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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Monday, January 31, 2005

Football Recruiting at Colorado

Apparently, Potsie, Ralph and Richie are now all going to Colorado, and they're drinking ginger ale or egg creams and listening to crooners on their MP3 players, wearing their HS letter sweaters, opening doors for co-eds and calling them "Miss" and even asking questions about the types of books they'll be reading in their course work. Thanks to USA Today for the whole story.

Football recruiting at Colorado. Rated G.

Is a better list of recruiting rules working? Does compliance, like world peace, actually have a chance? According to one recruiting expert, the Buffaloes are actually having a better recruiting year this year than last year. And, as you'll probably remember, last year was the culmination of one big party, the toga party to end all toga parties in terms of college football recruiting hijinx.

This year? Family dinners, curfews at 11 p.m. and adult escorts (oops, I meant chaperones) who hang out with the recruits while they're being shown around the campus and Boulder. All you need is Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea" playing in the background, and you'll have a Norman Rockwell view of what college football is supposed to be.

Truth be told, it's good to see that Colorado has made a serious attempt to shape up and remember that, after all, it is a college first and foremost. Sure, some of us can get our jollies thinking of the tame, chaste recruiting visits that are now ensuing, but the entire program needed a serious wake-up call that it had to change its ways.

And that doesn't mean, of course, that the kids won't get to be kids and have their fun. All it means, literally and figuratively, is that the type of fun they'll have won't be at anyone else's expense.

No Doubt They'll Be On Syracuse's Schedule Next Year

In all likelihood these guys will be.

If not, there's always the Krispy Kreme All-Stars.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Anti-Princeton Offense Is Back

You hear so much about the Princeton offense now that it's no longer a novelty. You've read about it in Sports Illustrated, and you've seen it in action at Princeton, of course, and at Northwestern, Air Force and now Georgetown, as well as Samford, where Jimmy Tillette became an early disciple. You also saw it go to the NBA. It started in Sacramento, where one-time Princeton star Geoff Petrie is team president. When his old coach got old enough to retire at Princeton, Petrie hired Pete Carril to assist Rick Adelman.

Carril then helped Adelman install the Princeton offense, and lo and behold, the NBA re-discovered that passing, cutting and setting picks was a better offense than a clear out for your best player. Among those hanging out at the hotel bars in late-night sessions with Carril were fellow assistants Byron Scott and Eddie Jordan (whose Rutgers teams never lost to Princeton when Jordan was a star PG for the Scarlet Knights in the 70's). Scott went to NJ, took Jordan as his assistant, and Scott helped coach the Nets with the Princeton offense to a few NBA Finals. Jordan now is in Washington, where he has injected new life into the Wizards. Scott is in New Orleans.

Yes, the Princeton offense is now everywhere. Like "old-time hockey" in Slapshot, the Princeton offense is old-time basketball. Perhaps not as old as the Wisconsin "three-man" weave, but old enough.

In contrast, there has always been run and gun basketball. Those college teams with the speed and athleticism to do so will run the ball to their hearts content, figuring that you can always win by putting up a lot of points. There are many high-octane players out there, so you don't always have to pass the ball seventeen times per possession to score. Or so the school of thought goes.

The school that exemplified run 'n gun the best was Loyola Marymount in the late 1980's, coached by Paul Westhead, a Shakespearean scholar who coached some great LaSalle teams in the late 1960's and early 1970's (including one of the best players ever to play college ball in Philadelphia, the late Kenny Durrett). Westhead took over at Loyola in the mid-80's and instituted a fast-paced offense, fueled, ironically, by two Phila. HS stars -- PF Hank Gathers and SF Bo Kimble. Along with SG Jeff Freyer, this team broke on every possession, got the ball to the wings and jacked up the threes. They were so good, in fact, that they got to the Elite 8 one year (and, I believe, that was in the same season that Gathers died tragically of heart failure during a game). They were a great story, the little school that could, and their unique style of play garnered them even more attention than Gonzaga today. (And you could argue that Gonzaga is a more fundamentally sound team than Loyola was, although in Gathers and Kimble, USC xfers, Loyola had top talent).

Ultimately, the style fizzled. Loyola wasn't the same after Gathers died, and the following season they played Princeton at Princeton in a game televised on ESPN. The attraction -- the top defensive team against the top offensive team. Princeton for many years led the nation in scoring defense, usually in the high 40's and low 50's. At times, Loyola scored in the low 100's. So what happened? Princeton 72, Loyola 48, in a blow-out. It wasn't even close. NFL teams ultimately solved Buddy Ryan's heralded 46 defense, and Princeton somehow solved Paul Westhead's offense.

That offense remained dormant until a few years ago, when a coach named Dave Arsenault took over brainy DIII Grinnell, a school that hadn't had a winning season in 25 years. He instituted his own version of Westhead's offense, and, voila, Grinnell started winning games. Basketball became fun again, because the basic premise is if you have an open 3, jack it up. And, as this article points out, there are now many disciples. (Thanks to Yoni of the College Basketball Blog for pointing out the article).

Like the Run 'N Shoot offense that June Jones III and Mouse Davis helped make popular (even in the NFL, where Buddy Ryan referred to it as the Chuck 'N Duck) and that propelled U. of Houston QBs Andre Ware and David Klinger into high first-round draft picks, the old Loyola offense will always have its fans. The players will press the other team off the bus, and they'll constantly shoot the three. It will be a lot of fun and confuse teams who haven't seen it before, but get that offense in front of a defense that attacks the perimeter, can run a bit and is fundamentally sound, and that good defense will win 9 times out of 10. Sometimes big.

As for Coach Arsenault and Grinnell? The fact that he has turned this outstanding liberal arts college in Iowa into a hoops mecca of sorts is a major accomplishment. Not as good as Joe Scott's winning the Mountain West with his kids at Air Force last season (Air Force had finished no higher than 6th in its league for 40 previous seasons), but pretty darned good.

So, for all of you HS kids out there who are good shooters but who may not be quick enough, good enough ball handlers or athletic enough for DI hoops, consider the DIII alternative. Go to Grinnell, get a great education, and perhaps lead the nation in scoring.

Why The Eagles Might Have Lost Some Fans

Of course, the Eagles haven't lost any fans in Philadelphia. They probably have more fans than the Phillies, Sixers and Flyers combined, and you have to remember that in 1980 the Phillies were huge, as they won their first World Series ever, and that they drew over 3,000,000 last season in a new ballpark. Everywhere you go in the Philadelphia area, you see a tribute to the Eagles. The city and its suburbs are pumped.

But then there's the matter of air travelers. Philadelphia is a huge USAir hub, and you might have read around Christmas how travelers got stranded in Philadelphia, had an awful time getting their bags and even making their connections. What happened was that there were bad storms in the Midwest, and those storms delayed air travel all over the country, pushing some travelers' plans into Christmas day. Christmas is perhaps the lightest travel day of the year, and USAir didn't appear to have its normal "full" crew working. To make matters worse, some who were supposed to work at Philadelphia International Airport called in sick. The result was a well-chronicled travel mess that drew the attention of U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who was less than pleased with the situation. There were numerous stories about how travelers had to offer stipends of $100 to earnest (the way Captain Reynaud was in "Casablanca") USAir baggage handlers who were trying to help them locate their luggage. (Imagine seeing a sea of piled up luggage and saying "Mine is the black one with the pull handle on wheels and the black baggage tag!)

Fast forward until today. I got up at 5 a.m. to get to the airport, and made it there okay over slightly slick roads because of a snow shower that had dumped another inch on the area and got to my gate, at the end of the "B" concourse, where I was all set to read my morning paper and eat breakfast. At that point, they announced that my flight was moved to "A" concourse, and, as it turned out, the most remote gate there. A fellow passenger told me that I probably walked two miles to get to the new gate.

Aaargh! (Or, at least, "Good grief.").

Trying to turn a disappointment into an opportunity, I viewed the experience as good exercise carrying weights (as my laptop briefcase is no trivial matter in terms of a workout). Within about 10 minutes of my arrival at the new gate, with the flight information board still indicating that the flight was "on time", we were told that the flight was delayed because of a problem with a security check and later that they were trying to get the attention of a crew to do the check. About an hour and forty-five minutes later, we get on the plane, and the pilot told us that whatever they told us inside the airport, the real reason was that when they moved the plane from one gate to another, they forgot to tell catering, and, as a result, the catering truck had failed to show up at the right gate. Then, we had to wait another 20 minutes to get the plain de-iced. All told, the plane was 2 1/2 hours late.

Great teamwork from the USAir crew, by the way. Bury your teammates, why don't you, as if somehow the flying public gives the pilots and airline a pass if something goes wrong that isn't the flight crew's fault. If your average sports team ran itself that way, they wouldn't be fighting for a title at any time soon.

So the delay ensued, basically, for boxed meals that they charged between $5 - $7 for and seemed to run out of the one that everyone wanted (like that seldom happens, either.). Haute cuisine, it isn't, and it isn't even haute cuisine on a night flight to France.

Waiting for the plane, I sat near a sales manager for a nationally known medical products company, and he was having some fun pointing out how many airport employees looked to be sitting around and not really working. Especially prominent among this group was a USAir employee whose sole mission this morning was to scout out the waiting area at this gate to grab abandoned newspapers for his reading pleasure and to eat, as my new friend almost burst into a play-by-play watching this gentleman peeling a hard-boiled egg over a trash can.

Needless to say, the image that this gentleman will take away from Philadelphia is not of Andy Reid's acumen in picking and coaching players, not of Donovan's McNabb's leadership or Brian Dawkins' fearlessness, but of a balky airline who resembled more the '72-'73 Sixers (you can look it up, but Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham were long gone by then) than the 2004-2005 Eagles.

While the Eagles' hot streak is admirable and they have many compelling figures on their team for whom an out-of-towner might want to root, USAir has been on an equal streak -- bad. The airline is in deep trouble, the Christmas debacle left many customers saying "never again" and sometimes day-to-day experiences like the one I had leave the average traveler shaking his head. And, since Philadelphia is a USAir hub, the city and the airline are unfortunately linked.

