Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bowling Along


Back in 1901, when the organizers of the annual Rose Parade decided to supplement their cavalcade of flowers and toilet paper with some gridiron action, it’s almost certain their ultimate goal was to create a menagerie of 34 post-season games designed to reward even the most mediocre performances (Notre Dame) and provide trips to garden-spot destinations like Shreveport, Mobile and Detroit.

Better still, the run-up to that first Rose Bowl – won by a mighty Michigan Point-a-Minute outfit over a Stanford 11 so hapless it waved the white flag after three quarters – included much debate over the best way to choose the best team in the land. After several toddies and blind tosses at a dart board, the Rose honchos determined that combining the best elements of figure skating, boxing and the Chess Club would be an appropriate method. Either that or Russian roulette.

More than 100 years later, the bowl tradition established back in Pasadena is thriving. Some might say it’s completely out of control, given the fact that new “classics” are sprouting faster than hair on John Goodman’s back. Take this year’s kickoff, Saturday’s EagleBank Bowl in Washington D.C. Now there’s a reward for a great season. At halftime of the game, one lucky fan will receive a government bailout, while players spent the days leading up to the contest playing the new Capitol Hill virtual reality game: D.C. Lobbyist. The week’s only problem arose at the kickoff luncheon, when there wasn’t enough pork to go around, thanks to Congress’ insistence on piling it high on every spending package it created.

While Navy and Wake Forest tee it up in prehistoric RFK Stadium, 66 other teams compete for the right to declare themselves “(Insert Ridiculous Sponsor’s Name Here) Bowl Champions.” Ah, the color and the pageantry. The bowl season’s comin’ at ya, and El Hombre has your preview right here.

No Justice: Heavy C and the boys staggered home with a humiliating home loss to Syracuse and a wipeout in SoCal in which the Pacifist Irish didn’t manage a first down until the end of the third quarter. Their reward? A trip to Hawaii, of course. Charlie Weis will bring his unique brand of arrogance and sideline inadequacy back to South Bend for another season, great news for those who want to see Notre Dame out of the national title picture, but not so fine for the ND players, whose poor performance against the Orange was “rewarded” with a barrage of snowballs by those classy Irish yahoos, whose behavior made a NASCAR crowd look like the audience at Masterpiece Theater. Enjoy the Big Island, guys, and try to forget you’re one-point underdogs to a Hawaii team that lost by two touchdowns to Utah State.

Sacrificial Lambs: It seems as if the oddsmakers have finally learned their lesson when it comes to Ohio State and BCS games. Unless the Horrible People are playing ND, the best strategy is to make them heavy dogs, even if the opposition is the Green Party. Texas is a 9 ½-point favorite over OSU in the Fiesta Bowl, which is being played Jan. 5 to maximize the number of TV sets tuned away from the game. After watching the Blackeyes absorb shots from Florida and LSU the past two years, Vegas has taken no chances. Besides, after getting snubbed by Myron and the other computer geeks, UT has some serious motivation. Lose, and everybody will say the BCS system was vindicated, which would be tantamount to naming Britney Spears to head the National Endowment for the Arts. So, until you can prove yourself worthy, Ohio State, you’re a bad risk.

That’s Entertainment: Speaking of Vegas, the savants there found the only way to calculate the over-under number on the Oklahoma State-Oregon matchup in the Holiday Bowl was to take Avogadro’s Number and keep multiplying it by itself until the computer screamed, “No Mas!” When it comes to scoring points, these are two of the best around, and considering the Holiday’s history of wacky offensive explosions, the point total in this one could match the number of calories Oprah’s been pile-driving lately. Enjoy the fun and weep for the defensive coordinators.

Long Time, No See: Vanderbilt is playing in its first bowl game since 1982 and hoping to earn its first post-season victory since ’55, when Don Orr and the boys knocked off Auburn. Not that Vandy stormed the post-season gates or anything. After starting the season 5-0 and entertaining fantasies of winning the SEC East, the ‘Dores blew six of their last seven – including decisions to Mississippi State and Duke – with only a triumph over Kentucky’s assuring a bowl berth. The reward? A berth in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Vandy’s hometown. Baby Steps, guys. Baby steps.

