Game Preparation

Readers have asked me what it’s like in the hours preceding a football game. The first comparison I’ll make is that it’s a lot different than when I played.

Back then when teams walked together towards the stadium, they would wave or shake hands with fans who lined the street leading to the field.

Now all the players wear head sets listening to some goofy music while totally ignoring fans who just want to wish them well.

That is the height of rudeness, making the players look boorish.

I am surprised coaches tolerate such action.

You first get butterflies when you reach the locker room and you become part of a scene that is hurried and harried, yet pensive and hopeful.

If a game starts at two, by one, you are in the locker room. The first order of business is to get your ankles taped, a ceremony hated by all because they are taped so tight they hurt. They are supposed to hurt to protect against a broken or bruised ankle or instep sidelining you during the game.

While the backs are being taped, the interior linemen are in another room, going over their assignments. It takes longer for them to do that because they are, with few exceptions, not as bright as the skill position players. Nor are they as handsome.

They then switch, the burly behemoths commencing to be taped while the skill guys just chat amiably with each other. When the linemen are all taped, they let out a collective grunt and join the skill guys for a last minute pep talk by the head coach.

The talk is the same every game. It is called “The Seven Game Maxims.” They are a set of rules which, if followed, guarantee success. They have been around for nearly a hundred years and are as true today as they were when first spoken at the University of Tennessee by General Neyland, a revered name in college football. It is sixty years now since I last heard them and I can still recite them from rote memory, when requested, although those requests are becoming fewer each year.

The butterflies really kick in when you exit the locker room to enter the packed stadium. As soon as the crowd sees you running in, they start cheering, the band plays your school’s fight song, and if you are the man designated to return kick offs, as I was, you hope you lose the coin toss so your opponent will have to return the kick. [Deferring to the second half hadn’t been invented yet.] Cowardly, you say? Nay, self preservation, knowing all eleven opponents are aiming for you, and you alone.

When the game starts, in spite of 65,000 people yelling, you are so focused on the game, you feel like you did when you played in high school.

Except the locker rooms are a lot nicer now with individual stalls so big they could double as summer cottages on peaceful northern lakes.

Yet another place where the players could wear those dippy dopey ear phones.

Hut One, Hut Two…

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New Football Rules (Insert Tongue in Cheek Before Reading)

Why is it that after a review is made on a play, such as the ball crossing the goal line on a touchdown, and another infraction is clearly seen during that review, such as targeting, only the initial cause for the review is adjudicated? Think about it. If CCTV catches a man holding up a teller in a bank robbery, and an accomplice is seen running out the back door with a bag of money, you just don’t let the bag man run away, do you?

I think the NFL penalty for pass interference should be fifteen yards from the line of scrimmage rather than placing the ball at the site of the infraction. That’s the way colleges do it. If it’s an NFL game, chances are the back judge, fifty years old and out of shape, in need of meeting his personal quota of one call a game, chasing the play with all the speed or lack thereof that he possesses, will react to the home crowd yelling “throw the flag,” by doing just that.

Why does a receiver in college have to have only one foot in bounds to make it a good catch while the pros need two? Are the collegians only half as good as the pros? Or are the pros twice as good as the collegians? Make it consistent. I say you must have both feet in bounds in college, the same way you do in the pros. Get the kids ready for the NFL.

The colleges should have the same two-minute warning as the pros with its attendant extra time out. That extra time out would improve late-half efficiency.

Colleges should switch to NFL overtime rules. It continues a regular brand of traditional football rather than the flag football approach that colleges use, resulting in that silly 74-72 recent seven overtime circus between LSU and Texas A & M.

There should only be two announcers doing any game. One should do play by play and one should be the color commentator. There should be no banal interviews with coaches heading to the locker room at half time.

In both college and the pros, kickoffs that go out of bounds should come out to the fifty rather than the thirty-five yard line, so egregious is the act of bad kicking. Something must be done to stop it.

All scoring celebrations should cease immediately. No more than one first down motion per team per game will be allowed. All transgressors shall forfeit a year of eligibility, or in the case of the NFL, immediate retirement.

The article ‘The’ should be stricken from “The Ohio State University.” “The Citadel,” however, may retain the same article in front of its name. It’s only fair.

The Idaho Vandals must change their name to the Idaho Spuds. Do we see eye to eye on that?

“War” should never be used in reference to a football game.

Hut One, Hut Two

Mamas and Papas and Football

The great counter culture musical group, “The Mamas And The Papas,” in their 1960s song, “Monday, Monday,” lamented the uncertainty of what another week in those tumultuous times would bring…..

“Every other day, every other day,
Every other day of the week is fine, yeah!
But when Monday comes, whenever Monday comes,
You can find me cryin´ all of the time!”

Fast forward sixty years and another group of Mamas & Papas, parents of teenage boys, also find themselves wrestling with Mondays filled with uncertainty as to the wisdom of letting their sons play football on Friday nights.

And, as in any discussion related to the well-being of children, the more informed, the better.

Participation in high school football, the sport I love, is going down every year upon concerned parents learning the possibility of their sons sustaining concussions (CTE) causing serious injuries, leading perhaps to a diminished quality of life in later years.

Parents have for years encouraged their sons to play, not just for the love of the game, but for the very positive lessons to be learned, and the lasting friendships made, often hoping those boys might receive football scholarships to negate the burden of student loans down the road, some even envisioning perhaps lucrative paydays when junior makes it to the NFL.

But when they see the real chances of their kids getting free rides, dreams collide with facts.

To wit, in broad numbers, in 2017, slightly over one million boys played high school football, down 20,000 from 2016. A quarter of them, 250,000 graduating seniors, are eligible for college football scholarships.

One-hundred-and-thirty Power Five college programs, the big schools, offer 25 football scholarships each, a total of 3,250, to those seniors vying for free rides. They are the only educational institutions of higher learning permitted to provide football scholarships.

Those numbers equate to odds of one-in-a-hundred that a senior will get a scholarship. And, waiting to see if that offer ever comes, he must play four years of high school football, receiving potential concussion-related blows time and again, to even begin to receive consideration for a scholarship.

Today’s Mamas and Papas, like those expressing that 1960s lament of “Monday, Monday,” have every right to share that same sentiment of a half century ago.

Parents who wish to have their sons enjoy the fun of football had better find another means of doing so; perhaps by playing flag football, a sport that emphasizes the same concept of team play and sportsmanship as tackle football, minus the ever present danger of life altering injuries.

High schools in Florida now recognize girls flag football as an accredited sport. Boys flag football should receive similar recognition.

Indeed, some colleges have already instituted “sprint football,” tackle football limited to young men who weigh no more than 178 pounds to lessen the danger of much bigger players hitting smaller ones.

For football’s Mamas and Papas nowadays, Monday is not the problem – Friday night is.

Football Playoffs

Somebody once asked comedian Groucho Marx why he went to Alabama to hunt elephants. His answer, “because the tusks are looser there.”

However, since the arrival of legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant sixty years ago, he and the coaches who followed him have made sure opponents know those tusks have indeed tightened considerably and any team seeking a national title must go through Alabama to get it.

This year is no different. The Crimson Tide, currently 10-0, is number one in the country. They have a left-handed quarterback from Honolulu who has never lost a game and who unseated another signal caller who had the temerity to lose just one game after 25 wins. Both have won national championships for Alabama. That’s how good they are.

Six years ago, undefeated Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish got to the title game against similarly unblemished Alabama and were blown away, 42-14.

The Irish play a talented Syracuse team this Saturday in legendary Yankee Stadium, where the loud and raucous Northeast “Subway Alumni” will cheer, cheer, for old Notre Dame, just as they have been doing since their ancestors did nearly a century ago upon arriving in our country as forebears.

Alabama will likely win their SEC title, but Notre Dame must beat Syracuse and pesky Southern Cal on the road to make the Final Four. Subject to change then, Alabama and Notre Dame will be joined by Clemson and Michigan as the four finalists, with Georgia, Ohio State, and Washington State hovering nearby. Notre Dame has already beaten Michigan in the season’s opening game. Michigan must still play their arch rival, Ohio State University, who must still play Big Ten Title game opponent Northwestern.

If Notre Dame and Alabama meet, it will surely recall one of the greatest national title games ever played when these teams met for the first time in the 1973 Sugar Bowl for the national championship. The Irish led by a point when a punt by Bama with 2:54 remaining left Notre Dame pinned on their own one-yard line, ahead by a point, 24-23.

Two runs into the line gained little. A third failed effort would necessitate a punt, under pressure, out of their own end zone, which would give Alabama the ball and an easy shot at a game winning field goal. In one of the greatest plays in Irish history, quarterback Tom Clements,  from out of his end zone, found Robin Weber thirty-five yards upfield for a sideline completion, a first down, and a national championship. To add to the lore of Notre Dame tradition, that would be the only pass Robin Weber would catch that entire season.

 

[Ed. Note] On that Alabama punt to the one-yard-line, Notre Dame roughed the punter. Back then, roughing was a fifteen-yard penalty but not an automatic first down, as it is now. That’s why Bryant took the play, not the penalty. 

Updates to follow on the College Football Playoffs.

Rainy September Football

In Florida, two things happen in September. Both are big. Number one is, football starts. Number two is, so does rain. A combination of the two led to my consternation this past weekend.

Friday night, many high school games got rained out. This was a blessing to the many teams who were going to get beat, 50-0, victims of a new state law that allows any kid to play high school football at any school so long as he can drive there. Ergo, kids transfer, willy, nilly, to wherever the grass is greener, the better to be seen as a member of a winning team for college recruiters. It decimates other schools, such as the 50-0 losers mentioned above. It’s not just Florida and it is not just football. All schools all over the country face the same  problem.

College games are easy to find on Saturdays. Every conference has its own television network, carrying every game. Broadcast and cable networks carry the other contests.

Sunday is when and where the real trouble starts. I like the NFL Sunday games when I go to my favorite family restaurant that covers every game. If you seat yourself favorably, you could watch three games at once, and with the turn of a neck, three more. It is football heaven.

Except this past weekend. I found myself housebound and I knew I was going to be relegated to a Network selection that would not show my favorite team.

I had two options, although because of the aforementioned rain, I really only had one. I could get Direct TV, which delivers every game, but always goes out when it rains. And this past Sunday, it rained very hard here in Tampa.

The other option is to get the NFL Red Zone, which flips to every game when a team is inside the twenty, ready to score. My problem is that I would rather see all it took for a team to get there. It’s kind of like walking into a movie with 20 minutes left. You’ll see the ending and that’s it.

So I was forced to watch the Saints-Falcons game. And was I glad I did.

Drew Brees and Matt Ryan are amongst the three or four finest quarterbacks in the game, veterans skilled in the tapestry of that game that calls for preparation, skills, and executions so vital to success–you can always spot the quarterbacks totally in command; they are the ones who tell the coaches what to do, not the other way around–.

Peyton was that way. So was Favre. Ironic, that on an early pass, Brees rang up completion number 6,001, to pass Farve, with the most completions of all quarterbacks who have ever played in the NFL.

The game was a classic. Brees finally broke serve in overtime, when he jumped over a mountain of men on a quarterback sneak from the two-yard-line, sticking the ball out in front of him for just a nano-second to cross the goal line, to get the win. Ryan never saw the ball in overtime. That overtime rule needs to be reviewed.

I lucked out getting that game to see. But I think my Sunday viewing is going to be back at that family restaurant. And soon.

Wow, three games at once!

Where Have All the Powers Gone

Syracuse beat Florida State for the first time in decades in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. The temperature on the field reached into the 90s. Carrier, which invented air conditioning, has finally found a way to A/C the place, but not until 2022.  It appears coach Jimbo Fisher, high stepping it out of Tallahassee last year to coach Texas A&M, left the cupboard bare for new coach Willie Taggart. Syracuse, as did Virginia Tech in also beating the Noles, appeared faster than FSU, something we are not used to seeing. Throw in a close win over Samford and one begins to see the tough road ahead in Tallahassee.

Notre Dame is undefeated at 3-0, with two of those victories single touchdown wins, one over “Group of Five” Ball State, 24-16, and another over Vanderbilt, 22-17. The Irish appear to be able to turn it on when they need it, but too often put themselves in precarious positions in danger of losing. They need more desire on defense and the long passing game has to step up. In their first game, against Michigan, the Irish played well in beating the Wolverines, 24-17. Three one touchdown wins to start the season sends up some flares with Stanford and Virginia Tech on the horizon.

Michigan, another former power, has its own problems. They haven’t beaten a top 25 team on the road in 12 years. The loss to the Irish added to that ominous record. Maybe they should change airlines. Maybe they should arrive on the opponent’s campus on Monday and hold classes in a field house for five days. I mean that’s a pretty long stretch. They have great talent as usual but it is not evident yet with their only victories Western Michigan and SMU, two lesser foes. Notre Dame presented a wonderful opportunity to break the curse but it didn’t happen. With Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State down the road, the Maize and Blue had better step up, or be stepped over.

Nebraska is another enigma. Buttressed by the return of former Cornhusker quarterback Scott Frost as its new head coach, and surrounded by 73,000 red-clad boosters, they laid two eggs in losing to Colorado and Troy State in their first two home games. Everybody expects Frost to turn the team around and return to all those ten and eleven victory seasons Nebraska fans had become accustomed to. Last year Frost was 15-0 at UCF. I suspect there was little recruiting done in the last year by the former Nebraska staff. Frost will be given ample time to turn things around and I predict he will.

Not all of the former powers have lost the ability to win. Alabama beat Mississippi, 62-7, a year after beating them, 66-3. That’s 128-10 over two years for those of you counting at home. Better Ole’ Miss play Mississippi State twice and never Alabama.

Burt Reynolds

(This story first appeared in Coach’s Corner on 2/15/2014.)

Burt Reynolds had just driven up to the Tampa Theater to 1,300 adoring fans in the Pontiac Trans Am he used in the film “Smokey and the Bandit,” his hilarious homage to 1970s Southern culture being shown that evening.

I had been instructed to go to the box-office to get a free pass for the event. When I got there, the crowd’s noise was so loud I couldn’t hear the guard directing me where to go. When he said, “Go around……..” I thought he meant the building, when he really meant “Go around the usher.”

I mistakenly went halfway around the theater, attempting to open every door I saw, all to no avail until the final door opened easily and I found myself inside the Green Room, a waiting area reserved for that evening’s VIPs.

The Green Room had posters of Burt and a table laden with Reese’s Pieces, Raisinets and Goobers, said boxes lettered with the names of Burt Reynolds and Ben Mankiewicz, the MC of Turner Classic Films, the evening’s host. (I pilfered a box of Goobers when no one was looking.)

Soon, who should walk in but Burt himself, looking very fit at seventy-five, and as charming and handsome as when he posed in the buff for Cosmopolitan.

