Sunday, September 8, 2019

Books: "Overtime" On Michigan Football With Harbaugh At Helm

Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football
By John U. Bacon
William Morrow; hardcover; $28.99

John U. Bacon has become an authority on Michigan University football through his books on the ups and downs of this storied program.

Bacon's first book came in 2005, which he co-authored with Bo Schembechler, Bo's Lasting Lessons: The Legendary Coach Teaches the Timeless Fundamentals of Leadership; Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football explored how the Michigan football family fractured over a controversial coach; Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football compared four Big Ten programs and warned what could happen if greed overcame passion; and Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football, which showed how a big program can falter when his thesis from Fourth and Long came into fruition.

The latest entrant in Bacon's tour de force on Michigan is Overtime, which offers a rare all-access window into the world of big-time college football, a 3.4 billion-dollar business that captivates 50 million spectators and 200 million viewers.

Bacon tells this story through the perspective of the players, the often overlooked engine behind the sport's success. This is a human portrait of eight players, from All-Americans to walk-ons, plus their parents, and their dreams.

Overtime follows the University of Michigan's coaches, players, and staffers through the 2018 season,  including Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, offensive stars Shea Patterson and Karan Higdon, and NFL-bound defensive standouts Rashan Gary, Devin Bush Jr., and Chase Winovich, among others.

Bacon met with them every week during the season to show what these public figures are like behind the scenes, and learn what the experience means to them as they go through it. It all leads to the unexpected answers to the central question of, is it worth it?

A deeply reported human portrait of a big-time college football program, Overtime delivers a riveting and revealing insider's account of this fascinating period in Michigan's storied history, the Harbaugh era.

Bacon writes of how much was at stake for Michigan, and their head coach, heading into last year's opening game, "If Michigan fans had grown edgy by the eve of the 2018 Notre Dame game, they had their reasons - more than a decade's worth. Even including Michigan's sterling 2006 squad, which peaked with an 11-0 record and a number two national ranking, in the decade spanning from 2005 to 2014 the Wolverines had won 73 games against 53 losses, cementing a 10-year average of 7-5 - the kind of record expected of second-tier programs like Indiana and Minnesota, not mighty Michigan. Meanwhile, Ohio State was racking up 110 wins over the same span, and even Michigan State had 84, with three other Big Ten teams ahead of the Wolverines.
"But it wasn't just the uncharacteristically bad records that marked that overcast era. It was a stronger sense that Michigan had lost its way. The very values that had grounded Michigan's gridiron success seemed to disappear with the wins.
"The mere fact of Harbaugh's return on December 30, 2014, was all the proof Michigan fans needed that they weren't crazy, after all. Their memories of better days were not mirages, and their belief in a brighter future not delusional.
"Harbaugh's arrival not only foretold a return to glory on the gridiron but a promise to burnish the beliefs Michigan fans were convinced separated Michigan from the many programs trying to win at all costs. The Michigan ideal was simple, if not easy: a football program that would outperform others in the classroom and promote exemplary conduct in the community, while avoiding the many temptations to cheat that seemed to beset all but a few of the top teams.
"No school's fight song makes a bigger claim than Michigan's. Unlike the others, which invariably urge their teams on to victory, 'The Victors' celebrates a contest already won.
"'Hail! to the victors valiant. Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes.'
"But if 'The Victors' claims a lot, it expects a lot, too - not merely that the Wolverines be crowned 'Champions of the West,' but that they also be 'Leaders and Best.' Michigan students, faculty, and alumni have taken this to mean Michigan's records and titles alone don't tell the whole story. The Wolverines will not only beat you; they'll do it the right way - with real students, actual amateurs, playing by the rules.
"As 2014 was ending Michigan fans could imagine only one man who could achieve all this: James Joseph Harbaugh.
"His father, Jack, coached for Bo Schembechler from 1973 to 1980. Jack's second son, Jim, was the Wolverines' starting quarterback from 1984 to 1986, winning a Big Ten title and earning league MVP honors before embarking on a 14-year NFL career, followed by a great run as the head coach at the University of San Diego, Stanford, and the San Francisco 49ers. When Harbaugh left the bright lights and big cities of the NFL for Ann Arbor and trips to South Bend, Indiana, East Lansing, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio, he stunned the pundits and thrilled the fans, who received him not simply as a great coach, but as Michigan's messiah.
"Harbaugh delivered immediately, pushing the 2015 Wolverines from five wins to ten his first year, then leading the 2016 squad to a nine-game winning streak before losing at Iowa by a point. Two weeks later against second-ranked Ohio State, the Wolverines lost by three points in double overtime, and finally by one point to Florida State in the Orange Bowl. A total of five points produced three road losses - but in college football, no one receives partial credit.
"Still, the storyline was straightforward: Harbaugh had brought Michigan back to the edge of the sport's top echelon, and the only question remaining was not if but when he would finish the job.
"But in Harbaugh's third season, 2017, his Wolverines suffered demoralizing defeats to Big Ten foes Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State before dropping to South Caroina in the Outback Bowl. Worse, the team's weakest links were its offensive line, which had been Michigan's strongest position group for decades, and its quarterback, where Harbaugh's famed ability to get the most out of his signal callers seemed to elude him.
"The disappointing 8-5 season cost the Wolverines in the recruiting wars, too, leaving Harbaugh with a 22nd-ranked class, by far his worst since the transition class of 2015, and Michigan's worst 'non-transition' class in nearly a decade. What seemed so close 12 months earlier suddenly seemed to be falling out of reach."
With everyone involved striving to live and play "The Michigan Way" while tuning out all of the external noise and pressures inherent in playing at The Big House, the nation's largest stadium, the Wolverines rode a ten-game winning streak to push to #4 in the nation before an embarrassing loss to arch-rival Ohio State.

Overtime is one of the best football books you will read about a program that is always a fascination when this time of year rolls around.

To read out prior review of John U. Bacon's national bestseller The Great Halifax Explosion, click here:

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