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, February 28, 2007

The Legend of Calvin Johnson

Dave Sez posted on the star Ga Tech wide receiver, who showed up at The Combine looking a little big and didn't intend to run the 40. Well, Johnson borrowed a pair of sneakers from another participant, and the rest is the legend. Click here and read all about it.

Now you know why draft gurus like Mel Kiper, Jr. have Johnson at or near the top of their draft boards.

The NFL Scouting Combine

The NFL Scouting Combine (or, "The Combine" to the cognoscenti) has always fascinated me. Basically, it's a meat market for an educated consumer. According to SI's Peter King, who appeared today on WFAN, it's no longer the case, as it once was, say, 10 years ago, that a player could make or break his future at The Combine. That's because, in 1995, a defensive end from BC named Mike Mamula put on such a dazzling show at The Combine that he caused then-Eagles head coach Ray Rhodes to trade two first round picks in order to grab Mamula at #7 overall.

Why have you never heard of Mamula? Because he wasn't a playmaker, and because he was a tweener -- too big for DE and too slow for LB. Put differently, he wasn't very good. (It might have helped had Rhodes looked at more game film of Mamula in college where, in stark contrast to undersized LB Zach Thomas, he wasn't that much of a playmaker). Because of Mamula, teams don't put too much stock in the combine, other than to confirm their thoughts. Translated, according to King, players might move up or down a round or even a round and a half, but there won't be wholesale changes.

Click here for John Clayton's story on The Combine at espn.com. I think Clayton's great at what he does, but one comment in his article doesn't make any sense. That comment -- that Penn State OT Levi Brown failed to hurdle Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas to become the #1 prospect at OT because Brown ran "only" a 5.2 in the 40-yard dash while Thomas ran a blistering 4.92. Since when have we determined who the Hall-of-Fame tackles are by how fast they run in the 40? My guess is that there are many other criteria that put Thomas in the first spot, but let's not rely too heavily on a 40-yard dash for a guy who plays a position where you're wrestling with a human tank for 5-10 seconds every 45 seconds or so. And the 40 tells us what?

Enjoy the linked article. The hot stove season for football has begun in earnest.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bob Knight Speaks/Should Freshmen Be Eligible?

The saying that usually makes the rounds in successful athletic programs with tough coaches is attributed to the upperclassmen, who frequently tell the frosh and sophs, "Remember, listen to what he says, not how he says it." I'm sure that this has been said about many a coach, including the head hoops coach at Texas Tech, Bob Knight.

Bob Knight is right about a lot of things, and I think he's right on this topic too. In making his comments about the NBA's rule that compels high school players to do something else for a year (read: play in college) before entering the league, Knight calls out the NBA. Basically, what he's saying is that the NBA is compromising the integrity of college hoops and making its problems the problems of college programs.

And he's dead right.

If the NBA doesn't want "diaper dandies" playing in its league straight out of high school (and Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard have really stunk up NBA joints, haven't they?), they shouldn't make the problems the NCAA's. The NBA has decried the lack of preparedness of high schoolers, the fact that they'll bring undesirable friends with them, the fact that they aren't ready for all of the excitement, living alone, etc. as reasons for its rule. I blogged before that I thought the NBA was making a bad decision by excluding HS seniors, because baseball and hockey bring in youngsters and so does tennis (and golf does too). I really didn't see the difference then, and I don't see it now. Why keep budding stars from competing at the highest level?

Here's the kicker: the colleges can fight back and beat the NBA.

Big time.

And, in the process, they'll totally undo the harm that guys like Bob Knight think the NBA has caused.

All the colleges need to do is to make freshmen ineligible to play.

They did it before, and they can do it again.

How many college coaches have been quoted as saying that freshmen shouldn't be eligible in the revenue sports because it's so hard for freshmen to adjust to college, period, let alone if they're playing football or basketball? Many (including men like Bob Knight and Dean Smith). (Now, football self-regulates a bit, because many freshmen get red-shirted and don't play, and the elite players try to (and do) graduate early and matriculate in the spring semester at the college of their choice to adjust to college and participate in spring drills -- there's no such equivalent in college hoops).

So what's the best remedy?

Have them sit for a year. Get them to play a good freshman schedule (with not too much travel -- and there would be no March Madness equivalent for freshman teams), get the players adjusted to college life, and, in so doing, you'll separate the guys who are there to play from the guys who don't belong in college. Because the latter group won't go if they can't play against the elite competition (read: upperclassmen) for fear of seeing their skills atrophy, and, if they're excellent players whose NBA futures are all but assured, they'll want better competition than playing a frosh schedule. Which means that the NBA would have to make a move, or else risk reducing a further diluted American talent pool, because kid who comes out after playing a year on a freshman team (which he'd have to do under the NBA's current rules) won't be nearly as ready to play in the big leagues as the kid who was eligible for the varsity as a freshman. Which means that the NBA will have to create a meaningful farm system where they can place kids whom they draft out of high school and develop them properly.

