Sunday, March 29, 2015

Is Baseball No Fun Anymore?

Players are bulky, seemingly overtrain, get hurt a lot and just are not hitting.

Pitchers seem to get hurt as frequently as they did when medical and training techniques were not as enlightened. 

The games seem interminably slow; the weather seems infernally hot. 

A single beer is almost the price of a good book.

And yet,  what's killing baseball is that the quants, whom I like a lot, are taking the guessing, the fun, the art, out of the game.  Put simply, they can predict what David Wright will hit on a Tuesday night after a Monday day off after a 3,000 mile flight on which he ate only hot donuts in a coffee caramel sauce and downed it with sparkling water.  It's not to the point where there are huge databases that go over every possible scenario involving every possible player from high school on up and indexing by weather, competition, frequency of training,  body type, and any other metric you can find, but we are fast approaching that day.  And, when we do, will the fun still be there? 

We used to argue the high-class problem of who was better, Mays or Aaron?  There wasn't much to it, there were now dissed numbers of batting average, home runs and RBIs, as opposed to all of the other metrics that the math folks have thrown at us.  (By the way, if relativity is everything and wins for a pitcher don't matter either, Frank Tanana should be in the Hall of Fame because had he pitched for anyone but the woeful Angels, he would have had a plus-.500 career winning percentage and won 300 games). 

You can imagine that conversation in 50 years.  There will be looks at all sorts of statistics involving things like Total Average, Batting Average of Balls in Play, Wins over Replacement Player and the like that most of us cannot begin to understand, and then there will be more metrics atop that.  And that's my worry.

That instead of going to the ballpark, enjoying the weather, the colors of the signs, seeing little kids with programs and Sharpies trying to get an elusive autograph, eating a hot dog and looking for the late-inning pinch-hit double off the wall that knocks the other team's pitcher out of the box, that we'll be reduced to very nerdy discourses about why the pinch-hitter doesn't have a chance because he has difficulty at this time of night in a pitcher's park on the road in a day game after a night game hitting the left-handed specialist who usually throws his slider as his outpitch.  At some point, there is something in the algorithm of the brain of the pinch-hitter that says, "I ate kale last night with a Vitamin B boost, slept on my new pillow that I bought from the Marriott store, enabled my new hyperbaric chamber and ate restorative dark chocolate after my Bikram Yoga flexibility workout and I can summon out of my thirty-five year-old body enough vision to pick up the nuances of this twenty-four year old star's ninety-four mile an hour slider (as opposed to his 100-mph two-seam fastball) and hit it in the gap in right center, especially because they're shading me to pull the ball to left center and even the track star they have out there in center won't be able to get to it" and then whacks a slightly off-kilter slider into that gap because the star reliever's gastrointestinal system was acting up in the morning because he had a few too many margaritas and mussels at the seafood restaurant with the rest of the bullpen the night before and the air conditioning unit in his condo left him with a sinus headache and a slight battle with dehydration. 

Take away the art, the texture, the poetry, the back stories, the smells of the hot dogs, the sounds of the balls hitting the glove,  take away all that and quantify the outcomes in every which way, and, well, what's the point of watching -- especially if the so-called geniuses can tell us what will happen before it happens?  We all like a good story, and what's particularly irksome to any good story teller is when you're sitting with a family audience in rapt attention and someone without the best social sense or cues feels compelled to guess the outcome prematurely, interrupting you, robbing you of your rhythm and your joy in relating the tale.  That interruption -- unless done with great timing and humor on occasion -- deflates not only the teller but also the rest of the audience, each member of which could probably guess the direction of the outcome but sits there listening because the art of the telling is entertaining.  Well, to me, it seems that the math folks, while brilliant, well-intentioned and increasingly right, are inadvertently going to do just that. 

I don't watch replays of old games, and I don't tape games to watch them later if I can see the outcome on my iPhone.  There's not a lot of joy in that for me -- sports is a pastime, a hobby, something to enjoy precisely because you just never know what could happen in a game.  The quants are encroaching upon that spontaneity of enjoyment,  and if the powers that be don't reinforce the art, the smells, the sounds, the poetry, the things that the numbers folks and quantifiers and bean counters cannot get to, the joy, the relaxation and the fun will be sucked away.

And perhaps people will turn to other pastimes.  There's only so much a game can do to hold onto people because "dad used to watch it with grandpa."  There's only so much a game can do to hold onto fans when it has slowed down to a crawl, the ball has become increasingly harder to hit and the players still look like linebackers and not wide receivers.  And there's only so much a game can do when each team has 81 home games and it can cost over $200 to take a family of four to sit downstairs at the park and experience -- close up -- all of the things that the numbers folks cannot reach.  

Nothing, it seems, can last forever.  The NFL defenders currently argue that the retirements of young players who obviously have other ways to make a living doesn't signal a potential extinction spiral for the most popular game in the United States.  Yet, other countries haven't adopted this game, and the data about injuries -- long-term injuries -- deriving from repetitive knocking of heads -- seems to suggest that to permit your child to play this game is dangerous if not irresponsible.  The loudest defenders, of course, are the football industry -- those who played it (because they are either hopeful that awful consequences don't manifest in them or they are defending what they played and don't like to see it attacked -- it's just too close to home) and those who cover it and/or make money off it (Mike Greenberg of ESPN is in this category the same way his colleague Mike Golic of ESPN is in the former category).  While the NFL is popular now, change can happen fast, and I wouldn't be surprised if, as the data emerges, if our culture doesn't change pretty quickly away from such a violent sport.  And that's whether one likes it or not -- major long-term injuries are nothing to be avoided let alone scoffed at.  This is the submarine that could potential emerge and blast the NFL -- society will innovate and evolve its culture quickly if the NFL doesn't get ahead of this vexing problem.  After all, who wants to say that he/she enjoys a sport where the players are at big risk and could end up with major problems in their thirties and forties?  Is that what we want to say about ourselves?  Our society?  And it wouldn't be "just okay" just because this happens to others' kids and not our own.

