Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mike Leach firing –- there is nothing good in this story; Remember the Syracuse-Connecticut game?

The only thing I know for sure about this stranger-than-fiction Mike Leach story is that everyone is going to have a strong opinion about it.

Let’s take the Texas Tech fans out of the equation because their reaction is going to be pretty much the same as any group of fans who have just lost a coach who was a consistent winner: this is a travesty. They really don’t care what Leach did or didn’t do to Adam James; they don’t care what he did or did not say to his bosses at Texas Tech. All they know or care about is that he took a school in west Texas to 10 straight bowl games and a No. 3 ranking a year ago in November and they’re mad as hell that he’s gone.

That’s the way fans are. As I said last week during the Rutgers brouhaha, fans don’t care about graduation rates (Leach’s was very good) or whether someone is a good guy, an okay guy or a bad guy, they care about wins. So, most Texas Tech fans are going to take the approach that Adam James was a spoiled, under-achieving whiner whose father Craig was a pain-in-the-butt. Some will see this as part of the softening of athletes and of our society in general. Kid complains about being stuck in a room for a couple of hours. What a wimp! We’re talking a coach who was 84-43; he’s just trying to make a man of him.

Okay, now let’s move on to those who might be a tad more objective. Even there you’re going to see and hear sharp disagreements. My pal Sally Jenkins, whose dad is a proud graduate of TCU and a lover of all things college football, took the approach in this morning’s Washington Post that what Leach did wasn’t so bad, that there’s no medical evidence that James’s concussion was made worse in any way by the two days he spent in some form of solitary. (Even Leach’s lawyer hasn’t argued that point, he’s just argued about the size and comfort of the rooms James was placed in).

Sally points out—correctly—that Leach has always been a maverick on and off the field. He once made a player sit on the 50-yard line and study in the cold because he hadn’t been going to class. He’s taken Texas Tech’s graduation rate from nowhere to almost 80 percent. He has a law degree and he has interests outside of football. He’s bright and engaging. She accused those saying there’s no excuse for what Leach did of being politically correct.

The other side, taken already by a number of columnists, is that there is NO excuse for what Leach did to James. Doctors said he had a concussion and whether it was “mild,” or not where did Leach get his medical degree? Whether the rooms involved were small and dark or large and well-lit, making him stand by himself with a guard outside the door is pretty damn close to cruelty and, if God Forbid, something had happened to James, Leach and Texas Tech would have faced the mother of all law suits.

Not only should he have been fired, he should never coach again.

Look, I don’t know Craig James except to say hello. I don’t know Mike Leach at all, except what I’ve read and heard about him. The one thing I will say is that his considerable abilities as a coach aren’t at issue here.

I’m not a doctor anymore than Leach is a doctor but I do know this: Leach clearly was upset with Adam James and wanted to make some kind of example of him the same way he made an example of the kid who hadn’t been going to class. But he was in a very dangerous area, especially nowadays with all the information that has been coming out recently about the dangers of head injuries of any kind. If Leach felt that James had been out of line in the past, there were lots of ways to discipline him that didn’t involve any kind of medical risk.

He can’t make the argument that James was faking a concussion—and hasn’t. If you believe the version of the story told by LEACH’s lawyer, he’s on shaky ground. The idea that Leach liked to keep injured players near the team when it was practicing is just fine. Lots of coaches will have injured players ride a stationery bike by the practice field when they are able to do so while hurt or go through drills with their teammates that won’t exacerbate an injury.

But seriously, has anyone ever heard of sticking a kid with ANY injury, much less a concussion, alone in a room for a couple of hours? Different is one thing, borderline cruelty and perhaps endangering someone is another thing. A firing offense all by itself: perhaps not, but clearly there was an undercurrent of tension between Leach and the school before all of this began.

Here’s what doesn’t matter in this story: whether or not Craig James was an annoying stage-father or a “helicopter father,” as one Leach defender put it. There are plenty of those and coaches learn to deal with them. The same is true about Adam James attitude or work ethic. As for the whole, “softening of America,” argument, there are lots of way to toughen football players without going over the line that Leach appeared to cross.

There’s going to be a lot of he-said/he-said as this mess sorts itself out. The sad thing is there aren’t going to be any winners, regardless of whether Leach is able to force the school to pay him the $1.6 million buyout he says he’s due or if the school is able to convince a judge he was fired for legitimate cause.

Leach has lost his job and if he does get another job (which I suspect he will) he will be under intense scrutiny from day one and it won’t just be about wins and losses. Texas Tech has lost its most successful coach, a coach who brought the school the national attention it craves in the sport it cares about most. There will also be plenty of people who will point out the irony of the school suddenly being so concerned about the welfare of its players when it willingly hired Bob Knight in 2001 after he had been fired at Indiana for repeated offenses involving abuse of players—and, in the final instance for grabbing a non-player by the arm when he had the temerity to call him, “Knight.”

And Adam James is going to be a pariah in Lubbock. Even if some or most of his teammates back him, he’s going to be seen by Texas Tech fans and people on campus as the guy who got their big-time coach fired. If he ever plays another game in a Texas Tech uniform he will probably be booed on his home field. His brother also attends Texas Tech. My guess is that both will have to transfer.

There’s just nothing good in this story. Whether the Texas Tech administration used this as an excuse to get rid of a coach they felt had grown too big for his britches, the fact is Leach gave them that excuse. James might be a whiner or he might be a victim or—more likely—he might be both.

Personally, I like feel-good stories, especially in college athletics. I’m excited about watching Navy and Air Force play their bowl games today. I loved the ending of the Boise Bowl yesterday (does anyone know what Roady’s is or this sponsor for The Alamo Bowl?) with Idaho going for two and beating Bowling Green, 43-42 in a truly classic game to watch even if both teams were 7-5. I still love watching Joe Paterno stalking the sidelines and I’ll always watch The Rose Bowl no matter how mediocre The Big Ten and Pac-10 might be in a given year. It is THE ROSE BOWL—end of discussion.

I don’t know Mike Leach or Adam James and I’ve never set foot on the campus at Texas Tech. But this entire story just makes me feel sad.


Among the many really good suggestions yesterday about best sports moment of the decade was someone who brought up the Syracuse-Connecticut six overtime game in The Big East Tournament this past March. I was in Atlanta that night at the ACC Tournament and watched the last 40 minutes—10 minutes of regulation, 30 minutes of overtime—in the media hospitality room at the hotel. By the time the game ended there were probably about 150 people in the room, all riveted by what they were seeing.

At the final buzzer, everyone in the room CLAPPED, just clapped for what they had just witnessed. Bob Ryan, who was watching in the lobby bar, told me the exact same thing happened there. That was one of those cool moments in sports—it didn’t matter if you were a Syracuse fan, a U-Conn or couldn’t care less about either team. You knew you had seen something special. I love that kind of stuff.

Happy New Year everyone.

This week's Washington Post column:

Here is my column this week for The Washington Post -----

It was certainly a relief, wasn't it, to learn that the Washington Redskins have complied with the NFL's Rooney Rule by interviewing secondary coach Jerry Gray for the job currently filled by his boss, head coach Jim Zorn.

John Wooten, the president of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which is charged with monitoring whether teams comply with the rule requiring that minority candidates be interviewed when an NFL head coaching job is open said his group is satisfied that the Redskins are seriously considering Gray to be the Redskins next head coach.

Really? Did Wooten also try to stay awake on Christmas Eve so he could meet Santa when he came down the chimney?

Gray has as much chance of being the next Redskins coach as Mike Krzyzewski has of being voted Man of the Decade on the campus at the University of Maryland.

Click here to read the rest of the column: Redskins make a mockery of Rooney Rule 

(Note: When you click the link to read the full article, it may ask for your log in information. We are attempting to fix this glitch for those that haven't completed the free registration at the site)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

DC Sports Bog lists decade's top ten events in DC sports – my #1 was Mason’s run; What is most thrilling moment in all of sports over the past decade?

My friend Dan Steinberg, who has done a remarkable job the past few years making his “DC Sports Bog,” a must read for a lot of us, has been doing (like so many others) various “End of the Decade,” rankings this week.

This morning’s list was the top ten events in DC sports. He ranked Maryland’s 2002 national championship No. 1 and George Mason’s run to the Final Four in 2006 second.

With all due respect to Maryland and to Dan—wrong.

The rebuilding job Gary Williams did at Maryland was remarkable. I’ve said that and written that dozens of times, especially when the sharks—led by his athletic director—start to circle every time the Terrapins slide at all. I often re-tell the story about the Maryland alum who came up to me at a game midway through the 2001 season and said, ‘the time has come for Gary to go. The Sweet Sixteen is as far as he can take us. We need to get Mike Brey in here and start over.’

I kid that guy often about what happened next. Brey, by the way, who has done an excellent job at Notre Dame, still hasn’t been past the Sweet Sixteen.

Maryland’s national championship was a wonderful story of redemption, a program rebuilt in the aftermath of Len Bias’s death and the probation brought about by Chancellor John Slaughter’s idiotic decision to hire Bob Wade as the basketball coach. But in the end it was the kind of thing that happens in athletics all the time: a fallen program brings in the right coach, the coach catches a break or two in recruiting—Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter both being largely overlooked—and it all falls into place.

Dean Smith took over a program that was on probation at North Carolina in 1962. Mike Krzyzewski was 38-47 his first three years at Duke. Georgetown’s President asked John Thompson to “try and make the NIT every few years,” when he hired him in 1972. Most Connecticut fans thought U-Conn needed to get out of The Big East when Jim Calhoun arrived in 1985.

Great coaches build and rebuild. All those coaches are in the Hall of Fame because they rebuilt fallen programs and won a national title. Only North Carolina from that group had previously won a national championship. Someday, Gary should join that group in the Hall of Fame. Maryland cutting down the nets in Atlanta was a memorable story, one that I personally savor. I still remember the first thing Gary said to me on the court that night: “Fort Myer. You’re one of the guys who remembers Fort Myer. I’m glad you were here to see this.”

Gary had started his head coaching career at American University in 1978 and his team played home games at Fort Myer, an Army base in Arlington, Virginia. The gym was cold and drafty every night and the locker rooms were actually weight rooms. My favorite memory from, “The Fort,” as everyone called it, was Gary having to talk the MPs out of arresting an opposing coach after he had kicked a wall walking into the locker room at the end of an overtime win for AU. Part of the wall fell in and the MPs showed up in the locker room wanting to arrest him for damaging government property.

I covered AU a lot back then: I was the kid reporter on The Post staff and it was apparent to me that Gary was a comer in the coaching business. Plus, I liked him and I liked his team---which won 24 games his third season and came within a missed jump shot of making the NCAA Tournament.

