Notre Dame vs. Southern Cal Football

The 20th Century Limited pulled out of elegant Grand Central Station in New York as my brother Dave and I headed overnight to South Bend, Indiana, to see Notre Dame play Southern Cal in 1983.

Factoid: The ride left me with new found knowledge that most rural cemeteries are placed hard by railroad tracks, I guess the thought being the land is cheap and the sound of the train’s wheels and whistles will hardly wake the dearly departed.

In upstate New York, a conductor came through our car’s door, closing it and shouting, seemingly in iambic pentameter attuned to the rhythmic sound of the train’s wheels, “Schenectady, Schenectady, next stop, Schenectady!” No sooner had he exited the car than another conductor entered where the first one had appeared but a moment before, echoing the same mantra, word for word.

My brother turned to me and said, “Boy, these guys have one hell of a union!”

The Trojans, on probation for recruiting violations, had beaten the Irish five straight times and Irish coach Gerry Faust decided wearing green jerseys might snap the losing streak.

It did, with Notre Dame prevailing, 27-6, in such a lopsided win that my brother turned to me in the fourth quarter, saying, “One must surmise that if these Southern Cal players are the best they could get by cheating, they clearly don’t cheat very well, either.”

The game paled in comparison to the pep rally the night before, a tradition unparalleled at any school in the country. The convocation center was filled to the brim with cheering students, alumni and fans. I had wanted to go to a Notre Dame rally since I was a ten-year old kid listening to Notre Dame games and pretending I was the Fighting Irish quarterback in the sandlot game following.

The brothers Shea, students at the time, could have had no idea the song they wrote in 1908 beginning with “Cheer, Cheer, for Old Notre Dame” would set the standard for college fight songs forever. The band must’ve played the Notre Dame fight song ten times that night, with what sounded like a hundred trumpets, before the arrival of the team into the building “shook down the thunder from the skies.”

Players entreated the crowd to cheer as loudly the next day and the team would surely win.

It’s held that a young assistant coach at Navy implored his head coach to allow him to attend the pep rally on the night before the Midshipmen were to play the Irish because he had heard so much about it as a kid, as did I, growing up in the Northeast. He promised he’d stop by just for a moment to see what this rally fuss was all about.

He returned two hours later to his team’s hotel to find the Navy coaching staff going over final preparations for the game the next day.

The coach asked him how he enjoyed the pep rally.

Without hesitation, he answered, “I hope they beat you bastards!”

The One-Two Punch

Certainly I was no stranger to the term one-two punch by the summer of 1958.

I had read of Ruth and Gehrig batting third and clean up, respectively, during the Yankee dynasty of the 1930s.

I had witnessed the “Touchdown Twins,” Blanchard and Davis of Army, totally dominate college football in the 1940s.

Gil Hodges and Duke Snider would lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to five pennants and a World Series win during the 1950s.

And only recently had Bill Russell joined Bob Cousy on the Boston Celtics to begin changing basketball forever.

May I set the stage, though, to the greatest one-two punch I’ve ever witnessed?

It took place not on a gridiron or a diamond or a court or a boxing ring. The locale was our family run summer resort on Fire Island, New York, just off Long Island.

The few spectators who witnessed this sporting spectacular had no idea what they were about to see.

The impresario of this Madison Square Garden wannabe was my dad, a gruff fifty-five year old veteran of growing up tough in Depression-era Brooklyn. Hardened through tough times by a snappy wit, a keen eye, and an athlete’s moves, he ran the Leja Beach Casino with an iron fist curled up inside a velvet glove, seeing to both the care of the cash register and the well being of all our family members who ran its restaurant, motel, bar and general store.

Patrons would from time to time cause consternation through errant speech or action, in its vilest form causing dismissal from the island on the next boat, never to be allowed back again onto its hallowed sands.

Sometimes, though, sterner action was needed.

My older brother–a former Marine and All New York City high school running back–and I were tending bar one afternoon when a tough looking guy came through the swinging doors separating the dining room from the bar.

 

Picture Lee Marvin coming through said doors. Immediately following Marvin was my father making the baseball safe sign, in bar sign language meaning, “no more for this guy.”

Apparently he had used vile language to a teen-age cousin working at our snack bar and she had reported him to my father.

My brother told the guy as he approached the bar that he’d been cut off. The guy immediately turned to go after my father who was now about three feet behind him. Dad instinctively jumped into John Wayne mode and literally lifted the unsuspecting Marvin three feet in the air with a fake right and then a left upper-cut, the likes of which this reporter has never seen since.

By this time, quarterback that I was, I had sent my All-City running back brother over the bar to pursue the miscreant Marvin, now up, and according to the NFL rules of the time, allowed to keep running until downed for certain.

Better for him had he taken a knee.

He beat my brother to the screen door leading to the boardwalk and freedom, or so he thought. After about a ten-yard chase, my brother caught up with him and with a gigantic leap came down with his fist to the escapee’s back, creating within him an “oomph” loss of breath sound heard back on the mainland seven miles across the Great South Bay.

The Lee Marvin look-a-like was immediately mainland bound on the police boat while my brother and I went back to serving ice-cold Budweiser for .25 cents each.

Dad went back to his previous perch on the back porch to re-unite with his ever present cigar.

You didn’t want to mess around at the Casino.

Not if you wanted to hang around at the Casino.

Further Football Factoids

What was Division 1-A college football is now called “The Power Five” and is made up of 65 teams from the PAC-12, Big 12, Big 10, ACC, SEC, plus Notre Dame.

What was once Division 1-AA is now called “The Group of Five” and is made up of 63 schools from the following conferences: American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference and the Sun Belt Conference.

The chances of a “Group of 5” school making the college playoffs is next to nil. Maybe the same as Rex Ryan being named head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. A “Group of 5” school would have to run the table and then hope they had a win or two against a “Power Five” school as well.

The road to the top for the “Group of 5” is further hampered in that the “Power 5” schools like to prepare for the run to the title by playing a couple of “Group of 5” teams early in the season, commonly called “Cupcake Games” by other, more mean-spirited, members of the media.

A few years ago, “Group of 5” teams were 0-35 against ranked “Power 5” teams.

Why do “Group of 5” teams even play “Power 5” teams? Money, pure and simple.

Last year Idaho was guaranteed a million bucks to play Florida in Gainesville. When their plane landed, it sat out a horrendous two-hour Florida late summer storm in the terminal. The game was canceled, Idaho got their $1,000,000 check, re-boarded their plane and went home, healthy, wealthy, and wise. Healthy because they avoided losing 50-0, wealthy because of the check, and wise because they saved the expense of having to wash their uniforms that week.

Minnesota has hired a former “Group of 5” coach to lead the Gophers. P.J. Fleck went from 1-11 to 13-1 in four years at Western Michigan in the Mid-American Conference, narrowly missed beating Wisconsin, Minnesota’s neighboring Big 10 rival, in a bowl game last year. He was the natural choice of a guy with the right credentials to move from “Group of 5” to “Power 5”. But even a 12-0 record wasn’t enough to get his team into the Top Four playoff picture. There is talk about moving from 4 to 8 teams in the College Football Playoffs. I think that’s inevitable but probably a few years away.

Top Goofy College Nicknames

  1. UC Santa Cruz-The Banana Slugs
  2. U. Of Idaho-The Vandals
  3. Webster U.-The Gorlocks
  4. Campbell University-The Fighting Camels
  5. Coe College-The Kohawks
  6. New Mexico Mining-The Pygmies
  7. NC School of The Arts-The Fighting Pickles
  8. Puerto Rico University-The Tarzan and Janes
  9. Shiner College-The Flaming Smelts

Hang tight. We are only 56 days away from the Oregon State Beavers kicking off the season at Colorado State. Ten days later the Patriots host the Chiefs to get us back into NFL land for another six glorious months!

Speeding Up Baseball

There is general consensus that baseball games are too long. All levels have tried ways of speeding things up but few have succeeded. MLB is concerned that future generations will drift away from the boredom today’s game engenders, never to return.

Football, basketball and hockey are outdistancing what was once our national pastime because of one common difference between baseball and those other sports–a ticking time clock visible to fans.

We binge on television series for hours at home but we have breaks or fridge raids where we pause the action and press resume play when we return. MLB execs say baseball viewers at home drift away from watching after just fifty-minutes and don’t return.

Even with earnest attempts, baseball has become even slower. MLB instituted an automatic intentional walk, without a pitch being thrown. That, plus a clock on shorter review time of replays, somehow still added on average eight minutes per game over last year.

College baseball is even worse. Third base coaches call the type of pitch to be thrown. Armed with stats and charts galore, they size up the situation, shift the fielders, ponder the odds, and then through a series of Byzantine arm and hand motions tell the waiting catcher what pitch to call.

Every team in this year’s college World Series used this method, extending the season well beyond the school year.

Asked what can be done to speed up the game, my executive review committee offered differing views.

One problem is too many pitches are being thrown with no resultant action. 30% of at-bats this MLB season have resulted in strike outs or walks. That’s super boring.

In the great Mazeroski 1960 World Series 10-9 ten-inning game-seven thriller, there wasn’t a single strikeout. Of the 77 total plate appearances in that game, only five walks were issued. That’s exciting baseball!

(Trivia Factoid: Prior to the mid-1970s, television networks and stations did not preserve their telecasts of sporting events, choosing instead to tape over them. As a result, the broadcasts of the first six games from 1960 are no longer known to exist. The lone exception is a black-and-white kinescope of the entire telecast of Mazeroski’s Game 7, which was discovered in a wine cellar in Bing Crosby’s former home in Hillsborough, California in December 2009. Crosby owned the Pirates in 1960.)

“Teach pitchers to better throw first pitch strikes to get ahead in the count,” was cogently suggested by my brother, himself a former college player.

Cutting the number of innings to seven was suggested by some but rejected by many.

Because the team ahead after eight innings wins 95% of the games, play only eight inning games and reduce game time by 11%, Tommy said.

Do absolutely nothing to the tradition that is baseball, Mike volunteered.

Getting rid of batting gloves and all the fidgeting that goes with them would help.

The NFL is encouraging more celebrations after scores. Maybe baseball should follow suit allowing teams to greet the batter en masse at home plate after a dinger. Retaliation by a pitcher might quickly escalate to danger, though.

Limiting visits to the mound by catchers was a favorite remedy.

Because of the size and speed of throwers and runners, perhaps expanding the diamond to greater distances from mound to home and base to base might help, suggested Dan.

Aaron thought enlarging the size of the baseball to create more home runs might work.

Eliminate the eight additional warm up pitches relievers take on the mound after having already thrown in the bullpen.

Baseball players care less how long games take. Neither do football or basketball players, but a ticking clock to get a play off or shoot the ball has given those sports a decided edge in fan support simply because something is always happening.

If baseball is successful in instituting a 20-second pitch clock in 2018, it will greatly shorten and hopefully improve the game.

It will bring MLB back in line with the NFL and the NBA and build a foundation of younger fans who want faster action.

Let’s Talk Football

With teams getting ready to report to training camp, the heat of summer will soon give way to the lively leaves of autumn and America’s true national pastime will push streaming English mysteries off our television sets for the next six months.

Let’s get down to basics. The most important players on any team are the quarterbacks and the safeties. The quarterbacks because they get points quickly and the safeties because they prevent points from being gotten quickly.

More games are won or lost at those two positions than any other combination on the field. Sure, you hear the old adage that the running game sets up the passing game. It doesn’t. The opposite is true. Seldom is there a drive longer than forty yards. Fumbles, penalties, sacks, missed blocking assignments and dropped passes all negate long scoring drives with predictable accuracy.

The skill positions make the most money because they thrill the fans more. That wasn’t always the case but 1978 changed all that. Rule changes favoring the offense turned the NFL into a Barnum and Bailey circus and put a premium of throwing the ball towards and into the end zone. Fans loved it and the networks now are able to charge forty times more for a Super Bowl commercial than they did back in the day.

Joe Namath was a quarterback who was fearless standing in the pocket. I was at Shea Stadium at a Jets-Oakland game back in the late 1960s when he got sacked mercilessly by two huge tackles who broke straight at him because of poor protection. The sack wasn’t the kind where a rusher gets a piece of the jersey and turns the quarterback around and down. They don’t hurt. The two guys who got Broadway Joe must have stretched ten-foot high, totally blocking his downfield vision.

He got clobbered, clawed, chewed up and spit out with five-hundred pounds of Oakland smothering him.

The very next play, same formation, higher down and longer distance, Namath once again took a snap under center, faded back into the same pocket and held the ball perhaps just a nano-second less than before. He released the ball a fraction of an inch higher and threw a sixty-yard touchdown pass to a streaking receiver. As soon as the ball cleared the rushers’ fingers, they clobbered him with the same ferocity as the last play. As the crowd cheered, such was the respect the Oakland players had for Namath, they helped him up and shook his hand.

The Jets went on from there to win the Super Bowl.

When Brett Favre retired, nobody had thrown more touchdown passes and had more interceptions than he. That’s why he was called “The Gunslinger.” A three time NFL MVP and Super Bowl winner, he played with a gusto and fervor seldom seen in a quarterback. Teammates and opponents loved playing with and against him. He would’ve switched positions and played pulling guard to lead the famed Green Bay sweep if it would have helped his team. Lombardi would’ve loved coaching him.

In 2001, the Giants were playing the Packers in a season ending game with New York defensive end Michael Strahan, a team player if ever there was one, needing one sack to break an NFL record held by a show boat named Mark Gastineau, who danced and pranced after every sack.

In the game’s final series, with Green Bay comfortably ahead and assured of a playoff spot, Farve rolled out and fell down at the feet of Strahan, giving the end the record. Only Favre could have gotten away with that. In the celebration, the veteran Strahan walked over to Favre leaving the field and shook his hand.

Purists may find fault with that scenario. Players clearly understand the respect shown to worthy opponents.

