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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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Setting the Bar Higher

Lately I have found myself saying the following: "If you set the bar low, many people will figure out ways to fall beneath it. If you set the bar high, you'll be amazed and how much people can accomplish." Perhaps that derives from John Wooden's, "If you aim for perfection, you'll achieve excellence," but I think that there's some truth to it.

I was working with my son on his overall basketball game, and he's worked hard on the form of his shot, and it's been great to see the improvement. The other day, I suggested that he work on his weaker hand. I asked him to go through a bunch of lefthanded layups, and it was very difficult for him. He had trouble putting the ball up consistently with his left hand. And, yes, he wanted at times to give up.

I got to thinking about people who learn foreign languages. While it's nice to be able to sit in a class room in the U.S., get taught a language and then go home and speak English and not reinforce it, we've all heard the stories of people getting some training on a foreign language and then going to live in a foreign country. They get immersed in everything -- and have no alternative but to learn more of the language in order to live life daily. So, gradually -- and probably with some tutoring -- they become proficient. Translated. . .

We kept going back to the gym, and day after day -- guess what -- my son's left hand got stronger in just one week. Why? Because he concentrated on it and he knows that to play against better competition he needs to develop both hands well. With that sense of urgency and focus, he not only showed improvement, but he looked forward to doing the drills and trying to improve daily. The alternative would be to tell him that he's terrific and doesn't need to change, but then, I think, that wouldn't be fair or honest. No, it's not because I want a superstar or delude myself that he'll be one, it's just about developing good habits, concentration and a sense of trying that understands that before you see gains, you have to put in the work to get there and, to use an overused phrase, you have to enjoy the journey.

So, each week when we coach our team, we set a brisk pace for the kids to keep up. We ask them to defend well, to protect the ball, to steal it and deflect it, to run the break where possible, find the open man and screen where there is an opportunity. We do not settle -- even in a rec league -- for telling them that it's okay whatever they do so long as they are out there. We challenge them a bit more, run plays, and tell them that if they focus on trying to improve, they will have every opportunity to do so.

I figured that I would share this tidbit because sometimes I need to remind myself of it. Emerson wrote that our chief want in life is to have someone push us to become something more, and let's take the opportunity -- with caring, encouragement and thought -- to help make each other -- each coach, each player -- better.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Philadelphia Eagles' Big Off-Season

Questions abound:

1. Will owner Jeffrey Lurie fire Andy Reid?
2. If the answer to question 1 is no, will Jeffrey Lurie make Reid choose between being the GM and the head coach?
3. If the answer to question 1 is no, will Andy Reid fire or demote defensive coordinator Juan Castillo?
4. If the answer to question 3 is yes, will perhaps soon-to-be-former Rams head coach, former Giants' defensive coordinator and former Eagles' linebackers coach Steve Spagnuolo become the Eagles' defensive coordinator?
5. Will the DeSean Jackson return to the Eagles?
6. Will the Eagles demand that highly paid QB Michael Vick learn how to slide (unbelievably, he dissed the concept of sliding at a recent post-game press conference, hubris to the initiated because the odds are that if he continues his bold ways he'll become a one-dimensional cardboard cutout propped up on the sidelines and talked of in the "he coulda been a contender" type of way)?
7. Will the Eagles get some leaders who set the tone for the team?
8. Will Asante Samuel return?
9. Will the Eagles get some linebackers?

There are probably more questions than that, but those are the big ones. Lurie is loyal to Reid, and one of the fundamental issues in human resources is that you don't replace someone who has been a good performer unless you can get someone who is better. So, with respect to the biggest question -- the one about Big Red -- who could Lurie get to replace Reid? And before you start that Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher both are available, remember that no coach has won a Super Bowl with two teams (the closest were Dick Vermeil and Bill Parcells). So, if you want an up-and-comer, the best one in a while coaches in San Francisco, and it's hard to say whether Nick Saban would succeed or not. After all, some coordinators for legends have failed, and some relative lesser knowns (Mike McCarthy) have succeeded. So, the bet here is that Reid stays -- gulp -- in both roles.

