Thursday, January 31, 2008

Philadelphia's Big Five and the NCAA Tournament

Quick, tell me when was the last time that Philadelphia's Big Five did not have a member get a berth in the NCAA tournament?

The Big Five consists, of course, of Temple, Penn, Villanova, St. Joe's and LaSalle. I don't have time to hyperlink text here, but is there a chance this year that the Big Five could get shut out from the Big Dance?

Penn is not the favorite in the Ivies and has a very young team.

LaSalle is on the rebound, so to speak, but far away from the national strength it demonstrated more than 10 years ago.

Temple, under Fran Dunphy, is a good team, but probably not a tournament team.

St. Joe's is a good team, but can they win the A-10 or get an at-large berth if they fail to do so?

Villanova dropped out of the Top 25, and the Big East is very tough. Sure, the Big East will get numerous at-large bids, but will the 'Cats prove that they have more prime-time players right now than just Scottie Reynolds?

Lots of you Big Five fans have more knowledge than I do on the subject, and many read this blog. Please weigh in and tell me which team or teams will make it and why. No, as a Princeton fan I have not counted Penn out and respect the Quakers too much to do so. From my vantage point, the Quakers, the defending champs, are the favorites until some other team takes the title from them. Villanova isn't to be readily dismissed, Temple has some good wins and St. Joe's is playing well.

But does any of that mean that at least one of these teams will be dancing come March?

The floor is all yours. Weigh in.

Trouble in Metville?

Johan Santana has all the leverage.

And his agents know it.

The Mets need a #1 starter. They had that horrible collapse last year, and they're opening a new ballpark next year. What/who could be a better palliative than the best starting pitcher in baseball? Plus, the cat's out of the bag for their fans that baseball's best pitcher is en route to Queens. Except, of course, for the small detail of the contract extension. Barry Zito got big bucks last year, and he's no Johan Santana. Carlos Zambrano's contract is worth approximately $183 million according to some esoteric Players' Association calculation (source: Buster Olney's blog on ESPN the Insider).

For the Mets to get this done, we're talking the A-Rod zone in terms of money and length of contract.

Read the linked article and get the update. This negotiation may go up to or beyond the deadline. No, the talks aren't dead, but the sources haven't ruled out that the parties could part without a deal. Somehow, I do think that the Mets will ink Santana, and, in the process, make a huge bet on the long-term health of his left wing.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Jog Down Memory Lane

Who knows what genre these guys belong to:

Bennie Briscoe

Stanley "Kitten" Hayward

Eugene "Cyclone" Hart

Bobby "Boogaloo" Watts?

Hint: If you're younger than, say, 45, you probably have to do some research.

The Giants Have 3 Ivy Leaguers on Their Roster

So reads a headline in today's USA Today. Click here for the story (to the extent that, upon reading, it, you think that it really is a story at all).

And this is a good thing for the Giants? I recall that one-time Princeton hoops coach Pete Carril said that there was a great correlation between high SAT's and slow feet. A Princeton player who was a contemporary of mine went to a prestigious HS for hoops in the Northeastern U.S. The kid who succeeded him at his position was a nationally recruited player -- and a better student than my friend the Princeton player. I recalled asking my friend, "Any chance he'd consider Princeton." My friend smiled and said, "If you could play, would you come here?" The kid went to a prominent ACC school and had a successful NBA career.

So back to my question? Is that a really good thing? Can they play?

(Of course they can, but in the modern era Ivy guys haven't predominated in the NFL or starred for the most part, and, yes, readers who are Ivy alums, Calvin Hill was great).

Now, for those of you who are uninitiated in the one-upsmanship of elite northeastern U.S. colleges and universities, you might think that the Ivy League is the be all and end all. Go there, you get life's golden ticket, and all will turn out well. Well, there also are elite small colleges, including the self-styled Little Three -- Amherst, Williams and Wesleyan -- and their alums will argue that their alma maters are every bit as good as the Ivies if not better because the profs at the small schools are solely dedicated to teaching undergraduates. I will not delve into a debate of whether Amherst is better than Harvard. Suffice it to say that one's college education is what one makes of it, period.

That said, there is this guy out there in the football world who spent a post-graduate year at a prestigious New England boarding school called Andover and then majored in mathematics at Wesleyan. He didn't play in the NFL; he's just one of the best head coaches of all time, a fellow by the name of Belichick. And I'd take him over the three Ivy guys who play for the Giants or any pantheon of coaches who coached at the elite football schools -- the Nebraskas, Oklahomas, Texases, Alabamas.

I suppose that on a slow news day the Ivy guys will draw attention because there is only so much that one can write about a high ankle sprain, the boot used to protect it or whether Eli Manning is a leader or the Jethroe Clampett of the NFL quarterback set. And that's all well and good.

But my money's still on the math major from Wesleyan.

Paying Homage to the Mets

The Mets made a great deal trading 3 pitching prospects and outfield prospect Carlos Gomez to the Twins for Johan Santana. That trade instantly makes them not only the favorite in the NL East, but also the favorite in the National League. Here are a few things to consider:

1. According to ESPN's Steve Phillips, while the three pitchers in the deal were among the Mets' top-10 prospects, none are potential #1 starters.

2. According to SportsProf's best man (a former minor-league pitcher), 2/3 of the players teams sign are pitchers, and they tend to either flame out or get hurt. You'll recall that the Mets had a trio of Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson over a decade ago, and Met fans raved that the Mets were set up for a long time. Well, Izzy flourished as a closer --in St. Louis, while Wilson blew out his arm and Pulsipher never got settled in. It's hard to say that the three pitching prospects involved in the trade will pan out, but if one turns into another Francisco Liriano (whom the Giants dealt to the Twins along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski), then the deal could end up being an excellent one.

3. In addition, #1 starting pitchers are scarce. The Mets had a chance to get one, and they did, and you know that the Yankees and Red Sox are breathing easier because the other team didn't get Santana. The addition of Santana could take the gloom off the collapse of '07, and that gloom could have dominated the spring training conversation had the Mets not made a deal of this magnitude.

4. The Mets barely lost the NL East to the Phillies, and if you figure that Santana goes something like 19-7, that's a net of 12 wins and, voila, the Mets win the East. That's simple math, to be sure, but it's great addition for the Mets and bad news for the Phillies and Braves.

5. One colleague e-mailed that the addition of Santana only will make the Mets' potential collapse in '08 all the more dramatic. We'll see.

6. Then again, how many W's of Santana's will the Mets' once-upon-a-time (read: beginning of '07) bullpen blow? How will the Met faithful hold up (especial the cardiac cases) when Billy Wagner comes in and tries to save the game? (Then again, how will the Phillies' faithful hold up when trying to witness Brad Lidge try to resurrect his career by trying to save wins for Cole Hamels)?

7. Of course, there are the games to play. Lost in the news was the Phils' signing of 3B Pedro Feliz, someone who definitely didn't walk off the island, so to speak. Feliz is a defensive improvement over the platoon of Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs, and he'll hit 20+ homers for the Phils, but he has a .288 on-base percentage for his career, perhaps the lowest in the league. That's like saying a member of MENSA has a 5 7/8 hat size. Put differently (or into more explainable English), the Phillies' fans will love it when Feliz adds an HR to the party, but will groan mightily when his lack of plate discipline kills a rally or fails to start one. He's an expensive upgrade to a weak platoon, but he'll disappoint at the plate (unless, of course, those hitting magicians, Charlie Manuel and Milt Thompson, can teach him some more patience at the plate).

8. Am I anointing the Mets the NL champions? Hardly. Am I throwing in the towel for the Phillies? Absolutely not. Will it be a great battle in '08? Count on it. The Mets have something to prove (that their collapse was a freak), and the Phillies need to build on their wild-card berth. It should be a great race in 2008.

All that said, this Phillies' fan tips his cap for the Mets for being decisive and spending the big bucks to get the job done. He also hopes that the very long-term deal the Mets will sign with Santana (perhaps 7 years at $150 million) is no more successful than the ones that they signed Tommy Glavine and Billy Wagner to (for the uninitiated, the Mets overspent there -- Glavine was a .500 pitcher, and Wagner faded more quickly than people expected). A six- or seven-year deal for a pitcher is a big bet, although I do think that the risk is better with Santana than the one the Giants took with Barry Zito.

Pitchers and catchers report in a few weeks.

Is ESPN the Insider Worth $40 a Year?

I'm not so sure any more.

What you get is a subscription to ESPN the Magazine, which is good, even if the layout confounds me and the print type is for people who aren't middle-aged. You're also supposed to get "inside" stuff on the website, and that's where it's lagging.

The "Rumor Central" part contains few rumors any more (you probably do better on the NBA at Hoops Hype than in this junction), and the NFL draft updates from the likes of Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay also are stale. The last posts? In mid-December. There are good databases if you're a recruiting junkie, but on many prospects other than the elite ones there's little or no information (in other words, you might be able to do better elsewhere). Yes, there are blogs and chat posts, but I'm wondering aloud if any of you subscribe, how frequently you go there, and whether you think it's worth the fee and, if you don't think it is, where, sports-wise, would you instead spend your money.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

On Ryan Howard

Phillies fans should be patient, as weeks will pass before the arbitration hearing takes place.