So, Maryland’s national championship was a thrill for me. I knew how low Gary had been in his early days at his alma mater.

Having said all that, George Mason’s story was the best in college basketball since Texas Western in 1966. The school didn’t even play Division 1 basketball until the late 1970s. It didn’t even have a FIGHT song until 1987. Seriously. I was there the night they unveiled it. Jim Larranaga had built a solid program after coming in from Bowling Green but that’s what Mason was: a solid CAA program, a contender in a league that hadn’t received a second bid to the NCAA Tournament since 1986. The closest any CAA team had come to a Final Four had been David Robinson’s run with Navy in that 1986 season. The Midshipmen made it to the elite eight before being crushed by Duke. THAT was a once in a lifetime experience since Robinson had come to Navy as a 6-7 kid recruited more for his potential as an engineer than as a basketball player.

He didn’t even start his freshman year, then grew six inches that summer and turned into, well, David Robinson.

Remember that a lot of people—led by Jim Nantz and Billy Packer—didn’t think Mason even deserved a bid. The Patriots had lost in the CAA semifinals to Hofstra, a game in which point guard Tony Skinn sucker-punched a Hofstra player in the worst possible place, causing Larranaga to announce he would be suspended for Mason’s next game, whether it was in the NCAA’s or the NIT.

A lot of people thought that Skinn’s suspension would be the difference between Mason getting in or not getting in. When the Patriots went up on the board that Sunday night, Nantz and Packer spent considerable time grilling basketball committee chairman Craig Littlepage on what they had done to deserve a bid. Nantz read through their schedule and asked, “what is in here that we’re not seeing that caused you to give them a bid?”

We all know what happened next: the Patriots stunned Michigan State (without Skinn); shocked North Carolina; beat Wichita State and then, in one of the most dramatic upsets in tournament history, beat Connecticut in overtime to make The Final Four. To be honest, I thought they’d blown it when U-Conn tied the game at the buzzer in regulation. To be even more honest, I couldn’t believe the game was close.

I still remember the first thing Larranaga said to me when I shook hands with him on the court: “I can’t wait to get to Indy to see Nantz and Packer.”

He got his chance early. On Wednesday night, Mason was having dinner in “St. Elmo’s,” the great steakhouse in downtown Indy when Nantz and Packer walked in. I happened to be in there with some friends and when they stopped to say hello I couldn’t resist saying, “Hey, George Mason’s in the back, I’m sure you guys want to go and say hello.”

To his credit, Nantz made a beeline for the back room. Larranaga told me later he congratulated everyone and said he and Packer had been wrong and they had been proven wrong. Packer lingered at our table, talking.

“Well,” I said finally, “Aren’t you going to go in there and apologize?”

“I don’t have anything to apologize for,” Packer said. “I still think what I said was right when I said it.”

That was one thing I loved about Billy: he always stuck to his guns even when the whole world was saying he was wrong.

Mason’s run inspired a lot of people who had never heard of the school prior to March of 2006. Even Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun shook his head in the aftermath of what had to be one of the most disappointing losses of his career and said, “this is why basketball’s a beautiful game.”

As it happens I have a fair number of George Mason T-shirts. They’re actually swimming shirts because I’ve worked out through the years at Mason since the swim coach there, Peter Ward, is a friend of mine. A couple of months after the ’06 Final Four, I was in Coral Springs, Florida for the Masters short course national championships. I was wearing a Mason swimming T-shirt one morning when I walked across the pool deck to jump into the warm-up pool.

As I was walking, I became aware of the fact that people were applauding and apparently the applause was directed at me. Maybe they really liked my new book on Q-school? No, not this crowd. Finally I heard a few of their voices: “George Mason, way to go, great job!” They were applauding for my shirt.

I’ve worn a lot of shirts from a lot of different places through the years. Occasionally I’ll get a pat on the back from ONE person someplace if I’m wearing Navy gear. But that’s about it.

Maryland fans were thrilled by Maryland’s national title. The entire country was thrilled and inspired by George Mason.


Since the question has been raised, let’s broaden it a little: Last ten years, what’s the most thrilling moment you remember in sports? I can honestly say Mason is probably number one for me with Jason Lezak’s anchor swim in the 4x100 freestyle relay in Beijing a strong number two and Paul Goydos’s win in Hawaii three years ago (yes, that one is personal) after all he’d been through in his personal life, probably number three. If Tom Watson had parred the 18th at Turnberry this past July it would have blown everything else away and been number two on my all-time list behind the U.S. hockey team at Lake Placid.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Remembering George Michael

Because Urban Meyer’s resignation/non-resignation was the dominant story in sports over the weekend, I didn’t get the chance yesterday to write about the passing of George Michael.

I often joke about the fact that television makes people famous for being famous and they are thought of as stars because people recognize them regardless of the quality of their work. The list of people who fit in that category is a long one.

George wasn’t one of those people.

He was famous because he outworked his competition; because he did things differently and because he had the kind of personality that, even if you completely disagreed with him on something, you walked away from the argument admitting to yourself that the guy knew his stuff.

When he first came to Washington in 1980 I was skeptical about the notion of him doing sports. I didn’t know him, but knew of him—as a rock-and-roll disc jockey at WABC radio in New York where he replaced the legendary Cousin Bruce Morrow and as a hockey color man for the New York Islanders.

He had a big voice, I knew that. I didn’t know much else. But George rode into town with a commitment from the local NBC affiliate—WRC—to spend money to make a dent in the ratings and with a concept that no one had thought of in local TV before: use the new-fangled satellites that TV stations were acquiring to pull down highlights from all over the country.

Washington had a pretty good history when it came to local sports. Warner Wolf had become a local legend before leaving to go national with ABC. Frank Herzog, who had been Wolf’s backup, was a superb basketball play-by-play man on the Washington Wizards before moving to the Redskins in 1979 where he stayed 27 years before Dan Snyder pushed him out the door so he could put one of his see-no-evil house men behind the mike.

Michael took it to a new level—with the satellite highlights (that led to his national show, “The Sports Machine,” which was huge on Sunday nights until ESPN became dominant) and with an open checkbook. Backed by WRC’s money, Michael had weekly shows in which he “exclusively,” interviewed Joe Gibbs, whomever was quarterbacking the Redskins and anyone else who really mattered on the local sports scene.

Michael’s “checkbook journalism,” was mocked by many (me included) but it has now become the norm on both local TV and radio. WFAN in New York spends huge dollars every year ensuring that local football coaches and players; both baseball managers and selected stars in other sports show up on their air every week. Trust me, Joe Girardi and Jerry Manuel aren’t on WFAN every week because they’re so fond of Mike Francesca. Other local stations, including the ones here in DC, do the same thing.

I still remember being in the Redskins locker room in 1986 when Jay Schroeder, then Washington’s quarterback, had come out of the game with what appeared to be a minor injury. Those of us charged with finding out how Schroeder felt or what had happened on the play had little chance to do so because he was back in the training room and then went to an off-limits part of the locker room to dress.

Finally, my boss, George Solomon, who took an injury to a Redskins quarterback about as seriously as an injury to one of his children, demanded that Charley Taylor (not the wide receiver) who was the Redskins PR guy at the time, find out when Schroeder would be available to talk.

Taylor came back a couple minutes later. “Sorry George, he’s just not up to it,” he said.

“Not up to it?” Solomon screamed. “I’ll bet he’ll be up to it tomorrow for his paid appearance with George Michael!”

As it turned out Solomon was exactly right. Schroeder’s first interview that week was “exclusively,” with Michael.

By the late 1980s, Washington had a remarkable quartet of local TV broadcasters: Michael was at channel 4; Bernie Smilovitz, who would go on to New York and then Detroit was at channel 5; Herzog was at channel 7 and Glenn Brenner was at channel 9. Each was outstanding in his own way, though Brenner’s humor simply put him in a different class from anyone else. You literally couldn’t stop laughing when Brenner got on a roll. He reminded me of Jim Valvano.

And, tragically, exactly like Valvano, Brenner died at the age of 47 of cancer. The whole town essentially came to a halt when Brenner died and all four local stations went wall-to-wall that night with Brenner. The two most touching moments came when Gordon Peterson, then the anchor at channel 9 and probably Brenner’s best friend, talked about him and when Michael, his No. 1 competitor did the same.

I had my run-ins with George. Like most of us, he didn’t like being criticized and he HATED being called a homer—even though he very clearly was one. When I wrote a column prior to Super Bowl XVIII urging everyone in the local media—including my newspaper—to quit being such Redskins homers I singled out George for his repeated references to the team as, “we.”

The next week my phone rang and I heard the booming voice. “Feinstein, that was out of line! I ask tougher questions than anyone in town and you know it!”

“Questions like, what do WE have to do to win?” I answered.

“Okay, maybe I cross the line every once in a while but that’s what the viewers want! I give ‘em what they want and you know it!”

He did—but he was still a homer. A couple of weeks later George ripped me in an on-air essay for calling the Georgetown basketball program “secretive.”

I knew he was expecting a call from me in response but I didn’t give him the pleasure. A couple weeks later we ran into each other at a Maryland basketball game.

“Hey, you know I ripped you for that Georgetown piece,” George said as we shook hands.

“I heard something about that,” I said. “So I guess you get into practice over there every day, huh?”

He smiled. “You know you’re a pain-in-the-butt,” he said. “But I gotta admit you do what you do well.”

George did what he did very well, right until the end when cancer began to run him down. Even though I’d heard he was sick, I honestly didn’t know it was that bad until Tony Kornheiser called me Thursday morning to say he was on his way in to do his radio show—which wasn’t supposed to air on Christmas Eve—and could I come on and talk about George for a few minutes.

I did and I listened to the stories others told throughout the day and into the night. The overwhelming theme I heard was this: George loved what he did and people loved watching him do it. He had a unique personality—I said to Tony that George always came into a room doing George—and he changed local TV in Washington forever and also pushed the limits at the national level with The Sports Machine.

He was 70 when he died. Way too young. But no one can say he didn’t love just about every minute he had.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Urban Meyer is the story of the weekend; Last word on a few comments

On a weekend when the only real story in sports appeared to be the jockeying for NFL playoff positions, Urban Meyer put the spotlight squarely on himself early on Saturday evening with the stunning announcement that he was stepping down as Florida’s football coach at the age of 45 after a remarkable five year run of success.

To say that Meyer’s announcement overshadowed the Meineke Car Care Bowl and the Emerald Bowl would be like saying that Tiger Woods’ absence from the 18 man exhibition he was supposed to host a few weeks ago overshadowed Jim Furyk’s victory in the event.

This really was a big deal.