That would make the final result NCAA by technical knockout.

My guess is that if the NCAA schools were to prohibit frosh from playing on the varsity, the NBA would change its rule and get the very best of the HS kids into its orbit the most quickly (another reason -- other than potential skill set atrophy, is that the NBA would lose the free publicity that all NCAA men's hoops TV contracts provide it by showing the best college stars, many of whom will become NBA stars, frequently. The best here is that the stars of frosh teams won't get nearly the type of publicity they would generate were they eligible for the varsity). At the same time, instead of foisting its problems onto the colleges, the NBA actually would be doing them a favor. After all, college should be for student-athletes who want to be there for the overall experience, and not just to play ball.

Ah, but then there's the money, you argue. Would the networks still be willing to pay the huge bucks for March Madness if there is freshman ineligiblity and guys like Kevin Durrant don't go to college? Sure, they would. The tournament transcends any one individual and comes up with great reality TV every single year, mega-HS wonders or not. Finances shouldn't be a huge driver here (because I'd argue, in econ parlance, that they're inelastic), but I'm sure that some network types would love to get the mega-stars, even if for only a year. My view: if great HS player #1A doesn't go to college, there are many others to take his place and provide great stories.

So let's see if the NCAA takes Bob Knight's contention and goes one step further. Make freshmen ineligible, and then tell the NBA that the ball is in their court.

And then see if the NBA can make a fundamentally sound decision.

But then again, it's not like the NBA has been great at fundamentals in recent years, has it?

And They Can't Blame Bob Huggins for This One

Smoke from the football program at the University of Cincinnati.

As with all cases, we shouldn't draw conclusions until the matter is fully investigated and the facts come to light.

That said, who would have thought that if you mentioned the words "recruits," "scandal," and "University of Cincinnati" you wouldn't see the basketball program discussed in the story?

Not many.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Free Agents Considering the NY Giants, Take Note

Tiki Barber reflects upon playing for Tom Coughlin.

So, if you're considering the NFC East, think about the following:

1. In Washington, you have an owner who seems to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. He has a highly paid head coach, the highest paid coordinators, and he's dipped into his big wallet time and time again and hasn't done anything. I've also read where he insists upon being called "Mister." Go there and you could get the big bucks, but you're playing for a team that seems doomed from the start. All the king's horses and men couldn't fix Humpty Dumpty, and it doesn't appear that all the money in the world can bring a winner to D.C.

2. In Dallas, a Hall-of-Fame head coach resigned because of the owner's meddling and because of the uncoachability of the latest in clubhouse disease strains, Terrell Owens. (If you watched clips of Owens spouting off on the sidelines last year and the (bad) body language of his teammates in response, you know what I mean). So here you have a head coach who was probably hired to be a lame duck, an offensive coordinator who is the anointed one (and whom the head coach did not hire), a family that is riding on laurels that have certainly wilted after a decade of being out of Super Bowl contention, and an owner who clearly doesn't know his limits. You also have a quarterback who might not be nearly as good as his first six games indicated. They'll probably pay you the big bucks too, but hey, the perpetually dissing T.O. puts the "dys" in dysfunction.

3. And then there's Philadelphia, the shining example of the NFC East. The one concern is that head coach Andy Reid, whom the players like because he's a straight shooter, is on a leave of absence, but the bet here and in many circles is that he'll be back and he'll be fine. It's hard to fathom why the Vegas oddsmakers favor Dallas and New York over the Eagles, but the best here is that the most functional team (and they're pretty functional, but they'd win this contest by default) will win the division. Why? See #s 1 and 2 above, and the Tiki Barber quotes to boot.

Happy shopping, those of you who are in demand.

Just be careful what you wish for in the NFC East.

Who Should His Sponsor Be?

USA Today reports that there's a 72 year-old NASCAR driver at Daytona. James Hylton, who was a perennial also ran on the circuit during his prime, is back and racing again. Click here to get a sense of Hylton's new mission and what others think about it.

The article points out that Retirement Home Living is sponsoring Hylton, and former NASCAR driver Mark Martin, for one, thinks that what Hylton's doing is great. Martin, you'll recall, had Viagra as a sponsor before he put away his helmet for good.

Who else should sponsor Hylton? The possibilities are endless, and they would include, I think, the big orthopedic companies (the ones who make artificial hips and knees, for example) and the over-the-counter dental market.

Personally, I'm not sure that Hylton's return is such a good idea. 72 seems to be an age where you should retire to Daytona, buy a jacket with your favorite driver's numbers and colors on it, take the old RV, and sip some cold ones on the infield.

As opposed to racing stock cars at the most prestigious race in the stock car world.

After all, there's a reason why golf has a seniors tour (okay, so it's now called the Champions Tour) and NASCAR does not.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Best Player Never to Win a Major

We've heard this before. It's a term used in the world of professional golf, and it's used to describe the best player out there not to have won a major championship, i.e., any of the U.S. or British Opens, the Masters or the PGA. For years Phil Mickelson had the moniker.

