Thursday, March 31, 2005
As in Clarett, who, after the Indy combine, might have become known as the Space Clarett because of the disappointing performance he gave there. What made the performance especially disappointing was that Maurice Clarett needed to give an outstanding show. One worth, perhaps, of a claret jug.
But he fared better today, in private workouts for about a dozen teams. How well he fared ultimately will depend on whether he gets drafted at all. There are plenty of running backs in the draft, and most if not all of them haven't gone from helping their teams win a national title to putting their schools on the map for serious ethical violations in a matter of three seasons.
The only other Maurice of recent memory who played RB in the NFL, Maurice Carthon, the Browns' offensive coordinator, was there, and he gave Clarett a thumbs up. And before you think that only the NFL's doormats wanted to take a look at Clarett, you'll note that the list of those in attendance included Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and New England.
I haven't done enough research on the NFL draft, especially in a retrospective sense, to figure out if there are any trends as to where the value really is. There is all sorts of conventional wisdom about the NFL draft, such as you don't need to take offensive linemen in the first round, you shouldn't take safeties with high picks (corner is the tougher position) and that you can develop a successful running game without a first-round pick (many, many years ago, the feature back was king; today the quarterback is). Still, you have to take someone in the first round, and the goal is to take a player who can step in and start or who can help you pretty quickly (even if he doesn't start right away).
Another part of the conventional wisdom says that teams fare better year-in and year-out the better they do on the second day of the draft. I don't follow enough teams closely to know whether this is the case, but the one team that I do follow, Philadelphia, hasn't been that successful in the late rounds. If you look at their starters, you'll notice a lot of high-octane players who were high draft picks (or free agents). Their defensive backfield is populated with first- and second-round picks. Same for their offensive line, at least when they had Jermaine Mayberry (first round), Shawn Andrews (first round) and Tra Thomas (first round) playing together. While that's just a synopsis of the Eagles' starters, the point is that there are probably several ways to put together an outstanding roster, whether you're a Jimmy Johnson or an Andy Reid.
Which brings us back to Clarett. Yesterday I wrote about another prospect with a checkered past in Adrian McPherson. In contrast to Clarett, McPherson has laid low since the days of his troubles, has kept his mouth shut, has worked out hard, and has wowed the scouts in workouts. His problems were of his own doing, and they didn't involve any booster-related shenanigans or classroom issues at his school. It appears that he has atoned for his past sins. Clarett, on the other hand, is trying to put the past behind him by blotting it out. It doesn't appear that he's addressed his past problems in a meaningful way, and that type of avoidance may cause teams to stay away from him in the draft (in a whole other form of avoidance).
But there will be at least one front-office staff who will recall what he did on the field for Ohio State several years ago, and who will argue that this magical past should trump the cold reality of the present. That staff will argue that taking a player like Clarett is what the draft is all about.
After all, where else can you get a power back on the last day of the draft?
But there will be those who will contend that taking Clarett will be just like playing the Powerball lottery. Where the holder of the ticket usually ends up a loser.
Because Indy, New England and Pittsburgh were hovering, many other teams will zoom in for a closer look. After all, those teams get credited with creative thinking, good roster planning and thinking outside the box. Which means that someone will probably use a late-round pick to select him.
You see, at the end of the day, we're all hoping to win the lottery.
Even with a kid who wore #13 in college.
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
I first wrote about McPherson when I read he was tearing up the Arena Football League, where he was playing in exile, his version of the Isle of Elba, because he had nowhere else to go. His college options were limited, and former NFL QB Steve DeBerg took a chance on him and he ended up with the Indiana Firebirds. He excelled there, and, in so doing, he emerged as a prime NFL prospect. Fortunately for McPherson, who had begun to emerge from one of the deepest circles of a young athlete's hell, he is eligible for this year's NFL draft.
And that's where life gets interesting.
First, he acquitted himself well in the Arena League. Second, he dedicated himself into getting into great shape. Third, he found an agent who is well known to the NFL, Leigh Steinberg. Most players select their agents; to a certain extent, Steinberg selects the players he wants to work with. It speaks volumes that Steinberg is working with McPherson. McPherson recently worked out for a bunch of NFL scouts, and, according to the Miami Herald, wowed them.
Absolutely wowed them. He didn't draw comparisons to the average hypotethical second-string NFL quarterback, the guy who holds the clipboards, looks well-pressed and sometimes moonlights as the holder for extra points and field goals. He drew comparisons to John Elway.
None of the other QBs in that draft have drawn comparisons to John Huarte or John Reeves, let alone John Elway. And many teams could use a top-notch QB.
Matt Leinart, the USC QB, would have been the #1 pick in the draft had he elected to leave USC. But because he didn't, all GMs are in a pickle. The consensus is that no player in the draft is worthy of the #1 slot and the huge contract that goes with it. Which means that even QB-starved teams like the 49ers aren't psyched about the two most highly rated QBs in the draft -- Alex Smith of Utah and Aaron Rogers of Cal, neither of whom seem to have captured the imagination of the scouts as being future superstars. (In Rogers' case, he suffers from the Tedford Stigma, as thus far the disciples of Cal Coach Jeff Tedford, including Trent Dilfer, Joey Harrington, Akili Smith and Kyle Boller, haven't had better than average NFL careers).
Which leads us back to Adrian McPherson. Read the article I linked to. Remember how players' stock can rise and fall on the eve of NFL drafts. Warren Sapp's stock fell, as did that of Randy Moss, on the eve of the draft because of character issues. Mike Mamula's rose dramatically because of his workout heroics, and Dwight Freeney's rose because, among other things, ESPN Radio's Mike Golic talked him up tremendously in the weeks leading up the draft. Projected as a late first-round pick, Freeney ended up being taken at #11, and the Colts are grateful that they did so. Neither Mamula nor Freeney, of course, had the history that McPherson has.
So the big question for those in NFL front offices is that history. Is it just history, destined forever to remain in McPherson's rear-view mirror, or is it condemned to repeat itself?
Something tells me that you don't want to be the GM who passed on Adrian McPherson.
Even in the first round.
That buzz you hear is the talk over McPherson intensifying. That buzz you hear is the sound of McPherson rising in the NFL draft pecking order.
Perhaps all the way into the first round.
You're an NFL GM. Your scouts tell you about this amazing QB talent, a kid out of the Arena Football League, or about some good if not great QBs out of Top 15 programs. The former got a record when in college; the latter two set records. The former is the one who everyone is talking about; the latter two are the ones everyone is talked out about.
Who do you choose?
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
I thought so too.
But I was wrong.
Many of us think that the sole premise of "Moneyball", at least as to hitting, is that Beane and his disciples always look for players with a high on-base percentage. You'll recall that in the book Beane craved Eurabiel Durazo, liked a BoSox minor leaguer named Kevin Youkilis, and thought that former Major League catcher Steve Swisher's kid Nick was a great prospect. Oh, yeah, and the Beane numbers guys (in a tribute to accountants, let's call them Beane Counters) didn't think that defense mattered one iota. On the pitching side, they coveted pitchers like Chad Bradford, who don't walk batters and strike out more than their fair share. That's a short summary, but the point is that you might have thought that Beane's secrets were revealed and that his metrics were straightforward.
But you'd be wrong. Yes, for a time those were Beane's sole metrics, and for a time he rode the pitching troika of Tim Hudson (now with Atlanta), Mark Mulder (now with St. Louis) and Barry Zito to four straight 95-plus win seasons. But the point of the article is that Beane's strategy is not so much the pure metrics of, say, on-base percentage, but like that of Hall of Fame hitter "Wee Willie" Keeler, who said he "hit 'em where they ain't."
Translated, that means the Beane Counters cannot stand still in Oakland, they have to evolve, embrace change and find metrics where others aren't looking or become just another small-market team with a record of twenty games under .500 whose fans perpetually cry foul at how much George Steinbrenner spends on payroll. They have to evolve because Beane disciples are populating general managers' offices everywhere, so many of them are using the same metrics that Beane used for years in Oakland. Which means that now, for example, players with high on-base percentages are over-valued because there are enough GMs out there who value that stat. Does that mean that Beane is out of moves?
Hardly, and that's the point, again, that Beane's metrics are all about finding value in players. Take Mark Kotsay for example. He's been a highly regarded defensive player, and the A's traded for him. Many "Moneyball" readers probably wondered aloud whether Beane was smoking was they grow in Marin County, because in that book the A's front office showed little regard for defensive ability. In reality, the Beane Counters have probably found some algorithm that shows how good defensive players up the middle make a difference in a team's winning percentage, so they landed Kotsay. And they're probably testing a ton of other metrics as I write this. (One note: the Red Sox figured this out in the middle of last season, when they were struggling defensively playing your beer-league brother-in-law at first base and a gimpy Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop. Then they traded for Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz, their defense improved and they ended up winning the World Series).
Value investing? Yes. Knowing when to buy, when to hold and when to sell, absolutely. Portfolio diversification? I think so. Dollar-cost averaging? Another must. All of these are basic tenets of solid investing, and they hold true for the Beane Counters too.
