Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Few Random Thoughts

1. I watched the end of the North Carolina-Duke women's hoops game on Sunday night, and the drama was as good as that of any men's game. The ACC is loaded with talent on the women's side, and this game was worth the price of admission. It's also kind of cool that the daughter of one-time heartthrob Chubby Checker players for Duke (okay, I got my Philadelphia connection in there somewhere).

2. Sorry I haven't blogged with greater frequency recently. Among the reasons are that I got two PlayStation2 games as gifts, FIFA Soccer 2006 and March Madness Y2k6. The former is a nice improvement over FIFA Soccer 2005 (both soccer games are produced by EA Sports). The computer-generated action is more realistic, and the players have a much better chance excelling on free kicks and corner kicks. Also, the teams are the real thing an the rosters are as current as possible (buy it and learn it if you want to get caught up on who's who in World Cup 2006). In contrast, the hoops game might reflect the overall quality of a college team, but the rosters and players don't usually match up with the rosters of your favorite schools. So, if the announcers (who are Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery) announce a game and you choose the "names" option, random names will be generated. So, while Duke may have someone with JJ Redick's number, he won't be called Redick. That's a bit of a distraction, but I have fun playing it with the kids, who get very competitive.

3. Some brief thoughts on the NBA -- for all of the individualists in the league, please watch the Detroit Pistons and then think about the legacy that you would like to leave. The Pistons show how to get things done and are more fun to watch than any team out there . . . Much has been written about Kobe Bryant and I don't have much to add except that I really do appreciate his technique, both the way he squares his shoulders to the basket and the way he releases the ball. . .Saw Julius Erving on a Disney commercial while working out -- and the Doctor is starting to look old. . .Who leaves NY first -- Isiah Thomas or Larry Brown. . . And just because he leads the league in blocks doesn't make the 76ers Samuel Dalembert a good defender, as blocked shots can mask many a defensive deficiency. . .

4. The Super Bowl will be a close game. It's easy to get sentimental and pick Jerome Bettis and the Steelers, but the Seahawks are a pretty good football team. Sure, their schedule wasn't all that tough, but as many players argue, "you play who you play." Translated, it's not the Seahawks' fault that their schedule was what it was. Also, because of where they're located, the Seahawks just don't get the publicity that the other NFL teams do. If the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970's were "America's Team" then the Seahawks might as well be Japan's team, that's how far off the beaten path Seattle is. The key thing I'm waiting for is to see whether ESPN's Sean Salisbury clocks Michael Irvin on the set of the show they do together. I workout wearing headphones and only have captions on the screen, and I can tell you that from his body language along, Irvin is annoying (or appears to be). Salisbury reminds me of the guy you went to high school with who was the hard ass, always acting tougher and making skinny guys feel like lesser beings by yelling "no pain, no gain" while those kids were trying to climb the pegboards on the walls of the HS gym. Come to think of it, he's about as annoying as Irvin. While some fans no doubt would like to Irvin get popped on the cranium, others wouldn't mind seeing Salisbury take a few shots to his noggin. If I were the ESPN producers, I wouldn't keep sitting those two next to one another. . . as for T.O., who's bombed out of two clubhouses, I can only say that any club interested in him will emphasize hope over experience if they sign him.

5. As for baseball, I didn't catch what the BoSox told the two guys who were named co-GMs when they thought Theo was going to a monastery in Tibet who now, because Theo is now back on the bus, aren't GMs since Theo is (and, in the process, perhaps, they were thrown under the bus, if you want to complete the urban transportation metaphor). . . will Johnny Damon suffer Samson-like syndromes if he cuts his hair in NYC . . .Is Mike Piazza's landing in San Diego a fit ending for his career, or is it tantamount to an exile on the Island of Elba or somewhere like that . . .I don't see Mark McGwire making the Hall on the first ballot, if for no other reason than the distraction he'd provide to Cal Ripken on what should be a glorious day for the Orioles' SS and Tony Gwynn. . .

Have a good rest of the week!

The Perils of Being an NFL Football Player

Click here and see what I mean.

NFL players die at an alarming rate. 1 out of every 69 NFL players born since 1955 is dead. That's among other facts that you'll discern from the article. Some players are just too big, to the point where they've been classified as obese. And let's face it, do some of the run stuffers really display great technique, or do they simply take up space and refuse to move, Sumo-style?

As the article shows, former NFL players suffer a disproportionate share of maladies, most specifically, heart attacks.

I've blogged before about how the lack of sidewalks, hurries people frequently seem to be in, and lack of spontaneous, "pick up", play have rendered our kids more sedentary and, yes, heavier. To the point where many schools are testing not for tuberculosis, as they did decades ago, but for obesity. Take a look around -- the PlayStation generation suffers from too much stationery play. That's a problem in and of itself.

But this problem is different. This problem involves men who have evolved faster than the species can study the evolution, men who are good athletes but perhaps not in as good shape as we think NFL athletes are, or, rather, who don't know yet how to stay in shape and live according to a regimen that will enable them not only to become grandfathers, but to chase the grandchildren around (as opposed to limp after them). How more serious a problem can the NFL have? The stats are not pretty.

I was talking with a Division I college football player the other day -- he's a defensive lineman -- and he was saying how tired he was of eating to keep his weight up. He pointed out a friend of his to me -- a former offensive lineman -- who looked like he was a defensive back now. The reason? The kid was a 6'2", 280 pound center. He quit football, stopped eating all of the extra meals, and lost 100 pounds. Apparently he feels a little better too. Now, these kids aren't NFL material, but maybe they're lucky enough not to be. Because believe it or not, there is more to life than football.

And those two kids are smart enough to know it now.

We glorify the NFL perhaps even more than any other sport in this country, which is saying a lot given that readers have lectured me in comments on the magic of SEC football, among other things. There is no doubt that the NFL is the most popular sport in the country (sorry, NASCAR fans, but even if one were to concede that car racing is a sport, pro football trumps you, at least for now). The teams make a ton of money from seat licenses, ticket sales and sales of all sorts of merchandise, not to mention, of course, TV revenue. And, many players are well compensated for their years in the game, especially when you compare their compensation to that of most people in the U.S.

We're a society that talks about the price of everything. Seat licenses could cost $2,500 per. Tickets might cost $100 a game for a really good seat, and the jersey of your home team's star might run you $60, with another couple of hundred bucks to outfit the whole family. You can search the web and find out the signing bonuses free agents get and the contracts most players get. Heck, you can find out what the coaches earn too.

Those, though, are only the price tags.

What, then, is the true cost?

What are all of those expenditures and revenues worth?

If you're Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players' Association, you're asking yourself that very question as you are on the eve of the biggest contract negotiation of your union's history (the contract is up in a year).

Worth having many former players dying too young?

How much is our beloved pro football worth to us?

Hard questions, these are.

But both Gene Upshaw and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue must answer them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Pat Devlin Sweepstakes (and Why Miami Shouldn't Be Mad)

College football fans know who Pat Devlin is, especially today, which is a week before the date that HS seniors may sign national letters of intent. Devlin, from suburban Philadelphia, is one of the top 10 or so rated QBs in the country. Last fall, he gave an oral commitment to the Miami Hurricanes. Among those recruiting Devlin were offensive coaches Dan Werner and Art Kehoe, both of whom are Philadelphia natives.

Sounded like a good fit, didn't it? Outstanding QB from an area with excellent HS football goes to a perennial contender in a warm-weather climate that turns out NFL players -- and that has a Philadelphia connection to boot.

