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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Thursday, September 30, 2004

The Scarcity Theory

Necessity may be the mother of invention, and luck may be the residue of design, but sometimes the best discoveries do happen by accident. I believe that Goodyear discovered vulcanized rubber by letting it cook on a stove too long, and my guess is that Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin and other great inventors got lucky on occasion.

And, depending on how their labor conflagration resolves itself, so might the National Hockey League.

I'm not a mathematician or an economist, but I'll float this theory just the same and hope that people like the Sports Economist and his friends weigh in and offer support or rebuttal.

If you're of a certain generation, you grew up before the cable TV era. Which meant that your or your parents' television had seven channels if you lived in certain major metropolitan areas -- the local affiliates of the three major networks, the local public television affiliate, and three UHF channels, where you turned the channels dial to UHF and then had another dial where you tried to home in on the UHF station (with a number like 35, 52 or 64), adjust the antenna attached to the television, and hope that the second dial didn't slip so that the picture would hold and not turn into a mass of snow, which is what we called a fuzzy, empty screen back then.

During those pre-cable days, sports teams weren't on TV all the time. They didn't televise their home games at all, and they didn't televise their road games all the time. You couldn't get another city's team on cable the way you can now, and the leagues had national contracts to show their games, usually once a week. They truly wanted you to come to the ball park.

Which meant that you listened to the radio a lot. If you grew up in Philadelphia, the radio broadcasters for the teams were household names -- Gene Hart and Don Earle for the Flyers, Bill Campbell for the 76ers, Merrill Reese for the Eagles and Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn for the Phillies. And, if you liked baseball, you loved Harry and Whitey and learned a lot from them. You had to picture the games in your mind, and you watched games on TV whenever you had the chance because Flyers and Eagles tickets were very hard to get and the team wasn't on TV all that much.

But that was then. Today, it seems like almost every game is on TV. Not only the games of your hometown teams, but also the games of other town's teams, and, if you're a rabid fan, you can purchase a dish or a special cable package and watch all of the [fill in the blank of the sport that you like] you want. Which means, of course, that the rabid fans are in clover, but the less serious fans have a problem. They are oversaturated, and because their sports are available all the time they might appreciate them less. And because they have so much from which to choose, they choose, with the result that the Darwinism of the competition has hurt certain sports.

Tennis. Boxing. Ice hockey.

I've blogged on the other two before, but now it's hockey's turn. There are many reasons why hockey has fallen off in popularity. First, there are too many teams. Talent is diluted, and there are not that many stars. The average team is mediocre and boring. Second, too many teams make the playoffs. Third, the playoff season is about 1/3 as long (in games) as the regular season, and it seems endless. Fourth, playoff hockey is a different brand of hockey -- cleaner, with less fighting. The inconsistency is somewhat trouble. Fifth, the style of play is so defensive that there isn't that much action. Sixth, there are too many games. Yes, hockey fans, there is too much regular-season ice hockey.

Now, you could write a tome as to how to fix hockey, and I'm sure columnists all across North America have attempted to do so. But I just want to address one aspect of my observations -- the part about "too many."

It may well be that there is just too much bad ice hockey out there that the NHL has diminished the attractiveness of its brand. So, how does it right the course? A company that's foundering, with bad divisions that bleed money, restructures. If the sales and margins aren't there and the costs are too high, the company has to do something or face bankruptcy. Well, the NHL is in a similar predicament. It isn't efficient, and it needs to get more efficient to compete against NASCAR and the PGA Tour. There's so much "bad" product out there that people have lost interest, don't tune into games, and don't find that the regular season games have that much meaning because almost everyone makes the playoffs. Because so much "bad" hockey is available, no one really cares. And the ratings prove it.

So what is the NHL to do?

First, it should take a page out of college basketball's book. Because college hoops teams play only say 30 games a year, the product is rather scarce. As a result, every game means something, and only the fittest survive. The NHL, then, should shorten its season. If you play say 60 games, each game matters more and will have more of an impact on who makes the playoffs. People might get more interested if their opportunities to watch were just a little more scarce.

Second, it should reduce the number of teams. There just aren't enough good players to go around, and it was fun way back when you had the goal-a-game line in New York, Mike Bossy and Brian Trottier together on the Islanders, Perrault, Robert and Martin on the Sabres, etc. Today, you don't see concentrations of great players. It's important to say cut the number of teams by about 25%, and concentrate the best players on fewer teams and in the best markets. Again, improve your product, and make it even a little more scarce.

Third, it should reduce the number of teams that make the playoffs. Cut the number down to two per division, period. Then each game means something, every night. Imagine, for example, if the NCAA had an 80-game schedule for DI basketball. The average Duke-Carolina game wouldn't mean much if the ACC Schedule was, say, 48 games. Who would care to watch Duke-West Carolina on Monday and then Duke-East Carolina on Wednesday and then Duke-Marshall on a Saturday night? I doubt the fans would have as much fervor as they do now, where Duke-Clemson on a Tuesday night has a ton of meaning, as does Kentucky-Duke on a Saturday.

Fourth, consider how to make your product a little more scarce. Perhaps you don't have to do a whole lot more if you adopt the three points above. Oh, yes, and there's one more thing, shrink the size of goalies' pads, change the icing rule, get rid of the two-line pass rule and speed up the game. That would make the product more compelling.

Now you might ask, "How will the NHL luck into this?" Well, they won't cut the number of teams, but if the lockout or impasse or whatever noun you want to call it lasts until February, the NHL will have no alternative but to go to a shorter season. They might also have to go to a truncated playoff structure. And, guess what? The individual game will mean more, the playoffs won't seem endless, and the overall viewing will be more compelling. That it became more scarce just might attract more people, with the risk being, of course, that the NHL returns at the wrong time or that some of its loyal fans get so fed up (as baseball fan did in 1994) that they elect not to return. And that is a risk.

In an era when all major sports leagues believe in maximum exposure, not every sports league can get away with it. Sometimes, being scarce, like good diamonds, is a good thing. With fewer teams, fewer bad players, fewer teams making the playoffs, the NHL would create a better product with more compelling drama. Especially compared to the NBA, which suffers from bad fundamentals, too many teams, too long a schedule, too long a playoff system. And, if you create the comparison to the NBA, whose season runs right alongside yours, people just might want to watch your product more.

The NHL is in a crisis right now, but it could, if it acts smartly, turn the crisis into an opportunity. Change, the mathematicians will tell you, is inevitable. The evolutionary biologists will tell you that only the fittest survive. All of us know from "Jurassic Park" that the dinosaurs had their day but couldn't make it, for whatever reason, even if they were so big and powerful (not that the rest of us could survive terrible ice). The NHL right now is this big, unwieldly lummox, surrounded by nimbler, more creative, more compelling sports.

It should take this opportunity to make the right changes and streamline its product into very compelling watching.

If it does not, its future will be bleak.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Hoop Dreams and Nightmares

Fellow bloggers have posted some good stuff lately on the world of basketball, and I'd like to point out those posts to you.

Hoop Nightmares

First, if you want a good read on stories about can't misses who became never wases, click here for Dave Sez's post (and the link is a must read). For all of the great stories about Luol Deng's family's escape from the Sudan and how Hakeem Olajuwon only took up basketball in high school and how Michael Jordan got cut from his HS team as a tenth grader, there are many more stories about people like Schea Cotton and Ronnie Fields.

On the one hand, I'm sure that people like Michael Jordan became who they are because they were so focused and they wouldn't listen to anyone who used the words "you can't." And I'm sure that the superstars of today, if they were in middle school, would read an article like the one on the link and say, "that can't happen to me, that's not me." And I'm pretty certain that they'll argue that were they to let any doubt into their minds, they wouldn't be where they are. And my guess is that many benchwarmers in the NBA, who starred somewhere at some time, would say similar things. And, as a result, it's unfortunate that there always will be the Schea Cottons and the Ronnie Fields, kids who were so focused on one and only one thing that they wouldn't listen to anyone else about living a total life, and, when they did listen to advice, they didn't always listen to the right people.

I hope that the kids with talent at any sport first and foremost enjoy the sport totally and soak it all in. Second, I hope that they learn sportsmanship, team work, the value of hard work and many other things that they can carry with them and use in good stead in later life in any endeavor they choose. Third, I hope that they learn the value of competition, the value of stepping up, the value of going for it, because we all will face competition in some form later in life. Lastly, I hope that if they're interested in pursuing athletics as a career, there are many possible avenues to pursue, and not just playing at the ultimate level. They can teach and coach, they can referee, they can work for networks who produce sporting events, they can help run teams or athletic departments some day. In this regard, they can still have athletics play an important role in their lives, but not an "all or nothing" role. Jay Bilas wasn't good enough to be an NBA player, but he's a fine analyst for college hoops on ESPN. Kimberly Belton was a star hoopster at Stanford who later earned critical acclaim as a sports producer for ABC. Steve Mills, the executive vice president for Madison Square Garden Corporation, was a star guard for Princeton. Doug Gottlieb, former Notre Dame and Oklahoma State guard, is an up-and-coming show host for ESPN Radio. There are many options; just look at the middle school and HS coaches who influenced you.

