Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Do People Really Do This?

A recent blurb in ESPN the Magazine caught my attention, this time about how college football and basketball players get harrassed and threatened by opposing fans. There were several laments from players about needs to change cell phone numbers, about getting threatened both on the telephone and at games, and the whole thing was shocking.

Why do people do this sort of thing? Don't they have lives, family members, day jobs, things to keep them interested and busy, or are their lives so narrow that they'll have a bad year and abuse their families and pets if their favorite college football team doesn't run the table ?

Do you care that much that you harangue the opposing players, who are just kids? Do you go out of your way to bother them and their families?

These are, after all, games. They're supposed to bring out the best in our competitive spirit and sportsmanship.

Even if you're a fan at a rival school. Even if you think that the other school plays dirty or cheats at recruiting. Write letters to newspapers, put up funny banners, come up with creative cheers, and exercise all of your First Amendment rights -- within reason.

But harrassing people personally is out of bounds. I don't live in an area where college football is taken as seriously as in other places, so perhaps I don't understand the passion of fans where the major conferences play. Fine. But I don't think I will ever understand what motivates people to do this sort of stuff.

Has the Fall of the House of Krzyzewski Begun?

ESPN The Magazine suggests as much.

I'm sure that Jon Pessah's article hasn't set well inside Cameron Indoor Stadium or among Duke hoops fanatics, but the writer makes some compelling points. Among them:

1. Is Coach K overextended?
2. Has the college game passed Coach K by?

Read the whole thing and decide for yourself. The Duke student newspaper has lamented the decline in recent Final Four appearances, and recruiting has gotten tougher. The commercial endeavors of Coach K are substantial, and he's also employing three family members at Duke Basketball, Inc. In addition, the article suggests that the well-respected coach took a powder when not commenting publicly on the Duke lacrosse scandal at the time it took place.

Such is the nature of being one of the most successful people in your trade, ever. That's not to say, however, that some of the questions or comments are unwarranted or are not thought-provoking. Conversely, Jay Bilas (a former Duke player) was quick to point out on a recent ESPN telecast that Coack K seemed reenergized as a result of his experience coaching the U.S. National Team. The coach learned much from his assistant coaches and paired his Duke assistants with those assistants. The result: if you've seen Duke play this year, they're playing with more energy and pressing the action more than in the recent past.

It's hard to sustain the type of excellence that Coach K has brought to Duke forever. It's hard to have the hunger of a rising DI coach once you've appeared in umpteen Final Fours and won several national titles. You have to continue to create new challenges for yourself within your day job in addition to outside of it (where Coach K is more than well covered, and I submit that instead of his having an embarrassment of riches some of those riches are embarrassing). What are those challenges?

There's no doubt that Coach K has done a lot for Duke and is an institution there. The question is whether, with very limited access for non-hoop program people to Cameron, his lucrative contract and his outside endorsements, he has become bigger than the institution -- in his own mind. That type of thinking led to Bob Knight's ugly parting with Indiana and has led to Joe Paterno's tortured, extended tenure with Penn State. Hopefully, at the right time, he'll know when to call it a career.

There's something about knowing when to retire and leave on top. I'm not saying that Coach K needs to retire or that the game has passed him by. Neither. He's an outstanding coach with an excellent team this year. What I am saying that even Coach K cannot coach forever. The real question is when the challenges will no longer be compelling enough for him to continue to do what he's done so well for so long.

And ESPN the Magazine has begun the Coach K watch in earnest.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Washington Wizards

My seven year-old and I attended the Washington Wizards game last Wednesday night at the Verizon Center, a very pleasant 10-minute walk from our hotel in downtown DC. Everyone who worked at the arena couldn't have been more helpful or nice (we bought tickets over the internet that afternoon), and my son was happy to let me purchase him a Gilbert Arenas t-shirt as a trip gift. The game proved to be fun, as Arenas showed why he'll command huge bucks on the free agent market next year. Caron Butler is hard to stop, Brandon Haywood works hard in the low blocks for the Wizards, and Darius Songalia is a terrific sixth man. In contrast, Jermaine O'Neal looked lost out there, Jamaal Tinsley disappeared, and Marquis Daniels was the best player on the floor for the Pacers. Center Jeff Foster can rebound but has little to show on offense, and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. looks overmatched. The Pacers rallied near the end, but the game really wasn't close.