I'm sure he hated it.

It's a cruel monitor, really, one that implies that the player has great talent and lofty expectations and cannot win the big one. Yes, there's some underlying truth, because before Phil developed his killer instict and won a few majors he was more known for being overweight, out of shape and too prone to hitting trick shots as opposed to seizing titles that were there for the taking. Now that Phil Mickelson has shed that moniker, it's either that I haven't followed golf that much since, that the title really isn't in use much any more, or that there is little consensus in the professional golfing world as to who should hold it.

In all of pro sports, Peyton Manning just shed that moniker too. He was the anointed one. Coming out of high school in Louisiana, great things and national championship were predicted for him while he was at Tennessee. The great stats did happen, but the Vols didn't win a national title during the Peyton years (they did with Tee Martin a year after Manning left Knoxville). When Manning joined the Colts, more great things were predicted. Yes, he did amass great stats, but he didn't play great in the big games and was viewed a flop when compared to the Pats' Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick.

Until this season.

Now Peyton Manning no longer is the best player not to win a major.

So who is?

Think about golf, tennis, hockey, basketball, baseball and football. And think about the moniker too. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton were great NBA players who never won the title. Does that mean they were failures, or that there were guys like Shaq and Kobe and Michael and Scottie who stood in their way? Donovan McNabb has had some great seasons, so should that moniker apply to him? Or, has he been so injury-prone the past three seasons that to cast him with that designation would be unfair because he isn't likely to finish a season?

I don't particularly like the moniker, and I don't really have an answer. I don't follow hockey closely enough, and it's hard to put a baseball player in the limelight because he's just one guy in a lineup of nine. Quarterbacks and star hoopsters are fairer game, if only because they have more control over the outcome of a season than even a cleanup hitter (and while #1 starters can control a game's outcome, they only get the ball once every five games).

I'd like your thoughts on this, especially within football, basketball and baseball. I suppose that as recently as last night on SportsCenter LeBron James painted a target between his broad shoulders by both stating that he expects to win an NBA title and that he wants to be an internationally recognized figure like Muhammad Ali. Best player not to win a title? LeBron is up there -- and he's solicited the heat, to boot.

Still, it's not really fair. For example, in professional football, much has to go right beyond the play of a great player to win a title. You could have a great team, but if too many starters get banged up and you limp into the post-season with a waiver-wire quality defensive backfield, you probably won't win the title, no matter how good your skill position players are on offense. In baseball, Curt Schilling is amazing because he's won World Series with two teams and was heroic in so doing, but is Barry Bonds (sans the steroid scandal, for purposes of argument) a candidate because he couldn't win a seemingly perenially undermanned Giants team to a World Series? And, in basketball, is Allen Iverson an all-time great player or is he one of those worthy of the moniker because he couldn't win his 76ers to a title over the Shaq-Kobe-Phil Lakers six years ago and because, well, the teams on which he played were average?

It's stuff like this that gets us talking during the cold-weather months and the time in between the Super Bowl and March Madness (which I relish the concept of "pitchers and catchers reporting", baseball is a far way off from the focus of most sports fans). Whether it's right that we focus so much on this is another story, but it was the story leading up to the Super Bowl.

And that made me wonder whether that story was simply a fixation on the Manning family as opposed to comparing great NFL quarterbacks. After all, Dan Marino, Dan Fouts and Fran Tarkenton never won Super Bowls. Does that mean that they're not up there with the Bradshaws, Montanas, Elways and Bradys of the world? Probably. But does it mean in the case of the first two that those two weren't among the top five passers in the game, ever (I personally like Fouts better than Marino, but Marino arguably is the best pure passer the game has seen)? No. Somehow, the fact that, among others, Marino, Fouts and Tarkenton never won Super Bowls (same for Jim Kelly, who played on the losing team four years in a row, and note that I didn't write that Kelly lost four in a row because that wouldn't be fair) hasn't been held against them the way Manning's failure to win a Super Bowl was held against him.

Score it, 1 for the Manning family and it's legend and 0 for the concept of a great quarterback not getting to win the big one, except, I'm sure that the Manning family would have preferred to be on the losing end of this particular score. I suppose it's the case of the person of whom we expected so much (and who had a hype machine to match, whether he sought it out or not) not delivering that made people publicly question whether Peyton Manning was a champion. Manning, to his great credit, answered those critics in the post-season.

So who's next?

Or does it really matter?

Do we really care?

You have to wonder whether this focus on the individual is antithetical to the concept of team.

I think it is.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Pro Football's Dirty Laundry

Read this article and wonder whether the price of your favorite sport is worth it.

The NFL is the favorite sport in the U.S. The revenues are astounding. It makes a ton of money, sells lots of merchandise, and has many Americans build their weekend schedules around the games of their favorite teams.

