SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Princeton Prevails over Kent State

Observations:

1.  The Kent State bench is as animated a bench as I've seen.  Head coach Rob Senderoff is very demonstrative, and at times seemed like he was lecturing the officials.

2.  Good to see Pete Carril sitting with retiring A.D. Gary Walters.

3.  Spencer Weisz is accomplished beyond his year (freshman).  Particularly in the first half, Weisz had many hustle plays, some good rebounds and passes.  Look for him to be more of a factor going forward.

4.  Hard to figure what the coaching staff is thinking regarding forward Denton Koon, who seems to be the best athlete among Princeton's front liners.  It's probably the case that he's lost playing time to senior forward Will Barrett, who played beyond his comfort zone today.  My general view of Barrett has been that he's a big three-point shooter at 6'10", but nothing more.  Yet, today, he had 19 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and had a good game.  I still think he's a bit challenged defensively, but I might be missing something.  At game's end, when Tiger coach was making offensive-defensive substitutions, Barrett remained on the floor (Koon came in for Hans Brase).

5.  The Tigers played well together as a team.  There were many plays where the ball moved around quickly and there were multiple passes that led to inside baskets.  That type of determination and quickness of thinking helped them today.

6.  The Tigers' offense sputtered, though, in the second half, running down the clock to the mid-to-low single digits and then forcing the ball.  Somehow, either Kent State stepped up their help defense or the Tigers failed to adapt or ran out of gas a bit.  I think it was a combination of the three.

7.  The Tigers are a bit more interesting than they were last year, this despite the loss of Ivy Player of the Year, Ian Hummer.  Hummer was terrific, but at times I thought that the Tigers waited for him to bail them out when the shot clock ran down or deferred to him a bit much.  Also, last year the Tigers did not have either Jimmy Sherburne or Ben Hazel, both of whom are getting many minutes at guard.  Sherburne missed all of his five shots today, but Hazel is a decent three-point shooter who hit a few today.

8.  Last year, teams pressed Princeton because point guard T. J. Bray had to play almost the entire game, and the other ball handlers were a bit iffy.  This year, there seem to be enough ball handlers to nullify that option for the opposition.

9.  Bray his a terrific floor leader, a decisive passer, and determined driver, and an overall leader.  He sets the tone well.

10.  Princeton seems to have taken a page out of the book of Yale's James Jones.  Last year, the Elis beat Princeton twice because of a very good full-court trap and an offense that kept on moving.  The latter exploited a lack of quickness on the back line of the Tigers' zone.  Against Kent State, against both man and zone defenses, the Tigers kept on moving.  And it worked.

11.  A sign of a good team is that you can hold on and reverse a trend after blowing a 15-point lead.  Early in the second half the Tigers had many chances to blow it open, but Kent State kept on coming back.  Then, with about 1:45 to go, KSU took its first lead of the game.  But Princeton kept to its game, hit more foul shots than Kent State, fouled less, and eked out a four-point win.

While Princeton only finished fourth in the Ivies' pre-season poll, it's hard to figure that there are three Ivy teams that are better than they are.  Harvard remains the favorite, but Penn has struggled.  This Tigers' team, in contrast, has had an excellent pre-Ivy season, plays Liberty on Saturday and then Penn at the Palestra the following Saturday night.  It's important to go into the Palestra playing with confidence, and barring a collapse against Liberty (which did make the NCAA tournament last year), the Tigers should be in good shape for their trip to Philadelphia.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Clearing Off the Old Book Shelves

We just did a renovation project at our house -- it's been long overdue, and with our minimalistic approach to filling up a particular room (read:  we got rid of some bookshelves), we also have had to pare down the books that we've collected over the years.  I suppose one day historians will look back at paper and books and marvel how we learned, but for many books are a really personal, special thing.  Us included.

Sure, Kindles and iPads and such are green, which I'm sure is good, rain forests get preserved, etc., but there is something different about curling up with a good book in a big chair on a very cold day, cup of tea or coffee nearby, slowing down time and enjoying learning something.  Our books, I suppose, reveal the depths of our knowledge and values, and, once read, serve as reminders of something we learned or as totem, perhaps, of how accomplished we are (or not, depending on what's on the shelves).