Vince Lombardi and Vietnam

In 1955, Fordham dropped football. I was the quarterback on the freshman football team and likely would have been a three-year starter had they not ended the sport.

Vince Lombardi, a Fordham graduate, had just finished his first year as the backfield coach of the New York Giants after serving as an assistant coach to Colonel Earl “Red” Blaik at West Point.

The Saturday after the announcement of Fordham discontinuing football, Lombardi asked me to go with him to West Point to look it over and mingle with the cadets to see if I’d like to go there.

Vince assured me he’d have no trouble securing a Congressional appointment for me, something all aspirants must procure prior to being admitted.

Everything about Coach Lombardi that day exuded confidence and leadership.

I spent the day touring the campus, the stadium, the mess hall during lunch when 2,000 cadets were all eating together, and going to a hockey game.

I was escorted by assistant coach Paul Dietzel who four years later would lead LSU and their “Chinese Bandits,” as they were called, to the national championship.

Coach Dietzel spoke of having seen the Fordham-Army freshman football game a few months before. He remarked that if I chose to come to the Academy, I’d be playing with some of the best players in the country.

There was a noticeable singleness of purpose all over the grounds. Military drilling was taking place with extreme coordination the goal. I was not new to this regimen as I had spent a year at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania after high school. Nonetheless, the entire aura of West Point was present everywhere.

We went to meet Coach Blaik in his office and I couldn’t get over his resemblance in manner and speech to his idol, General Douglas MacArthur, a true American hero of WW II.

So loyal was Blaik to MacArthur, the coach had his offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi, make the round trip each Sunday from West Point to the General’s residence at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan to narrate the previous day’s game film to MacArthur.

On our drive home, Vince asked, “Well, Jim, what do you think?”

One of the few who ever said no to Coach Lombardi, I told him after having attended military school, I wanted a traditional campus experience.

With Vince’s help, within a week, I left for the University of Minnesota, a move I’ve never regretted, where a group of great receivers enabled us to break the Gopher single game passing record at the time.

Graduation from West Point required a five year commitment on active duty as a Second Lieutenant. That stint would have landed me in the middle of the Vietnam war, leading a platoon into battle.

According to Department of Defense records, half of the men holding the rank of Second Lieutenant were killed in action serving in Vietnam.

Over the decades, I’ve often thought, but for a single word to Lombardi, I too might have joined that long list of heroic West Point graduates who so honorably served our country in battle and truly gave their last ounce of courage for our country’s well being.  I have seen the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington.  I will never forget the feeling of sorrow I felt standing and staring at those engraved names.

Sports Galore

Recently, I could have watched college and pro basketball, caged fighting, women’s softball, MLB, three NHL games, college hockey, an insufferable number of ill informed talking heads babbling incessantly, commentary on the NFL draft, lacrosse and college baseball.

All I needed was four remotes and a set of directions that would’ve driven Albert Einstein up a learning tree.

A word or two of caution: Do not venture into this new world of entertainment alone. It is far too complicated. Have a sympathetic family member either on hand or a text away to walk you through the permutations necessary for quick connections.

A second word of caution: Have a list of every password you’ve accumulated since AOL first asked you to use one a decade ago. You’ve forgotten them. Your television set hasn’t.

In this season of slow sports, may I direct your attention to some streaming entertainment activities coming out of that same box up on that wall.

I have fallen hard for series involving detective work. I recommend a beauty named “Big Little Lies” starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. Great acting in this who-killed-who-and-why adventure. Kidman steals the show.

British shows are great. Potboilers such as “Broad Church” and “Foyle’s War” are but two of many detective shows. World War II films “The Bletchley Girls” and “Home Fires” recall valiant efforts on the part of women contributing to the war effort.

Family viewers will love “Heartland,” a warm story of trials and triumphs on a Canadian ranch, and of course the incomparable “Downton Abbey,” the standard by which all series are measured for historical significance, scenery, and acting.

Whoever thought Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson could ever share a screen together while trying to solve a murder in the American South without stumbling over each other with mumbling and braggadacio? Well, they both underplay their roles to artistic success in “True Detective,” a series you’ll binge on for sure.

If you are holding off on watching “Breaking Bad,” as was I, forget it and get on board as Bryan Cranston playing Walter White playing beat-the-clock as an inventive meth pedaling high school science teacher fighting cancer. Riveting in an ingenious plot of close calls, family discord, drug use and deceit, it compares favorably to anything on television.

A side comment: Apple TV has come out with a remote that accepts verbal commands. No more will you have to play ‘click the letters’ to find a show. You simply say, for instance, “The Killing,” and your screen will display for you in a second a great Swedish mystery now in its fourth season.

So, while we all await the teeing up of the first football game of the year, chill out, as have I, and enjoy what many are calling the golden age of television.

Enjoying all this from the comfort of a lazy boy is simply frosting on the cake.

The Spike

When will the NFL learn to leave bad enough alone?

In a shortsighted move, they have legislated once again in favor of individual showmanship over team play by allowing end zone celebrations to return, unfettered.

In 1965, New York Giants receiver Frank Gifford caught a touchdown pass and flipped the ball to a kid in the stands. The next morning, the staid NFL levied a $500 fine should anyone dare repeat Gifford’s benevolent act.

A week later, a rookie Giant named Homer Jones, a mercurial receiver, the 278th player chosen in the draft, had a brainstorm of an idea. Wanting to be recognized by the crowd, he caught a long pass and realizing the financial penalty for emulating teammate Gifford’s effort, he spiked the ball upon reaching the end zone, receiving the love of the crowd, yet not the lessening of his pay check.

It was off to the races for every imaginable circus show by men poorly trained in choreography playing skill positions in the NFL.

Billy “White Shoes” Johnson waddled like Donald Duck after a punt return. Ickey Woods did the shuffle, to this day memorialized in GEICO commercials.

DeSean Jackson tip-toed across the field on the Giants one-yard-line, teasing pursuers until the second he jumped over the goal line, ending the Giants season and sending the Eagles into the playoffs, the very definition of taunting.

Terrell Owens, the “Charlie Chaplin of Touchdown Terpsichore” will always be remembered for running into the end zone, whipping out a sharpie hidden in his pads, spotting a 49ers jersey, and throwing the autographed football to her, a souvenir for the ages.

Acceptance or rejection of the liberalization of end zone celebrations is purely generational. My age group lives by the “team” concept and abhors showmanship. So does my son. Not so much with my grandson. He welcomes the frivolity.

One provision of the rules change states that the clock starts immediately upon the referee signaling touchdown. With only 40 seconds to get off the extra point, the celebration will have to be more of an extended group handshake and less of a Broadway musical closing number lest the point after touchdown be preceded by a game delay penalty.

The irony of the Homer Jones spike giving birth to such nonsense is that he is seldom remembered for being the greatest career pass receiver in average yards per catch for those with over 200 receptions, but more recalled by Giant fans for snaring a look-in pass and streaking 80 yards towards pay dirt before spiking the ball five yards short of the goal line, an errant act followed by a parade of similarly arithmetically challenged gentlemen over the years.

I must even admit that I tired quickly of the recent Victor Cruz salsa routines, and even more so when Odell Beckham snapped his picture with an I-phone.

Even as a life-long Giants fan, I just had to throw the flag on that.

Hut One, Hut Two…

The Greatest Yankee

Saying Babe Ruth wasn’t the greatest Yankee of all time is like saying Mother Teresa wasn’t the toughest nun of all time. Well, he wasn’t, and neither was she. My eighth grade teacher, Sister Maria Gonzalez, was the toughest nun ever, and Yogi Berra was arguably the greatest Yankee ever.

Sure, I know the Babe turned the game upside down with his prodigious home run records and out-sized personality, and, yeah, he was a great pitcher with another ball club (Red Sox) before coming to Yankee Stadium. Both he and Lou Gehrig, batting back-to-back for so many years, truly benefited each other all through the 1920s and beyond. And together their play saved baseball after the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919 wherein it was found the White Sox threw the Series.

Ruth’s flamboyant lifestyle cost him playing time and denied him a shot at managing the Yankees, the greatest franchise of all time, management fearing his carousing habits would rub off on his players. He died young at 53.

In addition to Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Jeter were also all tremendous Yankees, enjoying careers that led to Cooperstown, and will for Jeter the first year he is eligible.

But nobody crafted a career of success better than Berra. Along with Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, they are considered the two greatest winners in American sports history.

Standing only 5’8″, Yogi played in 13 World Series, winning 10, the most by anybody in the history of baseball. He played catcher, the most important position on the diamond, comparable to an NFL quarterback in that he was responsible for managing pitchers in making pitching decisions every bit as much as a quarterback does in changing plays at the line of scrimmage to take advantage of defensive situations. All other defensive baseball players simply stand where they are told based on stats showing where batters are most likely to hit.

Berra was the AL MVP three times, matching DiMaggio and Mantle.

Berra made 18 straight All-Star games and was hired to manage both the Yankees and Mets after retiring as a player. In 1973, he took over the Mets after the death of Gil Hodges and got them into the World Series.

One cannot deny Ruth’s 714 career home runs, but that record was accompanied by 1,330 strikeouts. It was all or nothing for the Babe. Indeed, nearly 50% of his hits were for extra bases. And he struck out almost 20% of the time. Berra struck out only 4% of the time while hitting 358 home runs.

Ruth’s domination of the Roaring 1920s in the eyes of sports fans came about in a very strange and sorrowful way.

Ruth had been a great pitcher with the Red Sox for five years before joining the Yankees, winning 95 games in that span. Back then, pitchers always worked with a dirty baseball. Foul balls hit into the stands were returned to the pitcher. Baseballs were used until the stitches literally began to fall off, so cheap were the owners. It was heaven for cheating pitchers to use spitballs or cut the ball up with a blade to make it dance funny on the way to the plate. Advantage: Pitcher. (Ruth)

In Ruth’s first year with the Yankees, the only fatality from a pitched ball occurred. It was determined that the batter never saw the dirty ball coming and he died 12 hours after being beaned. Immediately the rules were changed, taking the ball out of play when judged unfit for use by the umpire, providing a clean white baseball to hit every at-bat. Advantage: Batter. (Ruth)

What effect did that have on hitting?

That same year, Ruth hit more home runs himself, (54)—up from 29 the previous year—and greater than the total of 14 of the other 16 major league teams. The following year he would hit 59. St. Louis Browns first-baseman George Sisler had 247 hits in 1920, 77 more than the previous year. It would take Ichiro Suzuki 84 years to break Sisler’s record. The live-ball era had begun to open the ’20s and the fans wanted more and more home runs, leading to Ruth’s outsized popularity. Ruth was in the right place at the right time and he certainly took advantage of it.

At 5’8″, Berra became the best “bad ball” hitter in baseball history because all he ever saw were pitches away since his reach was so short. He drove in over 100 runs every year. Pitches low and away became line drives up the alleys and high pitches became home runs. Dodger Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella once said of Berra, “You can’t throw it bad enough by him!”

And Yogi never forgot where he came from. At Christmas, he would go back to St. Louis and sell Christmas trees with his boyhood buddy Joe Garagiola to raise money for a local orphanage.

No team in history has had the continued greatness of six players like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and Jeter. Who was the best? A strong case can be made for each of them, as I did in a previous post.

I happen to think Yogi’s offense, defense and managing skills gets the nod over “The Bambino,” “The Iron Horse,” “Joltin’ Joe,” “The Mick,” and “Mr. November.”

Raiders Move to Vegas

The Oakland Raiders, after haphazardly hopscotching up and down the California coast for nearly six decades, are finally going to settle in the Nevada desert, playing football in front of a dedicated group of revelers in the gaming capital of the world.

They will likely be the only professional sports team in history whose home crowd will be entirely made up of people from all fifty states, bent strictly on gambling.

Gee, what could possibly go wrong with that arrangement?

Faithful all  this time, the black and silver painted Raider fans have been dealt a low blow.

Reports have the team playing in San Antonio for 2018 and 2019 before settling in the shadows of the Mirage and Bellagio gambling dens, denying even further those faithful football fans a final rooting pleasure.

In either event, Oakland will have some time to adjust to withdrawal pangs, unlike Baltimore fans.

They never saw the owner of their Colts, Robert Irsay, (literally once upon a midnight dreary) in the dark of night, cowardly back up a bevy of eighteen-wheel Mayflower moving vans and deliver the city’s franchise to Indianapolis, just another of many owners over the years who’ve betrayed their fans.

Et tu, Irsay? Et tu?

It would be thirteen more years before Cleveland Browns owner Arthur Modell would move his own team to Baltimore, leaving broken the hearts of one of the greatest fan bases the NFL ever had, “Dawg Pound” and all, on the banks of Lake Erie.

Fortunately, upon arriving in Baltimore, Modell had the good sense to honor Baltimore’s favorite son, the long dead poet Edgar Allen Poe, by re-naming the team the “Ravens.”

The Browns, even with another new team a decade later, are still losers.

Can you say Johnny Manziel?

I experienced first hand a franchise relocating when my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1957. No team in sports history ever had a more loyal fan base than those “Bums.” Perpetual losers, coiners of the phrase, “Wait ’til next year,” they finally hit baseball nirvana in 1955 when they beat the reviled Yankees in the World Series.

Two years later, through greed and avarice alone, they moved 3,000 miles away.

It took New York National League baseball years to recover until Boston’s Bill Buckner’s blunder ended one post-season famine while prolonging another.

A sense of loyalty in sports is a thing of the past. It starts in high school with kids, encouraged by parents, switching schools to find their best fit. Players in college, instead of waiting their turn, transfer to another program. Others leave after a single year–one and done it’s called—to get the big pay checks in the NBA.

And owners will continue to move at the drop of either a dollar or a sparkling new stadium paid for by wealthy casino owners or beneficent municipalities.