That leaves an open question about the defense. It's hard to see Castillo remaining, and it would be interesting to find out whether, if Reid were to remain, that a condition was to fire Castillo and hire a veteran defensive coordinator (Jack Del Rio, the deposed Jaguars' coach, also is available). The bet here is that the Eagles have a new defensive coordinator.

Jackson will return, Samuel will go, Vick will learn how to slide for 3 games before forgetting and being turned into one of the pretenders that fought Rocky for the title in Rocky III, and the team will make some moves that will get it some vocal leaders and perhaps a linebacker or two not named Ernie Sims or Takeo Spikes (two guys who were supposed to have the special sauce but failed in Soft Pretzel City). It is hard to believe that for all the money they paid these guys, that neither Nnamdi Asomugha or Michael Vick is a leader. Cullen Jenkins, the DT acquired from Green Bay, is vocal, but the dearth of leaders for such a highly paid squad is striking.

Right now, the Eagles are a disappointing fantasy football team, a team in disarray, a team without any zing and oomph that has enough talent on a given day to beat anyone but a pronounced difficulty to succeed in life's red zone, let alone the NFL's. There are only so many times that you can blow a second half lead before fans will just give up hope that you can close the deal. The Eagles, plain and simple, need finishers. (And I think that DeSean Jackson, for all his warts this year, is one of them, as are Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy).

So the Eagles will play the Redskins this weekend, probably win by two touchdowns, have an 8-8 season, with Reid's trying to take a victory lap of sorts for a strong finish while acknowledging that the failure to make the playoffs starts with him, that it's all his fault and that he failed to do enough before the season to prepare the team for making the playoffs. It will all sound very good, until you do a compare and contrast with teams like the Packers, Saints and 49ers and realize that each of them has twice the giddy up that the Eagles do. Reid and his front office can do all the scouting that they wish, but somehow they miss out on the guys with the "gotta/wanna/have it" as Sal Palantonio of ESPN calls it. (As an aside, they thought that they had one of those guys with 26 year-old first-round pick Danny Watkins of Baylor, who admitted prior to the season that he was overwhelmed. Many fans' responded with a "how hard do they try to find guys like this?").

This season was a train wreck for the Philadelphia Eagles. Normally, I would bet the mortgage money that Jeffrey Lurie would back Andy Reid 100%. But as I write this I have more doubts than ever before. Lurie opened up the checkbook to sign big free agents, gave Michael Vick a big contract, brought in two expensive position coaches in Jim Washburn (defensive line) and Howard Mudd (offensive line) and signed Michael Vick to a big extension. He also acquiesced to permit Reid to hire Castillo as defensive coordinator. In short, he indulged every whim and desire of Andy Reid, with disastrous results. If Lurie were ever to can his beloved head coach, he might be tempted to do so now. It might not be the right move, but it would be a popular one with the fans, most of whom have concluded that while Reid is a good coach, he might not win a Super Bowl, at least not here.

It's funny, when you spend the big bucks, ignore popular wisdom that your perennial shortcomings can bite you (read: this season, safeties, Vick's blind side and linebackers) and you hold yourself out as the team that outfoxed everyone else with respect to having bandwidth for signing free agents after the lockout, that instead of making yourselves the envy of the league, you make yourself the biggest target and the one subject to the most derision when you fail. I hope that in there off-season Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner do a root cause analysis -- with a root cause analysis expert -- as to what went wrong and then begin to fix the team based on that analysis.

And I hope, also, that they get some linebackers, too.

Memo to Top 100 Harvard Basketball Recruits: Why?

Several decades ago (give or take one, perhaps), I had a conversation with a friend who was a very good Ivy League basketball player. He had mentioned that his high school, a basketball powerhouse, had a player who had succeeded him at his position and who was drawing national attention. North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, to name a few, were hot after this player.

My friend also offered another tidbit: "And the thing of it is, his grades and scores are better than mine."

Which drew the following automatic response from me: "So why doesn't he go to your school?"

My friend laughed. "If you could really play, why would you play where I do?"