The room was now filling up with people having their pictures taken with him. I saw a break in the action and approached him, telling him I had been offered a football scholarship to Florida State when he played there in the 1950s.

I suggested that given the spelling of our names (Reese/Reynolds) it was possible we might have even been roommates in the football dorm if players been grouped alphabetically. He smiled, somewhat nervously, it seemed to me.

We discussed his coach back then, Tom Nugent, whom he described as a “visionary.” Nugent had a play in which he sent a man-in-motion who did hand-springs across the field to distract the defense. Burt smiled and said he remembered that gridiron maneuver but fortunately had never been asked to play that role.

He described in detail putting Johnny Unitas out of action during a FSU-Louisville game on a hard tackle which kept Unitas on the bench for the last seven games of the season, denying the future Hall of Fame legend a spot in the NFL draft. He said he had met Unitas often over the years and got a big kick out of reminding him of that.

Overhearing Burt’s personal aide stating that he (Burt) had been drafted by the Baltimore Colts, I told Burt we also had that in common, furthering even more our might-have-been relationship.

I asked him if FSU requests his help in recruiting football players and he said, “Oh, God, if I ever did that, the Miami and Florida people would kill me.”

We chatted a bit more about football and then I stepped aside for others to chat with Burt.

I settled in for the Q & A session taking place on the stage between Ben and Burt.

A question from the balcony lit up the theater when a man shouted to Burt, who some years ago had adopted Tampa as his home town, “Are you my father?” After the snickering stopped, Burt responded, “How old are you?” The man said he was thirty-seven.

Burt paused pensively for a few moments, did some mathematical calculations while the waiting audience eagerly leaned forward, and affectionately answered, “Yes, son, I just might be.”

Laughter, like clapboards being ripped off the side of a house, roared through the restored 1926 rococo movie palace.

He said the finest actor he’d ever met was Spencer Tracy, who gave him very sound advice. “It’s okay if you’re an actor, kid, just don’t let them ever catch you acting.”

He said he was in “love” with co-star Sally Fields but she was only in “like” with him.

He was very pleased with the fact that “Smokey” grossed four-hundred-million 1977 dollars.

Burt walked the stage, acknowledging the applause, impulsively giving his cowboy hat to a very appreciative young boy in the front row, waved a final goodbye to his adopted town, saying, “I hope you all enjoy the movie, again!”

We did.

Football is Back

To steal from Steinbeck who stole from Shakespeare, the winter of our discontent is finally over, and the glory of autumn is upon us. And that can mean only one thing.

The college bullies are back, winning games by thirty, forty, and, in one case, fifty points. In the much anticipated return of the fabled Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry, neither the vaunted defense nor the arrival of the latest Wolverine wunderkind was enough to prevent a thrilling one touchdown win by the Irish.

The combination of new coach Scott Frost finally coming home, and the stands full of 75,000 curious Nebraska Cornhuskers  was enough to scare the Akron Zips into boarding their plane and leaving Lincoln even before threatening weather caused the cancellation.

It was similar to the Idaho Vandals, living up to their nickname, stealing $1,000,000 of Florida taxpayer money a few years ago when their game with the Gators was rained out and they left town, without even departing their chartered jet, mind you. At least the Akron Zips got off their plane before they zapped out of town.

The usual suspects for the National Championship showed why they are just that, as Ohio State and Alabama defeated Oregon State and Louisville by a combined 83 points. Neither team has the problem that Michigan has at quarterback in that any of three signal callers, two at Bama, one at Ohio State, are legitimate All American candidates.

Even absent Urban Meyer, suspended from coaching for a while, the brand new Buckeyes quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, threw for five touchdowns and over 300 yards in his debut. The state of Ohio has a surfeit of great quarterbacks every year and the very best of them finds his way to Columbus.

Alabama had to journey to Texas and Hawaii for their two gems. The biggest problem Nick Saban has this year is learning not to yell at reporters who ask if he has a quarterback controversy. He doesn’t. Tuanigamanuolepola “Tua” Tagovailoa is the starter even though Jalen Hurts is 26-2 in his career at Alabama. That is the only time this year that I will type all 18 letters of Tua’s first name.

The NFL season kicks off tomorrow when the Falcons go to Philadelphia to test whether the Eagles have what it takes to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Nick Foles will keep Carson Wentz on the bench. Another magical year for the City of Brotherly Love? Don’t count it out.

An interesting match up has Pittsburgh at Cleveland. On the surface, a no-brainer, but there is something about Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield that should keep Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin up late looking at video of the number one pick. He is Johnny Football without the baggage.

In closing, a nod towards two great athletes competing at the US Open, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal. Relentless in fending off opponents, both have a chance to win their respective tournaments. It would be great for tennis if they do. They each deserve it.

I Thought My Learning Curve Had Flatlined

A lifetime football fanatic, my attachment to the game of late has consisted of reading, writing, and viewing the pigskin parade, albeit from a distance.

I missed being on the field, first playing, then coaching, and more recently reporting for a major local daily on high school football in Tampa.

I learned a few years ago to stay away from the sideline during games when a runner, trying hard to get a first down, got bounced out of bounds by two burly behemoths, all three then barreling into me as I tried to escape the carnage. I did, barely, such action sending me to the press box for future games.

Missing the excitement of being close to the play on the sideline and really not being comfortable in a crowded wooden cage that is the average high school press box, I rather drifted away from the game, viewing college and pro games on television from a table at the local sports bar or the lazy boy at home.

At eighty-four, playing was out of the question, a bootleg now most certainly necessitating a leg boot later. I had always enjoyed more the cerebral part of the game, anyway.

My involvement had waned somewhat save an occasional game of catch with my grandson.

But I missed being part of the game.  And that’s where technology took over.

Most of what I learned about football had come from playing and coaching it in college. Being a quarterback, I had the advantage of spending a lot of time with coaches both on the practice field and in meetings watching films of games.

It honed my knowledge of the game and later increased my enjoyment when coaching.

But the game was changing and I missed being part of it.

I was chatting recently with a local coach who asked if I would like to put my experience to work by viewing videos of his games and noting my observations.

I gladly accepted and now receive within twenty-four hours of his game’s completion, a professionally produced video, broken down play by play, with the ability to review plays over and over, noting the pluses and minuses of his players and e-mailing a report back to him for his review.

I feel my learning curve in football has returned and I can be useful in assisting both players and coaches once again.

It’s not so much the X’s and O’s of the game I digest; that is the responsibility of the coaching staff.

I try to catch the little things that produce results, i.,e, is the blind side tackle hinting by his stance that a pass play is coming, or is the quarterback commanding the secondary to his wishes by locking a safety in place with his eyes so his receiver has single coverage down the sideline.

And it can all be done with an iPad, sitting in my lazy boy.

A has-been has been converted into a wannabe once again.

The Saga of “Snapper” Stein

Lloyd “Snapper” Stein, so called because he was the long snapper on punts when he played for the University of Minnesota way back in the 1920s, went on to become the athletic trainer there for forty years, becoming, in the process, the only trainer in college football history to train three straight National Championship teams.

Snapper could tape ankles faster and better than the best worker at Amazon, conveyor belts and all, can load that new laptop you’ve been waiting for. He would do it with a sense of purpose, the waiting line amazed at his dexterity. The player being taped would remain silent lest he be sent to the end of the line, not unlike Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Snapper would hold court, relating stories of Gopher greats from Bud Wilkinson to Bud Grant and beyond. A slap of his hand on the bottom of your foot was the signal to leave for the next guy.

Once done, Snapper would join the team out on the field, towel draped over his left shoulder to tend to sprains, fractures, bruises, and broken spirits. He would walk the sidelines, advising coach Murray Warmath as to the medical wisdom of an injured player re-entering the game, and Murray always listened to him.

Once I got knocked out making a tackle on Bill Brown, a bruising player from Illinois and later, the Vikings. I literally saw stars when we met. The refs stopped the game and Snapper came out, looked into my eyes and said, “sit up.” On my way sitting up, he took out a vial of smelling salts and brushed it under my nose. I was up in an instant, realizing why smelling salts are used in boxing. You simply can do nothing but arise when that odor jolts your nervous system.

In a similar situation with All-American quarterback Bobby Cox knocked unconscious, Snapper got Bobby up with the salts, asking him, “Are you okay?” Cox answered, “I’m okay,” and then looking past Snapper into the stands, winked and asked, “but how are they taking it?”

Snapper loved telling that story. In his fortieth and final year, I doubt Snapper made more than $30,000.

A tragic event happened recently at the University of Maryland when a player collapsed and died after a vigorous workout in extremely hot weather. It is admitted not enough attention was paid to his condition in a reasonable amount of time. The head coach has been suspended pending an investigation.

The strength and conditioning coach, in a job where the annual salary often pays $400,000, has been fired.

Apparently, too often poor behavior or mistakes by players led to increased pressure from conditioning coaches through more difficult workouts. That is ludicrous behavior.

The next time you watch a college football game, eyeball the coach on the sideline acting like a fool, waving his arms and yelling and screaming, grabbing players and shoving others. He is most likely the strength and conditioning coach doing on the field what he does in the gym. A perfect example of such a fool is Alex Spanos from Northwestern.

Snapper Stein is a Charter Member of the National Collegiate Trainers Hall of Fame.

None of today’s dimwitted strength and conditioning coaches should ever walk through those hallowed doors.

The Dreaded Two-A-Days

Ask anybody who has played college football what the toughest part of it was, and, to a man, they will say it was the dreaded two-a-day practices that began fall football.

Dragged away from the somnolent summer of beautiful beaches into the maelstrom that was fourteen days of football, twice daily, in searing heat, using muscles and tendons that had been six months in hibernation, was neither for the weak of limb nor the sane of mind.

That first morning, at 5:15, when large men who, four weeks hence, I would will my first born to for protecting me from the enemy in a bunkered pocket of pass protection, trudged beside me on the walk across campus to the field for the first practice of the season, we were far less the Golden Gophers than we were that unruly lot pictured in the opening scene of “Les Miserables,” hungry, hurting, and haggard.

It wasn’t the first day that did one in, though, but rather the second. Muscles and tendons awakened on day one got even twenty-four hours later when they attacked us, the unwary, with a vengeance not seen since the dark ages, a twinge here, a tear there, a fearful sprain growing, all the while with a thirst inside us that guzzling gallons of water could not abate.

After morning practice, a walk to the Student Union for a breakfast fit for a regiment of His King’s Finest, as much as you could eat. Civility emerged, questions asked as to summer jobs enjoyed, courses to be taken, comments as to the wisdom of recently added coaches, as camaraderie returned.

After breakfast, we would break down by position for meetings at 9:30. Quarterbacks with the head coach asking, “Okay, when they line up this way, what do you do?”

Linemen, both offense and defense together, this being in the pre-Vietnam era of one platoon football, asked to recite by rote the defensive signals last spoken of in spring practice.

As 11:00 am approached and eye lids began to droop and drop by the dozens, we would be sent back to the Union for a light lunch and then to the dorm for the much anticipated hour-and-a-half-nap, before practice in pads began anew at 2:30, the blazing heat of the day slowly following the sun westward, always a bit ahead of us, offering scant comfort.

Dinner at the Union would be followed by guys going to sleep no later than 8:00 pm, the better to be prepared for the next of those fourteen straight terrible Two-A-Days.

The third week, students began coming in for the fall semester and we practiced but once daily. It was time to become true student/athletes. We played nine games back then, rather than the twelve played today. It is with no small pride I recount that every single starter earned a degree. Now, barely half do. That is shameful.

For the Good of the Game

Baseball was first played nearly two-hundred years ago on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey. Little has changed since then. It became “America’s Pastime” and remained that way until overtaken by football in the minds of many fans about sixty years ago.

A few changes did happen over time. The designated hitter rule added a modicum of offense, but only in the American League. Games had become longer with incessant pitching changes and interminable time spent by pitchers slowly delivering the ball, such offense lessened through use of a clock.

Faster professional games have replaced baseball as their favorite, football and basketball amongst them. Tennis, golf, horse racing and soccer also have challenged baseball’s preeminent position.

Changes to the game are necessary. May I suggest a few?

The game needs more offense. First I would eliminate the infield shift. I would mandate that two infielders remain on both sides of second base. No more four infielders between first and second base, or between second and third. The availability of metrics today pretty much defines where hitters will hit. Bunching fielders at those locations gives an unfair advantage to the defense. I would continue to allow the center fielder to play behind second base if the situation dictates.

Another change I would make is to have each extra inning start with the first batter up already on second base. 10% of all baseball games go into extra innings. Only 5% of those games end after the tenth inning. With so many pitching changes made in extra inning games, the games seem interminable. Bunting would become more important again after years of declining use and expertise. The key in winning an extra inning game would be to move that runner over to third immediately, probably by a bunt, to then score on a hit or a sacrifice fly.

I would make relief pitchers pitch to at least two batters. The constant use of a relief pitcher to face but one batter takes too long with walks to the pitching mound by the manager taking him out, to the time it takes him reaching the mound, and then taking the warm up throws allowed. Having to face two batters at a minimum lessens that time considerably.

I think of all the professional sports, instant replay is needed more in baseball than any other other sport. There are simply too many close plays. I am not ready to concede the calling of balls and strikes to a computer just yet- even though game reviews of balls and strikes shows umpires making  wrong calls 14% of the time-and generally in favor of the home team- but perhaps a limited number of reviews if requested by a manager might be allowed.

MLB management should be less fearful of changes that will shorten the game without curbing excitement for the fans. I think the above suggestions will make for improved play and bring more fans back to what once was truly “America’s National Pastime.”

Lucky Lohrke

Alliteration, a literary device wherein an adjective modifying a noun following it begins with the same letter as the noun. The “slithering salmon swam up stream” is such an example.

Sportswriters for decades have given alliterative nicknames to players that memorialized the athletes forever. The names are also recognizable in having matching syllable counts. Here is one such player………

“Lucky” Lohrke was an infielder for the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies who led a very charmed life. A big leaguer for six seasons, he enjoyed moderate success but is best remembered for what he did off the field.

A combat soldier during WW II, he survived a troop train crash that killed three others and injured dozens more. It was to be the first of several experiences he would have that would earn him the nickname, “Lucky Lohrke.”

He took part in the D-Day Normandy landings as well as the Battle of The Bulge, and extensive combat throughout Europe during which action four fellow soldiers next to him in separate battles were killed.

Returning from the war, Lohrke had to concede his seat in a military transport plane heading out of Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, to his home in Los Angeles, to a higher ranked soldier. The plane crashed on its way to the West Coast, killing everybody on board.

After the war, Jack resumed his baseball career, playing third base for the Class B Spokane Indians of the Western International League In 1946.