At any rate, I have, over the years, donated books to our local book sale (without bothering to get a receipt or take a tax deduction, either -- it's not worth the trouble) as a means to help our library and, also to reduce the collection, so to speak.  Over the past week we donated over one hundred books, including, among others, the U.S. military historical novels of Jeffrey Shaara, plays that I read in college, historical photography books of Philadelphia, Ted Williams "The Art of Hitting .300," at least one copy of "A Catcher in the Rye," although few marvel about why J.D. Salinger was a recluse the way they once did say 25 years ago, the obscure Michael Chabon novel about something that happened in the 9th century (I confess I didn't get through it), some business-related books about Human Resources cultures (I confess that some of these I didn't get to reading), some classics from way back when, including Anthony Trollope's "The Way We Live Now," which foretold of the Bernie Madoff phenomenon about 125 years before it happened, and many others.

What also is a reflection of us is what we couldn't bear to part with -- everything by Richard Russo (if you say "who," buy a copy of "Empire Falls" and enjoy it), Stephen Sears wonderful histories of Civil War battles, and some very nice biographies of baseball greats that the North Carolina publishing house McFarland publishes -- among them, bookies on Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove and Hack Wilson.   I also kept books that people gave me, among them Bill Simmons' hilarious book on basketball, and books that friends wrote -- include a few thrillers that a college friend penned within the past ten years.  One of my favorites is an old copy of Lawrence S. Ritter's classic baseball book, "The Glory of Their Times."  Ritter, best known as a professor of money and banking at NYU, drove an old station wagon around the U.S. in the mid-1960's and interviewed baseball players from the turn of the 20th century.  My long-since-deceased father bought it for me when I was a young teenager, and I read it, spellbound and with great reverence.  And, there it sits, on a bookshelf, dog-eared but as a symbol of all that is right about childhood, father-son relationships and our national pastime.

I've kept Douglas Southall Freeman's four volumes on Robert E. Lee -- they won him the Pulitzer Prize and when I had a long train commute, I read every one of them, wanting to know what made Lee tick, compelled to fight as an underdog and for two years more after he lost at Gettysburg.   Those serve as a reminder as to what might have been had he headed up the Union Army when Lincoln and General-in-Chief Winfield Scott asked and for a long commute to a job whose lustre had faded about at the time that I had begun my reading.  Likewise, Robert Caro's amazing books on Lyndon Johnson survived the cut -- if you want to get an historical MRI as to how a master politician and legislative genius got head, these are the books for you.

It was a cold, overcast day, it needed to be done, and I had the energy to do it.  When you make up your mind to de-clutter, you just go ahead and do it and get a rush that you are making things simpler.  But then you slow down, reading an inscription of a blank journal that a friend from your graduate school days gave you, copies of First Day covers that you used to collect, programs from old games.  And you realize how fast time moves, what you've done, where you've been, and what you've accomplished.

All while slowing down time, very much so, to reflect on life, to reflect on your learning, and to reflect on the world around you.  We are not necessarily what we eat, with whom we associate or what we read.  But we are a reflection of all teachings, and books are a rich part of where we've gone, who we are, and where we've been.

And it was good to slow down time, at least for a while.  The end of the year -- and vacation days -- do that.

And that's a good feeling.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why Do Major Colleges Have Football?

I'm reading the book on major college football -- former SI writer Armen Keteyian is one of the authors, and one of the first points the authors make is that only 20% of the "big-time" programs make money.  So, if that's the case, and 80% of the programs lose money on football, why play it?

Everyone else has been faced with budget cuts.  Football is expensive -- insurance, equipment, stadiums, staffs -- you name it, football costs more per kid than any other player.  And this awful percentage doesn't even take into account FCS schools, almost all of which probably lose money (and make it up, in certain cases, by charging high student activity fees).  There are certain reasons cited -- getting the student body fired up, getting the alumni to donate -- but aren't these old bromides that lack empirical proof?

