Showing posts with label Andy Reid. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Andy Reid. Show all posts

Friday, October 28, 2011

Those Were The Days


“Yes, it used to be beautiful, what with
the rackets, whoring, guns…”
-- Lou Pascal, “Atlantic City”

If you are a fan of college football, you have a little bit of Lou Pascal in you these days. Pascal, a small-time gangster played by Burt Lancaster in the sublime period piece, “Atlantic City,” remembers the city – and his life – through romanticized lenses. To him, AC was great when the gambling was illegal and corporations didn’t do the thieving. It was somehow more noble back then.

So it is with the world’s greatest sport. As ruthless businessmen and TV executives bulldoze tradition and history, those of us who remember the Old Days do so wistfully. Like Lou, we realize that the world we recall was hardly perfect, but it was certainly better and had far more character than what we see today. It was somehow more desirable for back-room deals cut by men in sherbet-colored blazers to determine our favorite schools’ futures than to have computers do it. Rivalries were born of hate and anger, not advertising. And a couple bucks slipped to a star player by a booster was a fine reward for a full day’s work.

This week’s latest conference shakeup is merely the latest bit of evidence that college football’s greatness is evaporating. If West Virginia/Louisville bolts for the Big 12, after Missouri departs for the SEC, we may witness the creation of an unholy conglomeration of up to 32 unwashed C-USA, Big East and Mountain West souls huddled together in the hope their group hug will confer BCS legitimacy. Those Leftovers had little cachet before they coagulated into a great pile of who-gives-a-damn, and they’ll remain largely undesirable after it – no matter how rich their espn contract may be.

Every time someone decries the behavior of these greedheads, he is dismissed as too old by people for whom history is what was presented on last week’s episode of Tosh.0. (Go ahead and invade Russia, folks. It just might work!) Well, here’s a news flash, kiddies: In 10-15 years college football won’t be much different than its NFL big brother, from the cynical in-game “experience” to the cheerleading media coverage designed to promote the product. Wait a second; we already have that.

Spend three hours in a big-time college football stadium, and you’ll witness a slickly-produced show that incorporates elements of the sport’s past – marching bands; cheerleaders who don’t look like, ahem, dancers and real student sections – along with plenty of professional trappings. The promotional/sponsorship presentation is growing at a scary rate. A lot of the band music has been replaced by standard-issue “motivational rock,” which attempts to create enthusiasm and remind fans that certain parts of the game are more important than others. The giant video boards attract thousands of eyes away from the field, so many spend three hours watching TV, instead of the game itself.

With each new season and hiring of yet another AD that has no experience at all in sports, the atmosphere gets closer to that of the NFL. Factor in the decaying traditions and an end to several historic rivalries – so long Texas-Texas A&M, Pitt-West Virginia and Kansas-Mizzou – and you have a more sanitized, though certainly profitable, college football product.

One problem: as the sport lurches closer to the NFL version, it loses its soul. That may be fine to the generation of kids for whom the word “classic” refers to last year’s Alabama-Auburn game, but it does nothing for those of us who remember when Autumn Saturdays featured gridiron encounters that were almost romantic. The upshot of the new conference alignments will be made-for-TV affiliations that represent nothing but the opportunity to maximize profits, or at least stay out of the deep red.

When Arkansas left the Southwest Conference, back in 1992, the Razorbacks were viewed as the worst of traitors for having upgraded their lot by joining the SEC. Decades of tradition were ruined, as the SWC splintered, and the Big 12 emerged from the pile. Today’s movement is happening so fast and furiously that it’s hard to put the black hat on any one school. So, we look at the real culprits: the TV networks. They sit behind the scenes and counsel conferences and institutions on which moves will make them most attractive to their checkbooks. The goal is a fat contract that guarantees the highest payout to league members. If that comes with the creation of a money-printing conference network, all the better.

The wheel has been set in motion, and it’s impossible to stop it. The next couple years will feature a reshuffling of schools’ home addresses and eventually produce a conglomerate of powerful players that rakes in the big bucks and attracts the top talent. Those who fail to find a properly prosperous home will exist on the margins, collecting scraps. It’s not hard to imagine members of the Mid-American or Sun Belt Conferences staging sit-ins at the site of a future BCS title game under the “Occupy the 50-yard line” banner. Fans will eventually adjust to and accept the new order and forget the Old Days.

But as the product and its presentation get closer in style to that of the NFL, college football will slowly lose its identity. Years from now, it will be practically impossible to differentiate between Saturday and Sunday, as contrived new “traditions” are seen for what they really are: marketing ploys. And mascots will be no more than corporate symbols, like the Michelin Man or Captain Morgan. Maybe then, people will pine for the 1990s, just as many fans look back wistfully at the ’60s and ‘70s.

With apologies to Lou Pascal: yes, it used to be beautiful, what with the wishbone, the hundred-dollar handshakes and January 1.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Me-O held a Peter Brady workout earlier this week: Many were invited; no one (except for a couple TV cameras) came. Hard to believe there’s no market for 37-year olds coming off major knee surgeries with massive, locker-room-threatening egos. You would have thought the Packers or Patriots would have offered him a five-year deal…The NBA and its Players Association made some real progress toward a deal Thursday, and fans celebrated by turning on the hockey game. You do have to give the parties credit for understanding that if they had trashed another couple months of play, people would have found other things to do besides watching a game between the T-wolves and Raptors – like having a cavity filled without anesthesia…In other basketball news, Allen Iverson has told the world he’s healthy and ready to accept a reserve role on a team, so long as he can have Tuesdays and Thursdays off to go to the casino and the training table is at TGIFriday’s…Top-ranked women’s tennis player Caroline Wozniacki has complained that rival Victoria Azarenka’s grunting during matches is too loud and can be a competitive advantage. Azarenka, of course, disputed that claim and said the issue was not one of trying to gain an upper hand but due to a lack of sufficient levels of fiber in her diet.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Eagles fans will no doubt be in full froth Sunday night when the Cowgirls come to town, and there may even be some snow in the stadium to fire at the Dallas players, coaches and owner False Face Jones. But no matter how loud the fans are or how much trash is talked between the players and Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the fact remains that the Birds must prove they are legitimate playoff threats or consign themselves to two more months of criticism. The good news is that Andy Reid is 12-0 after bye weeks during his tenure in Philadelphia. The bad news is that the win over Washington two weeks in a row did not contain enough deodorant to remove the stench of the previous four straight futile weeks. The Eagles must prove they can play turnover-free football, hold tight to a lead against a good team and play some respectable defense. Philadelphia is now reasonably healthy and at close to full strength. Beat the Cowgirls, and 2011 prosperity remains a possibility. Lose, and the cries for Reid’s head will increase, and for the first time in his tenure, be legitimate.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma can be a lot of things, including arrogant and hard to stomach. But he was completely correct earlier this week when he said Notre Dame’s sweetheart deal with the Big East hurt the conference badly. But don’t forget to blame the folks in Providence, who allowed ND to play football as an independent while housing the Irish’s “Olympic” sports in a safe harbor. The Big East should have gone to Notre Dame’s administration years ago and said, “Either join for everything or take a walk.” That may have pushed ND into the waiting arms of the Big Ten, but at least the Big East could have retained its dignity. As ND continues to play hoops, soccer and lacrosse in the conference, the Big East’s football profile takes a monthly hit, forcing the league to chase schools like Houston, Memphis and UCF. Golden Domers, who can hardly be considered the most reasonable people, must admit they have it pretty good. The Big East, on the other hand, looks foolish as one of its “members” benefits from scheduling security while getting a little something on the side. Hats off to Geno for pointing that out.


Friday, February 4, 2011

Something's Missing


As the NFL promotional machine cranks itself up to new and more ridiculous levels than ever, the actual game looms mercifully Sunday as an antidote to the silliness and self-indulgence that have characterized the country’s most popular sport’s signature event. Soon, we won’t have to worry about wigs and fur coats and endless analysis about key players and difference-makers. It won’t matter whether Ben Roethlisberger sang “Piano Man” Tuesday night – and off key, at that. It will be football time, and all will be right for fans who grow ever weary of the league’s attempts to turn a competition into a spectacle and a spectacle into a parody.

We get a gift this time, as two old-time franchises trudge to the middle of False Face’s pleasure dome. No nouveau squads in garish uniforms (see Cardinals, Arizona; Seahawks, Seattle and Titans, Tennessee). No mascots. No cheerleaders, although not even El Hombre is a big enough purist to wish away that part of the show. We have two top-10 QBs, a pair of violent defenses and a notable absence of trash-spewing players and coaches. The league’s bad guys are home, licking their wounds and preparing to launch envious Twitter assaults. Amidst the 21st century nonsense that has become so much a part of the NFL experience, this game is welcome respite.

Not everything is perfect. The teams will meet indoors. And Fox will no doubt be at its self-aggrandizing best. But the worst blotch on the game is the absence of the one man capable of giving it the necessary gravitas and historical perspective. The man for whose baritone a game like this was made.

John Facenda.

