SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Must Joe Go?

The enmity of the hometown crowd towards the local football team's head coach left an indelible mark on me. I recall in the late 1960's attending a few Philadelphia Eagles games at Franklin Field, the football stadium on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, with my dad. We would park in the western part of Center City, walk across the Schuykill River on the South Street Bridge, and make our way to our seats on the north side of the stadium. We were bundled up, drinking hot chocolate, watching Tim Brown, Ben Hawkins, Hall of Fame tackle Bob Brown, slow-footed QB Norman Snead and company take on any and all comers. The team wasn't that good, but the place was always packed. 60,000 strong.

The coach at the time was the one-time Notre Dame mentor, Joe Kuharich, who, for reasons still unknown to me, was absolutely hated by the local fans. I honestly cannot think of another coach on any level who caught more grief than this guy in the past 35 years. I was very young then, didn't read the sports pages (and back then, the Philadelphia writers were really vicious; today they get labeled with that tag, but with the exception of a few dyspetic writers who probably have had a few too many press box hot dogs, the label really isn't that fair).

"Joe must go," they would chant in unison, even before the game began. And, during a lull in the game, with the Birds trailing, they would pick up the chant again. "Joe must go, Joe must go." And it would get louder and louder, to the point where the chant would turn into thunder because the increased decibels only ensured even more decibels. Once, a fan snuck onto the track that surrounds the field with a sign that read, predictably, "Joe Must Go." Roundly cheered, he made his way for about 100 yards before getting nabbed by security. At which time, the boos cascaded. And then that chant started up again. "Joe must go. Joe must go." As haunting as any chant from a black-robed choir in the rafters of a cobweb-laden church somewhere in the heart of Transylvania in medieval times.

The lowlight (or highlight, depending on your vantage point), was when a bi-plane, the kind which would fly over one of the Jersey shore beaches touting a low-priced seafood buffet at Zaberer's or some such place, flew nearby with a trailer that read, "Joe Must Go." I'm almost sure that this happened, although I concede that perhaps my memory added something to its files here given that the sonorous, Gregorian-like chants of "Joe must go" left such a mark on a young kid.

And, in fact, Joe did go and wasn't heard from again. In an interview after his Hall of Fame induction, Bob Brown said that after the 1968 season, after Joe Kuharich was fired, he asked to be traded, because he didn't think that the losing that took place was Kuharich's fault. Bob Brown, always a stand-up guy, said that Joe Kuharich was a good guy in the wrong place.

If only the fans knew that. Heck, way back then, they probably wouldn't have cared.

Today, there's a different Joe on the ropes in Pennsylvania, albeit one with a much better reputation and with a much better Q rating than Joe Kuharich. He's an institution in Pennsylvania circles for his team's plain uniforms, for his thick glasses, and for wearing white socks with his football cleats. He is 77 years old, he's been head coach for over 40 years. His name: Joe Paterno.

The facts are that Penn State hasn't been a bona fide Top 20 team for several years, that the America in which we live is a brutal meritocracy, and that a football team will win its games because it has better talent, a better game plan and, overall, is better prepared. Some cognoscenti think that the game has passed Joe Paterno by, that Penn State has suffered from gridiron thinking that has refused to adapt, that Penn State hasn't had a good succession plan for Paterno, that State College is a lovely place but never offered the coach the opportunity to develop a hobby that he might retire to. The alums would love to have an alum, someone from the Penn State family, as JoePa's successor. But long-time top aide Fran Ganter is now part of the athletic department, new offensive guru Galen Hall is 62 and has a checkered history with the NCAA, and son Jay Paterno was demoted after last year, proving that for the most part, public universities cannot be family businesses.

But Joe Paterno has showed no signs of wanting to give up the reigns, of wanting to exit gracefully the way, for example, John Wooden and Dean Smith did. He still hangs in there, still tells people in a voice that suggests he is trying to convince himself as much as the listener that he still can do it, and still is a great ambassador for running a college football program the right way.

The problem for Penn State and Joe Paterno is that both must live in the present, with all of its complications, and not in the past. Yes, JoePa won national titles, yes, he created "Linebacker U" (with the help of former defensive coordinator John Sandusky), and yes he made those plain vanilla uniforms a symbol of selflessness and team. And for all of the great contributions he has made to college football and the Penn State community, he deserves the accolades that he has received.

But the present is a tough, unsentimental place. You don't win because Rip Engle was your mentor, because you coached LaVar Arrington, Lydell Mitchell, Jack Ham and Franco Harris. You don't win because you and your wife donated millions to the Penn State library, or because you always stayed loyal to Penn State when you had many suitors over the years. You win because you're the fittest program. You get the best kids, you know how to shape them into a team, you make sure they get it done off the field, and you make sure that those who can develop into pros do. That's the life that you chose, and that's its Darwinism.

It's time for all involved in the Penn State football situation to take a hard look at their current program and where they want it to go. And it's time to basically say to a great coach and honorable man that the team must improve this year, and, if it doesn't, it's time to hand over the reigns to perhaps another energetic, bright young assistant who perhaps, like JoePa, had once entertained the idea of coaching to make some money before going to graduate school, the way you did. It's time to give that next dynamic coach his opportunity, whoever he may be.

And it's time for Coach Joe Paterno to come to this realization himself, and to take charge of the situation the way he has every other, and to be as honest with himself as he has been with his players in terms of whether he has thought they deserved to get meaningful playing time. It's time for Joe Paterno, this year, to hold himself to the same performance standards that he has his kids over the years.

It probably is the case that in the next year or so, Joe must go.

Let's hope it's because he comes to that conclusion before someone reaches it for him.

And let's hope that we do not hear those haunting, unbending, chants ever again, even in this different context.

Let's hope not, for this Joe's sake.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Take That, Mr. Miresmaeili

At the beginning of the Olympics I blogged about Iran's flag carrier, Arash Miresmaeili, who dropped out of the games (he was favored to win a gold medal in his weight class in judo) because he was scheduled to face an Israeli athlete in the first round. His conduct, and that of his country's Olympic federation, was as transparent in its base anti-Semitism as it was plum awful.

Israel, in terms of the Olympics, is best remembered for the darkest hours in Olympic history, the cold-blooded murder of its athletes and coaches in the Olympic village in Munich in 1972. Mention the 1972 games, and most Americans remember three things: the murder of the Israeli athletes and coaches, the 7 gold medals of Mark Spitz (a Jewish American) and the royal screwing the U.S. men's basketball team got in the game against the Soviets that cost the U.S. a gold medal. And the latter two seem trivial against the pointless loss of innocent, vigorous young lives.

Most curiously, the Olympic movement never paid any tribute to those fallen athletes and coaches. The 1972 Olympic games didn't stop, they moved on. (In fact, former Olympic titan Avery Brundage, head of the IOC, was not only instrumental in no tribute being paid to the Israeli martyrs, but also was instrumental in the Berlin games in 1936 for pulling Jewish sprinters Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, later better known as the voice of the New York Jets, off the track team so as not to offend Hitler). The Israeli athletes weren't going to get any tribute from Brundage, and by the time he was sent packing, Munich had become a distant memory.

Israel isn't a big country, and it's problems are well known and much argued on other blogs. There are about 3 million people in the country, and they are passionate about their basketball. On a few occasions, their best hoops team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, has won the European Championship. A few players, most notably Nadav Henefeld and Doron Sheffer, played very ably for UConn. But the Israeli national team hasn't made it to the Olympics, and usually the Israelis are good for about one bronze medal every four years in a sport that doesn't get much air time.

Except this year, when Gil Fridman won a gold medal in windsurfing, beating a close friend, a windsurfer from Greece. A relatively young man in his 20's, Fridman accepted his medal on behalf of those who were killed in Munich in 1972 and for whom a proper tribute, Olympic style, had not, to date, been made.

And, perhaps, a proper tribute still has yet to be made, but Gil Fridman did the next best thing. He went out there and proved that he was the best in his world in his sport. A gold medalist.

To the great joy of his countrymen. To the great pride of Jews everywhere.

And Arash Miresmaeili went home to Tehran, perhaps to the congratulations of an authoritarian regime, most of whose subjects try to avoid their government as much as is humanly possibly, but to the derision of much of the world's sporting community, who are wondering what in the world was this guy thinking?

They should mint a medal to commemorate fates that rival those of Sisyphus and Tantalus, such as those of Arash Miresmaeili.

And they should make it out of lead.

Golden Girls

Much has been written about the effort of the U.S. women's teams -- basketball, soccer and softball, but I just wanted to add my two cents' worth here. Thank you, Lisa Fernandez, Dawn Staley, Crystl Bustos, Joy Fawcett, Lisa Leslie, Stacy Nuveman, Mia Hamm, Cat Osterman, Tina Thompson and the rest for playing unselfishly, for conducting yourself with great dignity, for playing your games with great joy, passion and effort, and for representing the best of what America and American sports are all about. You are an inspiration to all of us, not just the little girls who wear your jerseys, for the class that you brought to the U.S.A. Olympic team. Others might have received more notoriety for what they wore, didn't wear or took off, but your teams shined more brightly than any individual stars.

Thank you for reminding us that the best sports are those who roll up their sleeves, dive for loose balls, make the extra pass, hit the cutoff woman, set the pick, take the extra base, you name it. You played hard for the love of your games, even if it won't make most of you millionaires or household names. Your efforts were a joy to watch.

And thank you for reminding us that the best sports people of all are, beyond all of their talents, good sports.

Heart of Gold

The kid finally gets it.

The Answer has found his answer.

And it's a great one.

I've blogged a lot about USA Basketball and the USA men's basketball team at the Olympics. I couldn't figure out who would beat them out for a medal, and I couldn't figure out why Stu Jackson and company couldn't cobble together a team more suited for the international game. Others wondered about the teamwork, the heart, the commitment, and many questioned the effort at times. In the end, they didn't win the gold, they won the bronze, and Team USA showed a lot of character by rebounding from the disappointing semifinal loss to Argentina to beat Lithuania in a rematch for the bronze.

And one of the co-captains had this to say: "Guys have to understand that, first and foremost, it's an honor to be selected for this team. This is something you should cherish for the rest of your life. You're supposed to approach this as something special. Any person selected to a team like this, there should be no question in your mind. You get a chance to represent your country, and what's better than that? If you grew up to be an NBA basketball player, you know what this country has done for you and your family. It gave you the opportunity to support your family and be recognized as a household name. Anybody selected to this team should take the honor and cherish it."

That captain's name: Allen Iverson. "The kid", as Larry Brown has been wont to call him. The guy with the flaky ideas about practice who leaves it all on the floor in a game. People can question some of his attitudes, some of his training methods, but no one can question the effort he puts forth on the floor. Even in the Olympics. Allen Iverson might have led his team to "only" a bronze medal, but I'd rather have him, his bronze, his commitment and these sentiments than the gymnastics world, Paul Hamm and his gold medal.

Any day of the week.

