ONWARD TO VICTORY : The Crises That Shaped College Sports
by Murray Sperber

From the acclaimed author of Shake Down the Thunder. With the 1940 release of the classic film Knute Rockne, All American, the myth of the hero scholar-athlete was born, and with it came the age of big-time college sports in America. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including press accounts, letters and diaries, historical papers, and interviews with many who were there, Sperber recounts how the myths created by Hollywood studios were embellished and codified by a hungry press, infiltrating the collective unconscious with epic stories of players, coaches, and teams. As college sports became a mainstay of popular entertainment, they also were fertile ground for near-fatal scandal, ultimately giving rise to the modern NCAA.

Sperber vividly re-creates the world of postwar America, with its all-powerful radiomen, its lurid press, its growing prosperity, and, of course, the infancy of television. A brilliant, detailed, and engrossing work of social history for not only sports fans, but anyone interested in the development of modern American culture.


Sperber's thesis is a tempter from the get-go: "No other American institution has experienced greater crises and scandals than big-time college sports," he writes, "and yet it has not only survived all of them but thrived. Moreover, the problems never end--and they never dent the public's and the media's love for games and their participants. Why?" He spends the next 500 pages searching for answers, and the sweep of the search is as good as the revelations themselves.

What Sperber has essentially assembled is an exhaustive, if pointed, history of college sports in the 20th century, zeroing in particularly on the 1940s and 1950s. It is a wart-filled account, carefully researched, engagingly written, thoughtfully told, and anecdotally loaded. Myths are held up to the light, and ignominy is slipped under the microscope, yet circumspection consistently wins out over sensationalism; this is not a case of accusations piling on.

The book's title comes from the Notre Dame fight song, and Sperber, fittingly, begins with the most storied of all college sports programs. He tugs relentlessly but fairly at the legends of Knute Rockne and George Gipp until they unravel, then continues yanking the seams until the whole mythic tradition frays. The Irish are far from the only culprits, though; he's especially good on the basketball scandals of the 1950s. Sperber examines the pressures and problems that accompany winning, money-making programs, from recruiting violations and academic deceits to gambling, ticket scalping, and organized cover-ups of player indiscretions. He examines the changing role of the sporting press, the hyperboles of Hollywood, and the constant need to manufacture a national heroic epic from elements more often found in sordid paperbacks. The chronicle of the dark side of college sports may not be pretty, but it certainly lights up the board.

From Booklist , September 15, 1998
College sports, especially football and basketball, are synonymous with big money. Television deals, shoe endorsements, and multimillion-dollar contracts for coaches have turned Saturday afternoon contests into a financial bonanza. How did it get this way? Sperber, an English and American studies professor at Indiana University, examines the key events that started the ball rolling. His most interesting theory is the notion that the idealized myth surrounding college sports began with the popular image of Notre Dame football--an image brought to the masses through the film version of Knute Rockne's life and the work of former Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward. Another key element in the rise of college sports was the evolution of the sycophant sports reporter who relied on idealized press releases. It seems far-fetched to find the genesis of the commercialization of college sports in a movie, a cheerleading newspaper editor, and lazy reporters, but Sperber presents a compelling case. A fascinating, well-researched study.

A word from the author:

I really enjoyed doing the research for "Onward to Victory". I mainly worked in the University of Notre Dame Archives, and found lots of fascinating documents there, particularly letters from Frank Leahy to the various administrators of the time. To my knowledge, these are the only extant letters of Leahy concerning his work as athletic director and coach at ND, and they are quite fascinating. In addition, I found many letters from and to Edward "Moose" Krause, AD after Leahy, and also letters by Fathers Cavanaugh, Murphy, Hesburgh, and Joyce about ND athletics--and they ran it with a tight hand during the period of "Onward to Victory", the 1940s and 1950s.

The other great delight for me while doing research at ND occurred in the Joyce Sports & Games Collection (it's in the sub-basement of the library). During the last few years, curator George Rugg has done a superb job, and he has made the materials there very easy for a researcher to use. The Joyce Collection has a complete run of the first thirty years of "Sport Magazine", the first successful monthly American sports mag, and I not only found this source perfect for my research needs but I very much enjoyed reading issues of "Sport" that I had not seen since childhood. In many ways that magazine was my introduction to the world of sports, and going thru the early issues page by page, and having images come back to me across many years, was a delightful and rare experience. I've tried to convey some of that personal meaning in "Onward to Victory".

In addition, the Joyce Collection has the single best collection of college football programs in the world and these were invaluable for my research. I discuss these programs at length in my book and readers will see how important they are as cultural documents and also as a door thru which one can re-enter the college football world of the 1940s and 1950s.

Thus, doing the research for "Onward to Victory" was a real pleasure and I even came to enjoy the time spent in South Bend--not the "garden spot" of America but a much underrated town, with some excellent restaurants and bookstores. Also, during the summers, I rented a cabin on Lake Michigan and drove to campus, and I really liked the lake and the Michigan Dunes.

If you enjoy "Onward to Victory", a tenth as much as I enjoyed doing the research for the book, I am sure that you will be a satisfied reader.

0805038655_m.gif (12111 bytes)
Order This Book