When we began work on Pillars of the NFL, I put to use some ideas that I had in book models over the years. The one that Patrick McCaskey, the author, and I settled on was one that would be bring the most value to the product. Of course, it might seem almost laughable to people who hear book model approaches to a sports book, but I can’t let go of things that I have learned over the years.
Chicago Bears Senior Director Patrick McCaskey is outstanding on sports history, especially when it comes to history of the early NFL and the Bears. When he speaks at events, he recalls dates and championship games and other events chapter and verse. This was an extraordinary leg up on the project and we put it to good use. In fact, it helped settle the biggest issue of the book composition: who are the Pillars of the NFL. Patrick’s answer was simply that the greatest coaches in the NFL are those who have won the most championships. I like this very much.
Patrick had put together a series of tables that we can use an appendix that looks at championships by teams and coaches.
Next in terms of the book model, we wanted to grab the reader’s attention very quickly and get him or her into the book. We knew that we wanted to provide a certain level of detail on the coaches and teams, so we wanted to get readers involved emotionally early on. What we came up with a brief kind of “your are there” section that starts off each chapter. We place the reader on the field, in the locker room, or up the stands witnessing the coach in action or with others in a way that gives the reader at least some sense of who each man was as a person. I suspect this kind of things is not new, but I think in a book on as many subjects as we were covering, it is a great challenge, but one worth doing.
The next part of our model was the coach’s early life. In some cases, this was very brief and in others this part represented a good amount of research. Patrick’s focus is always on the football lives of his subjects as opposed to anything even close to some kind of judgement about their morals, foibles, and faults. Again, like the championship decision on the selection of coaches, Patrick’s approach streamlined the coverage of the coaches. So this part of the book gave readers more insight into the coaches without going into odd twists and turns that lose readers in the weeds. I love biographies, but in many there is just too much information. I think for example that when a writer comes up some obscure fact on a subject’s personal eating habits, they often feel compelled to put it into their work. We were not compelled in that way–Pillars would focus on the football lives of the subjects.
The coaching careers of course would be the focus of any book on the greatest coaches in NFL history. High school and college coaching was insignificant to the story of the top NFL coaches so that part of the story was very brief. In some cases, the information was also so obscure, Patrick could not cover it anyway. For example, there might be several sources of information on a coach’s high school coaching career, but each one may only have one sentence. If the school no longer exists and the coach had not written a biography, there may be nothing to report.
Once Patrick got into the Pro career portion, the road to the championships, the seasons, and the coaches and players associated with the teams also became more important. If you have read much on football books that describe coaches or players, you find that they normally focus on a couple incidents and more or less highlight events. Some books on a 20 or 30 year coach may seem complete, but often you really only hear about a few games. For Pillars we had ten coaches, but we also had some coaches who coached multiple teams to championships. Weeb Ewbank coaches both the Colts and the Jets to championships. Guy Chamberlin coached the Canton Bulldogs, the Cleveland Bulldogs, and the Frankford Yellow Jackets to championships. Our ten coaches also were assistants of championship teams as well. Worried that we would write about championship season and still miss even mentioning most of the top players that fans would remember, we added another feature that we used fairly liberally, a list of top players with short descriptions. In this way, when Patrick wrote about Lombardi for example, we knew there was a way to at least mention most of his HOF players even if their play did not make the book in a game or championship description. We thought this was a way to honor both the great coaches as well as the players who were responsible for carrying out the coaches program.
To round things out we also added a “Life After Football” section and a “Contributions to the Game” feature. Following that we had a “Timeline” and “Highlights”right at the end of the chapter. All these things helped Patrick’s presentation offer a more complete history of our coaches and teams. Granted, Pillars of the NFL was a kind of project that might have led both Patrick and I spend the remainder of our lives on. Both of us are too busy for that and I am trying to make a living in this business, so we enforced a schedule on the project.
There were a few other elements to the model. We introduced each chapter with a Bill Potter drawing of each Pillar. Bill is an illustrator whose old school style really appealed to me. I love those old biographical montages that you used to see in the newspaper–one big spread with several drawings that provide a concise history. For example an image of Ernie Banks with an armful of books in high school in Dallas is followed by Ernie is in a military uniform giving a salute–then he’s in a Kansas City Monarch’s cap up to the plate–the next image shows him as a Cubs shortstop with his early home run stats written underneath and then in as a first baseman saying let’s play two and finally he stands in a suit being inducted into the Hall of Fame. We couldn’t do those montages and fit them into a book, but Bill worked in a feature that helped us present the coaches visually in more than one situation.
We also added an index, which in sports books is generally skimpy at best. A good index can a take over a week and cost several thousand dollars. Pillars has a good one.
Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of our model was the inclusion of extensive endnotes. Most sports books don’t use endnotes or footnotes. Some authors just list their book collection as a kind of bibliography. In most books you have no idea of where the author got his or her informaton. Using endnotes/footnotes is not fun and it takes a tremendous amount of time. There are also a lot of judgments that need to made. We did the best we could and we hope it helps readers understand how a book like this is built off the work of hundreds of other people–writers-researches and reporters.
We hope Pillars catches on with sports fans and we have an opportunity to create other books like it. Our model was created to provide the best book for our readers to whom we are deeply in debt. We also wanted to provide a kind of book for readers to put in their bookshelves and save for a long time–something that might outlive an ebook file.