On June 26th of that year, he was a passenger on the team bus as it traveled towards Bremerton, Washington, to begin a road trip. Lohrke had been having a fine year, batting .345 in 229 at bats. His performance had earned him a promotion to the San Diego Padres, then a member of the AAA Pacific Coast League.

The team was unable to contact him as he was in transit between cities. The police were contacted and asked to relay the good news to Jack, who was having dinner at a diner with the team. He was instructed to leave immediately and report to the Padres. He gathered his gear, left the bus and hitched rides back to Spokane. Later that night, that bus broke through a guard rail, plunged down a mountain pass, and crashed. Of the 15 players on the bus, nine were killed, and all six survivors were badly injured.

After baseball, Jack had a fine career with the Lockheed  Corporation, rising to the position of Head of Security. He came to hate the nickname of Lucky Jack Lohrke, and later in life he demurred from its use when reminded of it. He died from complications of a stroke in 2009.

As a kid, I recall Jack coming to the plate against my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, and listening as announcer after announcer chanted the happenings that made the nickname impossible to ignore.

I also remember Lucky Lohrke having a lot of good luck against Dodger pitching.

Tendencies and Infield Shifts

Recognition of tendencies, i. e., things we do almost by habit, are as evident in sports as they are in life. Coaches preparing for a game gather as much information as they can to determine opponents’ tendencies. For instance, how often will a baseball player not swing at the first pitch, or in football, what play does a team run most of the time on third and short yardage inside the thirty?

People are creatures of habit. We arise at the same time, go to work concurrently, put out the garbage twice a week, mow the lawn on Saturdays, and pay the bills on the same day each month.

So, too, are athletes and teams creatures of habit. They continue to act and react in the same manner over and over.

These sports tendencies can be noted in person, or as is now the case-even in high schools-a video recording of a game can be sent electronically to a firm, which will, overnight, analyze and return a report to a coach with every possible tendency noted. Coaches will then strategize and implement defenses to best address these tendencies.

For instance, an opponent with a decided tendency to run off right tackle on third and short is likely to meet the defensive line slanting to that side on the snap of the ball. Or a pitcher might be more enticed to throw the first pitch right down Main Street if a batter is likely to take it rather than swing, in order to get ahead of the batter in the count. In sports, as in life, little things mean a lot.

Baseball announcers years ago would say, “the center fielder is stationed a bit towards left-center because the batter has a tendency to pull the ball,” a comment based purely upon the announcer’s observations of previous at-bats of the hitter. Now algorithmic computer driven programs are presented to show that batter has hit the ball into a one hundred square foot rectangle directly between the center and left fielder’s straight away positions 37% of the time. In other words, teach “don’t run there, be there!” 

Extensive use of computer technology sees to that.

There is an argument afoot to outlaw the “Infield Shift” i.e., the placement of three or even four infielders between first and second base to put defensive players in a better position to field balls hit to right field by left-handed pull hitters. It began way back in 1946 against legendary slugger Ted Williams, whose line drives often splintered empty seats in Fenway Park’s right field bleachers.

The shift lay fallow until the recent emergence of statistical analysis showed it to be still effective.

I am against the shift and think it should be outlawed. It has taken the offense out of baseball to an alarming degree. Fans want more scoring in every game.

The NBA years ago outlawed zone defenses, stodgy, stand still type alignments which resulted in teams scoring only sixty or seventy points per game. The fans stayed away, and as a result, the league said only man-to-man defenses could be used, and the fans came back to more fluid motion and triple digit scores. They even added the three-point shot for further fire power.

One of the reasons soccer, hugely popular in the rest of the world, hasn’t caught on here is because we want more scoring, pure and simple.

Unless MLB stops ganging up on pull hitters, the excitement of rallies built around hits up the middle or down the foul lines will result in less offense and fewer fans at ball parks.

Even the NFL, our most popular national sport, as far back as 1978, made rule changes allowing linemen more opportunity to protect the passer by extending their arms forward while pass blocking, producing more scores, so much so that now you can’t get a ticket to an NFL game, sold out as they are every Sunday with excited fans.

Metrics Schmetrics

When I was fourteen years old, my father took me to a night game at Ebbetts Field, the old ball park of my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. All I remember is the tickets cost $1.25 and the Dodgers lost to the Cincinnati Reds, 5-2, on a home run off reliever Hugh Casey.

Relievers took losses much harder back in the day. Three years later, Hugh Casey committed suicide. He faded from the baseball psyche soon thereafter. Metrics not having made their insidious intrusion into sports at that time, Hugh died not knowing he twice led the National League in saves.

Ever since the statistical patron saint of professional baseball, Bill James, found out, with the help of an old Commodore 8000 computer, that there was literally no end to the way statistics could be applied to baseball performance, fans have gone nuts trying to find out more and more.

Time was, a player was judged on his batting average, home runs and runs batted in. That was all we knew. That was all we had to know.

Take that home run that Cincinnati player hit in 1948. My memory tells me it was a pitch high inside that he got all of, sending it into the left field seats with two men on to beat Hugh. If that game had been played last night, we would have seen through the little white box superimposed on the television screen whether or not it was even in the strike zone. Back then a batter had to swing at any pitch between the knees and the shoulders as long as it appeared on or within the black outlining home plate. Sounds easy, huh?

That is so hard to do that batters who fail 70% of the time make the Hall of Fame.

Not that I am against that outline on the screen. Two nerds from Franklin and Marshall College analyzed hundreds of thousands of MLB pitches thrown and found that 14% of the time the strike call made was wrong. So there’s that.

Back to that Reds home run when Harry Truman was president…..if that pitch had been thrown last night, we would have been told the speed of the pitch, the angle of flight, the distance hit, the time it took to hit the seats, the seat number it hit, the last ten players to have homered into that same seat, and here’s the weirdest stat of all: not only the measured actual speed of the pitch as it reached the plate but, get this, the “perceived” speed of the pitch to the batter’s eye. Don’t ask.

I can see happening, shortly, through facial recognition software at the gate as your ticket is being swiped by the ticket taker, the name and photo of the home run-catching fan sitting in that seat flashed all over the huge electronic scoreboard for everyone at the park or within six time zones to see.

Next week we’ll talk about eliminating the shifting of infielders. That’ll be a lot of fun!

The Greatest Team Ever

(Special Edition)

The Green Bay Packers under Lombardi, the 1950’s Yankees under Stengel, the Red Auerbach led Celtics of the ’60’s, the 49ers of the 1980’s…..

Hornung sweeping right behind Thurston and Kramer to win the first two Super Bowls for Green Bay, the epitome of team work that wreaked havoc on the NFL and set the standard for selfless team play for all the teams that followed.

DiMaggio, Berra, Skowron, Mantle won five straight World Series dressed in pin stripes because that was the business-like aura they commanded in running roughshod over everybody with precision team play.

Russell, Cousy, Sharman, Havlicek, Jones (two of them) won eleven NBA titles because every single player knew his job and did it well, starting with a rebound by Russell that more often than not ended up in a lay up by Cousy, so perfectly positioned were all five players playing as a team.

Bill Walsh revolutionized the game with his West Coast Offense of the ’80s and took home four Lombardi Trophies because of it. Joe Montana was the perfect quarterback for Walsh. Cool as hell, he got the very most out of the short passing game that made San Francisco play so well as a team

This is a sports column and I want to pay homage to the greatest team effort I’ve ever seen — the rescue of the 12 boys of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach who were a paragon of team play in assisting and abetting the greatest coaching effort ever seen. Hyperbole? No, miracle is more appropriate.

From the minute the effort was underway until the glorious moment the entire team and its leader exited the cave, leadership and team play was the order of the day, setting an example for the hundreds of millions of people hoping against hope for success that team effort, led by intelligent leaders planning, revising, listening–all the while struggling against a devastating torrent of rain chasing their every move outward–would finally carry the day.

The images of medical teams jumping off helicopters, to be immediately replaced by another crew getting on to return hurriedly to the cave gave me shivers.

The boys themselves, cold and hungry and scared, hanging together, listening to their 25 year-old coach, a guy who gave his own meager ration of food to his players, the divers from all over the world slithering through small openings to bring oxygen to the boys, all of them acting in perfect unison, a team if there ever was one, to win this game of life.

Coaches at any level would do well to show their players the video footage of this fantastic team endeavor. There never has been a better team effort from any team I have ever seen.

Winston Must Go

In nearly every type of job where performance is measurable, e.g., sales, attorney, negotiator, politician, waiter or actor, nearly everybody would be fired who fails three straight times. If you add social transgressions to those performance failures, they are usually thrown out with yesterday’s newspapers or twitter comments.

In sports, somebody of nearly equal ability will replace the loser. The Bucs quarterback, Jameis Winston, has a career won-loss record of 18-27 through his first three years and has yet to lead his team into the playoffs, despite a more than respectable supporting cast. A review of his passing statistics reveals the major portion of his passing yardage has come in the second half of losing games where opponents have played prevent defenses trading off passing gains against the winding down of the clock.

Add the need of his school to pay nearly a million dollars to settle a rape accusation, and his admission of guilt to groping a female Uber driver, plus other juvenile transgressions, including theft and screaming obscenities in a crowded dining hall, the owners of the Bucs should have already shown him the door.

How many chances do you give somebody to redeem himself? The NFL has gotten itself into a situation where viewership has dwindled, attendance at games has lessened, and fans, especially women, are leaving in droves. Sure, some reaction has been negative due to the concussion issue, but ever since Ray Rice did his horrible thing in that elevator, owners’ eyes have looked everywhere but at the real problem. Bullies.

Winston is gone for three games for groping the Uber driver, Ryan Fitzpatrick will replace him and probably do just as well, if his past performances are any indication. The guy the Bucs should have taken three years ago when they picked Winston, Marcus Mariota, will probably lead the Tennessee Titans back into the playoffs with far less talent around him than the Bucs have put together for Winston. The single most important measurement of a quarterback is getting his team into the post season. Mariota has done it and Winston hasn’t.

And it isn’t as if Bucs management didn’t see it coming. In the Rose Bowl following their senior seasons, Mariota’s Oregon team clobbered Florida State and Winston, 59-20, sending a very embarrassing message to the ACC and putting Oregon into the final four in that initial college playoff scenario. So bad was it for Winston that after throwing a backward pass (fumble) that was recovered and run in for a touchdown by Oregon, his own coach, Jimbo Fisher, tired of hearing his excuses, had to tell him to shut up and go sit on the bench.

In spite of that imbroglio, the Bucs drafted him ahead of Mariota. In the opening NFL game of 2015, fate would have the Tennessee Titans visiting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Winston versus Mariota. The Titans blasted the Bucs, 42-14, Mariota completing 13 of 15 passes for four touchdowns.

Therefore, the first two times these quarterbacks met, Mariota won by a combined score of 101-34.

Winston will sit out the first three games this year while Mariota prepares the Titans for a second run at the playoffs.

The Bucs should have drafted another quarterback two months ago. Better yet, three years ago.

Parental Misguided Behavior

The other night, I caught on the evening news the sight of a dozen adults fighting at a girls’ softball game. Punching and kicking each other, it looked like tag team wrestling gone viral. Cursing and pulling hair, it was a disgrace. And it was not unusual. All too often parents have been seen interfering with what should be an evening of sportsmanship and fun turn into chaos.

What drives this behavior? It must be parents pushing their kids to excel at all costs, opponents and umpires be damned. It can’t simply be territorial rights to championships.

I submit what drives and energizes this behavior is money, the same issue that now drives all of sports.

Two factors, the exorbitant cost of college, and the sinful sums of money paid to professional athletes, causes parents to drive their kids to be the best, regardless of sportsmanship and fair play.

LeBron James, signing a four-year contract guaranteeing him $154,000,000, or $475,000 per game to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, only adds to the problem.

Parents in Florida shop their kids around to the schools with the better athletic programs in the hope of their being noticed more by college coaches. The State Legislature went even further by passing a rule that allows any student anywhere in the state to attend any other school, statewide, as long as he/she can provide their own transportation. In effect, a student athlete could attend twelve different schools during a four year period, playing at least three different sports.

The irony is this abhorrent behavior is more exhibited in the stands than on the fields. When kids are left alone, play is still pretty much what it had always been, competitive activity between competitive participants.

Far too many parents (a) think their child is good enough to get an athletic scholarship to college, negating the huge cost of having to pay it themselves. Then there are those who think (b) their child will become a pro and make millions.

Below is the summary of an extensive study done by ScholarshipStats.Com.

Odds of a US High School Athlete Playing in College:

What are the chances of a high school athlete making the transition to the college level?  We compared the  number of athletes participating in varsity sports at US high schools  during the 2016-17 school year to the number of college student athletes. Overall a little over 7% of high school athletes (about 1 in 14) went on to play a varsity sport in college and less than 2% of high school athletes (1 in 54) went on to play at  NCAA Division I schools. The largest percentage of both male and female college athletes competed at  NCAA Division III schools.

It is clear to see that the chances of getting an athletic scholarship are very small. Better that parents stress academics over athletics. A recent study showed a college degree is worth $1,000,000 more in earnings in a lifetime. With only 58 percent of football players and 47 percent of basketball players getting a degree, parents should stress academics over athletics.

As for that parental “swingin’ softball soirée,” those parents are advised that only 1 in 62 high school girls will play NCAA Div. 1-A softball, the only division where athletic scholarships are available.

On another note, Happy Fourth of July!

15 Minutes of Shame

(Ed. Note: I’ve touched on this subject before but I feel it needs re-visiting.)

Artist Andy Warhol, the creator of “pop art,” coined the phrase, “fifteen minutes of fame”, predicting that those not truly worthy of notice would still become celebrated by the presence of increased media opportunities, well before the Internet and social networking sites ever appeared.

What has that to do with football?

I love football. I have played and coached it on sandlots and in stadiums, on concrete streets and manicured fields for seventy-five years, without ever losing interest.

Admittedly, I cannot cure the concussion problems, although something must be done. Nor, have I earned the right to dictate to players whether they should kneel or not.

But from Labor Day to the Super Bowl, you’ll not find a devotee of the game greater than I. The lessons learned, and friendships made, have lasted a lifetime.

I must rail, however, at what I’ll call “Fifteen Minutes of Shame.” An homage, perhaps, to Warhol, but apt in its description of a ceremony in high schools all over America on national signing day when 17-year-olds tell a less than breathless world where they will be playing college football.

On an auditorium stage, surrounded by family and friends,  a teenager will make public the school he has chosen. He will join a group of 1,625 other seniors from around the country who have been fortunate enough to receive offers from Power 5 schools.

Only 58% of those seniors, however, will ever earn college degrees.

Yet, on that stage, they will be lionized as future stars. Worse yet, it is customary for them to have caps of various schools that recruited them to be placed on the table in front of them to heighten the suspense of what their choice will be.

