Thursday, January 29, 2009

Heading For More Trouble


There is a village in western Siberia that is so remote and forlorn that when German authorities in the state of Hesse were trying to decide early last year what to do with a 16-year old boy who had been unruly and violent in school and home, they figured nine months in Sedelnikovo would turn him around. While there, the young reprobate had to dig his own latrine, chop wood and collect his own water from a nearby well, all the while trying to keep from freezing off body parts in temperatures that reach 40 below. Early reports of his progress were encouraging, which meant when he was returned to civilized life in Deutschland, he no longer disrupted his classes or thought it wise to physically attack his mother.

The youth’s exile could have been worse. The authorities could have sent him to Dudinka, the grim Siberian village above the Arctic Circle whose inhabitants’ bleak lives consist of drinking and hunting the few reindeer that remain. Their lot is so hopeless that the thought of even modest prosperity is impossible for them.

And yet, to listen to members of the Arizona Cardinals, these miserable creatures, along with the German boy’s friends in Sedelnikovo will be absolutely stunned should the underdog defeat Pittsburgh Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII. The Cards, whose decades of futility have been well chronicled during the past few weeks, have promised to “Shock the world!” by beating the Stillers. Here’s a little news for the Cards: When you’re chewing on the last scrap of reindeer jerky, and you’re nursing the 300th cheap vodka hangover in as many days, you don’t care a bit about whether a seven-point dog wins a football game 8,000 miles away.

Such is the hyperbole that accompanies the Supe, which becomes a bloated festival of self-importance no matter how unappealing the game may be. Last year, the manic build-up was almost warranted, since the Patriots hadn’t lost and were trying to spoil the annual revelries of the bitter ’72 Dolphins. New England was attempting to make real, live sporting history, rather than the contrived version offered up daily by breathless propaganda partners. Were the denizens of Dudinka to hear the Pats’ story, they may have put down their bottles long enough to shake their heads at the Giants’ victory, provided news of any sort makes its way to that wasteland.

With just a few precious days of hype remaining before the game, the analysis gets more detailed, and the search for stories with even a modicum of interest is carried on with a fervor reserved for murder investigations. Against that shrill backdrop – not to mention the NFL’s own cranked-up soundtrack – it is hard to hear the voices of those trying to warn us that the combatants in Sunday’s game are headed for a future destination where pain persists, and depression, dementia and disorders are real possibilities.

Earlier this week, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine released the findings of its research on the brains of five former NFL players. Three of them had died after long bouts of depression and a fourth, Andre Waters, had committed suicide. In each case, studies revealed extensive brain damage, often consistent with what is seen in Alzheimer’s patients much older.

“I knew what traumatic brain disease looked like in the very end stages, in the most severe cases,” said Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, MA. “To see the kind of changes we’re seeing in 45-year olds is basically unheard of.”

Talk about shocking the world.

The sad thing is that as Dr. McKee and her associates continue their investigations – about 100 athletes have consented to have their brains examined after they die – they should find that this is not some cruel anomaly, but rather the norm for NFL veterans who spent multiple years slamming their heads into heavily armored, swiftly moving obstacles. At first, a concussion was thought to be a singular event, causing disorientation, occasional unconsciousness and a stunned feeling. After a recovery period, the victim was able to resume normal activity. Thanks to the folks at CSTE, we’re are learning that concussions can produce long-term trauma, personality-altering conditions and eventually a kind of deep depression that leaves people desperate. That explains Waters’ suicide and former Steeler great Mike Webster’s destitute existence in his final years.

Those are the stories we know. Former New England linebacker Ted Johnson, who estimates he suffered more than 100 concussions, is certain that many others are compromising their lives now because of effects of their own brain injuries. He speaks of a two-year period when getting out of bed was painful. “Those were bad days,” he says, clearly understating his predicament.

Meanwhile, the NFL rolls on with its annual celebration of football. And, heaven help us, we love it. The league has even vowed its own study of concussion effects, in the hopes that it will contradict what’s coming out of the CSTE and, admittedly, its small sample group. Even if the evidence it compiles indicates serious long-term damage for those who suffer multiple concussions, it’s unlikely the NFL will do anything drastic to protect its players. It will continue to encourage helmet manufacturers to produce safer models and order teams to be more careful with those who sustain the injuries. But in a league that sells violence, the idea that anything substantial will be enacted to limit the collisions – more than one player refers to games as a series of “car crashes” – is laughable.

