SportsProf

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

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Thursday, June 30, 2005

So You Want to be a Star?

Read this, and then think again. (Thanks to Dave Sez for the spotting of this article).

Peter Parker's uncle told him in Spiderman that with great power comes great responsibility. Well, with great talent in a unique area (such as professional basketball), with great power comes great money and great potential wealth. I used the word "potential" because, as you'll see from reading the linked article, many stars blow their money. Big time.

Many years ago, I talked with a significant person within the ranks of a professional sports union once who said to me that the biggest problems that existed were rogue agents, the "idiot sibling" problem and the pressure on players to give money away. The article addresses points one and three rather well, but doesn't necessarily address the second problem (which, in essence, is that a player's parents prevail on him to lend money to a business venture of a sibling who, will surely equally loved, didn't make it to the big-time; typically, the venture is poorly planned and becomes a failure that costs the player tons of money).

The overall issue, in a nutshell, is that kids are coming into huge sums of money. When I say "kids", I mean people who haven't had enough life experience to handle the demands that one gets when he comes into a lot of money. Isiah Thomas, who seems like a pretty savvy guy, had an exceptional mother who didn't play games with him or his money. Many other players haven't been so fortunate. They are easy pickings for those who want a piece of them.

The story is a very sad story, make no mistake about it. No one should derive any glee from the fact that many former players have suffered serious financial problems. Perhaps they were too carefree in their spending, and perhaps they suffered because they relied upon others too willingly instead of taking more of a role in managing their money. Most of all, some suffered this fate just because they were young and inexperienced.

On the other hand, the article also goes to show a reader that you probably shouldn't say you want someone else's life. After all, some of these players and former players have made complete messes out of their lives. So while you can't hit the finger roll after flying through traffic, hit the jumper from the corner or dunk over the other team's center, you also haven't come out of a short-lived career without a nest egg or skill sufficient to do anything else worthy of a good salary for a living. To be done at 29 with not much to look forward to is not how most people want to live their lives.

What's the fix? There is more counseling for younger players in all leagues on important life topics, and there are also veteran players who seemingly have more clues about how to handle their resources. The names Grant Hill, Tim Duncan and Shane Battier come immediately to mind.

Because in the end, all that glitters is not gold.

Unless the players themselves show in their off-the-court personal finances the same discipline that got them big buck in the NBA.

Top HS Hoops Player Commits . . . to Ohio State

Of all places.

Greg Oden, the 7' center from the Indianapolis area who most likely would have become the #1 pick in the 2006 NBA draft but for the newly imposed age limit, gave a verbal commitment to coach Thad Matta, as did his teammate, G Mike Conley.

A few points to consider:

1. The impact of the NBA's age rule on the college scene. Does the 19 year-old rule simply mean that Oden stays in Columbus for a year and then becomes the #1 pick in the 2007 draft? Are colleges who take these one-year players going to be better off in the long run? Those who followed Villanova's program probably would argue a strong "no" given that school's dalliance with one-year player Tim Thomas. Thomas didn't really fit into a veteran team, and that team, with senior G Alvin Williams and senior C Jason Lawson, laid an egg in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It should have gone much further. Oden is potentially a great player, and he'll be good for the gate in Columbus, but I question whether the NBA's rule will benefit the college game at all.

2. The old Lefty Driesell comment that he enjoyed hearing that a recruit gave an oral commitment, because it narrowed down the number of schools he had to beat to get the recruit to go play for him. Does this mean that the recruiting saga is over? Maybe. But if I'm a bigger-time hoops school on the current landscape than Ohio State, I wouldn't give up recruiting him. After all, he's a HS kid, and HS kids, by definition, can be very fickle.

3. The big loser in this seems to be Indiana coach Mike Davis, who couldn't keep the kid at home. How much longer with the Hoosiers keep Davis around? He needs to have a big year. The other two also-rans, as it were, for Oden's services were Wake Forest and Michigan State, and it says here that Oden would have been better off giving his verbal to either Skip Prosser or Tom Izzo.

Ohio State has an excellent hoops tradition -- but not recently. This is a great coup for Thad Matta, if Oden ends up at Ohio State. Still, I for one don't understand why Oden chose Ohio State in the first place. You also wonder whether all of the big-time schools recruited him. Did Kansas and Carolina pursue him too? Or are they reluctant to ink the one-year wonders? To me, it's surprising that the best hoops talent in the HS class of '06 chose a football school.

But if he actually ends up there, look at for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

The Big Ten looked like it had a down regular college hoops season last year, but it rebounded mightily in the NCAA tournament. It had a bad recruiting year, too, and that didn't bode well for the future.

But this news most certainly does.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

For All You Moonlight Graham Fans Out There

There's this.

Archie Graham, also known as "Moonlight," was a central figure in the novel "Shoeless Joe" and the movie "Field of Dreams" (this is a case where the movie actually did justice to the book). Burt Lancaster played the grown-up Archie, whose claim to fame was that he got less than a cup of coffee with John McGraw's New York Giants in 1905.

Graham didn't get an at-bat (he played two innings in the field), one of only a handful of position players that has been identified as having played in the majors without getting an at-bat. That attracted him to author W.P. Kinsella, who researched Graham's background before including him as a character in the book (Graham became a doctor).

Enjoy the article at espn.com. Graham is testimony, to a degree, of the adage "they also serve who stand and wait." He was a back-up, yes, but no doubt he pushed others through competition to become better and, of course, he enriched the lives of his patients in Minnesota.

I recall once, years ago, reading the transactions wire, and noted that a utility infielder named Jack Heidemann was making $12,500. That was a long time ago, and my dad asked the rhetorical question, "Do you realize how good someone who is the last man on the bench of a team had to be in high school?"

And he was right. I remember the best players from my high school were a 5'11, 225-pound pitcher who could hit as well as John Kruk and pitch very well too, and a catcher who could beat hitters running down to first base backing up a play and who could hit with authority. The former wasn't college material, didn't have a hard body that some scouts liked and wasn't disciplined enough. That said, he was born with a bat in his hand; he wasn't college material, though. The latter was the all-American guy, a natural leader, and an outstanding player who earned a scholarship to one of the best baseball schools in the east.

What happened? The stocky pitcher was signed out of HS as a pitcher and flamed out as a position player after one season of summer A ball in upstate NY. The word that came back was that he didn't hit well enough, and the organization he signed with didn't think he had enough discipline to be a big-league player. The catcher was converted to an outfielder in college, hit very well, but didn't get signed after college. He remains a good friend to this day, has a great business and a very nice family. Don't know where the stocky pitcher is -- but my bet is that he remains to this day a funny, easygoing guy who would be great to have a beer with.

We all have played the role of Moonlight Graham in our lives, and, more importantly, we've all watched Moonlight Grahams in every aspect of our lives. They are those who don't get the headlines, perhaps, but they help contribute to making our lives better.

As for the kids from my high school, well, they were very good, but, in retrospect, they were great in context. The stocky pitcher wasn't disciplined enough to get to higher levels, and the great-guy fleet catcher wasn't a consistent enough hitter and didn't have a good enough arm to make it. That's not to say they weren't good; they were very good. What is to say is how good the guys who make it to AA and beyond are. Those guys are very good indeed.

We'll all remember the superstars, the guys who grab the headlines and then the supporting players who do something so outstanding for a concentrated period of time that the feat will remain etched in our memory. But who really remembers the Moonlight Grahams, the Larry Coltons, and the many others who hit the big club for such fleeting moments that you hardly knew they were there? Most of us don't, but thanks to W.P. Kinsella, we learned the heartening story of Moonlight Graham, who, in retrospect, represents all of those players for us, forever.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Suggestions for the NBA Draft Telecast

I'm writing this while watching the NBA draft, and I have a few suggestions:

1. The Commish is a tired act. There's little entertainment value in someone who has all of the presence of a Star Wars astromech droid. Instead, hire an entertainer to make this more entertaining. For example, bring in Will Smith and let him host.

