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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Friday, January 30, 2009

You Must Watch "Friday Night Lights"

Yes, I'm hooked.

I saw some episodes when the show first came out, lost track of it, and now have bought the first two seasons DVDs (good deal on Amazon) and am in the process of both watching the first full season and the new season, which has been running on NBC at 9 p.m. on Friday night EST.

This is a great show. Click here to get a sense of what it's all about. The acting is just awesome, and I'd give special kudos to Kyle Chandler, who plays head coach Eric Taylor, Connie Britton, who plays Taylor's wife, Tammy (who is now the high school's principal) and Zach Gilford, who plays QB Matt Saracen. The others whose names are in the credits are outstanding, too, as is the cinematography, the supporting acting (the actress who plays the star running back's mother gives all-time performances), and the music is terrific. This is a great series about a community in Texas, its high school football team, and the lives of many who surround it.

Give yourself a treat -- take the time to watch this show.

Say it ain't so, Joe!

By collaborating with Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci on a book about his tenure with the Yankees, Joe Torre apparently proves what is self-evident but, which deep down, we did not want to believe -- that he's as human and every bit as flawed as the next guy.

He's certainly no Saint Joseph, and he probably never thought he was or pretended to be. Still, his image was one of the cool, collected fied general, a leader who kept his emotions in check, managed in a measured fashion, and was above the pettiness that characterizes many elite athletes. That's what I thought -- great manager, good leader, good guy.

And he probably still is all of those things. Writing the book doesn't make Torre a bad guy, but writing what he did might mean that he did a wrong thing.

Because Joe Torre talked out of school, threw people on his team and in his organization under the bus, and, really, for what purpose?

Most of us know that Hank Steinbrenner and the Yankee brain trust treated Torre poorly when the Bombers offered Torre a one-year deal. Most of us know that Randy Johnson seems to be a jerk, that Carl Pavano was a big disappointment, that David Wells had to be high maintenance, and we could have guessed that Torre didn't always see eye to eye with Brian Cashman, the team's general manager, because there are usually points of conflict between the manager and front office over player personnel decisions. So, why write the book?

Mike Francesa of WFAN in New York asked the same question on his show yesterday. Torre has made a bundle through contracts and promotions, so why do this? Why speak out of school? Why be so publicly critical? Why tarnish your image, Joe, because many fans are viewing this book not (only) as a reflection on the people you criticized, but also of you. And that doesn't make you look good -- because it appears that you come off much less lofty that your prior image would have suggested.

I look forward to reading the book (when I get it on an overrun or at a used book sale), because Verducci writes well and Torre is a figure of interest. But I still don't get it, at all.

Because in writing the book it appears you proved you're not much different from everyone else.

And it hurts because your fans thought you were above all that.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The City of Philadelphia Should Give Up Its Luxury Boxes

Reports out of Philadelphia are that the city is facing a $1 billion budget shortfall. The city also has a significant underfunded pension liability. So, the city has been considering all sorts of budget cuts, including closing libraries.

But, so far, the city's luxury boxes at Citizen Bank Park, Lincoln Financial Field and the Wachovia Center remain untouched. Apparently, at a cost of $500,000 per year, they're just doing too much good to give up.

Huh?

Daniel Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer suggests that the city does just that -- gives them up.

He's right, of course. How can you argue with that line item when the city is considering cutting basic services, including a reduction in the frequency of trash collection? Would you want to close a library at the expense of keeping luxury boxes? How do the luxury boxes replace a library that for some kids is the only quiet, totally safe place in their neighborhoods?

Now, I'm sure that the city puts some of the tickets to good use and gives them to people as rewards for achievement in the schools, as tributes to families of fallen police officers and the like. I think that the teams, themselves, could be relied upon for some sort of largesse that would fill that void. The city, itself, should cut the expense. That's 1/2 of 1% of what they're trying to save on costs, but it's a start.

