A Bible for the Faithful

Here's everything you could possibly want to know about college football--in a single volume
October 02, 2005

ESPN COLLEGE FOOTBALL ENCYCLOPEDIA: THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE GAME

Edited by Michael MacCambridge

ESPN Books 1,629 pages, $49.95

No sport more closely resembles a religion than college football, with its high priests (coaches), grand cathedrals (stadiums) and, of course, huge, ecstatic congregations of the faithful. All that was missing was a bible.

Let us give thanks to the college football gods, for unto us a bible is given. And it is of truly Biblical proportions: more than 1,600 pages, weighing more than seven pounds. Massive in scope, minute in detail and more than three years in the making, it's a worthy successor to its ancestor, The Baseball Encyclopedia.

Editor Michael MacCambridge and his staff of elves have produced an exhaustive--some might say exhausting--work. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was once hired to write a book for ESPN.) Each of the nation's 119 Division I-A teams, from Air Force to Wyoming, is introduced and dissected in from four to 12 pages. Not only is the date and score of every game in the program's history included, but each school's winning percentage is also charted with a bar graph. An "expert" has been designated to tell the story of each program, choose its greatest player and recount its most memorable victories and heartbreaks.

The etymology of each team's nickname and the evolution of its mascot are also provided, usually with the utmost seriousness. Sixteen glossy color pages depict changing fashions in college football helmets. Even the lyrics of each school's fight song are given in full--though most are indistinguishable exhortations to "wave our banner high" and "march onward to victory."

More riveting are the annual reviews of all seasons, beginning with 1869, when Rutgers and Princeton were the country's only college football teams. (They played twice and traded wins.) Not content with listing final conference standings, the Encyclopedia provides national poll results for every week of every season, starting in 1936. And listing individual leaders and award winners isn't sufficient either; the book gives a detailed count of each year's Heisman Trophy vote. (Did you know that in 1964 Tulsa quarterback Jerry Rhome received almost twice as many votes as Illinois's Dick Butkus?) Additionally, a box score is provided for nearly every bowl game ever played, even such long-forgotten classics as Houston's Oil Bowl, Fresno's Raisin Bowl, Phoenix's Salad Bowl and, indeed, Havana's Bacardi Bowl, played only once, in '37. (Auburn and Villanova tied, 7-7.)

At times all of this detail can be stultifying. For instance, a tortured explanation tells how Iowa's athletes became known as the Hawkeyes, even though "no such bird exists." (Iowa's mascot, Herky the Hawk, might have replied that the nickname probably refers to a hawk's eyesight, which is, famously, eight times more powerful than a human's.) But MacCambridge has wisely anticipated such fumbles and invites readers to submit corrections on a page at ESPN.com. Let a thousand nitpicking corrections bloom, for the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia is likely here to stay.

Inner Mysteries

THE LAST COACH: A LIFE OF PAUL (BEAR) BRYANT
by Allen Barra, W.W. Norton & Co. 546 pages, $26.95

A FIRE TO WIN
by John Lombardo Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 304 pages, $24.95

A FOOTBALL coach has been described as a man willing to lay down your life for his team. At the same time, the best coaches inspire a love and loyalty that are--like the coaches themselves--fierce and surprisingly profound. That was certainly true of Alabama's Bear Bryant and Ohio State's Woody Hayes, obsessed geniuses who dispensed love and brutality with equal passion. Part of Bryant's genius was evidently an ability to conceal his true personality beneath his houndstooth-check hat. Crimson Tide fans will appreciate Barra's dogged devotion to the details of Bryant's career and his deconstruction of the myths that surround the man. (Bryant did indeed get his nickname by wrestling a bear at the Lyric Theater in Fordyce, most likely when he was 14.) But at book's end Bryant's emotional life remains a mystery.

There was nothing mysterious about Woody Hayes's emotions. His tragic flaw was an inability to keep them in check. Though profusely generous (according to Lombardo, Hayes almost always donated his speaker's fees to charity), he will be forever remembered for his temper tantrums. In 1977 he was placed on probation for socking a cameraman in the stomach, and the following year he was fired for punching an opposing player. Lombardo's book, though fun to read and scrupulously fair, contains few surprises. Indeed, the great mystery of both Hayes and Bryant remains unexplored. At Hayes's funeral in 1987 Richard Nixon, an old pal, opined that the "real" Woody Hayes was not the "cold, ruthless tyrant on the football field" but "a warm-hearted softie." In truth, many great American coaches seem to have been schizoid mixes of tyrant and softie. It would be refreshing to read a biography explaining why this is so.

PHOTOJEFF LEWIS/ICON SMI TEXAS-SIZED ESPN's tome is more than seven pounds of facts, figures and quirky detail. PHOTO
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