Hoop Pipe Dreams

The second post of interest comes from the College Basketball Website. We all like recruiting services, the websites that offer free and for-pay content about which HS kids are interested in what colleges. For some reason, Americans love drafts, love demographics, love to figure out who is going where. I don't know about you, but on an occasional awful weather day I'll pull out an old Street & Smith's or Blue Ribbon Guide and check to see how many HS all-Americans did well at the next level and how many pre-season college all-Americans did the same. It's great fun, and it's neat to see how your favorite college teams are doing in the recruiting wars.

To a point, however. Click here and here for posts by Yoni Cohen of the College Basketball blog and by Dave Sez on the very detailed efforts of a well-known recruiting service in assessing fourth-grade talent. No, that is not a typo.

How do you respond to that? If you're a shoe company, do you chase these kids and get them to sign a shoe contract? If you're an aggressive DI coach, do you start sending these kids letters? If you're a fan like me, do you run to your local pharmacy for the best over-the-counter anti-nausea medicine? Memo to this particular recruiting service, which has done outstanding work in the past: find a hobby, go into more details of the kids in HS you cover, but leave anyone not in HS alone.

Hoops Dreamboat?

(no, I never wrote for "Frasier")

A brief "get well" soon to one of the classiests acts in all of professional hoops, the Seattle Storm's Sue Bird, who broke her nose in the Storm's playoff win the other night and now needs surgery. The hearty, heady Bird might still try to play in the WNBA playoffs, and for me she's always been a symbol of what's right about college and professional sports.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

But Don't Bury The Team Yet, Either -- Commentator Malpractice

While the reasonable Philadelphia Eagles' fan should be concerned about injuries, that same fan shouldn't be writing off his team, shouldn't be selling his tickets, and shouldn't be converting his allegiance to the Baltimore Ravens or New York Jets. He shouldn't go so overboard in chanting the mantra "Defense Wins Championships" that he should put the hometown team's defense under a nuclear microscope and lament that the DTs may be too light, the cornerbacks too short, the linebackers too nice and perhaps weak, the defensive game plans too risky. In the modern NFL, all teams have shortcomings, but if you're team is 3-0 at the season's start, you should be focusing on the positives. Big time.

Unless, of course, you are Merrill Hoge, ESPN commentator, who authored this piece last Friday (before the Eagles thrashed upstart Detroit in the Lions' own cage). The basic premise: the Eagles aren't that good, and the Eagles will not make the playoffs.

So, quick, name the six teams from the NFC that will make the playoffs if the Eagles don't. You can't.

And it's interesting how all of the hype about coaching in the NFC has focused on Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs, and how there was so much hype about those two Hall of Famers matching up in last night's Monday Night game (in which, by the way, Coach Parcells demonstrated that he is a disciple of SportsProf's multi-flex offense by having FB Richie Anderson catch the ball, run the ball and throw a 26 yard TD pass -- that's the multi-athleticism I've stressed will work to keep defenses deceived and off balance). And what resulted? A not very well-played game by either team. Dallas prevailed, mainly because their defense was superior, but their running game was almost non-existent.

Andy Reid should get some credit, shouldn't he? As should oft-maligned Mike Holmgren, who did wonders in Green Bay, didn't get it down during his early tenure in Seattle, and now it looks like he has a special team. But instead of focusing on the Super Bowl-winning coach (Holmgren) and his former assistant (Reid) (and there was a graphic on the Eagles' broadcaston Sunday that showed Holmgren and how many of his former assistants are head coaches in the NFL -- there are 6), most of the focus is on Parcells and Gibbs.

(There was so much hype about the match-up of those two coaches that I couldn't help but remember the Sopranos episode where Tony asked Uncle Junior for some advice as to where to hire a hit man to take out a New York mobster in NYC. Uncle Junior replied that Tony needed to go out of town, and he recommended a group in Rhode Island, who had a name like the "Beach Road Boys". So, Tony went up to Rhode Island, and he basically visited some very old, unfit, unwell men, one of whom was waiting for his medication, and the other of whom was waiting for a ride to the doctor. My point: Gibbs and Parcells were/are great coaches, but it's unclear whether either of them will get to return to the Super Bowl, and, in the process, the MSM is overlooking other coaches who are doing very fine jobs and whose time is very much now).

It's great that those guys get some attention, but just because they're there doesn't mean that their team automatically will make the playoffs. This isn't tennis or golf -- there are no sponsors' exemptions. This is 2004, and the teams these coaches have are not nearly as good as the ones they won the Super Bowl with.

I don't understand why Merrill Hoge has chosen to go out on a limb about the Eagles, who, certainly, are not a perfect team. But Hoge has isolated himself on this issue, and his assessments just don't sound credible. You can read the article and decide for yourself.

It says here that the main thing standing between the Eagles and the playoffs is the injury factor.

And it says here that Merrill Hoge's ratings on cable are probably about as good as John McEnroe's.

Don't Pop the Corks Just Yet, Part II

Boy, are they giddy in Philadelphia. The Eagles totally outclassed the Detroit Lions on Sunday in Detroit, and the Birds are off to a 3-0 start. You'll recall last year that they lost badly to defending Super Bowl champs Tampa Bay at home in the opener on Monday night, and then they followed up on that loss with a total stinker against the ultimate Super Bowl champs, the Patriots. Both games were at home, and they quickly went into an 0-2 hole. So despondent were the older fans with their vintage Bill Bergey jerseys, the middle-aged ones with their Reggie White togs and the younger ones with their Rickey Watters and Donovan McNabb jerseys that they were calling for the firing of Andy Reid and the benching of Donovan McNabb -- in favor of A.J. Feeley.

Well, you know how that turned out (and how Feeley's turning out). The Eagles righted their course, McNabb played a lot better than he did in the first two games, Reid got rewarded with a four-year contract extension before this season, and now the Eagles are 3-0 and playing in mid-season form. And their next opponent is Chicago, which will start Jonathan Quinn at QB in place of the injured Rex Grossman. Not a bad way to start the season.

If you're an unabashed Philadelphia Eagles fan, then you are thrilled about the following: a) the 3 sacks that Jevon Kearse had against the Lions, b) the numerous hurries and hits the D-line had on Joey Harrington, c) the play of all 3 Eagles tight ends, and d) the overall play of the defense until garbage time. You now think that no one can stop your offense, and that your defense is improving weekly. You think that the improved pass rush will take pressure off the defensive backs, and you think that having 5 healthy DTs on the roster should improve your run defense week after week. You're hearkening back to the hit that the Eagles' team and fans liked in 1980-1981, when they went to the Super Bowl, McFadden & Whiteheads, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." Before you know it, the Eagles will bring back the old offensive unit on that team and honor them. Does anyone know where Stan Walters, Petey Perot, Wade Key, Guy Morris, Woody Peoples, Jerry Sisemore, Keith Krepfle, Harold Carmichael, Charlie "Home Boy" Smith, Ron Jaworski and Wilbert Montgomery are?

But if you're a realistic Eagles' fan, you have to be somewhat concerned about one thing directly and one thing indirectly. The direct thing, as it were, is the injury factor. Already you've lost DE N.D. Kalu, RB Correll Buckhalter, G Shawn Andrews and now FB Jon Ritchie for the season with injuries. That's 2 starters on offense, one RB who would have gotten a lot of reps, and a DE who would have figured into the rotation and might have even started (although the Eagles do have depth at DE, with Kearse, Jerome McDougle and Derrick Burgess). You've lost 2 starters after 3 games, and you're on a pace to lose 10 starters roughly after 16 games. It's hard to believe that the pace will keep up, but the Eagles are bound to lose a few more players to injury.

And they'll be especially hurt if they lose another offensive lineman, a starting cornerback or Brian Westbrook, their starting running back. As for the offensive line, with Andrews gone, the Eagles elevated their top OL reserve, Artis Hicks, to guard. Which means now that their top backup is Steve Sciullo, who started 13 games last year for Indianapolis but was cut in pre-season. He's still learning the offense. That should make Eagles' fans nervous. As for Westbrook, he's somewhat underrated -- he's a very, very good back, but he's on the slight side, and many observers wonder whether he has the durability to last the season. (You'll recall he missed a few games last year and the playoffs, and his absence reduced the Birds' offense to an unfleet bunch). If Wesbrook goes down, you're left with Reno Mahe, a second-year player, and Dorsey Levens, the second oldest RB in the NFL (he's 34; Emmitt Smith is 37 and not exactly tearing it up in Arizona). So, if you lose an offensive lineman and Westbrook, you're offense suddenly becomes very one-dimensional. That's why Eagles' fans shouldn't pop the corks, at least just yet.

Still, Andy Reid has a proven track record, and he's always coached his teams well and rallied them back from adversity. No doubt, he'll figure out a way to fill holes in his lineup and avoid off-season personnel blunders (such as the Chiefs not improving their defense) or play-calling lapses (see Mike Martz). That said, he could face the Vikings again, or the Seattle Seahawks, whose take-no-prisoners defense should ring familiar to Eagles' fans.

The defensive coordinator for that unit is none other than Ray Rhodes. That could be quite a match-up.