The time for indulgences like this evaporated when the banking system had its heart attack in the fall of 2008. We're now immersed in a different reality, where everyone, and not just the millionaires next door, must live beneath his means.

Including a city known for making more than its share of mistakes with its spending habits.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Pennsbury Basketball: Calling out the Bucks County Courier Times

One of the best high school basketball programs (boys') in the Philadelphia area belongs to the Pennsbury Falcons. Alums of Pennsbury include Bucknell guard Jason Vegotsky and Temple center Lavoy Allen. Senior swingman Dalton Pepper is headed to West Virginia. The Falcons' come close to selling out their home games. Coach Frank Sciolla is a renaissance man -- a well-read English teacher who already has won 250 games (he's not even 40 yet).

Sciolla also gives back to the community. He and his players run clinics for young players in local recreational leagues on Saturday mornings. Well over 100 kids attend each Saturday during the season. Moreover, Sciolla encourages these kids to come up to him during the junior varsity games that precede the varsity's contests. If a young kid looks Coach Sciolla in the eye, says hello and tells him what book he's reading, that kid gets to go into the locker room for the pre-game talk and at half-time for the half-time talk. That's a pretty nice reward, isn't it?

And where are the Falcons? In the top 10 in southeastern Pennsylvania. It's an outstanding program.

The team plays most of its games on Tuesday and Friday nights. The team has won most of its games. And yet, it gets almost no (and sometimes no) coverage in the Saturday morning edition of the Bucks County Courier Times, the local paper for communities in what's called Lower Bucks County. How can this be? Now, the Saturday edition is almost a non-edition, a sparse tabloid that testifies to the financial position of the Caulkins Newspaper group more than anything else. Still, it should be covering the best team in the area, shouldn't it?

Why type of grudge is the paper bringing to bear here? Why aren't the Falcons getting top billing on the back-page of the paper? They have a great coach, good kids in the program and a wonderful program.

And they deserve a whole lot better from this paper.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

More on Coaching 3rd and 4th Grade Basketball

We're about halfway through our season. Our league randomly assigns players to teams. There's no evaluation period, no selection of players, and no room on the sign-up forms to tell you how tall a player is, how long he's been playing, etc. As a result, you don't know the type of team that you'll get. So, you tailor what you teach and coach to the talent that presents itself.

This year, we were given for the most part a team of speedy players with a good amount of stamina. Each player has a good concept of the game, at least about as good as you could expect from a contemporary third or fourth grader (in contrast, our team in the second-grade league last year had kids who didn't know that you aren't permitted to travel or dribble with two hands). These kids are far more scheduled than I was as a kid, so they don't play as much pick-up ball and they don't watch many games on TV. That becomes an issue because they don't know the vocabulary as well. Terms like "watch the pick", "follow your shot", "switch" have to be taught with much more precision today. They are athletic, but collectively they don't know the nuances of the game the way my friends and I did when we were kids.

With that as background, here are some observations:

1. Larry Brown (and others) are right when they say teaching is coaching. Many successful coaches have been quoted as saying that they enjoy practices more than games because practice is where they can teach. That's so true. We don't do much teaching during games. Yes, we might remind the kids of a few key pointers before the game and in between periods, but we get our teaching in during practice. Sure, the kids learn by experience from their games, but they pick up the fundamentals and some basic offensive and defensive concepts during practice. For this reason, practices are a lot of fun.

2. You have to be creative when you get only 55 minutes for practice each week and practice on only a half court. We break our practices down into three 17-minute segments, with two intervals for water breaks. We plan each minute (I write our drills down on 3 x 5 cards the day of practice, and we stick to the plan strictly).