Back to baseball.  Now that the steroids era has passed (although the legacy of it is sad and a terrible reflection on the character of those who own baseball teams and many of those who played baseball at the time), Major League Baseball has to look at data within context and remember that say 40 years ago boxing and horse racing were among the top five spectator sports and today are almost irrelevant.   That MLB has millions of fans and great revenue perhaps doesn't show people are spending less of a percentage of their discretionary recreational spending on baseball than they did, say, forty years ago.  That's a guess, but something that they should examine, along with the demography of their fan base.  I used to love going to games with my dad -- it was a solid part of our bond.  Today, the game is too boring for my son, took too long to play when he played it, and was dominated by dads who for the most part wanted to win way too much when they coached in Little League and on many occasions acted poorly and were not encouraging.  For my son, baseball is the game that his father went to with his grandfather; my son and I have bonded over English soccer and have our own rituals around that.  That said, we still try to go to a few games, but the luster has diminished.

Of course I might be wrong. 

And I'm sure that there are numbers out there from someone that could prove it.

Kentucky-Notre Dame

Last night showed a few things:

1.  Notre Dame played a game worthy of a national championship title.

2.  In any other year, that effort might have earned them that title.

3.  Kentucky has a lumpy, transparent game plan that basically pounded the ball into the post and desired to foul out Notre Dame's one big man, Zach Auguste.  So much so, that it seemed that everyone else on their team stood around watching the offense for most of the game.

4.  Notre Dame's freshman big man, Karl Anthony Towns, will be a very good professional basketball player.  It's hard to imagine anyone save Joel Embiid and DeAndre Jordan coping with him at length in the post.

5.  Auguste perhaps outplayed the collective efforts of every Kentucky big man over 6'9" tall (with arguments, of course, that Towns excelled last night).

6.  Notre Dame's Mike Brey outcoached Kentucky's John Calipari last night, particularly with the strategy of having Auguste follow a penetrator into the lane for open putback jams after the Kentucky bigs thwarted the initial shot but then were out of the way. 

7.  While the Wildcats made a statement by demolishing West Virginia in the Sweet 16 round two nights before, perhaps their sense of destiny and invincibility got to their heads.  The NCAA Tournament cannot be that easy, can it?  Clearly, the Wildcats underestimated Notre Dame, and for a while it was as though each Wildcat not named Towns was waiting for someone -- anyone -- to step up, spark them and perhaps lead them on a run.  It just didn't happen.

8.  But despite all of that. . . last night's result, a Kentucky 68-66 win (after the Wildcats trailed for most of the second half) shows how hard it is to beat the Kentucky Wildcats and what a great team that they are.  Calipari, in his remarks after the game, was being honest when he said that the Fighting Irish played a great game and his team did not.  While it's a cliché that the mark of a great team is that they can play poorly on a big night and win, well, that's precisely what Kentucky did.  In tournaments, despite all the hype behind and beyond the '89 Princeton-Georgetown game, there's no such thing as a bad win or a good loss.  After all, despite Notre Dame's great efforts, it is Kentucky who is moving on.

Friday, March 27, 2015

That Freight Train That You Heard Last Night

Was the Kentucky Wildcats.

Perhaps WVA Coach Bob Huggins will instruct his team to say less during the pre-game hype.  Having a freshman suggest that a 36-0 team "doesn't play hard," didn't help matters.

That WVA didn't shoot nearly well enough to get its vaunted press going made things much worse.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Magnanimity of Mo'Ne Davis

Philadelphia-area high school star turned DIII baseball player tweets something offensive and stupid. 

He's not the first, and he won't be the last.

The tweet goes viral.  The young man quickly learns that while he can pick his sin, he cannot pick his consequences.  His DIII school boots him off the baseball team. 

The young man realized that he did something very stupid and apologized.  I don't know the college baseball player, cannot say that this behavior was an aberration, whether his being cut derived from either a) the school's fear of reprisal from doing anything less, such as a suspension or b) the student-athlete's conduct prior to this incident.  Perhaps the school had warned him about other behavior, and this was the last straw.  Whatever the case, the young man did something dumb, drew national publicity to himself (whereas, in high school, his bat spoke for him), and lost the ability to do something he loves.

Enter Mo'Ne Davis, the object of the stupid e-mail.  The college baseball player called her an ugly name.  Instead of feeling the need to retaliate or lecture, Mo'Ne  Davis offered forgiveness and asked the school not to kick the player off the team, but to reinstate him.  So far, the school stands by its decision.

Mo'Ne Davis is a big person and is the bigger person here.  Many kids would have ignored this, gotten on a high horse, or retaliated with tough if permissible language (on an ever-changing landscape of what is and is not permissive)..  Instead, she either got good advice and took it or came up with this idea herself -- that a young man did something dumb, was publicly humiliated for his bad statement and suffered enough -- so why keep him off the team?

She took the high road on a social media network that offers many an abundance of low roads on which to travel.  In doing so, she didn't approach becoming the type of person for at least at the moment the college baseball player became.  In doing so, she showed, once again, what a leader and transcending person she can be. 

A young man made a dumb mistake.

And even younger woman elected not to pile on.  Instead, she offered forgiveness and assistance.

If you know teenagers and the pain they can go through on social media and in social networks, this is pretty huge, a great example as to how to help make a better world.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Villanova Coach Jay Wright Shows a Sense of Humor in Defeat

After the upset loss to North Carolina State, Wright offered that he hoped that Chip Kelly would so something soon for the Eagles so as to take the media's attention off his Wildcats.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why Were the Princeton Women "Only" an 8th Seed?

Argument for higher seed:  They were 30-0 and the only undefeated team in Division I.  And, some of the relatively new statistics demonstrate that they perhaps have the 17th best chance to win it all (perhaps that's the 538 blog), which would argue for a 5th seed.

Argument for lower seed:  Sure, they were 30-0, but their league is weak and their non-conference schedule wasn't sterling.  Sure, it's great to have been 30-0 and yes, you play who you play, but it's not like you were playing an ACC or SEC schedule.  Beat someone really good at a neutral site or on the road, like a ranked team, and then pop off.  Or, at least that's the argument.

Argument for an 8th seed:  Add the arguments above up and divide them by two, and you get an 8th seed, honoring both the undefeated season and allowing for the doubting that your league isn't among the strongest and neither was your non-conference schedule. 

My take:  An 8th is rather harsh because it is the committee's way of saying, "well, if you're any good, you're going to beat a 9th seed but then we'll get rid of the distraction that you present, the snobbery about your version of a student-athlete and the negative comparisons about academics because you'll go up against a #1 seed if you win in the first round and that will guarantee that you won't play on the second weekend."  A 7th or a 6th seed would have given the Tigers a better shot to win two games and get to the Sweet 16.  So, yes, I think that the Tigers got screwed.  You don't go 30-0 and draw a #13 ranking in the country and get a seed worthy of the #32 team in the country.

If you go back to around 1999, the Princeton men were 27-2 in the regular season and ranked 8th in the country.  They weren't going to draw a #2 seed in the tournament -- everyone knew that.  Look, they were in the Ivy League and they had a similar comparison to the Princeton women of today.  But the tournament committee gave them a #5 seed, which they had earned, and they won their first-round game before bowing out to a very good Michigan State team (with Mateen Cleaves) in a close second-round game (I believe that Michigan State went to the Final Four that year and might have won the whole thing). 

At the end of the day, the NCAA Tournament Committee got it wrong. 

Now it's up to Princeton to show 'em on the court.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tim Tebow in Philadelphia


Perhaps Chip Kelly was doing Urban Meyer or someone in the Florida family or Tebow himself a favor. 

Or perhaps the Eagles were trying to create a distraction for the local media, as a Tebow sighting is wont to create.  Give Tebow a tryout and the experts on the air waves will have a field day with the possibilities for him in the Oregon Offense.  Give Tebow a tryout and you divert attention away to Kelly's curious moves of trading a lot for a gimpy quarterback and emphasizing a running game in an increasingly passing league.  Give Tebow a tryout and you'll divert attention away from the fact that the Eagles have holes at safety, offensive line and wide receiver.

Perhaps that's all it was -- a distraction.

That said, the bigger distraction would have been had they signed Tebow.  Tebow is guaranteed to bring a media circus with him, even if his throwing motion resembles the back-and-forth of one of the oil wells in the lead in to the TV show Friday Night Lights

I don't think that the distraction worked, however.  The Tebow appearance was a bit like the passing of a comet -- people talked about it while it happened and for a little while afterwards, but they've moved on.

Which means that they remain curious about Kelly's moves and are picking at the roster openings as if they were infected, open sores.  Memo to Jeffrey Lurie:  you have an eager, somewhat desperate fan base, and they are confused and unhappy (at least many of them).  It's amazing how you and the front office and Coach Kelly have converted the over-the-top enthusiasm for Kelly's arrival two years ago into abject skepticism whether he knows what he's doing, all this despite being two for two in double-digit win seasons in his two-year career. 

Two years ago, everyone thought that Chip Kelly was a big step up over Andy Reid. 


Chris Borland's Retirement from the 49ers at 24

Not a good month for the NFL, when four players under 30 (although seemingly and increasingly most players are under 27, -- if you get to 30 you are an NFL Methusaleh) retire for various reasons.  Jake Locker retired because he lost his passion for the game; Jason Worilds did so to pursue other interests.  Patrick Willis did so because of injuries, and Chris Borland, who replaced an injured Willis last season, did so because of a fear of what repetitive blows to the head could have on his long-term health. 

Which shows, to some degree, that Borland put his Wisconsin history degree to use in researching the effects of the game on him and the cost-benefit analysis for his life as to whether he should continue playing and risk debilitating consequences or quit and hope that all of the hitting he did prior to the ripe old age of 24 doesn't have long-lasting effects. 

Seemingly, this is a smart move.  Football is a violent sport.  Even with rules changes, it is full of collisions.  And, in what we've learned about neurological issues, repetitive head-banging (among linemen) might have long-term consequences too, even if the blows aren't as noticeable as those that once appeared on ESPN's ill-advised "All Jacked Up" feature on SportsCenter. 

Look, some guys love the game and want to take the risk.  They like the rituals, the contact, the violence, the stature and the glory that can come with having had a long and prosperous NFL career.  But the sad truth is that NFL careers on average last three years and represent the culmination of football playing for kids who could have started as early as 6.  So, by the time a young man is 25, he has had at least a decade and a half of hitting other young men.  Most of us are schooled -- in life -- to avoid getting hit if at all possible.  After all, it hurts.  What's worse -- even if deep down we saw it and knew it decades ago -- is that it could hurt a lot worse as one ages and effect one's ability to function or even live.  And despite having a union that has increased its clout, the average NFL player, after taxes, does not come away with nearly enough to create a nest egg to help protect him from all those problems later in life, let alone retire. 

Some people play because they love the game and might not be nearly as good at anything else and could have limited earnings potential elsewhere.  Others might play because playing then could lead to a career for something similar -- in coaching, in broadcasting, in working for the team's front office.  In that sense, the "investment" in an NFL career, even if "short-lived," is worth it.  But for those who are in between -- talented enough to do something else for a living outside football and make a good living -- the economic choices (and a choice for a long-term healthy life) can be pretty clear -- get out, and get out as fast as you can. 

