Sunday, January 26, 2014

Rest in Peace, Tom Gola

My father died over a quarter century ago, and, with him, started to die a generation of people who could tell good stories.  Part of the reason they told good stories is that they didn't have the internet, videos, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook and all of the other sites to tell their stories for them.  They had to speak, they had to change their cadence, they had to pause, they had to talk fast, then slow, all to create a mood and bring back memories.  Memories of small gyms, of when Philadelphia was the center of the college basketball universe, of when the likes of Villanova, Temple, Penn, Temple and St. Joe's played at the Palestra, the palace of the basketball Gods, and when players like, well, Bill Mlkvy, the Owl without a Vowel, became a two-time first-team all-American, only to be eclipsed by LaSalle's great forward Tom Gola, who became both a two-time first-team all-American and a two-time Player of the Year.

They talked of gyms and parishes and games and neighborhoods, and pick-up games and playgrounds and summer games, games in the mountains and games at the Jersey shore, about when Earl the Pearl parked his Rolls in the middle of Broad Street and then lit up a Baker League game for 50 points in the second half (okay, so that was over ten years later), and they talked of guys like Rodgers, Lear, White, Arizin, Melchionni, Baum, Pawlak, Littlepage, Hankinson, Morse, Durrett, Porter, Ford, Siemientowski, Inglesby, and, well, my memory of the legends has faded a bit.  Perhaps it's because, well, those games took place a long time ago, and perhaps it's because I haven't been around the guys who could tell the stories the way my dad and some of his friends could.  But Bill Raftery can still tell those stories.  So can Sonny Hill.  And many others.

Tom Gola was a great player.  One of the best.

He will be missed.

You can read a short obituary here.

The Frozen Tundra

NFL Films has become an institution, and what helped cement its legacy early on not only was the deep-voiced narration of John Facenda (also a local news anchor in Philadelphia), but his epic line about the 1967 Ice Bowl in Green Bay between the Cowboys and Packers, referred to Lambeau Field as "the frozen tundra."  That game, like the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Colts and the Giants in New York, helped begin what became football's pushing baseball aside as the National Pastime (sorry, baseball fans, for while you may argue eloquently of the beauty of the sight lines, the lack of violence, the fact that you went with your grandfather and that football is so popular because it's the easiest sport to bet on and many people do, football wins because of its ratings, its action (the ball is in play for only 15 minutes of a 3 and a half hour baseball game) and the curious fact that the traumatic brain injury scandal hasn't stained the game the way the steroids era has hurt baseball).  

Fast forward to this week, when the polar vortex (which, according to meteorologists, always exists) has pushed its way far down into the U.S., particularly to Northern New Jersey, where, if you don't like wearing warm boots, layers, scarves, warm hats and gloves, it is just awfully cold.  While the Middle Atlantic region can experience temperatures from 20 degrees to 90 degrees in the same year, having an extending period of below twenty degrees or above 90 is pretty rare.   Now, though, we've had an extended freeze, with temperatures in the teens and going into the single digits at night.  Most football experts argue that the cold is something all teams can deal with, but the wind is something that teams struggle with.  Denver experiences the cold but is sunny much of the year, while Seattle is warmer and wetter.  The thing is, twenty degree temperatures with twenty-mile per hour winds at night is just flat out cold.  We might see a legendary game, or we might see fans suffer from exposure and the game slow down because the ball is hard to grip and, well, generally players play better when they're looser.

Good players will tell you, though, that the weather is the same for both teams, in the same vein that they say that you cannot argue about teams' records because "you play who you play" and have zero control over the scheduling.  The Broncos and Seahawks are professionals, and this is their biggest game, so they'll be ready, and, no doubt, their equipment managers are figuring out things about layers, balms, gloves, cleats and the like to keep their players the best prepared.  No doubt that the Packers' and Patriots' staffs have probably fielded the most phone calls about preparation for the cold.  And, yet, there will be many players who will not wear layers and who will play just wearing their short-sleeved shirts, a la the Giants' offensive line in the NFC championship game a few years back in Green Bay, when they upset the Packers.

Typically, the NFL hosts a huge, outdoor extravaganza during Super Bowl week.  I have not read up on what the NFL has prepared and where it will take place, but all I can offer is that it's pretty cold out there.  Casual walks of the dog require a scarf to keep your neck warm, one to cover your face, a warm, woolen hat, a NorthFace shell underneath a down jacket, and warm, Gore-Tex lined boots.  Wear all that, and your warm.  Wear all that at a stadium, and, well, I think you need a little more.

A few years back my son and I went to the NHL's Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.  It was above freezing at game time, but as the sun dipped so did the temperatures.  We wore turtlenecks, wool sweaters, a shell beneath our heavier coats, long underwear, warm boots, the two scarves, hats, gloves, took blankets and something to sit on and something to put beneath our feet (a Sunday newspaper can suffice).  The reasons for the latter came from experience, because a rear end on cold plastic refrigerates the same way feet do on concrete.  Those buffers helped, and generally we were okay, except when wind gusts blew through (it didn't help that the humidity was somewhat high because it flurried during the game, so it was damp outside).  We enjoyed the experience, in large part because a) we were prepared and b) we had binoculars.

Sports fans in the northern regions of the country know about layers and how to be prepared, and no doubt football teams have great insight as to how to get ready.  But typically we expect the weather not to be a factor in a contest that determines who the best team is.   This weekend, like it or not, the weather will be a factor.