2. The ESPN commentators combine to form a human headache. Stephen A. is an audio-narcissist, and Mike Tirico, Greg Anthony and Jay Bilas are rather bland. This team has two participants too many, so I would scrap Stephen A. and Greg Anthony and stick with Tirico and Bilas. The reason: Bilas follows the college game very closely and knows the prospects, so he's a good resource to have. He doesn't have Mel Kiper, Jr.'s hair, and no one knows prospects like Mel, Jr., but Jay is okay.

3. Have a couple of juries (who are prepared) to comment on the draft as it takes place. I thinking a) a jury of former players, including some former greats and b) a jury of current hoops media. For example, the jury of former players could include Charles Barkley, Bill Russell and Bill Walton, and the jury of media members could include Stephen A., Peter Vecsey perhaps, and a few others. Both of these panels could enrich the telecast immensely if handled the right way. Remember, ESPN and NBA, this presentation should be entertaining. Let these guys be the front line on the play-by-play and color commentator for the telecast. Less, especially in this case, is more.

4. Have a few commentators available to talk about draft history, draft oddities, how successful teams have been in the draft, and the types of facts that enrich the telecast. These are the Kiper types, perhaps not well known names, but if you package them right they could develop their own cult following.

This telecast should be a great promotional piece for the NBA. While it comes on the heels of the NBA championship series, it should be a great whetter of the average fan's appetite for the next season.

5. Get rid of the bromides. I like Dick Vitale, but tonight all that's come out of his mouth is that each kid is a "winner." Look, no one will dispute that the kids who get drafted in the first round are talented players, but every fan has a memory of his team's blowing a high pick. For examples, 76ers fans remember the year that the hometown team took Sharone Wright of Clemson with the fifth pick in the first round, and his cup of coffee hardly had a chance to get cold. That doesn't mean that the commentators have to be brutally frank and pick on the weaknesses of the average draftee, but some good analysis and some good storytelling would help make the telecast.

6. I would advocate bringing back Craig Sager and his colorful suits. They added flavor to the TNT draftcasts, and they would add flavor here.

7. Jettison the Coach K "I'm a leader" ads. They lack the humility that we once totally admired Coach K for. They aren't convincing (even if you're positively disposed toward Coach K) and they're presumptuous. Funny juxtaposition: Coach K gets the ads, but archrival North Carolina has four players taken in the first 14 picks of the draft -- Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants. Coach, I'll take Roy Williams' past season, not yours. Enough.

8. Create a little more suspense at the end of the first round. After all, players who don't get taken in the first round don't get guaranteed contracts, so they're sweating it a bit. Let's hear some of their stories.

9. Look at the early entry list and examine what certain kids were thinking. For example, is Billy Donovan's Florida program falling off a cliff? Otherwise, why would Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee declare for the draft and not withdraw when none is a lock to be a first-round pick? Walsh has been quoted in the Philadelphia papers that he's been told he has "a good chance" that he'd be taken anywhere between 18 and 30 in the first round. I haven't read his name in the first round of any mock drafts, which makes you wonder if it was a relative who told him of his draft possibilities. Roberson is off the radar screen, and while Lee showed well at the Chicago draft camp, it doesn't look like he's pushed his way into the first round. Which makes you wonder what has gone on at Florida. Is it these kids? Is it Coach Donovan? That's an interesting story, and I'm not sure anyone has probed it.

10. Look at the early entry lists of years past and talk about the mistakes that were made. Where are the Korleone Youngs and Ousmane Cisses of the world, good kids who made bad mistakes. Naturally, we don't need a big downer on what should be an upbeat night, but it would be an interesting feature to demonstrate how hard it is to make it in the NBA.

11. Finally, have someone do a feature on NBA rosters and how some players took interesting routes to get there. After all, it's not always the four-year major college star who makes the big time. Some of those guys peter out, while you end up with the Raja Bells of the world from Florida International (or was it Florida Atlantic) who end up making NBA rosters. A few of those stories might be nice as well.

In any event, I'm waiting for the first round to end, to see where the magical line is drawn, and then I'm heading to bed. I don't think it's worth waiting around for the second round, because the show is over by then.

Manchester United, the New York Yankees and You

You might have seen the article today that Malcolm Glazer has completed his purchase of Manchester United, the perennial power in the English Premiership and, quite frankly, in the football (yes, football) world.

So what, you say?

Well, if you're an American, you probably don't care. After all, you call football soccer, might have played it as a kid, your kids might play it now, but you wouldn't pay to see it played, at least not when in competition with American football, baseball, basketball, college football, college basketball and a whole host of other events. You might glimpse at the World Cup every four years, might have thought it was neat that the American women who played soccer did it so well for a while, but that's about it. As for the world football scene, you wouldn't know John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox, from Thierry Henry, the star forward for Arsenal, another perennial power in the Premiership. To you, it's a boring game, and you just don't understand how the rest of the world is so enamored of it.

So you're still not sure why you should care?

It may well be that you shouldn't care, but this branch of globalization could take root in the United States too. What's to say that after George Steinbrenner passes away, in order to pay estate taxes, his family won't have to sell the New York Yankees and his related media empire. And what's to say that the estate doesn't sell to the highest bidder, perhaps by having an investment bank run the auction. And what's to say that a Chinese business magnate, a Russian oligarch or an Indian entrepeneur don't end up owning the Yankees?

Does it matter?

Most likely not. The Glazers are competitive people, so they didn't buy Man. U. for any other reason than to try to establish hegemony over the football world (where, incidentally, there's a much larger consumer market than, say, for their Tampa Bay Buccaneers). That Russian oligarch who owns Chelsea, which right now is leading the English Premiership, didn't buy that football squad for any other reason than to have a totem to brag about (and, as it turned out, to create a top-notch team). After all, when you get right down to it, Chelsea is his team. Which would mean that the Yankees, the Patriots and the Lakers all could end up having owners who live in Beijing, Bombay and Moscow, instead Manhattan (by way of Tampa), Boston and Los Angeles.

So, the locales of the next generation of sports owners could span further and wider than ever before, and my prediction is that it will. After all, it's a big world, and with globalization, more markets are opening up.

But with very wealthy people, it's a small world. There aren't just that many of them, and they compete in ways that most of us cannot imagine, through yachts, show horses, race horses, sports teams, invitations to key events and who knows what else. If one magnate buys one key team, another one is sure to follow.

Even one who's English isn't much better than Yogi Berra's.

One question that intrigues me particularly involves the NBA. What will happen first -- the NBA's starting a league of sorts in China, or a Chinese businessman buying an NBA franchise -- an existing NBA franchise in the U.S.? Sure, many leagues want to take their acts abroad, but many people abroad want to bring their acts to America.

Except, perhaps, in the case of real football.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

What I Did For My Summer Vacation (Part I)

If you wonder where I've been, I was on vacation for a week, spending some time at the beach in Cape May, New Jersey (prior to that I was getting my sports affair with EA Sports FIFA 2005 Soccer out of my system and resting a bit after a year straight of blogging). If you haven't been there, Cape May's just a wonderful place to go. If you have kids, there's enough to do, and if you don't like amusement parks on the boardwalk, Cape May has neither a board walk (it has an asphalt promenade that runs parallel to the beach) nor an amusement park. If you don't have kids and seek solitude and romance, you can get that too. Cape May has a) the best restaurants at any New Jersey shore point and b) the best concentration of restaurants in New Jersey, period.

