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Q&A With John U. Bacon, Author of 'Fourth and Long'

John U. Bacon, Author of NYT-Bestseller 'Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football'
John U. Bacon, Author of NYT-Bestseller 'Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football'
John Schultz

If you're a regular reader of Black Shoe Diaries, you have become very familiar with John U. Bacon's newly-released book, Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football. Bacon was generous enough to take time to sit down with us and answer a few burning questions about his experience in State College to follow the now-legendary 2012 football team.

For any of you in or around State College, Bacon will be speaking in the Curley Center today at 5 p.m. The presentation is free and open to the public. Click here for full details. If you're a fan of our site, make sure to tell John you appreciate all the access he has given to BSD since the release of the book.

Check out Bacon's insight on the culture of Penn State, Bill O'Brien, the NCAA, as well as a few new excerpts from Fourth and Long:

Jared Slanina: The word culture has been thrown around quite a bit since Mark Emmert's press conference to announce the sanctions last summer. After spending some time at Penn State, how would you define the "Penn State culture?"

John U. Bacon: The NCAA has the uncanny ability to be insufferably sanctimonious, hysterically hypocritical and stunningly incompetent. Watching Emmert’s press conference on TV, I was impressed that he pulled off all three in a matter of minutes.

The "Penn State football culture" I explored, starting in April of 2012 – whose foundation Paterno had built over decades – was not one that put winning above all else. Not by a long shot.

If you will indulge me a passage from the book, this page lays out what I found pretty clearly:

"I was offered money," at other schools, Mike Mauti told me. "They don’t come out and say theyre gonna give you this money. Players at other schools, they know the way things work. Its a different culture at other places. They go through the churches, and the [car] dealerships, and the good old hundred-dollar handshakes."

The NCAAs leaders seem entirely unable, unwilling, or both to pursue the stories those of us inside the industry hear constantly. They rarely act on such rumors until local reporters, working with a tiny fraction of the NCAAs resources, do the job for them and shame the NCAA enforcers into action. This familiar cycle does little to bolster our faith in the enterprise. (Mark Emmert and the NCAA declined to answer my questions.)

"Theyre not serious," Mauti said. "If you really wanted to discipline the teams that are doing the cheating, if they really wanted to cut out the corruption, theyd do their investigations and punish the schools that do that. It can’t be that hard. Everyone knows who they are.

"But they have to want to go after the cheaters. Its not up to the public to determine that—its for them. Otherwise, what is the NCAA for? What do they do?"

Joe Paterno had his blind spots, but how to run a clean program was not among them. He had trained the whole town—not just the team, but the town—so thoroughly in the oddities of the NCAA rulebook that to this day even the baristas at Starbucks know they can’t give the players so much as a free latte. (I’ve witnessed this scene at the counter a few times—a must-see for cynics.)

The teams longtime adherence to even the silliest of NCAA rules— and there are plenty—is rightly a point of pride in Happy Valley. But for decades it was also a point of pride for the NCAA, which often held up Paternos Penn State program as a shining example other schools should aspire to.

Again, if you view the NCAA as a marketing organization, this also makes sense. If they are occasionally forced to admit that some of their member schools’ alumni pay for abortions in Coral Gables, that boosters give six-figure "gifts" to Cam Newtons father, and that USCs "friends" bought Reggie Bushs family a house, the NCAA needs at least some successful programs—Duke basketball, Notre Dame football—to wear white hats. Otherwise, we would have to conclude that nice guys can only finish last in big-time college sports. For decades, Penn State football stood as proof that the system could work.

Thus, when the Sandusky scandal broke, Penn State fell so far, and so publicly, the NCAAs leaders felt they had to do something big and dramatic to—as they say—"protect the brand." And so they did.

Yet, in spite of the kangaroo court that is the modern NCAA, I am struck by how many schools, coaches, and athletes play by the rules anyway and are quietly proud of it. Perhaps most surprising, despite everything that has happened in the past twelve months, the people in State College have continued to follow their strict orthodoxy, whether anyone cares or not.

Long story short: if I had to choose between the culture of the NCAA, and that of the Penn State football program, I would not hesitate to choose the latter.

JS: In the book, the players who are quoted were mostly seniors. Did you get an opportunity to spend time with some of the younger players in 2012? If so, which ones stood out to you? Which players do you expect to take a leadership role in 2013?

JUB: I didn’t fully appreciate how much I’d relied on the seniors until I returned to see the 2013 team practice, and realized how many of the players I talked with were gone. There were, of course, a number of younger players I talked to who impressed me, including Anthony Zettel, Jesse James, and Matt Lehman.