The arena was about half-empty, and many of the fans in the good seats arrived in the second quarter. The Verizon Center is downtown and on DC's great Metro, so it's easy to get to, but the ticket prices are steep. There also seems to be too much glitz and too many sideshows, from the skimpily clad dancers to a spotlight on a huge leather couch behind one basket (I think it's the Bud Light Living Room) to DJ-like folks going up in the stands with all sorts of contests during play stoppages). All this stuff is gimmickry, belies a few fundamental problems that the NBA has.

First, there are too many teams. Of the ten starters on both teams, only about half really should be starters -- Arenas, Butler, Antawn Jamison, O'Neal, Tinsley. Too many teams, too much dilution in talent, and that yields a so-so product.

Second, way too many games. Too many games dilutes the importance of an individual game, which means it's hard to get too excited about this particular game in the fall.

Third, way too high ticket prices. You need to be rich to afford a season ticket for two good seats, as many go for over $100 per game. Do the math, and your realize that the potential to sell season tickets is limited, and perhaps very limited. The more something costs, the fewer buyers there are out there, and this is a luxury good. Take a lesson from the politicians -- it's better to play to an overcrowded venue, where you'll look like you're in demand, than in a half-empty one, where it looks like no one cares. Drop the number of teams and games and you'll improve quality to the point where you might even be able to keep ticket prices where they are. and more people will show up -- they will pay for quality, they always do.

Fourth, get rid of the gimmickry. It takes away dignity from a sport that used to have a ton of it. Bill Russell's Celtics, Magic's Lakers, Larry Bird's Celtics and Tim Duncan's Spurs didn't and don't, respectively, need all of this glitz. If the product is good enough, you don't need the distractions.

Basketball is a great game, and we saw some great basketball at times on Wednesday night. But it was lamentable seeing a half-empty building and the glitz that accompanies the game. Perhaps when the NBA focuses on its core -- which should be basketball and not entertainment -- is when it will make a true breakthrough.

Remember the Hornets

Delaware and Delaware State will meet for the first time ever in the NCAA Division I-A football playoffs.

That's curious in and of itself. Now, this isn't like Kansas and Kansas State or Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, exactly, as Delaware State is an historically African-American college. Read into it what you will.

The good news is that they're playing now, and the game is the talk of the state.

It's about time.

Stupidity in Mississippi

Read this and see what I mean.

So, 20 players get caught stealing items from hotels and get "probation," whatever the heck that means down at Ole Miss. No suspensions, no missed games and, yes, no leadership from the adults about consequences, apparently.

Because beating Mississippi State is more important than building character.

The headline for this article was "Punishment's a Crime." Apparently down in certain corners of the Southeastern Conference, it most certainly is.

NFL Cedes Super Bowl to the Patriots

Well, not exactly, but since everyone else has, what's the point of playing the game? And why not cede the title to the Patriots so long as Bill Belichick holds the head coaching job? Isn't that what everyone is saying?

That said, what if there's a freak play in the next several weeks, a clean play, but one where an offensive lineman is pushed backwards on a pass rush, falls down and right into one of Tom Brady's knees, causing a season-ending injury. What then? Are they that good that Matt Cassel can lead them to a Super Bowl victory? And will they feel silly if Brady gets hurt when the team is up 35 points?

The football gods are funny, aren't they? Just when you think you can put you team on cruise control you lose in OT to the Jets on the road and virtually let their sad-sack pass rush double their season's sack total -- in one game. A star runnnig back who just set the single-game rushing record hurts his knee. These things happen.

Even in New England.

Why Did Notre Dame Fire Ty Willingham?

or, why did they hire Charlie Weis? And then give him a new 10-year deal 7 games into his first season?

Well, no one is happy with the Irish's 2-9 start, especially coming off two great recruiting years. So what's Weis going to do? He's going to review his problems with his former colleagues at the New England Patriots.

He's got to do something. Funny, but I don't sense the feeding frenzy over Weis's problems that I sensed over the last season Ty Willingham coached in South Bend. Why is that?

And how long will Notre Dame let these problems continue, contract or no contract?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

And the Reason We Don't Have a D-IA Playoff Is?

Look at the polls and tell me why.