Here are a few things to consider:

1. GM Pat Gillick disfavors long-term deals. He is, though, optimistic about getting a deal done.
2. Howard already is 28.
3. Howard is a big guy who could suffer from the Bobby Bonilla and Mo Vaughn syndromes (sign big contract, worry about your nutrition less). To Howard's credit, he's in good shape and watches his weight.
4. Casey Close, Howard's agent, is looking for big dollars.

So, the question is this: Does Ryan get the same contract that Justin Morneau just got?

And, don't think for a moment that the Phillies don't realize what a special nucleus they have -- Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. You have to believe that unless Casey Close is being very unrealistic, the Phillies will reward Howard with a lucrative deal. Morneau-like dollars are not out of the question at all. After all, the Phillies gave Chase Utley a 7-year, $84 million dollar deal a year ago, so I'd predict a deal in the range of 7 years and $105 million.

Time for the NFL to Take Over the Oakland Raiders

Sure, they litigated with Al Davis about the disastrous move to L.A. and lost, but this same Al Davis is turning his franchise into a mockery. Poor Lane Kiffin, who looks like he has some promise as a head coach. Read this story by John Clayton on, and then wonder aloud why they just don't fence in the entire franchise and call it a zoo.

Kiffin looks to be on the way out, because it looks as though Davis has stripped him of the authority to make personnel decisions and to hire and fire assistant coaches. You'd have to want to be a head coach pretty badly if you would put up with working conditions like the ones Davis appears to be imposing. At 32, Kiffin would appear to have many options, even if it means sitting out a season because many of the attractive jobs have been filled. I did wonder why Kiffin took the job in the first place, given his pedigree and promise, and considering Davis's recent history of impatience and bad decisions. He did go in with his eyes open, but many who do so always figure that somehow they'll be able to transcend the problems of the recent past and succeed. It's a mistake many make, and Kiffin made it.

How many draft picks can Oakland mess up? How many signings? How many coaching decisions? Right now, Oakland is a minor-league team and the place where veterans will sign only if it's their only alternative.

They're now the Los Angeles Clippers of the NFL, and they've become a punch line.

When they're not getting punched out.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Is Frank Deford Right?

Deford, in this SI column, suggests that the Patriots, Tom Brady, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are the best ever.

Here are my thoughts:

1. The Pats are up there with the Bears of way back when, the Packers of the 60's, the Steelers of the 70's, the 49ers of the 80's and the Cowboys of the early 90's. Something tells me that the Bears of way back when (30's?) fall short, and I don't think that the Cowboys of the early 90's were as good as the Steelers, 49ers and Patriots. But are the Pats better than the Steeler teams that won 4 Super Bowls? The Joe Montana-led 49er teams? Hard to say.

2. Ditto for Brady, who, again, is up there in the QB pantheon. But it's hard to say whether he's better than Montana, Unitas or even John Elway. And who really cares? He has 3 Super Bowl rings to his credit, might get a fourth, and is in rarified air anyway.

3. As for Federer, he's won 11 straight Grand Slam titles. He's also playing at a time where, seemingly, tennis doesn't compel the audiences it did during what appear now to have been its golden age in the early 80's with Connors, McEnroe and Borg pounding it out in heroic matches. Still, his record of accomplishments is so compelling that it's hard to argue that Federer isn't the best ever.

4. As for Woods, well, he's close. He has some more "major" work to do to overtake the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, for the all-time title in majors, but, again, he's up there in an elite club, along with Nicklaus and perhaps one or two others -- Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer. Within 5 years, I believe Woods will stake the claim to best ever, because he'll have won more majors and removed what, if any, doubts there are that he isn't the best ever now.

And, yes, of course, the players are more gifted today, the scrutiny tougher, the competition better, because you don't have the amateur/open distinction in tennis, you have salary cap issues to contend with in football, among many other factors. All of the above -- the Pats, Brady, Federer and Woods -- transcend, period. They are elite, at the top of their game, and they play to win all of the time. They remain calm under pressure, keep their focus, and deliver the goods.

Week in and week out.

And they're fun to watch and root for, to boot.

So, is Frank Deford right?

It's hard to say, but we can conclude that we are watching all-timers in each category.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Please Help Fund a Worthy Sports Documentary

My good friend Mark Bernstein, who wrote Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession", is making a documentary on Ivy League football, called "For Love and Honor: The Story of Ivy League Football." You can check out his trailer here, and it's absolutely first rate.

Most documentary filmmakers are not flush with cash, and Mark is no exception. He needs to raise additional funds to complete the project, and I'm soliciting your help. Mark's projected is affiliated with a 501(c)(3) organization, which means that your contributions will be tax-deductible.

Here's how you can contribute:

1. Copy the following information onto a piece of paper, creating a donor form:

Date: _________________________

New York Foundation for the Arts
Fiscal Sponsorship Program
155 Avenue of the Americas, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10013-1507

To Whom It May Concern:

Please find enclosed a contribution for the New York Foundation for the Arts in the amount of $___________. It is my wish that this contribution will be used to support “For Love and Honor,” a project that you sponsor.





City, State, Zip Code.

2. Make your check payable to the "New York Foundation for the Arts" and put "Ivy Project" on the memo line. It's important that you write "Ivy Project" on the memo line, so please don't forget this detail.

3. Send the completed form and your check to the following address:

New York Foundation for the Arts
Fiscal Sponsorship Program
155 Avenue of the Americas
6th Floor
New York, New York 10013-1507.

You'll be glad that you did -- this is a great film.

I'm sending my check this week.

This isn't the first time that I've asked for your help. A year and a half ago, readers like you helped raise funds to start a football team at a charter school in Philadelphia. The school needed to raise $20,000 during a six-week period in the summer of 2006 to start the program. They raised over $30,000. Please do what you can to help this worthy cause.

Thanks again.

Required Reading for Parents Whose Kids Play on a Team

Frank Sciolla is the very successful basketball coach of Pennsbury High School, which is located in Bucks County, about 30 miles outside Philadelphia. Among his former players are Torrian Jones, who played guard for Notre Dame, and Lavoy Allen, who is a freshman and has started at center for Temple. Among his current players is a national recruit, a 6'5" guard named Dalton Pepper. Pennsbury currently is ranked in the top 5 in the Philadelphia area by The Philadelphia Inquirer and second in the state by the Harrisburg newspaper.

I don't know Coach Sciolla, but I do read his columns in the Bucks County Courier and also know that during many Saturdays during the basketball season, his team and the girls' team conduct clinics for the kids who play youth basketball in the community, and the clinics draw universal praise. The columns, too, are a particular treat, channeling wisdom that I'm sure, in part, has been passed down to young coaches by the likes of John Wooden and Dean Smith, gentlemen who coached with a firm if not authoritarian hand.

This particular column is required reading for those of you with kids on teams and who wonder why your kids don't get more playing time. I read it the other day and meant to post it immediately, because most of you don't read this newspaper and haven't heard of Coach Sciolla. What he writes, though, is instructive -- it isn't easy at all for coaches to make decisions about playing time. Read the whole thing and let me know what you think, and if you're looking for more coaching wisdom, go to, plug "Frank Sciolla" into the search engine and sift through his old columns. You'll be glad you did.

It's great to see a thoughtful, well-prepared coach who shows humility and realizes that he is in the great position, as part of his vocation as a high-school teacher, to coach a kids' game at a very high level. The perspective he displays is great, and we should consider ourselves fortunate that there are coaches like him out there.

Super Bowl Observations

1. Tom Brady was walking in NYC yesterday. Okay, so it did look like he had a cast on his leg, but he was walking and didn't look in noticeable pain. In contrast, Philip Rivers had athroscopic surgery last week and then played in a game, and he was in pain. Brady has two weeks to mend, and the bet here is that he will.

2. Criticism of LaDanian Tomlinson is Misplaced and, Well, Wrong. LT did the right thing by taking himself out of the game on Sunday. Have you ever had a sprained MCL? I did, and when I took steps it felt like my knee was going to explode. I had trouble stepping, let alone running through the offensive line and having 11 angry men trying to maul me every time I touched the ball. What LT did was courageous -- he shed any pretenses of vanity and made an unselfish decision. Others would have succumbed to some stupid macho ethic that you have to be willing to cripple yourself for the team even if you can hardly move, and who are you really benefiting? Had LT remained in the game, he would have stunk the joint out, he knew it, and he yielded to teammates who were able to perform better. Before you're quick to jump on Tomlinson, recall the story of Blaine Bishop, who some believe cost the Eagles the NFC title several years back by deciding to stay in a game. Read about that here.

3. Before We Elegize Brett Favre Too Much. . . I respect Brett Favre and think he's an all-timer. I also think that the football media, particularly former players, went too far when they said he was the best of all time. Many said that after he set records this year, and they were plain wrong. Why? Because of what I call the Packers "SFI" syndrome, standing for the "Silly Favre Interception" syndrome. Last week, I told a friend who's a Giant fan that the Giants had a good shot because there was a good chance Favre would throw a silly interception (remember the one against the Eagles in the playoffs a few years back?). He did just that. That tendency puts him a level down from the upper echelon of all-time greats, led by Joe Montana.

4. It's Become Fashionable to Ding the Giants' Offense, But. . . Did you notice that they held the ball for 2/3 of the game on Sunday? Yes, the Giants' defense was outstanding, but they had much more rest than the frequently cramping Packer defense, which suffered precisely because it got little rest on Sunday. The Giants controlled the ball, and I submit that if they have the ball for that much time against the Patriots, they could win the Super Bowl.