One need only look at the last minutes of the AFC title game, when Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark obliterated Baltimore back Willis McGahee, after McGahee caught a pass over the middle from Joe Flacco. The hit was clean but so ferocious that it was impossible to see it without cringing, even after multiple viewings. While the game announcers spoke in hushed tones, and folks in the truck went quickly to commercial, there was still a charged feeling that permeated the moment, since this kind of savagery is readily available to the bloodthirsty NFL audience – and it’s legal! The kill shot mentality of the game and how it’s sold to hungry fans fuels the NFL engine and is certain to color any future discussions about enacting rules that might protect players more.

If it really cared, the NFL might ban helmet-first tackles, to the point that any player who makes one will be ejected from the game. The same would go for anyone who delivered a blow to an opponent’s head. Would it remove some of the animal attraction from the game? Absolutely. But it might also preserve the health and welfare of players long after they quit the game.

And it might even get those folks in Sedelnikovo and Dudinka to take notice.

* * *
EL HOMBRE SEZ: The New York Times reports that federal prosecutors have evidence that urine samples from BALCO Bonds contained anabolic steroids, something that should be quite useful in their perjury case against the laboratory creation. What a shocker! The feds are also squeezing the mother-in-law of former Bonds trainer Greg Anderson over an old tax issue, in hopes of getting the heretofore-silent source to spill the beans. Sure, it smacks of old-style intimidation tactics, but baseball’s integrity is at stake. Some eggs must be broken…It has been said by plenty of people, but it bears repeating: There are no circumstances whatsoever under which a team can justify a 100-0 victory in a high school (or lower level) basketball game. None. The coach of the offending team should have been fired before the final horn finished sounding. The parents who screamed for more points should be reported to social services. And any school administrator in attendance who didn’t move to stop the carnage should be suspended…Fighting. Hockey. They go together. The players want it. The fans want it. The advertisers want it. And if it were outlawed, every top star in the league would be fair game for poachers who have no fear of retribution. And, short of the folks in the rink, who’s watching anyway? There are plenty of other things to worry about, like the economy, bonus-hungry thieves in the investment business and whether Jordin Sparks busts the over/under on the national anthem Sunday. (She doesn’t.)…You have to love Knicks guard Stephon Marbury. He says New York is being vindictive by not buying him out and letting him join the Celtics. Well, duh! Of course the Knicks are making this personal. After paying that mutt $21 mil a year to watch him pile up individual statistics, they’re not going to make it easy for him to earn a ring. Here’s hoping they buy Steph out on March 2, which would make him ineligible to be on a post-season roster.

* * *
YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? On the evening after the death of Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike, it would have been entirely appropriate if the headlines placed atop the game stories about Villanova’s 67-57 win over Pittsburgh read, “Philly Fans Bid Spectrum Adieu.” That would have been a perfect homage to Updike’s famous New Yorker article, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” about Ted Williams’ final game with the Red Sox. There wasn’t much sentimentality in the stuffy old building Wednesday night, especially among those who remember the bile generated by the days when Daddy Mass forced a truncated Big Five on the city, and games were played in South Philly, not the Palestra. And fans couldn’t have enjoyed squeezing through the Spectrum’s narrow corridors. But as the 32-year old building closes (good thing people don’t become obsolete at that age), a final visit should be on every Philadelphia sports fan’s itinerary. You may not have been there for the Flyers’ Stanley Cup clincher in ’74, the Sixers’ two Finals wins in ’83 or Christian Laettner’s remarkable turnaround game-winner in the 1992 Eastern Regional final, but we all have great Spectrum memories, whether it’s a classic sports moment or the image of women storming the men’s rooms during concerts to avoid Soviet-style lines at the ladies’ facilities during concerts. The Spectrum doesn’t measure up to the current model of a pleasure palace, but it was really something in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. If you get a chance to spend a few last hours there, do so. And try not to remember Magic’s 42 points in 1980, the Celtics’ comeback in Game 6 of the ’81 Eastern finals, the ’76 Stanley Cup finals, the…

* * *
AND ANOTHER THING: The NFL may be trying to make us forget about the condition of its former players and their concussion-addled brains, and at about 6:20 EST Sunday night, it will have achieved the goal. Although El Hombre’s post-season record hasn’t been stellar (5-5), it’s get-back time, and that means putting it all on the Stillers. Arizona has been great throughout the playoffs, showing defensive moxie few thought it had and exploding continually on offense. But Pittsburgh will get good pressure on Kurt Warner with its front four, allowing safety help over the top on Larry Fitzgerald, and the Stillers’ run game will soften up the ‘Zona D. Pittsburgh becomes the first-ever six-time Super champion with a 27-14 win.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Of No More Use


At first blush, the proclamation sounded as if it fit right into a normal news broadcast. espn was letting us know that a tantalizing college football rumor that had caused quite an uproar in South Bend and its concentric circles of yahoo fan-dom was so obscure that its staff hadn’t heard about it. If that were the case, this must be on the absolute down-low.