Behind them will be schoolmates, educators, coaches and parents. The recipient will then foolishly pick up a hat as if that is his choice, then shake his head ‘no’ and laughingly discard the hat as the group around him laughs.

In the audience will be coaches of those schools in contention.

These are men who have labored at their craft for many years, developing men out of such boys, men who have given boys like them a great chance at a better life by guiding them athletically and academically towards a degree, the attainment of which, according to a recent Georgetown University study, would mean $1,000,000 more to them in their working lives, if only they would earn one.

Yet, almost half will never get that piece of paper. It could be theirs for free, but they’ll spurn it.

I feel pain for those coaches who are snubbed at this faux celebration. They should have received a polite “no, thank you,” rather than the ignominy of watching these young boys making fools of themselves.

The University of Minnesota team from six decades ago will gather at Homecoming this year in Minneapolis to remember our teammates who have passed on, and celebrate the fact that every starting member of our 1958 Golden Gopher team earned a degree leading to a productive and fulfilling life.

Go, Gophers!

A Day in the Sun

Sports, perhaps more than any other endeavor, provides opportunities for gratification and recognition for longer periods of time.

Images of Michael Jordan taking that game winning shot, Arnold Palmer sinking that forty-foot putt to win a Grand Slam event, Bill Mazeroski clearing the left-field wall with a home run to win a World Series linger on and on as iconic images.

Other less noticed accomplishments remain with the doer perhaps even longer. Through the efforts of a bevy of bountiful receivers making remarkable receptions, and guys providing great pocket protection, this reporter broke the University of Minnesota school record for single game passing yardage against the University of Washington in 1958, in the process throwing for over 200 yards, a mark many quarterbacks today reach by halftime. But back in those days of three-yards and a cloud-of-dust football, 200 yards wasn’t too shabby. In an act of shameless self-promotion granted to senior citizens, he has transferred a copy of that game film onto his I-Pad for other interested (or not) octogenarians to view.

Earl Mossor had his day in the sun in the pivotal baseball year of 1951 when he was brought up to the Brooklyn Dodgers for his “cup of coffee” in the big leagues. That season ended with “the shot heard round the world,” a Bobby Thomson home run to win the pennant for the New York Giants. When Earl was called up that season, he did something no one else ever did. Before being sent down again to the minor leagues, he batted 1.000 after getting a single in his only at-bat. In addition, in a relief opportunity, he struck out perhaps the greatest hitter of all time, Stan “The Man” Musial, on a three-two-pitch with the bases loaded and two outs to record a save.

Alas, Earl’s “Day In The Sun” ended on a cloudy note. Brought into a game with the Dodgers leading the Giants by a run, he failed to hold the lead, giving up three runs in relief and taking the loss.

In a strange twist of fate, the Dodgers blew a thirteen-and a-half-game August lead that year, ending the regular season tied with the hated Giants, forcing a best two-of-three playoff and the infamous Thomson home run. Had Earl held that early season save opportunity, there never would have been a need for a playoff and Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca would never have had to pitch to Thomson and live with the result for the rest of his life.

A night in the net turned out to be Scott Foster’s day in the sun when the 36-year-old accountant and father of two put on his goaltender gear to help his beloved Chicago Black Hawks. A new NHL rule states that the home team must have a reserve on hand in case both goalies on a team go out on injuries. That’s exactly what happened back in March when both Black Hawk goalies went down and Foster had to man the goal with 14:01 left. A member of two local Chicago recreation leagues, Foster stopped all seven Winnipeg shots down the stretch to preserve Chicago’s 6-2 victory.

The next night he was back with his regular team, playing at Chicago’s “Johnny’s Ice House West” for the league championship, a dream neatly tucked away in his goalie’s glove forever.

The Triple Crown

The Triple Crowns in baseball and horse racing were left unclaimed for forty-five and thirty-seven years, respectively, until 2012 and 2015.

The baseball achievement goes to the batter who led in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in for the season. The racing diadem goes to the winner of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont.

Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox in 1967 and Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers in 2012 won the Triple Crowns in baseball.

Affirmed won the racing Triple Crown in 1978, and American Pharoah won it in 2015.

Only two players have won the baseball award twice, Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams. Only seventeen in total have ever won it.

In 99 years of horse racing, only twelve horses have won the Triple Crown. Between Affirmed and American Pharoah, thirteen horses won the Derby and the Preakness but lost the Belmont. Justify will race in the Belmont on June 8th having already won the Derby and the Preakness. Ergo, we may have another Triple Crown winner in racing this year.

There are good reasons for both droughts to have occurred.

In baseball, the existing criteria is outmoded and outdated due to changes in the way the game is played. MLB should consider the category of OPS (on base + slugging), a sabermetric statistic, as a substitute for batting average in that it quantifies the ability of a player both to get on base and to hit for power. A recent addition to the computerized approach to the game, it has gained prominence and acceptance by fans as a more accurate evaluation of a batter’s prowess. Had the statistic been in effect in Babe Ruth’s time, it would have earned The Bambino five Triple Crowns, so good was he.

In horse racing, the three races are different distances, ranging from one and a quarter mile in the Derby to one and three/sixteenths of a mile in the Preakness to one and a half miles at Belmont. It is the extra distance at Belmont that has taken the measure of those thirteen horses who won the first two legs. They simply lacked the stamina to go the distance.

Of special note is a nod to the greatest horse ever, Secretariat, who in 1973 won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and then took the Belmont by a margin of thirty-one lengths, going away.

The winner of the racing Triple Crown is truly the best three-year-old horse, magnificently trained, pure bred, and courageous, a champion in every sense of the word. Many owners have realized the futility of trying to win all three races and have kept their horses out of of one or two of the races.

In some cases, a more rested horse winning the Belmont has denied a Triple Crown to a horse entered in all three races. That is unfair.

But hail to the twelve champions who have run, and won, all three.

Student Athletes, Part 2

Last week Coach’s Corner took a look at whether student athletes in college should be paid, a subject under discussion by the NCAA. The basic premise of the proposal to pay basketball and football players is that the revenue generated in those sports is primarily through the efforts of the participants and yet there is no remuneration to them for their efforts. It is a clouded argument because the players on scholarship are indeed reimbursed through receiving a free education with room and board and books and with no attendant student loans to be repaid after they graduate.

Several readers commented on the issue. Of special interest was the proposal to limit the number of athletic scholarships to incoming freshmen in the fall equal to the number of those who graduated the previous spring. Rules state that a school can provide 25 football scholarships per year but can have no more than 85 on scholarship at any given time. A major problem schools have is that far too many players on scholarship never graduate. Only 58% of football players get a degree. That is shameful. If coaches were limited by the above suggested rule, you would see far greater effort in both awarding four year scholarships to more worthy recipients and a far greater effort to tutor those who fall behind, enabling them to keep pace and graduate.

The NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, has also ruled that athletes cannot work during the school year. Their thinking is that influential alumni and boosters would provide no-show jobs to preferred players. I think that ban is ill-advised. Carefully run and monitored, why shouldn’t student /athletes be allowed to work to make a few bucks in the spare time they have? The argument made that they don’t have any time left after practice, games, meetings and school is bogus.

Every senior member of the 1958 starting football team at the University of Minnesota graduated on time. Each of us had held a part time job, benefitting greatly from our college educational and sports experiences, leading to productive and rewarding lives in our communities.

There is so much money in college athletics these days those responsible don’t know what to do with it. Multi-million dollar a year coaching salaries are ridiculous. Some readers suggested using some of that money to foster years five and six onto the original four year free ride to allow those who might have fallen behind to catch up and finally graduate.

High school players and colleges make a deal in which the player commits to the school to be a student/athlete for four years and the school commits to reciprocating with a degree and the opportunity to grow as a person that college provides. But too often a player will look for greener pastures and transfer when the competition for playing time gets tougher. Too often a school will rescind the scholarship. Both are wrong. It is just as important for the player to honor the deal as it is the school.

In addition to granting players scholarships (taking six years as proposed above, if necessary) take a goodly amount of the profits generated by those 80,000 game day fans and benefit the academic needs of the school, the original point of the institution in the first place.

Student Athletes

There is a movement afoot to provide a stipend, legalese for “pay,” to student athletes in college, in addition to their tuition, books, and lodging. The rationale for this is driven by the large crowds in football stadiums and basketball arenas throughout the country where the 128 Division 1-A teams play. In essence the question is, “since all this revenue is being created, why aren’t those responsible getting a financial piece of it?”

That logic is true in the NFL and both the NBA and the WNBA. Athletes playing at that level are paid commensurate with their talent, as it should be.

In college, athletes on athletic scholarships are given an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of athletic involvement while pursuing a degree, the attainment of which will mean additional income averaging a million dollars more during their working lifetimes through such attainment.

During this four year process of athletics and learning, they also receive free tuition, books and living accommodations, and often, meals in season. They will have no student loans due upon graduation as compared to the $100,000 regular students are saddled with. They are duly rewarded for playing.

The argument for paying student/athletes is the misguided notion that with as much revenue as their actions in stadiums and arenas are providing, why shouldn’t they get some of that financial action? I suggest indeed they already are with their scholarships and attendant benefits.

A major problem is that far too many student/athletes do not take full advantage of the opportunities afforded them. Only 58% of football players and 47% of basketball players graduate. That is disgraceful.

I suggest that some of that money generated by revenue at games should be apportioned to the school’s athletic departments for closely monitored academic training curriculums aimed at increasing those atrocious graduation rates.

Another misguided notion athletes have is thinking their professional playing days will benefit them greatly with the added income a pro career provides.

However, less than 3% of college athletes will play professionally. Of all the senior football players in high school, only 2% will receive scholarships. Doing the math, those numbers show that .999935% of all boys playing high school football will never make a nickel playing in the NFL.

On the other hand, an education is forever.

The 128 Division 1-A Football programs have an aggregate coaching salary structure that adds up to nearly half a billion bucks a year. Even a small diversion of that money towards fully educating and graduating athletes would go a long way towards lifting those graduation rates upwards.

As far as asking the regular student body to ante up through increased student fees, that seems misguided as well, seeing they are already donating to the athletic programs, whether they go to the games or not.

Paying players invites a whole host of problems such as agents on campus representing potential clients in college getting more money than other players.

More on this issue in future Coach’s Corners.

Age Isn’t What It Was…

When LeBron James took an inbound pass with eight seconds left in a tie game, everybody knew it was he who was going to attempt the game winning shot. The Toronto Raptors would either live for overtime or go down three games to none, a deficit that has never been overcome 129 straight times in NBA post season play.

James had totally dominated in the first two games of the series, picking up support from non-productive teammates in game three to go up by 17 early in the fourth quarter. He had done his part with 36 points. With eight seconds left, Toronto had valiantly held off defeat, hitting a three  to tie.

A clock began ticking in LeBron’s head. With five seconds left, he was at mid-court, dribbling and sizing up his opponent. At 3.2, he made his move, darting up the left side, releasing a body twisting, one-handed jump shot with the clock showing 1.4 seconds left. Off the glass and then into the net as 0.0 showed on the clock beyond the basket. Game, set, and very likely, match!

Match indeed, as the Cavs buried the Raptors in game four by 35

The announcer said that James has spent in the low seven figures for equipment in his home to stay in shape using the best trainers he can get. That effort might account for the fact that when he was at the apogee of his game winning shot, upon release, his feet were even with his opponent’s chest.

Playing against LeBron simply isn’t fair.

James is only thirty-three but he is in his 15th season of NBA play. Never having gone to college, he’ll likely have six or seven more seasons left before retiring. His workout regimens augment that goal. Tennis stars Rafael Nadal (31) and Roger Federer (36) are still playing their best tennis. It never before was that way. Athletes past thirty were considered on the downward slope. Better nutrition, training regimens and year round attention to better health has changed that paradigm. The benefit to fans is to see quality performances extended.

The only Major League Baseball player to have just his first name on the back of his uniform is Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners. A great player in Japan, he never got to MLB until he was twenty-seven. His statistics guarantee him first year voting into the Hall of Fame. He has over 3,000 hits and was successful 82% of the time stealing bases. The first position player from Japan, he blazed the trail for many of his countrymen to follow. In one stretch, he stole forty-five bases in a row, a MLB record. In his third season, he had 262 hits, breaking a record set by George Sisler eighty-four years before. Modest to a fault, he invited Sisler’s daughter to attend the game in which he was likely to break the record. He later visited the gravesite of George Sisler to show his respect. He has just retired at the age of forty-five.

Hats off to you, Ichiro. You have been a class act.

Joe DiMaggio

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you….” lamented the lyrical duo of Simon and Garfunkel during the tumultuous 1960s. Seeking a mantra to combat the riots in the cities and a war that would kill 58,000 young Americans, they harkened back to a more peaceful time when one man embodied all that was good in the United States.

And we loved the song because we loved the man.

Many say Joe was the greatest ball player who ever lived. Red Sox fans would counter that Ted Williams owned that coveted moniker. But Joe’s Yankees won all the World Series and the Red Sox won none during their respective baseball years.

When Joe was sold to the New York Yankees in 1935, the last season Babe Ruth played baseball, he replaced Ruth as the leader of the Yankees and won the World Series the first four years he played from 1936 through 1939.

The most admired American in 1941 (FDR came in second) Joe hit in 56 straight games, a record that will never be broken. His streak stopped when a Cleveland third-baseman went deep behind third twice to throw Joe out at first by a step. Undaunted, the Yankee Clipper went on to hit safely in 16 of the next 17 games. Had he beaten out just one of those groundouts, he would have had a 72 game hitting streak.

Noted band leader Les Brown recorded a patriotic song during the Second World War, commenting, “Joe, Joe DiMaggio, we want you on our side.” It sold big.

A very introverted man, he never was showy but rather was the quintessential team player, even encouraging his center field successor, Mickey Mantle, on the fine art of playing center field in the varied configured outfields throughout the league.

An extremely proud man, he never forgave Yankee manager Casey Stengel for interrupting a game, late in Joe’s career, to have him ignominiously return to the dugout after the inning had started, to better solidify the outfield. Joe had owned the cavernous extremities of Yankee Stadium for years, always positioning himself gracefully to make the catch, all the while daring runners to tag up. They seldom tried.

He and Stengel hardly spoke after that embarrassing incident, although Stengel later described Joe thusly… “Joe DiMaggio makes all other baseball players look like plumbers.”

After his retirement, the iconic DiMaggio became a spokesperson for both the Bowery Savings Bank and Mister Coffee for many years, keeping him continually in the public eye.

He married movie star Marilyn Monroe who sadly took her own life at just 36 years. Joe became more reclusive after that, appearing less often at Old Timer games.

