Monday, November 30, 2009

On a Day I Hoped to Write About the Ongoing NCAA DI-AA Playoffs, Instead it's on Tiger

I was really hoping to write this morning about the Division 1-AA playoffs—or as the NCAA likes to call them the, “Football Championship Sub-Division,” playoffs—that began last Saturday. I even scheduled a trip to Philadelphia Saturday to see Villanova play Holy Cross in one of the eight first round games.

Holy Cross is a wonderful story, the kind that doesn’t get enough attention. Six years ago the Crusaders were 1-11 while their coach, Dan Allen, was dying of ALS. Tom Gilmore arrived in 2004 and, with considerable help from a quarterback named Dominic Randolph, went 9-3 this season and won The Patriot League Championship to qualify for the tournament.

Villanova won an entertaining game 38-28 but I knew by the time I made the drive to Philly that I wasn’t going to be writing today about players who compete in college football for an actual championship.

My phone began ringing sometime around 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon. Tiger Woods had been in a “serious,” car accident. That sounded scary although it didn’t take long to find out he had already been released from the hospital and his spin-doctors were putting out a statement that the accident was, “minor,” and he was already home in “good,” condition.

Okay, I thought, maybe this will pass in a few hours. I understood that a Tiger Woods fender-bender is a 50-car pileup in the golf world but even those are usually cleared in a few hours when they occur. The police said there was no evidence that alcohol played a role in the accident. End of story.

Not exactly.

Details began to emerge that raised questions. Detail 1: the accident took place at 2:28 a.m. on Black Friday a few yards from the front door of Woods’ house and he was LEAVING when it happened. Question 1: Why was he leaving his house at that hour of the night/morning? The odds are pretty good it wasn’t to get to Walmart to beat the crowds and buy discounted golf clubs.

Detail 2: His wife, Elin, pulled him from the car after smashing the back window of the car so she could get to him. Question 2: Why would one smash the BACK window of an SUV to get to someone in the front seat?

Detail 3: Elin used a golf club to smash in the window. Question 3: Did she run all the way down to the accident scene, then back to the house to grab a golf club and then back to the car? Or, did she have the wherewithal to grab a golf club after hearing the crash? Or, was neither of those the correct answer?

These were questions that needed answers. The best and smartest thing Tiger could have done was talk to the police as soon as possible—it probably would have taken five minutes: one car accident, no one else hurt, no sign of alcohol being involved—and let them write their report and perhaps charge him with careless driving and send him a bill for the hydrant.

Soon after that he should have held a press conference during which he could have explained that, yes, he and Elin had an argument. Say something like, “Any of you guys been married? Ever had an argument with your wife? Sometimes the best thing to do is just get out of the house for a while. I was frazzled and wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing and here I am.”

No need to go into any further details. If the tabloid/cyber-space rumors making the rounds are brought up, just smile and say, “come on fellas, I’m not going to dignify that sort of thing with an answer, you know me better than that.”

Talk about the football games you watched on Thanksgiving and move on. Revel in Stanford’s win over Notre Dame. You see, that’s the way you move on in these situations. You don’t move on by making the police asking routine questions into a story by avoiding them for three days and brining in some lawyer to stonewall on your behalf. It makes you look like you have something to hide.

You don’t move on by playing the “this is a private matter,” card either. It ceased being a private matter once he hit the fire hydrant. He’s a public figure and something put him in that car and on that road and out of control. He owes the public—which has helped make him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams—more than the privacy card. Privacy stops at the front door.

Beyond that, supplying some kind of explanation is the best thing for WOODS. He may be able to intimidate most of the golf media but he isn’t going to intimidate the tabloids or the gossip web sites or TV joke-writers. They could care less if he cuts them off or stops calling them by name during his press conferences.

Woods is a control freak—like most hugely successful people—and he can’t stand being in a situation in which he loses any control. That’s why he gets SO angry when he hits a wayward shot. At that moment, he’s lost control of his golf game. It’s why he has fired caddies and agents who have dared speak up without his permission and why those who work for him live in fear of saying or doing anything that might make him angry.

Up until now Woods has done as good a job as any mega-celebrity has ever done in keeping his life under control. There has been nothing really serious to criticize him for. Sure, he throws clubs and uses profanity on the golf course and, a month shy of turning 34, most people think he needs to outgrow those habits. He’s let his caddy, Steve Williams, behave very badly far too often and he should sign more autographs than he does. But that’s about the list of things you can criticize him for—unless you count blowing off the media on occasion after a bad round which I know almost no one in the public could care less about.

I’ve had my battles with Tiger and his people but I have great respect for him, certainly as a golfer (it would be insane not to) but also for the way he has dealt most of the time with his fame. I’ve often said that he’s as bright as any athlete I’ve ever met and perhaps as bright as any person I’ve met.

Of course because I have been critical of him at times dating back to his rookie year I’ve been viewed by Tiger and his team as a bad guy. The fact that I wrote early on that I believed he had succeeded in spite of his father rather than because of him earned me a permanent spot on his bad list. Which is fine. As I said to him once, I’d never put a guy down for defending his dad.

I’d like to think the fact that we aren’t pals and he doesn’t use a nickname when addressing me the way he does with some other writers doesn’t affect the way I judge him. I remember doing a U.S. Open preview for National Public Radio in 2001 soon after he had completed his, “Tiger Slam,” in which I called it the greatest feat in golf history given the competition and the media pressures he’d had to deal with. Later that day I got a call from the producer of the show I was on saying, “Is there any way I can get you to stop sucking up to Tiger Woods?” I suggested she call Tiger’s agent (she wasn’t like to reach Tiger) and repeat that comment if only so we could all have a good laugh.

I’m the last person to sit in judgment of what goes on inside someone’s home and inside someone’s marriage. None of us knows the truth from the outside. But Tiger—for Tiger’s sake—needs to stop hiding out behind statements and lawyers and end this by saying SOMETHING. Until he does he’s going to be a punch line. And I know him well enough to know just how much he has to hate that idea.

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One more note from the weekend that begs for a comment: Did anyone notice that on Sunday one of those ESPN hacks who will put out any bit of information he’s fed “reported,” that Charlie Weis has been contacted by six NFL teams about a job as a coordinator next season?

Who do you think the guy’s source was—Ara Parseghian? This is so typical of Weis. Rather than just accept his likely firing at Notre Dame as his responsibility—which it is—he has to get it out there that NFL teams are just dying to hire him. No doubt someone will hire him—he’s a fine coordinator—but it really is a shame that he has no shame or dignity at all. It’s all about him all the time, which is a big part of the reason why he failed so utterly as a head coach. Record the last three seasons once Ty Willingham’s players were just about gone: 16-21. Number of times he took responsibility for those losses: zero.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Thanksgiving of Traditions – Swimming, the Lions and the New One, College Basketball

Everyone has Thanksgiving traditions. Even now, I try to sit down and watch the start of the football game from Detroit because I remember doing it as a kid. That’s been tough in recent years because the Lions have been so bad and, most of the time, the game has been out of hand by midway in the second quarter. At least yesterday it was competitive into the second half.

I know there has been talk about taking Thanksgiving away from the Lions. I think that would be a terrible decision. Yes, they’ve been lousy for a long time but at some point they will improve and there are some traditions you don’t mess with. They’ve played Thanksgiving football in Detroit since 1934. You don’t blow up a tradition like that so that a TV network can pick up a ratings point or two.

The game in Dallas is the one I don’t understand. I’m okay with the Cowboys hosting it but I wonder what the NFL is thinking sometimes when it chooses the opponent. It isn’t like with the Lions where they’re locked in. Did it come as a shock to the schedule-makers that the Raiders are bad again this year? If this is a year when the NFC East plays the AFC West why not send the Chargers in there on Thanksgiving Day? Or at least the Broncos.

Who would have thought that the highlight of Thanksgiving Day would be ESPN’s decision to create a bunch of college basketball tournaments? My goodness, do I owe the Bristol boys a thank-you note?

Actually my favorite Thanksgiving tradition the last dozen or so years has been getting up to go workout at the pool. Among the holidays, Thanksgiving is usually the best one for a workout because people aren’t feeling guilty yet about too much holiday eating and it isn’t New Years’—worst day of the year—when everyone has made their resolutions to lose weight.

This Thanksgiving workout had a little more meaning than some others. It was my first real attempt to swim since my heart surgery. I’ve been cleared to swim for a couple months but, to be honest, I was so far behind in my work that committing the time was really difficult. It was a lot easier to just walk for an hour than to get in the car, drive to the pool, workout and drive home. So, I made a deal with myself: as a soon as I finished the two books I was working on (one on the ’03 majors; the other the fifth book in the kids mystery series) I would make a serious effort to get back in swimming shape.

I finished the second book on Wednesday. Thursday morning I was in the pool. To say that I’m out of shape is like saying Dick Vitale talks a lot. Actually, my legs aren’t too bad because of the walking and the same is true of my wind. I was able to hold my turns for about as long as normal. The problem is my arms. They felt as if they had 50-pound weights on them. I did a set of 6x50 meters on 1:15 that would normally be an easy warm down set, one that if I was really in shape I’d swim butterfly. I was seriously hurting before I was finished. At the very end I tried to swim ONE length of butterfly. It felt like the end of a 200 fly.

So, I’ve got a long, long way to go. Still, it felt SO good to be back in. I made it through 1,300 meters—a nice warm-up for most of my friends—but was happy I did it. As soon as I finish writing this morning, I’m heading back to the pool. Maybe by spring I’ll be in some kind of shape.

Among all the holidays, Thanksgiving is probably the one I’ve had to work or travel on least often. It is only in recent years that a lot of college hoops has been played at Thanksgiving. I remember flying home on a red eye from the Maui Classic one year when Maryland played in it and getting home on Thanksgiving morning.

Probably my most memorable Thanksgiving trip was way back in 1984 when Maryland went to The Great Alaska Shootout. The games didn’t start until Friday—in those days no one played before Thanksgiving Day—but I flew on the same flight with Maryland on Tuesday since the flight went through Salt Lake City and Seattle before landing in Anchorage.

