You know you’re in good hands from the first pages of Inman Majors‘ novel “Love’s Winning Plays,” when the uncomfortable sight of a naked head coach’s toweling technique leads into a brief but savvy discussion on attacking the two-deep zone. (I should mention, for clarity’s sake, that “attacking the two-deep zone” is in no way a reference to the toweling technique.)
In case that naked head coach thing threw you off, the book also includes beautiful women, beer drinking, golf, opera, and more beer drinking. And football! Majors knows football — his uncle is Johnny Majors (the former Tennessee and Pitt coach), his dad played at Florida State with Burt Reynolds, and his family tree is loaded with football men. Inman landed at James Madison University in Virginia, where he teaches fiction writing (“Love’s Winning Plays” is his fourth novel).
The book is funny, but also smart about everything from booster clubs to book clubs. Dan Jenkins gets mentioned twice on the back cover, and that’s exactly the right neighborhood. This book is surely the best novel you will ever read that includes a blurb by Barry Switzer.
I emailed some questions to Inman about the book, football, and life. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited.
Q. Because of your family, did you go to a lot of games growing up? Did you spend a lot of time in locker rooms?
A. Yes, I went to a ton of games growing up. I saw the first ever college games of players like Tony Dorsett (Pitt vs Georgia) and Herschel Walker (Georgia vs Tennessee) and was fortunate enough to see games in most of the SEC venues, as well as at places like Notre Dame and Florida State. And of course I saw a lot of my grandfather’s games when he was the coach at Sewanee.
The best perk that came with being related to a coach was the access you had to the locker room and playing fields. When I was a kid, we’d wait till all the players and coaches had cleared out, then we’d go through the locker room like Sanford and Son, snagging leftover rolls of tape, used and disgusting sweatbands, elbow pads, chin straps, etc. If you were really lucky you’d come across a tear-away jersey. It would make you cry to know how many Tony Dorsett jerseys I went through playing football out in the yard (though I did find a couple recently that had somehow survived my childhood unharmed and mailed those back to Tony).
But it was the tape that we really stocked up on. We’d use it to tape up wiffle balls and Nerfs to make them heavier so they’d go farther. And we’d tape every part of our body we could reach just to try and look tough.
It was a pretty sweet childhood, I’ll have to admit. I hate that my own children won’t get to experience all that I did.
Q. What did the football people in your family think about the book?
A. They liked it. My uncle John actually bought a copy for Derek Dooley, who sent me a funny note about it. He’s a good dude, by the way. In all honesty, it was probably a little too smart alecky for my Uncle John though. My bet is he liked my last book better, which was a serious political novel. That said, he did go to bat for me, rounding up quotes for the book from folks like Jon Gruden (who was a GA on his Tennessee staff), Brent Musburger (an old friend), and Barry Switzer (whom he coached with when they were assistants on Frank Broyles’ staff at Arkansas).
Q. Should Derek Dooley have survived?
A. I know two things: 1) he walked into a situation three years ago that was a hot pile of stink and 2) four coaches in six years is a tough road back to competitiveness.
I think he’ll get another chance to be a head coach somewhere and will thrive. Tennessee is a tougher job than people realize. It’s a bit like Nebraska. Both programs have long and proud histories. But neither has great homegrown talent. If a school like Texas, Georgia, Florida, or Alabama ever has a dry spell, a good coach can just come in and throw a net around the homegrown talent and get them back up to speed pretty quickly. That’s not the case at Tennessee or Nebraska. What you notice with both those schools during a down cycle is that they still have good skill players—receivers, defensive backs, quarterbacks, all the little guys. But what they don’t have are those dominant defensive linemen, those speed rushers on the end. And until you have those folks who can dominate the line of scrimmage and pressure the quarterback, you can’t compete for big trophies.