Because when it's really cold outside, you cannot help but notice it.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Coaching 7th and 8th Grade Basketball

This is my second year coaching this age group.  It's tough enough when you have only one practice a week (which inclement weather can interrupt), and it's even tougher with this age group for a few reasons.  First, the average kid is figuring out who he is and doesn't always want to listen.  Second, the size difference between a 7th grader and an 8th grader can be pronounced (read: try working an offense with high screens when the other team can have a 6'2" kid hang out in the lane).  Third, some kids should not be playing -- their parents sign them up for something to do, but they have little interest in playing and zero interest in listening.  They'll just do what they do, which means not defend, hoist the ball at every opportunity and, ultimately, be a questionable teammate at best, particularly because many do not watch the games the way their parents did years ago.  The reasons for that are simple -- plenty of other options, being over scheduled or, plain and simple, first-person shooter video games.

So, what do you do against this backdrop.  First, you have to be realistic with your size and talent.  It could be that you just cannot win because you don't get enough of either.  Regardless of what talent you get, I suggest dividing practice into thirds.

The first twenty minutes should focus on fundamentals, such as shooting off the low blocks (two diagonal lines moving toward each wing from the low block, two basketballs, with kids trying to bank the ball off the backboard and in -- this creates muscle memory for when they get the ball down low) and then a shooting drill where you have two horizontal lines moving toward the wings from the elbow with one side running to the center of the lane and the other throwing a chest pass to them -- this is a good catch-and-shoot drill).  After this, I recommend a "jab step" drill where one kid guards the other closely and the ball handler is in the "triple threat" position trying to get a step on him and then power past him (he can jump stop and pump fake, among other things, to try to score).  I try to match up kids by ability so that we don't have the least talented going against the best player.  After that, I might try a rebounding drill, where one line starts on the baseline behind the basket and the other starts near the foul line.  The line behind the baseline has the ball, and the player there throws a pass to the kid at the foul line, who is supposed to miss, and then the passer and he try to grapple for the rebound).  Those four drills can take twenty minutes.

The second twenty minutes focuses on offensive principles, such as passing and cutting (and reminding the kids, believe it or not, that when they move without the ball they are supposed to keep their hands up to present a target), gives and gos, picks and rolls, a dribble drive play, a drill to remind kids to look to openings on the weak side because when the point guard goes to his right, so goes the defense, which means the weak side can be wide open.  I won't go into details here -- if you're coaching these kids that means you have coached for years and know what works for you -- but one of the key things I've learned is that you need to coach the kids to create space on offense, especially if your league permits zone defenses (which I think is silly at this level and under this construct because the kids should be taught how to defend, period) and because some kids are so big.  We also emphasize the use of bounce passes in traffic, because almost every chest pass will get stolen in traffic.  (Actually, the first day of practice I run two drills -- I have each kid try to dribble between two defenders and then have each kid try to throw a chest pass by a defender to a teammate -- both fail from the get go, the kids laugh heartily, but they get the point).  We also remind them not to dribble the ball into the corner and not to pick up their dribbles -- by this time, the veterans get that.

The third twenty minutes we might go into the basics of an offensive set -- such as a 1-4 stack, work bounce passes into the post, back-door cuts from the wing, having a post player back pick for a wing player, but it is a lot harder to work on this than you think, and even if you have a set play or two, it might work once before the other team will figure it out and, perhaps, even jump the passing lanes to deny the play.  So, it seems to make sense to have the kids keep moving, cutting, passing, picking high and creating space.  As with other sports -- lacrosse and soccer -- you can't score if the ball isn't near the goal, so we also emphasize for the kids to get the ball toward the basket and shoot.  Some kids can be reluctant, but you have to remind those who think they're not as talented that if they get within a certain number of feet, say within ten (some its further out) that they need to shoot it.

Before you say, "well, what about defense?", I would add that hopefully the kids have the "gotta/wanna/haveit" to try to deflect the ball, stay low, slide, stay between their man and the basket and all that good stuff.  Early in the season you might want to try a defensive slide drill (we did this when the kids were younger) and have them slide and slap the floor in order to remind themselves that when they stay low enough, they move better.  By this age, though, you probably won't need to do all that much except -- and this is key -- remind them about switching and then providing help defense (especially in the lane, and especially when the other team's point guard blows by your defender and has an open lane to the basket).

Generally speaking, it's best to appeal to their sense of teamwork.  I gave them four basic principles to think about at the beginning of the season, as follows:

1.  Be a supportive teammate -- be encouraging, cheer, communicate with each other.
2.  Share the basketball and create space -- don't just stand around -- make something happen.
3.  Work as hard as the kid on the team who plays the hardest -- honor the good efforts of others.
4.  Have fun.

If the kids do that, they'll have a good experience, and winning will be a by-product of fundamentals and those principles.

That said, you will run into all sorts of opposing coaches.   There will be those who will try to play their best players extra quarters when lesser players are absent (even if the league rules prevent it), those who will yell out annoying things to counter your instructions to your team (I actually had a coach respond to every bit of my instructions to my team by yelling to his, "that's okay, they can do that all they want, but we'll still beat 'em"), and those who get on the referees too much.  The problem with rec leagues -- which are supposed to be fun -- is that you can get frustrated if you try to play by all the rules (including a no double-teaming rule).  The reason is that the refs officiate at the middle school and high school level, where things that might be outlawed in your league are permitted, so it's not totally within their nature to make the calls to enforce your league's rules.  Some coaches will take advantage of that and coach deliberately to violate the rules, but it's more likely that the kids will gamble and defense and double-team because they do so in the school yard.  My view is to ask a question of the refs as to what they're calling and then leave it alone, out of a view that basketball is hard to officiate and that they're probably blowing it equally for both teams (although sometimes it doesn't seem that way, usually when you're losing -- :).  At any rate, always remember that it's the rec league, that you won't win every game, and that it's frustrating, especially when you're losing to a goofball coach.   That said, again, remember -- it's the rec league.  It's not your job, and it's not the kids' ticket to anything other than organized exercise and fun.