The Voice of God headed to the heavenly press box in 1984, leaving NFL Films with a deficit at the microphone. His successors – the great Harry Kalas among them – though game and certainly capable, never duplicated Facenda’s legendary delivery. Hearing him say, “Otis Taylor turned a routine hitch pass into a devastating touchdown,” was almost like listening to John F. Kennedy ask us what we could do for our country. That was Facenda. That was the magic of the 1970s NFL, and that’s what El Hombre wishes he could have for this one. Pittsburgh-Green Bay does not deserve anything but the best. This matches the teams with the most Super Bowl titles (Pittsburgh: 6) and NFL championships (Green Bay: 11). It conjures memories of Vince Lombardi and the Packer Sweep, and Chuck Noll and the Steel Curtain. If any game cried out for Facenda, it was this one.

Facenda’s narration of NFL Films’ half-hour Super Bowl presentations imbued even the blandest game – like the tedious ’73 Miami-Washington ordeal – with a sense of drama. Routine plays became heroic. Big performances were rendered legendary. As the Steelers, Packers and their compelling histories prepare to clash, nothing short of Facenda’s authoritative presence could provide the necessary context. No matter how great the game is (or isn’t), there will definitely be something missing, especially as the league and its propaganda partners contort their minds in pursuit of enough “news” to fill the long hours leading up to the game.

On the field, we might not be disappointed, even if a small percentage of previous Super Bowls has been worthy of the game’s appellation. There can be little argument that the two teams represent the best of their respective conferences. Neither “shocked the world” by reaching the Super Bowl, even though Green Bay did emerge from the wild-card position to play for all the cheese. Many thought Captain Hoodie’s troops would represent the AFC, but the Steelers used their balance to beat Baltimore and the Jets – who had made the Pats look ordinary a week before.

Perhaps the best thing about both teams is that each is committed to running the football. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers may have thrown for 3,922 yards during the regular season, but the Packers showed a strong devotion to the run during the playoffs, averaging 31.7 carries per game, which is actually more than the passes they attempted (by a shade). The Steelers, meanwhile, ran it 23 more times than they have passed it in wins over Baltimore and New York. This is yet another reason to love the two teams. In a league that has done everything it can to propagate the passing game, they realize that truly successful
teams can mash.

And play D. That has been the Steelers’ hallmark since Chuck Noll took over back in ’69 and continues under coordinator Dick LeBeau. Under Mike McCarthy, the Packers have become better and better on that side of the ball. After spending three seasons (2006-08) out of the top 10 in total defense, the Pack has been second and fifth the past two. A big reason for that is the 2009 decision to hire Dom Capers to run the defense. Since his arrival, not to mention the ’09 decision to draft human drain plug B.J. Raji and all-everything LB Clay Matthews with the team’s two first-round picks, the Packers have been much better.

Were this game not surrounded by a full hour of commercial and promotional folderol it might be a quick one, as two teams devoted to working the clock slug it out. Instead, when Fox’s lead-in to a “very special episode” of Glee concludes, it will likely have dragged on for four hours. When it’s finally over, and the Lombardi Trophy (please, NFL, don’t redesign it like you did the conference hardware) is awarded, Pittsburgh will have grabbed its seventh Super Bowl title. The Steelers are a little better on D, will run the ball with more success, and Roethlisberger will – as usual – make a couple big plays down the stretch. Pittsburgh 24, Green Bay 20. (Post-season record against the spread: 7-3.)

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Say what you want about hockey’s goon factor, but you can’t deny the entertainment value of Thursday’s Stars-Bruins game, which featured three fights in the first four seconds (that’s right) of play…Shame on CBS College Sports for making deposed Michigan football coach Rich Ro-riguez (no D) interview his successor, Brady Hoke, on signing day. Ro-riguez deserved to get the gate in Ann Arbor, but he didn’t have to endure the session with Hoke. What’s next, video of his most recent colonoscopy?...There are reports of match fixing, gambling and gangsters in the world of sumo wrestling as the scandal ballooned this week. The scope of the investigation continues to widen, and the perps could face fat fines and hefty suspensions. Japanese TV networks are considering dropping live coverage of the March tournament and replacing it with competitive eating…Amidst huge statewide education budget cuts and continued concerns about whether some schools can even stay open, Allen HS is building a $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium on campus. At least the taxpayers’ money isn’t being wasted on something frivolous, like a new chem lab, or the people would be pretty steamed.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? When El Hombre received an e-mail Wednesday morning from an Airtight Source telling him the Eagles were about to hire a defensive coordinator who had never coached D in the NFL before, he couldn’t believe it. Neither could the two league execs he asked whether that made any sense. But, sure enough, later that day, the Birds announced they were promoting offensive line coach Juan Castillo to DC. It’s a move that defies description and explanation. No matter how the Eagles want to rationalize this, it doesn’t smell right. If moving someone from a position coaching spot one side of the ball to a coordinator’s position on the other side made so much sense, how come it isn’t done more often? Or at all? The true story of this one won’t be out for a while, and El Hombre believes it has more to do with Castillo’s replacement, formerly-retired Howard Mudd, than it does with the team’s feeling that Castillo is the next Jim Johnson. Head coach Andy Reid has put his sizeable posterior on the line before, but this could be his biggest exposure yet. Should Castillo fail to do the job, it won’t be viewed as his fault, rather the responsibility of the man who put him in the wrong position. Reid may feel he’s bulletproof within the organization, but this move might tear away some of the Kevlar that surrounds him. We’ll wait and see, out of respect to Castillo, but a failure could topple Reid’s regime.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: This is El Hombre’s 300th effort, and the past six-plus years have been a fun ride – to where, nobody really knows. What began as a means of clearing the opinions out of a cluttered mind has turned into something with (limited) national appeal and a community of readers/responders that is edifying. EH promises the next 300 missives will be filled with the same passion, strident beliefs, whimsy and, yes, anger – not to mention plenty of Animal House references – that the previous collection was. If you like what you’re seeing, you can find more by checking out @DailyHombre on Twitter. Thanks for reading.


Friday, January 21, 2011

School Daze


Last week, El Hombre had the opportunity to interview the only Iranian playing Division I basketball. Arsalan Kazemi is a spring-loaded forward who’s averaging about 17 and 11 for Rice, and he doesn’t mention “jihad” or “Great Satan” whenever he talks about America. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from being detained every time he comes to the country by security officials who think he’s in the country to collect some yellowcake uranium or detonate an IED at the Rose Parade. At least his wait time has dropped, from six-and-a-half hours the first time he arrived here, to three hours. Pretty soon, he’ll get sent on his way with only a body-cavity scavenger hunt by Sausage Fingers McGee.

After discussing Kazemi’s journey from the crowded Iranian city of Esfahan to Houston, El Hombre asked the Owl sophomore if he was still studying economics, as an earlier article had revealed. The answer was depressing.

“I changed my major to sports management, with a minor in business, because it was too hard to study economics and play basketball,” he said.

Here’s a kid from Iran, who is clearly pretty sharp – why else would he think to tackle economics in the first place? – and the rigors of his sport have forced him to find an easier way to navigate Rice’s academic waters. Nothing against sports management majors; they may some day be running athletic departments and NBA franchises, but it’s sad that Kazemi has surrendered his original major for something that makes it easier for him to bounce the round ball. At least he’s still in a course of study that has the potential to serve him down the road. Most players who are shunted away from serious paths in the pursuit of great athletic glory are directed toward concentrations like astrology or history of grunge rock.

It’s time for college athletics to drop the sham and admit that they have taken over many of this nation’s fine academic institutions. The idea of sports as an extracurricular activity is quaint. The thought that it is a way for universities to promote themselves is antiquated. Today’s big-time (and big-time hopeful) programs are corporations that rival the professional teams from which they once worked so hard to separate themselves. Wednesday’s announcement that espn was paying the University of Texas $300 million for the rights to produce 20 years of the Longhorn Network just about sealed the deal. Even though Texas threw the pointy-heads a bone by endowing a pair of professor’s chairs with some of the booty, the windfall is the latest and most damning argument against college sports.

Most astonishing, at least from espn’s point of view is what the channel will run. Since Texas has deals with Fox and espn to televise the vast majority of its football and men’s basketball games, the LN will get one grid contest, most likely against Amarillo College of Animal Husbandry, and eight hoop games, with the centerpiece likely to be the annual clash with Iowa State. Other than that, we’re looking at 24 hours a day of “Olympic” sports and the ever-popular “shoulder programming,” of coaches’ shows, hard-hitting newsmagazines, feature shows (“Bevo’s Blind Date”) and other pap. Texas gets $15 mil a year, on top of the 10 large it takes in from IMG for radio and on-line rights and $10-15 million from the Big 12 for TV, bowls and NC2A tournament appearances. Last year, the school’s athletic budget was a nation’s-highest $137 million. Expect that to grow considerably as athletic administrators find ways to use espn cash to buy their wives burnt-orange mink coats. And El Hombre won’t even get into the conflict of interest between espn, which still purports itself to be a news-gathering organization, and one of the schools it covers.

As the coffers fill to capacity, the Athlete-Students continue to take the brunt of it, whether it’s through phony-baloney courses of “study,” onerous NC2A rules designed to favor institutions or a continued refusal to share the revenue streams that are generated through their hard work and sacrifice. Guys like Kazemi are the lucky ones. He’ll likely get a degree from a fine university like Rice. That should help him back home or here, once his basketball playing days are over. Others will leave school with no marketable skill and an “education” that prepares them little for the professional world. Meanwhile, the cash registers at factories like Texas continue to ring at record rates, and the professionalization of college sports continues at a breakneck pace. The Longhorn Network is the next step in a natural progression, but it’s one that causes more concern than the usual money grabs executed by big-time programs. While it’s unlikely East Carolina will get its own network any time soon, the barrier has been broken, and soon all the other big boys will want a TV channel of their own.