In Seattle, we were joined by the Kansas team, which had flown from Kansas City to Seattle. Larry Brown was on the flight with his wife. Lefty Driesell looked at Larry’s wife and said, “You decided to make this trip? No way could I get Joyce to come this far especially to go to Alaska.”

“She just can’t bear to be away from me for five days,” Brown said.

“Yeah, that’s my whole problem,” Lefty said. “The only one who can’t bear to be away from me for five days is Feinstein.”

He was probably right about that.

Anchorage was a little bit like a wild west town—lots of bars and guys who were miners or prospectors. Seriously. The sun came up at about 10:30. I remember waking up on Thanksgiving morning to go down and have breakfast so I could be back in my room at 8:30 to watch the kickoff of the Lions game. It was really eerie watching the game when the sun hadn’t come up yet.

A guy named Happy Fine was the Maryland beat reporter for The Washington Times back then and he insisted on making a “pilgrimage,” to the gym on the Air Force base where Patrick Ewing had made his college debut three years earlier. By 1984 the tournament had moved to a brand new 8,000 seat building. Loren Tate, the long-time Illinois broadcaster walked in the first day looked around and said, “it’s just another gym—except this one’s a long way from home.”

UAB ended up beating Kansas in the final after Kansas had come from way behind to beat Maryland in the first game. I still remember a young Kansas assistant named John Calipari who I had met the previous summer at the Five-Star camp grabbing my arm in the locker room and saying, “you aren’t going to believe how good Danny Manning is going to be.”

Manning was a Kansas freshman at the time. We flew home on a red eye on Sunday night. I remember buying an “Alaska,” coffee mug in the gift shop at the airport because I’d forgotten to buy any souvenirs. I still have the mug 25 years later.

A month later, Maryland played in The Rainbow Classic in Hawaii—in those days you could play in two exempt events in the same season—and I interviewed Lefty on Christmas morning sitting on a balcony overlooking the ocean.

“Faahnsteen,” he said. “Think about it. Because of me, you’ve gotten to see the world this year.”

I didn’t argue.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Radio Segments from This Week:

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


Now that the NFL season has Thursday night football, my visit with The Gasman has moved to Wednesday's at 5:25 PT. This week we talked about tomorrows NFL games and of course the late Abe Pollin.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Gas Man

Discussing Abe Pollin After His Passing; Wishing Everyone a Happy Thanksgiving

Abe Pollin died yesterday. I realize to most of the country his death is not that big a deal. He was 85 and he had been sick for a long time. He was the owner of an NBA team that hasn’t been a serious factor in the league for most of the last 30 years. His Wizards, in fact, have won ONE playoff series since 1988.

Here in Washington though, Pollin’s death was a huge story—which is as it should be. It was Pollin who brought the NBA and the NHL to Washington in the 1970s and Pollin who spent $220 million of his own money to build Verizon Center in downtown. To look at the thriving area around the building now you would be hard-pressed to understand that it was completely burnt-out, practically a ghost down before Pollin opened the arena 12 years ago.

So, it is fair to say that Pollin was responsible for changing the quality of life in his hometown. When he brought the (then) Bullets and Capitals to suburban DC in the 1970s the nation’s capitol had ONE professional sports team—the Redskins. Baseball didn’t come back until 2005 and by then the Redskins were in control of arguable the worst owner in the history of sports.

Pollin made plenty of mistakes and he has to take at least some of the responsibility for the Wizards mediocrity (he changed the name in 1997 when the team moved downtown because he didn’t like the connotation of the word, ‘Bullets,’ in the city which, at the time, had the highest murder rate in the country). But he really did try to do the right things—he worked tirelessly for numerous charities and, unlike the owner of the Redskins, never tried to take bows for doing good.

(Let me pause here to explain that a bit further. Not long after Dan Snyder bought the Redskins he called me, upset because I had been critical of him for firing long-time employees left-and-right after taking over the team, including a public relations assistant who had been there for about 30 years.

“Do you have something against Children’s Hospital?” he asked me.

“WHAT?” I said. Children’s is one of the best pediatric hospitals in the country and, in fact, my son had gone through hernia surgery there and the people in the hospital had been fabulous from start to finish.

“I just thought maybe you were attacking me because I give a lot of money to Children’s Hospital.”

“First of all Dan, I would never attack someone for giving money to any charity. Second, I’m attacking you—if that’s what you want to call it—because I think you’ve treated people badly. Third, did you really just ask me that?”

He changed tactics—slightly. “You don’t know me well enough to criticize me. You don’t know how much money I give to charity.”

“Dan, I don’t CARE how much money you give to charity. Rich people SHOULD give money to charity. I know people a lot less wealthy than you who I bet give a much higher percentage of their income to charity than you. But that doesn’t matter. The fact that you would even bring it up makes me think less of you, not more.”

We have not been good friends since.)

The point is, Pollin would never in a million years have done that. He might pick up the phone to tell you he hated something you wrote. In fact, he bought full page ads in The Washington Post criticizing Post columnists for criticizing him. He once call me FURIOUS because I had called The Capital Centre, “the worst building in the world.” He got me to admit that perhaps I hadn’t been in every building in the world. There was no mention during the conversation of his charity work.

I actually got to know Abe while I was covering Maryland politics. The Cap Centre was in Prince George’s County in Maryland and Abe and his political cohort Peter O’Malley had twisted a lot of arms to get the building up and running and to get the tax breaks they felt they needed to make it work. A lot of the local pols didn’t like O’Malley and thus didn’t like Pollin.

I liked Pollin. Actually my dad knew him better than I did because he and his wife Irene spent a lot of time at The Kennedy Center when my dad was running it and were major patrons of all the arts in town. In the mid-80s, I was asked to do a piece on Pollin for The Washington Post Magazine. He agreed to talk to me at length and we had a long session over dinner in his private dining room at Cap Centre one night.

I wrote what I thought—and what most people thought—was a very favorable, though fair piece. It talked about all the good he had done and all that he had accomplished but also talked about some of the controversies he’d been involved in.

On the Sunday that the story ran I was at a Caps playoff game and ran into Steny Hoyer, who is now the House majority leader. Hoyer is a Prince George’s County guy and O’Malley was his political mentor so he was close to Pollin.

“Jeez, why didn’t you warn me that Abe was so angry at you,” Hoyer said.

“Angry?” I said. “What in the world is he angry about?”

Hoyer shrugged. “I’m not sure. But I just saw him and I said, ‘hey, great piece in The Post magazine today.’ He practically bit my head off and said, ‘it baffles me that a great guy like Martin Feinstein could have such an SOB for a son.’”

To be fair, a lot of people said that. My father loved that story. But that was Abe—never afraid of criticism but very sensitive about it. He was also forgiving. The next time I needed to talk to him he took my call, we talked at length and we moved on. He played a major role in the start-up of what is now The BB+T Classic by giving us The Cap Centre and later Verizon Centre at a very reduced rental rate. (The people we now negotiate with there haven’t been as generous).

When Abe, urged on by Ted Leonsis who had bought the Capitals from him, hired Michael Jordan as President of the Wizards, it was hailed in Washington as a master stroke. After all Jordan brought nothing but credibility to a franchise that desperately needed it.

The problem was the only good personnel move Jordan made in three-and-a-half years was hiring himself to play. Even at almost 40 he was still a good player but he certainly wasn’t Michael Jordan. And he was a lousy CEO: he was rarely at games, he hired all his cronies and gave them unlimited expense accounts; he drafted Kwame Brown with the No. 1 draft pick and he never really seemed to care if the team got better as long as he had his cigars and his luxury suite when he did bother to come to town.

At the end of the 2003 season, Pollin fired him, a difficult and gutsy move because he knew he would get hammered for it. Which he did. A lot of people pointed out how much money Jordan had made for him by selling the arena out during the two years he played. That was true. But here’s the question: Did Abe ask Michael to play or did Michael tell Abe he wanted to play? It was, of course, the latter. Was Abe supposed to turn Michael down? Would any owner in sports have turned Michael down?

Of course not. Abe fired a lousy executive. If his name had been Joe Smith no one would have even taken note of it. But because it was Jordan, because Jordan stormed out of Pollin’s office it was a huge deal. Two of Pollin’s major attackers were John Thompson and my friend Michael Wilbon. Both implied there were racial undertones to the firing.

They were wrong on every level. Pollin did the right thing for the right reasons. Hiring Ernie Grunfeld turned the franchise around—the Wizards ended a 17 year playoff drought in 2005 and made the playoffs four straight seasons before injuries devastated them a year ago.

It would be nice to report that in the smart, sweet column Wilbon wrote in this morning’s Post that he did a mea culpa and said Pollin had been right six years ago. Instead, he said he wished Pollin and Jordan could have forged the kind of friendship that Pollin had with Magic Johnson, who Pollin helped guide into the business world. That, of course, misses the point: if Johnson had been as incompetent an executive as Jordan was in Washington, Pollin would have fired him too. Michael should have said, “I made a mistake.” Hell, we all make them.

I have a box here in my office in which I keep letters I want to be absolutely certain I never lose. One is from Abe, written shortly after the book I did with Red Auerbach, ‘Let Me Tell You a Story,’ came out. Red and Abe went to the same high school, though Red was several years ahead of Abe. He joked in the book that had he known Abe was going to get so rich he’d have been nicer to him.

Abe sent a handwritten note saying how much he enjoyed the book and how much he always respected Red—even if the Celtics had tortured his team for years. At the bottom of the note he wrote. “Actually, you aren’t such a bad guy. I know your dad is very proud of you.”

I took that one out and looked at it last night. That’s one I’m glad I didn’t lose.

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I’m going to take tomorrow off to give everyone—including David Stewart and Terry Hanson who do all the heavy lifting for the blog—a day to enjoy their turkey, their families and some football—and basketball. I wish everyone—and I mean everyone—a Happy Thanksgiving. I’m not a big believer in clich├ęs but boy do I have a lot to be thankful for this year.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Myths of Institutions Dropping Sports, and a Suggestion; More on NCAA Exempt Events

One story that I think most people noticed in Monday’s paper was the announcement that Northeastern University is dropping football after 87 years. It is always sad—very sad—when these things occur, when players who have given heart-and-soul, regardless of the team’s record, are told they no longer have a team to play for anymore.