Monday, September 27, 2004

The Proposed Football Stadium in NYC

I've followed this project with some interest, as the adds in opposition and support of this stadium on WFAN in NYC are at times compelling and at times comical. I believe that the "anti" ads are better, as it's hard to justify billions for a stadium with limited possible uses when a bunch of that money can be used to improve the city's infrastructure, some of which is crumbling. The "pro" ads quote either real or ersatz firefighters, among others, touting how many jobs will be created because of the new stadium. While I'm sure that for a time construction jobs will be created, once the stadium is built I doubt seriously that a meaningful number of careers will be created because of the erection of a monument to our preferred gladiators of the moment.

To me, it's usually a better idea to use public monies on things the entire public can benefit from, such as public parks, where everyone can play, exercise and stay in shape, and public libraries, where people can expand their minds and continue to make informed decisions. Frankly, I don't see a compelling reason to devote so much time and energy to giving the New York Jets a home within the cozy confines of Manhattan. You can read more about this whole controversy on the Field of Schemes blog, which devotes a lot of time and energy to proposals to build municipal sporting venues.

New York should be particularly careful with respect to this particular project. One of the best biographies ever written is entitled "The Power Broker" (by Robert Caro). Caro won a Pulitzer Prize for this book, which chronicled the life of Robert Moses, who held various titles in and around New York City and who was the person responsible for any and all public works projects in NYC. Moses ruled with an iron fist -- mayors bent to his will, governors feared him, and even Presidents couldn't get their way with him. Moses, and Moses alone, decided what would be built, and where, and the shape of New York today (and particularly its traffic patterns) is a result of Moses's decisions. Caro, for one, and many others, for that matter, thought that Moses' decisions led to the decline of New York. For example, instead of enhancing urban life by improving public transportation, Moses insisted upon building road after road after road. The result: more traffic, worse public transportation, and, perhaps, that everyone who commutes into the business districts of New York, even from within the city, has a "bad" commute.

My point is that New Yorkers who want this project to happen should be careful what they wish for. Do they really need this monument? Does it really make a difference that the Jets play in New York City to anyone other than the Jets? Doesn't it matter more to NYC that businesses still find it an attractive place to keep and create jobs? Doesn't it matter more that public structures that can do a lot of good -- such as the school system -- get more attention, not less? The NFL is perhaps the most successful sports league in the world, and, somehow, it will survive not having a team physically within NYC the same way it has survived for years not having a team in Los Angeles. Yes, the new stadium could be one of the wonders of the world, a tourist attraction, but at what cost?

Sports are a great release, but there should be a line where our pastimes end and our priorities begin.

And New Yorkers should take a stand and draw that line. Hard, fast, and very clearly.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Two Changes I'd Like to See Made to NCAA Football

Here is my fix for NCAA football in general and NCAA D-I football in particular.

1. The NCAA Football Overtime Rule. Some say it adds drama. I say it's tantamount to playing horse to decide who wins the Duke-North Carolina game to win the NCAA hoops title. Just keep on giving teams the ball at their opponent's 25 yard-line until one of them is no longer standing. I say that the NCAA should try a different rule. One fifteen-minute OT period, and you give the team had a greater time of possession during regulation or fewer turnovers the ball to start the overtime. Or something like that to reward, as they used to say in Olympic boxing parlance, the "aggressor" (kind of like riding time in wrestling). And then if that team marches down the field and scores, well, game over. Stop the circus that some of these games have become. Stats are becoming meaningless, especially where teams score 3, 4 and 5 times in overtime. Stop the horseplay, so to speak. If this means that more games end in ties, so be it. Some games, though, deserve to end in a tie. And, if you think that ties are bad under the current way of picking who will get a chance in the post-season, you're right. But that rule should change too.

2. Put a Playoff System in Division I-A. Why? Because why is it that every other NCAA sport has a playoff except for Division I-A football? Division I-AA, Division II and Division III have national championship games in football, and they are exciting to watch. So you do you counter the argument that the poor student athletes will miss too much class time? First, you have to prove to me that they will, as I don't buy the arguments that they do under the current Bowl System that DI players find themselves in. Besides, why is this a more important issue n Division I-A, where some schools give their players academic credit for playing football, than in the other NCAA divisions? There are some mighty fine academically inclined schools in DIII that have no problem letting their football teams participate in the post-season tournament. Second, you don't have to continue the practice of having teams play 12 regular season games, do you? If you have a meaningful system that determines who are, say, the 16 teams that make the post-season, then perhaps you have an 11-game regular-season schedule. Which means that you can take the top 2 teams from the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-10, and then leave 6 at-large bids. You can guarantee 1 or 2 bids to non-BCS schools (akin to what Division I lacrosse has done by allocating 1 slot (and maybe it's now 2) to a midwestern school (or two). You can alternate which bowl hosts what game, but, in the end, you'll have your national championship game. And, you'll have a great audience. Best of all, the players will decide the games on the field, and not either a group of head coaches, many of whom are so busy working on their own teams that they don't get to watch the teams on whom they're voting in any meaningful fashion or a group of writers, many of whom suffer from the same problem -- they just don't get enough exposure to all eligible teams.

Look, Division I-A football can be all about money. No one will dispute that. I even heard one rumor that had the BCS schools pulling out of the NCAA so that they could make more money on football. But I'm sure that with a galvanizing formula for a national tournament to decide the D-I football champion, there will be enough money to go around. Perhaps not Super Bowl-like money, but money that's in rareified air. Which means that there should be plenty of money to share. Even if that means 1 fewer regular season football game for some teams.

Naturally, there are details to iron out. First, what role, if any, will the polls play? Perhaps none. Second, will there be an RPI, the way there is in basketball? My guess is yes, and many factors will be examined, factors that are voted on only by the tournament selection committee, such as RPI and strength of schedule. Third, what will happen to the current method of scheduling? It may well be that the big-name schools will think twice about scheduling too many patsies at the beginning of the season. For example, if you're USC, will you schedule say Temple, Akron and San Diego State to start your year, or might you try to play Utah, Boston College and perhaps N.C. State? Schools will have to be careful if they want an at-large bid, because it may well be that the home mashing you give to Baylor 73-14 might come back to haunt you more so than if you end up beating a BC team that goes 7-4 on the year in Chestnut Hill by a score of 28-14. Fourth, are there enough games to separate out the teams? For example, if there are 11 regular season games, are they enough to determine who the top 2 teams in a league will be for purposes of getting the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament? And what happens if there are ties? In my estimation, there are bound to be some ties. Well, that's something for the tournament committee to work on. I'm sure they can throw enough good minds at it to come up with a good solution.

But those are just details. The great attraction is that instead of having voters determine who is number one, you'll get a tournament around New Year's Day for all the marbles. Think about that. A great game on a holiday weekend pitting 2 teams against one another that have won 3 games to get to the big moment. Have it on a night where people don't have to go to work the next day. Start it at dinner time back east, so people can plan parties around it, invite friends and neighbors, fire up the barbecue, bring in the take-out, share a few frosty beverages.

It might not be the Super Bowl.

But it will be awfully close to it.

Friday, September 24, 2004

"Hooray, I Keek Touchdown"

Remember those words? Alex Karras, Iowa alum, former stellar defensive tackle with the Detroit Lions, one-time actor, made this comment in partial response to a question about the frustrations of professional football. In essence, Karras said, "You battle for 59 minutes, and then some little guy with a clean uniform comes in to kick a field goal to win the game, and he says, 'Hooray, I keek touchdown.'" Needless to say, this old-school DT wanted to figure out a way to have the games decided by the real men out there, and not the Governator's version of "girlie men."

If you're interested in this line of thought, then check out this article in today's USA Today about the increasing number of PATs that college kickers are missing and the importance of some of those kicks. Last year, DI kickers converted on 95.3% of PAT chances; this year, that percentage right now is 94.9%. Which means, basically, that collegiate DI kickers are missing 1 of every 20 PATs. So, if you're Penn State, you shouldn't be worried if your kicker misses a PAT in the waxing you gave Akron and Central Florida, but you should be concerned that his number will be up and he'll blow (or the holder or the long snapper or the blockers will blow) a big PAT with the game on the line against a Big 10 opponent. Ouch! What a way to lose a game.

If you look at the conversion rate from another angle, 95% is a pretty good score. If the football player gets that score in his academic curriculum, he's Dean's List, perhaps even Phi Beta Kappa material (which means that under the thinking of some football coaches, he has to prove that his book smarts don't impede his ability to take their direction and react on a football field). If the school in question graduates 95% of its football players, well, it would be at the top of the list. Even fair Duke, lofty Vandy, small-but-mighty Rice, holy Notre Dame and throwback Penn State don't hit that graduation percentage.

But 95% of PATs? Some football experts would say that hitting 95% of PATs isn't like getting a 95 on your final in freshman honors calculus. No, they'll argue that hitting 95% of PATs is more like getting a 72 on that exam. I'm no expert on the ins and outs of the collegiate kicking game, but one thing is for sure, some of these missed kicks really have made a difference in a game's outcome.