Except that after Miami's season, the Philadelphia-connection coaches got the boot -- right out of Coral Gables and into the coaching unemployment lines. Kehoe, a Miami alum, had been there for over 20 years. Suddenly, the fit wasn't looking as promising. After all, two of the people he would have been spending a significant amount of his time with at Miami suddenly no longer figured into the picture. That's bad. Suddenly, you might not be getting what you bargained for when you said yes to the Hurricanes.

Suppose you're a creative writer and you want to go to the Iowa Writers' Workshop for your Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing, particularly because there are two profs there who could help mold your talent into a two-book deal within a few years of graduation. Suppose you get accepted there, at Stanford and at Johns Hopkins (and perhaps anywhere else that's a top program that I might have missed). Suppose these professors bolt while you're making the decision? Suppose, like Miami, they'll probably replace the people with whom you were comfortable with good people? Does that make the place the same? Will you go anyway? How important are the people compared to the institution, the program and its tradition? What goes into your mind? That the newer guys could be better, or that there's an uncertainty which makes you nervous.

Suppose you're eighteen.

Suppose you live in the Philadelphia suburbs, where there's been a Penn State revival. The Penn State religion suffered a lot of heretics over the past five years, only to have a big-tent revival this past season. They had a good recruiting year last year after years of drought so bad that potential stars headed elsewhere -- in droves -- and that rivals were raiding your traditionally fertile recruiting grounds. The Nittany Lions are having a good year this year, too, and they had several big names on the fence that they were working on hard at the last minute. And a few of them were waiting to see what you would do.

Suppose you're parents went to Penn State, too.

You live in the Philadelphia suburbs, the Nittany Lions had a great year, and it's cool to play in retro uniforms that are so retro that Mitchell & Ness can't even make them hip (which, in and of itself, makes them pretty hip) and to play for a coach who has had a remarkable resurgence. Let's face it -- Penn State football is red hot. You're parents went there. You're from Pennsylvania. And the coach that you gave an oral commitment to fired the guys who recruited you.

Pat Devlin announced yesterday that he will go to Penn State. He'll compete with Anthony Morelli for the starting QB job, and he should get a good amount of playing time during his time in State College. Penn State will suffer significant graduation losses this spring, but if some of the guys who are on the fence join the ones who are likely to sign letters of intent on February 1, they will re-load in a hurry.

Miami should be disappointed but not angry with Devlin. After all, Larry Coker did what he thought was best for the program when he jettisoned some long-time assistants, but in college, unlike in the pros, you take risks when you fire assistants because assistants all have recruiting territories. Kids develop bonds with the coaches who recruit them, with the result that if you fire some of them you weaken the bonds between that kid and the school. I'm sure that there are those who would argue that the kids should choose the school and what it offers them academically, socially and athletically and not any individual person, and, yes, the best institutions are the ones where the institutions takes precedence over the accomplishments, reputation or ego of any one person there, but kids are kids, and they look at the coaches as though they're professors. I harken back to my Iowa Writers' Workshop analogy, because Miami's football program is as much a finishing school for prime-time football talent as that Iowa program is for good writers. Take way part of the core group that runs the program, and, to some, the program will change. Suddenly, the school that will help you achieve your dreams might not -- at least, at the moment, in your mind.

The changes will cause some to vote with their feet. And that's precisely what happened with Pat Devlin. (In contrast, when Arkansas fired the coach who recruited the #1 QB prospect, Mitch Mustain, Mustain reconsidered his oral but then affirmed it after a few weeks of putting himself in abeyance. What helped Mustain, I'm sure, is that his HS coach joined the Arkansas staff).

And remember, Pat Devlin is only 18, and it's his life. No one should hold his reconsideration against him. Miami is always good at finding other quarterbacks, and no quarterback's future, even Devlin's, is guaranteed. It may be that he turns out to be Jim Kelly, but it could be that he turns out to be Frank Costa. You just don't know.

Oral commitments are funny things. Onetime Maryland hoops coach Lefty Driesell once said that he loved it when he heard a kid in whom he was interested orally committed to another school, because then he knew the one school he had to beat to get the kid. The colleges created this situation, not the kids, and kids, being kids, have the right to change their mind. That might drive college coaches nuts, but if they sell their programs right, there shouldn't be much shifting around after a kid has given an oral commitment (and I think history has shown there hasn't been). Penn State had to beat Miami (and, perhaps, Virginia), and they did.

Miami fans, don't fret, your program is resilient enough that it will turn this loss into an opportunity. Penn State fans, rejoice, because according to various sources, Devlin's joining Penn State might attract other big names who haven't yet decided to State College.

Which will make the Penn State campus a truly Happy Valley.

Pat Devlin should enjoy the remainder of his high school experience.

Because if he's as good a get as Penn State hopes, the fun is only about to begin.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

When What You Lose is Too Much

This morning, while driving to work, I listened, as has been my custom, to "Mike & Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio. One of the topics of conversation was Barry Bonds, about whom I wrote this ballad (which, come to think of it, Liam and Joaquin should adapt to music for the Mike & Mike show).

The talk was about Bonds, his withdrawal from Team USA the baseball World Cup (or whatever the heck they're calling the upcoming 16-nation series), and whether Bonds withdrew because of his concern for his knees or other reasons (read: Mike and Mike were surmising that the drug testing for these events is stricter than what they do in Major League Baseball).

Bonds, right now, is of little moment to me, if only because of a comment that Mike Greenberg, to my great surprise, made. He was going on about steroids in baseball, how the players who allegedly used them all will probably make the Hall of Fame (although he wasn't so sure about Rafael Palmeiro) and that they still have all their money (which, for guys like Bonds, Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire is a boatload of it) and batting records (which, unless taken away, could propel them into the Hall of Fame).

Then he went on to say this: "So all that they lost is their reputation." Now, he might have said that for effect, as if to prompt the listener into thinking, "That's all? That's everything," as if to demonstrate that this is not the way he (Greenberg) was thinking, but that's how those ballplayers do. I hope he did, because he's too well educated and bright to think otherwise. Because it's hard to imagine what could be worse to lose than the ability to walk tall, look people in the eye and be a stand-up guy. That's all? That is everything.

The emergence of the Chicago White Sox this season brought back into the spotlight the 1919 White Sox, called the "Black Sox" because several of them conspired to drop the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Mention the names Shoeless Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte and Buck Weaver, and you think of a sad, sad story. They could have had all the money in the world, but it wouldn't have been enough to buy back their good names. They and the Black Sox are forever linked.

So, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro have their money and their batting records. Those facts in and of themselves hardly make those men more appealing. We'll know more when the Hall of Fame voting is revealed next year and whether Mark McGwire gains election into the Hall of Fame, won't we? Will the writers, who consider themselves, among other things, the guardians of the game, guard it the way they would their livelihoods (which some should have jeopardized by failing to report on the entire story anyway), or will they overlook major transgressions and stick to the numbers and anoint McGwire to the same pantheon that hosts the careers of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan and many others?

Because if they do that, then McGwire and the others who at best are under a cloud and who at worst cheated will not even have lost their reputations. Instead, the writers will be sending a message, like the jury that acquitted the Black Sox in the civil case after the 1919 World Series, that the superstars do not have to be accountable.

And that would be a shame.

If McGwire gets in, then his reputation will be doing just fine, thank you very much.

But Major League Baseball's will have suffered greatly.

And what kind of message is that to send to the fans and to the kids out there?

That it's okay to cheat? That it's okay not to be forthcoming about your transgressions?

These guys have shown little in the way of contrition and have hardly asked for forgiveness.

And you'd put them in the Hall, no questions asked?

You'd put McGwire in alongside Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn? Aren't you cheapening their accomplishments? Their reputations? Don't those two guys deserve a much better day than the madhouse that will be likely to ensue if Mark McGwire is put into the Hall of Fame?