Atop that, kids get hurt over and over again, and certain kids, let's face it, get used.  They are kept eligible to glorify the school and help a coach keep his job.  But afterwards, they get discarded the way the old shoulder pads do.  See, for example, the Oklahoma State expose in SI.

So I don't get it.  I mean, I like my hometown pro team, and yes, homecoming at my school can be fun (especially because I can see old friends).  But in this day and age, why do so many schools go to the sometimes extraordinary expense to have a football program?  There are protestors on every university campus about everything -- and sometimes the issues do not even make any sense.  Where is the hue and cry about football when compared to the dropping of numerous sports for other kids?  Okay, so softball won't generate a dime for Temple University, and that gets to another line of thinking.

Why have intercollegiate athletics at colleges anyway?  Oh, sure, because Winston Churchill once wrote that the Battle of Britain was won on the playing fields at Eton, or something like that.  But does that mean that Eton had to beat another school, or was it through intramural athletic vigor at the heralded English boarding school?  Put differently, should universities be putting their extra dollars toward those programs and, say, not programs that might be better designed to help kids develop passions for careers that lead them to be good citizens and, yes, taxpayers?

The arguments can be endless, but the expenses can be great.  I didn't realize that so many programs lose money, but the reporting seems pretty detailed.  At any rate, I don't want to get anyone in the SEC or elsewhere all riled up during holiday season, but the questions need to be asked.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Amazing Year in English Premier League

So many teams are vying for the top spot.  And the perennial bellwether, the New York Yankees of soccer, Manchester United is at the bottom of the top ten!

Manchester City are the sluggers, great offensive firepower, just clocking the opposition now and perhaps -- with all their talent and money -- the team to beat.

Liverpool has emerged from the shadows, so to speak, of the top four and are pounding people.  With Lionel Messi injured, striker Luis Suarez, he of the sometimes questionable temperament, is vying for the honor of the best player in the world.  Great motor and a goal-scoring machine.

Arsenal has made the Champions League sixteen years and running despite not having won a cup of any kind since 2004, when it went undefeated and had its "Invincibles" squad.  Mentor Arsenne Wenger has perpetually tried to keep the team (relatively) young and has them playing at a good pace.  That said, the Gunners have stumbled as of late, owing to a hectic schedule and a lack of the depth that others have.

Chelsea is another big money team, and they have talent to burn.  They are a bit thin at striker, and they haven't made up their minds as to what to do with their midfield.  From this vantage point, they aren't deploying their talent nearly as well as more and less talented teams have been doing.

Everton is also playing at a high level, owing to some veterans (Jagielka, Pienaar, Mirallas), some youngsters (Barkley, Coleman) and some key loanees (Lukaku, Delofeu).  They are playing at a very high-level and are now in fourth place going into this afternoon's/evening's Arsenal/Chelsea match.

You also cannot count out Manchester United, which has been playing better of late despite losing striker Robin van Persie to injury, not having the best depth, and adjusting to life without legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson.  David Moyes cannot be as bad a manager as some are saying, for he did a clever job building Everton despite a pronounced lack of resources at Goodison Park.

Then there are Newcastle, with a French accent, and Tottenham, Arsenal's arch-rival in North London. The former have been playing a good brand of soccer, and the latter parlayed the loss of all-world player Gareth Bale into the signing of five pretty good players.  The problem at White Hart Lane, as it were, is getting everyone to adjust to one another -- and fast.  That lack of adjustment cost manager Andres Villas-Boas his position.

And, there are others, too . . . Stoke City, now at the bottom of the top 10, and Swansea, which is on the borderline of the top 10.  All this, of course, makes for a great season in the Premiership.

Yes, I am a stalwart Arsenal rooter, but I see City's talent rising and Liverpool's magic (even currently without legend Steven Gerrard), although I find the former vulnerable to a good, mistake-free team, especially on the back line and the latter subject to some implosion should things start not to go well and Suarez's losing his temper (which probably is inevitable).  I am not sure Everton can survive a dry spell and injuries, and the loaned players will ultimately revert back to their clubs, with Chelsea probably already ruing the second consecutive year loaning of Lukaku.

