Spurrier: How the Ball Coach Taught the South to Play Football by Ran Henry
(Lyons Press, Hardcover, 328 pp., $25.95)
Reviewed by Jason Ehlen
Spurrier: How the Ball Coach Taught the South to Play Football by Ran Henry
Reviewed by Jason Ehlen
Steve Spurrier may be college football’s most accomplished individual. He won the Heisman trophy and Walter Camp award in 1966 and was the third overall pick in that year’s NFL draft. His NFL career was not as successful as his college career, but he played for ten seasons. Spurrier’s best achievements came when he turned to coaching at the college-level. He won over 80% of his games at UF and won a national championship in 1996, the same year that he became the only Heisman trophy winner to coach a Heisman trophy winner. After a brief stint coaching the Washington Redskins in 2002-2003, Spurrier returned to coaching college and turned a perennial loser, South Carolina, into a top ten program. His visor-clad image and wide open offensive system have become fixtures in college football. His brash demeanor not only built winning football teams but also created legions of haters, particularly among the fans of teams his defeated. In Spurrier: How the Ball Coach Taught the South to Play Football, Ran Henry looks behind Spurrier’s career and shows how his father’s character molded Spurrier's.
A Presbyterian minister, Reverend John Graham Spurrier had taken a job in Miami Beach when Steve Spurrier was born. Reverend Spurrier’s preaching was a bit too serious for the moneyed congregation, so by the time Steve Spurrier was one year old, he was moving back to the Deep South, a place that respected seriousness in their preachers, or at least didn’t run them out of town for it. To Reverend Spurrier’s credit, he seemed to learn from his experience and never lost a preacher job again. He would move for a better opportunity for his children, but not because he couldn’t manage his congregation.
Steve Spurrier’s father encouraged his son to play sports. After every game, his father would go over what Steve had done right and done wrong. According to the book, his father always said, “You could have done a little bit better.” This type of fierce attention to detail is visible in Steve Spurrier’s coaching. And the iconic image displayed in the book's prologue, of Steve Spurrier throwing his visor in disgust at a mistake his quarterback made as Spurrier tried to coach up his quarterbacks in preseason, shows how strong his demand for perfection is.
As a lifelong football fan, I already knew quite a bit about Steve Spurrier, the football coach, so what was most interesting to me were the anecdotes from Spurrier’s youth. In one example, Henry writes:
Losing hit Stevie the hardest. He couldn’t stand falling behind. When the other team scored and a comeback didn’t look likely, he started crying. Then he grabbed the ball and ran off the field. “I’m going home,” he yelled over his shoulder. “Leave the football!” Graham hollered. Everyone else yelled, too. “Why are we always using Stevie’s ball?” Bunny had to ask.
I enjoyed the image of a young Steve Spurrier taking his ball and going home. Hatred of losing makes winners, and if nothing else, Steve Spurrier has been a winner.
Steve Spurrier’s career as a head coach alone has spanned twenty-five years, and Mr. Henry covers that and more in this biography. As a consequence much of the book, covering Spurrier's career, reads like newspaper clippings rather than an in-depth biography, a river of paragraph sized description of games and seasons rather than a coherent narrative. It became extremely difficult to place myself as a reader both within the narrative and within Steve Spurrier’s life. I often wondered what year it was or where we were and because of that had a hard time connecting with the story. Perhaps if Ran Henry had focused on a specific time period or a specific season in Spurrier's adult life and elaborated on it the way he did Spurrier’s childhood, the book would have been a more balanced and engaging read.
Jason Ehlen, a native of the Jersey Shore, has spent most of his adult life living in Miami with the exception of a year and a half in Nanjing, China, and six months in Bogota, Colombia. His short fiction has been published in The Battered Suitcase and everywritersresource.com. He has forthcoming fiction in the anthology Everything's Broken, Too.
Passing the Torch: Building Winning Football Programs ... with a Dose of Swagger Along the Way by Howard Schnellenberger with Ron Smith
(Ascend Books, Hardcover, 303 pp., $24.95)
Reviewed by Bob Morison
Passing the Torch: Building Winning Football Programs ... with a Dose of Swagger Along the Way
Reviewed by Bob Morison
Howard Schnellenberger has led an eventful football life: high school teammate of Paul Hornung, coached by and with Bear Bryant, assistant to Don Shula during the Dolphins' perfect season, coach of the University of Miami's first national championship team, founding coach at Florida Atlantic University.