But this isn't an advertisement about Cape May, which holds a special place in my heart (for reasons that are far from obvious to all but those who know me well), but about rediscovering whatever athletic tendencies are left in me in my middle age.

After professional school, the need to impress on the job left me without a good athletic outlet other than being a fan. While I had a short commute in my first job, I didn't find a routine, and urban living really didn't suit me. During my last year in school, I enjoyed a great daily pickup basketball game that went for hours at a time. We played half-court, three-on-three, and it was great to run picks and rolls, gives and gos, and to play "make it take" it and hit ten jumpers in a row to ice a game. It was equally fun to run the backdoor with one of my favorite hoopsters, a bearded woodsman from the Northwest who years earlier was a freshman QB in the Ivies (and then was one of the most un-jocklike people I ever met).

I still miss that game.

I miss the slightly bent rims, the chain nets, the pebbles that sometimes made a ball bounce worse than on a deadspot at the old Boston Garden. I miss my old Nikes, icing my sore hamstring after a two-hour game, grabbing a beer afterward. I miss playing when we could see our breaths, and I miss throwing passes with my back to the basket at the high post. Sure, it was far from great basketball in the ultimate sense, but we improved week to week, and as we developed a rhthym with one another we played some mighty good basketball. The purists in Boston, New York and Philadelphia all would be proud, not to mention Princeton, as the back doors were excellent.

Truth be told, in the many more than ten years since that time, I haven't found much to replace that game. I had played a middling game of golf, but my golf game went sour after college. During my senior year, when we could join the course down the road from the college for $55 for unlimited play second semester, I played at least 40 rounds, carrying an old red Wilson nylon carry bag, about 12 clubs (my father's Spalding Registered set and an odd assortment of true woods -- a drive, three and four wood) and say 6 balls. We got up early and walked about 10 minutes to the course, and then played 18 in about three and a half hours. I have many great memories of those rounds, some hilarious laughs and a good story about how an offensive lineman friend of mine hit a shank -- calling it a slice would have been a compliment -- at a forty-five degree angle that almost turned the school's hard-nosed hoops coach into a soprano of the lower-case variety. My golf year culminated in my shooting a 37 on the back nine on a 95-degree day about a week before commencement where every shot I hit turned to gold, the course's graduation present to me.

My golf game hasn't been the same ever since.

I played okay that following summer, but then the journey to professional school meant a crowded public course, six-hour rounds, and, of course, no time to play. I missed my college friends, and I learned that for me golf was as much about with whom I played as the course I was playing on. I probably didn't give the game as much of a chance as I had before, I lost patience with it, which was easy to do given the absence of driving ranges nearby, the lack of time to practice, and the fact that my college buddies were far away. I enjoyed playing with my father during intervening summers when I came home, but my game was so out of whack that I played one decent round followed by two where I discovered flora and fauna on the course that perhaps its architect hadn't realized were there when he built the place sixty years earlier.

My golf game has had its moments thereafter, but I never found the playing partners I had in college. Part of it was (and is) that they were (and remain) wonderful people. Part of it was that after college I enjoyed playing golf the most with my father, who passed away less than a year after I returned home from professional school, almost 20 years ago. And, I'm sure, part of it was that I didn't give many of the newer people in my life the chance I should have with respect to golf.

So I was adrift for a while, resorting to becoming a workout wonder of sorts, hitting the gym six days a week in the apartment building where I lived, doing the stairmaster, lifting weights, stretching. All good stuff, and I felt in great shape.

But there weren't many games involved, and then I fell in love, a long-distance relationship that required foregoing golf on the weekends, and I got married and moved to the suburbs, where our small condo, of course, didn't have a gym, and where the commute was such that I didn't have much time for much exercise of any kind. I tried to fit in workouts here and there, but mostly I failed. Then we had kids, were perpetually exhausted when they were very little, and I probably was at my athletic nadir.

Gradually, with home exercise equipment, I got the workouts back, getting up ridiculously early to fit them in before work. I've always been a morning person, and I don't like working out at lunch because I like a good one hour workout at minimum and don't relish sweating the remainder of the day. By the time I get home from work, eat dinner and spend time with the family, there isn't much time left in the day. So early morning workouts were (and had to be) the answer.

But still, something was missing.

Until this vacation.

First, one of my son's friends called me late on a Friday night and asked me if I wanted to play nine holes of golf with him last Saturday morning -- at 7 a.m. We were to get to the course, only about 10 minutes from where we lived, at 6:30 a.m. to hit some balls at the range, and then we could go off the back nine and play. It was a beautiful morning, and we had little traffic on the course behind us or in front of us, and for eight of the nine holes I hit the ball better than I had in years (a recent outing with my college buddies to Long Island was a lot of fun, but golfwise I felt like I had regressed significantly), it was breezy, and I somehow felt better on the golf course than I had in a long time. I don't know what got into me, but my game felt alive again. Yes, I corrected my swing on the range a week earlier, but finally I felt that it was time to live again on the golf course. (My friends who read this shouldn't feel slighted, but when I play with them annually I usually have had no practice beforehand. ) I'm not getting any younger, and my playing partner actually had lost a good friend (in his early forties, no less -- and a golf shop owner) a week earlier. We both realize that it's time to live a little more. We now look forward to playing at 6 a.m. once a week during the summer if we can.

Secondly, my second grader has become more ambitious as a bike rider, and I had two choices. One is to walk with her to an adjacent neighborhood to ride and then stand out there with nothing to do. The other was to get back on a bicycle after, well, more years not having ridden a bike than not having played three-on-three hoops. Again, this was a choice -- I could coast into old age working out on machines, or I could live a little. I bought her a new bike about a month ago, and when I did so I tried out a bike for me at the bike store. My first thought was, "Gee, this is fun" and my second thought was, "why hadn't I gotten back on a bike before this?" I held the thought and figured I'd give bike riding a try in Cape May.

My daughter and I got up early enough (I know you're not supposed to do that on vacation, but we had talked about bike riding on the ride to the shore (or "down the shore", as Philadelphia-area natives say) and were excited to do so. We rented bikes for $7 an hour and then rode them up and down the promenade near the beach, maneuvering in and out of walkers, joggers, stroller pushers and other bicyclists. We got good exercise, and, well, I felt like a kid again.

Today, I went to the bike store and bought a bike (I already had bought the helmet). It's ghastly hot in our neck of the woods, but I look forward to my next bike ride, which, hopefully, will be early tomorrow morning. I also look forward to riding in the early a.m. before work, at least in the summer and early fall.

Vacations are for rest, for enjoyment, for spending time with the family, for reflection, for recharging one's batteries and for thinking about life. In doing so, and in recognizing that I have a lot of my journey left to take, I rediscovered some fundamental joys.

Hitting a golf ball in the early morning sun with a slight breeze at your back, wearing a hat that would make Chi Chi Rodriguez or Greg Norman proud.

Riding a bike with your determined little girl, who isn't so little any more.

Watching your son hold a golf club like a lightsaber, swing it with all the precision of a wrecking ball and get holes in one in miniature golf on consecutive days.

Jumping waves in the Atlantic Ocean with the family and planning a boogie-boarding adventure (or two) later in the summer.

Watching games, blogging about them, getting existential about the fluidity of Derek Jeter's movements, mathematical about Billy Beane's player moves or mathematical about Tony LaRussa's managerial strategy, well, that's all a lot of fun too.