And then on Sunday it wasn’t nearly as big a deal. Meyer showed up at a press conference in New Orleans and said, never mind, he was just taking a leave of absence and he expected to coach Florida next fall. All that talk about taking care of his health and his family and all that sadness in the voices of the ESPN talking heads, well, it wasn’t all that sad after all. Meyer decided after watching his team practice on Sunday that regardless of what the doctors have told him about his heart issues, a couple months off and he’ll be ready to go.

Look, I’m the last person in the world to in any way make light of heart issues. I can tell you from personal experience this isn’t something you mess around with. A doctor looks at you on Friday afternoon and says you need open heart surgery on Monday, you don’t call him on Saturday and say, “you know I wrote a really good column this morning, so I’m just going to take it easy for a few months and then, you know, be good as new.”

I understand Meyer doesn’t have seven blockages in his arteries and he hasn’t got a doctor looking at him telling him he’s headed for, “A Tim Russert episode,” (which is exactly what I was told) but this is serious stuff. You don’t call your team together a week before a bowl game and tell them you’re quitting unless some doctor (or doctors) has put the fear of God in you.

I’m sure what Meyer is thinking is hat he can put together a health regimen that will make it possible for him to continue to coach and not jeopardize his health. Without knowing the specifics of his problem—which he continues to be coy about at least at the moment—it is difficult to say exactly what Meyer will have to do to get himself cleared to coach.

Here’s what I do know: People rarely change; especially successful people. Oh maybe for a little while after they get a scare put into them. When Joe Gibbs came back to coach the Washington Redskins in 2004 he explained that the exhausting lifestyle that had driven him from coaching was a thing of the past. There would be no more sleeping at the office; no more all-nighters preparing game plans. That lasted until about midway through the first season back. You are who you are.

Even in my own life I can see it. The first couple months after my surgery I behaved impeccably: I ate well, I didn’t drink at all, I went to bed early, I did my walking just about every day. Then I started to feel better and stronger. A steak slipped into my diet here and there; some wine on occasion. My exercise, even now that I’m back swimming, has been sporadic. I have now made a vow that starting New Year’s I’m back to my post-surgery regimen: more exercise, less food. Can I do it? I honestly don’t know.

Whenever Meyer comes back he’s going to tell his doctors and himself that he won’t put in killer hours and he won’t stress so much about the South Carolina game or that recruit who runs a 4.24 from Delray Beach who might want the Gators but might want Miami or Florida State too. He’ll absolutely believe that he’s a changed man and he’s learned his lesson from the scare he got after losing to Alabama in The SEC title game.

Maybe he can do it. Football coaches are remarkably disciplined people who almost get used to being sleep-deprived during the season. But the chances are good that he’ll gradually revert to being the Urban Meyer who came from nowhere 10 years ago to being the most successful college football coach in the country. That means obsessing about every detail and trusting your lieutenants with everything except the really important stuff—like making sure the redshirts get their time in the weight room while the team is on a trip. Or that all the tickets for recruits are in the correct section of the stadium. Stuff like that.

Having nothing to do with football, you have to wish Meyer the best. But he made an interesting comment Sunday, one that he might do well to think about. He was talking about when he first got into coaching 24 years ago. “I didn’t realize then,” he said, “what it was really going to end up being all about.”

He was talking about the time commitment, the emotional commitment, the draining nature of the job. He talked about how awed he was by Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden. Paterno became the Penn State head coach when Meyer was two-years-old. Meyer was six when Bowden got his first Division 1 head coaching job at West Virginia.

Right now Meyer believes the one thing he can do well in life is coach football. That’s rarely the case with smart, driven people. He’s climbed the college football mountain and made the huge money coaches at his level make. My hope is that during his ‘leave of absence,’ he gives some thought to finding a second act. I’m just guessing but I suspect that would probably be the best thing he can do for himself and for those who love him.


On a much less pleasant topic than the hope that Urban Meyer can find future health and happiness, I’m going to say a few FINAL words on this whole Rutgers thing and then those who disagree with me or think me the devil are free to post away but this is the end of it on my side of the equation.

Reading the pro-Greg Schiano/anti-me comments that were posted by some I was reminded of something Bob Knight said to me many years ago: “I know as long as I continue to win (at Indiana) people will think me eccentric. If I ever stop winning, they’ll think me an embarrassment.”

That pretty much sums up the life of a coach. Schiano has (as I’ve said repeatedly) done a good job turning Rutgers from a laughing stock into a solid Division 1-A program. Thus, he MUST be a good guy in the hearts and minds of his fans. I get that. I’m happy to simply agree to disagree but I have to respond to a few things, especially some “facts,” that are just wrong.
  • --Someone posting said that when you talk about “bad,” people you should be talking about Osama Bin Laden. That name doesn’t belong in any conversation about sports. There’s a large, large gap between being a bad guy and being evil incarnate. Let’s keep it real folks
  • --Several people wrote that I showed my ‘bias,’ in expressing my opinions on Pernetti and Schiano. Um, yeah folks, that’s sort of what a blog is about—sharing stories and opinions. That assumption is that you understand opinions comes with bias.
  • --One guy actually went ballistic because I dared say that Schiano was a bad coach and Pernetti’s bobo. I am hoping he didn’t learn to read at Rutgers: I wrote that Schiano was a GOOD coach and that Pernetti was HIS bobo. Everybody take a deep breath.
  • --Another poster said that Rutgers had a better graduation rate for football players than Navy. Wrong. Rutgers graduation rate is very good; Navy’s has led the country in, I believe, seven of the last eight years.
  • --Someone else said I had taken my dislike for Schiano and Tim Pernetti and used it to attack Rutgers. Please READ the blog. I’ve specifically and repeatedly talked about my respect for Rutgers.
  • --Another poster claimed the reason Rutgers stayed on the field at Navy during the march-on was because someone on Schiano’s staff screwed up and didn’t properly pass the information on to him. Oh please. No assistant would fail to tell his boss something like that. That’s what is called excuse-making. I will say this: Schiano has made a point of keeping his team on the field, win or lose, for the playing of the Navy alma mater the last few years. Maybe he felt guilty about messing up that first year but he did get it right.
  • --Someone said running the score up against Division 1-AA schools “didn’t matter.” Actually running the score up against a conference opponent doesn’t really matter because those programs are on equal footing. Embarrassing kids sent in to a 1-A stadium so their school can collect a guarantee check is what’s unseemly. I don’t care if Rutgers beats Louisville 100-0. That’s on Louisville. Norfolk State is another story.
  • --Finally, someone actually tried to invoke the Buckley amendment as the reason for Schiano’s in-game secrecy about injuries. Sorry, doesn’t wash. We aren’t talking a kid’s grades here, we’re talking an injury that has taken place in a public place (including national TV). You don’t have to give specifics of his treatment you simply need to say, “he’s hurt his knee and is being taken for x-rays and won’t return,” or “it’s just a twisted ankle, they’re taping him he should be back.” Or whatever.
Finally, thanks to all those who saw this is what it is: a minor argument and nothing more, a discussion topic that happened to come up during a radio appearance.

Bottom line: Schiano wins games, no one needs to make excuses for him. But I’m guessing those who have posted before will--again. Have at it. I’m done on this topic.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Discussing the Rutgers talk from The Kornheiser Show

I was going to take the day off—and give all of you a day off—to contemplate the holidays and the joys of the season.

Then this morning someone told me I needed to check the comments from my appearance yesterday on Tony Kornheiser’s radio show (which you can listen to here on the blog if you so desire).

It seems I’ve upset some Rutgers people by saying bad things about the school’s football coach and athletic director. The irony is, if you listen, I started my response to Tony’s question about a long simmering controversy at Rutgers about the importance of—and the money spent on—athletics by saying, “look, Rutgers is a very good school.” Tony instantly challenged that because he believes the only institution of higher learning in the United States that is any good is Binghamton, his alma mater.

I then said that there had been an ongoing battle between the academic side at Rutgers and the jock side over how much should be invested in trying to have a good football team. One angry poster conceded that was true but said the battle was, “completely un-necessary.” Perhaps true but there’s no doubting its existence.

I then said that Greg Schiano was a good coach and a bad guy. That set Rutgers people off and they demanded I ‘back up,’ those comments. Okay, here goes.
  • Schiano is not (as you point out) the only coach who runs up scores. But he constantly insists he’s NOT running up the score. A few years ago, up 42-0 in the SECOND quarter against Norfolk State (Norfolk State?) he used all three of his time outs to score again before halftime. He then insisted the move was justified because you never knew if a team might rally in the second half. Please.
  • The first time Schiano took a team to play at Navy he was sent—as is customary—a pre-game itinerary. Navy’s is a little different than most schools because the Brigade of Midshipmen marches on before the game, which means the teams (BOTH teams) need to leave the field a few minutes earlier than normal. Coaches are always alerted to this and know it is part of playing a game at Navy. Schiano not only objected, he kept his team on the field while the brigade began its march-on. Then he insisted after the game he hadn’t been informed about the march-on. Sorry Rutgers folks, that just wasn’t the case.
  • Schiano (like a lot of coaches) is an absolute control freak. Did any of you watch the bowl game? Even the ESPN sideline reporter was frustrated by the fact that he couldn’t get anything resembling a semi-honest answer—or any answer at all—about Rutgers players who came out of the game hurt. What was Schiano doing, hiding an injury from next week’s opponent? Oh wait, the next game isn’t until September. Again, he’s certainly not unique in doing this but it gets old with all these guys.

As for Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, as it happens, I have had direct, unpleasant dealings with him dating back several years. Without going into too much detail—we’ve all got better things to do—this is what happened: Pernetti was program director (or something) at CBS College Sports and they picked up the rights to The Patriot League basketball package, which I had done since its inception as the color commentator. Pernetti had cut a deal with the league that the network would pay the production costs for the Army-Navy game (usually it is the other way around) but HE wanted control of the so-called ‘talent,’ for that game.

If there’s one game in that package I always want to do and believe I should do it is Army-Navy. I got a call from Billy Stone, who worked then as now for CBS College and is a friend of Pernetti’s. “If you want to do Army-Navy you’re going to have to send Tim an e-mail and ask him to let you do it,” he said.


“I’m telling you, this is the way Tim is. He likes to feel in control of things.”

I was tempted to say the heck with it (or something worse) but I decided to play the silly game. I wrote Tim a note, pointed out my connection to the two schools (in case he didn’t know) and said it was important to me to do that game. I always asked Carolyn Femovich, the league’s executive director, to let Tim know that the league wanted me to do the game. Tim wrote back and said he would be happy to have me do the game.

Okay, fine. A ridiculous ritual but I swallowed my pride and dealt with it. That was in August. A week before the game I received an e-mail from Pernetti. It said that Steve Lappas would be doing color on the game and he would like to “invite,” me to “play a role in the telecast.”