5. If You Give Bill Belichick Two Weeks. . . Yes, I've written before that he probably could map out a plan to take al-Qaeda and perhaps even find Osama bin Laden. Somehow, some way, Belichick will figure out how to exploit the Giants' overmatched secondary. He will pick on the backups and particularly R.W. McQuarters and try to have a field day. That's what they'll try to do, but. . .

6. If the Giants Control the Ball the Way They Did Against Green Bay. . .they will make the linebacking corp of New England (sans Adalius Thomas, who isn't that old) look ready for retirement.

7. Is Eli Manning a Championship Quarterback? Absolutely. He's been mistake-free in the post-season and has played like a champion. I'd like to call out the sometimes sagacious Howard Eskin of WIP Radio in Philadelphia who, like me, has in his DNA a chip on his shoulder about NY teams (perhaps because NY fans usually condescend or diss Philadelphia). Eskin didn't think that Manning played that well against Green Bay and knocked his completion percentage. King, remember this -- the Giants dropped a lot of balls on Sunday. Eli was right on, and, yes, he outplayed Brett Favre.

8. What Will Happen in the Super Bowl? Who knows? Suffice it to say that the double-digit spread exists because of New England's experience, respect for Belichick's having two weeks to prepare, questions about the Giants' secondary and the fact that Tom Brady is due to play better than he has recently and Eli Manning is probably due to play worse. Still, the Giants' line play on both sides of the ball has been outstanding, and you win it in the trenches in the NFL. If the Giants' D-line continues to surge and put pressure on the QB, anything can happen. Not only can the Giants cover, they can win.

Observations on the Pinewood Derby

My son's Cub Scout pack held their Pinewood Derby event last Friday night, and I'll note the following:

1. Is it wise to have the wheels titled slightly inward to make the car go faster? An engineering friend of mine suggested it was.

2. Apparently it is wise to have only 3 wheels touching the ground, because there's less friction. I'm not handy enough to make this happen, of course, but many have advised this course of action. If you try it, you'll see that the car goes straight. What has your experience been?

3. It is important to get your car as close to the 5 oz. weight limit as possible, as the weight, properly positioned, helps pull the car down the track. My son's weighed in at 5 ounces precisely, perhaps more out of dumb luck (or a careful application of wood apoxy to attach the 2 oz. weights to the bottom of the car).

4. Is there a specific shape that works? My son's car resembled a Formula 1 car, but apparently there are better shapes that make the car run better, perhaps narrower than the width of the block that they originally give you (you just need to be sure there's enough room for the axels to do their thing). Those that looked more "bullet shaped" seemed to fare better.

5. Does dry graphite powder really help the wheels that do touch the track run better? I'm not sure about this, but I'll take the word of the cognoscenti on it.

6. Does painting the car a dark color somehow make it run slighty faster? This sounded like an old wives' tale to me, but I recall someone's saying it to me a few years ago.

7. Does sanding the axels and smoothing them out make the wheels run faster? Again, I've heard this to be true, but my dexterity with tools is such that I'd probably set the wooden car on fire.

8. Where is the optimal position to put the weights on the car? Many have suggested that you use a router (or a Dremel sander) to carve out a depression in the bottom of the car and glue your weights there. The scoutmaster suggested drilling a hole in the car and inserting the weights, while a scientist friend says that in his troop, they drill the hole and then pour hot lead into it, let it cool, and, voila, you have a finished car. A friend used a Dremel to help sand the bottom, and we used apoxy to affix the weights there.

Of course, the kids are supposed to do as much work as possible, but they aren't supposed to use the power tools. So, our scoutmaster cut the car for us, and a friend helped us make the depression underneath the car to insert the weights. My son sanded, painted and helped glue, and we won both of our heats, but finished in the middle of the contestants overall.

What has your experience been? Please share it, as other readers pull my Pinewood posts up and seek guidance from time to time.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Thoughts on the NFL Playoffs

It was great to see the Philadelphia Eagles' defense beat the Dallas Cowboys yesterday. Okay, so it was the Giants' personnel who did the damage, and they deserve tons of credit, but those were Jim Johnson's schemes the Giants were running. Giants' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was the Eagles' linebackers coach for years before getting the Giants' coordinator's job before last season. He did a great job this season, as did the Giants' defensive line.

What happened to the Cowboys in the fourth quarter yesterday? Their offensive line was on the retreat, they committed a bunch of stupid penalties, and when Tony Romo had TO wide open in the red zone he threw what only could charitably called a wounded duck that sailed over Owens head. Had that been Donovan McNabb or Eli Manning, they would have been pilloried for that throw. But I think that both of them would have made it.

Can the Packers' line give Brett Favre more time to throw than the Cowboys' line gave Romo late in the game? If they can, RW McQuarters will be exposed as someone who can't cover, and the Giants are banged up at defensive back. If they can't, well, Favre has been known to throw a loopy interception or two (remember the one in overtime about 5 years ago in the playoff game against the Eagles), and that could bode well for the Giants.

How great did the Giants' defense play yesterday given that they were on the field for long stretches at a time? That made the Giants' defensive effort all the more impressive, didn't it? The Cowboys sustained some long drives, but the Giants' defense held firm. We Philadelphians tend to route against New York, but in the end my son and I agreed that we were hoping that Romo didn't pull out a miracle in the end. The Giants deserved to win that game.

Did the Giants miss Tiki Barber this season? And what does Tiki think now? Of course, the Giants' defense is much better this season, and Eli Manning has improved (and perhaps Tiki's criticisms woke up Eli a bit and caused him to focus better). Then again, Tiki seemed to be too outspoken, and, since he was a leader on that team, others unwisely followed suit, and the team looked to be in chaos. Absent Tiki, the team looked more focused and didn't have a star player with a need to draw attention to himself (except by playing well).

Why did so many people think that Seattle was going to beat Green Bay in Lambeau Field? I suppose it's because Seattle gets only slightly more publicity than Green Bay, which is the smallest pro city and therefore otherwise doesn't get much attention. The Packers showed everyone how tough they are and that this season is no fluke.

Is Norv Turner for real? Is the Chargers' ownership saying "I told you so" about firing Marty Schottenheimer and replacing him with Norv Turner? Of course they are, wouldn't you? A.J. Smith, the GM, looks like a prescient man (calling him a genius would be going too far). I, for one, thought it was hubris to lock Smith up to a five-year deal before Turner proved he could win a playoff game with this team, but the Chargers are a white-hot 8-0 in their last 8 games with a great points differential. Will they beat New England? Not if LT and Philip Rivers aren't healthy.

They also serve who stand and wait. I think that Winston Churchill said this about many in England during WWII, but this really applied to Chargers' back-up QB Billy Volek. I don't know how much action he saw this year, but how many back-ups get into playoff games because of in-game injuries (as opposed to knowing they're going to start, the way Jeff Garcia did last year for the Eagles). Kudos to Volek, who played great and showed what a true professional he really is.

Why did T.O. have Tony Romo's back when he stabbed both Jeff Garcia and Donovan McNabb in the back when he was their teammate in S.F. and Philadelphia respectively? Is he mellowing with age, or what's going on there?

Who really would want to coach for Jerry Jones? What the bleep was he thinking by standing on the sideline very close to the coaches during the game? How can your key employees get anything done if you're looking over their shoulder? Prediction: Dallas finishes last in the NFC East next season and does not make the playoffs. By season's end, the two best teams in the NFC East were New York and Philadelphia, and the Eagles didn't even make the playoffs.

Whither Indianapolis? How come people aren't more shocked that they lost yesterday? Why do some people think that they're soft? They're only the defending Super Bowl champions.

Can anyone beat the Patriots? Well, J-Actionville gave them a game for a half, and all Tom Brady did in the game was complete 26 passes in 28 attempts. My guess is that if you can get him to go 14-28, you'd have a much better chance. Still, it's going to be hard for Norv Turner, his banged up skill position players and a warm-weather team to play a night game in the Boston area in the winter and win. As for the Super Bowl, I'll say what I have said before -- give Bill Belichick 2 weeks to prepare for anything, and he'll win.

College Football Darwinism?

Call it survival of the fittest, call it getting a dose of reality, call it whatever, but Ohio State back-up QB Robby Schoenhoft is tranferring to Delaware.

That's right, a Division I-AA school and perennial outstanding team in Division I-AA.

And a good place to be a QB. The incumbent, Joe Flacco, is viewed as a top NFL prospect, perhaps a top-5 QB in the draft (according to the likes of the Todd McShays and Mel Kipers). So much does Schoenhoft want to channel his inner Flacco that he's moving into Flacco's residence.

He'll have two years of eligibility remaining.

Every kid wants to play Division I-A ball if he can, and he wants to play the position he wants to play. Steve Slaton of West Virginia was recruited as a DB by many schools. He wanted to be an RB, got an offer from Rich Rodriguez and made the most of it. The Schoenhofts of the world likewise go to Ohio State because all of them think that they will be the one. That thought fuels outstanding competition, but most of those kids aren't content to be the back-up. So, they have a choice -- do they wait patiently, or do they transfer?

