On a chilly Friday morning in early November, I climbed aboard my Delta flight bound for Detroit - then on to Minneapolis - to cover Penn State's game against Minnesota in the heart of the Big Ten season.
Nestling into my cramped window seat, an older couple decked out in Penn State gear hurried past me, stuffing their bags into the overhead compartment while debating potential highlights of their big trip to see head coach Bill O'Brien and their Nittany Lions.
Within minutes, the gentleman seated directly behind me started reading to his wife from a book that immediately sounded familiar, even though I'd never heard it before.
The man started in, "At halftime, the players made a full sprint for the locker room. 'Lots of guys were looking for a fight,' Zordich recalled. 'They'd been waiting for this.'"
"Honey, I want you to read this…" the woman replied, paying no attention to her husband.
He continued, "Jay Paterno played right into their hands, storming into the defensive meeting room, yelling…"
"No, honey, I really want you to read this article," the woman interrupted, clearly looking at a completely different text than her husband.
"But… you don't understand," he said, exasperated, "this is the best part!"
I didn't need to turn around to know exactly what the he was reading.
John U. Bacon's "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football" had hit bookshelves just days into the Nittany Lions' 2013 season and, with unprecedented access to the program granted by O'Brien, its behind-the-scenes insights had been discussed at length by every news organization covering the team. Shedding light on the football program's most contentious season and its ultimate victory, the book quickly established itself as must-read material within the Penn State community.
Many of the book's reviews are now months old, but with Penn State's 2013 season in the rearview mirror, a chance meeting with Bacon in downtown State College finally afforded me an opportunity to catch up.
As Bacon's editorial for Blue White Illustrated this week proved, the man's stories are well-crafted, informative and entertaining. The book itself is no different.
Though Bacon's book also delves into the inner workings of Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern's football programs too, Penn State is the main attraction here. Any fan with even a passing interest in the tumultuous end to Penn State's 2011 season, the NCAA's sanctions against the program and most important, the compelling tale of Michael Mauti, Mike Zordich, Bill O'Brien and others sticking together to keep the program afloat won't regret picking up this captivating week-by-week re-telling of the story.
As has been noted here and elsewhere, a few minor details likely familiar to the keenest Penn State observers have raised some flags for their inaccuracies - though I've been told current printings have been updated to reflect corrections - but they don't significantly alter the thrust of a story that otherwise rings true. Having lived through the events and reported on many of the ones detailed in the book, I can personally attest to much of the Penn State story's veracity.
From the onset, the intent of the book is to capture a spirit dying in big time football as it exists today. In Penn State, Bacon admittedly found what he was seeking. Taking a hardline stance against college football's financial excess, he occasionally drifts into distracting soliloquies about the sport as big business, drawing away from most compelling pieces of the book. Having watched 13- and 14-year-old athletes line up and shuffle their way through meat market football scouting combines, an altruistic Bacon somewhat naively shouts into the wind about a time of innocence that has long since past.
Taking a detour to harken back to a time in which varied uniforms, TV timeouts, major sponsors and big money donors didn't dominate the college football landscape is a nice enough sentiment, though.
Beyond the captivating read about Penn State football - which Bacon deftly allows the emboldened primary actors to mostly tell themselves - he hits his stride railing about rising ticket prices at Michigan in a scenario that should seem all-too-familiar to Penn State fans similarly priced out and burdened by the Nittany Lions' onerous STEP program.
With the future of college football already upon us, this jaunt through one of the last true stories of college football's "soul", free from hidden agendas and greed, is worthy of contemplating both what was and what will be as Penn State plows ahead toward its own future.
"Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football" - John U. Bacon
Simon & Schuster - $26.99