I wrote back and said, “no thanks.”

His response was to write back and ask me, “what the problem was.” I said that when we had agreed in August I would do the game it certainly wasn’t as a sideline guy or something like that. I happen to like Steve Lappas a lot but having him do color on Army-Navy instead of me would be like having me do color on Villanova-U-Mass over him. I told him I was going to let Carolyn know she’d need a color guy for the rest of the package (Army-Navy was the opener) since if I didn’t do that game I would pass on the rest. My feeling was that I had played Pernetti's power game in the summer and now he was still trying to stick it to me--I honestly don't know why other than his power thing--and two could play at that game.

The league’s athletic directors and coaches weren’t happy when they heard this news. I’ve known most of them a long time and I believe they think I know and understand their league quite well—better than Steve Lappas. They made it clear to Carolyn that she needed to get this fixed. She called Pernetti and told him I had to do the game.

So, I got another call from Pernetti. “I just wanted to close the loop on this Army-Navy thing,” he said.

“Close the loop?” I said.

“I’ve decided to put Steve Lappas on another game.”

HE had decided. Rather than call him on it, I just said, fine, I’d be happy to do the game. Then he said, “I just want you to know I don’t appreciate the way you handled this.”

I won’t repeat my entire answer here but I told him if he didn’t like the way I’d handled him big-timing me in the summer; lying and then trying to bully his way through the whole thing, I really was okay with it.

Since then, Tim and I haven’t been close. I do believe he’s a bad guy and his relationship with Schiano got him the AD’s job. If you were to ask people who worked with him at CBS College I think you’d find there were few tears shed when he left.

So, Rutgers fans, we can agree to disagree on how I feel about Schiano and Pernetti but I didn’t make those statements without having reason to make them. I do NOT think the 11,000 seat expansion was needed—sellouts are better than empty seats. I DO think Rutgers is a very good school no matter what Tony says and there are few people I admire more in sports than Rutgers alum David Stern.

So, as I said, let’s all disagree and try—in the holiday spirit—to get along. For the record, one of my favorite college basketball teams as a kid was the Rutgers team that finished third in the 1967 NIT with a coach named Bill Foster and guards named Bobby Lloyd and Jim Valvano. I have nothing but respect for the school. I just don’t especially like the football coach—who has done an excellent job—or the athletic director.

Happy holidays.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This week's radio segments (Tony Kornheiser Show, The Sports Reporters):

I made my regular appearance on the newest The Tony Kornheiser Show a day early this week due to the Holiday schedule.  Click the permalink, then the link below, to listen to the segment on a variety of topics, including my Washington Post column from this week and the upcoming TMZ Sports launch, along with a little talk on Rutgers.

Click here to listen to Wednesday's segment (starts about 1 min in): Tony Kornheiser Show


Once again this week, I was on The Sports Reporters in my regular spot at 5:25 on Wednesday with hosts Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin.  This week we discussed the Redskins continuing fiasco, the Knight/Calipari flare-up that led to a brief view of the USC Trojans, and of course, a little Tiger talk..

Click here to listen to the segment: The Sports Reporters

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanzaa and, of course a Happy Festivus (for the rest of us)

I have written before about how much I detest baseball’s All Star break because it means three days with no baseball—unless you like watching an exhibition game in July—forcing me to watch even more ‘West Wing,’ on DVD than I normally do until the real games start again on Thursday.

Christmas week isn’t much better. Last night there were some good college basketball games to watch and what looked like a good bowl game (Brigham Young-Oregon State which turned out to be pretty much a snooze) but the closer you get to Christmas Day the more your choices dwindle. By Christmas Eve you’re down to one pretty lousy bowl game (I’m just not that psyched for Nevada-SMU) and then on Christmas Day there’s one NFL game—at night—and all those NBA games that, sorry, I just can’t bring myself to care about. Check back with me when the playoffs start. Actually check back with me when The Finals start. Maybe.

There’s also the family issue. People expect you to hang out with kids and in-laws and brothers and sisters. It isn’t that I don’t like any of these people—I love many of them—it’s just that after a while you’d rather watch a ballgame than talk about how cute someone’s dog is or hear about how funny your nephew can be. The other problem for me is I can’t claim on Christmas Eve that I really need to watch that Nevada-SMU game for work.

Christmas has always been an interesting part of my life. Clearly, I’m Jewish. My dad was raised orthodox and completely rejected all religion as an adult. My mom had no religious training at all and thought Christmas was a better holiday for kids than Chanukah (my daughter Brigid might argue differently since she still clings to the idea that she’s owed eight gifts) so we always had a Christmas tree and always celebrated Christmas—albeit in a secular way.

Without sounding glib I can honestly say that the births of Lefty Driesell and my agent, Esther Newburg, on Christmas Day have had more meaning in my life than the birth of Jesus Christ. My friend Ken Denlinger once described Lefty as “God’s unique Christmas present to the world in 1931.”

One of my more vivid Christmas memories involves Lefty. I had traveled to Hawaii with Maryland in December of 1984 for what was then The Rainbow Classic. This was before ESPN had created all these strictly-for-TV events at Thanksgiving and The Rainbow, which started back in 1964, was THE holiday tournament: eight quality teams every year. The schedule called for two games Christmas night; two games the next day and then four games on the 27th and the 28th since everyone played three games.

Maryland was playing Iowa on Christmas night. On Christmas Eve morning, I went with Maryland to practice at the old Blaisdell Arena, an aging mini-dome that seated about 8,000 people. Blaisdell had a certain character to it. You had to walk across little bridges to get inside because the building was surrounded by what would best be described as a moat. There was absolutely no parking for the building but if you knew what you were doing you parked at the bank right across the street.

After practice I went back to the hotel and had lunch with Lefty to get some pre-tournament quotes for my advance the next day. As we were finishing, a Maryland booster who had made the trip approached Lefty.

“Coach we were wondering about some free time for the kids tomorrow after morning shootaround,” he said.

“Free time,” Lefty said. “What for?”

“Well, we wanted to have a little Christmas party for them…”

“Christmas!” Lefty thundered. “Christmas! I didn’t come here to have a Christmas party I came here to win games!”

Take that Bah and Humbug.

Maryland won two games—beating Iowa and Hawaii before losing at the buzzer to Georgia Tech in the finals. Because the championship game was on TV back east it started at 6 o’clock local time. Tommy Stinson of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and I walked into Blaisdell at about 5:59 that night because we were sitting by the hotel pool listening to Al McGuire tell stories and we lost track of the time.

I’ve never really minded working on holidays—again it isn’t because I don’t love my family—it’s just, well, what I do. I’m used to working on weekends when others aren’t working so working on a holiday doesn’t feel strange to me. Of course when I still worked at The Washington Post, I frequently got into battles with George Solomon who would—understandably—assign the Jewish members of the staff to work Christmas Day. I didn’t mind working if I was on the road someplace (especially if it was in Hawaii) but I certainly didn’t want to come into the office to write some kind of advance on the college basketball games being played the next day or get sent out to Redskins Park to hear Joe Gibbs talk about how that Sunday’s opponent was the greatest team in football history.

So, every year I’d check the schedule and there I’d be, penciled in for Christmas Day. I’d go see George.

“I can’t work on Christmas,” I’d say.

George—who, to be fair, always put himself on the schedule on Christmas—would look at me and say, “what are you talking about?”

“My family celebrates Christmas. My mother will be upset if I’m not there to open presents in the morning.”

“What do you mean your family celebrates Christmas?”

George literally didn’t believe me at first. Then, when he did believe me, he decided he had to teach me how to be a real Jew. One year he insisted that I come to break-fast at his house on Yom Kippur. I showed up (having not fasted) and wasn’t eating anything because, to be honest, other than soft kosher salami, I’m just not into that sort of food at all.

George’s wife Hazel, one of the world’s nicest and most patient people, came up to me looking puzzled and said, “John, you’re not eating.”

Without thinking about what day it was I gave Hazel the answer I always used if I was at someone’s house and didn’t like the food being served: “Hazel, I’m sorry, I had a really big lunch very late.”

Whoops. She looked at me as if I was insane and went off to—probably—tell George he needed to fire me. George STILL hasn’t let me off the hook on that one.

Anyway, the bottom line is, I like the holidays. I like the warmth and I really like the music and I especially like the corny movies. 1. “It’s A Wonderful Life.” 2. “White Christmas.” 3. “Miracle on 34th Street” (the original) watched it last night. 4. “Rudolph.” (Burl Ives second greatest performance right behind, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,”—talk about range). 5. “Elf.”

I enjoy seeing relatives and friends I don’t often get to see. But I’m also really happy on the morning of the 26th because there are LOTS of games to choose from, places to go and people to see—and write about.

So, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanzaa and, of course a Happy Festivus (for the rest of us). If something actually happens today, I’ll write a blog tomorrow if only to keep a little bit busy. If it is as quiet as I suspect it will be, I’ll be back Monday after everyone has, I hope, a great holiday.

There will be, no doubt, lots to write about Monday. Thank God for that.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I missed on Cornell with this week’s AP vote; Quick word on Knight’s comments

Well, I blew it on Sunday.

Every week when I cast my ballot for the AP basketball poll I use the 25th spot to try to give a tiny bit of recognition to a smaller school, one that isn’t likely to compete for the national championship in April but is playing good basketball without getting much notice for it.

I know—because coaches have told me—that showing up in “also receiving votes,” is a big deal to the schools I vote for and I have the luxury of being able to do it because the poll has absolutely nothing to do with deciding the national champion. It exists to give people something to talk about and to allow players to talk about being a ranked team or, perhaps more important, beating a ranked team.

I’m not exactly sure how many years I’ve been an AP voter but I remember when I started casting the 25th place vote for the little guys: it was during the ’99-2000 season when I was working on “The Last Amateurs.” Lafayette had won something like 14 straight games and had a good basketball team. The Leopards had won in overtime at Princeton—when Princeton was still very good—and had lost in the last minute on the road to a ranked Villanova team. So, one week in February, I ranked them 25th in my poll.

I didn’t think much of it until a few days later when I was in Easton for a game and the sports information people told me that someone had voted for the Leopards in the poll. (This was before AP made each pollster’s vote available on a weekly basis). I’m pretty sure they didn’t even know I had a vote. So, I told them I had been the voter. That pretty much made me a hero to everyone but Coach Fran O’Hanlon. “Now the kids may get big heads about it,” he moaned, half-joking. Pat Brogan, his assistant coach, who had a sign on his desk that said, “recruit every day,” had already blown up the “also receiving votes,” into giant type and was sending it to recruits.

It never occurred to me that something like that mattered even a little bit. Apparently, it did.