An incredible hitter over his entire career, statistics show that at any Yankee game, Joe was two-and-a-half times more likely to get a double, triple or home run, than he was to strike out.

That’s how legendary “Jolting’ Joe DiMaggio” was.

Philo T. Farnsworth

Once upon a time, there was a man named Philo T. Farnsworth.

And then all hell broke loose.

When guarding an opposing player in a high school basketball game sixty-five years ago in a gymnasium, antiquated even then, I made my opponent go baseline when driving in for a layup because that’s where the radiators hung out from the wall.

On cold winter nights after the school janitor had stoked the coal burners in the basement to fever pitch, my one hand defensively edging my opponent into the red hot radiator was enough to send him screaming out to what we now call the three-point arc, never to try a lay up again. You did what you had to do to win.

We once played a high school football game on a field that had not a single blade of grass. Worse even yet, the school groundskeeper spread small chunks of coal cinders from the nearby railroad tracks to offset the dust blowing around on windy days. Nearly every carry was towards the sideline because you could run out of bounds before being tackled, lest you acquire cinder burns that lasted for weeks.

Philo, the man who invented television, had already warmed up his first cathode ray tube two decades earlier. Little did he know his invention would replace tiny high school gyms and football fields with massive multi-million dollar sports emporiums throughout the world.

The first televised college football game took place in 1939 between Fordham University and Waynesburg. Within a year, both pro football and college basketball had their first televised games take place.

After that, it was off to the races as America just couldn’t get enough of televised games after years of nothing but radio broadcasts, visions of such action generated solely in their minds’ eyes.

The University of Minnesota is in the process of upgrading its athletic facilities to compete more favorably with other Big Ten schools in the arms (and legs) race to attract the best athletes available. The multi-million dollar investment in Athletes Village is something Philo T. Farnsworth could never have imagined when he was a 16-year-old student in high school in rural Utah who had just won a contest with his idea of transmitting images electronically.

Television is now king in sports, which has turned out to be both good and bad. So much money is generated through advertising and alumni contributions to schools that administrators and legislators sometimes tend to overlook or miss transgressions by students or coaches harmful to the schools they represent.

There are literally billions of dollars involved in coaching salaries, naming rights to stadiums, vendors vying for bigger shares of the uniform and apparel marketplace, let alone gambling.

It never would’ve happened without Philo T. Farnsworth tinkering with his tubes. I can think of no single action, save religion, that has focused so many people for so long and so involved, than television and sports.

More on this in later Coach’s Corners.

Babe Ruth Lives…

There is a new baseball sensation playing for the Los Angeles Angels. His name is Shohei Ohtani and he is the latest in a long line of Japanese players to make it to Major League Baseball.

One hundred years ago, baseball changed forever when Boston traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000, creating the “Curse of The Bambino” which lasted for eighty-six years, denying Boston a World Series title until 2004, while New York with Ruth went on to be the premier sports franchise of the 20th Century.

At the time, Ruth was the best pitcher in the game, winning ninety-five games for the Red Sox in the previous five years. He was also the game’s best hitter, on the cusp of his record setting career of hitting 714 home runs. After leaving the Red Sox, the Babe seldom pitched again, earning just five victories in fifteen years.

Today there is a new Babe Ruth, and he plays in California. But this new incarnation of Ruth both hits and pitches on a regular basis. Ohtani rests on days before and after pitching. Other days, he is the DH, never playing in the field.

The Red Sox bid for his services but the Angels made a better offer. It’s ironic that a century later, the Red Sox would lose out on the second Babe Ruth. Both teams currently lead their divisions and could play for the American League pennant. But that’s down the road. There is a full season ahead of us.

How is Ohtani doing so far? Very well. At the start of this week, his team is currently 13-3, leading the AL West. He is hitting .367 with three home runs, 11 RBI’s, a bases clearing triple, and scoring the winning run on a sacrifice fly in another Angels win. In pitching, he is 2-0, has a 2.08 ERA, 18 strikeouts, including retiring 27 straight batters over a two-game span.

Sixteen games do not a season make, but everyone is watching, make no mistake.

The Angels fans are so happy, the public address announcer has to ask them to stop yelling during Ohtani’s at-bats.

There is a strange financial angle to this story as well. The Angels outbid three other teams for Ohtani and had to pay his former Japanese team $20,000,000 to get him. According to MLB rules, he can only make the league minimum of $545,000 for the next three seasons until he reaches the age of 25. Two years after that, he’ll be eligible for free agency.

Ohtani is the latest in a long line of Japanese-American baseball players who made the transition to playing in the United States. Players like certain Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, and nine time All-Star Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees, led the way for a continuing string of players who crossed the Pacific to play.

And MLB has been better because of it.

Ed. Note: Ohtani lasted two innings last night against the Red Sox before leaving due to a blister on his pitching hand. It is unclear when he’ll be able to either pitch or DH, the Angels announced.

The Case of the Kissing Guards

Oftentimes in football, offensive guards, the players on either side of the center, are called upon to block to their outside rather than directly to their front.

The block, called pulling, involves a sense of balance with body and head movements designed to fool an opponent while allowing the guard to surreptitiously crouch and move down behind the line of scrimmage, not unlike a WW II soldier moving with similar stealth behind a German hedgerow in the fabled “Battle Of The Bulge.”

On a successful play, the guard then surprises an unsuspecting defensive player with a crushing block, the purpose of which is to spring a ball carrier loose for a goodly gain.

Sometimes both guards will pull on the same play, but always in the same direction.

But, as the great British poet, Robert Burns, tells us, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Never more true than when one guard pulls the wrong way and ends up, face guard to face guard, with his counterpart, both of them frozen behind the center, a mistake killing the play dead in its tracks.

The incidence of guards pulling incorrectly and meeting  behind the center happens more often than one might suspect, hence the descriptive label, “Kissing Guards.”

Guards are reminded incessantly to listen carefully to the play in the huddle to determine which way they should pull. But crowd noise, inattention, pretty cheerleaders or one of a dozen other distractions, might cause a guard to miss the quarterback’s instructions.

In a game, the only players who know ‘that’ it happened are the two guards (one innocent, one guilty) who ‘made’ it happen.

In the pre-video days of the 1950s, we wouldn’t see the film of the game until the following day. The coaches would have already seen the guards ‘kissing’ on the film, anticipating peals of laughter when we’d gather.

When it showed up on the game film, it looked like a scene out of a Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton “Honeymooners” skit, two guards face to face, each pointing to the other as the guilty one.

The guards on our team were Dave Burkholder (67) and Bob Rasmussen (61), two guys straight out of central casting, akin to leathered bookends on a library shelf.

Two nicer guys you’d never meet, each standing 6-foot-1, weighing 235 pounds, every ounce muscle. Childhood buddies, they were products of De La Salle High School in Minneapolis who built themselves up by lifting weights and being extremely coachable.

The day after we beat Illinois, we watched the film, the guilty guard dreading the image of his earnest effort gone terribly wrong.

As the film rolled, we all had a big laugh when Murray Warmath, our coach, stopped the film and asked our two “Kissing Guards” to come down forth to be recognized, none laughing more than Bob and Dave themselves.

We lost Dave much too early but Bob and I always have a laugh at reunions discussing that play.

Loopy Lefties

Why is it that life’s lefties are often mistreated and put upon? Take my sister Kathleen, for instance. At the dinner table, she had to sit on the end seat lest she bump the arm of any other family member, all of whom were right- handed. In addition to the ignominy of seating oblivion, she was closest to the kitchen and therefore responsible for replenishing the milk, butter, and bread supplies. She also falls into the Loopy Lefties category in that she wanted to play the piano in the worst way, and she most certainly did!

Then there was Gloria Benzinger from up the street. In trying to learn penmanship utilizing the Palmer Method, beaten into us by the Good Sisters of The Hurtful Wooden Rulers, she had to do backwards what 90% of us did forwards. She had her left hand twisted so much it made her resemble a fiddler crab whenever she was writing.

Sports are no different. The great Yankee pitcher Lefty Gomez convinced management to allow him to use the nickname “Goofy,” more in line with his persona, but also to compete with the reigning nut job of the era, Dizzy Dean. Goofy Gomez held up World Series games often to watch planes fly over Yankee Stadium. He also invented a revolving bowl for tired goldfish.

Bill Lee, a.k.a. The Spaceman, was a southpaw pitcher for the Red Sox and holder of the team record for wins by a lefty at 94. Seemingly a small amount, until one realizes Boston plays in Fenway Park with its close-in Green Monster in left field, enticing to so many right-handed batters and therefore seldom challenged by left-handed throwers. An early user of recreational drugs, Lee claimed smoking marijuana lessened the effect of bus fumes when he jogged to Fenway Park. When asked about his views on mandatory drug testing, he said, “I’ve tried just about all of them, but I wouldn’t want to make them mandatory.” In 1988, Lee was the presidential candidate of the Rhinoceros Party, running on one single issue. He wanted to bulldoze the Rocky Mountains so Alberta, Canada, could have a few extra minutes of sunlight. He lost.

So strong are negative feelings about left-handers, in 1996, “Left-Handers Day” was launched to raise awareness of the frustrations port siders face daily. MLB moved to have only lefties play on that date but shelved it when nobody could locate a left handed catcher’s mitt.

Probably the greatest lefty of all is Bill Russell, the former center and coach of the Boston Celtics, who won 11 championships in 13 tries. He was also the funniest. Answering a reporter’s racially charged question as to the number of blacks he would have on the floor at one time, he cackled his famous laugh and said, “At home, two. On the road, three. And if we’re losing, five.” There has never been a greater person, or winner, in American sports than Bill Russell.

Sister Jean Saves College Hoops

The greatest sports saga of recent years continues. Sister Jean, the tireless 98-year old Loyola of Chicago cheerleading nun, has her Ramblers from the Missouri Valley Conference headed to basketball’s Final Four in San Antonio this coming weekend. The beloved Sister Jean  has enthralled viewers and nearly singlehandedly resurrected the college game from a number of recent scandals to create the most endearing sports story in memory. Sporting her very own Sister Jean sneakers and Loyola letterman’s jacket, she has endured interview after grueling interview to cheer her team on. They have done their part, winning three nail biting games by the grand total of four points before blowing Kansas State out to get to the Final Four. You rock, Sister Jean!

When Malik Newman of Kansas hit a three-pointer in overtime for Kansas to put the game out of reach for Duke, the announcer reached back for a Seinfeld line and chortled, “Hello, Newman,” perhaps somewhat less vile than Jerry so often did in greeting his postman neighbor. Fitting, in that disliked Greyson Allen, a scurrilously dirty player from Duke, had missed a last second shot in regulation which would have given Duke the win for their 13th trip to the Final Four. But it was not to be as Newman scored all of the Jayhawks 13 points in OT to secure the win.

Michigan edged Florida State by four and Villanova sailed to its fourth straight double-digit tournament win by overpowering Texas Tech. The Seminoles had great talent but it was the cunning coaching of Michigan’s John Beilein down the stretch, cannily inserting his personal four foul sated, 6’11” German center, Moritz Wagner, (pronounced Vagner, like the composer Richard, rather than Wagner, like the actor Robert.) Go figure. To paraphrase Frasier Crane, “Just what we needed down the thrilling stretch, another language!”

The Villanova Wildcats look almost unbeatable and draw Kansas in the Semi-Final on Saturday. All the announcers and pundits are picking ‘Nova to claw the Jay Hawks. But be careful. Of all the teams I’ve seen, none plays as well together as Kansas. Totally unselfish, they constantly find the open man for close, in the paint, points. They were very patient in dissecting the Duke zone, running the clock down before shooting, keeping the score down and the ball out of the hands of the talented one-and-done Duke diaper dandies.

A word about the huge upset of overall number one seed Virginia by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In the thirty-three years since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, there have been 136 match ups of 1 vs 16. Never has a number one seed lost any of those games. Virginia’s style of slow play prevented their playing catch-up when UMBC shot the lights out, going 26 for 48 from the field, including 12 of 24 three-pointers to win by twenty points. The Cavaliers have much less to be cavalier about for the next year.

Speeding Up Sports

Minor League baseball is instituting a new rule to speed up the game and I think it is an idea whose time has come, traditionalists notwithstanding. When a game goes into extra innings, the first batter up to start each half-inning will be on second base. The logic is simple. When the first batter in an inning reaches first base, odds say he’ll score 38% of the time. When he starts the inning on second base, the odds are 57% he’ll score. It will certainly speed up by ending the game sooner. Nothing says boring better than a fifteen-inning baseball game.

I have gone to MLB games where greater excitement came from friendly bets amongst friends as to whether or not the new ball that the umpire rolls out to the pitching mound to start each half-inning would end up on the dirt of the mound or on the grass of the infield.

Further intensive wagering concerned how many total pitches would be thrown in the next inning.

Eliminating overtime periods after just five minutes of three-on-three play, while adding a best-of-three shoot out tie-breaking finale, did wonders for speeding up NHL hockey. Those ideas and limiting fighting turned hockey into arguably the most friendly spectator sport of all.

NASCAR simply let technology improve its speed. In 1947, Indy 500 winner Maury Rose averaged 116 mph. Last year’s champ averaged 263 mph. Judging by the crowds at Daytona, the fans love watching what a lot of people find exceedingly boring. If I want to watch speeding cars, standing beside an Interstate suffices for me.

Football and basketball have pretty much solved the speed of game problems with the introduction of the 40 and 24 second clocks, respectively. And high school sports have wisely introduced running clocks when a team has built an insurmountable 35 point lead.

College football should follow the lead of the NFL and cut the amount of time in the locker room at the half from 20 minutes to 12. Players hate half-time spent in the locker room listening to coaches yell. They just want to get on the field and play.

I have no idea how to speed up curling. Maybe it’s better we just avoid this wacky sport until it surfaces at the Olympics every four years. Some sports are better left totally ignored. Boxing and caged fighting spring to mind.

Maybe you didn’t know: In the NHL, it is mandatory that the home team have available an extra goalie in case one team loses both of its goalies to injury. He sits somewhere in the stands waiting for the first injury and then races to that team’s locker room to suit up. He can be a college or club goalie or simply a recreational player. The Rangers have given their sub goalie a team jersey with the name McBackup on it. He has yet to see action and probably won’t. Only two backups ever have.

Roy Peter Clark & The Green Bay Power Sweep

I attended a writing seminar recently, trying to make up for lost time spent in a University of Minnesota classroom sixty years ago where a writing instructor attempted to fill my mind with knowledge of similes, metaphors, and other literary devices.

I take full responsibility for my lack of attention back then. As a quarterback, I was more interested in blocking schemes and blitzing linebackers than I was in run-on sentences or correct uses of the pluperfect subjunctive.