Which, to me, means that the average non-Philadelphian who roots for the Patriots either a) lives in Boston or New England, b) grew up in Boston or greater New England, c) loves (i) Bill Belichick, (ii) Tom Brady, (iii) Corey Dillon, (iv) Teddy Bruschi, (v) Adam Vinatieri, or (vi) Rodney Harrison or (d) had an unfortunate travel experience on USAir while changing planes in or waiting for luggage in Philadelphia.

Memo to Donovan McNabb & Company: if they're booing you in Jacksonville or their living rooms, they're not necessarily booing you personally or professionally. They're probably booing an experience that they had at the Eagles' city's airport.

As for me, I'll root for the Eagles no matter what, I really will.

But just in case, I booked next week's business trip to have me returning to Philadelphia (for other reasons, too, I might add) on Saturday instead of Super Bowl Sunday.

After all, it's hard to let anyone or anything interfere with the proud ritual of watching your team's first Super Bowl appearance in a quarter century, let alone a national airline that couldn't figure out where to send its catering truck.

Fly Eagles, fly!

Just make sure you continue to take charters.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Ivy Hoops Prognosis (And Predictions For This Weekend)

I've watched Princeton play three times in person and once on TV, I've seen Penn on TV a few times, and I've read reports about some of the other Ivies, so here's my updated Ivy hoops prognosis, in a very summary format (and click here for my exhaustive (and exhausting) post before the season about what I thought was going to happen):

1. Princeton.

Why they will win? Veteran leadership from returning first-team all-Ivy players Will Venable and Judson Wallace, as well as better outside shooting from soph SF Luke Owings and frosh SF Noah Savage. Junior PG Scott Greenman is about as clutch down the stretch as anyone in the Ivies, and the Tigers go about nine deep, and they play killer defense.

Why they might not? Foul trouble at the center and PF position, an injury there, or an epidemic of horrid shooting behind the three-point line. So-so rebounding also could hurt them in a key game.

2. Penn.

Why they could win the league? SF Tim Begley is one of the league's best (and perhaps even the best "Princeton-type" player in the league). 2G Ibby Jaaber is a real talent, F Mark Zoller has an extremely high basketball IQ, and soph center Steve Danley looks to be one of the most improved players in the Ivies. Penn has height, depth at the 4 and 5, and they can be deadly from behind the three-point line. They also rebound well. Talent abounds, but it hasn't totally jelled yet. If it jells, look out.

Why they might not? Penn hasn't won a league title under Fran Dunphy without a PG who can penetrate and create off the dribble. PG Eric Osmundsen is a solid PG, and he is a good shooter, but he's not a penetrator. Penn is thin at guard, and they are a little bit short on ball handling and could suffer against pressure from the opposing team. The inside players consist of three sophs and 1 junior, and they haven't proven a ton in key games just yet. Jaaber also hasn't played that well, given all the expectations, and if he doesn't step it up, he leaves Penn without a key option. Penn won't win if they don't develop a first option on offense. Begley looked to be the guy, but he's stepped back a bit lately. Lastly, when they don't shoot the three well, they look like a lost team.

3. Brown.

Why they might win it? PG Jason Forte is the returning Ivy Player of the Year, and Brown's supporting cast has proven better than many expected.

Why they might not? Until the Bruins play consistently well at both ends of the court, they will not win a title. Their defense always has been suspect, and they couldn't even win the league even when they had three first-team all-Ivy players (Forte, Earl Hunt and Ala Nuaatiliaa). They need to clamp down more on defense to win it all.

4. Columbia.

Why they might win it? They are the flavor of the season, they have some good players in Kravic and Preston, and they have a whole new attitude.

Why they might not? They're new to the Ivies' first division, and even if they get off to the start that Cornell did last year (which is doubtful), the Ivy men's hoops gravity pull that is Penn and Princeton will bring them back down to earth. Hard.

The rest:

5. Yale. Tons of talent (Edwin Draughan, Dominick Martin, Casey Hughes) but somehow the coaching style of James Jones has caused the Elis to regress. They have played some decent teams awfully tough this year, but come Ivy play they might well falter. Last year, they shot horribly from behind the arc. This year, what might befell them? On the other hand, this is the last hurrah for Draughn and PG Alex Gamboa, and with senior guards, lightning might strike. Given how rarely lightning strikes where you want it to, however, Yale will have to play consistently well over the next 7 weeks to be in contention. Easier said than done, especially given how frequently Jones substitutes players.

6. Cornell. A confounding team, one that seems to recruit well but then not to play well. Big Red could surprise, but it says here that after some seasons of hope they're a second-division squad.

7. Harvard. Decent big guys in Brian Cusworth (injury prone) and Matt Stehle, but guard and wing players seem to be a problem. Frank Sullivan can coach when he gets decent talent, but he hasn't been getting it enough in Cambridge.

8. Dartmouth. Long time gone from the Ivies' first division, and coach Terry Dunn knows full well (as should his recruits, who should get plenty of PT upon choosing Dartmouth) that he needs more talent to compete in the Ancient Eight.

This weekend's games should prove to be tough matchups for Penn and Princeton. Tonight, Penn hosts Yale and Princeton hosts Brown. Tomorrow night, vice versa. My predictions:

Friday

Penn 75 Yale 73
Princeton 58 Brown 50

Saturday

Penn 84 Brown 81
Princeton 62 Yale 52

For what it's worth. Penn sometimes can look smoother on offense than Princeton, but Princeton seems to be playing defense on a higher plane. Lastly, the difference between teams isn't all that great, and it wouldn't surprise me if one of the visitors gets a road win this weekend, but that's always easier said than done. Both Penn and Princeton are fresh and healthy, and both are playing with confidence.

The Blaine Bishop Syndrome

There's been a ton of talk about Terrell Owens over the past few days. (Of course, the silliness of pre-Super Bowl hype is that the three most talked about Eagles are Owens, Donovan McNabb and free agent TE Jeff Thomason, the construction site supervisor on leave). Specifically, the talk has focused about whether Owens should play, whether he can help the Eagles in the Super Bowl, and all of the macho that goes with that.

ESPN Radio trotted out former Ram Jack Youngblood, who played Super Bowl XIV (and the NFC Championship Game before that) on a broken leg. Naturally, Youngblood said, in essence, that there really is no choice -- if you can walk, you play. Or, at least that's the inference that I drew.

Because it was a radio interview, I couldn't see whether Youngblood was spitting tobacco juice on a medical technician or biting .45 caliber cartridges while he was making that statement.

And that's all well and good. We all know that week after week NFL players play games with injuries that could keep the average American out of work for several days or put them on disability.

But this injury is different, and the situation is different. (I know, that's a prescient observation -- you don't have to be a rocket scientist or offensive coordinator to figure that one out).

Sure, it's easy to look at the good example, the example of Youngblood. But then there's the story of Blaine Bishop.

Bishop, several years back, was an all-pro SS for the Tennessee Titans. The Eagles always had a weak spot there after they moved Brian Dawkins to FS and before Michael Lewis took over. So, for that short time period, they signed a thirty-one year-old Bishop to play SS. He had been an all-pro, and while short, he was still effective.

But then the NFC Championship Game happened upon him, the game where the Eagles hosted Tampa Bay two years ago and were favored to win and go to the Super Bowl. You will remember that game, because it's the game that the Bucs broke open when Brad Johnson found Joe Jurvecius on a sideline route that the Penn State alum turned into a 69-yard score. No doubt, you remember the oft-shown pictures of Eagle defenders chasing Jurevicius down the sidelines.

One of those defenders was Blaine Bishop. And, if you didn't now any better, you would have sworn that he was through. And he well might have been, but it wasn't what you might have thought.

What happened?

Earlier in the game, Bishop tore or severely aggravated a hamstring. Instead of coming out of the game, he decided, upon his own, apparently, to tough it out for the team. The result was a disaster, because I do think that Michael Lewis would have made a tackle after a short gain and the play would have been over. The Bucs wouldn't have gained the momentum they did, and the Eagles might have won that game.

Instead, the Bucs got a relatively easy score in a defensive battle, and there was no turning back.

The point?

Bishop was too hurt to play. He actually hurt his team by staying in the game, and it cost him. He was a free agent after that season, and no one picked him up. Needless to say, other terms must have thought he was through.

It's a hard call for a professional athlete, someone who is very competitive, to admit that he can't do it. Even if he's hurt. It was hard for Bishop, and the ramifications were awful, but it's the type of call that if made wrong can kill a team's chances for a Super Bowl victory.

Now, there's no danger of that happening with Terrell Owens, but the whole Blaine Bishop conundrum does arise. Does Owens play because it's the macho thing to do and he just cannot sit it out (and have Jack Youngblood and Sean Salisbury call him a wimp on national sports TV), or does he play because it's the right thing to do and he can really help the Eagles? And, do the Eagles get hurt if T.O. insists upon playing, can't, and then the Eagles are without an extra receiver or, worse, without having a healthy-legged WR in the game at all times. Especially since clutch TE Chad Lewis is out.

For every Jack Youngblood, there can be a Blaine Bishop.

And that thought should concern the Philadelphia Eagles and their fans very much.

Tip Of Iceberg Sighted?

Read this article and decide for yourself.

If what is stated in this article is true, then you don't have to wonder why some teams will never have a chance to have winning programs, and why some won't have losing programs. Ever.

If what is stated in this article is true, are certain parts of the major college football world no better than cockfighting (which is illegal in most states), where you simply buy the best players and put them out there to beat the other guy's behemoths, put them in courses that will keep them eligible but won't give them much of a path to a good livelihood when their football days are over, and then drop them from your radar screen once their eligibility is exhausted?

I hope that this isn't the case, of course, as I am hopeful that the bad apples are in a distinct minority in certain parts of Division I-A football. I hope that what this HS coach is testifying to is an isolated incident, I really do.

But given how many teams allegedly were involved with the recruiting of this one player and the alleged illicit inducements offered his HS coach, how can we be so sure?

Let's watch this trial and see what happens, but the report today is very troubling indeed.

Update: Our good friend TigerHawk has blogged on the topic of cockfighting, so you may want to check this out at some point. It could well be that cockfighting now is more civilized than SEC football. What do you think?

Thursday, January 27, 2005

"Ball" Boy Booted to Brooklyn?