So while it's easy to jump on Allen Iverson for all that's wrong with USA Basketball, remember this: of all the marquis names in the NBA, only AI and Tim Duncan were "first' choices of USA Basketball. They entered the arena, they were brave, and they dared to show up when most of the other "first" choices chose "the dog ate my homework" types of excuses and stayed away.

The members of Team USA showed up and played despite having little time to practice together, despite huge expectations that meant that anything but a gold was a big disappointment, despite having Stu Jackson put together a team not suited for the international game, despite the U.S.'s not having a national system that gets the national team together every summer the way most of the other countries do, despite having the youngest team in the Olympic twelve. They showed up knowing that every other team would get way up for them, and they showed up knowing that the gap has narrowed between them and any other rival, especially under international rules.

And, yes, because the best talent is supposed to win out in the end, no matter what, they were a disappointment. They should have won the gold medal, regardless, because they're Team USA and they're always supposed to win. That's not an unfair assessment, but before you indict the guys who played, examine the system, the probable politics of USA Basketball, the guys who declined. And examine the fact that after the heartbreaking loss to Argentina, this supposed bunch of heartless guys came out in the bronze-medal game, no doubt feeling the huge disappointment, and they won the thing. Even if, in the U.S. public's way of thinking, the game couldn't have meant much because it wasn't for the gold medal.

Who says that they don't have any heart? They were the ones who answered the call of USA Baskeball when others didn't, and they answered the bell after being knocked down by Argentina.

And their co-captain?

He may have "only" a bronze medal around his neck, but he has a heart of gold.

Does Andy Reid Know Something Others Do Not?

Two years ago, Andy Reid let Jeremiah Trotter leave the Philadelphia Eagles. The fans were outraged. How could Coach Reid let go such a tough, forceful presence at middle linebacker? And, worse, how could he let Trotter to the rival Redskins -- in the same division?

As it turned out, Trotter, while tough, overran about as many plays as he made. Normally a quiet guy, he made a big stink when he left the Cradle of Liberty, burning bridges the way General Sherman burned all kinds of real estate in Atlanta around 1865. Now Trotter is back in Philadelphia as the backup middle linebacker, offering a stark contrast in size to the starter, the Zach Thomas-sized Mark Simoneau. He ate his humble pie and is legitimately happy to be back, as he'll be suiting up for a Super Bowl contender. Andy Reid was right about Jeremiah Trotter and whether he deserved a starter's compensation package.

Two years ago, Reid made big decisions on popular kick returner Brian Mitchell and even more popular DE Hugh Douglas. Mitchell went to the Giants (at 36 he wanted a 2-year deal; Reid didn't want to make more than a 1-year commitment), and, again, the Eagles' fans went ballistic. How could they let this Hall of Fame KR go to the Giants -- in the same division? But go to the Giants Mitchell did, and it turned out that he was through. But letting Mitchell go made way for Brian Westbrook, one of the most exciting "smallish" backs this side of Barry Sanders. And it was a great treat for Reid to see Westbrook return a punt in the final minute at the Meadowlands to give the Eagles' an unlikely win in a lackluster game that proved to be the turning point for both teams. As for Douglas? He went to Jacksonville and had a bad year.

It's not that Reid is omniscient. Shawn Barber has played well in KC, and it's likely that one or both of Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent will fare well in Seattle and Buffalo, respectively. But it's also likely that Carlos Emmons is on the downside of his career after breaking his leg badly late last season, and he's been showing signs that he's not fully recovered. Which means he may not play that well for the team that signed him -- the Giants. That story remains to be written, but running an NFL team is as much about managing your salary cap and constantly evaluating talent as it is keeping big names on your roster.

Now the Eagles find themselves a bit thin at DE. Projected starter N.D. Kalu tore up a knee last week and is done for the year. Starting DEs Derrick Burgess and Jevon Kearse haven't played more than say a season between them in the past two (Burgess has missed all of the past 2 seasons). Backup DEs Jamal Green (missed all last year) and Jerome McDougle (missed much of last year) have had injury problems. And the Jaguars cut Hugh Douglas today, a week after letting Tony Brackens go.

And the Eagles always liked Hugh Douglas. So the question becomes, if he has anything left in the tank, will the Eagles sign him at the right price?

Before last season, the Eagles had depth at DE because Burgess and Green went down. They opted to sign the man Douglas replaced at J-Actionville, Marco Coleman, who proved he had little left after a solid 12-year career. Will they go that route again and sign a former Jaguar? Or will they leave the position open possibly for second-year man Ron Johnson from Shippensburg State?

Leave it to Andy Reid to make the right move (especially after a draft, as some of his drafts have been so-so); he usually does.

And, free agent seekers, beware: if the Eagles let a player go, look hard at why.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

It's Argentina, That's Who

All during the Olympic games, I wondered aloud, as did many bloggers, pundits and columnists, about the ultimate fate of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. Everyone's emotions were conflicted. Some wanted the team to win and lose at the same time (not me, however, I always wanted them to win). Why win and lose? Win to uphold the American tradition of excellence in "our" sport, and lose to teach USA basketball some humility. In short, many fans have held the USA men's Olympic hoop team to a very complicated set of standards that would have been hard to meet unless they waxed every opponent by 30 points per game and quoted Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling and Gandhi in their post-game press conferences (and perhaps going the fans one extra by locking arms with their opponents and the officials in a post-gold medal game folk song singalong).

And after they lost their first game, to Puerto Rico, I wondered aloud about whether there were 2 teams in the tournament remaining who could beat them? So did others, and no one could think of two others. The Serbs? Where was Peja Stojakovic? (The Serbs didn't make it past the preliminary round) The Chinese? Yao is tough, but the other four guys might have trouble making the Fork Union Military Academy JV. The Italians? Everyone said that when the U.S. lost to them in their pre-Olympic prep work, that the Italians weren't very good. And so the rationalizations went. After this loss, Coach Larry Brown and team members talked about a learning experience, how they could derive positives from this bad experience. Sure, because that's all they had. Ask any coach, and he would have told you that what the team needed was a huge, confidence building win over a team with one NBA player on it to prove to themselves that they could actually win the gold medal. Deep down, they had to be reeling.

And after they lost to the Lithuanians, a historically talented team with funky warm-ups who were led by a hot-shooting guard that had trouble getting meaningful PT at the University of Maryland, people were still saying that they couldn't think of who could win the gold medal instead of the U.S.'s talent-laden roster. The Lithuanians? How could they beat us twice? The game was close, and we'd figure out a way to close them out in a medal-round game. Spain? Weren't they really just a more souped-up version of the Chinese, with Pau Gasol and four guys who toil in anonymity? Ditto for the Argentinians with Manu Ginobli.

In fairness, Team USA played a fine game against Spain in the quarterfinals, beating a cohesive unit with a nice run down the stretch. Perhaps the bloggers, pundits and national beat writers were right, that when the lights got brighter, the U.S. just had too many weapons. The game against Spain leveled the plane -- that was the gist of what they wrote. (Stephen A. Smith guaranteed a gold medal after that performance). Clearly, it was a confidence-building win against a team that hadn't lost a game in the Olympics up until then.

But then came the Argentines, and they boasted an excellent NBA shooting guard in Manu Ginobli, several hulking, very good inside players and a former Division I PG named Pepe Sanchez, who helped make Temple teams outstanding as John Chaney's coach on the floor about 5 years ago (and being John Chaney's coach on the floor is one of the toughest jobs in college basketball, and Pepe was about as good as it gets). They were the third team, the true answer to the question of who else could be Team USA besides Puerto Rico and Lithuania. And, in doing so, they put themselves in a final against an over-achieving Italian team that everyone said didn't have the talent of the others, and the Argentines won the gold medal game by 15 points. To Team USA's credit, they gave a great effort in the bronze-medal game and won it, refusing to let the Lithuanians beat them twice.

So how do we deal with all of the thoughts, all of the emotions?

First, you're happy for Team Argentina because up until their win and the win of their men's soccer team in its gold medal game, Argentina hadn't won a gold medal in 52 years (that's many military juntas and governments ago). You're happy for Manu Ginobli and Pepe Sanchez, happy for a team that played within itself and well together, happy for an underdog, because America is all about giving the underdog a chance.

Second, you're disappointed in USA Basketball. For whatever reason, they failed big-time in stocking a team of players that could win "international basketball", a game that is significantly different from the NBA game with its reliance on zone defense, three-point shooting and very physical play inside (not to mention only 2 referees). They basically believed that if they stocked the team with very talented players and just showed up, the talent would win out. Had the talent had months and months to practice together and pick up some of the nuances of the international game, maybe they would have been proved right. But the talent was unable (and sometimes unwilling) to mesh within the short period of time they had, and they looked more like a CBA quarterfinalist at times than a team with NBA stars on it.

Third, you're disappointed in Team USA and for Coach Larry Brown and the team members. Why? Because you rooted for the team, a team which has established such a high standard of excellence over the years that to bring home anything but the gold would be a major disappointment. These guys didn't give their best effort, but it wasn't like they wanted to lose. It might have been that their outlook going into the Olympics was all wrong, and that they didn't mentally prepare themselves for how hard this would be. Clearly, something was off in their preparation, and now they return to the U.S. with a legacy of failing to have upheld the high standard. I am sure they are not happy about that.

Fourth, I am proud that Team USA won a medal (many had predicted that they would get shut out, again, perhaps, because they wanted some sort of lesson to be taught). We have become such a front-running society that we in the U.S. only want to honor those who win the gold (except perhaps Paul Hamm), and we quickly put the "only" tag on any other form of medal. But in watching the games, you can see the emotion that many have shown in winning any medal after so many years of hard work, from an Australian platform diver who took the silver last night to a Nigerian relay team to a woman long jumper from India). Forget the insulting ad campaign, "you don't win the silver, you lose the gold" from many years ago, as many of us have never done anything to come close to getting into an Olympic field let alone have a shot at a medal in the things we do. The bottom line is that getting a medal is an accomplishment, regardless of the circumstances. To say anything else would be to demean the competition, and given what the Argentines have shown, that wouldn't be fair at all.

Fifth, if there's a lesson to be learned, there are probably two of them. One, that USA Basketball cannot take international competition for granted any more. Yes, we created the game, and, yes, we are very good at it, but we don't own the competition any more, other countries have developed excellent players, and some of those players are more fundamentally sound than ours. Second, the NBA should work on the quality of its product. These international games were fun to watch. Maybe they didn't produce five ESPN Sports Center highlights per game, they surely provided great drama from an overall group of players who play more for the love of the game than the trappings of an NBA superstar. Basketball is all about choreography of movement and smooth finishes, and we saw a nice blend of those two in many of the games that were played.

While "our" team might not have won, in some way basketball and its future did.

Team USA apologists will lament, point fingers and offer up the explanation that the Argentines didn't win the tournament, that Team USA was the best team, that the Argentines just played a little better, and, that, really, Team USA lost the tournament more than the Argentines won it.

And they would be totally wrong to do so.