So, I began making it a habit to the point where the guys on the AP desk in New York would actually speculate before I told them who was No. 25 on who I might be voting for that week. I made a general rule—sometimes broken—that if the No. 25 team kept winning it kept its vote.

The whole thing actually got some attention in 2006 when I began voting for George Mason in the poll in early January. I’d seen the Patriots play and thought they were really good. In fact, after they beat Wichita State in February I moved them up to—I think—No. 21. By then others had noticed and they actually cracked the poll at No. 25. After that happened, Joseph White, the AP sports editor here in Washington did a little story on me and my quirky No. 25 vote.

I like to think I’ve always had an appreciation for the little guy in college hoops. I grew up going to games in Columbia’s University Gym and was insane enough to actually LISTEN to games on the student radio stations of Columbia (WKCR); Fordham (WFUV) and Seton Hall (WSHU). I had a math tutor when I was in seventh grade named Steve Handel who was a Columbia grad. He frequently took me to Columbia games during the golden era of Jim McMillan, Heyward Dotson, Dave Newmark and Roger Walaszek. The fifth starter, if you’re scoring at home, was Billy Ames. That group actually reached the Sweet Sixteen in 1968 before losing to a Davidson team coached by—you guessed it—Lefty Driesell.

Anyway, back to Sunday.

Two weeks ago I cast my No. 25 ballot for Army. The Cadets are off to a great start and were 7-2, including a win over a Harvard team (who I almost voted for) that has beaten Boston College and lost a close game at Connecticut. This Sunday I was torn: Army had beaten Division III Mt St. Vincent’s in less-than-convincing fashion. Harvard was still 7-2 and Cornell was 8-2.

The Big Red is one of college basketball’s more fun stories right now. Steve Donahue left a fairly cushy job as Fran Dunphy’s No. 1 assistant at Penn nine years ago to take over a woebegone program that had dropped to the bottom of The Ivy League. He methodically rebuilt—I suspect that’s the only way to rebuild in Ithaca, New York—and after five losing seasons during which Cornell was 51-85, he began to get it turned around in 2007—going 16-13 and finishing third in The Ivy League. The breakthrough came the next year: a 14-0 Ivy record, the school’s first NCAA bid since 1988 and a 22-6 record. Last year produced another Ivy title and this year with a core of senior starters, including Ryan Wittman, the son of former Indiana sharpshooter Randy Wittman, the Big Red is the real deal.

It has two losses to date: to Seton Hall and at Syracuse. It has wins at Alabama, at Massachusetts and at St. Joseph’s. So, I sat there on Sunday thinking I should give Cornell the 25th place vote after it survived in overtime against Davidson in the opening round of The Holiday Festival in New York. I’d already voted for the Big Red once earlier in the season before the loss to Seton Hall.

But I chickened out and stuck with Army. Here’s why: I knew Cornell had to play St. John’s in The Garden in the Holiday Festival final on Monday night. St. John’s is better this year. Its only loss had been at Duke in a good game and I really didn’t think the Red Storm was going to lose on a home court to Cornell. I figured the game would be competitive but St. John’s would win and people would be saying I jinxed Cornell.

Don’t think it doesn’t happen. When Ralph Willard was coaching at Holy Cross he pleaded with me to NOT vote his team No. 25 because the Crusaders always seemed to lose when I gave them a vote. What’s more, now that our votes are made public—which I think is a good idea—I’ve had people ridicule my 25th place votes so I really try to be sure there’s SOME logic behind them.

I gave the vote to Army. Cornell beat St. John’s, 71-66, coming from behind in the second half, outscoring the Red Storm 11-6 down the stretch to break a 60-60 tie. Oh Me Of Little Faith.

Listen, Cornell’s good and a great story too. I definitely want to make it to one of their games with Harvard once Ivy League play begins. In the meantime, their win over St. John’s is worthy of note—serious note. The last Ivy League team I remember beating St. John’s in the Holiday Festival was that Columbia team 42 years ago. I believe the final was something like 61-55. I know I was there—that was when the Festival was an eight team tournament and the last night was tripleheader.

I wish I’d been there last night but at least I had excuses—kids, the weather—for not being in New York. There’s NO excuse for my vote on Sunday night. Maybe I’ll vote the Big Red No. 24 this Sunday.


Several people asked yesterday where I stood on Bob Knight’s comments on John Calipari. I actually wrote my Sporting News column for next week on the topic and don’t like to copy myself too often but here’s my synopsis: Is Knight right that Kentucky would sell its soul to the devil to win and that Calipari’s track record—two vacated Final Fours—makes him tainted? Yes. Are those who respond that Knight never broke any NCAA rules but has broken just about every rule of etiquette, courtesy and how to treat other people right too? Yes.

But all of them miss the larger point: Kentucky isn’t the exception, it is the rule. There isn’t a big time program in this country that doesn’t put winning ahead of all the alleged values the presidents espouse. Heck, forget big time—Penn just fired a coach in December.

The other day I asked Mike Krzyzewski this question: “You were 38-47 after three seasons at Duke and you had a perfect graduation record. If you had kept winning at that rate and graduating players at that rate where would you be today?”

His answer: “Not coaching at Duke.”

Which is, of course, true everywhere. When Kentucky looks at Calipari it doesn’t look at a coach with two vacated Final Fours. It looks at a coach who took one program that was way down (Massachusetts) and another that had slipped (Memphis) and went to The Final Four. The rest is just detail.

So, bottom line: Knight’s right (although his acting as if this is something new in college basketball is kind of silly) but the problem isn’t Calipari or Kentucky, the problem is the value system we’ve built in big-time college athletics. And that isn’t likely to change anytime in the near future—if ever.

Monday, December 21, 2009

This week's Washington Post column:

The following is this weeks article for The Washington Post -----------

While most people who didn't have to be outside were content to watch it snow Saturday, Rob Ades got in his car and attempted to drive from his home in the Watergate to Baltimore: to see the Loyola basketball team play Howard.

Ades makes his living as a union lawyer. He represents, among others, the DC police and whenever there is a shooting involving a police officer in the District, Ades is called to the scene, regardless of the hour of the day or night.

But his true love is basketball, especially the college game. So more as a sidelight than anything else, Ades has represented various coaches though the years. Some have been big names: Gary Williams, Jim Boeheim, Digger Phelps, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Jarvis, Leonard Hamilton. Of all the coaches Ades has represented, he is closest to Jimmy Patsos, the former Maryland assistant who is in his sixth season at Loyola.

Click here for the rest of the column: Union lawyer Rob Ades is a true college basketball fan, case closed

The blizzard of 2009 takes me back to my first front page story, and my friend Tom Mickle

The good news this morning is that there was a newspaper at the end of my driveway. The New York Times didn’t make it; The Washington Post did after neither paper had any chance of being delivered Saturday or Sunday in the midst of The Blizzard of ’09. (No mail on Saturday either. What happened to, “neither wind, nor rain, nor snow…”)

The bad news is that the lead story in The Post sports section was—I swear to God—a feature on Ron Jaworski in which he revealed that he thought, having watched hours and hours of tape, that the Redskins looked better the last few weeks. Oh my God. What next? Mike Tirico’s 10 favorite Redskins moments of the decade? Also on the front was a lengthy story on the Maryland women beating American on Sunday afternoon.

Okay, it WAS a slow news day. And at least I had SOMETHING to read at the kitchen table so I’m grateful.

Having grown up in New York I frequently make fun of the absolute panic that hits this area anytime there is a HINT that there might be snow coming. In fact, my first front page—as in front page of the newspaper—story in The Washington Post was about an impending snowstorm. I was the night police reporter on the Metro staff and I was assigned to write a story about how big the storm might be and what preparations were being made. I made all the requisite phone calls and wrote about a 20 inch story—18 inches longer than I thought necessary, but I never complained about extra space.

I went down to the police station to spend the evening after I’d written the story and, as always, the first edition of the paper showed up in the press room at about 10:30. At that point in time The Post was the only news organization in town that sent staffers to police headquarters on a daily basis. Al Lewis, the man whose byline appeared on the first day Watergate break-in story, worked the day shift. Whoever was the lowest person on The Metro staff totem poll worked the night shift—that winter it was me. One of my assignments was to take the 25 papers delivered at 10:30 and walk around the building handing them out to the cops—homicide, robbery, sex (which had some euphemistic name I can’t remember) and perhaps most important, communications. A good source there could give you a major jump on a story.

The free newspapers were a big deal to the cops. If there was any delay at all in their arrival my phone would ring. I’d pick up the phone and there would be a homicide detective on the other end, not telling me there’d been a murder somewhere but wanting to know where the hell the papers were.

On this particular night I picked up the paper before making my rounds and flipped to the Metro section to see if my snow story had made the Metro front. It hadn’t. Disappointed I paged through the section—nothing. I was about to call the desk to demand where the hell my story was when it occurred to me that it had been stuck inside the ‘A,’ section. As I picked it up, my eye picked up a headline at the top right corner of the front page: “Area Girds For Snow—Up to Eight Inches Expected.”

I started to laugh. This was it, my big moment, a front page story—a LEAD front page story and it was on a possible snowstorm. Not the stuff you call your parents about to make sure they notice. By the way, it didn’t snow an inch; it didn’t snow AT ALL. My good friend and mentor Marty Weil, the night rewrite guy then as now, shook his head the next day and said, “Just goes to show what happens if you can’t trust your sources.”

Those sources got this weekend’s storm right. They said it might be up to two feet and it was. I actually did the Washington thing of over-preparing: shopped on Friday; bought a new flashlight because I couldn’t find the old one; bought plenty of logs for the fireplace; got gas for the car--the whole deal. I had a weekend project: clean-up my office, which hadn’t been touched in six months and looked like a storage room.

That worked out fine (I’m still not finished but I can see the floor again) and I took turns working and watching games and then taking a break and watching games. The only two games I DIDN’T get to watch were UCLA-Notre Dame and Duke-Gonzaga. Why? Because the people who run the CBS affiliate in Washington-_WUSA-TV—went to round-the-clock coverage of the snow.

You can’t make this stuff up. It isn’t as if they were telling people stuff they needed to know, like closings—EVERYTHING was closed. It isn’t as if they were reporting injuries or accidents. They just kept saying over and over that it was SNOWING. Then they would show someone standing in their parking lot—they called it a “snow terrace,”—to confirm that it was snowing. They spent several minutes talking about one female reporter’s cute little snow outfit. “Bought it today,” she gushed. “Look, it fits.” They interviewed two people who had skied to the store and showed a dog wearing snow boots.

I kept flipping over in part because I was convinced that at some point they would go back to the games (wrong) and also so I could write today about the inanity of what I was watching. My always-helpful brother, who was able to get some kind of out-of-town feed on his cable system kept calling me with updates. At one point in the second half of the Duke-Gonzaga game he said, “You know you’re missing one of the great defensive performances in history.”