That's what Chris Borland seems to be saying in his retirement.  My guess is that the stats and math guys, the Nate Silver's of the world, could run simulations that show you that based on the average life span of an NFL veteran of so many years and Borland's decision to quit when he did and his potential earnings power elsewhere, that Borland made a superlative choice if he wants to chase his kids on a ball field or play with grand kids and remember their names.  After all, there are analytics for everything. 

And all this should make the NFL worried, the same way that MLB should be worried that many young people see baseball as too slow a game, one without action and one that their grandfathers took their fathers to.  The NFL should be worried, not necessarily because of an occasional retirement like Borland's or even a slew of copycat retirements down the road.  It should be worried because fans could migrate if the additional long-term health data get published showing the game's long-term debilitating effects.  How many fans will continue to turn out if they know that they are enjoying a game where people could suffer life-threatening injuries as young men and without sufficient remuneration or financial support so that they can take care of themselves and families later on? 

The NFL has a serious problem.  Sure, it can hire a good publicity firm to isolate the Borland matter (and the 49ers handled the news with grace and dignity), but inside the league's offices they should be looking into how they can make the game safer and protect the participants more.  My bet is that down the road football becomes more like lacrosse -- the players will gear up, but there will be much less hitting and perhaps "electronic" means of tackling along the lines of flag or touch football so as to reduce injuries.  Sure, the running game might be affected (perhaps Greco-Roman upper-body holds to stop a runner might be adopted), but overall we'll have more football players around walking unaided when they are 70.  The public might not like that idea right now or be willing to accept it.

But suppose someone like Chris Borland were your kid.  Suppose that you work a nice job, but a job that doesn't get publicity and has its ups and downs.  You're pretty good at it, but you're not going to get promoted again, and you work for the teamwork, the brand and the benefits, among other things.  Suppose you enjoyed the ritual of going to games on Friday nights in high school and on Saturdays in college.  You ended up with an extra bounce in your step because he was a good student and got an athletic scholarship to a big-time school.  You traveled to watch him play, went to his bowl games and got a big kick out of his getting drafting and playing well in the NFL.  And then he tells you that he's going to hang it all up to go get a master's degree. 

What would you say to him?  Would you be deflated that you were about to lose your extra cache among the guys at work, where they rallied around you as you shared inside dope as to what Coach Harbaugh was really like and the perks on the private jets that ferried the teams to games?  Or would you forget all that and think, "you know what, we raised this kid right.  He used his talents to get a scholarship, got his degree and then thought for himself.  What a wise decision." 

My guess is that for most it would be a little bit of both.  Don't discount that NFL cache and the perks that went with it, but don't underestimate the unconditional love of parents and support for decisions.  For most people, the latter will trump the former, and Dad will realize that there is more to him -- a lot more -- than just having had a son play in the NFL.  The son will realize that while the parents loved his football life, there is a lot more to them than being happy because he was a star player.  Together, they will go forward, quickly and perhaps have more time to spend with one another because they will have a better chance to be in the same place. 

And the parents can cease worrying that one hit in one game could change their son's life for the worse forever.  Deep down, all parents of football players worry about that much more than parents of baseball or basketball players do.  And they will be relieved.  Perhaps in the summer Chris Borland's biggest risk will come if he tries to jaywalk at a busy intersection in Madison, Wisconsin, en route to a class. 

Chris Borland made a wise choice.  Football is a dangerous game.  We tried to tell ourselves that smoking wasn't bad for people or that too much sugar in the form of soda, ice cream, candy and cookies is okay, but now cigarettes are very expensive and banned in most public places and there is an international diabetes problem.  We can tell ourselves that all is okay because the players have assumed the risk and that there just is not enough data, but that's only because we are anesthetizing ourselves away from the blunt truth that football -- and all of the hitting -- can create long-term problems.  What's worse is how popular the game is -- at the high school, college and pro level, and, as for the latter two, perhaps because football is a much easier game to bet on than any other because of the point spread.  Most Americans love their football -- football is an event, there's ritual, there's pageantry and, yes, there's hitting.  And betting, and tailgating and drinking. 

Chris Borland's decision compels us to think hard about our pastime and whether all of the violence that young men volunteer to endure is worth it.  We'll try to tell ourselves it is because it's always been so. 

But we might be wrong.

Occam's Razor: Penn Picks Steve Donahue to Be Its Next Men's B-Ball Coach

He is a native of the Philadelphia area.

He was an assistant on some great Penn teams, working under the legendary Fran Dunphy.

He excelled at Cornell and took them to the Sweet 16. 

He cashed in, went to B.C., didn't fare all that well and lost his job. 

He worked the past year as a commentator, a coach in waiting.

All of that adds up to good criteria to be Penn's next coach. 

He knows the school and he won at a place without a basketball tradition.

The hope at Penn is that Donahue has a second Ivy act and the thinking has to be, "well, if he could do all that at Cornell, imagine what he might be able to do at Penn."

The simplest, most obvious solution for Penn might well prove to be the best one.

Jerome Allen was a great player and is a good guy; it just didn't work for him as Penn's coach.

Penn didn't overthink it this time, as it probably did after Fran Dunphy left University City for North Broad Street. 

And "not overthinking" is what the smart folks are supposed to do.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Harvard versus Yale -- for the Ivies' Automatic Berth in the NCAA Tournament

If you have told someone 25 years ago that this would be the case, that they would be co-champions, you would have told that foreteller that he was nuts.  There is no way, the listener would have argued, that anyone other than Penn or Princeton would be winning the title, save some interloping in the late 1980's.  But time hasn't been kind to that great rivalry, and, among others, Cornell and Harvard have gone on some impressive runs, statistically more impressive because each got the Round of 16, something that Penn and Princeton found elusive (at least after 1979).  Put differently, both Cornell and Harvard won two games and got to the Sweet 16.

