Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Four Horsemen of Greed

EL HOMBRE KNOWS SPORTS

Outlined against a greenbacked November sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. They are only aliases. Their real names are Greed, Avarice, Gluttony and Self-Indulgence. (With apologies to Grantland Rice)


The news came down earlier this week and was supposed to be a reason for great joy among college football fans. espn now owned the rights to the Bowl Championship Series, that rotten, flaking rash on the visage of America’s Greatest Sport. Locked it up through 2014. And not just the broadcast rights, either. Nope, the four-letter folks from Bristol will also market the games, assuring proper synergy for the products and guaranteeing a constant stream of BCS propaganda designed to benumb fans and drive heretic ideas of a playoff from their soft minds.

Since the Disney/espn/ABC “family” of networks fairly dominates the college football TV landscape, we can look forward to a barrage of rationalizations for why a contrived, jury-rigged system is preferable to deciding a championship on the field. We can also count on continued use of ridiculously themed weeks of action, such as “High-Colonic Saturday” and “The Final Verdict.” Can’t wait for the cross-promotional possibilities, like “Desperate Housewives Meet The Ol’ Ball Coach.” Worse, we won’t hear a legitimate dissenting opinion about the BCS from anyone with true authority at the four-letter compound, for fear of turning people off from their own programming. If there are four undefeated teams from big-time conferences in a couple years, and only two of them can play in the BCS “title game,” the other two might as well be from the Sun Belt Conference, even if they’re USC and Alabama.

So, we’re stuck with this mess for the next six years. If college football wants to be a joke for the money, that’s how it’s going to roll. But let’s hope this puts an end to the asinine arguments that the BCS system exists to protect the student-athlete. It’s all about the cabbage. This week’s series in USA Today clearly demonstrates how little the academic institutions that comprise the NC2A’s gridiron-industrial complex care about the young men who toil for the greater glory of State or Tech. In an effort to give the illusion that players are being educated, schools funnel them into phony-baloney programs that wouldn’t tax The Three Stooges’ brainpower. Wednesday, USA Today provided several examples of players who were discouraged from pursuing majors that might interfere with their responsibilities on the football field.

Kansas State defensive lineman Steven Cline arrived in Manhattan with a dream of becoming a veterinarian. But when he struggled in biology, the Wildcats’ academic counselor encouraged him to drop down a few cranial notches to “social sciences,” a rag-tag collection of courses that produces a degree in Nothing Much. Today, Cline is working construction so he can raise enough money to go back to school to pursue veterinary medicine. Instead of making full use of his free ride, he came away with a degree that gave him few legitimate skills in a Speedo-tight job market. Sure, he could have fought harder for his dream, but when advisors at the school are directing kids toward courses of study designed to clear their schedules for more football, it’s an indication just how little schools care about them.

It’s all a by-product of the NC2A’s response to the furor that arose over SAT/ACT scores’ determining eligibility for prospective players. Since the test scores were judged to be biased or poor indicators of future performance, the focus shifted to classwork as the main criteria for athletic eligibility. Do well enough in high school, and you can play right away – even if the prospect’s curriculum in no way prepared him for college work. At the same time, the NC2A decided athletes should be making sufficient progress toward degrees, a noble pursuit. There was a catch: since many of them entered school unprepared to do college work, especially with a year-round gridiron commitment, there was no way they could be expected to thrive in traditional major programs. So, schools began to channel players onto the soft track. They enroll in “social sciences,” as Cline and many of his teammates did. They are shunted into “general studies,” a nebulous collection of courses designed to accumulate credits but not develop skills. There are other favorites throughout the country, like Criminology and Kinesiology, which can be a legitimate pursuit but is often a fancy word for Phys. Ed. Twenty-seven of the returning players at Florida this year listed social and behavioral science as their course of study, while athletic coaching education is big at West Virginia (16 returnees).

The good news is that these players accumulate sufficient credits to satisfy the NC2A requirements and keep their schools on the right side of the ledger. The bad news is that it’s tough to translate many of the majors – provided the players graduate – into something that might entice an employer. So, when the final gun sounds, if the NFL doesn’t beckon, and it rarely does, players have spent four years on campus playing football and getting through classwork that has little pertinence in the real world. That’s the real crime, not an extra game or two in the playoffs.