You bet they do.

The writers have to do something that as a group they heretofore have been unable to do.

Take a stand.

Take a stand for integrity, honesty, compliance with rules, responsibility. Honor the game you love so much and feel tickled that you get to write about it for a living.

Protect the game. Keep them out.

After all, the national pastime is baseball.

And not the circus.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Will They Remember?

It's been said of young players today that they have no sense of the history of their games. There have been some famous stories about rather well-known players in many games not knowing the rich histories of their sports. Jackie Robinson? Who was he? Oscar Robertson? Ditto. Walter Johnson? Same thing. Charitably, let's say the players are extremely focused on the here and now and that the history of the game doesn't mean anything to them. Bluntly, let's say that they're so focused on themselves that they believe themselves to be larger than the games they play. That anyone went before them is of little consequence.

Shaquille O'Neal said that he decided to end his feud with Kobe Bryant because of a recent conversation he had with Bill Russell when the Heat were in Seattle. He asked the Celtics' great if he hated anyone he played against, and Russell replied that he had not. He wanted to win, yes, but it wasn't personal against anyone. Russell encouraged Shaq to bury the hatchet, and he and Bryant shook hands before the most recent Lakers-Heat matchup. Good to see that Shaq has a sense of history and, in this particular instance, put the good of the game before his own personal pique.

Believe it or not, Mike Tyson, pariah that he has become, has a great sense of boxing history. Legendary boxing trainer Cus D'Amato and his wife took a young Tyson under their wings when Iron Mike was a young teen, and D'Amato drilled Tyson in the history of the heavyweight division. In many an interview, Tyson waxed eloquent about the legends of the fight game. His discourses at times were impressive, and it was good to see that he had a sense of history. Unfortunately, Tyson had too many personal demons to become one of the all-time greats. Yet, he was unique in his knowledge about the history of his sport.

I was driving in the University City section of Philadelphia the other day, near the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel campuses, and saw a big hole in the ground around 33rd Street, across from Children's Hospital (called CHOP by the cognoscenti) and near the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (called HUP by the same), and not far from Penn's Franklin Field (where the Eagles' Chuck Bednarik sat on the Packers' Jim Taylor in the final seconds of the 1960 NFL Championship Game to seal the title for the Eagles) and Penn's fabled Palestra, the best place in the country to watch a college hoops game before a packed house.

Something seemed to be missing in this neighborhood, and then it hit me what it was.

Convention Hall.

Where they had a basketball court.

And where Wilt Chamberlain once played games for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Against Russell. Against Bellamy. Against Thurmond.

Gone. For many years. (CHOP and HUP are both building on the site).

No, it wasn't a great venue, and no, it wasn't the House that Wilt Built (the 76ers moved to what's now known as the Wachovia Spectrum in the late 1960's, only to have Wilt feud with then 76er owner Irv Kosloff and get traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for guys like Darrell Imhoff, Jerry Chambers and the like), but it was a place where the greats played.

And it's gone.

As are, in no particular order of preference, Baker Bowl, Shibe Park (later known as Connie Mack Stadium), Veterans Stadium and Municipal Stadium (later known as JFK Stadium, where the Army-Navy game was played for years. Let's also not forget the Parkside Avenue field in West Philadelphia where the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro National League played.

These were places where all the greats played. Grove, Simmons, Foxx, Ashburn, Roberts, Schmidt, Carlton, and all of the out-of-town greats, Ruth, DiMaggio, Williams, Davis and Blanchard, Russell, Havlicek, West.

Once upon a time.

Baker Bowl was legendary for an incident involving pitcher Walter "Boom Boom" Beck. He was getting shelled one day so badly that when the manager came in to take him out of the game, he threw the ball out of anger toward the right-field wall. The wall was made of aluminum and gave off a loud noise every time a ball hit it. So tired was the rightfielder (reputed to be Jimmie Foxx), that he was standing in the outfield, hands on his knees, getting some rest. When this outfielder heard the "clang" from the wall, he sprinted toward the ball and threw a nice peg to second base. Punch drunk, the rightfielder negelected to remember that time had been called.

They had a sign painted on that wall that said, "The Phillies Use Lifebuoy", in reference to a one-time popular soap brand. Underneath that ad a fan scrawled in big letters in some early-day graffit, "And they still stink."

Baker Bowl was at Broad and Lehigh, a neighborhood that used to be the men's clothing capital of North America, if not the world. An ILGWU official told me there had been 50,000 jobs in that industry in the city in the 1950's (today, there might be 20,000 manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia). Now, well, it's a neighborhood that time has mostly forgotten.

There's a church at 17th and Lehigh, where Shibe Park used to be, and the neighborhood around there was called Swampoodle. The A's moved to Kansas City in the 1950's, and the Phillies remained. My mom grew up a Phillies fan, and her Uncle Joe, who once had been a boxing commissioner in Pennsylvnia, took her to games. My dad grew up an A's fan and talked wistfully about a stellar infield that had Ferris Fain at first, Pete Suder at second, Eddie Joost at short and Hank Majeski at third. The Phillies flirted with fame in 1964 only to blow a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 to play. The park was in some decay by the time I got there as a kid, and it's last night was memorable. The fans simply trashed the place after the game ended. A developer bought the place, but vandals set fire to it, and until the church acquired the land it lay dormant for years. As with Baker Bowl, there's no sign of the old stadium.

To a Jetson's-like stadium the Phillies moved, the multi-purpose Vet that was built in the late 1960's. The Phillies were bad then, and people didn't flock to that stadium the way they did to Citizens Bank Park two years ago when it opened. I'm not sure that the Phillies drew even a million people then; two years ago, they drew 3.25 million to Citizens Bank Park. I always have thought the Vet to be an underrated stadium. When it opened, it was known as a hitter's park or at least an even park, fair to both pitchers and hitters. By it's end, it was known as a pitcher's park, as the new "retro" stadiums were more prone to give up easy home runs than the old, decaying Vet. Once they decided to built Citizens Bank Park, they tore the Vet down, and they had to, because now it's the site of parking for both CBP and Lincoln Financial Field, the relatively new home of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Underrated stadium? You'd think that only if you're a diehard hometown fan. Why? Because some outstanding Phillies' and Eagles' teams played there during it's time, and we Philadelphians would prefer a cow pasture to a palace if a winner played in the former and a cellar-dwellar in the latter. It was the home to our great memories, so for us, well, in its own way the Vet was a palace.

No more Vet. No more Connie Mack. No more places where my father, who has been dead for a while, took me to games. Where we so immensely enjoyed a father-and-son bond over the national pastime. No more Vet, no more place where we donned all the layers we had to see the Eagles battle the Vikings in a late December playoff game in Philadelphia. My right foot still shivers when I think of how cold it was that day. But we were together, we had some hot chocolate, and the home team won. I can tell my kids about those places, but I can't show them.

Industrial sites, churches, parking lots, an research buildings for nationally known hospitals. Progress? Evolution?

You can't expect old stadiums to remain forever. What will they be used for? And, if they're not used, then they will probably decay. Vandals will target the places, anything worth stealing probably would be, and then you have an eyesore. So perhaps it's better that they get torn down. A sad fact of life, perhaps, but a necessary one. You can't, after all, make a museum out of everything.

The young players today don't necessarily have a sense of any of this, of days when salaries were comparable to people who lived in every neighborhood, of days when the travel wasn't by charter, the arenas were Spartan and there wasn't much television. Of a game in which Wilt Chamberlain snared 55 rebounds, of another game in which he scored 100 points. Of the days of Davis and Blanchard at Municipal Stadium, helping lead Army to national prominence, of Steve Carlton twirling a masterpiece on a hot Sunday at the Vet in only an hour and a half. Of watching Mike Schmidt in the middle of a hitting streak, simply carrying a team. Of Richie Allen hitting rocket-like home runs over the Coca Cola sign perched atop the left field roof at Connie Mack Stadium.