Shut up Bobby.

I DID watch most of The New Mexico Bowl, which was actually a fun game with Wyoming winning improbably in overtime against Fresno State. As silly as it is to play 34 bowl games and include all those 6-6 teams and force schools to buy (and eat) thousands of tickets, I kind of enjoy seeing the little guys have a moment in the sun (or in the case of The St. Petersburg Bowl—brought to you by beef-a-Roni or something, their moment in a dome) and occasionally you will get a game worth watching.

I didn’t even mind when Terry Gannon (who was a great shooter once upon a time) and David Norrie (I have no idea who or what he was) went on about how it was a “great way to start the bowl season.” But when Gannon, no doubt prompted by someone in the truck said, “Wow, what a great beginning to Capital One Bowl Week on the ESPN family of networks,” that was enough for me. He sounded almost as silly as Andy Katz (wait, this just in, Andy Katz reports that North Carolina won last season’s national title) actually referring in WRITING to the ESPN family of networks. If ESPN is a family in any way it is The Simpsons.

Oh, one more note while we’re being silly: Did anyone else notice during the Villanova-Montana Division 1-AA national title game Friday night—which was a terrific game—that it was being referred to as, “The Division 1 National Championship Game.” Why? Because Division 1-A doesn’t officially have a national championship game sanctioned by the NCAA. Where does this insanity end?

By Sunday I had to get out of the house one way or the other. I struggle to watch entire NFL games unless there’s something truly compelling about them. I love Rex Ryan but Jets-Falcons wasn’t getting it done for me. I finally decided to see if I could get down the driveway (it’s pretty long) to our street, which had been plowed just enough to create one lane. My son Danny came out to help and I got almost down the driveway before getting stuck. Danny shoveled for a while and then our neighbor, Pete Henry, rode to the rescue. He keeps a snow-blower in his house for these occasions and he dug me out and got me to the street. It wasn’t easy getting to the main roads from there, but we made it.

Everyone has a snow story of some kind. Mine goes back a long, long way. It was my senior year in college. By then I was covering Duke basketball road games for just about every newspaper in North Carolina as a stringer. Duke wasn’t good enough (seriously) to be staffed on any non-conference road trip so I would write game stories for Durham, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro. I’d write a different lead for each and a different ending mixing in different quotes depending on the newspaper. (Greensboro, for example, liked player quotes over coaches quotes). They were all fully aware that I was being shared and didn’t care. At 25 bucks a story I was getting rich.

Duke had a two day road swing in late January to West Virginia on Saturday night and Duquesne on Monday night. I drove to my parents’ house in Washington on Friday (by my senior year classes were something I attended when I had free time) and heard that a major storm was approaching. The interstate in West Virginia was closed so I left early Saturday morning to take Route 50 through the mountains in Virginia to get to Morgantown. It was slow going but I was almost there mid-afternoon when I came upon a truck that had turned over and was stuck in the middle of the two-lane road.

Two hours later it was still stuck and there was no way to get past. I was running out of gas, periodically turning off the engine until I got too cold, then turning it back on. FINALLY, several tow trucks manage to move it just far enough so that we could all get by—10 cars from one direction; ten from the other, at a time.

I got to Morgantown just before tipoff, still shaken and cold. The building temperature was set at 56 degrees because of the energy crisis and there might have been 3,000 people there. Duke lost a really bad game. As soon as I walked out of the locker room, I noticed that the heat had been turned off. I could see my breath. I had four stories to write.

Tom Mickle, then the Duke SID and, as it turned out, one of my best friends in life, stayed with me in the press room. He wore a coat, a ski cap and kept taking off his gloves long enough to send one page at a time on the old telecopier (six minutes per page) that was used then to file. He stayed with me for two hours in a completely empty, un-heated building until I finished (my fingers cramping in the cold) all four stories.

We made it to Pittsburgh at 2 a.m. Never in my life was I happier to see a hotel.

Tom died suddenly of a heart attack three years ago. I have lots of memories of him but none more vivid than that one.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy talk in Washington Post today, we'll see if things change; Dan Snyder story

The Washington Post is full of happy talk this morning—and I do mean FULL, there’s a big front page story and about 10 more stories in the sports section—because Vinny Cerrato is finally gone from Redskins-land. The smartest comment I saw on all this was from a reader: “The wicked witch may not be dead but her favorite flying monkey is gone.”

Bruce Allen, a guy with an actual resume as an NFL personnel guy is in and Cerrato is out. Allen comes armed with something no one has ever had since the wicked witch—Dan Snyder—bought the team in 1999: the title of general manager. Once Snyder ousted Charlie Casserly, he basically ran the team himself with Cerrato as a front man and Joe Gibbs involved in some decisions during his four year return as coach.

Make no mistake about it though: the product that Washington has put on the field for the last 10 years is a Dan Snyder production. He has hired and fired coaches—or driven them so crazy that they left with $15 million left on their contract (Steve Spurrier)—and as recently as a couple weeks ago went to see Texas quarterback Colt McCoy play in person with Cerrato tagging along.

That’s why the essential question about the Redskins future hasn’t been answered yet. Allen has a solid, though not spectacular, record making personnel decisions in Oakland and Tampa Bay. His ties to the Redskins as George Allen’s son are irrelevant since Allen last worked in Washington when Jimmy Carter was a brand new president.

What’s more, it appears likely now that Mike Shanahan will be the next coach—although there are some who think that John Gruden’s Tampa Bay ties to Allen might bring him to Washington. Maybe. More likely though it will be Shanahan for a huge pile of money. The ex-Broncos coach has been positioning himself for the job all season—using one of those ESPN rumor guys to build up the notion that he might go to Buffalo as a bargaining wedge with the Redskins.

One would think a tandem of Allen and Shanahan, or for that matter Allen and Gruden, will work. The elephant in the room, albeit one wearing a pointy black hat and traveling by broomstick, is Snyder. Is he really and truly capable of listening to the football guys and nodding his head when they tell him what they want to do? The fact that Allen got the GM title tells you that Snyder has told him he’ll be the decision-maker. He told Marty Schottenheimer the same thing once upon a time then reneged on the deal after one season.

If I was a Redskins fan here’s the Snyder quote that would make me a little bit nervous this morning: “In terms of the past, I’ve not been as involved as people may have thought. In terms of the future, obviously we’re going to be counting on Bruce to help lead the way and we’re excited about having a seasoned NFL executive with this much experience.”

Translate that into English and here’s what he said: “Don’t blame me for the past, it’s the other guys, the ones I’ve fired.” If you believe that I’d suggest you stay up all night on Christmas Eve because Santa is bound to show up. The notion that Allen will, “help,” lead the decision-making doesn’t sound too firm either does it?

In fact, when he was asked how much autonomy Allen would have, Snyder gave a non-answer: “Obviously Bruce has the authority. When we (note WE) make a decision, when he makes a decision, when the club makes a decision, it’s a Redskins decision.”

Oh boy, a Redskins decision. That sounds a lot like the “Redskins grades,” Snyder said he and Cerrato and the scouts gave players before the draft each year. It’s interesting that so many people in DC are giddy that Cerrato is finally gone—he left in his usual classless fashion, patting himself on the back for “outstanding draft picks,” while completely leaving Coach Jim Zorn out in listing all the people he was proud to have worked with in Washington—the issue was never Cerrato. It was and is Snyder.

Snyder’s a bully and a bad guy. People keep talking about what a great businessman he is. I’ll accept that only because I don’t know a thing about business and the guy made a lot of money. For me to analyze someone as a businessman is a little like Snyder analyzing someone as a football player or a football coach.

There are all sorts of stories about Snyder mistreating (and firing) employees; about his Napoleonic obsession with being called Mr. Snyder and his consistent insistence that he be involved in football decisions—which have proven to be disastrous.

Let me tell you one first hand story about Snyder. We haven’t gotten along since he bought the team because I was critical of the way he treated people and of his breaking up what had been a pretty good team in 1999, a team that went 10-6 and lost at the buzzer in the conference semifinals to Tampa Bay under Charlie Casserly and Norv Turner. Snyder went out and bought a bunch of over-the-hill big name free agents (Jeff George, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith) the next offseason and fired Turner with a 7-6 record in 2000. Casserly was already long gone. At last look Turner was 10-3 in San Diego after being ridiculed by people in Washington after his firing.

Snyder called me at some point during this period to tell me that I shouldn’t criticize him because (I’m not making this up) he gave a lot of money to Children’s Hospital. I told him I certainly would never criticize him or anyone for giving money to charity but that wasn’t the issue. He continued on, getting angry, demanding to know where the hell I came off criticizing someone who was so charitable. I told him I’d be willing to bet him a lot of money—that I’d give to charity—that I gave a higher percentage of my income to charity than he did and it was STILL a moot point; that if someone didn’t like what I wrote how much I gave to charity didn’t matter.

End of conversation.

A few years later I was sitting in a restaurant in Potomac (Maryland) not far from where I live and also not far from where Snyder lives. I was with my ex-wife, sitting in the back when the restaurant manager came over looking a little flustered.

“John, Dan Snyder is in here having dinner,” he said.

I shrugged. “And?” I said.

“He saw you sitting here. He says he wants to buy you a bottle of wine.”

I really didn’t want to play this game but there was no choice. If I turned the wine down I’d look un-gracious. So, I said to the manager, “Tell Mr. Snyder thanks and I’d like to buy his table dessert.”

When we got up to leave, I stopped at the table. Snyder was with his wife and Bennett Zeier and his wife—Zeier was running his radio stations at the time although, like most Snyder employees, he left soon after.

“Dan, thanks for the wine,” I said, shaking hands. “That was very gracious of you. I asked Enzo to add your desserts to my tab.” I turned to Mary and said, “I don’t think you’ve met my wife…”

Snyder ignored Mary and said to me, “yeah, I really enjoyed buying wine for someone who has been s----- on me for seven years.”

“Hey Dan, if you’ve got any issues with me, I’d be happy to buy you lunch and discuss them. But I don’t think now is the time.”

“No, you wouldn’t would you? You don’t like it when the tables are turned do you?”

“What tables are turned? Look, here’s my number, call me anytime you want.” I grabbed some paper from my pocket and wrote down my phone numbers. Before I could hand Snyder the numbers, he had turned on Mary.

“How does your husband sleep at night, huh?” he sneered. “Doesn’t he have a conscience? How does he sleep?”

“Actually he sleeps fine,” Mary said.

At that moment, Zeier, clearly embarrassed, jumped in and asked me about a mutual friend of ours, Rob Ades. He introduced me to the two wives who were pretty much cowering under the table.

