“When you guys come back, 15, 20 years from now,” Jerry Hanlon, one of Bo Schembechler’s longtime assistants, once told Jim Harbaugh, “and we know what kind of men you become, what kind of husbands you become, what kind of fathers you become, then we’ll know how good this football team is.”
That’s a longtime theme to Michigan’s football program, and to Jim Harbaugh’s philosophy as a head coach. It’s called back to numerous times in John Bacon’s latest all-access book, Overtime, as a reminder that in modern college football, sometimes there’s more to the game than winning.
Whether intentional or not, the story Bacon presents in his usual, entertaining maize and blue-tinged tone is not so much about college football being at some grand make-or-break crossroads, as the subtitle suggests. It’s largely about the players and staff of a major program trying to do things the right way. That’s not a bad thing, but, throughout the book I kept hoping that Bacon had something to say that wasn’t already familiar, and it never came out.
What is there, is great. It won’t necessarily resonate as strongly to the wider college football fandom, since the Michigan community knows the cast of characters, the outcome of the season, and In large part, Harbaugh’s own story. It almost reads like a follow-up to the All Or Nothing series that was put out by Amazon two years ago. The book is thin in the sections that give an assessment of the things that dull college football’s luster: recruiting tactics, academic shortcuts, and money everywhere. Those kinds of shady dealings are more thoroughly laid out in Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s excellent college football book The System. In deference to Mr. Bacon, though, that doesn’t appear to be the goal of his book, to crack open the secrets of what other schools get away with under our noses.
That’d put Bacon in a tough spot, since he has been a fixture around the Michigan program long enough to write four books spread across three head coaches, and he is himself a fan. Go in too hard on Michigan’s competitors, and it just comes off as bitterness or holier-than-thou posturing.
Hints are certainly dropped, but much of what Bacon writes on is public knowledge: Harbaugh’s clashes with SEC coaches over satellite camps, Hugh Freeze or Mark Dantonio; the Michigan staff’s irritation with other schools who do cheat to sign recruits, and the blinders the NCAA wears while all of it happens. The one seemingly-big reveal regarding Rashan Gary’s recruitment was put out in an excerpt before publication, and disappeared quicker than Urban Meyer’s text messages. There’s nothing additional offered in the full book, which I think was a misstep. Call a spade a spade, especially when everyone knows who the cheaters are.
Part of the problem is that there just hasn’t been any kind of administrative or off-the-field crisis in these Harbaugh years, whereas Bacon’s previous books played out like Greek tragedies. Three and Out chronicled the tumult of the Rich Rodriguez era, Fourth and Long was not focused solely on Michigan but the Big Ten at large, and Endzone was the brief rise and very unceremonious decline of the Brady Hoke era that concluded with the Harbaugh hire.
Opting for a happy medium, comes a story filled with a mix of players’ personal stories and challenges, candid conversations with Harbaugh, and in-the-room accounts from some of Michigan’s games last season. It works because it is well-written and heartfelt, despite the lack of any drama or grand revelation.
Bacon manages to get Harbaugh to be more forthcoming than he usually is after games or in interviews, no small feat. It’s a treat to read about Jim’s experiences in grade school and while playing for Bo, and it fills in a lot of his passion for football to a level I myself was not aware of previously. Particularly moving is a recounting of Jim and Bo talking in a hospital room after Jim broke his arm during the 1984 season, and Harbaugh, teary-eyed, pleaded with his coach not to forget about him.
It’s surprising how many of Harbaugh’s own players in a lot of ways mirror the struggles he went through, with things like injuries, making first string, or figuring out their lives after Michigan football. We are treated to the journeys of Ben Bredeson, Chase Winovich, Karan Higdon, Noah Furbush, Jared Wangler, Shea Patterson and Grant Newsome (a particular high point of the whole book). Bacon spends time with all of them, to find out about their lives in addition to their on-field competition, and that’s when he’s in his element. Extracting a story that no one else can get, and then proceeding to tell it effectively is the strength of this effort.
He’s not quite as effective making games that already happened feel exciting, but, it’s done with care and it’s obvious he was after more than just a debrief, because I could feel the joy and frustration of every guy in the locker room more often than not. Previously-unknown goings-on from the Michigan State victory appear that make the victory one of Harbaugh’s sweetest. There’s some consolation in reading the pain that the team felt in the losses to Notre Dame, Ohio State and Florida, and the book unexpectedly softens those losses once it circles back to its intended goal: football is about more than winning. Harbaugh put it another way, which he learned long ago: the NFL really stands for “Not For Long.”
Bacon’s work, when viewed as a detailed chronicle of Michigan’s ups and downs at a particular point is unmatched, and this book surely has that. He succeeds in reminding us that the biggest purpose a football program should have is to shape kids into men. The book just often can’t decide if it’s begging everyone else to remember that or if it’s content to tell Michigan’s story of doing it the right way, knowing they always will.