Friday, August 29, 2008

It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year


The image remains indelible for anyone who saw it. There he was, Germany’s greatest gift to Oklahoma football, standing in front a bank of angry Buckeye fans, smiling and leading cheers.



Ohio State had taken the obligatory timeout with 0:03 remaining and clinging to a 28-26 lead. It had been one of the most anticipated games of the ’77 season, and it hadn’t disappointed. The game had everything, from great players, to a pair of legendary coaches, cranky OSU boss Woody Hayes and Oklahoma’s slick Barry Switzer. There were lead changes and great plays. Screaming fans and plenty of drama.

Now, it would come down to one, 41-yard kick. And Uwe von Schamann was standing there, leading cheers as the Ohio State leatherthroats were screaming for him to fail. Like that would bother von Schamann. Here was a guy who grew up in Berlin, was raised by a single mother and had come to America with only enough money to make it to Memphis. The trip to Texas came courtesy of mom’s thumb. Next to that, even the most delirious crowd sounded like birds chirping on a pristine spring day.

After the commercials were finished, von Schamann lined it up – and nailed it. Oklahoma 29, Ohio State 28. The Sooners were euphoric, and their mustachioed kicker was a hero whose accomplishment is referred to merely as “The Kick” in OU lore. Oklahoma didn’t win it all that year, thanks a regular-season stumble against Earl Campbell and the Texas Longhorns and an Orange Bowl debacle against Arkansas and Roland Sales.

El Hombre presents this history lesson for two reasons. First, it is always good to recount crushing Ohio State losses. Second, although the Buckeyes and Sooners did play a rematch six years later in Norman (won by OSU), they haven’t played since. That ought to change next January, when the schools square off for the BCS championship. It should be a bit of delicious irony for college football fans. One team that can’t seem to close the deal in the title tilt against another that hasn’t been able to win any bowl game of late. One can almost imagine the marketing campaign by Fox: “Someone’s got to win!”

That’s right, girls and boys, it’s college football time again. And there is much to celebrate, if only because we’re done with pre-pubescent gymnastic sprites, poor-sport Taekwondo losers and Bob Costas’ perpetual perkiness. It is sad, however, that Count Bela Karolyi has returned to his castle in the Carpathian Mountains. Ah, well, there’s always London in 2012. As the nation prepares for the first big weekend of action, here are some of the people, stories and abominations worth watching.

BCS Follies: The method of choosing a national champion makes Olympic gymnastics judging seem accurate and fair. Perhaps the college football pooh-bahs instituted the BCS to make sure the sport wasn’t absolutely perfect, thereby embarrassing every other athletic pursuit and creating a product more addictive than the finest southeast Asian smack.

RichRod’s Magical Journey: Michigan fans wanted things shaken up, and there was no better way to accomplish that than to replace Lloyd Carr with Rich Rodriguez, the profane, high-energy, spit-in-the-face-of-convention former West Virginia coach. Okay, so the journey from Morgantown to Ann Arbor wasn’t exactly smooth, what with the vitriolic send-off Rodriguez received from angry Mountaineer faithful, to the acrimonious settlement of his buyout from WVU to the culture shock he induced at U-M by actually holding the players accountable, rather than sticking with the Same Old Way and losing to Ohio State just about every year. The Wolverines may fall to the Buckeyes this November, but they will never be bland and predictable again. Anyone wanting a piece of Michigan had better get one now, because in two years, few will have a shot. The beginning of the Rodriguez Era may have been rocky, but expect an avalanche of wins down the road.

Big Pressure: It’s bad enough carrying around the Bowden name, especially these days, when it has the relative strength of the U.S. dollar to the Euro. Daddy is just about finished at Florida State, to the point where they have already installed his successor in the office down the hall. Son Tommy, meanwhile, may have a contract extension at Clemson, but that doesn’t mean a posse won’t be coming his way if the Tigers can’t close the ACC deal this season. For years, Bowden was blocked by his dad. Now, FSU is ordinary, and so is the conference. If Clemson doesn’t win it this year, especially with a bunch of returnees, including QB Cullen Harper and backs C.J. Spiller and James Davis, that extension won’t save Bowden from the hoots of scalp collectors looking to add his to their pile. That means the Tigers had better fix their O-line, because Alabama’s gonna throw a thousand different front-four looks at them Saturday, and confusion could prove deadly.

