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December 20, 2012

Novel explores college football coaching

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — Anyone who follows college football knows the trepidations of the sport. The good comes from the pure emotional excitement involved in the game or the thrill of your school beating an arch-rival or pulling a major upset. The bad comes when a university sacrifices its academic integrity to put winning above everything else, recruiting players who never spend any time in the classroom. It’s often a struggle for a college to maintain its academic reputation and not become a football factory.

Coaches feel this pressure all the time. At big-time schools, coaches receive astronomical salaries based on the assumption they’re going to win. They are not paid to make sure all their players graduate. That would simply be a bonus. There’s constant pressure to succeed because football is usually the lifeblood of the university, bringing in enough money to fund the other intercollegiate sports. Winning also keeps the alumni happy and writing checks to the university.

One aspect of college football (and presumably most college sports) is the off-season schmoozing with boosters and alumni. Most people have no idea the extent or importance of it. A new novel I stumbled upon explores this phenomenon. It’s called “Love’s Winning Plays,” by Inman Majors, and it is nothing like the title.

I was led to believe it was a light-hearted romance novel. The inside pocket of the book jacket simply said that some young assistant coach is asked to go on a promotional trip and discovers his love interest will be there too. It turns out that the romance is simply background noise to the main thrust of the book.

Some nobody named Raymond Love with the unflattering job title of “off the field graduate assistant” dreams of becoming a college coach and is starting at below rock bottom in hopes of entering the profession. One day during the off-season, the head coach asks him to chaperone one of the assistant coaches to this event called the Pigskin Cavalcade, a weekend of banquets and golf tournaments with university alumni and boosters.

The backdrop to this unnamed and fictional university is the Southeastern Conference, best known to the uninitiated as the best college football conference in the country. It includes schools such as Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi and one of its own usually captures the national championship. Football is life in that part of the country. Passions are so intense that fans of in-state rivals like Alabama and Auburn often won’t speak to each other.

What we discover in the midst of this “cavalcade” weekend are situations that could drive any coach to retire. It is what makes coaches earn their gargantuan salaries as much as any victory. The “fans” that show up at these events are obnoxious, overbearing, and “know” exactly what ails their football team.

Imagine having to spend an entire weekend on the golf course with some overweight couch potatoes constantly offering advice on how to run your offense? Even worse is the rich alumnus who knows he can say or do anything and get away with it. Even the fans with their “insider” blogs are there to make noise. A coach simply has to sit there and take it.

Despite the implication, “Love’s Winning Plays” is not an indictment of the system or a defense of coaches receiving bloated salaries. It’s just an insight into a facet of the game that most people don’t know about and provides an amusing story as a backdrop. If you can deal with Majors’ quirky writing style (he leaves out all quotation marks) you won’t be disappointed. Even the “romance” eventually bares fruit.

David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at co.david@4cls.org.