Sure, I'm a Princeton fan, but I grew up a Penn fan and know how strong the rivalry was.  Each team needed the other to bring out the best in it and the most passion in its fans.  Somehow, it's just not the same between Harvard and Yale or Cornell and anyone.  They call the football game between the Crimson and Elis "The Game," but no such moniker gets attached to any basketball match.  Penn and Princeton, though, in its heyday, was another story.  They were national programs with players and coaches who drew national mention.  But that was then.

Inflation in the late 1970's and early 1980's plus freshmen eligibility plus every school's wanting to have a big-time basketball program plus the Ivies' not giving any athletic scholarships or full grants to those who needed them (as opposed to a package of a grant, a loan and a job) pushed players away from the Ivies who might otherwise have gone there.  Still, Penn and Princeton persisted, both because of a rich history and, in Penn's case, arguably the best venue for college basketball in the country (at least when the house is packed).  But then a couple of things happened, too.

One was that Steve Donahue, Fran Dunphy's top assistant, went to Cornell and worked some Penn magic in Ithaca.  Another was that Dunphy left Penn for nearby Temple, and Penn didn't have a ready successor, choosing Brown's Glen Miller, who had success at Brown (including three simultaneous first-team all-Ivy players despite not winning the title), who failed to mesh with anyone at Penn (he's now the top assistant at UConn, where he has earned a few championship rings during his coaching career).  Princeton kept drawing from its coaching family, first naming Bill Carmody in 1996 to succeed Pete Carril and then John Thompson III when Carmody opted for the Big 10 and Northwestern in 2000 (Thompson's coaching job at Princeton in his first season ranks as one of the all-time best coaching jobs anywhere; the Tigers lost center Chris Young to professional baseball, two players missed the season and five started it with injuries -- and they still won the Ivy title).  When Thompson left for Georgetown, the Tigers logically hired Joe Scott, an alum who had worked wonders at Air Force.  Sadly, though, Scott had similar problems at Princeton to those that Miller at Penn.  Put simply, he couldn't go home, not much worked, and he ended up opting for the University of Denver a season or two perhaps before he would have been asked to leave.

Those hiring decisions, as it were, showed that dynasties do not last forever and that other schools can build basketball programs if they make the right hires and because you don't need all that many players to turn around a moribund basketball program as you do a football program.  While Cornell was burning it up with Donahue (only to lose him to Boston College, where he failed), Harvard made a threshold decision -- it fired affable, honorable Frank Sullivan (who did an unheralded job), changed the way it would view admissions about basketball recruits, and hired a Duke alum, Tommy Amaker, who had not succeeded either at Seton Hall or at Michigan.  Harvard must have felt that the third time was the charm and that Amaker, with better players, could help build a winning program at Harvard, which he has done (in the face of withering criticism about Harvard's allegedly lowering its recruiting standards for men's basketball players and a cheating scandal at the school that compelled two stars a few years ago to take a year away from Cambridge or else risk suspension or expulsion).

But Ivy basketball isn't the same.  Penn just fired coach Jerome Allen, one of the best players in its history, who took over the Quaker program after Miller had left it like a battleship without a rudder in the middle of a firefight.  His supporters argue that he had begun to turn the program around; his critics would contend that Allen is a better recruiter than a coach.  At any rate, Penn will look to re-build its program.  It has a few alumni out there who have head coaching jobs, and one would think that the favorite is former Penn guard Andy Toole, who is the head coach at Robert Morris, which is headed to the NCAA Tournament.  Matt Langel, the Colgate coach, and a former Dunphy assistant, should figure into the mix, but he has not enjoyed much success up in Hamilton, New York.  Of course, Penn could go outside its alumni network and the Ivies, too.

Princeton, in contrast, seems to have a better rudder.  Coach Mitch Henderson, the star point guard on the team that went 27-2 fifteen years ago, just finished up a 16-14 season without his best returning player, Denton Koon, who missed the season because of injury.  The Tigers relied heavily on underclassmen, and they seemed prime for improvement.  And yet. . .

Something is missing.  Both schools need to vie for recruits, to become two of the best teams not in a major conference in the Northeast, and two return to the times when they were the best two teams in the Ivies and both rivalry games were like playoff games, especially because the Ivies have no post-season tournament.  I know, it's good to see change, nothing should last forever, and perhaps it's Harvard's and Yale's turn, and Coach James Jones at Yale is a most unheralded coach and worthy of a tournament bid.  I get all that. . .

And yet. . . it's just not the same.

And that makes me sound -- and feel -- a bit old.

I yearn for the days where I hear a Penn fan hit a drumstick on a cowbell at the Palestra, when the Penn fans yell "Let's go Quakers," and the Princeton fans exhort their Tigers, where the Palestra and Jadwin are filled and when both teams play each other the first time without a league loss and the second time when the game will determine whether there is a tie or not and perhaps a playoff game.  That was some good basketball back then, that was electricity, and that was the special feeling that a fan gets when he knows he's watching something truly special.

Sorry, Harvard and Yale.  You have a lot of great aspects to you, you really do.  And, yes, right now you might be atop the Ivies in men's basketball.  Congratulations -- it's very hard to do that.

But it's just not vintage Penn-Princeton.

And it never will be.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

One More Thought on Chip Kelly

In his book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen observed that there were occasions where businesses atop their industries made decisions when they were on top that rendered them obsolete.  Much has been written about how decisions are made, how people innovate, who the early adaptors are, so I won't digress here or cite any links.  At the same time, many businesses go bust because they fail to adapt or heed warning signs.  And then their problems mount, and it's too late.

In the Eagles' case, Coach Chip Kelly, a respected innovator, took Andy Reid's team to the playoffs two years ago and followed that run with a 10-6 season and a near miss of the playoffs despite losing his starting quarterback and playing a patchwork offensive line for most of the year (along with an exhausted defense that was on the field more than any other defense in the league and that was undermanned in the secondary).  Conventional wisdom would have suggested that were Kelly to make minor tweaks, he could turn 10-6 into 11-5 or 12-4 and at least win a playoff game.  Or, at least, that's what I am inferring from the multitude of comments that are questioning Kelly's wisdom right now because of all the moves that he has made. 