Beane looks for value, period. Look at Scott Hatteberg, look at Durazo. Knowing when to buy, hold and sell, well, time will tell given the major pitching moves Beane made this past off-season. His critics (and others) will argue that Beane had no choice but to jettison two of his Big Three, that the small-market A's didn't have enough money to sign all three. They'll also argue, again somewhat convincingly, that he traded the two with the most trade value -- Hudson and Mulder -- because Zito had fallen off enough as to cause his market value to drop. And all that sounds plausible.
Except for some stats that first emerged at the time Fernando Valenzuela's career (and then Dwight Gooden's) fell off the table (and this is speculation on my part; this doesn't come from the article). The premise was that pitchers who threw too many pitches before they were 25 would flame out in their early 30's because they wouldn't have much left in their arms. So, while it may be true that Beane didn't have the cash to sign Hudson and Mulder to longer-term deals, perhaps he knows something that the rest of us don't. Perhaps he knows that those two pitchers, who have battled injuries, are closer to the end of their careers than the middle. No, he didn't peddle damaged goods, but yes, he probably ran the numbers and has some formula that says crafty lefties with big curves like Zito tend to get re-born at 30, while righties tend to fizzle.
That's all just a hunch on my part, but if Danny Haren, Rich Harden, Dan Meyer and the rest emerge as a formidable rotation, and, further, if Hudson and Mulder falter, then Beane will end up being even more of a genius than he was portrayed in "Moneyball." If the reverse happens, well, Beane's critics will cackle and say "I told you so." It says here that we'll have to wait 2-3 years before knowing for sure.
The article points out that many scouts believe that Beane got good deals from Atlanta and St. Louis and was careful to get pitchers who are close enough to the Majors to help the big club but far enough away from becoming arbitration eligible that they can help the big club. Talk about portfolio diversification, talk about dollar-cost averaging. Beane is steadfast in not putting all of his eggs on the Big Three, and he's careful about making sure his talent base is evergreen. Unlike the Yankees, you won't see a roster whose average age is 34.
There are Beane Bashers out there, the old-school baseball types who are suspicious of applied math and computers and anything they didn't invent, Beane Counters, who are the guys in Oakland's front office, and Beane Disciples, who think that what Beane and his colleagues have tapped into is really neat. Somewhere, there's probably a happy medium, a blend of the numbers and the old-school scouts, like the late Tony Lucadello, who signed 50 major leaguers, including Mike Schmidt, and who knew much more about slides than slide rules.
After all, Casey Stengel had a way with talent (winning a bunch of World Series) and with words. Once, after being presented with a bunch of statistics, he said, "That's all well and good, but just get me a lefthanded hitter who can hit the ball past the shortstop."
Words to live by.
Unless you're a Beane Counter.
Imagine if no one left early. . .
Imagine if no one opted for the NBA . . .
Imagine all the people, galvanized to the college game. . .
Well, you can do just that thanks to ESPN's David Schoenfield, who hypothesizes on what the Sweet 16 would have looked like had Carmelo Anthony, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and DaJuan Wagner, among others, not left early, and had Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston and LeBron James, among others, gone to college. Certain guys who are currently riding the pine in the NBA would be bringing it on in prime time in college, while certain guys would be stars no matter where they laced 'em pu.
It's fun reading, and it gives you cause to pause about how hard it is to recruit if you're an "elite" program. You want to shoot for the top players, but you cannot be sure if they'll come at all or if they do show, how long they'll stay for. I recall years ago when Bobby Hurley and Kenny Anderson were the star PGs out of HS. I argued that Anderson was the better player, but a friend countered that if he were a coach he'd want Hurley. The reason -- certainty that Hurley would stay for four years. My friend was right; Anderson left after two seasons, and Hurley helped lead Duke to two national titles -- he stayed for four years.
So, in certain cases, recruiting can be a case of being careful what you wish for. Several years ago Villanova was psyched when it landed Tim Thomas, but in the end they got a kid who didn't know how to mesh with some outstanding talent already on campus (including Alvin Williams and Jason Lawson) and who only stayed for a year. Was it worth it? Many Wildcats fans would argue that landing Thomas set the program back a few years.
Then again, it probably isn't wise to pursue only the absolute "A" list anyway, for a variety of reasons. First, you aren't bound to land only kids from this list, the competition is just too tough. Which means that you could come up empty-handed and have a dismal recruiting year. Diversification of your recruiting portfolio is key. Second, these kids get so over-recruited and your staff cannot possibly cover them all, and other schools are bound to have advantages over you as to certain kids. Since you could be wasting your time, you should concentrate your efforts on fewer players. Third, six McDonald's all-Americans on one roster aren't always certain to mesh, and, yes, there is only one basketball. Better to get a blend of shooters, cutters, slashers, rebounders, shot-blockers, blenders, pick-setters and penetrators, all of whom can complement each other and each of whom is willing to play his role on a team. Yes, it would be great if all could handle the rock inside and out, shoot the three and the mid-range jumper, and you might be able to mesh your team into that unit. But blending a team of all-stars is not a guarantee for a Final Four appearance. Fourth, blending kids from the "A", "A-", "B+" and "B" lists means that many are likely to stay for four years and certain are likely to develop into even better players than you thought. The challenge, then, is to find the kids who can rise to the "A" level an carry your team when you need them -- over a four-year span.
Portfolio diversification. Dollar-cost-averaging. Refusing to put all of your eggs in one-basket. Looking for "value" players. All of these strategies will help make a coach's life much better in the present, even if, as David Schoenfield displays, it's fun to talk about the what ifs.
Because in "what if" land, every team, including yours, coulda been a contender.
In reality, it's a matter of who stays in school.
Dickie V. was waxing eloquent on some of the coaches who made the Elite 8. With his usual exuberance, he elevated Rick Pitino into the upper pantheon of college hoops coaches (ever, and not just current) because Pitino now has taken this third school to the Final Four (the two others being Providence and Kentucky), and he talked for a bit about the accomplishments of Roy Williams and Tom Izzo, both of whom are in the current pantheon. Most of the points he made about these coaches were obvious ones, yet worth making because we shouldn't overlook how hard it is to achieve the status that these coaches have.
The more important point that Dick Vitale made, though, was about certain other coaches, particularly Bruce Weber of Illinois and Bo Ryan of Wisconsin. Weber was an assistant for 18 years before getting his first head coaching job, and Ryan's curriculum vitae had him paying his dues for a long time, as a HS coach, in various college assistants' jobs, 8 years thereafter as an assistant at Wisconsin before spending 15 years at Wisconsin-Platteville, where he led his team to four DIII national titles, and then, in his early 50's, to Wisconsin, where he's done a great job in the past four years. After going through these facts, Vitale brought home the great point -- that college ADs might be looking for their next head coaches in all of the wrong places.
Vitale said that ADs sometimes won't look at coaching candidates unless they've done their apprenticeships for the big-name coaches, the Dean Smiths, Coach Ks, Rick Pitinos, Bob Knights, Tom Izzos, Jim Calhouns, you name it. In so doing, Vitale argued that many ADs could be overlooking outstanding coaches and could be hiring the wrong guys. He further contended that there's nothing that says just because you apprentice for a big name that you're going to be a great coach or that you won't because you don't.
These are excellent points for several reasons. First, it doesn't strike me that head DI men's hoop coaches put the effort into scouting out coaching talent the way they do college basketball talent. That probably happens for two reasons -- you win with the talent you have on the floor much more so than the talent on the bench (great coaches can't turn bad talent into champions) and it's much easier to gauge excellent HS hoop talent than it is future outstanding coaching talent. You can watch kids on film forever and compare their performance against elite players, but how can you tell whether a 22 year-old recent college grad who played college hoops is talented to be a good coach? Sure, you look for enthusiasm, intellect for the game, ethics, hard work, ability to break down tapes, willingness to stay on the road recruiting, but how do you know that the young man has the talent to do that job and to grow? I doubt a head coach has the same confidence in recruiting assistants that he does in recruiting top talent. That's not to say that they don't put solid effort into picking their assistants, but it's probably not as time-honored an art as recruiting your next point guard.
Denny Crum and Roy Williams are great examples, though, of assistants to great coaches who became great coaches in their own right. Crum was John Wooden's top aide at UCLA for years, and Williams was an assistant to Dean Smith at North Carolina for ten years before getting the Kansas job after Larry Brown took his gypsy coaching act elsewhere. Yet, there were more Wooden assistants who didn't become successful head coaches than did (and Gene Bartow also became a successful head coach, building the UAB program from scratch, but Larry Farmer and Gary Cunningham, to name a few, were not especially successful). Bill Guthridge had success as Carolina's head coach after spending his career as Smith's top aide, but Eddie Fogler couldn't find success ultimately at South Carolina after stops at Wichita State and Vanderbilt. He had a good career, but not the "great" career that a few ADs probably had hoped for when they hired him.
Bob Knight mentored a bunch of future head coaches, including Coach K, who clearly is one of the all-time best, but many of his other proteges -- Tom Miller, Dan Dakich, Jim Crews, Bob Weltlich, Don DeVoe, Mike Davis, Bob Donewald, Dave Bliss -- didn't become staples at any particular schools at which they coached. Many had pockets of success, but none to my knowledge built a ten-or-more-year run at a high-end DI school. By the way, that's not to suggest that Knight was a failure as a mentor; it appears that he was an excellent one and helped get his assistants outstanding opportunities. It's just that with the exception of Coach K, none became close to being another Bob Knight.