So, I hope that this is helpful.  I know that kids talk about their teams in school and that sometimes kids get on one another for their play, especially if they want to pick on the tall, gangly kid for not being better, the pudgy kid for not being able to move quickly or the short kid for not being able to mix it up.  But remember this -- everyone can make a contribution -- by defending his man, by providing help defense, by screening, by deflecting the ball, by tying it up.  True, you need scorers, but at this level if you defend well and take the ball away, you can create opportunities on offense before the other team's defense gets set, when usually it's easier to score (as one Civil War cavalry general said about the secret to his success, "I get there first with the most men.").

At the end of the day, you hope that your league's administration creates equal teams with the chance for each kid to make a contribution and for all kids to get a good run in.  If you want more than that, and if your kid is a top player and your family has the time, seek out travel ball and more competitive situations.  But the key to a good rec league is not fierce competition that has dads at each other's throats, but one that mixes both the opportunity for teamwork and exercise with a change to develop an appreciation for a great game, a chance for good teamwork and a chance to build skills.

If you only have an hour a week of practice, there's only so much you can do.  As many coaches will tell you, once the game starts, there isn't much that you can do.  What you can do, though, is watch closely enough and then pick out things to work on in the next practice.  And then it's fun to watch the kids eyes light up when they "get it" and play better together as the weeks progress.  That's what the rec league should be all about.

Have fun!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Penn 77 Princeton 74 at the Palestra

I took my 14 year-old son to the Palestra for the first time tonight, where Penn defeated Princeton in a hard-fought battle before 6400 fans.  Here is the box score.

Here are some observations:

1.  My son, on the Palestra:  "It's like going to the basketball version of Fenway Park."  I couldn't have said it that well.

2.  Me, on the rivalry:  "With Harvard as the preeminent team in the league, the atmosphere is less charged.  Without a sellout, the atmosphere just isn't as intense."  Penn Coach Jerome Allen could not have been pleased that his athletic department scheduled the game while Penn students seemingly were not on the campus.  The Penn student section usually is loud and helpful to the home team at men's ball games.  Tonight, they were absent.  The rivalry is at it's peak when the schools are vying against each other for a title.  That's not the case now.

3.  On the game itself:  Princeton's interior defense has been lacking for several years under Mitch Henderson.  Tonight was no different.  Princeton had trouble guarding Penn's bigs, and Penn out-rebounded Princeton big-time.  Mostly, that was the story of the game.  Penn's huge center, Darien Nelson-Henry, is a bit of a puzzle.  He is not a very good basketball player -- he doesn't defend well, and he has no post game.  When he floats in the lane and gets a pass, he's very effective  at putting the ball into the hoop (and putting is a good verb for him) (and he's an excellent free throw shooter).  But when fronted, he doesn't get the rock, and if he gets it with his back to the basket, he struggles.  If he were a six-footer, he'd probably be in the stands.  That said, give him credit, he played great in the first half, particularly early, when Princeton had no answer for him when he did so much damage early in the first half (they solved for him at half-time).

4.  That said, Penn's 6'8" big, Fran Dougherty, is a much better basketball player.  He was a driving force for the Quakers tonight, banging inside, rebounding, and just being an overall hustling star for Penn and nuisance for Princeton.  Nelson-Henry might get more attention, but if Penn is to make a run in the Ivies, they'll rely much more on Dougherty, especially because teams will watch Princeton's 1-3-1 defense against Penn in the second half and neutralize Nelson-Henry.

5.  As for Princeton, they need to develop a better third option on offense than they are showing right now.  T.J. Bray has the heart of a lion, but how many times can Princeton rely on his posting up and going 1 on 3, sometimes against the other team's big men?  He was a hero tonight, as was somewhat one-dimensional Will Barrett, who not only hit threes but hit clutch threes.  I suppose if Nelson-Henry had a game or Barrett was more of a defender or rebounder, they wouldn't be at Penn and Princeton, they'd be at bigger time schools.  Both were credits to their teams tonight.  That said, for Princeton, while Hans Brase played point center from behind the three-point line most of the night (to draw out Penn's bigs), he needs to develop more confidence in his three-point shooting (a la Steve Goodrich).  The shot were there, but since he didn't look for them, Penn's defense sagged off and created a bunch of trouble for Princeton's other players.  Likewise, it would be great to see more from frosh guard Spencer Weisz, who scored ten and had moments of brilliance.  Guard Ben Hazel also had his moments, too, and the Tigers stole the ball 11 times.  Still, it was the lack of defense against Penn's bigs and the lack of weak side defense that hurt the Tigers.  Pete Carril's teams sometimes didn't give up 77 points in two games.