The Challenge: UCLA took out a full-page ad in the L.A. papers this week declaring, “The Monopoly on Los Angeles football is officially over.” They may not be playing the popular board game in Westwood anymore, but they should be playing “Clue,” as in get one. New coach Rick Neuheisel has inspired confidence and enthusiasm, but let’s be real here. USC’s second team would be a touchdown favorite over the Bruin varsity, and it’s possible the Uclans might win only four or five games this season. Yes, there is reason to hope, since Neuheisel knows his business, and coordinators Norm Chow and DeWayne Walker are top-shelf. But let’s be real. There is still a monopoly on football in SoCal, and the Bruins are living on Baltic Avenue, while USC has a penthouse on Park Place.

Fearless Predictions: So here’s how it shakes out, beginning with the conference races. ACC: Virginia Tech; Big East: West Virginia; Big Ten: Ohio State; Big 12: Oklahoma; Pac-10: USC; SEC: Florida.

Heisman winner: Chase Daniel, QB, Missouri.

BCS Championship Game: Ohio State 27, Oklahoma 23.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Let’s see now. Peyton Manning has started 160 games, and he is about six weeks past knee surgery to remove a bursa sac. And you have doubts he’ll start the Colts’ opener? Somebody hasn’t been paying attention too closely…There should be no complaining about Usain Bolt’s exuberance at the Olympics, especially from IOC president Jacques Rogge, who sanctioned these sanitized Communist games and put up no fuss when Beijing officials produced “evidence” that the Chinese female gymnasts were of age. Guess that laser printer was working overtime in the country’s Ministry of Cloak and Dagger Operations. Next to that sham, a little enthusiasm from a human blur is not a bit disturbing…It’s appropriate that eight-time Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps will host Saturday Night Live next month, since that show has been taking on water for years…In an attempt to boost attendance among the vast Memphis Iranian community, the Grizzlies signed 7-2 Hamed “Who’s Your” Haddadi. Expect the first “Nuclear Enrichment Night” to be held in November, and anybody who brings yellowcake uranium to the arena will get half off a regular-priced ticket.

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AND ANOTHER THING: After taking an informal survey of Little League baseball veterans, the decision by the New Haven league that refuses to let nine-year old flamethrower (40 mph, the lowest setting at the local batting cage) Jericho Scott pitch is even more ludicrous than it was originally thought. Exactly what are these soft-tossers trying to teach children by having them back away from a challenge? In life, there are people who are going to be a little (or a lot) better than you in a chosen pursuit, and the key to success – or at least self-respect – is trying hard, giving it your all and tipping your hat to the other guy if he outperforms you. By forcing Scott off the mound – and worse – threatening to disband the league if he tries to pitch again, organizers are sending the worst message possible: That it’s best to meet tough challenges by backing away. Sports are supposed to teach lessons, not show kids how to take the easy way out. Shame on the adults in this one, and may they never be allowed to coach any youth sports again.


Friday, August 8, 2008

Smile, China, the IOC loves you


By now, loyal El Hombre readers are quite familiar with his stance on the ’08 Olympics. To recap:

Chinese Communists bad. Beaten, tormented dissidents good.

Despite the protests of rational individuals, the 2008 Games will kick off tonight in Beijing, giving a country rated among the worst in the world in terms of human-rights violations a stage on which to sanitize its reputation. By removing any evidence of its crimes and limiting where reporters may roam, the Chinese can present an innocent face to the world. The sad part is, many will buy it. Further, President Bush’s unprecedented attendance at the Opening Ceremonies confers a legitimacy on the nation that it hasn’t enjoyed. Either that, or he’s going there to convince Chinese banks not to call in their loans all at once.

The IOC is complicit in this charade, too. When U.S. cyclists arrived at Beijing’s airport earlier this week, they did so wearing the surgical masks that had been distributed to many American athletes, largely because the air quality in the city is a step above that found in an NFL lineman’s shoe. Friday’s reading of particulates found in each cubic meter of air was 191 micrograms, just a “bit” over the World Health Organization (WHO) standard of 50. That stellar number earned the designation “fairly good” from the Chinese government, who must consider being trapped inside an airplane lavatory with a cigar smoker “acceptable.” By the end of the Games, we may have our first reported case of an injury sustained by someone’s walking into a wall of air.

So, the cyclists wore masks. Can’t blame them, since they are elite athletes, for whom the need for clean lungs is rather important. Needless to say, Chinese officials were outraged and planned to say something to the cyclists, just as soon as they stopped coughing. The IOC wasn’t so reticent, demanding apologies and chastising the athletes for embarrassing their hosts. Perhaps if the air in Beijing weren’t listed as “chewable” by the WHO, the cyclists wouldn’t have masked up. The IOC’s reaction is consistent with its high-stress response to everything regarding these Olympics. Since the governing body bestowed this opportunity on China, it has sought to defend its decision at every turn. Edicts have been issued banning any kind of political protest. Any moves made by the Chinese, such as pre-Games shenanigans with TV networks, have been tolerated. And, now, when athletes show up with legitimate concerns for their health, the IOC jumps in. Based on this, it looks like that North Korean bid for the 2020 games might be green-lighted.