Only that wasn’t the case. Turns out, it was reported in a blog by New York Daily News Jets beat writer Rich Cimini. Perhaps you’ve heard of the paper. Has more than 700,000 readers. Can be found on newsstands everywhere in the nation’s biggest city. And guess what? The item was also published on, in its “Truth and Rumors” section. So, when espn proclaimed the rumor to be arcane, it was doing so out of ignorance and arrogance. The former was due to its poor research; the latter a by-product of its belief that if it isn’t reported first (or at least stolen from someone else and passed off as espn’s own) by the “Worldwide Leader” it doesn’t matter. Guess when you only read the Hartford Courant you miss out on a few things. Perhaps a few of El Hombre’s interns should be dispatched to Bristol to show ‘em how it’s done, or at least spruce the place up a bit.

Anyway, the juicy tidbit had to do with a certain football coach saddled with excessive avoirdupois. Notre Dame’s Charlie “Heavy C” Weis had created a “weird vibe” around the football offices and was due for termination after the national signing day. His replacement? None other than Jon Gruden, who won a Super Bowl with Tony Dungy’s club and then coached just well enough to keep his job – but win no playoff games – before the Bucs dumped him last week. Gruden, you may remember, was ND’s top choice for its job when the bastion of academia showed its true colors by dumping Ty Willingham after just three seasons. Gruden said no. So did Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops and Joe Kuharich’s grandson. Enter Heavy C, who snowed the Irish enough with a strong first year – accomplished with Willingham’s players – to grab a 47-year extension and perpetual line-cutting rights at the training table.

A Fighting Irish spokesman dismissed the rumor as preposterous, and it does seem rather ridiculous. What kind of a school would let prospective student-athletes think they were going to play for one coach and then pull the old bait-and-switch? Of course, given the way the NC2A treats players these days, it’s a wonder schools aren’t allowed to grab the kids in the deep of night, drive them to a dungeon and force them to sign letters-of-intent after days of torture, sleep deprivation and “Clean Home” marathons. Then again, there are whispers that’s how Nick Saban gets his players.

Heavy C may be safe, but many assistant coaches around the country will suffer the very fate the Irish boss was alleged to be facing. With under two weeks until national signing day (Feb. 3), coaches are in rental cars, Red Roof Inns and living rooms around the country, making their final pitches in the hopes of landing commitments to dear, old State U. The vast majority of them will still have jobs once spring practice comes, but some will be fired after the prospects sign on the dotted line. And that’s a tragedy.

There’s nothing wrong with a head coach’s deciding to make some staff changes. That happens every season, although it’s much worse these days, as the big bosses try to save their backsides by blaming lack of prosperity on their lieutenants. If the cuts are made in late November or December, then the deposed assistants have the opportunity to find other work. When the guillotine falls in February, however, the situation is far less manageable – and more Machiavellian. Keeping a coach on the staff that long is – with few exceptions – done exclusively to keep committed recruits on the line and ready to sign. In some cases, the assistants know they’re toast, but if they do anything to jeopardize a commitment, they’ll be bad-mouthed throughout the coaching fraternity by their bosses and find it tough to get another job. In other cases, the victims continue apace, working hard to land prospects, only to find out they were on the way out the whole time.

Such is the life these days as an assistant college football coach. Although the money is getting more and more outlandish – reports were that Oklahoma State offered Miami defensive coordinator Bill Young 700 large to take the same job in Stillwater (he did) – the security is dissipating quickly. Forget loyalty; it’s about self-preservation. Wondering why some assistants have 20 jobs in 25 years? It’s not that they’re no good or nomadic by nature. In fact, they’re top-shelf coaches who realize that the old model of sticking with the same captain for 30 seasons doesn’t work anymore, because the commander doesn’t want devotion. Often, he wants scapegoats. So, the assistants relocate every season or two, the better to stay fresh in the eyes of their employer and make sure they always have work.