If they don’t get that, they’ll find some other way to rake in extra cash. Meanwhile, tuitions soar, academic programs are cut, and most professors’ salaries don’t come near those of coaches. Enjoy it all now, because in 10-15 years, the whole thing will be undistinguishable from the professional ranks – with one exception.

The players will be getting screwed.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Mr. Metallurgy dropped a resounding “Nyet!” on the Carmelo Anthony-to-New-Jersey trade, no doubt upsetting Nets fans in the short run but helping the team in the long haul. Anthony is a selfish scorer who will never win a ring, unless he plays a supporting role on an all-star team. You don’t want him as a leader, and his petulance and lack of professionalism this season prove that…Here’s some more big NBA news: Brandon Jennings will be replaced in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest lineup by DeMar DeRozan. DeWho DeCares? If the league were smart, it would lower the rims to 9 feet and have a Legends Dunk Contest featuring Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Darnell Hillman’s mighty, mighty Afro…TV analyst Todd Woodbridge’s series of gaffes surrounding the shape of tennis star Kim Clijsters is priceless. First, he texted a friend that Clijsters seemed “grumpy” and that her “boobs are bigger,” indications to him that she was pregnant. Then, in a televised interview, he asked outright whether Clijsters was indeed in the family way. What’s next, telling Serena Williams that her outfit makes “her butt look big?” Wise up, Todd…Off of Oahu, surfing officials are gearing up for the possibility of a rare “Eddie,” the contest that only takes place when wave heights reach 20 feet. Boarders from all over will head to the islands for next Thursday’s contest. The only rule: First one to California wins…There was some big news in college basketball earlier this week when John Calipari cursed out one of his players. The horror! There were also rumors Tom Izzo yelled at a ref, Coach K made a sarcastic comment and Jim Boeheim whined. Please.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The only thing moderately surprising about Andy Reid’s decision to fire defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was that the Eagles’ coach told assembled media five days earlier that McDermott was coming back for the ’11 season. Reid usually equivocates in such situations, preferring instead to consider situations, look at film and read Tarot cards, rather than give a direct answer. Offering up McDermott makes perfect sense for a coach who is unwilling to take responsibility for his team’s defensive shortcomings. No amount of “that’s on me” comments can mask his rear-covering decision to axe McDermott, rather than acknowledge that not even Buddy Ryan could have crafted a bloodthirsty defense out of the shaky personnel Reid provided. The Eagles lack playmakers at all positions, have a crashing dearth of talent at cornerback behind Asante Samuel and don’t care about signing or drafting impact linebackers. Jim Johnson was a master, but he had far more talent at his disposal than did McDermott. It’s no surprise the coach was picked up immediately by the Panthers, because everybody around the league realized Reid was merely trying to protect himself at the expense of someone else. In the future, he’ll have to do a better job with that.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell prepares for the lockout and the 18-game season designed to line owners’ wallets and cripple the workforce, he’s probably popping open bottles of champagne every hour to celebrate the league’s conference title game matchups. It’s almost perfect. No stupid uniforms like the Cardinals’ all-red jobs or any Titans combination. Both games will be played on grass. Outdoors. There is tradition. There are great QBs. Expect a ratings bonanza – and two pretty good football games. The Jets and linebacker Bart Scott “CAN’T WAIT!” for their trip to Pittsburgh, but that thinking may be a little short-sighted. Sure, the Jets beat the Steelers in December, but Troy Polamalu did not play that day for Pittsburgh. New York has been impressive in defeating Indy and the Bradys, but taking down three straight heavyweights on the road is too tall a task. Pittsburgh 23, New York 14. The 183rd renewal of the Bears-Packers rivalry is the biggest one yet and only the second post-season meeting between the historic foes. Expect a steady dose of old-school footage before the game – thankfully – and a pair of rough-and-tumble defenses once kickoff comes. Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers gets the edge over Chicago’s Jay Cutler, even though Cutler has played well of late, but the difference in this one will be the Packers’ underrated D. Green Bay 24, Chicago 17.


Friday, February 5, 2010

The Ankle Bowl


Since Super Bowl XLIV will turn completely on the condition of Dwight Freeney’s ankle, it’s practically pointless to spend any time analyzing whether New Orleans’ defense can slow down the Colts’ passing attack, or if Reggie Bush is really going to propose to Kim Kardashian, now that the Saints have reached the Big Game.

Nope, it’s all ankle, all the time.

Tuesday, during Super Bowl media day, Freeney answered questions from reporters about the ankle, how he’s rehabbing the ankle, how the ankle feels in the morning and what he hopes will happen with the ankle. The last time people talked about a joint this much was during The Pineapple Express. Folks tried to make it about something other than Freeney’s ankle, to no avail. Chad OchoCrazy showed up with his own news network, which is kind of like the episode when the Three Stooges were doctors. Peyton Manning tried to make a joke, but his timing was off, and when the thing bombed, he blamed it on his little brother. The requisite collection of crazies, including a woman wearing a halo and a former American Midol contestant, was on hand, but nothing could top the biggest story: Will he or won’t he? Can he or can’t he? Is he or isn’t he?

The worst thing about the entire Freeney situation is that we won’t know a damn thing until he steps onto the field Sunday against the Saints. Until then, we will be subjected to an excruciating torrent of conjecture regarding how much Freeney will be able to play and what the Colts/Saints will do if he can’t go. Believe me; by the time kickoff comes around, the insanity surrounding the OchoCrazy News Network will seem like mother’s milk compared to the Freeney frenzy.

The big reason for the hysteria regarding one player’s cranky ankle is that the rest of the storylines surrounding the Super Bowl have created the same level of interest as Joe Biden’s daily schedule. Okay, okay, we get that this is a big deal for New Orleans. And that the healing from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation can continue only if every Big Easy resident is face down in a puddle of beer come Monday morning. We know that Peyton Manning is trying to cement his legacy, the better to continue his quest for domination of the advertising world. We’re cheering for Pierre Garcon and his Haitian friends and relatives to overcome the horrors of the earthquake, as if some poor guy who has lost everything in Port-au-Prince gives a rat’s backside about whether Garcon’s team wins the game.

But this is all well trod ground. About the only good stuff coming out of the run-up to the game are the comments by New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams about how his team wants to lay some “remember me” shots on Manning to make him less comfortable in the pocket. Not bad, but not enough. Where is the outrageous behavior? Where is Deion Sanders telling people that his new Lamborghini was a present from “myself to myself?” Where is Shannon Sharpe vs. Ray Buchanan, 2010 style? Why hasn’t President Obama sent one of the teams’ coaches a play he designed, as Nixon was rumored to have done before Super Bowl VII.

If the boredom generated by the pre-game run-up is any indication, we’re headed for an old-fashioned, yawner on Sunday. We’re talking Colts-Cowboys, 1971, Redskins-Dolphins, 1973 or Bucs-Raiders, 2003. Then again, perhaps the two explosive offenses are saving their pyrotechnics for the field, rather than filling up notebooks and tape recorders with inane pre-game comments. Let’s hope that’s the case, because the way this week is going is enough to make people want to watch HGTV. The only people who have it worse than the general public are the reporters who have to find something to talk or write about every day.

Fortunately, they have the old standby: Freeney’s ankle. When in doubt, talk about electronic stimulation or hyperbaric chambers, and you’ll be just fine.

Is it Sunday yet?

