In The Land Of The Fist Bump: Talking With Inman Majors About His College Football Novel, Love's Winning Plays

A conversation with novelist Inman Majors, scion of one of Tennessee's greatest football families and college football's foremost satirist.
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Inman Majors’ new novel Love’s Winning Plays  is a brisk comic novel about college football. Its protagonist, Raymond Love, is a lowly off-the-field graduate assistant hoping to move up the ladder at an unnamed SEC school so he can actually coach in practice and take part in official player gatherings.

Love gets his chance when the head coach, Von Driver, taps him to take part in the Pigskin Cavalcade, an annual tour of the state in which fat-cat boosters play golf, eat banquets at country clubs and listen to vapid motivational speeches, along with a lot of Kenny Chesney. Love’s job is to ride herd on Coach Woody, a legendary assistant coach with a taste for old game films, opera, booze and late nights.

Along for the ride is Brooke, the athletic director’s daughter, whom Love has tried to woo by joining her book club; Julie, Love’s pal from courses such as Advanced Biomechanics of Human Movement, who’d be perfect except for her fiancé at Georgetown Law; Sparkman, the rival graduate assistant with a taste for seersucker suits, glad-handing and fist bumps; and other characters foolish, Falstaffian and very occasionally noble.

Majors knows of what he writes. Three of his uncles played for Tennessee, with his uncle Johnny following an All-American career with the Vols with a distinguished career as head coach at Iowa State, Pittsburgh and Tennessee and an induction to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987. His grandfather Shirley was head coach at Sewanee: The University of the South for two decades; Majors’ father, Joe played, for Florida State and the Houston Oilers. As for the author, he played high-school football, and now teaches fiction at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He’s the author of three previous novels—Swimming in SkyWonderdog, and The Millionaires—all of which display his gifts as one of our sharpest, funniest writers. In Love's Winning Plays, though, Majors makes a homecoming of sorts.

It's not an especially sentimental one, happily. Love’s Winning Plays is a satire, and sometimes a savage one, but its target isn’t actually college football. Instead, it’s everything that surrounds and defines its distinctive and distinctly odd culture, from the nonsensical speeches (“The winner knows the price of work is high and the price of quit is cheap,” Coach Driver says at one point) and big-mouthed boosters whose interest is anything but altruistic to the ubiquity of the fist bump and coaches who wear golf visors at night. It’s fast and funny—and so breezy that you might not notice it’s also about being decent, even as those around you take short cuts.

But that’s being entirely too solemn about it. I talked to Majors about the book, college football, and the fist-bump as a cultural problem.

You’re football royalty in Tennessee. Your entire family was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1966, for Pete’s sake. So for you to write a satire about college football… I don’t know, it’s like a Hawking sending up quantum physics. What’s the reaction been?

Well, I think I’m still invited to Christmas dinner, but I’ll keep you posted. No, the family has liked it. The fact that I’m satirizing the culture of college football, the often nutty obsessiveness of it, is not that surprising to my family. We’ve all experienced the nuttiness up close and personal, and this book is about living to tell the tale.  

As you note, your target isn’t football, but all the stupid stuff that surrounds it. Love himself makes that distinction, and defends the game rather passionately. But can you be a football fan and tune out all that other nonsense? Is that even possible these days?

I love the game and still watch a lot of it. My father and his brothers went to college on football scholarships, and they and their families had better lives because of it.

That said, the concept of fandom is one that I don’t quite comprehend. I think that if you’re related to a coach you just watch the game and cheer a different way than other people. You’re cheering for a team because you want your loved one to succeed. You know if they don’t, they’ll be out of a job. So it’s not this same kind of lifelong, dedicated and singular support of one team. On game day, you’re kind of with ‘em, but not of ‘em, if you know what I mean. You’re always something of a hired gun.

But my book makes it clear that there are two kinds of fans. There are those who root for their team and want them to do well, but whose happiness and mental well-being aren’t dependent on how well a group of 20-year-olds play football. Then there’s the other kind of fan. It’s always been that way, but with the Internet and round-the-clock coverage on cable TV, the nuts seem to have gotten nuttier.

The American male in general seems to be struggling for identity. I don’t think it’s coincidental that men have gone so crazy for sports at the same time their numbers continue to decline on the college campus and in the upper echelons of the workplace. That said, I don’t think nearly as many men act like guys in beer commercials, slapping sloshy high-fives every 30 seconds, as the media leads us to believe. My guess is the vast majority of fans are pretty reasonable and cringe a bit watching Terry Bradshaw and the other “regular guys” on Fox yukking it up in their weird impersonation of male camaraderie. At least I hope that’s the case.

Your last novel, The Millionaires, was a big, sprawling family saga about the rise of the New South. That’s pretty different from Love’s Winning Plays. How did you get from one to the other?

IM: The Millionaires was a long and difficult book to write. After I got finished I felt like I’d basically included everything I knew about life, the world, and people. My brain kind of felt numb for about a year afterward. That’s one of the things that I didn’t know about writing when I was younger—there’s a physical component to it. There’s a reason there aren’t many great books written by old people—writing a good book is hard and it takes a lot of energy.

I always take time off after a book to recharge, but after The Millionaires, I felt I needed to get back into the ring whether I was ready or not. I was afraid the Muse would depart for livelier ports if I didn’t. So I decided the easiest the way to get me back at the computer was a comedy. I thought about how many hours each weekend I spent making fun of Brett Favre Wrangler commercials and the ridiculous phrases sportscasters use (“coaching them up”/ “score the ball”/ “trickeration”) and a sports comedy was born. Frankly, satirizing college football was like shooting fish in a barrel. The book wrote itself.

You take time out during Love’s Winning Plays to excoriate coaches who wear golf visors at night, as well as those who chew gum with their mouths open during games. Which is a greater threat to the Republic?

That’s a tough one. I just get a little concerned at times that I’m on such intimate terms with Pete Carroll’s wad of gum and most of his dental work.  Say what you will about Carroll, but he gets his money’s worth out of a piece of Juicy Fruit.  And listen, before I get any complaints from Auburn fans, I feel just as close to Gene Chizik’s wad—I’ve even named her Suzie.  The thing is, after one of those intimate close-ups of a coach’s piece of gum I feel a little unclean, a little cheap.  

The visor, though, that’s another story, It’s simply an affront to the idea of the American male, the American West, and all that men have held sacred through the ages. Its very boyishness makes me ashamed for my gender, and I’m not making any bets on American visors vs. Russian fur hats if it ever comes down to a donnybrook.

So while the gum-chomping is a greater threat to personal dignity, the visor is the true menace to the Republic. America cannot be great when its molders of young men are dressing like half-assed professional golfers.

It’s probably a bit reductive to call Love’s Winning Plays a jihad against the fist bump… but, well, it’s a jihad against the fist bump. How has that affected your own rate of fist bumps offered? Do people accept that you’d rather shake hands like an adult, or is it wall-to-wall attempted man-touches?

I make no apologies about the large can of jihad I opened on the fist bump. I thought it was my patriotic duty. My penalty for ringing the masculine liberty bell of alarm has been endless fists of intimacy—usually from people who formerly greeted me like an adult, the little smartasses. But I continue to fight the good fight.  The Republic may be going down, but I’m going down fist-bump free. To sum it up for those still weighing how best to greet other grown men: John Wayne = handshake; Ashton Kutcher = fist bump.

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