So, my predictions:

1.  Manchester City.
2.  Arsenal (particularly if they pick up a striker in January to complement Olivier Giroud)
3.  Liverpool
4.  Chelsea
5.  Manchester United (yes, they shall rise)
6.  Everton

That's it for now, perhaps some wishful thinking on my part, but there are many teams jumbled with between 28 and 36 points after 17 games (about 40% of the season), and the excitement should continue to build.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Arms Race in College Football

How much is enough?

We live in a world where profits are fewer, profit margins are lower, guaranteed employment is far from a sure thing and businesses face increased competition.  In the current climate, people seem to be fighting for inches where decades ago with an average effort they were gaining dozens of yards.  Atop that, the cost of college has skyrocketed, making one wonder when some students will lead a movement to say "enough," demand relief from student loans that sap their confidence to buy homes and start families, insist upon internship programs at companies that do not require college degrees or insist upon access to public universities for costs that rival France's (read:  very cheap).  

Add to that background certain faculty members that challenge the United States' claim to exceptionalism and public fret about colonialism and imperialism, and it makes you wonder why they don't challenge (i) the exploitation of certain major college sports programs, (ii) the costs attendant to major college programs, especially football and (iii) the salaries of head coaches.  At some point, people should be asking, "why are they doing this?"

What brought this home for me was a discussion on talk radio today about Chip Kelly.  The conventional wisdom was that if Texas were to really want him, they'd pay him $10 million a year.  That's a lot of money, period, let alone for the leader of an extracurricular activity at a major university. And while I get the arguments that football generates revenue and can pay for an entire athletic department's budget, are head coaches really worth all that money?  Then again, if a football program brought in $40 million and they paid the coach $10 million, wouldn't that ratio track that of your average big law firm, where partners might get one quarter to one third of the billings they generate?

I am ambivalent about the whole thing.  Yes, I understand the economics, but I do not understand why any school feels compelled to keep up with this arms race.  Especially at schools where the players are kept eligible, don't advance toward meaningful degrees and get tossed aside when they get hurt (see, e.g., Oklahoma State).  Where is the outcry about that?   Why is it okay to spend all this money on a game when some kids almost bankrupt themselves to pay for college?  Universities, after all, are designed to help further the public good.  So the question remains whether by putting forth a top-notch football team with a coach paid like an investment banker serves the public good more than taking all the money it would spend on, say 100 football players on financial aid so as to reduce the burden for thousands.  Just a thought -- and one of those kids could help cure cancer.

Something tells me that the hue and cry will come more for kids who are treated as disposable than overpaid coaches.

But even that might not happen for a while, if the lack of outrage at SI's Oklahoma State series is any indication.

An American's Guide to the Barclay's Premier League

Since you probably see the BPL advertised on NBC and shown a lot on NBC's sports channel, since some kid you know probably plays soccer (and many prefer it to baseball, because of the action -- you don't stand around much), and since the World Cup is coming up in 2014, I figured it would be a good idea to share some highlights and what I find to be appealing.

1.  It's in English.  That's helpful.  I was on a business trip to France recently and watched some wonderful games -- Lazio hosting Napoli before a half-filled house, La Ligue's #2 team, Lille, besting the #3 team, Marseilles, and a "red zone" like presentation on Canal One -- all in French.  I know enough of the game to figure out who is who and what's going on, but this is in English.

2.  It's in England, but all over England, with a few caveats.  First, the best teams come from one of three cities -- London (Arsenal, Chelsea), Manchester (United, City) and Liverpool (Liverpool and Everton).  The latter two are closer to one another than they are to London (which also has West Ham, Tottenham, Fulham and Crystal Palace among the 20 teams in the BPL).

