It can never be said too often: Professional football is a monotonous drone, college football pure joy.
Which is why Austin Murphy's Saturday Rules can be counted as good fun even if it meanders a bit -- and even amid the usual sportswriterly verbal tics of frequent allusions to airports, rental-car counters and other quotidian asides. Murphy, who covers college football for Sports Illustrated, shapes the book around two storied programs: Southern Cal and Notre Dame.
The fortunes of the Trojans and Irish throughout the 2006 season serve as a backdrop for your typical season-inside sports book, a concept honed to bestsellerdom by John Feinstein during the past 20 years.
Murphy's finest moments are in his introduction. He makes the case for the college game by drawing on everything from its varied styles of play (think Urban Meyer's offense at Florida) to its infinite rituals and traditions (animal mascots, marching bands and even a Horned Frog). "It is," Murphy writes, "in all its variegated splendor, the antidote to the corporate, clinical NFL, where the grail is parity, and a head coach needs a special waiver from the league to wear a suit on the sideline."
Need further proof? Watch the holy troika of college pregame hosts -- Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit -- invade a college campus for ESPN's College GameDay show. Students scream and yell and act like idiots. Flip on an NFL pregame show and enjoy the sacred environs ... of a setting fit for dissecting presidential debates.
To be certain, the college game suffers plenty of ills: too little student and too much athlete in the inescapable hyphenate student-athlete, overzealous boosters, too many decisions made by ESPN and their TV ilk, bloated coaches' salaries and more. Despite all that, college football retains a sense of spontaneity and fun that the NFL could never match. Rhapsodies about dotting the Ohio State "i" or Howard's Rock at Clemson or, yes, 100,000 Tennesseans howling "Rocky Top" are clichés for good reason. They demonstrate the beloved if ridiculous rituals of the college game. One sequence finds Murphy wandering around Jacksonville during the tailgating rituals preceding the annual Georgia-Florida drunkfest formerly known as The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. It is here that a half-baked Georgia fan (pardon the redundancy) offers the writer an alcoholic concoction known as Gator-Killer Punch. Prestone not included.
Other than foam cheeseheads, what traditions come to mind in the NFL? Lifeless stadiums filled with as much ambience as your average TV studio -- which, of course, is what those stadiums have become. Last season's Boise State overtime upset thriller over traditional power Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl provided more entertainment in a single game than an entire slate of NFL matchups. And for those who concede the point but declaim it as a one-in-a-million moment, let us present a second piece of evidence: Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32.
Murphy covers the basics of the 2006 season and recounts some of the backstory within the pressure cooker programs at Southern Cal and Notre Dame, as well as drive-by accounts of Florida, Auburn, Ohio State and a few others.
He suffers from an acute case of Notre Dame idolatry, praising Irish coach Charlie Weis and never laying blame on the coach when the team loses. If the Irish triumph, it's due to Weis' wiles. When they lose, it's due to a mismatch in talent, nothing Weis did, or did not do.
Signs of looming deadlines emerge throughout Murphy's chronicles. One account of a Notre Dame game includes consecutive sentences employing the clichés "beaten like a rented mule" and the even more cringe-worthy, "When it rains, it pours."
Then, too, there are bouts of overwriting. To wit: "Pivoting in midair like a cat, he locates the ball, dives for it, plucks it from the warm air inches above the blades of Bermuda Bullseye, the grass favored by Rose Bowl agronomists."
What Murphy lacks in polish -- or suffers due to crushing deadlines -- he makes up for with enthusiasm and hustle. Reading his 2006 recap makes one wonder whether there is any hotspot he missed. There is one, the Boise State win in the Fiesta Bowl. He makes good on that one, too. Murphy visited three bowls the same week Boise State triumphed over Oklahoma and, to make sure he missed nothing, flies out to the school's campus for a vivid recollection of how the victory came together and what it means for the underdog school.
Fittingly, the book ends not with Florida's whipping of Ohio State in the national championship game, but with the 2007 recruiting wars and who stands poised for the next national championship run. After all, as any college fan knows, the only thing better than football season is recruiting season.