It’s funny, but few people spoke out (former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr was one of the dissenters), when the NC2A allowed schools to add a 12th game to their schedules. And where is the outrage at Washington State or Cincinnati, who will play a 13th game (and in Cincy’s case, a bowl) because late-season trips to Hawaii are exempt from the dozen-a-year limit? There is none. Coaches say the trip to the islands is a “reward” for the players. It really is a recruiting tool that allows pitchmen to sell prospects on a paradise vacation if they choose Fort Knox U. And it’s a drain on players, who wear down as the season goes on and don’t see any of the money that flows in from extra games. And don’t try that old saw about how they get “a free education.” We’ve seen exactly what kind of training they get.

The BCS lives on, thanks to espn, the Pac-10 and Big 10’s Paleolithic love of the Rose Bowl and a governing body that dares not flex its muscles to create a playoff (which it has in every other football division), lest it watch its biggest schools break off and form their own confederation. Try to enjoy it but remember to keep the Compazine handy when the school presidents and ADs start to talk about how the bowl system works best for the “student-athlete.”

You’re going to need it to keep from vomiting.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: What a shock that Nuggets coach George Karl has no remorse about the trade that sent Allen Iverson to Detroit. He spoke of the difficulties running an offense with a shoot-first (and second and third) “point” guard and didn’t seem to miss the 15-20 bad possessions a game during Iverson’s tenure. Since A.I.’s departure, the Nugs have won seven of eight, and Karl is beaming. Go figure…Wednesday, top Princeton chess players traveled to New Jersey State Prison to play against inmates in one of the most intimidating home-court advantages in the country. All went well until someone noticed that Black-Eyed Johnny’s rook was really a shank…Former Argentine soccer legend and serial bad boy Diego Maradona made his debut as coach of his country’s national team Wednesday, leading his side to a 1-0 win over Scotland in Glasgow. Maradona is making his players adhere to a strict training regimen that includes no more than a pack of cigarettes, two grams of loco powder and 18 beers a day…Hats off to golfer J.P. Hayes, who disqualified himself from the PGA Qualifying Tournament when he realized he had played a round with a ball not sanctioned for competition. In a world where steroid use is covered up, videotaping of opponents’ signals is greeted with a slap on the wrist, and athletes and owners are ever-greedier, it’s nice to see some integrity. There ought to be a statue of the guy somewhere.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Okay, so Donovan McNabb didn’t know there could be only one overtime period in an NFL game. That’s pretty silly. But Philadelphia fans – and columnists/analysts/blowhards – are missing the point about the Eagles QB: he has been rotten of late. You may want to make OT-gate a metaphor for his time in town, but that is simple and off base. On average, McNabb is more cerebral and thoughtful than most athletes who come through here, so his lack of knowledge about overtime is an isolated incident and not proof he should be dispatched to the CFL. More damning is his poor play in the last four games. He has been inaccurate and even tentative, not wanting to run and unable to get the ball to receivers in a timely fashion. He is Exhibit A on a team that lacks playmakers and is not constructed nor coached properly in an NFL that no longer is dazzled by the West Coast offense. McNabb will likely be elsewhere next season, but plenty of his current mates had better be wearing different uniforms, too. This isn’t a good football team right now, and substantive changes have to be made. If that means getting rid of McNabb, so be it. But judge him on his play, not one dumb mistake.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Michigan fans are advised to avert their eyes Saturday when the Wolverines travel to Columbus for what promises to be a hideous beat-down. Say what you want about playing a spoiler’s role or “making its season” with a win over the Horrible People, but there is no chance of that happening. None. Michigan is an awful team with no quarterback and a defense that has rarely played to its potential. Worse (if that’s possible), first-year coach Rich Rodriguez has angered alumni with his unwillingness to embrace the tradition of a program that drips with the stuff. There are some pretty interesting whisperings out there, beginning with the rumor that Rodriguez may end up at Clemson next year, because of his ties to the school and the mutual loathing between him and U-M. A more likely scenario involves the firing of defensive coordinator Scott Shafer and a circle-the-wagons approach to next season. Stay tuned – just not to Saturday’s game, unless you are a fan of carnage.

* * *

ONE FOR THE ROAD: Q: How can you tell an Ohio State fan has a girlfriend? A: There’s tobacco juice on both the driver and passenger’s doors of the pickup.

-EH-

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hoopheads Unite: It's College Basketball Time

EL HOMBRE KNOWS SPORTS

Admit it, hoopheads, no matter how much you love the college game, it’s hard to get too fired up about that North Carolina-Penn contest more than a week before Thanksgiving. It’s football season, and even though the BCS is asinine (its ludicrous quotient is beyond the concept of Paris Hilton as Secretary of State), we’re still focused on the prolate spheroid.

