The coaching hiring season in college football has rarely had dramatics like what transpired at the University of Tennessee this week. After Volunteers fans and leading state politicians railed against the selection of former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, athletics director John Currie was spurned by several other candidates, including Dave Doeren, who has a mediocre record at N.C. State.
That’s because Currie, after only nine months in charge, lost his job, in an incredible palace coup led by Phil Fulmer, the former UT coach Currie dismissed in a previous role as assistant AD in 2008 (the year after Nick Saban arrived at Alabama, forever changing the SEC).
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also in This Issue: Sports Media’s MMA Romance; Lefty Driesell; Eli Manning; 2018 Baseball Books; The Mystique of The Ashes; Rugby League; California Golden Seals; A Dying Sportswriter’s Final Deadline; Remembering Perry Wallace
On Friday afternoon, Fulmer was introduced as the athletics director, an astonishing turn of events even by UT and SEC standards, and put in charge of a hiring process that’s quickly running out of time.
Since Fulmer’s ouster, the Vols have stumbled through three coaches and just as many ADs, and a fan base further demoralized by a winless SEC record pulled off a Tea Party-type protest, first to sink Schiano, and then to hound Currie out of town.
The rabble-rousing earned plenty of derision by some local and national media. Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports was especially blistering:
“Tennessee fans wanted a revolution . . . and got it. Be careful what you wish for.”
But the author of a 2010 book on Fulmer’s last season, and Tennessee’s fall from national and SEC prominence since then, validated himself in his role leading an online, on-the-air and social media mob.
On his Outkick the Coverage blog, provocative radio show host and longtime Tennessee fan Clay Travis declared this drama the “Game of Thrones in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. And John Currie just got fed to the dragons.”
There is real elected-office politics involved here, as sports historian Andrew McGregor writes in The Washington Post, including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, and his brother, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.
That’s nothing, however, compared to the politics of college football, Southern college football and SEC football in particular. “Big Bill Haslam,” the Haslams’ father, a former UT football player, business executive (the UT school of business is named after him) and powerful athletic booster, looms large in this tale. It was Haslam the elder who pressed UT to hire Currie as AD, a job Fulmer desperately wanted. Playing the long con, and exploiting the frenzy, Fulmer finally triumphed.
Tennessee may be understandably seen as “the biggest joke in sports” from the outside, and Fulmer certainly has a gargantuan task re-establishing the Vols beyond the field. The program’s brand has taken a devastating, self-inflicted blow, and some wonder whether Fulmer is a hero or a villain.
But to suggest that allegedly hayseed fans, an embittered former coach and conniving politicos were acting rashly and out of control is to misunderstand what drives fans, powerful tycoons, and mere public office-holders when it comes to college football in my part of the world. It may have looked chaotic (and it was), but it yielded the desired results.
Sports Book News
Baseball book blogger Ron Kaplan has unfurled a long list of baseball books to be published in 2018, and they include many familiar topics: Tom Yawkey, the Dodgers at end of the Koufax era, Babe Ruth and rise of celebrity athletes, Ruth’s friendship with Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, the 1930s Tigers and memoirs by Keith Hernandez, Davey Johnson and Ron Guidry. I’m intrigued by “Why Baseball Matters,” by Susan Jacoby, due out in March (Yale University Press).
The author of books about American secularism (including the prominent agnostic Robert Ingersoll), anti-intellectualism and contemporary culture, aging and Alger Hiss, Jacoby is making her foray into sports, deeply concerned that technology-addled young people aren’t taking to the game. It’s part of a larger argument she’s made with her 2008 book “The Age of American Unreason,” and a follow-up, “The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies,” to be published in January by Vintage;
- Stay tuned for the Sports Biblio list of 2017 notable sports books over the next two weeks, this newsletter’s final issues of the year (here’s the 2016 compilation);
- At The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates, a titan when it comes to boxing as well as novel writing (Sports Biblio post from 11.11.15), reviews Jonathan Eig’s new Muhammad Ali biography;
- Also at the NYT, Jay Jennings, author of “Carry the Rock,” about race and high school football in his hometown of Little Rock, puts on a political spin as he reviews recently published sports books, including a number of those featured in Sports Biblio’s fall sports book guide;
- Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, whose lawsuit against the NCAA was a major blow to college athletic amateurism, is teaming up with ESPN’s Jeremy Schapp and Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann for a book about his case, “Court Justice,” due out in February from Diversion Publishing;
- Acclaimed cricket writer Gideon Haigh (Sports Biblio post 12.4.16) will have a new collection out on Nov. 15. “An Eye on Cricket,” his writings from 2013-17, will be published in Australia by Wilkinson Publishing.