Is it an admission of defeat if they transfer? That they can't cut it at the biggest of big-time schools? Or is it a concession to the reality that there is only one starting QB job available, and because of coaching turnover, different styles of offense and commitments to others, you can't be sure if you transfer to a good Division I-A school that you'll be the guy there.

Especially because you have to sit out a season.

On the other hand, if you transfer to a good Division I-AA program, while you still have to sit out a year as a transfer, you probably have a better chance to play, because the average QB recruit might have been all-league or honorable mention all-state, but he probably was not a recruit in the class of a Schoenhoft. So, if the Schoenhofts of the world transfer to the Delawares of the world, both the players and the schools win. The player gets his shot, and the school upgrades at quarterback.

So, if I were a Division I-AA, II or III coach, I'd keep in touch with coaches at the Division I-A schools, because there will always be kids who aren't getting the playing time they think they deserve.

And, if I were a parent or high-school coach of one of those players, I'd always be on the lookout for the I-AA, II or III programs that are nice to me and that are good to their kids.

Because you never know when the school that you might have been tempted to scoff at because it plays several notches down from the big-time is actually the right place for your son or your player.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

When You Thought All Sanity Was Lost in the NBA, This. . .

The Chicago Bulls' players voted to bench rookie Joachim Noah for two games for his conduct, including having a run-in with assistant coach Ron Adams.

Coach Jim Boylan had benched Noah for one game for his actions, but the players said it wasn't enough.

That's right. The players said it wasn't enough.

Boylan thinks Noah is a great kid who is growing up.

The players, well, they do want order after what has been a terribly disappointing start.

Yes, there are long-term contracts, yes, there are players who are in outer space (and unions who protect them), but here is a team that took a stand and said "we want to do things a certain way, the right way."


Of course, that Noah is a rookie and not (yet) a star makes a big difference, methinks. The teammates of Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant would have been within their rights to vote to bench Iverson for his periodic histrionics during his tenure in Philadelphia and Bryant for his bad behavior in training camp for the Lakers this year. They would have had every reason to do so.

And the team would have been better off in each and every instance.

But they didn't do it.

The Bulls are a relatively young (and awfully shooting) team, so role players and potential stars combined to make this decision. It's a good move, but it doesn't happen as frequently as it should, especially given that the tenure of the average NBA head coach is short, players make a lot more than most coaches, the stars have long-term contracts, and, well, they're the draws and the main cogs in the engine, so the rules are different, and, where they're not, they're enforced differently. Still, what the Bulls players did should give all players in all leagues cause for pause -- about discipline, about unselfishness, about the true meaning of playing for a team.

It's all good.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Stop Sign Put Up After Crash

Major League Baseball has established an investigations unit to investigate illegal drug use in the sport.

The Lords turned a blind eye when the gate receipts were rolling in, the mainstream sports media kissed up to the home run heroes and forgot to be journalists (then again, perhaps they never were, but Red Smith would have called everyone on the carpet), and the players' union decided to protect the bad boys.

So, is it about time? Or is it way too late?

Also, I saw where many of the major sports leagues were going to pitch in to develop better drug testing. Is that the right idea, or should they invest in better ways to heal their players faster? In baseball, wouldn't it be great to spend more money on helping avoid throwing-arm injuries? How about in football, where we ask the players to take a pounding and then are hypocritical because we do not help them when they are old and disabled? Wouldn't that make sense? It probably makes too much sense, and it probably costs too many cents, so they won't do it. Which means, of course, that the players will continue to look for the next best wonder drug -- not from a prescriber, but from someone in an alley behind the gym.

Because the same way vaccines can't keep up with new strains of diseases, the tests won't be able to keep up with new types of drugs. And the elite athlete will want to heal faster and train better. She/he will continue to look for the edge, especially when it's cutting edge.

Why the Pats will beat the Jags tonight

Because if you give Bill Belichick 2 weeks to prepare, he'd be able to beat anyone.

Perhaps even Al-Qaeda.

Good Home Workout for the Middle-Aged Professional

Well, at least I think it is.

I don't belong to a gym, because there isn't one within 5 minutes of my house. In my view, if a gym is more than 5 minutes from your house, it might as well as be on the moon, especially given the demands on my time. A subset of that statement is that I don't work out in the gym where I work, because, well, I don't need to see people with whom I work in tight UnderArmour and I also don't like working out in the middle of a workday. The reason: I like to have sufficient time to stop sweating and to cool down.

Fine, personal preferences dispensed with, I like to work out in my basement very early in the morning. I'm a morning person, having grown up on a major road where the trucks and buses got me used to awakening pretty early. I also believe that the beginning of the day is yours and yours alone. Tons of stuff could emerge during the day that would make an after-work workout difficult, and from what I've read it's not optimal to work out in the evenings (i.e., too close to bedtime). I'm sure that some of you who read this will dispute me or debate me, but if you do please give better reasons than the ones I've given (read: "I heard it somewhere".) The comment section provides you with the opportunity to go on record.

So what do I do? Well, I'm limited because I have a relatively older house with a low basement ceiling, so an elliptical trainer is out of the question. I have the following available at my disposal: stretching bands, medicine balls of various sizes, the "Perfect Pushup" discs, and a cool Greg LeMond spin bike. I limit myself to an hour five days a week (as well as trying not to eat a wide variety of snacks that provide all sorts of temptation at work and watch the sweets and carbs in general).

I spend about 12 minutes on stretching exercises. Where did I get them? From a friend who's a physical therapist (primarily for lower back and core), from some good Yoga tapes I once watched, and from a book on stretching I bought on Amazon. It's a good way to start the day, and I watch the never-ending loop of the SportsCenter from the night before to keep me company. I finish the stretching with deploying the stretching bands to stretch out my hamstrings.

Then I bike on the spin bike for 20 minutes hard, with about 2.5 minutes for cooling down. I usually pedal in the range of 15-19 miles per hour (with easy resistance), to get my heart rate going and break a good sweat.

After that, I stretch again for about a minute or two, doing Achilles' tendon stretches, shoulder stretches, neck stretches, and then I proceed to do about 25 minutes' worth of exercises with either an 8- or 12-pound medicine ball. You can purchase medicine balls of various sizes and quality from places like Dick's, Omni Fitness and Sports Authority, and you also can find exercises to do on the internet (or in books, and Omni sells a great little booklet on exercises with medicine balls that I would recommend). You do all sorts of hefting (I try to do sets of between 10 and 25 reps, depending on how much time I have), and I do between 8 and 15 different exercises (depending on how much time I have). Most of the exercises focus on strengthening the core.

When I've finished the medicine ball work (and I try to vary my emphasis every now and then), I'm done. (When I take a break from upper-body medicine ball work, I'll work with the Perfect Pushup discs -- they offer a good workout too).

So, you're done in an hour, you can veg for 10 minutes watching the news, and then head to the shower. If you start early enough, you still can be out the door by half past seven if you need to be.

That's my workout.

What's yours?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Another Observation About Coaching Second-Grade Basketball


Continue to drill.

And drill some more.

Yes, the kids love to scrimmage (who doesn't), but without the skills the scrimmages are exercises in dribbled balls off feet, dribbling into the corner and getting trapped, or taking wild shots. That was more of the case at the beginning of our season, but it's gotten better now. The more you drill, the better the scrimmages will get.

If you're a history buff, you know that the U.S. Army only could win the War of 1812 after Winfield Scott took the troops to the Lake Champlain area and drilled them for months before they were ready to battle the then better-trained British. If you're a movie fan, you'll recall the famous scenes in The Karate Kid, when Mr. Miyagi trained Daniel in karate by having him perform a significant number of chores around his house that involved repetitive motion -- before he even started to teach Daniel actual karate. Daniel developed a lot of muscle memory, and that helped him prevail in a tournament (okay, it was fiction, but the point's a good one).

That's why you need to work on dribbling drills (especially where the kids move with the ball and can't look at it), passing drills and catching and shooting the ball. We have one boy on our team who isn't a good dribbler. He's a big kid, and he's decent at catching the ball. He didn't score a basket in our first four games, but he tried hard in practice (mind you, we practice once a week). We worked with the kids on catching the ball five to seven feet away from the basket and shooting it (they aren't allowed to put the ball on the floor, because from that distance they should be able to shoot it, and the fear is that the lane gets so congested on defense that if they dribbled the ball they'd lose it). Last week, he flashed through the lane twice, caught the ball, shot it, and scored two baskets. Last night, when we scrimmage, he called for the ball and drilled several shots from that distance. Why? Because he doesn't have to stop and think what to do -- he's been taught to shoot from there. His improvement has been so significant we named one of our catch-and-shoot drills after him.

When we do scrimmage, we stop play to teach if we see a common mistake -- picking up the ball and running with it, dribbling into a corner, failing to go for a rebound, you name it. The kids respond well -- we teach gently, we don't scold or embarrass -- and they generally get it. It's fun to watch them develop as players.

So plan your practices. Roy Williams plans his to the minute, and since our gym time is much more limited, you should too. Summarize at the beginning and end, and then make most of the time in the middle. You'll be amazed at what you can accomplish in 50-60 minutes.

And, as always, make sure it's fun!

Huge Upset in National High School Basketball!

I hear the music from Hoosiers in the background. . .

I hear Shooter saying "No small school has ever done anything like this before."

I hear Norman Dale saying, "I love you guys."

