Major college football has become a money driven enterprise. College football games, traditionally a Saturday afternoon event, now are played on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. A glance at the schedule of most major colleges shows game time as, TBA, to be announced. As money becomes more crucial to major college programs, educational and personal integrity are no longer critical considerations for major schools. Unbeknownst to many college football fans are players, teams, and coaches who play for the love of the sport. Division III NCAA football represents programs where athletic scholarships are forbidden. Athletes in Division III programs may be a step slower or a little smaller than their counterparts who receive scholarships, but they have an equal love for the game.
Austin Murphy covers the major college scene for Sports Illustrated. He has written about important games, players, and teams for 15 years. He has seen the best and worst of Division One football. Covering those games is not as glamorous as one would imagine. Each week, Murphy would follow a hectic schedule that would require him to be on the road from Wednesday through Monday. Married and the father of two small children, he recognized the toll that his work had on the quality of his family life. In 1999 he began a sabbatical from his weekly reporting task and moved to Minnesota to chronicle the season of St. John's University. THE SWEET SEASON is the result of that effort. It is a wonderful story about young and old men sharing a love of sport and a love of life. Perhaps more important, it is a story of personal rejuvenation and rebirth for the author.
The St. John's Johnnies of Collegeville, Minnesota are a powerhouse of Division III football. To a large degree, their success is attributable to an iconoclast of a coach named John Gagliardi. "Gags" began his career at St. John's in 1953. During his tenure, the Johnnies have won three national championships (in Division III, there is an actual national play-off to determine a national champion). Gagliardi is the winningest active coach in college football history with a record of 377-109-11. As this season begins, Gagliardi is only 31 victories short of Eddie Robinson's all-time collegiate win record of 408 victories.
Gagliardi wins with methods that would leave football fans and coaches befuddled. His philosophy includes a list of 74 "NOs," including: no whistles, no playbooks, no hitting during the week, and no cuts from the squad. He disdains calisthenics and serious physical drills. In this modern era of computer programmed offenses and sideline play calling, the Johnnies quarterbacks call their own plays. After all, says Gags, "These guys are a hell of a lot smarter than I am." The Johnnies offense runs plays diagrammed on note cards. They do not tackle or cut block one another in practice. "Visualize yourself doing it," the coach tells his players. "Fantasies don't always have to be about the opposite sex."
No matter how talented the coach, he still must have quality athletes to win. Murphy acknowledges that he came to this project with preconceived notions about the level of athletic skill in Division III. "I didn't think they'd suck, but I didn't know they'd be this quick, talented, or tough," he writes. Don't let the Roman numeral throw you, there's quality football in Division III. But the roster is filled with men who are more than football players. As one of the Johnnies linebackers remarks, "I wanted to go to school to go to school, know what I mean?" Murphy grows to appreciate that there is more to college than practicing football, lifting weights and watching films. He meets young men who are more than football players seeking professional careers. Division III players combine the football season with the total college experience, including classes, part time jobs, and frequent parties. As the season progresses, Murphy, like many men his age, yearns once again for those wonderful college years when life was uncluttered with mortgage payments, preschool problems, and the status of one's 401(k).
The football season spent in Collegeville, Minnesota is about more than football. In many ways the juxtaposition between Division I and Division III football is a mirror of the life of Austin Murphy. Unlike his hectic schedule reporting major college and professional football, Murphy experiences a more idyllic life in Minnesota. For this one season he has his young children and their experiences to share. He shares time with his wife and, for the first time, meets members of her extended family. Through the process, Austin Murphy comes to a realization about the world beyond football. As his life slowed down, it strengthened.
As I write this review, the world is in tumult. America has seen her most basic institutions attacked. While it borders on absurd to write about college football, we all understand that somehow life goes on. None of us will ever forget the events of September 11, 2001, and those events will insure that our lives will never be the same. But a moment will come when those events that make us proud to be Americans will return to our lives. There will come a time when many people will say, "Maybe I'll catch a game." Go see a Division III game. You can find a schedule of games as well as mountains of information about Division III football on www.d3football.com. You will enjoy the experience and you will have Austin Murphy to thank for reminding you that the pure love of the game still exists in many precincts of our nation.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 4, 2001