In recent years, schools have dropped sports because of economic pressures all over the country. In fact, another Boston school—Boston University—dropped football several years ago. The day will come—mark my words—when a Division 1-A school has to drop football and then it will be a huge national story.

Whenever something like this happens, two of the great myths of American life come into play: the first is that football is a money-making venture for many colleges. It is not. A handful of schools—perhaps 30 to 35—make money, some of them very big money playing football. Most Division 1-A schools struggle to break even because the scholarship costs are so huge and because for all the gurgling about being ‘bowl eligible,’ very few teams make money and most LOSE money going to second-tier bowl games. The payout doesn’t balance the costs of travel for the team, band and cheerleaders not to mention that all those bowls require every school to buy a certain number of tickets—many of which frequently go untouched by the team’s fans and alumni.

That’s myth number one. Myth number two is far more dangerous: The reason for teams being disbanded is Title IX. Every time a men’s team is dropped at a school—swimming has been nailed as much as any sport so I’m very aware of this trend—people start saying this is all the fault of Title IX. I heard it again yesterday when the Northeastern story came up on the radio: that damn Title IX went and did it again.

No, it didn’t. In most cases when schools kill off minor sports it is because they are spending so much money on a non-money-making football program that something has to go. Occasionally it is about compliance numbers but if a school is in the black financially it can ADD a women’s program to be in compliance rather than drop a men’s program. Most schools that give out 85 scholarships to compete in Division 1-A or 63 to compete in Division 1-AA are bleeding money.

Here’s what should change: the number of allowable football scholarships. Why in the world do 1-A schools need 85 scholarships? The answer is simple: to allow coaches to cover up their recruiting mistakes. That’s why you’re allowed to sign up to 25 players in a year. Do the math - 25x5 (most big schools redshirt some, most or all of their freshmen) equals 125. You can’t have more than 85 scholarships in play at any one time. Even if you account for natural attrition through injuries, kids deciding not to play or transferring because they want to play more, that still leaves a bunch of kids who need to be run off every year.

Remember, an NCAA scholarship is a ONE year commitment. It’s ironic with all the hand-wringing that goes on about athletes walking out on their ‘commitment,’ early to turn pro, that no one ever says anything about the fact that a coach can pull a kid’s scholarship at the end of any school year—without a reason. Usually it is because the kid isn’t as good as he was supposed to be when he was being recruited. And, more often than not, coaches aren’t dumb enough to say to a kid: “I’m pulling your scholarship, get out.” There’s too much potential bad publicity in that. So, they tell the kid he’s not likely to play, that he’s called a coach at another school and he has him lined up for a soft landing someplace else. Most kids want to play: if they get the message that isn’t going to happen, they leave willingly without making a federal case out of their scholarship being pulled.

Football doesn’t need 85 scholarships at the 1-A level or 63 at the 1-AA level. The numbers should be more like 60 and 40—maximum. Imagine how much money that would save schools that could be used on non-revenue sports for men and women and on the facilities schools constantly claim they don’t have. Northeastern Athletic Director Peter Robey claimed it was an inability to pay for better facilities that drove his decision to drop the football team. If a scholarship at Northeastern costs $30,000 a year—probably a conservative number—and the school could pay for 23 fewer scholarships each year and still compete with it’s D-1AA brethren, that would be a savings of about $700,000 a year—minimum. That’s a pretty good start, no?

Title IX remains one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed. Is it perfect? No. For example, the notion that the Maryland women’s basketball team should have the exact same facilities as the men’s basketball team is foolish: the men’s team, for all intents and purposes, funds the women’s team which—in spite of great recent success—costs about $3 million a year to operate.

That said, Title IX has done FAR more good than bad. It has changed the way girls growing up in this country look at the world. My daughter Brigid is a perfect example. She plays golf and tennis, swims and was on her volleyball team and is trying out for the fifth-sixth grade basketball team this week. Prior to 1973 few if any of those opportunities existed for her. She could have been a cheerleader and that was about it.

In fact, it was Brigid who pointed out a flaw to me in my most recent kids mystery, “Change-Up,” which is set at The World Series. On a number of occasions during the book people express amazement that the female protagonist, 14-year-old Susan Carol Anderson, knows as much as she does about sports.

Brigid, who just turned 12 and has been smarter than me since she was about two, said to me one day: “You know dad you shouldn’t say all the time that it’s so amazing that Susan Carol knows sports. I know in your day (I love that phrase) girls didn’t do sports very much but now we ALL do sports.”

She’s right of course. And that’s a very good thing at all levels. So when a football team goes away or a swimming team or a wrestling team disappears, let’s not point the finger at Title IX. There may be the occasional case where it has something to do with the end of a team—though NEVER football, that’s just about costs being out of control—but the good that it has done FAR outweighs any bad.

Tell the NCAA to bring football spending under control a little bit. That would do a lot more good than complaining about the existence of a women’s field hockey team.

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Just in case you missed it, Texas played Iowa in Kansas City last night in another of those exempt events with about 14 corporate names on it. Iowa was there even though it LOST in the so-called tournament to Duquesne. Like with the Coaches vs. Cancer event in New York, the “semi-finalists,” were pre-determined by the group running the event and by TV. (Like the world is dying to see Iowa play, right?)

There are a couple of things that really bother me about this in addition to the fraudulent nature of it all. First, the National Association of Basketball Coaches is one of the sponsors (and I would guess beneficiaries) of both the New York and Kansas City events. How can the NABC sanction a so-called competition in which a loser advances and a winner does not? The coaches should be ashamed. For the record, I dropped a note last week to Jim Haney, the executive director of the NABC asking him if he could tell me how much money had actually been turned over to cancer research groups the past few years by the Coaches vs. Cancer event. I’m still waiting for a response.

The other factor in this is that Duquesne is a terrific story. Ron Everhart took over a program in turmoil four years ago and then the entire school had to deal with the shootings two years that involved several players. Everhart got Duquesne to the NIT last year—it’s first postseason appearance in forever—and appears to have a very solid team this year. But heck, what does that matter? Iowa is in The Big Ten.

This smacks of the BCS—and that’s no compliment.

John's Monday Washington Post Column:

Here is this weeks Washington Post column, this one focusing on the football programs at Maryland and Virginia -----


Football fans aren't restless at Maryland and Virginia; they're relentless. And that means both Ralph Friedgen and Al Groh are spending this week preparing to coach games that could very well be their lasts in charge of their alma maters.

The Post has reported that Maryland is prepared to swallow a considerable financial burden if it decides a change is necessary. That would entail about $4.5 million to buy out the remaining two years on Friedgen's contract and another $1 million if it wants to get rid of designated successor James Franklin as well. That's before spending a penny to hire a new coach and, presumably a new and better-paid staff.

At Virginia, Al Groh is in his ninth year (like Friedgen) and apparently on his ninth life because Cavaliers fans have been calling for his dismissal since a 5-7 season in 2006 ended a run of four straight bowl games. Groh saved himself by going 9-4 and getting to the Gator Bowl in 2007, but last year's 5-7 record followed by this year's 3-8 will probably mean the end.

Life as a major college football coach is very simple: Win and you're the toast of the town; lose and everyone wants you out of it.

Click here for the rest of the column: In College Park and Charlottesville, football fans lack a sense of place

Monday, November 23, 2009

Where Do I Begin? For Starters, Pull Me Away from the BCS; ‘Inside Baseball’ on NFL Broadcasts

Some days I just don’t know where to begin.

I am absolutely restraining myself because how many days in a row can you hammer the BCS? But the apologists are now telling us that Oklahoma State will get a BCS bid—and deserves one—if it beats Oklahoma this weekend, which at last check was 6-5 and got hammered Saturday by Texas Tech.

But if Oklahoma State wins we’ll hear all about their win over a mediocre Georgia team and how they came from behind to beat god-awful Colorado with a third string quarterback leading the charge. Forget the loss at home to Houston or the 41-14 pounding—also at home—by Texas.

What may be worse is that The Big Ten WILL get a second bid—the only question being can Joe Paterno’s name overcome the fact that his team lost at home to Iowa and they finished with identical 10-2 records. Again, let’s remember that The Big Ten doesn’t have a single impact win outside the conference. The most impressive non-conference win by a Big Ten team might have been Ohio State squeaking out a 31-27 win over Navy in its opener—at home of course.

Some Orange Bowl geek was quoted over the weekend talking about how impressed he was with the 48,000 tickets Iowa bought the last time it was in the Orange Bowl. Yeah, but the TV network—Fox—is going to want Joe Pa. Meanwhile, Boise State rolls along undefeated and it DOESN’T MATTER. Boise could beat The Colts or the Saints next week and these bowl geeks would be talking about how impressed they are with Oklahoma State or how Iowa fans travel or how good Penn State looked in beating Eastern Illinois.

Someone please drag me away from all this before I end up back in the hospital.

Speaking of the NFL—no, this will not be the weekly beat-up-the-Redskins segment. Let me just say this: if the Cowboys are planning on winning their first playoff game since Bill Clinton’s first term, they better improve a whole lot. They were life-and-death to beat a team that has no offensive line and is in complete turmoil from top to top. Forget the bottom, there is none.

Sunday night I actually watched some of the Sunday night game in part because I’m sort of a closet Bears fan. I loved Gale Sayers when I was a little kid although my memories of him are pretty blurry and I was in Indiana in ’85 during The Super Bowl run and read the Chicago papers every day. Plus, Chicago’s a great city, a place I spent a lot of time in my younger days—especially when Ray and Joey Meyer had it going at DePaul.

So, I sat and watched and my mind wandered. I was thinking just how really GOOD Al Michaels is at what he does and how smoothly Chris Collinsworth has stepped into John Madden’s very large shoes. That said, I also thought back to 2004 when I was doing my Ravens book.