It seems like every week we have a slew of upsets, meaning that an 85-scholarship limit per school has helped achieve parity in Division I-A. Without a meaningful playoff system, we could have the teams that lost the earliest in the season play for the national title, whether or not they're the best teams. Is that right? Fair? The more these teams beat up on one another, the more likely we'll have a huge controversy.

Friday, November 09, 2007

ESPN's Game Day Will Be at Williams College This Weekend

This is no joke. The ESPN crew wanted to hold game day at a big "little" rivalry, so Chris, Lee and Kirk will be in Williamstown, Massachusetts this Saturday for the Williams-Amherst rivalry.

It's about time they got their priorities straight!

Why are the New York Giants Better This Year?

I was listening on my drive to pick up lunch to WFAN, and I heard the Giants' O-lineman Shaun O'Hara being interviewed. The Giants are 6-2, playing well, have a defense that is very strong after a rough couple of weeks at the season's outset and have a more confident Eli Manning.

I have two main theories:

1. The defense needed an attitude adjustment and face lift after last season, and they got it with Steve Spagnuolo, their new defensive coordinator who learned from the master, Jim Johnson, in Philadelphia. Spagnuolo implemented an aggressive scheme, and, after some adjustment, the Giants' defense has been awesome.

2. The absence of Tiki Barber and the relative silence of the Giants after Antonio Pierce's unfortunate ruckus earlier in the season. No players are creating media controversies or saying anything silly about teammates to the press. Tiki seemed to talk way too much and then out of school in the recent past, and my guess is that most Giants are very happy that the Hollywood-oriented Barber is gone. Sure, some might have worried that they'd miss his presence on the field (but his replacements are doing quite nicely and the offensive line is playing well), but I doubt they thought they'd miss him in the locker room. Also, and very importantly, I think that Tiki's personality -- intentionally or unintentionally, but it doesn't matter -- eclipsed Eli Manning's and blocked the QB from asserting his role as a primary leader of the offense. With Tiki gone, there is no overwhelming presence in the locker room on the offensive side of the ball, or (given that Jeremy Shockey can be controversial), a presence that eclipse's the quarterback's authority. That absence has to have enabled Eli Manning to relax more and play better.

The big issue for the Giants now is to sustain their momentum for the rest of the season. They've had great starts before and faded badly late in the season. I think that this season will be different, but the Giants will have to prove it to themselves and their fans.

Maybe the State of Washington Has the Right Idea

And, if it does, then it should be celebrating ideas over celebrity and entertainment that sometimes doubles as a sport. Read this and see what I mean.

NBA Commissioner David Stern is becoming dyspeptic in his advanced tenure at the helm of this once venerable league. Who in their right mind would trade Seattle for Oklahoma City except if you're an Oklahoma City native, which is what the Sonics' owner is? But why should the league want to be in the middle of Oklahoma anyway? True, OK City helped the NBA immeasurably when the Hornets moved there after Katrina, the fans were terrific, and, yes, I have cousins there. But so what? There's no really comparing the two.

Unless your the commissioner of a league with a so-so product who seems to be missing the point that legislatures have to deal with many more pressing problems than a home for a group of men playing a kids' game in short pants. What about aging populations and the huge burden that they'll put on public employees' pension funds and entitlement programs? Compared to those issues, who can really think about an arena?

Seriously, I'd rather be known for my good public schools and libraries, community involvement and participatory recreation than building a palace for a league that has way too many teams and that has let quality control go out the window.

Somehow I don't think Seattle residents will miss the Sonics terribly if they leave, and perhaps it's time for municipalities and state governments to take stands like this. Sorry, Mr. Commissioner, but before you pop off next time, improve the overall quality of your product.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Should Sports Be Treated the Same as the Arts on College Campuses?

Being a little slow on the uptake, I just discovered the joy of podcasts, and I downloaded a bunch of them on my iPod for a cross country trip. My wife told me that she heard Frank Deford on NPR discussing this very question and quoting the proponent of this thought, Princeton's Athletic Director, Gary Walters. I decided to check out the podcast and have some thoughts on it.

