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.)

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The Essential Smart Football is Now Available on Kindle

My new book, The Essential Smart Football, is now available on Kindle. You can click on the image below to go to the Amazon store:

The Essential Smart Football

You can read more about the book here, and it of course remains available in paperback.

*The Essential Smart Football*

That’s the title, and it’s by me. It’s available on Amazon, in paperback, and will be available in eBook form sometime in the next couple of weeks, but you can order a paperback copy today either here or here. For international readers, the book is also available on amazon.co.uk, amazon.fr, amazon.it, and amazon.es.

In the next few weeks I will post additional details on the book and my process in putting it together, but it is a collection of pieces, roughly two-thirds of which consist of older works that have been expanded and professionally edited, and another one-third of which are new. If you’ve read every single thing I’ve ever written you will recognize the portion of the book that is not all new, though as I said I have expanded and edited each piece. But this book  is my considered judgment of what I think constitutes the best and most essential of my thoughts on football — The Essential Smart Football.

I chose to publish this myself for a variety of reasons, among them the evolving landscape of the publishing industry, but I still had a great deal of help — including from my loyal readers — for which I am truly thankful.

If you have any marketing inquiries, please don’t hesitate to contact me at chris [at] smartfootball.com. I truly hope everyone enjoys the book.

What I’ve been reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Dan Kahneman. Science described this book as Gladwell’s “Blink with muscles” and that’s a fairly accurate, if slightly simplistic, summary. Kahneman’s book is extremely interesting and consists of almost all substance, yet is also clearly written and is a very fair account of Kahneman’s work over the years. Although it’s not directly about football given that it is about the nature of thinking and how our brains work, it’s of obvious application. Much of the book centers around the tension between what Kahneman calls our “System One” and “System Two” brains. This is not quite the same thing as saying between our impulsive and rational ways of thinking, particularly because our System One thinking is more than mere impulsiveness and it is extremely remarkable in the way that it can process and filter extreme amounts of information and form them into intuitive judgments and actions. But System One thinking is not a substitute for System Two, or rational thinking, but our brains have a limited capacity for engaging in System Two thinking — in Kahneman’s terms, our brain is often simply lazy about it — and so we’re constantly going back and forth between the two, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes not so much. It’s a fascinating read and one of the best books I’ve read in some time, though if you are extremely familiar with Kahneman and his frequent collaborator Tversky’s papers, the material won’t be particularly new.

- Pricing the Future: Finance, Physics, and the 300-year Journey to the Black-Scholes Equation, by George Szpiro. I’ve already once on this site discussed a book about the Black-Scholes equation, the very good Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance, so it may appear that I’m setting up some kind of cottage industry in reading books about that particular bit of financial arcana. But Szpiro’s book was actually of more general interest than the one about Fischer Black, as that one focused on Black’s life, upbringing, unique intellectual influences and fascination with the Capital Asset Pricing Model. Szpiro’s book really only builds to the Black-Scholes equation at the end, only after covering hundreds of years of mathematical history, focusing as much on Louis Bachelier, Einstein, Robert Brown and the discovery of Brownian motion, Nikolaevich Kolmogorov and the general intellectual underpinnings and history of probability theory. I enjoyed these portions of the book — though I am admittedly not a scholar of mathematics by any stretch — more than the latter chapters more specifically about finance. So I recommend it, but only for those who think they are likely to enjoy a book about the history of various mathematical characters or the development of one particular financial theory.

- What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, by Thomas Nagel.
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The most popular books bought by Smart Football readers in 2011

It’s very interesting to see what books Smart Football readers purchase. I get very minor referral revenues from Amazon purchases and, as a result, I am able to track which books readers purchase. The data is totally anonymous but it provides, in aggregate, some useful data.

The 20 Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2011

Below is the broken out list. I thought it was quite interesting and I am curious if anyone thinks any particular trends emerge; there are definitely a few surprises in there. Note that I only included the top 20 books in the chart above; it would’ve been too tedious to create an “Other” category.

Recommended reading, 2011 edition

I am frequently asked to recommend books for coaches or just people interested in learning more about the game. There really is no single one source — and I’m not sure there could be — but here are some suggestions of books I’ve enjoyed that tackle the strategic side of football.