I tried to talk about the benefits of an Ivy education, that sometimes an Ivy school could have a breakthrough, perhaps get to the Round of 16, but my friend wasn't buying what I was selling. He had gone Ivy and done well, but he lacked foot speed and a jumper to go to a big-time school, despite the reputation of his high school and its coach.

He just shook his head and offered that if you were that good a player, you had to go where the best players played to see how good you were and to play at an elite level. He also offered that if you were reasonably motivated as a student -- as this kid was -- you could get a good education at any of those schools (my note: back then he was right; today, you have to wonder about a) being "one" and done and b) the pressure put on the kids, so much so that do they have time to progress toward a degree in something other than keeping seaweed off the fine arts' program's batik collection, and, as for a), well, then, you're en route to a pretty good career, aren't you?).

The compulsion, though, was the competition. My friend went Ivy because it suited him and because the combination of aid, academics and basketball was better than say a low-DI school that had offered him a full ride. But the thought -- for an 18 year-old -- of playing in the ACC on national TV against the best competition and for Dean Smith, for example, was very compelling to him. But what of the kids who now populate ESPN's Top 60 for the Class of 2013, three of whom have Harvard on this lists (as do one or do of the Top 100 for the Class of 2012)? What are they thinking?

Sure, Harvard is a great school, perhaps the greatest, but what is Harvard and coach Tommy Amaker trying to accomplish? And will these kids be happy in a place where they pretty much will be kids who participate in just another extracurricular activity and who have to play Columbia and Cornell on back-to-back nights twice, when, legitimately, they could be playing a Pac-12, Big Ten, Big East or ACC schedule? And, presumably, if their academics are that good, get a pretty good education, to boot, depending on how much effort they elect to put into their school work?

In other words, these recruits can really play. They are not a step slow, a few inches too short, have limited range, a weaker left hand, etc. They are the real deal. And forget all the hype about Harvard's trying to do something special. If you're an elite cellist, you'll want to go to Juilliard or Curtis. If you're an elite astrophysicist, MIT, Cal Tech or Princeton, to name a few. And if you're an elite basketball player. . . you'll want to go to . . . Harvard?

Not Carolina? Kentucky? Duke? Ohio State? Syracuse?

Food for thought.

Monday, December 26, 2011

FIFA 12 -- Achieving Goals

I once spoke at a professional seminar, and the topic of creating balance in one's live and having diversions came up. It was a very driven group, so I got their attention by talking about how you can always figure out how to achieve goals on a given day -- even when everything can go haywire at the office.

I told the group that after a long day I would go home into the kid/man cave in the basement, put in the FIFA soccer game (then on PlayStation, but now we have an XBox) and play a very good English Premiership team (usually Arsenal) against a League Two team, play at the amateur level (there are five levels, and amateur is the lowest) and then win something like 12-0. "So," I offered, "if you can't achieve any goals at the office, you can go home at night and score tons of them in this video game." You probably had to be there, but I recall that the audience laughed at my suggestion. Given all of the connectivity we have and the fast pace of the world, I think that it was hard for them to find diversions. Or so it seemed.

Now I have discovered one of the best video games there is -- "Manager Mode" in FIFA 12. Basically, you get a team and a salary and a transfer budget, you get to sell contracts of players, buy them, loan players to other teams for experience, hire scouts to sign teenaged prospects, offer them contracts for the big club and then run your lineups. Players have a bunch of grades -- overall excellence, some subgrades for about 6-8 difference competencies depending on their position and then are evaluated on a color-coded system for morale, energy and form, and they can get suspend for red cards or accumulating too many yellow cards, and they can get hurt. Translated, if you play a 4-4-2 formation, you'll need 2-3 goalies, 9 defenders, 8 midfielders and 5 strikers to get through a season, plus a bunch of junior players whom you loan out to other teams, either with the hope of playing them in your rotation the next season or, alternatively, selling their contracts to create more funds to purchase more or better players. You also negotiate contracts and have to be sure that you have enough budget at all times to extend contracts (or not). Finally, you'll get emails from the ownership about your performance and from players asking for more playing time or telling you that they're tired. And, yes, you'll see newspaper headlines about the major leagues in the world.