Of Ruth and Gehrig and Grove and Feller. Of Robinson, Mays and Aaron.

Will they remember? Will they pick up a book and learn the history?

And who is they? The fans of today? The players? The ownership?

The buildings are most definitely gone, in most places, without a trace.

But when I drive down Parkside Avenue near the Philadelphia Zoo, I take heart that Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard played about 12 blocks west. And when I drive up or down North Broad Street I wonder what it must have been like when the A's were playing a day game against the Yankees or what Lehigh Avenue must have been like when three blocks west a later version was doing the same thing. And when I go to Citizens Bank Park I think about the days of Carlton and Schmidt, of Tug McGraw and Garry Maddox.

And going to baseball games with my dad.

It all hit me when I was driving near the site of the old Convention Hall the other day.

I am starting to sound like some of the guys my dad worked with who are all dead now, who were born around the turn of the century, guys named Sig, Bernie, Harry and Babe. When I was a kid, they talked about where they famous boxers fight or hotels where they ran into guys like DiMaggio or Williams (most of those places are gone, too). I marveled at them, because they talked of a world that seemed very old to me. It was a world without television, a world where everyone didn't have a car and a world without air conditioning. It was a world with afternoon newspapers and where the men not only wore suits, they wore hats too. And they wore them to the games. They used to talk about where they used to go, and how things had changed.

It's hard to say whether they've changed for better or for worse. My guess is that the sporting world was more special then because it didn't become the event-oriented, celebrity-studded spectacle it has become today. It was also more personal -- you could chat with a player at his hotel or after a game, and sometimes the hometown players came from or lived in your neighborhood. Unless you're very wealthy, that most certainly isn't true today.

The structures are gone, but the feats remain, and the memories live on.

Stadiums come and go, but the experiences we had at them remain forever.

And that's probably the way it should be.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Why Your Team Should Sign This Guy


One of those who shall not be named.

One of those who has fallen from Major League Baseball's pantheon.

A putative Hall of Famer but for some problems with testing labs and Congress.

That's right, Rafael Palmeiro.

I'm not really kidding here. You have a player who needs redemption, even if he's at an age where most players opt for the radio booth if they can get the work instead of sitting on the bench as a part-time DH/1B and getting about 150 plus at-bats in a season. If you have a team with skittish stars, Raffy might be the perfect tonic for what ails you, the prescription to calm them down.

It's not because of his leadership, as he seemed to be leadership-challenged last season when he tried to divert attention to Miguel Tejada as the purveyor of secret substances. It's precisely because in addition to his need for redemption, he'd be the distraction.

Say what you will about Reggie Jackson, who clearly liked to draw attention to himself when he played (very well) for Oakland in the early 70's and then the Yankees in the late 70's, but Jackson was a lightning rod. The A's fought amongst themselves and the Yankees did not all get along, but Reggie diverted the hot lights from teammates who weren't as at ease under them as he was. It could well be that if you have a teammate like that, the rest of the team, especially the introverts and those seeking renewed confidence without having to have a microphone stuck in their faces daily, can relax a bit more.

Most certainly, were Rafael Palmeiro to join a contender, he'd provide that diversion. Heretofore, though, he hasn't been a media attraction anywhere close to the way, say, Curt Schilling is. And I would submit that Schilling's being a media hound, in its own way, diverted the crushing New England media away from certain players at certain key times, enabling to breathe a little easier in the cramped Fenway clubhouse. If Palmeiro joined your team and was publicly forthcoming about his trevails, well, your young stars in the making might not be under as many bright lights and thrusting microphones so soon.

Is it a risk? You bet, for many reasons. There isn't necessarily any evidence that Palmeiro can still play. There also isn't any evidence that he'd be a personable public citizen, meaning that instead of helping divert attention he'd help direct it to those who might have no choice but to talk because the potential Hall of Famer won't, thereby increasing the precise pressure you'd like to reduce. There's also the risk that your team will get booed for making this type of decision. After all, it's not necessarily the most conventional general manager that would sign Palmeiro.

It's been said that the most successful people out there are the ones who have made the most mistakes because they're not afraid to stretch their abilities and go for it all. Put differently, I've read that in her house, the author Joyce Carol Oates has dozens of finished manuscripts she never submitted for publication, and I'd daresay that Emeril has probably tossed a lot of food into the waste bins in his kitchen, all in search of the best products to offer. Many GMs don't get that kind of leeway, don't want to take that kind of chance, because their career could end and end quickly. That said, is signing Palmeiro that big a risk? He's not your starting first baseman or DH anymore, but he could be an important contributor to a contender.

Given that for all of his accomplishments, he's never been to the World Series. I guess you could count that as extra motivation.

It used to be, many years ago, that teams' benches were populated with grizzled veterans hanging on to get another season's salary, hanging on because they loved the game for what it was and didn't want to give it up, in a time when baseball players' salaries were much closer to those of average Americans (in this day and age, the average salary is about $2 million). Yet, even in those times, some players retired young (such as Hall of Fame 3B George Kell) because the travel was too much. (Ironically, Kell retired at 32 and then became a broadcaster, ensuring that he'd be traveling as much as he did when he played).

Today, you don't see that many grizzled veterans on benches. Some have made their money in prior years and don't want the travel anymore. Some have priced themselves out of the market and get replaced with younger players commanded a significantly smaller salary. Even though most players miss the game terribly when they leave it, it's not as though you're seeing Steve Carlton bounce around to about four different teams after he left the Phillies, still trying to compete, or Willie Mays playing center field for the Mets in 1973 (virtually as an extra outfielder). Those types of veterans add some spice to the game, but they are fewer and farther between.

Perhaps when you think of this type of grizzled, cagey veteran, you don't think of Rafael Palmeiro. He was a real star during his day, and he has issues. Still, in the right situation, he probably could do some good for a contending ball club.

If he's willing to talk.

To the press.

About everything.

Such frank discussions could help liberate a high-strung team and a potential Hall of Famer.

A win-win proposition for both parties.

And the thing of it is, he won't cost you that much, either.

Not if he's smart.

And it's time that he show us that he has more common sense than he's displayed in the recent past, too.

Can he do it?

Will a team take the risk?

Those are the big questions.

At least they are for those who still care.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Atmospheric Officials' Good Will Factor

Most negotiators will tell you that when you've won a point, stop talking and quickly move onto the next one. Don't wax eloquent about why your winnning that point was necessary, don't lecture why you were right, don't thank the other side. Just shut up and move on.

And don't give the other side any ideas about changing its mind.

Sounds simple, right?

Then there are the Pittsburgh Steelers and LB Joey Porter, in particular.

In case you're one of the people who had a power failure on the East Coast or missed the games to watch either figure skating on the 42,229th replay of "The Battle of the Bulge," the referee working the Indianpolis-Pittsburgh game made a hellacious reversal of an on-field interception ruling that would essentially have iced the game for Pittsburgh with about 5 minutes to go, a 21-10 lead and the ball in Colts' territory. In something that only could be explained to theoretical physicists, he ruled that Troy Pohlamau didn't have control over the ball and therefore what all thought was an INT was actually an incomplete pass. That decision gave the Colts the ball back and, well, give Peyton Manning a second chance like that and he turned it into a touchdown and a pretty amazing two-point conversion.

21-18, Steelers, plenty of time left, and, well, you know the rest of the story.