- Finding the Winning Edge, by Bill Walsh. The bible.

- The Bunch Attack, by Andrew Coverdale and Dan Robinson. Probably my favorite passing game book of all time; don’t be scared off by the reference to the “bunch” only. Although that’s the theme, the book is really a comprehensive look at the passing game as a system, understanding defenses and coverages, protections, and how to build variations off of the passing game to make it all go. Coverdale and Robinson’s books on the quick pass game are essential as well.

- 2011 Offensive Line Coaches Handbook, edited by Earl Browning. all of the fancy stuff about the passing game and building a “pro-style” gameplan go out the window if you can’t block on some fundamental run plays and on pass plays, and the COOL Clinic lectures remain one of the best sources of information. I enjoyed this year’s edition, though you can find valuable information in almost all of them.

- Coaching the Under Front Defense, by Jerry Gordon. There are lots of good books on defense — including the all-time classic, Coaching Team Defense by Packers legend Fritz Shurmur — but I think Gordon’s book is a great overview and introduction not only to the 4-3 Under but the concept of team defenses generally. I also found it very helpful as a reference work, as out of the various other books and materials I have I kept pulling this off the shelf to see about defending runs pulling guards, certain pass concepts, and so on.

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What I’ve been reading

Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football, by John U. Bacon. I actually read this long ago when it first came out**, so I am late to the party. I thought it was a surprisingly entertaining and brisk read, as I finished it in a matter of days during an otherwise busy time. And many of the insights — particularly centering around Rodriguez’s time at West Virginia, the immediate transition, and the agendas of some of the local Michigan media — were fascinating both purely on the level of gossip and as an insight into the weird world of college sports. And if I have any complaint is that it is a profoundly Michigan book: I didn’t go there and I don’t have any particular affinity to the school, so some of the detail is relevant only to someone who deeply cares about the minutiae of the school (as Bacon clearly does) and, less generously, the narrative voice often veers into an extremely fan-centric view where everything Michigan is “proud” or “dignified” or “respectful” while every other Big 10 schools’ fans are “unruly” or “rude” or their coaches manipulative, and so on.

For a book that attempts to (and often succeeds) at telling a rather nuanced story about a complicated coach during a complicated time, that the book resorts to such tropes is not a plus, at least for those of us who didn’t spend four years in Ann Arbor. More interestingly, of course, is the portrayal of Rodriguez. He comes across generally well though rather naive — “What, you mean I must say the right thing and play some internal politics at Michigan?” — and then as the losses mount he basically appears to lose it, alternatively throwing furniture or crying after games. And yet he still comes across better than those around him, including Lloyd Carr. So I recommend the book if you have an interest in Rodriguez or Michigan (especially if you care about Michigan and can handle that perspective), and if you ever plan on being the head coach of a BCS school, there are many good lessons of the what-not-to-do-variety embedded in here.

- The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. This melancholy novella was the winner of this year’s Man Booker prize. I am unsure if I would say it deserved the prize, but I completely understand why it won: the writing is crisp and, at times, beautiful; and the story, which centers around a man and his immediate circle during their school days and his attempts to remember certain details some years later under unique circumstances, is generally tightly wrought and even has some (sort of) plot twists. It also felt extremely manipulative at times, as Barnes set me with mysteries, threw out some bizarre and somewhat implausible plot details, and then purposefully left the ending completely fuzzy (I have a particular interpretation which is, without giving anything away, that I still do not completely believe the narrator’s final account of the events at the end of the book). The best thing I can say is that at a short 140 or so pages, it was the perfect length for what it is, whatever that may be: I don’t regret at all buying or reading it, and, true to the book’s theme, I’ll probably remember the book more fondly than I initially experienced it.

- The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon.
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What I’ve been reading

The Assembly Line, by Milt Tenopir. Tenopir was the offensive line coach at Nebraska under the great Tom Osborne, and was thus the architect of some of the greatest rushing attacks — no, greatest offenses — the game has ever seen, particularly in their heydey in the mid-1990s. (400 yards rushing and 52 points per game is not too shabby.) The book focuses on how Tenopir and Osborne focused on a few blocking schemes like the inside and outside zone and the counter trey and added multiple run actions and many, many options off of those looks. It’s nothing revolutionary, but in football, what’s great rarely is.

- Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik. I didn’t put a lot of thought into this before I bought it, but all I wanted was some easy-to-read travel reading as I’ll be heading back to France in the coming months. The other factors were that I generally like Gopnik’s writings in the New Yorker and the book won some kind of awards or whatnot, and that was that. So far, so good, though it does read a bit like it was from an earlier time (were the late 1990s really so long ago?). Overall, I recommend it, but I’m still plowing through.

- The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story, by Michael Lewis. I love anything Lewis writes — and this is no exception — but I wouldn’t put this book on the same level as The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Moneyball, and Liar’s Poker. It’s a thoroughly entertaining story about dotcom maven Jim Clark, which is a story surprisingly relevant today given the surge of new would-be internet billionaires from the likes of Groupon, LinkedIn, Facebook and so on. The book drags a bit, however, as it follows Clark in his expensive and time consuming quest to build a (nearly) fully automated mechanical yacht.

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The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football

This is a new book by John J. Miller, and it is very interesting so far. Roosevelt’s perspective is not unlike our own today, as he loved football but understood its dangerous. His interventions in the game were to save it from its fiercest critics. And the debate reached the highest levels, as the great Judy Battista observes in her review in this past weekend’s New York Times book Review:

[Roosevelt] convened a White House summit with football’s leading coaches and thinkers; even Elihu Root, the secretary of state, attended. Miller argues that this was the moment when Roosevelt put his stamp on the sport by imploring the men to crack down on dirty play and reform the way the game was coached. With Roosevelt’s encouragement, Miller says, a series of rules changes was set in motion — among them, increasing the number of referees and strengthening penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct — that ultimately quieted the critics enough to allow the colleges to play on.

What I’ve been reading

Nike Coach of the Year Clinic – 2011 and the 2011 Offensive Line Coaches C.O.O.L. Clinic Handbook, each edited by Earl Browning. These simply must be purchased every year. I’m just now getting into the C.O.O.L. clinic handbook, but the C.O.O.L. clinic is the best offensive line coaches clinic out there. And the Nike Coach of the Year Manual, as always, has some great stuff, including great information from Chris Ault of Nevada on the Pistol and Gary Patterson of TCU. With these you always know what you get: an accessible, digestible breakdown of discrete topics by great coaches in the “hot” areas among coaches.

- Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, by Michael Sandel. This is one of those books I passed by at least ten times before I finally bought it at one of those Borders going-out-of-business sales. I didn’t buy it because I knew it would cover a lot of territory I was already familiar with, including the 1,000th spin on the infamous trolley problem. But of course that is also the reason I eventually bought it, and I haven’t been disappointed. The book is based on Sandel’s famous philosophy course at Harvard (which was filmed and reproduced by PBS), and has the accessible, even-handed tone of a good instructor. The book doesn’t break any new ground (it isn’t designed to) and if you’ve read all the source material — Kant, Mill, Rawls, Nozick, and of course Plato and so on — then maybe this book isn’t so necessary, but I enjoyed it a great deal and do recommend it.

- Women, by Charles Bukowski. And now for something completely different. This is a filthy book by a filthy old man (this seems like a common genre these days) but, though tedious in parts, is highly entertaining and Bukowski does both have a simple, elegant way with words and an eye for good set pieces. But parents, don’t buy this one for your kids.

- The American, by Henry James. If you enjoyed the Bukowski book but feel like you need an intellectual shower to clean off, then the old don himself, Henry James, is typically a good, safe and sterile choice. I downloaded this on my Kindle about a week ago when flying and devoured the whole book. The American has a rather preposterous plot but James somehow makes almost everyone in the book thoroughly likable.

- The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley. This book looks, sounds, and reads like it was written by an economist, except that it is more entertaining (and probably more informative too). This actually makes some sense given that the author is Matt Ridley, a trained biologist who happened to be an editor for The Economist for close to ten years. The upshot of the book is that we often underestimate humanity’s ability for upward progress, naming a few different causes, most notable among them being job and task specialization throughout history. The book itself is excellent and while I generally agree with his premise that our trajectory is upward, it’s not clear that all of the credit (or blame) can rest on the causes he names. But these are quibbles; if not exactly spectacular, it’s a solid book.