* * *

THE PICK: During the regular season and even the first couple rounds of the playoffs, the only wagers people care about involve the pointspread, the over/under and the money line. That’s it. The beauty of the Super Bowl is that everything is in play, from the game’s outcome to whether one of the kickers will mistake Snooki for a football and try to boot her through the uprights.
Here are this week’s picks:
Coin Flip: Heads
Times Referee Calls For a Measurement: Two
Number of Pete Townsend windmills at halftime: Seven
Oh, El Hombre almost forgot. Give the points in this one. We can talk about sympathy and heartstrings and Who Dat? but this is about the Colts’ ability to carve up a shaky Saints secondary (26th in the NFL vs. the pass). Yes, DWIGHT FREENEY’S ANKLE will be a factor, but the Indy defense will still create some trouble for the Saints’ attack. Peyton Manning gets his second Super Bowl, but please stop with the “greatest ever” talk. He still has some work to do in that department. Indianapolis 30, New Orleans 20.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Last week, the New Jersey Nets’ management enlisted a sports psychologist to help the woebegone team snap out of its historic funk. During his presentation, the hoops shrink jammed a needle into his cheek to demonstrate mental toughness. That runs counter to the actions of Nets fans, who have been sticking needles in their eyes all season…The onset of the Winter Olympics means the arrival in Vancouver of husky Russian biathlon competitors – and those are just the women – not to mention the anticipated pairs figure skating performance by fellow Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, whose aboriginal routine sets new lows for international relations. (What’s next, a pair spoofing minstrel shows?) The big question facing the Games is whether anybody notices that the NHL will be shut down for two weeks.. Didn’t think so…College football signing day has come and gone, with the requisite “winners” and “losers,” not to mention the premature deification of a bunch of high schoolers. The big story, however, is that Lane Kiffin is still at USC and further that he has yet to say anything stupid, at least publicly…Break up the Twins! Buoyed by anticipated revenues from its new ballpark, Minnesota added Orlando Hudson to its lineup and is working on a megadeal for star catcher Joe Mauer. It’s amazing what a new ballpark will do for you, unless you’re Pittsburgh, of course…Kevin Durant’s recent scoring binge has been great to watch, but the best thing about the 6-9 Thunder star is that his name doesn’t lend itself to one of the lazy nicknames people confer on athletes. “K-Dur” just doesn’t cut it. Thankfully, “Durantula” does.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The fears that the Eagles hired Dick Jauron as a possible replacement for defensive coordinator Sean McDermott warrant some discussion, since McDermott wasn’t ready for the job when he took over (not his fault), and the Birds’ D did take a step back in 2009, although injuries and poor personnel decisions had more to do with the decay than McDermott’s inability to channel Jim Johnson. What is most worrisome about the move is that Andy Reid may have decided that the team’s secondary problems do not need to be fixed by talent upgrades, rather than having someone else “coach ‘em up.” Jauron certainly knows his stuff, having been a head coach, a defensive boss and a secondary tutor. But going into 2010 without another top-shelf safety and without doing something about Asante Samuel’s predilection for playing flag football would be a huge mistake, one that Jauron can’t fix by himself. McDermott should worry a little about the new arrival, but if Reid thinks the mere presence of an experience hand on the back line will overcome the ’09 problems, then Eagles fans will be the ones doing the real worrying.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The pending announcement that the NC2A is planning to opt out of the final three years of its 11-season, $6 billion contract with CBS (don’t even think it won’t happen) is scary for fans of the only part of the college basketball season that really matters – the tournament. With the call for new bids will come a tacit understanding that the NC2A is wide open to an enlarging of the tourney, a move that would ruin what may be the most perfect thing in sports and the only thing the organization does well – besides screwing its student-athletes. Greed, of course, will win out, since an expanded tourney (up to as many as 96 teams) would bring a bigger annual payday, even in this shaky climate. There are reports that CBS will partner with Turner to counter espn’s multi-platform bid and put more games on the air. Or, it could mean more weight behind a pay-per-view scenario. No one will get an argument on expansion from coaches, who want more teams in so that more coaches can protect their jobs. The real losers are the fans and the tournament itself, which has grown organically over the years and has done just well in its current form for 25 years. (Okay, so they added an extra game in ’01.) Bringing in 31 more at-large teams will dilute the tourney beyond recognition. Last year, there were maybe three or four other teams that had legitimate beefs about being excluded. And by adding another 15 games in an “opening round” format, the tourney will lose many of the mid-major and small conference teams that have made the first two rounds of the tourney so compelling over the years. Ask yourself what’s more exciting, the thought of Robert Morris’ upsetting Clemson or Seton Hall’s doing it. It’s a pretty easy question to answer. And if the expansion comes, it’s likely that plenty of the Robert Morrises of the NC2A world will be eliminated before they can take on the giants. In the end, greed will win, and the NC2A will learn eventually that it ruined a perfect thing.


Friday, January 15, 2010

There's No Crying In Baseball, Mark


The big winner in Mark McGwire’s recent media tour in support of his new contrition over a decade of steroid use is Kleenex, because every time he speaks these days, the tears tend to flow. If we didn’t know Big Mac had hired former Bush press secretary Ari Fleisher to be his Big Flak, one would think he had stolen a page from the Dick Vermeil Drama Handbook. McGwire has produced so much saline solution in the past couple days, officials in Kazakhstan have proposed using him to help replenish the shrinking Aral Sea.

Give McGwire credit for one thing: Unlike other members of baseball’s Shameless Generation, he at least admitted to using the stuff more than once or twice (Andy Pettitte) or accidentally (Balco Bonds). There was no talk of flaxseed oil or B-12 shots. No irresponsible dentists or “personal health issues.” McGwire juiced, and he admits it. For that, he deserves a gold star.

But like his fellow drug cheats, McGwire qualifies his apology, and that’s where all the goodwill begins to stagnate like spilled can of Blatz souring in the searing summer sun. He claims his 10 years of abuse were not designed to improve his play, even though the label on the box he got at Steroids R Us clearly stated that the product was a “performance enhancing drug.” Nope, McGwire was merely using the stuff (for some reason, he can’t remember the name of the substance, despite a decade of use) to stay healthy and remain in the lineup. Everything else came straight off the shelves at God, Inc.

The technical term for this type of elusive behavior is “steaming pile of crap,” but to a layman, McGwire is simply rationalizing his actions and trying to get us to buy into the sham. Forget that his home runs per at-bat dropped from 14.0 to 8.4 during his peaking juicing – a 40% decrease. Forget that he wouldn’t have come near his final total of 583 dingers without the drugs. And forget that it was ultimately the steroids that ended his career by contributing to classic P.E.D. injuries in his back and knees. (Parents, feel free to use this last one with the kids as a textbook definition of irony. Or, you can stick with the Tiger-Woods-getting-smacked-by-a-golf-club example.)

McGwire juiced to hit more home runs. To hit longer home runs. They may have helped him stay healthy, but their primary result was to allow him to craft a mammoth, sculpted frame with more power, speed and endurance. He sure could hit the ball before the juice, but he hit it further, more frequently and with more jaw-dropping majesty once he started abusing drugs. The resulting 135 taters in 1998-99 were to be his ticket to immortality. Now, they are black marks in a baseball record book that has less and less credibility and the smoking guns in a career that was a product of cheating.

By copping to steroid use, McGwire is hoping to ease his return to the game as a hitting coach for the Cardinals. That will probably work, especially since Cards’ manager Tony LaRussa is leading the cheers for his return – and erasing any last bits of credibility he has by claiming he knew nothing about McGwire’s steroid abuse until the slugger called him earlier this week to confess. That makes LaRussa the only person in America who didn’t act like Captain Renault upon hearing McGwire’s “revelation.” But let’s hope those who vote for the Hall of Fame aren’t snowed by the well-crafted act of contrition, no matter how much the slugger paid for it. McGwire’s success is directly related to continued, deliberate steroid use. He wouldn’t have thrived as he did without the drugs, so his candidacy for immortality should not even be considered. He said he was sorry, and that’s a good step. He also said he wished he had never played in the “Steroid Era.” Maybe he should have thought of that before he started sticking needles in his butt – or having Jose Canseco do it for him.

Speaking of Canseco, is anybody ever going to get tired of seeing the guy proven right? So far, he’s like Rocky Marciano – undefeated and untied. The guy is a bit of a crackpot (okay, he’s a big crackpot), but he has been right on about steroids. It’s a wonder baseball invertebrate Bud Sellout hasn’t put a contract out on the guy yet. The baseball that conked Canseco on the head before flying out of the park may have knocked him a little loopy, but he speaks the truth about the juice, and if he says he and McGwire had a little needle party in the clubhouse shower, then it happened. Period.

Canseco isn’t trying to get a job in Majoke League Baseball. He has no shot at the Hall of Fame, either. McGwire, on the other hand, has one and wants the other. His well-rehearsed apology might keep him in a Cardinals uniform, but in no way should it punch his ticket to Cooperstown. He didn’t tell the complete truth, and even if he did, the fact that he used steroids for a decade should serve as a ringing indictment against his candidacy. Let’s hope the Hall of Fame voters don’t soften up like the audience at a romantic comedy and admit McGwire to baseball’s Valhalla. Be vigilant, folks, and realize a cheat and manipulator when you see one.

Oh, and someone get McGwire a tissue. It looks like he’s crying. Again.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Giants Stadium is being sold, piece-by-piece. Fans can buy seats, turf and locker room items. No word on how much Jimmy Hoffa will cost…New England has cut ties with defensive coordinator Dean Pees, bringing his career with the Pats to a close and rendering unemployed the only NFL coach whose name is a full sentence…NBC is planning 835 hours of Olympics coverage, with only 820 of those devoted to figure skating. Talk about a classic case of biathlonism…With the NBA trading deadline looming next month, the rumor mill has started its annual churn. The most interesting name being mentioned is Tracy McGrady, the oft-injured, highly overrated Houston forward who has never won a playoff series. The best part of dealing for Me-Mac is that his bloated contract (about $21 mil) expires after this season, so it will be possible to chase some of the top free agents in this summer’s robust class. Talk about a big fall from grace. Once considered a star, Me-Mac is only coveted for his expiring contract. A cautionary tale? Nahhh. Today’s money-grubbing players don’t care, so long as they get paid.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT: Now that the Eagles’ season is over, the frustrated fans (you mean there are some who aren’t frustrated?) are looking for scapegoats. Instead of realizing the team just wasn’t good enough (crappy O-line, insufficient edge pass rushing, weak LBs, poor safeties) to beat Dallas, the fans’ consensus is that Donovan McNabb is responsible. He did not play well against Dallas either time in January; that’s for sure. Is he the main problem on the team? Not by a long shot. That title goes to GM Andy Reid. (As opposed to coach Andy Reid.) So, let’s get rid of him. Really. Eagles fans are so ready to have Kevin Kolb under center, so deal McNabb. The team will be doing him a favor. Ever since the blowhard from Rhode Island – via Columbia and the beach block in Sea Isle – brought a bunch of sots to New York to boo McNabb, the town has been against him. So, set him free, play Kolb and bask in the glory of 8-8 and 7-9 records. But, hey, at least there will be a change. And that’s what Eagles fans crave. Meanwhile, let’s see what McNabb can do with a legitimate commitment to the run and a good defense. The guess here is that it will be plenty.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Now for a quick word on Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin. It’s time to stop lionizing these big-time coaches as builders of character and great molders of men. They are self-absorbed competition freaks who care about their careers first. (Second and third, too.) Any player who signs on to play for one of them had better be smart enough to understand that his best interests are nowhere near the top of these coaches’ lists of priorities. Kiffin’s decision to bolt Tennessee after one season reveals his true character. How long until he leaves Troy? If he tried to convince UT conscripts to follow him to SoCal, he should be penalized harshly by the NC2A. As for Carroll, he rebuffed one NFL entreaty after another before finally settling on Seattle. Hmmmm. That couldn’t have anything to do with the pending NC2A investigation into improper benefits received by former Trojan players, could it? Nahhh. Pete just wanted to get some good coffee and experience 275 days of rain every year. Right. One thing is certain: Kiffin certainly learned well during his time under Carroll. If you can root for ‘SC or the Seahawks, you have a strong stomach.

