Marmins, David J. and Steven K. Feit. Appalachian State Silences the Big House: Behind the Greatest Upset in College Football History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2017. Pp. x + 263. 37 photos & illustrations, chapter notes, bibliography and index. $25.00 softcover.
Reviewed by Zachary R. Bigalke
One of the reasons why college football remains so popular in the United States, even as we hear stories about the professional game taking so much heat, is the fact that parity is the antithesis of the former and the aspiration of the latter. While the NFL craves a level playing field, the top tier of college football avoids it at all costs. There is no pretense about the divisions between teams and conferences.
Over the past few decades, upsets have remained far more impactful in a historical context than trying to ascribe ever-increasing significance to conference and national championships. Some of the biggest moments that linger in the public consciousness are not title games but the upsets by lightly-regarded underdogs against the powerhouses of the sport.
A decade after it transpired, the 2007 upset by the defending I-AA national champion Appalachian State Mountaineers over a top-five-ranked Michigan Wolverines team continues to impact the course of football history.
In their new book Appalachian State Silences the Big House, authors David J. Marmins and Steven K. Feit offer a detailed oral history of the build-up, game play, and aftermath of the Mountaineers victory on the road in Ann Arbor. Marmins and Feit delve into the Appalachian State side of the story, covering the making of an underdog success story that shifted the course of the 2007 narrative as soon as it started.
This book is well-crafted for a diverse range of audiences. It demonstrates a deft ability to both present a thorough depth of research and accessibility to both academic and popular audiences. During the holiday season, this is the sort of book that would make a great gift for a college football fan.
In terms of the scholarship, the book offers an oral history of the Appalachian State upset, from the initial scheduling of the showdown to what happened after the final whistle. Marmins and Feit conducted thirty-seven interviews, and drew from twenty-eight news articles, ten Appalachian State press releases, two books, court documents, and video of the game to reconstruct the game from a decade earlier. The research illustrates how the construction of history is dependent on examining the primary sources produced by journalists in the moment, the historiography of treatments written after the initial event, and retrospective investigation through interviews with key figures from the game.
Structurally, Appalachian State Silences the Big House leads off the first few chapters with the build-up and preparation for the game. Once Marmins and Feit get into game coverage, they begin to alternate biographical chapters with chapters breaking down the chronology of the game and the key plays featuring the actors highlighted in the biographies. Drawing upon interviews with coach Jerry Moore and many of the players on the roster, the book utilizes the oral narratives to create both enriched recounts of the game and of individual biographies laid out in the respective chapters.
The many photos collected by the authors from Appalachian State players and staff offer visual relief that can be valuable for better understanding the nuances of a historical argument. Because football is such a tactical game, the authors stress the ways in which the Mountaineers utilized novel schemes that put their fastest players in position to exploit speed advantages. The diagrams created especially for the book are another well-considered addition to the book, helping illustrate these schemes by mapping out key plays.
As a straight retrospective about the game itself, the book provides a deep and focused analysis of the tactics and conditioning that allowed a roster of undersized stars to take down a Big Ten dynamo. As an investigation into the dynamics that allowed Appalachian State to win the game, it captures the moment in time quite well while also enriching its story with biographical information.
Naturally there are a few limitations to the text. The most glaring is the limited treatment of the decade that transpired after that game. A deeper focus in the epilogue on the Appalachian State trajectory from Southern Conference power in the FCS into the FBS ranks of the Sun Belt Conference would have served to concretize the impact of the victory on the direction of Mountaineers football.
Marmins and Feit could also have offered some perspective into the broader impact of the victory and the football program’s growth on the university’s growth patterns. They completely ignore any research into the “Flutie effect” more generally as well as how the university has managed the rate of admissions amid a deeper pool of applicants. In the process they missed an opportunity to engage with the research of scholars such as Devin G. Pope and Jaren C. Pope, the brothers who have collaborated on several studies about how and why sports success has such an impact of athletic achievement on academic prestige, enrollment, and selectivity.
Because the book is anchored in the Appalachian State perspective, the authors only look in an ancillary way into the long-term impact of the defeat on Michigan. The Wolverines were coming off a season where they were in contention for the BCS national championship up until the rivalry game with Ohio State. Most of the insight Marmins and Feit bring to the Wolverines perspective comes from Mark Snyder’s oral history of the Michigan side for the Detroit Free Press, which itself draws heavily on interviews with Appalachian State players and personnel.
But Marmins and Feit never set out to write a definitive look at the game, at least not from every angle. In their aim to provide an inside look at the storyline from the perspective of the victorious underdog, the authors do a masterful job of capturing the emotion in the moment and demonstrate its broader impact on the lives of individuals who participated on that day. They remain focused on individuals from beginning to end, which has its benefits but also neglects the chance to connect the dots to complete the picture of how the event impacted the succeeding passage of time across the college football world.
As a piece of writing, this book definitely fits more into the popular publication side of McFarland’s list of titles and is priced well to interest even casual football fans. In the spectrum of scholarship, one might choose to introduce this book into the classroom as a demonstration of how to effectively compose an oral history. Marmins and Feit weave in their interview content well throughout the entirety of the book, painting vivid images of specific moments and cross-referencing them to the reflection of their interview subjects years after the fact. Leaving out a broader examination of the historiographic elements makes this less academic in its depth but more logically constructed and accessible for popular audiences.
The story is well-crafted around the Mountaineers success story, even if it leaves the reader wanting more insight of what came after the final whistle at the Big House in Ann Arbor. A decade removed from that fateful day, Appalachian State Silences the Big House will be relevant as a tool for understanding the individual scale of the game and a means for relating the human side of broader sociocultural impacts of the 2007 Appalachian State victory. In a sport that thrives on the unexpected becoming reality, Marmins and Feit offer an embedded glimpse into one of the greatest upsets ever rendered in college football history. While its academic application might be limited, this is a valuable addition to the library of any college football fan.
Zachary R. Bigalke is a recent M.A. graduate from the Department of History at the University of Oregon focusing on the impact of immigration and industrialization on the early development of various forms of football in the Americas. He is a regular contributor to the college football website Saturday Blitz, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @zbigalke.