Segment 1

Review of what we're trying to do (2 minutes)
Defensive slides (2 minutes -- these get the blood going)
Layups (2 minutes -- and sometimes we'll challenge the dribbler to make him put up a soft enough shot, because seldom does a player get an open layup)
"Fingers" dribbling drill (2 minutes; they kids face a coach, who holds up fingers, and the kids have to shout out the number of fingers the coach is holding up. This teaches the kids to look up when they dribble).
"Go at it" dribbling drill (2 minutes; we pair two kids up, and each dribbles the ball while trying to take away the other kid's ball. This causes the kids to protect the ball).
"Length of floor" dribbling drill (3 minutes) The kids dribble quickly with their heads up, switching hands.
2-on-1 drill (4 minutes). This teaches the kids when to go to the hoop, when to throw the right type of pass.

BREAK

Segment 2

Breakaway layup drill with trailer (4 minutes). We do this drill to get the kids under control and put up a soft shot when they have a breakaway. This drill has 3 lines. The dribbler, a defender, who releases a few steps behind the dribbler but who chases the dribbler, and another offensive player, who is supposed to follow the shot and put in a miss.

Catch and shoot drill (4 minutes). The goal here is for a kid to float through the lane with hands held high, catch a high pass and put it right up (and not let the ball touch the floor).

Pick and roll drills (while also teaching switching on defense) (6 minutes). Two of our players have picked this up more quickly, and they've set some really good picks to free up dribblers. Several are good at identifying picks and switching. We've taught this each week, and the kids are picking up the principles more and more.

Rebounding drill (3 minutes). The kids work on blocking out and then protecting the ball in a "triple threat" position once they secure it.

BREAK

Segment 3

A 3 on 2 drill (7 minutes). Our kids defend very well, and sometimes 3 on 3 scrimmages produce nothing more than steals or turnovers. We want to stress passing here, and we'll leave one man uncovered. The goal will be to find him. Screens are encouraged.

3 on 3 scrimmages (7 minutes). The kids love this activity, and we'll restrict defending to the foul-line and back so as to let the offense operate on the perimeter. Otherwise, nothing gets accomplished.

Foul shooting (2 minutes).

Wrap-up (1 minute).

As you can see, we cram a lot into our allotted time.

3. You should tailor your coaching to your team. We have a very athletic, fast team. We also have one player whose hustle and work ethic are so strong that the others follow suit. The result is a relentless defense (whose weakness is that the fastest players tend to gamble for steals) and fast-paced offense that sometimes is undisciplined but that can score points. We have two units of five, and the older, more experienced players can run by just about anybody. The younger, lesser experienced group shows more teamwork, and several of those players are outstanding defenders who steal the ball and block shots. If you don't have speed, slow it down, work on defending aggressively, and then stress more screening and passing. Put simply, figure out what works for the kids you have and go with it.

4. Don't favor players, including your own kids. My co-coach reported that he was at another sports' activity that got snowed out within the past few weeks. The parents then said that they would take their kids to their basketball games. Some of the parents lamented the coaching in our league, saying that their kids played on teams where the coaches ran plays for their own kids. Another parent there (the parent of one of our kids) said without prompting that we don't do that, that we try to spread the ball around, that everyone gets a chance and that the team responds to our style. And that's true. Our kids make great contributions, but basketball is a real meritocracy, and if you do favor your own kids and don't let the talent rise to the top (or, if your kids are among the best but you don't have them share the ball), your team won't perform and kids won't try hard in practice or think they can make a difference in games. Each kid plays half the game, so it isn't like they're vying for playing time. Some kids get the ball more than others because they rebound it or steal it and start a fast break, but within reason they try to find an open player and share the ball. Yes, we remind them constantly to play unselfishly, but you need kids to be at least temporarily selfish to want to put the ball into the basket. There's plenty of playing time for everyone, and there seemingly are enough touches for most players.