Okay, so China was a poor choice. And the Games could well give the world a view of the country as unrealistic Joan Rivers’ face. But there will still be plenty of competition going on, and hundreds of American athletes trying to earn gold medals and marketing dollars. Here are a few of the storylines worth following. (NOTE: Treacly, maudlin candidates need not apply; El Hombre will leave those to NBC’s drama, er, sports department.)

* Scream Team: The NBA’s finest (sans Tim Duncan) have come together to bring the gold medal back to the U.S. Haven’t we heard that before? While Coach K spent time learning how to berate refs in Uzbek, Greek and Finnish, stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul have pledged to play nice together and win it all. Trouble is, Jerry Colangelo saw fit to include only one pure shooter – Michael Redd – on the team. Good to see we have learned how to play international ball in the past four years. So, expect a lot of zone defenses and frustrated wing guards stymied in their attempts to drive to the hoop. Oh, and look for a crashing lack of sportsmanship against overmatched opponents like Angola, as the U.S. players dunk and mug, even when they’re up by 70. Better win the gold, guys, or we’re sending the college kids in ’12.

* Spitz Take: It’s hard to imagine the walls of American kids’ rooms adorned with posters of Michael Phelps, as they were in 1976 when Mark Spitz piled up seven golds in Munich. Then again, Phelps doesn’t look as good in a Speedo as Spitz did. Phelps is going for a record eight gold medals in Beijing, and he might just get them, provided his controversial space-age swimsuit holds up. Phelps must swim at least 17 times during the Olympics and could have his dream of passing Spitz torpedoed right away, should fellow American Ryan Lochte top him in the 400 IM. Phelps is a remarkable athlete, but he will tie, not best Spitz, thanks to the sheer, overwhelming volume of work ahead.

* Spinners and Jumpers: Americans Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin will likely battle it out for the women’s all-around title, but the real showdown comes in the team competition, when the U.S. battles China. Johnson, Liukin and Co. slapped down Mao’s girls in the worlds by a point, and the frothing hometown crowd will demand revenge. Unfortunately, they’ll get it.

* Short-lived Reign: The IOC has decided that although 128 countries around the world play softball, the sport doesn’t deserve inclusion in future games. So, when the U.S. clocks the field for its fourth gold in as many Olympic competitions, softball will be gone. The Committee has vowed to review the decision next year, but re-instatement is a long shot, unless…perhaps if a nation favorable to the IOC won this year, it might allow softball to continue. That settles it: China gets the (wink-wink) gold, and softball gets new life.

* Drug World: They will be testing urine and blood this year. They might be looking at hair and saliva. Mucus is in play. And don’t forget those tats, which some have maintained can be delivery systems for doses of performance-enhancing drugs (really). The World Anti-Doping Agency is promising to be extra vigilant, and that’s a good thing, because picking out the cheaters isn’t as easy as it used to be, when listening to East German female swimmers imitate James Earl Jones and shave their goatees was all it took to figure out who was juicing.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: A former Toledo football player has been charged with point-shaving, and disgraced NBA ref Tim Donaghy has asked to testify against him, in order to have some time shaved off his prison sentence. Either that, or he wants to share the same cell with the guy – if he’s convicted – to pick up some tips…In keeping with his stated goal of becoming a “global icon,” LeBron James has said he would consider playing in Europe when his contract expires. In a related story, new Knicks GM Donnie Walsh has been sending $21 million point guard/clubhouse cancer Stephon Marbury travel brochures from Italy…Alabama’s baseball team will play three games in Cuba next spring, so Fidel’s boys had better be careful about possible defectors who could disguise themselves as Crimson Tide players. Some possible clues include anyone asking to drink a “Medico Pepper” or seeking help to shave a “Quattro” into their back hair to support a NASCAR driver.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Now that Brett Favre is a Jet, we can stop following the soap opera regarding his ’08 destination – which, by the way, the National Poison Control Center established as an alternative to syrup of ipecac for vomit inducing in the event someone swallows bleach. Instead, we can start speculating on whether he’ll be any good in New York. The Favre supporters, and there are legions throughout the media, are trying to make the Packers look bad in this, because they shipped Cowboy Quarterback away. That’s ridiculous, since they spent three years on the Brett Retirement Watch and then were told as late as Draft Day ’08 that Favre wasn’t coming back. That’s why they picked Brian Brohm. That’s why they made Aaron Rodgers their starter during mini-camps and OTAs. That’s why they weren’t happy when Favre declared his renewed interest in football in early July. Favre may well be the best QB available to the Packers, but his waffling and diva-like behavior made it impossible for Green Bay to keep him and maintain order among the rest of the roster. Favre moves on to the Jets carrying a big hunk of Packer history with him. Given his age, his performance in two of the past three seasons and his lack of serious conditioning work during the off-season, it’s unlikely he’ll be leading any Super Bowl charges. We’ll still have to deal with his fawning P.R. men on espn, John Madden’s pathological love for him and the rest of his apologists, but Green Bay is better off without him, today and two years from now.