If you stop it right there, there would be no issue. Sure, some Steelers' players would have said the referee's decision was unfortunate, but that they won the game anyway, so who cared. Clearly, had the Steelers' lost, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R, PA), one who never misses an opportunity in front of the cameras, would have launched a full, frontal Congressional assault (err, inquiry) into what happened on the play. The pundits, who were pretty tough on the refs this morning anyway, would have had a field day. Farm animals would have been subpoenaed to determine if they ever had been photographed with members of the officiating crew. H.J. Heinz & Co. would have declared an embargo on all products going into Indiana. There would have been calls for full-time officials, for a Judge Landis equivalent to rule on disputes among referees calls. Lots of funky stuff.

But the Steelers won. And Joey Porter had to say this.

Had Joey Porter not said anything, I'd submit that in the collective psyche of NFL officiating crews everywhere, the Steelers would be worthy of some break somewhere. Not, of course, that they'd ever get it, or that they should get it, but the Steelers themselves were good sports, didn't make too much a deal out of it, even where they did get shafted on a call at a key time in a crucial game and almost lost because of it. That thought would circulate in the atmosphere and, because referees are human, it might do some good for the Steelers this coming weekend.

The Steelers took it like men and didn't embarrass us. Or so the thought would be.

But because referees are human, they now have heard the roar of a tough cuss of a linebacker who basically has called out the brotherhood of officials by suggesting that they wanted Indy to win. No doubt that Commisioner Tagliabue's office will lighten Porter's wallet up a bit, but, more importantly, the officials could, event though they're not supposed to, remember that too. And my guess is, because they're human, their being called out will eclipse their memory of one of their membership's bad call. Which means that were the Steelers to need the right spot under the right circumstances with the wrong official, they might not get it.

That's not to say, of course, that any official would act other than according to the highest standards of professional conduct. But in the event that certain of them are human (the way MLB and NBA refs have proven to be), the ball, or, actually, the call, just might not go the Steelers' way.

Which means that instead of having an intangible on their side, the Steelers don't, precisely because one of their vocal leaders drew a line in the sand.

Joey Porter's right: it was a terrible call.

He didn't need to say anything more than that.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Transcendental Preeminence?

I have no idea what Hall of Fame voters are looking for in their candidates.

A success investor I know once said that he looked for companies that "control the conversation with the customer." Translated, that means that their brand names are usually on the minds of customers in their targeted markets, which means they have a good chance of making a sale. Analogously, I think that Hall of Fame voters should try to re-visit the eras in which candidates played to determine whether, in fact, the candidates were preeminent. Did they inspire awe? How respected and feared were they?

Or, put differently, did their feats control the conversations of the fans?

I am happy for Bruce Sutter, who helped define the role of the modern closer and who was virtually unhittable for many seasons, at a time when closers didn't simply come in to pitch the ninth. I am remiss that Goose Gossage didn't get voted in, because, put simply, he controlled the conversation with the fan. Perhaps the first true "lights out" closer, Gossage was truly unhittable. A big, physical pitcher, Gossage came in and controlled a game. Period. He wasn't just an excellent closer, he really was the guy. And, as Eric of OffWing Opinion points out, he has good reason to be disappointed.

Rich Gossage helped define the term "closer." For that, he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Using the same analysis, Jim Rice belongs because for a ten-year span no one wanted to pitch to him. When you discussed the top hitters of his era, his name was greeted with reverence. Bert Blyleven doesn't belong despite his numbers. To me, like Tommy John, he was an outstanding pitcher, but not a Hall of Famer. Some, like Tim Kurkjian of ESPN, argue that Blyleven was on some terrible teams, so he doesn't have the won-loss cache that others do but has great numbers notwithstanding that. It's a good point, but I'm not sure it carries the day. About thirty years ago, the Angels weren't good, but they had a lights-out (at times) starter named Frank Tanana, who was virtually unhittable as a young pitcher. His career numbers are above average (240 wins . . . but 236 losses) but not quite good enough. Should Tanana get rewarded even though his teams weren't that good?

Teams who win get the lion's share of the Hall memberships. After all, you need great players to win championships. So, to an extent, even in baseball, the winners write the history books (in fact, the Hall overdosed on this precept, allowing its Veterans Committee to vote in way too many members of Giant and Cardinal teams from the '20's and '30's, precisely because alums of those teams populated the Veterans Committee). True, that premise -- winning -- could hurt some players, but suppose Bobby Abreu finishes his career with no championships and Andre Dawson-like numbers? Will he be worthy of the Hall? Phillies' fans appreciate Abreu's vast talents, but he's more of a #2 player than the leader who will take his team to victory. He's not viewed in the elite inner circle of National League stars -- he's on the outside looking in. That, in an of itself, should count for a good amount of the analysis. Which is why, upon reflection, I wouldn't have voted for Dawson, either. He was an excellent player, but on the outside looking in. While I wouldn't have voted for Dave Parker, either, the one-time rightfielder for the Pirates was in that elite inner circle for a while during his playing days for the "We Are Family" teams in the 1970's. Parker clearly dominated conversations of the fans -- but not for long enough.

So what is transcendental preeminence? You have to be in that elite inner circle, be among the first mentioned when the fans talk about great players during the time you play, and have a long enough career to warrant election. With few exceptions, a short but brilliant career (Pete Reiser) or a long but not quite great enough career (Jim Kaat) should not garner you admission to the Hall of Fame. The voters can look back and crunch all the numbers they want, but it's important that at the time he played, the player in question enjoyed a certain type of respect.

Bruce Sutter did. So did Rich Gossage.

If the Hall is to celebrate greatness, we need to look at the players who truly controlled the conversations of the fans. And that should make next year interesting. Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn are locks, but then there's the curious case of Mark McGwire, who controlled the conversations of the fans while he played and, sadly, after his retirement (regarding his alleged use of steroids).

Will McGwire get in?

It depends if the voters act like true guardians of the game or like fans who were grateful to watch a juiced-up Paul Bunyan. True, McGwire was preeminent. His home runs transcended, both in number and in manner (he hit some real shots).

The harder question is whether he was for real.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Family Business

I'm sure that the moniker applies to more than just North Carolina and Princeton hoops, but both have a coaching family, as it were. North Carolina's lineage starts with Dean Smith, who replaced Frank McGuire. The Dean became the "dean" of ACC coaches during his tenure, where the Tar Heels finished in the top three in the ACC for 33 years in a row, made the NCAA tournament for 23 years in a row and the Sweet 16 for 12 years in a row. Pretty amazing accomplishments for Coach Smith, who won two national titles during his tenure in Chapel Hill. Click on the first link, which is Carolina's website regarding Coach Smith's record, for backup for those tidbits and more.

Coach Smith had said that he would retire not after a season just ended, when he was tired, but before the beginning of a season, when he could determine whether coaching another year jazzed him enough to make the effort required. Before the 1997-1998 season, he determined that he wanted to retire, and that timing paved the way for Carolina to hire Smith's long-time top aide, Bill Guthridge, who was about 61 at the time, to be the head coach. Perhaps Smith timed his decision to grease the skids for Guthridge, who might not have made it through a search committee, but whatever the case, Guthridge honored that decision with a 80-28 record during his three-year tenure and took the Tar Heels to two Final Four appearances. That's superb in its own right, especially for someone whose decision to remain a Carolina assistant for 30 years was viewed in some circles as a concession by Guthridge himself that he was not cut out for a head coaching job. Coach Smith would dispute this vigorously, and the facts dictate that Guthridge in fact was a good head coach.

After Coach Guthridge left in 2000, a vacuum was created. Roy Williams, at the time the best head coach not to have won an NCAA Championship, had unfinished business at Kansas, the school he had joined in 1988 after serving for ten years as an assistant to Coach Smith. The Jayhawks, despite some excellent assemblages of talent, failed to win a national title, and Coach Williams had one more team -- with Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, among others, that was primed to contend. As a result, the North Carolina alum opted to remain in Lawrence, Kansas.