If you watch the NFL you will constantly hear the announcers saying, “when we talked to Lovey Smith last night…” or “let me tell you, no one is more frustrated by his lack of production lately than Jay Cutler…” Or whatever. The implication always is that the coaches and players tell them things they don’t tell anyone else.

Which, to some degree at least, is true. You see, part of the massive NFL contracts with the networks makes it a requirement that players and coaches from the two teams meet with the announcers, the producer and director prior to each game. The network submits a list early in the week—usually from four to six players, plus the head coach and occasionally a coordinator—to the team. Sometimes there’s some negotiation because a player is tired of doing the meetings every week or because a team wants to get extra mention for someone coming off a good week.

For a Sunday game, the home team usually meets with the TV guys on Friday; the visiting team as soon as they get to town on Saturday. There are no cameras in the room and the TV guys are looking for a nugget of information that can spice up their telecast.

As part of the book, I wanted to compare how the different networks handled the production meetings. Did the play-by-play and sideline people stick to anecdotal questions while the analyst asked more x-and-o stuff? Who was more aggressive? Who took longer—CBS? Fox? ESPN? ABC? (which was in its last year of Monday Night Football) Fox’s Dick Stockton told me he didn’t WANT stories. “They get in the way of telling people what’s going on in the game,” he said. CBS’s Dick Enberg was just the opposite: he craved little details about the players lives.

Obviously I wasn’t going to steal any information in part because I didn’t think (correctly) the TV guys would get anything I didn’t already have but also because if they did it would be on the air the next day. My book wouldn’t be out until the next fall.

When Kevin Byrne, the Ravens PR guy mentioned to the CBS producer doing the Ravens opener with the Browns that I would be in the meeting, there was a little bit of whining. One self-important CBS producer, Bob Mansbach later objected to me coming to a meeting—it was with a group I’d already seen in action so I didn’t really care though I told Mansbach he was full of you-know-what. Overall, the CBS folks were easy to work with.

So were the people from Fox and, believe it or not, ESPN. Jay Rothman, the lead producer couldn’t have been more gracious and since I knew Mike Patrick and Joe Theisman well there were no problems at all for the two ESPN games the Ravens played in.

And then there was ABC. Thank goodness the Ravens were only on Monday Night football once that year. When Kevin mentioned me to Fred Gaudelli, the producer—I think that’s his name but it isn’t worth looking up to be sure--Gaudelli acted as if Kevin had said that I would be replacing Michaels on play-by-play. (I know this because I was sitting in Kevin’s office at the time).

“That’s OUR meeting,” Gaudelli screamed. “NO outsiders.”

Kevin tried to patiently explain that the other three networks had already cooperated and this was strictly about process and had nothing to do with fact-finding or anything along those lines. “Al and John will go crazy,” Gaudelli said. “He shows up, we’ll go straight to the league.”

I was seriously tempted to show up just to tell Gaudelli what a blow-hard he was and to see if he was telling the truth about Madden who I had always liked. Kevin offered a compromise—he’d take notes so I’d get a sense of the meeting and there would be no confrontations. Kevin was SO good to me throughout the book I didn’t want to cause trouble for him. So, I didn’t go.

Neither did Michaels.

Apparently he didn’t like flying in on Saturday for a Monday night game. He was on a speaker-phone for HIS meeting, one that was SO important he wasn’t even there. That cracked me up.

Look, I think Michaels is one of the all-time great play-by-play guys. He also has—and has a reputation for having—one of the all-time egos. At one point he apparently had a clause in his contract that he ONLY stayed at The Four Seasons when he traveled. I had also heard he went crazy over any criticism at all. Plus, our politics are a little bit different—to put it mildly.

When I wrote the book I made no mention of ABC going nuts at the thought of me being in the production meeting. Inside baseball. Nobody cared. I went on to say that Michaels and Madden were still the best announce team in football even though, “Michaels’ massive ego occasionally tramples on Madden.” Which I had always believed to be true.

Michaels is friendly with my agent, Esther Newberg. When he read that line he called Esther—screaming and calling me names. “Why are you calling me?” Esther said. “Here’s his number, call him—he’ll talk to you.”

Hey, I wouldn’t even have put him on speaker phone.

He never called. What a surprise.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Corruption in College Athletics

Today’s blog is about corruption in college athletics. Oh My God, I may end up writing my next book before I’m done.

Let us begin with one of my favorite people on earth: Bill Hancock. For many years, Bill was a voice of reason and calm and kindness at The NCAA. When he took over the basketball tournament’s media operations along with Jim Marchiony (another very good man who is now at Kansas) everything changed after the Reign of Terror/Error of the late Dave Cawood—not a good man.

Several years ago, Bill was persuaded to go work for the BCS in large part because the NCAA’s move from Kansas City to Indianapolis had been tough on his family. He is the one person connected with the BCS with whom I refrain from using profanity when discussing how corrupt and god-awful the whole thing is. You simply can’t get mad at Bill. It is a little bit like convincing yourself that there’s something inherently wrong with Sesame Street. Bill is just all good.

Last week, the criminals posing as commissioners and presidents and athletic directors who run the BCS did a very smart thing: they made Bill the face of the BCS, naming him as their executive director. Remember a few weeks ago when some of the BCS Dons announced that they had decided their biggest problem was that they hadn’t defended their system well enough? Well, this is their solution: send Bill out to defend it because even people like me aren’t going to want to jump on Bill Hancock with both feet.

Bill is a man of substance defending something that has no substance. But he will do it well. In one of his first radio interviews since being promoted Bill talked about how great the bowl system is because so many teams get to end their season with a win; so many teams get to be rewarded for their seasons and get to travel to places they wouldn’t otherwise get to see.

As always, Bill told the truth. And I know he meant every word. Of course his argument is completely specious. To begin with, blowing up the BCS and replacing it with a playoff doesn’t mean changing the bowl system even a little bit. All those deserving 6-6 teams will still get rewarded with trips to Shreveport, Toronto, Detroit, Birmingham and Houston—to name a few of the high points on the bowl system world tour. Half of those teams will still get to win their final game. Knowing Bill, he would probably like it if there were some way to ensure they could ALL win their final game.

What’s more, the second-tier bowl system is as corrupt in its own way as the BCS, we just care less about the corruption. All the so-called bowl “tie-ins,” are ridiculous. Why should every team in a BCS conference that goes 6-6—often by scheduling three cream-puff non-conference home games be “rewarded,” with some kind of postseason trip? There are too many bowls—the NCAA hands out bowl certifications like candy at a Halloween party—and then all these self-important yahoos walk around in their ugly jackets acting like they’re saving the world with their bowl games.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. In 1996 Army was 9-1 and Navy was 8-2 going into the Army-Navy game. The bowl game in Shreveport—I forget what corporate name was slapped on it at the time—announced it would invite the winner of the game to play. Since Army and Navy didn’t have bowl tie-ins at the time this was something of a relief that at least one of them was guaranteed a spot in a bowl. During Army-Navy week though it began to look as if one of the conferences tied into the bowl in Hawaii wouldn’t produce enough bowl eligible teams and word was if that happened, the bowl would invite the Army-Navy loser since Army and Navy had already agreed to send the winner to Shreveport because it was the only sure thing on the table.

On the night before the game I was standing around at a party with a group of people. The Shreveport bowl people were there being squired around like royalty by the athletic directors, which I found kind of amusing. I made the comment to some people that something had to be wrong when the WINNER of the game got to go to Shreveport and the LOSER got to go to Hawaii. One of the Shreveport guys overheard me.

Pointing his finger in my face he said, “you don’t like Shreveport maybe we won’t invite either one of you, how would you like that? We’ll go find someone else who WANT to come to Shreveport, who appreciates getting the bid to our bowl.”

I looked at the guy and said. “To begin with, I don’t represent either school, so feel free to NOT invite ME to Shreveport. Second of all get over yourself—you’re running a fifth rate bowl and anyone who thinks going to Shreveport in December instead of Hawaii is a good idea needs serious therapy.”

Cooler heads prevailed before Mr. Shreveport and I could really get into it but seriously folks this is the way a lot of these guys think. Every time I encounter one of them at a game—they’re easy to recognize because of the silly jackets—you would think they were the U.N. Ambassador from someplace, not the bowl rep from Memphis or Fort Worth.

So, long story short, no one is saying those bowls need to go away. They can stay just as they are and everyone who doesn’t make the NCAA football tournament can continue to play in them the same way teams play in the NIT in basketball. What’s more, as Bill well knows, if the four BCS bowls became part of the tournament rotation they would all be a big deal as opposed to now when one of them is a big deal.

One more BCS note: according to at least one of the many ‘bowl prognosticators,’ if Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma next week it will get a BCS bowl bid over Boise State. A team that was life-and-death to beat Colorado (at home) last night would go over an undefeated team. Seriously, other than my pal Bill (who knows better deep in his heart) is there anyone out there who doesn’t think the BCS makes the guy in Afghanistan who took the $30 million bribe look like a fairly decent guy?

Onto basketball corruption: two items today. Someone asked in a post the other day what my problem was with the “I won’t-mention-the-corporate-name/Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament.” There’s a couple things: First, the semifinalists were Syracuse, California, North Carolina and Ohio State. That’s a good field. My problem with it is that their presence last night in Madison Square Garden was decided in AUGUST.

I call it the “Gardner-Webb rule.” Remember a few years ago when Gardner-Webb beat Kentucky and went to the Garden? The corporate geeks running the event and, I guess, ESPN decided they didn’t want to take any chance on an upset. So, even if one of the other 12 teams in the tournament had upset one of the big four, it would not have been playing last night. Last I looked in a real competition you win, you advance, you lose you go home. Not in this event. Don’t call these guys semi-finalists. It implies they had to do something to get that far. The fact is—even though the four teams DID win their games on their home courts—there was no chance for them not to advance.