For leadership, it won’t be easy to replace a truly legendary senior class, but last year’s seniors would be the first to tell you there are strong leaders coming up, who were shaped by the same cauldron that made the 2012 Penn State team so special. Chief among them, I’m sure, will be linebacker Glenn Carson and offensive guard John Urschel – both classroom standouts (honestly, that is demeaning to Urschel, who is probably smarter than most professors), selfless and sincere young men. They are not as vocal as Mauti, Zordich and others, but they are rock-solid guys who have earned the respect of the staff and the players. Plus, they’ve learned how to lead from the class that came before.

JS: Where was your favorite place to eat in State College?

JUB: I first visited State College two decades ago, when I coached at the summer hockey camps. While I was there I wrote a big feature about Penn State joining the Big Ten, including a side piece listing the best places to eat and drink. Two decades later, I’m pleased to report, they’re all not just surviving, but thriving, including the Allen Street Grill, the Rathskeller, and the Gingerbread Man, though I didn’t frequent the last two this time around as often as I did two decades ago.

But my all-time favorites – places I haven’t seen duplicated anywhere else -- are probably your favorites, too: The Diner, where a single sticky bun costs me a few laps running around Beaver Stadium the next day, and The Creamery (ditto). The Creamery’s old building, of course, has been replaced by the fancy, modern structure you see today – they’ve gone pro -- but the cream still comes from the cows down the street, and it’s the best ice cream I’ve ever had.

I hate to break it to you, but the best place to eat in State College is not open to the public: the football training table. They do an amazing job – and since some of those guys can consume 10,000 calories a day, I suppose they have to.

At the teams dining hall, on another beautiful late-summer night, you could watch the sun start its descent over Mt. Nittany, while enjoying a first-rate meal of—well, just about everything you could think of: steaks, lasagna, chicken, stir-fry. And those were just the entrées.

A Big Ten football training table is one of the few places I can think of where the lady standing behind the tray of big, juicy New York strip steaks asks you, "How many do you want?" And is surprised when you finally say, "Um, just one, thanks."

I gained about ten pounds last fall – and I can’t say I regret it.

JS: After spending so much time with Bill O'Brien, did you get the impression he will settle in State College or leave for the greener pastures of the NFL in the near future, as most are predicting?

JUB: That’s probably the $64,000 question in State College (or maybe more) – and also in Evanston, where an equally beloved coach, Pat Fitzgerald, is being courted by Texas and others, some news sources say.

Like a lot of Bostonians, O’Brien’s favorite college team was Penn State. As I write in the book, when the Penn State job opened, O’Brien was immediately interested.

"O’Brien knew more than a little about Penn State. He had followed his father and brothers to play football at Brown, Paternos alma mater. After he became a graduate assistant, in 1992, he wrote to Paterno directly, on Brown University stationery: "Dear Coach—congratulations on a tremendous season. . . . I am at Brown coaching the inside line- backers. I have enclosed a résumé. I would be extremely interested in any grad assistant positions. Regards, Bill O’Brien."

Paterno replied with a handwritten note in the margin: "Hi Bill— thanks for this. I’ll keep you in mind if we have something that would be appropriate for you. All the best, Joe Pa."

When the O’Briens were packing up to move to State College, Bills wife, Colleen, shouted, "You won’t believe what I found!" The letter is now framed, and hangs on O’Briens office wall.

Penn State’s chances of keeping O’Brien is captured in this scene late in the book:

"…the players were concerned about their coachs future at Penn State.

Two days after the season ended on that glowing field of grass, I sat at the O’Briens’ breakfast table. Bill and Colleen made it clear they wanted to stay in State College.

"We like it here," Bill said. "She likes it here, and the kids do, too. We love this team, the families. I love the values here, and I believe in them."

But as he was talking, his cell phone buzzed so often it almost danced off the edge of the table. It wasn’t friends or well wishers calling. It was the athletic directors at Boston College, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and the NFLs Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, and San Diego Chargers. They all wanted to know one thing: What would it take to get O’Brien to jump?

The Monday after the football season ends, college and pro alike, is traditionally the day when the athletic director, the general manager, or the owner calls in the head coach to assess the season just past and to plan for the seasons ahead.

But not at Penn State. At least, not in 2012.

While O’Briens phone was blowing up, his boss, acting Athletic Director Dave Joyner, was on a hunting trip. It was the opening day of Pennsylvanias deer season.

O’Brien shrugged it off, but not Mike Mauti.

"That enrages me," Mauti told me. "Lets lay it out there: hes the reason we did all this. They hire anyone else, this season doesn’t happen— and who knows where the program is? Hes it. If O-B leaves in the next three, four, five years, its their fault, not his fault. Its not because of him. It would never be. Its because they didn’t do their jobs and do whats right."

O’Brien decided to stay anyway.

"You could wrap my whole thing up with this," Spider Caldwell told me. "Looking back when Bill was hired, at first I was a little disappointed we didn’t hire a Penn State person.