Look at LSU these last few years. They run a middle school offense that is absolutely brutal to watch. Pop Warner stuff. I actually have no idea what scheme they’re trying to run. It just looks like a bunch of gobbily gook. But they have so much talent on the defensive front seven that they can still be a top ten team. Big guys that can run can cover up a lot of other problems.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind: For every Alabama who fired a Mike Shula pretty early in his tenure and hired a Nick Saban, there’s a West Virginia who held on to a Bobby Bowden despite some lean early years and lived to reap the benefits. It’s a tough situation in Knoxville, but I hope it works out for the best both for Coach Dooley and for the folks in Tennessee.
In the end, though, I don’t think Tennessee will ever compete for championships
regardless who is coach if they don’t get rid of the Woo! they’ve added to “Rocky Top,” which was formerly the greatest fight song in the country. I can see yelling Woo! at a Taylor Swift concert. But in Neyland Stadium? Against Florida or Alabama? That’s a Woo! I might reconsider.
Q. Are any of the characters modeled on people you met along the way? (If
somebody’s modeled on Von Driver, don’t tell me. I don’t want to put a real face
to the Towel Scene.)
A. Yes, the towel scene. That’s the one that seems to have scarred a lot of people. I just know that when I was playing high school ball you always hoped you could get out of the locker room before the coaches starting jiggling their way toward the shower.
But yes, a lot of the characters are based on some of the people you come across in the university scene: the local sportswriter, the big cigar booster, the message board types, and so on. I’ve exaggerated a lot of the characteristics of these folks for comedic effect, but their real life inspirations are out there, prowling the campuses in Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, Knoxville, and the rest of the SEC.
Q. Did you ever have an interest in being a coach like Raymond Love? By which
I mean, how hard would you bludgeon an assistant coach who suggested the
A. I never seriously considered being a coach since I didn’t play in college. Plus I knew how tough the lifestyle was, how hard it is on the family.
But if I were a coach, I would open a big can of whoop-ass on any assistant who ran the prevent defense or any assistant who called a fade route down near the goal line. By the way, when will the dirty little secret that the fade route is the shittiest play in football ever get out? It amazes me how rarely it works and how often it’s called. There’s some kind of conspiracy afloat about it. When a coach calls that, he’s all but saying: I have no idea what to do here. But at least the fans won’t boo when it doesn’t work. It’s the ultimate give-up call by a coach.
Q. The sportswriter in the novel is a bit of a weasel. I assume you understand that in real life, sportswriters are noble wordsmiths who tend to resemble George Clooney.
A. I did know that. But sportswriters have been racking up the chicks for so long now, I just got tired of it. I don’t know if it’s more their good looks or more their sunny dispositions that account for their lofty perch upon the totem pole of masculinity, but enough was enough.
In actuality, this might be the golden age of sports writing. I read a ton of good sports writers, people who are funny, smart, and just really talented. And in my book a distinction is made between sports writers who actually like sports and those who don’t. So I’m in favor of the Bill Simmons type, who you can tell actually has some respect for the game and the people who play and coach it. And against the Skip Bayless type, who is just trying to be the biggest tool on the planet. The guy in my book is more of a Bayless, simply because dipshits are more enjoyable to make fun of than other people.
Q. The bloggers, though — actual weasels, right?
A. Do you mean the message board dudes? You know, Tommy, if grown men enjoy gossiping about 20 year old college guys anonymously with each other over the Internet, I say, so much the better. And before you ask, no, I don’t see anything homoerotic about it at all. Or the Brett Favre Wrangler commercials either, while we’re on the subject. Or fist bumps. Or sportscasters talking about a basketball player’s “length.”
Q. Does humor belong in college football? Answer carefully.
A. When you’ve got Nick Saban on the scene, you must also have Lee Corso. It’s the ying and yang of the universe.
Q. I understand you’re an Alabama fan. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the destruction of the planet, how much does that loss to A&M hurt?
