasoned orator when addressing his team, always direct and confident and regularly referencing the Michigan tradition that many former Wolverines thought he failed to grasp.

Throughout the 438 pages, Bacon contrasts how Michigan handled the transition from Carr to Rodriguez to how it dealt with the last time an “outsider” was hired to the position: when Schembechler took over after the 1968 season. The flaws of both Rodriguez and the athletic department are apparent, and by the end of the book it’s clear the latter has learned from some of its mistakes.

If they’re anything like me, Michigan fans will speed through this book and reach out to fellow fans to discuss it. They’ll also—and I didn’t think this was possible—appreciate Denard Robinson even more. College football fans in general will savor an unprecedented look inside a major program, which recounts the excitement on the field and the drama off of it.

I look forward to hearing from Three and Out readers in the coming months (it comes out tomorrow). As always, post your comments here and/or email me at andrew@thesportsjournalists.com.

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