Book Review: Rough Magic
Another book about college football, another book listed by an ESPN college football reporter as one of his five. Last time, it was Meat on the Hoof, recommended by Gene Wojciechowski, while this time it’s Rough Magic: Bill Walsh’s Return to Stanford Football by Lowell Cohn, recommended by Ivan Maisel.
In Rough Magic, Cohn tells the story of the 1992 Stanford Cardinal, the first year of Walsh’s second tenure as head coach at Stanford. At the time, Cohn was a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Walsh granted him almost unlimited access to the team and coaching staff to, well, chronicle the year for the book. Call it another example of the Breaks of the Game model. I was worried Maisel, a Stanford alum, was overrating a book about his alma mater, but thought Cohn did an excellent job of giving a portrait of a coach and his team. Make no mistake, this is not a book about a team like John Feinstein tried to make Next Man Up, but instead about a coach and his team.
Full credit goes to Cohn for using his access very well, and to his good fortune Stanford ended up having a good and interesting season. Expectations were fairly low, but the Cardinal ended up going 10-3, including a bowl win over Penn State. Interestingly given Walsh’s reputation as an offensive guru, Stanford that year was driven more by its defense than the passing game, as the offensive line struggled to block for QB Steve Stenstrom, who also didn’t cotton on as quickly as Walsh hoped to the complicated passing offense.
I really enjoyed reading Rough Magic, but as I think back to it I’m not sure quite how valuable reading it was. I felt like I already sort of knew Walsh from The Genius, in particular, and the impression I got from Walsh in Magic was consistent with the Bill Walsh I felt like I already knew. The portrait is definitely more detailed than a full-life bio like Harris’s book, but I’m not sure it’s interestingly different. That said, I can’t think offhand of any other Breaks-style books on a single year of a college team, and Cohn does tell that story as well in a slightly less-complete fashion.
Rough Magic only covers the 1992 season, and does not cover the 4-7 and 3-7-1 1993 and 1994 Stanford seasons when Walsh’s less college-oriented background and assistant coaches may have been more of an issue.
Recommended to people who think they’d enjoy it.