Those who get caught in a teetering head coach’s purge are cast into a job market that gets more crowded every year, as younger (and less expensive) mentors enter the fray, and experience counts for less and less. Assistants are willing to work long hours, spend weeks on the road kissing up to boneheaded 18-year olds and try to teach sophomore “general studies” majors the vagaries of the zone blitz. That’s all part of the job description. But getting dumped after closing the deal? That’s dirty pool. Heavy C may well be safe for another season, but he might be dumping a staff member this February. And he won’t be alone. Talk about something worth covering. Are you listening, espn, or are you too busy congratulating yourself on your most recent “exclusive?”

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Lance Armstrong has been struggling during the Tour Down Under in Australia (duh), his first foray into cycling after his first “retirement.” He’s been having trouble with conditioning, the heat, high winds and even hovering helicopters. The biggest problem, however, has been a pack of French journalists who have been staking out the bathrooms he has been using…PETA has decided it doesn’t want Michael Vick to film a public-service announcement after he is released from Leavenworth in July and won’t support his reinstatement to the NFL. Turns out PETA wants Vick to undergo a brain scan and psychological profile, especially since learning he used family dogs to fight. Hmmm, sounds like he’s ready for the Raiders…About that new John Turturro Heineken commercial: Makes you want to grab a Beck’s…espn has decided it’s a good idea to pair Brent Musberger and Generalissimo Knight on college basketball broadcasts. Wonder if Knight will try to strangle Brent before the first jump ball. Why not put together a team of Hugo Chavez and Dick Vitale? That might be a little more annoying. Might…Classy move by UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma, who left his starters in for most of a 107-53 win over Syracuse Saturday. Now there’s an educator…Now into its second rescue of the nation’s financial institutions, England dumped $634 million in public funds to help bail out its flailing construction efforts in advance of the 2012 London Summer Olympics. That ought to play well in the East End. Parliament had better beef up its security.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Donovan McNabb did not lose the NFC Championship game. Got that? He wasn’t perfect, especially during the last drive, but he threw for 375 yards, led a second-half comeback that put the Eagles in front and performed better than 90% of his teammates. The game was lost by the defense, which couldn’t pressure Kurt Warner in the first half and got fricasseed, and wasn’t able to step up in the fourth quarter. It was lost by dumb penalties, dropped passes and poor special teams play. Oh, Big Red and Genius Johnson got outcoached, too. McNabb wasn’t perfect, but he was part of a team that lost a game. Those who want to pin it on him, especially if they are media members, shouldn’t be allowed to comment on football again. This is an imperfect franchise with an overriding business philosophy that screams “Gold Standard” but plays at a runner-up level. It makes money but doesn’t bring in trophies. If you want to blame McNabb, go ahead. Just don’t try to get into any Mensa meetings.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Wake Forest lost to Clemson in college hoops Wednesday night, ending the Demon Deacons’ undefeated run and assuring that that basketball world will have another number one team next week. And the response from fans? So what? That’s the beauty of college basketball. The rankings mean ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!!! There’s this radical thing at the end of the season called a “tournament.” Perhaps you have heard of the concept. The best teams in the country are matched against each other in an elimination series designed to find out the best – on the court. Voting doesn’t matter. Computers aren’t consulted. Old coaches and players who don’t pay attention to the game have no say. No one loves the college version of the prolate spheroid more than El Hombre, but the roundball folks have it right. So Wake Forest lost, and Duke (blechh!) might be number one next week? Call us on March 15, when the brackets are announced.


Friday, January 16, 2009

The Wolf Is Wise


There’s a wonderful scene in “Pulp Fiction,” in which The Wolf (played perfectly by Harvey Keitel) informs Vincent, Jules and Jimmie that they shouldn’t “start [patting each other on the back] quite yet,” after they get through the hardest part of cleaning up Marvin’s splattered brains inside Jules’ car.

Wolf didn’t say “patting each other on the back,” but since this mess strives to be relatively professional, that’s what you get. If you want the full quotation and don’t mind a profane metaphor, hit this site ( and scroll down about two-thirds of the way. You won’t regret it.

Anyway, The Wolf’s message was that despite some early success, there was still some work to do to finish the job. And any sudden outbreak of complacency could prove catastrophic to the cause. That’s how it goes often in life: You might complete steps A-E and feel good about yourself, but those who can master F-H are the true winners.