He's as recognizable for his personal traits as his coaching accomplishments: stylish sidelines wardrobe, pipe (earlier in his career), silver hair (later), moustache (throughout), gravelly voice, and quotability. Plus, as the subtitle reminds us, that dose of swagger, which became legend when he took over a moribund program at UM and declared the intention of a national championship in five years. Then he delivered on schedule.
Swagger, however, plays only a small role in Passing the Torch. The dominant themes are generosity and patience. Schnellenberger tells the story of how he has taught what he learned, while giving recognition all around. The first chapter is a thank-you to his five main mentors--Bryant, Shula (who wrote the book's foreword), Paulie Miller (his high school coach), Blanton Collier (his coach at Kentucky and then boss when he joined the staff), and George Allen (who got him into the professional coaching ranks).
Over 100 college players recruited or coached by Schnellenberger have made it to the NFL (an appendix lists them), but he mentions many, many others as well. Like any good coach, he has a soft spot for the walk-ons. He was especially good with quarterbacks, having coached Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, and Bert Jones.
Acknowledgement and implicit thanks are also there for college administrators and support staff, opposing coaches and players, everyone who helped the team building happen. The only harsh words are for UM president Tad Foote, who strangely turned on Schnellenberger after the championship season; Jimmy Johnson, who succeeded him at UM and refused to acknowledge that a helluva torch had been passed his way; and the fans and boosters during his brief stint at Oklahoma who were rude to his wife Beverlee.
The patience has to do with how he built football programs. Schnellenberger wanted his teams to make rapid progress, but he acknowledged that success takes time. He believes in gaining experience and toughness by playing over one's head. A loss is never as good as a win, but some losses teach you a lot. His early Florida Atlantic teams regularly played Division 1 opponents while still new to 1AA. The school went from inception to Division 1 to a bowl game in record time.
He writes about building programs the "right way," starting with aggressive recruiting of local talent. Academic standards have to be met. You need good facilities for team conditioning and practices. And for fans--he was behind stadium projects at both Lousiville and Florida Atlantic. Community outreach was also part of the formula; he spoke to 200 groups in Miami-Dade before he coached a game at UM.
If you make a career of building or rebuilding college football programs--as Schnellenberger did at Miami, Louisville, and Florida Atlantic--your overall won-loss record suffers. Over 27 seasons, he was just seven games over .500. But when his teams got good, they got very good. He is 6-0 in bowl games, and no other coach has won as many without a loss. Patience pays off.
Sections of Passing the Torch are almost sports reporting, accounts of seasons, games, key plays. But the details are well-chosen so the action moves along. More in Schnellenberger's voice are the accounts of his relationships with players and coaching colleagues, and of his career missteps, including flirting with the USFL, overconfidence as a rookie pro coach, and that one year at Oklahoma. The few sections on coaching philosophy are predictable, but those on coaching methods are revealing. The book is remarkably light on self-congratulation. Praise is reserved for others, especially Beverlee, the staunchest of teammates.
Passing the Torch is a fan's book, a lot of football packed into 300 pages.
Bob Morison is co-author of Workforce Crisis and Analytics at Work. He lives in Miami. More info at his website.
Finding Home, A Memoir of a Mother's Undying Love and an Untold Secret by Maruchi Mendez
(Reedy Press, Paperback, 272 pp., $16.95)
Reviewed by Lynne Barrett
Finding Home, A Memoir of a Mother's Undying Love and an Untold Secret
Reviewed by Lynne Barrett
Finding Home is a memoir written by Maruchi Mendez in the form of a book-length letter to her late son, Ramiro “Toti” Mendez, a 1998 All-American pitcher raised in Miami, who died during his sophomore season as a player on the Florida International University baseball team as a consequence of a heart condition detected too late.