Put simply, it's a comprehensive game, and here's what we've learned. First, you need a very solid back line. Sure, you need to score goals, but if you have shutdown defenders the way the NFL has shutdown cornerbacks, it helps. Having one of the best goalies in the world is helpful but not essential. Then again, the top teams's goalies typically rank among the world's best. You need all sorts of players at midfield at up front -- defensive midfielders, playmaking midfielders, speedy wings and strikers who can create shots in very little space. It's probably good to sell players' contracts when they hit a certain age, and it's wise to sell a player for whom you get a significant over-market bid if you are not the best-funded team, because you can parlay that money into 2 or 3 key signings that can help fortify your team. Most goalies and defenders don't sell for as much as young, playmaking midfielders (among the up-and-comers, the Dane Christian Eriksen and the Brazilian Lucas) and strikers with significant potential (Man City's Mario Batelli and Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku come to mind).

As you can see, the realism and the combinations of activities are captivating and a worthy diversion from the rest of your day. Your career can go for 15 years, after which you'll get an e-mail from your management congratulating you on your retirement -- in 2026. At that time you'll still be coaching against Man United's Sir Alex Ferguson, who will be a chipper 82. I took Man City in one simulated career because of the oil money that fortifies the team and won 13 premierships and 12 champion's league titles (hint: it helps if you play the games yourself as opposed to simulate them, because typically you'll fare better). By 2026, when I had a bunch of youth squad players whom I had developed into regulars, the game retired me.

It's a great way to learn the international game, who the key players are, who the established stars are and who the up-and-comers are. During that career, I was offered the top jobs at Inter Milan, Juventus, Athletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Schalke 04, Borussia Dortmund, Newcastle, Arsenal, Paris St. Germain, PSV Eindhoven to name a few. Okay, so perhaps I'm just a kid at heart, but it was fun playing games in the large stadiums with English announcers talking about the pitch, using the word "nil" for zero and marveling about my team's patience and passing ability.

Check out the game yourself -- set goals for yourself as manager, score a few, while you're at it, and have fun. And tell me if you think that this is a good team:

GK -- Manuel Neuer
RB -- Subotic
CB -- Pique
CB -- Hummels
LB -- Criscito
RCM -- Wilshere
LCM -- Bale
CAM -- Fabregas
LW -- Balotelli
ST -- Neymar
RW -- Lukaku, with, among others

Ramsey, Gourcuff, Song, Acerbi, Benedetti, Walcott, Sturridge, Baumann and others on the bench.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Yale's Football Coach Resigns Amidst Controversy About Resume Misrepresentations

You can read the story here.

My friend Jeff from Philadelphia (not to be confused with Jeff from Manhattan) and I used to wonder over beers whether what some people were telling us about their backgrounds was true. Among the questions were "did this guy really play there?" and "was he all-league?" Some of the boasting we dealt with was before the age of the internet, which has enabled all of us to instantly check someone out. And there were occasions where what we were told differed from the truth. And how did we find that out? Because on occasion we once would come across someone about whom it was well-known that he played there, and we would ask, "well, then, you must know so-and-so, who played there at the same time." When you get met with a blank stare and a "I don't know him," well, you start to wonder.

As Jeff from Philadelphia would have said, "Well, as [former President and Michigan football All-American] Gerald Ford used to say, 'everyone is an All-American more than 50 miles from where he grew up.'" That held true say 20, 20+ years ago, but you would have figured that people who might have been wont to embellish or outright lie would have stopped such behavior because, well, it is easier to check out. That said, the checker outers, as they were, are busier than ever, and, well, most people don't want to assume that they are being lied to, especially by as accomplished a guy as Tom Williams was when he applied and got the Yale head coaching job. It makes one ask the question, "why did do this; did he really need to do it?"

