December 23, 2010

Book Review - Perfect Rivals: Notre Dame, Miami and the Battle for the Soul of College Football

If I were really good at planning, this review would have come a couple weeks ahead of Christmas, not a couple days.  (It also should've been fresh in my mind, not months after I read it, but now I'm picking nits). No matter.  Jeff Carroll's historical perspective on the dynamic rivalry that sprang from two rising programs is a great buy any time - Perfect Rivals: Notre Dame, Miami, and the Battle for the Soul of College Football.  Carroll sets up parallel story arcs for Miami and Notre Dame, describing the state of each program in the early 80's and explaining the climb up the ladder of the college football elite.  The book is full of great anecdotes which provide a greater context to the rivalry that blossomed between unlikely schools, while galvanizing the college football universe.

The failed experiment of Gerry Faust, jumping from high school legend status to overmatched collegiate coach sets the table for Lou Holtz to swoop in and revitalize the sleeping giant in South Bend.  Equally engrossing is the birth of the U - the most intimidating, trash-talking, swagger-walking team that ever existed.  From Howard Schellenberger, the man who had the common sense and gumption to declare the fertile recruiting grounds of South Florida the "State of Miami," to the vastly different styles and personas of Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson, talent overcame the Miami coaching carousel.

The U embraced the role of "super-villain" to the other "super-hero" programs like Penn State, Notre Dame and Nebraska, except the "bad" guys dominated for more than a decade.  It doesn't feel that long ago, but it's a throwback reading about Miami, Penn State and Florida State as independents subscribing to the anytime, anywhere scheduling mentality.  And the antics the Hurricanes got away with are directly responsible for the sterilized excitement that's allowed in the game today.  Reading about it is one thing, but actually seeing the Canes in action is truly entertaining.  If you haven't seen the extraordinary 30 for 30 documentary on ESPN, you must.  (Here's a few short clips).  

All the excellent back stories set the stage for the in-depth game summaries of the 3 classic (and a few not-so-classic) doomsday-like matchups between the two schools.  To say bad blood existed between the teams is putting it mildly.  Carroll does a terrific job of stepping away from the action to sprinkle details and biographical subplots to the cast of characters, like how Pat Eilers went from a pre-med Yale football player to rushing for the go-ahead TD in the '88 grudge match.

I recommend "Perfect Rivals" wholeheartedly for any college football fan, let alone every one with a rooting interest in either Notre Dame or Miami.  Re-reading sections gets my blood boiling for the Sun Bowl and the 2012 series revival.  Here's hoping the powers that be don't wait another 12+ years for these programs to write some more history.  It'd be hard to capture the same confluence of magic and venom from Carroll's subject period, but any good rivalry deserves another turn.

No comments: