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.

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.

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.


What I’ve been reading

Wing-T: The Wing-T From A To Z: The Base Plan, by Dennis Creehan, and 101 Delaware Wing-T Plays, by Harold “Tubby” Raymond. Both look promising — if a bit overkill (101 plays?) — and the Wing-T is my offseason project. I’m convinced Wing-T blocking schemes will make (or are making) a comeback, as the hegemony of zone blocking cannot last forever. Any recent leads on Wing-T developments would be much appreciated.

– Lern 2 Rite: How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, by Stanley Fish and On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King (yes that Stephen King). Somewhat surprisingly, King’s book is the better of the two, and I bought it (i.e. downloaded for my Kindle) essentially on the strength of this recommendation. The first part of King’s book, a very well told (and brief) autobiography of his writing life, is moving and, dare I say, inspiring. Fish’s book aspires to be a more academic contribution to the concept of building and deconstructing a sentence, and while it is written as a narrative, it exists in a netherworld between being an entertaining and enlightening contribution on writing (as King’s book manages to be) and an academic text. If you’re interested in the subject (and I mean seriously interested), get this book instead.

– On the shelf, at the store: I recently bought The Handbook of Loan Syndications and Trading and Leveraged Finance: Concepts, Methods, and Trading of High-Yield Bonds, Loans, and Derivatives, but don’t even ask. The Economist recommends this book, but I’m skeptical. And I am finally almost done with The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk, which I’ve been reading off an on for over a year now.

What I’m reading (and watching)

Pistol Offense DVDs, by Chris Ault, and Coaching the Spread Offense, edited by Earl Browning (same guy that does the Nike COY clinics). I just ordered these so I can’t yet give full reviews just yet. The Pistol DVDs by Ault are self-recommending, though if you’ve seen them, please let me know your thoughts. The table of the contents of the book can be found here; I take it that this book includes old Nike COY clinic articles/talks packaged into one volume. Again, any insight is appreciated.

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. This book is better than I expected (all 832 pages!) though I suppose that is both evidenced by the fact and maybe because I read it in non-linear fashion: I expected to only read the parts I cared about so I began when Buffett joined the hedge fund of his mentor Benjamin Graham, but found myself backtracking and then finishing the book straight through, as Buffett went from local Nebraska stock-picker to the buyer of entire companies he is today. Buffett comes across as a genuinely nice guy, enjoyable to be around, and slightly but affectionately odd,. Yet the lesson I primarily learned was that you don’t become the richest guy in the world without being obsessive, and that includes obsessiveness to the point of neglect of your family. Buffett isn’t a bad person, but obsessed with money and more interested in his own business dealings than with really anything else in life, and it’s clear what he wanted from a wife was more caretaker than anything else, as evidenced by his bizarre yet amicable separation from his wife who hooked him up with one of her own friends to be her successor (Buffett would still go to public events with his legal wife, Susie). Tom wrote a review of The Genius, which is about Bill Walsh, and said it reminded him of the Snowball. I had the same reaction, though in the opposite direction. About the Walsh book, Tom observed: “After finishing the book, and including the description of Walsh’s open and notorious adultery (see Buffett above) and general neglect of his family, I’m starting to firm up my belief being a great football coach is incompatible with the rest of humanity is about. Walsh was, comparatively at least, acclaimed for his interest in stuff other than football, but his obsession with the game and its tumults is at odds with that reputation of his.” It’s likely that this kind of obsession is not only a hallmark of successful coaches, but many professionally successful people as well.

Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices, by Noah Feldman. I don’t necessarily recommend this book to those who aren’t predisposed to book-length works about Supreme Court justices, but the subjects here — Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson, and William O. Douglas — are as good as it gets as far as judicial biographies go. Hugo Black went from former Ku Klux Klan member to civil rights champion; Robert Jackson began as a country lawyer and ended up maybe the greatest Justice on his Court and the chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials; Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard law professor and close confidante of Roosevelt, was known as a leading liberal scholar and architect of the New Deal, but once on the Court became known as one of the more conservative justices while the Court marched forward on civil rights and the first amendment; and William O. Douglas was, well, unlike anyone else, as described by a fantastic review by Judge Richard Posner (ignore the title of the blog post here; the article was originally published in the New Republic):