* * *

ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: Now for the picks. The “good” news is that El Hombre went 2-2 against the spread (thank you, Ravens and Cowboys) last week. The ugliness comes from the 1-3 money-line performance. It’s time to get healthy.
Arizona (plus 7) over New Orleans: The Old Man has it cooking like he did back in the Arena Football League days, and the Cards don’t seem to mind how many points the other team scores. The Saints stumbled home during the regular season but should outscore the Cards in a thriller. New Orleans 41, Arizona 38.
Baltimore (plus 6 ½) over Indianapolis. The Ravens looked great pillaging the crippled Pats last week, but Indy is another story. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco isn’t playing well enough to hold up his end on offense, and MVP Peyton Manning is rested and ready to work his magic. It will be close, but Indy breaks its streak of losing playoff openers after bye weeks. Indianapolis 20, Baltimore 16.
Dallas (plus 3) over Minnesota. I don’t care if Brett Favre is undefeated in the Big Mall this season, because Dallas is the NFC’s best team. After an afternoon of Cowboy pressure, Favre might just throw a punch at coach Brad Childress. Expect this year’s teary-eyed retirement press conference on Tuesday. Dallas 24, Minnesota 17.
San Diego (minus 7 ½) over New York. Okay, so El Hombre was wrong about the Jets last week, although it would have been nice if Cincinnati had shown just a little guts before lying down. But the Jets won’t make it two straight, not against the NFL’s hottest team. Phillip Rivers takes another step toward elite status with a convincing performance. San Diego 23, New York 10.


Friday, December 11, 2009

The Right Choice


When El Abuelo went to his first and only bullfight, he rooted for the bull, not only because the poor animal was clearly a double-digit underdog, but because it was the right thing to do. The rest of the stadium was pulling for the torero, hoping to see a precise kill. But not El Abuelo. He was impressed by el toro’s power and dignity. And of course, he was disappointed. The bull went down like the victim of a mob hit. It was bloody, ruthless and stunningly final.

It may be hard to believe, given his steel-encased 6-foot, 4-inch, 300-pound frame, but Ndamukong Suh is the bull in the Heisman Trophy race, both metaphorically and in a literal sense. Watching him terrorize those old boys from Texas – not to mention anyone else unlucky enough to have lined up across from him the past two seasons – was like seeing Mark Mangino tear though the Sizzler buffet. Oh, the humanity. In a year when no traditional (read: Offensive) candidate stood out in the Heisman sweepstakes, discerning voters had the opportunity to take a good look at the player who best fit the mandate found on every ballot: “We are truly grateful for your support in selecting the most outstanding college football player in the United States (El Hombre’s italics) for 2009.”

That would be Suh, no question about it. The other finalists had great years, to be sure, but “most outstanding” status belongs to those who truly distinguish themselves as performing well above the usual. That’s the trouble with awards these days. They often go to the person who has the best press agent or the loudest TV foof blithering about his greatness. At this point, we have heard so much about the majesty of Tim Tebow that it’s a wonder he hasn’t been beatified, with only a couple miracles – one of them could be a card trick – standing between him and sainthood. (Word is Sixers GM Billy King prays daily to Tebow to get another job, and should an NBA team hire him, that will definitely qualify as the QB’s first miracle.) What is conveniently omitted from the Tebow mythology is that he hasn’t had a dominant season. His numbers (2,413 yards passing, 18 TDs, five ints., 859 yards rushing, 13 TDs) are impressive but not dominant. Tebow didn’t overwhelm people they way he did in ’07, when he won the Heisman by accounting for a knee-buckling 55 touchdowns (23 rushing, 32 passing). He was great and led the Gators to a perfect regular season, but he wasn’t the most outstanding player out there.

Texas QB McCoy had a fine season, too, throwing for 3,512 yards and 27 TDs. But he threw 12 picks and didn’t show so well against the only two stout defenses he faced. In games versus Oklahoma and Nebraska, McCoy was a pedestrian 41-of-75 (54.7%), for 311 yards, a touchdown and four picks. About the only thing Heisman-like about that combined effort was that it appeared as if McCoy was throwing with a stiff arm.

It’s going to be tough for a lot of voters to eliminate those two from contention, since as quarterbacks, the hold the ball longer than anyone else and are clearly visible for the myopic, who conveniently forget there are 21 other players on the field with the QB. They’re the types who believe multi-tasking is eating a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

The running back crop is pretty impressive this season. In fact, two of them received my second and third-place votes. But as strong as Toby Gerhart and Mark Ingram were this season, neither was the type of player who made you call friends during games to talk in amazement about this play or that move. Gerhart was the closest to that of any ballcarrier, but it’s possible part of his amazement quotient was due to the fact that finding white tailbacks these days is practically impossible, unless you’re haunting the New England Small College Athletic Conference. EH compadre Raging Bill refers to the Caucasian tailback as the “passenger pigeon,” since that species is long extinct. While Gerhart does have some peers, he is a rarity, though he was practically unstoppable in Stanford’s final four games, when he averaged 185.5 yards/contest and scored 13 touchdowns. Pretty impressive, but let’s not get carried away.

Same goes for Ingram, who finished 12th in the nation in rushing. His 1,542 yards and 15 touchdowns are certainly strong performances, and he did come up big in the SEC title game against Florida, rushing for 113 yards and three scores, but let’s be serious here. We’re looking for the “most outstanding” player, not just someone who plays well. Consider some of the other running backs who have won the Heisman. Barry Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns. (Gulp!) Marcus Allen gained 2,342. Ricky Williams picked up 2,327 and scored 29 times. Mike Rozier had 2,148 yards and 29 scores. Bo Jackson: 1,786 yards and 6.4 yards/attempt. And they all did it in 11 games. Gerhart and Ingram are great college players, but they are not Heisman-worthy.

Suh is. His numbers bear it out, which is extremely rare for a defensive tackle. Most of the time, those guys are anonymous, content to – and praised for – earn their side of beef by commanding double and triple-teams and let someone else earn the glory. They are most often found beneath six hundred pounds or so of offensive linemen while linebackers and strong safeties accumulate the stats. Not Suh. Not only did he lead Nebraska in tackles for the second straight year, a remarkable feat, but he also piled up 23 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, three blocked kicks, 24 QB hurries, 10 batted-down passes and an interception. But the numbers are only part of it. Because of Suh’s dominance, the entire Husker defensive unit thrived. Take fellow D-tackle Jared Crick. He had a huge year, all right, with 15 tackles behind the line and 9.5 sacks, and is plenty talented. But as one coach who watched the Huskers devastate the potent Texas attack said, “Crick’s like the guy who rooms with the good-looking guy and gets a bunch of girls because of the roommate.” That may be a little bit of an overstatement, but without Suh’s attracting so much attention, there’s no way Crick produces what he did. And there’s no way Nebraska comes within a second of the Big 12 title. You want outstanding? You want Suh.