Williams became unmasked when a big wire story circulated that his QB bagged a Rhodes Scholarship interview to skipper the team against Harvard in The Game. It didn't take a Yale graduate to connect the dots between the QB's goal and the coach's representation that he had interviewed for a Rhodes. Heck, that's a pretty cool, feel-good story for a sportswriter to write in so many ways. Except when it didn't exist. Then that same writer gets a pretty hot story to write about how someone claimed to be something that he wasn't.

Why do people do this? Who do they think that they are impressing, and should we let ourselves get impressed by things other than competencies, character and personality? Should that Rhodes cache made one bit of difference for Yale to determine whether to hire Tom Williams as its coach? Probably not. Better yet, would he have gotten the job had he not mentioned that lie on his resume? Probably. (Of course, it's also surfaced that Williams claimed that he was on the 49ers' practice squad 18 years ago, when in truth he was at a 3-day tryout camp).

This is a sad day in so many ways.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

And the Justification for a High Salary for a Low DI Men's Basketball Coach Is?

Princeton beat Northeastern in Boston 71-62.

938 people attended.

My guess is that the Northeastern coach makes north of $250,000 a year, perhaps significantly so.

Why?

Because men's basketball is a revenue sport?

Really?

Could it be that ticket sales and revenues from the concession stands didn't pay for the cost of running the game? I would bet that's the case.

So the justification for a big-time DI program with scholarships and highly paid coaches is exactly what?

A chance to win a low-ranked conference and go to the NCAA Tournament, for the opportunity for a school like Kentucky or Kansas to pound you into the hoops equivalent of dust?

Really?

Remember my adage -- that I don't want my kids to go to any college where a coach makes more than the university president. That still holds, unless, of course, it can be proven beyond a doubt that any coach is worth it.

Bread and circus?

One thing is for sure -- Northeastern's circus doesn't generate enough bread to pay for the program.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Boy's Best Birthday Present

I've coached my son's team in the rec league for going on five years now, and we've won many more than we've lost. I can joke that it's because of superior coaching, but truth be told we get a bunch of kids who come eager to learn and to play hard. We also have gotten "older" kids who encourage the younger ones, and, yes, I'm sure that the friend with whom I coach and I have something to do with it. But mostly it's the kids who try so hard that make it all happen.

One of the kids we coach asked me before the season began what he could do to improve. I told him that while he's aggressive on defense, we need him to shoot and score more. So, in the second quarter of our first game (the first quarter in which this player saw action), what did he do? He took four shots from fifteen feet or beyond, making only one, and that came when he shot from between the foul line and the top of the key and he banked it in. And, no, he didn't "call" it.

We were up big at halftime, so when he and his unit came off the floor I observed that when I advised him to shoot more during the season, I didn't recommend that he take a season's worth of shots in his first quarter of play. (We all got a chuckle out of that.) I told him and a teammate that there was room to drive and shoot from closer, and, to this player's credit, when he got a pass at the foul line in the fourth quarter he drove the lane and made a layup, a much higher percentage shot. That's a great feeling for a coach, when your kids take the feedback quickly and improve upon their play. It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, you smile.

Of course, later in that game he was on the baseline and a long rebound made its way to this same player. But instead of driving the baseline (akin to driving toward the basket from the foul line as he did earlier in the game), he opted to put up a fifteen footer -- which missed badly. After the game I said that if he were to see a wide open lane to the basket again, he'd need to take the ball to the hoop. He nodded in agreement.

On Saturday we played our second game of the season, against a tougher and more aggressive opponent. It was a close game -- well-defended -- and we found ourselves trailing by four at the half. The younger players then went out in the third quarter and left it all on the floor and made it closer, but with 30 seconds to go we were down one and got a rebound. I called timeout.

I have a clipboard with a basketball court on it, and I took my marker and drew a play, getting nods from each kid after asking him what he was to do. I designed a "picket fence" of a triple pick for our leading scorer, with the inbound passer to loop behind him for a handoff and shot if our leading scorer was over-defended. The inbound passer was the kid I wrote of earlier, aggressive on defense but sometimes reluctant on offense.