Four NFL teams face the same predicaments Jules, Vincent, Jimmie and The Wolf encountered that morning in southern California. By reaching the conference finals, they have truly achieved something worthy of pride. Twenty-eight other professional football franchises would love to be in their positions, but they are figuring out where to watch the games this Sunday, rather than preparing to block out the recurring nightmare of pain felt by all players this time of year in order to perform at peak levels. That much is worthy of an ovation. For some, like The Wolf, it’s not enough. Reaching the playoffs in the NFL is tough. Winning a game is extremely difficult. Taking two? Brutal.

But there’s more to be done. The job must be finished, Feb. 1 in Tampa. Here’s a little exercise for you: Name the last five NFC title game losers. Or tackle the AFC’s runners-up. You can’t, because nobody remembers that kind of stuff. Each team had a great season. Accomplished a lot. Ultimately, in a sport that doesn’t throw parades for second place, they came up short. Losing a conference title game isn’t the same as going 4-12, but it isn’t the same as holding the Lombardi Trophy, either.

All of which brings us to the Philadelphia Eagles, whose arrival at this point in football history is borderline remarkable, given the dreary state of the team in mid-November, when it wallowed in the misery of a 5-5-1 performance that all but assured another season (three in the last four) without a playoff appearance and appeared to signal the end of Donovan McNabb’s and Andy Reid’s stays in town. The Phillies’ World Series title had led some to aver that the baseball team “had taken the town” from the Birds, a condition which brought glee to those who had grown tired of the professional football ethos and its grip on the town. The specter of a 2009 season without several veterans (Jon Runyan, Tra Thomas, Brian Dawkins, L.J. Smith), along with McNabb and Reid was grimmer than a whole mailbox filled with 401(k) statements.

You know what happened next. A 4-1 close. A miraculous final Sunday that included improbable losses by the Bucs and Bears (a Congressional subcommittee’s investigation is pending) and a savage beat-down of Me-O, False Face, Mr. Jessica Simpson and the rest of Armenia’s Team. First-round playoff success against the QB-less Vikings. A Divisional victory over He-Cry Manning and the fumbling Jints that might just bring Plaxico Earp back to the team.

And now, the Cardinals.

If there’s any team that’s just “happy to be here,” it’s Arizona, which has scribes combing old-folks homes throughout the nation for surviving members of the franchise’s last championship team back in 1947, hoping to find someone with a memory long enough to recall that icy day at Comiskey Park when the Cards captured the title. No matter how hard ‘Zona tries to convince us its goal is a Super Bowl title, everybody associated with the one-time laughingstock is absolutely flabbergasted it has advanced this far. Here’s betting the Cards are ignoring The Wolf’s advice and have been “patting each other on the back” for the past six days, ever since they bum-rushed the Panthers and Jake Delhomme in Charlotte. Delhomme was so bad, it was as if he were auditioning for the Lions’ QB job or thought he could deduct interceptions from his income tax return as charitable contributions.

There is no such “back-patting” in Philadelphia. Not with this fan base. Nobody’s happy to be there, no matter how hard the media looks for grade-school pep rallies, photographs displaced Eagles fans in the desert or prints “head-to-head matchups of Philadelphia and Phoenix. “Best Sandwich – Philadelphia: Cheesesteak; Phoenix: Southwestern Tex-Mex Chipotle Cactus Wrap. Edge: Philly.” Despite the improbable turnaround, no one here is allowing himself to be too content. A bad performance Sunday will erase everything good that has happened to this point. McNabb will go from franchise QB to giant question mark. Reid’s play-calling and clock management will be called into question. Fans will line up with straight razors, hoping to dry-shave owner Jeffrey Lurie’s ridiculous playoff beard. (Come to think of it, many Philly fans would like to do that, win or lose.)

From here on, it’s about the Trophy. Everybody remains amazed the team made it this far, but that doesn’t mean anybody is satisfied with the accomplishment. Win it all, and there will be much rejoicing and forgiving of previous transgressions. Lose, even in the Super Bowl, and the daggers will fly. It may seem odd to some, but when you’re playing in your fifth NFC title game in eight years, happy-to-be-here doesn’t cut it. That 5-5-1 start might as well have happened during the Clinton Administration, because there is only one suitable outcome from this point: A Super Bowl championship. No one can guarantee it will happen, but don’t try to feed this bunch moral victories. Those go down as smoothly as a double shot of syrup of ipecac.

So, channel The Wolf, Eagles. No “back-patting” until Feb. 1. Then we can all join in.

