WILLIMANTIC — The co-author of one of the most sweeping yet meticulously researched books ever written on big-time college football was back on campus Wednesday. No, Jeff Benedict wasn't at any of the SEC, Big Ten or Big 12 schools, places where he and Armen Keteyian had spent the better part of the past two years.
Born in New London, a Waterford High graduate, a former Courant paper boy, Benedict was back at his alma mater, Eastern Connecticut, teaching a research methods course followed by a sports ethics class. Benedict addressed the ECSU Foundation board at lunchtime and later Wednesday he spoke to the general student body about his book, "The System."
Released last week, "The System" isn't just a good read. For anyone who cares about major college athletics, it is a vital read. "The System" isn't about one aspect of college football. It's about every aspect.
In the sports ethics class, Benedict used one of the arresting chapters in the book, the explosive Mike Leach-James family controversy at Texas Tech, to key student debate on what they would have done if the mess had landed in their laps. Yet it would be in the research methods class that a young woman, who had read the entire 416-page book, would raise her hand and ask the most pertinent question of the day.
"How did you get all these people to talk?"
Benedict's answer involved the two most important qualities of a journalist. Be a great listener. Be incredibly curious. Neither can be taught in school.
"You've got to be true and take a genuine interest," Benedict said. "If people think you genuinely care, they'll open the vault."
Benedict and Keteyian got people to open the vault. At a time when so much of sports journalism employs either editorial crusading or cutting edges with unnamed sources, "The System" suffers from virtually none of that. At a time when sports books are often vehicles for one-sided fables by famous coaches or players, "The System," tries to tell all its stories from all sides. Balanced? Nuanced? Names after quotation marks? What a freaking revelation.
In calling it the best book on the sport in years, Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! called it saturation reporting. The reader is waist-deep in it.
Benedict, for Sports Illustrated, and Keteyian, for CBS Evening News, had been doing a series of investigative reports for some time. Sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles, working on a story about gangs, the two began to talk about doing a book. The starting point would be much more an architectural diagram than a literary outline.
They drew boxes and put names in those boxes — president, AD, coach, player, recruiter, booster and on and on. They would tell the story of college football from every possible angle.
"The next step was, who could we get," said Benedict, who has written a dozen books from subjects ranging from casino gambling to E. coli. "Armen had an in with Nick Saban at Alabama, but most of the stuff started from ground zero. I had never met Mike Leach or met Bronco Mendenhall [at BYU]."
There are 27 chapters and nearly all are stand-alone stories. You can pick up the book at the start of any chapter. That's what I did. Because UConn had just played Towson, I was interested in Chapter 7, "The Sacrificial Lamb." It was all about Towson taking $510,000 to play LSU in 2012, why the school did it, etc. The reader was taken inside the locker room for some of the most colorful and motivational exhortations you'd ever want to read by the Ambrose brothers, Rob and Jared.
Because UConn played Michigan, I went to Chapter 3, "The Brand." It was about athletic director David Brandon nurturing the football golden goose. Brandon quoted Mark Twain, "If you put all your eggs in one basket, you better watch your basket." When you were finished, you understood why he never wanted to play at 40,000-seat Rentschler Field.
Those are not nearly the most controversial chapters.
I turned to Chapter 12, "The Tutor." It's about my alma mater, Missouri, and it's an ugly, ugly story about running back Derrick Washington and Teresa Braekel. When you are finished with the 21 pages, you realize what a horrible idea it is to put young women in a sexually charged atmosphere of tutoring college football players, often with little interest in their studies. It can lead to tutors doing the athletes' work for them and in this case, a sexual assault. The victim, witnesses, Washington's parents, people talked publicly as they never had. Unlike the rock-throwing contest involving SI and Oklahoma State over its recent series, the authors have gotten almost no negative feedback over their reporting. That, in itself, is unusual these days. Mizzou did issue a statement it wasn't approached by the authors for a comment. Benedict says he has email proof he did.
"What I was most proud of were the people who went on the record with so much to lose," said Benedict, who got his master's in political science from Northeastern, law degree from the New England School of Law and is now a professor at Southern Virginia. "When you're a victim of a sex crime, when you've been a witness who lied to a police officer and you admit it, to talk to somebody like us is not only intimidating, it's courageous."
I turned to Chapter 2, "The Closer." Most people know big-time colleges use "hostesses" in the recruiting process. Yet it wasn't until Lacy Earpes spoke publicly for the first time and the authors go into depth about how she and another Tennessee hostess went on an NCAA-violating trip to a high school game in South Carolina that we understood the inner workings of a system that uses college women to lure high school boys.
"The most controversy so far has been in Missouri, Tennessee and Ohio State," Benedict said. "BYU, the Utah market. it was immensely positive, great feedback in Alabama, Michigan same thing.
"We had no agenda. The fact is some aspects of college football are dang inspiring. Some aspects are pretty screwed up. You can't deny either.
There is Chester Jones, father of Ricky Seals-Jones of Texas A&M, in Chapter 20, "The Blue-Chip Recruit," claiming offers ran as high as $600,000 from an SEC and ACC school for him to play. There's new ground plowed on the Ohio State tattoo scandal, too. There is rare access to Saban and uplifting stories, too. There's the story of Kyle Van Noy, arrested for underage DUI, who sat out a year before being allowed at BYU. That work led to Benedict's unearthing the moving story this week in SI of Spencer Hadley, suspended five games for violating the BYU honor code after a Utah fan emailed news of him partying in Las Vegas, giving an emotional speech in the Promontory Correction Facility.
The fire and crossfire among Leach, Craig James and Texas Tech over how Leach treated James' son Adam after a concussion was off the charts in 2009. Ultimately, it led to Leach's dismissal. Benedict spent many hours with Leach, one of the few recurring figures in the book.
"An editorial decision was made by our publisher, not interested in writing about Penn State, it's so depressing about little boys being sexually abused," Benedict said. "We kept it to a page. Every terrible detail had come out. And Miami had been so covered, too. We didn't make it a centerpiece, Yahoo! had done such a good job on it. Although tons had been out there on Leach, we felt there was much more to be reported. Law, medicine, politics, ethics, there's sophistication to the Leach story. The reason I'm confident we got it right was because the chancellor at Texas Tech said it was very fair. On the other side, I called Leach. He didn't question one thing."
There are 14 pages of notes in the back explaining how each chapter was reported. You don't breeze through this book. There's much information to digest. Yet in the end, the beauty is not in the shock value, but in the detail, shocking and mundane, that is so carefully presented.
I only have one request of Benedict.
Do one of these books on college basketball.