Back in those days, I recall viewing legendary coach Vince Lombardi at a chalkboard drawing up the Green Bay Power Sweep, the penultimate play that made the Packers winners of the first two Super Bowls, and every other championship game they ever played. All his players’ eyes were riveted on him at his chalkboard.

Lombardi’s method of correctly running the play by double teaming at the point of attack, kicking out the defensive end, and “running to daylight,” was drilled into the Packers until they knew the rules as well as they knew the lyrics of the latest Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra recording.

I am trying to make up for time lost because I want to be a better writer, the best I can be. I think I might have found my own Vince Lombardi.

At the Tampa Oxford Exchange seminar, author Roy Peter Clark unwittingly played Vince in trying to get all present better at writing, using a piano rather than chalk and a blackboard. A showman as well as a writing teacher of national renown, he played requests from the audience.

Both informative as well as entertaining, he used the piano (often he’ll substitute an accordion) to interpret how words and notes in a ballad combine through the use of a musical bridge to make a phrase in a song, or a sentence in a book, better, just as Lombardi’s pushing and prodding with his chalk clarified direction and action for his masterpiece.

His most influential book, “Writing Tools,” is full of tips to make fledgling writers better informed. For instance, Tip # 29 references “Foreshadowing powerful conclusions.” When Mr. Clark ended his playing of “McNamara’s Band,” the piano’s cacophonous chorus matched, in my mind note for note, Lombardi’s intensity in nearly crushing his blackboard with that piece of chalk in that video detailing his Power Sweep.

Another of his tools, # 7, “Fear not the long sentence,” emboldens me to recount in story form what I consider to be the greatest play in football history:

“In the Packer Power Sweep, guards Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston pulled right to kick out and then lead upfield through the hole created by the double team block of the tackle and end, while fullback Jim Taylor securely nailed the nose guard directly over the center, Paul Hornung, all the while, carrying the ball, moving right, following the action, waiting to turn upfield, and then running to daylight.”

It was the most interesting ninety minutes I’ve ever spent in a classroom. The hundred people there would all agree, based upon their applause at the end.

As an example of how he could lead a group to learn, I had heard how the power went out once in a darkened venue while he was lecturing 2,000 Tampa school teachers, and he got them to sing-along in the dark to his playing of their requests until power was restored.

Lombardi, a former high school chemistry teacher, would’ve loved that.

Hockey is Big in Tampa

A few weeks ago, my grandson and I were getting set to watch an NFL game when he mentioned there was a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game on that night. An avid hockey fan, he follows the Bolts much more than I do. I remain a devoted pigskin purist, but it’s easy to see why hockey has taken off here in Tampa.

We experimented with our remote control and discovered because of the speed of hockey versus the slower pace of football, it was possible to switch channels, watch both games, almost in their entirety, simultaneously.

Hockey is three speedy twenty minute periods. Players charge madly on and off the ice while play continues. Each team is allotted one time out per game. Commercial breaks occur mostly between periods. There is simply no time for players primping, preening and posing.

Hockey is the only sport where all the players were literally born to play it. Most are gifted early with a hockey stick, are well coached in junior and minor leagues and college, and when the NHL calls, know more about their game than other professional athletes.

Football, on the other hand, is long and sometimes boring. A recent report from the Wall Street Journal noted that in a typical NFL game of 3 hours and 11 minutes, 56% of the time is taken up with annoying commercials, times out, play reviews, instant replay, players standing around, views of sideline and press box coaches, commentators blabbing on camera, huddles, and players incessantly celebrating touchdowns and every first down for post game viewing by even more talking heads. The study also found that only eleven minutes of a game is pure action, each play averaging a scant four seconds to complete.

In a fan-friendly Bolts hockey game, the ice becomes an integral part of the show. From before game excitement with players’ pictures flashed on both the ice and the Jumbotrons hanging above, to the Zamboni machines driven by families helping to clear the ice between periods, to the donation of $50,000 to a worthy community project by owner Jeff Vinik at every game, it is by far the best show in town, outpacing the Rays and the Bucs in excitement.

Our experience of switching with the remote paid off. I doubt we missed a dozen plays of football while seeing 90% of the hockey game. And the announcers in hockey seem much better, all as knowledgeable of hockey as Tony Romo is of football.

Plays developing in hockey feature twelve total skaters in well practiced variations of choreographed maneuvers. It is a much more exciting team spectacle than football.

A perfect example is scoring. Groups of players cluster around the goal, some protecting their goalie while opponents try to rattle him by blocking his vision of the puck flying towards him.

And when that light goes on to signify a home team goal, bedlam breaks out from rink to rafters through three fan-full levels of blue clad cheering Amalie Arena faithful!

Go, Bolts!

(Over the next six months, until football begins anew, Coach’s Corner will appear less frequently. Thank you. Coach Jim Reese.)

Super Duper Super Bowl

May I get a bit techie here, please? The center on a football team is like a quarterback. He is responsible for blocking assignments, leaning over the ball, barking out colors or numbers to best combat the charging efforts of the defense.

He is responsible for making a perfect snap whether the quarterback is under center or eight yards deep. After he has done all those chores, he then drops back to form the front of the pocket to protect his quarterback if a pass has been called.

On many snaps, center Jason Kelce of the Eagles blocked not one but two rushers heading straight toward his quarterback. On off-tackle runs, he blocked the man over him and ran to the point of attack to do more damage there. Kelce was superb all game and must be recognized.

So close was the game, only once did something go wrong. With 2:21 left, for the first time all day, a rusher sacked a quarterback. It caused a fumble, leading to a field goal and an eight-point late Philadelphia lead.

That left arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, New England’s Tom Brady, the quintessential fourth-quarter come back-guy, to do it again.

Anytime a game ends with the last play being a fifty-yard Hail Mary, it has been one hell of a game.

That’s how Super Bowl 52 will be remembered, a dozen superb athletes reaching for the stars to complete or stop a touchdown. In 1984, another New Englander, Doug Flutie of Boston College, gained immortality in beating the U. of Miami on such a play.

This time the glory went to the Philadelphia Eagles, playing with a back-up quarterback, Nick Foles, who nobody thought would be able to win against Belichick and Brady.

New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has done a great job for the Pats for many years. He’ll be rewarded by being named head coach of the Detroit Lions. He’ll carry with him the memory of one play he would gladly defend again.

As the first half ended, it was fourth-and one for the Eagles. They chose to go for the touchdown rather than take the easy three points with a chip shot field goal.

They lined up with quarterback Foles just outside his right tackle and a running back eight yards behind center. It was a play Foles had run in high school and his coach allowed it to go into the game’s playbook. Fearful someone might see it at practice during the week, the Eagles practiced it in the secrecy of the hotel’s ball room.

The defensive guy covering the receiver to Foles’s right had to follow that receiver crossing left. Foles then snuck out into the empty area to make the catch. Patricia’s face immediately showed his bewilderment at the empty end zone area.

That was the single most important play the Eagles ran all game, giving them the win in the greatest Super Bowl ever.

And, it was illegal. The rules require at least seven offensive men must be on the line of scrimmage on the snap of the ball. Clearly the right end, set out wide, is at least two yards behind the line of scrimmage on the snap.

 

 

This close to the goal line the advantage clearly goes to the player with the most room to maneuver going into the end zone, in this case being the Philadelphia right end, being three yards from his defender.

By looking at the side judge just before the snap to receive agreement that he is properly placed, the Eagles player puts tremendous pressure on the referee to not respond either verbally or by nodding his head, fearful if he does so, it will alter the movement of the receiver and cause a penalty.

This nod of agreement from the referee as to proper player placement is not part of the rules but rather a gentlemen’s agreement between player and ref that has grown over time.

The Eagles exploited this exchange so the referee dare not tell the receiver he was illegally placed and should move two yards closer to the line of scrimmage for fear the ball would be snapped while the player was moving forward causing an illegal motion penalty.

The ref was had.

He was clearly wrong in intimating that the Eagles player was properly positioned when he was clearly not.

The play was run and the receiver sped across the line, cutting left with the disadvantaged defender far behind him.

It is not the responsibility of the side judge to tell a player whether he is lined up correctly or not. It is the player’s job to place himself correctly. The ref was caught between a rock and a hard place. I think you’ll see a rules change regarding this situation next year.

Every scoring play is reviewed but not every action during the play is reviewable. A punch might be thrown but not seen during the play but clearly seen during the review. A penalty cannot be assessed because the punching incident was deemed not reviewable.

Bad policy. An infraction occurred. Penalize it upon review. Had this been the case, the touchdown pass to Foles would have been negated because there were not seven men on the line of scrimmage, and who knows what might have happened after that?

Super Bowl Thoughts

Why would anybody pay today’s asking price of $4,500 for a seat to this year’s Super Bowl? I’ll take a back seat to none in my level of interest in football, which has supplanted baseball as America’s national pastime.

There are other choices. I could choose home lazy boy comfort with attendant kitchen facilities but a few feet away, toilets readily available with no waiting, never having to stand next to a group of total strangers becoming noticeably agitated at having chosen the wrong line.

Don’t think you’ll be amongst like minded compatriots, cheering in unison with fellow supporters. 80% of the seats go to deep pocketed corporate interests, writing off the costs by claiming they are growing the economy in entertaining fellow well-to-do jet setters. Look hard to find the season long Patriot and Eagle fans clustered at the game. They’ll be in blue or green.

Another alternative is a local watering hole serving up wings and what-not, twenty 65″ televisions at the ready, servers poised to meet your every need, and a Super Bowl lottery rewarding a local charity, with the opportunity to drive yourself or grab a Uber and be comfortably in your seat by kickoff.

Half-times are better spent by chatting quietly about the game with friends and considerably less time spent ogling over-the-top extravaganzas aimed at the 18-49 demographic, of which I gladly disclaimed membership decades ago.

Give me Paul McCartney or the recently retired Neil Diamond, somehow one last time, or Billy Joel, these three collectively twice the age of the NFL itself, and I’d watch every minute of the show.

Half time is thirty minutes long, twice that of regular season games. Players disdain locker rooms and being yelled at by coaches. Teams, especially those receiving second-half kickoffs, want to get on the field to get going. Instead they wait around while Vegas-type acts cavort like colts cornered in a corral, exiting only when the requisite fireworks smoke blurs the vision of whatever the hell they were doing in the first place, including wardrobe malfunctions.

Tony Romo should always do the Super Bowl. He is John Madden incarnate. If they combined, it would make the at-the-game stadium experience even less attractive. The informed, articulate, funny duo informing the home viewing audience provides a welcome diversion from the tiresome player and team demonstrations on the field below.

When watching the game, notice the workmen like efforts of the offensive lines. By clearing holes with powerful straight ahead blocking and astute positioning to protect their passers, they are the key to victory. The Eagles must stop the very effective Patriot screen passes.

In the Conference Championship game, the Jaguars had ninety-eight penalty yards to the Patriots’ ten. That’s ten penalty calls to one. In the entire regular season, the Jags averaged only one penalty more per game than the Pats. It is good the Super Bowl is being played at a neutral location.

Conference Playoff Games

As much as the previous week’s NFL Divisional Championship games were more in the mold of Lombardi era splendor with game-ending miracle passes and courageous goal line stands, Sunday’s Conference Championship contests looked at times like hard fought games pitting the semi-pro Pottstown Firebirds against the Charlotte Chargers.

After Minnesota’s loss to the Eagles, their sixth consecutive championship game loss, I recalled their four Super Bowl losses in a bygone era when legendary coach Bud Grant became famous for refusing to dress warmly to ward off the freezing outdoor January Minnesota winters.

After losing tight end Rob Gronkowski, a.k.a. “The Ford F-350” to a concussion related injury, Tom Brady found a way to win by passing brilliantly to Danny Amendola for two fourth quarter scores that turned the tide. The second of those scores was an act of terpsichorean artistry worthy of Fred Astaire as Amendola needed to reach as far as he could to snag a Brady bullet headed out the back of the end zone while dragging his back foot down with barely an inch to spare.

The Jacksonville Jaguars looked great for the first three quarters against the Patriots. Quarterback Blake Bortles outplayed Brady, hitting consistently on third door passes to control the clock, going into the fourth quarter with a ten-point lead. At the 13:30 mark, the game turned when the Jaguars recovered a fumble after stripping the receiver of a completed pass, returning the ball to mid-field. That’s when they could have put New England away. But a Jaguar three-and-out ensued and the game changed in the Pat’s favor. Brady completed his patented fourth-quarter-comeback, bringing what appeared to be a churlish smile to Bill Belichik’s face.

Two curious coaching decisions arose, one in each game. New England scored with a minute to go in the first half to pull within 14-10 of Jacksonville. The Jaguars had all three time outs remaining, first-and-ten at their own twenty-five, when they decided to take three knees to end the half. Manning, Brady, Rodgers, Favre, et. al., would have fired away to get into field goal range.

Halfway through the third quarter, the Vikings drove the length of the field to fourth and goal, inside the five, down, 31-7, admittedly a tough hill to climb. But they would need a three eventually to have any chance to catch the Eagles, so why not take it there? The fourth down pass was incomplete, for all intents and purposes ending the game, and what had been a terrific Vikings season.

The Philly faithful will travel to Minneapolis for the Super Bowl a week from Sunday, undoubtedly outfitted in those dog masks they’ve worn during these playoffs boasting of their underdog status. Even though the Vegas oddsmakers have made New England a touchdown favorite, don’t be surprised if you see a lot of Eagle fans smiling when they take them off at game’s end.

The Greatest Weekend Ever

The NFL finally did itself proud. After a six-month miasma of malaise, mistakes and mishaps, it had a divisional playoff for the ages. The old guard, Ryan, Brady, Brees, and Ben, challenged the new, Bortles, Keenum, Mariota and Foles, and the results were magnificent.

No game could match the Minnesota Vikings nipping the New Orleans Saints at the gun on a 61-yard miracle throw during which the only player who might’ve stopped it made a decision to not attempt a tackle for fear of interference being called. Because games cannot end on a defensive penalty, had one been called, such penalty would’ve allowed the Vikings to line up and kick a chip shot field goal for the win. The Saints player was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. I’ll cut him some slack on that one.

Nobody could’ve asked for more than the Steelers’ Ben Roethelsberger gave in trying to atone for an early season loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in which he was picked off five times. In another “the last team to have the ball wins,” Ben threw for an unbelievable 468 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-42 thriller. But, inexplicably in a game where the Steelers were playing catch-up all game after falling behind 21-0, when two fourth-and-one situations in Jaguar territory screamed for the 6’5″, 250 pound Ben to quarterback sneak, he did not. (Ben is 18 for 19 successful on fourth down sneaks in his career.) Those two failed moments will gnaw in the craw of the Steeler faithful for a very long time.

