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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Sunday, December 25, 2005

Remember, You Win With Players

In the NBA's off-season last year, more attention was paid to Larry Brown's departure from the Detroit Pistons than to the Pistons themselves. New Yorkers hailed the move as a start on the road to redemption for a depleted franchise. Some NBA observers wondered whether the chemistry that brought the Pistons a title a few years back would vanish.

Well, the facts don't lie.

The Knicks are 6-18, with the heralded Larry Brown at the helm.

The Pistons are now 21-3, having dispatched the Spurs by 15 in Auburn Hills today. The coach of the Pistons is Flip Saunders, a good coach who got the T-Wolves to the playoffs eight years in a row and (finally) got them to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. And, while Manu Ginobli missed today's contest, a win over the Spurs is still an impressive feat in and of itself. Meanwhile, if you lose to the Knicks, well, you've had a bad night.

It just goes to show you that while teams change coaches about as frequently as you get an oil change, they probably should be changing General Managers with greater frequency. That has been my hobby horse as of late, because as is demonstrated with Larry Brown in New York, great basketball coaches are, well, human. Okay, so perhaps a lesser coach would have the Knicks with a 3-21 record instead of 6-18, but 6-18 is an awful record by anyone's measuring stick.

Larry Brown or no Larry Brown.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit. . .

The talent is doing just fine.

Larry Brown or no Larry Brown.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Are the Big Shoulders Big Enough (for a Second NFL Team)?

Apparently, according to Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley.

Apparently not, according to The Sports Economist.

Mayors and the public's money, a dangerous combination, that is. (Sorry to sound like Yoda there).

I agree with The Sports Economist. Building the $1 billion superstructure in the Chicago area doesn't make much sense. At the time Rome fell, there were all sorts of public spectacles, arena events and lotteries. Why the rush to build this edifice? And who really cares if you land the 2016 Olympics?

Sounds like the mayor would like to play Santa Claus for his citizenry. The guess here is that he could find other ways to do so.

The Chicago sports establishment doesn't need that much embellishment right now. The Bears are on quite a roll. The White Sox, lest anyone forget, won their first World Series in 88 years. The Cubs offer perpetual hope (and disappointment), and the Bulls, while last in their division, have a bunch of young talent and are primed to rise. Okay, so the Blackhawks are not that great, but, remember -- the Sox did win a World Series and the Bears could be primed for a good run in the playoffs. That's pretty good for any major city.

But a new stadium? For a $1 billion?

What's the point?

Friday, December 23, 2005

NBA Salary Cap Madness

Hoopshype, a blog about the NBA, has gotten a lot of buzz lately, and for good reason. It's a great site, well-organized, and chock full of information. The URL is www.hoopshype.com, and I particularly like this link, to all of the salaries in the NBA.

Two things you'll note immediately are that the league's two best teams, Detroit and San Antonio, weigh in at #s 17 and 10 respectively. #1 are the New York Knicks, which just goes to show you that while excellence must be paid for, it cannot be bought.

I'm not sure that there's anything to glean about cap management other than with the Spurs, you have a nucleus of three outstanding players -- Duncan, Parker and Ginobli -- and several role players, some of whom (Finley, Van Exel) are probably taking less than they could get elsewhere. As for the Pistons, this could be a "last hurrah" type of year, as they have few long-term contracts and Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace will be free agents after the season. Most GMs like to bring in guys with championship rings, hoping that the aura of a champion will rub off on the rest of their team. Look for those free agents to be to get big offers to leave Motown.

Tool around the site and you'll see some oddities. Yes, Allan Houston's $19+ million does count toward the Knicks' salary cap, because somehow the Knickerbockers' brass forgot to take advantage of the veteran exception negotiated recently and cut Houston without his huge contract having to be counted against the cap. There's bad cap management (as in bad signings) and then there's terrible cap management (as blowing the rule that people thought was created with Allan Houston in mind).

The NBA's cap hardly lends itself to parity the way the NFL's does. (And look for the NFL Players Association to take a hard line in negotiations in order to enable its members to enjoy some of the benefits that NBA players have come to reap, as opposed to the NBA morphing itself into the NFL). Because teams have locked players up to relatively long-term contracts, here are the top 10 salaries in the NBA and the teams that are playing them:

1. Shaquille O'Neal, Miami. $20 million (hurt much of the year)
2. Allan Houston, New York. $19.125 million (out of basketball)
2. Chris Webber, Philadelphia. $19.125 million (injury prone in his early 30's and not an elite player).
4. Michael Finley, San Antonio. $18.613 million (Apparently Dallas is paying some of the freight here, and Finley comes off the bench for the Spurs).
5. Kevin Garnett, Minnesota. $18 million (Doesn't look like he'll lead his team to a title in the Great Lakes region).
6. Stephon Marbury, New York. $16.45 million (Poster child for what's wrong with league).
6. Allen Iverson, Philadelphia. $16.45 million (Gutsy player, doubtful he'll lead team to title, though).
8. Jason Kidd, New Jersey. $16.44 million (Player who makes others better; getting old, though).
9. Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana. $16.425 million (Superstar who deserves hefty payday).
10. Brian Grant, Phoenix. $16.123 million (Lakers are paying part of the salary for this undersized power forward).

Among others in the top 20 are such luminaries as Anfernee Hardaway, Keith Van Horn, Jalen Rose, Tim Thomas and Antonio Davis.

Read the whole list and see what you think. What amazes me is that, given this list, the tenure of the average NBA GM isn't shorter than that of the average NBA coach, because it should be. Some of this signings were ridiculous at the time and remain so today. Brian Grant? Tim Thomas? Who are people kidding?

The tragedy of it is that unlike the NFL, you make a few bad moves and your team could be stuck in a bottom-half-of-the-league limbo for a decade. In the NFL, despite how bad a front office can be, you're only a few drafts, a new coaching staff and a couple of key free agent signings from turning a 3-13 team into a 10-6 playoff team. In the NBA, a few bad long-term deals can keep you at 33-49 for years. What fun is that?

And why, oh why, do the fans continue to pay big bucks and keep on coming back?

This is not to say that the right players aren't worth big money. Those players -- the Tim Duncans of the world, for example, are. But those like Anfernee Hardaway and Antonio Davis, who are way past their prime, aren't worth the money and haven't been for years. You can't knock them for taking it -- their contracts were handed to them. But you have to question the basketball acumen of those who signed them up to these deals in the first place.

And then you have to admire the basketball IQs of the folks in San Antonio and Detroit. It's an interesting riddle, but they don't have all the money in the world in San Antonio, and yet they put out winner after winner, year in and year out. In contrast, they do have all the money in the world in New York, and they can't buy themselves happiness, love, or talent that can mesh together. True, they did buy Larry Brown's coaching services, but as I blogged before, the man is a basketball coach, not a magician. Without talent, he cannot win.

Even in New York.

Even with the Knicks so far over the salary cap that they could field two Pistons' teams with the money they're spending and have $8 million left over or field a Pistons and a Spurs team and have $2 million left over.

Salary madness, NBA style.

So Now I Know What the Fuss Is All About

The Mighty MJD writes here about the gift packages that participants in various bowl games get, and he has some suggestions of his own. Most of this isn't ESPY-like stuff, but some of it is pretty good. As for Mighty MJD's suggestions, well, the NCAA hopefully would be amused.

Check it out and then let him know your thoughts on the state of goody bags in NCAA football. My view would be that most of the kids would be better off with an Apple laptop, gift certificate for an education in a meaningful major at their current school that would expire three years after their eligibility is up, a subscription to Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine, one of John Wooden's books on coaching (and, indirectly, the meaning of life), a gift certificate from Jos. A. Bank, the men's clothier, good for one interviewing suit getup (suit, shirt, tie, shoes) that will be available after the player's eligibility has expired, a Borders or Barnes & Noble gift card, some Crane's stationery (to write thank you notes to those who have helped them), some Mrs. Field's chocolate chip cookies (who can pass on those), a travel alarm clock from Brookstone and a decent piece of travel luggage, along with, of course, the commemorative watch.

Okay, so it's not a PSP2 player, an MP3 player, DVDs, CDs, Gameboys, but it could well be a start.

Your thoughts?

Wonder If He'll Put Them on E-Bay

A descendant of James Naismith's is selling the good doctor's original rules of basketball.

Thankfully, the proceeds will go to the family foundation.

It would be nice if a wealthy benefactor would buy them and donate them to the Basketball Hall of Fame -- where they belong.

My guess is that won't happen.

And my guess is that $10 million, the initial asking price, is a tad high.

Then again, these rules are the foundation of a very popular international game. And, if millions were spent to purchase now-tainted record-setting home run balls, perhaps the $10 million isn't too much to ask for.

I would love to see Coach K buy them -- if Amex would let him put it on his card.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Americans Hooping in Iran

I had blogged over a year ago about two Iranians who had entered the NBA draft, Jaber Rouzbahani and Hamid Haddadi. I couldn't understand either why Iranians were playing the Great Satan's game or, more hypocritically, why the Iranian government was permitting them to play in the United States. After all, the public rhetoric is so bitter that to allow access to America might be inferred to admit that America isn't so bad after all. Or so one might think.

Now the Sports Law Blog discusses the opposite -- Americans playing professional basketball in Iran. Only in America, right? This is no joke. According to the linked article in The Christian Science Monitor, there are 18 Americans playing professionally in Iran. To me, this is about as puzzling as the entry of Rouzbahani and Haddadi into the NBA draft a few years ago -- or not as puzzling. Putting politics aside, it's clear why Rouzbahani and Haddadi would want to play here -- some of the best basketball in the world is played here, if not the best (Argentina's Olympic victory notwithstanding). Putting politics aside again, it's clear why some Americans might play professionally in Iran -- it's a job, and most young men with hoops talent would opt to play professionally for as long as they can, especially if they enjoy it more -- and it pays more -- than anything else.