The game has changed, and USA Basketball would be foolish not to change with it. (Ditto the NBA).

Congratulations, Argentina, for a fine, championship-worthy effort.

More on Rollie Massimino

I wrote a lengthy piece a short while back on the fates of former coaches at Penn and Princeton, both head coaches and assistant coaches. One of the coaches I mentioned was Rollie Massimino, the one-time Villanova mentor whose claim to fame was leading the Wildcats to an improbable national championship in 1985 and whose claims to notoriety were helping end Philadelphia's vibrant Big Five round-robin and then not having success at both UNLV and Cleveland State. Click here for my post about the former Ivy coaches and click here for Dave Sez's post about Rollie Massimino.

I figure that I've written enough about Coach Mass and won't render any further comments on the topic, at least for now, but I wanted to make you aware that there are still some discussions about his legacy given an investigation into activities at Cleveland State during Massimino's tenure there.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Future of Monday Night Football

The Sports Economist has a post about the future of Monday Night Football.

And it isn't rosy. Apparently, Monday Night Football is losing $150 million a year, and it may be the case that ABC would like to shed the bird that has transformed itself from a shining eagle to a grouchy, overweight albatross.

At its inception, when there were say 7 TV channels in your town (each major affiliate, PBS and, if you were lucky, 3 UHF channels whose pictures could turn into snow if the TV dial slipped a bit), there wasn't all that much to watch. Add the melodramatic (and self-important) Howard Cosell, and there was pure theater. People watched because the world was smaller, there weren't that many alternatives, many of the games were competitive, and you just didn't know what Cosell would say.

Today, there are tons of alternatives, dozens of channels, HBO shows, to-order movies, what have you. People can get "footballed-out" over the weekend with all of the games they can see on Saturday (college) from say noon until past midnight and then on Sunday with an NFL package. The MNF announcers aren't bad, but people really don't watch the game for the announcers the way they did when they weren't realizing it (because TV was a carryover from radio, and in radio days people loved their announcers the way they loved the jolly uncles who used to come over and spoil them rotten). So the Cosell factor is gone. Perhaps for good. The product is only fair. MNF can't pick its games, and some of them have been rotten. And, as popular as the NFL is, the product has gotten a little stale. Teams play the same offensive and defensive schemes, and you just don't see RBs break the 70-yard runs or QBs hook up for the 80-yard hitch and go patterns the way you used to. It's more about control than it is about entertainment.

Parity has helped make the NFL better, in that it doesn't take all that much for a 3-13 team to turn into a 10-6 wild card team in a year or two if they manage their cap, draft well, sign a few free agents and stay relatively healthy. The problem is, that parity hasn't been good for MNF because the scheduling is done in advance and you don't know really which team will be stellar and which will not be. For example, if Priest Holmes goes down in KC or if Tom Brady goes down in New England, all of a sudden those teams' MNF games might be duds. Or, more simply, suppose the Panthers' 2003 Super Bowl trip turns out to be, in retrospect, a fluke. Then MNF is stuck again. And the odds of their scheduling the "up and coming" team are small.

So, MNF suffers from parity, suffers a bit from the sameness of the product, suffers somewhat from a "too much football" syndrome, suffers from built-in bad scheduling luck and starts too late back east. And perhaps other things as well. Still, football owes its popularity in no small part to gambling, and there are plenty of ill-advised gamblers out there who try to save their weekends by betting a big wad on the MNF game. Aren't those people enough to give MNF good ratings?

Apparently not.

They are all men in the 18-45 year-old category, and everyone knows that the ads don't sell on the sports pages. Correspondingly, they don't sell well here either. Unless, of course, these men were to watch the games with their significant others.

Which, apparently, they don't do in large enough numbers.

So what's really wrong with MNF? Can it be fixed? Can another network inject life into it?

Stay tuned.

Then again, if you're one of the loyal fans, they don't need to give you that advice. You're already there.

It's everyone else they're worried about.

Enough Already

As if the absurdity of the Olympic gymnastics competition hadn't already reached an all-time low (or high, depending on how you look at it), the Russians have also lodged a protest, claiming that their gymnasts were cheated out of higher marks.

Which makes you wonder what's a good performance and what isn't. Again. Now, no one will argue that gymnasts aren't athletes, but many will ask why the Olympics cannot just shoot this sport and put it out of its misery. They won't, of course, because somehow the world likes watching this stuff, and that means TV ratings, and that means advertising dollars.

But gymnastics fails on so many fronts. First, it isn't a team sport. Giving a team a medal for competition simply means that the Romanians are better at finding their best 6 gymnasts than the Americans and Russians and Japanese are. Nothing more. It's not like there are batons or balls to be passed, or oars to be rowed in synchronization with each other. It's not even like syncrhonized diving, another judged sport, where at least the divers have to coordinate their efforts. So, they could dispense with the team competition and save us that bit of agony.

Second, and more importantly, spare us the overall competition. Call it a demonstration sport (which would be apt given that all of the Olympic delegations seem to be demonstrating against the judges' scores), call it entertainment, but don't put it on the same level as basketball or swimming or weightlifting. To do so dishonors those sports, where the best competitors either score more points, swim faster or heft more heavy metal than the other competitors.

I have blogged about judged sports over the past two weeks or so, so click here (and scroll down to point 6), here, here and here for my prior posts on all judged sports. Also, click here to read Josh Elliott of SI.com, who wrote a nice piece as to why judged sports should be eliminated from the Olympics. So while gymnastics gets most of the attention, the same arguments hold true for synchronized swimming, diving, boxing and figure skating. Too much room for politics, too much room for mistakes, too much opportunity for corruption when the stakes are so high.

The headlines should be about the nice effort of the Iraqi soccer team, the domination of the U.S. women's softball team, the retiring Greek weightlifter, El Guerroj's finally getting it done in the 1500 meters, of Thorpe and Phelps swimming head to head, of Marlene Ottey, a five- or six-time Olympic sprinter (mostly for Jamaica) somehow running for Slovakia. Of the school teachers and part-time Home Depot workers, of the shooters (including the one who lost the gold because he shot at the wrong target), of the sailors, the bikers and the ballers.

And not the whiners and complainers.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

And I Gave Up Tickets To That Game. . .

Dave Sez posted today on the 1992 NCAA Eastern Regional Finals, Christian Laettner's last-second shot that gave Duke a 103-102 win over Kentucky and the fact that ESPN has rated it as one of its best sports moments ever.

The game was played on a Saturday night at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. I had tickets to the Eastern Regional Finals, and on the previous Thursday night went to watch Kentucky beat UMass in a so-so fashion and Duke (with Bobby Hurley) beat Seton Hall (with Danny Hurley). Coming out of those games, I honestly thought that Duke would win in a walk.

I also had a conflict. I had promised my girlfriend that I would accompany her to a wine-tasting that Saturday night, and this was to be a big date because I would be meeting many of her friends. The reason I had committed to this was because I thought that the championship game would be played in the afternoon. I'm almost certain that the network moved it back to prime-time because it was a match-up between Duke and Kentucky. Anyway, I had committed to going to the wine-tasting, so I bequeathed my tickets to the couple who had introduced us and to a good friend from college and his fiancee. My girlfriend was magnanimous and told me that if I had wanted to go to the regional finals, she would understand. I said, no, that's okay, I had made the commitment to her, I wanted to go, Duke would win big, and, besides, I had attended Final Fours before.

Anyway, we go to the winetasting, and I can't get a score. We go out afterwards, and I can't get a score at that place either. It's only after we get home that I see late highlights and realize that this was the greatest college basketball game ever played, that I had tickets to it, and that I had given them up.

Well, it was a hard thing to live down for a while. My girlfriend's father, when she told him what I had given up, gave her a benign lecture as to the importance of what I gave up. ("Do you realize what he gave up for you?" he must have said three times. "You owe him big.") My friends naturally wanted to meet the woman for whom I'd give up going to such an important basketball game.

Several months later we were engaged. At my college reunion, my friends made sure that they were going to meet this woman, because it wasn't just anyone for whom I'd forego a Duke-Kentucky regional final for a wine-tasting. At my bachelor party, one of the friends to whom I had given the tickets presented me with an autographed photograph of Coach K, inscribed, "Sorry you had to miss the big game. Best wishes." It was a great gift, although to this day I think that only the signature from Coach K and the rest my friend wrote, although I haven't shared that with him. At our wedding, my father-in-law gave a nice toast, and in it he described the events surrounding the tickets to this game and noted for the attendees that I had given up my tickets. He said, "As a future father-in-law I was heartened, but as a college basketball fan I was appalled."

And you know what, to this day, I'd honestly do it again and have no regrets. My relationship with my wife has been well worth the "apparent" sacrifice of Duke-Kentucky tickets, with an the added bonus of an adorable little boy to take to baseball games and a wonderful copper-haired elementary school-aged girl to watch run gracefully on a soccer field. The giving up of the tickets has become an amusing story about the journey that we have taken together.

After all, sports are just that, and we all need to remember that, even in the shadows of the greatest games ever.

But then again, if there is a next time, maybe I'd try to get 4 tickets to the game -- if I could.


Chris Young To Start for Texas Rangers Tonight

And this is a big deal because?

Okay, so he's the first Princeton alumnus to appear in the Major Leagues since early 1980's, when Bob Tufts pitched in relief for both the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals. Moe Berg is probably the most famous Princeton person to have played in the majors, and since Tufts' time there are have plenty of other Major Leaguers' from Ivy schools (and even from tiny Amherst College, an Ivy-quality school whose alum, John Cerruti, pitched ably for the Blue Jays in the 80's). Ron Darling went to Yale, Brad Ausmus and Mark Johnson went to Dartmouth, Mark DeRosa and Doug Glanville went to Pennsylvania. And, of course, it's not as though Young has star written all over him the way, say, Josh Beckett had when he was drafted.

All true, but Young is a legend in Princeton circles (to others he was a dalliance; read more). He got to Princeton in the late 1990's, right after the team that featured Steve Goodrich, Gabe Lewullis, Brian Earl, Mitch Henderson and James Mastaglio finished 27-2 and was ranked as high as #8 during the regular season (the team lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State). He led an 8-person recruiting class that was supposed to enable the Tigers to re-load and not just re-build. He was a well-heralded 6'10" center who went to Princeton specifically to play 2 sports, and he wanted to play baseball for coach Scott Bradley because Bradley, a formerly major leaguer with the Mariners and the Yankees, had caught a rather tall, rather successfully pitcher named Randy Johnson when they were teammates in Seattle. The bonus for the Tigers: the kid played basketball too. With Brian Earl and Gabe Lewullis returning, the Tigers were supposed to win the Ivies again.