6.  While the officiating troika of Messrs. Alvaro, Kelly and Ostwalt didn't cost anyone the game, they blew a few major calls in the waning minutes that cost Princeton.  Among them was failing to see that Penn had six men on the court after an inbounds play (they gave the Quakers a get out of jail free card for that, instead of a technical foul and the ball to Princeton) and then, in the final 10 seconds, Will Barrett was hacked going up for a two-footer, and there was no foul.  Instead, a scrum ensued, and the refs called a foul on Hans Brase that fouled him out.   I don't know what game they were watching, but they missed a big call at a critical time.   I think that they generally called a loose game, a game that benefitted a team with Penn's size, and usually the smaller teams do not get the calls.  But they did blow those calls near the end, and they did have an effect on the outcome (showing that eyewitness accounts aren't always reliable -- the refs miss things too).  Atop that, though, the Tigers didn't defend well enough or rebound nearly well enough to win.  To win at the Palestra, you need to go on runs that consist of good shooting and then stopping your host team consistently -- for several series in a row -- and I don't think that the Tigers held Penn without a basket tonight for more than three consecutive possessions during the contest.  You also need to get a big enough lead that inconsistencies or blown calls from the refs don't make a difference in the outcome.

7.  This game was a crushing disappointment for the Tigers.  They went into the game on a roll with a great pre-season record, only to run into an under-achieving team with a returning huge center whom they couldn't solve early.  Then, they lapsed into bad habits of the kind they did in otherwise good games against George Mason and Kent State, where they got out-quicked, out-muscled and forced to draw upon athleticism that they do not possess.  Given Penn credit, they played their game much more than Princeton did, and they took Princeton out of it's back-door cuts after about 5 minutes while the Tigers couldn't solve for Nelson-Henry until after half-time.  All that contributed to a hard-fought, narrow victory for Penn.

8.  Penn pressed Princeton early, and disastrously so.  Had the Quakers continued with their press throughout the game, they would have lost by 10 or more, as the Tigers got a lot of easy baskets off the press.  When Penn figured out that it could clog up the lane, take away the back-door layups and force Princeton to play a perimeter game, it did take the chance that the Tigers could hit a lot of threes.  As it turned out, they didn't make enough of them.

9.  I am one for two in pre-game communications with Ivy coaches.  Last year, I complimented Coach James Jones of Yale on his coaching before a game at Jadwin.  He thanked me and then went on to coach a great game against Princeton and beat the Tigers on the road.  Tonight, we were sitting about 10 rows behind the Princeton bench, and Coach Henderson's gaze met mine about five minutes before the game.  I gave him a thumbs up sign, he waved, and I thought that was a good omen.  Note to file:  avoid contact with any coaches of your team or their opponents -- it does zero good.  I helped Princeton lose -- twice.

10.  Penn kept showing images of Matt Maloney, who played great games against Princeton along with Penn coach Jerome Allen (the Quakers were 42-0 when those two constituted Penn's backcourt and won three straight Ivy titles).  I joked with my friends that I wondered whether they were going to show clips of what I think was the '99 game, when the Tigers rebounded from a 33-9 halftime deficit (they trailed 40-15 with 15 minutes to go) to edge the Quakers 50-49 in a game Sports Illustrated computed was the fifth best comeback in NCAA history (historians will note that while the Tigers won the game, they lost in double OT the following Friday night at Yale to an Eli team that would go 4-24 on the season, and Penn would go on to win the Ivies).  Perhaps wanting clips of that video showed in the Palestra was wishful thinking.

11.  When did they take my parking lot at 34th and Chestnut across from Penn Law School, gentrify it, turn it into a mall featuring Eastern Mountain Sports and take away that parking and parking behind the Palestra?

12.  Governor Rendell was there, looking natty in a blue sweater and khaki pants, smiling widely.  This is one event and one location where I want him to look pissed.  Really pissed.  Didn't happen tonight.  I happen to like the silence of a road arena after my team has won -- it's one of the sweetest things to hear.  Didn't earn that right tonight.

13.  Noted with amusement that the same school that gave us "Penn-Prinecton" tickets to a football game at Franklin Field years ago ("Prinecton was the actual spelling) has a band that played "Eye of the Tigers" from "Rocky."  Note to Penn students:  Princeton's mascot, is, um, the Tigers.   Might want to remember that next time your team plays Princeton.

14.  Was that a Steve Mills sighting in the comfy seats behind the Princeton bench for about the first fifteen minutes of the game tonight?  The former second-team all-Ivy guard who played for an Ivy title team his senior year is now president of the Knicks (who were in town to play the 76ers).  

15.  There is no better place to watching a college bball game than at the Palestra, one of the true foundations of major college basketball.  Great, great place to watch a game.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Reflections on the Terminations of Chris Wheeler and "Sarge" Mathews

I suppose that it was inevitable that after Comcast ponied up huge bucks for the long-term TV contract for the Phillies (something which I think will prove to be a bad bet, and not just because of the Phillies' fortunes, but also because of changing preferences and demographics) that they would want to make changes in the broadcast booth.  To be blunt, the broadcast booth lost the magic it once enjoyed when you had Harry Kalas doing play-by-play and Richie Ashburn doing the color.  Both got along like best friends, Kalas with the dulcet tones and knowledge and Ashburn with a great sense of humor, who, more importantly, was a great story teller.  Contrast that with Wheeler, a long-term Phillies employee who some fans never forgave for being a shill for the team during the awful era when Bill Giles served as president (Giles called the team, located in the nation's fifth-largest media market, a "small-market" team and Wheeler defended every move management and boneheaded players made).  Wheeler was knowledgeable (although prone to making "Captain Obvious" points), kind by all accounts (the talk-show radio guys during drive time praised him for his courtesy) and a good radio teammate (he even had to put up with Kalas's "extracurriculars" during his time with Kalas), but the magic was lacking.  And Mathews, while also a likeable guy (much more so than the Oscar the Grouch of broadcasting, Phillies' radio color man, Larry Andersen, perhaps still smarting from the fact that the Red Sox traded Jeff Bagwell for him), also lacked the magic of Ashburn.  The Phillies even had gone so far as to poll fans about their broadcasters several years back.

