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07 Dec 2007

Book Review: Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls

Guest Column by Tom Gower

College football operates according to its own internal logic. No, really, it does. If you understand the way college football works, then most of what happens makes almost perfect sense.

The problem is that, to those not familiar with the high mysteries of the college game, almost none of it makes a darned bit of sense. What's the big deal about Notre Dame? Where did the BCS come from, and what will it take to get a playoff? And who cares about the Heisman Trophy anyway?

Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated takes his stab at these questions and others in Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls: Tackling the Chaos and Controversy That Reign over College Football. The topics Mandel covers include:

  • the BCS;
  • the importance of the polls;
  • the Heisman Trophy;
  • fan obsession with coaches, hiring and firing;
  • Notre Dame;
  • the messy game that is recruiting;
  • the conference re-alignment that has shaken up the sport over the past 15 years;
  • the explosion in bowl games;
  • evaluating the NFL potential of college stars;
  • and cheating.

Now, Mandel is not necessarily the most popular person among people who have Web sites, and I'm frequently not in serious disagreement with those critiques, but that doesn't mean the book is a bad effort. To be honest, it's a very good introduction to some of the basic issues behind college football for people who don't know. In particular, for those unfamiliar with why the BCS was created or who thinks it was a good idea, Mandel gives the best short introduction I've seen. It's the best chapter in his book, though I'm not sure I believe his conclusion that a playoff is inevitable given how many interests would have to be satisfied.

The second chapter, on the life of a poll voter, is also instructive. The polls are an artifact of when college football was a much more regional sport than it is now, and it was even harder to properly evaluate teams (not that it's easy now, as the current BCS controversy shows). The AP poll voters, though, almost all follow a particular team, which means they watch about 11 games a year in person and 38 on TV (numbers from 2003). Compare that to somebody like FO's regular college football columnist Russell Levine, who watched about that many games the last five weeks of this 15-week season (all or part of seven games this past weekend, nine the previous week, seven the week before, seven the week before that, and nine five weeks ago), and you get an idea of why poll voters aren't necessarily right. This is why the BlogPoll exists.

The Heisman Trophy, like most other football "MVP"-type awards, goes to a running back or quarterback on one of the top teams who puts up good stats. About the lone exception to that is Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson, who became a cause celebre for the power of ESPN and conference rivalry based on media contracts when he beat out Peyton Manning to win the Trophy in 1997. Mandel, as is his consistent pattern throughout the book, ends up wishy-washy, coming down on both sides:

"Yes, Manning would be the traditional candidate based on the traditional top team RB/QB criteria, but Woodson was a very good player who made good plays for a really good team, so it's not like he didn't deserve it.

I recognize Mandel probably likes his job and wants to keep it, but there's nothing actually wrong in principle with making a decision sometimes.

And this is probably the part where Mandel's book ceases to be that interesting. He touches on the rise of the fan obsession with coaching, but does not, in my opinion, do a very good job of explaining where the phenomenon came from. Yes, FireRonZook.com is the grand-daddy of all "Fire the Coach" websites, but that doesn't tell us why there are others, including those devoted to NFL coaches.

He tells us Notre Dame is important, and gives a decent summary of the 1920s and everything since the mid-1980s, but doesn't explain why Notre Dame is so important. (There's the Catholic interest, but a willingness to travel both regionally and nationally -- something rare for many, many years -- probably also played a big role.)

The recruiting chapter works best if you're not familiar with either Allen Wallace or Tom Lemming, and the rise of fan interest. Conference re-alignment is all about the money, of course, specifically the additional revenue from the championship game that a conference with 12 teams can have (a loophole first noticed by SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer, who also shepherded the BCS into existence), and the cascading effects on other conferences.

The difference between good college players and good NFL prospects is one of Mandel's quixotic personal obsessions, and his inability to recognize the difference between the two seems to rise almost to willful blindness when you remember that 50 pages ago he was saying that recruiting rankings (based largely on prep performance) are overblown.