Okay, Queens, as the New York Mets acquired Doug Mientkiewicz to play first base for them, deciding that during their shopping spree (where they turned Major League Baseball into a mega-mall) they needed to forego the kitchen department and go to the home cleaning department, foresaking sieves for vacuums at first base. That's certainly one way to look at the story, that the Mets were acquiring a first baseman.

The other way is that the Red Sox were getting rid of someone whom the from office tired of rather quickly. You'll recall all of the talk in the blogosphere about the ball that was in play at the end of the 2004 World Series, how Mientkiewicz has it, how it's unclear as to who owns it, and how the Hall of Fame indicated that it only has one Series-ending ball, that from the 1903 Series. Click here and here to read my prior posts on the subject.

Right now, by the way, Mientkiewicz and the BoSox have struck a deal whereby the first baseman will lend the Sox the ball for a year so that Red Sox' fans can see it. The timing's interesting, and it shows how much the ball means to the BoSox. After all, they secured the deal on the ball right before they traded the first baseman. Otherwise, they'd have to deal with him from afar about the baseball, and that would have been more tricky.

The question still remains, by the way, whether the BoSox made a good deal for Mientkiewicz or they jettisoned him because he was bucking management. The good news for Mientkiewicz is that he goes to a Mets team that has spent a ton of money to improve, and one that will be able to give him a lot of playing time.

They say that he's their best fielding first baseman since John Olerud left in 2000, and that's good news for Met fans and Mets' pitchers. While the Mets' starting rotation has the potential to be outstanding, its bullpen is more reminiscent of what they had in New York in 1962. As a result, Mientkiewicz should take a page out of Olerud's book and wear a batting helmet (which Olerud needed for medical reasons) while playing first.

The whole episode also offers up an important lesson for current Red Sox players who want to remain in Boston -- it's okay to have your agent bug the living daylights out of management during contract negotiations, but mess with a principle (or ownership principal) about matters like the tools you need to play the game, and you'll be in for a world of hurt.

And out of town.

Red Sox management is very savvy, and these guys were the guys to break the curse. So, no doubt, they probably traded Mientkiewicz because they didn't need him anymore. They probably got the best deal from the Mets, but I'm sure if they could have they would have traded him to Tampa Bay or Kansas City, baseball's version of the gulag.

But not for the proverbial box of baseballs that those teams could only afford to offer.

Anything For A Buck

The NBA players who were on the U.S. men's hoops team that played in the qualifying rounds in the summer of 2003 to get the U.S. into the 2004 Olympics must have given NBA Commissioner David Stern and his marketing minions a great idea. You know the old adage, that some of the best discoveries happen by mistaken (e.g., Charles Firestone and vulcanized rubber for use to make car tires), and that's what could have happened here.

You might recall that the U.S. Olympians were playing some games in NYC during the blackout of 2003. So, what did they do to kill time? They repaired to the lobby of their hotel, where, apparently, a big-stakes card game ensued. Five figures were won and lost that day. By players who were the biggest names in the sport, more so than the group that played on the 2004 Olympic team.

Well, fast forward to today, when the NBA announced that it is going to license its logo for use on poker items, such as chips. I suppose that if they can't change the quality of their product, make the games better, make the season shorter, have fewer teams to avoid a serious dilution of talent and have fewer teams make the playoffs, at least they can come up with more creative ways to make money off the average fan. I am sure that if you hurry you can be among the first fans to get your own set of this stuff.

Will they stop at nothing? Have they no dignity?

Apparently not.

What will they think of next?

Because you can be sure they're working on it as you read this.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Why The Eagles Can Win the Super Bowl

Bush League thinks that the Eagles can win, and so do I.

Bush League touts four major reasons, and I won't repeat them here, but I will give you a few of mine.

1. I recall the mid-1980's, when a 19 year-old phenom (okay, he might have been 20) broke in with the New York Mets. The kid could really pitch; his name -- Dwight Gooden. All spring long the talk was how invincible Gooden was, until SF Giants OF Chili Davis came out with his much-quoted line, "He ain't God, man." Well, Gooden had one great 1986, for sure, but there were thsoe who could hit him, and various forms of kryptonite (some self-inflicted) wounded his career. The analogy isn't perfect, but the Patriots, while outstanding, are not invincible. You'll recall it took two very late field goals from the very clutch Adam Vinatieri to win both of their Super Bowls under Bill Belichick -- it wasn't as though the Patriots blew their opponents out of the stadium in either game. They are beatable. Just ask St. Louis and Carolina.

2. Bill Belichick is an excellent coach, but I would stack up Andy Reid and his coordinators (Brad Childress and Jim Johnson) against Belichick, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. Childress, like Weis and Crennel, will get the big job someday, and Johnson would have were he not in his 60's already. To use a golf analogy, New England is the leader in the clubhouse -- someone has to take the title away from them. But don't think that the coaching differential is that great.

3. The Eagles are a far better team than they were last year, even without Terrell Owens, Chad Lewis, Shawn Andrews, N.D. Kalu, Jon Ritchie and Correll Buckhalter, all of whom are on the injured list or out, and even without Duce Staley, Troy Vincent, Carlos Emmons and Bobby Taylor, all of whom are gone. You'll remember how all the pundits questioned how the Eagles could let Taylor and Vincent go (excuse me, Vincent and Taylor, as fans loved Vincent and tolerated Taylor). Well, Lito Sheppard is going to the Pro Bowl, and Sheldon Brown has played great. Remember, Brian Westbrook missed last year's NFC Championship game, and Donovan McNabb is a different player today. Also, in last year's NFC Championship game, the Eagles had only 5 healthy defensive linemen. This year, they have about 9, and one of them is Jevon Kearse. And, naturally, there is Jeremiah Trotter, who made the Pro Bowl even though he only started his first game 9 weeks into the season. That's not to say, of course, that the Patriots aren't one year better or formidable; they certainly are. But people have underestimated this Eagles team all year.

4. Relaxed. Did you notice the happiness but the calm of Donovan McNabb and Brian Dawkins after the Atlanta game? Yes, they were happy, but both said that they still have a job to do. And they weren't nervous about it; they looked like men with a purpose. Of course, you can counter that all New England does is go out there and take care of business, and their record proves that. But it may be that the biggest hurdle for this Eagles' team to win a Super Bowl was getting over the hump that was their conference's championship game. Time will tell.

The best teams in both conferences made it to the Super Bowl.

And both are good enough to win it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Next Vince Papale Story?

Most of you don't remember Vince Papale, and there really isn't any reason you should unless, of course, you were a Philadelphia Eagles' fan during the Dick Vermeil era. Papale was a back-up wide receiver, but his claim to fame was that he was a Philadelphia native who had played semi-pro ball (perhaps for the Frankford Yellow Jackets, who, a long time ago, were in the first tier of professional football), who didn't play football in college because his college (St. Joe's University) didn't have a football team, and who had worked construction for a time. He was the real Philadelphia guy, Rocky in a football uniform. He got more press than his play or playing time warranted, but he helped form the character of a gritty Super Bowl team.

The modern-day Papale for this Philadelphia Eagles team probably is Jeff Thomason. If you ask, "who on earth is Jeff Thomason?" and you are a diehard Eagles fan, you'd still have a point. After all, Thomason has been out of football for a few years, last playing with the Bengals (he played a few seasons with the Eagles; his last was in 2002). If you said, "hey, wait a minute, he's not even on the Eagles' roster," you'd still have a point, at least until now.

You'd be right if you said that during the Atlanta game the Eagles had three tight ends on the roster, Chad Lewis, L.J. Smith and Mike Bartrum, who is also the Birds' long-snapper. As you know, Lewis hurt his foot badly in the Falcons game, needs surgery and will miss the Super Bowl. The Eagles need a third tight end, and Andy Reid indicated yesterday that they were going to sign one.

Enter Jeff Thomason. His current job -- managing a construction site for Toll Brothers in New Jersey. Is he in shape? Read the article that I've linked to. Apparently he is.

For Thomason, this is a great story, and my guess is that at least internally Toll Brothers will milk this for all that it's worth, under the category, "See what our employees do with their leaves of absence?" In a sense, he's the latest Rocky, or, perhaps, just an unemployed football player who won the ultimate lottery -- getting a chance to go to the Super Bowl.

For many football players, the transition from professional football to the real working world is a difficult one. The problems of many former players have been well chronicled publicly, and when interviewed, almost all, if not all, former players say that they'd play again in a heartbeat if they could. How many of them watch the games on Sundays chomping at the bit to get out there, only to know that their age or health prevents them from doing so. How many would just love to play that one more game, make that one big hit, catch that one big pass?

Most of them, I think.

And now Jeff Thomason is carrying the flag for all of those former football players everywhere. The ex-player who gets that one more chance to shine, and, this time, on the ultimate stage.

He just has to be careful that he remains a good story. You'll recall several years ago, the Giants had a playoff against the 49ers, and their regular long-snapper was hurt. They signed 35 year-old Trey Junkin, the one-time TE out of Duke who had long-snapped for more than ten years in his career (but who had been out of football), and his bad long-snaps help cost the Giants the playoff game (it also didn't help that their defense suffered one of the all-time collapses in NFL history). Still, to this day, Trey Junkin will not be remembered for his long career, but for his problematic long snaps in a key game.

Andy Warhol spoke of people getting their fifteen minutes of fame. For Jeff Thomason, it will be about 15 days worth (and he won't be long-snapping, as Bartrum still holds that job).

Little did Jeff Thomason know that when he was watching the Eagles play the Falcons on TV on Sunday, that he would be flying with them two days later.

As the ultimate wingman.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Enjoying the Moment

I remember talking to my father about the end of the 1980 World Series. Game 6 took place in Philadelphia, and he had two tickets. I had three midterms the next day, and we both decided it would be better for me to stay at school in New Jersey than venture down to Vet Stadium for what proved to be one of the biggest days in Philadelphia sports history. (Historical note: I studied hard all day and then went back to my dorm room and watched Game 6, by myself, as my roommates were New Yorkers and the Philadelphia folks at my college were more a diaspora than a union -- but so much for studying that night!). Anyway, it all boiled down to Tug McGraw facing Willie Wilson in the top of the ninth, and, as everyone remembers, Wilson swung and missed for strike three, and the Phillies won the World Series. It was the first time the Phillies had won the World Series.

