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A Review of Sports Illustrated: The College Football Book

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Sports Illustrated has had a tough time of things in the last twenty or so years. The sharp cost increases and dwindling profits of the magazine business, the rise of the internet, ESPN's encroachment on markets they once dominated, and the general decrease in the turnover of the news cycle in cable-driven media have all been working against the sports weekly, and they've made quite a few shifts in response. One of those was to focus on the Illustrated portion of their title, and emphasize their photography prowess; the front of the magazine is now devoted to two-page spreads of the week's events, they give their galleries prominent positions on their website, and are generally slowly morphing into the sports equivalent of Life Magazine. 

I have no idea if this is working (it didn't for Life) but it does lend itself nicely to the coffee table trade. SI has now produced five such books, with full-page photographs interspersed with articles culled from their archives on various topics, and were nice enough to send me an advance copy of the latest, The College Football Book, to review.

The book works best when it artfully sets up the photographs and gets out of the way, contrasting tight portraits of Frank Kinard (1937) with Hugh Green (1980) on opposite pages or the clean cut Ohio State fans of 1957 with the Berkeley Bears crowd tearing down the goalposts in 2002. The editors have a wealth of material to choose from, much from before the advent of SI, and have chosen well, with lots of full bleed two pages spreads that just fascinate. The book is also not beholden to the big names - one of the best photos comes from a 2006 Bates-Colby matchup. (Those are, er, schools, not players.) 

The articles are here to serve the images, edited down to a single page or less and typically focused on a coach (Hayes, Bryant, Rockne, Robinson, Spurrier, Paterno, Hayes, Madigan) or player (Johnny Rodgers, Dick Butkus, Ernie Davis, Tony Dorsett, Charlie Justice, Lavar Arrington, O.J. Simpson, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, Archie Griffin, Randy Moss, Doug Flutie, Herschel Walker, Archie Manning, Vince Young, Jerry LeVias, Ricky Williams) and written for the most part contemporaneously. Rick Telander pens the introduction, the only new and complete piece in the book. I'd have preferred the texts reproduced in full, at the expense of the weakest part of the book, the interspersed decade summaries, four pages apiece and laid out identically. Only the program cover reproductions are of any interest (Lehigh in the '60's had a wonderful spoof Lehighboy cartoon, and in the '40's everyone was strangely patriotic) but the other three pages are almanac listings of the mythical champions, uninteresting all-decade teams, and godawful factoids on campus apparel, presidential quotes and other out of place minutia. It's almost as if they didn't trust the art to captivate, which it surely does.

WIth UNC's football history, the Heels were bound to be lightly represented. In addition to the Choo Choo Justice page, Lawrence Taylor appears in C.F. Payne caricature on the gatefold Alltime College All-Stars page, and there's a great photo of Deunta Williams in mid-air and headed earthward headfirst in Kenan. (In fact, UNC is more prevalent behind the scenes - a couple of the profiles are written by UNC alum S.L. Price.) But you don't buy this sort of book for partisan reasons; it's to idly flip through on fall Saturdays, and in that regard it's an unqualified success. This kind of book kind of defies review, as you already know if this is the sort of thing for you within fifteen seconds of seeing it in a bookstore. It's a great photographic testament to college football, and if that's of interest to you, by all means, pick it up.