The other thing—and this goes on everywhere—is that for all the trumpeting about this being a charity event, the corporate logo is slapped in giant letters at mid-court and all over the court. There is ONE “Coaches vs. Cancer,” logo--if you look carefully under one basket. Here’s a question I would love answered: how many NET dollars from this event actually go to cancer research? Coaches vs. Cancer must be a tax-exempt 501C3 organization so it should be required to answer that question.

Last thing on corruption: Did anyone see the story on AOL the other day on the apparent myriad violations committed at South Florida (okay, ALLEGED myriad violations) by this guy named Terrelle Woody, “personal trainer,” to Gus Gilchrist? Woody basically got thrown off campus at Maryland in the spring of 2008 when Gilchrist was enrolled there so he and Gilchrist landed at South Florida where—surprise—Coach Stan Heath put Woody on the payroll.

Now there are all these allegations about illegal workouts and Woody coaching guys up in the locker room during games even though he wasn’t a coach. Heath’s responses to the charges sound a lot like Ron Ziegler during Watergate. The best one is when asked about Woody coaching players he’s says, “any bozo can tell guys, ‘play hard.’” He’s right. But most of those bozos aren’t on the payroll and don’t have access to the locker room during games do they?

Maybe Heath can sign on as Bill Hancock’s assistant at the BCS. Then again, maybe not. Bill will do just fine on his own—or at least better than anyone else can do in an absolutely impossible job.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Night of Channel Surfing Leads to Good College Basketball Game

Last night was what my son Danny describes as, “a big night for my dad.”

I cooked dinner after picking him up from school, started a fire in the fireplace in my office (the main reason I bought this house) and sat down in front of the TV.

On nights like this—which are too rare as far as I’m concerned—it doesn’t bother me that much if there isn’t anything to watch on TV. I basically gave up on watching network shows years ago: I will watch the occasional ‘Seinfeld,’ rerun although I’ve even become selective about that. Festivus for the rest of us I’ll watch every time and the one where Steinbrenner goes to George’s house to tell his parents that George is dead and Mr. Costanza’s response is, “what were you thinking trading Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps!” I’ll watch every time. Some of the later episodes not so much.

Anyway, the way it works, I’ll surf around. If the Islanders are playing—especially these days now that I have the hockey package again (hallelujah!)--I’ll probably watch them. Is there someone on Long Island who can tell me what is going on at The Nassau Coliseum that they are currently on a two week, seven game road trip? During baseball season I can usually find a baseball game to watch and now that college hoops is underway there is almost always a college game I’m interested in for one reason or another.

If all else fails, I press two buttons and go to my ‘West Wing,’ DVD. I’m watching season two again right now.

Last night was what most would consider a slim pickings night. But two things drew me in—one briefly, almost like gazing at the scene of a car accident—the other for almost the entire game.

The car accident was a football game between Central Michigan and Ball State. It wasn’t that matchup that caused me to pause on the game. At 1-9, Ball State is a shadow of the team it was the last two years with Nate Davis at quarterback. Central Michigan is the MAC’s best team at 8-2, including a win over Michigan State. The game figured to be—and was—a mismatch.

What caused me to pause was ESPN showing a couple of The Ball State seniors being greeted pre-game because it was, “senior night.” The play-by-play guy—they really DO sound all alike don’t they—was talking about Ball State only having 11 seniors and how that really boded well for next year and Trent Dilfer, who I guess was trying out as a color man, went on about the team’s potential for 2010 so much I was wondering if Ball State might be ranked in the top ten preseason.

What got me though was this: the rain was pouring down as the seniors and their families walked onto the field. The far side of the stadium was just about empty—I mean EMPTY—because who is coming out on a miserable Wednesday night to see a bad team play football?

This was the memory those seniors and their families would take with them of their last home college football game. Look, it might have rained on Saturday—it’s November in Indiana. I lived there for a year, I get it. But a day game on a Saturday, you’re going to get a better crowd. Maybe the sun will come out for a while. There were no students in sight, they had better things to do no doubt on a school night with exams approaching. I just thought it was sad.

I know the genie is out of the bottle on these weeknight college football games but can’t there be SOME limits. Can’t the presidents intervene and say—no weeknight games after Halloween? The answer of course is no but I wish the president of Ball State would look at that tape and at least wonder if that was the way a bunch of kids who gave the school four—or five—years of hard work playing football wanted to go out. There’s nothing that can be done now about the 1-10 record. It would have been nice though if those seniors—who were a part of two bowl teams and a 10-0 start last year—could have gone out with a little more dignity than on a Wednesday night, in a pouring rain with literally almost no one but friends and family watching.

I watched one Central Michigan drive because their quarterback is supposed to be a pro prospect. Dilfer at one point said he was every bit as good a football player as Tim Tebow or Colt McCoy. I’m so glad no one on TV goes in for hyperbole.

Having heard enough of that I switched over to the Loyola-UMBC basketball game. As people know, this is one of my quirks—I love games like this. I know both coaches well—Randy Monroe at UMBC first gained national attention for throwing his team out of the locker room for a week, then built the team into an NCAA Tournament team a couple years ago. I wrote a column about him after the locker room incident and he said, “I know Knight has done it, I know Krzyzewski has done it. I figured they were pretty good role models.”

I’ve know Loyola’s Jimmy Patsos since he survived—the correct word to use—12 years as an assistant to Gary Williams at Maryland.

Patsos has worked tirelessly to get Loyola to the top of the MAAC since taking over a team that had been 1-27. He won 18 games two years ago but has never been able to get over the Siena-Niagara hump at the top of the league. Last year he got national attention for the wrong reasons—leaving his bench to sit in the stands during a game because he was upset with the officiating; holding Stephen Curry scoreless in a game by double or triple teaming him all night but losing the game by 30.

Is he nuts? He worked for Gary for 12 years, of course he’s nuts. He’s also a very good man who tries very hard to make playing college basketball more than just about basketball for his players. He makes them go to museums on the road. During one pre-game talk last year he quoted Harvey Milk, Shakespeare and Clarence Thomas (okay, no one is perfect).

He also has a pretty good team this year. He’s got a smart little point guard who can really pass and some experience up front, plus Shane Walker, a Maryland transfer who clearly has some potential. The game was back-and-forth the entire second half with both coaches screaming (and I do mean screaming) at their players on almost every possession. Loyola pulled it out late, running really good offense when it had to and getting the ball inside after settling for quick shots while blowing a 10 point lead.

My old pal Hoops Weiss (two mentions in a row for him this week) who knows every coach ever born frequently walks out after games saying, “I’m vurry, vurry (he’s from Philly) pleased for (fill-in-the-winning-coach’s-name) but vurry, vurry disappointed for (fill-in-the-losing coach’s-name. They’re both good friends of mine.”

I felt like Hoops last night. Vurry, vurry pleased for Jimmy, vurry, vurry disappointed for Randy. Once I finish the kids book I’m working on (it is set at Army-Navy and will be done by, I hope, Thanksgiving) I’ll get out and see their teams play in person.

I was going to write about Al McGuire this morning in response to a post yesterday after the Dick Vitale blog but he merits an entire blog—and more. Just too many Al stories to tell. He was a good friend—who wrote the introduction to ‘A Season on the Brink.’

I will leave you with one quick story because there really are a million. Al had instincts about people like no one I’ve ever met. During the year I was in Bloomington he came out to do a couple of games for NBC. Whenever he did, Knight would put together dinner the night before the game. On the night before the last game Al was working, he looked at Bob and I at one point and said, “this is kind of a sad night for me.”

Why, we asked.

“Because this is the last time I’m going to see the two of you together.”

Again we asked, why?

Al laughed. “Because once this book comes out, you’ll never speak to one another again.”

Like I said, he really knew people. More to come—a lot more—about Al on another day. Let me add one more thing: I really miss him.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Updated -- Radio Segments for This Week (The Sports Reporters, The Gas Man, Tony Kornheiser Show)

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 topics including the 24 hours of college basketball on ESPN, the BB&T Classic Basketball Tournament upcoming on December 6th, and the LPGA as it released its schedule among various other topics.

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


Now that the NFL season has Thursday night football, my visit with The Gasman has moved to Wednesday's at 5:25 PT.  This week we talked about ESPN's 24 hours of college basketball, Dick Vitale's place in college basketball, and much more.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Gas Man


On Thursday morning in my normal spot at 11:05 am I joined Tony Kornheiser on his newest radio show.  We discussed my health,  Maryland basketball (and the BB&T Classic Basketball tournament) along with other college and NBA topics.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Tony Kornheiser Show

What You Need to Understand About Dick Vitale: It’s All Real

I didn’t watch very much of ESPN’s 24 hours of college basketball on Tuesday. I actually thought it might be fun to get up at 6 a.m. to watch a basketball game but then realized I had to get up at 6:45 anyway to get my son to school. I was out for most of the afternoon though I caught snippets of the Temple-Georgetown game and then watched Duke-Charlotte until it became a route (which was about five minutes in); a little bit of Louisville-Arkansas and a lot of Gonzaga-Michigan State. I didn’t stay up for Kansas-Memphis because, well, I had to get up at 6:45 again.

Maybe that was the game Dick Vitale did because I didn’t see him or hear him on any of the other games and there’s no way ESPN would televise 146 games on the same day without Vitale. Then again, maybe they sent him to New York for that bogus, ‘Coaches vs. Cancer,’ thing where the four teams advancing to the semifinals were pre-ordained by the promoters regardless of whether they won or lost their early round games. The network, believe it or not, doesn’t consult with me on these things.

It’s remarkable to think about how popular Vitale is and how IMPORTANT he has become to college basketball. I remember 20 years ago some people saying that his act was bound to wear thing, that 10 years was probably about enough and that he would be yesterday’s news soon.

Not exactly. Vitale’s been at it for 30 years now and if there is one guy that ESPN really can’t afford to lose its Vitale. Seriously. If the network decided tomorrow to tell Bob Knight he had to wear a jacket-and-tie like everyone else and he took a walk people would hardly notice. My friend Jay Bilas is very good at what he does but at ESPN it really doesn’t matter if you’re any good. They just put you on the air, promote you and promote you and promote you and eventually people actually think you’re good. Quality doesn’t really matter. ESPN is all about quantity.