What I remember vividly about that was my dad's description of getting to the game and then what happened immediately after McGraw struck out Wilson. My father told me that when he got to the game, people had to pinch themselves, saying, "Hey, can this really be happening? After all, this is the World Series. What the heck are the Phillies doing here? Where are the Yankees and the Dodgers?" And then, at the end of the game, he told me that there was a pregnant pause, a caesura, right after McGraw struck out Wilson. The roar of the crowd wasn't absolutely immediate, there was a split-second pause, as if all Philadelphia fans had to register in their brains that this actually was happening, that the Phillies actually won the World Series. They still were haunted by the collapse of 1964, when the Phillies were 6 up with 12 to play and then the playoff fiasco against the Dodgers in 1977 in the NLCS. If you watch a video of that Series-winning strikeout, you'll see what my father meant.

It's against this backdrop, and many others in the other major local professional sports' teams history, that the Eagles' victory must be viewed, at least in the eyes of the Philadelphia sports fan. Nothing, seemingly, comes easily to Philadelphia, perhaps a legacy of being the birthplace of democracy and the at-times frustrating discussions that went along with it. During the time of the meetings regarding Independence, Ben Franklin said to his fellow patriots, "We must all hang together, for, if we do not, then surely we will all hang. Separately." That, too, perhaps, is the credo of the Philadelphia sports fan.

Many readers of this blog probably aren't Philadelphia sports fans. Most probably view Philadelphia as this huge city between New York and Washington which neither has the big money of Manhattan or the big power of the nation's capital to make the city that interesting. Of course, Philadelphia was where America all began, and if it weren't for a compromise between the northern and southern states well before the Civil War that took the nation's capital to the District of Columbia, that area would still be a swamp.

Philadelphia used to be called "The Workshop to the World," and in the late 1800's much of what was put to use in the U.S. had some origin in Philadelphia -- locomotives, ships, clothing, cigars, hats, furniture. Drive down Broad Street from the northern suburbs or Fifth Street from the same direction, take the Amtrak through the city or the commuter railroads from the north, and you'll see what I mean. Except today what you see is the paleontology, the fossils of old buildings that in prouder days actually made something. Ultimately, the industries fell victim to cheaper labor down South and then overseas (and to aggressive unionism and municipal taxation that didn't help matters that much either).

The shells of the buildings remain. Decaying, stripped of their metal, weeds overgrowing anywhere concrete or brick is not, windows gone or cracked, with only faded signs as the indicators that Phillies Cigars were once made in one of the buildings, or wool products, or shoes. Sad reminders of the swift evolution of the international consumer goods and the unfortunate lesson that it's perhaps incompatible for a society to require a decent standard of living for factory workers and have a plethora of factory jobs at the same time. No, those jobs are now in Asia and Latin America (where work-related laws are fewer and easier on the employer), with these dilapidated structures a reminder that the real estate and employment landscape do not change as quickly as the currents of the world economy.

In the 1950's, Philadelphia was still the men's clothing capital of the world, and there were 50,000 jobs in the men's clothing industry before overseas competition reduced that number to perhaps a couple thousand today. Back then, Stanley Blacker, Botany 500, Chips 'n Twigs, H. Freeman and Hickey Freeman (among others whose names I have forgotten) were made in Philadelphia. There were breweries, too, like Schmidt's and Ortlieb's, and while few mourn the loss of those brews, the companies behind them had lots of jobs. There were also national banks, and powerful ones at that -- First Pennsylvania, Philadelphia National Bank, Girard Bank, Central Penn National Bank, Continental Bank, PSFS, Industrial Valley Bank, Provident Bank -- and they also were an employer of choice. First Pennsylvania and PNB were among the ten largest banks in the country, and PSFS was the second largest savings society in the country after The Bowery in NYC.

Today, many of the clothiers are gone, and all of the banks are. Oh, there are successor banks, but none of them are headquartered in Philadelphia, and while there are jobs at some of the successors, there aren't nearly as many as there used to be. Philadelphia law firms remain on the national scene, but even they confess that the bulk of their business comes from outside the city, precisely because a city that boasted 2,000,000 residents in 1960 when the country's population might have been 150 million now boasts 1,500,000 residents in 2004 when the country's population is 280 million and counting. And about a third of those residents are at or below the poverty line. A city that once had 5 U.S. House seats now only has 2.

That's not to say, of course, that the city is on life support (although there is a nasty scandal enveloping City Hall now which could touch Mayor John Street but seems unlikely to at the moment), and that those who remain resemble the population of Detroit in the first Robocop movie or, better yet, the first Mad Max flick, but that's just not the case.

The city has had its down moments, to be sure, but it's blessed with a lot of great aspects. It is the city where America began, and it has a bunch of wonderful historical sights, including the new Constitution Center. It boasts many major universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, which was founded by the first American, Ben Franklin. It is a haven for college students, and it has Penn, Temple, Jefferson and Drexel medical schools. It once was said that 20% of the doctors in the U.S. came to Philadelphia for part of their training, and I think that's still true. It still hosts some major companies, such as Comcast, and it has absolutely gorgeous suburbs with affordable houses and outstanding school districts. It has the biggest intracity park in Fairmount Park, a great (read: safe and clean) Center City business district and some wonderful neighborhoods of its own right. Its Amtrak station is terrific, and its airport is excellent, notwithstanding the USAir baggage fiasco over Christmas which caught that wounded carrier flatfooted.

Sure, it has a tough reputation, but sometimes you can't always believe what you see in the national media. When I got married, friends from all over the country made their way to a beautiful part of central New Jersey. The beauty of the region (and they drove through Philadelphia suburbs as well) captivated them, and they asked an interesting question: "Why haven't they told us about this?" As if all of the beauty were a well-kept secret.

It's because nice stories and pretty scenery just don't always sell when, at the same time, politicians are inducing the hrowing snowballs at the Dallas Cowboys during a nationally televised game.

But, by and large, this is a region that gets bypassed because New York has the skyscrapers and the financial houses and because Washington has the Senators and Congressmen (not to mention the Nationals). New Yorkers would as much acknowledge Philadelphia as they would that the Boston Red Sox are a good baseball team, and Washingtonians probably would say "oh, that's nice" if you told them you were from Philadelphia but could otherwise care less. And, at some point, they'd probably ask if it was true that the fans booed Santa Claus or threw the snowballs I just referenced.

And the thing of it is that Philadelphians could care less what New Yorkers think. Sure, they'd acknowledge that New York is a nice place to visit, but they'd argue that Philadelphia is a nicer place to live. If jeered that the sidewalks of Philadelphia close up at half past eight on a week night, Philadelphians would respond that's because they don't live in undersized apartments which compel people to be on the street so that they don't hit their family members or roommates with crockery because of the enforced proximity that high real estate prices causes. They also don't care if the national media chides them or if rather ignorant sports talk show hosts in other cities criticize them, because, well, those talk show hosts are known to talk too much and knowing the facts is never a prerequisite to getting the job (even in Philadelphia). Moreover, those Philadelphia fans would say, "it's great that they say this on TV or the radio, but would they have the guts to come to Broad and Snyder, Cottman and Frankford and many neighborhoods in between to say that bad stuff?

Of course not.

This is a city that has taken its lumps. It's the only U.S. city ever to be bombed (albeit by its own police force in the misguided and tragic attempt to force a militant group out of their houses in West Philadelphia in 1985), it was at the heart of the Abscam bribery scandal that saw three members of the Philadelphia delegation to the U.S. Congress (all Congressmen) and one U.S. Senator (from NJ) lose their jobs, it's lost a ton of jobs, more so than perhaps any other region in the country, and it's seen many of its old institutions vanish. John Wanamaker's? Gone. Strawbridge & Clothier? Gone. Places your folks used to take you to -- many of them gone.

So what does the Eagles' victory over Atlanta and first trip to the Super Bowl in 24 years (and only second overall) mean to them?

They were outside at Cottman and Frankford last night until the wee hours, braving wind-chill factors that were about -10. They were outside at Broad and Snyder last night, doing the same thing. They wore their Eagles jerseys to work last week, and they wore them outside over four sweatshirts and long underwear yesterday afternoon. They talked to people who they hadn't seen for a while, talking about where they were in 1981 and what they've been up to since then. They've laughed with neighbors who they don't get to see often because they work different shifts or, because, well, people don't get to know their neighbors the way they used to -- everyone's too busy.

Go to the supermarket? Talk Eagles with the produce guy. Take the bus? Talk Eagles with th driver, talk Eagles with your teachers, your students, with the shoe shine guys. As Governor Ed Rendell said last night, the Eagles make everyone equals, because the executive and the shoeshine guy, when they're talking football, are equal -- as Eagles fans. Everywhere you look, they're talking Eagles.

Some would say that a city's pro sports teams are the opiate of the masses, that cities love to keep teams around because without them, cities won't have much of an identity or that the population won't have that many other constructive things to do. Others say that the teams are an important part of the cultural landscape, that they have their place the way the orchestra does, the way the jazz clubs do, the way the museums do. Today, though, is not the day to have that discussion.

Because, whatever you believe, in Philadelphia today there is a happiness that the region hasn't seen for quite a while. What the Philadelphia Eagles did yesterday was, at least for a while, to lift that fog that bad things will happen to the region as a matter of course. Had the Eagles lost, the rest of the country would have said, "what can you expect, it's a Philadelphia team, and they've gone the longest of any city with pro teams in baseball, basketball, football and hockey to win a title. They choked, just like they always do."

They would have painted the region as a loser once again.

But now they can't. Now, of course, that doesn't mean that the season is over, that either the Eagles or the fans will be content with a Super Bowl loss. If you listened yesterday to Donovan McNabb and Brian Dawkins after the game, while they were happy, they were reserved. Because they won't be happy until they win the ultimate game.