But innovators do not act conventionally, and they do not follow trends that others set.  Chip Kelly didn't tweak his roster because that's not what Chip Kelly does.  Chip Kelly didn't tweak his roster because (with the exception of his curious Oregon bias which he has yet to explain), he's pretty blunt with himself about what works and what doesn't work.  He also has a vision -- which he hasn't totally shared -- about what he is building toward.  And he's not there yet.  Moreover, he didn't think that the roster, as constructed about a month ago, had enough talent to make his vision into an institution and make his team into a champion. 

So he's demolishing, tearing down, reconstructing, rebuilding -- all at once.  The renowned American chef Thomas Kelly, owner of perhaps the country's finest restaurant, The French Laundry in Napa, California, has been described as someone who is seeking perfection and wants his institution to stand for something beyond the selfishness and egos of those involved.  Anthony Bourdain described Keller this way and marveled at how wonderful the meal that he and three other chefs had in Keller's restaurant.  The reason:  it wasn't just food, it was about the messages within the ingredients and the presentation, the pairings with the wines, and the entire experience.  Keller had created something transcendant (it isn't cheap, but it was worth it).  And Bourdain writes in a blunt, direct style that doesn't pull punches.  He just loved the place, the meal, the experience. 

Perhaps that's what Chip Kelly is looking for -- a system, a process, and an experience that goes beyond having a 53-man roster populated with players mostly from the large football factories who show up, eat what they please, say what they say and look out for the one big contract they might get.  He's looking for players who buy in, and he probably has figured out to the penny what he should spend on what position, what his demographic breakdown should be, the size of his linemen, the hip rotation of his defensive backs, in the same way Keller grows his own produce on plots outside his restaurant and Alice Waters instructs farmers about the size of the lambs she wants.

Foodies get Keller and Waters easily.  Football fans want to get Kelly, but they don't see the nuances of building a winner in a collision sport where careers are short-lived the way a foodie might understand the art of pairing a good cassoullet with a certain wine from the Southern Rhone region.  But if the fans are patient and delve more deeply, perhaps they can try to understand that what Kelly is trying to do is to take football to a different level. 

Time will tell, of course, but before we all jump to conclusions that he doesn't know what he is doing as a player personnel guy, remember that he did good things in the role in college (even if it was college) and that he is an innovator.  Sometimes innovators come up with things that customers wouldn't have been able to ask for -- and yet they love those things (iPods, iPads) and stand in line to get the latest.  Chip Kelly clearly is challenging conventional wisdom, and while he might not be able to take an iffy-legged quarterback, heal him and turn him into a Hall of Famer, he probably has a better shot of doing so than almost anyone not named Belichick in the NFL.  He's won a lot more games than he has lost so far, and has that going for him.

Innovators might not be the greatest PR people of all time.  But they end up creating systems, processes, products that everyone wants and wants to emulate. 

Eagles' fans should be patient with Chip Kelly.  He might know more about what he is doing than the rest of us do.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Philadelphia Ducks

As in, 10 players and counting who played for head coach Chip Kelly at Oregon.

As in, an offense now without many weapons and with an immobile starting QB.  At some point, the offensive linemen might have to yell, "Duck!"

A few years ago, Chip Kelly was touted as this innovative coach who would take the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory.  Fast forward to a review of his letting DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin leave and in trading Nick Foles and some good draft picks for oft-injured Sam Bradford, and it makes fans wonder whether a) Chip is acting like a below-average Fantasy League General Manager or b) he is blowing up the team on purpose because he's angry at someone for something.  It's probably the case that he isn't (yet) the next Vince Lombardi, but that he's certainly better than the likes of Joe Kuharich, Jerry Williams, Rich Kotite and Ray Rhoades.  The question is how quickly can he propel himself to the Lombardi end of the continuum.

Let's review some facts:

1.  He took a team to the playoffs in 2013 that had no business going there.  When he came in, the pundits figured he'd go 6-10 with the remains of a neglected Andy Reid regime.  Instead, the team went to the playoffs and almost beat a pretty good Saints team.  That, of course, was a real positive.

2.  He had an injured starting QB and replaced him with a back-up and still managed to win 10 games and just missed the playoffs.  Why is that considered a step back?   Yes, it was disappointing that after all the progress Chip Kelly made in 2013, the team missed the playoffs in 2014.  But the offensive line was decimated for the first half of the season and he lost his starting quarterback and his defensive captain and they still won 10 games.  How many coaches would have done that?  True, the tenth win was rather meaningless and a loss there would have given the Birds a better draft pick.  All that said, it's hard to view 2014 as a failure given all of the injuries.

But within Kelly's success arise some questions:

1.  Did the team suffer injuries because Kelly overworking them?  It's hard to know, but at least one player publicly complained that the pace Kelly was trying to sustain in practices was not sustainable. 

2.  Did Kelly begin to lose the locker room over the release of DeSean Jackson?   I'm not sure that he did or that he didn't, but the way that Jackson was released compelled more questions than it answered.  At best, there was innuendo, and, at worst, there were negative things said.  Either way, the release smacked more of a dictatorial college coach with the power not to renew a talented but troubling player's scholarship than a professional coach's media savvy panache in handling something like that more gracefully.  The manner of the release might have created some dissension and fear among players that was not helpful.  Memo to Coach Kelly:  You are not in college anymore.

