What college football books should you read during quarantine?
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I love books. I love reading them, of course, but I have to admit, I love buying them almost as much. I love the smell of used bookstores, the caverns deep in university libraries, deep in the stacks that have gone years between graduate students thumbing through their shelves. I love how having shelves full of books looks in my house. I think my mini college football library gives a little quiet dignity to my ramshackle basement home office, a dignity it badly needs once my two daughters overrun the place, demanding I turn on Daniel Tiger or something.
So I’m constantly on the lookout for new college football books. I’m constantly thumbing through shelves in thrift stores, church basements and garage sales, hoping to find some out of print or hyper-local gem.
Even with private equity vultures, short-sighted management and Covid-19 all combining to take a sledgehammer to sports journalism, there’s still so much great stuff about college football to read on the internet. But man, there’s even more great insight, great context, great depth…that you can only really find in a book.
Over the weekend, a few folks on Twitter asked me for some book recommendations, in case you’re interested in some additional college football reading over the next, well, however long we’ve stuck in our houses.
So here are a few of my favorites. I’m trying to pick a bunch of different kinds of books. Some are for pretty broad audiences, some are pretty niche. Some just focus on one or two teams, others, about an era or specific issue. No matter what kind of college football fan you are, I think you’d enjoy something on this list.
I think I did this correctly, but if you want to buy any of these, buying from the Amazon link on this page will kick a few pennies my way.
College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy—John Sayle Watterson
I think this is probably the closest thing you’ll find to a textbook that covers the broad themes and controversies in college football history. This is the one book I go back to the most, the bibliography I check whenever I start researching something, the book that has something to say on almost everything I’m interested in. It’s a little long, it’s a little repetitive, and it isn’t the most accessible book, especially if you don’t care too much about how administrative decisions have shaped college football. But if you want to read just one book to really understand the collective forces that have shaped college football, from Rutgers to today, I think this is the book. It’s been an invaluable addition to my library.
The 50 Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS—Keith Dunnavant
Watterson’s book looks at basically all of the major forces and conflicts that have shaped college football and takes particular care to examine the most important issues from the birth of the game to WWII.
But Dunnavant’s book takes aim squarely at the most dominant force in modern college football: TV. Not only does this book dig deep into all of the unintended consequences of the rise of TV, from the creation of the NCAA investigative arm, to the Fiesta Bowl, to conference realignment and more, but he does it in a way that’s compelling and accessible. This is a book about television executives and conference commissioners, but it felt like a beach read to me. I think I read the entire book in two days. It is outstanding.
‘Cane Mutiny: How The Miami Hurricanes Overturned The Football Establishment—Bruce Feldman
Miami has one of the most fascinating histories of any college football program. The school’s history is loaded with huge personalities, from their head coaches to the players. They’ve been enormously influential, both on the field and off. They’re sort of like college football plus. Whatever trend is happening across the sport, it’s happening three times as powerfully and passionately at Miami. When the stands are empty, whoo, they get empty at Miami. When there is a scandal, there’s a scandal. But when the team is rocking on the field, there aren’t many other places where the meld between city and school has been more powerful. Which is interesting, because unlike a lot of powerhouses, Miami kind of became a national power on accident.
Nobody is better equipped to tell that story than Feldman, one of the most connected and insightful voices in college football media. I’ve enjoyed several of Feldman’s books, but this one might be my favorite. It’s a real page-turner that is technically about the Miami Hurricanes…but you can’t really talk about the Canes without talking about a bunch of other really fascinating stuff too.
Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories—Bill Connelly
There are a lot of different ways to examine college football. I’m probably most comfortable looking at college football through history, especially through the history of coaches, presidents, commissioners, boosters and other leaders. Others are most comfortable telling stories through Xs and Os. That’s not my first language, although I am grateful for the voices in our sport that speak it well.
A newer, and growing way to really examine college football is through stats. How can stats tell us how programs innovate out of necessity? How can we use stats to compare programs across different eras, using different pace, and against disparate schedules? How can we make box scores better and more informative?
Bill launched a bit of a revolution in the college football interest with his tireless advocacy of using advanced stats to help college football storytelling, and his book is an entry point to what those stats are, and most importantly, how they can be used to tell stories and better understand what we’re seeing on the field.
There are great interviews and great essays in here, and despite some math, it’s a very accessible book that you can finish in just a few days.
Maybe I’m biased, because I used to work with Bill back at SB Nation, and I like him an awful lot. But I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed Study Hall even if I had never met the author. And I think you’ll like it too.
Blood, Sweat & Tears: Jake Gaither, Florida A&M and the history of Black College Football—Derrick B.White
I think a lot of college football history books tend to tell the history of the sport, especially in the early years of the sport, primarily through the eyes of the players, coaches, journalists, and administrators at the biggest profile programs. That means there can be some real treasure of the contributions, and struggles, of black college football players. There weren’t too many of them suiting up for Princeton and Yale back in the day, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t playing, weren’t watching, weren’t innovating, and weren’t struggling with some of the same arguments and scandals that the rest of college football battled with.
White’s book is a great premier on some of the greatest minds and teams in HBCU football, particularly Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither. Gaither didn’t just build a powerhouse program, he built an institution, one that trained coaches, grew HBCU football, and struggled with the best way to participate in the civil rights movement. The teams in most of this book are pretty old. But the struggles and questions? Very contemporary.
Season Of Saturdays: A History Of College Football In 14 Games—Michael Weinreb
Will you learn a lot of college football history by reading this book? You might. I bought this when I was doing research for What If, and didn’t find too many stories that I wasn’t already familiar with. I already knew a little bit about Notre Dame’s 10-10 tie with Michigan State in 1966, about Nixon and the 1969 Texas-Arkansas game, and I’ve probably seen the 2006 Rose Bowl on TV a half dozen times (it’s probably on the Longhorn Network right now). If you aren’t as familiar with some of those epochal games, wonderful, you’ll get a great history lesson.
But I love this book because it’s just so damn fun. Weinreb does a great job tying personal essays together with college football history, weaving a compelling, funny narrative that’s hard to put down. I mean this with great praise…this book feels like a long, excellent, blog post. Blogs are good! You like them too! So you’ll probably like this book.
I could easily do this for another 3,000 words, and may very well do it again this summer, especially after I finish reading the half dozen books I ordered over the weekend. But I think reading a few of those books will make you more informed and more entertained, and in an even better position to be a smarter consumer of college football media once the season begins.
Whenever that happens.
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