An unlikely success story and the sorry state of college football

Paul O’Connor, a fine journalist himself, doesn’t tell us in this review, but I happen to know that he went to a little college in the Midwest, one at South Bend, Ind., that has quite a football tradition of its own. My only connection with the University of Michigan is that my high school (no longer existing) borrowed the tune to its fight song, although we added our own lyrics. Yet I found this review intriguing, as many of you probably will.

Fans may not want to start reading the book on this college football Saturday in late October, but Paul’s review sounds as though it’s worth adding to a winter reading list.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE HOT SEAT: A YEAR OF OUTRAGE, PRIDE AND OCCASIONAL GAMES OF FOOTBALL. By Ben Mathis-Lilley. Public Affairs. 240 pages. $29, hardcover. Also available as audiobook, narrated by Peter Berkrot, from Audible.

Sometimes a journalist just gets lucky.

Slate writer Ben Mathis-Lilley began researching a book on the University of Michigan football team, its coach Jim Harbaugh and college football in general after the end of Michigan’s miserable 2020 season. While he doesn’t come right out and say it, he was probably expecting to write the history of Harbaugh’s final year at Ann Arbor and a further fall for “the champions of the West.”

But then Michigan went out and had a great season, ending the regular season with only one loss – albeit to in-state rival Michigan State. The team earned its first victory over Ohio State since most of the players were in preschool and then went on to win a Big Ten championship before losing to Georgia in the national semi-finals.

What was most likely to be a book about failure turned out to be one about success, and Mathis-Lilley, who does not hide his love for the Wolverines despite not being an alumnus, was delighted. But he is not delighted with the state of college football today, and a majority of college football fans probably share that sentiment with him.

Today’s game is controlled by the sports networks. Whether watching on TV or in person, the fan must endure a game repeatedly interrupted by commercial breaks. A change of possession, a score, an injured player on the field, the end of a quarter, a timeout, it doesn’t matter. The play-by-play announcer says, “We’re stepping away for a moment,” and thus follows four minutes of Allstate, State Farm and AT&T commercials. And in October, the local ad slot is filled by lying politicians.

Today’s game is also noncompetitive. At the beginning of each season, all fans know that the national champion is likely to come from a small group of teams, the same teams there every year. Many games are blowouts, even games between ranked teams.

Fortunately, Mathis-Lilley’s book is not all anti-college football screed. He spends a good bit of time on the history of the University of Michigan, which, even those of us who root for other Midwestern teams will concede, is a fairly decent school. And he goes into great depth on something I’ve been trying to figure out since I was 11: Why the hell do we care, do I care, about a team of people I’ve never met, who probably aren’t like me, and who charge me a week’s pay just to watch them play in between TV timeouts?

Mathis-Lilley went to Harvard, also a decent school, and cites a lot of sociological mumbo-jumbo to explain that we all have to have something we identify with and cheer for, and we all want to be considered winners, and we all want our teams to glow in the aura of victory because it makes us feel good.

There are some great chapters in the book, especially the one on Louisiana State University football and the shift of collegiate football power to the South. He uses census data and other demographics to explain the population shift that has left the South far more populous than the Midwest and touches on the obvious, that the big Southern schools are less academically demanding of their players, more lenient regarding off-field behavior and more likely to have been illegally paying their players for a long time.

His chapter on the Michigan State rivalry should resonate with residents of states where the flagship and land-grant vie for students and fan loyalty. To the snobs at Michigan, MSU is a cow college, full of people who couldn’t get into Ann Arbor. To MSU fans, UM is just what’s wrong with America’s elite woke population.

One need not be a fan of Michigan football to enjoy this book – Lord knows this reviewer isn’t. But it probably does help to be a fan of college football, and maybe better yet a  fan disgruntled about how the game has been taken over by the networks.

I listened to Peter Berkrot’s capable narration while on my morning walks and enjoyed it very much.

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