But the games have already started, common sense be damned. So it’s time to gaze into the crystal pumpkin, get a look at the upcoming season and thank the Lord for the mute button whenever Jay Bilas starts to talk.

Pack-ing Up: At the end of each season, fans around the country mourn the losses of players who move on, early or otherwise, and deal with the moves made by coaches from one program to another. Rarely does the departure of someone broadcasting the game get that much attention – or celebration – but CBS’ decision to jettison Billy Packer as the lead analyst on its telecasts was cause for much rejoicing. For more than 30 years, the cranky ACC-loving grouch pursued his big-school agenda on NBC and CBS. He railed against the inclusion of more mid-majors in the tournament, acted petulant when challenged and generally behaved as if he created big-time college basketball. Replacing him with Clark Kellogg was masterstroke and should help make CBS’ insufferable coverage of the sport far less tedious. Now, about Dookie V…

No-K: Now that he’s led the U.S. to Olympic gold and solidified his status among the na├»ve as a true leader of men, what does Mike Krzyzewski do for an encore? Lose in the second round of the tournament again, of course. Coach K may be working on a book with his daughter about his Beijing success, but the overriding theme had better be “Lithuania ain’t got nothing on LeBron and Kobe.” We’ll hear all season about how great an educator and motivator Krzyzewski is, and his team will be ranked artificially high, but come tourney time his undersized group of jump shooters will lose to a more athletic team early on. Meanwhile, not a word will be written about his ref-baiting or profanity laced practice tirades. Enjoy the Final Four from the stands – again.

DON’T DO IT! Mr. Personality gets even more air time this season, thanks to espn’s decision to use him in the studio and as a color analyst. It’s all part of Generalissimo Knight’s master plan to convince some school that his special brand of insight and earthy charm would be perfect to fix its on-court ills. But buyers beware. Knight may seem like he has mellowed while Rece Davis fawns over him and Digger Phelps does everything possible to avoid getting punched in the mouth, but the man hasn’t changed a bit. If a school president is dumb enough to hire him, Knight will bring the same boorish act to campus, complete with his browbeating practice style and arrogant treatment of anyone who dares question him. The best penance Knight can do for a career of abusive behavior can be to spend his remaining years as part of the same media he ridiculed for so long.

St. Patty: If you live in the Eastern or Central time zones, it can be tough to stay up long enough to catch those WCC tilts at midnight. But if you get the chance to watch St. Mary’s play this year, it would be worth a couple Vivarin and a sleepy day on the job to tune in, if only to watch 6-0 point man Patrick Mills. All the Aussie did during the Olympics was light up the U.S. for 20 in the quarterfinals and force Chris Paul to find an extra gear to guard him. Mills isn’t perfect, because his shot needs work, but anybody who can force the NBA’s best to step it up deserves your attention. Other mid-major gems worth seeing: Illinois State guard Osiris Eldridge, Louisiana Tech center Magnum Rolle, Cleveland State forward J’Nathan Bullock, UTEP guard Stefon Jackson and Western Michigan’s David Kool, among many others.

Psycho T’s Final Stand: There has never been a four-time first-team all-America player, until this year. North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough is almost guaranteed to be on everybody’s list of top five players, unless the stress reaction in his shin blossoms into a full-fledged medical nightmare. (It won’t.) Yet about three weeks after Hansbrough’s last hurrah, most likely in the Final Four, we will start hearing just how bad a basketball player he is. No one in the college ranks will commit this heresy; rather, NBA scouts, analysts, GMs and draftniks will proclaim the 6-8 (he’s probably 6-7) power forward unfit for professional ball. Pity. Hansbrough is likely a role player in the Association, but who cares? He will leave Carolina as one of the most accomplished players in that school’s distinguished history and should be lauded for that, not knocked down because his jumper isn’t NBA caliber. If you enjoy college basketball, watch Hansbrough. If you prefer to focus on how everybody does in the NBA, tune in to that Clippers-Grizz tussle.

Long Range Adjustment: Ask Davidson sharpshooter Stephen Curry about the NC2A’s decision to move the three-point line back a foot but don’t expect a dramatic answer. “I noticed when they painted it on the court, because it’s a different color,” he says. “That’s it.” The college trey barrier is now 20 feet, nine inches from the hoop, a change that might cause a 6-10 wanna-be guard to re-think his strategy, but should have no effect at all on the likes of Curry, who wasn’t exactly hanging right on the old line’s edge to begin with. The benefit to the game will come if offenses move more freely inside the arc, making use of the extra room. Then again, since the mid-range game is all but non-existent in college ball, the move might just lower three-point shooting percentages and do little else.