The play broke down immediately. Our big fellah went the wrong way, our leading scorer was hounded, and another would-be screener bumped into the ballhandler. Bedlam. But then, suddenly, a sense of calm and purpose set in, and the ball made its way to the inbound passer, who found himself on the baseline with pretty much was an open lane to the basket. Without hesitation (and unlike just a week earlier), he put the ball on the floor, drove to the hoop, laid the ball up on the rim where it took a soft bounce and dropped through the hoop. We were up by one! Our leading scorer then forced a turnover, and the game was over.

As I wrote, we have won over the years many more than we have lost, but coming from behind and winning that close a game is about as satisfying as it gets. Parents from both teams acknowledged how exciting it was and how hard the kids played. The kid who hit the game-winning bucket -- who has tried hard over the years and received some kudos and missed out on some others -- was all smiles. That morning he turned 12, and he got a few things for his birthday that made him smile widely.

But, perhaps, not as widely as this, because there are times in life when the best gifts are the ones that you work hardest for to earn -- because you've failed before, because you've learned from an error, and because you've picked yourself back up and mastered a skill, in this case, finishing a play properly.

As a coach, this type of situation is a great thing to see.

Especially when that player is your son.

He got many gifts that day, but saved the best one of all for his coach and, more importantly, himself.

It was a great day in many ways.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Vote for Tony Dungy as Penn State's Next Football Coach

It's pretty simple, really.

Urban Meyer?

To Ohio State.

Philadelphia-area native Dan Mullen, the Mississippi State coach (and former Meyer assistant)?

Not interested.

Al Golden?

Signed a longer-term deal at Miami, perhaps opting to stay with a more manageable crisis situation.

Truth be told, Penn State needs a Mr. Clean. Or so that's the perception. Well, DI football, as currently constituted, requires coaches to be aggressive. And that might mean ignoring bad behavior (Jim Tressel), raising money from boosters and being ignorant of bad behavior (perhaps Randy Shannon and Pete Carroll) or embarking upon some recruiting techniques that might push the envelope. That is not to say that all coaches out there are bad actors. But it is to say that whoever Penn State -- the school that has put itself out there as holier than holy -- chooses -- will be subject to great scrutiny.

Scrutiny that turns blemishes into Stage 4 melanoma under the media spotlight quickly. Scrutiny that might have most stakeholders holding the coach to a higher standard than they hold themselves? Pinch a secretary's butt once twenty years ago? Done. Text the #1 recruit in the land 5 times 2 hours before it was permissible to do so, thereby drawing a sanction? You're out. Or something like that.

Which brings me to the most revered man in recent years in football coaching -- Tony Dungy, a man who has won, a man who looks very comfortable in his own skin, a man who has mentored many, including, most notably, Michael Vick. A man who coached in the NFL for so long that he won't have the possible baggage of transgressions while having coached in college. A man who just might have one more gig left in him and who might relish the challenge of helping heal the Penn State community. Tony Dungy would attract top-notch assistants, at least 2-3 of whom, under his mentoring (for coaching, recruiting and good conduct) could grow into successors when he and the powers that be in State College believe that they have done much to help restore Penn State's brand.

Many of the current coaches whose names are bandied about are probably scared. If they're successful, they probably have a very good gig, one where they aren't under a constant microscope for the types of things that any coach in State College now will be. At one point, it would have been an honor to survive the scrutiny to be tapped to succeed Joe Paterno (even if frightening that the comparisons to him would have been harsh). Now, it's not so much an honor as a burden -- a burden of proving what Paterno preached but ultimately failed to live up to -- that he and his program were better than all others when it came to doing the right thing -- playing hard and fair, graduating players, behaving well. That would be a tough set of standards to meet, one that might rival the requirements for canonization.

I don't want to equate Tony Dungy with sainthood, as that's not fair to anyone. But he's a terrific guy with a great track record, someone who is as respected -- if not more respected -- than anyone out there who might be available to coach Penn State. And while he might be comfortably retired and enjoying his TV work, this could be the one challenge that might interest him enough to come back to the sidelines -- to help heal a once-sacred community and set standards of excellence in actions and not, sadly, in just words.

This could be a great match.