But, alas, that's where the story didn't turn out as all of the Princeton prognosticators had hoped. Young had an excellent year on the basketball court, was a first-team all-Ivy player (and, if my memory serves me, was the Ivies' rookie of the year), but the Tigers lost out on the Ivy title to the Penn Quakers (even after beating Penn 50-49 that year in the Palestra, after having trailed 41-15 with 15:00 to go in the fifth best comeback ever in NCAA history; Young hit a three-pointer, a hook shot and a jumper from the foul line in the last 5 minutes after having gone 0-8 in the first half). Young also excelled on the baseball field. Penn, by the way, had junior guards Michael Jordan and Matt Langel and senior forwards Paul Romanczuk and Jed Ryan.

The following year Princeton lost Earl and Lewullis, and their 8-man recruiting class turned out to me more volume than quality. One player never went out for the team, and several more were unable to play for various reasons. Young, as a sophomore, was a co-captain, but the Tigers were unable to overtake the Quakers' senior guards and a core of talented freshmen that included forwards Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong. Penn won the Ivy title, and Young again was named first-team all-Ivy. His freshman year, Chris Young looked like he was better than three-time all-Ivy Steve Goodrich -- when Goodrich was a senior. His calm demeanor belied an intensity on the court, although it didn't always seem that Young dominated when he could have.

After that season, all hell broke loose within the Princeton basketball program. Happily, long-time assistant coach Joe Scott was hired at Air Force, getting his chance to show what he could do as a head coach. Very sadly, head coach Bill Carmody was lured away to Northwestern in the late summer, after Wildcats' coach Kevin O'Neill bolted for an assistant's job in the NBA. The Tigers hired their second assistant, John Thompson III, to be head coach.

And then matters got much worse. First, Chris Young was eligible for the major league draft (because he was 19 when he graduated from HS), and he was selected on the third round by the Pittsburgh Pirates (who signed him for over $1 million). Then, talented sophomore guard Spencer Gloger transferred to UCLA, the school that had come in second to Princeton in his recruiting parade. Returning veterans Phil Belin, Chris Krug and Ray Robbins dropped off the team for one reason or another. And three more returning players were battling injuries at the season's outset, including PG Ahmed El-Nokali (groin surgery) and C Nate Walton (foot or ankle injury).

The cupboard, relatively speaking, was bare. Chris Young was gone, and while he had performed in a stellar fashion he didn't lead the Tigers to any titles. The odds also were that with Ugonna Onyekwe at Penn, the Tigers were going to be in for a drought for a few more years.

But you just don't mail in your effort, even when the cognoscenti think you're going to be an also-ran within the first division of your league at best. Led by a dazzling season by Nate Walton, a courageous and undermanned Tigers' team won an unlikely title. Without Chris Young. It was an inspiring year.

As for Young? He always pitched okay in the minors, but he didn't dominate. Perhaps it was because he still had the NBA on his mind. Perhaps because it was he didn't get into full baseball rhthym for a while (i.e., he needed a year to go by when all he did was baseball). At any rate, after he spent a few years in the Pittsburgh system, the Pirates gave up on him and traded him and Jon Searles (ironically a Penn undergrad, recruited to play football for Penn, but who ended up signing with the Pirates and going to college at the same time) to the Expos for Matt Herges (whom the Pirates promptly cut after the trade). The word from Baseball America: the Pirates lost patience with Young, and they couldn't understand why his velocity couldn't top 90 mph. As for the Expos, by the time Young got to their system, 7 or 8 of the top 10 prospects (according to BA) in the Expos' organization were right-handed pitchers. At the bottom of that pecking order: Chris Young. His career, to a certain degree, was at its first precipice.

Young stayed the course, pitched reasonably well at AA for the Expos, and then got traded again in the off-season, this time to the Texas Rangers. He started at AA and moved up AAA Oklahoma City, where he pitched very well. Manager Buck Showalter watched him last week, and the report was that he increased his velocity to 90-94 mph and showed Showalter, a tough critic, that he could pitch.

So here is Chris Young, as age 25, making his Major League debut for a team that is in the midst of a pennant race. His hometown team to boot. His second precipice in his baseball career, one frought with peril and joy at the same time. Combined, those the perils and the joys create on heck of an opportunity. Excel here and now, and you'll be in the big leagues for a while.

So perhaps the Pirates and Expos were wrong about Chris Young. Perhaps he did need to get basketball out of his system. And perhaps it just takes a little bit longer for very tall pitchers to develop (just like short, crafty lefties; see: Jamie Moyer).

As of today, it looks like Chris Young made the right decision when he left the Princeton basketball team to embark on a journey through the minor leagues. Four years ago he played to crowds of 9000 or less in a drafty gym that had an indoor running track surrounding it. Tonight, he'll be playing before tens of thousands on a hot, muggy night in Texas.

Tonight he's made it to The Show, where his teammates won't be Earl, Lewullis, Rocca and El-Nokali, but Texeira, Blalock, Jordan and Soriano.

Good luck, Chris Young.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Remember the Names: Jeff Tedford and Aaron Rodgers

It's a bit early for college football stories (unless, of course, you're such a college football fan that you believe in 2 sports, football and spring football). It's just that there's a compelling story out of Northern California that is worth noting in this blog.

The Cal Bears. Perennial also-rans in the Pac-10, alma mater of some solid NFL players, but clearly the weak sister to its Pac-10 counterparts in the Golden State, especially USC, but also UCLA and Stanford.

Except that a funny thing happened to Matt Leinart and the USC Trojans on their way to an undisputed #1 national ranking last year. They lost to. . . drumroll please -- the Cal Bears, in Berkeley.

And Cal has lots of good players back. And, perhaps most importantly, their coach, Jeff Tedford (who has stamped out quite a few college QBs in the past 5 or so years). Tedford, according to ABC's Beano Cook, should have been the choice at Nebraska, and, in my book, he should have been the choice for many openings last year. He is to college football offenses what Mike Martz has been to NFL offenses -- extremely innovative.

Rodgers, of course, will be a dark-horse Heisman candidate, a strong-armed QB who has blossomed under Tedford's tutelage.

Cal is picked to be #2 in the Pac-10, no small feat. Rodgers in all likelihood will be a #1 pick in the NFL draft. Perhaps top 10.

And Tedford? He might be the first college coach in a while to make the jump to the NFL successfully.

Or to a school where he could have a bona fide chance to win a national title.

Remember the names.

And remember the Cal Bears this year.

Making the BCS Look Sane

I never thought I'd say the BCS's system for determining a national champion in U.S. college football would compare favorably to any other system in the world of sports.

Until now.

Until I watched and read about the all-around gold medal in men's gymnastics at the Olympics, where Paul Hamm's gold is the subject of controversy. Until I watched the men's floor exercise last night (interestingly juxtaposed to the 100 meter semis in track, where, thankfully, the winner is the guy who gets to the tape first), where a Canadian and Russian were tied, but because the gymnastics lords don't like ties, the proverbial "they" had to resort to four tiebreakers to determine the gold (for the Canadian).

It's enough to make you want to have them ban gymnastics from the Olympics, at least if you're a pure sports fan, where you like to see championships determined by the participants on the field. Perhaps if you're an advertiser you like the controversies, though, that heighten people's interest. Then again, if you like the controversies, you might be the type to pick at hangnails until they're infected.

I don't buy the U.S. delegation's covering for Paul Hamm and Hamm's comment that it's like a football game where they don't change the result because there was a bad call in the third quarter. U.S.A. Coach Colarossi said he reviewed tapes and found an instance where the judges erred by one-tenth on the score for the South Korean. Fine, but that's a heat-of-the-moment judgment call, and no one's arguing about those. My guess is that if you were to examine Hamm's performances, you might have found some overgrading there too. This is different. What happened here is that from the get-go the judges took off one-tenth of a point because they underestimated the degree of difficulty of the South Korean gymnast's routine. That's not the same as blinking during a slight wiggle during a floor exercise. The mistake that is the subject of all of the controversy is tantamount to a clerical error that should be easily corrected.

Except it hasn't been thus far, and the U.S. is steadfast in covering Paul Hamm's back. As, perhaps, the U.S. delegation/gymastics federation should be out of fealty to a great competitor. But as Christine Brennan points out in USA Today, they're sending the wrong message.

With every Olympics, you'll remember some who won, some who lost, and some for how they played the game. You'll recall the Sydney Olympics for the hobbled distance runner who was having trouble finishing his race, only to have his father jump onto the track and help him cross the finish line. You'll also remember the goofy U.S. relay team who started flexing after their victory to the embarrassment of most American fans. And you remember some results from whatever sport is your favorite. Sometimes, though, the sportsmanship, and not the results, will take precedence.

So, as Brennan points out, Paul Hamm has a choice. He should keep his gold medal, keep his explanation about the bad call in the football game, and go home to Wisconsin where he'll probably get a gym at his HS named after him. And perhaps not much else. Including a cover of a Wheaties Box. No, because those go to undisputed champions. And marketable ones (which means that the unbelievable USA Softball team might still go unnoticed, even with Jenny Finch). Not controversial ones.

Or, he can think about what transpired, how he would have felt if similarly situated, and what he would have expected his competitor to do in the same situation. And the ironic part of it is, with one magnanimous gesture in this crazy contemporary world of athletes' endorsing anything and everything for the big bucks, he'll make himself more marketable than he ever dreamed. He'll become the Anti-Dream Teamer. The endorsements will come rolling in.

Happily, too, for the man who elected to forego victory in his sport for sportsmanship.



Sunday, August 22, 2004

Tidbit About Penn Basketball

I listened to ESPN Radio recently, and they had an interview with Penn coach Fran Dunphy right after Dunphy announced that he was turning down the opportunity to return to his alma mater, LaSalle, as head coach. Dunphy spoke of the prospects for his Penn team, and he indicated that the key to the next season is junior PG Eric Osmundsen.

Osmundsen transferred to Penn two years ago (Princeton and Penn recruited him out of HS), and at the time the Penn faithful thought that the Quakers were getting the next in a distinguished line of point guards under Fran Dunphy. (You'll recall that Dunphy has only won titles when he has had a stellar PG running the show -- Jerome Allen, Matt Maloney, Michael Jordan and Andy Toole; without the sterling PG, the Quakers have looked a bit lost at times). PG is as important to Penn as, say, the center position is to Princeton (and to any team playing the Princeton offense).

Last year, Osmundsen was a disappointment. Reports were that a surgically repaired knee never fully healed, and that he played at too frenetic a pace, almost as if he were so anxious for the game to ensue that he played in overdrive instead of under control. Dunphy confirmed the latter point, indicating that the key for Osmundsen is to play at a more relaxed pace. Osmundsen showed evidence of his vast potential in the Princeton-Penn game at Jadwin Gym last year, where, as a substitute, he hit two key three pointers that enabled Penn to get a big lead on the Tigers and trounce them in their own house (arguably, that game was the best the Quakers played all year).

That Dunphy made this statement means that 6'2" guard Ibby Jaaber, who showed great ability during the Ivy season last year, will be playing the 2G. He had a great year, is an able defender and a very quick player. After those two players, though, the Penn backcourt is rather thin. There are a few incoming freshmen (about whom little has been written), and the returning veterans are more or less practice players (the Quakers graduated starting guards Charlie Copp and Jeff Schiffner). But, if Osmundsen can play reasonably well, the Penn guard duo should give the Princeton Tigers fits.