Snyder plowed through the pleasantries. “You have no RIGHT to criticize me,” he said, pointing a finger. “I don’t know who you think you are…”

I held up my hand. Enough was enough. “Dan, there are my numbers. Call me. We’ll discuss this in a non-social setting.”

“I don’t call the media,” he shouted. “Why don’t YOU call me?”

“Because Dan, I don’t have a problem. You do.”

I walked away with Snyder still shouting something at my back. At the front of the restaurant Enzo was waiting with a bottle of wine. “Tell Mr. Snyder to keep it,” I said.

I never heard from him.

So now he’s finally thrown his pal Cerrato overboard and reeled in Allen with Shanahan probably to follow. If nothing else the next chapter should be entertaining to watch. In the meantime, I’m still sleeping fine.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Former Executive Director of the USGA, Frank Hannigan, sends email that rings true; Insider info on the media game

The life of Tiger Woods really has become an accident scene. On the one hand you want to avert your eyes, on the other hand you can’t stop staring. Having Doonesbury spend an entire week lampoon you pretty much means you have gone from being an iconic golfer to an iconic punch line.

I have an absolute case of Tiger-fatigue. And yet, as I sit here this morning I’m thinking, ‘how can I not write about him?’ Are readers going to be more interested in how thrilled I was last night when American University went to DePaul and won? Or do they want my thoughts on the Islanders beating the Rangers in Madison Square Garden and some of my memories of growing up as a kid in the blue seats at The Garden? (Section 406 was the ideal if you could tickets up there. In those days the cost was $4). I could write about the Halladay-Lee trade and just how good the Mariners might be next season with Cliff Lee and Felix Rodriguez at the top of their rotation two years after losing more than 100 games.

No. Like it or not the story on everyone’s minds is Tiger and, regardless of how Charles Barkley may feel, it isn’t going away.

The Doonesbury strip a couple of days ago in which Garry Trudeau had Tiger’s mistresses deciding to unionize was funny. A lot of what’s circulated on TV and on the internet is funny. Of course every time we laugh at this stuff we also pause to think about what Tiger has done to his wife and his kids and then it isn’t so funny.

Having said that, I got an e-mail last night from Frank Hannigan, who was once executive director of the USGA and, even though he is the world’s leading curmudgeon, is still one of the very smart voices out there on any subject but especially on golf.

Hannigan usually weighs in to list all the various crimes I have committed against journalism and golf and the fate of the world in general and this note was no different. As always, a lot of what he said rang true. He told me I should cool it with the notion that Tiger’s fall from grace is some kind of epic disaster for golf. He didn’t go the, “golf was around before Tiger and will be around after Tiger,” route (even though that’s true) but what he did say is that if golf’s revenues go down for a few years life will go on.

“So the 100th ranked guy on the money list makes $800,000 instead of $1,000,000 the next few years—so what?”—he wrote. He went on to say that while there was no doubt the “Tiger golf-fan,” might disappear in his absence or not be quite so enamored of him upon his return, the core golf fans would still be there and there are other guys out there who can play the game pretty well.

He’s right of course. Sure, it’s Tim Finchem’s job as commissioner to try to keep purses going up, sponsors happy and TV ratings high so that he can wheedle more money from the networks the next time the contracts are up. But let’s say none of that happens. So, purses go down and players are unhappy about that. What are they going to do, give up golf and go to law school? (That’s not a Hannigan line but it could be one). Some tournaments might go away and that would be too bad but the tour isn’t going to shut down.

As for the TV networks, well, Golf Channel’s deal runs for something like 11 more years and do you think CBS is going to give up The Masters because Tiger isn’t as beloved as he once was? (There’s a joke in there somewhere about Tiger’s life and ‘a tradition like no other,’ but I’ll pass on that).

Sports go through downturns. Baseball took a huge hit at the box office and in TV ratings after the strike of 1994 and 1995. It came back and flourished not long afterwards. When hockey shut down in 2005 people said and wrote it would never come back. It’s doing just fine—much better than pre-lockout as a matter of fact. Go back to the 1980s before Magic and Bird and no one—NO ONE—was watching the NBA. Even the all-powerful NFL has attendance problems these days. A story in today’s Washington Post reports that The Jacksonville Jaguars are down to 27,000 season ticketholders.

All those sports have survived crises, regardless of what caused them. Tennis is in crisis right now because it has been mismanaged for so many years and hasn’t had a real American star on the men’s side since Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi retired a few years back. In fact, going back to 1993 when I started researching, “A Good Walk Spoiled,” both my editor and my agent expressed some concern that the book might not sell that well because golf had no stars. Remember the term, “faceless clones?” That book, which mentioned Tiger Woods ONCE—a sentence about this teen-age phenom getting a sponsor’s exemption to play in Los Angeles—outsold, “A Season on the Brink.”

So, Hannigan—as usual—is right. If Tiger never plays again, golf will wobble but will be fine in the long run. If, as is far more likely, he comes back a tainted icon but still a great player, golf will take a hit, especially in the short term, but will be just fine when all is said and done.

Having said all that, I don’t know about all of you but I definitely have Tiger fatigue right now even though I know I can’t just say, ‘enough,’ because it is still the story everyone is talking about.

I said last week that I don’t mind radio and TVs calling because I’m flattered that they think what I have to say might matter. It is amusing when producers call and act as if they are the very first ones to come up with the idea of asking me to talk about Tiger. Even more amusing was an e-mail I got yesterday from a producer at CNBC. It began this way: “Hi John—I wanted to let you know about a great opportunity for you tomorrow…” The ‘great opportunity,’ was to go downtown to a studio and spend two or three minutes on-air after Finchem got through talking to the network.

I couldn’t resist. I wrote back and asked her exactly what this ‘great opportunity,’ was for me. She earnestly wrote back that I would be on CNBC’s, “highest-rated,” show and would have the chance to be the, “first person,” to comment on Finchem’s comments. I wonder if she actually believes this sort of stuff or just thinks people are dumb enough to believe it. Remarkably, I decided not to give up two hours of my day for this ‘great opportunity.’ To be fair, she isn’t the first TV person—and no doubt won’t be the last—who has tried to convince me how fortunate I would be to be on their air.

I apologize for the digression. It’s just that after all these years of dealing with TV people (not all but many) I am still amazed by them. I’m not a fool. I understand that TV exposure helps sell books and that a lot of people think being on TV is absolutely the coolest thing one can do in life. I STILL have people come up and tell me how much they love watching me on ‘The Sports Reporters,” (which was great fun to do, especially when Dick Schaap was still alive) even though I haven’t been on the show in almost three years.

We are now almost three weeks into “As The Tiger Turns,” and each day I find myself shaking my head at something new. Yesterday it was Tiger’s agent, Mark Steinberg, climbing out from under the rock he’s been hiding under since this began to put out a statement ripping The New York Times for saying that IMG was involved in setting up Tiger’s sessions with the Canadian doctor who apparently used HGH in treating people recovering from major injuries. The Times wrote the story after the guy was arrested at the Canadian/U.S. border carrying illegal performance-enhancing drugs. In the statement Steinberg took a swipe at all the media reporting on his client.

Steinberg needs to shut-up. Unless he wants to take a polygraph test and tell people what he knew and what he didn’t know and what he told Tiger to do and not do when all this started, he should climb back under that rock.

There’s quite a crowd hiding there right now. My guess is they will be there for a while. But, as Frank Hannigan points out, golf will still be played—without Tiger, with a tainted Tiger, whatever—but it will still be played.

Updated -This week's radio segments (The Kornheiser Show, The Gas Man, The Sports Reporters):

I made my regular appearance on The Sports Reporters with Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin in the normal timeslot (5:25 ET on Wednesday's) this evening. Click the permalink, then the link below, to listen to the segment on a variety of topics.

Click here to listen to Wednesday afternoon's segment: The Sports Reporters


I also made my regular spot with The Gasman that has moved to Wednesday's at 5:25 PT during the NFL late season. This week we was another talking about a wide range of sports topics including college basketball (and the Pac10's struggles), the Big 10 expansion talk and of course, Tiger Woods.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Gas Man


I was on during my regular spot with the newest Tony Kornheiser Show on Thursday at 11:00. It was the typical Tony, discussing topics from waste sizes to the Redskins to Tiger Woods.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Kornheiser Show

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A little more on the ‘list’; Touching on the Roy Williams controversy

Let me begin today by trying to explain how in the world I left Jackie Robinson off the most important athletes list yesterday—before realizing on my way to lunch, ‘Oh My God I Left Jackie Robinson out!’ Here’s my explanation: I have none. Sometimes you just mind-block. Usually I do it at the grocery store—‘what the heck did my kids tell me to get?’—or on Christmas shopping—“Is today the 16th, jeez maybe I ought to do something about gifts.”

This one I just screwed up. Curt Flood and Jesse Owens should have been on there too and I somehow mentioned Muhammad Ali as an example of someone whose influence went well beyond his ability to box and then left HIM off the list. That may have something to do with the fact that I almost never think about boxing anymore. Ali was just about the last boxer I really cared about because even though I covered Sugar Ray Leonard a little bit I never really bought into his act.

The other person who was mentioned by posters yesterday who I don’t consider an automatic but deserves serious consideration is Bobby Orr because he did change the way defensemen played hockey. The notion of a defenseman scoring 20 goals, much less leading the league in scoring was unheard of before Orr.

I’m not going to go through the entire list today, maybe I’ll just do one guy at a time over the next few weeks so that I can go into a little more detail than a sentence or two on each. What is interesting, as some people pointed out, is that I had 20 people even with the omissions which means there are about 25 who seemingly HAVE to be on the list. To try to pare that list to say, 10, would be virtually impossible. And all of us can think of others who deserve consideration: Did Cal Ripken save baseball in 1995? Should all the steroid stars—Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Clemens et al—be mentioned because they certainly changed the way their sport was viewed. Althea Gibson? John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors—both of whom certainly changed tennis?

Plus, I didn’t even try to include coaches or managers on the list and trying to pick just ten of THEM would be almost impossible. Let’s just say you were doing Mount Rushmore for those guys: John Wooden, right? Vince Lombardi? Red Auerbach? Scotty Bowman? That would mean leaving out (among others) Dean Smith, Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Phil Jackson, Casey Stengel, John McGraw, Toe Blake, Al Arbour, Chuck Noll, Don Shula, Bill Walsh, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Bear Bryant and Knute Rockne. That’s just in the four major sports and no doubt I’m mind-blocking on someone right now.

In short, there’s plenty of room to discuss this more in the future.

This morning though I feel I have to weigh in on this Roy Williams controversy because I keep getting asked about it—which is actually a little bit of a relief because it means a few minutes less of being asked to psycho-analyze Tiger Woods.