But certainly not as fun as hitting the drive on your first hold right down the middle of the fairway, or riding next to your child on a long bike ride.

I'll keep writing a lot.

And living a little more.

Friday, June 17, 2005

More Than a Tip

of the iceberg, that is. Click here and here for news about this sordid scandal involving college football recruiting.

A booster gets convicted for paying a high school coach to steer his player to his school. And now he gets sentenced. Is it cynical to suggest that this booster is simply the only one who has gotten caught? And, if that's the case, did the booster get convicted because he simply was the only one stupid enough to get caught?

My view: a) this booster isn't the only one and b) there are other investigations out there that will yield more indictments and more convictions. Make no mistake about this, though, this is high-stakes stuff, for various reasons. One, there's a lot of money tied up in major college football, ergo the potential for bad behavior. Two, there's a lot of ego. Many boosters aren't wealthy enough to own their own professional sports teams (one rival Pac-10 coach once joked, somewhat ruefully, that Oregon had a great "owner" in its alum and principal booster, Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike), so the next best thing to stoke their egos is to be an important part of a major college football (or basketball) program. Note, of course, that in this context it's hard to figure out what "important" really means, but to be important in this context, you have to donate the money. Three, there are a lot of connections, particularly in the smaller states, cities and towns. In other words, what this really means is that some of the people with the juice (we're talking bucks here, not steriods) spread the money around not only to their favorite athletic programs, but also to their favorite politicians. That's not to say that certain boosters have made themselves untouchable. It is to say that anyone who prosecutes them had better have a good case -- or else risking prosecuting night court vice cases in Tajikistan. Don't think that Mr. Joe Bob Big Booster, who shows largesse everywhere, isn't larger than life in certain regions.

The underlying case itself is a sad affair, and the kid is clearly a victim. Someone who was supposed to be guiding him went on the take and sold the kid out to the highest bidder. The kid's career went nowhere, and who knows whether he has a remedy here -- against that HS coach, who probably doesn't have a lot of money, against the booster (who might have more) or against the school he went to (and you probably can't prove that the school sanctioned the booster's behavior, and we have to presume that it didn't know about it). He might well not.

Funny, but I thought college football was just an extracurricular activity for highly motivated student athletes, whose free educations, when coupled with the connections they make playing football, will lead them to better lives. In the end, the metrics that show the successes of these kids are more important than, for example, a national championship trophy where the path to that trophy is littered with broken promises, bad grades and no futures.

The problem with the booster's behavior is that it's hard to stop, because even if the schools take a hard line on it, a wayward booster will still be a bad actor. The NCAA should consider doing the following: (i) if somehow a school was involved, they get the death penalty the way SMU did about 20 years ago; (ii) if it's a booster only, with no school involvement, the school should lose scholarships; (iii) if there are repeat offenses, probation and loss of scholarships, loss of the right to appear in a Bowl Game. These types of sanctions will deter bad behavior.

It is probably true that schools don't really know how the HS kid who looks so dazzling on Friday nights under the lights will turn out on Saturdays before a hundred thousand people with bigger and faster players to contend with. So, coaches have a little bit of a "let the recruiter" beware syndrome they have to be mindful of. The kids, likewise, should have a bit of a "beware of the recruiting process" syndrome and ask hard questions if their mentors are pushing schools really hard. Let's say, for example, you're from New Jersey and you've expressed an interest in Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin, but your HS coach is pushing an SEC school. Is it because his prior players went there and excelled? That's a good reason. Is it because he went there? That's not a bad reason. Is it because he has good relationships with the coaches at that school that he's built over the years? Again, not a bad reason. But if there's no real connection, you have to ask the hard questions and, at the same time, give new ideas a chance.

It's not easy being a teenager.

It's probably a lot tougher being a teenager in serious demand.

Especially when the adults are the ones acting like children.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Princeton Basketball Connections

This guy coached his team to the European championship last season and now is in talks to coach a top-flight Italian team. He played alongside this guy, who is an assistant coach at Northwestern, a future DI head coach, and the brother-in-law of Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who will be a contender for President of the U.S. some day. They also played with this guy, who now helps run the Knicks, and were on campus when this guy rowed crew, although it is perhaps unlikely that they crossed paths. Maybe they should have, because this guy owns the Celtics, and then there's this guy, who's president of the Mavericks, who was a classmate with the first guy and the third guy I mention in this paragraph. Clear so far?

The hoopsters, of course, were coached by this guy, whose former player, this guy, is now the president of the Kings. While the first guy in this paragraph didn't coach this guy when this guy was at Princeton, he and the second guy (both of the Kings) helped this guy get a nice baseball contract. How? Well, the multi-sport player in question was vacillating between baseball and basketball this past off-season, and the coach and front-office guy worked the kid out and liked what they saw -- and offered him a guaranteed NBA contract. Which then compelled the kid's Major League Baseball team to counter -- and the kid to make a decision about which sport to play professionally in the future (as the chance to be another Dave DeBusschere or Gene Conley are long gone). The kid chose baseball, and thus far it's turned out to be a wise decision. The kid's among the favorites to be his league's rookie of the year. I watched him pitch on national TV the other night, and he was lights out.

Then there's this guy, who, at 47, not only is a successful money manager but still plays competitive basketball in three-on-three tournaments, and he chooses his teammates carefully (among them is Kit Mueller, one of the best players in Princeton history). The money manager extraordinaire was a year ahead of the guy who now coaches in Europe and the guys who help run the Knicks and Mavericks.

I could go one for a while with this chain, and Princeton basketball fans know it pretty well. The message out there, if there is one, is that a) Princeton basketball players are well-connected, b) many Princeton basketball players have a real passion for the game that extends beyond college, c) Princetonians who didn't play basketball on campus like it enough to get involved in it afterwards, d) Princetonians are good at getting connected, period, and e) many kids who were born in 1959, graduated high school in '77 and college in '81 have done a nice job since that time.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Seattle Storm and Sue Bird's Nose

WNBA All-Star Sue Bird broke her nose for the second time in less than a year when she was hit by an inadvertent elbow by teammate Lauren Jackson, who is 6'4" and has a lot of leverage when swinging her arms. Bird has missed a few games, and the defending WNBA Seattle Storm, her team, has turned the ball over 21 times per game she's missed, including yesterday's game.

Which means, of course, that she's really missed.

Bird is one of many shining lights the WNBA has to offer, and here's to hoping a) that she recovers quickly and b) that by the end of the career her attractive face continues to reflect the elegance that she displays on and off the court and not the battle scars of a club cruiserweight from the Bronx.

Brainy Schools at the Heart of NCAA Baseball Tournament News

Whoever thought that Rice playing Tulane in anything would deserve national notice?

Check out this link to an exciting game yesterday in the NCAA Division I baseball tournament.

Rice has been on the national scene in baseball for a while, yet it's Tulane that had gotten a lot of the buzz all season. The Green Wave is the #1 seed in the entire tournament.

And a seed in desperate need of watering.

Great stuff, this tournament, except it happens so far after most schools have let out that it doesn't get the attention that it otherwise might.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

ESPN and the End of Civilization?

It's unlikely that ESPN would cover it, but they might be a participant in it. Check out this post from Dave Sez regarding ESPN's coverage in general and their marketing practices in particular.

As always, I have a few thoughts.

First, I don't like the marketing practices of magazines in general. They tend to send you renewal reminders very quickly after you re-subscribed or subscribed, and they hound you mercilessly to re-up. That type of practice isn't limited to ESPN the Magazine, and, in fact, it's a large group of magazines that hounds you.