That's a tough standard to meet -- helping all of your assistants become as successful as you -- no, it's impossible. That Wooden mentored a Crum, Knight a Coach K and Smith a Williams speaks volumes for them. Perhaps that's a lifetime of mentoring achievements right there, in terms of developing coaches for the next generation, and we shouldn't ask for more -- I would argue that it is. Which means, then, that if you're a DI school looking for the next great coach, you have to think hard about going to the same well all of the time. After all, that well might provide but one future great coach, but not a cornucopia of them. Naturally, all ADs will think that this particular Coach K assistant will be the one, so they'll keep on hiring them, but the odds are that that particular Coach K assistant won't be the next Coach K (and, so far, Quin Snyder at Missouri and Tommy Amaker at Michigan haven't proven that they'll be the next Coach K). Still, it could be worth a shot -- if you get the right one. After all, if the three coaches I named each mentored a future superstar, the odds are that there are current and former assistants of Coach K, Rick Pitino and Jim Calhoun who are en route to the same status. But perhaps "only" one apiece.
But, for all of those guys, there are the guys in DIII, DII and out-of-the-way DI schools who could take a team to the national title if given the chance. Who will argue that John Bellein isn't a great coach after what he did with his West Virginia squad? Ditto for Ryan at Wisconsin and Pat Flannery at Bucknell, not to mention Tom Brennan at Vermont? Yes, there are many ways to find great coaches, and I agree with Dickie V. that ADs should think outside the box when looking for the next great coach.
Because it could well be that while he may not have the pedigree of the great assistantships, all he has done is win with integrity everyplace he has been.
Monday, March 28, 2005
Many observers, including me, owe the Big Ten an apology for underestimating the quality of their conference's teams this season. The facts don't lie -- three teams in the regional finals, two teams in the Final Four. And that's two more teams in the Final Four than the SEC, Big 12, Big East or Pac-10. Had Wisconsin held on to upset North Carolina, the Big Ten would have had three teams in the Final Four, the first time a conference would have pulled that feat since 1985, when the Big East had St. John's, Georgetown and national champion Villanova reach the Final Four.
So congratulations to Tom Izzo and Bruce Weber for leading their teams to the national semifinals, and kudos to Bo Ryan for leading his team to the Elite 8. Your conference didn't get much respect this year, and in relatively recent times it hadn't performed that well in post-season play. But this year it did, and you're the talk of the tournament.
Which is pretty good when you had an "off" year.
Sunday, March 27, 2005
Selena Roberts' thesis is that college basketball's brand could be in danger, not because of the success of the Bucknells and Vermonts but because of the erosion of the elite programs' stranglehold on the summit of college basketball. She does note the irony that the trademarks of certain coaches, including Coach K, have gotten stronger during the time that she has perceived the erosion of the summit (no pun intended there).
Let's examine a few elements of major college basketball:
1. Bad fact #1: the HS superstars aren't going to college anymore. About seven of them went straight to the NBA draft last year, including one, Shaun Livingston, who was headed to Duke. The pundits contend, and I believe rightly so, that most of these kids would go to the top programs. Okay, so the elite programs get hurt here.
2. Bad fact #2: many outstanding players leave college early for the NBA. It's almost like the baseball draft, in that if you stay for your senior year and you're an elite player there's something wrong with you (go tell that to USC QB Matt Leinart, though). Needless to say, some elite programs get hurt when their superstars or future stars leave early. Witness Duke, again, when Elton Brand, Corey Magette and Will Avery left after the same season several years ago. Brand was justified in going; he had nothing more to prove. Magette is a tremendous talent who could have benefitted staying in college for at least one more year. Avery, well, his forwarding address is "parts unknown." Do those departures hurt the elite programs' potential for perennial hegemony? Yes, they do.
Okay, so if you're into dynasties, these facts are bad. These facts mean that those on college basketball's Mount Rushmore -- Duke, Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, Indiana, UCLA, for starters -- won't dominate year-in and year-out. And that worries some, including Coach K, that the brand of DI men's hoops might be eroding. And, if you look at it from Coach K's point of view, it might be. After all, perenially jinxed Gary Williams and Jim Boeheim, the best coaches never to win a national title, won national titles, and their programs, schools and coaching ability were sometimes questioned; in other words, some thought that these guys would never win a national title because they weren't good enough. After all, if you're talking ACC, you should be talking Duke and Carolina, and if you're talking Big East, you should be talking UConn (and, in former years, St. John's, Villanova and, of course, Georgetown). Or so that's how the logic goes.
That's certainly one point of view. But I think that an analogy to the NFL and not the NBA should comfort college basketball purists. I do think that the NBA is reeling because the salary/personnel structure is so out of whack that the rivalries among the 76ers, Knicks and Celtics, not to mention the Lakers, are so damaged that most young fans forget the salad days. That hurts the brand, because the rivalries are rather shallow if they exist at all. But few can argue that the NFL has been damaged despite the absence of the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers or San Francisco 49ers dynasties. Parity in the NFL means that no team is more than say a few drafts away from going from the outhouse to the penthouse. That aspect, to many, makes the NFL very exciting. And, to boot, a dynasty has slipped into the equation -- the New England Patriots. Moreover, there are intra-conference and intra-division rivalries that still get the players' and fans' blood boiling -- Raiders-Chiefs, anyone in the NFC East, anyone in the NFC North, Jets-Dolphins, Jets-Patriots, you name it, the great rivalries are still hot, the same way the great rivalries in college hoops are still cooking. With gas.
Look, no one team may be dominating college hoops, but the titans are still guarding the summit very carefully. If you want to win a national title, you still have to get through the legendary programs to get there, the Dukes, Carolinas, Kentuckys, Connecticuts, Syracuses. Yes, some have had their fortunes wane -- UCLA, Georgetown, St. John's, Indiana -- to name a few, but several have sustained their excellence. Still, if you look at the Elite 8, you have a pretty good group of programs there.
Of course, if you're more concerned about the erosion of the dynasties, then you should urge the NCAA to adopt a playoff format for the men that is similar to that they hold for the women -- where the games in the first two rounds are played at the site of one of the top seeds. A look at the Sweet 16 in the women's bracket reveals very few upsets, with only 1 seed lower than a #6 advancing to the Sweet 16 -- #13 Liberty. Of the 16 teams who advanced, I believe there were 4 #1 seeds, 4 #2 seeds, 3 #3 seeds, 2 #4 seeds, 2 #5 seeds and 1 #13 seed. If you want dynasties, there's your format.
It's just that few, even relatively speaking, get as excited about the women's bracket as the men's bracket from the get-go of the tournament. The reason -- the Rounds of 64 and 32 encompass the American Dream of rags to riches. You want Rockefellers and Gettys solidifying their turf -- go to the women's bracket.
I think that the brand of men's DI hoops is doing just fine. The games are exciting, and more teams have a chance. Sure, that might mean trouble for Duke, Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas, but whoever preordained that they should win the title every year?
The Big Ten was oft-maligned this year (and I jumped on the conference as well) because most thought that the once very tough conference had turned cupcake-like and had only one bonafide tournament team that could go far -- Illinois (Wisconsin being a nice team and Michigan State being a mystery). Yet, as I write this, Wisconsin is trailing Carolina by 1 late in the game and Michigan State faces off against Kentucky later today. If Wisconsin pulls off the upset and Michigan State beats Kentucky, you'll have three teams from the same conference in the Final Four (the last time I remember that happening was 1985, when Villanova, Georgetown and St. John's were in the Final Four). Would that mean that college basketball has a brand problem?
Hardly. It just may mean that the Dukes, Carolinas, Kansases and Kentuckys would.
At least temporarily.
Could it be that the store brands are replacing the name brands?
Or is it that new name brands are emerging?
Saturday, March 26, 2005
Yoni of the College Basketball Blog has kept an evergreen post as to who might be moving to what openings in the world of college basketball. Click here to check it out (he updates it frequently). Good stuff.
I'd estimate that about 10% of the DI jobs open every year. So, if there are 326 DI schools in college hoops, then about 33 jobs open up every where. It starts with dismissals and retirements, and then gets followed up with vacancies that happen when a coach moves to another job. For example, UMass canned Steve Lappas, and Eastern Kentucky's Travis Ford got the job, which creates an opening at, yes, Eastern Kentucky. Sometimes a top assistant gets his break when a successful coach moves on, and all DI coaches had to get their start somewhere.
Having read Yoni's blog and the Blue Ribbon Guide (the latter over the years), here are a few coaches I'd consider for "bigger time" jobs:
1. John Bellein, West Virginia. The reason: West Virginia is in the Elite 8, and Bellein did very good work at Canisius and Richmond before going to Morgantown.
2. Fran Dunphy, Penn. He's the dean of Ivy coaches and has won a lot of league titles. That his teams haven't fared well in the NCAA Tournament is perhaps more of a reflection of the Ivies as a whole than Dunphy's Penn squad. This man can coach.