This year, the bull wins.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: El Hombre certainly doesn’t condone any kind of anti-Semitic behavior, like the taunting that took place during the Harvard-Dartmouth squash match last week, but you have to admit that it’s rather amusing that when we discuss bad behavior at big schools, it’s usually surrounding football or basketball. In the Ivies, it’s squash. Somebody needs to teach Biff and Chip some manners…If it’s December, then the Cowboys are choking. That’s a darn shame…The early rollout of the stupid Nike LeBron and Kobe puppet ad campaign is bad news for people who prefer to remain sane. This means seven more months of that nonsense. Make it stop, please!...Is there anything more ridiculous than espn’s touting that its sportscenter broadcasts are coming to us from Los Angeles? Who cares if they’re spewing their nauseating brew of synergized highlights, self-promotion and canned crowd noise from a ger in Ulan Bator, just as long as we find out (eventually) the score of the game? Just another reason the network is about as far away from its groundbreaking roots as Michael Jackson was from his Jackson 5 days.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The decision to extend Andy Reid’s
contract hasn’t been too well received among Eagles fans, and that’s not hard to believe, given the brainwashing that has been done about how the city of Philadelphia “deserves” a parade (pronounced locally as “prade”) and how a Super Bowl is the only way to measure success. Of course, many of these people think it’s a good idea to replace Donovan McNabb with Kevin Kolb. Yes, Reid is a borderline boob when it comes to clock management. He also has some serious splotches on his resume, like the ’02 NFC title game loss to Tampa Bay, and his decision not to go with the no-huddle attack during the last seven minutes of the Super Bowl loss to New England. But his successes far outweigh those failures. He’s one of only four (four!) coaches ever to win 100 games in a decade with the same team. He has brought the Eagles to the playoffs seven of the 10 seasons he has coached the Eagles and has won a post-season game every year. His teams almost always get better as the season goes on, and he has even improved as a GM, as his recent moves to upgrade the offense have shown. Reid is imperfect, and he clearly doesn’t like the media (so what?), but he has done an admirable job so far. Now, if he doesn’t get over the hump by the time this deal is done, it’s time to move on. But Reid deserved the extension, and those who want to see him go should be very wary of what might come next.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Let’s get something straight: Anybody who thinks Tim Donaghy didn’t try to influence the outcomes of the games he was betting has never gambled on sports. If you had money on a game, and someone said you could send somebody to the bench with foul trouble, you would do it immediately. In fact, if somebody handed you a gun with a single bullet in it and said you could use it at any point in the game, don’t think for a minute you wouldn’t consider kneecapping a player to guarantee a cover. We didn’t believe Pete Rose, and we shouldn’t believe Donaghy. He deserves a chance to rebuild his life, but we don’t have to buy his story. It just doesn’t add up.

* * *

ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: It is a testament to the corporate world’s “conscience” that sponsors are not jumping off the Tiger Woods train in bunches. Nike, Accenture and the rest of the logos are sticking by their man for one reason: At some point, this will all burn out, and Woods will return to the links to (one would assume) keep dominating the rest of the field. When that happens, and he issues his mandatory public mea culpa – get ready for a ratings bonanza, Oprah – and undergoes some therapy and/or rehab (that Ambien can be pretty addictive), you can bet the sponsors will be happy to have remained with a man who will have become a sympathetic figure. If Woods plays it right, he will be able to able to regain his former prominent perch, provided he can avoid ordering off the menu at Perkins House of Pancakes.


Friday, November 6, 2009

What A Season It Was


There is always a temptation to focus on the outcome of a long journey, rather than the process of reaching the destination. If you drive for hours to watch a game, reveling in the company and discussion along the way, little of that is remembered if the contest’s outcome is dissatisfying. Over the river and through the woods is no fun – in retrospect – if the turkey is overcooked, and the eggnog is sour. No matter how much enjoyment can be found along the way, if the end doesn’t measure up, the whole production suffers.

That’s particularly true in sports. No matter how much enjoyment a team provides throughout a long, arduous season, if the odyssey doesn’t end in a championship, fans find it hard to deem the campaign a success. Think Patriots supporters remember the warm glow of 18-0, or the misery of their Super Bowl loss? Ask the folks from Oklahoma whether they think about last year’s 13-0 start or suffer nightmares of the “national title game” loss to Florida. It’s almost universal.

Winning it all is important, but sports can’t be a zero-sum game, unless you are a Pirates fan, in which case every season
is a disaster. There is one champion per sport per year. If you apply the win-it-all-or-bust theory to a 30-team league, there will be 29 sets of miserable people scattered throughout the country, with their dreams crushed week-by-week as the schedule unfolds. Or, in the case of the Browns, the minute training camp begins. For those fans fortunate enough to enjoy regular-season success, followed by playoff intensity, a win-or-bust mentality will erase any happiness created by months of relative prosperity should the trophy end up somewhere else.

It shouldn’t be that way, especially when it comes to the Phillies’ World Series loss to the Yanks. It’s right to be sad and
even a little bit angry (okay, when it comes to Brad Lidge’s meltdown in game four, mad as hell; more on that later) about the defeat, but to judge the season anything less than terrific is ridiculous. Are Philadelphia fans’ memories so short that they cannot remember the euphoria that took hold of the city after the NLCS triumph over the milquetoast Dodgers? Is it that hard to recall the sense of pride that prevailed when Cliff Lee mastered the Yankees in the first game of the World Series, in the Bronx? It remains remarkable that people who accept – and often cultivate – mediocrity in their own lives, refuse to appreciate excellence in their sports teams, even if the ultimate outcome isn’t perfectly palatable. It would have been historic and remarkable had the Phillies won a second straight Series, but they ran into a better team and couldn’t scale the final peak. For that we’re supposed to deem the season anything less than great? Come on.

Thursday night, El Hombre had a wide-ranging conversation with compadre and financial whiz Roger Ramjet. During the discourse about the Phillies and their off-season mandates, RR said something that should be remembered as fans try to put the 2009 season into perspective. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without a game to watch,” he said. There it was, crystallized in its purest form. From April until early November, the Phillies had given the city seven months of nightly enjoyment and excitement. As other Majoke League Baseball teams were rendered irrelevant one-by-one (the Nationals became meaningless in early May), the Phillies marched along, through the regular season and its highs and lows, through the playoffs and their high drama and onto baseball’s biggest stage. No matter how heartbreaking the outcome, fans cannot forget the remarkable ride. They can’t do anything but adore their heroes, even if the New York triumph ceases all ridiculous talk about “dynasties” and “greatest teams ever.” For the record, the Celtics’ 11 titles in 13 years from 1957-69 constitute a dynasty. The Yankees’ seven World Series championships from 1936-47 were dynastic. The Canadiens’ nine Stanley Cup wins from 1956-69 equaled a dynasty. The 806-year (1027-221 B.C.) Zhou rule in China, now that was a dynasty.

Anyway, the 2009 Phillies season goes into the books as giant W, despite the final shortfall. Let’s face it; as much as we wanted the Phils to knock off New York, it was rather hard to compete with the all-star laden lineup the Yanks put forth, especially with some of the small showings by previous Philadelphia stalwarts (see Hamels, Cole; Lidge, Brad; Howard, Ryan). Watching the Yankees win the World Series is like watching a rich guy buy his way out of legal trouble. There’s something antiseptic about seeing Standard Oil celebrating a stacked deck. Worse is hearing network apologists saluting the “great group of guys” and “tremendous camaraderie” the Yankees showed, when the real reason for the title was a team payroll obscene enough to generate protests from the Moral Majority.

While the Yankees plot their next move and continue to print money, the Phillies must address some questions during the off-season. In no particular order, they must find a new backup catcher (so long Paul “Master Builder” Bako), a utility infielder who doesn’t look like a Civil War re-enactor and play like a Daughter of the American Revolution, a pinch-hitter who can do more than hit one homer every Halley’s Comet sighting and a reliable middle reliever (Chad Durbin) who doesn’t find his way onto the field courtesy of some compromising photographs of the team manager and Lainie Kazan.

More important are the futures of Cole “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” Hamels and Brad Lidge, who needs to 86 the Amish beard and find his mojo. Forget about Hamels’ comments after game three of the Series. He needs to focus on developing an effective third pitch, or he’ll never be an ace again. And Lidge needs to understand that pitchers with ERAs hovering near 8.00 don’t get to pitch for contenders. That’s why the Orioles are still in business.

Answers (we hope) to all of these questions will emerge in the coming weeks and months. For now, fans should relish the memories of a tremendous season, despite the disappointing dénouement. Things may not have ended perfectly for the Phillies, but they provided the city with one helluva ride. Think about that for a while, and you might just get something more important than a championship.


* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: People who railed about the ridiculous length of the World Series games focused on mound conversations, batters’ stepping out and various other time-wasting tactics. The real culprits were the four-minute commercial marathons that Fox unfurled between each half-inning. Add those up, and you have enough time to play five innings…U.S. skier Bode Miller has announced he will return to the slopes and take part in a “full schedule.” Of course, that means something different for him than most people in his sport. Included on the itinerary are beer pong, nightclubbing, late-night hot tub liaisons in Gstaad and maybe even some skiing…How about that Andre Agassi autobiography? There’s some strong stuff in there. Love the part about the wig. And revealing that he wore lifts to marry Brooke Shields is priceless. Could do without the information about playing while not wearing underwear, though. Now, if Gabriela Sabatini wants to write a tell-all and reveal that information, she should have at it. Now…Fox is bringing its NFL pre-game show to Afghanistan to support the troops and perhaps use Terry Bradshaw as a weapon against the enemy, but the biggest reason for the road show is that Minnesota has a bye this week, so there will be time to fill in lieu of the usual weekly posterior-polishing of Brett Favre. Undaunted by the schedule gap, espn is planning a 15-minute segment detailing Favre’s leisure-week activities, including in-depth interviews with his couch and lawnmower.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Now that the main sports season in Philadelphia has concluded, the Eagles have a chance to take the stage and capture the city’s fans – at least until pitchers and catchers report next February. A win over Dallas Sunday night would go a long way toward accomplishing that. If there is one thing that has characterized the Birds this year it has been their inconsistency. They certainly looked great trampling the overrated Giants last week, but the Cowboys are hot, and another desultory effort (Raiders, Redskins) will put the Eagles in a tough spot in the NFC East. Injuries have been a concern this year for Andy Reid’s team. So has continuity. The good news for Sunday night? Reid vs. Dallas coach Wade Phillips is a mismatch. And though it isn’t January yet, you can usually count on Tony Romo to choke it up in big games. Win this one, and the Birds’ bandwagon will be filled. Lose it, and the spring training countdown might get cranked up a couple months early.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is smart, he has begun the process of investigating the allegations that Raiders coach Tom Cable physically abused his former wife and girlfriend. And should Goodell find compelling evidence that Cable did indeed hit them, he should be fired. Goodell has been hard on players who have broken the law and acted inappropriately, and he cannot back down on Cable, if the coach indeed struck the women. There is no room for that kind of behavior in society, and there should be no tolerance for it in the NFL. We heard all about the need to preserve the league’s image when Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Tank Johnson and Pac-man Jones were being disciplined, and rightly so. The league’s image is at stake in this situation, also. If Cable did it, he must go. That’s all there is to it. Goodell needs to find out what has happened and act quickly, or his credibility as a law-and-order commissioner will take a hit, and the NFL will look like an organization that condones physical abuse of women.