"But you know what? We ended up hiring a Penn Stater. He just went to Brown first."

I think the O’Briens are good for Penn State and Penn State is good for the O’Briens. If both sides hold up their end of the deal – and I think that depends less on better pay for O’Brien than better administrative support, at the higher levels -- it could be a great partnership for a long time to come.

JS: Silas Redd flatly denied being picked up by Snoop Dog at LAX when he took his recruiting trip to USC. Do you stand behind that claim from the book?

JUB: As I wrote in Monday’s piece, I stand behind my reporting and my sources – solid guys, with no ax to grind. If the rest of the 132,000 words in this book get as much attention as those 29, I’ll be happy.

JS: You mention that you have several hundred pages of notes on your experience with Penn State that were not included in the book. Is there any chance these will be published in some form in the future?

A very good chance. In addition to the pages of notes, we had to cut about 130 pages of finished material. If we publish those pages anywhere, it will be in Black Shoe Diaries (ed. note: I will be pestering John until these notes are published on BSD -JS).

I was surprised there wasn't much detail following the controversial call in the Nebraska game. Did you decide to leave out details or were the players tight-lipped about the game?

It was the latter. What you see in that scene is what you get – and what impressed me is how quickly O’Brien, his staff and the seniors got their team back on his script: we don’t dwell on things we don’t control, especially those in the past. They spent almost no time talking about it. I didn’t hear a single player blame Lehman, just as I didn’t hear a single player blame kicker Sam Ficken for the Virginia loss. Instead, they quickly moved on to the job that remained: winning the last two games.

As striking as this was, when you think about it, it makes sense. These were the same guys who quit talking about the NCAA sanctions an hour after they came down. As O’Brien told them that fateful Monday, "Were not here to understand the rules. Were here to follow them." And that was it. The players didn’t waste energy thinking too much about their departed teammates, either. They stayed focus on the task in front of them – and that task, of course, was one of the greatest tasks any team has faced, anywhere.

But to back it up, you’re referring here to the play, with Penn State down 27-23 against Nebraska, when Matt McGloin made a quick toss to tight end Matt Lehman, who then turned upfield to the end zone. After he collided with a few Huskers at the goal line, he extended the ball to break the plane, but had it slapped out of his hands.

Kirk Diehl missed the play because he was busy escorting James Terry to the locker room to have Dr. Sebastianelli look at his high ankle sprain. On their way, they passed the referees’ small locker room, where a credentialed Nebraska stadium official in a red jacket had his feet up on a folding chair, watching the game on a portable TV. Diehl had heard the cheers and asked the man what had happened.

"There was a fumble at the goal line," he said, "but it’ll be overturned because the ball crossed the plane. You guys just scored."

The replay showed Lehman had, in fact, extended the tip of the ball well past the front edge of the goal line, good for a touchdown. But after several minutes, the replay official confirmed the call on the field.

"It went on forever," Mauti recalled, "and the longer it goes, the more likely they are to screw it up."

When Diehl felt the second cheer reverberate through the stadium, he knew what had happened.

And that was it. The Cornhuskers sent the Lions home with a 32–23 defeat.

"That game hurt the most," Mauti said. "We had ’em. We emptied the tank out there, and that one just hurt."

The plane ride home was the worst of the season—worse even than after the Virginia game.

"Nebraska took something away," Spider said. "It hurt a lot more than Ohio State. We really felt we should’ve won that game. We wanted to have that storybook ending—and we thought Nebraska was it."

After they returned to State College at 4:00 a.m.—thank you, night game—the Omaha paper and a Nebraska website posted graphically enhanced photos of Lehmans reach for the end zone, showing three-quarters of the ball clearly crossed the goal line. (Give the Nebraskans credit for such honesty.)

It was small consolation, but the Penn State players followed the same protocol they had after every setback over the past year.

"Parents were sending photos of Lehmans touchdown," Craig Fitzgerald said. " Was he in or was he out?’ O-B said, ‘Who cares? Lets move on!’ No bitching allowed."

That left the Lions with a ho-hum mark of 6-4, and 4-2 in the Big Ten. They still had to play Indiana, which was 4-6 but had lost to Oregon State, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Navy by a total of 10 points and put up 49 on the Buckeyes. After that, the Lions had Wisconsin, which had lost three games, each by 3 points, but had already clinched a berth in the Big Ten title game.

Nonetheless, Penn States seniors determined, on the flight home from Nebraska, they would not lose another game that season.

This declaration was not based on their opponents’ records or Penn States, but on nothing more than their force of will.

This was just one more example of the 2012 Penn State team’s uncommon unity, and resilience. They were determined to overcome the seemingly endless obstacles being thrown before them every week, and not let anyone else define themselves and their season, against all odds.

I’m certain I will never forget what I witnessed. I bet you won’t, either.

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