The problem for North Carolina was that beyond Williams, the North Carolina family presented few options. As I pointed out in some posts in the fall (here, here and here), if a university has more than one alum who is a sitting head coach and more than three alums who are sitting assistants (at DI schools), it's doing pretty well, at least in terms of populating the coaching ranks. For whatever reasons, Carolina didn't want to consider alums and then-current assistants Phil Ford, John Kuester and Dave Hanners. The ultimate Carolina alum, Larry Brown, didn't figure seriously into the mix.

That left one-time Roy Williams assistant, Matt Doherty. Doherty, who played alongside Michael Jordan at Carolina in the early 1980's, had spent seven years as an assistant under Roy Williams before getting the Notre Dame job in 1999-2000. After one year and a 22-15 record in South Bend, Doherty was tapped to be Carolina's next head coach.

It turned out to be a disaster. Doherty alienated the local basketball cognoscenti by insisting upon bringing his entire Notre Dame staff to Chapel Hill, thereby jettisoning the North Carolina contingent that aided coaches Smith and Guthridge. He was reported to have had a short fuse and not to have treated the players in the relatively dignified fashion that his predecessors did. While he ultimately recruited well (most of the key players on last year's National Championship team were his recruits), his teams foundered under his tenure, and after 3 seasons and a 53-43 record, Doherty was let go.

That decision must have been a difficult one for the Carolina family to make. After all, they had to fire one of their heralded players -- a key link on the first national championship team Coach Smith coached -- and a member of the all-important and ever-together North Carolina family. Think that's easy? Think it's easy to fire a family member? How many family-owned businesses go bankrupt because the last generation just couldn't do what the prior generations could and no one had the wisdom to see that junior could steer the ship (or had the courage to tell him that his talents lay elsewhere)? It could be that they inherited a bunch of problems, it could be that economic Darwinism took over and hurt the industry in which they operated, or it could well have been that the odds were that at some point a subsequent generation just wouldn't have the talent to run the business. In Doherty's case, he didn't have the seasoning, temperament or political savvy to follow the legend and his top protege, and rather than see their beloved family enterprise fall any further, the Carolina administration gave Matt Doherty the gate.

After only three seasons. With a great nucleus returning, too.

Raymond Felton.

Sean May.

Rashard McCants.

It helped, of course, to have Roy Williams waiting in the wings. One of the top twenty coaches in all of college basketball and one of the best, if not the best, not to have one the national championship, Williams was ready to return to Chapel Hill. His last great Kansas team didn't win a national title, and he faced some more serious rebuilding in Lawrence than he had before. The decision for Carolina, then, wasn't as painful as it would have been had Williams again sent word that he wasn't willing to leave Kansas. Then the Carolina administration would have had a tough decision -- keep Doherty, who was struggling mightily or, heaven forbid, go outside the family and hire a big-name head coach (such as South Carolina's Dave Odom, who I believe would have been a great fit in Chapel Hill). What would have happened then? Would the Carolina administration have been more patient? Could Doherty have returned the Tar Heels to Top-20 status?

Enter Williams, who had run his course at Kansas and was willing to return to Carolina, and presto, his elusive national title came to him -- and to Carolina -- all during a time when Coach K had become the dean of ACC coaches and, in fact, all national coaches. It's quite a riches to rags to riches story.

And then there's Princeton, which has quite a family lineage of its own.

From 1938-1943 and then from 1946-1961, Princeton had a head hoops coach named Franklin "Cappy" Cappon, after whom the current Princeton head coaching position is named. Cappon coached the Tigers to a 250-181 record, and among the players he coached was a feisty forward from the Class of 1944 named Willem "Butch" van Breda Kolff (who, after World War II, captained the 1946-1947 squad, which had, incidentally, a 7-16 record; van Breda Kolff is considered a member of the Class of 1944 because that was his original class at Princeton before the war broke out). Cappon fell ill in 1961, and onetime Tiger football star Jake McCandless replaced him for the remainder of the 1960-1961 campaign and the following season. In the fall of 1962, the Tigers, "VBK" as some called Van Breda Kolff, joined the Tigers as their head coach. He stayed for five years, coaching the legendary Bill Bradley and guiding the Tigers to a 103-31 record during his tenure, four Ivy titles in his five seasons and one NCAA Final Four appearance. Prior to coaching at Princeton, VBK had coached at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, where one of his guards was a tough steelworker's son from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania named Pete Carril. One of his players was Gary Walters, Princeton Class of 1967, who is the current Princeton Athletic Director, who played for Pete Carril at Reading (PA) High School and who coached current Northwestern (and one-time Princeton) coach Bill Carmody when Walters was the head coach at Union (NY) college.

After the 1966-1967 season, he left to coach the Los Angeles Lakers (click here for his professional coaching record). Princeton faced a tough decision when it had to replace Van Breda Kolff, as he had done a tremendous job. Legend has it that among those who applied for the Princeton job after the 1967 season was Bob Knight (who was a bit young at the time, having graduated from Ohio State in 1962).

Princeton kept the job in the family, so to speak, by looking no further than to Bethlehem, where its first-year coach, Pete Carril, had led the Engineers (now Mountain Hawks) to a 11-12 record. Carril, who graduated from Lafayette in 1952, had paid his dues, having coached high school basketball in Easton and Reading, Pennsylvania for 11 years. My guess is that when hired the reaction was more "Pete who?" than "wow, we got a well-known name to replace Van Breda Kolff, as we should have, since he went to the NBA." (In a somewhat similar fashion, nationally prominent Duke went to an obscure coach when it had to replace Bill Foster after the 1981 season. All Foster had done was to take Mike Gminski, Jim Spanarkel and Gene Banks to the final game, and the Blue Devils hired the relatively unknown head coach from Army, a Bob Knight disciple named Mike Krzyzewski, whose record in four seasons at West Point was 73-59).

Princeton, not Penn, was the dominant Ivy team at the time Carril was hired, and Princeton's archrival was Cornell, not the Quakers, who didn't soup up their squad and become nationally prominent until two years later, when an outstanding coach named Dick Harter took the Quakers to a #3 national ranking in the 1970-1971 season (Penn was 25-2 the season before under Harter). Replacing Van Breda Kolff was big news, and Carril helped forge his legend quickly. In a career that spanned 29 seasons in Princeton, his record was 514-261, earning him a perch in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He coached many outstanding players, including future NBA players Geoff Petrie, John Hummer, Brian Taylor and Armond Hill. He won 13 Ivy titles in that time (11 NCAA tournament appearances and the NIT title in 1975, when he NIT was a formidable tournament), put the Princeton Offense on the map, and, as his biography set forth quite clearly, his teams played to win. As Dick Vitale, John Chaney and many others put it, no one wanted to draw Princeton in the first round on the NCAA tournament. Yet, the most talked about game from the Carril era was a loss -- when #16 seed Princeton took Georgetown to the wire and lost by a point to Alonzo Mourning and company in a thrilling game. Carril made them forget Van Breda Kolff, and he established himself as the dean of Ivy League coaches.