Hut One, Hut Two…

Ed. Note: Discussions continue as to who is the greatest Yankee of all time. My previous post on the subject reviewed the accomplishments of the six nominees, i.e., Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and Jeter. In our next Coach’s Corner, I’ll share my selection with you. You might be surprised at my pick.

Two-A-Days

The NCAA recently enacted a rule that two-a-day football practices will no longer be allowed. I am all for player safety but removing two-a-days is not the panacea.  To the contrary, it is the time you get in shape to avoid injuries during the season.

Back in the day, as summer ended, you knew that two-a-day practices were just around the corner. Dreaded more than the plague, these interminable hours made men out of boys, and tyrants out of coaches.

Every day over the next three weeks you had to be on the field by 5:30 am, ready to start hitting the moment your cleats touched grass. I don’t ever remember any of us talking to one another so angry were we to have fallen victim to this carnage.

Anybody who has ever played football will tell you the first day of practice is a breeze. You are working out the kinks of an indolent summer spent doing everything but exercising. Jogging the beach and frolicking in the ocean’s waves was not working out.

On that initial practice your body is saying to you, “Okay, today I am going to take it easy on you. Tomorrow, we’ll get serious.”

You are lulled into a false sense of comfort, saying to yourself, “This is a piece of cake.”

Twenty-four hours later, you are bent over, exhausted, vomiting, feeling chest pains heretofore experienced only by Roman soldiers at the Battle of Carthage in 149 BC. They were fortunate in that they had the solace of death.

No such luck for us after the sun had risen on this second day of pain and torture.

Today’s pampered college players, half of whom will never bother to get a degree, are coddled by multi-million dollar coaches housed in football emporiums the size and grandeur of English mansions straight out of Downton Abbey.

Back then we had half the number of coaches these staffs have today and in the process drew far fewer penalties, both on the field and off. We all graduated and respected our colleges and universities. And we never got in trouble.

There is even talk now of paying these players. Hello…they are already paid, and handsomely so. If they apply themselves academically, they’ll face a future, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a million dollars richer for having gone to college.

And they’ll not be burdened with student loans because their college costs will have already been paid.

One caveat was granted with eliminating that second practice session each day. Teams may have an additional afternoon “walk-through” but no wearing of equipment or touching is allowed.

Why don’t they just call it what it is, i.e., ball room dancing, and let the marching bands play lilting ballads to get everybody in the mood. Give me a break!

So this is where we are in college football. When I played, you had three weeks of two-a-day practices in bruising summer heat followed by a full season where everybody had to play both offense and defense.

Sixty minutes, week in, week out!

Hut one, Hut two!

Who is the Greatest Yankee of All Time?

Greatest Yankee 

Who is the greatest Yankee of all time?

Is it the incomparable, bigger-than-life Babe Ruth, an incorrigible kid from the streets of Baltimore who changed the way the game was played by hitting more home runs himself in 1920 than any other team in the entire American League, and in so doing, literally rescued the game, going down for the count after the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919? “The Bambino,” who, before becoming the greatest hitter the game had ever seen, won 95 games over five years as the best pitcher in baseball. A roustabout, his own proclivity for high living cost him a shot at what he really wanted, a big league manager’s job. He died young at 53. His home run record of 714 stood for decades before finally being passed by Hank Aaron.

Lou Gehrig, aka “The Iron Horse,” was a substitute player in 1925 when regular first-baseman Wally Pipp, complaining of an upset stomach, asked to sit out the game. So manager Miller Huggins asked the native New Yorker from the Bronx to play first base that day. And he did so for 2,130 straight games, spread over the next 14 years. Gehrig and Ruth formed the greatest one-two slugging duo in the game’s history, collectively hitting over 1,200 home runs before the illness bearing Lou’s name took his life at 37. His farewell speech at Yankee Stadium is considered one of the most poignant moments in sports history. Near death, he told the crowd, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Joe DiMaggio came up as a rookie and was a major part of four straight World Series championships. He left to serve in WW II, losing three seasons to service. He hit in 56 straight games 75 years ago and no one has come close to that yet. “Joltin’ Joe” set the standard for playing center field, so smooth was he that he never seemed hurried but always snared the fly ball at the last second or cut off runners trying to get that extra base. When the United States lost its way in the 1960s, Simon and Garfunkel asked, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” so strong was the public’s yearning to return to the happier times that the Yankee Clipper represented.

Mickey Mantle had perhaps the greatest raw talent of any Yankee who ever donned the pinstripes. When Joe retired, Mickey took over center field seamlessly, hitting with power and running down deep drives into the cavernous outfield alleys of Yankee Stadium. He hit over 500 home runs, stole bases with blazing speed, and played hurt perhaps more than he should have. Once I heard the great Bear Bryant say while sharing the broadcasting booth with fellow Alabaman Mel Allen that Mantle could start on any Tide team he had ever coached. Mantle lived too hard and died too young. When he was healthy, no one was better. Too often living the high life, “The Mick” died at 64.

Yogi Berra said he never said half the things he said. Master of the malaprop, Berra was the best bad ball hitter in the history of the game. He hit the first pinch hit home run in a World Series, and along with basketball great Bill Russell is considered the greatest winner in sports history. He had 10 World Series Championships (the most of any player in MLB history) and he managed both the Yankees and the Mets. He was an 18 time All-Star and three time AL MVP. He said his saddest moment as a player was watching Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 home run sail over the left-field wall at Forbes Field giving the Pirates the only walk-off home run world championship in MLB until that date. Yogi coined the phrase, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” as a mantra to always keep trying.

Derek Jeter struggled early, being sent down to the minors a couple of times before embarking on his long Yankee career. In an era of steroids and performance enhancing drugs, Jeter was respected for his hard play, clean living and devotion to the Yankees. Along with Willie Mays, he made one of the most memorable plays ever in post-season play when he raced across the infield, relaying a throw from deep right to nail the runner at the plate, sending New York into the 2001 World Series. He had a higher World Series batting average than Berra, Mantle, and DiMaggio, and played in more regular season games than any other Yankee. He is the all time Yankee leader in hits, stolen bases, doubles and at bats. He captained five World Championships and hit .311 lifetime in resuscitating a dying franchise.

I have taken a close look at all the players above, reviewed their individual and team accomplishments, their contributions to the game of baseball, and their lasting influence on the American public. I will share next time my further thoughts with you as I choose my “Greatest Yankee of Them All.”

A Note from Coach’s Corner

Now that football season is over, I’ll be writing Coach’s Corner less often until we tee the ball up again come late August.

First of all, thanks so much for your reading my weekly blog. It is a pleasure writing for you.

As sporting news of interest comes up over the next six months, I’ll be writing about it from time to time.

So keep an eye out still for the occasional Coach’s Corner.

Thanks,

Jim Reese

The National Faux-Pas League

For the second time in the past three years, ridiculous play selection has cost a team destined to be Super Bowl champion to be no more than a footnote to history, an errant call away from the pinnacle of football to a heartbreaking ending to a soon to be forgotten season.

In both of those instances, boneheaded play selection and/or inefficient execution has given the championship to the New England Patriots. Bear in mind, Brady, Belichick, et. al., need no help whatsoever in winning titles. They know very well how to do that by themselves.

Two years ago, in SB 49–please excuse the absence of Roman numerals as I still haven’t conquered the alphabetizing of numbers–for some totally unknown reason, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, instead of turning around on second-and-goal from the one with less than a minute to go and giving the ball to monster running-back Marshawn Lynch to barrel into the end zone for the winning touchdown, decided to throw the ball.

Not a fade route to the deep corner of the end zone where there would have been fairly secure one-on-one man coverage but rather into a melange of red, white, blue, grey and yellow uniforms on the goal line with a half dozen arms grabbing for the ball. Predictably, the ball flew into the chest of a Patriot defender three yards away. Game over, New England Patriots are Super Bowl champions.

Fast forward two years to Atlanta and New England this past Sunday. Julio Jones makes a great catch, putting the ball on the Patriots twenty-two yard line, first-and-ten, 4:47 to go in the game with the Falcons up 28-20.

Sitting up in the heavenly coaches box, Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Bill Walsh all say the same thing. Run the ball to the center of the field, make the Patriots use their three remaining time outs, and kick a chip-shot field goal at which your kicker, by the way, has been perfect all season. Your running game has averaged 5.8 yards all day so it is very possible you might even drive the ball in for a touchdown.

But let’s say Atlanta gains no yardage on three rushes. New England still would have to use their timeouts to stop the clock from winding down. This is where the offensive coordinator of Atlanta, Kyle Shanahan, soon to be head coach of the 49ers (yikes) had to prove he was the smartest guy in the room.

If Belichick does nothing else well, he is extremely adept at getting the opposing coach to do something stupid at the most critical time. Note the Seattle fiasco of two years prior described above.

So a series of plays which started with the promise of grabbing an eleven-point lead only moments before now becomes a fourth down punt fair-caught at the five-yard line after a run, pass, sack, and holding penalty had moved the ball back to nearly mid-field, negating even an attempt at a field goal.

We really should have seen Shanahan’s shenanigans coming. When his team was up by 28-9 in the third period, he was presented with a gift of a botched Patriot’s on-side kick on his opponents’ 46-yard line. With the play calling acuity of an anvil, he had Atlanta go three-and-out and punt.

Atlanta never even saw the ball in overtime. For the second time in three years, the Patriots were presented with a gift of astounding stupidity enabling them to become Super Bowl Champions.

Maybe the old adage of “it is better to be lucky than good” is true after all.

At least young Shanahan had the honesty to say he blew it, something his father never did while leaving RGIII in a playoff game when he could hardly stand.

Who Will Win the Super Bowl?

Football games are made up of three elements, offense, defense, and special teams. Atlanta is playing New England so let’s have a look at those elements as they relate to both the Falcons and the Patriots.

And, oh, yes, owners play a role, too. Let’s address that up front and be done with it. The Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank, looks like he belongs in a Woody Allen movie. In his beautifully tailored vested suits and Gable mustache, he looks like he wouldn’t be caught dead in any one of his 2,274 Home Depot stores.

His counterpart, Patriots owner Robert Kraft has donated a Super Bowl ring to Russian Premier Vladimir Putin which is presently on display amongst other gifts at the Kremlin. Go ahead, Google that nugget.

A brief comment about coaching. This will be Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s first Super Bowl rodeo. Bill Belichick has been to so many Super Bowls, he has saddle sores. Good coaching counts. Edge to Belichick. When he was assisting Bill Parcells, he got the Tuna enough wins to get him into the HOF. Parcells never even mentioned Belichick by name in his acceptance speech. When Belichick gets in, it will be as the second greatest coach to Vince Lombardi in NFL history, and strictly on his own.

Offense: If Julio Jones catches nine or more passes, the Falcons will win. That doesn’t mean if he catches fewer, the Falcons lose. It’s entirely possible he’ll catch only three but those could well be seventy-yard touchdowns. Brady threw 432 passes this season. Only two–that is not a misprint–two were intercepted and he was sacked only 15 times. Ryan was picked off only seven times of 534 thrown but had 37 sacks. Both are terrific quarterbacks, prolific and skilled at reading defenses. But Ryan has Julio and Brady doesn’t. Passing game edge goes to the Falcons. Running the ball, they were within 200 yards of each other for the entire season and both achieved 13 touchdowns rushing. Running games are a wash.

Defense: Both teams are nearly equal on defense, giving up fairly similar yardage against both the run and the pass with Atlanta giving up about thirty yards a game more against the pass than the Patriots do. Look for Brady to hit receivers over the middle more against Atlanta zone defenses for shorter gains. Look for Ryan to hit Julio Jones in stride crossing over the middle to get him deep fast. I haven’t seen many bubble or tunnel screens by either team. The Pats really shine against the run, giving up a miserly 88 yards per game while Atlanta clocks in at 104. Memo to Pats: Stop Julio Jones.

Special Teams: It gets very interesting here. Atlanta is 34 of 37 on field goals with the longest being 59 yards. New England is 27 of 32 with 53 yards the longest. That six-yard difference in kicking distance might come into play late. On PAT’s, Atlanta holds a slight edge at 98 to 94 percent success rate. Kickoff and punt returns are pretty equal. Both teams have lost ten fumbles throughout the 2016 season. Both coverage units do a great job, holding net punting to slightly over forty-one yards. Special teams are a wash with Atlanta holding that slim edge on successful long range field goal kicking.

So who is going to win? If Ryan and Jones click often enough for big gains, Atlanta wins. If the New England staff can find a way to stop that, the experience of Belichick and Brady will carry the day. My pick: New England 28 vs Atlanta 24.

1978

The NFL was in a funk in 1978.

The 1977 season ending Super Bowl was exceedingly boring, the Denver Broncos losing to the Dallas Cowboys, 27-10. It was the first and only time two defensive players were the MVP’s.

It was also the first time the Super Bowl was played in prime time, and it bombed.

The Broncos especially stunk out the Superdome with quarterback Craig Morton completing only seven passes for just 61 yards before being benched in the second half by a journeyman quarterback named Norton Weese, after throwing his 5th interception.

:30 second commercials cost $125,000 and viewership had plateaued at just under 80 million.

Retrospective reviews have dubbed it the worst Super Bowl ever.

It was only four years earlier that Joe Namath had rallied the New York Jets to beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III that football fans everywhere loved because it brought parity to pro football with the AFL win and truly made all NFL teams competitive. Fans demanded faster action.

NFL suits knew something had to be done. The answer: more passing, less running.

In spectator sports, movement has always been what sparked attention. A tennis ball during volleys and serves, a streaking puck in a hockey game, a long home run in baseball, a three-point shot in basketball, a near-goal soccer kick, thoroughbreds racing each other down the home stretch. That is what spectators want.

Nobody ever cared what the eight gigantic Mammut mastodons facing each other on the line of scrimmage ever did, except maybe their mothers. The decades old gospel of the running game opening up the passing game was turned upside down in 1978 and fans quickly came to embrace more passing and less running.