3.  It seems like owning a BPL team has become the signature trophy for the "A" list of international capitalists.  A Russian oligarch owns Chelsea, a Middle Eastern oil sheikh owns Manchester City, the Boston Red Sox's owners own Liverpool, the Glazers (who own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) own Manchester United (the New York Yankees of international soccer) and Stan Kroenke, who owns the St. Louis Rams, Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets, is the majority owner of Arsenal.  Paul Allen hasn't arrived in the BPL. . . yet.  

4.  There is no salary cap.  That helps the uber-wealthy, but disables squads in places that aren't on the beaten path and perhaps have no hope of making it into the Top 4 in the BPL (where you get cash and prizes; more later).  Arsene Wenger, the respected Arsenal coach who has guided the Gunners to 16 straight Champions Cup appearances, believes that the lack of cap hurts competitiveness.  He might be right.  I couldn't imagine being a fan of Fulham.  It's in London, but it's status in the Premiership is in peril.  Too frequently.

5.  There are no playoffs.  (There's a funny YouTube video on this involving the transfer of a U.S. football coach to Tottenham).  If you finish in the top 3, you automatically qualify for the Champions' League (which gets played during the regular season) -- and which draws the top teams from leagues around Europe.  If you finish fourth, you qualify for a play-in series to make it into the Champions League.  If you finish fifth, you make it into the Europa League, which is ostensibly what the FCS is to the BCS.  Put differently, the Europa League is for the best teams that didn't make it into the Champions League.

6.  You play a home and home with everyone else in the league. 

7.  You get two points for a win and one for a draw. 

8.  There are no penalty flags, no technical fouls, but there are fouls.  A foul involves the other team's getting possession or a penalty kick.  A rough foul will get a player a yellow card; pick up two in a game and that gets you a red card and an ejection.  Pick up five yellows over the season and that will earn you a suspension from the game after you picked up the fifth yellow card.  Commit a very rough foul or a foul that costs the other team a good chance to score -- and you'll get a red card and an automatic ejection (and with a red card comes a suspension from the next game).

9.  The bottom three teams get relegated to the next league down.  Translated, if your team finishes 18th, 19th or 20th, you'll be playing in English soccer's equivalent of the Nationwide Tour.  The top three teams from the Championship League, as the second-tier league is called, get promoted to the BPL.  And that means cash -- it could be worth 50 million English pounds.  Which the team will need to compete for talent to win enough in the BPL to stay there.  And staying there is hard.  Almost every team in the Championship League has had a stay -- sometimes long -- in the BPL

10.  The game does move well, and the athletes are very good.  The best U.S. athletes don't play soccer, but imagine Calvin Johnson as a goalie, Chris Paul as a central attacking midfielder, Allen Iverson as a wing, and dream on.  Some of the best international players -- if they are not playing for Real Madrid, Barcelona or Athletic Madrid in Spain, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Roma or Juventus in Italy, PSG in France or Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund in Germany -- are playing in the BPL.

11.  Among the best players in the Premier League are Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, Manchester City's Sergio Aguero (Diego Maradona's son-in-law), Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany, Liverpool's Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez (a goal-scoring machine), Chelsea's Oscar, Juan Mata and John Terry, and Manchester United's Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney.  Among many, many others.

12.  The World Cup is coming up fast, and the U.S. drew a "group of death" with Germany (among the favorites), Portugal (always dangerous) and Ghana.  Conventional wisdom has it that many South or Central American teams will make it to the "knockout" round of 16, including Brazil (11th in the world but the home country), Argentina (with the reigning "best player in the world," striker Lionel Messi), Ecuador (who got a very easy draw), Uruguay (with both Suarez and PSG's superlative striker, Edson Cavani), Chile, Colombia (one of the top five in the world, with another premier striker, Falcao), Mexico (who played terribly in qualifying and just eked in).  Among the others to watch are Germany (with an all-star starting lineup), Spain (the defending champions who add excellent striker Diego Costa to an already formidable lineup, but who looked a step slow last summer when they lost the Confederations Cup final to host Brazil) and Belgium (another team with an all-star lineup).  England, France and Italy always should be watched, but they probably won't make it to the semifinals in Rio in July.

Enjoy!