In wind-whipped Philadelphia, the Eagles’ Jake Elliott kicked three field goals, none more important than the last-second, first-half, fifty-three yarder that brought Philadelphia within one going into the locker room. Nothing gives a team more momentum than scoring just before the half. Quarterback Nick Foles, a fighter if ever there’s been one, kept Philly alive with two superb long second-half drives, one with the wind and one against it. Atlanta, with Matt Ryan finding Julio Jones time and again, stayed close. In the final minute, the Falcons had the ball at the Eagles nine, first-and-goal, down 15-1. After moving to the two on fourth down, Ryan called a rollout right, looking for the tall and lithe Jones against a defender six-inches shorter. Jones slipped making a sideline cut in the end zone and fell down. The defender, as is his right once the receiver falls down. held him down for a second as Jones desperately tried to rise for the catch. Failing to regain his full balance, Jones was unable to grab Ryan’s pass as it flew through his open arms. After blowing a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons are going to spend another off-season in deep soul searching.

After giving up an early score to the Tennessee Titans, New England dispatched them with their general error free football, en route to an impressive 35-14 win and must be considered a prohibitive favorite against the Jaguars.

But, then again after last week, anything can happen.

Wildcard Weekend

Kids playing defense learn in junior high school to bat down long fourth down passes so your offense takes the ball back at the previous line of scrimmage. A Carolina defensive back forgot that dictum in the Panthers’ wild card game with the Saints and caused his team to lose. New Orleans had fourth and two at their own forty-eight when they inexplicably chose to go for it with two minutes left, leading by 31-26. Their dynamic rushing duo of Kamara and Ingram had been held in check all game. Drew Brees tried a false count that didn’t work and then rolled out to complete a pass for a first down and the win, Carolina being out of timeouts. The defensive back 20 yards downfield picked it off and ran out of bounds at his own 32. Newton then brings his team all the way to the Saints 18-yard line when the drive runs out of steam and dies. That 20 yards lost  by the Panther blunder made all the difference in the world.

Marcus Mariota threw a touchdown pass to himself in leading the Titans to a win over the Chiefs. As strange and flukey as that pass was, what really endeared him to his teammates was a block he threw downfield after handing off to the ball carrier and leading the way around left end. You never see ten guys mob a quarterback for throwing a block. It’s clear Mariota is the true leader of that team. That block got the first down near the game’s end and sent poor Kansas City to its sixth straight postseason defeat.

If Brady isn’t the NFL MVP, Todd Gurley is. But this past weekend, Atlanta did a tune on Gurley, holding him in check as the Falcons beat the LA Rams, 26-13, to advance. Matt Ryan did a good job staying late in the pocket, completing one key pass after another. It doesn’t hurt Ryan that he has the fabulous (what other word fits?) Julio Jones on the receiving end of his throws. Jones is to Atlanta what Calvin Johnson was to the Lions a few years ago. After blowing that 28-3 lead to New England in last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons were determined not to repeat it. A last second field goal by LA at the half cut the margin to 13-10 but the Falcons responded with a back breaking nine-minute drive to start the second half to put the game away.

In what can only be described as an ugly football game, Jacksonville beat Buffalo,10-3, to advance to play the Steelers. No NFL playoff game should showcase a quarterback rushing for more yards than he gets passing. Blake Bortles did, completing only 12 of 24 passes for 87 yards, but time and again breaking out of the pocket to rack up 88 yards rushing. Go, Jags!

Next Up:

Saints at Vikings. New Orleans must get its ground game going. Drew Brees can not throw for 400 yards again. Or can he?

Titans vs. NE. Brady, Gronkowski, and Belichik. Do the math. Mariota will have to morph into  George Gipp to win.

Falcons vs. Eagles. Without Carson Wentz, I like Ryan’s experience to avoid the ugly specter of failing two years in a row.

Jaguars vs. Steelers. Tough one for Jags. Steelers got screwed on top seed by that goofy Jesse James robbery against the Patriots two weeks ago. Ben has been there, done that.

Newbie QB’s

Aaron Lipkin, Guest Blogger

There are many things, had I predicted them at the end of 2016, you’d have called me mad.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are a very real force to be reckoned with. No, really!

The Saints are in the playoffs, thanks to the best running back duo in 40 years and a suffocating defense.

The team everybody was scared of at the end of this season (49ers) was a team that started 1-10, the only win coming against the 1-8 Giants.

But nothing would have seemed less likely than the three top seeds in the NFC this year being led into the playoffs by three QB’s who all played for the 2016 (4-12) Los Angeles Rams.

Note: Nick Foles filling in for Carson Wentz is not the reason the Eagles finished first so I am not going to discuss him now.

My two primary subjects are quarterbacks Case Keenum and Jared Goff.

The 2016 Rams had easily the worst passing game in the league, a dual effort by Keenum and Goff.  Pro Football Reference has a stat named “Expected points contributed by passing offense.” The average was plus 86 points and only 5 teams had a negative score. The Rams had a -102.  Neither Goff nor Keenum threw more touchdown passes than interceptions.

Fast forward to this year and the 12-4 Vikings and the 11-4 Rams. In a year when pass defenses have improved and passing as a whole is much tougher (11 teams have negative passing scores this year), Keenum and Goff have lit up the league. Their teams sit at 5th (123 points) and 8th (117 points) respectively. The Vikings defense has proven to be once in a decade good and the Rams’ Todd Gurley is hands down All-Pro and my personal argument for league MVP.

First we’ll look at the QB that stayed in LA. Jared Goff threw 5 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last year. He threw 7 interceptions again this year, but also threw 28 touchdown passes as well.

How did this happen? Some of it was rookie growing pains. The more compelling answer is the single biggest change to the Rams this year, the exchange of coach Jeff “7-9” Fisher for the obvious ‘Coach of The Year,’ Sean McVay.

Case Keenum is a different case. This year he threw for 12 more touchdowns and 4 less interceptions than last year but Case is no rookie. This is his 6th year in the league.

He escaped Fisher but can’t thank McVay. It could be Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who also gave Sam Bradford the best year of his career last year, but there are many factors that come from switching teams.

There is no sure way to know the cause of these improvements, but it’s clearly best not to give up on your QB.

Not all are instant successes like Houston’s Deshaun Watson. It took Detroit’s Matthew Stafford a decade to become the highest paid quarterback in history.

Cleveland Dilemma (This might’ve happened)

You are the 0-15 Cleveland Browns playing the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are assured of a playoff spot. Nobody wants you to win, not even yourselves.

Somehow, magically, or perhaps helped along by the Steelers sitting their starters to avoid injuries, you find yourself down by two late with the ball on the Steelers ten-yard line. A chip shot field goal for the win.

The team has taken a time out to ponder the possibilities.

Last year you had drafted a quarterback out of Notre Dame, unprepared for the NFL. Hence his winless record. He has a quarterback’s rating of 59.4, 60th of all the league’s quarterbacks.

There is doubt he’ll get better.

If you lose, you’re guaranteed the first pick in the draft. The Heisman winner is quarterback Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma. His credentials are impeccable. He started as a walk-on in college and ended up an All-American.

He will surely be the first pick in the draft. That in itself is not the guarantee of success in the NFL. Indeed one need only go back and realize what a disaster a first round pick named Johnny Manziel was for these same Browns, both on and off the field, just a few short years ago.

Mayfield is no altar boy, either, having made obscene gestures at opposing fans, and once was arrested for drunkenness and fleeing police.

Manziel’s transgressions off the field and his ineffectiveness on it are so strongly ingrained in the psyche of the Browns faithful that they fear a repeat performance with Mayfield.

Winning the meaningless last game of an all losing season is not really an option to their fans who have seen their team win just one of its last 31 games. It would be an insult to them to win and miss getting the best college player available at a position where he is desperately needed. Their fans would have every right to revolt.

Playing not to win is not new to the NFL. Often in the past, teams assured of making the play-offs have rested their starters for the last game or two to avoid injuries.

Which is more egregious, purposely missing a short field goal, thus getting top pick, or is it denying your fans the best performance you have? I feel sure the fans would root for a loss.

The Cleveland coach has already been told he will be back next year. Would you as coach kick the field goal, forego Mayfield, and look for another Carson Wentz or Jared Goff hidden somewhere in the draft to be your next quarterback?

Or would you go wide right on purpose? If so, how different is that from sitting your best players to avoid pre-playoff injuries?

Keep in mind that the only other team to go winless, the 2008 Detroit Lions, drafted first and chose Matthew Stafford of Georgia, who has gone on to be the highest paid quarterback in NFL history.

So there’s that!

Football Facts

During WW II, the NFL allowed teams to merge to save on the cost of travel. In 1943, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia got together to form the Steagles. They did pretty well, finishing 5-4-1.

The following year the Steelers joined with the Chicago Cardinals, calling the team the Car-Pitts. They lost every game in the one year they were together, earning the unenviable epithet, “The Carpets,” because everybody walked all over them.

Only once has a team scored just four points in a game in the history of professional football. On November 23rd, 1923, the Chicago Cardinals lost to the Racine Legion, 10-4. The odds of that happening again have grown to 24,832 to 1.

The average length of an NFL game is 3 hours, 10 minutes, and 34 seconds, during which time only 11 minutes of actual action takes place.

Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann:

John Ralston, former Denver Broncos coach: “I finally gave up coaching for health reasons. The fans were sick of me and I was tired of them.”

Wish List:  Tom Coughlin will return to the Giants as General Manager and Bill Cowher will come out of retirement to be the head coach.

The Baltimore Ravens are named after the poet Edgar Allan Poe, who lived in Baltimore. The three Raven Mascots are named, appropriately enough, Edgar, Allan, and Poe.

The ‘G’ on the side of the Green Bay Packers’ helmet stands not for Green Bay but rather for “Greatness.”

Deion Sanders is the only person to score a touchdown in the NFL and hit a home run in MLB in the same week. He is also the only person to have played in both the World Series and the Super Bowl.

About 56% of an NFL game on television is devoted to replays.

NFL teams have an average value of one billion dollars. MLB teams are valued at half that amount.

The only scoreless game in the NFL was in 1943 when the Lions and the Giants battled to a scoreless tie.

The huddle was invented by Paul Hubbard, a legally deaf quarterback at Gallaudet University, a college for deaf students, so his teammates could understand his signals better.

Approximately 80% of Super Bowl tickets go to corporate sponsors.

During halftime of the Super Bowl, there are approximately 90 million toilet flushes. That is equivalent to 3.5 minutes of water flowing over Niagara Falls.

The Tampa Bay Bucs lost their first 26 games. Near the end of that streak, a reporter asked coach John McKay what he thought of his team’s execution. The affable McKay responded, “I am in favor of it.”

Sports Illustrated notes that two years after NFL players retire, approximately 78% of them are bankrupt.

Football Coach Lou Holtz: “Don’t tell your problems to other people. Eighty per cent of them don’t care and the other 20% are glad you have them.”

What I Like (And Don’t Like) About Football

I do like Chris Simms broadcasting college games. His father Phil may have been a better quarterback but the son beats him on the airwaves.

I do like Navy and Notre Dame standing together after a tough game, respecting each other’s Alma Mater.

I don’t like a fool of a person, listed as an assistant strength coordinator at Northwestern, behaving like a fool on the sideline in a t-shirt during a wet cold driving rain, jumping up and down simply to draw television camera coverage.

I don’t like some sleazy Miami supporter on the sideline hanging a gold chain around the neck of a defender who intercepted a pass as if it were some ancient Roman tribute during the Crusades.

I do like the idea of Aaron Rodgers getting back on the field to still make a difference this season.

I don’t like the idea of Jimbo Fisher saying his leaving FSU for Texas A & M was a “no- brainer” after the Seminoles groomed him to replace the legendary Bobby Bowden, leaving a great program in place for him. This season, however,  the ‘Noles had  to play a make-up game with cupcake Louisiana-Monroe just to get six wins to be bowl eligible for a game Fisher won’t even coach. That’s loyalty. (Not!) I am pleased though to see Willie Taggart taking over the coaching reins in Tallahassee.

I do like the Giants for firing the coach and general manager for their handling of the Eli Manning situation. It is some solace for Giant fans to know that management realized the chaos surrounding the team was caused by the head coach and dumped him.

I don’t like seeing Heisman winner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma going the Johnny Manziel route in taunting opposing fans with obscene gestures. Play the game, son, play the game.

I do like the job Jimmy Garappolo did for the 49’ers in leading them to wins in his first two starts. The longtime understudy to Tom Brady deserved his day in the sun and he made the most of it. I think he’ll be a long time starter in the NFL.

I do like that Scott Frost, coach of UCF, is going back to his alma mater, Nebraska, to attempt to revive the Cornhusker program to its former greatness. At the University of Central Florida, in two years, he went from a winless team to an undefeated season. He will make the Big Ten even stronger. His welcomed calm sideline demeanor is reminiscent of former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, a member of the college HOF.

I do like to see a hard fought, clean game played by Army and Navy, watching Army win for the second year in a row after a fourteen game Middie winning streak was ended a year earlier. They play the game the old fashioned way, without any displays of self congratulatory chest thumping. The heavy snow provided a pleasant pastiche of long ago clashes of Staubach, Blanchard and Davis, et. al. A great ending to the regular college 2017 season.

Hut One, Hut Two….

Nissan Commercial

May I take a brief moment to inform you of perhaps the most boorish commercial I have ever seen.

I suspect there are many of you who have recently seen the Nissan commercial showing Heisman Trophy winners engaging in a food fight in the Heisman House, supposedly the meeting place for winners of the prestigious award, but actually a location from which more Nissan automobiles could be sold.

These men represent the best of college football over the years, rewarded for their outstanding performances as the best player in the nation for each year since 1935. Each of them competed all their careers against others nearly as good to win the award.

Byron White became a Supreme Court Justice. Bruce Smith was nominated for sainthood. General Pete Dawkins was a Rhodes Scholar.

Not all winners were as successful. O. J. Simpson’s troubles are well-documented.  But by and large, they have remained good citizens. What in the name of Knute Rockne caused them to participate in a food fight right out of “Animal House,” if not for the money?

Humiliating themselves and besmirching all that the Heisman has stood for, they should be ashamed. I understand humor. This was in no way funny. Men standing on a dinner table throwing food at each other succeeded in a John Belushi movie because he was playing who he was, a character we all knew from SNL.

These were grown men, supposedly educated, representing an elite group in a nationally recognized sport. Debased was what it was.

I am often puzzled at some commercials and their messages. People better versed than I in the public’s tastes make decisions based on extensive research. But I cannot fathom for a moment how this degradation of a fine institution such as the Heisman Award will sell Nissan automobiles. Quite to the contrary, most football fans I know would now hesitate to buy their cars based on this crude and sophomoric satire.

