by Giles Tippette
Rating – 8.5/10
Summary – Author Giles Tippette takes what appears to be an unpromising topic – the Rice Owls’ 1971 football season – and turns it into a good book by finding the human dramas behind the scenes.
Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe
Thursday’s child has far to go
Friday’s child is loving and giving
Saturday’s child works hard for a living…
So begins Giles Tippette’s Saturday’s Children, an account of the Rice University Owls’ 1971 football season.
Bill Peterson & Giles Tippette
Saturday’s Children focuses on coach Bill Peterson’s attempts to transform the lowly Owls into winners. Peterson’s presence at Rice was strange. Before Rice, he was a successful head coach at Florida State, a school much better known for gridiron success than is Rice. However, when FSU failed to make Peterson its athletic director, he started looking for greener pastures and accepted a lucrative, five-year contract from Rice.
In March 1971, Tippette met Peterson by chance when Tippette was following the rodeo circuit through Houston. The two men crossed paths in a bar called The Royal Coach Inn. It was Peterson who suggested that Tippette write a book about football, and he offered Tippette open access to Rice’s football program. Saturday’s Children is the result. (Strangely, Tippette does not recount this anecdote in the book; it appears in an October 1973 issue of Sports Illustrated).
While Rice might not have been a football powerhouse, Peterson assembled a staff of assistants whose names will be familiar to football fans. Among the staff are –
– Kay Stephenson (later head coach of the Buffalo Bills),
– Bobby Ross (later head coach of the San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions), and
– Larry Peccatiello (who was a key assistant with the Washington Redskins during the 1980s and 1990s)
As the book’s title implies, it details just how hard the players work on football. Over 100 of Saturday’s Children’s pages pass before the team plays a game, and many of those pages focus on the grueling summer practices. One of the team’s few pro prospects – linebacker Rodrigo Barnes – says that he would never do all of the hard work if he didn’t have the chance to play pro football. After reading of workouts in 100+-degree heat, readers may be inclined to agree.
Tippette heavily focuses on Barnes, who knows that the team desperately needs him and uses that to his advantage. Off the field, he cadges money and extra tickets from the coaches; on the field, he ignores his assigned responsibilities. The Rice coaching staff’s treatment of Barnes reminds readers that spoiled athletes are nothing new.
Another good character is defensive back Chris Hale, who wins $12,000 gambling in Las Vegas. Back in Houston, Hale decides to quit the football grind and adopt the hippie lifestyle. Rice’s coaches are desperate to get him back and tension builds around Hale’s decision.
Fans of college football will not be surprised to learn that – in Tippette’s opinion – Peterson mistreats his players. One of the book’s more-infamous stories concerns a phone call that Peterson receives from the mother of a player who has a heel injury. The mother tells Peterson that a physician in their hometown has said that another hard blow to the heel could cause the player to develop a melanoma. Peterson assures the mother that he has developed a special pad to protect the player’s injury. In fact, there is no special pad and Peterson does not know the meaning of melanoma.
Tippette summed his attitude toward Peterson and his staff when he told Sports Illustrated –
“‘What I learned, I already knew—that college football is a little more hypocritical than the Baptist Church at its worst. Also, that people in athletics have a distorted view of themselves and their world. They don’t remember that they’re in the entertainment business and that it’s a game they’re playing. It’s all dead serious.’ As a result of the imbalance he claims, Tippette makes a harsh judgment on coaches. ‘I can forgive a 19-year-old kid—he’s performing down there in front of 60,000 people—but not a 50-year-old man'” (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1087914/index.htm).
1971 Season & Its Aftermath
Revealing too many details from Rice’s eleven 1971 games would spoil the story. Suffice to say that Peterson knew that a schedule loaded with powerhouse teams (Texas, Arkansas, Houston, USC, and LSU) would be very challenging. The coverage of the games is very uneven. For instance, Tippette provides great context and builds the suspense when describing Rice’s game against Houston, a crosstown rival that the Owls had looked down upon and refused to play for many years. Houston was highly regarded in 1971 and had sworn to destroy the Owls as revenge. But other games (such as USC) receive only scant mention.
As an added bonus, the aftermath to the 1971 season is also interesting. Peterson is one of the head coaches in the annual Blue-Gray all-star game and attracts interest from NFL teams searching for head coaches.
Saturday’s Children appears to have slipped into obscurity – and that’s a shame because Tippette tells a great story, even if it is about an undistinguished football team. Football fans will enjoy Saturday’s Children and I will seek out more of Tippette’s books.