Be Gentle, Connecticut: While Commodore fans are reacquainting themselves with the concept of football in late December, the folks at Buffalo are trying to figure out how to behave at a bowl. The Bulls’ MAC championship completed a dramatic turnaround and secured a spot in the International Bowl, the Bulls’ first-ever post-season invitation. That’s the good news. The bad news is that a team from Buffalo, one of the country’s worst weather spots, actually has to go north to Tronno to play in a bowl. What, was the Eskimo Pie North Pole Bowl filled up? Congratulations to Turner Gill and the Bulls, who will no doubt enjoy the pre-game tour of the Keith Richards Transfusion Center and hope the opposition from Connecticut is not too forceful.

Why? Okay, so every team that plays in a bowl has the right to feel proud, and the schools are free to use the experience to promote their continued ascension in the college football world. But does that give us any reason to watch some of these games? For instance, there is not a remotely compelling reason to tune into the Independence Bowl, which pits Northern Illinois against Louisiana Tech. El Hombre would rather suffer through a “Clean House” marathon than watch that. There have been some dog bowls over the years, but that is in contention for the worst ever.

Then Again…: This just in from the world of computerized ticket scalping: Ducats for the execrable Orange Bowl, matching Cincinnati and Virginia Tech in the homeliest BCS game ever, are going for $1.25. That’s right, a buck-and-a-quarter. That’s all the evidence we need of the Big East and ACC’s irrelevance this season. In all fairness, the seats are in the upper deck’s corner, but come on, now, $1.25? Now, if you tell EH that the Mike Curb Congregation is performing during the famous halftime extravaganza, he’ll bump his bid up to a sawbuck, but that’s the limit.

And the Winner Is…: If you’re looking for a verdict on the BCS “national championship” game, you’ll have to wait until January, when all will be revealed. Sorry, but that’s just how El Hombre rolls.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: As if the continuing economic news and tsunami of holiday treacle aren’t enough to induce vomiting, consider that yesterday Brett Favre revealed that this might be his last year in the NFL. After the drama he created last year, that statement should be received with a blizzard of rotten fruit and vegetables. When Favre retires again, it should be done with a terse statement and no weepy press conference. And espn must promise to control itself…Think Nuggets coach George Karl doesn’t wake up every day with a huge grin on his face in the wake of the team’s decision to trade Allen I-I-I-I-Iverson to Detroit for Chauncey Billups? Since the deal, Denver is 16-5, and Karl has been able to eat solid food once again…Deposed Tennessee quarterback Vince Young is suing a pair of Texas men who trademarked “VY” and “INVINCEABLE” the day after Texas won the ’06 Rose Bowl. Seems Young can’t get some endorsement deals because those names aren’t available. Don’t worry, Vince, you can still use “HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT” and “VASTLY OVERRATED.”…espn’s decision to send Stephen Naismith (because he thinks he invented basketball) to interview Terrell Owens was a joke. The softball questions he lobbed were predictable, and worse, he hung colleague Ed Werder out to dry by letting Me-O trash the reporter. In its never-ending quest to create drama, the network has now decided to pit its own staff against each other. The big winner is Owens, who gets to whitewash his team-rending behavior.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Sixers made Mo Cheeks the scapegoat for their slow start, common practice in the NBA these days. While there is a question about whether Cheeks is a top-shelf professional hoops coach, the team’s early problems are more of a personnel than a tactical nature. The decision by previous GM Billy King to lavish a six-year, $60 million contract on moody one-dimensional center Samuel Dalembert was highly questionable, as was new boss Ed Stefanski’s off-season move to ink Andre Iguodala to a six-year, $80 million contract, with the highly mistaken assumption that Iguodala could play two guard. That assertion has been disproven (again) this season, and A.I. Jr. has moved to the three, displacing promising second-year man Thaddeus Young from the starting lineup. Worse, the big fish reeled in by the Sixers during the off-season, Elton Brand, struggled to fit into an up-tempo style, forcing the team to slow down and stagnate. Cheeks had a part in the mess, since he couldn’t motivate the players to work hard defensively, but this season’s slow start is due more to the team’s roster inadequacies than Cheeks’ shortcomings on the bench. Then again, in the NBA, the coach is the first to go. Sorry, Mo.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Chrysler announced Wednesday that it will shut its doors for a month, one way to deal with stagnating sales and rising costs. The rest of the auto industry is hoping to find a multi-billion dollar bailout under its Christmas tree. Unemployment is at a 26-year high. Consumer confidence is flagging. The investment community has been rocked. And, yet, professional sports roll along as if nothing were the matter. The Majoke League Baseball free-agent market is generating ridiculous contracts, as always. NBC has fewer than 10 30-second ads remaining for the Super Bowl, at a staggering $3 million each, and is showing no signs of offering discounts to get rid of the remaining inventory. Luxury boxes continue to be filled in NFL stadiums, and Citi, which was ravaged by the financial crisis earlier this year, has stayed firm in its pledge to provide $20 million a year for naming rights at the Mets’ new stadium. With so much suffering going on, how is this continuing? Why are fans continuing to plunk down ridiculous amounts of money to watch games? And how can companies that are laying off scads of people justify the purchasing of boxes and club seats? No one wants professional sports to start folding teams or ceasing operations, like the Arena Football League is doing in ’09, but the excesses have to end. Teams need to cut costs and stop treating fans like ATMs. And fans have to stop supporting clubs that continue to raise prices and lavish ridiculous salaries on players. At some point, the madness has to stop. Doesn’t it?

