It was probably a good thing that I didn’t play football growing up. Though fast with a good shuffle step, I was a late bloomer and would have gotten my butt handed to me.
As a result I never really took a liking to high school or college football until I truly appreciated what it meant. For many rural American towns, it’s all they’ve got. And for the especially prodigious it’s a yellow-line highway straight to the American dream. Think Brett Favre (Kiln, MS), Dez Bryant (Lufkin, TX), or Julio Jones (Foley, AL), currently the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL at more than $14 million per year. Not bad for a 26-year old kid from Foley.
When I got to college, a few friends and I formed a flag football team on the intramural circuit. This wasn’t senior citizen keg ball. A lot of the kids who played were high school stars who could still bench press 300 lbs. They just blew out their knee one too many times. I was still a late bloomer, but I could run like hell to the end zone faster than everyone else with a bum knee—because I never actually played football.
Our quarterback was a tall, lanky guy from Alabama, who I don’t think had ever thrown anything but a Nerf ball in his life but his spirals were tight and accurate, and he loved the long ball. Our signature play had a simple math: I sprint towards the end zone as fast as I can, you throw the ball as far as you can, and I’ll run under it. It worked at least 20% of the time. The other 80% had all the drama of a Doug Flutie game winner just because we were playing long ball, and it was worth every muscle our star quarterback threw out in his 20-year old shoulder.
That tall lanky guy from Alabama ended up becoming one of my best friends and is now one of the country’s best-known sports writers. His new biography on the University Of Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, Saban: The Making Of A Coach, recently reached #17 on the New York Times hardcover Bestseller list, and #6 on the bestselling list of Sports titles.
The #3 Crimson Tide meets the #20 Mississippi State Bulldogs today, and the standings are quickly tightening up. So we knew that no one was feeling more passionate about college football right now than Monte Burke. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Burke and get a rare interview on the history of the South’s favorite game.
FEH: Baseball may be America’s past time but in most parts of the country football is America’s game. The fact that your new book on Nick Saban recently reached #17 on the New York Times Bestseller list (between Ann Coulter and Ted Cruz) says it all. What’s with the rabid, historic passion so many people especially in the south have for college football in particular vs. the NFL?
Burke: The NFL is a “city” game. It’s more corporate. There’s more money. College football is more rural in a way. Tuscaloosa, AL, Baton Rouge, LA, South Bend, IN, are not exactly the sticks, but they are not megalopolises either. This makes college football feel, to me anyway, more tribal and more, well, religious. College football is also older than the pro game, and thus has a richer history. The college game just has a different feel—the bands that play throughout the game, the students who line the stands, the alums. The coaches in college are the high priests. They’re the mainstays. The players come and go every year. The fans are the ones that show up at “church” every Saturday.
FEH: Every other major sport (soccer, hockey, baseball, even cricket and rugby) is a global enterprise. Not “American” football. What is it about America’s history, culture, and mindset that makes football so uniquely American?
Burke: Well, the violence certainly seems uniquely American. But so does the persistence, the hard work, the grit, its complicated nature, its skill, its chaos. The game was really formed by the sons of coal-miners and steelworkers. They were every bit as tough as their fathers, and used the game to stay out of the mines and factories.
FEH: Without thinking what are the top five college towns that just have “football” running deep in their blood? We’re betting at least 3 out of 5 are in the South.
Burke: In the South, I’m partial to Tuscaloosa (AL), Oxford (MS), and Athens (GA) for great college football atmospheres. Ann Arbor (MI) and South Bend (IN) are really special too. I’ll throw in one more: Lincoln, Nebraska.
FEH: You recently got a rare inside look inside one of the most historic college football franchises in history. What did the experience teach you personally about how and why some dynasties last while others die off?
Burke: The ones that last are the ones that don’t rely on the past or reputations. The best of the best are continually innovating, and continually making sure that they have the best staffs and talent and the best facilities.
FEH: Sports medicine, psychology, and science have long changed every sport we play. Now technology is changing everything again. At the end of the day, it’s still about kicking a pigskin between two poles but technology makes teams better which in turn makes football programs more money. Does football feel more like a business franchise at elite programs like Alabama or is it still all about the historic love of the game for the people on the field and in the locker rooms?
Burke: From the fan perspective, it’s still about historic love of the game. From the program perspective, it’s all business now. These are essentially mid-sized businesses. The Alabama football program had revenues of nearly $100 million last year, with good margins and a profit of $53 million. The coaches are CEOs. The raw materials are the recruits. The football facilities feel like Silicon Valley tech company campuses. They service nearly every need of a college football player and are designed to get folks to never really have—or want—to leave. Training, nutrition and medical services are top-notch. The best coaches control all they can—the team, the business side and the public relations.
FEH: It’s a cliche but I’m a rabid hockey fan so my most historic sports moment is Mike Eruzione’s third period goal against the USSR in the Miracle On Lake Placid Olympic ice hockey semi-finals in 1980. What’s your most iconic college football memory or moment either on or off the field?
Burke: I’d say the infamous (or famous, depending on what side you’re on) “Kick Six” in 2013, when an Auburn player caught an Alabama missed field goal attempt and ran it back the length of the field for the winning touchdown as time ran out. The play itself was so stunning. The implications were far-reaching: Alabama seemed destined to win its third national title in a row . . . Until “The Kick”.
Monte Burke’s new book Saban: The Making Of A Coach was released on August 4th by Simon & Schuster . We call tails. And we’ll receive. Game on.
Monte Burke, a New York Times best-selling author, is a staff writer at Forbes magazine. Saban: The Making of a Coach is his third book, which has been named “Best of the Year” by Sports Illustrated and Amazon.com. Burke grew up in New Hampshire, Vermont, North Carolina and Alabama, and currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three daughters.