As have the following: dropped passes, poor throws, missed blocks, kids perhaps not honoring curfew, eating poorly, and a whole host of other things that don't get the spotlight that a kicker does. As a result, there's a real tradeoff: if you want to get carried off the field or have an Adam Vinatieri moment, then you have to take the heat if you miss a PAT that costs you the game. And how a collegiate kicker takes that heat probably will determine how he'll perform when he gets a chance with the game on the line, trying to "keek" that touchdown. After all, some of the PAT misses can come in the first quarter, but ultimately the observers will determine that the kick was costly, for example, if the team lost by a point. At that point in the game, the kicker really wasn't feeling a lot of pressure; his special teams unit just didn't execute properly. Which means, of course, that if you're a fan you're even more nervous when the game gets close and the kicking team has to come back onto the field.

Parents often joke that they advise their kids to take jobs that involve indoor work and no heavy lifting. The football equivalent, of course, is punting and kicking, which involve physical activity but no collisions. Contact? Occasionally. But day-to-day head-butting? Not a chance.

But if you're a kid who gets the privilege of not having to endure all of the collisions, you also have extra responsibility. The fate of your team rests on your foot.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Potential Successors to Joe Paterno

(or any other soon-to-be-fired college football coach, although if you're building a candidate pool for those jobs, you wouldn't include the 2 Penn State alums in the pool).

Even if you're the most diehard Penn State alum, you have to concede that Joe Paterno cannot coach forever. Sure, he recently signed a four-year extension, and, yes, in "The Chronicle of Higher Education" his university's president sang his praises endlessly, I am told. Still, the I have written about the denouement of Coach Paterno's career here , and now it's time to build the candidate pool for the Penn State head football coaching job. Coach Paternos' record in the past 7 years is 45-37 (I had to count the results game-by-game from the rundowns of individual seasons, as nowhere on the Penn State football website, which is very good by the way, is there a media guide breakdown of the team's record on a year-to-year basis. Then again, many teams' websites don't offer these stats; you have to get them from the media guide, and they usually don't put the media guide's content on the website). That's a great record if you're Temple, and a mediocre one if you have the tradition that Penn State does.

Of course, I cannot predict what Penn State will look for in its next head coach. For example, must the candidate have ties to the school already? One the one hand, JoePa was an assistant at Penn State before getting tapped for the head coaching job. On the other hand, the Penn State football family doesn't run as deep as, say, either the Duke or North Carolina basketball families, and, therefore, the pool would be shallow if one of the required criteria for a candidate would be a Penn State coaching connection. It's hard to believe that the Penn State football family doesn't run deeper, because a) Joe Paterno has been at Penn State for a very long time and b) there are more assistant coaches in football than in basketball. I suppose that part of the reason is that two of his long-time coordinators had their head coaching opportunities elsewhere (John Sandusky and Fran Ganter) but passed on them. Had Sandusky and Ganter taken their big-time opportunities, they could have minted addditional coordinators and head coaches, and the family, as it were, would be larger.

Without Penn State connections as a pre-requisite, you then have to wonder about the type of experience Penn State would be looking for? Would they require that the candidate pool contain only sitting head coaches? What about coordinators at top schools? And what about assistant coaches in the NFL? Does the type of school these coaches coach at or went to matter? For example, Penn State has a unique perch in college football. It does offer a quality education, but it's not on the same level academically overall as a Stanford, Vanderbilt, Duke, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Tulane, Cal-Berkeley, UVa or Michigan. Then again, its football, when fully optimized, is above almost everyone's (okay, so today it's below Michigan and perhaps Notre Dame, but with the right coach that could change). Would that disqualify, say, Pat Hill from Fresno State, who has done wonders with a mid-level DI program? Conversely, if Pat Hill would be in the running because of his success at Fresno, would that success translate to State College? Would he be able to build the recruiting connections in Pennsylvania that he obviously has built in California? Or, is he recruiting a different type of kid in California from the type he'd be recruiting in Pennsylvania? Finally, does the head coach matter as much as hiring a good roster of assistants with recruiting connections, when it comes to overall recruiting?

Given that the Penn State tradition is about as good as it gets, I think that I would focus on a pool that includes a) coordinators from the most successful programs currently (remember, Bob Stoops left the University of Miami for Oklahoma, and Mark Richt left Florida State for Georgia) and b) up-and-coming coaches. I have omitted sitting head coaches at most if not all Top 25 programs, because I doubt that Bob Stoops would leave Oklahoma for Penn State, and I doubt that Jim Tressel would leave Ohio State for Penn State. I could be wrong (Bear Bryant left Maryland for Kentucky, left Kentucky for Texas A&M, and then left A&M for Alabama). And my guess is that conferences have an unwritten rule that you don't raid your competitors and take their head coaches away.

So, based upon that criteria, who is available?

Current College Assistants

1. The most prominent name out there among current assistant coaches at the Division I level is Norm Chow, the offensive coordinator at USC and developer of quarterbacks extraordinaire at both BYU, where he was an assistant coach for almost two decades and at USC. Currently, Cal's head coach Jeff Tedford probably gets more hype as a developer of quarterbacks, probably owing to two factors -- that he's a head coach and that less is expect of Cal prospects than USC prospects. Chow has a great track record, and he's the offensive brain behind an explosive offense. He's also 58 years old, and while no employer is permitted to discriminate on the basis of age, you wonder whether Penn State would want to hire a 59 year-old rookie head coach. Chow's record has to put him in the pool.

2. A less well-known name is Ed Orgeron, who coaches the defensive line at USC and also has the titles assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator. The 43 year-old Orgeron has coached defensive linemen at Syracuse and Miami as well, and among the players he has helped develop are Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland, Warren Sapp and Kenechi Udeze. He doesn't have the title defensive coordinator, which means either he hasn't earned it yet or career defensive coordinator and head coach Pete Carroll still likes to think of himself as the defensive coordinator for the Trojans. Orgeron probably will get some head coaching looks at some point, if for no other reason than he's in the inner circle at USC, but it's probably the case that he hasn't accomplished enough to go from this spot to the Penn State head coaching position.

3. The Oklahoma Sooners have three coordinators, including offensive Coordinator Chuck Long and co-defensive coordinators Brent Venables and Bo Pelini. Long, 43, the former Iowa and Detroit Lions QB, has helped develop, among others, Jason White, Nate Hybl and Josh Heupel. The Sooners haven't been bashful about moving the ball and putting points on the ball, and Long has been one of the architects of their success (his predecessor at offensive coordinator, Mark Mangino, is now head coach at Kansas). Pelini, 36, is an Ohio State alum, has been an assistant in the NFL, and was the defensive coordinator (and acting head coach for a short while) at Nebraska last year. Venables, 33, has been at OU for 5 years (like Long). He is a Kansas State alum who started his coaching career at his alma mater, and he also coaches linebackers at Oklahoma. Long played QB for Iowa and has a Big 10 connection. Pelini is intriguing because he's an Ohio State alum, but while Norm Chow's age might hurt him because he's too old, Pelini's might hurt him because he's too young.

4. Jimbo Fisher, 39, is the offensive coordinator at LSU, in his fifth year in the position. Prior to that he had spent 5 years as the QBs coach at Auburn. A QB mentor would be a good thing for Penn State, which, despite its historical success, has not had an outstanding record of developing first-rate quarterbacks. Given how important the QB position has become, a good QB mentor would be a great thing. Of course, you probably cannot name a former Auburn or LSU QB who has made serious inroads in the NFL. That fact doesn't help Fisher's candidacy for this job. In addition, Fisher's geographical focus has been southern in nature, and query whether he'd translate well in Happy Valley and whether the LSU program has enforced the same academic standards as the Penn State family has come to expect (I seriously tend to doubt it). And don't underestimate PSU's graduation rate (up there with the Dukes and Notre Dames of the world) for a moment. 33 year-old defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is in his third year working for a defensive master, Nick Saban. And the Bayou Bengals' record on defense speaks for itself. Given LSU's national prominence, you'd have to expect both of these coordinators will get serious looks for head coaching positions at the Division I level. I'm not sure that State College, Pennsylvania will be one of their destinations.

5. Ed Werner, 45, is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the University of Miami. He's in his second season as the offensive coordinator, and in his fourth with Miami. Like many assistant coaches, he's been somewhat of a gypsy, with stints here, there, and everywhere, including Cornell, James Madison, UNLV and Louisiana Tech. I'm sure the comment "it's the journey" applies especially to career assistants. Werner certainly is part of a high-profile program, and, if the Hurricanes' success continues, he may get the opportunity to step up to the big time. Randy Shannon, 38, is the defensive coordinator of the Miami Hurricanes, a job that he has held since 2001 (before that he was a position coach with the Miami Dolphins for a few years). Miami has always been known for its defense, and last year the team as a whole had 6 players drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. Clearly, either of these coordinators would have the cache to recruit players who aim to get to the next level. The question, again, for those in Happy Valley is whether a Miami assistant would pass muster in ever conservative State College. I doubt it. Miami has been Penn State's version of "The Evil Empire" over the past 20 years.