The reason: height. Princeton returns three seasoned guards in 6"3" first-team all-Ivy player Will Venable, 6'1" backup PG Max Schafer (who played well in spots down the stretch), and 5'9" combo guard Scott Greenman (who came up big down the stretch for Princeton). In their game at the Palestra last year (which the Tigers won), Princeton figured out a way to solve the height differential. And it wasn't always with playing three guys over 6'8" on the front line, although they did that occasionally in that game. Still, a 6"5", 6'2" backcourt in the Ivies is pretty tough. Venable, though, is a very special player who at times willed the Tigers to victory last season.

So remember the name Eric Osmundsen, especially if you're a Penn fan, and remember the fact that the Quakers only win the title when they have a penetrating PG who scores about 15 a game and is an integral part of the offense, both by penetrating and creating and by shooting the three. If Osmundsen can't fill that role for the Quakers, they will have a hard time winning the Ivy title.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Of the Judging and the Judged

Part I, The Judging

As it turned out, the South Korean Olympic federation was right, three gymastics judges goofed, and the South Korean gymnast who won the bronze actually should have won the gold. Nonetheless, probably because the protest somehow was defective and/or because there's some double secret unwritten policy that if you get awarded a gold medal in a medals ceremony it's permanent, it may be the case that the initial ruling will still stand, Paul Hamm gets his gold and the South Korean gets an oblique apology (through the admission of the Olympics' officials that three judges goofed and were suspended as a result).

The South Korean gymnast worked hard for several years to get to the pinnacle of his sport, only to have a tragic human error rob him of what was rightfully his.

Paul Hamm, meanwhile, has his gold medal, but he also has the knowledge that he really didn't win it. Three judges committed the ultimate in grossly negligent judging malpractice, so he ended up with the gold.

I don't know who should feel worse, the South Korean who lost his gold medal because of a bad blunder or Hamm, who sits there with his gold medal, knowing he didn't deserve it. Sorry, but I can't agree with the USA Coach, Bob Colarossi, who analogized what happened to a bad call in football. Coach, most football coaches will say at a post-game press conference that while the bad call probably made a difference, had their teams executed better earlier in the game the bad call shouldn't have made a difference because they already would have had the game won. But here, what more could the South Korean gymnast have done? He lost purely because judges did their math wrong. Sorry, Coach, and sorry, Paul Hamm, but the medal is tainted.

Judged sports -- human error in gymnastics and the potential for computer error in boxing. Who needs them?

Part II, The Judged

USA Basketball fell today to the Lithuanians, 94-90.

Which makes me ask the question, are there two different types of basketball in the world now? It's clear that the Europeans and South Americans aren't necessarily part of the fittest in terms of the American game, because many of them don't make NBA teams or, if they do, do not star. But what about the international game? Let's say, for example, we changed the NBA rules next year to make them purely international rules. And let's say you put the national teams in from all of the countries currently in the Olympics? Or, better yet, the champions of the leagues in Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey and Israel? What would happen in that league? Say it was a 40-game season? An 80-game season?

Would the Americans win that league? Would they bang well enough? Would they shoot well enough? Defend well enough?

Watching Olympic basketball over the past few weeks makes you wonder, doesn't it? On the one hand, the best American players aren't here, the ones who are haven't played together for that long, the American squad isn't well-constructed for the international game. We know all that. My bet is that if you changed the American game to be an international game, there wouldn't be so many slashers in the NBA, and the fundamentals might get better. But I'm not totally sure any of the European league champions would win more than half of their games in the NBA, even under international rules.

That said, at the outset of the games I said that I couldn't think of 3 teams that could beat the US in the Olympics. So far, two have -- Puerto Rico and Lithuania. Could Serbia-Montenegro? Spain with Pau Gasol? Argentia with Manu Ginobli and Juan "Pepe" Sanchez? Sure they can. Nothing surprises the U.S. hoop fan anymore. Not winning the gold is a distinct possibility. Shooting under 20% from behind a 3-point arc that is 3 feet closer to the bucket than in the NBA leaves U.S. fans with dropped jaws. In the words of a former tennis champion whose TV show now garners a 0.0 Nielsen rating, "you cannot be serious." But look it up, it is so.

Which is fine with me. The NBA product as it now stands is frequently unwatchable, as players seem more motivated by appearing on the SportsCenter highlights than in passing to an open teammate or hitting the open jumper. There's an intensity about the Olympic games, at least in the other countries' teams, that you wish you could see day-in and day-out in the NBA, the way you did when the Celtics battled with the 76ers, when those two battled with the Knicks, when the Celtics battled with the Lakers and even when Detroit's Nasty Boys battled with everyone.

Perhaps the NBA will wake up and use these games as a means to fine-tune its product. But, most likely, the NBA won't do anything, and will chalk up this Olympic performance to an aberration, to the fact that the best players begged off for a variety of reasons, to the fact that they just cannot be intellectually honest about the quality of their productions. Their justification: we have the best basketball players in the world, and the fans still play top dollar and come to the games in droves.

But that would be a big mistake.

LaSalle Basketball: The Search is Over

More people turned down this job than they did the opportunity to be George McGovern's running mate in 1972. Solid names, local names, alumni names, intriguing names. But finally, two weeks before Labor Day, the LaSalle administration went with a safe choice, and, perhaps, it's safety choice (the same way kids who apply to college have safety schools, A.D.'s have their safety choices).

As this article on ESPN.com points out, John Giannini is no stranger to the Southeastern Pennsylvania area, having coached at Division III Rowan and coached well there. He's been at Maine for a while, and he's graduating to a higher-level mid-major from his low-to-mid-major in Orono, Maine. Can he recruit at this level? Can he help take LaSalle to the next level? At least to a winning season? Can he get the best players in Philadelphia's Catholic League to stay home and play for him?

The best here is no. Giannini went to the America East Conference eight years ago, and, while he has gotten the Black Bears to the conference finals in two of the past three years, he has never gotten his team to the NCAA Tournament. He also hasn't proven to be a great recruiter, relying instead on transfers from higher level NCAA programs to help his teams win 53% of their games. Getting those transfers is great, but he'll need to get good players right out of HS to be competitive.

That record is not a ringing endorsement. It's not as if there's some 800-pound gorilla in the America East Conference that has created such a barrier to entry to a championship. Yes, some teams have played well, but this conference should have been ripe for the picking for an up-and-coming coach.

As it turned out, Giannini had a nice career at Maine, but nothing overly memorable. The Black Bears didn't get to the NCAA Tournament before he got there, and they still haven't gotten to the NCAA Tournament.

Giannini was at a hockey school, which can prove to be a problem for a northeastern U.S. hoops school, as hockey can take precedence over hoops (forget about football, as most of these schools play Division 1-AA football). So, if that's the explanation, there will be no similar out at LaSalle. Basketball is their big sport, dating all the way back to the 1950's where a 3-time all-American Tom Gola led the Explorers to a national title. Over the years, stellar players such as Ken Durrett, Joe Bryant, Michael Brooks, Lionel Simmons, Tim Legler, Doug Overton and many others played for this Big 5 school. At one time during Simmons' tenure at LaSalle, the Explorers were undefeated and ranked #1 in the country.

That seems like a long time ago. The strong tradition that LaSalle had forged over the years has atrophied quite a bit. John Giannini has his work cut out for him. The cupboard is relatively bare save 6'8" forward Steve Smith, and LaSalle fans are dazed and confused. They'll unite behind their new coach and root hard against their traditional intra-city rivals, but they'll know for a while that they'll lose more games than they'll win.

And during that time, John Giannini and his staff will be in search for the next NBA prospects to help the Explorers return to glory. In the process, he will learn that Maine might as well be a million miles away. The college hoops standards and expectations are a bit higher in Philadelphia than they are in New England, after all.

It will not be easy.

Friday, August 20, 2004

The Horrors of Judged Sports

I'll concede that gymnasts, boxers and ice skaters are athletes, but I'll also grudgingly admit that professional wrestlers are good athletes too. In all cases, you have to be in great shape and highly skilled to do the type of tumbling, brawling, skating and tumbling that these athletes do.

But that's about all I'll concede with respect to the first three, which are Olympic sports. It's awful when you have subjectivity involved, as is the case involving Paul Hamm and the Korean gymnast whose fates are intertwined with an appeal by the Korean delegation regarding whether or not Hamm should have won the all-around gold medal in the first place. I don't know who is right or wrong in this whole debate, and I don't much care. Because there is room for subjectivity and politics, these so-called sports should be banished to the hard-to-receive networks and shown at 2 a.m. Haven't we learned anything from past controversies to help try to create a system that can avoid this awful sort of thing? That's why I for one could care less who wins a judged sport. Does the winner win because he's the best, because he has put up such a body of work that he gets an edge (i.e., a lifetime achievement bonus), because his federation is in tighter with the judges, because a judge or two doesn't like his opponent or his opponent's coach? When stuff like this happens, it makes you wonder (and don't necessarily blame this one on the Koreans, either, because Hamm fell and still won the gold).

It's bad in gymnastics, as it was in the Winter Olympics with figure skating, and it's also plum awful with Olympic boxing. Stephen A. Smith (yes, he of ESPN fame) wrote a very good column about Olympic boxing and what a joke it has become. Click here for a link to today's Philadelphia Inquirer and read all about it.

Naturally, there are judges everywhere, even in sports where the judges 9.3's or 8.5's don't rule the day. But in the other sports, they are there to ensure that the rules are followed, not to pick the winners. Witness Adam Nelson, the U.S. shotputter, yelling "no" to the officials who put up the foul flag on his last attempt to win the gold in the shotput. The put itself looked like it would have given Nelson the gold medal, but the replay clearly showed that the judges were right -- Nelson's foot fell outside the circle. After Nelson's protests, which were borne more out of disbelief than anger, he handled the entire situation in a gracious manner. Witness, also, Aaron Piersol, the U.S. swimmer, who created controversy when he alleged that breastroker Brendan Hansen's archrival used an illegal kick to beat Hansen. Hansen offered no excuses, and his archrival's medal stood. Yesterday, though, the officials initially disqualified Piersol from a gold in his backstroke even (200 meters, I think) because of an alleged illegal turn. What motivated the DQ? Was it because Piersol had dissed the judges or because a judge thought that Piersol stayed on his stomach for too long during the turn? It didn't matter; the DQ was overturned, and Piersol got his gold. The judges were there to enforce the rules; nothing more.

I can take judges like the ones who called numerous fouls on Nelson (who had major trouble staying inside his circle) and even Piersol (where the judge might have made an honest mistake, and the tribunal overturned it), but I cannot take the sports where the judges control everything.

