Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: Feinstein's latest book worth a read
It was supposed to be a pizza-in-the-den weekend, watching college basketball.This was scheduled to be the first weekend of the NCAA Division I men's and women's basketball tournaments, and also the weekend of the Elite Eight and the Final Four games for the Division III men.
You could watch reruns of classic games — I'm looking at you UMBC and Virginia — or, you could read about college basketball that is played away from the klieg lights of ESPN and CBS.
John Feinstein's new book is "The Back Roads to March: The Unsung, Unheralded and Unknown Heroes of a College Basketball Season."
And if those teams in the book are unheralded heroes, Feinstein and his book are the heroes we need right now.
I have been a Feinstein fan ever since "A Season on the Brink," his book about spending the year embedded with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers.
Two of his other books have been personal favorites. "The Last Amateurs" spends a year covering the low-major Division I Patriot League, while "A Civil War" is about the Army-Navy football rivalry.
Former Williams College basketball coach Harry Sheehy was almost a major character in "The Last Amateurs," but turned down the Colgate job when he was still coaching the Ephs. Emmitt Davis took the Colgate job. Had Sheehy been at Colgate, the book might have been twice as long, because Sheehy has always been an All Notebook/All Recorder first-teamer.
"The Back Roads to March" is also a first-teamer. The book more than successfully describes life in mid-major conferences, and introduces us to coaches that many of us don't know.
The book moves swiftly from one chapter, and one location, to another. Some of the coaches experience brutal losses. They are brutally honest in their assessments and in their comments.
One of Feinstein's strengths is getting subjects, be it Bobby Knight or Tom Glavine or Coach K, to open up. That makes the book readable and totally engrossing.
The book starts in the Palestra in Philadelphia where Temple and La Salle are playing in a Big Five game. The reverence that Feinstein shows the Palestra, the greatest basketball facility in America, hooks the reader into the opening story and propels us from Farmdale, Virginia, to Baltimore, to Easton, Pa.
"I've been around those type of schools a lot throughout my career, dating back to when I covered all the D.C. schools that nobody else wanted to cover when I was still actually the night police reporter" at the Washington Post, Feinstein said. "I moonlighted in sports, and I covered American University where Gary Williams was the coach. I covered Navy, I covered Howard, I covered George Washington. All the schools that didn't have beat writers, basically. I found right from the start you could have intimate relationships with the people you covered, when you were around teams that weren't 'big time', quote-unquote. Trying to get close to a Georgetown player in those days, you needed a court order."
When we spoke about the book Feinstein said that in addition to his writing, he has been part of TV broadcasts of mid-major teams, which allowed him to keep skin in the game at that level. But when Loyola of Chicago made its run to the Final Four and UMBC became the first Division I men's 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 in Virginia, the idea for the book began to crystallize.
"I had this notion that it would be really interesting to sort of write about those two teams a year later," he said, when I reached him at his home near Washington, D.C. "Then I thought, wait a minute, there are a whole bunch of other stories at this level. Why don't I try to put them together in a book?"
What made me smile a lot while reading this book where the connections to my college basketball career.
Feinstein's first chapter was about a Big Five game in Philly. When I was in college, I spent so much time in the Palestra broadcasting Big Five games, that had the schools dropped hoops, I might have been a Dean's List student.
Army men's basketball coach Jimmy Allen was on the staff there with current Williams coach Kevin App. Miye Oni, who just finished up at Yale and is with the Utah Jazz, was App's first recruit at Williams before Oni chose to go to D-I. Griff Aldrich, the coach at Longwood, sits in the same chair that Mike Gillian used to sit in. Gillian graduated from MCLA (then North Adams State) in 1989. And on and on.
"Aldrich played Division III basketball at Hampden-Sydney, went to Virginia Law School, wanted to coach, but had $100,000 in student loans to repay, so he went to work at a Houston law firm," Feinstein said. "He made a lot of money there, about $800,000 per year. But about 20 years later, he still had the passion for basketball. When his college roommate Ryan Odom got the UMBC job, he called him and said 'I'd really like to coach.' Ryan said 'You can come and coach for me. I'll pay you $32,000 a year.'"
Of course, Aldrich was on the bench when UMBC stunned college basketball by beating top-seed Virginia.
"The stories I love to do most are the stories that no one else is doing," said Feinstein. "I love stories in which people read the book and say 'I didn't know that. I never heard of Longwood. I never realized Chris Clemons was the fourth all-time leading scorer in NCAA history.'
"I love those stories, and it dates back, to be honest to my days as a night police reporter when you're not covering anybody who's rich and famous."
Since we are supposed to stay in place as much as we can, go online — or, if you prefer, go out — and purchase "The Back Roads to March."
You will not be disappointed.
Howard Herman can be reached at email@example.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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