But it also has a dark side -- the toll it takes on the health of the men who play it. (I just finished reading John Feinstein's excellent book on a season he spent with the Baltimore Ravens, called "Next Man Up", and among other things this book illustrates the toll that weekly collisions take on the bodies of NFL players. Most teams are pretty banged up by week 10, with many players playing the last third or so of the season with injuries. One of the reasons, especially for those who aren't superstars, is that there's always someone ready to take your place and to be the "next man up").

The linked article tells of the maladies that many older alumni of the NFL are suffering from and the fact that they don't have the funds to pay for their care. Hall of Famer Willie Wood, for example, is in an assisted living facility thanks to the fact that some of his fellow former players, among them Mike Ditka, are paying for his care. Many have trouble walking, have neurological problems, suffer from dementia, etc. That's a high price to pay for being a football hero.

This problem is a submarine, and from all reports, a nuclear one at that. Which means that when it fully surfaces and the studies are published, the numbers, in my estimation, won't look pretty and the problem will be radioactive. (For those with little knowledge of the history of football, President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in a few times during his administration to examine the game, given the number of deaths that were occuring on the field during the turn of the 20th century. ). Hopefully, the NFL will do the right thing, look into this (as opposed to bury it, because what industry really wants Congress to make rules for them if they can avoid it?) and come up with a comprehensive post-retirement (whether voluntary or involuntary) program for players that helps ensure good medical care and the ability to get that care with dignity.

That's what the NFL should do. What it will do is another story. The players' union is getting heat for this problem too, but its resources seem rather strapped as it is, and it hasn't enjoyed the success that the baseball players' union has (read: not as much money). I'm no expert in pension or fiduciary laws, but it could well be that absent a vote of its leadership and a significant alteration of its policies, the union is hard-strapped to provide the financial aid that some of these former players need. Alternatively, it doesn't have the resources to pay for all of these players' problems. That shouldn't be a surprise, because my guess is that there are hundreds of former NFL players with lingering serious health problems that derived from on-field or in-practice injuries.

And that could mean eight figures' worth of money in annual care for that group of people.

I'm not sure how much the fans care. First, they view the league and players as wealthy, so they don't want this to become their problem. They want the sausage, they don't want to see how it's made or what gets thrown out after it's made. Second, we live in a disposable society. True, we'll miss the Pro Bowler when he blows out all knee ligaments, but we'll look for opportunities, because the coming of age of the undrafted free agent from Occidental or Mount Union might be the story of the year. Even former players will tell you that they ignored teammates who were injured. Said Mark Schlereth, former Pro Bowl guard with the Redskins and Broncos, "when a guy got hurt, he was dead to us." Americans like the new thing, the hot team, the top-notch players. True, we like to see the heroes of yesteryear, but not the broken down players with their problems. That's now how we want or choose to remember them, and, hey, we've all got problems. Why, the reasoning goes, should we really care about their maladies? They made great money for what they did, they knew the risks going into it, and the NFL has tons of the money to solve the problem. Or so the thinking goes.

Of course I do think fans care. They just don't think about this type of thing all that much unless the papers pay a good deal of attention to it. And they're starting to. My guess is that they'll want the NFL to do what's right financially and take care of these men, without whom the game they love wouldn't exist. But is that enough?

Here are a few suggestions for the NFL:

1. Expand rosters to 61 players per team and let them all dress and play. Yes, that will cost you more money in salaries, staff, equipment, etc., but that will ensure that you'll have enough healthy players that guys won't have to play hurt or at least very hurt. You can eliminate the developmental squads here (8 players who can work out with you, but who aren't solely property of your team in that another team can spirit them away if they sign them to their active rosters -- this system doesn't reward a team for excellent scouting). Right now, teams have 53 players total on their active rosters, but only 45 can dress for a game, and then they have their 8-man developmental squads).

2. Eliminate the bad option of requiring an NFL team to put a player on season-ending injured reserve when hurt or keep him on the active roster, hoping for a return in 8 weeks, without having the ability to put a healthy player on the roster. Create 2-, 4-, 6- and 8-week disabled lists, akin to the way baseball does it. This should enable teams to sign free agents to fill open slots, let's players mend the way they need to and lets fresher players into the mix (this will help save wear and tear on everyone).

3. Spend meaningful money on studies regarding head, spinal and orthopedic injuries. Share the studies willingly and talk about them candidly. Put money into training and product development. For example, if players can recover much more quickly by sleeping in oxygen tents, perhaps each player should be issued one. Whether he uses it or not during the season is up to him. Also, require teams to submit, confidentially within the league, medical files on all players to those who are studying these injuries. I am sure that some great researchers could mine all sorts of gems from this data.