On To Detroit: The college basketball community gets quite a treat this season, since the Final Four will be at Ford Field in Dee-troit. Not to bash the Motor City, since American automobile customers already have that job well in hand, but just having a dome doesn’t make a city a prime candidate to host something like this. There are no restaurants or bars near the stadium, and early-April weather in Michigan is as unpredictable as a teenager’s mood. But once everybody gets inside, the magic starts. So, who will be there? How about Louisville, Texas, North Carolina and Pittsburgh? A UNC-Texas final yields a championship for the Tar Heels, who erase (mostly) the images of last year’s ugly collapse in the national semis.

The rest of the Elite Eight: UCLA, Connecticut, Michigan State, Oklahoma.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: In a move designed to give fans a break in a tough economy, the NFL announced it was reducing the price of playoff tickets by 10%. Of course, the Raiders are already ahead of Roger Goodell and the boys. By stinking so thoroughly, Oakland guarantees fans won’t have to put out any hard-earned cash for post-season ducats…In the wake of the death of promising Russian hockey star Alexei Cherepanov, heart defects have been found in five other players in the Russian Hockey League. In a related story, no heart has been found in any of the Tronno Maple Laughs…A six-month investigation in Queens uncovered a bookmaking operation that did an estimated $30 million in business on college and pro football games. Detectives placed bets from March through September and would have shut the thing down earlier, but they kept winning…NASCAR president Todd France is none too happy with ABC’s decision to cut away from the last few laps of last week’s left-turn-athon in Phoenix to air “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Trouble is, fans aren’t too upset, since they thought the show was actual footage of what was going on in the infield during the race…Mets third baseman David Wright expects his team to make “significant” moves during the off-season, with the goal of the team’s making it to the last week of the season before choking away its lead in the standings.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Somewhere, tucked into the bottom of a drawer in Eagles coach Andy Reid’s desk is a picture of team owner Jeffrey Lurie in a compromising pose with a goat. That’s about the only way to explain why Le Grande Orange continues to wear both the coach and GM hats for the team. It is becoming more and more obvious that the Eagles aren’t constructed to play football the way it is played these days. They have no power running game and no way to stop the run consistently. They don’t get a pass rush with just four lineman, and they lack a big-time wide receiver, although DeSean Jackson has potential. When Reid says the team is good enough to win, he is either impugning his coaching ability or showing a crashing lack of objectivity when regarding his roster. If the Eagles miss the post-season for the third time in four years, substantive changes must be made, starting at the top. It may not be time to cut Reid loose completely, especially since he’s owed about $4.2 million in ’09 and ’10. But he needs to lose the personnel responsibilities and concentrate on coaching the team. Of course, the franchise’s bottom line remains fat, no matter what the team does on the field, but that won’t last forever, particularly if the Eagles can’t survive the tough NFC East.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Notre Dame heads into its game against Navy 1-15 in its last 16 tilts against teams with winning records. The Fighting Irish looked impotent in last week’s loss to Boston College. Yet AD Jack Beancounter says Pear Bryant (Thanks to TC from BC) is safe. Funny, but Charlie Weis’ winning percentage of .586 is three-thousandths better than Ty Willingham’s, and his 26 wins are two fewer than Bob Davie had at this point in his tenure. Guess overpowering arrogance counts for something these days. The bigger joke? Even if the Irish end the season 7-5, we will still be subjected to them on New Year’s Day, because the Gator Bowl has all but promised them a berth, thanks to a shaky economy that could limit the travel plans of fans from another school. After the indignity of watching our investment portfolios crumble, we now have to see Heavy C and his underachieving team in the national spotlight. And you think college football doesn’t need an enema?

-EH-

Friday, November 7, 2008

The NBA: The Unexplainable Happens Here

EL HOMBRE KNOWS SPORTS

No one who follows the NBA would have been surprised to learn that the Celtics’ championship ring ceremony included a special, clandestine presentation to former Boston forward Kevin McHale, without whom the ’08 NBA championship never would have been won. By gift-wrapping one of the league’s top five players – Kevin Garnett – for his old pal, Celts’ GM Danny Ainge, McHale gave a team that was without leadership or focus a laser-like intensity and the ability to climb from the league’s abyss to its top floor. The amazing thing is that Ainge actually had to convince Garnett to leave. He never wanted to move on from Minnesota, further proof of McHale’s burning desire to help his former team. A couple more deals like this, and we might have to change his first name to Elgin.