Ole Roy—as he often calls himself—had a fan of the Presbyterian Blue Hose removed from the Dean Dome last Saturday during a North Carolina rout of a badly overmatched team. Apparently the guy stood up as Deon Thompson was shooting a free throw and yelled, “Don’t miss Deon!”

My guess is his major crime was waking up what was left of the crowd from a nice nap. Since he was sitting in the section reserved for FOR (Friends of Roy) and since Roy and others could clearly heard him, Roy got upset and had the guy removed.

Okay, let’s not make this into a big deal because it’s not. Did Roy overreact? Yes—even if some of his loyal supporters have jumped in claiming the fan in question was drunk, was rude, didn’t have a ticket (or should NOT have had a ticket) in that section, had used profanity prior to his crack AND was involved in the conspiracy to kidnap the Lindbergh baby. Deon Thompson, by the way, somehow shook off the ‘heckling,’ to make his free throw.

The fact is Roy didn’t have him thrown out for any of that—whether it was true or un-true as the fan in question and others sitting around him have said. Roy had him thrown out for yelling, “Don’t miss Deon.” Roy should just apologize and let that be the end of it.

Let me say this about Roy Williams right here: I really like the guy, which galls some of my Duke friends. If you question his abilities as a coach, you’re insane, just check the record. And I know people roll their eyes at times about all the ‘aw shucks, I’m just an ole country boy stuff,’ but most, if not all of it, is genuine. If some of it is put on because it helps recruiting guess what?—it works.

In 1991 when I was working for the late, lamented National Sports Daily I wrote a column about Dean Smith after the ACC Tournament basically saying that some of the little feuds he picked were beneath him. The freshest example I used was his refusal to go on the Raycom ACC Tournament telecasts either pre-game on tape or postgame live, in part because he was upset that they hadn’t hired any ex-Carolina players to do color commentary and in part because he thought that Dan Bonner (by far Raycom’s best analyst) had defended what he (Dean) perceived to be dirty play by Virginia. Bonner—surprise—played at Virginia so Dean saw a conspiracy.

The column set off a firestorm. Even though I had always had a good relationship with Dean and with almost everyone I knew at Carolina this was proof—absolute PROOF—that I was a Duke apologist and I was out to get Dean. Frank Deford, who was the editor of The National, showed me some of the letters which accused me of being guilty of most crimes committed in the 20th century, virtually all in the name of embarrassing Carolina and Dean.

Eddie Fogler, who I’d been friends with for years, walked up to me at The Final Four and said, “You are the worst sportswriter in America.”

“Coming from you Eddie,” I answered, “I consider that high praise.”

Duke ended up winning its first national championship that year—no doubt because of my efforts—beating Kansas, coached by Roy Williams, in the final.

A couple of weeks after the Final Four I got a lengthy handwritten letter from Roy. He talked about how much he had always valued our friendship and how much respect he had for me. Then he began to talk about Dean—“Coach Smith,”—and how much he meant to him. At the end of the letter he wrote: “John, I know a lot’s been said that’s unfair to you but I think you know not a word of that has come from Coach Smith. He may disagree with you on this but I know he respects you just as I know how much you respect him. I think the two of you should talk at some point this summer. If need be I will fly into Chapel Hill to make the meeting happen. This is that important to me because of how I feel about you and because there is no one in the world more important to me than Coach Smith.”

Dean and I did talk and agreed to disagree on Bonner and who should or should not be doing color on ACC games and on several other topics. I remember him saying, “At least concede this: when you and I argue it’s usually because I’m standing up for my players.”

I told him I knew that he ALWAYS stood up for his players. I also told him about Roy’s letter. There wasn’t anything phony in that letter and I could tell you a half dozen other stories that would illustrate why Roy is a good guy.

The only thing as silly as Duke fans trying to make Roy out to be a bad guy is when Carolina fans try to make Mike Krzyzewski out to be a bad guy. BOTH are Hall of Fame coaches and BOTH are outstanding men. They have very different styles on and off the court and I enjoy them both.

Do they make mistakes? Of course they do—who among us doesn’t? Theirs are just made in public a lot of the time. So Roy overreacted and it set off a minor firestorm. He ought to shrug his shoulders and say, “Ole Roy is probably a little bit sensitive sometimes.”

Because he is. Which doesn’t make him a bad guy by any stretch of the imagination.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

WSJ article on expanding the NCAA Tournament caught my attention; Beginning the ‘most important athletes’ discussion

I was all set to write today about the most important 10 or 12 athletes in sports history since a lot of people reading yesterday’s blog raised the question. I’m going to save that for another day---although I’ll give you my list at the end of this blog and then discuss it in detail later. I will also say that the poster who objected yesterday to the notion of me describing Tiger Woods as, “one of the most important athletes in sports history,” on the grounds that sports isn’t important enough to be part of history, needs to jump off his high horse and do a little more research.

Certainly the actual playing of games has little to do with history. But the simple fact is sports touches millions of lives in more ways than can be counted. The poster mentioned Jesse Owens. How about the hockey team in 1980 at Lake Placid? Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King? Muhammad Ali? I could go on but that’s also for another day. Sports is an important part of life around the world—often for good and sometimes for bad—and if you don’t get that you aren’t nearly as smart as you think you are.

Anyway, just before I sat down to write about the most important athletes—notice I didn’t say BEST athletes because that’s a different story—I came upon a story in The Wall Street Journal. There are times when The Journal does very good stories on sports because it takes a different tack than the rest of us, often digging up facts that others (myself included) wouldn’t think to seek out. Where The Journal gets into trouble is when it allows guys who don’t know anything about sports to express their opinions on sports—which are often based on talking to those in power since they can usually get them on the phone by saying, “Wall Street Journal.”

So today, a guy named Darren Everson writes a story in which he insists that expanding the NCAA basketball tournament to 96 teams should be a “no-brainer.” He’s right. Anyone with a brain who doesn’t have a vested interest in expansion—as in the NCAA, ESPN and most major conference coaches—knows it’s a ridiculous idea. Everson was taken in by Greg Shaheen from the NCAA carefully explaining that the NCAA is merely doing “due diligence,” by raising the possibility; by coaches who want to protect their jobs claiming that too many good teams get left out of the 65 team field and by commissioners looking for more bids for their conferences.

What a bunch of malarkey.

What makes the NCAA basketball tournament unique is that you actually DO have to be good to make the field. It isn’t like the bowls where more than 50 percent of Division 1-A gets to play in a bunch of bowls who change corporate names the way George Steinbrenner used to change pitching coaches. It isn’t like the NBA or the NHL where more than half the teams make the playoffs. Or even like the NFL where only 12 of 32 make postseason but the divisional system occasionally lets 8-8 team in the door and often allows 9-7 teams into postseason. It is a lot closer to baseball where eight of 30 teams make postseason and it is rare for an un-deserving team to advance.

Everson bought into the notion that expanding to 96 teams would give more mid-majors the chance to make the tournament. Really? If 31 bids are added how many do you think WON’T go to the big six conferences? Five, six? If that? And you can bet those five or six will be No. 22 or No. 23 seeds in a 24 team regional while the 10th place team in the ACC gets a 13th seed. Have you paid any attention to how the committee seeds the field? Almost all the automatic qualifiers from non-power leagues are consigned to the 13-to-16 ghetto. For a while there was a sub-committee whose job it was to take those teams and seed them as if putting together a separate tournament.

Oh sure, every once in a while someone will pop up a few spots after going 27-2 and beating a couple of power teams in early season tournaments—usually the only time a power team will play anyone who is any good outside their conference—and the occasional at-large team will sneak in from the non-power conferences but they REALLY have to work hard to overcome all the talking heads who usually want every single team from the Big East and the ACC to make the field. Frequently teams that finish under .500 in their own conference get in on the basis of quality LOSSES.

With all the bleating by the BCS hypocrites about how much meaning the football regular season has, it is basketball that has the most meaningful regular season. You can play your way into the tournament with a strong finish or you can play your way out with a poor one. Getting a bid actually has meaning, which is why CBS always shows us those shots of teams sitting in their (very comfortable) lounges waiting to get word on whether they’re in or out. Can you imagine the suspense next year if CBS shows us 16-15 Providence waiting to get word on whether it has been chosen over 17-14 Indiana or 15-14 North Carolina State while 23-7 Bradley hopes someone notices that even though it finished fourth in The Missouri Valley it had wins over both Indiana and Providence?

God, I can’t wait.

Let’s not even get into an argument about what a fourth week on the road will do for the ‘student-athletes,’ whose teams come from a lower seed (meaning no first round bye) to make The Final Four because we know that’s a moot point. Everson quotes Baylor’s Scott Drew as saying players would rather play an extra round of games than go to class. Ya think? At least Drew’s honest.

The sad part of all this is it’s going to happen. The NCAA has floated this because it wants the extra money that ESPN or CBS (more likely ESPN) will pony up for an extra week and to give the NCAA the excuse to opt out of the last three years of its CBS contract this summer. The decision has already been made and now the NCAA is using guys like Everson to spread the gospel. He actually wrote that expanding to 96 teams was more important than getting rid of the BCS. Yeah sure, watering down a system that DOES pick a national champion is more important than getting rid of a system that does not pick a national champion, but the champion of the six power conferences.

As someone wrote in a post here last week, “Leave it to the NCAA. It’s motto is, ‘if it ain’t broke fix it.” Truer words were never spoken.


Okay then, here’s my tentative list—because I’m open to suggestion—of the most important athletes in history. This is not in any order, I’m just sort of going by sport: Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron with apologies to Willie Mays; Jim Brown; Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic and Bird; Michael Jordan; Wayne Gretzky; Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps, Jean-Claude Killy, the U.S. hockey team at Lake Placid; Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods (remember important is the key word, not great—Palmer was more important than Jack Nicklaus); Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe and Pele.

Okay, that’s actually 20 and I haven’t included any coaches or managers—that’s a separate list—and I’m sure I’ve left deserving people out. The list probably has too many basketball players but who would you leave out in that group?—and not enough football players. I’ve left out all the great quarterbacks—Graham, Unitas, Starr, Montana, Brady and Manning because I see them as great but not as changing their sport. In fact, if a quarterback belongs on the list it is probably Joe Namath for Super Bowl III even though his body of work isn’t comparable to the others mentioned.

There’s one other person I didn’t mention: Ed Brennan. He was my swimming coach in high school. I probably wouldn’t have gone to college if not for him. That’s what I meant before about sports touching lives—at all levels.

[Update/Note: I had a mind block this morning and left out Jackie Robinson, who might very well be #1 on the list. I can't believe I did this, and will talk more on it tomorrow.]