But I digress. I know there are people out there who insist they can’t watch a Vitale game without turning down the sound. There are moments when he goes off on one of his tangents or starts promoting every assistant coach alive for a head coaching job or defends guys who are indefensible that you shake your head. I get that and I know there are those out there who would be happy if Dick retired tomorrow.

But here’s what you need to understand about Vitale: it’s all real. The enthusiasm, the love of the game, of the coaches, the players, the settings, the fans and of just getting to be DICK VITALE. He loves every second of it and, unlike a lot of guys who have become rich and famous, he truly appreciates it. He never moans about how tough his life is because he knows he’s been remarkably lucky even though he has had some serious health scares in recent years.

Let me say this: I didn’t always feel this way. Dick and I battled a lot years ago because I really did think it was an act and he was a shameless, self-promoter. We had a few shouting matches, most notably one night at Duke when he came out before the game and began throwing copies of his (first) book to the students (I refuse to call them the Cameron Crazies, they need less publicity these days not more) while they dove on one another to grab it because it was free and because it was from Dicky V.

I was standing at the end of the court watching all this when Vitale tossed the last book and walked over to me.

“Hey John, why don’t you do that with your books?” he said.

“Because people BUY mine Dick.”

It was a cheap shot and Dick correctly took it that way. We had a pretty good shouting match right there during which I probably said some things I shouldn’t have said and he probably did too. But I started it.

We also did the Larry King (radio) show together once—a booking neither of us was thrilled about—and that became a shout-fest too. I was on him for his association with Nike and he was on me for being on him all the time. King said it was great radio. I’m not so certain.

Fast forward a few years to 1993 when my mother died very suddenly. I had written a cathartic piece in Basketball Times about her and not long after it was published I received a lengthy, handwritten note from…you guessed it, Dick. He talked about my mom and how proud she must have been of me and said that even though he and I disagreed often he had great respect for my work and for my passion. “That’s one thing we share John,” he wrote. “We’re both passionate about basketball and what we do and I will NEVER not respect someone like you who brings those things to the table.”

I sat there and one thought ran through my head: he’s a bigger man than I am. I wrote back and told him that. We’ve been friends ever since. In fact, Dick came and spoke—for free, he usually gets huge fees to speak—at my charity golf tournament three years ago.

So while I still understand those who say their ears hurt after a Vitale game, let’s all be honest: if there weren’t Vitale games college hoops wouldn’t be the same. A lot of joy would go out of the game and if there’s one thing big time college sports needs more of it is joy. Everyone is SO serious about things (myself included a lot of the time) most notably coaches who take THEMSELVES so seriously.

Not Dick. Can you imagine Knight or any of the other ex-coaches who fill the airwaves being passed up through the stands in student sections around the country? The passion is genuine but so is the joy, the fun he is so clearly having. I know Dick loves being on the air, loves being at the big games (we all do) but I also know he loves standing around in a press room before a game arguing about teams and players and staying up long into the night doing the same thing.

So, I missed him last night. I thought maybe he’d have Michigan State-Gonzaga but it was Steve Lavin who definitely has better hair than Vitale but is no Vitale.

Actually no one but Vitale is Vitale. You can make fun of him, you can joke about him, you can hold your ears. In my first kids mystery, “Last Shot,” which is set at The Final Four, the boy protagonist, Stevie Thomas, is about to be introduced to Vitale by my real life pal Dick (Hoops) Weiss.

“Does he bite?” Stevie asks Hoops.

Actually there’s almost no bite in Dick Vitale. Just a lot of love and a lot joy. It isn’t a college basketball season without Dicky V. And if you disagree with me, that’s perfectly fine, but you’re missing out on a slice of Americana.

Long live—and long talk, shout, scream, revel in it all—Dick Vitale.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Discussing the Day-After Talk on Belichick; Wie May Be Turning the Corner

Two names made big news on Sunday—one receiving raves for finally living up to her potential, the other being ripped nationally for a move that was either bold or foolish, depending on your point of view.

Let’s start with Bill Belichick. His fourth-and-two gamble on his own 28 with a 34-28 lead in Indianapolis and a little more than two minutes to go was a mistake. You want to know why? Because it didn’t work. If Tom Brady throws the ball to Wes Welker—who on the replay looked to me to have some space at the 33 yard line or if Kevin Faulk is given forward progress to just outside the 30, which is where his feet were when he was hit, then Belichick made a gutsy, smart move by keeping the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands in the last two minutes.

That didn’t happen though and the Colts easily drove 29 yards to win the game 35-34. There are some criticizing Belichick for the simple reason that the play didn’t work. I think that’s fair. There are some defending him on the grounds that he and his former mentor Bill Parcells have historically gone for fourth downs that other coaches wouldn’t think about going for. Also fair. There are certainly some people out there who are going to defend Belichick because he’s Belichick and has won three Super Bowls and is probably a couple plays from winning five.

There are also a LOT of people out there reveling in what happened because they don’t like Belichick, don’t like his persona, his secretive nature or, in some cases, can’t stand his success.

As luck would have it—good or bad I’m not sure—I had several meeting in New York yesterday morning and got in the car shortly after 2 o’clock to head home to Washington. As is my habit when in that area, I flipped on WFAN and there was Mike Francesa just about frothing at the mouth. I’ve said this about Francesa before, I will say it again: He hosts a good radio show—though he misses his partner Chris Russo because Russo gave the show much needed levity—and he’s smart. He’s also amazingly arrogant (I’ve never quite figured out who died and made him Edward R. Murrow) an absolute no-it-all who is NEVER wrong and won’t even admit to most of his biases. Even when he conceded that, yes, he’s a lifelong Yankee fan he says it doesn’t color his analysis of baseball at all. Of course it does—biases color all of us who try to analyze anything.

Francesa can’t stand Belichick. For one thing, his best pal in life (at least according to him) is Parcells. Everyone knows Parcells and Belichick had an ugly split after years together when Belichick left the Jets to take over the Patriots. There’s no doubt that Francesa has taken Belichick’s success a lot harder than Parcells has. He can’t stand it. Monday he asked one caller who had the temerity to defend Belichick, “how many Super Bowls has Belichick won without Tom Brady at quarterback?” Here’s a question for you Mikey: how many Super Bowls did your boy Parcells win without Belichick as his defensive coordinator?

It’s a dumb question on any level. How many Super Bowls did Lombardi win without Bart Starr? Who was he supposed to try to win with Zeke Bratkowski? In fact, Belichick won his first AFC championship game with Drew Bledsoe taking over for an injured Brady in Pittsburgh. A year ago The Patriots were 11-5 after Brady went down in the opening game and Matt Cassel came in about as cold off the bench as you possibly can to play quarterback for the entire season.

So, let’s agree on this: you can question what Belichick did on Sunday night but to call into question his coaching resume is either stupid or reeks of jealousy. Since Francesa isn’t stupid, I’ll go with the latter. He was also asked at one point to list the AFC teams he thought might reach the conference championship game. His answer: Colts, Chargers, maybe the Bengals. No mention of the Patriots. So a team he does not consider a serious contender comes one play from beating the best team in the conference on the road and the guy in charge isn’t a pretty good coach?

Francesa even said at one point that, “the result didn’t matter, it was a horrible call no matter what.”

Huh? Now results don’t matter in competition. Wow, that sure takes a lot of pressure off people doesn’t it? John Calipari will be thrilled to know that his failure to call time out to make sure his Memphis players knew they had to foul with a three point lead against Kansas in the national championship game two years ago DIDN’T MATTER even though it cost his team the game. Imagine Grady Little’s delight to learn that even though leaving Pedro Martinez in against the Yankees six years ago cost him his job it also did not matter because the result—Aaron Bleepin’ Boone—really wasn’t the issue.

Let me throw in MY bias here because unlike Francesa I admit to having them: I like Belichick. We share an affection for the Naval Academy—his dad, Steve coached there for 34 years and Belichick still follows Navy’s fortunes closely—and was someone I liked and admired. I think Belichick is not only smart but has a sneaky sense of humor and does genuinely care about his players, even if he rarely shows it. Do I think he’s perfect? No. (who among us is). Video-gate was clearly wrong and there’s no doubt there are times when he goes out of his way to make the media’s life more difficult. I’ll take him over a lot of coaches any day. He doesn’t blame his players for losses and he’s damn good at what he does—period.

Now, more reasonable men than Francesa—like my pal Mike Wilbon—also ripped Belichick, which is fine because it wasn’t personal. Wilbon said none of the great coaches from Lombardi to Shula ever would have gone for the first down in that situation. He could be right, but I’m not so sure. Was Belichick showing a lack of faith in his defense or was he showing a LOT of respect—perhaps even too much—for Peyton Manning? I think it was more about Manning than the defense and people saying that the defense had done a good job most of the night against Manning was irrelevant.

Wilbon said it was arrogant to think the Patriots could pick up the first down. Let’s go down the list of successful people in sports—in life for that matter—who aren’t arrogant about their ability to succeed.

Bottom line: I think Belichick should have punted and thought it at the time. I remember cringing when the offense came back on the field. But you know what? Belichick has won a LOT more football games than I have or ever will.

Okay, I ranted on Belichick and Francesa for so long there’s really no time to give Michelle Wie her proper due for her first win on The LPGA Tour on Sunday. It has been seven years since she first emerged as a 13-year-old phenom so even though she’s only 20 the tendency is to say she “finally,” won a tournament—which is a bit unfair.

On the other hand, her parents and handlers made SO many mistakes with her as a teen-ager it is almost surprising that she’s come out on the other end with a chance to still be the star she was supposed to be when she first showed up hitting the golf ball prodigious distances. Her parents pushed her too hard, chased the money—did a lot of things to her that Jennifer Capriati’s parents did to her 20 years ago in tennis—and Wie behaved very badly on a number of occasions.