Without politics, this wouldn't be much of a story. But given Iran's polar (if not bi-polar) stance against America, it's one interesting story.

Can They Possibly Play a Weaker Schedule?

Take a look at #25 in the USA Today Poll, the 8-0 Pitt Panthers.

Perennial appearance-fee gatherer Coppin State is in the offing, and I'm surprised Jamie Dixon hasn't found a way to schedule Kennesaw State, Longwood and Immaculata. What are these voters thinking?

There is no way Pitt is a better team than Bucknell or a host of other schools that garnered votes. Do the coaches who vote in this poll actually watch enough of other teams to place a meaningful vote? One, Ron "Fang" Mitchell, of Coppin State, definitely does -- his team plays a very tough schedule that's chock full of good teams. But how about the others?

Here's the complete list:

Dana Altman, Creighton; Tevester Anderson, Jackson State; Eddie Biedenbach, North Carolina-Asheville; Jim Boeheim, Syracuse; Rick Byrd, Belmont; Charlie Coles, Miami (Ohio); Barry Collier, Nebraska; Dick Davey, Santa Clara; Fran Dunphy, Pennsylvania; Mick Durham, Montana State; Rob Evans, Arizona State; Steve Fisher, San Diego State; Pat Flannery, Bucknell; Greg Graham, Boise State; Tom Green, Fairleigh Dickinson; David Henderson, Delaware; Johnny Jones, North Texas; Eddie McCarter, Texas-Arlington; Bob McKillop, Davidson; Phil Martelli, Saint Joseph's; Ron "Fang" Mitchell, Coppin State; Joe Mihalich, Niagara; Dan Monson, Minnesota; Dave Odom, South Carolina; Doc Sadler, Texas-El Paso; Bob Thomason, Pacific; Jimmy Tillette, Samford; Perry Watson, Detroit Mercy; Gary Williams, Maryland; Ted Woodward, Maine; Rich Zvosec, Missouri-Kansas City.

I don't know what the right answer is, and the polls, especially at this time of the season, are more wrong that right, but you do hope that when you get to the bottom of the Top 25 that there is more to it than a team's being undefeated. Because I'll go out on a limb here -- I don't see how Pitt, with this junk food of a pre-season schedule, will fare well in the Big East and make the NCAA Tournament. Cupcakes and gummy worms do not a good hoops diet make, and outside of Auburn, Pitt has played a bad schedule.

The Panthers just cannot be a Top 25 team. If they are, then it's a very off year for college basketball. Surely, there have to be other teams who play more meaningful pre-league schedules who are more worthy.

Who knows, perhaps next year they'll schedule some of the schools whose coaches are on the voting roster for the poll. Not Syracuse, Maryland, St. Joseph's or Minnesota, of course. But there are many others who could fill in quite nicely.

Sorry, Pitt fans, it's not your fault, but when your team is gasping during the tough weeks that comprise the Big East season, you only will have to look as far as the pre-season schedule to determine why your Panthers are faring poorly. For those of you who are frustrated that your favorite team, which plays a tougher schedule than Pitt, is not in the Top 25, have no fear. Once the Big East season rolls around, the Panthers will fall out of the Top 25. And fast.

It's always a good thing to have a pre-season schedule that gives your team confidence.

But it's another thing when that confidence rests on a foundation of Silly Putty.

You remember Silly Putty? It's the gummy stuff that you can put on the funny papers, lift an impression of your famous comics, and then stretch it to make the comic strip look funnier.

Except there's nothing funny about Pitt's schedule.

Just silly.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Reflections on Princeton-Wake Forest

I tried coming up with a post after the Monmouth debacle, but the game itself and portions of the boxscore were more eloquent than anything words could describe. Eloquent were the 62 combined points, lowest for a D-I game since the three-point shot came about, as were the 21 points that Princeton scored, which enabled the Princeton Tigers to tie Coastal Carolina for the lowest point total since the three-point shot was enacted. Almost as bad as that ignominy was the fact that the Tigers had only 2 assists to 19 turnovers.

Typically, when you're a formidable hoops program, you'd love to be in the company of Carolina.

North Carolina, that is.

Not Coastal Carolina.

Princeton's last flirtation with low-scoring games happened almost a quarter-century ago, when they traveled to Colgate during the no-shot clock era and lost 25-24. While neither team played what could have been considered passable offense that night, Colgate did help keep the score down by holding the ball. Literally. Their point guard, a fellow by the name of Kevin Halloran, held the ball under his right armpit for about four and a half minutes in the second half, and Princeton's coach, Pete Carril, elected not to have his defense go out and challenge the Red Raiders' offense, or lack thereof. It was a forgettable night, but it portended a disappointing Ivy season for the defending champions, who ended up finishing 7-7 in the Ivies.

The Monmouth game, of course, suggested similar omens. Ever optimistic and hopeful that they could chalk the Monmouth game up to growing pains, Princeton fans were privately fearful that this season would end up being the worst Princeton season since before the days that Cappy Cappon coached the Tiger five, if not ever. True, it is a relatively young team, with one senior (who is hurt) and four juniors (one of whom missed the Wake game because of illness, two of whom played very little in their first two years and the fourth of whom is a practice player) and starts two walk-ons. So, there is a need for patience. But it's also true that it's the Princeton Tigers we're talking about, and that somehow, some way, the tradition of hoops excellence should transcend the details of the roster and compel a strong effort and decent record. The latter sentiment, as always, is the cause for hope.

Many Princeton fans shuddered at the thought of the Tigers' traveling to Tobacco Road and playing a #16 Wake Forest team that had lost its previous home game to DePaul, and the Demon Deacons don't lose at home much. I feared that they would get pasted by 50. What happened instead was that despite the absence of Captain Scott Greenman and starting forward Luke Owings, the Tigers came out smoking and showed a tremendous amount of character in the process. A less team would have wilted; a lesser team might have packed it in for the season, believing the bad things that others were saying about them. Instead, despite a nineteen-point loss, I saw causes for optimism and a statement to opponetns that this is a team with some tough kids that has a solid nucleus for the future.

And here are those reasons:

1. This is a young team. I elaborated on that point earlier, but when you consider the nine or ten players who will get meaningful playing time this year, only four are upperclassmen, and two of them didn't rack up significant minutes in their first two years in Tigertown. It's hard to win with any system when you are playing so many inexperienced players, but it's especially hard when you're playing the Princeton Offense. These players will get better.

2. Princeton's frontcourt is somewhat deep and could be pretty good. The Tigers have proved that they have five players who can play effectively on the front line and a sixth, frosh Michael Strittmatter, got meaningful minutes yesterday against Wake and didn't embarrass himself out there. Sure, leading scorer Noah Savage had a bad game (even though he did tally five assists) yesterday, shooting 1-12 from the floor, but in part it was because he was playing out of position (he had to play center when Patrick Ekeruo got into foul trouble). Junior forward Luke Owings had a great game at Lehigh earlier in the season, but has struggled since and missed yesterday's contest because of either the flu or food poisoning. He played well in spots last year and should improve; he's a pretty good shooter. Soph forward Kyle Koncz has great form and has shot the lights out in recent games. Look for him to press Owings and Savage for minutes and make the forward position that much stronger for Princeton.

Ekeruo has played serviceably well. He's not as good as centers of Princeton past, but he's getting his first meaningful minutes this season. That he's getting these minutes after not getting them his first two years shows what a hard worker he is. That he's not quite getting the results yet is emblematic of Princeton's youth. Finally, there's the wild card, Harrison Schaen, a top-150 recruit three years ago out of Mater Dei in California. Schaen shows flashes of brilliance out on the court -- 10 points and 5 rebounds yesterday. At 6'10", he can shoot the three, and he also can cause teams to alter their inside games when he's on defense, especially in a zone (where he was very effective two seasons ago). It would be interesting to see the Tigers go big and play Ekeruo, Schaen and Koncz at the same time, perhaps moving the hard-nosed Savage to two guard for a stretch. I'll get to that in a minute, but given that many Ivy teams are size-challenged, the matchups would be inviting. Coach John Thompson went big two years ago and played both Schaen and Judson Wallace at the same time, and defensively the results were startling. Other teams couldn't do that much against the Tigers. In fact, what hurt the Tigers last year wasn't their shooting, as some had feared, but was their defense. I attributed a good part of the decline to the absence of Schaen in the zone (even if he has been in Coach Scott's doghouse this year, might have been in it last year had he not taken a year off and hasn't gotten the significant playing time his flashes of rookie brilliance might otherwise have suggested).

2. The Tigers' backcourt is a work in progress. Princeton needs Scott Greenman back, and in a hurry. The Tigers went into the season with a bunch of guards, only to lose Max Schafer to retirement and Matt Sargeant to an ankle injury. With Greenman sidelined, they're playing a walk-on soph, Kevin Steurer, at the point, and a seldom-used junior, Edwin Buffmire, as his back-up. True, without Greenman, the backcourt is inexperienced, as frosh Geoff Kestler starts at shooting guard. Steuer had 7 points on three for four shooting yesterday, had two assists to one turnover and threaded a nice backdoor pass yesterday. He is turning the team's guard crisis into an opportunity, and the Tigers could be significantly better off down the stretch. If the young guards can turn the crisis -- the absence of Greenman and Sargeant -- into an opportunity, the Tigers will be all the better for it during the Ivy season.

