Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Meat Market

I'm finally doing my review of Meat Market: Inside the Smash Mouth World of College Football Recruiting by ESPN columnist Bruce Feldman.

If you are unfamiliar with the book, it follows one season in the Ole Miss Football program from the summer of 2006 until National Signing Day of 2007, focusing mostly on recruiting. It is also a profile of former Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron. It chronicles the problems in his personal life, without apparently sugar-coating anything about his drinking and domestic violence issues. While it certainly does not paint Ed O as a saint, it is a generally affectionate portrayal of a man who struggled to get past his demons, and is struggling to build a program at Ole Miss.

First and foremost, the book is indispensable for anyone seeking to understand the shadowy world of college football recruiting. If that is something you are interested in, there has never been another book that would help you more, and I doubt there will be another one in the future. You find out from this book what the coaches look for in a football player, what the pitfalls are, and how the process works.

The narrative of the story is mostly a repeating cycle of struggle, hope, and finally disappointment. Over and over again. Ole Miss struggles. Something happens to increase the optimism. Then, the optimism is shattered by some profound disappointment. A typical subplot will have Orgeron spotting a talent somewhere (he fancies himself to have a true eye for talent), getting in contact with that person and getting some interest, only to find disappointment because of one of several possibilities:
  • The kid's academics turn out to be a shambles;
  • Closer inspection reveals the kid to not be as athletic as originally believed;
  • They find out that the kid was calling them from jail (true story); or
  • After they develop a close relationship with the kid, a bigger program finally notices him and the kid ends up forgetting about Ole Miss in order to go to Florida State, LSU, USC, Miami, or some other more prestigious program.
In this respect, only the ending rings hollow. Feldman closes the book not on the down notes that dominated the bulk of the narrative, but rather with hope that the 2007 season would produce good results, and that Orgeron would ultimately succeed. Unfortunately for the book's longevity, by the time I read the book just before Christmas, Ole Miss had finished a winless SEC season and Orgeron had already been fired. In that respect, it's a lot like a book that might have been written in the second or third year of Gerry Dinardo's tenure at LSU (may God rest his soul).

Despite this flaw, the book remains a fascinating read, both for its insight into recruiting and its insight into a man who will certainly remain a character in the college football world for some time.

If your interest lies strictly in LSU football, this book is still an important read. Eventual LSU commits T-Bob Hebert, Drake Nevis, Demetrius Byrd, and Steven Ridley make appearances in the story. Former LSU recruiting target Joe McKnight plays a very large role, and yes, Orgeron hedged his bets on McKnight by trying to push USC to recruit him harder to keep him away from LSU. He did this despite being rather confident that Ole Miss would get his signature (and it may very well be true that he would have gone to Ole Miss if USC hadn't turned up the heat).

Other characters from the 2007 recruiting class who make appearances include Louisiana kid Rishaw Johnson, Rolando Melancon, Florida kid Robert Marve (who went to Miami), and many other kids. Interestingly, though Rishaw Johnson wasn't discussed all that much in LSU circles, Orgeron apparently thought the kid was one of the best offensive line recruits in the country, and worthy of 5-star status. The services had him as a 3-star. History will tell us who was right on that one.

I guarantee you that if you are a regular reader of this blog, you would find Meat Market to be a worthwhile read. And even though it's about the 2007 season, I can foresee this book still being essential reading to would-be recruiting buffs in ten years time.

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