You know, I’m probably the only Bama, Vandy, Tennessee fan there’s ever been. (I went to Vanderbilt for undergraduate and Alabama for grad school). I’m sure that strikes a lot of people as schizophrenic or just straight heresy, but when you grow up related to a coach, you are cheering less for the school than for your relative. At the end of the day, you know your relative can be fired at any time, so your allegiance to the institution is a little tempered. You’re with ‘em, but not of ‘em.
Once my uncle stopped coaching, I found I couldn’t get too worked up about it anymore. I still love football and watch a lot of it, but there’s no team who can mess up my Saturday night by losing these days.
Q. What’s football like at James Madison?
A. Surprisingly good on all fronts. It’s a high caliber of ball and the game day experience is good too. I was a little snobbish about attending a game after spending so many years in SEC venues, but it’s a nice stadium, there’s a good tailgating scene, and they have a rocking band. Plus you can get in and out in about 30 minutes. If you spent as much of your life trying to get in and out of Athens, Georgia or Auburn, Alabama as I did, you can appreciate small things like that.
Q. Is there some way college football can be the sport we love without the corruption, the under-the-table money, the lack of concern about academics? Or
is that the price we pay for what the game gives us?
A. That’s the million dollar question. Or more like the billion dollar question. Unfortunately, as long as the money is such that it is, I think you’ll always have an element in college sports that doesn’t gibe with the stated goals of an academic institution. I think the university presidents would love to have the football tail stop wagging the university dog, but they can’t get past all the alumni who want a good team, who want to spend their Saturdays in the fall watching a winning effort.
Football obviously has a place on a college campus. As Bear Bryant said, it’s hard to have a pep rally around a chemistry lab. And college game day is a great gathering place for folks who love a particular school. It gives the university an air of romance and excitement, history and nostalgia, that nothing else at the university can replace.
Now, would people still enjoy it as much if all the best young players went and played minor league football somewhere instead of at the alma mater? I tend to doubt it. Just look at college basketball these days — it’s pretty brutal to watch with all the best players leaving after one year to go to the NBA. People have been spoiled by watching high-caliber performers for too long. To suddenly ask Texas and Southern Cal to turn out in big numbers for an Ivy League type performance just seems far-fetched.
So as long as you have the majority of people in a community who really value winning and having a pre-professional product on the field, then I don’t see how the university presidents ever close Pandora’s box.
Q. What’s your favorite football memory?
A. Personally, it would be playing on the 1981 Webb School of Knoxville state
championship football team in high school. My best memory for one of my uncle’s games has to be the 1976 Sugar Bowl when Pitt beat Georgia for the national championship. My dad gave me and my brother each a hundred dollar bill when we arrived for the week, told us we had our own hotel room, then basically said, I’ll see you in a week. I was eleven and my brother eight. So we’d cruise Bourbon Street in the day (still surprises me how many practitioners of the burlesque were up and about in the morning and how many seemed to enjoy shocking young Knoxvillians as they trolled for trading card shops and pinball arcades). Then we’d catch the team bus in the afternoon to the Superdome and hang out on the sidelines during practice, throwing balls and just generally getting in the way. And at night, we’d exchange insults with the Georgia fans, who had the Pitt ones outnumbered about 8-1. Trust me, after we’d whomped them 24-3 in the game, there were not quite so many hairy dogs hunkering down in the French Quarter.
To top it all off, Lee Majors, star of my favorite show, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” was at the game and I got my picture made with him.
All and all, a pretty nice week.
Q. You’re very clear in this book about your philosophy on fist bumps: You’re agin’ ‘em. How did this core belief come about? And is there any scenario when a fist bump is OK?
A. My reaction to the fist bump was intuitive and organic. The first time I witnessed it, I thought to myself: ”Why are those men touching each other like that?” It was just so delicate, you know. And it seemed like the people who do it, like to do it a lot. I mean, again, I believe in live and let live. If you grew up with Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber as your role models, then by all means, man touch away. But for me, personally, I prefer to greet my friends with a handshake when I first see them on a particular day then never touch then again, as our forefathers did and their forefathers before them.