What does this all mean? Have I started my holiday drinking early? Am I looking at the Tigers so much through an orange-and-black lens that I can't see straight, that I don't see the inexperience and the inconsistent results to date? Am I incapable of looking at the Tigers objectively? Or, alternatively, have I expressed too much Castillian, Carillian pessimism about the squad?

What I am not saying is that the Tigers will win the Ivy League title. No, I don't think that they're that close to doing that. Contrary to Rick Majerus, who said yesterday that the Tigers will be ready to contend against Penn in 3-4 years (this is the same guy who said one reason he liked seeing Ashley Judd at Kentucky's games was that he didn't have to go back to his hotel and order adult movies on the pay TV, so consider the source), and is known for other bombastic statements, the Tigers could contend this year if a lot of things go right (better play from Ekeruo, more consistent shooting and more confidence at guard) and should contend next year, with almost everyone back and a very solid recruiting class for next fall (the Penn Quakers, by the way, will have most of their team back too next year, as only Eric Osmundsen and Friedrich Ebede are seniors on the Penn squad). No, this Princeton team right now doesn't have the answers for Penn's Steve Danley, Mark Zoller and Ibby Jaaber, to name a few, but no one else in the Ivies does either.

I don't think that Princeton will finish last in the Ivies, of course, and now they've moved out of last in the Sagarin ratings, up to #298 in the country according to that marking system (Dartmouth has slipped to #305). I predicted them for fourth in the Ivies, and by some measure during this strange roller coaster of a season, I could still see them attaining that perch. You could argue that only Harvard, Columbia and Penn are that demonstrably better than Princeton right now (don't let the Quakers' 3-4 record deceive you; they have played good basketball and are the team to beat in the Ivies, while Cornell has faltered). But neither Columbia nor Harvard plays the killer schedules that Princeton and Penn do, and while both have acquitted themselves well within their schedules, Harvard did lose in Bethlehem by 11 to the same Lehigh team that Princeton beat there by 10 and pretty much manhandled that day. (Okay, so Harvard has been battling injuries, but tell me of a team that really hasn't). I think all three of those teams -- Columbia, Harvard and Penn -- will be formidable, but I also think it's a mistake to count out the Princeton Tigers.

Joe Scott is doing what most Princeton coaches haven't had to do in the past 20 years and what, to a certain degree, Penn coach Fran Dunphy loves to do. Tinker. Figure out which combinations work the best, and which players complement each other and form a defensive unit that communicates and switches and an offensive unit that handles the ball with confidence. With such a young team, it's hard to figure out what combinations make the most sense. The Tigers' early-season record has shown that. On certain nights the Tigers played with precision; on other nights, the wheels fell off the bus, or, put differently, the Tigers would have fared better had the wheels fallen off the bus so that they didn't have to make it to the arena.

The good news is that the Monmouth game is almost a week old, and the odds are that that debacle will remain as the Tigers' low point for the season.

That's good news for Tiger fans.

And bad news for Tiger opponents.

Because reports of the collapse of the once-mighty Princeton basketball tradition are greatly exaggerated.

Patience is a hallmark of the Princeton Offense (even if, as some fans have contended, the Tigers' have been so patient on offense this year that they have become unaggressive at points and haven't been effective).

It isn't always the hallmark of basketball fans.

But it should be, at least for now, for the Princeton faithful.

It will get rewarded, either later this year, or most definitely next.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Holiday Sports Book and DVD Buying Guide -- Updated

Original Post on November 24; Updated on November 26. Re-Posted on December 17 for those of you who haven't done their shopping yet.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I hope that you get your fill of turkey and football today. We've already tossed around the football, and the turkey is cooking. The pies are baked (if interested in my pecan/chocolate chip pie that has been a hit for several years, please send me an e-mail).

I'm sure some of you will hit the stores tomorrow or this weekend to purchase holiday presents for loved ones and friends, and I figured that I'd give you ten book ideas and DVD ideas for you:

Books

1. The Glory of Their Times. Lawrence Ritter, a one-time professor of money and banking and New York University, visited turn-of-the-century ballplayers in the 1960s and got their recollections as to how they got into the game and the memorable moments and people of their careers. My copy is old and dog-eared (it cost $2.95 when my father gave it to me decades ago), and it remains my favorite baseball book. Among those featured are Hall of Famers Sam Crawford, Goose Goslin and Paul Waner, as well as such notables as Rube Marquard, Fred Snodgrass, Harry Hooper and Bill Wambsganss. Some were great players, some participated in a single moment, and all of it is great reading. Try to find a copy of this book for an avid baseball fan; he or she will not be disappointed. This is really a must read.

2. A Sense of Where You Are. New Yorker writer John McPhee wrote this portrait of now former-U.S. Senator, New York Knick and Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley, who was a Rhodes Scholar. McPhee's mastery is his economical use of words and his ability to describe details with the skill of a painter. Sounds easy, but this is more than a sports book, it's so good it's almost literature except it's non-fiction. Even if you're a rabid Penn fan, you'd have to admire the craftsmanship of this book.

2A. Friday Night Lights. I brain-cramped when I originally posted this list and neglected to mention H.G. Bissinger's classic about the year he spent with the Odessa Permian High School football team and its "mojo" in the late 1980's. This is an outstanding book and piece of sociology about the importance of football to a small Texas city. After all, as it's once been said about The Lone Star State, "there are two sports, football and spring football." I don't think that the movie in this case did justice to the book; the movie was a two, two-plus stars out of four affair, while the book is an all-timer. (That said, Bissinger wrote Three Nights in August, which I reviewed here and compared it to Michael Lewis's Moneyball, and while a good read, it is a letdown after Friday Night Lights and isn't as good as Moneyball).

3. My Personal Best: Life Lessons from an All-American Journey. In his late 80's and early 90's, Hall of Fame basketball Coach John Wooden has delivered a series of outstanding books that reflect on leadership and personal work habits. If you want to improve yourself, your team or a group that you lead, read any one of Coach Wooden's books. He's a humble man who didn't win his first national title until he was in his fifites, when he began his amazing streak at UCLA. I have reflected on some of Coach Wooden's philosophy and teaching and have found his wisdom very helpful and sometimes inspirational.

4. Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. One-time Sports Illustrated stalwart Robert Creamer wrote this all-time classic about baseball's best player of all-time. Creamer hit a home run here as he wrote about a true American original. It was written a while ago, so if you haven't read it yet, it's worth getting.

5. The Miracle of St. Anthony. This is a great book which I reviewed before here. It's a season with Bob Hurley, Sr., head basketball coach at St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, and a very compelling story.

6. Castro's Curveball. Great novel by Tim Wendel regarding a retiree's reflection on his days playing baseball in Cuba in the forties, where he ran into a promising pitcher named Fidel Castro. Wendel pulls off a great feat by blending baseball with good literary writing. Sometimes sports novelists are much better at the sports part than the writing part, while other times the good writers can't capture the feel of the sport. Wendel does both.

7. In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle. This book isn't currently in print, but it's the story about a high school hoops season (mid-1990's) of an excellent girls' high school team in Western Massachusetts amidst the five-college area that is home to Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and UMass. Author Madeleine Blais had great access to the entire team, including its two stars, one of whom, Jamila Wideman, excelled at Stanford and played for a while in the WNBA and has a compelling life story of her own.

8. My Losing Season. Novelist Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides) recalls his senior season at The Citadel in the 1960's, a turbulent affair where he busted his rear end for a volatile coach. Again, Conroy's skills as a writer shine, as you can feel the floor burns, cramped gyms and emotional blows that he had to endure during his last year playing organized basketball.

9. The Southpaw. This novel is the first in a series by author Mark Harris that features the pitcher/narrator Henry Wiggen, who plays for a fictional New York team. The most famous part of this series is Bang The Drum Slowly, but The Southpaw is the first in the series and a very good read. I would recommend this for a teenager who is interested in baseball, but adults would like it too. I believe there were four or five novels in this series.

10. Baseball's Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon. Conlon was a newspaper photographer who liked to take portraits of baseball players while on his vacations. He did that from 1904-1942, and the collection is just astounding. This man had a great gift for capturing the essence of his subjects in black and white, and you'll appreciate this book not only for who Conlon photographed, but for how well he did it.

Other outstanding books worth mention, in no particular order: "A Coach's Life" by Dean Smith (former Carolina coach discusses his teams and his philosophy and shows what a special place Carolina is and what a special show he was -- without bragging in the least), "Big Game, Small World" by Alexander Wolff (Sports Illustrated senior writer traveled the world to cover basketball in about twenty different countries, and his love for the game and the world's broad interest in it are brought to life here), "Foul!" by Connie Hawkins, the chronicle of the hoops life of one of the first street legends in NYC from the early 1960's,

DVDs

1. Eight Men Out. John Sayles turned Eliot Asimov's outstanding baseball book about the 1919 Chicago White Sox into a first-rate movie featuring, among others, David Strathairn (as Eddie Cicotte) and John Cusack (as Buck Weaver). Sayles is a gifted filmmaker, and his capturing of 1919 Chicago and the atmosphere surrounding the World Series then is just terrific stuff.

2. Hoosiers. Perhaps the best hoops film ever made, Hoosiers tells the story of a fictional 1950's small Indiana high-school basketball team and its quest to win the state title. It's based on a true story, and Gene Hackman gave a memorable performance as demanding coach Norman Dale.