3.  And that leads to Kelly's Oregon bias.  Is that helpful for the team?    The answer is probably not.  Sure, people like people they trained, know, want to work with, etc., but the Oregon bias more reflects a parochialism about what might have worked in polychromatic Eugene than what could work in the NFL.  The last time I checked, the NFL is a brutal meritocracy.  It could hurt a team's competitiveness if players start to believe that where you went to college matters as much as what you do on the field.  Where you went to college might help if you're looking for a job in investment banking or a New York law firm, but it shouldn't in the NFL.  Malcolm Butler of the University of West Alabama proved that in the last minute of the Super Bowl.

4.  Does Kelly know what he is doing as a head of player personnel?  Either he knows something that everyone else does not, or he is making a huge gamble with a gimpy quarterback.  And while Sam Bradford won the Heisman Trophy while excelling at Oklahoma and was the overall number one pick in the draft, he hasn't been able to stay healthy.  And he's not mobile.  So either Kelly sees something in him that no one else does, or he blundered big time.  Especially since the team's skill position depth -- once a major asset -- has been depleted.  Who, precisely, will Bradford throw to?

Of course, Kelly was supposed to be different.  Many college coaches have failed when trying to make the jump to the NFL.  Dick Vermeil, adored in Philadelphia still, did, and Kelly coming out of Oregon was supposed to be much better than Vermeil (who was the Eagles' sixth choice in the 1970's after winning the Rose Bowl at UCLA in a big upset).  Vermeil had a fire, affability and media savvy that Kelly lacks.  Kelly appears irritated with the reporters constantly, makes snide comments and doesn't care how he comes off.  Vermeil didn't live for the media, but he was great with them and, correspondingly, the fans.  Kelly doesn't come close to Vermeil.  Heck, he doesn't come close to Buddy Ryan (who got a lot of love despite never winning a playoff game). 

So here are the Philadelphia Eagles.  Are they better off going into the 2015 draft than they were a year ago? 

It's hard to argue that they are.

It's easy to argue that they are not.

And the buck stops not only with Kelly, but also with owner Jeffrey Lurie, who seems to have had a hand in helping create the atmosphere behind this current mess.

Perhaps there are some free agents still lurking who can help the Eagles' roster markedly.  Right now, it looks like the big winner out there is the Colts, who, while adding a few pieces, might just have added enough to help their superstar QB get to the Super Bowl.

Princeton Women's Basketball Team Finishes 30-0


Friday, March 06, 2015

The Closing of Sweet Briar and How Much College Costs

While I didn't always understand Sweet Briar, I thought that there were enough people out there -- particularly Southerners with a particular view of the world -- who would keep it going forever.  A scan, however, of the Dow Jones 30 say fifty years ago reveals how much the world can change -- companies go bankrupt, companies get acquired, companies get smaller, and others emerge.  I do not know enough to know what prompted such a sudden announcement that Sweet Briar College would be closing (and quickly), because typically the indicators turn bright red for a troubled entity long before such an announcement -- and perhaps early enough where had the right decisions been made the institution wouldn't be faced with its closure. 

Mark Cuban has commented publicly, lamenting how expensive colleges have gotten and how much debt people are taking to go to college.  That's a problem for our society, because debt can do funny things to young people, including making them less confident about their futures and more willing to put off key decisions that traditionally have been at the foundation of a good society -- such as getting married, having children and buying homes that they can afford.  Demographics can play a huge part in the health of a nation (look at Japan, which is getting very old very fast) and in its outlook toward war (studies have shown that the more male-dominated a population is, the more willing it has been to go to war).  And when you look to Japan, you can look to it at a time when its economy was overheating and generating so much cash that the Japanese were investing everywhere.

Except that there was one problem -- that success created such a housing bubble at one point that people couldn't afford to buy houses.  They would take out 99-year mortgages, which meant that they would essentially be renting forever.  For while the Japanese have helped advanced technology, they have not found the Fountain of Youth just yet.  So what happened -- in all likelihood -- was that the subsequent generations saw the futility of trying to get ahead in Japan.  They didn't marry, they didn't procreate to the extent that their parents did, and now their economy has been suffering.

Now let's look at the United States, where brand envy can compel parents to pressure their kids to work exceedingly hard before they are 18 so that they can "get into the best college possible" because "we all know that those who go to the best colleges make the most money," and, further, they can be pressuring them into certain types of majors, again, the technical, business and scientific types that again "guarantee the most satisfaction because those graduates make the most money." 

But have all of those sayings been tested in an ironclad fashion?  Do those people live the longest, are they the happiest and do they turn out the most successful kids?  Do they make so much money that they can pay off their educational debts the most quickly?  And what happens to a society where liberal arts majors are dissed because solving a math problem right now can be more sexy than taking a philosophy course on leadership that might create a career for a young person where they can inspire society in a unique way? 

I wrestle with all these questions, believe that college is too expensive, that it should be cheaper, that community colleges should be strengthened, as should the curricula for eleventh and twelfth grades, that not all good jobs need four years of post-high school education (at least not right away), that people should negotiate the best deal that they can get and send their kids to that college, that at some point fairly quickly it's what you can do and not where you went to school that matters, and that parental snootery and pressure can compel kids to do things that go against the grain.  A putative writer needs nurturing from her parents and friends, not snide comments about "you cannot make a living doing that."  Those latter comments might ultimately prove true for many, but for the truly committed they are such a downer.  Because at the end of the day, a good writer in a nurturing environment could have a very satisfying life and have time to enjoy that life.  A so-so engineer whose parents get to brag daily with their car magnet and who works sixty-hour weeks to please difficult bosses while working on deadlines and who is trapped with all his debt might not lead as envious a life as the credential on the resume might suggest.

In other words, there are many ways for society to address this issue and many ways for students and parents to deal with it as well.  Some colleges will thrive, some will muddle through, and some will become extinct.  Those who excel will be akin to my favorite wine store, which is cooled to the temperature of a wine cellar and finds great values from niche vineyards, opting not to compete with the expensive rare wine dealers or the chain volume sellers.  That Darwinism -- and the aid that might accompany it -- will be interesting to watch. 