* * *

El Hombre staggered to a 2-2 mark last week and sits at 5-3 for the post-season. A rally is needed, and it begins Sunday: Eagles (minus-4) 27, Cardinals 20; Steelers (minus-6) 9, Ravens 4.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: El Hombre’s shoulders sagged, and his normally indomitable spirit dropped when he read the following news dispatch Friday morning: “Giving in to the youth movement in college basketball recruiting, the NCAA has decreed that seventh graders are now officially classified as prospects.” The reason for the move was the growing number of coaches’ working elite middle-school hoops camps (!) in order to make contact with the youngsters. If you look closely, you can see Death, Famine, Pestilence and Destruction riding toward us…BALCO Bonds’ attorneys are trying to prevent prosecutors from entering blood and urine samples allegedly belonging to Bonds taken from the Bay Area Lab Co-Operative as evidence in the steroid freak’s perjury trial. Seems they tested positive for ‘roids. They also don’t want his former mistress to testify about changes she saw in his body during the time. Apparently, she wants to mention something rhymes with “drunken mesticles” and “hack tacne.” Whether his mouthpieces prevail or not, Bonds has zero shot at the Hall of Fame…Generalissimo Knight and Billy Packer have announced they will host an NC2A tournament show from a Vegas sports book. Forget the obvious hypocrisy of two former coaches talking college sports in the nation’s gambling hub. More important is this early line: It’s 1:5 that they’ll annoy everybody who tunes in…Congratulations to new Lions coach Jim Schwartz. Guess that food tasting job for Iranian president Ahmadinejad was filled…If you want some belly laughs, check in from time to time on the (unintended) comedy stylings of espn Ombudsman Le Ann Schreiber, who has the unsavory job of defending Steven Naismith, explaining the network’s nauseating self-promotion and trying to get people to believe that the four-letter folks don’t want to be the story every day. The old USSR propaganda ministers didn’t have it so tough.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Since pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater in 27 days (yee-ha!), Philadelphia fans had better direct a bit of attention to the local nine, which learned Thursday it had an MLB-high eight players file for arbitration. The big names, of course, are Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, but don’t expect the Phils to treat them similarly. Howard received a $10 million award last year, when the club chose to approach his arbitration hearing delicately, figuring no one would decide to throw that much cash at the big man. This season, expect the team to bring out the big evidence, like his strikeouts, shaky glove at first and prolonged periods of horrible hitting. There’s no way they want to get caught paying $17-20 million this year, no matter how strong Howard’s numbers were last year or how much he meant in September to the team. The Phils don’t want to lose this one, so expect some hard feelings. As for Hamels, the team had better be quite deferential. In fact, now is the time to sign him to a long-term deal, even if the team owns his rights for another four years. The Phils angered Hamels last year with a renewed contract for $500,000 he considered a “low blow.” After watching him pitch in the post-season, the Phils should realize they need to make this guy happy. Really happy. So, lock him up for seven years and $55-60 million, Ruben Amaro. You’ll be happy you did it.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Those of you hoping the fuming of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and USC boss Pete Carroll, combined with some blustery statements made by governors and senators and even the personal preference of our new president will make a bit of difference in the quest to get rid of sports’ most ridiculous system, the BCS, forget about it. At the American Football Coaches Association convention earlier this week in Nashville, I-A coaches were strongly against any changes in the current system for two reasons. First, they said that this year was so ambiguous, given the credentials of Florida, Utah, ‘SC and Texas that a “plus-one” championship game system after the bowls wouldn’t have solved anything. Second, they like having 34 “winners” after the season, instead of a tournament to choose one champion. The sad thing is that a tourney would do nothing to devalue the Armed Services Bowl or its minor brethren, since winners of those games aren’t even considered in the upper echelons of football. Still, the coaches have spoken. So, don’t expect any changes. And remember, Florida isn’t the “national champion.” Urban Meyer’s team is the “BCS national champion.” There is a difference.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gene, Gene The Firing Machine


When Gene DeFilippo was athletic director at Villanova, he decided the school’s sporting image needed some updating. Granted, ‘Nova’s staid blue-and-white color scheme had been pretty bland, and its wildcat mascot was of the ratty, grade-school-prop-room variety. Within a year, red and “copper” had been added to the team’s uniforms, and the cat looked as if it had been shopping for some J.C. Romero’s special vitamins at GNC.