Perhaps these sports belong in the Olympics, perhaps they don't, but if the Olympics are supposed to be totally apolitical (unless you're part of the Iranian delegation), why are sports whose politics, while not created on country lines but within the realm of the sport itself, are so pronounced, in the Olympics in the first place? I honestly don't get it.

The best sports to watch for my money are the ones that the players can win on the mat, on the track, in the pool, on the floor -- without the officials playing any role other than to make sure that players are following the rules.

Basketball: LaSalle, Olympics and 5 Years of Eligibility

1. The LaSalle Explorers. Mike Jensen of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that LaSalle AD Tom Brennan has called far and wide to ask head coaches if they'd be interested in the LaSalle men's job. According to Jensen, he called both Vermont's Tom Brennan (who once assisted Rollie Massimino at Villanova) and BU's Dennis Wolff, both of whom turned Brennan down. As have Fran Dunphy, Fran O'Hanlon and Joe Mihalich. Rumor has it that Maine's John Giannini (whom Brennan recommended, perhaps out of enlightened self-interest) and Brown's Glenn Miller are interviewing for the job. Giannini has been rumored to be LaSalle's second choice for a while, but obviously Brennan wants more choices. Miller has the endorsement of Ivy Basketball (read the first blurb on this link in the righthand column -- the one about Fran Dunphy and you'll see what they say about Miller), which points out Miller's successes at Division III Connecticut College and Brown. And before you dismiss Miller, he was an assistant at UConn, so he knows all about higher level DI hoops. He'd be a great choice for LaSalle. I don't think that Tom Brennan should fixate soley on DI head coaches. He should travel six blocks east from the LaSalle campus, make a right, and then go ten minutes south -- to Temple, where Dan Leibovitz would make an excellent choice. Played at Franklin & Marshall, graduated from Penn (where he didn't play) and has ably assisted John Chaney for years. Talk about a combination of solid academics with great recruiting ties -- that's Leibovitz. He's young, hungry and ready for a big-time job. Brennan should take a chance here -- he just might find another Fran Dunphy in the making.

2. The Olympics. Perhaps the U.S. can win ugly and win the gold medal because it simply has the better athletes and can try to run by its opponents. I had postulated in one of my first posts on the topic that while this U.S. team is flawed, I couldn't find three teams who can win medals and leave the Americans without one. I still can't. Neither can Hoops Junkie, who provides an excellent breakdown of all of the teams. The simple truth: the other teams have some great players, but not enough of them. China has Yao and four JUCO players, for example. Read Hoops Junkie and see what you think. The U.S. team plays Lithuania tomorrow, yes, the team with the Deadhead warmups, and the Lithuanians should be a good test for this team.

3. Yoni of the College Basketball blog ties into The Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy on his five reasons that college players shouldn't have five years of eligibility. Check it out and see what you think. I've been against this extra year for a variety of reasons, and let me make clear what I'm objecting to. I am not objecting to providing the players with an extra year of a scholarship solely for the purpose to get their degrees. That's a no-brainer. Give it to them. But a fifth year of playing? I agree with Mike DeCourcy. The reasons for doing so aren't compelling. After all, while we loved Animal House, we really don't need, as Bluto did, seven years of college? Do we?

Thursday, August 19, 2004

A Little Boy's First Baseball Game

I had looked forward to this for a while, taking my preschool-aged son to his first baseball game. There's just something about a baseball game, something about going with your grandfather, dad or son, that makes baseball such a special game.

I had gone to so many baseball games with my long-since-deceased father and watched some wonderful games and teams with him. I only wished that he could have been here for this event, to experience with my son what he had experienced with me decades ago. He wouldn't have been disappointed.

For several days leading up to the game, my son asked me, "Are we going to Citizens Bank Park to see the Phillies?" He knows a little about the Phillies, namely that they are the team from Philadelphia and that we've been disappointed with their performance. That this big guy named Jim Thome plays for them and that they have a big green mascot called the Phanatic who is funny. I told him that we were, and that he should expect to see more people in one place than he has seen anywhere else in his life.

We got to the park about one hour and fifteen minutes before the game. While we were walking in, we had the obligatory talk about what he should do if he got separated from me, which I assured him wouldn't happen. That talk, of course, only assured that he would grab onto my belt loops or pockets amidst the huge crowd as we walked around the park.

They gave us a pretty nice artist's rendition of Jim Thome's 400th career home run as we entered the park (courtesy of Citizens Bank, which must sign up hundreds for their credit cards at each home game), and then we made our way past numerous concessions offering Philadelphia cheese steaks (pressed, grilled meat of unknown origin, probably funded clandestinely by the American Cardiology Association). We bought a program, which contained a certificate that we could fill in indicating that my son was attending his first game. Our destination was the two-story store behind home place. The store was packed, and, as I had promised a day earlier, I bought my son a Phillies' cap, which matched quite nicely the Phillies' t-shirt that he was wearing. Needless to say, with his big expressive eyes and this Phillies' garb, he drew a lot of smiles from fans. Especially the older ones.

We then made our way to the photography area on the first-base side of home plate, where we donned Phillies' jerseys and had our pictures' taken (they superimpose you on a background that is a home-plate view of the park). The pictures came out great, and I now can memorialize this special day on a keychain that I will carry with me for a while (as some sort of omen, my previous keychain, which I had for about 20 years, broke earlier in the week).

Then we made our way to the Phanatic's Phun Zone, a maze-like obstacle course that health clubs, fast-food restaurants and playgrounds have, where preschoolers and toddlers can run around, climb and get some of their energy out. After ten minutes there, it was time to eat. It was 25 minutes until the start of the ballgame.

Finally, we bought hot dogs and cold drinks from the Phanatic's Phood Zone (or something like that; the letter "f" doesn't really exist in Phillies' vocabulary if somehow you can replace it with a "ph"), and we made our way to our seats in left centerfield. There wasn't any shade, but we made out okay because it was overcast for a good part of the game, and at times there was a cool breeze. We were a little far away from the action for a little boy to see a game well, and we didn't have a view of the great leftfield scoreboard, but it was a weekday, and we were at a baseball game, and that was all that mattered.

We watched the soon-to-be very great Carlos Beltran show off his arm, his bat and his speed, and we saw Jim Thome and Lou Collier of the Phillies hit home runs. Thome's was a Thome the Strongman special, while Collier's was a high fly to left that barely cleared the fence and probably would have been a long out in most Major League parks. The home team was off to a comfortable lead, and seemed to be shaking off the doldrums that the team was experiencing (going into the game, they were 1-8 for the homestand). We repaired to the Phanatic's Phood Zone again after 3 innings for some soft ice cream served up in miniature Phillies' batting helmets. The ice cream helped cool us off, and helped take the mildly flushed look out of my son's cheeks. I sat there, keeping one eye on the ballgame and the other on my son, eating his chocolate ice cream, getting a little messy. There was no place I would rather have been, especially at that moment.

And then we saw one of the oddest plays in baseball, something that doesn't happen that often. With the bases loaded and the Phillies up 7-2 in the bottom of the fifth with no one out, reserve catcher Todd Pratt hit a hard grounder to Astros' third baseman Morgan Ensberg. Ensberg was guarding the line, so he stepped on the bag and threw the ball to second baseman Jeff Kent, who pivoted well off second and threw a strike to first baseman Mike Lamb for a triple play. I have watched baseball for years and years and have never seen one, in person or on television. At four and a half, my son didn't understand the significance of the play, but it left the hometown crowd stunned. Neither of us may ever see a triple play again.

After that, it was time for us to leave. We had talked about batting and hitting and home runs and players, but five innings on a hot, humid day with a little boy who loved every minute of being there was a great start to what should be many years of total fun. We took one more lap around the stadium, and I bought my son a pennant (which he called for a short while a "penne") commemorating the stadium and the team, and then we headed out of the right-field gate to our parking lot. (We left when the Phillies were up 7-2; they lost 12-10, as the triple play turned the tide in the game. The law firm of Biggio, Berkman and Bruntlett hit a solo, two-run and three-run homer, respectively, in the seventh inning, and the Astros actually won the game).

On our way out, my son talked about how much fun he had, how he wanted to go back, how he wanted to put the pennant up in his room. I beamed on the outside and probably a little more brightly on the inside. I was glad that the day was everything he hoped it would be, for it was everything I had hoped it would be. And a little more.

When my father was dying, we would talk about baseball and the games we went to. He harkened back to the first game he took me to, when I was about my son's age, at the old Connie Mack Stadium, and remembered fondly how I had fun pronouncing the name of a back-up catcher, John Boccabella. Most young adults, struggling to find their way in the world, don't necessarily love it when their parents remind them of how cute they were when they were little. But my father and I were close, and baseball was one of the components of the cement that made our bond so tight. He was a vigorous man, full of energy, and not always the most sentimental, so it touched me to hear about the details of that day. He hadn't mentioned it before his final weeks, and during our years together we had talked a lot about baseball.

And while I wished that I could have brought him back for this very day, to walk through the turnstiles with us, insist upon buying the programs, keeping score and eating peanuts, I know he would have been thrilled to know that I was passing on something that was so dear to him. We might not have had any names as mellifluous as Boccabella to pronounce, but we did have a back-up catcher just the same who gave us something to remember for a lifetime.

When we got home, my son couldn't wait to tell my wife all about our day. He didn't leave out a detail, telling her how quickly the ice cream melted, how nice the man was sitting next to him, how many people were there ("there must have been a hundred", he said; there were more like 40,000), how cool the Phillie Phanatic was on the field, how men walked around selling lemonade, how he didn't see Jim Thome's home run (he saw Lou Collier's) and all the neat things they sold in the store at the park. Together, my son and my wife carefully put up the Phillies' pennant over his bed. Like the entire time at Citizens Bank Park, it was fun to watch.

Tonight was my wife's turn to put my son to bed. After he brushed his teeth, he came up to me and gave me a hug and a kiss.

Then he said, in his husky, little-boy voice, with a big, wide-eyed smile on his face, "Dad, today was the best day of my entire life."

I can't wait to go back.


Wake Up the Echoes

Notre Dame wants to make its football schedule more competitive, so says the report in USA Today. What precisely does that mean?

Well, if you look at AD Kevin White's statements from the "if you build it, he will come" standpoint, it could be taken to mean that if you fill up your schedule with the power programs, you'll get better recruits, and, ergo, you'll end up playing in a BCS bowl game every year. That's a risky proposition, though, for a program that hasn't done much in the past 7 years or so. (Colin Cowherd had a good take on this on ESPN Radio this morning).

And, if you look at it from the "we haven't done much lately so how do we puff up our record" standpoint, then you'll be looking at how can Notre Dame continue to schedule Army, Navy and Air Force and perhaps avoid getting shellacked by Miami or Florida State. Will it be the case, then, that instead of opting to schedule Texas, LSU, Tennessee and Florida State that Notre Dame will look to start heated rivalries with Temple, UConn and New Mexico?