5. Always remember the goal: to give the kids a good learning experience, to help them improve, to let them have fun, and to have them want to play the following year. There's not much to add here. We can see that the kids are enjoying themselves, we talk to the parents about how their kids are faring, we send e-mail updates after games to talk about how the team did (we do not single out individuals in communications, because we are stressing the team's performance and the players' interactions with one another), and we see the kids improve. Occasionally we do e-mail a kid's parents separately to compliment their child's play, and occasionally we single out a kid's play during a game or practice to show the right way to do something. Most importantly, we have fun. We'd like to think that we create a positive atmosphere where the kids come willing to work hard and extend themselves -- they give us a great effort. It's fun to watch.

At any rate, we run different drills in different practices and emphasize different themes before different games. During the games we shout out reminders about keeping hands up, switching on defense if a player gets screened and taking their time when they don't have an opportunity in transition. Most of all, the coaches enjoy watching the progress the kids have made and watching them put into play the elements of the game that we stress in practice.

How about you? Do you have any coaching techniques to share? I'd be most interested.

Will Anyone Sign Manny Ramirez or Adam Dunn?

Just askin'.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Phillies' Payroll Doesn't Show Signs of a Recession

Read this from today's Philadelphia Daily News and see what I mean.

The economy is faring poorly, but you wouldn't know it by glimpsing at the linked article. Ryan Howard, going into arbitration for a second consecutive year, is guaranteed a 40% raise and could get an 80% raise if the arbitrator picks his $18 million figure over the Phillies' offer of $14 million.

Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino, Chad Durbin, Ryan Madson, Joe Blanton and Jayson Werth also got big raises, paydays you'd expect for having good years and having won a World Series.

The ups and downs of the economy just don't touch those whose abilities are in demand and very unique.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Philadelphia Eagles: Modern Sisyphus

Sisyphus was the guy in Greek mythology who kept pushing the rock up the hill, never to get to the top. The Philadelphia Eagles' are football's contemporary equivalent, reaching the NFC title game 5 times in the past 8 years, being favored in 4 of them, and winning only one of them. For some reason, they just can't get to the top.

And they keep breaking their fans' hearts.

Make no mistake, yesterday's game was a disaster, a microcosm of the Andy Reid era. Despite what the Eagle defenders, shills and apologists might say (and I count some of the Comcast SportsNet crew and WIP afternoon talker Howard Eskin among them), the game was a disappointment. The defense laid an egg, Donovan McNabb renewed all doubts about his ability to win the big game, and Andy Reid left us wondering why he can't coach completely. He's a fine coach, and McNabb's a fine quarterback, but together they are flawed enough to come short of winning the big one.

Yesterday the defense failed for most of the game and then failed near the end to stop the Cardinals. Heralded defensive coordinator Jim Johnson must have lost his magic wand after the Giants' game and designed a defense was about as good as the one the Polish Army put up at the outset of World War II against the blitzkrieg. The upstart Eagles' linebackers seemed to be a few steps behind, and the secondary appeared to be in step -- with the linebackers. The offense? They haven't had a running game for years, and McNabb wasn't nearly as sure-armed as he was against the Giants in the second half the week before. Even normally steady kicker David Akers faltered -- missing two kicks and sending a kickoff out of bounds. All of those factors -- combined with great play from the Cardinals -- proved to be a toxic elixir for the Eagles yesterday.

Oh, sure, Eagles' fans are supposed to think it was a great season -- they made the NFC Championship Game after many pundits predicted them to finish last in their division. They made the NFC Championship Game after going into the last game of the season needing a miracle to make the playoffs. Given that background, we're supposed to be grateful for the great season the team had.

Hogwash. The problem with this franchise is just that -- we're supposed to be grateful for above-average to good records while coming tantalizingly close to the Super Bowl. Don't get me wrong -- it's better than being a perennial doormat of the type that all-time doofus owner Bill Bidwell customarily fielded in St. Louis and Arizona. But year in and year out, this team is about as frustrating as they come. They have a good coach, a good quarterback and good personnel -- but they're Sisyphus, and the partnership of Reid and McNabb might never get this team to the top of the hill.