Two major rule changes took place in 1978, both resulting in increased offensive production. For the first time, offensive linemen were permitted to extend their arms forward to pass protect for the quarterback, giving the quarterback much more time to read the defense and throw accordingly. In addition, whereas defensive backs always had been able to make contact with receivers all over the field, they were now restricted to that contact taking place only from the line of scrimmage to five yards downfield.

It has been a nightmare for defensive backs ever since.

The NFL’s  four top teams in 1977 had quarterbacks who collectively threw 61 touchdown passes and 51 interceptions for the entire season. That would now be a non-acceptable one-to-one ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions.

By 2016, those numbers had climbed to 137 touchdown passes and 29 interceptions, or a better than four-to-one ratio.

So touchdown passes went up exponentially as interceptions plummeted downward. Fans embraced the change.

Because of the perfecting of angles of pursuit by defenders, broken field running became a lost art in the NFL. Conversely, yards after the catch became the measurement of note. In 1977, only three receivers had more than 1,000 yards gained. By 2016, that number had soared to 22.

As productivity increased, so too did accuracy. The 1977 quarterbacks threw at a 56% completion rate while their 2016 counterparts raised that number to 67.5%.

And while there were 111 sacks of the four best quarterbacks in 1977, better pass protection in 2016 allowed only 94 sacks even though there were two more weeks of games played.

How did all these numbers effect the bottom line for the NFL?

Let’s look at the cost per :30 second commercial over the years for the Super Bowl.

1967 $42,000

1977  $125,000

1995  $1,000,000

2017  $5,000,000 (40 times 1977)

Viewership of Super Bowl 2017 is expected to top 189,000,000 people, nearly triple what it was in 1977.

The NFL never would’ve gotten this far continuing to play “three yards and a cloud of dust” football.

Hut one, Hut two.

Alliteration Run Amuck

Steeler receiver Antonio Brown preened and primped pompously into his iPhone for 18 misguided minutes after Pittsburgh beat Kansas City to advance to the AFC championship game against those bellicose Belichick boys up Boston way.

It was in violation of league rules that Brown did what he did (live streaming from the locker room on Facebook). Moreover, it was grossly in violation of mature behavior as well. Inviting teammates to join in, they pranced prettily for the thousands of fools watching them, Brown constantly reminded us. If you are so inclined to view this travesty of overpaid narcissists acting like a cadre of clown jesters, check it out on You Tube. It will remain a dagger in the hearts of Kansas City fans forever. Down eight and ninety yards away late, quarterback Alex Smith went the distance, bringing KC within two with a score. Going for the deuce and the tie, an offensive lineman was called for holding on the successful catch. Here’s my bitch. Forever, it has been said a ref could call holding in the line on every play. This was one of those. Too close to call, don’t call it. Not with the season on the line.

Years ago, people laughed when Joe Willie Namath guaranteed that his New York Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III even though the New Yorkers were 35 point underdogs. Namath made good his boast and he has never let the world forget it.

Fast forward fifty years and when Packer receiver Jared Cook, fleeing across the field to the far sideline like a frightened fox fleeing a forest fire, fingered an Aaron Rodgers fireball but a feather off the sideline, setting up a game winning field goal. Four and six eight weeks ago, Rodgers has run the table just as he said he would and is now but a stop in Atlanta away from the Super Bowl.

In the great college championship game between Alabama and Clemson, the Tigers stabbed the Elephant in the heart when, with but :01 left, Deshaun Watsun hit Hunter Renfrow for a score. That was cutting it pretty close. But the dye had been cast much earlier. In the second half, Alabama failed to convert on third down thirteen of fifteen times so strong was the Clemson defense. No sooner had the ‘Bama defense sat down but three plays later they were back on the field again. They were pooped and ready to pop in front of the Clemson crusade deep in the fourth quarter. But had the Crimson Tide converted just one more of those third down tries, Clemson never would have ended up with the time to score with :01 left.

Which brings us to the Lane Kiffin fiasco. All season long the offensive coordinator who drove Alabama to 13-0, he ups and takes the head job at Florida Atlantic University the week before the big game. Saban says “see ya” and brings in Steve Sarkisian from Southern California to call the plays. 13 of 15 wrong calls later, goodbye title. Heavens to Bear Bryant!

Football Nirvana

That time of year including all of autumn and a whisper of winter, known commonly throughout America as football season, is roaring towards a finale that saw a game for the ages on Monday night, while a cadre of eight surviving professional teams continues to march towards the Mountain of St. Vincent, yet still a month away in Houston at Super Bowl 51.

Why is it that every Alabama player, except gargantuan interior linemen, appears to be 6′ 3″, weigh 235 pounds, run like a thoroughbred stallion, and have the tensile strength of structural steel?

But even that wasn’t enough against the vengeful Clemson Tigers.

Let’s just call it the greatest college football game ever played and let it go at that. Because it was.

When Deshaun Watson hit Hunter Renfrow in the front corner of the end zone with :01 left, it culminated a late game Clemson comeback, revenging last year’s title loss to Alabama. It was the first time in 96 tries that Alabama under Nick Saban could not hold a double digit lead entering the fourth quarter. The fact that the Tide could not convert eleven straight times on late game third-downs killed them. Watson threw for 898 yards and seven touchdowns in two title games against ‘Bama.

They should make a special Heisman for him.

The NFL weekend saw Dolphins forget how to swim, Giants reduced greatly in size, Lions de-clawed, and the driverless Raider bus go belly up.

The “Killer Bees” of Pittsburgh, a species heretofore known to be more defensive than offensive, swarmed all over those Miami mammals. Ben, Brown, and Bell were deadly poisonous, both through the air and on the ground against the Dolphins. Take notice, Kansas City, the “Bees” are a-heading your way, looking for more honey-money.

It took a ‘Hail Mary’ first-half ending, Green Bay miracle touchdown to catch the Giants, but once they did, it wasn’t pretty for the Mara-Men, 38-13 losers to the Pack. Rodgers revved up, throwing for four scores with nary a pick, giving him twenty-two touchdown passes and zero interceptions ever since he made a late-season correction, predicting his then 4-6 Packers would run the table. They have. Heading down to the “Big D” this coming weekend, I think they’ll corral the Cowboys, so good has Rodgers been playing.

After siphoning any remaining gas the Oakland bus had upon losing quarterback Derek Carr, Houston will spend this coming weekend in New England. Enjoy your short stay, Texans, and don’t let the door hit you…………

Mercifully, Matthew Stafford can finally let the entire Detroit Lions team get off his back. Comeback fourth-quarter winner a record setting eight times this year, he couldn’t beat Russell Wilson out in Seattle, losing 26-6. Seattle has quietly put together a West Coast juggernaut under Pete Carroll. But waiting in Atlanta, the “Matt Von Ryan Express,” rested and ready, lies in wait to ground the soaring Seahawks.

Hut one, hut two….

“Back to the Future” Football…and Burt Reynolds, Too!

Last Friday night, the Michigan Wolverines traveled to Miami to meet the Florida State Seminoles in the Orange Bowl, both teams nationally ranked. The game was a thriller, coming down to the end with FSU clinging to a three-point lead before Michigan blocked a point after attempt, returning it 98 yards for two points, making the score 33-32, with just :36 left on the clock. FSU then kicked off to Michigan which was unable to advance the ball, and three plays later the game was over.

In my back-to-the-future scenario, let’s move the game back to 1948. That year, the nation recovering from the perils of WW II, established power Michigan was number one in the country, coming off two straight undefeated seasons. Florida State, in just its second year of football after having served as the Florida College For Women for forty years, had bolted to a 9-1 record, beginning a climb to gridiron glory which would ultimately see18 conference championships, three Heisman Trophy winners, and three National Championships come to Tallahassee. Over the years, Michigan would go on to compile the highest winning percentage in NCAA history resulting in 935 victories, claiming eleven National Championships, while also producing three Heisman winners.

When the Michigan player picked up the blocked extra point attempt last week and started his nearly 100 yard journey to score two points, had it been 1948, he would’ve had another little trick up his jersey sleeve. Back then, it was legal to attempt a free kick, be it by placement or through the use of a “drop kick,” in which a player drops the ball and then kicks it forward towards the goalposts. That gambling gambit could be attempted from anywhere on the field. If the ball went through the uprights, his team would get credit for three points. In our DeLorean driven post WW II game, that would’ve tied the game at 33-33 and created an overtime situation. No overtime games being allowed back then, we would have had the game ending in a tie for all time or we might also have fast forwarded back again into the future and played by today’s rules of overtime until we had a winner.

The rule allowing such a kick beyond the line of scrimmage was rescinded in the early 1950s so it wouldn’t be allowed today. That’s why we had to move last week’s game back to 1948. But the drop kick itself has remained. It lay fallow in the NFL from 1941 until Doug Flutie persuaded New England coach Bill Belichick to allow him to drop kick an extra point in 2007. He made the kick, and why wouldn’t he? Flutie, the baby-faced producer of the greatest Hail Mary touchdown pass the game has ever seen, has always been Mr. Perfect. In fact, I’ve always thought Flutie the much better choice to have played Marty McFly than Michael J. Fox in “Back To The Future.”

Speaking of Florida State, I had the pleasure of informing Burt Reynolds recently that he and I had almost been college roommates. He went there and played football and had I accepted a scholarship offered to me by the Seminole coach at the time, Tom Nugent, so would I. Because of the spelling of our last names, Burt and I would have, according to the alphabetized pairing of roommates back then in the football dorm, lived and played together for four years. Burt stepped back, looking at me rather quizzically, I thought, saying “Is that so?”

Year End Odds ‘N Ends

Loyalty: In keeping true to the language of baseball, Theo Epstein, the general manager of both the Red Sox in 2004 and the Cubs in 2016, after nearly a combined two-centuries of losing, brought World Series Championships to both those beleaguered big league towns. Thereupon, he decided to funnel his charitable contributions through his aptly named, “The Foundation To Be Named Later.” I feel compelled to mention that Mr. Epstein is the only general manager to have had a grandfather and great-uncle who together wrote a screenplay for a major motion picture. Those were the brothers Epstein and their movie was the immortal “Casablanca.”

Production: Often overlooked, literally and figuratively, Drew Brees this year will reach 5,000 yards passing for the fifth time. No other quarterback in NFL history, not Peyton or Favre or Brady or Unitas or Rodgers or Graham or Van Brocklin or Rivers or Eli or Montana or Bradshaw or Marino or anybody, has ever done that more than once. Helmets off in tribute to Drew Brees!

Terry Bradshaw is an enigma wrapped up inside a puzzle. He played fourteen seasons with the Steelers and finished with a touchdown passing total to interception ratio of 212-210. Most great quarterbacks are somewhere in the two-or-three-or four-to-one ratio. Peyton Manning at 529-215 and Tom Brady at 453-152 are more the norm. Yet Bradshaw won four Super Bowls. How? When the Rooney family handed the reins over to Chuck Noll in 1969, the Paul Brown protege had the patience of a saint and the wisdom of Solomon in choosing players. Putting together runners Franco Harris and Rocky Blier, receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and a defense known as the Steel Curtain of L. C. Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and Mel Blount, all Hall-of-Famers, with Mean Joe Greene as its anchor, Bradshaw shrewdly led that team to fame.

Tim Tebow was never destined to be as successful in the NFL as he was in his Heisman days at the University of Florida. Having gained more yardage running than passing in college, he passed at a paltry 46% completion rate with the Denver Broncos. He came up in a decade of college option quarterbacks, along with Vince Young, Colin Kaepernick, Johnny Manziel, Michael Vick and RG III, none of whom blossomed as stars. In the NFL, Bradshaw notwithstanding, a quarterback must throw at a 65% completion rate with far fewer interceptions than touchdown passes. Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, and Andrew Luck, all pocket passers, are the quarterbacks most likely to be leading teams deep into the playoffs in the coming years.

The Von Ryan Express has run off the rails once again. Taking over a defense ranked second in the NFL in Buffalo in 2014, the Brothers Ryan managed to move the Bills to number fifteen in team defense in each of the last two seasons.

That is the very definition of firing with cause.

Happy Holidays

With all the hoopla associated with bowl games, national collegiate rankings, NFL playoff placement and attendant angst, let’s take a pleasured moment to look at a video that gives the true meaning of the love of the game.

Happy Holidays to all.

Stats Are For Winners

Often, when a coach is asked to explain why his team lost, the stock reply, “You know what? Stats are for losers,” is uttered to explain away a poor running game or a porous pass defense or an inability to score. Losing coaches generalize post-game in the press room, but an hour later will be scrutinizing the stat sheets.

Stats are everything.

Case in point: It is no mystery why Brady’s New England Patriots and Prescott’s Dallas Cowboys lead their respective conferences with a combined won-loss record of 22-4. They have together thrown for 42 touchdowns and only six interceptions. That is a ratio of (7.1 to 1), more than tripling the league standard of (2.1 to 1).

Those two quarterbacks have thrown 735 passes with only six picked off by their opponents. That’s remarkable.

Take any other tandem of NFL quarterbacks and see how they measure up: (TD’s-Int.) (Ratio).

Brady and Prescott are (42-6) (7.1 to 1). Rivers and Rodgers are (59-24) (2.4 to 1). Stafford and Cousins are (61-24) (2.5 to 1).  Big Ben and Carr are (53-29) (1.8 to 1). Winston and Manning together are (46-25) (1.8 to 1). Alex Smith and Newton are (27-14) (1.9 to 1).

That grouping of ten good quarterbacks averages (2.1) touchdowns to interceptions. Brady and Prescott are three times better than the NFL average.

What do those numbers really mean? Lots. A high ratio keeps your defense off the field and rested. It is much more favorable to have your defense off the field than your offense. It provides a lopsided time of possession in your favor, equating to ball control while lessening turnovers. It favors a strong kicking game for better field position, augmenting your team’s morale while discouraging your opponent’s.