4. Monitor the health of former players. This is a hard one because this would have to be voluntary, but I'd urge the players' union to do the best it can here, and former players should realize that they're helping future ones by what could be learned from their data. Naturally, former players can't be forced into this, but they should want to do this so long as confidentiality of their particular conditions could be assured. Again, the information that could be mined from this data could lead to tremendous innovations in care while a player is playing and after retirement.

5. Insist upon uniformity of turf at each NFL stadium. The turf at Vet Stadium in Philadelphia several years ago, for example, was a bad joke and thought by many to be dangerous. There's so much money in this league, all teams should use the same turf, the spongy, artificial type that seems to have more give than even natural grass. Anyone who watched late-season games at some of the natural grass stadiums around the league saw how torn up the natural turf could get.

6. Put away significant funds to pay for the health care of former players. Whether that's a league item or a union function is open to debate, but the present state is not acceptable.

The NFL and the players' union have a problem and need to take action. There are many great people on both sides who can solve this problem before it gets worse.

And it's already pretty bad.

If you're a fan, remember this, that the cost of the collisions, of people getting "all jacked up", of quarterback sacks and defensive backs running into kickoff wedges are the litany of former players with disabling injuries. Yes, relatively speaking, all players are well paid, while only a small percentage of them make enough money to be set for life. Which means, when they're done, they're faced with a life trying to make a living at something where they can't use their best talents -- playing football -- because at a very early age they've exhausted their earning power from those talents. And the average former player will do so knowing to some degree that he'll face big medical bills in the future.

Think it's great to be a football hero?

Maybe it is.

But not forever.

The Princeton Tigers Are 0-4 In Ivy Play . . .

their worst start ever since the league began 50+ years ago.

After having seen them play well against Marshall and Rice in the non-league schedule, I am somewhat speechless about what's going on. There are three factors that contribute to this lack of comments.

First, there's the Princeton's eleventh commandment -- thou shall not speak ill of a member of the Princeton (basketball) family. Yes, we'll knock the Crimson and the Old Blues, but not fellow Tigers. Obviously, things aren't going well.

Second, there are those out there who follow the team more closely than I who can articulate better what's going on with the program. You know where to find them, and I suggest that you check in there. If you prefer, please post here. I very much welcome your comments.

Third, I am rather speechless on this turn of events. What explains it? This losing streak (and the awful loss to Seton Hall last Monday night) have to have a better explanation than the foot injury to Kyle Koncz. Are the other Ivies that much better, or has Princeton dropped down to their level (with Penn remaining far ahead despite a loss last night at Yale, where the Elis have given the Quakers fits during James Jones' coaching tenure)? Have the Ivies as a whole caught up to the Tigers and figured out their schemes? Do the Tigers have the talent that they did 7 years ago, when they rose to as high as #8 in the nation? Are the players good enough to be title-worthy? Is Joe Scott the right fit at Princeton?

These questions, of course, are not easy ones and brush up against my first point, with the result that there will be those Tiger diehards who will wonder aloud at what's happened to the program without looking critically at it and who will continue to look for positives (the advent of a walk-on 6'4" center, the team's record in calendar year 2006, the play of the freshman guards, etc. without critically looking at the whole product). On the other hand, there will be those fans who will be very quick to throw A.D. Gary Walters and head coach Scott under the bus, because, at the end of the day, they're responsible for what's going on (and an 0-4 record to start league play isn't acceptable to anyone in the Princeton hoops family). But they are not inappropriate questions, not at this stage in Coach Scott's tenure.

The Carril family line of coaching (and, most outstanding coaches, for that matter) are blunt and honest and always endeavor to have players be honest with themselves about their level of effort and concentration. The theory, of course, is that honesty about one's self leads to accountability and responsibility, and that leads to improvement and that, of course, can lead to great seasons. Which means, of course, that the Princeton athletic leadership and the Princeton men's hoops coaching staff have to be honest with themselves about what's going on with the program. Is it headed in the right direction and only a matter of time before the right nucleus emerges? And, if so, how much more time is required? If not, what needs to be changed?

Now, this commentary could be premature, the Tigers could win out, go 10-0 in the remainder of the Ivy season, have the other teams lose a few games and tie for the title. That outcome, though, doesn't seem likely, not at this juncture.

The Tigers need to get the feeling back. What's the feeling? The feeling that it will be they and Penn as the two tops teams in the Ivies year-in and year-out. The feeling that the game at the Palestra and the game at Jadwin will have some meaning, and they haven't for a while. The feeling that they'll be able to beat almost every Ivy opponent on a given night by at least 10 points, sometimes winning by as many as 25. Those of us who have been following the program for three and four decades remember walking in to Jadwin and witnessing a 30+ point margin of victory over Yale or a 25-point demolishing of Ivy champ Cornell in the season finale in 1988, double-digit victories here and there. Now we walk into the gym not knowing what to expect.

That feeling hasn't been present in Tigertown since the departure of John Thompson III, and, even during Thompson's tenure, it wasn't as strong as it was during Bill Carmody's tenure. The Tiger men's hoops program has to get that swagger back, that sense of preeminence. How they do so will be a test for the leadership.