So, now they begin anew, looking for a new color commentator.  Some former players have distinguished themselves on their air -- John Kruk, for his humor (although most adults wouldn't leave San Francisco to live in Philadelphia) and Mitch Williams, who has been very insightful about the game in general (although some still haven't forgiven him for giving up the Series-ending home run to Joe Carter in 1993).  They are probably out.  So, among the alums, there is Ricky Bottalico, who works the pre-game on Comcast (good guy, insightful, but is he enough of a humorous story teller to go nine innings?), Doug Glanville (an all-time good guy and University of Pennsylvania graduate), Curt Schilling (a potential Hall of Famer pitcher but also a clubhouse pain in the putt and not known for humor) and Brad Lidge, the name that has emerged recently (has a degree from Notre Dame, but, in the world of color commentary, so what?  Can he entertain?).

Naturally, someone with a connection to the city and the team's past would be the best fit.  It doesn't have to be a former star, but it has to be someone with good knowledge, good insight and a sense of humor.  Andersen was reputed to be among the funniest Phillies when he played, but that hasn't translated to an on-air persona.  While Pat Burrell reminded some fans of "Beauty and the Beast"'s Gaston, his teammates also thought him to be hilarious.  Yet, he didn't have the best rapport with the fans, although they came to appreciate him for his efforts at the end of his time in the city (along with the fact that he rode with his bulldog, Elvis, in the victory parade in '08). 

This is a huge decision for Comcast, one they need to get right.  Few might come out publicly to say that Wheeler and Mathews were lacking, but the broadcasts at times were labored, weren't entertaining, and Wheeler was too much of a "company" man on air, although, to his great credit, he had more leeway to be critical later on in his career and did a better job of pointing out flaws than he had earlier in his career.  It's sad to see anyone lose a job and a career end, but the hope for Comcast and fans is that they preserve the best of the old-school commentary while bringing in the best of the new.  They shouldn't look for another Ashburn; they should look for the next star.

The 76ers had the all-time P.A. announcer in Dave Zinkoff; today they have D.J. Matt Cord (whose low voice when the opposing team scores strikes me as disrespectful and who is not all that entertaining, especially when compared to the Zink).  P.A. announcers have much more of a script to follow than broadcasters, but the 76ers still have not found a worthy successor to the Zink after decades.  The Phillies need to invest in a good TV color man, and not turn the position into the equivalent of playing 3B for the Mets before they found David Wright.

I haven't heard Lidge comment, but of the others I mentioned who might be available, I think that Kruk would be the best bet -- if they can land him.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Holding the World Cup in Qatar

FIFA has announced that they won't stage the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 during the summer because the average temperature is 106 degrees.  So, they'll try to move it into the November-January time frame, thus interrupting soccer leagues' schedules everywhere.

One would have thought that while it got drunk on the "internationalization" of the World Cup, FIFA still would have been sober enough to figure out that it's too darn hot in the summer time in Qatar.  You would have thought that with all the political types who serve on FIFA, they would have been savvy enough to figure out that it's too darn hot in the summer time in Qatar.  Honestly, what were they thinking?

Sounds about as bright as holding the Super Bowl in the New York area in February.

Perhaps FIFA and the NFL are related.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Dennis Rodman's Freak Show Continues

Read about it here.

He's arranged a hoops game in North Korea to honor the birthday of the dictator.

He calls it basketball diplomacy.

It's funny, because I recall having read an article about Rodman's father, Philander Rodman, Senior, who fathered perhaps 15 plus kids and was the bartender at a joint across what had been a naval base in the Philippines but at the time had long since closed.  The town and place were decrepit, and the Wall Street Journal reporter offered that the place was the last stop on the road to hell.

Which seems appropriate, because it seems that his most famous son is traveling down that road.  I mean, what could be more awful than staging a hoops game for a brutal dictatorship.  This is hell's version of "The Truman Show," where some bureaucrat, obviously afraid of not returning home for dinner, will say, "Cue the Fun," and the average North Korean extra at the game will cheer madly in order to give the dictator what he wants.

You wonder what and where else are on Rodman's itinerary.

Next stop:  Iran.

Reflections on the Philadelphia Eagles' Season

Going into the season, fans were skeptical.

Things happen in threes, and for owner Jeffrey Lurie, he had jettisoned his longstanding president, Joe Banner, his coach, Andy Reid, and then his wife, Christina, trading all of them in for younger (and perhaps more innovative) models.

On the hotseat were Lurie, who, while having succeed, still hadn't won a Super Bowl, and GM Howie Rosenman, who had never played football and drew the criticism (sometimes scathing) from critics (had his name been Joe Smith, I wonder if he would have draw the bludgeoning he did so frequently and fervently).  But Rosenman and Lurie persisted in finding Reid's successor, remembering well the Human Resources adage that if you're going to replace someone good, you had better find someone who is better.  Well, Reid was good, it's just that most gave up on the fact that he could be great and win a Super Bowl.  The list of fired coaches looking for work was vast, but the Eagles persisted after being turned down originally and landed a four-year college head coach, then 49 year-old Chip Kelly, an offensive innovator from Oregon.  And they got their man.