4. Michigan's Jim Hermann is in his early 40's, has been at Michigan for 16 years (he's a Michigan alum, Class of 1983), and has been the Wolverines' defensive coordinator for the past 8 years. On the one hand, he's been a lifer at Michigan, on the other hand, it's Michigan that he's been at, the point being that he's been at an elite program -- forever. While you could argue that, like Fran Ganter at Penn State, he might be a stale candidate because he hasn't ventured elsewhere, he has advanced in job responsibility during his coaching career. And he's only in his early 40's. He's definitely worth a look. As is the Wolverines' offensive coordinator, Terry Malone, who has been at Michigan for 8 years, the last 3 as offensive coordinator. Malone is a 1983 graduate of College of the Holy Cross, has spent some time back east, and has a prestigious position with a very sound football program and has helped produce some great players. Again, he's in his early 40's, and he's also worth a look.

5. Finally, this tour will stop in Columbus, Ohio, where the Buckeyes' have two coordinators who could well be saying "Goodbye, Columbus" if the right head coaching jobs open up. Jim Bollman, who is in his late 40's, has done a great job with the OSU offense and offensive line. He's been there for 3 years, and also has coached under Nick Saban and has worked with Buckeyes' head coach Jim Tressel for years (the two were at Youngstown State together). He seems ready for a high-level head coaching job. Mark Snyder is the Buckeye's defensive coordinator, and, well, the Buckeyes' defense has been formidable too. He's in his late 30's, has been at Ohio State for several years, and should be on some short lists in years to come.

I could go on and on with college assistants, but I'm still not sure that Penn State would hire a coordinator from just any program. We can't forget that the Nittany Lions have been among the elite programs during the past quarter century, and the faithful might not be patient for a college coordinator, no matter how up-and-coming he may be. Especially a college coordinator. That said, when you'll read on, you'll see that some college coordinators will make my list of semi-finalists.

Now I'll turn briefly to NFL coordinators, as some of them might welcome a return to the college ranks. (I won't speculate on the fate of Steve Spurrier, although I believe that the erstwhile Washington Redskins' coach and one-time Florida Gators' mentor would be out of place anywhere but the SEC. My guess is that once the next opening comes up in the SEC, Spurrier's name will be at the top of the list. And, if I'm a sitting SEC head coach with a second-division team, it wouldn't help my house-building plans knowing that Spurrier is available. Especially if the local golfing is pretty good.

NFL Coordinators and Assistants

This is a hard group to figure. Most have to be opting for NFL head coaching jobs or, if they're not coordinators, more senior NFL assistant coaching jobs. The reason: I searched nfl.com, and most of the coordinators are rather far removed from the college ranks. That means that they can't possibly have a good feel for what goes on in an 18 year-old's head today or they have a good sense as to how recruiting works. At least that's my opinion.

That said, I'd look to the Tennessee Titans for a few possibilities -- offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, of whom color commentators always have spoken favorably (and who has college experience at Duke, Rice and Air Force, all of whom made graduating players a top priority), and offensive line coach Mike Munchak, an NFL Hall of Famer and, importantly, a Penn State alumnus from the years when they were in the conversation as to who were the contenders for the national title.

An intriguing possibility would have to be 51 year-old John Hufnagle, a former Penn State QB who is the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants, who was the QB coach for the New England Patriots last season and who also has worked with Peyton Manning and Mark Brunell. On the one hand, the Giants haven't proven much on offense under Hufnagle's tenure. On the other hand, he'll get a full season to show what his planning and coaching abilities are. If the Giants surprise or improve (as it isn't clear when Coach Paterno will step down, if ever), Hufnagle could vault onto the short list, especially because he can develop quarterbacks, a skill sorely needed in Happy Valley. The Penn State administration would have no choice but to include him.

Another intriguing possibility is Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator Brad Childress, who spent a long time at Wisconsin before moving to the NFL. He's been the architect of underrated offenses in Philadelphia, and this year the Eagles' offense should improve with the addition of Terrell Owens, the expanded role of Brian Westbrook at tailback and the continued emergence of L.J. Smith at tight end. Of course, if the Eagles' win the Super Bowl, Childress would have to be a candidate for an NFL vacancy or two (he has interviewed for a few NFL head coaching jobs in the past). While he does not have any Penn State ties, his profile in the southeastern Pennsylvania area is quite large, and that might be enough to sell his candidacy to the Penn State fan base.

Current College Head Coaches

My view is that Penn State probably will not settle for anyone less than a sitting head coach or a member of the Penn State family. Want a Stoops disciple? A Bobby Bowden disciple? Bob Stoops' original main guys are gone -- to Kansas (Mark Mangino) and Arizona (Mike Stoops), and Bowden's biggest disciples of recent vintage are gone too, to Georgia (Mark Richt) and North Carolina State (Chuck Amato). Penn State would be a step up for Mangino, who's only 40 years old, and Amato, who is about 57 years old (and unlikely to get the job because a) he's at his alma mater and unlikely to leave and, he's 57). Mike Stoops just got to Arizona, Richt, only 44, is in a great position at Georgia, and Mangino has not accomplished enough at Kansas to make him an attractive candidate in State College.

So who are the "hot" sitting head coaches? Better yet, who are the "hot" sitting head coaches who may be willing to move?

Rich Rodriguez's West Virginia Mountaineers, Jeff Tedford's Cal Golden Bears, Urban Meyer's Utah Utes, Pat Hill's Fresno State Bulldogs, Dan Hawkins' Boise State Broncos, and Louisville's Bobby Petrino (who's 41), and Memphis's Tommy West all have teams in the Top 25 (or thereabouts). Those facts alone make all of those head coaches worth a look, at least if you're the recruiter who's putting together candidate pool.

Rodriguez has a top-10 team on his hands, and his record going into this year is 20-17. Tedford also might have a top-10 team on his hands this year, his Bears were the only team to beat USC last year, and his career record in Berzerkly is 7-5 going into this season (he was offensive coordinator at Oregon before that, and while there the Ducks won 75% of their games) and he's mentored Kyle Boller, Joey Harrington and Akili Smith into first-round draft picks. Urban Meyer's career record as a head coach is 27-8, and last year in his first year at Utah his team was 10-2 and went to the Liberty Bowl. He is definitely a coach on the rise and worth watching (he's also worked at Ohio State, so he has some familiarity with the Big 10). Pat Hill is 55-35 in 7 seasons at Fresno State, he's worked in the NFL and at times has looked like a member of ZZ Top. At 53, it may be that Hill's too much of a West Coast guy to make the transition to Happy Valley. Hawkins, 42, is 19-5 in two years as a head coach, and he led his team to the Humanitarian Bowl last year. He might not have enough experience for the selection committee at Penn State. Petrino, who spent time with the Jacksonville Jaguars as Tom Coughlin's offensive coordinator and then at Auburn as QB coach, was 9-4 last year in his first season at Lousville. Again, that might not give him enough experience to warrant serious consideration. Tommy West's record as a head coach is 52-54, and this is his third head coaching job, as he's been the head man at UT-Chattanooga, Clemson and now at Memphis, where his three-year record going into this season is 17-19. It wouldn't appear that West's pedigree is good enough for Penn State.

And, even then, there is the big issue of the cultural fit. For example, outside the top 25 schools, from which those coaches emanate (and I'd bet that not all of those schools will remain in the Top 25 by season's end), you'd have to look pretty much to head coaches at the BCS Conferences. Those conferences are: ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Southeastern and Pacific-10.

Given Penn State's high standards (silly them, like Notre Dame they really do want to graduate their players), the pool shrinks markedly. For example, I'll write off the entire SEC except for Vanderbilt, but Vandy's Bobby Johnson hasn't exactly worked miracles in Nashville. Yes, that's the rub, the next coach also has to be successful. So then let's look at the Big East, or, rather, what's left of it. Given the defections, you'd have to look only to West Virginia and lame ducks Virginia Tech and Boston College. I listed Rich Rodriguez abot, but I'm not sure that Frank Beamer would leave or that Penn State would want him. He has a great track record, though, and would be worth a look. As for Boston College, well, at 48-36 going into this season, I'm not sure that Tom O'Brien's record would get a serious look in State College. That and the fact that he's in his mid-1950's. It's true that schools cannot discriminate in their hiring practices on the basis of age, but it would be surprising for Penn State to hire someone with a record like O'Brien's. It would seem that O'Brien would be content to ride out his days in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Scratch the Big 10. I don't think it would be considered good practice to raid an intra-conference competitor for a head coach. I don't think there's a rule on it, but I doubt anyone would do it. Which is too bad for the Nittany Lions, because Joe Tiller of Purdue and Kirk Ferentz of Iowa otherwise would look mighty attractive to the selection committee.

In the Big 12, Bob Stoops at Oklahoma isn't going anywhere, and neither is Bill Snyder at Kansas State, who wouldn't be a candidate anyway for reasons I can't quite put my finger on except to say it would be an issue of fit. I'm not sure about Oklahoma State's Les Miles and I would write off Nebraska's Bill Callahan a) because he just got to Lincoln and b) because he probably shouldn't have gotten the job in the first place. As for the rest, I don't think there is enough of a pedigree/track record anywhere to draw the attention of the search committee. Sorry, Dennis Franchione, but you've packed your suitcase one time too many to get a serious look.