What I’ve been reading

Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance, by Perry Mehrling. I was surprsed at how much I enjoyed this book. Black was a unique guy, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised I liked this book as much as I did. Indeed, in many ways it’s the perfect book for me: an intellectual history about someone who believed that the world suffered from too little theory, rather than too much (he used to say that if the evidence contradicted the theory you don’t simply throw the theory out, you get back to work and think about why the evidence didn’t support the theory); who was willing to take wildly idiosyncratic views to see where they led (his options pricing formula was based on his firm belief in the Capital Asset Pricing Model, but it succeeded because once you went down that route you didn’t need CAPM’s assumptions for it to work because they canceled each other out, and he had strange views on the Business Cycle which remain both largely ignored yet fertile ground for provoking thought); and who managed to straddle both the academy and the real world (Black bookended his career by working first for the consulting firm Arthur D. Little and later Goldman Sachs, with stints as a professor at the University of Chicago and MIT inbetween).

Black also is a surprisingly interesting enough guy for someone who enjoyed quietly sitting at his desk for extended periods of time, as evidenced by his four marriages and occasional professional quarrels, though the book takes off after Black leaves graduate school (where he studied under Quine) and enters the real world. And while this book doesn’t immediately appear to offer any lessons for football, I think that depends on how you look at it. In any event, this paper attempts to apply some of Black’s macroeconomic theories to the recent financial crisis, and these blog posts here and here summarize his claims. In the words of Tyler Cowen: “[W]hy did both Milton Friedman and Bob Solow scorn him as a macroeconomist? Well, Fischer pushed two (actually more) controversial claims. First, the Fed cannot influence real or nominal variables, unless traders allow it to. Second, business cycles are caused by mismatches of tastes and production plans. If both of these were correct, Black would be the greatest macroeconomist of the century.”

On finance, the Nobel Press release (which Fischer Black was ineligible for, as he died before the award was given to Myron Scholes and Robert Merton) is informative. It’s worth pointing out, for those into this sort of thing, that Black didn’t look at the Black-Scholes formula as perfect; he wrote a paper in 1989 (which updated findings he’d published over a decade earlier) called “How to Use the Holes in Black-Scholes,” and when his collaborator Myron Scholes asked Black to join his hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management (which infamously blew up after years of never having a losing day, as recounted in Roger Lowenstein’s great book When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management“>When Genius Failed), Black declined, saying their strategies were too risky and that they were borrowing too much money to finance their supposedly surefire bets. Black died before his prophecy could come true.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, by Ward Farnsworth. Although completely different than the book above, I also highly recommend this new tome. It’s essentially a textbook — and even further, a book of examples — but the examples are carefully chosen, and the commentary is both very interesting and appropriately limited. “Rhetoric” in the title is used in the older sense (hence “Classical” in the title), and the book consists of rhetorical devices used by masters of the English language to enhance their prose and communication. One great feature of the book is it is not limited to writers: Farnsworth makes extensive use of the greatest speakers of the English language, from Churchill to Lincoln to Daniel Webster and to Edmund Burke. Here is a (very positive) Wall Street Journal review of the book.

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (New Edition), by Bryan Caplan, and Political Parties, by Robert Michels. I’m trying to get up to speed on Public Choice theory, and these both came highly recommended. So far I’m enjoying the Caplan book more, though that may be due to his provocative and idiosyncratic views.

– Not a book — and still, not truly football (apologies) — but the internet is buzzing about A.J. Daulerio’s GQ Profile. I don’t have much to add, though I found this excerpt interesting:

I ask if his persona on Deadspin is who he is in real life.

“I think it’s very close,” he says. “I think that’s part of the problem, too.”