Deford was eloquent in his dissection of the issue, and I suggest that you listen to the podcast and form your own point of view. My view is that the arts deserve a bigger break and higher status because of the greater struggles involved in pursuing them at most universities. Sports can be a big business at many schools, and at some there are more assistant football coaches than there are assistant deans of students, let alone art and music instructors. That's not to say that sports don't have a place, they do, but the arts typically don't draw the staggering alumni support, financial resources and, okay, sometimes less-than-deserving (from an academic point of view) "student-athletes" than the arts. Read Michael Lewis's book "The Blind Side" and his brief indictment of Ole Miss football players to see what I'm talking about.

There are exceptions everywhere, of course, but even the Ivies and the DIII liberal arts colleges around the country can fall victim to putting a disproportionate amount of funds to athletics. Why? Because alums like sports, and if alums played the sport, they're sometimes prone to donate money to the teams that they played for. And there's nothing wrong with that. But the dedication to winning, even to see Williams try to perenially whomp Amherst, seems to be greater than to have Amherst's version of the Whiffenpoofs (I think they're called Zumbays, but I can't be sure) sing on a national stage. It seems to me that most schools spend considerably less money on their orchestras and theatre programs than they do their football and basketball teams. And lest you contend marching bands are part of the arts, at DI schools they are part of the football pageantry and in the Ivies they're a sometimes decent inside joke, but they don't form a part of the arts culture on campus. The true art form of marching bands is at the traditionally black colleges, where the marching band is a form of art (and perhaps harder to join than it is to make the football team).

But I've digressed too far. Are the arts more attractive because excelling in them is less common, is more subjective, and isn't subject to a conversation of winning and losing? Are those who play sports disdained because glory on the field or in the arena is more easily given to athletes than it is to writers on the school newspaper or ballet dancers on campus? Is it unfair that one can major in journalism or music or sculpting but not in football or basketball, and is there a difference as to why you can major in one and not the other? All are good and compelling questions worthy of discussion.

Walters is more and less likely to win his argument at a place like Princeton. He's less likely because, well, you don't go to an Ivy League school to emphasize a sport. You go for the education and to become well rounded. Yet, the debate on campus on the topic is likely to be more lively, as the Ivies are more likely to intellectualize a curveball (a Yale prof once wrote a book on the physics of baseball) and discuss the group dynamics of a successful basketball team (as has been done at Penn) than, say, an SEC school that is much more interested in beating its in-conference opponent and making sure its athletic dorms are conference standard than say sponsoring a conservatory. Still, at a place like Princeton, Walters has an uphill fight. It also doesn't help him that the two marquis sports programs -- men's basketball and football -- are at relatively low ebbs right now. If those sports are an art right now, they're the type of art that you buy by the yard and see at auctions and flea markets. Sorry to be harsh, but the great thing about sports is that the records don't lie.

In contrast, the argument is probably a winner at the BCS conference schools. Sports are not only accorded as much respect as the arts, they're accorded more. After all, Boone Pickens gave about a quarter billion to his alma mater, Oklahoma State, for athletics. Not for batik, baroque music or a mime company. Pick an SEC school or a Big 10 school (perhaps other than Vanderbilt and Northwestern) and you'll get more of the same. Sports are huge, so if Walters wants a better environment for his beloved sports programs, he should take a shot at being an Athletic Director at a "big-time" school.

Finally, I think that Walters has the question backwards or even wrong. At some schools the question should be "why aren't the arts accorded as much respect as sports?" Worse, at others, the question should be, "why aren't academics accorded as much respect as athletics?" Sadly, there are many schools where this could be the case.

His question, in short, is a luxury for most institutions, where the reality doesn't provide the facts to legtimize the basis for asking the question.

Caveat Emptor

for those teams eyeing Marlins' third baseman Miguel Cabrera.

Yes, the man can hit, but he weighed in at about 250 this year, showing signs of Mo Vaughn disease.

He's too young to be that heavy, and you have to believe it won't help his game in the long run. Whoever trades for Cabrera will have to give up a lot, and I've read that the Dodgers are looking hard at him, and they have prospects to trade. Given the Dodgers' depth of young players, going for Cabrera might be worth a shot.

Just don't let him have any access to the "all you can eat" seats.

What Should the Cleveland Browns Do?

They have a budding star in QB Derek Anderson, and they invested a lot of money in Brady Quinn.