3. Glenn Miller, Brown. He's turned Brown into a school few want to mess with, inside or outside the Ivies. Before Miller, Brown was a doormat. Since Miller, they've contended almost every year. He was in the running for the LaSalle job before John Giannini got it, and he'd be a solid hire at a bigger-time program.
4. Bruce Pearl, UW-Milwaukee. Solid body of work in four years in Milwaukee, and a Sweet 16 appearance this year makes him very hot.
5. Chris Mooney, Air Force. Joe Scott's top assistant during the years leading up to last year's miracle, and he more than held his own in Colorado Springs this year. Imagine what he could do without the eligibility restrictions placed upon the service academies.
6. Pat Flannery, Bucknell. Okay, so I'm honoring "hot" coaches in this post, but they beat then-#10 Pitt at Pitt in the regular season, upset Kansas in the NCAA Tourney and came up about 7 minutes short of doing the same thing to a tough Wisconsin team in the second round. They used to say this about former Princeton coach Pete Carril -- imagine what he could have done if they gave scholarships at Princeton (as opposed to packages that included grants, loans and student jobs). Well, they used to say that about the Patriot League, but now all schools there save Lafayette do offer athletic scholarships. Flannery stepped up Bucknell's program (even though several kids were still paying their own way), and he could be a fine addition in to a higher-level DI program.
7. Fran O'Hanlon, Lafayette. Yes, the Leopards are down, but O'Hanlon, an offensive genius if there ever was one, could do wonders at a scholarship school. He's a real keeper.
8. Randy Bennett, St. Mary's. Most teams, regardless of whether they're on the West Coast, don't want to play the Gaels. Bennett has made them the second-most formidable team in the WCAC after Gonzaga. And they're formidable.
Of course, there are top assistants at the Top 50 program who will get a look-see too, but ADs with vacancies should be creative. After all, the Coach of Elite 8 participant Wisconsin, Bo Ryan, toiled in obscurity in Division III for about 15 years, where he led his Wisconsin-Platteville team to many national titles. Many ADs wouldn't have given him a look, but Wisconsin has to be thrilled that they did. Some ADs get too worried about the stage and wonder whether a candidate can handle the perceived pressures of, say, coaching in the Big Ten, Big East or ACC. That's not an unfair question, but it shouldn't be the preeminent one. The harder investigation is to guess whether the guy you interview and think is great actually shows up and reveals that greatness in a few years.
Which means, if I'm UVA AD Craig Littlepage, for whom I have a ton of respect, I'd look seriously at Fran Dunphy and Pat Flannery. Both are outstanding coaches, both value academics very much, and both have posted solid bodies of work. Yes, the ACC is a tough conference, but these guys are ready for the challenge.
The Top 10 programs (among them Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, Syracuse, Duke) always seem to get their coach, and the risks they take in so doing aren't great. But you'll recall that Duke took a chance in the early 80's after Bill Foster left, and Stanford took a chance when it hired Mike Montgomery. Duke hired Army's coach on the recommendation of Bob Knight, and Stanford, not the historic power that Duke has been, hired Montana's coach. Craig Littlepage at UVA and the folks at Tennessee have a unique opportunity to think outside the box and bring in a potentially great coach, but they'll have to have the courage and imagination to do so.
Thanks, Yoni, for keeping us current on this year's game of musical chairs.
Michigan State did beat Duke last night in the regional semis, didn't it?
You remember those old Visa ads for the Olympics, where the cocky-voiced narrator would talk about all of the great things that would go on, saying something like, "They'll take this, that and the other thing, but they won't take. . . American Express. Visa, the exclusive choice of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games." Or something like that.
They were catchy, and perhaps they caught Amex off guard, as they were a frontal assault on a competitor. Fast forward to 2005, and Amex now has adds of its own, this time with Coach K saying that he's a leader and talking about what he wants his kids to leave Duke with. I have respect for Coach K as a coach, but I could have done without the ad. I thought it to be pretentious, and I just wonder about a coach's wanting to cash in on his celebrity, making himself larger than the school for which he works and making serious money while in a purportedly amateur endeavor. Sorry, Coach K fans, but in this particular realm, I don't accord Coach K the Special K status that you do.
I wouldn't have envisioned John Wooden doing ads like this. Or, yes, Duke lovers and apologists, Dean Smith either. Or Bob Knight. (You'd argue that some coaches would if offered the chance, and that's a fair point, but many wouldn't). Yes, schools have sold some of their laundry space to shoe companies in exchange for money, and I'm not thrilled with that either, but this type of commerce eclipses that type for a simple reason -- that renting of space to Nike directly benefits the athletic department.
How about the renting of the coach? Or is it simply another way to keep the coach happy, keep his income up in a way that the school's budget cannot? Is it different from the camps, the radio shoes and the car from the booster who owns eleven car dealerships within thirty miles of a school's campus? Or is the coach making money off of endeavors, trademarks and institutions that aren't totally his, thereby exploiting the situation?
Anyway, it was awkward watching the NCAA playoff game featuring Duke where one of the ads featured its legendary coach. It was reminiscent of an old battery commercial featuring then TV star Robert Conrad (who played WWII flying ace "Pappy" Boyington) daring you to knock the battery off his shoulder, the tough guy implying, "do you want a piece of me?" Okay, maybe not nearly as bad in the hubris department, but there was Coach K talking about leadership, and, yes, he did a great job with, for him, a fair assemblage of talent, getting Duke to win yet another ACC title game, but not everyone was rooting for Duke in last night's game (and they had to suffer the ad notwithstanding). And there were the Michigan State Spartans, playing as though they didn't give one hoot about Coach K's legend, his team's accomplishments, or an internationally known charge card. They dared to knock off the Blue Devils, playing outstanding defense, and they didn't care one whit about Duke or Coach K.
Which is as it should be.
The question for Amex's marketing execs is whether they'll need a different ad as they run deeper into the tournament. After all, are they the card, or are they a card that gets you to the regional semis of life before you need to trade up to something better? Or is there some subliminal message there, that the lessons we learn from the Coach Ks of the world transcend wins and losses, and that we should follow this outstanding leader regardless of whether he reaches his game's summit year-in and year-out, that he's an all-timer?
There's no doubt, of course, that Coach K is a leader, but sometimes you burnish your legend with the opportunities you turn down as much as the opportunities you accept. The more he does outside the relatively safe zone of coaching is the more that he exposes himself, and it's not like he really needs the money. And last night someone else looked like a better leader, ad or no.
Meanwhile, Tom Izzo should give his agent a whole raft of grief. Where are his ads, after all?
These guys are wonderful coaches, and they should stick to that.
Besides, where they work, they don't have to pay for much of anything anyway. It's not so much that the establishments in East Lansing or Durham don't take Visa or American Express, it's that they probably pick up the tabs for their local coaching heroes anyway. Their money -- and their credit cards -- are no good.
And that's a much better deal, isn't it?
Friday, March 25, 2005
Basically, here's the story. We have a league that is NL only that tracks 4 hitting categories (hits, average, homers and stolen bases -- the anti-Moneyball league, I call it) and 4 pitching categories (wins, ERA, saves and WHIP, again, somewhat anti-Moneyball). We draft players every year in the auction-style format. Each team as $260 in play money, and you need to take 23 players -- 14 position players, 9 pitchers (of whom five must be starters). Follow so far? There are 11 teams in the league, which means that you don't have to try to show joy in taking the 25th player on the Rockies, because he'll always be a free agent (actually, no Rockies starter gets drafted). If you get, say, Shawn Green for $20, you'll have him for two years at that number, and for each subsequent year you'll have to raise his price (or his "basis" for you equity markets guys) by $5 per year. Which means that two years from now he'll cost you $25, three years from now $30 and so on.
Our league's been in existence now for 18 years (each year at the draft everyone sits in the same spot, although I won't be able to make it this year; my partner will, though, and we haven't won anything in about 16 years and we only started contending again once our kids hit the age where they weren't waking us up in the middle of the night). During the past couple of years we contended. Two years ago we were in a three-way race during the last week (and came in third) and last year we led for a bit before fading to sixth (or was it seventh, I can't remember?). Every year we have dilemmas about players.
This year's dilemma was John Smoltz.
As a reliever, a closer that is, the decision would have been a no brainer. We got him in a trade several years ago when his price was $7, low only because he was coming back from arm surgery. Two years ago he cost us $12, and last year $17, and those are great prices for one of the top two or three relievers in the NL. Heck, some people will pay into the low forties for a top-drawer closer.
This John Smoltz would have cost us $22.
And therein lay the problem. At $22 he would still have been worth it as a closer. Except he's being converted into a starter, again, and the reason he was converted into a closer in the first place is that he and the powers that be in Atlanta thought that there would be less wear on his arm. They were right, and the added bonus was that he turned out to be an outstanding closer, probably even better than they could have imagined. But for some reason, they decided to mess with success, move him into the rotation, and acquire Dan Kolb (he also being someone who recovered from an arm injury) from Milwaukee to fill the closer's role (they are hoping that the adjustment to closing for a perennial contender versus a perennial candidate to endorse caskets won't be traumatizing for Kolb).