Tuesday night, Academy of the New Church, a tiny private high school outside Philadelphia known as being the private school for following the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and located right near the famous (and beautiful) Bryn Athyn Cathedral beat the #1 HS team in the nation, St. Benedict's of Newark, 53-50, in Newark.

Talk about upsets!

But make no mistake, ANC is a very good basketball team.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Ivy League Basketball

Why is Ivy League basketball so down?

Or is it?

Dana O'Neil of (in an "Insider" chat that I can't link to) in a very short comment expressed the belief that the Patriot League has the upper hand over the Ivies because Patriot League schools scholarships. I ruminated over this over two years ago, and I, for one, believed then, and now, that it will be hard for the Ivies to compete against the Patriot League schools. Click here for my thoughts on the topic.

So, dauntless defenders of the Ivies and those who study it closely and crunch the numbers, are the Ivies down? On the negative side, Penn suffered two key graduation losses last year (Mark Zoller and Ibby Jaaber), two key injuries at the season's outset (Darren Smith and Tommy McMahon), and has had three key players banged up. The Princeton program is at an all-time low. Yes, Cornell came within 14 of an excellent Duke team and Brown is playing reasonably well. In addition, Tommy Amaker of Harvard is reported to be enjoyed a top-30 recruiting class (including a top-75 center from Maryland and a bunch of other big guys). How good are Cornell, Brown and Yale?

And how do the Patriot League schools fit into the mix? Are they taking away players from the Ivies? Good players? Or, are they simply attracting better players than they have historically and, at that, better players than the top Ivy players, whether or not they're actually in competition with the Ivies for the same players?

The comment board is open. I'd love to hear from you.

Showdown at the BCS Corral?

The president of an allegedly jilted college football team, Michael Adams of the University of Georgia, has proposed a playoff system for NCAA Division I-A football teams.

This, of course, makes a whole lot of sense, and any three year-old who's grown up so far watching Elmo on Sesame Street could tell you that. What's interesting, of course, is the author and the timing. Georgia, you see, has been discussed as one of the top four teams in college football, yes, better than Ohio State, and, naturally, there are people in Athens who are royally ticked that their beloved Bulldogs didn't get a shot at the title.

To be clear, we're talking about Georgia in the U.S. and not the birthplace of that feared offensive coordinator Joe Stalin, and we're talking about Athens in Georgia and not the birthplace of many of the world's greatest ideas (with no offense to those in Athens, Georgia, where I'm sure many good ideas have abounded, including the recruitment of Herschel Walker, this proposal and the firing of Harrick senior and junior).

Had the author been the president of Duke, Temple, Kansas State or Stanford he'd/she'd have more credibility. Had the Georgia president authored the letter before his team rose to such status, he'd have a bit more credibility too. Why? Because there are choruses in Big 10 country who are shouting "sour grapes." In fact, in Columbus President Gordon Gee seems to be doing so, albeit intellectually dishonestly. Before you cry "sour grapes" too loudly, President Gee, let's see how you fare in the national rankings in the future a) given your school has a problem with the SEC the way Lloyd Carr had with you and b) when the Rich Rodriguez spread offense and recruiting machine hits its stride in Ann Arbor. Or, put differently and more kindly, when you have a few down years.

But what these public outcries thus far belie is the boiling frustrations that the NCAA and BCS have for one another. Let's face it, suppose NCAA President Myles Brand adopts Michael Adams' position and calls for a playoff, or even tries to mandate one. Do you think that the BCS will listen to him any better than Bob Knight did when Brand was president at Indiana? The big difference here, though, is that Brand can't fire the BCS schools. So, if things get ugly, the NCAA as we know it could suffer a major secession. Say six to eight conferences bolt to grab all the money and form their own association, leaving the NCAA with the conferences that make life interesting on occasion but are odds-on favorites not to win the title. Moreover, if those conferences bolted, what would happen to the beloved NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments? Would the BCS create bowl games for the major teams too? And would the NCAA really believe that fans would buy a Valparaiso-UC Santa Barbara game for the national championship (because Duke, Memphis, Georgetown, etc. would be elsewhere)?

What a mess this could become, especially if the NCAA and the BCS end up at loggerheads. It's all about the money, of course, and not about sportsmanship, fair play and what it should be.

Should there be a national playoff? Of course. It would be absolutely riveting TV with a huge market share and ad revenues that would come close to those of the Super Bowl's. People would watch the playoff games with great interest, starting, yes, with a Round of 16. Imagine the national coverage, imagine the drama, and imagine the wonderful competition.

Let's face it, there's too much stuff to watch on TV and too much competition for it. People don't want to watch bad stuff, and they also have pay-per-view channels to watch. So they don't want to watch bad re-runs, silly "reality" shows, or get oversaturated with bad sporting events that don't mean anything. Who really will watch those games? And, remember, on New Year's Day today (as opposed to say 30-40 years ago), restaurants and stores are open (and last I checked, shopping is one of America's favorite pastimes).

Did you really want to watch USC-Illinois on New Year's Day if you didn't go to one of those schools or aren't related to a player (Emeril did look dapper at the coin toss, although he looks much better in a chef's whites than a suit)? Or would you rather play New England versus Dallas on Madden or box your older brother on the Wii? How about any of the above -- except watch a meaningless game.

The problem, naturally, is politics. The BCS group is hardly transparent, and the NCAA hasn't proven to be effective. Unless there's a groundswell of support from the major (read: BCS) conferences for a meaningful playoff system (and I'd take a four-team one at this point -- perhaps you take the winners of the "major" bowl games and put them in the playoffs), you won't get a playoff.

Call it greed, call it loyalty to the bowls who have supported them for years, provide paydays for 7-5 teams, call it what you want, but it just won't happen. And you'll be left with endless bowl games, including, perhaps, the Potato Bowl, for the two teams who got mashed the most during a season. Can you go 0-12 and go bowling? Why not? Someone might even sponsor it. The Russian oligarchs have made their mark on English soccer. Can their involvement in bowls be far behind?

Sorry, Georgia, but this year you got the wrong end of the draw. Next year, it will be someone else.

The truth is that sports (with the exception of "judged" sports) are the ultimate meritocracy, where the best players make the team and the best of those get the playing team, and the best teams win on the field. That truth makes sports compelling and differentiates them from places where sons- and brothers-in-law get ahead because of which families they married into. Yet, the BCS process takes away the meritocracy and stinks of back-room dealing and an aversion -- for the sake of money -- to finding the true champion.

The Super Bowl anoints a champion.

What does the BCS Bowl really do?

Stupidity on The Golf Channel

Read this and see what I mean.

The disturbing problem is that the commentator is a grad of a well-respected academic institution and someone who definitely should have known better.

If this type of "mistake" could happen on The Golf Channel, you wonder what types of other crap Tiger Woods has to deal with that we don't even begin to get news of.

And it makes me admire him a whole lot more.

Best Relief Pitcher I Ever Saw

just made the Hall of Fame.

Congratulations, Goose!

You did it when closers were actual firemen, when they came into a game not just to pitch the ninth but to pitch part of the eighth with men on, and then the ninth.

And you were unhittable.

It's about time.

Heroes and Thieves

In her song by that name, Vanessa Carlton sings

Heroes and thieves at my door
I'm not sure that I can tell them apart anymore. . .

Exhibit A:

Major League Baseball Players of the "Performance in a Syringe" Era. Look here for a breakdown of how the fifteen writers who have Hall of Fame votes voted, most particularly for (or not for) Mark McGwire. Kudos to Peter Gammons for taking a stand, and brickbats to toadies Tim Kurkjian, Buster Olney and Jayson Stark for not doing so. And, of course, there was Roger Clemens' press conference yesterday. Who do you believe? Is Clemens a hero worthy of the Hall. . . or worthy of WWE?

Exhibit B:

The Lords of the BCS. They thought they were doing everyone a favor by creating this concocted system, but they're wrong. Why is it that Divisions I-AA, II and III have wonderful playoff systems and Division I-A can't get out of its own way? Instead of creating galvanizing playoff games, we were left with watching meaningless (and bad) bowl gams (okay, Michigan, you're an exception) and a national championship game that almost became an afterthought because a) it was held after the first weekend of NFL playoffs and b) Roger Clemens' press conference almost eclipsed the game. Sense. . . or nonsense?

The lists of exhibits can go on and on, but I think that Vanessa Carlton has coined an epitaph for an unsettled generation in sports.

And that's a shame, because there are some truly good guys and people out there who have always done the right thing and continue to do so. Most recently, though, a good amount of confusion reigns.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Basketball Practice for 7 and 8 year-olds

I've noticed that several of you have reached this site by Googling things such as "basketball practice for first graders," so I figured I'd share the wisdom of what I've learned and tell you about the one-hour practices that we run.

1. Team Meeting. We talk about what we need to do, what we've accomplished, protecting the basketball and going after rebounds (some of the kids stand flat-footed after a shot). This takes all of a minute.

2. Defensive Slides. We used to do some jumping drills to warm up, but we go straight into about 3 minutes of defensive slides. I take the kids sideways, back and forth, stopping and starting. It's a good way to get their footwork going and to get them warmed up. Our league requires man-to-man defense, so this is a good way to remind them not to cross their feet.