Practically speaking, the Fighting Irish should look somewhere in between. For example, keep your intrastate rivalry with Purdue and, naturally, keep the service academies and USC. That's five games right there. If you need 7 more, you should look in the following places. First, schedule say at least 2 games that you can win against schools that have solid academic reputations. There would be no shame in scheduling Vanderbilt, Rice or Duke on an annual basis. That would make sense. But, as for the remaining five, schedule one more game against a California school, namely Stanford or Cal (that gives you additional recruiting exposure in fertile Northern California), and then, with your four other games, go with BC, because they're a Catholic school. So, that gives you three more games. Schedule outstanding schools -- Michigan, Penn State, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas. You don't have to schedule schools with recruiting standards that don't come close to yours, but you can achieve a solid balance with schools like that.

If that's what Kevin White means, then there's no shame in that. As Colin Cowherd pointed out, Notre Dame also should examine every aspect of its program to ensure that it's recruiting the right type of Division I athlete, that it has the right coaches, etc. There was an interesting article in SI this week or last week about how Nick Saban at LSU and Pete Carroll at USC recruit "athletes" whom they can put at a variety of positions and how those schools have excelled at evaluating talent. The point being, it's not always your academic standards and the schedule, it's also the type of athlete you put on the field.

So long as Notre Dame can schedule 4 "big" games, 4 very competitive games and say 4 games that it absolutely should win, no one should criticize the Fighting Irish's schedule as being any less competitive than a Big 12, SEC or Big 10 schedule. And, besides, Notre Dame has one disadvantage compared to every other school: everyone gets up to play Notre Dame.

Kevin White's scheduling will bear close scrutiny. Because Notre Dame's ever-loyal fan base wants to wake up the echoes, not drown them out with the cacophony of whining if AD White starts trying to sell season-ticket packages against Mid-American Conference schools and the perennial Division I doormats.

Remember the old line that the three toughest jobs in America are President of the United States, Mayor of New York City and head football coach at Notre Dame? Well, being AD at Notre Dame is probably just one step below.

Notre Dame runs a very clean football program and does many things the right way. I, for one, look forward to a return of the Irish to the annual conversations about who is a top 10 football team.

The Fates of Boxing and Tennis (and Perhaps Wrestling)

Let's face it. No one really cares about boxing and tennis anymore, and perhaps wrestling while we're at it. At least at the Olympic level.

I have my theories on this. As for boxing, people cannot escape the thought that they think the matches are brutal and fixed. Brutal in that it's a rough sport, brutal in that some people think it to be human cock-fighting, brutal in that people aren't all that interested in the "force your will on one another and make them submit" type of sport. A basketball coach about whom I have written once attributed this string of thoughts to his father: "The strong take from the weak, and the smart take from the strong." Touche. People are more interested in sports where the smart and skilled can finesse matters instead of bludgeon their opponents. As for fixed, the judging can be very subjective (just ask Roy Jones, Jr. and Evander Holyfield, among many others). Not much more needs to be said about the judging.

In the glory days of Olympic boxing (1976, where Sugar Ray Leonard starred), boxing was one of the first things people watched, along with basketball and track and field. Not any more. Has there been any prime-time coverage of boxing? Have you watched any on the TV channels that cover the Olympics? I used to look forward to the Olympic boxing through, say, the 1984 Olympics (the year of Holyfield's disqualification) or even the 1988 Olympics (the year that Roy Jones, Jr. got the royal shaft), but not since.

I'll skip to wrestling, whose demise has been well-chronicled in the U.S., where many colleges have dropped their wrestling programs. In fairness to wrestling, the athletes who wrestle are in great shape, and wrestling, while a tough sport, doesn't have the brutality that boxing has. Wrestlers don't bludgeon one another. But, somehow, the "forcing your will" aspect where an individual can conquer another individual doesn't seem to have that much appeal anymore. Yes, Rulon Gardner, who is very charming, has given a bigger face to Greco-Roman wrestling than it has ever enjoyed, but wrestling, while never very popular, seems to be pushed further and further into the background with each passing Olympics. People like the team events better, or, more bluntly, with respect to the individual events, the ones where people are as much competing with themselves than against an opponent.

As for tennis, most sports fans think that tennis players are machines, enigmatic at best, flaky at worst, and usually spoiled. Tennis is a game for the wealthy, for the rich, preppy kids whose parents can afford the necessary coaching, you know the entire rant. Of course, no sport deserves to get painted, or tarred, in this case, with a broad brush, but the combination of a lack of personalities, the relative meaninglessness of all but the Grand Slam events, and the bad evolution of equipment (i.e., if you can serve it at 140 m.p.h., you can hold your own and perhaps win your matches without getting too tired) have combined to throw tennis so far down the list of preferred sports that no one really cares that Messrs. Federer and Roddick are out of the Olympic singles tournament.

Imagine if it were men's basketball, the 100-meter dash, or a headline-grabbing sport. But the big-name tennis players lose, they get headlines because they're big names, but really, no one cares. Do you?

In the midst of all of this, the interesting thing is that USA Baseball failed to qualify for the Olympics in the sport Americans invented, and there hasn't been a hue and cry about that. Why not? Probably because all baseball fans realize that unlike basketball, the best players in the world cannot make it to the Olympics because the Olympics fall smack within the pennant races of Major League Baseball. So while baseball fans will shake their heads in some amazement that the U.S. failed to qualify for the Olympics, they at least give themselves the anesthetic of a plausible (if not somewhat lame) excuse. An excuse, by the way, because of the timing of professional seasons, the basketball players do not get.

So whither boxing, wrestling and tennis? The sad truth is that few really care enough to answer the question.

Why?

Because they're too busy watching basketball, gymnastics and swimming, and they're waiting eagerly for the track and field events to heat up.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Ivy Hoops Coaching Roundup: How Former Assistants and Head Coaches Have Fared After Leaving

While Fran Dunphy was considering the LaSalle job, I was wondering how former Ivy assistant coaches fared in their subsequent head coaching jobs and how former Ivy head coaches fared in their subsequent head coaching jobs. Because Fran Dunphy is a former Ivy assistant and, at the time, was considering becoming a former Ivy head coach, I searched my way through various websites to put together some information. (One disclaimer: I am sure that I have forgotten someone, so please indulge me if I have, and please note that I have tried to find the best links possible for these coaches, but, like old soldiers, old coaches just fade away, and unless and "old" coach became a legend, the current coach's ego typically doesn't allow for information about coaches of years past to appear on a website. In the media guide with the rest of the history, yes, but not on the website. Especially if the coaches lost a bunch of games).

I'll start with the former assistants, because it's an interesting group.

Most, if not all, of the former assistants paid their dues at either Penn or Princeton. It's pretty obvious as to why -- college athletic directors like to hire winners, and assistants from winning programs are the next best thing to head coaches from winning programs. As you'll see, that theory doesn't always hold water, and some of these former assistants with great pedigrees end up becoming former head coaches rather quickly.

As for former assistants, let's start with the Penn stable. At the top of the list is a former Chuck Daly assistant, Rollie Massimino, who had his great period at Villanova, where he led his Wildcats to an improbable national title over heavily favored Georgetown in the 1984-1985 NCAA season (team was an eighth seed, finished the regular season something like 17-12, and then went on a run to end all runs). Clearly, Coach Mass was a huge success, notwithstanding his post-Nova downfall at UNLV (why he wanted to succeed Jerry Tarkanian there remains a mystery) and Cleveland State (where he couldn't rekindle the magic). This Mary Lou Retton look- and sound-alike had a lot of energy and did great things at Villanova, even if today his legend in the Philadelphia area is somewhat tarnished because it is he who gets blamed for the break-up of Philadelphia's heralded Big 5 during his tenure at Villanova.

The second most successful former assistant was Digger Phelps (there are more links to the eponymous rock band than to Digger the coach, and in the links to Phelps you learn that he is a motivational speaker who wrote, among other things, "Basketball for Dummies", which is neat because the hoopsters he coached in South Bend were far from it). While most people know that Phelps coached at Fordham before he went to Notre Dame (where his John Shumate-led team ended UCLA's 88-game winning streak and where he got to the Final Four once), he was the freshmen coach at the University of Pennsylvania. Everyone had to start somewhere, and starting at Penn in the late 1960's (as Dick Harter was starting to get the better of Pete Carril after about 5 years of getting the worse of it) was about as good as it got. The Quakers were always loaded, usually in the Top 20 if not the Top 10 (by the early 70's), and, yes, there's another famous hoop coach with Philadelphia roots. After Penn he went to Fordham, and then, of course, to Notre Dame, where his career records was 393-197.

The next most successful former assistant is Fran O'Hanlon, the Lafayette mentor who just signed a 10-year contract extension and who was perhaps the favorite for the Penn job had Dunphy opted to leave the Quakers for LaSalle. Over the course of say the past 9 years, O'Hanlon turned around a moribund program and has won three Patriot League titles (along with two trips to the Big Dance, after the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 seasons) owing to a very creative, flowing offensive style that seemingly makes his squad impervious to stifling defenses. His teams are very fun to watch, and his overall record of 141-117 in Easton, Pennsylvania is a major accomplishment. His big challenge now will be to see if he can compete in a league where his will be the only school not to grant athletic scholarships.

Steve Donahue was Fran Dunphy's top assistant for a while before heading to Cornell about 5 years ago. After 4 years, Donahue has guided the Big Red to a 32-76 record overall, 15-41 in the Ivies (where, under his tutelage, the Big Red have managed only as high as a tie for fifth place). This would appear to be a big year for Donahue in Ithaca. Coaches get 5 years to turn a program around, if they are lucky, and if Donahue cannot get the Big Red into the league's upper half this year, he might find himself looking for a job. His Big Red team was supposed to finish in the upper division last year, but they faded during the stretch.

Ray Carazo is not a well-known coach, but he assisted on those Chuck Daly teams in the early 1970's before becoming the head coach at Yale in the mid-1970's (he coached at Yale from 1975-1976 through the 1981-1982 season, had a record of 64-118 overall (37-61 in the Ivies; his best finish was 3rd in 1979-1980, when, among others, he coached Ivy co-rookie of the year Steve Leondis, a forward from New York who Pete Carril had passed on and came to regret the decision later) and was fired after one of his best years in New Haven, when the team had a 13-13 record). Carazo, a hoopster at Penn in the early 1960's (when Penn was an also-ran in the Ivies after Princeton and sometimes Yale) along with famed author John Edgar Wideman, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, coaching against both Daly and Pete Carril and then his former colleague Bob Weinhauer, who replaced Daly. (I will get to Weinhauer later in this post; he was a very successful former assistant, right up there with Phelps, but he also was a head coach who left the reservation, so I discuss him in the former head coaches category). Carazo wasn't able to carry Penn's magic to New Haven, and it was he who coined the phrase "Saturday Night Syndrome" to describe how difficult any Ivy school not named Penn and Princeton had it in terms of winning the Ivy title. Roughly translated, the Ivies play their games on Friday and Saturday nights, and the eight schools are broken into four travel pairs -- Harvard and Dartmouth, Yale and Brown, Cornell and Columbia and Penn and Princeton. The problem for a school other than Penn and Princeton was precisely that it had (and still has) to play Penn and Princeton on back-to-back nights. Twice. So, if you play well on Friday night, you still need to recover and play well on Saturday night, and against Penn and Princeton that is very hard to do. In the past 35 years, Penn and Princeton have won or shared the Ivy title with each other (and not with anyone else) in 32 of those years (and in a 33rd, they shared it with Yale). Unfortunately for Coach Carazo, his legacy is not any larger.