A few years ago, the Bengals drafted Carson Palmer in the first round and kept him on the bench while Jon Kitna started for a year. Kitna played well, but the Bengals let him go to make room for Palmer. Kitna has gone on and played well in Detroit, but all would agree that he's no Carson Palmer. Palmer was a transcendant QB in college and labeled a "can't miss" pro. He hasn't disappointed.

Fast forward to the other Ohio city where they play pro football. Anderson looks to be better than Kitna (and Kitna is the starting QB for a 6-2 team, so I might be going a little bit out on a limb here), but Quinn didn't ultimately land as a "can't miss" pro. True, he went into the draft as a "can't miss" pro, but then he fell to the end of the first round. Questions abounded about how good he really is and whether he was simply a product of a great offensive coach in Charlie Weis. The guess here is that the questions have redoubled now that Weis's honeymoon in South Bend is over and questions have been raised about how good he is as a head coach (and not to go off on a tangent, but I wonder what facial expressions Tyrone Willingham displays when he hears that Notre Dame has lost yet another game).

The Browns have invested a lot of money in Quinn, and they'll have to make a decision on Anderson. Do you go with the guy who has made the plays all year on a team that is exciting, or do you go with the guy who was your first-round draft pick and in whom you've invested a lot of money and some cap room?

There are lots of old-time sayings that come to mind, but it says here that if Phil Savage is wise, he signs Anderson to a long-term deal and moves Quinn to a team that is looking for a long-term answer at quarterback. He has to be careful, though, because when Atlanta did that 15+ years ago, they traded a second-year player out of Southern Mississippi to the Packers for a high draft pick, and that kid turned out to be Brett Favre. I am not a cap expert, but it strikes me that Quinn's sinking in the first round cost him a lot of money, saved the Browns money and makes him a more attractive acquisition for a team looking for an answer at QB.

It says here that the Browns will find takers for Quinn if they opt to go that route. They have a hard decision, but they have a good thing going and should remember that, Brady Quinn or no Brady Quinn.

Update on Phillies' Pitching Plans

Apparently I was incorrect and misread many published reports of the Phillies' intentions to keep Brett Myers as their closer. Read this and learn that Myers will move back into the starting rotation. He was, after all, the Phillies' opening day starter last season and has the distinction of throwing the first and last pitch of the team's season (the last one being the one that clinched the NL East title).

There's a big debate about what to do with outstanding young arms. For example, two seasons ago, when closer Jason Isringhausen went down, the Cardinals moved Adam Wainwright into the closer's role with great results. But Wainwright's stuff was so compelling (witness his curveball to Carlos Beltran that froze the Mets' centerfielder for the last out in the NLCS) that they moved him back into the rotation this past season. That said, the Red Sox don't appear to move Jonathan Papelbon out of the closer's role, and it doesn't appear that the Yankees will move Joba Chamberlain out of the setup role (and he projects as the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera). Both hurlers have outstanding arms and were projected as starters, but they have great value in relief.

Myers has great stuff. His makeup has been iffy, and he hasn't proven to be a stopper although he has stopper's stuff. If you pair him with Cole Hamels and pitch them back-to-back, you'll have the savvy lefty with the great changeup and the flamethrowing righty with an outstanding curveball. That's a pretty tempting combination and should fortify the Phillies' rotation, which is a point of great concern for the ball club.

Now the rotation looks like this:

Cole Hamels
Brett Myers
Kyle Kendrick
Jamie Moyer
Adam Eaton.

The problem is that Kendrick is probably a #4 starter, Moyer is old and if he's not on the lines he gets lit, and Eaton was the worst starter in the NL last year and has an iffy shoulder. I don't think that the Phillies are done here, and I look for them to make one more move for a starter. I don't expect them to re-sign Kyle Lohse, who could be this year's Gil Meche and command much more money than he'll prove to be worth (as well as a contract that will be too long). It could be that they re-up with Jon Lieber on a one-year deal with a club option, and don't rule out their bringing back Randy Wolf, whose days with the Dodgers might be over. They would have loved to acquire Curt Schilling for a last hurrah, but Schilling did the smart thing by re-signing with the Red Sox and opting to end his career in a town where he's a legend.

