College football fans can exhale now. They've made it through another off-season. The beginning of autumn means that teams are back on the field and fans are back in their seats. And if those fans need something to keep themselves occupied between game days, they can read two entertaining new books on the college game.
Authors Brian Curtis and Warren St. John have taken completely different approaches, but both offer in-depth looks at the sport, and both serve their purposes very nicely. Curtis goes behind the scenes in Every Week a Season: A Journey Inside Big-Time College Football. St. John doesn't get near a player or coach in Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Journey into the Heart of Fan Mania (Crown, $24, 276 pages, ISBN 0609607081), but he does manage to capture the obsessive devotion of college fans.
I don't think it's a coincidence that both books concentrate on football in the South. Pro sports were slow to move into the South, and colleges filled in the gap. That fan enthusiasm shines through in both books and should have you ready for the opening kickoff of your team's next game.
Making the teamCurtis takes a fairly conventional approach in Every Week a Season. He picked nine teams before the start of the 2003 season and essentially moved in to each university for a week to get a sense of its team's routine. The teams profiled are Colorado State University, the University of Georgia, Boston College, the University of Tennessee, the University of Maryland, the University of Wisconsin, Louisiana State University, Florida State University and Arizona State University. There are a couple of obvious common threads in the nine programs. First, the coaching staffs of big-time football programs do a ton of work during a typical week. Not only is there film to watch, a game plan to develop and practices to coach, but coaches also must work on recruiting in their spare moments. Except for recruiting duties, the same workload applies to the players themselves; it's easy to wonder how anyone can have time to give academic chores enough attention with all the demands of football season.
Second, a head football coach is really more of a CEO than anything else. A coach has to deal with the media, meet with recruits, worry about the academic progress of players, talk to donors, etc. It's quite instructive to see how different people approach the job. Some, like Nick Saban of LSU, would be happy if everything but football disappeared from the job description, while others, like Bobby Bowden of Florida State, are particularly good at managing activities that have little to do with football.
FandemoniumIn Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, St. John has a different but equally entertaining agenda. He grew up a big University of Alabama fan (are there any other types?) and didn't lose that intensity when he moved into adulthood, although it was a little tougher to keep up with the Crimson Tide when he was living in New York City and writing for the New York Times. St. John found himself curious about the people who drive to every Alabama game, home and away, in recreational vehicles. Who were these people who would show up two or three days before games? Why were they willing to accept the abuse that comes with being a visiting fan, complete with verbal taunts and the occasional egg thrown at the RV? Was there really a couple who missed their daughter's wedding because it conflicted with an Alabama game? So St. John joined them. It took time to become accepted by the group since its members are a little wary of an outside world that yells, Get a life! at them. St. John started by hitching a ride to a game with a couple from South Carolina. Eventually, he bought his own RV to join the group. It's a diverse crowd that ranges from chicken farmers to retirees, from graduates of the school to just plain fans. All yell out Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, which is part of an Alabama fight song. By the way, the parents of the bride mentioned above really do exist, and they are quick to point out that they did make it to the reception after the game.
St. John does a fine job of taking us through an eventful season and excels at capturing the experience of being a college fan. It doesn't really matter that the season in question is five years old. For once, the spectators are the stars of the show. Budd Bailey works in the sports department of the Buffalo News.