Column: “Three and Out” A Complex Saga

Michigan football under Rodriguez: No angels, but no devils either

Editor’s note: Earlier this week, columnist John U. Bacon started answering questions from Michigan fans on MGoBlog about his upcoming book, “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” (FSG, $28, out October 25, 2011). This column is adapted from that conversation.

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Q: So let’s talk about how this book came about. You had total unfettered access to Rich Rodriguez? How does that come about? Why would anyone agree to such a thing? What was his motivation?

This book came about largely by dumb luck – and it was luck, of all kinds, that reshaped it several times before I finished this summer.

With my degree in history (“pre-unemployment”) in my pocket, I got my first job out of Michigan teaching U.S. history and coaching hockey at Culver Academies in Indiana. One of my best students, Greg Farrall, went on to become an All-Big Ten defensive end, and then a successful financial adviser.

We’ve stayed in touch, and in early 2008, he asked for some signed copies of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” including one for his former coach at Indiana, Bill Mallory, and another to his boss at the time, Mike Wilcox – who just happened to be Rich Rodriguez’s financial adviser. In fact, when Rodriguez first met with Bill Martin and Mary Sue Coleman in December 2007, they did so at Wilcox’s Toledo office. [Martin was UM's athletic director at the time. Coleman is president of the university.]

One thing led to another, and in July 2008 Wilcox asked me if I’d be interested in getting complete access to Rodriguez’s first Michigan team. I thought about it for a week or so, before concluding I’d be crazy not to jump at this chance.

Rodriguez’s motivation, I believe, was pretty straightforward: by July 2008, he had already been hammered by the press in Morgantown and Michigan, and probably figured he didn’t have much to lose. As he joked at the time, “Charles Manson is also from West Virginia, and right now he’s more popular than I am.” I think he also believed he didn’t have anything to hide, either. So he was willing to take his chances on a guy he’d never met tagging along to tell the story.

The original plan was simply to write about the spread offense coming to one of the country’s most conservative programs and publish a series of stories to a national magazine, in the hope of turning them into a book co-authored by Rodriguez, similar to the one I wrote with Bo Schembechler in 2007. But after the team finished 3-9, it was obvious the story was far from over, and that I’d need to write it myself. I was looking at sunk cost. If I bailed then, I’d have nothing to show for it. But if I came back for another year, I might have a great story to tell. That same reasoning held after the second season, too. To Rodriguez’s credit, he didn’t flinch.

We had a short legal agreement that gave him the right to read the final manuscript and comment on factual accuracy, but gave me the right to ignore anything and everything he suggested. The final product is mine, and mine alone, and does not have his approval.

I secured a book contract with a great publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which eschews sports writers for high brow authors like Ian Frazier, Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. I felt lucky then, and I still do. They gave me an advance that is roughly equivalent to a year’s salary. The catch is, of course, the book required three years of working full-time, so I’ve spent my life savings to get this done. When I read a few folks online posit that I’m simply out to make a quick buck, I enjoyed a good chuckle. It’s hard to imagine any buck being slower or smaller to make, with no guarantee of critical or commercial success. The book business is notoriously fickle – been to Borders lately? – and only a fool plans on a payoff. (And you can keep your comments to yourself: No, even I’m not that foolish.)

I can honestly say I didn’t put one thing in this book just to sell copies. I did not dump my notebook on anyone, providing enough information to make a point and then move on. I kept out more than a few salacious details because they were not sufficiently sourced or they were not relevant to the main questions, and felt like cheap shots.

Likewise, if I was pursuing my own self-interest, the most obvious approach would be to put all the blame on Rodriguez, who is gone and cannot do anything to help me that I can think of, and none on the University of Michigan, where I was born, earned two degrees and continue teaching, among other lifelong connections. As I’m sure you know by now, I didn’t do that, either – but if I was trying to please Rodriguez, I can tell you I clearly fell short on that score, too. He has flaws and he made mistakes, and they’re in the book, too.

I realized pretty early in the process that trying to play politics with this would be almost impossible – and probably backfire in any case. So, I settled on the single, simple goal of getting as close to the truth as I possibly could. How close I came will surely be debated in the weeks and months to come, but that was my singular mission, no matter what it costs me.