It starts this coming weekend, with home games against Dartmouth and Harvard.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Springtime for Hitler

Sort of.

Most of you know the premise for the movie and Broadway show "The Producers." Basically, the producers of the show wanted to put on a flop and take their investors money for themselves. They vetted all sorts of plays, and then settled on one written by a certifiable former member of the German Army called "Springtime for Hitler."

It was supposed to be a bomb. Instead, the show became a hit. And, of course, you know the rest of the story.

Fast forward to today's NBA in Philadelphia, where over a month ago the 76ers traded future Hall of Famer Allen Iverson to the Nuggets for Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two first-round picks and, more recently, gave Chris Webber a lucrative buyout and set him free. All of this was designed, of course, to send the 76ers on a free fall and give them the worst record in the NBA.

Bar none.

And most of us figured that this would happen, that while Miller is a good PG and that SF Andre Iguodala has some skills, the 76ers hardly had enough talent to rise above the Clippers' Line (I've named it in honor of all of the Clippers' teams in history that have finished the season with the worst record).

But here's the funny thing, it hasn't happened. Reverting to old-time hoops (and here's a tip of the hat (trick) to the Hanson Brothers of "Slapshot" fame), the 76ers have actually put together some good games since the exile of Allen the Great (read: point guard finds the open man, open man has confidence to drain shot and does just that). Which means, of course, that the kids on the team obviously didn't get the memo, and, believe it or not, the 76ers now have only the third-worst record in the league.

And that means fewer ping pong balls in the draft lottery machine, a lesser chance to get the first pick and have your choice from among Greg Oden, Kevin Durrant and Joakim Noah. Not that, of course, getting any one of those guys would be a bad thing, but clearly having the shot to get Greg Oden was why the 76ers decided to throw their big guns off the side of their battle cruiser.

Now, from an attendance standpoint, the team isn't doing well at all. Sure, they're announcing paid attendance, but the actual attendance according to the cognoscenti is less than that, and sometimes much so. But adding insult to injury, the team isn't doing what everyone expected them to.

And that has some people worried.

Why?

Because Billy King is the GM and the 76ers haven't had the best record of drafting or of finding skilled players from overseas during his tenure. Harken back to the 1983 draft, when Hakeem Olajuwon went first, Sam Bowie went second (to Portland, on a day which shall live in infamy) and Michael Jordan went third (think about how much more money he could have made for and from Nike had he actually played in Portland, a relatively stone's throw from Nike's headquarters). Why this is relevant is because somehow, some way, the team could end up taking the next Sam Bowie and pass on, well, a top 50 player (I'm speaking, of course, of the Top 50 of All-Time in the NBA).

That could happen. It really could.

Olajuwon is a Hall of Famer, as is Jordan. Who remembers Sam Bowie (except for hoops fans in Oregon, those who saw him play at Kentucky (he was excellent when health) and those from his hometown).

And then the 76ers would be facing a point of no return. They're hemmorhaging attendance already, and they cannot afford to populate the team with someone who isn't a Sure Thing. They need someone who can help lead a big turnaround, who can step in and be a star.

In the meantime, fans are witnessing, to a degree, the emergence of Andre Iguodala as a prime-time threat. That's great, but the team had hovered in NBA purgatory for most of the Iverson years. Good enough to flirt with the playoffs and/or make the first round, but not good enough to make it very exciting for the fans (save the one year that lightning struck in 2000-2001) by making a deep playoff run and not bad enough to draft an Oden. If Iguodala plays well over the next several months, they might not be able to get that key top player who can help lift them out of that no man's land. They could get a very good player (Noah) but not a transcendant one (Oden or Durrant; and I admit I could be wrong about Noah -- he could be transcendant too).

And that, clearly, is not the objective.

Of course, you can't ask the kids to lose, and you do want them to improve. Which is what they're aiming to do under Mo Cheeks. And, of course, there's no other way to improve than to play hard and win games.

So that's why this spring could well be the 76ers' version of "Springtime for Hitler."

It just goes to show you, though, that the 76ers need a management overhaul, because they can't even tank the season if they tried.

And that's pretty hard to do.

Because we already know that this regime can't field a winner.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Wing Bowl XV

You have to read this to believe it. (And Forbes covered this event too. Click here for the link to their coverage.)

They held the 15th Wing Bowl today at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia. That's the same arena where the 76ers and Flyers struggle daily to rise to the top of the second division in their respective leagues. Still, it's a first-class arena.

20,000 people rose before dawn to get there. I don't know when the doors opened, but coverage started at 6 a.m.

Live, on WIP, the leading sports-talk radio station in town. (Click the link for all sorts of information, on Wing-Bowl, on Wingettes, on, well, almost anything). You can even buy Wing Bowl gear here. (Also be sure to read about the entrants, from Wing Dong to Curly von Burly the Viking Pig).