3. Seabiscuit. Based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book about this great depression-era horse, you get great narration from award-winning author David McCullough and wonderful performances from Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Toby Maguire, with William H. Macy doing a great job in a cameo performance. The cinematography helps make this film the gem that it is, and as a bonus you get some great acting by real-life jockey Gary Stephens.

4. The Rookie. Dennis McQuaid does a great job playing Jim Morris, a high-school teacher and once-upon-a-time outstanding baseball prospect whose career seemingly ended because of arm troubles and then who resurrected it in his mid-thirties when he went to a major-league tryout on a lark after he lost a bet with his high school players. Morris' most unlikely journey to the majors is something that fiction writers couldn't have conjured as effectively. McQuaid does a fine job in the lead role, and this is a case where the movie honored the book, called "The Oldest Rookie", which was excellent as well.

5. Bend It Like Beckham. Fun story about an English young women's soccer team and the quest of a girl from a traditional Indian family to play soccer instead of immediately finding a husband. Head-turner Keira Knightley had her first major role, and I thought at the time she would blossom into a major star, which she has.

I chronicled my list of my all-time favorite sports movies here, so if you want other recommendations, click here.

Giving sports books and DVDs to loved ones and friends over the holiday season is a wonderful thing to do, and I hope that with the books particularly that I have given you ideas that go beyond the current best sellers.

Happy Thanksgiving and Black Friday, everyone!

The Joys of Strat-o-Matic

I received a holiday mailer from Strat-o-Matic the other day, and I figured I would share my recollections of this wonderful game that I played endlessly as a kid with you. Who knows, you might find it a worthwhile gift for a middle schooler who wants to feel more a part of the game than what he can while playing a simulated game on a Play Station?

Strat-o-Matic has one of those nifty, retro names that stirs memories of the Veg-o-Matic by Ronco commercials that populated the airwaves several decades (or more) ago. What the name belied, especially for its time, was a sophisticated game that you could play at a few different levels. We used dice and cards numbered 1-20 to figure out what a batter would do under certain circumstances, as personal computers were far off into the future.

We played the advanced game, one which broke down how pitchers and hitters fared against lefties and righties. Fielders were rated, and outfielders' arms were rated as well. Players were rated for their abilities to bunt, hit and run and steal, and pitchers were rated as to their effectiveness -- how far could a starter or reliever go before tiring. Pretty sophisticated stuff, and the strategy called for could be intense, especially if you took it seriously in the heat of a mid-1970's summer, which we did.

I don't recall precisely when the new game cards came out for a season, but we awaited them with great excitement. We shared the cards and did our own scouting on them, basically to determine which pitchers yielded the lowest on-base percentages (this guy, who's not a Hall of Famer, was among the best) and which hitters had the highest on-base percentages (this guy and this guy, both Hall of Famers, were among them, as was this guy, who wasn't appreciated in his time but who would be today). We didn't draft according to batting average or ERA, but according to what percentages were yielded.

Little did we know that that type of thinking didn't come around, really, until Michael Lewis wrote about it and this guy became a General Manager. As for the latter fellow, Lewis wrote about the GM's reliance on nifty stats like the stuff we relied upon. While Lewis didn't mention this in his book, I do recall an article in which Beane said he had played Strat-o-Matic in high school (perhaps the only world-class talented athlete to do so; the rest of us who played did so presumably because we couldn't get it done on the field but wanted to know what it was like to manage a team that did). To make the world even smaller, my best man, who played minor-league baseball with Beane, used to argue with him on occasion about whether you really needed a 5-tool type of player (which Beane was) or simply a guy who could make the plays (which Beane was not). As Lewis pointed out, Beane in his GM role seeks out the latter and not the former, or, put differently, Beane seeks out the "anti-Beane", as Lewis wrote.

We were just geeky kids, I suppose, so I doubt any GM would have listened to us if we wanted to espouse our theories. After all, everyone knew that Mike Schmidt and Joe Morgan were great players, so what difference would it have made if we truly pointed out why? Probably not much. But play we did, into the wee hours, and my parents took comfort that I was at the house of good kids with interests like mine and didn't care if I occasionally got home after midnight (one of those kids ended up clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, for what it's worth). We drank Coca-Cola out of glass bottles, needing an opener to flip off the caps, and we listened to Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn broadcast the Phillies' games on the radio. Listening to them, both Hall of Famers, and hearing about Schmidt and Steve Carlton, well, it couldn't get much better than that.

We also tried to keep everything real, and one year we kept stats to make sure we weren't overusing guys. We adopted a rule that said you can't play a player more than ten percent of his innings pitched or plate appearances, and we enforced the rule. That meant, for example, that if you had Andy Kosco after the 1973 season (when he hit 9 homers in 118 at bats -- a great ratio), you couldn't play him full-time and have him hit 45 home runs or so (especially because the precise reason he was a part-time player was that were he a full-time player, he would have fared much less well). Kosco was, however, very dangerous in pinch-hitting situations for the team owner that drafted him in a mid-to-late round that season.

Strat-o-Matic helped increase our analytical skills, our use of statistics, and our love of the game. To show that the appeal of the game isn't limited to the athletically challenged, during my senior year at Princeton I joined a league with a bunch of football players, one of whom loved the game so much that he climbed through my first-floor window at midnight to awaken me to play a series against his team (we drafted teams then, so it wasn't as though I had the Phillies or Yankees, but a combination of players drafted from throughout Major League Baseball). While I was dead tired, so amused was I by the prospect that he climbed through my window to play, that we played a series until about half past two in the morning.

Now, I'm sure you can get the game and play it on a computer, but I'm not so sure that it has the appeal of rolling both regular dice and the 20-sided "split card" dice that tells you whether your average baserunner actually can stretch a single into a double or whether your below-average shortstop can turn the double play. There was something about having your team's fate in your hands, with the dice, as opposed to depending on the click of a mouse. Progress is great for many things, but I'm not so sure that taking away the dice rolls adds to the fabric of what makes Strat-o-Matic so great. I'm sure the computerized version is great, but buy the board game if you want to capture the feel that the rest of us did decades ago.

I talked with a colleague at work the other day about the game, and I told him of our summer adventures. He smiled, because he said that he and his friends would cut school on occasion to play the game. He's a pretty successful guy, and at a young age, too, so I'm sure that he didn't miss too much class, and I'm sure that he learned a lot from playing this game too.

I don't like to look back on life that often, really, and when I do and write about it, it's often of found memories of shared experiences with people I really care (or cared) about. I try to maximize the present as much as possible, but when I do look back, I reflect upon enjoyable times that helped enrich my life. During those hot, humid summers, these late-night Strat-o-Matic sessions taught me a lot. I can't put my finger on exactly what, but all of it was good.

If you're looking for a good game for a post-third or fourth grader who is into baseball, this is definitely the game for him (or her). Buy a set and play it together. You'll be glad you did.

Who knows, perhaps you're raising the next General Manager of the Oakland A's -- in 2035!

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Virus

Read this latest "woe is me" tale from Terrell Owens.

Now see if you can spot the biggest hole that T.O. dug for himself.

Hint: it wasn't with his mouth.

Keep scrolling down until you find it. That's right -- the birthday party.

It's okay that T.O. threw a birthday party for himself. There's no crime in that. What's less okay, perhaps, is that 19 Philadelphia Eagles attended. Actually, that's really bad for T.O.

According to T.O.'s logic, that's probably a good thing, because it shows that T.O. wasn't that divisive a teammate. How could he be, right, if almost half his teammates showed for his shindig? That is probably what T.O. and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus-Colored Glasses probably would argue.

But they're dead wrong.

Because it proves the opposite. And, because of that, many teams will be very wary about signing up a 32 year-old wideout and give him a chance at his third strike.

Instead of proving how popular T.O. is, the attendance at the birthday party demonstrates how divisive he can be. How? Because half the team showed up. Given that T.O. is such a lightning rod for trouble, the showing of half the team only proves that T.O. can divide a team. And if you're a coach who commands respect and wants harmony, having a guy around who can do just that is a bad thing.

Even if he's Terrell Owens.

There are all sorts of morality plays out there about players selling their souls to the devil in order to win a title. Jim Bouton wrote in "Ball Four" that the average pitcher would take a pill that he knew would help win him 20 games, even if it took five years off his life. It looks like some prominent Major League Baseballers did just that too. As did the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Eagles were one of those teams who were about a player short of the title. During the years when they lost three straight NFC title games, it was the game-breaking wide receiver. So, two seasons ago, they went out and got one -- the prodigal son (at least with his mouth), Terrell Owens. A hard bargain, to be sure. The authoritative coach, Andy Reid, takes on a malcontent, albeit an extremely talented one, and makes his bargain to get to and hopefully win a Super Bowl.

He did get to the big game, and he didn't lose it because of T.O. That's for sure. T.O. played great.

But then the wheels fell off the bus. T.O. was unhappy, and he proceeded to drag the team down with him. He disrespected the entire organization, and 19 teammates still showed up at his birthday party.

That says a few things:

1. There is so little to do in Philadelphia that 19 teammates had to limo 65 miles south down to Atlantic City for some fun.

2. The Eagles' locker room is such a mess that they went to T.O.'s party because, well, they didn't know enough not to.

3. The one-time good feelings and harmony that Donovan McNabb engendered are gone. 19 teammates perhaps made a statement that they didn't feel a need to boycott and support McNabb.

4. If Donovan McNabb doesn't assert iron-like authority as the team's leader next year, the team still will be in a spin.

