Saturday, November 18, 2023

Books: Football Edition

We are in the heart of football season, as the NFL nears the playoff stretch and college football approaches the end of their regular season. There is a pair of books on two of its most recognizable figures, Swagger: Super Bowls, Brass Balls, and Footballs - A Memoir, by Jimmy Johnson; and Coach Prime: Deion Sanders and the Making of Men, by Jean-Jacques Taylor, and an encyclopedic look at the history of the game, The Football 100: The Story of the Greatest Players in NFL History, by Mike Sando, Dan Pompei, and The Athletic NFL Staff.

Swagger: Super Bowls, Brass Balls, and Footballs - A Memoir

By Jimmy Johnson and Dave Hyde

Scribner; hardcover, 288 pages; $28.00

Jimmy Johnson had one of the most illustrious head coaching careers, as he is the first football coach to win championships at both the NFL and collegiate levels. He also is known for his scintillating personality as one of the long-time analysts on FOX NFL Sunday. Johnson led the Miami Hurricanes to a College Football National Championship in 1987, and then brought the Dallas Cowboys back to glory when he led them to back to back Super Bowl rings in 1993 and 1994. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020, and the Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2019. It was announced on Sunday that Jimmy will be inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor on Saturday, December 30, when Dallas takes on the Detroit Lions.

In Swagger, the memoir Johnson co-wrote with South Florida Sun-Sentinel sports columnist Dave Hyde, he shares his extraordinary life story and his long-awaited insights on winning at every level. It is a story of handling public triumphs while dealing with personal adversity. 

Johnson's journey began on the college football fields at Louisiana Tech, up to his first head coaching job at Oklahoma State, then  when he got his big break taking over Miami, by then a national powerhouse, in 1984; taking the leap into the NFL with the moribund Cowboys in 1989, and his final stop with the Miami Dolphins in the late 1990s.

The parts Johnson writes on his time with the Cowboys might pique the interest of readers in New York the most since those teams battled the Giants, including an epic battle on the final day of the 1993 regular season at Giants Stadium that decided the division.

The phrase Johnson became known for after they won their first Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl was "How 'Bout Them Cowboys!," and he writes compellingly about his relationship with owner Jerry Jones, which was tense a lot earlier than people knew, and on players like quarterback Troy Aikman and defensive end Charles Haley.

To this day, fitting since he coached two teams in the Sunshine State, Johnson has his private sanctuary on the Florida Keys' Islamorasa islands. That is a popular destination for college and professional coaches, general managers, and team owners to pay a visit and get wisdom, such as on how to build a positive team culture, draft elite players, balance work and family life, and lead a team to win.

"My door has been open for years to any coach or executive wanting to talk and willing to fund their way to my world - well, almost anyone," Johnson writes. "Florida and Florida State people know better than to call. The University of Miami is the only stop on my career that was more than a stop. It was home. It still is in many ways. I've hosted the coaching staffs at my house. One of my players, Mario Cristobal, is now Miami's coach. I recruited Mario and his older brother, Luis. I sat in their home. I talked with their parents. This spring, I talked with Mario's players just as I once did him.

"The visitors don't migrate to the Keys for small talk or social gestures. It's about nuts-and-bolts leadership, some tangible issue before them, or just to hear how I climbed the mountain - about the Pygmalion Theory and not playing with scared money, about good being the enemy of great, and why I ignored the "traditional coach's handbook" on practices like using humble-speak in public.

I coached with a big attitude. I wanted it to rub off on my teams. That was my way. It's not for everyone. I made mistakes, too. Maybe these visitors can learn from those as well. I don't have secret shortcuts or a special formula for winning. No one comes looking for that anyway. They come instead for ideas formed over four decades that were mixed with the hard work and perseverance that built champions in Miami and Dallas."

Coach Prime: Deion Sanders and the Making of Men, by Jean-Jacques Taylor

By Jean-Jacques Taylor

Mariner Books; hardcover, $28.99; $28.99

One of the most compelling subjects in college football this season has been Deion Sanders' first year at the helm of Colorado, which began with some impressive victories but has hit some adversity as the season rolls on. As he has been throughout his career, Sanders has been a magnet for attention, especially when he stepped into the head coaching ranks in 2021.

Jean-Jacques Taylor, an award-winning journalist, president of JJT Media, a longtime Dallas Morning-News columnist, and a frequent contributor to ESPN, looks at Sanders' two years as Head Coach of Jackson State, an HBCU in need of a revival in the engaging book Coach Prime.

Jackson State was one of the finest programs in college football, boasting NFL Hall of Famer Walter Payton as one of its greatest players and a top pick for the country's best and brightest student athletes. Over the years, as powerhouse teams and conferences took over the game, Jackson State, with its antiquated facilities and minor television coverage, was left behind.