The ACC and Pac-10 are more intriguing. As for the former, the problem is that the top academic school in that conference, Duke, has a plum awful football team. If NCAA's Division I football had "relegation" to a lower division the way they do it in English soccer, Duke would be a perennial candidate for relegation to Division I-AA. (As would Navy, Army, Temple and several others). North Carolina offers a nice mix of athletics and academics, but John Bunting probably won't escape the Athletic Department's version of The Turk this year. Al Groh is entrenched at UVA, and that's probably his last job before he retires from his alma mater (normally I'd say that an up-and-coming UVA head coach would be a prime candidate for the applicant pool in Happy Valley). Ralph Friedgen has a good gig at his alma mater, Maryland, so he's not going anywhere. Neither is Bobby Bowden at Florida State or Larry Coker at Miami, although I have mentioned their assistants above. That leaves Tommy Bowden at Clemson (and if Jay Paterno isn't getting the Penn State job, then I doubt there'd be a way for Tommy Bowden, the son of one of Paterno's main rivals, to get it, even if he really wanted it), Jim Grobe at Wake Forest and Chuck Amato at N.C. State. Grobe is 51, has been a head coach at Ohio U. and Wake (he was 18-18 going into the season), and has done a good job at a school that doesn't spend the funds on football the way its competition does. Amato probably isn't leaving Raleigh unless he's pushed.

As for the Pac-10, you're not springing Pete Carroll from USC, and Mike Stoops just got to Arizona. We've mentioned Jeff Tedford from Cal before, and I'll nix Stanford's Buddy Teevens because he was a curious choice at "The Farm" to begin with, not having had much success at Tulane after having been successful at his alma mater, Dartmouth, and he hasn't been that successful at Stanford. Mike Bellotti at Oregon is most intriguing (he has a 75-34 record in 9 years in Corvallis, is in his early 50's, is a proven recruiter and has turned out many pro players), and Dirk Koetter at Arizona State, which routed #16 Iowa on Saturday 44-7, might draw a look too. Koetter is 43, has been at ASU for 4 years, was head coach at Boise State before that, and going into season his overall record is 43-30. Then again, Arizona Sate is a far different place from Penn State.

I'd eliminate Keith Gilbertson at Washington (who's a proven offensive mind, but who struggled mightily when he was head coach at Cal and has done an unspectacular job in Seattle thus far, having gotten the head coaching job after Rick Neuheisel spent a bit too much on an NCAA Tourney hoops pool), Karl Dorrell at UCLA (he's an alum, it's a good job, and he still has something to prove there; Freddie Mitchell of the Phila. Eagles recently said that it's harder for UCLA to compete against the likes of UCLA because the admissions standards are higher), Bill Doba at Washington State (he's 64) and Mike Riley at Oregon State. Dorrell is out because he's relatively new at his alma mater, and he hasn't done a whole lot there yet. Riley is out only because he left Corvallis for the Chargers, did not succeed there, and then returned to a place that he had turned around. I doubt he'd leave his comfort zone, and I doubt that PSU would be interested. Not a great cultural fit there. The others are intriguing, although a problem is whether the recruiting connections forged out west could translate into Pennsylvania. Getting kids from L.A. to venture to State College is a hard sell.

Why go any further?

The point isn't to to through the 117 DI schools, all of their head coaches, and the coordinators of, say, the Top 20 schools. I'm sure someone has identified all of those candidates, but I'm trying to pick a pool here and not start a search firm for coaches.

So here's my pool:

1. Jeff Tedford, head coach, University of California at Berkeley.

Pros: Hottest young offensive mind today.

Cons: No East Coast connections.

2. Mike Bellotti, head coach, University of Oregon.

Pros: Has put up the numbers for nine years, developed some outstanding players. He was once Tedford's boss.

Cons: No East Coast connections.

3. Rich Rodriguez, head coach, West Virginia University.

Pros: Has a good track record for the Mountaineers and has built a solid program.

Cons: Will Penn State really tip its hat to a school that's been in its shadow and hire their head man?

4. John Hufnagle, offensive coordinator, New York Giants.

Pros: Offensive coordinator, Penn State hero, Penn State alum.

Cons: Somewhat of an NFL gypsy, not talked about as a "star" coordinator yet.

5. Mike Munchak, offensive line coach, Tennessee Titans.

Pros: Penn State alum.

Cons: Not that experienced as a coach.

6. Brad Childress, offensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles.

Pros: Offensive coordinator for very successful team, high profile in Eastern PA, innovative within the West Coast offense and solid developer of players. Has experience coaching in the Big 10.

Cons: The West Coast Offense can be provincial and inflexible. But that's nitpicking. Childress's first head coaching job could be in the NFL if the Eagles keep up their winning ways.

7. Chuck Long, offensive coordinator, University of Oklahoma.

Pros: His offenses are juggernauts, he's developed okay talents into great QBs, and he was a great Big 10 player, so he knows the league.

Cons: Only question is whether Oklahoma's standards re: player graduation rates are similar enough to PSU's to make Long a good fit.

8. Norm Chow, offensive coordinator, University of Southern California.

Pros: Best offensive coordinator in the college game, bar none. A magician with quarterbacks, great developer of them. Outstanding offensive mind.

Cons: Not much connection to the East Coast, and, at 58, is he too old to get a good look?

9. Urban Meyer, head coach, University of Utah.

Pros: Successful at Bowling Green and now at Utah, viewed widely as a great talent and coach on the rise.

Cons: Does he have enough of an East Coast connection to resonate with the Nittany Lions?

10. Jim Hermann, defensive coordinator, University of Michigan.

Pros: Big 10 veteran, has built solid defenses. Knows the league very well.

Cons: Will his work translate anywhere else? Has he been at one school for too long?

I think that's a pretty strong pool, and I think with this hire I'd look for an offensive-minded coach. The reason: Penn State hasn't innovated a whole lot on offense in the past decade, and they need to bring some new ideas on the offensive side of the ball. Defense may win championships, but you do have to outscore your opponents. And Penn State has not done a good job of that for Penn State. In addition, Penn State hasn't turned out that many great professional players on offense in recent years, and that fact probably has hurt it in recruiting.

As for the choice, it's a hard one. And it's hard for the candidates, too. After all, you didn't want to be the first coach to succeed John Wooden at UCLA or Woody Hayes at Ohio State, and you might not want to be Joe Paterno's successor at Penn State. The pressure will be great, the expectations high. But this is a quality pool, and the Nittany Lions should take the time to find the right choice.

That said, I'd probably narrow down the choice, if it were me, to Tedford, Bellotti, Chow and Meyer, although Childress is intriguing. All have outstanding credentials, and I don't think that anyone could criticize Penn State for inking any of these candidates. But that's just my opinion, and, by way of full disclosure, I have no connections to Penn State and am not a Penn State fan (I don't dislike the Nittany Lions, either).

So that's my take on it.

Who would you choose?


Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Ichiro Suzuki and Higher Math

The Ichiro countdown is on. After slowing down a bit, he went 5-5 last night to increase his hit total to 243, just an astounding number (even if he gets a bunch of infield hits, including some on balls where David Ortiz would be out by a mile, and even if he hits for relatively little power, and even if he gets not that many walks for a leadoff hitter). Now Ichiro (who in some people's minds doesn't figure into the conversation as to who the top 10 outfielders in baseball are) needs 14 hits in 11 games to tie the record and 15 games to break it. And that feat would put him in rarefied air (that is, to the extent that you don't think he's already there).

Let's see. 11 games left, he's the leadoff hitter, so suppose he gets 4.25 at-bats per game, and let's round down to 46 at-bats total. If he hits .372 the rest of the way, he'll get 17 hits and 260 for the season. And the record. He needs to hit .304 the rest of the way (assuming 46 ABs) to tie the record and .326 the rest of the way to break the record by 1 hit. That's a close call.

It's funny how little respect he gets, if only because Barry Bonds, the best player of our time and one of the top 10 players ever (okay, he's probably in a more select group than that) gets maligned too. People don't like Barry because he's aloof, or because he's not nice, or because of the Balco scandal, or because of what they suspected he was ingesting before the Balco scandal. So while Bonds puts up all sorts of amazing stats, fans, even if they respect Bonds' accomplishments, don't get too excited because they don't like Bonds. And that's their right.

So here comes a guy, Ichiro, who hasn't done anything to offend anyone. He's throwback, hits like Wee Willie Keeler, plays in perhaps the city most remote from the East Coast, and he's even opened up the Japanese market for U.S. baseball and, along with a few others, helped pave the way for other Japanese stars to come to the U.S. He doesn't speak English, he doesn't hit for power, his OBP isn't overwhelming, you name it, they'll find a flaw. Take all of that stuff together, and fans have a middling attitude toward his accomplishments. But the stark irony is that he's a fine player, a good guy, or so it seems, and yet he gets penalized because he's not Barry Bonds, or at least he's not Barry Bonds statistically.

Be Barry, don't get love from the fans. Don't be Barry, and don't get love from the fans. Not an easy spot to be in, is it?