5. Name your own analysis.

Now, let's set the Eagles aside for a moment. If you're a GM in need of a game-breaking wide receiver, which some would argue is the most stocked position in the league, what do you do?

a. Call Matt Millen in Detroit (if he survives the season) and ask him to trade one of (a) Mike Williams, (b) Charles Rogers or (c) Roy Williams to you.

b. Take a receiver in the first round.

c. Sign Reggie Wayne as a free agent.

d. Sign Terrell Owens.

Ironically, d. might be your cheapest option, because given his oratorical acrobatics few, if any, teams will offer him much in the way of a signing bonus or long-term deal. But, if you go that route, are you making a deal with the devil, again? Once burned, twice shy. What, then, happens the third time?

Remember, 19 teammates, who he basically walked out on, went to his birthday party. 19 teammates, perhaps, demonstrated that he fractured what was once a very healthy locker room. If you're pretty close to the playoffs or contending, do you really want this guy? Is he worth it?

Sometimes you just have to walk away. Sometimes you just have to pass.

And if I'm a GM in it for the long haul, I'd go another route.

And let T.O. become someone else's problem.

Because deep down, you'll always be waiting for an outburst.

And they usually come at the worst time.

T.O. shouldn't be so happy that so many teammates showed up at his birthday party. It was a dumb move, and it only proves to any G.M. that putting T.O. in your locker room would be like putting sodium in your water and then sticking your head over it to watch the chemical reaction.

Ka-boom!

Ker-plunk!

Right in your face.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

We Won't Get Fooled Again

Two years ago, the Phillies opened Citizens Bank Park and drew roughly 3.25 million fans. Last year, that number dropped to 2.6 million fans. That's a lot of lost revenue, not only from ticket sales but from sales of things that Phanatic Build-a-Bears and $6.25 beers, to name two items.

Many pundits have espoused about the reasons for the decline in ticket sales -- even when the team made a serious run at both Atlanta for the Division title and Houston for the wild card. One, GM Ed Wade rivaled only Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort as the worst vilains in Philadelphia. Two, Wade had fired popular manager Larry Bowa the season before. Three, Wade had replaced Bowa with Charlie Manuel, when he had the chance to hire Jim Leyland. Four, he had signed too many players to no-trade contracts, meaning he was stuck with the likes of David Bell and Mike Lieberthal. Fifth, the dimensions of the park proved to be more intimate than the backseat of a '57 Chevy, leaving fans to believe that you can't be a serious contender in such a cozy park. After all, Gasoline Alley is for NASCAR, not Major League Baseball. Sixth, Jim Thome missed most of the season.

Heck, there were tons of reasons, but even then, it was still curious that a team in the hunt had trouble drawing fans. Especially in its second season in the new park.

After all, there were players to cheer for. Now-former closer Billy Wagner was touted as a potential Hall of Famer. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins had a thirty-six game hitting streak at season's end, and second baseman Chase Utley proved to be one of the best in the National League. And then there was Ryan Howard, who in about half a season hit well enough to win the Rookie-of-the-Year Award. The latter three form a formidable nucleus by anyone's standards.

So, you would think that there is some hope going into this year.

Think again.

It's not so much that the Phillies haven't spent money the way former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski spent corporate funds on his wife's birthday party. Or even like the Mets. It's just that, well, their lineup, particularly their starting rotation, look weak. I like Jon Lieber, think Cory Lidle is middle-of-the-road and believe that Brett Myers could be one magical season away from becoming a #1 starter. But they don't have a #1 starter, and their #4 and #5 starters will come from the likes of Ryan Madson (an excellent long reliever last year who got shelled beyond recognition in his one start), Gaving Floyd (a high first-round pick who looked more like Steve Blass at Scranton-Wilkes Barre last year than Steve Carlton), Eude Brito (a lefty who had a decent month last season) and Robinson Tejeda) no more than a #3).

While that rotation could scare the Marlins and perhaps the Nationals, I doubt it will do much to thwack the Mets or the Braves. The Phillies say that they've been looking for pitching help, but it doesn't appear that they have the money to sign the lead starting pitcher they so desperately need. It was smart that they didn't overpay for Billy Wagner, and Tom Gordon might not be as bad as you think, even if he isn't Wagner. Regardless of whether the closer would be Mariano Rivera or Mariano Duncan, however, the key issue is who can get them to the closer?

And the Phillies management hasn't answered that question. They haven't come close.

Two seasons ago, when the stadium was new, they drew 3.25 million fans.

Last season, roughly 2.6 million.

What will this year's number be?

Yes, they are lengthening the dimensions in left field so that a pop-up from a tiny shortstop doesn't carry over the wall. The last time I checked, though, hard-throwing pitchers who know what they're doing out there pose a better defense than fences. Come August, though, when Eude Brito is pitching against a team like the Reds with the Phillies 15 1/2 games out and only 11,231 in the stands, the owners shouldn't get befuddled and offer excuses.

Because they'll have earned that perch in the standings on merit.

As for the fans, the incumbent owners have done them a disservice. After a sizable drought, the fans deserve a harmonic convergence of a cool ballpark and a team that gets fans excited. It's not too much to ask. Here's to hoping that the owners, if they don't sell their team (which would be the best present they could give Phillies fans), don't give out goofy contracts with no-trade clauses to average-to-above-average players who don't deserve them (Mike Lieberthal) or to players who haven't done enough to warrant that treatment (Pat Burrell) again. They did do a good job dealing JimThome and not having to eat more of his salary than they did, and that's a good start.

But it's just not enough.

No pitching, no winning season.

No fans.

And that sound that you hear in the Philadelphia area won't be booing, no, because the fans, you see, are pretty smart. They won't pay money to show up and boo.

That sound will be the collective sound of another 500,000 pairs of feet, taking their entertainment dollars to the minor league parks in the region, to municipal recreation areas or to the South Jersey shore.

And who could blame them?

When the Headline Doesn't Tell the Entire Story

#3 Villanova beat cross-town rival Pennsylvania last night at Penn's Palestra to go 7-0. That's pretty much the headline, and on places such as ESPN Radio the score got read precisely because Villanova is a Top 25 team and is playing well (even if one of its key players, Curtis Sumpter, is out for the year and another, Kyle Lowery, played on 12 minutes because of back spasms).

So what, you say? After all, 'Nova only beat an Ivy League school by 7 points. What's the big deal in that?

Well, if you're a fan of the national scene and only follow the "chalk" conferences, you're probably right. It's not a big deal, and, if anything, it shows that the #3 team in the land isn't made out of Teflon. The Wildcats have their weaknesses, but, as with all good teams, they beat a tough opponent, a traditional rival, in its own building. Sounds easy, right? Actually, it's a very hard thing to do.

Even if you play in the Big East and your opponent is an Ivy school. Take a look at Penn's and Princeton's schedules over the past 10 years, and what you'll find is the paucity of big-name teams willing to play those schools in their own buildings. Why? Because in most years, on the right night, those teams can beat you.

And, if they do, you won't want to go back.

Penn came awfully close last night, less than a week after playing a respectable game against Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. When I say "respectable", I mean that Penn was within striking distance the whole game and most certainly didn't get blown out. After all, they're not the Texas Longhorns.

Why is this game significant? Well, paraphrasing from Ben Franklin, I still don't think that there's such a thing as a bad win or a good loss. That said, most coaches will tell you that what they look for is for their team to do its best, and to give the type of effort that they can be proud of. I didn't see the game, but from the reports that I heard, Penn did just that -- and without their biggest regular, starting center Steve Danley, who missed the game because of a concussion. That had to give Penn coach Fran Dunphy a great deal of satisfaction.

Some teams would have used Danley's absence as an excuse against the feared Wildcats. I even blogged early this season that Penn was only a Steve Danley season-ending injury (which, by the way, this concussion is not) from real trouble, because they really don't have a back-up center. Further, I opined that I thought that Penn's bench was its weakest in years and had to establish itself.

Well, I think that the Penn bench did just that. When Friedrich Ebede came out of high school about five years ago, my Penn friends were touting him as the next Ugonna Onyekwe, the next player from Penn who could dominate the Ivies. That just didn't happen, and Ebede only would get into one-sided affairs. This season, though, was different, and Ebede found himself as part of the Quakers' rotation. He showed some gumption against Duke, and last night had a career game against Villanova -- 13 points 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.

A coming out party, perhaps, albeit a bit late in his career.

For Penn, though, it's better late than never. Especially this season, when the Quakers could use the help off the bench.

Last night could have been a crisis for Penn against the #3 team in the country. Instead, Friedrich Ebede turned it into an opportunity. No one told him he was supposed to fold up and turn the ball over. He just went out there and played the best he could.

Great news for Penn. Bad news for the rest of the Ivy League.

Once Danley comes back from injury, Ebede will join sophomore Brian Grandieri (10 points and 2 assists against Villanova) and freshman Tommy McMahon (who has great confidence in his shot) as the players who get the most time off Penn's bench. More and more, this is looking like a formidable group.

Going into the season, you had a seldom-used senior, a sophomore coming off an injury that caused him to miss his freshman year, and a freshman. Now, it's looking like the most solid bench in the Ivies.

Bad loss to Villanova, right?

It says here that games like this will give the Penn Quakers the confidence to win their 9th Ivy title in the last 14 years.

Welcome Back, Koetter!

It's not that I've always aspired to write a headline like this (although I thought that "Portrait of Artest as a Young Man" was pretty cute), but the facts now lend themselves to the headline.

Read this and see what I mean.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Columbia Breaks the Color Barrier

I honestly don't think there's a color barrier in Ivy athletics. Last year, half of the Ancient Eight's men's hoops coaches were African-American. This year, three are (the fourth, John Thompson III, moved on to Georgetown). But that's basketball.