Now, having said the above, the Giants managed on defense Sunday night to turn the above numbers upside down by picking off Prescott twice and allowing only one third down conversion in 13 Dallas attempts. In addition, the pass rush came from Prescott’s blind side, seemingly confusing the quarterback.

Dallas came in averaging 31.2 points per game with a 67% completion rate. Prescott was only 17 for 37 (46%) putting just seven points on the scoreboard Sunday night. Every team that Dallas plays from now on will employ the same defense the Giants used so successfully.

We might see the more experienced Tony Romo back on the field in the race to the Super Bowl.

Charlie Strong, fired at Texas, was immediately hired by the University of South Florida in what would seem to be a perfect fit. While turning around the Louisville football program before a short tenure with the Longhorns, he recruited heavily in Florida, the recruiting capital of football. Coupled with a program turned around over the past four years by Oregon-bound Willie Taggart, Strong inherits a 10-2 team with many returning veterans next year. Things are indeed looking up for the USF Bulls.

The Power Kick

(Coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens and his place kicker Justin Tucker stated recently that kickers should be awarded one point if they drive a kickoff through the uprights.

Coach’s Corner agrees, saying so on these pages three years ago, and repeating the idea again earlier this year. While their intent was simply to reward kickers, my proposal went much further. Please read below.)

99.3% to 94.2%.

Those were the accuracy rates for 2014 and 2015, respectively, before and after the distance for kicking points after touchdowns (PAT’s) was lengthened.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suggested eliminating the point-after-touchdown altogether because the accuracy rate had reached nearly 100%.  A poorly advised compromise ensued, leading to the success rate being lowered as shown above.

In an unrelated move, president John Mara of the New York Giants, a member of the NFL Rules Committee, suggested eliminating kick offs entirely to lessen the chance of concussions.

Coach’s Corner, however, wants to retain both PAT’s and kickoffs with a proposal that will actually enhance scoring in addition to lessening the danger of injuries at the same time.

I ask the NFL suits to take notice of my proposal for the adoption of the Power Kick.

In view of the injuries taking place on football fields all across America from Pop Warner to the NFL, I think it prudent we continue a discussion about football injuries and what can be done to lessen this very real threat to the well-being of both players and the game itself.

Participation in Pop Warner football leagues is down 10% because of a 4% concussion rate which means parents risk a 1 in 25 chance of their child sustaining a head injury.

Twenty-five high school players died between 2003 and 2012 from injuries, not including heat stroke.

In 2013, there were six deaths due to head, spine and neck injuries.

All levels of play are in agreement that most head injuries occur when players collide at high rates of speed.

The highest rates of speed and greatest number of injuries take place during kickoff returns.

In the interest of increasing player safety while adding a new scoring opportunity to the offense, I suggest the NFL Rules Committee consider the following:

A team kicking off will notify the referee that it intends to Power Kick the ball between the uprights. The referee will notify the opposing team and coach. If there is no notice to the referee, no Power Kick shall ensue and an on-side kick may be attempted.

If the kicking team chooses to Power Kick, the following will occur:

The ball is placed on a tee at the kicking team’s forty-yard line, rather than the thirty-five.

If the Power Kick is good, i.e., goes through the uprights, seventy-yards away, the kicking team is awarded one point and the receiving team takes possession on its thirty-yard line, first-and-ten.

If the Power Kick kick fails to go through the uprights, the receiving team has the option of returning the kick or downing the ball in the end zone and taking possession on its thirty-five-yard line, first-and-ten.

There can be no recovery of a Power Kick until the receiving team has touched the ball. Therefore, an unsuccessful Power Kick, untouched in the field of play, will come out to the thirty-five-yard-line.

The Power Kick may be used at any time during the game, except in overtime.

It creates the possibility of a nine-point play—-a touchdown, two-point conversion, and a one-point Power Kick.

The new rule helps the offense and presents the late game opportunity of a nine-point score to tie or win a game.

More importantly, it will decrease kick-off returns, the plays from which most injuries occur of the type that are of greatest concern to the NFL, i.e., collisions between very fast players at high speeds.

The risk-reward is positive for the kicking team when an onside kick is the only alternative in a late tied or one-point game, but even earlier in a game when a four-point deficit may be reduced to three with a successful Power Kick.

If the Power Kick were in use in the 2013 playoff game between the Ravens and the Broncos, the following scenario would’ve played out. An extra point by Baltimore tied the score at 35-35 with 31 seconds to play. Do you attempt the Power Kick to put you up by a point and let Manning start from his thirty if you make it? Or if you miss, from his thirty-five? Or do you kick deep and hopefully make him start at his twenty and play for overtime?

For purists who resist change, think of not only the two-point conversion in football, but the three-point play in basketball and the designated hitter rule in baseball.

All changes enhanced their sports through increased offensive production.

The Power Kick could also be used in college and high school as well. Colleges could use the forty-five yard line while high schools could kick-off from mid-field.

Fans will love it. Coaches will embrace it. Players will welcome it.

All one need do is look at the number of players strewn on the fields during kickoffs of NFL and college games to realize something pro-active rather than re-active must be done.

The NFL has already moved the kickoff from the thirty to the thirty-five yard line to reduce returns.

The Power Kick is the next logical move.

And the game will be safer because of it.

Football Factoids

After the interceptions, missed chip-shot field goals, questionable referee and ball placement decisions, screens, draws, and a double overtime, the old Green Bay sweep of the Vince Lombardi era propelled Ohio State into the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes, however, will not even be the best team in their own conference. That honor will go to either Penn State or Wisconsin. As division leaders, they play each other this Saturday while Ohio State gets the day off.

After a risky fourth-and-one call that barely worked on a quarterback option in the second overtime, Curtis Samuel took a handoff and headed west behind two pulling behemoths kicking out all the Michigan white shirts. Concurrently, two other Ohio State blockers were heading east to double team the Wolverine’s defensive end. A clear path north then allowed Samuel to “run to daylight,” just as the man whose name adorns the Super Bowl Trophy drew it up fifty years ago. It wasn’t fancy but it was enough to allow Ohio State coach Urban Meyer to fall to the turf exhausted while red clad thousands stormed the field singing “Sweet Caroline” in this game for the ages.

The Big Ten arguably has three of the four best teams in the country in Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan. One could argue Alabama and/or Clemson is the best. Washington is a seventh contender.

We may be only a year away from an eight-team playoff replacing the present four to determine a true college champion. Another weekend of filled 100,000 seat stadiums, and millions of at-home lazy boys tilting back and looking in, is just too lucrative to pass up.

Note to television suits: Whoever came up with the goofy idea of placing a camera on the referee’s cap should be fired. Low level shots confuse, rather than enhance, the game. When was the last time you saw a good action movie where the planes fought each other on the tarmac?

Word to my Golden Gopher friends: We must learn to close out games. Our season was a successful 8-4 and a good bowl game beckons. The four teams we lost to, all currently ranked, have a combined record of 37-11. Here’s the real kicker: In each of those four losses, we were either tied or ahead, with the ball, in the fourth quarter. That really hurts.

Game Changers: On average, NFL linemen laboring unnoticed within the burly rectangular confines of the line of scrimmage have grown both higher and wider over the last decade. They are now ten pounds heavier and one inch taller. Doesn’t seem like much but if the adage “football is a game of inches” is true, then another inch taller assists greatly in batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. And the added heft in the defensive line forces offenses to eschew the running game in favor of more productive, albeit dangerous, screen passes.

The Dreaded Eye Exam

My six-month eye exam has become bothersome. Placing my chin on a piece of plastic, I lean forward, focusing on a tiny yellow light while enduring ten minutes of having to spot smaller lights, each one flashing on the periphery for a nano-second.

Spotting these specks, I am supposed to press a clicker while a nurse hovers six inches away, monitoring my every move.

I have been taking this test for years and dread it more every time.

Except this day, I found a way to beat the boredom of it.

Before shuffling off not to Buffalo but into the margins of football history, I was a college quarterback. The very first rule pounded into me was, when passing, lock the safety in place by focusing on his eyes, fifteen-yards downfield, so he cannot react in time when you are throwing away from him deep.

Picture if you will Eli Manning finding Mario Manningham for a key first down on that final drive to glory in Super Bowl XLVI, Manning indeed locked onto the safety’s eyes so he could not get over fast enough to stop the critical sideline completion. 

Game, Giants!

In today’s test, I treated that blinking orb as if it were a safety. Depending upon where I caught the light, I clicked while shouting out the route that would have been run to get there. Upper right was a corner route, a blink to the far left was a sideline, directly over the safety was a post, while lower on my Field of Dreams the light signified a draw play. The faster the nurse ran the lights, the faster I responded. She tried to catch me napping with a light far off to the right but I immediately recognized it as the dreaded bubble screen.

She seemed to be lighting her lights faster and faster, testing my ability to keep up.

She became increasingly more engaged as the game wore on, testing my ability to recognize and name every route. She challenged me once by following up a sideline route with a light appearing quickly halfway down from the safety light, oh so wrong in her assumption that I’d miss the duplicitous drag route into vacated areas run by backs coming out of the backfield!

I was playing “Gaugin of the Gridiron” to her Nurse Ratched, a “Picasso of the Pigskin” to her Frau Blucher.

 

Even her feeble effort at switching to my other eye failed. Corner, fly, swing, hook, hitch, I was picking them off one-by-one, putting out her lights as soon as they appeared. She finally gave up and reluctantly turned on the fluorescent bulb above us, breathlessly admitting, “Coach, you’re the first person to ever beat the machine. I’ve never had anybody with your perfect peripheral vision before. I want to see you again in six months, or hopefully even sooner!”

Eat your heart out, Aaron Rodgers.

 
 
 
 
 

Prevent Defenses Stink

Committing to a soft prevent defense deep into the fourth quarter is similar to getting a letter from Publisher’s Clearing House stating you may have already won $100,000. Neither is likely to pan out.

A case in point was a recent game between the Vikings and the Lions, names that conjure up medieval mayhem, but on the day in question provided a 13-9 snoozer with 30 seconds left as Minnesota tried to sneak in one final score to snare the lead from Detroit. 

A slick hand-off to an end-in-motion did the trick, leaving but 23 clock clicks in what had just become a 16-13 Viking lead. Cue the band. Alert the violet clad trumpet players. After having won five straight to open the season, the Vikings had dropped two straight, giving hope to the pursuing Packers and the lunging Lions, both clawing at their heels in the NFC Central.

It is that time of year that northerners head south, leaving their scarves and mittens behind but proudly carrying their ‘back home’ allegiances down to the Sunshine State. Such was the case with a couple from Minneapolis, Keith and Joan, clad in the purple and white of their beloved Vikings, sitting at an adjoining table to our local cadre of Sunday Soldiers cheering on other teams at our favorite watering hole with its 25 television sets.

There was, however, a sense of impending doom from the cautious couple, even when they went up so late in the game. “Oh, we’ve been down this road before,” said he, recounting the four Super Bowls lost over the forty-six year history of the Vikings. I encouraged them, stating with but 23 seconds left, there was no way Detroit could get into position for a tying field goal. But, with that unique Minnesota North Central dialect in their voices, they intoned, “Oh, just you wait. You’ll see!”

Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford completes two of every three passes he throws and has been doing so since day one in the NFL, against four, five, six, seven, or even eight man rushes. For the next two downs, he would see only three tired men coming at him. He had a great need to get to the opponent’s forty-yard line for any chance of a tying field goal and overtime.

No way! 

Way.

Stafford used six seconds on a pass to get out of bounds at his own 33. With but 17 seconds and no timeouts left, he found a downfield hole amongst eight, count them, eight defenders for 27 yards, afterwards sprinting like his jungle namesake chasing a gazelle in the high grass in racing to the Viking’s 40-yard line to spike the ball to stop the clock to make the kick to save the day. 

A 58-yard field goal at the gun brought on overtime. Minnesota never touched the ball again.

 

A bouncing, pooched kick-off following the late Viking touchdown would have run at least three seconds off the clock with the requisite return, leaving no time for the last second field goal. It was poor judgement to kick the ball through the end zone, taking zero time off the clock in the process. If a quarterback can thread the needle for a 27 yard completion with the clock racing to zero, you must take your chances on a much less likely kickoff return beating you.

The parting words from the ever loyal Vikings couple? 

“See, we told ya’ so!”

12 Men on the Field

When a football team gets penalized for having too many men on the field, one player, and one player only, is responsible. All too often that player is seen ambling, not streaking, off the field. Oftentimes, he is even aware the ball is about to be snapped, but through some misguided sense of entitlement, he chooses not to sprint. If he played for me, the first time he did this would be his last time. There is a feeling on the part of some players that it is never their fault so why should they sprint because of another’s error when doing so is the very definition of teamwork. Some refs call the penalty, some don’t. Smart teams have a signal to snap the ball quickly to get that free play. So not only are some teams out-hustled, they are out-smarted as well. It happens all too often.

College football has lost all semblance of sportsmanship and fair play. Television ratings for CFP (College Football Playoff) placements have driven coaches to outlandish lengths to be included in that final four of college teams. Washington, Ohio State and Michigan are all on that four team bubble. In order to impress those members who make that subjective decision, they ran up their collective scores this past Saturday against California, Nebraska, and Maryland, respectively, to 187-33, and in so doing were throwing passes when each was ahead by at least 45 points in the fourth quarter. That is obscene.

That same ill-advised message is being carried down to the high school level where coaches are winning games by fifty points or more against undermanned and unskilled teams whose players have often been recruited away from the losing schools by those winning teams. Connecticut has attempted to address this inequity by having any coach whose team scores fifty points appear before a hearing of three school administrators to explain what he did to hold the score down. Absent such proof, the coach cannot attend the next game. Florida has exacerbated the situation by passing legislation that allows any students anywhere in the state to play for any other school in the state as long as they provide transportation to get there. Misguided state legislators are killing the concept of small town or neighborhood schools creating school spirit at the expense of some schools winning state titles with players from outside their districts.