DeFilippo was well pleased. Standing on the Palestra floor a few minutes before one basketball game, he said, “I love our new mascot.” The consensus opinion of those around him did not echo that sentiment. DeFilippo was undaunted. He had taken a few first steps toward making Villanova athletics more marketable, even if that Barry Bonds-headed mascot did look ridiculous, and the school’s hoops uniforms looked like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Wednesday afternoon, DeFilippo took a big step toward burnishing Boston College’s reputation, or at least that’s how he looked at it. By firing head football coach Jeff Jagodzinski for the sin of interviewing with the New York Jets to replace deposed boss Eric Mangini, DeFilippo was trying to establish BC as a long-term destination, as opposed to a way station en route to Bigger Things. It is an admirable pursuit, no matter how counter it runs to the reality of the school’s athletic history or how much it stands out in today’s climate of broken contracts – on both sides of the ledger.

DeFilippo’s anger was born out of plain deception and the desire for continuity in a program that has been one of the most successful in the nation over the past decade. When he asked Jagodzinski if the coach was entertaining the idea of moving on, Jagodzinski assured DeFilippo that was not the case. Not long after, DeFilippo was floored when a reporter asked for his reaction to news that the coach would be interviewing with the Jets and perhaps watching Cowboy Quarterback toss another series of spirit-breaking interceptions next season.

At first, there were reports Jagodzinski was in violation of his contract, which supposedly included a clause preventing him from looking elsewhere, presumably for the first three years of his five-season term. It soon became clear DeFilippo’s ire was not due to a legal violation but rather a more nebulous spurning of the deal’s spirit and the relationship between coach, AD and school. DeFilippo said Jagodzinski had promised not to attempt a career upgrade until after the ’09 campaign, if at all. He was also fuming over Jagodzinski’s alleged lie about contact with the Jets. Finally, after working so hard to re-cast BC’s image by bringing it into the ACC and establishing it as top shelf across the board – or so he thought – DeFilippo couldn’t stomach a two-year coach using his program as a launching pad. Forget that football coaches (Frank Leahy, Tom Coughlin, Tom O’Brien) have done that for decades in Chestnut Hill; DeFilippo didn’t want it on his watch, especially after O’Brien’s exit to ACC rival NC State after the ’06 campaign.

So, DeFilippo issued the ultimatum: Interview with the Jets and lose your job. Jagodzinski interviewed and lost his job.

As it should be.

While DeFilippo’s view of BC may be a bit grandiose, given the school’s facilities deficit within the ACC and the nation, he is well within his rights as an employer to demand honesty and commitment from the person he hired. Jagodzinski might have received the same take-it-or-leave-it answer from DeFilippo had he been forthright from the start, or he could have been given permission to try for the Jets’ top job, clearly a step forward from his current position. And even though there is no clause in the contract prohibiting Jagodzinski from interviewing, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he and DeFilippo had spoken of a three-year commitment, with an eye on a much longer relationship. For those two reasons, DeFilippo is completely justified in firing Jagodzinski, who doesn’t seem like he is too unhappy to be leaving Boston College, especially since he’s being rumored for other jobs so quickly after his dismissal. Could he have been speaking to others all along? That seems pretty likely.

As DeFilippo trolls for a replacement (outstanding defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani is the interim boss), he would be wise to remember the value of finding someone who fits the position. Jagodzinski was primarily a pro coach who probably would be looking to get back to the NFL at some point. Reports are also that he wasn’t the best recruiter around, no surprise since pro coaches don’t have to engage in that part of the football business. DeFilippo might not be able to get a big name, but he should be able to find a capable man interested in staying at Boston College for an extended period. That way, he can help the AD establish the school as a destination and perhaps live to see a couple more uniform changes and mascot updates.

While DeFilippo worries about his next football boss, Bob Stoops and Urban Meyer have a game to coach. Each may well be moving on down the road – Stoops to the Broncos, although he denies interest, and Meyer to Notre Dame, whenever Heavy C is deposed – but tonight, each will try to collect his second “national title.” Stoops is at the helm of the most fearsome offense in college football history, even if its recent victims put up less resistance than Germany faced in the Sudetenland. Meyer directs a glorified sprint relay team masquerading as a football outfit and an offense that harkens back to the days of wishbone football and tear-away jerseys. Thanks to their appeal to computer models and clueless voters (see Poll, Harris), they have ascended to the top of the asinine BCS hierarchy and get to take the field in between commercials tonight. While propagandists and Fox hypesters try to convince us of the game’s mammoth importance, even if both schools could well be worse than USC, Texas (which beat Oklahoma) and even Utah, here are some clues to the game’s winner.