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ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: El Hombre wishes all of his loyal readers a happy holiday season and hopes your new year is filled with prosperity and joy. And no more drama-queen wide receivers. Or BCS drivel. Or “Manny being Manny” stories. Or rehabilitations of Generalissimo Knight’s reputation. Or…See you in ’09!


Thursday, December 11, 2008

The 2008 Heisman Goes To...


In November 1968, Yale was charging toward its first perfect season in eight years and only second since ’23, when Thomas Albert Dwight (T.A.D.) Jones was telling his young Eli charges “You are now going to play football against Harvard. Never again in your whole life will you do anything so important.”

The Bulldogs understood fully the gravity of their pending season finale with the Johnnies. Triumph, and immortality would be theirs. Senior quarterback Brian Dowling was particularly intent on winning, since he hadn’t suffered a defeat on the gridiron in a game he had finished since 7th grade, an accomplishment that earned him the nickname, “God,” on the Yale campus and a caricature in Doonesbury a few years later.

For three-plus quarters, God and his teammates kept things under control, rolling to a 29-13 lead. College football fans know what happened next. The Crimson launched one of the most amazing comebacks in football history, scoring 16 points in the final 0:29 to “beat” Yale, 29-29. During those last frantic moments, when everything was unraveling for Dowling and the Eli, he stood on the sideline next to coach Carm Cozza and begged to go in on defense. “Being a quarterback, you know what the other passer is trying to do,” Dowling said. Cozza refused, in part because he couldn’t believe the Crimson would complete its comeback and in part because had Harvard succeeded while Dowling was on the field, Cozza would have faced ridicule. “Don’t think it didn’t enter my mind,” Cozza said. “It did.”

After watching Tim Tebow play for Florida this season, it’s hard to imagine he would have behaved any differently than Dowling, had he found himself in a similar situation. While other quarterbacks might have sat on the sideline stewing but relieved that any misfortune about to befall their school was somebody else’s fault, Tebow would have had his helmet on, asking to be put in at linebacker or safety, the better to end the nonsense. The Gator junior isn’t just a quarterback; he’s a football player. And when it came time for El Hombre to cast his 2008 Heisman Trophy ballot – a whopping two days early this year – Tebow was the choice.

There will be a substantial groundswell for each of the other finalists, Oklahoma statistical machine Sam Bradford and Texas all-purpose phenom Colt McCoy. But since the rules of the Heisman direct voters to choose “the most outstanding college football player in the United States for 2008,” and not the player with the gaudiest numbers, the choice is clearly Tebow.

Selecting Tebow has nothing to do with making him the second back-to-back winner in Heisman history. (Archie Griffin – 1975-75 – from the Horrible School was the first.) It’s more about the evidence that while Bradford was amazing and McCoy indispensable, Tebow had a greater impact on his team’s success and also played the game at a higher and more complete level than anyone else. Ask yourself a question; whom would you rather have to start a team, Tebow or anyone else? If you’re being honest, it’s hard to pick against the Gator.

Back in mid-November, El Hombre asked an SEC defensive coordinator whether he felt Tebow was playing better than he did last year, despite a significant drop in statistics. The answer was yes. He was operating Florida’s offense more completely and lifting the Gator attack to a higher level than he had the previous year. Yes, in Percy Harvin and young speedsters Chris Rainey and Jeffrey Demps, he had some more weapons than in ’07, but while Harvin was an all-purpose sensation, and the others had tremendous big-play talent, none would have achieved anywhere near what he did without Tebow’s facility for the UF system. As the year went on, it also became clear that Tebow’s will to win, especially after the upset loss to Mississippi, was a huge factor in the team’s run to an SEC title and a berth in the BCS “national championship game.”