Friday, August 1, 2008

Let's Get It Started

“I’m about ready to shoot myself in the head.”
-- Anonymous college lineman, 7/31/08

That about sums it up for most college football players throughout the nation as the beginning of camp dawns. We fans may be anxiously counting down the days (27) until the world’s greatest sport kicks off again, but the players aren’t too thrilled about the prospect of two weeks of two-a-day practices, extra conditioning and the dulcet tones of angry coaches who “care” enough about their players to drive them to the brink of physical and emotional breakdown all for the greater glory of State U. Compared with all that, a week’s worth of proctologic exams by clumsy doctors wearing hockey gloves seems like a picnic.
While the big men toil, and the old prolate spheroid soars through skies heavy with humidity and hope, the requisite pre-season story lines are taking shape across the country. Some are holdovers from the winter and spring, while others have germinated throughout the sticky months when players learn that college football is indeed a year-round pursuit. Given that grim reality, it’s a wonder those Oklahoma Sooners were able to secure those no-show jobs a couple years ago. It’s gotten to the point where a top player can’t even find time to make sure the automatic sprinkler system turns on anymore.
While the dread grows, and the hitting is about to commence, here’s a look at what’s going on off the field.
Don’t Wake Pop-Pop: Within hours of the announcement that Penn State had excised a pair of felonious defensive linemen from its roster, State College police reported that an out-of-control pool party featuring some fine Nittany Lion student-athletes was now in the department’s sights. Did somebody relocate the PSU campus to the Deep South while we weren’t looking? That’s about the only way to explain the spate of arrests and trouble that have plagued Joe Paterno’s once-pristine program over the past couple years.
Were this in Knoxville, College Station or Coral Gables, the outcry would be deafening. Coaches’ scalps would be demanded. Investigations would be launched. And concerned fans from rival schools would be performing their civic duties by reporting any information they could concoct, er, find to help in the pursuit of justice. But this is Penn State, and decades of political capital earned by coach Joe Paterno have protected him from the usual hysteria that accompanies such activity. But the account is getting low, and it won’t be long before a football team that has clearly lost its direction tarnishes Penn State’s institutional image. Not only are the Lions not winning big any more; they aren’t behaving themselves. When times got tough the last 20 years, Paterno could always rely on a surfeit of goodwill. That isn’t the case now, and unless he leaves his post after this season, Penn State runs the risk of becoming exactly what it worked so hard to avoid for 40-plus years: a football factory.
Some want to blame espn for its “Outside the Lines” report on the program, which detailed the arrests, plea bargains, convictions, text messages sent under Paterno’s name by assistant coaches and attempts to circumvent university policy, but those complainers are blind to the realities of the situation. The school is taking a hit here, and the administration and faculty know it. Unless Paterno ends his desire to be deemed coach-for-life, PSU will suffer, on the field and off. That’s exactly what JoePa has fought to avoid.
Help Wanted, Maybe: It’s somewhat unfair to post in August a list of coaches whose jobs are in jeopardy, but had they won more games, their rear ends wouldn’t be warming quickly as they sit at their desks wondering how this year’s aggregation of mediocrity can somehow earn an International Bowl berth. Here are the prime candidates for uncomfortable discussions with their ADs come late November:
Greg Robinson, Syracuse. Odds: 2:1. The Orange has a brutal schedule and insufficient talent. Could be a package deal as athletic director Daryl Gross gets run too for failing to live up to his promise to turn the ‘Cuse into a Snow Belt version of USC, his former employer.
Tyrone Willingham, Washington. Odds: 3:1. The operative number here is zero. Zip. Zilch. The big goose-egg. While other schools have received as many as 19 commitments from members of the 2009 recruiting class, the Huskies have secured none. That, an 11-25 record over three years, an ever-improving Pac-10 and a non-conference schedule that includes Oklahoma, Brigham Young and Notre Dame should do the job.
Mike Stoops, Arizona. Odds: 4:1. No bowl games and an improved Arizona State team up the road makes alums and donors angry. It’s all on QB Willie Tuitama, who had better stay healthy, or Stoops will be somebody’s defensive coordinator next year.
Ron Prince, Kansas State. Odds: 10:1. It’s only his third year at the school, but Prince is a prickly pear who brought in 19 JUCOs this year. Anybody else smell desperation?