As for former Princeton assistant coaches, let's look first to current Princeton head coach Joe Scott. Coach Scott assisted at Princeton for 8 years, only to leave for Air Force in the summer of 1999, after the Falcons dismissed their long-time head coach, Reggie Minton (a former Dartmouth head coach). Under Minton, Air Force never finished above 6th place in the Mountain West Conference. In Scott's fourth year in Colorado Springs, he led his team to a regular-season title and an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. Short of Massimino's '84-'85 Villanova squad, this could be the biggest accomplishment of any former Ivy assistant. Scott had (roughly) a 53-61 record at Air Force, but that sub .500 record belies the success he had there. Princeton zealots will recall that after Butch van Breda Kolff left Princeton after the 1965-1966 season (he accepted a step up, of sorts, to coach the L.A. Lakers), the Tigers passed on Bobby Knight and Larry Brown to hire a rookie college coach with a 13-13 record at Lehigh, Pete Carril (Carril had played for van Breda Kolff at Lafayette). And you know what Carril accomplished at Princeton. Scott accomplished a miracle in Colorado Springs, and if he were a priest he'd be nominated for sainthood. While he's still living. Scott accomplished more at Air Force in his tenure than Carril did at Lehigh in his. It's a strong parallel, and Princeton fans are excited about the passion and rigor that Joe Scott brings to the game. Keep an eye on him.

Former Pete Carril assistant and current Princeton A.D. Gary Walters coached with some success at Dartmouth (where he had to coach against his former HS coach, Pete Carril, and Chuck Daly) and then moved south to Providence, where succeeding the beloved Dave Gavitt proved nearly impossible to do. Walters' coaching record at Dartmouth was 44-59 (his best season in Hanover was 1975-1976, when he coached the Big Green to a third-place finish). Walters stayed for two years at Providence before going into private business. Please note the theme here -- replacing legends, as two former Penn coaches replaced legends with similar results to the ones Walters had at Providence.

Former Princeton assistant Jan van Breda Kolff has some success in a very short stay at Cornell, from which he departed to go to Vanderbilt, his alma mater (reports are that Pete Carril was furious when he could not get this alumni child admitted to Princeton, helping give rise to the Hall of Famer's nickname for the Tigers' admission office -- Heartbreak Hotel). van Breda Kolff jumped from Vanderbilt in all likelihood before he was pushed out (although he was 104-81 in Nashville and got the Commodores to 1 NCAA tournament from the roughest conference in the NCAA), and spent two very successful years at Pepperdine, where he fared very well with his up tempo style of play and got his team into the NCAA tournament as the WCAC representative once (and to the second round to boot). Thereafter, in order to get his family back to the East Coast, he moved to St. Bonaventure, where he had a sad demise and where his troubles have been well-chronicled. He spent last season as an assistant to Tim Floyd with the New Orleans Hornets. Click here for an article that chronicles the younger VBK's coaching record. His overall record as a college head coach: 204-155.

One-time Pete Carril assistant Tony Relvas took the reins at Colgate in the mid-80's, but this old-school basketball coach was a bit like a fish out of water at a hockey school. He lasted three years before being let go (his teams probably won 1/3 of their games, although it's hard to find coaching records, even using Google). Coach Relvas was an excellent technical basketball coach who perhaps had more of a makeup to be an assistant than a head coach.

The one former Princeton assistant with star power written all over him was Bob Dukiet, a former BC star who, with his blonde hair, warm personality and great sense of humor, was a good recruiter and well-liked by his players. He left Princeton for low DI St. Peter's and put them on the map in a serious way in the mid-1980's, getting them to a few NCAA tournaments and winning about 70% of his games. After St. Peter's, Dukiet took a big-time step up to Marquette, where he was picked to succeed the beloved Rick Majerus, and his record from 1986-1989 was 39-46. Unfortunately, that was a tall order, and Dukiet ended up at Division II Gannon University in Erie, where he led the school to the Elite 8 of the NCAA DII tournament (he was there from 1989-1996). Out of basketball now, the affable Dukiet -- this is a true story -- makes his living as a lounge singer.

(I write about one-time Penn assistant Fran Dunphy later in the post).

The records of the former head coaches are mixed bag, some great, some not, some too early to tell. On the Princeton side of things, Butch van Breda Kolff, Jan's father, is famous for having coached Bill Bradley at Princeton and then the Lakers with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain, but to no titles (his most famous team was his 1964-1965 team, which made it to the Final Four). He jumped around a bit after leaving Los Angeles, at one point coaching a HS team in Gulfport, Mississippi (he and former NFL coach Lou Saban could well be distant cousins for all of their travels). Pete Carril has enjoyed major success as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings, but more than that, he has seen his basketball genius emulated around the country and perhaps the world. Carril's former top aide, Bill Carmody (who played for Gary Walters when Walters was the head coach at DIII Union), is now the head coach at Northwestern, where he has inched his Wildcats up the Big 10 ladder in each of his past four seasons but has yet to get his team to a post-season tournament. Carmody's four-year record is 53-64, and he was named the Big Ten' coach of the year after the 2003-2004 season. Apparently he enjoyed a great recruiting year last year, and with Duke transfer Michael Thompson in the middle, Northwestern could surprise some people this year. Finally, recent Princeton head coach John Thompson III, like Joe Scott, a former assistant under both Bill Carmody and Pete Carril, will see if he can take the step up at Georgetown, where he will be in his first season. Thompson won 3 titles in his four years at Princeton (one was shared, but 2 of his teams went to the Big Dance), and he is credited with devising new wrinkles to the Princeton Offense. Thompson's record at Princeton: 68-42 overall, 45-11 in the Ivies.

(There are other Princeton progeny, as it were, in the wings, as former Tigers Craig Robinson and Mitch Henderson assist Carmody at Northwestern, former Tiger Sydney Johnson is an assistant to Thompson at Georgetown, and former Joe Scott assistant and Princeton alum Chris Mooney took over for Joe Scott as the head coach at Air Force).

The former Penn head coaches have had mixed success -- some absolutely outstanding, some okay, some not so good. On the one hand, Chuck Daly coached the Detroit Pistons (with Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn) to 2 straight NBA titles in the late 1980's (Daly was a spectacular 125-38 at Penn, 74-10 in the Ivies during that time).

Dick Harter, a long-time NBA assistant now back in Philadelphia with the 76ers, went from Penn to Oregon with some success (he was 111-82 and was succeeded by former Penn captain Jim Haney, who went 53-82), then to Penn State with limited success (he was 79-61 there) before moving to the NBA in a variety of capacities. Harter might have taken a step up, going to a scholarship school, Oregon, when he did, but Oregon was in the then Pac-8 with a school named UCLA. He had his share of great players, including Ronnie Lee and Greg Ballard, but he didn't enjoy the success in Eugene that he had at the Palestra. Ditto for his tenure at Penn State.

Daly's successor, Bob Weinhauer, coached some great Penn teams in the late 1970's and early 1980's, including the Penn team that went to the Final Four in 1979. Weinhauer's record at Penn was a gaudy 99-45 (51-9 in the Ivies). After Penn, Weinhauer went to Arizona State, where he had a tough act to follow after the Sun Devils "forced out" Ned Wulk, who had been coaching there for 25 years. Weinhauer's record was 19-14 in his first year (and went downhill after that, although a Google search has left me empty as to his overall record), and he ultimately was fired by Charles Harris, the former Penn A.D. who ended up at Arizona State along with Weinhauer (according to the East Valley Tribune, Weinhauer was fired after the 1985 season because of recruiting violations.). Weinhauer has had a variety of front-office, coaching, scouting and media jobs in the NBA since that time, including a stint as GM of the Milwaukee Bucks. Click here for a 1999 article that contains a good box detailing Weinhauer's various stops.

Weinhauer's successor was former Penn player Craig Littlepage, now the A.D. at UVA, and Littlepage was probably too nice a guy to be a head coach; he is remember for playing as many as 12 players in the first half of some games. Littlepage played for some of those great Dick Harter teams in the late 60's and early 1970's. Littlepage won 1 title in 3 seasons at Penn, where his record was 40-39 (28-14 in the Ivies) and then moved to Rutgers, where he fared miserably, as his teams garnered a 23-63. Like Weinhauer, Littlepage replaced an institution at his new school, Tom Young, who had coached the Scarlet Knights to a perfect mark in the 1975-1976 regular season and a Final Four berth, only to lose to Michigan (with Rickey Green and Phil Hubbard) in the national semifinals. Again, tough shoes to fill. Bob Knight protege Bob Wenzel replaced Littlepage. (Littlepage was an excellent assistant to Terry Holland at UVA, where he is best remembered for recruiting the legendary Ralph Sampson to Charlottesville.)

Littlepage's successor was Tom Schneider, who stayed at Penn for 4 years, won 1 Ivy title (his record there was 51-54 (36-20 in the Ivies) and then left for Loyola (Md.) and the lure of scholarships, probably a few steps ahead of the Penn administration's version of The Turk. Schneider was not successful at Loyola, if my memory serves me correctly. He lasted a few years in Baltimore before leaving and, to my knowledge, hasn't coached college basketball since. His former top assistant and successor was Fran Dunphy, who has put together a sparkling 270-145 record (165-45 in the Ivies) and won 8 Ivy titles in 15 season while at Penn. In retrospect, it is amazing that Dunphy got the Penn job when he did, given that his boss had a losing record with the sterling performances of McCloskey, Harter, Daly and Weinhauer in the background. Whoever made that decision at Penn had courage, and boy did it pay off.

What does this all mean? A couple of things. First, Penn and Princeton get some very good coaches. Second, if you get an assistant's job at one of these schools, you could well get a head coaching job if you want one. Third, your future is what you make of it. Past success, as the stockbrokers say in their ads, is no guaranty of future performance. That is very true for college basketball. At various times, Dick Harter, Rollie Massimino and Bob Weinhauer of Penn were close to or at the top of the NCAA men's basketball world, only to see their second, third and even fourth acts pale in comparison to their first gigs. The jury is still out on the Princeton diaspora, with many chapters to be written (and the same holds true for former Dunphy assistants O'Hanlon and Donahue).

Overall, it's a great group of coaches, and it's hard to find in any conference a coaching roster of two archrivals spanning the past 35 years that matches this one. Those do exist, of course, but the fact that the Ivies' best duo's roster is this impressive speaks to the caliber of the product that Penn and Princeton put out every year.