The gamble for the Phillies is that a) Lidge's psyche is better and that he can prove he can close again, b) that Myers can be consistent as a starter and c) that Michael Bourn doesn't turn into the next Lou Brock (and, correspondingly, that Lidge doesn't turn into Ernie Broglio). Geary and Bruntlett are a wash, the former a so-so middle reliever who doesn't walk people that often but who has average stuff, and the latter is the utility man the Phillies need now that Abraham Nunez is gone.

I still think they need to buttress their outfield and third base, because Wes Helms showed little last year and Greg Dobbs is a journeyman who had one good year. Chris Roberson is not a fourth outfielder, and you really could use five good outfielders. The problem is that the Phillies' farm system looks as though Oklahoma dust storms that John Steinbeck made famous have hit it, so they have little to trade. Still, Pat Gillick is not "Standing Pat", and he made a great statement by pulling off the first major deal of the post-season.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Farewell to Outfielders or a Stupid Ed Wade Trick?

Reports are that the Phillies traded outfielder Michael Bourn, long reliever Geoff Geary and minor leaguer Mike Costanzo for former Astros' closer Brad Lidge and utility infielder Eric Bruntlett. Read this report from Espn.com to see for yourself.

Here are a few things to consider:

1. The Phillies are short on outfielders. By all accounts, they aren't going to re-sign centerfielder Aaron Rowand, who had a career year in a walk year. By giving up Bourn, they have resigned themselves to a starting outfielder of stiff-legged Pat Burrell in left (he's not the best leftfielder, but he's far better than the Cards' Chris Duncan, who looks like a middle-aged former professional wrestler out there -- and a loyal reader wonders that with all the Phillies' fan groups, why hasn't "Pat Burrell's Fat Girls" taken root?), Shane Victorino in center and Jayson Werth in right. Decent fielding and light hitting Chris Roberson is the only backup. This isn't an outfield that is going to scare most teams. Does Pat Gillick have another deal or free agent signing up his sleeve?

2. The Phillies will be getting some erudite players. Lidge went to Notre Dame, Bruntlett to Stanford. The issues, though, are whether Lidge ever will be able to regain his old form and whether Bruntlett can play consistently.

3. Lidge will be a setup man, at least based upon recently published reports quoting Pat Gillick that Brett Myers is the closer, period, as no good will come out of moving him back and forth from starting to closing. That said, what will happen to Flash Gordon? He clearly would be an upgrade over the iffy Geary as a middle reliever. Bruntlett apparently will replace Abraham Nunez as the utility infielder. It does remain hard to believe, however, that Gillick really is satisfied going into the 2008 season with the platoon of Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs at third base. They and Nunez combined to give the Phils' the worst OBP of any third baseman or third base platoon in the majors.

4. What is Ed Wade thinking? He's really trading for Bourn, who showed great promise under the tutelage of Phils' first-base coach Davey Lopes as a base stealer. If Bourn hits (and he did in 2007), he can be a good leadoff hitter and tablesetter in Houston. Geary won't give the Astros much. He has average stuff, and if he doesn't pitch to the right spots he'll get hit, and hard.

Let's watch to see who'll be getting the better of the deal -- the Phillies' GM or second-to-last GM?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Required Reading

Jim Dent wrote The Junction Boys, a wonderful book about Bear Bryant's first season at Texas A&M and the training camp of attrition that Bryant held in Junction, Texas to see who was tough enough to play for him (the camp proved to be so tough that the Aggies had little left for the regular season). Dent did a great job with that book; ESPN dishonored it by having a bunch of no-name Aussie actors who couldn't get the Texas accents right in the telemovie that was yet another ESPN made-for-TV flop.

Dent outdid himself with his latest effort, entitled Twelve Mighty Orphans, about the Mighty Mites of the Masonic Home in Fort Worth, Texas in the 1930's and early 1940's, who, despite the size of their school and their players, competed for the Texas state championship in football every year. Fielding teams that averaged about 145 pounds per player and that had rosters of as few as 12, Coach Rusty Russell's "Mighty Mites" became the darlings of Texas and even that nation the way Seabiscuit did during that same era. (Russell himself was an amazing story, surviving a mustard gas attack during World War I that robbed him of much of his sight.)