There is a great parallel between the Philadelphia Eagles and the City of Philadelphia and the surrounding region. All year long, everyone has underestimated the Eagles. They underestimated them because they lost 3 NFC title games in a row, the last two at home. They underestimated them because they let 2 veteran defensive backs go after last season, Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent. They wondered how the Eagles would replace those two. They underestimated them because they let Duce Staley go, and they wondered aloud whether the Eagles' defense could stop the run. Put simply, despite many improvements the Eagles made, the expectation was that somehow they were destined not to win the game yesterday.

The region too gets underestimated, precisely because it's not New York and it's not Washington and it's not Boston. And, anyone who says that, is right. But what the place is is Philadelphia, a place with outstanding opportunities, a place that affords someone a reasonable commute and close proximity to mountains, beach and country. A place where you get to know your neighbors, a place where 80% of the people are from the region, a place with outstanding culture. Yet, people forget about it. Because it's not Boston, New York or Washington.

Going into the Super Bowl, the Eagles are 6-point underdogs, and that's about right. After all, New England has won 2 out of the last 3 Super Bowls, Bill Belichick is the best coach since Vince Lombardi, his two coordinators will have plum jobs after the season (Charlie Weis at Notre Dame and Romeo Crennel most likely in Cleveland), and their QB has ice water in his veins. Read all that, and you're surprised it's only a 6-point spread.

Once again, Boston is compared favorably to Philadelphia, with the city's epitaph, one of being underestimated, at the forefront again.

And this year the underestimators have been wrong.

Every time.

Let the underestimators beware!

And let all the Eagles' fans enjoy a "snow" day today, hang out, finish off their leftovers, have a few beers at noon, sing "Fly Eagles Fly" at their local bar, on the shop floor, at the job site, at the water cooler, anywhere they deem suitable. Because those fans stayed with this team when it was plum awful, when it was perpetually 10-6 with a so-so offense, when it made huge gaffes in the draft. They wore their jerseys, bought their tickets and showed up every week.

Enjoy the moment, guys, because you, too, deserve it.

As underestimated as you are.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Basketball Statistics (Are Fun)

Some of my fellow bloggers have picked up on Ken Pomeroy's outstanding blog, which focuses on college basketball stats, and I recommend that you take a look at it. I'm especially interested in today's topic, which is turnover efficiency. Basically, teams that rate the highest in this category turn the ball over the least per possession. And what you'll find is always worthy of discussion.

But I don't think it tells the entire story. Sure, it's an interesting stat, and perhaps a helpful one, but I think the following stat would be a better measure of a team's success -- turnover per possession differential. Because I would venture to guess that the most successful teams in the country have the biggest differential (i.e., Duke turns the ball over x times per possession less than its average opponent). After all, if you examine Ken Pomeroy's numbers for turnover efficiency, some of the teams at the top (Drexel, IUPUI) aren't exactly higher-echelon teams. I wonder which teams would rank at the top if you measured the differential.

Why? Because a high-octane team might turn the ball over more per possession than a low-octane team, but if that high-octane team plays a stifling defense, then it also will force more turnovers per possession and therefore make the other team's turnover efficiency a whole lot worse (whereas the low-octane team might not force as many turnovers because it plays a ball-control offense). As John Wooden once was quoted as saying (it's in the blue book about him), "The team that wins will actually make more mistakes"). I think that measuring turnover efficiency differential might help prove what Coach Wooden was talking about.

I'm glad that Ken Pomeroy is on the scene proposing useful metrics about measuring college basketball performance, and I hope he keeps on coming up with his yardsticks. It's all good stuff.

As for my metrics, when I look at college basketball results, before looking at the score, I always look at the assists total. To me, this is a measure of how fluid a team was on offense and how well it spread the ball. I find that much more often than not, the team with the higher assists total wins. When that team doesn't win, it's because it turned the ball over a lot, got killed on the boards or just shot terribly. Usually, though, a team with more assists wins the game because it did move the ball better, which also could mean that the other team didn't defend better, which also could mean that the team with more assists shot better precisely because they got their teammates more and better open looks. Okay, so this isn't the most eloquent discourse, but I do wonder what the bloggers out there who focus on this type of stuff would think of the hypothesis.

At any rate, check out Ken Pomeroy. And remember, according to this blogger, you win by spacing the ball well on offense, shooting at least 35% from behind the arc, not getting killed on the boards and playing good defense. Is that enough?

Depends on your team, depends on the opponent.

Which is why, at the end of the day, the games have so much meaning.

Discussing the numbers is great, but they don't do you much good while you're team is involved in a barn-burner against a conference opponent.

That said, Ken Pomeroy helps us understand the pathology of the game a whole lot better.

That Freight Train You Hear in the Distance

is the Villanova Wildcats.

Just click here if you don't believe me. Kansas 62, Villanova 83.

Yes, you read that right. One of the four remaining undefeated teams, the #2 team in the country, gets blown out.

By a slugging giant-killer that is well on its way into growing into what everyone expected it to become.

A marquis slugger itself.

I've blogged about them before, and I've wondered whether they've been a team whose sum is actually less than the individuals whom Coach Jay Wright recruited to help them return to their glory days. 'Nova fans and Big 5 watchers have speculated openly on Wright's fate, too, and to Villanova's credit, the players and the coach have weathered withering criticism well.

And through all of it, they have persevered, endured injuries to their heralded big man (who is out for another 3 weeks), and grown from their shared struggles (including an embarrassing phone credit card scandal last season).

Someone wrote that character is fate.

The Villanova Wildcats have showed a tremendous amount of character in the past few weeks.

If the type of display they put on yesterday is any indication, both they and their coach will have a very fine fate.

It's called a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

And, with their great compliment of guards, they will make noise in March.

Philadelphia got hit with a huge snowstorm yesterday, and area sports fans have at least one beacon emerging from the foot to foot and a half of powder that got dumped on the area yesterday.

The Villanova Wildcats.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

I Am A Philadelphia Eagles Fan

And proud of it.

We're all products of our hometowns, and there's no telling a little kid in suburban Tampa Bay that his Devil Rays stink if he loves baseball and he goes to games with his parents and brothers and sisters. The D-Rays, to that kid, are it, the center of a young baseball fan's universe. That's just the way life is, and it's especially enriching for those of us who live in the present and try to make the most out of what is in front of us.

I grew up an Eagles' fan and heard my father's stories of the famous 1960 NFL Championship Game, in which the Eagles beat Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers 17-13 at Penn's Franklin Field. All of us local kids heard the stories year after year as to how the Packers were driving in the waning minutes, and then Packer running back Jim Taylor had the ball near the middle of the field. At which point Eagles' LB Chuck Bednarik, a two-way player, tackled Taylor and refused to get off him. The clock ran out, the Eagles' had their title. Norm Van Brocklin, "The Dutchman" was their QB, Tommy McDonald their star WR, and the team was the toast of the town.

And then they fell plum off the table. They had a promising young QB named Sonny Jurgensen and inexplicably traded him to Washington. They guys named King Hill and Norm Snead tried to call the signals, and the team was terrible. They continued to pack Franklin Field, and they continued to lose. My father shared tickets with some friends, and on seven Sundays during the season he would drive down to Center City Philadelphia, park in the western part of Center City, and walk across the South Street Bridge to the stadium. Every time he came home, he brought me a different NFL team pennant. They cost him a quarter, and then we put all the pennants he bought me during the season on my wall in a wheel. I always looked forward to his coming home from those games, and one week, I remember, he brought me a bobble-head doll. That was really cool.

He also took me to a game there every now and then, and if you've read this blog you'll remember my recollections of the haunting chants of the fans, urging the ownership to fire one-time head coach Joe Kuharich. "Joe Must Go", they chanted in unison, the voices of 70,000 fans strong resonating throughout Franklin Field. "Joe Must Go." I believe at one point an old bi-plane flew over the place, pulling one of those advertisements that we used to see fly over the beach at the Jersey Shore during the summer time. It, too, beckoned "Joe Must Go." The team wasn't any good, although offensive tackle Bob Brown was a future Hall of Famer, and WRs Harold Jackson and Ben Hawkins seemed like they could play.

After Franklin Field, the team moved to Vet Stadium in 1970 or so. A cavalcade of bad coaches and mediocre quarterbacks littered the Philadelphia landscape. Remember John Reaves, a one-time star QB at Florida? Pete Liske? Rick Arrington (whose claim to fame is his daughter, Jill, the TV sports reporter)? Roman Gabriel? Mike McCormack? Ed Khyat? Marion Campbell? Jerry Williams?

It was all so painful. They just never had enough players, and they had some memorable ones to boot. Sometimes the signature of frustrated franchises are the characters that fill the ranks, and the Birds had those. Those of us who rooted hard for the hometown Birds will never forget linebacker Tim Rossovich, who was featured in Sports Illustrated as a guy who ate glass and would set himself on fire. There was had-as-nails FS Bill Bradley and defensive end Joe "Turkey" Jones, who played left end and used to swirl his right end around in a windmill fashion to time the center snap. That unique brand of timing management didn't prevent the DE from jumping offsides more frequently than most other players.

And then, of course, there was a guy who played right tackle. He wore #64, and his name was Ed George.

Ed George happened upon the Eagles right at the time when the league starting having officials announce which player committed an infraction. And those of us who watched the games will never forget the resonating voices of the officials bellow, "Holding, #64, Ed George." Many people won't remember much from those days, but they'll all remember that. I wonder where Ed George is today and what he thinks of the modern holding rules. He probably thinks he was before his time.

Then the Eagles got a lucky break. In the late 1970's they were looking for a head coach, and about a half a dozen candidates turned down owner Leonard Tose's overtures to coach the Birds. They ended up hiring a fiery young coach who had just led UCLA to a Rose Bowl victory. A guy named Dick Vermeil.

A few years later, they were in the Super Bowl. They had an offensive line of Stan Walters, Petey Perot, Guy Morris, Woody Peoples and Jerry Sisemore, an all-pro TE in Keith Krepfle, an all-pro RB in Wilbert Montgomery, and a solid receiving corps led by Harold Carmichael. Their QB was the sometimes-maligned Ron Jaworski, about whom it was once written that he could throw the ball through a car wash and it wouldn't get wet. That season, Jaws, as he was called, won the conference's MVP. The defense was also impressive, too, and their leader was their middle linebacker, Bill Bergey.