NFL viewing is down and nobody seems to know why. Maybe the glut of Sunday, Monday, and Thursday viewing is just too much football. Add Saturdays at season’s end and that “oversell reason” gains even more traction. I think the on-field theatrics by players may contribute to viewer discontent. Players say, “Why take the fun out of celebrating?” I would think excelling at sport and earning millions doing so should be fun enough. The fun to the fan is seeing well-executed plays leading to scores. It is not some goofy choreographed end zone or sideline dance.

Weekend Odds ‘N Ends

Sports Equinox: For one of the few times in history, at 8:45 this past Sunday night, all four professional sports leagues were in action. Passes were being thrown, free throws were being taken, hockey pucks were flying and outfielders were catching fly balls. It was sports nirvana.

Former baseball greats Alex Rodriguez and Frank Thomas could present the national news at 6:30 every night so polished are they as evidenced by their talking head roles on the World Series telecasts. Not so Pete Rose, an angry, aging visage above a goofy bow tie.

The NFL was selling football to Europe and England bought in big time. Cheering every five-yard gain as if it were a soccer goal, they showed the world that American football should cross the pond sooner rather than later. Packed stadiums the past two weeks over there should hasten expansion.

On the biggest stage it has had in years, baseball still couldn’t top NFL Sunday. Baseball is best appreciated in person where the pastoral setting and slow, sometimes painfully slow, action unravels. Save bars in Chicago and Cleveland, few groups of fans gathered to cheer. It is simply the nature of the game that it is best enjoyed while conversing with another. So shall it remain, challenging futilely the speed, excitement and fervor that football, hockey and basketball provide.

Bill Murray singing a seventh-inning stretch “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” channeling Donald Duck, just isn’t going to fly.

The Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr was 10 of 13 in overtime, dragging in the ancient leg of Sebastian Janikowski to go wide twice on field goal attempts, before finally finishing off the Bucs with a touchdown pass. Five of the record setting twenty-three Oakland penalties occurred during that extra period. Meanwhile, the Bucs went three-and-out on their three possessions in overtime.

Quick takes on talking heads: Terry Bradshaw is funny. Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless are poorly paired. John Lynch is informed and polished. John Smoltz has a low-keyed approach perfect for baseball. Joe Buck and Steve Albert, through parentage, bespeak entitlement. Baseball managers Joe Maddon and Terry Francona are the real deal, cerebral and in control, unlike football coaches who have seven assistant coaches babbling on every play. Howie Long, Jimmy Johnson and  Michael Strahan are polite and never talk over each other.

Matt Ryan was nine-of-ten passing in Atlanta’s final drive to beat Green Bay with a touchdown pass with :31 seconds left. That is superb leadership. Just prior to that, Aaron Rodgers had driven the Packers the length of the field to take the lead. The cameras caught Rodgers’ look of despair when Atlanta scored, sending him back on the field to an impossible mission.

Aroldis Chapman, consistently throwing 100 mph, was unbelievable in getting the last eight outs in relief for the Cubs. Maddon played poker with his closer coming in so early but Joe came up aces.

Maddon has proven he is among the best managers of recent years but in taking that chance on Chapman, he also showed great confidence. The move he and general manager Theo Epstein made in getting Chapman from the Yankees mid-season really paid off.

NFL @ The Half

There are presently seven (4-3) teams and seven (3-4) teams in the NFL. Research shows that teams starting out (4-3) reach the playoffs 47% of the time. Conversely, teams starting out (3-4) reach the playoffs only 14% of the time.

The Buccaneers are the only (3-3) team left in the NFL. They entertain the (5-2) Raiders this Sunday.

How big a game will Sunday be for Tampa Bay? Huge, considering that of their total of 54 games played (15-39) over the past three plus seasons, in only five of those 54 games have they beaten a team with a winning record. If they want to seriously contend, they must beat the leaders, starting this week against the (5-2) Oakland Raiders, and get to (4-3), not (3-4).

With the first half of the season coming to a close, let’s take a look at some other prizes and surprises so far in the NFL.

The surprise division has to be the NFC East. Originally pegged as the “NFL Least”, it has proven it should be called the “NFL Beast” in that all four of the teams are over .500. It is the only division in the entire NFL that can boast of such a status.

An interesting development is the divergent paths two similarly talented quarterbacks have taken in starting the season.

Forced into service because of the injury to starter Tony Romo, quarterback Dak Prescott has guided the Dallas Cowboys to a (5-1) record and in so doing has probably demoted Romo to permanent backup. Conversely, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has seen his Super Bowl team of last season struggle to get to (1-5) so far.  Some suggest his failure to fall on that late game Super Bowl fumble last year may have soured some of his teammates towards him.

In the AFC Central, Big Ben has the Steelers in their accustomed position less by their own modest success at (4-3) but thanks primarily to the losing ways of the Ravens, Bengals and Browns, a combined (6-15)

Over in the NFC West, it was appropriate that the (4-1-1) Seattle Seahawks and the (3-3-1) Arizona Cardinals played to that very infrequent of events, a tie game. And by the way, why doesn’t the NFL follow the lead of other sports and play all games to completion?

The Los Angeles Rams are about ready to make a quarterback switch by inserting first rounder Jared Goff while Colin Kaepernick struggles to straighten out the 49’ers. Combined, those two California teams have lost 9 straight games.

The Vikings were brought back to earth by the Eagles this week allowing the Packers to close to one game behind. Down the stretch, I would think Aaron Rodgers’ experience might best Sam Bradford’s quarterback play. Losing Teddy Bridgewater really hurt the Vikings.

Keep an eye on the always underrated Matthew Stafford, who has his Lions on a three-game winning streak. Poor Jake Cutler and his Bears continue to lose. Thank goodness Chicagoans have their Cubbies to ease their autumnal blues.

Friday Night Blights (cont’d)

There are three levels of high school football presently being played in the United States.

First, there are the traditional public school programs where schools take freshmen and through practice, diligence and teamwork, try to emulate their family members or friends who came before them, these schools representing a very high percentage of the 14,000 high schools playing football in America.  On their fields, young men are taught to play for the love of the game by coaches who mold the aspiring players into the best they can be. Each year, a new group arrives eager to wear the school helmets and colors. Those coaches, most of whom are also classroom teachers, clearly know their role, i.e., teachers first and coaches second.

A second level of public high school football in America sees coaches and supporters steering the best players away from other schools to transfer to play on their teams. The Florida High School Football Association (FHSAA) has been inefficient in monitoring players switching schools because they are woefully understaffed to deal with such transgressions. Therefore, the misguided Florida State Legislature recently passed a law (House Bill-7029) removing all restrictions on transferring, stating that any child playing any sport in any school may transfer to any other school in the entire state as long as he/she can get there. In creating what amounts to high school free agency, they ruled any athlete so inclined could play twelve different sports at twelve different schools over his/her four years of high school. What will surely happen is the constant switching of schools to find the perfect fit. Recruiting is still not allowed in public high schools, but somehow superior players show up on the first day of school each year at a different school. The coaches who espouse this arrangement are no wiser with X’s and O’s than the coaches who play without the luxury of transfers. But as one wily coach once bitingly commented, “If you are winning with somebody else’s players, you are really not winning.”

There is a third level of high school football where recruiting is openly done and results in a totally misguided concept of professionalism creeping into academia. These schools, whose very existence depends upon private funding and the recruiting of students in order to exist, have taken football to such a ridiculous level that the top five high school football teams in the country are all private schools using players from afar. De La Salle High School in Oakland, California, recently won 151 straight games and six consecutive state titles. Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas has also won several state titles and has recently been ruled ineligible to even compete in post-season play by their ruling state authority. A new entrant into the private school football consortium, IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, owned by a sports/talent management company in New York City, entices upperclassmen in high school to transfer to IMG to receive more exposure and the chance at a scholarship and/or professional NFL contract. The University of Michigan abetted the school by holding a week of their spring drills at IMG in talent rich Florida this year.

The most egregious of the above programs is the second one in which public schools allow indiscriminate transferring, breaking up teams that have tried to achieve success on their own only to see other teams steal their best players. One coach told me he just got so tired of recruiting his own players every year to simply remain at their school that he just quit coaching.

There has developed over time the misguided notion that the ends justify the means in high school football wherein winning is the only important goal. There are 14,000 high schools from which a total of just 1,625 boys each year will get a football scholarship to a major university. Doesn’t it make much more sense that a high school invest in the 99.9% of its football playing seniors to prepare them for the real world awaiting them, devoid of football participation? Keep in mind that the graduation rate is atrocious for college football players wherein barely half of them ever receive a degree.

Let’s get away from the misguided notion that playing football is the be-all and end-all for high school athletes. It simply isn’t. Working hard academically, coupled together with a love of the game, both leading to a college degree, is the road to be taken.

Friday Night Blights

Let’s talk about what is happening in high school football around the country as it relates to sportsmanship, fair play, and the observance of rules.

A few facts:  Approximately 1.1 million boys at 14,000 high schools play football. In most states, Friday nights are reserved for high school football games, Saturdays are for college games, and the NFL owns Sundays. Very few guys who play on Friday will play on Saturday and even fewer will ever play on Sunday.

99.99952% of boys who play football in high school will never make a nickel doing so.

The reason boys should play football is for the love of the game, the lessons of teamwork it provides, and the knowledge that as long as you give it your best, the score really doesn’t matter.  Good coaches from grade school up through high school should be guided by those principles.

Too often, many aren’t. Too often those coaches run up scores for ego gratification.

The state of Connecticut wisely forces coaches who score fifty or more points to explain to a committee of administrators what they did to hold down the score. Absent good answers, those coaches must sit out the next game. I have seen coaches up by fifty points towards the end of the first half throwing the ball to get one more score before the break.

Football in high school always observed strict rules of boys playing for the community they lived in. Younger brothers wanted to emulate older brothers or fathers or uncles who preceded them. Communities would unite in fraternal groupings every Friday night to cheer on the home team.

But then avaricious coaches and their supporters began to entice boys on neighboring teams to leave and switch schools and allegiances. Soon games that had been 21-14 hard fought victories turned into 80-0 slaughters. The teams from which the players transferred were left dejected, depressed and defeated. The players who left those teams and then took places on the new team displaced kids who had looked forward to playing for their neighborhood team.

This switching of schools, although illegal, nonetheless went on to further the distance between the haves and the have-nots. It became so flagrant that the Florida legislature this year simply gave up trying to regulate the flow of transfers from school to school and ruled that any child could play any sport at any high school throughout the entire state as long as he or she could get to that school. In effect, it created a ludicrous free agency system at the high school level.

Parents have been complicit in this duplicitous dance of scouting out the best programs for their children in the hopes of recognition by colleges for scholarships and even beyond that to big paydays in professional sports.

Private high schools especially have taken advantage of relaxed rules for athletes to the extent that the top five high school football teams in the country this season as ranked by Max Preps are all private schools offering scholarships to student/athletes who had been heavily recruited.

More on this aspect of the high school football problem in next week’s Coach’s Corner.

Florida Recruiting in Football

Let’s have a look at college football recruiting in the state of Florida.

Recruiting the best players has always been the backbone of success in college football. And no state has provided more players than Florida.

For many years, the high percentage of those players has filled the rosters of Florida, Florida State and Miami. Over the past three decades, they have won a total of ten national championships using the best homegrown players the state had to offer.

But of late, they have had to share the wealth more, and recently it has begun to show in their records.

The Florida Big Three of UF, FSU, and Miami lost twelve games amongst them in 2015. Years ago, it was uncommon of them to share half that number of losses in any given season.

For years, the Hurricanes, Gators and Seminoles ruled the recruiting wars of the Sunshine state, dividing up the best of the best amongst themselves while outliers and outlaws would occasionally come into the state and make off with a blue chipper, but not often.

Bobby Bowden’s “good old boys” approach worked like a charm at FSU while Steve Spurrier’s run ‘n gun style of play convinced many a young man that Gainesville was the place to be. And although Miami had occasional lapses of player civility, they also have had great players and coaches like Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, Butch Davis, and presently Mark Richt guiding the Hurricanes.

Many new colleges, however, are now playing football in-state. There are eighteen schools playing intercollegiate football in Florida including among them Florida Atlantic, the University of Central Florida, Florida International, the University of South Florida, Stetson, Warner, Jacksonville State, and Webber.

Not only is the proliferation of talent being spread amongst many more college teams throughout Florida but the continued invasion of schools from outside the state is causing recruiting angst in Florida.

Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State, combined, have thirty-two blue chip Floridians on their rosters.

Closer to home, Clemson, South Carolina and Georgia each have fifteen Sunshine Staters on their teams.

Conversely, UCF has found the need to compete on the field incumbent upon their success going out-of-state to recruit, showing 35 non-Floridians on their roster.

Recruiting Florida high schoolers has always been attractive because there are simply so many good players amongst the 17,000,000 residents in the state. The weather allows for nearly year-round participation in sports from grade school thru high school. The high school coaching is on a par or exceeds that found in other states.

Alabama remains an interesting outlier in this recruiting scenario. Arguably the best football program in the country, the Crimson Tide has only four Florida players on its roster. They do, however, recruit widely elsewhere. Half of the lower forty-eight states are represented on their roster.

I think the recruiting battles will continue for the best players in Florida and make the competition even more intense every year. What wins more games is the quality of the players enacting the stratagems of the coaches, not the strategy itself.

The Florida Big Three will have to step up their recruiting efforts even more to stay on top.

Weekend Watchdog

Has there ever been a greater act in sports than Arnold Palmer? The memory of him storming through the final rounds of so many golf tournaments, his followers at the course and millions more watching on television over a period of thirty years cheering those electric finishes against the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. We lost him this past weekend at the age of 87.