He also knew when to retire. In the 1995-1996 season, he was 66 years old, and the Tigers tied Penn for the Ivy title despite a fourteen-point shellacking the Quakers handed the Tigers at the Palestra in the last regular-season Ivy game for both teams. Carril was playing three guards most of the time -- Sydney Johnson, Mitch Henderson and Brian Earl -- and the Quakers took advantage of one particular size mismatch -- a shorter Henderson or Earl trying to guard the Quakers' Donald Moxley, a 6'3" (perhaps bigger) guard who had a particularly good game. The playoff game was at Lehigh, and Carril started 6'6" freshman forward Gabe Lewullis in place of Earl and put him on Moxley. Lewullis held Moxley to 0-12 shooting, scored 16 himself, and still the Tigers needed overtime to beat the Quakers and make it into the NCAA tournament. After the game, he wrote on the locker room's chalk board, "I'm so happy. I'm retiring."

What happened afterward was the stuff legends are made of. Princeton beat UCLA, 43-41, defending champion UCLA, in the first-round of the tournament, and they did so on the signature play of the Princeton offense late in the game -- a back-door pass from center Steve Goodrich to frosh forward Gabe Lewullis. That happened nine years ago, and the Tiger faithful still talk of that play.

Princeton quickly annointed Carril's long-time top aide, Bill Carmody, to the head coaching job, so quickly that it didn't appear that Old Nassau embarked upon a time-honored tradition for hiring -- the search committee. Carmody was the obvious choice, a search committee would have had to have been daffy not to have anointed him, and he rewarded the Tigers with four great seasons, going 92-25 during that time and taking the Tigers to 2 Ivy titles, 2 NCAA appearances and 2 NIT berths as well. His 1997-1998 team, featuring seniors Goodrich, James Mastaglio and Mitch Henderson and juniors Brian Earl and Lewullis, went 27-2 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to ultimate Final Four participant Michigan State. Plain and simple, that team put on a clinic every night they played and at one point was rated #8 in the country (it drew a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament, the highest seed an Ivy team has garnered since the NCAA adopted the 64-team format).

Things looked extremely rosy, and the Tigers landed an eight-person recruiting class that was the envy of everyone. But the following year, with the frosh still learning, the Tigers finished second to Penn, which was featuring a heralded frosh named Ugonna Onyekwe and didn't make the NCAA tournament (they did, however, make it to the third round of the NIT). The year after, Penn won the title again, and then the following happened to Princeton (roughly around the same time): a) two-time first-team all-Ivy center Chris Young was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the third round and signed with team, giving up his Ivy eligibility (he's now a starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres); b) Carmody bolted for Northwestern; c) top Carmody aide Joe Scott got the head coaching job at Air Force, d) four other players left the team, including heralded C/F recruit Chris Krug and F Ray Robbins, and e) a few key players (G Ahmed El-Nokali and C Nate Walton) were to miss some games early in the season because of injury.

A perfect storm, perhaps. Yet, John Thompson III, who had been the team's second assistant the year before (and who graduated from Princeton in 1988, one year after his teammate, Joe Scott -- Scott played for an Ivy champion his freshman year and never again; Thompson never played for an Ivy title winner), led an unlikely contingent to an Ivy title -- in one of the best coaching jobs I have seen anywhere. In four years, his teams compiled a 68-42 record, won two titles outright and shared another (going to the NCAA tournament twice), before he bolted for Georgetown (understandably so) two seasons ago. During his tenure, he loosened up the Princeton offense a bit, and his style was more mellow than that of his predecessors, Carril and Carmody. (While Thompson was just getting going, Penn's Fran Dunphy was solidifying his reputation not only as the best coach in the Ivies, but also as one of the best in the East.) The one-time second assistant did a good job with the family business and left it in good shape for his successor. (That Thompson is a good coach also is evidenced by his first year at Georgetown, where he breathed life into a moribund Hoyas' program, leading them to a 19-13 record and an NIT berth. The Hoyas were on the cusp of an NCAA bid).

When Thompson left, the choices were rather narrow in the eyes of the Princeton faithful. Given that the descendants line is well-drawn, going outside that line would have been well near impossible. Which meant that the candidates were: a) any then-current Princeton assistant (including current assistants Mike Brennan and Howard Levy and then-top assistant Robert Burke, a HS teammate of Thompson's who followed him to Georgetown) and anyone else within the family who was coaching at a high level. That meant one-time Columbia head coach Armond Hill, Air Force head coach Joe Scott, Air Force top aide Chris Mooney (a Princeton alum and two-time first-team all-Ivy player) and Northwestern assistants Craig Robinson and Mitch Henderson (both Princeton alums; Robinson was a two-time Ivy Player of the Year in the early 1980s, while Henderson, perhaps the best athlete to play basketball for Princeton in the past 25 years, was the point guard on the heralded 1997-1998 team and about whom Fran Dunphy said he had nightmares of his dribbling through the Penn defense).

The choice was rather simple. Scott was head and shoulders above the rest (guiding Air Force to its first NCAA tournament bid in 42 years), and he wanted to return back East even if some (and I was among that some) thought the job would be a step down for him. Hill had not done well at Columbia, Robinson was too new to coaching and Henderson was too young. Mooney would have been a fine choice if it weren't for Scott, and he ended up succeeding Scott (he left Air Force after one year for Richmond after last season). Scott, after all, had performed his miracle in Colorado Springs (against big scholarship schools to boot) and had the full confidence of the Princeton family. He was, then and now, a low-risk hire with great possibilities. (In contrast, Doherty was viewed as a risk because he had spent only one season at Notre Dame and wasn't considered ready for the hot seat that Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge had warmed for three and a half decades).

The family had regenerated itself. Again.

Except a funny thing happened to the family line. The talented son didn't come home and set the world on fire. Perhaps it's a case of not being able to come home, period. Perhaps it's a case of the hometown folk not seeing what you see and not wanting to fix things that they didn't perceive were broken. Perhaps it's a case of the family business having changed while you were gone and you didn't. Whatever the case, the odyssey of Joe Scott underscores the perils of the family business and, in particular, its management.

Put another way, just because you keep something within the family doesn't mean that the family business will continue to succeed, and sometimes it takes even the most talented sons a while to get their foothold and make the business their own (there was a good piece on ESPN this morning about the records of head NFL coaches in their early seasons, and Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh, Tom Landry and Bill Parcells, among others, had losing records for several seasons before revealing their true potential -- you'll have to look this one up -- I can't link to everything!). Scott took a program that was atop the Ivies with two returning all-league players and coached them to their worst league season ever -- over 49 years of Ivy play. Princeton alums were aghast -- where was the Joe Scott who had worked the miracle in the Mountain West Conference? Who was this guy?

What last season's sub-.500 record and this year's 2-10 start say about Scott is that perhaps he wasn't as all-world a coach as his efforts at Air Force suggest and probably isn't as bad a coach as his trials at Princeton might imply. He's only been there for a season and a half, so he'll get more time. A lot more, too, as Princeton typically let's contracts expire before terminating coaches in any sport, and because, well, he's a member of the family in good standing. That means he'll get at least two seasons after this one to show his worth, and perhaps even another atop that. He'll at least get to coach his first recruits when they're seniors. As I posted earlier in the season, Scott is an Orthodox Carrilite, meaning that he's a purist as to the Princeton way of doing things. If you consider the Thompson era the era of liberal doctrine, Scott's could represent a return to orthodoxy -- an intense coach and a much more strict interpretation of "the system."

And those conversions take time. They aren't subtle, and neither is Joe Scott.

Basketball means a lot to Princeton, perhaps not as much as it does to Carolina, but, still, a lot. The crisis in Tar Heel land was Tar Hell to the cognoscenti, and something had to be done before a talented roster bolted in open revolt. In the Ivies, sports don't matter as much, and Princeton isn't defined by its hoops team the way Carolina is. Plus, Joe Scott came as a proven commodity; Matt Doherty, now in exile, really was not. And, he angered the Carolina hoops gods to boot, building his own path to an ignominious departure. Scott, on the other hand, retained certain assistants, had gone back to the pure teachings of Pete Carril, but he hasn't won. That, in fact, is his worst sin.