You'll remember that the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins were excellent teams around then. The Cowboys, coached by Tom Landry, always seemed to be near the Super Bowl, but that year the Eagles took it to 'em. The Birds made the playoffs, and I went to their first game, a frigid affair at Vet Stadium where they beat the Minnesota Vikings. I think that my hands and right foot have yet to recover from that day, when it was something like 20 degrees outside with a wind-chill factor below zero. I wore every piece of winter clothing that I owned. I wore long underwear, two pairs of socks, a turtleneck over the long underwear, a heavy wool sweater over the turtleneck, a windbreaker over that and then my winter coat on top of that. I wore my heavy winter boots, two pairs of gloves, a scarf for my neck and one for my face and a heavy wool hat. The only thing that we neglected to bring was the Sunday paper, half of which would have insulated my feet from the frozen concrete beneath them and half of which would have insulated my rear end from the cold hard plastic on which it rested.

And it was still too cold. But the Eagles won that game, and that set them up for a showdown at Vet Stadium the week after. We didn't have tickets for that game, and the weather was just as frigid, but somehow, some way, this improbable Super Bowl team beat their nemesis and ended up in the Super Bowl.

As a favorite against Al Davis' Raiders, the first wild-card team to make it to the title game.

Unfortunately, the Eagles played tight, Jaws threw three interceptions to Rod Martin, and the Raiders won the game.

The Eagles haven't returned to the Super Bowl since. Vermeil ultimately burned out, and Leonard Tose ultimately ran out of money and sold the team to Jeffrey Lurie. Buddy Ryan came to town and strutted, and while his defenses were some of the best I've ever seen -- a defensive line of Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Mike Golic and Clyde Simmons rates as one of the best I've ever watched -- Buddy never mastered offensive football. While it's true that defenses win championship games, you need an offense to put points on the board. Buddy never got that, and, ultimately he was canned. Somehow, when people think of Buddy's teams, they happily remember some of those great linemen and LB Seth Joyner and DBs Wes Hopkins and Andre Waters. Few want to remember the very talented but enigmatic Randall Cunningham, a very able QB who never got a ton of respect in the locker room, and who didn't seem to have the leadership ability necessary to take a team to the Super Bowl. He also didn't have the line or the skill position players he needed, either. People forget that, too.

Ryan's offensive coordinator, Rich Kotite, replaced him, and people forget that Kotite got off to an excellent start. He was an anti-Buddy, self-effacing, not too confident in front of the camera, but the team played for him for a while. But then there was a public brouhaha with Lurie about whether he'd get a contract extension, and it seemed like the team stopped playing after that. Perhaps they thought that whatever they did wouldn't make a difference for their coach, or perhaps their coach began to think that. Ultimately, Rich Kotite ran out of gas.

And before everyone colors their memory of Lurie into a brilliant owner (and, he is a good owner), people must remember that Eagles' fans were mistrustful of him for his first three years in town. Why? Because Lurie had lived for a while in Los Angeles, and the rumor was that he would look to move the team to L.A. at the first opportunity.

Enter Ray Rhodes. The interesting thing about the Rhodes hiring was not so much that the Eagles hired a talented defensive coach who had earned his stripes in San Francisco and Green Bay, but that upon jettisoning Kotite Jets' owner Leon Hess thought he had found the answer to his franchises woes. Philadelphia fans were agape; after all, Kotite had proven only that he wasn't a very good coach after getting a decent chance from Lurie to prove otherwise. The Jets' loss was the Eagles' gain.

For a while, Rhodes made a difference. But his fire-and-brimstone, hard-hitting defensive approach wore out after about one year, he began to play favorites, and the team continued to suffer on the offensive side of the ball. Rhodes' biggest gaffe, one of the biggest of recent Eagles' memory, was to trade two first-round picks for the #7 pick in one year's draft, all so he could grab that year's combine workout wonder, a tweener DE/LB from Boston College named Mike Mamula. Remember him? Remember him positively? As Mamula went, ultimately, so did Ray Rhodes.

The two will be forever linked in Eagles' history. The Eagles' fans don't remember all of the good Ray Rhodes did (and he did a lot), just that he traded up to draft Mike Mamula and then stuck with him way too long.

And now there's Andy Reid, and Andy Reid has done a first-rate job. His an expert on offense, but he made a brilliant move when he arrived in Philadelphia, hiring then Seattle LB coach Jim Johnson as his defensive coordinator. Now, Bud Carson had been in town before Johnson, and he is one of the brightest defensive coordinators of all time. To show you how highly Jim Johnson is thought of, Philadelphia fans hardly breathe Bud Carson's name. And they don't really talk about Buddy that much anymore either.

So what's the point of all of this? I suppose it's that there is a diehard core of very loyal fans in the Delaware Valley who are just aching for a Super Bowl appearance, let alone a Super Bowl victory. Yes, they yell their team's cheer loudly, and, yes, they sing "Fly Eagles Fly" at every opportunity, and, yes, some of them are very loud. Some of those folks are obnoxious, and some of them can be profane.

But at the heart of the matter is that people are rooting for the team that their grandfathers and fathers rooted for. They have endured years and years of disappointing teams, lots of talk and not much to show for it. They have watched games in blistering heat and sub-freezing temperatures, in driving rain storms and in snow storms as well. They have listened to babbling coaches not capable of explaining anything, and they witnessed the public demise of the owner who brought their last Super Bowl team. They have trekked to a stadium where there is no parking (Franklin Field) and to one without much charm or intimacy (the Vet) -- one that was falling apart for the last ten years of its existence.

Now they have a relative palce in which to watch their games, and they have a resilient team that has accomplished a lot but that, like its predecessors, is in danger of being remembered not for all that it has done (getting to four straight NFC Championship Games) but for what it has not done (get to the Super Bowl).

They drive from far distances. They take the Broad Street Subway, they come from Delaware, Central and South Jersey, from the four counties surrounding the city (the counties that were supposed to decide the past presidential election), and from places as far away as Wilkes-Barre, Hazelton, York and Harrisburg. Some park outside the stadium like they do everywhere else and tailgate, and others have their game-day ritual of stopping at their favorite hoagie shop (that's a submarine sandwich place for the uninitiated) and picking up their hoagies and their steak sandwiches and funneling into The Linc.

They talk football all the time, and they do know their stuff. And now it's all come together for them. They still are enjoying their relatively new stadium, their coach is at the pinnacle, and their team is sending 9 players to the Pro Bowl. They survived what were supposed to be huge losses in their secondary and have three defensive backs going to the Pro Bowl and a fourth named to the all-SI team. Their MLB started 5 games and made the Pro Bowl, and their starting QB, while not getting the publicity of many other QBs, is one of the best around. Their defense is healthy this year (much healthier than for last year's title game against Carolina), and they have Brian Westbrook playing in this game.

This is the moment that Eagles' fans have been waiting for for the past 364 days. Their emotions are on their sleeves, and their faces show the duality of hope for getting to the next level and the fear that results from prior disappointments. This is a group, for all of their faults, deserves to get rewarded for their historic loyalty to a flawed franchise.

And it says here that they'll get that reward, massive snow storm and all.

Call it Eagles 24, Falcons 19.

And, if that happens, rather than be a (somewhat) objective observer of the sporting scene, I will be standing there with my family, chanting E-A-G-L-E-S and sharing in a unique form of glee -- the happiness that will result from a great accomplishment, and the relief that the Eagles didn't lose their fourth NFC title game in a row.

Fly, Eagles, fly.

Indeed.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Midnight Trucks Are Next

Baltimoreans will never forgive the Irsay family.

Ever.

The Irsay family loaded up the trucks in the middle of the night and moved to Indianapolis after the latter city offered the Irsay family a good deal to move a bellwether NFL franchise to the Midwest. Goodbye memories, goodbye Colts. Imagine Pittsbugh without the Steelers, Dallas without the Cowboys. That's what Baltimore is like without the Colts. Sure, the Ravens are there now, and, yes, they did win a Super Bowl, but ask an old Colts fan, and it isn't the same.

It's hard to be that critical of the Irsays, truth be told, because moving was their right. How they moved, on the other hand, left something to be desired.

Hard to be that sympathetic with Baltimore, either, because when the then-owner of the Cleveland Browns, Art Modell, wanted a good stadium deal of his own, the town fathers of Baltimore gave him the deal to end all deals, making the Irsays look like they sold out for a minor-league arrangement. So, while Baltimoreans hate the Irsays and scorn the Colts, their city essentially did the same thing to Cleveland. And they gave Modell an obscene deal to boot. I don't have the precise dates, but these moves are part of the more recent lore in NFL history.

And they might continue.

They might continue because the Indianapolis town fathers have guts. Sure, they'd like to keep their Colts, for the simple reason that the team is good and for the political reason that no one wants to have as his legacy that he let the beloved football team leave town. But, they won't just do anything to keep the NFL team in town.

Which means no downtown slot machines and no gambling taxes to help fund a palace that will cost somewhere between $500-$700 million. That would have required a lot of pulls of the one-armed bandits, a lot of carpel-tunnel issues, and a lot of seniors betting much more than they can afford.

Which just isn't right. Gambling just cannot be the solution to revenue shortages. The politicians in Indy know that, and for that they are to be commended. They are taking a stand, a stand which might cost them money, and a stand which might cost them their NFL team. They are making a major show of character where many other politicians would not have.

So now the Irsay family has to figure out what to do next. Jimmy Irsay is probably looking into long-haul trucking contracts and a CB radio as we speak. He's probably looking to get the convoy together and move the team to Los Angeles, which hasn't an NFL team since the Raiders left (and, no, USC is not a professional football team). (Actually, he should get L.A. in a bidding war with Anaheim, given that those two are involved in a Texas Death Match over rights to the name Los Angeles).

Or, if the Colts really want their stadium to be funded by slot machine taxes, they should move to Las Vegas, where, the last time I checked, there were plenty of them there.

The town fathers of Indianapolis have made a tough call, but they have their priorities straight. Should this drama play out and the Colts bolt somewhere else, you'll now have the citizenry of two major cities loathing a single football franchise.

And that has to be some sort of record in and of itself.