Second, the particular marketing practice alluded to is rather low and goes beyond what many magazines do. I take the solicitations for what they are and don't actually open them, whether they're cloaked in a Western Union envelope, a pseud FedEx envelope or have some type of urgent exhortation on the envelope. Spending (too much) time on solicitations isn't advisable for anyone.

Third, everyone might want to consider how much time they spend reading magazines (as opposed to, say, websites or blogs). Magazines can clutter your house and give you the feeling that you're behind on life in general (in other words, they can add stress). I have piles of certain magazines that I think I should be reading but don't get to. As a result, as much as it pains me, I won't renew. It's not because the writing isn't good (in these particular magazines, it is very good), but because I only read them occasionally. Also, in that vein, I'm wasting money and can put it to good use.

Fourth, as for ESPN, I find the magazine to be lacking definition. True, it's targeted at a younger age group than Sports Illustrated, if for no other reason than people over forty have to strain to read the print fonts that they use. Some of the articles have scooped SI, and the layout seems to emphasize style over substance. There's a lot of sizzle in this magazine, but when you strip it out, you don't have a magazine that is too unlike SI. Call me a traditionalist, but SI remains the better publication.

Fifth, as to ESPN's anchors and its presentation, I honestly don't think that there anchors are any more or less smart alecs than say ten years ago. When ESPN started, the anchors were more serious, but once you got Chris Berman and Keith Olbermann, they created a new style that others have tried to build upon (depending on how you look at it). I don't necessarily object to the style, except that sometimes the stress on anchors to out-metaphor one another is palpable. For example, when they had the first "Dream Job", the judges dissed a guy who used a phrase "A-rama-hama-ham-dan" or something like that. They flat-out didn't like it, but I didn't understand why. Stuart Scott has his catch phrases, and others have theirs, so I just didn't get it. Perhaps the judges thought that that particular candidate was hitting too close to home with what's wrong with ESPN (in addition to the highlights). Whether you like the anchors and their style, of course, is another story, and there will be those who contend that ESPN's fascination with the dunk in basketball has ruined a generation of American hoopsters, many of whom grow up not knowing how to pass or shoot the ball very well, although they can sky. I also am concerned that ESPN sometimes forgets the line between journalism and coverage (that is, are they the story or covering the story), but I am thankful that they realized that they could help solve the BCS problem (i.e., the lack of a national title game in college football and the machinations that the BCS goes through to try to convince the nation that it's process is sound) by yanking their poll from the BCS calculations. It was a good, if overdue, move.

Lastly, I wished they stuck to a core of sports and did fewer things well. I like to fish and don't do it as often as I'd like, and those shows have their place, but I'm not sure about poker, about rodeos, about strong-man competitions. Perhaps it's because they need filler, and perhaps it's because their own productions have fallen somewhat flat (I'm thinking about "Season on the Brink" and "Junction Boys", neither of which will endure in anyone's memory for too long). I don't mind an occasional game of women's softball (NCAA Tournament, of course), and the lacrosse coverage, when it happens, is fine. I find the tennis coverage uninspiring (its ratings are probably as good as those that Jon McEnroe's talk show enjoyed on CNBC -- zero), which means that when it's on I click over to something else. In short, they need to strengthen their core and build from there. It's when ESPN moves to the periphery that they get into trouble.

And, yes, if I got the type of marketing piece that Dave talked about, I'd be a bit annoyed. It's over the top, but I think we should remember all of the fun that ESPN has given us too, and forgive some overeager marketing executive for a blunder. By the same token, the blogosphere should, as Dave has done admirably, keep up the pressure on the mainstream media outlets for excellence. ESPN shouldn't get drunk on its own success; rather, ESPN should use that success as a motivator to excel to greater heights.

Which means jettison the cheesy marketing pieces.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Could Jackson eclipse Jackson?

Phil is contemplating a return to the Lakers, the site of his one-time basketball Wonderland.

Michael is on trial for alleged shenanigans at his ranch, Neverland, where, if he loses, he'll get a one-way ticket to California's nether regions.

What is Phil waiting for? Is he having second thoughts? Is he thinking that he's more likely to inherit a Neverland than a Wonderland? Or, is it simply that he wants to wait until the better known Jackson's news comes and goes, so that he can get all the attention he thinks that he and his nine championship rings deserve?

Have Michael, have Scottie, have Shaq (okay, and Kobe) and win titles.

Have Kobe and a bunch of tweeners (either tweener forwards or tweeners between 2G and the 3), and, well, unless you're going to fly over opponents, without a meaningful inside presence you'll probably miss the playoffs. Even if Phil Jackson coaches you. There are only so many books you can give your players to read, but if you don't have the talent to win a title, the odds are that you usually won't. Occam's Razor at work again.

Phil Jackson didn't get the Cleveland job, although it isn't clear that he really wanted it. As troubling as the L.A. situation is, it's better than Portland (juvenile hall, apparently) or New York (so capped out that the only way they could improve their situation would be to have one of the Sopranos cap a few of their players). So, if Phil wants to coach again, L.A. is looking pretty good.

He loved Shaq, and L.A. now still may not be a hoops Love Shack, but if you want one of the 30 best hoops coaching jobs in the world (and all of the aggravation and lack of job security that goes with it), you'll take the job.

You just might wait a few days until a pending media circus clears.

Do They Know Something Everyone Else Doesn't?

One of the Silicon Valley venture capital millionaire guys is becoming the majority owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A few questions:

1. Most people at his age leave Pittsburgh for warmer, drier climates, not go there. How will he run his investment? He won't actually move to Pittsburgh, will he?

2. What does he see in the NHL that the rest of us don't?

3. Or, is this just simply another case of a really rich guy looking for a toy, in this case a professional sports team?

They once made a (bad) basketball movie called The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Stay tuned for the venture capitalist who tried to save Pittsburgh.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Viva Los Estados Unidos!

The U.S. men's soccer team beat Panama in Panama City last night, 3-0, and is well on its way to its fourth straight World Cup berth.

I wanted to watch the game live last night, but it wasn't available on pay-per-view, and it was available on tape delay at 1 a.m. on ESPN2. Probably in between strongman competitions and rodeo.

My guess is that certain nightly routines in Panama stopped in their tracks last night because of this game. As they probably stopped in Teheran and Kiev when the Iranians and Ukranians sealed up their World Cup bids yesterday.

In the U.S., hardly a notice. The baseball season is well underway, the NHL had breaking news about its labor problems, and we're about to start the NBA finals. Soccer? Hardly on the radar screen.

Great work by Coach Bruce Arena's squad last night, scoring three goals in the first half and putting the game out of reach. The U.S. has a few games left against weaker teams, but they're well on their way.

And they're a pretty good team, too. Maybe not of the caliber of France, Italy and Brazil, or Germany, Argentina, Spain or England for that matter. But they're up there with the rest of the world, and they're only getting better.

Keep a lookout for them, and perhaps ESPN will end up featuring them live at some point in the near future. A tape delay at 1 a.m. EDT guarantees an almost-zero share on the East Coast and not much more on the West Coast.

Viva Los Estados Unidos!

Paris in 2012?

The Sports Economist has an excellent (and at times, hilarious) post on why Paris, the capital of one of the U.S.'s main allies, France, should get the 2012 Summer Olympic games.

I take more of the "Field of Schemes" approach, which may well tick off some of my blogger friendly acquaintances, such as former Olympian "Now That's Amateur", in that cities should be very wary of wanting to host the Olympics. I never have believed its wise for New York City to push so hard for the games or to build a stadium on the west side of Manhattan, and it will be interesting to see if Parisians flock to support this move the way they have flocked to support EuroDisney. And not make it a Mickey Mouse operation in the process.

