Review by Budd Bailey
Time to go on a little road trip with John Feinstein.
One of America’s most prolific – and best – sportswriters when it comes to books (not to diminish his other talents) is back in the bookstore with “Back Roads to March.”
And like every one of the others, it’s worthwhile.
The words “little road trip” might not be the most descriptive of the book. It’s more of a year in the college basketball life of Feinstein. While he certainly paid to attention to the big colleges that qualify as national powers in some of his work, he went out of his way in 2018-19 to keep up with the less powerful of the teams – the mid-majors and below.
You might have one of those schools in your town, particularly if you live in the Eastern part of the country. Interest in those teams and conferences is quite low among the population at large, and to be honest sometimes it’s not so high at the school itself. In fact, you could argue that if it weren’t for the ticket to the NCAA tournament that the conference offers, some schools wouldn’t bother playing at all.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good players at such universities A few pop up on NBA rosters. Plus there are good stories everywhere – players and coaches who overcame long odds just to get where they are, with hopes of doing even better.
Feinstein’s joy about attending a college basketball game, particularly in a new place (for him), shines throughout the book. He’s also a big enough name to be able to sit down with coaches, players and administrators to receive a nice overview of the season. So we get to spend a little time with people like Ryan Odom, who coached UMBC to its memorable upset of Virginia (1 vs. 16) in the NCAAs of 2018, and Tommy Amaker, who has helped Harvard – Harvard! – become a regular contender in the Ivy League. There are even a few side trips to old friends like Jim Calhoun, still coaching a Div. III school in his mid-70s, and Lefty Driesell, still a character in his 80s.
One nice surprise for me here in Western New York was the inclusion of the story of Nate Oats, who was coach at the University at Buffalo before leaving for Alabama in 2019. I covered a few games for the Bulls under Oats and followed the team relatively closely. I can’t say I had heard that UCLA, one of the great names in college basketball in the sport, had called him to see if he wanted to come to Westwood. Then again, Oates comes across as extremely open and candid about his situation at that particular time.
I suppose there will be those who won’t like the regional focus of most of the book. In addition, there are a lot of names and teams here, and sometimes it’s easy to get a little confused for a moment.
There’s a little sadness reading this book right now, since we didn’t get to watch the NCAA Tournament. It was been cancelled because of the Coronavirus of course, robbing us of three weeks of hoop fun. No matter. “The Back Roads to March” works quite well for anyone who feels some anticipation when the horn blows in a gym to signal that the opening tip-off is a minute away – no matter who is playing.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)