Which compels me to ask this question: if Ichiro gets close to this record, how compelling will the drama be for the average fan? Will the average fan care to watch every moment? Will the average fan get excited if Ichiro breaks the record? I don't think the average fan will show the excitement he did say 6 years ago when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing Roger Maris' record. After all, we're an "event" oriented, celebrity obsessed, society, and in the U.S. the home run record is about as big as it gets. And the fans liked the freckled strongman from California who hugged his son and the publicly good-natured Dominican outfielder who pressed all the right buttons. The players embraced the moment, and the moment embraced them, and quite easily at that.

That said, I think I'll give the average baseball fan a little more credit than to say he or she will yawn the way he and she did when Barry Bonds hit his 700th career home run. People will tune in, people will watch with interest, and people will be happy for Ichiro. Perhaps not demonstratively so, but they will applaud his accomplishment if he gets there. After all, the record has stood for 84 years, and a guy of average size, not that muscular, not aided or even rumored to be aided by modern chemistry, will be breaking the record. He may not speak English, but he speaks hitting, and that language should be good enough for American fans to get excited.

* * * * *

My comments on higher math pertain to an article in the most recent edition of "ESPN: The Magazine" which is clearly written for those with Ted Williams' vision or those under 25 because of the small print they use, smaller print, say, than which appears on the back of a ticket to a professional sporting event. In any event, the article focused on Billy Beane, and it created the inference that Billy Beane and his numbers crunchers have to examine new metrics to find valuable players because now the A's have competitors who are looking for the same "MoneyBall" types of players using stats similar to those that Beane and his former deputies, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, now the GMs in L.A. and Toronto, respectively, employed in Oakland when MoneyBall took root. Those competitors, are, of course, L.A., Toronto and Boston.

I can't begin to speculate as to the type of metrics that they're using, but here's one they should examine (and it may well be that someone's already doing this). First, I think that we'd all agree that Barry Bonds is more valuable than Ichiro Suzuki. More power, more walks, better OBP, more RBIs, etc. You know it in your gut. And there are numbers to bear out this opinion. But given that the GMs are looking for new metrics, and given that there are stat packages out there than can break down each one of a player's at-bats, how about looking at a hitter's total performance in terms of a) total bases, b) bases caused to be advanced (whether by walk, hit or out, and, sure, sometimes a player will get a break because an aggressive or fast baserunner ahead of him takes an extra base, but I'd argue that but for the batter's hit, that player wouldn't have gotten the chance for that base and, therefore, the hitter itself has to get credit for helping his teammate maximize his skills on the basepaths), and c) hitting with runners in scoring position late in a game when the game is on the line. In this fashion, you'll get an overall number, which, by appropriate weighting (which I haven't thought through at the moment), will tell you who the most valuable offensive players are across the board.

Perhaps the sabremetricians have already done this. Or some college math professor. Or some 15 year-old kid with a great ability on Google and a lot of time on his hands. If you read this and you have ideas, please let me know. The numbers don't tell everything, but as Billy Beane's proven, they do tell a lot.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Has Anyone Noticed?

What do Byron Leftwich, David Garrard and Quinn Gray have in common?

1. They are the three QBs on the roster of the Jacksonville Jaguars. They appear in that order on the Jags' depth chart.

2. Leftwich was the 7th overall selection in last year's draft and had a great rookie season last year. Garrard, who has battled Crohn's disease, was a fourth-round pick a couple of years ago out of East Carolina and the fifth QB taken (after David Carr, Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey and Josh McCown), and Gray, a second-year player out of Florida A&M, led the Frankfurt Galaxy to the NFL Europe title in 2003.

So what? Do you say? The Jags disappointed last year and are rebuilding. Leftwich could be a great one, and the other two, well, who knows. And you may be right.

But one think that black-and-white text isn't able to show you is that all of these quarterbacks are African-American. And that fact could be a very important development because it could be the first time in NFL history that all active QBs on an NFL roster are men of color (I'm not an expert on the history of NFL rosters, but I think that this is the case). Given the history of discrimination at the QB position (you'll remember that the term "black quarterback" used to be used without thinking as frequently as 15 years ago, while today it's almost not in use unless you're Rush Limbaugh, the reason being that the James Harrises and Doug Williamses of the world paved the way for many, many others), it's both unfortunate that it's taken this long for this to happen and very fortunate that it has finally happened. Hopefully, no NFL front office examines race when determining whether a player can play a position. Clearly, the Jacksonville Jaguars do not.

Perhaps this development does not need a lot of fanfare behind it. I don't think the MSM (that's mainstream media, for all of you non-bloggers out there) has picked up this story, for whatever reason. Perhaps because the color of one's skin doesn't matter any more in professional sports, so much so that the MSM just didn't think it's a big deal. Or perhaps they just plain missed the story.

Why am I reporting it? Because I recall seeing Doug Williams play for Grambling in person over 20 years ago, that's why. And I recall how great he was. And while it was great that he did get national recognition playing for football-strong but otherwise relatively obscure Grambling, with his talent and demonstrated ability he should have been playing for a top SEC school. He didn't get the chance, but then he showed everyone what he could do on the ultimate national stage when he put up incredible numbers (I believe he threw for over 300 yards and threw 5 TD passes) in one of the Redskins' Super Bowl wins in the 1980's under Joe Gibbs. Still, even with that amazing performance, the NFL still was slow to open up to quarterbacks of color.

You may see the Jacksonville Jaguars on TV in the next month or so, but you may not notice the QBs on the sideline helping send in plays or offering encouragement to Byron Leftwich.

And you'll say that's the way it should be. You only notice the backups when they get called into action.

But if you notice David Garrard and Quinn Gray, you'll see how far the journey of the African-American QB has progressed.

And you should also say that's the way it should be.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

More on Curt Schilling's Hall of Fame Chances

Jim Salisbury of The Philadelphia Inquirer provides more ammunition for supporting Curt Schilling's potential for the Hall of Fame (naturally, much of this is up to Schilling, who still needs several outstanding seasons to warrant consideration). Click here and scroll down to the middle of the article to read further (you'll have to get past the story of the Mets' implosion).

Basically, Salisbury points out that Schilling should pass 3,000 career strikeouts before he hangs up his spikes (he has 2,725 now), that he'll finish in the top 10 in league ERA for the ninth time and in the top 10 in strikeouts for the eighth time. Add in a few post-season MVP awards, a chance for some more heroics, and a good shot at more than 200 wins, and you have your Hall of Fame candidate.

Hold Those Tigers!

A funny thing happened to the Princeton Tigers' football team last night. They won their first opening game since 1998, and in convincing fashion against Lafayette, 35-18 (the Tigers led 35-6 at one point). Click here to read all about it. The Leopards went into the game with the #2 defense in Division I-AA, and the Tigers' offense went into the game with a few question marks, such as the depth on the offensive line, the consistency of senior quarterback Matt Verbit, and the identity of key receiving targets since B.J. Syzmanski left Old Nassau for the Cincinnati Reds' farm system (and a $750k signing bonus) after his junior year (the Ivies' have a much discussed, much dissed rule that renders a varsity athlete ineligible in every sport if he signs a professional contract in any sport).

The Tigers went into their opener picked to finish sixth in the Ivies. That selection probably underestimated the quality of their defensive, especially their linebackers and defensive backs. As to the former, the Tigers returned 6'4", 230 lb. junior linebacker Justin Stull, who was a first-team all-Ivy player last year, and another big linebacker, Zak Keasey, who was a first-team all-Ivy player two seasons ago before taking last year off. Similarly, the Tigers returned defensive backs Jay McCareins and Brandon Mueller, first- and second-team all-Ivy selections from two years ago. All four of those players give the Tigers exceptional quality on defense.

Last night's game was an auspicious beginning for Princeton, who got good production from junior running back Greg Fields and had many different players catch the ball. Next weekend Princeto travels to balmy San Diego, which suffered a thrashing at the hands of one of the Ivy's favorites, Penn, 61-18, at home in San Diego.

Friday, September 17, 2004

How Many More "Good" Seasons Does He Need . . .

to make the Hall of Fame?

After this year, probably three.

Curt Schilling won his 20th game the other night, and he's won 20 in 3 of his last 4 seasons. ESPN published a stat recently which indicated that Juan Marichal holds the dubious record of having the most 20-win seasons without having won a Cy Young Award. His problems: Sandy Koufax was always the pitcher to whom he was compared, and he hit Johnny Roseboro over the head with a baseball bat in a game against the Dodgers. Ultimately, his prowess on the mound earned him his rightful place in the Hall of Fame.

This year, Schilling's fate is no different from seasons past. He's having an excellent season, but Buster Olney wrote in today's ESPN.com that he believes the Cy is Johan Santana's to lose. Which would mean that for as good as he is, Schilling could be a runner up. Again.

Which leads to a different question. Is he a Hall of Famer now?

No.

His career record is 183-123, he's 37 years old, and he has good stats, that's for sure. But he definitely needs to top 225 wins. And it wouldn't hurt if the BoSox have a post-season that gives him the chance for the limelight. Especially if it means winning several key games in the post-season, including, perhaps, the World Series clincher. Sure, that's a bit old hat for him, as he did the same in Arizona, but taking the title of Baseball's Number One Curse Breaker? The King of New England? That and about 42 more career wins just might do it, especially with his winning percentage.

