Thursday, October 23, 2008

Interview with Michael Rosenberg, Author of War As They Knew It

Michael Rosenberg is the author of War As They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and America in a Time of Unrest, a must read for fans of Ohio State and Michigan football. Anyone who remembers the storied rivalry will find this book fascinating. Today, Michael Rosenberg took time to answer some questions for readers.

Lesa: Michael, thank you for taking time from a busy schedule for an interview. Would you start by telling my readers a little about your background, so they know why you're qualified to write War As They Knew It?

Michael: I am a sports columnist at the Detroit Free Press, where I have worked since 1999. Before I became a columnist I was the University of Michigan beat writer. I previously worked at the Washington Post and had internships at the Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Sacramento Bee.

I attended the University of Michigan, and I understand that merely stating that fact will cause some Buckeye fans (and perhaps some Wolverine fans) to think the book is somehow slanted. It is not - as you know, since you're a Buckeye fan who read the book. I approached this as a journalist writing narrative nonfiction.

Lesa: I'm going to ask you to summarize War As They Knew It. It's a meaty book, with several dimensions. What would you like readers to know about the book?

Michael: I tried to provide the most complete and vivid portrait of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. I also wanted to capture the era in which they faced each other, from 1969 to 1978.

Yet my overriding goal was to tell a story that will stay with readers long after the book is finished. It is written to read like a novel - in my mind, it's a novel consisting entirely of facts.

The spine of the story is how Hayes and Schembechler tried to maintain control of their programs amid all the chaos around them - from Vietnam protests to campus riots and strikes to the rise of college sports as a big business. Hayes was an outspoken conservative, a friend of President Nixon's and a staunch supporter of the war in Vietnam. Schembechler ran a militaristic program but was not politically active; he is sort of a mainstream counter to Woody. Columbus, meanwhile, is a mainstream counter to Ann Arbor - Columbus was a pretty conservative town and Ann Arbor was full of hippies and activists.

Like a novelist, I have great affection for the characters in the book - not just Hayes and Schembechler but secondary characters like Bill Ayers and Pun Plamondon, who were accused of bombing buildings, and Rod Gerald and Art Schlicter, two Ohio State quarterbacks wrestling with addictions. I don't judge any of these people in the book; I don't think that is my role. I tried to take the reader inside each of their heads. I want you to understand why they did the things they did. And I want you to be invested in what they might do next.

Lesa: This is a complex book, more than a sports book, more than a biography. It's even a social history of the late 60s and 70s. How did you decide to put all of that together in this book?

Michael: Well, I had no interest in simply rehashing 10 football games. I have always enjoyed sports books that incorporate some social history - two of my favorites are Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit and David Remnick's King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. Both books give you a real sense of time and place, and the authors had the advantage of hindsight - enough time had passed since the events in those books that the authors could put the eras in proper perspective.

Something about Hayes and Schembechler stuck with me. I knew Woody had visited the troops in Vietnam four times and spoken to protesters on the campus Oval. I knew he had walked to work, to help reduce America's reliance of foreign oil, and had turned down pay raises when he was making less than $40,000 per year. I knew Ann Arbor was not a football town when Bo showed up in 1969. These were just tidbits, but they gave me the idea there might be a story worth telling.

I did a year of research before the book really took shape in my head, and it constantly evolved until I finished it. The social history is never just a tangent -it is integral to the story. These players and coaches did not spend 24 hours a day in a bubble. I needed to write about the world in which they lived.

The book opens in December 1968. (The first passage actually takes place in 1967, but then we quickly move on to 1968.) Consider: Woody Hayes has just won a national championship, his friend Richard Nixon has just been elected President, and Hayes absolutely believes the U.S. will prevail in Vietnam. Bo Schembechler has just taken the Michigan job, and he thinks he is going to beat his mentor, Woody Hayes. And radicals Bill Ayers and John Sinclair and Pun Plamondon are all literally trying to start an American revolution. And they all think they are going to win.

As an author, I know what is going to happen to all of them. But they don't know. And I thought it would be fun if the reader didn't know, either. That's why I tried to write it like a novel, where you wonder what happens to the characters.

Lesa: It was interesting to read about the social unrest, particularly at Michigan during this Presidential campaign when bill Ayers' name came up. What do you see as the changes in the football programs, and the universities, in recent years?

Michael: The country has become so much more homogenized. People around the country all eat at the same chain restaurants and watch the same cable TV channels and read the same websites. Ann Arbor and Columbus are far more alike now than they were in the 1970s.

The University of Michigan is still considered a liberal institution, but it is liberal from the inside out - it starts with the administration. In 1970, it was liberal from the outside in - students shut down the campus to change school policy. Ohio State University is a more international institution now, and the students, by and large, are more worldly. (I'm generalizing here - please bear with me.)