If the French really want the games, let them have them, and let's wish them the best. Properly executed, the Olympics are a lot of fun to watch, and Paris is a beautiful city. Somehow, I don't think that staging an excellent Olympics is as simple as selecting a city and then wishing for good things to happen. Still, the way the French govern and go about doing things, it will be fun to watch them go about putting together their plans should they get awarded the games.

And watch out for a labor strike or two right around the time of the games.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Imagine What He Could Do If He Focuses Solely On Baseball

Usually kids who get drafted in the baseball draft after their junior years but who don't sign end up falling lower in the draft their senior year because they're a year older. That wasn't the case with Princeton's Will Venable, who, after being drafted in the 15th round by the Orioles a year ago, was drafted in the seventh round by the Padres yesterday. A rare two-sport star in Division I, Venable was a first-team all-Ivy baseball player this year (second-team all-Ivy in hoops) and was a first-team all-Ivy basketball player last year, when he led his team to the Ivy title.

Venable's the exception because he has a huge upside. He's big, he's fleet afoot, and he hits with power, and now, if he signs, he'll concentrate on baseball exclusively. He also has baseball in his genes (dad Max played in the Majors for the Giants and Reds, among others). There's no indication that he won't sign, although playing basketball overseas was mentioned as an option.

It's hard to predict which college kids will be make the majors. So many get signed, but so few actually make it. Even so, keep an eye on Will Venable. He has the tools.

ESPN Takes A Stand For Integrity

ESPN has yanked its poll from the BCS's determination as to who ultimately can be the national champion in college footbal. ESPN did so after the BCS announced that it would only reveal which coaches voted for what teams in the final poll of last season, but not preceding polls.

I raised a stink about the voting that took place late last football season, when Cal and Texas switched places, with Texas leapfrogging over Cal and into a BCS bowl game (as a result of this switch, Cal did not get to go to a BCS bowl game -- an absence which cost the school and its conference millions of dollars). My premise was that something appeared rotten in both the state of college football and the State of Texas and, further, that that "something" could be answered if the BCS revealed who switched their votes. If it turned out the clueless coaches in all but the Big 12 switched their votes, then the story would have been one of absolution of the Big 12 and of ridicule, perhaps, of the coaches who switched their vote so late in the season. If, on the other hand, it turned out that Big 12 coaches switched their votes, perhaps under pressure, then this would have been one of the biggest corruption stories coming out of Texas since the time Lyndon Johnson won his Senate primary against one-time Texas Governor Coke Stevenson by 56 votes, with all of south Texas coming in very late.

And, when the dust settled over the Lone Star State and college football, reforms would have been enacted. Good stuff, too.

The BCS stands for Bowl Championship Series, but it might as well stand for Blown Character Society at this point. What happened last year was wrong, and I can almost guarantee you that if voters leapfrogged Cal, from a more mellow conference and a state that's less passionate about football than Texas, there might have been a congressional inquiry. You have to believe that the Big 12 would have pressed for answers, as would have Texas Coach Mack Brown. But the guys who run the BCS, I believe, are a former Big 12 coach (Grant Teaff) and a current athletic director of a Big 12 school, and there wasn't a huge hue and cry from the West Coast that there would have been from Texas had the roles been reversed. There is certainly nothing to suggest that those guys have done anything wrong, but their failure to provide an accounting of what happened also leaves the average fan with a hint that there might be something embarrassing that the BCS does not want to reveal.

I am glad that the media outlets are refusing to take part in this charade of deciding a national champion through means of computers, given that the football crowd is generally an anti-intellectual bunch. The media outlets should be participants in the stuff they cover, period. Which means that the BCS will continue to find polls and rating systems that justify its ultimate paydays, instead of opting for the simpler solution of staging a national championship playoff system where the real champion is decided on the field. It could well be that the next pollsters who get a say in this drama are a group of eleven year-old kids from the mentally gifted math programs -- one from a city in which each BCS-eligible team plays -- who flip coins to decide worthiness, while another group of kids, this time cheerleaders from high schools in the areas of each BCS-eligible school -- will rate the teams based upon the quality of their uniforms and their cheering.

Meanwhile, the BCS higher ups have some explaining to do, and, if they do not opt to clarify what actually happened late last college football season, their voting systems will remain under a cloud.

The whole thing stinks.

Perhaps the only people who don't realize it are those who run the BCS.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

According to the NBA Draft Boards

There are approximately 15 players whose potential his higher than that of Sean May.

I find that hard to believe, as I do that Sean May is more likely to end up on the J.R. Reid end of the continuum of forwards than, say, the James Worthy continuum. Both of those players went to North Carolina, both were high first-round picks. You remember one of them. Most likely you don't remember the other, unless you had your memory refreshed with the recent ESPN competition which anointed a former NBA hoopsters as a color analyst.

What else could may have done in the NCAA tournament other than strap the entire team to his back and will them to an NCAA title? He was dominant, he seized opportunities, and he came up big.

Sometimes those measurements are more important than height, weight, jumping ability and foot speed. The guy can flat-out play.

Whoever gets him in the middle of the first round gets a steal.

Get Ziggy With It

New Vikings' owner Zygmunt Wolf has indicated that he prefers that the Vikings play their game outdoors and get the home-field benefit of the frozen tundra the way the Packers do.

That's great news for many Vikings' fans, who either want to sit outdoors or who have witnessed the poor playoff plight of teams who play in domed stadiums. The big question is what will Wilf actually do?

Will he don all sorts of cold-weather gear purchased from the L.L. Beans and Cabela's of the world or will he sit inside a heated luxury box? If he tries to do the latter, will the Vikings' fans let him get away with it? Or, will local sports radio talk show hosts and newspaper columnists encourage all Vikings' fans to chant, "Ziggy, Ziggy" and exhort the owner to sit outside (or open the windows, if the stadium affords him the opportunity to do so)? Will they give him a standing "o" once he emerges from his luxury box?

It says here that Ziggy will sit outside.

I for one look forward to mud-laden fields where the Packers and Vikings can slug it out the way they used to. Mud, ice, snow, you name it, bring it on. Old fashioned football.

Now if the NFL only would let Mike Nolan wear a tie to honor his dad during the first game of the upcoming season, everything would be all jiggy.

Instead of just plain Ziggy!

Monday, June 06, 2005

In Case You Were Wondering

The U.S. men's soccer team is well on its way to qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, as they shut out Costa Rica in impressive fashion over the weekend in Salt Lake City.

Okay, so it's not the ALCS between the Yankees and the Red Sox, but the World Cup is something that the rest of the world really cares about.

So much so that an odd phenomenon has occurred in the U.S. -- the home team sometimes gets roundly booed in its own country. How odd/awful is that? The reason, according to the article, is that there are many recent immigrants who cheer their own country at the expense of their new one. That's bad, and it's also lamentable that so many tickets are available in many of these venues, presumably because the home fans are attending baseball games or NASCAR events.

This isn't a political blog, but there's something wrong with booing the home nation's team in its own country. Those who do so should appreciate (as I am sure they do not) the irony that the freedoms that America guarantees enable them to behave so obnoxiously in America (as opposed to certain of the countries from which they came). Moreover, American soccer fans are perhaps better mannered than soccer fans anywhere else in the world -- by acting peacefully. Try booing the home team in Manchester, Cardiff, Dublin, Beijing, Budapest, Quito, Sao Paolo or Mexico City and see what happens.

Thankfully, as soccer takes some root in America, it isn't bringing along some of the rest of the world's ugly soccer habits, such as soccer hooligans. No, it's probably just the travel soccer parents that we have to worry about in this country.

