Lars Anderson is the author of nine football books, including The Quarterback Whisperer, The Mannings and The Proving Ground. His latest book is Chasing the Bear, which looks at the success of Bear Bryant and Nick Saban as head coaches at Alabama.
Your book talks about the common ground between Bryant and Saban. Tell me a little about what connects them.
There are so many circumstantial connections. Both grew up in small towns, both learned the value of hard work as kids (Bryant on his family farm in rural Arkansas; Saban at his father’s service station in rural West Virginia), both of their dads passed away at age 46, both were considered overachievers as players, both were viewed as coaching nomads before they got to Alabama, and both won their sixth national championship at age 66. Bryant and Saban never met, but I had many people who knew both men tell me that, from the shoulders up, they are identical.
If there was one trait from Bryant that would make Saban a better coach, what would it be?
Bryant was very personable and had a unique ability to connect with people on an interpersonal level. This isn’t Saban, who is much more business-like in his approach to coaching and leadership. This has indirectly led to a lot of staff turnover at Alabama. So if there was one trait of Bryant’s that would make Saban better at his job (and we are REALLY nitpicking here), it would be Bryant’s mastery of working the room and cultivating relationships.
And vice versa – what quality does Saban have that would have made Bryant better?
Saban is the most prepared person — not just coach — I’ve ever come across. Nothing surprises him. The Alabama program slipped under Bryant for a few years because, by his own admission, he wasn’t as engaged as he needed to be. If Bryant had possessed a little more Saban in him, this probably wouldn’t have happened.
In writing the book, what did you learn about how college coaching has changed over the years? Just how different is Saban’s job, compared with the job when Bryant did it?
The job is so much more demanding now. Bryant could take extended time off in the offseason; Saban gets a little time off in July, but even when he’s on vacation at his lake house in Georgia he’s never far from the job. And recruiting is entirely different now. Bryant wasn’t very fond of recruiting for much of his career — he left a lot of those responsibilities to his assistants — but at Alabama under Saban recruiting never stops. It’s unrelenting. And no one in college football is as aggressive in recruiting as Saban, as evidenced by the top-ranked recruiting classes Saban reels in year after year.
Of the football books you’ve written so far, which would you say has been the toughest to write, and which was the most fun?
I’ve written ten total books and nine on football. The hardest was “The Proving Ground: A Season on the Fringe in NFL Europe,” because it was the first book I wrote by myself and I had significant reporting challenges as a I embedded with a team based in Glasgow, Scotland. The most enjoyable book? Probably “Carlisle Vs. Army”, which was recently optioned for a movie. Angelina Jolie is one of the producers on the project.
How do you define good writing?
It’s very hard to define good writing, but you know it when you see it. I’m on the faculty at University of Alabama in the department of Journalism and Creative Media, and the two things I routinely tell my students are: show don’t tell in your writing; and don’t be afraid to take risks with creative approaches to your stories.
How long does it generally take you to write a book and what’s your writing process like? Also, what are the parts you most like and most dislike about the process?
It really depends on the project. I’ve taken two years on a book and I’ve written a book in five months. I do my best writing early in the morning. And even when I’m not in the act of writing, I’m usually thinking about writing and things like organization and story development.
The best part of book writing is the day you receive the actual book in the mail from your publisher. The worst part is that unending fear that you won’t make your deadline.
‘I eventually worked with the legendary Dr. Z at SI, which was something I never could imagined as a kid‘
Do you have a writing hero or a mentor?
I’ve had many mentors over the years, but a professor I had at Columbia, where I earned a Master’s degree in Journalism, really helped me early in my career. His name is Sandy Padwe and he was a longtime editor at Sports Illustrated. I was extremely fortunate to have Sandy in my life.
Thinking of football books in general, what was the first one you remember reading?
I believe it was The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football by Paul Zimmerman. I eventually worked with the legendary Dr. Z at SI, which was something I never could imagined as a kid growing up in Nebraska. My wildest dreams didn’t stretch that far.
What’s your favourite football book?
There are so many excellent football books, but one stands out to me: When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss.
When it comes to football books, is there one you would consider an overlooked or forgotten gem?
I don’t know if this book has been overlooked, but I absolutely loved Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden, another former SI colleague who is one of my all-time favorite writers in any genre.
And thinking about books in general – what are the five books you’d want with you on a desert island (assume I’m throwing in Raft Building for Beginners.)
- Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
- The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
- The Call of the Wild by Jack London
- Ironweed by William Kennedy
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain