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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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

My First View of Princeton Men's Basketball

I watched the last 10 1/2 minutes of the Princeton-Lafayette game last night, thanks to the fact that may cable TV carrier picks up the Lehigh Valley station. (If you want more in-depth coverage of Princeton, go to the Princeton Basketball blog that I've linked to, and if you want more on the Ivies, please go to Basketball U -- those guys cover Princeton and the Ivies very well). (And, sorry, readers, but reading to the kids at bedtime and spending time with them after work renders me unable to watch the game from the beginning, at least for now).

Here are some thoughts:

1. The Tigers are not big, and they are not athletic. They're good enough for a top 3 finish in the Ivies (probably behind Penn and ahead of one of Columbia or Yale), where being super-quick or very tall doesn't matter as much. In the action that I saw, they didn't look as fluid on offense as past Tiger championship teams or past Joe Scott Air Force teams. Still, the season is young, and Coach Scott is tinkering with his lineups.

2. The frosh point guard, Marcus Schroeder, is impressive as a floor general and more impressive as a defender. He's going to be a solid fixture at the guard spot for four years.

3. The Tigers faded down the stretch, as they were up 9 with about 5 to go and then held on to win, 44-42. They did not shoot foul shots well down the stretch, and they had some lapses in taking care of the ball.

4. I counted that Coach Scott played 8 players during the last 10 minutes -- frontcourt players Michael Strittmatter, Justin Conway, Kyle Koncz and Luke Owings, and guards Schroeder, Lincoln Gunn (a frosh shooting guard from the same HS as Schroeder), Edwin Buffmire and Matt Sargeant. Apparently, Owings and Koncz shot the three well last night, but during the last 10 minutes the Tigers' offense wasn't that impressive.

5. Okay, so I'm sounding a bit like one-time coach Pete Carril, in that I'm pointing out flaws as opposed to causes for optimism. Fair enough. The team is 4-1, and winning should beget winning (as I'm not a believer in the concept of "good" losses). The freshmen guards have a big upside, and the forwards have played together for a while. The defensive intensity was there.

Also. . .

Read The Daily Pennsylvanian for good coverage of the Penn Quakers. I found today's edition to be very balanced. A senior columnist, while generally praiseworthy of the team, commented that senior Ibby Jaaber's penchant for going for steals has backfired with a greater frequency than he would like, enabling the other team to score easy baskets. Yet another commentator sizes up the Ivies. While that commentator predicts a Penn title, she also suggests that Penn could lose a few games this year -- one to Princeton and one to Columbia.

This should be Penn's year, as they return the troika of gifted seniors, Steve Danley, Mark Zoller and Ibby Jaaber, who is the returning Ivy Player of the Year. Zoller was a first-team all-Ivy selection last season and has one of the best hoops IQs I've seen in the Ivies in a while. Danley has improved every year. Complementing that trio are junior Brian Grandieri, a one-time swingman who is playing great basketball at the point, and sophomore swingman Tommy McMahon, who came out of HS in California two years ago reputed to be a great shooter. The competition for minutes from the bench is fierce, and Coach Glenn Miller is tinkering a bit with substitutions the way Fran Dunphy liked to before Coach Dunphy settled on the eight or nine guys he'd use in his rotation. Watch out for frosh Darren Smith, a talented guard from the Peddie School in central New Jersey, among others.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Big Decisions in Philadelphia

Have the Eagles fallen that far that fast? Is their predicament as bad as that of the Giants, or worse? It's an interesting question, but not one that compels answering because both teams look to be also-rans.

In the Giants' case, it's a question of not-so-great development of a young quarterback, injuries to key players on both sides of the ball, and bad chemistry.

In the Eagles' case, it's a question of other teams' having figured out the Eagles' once-heralded defensive schemes, a blind spot among the GM/Coach about linebackers, and an equivalent blind spot about the running game. The blind spots, by the way, are not new and are festering sores with the faithful. While the faithful get blasted by sportswriters who apparently know better, even the former players and coaches turned pundits have questioned the Eagles' strategy. Just the other day, John Madden said that the Eagles need a big back. Most Eagles' fans have been saying the same thing for years. Perhaps the comment now is valid because a Hall of Famer like Madden just echoed it.

The Giants' mess could get straightened out if certain players return on defense (the defensive ends, LB Brandon Short and DB Sam Madison), although Eli Manning looks like Dan Quayle when he debated Lloyd Bentsen and Plaxico Burress looks like he's become CEO of the high-maintenance squad (whose members include guys named Owens and Moss). Plus, RB Tiki Barber has vented publicly about the team's problems. Can a week fix all of that? I doubt it. Can the Giants save their season and make the playoffs? Perhaps.

The Eagles, in all likelihood, cannot save their season or make the playoffs. Their QB has had his third season-ending injury in the past 5 years, their defense has not played well, and, from all appearances, their OTs were too old before the season started. The smoothness and oomph that they had when they went to the Super Bowl is gone. Does clubhouse leadership mean that much? Do they really miss guys like Hank Fraley, Hugh Douglas and Troy Vincent?

Or has Andy Reid failed to adapt in a league where, if you don't, the opposition will figure you out and barbecue you? Has it been a mistake to continue to let him head up the GM position while coaching, as most coaches in that role have failed? Who holds Reid accountable for his miscues and so-so drafts? Are Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner knowledgeable enough about football to do so? Probably not.

I like Lurie, Banner and Reid and think that they've done a great job. But now they're faced with having two losing seasons in a row and are struggling to find the right mix to get back to the playoffs. They have serious questions at many positions, as follows:

1. Will they draft a QB next year to groom at McNabb's successor? McNabb is a bit young to think of in this light (he just turned 30), but his history of injuries has to be a concern.

2. If McNabb misses '07 (as ESPN.com suggests he might), who will QB the Eagles next year? Jeff Garcia? A.J. Feeley? Can they return to the playoffs with those quarterbacks?

3. Will the Eagles start to play other offensive linemen? Jon Runyan and William Thomas might well be at the end of the line, and it might be time to take high draft picks Max-Jean Gilles and Winston Justice off the inactive list and throw them into action?

4. How will the team solve its issues at linebacker and at "big" running back? Will they ever while Andy Reid is the coach? Clearly, they don't think linebackers are as important in their schemes as the other positions, but it hasn't been as though the defensive line, with all of its supposed depth, has gotten a great push off the ball collectively after Game 5 or that the secondary has covered particularly well. The defense used to have a swagger; now they're getting pushed around.

5. And there's Reid himself. Should he still call most of the plays? Should he remain as both GM and coach? Should he be fired altogether? There are varying opinions out there on all of these questions. What if Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher, who have won Super Bowls, become available? Would you be tempted to let Reid go? My guess is that the Eagles won't because his contract runs through 2010, or until his youngest child graduates from high school. Given the Eagles' high debt service, it will be interesting to see whether Jeffrey Lurie would want to eat four years on a contract to replace Reid. The bet here is that Reid gets at least one more year to turn things around.

The whole thing is a bit of a shame, for many reasons. First, Eagles' fans do like McNabb. Perhaps they don't gravitate to him the way Broncos' fans flocked to John Elway, who played years before he won a Super Bowl. He is a great football player, although for some reason he doesn't draw the love that Phillies 1B Ryan Howard does, and Howard is now the most beloved athlete in Philadelphia. Second, most fans like Reid, holes in his strategy and all. Okay, so he's not a jokester or a taskmaster, doesn't have Super Bowl rings or a famously jutting jaw, but he's good people and has done a good job. They're frustrated is all, and they might think that Coach Andy has taken the team as far as he can. Third, most of the fans like the players -- they like David Akers, they like Jeremiah Trotter, Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard, Jon Runyan, Brian Westbrook, Reggie Brown. They want them to win, as the players look like they give a good effort.

Still, big decisions remain, and it appears that the Eagles' record -- this year and next -- will get worse before it gets better. Fortunately, this is the NFL we're talking about, where parity is the watchword and where one year's disappointment becomes the following year's Super Bowl contender.

Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner get great praise for managing the salary cap. But that praise only qualifies them as managers, and not necessarily as visionary leaders with a plan to not only manage the cap well and make the playoffs, but to win the whole thing. Yes, they've come close, and I'll give them an A- for their management skills since they've run the Eagles. But they have to get past just tight cap management and look at strategy and the game's evolution, and then sit down with Andy Reid this off-season and have some serious conversations about how to fix things.

On Mark McGwire

To vote him into the Hall of Fame or not to vote him into the Hall of Fame, that is the question.

Much has been said and written on the topic. Remember, he broke Roger Maris's record. Remember, it was he and Sammy Sosa whose dramatic home run chase helped "revive" people's faith in baseball after the players' strike in 1994 caused the cancellation of the World Series. People gravitated back to the game to watch these titans do their thing. Or so it was written.

Little did everyone know at the time that these were ersatz Titans, puffed up like the Santa Clauses that now populate lawns of McMansions this time of year. (Of course, "know" and "suspect" are different verbs, and the mainstream sports media, at least those who are defending their votes for Big Mac, are pointing out that to date "nothing has been proven").

The mainstream sports media (MSSM) is squirming now. Take, for example, the respected Buster Olney of ESPN. I heard Olney on ESPN radio (it was either this morning or yesterday) regarding McGwire, and, quite frankly, I was disappointed in what I heard. Several months ago he co-hosted the "Mike & Mike in the Morning Program" and talked about his competitiveness as a sportswriter and how he always wanted to be the one guy who broke a story. That's how he measured himself, and he didn't like to miss out on anything. He told a few anecdotes, but the point was clear -- he wanted to be the guy.

Which makes his comments of this week puzzling to say the least and a devastating self-indictment (unintended, of course) at worst. I don't recall how Olney said he would vote, but in putting the vote in perspective he said that the problem was that McGwire wasn't the only guy who is suspect of using and that there were many baseball players using performance enhancing drugs. So, what is a sportswriter/Hall of Fame voter to do?

Huh? If Olney actually believes that there were many players using performance enhancing drugs, including pitchers (he also offered that nothing has been proven yet), then where was the ever-competitive Olney when the players ballooned in size and stamina? Or was he only grading himself on whether he scooped the opposition as to what trade the front office was contemplating? You only have to look at a highlight film from 15 years ago and compare it with one of say three years ago to get a sense as to how much bigger the average baseball player grew. Players were skinny then; today they are much thicker. I know, I'm asking for too much, as baseball players and owners and the baseball media (save Hal Bodley of USA Today) owe everyone an apology for this entire chapter in the history of such a wonderful game, the game we take our fathers and kids to at the same time, th game where you can have a conversation and follow the action at the same time, in good weather, eating hot dogs and Cracker Jacks. But Olney and the others missed the story then, so why should we give them that much credence now? (In fairness, my guess is that the responsible and well-respected writes, and I include Olney among them, would privately state that the whole predicament is a mess and that they're embarrassed -- at least to some degree -- by their coverage.)

So, if the sportswriters are facing a tough predicament, they made their own bed to a degree and now have to live with the consequences. Some of McGwire's facts are good, others are not. The home run numbers are impressive and he's won a championship. The number of hits he accumulated in a 15-year career is much less appealing. Did he change the conversation about the game? Absolutely, if twice. Once when he grabbed the headlines in his quests to break Maris's record; the other when he told Congress that he preferred not to talk about the past. He gave us great moments and deflated them years after the fact.

A friend pitched in the minors many years ago, in the early 1980's. I had seen McGwire play in college for USC around that time, a tall and lean third baseman who had home run power. My friend actually pitched against the '84 U.S. Olympic Team, of which McGwire was a member. I asked him what he thought of the pro prospects of that group, and I asked him specifically about McGwire, whom I had seen hit a prodigious home run.

"Tall, skinny kid, loopy swing. Has to get stronger and shorten his swing to make it in the big leagues. Not sure he's a third baseman, either."

My friend is not a baseball savant the way scouts are, but he struck Big Mac out a few times in that game by taking advantage of the holes in his swing. My friend didn't make the majors; he hurt his arm as many pitchers do and had trouble combing his hair for several months in 1985. But his point is well-taken, and it's somewhat ominous.

Does Mark McGwire belong in the Hall of Fame?

Is denying him first-round status punishment enough?

Or, should voters take the approach that Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com (who was quoted in this past Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer), which is that he'll wait on voting for McGwire for a while because he needs to how the whole steroids affair plays out, for once a player is in the Hall of Fame, you can't retro the bid and kick him out. My guess is that this is the approach many voters will take.

I don't want to diminish the predicament the writers are in. It's terrible. Do you keep out an entire generation of players? The Hall, as one writer observed, isn't church, and not everyone who is in it was a saint. There are also many Giants and Cardinals in the Hall from the '20's and '30's who got in mainly because Giants and Cardinals populated the Veterans Committee in subsequent decades and got some good but not great former teammates into the Hall. So it's not like the voters haven't made mistakes before, either.

And if you ban McGwire, what do you do about Sammy Sosa? Rafael Palmeiro? Barry Bonds?

To name a few.

It's a shame, really, for Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, who are two sureshot first-ballot Hall of Famers, the former for his awesome hitting and the latter for being an excellent shortstop and breaking what many thought was an unbreakable record, Lou Gehrig's streak of playing in consecutive games. The Hall of Fame ballotting should be celebrating their careers; instead, their names are mentioned as an afterthought, and Mark McGwire gets most of the attention.

Isn't this just awful?

If I had a vote I would wait too. It's too early to vote McGwire in, and there are plenty of years in which he'll be eligible, assuming that 5% of the voters mark his name on their ballots (and I think that they will). I don't know, however, what I'd be waiting for, except the results of more investigations or confessions about what players did or didn't do.

And then what?

Suppose it's thirteen years from now? Do I have some college professor run numbers for me on the skewing of stats during the Spitball Era, the Dead Ball Era, the Live Ball Era (where once the Phillies led the league in hitting at .315 and finished in last place), search for statistical significance, label the Era the "Performance Enhancing Drugs" Era, tweak my nose and vote them all in?

WWJLD?

What would Judge Landis do? (Not that he was perfect).

Are we too quickly forgiving of transgressions today? Are we too lax on standards? When is the time to take a stand?

Or have we? Have McGwire, Bonds, Sosa and Palmeiro become pariahs at whom we'll never look the same again? Has that fate been punishment enough?

Many of us have wondered, when someone gets in on the 13th ballot as opposed to the first, what the player did to improve during the twelve years he was further removed from the game to get in. That argument, of course, goes against waiting. That argument would cause you to conclude that a "no" vote now is a "no" vote forever. Is that the right thing to do?

After all, Mark McGwire's numbers won't change. Nor will his ill-fated testimony before Congress last year. Which, then, of our perceptions should prevail?

I still think that waiting, for now, is the best policy. I don't have the best reason, and, in the end, that waiting could turn into a permanent no vote. But withholding the "yes" vote for now is a prudent course of action.

In the meantime, let's give the "Huzzahs" to Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr. They deserve it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Sweet Home Alabama!

Not.

Since Bear Bryant retired 24 years ago, the Crimson Tide have given seven men the opportunity to coach the school's beloved football team. Sounds like the succession plan that UCLA tried for John Wooden (where the best of the would-be successors, Denny Crum, bolted Westwood for Louisville and won two national titles of his own). Many tried, but none succeeded.

But lest I digress. . .

Alabama fired Mike Shula today, and the articles that I read made it seem like it was death by 1,000 cuts. The AD praised the now-former coach in many ways, but not in all ways. He was the only Tide coach to lose to Auburn for four straight years, and, well, that was enough for the faithful.

So now Alabama is on the market for a new coach. I am sure that rumors are abounding. I, for one, would recommend Rutgers' Greg Schiano. I know, Coach Schiano has publicly stated that he loves Rutgers, but he has not publicly stated that he would not leave. And, yes, he was the defensive coordinator at Miami and has been linked to that job, but why would anyone want to walk into that hornets' nest, read: clean it up bigtime but you had better win a national title and quickly, too? Alabama is a storied program and one without the warts that Miami currently has. Schiano may be available for this position.

But amidst all of this the one thing I would preach is patience, which is sorely lacking these days in major college revenue sports. The reasons are pretty apparent. First, these sports fund the rest of the athletic budget. Have a slump and the entire department could suffer. Two, they're a certain tonic for alumni, state residents and students alike, perhaps too much so. I don't know about you, but I don't get too down when the home team loses (okay, so I live in suburban Philadelphia, and we've significantly lowered our expectations over the years because we've endured a long championship drought and college football just isn't that big). Perhaps if the students had a little more to do -- like study harder -- and the alumni weren't so involved, things would be different. Third, the teams are inextricably linked to the school's brand name, even if I still would like to see evidence that successful teams add to the school's annual giving and planned giving coffers, increase the number of kids who apply to the school and help the school get a higher quality of applicant. It seems to me like this approach is akin to buying mutual funds by selecting the ones that were on the top ten lists last year, but that's just me. There are other reasons which escape me this late at night, when I'm a bit frustrated because the stuff I want to get the kids for the holidays that came well hyped in the mlb.com catalog isn't available over the internet.

You have to remember one of the greatest examples in patience, both by the coach and the school. In the late 1940's, the hoops coach at Purdue was looking for a new job. The University of Minnesota had him all but signed up, but they delayed inexplicably, and a nice athletic director at a state university in California pursued the Purdue coach and offered him the men's hoops job. It wasn't that prestigious a job, there wasn't much tradition, the basketball court was an embarrassment, in an old building, and the coach sometimes had to sweep the floor, but the Purdue coach took it. Gradually he worked toward building a better program, and it wasn't until 1965 -- 15 years after this coach got to this California school, that the coach won his first national championship, when he was something like 54 years old. The coach? John Wooden. The school: UCLA. And we all know that Mr. Wooden won a bunch of titles after that.

In today's market, few coaches last that long, especially at schools like Alabama, with their heralded football traditions. There could be an engaging, inspiring 35 year-old coordinator out there who would be deserving of the job, but who might not get it because he doesn't have a high enough profile. That would be a shame -- for the school and for him. But the thing of it is that you have to win pretty quickly or else you'll lose your job. In Alabama's case in the post-Bryant era, you have to win in 3 years or else.

So perhaps the predicament is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don't win because you hire the wrong guys, because you're not patient, or because the coaches feel so much pressure since the administration has such a quick hook that they don't build for the long term. How much of a program can you build in 2 years? Perhaps that means you're not planting proper seeds with high school coaches, or you're not taking the right kids, looking for quick fixes instead of the types of kids that win you titles. I'm just speculating, but given the coaching merry-go-round, how many kids would want to cast their lot with Alabama? How can they be confident that the head coach who recruits them won't get fired in three years, even if he has a five-year evergreen contract (so that coaches can tell recruits that they'll be there in five years)?

They can't be confident, is what, and then you hear the rumors in the recruiting ranks, "well, son, sometimes when a new coach comes in and you're an upperclassman it can be bad news. If the team was losing, the new coach might want to weed out the guys who didn't win. He might bring in a bunch of his own recruits, might not renew scholarships, might want a total re-do. Face it, the seniors could get buried." Eighteen year-old star athletes want to live in a world where fairy tales exist and they'll make the key blocks or catch the important passes, where they escort the homecoming queen during a fun-filled senior year. They don't want to have to worry about coaches getting fired when they're juniors.

So the choice is Alabama's. Who will they hire and how patient will they be? They have to hire a guy with the right motor and tough enough to stand up to the rigors of the SEC. But they also have to give him a chance to build the program the right way.

How patient they are will dictate how successful they become.

The Roberto Kelly Syndrome

Many, many years ago, in a township far, far away, our Rotisserie baseball league had its annual draft. It's the type of league where there's a $260 salary cap, where you can retain players, and, where, if you retain a player for more than two years, his salary, as it were, increases by $5 for each subsequent season. This league's been around for 18 years, and it's distinguished by, among other things, that during the auction everyone sits in the same spot in the room that he always has going back almost two decades (the rooms and houses have changed, but the seating chart has not). That sounds less than impressive except when you realize that no one has ever said anything about seating or assigned seats. We have tweaked the rules over the years (particularly to limit the number of players a team can retain), but by and large they have remained the same.

As you might be able to predict, there can be shortages of good players at certain positions each year, and there can be sluggish participants. Combine the two, and there will be three teams who realize that they are without a front-line closer and all but one have been snapped up, and the one who's available is the equivalent of Jose Mesa during his Pirates period. Three teams, one closer, and, voila, you end up paying more for Mesa than you would for Trevor Hoffman or Billy Wagner. That can happen with closers each year, but the saving grace of the closer position is that it suffers from significant turnover, so the sport really is to acquire at cheaper prices "closers in waiting." Unfortunately, there are plenty of Braden Loopers, Jose Valverdes and Jose Capellans for whom we're all still waiting to mature, but there is fun in the hunt.

Oh, about ten years ago or so, there was a pronounced shortage of front-line outfielders who could hit and do something else, whether it be steal bases or hit for power. There was only one guy left -- Roberto Kelly, then of the Cincinnati Reds. Kelly was no superstar, but he did have some good years, and he was the last man standing. There were numerous teams who needed "that extra outfielder," and the bidding got way out of hand, so much so that if Kelly were a stock on the NASDAQ that venerable exchange would have suspended trading to investigate whether there were any irregularities in the dissemination of material, non-public information.

Roberto Kelly went for $53.

The highest price ever in our league.

Ever.

More than Bonds and McGwire during the steroids years.

More than Maddux, Glavine and both Schilling and Johnson during their stint on the Diamondbacks.

This is Roberto Kelly we're talking about.

The team that acquired Kelly did not finish in the first division.

Naturally, they jettisoned him and his large salary after the season. No one would have traded for him at a $53 price tag.

So, the buyers of the large contracts of Messrs. Soriano, Matthews, Jr. and whoever else should beware. Yes, you have a big need, and yes, you "did anything" to fill it. Whether or not these gambles -- and with the commitments you made, they are gambles -- pay off, only time will tell. But the key difference between our Rotisserie league and Major League Baseball is that we can cut a player with a large contract with impunity. If Soriano turns into Bobby Bonilla or Mo Vaughn and if Matthews, Jr. reverts into the .249 pumpkin he was before he turned into Cinderalla with his magical season last year, the teams are stuck with them and their lofty contracts.

And front office people and managers will get fired.

There are GMs out there who are getting pilloried for not "taking that extra step" to get that "one special player"who can help their team prevail. Those are the same GMs who are taking a stand for fiscal prudence and who realize that typically it's better to build from within than to acquire hefty, long-term, no-trade contracts. Is Gary Matthews, Jr., the extra step for the Angels? Or will the Phillies, wall flowers so far save a thrifty signing of Wes Helms, be more prudent by working the phones, trying to make deals, and perhaps spending lesser dollars for some quality arms in the bullpen that could help give them one of the best staffs in the NL?

Is it prudent to be patient? Or do only the daring get rewarded?

Time will tell, but my general mantra is that when you see a feeding frenzy, get the heck out of there quickly. Yes, there are some advantages to being a competitive person, but you don't always have to win, especially when your competitors are chucking whatever wisdom they had out the window during the bidding.

Those in the investment world will tell you there's a difference between sound investments and speculation. With the former, you're going on a tried and true plan to have a portfolio that accommodates your appetite for risk and helps you achieve your goals. With the latter, you can end up looking like Dave Kingman swinging for the fences -- you'll hit some real shots, but you'll strike out an awful lot too. The former offers solid returns; with the latter, you might fare better by taking your money, going to Las Vegas, and putting it all on red.

Did the Cubs put it all on red? The Angels?

Or are the other teams losing simply because they're unwilling to do anything, at least thus far?

The hot stove is as hot as it's ever been.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Coker Caned, Err Canned

Miami ended the suspense and fired Larry Coker today, after a season which saw one of his captains fire a gun in defense of teammates who were shot at and, also, stomp a Florida International player in the well-publicized donneybrook from earlier this season.

Guess who is the leading favorite to replace Coker?

Hopefully someone who makes sure that no kids who own guns or have an arm's length rap sheet are on his team.

I've been reading Dean Smith's book, The Carolina Way, and what strikes me throughout the book is the earnestness of Coach Smith and his caring about the whole person, not just about the basketball player who could him the school win games. I always admired Coach Smith's teams, both for the way they played and for the way the team and the players conducted themselves. I would hope that Coach Smith's example has inspired many coaches, basketball or not, but I fear that there is a considerable group of coaches (but certainly less than half) who are more toward the Bob Huggins end of the continuum than the Coach Smith end of it.

That said, I don't know much about Coach Coker, and the respected Bill Curry of ESPN came to his defense after the controversy surrounding the recruitment of Willie Williams. Still, it seems clear that Coach Coker lost control of his team prior to or during the season, and the team's record reflected its overall lack of something, well, call it character if you can't call it anything else.

It's hard to say what the Miami administration and alumni want. For starters, they should want a coach who will set the best example for the school and be a great representative of it. This isn't, after all, Pimp My School, where, instead of taking a dilapidated car and turning it into a work of art, a renegade coach arrives at a school with a flailing athletic team, bends a few rules and turns it into a well-oiled, if not overly oily, machine. That type of stuff shouldn't happen, period. What should happen is that the administration should assert itself over its football program and insist upon a coach who recruits players of character and who can control his team. Honestly, I'd rather have my alma mater have a losing record that have scary incidents besmirch its academic reputation, which some alums forget is why the school exists in the first place.

If I were a Miami alum, I'd write or e-mail President Donna Shalala and insist upon her taking a stand for integrity here. She whiffed big-time in her handling of the Florida International disaster and made things worse with her public comments about the paltry suspensions Miami players received. Shalala didn't stand up well to those who questioned her on it. Mike Golic of ESPN Radio, a thoughtful and fair former football player, grilled her on her conduct. Sure, he went to Notre Dame, and, yes, there was bad blood in that rivalry, but Golic can guarantee of one thing -- this type of junk wouldn't have happened at Notre Dame. Players with guns? One-game suspensions for exacerbating an on-field riot? The Board of Trustees should have stepped in and chastised Shalala for her handling of the incident. One public goof up after another has tarnished the brand name of Miami of Florida.

Butch Davis is no longer available, having opted to succeed John Bunting at North Carolina. Greg Schiano, the former Miami defensive coordinator, who recruits actively in Florida for this year's feel-good story, Rutgers, is perhaps the leading candidate. A friend who is a Rutgers alum isn't so sure that Schiano will return to Coral Gables. He's building a big house near the Rutgers campus, he has a great contract, and he's atop the world. Returning to Miami right now as a potential savior into a program which will be in a fishbowl for a while isn't exactly the dream job he might think he's entitled to. There are other big-time programs that could have vacancies, and the guess here is that were Schiano to take one of them, he won't have some of the problems to deal with that he would at Miami.

But he also wouldn't have, in all likelihood, the tradition of winning a national title, either, and it seems that the Miami administration wants to be in the conversation for a national football title year after year. If that's the case, than Schiano might want to return to the place where he came of age as a coach. And that would be good for Miami's football program, generally.

The University of Miami faces bigger issues than its performance on the field. Hopefully the administration will recognize that and stand up to the boosters in the process. Sometimes, in order to fortify your institution, you have to take short-term stands that might cost you publicity and money. This might be one of those times for President Shalala.

She should consider a relatively recent and prominent "outlaw" program in college sports, the UNLV Runnin' Rebels under Jerry Tarkanian. No one talks of UNLV in the national hoops conversation these days, and there is little mention of Tark, either. Yet, UNLV still exists, and my guess is that it's doing fine despite not having a perennial nationally contending hoops team. Las Vegas itself is a booming city, too, and it has plenty of main events other than Runnin' Rebel hoops. Miami, too, has enough entertainment without the 'Canes being a dominant team. The point is that UNLV has survived, and so will Miami.

Take a stand, President Shalala, and honor the large majority of alumni who did not play for the football team. Fortify your trademark and honor their degrees, and, in the process, do the right thing.

And remember this, any booster who cares only about the sport and not the university is a booster who is not worth having. Pick the person who will restore credibility to your program. And that person could be the same person your boosters want, but if it isn't, this is gut-check time for you.

And if you have any doubts, remember that in the term "college athletics", the term college comes first.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Can It, Tiki!

The New York Giants are having some problems now. They are injury-riddled, and their young QB isn't playing well. Atop that, local pundits and neighsayers are making a lot out of the fact that in order to get the top overall raft pick to take Manning, the Giants gave up not only the fourth overall pick in the first round (who has turned out to be Philip Rivers), but other picks, including a first-rounder that became Shawnee Merriman. Needless to say, tied atop the NFC East with the Cowboys at 6-4 and battling hard to make the playoffs, the Giants need to come together, not worry about what didn't happen in the draft who is injured or who is calling the plays, and play football.

Enter Tiki Barber.

The veteran RB, who made waves earlier this season when he let it be known that he's going to retire after it, has criticized his team's coaching staff. Publicly.

And I just don't get it.

First, the team needs to handle this sort of thing in-house and resolve it. Barber erred in publicly criticizing his team's game plan. That's not what "team" is all about.

Second, as a veteran, Barber should know better. You just don't do this sort of stuff. It's not like he's coached Super Bowl winners or even played on them. And there were times in his career where Giant fans wanted to run him out of town (people may forget, but he had a serious case of fumble-itis early in his career). The Giants stuck with Barber when other teams would have let him go. While he rewarded them for their patience by becoming an outstanding player, he should remember that the Giants did right by him early in his career.

Third, Barber's conduct belies his public image as being a great guy and a well-educated one at that (he's a graduate of the University of Virginia). Maybe he's all that, but he's certainly not a leader of the team in the overall sense. Leaders don't throw their coaches under the bus in public. They might go to their coaches and talk about issues privately, and, in doing so, help the coaches deliver their message and help make the team better. It doesn't seem like Tiki Barber is that guy. How many other excellent players have acted out like this during their careers (and this isn't the first time Barber has spoken out on an issue) and helped their teams win Super Bowls?

Some are quiet, some are outspoken on certain issues, but doing something that might jeopardize team harmony isn't one of them.

Especially when the team still is in a very good position to make the playoffs.

As has been said often, there are no "I's" in team.

There are, however, two "I's" in Tiki.

And those are two too many.

Tiki Barber has been an excellent player, but he's not showing good leadership right now. When teams are going through tough times, even the most talkative of players needs to keep his thoughts to himself and pull together for the team.

The Giants are battling enough injuries right now as it is, but nonetheless it's time for Tiki Barber to get his "I's" checked.

Unless, of course, he thinks about his legacy hard and decides, once and for all, to check them at the locker room door.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Fools and Their Money

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are about to sign Gary Mathews, Jr. to a five-year, $50 million deal. All for a 31 year-old player who had a career batting average of .249 going into last season and had a career year during a contract year.

What are they going to do next, offer Eric Milton $25 million for 3 years (oops, the Reds did that a few years ago)?

Seriously, there is so much salary inflation among free-agent outfielders that you wonder whether the academics at Harvard (where grade inflation is the norm) are running the show in Major League Baseball. Good thing for Mathews, Jr. to take his act to the left coast, where the teams out there get precious little coverage back East. Had he signed back east and gone for an oh for April, he'd be booed louder than President Bush at a meeting of Manhattan Democrats.

What are the Angels thinking?

My hometown Phillies are looking for a good bat to follow MVP (boy does that sound nice) Ryan Howard in the lineup. They might have whiffed on Moises Alou, who still has something left in the tank, but they were wise not to get caught up in the Alfonso Soriano feeding frenzy or this one. True, Mathews, Jr.'s father, Gary "Sarge" Mathews, was instrumental in the Phillies' run to the World Series in '83 and the Cubs playoff run in '84, but that doesn't mean that Jr. has the same talents that senior did.

The salary inflation makes for hard choices in front offices. The Phillies had a choice of overpaying for Soriano and Mathews, Jr. Now they have to figure out whether they can peddle Pat Burrell, whether they should trade for Manny Ramirez or even dally with Barry Bonds (don't laugh -- I suggested this several months ago) or settle with a combination of Jeff Conine and someone else batting behind Howard. Give Pat Gillick credit for being clever -- he'll figure something out.

It's just that he and other general managers are not willing to give the agents blank checks to name their price.

Not for "B" list players.

Penn Has Another Gem

Princeton coaches and fans rave about Justin Conway, the 6'4" center who was an end of the bench player at last season's outset who then, through hard work in practice, earned a starting job and was named Honorable Mention all-Ivy. Conway is a gritty player and a leader by example on the Princeton squad. Princeton coaches have a lifetime of achievements in turning on lightbulbs and finding hidden gems such as Conway.

But the Tigers don't have an exclusive franchise on doing that. The Penn Quakers over the years have excelled in this area too, the latest case in point being point guard Brian Grandieri. Read this article, and click on this box score from last night's Penn-Drexel game, and see what I mean -- 12 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists (to only 2 turnovers, and while Penn won by 19, first-team all-Ivy players Ibby Jaaber and Mark Zoller had 8 turnovers -- apiece) and 3 steals. Sounds like Penn once again has outstanding leadership at the point guard position to help propel it to yet another Ivy hoops title. They certainly are the odds-on favorite to win the league.

With games like this from Grandieri, the question may only be "by how many games?"

High School Transfers

I've written about redshirting your own kids in high school, and it's one of the posts that drew the most comments and continues to draw comments to this day. This article, from yesterday's USA Today, addresses kids who transfer from one high school to another in the hope of finding the right program. Again, there are ethical issues across the board.

For example, if you're well off enough to do so, you can always send your kid to private school (or parochial school) for whatever reason you choose. Presumably, you're looking at the best fit for your child in all areas, and not just sports. But let's face it, there are kids who go to private schools or boarding schools for a single year where they have two goals -- to play a certain position and to get better prepared for college. I recall talking to an Ivy football assistant coach a few years back about a friend's son, who played high school ball in the midwest. The friend was looking for his son to go to a boarding school for a post-graduate year after high school, in order for the boy to get used to living away from home and to draw notice from some colleges for his athletic prowess. The Ivy assistant, a very good man, said for the dad to look at a certain prep school, because they had a need for players at a certain position (the position which the kid played). It turned out that the kid went straight to a huge college where he doesn't even play intramurals, but the network is there for you to place your kid if you have the wherewithal to do so.

That's perhaps one of the simplest cases, especially if money is not an object, and I think it's safe to say that there aren't serious ethical challenges there for the family (or even for the school). Yes, certain schools may skew their values and place an outsized emphasis on sports, but unless they're diploma mills or take kids who cannot do the work (and that does go on), they aren't necessarily being unethical. (Put differently, you'd have to peel several layers off this onion to determine whether there are ethical issues, and in the case of my friend, there weren't -- his son could have used the post-graduate year).

But what if money is an issue and you don't have the money to send your child to that private school (and some are $25,000 a year)? What do you do then? Suppose you have a kid who's a great passer in a school district where the HS coach likes to run the ball the way Woody Hayes did at Ohio State in the 60's and 70's? Do you keep him there or do you find a district with a more balanced offense? Suppose there's a nearby HS hoops coach who has worked very well with big men, and your son is 6'9" and has a chance to be special? Do you stay in your district or move -- and for purposes of argument let's say that the academics at the schools are comparable?

Is there a difference between a) the whole family moving and b) sending your kid to live with a relative? Is that difference as pronounced today, when the nuclear family has suffered considerable erosion as it might have been 35 years ago, where single-parent families were not as prevalent? And, remember, there are cases where families relocate because of work considerations only to leave behind a rising high school senior, who might live with her best friend's family in order to enjoy senior year and not to have to adjust to a new group of kids all over again. Finally, there are companies who move people around a lot and the military, which moves people around frequently too. Does it make a difference whether the incoming kid is a good ballplayer or not? Where should the transfer rules apply -- after all, people have the right to move, and they move their houses all the time.

I have thrown a bunch of questions at you, and, no, I'm not talking about the grade mills that the New York Times exposed earlier this year, either. I'm talking about transfer rules within public school districts and how and when transfers are legitimate versus wrong. Sometimes the lines aren't so bright and the moral distinctions so easy. Read the linked article and the comments of the Florida QB Tim Tebow. Is he right or not, and how far would you go for your kid?

I had heard in my area of parents playing residency games so that they could enroll their kids in a HS with a particularly good football program. They did not move, but they rented or bought apartments in the school district to establish residency so that junior could play football, even if they didn't move. That's dishonest to me. Those parents did not want to participate in their son's high school's community any further than the football program, because they did not commit to living in that district. To me, it was unethical and the coach and district shouldn't have permitted it. What type of lesson does that teach the kids? Had the parents moved their house within that district and lived in the residency that they leased or purchased, then that would have been fine, regardless of the motives. Of course, I would hope that academics and other extracurriculars played a part in the decision too, but those considerations don't -- and must not -- trump a family's right to live where it so pleases.

There was a good series of articles in my local paper about the efforts that parents put into kids' sports programs. The article talked with various parents who had differing levels of involvement in their children's programs, and it tried to assess why people spent the time they did on the programs. In this particular article, the consensus was pretty clear -- for the love of the game. One dad said that his daughter simply loved to play her sport, but that he never expected anything out of it in terms of an athletic scholarship. As it turns out, she plays for a Division II school in Pennsylvania, where she got grants worth $1,500 a year toward her education (and I'm not sure whether that was based on her athletic prowess or her family's financial statements).

Yes, we do want our daughters to be the next Mia Hamm and our sons to be the next Joakim Noah if at all possible. We love our children, and we'd do anything for them. But I'll still question whether all dads and moms are motivated the way the dad whose sentiments I paraphrased above. Is it just about the love of the game, and, if so, whose love? Hopefully the kids don't feel dragooned into playing the games, and I hope that they don't burn out on them by the time they're sixteen. I attended a girls' softball tournament in my area last summer, a big deal where college coaches from all over the country attended to get a look at the elite AAU teams. What struck me was the level of commitment of parents in communities around the country, not only in terms of the uniforms and equipment, but also in terms of the designer trailers that haul a team's gear and the RVs that some people drive to these tournaments. I read where some of the girls can play as many as 80 games in a summer.

For the love of the game, indeed. You can't play that intense a summer schedule and not love it, and, if you don't, have a serious talk with your parents. If you're a parent, be honest with yourself the way a coach is honest with kids about the ability to convert a set piece, hit a three or throw the slant-in pass. Does your child love it, or is he or she afraid that you'll be crestfallen if he tells you that he'd rather go fishing in the mountains or become a performance artist? The reckoning might hurt in the short-term, but I believe it would hurt a lot more in the longer-term development of your child (and your relationship with her or him) if you sense a communications gap and do nothing to fill the void. Step in , show the leadership a parent should, and ask the hard question. Yes, it's hard to get teenagers to open up, but it's worth a shot.

And, who knows, you might have a kid who's more passionate about the game than you thought. Or, you have a kid who's tired of a Motel 6 and Denny's routine for yet another summer, who has peaked mentally and physically in this particular sport, and who needs another outlet.

Remember that while athletics can teach valuable life lessons if taught and coached properly, 99.999+% of the kids won't become the next Mia Hamm or Joakim Noah. Most will learn to love a game that becomes a valuable hobby when they get older. Some will leverage their commitment to a sport to get into college, and some will play at the college level. But as the NCAA ads state, most of their student-athletes do go on to be professionals -- at something other than the sport they play. So, it may be the case that learning teamwork, sportsmanship, setting goals, the value of preparation and the need to keep your head in the midst of keen competition are what parents should shoot for when they encourage their kids to get involved in intense programs inside or outside school. If it turns out that you tap into talents you didn't know existed and your daughter can pitch a softball that disappears from sight and your son can run down a lacrosse field while cradling the ball with great dexterity, terrific.

Just make sure, in any case, your involvement -- as opposed to your child's -- is for all the right reasons. You'll be able to tell by undertaking one simple exercise -- read your child's face. If she's happy in her own skin, you'll know you're doing your job. If she has a constant look on her face that she'd rather be somewhere -- or someone -- else, then you know that you have some work to do.

So back to the basic premise -- to transfer or not to transfer? Your kid had better be very good to prompt a decision like this. Tim Tebow is that good.

Most kids, though, are not.

I had a great, great aunt who was our family's matriarch when I was a little boy. She was from the old country, and she had many cousins. They would come visit her from all over the East Coast, and they would come with great tales of the exploits of their family members. She had this advice for all of them: "Be careful how much you brag about your children. People might meet them."

And that's probably the hardest advice for a parent to heed.

When should you push? How do you know? How do you refrain and not have regrets?

No one said it's easy.

And remember that while Michael Jordan was cut from his high school hoops team as a tenth grader, there was something inside Michael Jordan that no parent could coach, teach, spend money on to develop -- the God-given talent of an incredible will to win and to pursue his goal with a great sense of purpose. Regardless of talent or love or coaching, if your child doesn't have that intensity, he's not becoming the next superstar in any sport.

And that doesn't mean that he's not a great kid, can't become a neurosurgeon, a rocket scientist, a trial lawyer or a television personality. What it means is that on the ball field, he's like most people.

And there's no shame in that.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Victory Bonfire

It's not often that they hold these in Princeton, New Jersey (where, at one time during the University's history, students would set fire to Nassau Hall, the main building on campus, to protest the decisions of the administration -- in the 1700's, no less), but when they do, they are a sight to behold.

Tigerhawk, ever waving his orange-and-black flag, was there last Friday night and filed this report, complete with wonderful photographs.

Enjoy!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

This Reminds Me of a Story

Reports are that the Cubs, of all teams, will sign Alfonso Soriano to an 8-year, $136 million dollar deal.

This news has stirred up all sorts of thoughts.

First, I don't have to rush to get my Phillies tickets. Over the course of the past 2 weeks I have tried to line up a few folks to share 4 tix to a 17-game plan to the hometown team, seats in the 100 level that, taken together, would cost about $2300 for those games. I'm not one to attend 17 games or to shell out that kind of dough by myself, so I contacted various friends to ascertain their levels of interest. The result was that I'd end up having to play traffic cop for about 6 games apiece, and, given that I have a day job, it wasn't worth it. The reason for this interest was that I had a "six pack" last year, where I got decent seats, and I hypothesized that if the Phillies were to sign Soriano, there would be a mad rush to buy partial plans and full-season plans. After all, a lineup featuring Rollins, Victorino, Utley, Howard, Soriano and Rowand as your first six probably would score between five and six runs a game on average. They would have been the odds-on favorite for the wild card. Now that Soriano is apparently headed to Chicago, that rush won't happen.

Second, the Phillies played at a field called Baker Bowl in the 1930's. It was near Broad and Lehigh in Philadelphia, and it had an aluminum right-field fence painted green. While the team did feature Triple Crown winner (and future Hall of Famer) Chuck Klein, in one season it hit .315 and still managed to finish in last place. On the right field wall was an ad that stated quite simply, "The Phillies Use Lifebuoy" (I'm not sure whether the deodorant soap still survives, but it was around when I was a kid). Fittingly, a local comedian had written, "And they still stink." The Soriano signing conjured up my memory of hearing of that ad -- because it strikes me that regardless of what the Cubs' front office does, the Chicago NL franchise will still be deficient (read: be pretty bad, again). Then again, if the Boston Red Sox overcame their long championship drought, the odds are that someday they'll overcome their even longer one (that is, when they get enough pitching -- signing Wade Miller and looking forward to the return of sore-winged Kerry Wood and Mark Prior doesn't exactly instill confidence).

Third, who, exactly, will bat behind Ryan Howard this season? Will it be Wes Helms? Jeff Conine? Will the team move Ryan Howard to third in the lineup and Chase Utley to fourth? Or will Howard walk 200 times this season, 50 of which will be intentional, 15 of which will be to lead off late innings.

Fourth, what was Soriano thinking? Is it true that in the end all players go for the most money, or are there any who will take a little less to sign with a playoff contender?

Interesting questions, all. The hot stove is heating up once again.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

How Sweet It Is

It's not often when you get to attend a game that sees your alma mater clinch a league title, and, if you're a Princeton alum, it really hasn't been all that often. Today, Tiger fans flocked to Princeton Stadium to see if the hometown eleven could beat visiting Dartmouth for at least a share of the Ivy title (a Harvard win over Yale along with a Princeton win over Dartmouth would have given the Tigers the title outright; Yale would go on to beat Harvard 34-13).

Today we went up to Princeton Stadium on an overcast (but thankfully not windy day), met up with friends in the end zone closest to the campus, and watched with anticipation as the Big Green from Hanover, New Hampshire, without a pep band, visited Princeton. It was late-arriving crowd, as with about five minutes before kickoff we were wondering whether the game would draw as many fans as the Princeton-Penn game of a few weeks ago (which is a good draw because the schools are roughly 50 miles from one another). It drew many more.

The Tigers played well early, scored on the opening drive and were up 17-3 with about 2 minutes to go in the half. The Tiger defense looked uncharacteristically passive after that point, the Big Green marched down the field, and, lo and behold, it was 17-10, Tigers, at the half. While the Tiger faithful were happy to see their team in the lead, they were concerned. After all, this was doormat Dartmouth, and apparently no one sent Buddy Teevens' Big Green squad the memo that they were supposed to give the game the old college try and let Princeton's superiority pad a three-touchdown lead by early in the third quarter. That never happened.

Instead, the Tiger defense had trouble with Dartmouth's overall plan of attack, and early in the fourth quarter it was 17 all, and the Tiger fans were wondering whether the title they'd been waiting for over the past ten years was going to slip into Lake Carnegie. Fortunately, the grit of the Tigers showed once again, as they tightened up the defense and got the offense more organized (read: shovel passes to tough-as-nails FB Rob Toresco), and the final was 27-17, Princeton.

At the end of the game, my nine-year old daughter suggested that she, I and her nine-year old friend (who, with my daughter, made for a matched set of made-for-Princeton kids with their red hair) venture onto the field. The Tigers installed a funky new synthetic turf last season, and it felt like you were walking on a nice yard. Alums of all generations climbed over the walls to celebrate, forty-somethings were throwing footballs to their kids, the Princeton band played "Old Nassau" and "The Princeton Cannon Song," players signed autographs, sang the fight songs with their helmets held high, mingled with their friends and just enjoyed the spirit that was alive on that field at game's end.

The feeling is hard to describe, really, except to say that there was a great sense of a warm community, of little kids running around, of alums smiling at one another about how nice the whole day was (regardless of the whether, a nice day would be if your team clinched the title in a nor'easter), of everyone participating in song. This was a Tiger team that was predicted to finish sixth in the Ivies, and a coaching staff that was maligned for the way the team fell apart after leading Yale at homecoming last year by double digits with a few minutes to go, only to lose the game. Were the Tigers to have had another second-division finish under Hughes, I believe that speculation would have started as to how long a rope Princeton Athletic Director Gary Walters had given him and when he would be replaced.

No one in Tigertown is talking about that now, however, and for their money Roger Hughes is the toast of the town. The team not only shared the Ivy crown but played with grit the entire season. It was a team that could come back, a team that started out with a defense better than its offense and ended with an offense (at least a passing game) that was better than its defense. It was a team whose best athlete is its back-up quarterback, a quick-footed young man who covers kick offs and punts and comes close to blocking punts each week, a guy who runs fast around the end and plays hard even though QB is his natural position and he played it in high school. It's a team with two hard-nosed running backs, wide receivers who don't drop many balls and that starts two true freshmen at guards.

It's a true team.

Our everyday lives are full of distractionss, things that could derail us if we let them, aches and pains of all sorts. Yet it's comforting to know that each of us can find a place where the setting is nice, where we can be in fresh air and with our families having fun and escape from everything. Today, Princeton Stadium was such a place for Princeton fans.

How sweet it is (and "it" doesn't happen that often).

Very sweet, indeed.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Shaq, Marbury and Affordable Kicks

I had read about this a while back and wanted to blog on it. Kudos to Shaquille O'Neal and Stephon Marbury for lending their names to the Dunkman and Starbury sneakers, all of which cost under $24.99 (Shaq's kids' version is $13.99; Marbury's is $14.98). Thankfully, these two star players have taken a stand against the lunacy of $100+ sneakers for kids and the awful peer pressure that kids have had to suffer it they didn't wear (read: couldn't afford) the hot sneaker.

You can buy the most expensive gear, you can look as good as you want to, but what matters is what's inside you and the effort you give. I haven't always been the biggest fan of Marbury's -- he's been an enigma to be with all of the talent he has displayed, but he is setting a good example with the Starbury. So far he has sold many a sneaker, which means he and those touting the shoe are onto something.

Presumptuosness?

I read in one of my local newspapers that a certain high school athlete had chosen the college that she'll attend. She seems like a nice kid, goes to a good school, and she picked a prominent program. Sounds normal, right?

There's one twist, and it might well be normal today. She held a news conference to announce her decision. She's not the first to have done so, and she's not the last, but what really gives? Where's the humility? Where's the sense of "well, I'll just call them and let them know, and I'll also call the coaches whose offers I've declined to thank them for their offers and that's it"? Is it gone?

A press conference?

Or am I totally wrong? Is that what we want in our difference makers, our stars -- their ability to differentiate themselves above the rest, their ability to have confidence that they can make it no matter what -- in short, their ability to be stars. Stars, after all, act differently from the rest of us. What we like about them -- their ability to shine under pressure, their ability to want the ball and suppress their nerves as time is running out -- is great. What we don't like about them is if they develop airs as to how wonderful they are.