Yes, he might be more animated than his predecessor, Thompson. Yes, his offense looks conservative at times. Yes, his team is very young, and yes, he did not do a good job last season. It could well be that the family business needed an overhaul anyway. It could well be that while Thompson's teams didn't wax Penn the way some of Carmody's teams did, that the return of Scott means a more detailed conversion process, a longer one, which, if successful, will make Princeton more formidable than before. If Scott's record at Air Force is a predictor, then this conversion will be successful.

And potentially scary for opponents.

It just might take longer than any of the Princeton faithful realize. Penn is enjoying a watershed period under a special coach. The other Ivies are better, although I'd argue that this year the Ivies are way down, that while Penn is the class of the league this is perhaps the worst potential champion Penn will field during the Dunphy era, so it's not as though Princeton, in its current state is far behind. Right now, at 2-10, it hasn't even played an Ivy game yet.

Keeping things within the family is a tough business. It's great to pass the torch from one generation to the next, but the transitions aren't always the smoothest. Great institutions weather tough times -- that's what makes them great. The brands of Penn and Princeton are very strong, and both have weathered their difficult periods. The Penn teams for most the 1960's weren't that special, and the Penn teams during the Craig Littlepage and Tom Schneider eras (mid-to-late 1980's) weren't that good either. Yet Penn, when Schneider left for Loyola (Maryland), didn't go national for a coach. It hired Schneider's top assistant, a guy named Fran Dunphy. Dunphy had the misfortune of taking the reigns right as the Kit Mueller era at Princeton got going, but four years later the Jerome Allen era began (it didn't hurt that one of Dunphy's mentors coached Allen in HS). The institution not only survived, it thrived.

Carolina has its trials after Bill Guthridge retired and Matt Doherty took the reins. But it weathered the storm and won the national title last season. And, important to Carolina fans, they kept the coaching position within the family.

Right now, the Princeton family is being tested. The alumni are nervous and worrying, as I'm sure the Carolina faithful did when Matt Doherty had the reigns. They have short memories though, because before Pete Carril cemented his legendary status with four straight titles from 1989-1992, his teams hadn't won a title since 1984. From 1984-1989, the Tigers finished 57-43, 32-24 in the Ivies, and out of the money. From 1984-1986, they finished 24-28. They didn't look crisp, and interlopers Brown and Cornell won Ivy titles during that time. The Princeton fans were nervous, but there wasn't a hue and cry about Pete Carril.

As there shouldn't really be about Joe Scott.

Because it's way too early to tell much.

The bet here is that Princeton basketball will be just fine, and it will surge under Joe Scott. It just might take another year. Or two.

After all, there's no guarantee that the family business will win 20 games and a league title every year.

But that doesn't mean it's time to give up on this family just yet.

Not by a three-point, err, long shot.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Every Team Needs a Good Owner

Now Oklahoma State has one.

Lookout Sooners.

Lookout rest of the Big 12.

Lookout rest of the country, for that matter.

The streets of Stillwater are paved with gold.

Oil money, actually.

Click the link and read all about it.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


For those of you who might have been worried, I didn't take off forever. It's just that blogging of any sort, while you're doing your day job, takes a bunch of time, and I needed some year-end time off to address a variety of matters (some of which I had neglected while attending to blogging).

I'm not a big believer in New Year's resolutions, but I did promise myself that I'd get back to an exercise routine after having taken a good part of the fall off. The reasons for doing so are complicated and not worth repeating. In addition, I had gone at it hard enough, as it were, during the first nine months that amidst everything, something had to give. I just needed more sleep.

After all, for most Americans, how do you make it work when you want to get a reasonable amount of rest, eat decent meals (read: healthful), commute, do a good job at work, spend meaningful time with the family, take care of personal matters (whether it's your car, your house, your medical appointments, your finances), read and have some fun on occasion, not to mention exercise and, yes, blog? Okay, so most Americans don't blog and not enough read books, but it's hard to get it all done.

There are tons of great reasons to exercise, and, yes, exercising is important for your health. Go to a store, go to the movies (to the extent that people are still going), go to your favorite arena or stadium, and, well, Americans are just carrying too much weight. I can't put my finger on it, except to hypothesize that people have longer commutes, live in neighborhoods without sidewalks or nearby recreational facilities or too much traffic (if you like to bike), that people's homes are too comfortable (read: big-screen TV and recliner couch) and simply don't get to the gym, on a court, on a bike, or what have you. Too much weight has led to an epidemic of diabetes among our young people and older people, as well as cardiac problems and orthopedic problems. As a nation, we need to improve our approach toward taking care of ourselves.

We all need to make exercise a part of our daily routine (or, at least many times a week). We really do. Somehow, some way, you have to do it. You don't get exercise riding to work in a car or on a bus, and you don't get exercise by pushing yourself away from your kitchen table. You have to make time for it.

I like to get exercise in a variety of ways, from playing football with the kids to riding a bike when the sun's up early enough during the year and it's warm enough to do so to working out with dumbbells (the weights, that is), medicine balls and an elliptical machine that I have at home. My preferred time is early in the morning, and I try to get in a 45-minute workout each weekday. It consists of about 5 minutes of hard shadowboxing (to get my blood circulating), 10 minutes of stretching (including using stretch bands for the hamstrings) and then 30 minutes on the cross-country ski machine (that's over 10 years old but still works fine), which works my legs and arms. On occasion, I'll take a day off from the aerobic exercise and work out with a 5-pound medicine ball and some dumbbells, and I'll stretch on those days too. If I have the luxury of more time, I'll add 20 minutes to the workout and do a medicine ball routine and the elliptical machine every day. (By the way, when I saw elliptical, I really mean "low impact").

When you do that and you watch what you eat (read: no cake, candy, processed sugar, salad and fruit at lunch and not sandwiches or pizza, and have a popsicle for a snack at night instead of something more caloric), you'll find that you'll lose some weight and feel better. You have to be disciplined, and drinking water during the day helps keep you full. You also need to eat a good breakfast (if, along with some cereal you eat a tablespoon of health-food peanut butter that has the right type of oils for you that don't contribute to your cholestrol -- this is the type that has to be refrigerated after you open it), you'll have enough energy to keep you going through lunchtime. Exercise can help get you more healthy, but it cannot overcome a bad diet. You need to eat right too.

It's hard to get started, that's for sure, and my guess is that many of us go in fits and starts, getting derailed at times by too much work, too much stress, a cold, a flu, a tweak to one's knee or ankle that prevents exercise to the point where you fall out of your routine. With a little bit of focus and discipline, and getting to bed earlier to enable your exercise before your day starts (which is the point in your day you control the best), you'll see results pretty quickly.

Sure, this might mean foregoing eating lots of good cookies or lots of pasta and pizza, and you might have to miss 10:00 p.m. television, but my guess is that in one's old age, where perhaps there are more periods of time available for reflection than in middle age, few will take heart in the amount of cookies they've eaten over a lifetime or the amount of 10:00 p.m. TV shows that they watched. I'm sure you'll be more gratified by good health and the ability to enjoy yourself later on in life because you have fewer health problems than you would have had you continued to sit on that comfortable couch watching cable TV.

And this prescription doesn't mean that you can't enjoy an ice cream with your child on a hot summer's day or pizza before the Super Bowl. What it means is that you'll fit those fun items into your life the way you do everythnig else. Just don't overdo it.

If you exercise, that's great. If you don't, now is as good a time as any. Just go down to your basement, into your spare bedroom, or into the health club (whose membership fees you pay but whose facilities you seldom use). You won't regret it.

You really won't.