Until yesterday, no Ivy school had a man of color at the helm of its football team. Columbia University changed all that when it hired Norries Wilson, the offensive coordinator at UConn, to be its head coach.

The first head football coach of color at an Ivy League school.

Ever.

It's about time.

Actually, it's long overdue.

I blogged here last year that it appeared, at least to me, that the term "black quarterback" had gone out of vogue -- for all the right reasons. After all, many African-American quarterbacks now start in the NFL, and all of Jacksonville's quarterbacks in 2004 and now 2005 -- Byron Leftwich, David Garrard and Quinn Gray -- are African-American (I didn't count Oklahoma alum Nate Hybl, who is on the practice squad). Thankfully, most of us -- Rush Limbaugh excepted -- are looking at quarterbacks as quarterbacks, regardless of race. That's excellent progress, even if it did take too long and even if some excellent would-be quarterbacks didn't get the chance because, back in the day, they were moved to wide receiver or defensive back -- because of their race (Tony Dungy might have been one). No more "black quarterback" (the moniker that Doug Williams and James Harris, among others, had to live with). Just simply, whether it's Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Peyton Manning or Carson Palmer -- the quarterback who can beat your brains out.

It's also time for us to consider head football coaches as head coaches and not as "black head coaches." There are too few head coaches of color in Division I-A and Division I-AA, and that should change. That's not to say that every African-American or Asian-American assistant coach automatically is qualified to be a head coach -- some clearly are not, as many white assistants-turned-head coaches proved that they were not. But all assistants of color deserve an equal shot to get the interviews and have access to the same process that white coaches have access to. It's not only fair, it's the American way.

As is football.

Columbia took a great step forward for the conference that desires to inspire the world to bigger and better things. And while Norries Wilson would have a better chance to win an Ivy title at any other Ivy school given Columbia's sad gridiron history, he earned the opportunity presented to him. Here's to hoping that the Columbia administration, especially its admissions office, will honor him the way he has honored Columbia by joining it. He cannot beat Harvard, Yale and Princeton by himself. Not to mention perennial power Pennsylvania.

Hail, Columbia, for taking this step. In the process, here's to hoping that this step, and many others like it, will end the shame that has been the lack of head coaches of color in football in the college.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Ugly American

draw, that is, in the World Cup.

No one really knows how the denizens of the World Cup draw up the brackets, but what you should know is that there are 32 teams in the World Cup, there are eight brackets, eight top seeds, and that two from each of the eight brackets advance to the second round. Sounds easy, you say, for the Americans, given that earlier this year FIFA, the international soccer body, rated them fifth in the world (they were seventh in the last ranking)?

Well, you say wrong. Because unlike getting a dance card with Togo, Trinidad and Tobago and the Galapagos Islands, the U.S. men's team drew Italy and the Czech Republic in their group, along with Ghana. Italy is the top seed in the gropu, but at one time this year the Czech Republic had a top-five FIFA ranking. Put simply, the World Cup moguls aren't about to let an upstart American team take over the sport the way some of the politicos who run their countries think America would like to take over the rest of the world. Most definitely, the road to the top, if they get there, will require the Americans to knock off some heralded programs.

To me, though, the groupings strike me as a bit ridiculous. Mexico, whom the Americans handled in Columbus, Ohio in a key qualifier late this year and seemingly have overtaken as third best team in the Western Hemisphere after Brazil and Argentina, is a top-seed. And who's in their bracket? Iran, Angola and Portugal. Okay, the Portuguese can be dangerous, but I doubt that a top seed will lose too much sleep over either Iran or Angola. Neither rival the Czech Republic in terms of the quality of their play. The interesting game could be Portugal versus Angola; when the last time these two teams played, there were such fireworks that the game had to be stopped with 20 minutes to play -- onfield fireworks -- in terms of dirty tackles.

And then there's England, an international power, yes, but an international power whose best-known player, David Beckham, is aging, and whose future star at striker, Wayne Rooney, has all the maturity of a rapping American footballer matriculated at the University of Miami. Mighty England got an interesting draw too as a top seed -- Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago and Sweden. Someone in the English Football Federation must have some great dirt on the World Cup bracket makers, because none of those teams is really a threat to do that much damage in the tournament. Perhaps England's soccer team needs a newfangled bit of lend-lease, because they didn't set the world on fire with their play in the qualifying rounds. Easy draw for the Brits. J.K. Rowling couldn't have written a better early-round story for them.

Finally, there's host Germany, who gets Poland, Costa Rica and Ecuador, none of which is likely to send the German national team packing before the round of 16. Okay, though, you have to give the bracketers a pass here, because the Germans are the hosts, and, well, it wouldn't have been fair to pair them with the United States and the Czech Republic. Then again, Ecuador beat Brazil in a World Cup qualifying game, Costa Rica finished third in its qualifying group behind the U.S. and Mexico, and the Poles played well in their qualifying group too. All well and good, and the Germans are a little nervous.

But they still should advance.

As for the American team, they have a tough road ahead. Their bracket isn't as tough as, say, Argentina's (Argentina, eliminated in the first round in 2002, drew Cote d'Ivorie, Netherlands and Serbia and Montegro -- considered the toughest group). Quicker than you can say Hernan Crespo ten times in a row, the Argentines could get sent packing again in the first round.

But it says here that they will not.

I still say that an interesting bet would be Brazil versus the field to win the entire tournament, albeit with great odds. None of the other international powers seems to have the firepower that the Brazilians do. As I've written before, I think that their second team could probably have qualified for the World Cup as its own country. No other country, I believe, can make that claim. The rest of the international powers have their flaws on some part of the field; it's hard to argue that Brazil does. The only question for the Brazilians is if they all can work together and subordinate their wills for the good of the entire national team. They have talent to burn, but can they meld together to win the World Cup again?

It's a tempting bet.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

"Buy Me a Drink When I'm Alive"

Years ago, when what's now the Continental Airlines Arena, was built next to The Meadowlands, a controversy ensued. No, it wasn't about where Jimmy Hoffa's body was supposed to rest. It was about the naming of the arena.

They named the arena after Brendan Byrne, the Governor of New Jersey. There was squawks from many camps, from those who didn't want it named after a current politician to those who didn't want it named after someone who, well, wasn't deceased. Ultimately, the name stuck -- at least for a while. Former Marquette coach turned TV commentator, the late Al McGuire, uttered the most memorable line. McGuire, for one, had no problem with the arena's being named after Byrne. "It's like my father used to say," McGuire was quoted as having said, "'don't send flowers to my funeral, buy me a drink when I'm alive.'"

(That very sentiment, by the way, prompted my annual golfing pilgrimage with some college friends. Most of us had trouble keeping in touch. We don't live near each other, we have families, and, well, we're very busy. After having had some friends die in their forties (and realizing that if I didn't do something about it, I would be having more reunions at funerals than in fun places), I decided several years ago to call the question about the annual trip -- and the responses were such that you would have thought I invented cable television, the iPod or the driver that corrects errant shots. It's become an annual tradition. But I digress. . .)

Vince Carter, former Carolina all-American and now running mate of Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson in New Jersey -- now at the Continental Airlines Arena, nee Brendan Byrne Arena, ironically, made a big contribution to his former high school -- $2.5 million, to be exact -- to help it to build a new gym. That's a very nice gesture. Except, as with many kind acts, there are complications.

In this case, a sculpture.

Of Vince Carter.

Apparently, three years ago the superintendent of schools and a few board members agreed to accept the sculpture when the offer of the donation was made. Mr. Carter's mother is donating the artwork. That doesn't sit well with some in the community. Click on the second link and read the whole thing. In essence, a board member doesn't think that the sculpture sends the right message to kids about the types of people who should be honored. She didn't knock Carter, but she did indicate that there are others who are worthy of praise but who don't get it -- because they don't make a lot of money. (It could be argued that they don't get that type of attention because they didn't donate that type of money, but that's for another post somewhere else).

Is this a battle worth fighting? Or not?

I couldn't imagine wanting a statue of myself anywhere, even if I donated money for the entire gym. Then again, I don't have the basketball skills of Carter, and sometimes those who achieve at a level Carter does have to have such a high opinion of themselves to achieve those heights in the first place. Further, that high opinion obviously doesn't stop on the basketball court, it permeates into other areas of the star's life. That, perhaps, is what gives them "star quality" and gives the rest of America something to talk about it, whether they like the pretension or not. (For what it's worth, after he left Carolina early, Carter went back and earned his degree).

It's a fact in this world that some people get honored precisely because they donate money. Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay, just donated somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million to her alma mater, Princeton, to have a residential college named in her honor. Yes, it will be called Whitman College. It won't be named after one of her roommates, a library staff member who might have helped her order some publications she needed for her senior thesis or a junior faculty member who inspired her. It's named after her. I don't know whether there will be a statue of Ms. Whitman, but my guess is that there will be a plaque. Put differently, universities do this thing all the time.

Even if they stop short of erecting statues.

Perhaps the difference is what will happen to the pigeon refuse. In the case of Meg Whitman, the pigeons no doubt will find the nooks and crannies of the beautiful buildings Princeton constructs as a part of Whitman College and do, as they have done to gargoyles on other buildings, adorn it with some white coloring that, if you didn't know better, you would think happened because some painters got a little too sloppy and spilled some paint on the edifice. In the case of Mr. Carter, his cranium will be adorned with a similar white coating, which will look either like someone spilled paint on it as a prank or decided to try to place a colonial-type whig on his bald dome. If Vince can take that type of abuse, I suppose I can live with it.