People play hooky from work to attend. Pat Croce is now the Commissioner, having replaced the late Eric Gregg. Yes, the Pat Croce, the self-made multi-millionaire who has written upbeat self-help books and who was once a very visible minority owner of the 76ers when they last went to the NBA Finals (six years ago, but then publicly suggested that he wanted to take over for Ed Snider, the de facto head of the 76ers and Flyers, and ended up out of a job, proving that you don't tug on Superman's Cape or spit into the wind and get away with it). Yes, the Eric Gregg, the affable one-time National League umpire with weight problems who lost his job when the umpires' union overplayed their hand and who died suddenly last year in his mid-50's.

Big stuff, huh?

No, not at all.

The Wing Bowl, you see, is a wing-eating contest.

Chicken wings, to be exact.

And Philadelphians wonder why their city has an image problem.

But they don't care, because, clearly, it's not a self-image problem. They like who they are, even if they support an event like this and even if that self-image is a rather large one. You see, Philadelphia rates as the second-fattest city in the U.S.

Must be all those wings, cheese steaks and ice cream (okay Bostonians, you think your town is the ice cream capital of the world, but we had, among others, at one time, Breyer's and Dolly Madison, to name a few, and that's when no one knew to count cholesterol or measure transfats).

So is this a good thing, or not? The humor most certainly is there, as the host of the event is WIP's lead morning guy, Angelo Cataldi, who once was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize when he was a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Among others doing "sideline" reporting was Al Morganti, one of the most knowledgeable hockey writers and commentators in the country (and a frequent sidekick of Cataldi's in the morning). Their shtick is, well, very funny at times.

They also paid a nice tribute to the late Eric Gregg, whom we'll all remember for his smile and for the positive image he brought to whatever he did. That said, we all worried about Eric Gregg's health even as a young umpire, because his weight problems at times were rather pronounced. And while he served this Wing Bowl well, the sad irony isn't lost on those who don't see the Wing Bowl as a total satire or totally sophomoric. Had Eric Gregg been able to take better care of himself and, yes, eat less, he might still be here with us today.

But is it fair to say that the Wing Bowl encourages overeating? Not entirely. Gluttony at a moment in time? Absolutely.

What puzzles me is not so much why a couple of dozen or so competitors might want to enter this event. Some want the attention. Others have found one of their true talents in life -- professional eating. It's easy to explain them away.

What's much less easy to explain is why 20,000 people would show up before 6 a.m. to watch this spectacle?

I harken back to the famous line that Judge Smails in Caddyshack made to a group of men who were happy playing cards in the men's grille after playing a round of golf: "Don't you people have homes?"

Or lives?

Okay, so it costs airfare, hotel fare and meal costs to attend the Super Bowl, along with forking over anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000 for a ticket.

The Wing Bowl is a local trip, a drive down I-95 or the Schuylkill (pronounced Skoo-kill) Expressway, a ride down Broad Street, or a trip across the Walt Whitman Bridge from New Jersey.

And it's a lot cheaper. I had a sense that tickets were free, but obviously not. If you Google "Wing Bowl tickets", you'll get all sorts of links to places where you could have purchased Wing Bowl tickets, and I saw one offer for two prime seats at $40 a pair!

For an eating contest.

Where people can and actually do, well, throw up.

Where, at the time of a possible wing, well, toss, the Commissioner is supposed to yell, "If you heave, you leave." Sounds like the cage-fighting scene with Master Blaster from Mad Max, where the crowd was chanting ominously, "Two go in, one comes out," over and over again.

Kind of like watching NASCAR for the crashes.

A relative bargain, though, given that it could cost a family of 4 about $400 bucks, fully loaded, to go to a 76ers or Flyers game.

And there's really no chance anyone will vomit in public.

I remember reading a quote from one-time NFL receiver Steve Kreider, a Lehigh alum and now a successful fund manager. Kreider was a wide receiver for the Bengals in the 1980's, and on January 10, 1982 the Bengals beat the visiting Chargers 27-7 in the AFC Championship game where the wind-chill factor at times as -56 degrees (the press dubbed in the "Freeze Bowl"). Said Kreider, "I don't know what was a worse statement -- that we played the game in this weather or that 60,000 people sat outside for three hours and watched it."

Touche.

Okay, so if you're an eater, you're in the arena, literally (and figuratively, although I don't think that this type of competition was what Teddy Roosevelt had in mind when he gave his famous speech). But if you're a spectator of a wings eating contest (okay, even with all of the hoopla, entourages, cheesy entrances and, yes, dancing girls), what the heck are you doing?

And what are you doing, Pat Croce?

Now you're asking why am I writing so much about this if I think this is so silly, and, well, because it is so silly.

And, yes, I'll say it.

Undignified.

Especially for a city with an image problem.

Call me a kill joy, fine, but I just don't see what this particular competition brings to the table.