I think that’s all you can really ask of any writer or blogger — is your product true to you? I also think it’s worth comparing the GQ piece with the New Yorker’s bit this week on Aol (yes that is how the company capitalizes it now), which is trying to evolve from a fee-based internet provider to a content generator. An excerpt:

[M]ost of [Aol CEO Tim] Armstrong’s turnaround strategy — make the site cleaner, add local news, create unique content, make AOL a destination portal — is based on ideas from the Internet’s past . . . . But Web advertising rates have decreased in recent years, since demand (the number of Web pages) vastly outpaces supply (the number of advertisers). . . . Other portals offer an array of content. All vie for advertising, talent, and the attention of consumers. While AOL — like Yahoo and the Huffington Post — boasts of the original journalism it produces, it doesn’t employ a single overseas correspondent. . . . Perhaps Tim Armstrong will manage to make AOL rise again, but there’s a much more common path followed by digital companies — like Wang, DEC, Starwave, Excite, and Lycos. They rise, then they sputter, and then they crash.

I’m certain that there is a relationship between the New Yorker and GQ pieces and the Public Choice books above.

What I’ve been reading

Blood, Sweat & Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today’s Game, by Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated. This book, which covers the evolution of football through the coaches that thought up the game’s various innovations — and the circumstances in which they did so — is not without errors. There are diagrams that aren’t quite right, and technical explanations that are either incomplete or a bit off. But it more than makes up for these by capturing the mood, the milieu, the zeitgeist existing at these moments in time when football takes a step forward, particularly in the first half of the book. Football coaches are busy, practical men: as much fun as Xs and Os can be, they are a small part of what it takes to win ballgames, and can only enter the picture once the essentials (discipline, organization, and good teaching) are in place. Thus the great leaps forward — the birth of the option, innovations like the wing-t and other offenses, and the rise of the passing game and later the spread — were almost all borne of some exigency or emergency, by clever, desperate men looking for practical solutions.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson. Bryson, described by the FT as “America’s Favorite Professor” (despite being a college dropout), is of course always fascinating to read, and this effort is no different. The book’s organization is a bit jumbly — the loose superstructure is supposed to be that Bryson walks through his own home and reflects and tells stories based on what he sees — but that’s all really besides the point, as the anecdotes and trivia are all themselves entertaining.

The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home, by Dan Ariely. Not as good as Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition, Ariely’s earlier layman’s guide to behavioral economics, but, as with everything he’s written, is still well worth the read. I also recently read the similarly behavioral economics themed book, Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them: Lessons from the Life-Changing Science of Behavioral Economics. If you don’t know anything about anchoring, framing and so on, this would be an enjoyable book, but reading it felt to me like homework.

The Imperfectionists,” by Tom Rachman. I’ve yet to begin reading this, but if it’s half as good as its buzz — recommended by people as diverse as Adam Schefter and Malcolm Gladwell (then again are they that different?) — it will be well worth the effort. Also in the stack of books to be read is Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, by Nicholas Phillipson.

What I’ve been reading

Coaching Football’s 46 Defense, by Rex Ryan. That’s  the link to the (five hour) DVD Rex made while at the University of Cincinnati. I just ordered book by Ryan and Jeff Walker on the 46 defense; I assume more of the same, but I’m a book guy. Either way (and not a surprise given his lineage), Rex knows all there is to know about this defense.

Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, by Ray Bradbury. I can’t write like Bradbury — he of Fahrenheit 451 — but this exuberant, infectious screed about the joys of writing makes me want to try.

Distress Investing: Principles and Technique, by Martin Whitman and Fernando Diz. This book is neither exuberant nor infectious, but it does a surprisingly good job explaining the nuts and bolts of workouts, liquidations and Chapter 11 and the effect that has on a company’s securities (stocks, bonds, etc.). As interesting (or as dry) as it was, it is of more academic than practical interest to me — I won’t be buying any syndicated loans participation rights for myself any time soon. (I’m more of an indexer myself.)

The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life, by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff. As far as primers on game theory go, this one is much better than Rock, Paper, Scissors, but there’s nothing particularly new here either and — after a furious train ride where I read about half of it in one sitting — I haven’t touched it in a month. I will finish it, eventually. (Or so I tell myself.)

Selected Tales and Sketches, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was always just ever-so-slightly wordier than I liked (an ironic criticism coming from me, no doubt), but these little stories are a pleasure to read, especially if you only have a few minutes.

The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. Excellent, melancholy — essentially what you’d expect from Pamuk. Although he is older, the characters here felt younger and less ironic than in his prior books.