It was an irrelevant program...until Sanders showed up and started recruiting elite players and reviving the school's pride. Sanders achieved tremendous success and brought national attention to this rejuvenated program, gameday attendance skyrocketed, JSU facilities received a makeover, there were national TV broadcasts, and NFL scouts were interested again.

Taylor was given unprecedented access to Sanders for one season to show the heart, mind, and culture of one of America's most daring football coaches. He connected with his players emotionally, with weekly chat sessions about life and love becoming the norm. His unyielding commitment to guiding his young players to become exceptional men raised the bar on what parents and athletes should come to expect from college coaches.

JSU had the nation's No. 1 defense in 2022, as they allowed only 11.1 points and 255.9 yards per game. Quarterback Shadeur Sanders (Deion's son and current Colorado QB) was the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) offensive player of the year, linebacker Aubrey Miller Jr. earned defensive player of the year honors, and Kevin Coleman Jr. was the newcomer of the year.

"Coach Prime had established a culture of work and discipline, and a disgust for mediocrity and complacency," Taylor writes. "He had drilled into them all season that men ignore distractions and focus on the task at hand."

Sanders said of his coaching philosophy, "We have to win on the field. We have to win in the classroom. We have to win in the community. We have to win at home for our families. Then we have to win as men. The thing we're trying to do is not just about football. We gotta win at every category of life and not only that, but we have to dominate."

The Football 100: The Story of the Greatest Players in NFL History

By Mike Sando, Dan Pompei, and The Athletic NFL Staff

William Morrow; hardcover, 672 pages; $40.00

The Football 100 is the first book in The Athletic's partnership with William Morrow, and this is the first of three books they will be publishing, along with the forthcoming The Basketball 100 in 2024 and The Hockey 100 in 2025.

The Ahtletic has built the world's largest sports newsroom with its trademark being a focus on deep reporting. Now a part of The New York Times Company, it has 1.3 million paid subscribers, making it the sixth largest paid media publisher globally. Dan Pompei is a senior writer for The Athletic, and is one of 49 members on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the Seniors Committee. In 2013, he received the Bill Nunn Award from the Pro Football Writers of America. Mike Sando joined The Athletic in 2019 as a senior writer after 12 years with ESPN, and he is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and an officer for the Pro Football Writers of America. He has attended every non-pandemic Super Bowl since the 1998 season.

One of the many questions that vexes football fans is who is the best to play the game. More than 25,000 men have suited up in the NFL in its century of existence, and this book sets out to see who stood head and shoulders about the rest. This became a labor of love at The Athletic, which has dozens of the top football writers, including Sando and Pompei, who combine to write 20 of the 100 pieces in the book. These writers reveal their findings and uncover tons of NFL history in the process.

The NFL's early days bear little resemblance to what it has evolved into, as points were scarce, the forward pass was merely a curiosity, players competed for all 60 minutes and played on both sides of the ball. The players who built the foundations then allowed the game of football to blossom, and this intimate look at the greatest players to ever don cleats and pads is told in The Athletic's vivid narrative storytelling. Based on many hundreds of interviews with players, coaches, broadcasters, and others, as well as 100 photographs, this gives a view of greatness, as well as one in the trenches of the harsh realities of this game.

Pompei and Sando write in this excerpt of the process: "It took Tom Brady's seventh Super Bowl victory, this one with a new franchise, for the pro football world to unite around a generally accepted premise: Brady is the greatest NFL quarterback of the modern era, and probably ever. Probably. Therein lies the challenge of the most irresistible exercise in sports: ranking the all-time greats.

When we set out to identify the 100 best NFL players of all time, we had many thousands to choose from, considering more than 27,000 have played in an NFL game, more than 2,700 have been selected for the Pro Bowl, nearly 1,200 have been voted first-team All-Pro, and 320 have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

How did we do it?

There is no magic formula, but our decades of covering and researching the game, including long stints on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, gave us an advantage we leveraged to the fullest extent possible in these pages...

Perhaps the most challenging part was comparing players from different eras. The typical metrics to judge a wide receiver like Don Hutson, who played in the 1930s and '40s, can't be compared to the typical metrics to evaluate a receiver like Julio Jones, from the current era. Rules have changed to promote passing. Seasons are longer. Strategies have evolved.

Sando solved some of this with wide receivers and running backs by evaluating where they ranked among their peers during their best years. For wide receivers, that meant calculating where they ranked in yardage within a season over each player's eight best seasons. For running backs, whose careers are generally shorter, Sando focused on scrimmage yards during each player's six most productive seasons. We then used the findings as a general guide before making some tweaks we felt were warranted.

We also had to guard against recency bias. The two of us have watched football for a combined nine decades, and covered it for six decades. We knew more about players we had seen and had written about, and even players who were active in our childhoods, than we did about players from the early days of the NFL. The inclination is to give more credence to those we were familiar with, but we tried to even the playing field between players from different eras - to look at Otto Graham through the same lens as Tom Brady."

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