There are a couple topics I would have liked to have seen addressed that I don't think Mandel does a good job of discussing. First, how important are boosters, and just how much influence do they have? Ivan Maisel did an excellent series on this for ESPN.com a couple years ago, and it's an interesting subject that deserves more extensive treatment. Second, Mandel does not discuss the impact of politics beyond the sports world on football. This series from a the San Antonio Express-News on the decline of the Southwest Conference and transformation of the Big 8 into the Big 12 gets into some of the issues, but this is another subject I would have liked to see get more of a national, book-length treatment. In Mandel's partial defense, these are subjects probably beyond his core competency as a reporter, but I believe they're an important part of college football.

Mandel touches on other subjects without realizing their full importance. First, in the creation of the BCS, Roy Kramer created the hybrid polls/computers system to match the top two teams in the AP poll, in order. Why it wasn't sufficient to just use the AP poll rankings as the basis for the playoff isn't actually discussed, nor why you would want to mimic that while introducing distorting factors. When, lo and behold, the hybrid system spit out teams other than the top two in the AP Poll, tweaks were made. Naturally, this is all political, but Mandel doesn't do a good job of explaining the politics behind the system.

Second, while Mandel talks about the TV contracts, he totally misses the importance of NCAA v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma, a 1984 Supreme Court case that overruled the NCAA's ability to limit a single team's ability to be on television more than a couple times. While that means there will probably not be another radio icon like Larry Munson, it's almost impossible to imagine the college football landscape with that sort of restriction still in place. Mandel gets into the effect of the Internet, with the recruiting and coach firing chapters, but this may have been an even bigger development.

Finally, one other cautionary note: Mandel in the book sounds just like Mandel in a mailbag, except without any mentions or pictures of the Celebrity Crush. To my mind, it makes the book seem less serious, and also grates. I had difficulty reading more than a chapter or two without taking a break in between. I'd also point out that, as someone who likes to think of himself as a close and careful observer of the college football scene, I actually didn't see much I'd never seen before in the book. There are a couple good anecdotes, like how Notre Dame "won" their first "national championship" over lunch (retroactively), but they mostly seem to come from Saturday's America by Dan Jenkins, which I haven't read but which Mandel has inspired me to read.

Nevertheless, if you're confused by the world of college football, including particularly the BCS and how the present polls are conducted, then I will recommend to you Stewart Mandel's Bowls, Polls & Tattered Souls. It won't make the system make sense, because it doesn't, but it should give you a better idea of why an outwardly nonsensical system not only exists, but actually makes sense to many of the decision-makers involved.

Chicago resident Tom Gower claims not to be biased against the SEC, even though his alma mater's crowning moment of football glory was a loss to Mississippi State in the 1941 Orange Bowl. When not reading about college football, he helps out with both the Football Outsiders game charting project and the 1995 PBP transcription project. If you have an idea for a guest column, feel free to share by e-mailing your idea to info-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Guest on 07 Dec 2007

4 comments, Last at 11 Dec 2007, 1:45pm by jonathantu

Comments

1
by Chris M (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2007 - 4:27pm

Interesting review. I actually bought the book last night, and this was a good primer on some limitations in it (I don't have a very deep knowledge of college football since the 90s, so it sounds like it'll be a good read for me).

The NCAA v. Board of Regents case is huge. It's basically the reason Notre Dame can still be Notre Dame, allowing them to have their own TV contract and maintain their brand over the last 20 years.

2
by Alex (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2007 - 8:20pm

Stewart Mandel is the Peter King of college football.

3
by randy (not verified) :: Sun, 12/09/2007 - 2:56pm

though he did not pan out as a pro, I still thought Ryan Leaf deserved the Heisman that year. taking a WSU team to its 1st Rose Bowl in over 50 years, not playing with blue chip recruits in a tough PAC-10. the numbers were there as well in the spread offense. and the Rose Bowl was competitive and could have gone the other way with a better call at the end. was it just my imagination but wHen michigan was in the zone, he just killed them. thought woodson's impact was overblown considering the talent that surrounded him. finally, every year it seems espn tries to replicate the woodson heisman, this year it was the LSU Defensive tackle.

4
by jonathantu (not verified) :: Tue, 12/11/2007 - 1:45pm

Regarding the Oklahoma ruling, the Notre Dame-NBC contract was important not just for allowing Notre Dame to remain/become Notre Dame, but in spurring conferences to examine television contracts which in turn led to conference realignment. At least that's what I've come to understand.

Excellent review, by the way.