LOVE’S WINNING PLAYS
By Inman Majors
W.W. Norton, $25.95
The tone for Majors’ novel is set even before the first page, when he cites Andy Griffith’s famous comedic recitation, “What it was, was football.”
Like Griffith’s bumpkin character who describes seeing his first football game, the main character in this novel, Raymond Love, is somewhat bemused by the whole sport. He can’t get a handle on the coach speak, and he finds the circus surrounding the beginning of the college season bewildering. He does know a thing or two about the old pigskin, however, since he is a graduate assistant coach for an SEC school, an “off the field graduate assistant” who desperately want to get on the field. He suddenly has a chance to achieve his ambition. He is reminded of this opportunity as he leaves the coaches’ dressing room at the school’s stadium.
“While he dressed, he eyed the empty lockers before him. One in particular held his attention, for it was the dressing space of the coaching graduate assistant who had left last week for Clemson. It was his position that Love coveted, for it would mean actual on-the-field coaching and an end to the round-the-clock errand running. Of course there’d still be errands to run as one of the low men on the totem pole, but Love would also be on the field during practice and games, instructing players, running drills, a real member of an SEC staff.”
Love just has to convince the coach, the aptly named Von Driver, that he’s the man for the job. Love has a whole book of plays he’s been drawing up and just wants a chance to try them out. He loves football. What he doesn’t love is locker room politics. He has been biding his time, running errands, working hard for a chance. Then he is summoned to meet with Coach Driver.
In a hilarious scene in which the head coach has just exited the shower and is clad in only a pair of plastic shower shoes, Love learns that Driver has a task for him.
Love gets the “naked truth”: “We have this annual trip, said Coach Driver, calming his eyes and active brows. A trip for some of the coaches that we take every summer, where we go to several towns in the state and kind of give the boosters and supporters in the region a little pep talk. We try and hit up different towns each year, fan bases that usually travel to see us or just follow on TV and radio. It’s a chance for the fans and alums to mingle with the coaches a bit and get to know them in a more casual setting. And hopefully we raise a little money for the program along the way. Most of the SEC schools do it, be we call ours the Pigskin Calvacade.”
It seems that a longtime staff member, Coach Woody, has had a bit of a behavior problem on the past Calvacades. Love is to be Coach Woody’s babysitter.
“Make sure, said Coach Driver, that Coach Woody stays out of the lake. Last time we were at one of these godforsaken redneck yacht clubs he and one of his homeboys were doing cannonballs off the roofs of pontoon boats.”
So begins the road trip from hell with the coarse and unmanageable Coach Woody holding the keys to Love’s future.
That’s not all Love is working on. He is courting the beautiful but elusive Brooke, the daughter of the athletic director. Brooke is the model for spoiled Southern womanhood. Brooke has drafted Love into her “book club” which reads such titles as The Bon Bon Girls and Recipe for Love. Love’s good friend Julie, also an athletic department employee, is much amused by his reading list. “Man, that’s worse than the one-eyed cat book.” But Love carries on because, after, all is fair …
Majors knows a bit about coaches and coaching himself. His uncle is legendary Tennessee head coach Johnny Majors. Another uncle was an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee. His grandfather, Shirley, was head coach at Sewanee for many years, and five of the Majors men played college football. Two were All-Americans at Tennessee.
So Majors is dead on when he takes aim at something like the young women who serve as campus hostesses for visiting high school football players (something that the University of Tennessee had a problem with a couple of years ago).
“These hostesses, or university escorts as Love tended to think of them, were outfitted in extra-fitted business skirts and blouses whose buttons the wind seemed to play undue havoc with. As they walked with the young recruit, they kept up a steady assault of giggles and titters, arm touches and accidental hip brushes. And any second now, one of them would pull a letter of intent— abracadabra — from her push-up bra and the athletic department would have snagged another. The high schooler — slavering, sweating, and hyperventilating — looked ready to sign any form, army recruitment to Britney Spears back-up dancer, should it be pushed in front of him by the lovely hostess.
“How, thought Love, is that legal?”
Internet football column bloggers are also fodder for Majors’ pen. Love encounters two hopelessly geeky camp followers who post on the “Girdiron Gurus” website, “Girdiron Wizard” and “KidGenius.” Love is much amused to feed the “insiders” wrong or misleading information, then read the nasty messages the site regulars post to each other. But as the plot progresses, Love learns that boosters, especially the kind with money, are very serious about their passion.
Majors targets the ridiculousness of hype and hysteria over college football teams and is very funny doing it. Yet the author clearly loves the game — his family is, after all, called the First Family of Football in Tennessee. Love’s Winning Plays is just the antidote to a summer of overheated off-field football antics and the perfect thing to read as the season kicks off.