Now, she’s acted like a grown woman all year on the LPGA Tour and we can only hope there are more good things to come for her because she has the ability to really make an impact on a sport that desperately needs some help. My only concern is that she and her parents and agents now think she’s Annika Sorenstam and start throwing her into men’s tournaments again next year for marketing and PR purposes. Let her dominate the women’s game and THEN after she wins, say, 50 tournaments, think about competing with the men again.

Monday, November 16, 2009

John's Monday Washington Post Column:

Here is this week's Washington Post column, on the college football season ----

Barring something unforeseen, college football's so-called national championship game is going to match Texas against the winner of the SEC championship game between Alabama and Florida.

This is an outcome that has seemed pre-ordained since August. Those three teams have been at the top of the polls all season, and even if some SEC coaches think the Gators and Crimson Tide have received some timely officiating help, all three remain undefeated. Next week, Florida plays Florida International, and Alabama plays Chattanooga. Seriously. Texas plays a real team -- Kansas -- but the Jayhawks are spiraling and will be fortunate to lose by anything less than three touchdowns.

Three other teams are currently undefeated: TCU, Cincinnati and Boise State. None has any chance to compete for the national championship unless Texas stumbles in the next three weeks or Alabama or Florida somehow lose their regular season finales against Auburn and Florida State, respectively.

Click here for the rest of the article: College football gives us a season to forget

LeBron, Jordan is No Jackie Robinson; Comments on Comments

Friends of mine who cover the NBA on a regular basis tell me that LeBron James is a pretty good guy, that, for someone who has been in the spotlight since his sophomore year in high school he is relatively approachable and is also a bright guy.

Maybe.

But he’s a done a couple of things in recent months that make me wonder if he isn’t yet another in the long line of athletes who live in The Land of Never Wrong.

He could not possibly have handled his team’s season-ending loss in the Eastern Conference finals any worse that he did. After the Orlando Magic had knocked his Cleveland Cavaliers out of the playoffs in six games, James left the court without shaking anyone’s hand—including that of his friend and Olympic teammate Dwight Howard—and then left the building without speaking to the media.

Okay, it happens. He didn’t expect to lose and threw a little tantrum when he did. No big deal. But the next day when he did talk to reporters he was completely un-apologetic about his behavior, saying something stupid about winners not congratulating people who beat them. Actually that’s EXACTLY what winners do: part of being a real winner is dealing with defeat because it happens to everyone including Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant and, yes, King James—who still hasn’t won an NBA title.

On top of that bit of foolishness, James showed up for his little press conference wearing a Yankees cap. I’ve heard all about what a big Yankees fan he is and has been. That’s all fine. But when you are from Akron and you’ve played your entire pro career in Cleveland and the town is sitting on pins and needles wondering what you’re going to do when you hit free agency in the summer of 2010 you do NOT show up wearing the cap of a team that plays in the same town as one of the teams that is going to throw huge dollars in your direction.

Harmless fun? Maybe. But it’s like waving red at a bull—especially the day after you and your teammates have failed to reach The Finals in a year when it was expected of you, especially when you may only have one more season left in Cleveland. Go without cap. Show a little respect for your hometown fans.

The latest Lebronism is to suggest/demand that the NBA retire number 23—Michael Jordan’s number—the same way Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s number 42. James even generously suggested he would be willing to change his number—to number 6.

This goes beyond foolish. To begin with, Michael Jordan doesn’t belong in the same sentence with Jackie Robinson, especially when it comes to breaking down barriers or being politically involved. Jordan, in fact, has made a point of NOT being politically involved. As we saw so vividly during his Hall of Fame induction speech, Michael Jordan has one cause: Michael Jordan.

No one is disputing Jordan’s greatness as a player. Many believe he’s the best player of all time. I think cases can be made for Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. But if you want to tell me that Jordan was the best, I can live with that.

Robinson wasn’t close to being the best baseball player of all time. But he may very well be the most important. The only player who comes close is Babe Ruth, who probably saved the game after The Black Sox scandal. Russell, whose Celtics won five more championships than Jordan, certainly would deserve consideration for having his number retired if Jordan’s is going to be retired. Memo to LeBron: You know what number Russell wore? Six. So how about at least scratching that from your list of new numbers.

Jordan certainly played a major part in the NBA’s renaissance in the 1980s but Magic Johnson and Larry Bird got to the league five years before he did and already had turned it in the right direction before Jordan’s arrival. Jordan didn’t win an NBA title until 1991 when the NBA---thanks in very large part to the Magic vs. Larry duels of the 80s—had re-taken its spot in the American consciousness. Jordan certainly deserves a lot of credit for all he did but he was no more important Magic or Bird. A better player? Yes. More important? No.

There is also the issue of the way he’s lived his life off the court. He isn’t a terrible guy and he hasn’t done anything truly awful. But he’s had gambling problems, he walked away from the game in mid-career for reasons that have remained murky and he hasn’t exactly handled retirement with a good deal of grace. That doesn’t mean we should all line up and say bad things about him but if a number is going to be retired by an entire league the person needs to be as special as the player. Jackie Robinson was special in every possible way. Michael Jordan was an extraordinary player. Period.

One can only hope that Commissioner David Stern and the NBA are smart enough to suggest that James focus on winning games and making commercials, not setting league policy. If James wants to change his number no one is stopping him. I would politely suggest though that he find one other than number six. Because one thing I can guarantee you is that he’ll never come close to winning as many championships as Russell whether he plays in Cleveland, New York, Miami, Los Angeles or anyplace else in the future.

-------------------------

A couple of comments on some of the recent posts and e-mails: As I’ve said before, I really enjoy them, even those from people who disagree with me since those are often very smart and well worth paying attention to.

First, since this has something to do with today’s blog, someone wrote a while back that I should stop, “trying to make a living off of Michael Jordan.” I think this was after the Hall of Fame speech when everyone in the world was commenting on it and I was in fact ASKED by many people what I thought. I would also suggest—politely of course—that I first wrote about Jordan when he was in HIGH SCHOOL and to comment on him is, in fact, my job…

Last week on Tony Kornheiser’s radio show I was asked if it was true that I had in the past opposed Navy playing Notre Dame. I noticed where one poster wrote that I had “privately,” been opposed to the rivalry for years before Navy’s win in 2007. Let’s get this straight: I don’t oppose anything privately. I opposed the rivalry very PUBLICLY for years, dating back to when I wrote “A Civil War,” in 1995. I never said the teams should NEVER play, I said I didn’t think they should play every year because it was unfair to the Navy kids: not only did Notre Dame have every possible advantage in recruiting and in exposure but Navy never got to play a home game! (Still doesn’t). One year the game’s at Notre Dame, the next at a so-called neutral site overrun with Notre Dame fans.

I changed my stance several years BEFORE Navy won for one reason: generation after generation of Navy players told me I was wrong, that they WANTED to play the game every year, relished it in fact. Even during the 43 straight losses they always thought they could win. So, because they want to play the game, I’m fine with it. I’m not the one who has to go out there and try to do the impossible—which they have now done two years out of three.

As for the couple of guys who called me a “bandwagon,” jumper, that one I think is unfair. I wrote the book in 1995 when both Army and Navy were struggling for any recognition at all. I’ve done Navy games on radio since 1997 including one three year stretch when the Mids were 3-30, including an 0-10 (none of the games close) in 2001. I really don’t think you can call me a bandwagon jumper. It’s not as if I started singing the praises of service academy kids just because Navy beat Notre Dame, although I was pretty damn happy about it.

By the way, did anyone notice that Notre Dame got called for a chop block on Saturday night? Sometimes, there is justice in the world.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Weis Mantra

Okay, I don’t want this to turn into the “GoMids.com,” blog but it is impossible not to comment on some of the bleatings coming out of Notre Dame in the wake of Navy’s win out there last Saturday.

It certainly doesn’t come as a shock to anyone that Charlie Weis would react to the loss the way he did—claiming he would take responsibility, then throwing everyone but Touchdown Jesus under any bus he could find.

Two years ago, when Navy finally broke its monumental 43 game losing streak against Notre Dame, Weis barely uttered one word of credit to the Navy kids, talking—as usual—about the mistakes his team had made because, as we all know, when Notre Dame wins it is because he coached good but when it loses it is because the players played bad.

That’s the Weis mantra.

After Navy won the game Saturday, Navy Coach Ken Niamatalolo made the point that he thought his team had done better offensively in 2009 than in 2008 because it had seen Notre Dame’s defensive schemes in the game in Baltimore a year earlier. Niamatalolo made a point of saying, “I hope this isn’t misconstrued,”—in other words, he was NOT criticizing Notre Dame’s coaches, he was just saying his team had been better prepared because it had seen the defense the year before.

In fact, when I spoke to Niamatalolo before the game he had made a similar point. “Last year I think we were a little too amped up,” he said. “We made some mistakes, didn’t carry out some assignments. I hope today, because the kids have seen what we did wrong on film, we’ll be a little better.”

They were a lot better. Let me add this: I’ve known a lot of people through a lot of years in sports. I haven’t met anyone who is a better person than Niamatalolo. He’s the anti-Weis: When Pete Medhurst, who does the sideline reporting on the Navy radio network asked him postgame what it meant to him to come into Notre Dame Stadium as the head coach and win his answer was direct: “This isn’t about me Pete, it’s about the kids. Talk about them.”

When Navy does lose, here’s Kenny’s first comment: “We got out-coached today.”

Like I said, the anti-Weis.

Niamatalolo and his coaches very clearly out-coached Weis and his coaches on Saturday. Buddy Green’s bend-but-don’t-break defense made key plays against an offense littered with first round draft picks, all day. The offense kept picking up yards when it had to—including two fourth-and-one pickups when quarterback Ricky Dobbs simply plunged straight ahead because Notre Dame left the center un-covered. Brilliant coaching there.

Let’s go back to one basic principle here for a minute: there is NO WAY Navy should ever beat Notre Dame. The Irish are going to be bigger, stronger, faster at just about every position on the field. The only way Navy competes—or wins—is by being smarter, tougher and better-coached. End of discussion.