So Smoltz is a starter, and for our money he was too richly priced at $22. Why? Because there are few starters who command that much money, especially in the NL. Oh, sure, there will be some in the mid-to-high twenties, such as Jason Schmidt, but Smoltz hasn't started in years. If you spend $22 on him, you're hoping for 15 plus wins, an ERA around 3 and a walks and hits to innings pitched ratio of about 1.1 or lower.
You're also hoping that he stays healthy. In the end, we decided to pass, visions of an oft-injured Kerry Wood haunting us. Besides, we have Ben Sheets, so we already have our ace.
Even if he pitches for the Brewers.
Sorry, John, while we loved you as a reliever, remember that it's business and not personal. We wish you well in the majors and in our league, but hopefully, with respect to the latter, you're playing for a cellar dwellar.
(I would be remiss, by the way, if I didn't send you to the Breakaway Beach site, where they've had outstanding fantasy coverage as well as terrific coverage on the NFL combine and draft-related stuff.)
Thursday, March 24, 2005
It was rainin' hard in Frisco,
I needed one more homer to make my night
a closer with a big head knocked me down
with a four-seamer that was high and tight.
I said, "What are you goin' to do, Man in Blue?"
It's a shame I got my uniform dirty in the game."
He said "Get back in there Michelin Man."
I said, "I'm goin' to the Hall of Fame."
Something about this was familiar
I could swear I'd seen this busher's face before
But he said, "Why are you always taking?"
He didn't say anything more.
It took a while, but the writers caught up with me
Annoyed at how I had changed the game.
Smiles seemed to come to them slowly.
They were sad smiles just the same.
And they said, "Why'd you do it, Barry?"
And I said, "All that isn't true."
Through the too many hits
And too frequent fits,
I'll still bedevil you."
It was somewhere in a fairy tale
They say I got a lot of my strength out of a jar
That I learned about power out back behind a gym
They said the lesson had gone too far.
You see, I was gonna be a Hall of Famer
They were supposed to write about my thrills
I took off for Cooperstown
They suggested that I was taking pills.
Oh, I've got something inside me,
to make a smaller man lame
There's a wild man, wizard,
He's hiding in me, improving my game.
Oh, I've got something inside me,
Not what my life's about
Cause I've been letting my trainer guide me,
Until my time runs out.
Barry's so big that he's skying
Yes he's flying, afraid to fall.
I'll tell you why Barry's crying,
Cause his career's dying, aren't they all?
There's not much more for them to talk about.
Whatever I had once was gored.
So I turned my career into the disabled list,
Past the writers and the bright scoreboards.
And they said, "we must get together,"
But I knew we never would amidst the strife.
They gave me golf claps when
I deserved thunderous applause and said,
"Hey Barry, get a life."
Well another player might have been angry,
another player might have lashed out.
But another player might have actually cared,
I don't pause to listen to what they shout.
And the fans walked away in silence.
It's strange, how you never know.
But we'd both gotten what we'd asked for,
Such a long, long time ago.
You see I was gonna be a Hall of Famer
And they were gonna talk about my thrills
I took off to find the record books
They suggested that I was taking pills.
And here, they're acting happy,
Those pathetic, little gnomes
And me, I find this all so taxing,
Getting hit by sticks, and by stones.
I go into hiding so far, when I see the gnomes.
Wednesday, March 23, 2005
For your spirit. For your commitment to the schools who don't play in the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and Big East. For your coverage of the Delaware States, Bucknells, Vermonts, Wisconsin-Milwaukees and the many other places where the kids play not to make the ESPN top-10 list but for the love of the game. And for your love of the game.
In case you don't know the story, Kyle decided at the season's outset to cover 100 college basketball games during this season, and he completed his journey covering Vermont's loss to Michigan State. He did so with great relish, with originality, and with very good writing.
There are lots of blogs out there, and there are many excellent ones. The unique thing about Kyle's was that his blog had a beginning point and an end point, and he accomplished his goal. The rest of us will post on what interests us, and for sports bloggers it can be a lonely vigil. Our blogs don't draw the followers that the political blogs do. We're not trying to nail the Bush Administration or the Kerry campaign, the Fox network or New York Times. We don't get links from the Top 100 blogs, thereby guaranteeing that we might draw 5000 hits or more in one day.
That said, Kyle deserves those hits. And more.
Thank you, Kyle, for The Mid-Majority Report. You've inspired all of us sports bloggers to greater heights.
Click here if you don't believe it.
He was an assistant to Chuck Daly for some great Penn teams in the early 70's, went to Villanova, where his #8 seeded Wildcats won the NCAA tournament in 1985 (they sweated making that tournament, too), and then succeeded Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV during a rocky tenure and finally ended up at Cleveland State, where he also failed to find success. While Coach Mass proved that there are no second or third acts in college coaching, he did a masterful job at Villanova, especially during that magical 1985 season.
So now he's considering an NAIA job in Florida, where he lives.
This is great stuff. After all, how many of us want to totally retire? Not many. Coach Mass now could get the opportunity to build this program from scratch (as it doesn't exist yet). So he'd be consulting as much as doing, which is befitting of a coach of an NCAA champion. Yes, there are many Rollie bashers out there, but at this point they should let bygones be bygones. I wasn't Coach Mass's biggest fan at times (especially after his '85 championship), but it's interesting to see him in this gig.
And it would be a hoot to see lots of retired coaches get back into the game in this fashion, although there aren't any rumors that we'll see Denny Crum or Jerry Tarkanian coaching in this league at any time soon.
Many "retired" professionals end up retiring at times in their lives when they still have much to offer, much to pass on to young players and coaches. They say that coaching is a young man's game, that it's a young man's game because you need a young man's energy not only to keep up with the moods and attitudes of young players, but also to recruit and go on the road and sell your school to fickle youngsters. Older, more reflective men might start to think the exercise to be silly, spending so much of your professional life chasing young kids who think only about basketball and girls, and not necessarily in that order. The younger men, yes, they're the ones who project well to boosters, sponsors, fans and the talent you need to fill the arenas and get into the NCAA Tournament.
But the older men offer so much wisdom. I gave this book to a colleague who's bright and well-read, figuring that it would offer him insight into managing people. He popped into my office two mornings ago and raved about it, marveling at the insight that this famous basketball coach had to offer. He likes college basketball, but I don't think that even he realized how much insight he could draw from the life experiences of John Wooden.
I have found the same to be true of Dean Smith and enjoyed his book very much. Ditto for a book about Pete Newell. Which means, of course, that to be in their presence on a daily basis is to have a chance to learn from masters.
Rollie Massimino reached college basketball's summit in 1985 and has a lot to offer. True, he couldn't come close to the rarified air after that, but you can't take away the magic that was Villanova's run. That he wants to share his knowledge is, in the end, a good thing.
And hopefully, a happy ending for a coaching legend.
Who do you like better:
1. Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain.
2. Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams.
3. Coach K or Dean Smith.
4. Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova.
5. Larry Bird or Magic Johnson.
6. Joe Frazier or Muhammad Ali.
7. Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
8. Joe Paterno or Steve Spurrier.
9. Johnny Unitas or Joe Namath.
10. Roger Clemens or Curt Schilling.
11. Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth.
12. Joe Torre or Casey Stengel.
13. Bill Walsh or Mike Ditka.
14. Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton.
15. Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods.
16. Pat Summitt or Geno Auriemma.
17. Duke or UNLV (men's college b-ball)
18. Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa.
19. Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds.
20. Peyton Manning or Michael Vick.
21. Sugar Ray Leonard or Thomas Hearns.
22. Bjorn Borg or John McEnroe.
23. Mia Hamm or Freddy Adu.
24. Michigan or Ohio State (college football).
25. New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox.
Now, give yourself four points for each time you answered the first player, coach or team in the comparison and zero for the second, and then calculate your score. I got either a 52 or 56, so I split my answers right down the middle. I suppose that if you got a 100, that could mean you like the more traditional, more established, more accepted type of players, coaches and teams, whereas if you scored a zero (or closer to it) perhaps it means that you chose the more iconoclastic, the bolder of the two, the underdog, the less understood, the less accepted, the more controversial type of team or player or coach. Then again, for the most part, you're splitting hairs to a degree, because you're in rarified air to begin with (even with choice #20, because when those guys were hot, they were hot) with the people in these surveys. All these folks fared/fare pretty well in their chosen endeavors.
This isn't my version of Meyers-Briggs or Wonderlic or Sports IQ (comparing emotion to intelligence) or anything like that. But who do you prefer? Russell or Chamberlain? DiMaggio or Williams? The Yankees or the Red Sox?
The debates will go on and on.
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
That whole chase was what baseball is supposed to be about. The creation of great records and then having titans of equal measure break them. Sunny days, passing on memories from one generation to the next. Mark McGwire was at the forefront of all of that, and, in the late 1990's, baseball needed a palliative to lift it from the doldrums that had emerged after the damaging 1994 strike.
Enter McGwire. A Cardinal, no less, the most appealing player in the best baseball city in America, the home of the Gas House Gang, the team that gave us Stan the Man, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith. The imagery couldn't have been better.
Baseball was on a high. Such great stuff, it all was, wasn't it?
There were whispers, yes, but the memories of that home run chase lingered with fans for a long while afterward.