Then again, politics is, after all, the art of the compromise. Perhaps the Irsay family can make one last pitch to the Indianapolis crew, which is that they'll promise to pay for a championship defense if they get their stadium. That, at least, would be fair. But given the way the Colts are managing their salary cap, with huge contracts for both Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, don't bet on it.

Thankfully for the citizens of Indianapolis, their elected officials are much more careful with their checkbook than the Colts are with theirs.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

I Think I Can, I Think I Can

I suppose that if you keep telling yourself something, you might be able to believe it. The real question is whether anyone else will believe it.

At the high end of the food chain in college athletics, you'll associate the Duke Blue Devils with excellence in college basketball and the USC Trojans with the same in college football. There are many upper echelon teams, and then there are those teams that make you wonder why they're still having at it.

Such as Temple University football, a program that cannot draw fans in Philadelphia, a program that has not had a winning season in ten years, a program that is a perpetual money loser.

At the end of last season, the team was at its nadir. Kicked out of the Big East, having suffered yet another losing record, they also lost three players who declared early for the NFL Draft. On the one hand, you can't blame those kids. They want to move on to the next level, and they aren't winning in Philadelphia. On the other hand, if the Owls had three players who are draft-worthy, they probably wouldn't be as bad as they were. Which means, on balance, that these particular kids could be part of the source of the problem for Temple -- they think they're better than they are. One, LB Rian Wallace, is a bona fide prospect, but it's hard to say whether the other two are.

Why? Because while Temple is a Division I-A football team in one of the top 7 media markets in the country, they are not the most popular I-A football team in their city. No, despite the fact that Temple is located in Philadelphia, Penn State, located four hours away in central Pennsylvania, draws more press. Even if they have been in a tail spin that rivals that of the Washington Nationals. As a result, the Temple team gets very little coverage, and you also could argue that Division I-AA stalwarts Villanova and Pennsylvania draw more fans.

So what is Temple going to do? One might have thought that after years of futility, the school that brought you Joe Klecko would have folded up the tent, saved the money it was spending on football and plowed it into other meaningful ventures. No one would have blamed them. Nope, they didn't do that. They also could have dropped down to I-AA, but then they probably wouldn't have had any chance to draw fans. And, running a I-AA program doesn't really save a school money (which is why few schools drop down a level). So, they're not doing that either.

Nope, they're staying at it. They'll be independent next year, and then perhaps they'll try to join the conference that gave us Byron Leftwich, Chad Pennington and Ben Roethlisberger -- the Mid-American Conference -- the year after. Imagine the excitement, the potential to see such natural rivalries as Temple-Toledo, Temple-Akron and Temple-Marshall. Compelling rivalries, all. I am sure that most Philadelphians will be lining up to buy tickets to those games. Heck, they wouldn't be lining up to go to those games if the Eagles were 0-16 four years in a row. For whatever reason, some force of nature keeps the fans away.

Which, to a degree, is a shame. My father played football for Temple after the Second World War, and he was a big HS kid on the same team with a bunch of hardened WWII vets, and despite the influx of talent the team was only fair. When I was a kid, he took me to games at Temple's small stadium in one of Philadelphia's neighborhoods. They had some good players, played the equivalent of a I-AA schedule, and had their moments when George Makris retired and Temple brought in Wayne Hardin to coach the team. The Wayne Hardin who coached Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino at Navy and then moved to the University of the Pacific before coming back east to Philadelphia. Great innovator. Unbelievable game coach; one of the best I ever saw.

And then everything changed. Temple improved its schedule, had a Maxwell Award winner in 1973 in Steve Joachim (as well as a TE named Randy Grossman, who won about four Super Bowl rings playing for the Steelers) and played with some of the big boys of the East -- Boston College, West Virginia and Penn State -- and won their fair share. The Owls had their moments against Penn State, too, losing close games in the 1970's that basically confirmed that Temple was destined to be a Charlie Brown of college football. True, Wayne Hardin outcoached Joe Paterno, but Penn State won the games, and that's what mattered. Ultimately, the rivalry fizzled.

And so did Temple football. Wayne Hardin retired, and he had no heir. Temple needed an innovative coach, and they got Bruce Arians, a Bear Bryant assistant at Alabama who was from the Philadelphia area. Arians was not ready to be a head coach, and he flopped (he ultimately landed in the NFL as an assistant, and he was Peyton Manning's QB coach when the QB broke into the NFL), and then Jerry Berndt got the job. Berndt excelled at DePauw and then Penn, where he turned around a dead program and created a killer football spirit that remains to this day. Berndt had returned to Philadelphia from Rice, where he had failed, and he couldn't get it going at Temple either. After Berndt there was Ron Dickerson, a former Paterno assistant, and his teams had few memorable moments. Now there's Bobby Wallace, who had success at I-AA North Alabama.

Unfortunately, Wallace has been unable to replicate that success in Philadelphia. He's had some moments, but the program is your same old Temple Owls. A program that has no tradition, a program that has so-so facilities, a program at a commuter school in a town that is mad for professional football.

It pains me to write this, but I actually think that Temple University should drop football, period. They've tried and tried to get something going, but they just haven't been able to achieve even a small measure of success. They are a school in the middle of a ghetto, and I can only imagine how much good the $3 million plus that the school spends on its football program could do.

It pains me to write this because Temple football is a rich part of my past. My father took me to Temple games from the time I was five or so. He and a friend were members of the Varsity Club, and because they were they got good seats, so we always sat close to the fifty yard-line. And, yes, people did go to small Temple Stadium then, if for no other reason than there weren't tons of entertainment options, the kids who played were local kids from the area, and the football was pretty good. I learned football at my father's side, I talked football with my father, I got a program or a pennant at a games, ate soft pretzels, ate peanuts, and generally had a good time. As the winter months grew closer, we bundled up in sweatshirts, wool hats, scarves and gloves, and we would go week after week.

Back then our society wasn't the event-obsessed society it is now. We went to the games because they presented experiences we could share, and it was a fun thing for fathers and sons to do. Today I realize that the quality of the football was above average, but boy you couldn't tell me that then. You see, I was going to games with my dad. And my dad worked hard during the week, so this was time for me to spend with him and him alone. And a lot of it was about me. Sure, he would talk with his friends, but he would also share his knowledge with me. Afterwards, on the way home, we would go over the games, what went right and what went wrong, and you would have thought we were prognosticators on the cable TV shows of today.

The Owls were our team. Sure, they weren't Darryl Royal's Texas Longhorns, Ara Parseighan's Notre Dame Fighting Irish or John McKay's USC Trojans. They weren't going to challenge for a national championship, and the best kids from the area went to State College to play for Penn State. They didn't stay home and go to Temple, and no one expected them to. But the Owls were what we had. Penn State meant little to us; no one in the family went there, so the lure of Happy Valley and the Kool-Aid of Joe Paterno had little appeal.

I shared a lot of experiences with my father, and many of them are gone. Temple Stadium was torn down years ago. Connie Mack Stadium, where the Phillies' once played, was taken out of commission in the early 1970's and subsequently burned down. A church stands where some awful Phillies teams used to play. Veterans Stadium, where my dad attended Game 6 of the 1980 Series, when Tug McGraw whiffed Willie Wilson to clinch the Series, was torn down a few years ago, giving way to new stadiums. His business died shortly after he did. Some of the restaurants we used to go to in Philadelphia when we both worked there are out, like Eddie's, a place not far from City Hall where the proprietor used to say to a crowded table, "What's the matter, gentlemen, don't you have a conference room in your office?" The ChockFull o' Nuts that served up a mean sugar donut, and the coffee room at the Bellevue-Stratford, a happening spot in its day. All gone.

And now another institution for me, a pillar of my childhood experiences with my father, is on the precipice. And, as much as I would like to see it remain for parochial reasons (although I confess I haven't gone to a game in years), as a reminder of happy times, I think that it's time for everyone to let this sport go at this school. I wish my dad were here for many reasons, of course, and I don't know at all what he would say about this situation.

But as much as he loved his football, he appreciated education even more. And I think that after witnessing the futility of the past 15 years, he would agree with what I'm saying. Spend the money on something else.

That is, if I would have been able to pull him away from leading my five year-old boy in the Philadelphia Eagles' cheer.

Many administrators, many coaches, two University presidents and many University trustees have tried to save Temple football. All have tried hard and admirably to do so. Those who are Temple football fans should be grateful for that, because they got many more years out of this program than they were entitled to.

But it's time to let go.

Turning Temple into a I-A power just will not happen.

And that's okay. No, it really is.

But failing to realize this cold fact isn't.

Not anymore.

I'll keep my memories of course. I'll just have to create different reminders.

The Most Compelling Sports Story in L.A.

Now that the USC Trojans have won their second national championship in football in a row, L.A. is a pretty dull sports town. UCLA basketball, you say? Well, the Bruins' hoops dynasties under John Wooden are a long time gone. USC hoops? Kind of like playing team handball in Manhattan. The Lakers? Shaq, you recall, was traded in the off-season, the team has four small forwards, and their two guard, a guy named Kobe, hurt his ankle. The Clippers? Outside of the fact that Billy Crystal has discovered them and two Dookies are starring for them, they still haven't been able to get over the hump. Baseball season is still far enough away, and there is no ice hockey.

So what's left? Outside of trying to solve the burglaries that have plagued Bel Air, Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades (you can read about this saga in Vanity Fair), there aren't many spectator sports.

Except, perhaps, this one.

Not, exactly, reminiscent of the great rivalries in sports history. No showdowns between the Larry Bird Celtics and the Magic Johnson Lakers. No Joe Morgan hitting a home run on the last weekend of the season at Candlestick to deprive the Dodgers of a playoff spot. No Vince Ferragamo trying to quarterback the Rams over the Steelers in the Super Bowl.

None of that. After all, why play something on a field or a rink or on a court when you can go a few rounds in court?

About a name, no less.

The irony, to me, is that the team behind the Orange Curtain in the now hot O.C. is trying to claim the name of the big city to the north, a city that most Orange County residents would prefer not to have much to do with. After all, that's why they moved to behind the Orange Curtain in the first place. And the city to the north, for its part, rather than see it sphere of influence expand, doesn't think it's fair that the county to the south wants to claim its name.

Great legal battle?

Hardly.

Slow sports time?

Probably.