Ainge couldn’t convince his pal to make any other one-sided deals during the off-season (“Hey, Kevin, how about trading Al Jefferson back to us for Brian Scalabrine and Gabe Pruitt?”), so the Celtics defend their title with the same three-man nucleus that hoisted the club’s 17th banner. It’s not exactly ground chuck. Garnett remains the league’s premier interior defender, and Paul Pierce discovered that mixing hard work and tenacity with outstanding talent could produce pretty amazing results. The transformation that took place last year remains in tact, although it will be hard to forget that performance in the Finals when he behaved as if his knee had been chain-sawed, only to bound back onto the floor three minutes later like a springbok pronking for potential mates.

The Celtics will be big time contenders again, as will the Lakers. As for everybody else, it’s tough to tell. A.I. in Detroit could be more catastrophic than Ford’s recent performance. In Houston, the collective toll of injuries and/or suspensions for Yao, Me-Mac and Con Artest could be too much to allow for a launch. LeBron James is always a threat to carry Sideshow Bob and Friends to the Finals, where he’ll be shackled by a savvy defensive strategy. And let’s place some bets on whether Dallas or Phoenix will fall faster in the West.

The NBA season is upon us, and it’s time to celebrate. Or at least enjoy the highlights until the playoffs begin.

The Elder Statesman: Has Joe Dumars lost his mind? One of the NBA’s all-time straight shooters and team-first guys dished off a reliable, championship point guard (Chauncey Billups) for one of the biggest me-first guys in the NBA. If you want irrefutable evidence that the league is absolutely crazy, then examine this trade. Allen Iverson will absolutely help the Pistons score more, but that’s about it. Why do NBA GMs constantly believe that a new environment will change a player’s approach to the game? Former Georgetown coach John Thompson told El Hombre a long time ago about Iverson, “You can’t change a zebra’s stripes.” Ah, but there is an expiration date on the troubles. A.I.’s contract is up after this season, giving the Stones considerable cap flexibility (they could be as much as $19 mil under this summer). Coupled with the loss of the remaining two full seasons on Billups’ deal, Detroit could be rolling in dough come July 2010, when LBJ and Friends hit free agency. So, maybe Dumars isn’t so dumb after all.

The Big Disappointment: This year’s spin on the ridiculous decision by Phoenix to ruin their franchise by adding an overweight, uninspired, overrated, washed-up lane-clogger is that it takes some time to integrate a post player into an up-tempo attack. Riiiight. Shaq will be stealing $20 mil for each of the next two seasons. Meanwhile, the aging Suns will stagger around, trying to be the NBA’s version of Young@Heart. Instead, they’ll replicate Crash and lose their one-time Western pre-eminence. Phoenix fans will be advised to avert their eyes, or they’ll be tempted to make a citizen’s arrest of Shaq for larceny.

THE KNICKS! In Sensaround!: As disasters go, the 2007-08 New York Knicks season ranks well below the Hindenburg crash and Eddie Murphy’s singing career. But that doesn’t mean the team’s slide from proud contender to punch line wasn’t spectacularly catastrophic. The good news is that despite the subtraction of Isiah Thomas from the equation, the sequel ought to be just as a hair-raising. For Knicks fans, that is. The rest of us will stock up on popcorn and Junior Mints and enjoy the mayhem. It starts with the team’s hard-line approach to Stephon Marbury, whom they’ll pay ($21 mil) but won’t play. Then there is the motley collection overpriced hound dogs that comprises the bulk of the roster. Can you imagine the response when GM Donnie Walsh calls another team and inquires about interest in a trade for Eddy Curry or Quentin Richardson? On second thought, maybe this film should be considered a comedy.

Lost Cause: Here’s a message to all (both) you Nets fans out there: You’re screwed. Horribly, crushingly, tragically screwed. That new arena you expected in Crooklyn? Forget it. The economic downturn, coupled with civic pressures that would make Al Sharpton blush, have all but killed the project. That means five more years in the swamps or as second-class tenant status at the Prudential Center in Newark. Yum! And about that team of yours. Vince Carter is finished, Yi’s so bad he should be sent back to Beijing for re-education, you drafted the wrong Lopez and you couldn’t sell the rest of the team for 10 cents on the dollar. So much for that dream of signing LeBron when he hits free agency in ’10. Nice try, though. Enjoy the Lottery for the next 10 years and try to quell those nostalgic yearnings for the Derrick Coleman Era.