Sorry, Eagles organization, but you need closers. Sorry, Eagles' fans who think this was a successful season, but I'd suggest that you re-think your conclusion and wonder aloud whether you'll be stuck in a 10-6, 1 win in the playoffs stasis at best until the partnership of the coach and quarterback dissolves.

I remain an Eagles' fan, but it's hard to expend a significant amount of emotional fan energy when they've broken our hearts the way they have over the past 10 years. All that said, I'll always root for the team to get to the pinnacle, even if I don't think that they will.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The SportsProf Family Appears in the Phillies 2008 Highlight Film!

Yes, call us the Leonard Zeligs of the Phillies' set.

My wife and I were watching Comcast SportsNet last night, and they featured the Phillies' 2008 highlight film, narrated by Brad Lidge. It's an entertaining DVD and one that I would recommend to Phillies' fans to commemorate the past season (I've bought the highlight films for the previous two seasons, and both were very good).

At any rate, the film moves to the post-season and, particularly, to Game 2 of the NLDS. That was the game where CC Sabathia was supposed to even the series, only to have two odd things happen to him. First, in two different at-bats, he threw about 20 pitches to Brett Myers, whose batting average made Mario Mendoza look like Ichiro. Second, Sabathia yielded a game-breaking grand slam to Shane Victorino.

So, we're watching Victorino's shot leave the park, and we see that the camera was focusing on fans celebrating in left field. My wife says, "Oh my, I just saw you." At the same time, I said, "Hey, there you are." It was, as on-camera features go, an evanescent moment. Andy Warhol talked about people getting their 15 minutes of fame. My family got about 2 seconds of fun from this particular camera shot.

And it's pretty cool, too.

The Phillies' terrific 2008 season remains the gift that keeps on giving. We went to Clearwater for spring training games, were at the game on September 26 when they clinched the NL East, saw Victorino's slam, and were at Game 3 of the World Series, the one that got started at 10 p.m. And now we're in the highlight film, forever.

That's a nice way to start the New Year.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Racial Bias in College Football Hiring?

So says Charlie Strong, the defensive coordinator at Florida, an African-American whose wife is white. Strong indicated that he'd been told that he wasn't considered for head coaching jobs for this reason. This ESPN article also reports that two SEC schools declined to take an interest in Turner Gill for the same reason.

Wow. It's 2009, we're about to inaugurate the country's first African-American president, born to an African father and a white mother. To say the least, it's sad that the country is ready for Barack Obama but certain schools aren't ready for Charlie Strong or Turner Gill.

Read the linked article and see what you think.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Sports Predictions for 2009

I don't profess to being Nostradamus or, for that matter, having half the access to information that the average Las Vegas bookmaking shop does. 2009 posits to be an interesting (in every sense of the Chinese's philosophical use of the word) year. So, hear goes:

1. President Obama will introduce legislation mandating a playoff system for Division I-A College Football. His popularity strong, he'll take the greatest interest in college football since Teddy Roosevelt did about 100 years ago (even if, way back then, Roosevelt had a more serious issue to deal with -- the safety of the average player, as college men were dying on the field at an alarming rate). Heck, he might even tack this bill onto the stimulus package and get this business taken care of in his first 100 days. If you think that the audience for the NCAA men's Division I basketball final is big, wait until you see the audience for the national championship Division I-A football game (where the two finalists emerge from a playoff system and not some super-computer).

2. "Fringe" sports leagues will fail. We've seen the Arena League postpone its 2009 season, but you have to wonder about the indoor soccer leagues, women's softball leagues, WNBA, lacrosse leagues and the like, especially when they're renting big venues and have large carrying costs. People will spend for their favorite sports, but not the extra add-ons. The recession also raises concerns about the viability of minor hockey and basketball leagues and will trouble some minor-league baseball teams (as well as Major League ones). While I'm at it, certain major college athletic programs will run into economic problems arising from poorly performing endowments, lower alumni donations, reduced participation from sponsors and the like. Look for schools to shed athletic teams as a result of this recession.