One Notre Dame player, Ian Williams, admitted as such, saying he though that Navy’s offense had perhaps, “out-schemed,” Notre Dame’s defense and that, “they were tougher than us.”

That’s a pretty stand-up position to take—note he did NOT blame the coaches alone, he said Navy’s players were tougher than Notre Dame’s. Kyle McCarthy, the defensive captain, stood up for the coaches by saying the players were in the right spots, they just didn’t execute. Okay, that’s the right thing to say and I don’t blame the kid for saying it, but anyone with a cursory understanding of football could see that Notre Dame’s defense was NOT in position on a number of critical plays. How else do you account for Navy’s fullbacks averaging ELEVEN yards a carry on 19 carries? Was Navy’s offensive line SO dominant that Vince Murray and Alex Teich, neither of whom are likely to ever get a carry in the NFL, ran roughshod over the Notre Dame defense?

Of course Weis couldn’t wait to rip Williams and praise McCarthy. “That’s why one kid’s a captain and the other one’s not,” he said.

You know what Charlie, that kind of comment is why you deserve to be an ex-coach pretty soon. How about saying, “Look, we’re ALL responsible for the loss—and so is Navy. They were better than us—playing, coaching—everything.”

No, that’s not Weis’s style. He rips his own player for not being in lockstep and agreeing the players played bad but the coaches coached good. What a first class jerk.

Of course he wasn’t finished. Next, he sent co-defensive coordinator Corwin Brown to rip Niamatalolo for gently saying his team might have known what Notre Dame was going to do. Why wouldn’t Notre Dame do what it had done a year ago? The other defensive coordinator John Tenuta not only said during the week that’s what they were going to do but bragged about having seen “every option offense known to man.” Really? So what happened out there on Saturday?

Brown also railed against Navy’s “illegal cut blocks.” Let’s get this straight: cut blocks aren’t illegal, CHOP blocks are. A cut block is a block below the waist, a chop block is a block below the waist when the defender is already engaged with another blocker. It is a 15 yard penalty. Brown called the play on which Navy wide receiver Nick Henderson took down Notre Dame defender A.J. Blanton after the play one of the dirtiest plays he’d ever seen.

Please. It was an absolutely stupid, dumb play by Henderson that cost his team—rightly so—15 yards. I’ve watched the tape. If Henderson makes the block during the course of the play, there’s nothing illegal about it. It was away from the play and after the whistle—a clear, dumb personal foul, the kind players make trying to impress their coaches by “playing to the whistle.” But dirty? No. Stupid, yes. No one was hurt. The Notre Dame defender jumped right to his feet and began pointing—correctly—at the official to throw the flag, which he did.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Weis sent Corwin Brown out there to be his hit man, to try to divert attention from the fact that he’s just become the first Notre Dame coach in almost 50 years to lose to Navy twice. Trying to make the Navy coaches and players into bad guys is one of the all-time stretches in bad-guy history. Someone might point out to Weis that next year, wherever he’s coaching and throwing his players under the bus and whining that nothing is his fault, the 32 seniors on Navy’s team will be Naval and Marine officers and will be helping to ensure that he can have the freedom to be the complete and utter crybaby that he is.

Am I overreacting? Probably. But unlike Weis and Brown, I have some sense of who these kids are and of how remarkable that victory on Saturday truly was. For these two losers to try to take away from that accomplishment is infuriating. If they had any pride, any soul, any sense of what’s right and wrong, they would be ashamed of themselves.

As they should be.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Remarkable Night at the Theater Sparks Memories; Brief Boeheim Talk

I went to theater last night, something I always pledge to do more often and don’t follow through on. Thanks to my friend Tony Kornheiser and a very generous man named Bill Isaacson I was in the fifth row at The Eisenhower Theater to see Cate Blanchett in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

This isn’t a theater review but it was a remarkable night. Tennessee Williams was clearly a genius and Blanchett was simply amazing as Blanche DuBois. As I said to Tony walking out, “I don’t know how she does that every night. I’m drained WATCHING.”

This blog is for the most part about sports and sports has been the great passion in my life for as long as I can remember. But because both my parents were involved in the performing arts—my mom taught music history at Columbia and at George Washington; my dad was the first executive director of The Kennedy Center and later director of both The National Symphony Orchestra and The Washington Opera—I was exposed to the arts a lot as a kid.

Like most jock kids, I often whined about being dragged to a concert or the ballet or the opera. As I got older I realized how incredibly fortunate I was to grow up the way I did. I saw Marion Anderson’s farewell concert because my mother said, “this is history and you are NOT staying home to watch a ballgame.”

I not only saw Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev dance ‘Swan Lake,’ for the final time in New York I sat next to Nureyev at the post-performance dinner and listened to him telling stories about growing up as a dance prodigy in The Soviet Union. I once raced Leonard Bernstein down the aisle at Carnegie Hall (I think he let me win) and I remember hiding under the seat during the opening scene of “Sleeping Beauty,” because Carrobas (the evil witch) scared me to death.

I enjoyed the ballet, grew to like some opera (especially Russian opera which blows me away; you can keep most Wagner) and now enjoy concerts. But theater has always been something I truly love.

My first vivid memory of a night in the theater goes back to when I was 13. My father, to whom I will always be grateful not only for seeing to it that I was always in great seats but for MAKING me see certain things, insisted I had to go to the production of Hamlet that was at the old City Center in New York. I believe it was the Old Vic Company, which was managed by Sol Hurok, for whom my father worked at the time. I was too embarrassed to ask any of my friends to go with me, so I went alone on a Saturday night.

Richard Pascoe was Hamlet, I’ll never forget that. Vivian-Leigh Thompson, his wife, was Ophelia. The whole thing took my breath away. I still remember the tears running down my face the moment Horatio said, “Good night sweet prince,” and standing and screaming with the rest of the audience when it was over.

I went home and went to bed. My parents were out. At about 2 o’clock in the morning my dad came in and woke me up.

“Well, what did you think?” he asked.

“Dad, it was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” I said. “The guy who played Hamlet was incredible.”

“Dick Pascoe,” my dad said. “Would you like to meet him? He’s in the living room.”

At that moment I can honestly say I wouldn’t have been any more excited if he had said Tom Seaver or Willis Reed were in the living room. I jumped out of my bed in my pajamas and padded into the living room. My parents had gone out to a post-performance dinner with the Pascoe’s.

When dad introduced me, I was blathering. “Greatest thing ever, amazing, brilliant. How did you make it look like your arm was bleeding in the last scene?”

“Red toothpaste I’ve got in my hand,” Pascoe said, showing me the move he made to slap it across his arm when he’s stabbed.

I still had not even LOOKED at Vivian Leigh-Thompson. My mother finally said, “John, you know Mrs. Pascoe was Ophelia tonight.”

“Yes,” I said finally turning to her. “You were fine.” Then I went back to telling Pascoe how incredible he had been. My dad always loved re-telling that story.

He also enjoyed the story about my first exposure to Russian opera. It was in Montreal when I was 11 and Hurok sent him up there to scout The Bolshoi Opera which was supposed to come to New York the next year. (It didn’t actually come to the U.S. until eight years later when my dad brought it to The Kennedy Center). We went to see, ‘Pique Dame,’—The Queen of Spades. In the second act, after the protagonist (who is no hero) has killed the Queen of Spades, he is being stalked by her ghost. He sings, she stalks. The stage is very dark. Finally, as the ghost came up behind him I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Watch out!” I screamed, jumping from my seat as dad pulled me back down.

“It’s not real John,” he said. It FELT real.

I’ve had a lot of memorable theater experiences. I got to see Richard Burton’s last performance in ‘Equus,’ in New York when he came on stage after the curtain and talked to the audience about how the theater had saved his life. “Nicholas Nickleby,” remains one of the most amazing days of my life (another performance my dad told me I HAD to see) an eight-and-a-half hour marathon that felt too SHORT. I swear to God.

Last night was right up there. ‘Streetcar,’ is, of course, brilliantly written. It is stunning how many of the lines Tennessee Williams wrote in 1951 still resonate today. I’ve read about what a tortured soul he was. He certainly knew how to create other tortured souls. When Blanchett walked aimlessly across the stage in the final scene seconds after saying, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” the place was so silent you were almost afraid to breathe. The instant the stage went dark, the entire audience was on its feet. I still remember how much my dad loved standing ovations—especially what he called the ‘no doubters,’ when there was no doubt the audience was going to stand and scream as soon as the performance was over.

So, thanks to Tony and thanks to Bill for last night. And thanks to my dad and my mom too.

On an entirely different subject: a poster asked on Tuesday how I felt about Jim Boeheim on the occasion of his 800th college coaching victory at Syracuse. I’ll give the short answer for now and write about him in more detail later in the season: I like Jim Boehim. We have had numerous battles through the years—I once wrote that if a hemorrhoid could talk it would sound like Jim Boeheim. It wasn’t actually my line but the guy who said it worked in TV and begged me NOT to give him credit for it. Actually, Jim dealt with that with a good deal of humor. “My friends are pissed off at you,” he said. “But it’s probably not a bad description.”

That tells you why I like him. He’s got a good sense of humor and he can laugh at himself. He wasn’t amused a few years later when I thought he was going to agree to bring Syracuse to play in the BB+T Classic (to play Maryland) and then told me there was no way he would play the game. “Coaches who play games like that become ex-coaches,” he said.

I went off on him, screaming about charity and that he wasn’t going to get fired if he lost one damn game to Maryland. That was in a message I left for him. When he called back the first thing he said was, “I’m angrier at you right now than I’ve ever been at anyone in my life.”

Then we really screamed at one another. After it was over, we made up. Jim has since played in the charity golf tournament I put on in Bruce Edwards’ name for ALS Research on a number of occasions. He’s a good guy and he’s won 800 games as a coach so I don’t think he needs any defending in that area.

I’m sure there will be reasons during the season to write more about Boeheim. There are some classic lines of his I remember but I will save them for another time. He’s no Tennessee Williams, but he’s quick and clever and, as someone who has always depended on the kindness of coaches, I have to both respect and like him a lot.