Until the prodigal son returned. The other Bash Brother, the one with talents and problems more prodigious than Mark McGwire -- Jose Canseco, McGwire's former teammate with those great A's teams in the late 80's. Canseco knew what went on in the baseball factory, he saw how the game was made behind the scenes, or so he claimed, and it wasn't just the veneer that we saw on our TV screens night after night. No, Canseco had to take us into the dressing rooms and tell us what many had suspected for a while. Not that we all believed Canseco, of course. He, we said, was out to sell books.
Yes, the whole thing got very ugly. People still wanted to believe that Mark McGwire was their hero even after Canseco wrote his book, if only because if you had to pick between the two, McGwire was the easy choice. He was the home run hero. He wasn't an admitted steroid user, he wasn't someone who was undisciplined in his training methods, drove his cars too fast or had run-ins with the law. That was the other guy, and those foibles gave the other guy a credibility problem.
The other guy, though, held firm, and the rumors continued, the pressure mounted, and then the U.S. Congress got into the act. They didn't like baseball's self-policing, and they wanted to talk to everyone about what had happened that brought this ugly mess -- the steroids scandal -- to baseball.
The home run hero showed up, but this time he couldn't let his bat do his talking for him. He had to open up his mouth, he had to articulate what happened and when, and he would neither confirm nor deny anything.
All of the sudden, the man who launched rockets to the moon dropped his lead balloon on the sporting world.
It only took a few minutes to turn his reputation from solid gold to solid waste.
A few weeks ago, the wagons circled around baseball's heroes. As Jose Canseco said with a slight scoff before Congress, it was only he who used steroids, or at least that's what the baseball establishment intimated.
In the aftermath of the Congressional hearing, the sharks are circling. The Mighty Mac, once worth of having highways named after him and once suggested as even replacing Lou Gehrig as the best first baseman ever, is no longer. He's not Superman anymore; he's just a Clark Kent like the rest of us. That's what they're writing now. I even read in one of the national publications a suggestion that McGwire now won't make it into the Hall of Fame.
I blogged extensively on the steroids scandal. I lamented how organized baseball turned a blind eye, and I even had my suspicions about some of the players who were setting gargantuan records, among them Mark McGwire. Yet, in the midst of the entire swirling controversy, I couldn't bring myself to dislike Mark McGwire.
I recall an exchange between Burt Reynolds' character Paul Crew, the onetime star quarterback, and the character named "Caretaker" in the movie The Longest Yard. Crew asked Caretaker what the other inmates were in prison for, and Caretaker responded that they were murderers, rapists and arsonists. He then asked why the other inmates hated him. To which Caretaker responded, "You bet on football games. That's Un-American." Crew nodded, as if to acknowledge that what Caretaker said was a well-known fact.
To the jury of public opinion out there, what Mark McGwire did was un-American.
Think about that. Un-American.
Not a murder. Not a rape. Not an accusation of wife-beating or failure to pay child support. No charges of drug dealing, brandishing guns or hiding them under the seat of his car. No DUI.
So let's be careful in our excoriation of Mark McGwire. Are we angry at him because he didn't come forward and confess and he let someone like Jose Canseco out him in a public and humiliating way? Are we disappointed in him because he isn't perfect? Or do we feel violated because he might have used performance-enhancing drugs to attain some of baseball's most sacred records, records that fans hold so dear because in a world with constant bad news baseball is one refuge that we all have and it's supposed to be relatively pure? Or are we upset because we create our heroes based on filtered information and keep them at a distance, and when they fall from their Mount Olympus they prove themselves to be the humans that we try to escape from when we watch baseball? Do we see in Mark McGwire that frail human in all of us that has to resist temptation frequently, and are we mad because he made the type of choice to attain fame that we're constantly counseled against?
I liked McGwire as a player and rooted for the Bash Brothers in the 1980's. I recall visiting a friend in Northern California in the summer of 1989. We went to an A's doubleheader on a Thursday afternoon, with Dave Stewart starting in the opener and Bob Welch in the nightcap. Those were great days then, and the A's ruled baseball. It was good fun then, the subsequent flaws of McGwire and Canseco notwithstanding.
Most fans probably think after his testimony that McGwire wasn't the player then that we thought him to be. Fair enough (although they aren't publicly apologizing to Fred McGriff for thinking that he had turned into a girly-man power hitter during that time either).
But he's not the crumbum that some now have resorted to suggesting he is.
He is paying a terrible price right now for his alleged sins, a price from which his reputation may never recover. He might have been a steroid user, but before fans pile on him they should remember that there had to be others beside the Bash Brothers. Many others. We may never know who those others are. And they will get away with it.
In time, it will be time to forgive. Because right now, the fans are more forgiving of the roguish Canseco that the otherwise nice guy McGwire.
And whoever thought that would be the case?
I wrote my poem "Say It Ain't So, Jose" to poke fun at baseball as a whole. The title, of course, is a takeoff of the kid in Chicago in 1919 who, after hearing of the scandal in which the White Sox threw the World Series to the Reds, asked the star leftfielder for the hometown nine, "Say it ain't so, Joe?" The kid just couldn't believe it; he was crestfallen. Much of Chicago was abuzz about what probably happened, but I'm sure that many didn't want to believe it. What the kid asked is what many felt.
Say it ain't so, Mighty Mac.
Say it ain't so.
Sunday, March 20, 2005
The sports reality TV screenwriters were at it again, this time writing stuff that was comparable to their work in creating the '75, '91 and '01 World Series as well as the 2004 American League Championship Series. The cast for the fish out of water part included a tattooed 7'2" center who is happier shooting the three, a 2G who had transferred to the Mountaineer state school by way of hoops Siberia (St. Bonaventure) and a 6'11" pivot man whose coming out party in the NCAA tournament happened more than three years ago at a low-DI school in the play-in game in Dayton (where he blocked about 9 shots). I blogged on the latter fellow before, but had not found the time or reason to talk about the outstanding if underpublicized coach or the cast of players that led this team to an improbable run off the bubble and into the Big East final.
The fish who owned the water featured a PG who gets more ink than the entire state of West Virginia and a center who takes up more space in the paint (and well) than almost any big man in college not named Sean May. It just turned out, after last night, that there just wasn't enough pirhana in these fish to defend what many thought was rightfully theirs.
Many of the prognosticators had forecasted that the fish out of water (or the climbers who sometimes had trouble scaling the mountain) would fall prey to a minor upset in Round 1 against Creighton, figuring that they had used up all of their energy to get into the Big East final.
They were wrong.
Many of the prognosticators figured that this Wake team would make it to the Final Four, thanks to outstanding outside shooting, solid inside play and the best PG in the land in Chris Paul.
They were wrong.
Last week on WFAN, Mike Francesa and Chris Russo interviewed Ga Tech coach Paul Hewitt, who commented on the ACC teams and their chances in the NCAA Tournament. When they got to Wake Forest, Hewitt was very complimentary, and, in his last sentence on Wake, he said, "I think they can step up their defense to get to the Final Four."
Hewitt was wrong; they didn't.
West Virginia was gritty through the entire game and didn't back down at all at any time. You might figure that the underdog could wilt under the pressure of overtime, but then you don't know West Virginia's shooting guard, Mike Gansey. He had 10 points in regulation and, get this, 17 in the overtimes. When the lights got brigher, Gansey wanted the rock.
And he delivered (as did Wake's superb outside shooter, Taron Downey, who almost single-handedly kept Wake in the game after both Justin Gray and Chris Paul fouled out).
The game was a classic, a real war of attrition, with three players fouling out on each side and many with four fouls at game's end. From the end of regulation and beyond, West Virginia was the aggressor. The Mountaineers pressed the action, and they dictated the temp. Yes, Paul had some coast-to-coast layups, and, yes, Downey was downright amazing, but it was the underdog team that was stuck on the bubble and in danger of falling off two weeks ago who were even better.
The top seeds, if they're lucky, get one game in the Big Dance which they can consider a tuneup. If they're really lucky, they'll get a second tuneup game, usually owing to a first-round upset where their now second-round opponent played out of its mind in the first round and has no energy left to do it again.
But that's only if they're really, really lucky.
Because this is the NCAA Tournament, and even those who are predicted to have no shot know that lose once and you're going home. Those teams know that this is their chance to shine, this is their chance to let the entire country know that they take their hoops seriously in Milwaukee, Stockton, California, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and Burlington, Vermont, not to mention Morgantown, West Virginia.
And it's all they know.
Those favorites playing to day had better watch out, because already Syracuse, Kansas and Wake Forest are gone from the tournament. In a way, the favorites playing today are lucky because they can learn from the very recent past and steel themselves against the efforts that they'll face today (not to mention the cheers for the underdog opponents that invariably result at neutral venues). Then again, they'll have had an extra day to think about what's coming, and to worry about it.
What sounds will we hear at the end of today?
The raucous cheers of the huge fan bases of the favorites?
Or the shouts of the smaller crowds supporting the lower seeds, in a collective chorus of "Timber!"?
Wake Forest. Gone.
Saturday, March 19, 2005
Does it really matter?