Friday, October 30, 2009

King Cole's Crossroads


Last year this time, Cole Hamels could have walked into the office of Mayor Michael Nutter and demanded to be made dictator of Philadelphia, and Nutter would have had to comply. Hamels could have insisted city residents wear Cowboys jerseys, sing “Meet the Mets” as the recessional hymn at any church service in the area and replace the statue of William Penn atop City Hall with a bust of Terrell Owens, and no one would have argued. Such is the power of a World Series MVP.

What a difference a year makes.

Hamels may be the reigning World Series MVP, but his star has faded considerably in the eyes of Phillies fans, who approach his start in Game Three of the series against Big Brother with more than a mild sense of trepidation. In the interval between his outstanding performance last October against the Mephistopheles Rays and Saturday night at 7:57, Hamels has resembled only sporadically the dominant ace who propelled a team to its first world championship in 28 years. In fact, Hamels goes to the mound as the fourth or fifth-best starter, in many minds, on the Phillies, given his travails this season, which have included a lack of control, the inability to finish off good hitters, a drop in velocity, a propensity for reacting to small bursts of misfortune by throwing tantrums and losing focus and generally resembling a struggling young pitcher, rather than an established ace.

Instead of using last year’s prosperity to vault him among the game’s elite pitchers, Hamels has instead regressed. Some believe he is injured, and if that is the case, he deserves a huge benefit of the doubt for putting up more than 205 innings in a compromised state. But Hamels and the Phillies insist he is healthy, and given his history, that’s easy to believe, because Hamels has never been known for his high threshold of pain. No, this is likely something different – and more troubling. Hamels’ season has been characterized by bursts of strong pitching, interspersed with nightmarish sequences in which the runs pile up, sometimes both occurring in the same game. Worse, Hamels often reacts to these worrisome stretches by melting, rather than rallying. His most noteworthy bit of distemper came during the NLCS, when he stalked about the mound area after Chase Utley threw a ball past Ryan Howard that would have completed a double play. Hamels then punctuated the outburst by throwing his mitt in the dugout after the inning was completed.

Beyond the obvious inability to control his emotions, Hamels’ eruption demonstrates something more disturbing. Talented, confident athletes usually respond to misfortune by hunkering down and taking control. By acting out, Hamels betrayed a lack of self-assurance, as if he were acknowledging that he is working on a thin margin and anything unexpected could derail whatever progress he had accumulated. He wasn’t just petulant; he was insecure. That self-doubt is what has to concern Phillies fans more than anything else, and one must believe it’s why skipper Charlie Manuel chose to pitch Hamels against Microsoft at home, rather than in The House That Avarice Built. Hamels has thrown better in front of the Philadelphia crowd than he has on the road this season, and Manuel is doing everything he can to create an atmosphere conducive to a strong start.

It’s not like he hasn’t had some success this year. In five starts from Aug. 26 to Sept. 17, Hamels went 3-1 with a 1.45 ERA, struck out 38 and walked just seven. It was right out of the October, 2008 catalog, when Hamels went 4-0 in five starts, with an ERA of 1.80, 35 Ks and nine walks. And it reinforced that Hamels is likely not hurt. More than anything, he is lacking a guaranteed out pitch, and that is allowing hitters to wait him out on his strong, but not nightmarish, fastball.

Compounding the concern about Saturday’s game is Hamels’ mound opponent, Andrew EuHGHene Pettitte, who has pitched in more post-season games than any other hurler and who loves the big stage more than Elton John and Chad Ocholoco combined. You know Pettitte won’t care if the entire Citizens Bank Park crowd dresses up like giant syringes or Roger Clemens or giant syringes sticking out of Clemens’ calloused hindquarters. He will throw his six strong innings and move on.

Hamels, on the other hand, must match Pettitte or risk putting the Phillies in a hole. He certainly has the track record, but his post-season performance this season (1-1, 6.97 ERA) is hardly reason to believe he’ll rise to the occasion. Should Hamels unfurl a gem, he will regain his status as post-season stud, erase much of the stench of his previous work and perhaps earn the right to start Game Seven in the Bronx, should things advance that far. Struggle, or worse, fall apart, and he’ll enter the ’10 season required to answer questions about which was more indicative of his future: 2008’s dominance, or 2009’s uncertainty. In effect, his pitching Saturday night will re-establish him as the King of Philadelphia or just another pitcher with one shiny item on an otherwise mundane resume. No pressure, Cole. None at all.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Cleveland Browns fans have planned a “late arrival” protest for their team’s Nov. 16 Monday night game with the Ravens. They’re hoping a TV shot of a nearly-empty stadium will put pressure on ownership to fix some problems. Organizers can count on one group to support the cause: the players. They haven’t shown up all year…In his new autobiography, Andre Agassi details his dislike of tennis, his crystal meth use, his agonizing hair loss and his marriages to Brooke Shields and Steffi Graf. In a related story, Pete Sampras is planning a book that will discuss life without a personality…The NC2A’s decision to suspend Oklahoma State wideout Dez Bryant for a year was another example of the organization’s continued war against student-athletes. Yes, Bryant lied about his meeting with Deion Sanders, but the NC2A’s discipline proved why he did it. Bryant was afraid he’d get smacked down for telling the truth. While schools spend money like crazy and prostitute themselves to corporations for a buck, the NC2A looks away. Meanwhile, a college kid works out with a former pro, and he is banished. Disgusting…Great news for all of you who believed syrup of ipecac was a little too powerful as a vomit-inducing agent. Fox is putting a camera on Cowboy Quarterback for Sunday’s entire Packers-Vikings game. Watching just a few minutes of that should inspire nausea sufficient to expel any toxin or poison that has invaded a person’s body.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Eagles’ uninspiring 27-17 win over the lousy Redskins last Monday showed just how far the team has to go before it can be considered anything more than a wild-card contender. The Birds’ offense is a mess, especially if Brian Westbrook’s concussion keeps him out of this week’s game (it should), not that coach Andy Reid uses him all that much. Injuries along the offensive front have been a problem, and that much is out of Reid’s control. But the play-calling, the incessant use of the “Wildcat” formation to no productive end and an unwillingness to commit to the run have conspired to strip the offense of a personality. Right now, it seems as if Reid is trying to make every play a big play, rather than creating a rhythm that allows for consistent movement and production. Some of the blame has to be directed at QB Donovan McNabb, whose completion percentage (57.3%) would be the second-lowest of his career, not counting his rookie season. But for the most part, the blame lies with Reid, who looks like someone trying to show everybody how smart he is, rather than putting together a solid gameplan every week.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: You have to love the NFL. No matter how much evidence gets thrown in its face about the absolutely devastating effects of pro football’s collisions on players down the road, they continue to stonewall. The most recent example of the denial came Wednesday, when commissioner Roger Goodell testified before a House Judiciary Committee and refused to acknowledge that repeated blows to the head cause long-term damage and contribute to emotional instability. Of course, Goodell said that more research was needed and that the league was committed to that. Good for you, Rog! He even had players’ union chief DeMaurice Smith along for the ride. Smith actually echoed Goodell’s nonsense, even though he represents the players whose brains are being damaged. If you have the time, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent article on the topic in last week’s New Yorker. In it, Gladwell sees the actual brain damage that multiple high-speed collisions spawn and checks out a University of North Carolina program that registers the g-force severity and frequency of hits sustained by players during practices. It’s eye-opening stuff and enough to make you understand how the NFL is in no way interested in rectifying the situation, particularly if it takes away from the violence. How many more suicides and sad, demented former players will it take to change the stance? Unfortunately, it looks like too many.

* * *

ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: Great job by Majoke League Baseball commissioner Bud Sellout on Mark McGwire’s return to the game. Sellout offered an enthusiastic endorsement of the former slugger and suspected steroid cheat’s joining the Cardinals as a hitting instructor. Anybody who saw McGwire’s pathetic performance in front of Congress or took note of his invisibility knows the guy has something to hide. By letting him come back to baseball with no admission of guilt, pledge to help educate youth or any remorse whatsoever amounts to efforts to sanitize his image in pursuit of Hall of Fame votes. Sellout has tried to convince people (and anyone who believes him is a complete sap) that he cared about erasing steroids from the baseball landscape, but this is another example of his desire to evade the topic. McGwire should not be coaching, not without addressing a long list of mandates regarding his past. Don’t expect Sellout to enforce that. He’s too busy piling up the salary increases.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Not One Hall of a Pitcher


We should be happy about one thing regarding Bloody Sock Schilling’s recent retirement announcement: There was no teary press conference. Oh, you can bet he will break down at some point during the “exclusive” three-minute, in-depth “conversation” he has with a sympathetic slo-pitch tosser some time in the next month, but for now we can be thankful that Schilling did not produce a maudlin event, during which he tells us, “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry.”