This is just one great read. The circumstances that brought many of the kids to the orphanage were dire, and the boys at the orphanage were survivors, plain and simple. A few were to make it all the way to the NFL, and the play of one inspired a future Hall of Famer, Ronnie Lott, to become the most feared hitter of his era. Football aside, it's a story of an innovative and compassionate coach who could have forsaken the Masonic Home year after year, electing to return.

How did he win? Oh, by implementing an offense that today is known as the "spread" offense. Rusty Russell was an innovator, a coach way before his time, and he had to figure out ways to beat teams that outweighed his Mighty Mites and had much more depth.

Read this book or buy it and give it to a friend or family member for the holidays. If you're a coach, give it to your captains or your upperclassmen.

Friday, November 02, 2007

I Hope the Boston Celtics Lose Every Game. . .

because, well, I'm a 76ers fan.

Now, before you say that I'm rooting for the worst team in the league (don't I know it), my deep-seated passion stems from growing a fan of Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Luke Jackson, Wali Jones, Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham and later Doctor J, Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones, Mo Cheeks and Moses Malone.

Fiercer rivalries you just don't see anymore, with the possible exception of the Yankees and the Red Sox.

The arenas were smoke-filled, the fans sat very close to the players (forget the sushi-serving luxury boxes), and there weren't that many games on TV.

Yes, they're strutting their stuff up in Boston with Garnett, Allen and Pierce.

And that's all well and good.

But I'm sure I am not alone (and that Knicks fans will join me) when I say that, well, I hope they lose every single game.

I know that these sentiments will surprise most of you, but there are just certain things that are deeply rooted from childhood that are difficult to overcome.

And the newly constructed Boston Celtics are one of them (and perhaps the only).

Brady or Manning?

In the sikids.com fantasy football league, you get a salary cap and can re-pick your team each week, so long as you stay within the cap. This week, with New England playing at Indy, do you dare activate either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, or do you step aside and go with Matt Hasselbeck against the Browns defense in Cleveland and Carson Palmer against the Bills?

It's an interesting question. We're challenging for the title, and it could be that the Pats and Colts end up in a shootout. It also could be that their defenses, which are both good, take over and the game ends up being a 14-10 affair.

And it's more likely that Seattle, coming off a bye week, and Cincinnati, with its air attack, could light up the skies this weekend.

What would you do?

Speaking of Buying a Wii

Why is it that all retail establishments are sold out and are inarticulate on the subject of when they'll get them again? I went to a local Best Buy today to get one in anticipation of the holidays, and the sales people fumphered about telling me they didn't have them without any explanation, and a checkout kid told me that they don't know how many they'll get in, when they'll get in, but check on Tuesdays or Thursdays because sometimes they'll get 10 in at once. As if, though, I have time to camp out at my local Best Buy the way kids do at Duke for basketball tickets. As if not.

How does this market work? I can find Wii's on E-bay for about $100-$200 over the retail price (which is $249.99) and I can find them on Amazon through companies that you've never heard of for about $150.00 over the retail price. Is it that people are going into the big retailers, buying them there and then marking them up at their own companies? Is it something worse than that? Why is it so hard to get these products at one of your local retailers or on-line at Target, Best Buy, Circuit City or Wal-Mart?

What are your thoughts? What should I do?

Is Boras Boorish?

Read this and you might think so.

Buster Olney reports that Team A-Rod told the Yankees before L'Affaire Opt-Out (brought to you at the heart of Game 7 of the World Series) that A-Rod told the Yankees that he wasn't going to talk with them unless they presented him with a package worth $350 million.

What does A-Rod want to do with all that money, buy the International League? How about a Wii from a retail establishment?

Heck, he probably could buy the International League and the American Association, and maybe even a few National Hockey League teams to boot.

Now, before you pin the tail on Scott Boras, and, yes, that's a fun thing to do, remember this: it takes two to tango, or, in this case, ask for a ransom from the empire that King George built in New York. Boras might be very aggressive, and his announcement tactics during the World Series summon all kinds of unprintables, but he wouldn't have done any of this if it were against the wishes of his client. And what his client did spoke volumes -- A-Rod basically said, "Hey, it's about being the 'It' baseball player. Championships? Who's talking about championships? It's all about me."