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa. Odds: 12:1. When you’re winning 10-11 games a year, a little off-field tomfoolery is tolerated. But 6-6 records don’t buy the type of protection needed to withstand charges the athletic department covered up sexual assault allegations. Better find a modern-day Nile Kinnick, coach, or the posse will be at your office door.
Early Birds: By this December, high school players around the country could be breathing a lot more easily. That’s when a proposed early signing date might go into effect, allowing prospects to ink letters-of-intent and end the harassing, haranguing and pestering about where they’ll be going to college next year. And that’s just from their friends. The coaches ought to like it, too, because it will prevent them from succumbing to the pressure of making clandestine calls to players who have already committed to other schools in order to flip them – not that they want to do that.
It’s an idea that is absolutely on the mark, so don’t expect it to be instituted by the NC2A any time soon. Just kidding. Something may take hold of the rocket scientists in Indianapolis, and they could make a good move. That ought to improve their winning percentage to .147.
On Target – NOT! There are still 27 arduous days remaining until the ’08 season kicks off, but that hasn’t stopped USA Today from publishing its coaches poll. We don’t know whether USC’s QB situation will work out well. We can’t be sure whether LSU will have a Harvard transfer(!) under center. Is Clemson going to choke again? Will Texas play like heifers, instead of Longhorns? None of this will be clear for weeks, much less right now.
We’re not going to get a playoff system. We can’t stop Oregon from wearing butt-ugly uniforms. And we can’t make Oklahoma play a good bowl game. But can we please prevail upon the pollsters to wait until a few games have been completed before trying to assess the relative strengths of the nation’s best? El Hombre understands there is tremendous pressure from the TV networks to have some polls, so they can promote games involving good teams by hyping their rankings. By starting this mess so early, USA Today is penalizing unheralded teams by burying them in the hierarchy and forcing them to hoe a tougher road than more established programs. The college football world can wait until October for the polls. We’ve waited this long for a system of choosing a champion that doesn’t mimic figure skating’s, so what’s a few weeks?
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EL HOMBRE SEZ: NFL legend Jim Brown has sued Sony and EA Sports for using his image and likeness in video-game products. In a related story, Sony and EA have sued the Oakland Raiders from remaining in the league and forcing the companies to include the sad-sack franchise in their video-game products…China has lowered the pollution in Beijing drastically in the last couple weeks in anticipation of next Friday’s Olympic kickoff. Factories have closed. Driving is restricted. The biggest impact has been the new plan that allows dissidents to breathe only on odd-numbered days…Candace Parker is dunking. The Shock and Galaxy are scuffling. And now for further evidence women’s basketball is getting closer to the men’s version of the game. Louisiana-Monroe guard Regena Jackson has been tossed from school after firing a gun from an apartment balcony. Next up: WNBA stars make rap videos…First the ridiculous “Titletown” competition. Now, the X Games. It’s almost enough to make a viewer beg for espn to provide more Brett Favre coverage – if that’s possible…Seven Russian female track and field athletes were suspended Thursday for providing fraudulent urine samples, another example that the new Russia is Soviet Lite. Back in the day, Leonid and the boys at the Ministry of Sport never would have let this happen. No wonder the people crave autocracy. An iron fist equals Olympic gold, or at least testosterone-free women’s urine.
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AND ANOTHER THING: Now that the trade deadline has passed, and wacky Manny Ramirez is out with the other crazies in LA, it’s time to get down to pennant race business. Five of the six divisions (start setting up that post-season pitching rotation, Angels) have tight races, and the wild-card hunts are compelling, too. Even the NL Worst is interesting now that Manny is on the coast – provided he doesn’t start shoving 60-something traveling secretaries. El Hombre stands by his pre-season pick of the Angels over the Cubs, but let’s hope the races stay tight, and interest holds throughout the league. Maybe that way the stain of the steroid mess will fade, and people can stop wondering whether every great performer is juicing. El Hombre in no way wants the steroid era to be forgotten, and he has some justice he’d like to mete out still, but the best way for baseball to move on is with a high-quality product on the field. It looks like we’re getting it.