And, of course, the skeptics came out again.  Would he just be "Joe College?"  Would he be able to adapt to the NFL, where the head coach is more of a benevolent dictator than the absolute strongman that he can make himself in college (who gets a scholarship, who gets the scholarship renewed, etc.).  Would his "Oregon" offense work in the NFL, without getting the quarterback (Michael Vick, he of many injuries) killed?  Would it work with a slow-footed Nick Foles, who presumably was not made for the Kelly offense?

Sure, the offensive line looked promising, the receiving corps solid and the starting running back a second coming of Barry Sanders.  But the defense was about as comforting as the thought of having Liechtenstein's national guard trying to prevent Tiger tanks from getting into eastern France, with the defensive backfield looking to be as effective as the Swiss Navy.  It's one thing to worry about your players' sleeping and eating habits, but regardless of all that, unless they can play, you're just creating higher-performing marginal players.  And then Kelly hired Billy Davis, a position coach from Cleveland, kind of a last man standing given media reports that others had turned him down.  Davis is no spring chicken, and Cleveland's defense did not evoke comparisons to the Steel Curtain or Purple People Eaters.  Sorry, but the legend of Jim Johnson still casts a big shadow, even if the first person anointed to succeed him (Sean McDermott) is now thriving in Carolina.

Going into the season, most fans thought that Kelly would run his system and fail because he didn't have the players to run it.  Oh, the Birds would go 6-10, re-load through new year's draft, and the move forward at an appropriate pace.  All conceded that Kelly would get a free pass this year -- as would any new coach.  All thought that the roster was so lacking that the Birds would struggle.  Few thought that this was a playoff team, although there were those who sized up the poor quality of divisional opponents with a favorable schedule could lead the Eagles on a path to eke out a division title.  But those people were in a distinct minority, kind of like the kind that votes for the Libertarian candidate in a Presidential election.

So what happened?

1.  Kelly refused to give the team an excuse to fail.  Some coaches would have taken the free pass, installed their system and struggled mightily because they didn't have the players.  But Kelly did not.  He knows full well that a strategy is flawed from the get go if you don't have the personnel to run it.  So, he made subtle changes on offense, that is, until Vick went down and he had to play Foles.  Foles is not a read-option QB in the pure sense, he's a pocket passer.  So Kelly morphed his offense to play to Foles' strengths, among them a) precision passing and b) good decision-making, as this QB is not a high-stakes gambler.  What resulted was a 27-2 TD-interceptions ratio that is the league's best ever and that gave Foles one of the top four QB ratings in league history.  That's the sign not only of an innovator, but, as importantly, a perceptive talent evaluator.  Sure, the fans knew that Foles couldn't run the Oregon offense, but Kelly had to admit it, change it up, and he excelled.

2.  Chemistry and leadership.  As to the former, the Birds had a crisis before the season started when a video went viral showing WR Riley Cooper using racial slurs at a security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert.  Immediately, that video divided the clubhouse.  How could it not have?  What Cooper said was awful.  But, pretty quickly, the Eagles' brass got on top of the crisis, Cooper apologize, and in an act of great leadership, Michael Vick spoke to the press (and presumably the team before that) and publicly forgave Foles, acknowledging that he himself had made mistakes, too.  Many thought that this crisis would mar the Eagles' season; instead, the team's ability to get past it helped galvanize the squad.

As for chemistry, Sal Palaontonio on ESPN reported a few weeks ago about the team's togetherness.  Apparently, many teams get Tuesday's off, but the Eagles go in for treatment in the morning and then, instead of going home, they watch film together.  Last year, the team seems off-kilter.  Reid, presumably, had his family distractions, and then he had a series of assistant coaching miscues dating back to the year before and ended up with at least one malcontented grizzled veteran, Jim Washburn.  The defense backs were expensive and lacking, including self-promoting high-priced corner Nmadi Asoumgha, who, in fairness, wasn't always deployed correctly, either.  Put simply, it was a mess.

This year, things seem to be calmer.  Talk radio isn't filled with people casting aspersions on Andy Reid, and the chorus of doubters about Howie Rosenman has diminished.  Weeks ago, the worries were more that Kelly would bolt for Texas to replace Mack Brown, although the debate as to whether Foles is a championship QB has persisted.  To Vick's credit, he has taken his demotion very well, grateful for the second chance that the Eagles gave him and confident that next year someone will want him as a starter.  He has more than deserved that chance.

3.  Everyone has calmed down.  It was time for the Reid era to end in Philadelphia.  He had become the Cradle of Liberty's Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill but never getting there.  He had his blind spots -- normally regarding good linebackers, but also regarding special teams, depth at certain positions and even defensive tackles (undersized and, at times, underachieving).  Once Reid departed and a GM took over part of his role, the conversations changed, but the first draft under Rosenman has proved to be pretty good, free agent signings a plus, and the Kelly signing a grand slam.  The team won the division, made the playoffs, got a home game, battled a future Hall of Fame QB (Drew Brees) and an outstanding coach (Sean Payton) almost to a draw, losing on a last-second field goal.  Yes, the Saints outplayed the Eagles, but the Eagles almost pulled the game out.

The fans have a lot to look forward to, especially when compared to those of any other team in the NFC East and perhaps all of those fans combined.  The skill positions are set, the offensive line good if slightly aging.  The defense needs work, as evidenced last night by poor play against the run.  The secondary held out this year, but next year they need to improve.  Ditto the entire defense (which played much better as the season moved along) and special teams.  One would figure that with a free agent signing or two and another draft, the Eagles will fortify themselves and further honor the vision that Chip Kelly has.  And, make no mistake, this coach has a vision.