A Few Good Reads
- For The Athletic, Dave Kindred visits Lefty Driesell about the former Maryland coach’s bewildering omission from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame;
- More from Ron Kaplan, on what he calls “baseball film bio-pics,” including lots of YouTube links to full movies and his interview with Richard Sandomir, author of the recent making of “The Pride of the Yankees;”
- The benching of Eli Manning this week caused quite a stir in the New York media and the NFL, and not just because his 210-game streak of consecutive starts—second only to Brett Favre’s 297—has ended, but how it was handled by the Giants. At MMQB, Conor Orr writes about the long, ugly history of the twilight of famed quarterbacks;
- For Bleacher Report, Jeff Pearlman writes about his tiny hometown’s local sporting hero, and for how one summer Mahopac, N.Y., was sizzling with delight as Dave Fleming won 17 games for the Seattle Mariners;
- At CJR, Danny Funt ponders how sports media has rekindled its love for fighters, referencing the MMA and late star Kimbo Slice. I suspect this is generational more than anything. While Funt explores the fading glory of boxing compared to the rise of MMA and the issue of violence, there’s only passing mention of sports media’s collective cringe about American football;
- What’s happened to the No. 10 player in soccer? Another lamentation about the ills of the contemporary game;
- After only 25 years, the Georgia Dome was imploded in Atlanta last week. At Stadium Journey, Marc Viquez looks into what might become of some notable vacant sporting arenas, included a minor league baseball park abandoned after only 20 years;
- Ahead of Saturday’s Rugby League World Cup final between England and Australia, rugby historian Tony Collins examined how recently relaxed rules have invigorated the likes of Tonga, Fiji and others using “diaspora” players from those older powerhouse nations;
- The Rugby League women’s World Cup final also took place in Brisbane Saturday, between Australia and New Zealand, and the distaff version of the game has a rich, long history of trailblazers dating back to the 1920s;
- Also going on in Australia is the second of five tests of The Ashes, which concludes in early January. The mystique of the Ashes remains powerful, despite concerns in recent years that cricket’s oldest rivalry might be on the wane;
- New York sports radio talk host Mike Francesa’s 30-year run at WNYC ends on 16, and he talks about those years with sports media industry observer Jason Barrett;
- At Good Seats Still Available, Steve Currier discusses his newly released book about the late, never-great California Golden Seals.
Jeff Washburn, 63, was a longtime chronicler of college and high school sports in Indiana, primarily for his hometown Lafayette Journal & Courier. Most recently, he had been freelancing for The Sports Xchange, and on Tuesday covered Purdue’s men’s basketball win over Louisville. On Wednesday, the wheelchair-bound Washburn, suffering from esophageal cancer, took his last breath. Before the day was done, Gregg Doyel of Indianapolis Star penned a touching tribute to a well-liked writer who aced what turned out to be his final deadline, pounding away on an iPad:
“Jeff Washburn died before I could write the story I wanted to write. This one will have to do, and let me tell you something: It won’t be good enough. It won’t be as good a story as he could have written about himself, or about me, or about anyone. A storyteller, I tell you. That’s Wash.”
Washburn was inducted in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011 and wrote books about high school hoops in his home state and with retired Purdue coach Gene Keady. On Sunday, before Purdue basketball observes the 50th anniversary of Mackey Arena, a moment of silence will be held in Washburn’s memory.
Perry Wallace, 69, was to have been a guest of honor at Saturday’s SEC football championship. Instead, the former Vanderbilt forward who integrated the league in basketball is being remembered as a trailblazer beyond the court and the sports arena (Sports Biblio post 11.16.15). Wallace, a native of Nashville who endured racial epithets while playing as well as on his own campus, was enjoying some belated recognition following the 2014 publication of “Strong Inside,” by Andrew Maraniss, who made many appearances with him on book tours.
Wallace never played pro basketball, graduating from law school at Columbia University and eventually teaching law at American University in Washington, D.C. Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of Wallace’s first varsity game at Vanderbilt. He and five other athletes were honored with the SEC’s Mike Slive Distinguished Service Award for their integration efforts, including his former Vanderbilt teammate, Geoffrey Dillard.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 106, published Dec. 3, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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