This is not to disparage Bradford or McCoy. All McCoy did was lead his team to an 11-1 record, including a neutral-site triumph over Oklahoma that apparently didn’t matter in the “every week is a playoff” argument favored by BCS chowderheads. He threw for 3,445 yards and 32 touchdowns, completed an obscene 77.6% of his passes and led Texas with 576 yards rushing (4.5 average). Not too shabby. On the Hombre ballot, McCoy checked in at number two, with only Tebow’s ferocious competitiveness separating the pair.

Bradford’s stats are even more jaw-dropping. The OU sophomore threw for 4,464 yards and 48 touchdowns while completing 68.3% of his throws. He led the Sooners to an unprecedented five straight 60-point orgies (and four others that topped 50), a staggering assault on the scoreboard that made some of Barry Switzer’s old Oklahoma wishbone carnivals look like grind-it-out operations. The one check against Bradford in the ultimate ledger is the Sooner ground game, which aided him immensely. Two OU backs, DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown, rushed for at least 1,000 yards, and the pair combined for 34 touchdowns. It makes one wonder whether Bradford would have had the same level of success without such tremendous balance.

As for Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell, who was a victim of “politics,” according to Red Raider coach Mike Leach – yeah, right – consider that a bulk of his prodigious passing total came against overwhelmed opponents (including two I-AA clubs) and in the biggest game in school history, he and his frightened teammates performed with the same valor of the French army in the path of advancing panzer divisions back in ‘40.

So, the choice is Tebow, and not because he’s going to be a great pro or has the biggest numeric resume. It’s because when one looks for the “most outstanding football player” around, it’s best to pick the man who would be willing and able to do things beyond his job description to help his team win. Had Carm Cozza let Dowling loose against Harvard in ’68, he might have quelled the uprising. Forty years later, Tebow has the same talent and drive. That’s certainly worth another trophy.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: The Yankees made quite a splash by promising to pay C.C. Sabathia an average of $23 million for each of the next seven seasons. When will these teams learn that spending that much on starting pitching is a huge risk? First off, Sabathia had to be convinced to play in New York, so a tabloid-induced meltdown is possible. Secondly, the lessons of Kevin Brown, Barry Zito and others are apparently lost on the Yanks. It looks great now, but check back in a couple years…The jurisprudence department has been busy lately, what with Quick Draw Burress and O.J. Simpson’s making headlines. The real sin of O.J.’s pending incarceration is that he will now lose nine years of prime investigating time to look for the real killers…China has admitted that 36 players in its professional basketball league are older than they claimed, a shocking revelation in the wake of the Olympics, when women were spotted breast-feeding some of the Chinese female gymnasts…Creditors have objected to Michael Vick’s bankruptcy statement, citing large, unspecified cash advances – in the millions – over the past couple years and wondering if that dough has been stashed somewhere. From here, it looks completely reasonable. After all, it costs a lot of money to take care of dogs, what with the food, shelter, grooming, electric cattle prods, teeth sharpening…

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Last night’s loss to the Cavaliers once again revealed the Sixers’ inability to play defense and amplified the team’s offensive confusion. But at least the team learned the Andre Iguodala is better suited at small forward than shooting guard. What a revelation! Everybody in the city knew that, except the team’s management, which lavished a fat contract on Iguodala during the off-season, despite having a budding young star – Thaddeus Young – at the position as well. Now that the two guard experiment is over with A.I. Jr., the Sixers are faced with a glut of talent at one spot and inadequate forces at the pivot and the two. They are up against the cap and in danger of losing point man Andre Miller after the season. Oh, and don’t go looking for any passion from the team, because it’s not there. What began as such a promising season for the team is threatening to crash and burn. Plenty of time remains, but things are getting scary.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Researchers continue to zero in on an accurate urine test that will reveal whether athletes used HGH. Talk about a bonanza. Let’s hope the various professional sporting organizations across the world have saved specimens properly, in order to test them down the road, once the scientists perfect the process. The most pressing need for the test is in Majoke League Baseball, where steroid cheats have been outed – sort of – but the HGH users remain at large, with a few exceptions. Since a few years of samples remain, the possibility that plenty more cheaters can be identified is reason for optimism. Give those guys as much money and whatever resources they need, so they can get the job done.