The book begins on the day of Toti’s funeral in April 2000. The “Untold Secret” of the subtitle, known to others in the family but never told to Toti, is revealed to the reader in the next two chapters: he was adopted as an infant in Spain in 1980, through a process so private that the doctor says, “For all intents and purposes, Mrs. Mendez, you gave birth to this child in this clinic on this day.” Though it might seem that much has been given away early, Mendez’s narrative keeps opening up new layers of secrets and discoveries.
Mendez, her first husband (father of her first three children), and her second husband,Toti’s father Ramiro, were all born in Cuba, and their displacement to Florida laid the foundation for lives that entwine ambition, disappointment, and what Mendez calls an “ever-evolving nostalgia.” Promise is often unfulfilled, marriages don’t endure, and a successful business or a beautiful home can’t guarantee security. In particular, Ramiro’s complex character propels an adoption surrounded by mysteries, and he soon puts pressure on Toti to excel. As a little boy, Toti stands out for his “quick defensive hands, strong throwing arm, and sharp hitting,” traits that may show he is, as one witness to his birth hinted, the biological son of a jai-alai star. At the same time, he is an inexplicably slow runner. Responding to his father’s avid coaching, and, later, wanting to prove himself to other coaches, he pushes himself to become a fiercely disciplined athlete, which leads to great achievement and, very possibly, his death.
The memoir is strengthened when Mendez makes the reader see how this personal story is part of a larger cultural situation. She writes:
Baseball in Miami is not just a sport, it is a religion and a culture. It’s not surprising that nearly every little league program in the city is run by one baseball-obsessed Cuban dad or another. And it’s inevitable that Miami is full of great young baseball players, many of whom become Major League prospects. A high school’s baseball program , therefore, becomes the measure by which many parents will evaluate whether a school is “good” or not. Both public and private high schools arrange their schedules carefully, trying to avoid embarrassing mismatches.
In such a place, we understand that winning state and national titles and becoming Dade County’s Baseball Player of the Year is an accomplishment indeed.
In the course of the book, Toti comes across as a sweet, determined, and honorable boy who grows into a star almost as a duty. Perhaps he is idealized, but other characters are complex, including Mendez’s two troubled older sons. Mendez herself, as she tries to make things come out well, grapples with all that she can't control, and occasionally (satisfyingly) loses her temper, is the person we wind up knowing best.
The “you” form in which Mendez addresses Toti, sustained through the book, shows the power of the author’s emotional bond to her lost child. In early sections, where she is covering material Toti could not have known, it’s as if the reader is listening in while Mendez reveas what she’s failed to find a way to tell him in life. At later points, when she recounts events that Toti was aware of, some of the shifts to “you” made me pull back, realizing that this device was not necessary for information that could go directly to the reader. But there aren’t many such spots, and the final chapters of the book, covering time after Toti’s death, reclaim the power of the opening.
What begins as a personal story becomes, in the late sections, part of a larger issue in youth sports. Mendez notes that young athletes’ physical skills are scouted, timed, tested, and recorded in precise detail, but they get only routine physical exams that cannot detect hidden damage to their hearts. Mendez writes, “...according to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, 100,000 young men and women die each year from cardiovascular disorders, including cardiomyopathy, as a direct result of their participation in sports. That is twice as many as those who die in auto accidents.” And, “The mortality rate for pediatric and adolescent cardiomyopathy is higher than that of childhood cancer,” yet far less research money is devoted to the condition. Athletic associations claim fuller testing would be too expensive. (Though one also wonders whether there’s a reluctance to admit that sports can do such damage, as has also been the case for concussions till recently.) Mendez’s campaign for change in state law has so far not prevailed. There has been some improvement in the quality of preseason screenings, but Mendez argues that echocardiagrams for all athletes are needed, along with more research.
“How much is a life worth?” is a question Mendez says she has asked repeatedly. In this case, one too-short life has driven a mother to write a book that will cause other parents to ask the question, too, and, one hopes, to press for greater understanding of the risks of sports and investment in testing, research, and education. And at another level, Finding Home emphasizes the importance for everyone of communicating with those you care about while you can.
Lynne Barrett is the author of Magpies, winner of the Florida Book Awards Gold Medal in General Fiction, and editor of The Florida Book Review. You can learn more at her website.