It's nice, what Vince Carter did, the same way it's nice what Meg Whitman did. And it's not wrong that they have their names attached to the structures they've helped build in some serious way. We all should remember that.

As for the statue, well, to each his (or her) own.

Just watch out for the pigeons.

Depending on where you sit (or where your likeness is erected), they could be a small price to pay for fame.

Or not.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Cupcakes, Twinkies, High Fiber, Macrobiotic

No, I'm not about to analogize college hoops schedules to the types of diets or foods people eat, but suffice it to say that there are differences among the schedules that various Division I schools play. Many schools, I believe, fall into the large center category (to use a political analogy, I suppose). They play some teams they can beat, some games that could go either way, and some games that would be very good wins.

That's probably the way it should be. If you play a diet of lesser teams, you risk playing down to your competition and not being well-prepared for your conference schedule. If you're Duke and you scheduled Longwood, Kennesaw State, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Northern Arizona, you probably wouldn't be ready for a grueling ACC schedule. In contrast, if you're Harvard and want to get ready for what could be your most productive Ivy season in 21 years, you don't want to warm up by scheduling Boston College, Syracuse, Michigan State and Cal. You won't get a good measure of yourself if you get pasted by 30 points in each of those games. In fact, you could sap your team of any pre-season confidence it might have had.

I don't subscribe to the RPI (that is, I don't have access to it) and I am not a numbers cruncher per se, so indulge me in my rather liberal arts approach to evaluating whether a team has a tough, middling or soft schedule. As one-time U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote about pornography, "I know it when I see it." Well, the same can hold true for evaluating a college basketball team's schedule.

My source for this exercise is The Sporting News college basketball guide. It came out well before the college basketball season, which means that some of the schedules might have changed. A strength of this guide is that it rates conferences, which means I'll point out some pre-season schedules that I think deserve some scrutiny.

1. Notre Dame. I like their roster, and Mike Brey has been able to recruit some good players to South Bend, which, once again, is reasserting its status as a football school. Notre Dame gets 3 cupcake rating -- out of four -- for a pre-season schedule that includes Lafayette, Hofstra, Florida International, Indiana Purdue at Fort Wayne, Niagara, Columbia, Fordham and Wofford. Okay, Notre Dame also had N.C. State, Michigan and Alabama on its pre-season schedule, but Michigan isn't Chris Webber's Michigan, and the bulk of the schedule doesn't present the most challenging games for the fighting Irish.

2. Pittsburgh. Jamie Dixon gets a 3.5 cupcakes out of four for the Panthers' pre-season schedule, which includes St. Peter's, Robert Morris, Maine, St. Francis (NY), Duquesne, Penn State, Vermont and Coppin State. True, he's scheduled South Carolina on the road, Wisconsin at home and Auburn, but the bulk of this schedule is weak. Vermont was a great story last year, but four of the five starters from that team are gone. Penn State is not a good basketball team, and neither South Carolina nor Auburn are that outstanding. Formidable enough for the pre-season, perhaps, but this is a weak pre-season schedule.

3. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights' pre-season schedule includes St. Mary's, Maryland Eastern Shore, Buffalo, St. Thomas Aquinas, South Carolina State, Charlotte and Princeton. Okay, so the Big East schedule is brutal, but this schedule suggests that sparring with Pee Wee Herman would have been a good way to prepare for a championship bout against Smokin' Joe Frazier. This schedule rates 3.5 cupcakes on the four cupcake scale.

4. St. John's. About 2.5 cupcakes for the Johnnies, who did schedule Duke and Virginia Tech (the latter on the road), but also have Maryland Eastern Shore, St. Francis (NY), Hofstra, Niagara, Charleston Southern, Stony Brook and their own layup, the Holiday Festival, on their pre-season schedule. This isn't as bad as some of the other pre-season schedules, but it isn't that challenging.

5. South Florida. Predicted for second-to-last in Big East pre-season polls, this squad has scheduled Alcorn State, Jacksonville, Florida International, the Missouri State Classic, Stetson, Florida Atlantic and Bethune-Cookman. Sure, there's UAB and Michigan mixed in, but neither are that formidable, and then there's the Rainbow Classic as the holiday treat. Score this one 3.5 cupcakes out of four.

In contrast, look at Duke's pre-season schedule.

Pre-season NIT, Davidson (the cream of its conference), Indiana (on the road), Pennsylvania (the cream of its league), Texas, Valparaiso, St. John's, UNC Greensboro and Bucknell (cream of the Patriot League and a team that could crack the Top 25 this year). Sure, Coach K gets a lot of these teams to play at Cameron, but the Dookies aren't playing Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Central Florida and South Florida in the same pre-season. They wouldn't think of it.

Now, you might say, hey, wait a minute, it isn't fair to analogize Duke to anyone, that the Dookies are in a class by themselves, and, well, it's just not fair. Well, Duke could schedule a few more cupcakes in its pre-season and probably get away with it. To Coach K's credit, they don't. It's not like Davidson and Penn really have a good chance to win in Durham, but they're well-coached, disciplined teams that present interesting challenges for Duke. At best, it's a challenging schedule. At one's most critical thinking, it's a crafty schedule that presents winnable if intriguingly challenging games. I say it's a good schedule for Duke.

And, if you say, well, Duke shouldn't be the measuring stick, then let's look at John Chaney and Temple. Say what you will about Coach Chaney (and he brought a lot of criticism on himself last year), he will schedule anyone anywhere. Let's look at Temple's pre-season schedule: Preseason NIT, Miami, Rutgers (away), Penn (away), Princeton (away), Alabama, Auburn (away), South Carolina, Villanova. And this is an easier schedule than in past years, but it still presents challenges against historically good teams or teams from big conferences. A high-fiber schedule without a real cupcake among these teams (even if Princeton is having a down year).

"So what?" you say. Well, let's compare the Owls' pre-season schedule to that of the current darlings of the A-10 watchers, George Washington. Its pre-season schedule is a 2.5 cupcake affair that includes Kennesaw State, Norfolk State, St. Francis (PA), Boston U., Maryland, Florida International, Morgan State, Maryland Eastern Shore and North Carolina State. Okay, you do have two ACC teams in the mix, but the other teams won't help get you off the bubble and into the Big Dance if that's where you find yourselves at season's end.

So what's the message here? What's the proper prescription for your favorite college basketball team? It's hard to say. But let's suppose you're a mid-major, you have a reasonably talented team coming back, and you want a good mix of 12 games as part of your pre-season schedule. I would suggest that you schedule 3 teams that probably will beat you, five that are reasonably challenging and four that you should win. Let's suppose you're the Penn Quakers, winners of 8 of the last 13 Ivy titles.

Four top or bigger-name teams: Duke, Villanova, Colorado, St. Joseph's.
Five challenging teams: Drexel, LaSalle, Hawaii, Fordham, Citadel.
Four games you should win: Siena, Navy, BYU-Hawaii, Lafayette.

That sounds about right. You will test your abilities against a variety of teams, see who can play under different circumstances and against different styles, and, in the process, ready your team for the Ivy season. You didn't beat Duke tonight and you shouldn't beat Villanova, but you'll be competitive in many of these games and win about 7 or 8 of them. An 8-4 non-Ivy record should help you compete fiercely in the Ivies and win your league.

Take a look at some schedules when you get the chance. What you'll see, when you get past the extremes, is a healthy mixture of sure wins, toss-ups and will wins. That's a healthy prescription for a good season.

And it doesn't have to be that complicated.

Grady Little's Next Chance

Most thought it might not come again.

I, for one, am glad that it did.

There are enough stories about careers in which someone transgressed badly enough at some point in his career that he won't get another chance, whether it's in the cockpit, with the church keys or managing your baseball team. And in certain instances, that's a shame.

Grady Little compiled a .580 managerial record with the BoSox (and was well-regarded as a minor league manager and coach) before getting the ax a few seasons ago because he left Pedro Martinez in too long in the post-season. He did so eschewing a bullpen that had at the time a productive Alan Embree as the lefty setup man and a productive Mike Timlin as the righty set-up man. All because it's tough to tell a future Hall of Famer to sit down. (He also had the flammable, as opposed to flame-throwing, Byung-Hyun Kim as a closer, which might explain, if not excuse, the faux pas).

It's clear that Grady Little didn't exercise his managerial prerogative that day and tell Pedro to sit down. It's also clear that Grady Little concomitantly committed the post-season sin of forgetting to use good non-closing relievers. Many managers are guilty of that. They use extra starters as relievers figuring that they have better arms than the set-up men. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The problem for the BoSox was that they had an excellent bullpen at the time and let a sore-armed pitcher stay in the game and get hit hard.

So GradyLittle got sacked, not because the BoSox lost, but because of how they lost. The Red Sox front office got gunshy about Grady Little and, not confident about letting him make key decisions again, let him go.

I didn't agree with the decision. I didn't like Little's decisions, but I thought he deserved another chance. (After all, Dusty Baker, viewed as a good manager, has made some horrid post-season decisions, and he's been managing for a while without a firing-induced respite). Yet, I could understand where the Red Sox were coming from -- they had to get someone else. And it looked like Grady Little was on the scrap heap of baseball history, along with the names Merkle, Snodgrass, Durham (Leon) and Buckner, perhaps never to get another chance to redeem himself.

He's getting one now. Credit Dodger GM Ned Colletti for having the guts to make the call. (Question him, if you will, for why somehow one-time Angels, Blue Jays and Phillies' manager Jim Fregosi somehow snuck into a managerial selection pool). Little is getting his second chance, and he deserves it.

Far, far away from Beantown.

