What I’ve been reading — Waiting for the Fall, When Saturday Mattered Most

Waiting for the Fall: A Decade of Dreams, Drama and West Virginia University Football, by Mike Casazza. West Virginia fans clearly love their football, clearly love their state, and clearly love their football team. But they don’t always love their football coaches, particularly after they’ve left, often messily, on acrimonious terms. And what unique football coaches they are. Casazza, a beat reporter for the Daily Mail, chronicles the ups, downs, and just plain weirdness in the West Virginia football program over the last several years, from the emergence of Rich Rodriguez and his nasty exit to Michigan, the appointment of Bill Stewart as his successor (partially because he was the only coach Rodriguez did not invite to go with him to Michigan), and then busted handoff that was to be the Dana Holgorsen coach-in-waiting situation. And yet over that timespan West Virginia won three BCS bowl games and countless others, and generally looks well poised for success in the future. Casazza’s book sheds light into the personalities and figures making up the drama surrounding West Virginia — which really has been as wild as any program I can think of — with humor and clarity. The book isn’t as behind-the-scenes-Rich-Rodriguez-cried-into-his-hands as John Bacon’s book on Michigan, but Casazza has watched the WVU program carefully and leaves no major turn unreported. I enjoyed the book a great deal.**

When Saturday Mattered Most

- When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football, by Mark Beech. This book is a bit different than Casazza’s, given that it chronicles Army’s 1958 season, but has more parallels than one might have initially thought: Red Blaik, Army’s coach, like Rodriguez and Holgorsen, not only have to hold their teams together during trying circumstances, but do it with the assistance of some forward-thinking offensive schemes. But while for those WVU coaches it was (and is) the spread offense, for Blaik it was the “Lonesome Polecat.” Blaik, who had previously counted Vince Lombardi and Sid Gillman among his assistant coaches, had overcome a great deal of adversity to lead Army to an undefeated year in 1958, and I really enjoyed Beech’s telling of the tale. This is a very well-written book and is definitely a must for any football history buff; I learned a great deal.**

- The Alpha Masters: Unlocking the Genius of the World’s Top Hedge Funds, by Maneet Ahuja. I give this book a definite thumbs up but note some reservations for the would-be reader. The book consists of ten or so vignettes chronicling the backgrounds of various successful hedge fund managers, like Ray Dalio, Bill Ackman, Dan Loeb, John Paulson, and so on, and in that way is completely non-linear. (Not that there’s anything wrong with non-linear books.) And the information on their actual trading strategies is of uneven quality: For some, you can get a good sense of what kinds of investments the managers like and how they go about finding and executing on those opportunities. But for others not much was conveyed; I am no closer to explaining why Ray Dalio’s fund has been so successful now than I was before I read the book. And finally, the foreward, by PIMCO’s Mohamed El-Erian, and the afterward, by Nobel winner Myron Scholes, were almost entirely useless and poorly edited. All that said, I actually really enjoyed the stories in the book because, with some exceptions, I thought the book briskly told the stories of how these managers came to operate their funds, get started, find investors, and eventually find success. Almost all of them described failing at some job early in life and having to change career directions a few times before landing in their current spot, and almost all also described starting their funds with limited capital and just hoping someone would respond. John Paulson, who made a bajillion in the 2008 subprime debacle, and who had already shifted his career gears several times before launching his own merger arbitrage focused fund, sent out cards to every single person he knew only to receive nothing in return, and started his fund with his own money and little else. These stories were told well and make the book worthwhile, but only if you enjoy this kind of subject matter. (I do.)

- The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Tolstoy and translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I’m slowly making my way through the Pevear and Volohonsky translations of the great Russian texts, and I figured Ivan Ilyich and the other shorter stories of Tolstoy would be a nice introduction to him. As haunting as this story is, it really is affecting and excellent. Though, like anyone who has had a sick relative, there were moments as cringeworthy as anything I’ve ever read. That, of course, tells you something about Tolstoy’s genius.

- And don’t ask me why, but over about a week span a few months back when the weather was still nasty, I read the entire Hunger Games trilogy. All I’ll say is if you are only going to read one of them, read the first book and skip the other two. The good news about it is you can literally read the entire book in a day — or less. I’ve certainly read worse.

** I was sent review copies of the starred books above.

  • C.J. Schexnayder

    it’s tough to explain how influential blaik was to the game given how much his reputation has been overshadowed by lombardi since. he pioneered the two-platoon system and developed play-by-play analysis culled from film study as a planning tool to prepare for opponents. he also saw army through the honor code scandal in 1951 — an incident that might seem paltry by today’s standards but were truly shocking to the public given the high standards and respect for the military following world war II. 

    a testament to the high esteem with which blaik was held can be seen by the fact president kennedy tapped him as <a href="http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1129&dat=19630920&id=XsZaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=L2wDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5787,3435558" his personal representative in seeking a solution to the violent racial conflicts in birmingham, alabama in 1963.

    i look forward to reading this book.