Anyone who’s read “Semi-Tough,” “Dead Solid Perfect” or “Baja Oklahoma,” knows that Texas writer Dan Jenkins is an entertainer first. And that there’s more to his work than laughs.
Jenkins’ newest novel, “Stick a Fork in Me,” skewers college sports. It’s a breezy, irreverent, sarcastic and hilarious journey through the life of Pete Wallace, athletics director at the fictional Western Ohio University, a sports powerhouse.
Pete reminisces in the first-person narrative about his career while waiting for the university regents to decide on his retirement package.
Wallace is a West Texas good ol’ boy who is smarter than he seems.
He knows how to punch the right buttons with people and to select successful coaches, even if they are a bit odd, like some of their players. Some of both under Wallace’s guidance have gone on to the pros.
But Wallace is fed up with the juggling acts and hijinks of college sports administration and desires a luxurious retirement. Having a wife with expensive tastes adds tension to the regents’ deliberations.
College sports fans will recognize all the flash points that athletic directors face year in and year out, from recruiting beyond the rules to domineering sports boosters.
Jenkins is very knowledgeable about the tricky process of finding, hiring and firing coaches; the need to balance men’s and women’s sports, along with the necessity to balance budgets when some sports make profits but other sports lose money; and the everlasting challenges of raising money for stadium expansions, arenas and other facilities. Oh, and dealing with the sometimes hostile sports media.
Jenkins’ comic timing and word play is precious. Wallace remembers, for example, all the favors, legal and not-so-legal, he extended to keep a not-so-bright basketball star happy at Western Ohio, only to see him turn pro and spout off in a European magazine article that “he was never taught anything in college.”
“He was quoted saying, ‘I was there to make residue for the college. I took paper classes, which I didn’t have to attend. Somebody wrote papers for me so I could stay legible.’”
Plenty of non-sports humor arises, too, in “Stick a Fork in Me.” Jenkins is just as irreverent and insightful when it comes to human nature and relationships.
Wallace and his golfing-fanatic wife grew apart over the years, even after making his wife the women’s golf coach, while Wallace grew closer to his beautiful female deputy athletics director. That scenario provides one of the twists at the novel’s end.
In Jenkins’ books, life is always funny, even in the cutthroat world of college sports.