Because yesterday, two very interesting basketball programs won in the biggest upsets of the NCAA Tournament. Kyle of the Mid-Majority Report had asked us all to adopt a mid-major, so I chose Vermont because of Tom Brennan's story, the coach with the radio show who will be hanging up the sweats and the whistle after this season, and because of the big redheaded kid, Taylor Coppenrath, who has emerged as a bona fide NBA prospect. No one has ever expected Vermont to do much in college basketball. Until now, that is.
The Catamounts stayed with heavily favored Syracuse all game long, had a lead late in the game, only to see the Orange tie the game and send it into overtime. My guess is that at that point most fans figured the OT would favor the Orange, if only because they played a tougher schedule against tougher competition. Well, the Catamounts hung tough, got a three by PG T.J. Sorrentine that was taken from well beyond NBA range, and in the end it was the Catamounts and their fans who were dancing. I, for one, had predicted that Syracuse would go to the Final Four, but I was pulling for the Catamounts in this game. In favoring Syracuse, I went against one of my prime theories, which is to be weary of all teams in the NCAA Tournament who won their conference tournaments (where the conferences in question get more than 1 bid, i.e., the high majors) with the exception of Duke. Score: The Theory 1, SportsProf 0. Better score: Vermont 60, Syracuse 57.
And then there was the Bucknell Bison, about whom I posted early in the season when they upset then #10 Pitt -- at Pitt. Bucknell is located in Lewisburg, PA, birthplace of Christy Mathewson, and along with two other schools holds the distinction of having the oldest college basketball program in the country. I spoke with a few friends late yesterday afternoon and e-mailed another with my premonition that Bucknell was going to upset Kansas last night in OK City. My reasoning was rather simple -- the Bison played a tough schedule and the Patriot League is a different Patriot League from what you might remember -- a league whose schools now give hoops scholarships (with the exception of Lafayette). Bucknell fielded a fiesty, athletic team last night, and they played a great game to beat a top team. I recall reading on another blog, perhaps Yoni's, that the RPI computer had forecasted that Kansas was going to win the NCAA Tournament. So much for the numbers; it's the kids who play the game! So congratulations to Bucknell Coach Pat Flannery and his kids for an amazing 64-63 win over Kansas. Check out the Patriot League Hoops blog and the Hoop Time blog, because they're partying over there with good reason!
They say in the tournament that you should bet the chalk, the favorites. Somehow, today, the cheer for Kansas is simply Rock, Jayhawks (or, unfortunately, Rocked Jayhawks). The chalk, at least for the Jayhawks, is gone this year. (For what it's worth, the color commentary early on by Bob Wenzel was somewhat patronizing, as Wenzel suggested that Kansas coach Bill Self was resting senior swingman Keith Langford for the second game in the tournament and just wanted to help him get his legs back given that he had missed a lot of practice on account of a stomach flu and a sprained ankle. Memo to Wenzel: someone should have told Bucknell that all they were supposed to do was scrimmage).
Coach K hit it on the head last night when he was interviewed after Duke beat a very tough Delaware State squad. Basically, he said that while many people might have expected Delaware State that, no one told Delaware State that, and they went into the tournament playing to win. Which brings me to a solid (if sometimes obvious) point brought home indelibly by Princeton Hall of Famer Pete Carril -- you play to win. Period.
Some commentators before the tournament referred to the 12th through 16th seeds as schools whose season were made by making the tournament, that they were just happy to be there. That's just so wrong. All kids who play, at any level, play to win. Yes, they're as happy to be at the Big Dance as anyone else, but they'll continue to play their best because that's what they've been coached to do.
And they win some games precisely because of that attitude, and precisely because it didn't occur to them that they weren't supposed to win.
Just ask Vermont and Bucknell.
And the timber that now is Syracuse and Kansas.
Orange Crushed and Rocked Jayhawks.
Meanwhile, the Green Mountain Boys and the Woolly Mammoths live to fight another day.
And that's what this tournament is all about.
Bet the chalk? Sure, but that's because of probability.
Love the underdogs? Absolutely, because it's all about heart.
Friday, March 18, 2005
I didn't find enough interesting about the Expos' move to the nation's capitol to blog about it. The move had been rumored forever, the Expos had become a woeful franchise and they were moving to try to get a new start. In a way, it was an old American story, not akin to Oklahomans moving to California during the dust bowl years, but, then again, not analagous to the Browns moving to Baltimore to reap the cash that many in the State of Maryland threw at them.
No, this is a story about Congress itself, about Major League Baseball, and about performance-enhancing drugs. Many dramatis personae appeared yesterday before a House Committee, and for those not totally zoning in on March Madness the testimony was interesting, compelling, sad, defensive and nothing new at the same time. Bud Selig said he'd have a tougher steroids policy if he had it this way, Mark McGwire would neither confirm nor deny that he took performance-enhancing drugs, Curt Schilling, once a hawk on the topic, retreated from earlier claims that he thought steroid use was rampant, and many others spoke as well.
I spoke over the weekend with a friend who had played in the National Football League about steroids. His perspective was that steroid use needs to be cut out completely because of the "keep up with the Joneses" mentality that goes on starting at the high school levels. Kids only see the glamor involved with being a star athlete, and they want to get ahead, they want to get bigger, faster, better. So they take steroids to improve their performance, both the stars and the marginal kids who look to get ahead. Ditto for college kids, or at least this was his perspective. To my friend (and many others), therein lies the problem, and the behavior is troubling and dangerous.
Why do the kids do this? Because of what they see at the pro level, or at least in certain sports, from what they hear and what they sense. And they only see the rewards, the glamorous players, and not the awful stories that seemingly only show up on an ESPN special. The risks have gotten rewarded in the past, and the dangers have gone undocumented. Yes, the NFL outlawed steroids (and effectively, from the looks of it), but other sports have not. Kids, being kids, are insecure, and in the teenage years they're struggling with their identities. Who doesn't want to be a star in something, having other kids look up to you, say "good job" and have, if you're an adolescent male, the cheerleaders sidling up to you?
I recall an exchange between the characters played by Gene Hackman and Barbara Hershey in "Hoosiers" about the emphasis the town of Hickory, Indiana placed on its high school basketball team. Hershey, the school's English teacher, thought it was madness. Hackman, the basketball coach said something to the effect of what harm would it do for those kids to be treated like Gods, even if that treatment were short-lived, and who wouldn't give anything to get that treatment. It was a great repartee, and Hackman's delivery of his lines was especially compelling. Now, that movie and that exchange are far removed from the issues of steroids in sports, but they're very closely linked to the emphasis that our society places on sports and its heroes.
That emphasis, of course, helps feed into the problem. Be the football hero, the basketball star, the HS pitcher who people remember throwing the ball fast enough that it could go through a car wash and not get wet, the all-state wrestler, you name it. Make them remember your name, get the scholarship, play well at the next level, make it to the pros. That's the ultimate, isn't it?
The sports page of my local paper does a weekly "where are they now?" column about what happened to the stars of yesteryear. Needless to say, they write about the legends, some of whom went on to play college sports at big-time colleges and a subset of whom went on to play at the professional level. Most did not play professionally, but I'm sure in the ages when cable TV wasn't prevalent the names were bigger than they would be today because the entertainment options were fewer (as were the choices for viewing sporting events). These were the people, boys mostly, who got all of the attention.
No one writes about the Eagle Scouts, the valedictorians, the concertmasters in the high school orchestras, the leads in the school plays or yearbook editors, at least not in this context. They could be inspiring young people, curing cancer, writing or painting great works, solving global warming or a whole host of things, but that stuff doesn't sell papers.
The kids who played on the undefeated team that lost in the finals of the state tournament, the kid who hit the shot with two seconds left to upset a perennial power, those kids are the ones who grab the headlines in high school for the most part. Those are the kids who society at large seems to want to remember.
There is little doubt that getting into that part of society's spotlight that I just tried to define is a most powerful rush, perhaps more intoxicating or addictive than any drug out there on the market, legal or illegal, so powerful that kids will do almost anything to get it. So that they can be the centers of attention, so that their parents are the ones with the extra bounce in their step when they're shopping for groceries or having dinner at their Friday night Italian restaurant, so that the kids themselves can walk around with their letter jackets and have total strangers say nice game or keep up the good work.
And there's probably money at stake too. College costs money, and while there's more financial aid available than ever before, it's also rather expensive to live in this country. What better a way to pay for college than to do so because you can handle a soccer ball better than the next fifty kids in your HS, your an indefatigable wrestler, or you can put the shot better than anyone in your state? There probably are equally compelling ways (such as being an excellent student), but the allure of the athletic scholarship is why kids are playing travel soccer as early as at the age of seven and a half and why girls' softball teams play as many as 80 games during the summer.
To get the scholarship, the full ride, to enable the parents to save for retirement or to spend more money on other things, such as the educations of siblings who might not have the same athletic gifts. The parents might not say that the kid in question has to get a scholarship, but sometimes kids can sense implications, and sometimes kids put that extra pressure on themselves. Again, they're in their formative years, which is why they're called kids, and there's a lot of pressure to excel.
Apparently, too much pressure. And, with the reported prevalence of steroids in high schools, too much temptation. Kids see what the elite people do at any level and the adulation they get, and they want to be those people. To do so, they'll try to emulate them.