Since he didn’t pitch last season, Schilling is now four years away from Hall of Fame eligibility. That means we have less time than usual to argue about his credentials. And, make no mistake; it’s going to be one helluva debate. Few players in recent baseball history are as polarizing as Schilling. He may not be in the class of BALCO Bonds, who divided fans into two camps: Realists and those who believe the Yankees’ 2010 pitching rotation will be Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy, Sasquatch and Whitey Ford, but Schilling was pretty divisive.

The trouble began during the Phillies’ improbable 1993 drive to the NL pennant. Schilling, who had shown glimpses of being something special the previous season by going 14-11 with a 2.35 ERA blossomed into a stalwart, winning 16 games and throwing a gem in the World Series. Fans loved him, but his teammates didn’t quite embrace his look-at-me qualities, such as covering his head with a towel in the dugout whenever volatile closer Wild Thing Williams took the mound, and calling into sports radio stations at all hours to advance his personal agenda. By the time he worked his way out of town by meddling in front-office affairs and demanding (rightfully so) a better supporting cast, Schilling wasn’t exactly the most popular player in the organization. He behaved himself better in Arizona, teaming with Randy Johnson to help the Serpents to the 2001 World Series title, but Schilling always preferred to air his concerns publicly, rather than handle them behind the scenes. That led to continued conflict with teammates, who favored man-to-man methods, rather than man-to-microphone.

When Schilling signed with the Red Sawx, he earned plaudits for announcing his arrival on, a fan web site. It was a savvy move to gain support and popularity but again another Schilling tactic to keep himself in the spotlight. A mere press conference wasn’t enough. He had to commune with the people. Only, he wasn’t really communing, rather giving the illusion of hanging with them by posting on the site. Shrewd.

Then came the Bloody Sock. Whether that indeed was blood on the sock, or it was ketchup, Mercurochrome or Sloe Gin, the legend of the night has been overblown. That’s not necessarily Schilling’s fault, although he could have changed the sock once the bleeding had been stanched. But it shouldn’t have any bearing whatsoever on whether he gets into the Hall of Fame. Thousands of baseball players work through injuries; the big difference is they don’t celebrate it for the TV cameras. Chase Utley played just about the entire 2008 season with a torn labrum in his hip, but every time he was asked about his condition, he downplayed it. Perhaps Utley should have left the syringes used to give him painkilling injections lying around the clubhouse. Then again, given the climate in baseball these days, that wouldn’t have been such a good idea, since Utley didn’t want people to start calling him “Chuice.” But you get the idea. Utley could have played up his injury but didn’t.

Enough about Schilling the man, except to say that his work fighting ALS does deserve major kudos. A lot of professional athletes set up “foundations” and say they do charity work, when all they do is appear at a few events arranged by their minions. Schilling was – and is – committed to the fight and has built up some political capital because of it.

So, what about the Hall? This is a tricky one, because there are plenty of arguments on both sides. His 3,116 strikeouts are a compelling opening gambit, since the 3,000 number is something of a magic mark. He won 20 games three times, hardly overwhelming but more than Greg Maddux and most other pitchers with whom he is compared. Schilling was an animal during the 2001, ’04 and ’07 post-seasons, and his 11-2 career record in the playoffs and Series is impressive, indeed. Schilling had a 4.38 strikeouts:walks ratio, the best ever, and he had two seasons with double-digit complete games, quite an accomplishment in today’s seven-innings-or-bust climate. Those who support Schilling say he was the “dominant pitcher of his age,” which serves as the criteria for many arguments for the Hall. That’s the main case for Sandy Koufax’s truncated career, although let’s be honest, Schilling (and really nobody else) was not Sandy Koufax.

The anti-Schilling side has some pretty heavy artillery, too. His 216 wins are hardly overwhelming. They are three fewer than Kenny Rogers’ total, and he isn’t going to Cooperstown. Schilling pitched for 20 years, and though he battled injuries, he had only nine seasons in which he posted double-digit victory totals and an above .500 winning percentage. He never strung together more than three years of prosperity and had seven sub-.500 seasons, an 8-8 campaign and a 9-8 year. That doesn’t scream long-term greatness. And to those who look at his 3.45 ERA as lower than the average of the age, consider that Schilling pitched the majority of his career in the National League, which didn’t have a DH. Schilling never won a Cy Young Award, although he did finish second three times. While he does get points for his endurance, his 83 career complete games fall well short of Jack Morris’ 175.

Speaking of Morris, if Schilling goes into the Hall, so should Morris. Morris won 254 career games, had three 20-game seasons and 2,478 strikeouts. And what about Bert Blyleven, who won 287 games, struck out 3,701 and had a career 3.31 ERA? Even Jim Kaat, who won 283 career games, had a trio of 20-win seasons, a 3.45 ERA and 2,461 Ks can make a case if Schilling gets in.

When Sports Illustrated football writer Peter King discusses the credentials of those who are being considered for inclusion in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, for which he casts one of the few votes, he sometimes refers to players who belong in the “Hall of Very Good.” That seems to be Schilling. If we divorce ourselves from the bloody-sock drama and accept his post-season success as a strong argument, rather than an absolute requirement, for Hall inclusion, we see a pitcher who had several strong seasons during a 20-year career but not the kind of complete dominance during any prolonged stretch or longevity to close the deal.

Schilling will get plenty of support, and he already has his advance team working hard on his behalf. He’ll make some compelling arguments himself, you can count on that. But he’s not a Hall of Fame pitcher. And if he gets in, then voters had better be committed to enshrining a bunch of similarly very good hurlers, because they will have established a new standard.

And that will be worthy of some tears.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: The West Michigan Whitecaps, a Class A minor-league baseball team, will offer fans a 4,800-calorie, four-pound hamburger this season. What’s the big deal about that? The Celtics have been serving up a 205-pound hot dog for the past three weeks: Stephon Marbury…Let’s hear it for the NFL’s new rule that prohibits players on the ground from hitting quarterbacks. What’s next, flag football? It’s unfortunate that Tom Brady tore a knee ligament last year in the opener when he was hit by a scrambling Kansas City lineman, but if the league protects quarterbacks any more, they’ll be able to sit in the pocket and get pedicures without worrying about getting hit…New Browns (and former Jets) coach Eric Mangini has issued an open invitation to Cowboy Quarterback to visit Cleveland’s training camp. Isn’t that nice? Maybe he can teach Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson to retire a couple times and hold a franchise hostage. Or, he can show them how to fade down the stretch of a season… Congratulations to Japan for winning the World Baseball Classic. Anybody who takes that as a sign that U.S. baseball is in trouble needs to add some HGH to their common-sense gland. Despite the best efforts of Majoke League Baseball and its propaganda partners, nobody cares. Okay, nobody in America cares. They went crazy in Tokyo – and then went back to their 90-hour work weeks…Catholics in southeast Michigan are furious with the Tigers for scheduling their home opener this season at 1:05 on Good Friday afternoon, right in the middle of the time Catholics believe Christ was on the cross. Talk about bad karma. Well, guess you can kiss those Central Division title hopes good-bye, Detroit. Here’s an idea: Next year sponsor a religious intolerance night and get the Lutherans, Methodists, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Shintoists mad at you, too. Brilliant.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Andy Reid held a sit-down with local newspaper writers yesterday to give his spin on the Eagles’ off-season moves and to look ahead. As usual, it was enlightening and was sprinkled with the usual sampling of “I don’t want to get into that” “We’re always looking to improve our team” and “I’ll always look at something if there is a great player out there.” Truly enlightening. It is Reid’s prerogative to obfuscate and parry as much as he wants with the media. But must we be subjected to these semi-annual wastes of space that do little more than send the media diving into the morass of his answers with the same enthusiasm Kremlinologists used to reserve for analysis of who was in favor based on where they were standing on Lenin’s Tomb during the annual May Day festivities? Enough, already. Let Reid talk from the “podium” during the season and leave him alone the rest of the year. We’ll all be better for it.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The folks at NC2A HQ in Indianapolis must be thrilled with the name-brand Sweet 16 that has emerged from the original tourney pairings. All of the top three seeds survived, and no hyphenated schools, satellite campuses or colleges named for Colonial-era heroes can be found. Of course, the first two rounds were far more bland than usual, but safe is good when you’re investing so much money, especially in this economy. So, enjoy the games and keep the following in mind: Purdue over Connecticut; Villanova over Dook and Syracuse over Oklahoma. Enjoy.

* * *

ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: This is the 250th “El Hombre,” and as the world embarks on the semiquincentennial celebrations of the column’s bicenquinquagenary, know that this has been a delightful ride that ain’t ending soon. So, to those who can’t stand the sarcasm and Animal House references – or for those demented minds who crave more – keep on reading. The best is yet to come.


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.