Except to send a message, perhaps, to the management of the pathetic pro hoops and hockey franchises in the city.

After all, 20,000 people took off work and played hooky to get up early and watch a wing-eating contest.

Do you get 20,000 people to come to your games?

Not a chance.

After all, people like to go to championship games and events.

Even if they involve the simple act of eating a chicken wing.

Or about 187 of them in a very short period of time.

Would People Watch Football As Much If. . .

it weren't so easy to bet on?

You can bet once a week, and the point spreads are easy enough for a third-grader to understand. That's a whole lot different from betting on baseball, basketball or hockey.

There are all sorts of ways to bet, at a sports book, on-line, and with someone who is Tony Soprano's third cousin twice removed.

My view is that a significant (and by significant, I mean at least 10%) portion of the football fan population wouldn't watch the game if it weren't so easy to bet on. Now that doesn't mean I want to outlaw sports betting. All I'm doing is calling into question the depth of knowledge and sincerity of the average football fan.

About 40 years ago, horse racing was one of the most popular sports in the country and people bought tickets to the Irish Sweepstakes because lotteries weren't present for the most part in the U.S. and the track was the one plac where you could make a legal bet. Today, almost every state has some form of legalized gambling, you can bet off-shore, you can bet on-line, and there are lotteries everywhere. Horse racing is all but dead (yes, the big events are draws, but the attendance is very small otherwise), and who buys Irish lottery tickets in the U.S. anymore. The reasons are simple -- the evolution of gambling has been such that you don't need to play the ponies or pony up for Irish Sweepstakes tickets any more. It's that simple.

My father before he died cautioned that among the things Gibbon wrote about in "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" as a cause of the downfall of Rome were that lotteries had sprung up. My guess is that the Romans had not figured out how to create a one-armed bandit and there was no such game as Seven Hills Hold 'Em, but I could be wrong. My other surmise is that there are so many temptations in our country that it would be hard to argue that any single one could cause the downfall of America, and I'm not suggesting that sports betting is.

Sorry for the digression. I now return to my initial premise -- how many people watch football (solely or primarily) because they can bet on it and because they can easily understand the betting?

Probably more than you think. (I believe I read somewhere recently -- perhaps ESPN the Magazine -- that football represents a large majority of sports betting in Las Vegas, and I'm going to do more research here).

And, remember, up until Jose Canseco spoke out, there were only a handful of baseball players who took steroids.

Just remember this, how many people talked about spreads or odds when the Cardinals were beating the Tigers in the World Series last fall, or when the Heat beat the Mavericks in the NBA Finals?

But everyone knows what the spread currently is for the Super Bowl, don't they?

Except me.

The Surfacing Problem in Football

This story is one example of it.

Collisions are a serious matter. Pro football players get paid to collide. The rest of the world who plays football collides -- for fun, for glory, for scholarships, for a chance to play for money.

And those collisions take their toll.

Some pro football players started playing tackle football at the ages of 6 and 7. That's a lot of pounding by the time they hit 30.

Ever meet guys who used to play football and played a lot of it? How well do they move? How well do they speak? Do they seem okay to you?

Many do, but a disproportionate number of them do not. After all, the average school teacher, bus driver, civil servant, policeman, carpenter and plumber don't suffer the number of concussions that pro football players do. And, in this regard, the recent suicide of former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters is very disturbing.

Why?

Because Andre Waters, at age 44, had brain damage. Read the prior link and read all about it. Our national pastime (sorry, baseball fans) did it to him. Oh, sure, he volunteered to play the game, but he paid an awful price.

We glorify football players, we watch this game more than any other, tickets are impossible to get, and all of that. So lots of athletic young men play this game, some because they love (and believe they need) the contact. Others play because they're good athletes and are expected to. Yet others play because they want the glory, and some play because they believe that they have to prove something to someone -- themselves, a parent or fellow student -- that they're tougher or simply that they're not wimps. Whatever the reason, lots of kids play this game.

But is it wise to do so?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ryan Leaf is a Golf Coach

Yes, that's the same Ryan Leaf who was a top pick in the NFL draft the same year as Peyton Manning and who, in some circles, has become synonymous with words like "Edsel" and "Titanic."

Apparently, the erstwhile NFL QB has had success as a DII quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M, and, as a result, is the golf coach there.

Get this, it's not because Leaf knows anything about golf. The A.D. wanted him in the job because of his leadership and motivational skills.

Seriously.

Read the whole thing here.

Mr. Leaf's NFL career was an unmitigated disaster, but it's good to see that he's figured out something to do that's fulfilling for him. He had a good season with the football team (it went 11-2, and the QB fared well), so perhaps he can transfer his magic to the golf team as well.

My guess is that as a DII school West Texas A&M will play most of its matches in-state. I would advise that they don't take road trips to southern California, particularly the San Diego area.

Or else risk Chargers' fans throwing their homemade versions of lightning bolts at him.