Yes, he will put people in the seats, and, yes, he could help you win a championship. A-Rod isn't an awful guy, and you haven't heard that he's bad in the clubhouse. He hasn't excelled in the post-season, and he'll command so much money that all but the super-wealthy or daring teams cannot afford him. By asking for as much money as he is, he's sending a mixed message. First, he's saying, "I'm worth all that," and it's arguable that he should be the most highly paid position player and, ergo, the most highly paid player. But how highly? Second, he's saying that it's his team's problem about making the economics work to bring home a contending team -- and not his. Third, (okay, there's at least a third), he might be saying that he doesn't care if he plays on a contender ever again, because he could well end up in San Francisco, which is years away from contending. Compare him to Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, and, well, if you're a baseball purist you might fall ill.

Blame Boras? Aggressive people attract aggressive agents, dignified people hire dignified ones, that's the way the world works. Boras certainly doesn't help baseball's image, but in the long-term we won't remember him. We'll remember A-Rod, and A-Rod might want to think about the legacy that he's leaving, other than that as the most highly paid player ever.

Don't think, though, that all players are united in their views of A-Rod. Many will support his quest for the biggest contract possible, because that contract will up the average and bring in more money for them. As for what might go on in his clubhouse, true, there will be guys who will resent a gap between his contract and everyone else's. But they're the same guys who might bristle if others were to question their free agent deal after having a good (and perhaps the player's only good) season in a walk year. What's the difference between a relatively anonymous lefty set-up man who had a good three months for a contending team and gets a four-year $20 million deal and A-Rod, outside of the pure dollars? Both might be overpaid, but the market sets what they'll get, and they will have ended up in the right place at the right time. Most players realize that.

The A-Rod watch goes on.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Way Too Little

The NFL has pledged a fund of $10 million to help retired players deal with their medical issues.

That amounts to $312,500 per team.

And that has many former players, Mike Ditka among them, bristling that the funding is just a gesture.

They are being diplomatic. It's just way too low.

Pro football has become the national pastime (while my kids love baseball, they were ticked that they couldn't stay up to watch any World Series games, a problem which the Lords of Baseball don't seem to care one iota about). We glorify it, we rearrange our weekends around it, and we enjoy watching it (I don't do the first two -- life's too short to spend a full fall day watching others exercise). But what does it say about us when we treat former players like they're an old computer or a ten year-old sofa? We can throw those goods on the scrap heap, and some special trash hauler will come take them away. We can't do the same with former players -- they're people. Yet, the NFL has done so figuratively, by providing band-aid solutions to situations that need major surgery.

Ex-players have all sorts of medical issues that stem from playing a violent game for decades. The stories are too numerous to tell here (but you can read about them here and here), but given all of the money that football generates, the owners should put a lot more money into three phases, as follows:

1. Research and development on the best equipment that can help prevent long-term injuries. There are all sorts of possibilities, and they should exploit the game's popularity to get some great minds working in these areas. The teams should commit a $100 million fund for this effort (roughly $3 million per team).

2. Medical monitoring of former players to determine the long-term effects of the game and then medical research that can help treat traumatic injuries for the long-term.

3. Money. Fund a large fund (and I'm talking an evergreen $320 million minimum or $10 million per team) to run as a Medicare/Social Security fund for these players. It isn't fair to ask the former players to do it, as they aren't baseball players and haven't enjoyed the financial successes that members of the Major League Baseball Players Association (who don't have these long-term health issues) have. The owners have the valuable franchises, and the owners should care about the long-term health prospects of those who bring glory to their teams and their cities. What does it say about them if they don't?

The owners should help our their former players to make sure they can live dignified lives, why, because these players gave their all for the owners. Sure, they're not making money for them now, but they're part of the rich tapestry that is their NFL franchise, part of the foundation of the team, children in an extended family. True, some players made good money (and, my guess is that some didn't manage it well), but the health and life issues we're talking about are staggering -- Alzheimer's, serious neurological and orthopedical problems, etc. The average player from this collision sport needs more help.

And more than a total of $17 million can possibly provide.

Attention All Basketball Coaches

I've now learned that only man-to-man defense will be permitted in the second-grade basketball league. I'm all in favor of man-to-man, and I think it's great to teach kids to learn how to play proper defense.

Now, if you have any ideas for drills or plays for this group (other than having a quick kid dribble by everyone), please let me know. I have some ideas of my own, but it would be great if you could share your knowledge with me.