The World Cup is a great event, and soccer players are great athletes. In the U.S. names like Pujols, Clemens, Jeter, Schilling and Bonds are known all over, as are those of Manning, McNabb, Brady, Owens and Moss. I know I've missed many outstanding players, but you get the point. But how many of you can tell me about Kaka, Pires, Ronaldo, Shevchenko, Del Piero, Tacchinardi, Trezeguet, Henry, Rooney, Seedorf, Cole, Scholes, O'Shea, Beckham, Juan Carlos, Keane, Giggs and many others? Ask a twelve year-old boy in Manchester, Lyon, Barcelona or Dusseldorf, and he probably can tell you.

Take a chance, watch some games, be patient, appreciate the skill, get to love the tension that's out there when the game's in the 88th minute (of 90, for the uninitiated) and there is no score, but your team's midfielders and forwards are passing the ball with laser-like precision and aiming for the one good shot only about forty feet from the goalkeeper. It's pretty good stuff.

Because, you see, kids in most of the rest of the world do not dream of becoming Barry Bonds or Peyton Manning. They dream of becoming the next Thierry Henry or Ronaldo.

Is There Any Decency Left in the Sports Memorabilia World?

USA Today reported this morning that the family of the late Roberto Clemente is angry at an auction house for auctioning pieces of the airplane that crashed in Nicaragua on December 31, 1973, killing the Pirates' Hall of Famer. Roberto Clemente was on a relief mission at the time, helping ferry supplies to flood victims.

It may be that the auctioneers have the right to do this, but, even if they did, does that make it right? Is nothing sacred anymore?

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Smokin' Joe . . . Paterno?

JoePa is alive and well and waxing optimistic in Happy Valley.

Naturally, it's easy to be this way in June, when the stakes are rather low and you don't have a game scheduled for about 3 months. For those who support him, this article will give you plenty of reasons to continue to do so. For those of you who want an appropriate successor to be named, well, JoePa clearly is bigger than the school, and it won't happen unless he passes away, becomes disabled or anoints his successor.

And none of the three seem likely soon.

I am a Paterno supporter. While I don't think that any school should let any coach become bigger than the school (for example, John Chaney and Temple), I do think that Coach Paterno has set such an outstanding example, both absolutely and relatively, that he deserves special consideration. In an absolute sense, the man has his priorities straight. In a relative sense, he's the saint, and many of the rest of his coaching brethren are sinners. As a result, JoePa deserves his bust on college football's Mount Rushmore.

As does the rightful successor, whoever that may be, deserve to get the Penn State job soon. I do hope that the solid recruiting year Penn State had will pay dividends. I do hope that in the next year or so the Nittany Lions have the type of season that will have them play in a New Year's Day bowl game. To do so, they'll have to vastly improve a previously pathetic offense that can match up with an outstanding defense. Give Penn State an offense that can keep its heralded defense off the field to get ample rest during a game, and that defense will perform at an even higher level. Give Penn State an offense that can move the chains, and the Nittany Lions will win most of their games.

That, of course, is the best-case scenario (it's far from a given, however), and Joe Paterno is very much deserving of it. He's tanned, relaxed and ready -- for a great season, and he deserves one.

Penn State's program has been on the precipice for a while, and it appears as though JoePa has helped pull it back from a nasty abyss. But the competition his team will face is very tough, and the pull of that abyss is very great. If the Nittany Lions fare well this year, then all will be well at Penn State. But if they do not, it will be an Unhappy Valley. And, if that's the case, the doubts will rise up again, and the whispers will turn into shouts.

Because at some point, Joe Paterno must go. All coaches do; no one stays forever.

Here's to hoping that when he does, it's on the shoulders of his players.

And not with once-loving alumni chasing him out of the stadium.

Howard Gets a Good Coach

As the Washington Post put it, Howard ended the longest DI coaching search by hiring long-time Penn assistant Gil Jackson to be its head basketball coach. Why the search took so long is anyone's guess. Howard's program has fared very poorly in recent years, and they couldn't have made a better choice in Jackson.

The big adjustment for Jackson is that he won't be with a perennial contender anymore. Penn has run an excellent program during Fran Dunphy's 16-year tenure at the school, and Jackson had been a big part of it. Instead of helping an excellent program reload, he'll be trying to lead a resurgence. The next adjustment for Jackson is being a head coach; he's about 57, and and there aren't that many 57 year-old head coaches in DI, let alone 57 year-old rookie head coaches. The last rookie head coach at least that old, though, was an excellent one. I believe Bill Guthridge was about 61 when he took over from Dean Smith at North Carolina.

Part of the problem for "older" assistants is that being an "older" assistant becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If programs traditionally look for younger coaches when filling head coaching vacancies, perhaps early forties or younger, once you hit your early forties it can become increasingly harder to get your first DI head coaching job. And, the more you stay at one place, the more you get pegged as either a career assistant or someone who is very comfortable at that place and, perhaps, someone who might not be ambitious enough to be a head coach. Both of those tags, of course, can be grossly unfair, but if you review the ages of DI head coaches, you'll see what I mean.

Jackson was a finalist for the Dartmouth job last year, a job that ultimately went to then-Colorado assistant Terry Dunn, who is about 12-13 years younger than Jackson. My guess is that Jackson had feelers for other head coaching jobs over the years, but none ever materialized.

The last Fran Dunphy assistant who left the nice Quaker nest was Fran O'Hanlon, who did so about ten years ago when he left Philadelphia for Easton, Pennsylvania and the head coaching job at Lafayette, where he has done an admirable job. If Jackson fares as well as O'Hanlon, Howard will have made an excellent choice. It says here that they made a good choice, and with luck Jackson will get the type of support from the Howard administration that he'll need to turnaround that moribund program. Clearly, he knows how to win.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Let the Free Agent Signers Beware

One of the old saws in the NFL was that the bad teams would watch the waiver wires at the end of training camp, figuring that the last cuts of the great teams probably would be good enough to supplant some of the last players on their rosters, the "one man's junk is another man's joy" theory of NFL personnel. There are exceptions, of course, because the gimpy-kneed sixteen year veteran who is among the last cuts isn't likely to rejuvenate a young and bad team.

Another saw, as it were, is to sign unrestricted free agents from the good teams. Looking back on the Rams teams of the past five years and the Titans team that made it to (and barely lost) the Super Bowl, you'll see how other teams signed many of their unrestricted free agents. The theory, perhaps, is that winning begets winning, so if you inject guys who have made it to the ultimate game, they'll help teach the rest of the players of the commitment to excellence that's required to get there. Plus, they're very good players to boot, or else they wouldn't have helped take their teams to the Super Bowl in the first place.

Sounds logical, right?

There's a catch, however, that I'd like to point out to you (and perhaps I'm touching upon Occam's Razor to point it out -- that where there are two theories to explain something, choose the simpler one. Put another way, eliminate all unnecessary assumptions in drawing your conclusions). The basic assumption is that the great teams can't keep everyone and fall under the salary cap. That's a good assumption, but a secondary assumption is that everyone who a good team lets go is a good player who can help another team, presumably for a while. That assumption, though, isn't always as true as the first one. For example, it probably was the case that the Rams and Titans didn't manage their salary caps as well as the Patriots and Eagles, the two current poster teams for how to achieve perennial excellence. In the case of the Pats and the Birds, they certainly cannot afford to keep everyone. Yet, they've managed their caps in such a way that the players they cannot resign are players who probably don't have much left in the tank. That wasn't the case in either St. Louis or Tennessee.