3. Dribbling Drills. Only half the kids can dribble the ball well repetitively. The rest lose the ball pretty quickly, and some double dribble, either by stopping and then starting again or by using two hands. They just don't get the playground experience kids did 30 years ago, and they're so scheduled they don't play much pickup. As a result, we try three drills:

a. The "Fingers" Drill. I have them stand in place, look at me and shout out the number of fingers that I put up. The goal here is to get them to dribble the ball and not look at it. That's important, of course, because if they can dribble without looking at the ball they'll find the open man quickly and make a good pass, and, also, of course, because they can see where the defenders are and better protect the basketball. We ask them to switch hands, too.

b. The "Dribble to Half Court and Back" Drill. We have them stand at the baseline and dribble the ball to half court and then back. Remember, we're playing on "sideways" courts that are typically found in elementary school gyms in our parts, and not the "full length" court (there are two "sideways" courts for every full length court). The goal here is to get them to dribble quickly but under control, and every now and then my assistant and I pop into the lines to make the kids shift hands or protect the ball better.

c. The "Protect the Basketball" Drill. This is a great drill. We have two kids dribbling the ball while, at the same time, trying to take the ball away from one another. This drill compels the kids to angle in toward the defender and dribble the ball slightly behind them, near their hips. The kids love this drill, have fun "going at it," and some have become better dribblers because of it.

We do these drills for a total of 10-15 minutes, depending on how they are going. So right now we've used up about 15 minutes total.

3. Passing Drills. Put simply, we have kids work on their chest passes, bounce passes and overhead passes. My assistant and I jump in and out of the passing lanes, compelling the kids to make decisions, such as throwing an overhead pass or a bounce pass (yes, given that the kids are considerably shorter than we are, we duck down to make the situation look more real). We stress to them the importance of throwing a crisp pass, one that hits the teammate at the letters so that they can make a strong move or take a shot without diving for the ball, without the ball hitting their feet, etc. Most kids aren't crisp enough passers yet. We usually take 5-10 minutes with these drills.

4. Situational Drills. We do the following drills:

a. Layup Lines. To make things more interesting, we have the player in the rebounding lane throw a bounce pass to the player in the shooting line.

b. Follow Your Shot Drill. A coach throws a pass to a kid a few feet inside the foul line, and the kids are to catch the ball and shoot it without putting it on the floor. The reason for this is that if the kids are in this close and open, there is no need to put the ball on the floor (most kids will lose possession, and it's a good habit to teach at this age -- avoid wasted energy). The kids then are encouraged to follow their shots twice, so that they learn the importance of staying at it and fighting for a rebound (you'd be surprised how many kids forget that they can pursue the ball after they've shot it). This drill proved very productive, as the kids showed a lot of energy following their shots in our last game.

c. The "Dribble Hand-off" Drill. We didn't necessarily want to teach this drill, but the requirement of man-to-man defense compelled us to do so. Why? Because the kids cover each other like gloves, and there really isn't a lot of room for good chest or bounce passes. These kids are too young (read: too inexperienced) to learn a high-post offense or a 1-4 stack, so what we do is have one kid dribble and then stop, and have a teammate trail him, take a handoff and then either shoot the ball or dribble toward the hoop (all the while, we ask the player doing the handoff to slide toward the basket, a poor person's version of a pick and roll, as the handoff can serve as a pick). The handoff ends up freeing up someone for a drive or a shot. Our kids play tough defense in practice, but, again, this drill paid dividends in our last game, as we were able to get the ball inside pretty effectively.

Now we've been at it for about 35 minutes or so, and we take a water break for a minute.

5. Scrimmaging. The kids love this, of course, and I bought some mail-order pinnies so that we can distinguish the "teams" from one another. We have an odd number of kids, so we shuffle them in and out, and I keep the game to 3-on-3. The reason: first, we avoid clutter in the half court (we don't scrimmage full court at this age) and can teach better and, two, we let the odd kid take a breather. I try to create evenly matched teams, make sure every kid gets to handle the ball, switch the defensive matchups and stop play to teach. For example, if a kid double dribbles, I try to correct the mistake. If a kid loses the ball because she dribbles in front of her instead of protecting it, I'll stop play and teach. I try to be encouraging and not single anyone out. The scrimmages prove to be great exercise and get the kids in better shape for the games. On my particular team, the defense is better than the offense, but I assure the kids that no one will defend them as tough as they defend themselves (this has proven true so far -- they really go after the ball). Where we have trouble is on offense -- we really don't have a super-talented kid who can score at will (but few teams do).

6. Wrap-up. I call the kids together, take 30 seconds to review things to work on, congratulate them on improvements, have everyone put their hands in and say "Team" and then say goodnight.

As I blogged before, I wished we had a zone defense requirement so we could emphasize ball movement through passing more, but we don't. As a result, we've improvised on offense and make the best of it. Kids today don't necessarily have the hoops savvy we did way back when. The game isn't instinctive to them, so only a few know about setting screens, going for rebounds, etc. We're working on their games, and it's been fun.

A great book to get is Dave Faucher's book "Coaching Youth Basketball." Faucher once coached at Dartmouth, and his book is excellent. Some of my practice plans derive from his book, and I confess that I would have been somewhat lost at the season's outset without it.

By no means am I an expert, and I welcome your suggestions too. That's the great thing about coaching. Coaches are willing to share, and coaches learn from one another. I picked up a few things at my daughter's practice, one at the water cooler, and a few by watching TV.

Please take a moment to provide comments as to your suggestions. I look forward to seeing what you do in practice or what you've seen.

Quick, Name the 10 Mostly Highly Paid Players in the NBA

If you said that the following are among them, you'd be wrong: Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Amare Stoudamire and Chris Paul. Here's the list, and, while you're at it, take at look at the neighboring list of NBA team payrolls. If you run the Orlando Magic, you should get some sort of prize.

And if you run the Knicks, well. . . I'll leave it to the rest of the blogosphere to comment on the situation at Madison Square Garden.

Old-Time Basketball

Arizona's women lost in double overtime to Oregon State and finished the game with -- get this -- only two players on the floor.

Only six Wildcat women dressed for the game. Two players were out because of injuries, one because of academics, and one for personal reasons.

Give credit to the Iron 6. It's hard to win in a major conference when you suit up only six players, and the two who were left standing should be given a round of applause.

I hope they got some ibuprofen and ice packs after the game.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Tales from the Land of the Nintendo Wii

The last time I blogged about this, I expressed my frustration about finding a Nintendo Wii. I didn't know how hard it would be, say, in early November, to locate one of these game units. I figured I'd walk into my local Best Buy, ask some high school kid who worked there to get one from the back, and I'd pay for it and put it away for the holidays. Sounds simple, right?

Silly me.

One sales associate simply told me that they were out of them and that she didn't know when they'd get any more. When I asked if she could check with store management, she told me that they didn't know, either.

Another sales associate, even younger than the first one, looked at me as if I had small pox.

"Hey, Dad, get a clue, would you? As if we have them in this store? Where have you been, with your head in the Delaware River? They're only, like, the most popular thing on the planet right now."

She didn't actually say that, but as they say, pictures paint a thousand words. Economizing, I translated her glare of incredulity into several dozen demeaning ones. I suppose when you're selling a very hot commodity whose demand is, at the moment, inelastic, well, you can offend whom you choose. Besides, in all likelihood she won't be working there in a year, and, well, it's not as though Best Buy has superlative competition. When you read the "hot" management books, you realize that Best Buy is a model for getting customers what they want, depending on the communities in which they live.

Okay, so they whiffed on the Wii a bit, but the list of those who fanned mightily in meeting demand is endless, while the list of those who connected doesn't exist.

At any rate, my wife and I tried to figure out the best way to get a Wii for the kids. We heard that if you waited in line at Toys 'R Us, you had a good shot. Apparently, there was a story circulating that on a few different days they actually had 70 units at a time, which probably had to be a Guinness World Record for the number of units received at one time. Okay, at least in Southeastern Pennsylvania, or my corner of it. The lines outside the local Best Buys and Circuit City were absurd, especially on Black Friday. I had thought about getting up at 4 a.m. to hit the local Best Buy at its 5 a.m. opening.

As the high-school kid who worked there would have said with a daggers-like look, "As if." As it turned out, people had begun to camp outside the store for Wiis and other products starting at about 10 p.m. Thanksgiving night. Had I gotten up at 4 a.m., well, I would have been say a quarter mile down the road, about 400th in line and way out of contention for a Wii. That meant that I would have ventured down to the local Wal-Mart to buy a much-needed pair of Wrangler jeans for $14.54 (the Dale Earnhart memorial model fetches an additional $5 bucks, and I'm just not a NASCAR kind of guy).

And they don't give rain checks, either.

Try ordering on-line, and, well, fuggedaboutit! (Unless you wanted to pay a premium on Amazon or eBay, but what's the challenge in that? And, besides, I was fundamentally opposed paying above retail for this game unit. Call me crazy, perhaps, but that's the beauty of the marketplace -- the unit only has a certain value for us).

A family friend's high-school aged son works at Circuit City, so why tried to glean some intelligence from him. But he didn't know much, either, and it seemed as though store management either kept the kids who work there intentionally in the dark so that the public actually had a puncher's chance of buying a Wii (translated: even in the world of Big Box retail, passing along insider information is a no-no) or they themselves didn't know when the UPS man would arrive with the blessed units.