It's not like the BoSox replaced Little with the baseball equivalent of Bill Belichick. True, at one point Tony LaRussa might have been interested, but instead of searching far and wide from some math brain to bring their team a championship, they brought in Terry Francona. Francona is a good guy, a players' manager, but no one will accuse him of being a great baseball mind. If there's a crainial continuum for baseball coaches that can be measured in football parlance, it's probably the case that Francona is more toward the Rich Kotite end of the spectrum than the Belichick end.

He did, to his credit, stay calm and keep it relatively simple when the BoSox came from 3 down to overtake the Yankees two years ago in the ALCS. Ironically, his biggest sin wasn't leaving Pedro Martinez in too long -- it was putting him in as a reliever late in the series. Go figure. The BoSox win the World Series and Francona doesn't have to buy a meal in Boston for a while, and Little got banished. It's not as though Francona's being at the helm is akin to Trent Dilfer's winning a Super Bowl at QB for the Ravens about five years ago, but the Red Sox didn't replace Little with someone with great credentials. Francona's previous major-league managerial job left him with a losing record in Philadelphia in the 1990's. He just turned out to be what the Red Sox needed -- a solid baseball man with a reputation for getting along with his players. You didn't need a rocket scientist with all that talent, you just needed someone to rule with a lighter touch. Francona did what it took, and I, for one, was glad to see a nice thing happen to a nice guy, a baseball lifer.

Now it's Grady Little's turn. He's not taking over a team with the talent of the Red Sox or the same commitment to winning. The Dodgers are intent upon turning things around, but hopefully owner Frank McCourt will have more patience with the Colletti/Little regime than he did with the DePodesta/Tracy regime. If he does, some good things can happen for one of baseball's most storied franchises.

And for a manager who deserves one more chance.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Replacing the T.O. Jersey

Or, perhaps the Eagles shouldn't sell me any more jerseys.

Last year, on the day before the NFC Championship game, I went out shopping for Eagles' jerseys for my young kids, figuring that a team this good might not come around for a long time. I went shopping in the snowstorm that preceded the big game, and I bought a Donovan McNabb jersey for my son and a Terrell Owens jersey for my daughter. I tried talking the latter out of her selection (and into a purchase of a Brian Dawkins jersey), if only because the personality of the brash Owens is in stark contrast to the personality of my daughter. Unconvinced, she said she wanted the T.O. jersey, and I obliged.

Fast forward less than a year later, and it became apparent that the T.O. jersey would not be worn again. The reason was pretty simple -- he was no longer an Eagle. And because of the opprobrium attached to the #81 in green, the jersey would not be received well in some circles if worn among Eagles fans. The divisions are too great, the hurt too much, and, well, as I've blogged before, we just must not speak his name.

That's fine, so for the holidays we decided to replace the jersey (for what it's worth, Sears has been running a sale on NFL jerseys for 30% off, at least near where I live, in a Philadelphia suburb -- I'm not so sure that the sales apply in areas of the country where the local NFL team will make the playoffs, such as in Seattle, Indianapolis, Chicago or New York. If I were the pricer of the merchandise, I wouldn't offer any discounts in those cities). In any event, we talked to our daughter generally about replacing her T.O. jersey.

Now, it's not that they sell just anyone's jersey in stores. Sure, you can spend big bucks and have one custom made, but this is a young kid who will grow out of the jersey soon enough. I touted the names that appear in the stores -- Dawkins, Kearse, Akers, Trotter, McNabb, Westbrook -- and she originally suggested tight end L.J. Smith. Not a bad choice, but I told her that it wasn't as though LJ. Smith was in demand. After thinking about it further and reading up on players a little bit, she decided on Brian Westbrook.

Good choice, we thought. He is a very good back, just signed a five-year deal, figures to stay in town for a while. A safe pick. So, on Saturday night, we went out to locate the jersey and purchased one in her size at Sears for about $31. It's really a "next year" type of present, when we all expect the Eagles to rebound from this year's dismal season, recover from the jinx that losing Super Bowl teams have suffered in recent years, get their squad healthy, make the playoffs and create hope for us again. Have the kids wear their green and white jerseys to school with pride. In any event, we made the purchase.

Which was all well and good, until Westbrook suffered a season-ending foot injury in Monday's night's debacle against the Seahawks. Ouch!

But then think about it. . .

McNabb -- sports hernia, out for the year.

Owens -- personality hernia, out for the year.

Westbrook -- Lisfranc sprain, out for the year.

We're not in the market for jerseys anymore, but if Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner are out there and read this blog, they can e-mail me privately and get mailing information on where to send my kids a whole compliment of jerseys represnting the numbers of the skill position players for the Cowboys and the Giants. Then again, if the Giants' or Cowboys' front office staffs read this post, perhaps they should send some bouquets my way as an inducement to stay out of the market for their jerseys. After all, you don't want Typhoid Mary SportsProf to purchase your jerseys.

At any price.

Which makes me wonder if I should really purchase any merchandise from any other hometown team this holiday season.

I also wonder why vendors are still selling T.O. jerseys at full price -- around $50 to $55 dollars at many stores. Do they actually think that they can sell them? Where do jerseys like that -- which have no market -- go to die? Do they get sold to some guy who purchases unwanted merchandise and then sells it overseas in some market where it's hip to purchase American merchandise. Will all of a sudden we discover some Japanese rappers or Chinese high school kids wearing #81 Eagles jerseys because they were available in abundant supply at a local flea market? I'm interested in knowing the answer to this question, because, quite frankly, the merchants should be offering these jerseys at a significant discount.

Which, perhaps, they would do -- if they could find any takers. I do feel badly for the merchants, who obviously laid out a lot of good money to stock T.O. jerseys, as well as I feel badly for the fans who bought them.

I just hope Brian Westbrook is healthy enough to play next year.

For a nice little girl's sake.

How About Them Eagles?

Now, when you hear the nickname Eagles, you probably first think of the Philadelphia Eagles. You know that team, the team that went to the Super Bowl last year, had Terrell Owens on the roster, had an awful, public falling out with him, has four Pro Bowlers on the injured list, countless numbers of other players injured, is currently 5-7 and could finish say, 6-10 and perhaps have enough to trade up to get Reggie Bush in the NFL draft.

Wrong sport for this post, though. Suppose I directed the conversation to college basketball. When I mention "Eagles," which school would come to mind first? Of course it would be Boston College, one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's powers and recently ranked #6 in the country. But that's not who I'm talking about, either.

I've been reviewing a few pre-season guides to determine a continuum of pre-conference schedules. At one end of the spectrum are the schools that play the toughest schedules, and, in recent memory, schools like Temple have come to mind (this year is no exception). At the other end of the spectrum are the schools that play the easiest schedules. In the past 25 years, when John Thompson, Jr. coached Georgetown, they were known for playing a rather easy pre-conference schedule. Think Temple, think fiber. Think Georgetown, think cupcakes.

Historically, when we've looked at pre-conference schedules, we've looked at the schedules of the schools from whom we expect a lot on the court. We scrutinized Temple's schedule and developed an admiration for Coach John Chaney because he would play anyone anywhere -- and did. Temple teams were respected and then feared in the NCAA Tournament, because their regular season prepared them for the Big Dance. About some of the other schools, however, we weren't so sure. (Hard to knock John Thompson, Jr.'s success at Georgetown, though, as he did win a national title and went to several Final Fours).

When I write a more definitive post on the topic, I'll examine the schedules of schools from the most highly rated conferences and give my view as to which schools have hard schedules and which have easy ones. Most, you will find, play a balanced pre-season schedule. They schedule some tough games, some games against tough mid-majors, and then a few layups. That's only fair, because you don't want to destroy a team's pre-conference confidence by playing a steady diet of Top 40 teams.

But what about the schools that make up part of the cupcake diet? Not every school can be a high- or mid-major. Sheer mathematics require that there be some low majors too. And, when you think Eagles, think Coppin State, a hearty state school from Baltimore with a Philly guy, Ron "Fang" Mitchell, as their head coach, who seemingly will schedule anyone anywhere. Click here to see what I mean.

At Xavier.

At Oklahoma.

At UCLA.

At Illinois.

At Pitt.

At Michigan.

At Michigan State.

Consecutively.

Who is the Athletic Director at the Baltimore school? The Marquis de Sade? The Marquis of Queensbury at least would have given the team a fighting chance and scheduled a few of these games at home if he could. Remember, under Fang Mitchell, this school was about four minutes away from making the Sweet Sixteen several years ago. And, yes, it's Coach Mitchell himself who is the A.D.

Most doctors recommend a diet high in fiber for their patients. That said, I would surmise that a diet too rich in anything could be hazardous for your team's health. The appearance fees must be rich enough to help fund the Coppin State athletic budget, but is this schedule conducive to building a championship hoops team?

We always read about the Dukes, the Boston Colleges, the Kansases and the like, but remember part of the ecosystem that makes Division I college basketball what is has teams like Coppin State going out of their way to play a very tough pre-season schedule. My guess is that they do so for the survival of their athletic program in general (as schools need to field a minimum number of teams to qualify for Division I status in men's hoops) as opposed to the survival and thriving of their men's hoops team.

Funny, then, how the men's hoops' ecosystem works. Those at the bottom need to have the top feed on them to survive, while the bottom feeders sometimes, but not always, are part of the elite. There isn't that much of a penalty, really, for feasting on cupcakes.

There is, then, a place in DI hoops for Coppin State, which, some day, somewhere, will get a reward for playing the schedule it does.

And when it gets that chance, all of us will be pulling for these Eagles, as much the underdogs as anyone else.