What happened prior to now in Major League Baseball is past history. We don't need a star chamber where names are named and witch hunts are conducted. Sure, many fans have a prurient interest in finding out who used steroids so that they can compare the records of those who did against those of the guys who didn't. That's human nature, but what we really want is for the blanket denials to stop taking place too (as Jose Canseco joked yesterday, apparently he was the only guy who took steroids). We're somewhat pleased that there's been an acknowledgment of the problem, but we do wish that baseball would take the problem even more seriously.
Not for the integrity of the records, not even for the integrity of the game.
For the sake of all of the kids out there.
Wednesday, March 16, 2005
It's interesting reading, and, yes, if you're an Ivy League fan you'll note that your beloved Penn Quakers didn't rank the top seed in the tournament or even a #1 seed. The top honor belongs to the North Carolina Tar Heels. The mighty Quakers did warrant a #2 seed, which is excellent overall but somewhat questionable if your an Ivy. Which, of course, should have all Penn fans wondering what the criteria are for this particular rating system.
Penn, like all schools, does have players who leave the team and an occasional player who leaves school. If this rating system includes transfers out as an element, then the Ivies might not get the grades they want. The reason: the Ivies don't give athletic scholarships, which means they can bring in 5-6 recruits a year. Last time I checked, most varsity rosters have only 15 kids on them, and some have fewer. That means that many of these recruits don't stick, and, depending on how important playing college hoops somewhere is to them (as opposed to, say, getting the Ivy degree), they might well bolt. It does happen.
Anyway, read the whole thing and see what you think. It's interesting to see who's at the top. . . and who's at the bottom.
And that opens up the debate as to who really are the best coaches out there -- those who get the wins, those who graduate their players (in meaningful majors, mind you), or those who do a reasonable semblance of both.
Monday, March 14, 2005
For what it's worth, here are some of my pointers as to picking a bracket:
1. Do not pick a team that won its conference tournament after a so-so conference year (or worse) to win a game in the NCAA Tournament. Reason: they've shot the moon already, so to speak, and they have no gas left in the tank. Bet the rent money on Alabama A&M to beat Oakland on Tuesday night.
2. Beware of putative gift horses for underdog teams and then bet the favorite. Sorry, Penn fans, but to actually think that you can beat a BC team that admittedly didn't do the best of its overall outstanding body of work in the past several weeks is a stretch. The Quakers are thin at guard, have very little in the way of an inside game, and if they get defended well when shooting the three, the party is over. Penn fans are giddy with excitement, as they should be, but they'll be one and done in Cleveland. And, believe it or not, I hope that they win.
3. Always bet the gritty team that finished in the middle of a tough conference against the team that cracked the top 20 this year, is from a weaker conference, and, yes, lost its conference tournament. Sorry, orange-and-black clad University of Pacific fans, but the Pitt Panthers will wax your guys in the opening round. Yes, you may argue that we don't know a ton about you because you're from Stockton, California and don't get much publicity in the eastern press, but there's a reason. You're just not good enough.
4. Beware of destiny's darlings, the Cinderella story, the team on a mission, the team from a non-hoops state that has made noise all season long. The Vermont Catamounts are tough hoops team, they have some good players, they were at the Big Dance before, and they could well give the Syracuse Orangemen fits. While I normally am skeptical of the first-round chances of the winner of conference tournaments (notable exceptions being the regular-season champs or Top 25 teams who win those titles), the Orangemen, who won the Big East Tournament, could get a little complacent against Tom Brennan's squad. I'm not calling for the upset, mind you, but this is one that could happen. Now Penn fans might ask how I could say this given that Penn has an "easier" opponent than Vermont, and the reason is this -- I think Vermont is better than Penn. I have a lot of regard for the Penn program, but this team is Penn's worst Ivy title winner in years.
Now my take on who will be in the Final Four and why:
Chicago: Oklahoma State. Reason: solid veteran players. Reason why Illinois won't make it there: I just think at some point their strength of schedule will catch up to them. OK State went to the Final Four last year, and if they get to the Regional Final, I think they're going again.
Albuquerque: I happen to like the matchups in this regional the best, and I think that a lot can happen here. I pick Wake Forest because I think that they have a great blend of players and great guard play, so I'll go with them. Reason why Washington won't make it there: they are a good team, but the Pac-10 just wasn't that strong a conference this year. I know, you play who you play, but still, I don't think the Huskies will get there, and I have them losing to a ticked-off Pitt team in the second round.
Syracuse: Carolina. I liked UConn, but without Antonio Kellogg to provide back-up at PG, the Huskies are awfully thin at guard and just won't have enough depth. The Tar Heels should be pasting people, but sometimes they play Apollo Creed to an opponent's Rocky and get taken out of their game. I think it could happen again here, but it's hard to question the talent. Kansas has talent, but they'll have a steel-cage match in the second round and be fortunate to escape Wisconsin. While some might tout Florida, it's a streaky team, and I think that they won't escape Villanova in the second round.
Austin: Syracuse. I know, I just wrote that they might not escape Vermont in the first round, but I think they will. They're a feel-good story, with the gritty PG whose hometown fans follow him everywhere to the elite senior forward with major hops who opted to return instead of going into the NBA draft. Their patience and teamwork will get rewarded -- with a trip to the Big Dance. Reason why Duke won't make it there: depth and the fact that the Blue Devils' luck will run out. They've played well, but I'm not sure that when they get into a street fight with a Syracuse or even a Kentucky that they'd prevail. They rely too much on the three, and you can't win four tough games in a row on the trey alone.
So those are my picks, and, yes, I think that the Big East is a very strong league, but the same can be said for the ACC and Big 12 this year. A while back, I thought the national champion would be Carolina, but they just don't seem to have that little extra that they'd need to take them there.
I love the low majors and the mid-majors, and the great stories (among them Vermont, Niagara and Bucknell), but the bad part about this tournament is that those schools usually bow out quickly. Here's to hoping that's not the case and that the school in the Cascades can finally make it to a Final Four. Here's to hoping that the games on Thursday and Friday are everything you hope them to be.
Oh, so you're waiting for me to predict a national champion? Fair enough. I like Wake over Carolina in the all-ACC final.
Which would be somewhat ironic, given that neither team played in the finals of its conference's tournament. And that just goes to show you how valuable those tournaments are.
Sunday, March 13, 2005
And he did. As I write this the Wildcats are awaiting their seed in the NCAA tournament, a #5 if Joe Lunardi is right, and they'll see whether they have the right stuff now to make it to the Sweet 16 and beyond. Clearly, the faithful fans of 'Nova are expecting more than just one game in the NCAA Tournament. Definitely two and probably three. Anything after that is just gravy -- an appearance in a regional final.
Which would be great news for Villanova fans and Jay Wright.
So the question now is not whether there's currently the Wright stuff at Villanova, but whether the administration there will reward Coach Wright with a contract extension.
Barring a first-round embarrassment, the answer here, again, is yes.
Yes, the Berlin Wall surrounding who did what when with respect to clear liquids and creams is now starting to crumble. Click here to read the New York Daily News' story on an FBI investigation, a guy who supplied Jose Canseco and who just might have aided Mark McGwire too.
Interesting quote from the article:
"In hindsight, we could have gotten the big names - (Michigan State
lineman) Tony Mandarich, Canseco - the problem is, where do you draw the line?"
says Bill Randall, who was the FBI undercover agent during Operation Equine.
"You have to remember, there was no benchmark, nothing for us to model the
investigation on. We wanted to get to the root of the problem, that's all we
were after. We could have hammered Canseco, but again, that wasn't the
thrust. And if we had started going after Major League Baseball players,
we'd never get up to these big-time dealers."
Which appears to suggest that more people than Ken Caminiti and Jason Giambi (and also Jeremy Giambi) used steroids. Many more. Remember Jim Bouton's prescient quote from Ball Four about how if you could invent a pill that would guarantee a pitcher a 20-win season even if it would take five years off his life, he'd take it? Well, what do you think? Pitchers and catchers? Power hitters and strikeout artists?
I have blogged extensively on this topic, commenting on the congressional investigation here and here, writing my epic poem "Say It Ain't So, Jose", commenting on baseball's closing of the ranks on this issue, wondering about the alleged apology of Jason Giambi, talking about the knowledge of the Yankees about Giambi before they signed him to his big contract, criticizing the mainstream media for missing the entire story of steroid usage, praising USA Today's Hal Bodley for admitting they did, and forecasting (over a month ago) that the whole mess is only going to get worse -- it will.
So what's next in this drama?
It's hard to say. Reports yesterday were that the Lords of Baseball were negotiating with Congress as to who will actually testify. It's probably the case that most in Congress get their news from Fox, CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Today you can be sure they're reading the New York Daily News.
And they probably aren't liking what they're reading. Given that the members of the Senate and House usually respond to public outcries and pollster-advised potential public outcries, it's probably a good guess that those negotiations will take a different turn.
For the worse.
Baseball is a game of numbers, a game of statistics. Baseball games have nine innings.
But something tells me that it's the Fifth that the Lords of Baseball and the Lords of the Players Union are really worried about.