Great season for the Eagles and their fans, made all the more special because of the degree to which they exceeded expectations.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Idea for Princeton Ice Hockey -- Host Your Own Winter Classic

That the NHL drew so well in Ann Arbor the other day got me to thinking.

My son and I went to the winter classic in Philadelphia a few years back.  It wasn't horribly cold -- it got progressively colder as the sun started to set.  Earlier in the week, it was unseasonably warm, worrying the league and the locals that the ice might be soft.  Instead, it was cold enough, and it actually started to snow for a short while during the game.  The baseball stadium sold old, and, while it was hard to watch all the action, it was still a lot of fun to be there.

Well. . . Princeton has a nice football stadium with good sight lines.  It holds 25,000 people, say about 20x roughly what Baker Rink holds.  The Tigers' athletic department is creative, and Princeton has enough of an endowment that it could shave enough bucks to stage the event and perhaps donate some of the proceeds to charity.  Students, who are so busy and involved in their own lives that they probably have trouble watching most other kids' extracurricular activities, will go in droves because, well, it's an event, it's big-time, and, yes, they'll cover it on ESPN42 or whatever channel will have it.  Alums will go because, well, they have bucket lists and the chance to wear orange and black in public in the winter to keep warm will not go unmet.  Locals will go because, well, it's an event.  And the whole thing could snowball.

It's a natural, and, yes, you could fit more into Harvard Stadium or the Yale Bowl, but whoever stages it could have a great, annual event.

Food for thought on a very cold night in the Northeast.

Sunday at 4:40 P.M. in Green Bay, Wisconsin

From the weather channel:

The high on Sunday in Green Bay will be 4 degrees.

The low will be -23 degrees.

This is not a misprint.

Now, 49er fans will tell you that watching a night game at the stick when it's 45 degrees in December with 30 mile-an-hour winds coming off the SF Bay will be enough to chill your bones.  And they are right.

But there is California cold and then there is Wisconsin cold.  You just have to harken back to when the Giants went into Lambeau Field several years back and beat the Packers in a night game in 5-degree weather to remember how cold it was.  The Giants' offensive line was so tough that most, if not all, of them only wore their short-sleeved jerseys.  But all you have to do is remember the bright red blotches on Coach Tom Coughlin's face -- what looked to be the beginning of frostbite -- to remember how brutally cold it was.

Seemingly, it will be worse Sunday night in Wisconsin.

Worse than that, the 49ers play generally in a balmy climate.  They are not a dome team, but California teams play in much more predictable climates than say teams in the Northeast, when it can be scorching in September and brutal in December.  Come to think of it, that can happen in the Midwest too.

I am sure that many will be watching if for no other reason than to see how cold it is in Green Bay and how all players fare in this new Ice Bowl.

And then think about the Super Bowl, at the Meadowlands (or whatever the heck they are calling it now) in February.  Think snow, think ice, think cold, and then, watch, it will be forty-four degrees without a breeze and everyone will remark how nice and comfortable the climate is.

I remember in the early 1980's when the Bengals hosted the Chargers for the AFC title game.  It was so cold in Cincinnati that the wind chill was amazingly below zero -- double digit-wise, something like minus twenty or minus thirty.  Yet, the stadium was full.  And that caused Steve Kreider, a wide receiver from Lehigh, to remark, "I don't know who this day said more about -- that we all played in this weather, or that 65,000 people sat outside and watched it."  Great point.  It was that cold.

So, the NFL seemingly has what it wants.  Two good teams in an Ice Bowl, battling each other and the elements.  That will guarantee a broad audience, if for no other reason that all will want to know how they play football in zero degrees.

No wonder why they had trouble selling out Lambeau Field.  Those benefitting from the sellout will be watching the game in the comfort of their own home, wearing perhaps a sweater, but no thermal boots, no heavy scarves, sweaters, hats, gloves and the works.  Oh, sure, their brats will be cooked on a stove, but does it really matter?  At some point, many will realize that they can see better at home, feel warmer while still placing their bets on-line.

Minus four?

That's normally a point spread.

Sunday afternoon in Green Bay, that will be the temperature.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Replacing a Legend is Hard -- But Things Work Out

Several years ago during the Andy Reid era in Philadelphia, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson passed away.  Johnson came to the Eagles from Seattle, where he had been the linebackers coach.  He created a defense that was much admired; he became a legend in Philadelphia.

And, sadly, then he passed away.  As the Eagles' version of a poor man's dynasty started to fade, position coach Sean McDermott was faced with the unenviable task of replacing his coordinator.  His stint didn't go well, even as the talent at various positions waned (the Eagles were famous for having bad linebackers and undersized defensive tackles).  McDermott's tenure proved unfortunate, and I, for one, didn't think he got a fair shot.  But the defense didn't perform the way Jim Johnson's did, and McDermott took the fall.  So desperate was Reid that after he jettisoned McDermott and replaced him with what seemingly was his last choice, his offensive line coach, Juan Castillo (former linebackers coach and Giants' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was available after a failed stint as head coach of the Rams, but he opted to go elsewhere).  Castillo's hiring was perplexing, so much so that it prompted the infamous "WFT" headline from the Philadelphia Daily News.  Castillo's tenure proved to be even worse than McDermott's, proving that Reid's grip on his defense has slipped, to the point where defensive line coach Jim Washburn, he of the infamous "Wide 9's" defense, seemingly had become insubordinate to Castillo and, correspondingly, Reid.  Got all that?