Parents and students must demand more, too.  The biggest schools have to offer "mini schools" within them so that they can prepare kids to read for content, write succinctly, make presentations and create and not just regurgitate.  They must not assuage themselves that big football weekends, a Greek life and lots of parties are as useful as they suggest -- kids need to develop.  By the same token, at the other end of the spectrum, we are not stamping out future engineers for IBM or Google without, hopefully, getting them to think broadly about what a good society looks like, as opposed to one where they can buy their first 3 series BMW in their twenties and buy $100 bottles of wine. 

It's a hard world out there, and something that none of us thought would happen -- the demise of a once proud, once elite liberal arts college -- happened.  Perhaps Sweet Briar became extinct because of fiscal mismanagement, because the brand became old and tired (and leadership failed to go the route of Tiffany and reinvent itself away from the image that only grandmothers shopped there), because the brand was all-women, because the brand was Southern, all women and pink and green.  Or perhaps because it was all that and viewed not as a serious player for developing women leaders (a la Wellesley) but as a finishing school, albeit a good one. 

The challenge for educators is to keep their schools robust, make them as diverse as possible, and to keep them innovating and relevant, as well as cost-effective (imagine Harvard offering a two-year A.A. program!).  The challenge for our society is to think broadly about our best possibilities and help drive ourselves and our children toward them, all the while demanding good value, good values and a cost-effective education.

And one which would include a course on French literature, Latin American history and the philosophy of leadership every now and then.  Accounting and engineering are noble professions, but they fit within a broader society, as do art and music and every other profession. 

It's sad to see an institution close its doors, but the lesson in Sweet Briar is a) institutions need to innovate and keep innovating and b) the education bubble that Mark Cuban warns of should be taken seriously.  At some point, as with "little boxes on the hillside made of ticky-tack" and with tulip bulbs in Holland about 500 years ago, someone will yell, "Sell!"  And then the selloff will continue for a while until people re-set the market, get their heads straight again.

A college education is a wonderful thing.

At the right price.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Daniel Orton disses Manny Pacquiao -- and gets booted out of the Philippines

Only in. . . Manila.

Journeyman big Daniel Orton, testimony to the fact that not everyone who goes and plays for John Calipari and leaves early has a scintillating career, was on a team in the Phillipine League up until last week, when he commented that boxer Manny Pacquiao didn't have a game.

That was akin to having say Wilson Valdez or John Mayberry, Jr. making fun of Michael Jordan's somewhat loopy swing when he played for Terry Francona and the Birmingham Barons of the Southern League.  Except that because this was the Philippines and the golden rule seems to apply (as in, "he who has the gold, rules"), the team that Orton was on jettisoned him quickly.


Not because he spoke the truth.

But because he dared to say that the emperor is naked.

So while Orton probably didn't take too many classes on the First Amendment or managerial courage in  Lexington, he also didn't take any in office politics.  Because apparently Rule #1 in the Philippines is that you don't publicly diss one of the wealthiest and best known citizens of the country where you are a guest and get a way with it.  It isn't Lexington, after all.

Orton was gracious in defeat, tweeting his goodbye as he now looks for a another destination sticker to put on an already fully piece of luggage for such a young man.

Apparently the Team Irkutsk in the Siberian Winter "D" League is looking for a few good men.

Lacrosse outside in February in the Northeastern U.S.

Okay, so they played an all-time doozie of a game in Baltimore, where Princeton defeated Johns Hopkins in overtime, 16-15.

In front of about 1288 lacrosse nuts, masochists, parents or significant others (pity the poor siblings who had to be there).

Now, it must have been a great game.

But outside?

In February.

For a college game?

That's either dedication or stupidity, and while you might be tempted to attribute it to the former because two smart-kid schools were playing, don't underestimate the stupidity of the academic/athletic materialism that these elite schools attempt.  Yes, they'll offer more sports programs than the SEC schools and try to beat you, but to jam a schedule so hard that they go outdoors in February?

Great game or not, that takes dedication, with a bit of stupidity mixed in.

On the Philadelphia Phillies

Pitchers and catchers have reported.

The best players, according to WARP, are your 36 year-old catcher and your 36 year-old second baseman, both of whom are injury prone.  Your first baseman is recovering from physical and mental injuries, the latter resulting from an awful fight with his parents and brother over the management of his money.  For Ryan Howard, that had to hurt worse than the popping of his Achilles' tendon at the end of the NLDS in 2011.  You traded the best shortstop in team history, and your #1 starter wants out.  Your #2 starter is thirty-five, coming off injuries and close to retirement, but you have to bet that he might welcome a change of scenery to a team, well, that isn't predicted to have the worst record in the Majors.  Atop that, according to Baseball Prospectus, the Phillies are projected to score the least amount of runs in the Majors since 1971.  And, to make matters even worse, ESPN the Magazine rated you dead last in terms of reliance on analytics to help make the team better.  And that's somewhat ironic, given that GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. has a degree in, of all things, economics, and, from all places, Stanford.

Tickets will be plentiful and inexpensive.  About 5 years ago, you couldn't get a full- or partial-season ticket plan.  Today, the team e-mails current and former subscribers offering them single-game seats -- including among the best in the house -- for any game.  You want Hall of Fame Club against the Red Sox?  You got 'em.

But the fans just might not be biting.  Instead, they'll accept funding from those fans who still have season tickets and who offer them for sale on secondary markets like StubHub.  Why?  Because while the club might sell you a Hall of Fame club seat for its face value, roughly $85 (don't hold me to that), you'll probably be able to get some for about $60-$65 dollars apiece depending on the game and how long you are willing to wait.  

In 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, there was demand.

In 2015, there is supply.

And watching both Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley play out their distinguished careers, while Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee toil in too many 2-1 losses.

What a difference 5 years makes.