* Florida QB Tim Tebow received the most first-place Heisman votes, but because a group of astrophysicists in the southwest chose to leave him off their ballots completely, he lost his bid for a second Mr. Stiff-Arm to OU’s Sam Bradford and his exponential statistics. Forget about that as motivation for Tebow, although he may well be worked into a greater froth than usual. He’s the nation’s best football player and has the capacity to make huge plays that win games.

* The Gators’ special teams are superior to OU’s, a big deal in a game that could be decided by less than a touchdown. Expect to see Florida unearth some of that “hidden yardage” (the latest overused buzzword) with its exceptional coverage and return units.

* The loss of running back DeMarco Murray will hurt the Sooners. Chris Brown can gain a lot of yards, but he lacks Murray’s giddy-up and big-play ability. Bradford passed for nine million yards this year, but it was Oklahoma’s balance that keyed the late-season scoring orgy. Without Murray, the Sooners won’t be able to run the ball as well and should be less eruptive.

* The Oklahoma defense has been used to playing second halves of games in basic schemes, the better to keep things under control as the Sooner offense crackled. Faced with an opponent that likely won’t be down by 40 at halftime, it will be interesting to see if that outfit is capable of hunkering down in a key situation or if it will crumble, as it did late in the loss to Texas.

The Verdict: If you don’t know which way El Hombre is leaning, don’t take the SAT, because you’ll get killed on the reading comprehension section. Florida 30, Oklahoma 24.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: After all the self-congratulating and chest-thumping was over, espn was left with an interesting story about former Cowboys corner Space Invader Jones. If he indeed ordered an accused murderer to fire at someone with whom he had been in a dispute, he needs to be banned for life from the NFL. That’s life, as in no parole, no second (or 12th) chance, no nothing. He’s a huge distraction that hurts the league’s credibility. Good riddance…The Celtics have lost six of eight and appear old and mortal. What a shame. The good news is that they’re discussing the perfect tonic for their problems: Adding Stephon Me-bury. Let’s get this straight: the Celtics could be losing and fighting among each other at the same time? Sign him now!…It seems Brett Favre is upset some of his Jets teammates felt he was aloof and weren’t too thrilled with his propensity for stinking at key times of games, especially down the stretch of the season. Get used to it, Brett. Few other than fawning media sycophants have the stomach for your will-I/won’t-I retirement act and your save-the-day persona – especially when you don’t deliver. Here’s some advice: Hang ‘em up. And do so with a one-line press release that reads, “I’m done.”…The NHL is considering playing some games on Christmas Day, the better to capitalize on the success of its “Winter Classic” outdoor games. Classic move by commissioner Gary Bettman, who thought it a great idea to expand into hockey hotbeds Nashville, Atlanta and Miami, instead of focusing on core league cities. The New Year’s thing works because it’s unique. No one is going to put down the wassail to catch a Blackhawks-Bruins game, unless Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr are playing.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? On the one hand, you have to love J.C. Romero’s unwillingness to accept a plea bargain in his banned-substance imbroglio, because it would have prohibited him from playing in last fall’s World Series. Way to take one for the team, J.C. But his decision to use the stuff in the first place was silly, because it had already been red-flagged, and several players who had taken the time to call the Players Association hotline had learned that 6-OXO Extreme contained androstenedione, one of Mark McGwire’s favorites. It’s tough to tell what’s right and wrong in the world of supplements, since not all ingredients are listed on the container, but Romero could have been sure in this case. Instead, he chose to forge ahead blindly and will pay a 50-game (and $1.25 million) price. Let’s hope he’s a cautionary tale for others and that new addition Chan Ho Park doesn’t mind a couple months in the bullpen.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Since El Hombre was off for a couple weeks celebrating the holidays in the Maldives, he wasn’t able to give you the gift of his wild-card NFL picks. Had he done it, you would have been thrilled, since EH was 3-1 (who knew the Cardinals could play well?). Well, get your pencils sharpened, because this week’s choices should be equally successful. Take Baltimore and the points against Tennessee, and don’t be surprised if the Ravens win outright. Pittsburgh is more than a touchdown better than the Chargers, who might get tiny Darren Sproles killed if they use him too much against the avaricious Steeler defense. Look for ‘Zona to fold up nicely in Carolina, where the Panthers roll to a comfortable double-digit win. And give the points up in Hoffaland, where the Giants’ pass rush and ground game stops the Philadelphia party and sends Andy Reid (mercifully) in search of a razor.