The MSM and web are full of stories and posts (including mine) of the Eagles' perspicacity (in the ERA of the 2400-point SAT's, go look it up) in determining how to manage their cap and, correspondingly, which free agents to re-sign. For example, several years ago they let Jeremiah Trotter go to the Redskins because they couldn't afford him (Washington made him a very high offer), and they let Hugh Douglas, Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent to go because others were willing to offer more than the Eagles. Were the Eagles penurious or perspicacious? As history has proven, the Eagles were the latter. Trotter was an overpriced overrunner of plays with the 'Skins. Douglas had little left in the tank. Taylor and Vincent had a little more left, but Taylor was cut yesterday after one year in Seattle.

So what does Occam's Razor tell us about the Eagles? First, most definitely that the Eagles don't re-sign free agents because they are commanding more money than the Eagles think that they are worth. They probably would have re-signed all of the players in question had their salaries reflected a parabola, meaning that they would have decreased as their value to the team decreased. That's the simplest explanation. Do the Eagles actions mean that the players they ultimately let go cannot play? I don't think that you can assume that (although you might be able to assume that the Eagles do not think that those guys can star for a Super Bowl team -- and get star money -- the way they once did).

But if I were a fellow GM looking to fill holes in my roster, I would take a long hard look at the players that the Eagles opt not to pursue at the prices they are commanding.

And I'd pass.

Unless, of course, in the off chance that drawing to an inside straight actually works, the one guy you sign for too much money just happens to be the guy who can help you deliver a championship that year. But realistically, in football, how many guys are like that?

Not many, and those guys are seldom, if ever, available as unrestricted free agents.

The Eagles and Pats win because they don't overspend on players and don't let them stay on the roster past their useful football lives. You don't need William of Occam to tell you that, when guys named Pioli and Banner have proven it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

In this case, it's that of an oncoming train.

First, they canceled their season.

Now ESPN is canceling them.

What will happen next? (See Off-Wing Opinion for some of the best blog coverage on ice hockey).

It's unclear, but with no players and no TV contract, what else can go wrong for the NHL?

Looking at it another way, what could go right?

Some say that if you're going to have a fracture, a clean break is the best because it's the easiest to heal. I'm not so sure that this adage is applicable to fractious relations between ownership and players in a major sports league. Because in the NHL's case, a clean break means there's a big chasm between the two parties.

One party can't handle the hits to its top and bottom lines that its teams are taking. The other party's membership hasn't full fathomed the ramifications of driving beer trucks in Flin Flon and Medicine Hat for a living when they could be sipping champagne at Four Seasons Hotels around the league, even with reduced wages. Until both sides feel some pain or anxiety, the NHL will continue to drift. . . into an abyss for which there doesn't appear to be a bridge.

If I were the powers that be in the NHL, I'd make a solid play for televising college hockey, which has a big following. A friend of mine and his family go to the Frozen Four every year, and they've come away each year marveling at the spirit of the event. It could well be time for most of America to marvel at it too.

Sport or Tort?

You decide.

Sometimes there's too much government, and sometimes the good citizens, through their elected officials, have to take a stand. Are Ultimate Fighting Championships human cockfighting? Or are they more humane? Should the Commonwealth of Massachusetts really care, or should they let the public decide -- through their attendance or lack thereof -- whether it's a worthy venture?

Those are hard questions to answer. Sure, some folks think that there ought to be laws about a lot of things, and some folks think that there are too many laws on the books about the wrong things, compelling the average citizen of our society to have a functional working knowledge of some arcane legal concepts to stay competitive.

One thread goes something like this: this sport is very violent, it's fans misbehave, not much good can come out of it, the participants could become very hurt and potentially wards of the state (which means that the state could have to cover some major medical bills), and that the participants ultimately lose because if they live to old age they'll be dysfunctional because of the damage done to them in the arena, or, in this case, a cage. As a result, the government should ban this activity, and, in so doing, will prevent relatively innocent youngsters from wanting to partake in a barbaric activity (they might not call it a sport, because the word "sport", at least in the modern parlance, requires that the activity have some aspect of gentility to it, even if that gentility dates back to the Marquis of Queensbury).

Another thread goes something like this: the first thread is all well and good, but where is the bright line drawn? Doesn't the description in the first thread apply to other activities as well, such as ice hockey and boxing? Who's to say that the population goes to hockey games for something other than fights? Who's to say that boxers won't end up physically dysfunctional because of the repeated poundings they take? Who's to say that the fans don't get too rowdy? Who's to say that these particular activities aren't bad influences on our children? And, if you extend this argument to active pursuits, what about passive ones? Is there a good reason to let people sell violent video games that require the whacking of various perpetrators? Won't those games send the wrong messages, at least subliminally, to our children? In short, where do you draw the line?

Finally, another thread, which is more extreme than the second one, is that the government shouldn't be involved in this activity (except perhaps to make sure that the participants are fit to compete and get the proper cage-side medical attetnion) at all, that the market should regulate this activity, and that in time if it's that distasteful it will fizzle out because people won't have an interest in going. In other words, don't give the activity any more attention than it truly deserves, and, by ignoring it, people won't get jazzed about it, as some do when something is either controversial or forbidden.

Which thread do you choose?

I, for one, find the whole sport scandalous and wouldn't elect to go. I went to a boxing match once because a friend who was/is the ultimate renaissance man was battling at the Blue Horizon on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. He made a name for himself fighting, but he now has slurred speech, at least according to those who keep in frequent contact with him. I also played sports at suburban Philadelphia venues where former heavyweight contender, the late Jimmy Young, did his running, and where the former light heavyweight champ, Matthew Saad Muhammad, did his roadwork. The former didn't manage his affairs well and ended up both physically diminished and broke and died in his early fifties a few months ago. The latter lost all of his money, lives in one of Philadelphia's neighborhoods and works as a roofer. Boxing as a way out? Perhaps temporarily. Poor money management as a way back? Probably. (I do like the current uberboxer Bernard Hopkins, also a Philadelphia native, who does his own shopping -- at Wal-Mart). Boxing, yes, is brutal, it's a judged sport (I've blogged on my distaste for these before), and it's poorly run (some would argue corrupt). As for hockey, I don't like the fact that fighting is part of the game. In college, if you fight, you're gone from the game and suspended for the next one. I prefer that sport to pro hockey, which has a ton of other problems to deal with.

Does that mean, then, that I agree with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? Does that mean that I think legislatures should look into boxing and hockey too? Yes and no. There are some places where the line has to be drawn, and it would appear that ultimate fighting championships are one of them. I'm not arguing that the participants aren't skilled fighters, just that the potential for public harm seems to outweigh compelling arguments for private enterprise. As for boxing, well, it's regulated by states already, not that regulation has helped those sports stay out of a credibility abyss. As for hockey, the public opinion on the pro game is clear -- outside of those who attend the games in person, few watch on TV. That's probably enough of a verdict right there -- without government involvement. And remember, as much as I find fighting in hockey distasteful, the object of the game isn't to beat your opponent into submission physically -- just to score more goals.

Someone once suggested that I read Gibbon's The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire to look for comparable signs of decay in our contemporary society. Roman society sponsored bouts between citizens and lions in public stadiums. Thankfully, the human species has evolved away from that form of entertainment. But with reality TV really cranked up and people battling in cages, what could be next. Yesterday, Rome. Today, the world?

Someone else once said that you could tell a lot about a society from the civility of its games. That's somewhat depressing given various episodes of fan behavior (and parental behavior) at various venues in North America, as well as some on-field violence between teams and the embedded violence in various games, particulary American football. The question is, if ultimate fighting continues, what's the next thing on the frontier?

Are we back to citizens and lions again?