So, we decided for the time being to write off the "Big Box" stores, for the simple reason that the days were getting shorter and the temperatures colder, we have lives, and, well, who knows on a daily basis when the lines started outside these stores and whether they'd have units in there to sell to begin with. We just weren't going to stand outside at some crazy hour for at least a quarter of a day to have a chance to buy a Wii.

And, remember, they don't give rain checks.

We weren't despairing, however, because we made full disclosure to the kids, who are pretty patient, that we'd get the unit when we'd get it and not sooner. They were cool to it, and after checking up once or twice on my wife and her quest, only to hear that she struck out looking, they decided to give her some space and not ask.

Kind of like adhering to the adage that a watched pot never boils.

Smart kids.

I then got into a conversation with a gamer who sits near me at work, a twenty-something who seemed well-versed in all things electronic and video. I told him of our dilemma and asked him what he thought would be the best place to find a Wii.

That was an easy question: GameStop. (I trust fully that had I asked him about the fundamental interworkings of his job description, he'd be able to answer that in a heartbeat too).

That was a good answer, for while there are GameStops at strip shopping centers, they also exist in enclosed malls that have many entrances and where you really can't line up say at 10 p.m. for a 10 a.m. open. There's really no point to it. And, thankfully, there's one such enclosed mall with a GameStop in it near us.

Fortified with that information, my wife ventured to this mall before the 10 a.m. open. Once the mall opened, and fullycognizant of the precise location of the GameStop and the best entrance to the mall to get to the store as it opened, she went there on a Monday and stood in line. She was number 8, bonded with her fellow line people, and actually struck up a productive conversation about elementary education. The clock slowly ticked, and when the GameStop team was ready for the open, they announced that they had six units.

Six units.

No consolation prize for being eighth in line.


Double rats!

Did I say they don't give rain checks?

Now, the protocol for those who are first, second, third and fourth runners up is that you wait in line until the transactions inside the store are concluded. Why? Because on occasion, those with the golden tickets, so to speak, went up to pay, only to learn that they were maxed out on their credit cards. Meaning, of course, that a runner up took his/her place and bought the precious Wii.

No such luck, for us, this time, although, quite frankly, we really didn't want to benefit from someone else's misery.

Not to let herself get defeated easily, my wife ventured to the mall the very next day. Deploying starting-block speed worthy of a participant at the NFL's annual scouting combine in Indianapolis, she improved her position to fifth in line at the GameStop. Perhaps it was a little bold showing up the very next day, as our intelligence had told us that daily deliveries had been the exception. At any rate, she struck up conversations with alumni of the line from the day before, and then the moment of truth arrived. That morning, GameStop had 24 units to sell.

Needless to say, I could tell from my wife's tone of voice when she rang me at the office that she had been successful before she even could tell me. She did add that she felt a tad envious towards those who were numbers say 15-24, because she was eighth the day before and struck out while those virtual stragglers had come up with the prize, perhaps even on the first try.

Perhaps they should have gone out and bought Powerball tickets too.

So give the Wii to the kids we did, and they proceeded to play all sorts of games. The kids beat the living daylights out of us in bowling, box each other (using the Wii, of course, in virtual fashion) on occasion, get hustled by me in golf and have some fun on the tennis court. I blast everybody to smithereens on the shooting drill, but somehow manage to steer the cow into the fence more often than not in the cow races. I have tried to teach the kids the angles of a good game of eight-ball (and failed), and the hockey game draws some of the most vicious competition among all family members, otherwise serene Mom included. As a famous coach used to say, we play to win.

I also have discovered that amidst my daily workouts, I've developed some soreness in my right shoulder from swinging the Wii "stick" (or whatever they call it) to simulate a golf swing or bowling a bowling ball. Yes, Wii is lawyered up and has all the appropriate warnings about overuse on its packaging, and it's probably a good idea to deploy ice or at least ibuprophen if you get hooked initially and play too many games in too short a period of time, especially if you sit at a desk for a living.

Overall, though, the effort was worth it and the fun is there.

New Age gurus stress the importance of the journey over the destination, and, while we take some satisfaction from the journey, it really proved to be a pain in the butt.

The destination, though, is terrific.

What will they think of next?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Self-Righteousness Surrounding Al Golden at Temple

Why were so many Temple fans upset when UCLA was talking to Owls' head football coach Al Golden about the possibility of replacing Karl Dorrell as the head coach at UCLA?

Coaches move all the time, and Temple hadn't found a successor to Wayne Hardin until, well, Al Golden. Bruce Arians, Jerry Berndt, Ron Dickerson and Bobby Wallace all failed, most miserably. Hardin, a clever game coach who coached Heisman winners Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino at Navy, also was good at recruiting the Philadelphia Public and Parochial Leagues, the coal country of Pennsylvania and South Jersey. He gave Penn State fits a few times in the 1970's and did an excellent job on North Broad Street.

After Hardin, the program sank, almost into oblivion. They became a perennial DI doormat until a) the Owl left the Big East (okay, they really were ejected), b) they joined the Mid-American Conference and c) they hired Golden, a Penn State alum from Central Jersey who was the defensive coordinator at UVA. What a pedigree! What energy! And, seemingly, the Owls are on their way back, having put together two good recruiting years (and they're en route to a third).

Now, Temple isn't, say, Rutgers (at least not yet), and if you were a Rutgers' fan you would get upset with the prospect of a Greg Schiano talking with UCLA. Why? Because, believe it or not, the Bruins' job might not be a step up, especially when you're more known as a hoops school and you have USC in your backyard. But if you're a Temple fan, you have to understand why an Al Golden would talk to UCLA. It is a step up, has a better tradition, and is a pretty good job (and, yes, a much better job than the Temple one currently is).

Still, some Temple fans expressed their disappointment in the Philadelphia papers that Golden would look for another job. I was surprised to read of some of the rancor. Sure, Temple fans would be disappointed, because Golden has done a great job. But angry, expressing feelings of betrayal? Get over yourselves, and, at the same time, feel flattered that your once-dying program has quickly earned enough national respect for its head coach to get considered for a very good job. That says something about Al Golden and the job he's done for Temple.

Temple fans also had better get used to this type of attention. Golden isn't 40 yet, and if Temple has a .500 year or better next year, Golden will have done an (even more) amazing job in a very short time on North Broad Street. So much so that he could be a contender for a bigger job, much bigger. He's a Penn State alum, and Joe Paterno is 81, and there isn't a logical successor for JoePa (not Tom Bradley in State College, not Schiano, not Cal's Jeff Tedford). If Golden has a few more good years, who knows? Ditto UVA, where he coached the defense so ably. Head coach Al Groh isn't so young, either.

But this is a good thing for Temple fans. The attention Al Golden is getting means the program is in better shape, that the head coaching job is no longer the Last Chance Hotel of DI football and is much more attractive a position, and that the college football world thinks Temple can ably compete in the MAC. All very, very good.

I have been a Temple football fan since I can remember. My father played football for the Owls for a few years, and I recall going to many a game, first at Temple Stadium off Cheltenham Avenue in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, and then at Vet Stadium. I recall them playing before sellout crowds against Penn State, once at Penn's Franklin Field and the other at Veterans Stadium and a night game against West Virginia at Temple Stadium where they upset the Mountaineers and the players carried Coach Hardin off the field (this was pre-Gatorade shower time), and I recall seeing a cornucopia of good football players -- quarterbacks John Waller, Tommy De Felice, Steve Joachim and Marty Ginestra (an Earl Morrall-like relief QB if there ever was one), running backs like Henry Hynoski and Anthony Anderson, wide receivers like Jim Callahan and Steve Watson, offensive linemen like Skip Singletary, Jim Cooper and Joe Nedney, kicker Nick Mike-Mayer and punter Casey Murphy, defensive linemen like Joe Klecko, linebackers like Wayne Coleman and defensive backs like Chris Fletcher and Todd Bowles. Most of those guys played in the NFL, and under Hardin they thought they could beat everyone.

My father's been dead for a while and I live far enough away that I don't get to games, but I always find myself checking the scores on ESPN and in the papers, hoping that the Owls won. They remain an important connection for me to my father's memory, and I'm sure that he'd be flattered that a school like UCLA was interested in his team's coach.

It's about time.

Lee Corso's Great Point on Bowl Games. . . and More Observations

Coach Corso pointed out that teams were 1-7 with interim coaches coaching them in post-season bowl games. My guess is that the Vegas oddsmakers figured the coaching vacuums into the point spreads they set. Coach Corso's point was a good one -- that the assistants holding the fort together had their minds racing in many directions, and one in particular -- where will I be next year? Many of these assistants roam from city to city, campus to campus every three to five years, and it's usually the case that the new coach brings in his own team of assistants. As a result, they're not totally focused on the game. Given the turmoil that can ensue after a coach bolts, I'm surprised the overall record wasn't 0-8.

Coach Corso also pointed out that Michigan fared well despite Lloyd Carr's imminent retirement because the assistants have an additional year left on their contracts and probably were more focused. That doesn't mean, however, that they weren't wondering where they'll be next season, as I'm sure that it has to be the case that new coach Rich Rodriguez will be permitted to fire and hire whomever he pleases. You don't land a big-time coach like Rodriguez and confine him as to whom he may hire.