And finally,  a question: In the last few months there have been a spate of books professing to bring football knowledge to the masses –The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays, the Jaworski/Steve Sabol book and Sports Illustrated Blood, Sweat & Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today’s Game, Tim Layden’s book, being two of them. I’ve flipped through them and read excepts, and though Layden is an excellent writer and Jaworski a guy I generally respect (at least in the context of his narrow football worldview), I find myself unable to pick them up; life always seems too short. Am I missing out? Are they enjoyable and informative romps through football history? Or are they aimed at a sub-Smart Football audience, the fan who has watched for years but never really bothered to learn the difference between a blitz and a zone run. Let me know.

What I’ve been reading

Football Scouting Methods, by Steve Belichick. For a long time, this widely revered tome by Steve Belichick, Bill’s dad, was out of print — and so I never read it. But I recently realized that it had been re-released and thus the price came down from its prior astronomical levels to the very affordable $10. One of the Amazon reviewers helpfully includes the table of contents for curious readers:

1. A case for specialization in scouting
2. Preparations for scouting
3. What is expected of the scout
4. Worksheet forms and terminology
5. How to recognize the defense
6. Scouting the defense
7. Defensive analysis
8. Scouting the offense
9. Offensive analysis
10. The final report
11. Self-scouting and post game analysis
12. Tip offs

Surreptitiously filming your opponents red zone plays is, to my knowledge, not covered, but hopefully the wisdom herein will trickle into my writing here on the site.

More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite, by Sebastian Mallaby. First things first: Mallaby, who is a former writer for the Economist and whose prior book, The World’s Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (about Jim Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president), was excellent, has written a full-throated defense of hedge funds and hedge fund managers — a rather unique topic in today’s climate. But whatever your views on this “new elite,” Mallaby’s book is extremely informative and entertaining, as, unsurprisingly, the history of hedge funds is filled with quixotic characters. I thoroughly enjoyed this, even if, at the end, while the financial world was crumbling as a result of the risk taking of many, Mallaby’s book becomes something of a thriller where we wait to see if various hedge funds will blow up or survive. The fact that he can overcome such oddities is a testament to Mallaby’s formidable writing skills. For a sample chapter, check out this piece from the Atlantic, covering George Soros’s successful effort to break the British pound.

Hitch-22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens. I have a very soft spot for Hitch, as his rhetorical prowess is such that he could say basically anything and, because it sounds so good and is said so well, you fall in for it, even if just a bit. (And sometimes you wonder if he doesn’t set himself up that way on purpose.) But when he’s on your side, there are few better or more forceful advocates. Hitch-22: A Memoir — which is not a memoir at all, but is instead just a roughly chronological series of stories Mr. Hitchens has chosen to tell about himself and his famous friends — is fun, pungent, and elegantly written; a perfect beach read for the Fourth of July, when I read it. It doesn’t do much to explain the man (or maybe it does?), but Hitchens has always been less about bracing complexity for complexity’s sake than acknowledging it (which alone differentiates him from many commentators), then choosing a side (thus differentiating him from the rest), and asserting the moral high ground until you concede or his position is no longer remotely tenable. A sample chapter on his friendship with Martin Amis is available from Vanity Fair.

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic, by Joseph Ellis. Ellis is maybe my favorite storyteller/historian on American History (there are historians and storytellers, and for some reason with American History few successfully manage both roles). Ellis charts early American history — post revolutionary war, in particular — through the men that made it and it made famous, though without deifying them in the process. A great text to help fill in the gaps and to give some much needed perspective on a now much discussed time.

More “influential” book lists

A quick rundown of more book lists, either in response to my list or to others’. The following are lists by:

Aaron Nagler

Matt Hinton

Tyler of The Lions in Winter


Dave of Pigskin Punditry

Trent of Howling with Mirth

Nathan Matthew

Kieran Healy

Ivar Hagendoorn

Matt Yglesias

And, though it’s not a most influential list, this is Brophy’s recent reading list. And I am still waiting on some other prominent sports bloggers to chime in. Don’t be afraid of being judged, in our little sarcastic, self-referential, self-deprecating world.