Instead of diving right into all the particulars at this stage, I’d like to step back and give an overview of what I was trying to do with this book, and what I wasn’t.

While the target moved a few times, as described above, when I sat down to write the final version from January to July of 2011, I was not setting out to write a “Whodonit,” but as accurate a picture as possible of what it’s really like to be a college football player and coach. And not just for any team: the most stable and successful program in college football, which happened to be going through the three most tumultuous years in its long and enviable history. Yes, my reporting includes plenty of inside information on the drama constantly swirling around Schembechler Hall during that time, but if this book is going to have any lasting value I believe it will be because it’s the most intimate picture of college football players and coaches any writer has ever been allowed to paint.

Although some readers will surely debate this, I was not out to take sides. That doesn’t mean everyone comes out equally well, any more than a fair referee can ensure both teams will be penalized equally. But I sincerely tried to call everything as fairly as I could – and more often, let the readers sort the information for themselves.

Some have suggested that I must have had an axe to grind with Bill Martin, Coach Lloyd Carr, Dave Brandon [the current UM athletic director] and others. Not true. The first two spoke to my classes several times, and I’ve extolled the good work of all three men in numerous pieces – including an ultimately flattering story on Dave Brandon in “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” and another on Coach Carr’s body of work, on and off the field, after his team lost to Appalachian State. When I won Michigan’s Golden Apple Award in March 2009, I hoped to ask Coach Carr to introduce me, but he was out of town. He said, however, that he would have been happy to do so, and I believe him. I’m also confident, having seen him speak many times on his dual passions for UM’s Mott Children’s Hospital and education, he would have done a great job.

That’s why, when I started hearing some surprising claims about the Michigan football family, I did not take them seriously. Most of those stories proved to be unfounded, but not all. When I returned to those sources, confirmed their stories, and connected the dots – to the degree I could – I was stunned. I took no pleasure in these discoveries, nor in reporting them. As I told my first audience for this book in Chicago last week, researching and writing “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” was a labor of love. “Three and Out” was labor.

I have tried to report unflinchingly on Rodriguez’s flaws and mistakes, but most people already know those – including his historically horrendous defense, his press conference gaffes, and his denouement at the final Football Bust. Michigan’s mistakes, on the other hand, were private. Thus, when you read them, the latter will likely be more surprising and make a bigger impression.

To produce this book, I started by filling two-dozen two-sided notebooks, eight bankers’ boxes worth of documents, and taking more than 10,000 pages of single-spaced notes from observing 37 games, hundreds of practices and meetings, and interviewing several hundred people. That effort created over 2,000 pages of copy, which we had to slash to the 438 pages that comprise the final manuscript.

All that cutting forced me to drop all photos and an epigraph from Oscar Wilde that I believe neatly sums up the entire three years: “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”

That’s exactly what I found in the bizarre dysfunction of the past three seasons. I did not encounter any angels, but I did not discover any devils, either. Almost everyone involved made some mistakes – most unintended, some not – but everyone in these pages had redemptive qualities, often quite remarkable ones. People, it turns out, are complicated.

The book, therefore, is not presented as an argument for this side or that, a glorified football whodunit. The reviews we’ve gotten so far (on MGoBlog, on The Wolverine and on seem to indicate it’s being received in that spirit. “The author,” Publisher’s Weekly writes, “doesn’t shirk from acknowledging Rodriguez’s shortcomings as a coach or discussing the players’ disappointing performances.”

The readers, of course, will come to their own conclusions. And, knowing the wide range of independent-minded Michigan alums and fans, I’m sure those conclusions will run the gamut. But before we get too far down the scorekeeping path, I want to say that while that’s surely a reader’s right, it was not the author’s aim.

How close I came to achieving my goal of producing a fair-minded depiction of a marriage seemingly made in heaven that quickly ended in a disastrous divorce – with the best and worst of college football surrounding it – you can decide for yourself.

I look forward to hearing from the smartest readers in college football.

P.S. Since folks have asked, I will give the first local book talk and signing at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 28. I will be updating my schedule on my website very soon.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the upcoming “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football,” due out Oct. 25. You can pre-order the book from Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor or on

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One Comment

  1. October 14, 2011 at 11:24 am | permalink

    Great stuff! Glad it has gone well. I always like to say, “you never know.” Drop me a line when you can. Would love to catch up.