There are only 66 pitchers in the Hall of Fame. That's a very small number. Some have unbelievable numbers, but many others had career numbers not that different from what Schilling's could be when he decides to hang them up.

So let's compare a few of them. In doing so, I'm not going to compare Curt Schilling with some of the best of all time, such as Cy Young, Lefty Grove (whose numbers are so great but who gets overlooked when people talk about the 5 greatest pitchers of all time), Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton.

I'll start at a different level of the Hall of Fame. Because there are levels within this pantheon, as not all Hall of Fame pitchers are as Hall-of-Fame-like as others. So here goes:

Remember Herb Pennock? Of course you do, if you played Strat-o-Matic or APBA, and the old-timers versions at that. "The Squire of Kennett Square" (Pennsylvania), Pennock pitched for both the '27 Yankees and the great Philadelphia A's teams of his generation. Pitched in 22 Major League seasons. Career record? 241-162, for a .598 winning percentage. Career ERA: 3.59. Won 20 games twice in his career. Pitched for better teams than Curt Schilling. Much better.

How about Eppa Rixey? Pitched for the Phillies and the Reds, with a career record of 266-251, with a 3.15 career ERA. Rixey didn't pitch for great teams (the '15 Phillies got to the World Series), and he did win 20 games in a season 4 times in his career. Good pitcher? Yes. Great? Hard to tell. Will Schilling be at his level if he has 3 or 4 more good seasons? Probably. Maybe even higher.

Jim Bunning? I'm still not convinced that Bunning made it in solely on his career record and that his being a United States Senator (and perhaps an early stalwart in the players' union) didn't have something to do with it. Bunning was the best of the second-tier pitchers of his generation. He wasn't Gibson, he wasn't Tom Seaver, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax or Fergie Jenkins. Good? You bet. A Hall of Famer? You decide. A career record of 224-184, for a .549 winning percentage. A career ERA of 3.27 in an ERA when parks were more spacious and the average batting averages were lower than they are now. Much lower.

And how about the Robin to Koufax's Batman, Don Drysdale? Career record of 209-166, for a winning percentage of .557. Career ERA of 2.95, but remember, if you had an ERA of 3.50 back in the late 1950's and 1960's you were a candidate for banishment to the buses of the bush leagues. Drysdale won 20 games only twice, and the Dodgers usually were in the first division if not first place when Drysdale played. He was a fierce pitcher at times, loved to throw inside (the writers, so many of them, wrote that if Koufax only threw inside the way Drysdale did, he wouldn't have lost a game) but he just might have made the Hall because the Dodgers back then didn't have much offense, and the voters must have figured that there was a great player other than Sandy Koufax who helped drive the bus. There wasn't. Good, yes (like Bunning)? Hall of Famer? You make the call. That said, he's in the Hall, and, therefore, should be used as a measuring stick of sorts for future candidates. (I can hear Bill James howling now that there has to be a more serious measuring stick for Hall admission than Don Drysdale).

Catfish Hunter was one of the best pitchers of the 1970's. I don't want you to get the impression that I'm knocking these Hall of Fame pitchers excessively; I'm not making any arguments that have not been made before. And I do believe that Hunter belongs in the Hall of Fame. He was one of the most dominating pitchers in the 1970's, and he got it done without much fuss for some championship teams in Oakland and New York. Career record: 224-166, for a .574 winning percentage and a career ERA of 3.26. Won 20 games or more 5 years in a row. Outstanding career on great teams.

There are others with comparable numbers, or at least numbers that will be comparable to Curt Schilling's if Schilling can put together a few more good seasons. My point is that the Hall of Fame most definitely is within Curt Schilling's reach. He's had a flaky career in terms of how his stats fall. It took him many years of professional baseball (and a wakeup lecture by Roger Clemens) to jump start his career (with a silver lining that he probably didn't throw too many pitchers before he was 25, meaning that his arm probably has more life in it at 37 than Doc Gooden's had in his at 30). And he's pitched for some bad teams and has missed some time owing to injury along the way (such as last season). And all that said, his career winning percentage is just about .600. His career ERA is 3.34. Not only did he pitch well in the post-season in 2001 with Arizona, he also was lights out with the Phillies against the Blue Jays in 1993.

I'll leave it to all of the websites, bloggers, actuaries and statisticians to tell me whether from a comparative decades' standpoing Schilling warrants inclusion in the Hall and whether his numbers stand up not only to existing Hall of Famers, but to his current peers. My bet is that they do.

If you play the game of "who would you rather have right now", who would you take over Schilling? Forget potential. Forget age. Let's talk about the here and now.

Greg Maddux? No, not now. He's a five-inning pitcher in 2004.

Tom Glavine? No, not now, and probably not over the course of a great career that should land Glavine in the Hall of Fame. The ultimate in crafty lefties? You bet. Today? Probably kicking himself that he left Atlanta for the steamship Titanic that is the New York Mets. Hitters don't fear Tom Glavine the way they do Curt Schilling.

Roger Clemens? Very close call. But, then again, Clemens well could be one of the five best pitchers of all time. Edge to Clemens, but, then again, with the exception of another lead-pipe cinch for the Hall of Fame, Randy Johnson, name another pitcher over whom, the way he has pitched this year, Roger Clemens doesn't have the edge? You can't.

Jason Schmidt? No, not now, because his performance has tailed off a bit since his injury earlier this season.

Kerry Wood? Mark Prior? They're not at full strength. Three years from now, pehaps. But not right this moment. And Prior is getting hit especially hard.

Mark Mulder? Tim Hudson? Mulder was up there for a while, but his ERA is much higher. And let's see the A's win a post-season series, while we're at it. (Yes, I'm being hypercritical, but when you're talking about the elite hurlers, it's harder to find distinguishing factors).

Johan Santana? Maybe. But he hasn't pitched in the clutch the way Schilling has. He hasn't had the opportunities, true, but Schilling has, and he's made the most of them.

Pedro Martinez? Close. Schilling's big-game record is better. (If you check out Hall of Famers' stats, check out Sandy Koufax's and Dizzy Dean's for careers that are similar to Pedro's). I'd take Schilling in the big game.

Randy Johnson? Let's give the edge to the Big Unit, who's pitched much better this season than his record otherwise would suggest and who is pitching now for one of the worst teams in baseball. A first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Mike Mussina? Orlando Hernandez (he is pitching great, is super-hot, but will he hold up)? Javier Vazquez? Fuhgeddaboutit. And Schilling, in the Bronx? He doesn't scare much.

And he's "only" 37 (he'll turn 38 in November). No pitcher prepares better for an opponent than Schilling. He needs to stay healthy (to his credit, he's in much better shape than he was last year), but let's say he pitches until he's 42, and let's say he goes 60-35 in that time frame, with an ERA of about 3.35. Let's say he has one or two more 20 win seasons during that time. That will give him a career record of 247-158, and that makes him a Hall of Famer.

At least in my book.

And perhaps that of everyone else.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Hit Police

John Lynch has made a career of hitting people. Typically opposing wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. Hitting them hard.

Dare come over the middle? John Lynch will be there, waiting to unload. His aggressive play has made him a well-known and well-regarded defensive back. He helped lead Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory two years ago. 12 years in the league, 5 Pro-Bowl selections. An elite player.

After last season, Tampa Bay decided to move its defense in a different direction. Goodbye, Warren Sapp, goodbye John Lynch. So after a long career in Tampa, John Lynch signed with the Denver Broncos.

This past Sunday, John Lynch delivered a big hit on Dante Hall, the Kansas City WR who is better known as a punt returner. The hit made all the highlight shows. Why? Because Hall dared come downfield in Lynch's territory, trying to make a catch. And what happened?

Lynch leveled him. Big-time hit. Right up there with the Eagles' hits on Jeff Feagles (by Jeremiah Trotter) and Eli Manning (by Jerome McDougle, I believe).

Old-time football.

Smash-mouth football.

The type of football that fans pay to see.

The type of football that the NFL sells.

And the type of football that the NFL makes the hitters pay for. They fined John Lynch $7,500 for a hit that the opposing coach, Dick Vermeil, thought was clean.

Lynch, of course, is appealing. He rightfully points out the hypocrisy that is the NFL. Sell the hits and the hitting, but fine the hitters.

Promote the passing game, change rules to give the league more offense, but sell the violence. Except for one big problem, the premises cannot always co-exist. The fans may want more offense, but they don't want flag football. They want collisions, not just contact, good old American football, not ice dancing.

Which means that the desire for more offense will collide with the desire for hard-hitting action. Probably in every game, in every week. Which means, correspondingly, that the NFL has to figure out what to do about this tension. And quickly, before the Hit Police end up putting too many good DBs on the sidelines or in the poor house.

And the NFL needs to do something other than make public fools out of its administration to are doing some Monday-morning refereeing.

If you want to fine the John Lynches of the world, fine, but then don't feature the hard-hitting action as part of your sales pitch. If you want to outlaw that type of hitting, outlaw it, but have fun writing the rules to define what type of hitting is acceptable. And have fun putting red "hands off" jerseys on all skill position players on offense.

Otherwise, save the press releases and the fines for the really bad stuff.

And let the defensive players play the game.

Which is, lest the NFL administration need reminding, tackle football.