3. The NHL and NBA are in more trouble than people think. These leagues don't post their financial statements anywhere, but the product is diluted, there are too many teams and too many games. Baseball and football (and NASCAR, which is having problems arising from both the recession and the added difficulties of the Big Three automakers and the companies who supply them) are more popular. Yes, their are diehard fans for both leagues, but given the NHL's strike of a few years ago (designed to reduce the league's overall labor costs, which ownership thought were destroying the game) and the empty boxes, empty seats and "buy one get two free" like promotions that teams are advertising, it will be interesting to see what these leagues look like when the 2009-2010 season begins. I have read in a few places that pro sports are recession-proof. We'll see. I don't have a prediction for the NHL, but I'll predict that the Boston Celtics will repeat as NBA champions.

4. The Indianapolis Colts will win the Super Bowl. There's no reason that they should, but while I like the New York Giants an awful lot, something tells me that the absence of Plaxico Burress makes their receiving game average, no matter how good their running game is. Still, the favorites can and usually do stumble, and I'm not that sold on Tennessee or Pittsburgh, although both are excellent teams. My Philadelphia Eagles will defeat the Vikings on Sunday, only to lose a close one against the (rested and better) Giants the following weekend.

5. The North Carolina Tar Heels will win the NCAA men's hoops title. They came close last year, and Tyler Hansbrough will go out in style and become a better pro than people think (he won't slip to the second round the way Carlos Boozer did years ago, but he's projected to go in the mid-to-late first round, falling past younger players with better "upside"). All I know is that this guy busts his backside so he can kick everyone else's, and that's better than having "upside."

6. Bill Cowher will not return to the NFL this year, and Bill Parcells will not return to the sidelines. The latter will run someone's front office, while the former will probably wait one year. The reason for Cowher's waiting has to do with the economy -- not many owners will want to pay the bucks that Cowher commands in this type of economy. For the same reason, Denver's owners will replace Mike Shanahan with a lower-cost alternative (even if that alternative is one very good football coach).

7. NFL teams won't be eager to hire Bill Belichick's assistants as head coaches any time soon. Unfortunately, the dismissals of Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini and the flailing ways of Charlie Weis at Notre Dame recommend against making such a move and suggest that Belichick's personality is so dominant that his (former) assistant might not be capable of making the best command decisions without Belichick's standing beside them or looking over their shoulder.

8. The New York Yankees will not make the playoffs; the New York Mets will. The baseball gods like prudent moves, which the Mets have made, and don't always like broad brush stroke-like moves, which are the hallmark of the Yankees. The BoSox and Rays will edge out the Yankees, and Hank Steinbrenner will become entrenched as the Jerry Jones of MLB.

9. The Philadelphia Phillies will not repeat as World Series champions, if only because recent history (within the past 8 or so years) suggests that a repeat won't happen. Then again, if the team hits during the summer and they have a fully healthy Chase Utley for most of the season, they very much could.

10. Through the very public example of President Obama, Americans will play more pick-up basketball and get into better shape. It's not that President Bush didn't exercise (he does, and he's in great shape), it's just that Obama's current popularity and youthful vigor will inspire us all to decline the Twinkies on occasion, walk instead of ride, run instead of walk, and generally take better care of ourselves. That better emphasis on physical fitness will pay long-term healthcare benefits for all of us, in terms of better health and lesser demands on our healthcare system. Congress won't legislate against fats and sweets, but the President's example will have coattails.

There are, of course, many more predictions that one could make, from who will become NCAA champions to who will succeed Bud Selig as Commissioner of Baseball to whether either the Orioles or Pirates will have a winning season after so many consecutive losing seasons. I might delve into those areas in the near future, but for now I'll leave you with these ten predictions and ask for your predictions in the comments section.

Happy New Year!