EVERY WEEK A SEASON
A Journey Inside Big-Time College Football
By Brian Curtis
Ballantine. 299 pp. $24.95
THE ONLY GAME THAT MATTERS
The Harvard/Yale Rivalry
By Bernard M. Corbett and Paul Simpson
Crown. 301 pp. $24.95
The premise of Brian Curtis's "Every Week a Season" sounds promising. The Fox Sports Net reporter arranged to spend one week during the 2003 college football season with each of nine prominent head coaches, from Florida State's Bobby Bowden to Colorado State's Sonny Lubick.
A few chapters do provide the behind-the-scenes insight into college football that Curtis aspired to deliver. The pages on Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez show some of the simple motivation techniques used by the coaching staff as the team prepared to play defending national champion Ohio State. For the game, Alvarez and his staff distributed "I'm in, I'm on" rubber bands to the players when they declared they were ready to focus on a tough week of practice. To his players, Alvarez explained that Ohio State was unafraid of winning: "They believe they are going to win. And on their opponents, one or two guys get doubts, thinking, 'We're not supposed to win,' so they don't break up a pass or make the catch." Maybe Alvarez's squad was listening. A late, long touchdown pass by a second-string quarterback delivered a narrow win for Wisconsin.
Curtis also spent two weeks with Louisiana State coach Nick Saban, one during the regular season and another when his team was preparing for the Sugar Bowl contest with Oklahoma in January 2004. Curtis portrays a confident and driven man. Saban addressed why he was still coaching the defensive secondary squad: "Buddy Ryan told me once that when he became a head coach, he lost his best assistant -- himself." In explaining to his team the importance of focus, Saban said, "Let's eliminate the clutter." Saban told the team he hadn't even bought his wife an anniversary present, and setting an example of single-minded devotion seemed to work. With its win over Oklahoma, LSU took home a share of the national championship last year.
But most of what we learn in "Every Week a Season" is pedestrian. We find, for instance, that Bowden generally takes an afternoon nap between 1:30 and 2. With two 24-hour ESPN channels and round-the-clock sports coverage in virtually every medium, perhaps the book's failing is that it is impossible to get any more behind the scenes than we already are. Or perhaps the book's problem lies in Curtis's deferential treatment of these football coaches (description of Saban: "He is a football coach -- and that's plenty").
Curtis also often leaves important questions unasked. He never addresses the issue of steroids. And when FSU's athletic director says, "We . . . graduate our players," Curtis doesn't challenge the assertion, even though Bowden and the university have been notoriously lax in ensuring their education. According to USA Today, Florida State is graduating football players at a rate of 49 percent, below the NCAA average.
Two schools that have little trouble graduating football players, Harvard and Yale, are the subject of "The Only Game That Matters," by Bernard Corbett and Paul Simpson. The big question about this book, which chronicles the long football rivalry between the two schools, is whether anyone outside the Ivy League will care. The authors tackle this question immediately, writing about the large crowds that still attend the game annually: "A cynical person might liken it to lining up on the fairways to watch two golfers shoot one hundred." The game remains significant to outsiders only because of its past, and the best part of this book is not the chronicle of the 2002 season for Harvard and Yale but the exploration of the schools' entwined football histories.
This book makes the case that Harvard and Montreal's McGill University played the first intercollegiate game of football in 1874. "The kicking game played by Princeton and Rutgers" -- in 1869, widely recognized as the first football game -- "more closely resembled soccer -- players couldn't throw or run with the ball." The 1874 version of the game also featured tackling. It was so violent, in fact, that in 1885 Harvard's faculty banned the game for its brutality.
But if Harvard pioneered football, Yale quickly perfected it. The Bulldogs' legendary coach Walter Camp was perhaps more responsible for inventing the modern game than anyone else. He proposed the elimination of the scrum, the concept of downs and the marking of the field with yardage stripes. In Camp's last year as Yale's head coach, the team went 13-0, beating opponents by a combined score of 435-0.
The most celebrated single game in the long Harvard-Yale rivalry is a 29-29 tie in 1968. Yale, led by quarterback Brian Dowling and running back Calvin Hill, had a 29-13 lead with less than four minutes to play. But Yale allowed Harvard's backup quarterback, Frank Champi, to stage a stunning comeback, capped by a touchdown pass with no time left on the clock, followed by a successful two-point conversion. Fittingly, the best line of the book comes from New York Gov. George Pataki's foreword, in which that Yale grad provides this assessment of the 1968 game: "Like all Yale fans, however, I take some solace in the knowledge that Harvard considers a tie with Yale to be its greatest 'victory,' while Yale considers the tie with Harvard its worst 'defeat.' "