Previous commercials had these men placed within the collegial confines of their club poking fun at one another over miscues made during their careers. Self deprecating in nature, they were humorous in a good natured way.

But this one portrayed these grown men as buffoons, looking foolish, churlish and clueless as bedlam broke out at the dinner table, creating havoc with spaghetti and puddings flying towards each other to howls of laughter.

One wonders what the oldest living member of the club, ninety-two-year-old 1947 winner, quarterback Johnny Lujack, a paragon of class both at his alma mater, Notre Dame, and throughout a very successful broadcasting and business career, would have to say on the issue.

Hey, here’s a novel idea. Why not have these wise marketing suits do a commercial showing Heisman winners out in the neighborhoods and towns they came from, teaching young boys and girls how to throw spirals so that those kids might one day emulate these heroes on school gridirons.

I am Nobody’s Demographic

To the Network Suits, I stopped being a demographic when I moved up and out of the 18-49 group thirty-four years ago. I no longer count in the ratings. But there’s a whole bunch of us who have something to say and they’d do well to listen to us.

First of all, NETFLIX, Hulu, Amazon, Acorn and PBS are cleaning your clock in original entertainment. You still have the NFL but unless you straighten out that mess, you’re liable to lose that as well.

Maybe it is time for Commissioner Roger Goodell to move on. He has done a hell of a lot to grow the business and he has indeed been blindsided by factors outside his control, but why is it taking so long to pay the nearly one-billion in concussion pay to all those old NFL vets suffering from CTE, of whom only 10% have seen any money. And believe me I am not on Cowboys blowhard owner Jerry Jones side angling for his scalp. I need both sets of fingers to count the last time Dallas made the Super Bowl.

As a viewer, I thought end zone celebrations were not allowed but they are sneaking back in with stupid man bridges being built and players leap-frogging over each other and other foursomes doing dances that would make the Nicholas Brothers jump step in their graves. And the next receiver who signals a first down should be penalized ten yards so it becomes 1st & 20.

When was the last time you saw a quarterback acting goofy celebrating a play? They know their role is to plan and perform. The skill position guys think a ten yard gain is showtime on Broadway. Get those buffoons to stop that.

Another thing, Suits, stop trying to sell something on half the screen during injury time outs and upstairs reviews. We get it. Cars need to be sold but, come on, man!

Red Zone, streaming, highlight shows, talking heads talking over each other….all those venues are taking away from Sunday and MNF.  Enough is enough.

It is the game that is important. Not all the hoopla surrounding it. There is so much to like about professional football. At 1:00 and 4:00 every Sunday afternoon for five months, it has America’s attention like no other sport.

There have been some surprises this year to be sure. The Eagles and Vikings are running away in their divisions. The Giants and Bucs tanking is a surprise as is the emergence of the Rams in Los Angeles.

Drew Brees might bring a division crown to New Orleans in the tough NFC South while the Patriots remain the Patriots now that Kansas City seems to have tanked. And Pittsburgh will likely get in with a division title.

The stretch run will be interesting with Seattle and the Titans and Jaguars scrambling for a few more wins.

My picks for the Super Bowl are the Eagles and the Patriots with the championship returning to the city of brotherly love for the first time in 57 years.

Hut One, Hut Two…

Throwing Spirals — A Metaphor for Life

The other day I was getting out of my car when I noticed a boy carrying a football, lagging about thirty-feet behind his father.

When I got out of the car, I told the boy to throw me the ball. His father nodded it was okay to do so. The ball was too big but he threw it to me. It wobbled the ten-yard journey, non-spiraling, end over end.

I called the boy over and told him he should learn how to throw a spiral if he wanted to play football.

Maybe it would guide his life as it did mine, I thought to myself.

When I was fifteen, I was an end on my high school team. One day someone asked me to throw a ball back to a group that was practicing receiving passes. Nobody had ever seen me throw before, only catch. I returned the ball to the group, a twenty-yard spiral that never went higher than six feet off the ground. The coach stopped practice and said, “You’re my quarterback!”

I had an older brother who was a good player in high school and I had learned from him.

Throwing spirals soon became a metaphor for my life.

Nothing in life has brought me so much success as my ability to throw a spiral. High school honors, college scholarships, good jobs, leadership positions, lasting friends, and lots of great memories.

Sometimes those spirals missed their mark. So what? I kept throwing. Some times in school, courses were too hard. I kept going. Sometimes efforts failed but I kept throwing spirals.

I learned in relationships, business, athletics, dealings with problems, and managing people, you should never stop throwing spirals that are straight and true. You’ll have a high completion average the more you stress the fundamentals. Recognize the target, screen out the obstacles, keep your eye on the prize, and throw a perfect spiral that is right on target.

Sometimes you’ll get picked off. Learn from your mistakes. Never mislead your receivers. Know their strengths and weaknesses and help them succeed by providing soft spirals to them in stride.

And then congratulate them for being successful.

It is no different in all we do. Every position I’ve held was because I had thrown spirals in games and was expected to do the same in my work. That’s how I had a very successful career at IBM, and why my fellow residents elected me to be their mayor.

I determined that everything I learned from my parents to Coach Murray Warmath, was right. I used those principles to become not only a better leader, but a better follower, if that was to be my role.

From the day I threw that first spiral, I’ve never stopped trying to do my best.

I hope that kid is waiting out in the street to play catch with me, getting ready to throw spirals.

It is in that spirit that I am so very grateful this Thanksgiving and I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season.

Hut One, Hut Two….

 

Watson and Wilson and Wentz (Oh, My!)

When Dorothy warned of the carnage that “lions and tigers and bears, oh, my” could cause in “The Wizard of Oz,” she might well have been describing three modern NFL quarterbacks, so frightful are they are in inflicting damage on unsuspecting opponents.

Three guys who have paved that yellow brick road to mid-season success and established themselves as the quarterbacks to watch down the second half stretch and beyond are Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, Deshaun Watson (before he got hurt) of the Houston Texans, and Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles. They are this next decade’s Brady, Favre and Manning.

The elder member of this elite list of leaders is Wilson with one Super Bowl win in his locker already and a second one all but his except for a boneheaded play called by an assistant coach disdaining handing the ball to “The Beast,” Marshawn Lynch, three times from the half-yard line for the win instead of stupidly ordering a game ending interception, giving the Super Bowl victory to New England two years ago, arguably the dumbest call in football history.

Coming out of Clemson, Deshaun Watson has proven himself to be a player of rare talent once given the chance to quarterback the Houston Texans. After great first-half action, he has been sidelined with an ACL injury sustained during practice, shelving him for the season. But he will heal and return next year and continue his assault on opponents.

I don’t know how my Minnesota Gophers whiffed on Carson Wentz. An outstanding high school prospect, he stayed home at nearby North Dakota State and had a great college career. He may well be the best of the three at 6’5″ and 235 pounds. Staying healthy, he could be the bellwether quarterback for years to come for the Eagles ruling the tough NFL Eastern Division.

On average, the same trio is just slightly behind Brady, Brees and Rodgers in total quarterback ratings at 104.5 to 101.9. But they are younger by far and much more agile. They are, in addition, 61-19 in that key measurement of quarterback success, number of touchdown passes to interceptions. By comparison, Brees, Brady and Rodgers are 45-9.

The newbies have thrown  89 completions of 20 plus yards compared to 84 for the veterans. Those are the plays needed to sustain touchdown drives and the attendant killing of the clock. They are vital to a team’s success.

“If ever oh ever a wiz there was,” sang Dorothy, “it’s because of the wonderful things he does.”

If ever the NFL needed wizards, it is right now with all the controversies swirling around America’s favorite game. These three guys are going to be the quarterbacks determining the league’s success or failure.

My money is on their finding their fortunes in the future by leading their teams down those yellow brick roads to conference and Super Bowl championships in re-establishing the prestige and glory that once was the NFL.

Adam Vinatieri Lives On

Adam Vinatieri, who will be 45 next month, is still going strong. Last year, he made over 87% of his field goals, and didn’t miss an extra point, in his 21st NFL season.

He’s third all-time in points scored, third all-time in field goals made, and one of the greatest to ever play at his position.

A four sport star at South Dakota State, he first played professional football for the Amsterdam Admirals in Europe in 1995. A year later, he was signed as an un-drafted free agent by the New England Patriots

But for 18 inches, he might have been relegated to the margins of professional football for all time instead of being a sure bet for the NFL Hall of Fame.

Here’s what happened.

In the first three games of the 1996 season, his first with New England, he performed very poorly. In week one, he missed three out of four field goal attempts in a loss to Buffalo. Pats coach Bill Parcells began to lose confidence in him. First year kickers underperforming generally are out the door pronto. The position is so important a coach must always have a short list of other guys to go to.

In the second game, Vinatieri missed not only another field goal but an extra point as well. After three weeks, he was kicking field goals at a success rate of only 42%. In week four, the Pats played the Jacksonville Jaguars and he missed another extra point but did connect on three thirty-yard chip shot field goals. At half time, the television commentators discussed who Parcells would bring in to replace the failing Vinatieri

And then one of those strange occurrences of life intervened.

Earlier, the Jags had completed a Hail Mary effort for a touchdown at the half and now with time left for just one play and the score tied at 25-25, from the 50-yard line, quarterback Mark Brunell fired another Hail Mary for the win. The ball was caught on the half-yard line and downed there, eighteen inches shy of the score and a Jacksonville victory.

The game went into overtime and Adam kicked the winning field goal. No way any coach fires a kicker who has just made a clutch kick to win.

For the final 12 games of the 1996 season, Vinatieri would miss just two field goals in helping the Patriots get to the Super Bowl and would then go on to establish himself as one of the greatest kickers in football history.

After nearly cutting Vinatieri after four games, Parcells stated after his kicker caught return man Herschel Walker returning a kickoff, “I just don’t have a kicker. I have a football player!”

Now 21 years later, Adam Vinatieri is still kicking. This year in week 5, he hit 4-4 on field goals, including a 51-yarder in OT to beat the 49ers.

Football is a game of inches. So, sometimes, is life.

The Huddle

What Lieutenant Bill Carpenter started sixty years ago as Army’s “Lonely End” has come full circle. Most teams don’t huddle at all now. And I think from a player’s point of view, that is not good.

In 1958, Army coach Earl “Red” Blaik had Carpenter line up far away from the huddle to receive hand and/or foot signals from the quarterback telling him the play. It was a gimmick, pure and simple, although not as gimmicky as coach Tom Nugent of Maryland recruiting a gymnast to go in motion doing somersaults across the field to distract the defense.

Carpenter’s move befuddled the opponent. Nugent’s created laughter.

Carpenter went on to a distinguished military career, winning the Distinguished Service Cross by saving his company in Vietnam in directing air strikes on his own position. The gymnast has been lost forever to the forgotten files of football follies.

Teams now seldom huddle, the thought being more plays can be run, which is a fallacy in itself in that quantity alone does not equate to success. Careful scouting, planning and execution does.

The huddle was home to eleven guys, the location clearly defined by the center always hustling to set it up seven yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The huddle was to football what the Reagan family Sunday dinner is to “Blue Bloods.”

Hand held high, the snapper’s signal to gather began the plan to direct, understand and execute.

The quarterback would stand off to the side to allow the players to whisper about their blocking assignments while he figured the best play to call, based on down, distance, field position, and time remaining.

When the quarterback stepped into the huddle, everybody listened to him issuing the play and snap count. Further information such as distance to a first down might follow. A moment of eye contact with a determined running back might portend an audible at the line of scrimmage.

“Break” would send everybody out of the cocoon of the huddle to the ball and the play, united in one cause, perfection.

Without a huddle, that moment of team camaraderie, fifty times a game, is missing. Oftentimes the quarterback would tell the running back the importance of gaining that extra couple of yards for a first down, or the receiver the role the clock might play in staying inbounds.

Without a huddle, a Byzantine system of back up quarterbacks waggling arms, or a mock up of photos of movie stars or animals on the sideline denoting the play to be run after consultation with offensive coordinators upstairs—-all during the :30 allowed before a delay of game penalty is called— leaves too much room for error just to get more plays run.

Then again, if your name is Peyton Manning, all you need do is line up your team and utter “Omaha”—which was totally bogus—but somehow had the mystical ability to totally control what the defense would do. Nobody has ever figured out how….

Hut One, Hut Two….

The Vagaries of Referees

33,000 Eagles fans have signed a petition to not allow veteran NFL official Pete Morelli to work any more Eagles games. Pete seems to hate Philadelphia as much as comedian W. C. Fields did.

“NFL Referee Pete Morelli has a clear and statistically obvious bias against the Philadelphia Eagles,” the petition reads. “Over the last four games that he has officiated that the Eagles were playing in, the Eagles were flagged a total of 40 times for 396 yards, while the Eagles opponent in those games were flagged a mere 8 times for 74 yards. This is unacceptable and puts the Philadelphia Eagles at a disadvantage. Preventing Morelli from refereeing Eagles games will result in a more trustworthy and honest NFL. This will benefit the entire league and keep all claims of conspiracy to a normal level.”

Morelli, 65, is in his 21st season with the NFL and his 15th as a referee. For some reason, it appears he is seriously pissed at the Eagles. Pack it in, Pete! The Referee’s Retirement Home beckons. Although, truth be known, Eagle fans are no walk in the park, either. One Christmas, they even booed Santa Claus.

In the 21st Century, home teams in the NFL have won 56.5% of the games played, largely because total penalties called in every year but two have favored the home team.

There is an old adage in football that the team making the fewest mistakes wins. Penalties are assessed for mistakes such as holding or offsides or pass interference. They are judgement calls made by fallible men such as Pete Morelli.

Odds makers give the home team a three-point built in advantage not because, as they say,  teams traveling will experience hardships getting to the game. They don’t really, seeing they fly first class, eat in top restaurants and stay at the best hotels.

What the odds makers know is that the penalty numbers favor home teams because refs are human and react to home crowds screaming for penalties to be called, especially deep defensive pass interference calls. Those third down calls made deep in the secondary sustain stalled drives and often turn games around. How often have we seen a Dez Bryant or an Odell Beckham or a LeSean Jackson yell foul as the ball extends just beyond their reach in an act of supplication to a referee who then reacts to screaming home crowds by making the interference call.

Officials do the best they can, the occasional outlier like Morelli being the rare exception to the rule. But in non-reviewable instances of penalties such as the pass interference calls, they are too easily influenced by home crowds because fans know those calls are game changers. Those calls are not reviewable. The referee up in the booth should be consulted on those calls after utilizing instant replay to determine if a penalty has indeed occurred.

Oh, for the simpler halcyon days of referee Red Cashion who, after untangling a mountain of men, penalized a player sneaking in one last punch, explaining to the crowd while waving his clenched fist, “He was giving him the business down there.”

Hut one, Hut two…