Yee-HAW!: It’s early still, so plenty of NBA teams have ugly records. But just wait for it. Not only will Oklahoma City retire the award as the NBA’s worst city, zooming past Sacramento, but the Thunder will also be the worst in the West. That’s saying something with Minnesota and Memphis around. Oh, yeah, that nickname is pretty awful, too. Why not Land Rush or Joads? Uncle David Stern is going to regret this one, that’s for sure. Not only will he have to put an expansion franchise in Seattle to soothe the wounds of a 40-year league member that got hosed by a jerk owner, but he’ll soon have to deal with the very real possibility that nobody will want to play in the Dust Bowl. Hey, at least attendance is high – for now. Give this mess a couple seasons, and it will be declared a Superfund site.

The Verdict: Here’s how it shakes out: Eastern Finals – Boston over Cleveland; Western Finals – Los Angeles over Utah. NBA Finals – Los Angeles over Boston.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: So why have all these colleges fired their coaches during the middle of the season? The better to get a jump on the search for the next guy. Syracuse and now Tennessee have already employed noted coaching headhunter Chuck Neinas to find their next coaches. The goal is to save recruiting, reassure ticketholders and stabilize the program. You want a culprit? Here’s a hint, it’s green…Agent Scott Boras is seeking a six-year deal for 36-year old Manny Ramirez. At $20-25 per. If any team gives the slugging leftfielder that money, it should be investigated. Manny played nice for a couple months, but it’s just a matter of time until he acts like a jackass again (and again). As for the idea of paying a 42-year old $25 million per, that didn’t even work with BALCO Bonds, and he was nearly 75% Cyborg by then…The latest example that there is hope for the cesspool that is big-time college athletics is Florida State safety Myron Rolle, who will miss the ‘Noles’ Nov. 22 game against Maryland to take part in the interview process for a Rhodes Scholarship. Rolle carries a 3.75 average in pre-med and played the lead role in “Fiddler on the Roof” as a prep senior. The best part? It wasn’t even a tough decision. Congrats, Myron, and knock ‘em dead…Let’s all form a prayer circle for the Cowboys, whose recent free-fall has been a victory for those who can’t stand meddling owners who think accumulating “stars” is the way to assemble a winning football team. Sure, injuries have played a part, but the decision to sign Space Invaders Jones and the overpayment for receiver Roy Williams proves that Owner/GM/Dictator-for-life Jerry Jones is more enamored of big splashes than wins. Keep it up, False Face.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? It may be a little overdramatic to label the Eagles’ game with New York Sunday night as make-or-break, especially since seven contests remain after that, but there is plenty at stake and not just in the NFC East standings. The city has lost its sporting edge somewhat in the wake of the Phillies’ World Series win, and that means a little of that pent-up frustration and passion have been replaced by the contentment of a championship. If the Birds lose at home to the Giants, they risk losing some of their preeminence. Over the past 15-20 years, Philadelphia became a football town, largely because fans thought the best chance for a title was a Super Bowl win. Now that the Phillies have broken the 25-year jinx, the urgency surrounding the Eagles has dissipated some. Losing the game Sunday will make winning the division title extremely difficult and relegate the Birds to the wild-card pool, from which Super Bowl success is tough to achieve. (Last year excepted, of course.) The Phillies rule the town, but the Eagles have a chance to keep their status with a victory. A loss could trigger talks of rebuilding and begin the countdown to April 6, 2009 – baseball’s opening day.

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AND ANOTHER THING: The most recent nominee for Ratfink of the Year is Arizona AD Jim Livengood, who refused to let freshman center Jeff Withey out of his scholarship, after coach Lute Olson retired abruptly last week for health reasons. Here’s another example of a school’s trying to exact some sort of revenge against a teenager, and it stinks like the bathroom in an NFL locker room after bean burritos were served at the training table. Withey came to Arizona to play for Olson, and now that the coach is no longer there, he has every right to transfer. Letters-of-intent are year-by-year, giving the school the power to get rid of anybody it wants. Meanwhile, the players are held to the whims of vengeful administrators like Livengood, who will force Withey to miss this season, rather than cut him loose. The next time you hear a school, coach or the NC2A say that it’s about the kids, reach for the Pepto. Better yet, tape the lie and use it to induce vomiting if you ever ingest poison accidentally. Shame on you, Livengood.

-EH-