While it probably helped Michigan that it's assistants have a little more financial security than the average lame-duck assistant elsewhere, I'm sure that Florida's appalling pre-game stomping on the Michigan logo gave the Wolverines plenty of motivation to go Gator hunting. That type of tactic was more befitting of the U, and we all know now that the U at the moment isn't a fun place to play football. Florida's pre-game shenanigans were out of bounds, and Coach Meyer shoulders the responsibility for those actions.

Puttin' on the Foil, Coach. . .

Old-time hockey, kids on a frozen pond. . . okay, so 71,000 people watched the Sabres-Penguins game on a makeshift rink at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo yesterday, and it was great theater. It was very cold outside, a goalie wore a wool cap atop his head, there were ruts of snow on the ice, and the game ended in a shootout. And, whether you like shootouts or not, this shootout was good theater and one of the best in the game, Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, won it with his usual magic (it looked as though the puck was on a string). I'm not a huge hockey fan, and I turned the game on near the end, but the NHL and NBC did a good job.

Great day for the NHL.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Coaching Second-Grade Basketball

As the New Year approaches, I'd like to share my thoughts on our non-competitive league, where we have a 45-minute game each Saturday and one week night practice. So far, it's been a lot of fun and the kids have improved each week, but I have the following observations:

1. Our league's rules compel teams to play man-to-man defenses. I think this is a mistake, as does another dad, who's a middle-school teacher who coaches his school's boys' b-ball team. The reason: not every kid can handle the ball, a majority can't blow by a defender on a dribble, and not all understand the "triple threat" position. As a result, defenders play chest-up defense (even if they may not begin to guard opponents above the foul line and even if they may not double team, it's still hard for the refs -- HS kids -- to police those rules constantly), and passing has all but been eliminated. While, sure, purists love man-to-man defense, the rule that you have to play it constantly means that you've eliminated passing from all but very close distances.

2. Most kids don't have the fundamentals down. They're okay passers, and they can become decent defenders, but the dribbling is lacking. My guess is that the average kid isn't as good a ballhandler as the average kid was, say, 30 years ago. The reasons for this: 1) there are many more "little league" types of sports now than there were then, so kids don't play pick up hoops nearly as much as they did three decades ago, at least in suburbia, 2) the advent of dozens of TV channels and video games, making kids somewhat less likely to go outside and play, 3) the security consciousness of parents who don't want kids to roam the neighborhood gathering kids to play games the way they used to and 4) kids don't watch games as much on TV, which means they aren't picking up the nuances about the game that we did years ago (such as the importance of setting picks, cutting, etc.). Put differently, of the 9 kids on my team, only 4 can move the action significantly through the dribble. Of the five others, one is getting there, two sometimes dribble two-handed (and have to be reminded they can't), and two are wont to dribble in front of them, guaranteeing the ball will be slapped away.

We're drilling as much as we can, but I doubt that kids work on their games much, if at all. Why? First, it's cold in this neck of the woods, so kids won't get outside to practice. Second, they play games season to season, so they probably don't play much pickup in the off-season. Those who do will end up getting better. We'll keep on stressing the importance of dribbling, and hopefully our exhortations will resonate with the kids even after the season is over.

3. The kids work really hard and want to get better. They defend tenaciously, and they get into it. One kid really surprised me in our last game, about 2 weeks ago. He seemed tentative, but he guarded ably a kid who was several inches taller, much stronger and who called for the ball in the low post. The boy on the opposing team didn't score in the fourth quarter, and it was fun to see the smile on our player's face when I congratulated him on his effort.

4. They learn, but they're attention spans are short. We put in three new drills that helped solve a few problems. First, we started a "follow your shot" drill, where the kids take a mid-lane shot and then follow it up and get two more chances to put the ball in the basket. We also stressed to them that they needed to hit the boards when either our team shot or the other team did. We ask them a question: "who owns the ball?" and have them shout out "we do." Put differently, they're polite kids for the most part, and we want them to be more aggressive and go for the ball.

Second, we started a drill where, again, mid-lane, we toss them the ball chest high and teach them to shoot it once they catch it. Many kids are prone to trying to put in on the floor, and most will lose the ball. We worked that hard both in practice and before the game, and that drill resulted in our getting better shots and not losing the ball.

Third, we started a play to cure our most significant problem -- kids who either pick up their dribble and get stuck, with nowhere to pass because they're covered like a glove, or, alternatively, kids who are stuck because after they get the pass they're covered like a glove and aren't confident enough to put the ball on the floor. It's the old version of the dribble handoff, and what we do is have a kid dribble, with a teammate trailing him, and then have the dribbler stop and hand it off to the trailer, who then either drives toward the hoop or passes it back to the initial dribbler on a give-and-go. That play created many open looks in practice, especially among the four best players on the team. We also ask the kids a question: "What's the most important thing we do on offense?" They respond: "Protect the basketball." We have explained -- and they get it -- that they have to be careful with the ball when we have it and not lose it to the other team.

5. We still work on defensive slides, dribbling drills (including having the kids look up at me and shout out the number of fingers I'm holding up so that they get used to dribbling and not looking at the ball), passing drills (chest, bounce and overhead) and layup drills, and we'll probably teach a pick-and-roll soon. They're pretty eager to learn, they practice hard, and, in the end, and most importantly, they're getting good exercise and having a lot of fun. Typically, there aren't more than say 10 baskets scored in a game (although there is one kid whose mom played college ball who can shoot from outside; we haven't played his team yet).

It's fun to see how much the kids care -- a few keep score in their heads, even though we don't as a rule keep score. We've more than held our own, and thanks to a few books, watching games and even watching other teams practice, we've come up with some good practice plans to make things interesting. I look very much forward to the rest of the year and seeing more improvement from the kids.

The kids get frustrated because they aren't hitting that many shots, but we're making sure they're playing more under control and taking better shots. As I tell them, the thing about good shooters is that they aren't afraid to miss. That doesn't mean we want to turn these kids into gunners, but we want them to accept the fact that they have to take 'em to make 'em, and that they need to rebound from a few bad shots/misses and keep on working hard. So far they get that, and it's been fun to watch their determination.

Everyone gets to play 2 quarters in a game, and two kids each week get to play 3, and I rotate who those kids are every week. I try to split my top four into groups of two, to make sure that I have at least 2 ballhandlers on the floor each quarter. Sometimes there are 3, and that's when the team plays its best. The other kids are still learning the game. They know they need to get open on offense, but sometimes they are so far away from the action that only Chris Paul could find them open (and the average eight year-old can't begin to throw the ball that far). We encourage the parents to have their kids watch college games to get a better sense of the game, and it's hard to tell if anyone is actually doing that.

At any rate, there are always numerous plays each week to keep the kids coming back, and for me the greatest reward is to see the smile on a child's face after she or he has done something in one week that he couldn't do the week before. If my assistant coach and I can cause those smiles to recur weekly, then we're having a great time (and, hopefully, so are the kids).

Derek Anderson: Jon Kitna or Carson Palmer?

In the movie Casablanca, Captain Reynaud talks to Rick Blaine after Blaine has finished talking to a pretty woman. The expedient law enforcement officer offered the following advice: "Rick, you shouldn't dispense with women like that so easily. They may become scarce."

And so it is with starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Those who show that they can play -- and Anderson did enough of that in 2007 -- are not a commodity -- they're the exception. And therein lies Phil Savage's dilemma in Cleveland. He has a proven starter (albeit one who threw too many picks but who can improve) and a starter in waiting in Brady Quinn. Who does he choose, and does he have to pick one right now? Reports on ESPN indicate that the Browns are willing to listen to trade offers for Anderson.

Ben Franklin once said this about telling time: "He who has one watch always knows what time it is. He who has two is never sure." So, does Savage peddle Anderson, figuring that he'll only be an average to sometimes plus quarterback (a la Kitna) and go with Quinn, whom they drafted to be the franchise QB (a la Palmer), or, does he keep Anderson (a la the Falcons oh so many years ago) and peddle Quinn (who could turn out to be the next Brett Favre)? Of course, many years ago the Cowboys tried to split the starter's job between Steve Walsh and Troy Aikman, peddled Walsh, and, well, you know the rest of the story. Walsh failed elsewhere, but Troy Aikman won three Super Bowls and made the Hall of Fame. Most recently, the Chargers opted to elevate high draft pick Philip Rivers and let Drew Brees become a free agent. So far, that looks like a bad move by Chargers' GM A.J. Smith, because while Brees had a somewhat schizophrenic season (playing like Rip Van Winkle early and then his old, excellent self for the last 12 or so games), Rivers did less well (and Brees, of course, was brilliant two seasons ago). If you trade Anderson, will you regret it? If you trade Quinn and he excels, will you end up as a GM in the Arena League?

Savage has to pick one, but he might have some time. The Browns have invested more in Quinn, but is Quinn's star still the same as it even was after he dropped to become a late first-round pick, given the horrors that Notre Dame has endure this year and the tarnishing of the reputation of the Irish's head coach, Charlie Weis (translated: was Quinn ever really as good as people said?)? Or, can he wait a year, have a spirited competition in training camp, giving Anderson a year to improve and Quinn another season to learn, and then determine whether Anderson is in fact the real deal and Quinn attractive trade bait? That course of action might be the way to go.

In many ways, Cleveland's is a pleasant problem to have.

Only time will tell, however, whether Cleveland's solution is the right one.

The decision of the GM, of course, is the one on which reputations are cemented.