In 1969, football was seen as a militaristic, Establishment enterprise. Now it is just entertainment and big business. It is far more popular than it was then, but it is not the same kind of cultural touchstone. I don't know that Ohio State fans see the Michigan game as a class struggle in quite the same way anymore. It's hard to see yourself as the scrappy underdog, clawing for respect, when you have a $119 million athletic budget.

Lesa: I know you did a great deal of research. What was the most enjoyable part of researching this book?

For the first six months, I was literally up at night wondering if I would find anything new. It scared the heck out of me. So every time I heard a new story of found a long-forgotten detail in a newspaper story from years ago, I got excited. I started a Microsoft Word file called "Timeline" that had every nugget in there, just so I wouldn't forget anything - each detail or story was one line, just to remind me. By the end of the project, the Timeline file was 28 single-spaced pages. Every time I added something, I felt like I was making progress.

I interviewed almost 200 people for the book, some several times. I can never repay them for their generosity in sharing their anecdotes and insights. Often, somebody would start telling a story and then say, "but that has nothing to do with your book." I always asked them to tell me anyway. My feeling is that I'm the writer - I'll figure out how it all fits together. That's my job.

Lesa: It's a minor question, Michael, but fans will want to know the answer to this. Did you know Bo Schembechler or Woody Hayes? Do you have any personal stories about them?

Michael: I knew Bo and interviewed him three times for the book. I did not expect to get a ton of information from him - Bo had been telling Woody stories for 40 years, and I thought it was unlikely that he'd saved a few just in case I showed up in his office one day. I mostly bounced things off him.

When I first explained the concept - that I wanted to capture the era, not just the rivalry - Bo said he thought the real story of his rivalry with Woody was what was going on around them, and that had never really been told. That was a huge boon to my spirits early in the process; it made me believe there was a story worth writing.

Woody died long before I began my research.

Lesa: You had a difficult subject since Ohio State and Michigan are such rivals. How are people reacting to the book?

Michael: I am happy to say I have not had a single person complain that the book is biased in favor of Michigan or Ohio State, just as I haven't had anybody complain there is a political bias in the book. Some of Woody's players and coaches were a little wary of talking to me at first - not just because I work in Detroit, but because they have seen his image distorted over the years. I explained that the bulk of my portrait of Woody would be formed by my interviews, and they just had to trust that their feelings about him would come through. After that almost everybody was generous with their time.

The most rewarding reaction has been from opposite ends of the spectrum. People who lived through the era and knew Woody or Bo have contacted me to say I got it right, and people who have no interest in football have said they really enjoyed it.

Lesa: Are you working on another book?

Michael: Not yet. I will definitely write another one, because this was the most rewarding project of my life. But I want to make sure I have the right concept before I dive in.

Lesa: And, my final question, Michael. I'm a public librarian. Do you have any special memories or comments about libraries?

Michael: I received so much help from people at The Ohio State University Archives, the Bentley Historical Library and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor and from the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the National Archives. The librarians at all those places were just wonderful.

I spent many hours at the Graduate Library at U-M, poring through microfilm. (I had a researcher, Kevin Bruffy, do the same in Columbus, and another, Matthew Hogan, plow through Nixon research.) I just loved reading those old newspapers - it was a slow process, because I was looking for such a variety of stories, but it was so much fun, too. At times I really felt like I was on campus in 1972. I hope it feels that way for readers, too.

Lesa: Michael, thank you so much for taking time to discuss War As They Knew It. Like Seabiscuit, I think this is a book that can be read and enjoyed by anyone.

War As They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and America in a Time of Unrest by Michael Rosenberg. Grand Central Publishing, ©2008. ISBN 978-0-446-58013-7 (hardcover), 384p.


Jim said...

Thank you Mr. Rosenberg.

It was an absolutely wonderful book, and as you stated, at NO POINT did I consider I was reading a biased book. You certainly achieved your goal there. And it was an interesting social commentary of the times. And having lived it in that area, I can certainly state that you got it right. I would recommend this book to anyone as a must read. If you are a Ohio State or Michigan fan, or not even a football fan.

Thanks Jim

Lesa said...

Thanks, Jim, for the comment. I'm not Michael. However, I agree. It was a terrific book.

Corey Wilde said...

As you might guess, the book has received favorable attention here in Columbus. I've not read it yet, but I'm #2 on the reserve list at the library (and they have 40 copies!).

Lesa said...


Thanks for passing that on. I'm sure Michael will be pleased to know it's getting favorable comments, and that the library has 40 copies!