Memo to the Angels and the Dodgers: Get to the playoffs, then pop off.

Because most people really don't care about where you're from.

They only care whether you can play.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

No, He Isn't

Is he?

Worth it, that is?

Who? Worth what?

Roger Clemens. Is he worth $22 million for this season?

It's a pretty funny request from someone who last year inked a one-year deal with the Astros for the love of the game because he wanted to pitch alongside his good friend Andy Pettite and near his wife and kids. At a below-market rate. After his farewell tour with the New York Yankees.

So, after un-retiring, pitching a season worthy of a seventh Cy Young Award (although Randy Johnson would have received my vote), and then saying that he wasn't sure he wanted to pitch this season, Roger Clemens put a price on this season.

$22 million.

He said in an interview that was re-run about a week ago that physically he still felt capable but mentally it was harder and harder to get ready to pitch, presumably because he has done it for so long and because he wants to spend more time with his family. The latter reason, by the way, is not a trumped up reason, either. I read a good biography of former Tigers third baseman George Kell, a Hall of Famer, who retired at the age of 32 or thereabouts. The reason? He got tired of the separation from his family (ironically, Kell became a broadcaster, and that job created even more time away from his family). Others have retired for the same reason.

So the love of the game and his best friend in pitching has a price, and Roger Clemens wants the ultimate payday if he is to don an Astro uniform this season.

The Astros response?

They offered $13.5 million.

Are they being cheap?

On the one hand they offered a below-market price to a legend, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, a guy who should put people in the park. In droves.

On the other hand, they offered an above-market price to a 42 year-old pitcher, where common sense dictates that you cannot offer too much money, to a pitcher whose heart really isn't into it given his comments. And, come July, when the Astros are trailing the Cardinals and perhaps the Cubs, his heart really won't be into it. Because he's been there and done that, and he has no more mountains to conquer.

So, the question that everyone is asking is whether Roger Clemens is worth $22 million, and the answer here is no.

A-Rod wasn't worth it, and that contract became an albatross around his neck that still haunts his legend just a little bit. Carlos Beltran, the next Willie Mays, didn't get it, and neither did Randy Johnson. Perhaps there's some kid playing Little League ball in El Cerrito, San Ramon, Hialeah or Pascagoula who someday will get it, but not even the might Roger Clemens is worth this type of haul.

Even for one final season.

When Roger Clemens signed with the Astros last year, it was a great story. A story about coming home, a story about pitching near family and friends, and a story about pitching with his best friend and becoming teammates with some classy veterans named Biggio and Bagwell.

And when he won the Cy Young Award that great story became a magical one, the type written about in the Greek myths, the type little kids fantasize about when they're throwing a baseball against a brick wall to strengthen their arms and work on their quickness, when they're sitting in the dugout on a warm spring day wondering what type of ballplayer they'll become.

But when he asked for the $22 million, Roger Clemens stepped over the line, at least in the minds of some fans. I, for one, take no offense, as I'm from the "if you don't ask for it, you won't get it school." But others will quickly forget the warm stories that flooded the newspapers last year about Roger Clemens, and they'll simply add this episode to their laundry list of grievances about what's wrong with baseball and the other major sports these days.

Is $13.5 million simply not enough to feed Roger Clemens' family?

Or is it the principle of the competitive athlete, that if you want my outstanding services you have to pay the best market price out there?

Or is it simply a hold up for a team that needs this marquis player to drive sales?

Listen to the "Shoeless Joe" types of voices out there, Roger.

And say it ain't so.

Monday, January 17, 2005

And the Next Mailbag Will Be About. . .

I confess that I read espn.com more than I read usatoday.com more than I read cnnsi.com, but since I consider the SI piece to be perhaps The New Yorker or sports journalism, I peer into the cnnsi.com website every now and then. While it's written more in a style that would befit The Kiplinger Washington Letter than, say, The New Yorker, there are interesting tidbits that you can glean from the contests of this particular website.

Even if you don't read any articles in full.

Because I just happened upon this, and I thought it was worthy of mention.

But not for what it says.

For what it is.

Because I'd love it if some of these high-powered sports websites would share with us their counter statistics as to how many people want to know what is going on at the Australian Open. I mean, I envy L. Jon Wertheim's gig, getting to go eat some shrimp from the barbie and quaff some Foster's while the rest of us in SI's greater geographical area are enduring zero-degree wind-chill factors. Great work, if you can get it.

If anyone from SI is out there and wants to offer me a mailbag gig, please e-mail me at sportsprof@comcast.net. Especially if I get to follow the sun as the seasons change around the globe.

But is anyone reading this stuff? Quick, name the top 5 American male tennis players? The top 5 women?

You can't do it unless a) you're employed by the tennis tour, b) you're related to one of the players on tour, c) you're a tennis beat writer or d) you're someone who plays tennis at elite clubs and can hold a mean conversation about who could be the next Andy Roddick and why Vince Spadea never emerged as a top-tier player.

In other words, not many people. Which makes SI's quest to cover all of the seemingly major sports admirable, but my guess is that they'd get better attention if they covered NASCAR in more detail, if they happened to give more coverage to European basketball, bass fishermen or cricket.

Okay, so cricket's a stretch unless they started a version of SI for residents of the former British Empire, and unless they wanted to run features of Brian Lara, Courtly Ambrose, Jimmy Adams and the rest of the West Indies team in their publication. But I would argue that covering great fresh water fishing spots and European basketball would draw more interested readers.

But tennis?

Tennis, anyone?

Anyone out there?

So Why Play 'Em, Then?

Peter Newmann, ESPN's college hoops researcher, wrote a nice piece on one-side games and their results. He highlights some real lowlights in terms of games, and I'm still not convinced why a Stanford, rated #1 at the time, played #310 New Hampshire any more than I'm thrilled that Syracuse schedules Cornell every year in its annual fattening up on the Twinkies of college basketball before playing teams that could come close to beating it.

Now, I am not in favor of creating a Division I-AA for college basketball, and I think that part of the great attraction to major college hoops is that on a given day a Bucknell can travel to Pitt and upset a top-10 ranked home team. That type of result doesn't happen that often, and, my guess is that Pitt won't let it happen again in the near future. At least not against Bucknell.

Which makes it very hard for the good low- and mid-major teams to get meaningful games against the top competition. Sure, Syracuse would prefer to schedule Patriot League doormat Colgate and Ivy also-ran Cornell every year rather than, say, Patriot League favorite Bucknell and perennial Ivy power Princeton. Why? Because they're looking for tuneup games and wins, and not for a game that will give them a bloody nose on national TV.

And even if the top programs will schedule the best of the mid-majors, they'll seldom do so on the road. For example, when he first got to Duke, Coach K played Princeton at Princeton, and the game was a disaster for the Blue Devils. They went to Jadwin Gym woefully unprepared (you'll recall that in that season, Coach K's big recruits were players of the year in Canada, Utah and Nebraska, none of which have ever been known as hoops hotbeds). Vince Taylor was the Duke star, and he got picked clean a few times by quick Princeton guards and ended up in foul trouble. The Tigers used their back door offense all night, and won by 22. (Princeton ended up a disappointing 13-13 that year, so it wasn't a memorable Tiger team by any stretch).

Never again.

Huh? Well, the Duke men probably won't play at Princeton so long as Coach K is the coach. They'll play in Durham, but the only place Coach K will play in NJ is at the Meadowlands, and usually come NCAA Tournament time. Which leaves open the dare to Coach K? Hey, Coach K, Dean Smith played Princeton at Princeton in the famous '97-'98 season, in which the Tigers lost only 2 games (by about 7 to UNC in a great game in a packed Jadwin Gym) and then to Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament. So, why don't you do what Dean did and take your team to central NJ in the winter time? It's not as though you're Napoleon and you're traveling to Russia for a land war. It's Princeton, for Pete's sake.

No one denies that the top programs deserve a Twinkie or two, especially if they play in the Pre-Season NIT or the Great Alaska Shootout or have some good games against non-conference opponents who are at their level because the TV money is too good to pass up. You'll need a break or two. And that's fine, so long as you limit your cupcake intake. So, if you're UNC, you'll play Kansas, Illinois, UCLA and a few others, but then why don't you play a good Mid-American Conference team, a good A-10 team, than, say, the college hoops equivalents of the three guys sitting on the couch during the first-night of rush week at the Omega fraternity in the movie Animal House?

Why not?

Probably because they think that there's nothing to gain by doing so. Because, they and their supporters will argue, they have grueling conference schedules and some huge TV games, so why not give the team a few games that they know they can win almost by just showing up than games where they'll have to fight their hearts out because for a Ball State, a Montana, a St. Mary's, a Princeton, well, this could be the equivalent of their NCAA final game, because those opponents will never get there. Truth be told, those games could take a lot out of a Cadillace team.

The challenge, then, to the Top 40 schools, is to play a well-balanced non-conference schedule. Play your traditional rivals, your important non-conference TV games, and then give a chance to well-deserving mid-majors who have earned it. Every now and then, even, take a chance and travel to Philadelphia's heralded Palestra, Princeton's Jadwin Gym, the home venues at St. Mary's, Bucknell, Vermont, College of Charleston, Miami U., and pay your respects.

Because good, whole basketball foods are much better for you than cupcakes.

Who can argue that playing a top-drawer mid-major won't pay dividends down the road, especially in their building? The reasons are pretty clear: your team will get a taste of what it's like to play against a well-coached, reasonably talented team that will play its hearts out to win and won't care that you're Duke or Carolina, and, more importantly, you'll get to play in the face of a hostile crowd. As we all know, even at the newly configured regional venues in the NCAA Tournament, it's not unlikely that the hometown crowd will root for the underdog Coppin State team that is giving Texas a battle in the second round. If you're a Texas or OK State, that December road game at Princeton or Penn or Vermont will be an experience that your kids can draw on come Tournament time.

We all love cupcakes, and, yes, at times, well, you just need one. You're having a bad day, you need a break, you want to share an experience with your kids, well, there's nothing better than a Twinkie or a Tastykake. Or, at least not much.

But as you grow older you realize that if you have a diet of too many cupcakes, well, they're just flat-out bad for your health.

And your RPI as well.

Got your attention now?