(From avid reader Kenny Russell) “The running joke on the PGA Tour is all golfers should send Arnold Palmer 15% of their winning purses. He was credited with elevating golf from the country club to national TV and a huge public audience. Simply put, big bucks!

Arnie earned 1.8 million in 734 PGA Tour starts spanning 53 years. His first pro win was worth a mere $2,400 in 1955.

This weekend, Rory Mcllroy earned over 11.5 million. Ten million for the FedEx bonus and 1.53 million for winning the Tour Championship event. If Rory were to send Arnie 15% of yesterday’s earnings alone, it would just about be the same amount Arnie earned in his entire career.

The next time you hear someone say, the more things change the more they stay the same, tell ’em not in professional sports…”

We’ll all miss his charming character and will to win, his modesty in accepting trophies earned through late match rushes, being cheered on by his followers, “Arnie’s Army.” They knew if he was within reach on Sunday morning, he’d be carrying hardware back to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Sunday night. Thanks for being a class act, Mr. Palmer.

Irish Football

Brian Kelly has had an admirable record as football coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. In his seventh year he is 56-26, a fine record but less than expected where a shot at a final four finish is thought to be the birthright of Notre Dame fans. The school plays by different rules than other powerhouses. They expelled five players this season, decimating their secondary where blown coverage, missed tackles and horrible angles of pursuit have been the norm through the first three games. Those kids playing for other schools more interested in their scoring on the field than behavior off it might have overlooked their transgressions.

That adherence to higher standards is the main reason Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship in nearly three decades. Weis, Willingham and Davie all left after five years or sooner. Kelly just fired his defensive coordinator and publicly warned his top twenty-two starters that their jobs weren’t safe anymore. Those were desperate acts. That same defensive coach was in the national championship game just three years ago when he had the right players to work with. The bar might be just too high to win titles at Notre Dame anymore. At 54, Kelly has time for another national run elsewhere. Hey, LSU, who’s in your coaching Rolodex?

Fire Him

College players play while earning a degree. Professional football players play to earn serious sums of money. If a player in college screws up on the field, bench him for the good of the team. If a pro costs his team a victory with a thuggish boneheaded play, fire him, immediately.

The skill level of a defensive back is but a nick above another guy cut from that same position at the end of training camp. When the kept guy loses a game with stupid play, fire him before he does it again.

Andrew Adams, a defensive back for the Giants, singlehandedly gave the game to the Redskins when he sucker punched a punt coverage guy on a blocked punt, all the way across the field on the opposite side, negating a Giants recovery in the red zone. If he didn’t hear the Giants home crowd cheering the blocked punt, he’s deaf. He was a thug looking for a cheap hit. If I am new Giants coach Ben McAdoo, the first thing I do is fire him and bring back the guy he beat out in camp as a stern message that the Giants won’t treat their loyal fans so poorly.

To Catch a Punt

The earliest thing one realizes in catching a punt is the need to totally block out the sound of the crowd whether you are playing in front of 1,000 or 100,000 people. Actually, it is a fairly easy task given the dizzying amount of minutia one must analyze before, during and after the snap.

Knowing the punter’s average, weather factors, time remaining, a return planned to the left or right, a reverse if called for, an immediate judgement upon the ball leaving the punter’s foot as to the direction of the kick…..all these gridiron nuggets of knowledge occurring within a nano second.

You must pay no heed to the galloping herd of buffalo coming towards you, straining to stay in their respective lanes, mirroring a phalanx of rumbling Ford 250’s on a six-lane Interstate at rush hour.

With the ball in flight, one must gauge immediately whether a fair catch is called for, such signal alerting friend and foe alike that your well-being is sufficiently insured and you will live to see other punts on other days. You will be aided in your decision to “Fair Catch” by a teammate screaming at the top of his lungs such a directive. You ignore his dictum at great risk as he is every bit your guardsman as was Sancho Panza Don Quixote’s.

The flight of the ball is an adventure in that you might get a spiral, the ball twisting in the air like a “Dairy Queen Delight,” floating earthward with a predictable path making it easy to catch, much like a baby floating to your waiting arms in a warm blanket. The ideal situation is exactly that type of punt, properly addressed by your teammate yelling the aforementioned “Fair Catch,” floating to where your opponents can’t lay a friggin’ finger on you.

Conversely, the opposite of the descending floating spiral is its ugly cousin, the “Dipsey Doo,” the oblate spheroid acting much like a German V-2 rocket falling on London in the early days of WW II, nobody knowing where the hell it’s gonna’ end up, nor the damage it may cause.

In halcyon days of yore, there was known to exist a “Coffin Corner Kick,” the intent of which was the punter aiming his kick out of bounds inside the five-yard line, making a return impossible and indeed making a long 97-yard touchdown drive as unlikely as Burt Reynolds escaping from prison in “The Longest Yard.” Truth was, there were precious few kickers able to effectively use such a weapon. The suspense, though, as the football beautifully spiraled approaching that Coffin Corner was wonderful for both teams as fans cheered or moaned, depending upon their allegiances.

A closing word about the old reverse-return as run at my Alma Mater, Minnesota. With two receivers deep, after the catch, both men would race towards each other to effect a sleight-of-hand as to who would end up carrying the ball. Predetermined by design, it always irritated Pinky McNamara that whoever caught the punt, his big brother Bob, a year older and faster and more athletic than he, would end up with it.  Tired of this, at a team meeting one night, Pinky asked coach Murray Warmath, “Hey, coach, when do I get to carry the ball?”  The quick retort that put everybody into stitches, including Pinky, was, “When Bob graduates.”

Celebrity Sighting # 64

This week’s “Celebrity Sighting” is somewhat different. In the Broadway play, “A Few Good Men,” an actor wearing an army fatigue jacket while shouldering a rifle is seen intermittently in a guard’s tower high above the stage to constantly remind the audience that the courtroom action taking place is at the prison in Guantanamo Bay. The soldier turns every fifteen minutes or so to give the audience the impression that everything going on below is closely watched. It is a very effective theatrical device. That actor’s name was Ron Ostrow. He had no spoken lines. An hour after the show ended, I was leaving a restaurant eight blocks away from the theater district when who rides by me but a man on a bicycle wearing the same outfit as the guy in the tower. I got as far as, “Hey, weren’t you……” before he peeled off across 56th Street shouting loudly, “Yes, ‘A Few Good Men!’ That was me!”

Garoppolo Grappaling

You have to hand it to the New England Patriots. The team that drafted a sixth-round pick out of Michigan who got them to six Super Bowls, winning four, who now is on an NFL four-game fondling football timeout, found somewhere along the way another quarterback to steer the Boston Bully Boys. Jimmy Garoppolo came off the bench and onto the field Sunday, managing the Brady Bunch to a 23-21 Patriot win against Arizona, on the road. Miami, Houston and Buffalo lie ahead for Jimmy before Brady returns as the reliever to replace the starter who then becomes the reliever, once again. It must be nice to be Bill Belichick, although you’d never think so looking at that sour visage every Sunday.

Russell Wilson, he’s our man….

Russell Wilson saved the Seahawks from an embarrassing loss to the Miami Dolphins when he threw a two-yard pass for a touchdown to Doug Baldwin to win, 12-10, with 31 seconds left. The former Wisconsin Badger notched his 19th fourth quarter or overtime career comeback win, aided by a gutsy fourth and four crossing route completion for 24 yards and a first down on that final drive. Wilson manages to stay below the national radar up there in the great Northwest while progressing towards a Brees-like career. He also prolonged a whole bunch of Knockout Office Pool play by preventing a major upset.

The CBS Network debuts…..

The (CBS Network) had a huge day in Dallas. Cruz, Beckham and Shepard (CBS) each caught a touchdown pass from director of broadcasting Eli Manning in giving the Giants a much needed opening day victory, their first over Dallas in nine attempts since 1965. You’ll recall the Mara-men lost five games last year after being ahead deep into the final quarter. Romo-less, the Cowboys weren’t the same. They have a kicker in Dan Bailey, though, who pretty much guarantees three points once the Cowboys cross mid-field, making him a huge asset in Fantasy Football Leagues. Speaking of which, the (CBS) Network should play flag football until the Giants offensive line starts opening holes for Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen, Ben Vereen’s first cousin, once removed.

Famous Jameis, perhaps….

The Bucs beat the Falcons, going up big early and then holding off Atlanta late. It was a big divisional win with a truer test coming this week on the road against Arizona. Bereft of last season’s league leading penalties crown, the Bucs looked greatly improved on both sides of the ball. Jameis Winston, with pin-point passing, long and short, error free but for one interception early, and four touchdown passes, looked terrific, the antithesis of last year’s error prone signal caller. If he has become the real deal, with all three other divisional foes having lost in the first week, the Bucs can get a huge jump on things by beating the Cardinals in the desert this week. Despite losing to New England, Arizona is still a serious NFC contender.

Hut one, hut two…

Game Day

What’s it like to be on a major college football team on game day? From experience, may I share some thoughts with you?

Whether you are playing at home or away, you would stay in a hotel, perhaps on campus, perhaps not. Coaches want total control of your mind and spirit, absent distractions, from late Friday afternoon to Saturday kickoff.

Friday night was spent with a stress-free team dinner, replete with kidding around and camaraderie.

After dinner there was a current popular movie shown, team members only, in the hotel’s ballroom. Coaches left to go over last minute game details. After the movie, usually a Western or a frothy comedy–chosen by the head coach–all players would report to their rooms, two players per, for a 10:30 lights out curfew.

The only time I ever saw just one player in a room involved a reserve lineman who had a double re-deviated septum, exacerbated by a flattened and engorged proboscis, which would have made his fellow lineman sleep in the tub with the bathroom door closed because of the noise of the thundering buffalo in the room.

Coaches performed room check at 11 pm. Some players slept immediately upon hitting the sack. Some studied. Running back Bill Chorske studied. It paid off for both him and me. Bill graduated from Minnesota and went on to get an MBA at Harvard from whence he rose to be president of Medtronic Europe. I can attest to his diligence in that I had one of his company’s Pacemakers installed a number of years ago, and it still works as smoothly as a well executed screen pass.

Point of pride here. Every senior on our football team graduated on time and held an important position in his community and/or the business world.

You were expected to be at the breakfast table for steak and eggs at 6:50 am. Not 7:00 am.

At 8:15 am, everybody assembled with their position coaches for a final review.

“Charlie, the ball is between the forties and number 47 goes in motion. What do you do?” “I call Rocket, coach, and all linemen will slant away from motion while the secondary goes into a three-deep.” “Right. Team, you listen to Charlie all game. He won’t steer you wrong.”

Similar conversations are being held with other team units, clearing up any confusion after a long hard week of physical and mental preparation.

The team bus would leave the hotel at 11:00 am for the trip to the stadium. There was very little talking on the ride, everybody getting prepared for the game. We’d arrive at the stadium at 12 noon, go to our lockers, and start dressing.

Requisite during the next hour was the obligatory stop at Lloyd “Snapper” Stein’s taping table. Nobody could tape ankles faster or tighter than “Snapper.” When he finished with you, you felt better, not only because you imagined yourself immune to a turned ankle, but you felt you could also beat Seabiscuit down the stretch in the Santa Anita Handicap, so positive were Snapper’s spoken thoughts on that day’s game.

So skilled was “Snapper,” eighty years later, the pride of Two Harbors, Minnesota remains the only person in college football history to have been head trainer for three successive National Championship teams, the 1934-35-36 Golden Gophers.

After taping, everybody went out on the field, sharing the gridiron with the opponent, practicing catching, punting and kicking, visibly connecting jersey numbers of the opponent, to this point, just that, a number. More often than not, that opponent looked exactly as described by the coaches all week. Occasionally, though, they looked even better, and bigger, and faster.

Twenty minutes to kickoff, we went back into the locker room for a fifteen minute recital by the head coach of “The Seven Game Maxims,” directions, if followed, that would lead to victory. Those ‘Maxims,’ recited still by hundreds of coaches eighty-five years after their inception by Coach Robert Neyland at Tennessee, are so insightful they act as a roadmap to victory.

At 1:55 pm, the Minnesota marching band would welcome us back onto the field with “The Minnesota Rouser,” as stirring a fight song as there is in college football. You were now ready to play!

At 2:00, a referee blew a whistle, a game began with a kick-off, and the better prepared team–given both squads were fairly equally skilled–would win, while 65,000 fans exulted in Gopher heaven.

Hut one, Hut two!

Exhibition Observations

With two weeks to go before the opening game of the 2016 NFL season, let’s zero in on a few more quarterbacks. All teams are made up of three components, the offense, the defense, and special teams. While it has become fashionable to say that defense wins championships, it is the guy quarterbacking the offense that gets you into the playoffs to begin with.

And unfortunately, two of the better signal callers will be benched for that first game, Tom Brady for over-fondling footballs, and Tony Romo for sustaining his annual season ending injury, this time before the season even got started.

The Heisman 1-2 of two years ago, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, look poised to step up towards the elite level of Wilson, Rodgers, Brees, et. al., with solid performances the past two  weeks. Not so with Cam Newton who laid an ostrich-sized egg with a sorrowful 13/29, 100 yard, two-interception disaster in losing to the Pats last weekend. BTW, Jacoby Brissett, a rookie from NC State, went 9/9 for New England and is 25/35 for the three games this pre-season. Who? 

Eli Manning got Victor Cruz back last week for the much anticipated “Bookend-Brigade” re-uniting of Beckham and Cruz. Absent much of a defense, the Mara-Men can only only hope for a season of flashy flag football with Eli, Victor, and Odell. The cupboard in the Meadowlands looks that bare.

