A former Culver resident’s co-authored book has made waves across the nation and world of late, climbing to number 18 on the New York Times bestseller list (where it stayed for five weeks), and debuted at number six on the Wall Street Journal’s list.
Mark Schlabach, who grew up in Culver and was profiled in the Citizen last year for his high-profile work as a broadcaster with the ESPN network, among other accomplishments, co-authored the book, “Called to Coach: Reflections on Life, Faith and Football,” with legendary retired Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden. The book, published in late August by Howard Books — an imprint of Simon and Schuster — focuses on Bowden’s remarkable 50-plus year career in football on a personal level, emphasizing his faith and the triumphs and tragedies of his life and work.
Schlabach says he’d already had a good relationship with Bowden from Schlabach’s coverage of Florida State games over the years. “Near the end of his final season, ESPN kept sending me down to do sit-down one on ones with him on camera,” Schlabach explains. “Then about two or three weeks after a bowl game I covered in mid-January, his publicist said she’d booked him for some corporate speaking engagements and people had inquired about a book. I’d done a couple of books in the past, and I said, ‘Let me talk to my agent and see what interest there would be.’ We had a deal in place in like two weeks.”
Schlabach spent about a week at Bowden’s home in Tallahassee near the end of January, talking with the coach five to seven hours at a time. He then headed back to his office in Madison, Georgia, where he wrote the book in an amazingly short five weeks, meeting the publishers’ hopes of having the book on the stands before this year’s football season. The pace was often challenging for Schlabach, who still had the end of the basketball season to cover for ESPN.
“I would go into my office from 10 to 5 and take care of my ESPN duties,” he recalls, “and then go home and help my wife put our three kids to bed. I would go to my office then at 9 p.m. ‘til 3 or 4 in the morning. I did that for four or five weeks. I think I filed 92,000 words and they trimmed it to 76,000.”
It helped Schlabach that he was “very, very familiar” with Bowden’s life and history, though he says the greatest challenge was finding something new to write about a man who’s been the subject of five or six biographies and a previous collaborative autobiography. Schlabach’s was the first book to explore Bowden’s faith “as a steering wheel through his life and career.
“That was very, very important to him,” Schlabach notes. “That was the message he wanted to convey.”
A breakthrough moment for Schlabach came about halfway through his interviews in the coach’s Florida home.
“We talked about a pregame speech he did in the 1980s and I said, ‘You wouldn’t have any pregame speeches written down, would you?’ And he grabbed a beat-up manila folder. It was every pregame speech he’d done between 1976 and 2009 at Florida State. He kept outlines written on steno paper, napkins, and parking passes. It started with a parable, a lesson of Bible story devotional that he wanted to tell his players, followed by scripture and then a final word. I’m the only journalist who’s ever seen them besides him. I said, ‘Can I go make copies of these?’ I went to Kinko’s right away! Those were the blueprint of his program and they became the blueprint of the book; I tried to build every chapter around those speeches.”
The universality of the message in the book has very effectively transcended the ranks of football fandom, notes Schlabach, who cites the example of his younger sister who read the book knowing “absolutely nothing about football,” but thought it was “a fascinating read that was about so much more than football.”
Since Howard Books is Simon and Schuster’s Christian publishing imprint, the book has been widely available not only in mainstream stores but Christian bookstores as well. Its appeal, Schlabach says, defied other publishers’ claims that the book is a regional one and wouldn’t do well. Bowden, however, has become a beloved figure across the nation and beyond, and even after becoming one of the most successful coaches in history, Schlabach points out Bowden “doesn’t know a stranger,” but makes time for virtually everyone he encounters.
The book has taken Schlabach across the southern US for book signings alongside Coach Bowden, where stores would sell more than a thousand books within the first two hours of a signing. The signing in Atlanta, for example, was one of the biggest the bookstore there had ever done, outselling celebrity books such as those by Ted Nugent and Rachel Ray. Schlabach also feels the book has great potential shelf life and may take off as a “perfect holiday gift,” with a paperback edition (updated) slated for next August.
Co-authoring a second major sports book, says Schlabach, may well be in the wings in the near future, though in the meantime he stays quite busy crisscrossing the country for ESPN, penning a popular column on the network’s website peppered with occasional television and radio commentary or interviews.
And occasionally, those travels -- particularly to cover Notre Dame sports -- take him close to his old hometown of Culver (and his mother’s current home in Argos).
And Culver, he says, “is still the same wonderful place where I grew up. The lake is still as gorgeous as I remember it being.”