It is true that the modest don't get noticed, that the outstanding athletes must gravitate to where the best competition is to get noticed. That might mean swimming for a club team instead of your school's, playing in USTA tournaments instead of for your high school team, playing for both an AAU team and your high school team. It also might mean that you need those in your circle touting your talents to college coaches, whether you're Division I-caliber or not. After all, many kids who populate DIII teams got there because someone sent a letter or tapes to the coaches, who in turn decided that Elroy and Barney were what's needed to shore up a deficient offensive line or that Wilma and Jane were needed to help the swimming team out of its doldrums. And, yes, there are services that parents can pay for that help tout your kids to various colleges around the country. All of that goes on, and that's part of the "normal" recruiting process too.

But you don't see the would-be physics majors from Stuyvesant High School in New York or Bronx High School of Science holding press conferences to tell the world that the next Silicon Valley gazillionaire who could invent the next brilliant life-saving automated widget of the 21st century chose Cal Tech over MIT or Dartmouth over Columbia. No, that doesn't happen because we're more enthralled with someone who will go play for Roy Williams than someone who could end up inventing the two generations down the road EA Sports game that will help create a bunch of jobs and millions in value. In both cases, though, there's a chance that the kids won't like it at the schools they select, won't make it or won't finish for whatever reason. So much for the press conference; 18 year-olds are fickle.

I'll cast my vote against having high school athletes having press conferences. No, there shouldn't be a law, and, yes, it's well within any kid's right to hold a press conference. After all, they're just kids, they're just 17 or 18, and they aren't fully formed. My guess is that those who don't succeed will look back on the videotapes of the press conferences wistfully and somewhat embarrassed, contemplating how "out there" it was to command so much attention when, relatively speaking, they hadn't proved all that much in the world and that their toughest challenges were before them, not behind them.

Norman Dale, the basketball coach in "Hoosiers", had an interesting exchange with Barbara Hersehey's character, the fellow school teacher, asking whether it was wrong for a kid to be treated like a god, even if only for a short time, as most kids would die for that opportunity.

Apparently, most kids, if given the opportunity, would.

Is it wrong? That's very hard to say.

But the feeling isn't real, and it doesn't last forever.

And hopefully it doesn't represent the peak in one's life.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Book Review: "Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas"

I had read an excerpt of this book in Sports Illustrated over a month ago, and the excerpt served its purpose. I went out and bought the book, and, as is my wont, finished it in about a week. It's the story of one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, the Colt great Johnny Unitas, and, also, the Baltimore (not to be confused with Indianapolis) Colts.

We have family in Baltimore, and the one thing that has struck me about their connection with sports, particularly baseball and football, is their sense of personal connection. Perhaps because Baltimore is a smaller town than Philadelphia, there is more of a chance for a connection -- living near a Colt or an Oriole -- and it's interesting to hear the septuagenarians talk with reverence about one-time Colt greats and one-time Oriole stars. My guess is that part of the difference is that many of those guys played on championship teams, while championships have been fewer and farther between in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, despite that critical difference, there's a level of warmth toward former Colts that I haven't sensed in other cities about their sports stars.

The Ravens may be in Baltimore now and, yes, they did win a Super Bowl several years ago, but nothing measures up in contemporary Baltimore still than the Colts of Johnny Unitas and the team that changed football forever with the televised victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game. That game is a watershed for Baltimore football fans, and many a Baltimorean over 55 will still talk with reverance about their Colts (younger Baltimoreans will too and will forever comment on their disdain for the Irsay family, but those of a younger generation did not witness the Unitas-led Colts, especially in their prime) as if they were still playing.

Art Donovan.

Lenny Moore.

Alan Ameche.

Jim Parker.

Raymond Berry.

Big Daddy Lipscomb.

Tom Callahan captures that sense of community and warmth in this book, and it's a good read for several reasons. One, he focuses one of the two key players on that Colts' squad (the other being defensive lineman Gino Marchetti, who many credit with helping keep the Colts together as a team -- that said, there were many great players on that squad), Unitas, and does so with a thoroughness that belies the length of the book. He captures Johnny Unitas without going into painstaking detail about every game in every season as if he had to or else risk making the book incomplete. Second, he writes with the confidence of a veteran writer and works his craft well enough that he could write a relatively short book without giving his subject short shrift. In other words, he had the confidence to paint with broader strokes than pinpoint ones.

We're all better off for it.

The book is enjoyable on many fronts. You get a sense of the brilliance and competitive nature of Unitas, who was a coach on the field (seemingly the way Peyton Manning is today for the Colts of Indianapolis). You learn (in case you forgot) that the coach in the two most important games in NFL history -- the winning coach -- was Weeb Ewbank, who mentored the Colts in '58 and the Jets in the famous upset over the Colts in the '69 Super Bowl (despite not being revered as a great coach). Callahan works the facts like an old painting master, and the result is somewhat dazzling. How great were those Colts and Giants teams? How much would they cost to put together today? How, in the days of primeval scouting methods, were those teams able to gather such great assemblages of talent?

Callahan also gives the reader a solid sense of what the different Colts stars were all about, how tough some of them were, how smart and well-prepared others were (WR Raymond Berry prepared for games with amazing thoroughness, and the only contemporary analogy I could draw in my mind is how Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling prepares for his starts). And then, of course, there was Johnny Unitas, always competing, never forgetting details of the game, working hard after practice to hone his craft and to make his team win.

In a sense, there are a few primary paths superstars take to their greatness. Some are fortunate enough to recognize their talents, work hard and have everything fall into place for them. Others hit roadblocks at various times in their athletic careers and overcome adversity; nothing was handed to them, and for a while they had to grab others' attention through their efforts and show doubters how good they were. Manning falls into the former category, and, until he established his greatness with the Colts, Unitas fell into the latter category. As everyone knows, he was a late-round pick whom his hometown Steelers cut. By contrast, Manning had the golden-boy career at Tennessee and was one of the most coveted first-round picks of the past quarter century. That said, Manning is a great quarterback, and there are elements of his game that invoke memories of Unitas's.

The book is a fine tribute to a hard worker and great competitor, one of the best quarterbacks of all time. It's a great read, and one that you should put on your list.

Princeton 31 Penn 30, 2OT

Sorry for posting only intermittently over the past couple of weeks, but there's been a lot going on at work and outside work that has taken up a bunch of my time.

That said, we ventured to Princeton Stadium for the Princeton-Penn football game yesterday. The perennial power Quakers were coming off two straight overtime defeats, while the Tigers were looking to bounce back from a disappointing loss to Cornell up in Ithaca last weekend and remain in the hunt for the Ivy title.

Princeton 31 Penn 30, 2 OT.

It was a beautiful day in Princeton. The ride up Route 206 from Pennsylvania revealed spectacular scenery, with the trees changing color amidst the nice houses and farms that dot that road. The sun shone on most of the field at the game's outset, and we bought General Admission tickets ($7 apiece) and sat in the endzone (unreserved seating), as many Princeton alums do. Sitting in the endzone is a chance to meet up with old friends, and there were many who had the same thoughts as we did as we sat near the goalposts at the endzone closer to campus.

The game itself reveals why Ivy cognoscenti claim that on a given day any Ivy team can beat any other. Ivy football is somewhat like NASCAR racing, in that in NASCAR the cars that the drivers drive are pretty similar but whether or not you finish in the Top 10 or win depends upon a whole slew of factors, from the leadership of the team (the driver) to the crew chief and guys working in pit row. Analogously, most Ivy teams recruit kids from more than half the states in the country (Harvard's and Princeton's rosters showed that both schools had kids on their roster from at least 28 states), and because the pool of kids who are eligible to play Ivy football is much narrower than the pool that can play football in the SEC, it stands to reason that there isn't all that much differentiation in talent at most of the schools (Dartmouth football alums, I have heard, will argue that difficulties with the admissions office have hurt the Big Green's talent pool). Which means that coaching and leadership among the kids on the team makes a lot of difference as to who will win on a given day.

It also means that quarterbacks misfire on down-and-out patterns, defensive backs drop balls that would be surefire picks in an Alabama-Tennessee game (where the DB would take the ball "to the house"), that points after touchdown aren't guaranteed and referee's calls are questionable.

All of that happened yesterday. The Penn QB began the game only being able to convert throws over the middle; ask him to hit a sideline pattern and he probably had a better shot to hit the kid holding the broadcast network's sound cone on the sidelines (to his credit, he came up huge in the fourth quarter) than to hit one of his own wideouts. The Princeton defensive backs dropped some surefire picks that could have buried Penn before the Quakers' great fourth-quarter comeback (where Penn converted two very long fourth and longs to stay in the game). The Penn placekicking game resembled a Three Stooges' routine at times (in contrast, the Princeton punter looks like he might have a shot to make it in the NFL), and the officials had what looked to be from the Penn side a very slow whistle in the second overtime that led to Penn's demise.