In the meantime, Ron Rivera was named head coach at Carolina, and he hired McDermott as his defensive coordinator.  Clearly, McDermott had something to do with Johnson's success, and while he might not have been the second coming of Johnson, he also couldn't have been as awful as many made him out to be (and much of that derived from a) that he was not Johnson and could not be him and b) that his personnel wasn't what it had once been).  To make a long story short -- and the story has a happy ending -- McDermott is now the defensive coordinator of the #2 ranked defense in the entire NFL.  Which is a nice ending, I think, for a a good, relatively young coordinator who had a difficult task ahead of him.

Reid, meanwhile, has landed well in Kansas City and is playoff bound.  Castillo landed as a run-game coordinator in Baltimore, well deserving of a second chance (and it was somewhat ironic that while Castillo's defenses looked discombobulated enough to prompt his dismissal, statistically they had fared better than offensive coordinator Marty Mohrningweg's offense did).  It's funny how coaches can recycle in the NFL and in college -- sometimes they are in the wrong places at the wrong times, but Sean McDermott's story is a good one -- of faith in himself, and of a relatively newly minted head coach overlooking a struggle in a football-crazy town to hire a guy his gut told him could really produce.  So kudos to Ron Rivera for hiring Sean McDermott, and kudos to Sean McDermott for rebounding from a difficult time to emerge as one of the best defensive coordinators in the game.

It's hard to replace a legend, almost as hard as it is for a Super Bowl-winning coach to reprise his success in another city.  McDermott failed primarily because he wasn't Johnson, but also because his head coach, who doubled as his personnel guy, failed to adapt quickly enough to support a defense that had become suspect because the whole world knew that it didn't value linebackers.  And once the defensive backfield started to slip and the defensive line failed to improve, that defense became vulnerable and predictable -- it just didn't have the talent to get the job done.

There's a lesson in all of this regarding succession planning and its successes and failures.  McDermott was the obvious choice to succeed Johnson -- he just needed a better on boarding plan to succeed in Philadelphia.  Failing that, he found a coach who gave him a second chance, and he's made the most of it.  It wasn't fair to expect him to be the next Johnson, but one could argue that he's getting pretty close to that pinnacle in Carolina.

And that's a good story.

Reflections on Penn State, Bill O'Brien

Penn State fans and alums couldn't have expected Bill O'Brien to stay in Happy Valley forever.  With his background as an NFL offensive coordinator, it stood to reason that Coach O'Brien would get some head coaching experience (especially in an adverse situation) and then have the pick of NFL jobs a few years out, which is what is happening.  He has done an excellent job navigating in tricky waters in State College, moving the program forward after the sad, disastrous Sandusky affair while honoring tradition and making the most out of a lack of a full compliment of scholarships.  All of that added more lustre to an already gold-plated resume, and it's no surprise both that the NFL has come a-calling and that O'Brien is listening very much and probably will exit PSU.

Rather than be dejected or resentful, Nittany Lion fans and alums should be happy that their program has rebounded rather quickly and that they made the right selection when they chose O'Brien.  Sure, they will miss him, but this is a great school (despite the recent tragedy) and a vaunted program, and a lot of coaches will want this job, even if the Texas job is open and the Longhorn locomotive will pull out all the stops to land their coach of choice in the Lone Star State.

But the Penn State job is very appealing too, and should draw some very big names.  Among them, I would think, would be the following:

1.  James Franklin, head coach at Vanderbilt, and a hot name right now.  Franklin is a Pennsylvania native, went to a high school outside Philadelphia, a Division II football school and has risen fast in the coaching ranks.  He's done a good job at a competitively disadvantaged SEC school, where academics and ethics matter very much, and that should augur well for him should he and Penn State be interested in one another.  It would seem like a no-brainer for Franklin -- there is a ceiling with what one can do at Vanderbilt, and the Penn State job is a rare plum that doesn't show up on the horizon very often.

2.  Al Golden, head coach at Miami.  Golden is a New Jersey native, Penn State alum, coached there, did a marvelous job at Temple, turning around an almost-dead program, and has done a good job at Miami, turning around the program after the Nevin Shapiro booster scandal.  He's dealt with adversity, and while he might be happy at the U, he also could be happy at Linebacker U.  Again, this could be a rare opportunity, and this time around it would seem that the Penn State administration would be looking for someone who might stay for a very long time.  

By the way, I think that my numbering is interchangeable.  Because he's an alum, Golden would seem to be the first choice.  

There are others, of course, who could be intriguing/interested -- coordinators at Notre Dame or Stanford, for sure, because of Penn State's objectives (even if the school misfired badly on the Sandusky matter).  I think that Titans coach Mike Munchak, a Penn State alum, would be interested, as would recently terminated Bucs coach Greg Schiano.  I don't think that the former has sufficient college experience to be a serious candidate, and the latter has some explaining to do regarding some tactics in Tampa Bay and how he might have lost the locker room early in the season.  That said, the NFL pundits did offer that Schiano coached the team well and got the most out of his players, and given his success at Rutgers, it would be a mistake to write him off just yet.

This will be a much-watched process, for sure, and Penn State would be wise to think creatively the way it did to land O'Brien to land its next head coach.  Whatever they do, I also would recommend that the new head coach give serious thought to landing Princeton's offensive coordinator James Perry as their offensive coordinator.  While the "Princeton Offense" has serious brand recognition in college basketball, Perry and head coach Bob Surace created their own version of The Greatest Show on Turf in the Ivies this year, tying for a title when the pre-season polls predicted them to finish fifth.  Just another "out of the box" thought, but one worth some serious consideration.