It was a game that both teams deserved to win, Princeton for its pulling ahead to 24-10 after three quarters and Penn for tying the game up near the end of regulation. It also was a game the neither deserved to win -- Princeton for failing to finish off a tough opponent and Penn because it got sloppy when it needed to execute on the fundamentals. That Penn has lost three overtime games in a row is testimony to how close the Ivy teams are in terms of ability, and it's probably also testimony to the notion that Penn is not a first-division team in the Ivies this year (lose three OT games in a row means that your team is just shy in some critical area). That's not a knock on Penn, it's just evidence of the inevitable gravity that can hit a dominant program every now and then (after all, during Al Bagnoli's reign as Penn's head coach, the Quakers have put together excellent teams and results). It's also evidence that with the exceptions of Dartmouth and Columbia, the top six teams in the Ivy can give each other fits (and Dartmouth battled Cornell very tough yesterday).

Most impressive yesterday, in addition to Penn's RB Joe Sandberg and QB Robert Irvin, were Princeton's RB Rob Toresco, a tough football player with a great presence on the field, starting QB Jeff Terrell and backup QB Bill Foran. For those at the game, Foran wore #11, came in on many downs as a WR and played a few plays at QB, where he took the snap and ran around right end, usually for first downs and a few times for gains over 15 yards. He's fearless, and he must run a 4.5 40-yard dash or better. He also played a gunner on the punt teams, twice downing the ball inside the Penn 5 yard line. On one of those plays, he outmaneuvered the Penn player covering him, stopped on a dime at the goal line, batted the ball back to the four and then stopped it from rolling back in the endzone. Sounds easy, huh? Foran also made a solid tackle covering a kickoff. He was Princeton's unsung hero of the afternoon.

So what ultimately happened?

Penn had a great comeback, tying the game late in regulation. They had the ball first in OT and failed to score, and the momentum moved back to Princeton. The Tigers had a good first-down play, moving the ball 11 yards to Penn's fourteen, but at the right hashmark. Then they ran two plays to center the ball better, leaving the Princeton kicker, Conor Louden, with a very makeable 32-yarder or so. Penn's line surged greatly and blocked the kick.

Double overtime.

Princeton had the ball first and moved the ball well. They got to the Penn one, but failed to get the ball into the endzone. It was fourth and goal, and instead of taking a sure field goal, went for it on fourth down. Princeton called an off-tackle play, giving the ball to hardnosed RB Toresco, who leapt and tried to get into the endzone. The Penn defensive line pushed back hard, and Toresco wasn't stopped. He bounced off the line and back behind it, where he had the presence of mind to lateral the ball to quarterback Terrell, who at the time had been reduced to being a spectator like the rest of us (albeit on the field and five yards behind the line). Terrell took the ball and raced around right end. The Penn defense had been bunched in the center, and Terrell scored easily. Princeton converted the extra point, and went ahead 31-24. Pandemonium in Tigertown, which was much colder as the sun had begun to set (the lights had been turned on in Princeton Stadium).

The Penn coaches weren't happy, and Penn head coach Al Bagnoli walked onto the field and asked the officials for an explanation. He probably argued that the Penn line had stopped Toresco and that the play was dead, so that the lateral and ensuing touchdown shouldn't have counted. It's an interesting argument, except that no Penn players were grasping Toresco after the pushback (he was standing behind the line untouched by any Penn player), and how many times have we seen the likes of Reggie Bush continue on after it seemed like there was no gain to be made? In addition, both teams had gang tackles yesterday that were far from blown dead until well after six players on the defense grabbed the offensive player and pushed him back. My point: the "no whistle" was consistent with the way the officials called the game all day. Naturally, I and my friends are partisans, and it seemed like the right call to us.

Penn was undaunted. Irvin was hot. On the first play from scrimmage, Irvin threw a fly pattern to a wide receiver, challenging Princeton's best defensive back, J.J. Artis. It was a beautiful throw, and it was for a touchdown.

Princeton 31, Penn 30.

All Penn needed to do was to convert the PAT to force triple overtime.

But Penn's kicking game has been jinxed all season. In the first quarter, the Penn placekicker banged a short FG off the upright, only to see it flung back in his direction. Late in the game, the Quakers muffed a placement, and now they needed to convert this PAT to stay in the game.

They didn't do it. Either the snap was too low or the holder dropped it, and the Princeton defense broke through. The holder made a mad dash around left end, only to be hammered out of bounds at the Tigers' two yard-line.

Checkmate.

Princeton survived to remain one game behind undefeated Yale, and the two will face off next week in New Haven. A Princeton win will give the Tigers a tie with the Bulldogs, and a decent chance to win the league outright (in the season finale, the Tigers host league doormat Dartmouth, while Yale travels to Cambridge to face its archrival, Harvard, which is a pretty good team in its own right).

It was another beautiful day with a happy ending for the hometown fans. The kids hung out with other kids closer to the goalposts, making new friends along the way.

There was some intermittent nastiness that flew into our faces from isolated Penn fans, most of whom are a partisan but respectful bunch. One Penn undergrad was obnoxious in a line we were in at the concession stand, yelling that he hated Princeton and its people and everything about it. He had on a Penn sweatshirt and a backwards baseball cap, and the kids with us were a bit put off by this loud display. Reflexively, I turned toward him and said, "Were we to waste any time thinking about you, we'd tell you that we hate you too." It was clear from our garb for whom we were rooting, and that shut up the rude guest, at least in our presence (point of clarification, too: I have many relatives and friends who went to Penn, like the school a lot, respect their great football and basketball traditions and have great memories of fun times at both Franklin Field and the Palestra, and wouldn't dare to insult Penn fans in their own building, where I am a guest. Manners and college games don't go hand in hand, but I'll wage a one-person crusade for manners in buildings belonging to an institution where I have an affiliation if I need to do it). There was also a middle-aged Penn alum sitting near us who, every time Penn was hit with a penalty, yelled out something to the effect that Princeton, with it's $13 billion endowment, was buying the officials (it's not Princeton's fault that Penn, a larger institution, has a significantly smaller endowment and a lot of debt when compared to Princeton's balance sheet -- that doesn't diminish Penn's stature or raise Princeton's in my eyes). Anyway, the yelling seeming to be a bit wacky, and we agreed that if one-time Princeton hoops coach Pete Carril were sitting near us he'd wonder "Who is this as_____?"). As the game wore on, he faded away, free to speak, harmless in his discourse, but odd nonetheless, as you'd think forty- or fifty-somethings would have better things to cheer about.

I blogged the last paragraph because of the many articles I've read recently about the lack of civility at college games, and most definitely those two interactions were but a small distraction from a fun afternoon. We still would have had fun even if the home team had lost, but as many Princeton fans will tell you, there's no sound more sonorous or enriching than the silence of the Penn fans. I'm sure they'd say the same thing about Princeton fans -- it's great to hear them silenced, too, if you bleed red and blue.

For whatever reason, Penn views Princeton as its archrival, and that perceived rivalry dates back a while (probably over 70 years), most likely because of the proximity of the schools (there's about 50 miles apart; interestingly, Columbia feels no such rivalry with Princeton, and those schools have about the same distance between them). While Princeton might view Penn as its archrival in men's basketball given both schools' dominance over the Ivies since the league's inception, generally speaking Princeton doesn't see Penn as its archrival. On the gridiron, Princeton views Yale as its archrival, as there has been a rich history between the schools that actually pre-dates the Harvard-Yale rivalry (today, Princeton is the third of the Big Three in terms of that rivalry, as Harvard and Yale view each other as archrivals in almost everything). So, Penn fans, while you have your passion and sometimes your enmity, remember this: your school and your teams aren't on the radar screen for most Princetonians in most endeavors. That doesn't mean they don't respect you; it just means that they don't view your school the way you view theirs.

It was a great game, and there have been many among Ivy football teams this season. I'll submit that Ivy football is among the purest of college football endeavors -- there are no big stadiums, there are no students in joke majors who cannot do the work and who have little chance of graduating, and there are no gridiron coaches who are larger in profile than the university presidents. That's what college football should be. When you think of any Ivy, you think of the integrity of their overall mission first, the talent of the students and their participation in a large number of programs and not about any sporting contest.

And that's the perspective that all college sports should have -- as extracurricular activities.