Your NFC Central has arguably the best quartet of quarterbacks in the league. Teddy Bridgewater, the new signal caller of the fabulous foursome of himself, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, the seemingly human cannon Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, and the sometimes great but brittle Chicago Bears human piñata, Jake Cutler, rounding out this group. All have paid their dues except Bridgewater, who threw a skimpy 14 touchdown passes last year. Though, maybe that’s good enough when you can give the ball to Adrian Peterson 30 times a game.

Colin Kaepernick sat out the National Anthem against Green Bay. He should have sat out the game as well, for aesthetic reasons. He went 2/6 for 14 yards when he was inserted. This, from a quarterback who a few years ago came within five yards of a Super Bowl win and was being acclaimed as the prototype of the new passing/running quarterback. Since then, Russell Wilson has worn the mantle of NFC Western top quarterback and doesn’t look in danger of losing that title anytime soon. 

Keep an eye on Kirk Cousins of the Redskins. The Michigan State grad is 17/28 so far this pre-season and beat a good Buffalo team this past weekend. Playing in the weak NFC East, he is ready to lead his team to a division title. Both the Eagles and the Cowboys have quarterback starters who are injured, and with the Giants’ passing parade still under review, Washington just might ride Cousins to a divisional diadem.

The Vikings are leaving the world’s biggest Baggie behind and moving into a beautiful new domed stadium. That might be tailor-made for a Vikings run at the despised Packer crew from just one state to the east.

NFL Quarterbacks 2016

Let’s have a look at some quarterback conversations……

Mark Sanchez, Broncos: “Mark, I’ve always thought you’ve been misused. Rex Ryan screwed you up by bringing in Tebow in 2012 after you had taken the Jets to the AFC title game in your first two years in New York. You are following a legend in Denver in Peyton, but Elway has a way with quarterbacks. Get your confidence back. You have plenty of great football left in you.”

Tom Brady, Patriots: “You have four games to rest serving out that stupid suspension. Help Jimmy Garoppolo at least break even before you return. I think he could start for a bunch of other teams. Maintain your game at last year’s level and you’ll be playing deep into January as usual. Your 2015 quarterback rating at 98.7 was a tad off.”

Cam Newton, Panthers: “When you left that fumble sitting on the ground against Denver deep in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, you dropped to last on my favorite quarterback list. I don’t know how you make up for that. You have talent galore but that one totally self-serving play will define you forever. Your superb ability surpasses that of all other quarterbacks. Now, play up to it.”

Jameis Winston, Bucs: “You were last in passing completion percentage in 2015 at 58.3%. You passed for over 4,000 yards, but two/thirds of those came in your team’s ten losses, often against soft secondaries protecting big leads. 22 touchdown passes to 15 interceptions (1.5-1) has you near the NFL bottom in that category where the norm is (3-1). Your quarterback ranking was 84.2, Too low. You must improve quickly to give Tampa Bay a chance in the tough NFC South. You are a tough competitor, but that isn’t enough.”

Robert Griffin, Browns: “RG III, you have the potential to rock Cleveland. You will be the anti-Manzeil. No more stupid histrionics off the field as was the case with “Johnny Football.” You will give 110% on every play. Stay as far away from Mike Shanahan as you can, he being the cause of your injury problems at Washington. Your city is primed for more success after LeBron brought them the NBA title, and the Indians sitting comfortably in first place. Go get that Super Bowl ring.”

Marcus Mariota, Titans: “I was duly impressed with your 9/10 passing performance against Carolina last weekend. You look to be over your 2015 injury. Everything seems poised for you to move up in the ranks of NFL quarterbacks this year. You took  too many sacks last year. Far too many. Break the pocket earlier, if you must, to gain running yardage, like you did at Oregon. Work on moving your completion percentage up a couple of points to a Rodgers-like 65%.”

Russell Wilson, Seahawks: “You are on your way to premier numero uno position in the NFL. You have become a deep playoff presence year after year. Your 110.1 quarterback rating is superb, indicative of your all-around excellence. Your 4.5-1 (34-8) touchdown pass to interception ration is magnificent. You are taking too many sacks (45). Talk to your offensive line. Let them know you hold their financial future!”

Celebrity Sighting (102-A) Follow Up: Last Friday, Derek Jeter sighted once again, arriving for the new Jason Bourne flick at our Cineplex, a half hour late. Looking up at the screen and realizing his tardy arrival, he sped out like he was going from first to third on a wild pitch!

Celebrity Sightings 41, 42 & 101

By 1973, two films, “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid,” and “The Sting,” had made Robert Redford an internationally famous movie star.

My son–an avid tennis fan and future ranked player–and I had gone into the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island to see World Team Tennis competition. The arena seated 17,000 and was packed.

That was the year that Billie Jean King beat master misogynist Bobby Riggs in straight sets inside the Astrodome in “The Tennis Match of The Century,” a circus of a sporting event with a prize of $100,000 to the winner.

Combining spectacle and sport, it elevated tennis to new heights.

As our match was ending, I told my son we should get a jump on the crowd and leave early.

We made our way down to the concourse and who should I become abreast of but Robert Redford, the Sundance Kid himself. I remember thinking, “What’s he doing here? He lives in California.” His latest, film, “The Sting,” had just come out, elevating him to super-star status while earning earning him $500,000.

He had on a very expensive rust-colored leather coat, not full length, but longer than a jacket. His appearance bespoke red. His hair, his coat, his skin, everything seemed auburn hued.

He was making a bee-line towards the exit, eyes ahead, with nobody noticing him except me. He stood north of six-feet, did Sundance, exiting the arena much as he had Bolivia with Butch at his side, one step ahead of everybody except that mysterious guy in the white hat on horseback.

There was I, lock-step with Sundance/Jay Gatsby/Waldo Pepper incarnate–before I found the courage to say, “Excuse me, Robert, but I have a daughter who fell in love with you in “The Sting.” She would go nuts if I brought home an autograph from you.”

We continued walking as he turned his ruggedly red handsome face to me, saying, “Honestly, if I stop just once, I’ll never get out of here. I have to keep walking before everybody sees me.”

In my most servile manner, I said, “I understand, Robert. Really, I do.” I slowed my gait as Robert Redford peeled off to his right, distancing himself swiftly from me, looking back but once, winking and grinning handsomely as his stunt flying pilot, “The Great Waldo Pepper,” would surely have done, soaring skyward. Okay, the winking might be a stretch, but he surely smiled.

The day was not without another sighting, however. We caught a glimpse of 1972 Olympic Gold Medal sprinter Wyomia Tyus, also briskly exiting. When she had turned professional with the fledgling Professional Runners League, the most she ever earned was $5,000 as a contestant with her family on Richard Dawkins’ “Family Feud.”

Sundance, I could’a stayed with, step-for-step. No way I was gonna’ match Wyomia stride-for-stride.

P.S. Last week, I sat right behind recently retired Derek Jeter watching “London Has Fallen.”

Baseball games and movies are both about three hours long. Based upon his Yankee career earnings–$265 million divided by 2,747 games played–he might well have relished coming out of retirement to make a snappy $100,000 that afternoon playing baseball instead of sitting in a darkened theater watching a really bad flick.

Reports have Redford’s worth now at $170 mil and we see above that Jeter’s earnings are well in excess of the matinee idol’s.

It seems a shame that Wyomia probably honed her craft every bit as diligently as Redford and Jeter, yet ended up with so little.

Phil Cavaretta

The last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series was 1908, nineteen presidents ago. The last time they won a National League pennant was 1945 when FDR was president.

No other baseball team has ever had such a mournful march of mediocrity.

Cub fans are over the moon this year about ending all that. With good reason, I might add, having achieved the best record to date in MLB.

Well, Chicago fans, I’m here to help.

It was as a boy growing up in post-war Queens that I first started going to Brooklyn Dodger games. Our local Police Athletic League would sponsor buses for us kids to go to Ebbets Field. For some reason, although I was a Cavarettastaunch Dodger fan, I rooted for a first baseman on the Chicago Cubs named Phil Cavaretta.

Four times each season, the Cubs would come to New York to play a week’s worth of games, four in Brooklyn and four at the Polo Grounds against the Giants. I saw and read a lot about Cavaretta.

Maybe it was his slick fielding or his left-handed batting style–he batted .355 that year to lead the National League–but he became my favorite and I rooted for him, especially so when the Cubs played the hated Giants.

At the game, maybe it was just the announcer’s sonorous sounding of the four-syllabled ‘Cav-a-ret-ah’ wafting over us way up in the cheap seats that caught my attention.

Cavaretta was awarded the 1945 National League Most Valuable Player Award that season.

Of course, there were other Cubs of note.

Brutish home-run hitting right-fielder Bill “Swish” Nicholson, who would encourage the crowd to collectively chant “swish” with every practice swing he took, silencing everything else going on during his at-bat. It was like a crowd in Madrid shouting OLE every time a matador evades a charging bull. It was a lot of fun. So feared was Nicholson as a batter, he once was intentionally walked with the bases loaded, only one of six players to have ever achieved that level of respect.

Swish Nicholson

There was Peanuts Lowrey, a diminutive center-fielder who, through guile and speed, cut off many a ball hit into a gap with double written all over it, killing rally after rally.

Peanuts Lowrey

I also remember a pitcher with the French moniker of Passeau, Claude Passeau, who, with newsreel footage of General Charles DeGaulle fresh in my eleven-year-old mind, I conflated with the great hero of the French. Hey, I was a kid!

Claude Passeau

But, it was Cavaretta–team captain by both appointment and popular acclaim–who personified the Cubs for twenty seasons, both as a player and later as their manager. And though nine former Cubs have had their uniform numbers retired, Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg and Ferguson Jenkins truly worthy amongst them, well, not so Cavaretta’s 44.

This year’s Cubs have another 44 closing in on a Cavaretta-like season, first-baseman Anthony Rizzo. A good shot at earning the Triple Crown of batting, young Rizzo has propelled his team to a twelve-game lead. He also has beaten Hodgkin’s lymphoma, having undergone extensive chemotherapy treatment. Free now of the dreaded disease, he is performing flawlessly.

It is time now to retire the number 44, as a tribute to Phil Cavaretta, yes, but also to recognize the heroic effort of Anthony Rizzo in reaching his post-cancer heights. Rizzo would then become the last Cub player to ever wear 44.

The Chicago fans, the most faithful in baseball, will see over a century of unrequited loyalty rewarded while recognizing continuing excellence at first base. Maybe that will finally push them to win the pennant…. and maybe, just maybe, the World Series as well.

Celebrity Sighting, #’s 31 & 32

(I’ve had the good fortune to spot many celebrities over the years, purely by chance. What follows is a couple of those serendipitous meetings. My list of sightings currently stands at 102 and counting.)

In 1991, my son, a successful novelist–and Broadway enthusiast– took me to see a play he had already seen, raving, “Wait’ll you see this show, it’s the best ever!” We were walking to the theater district, standing on the corner of 46th Street and Seventh Avenue, waiting to cross at a light, when I spotted Linda Lavin across the street. She had been in a television show called “Alice,” playing a diner waitress with a heart of gold.

Looking at her, I noticed she had locked onto my son’s eyes and when the crossing began, she never took them off him. I followed her orbs as we three navigated through heavy late-afternoon traffic. After we passed one another crossing the street, I turned to my son and said, “Did you see that?” He innocently said, “Yeah, what the hell was that all about?” I said, “I think Alice wants to scramble you some eggs!”

We moved on to see “Les Miserables,” that magnificent musical of the great Victor Hugo classic. At show’s end, we were walking out and who do I see but Don Zimmer, the manager of the Chicago Cubs.

“Zimmer here? How could that be,” I recall thinking. The Cubs were playing the Mets that night at Shea Stadium.

When I got outside the theater, I saw a newspaper rack with the Daily News back page stating Zimmer had been fired that afternoon.

Scant records exist but I’d bet it was the only time a baseball manager got fired and celebrated by going to a Broadway show.

Years later I met Don at a book signing in Tampa and told him about seeing him that night on Broadway. He momentarily reminisced, “That was the best damned play I ever saw!” “Did you like it, too?”

I answered, “Second best. ‘Phantom’ beats it.”

Another interesting sighting of  “Popeye” Zimmer had taken place many years earlier, in 1952, when he was a rookie with the Brooklyn Dodgers. My brother Dave and I had gone to Ebbets Field to see a game.

As was our custom, before the game we walked down to the right-field corner where the Dodger bullpen was located to see up close and personal that day’s pitcher. One of Zimmer’s assignments was to warm up the starter, getting him up to speed by game time.

The starter that day was one of the greatest pitchers in Dodger history, Don Drysdale, a high school classmate of Robert Redford, by the way. At 6’5″, 215, he could really throw smoke.

Zimmer–affectionately nicknamed “Zipper Head” for the ragged scar left from a minor league beaning operation–employed a strange method of motivating Drysdale to throw harder and harder by screaming the most vile and inventive of humiliating curse words at him, some of which I had never heard before, or since. It must’ve worked. Drysdale got to Cooperstown.

Interesting sidebar about Drysdale: When he was chasing the consecutive scoreless innings record in 1968, presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy, giving his victory speech after the California primary, stopped to excitedly announce to the crowd that “Don Drysdale has just pitched his sixth consecutive shutout.” Moments later, Kennedy was assassinated. A recording of Kennedy’s baseball exultation was found in the pitcher’s possession when Drysdale, by then a Dodger broadcaster, died of a heart attack twenty-five years later in a Montreal hotel. He had proudly carried it with him wherever he went all those years.

A Great Investment

As the twentieth-century began, a thirteen-year-old boy, whose family was living in poverty on the Lower East Side of New York, quit school to sell newspapers on street corners to help support his family-a not uncommon occurrence.

He soon became a runner for bookmakers–a legal operation then–his job consisting of collecting debts from losers or making pay-offs to winners. He got one-per-cent of all debts collected and received tips from winners. He soon hustled enough to have his own operation and by 1925 was a fixture at New York racetracks.

The NFL was then struggling to gain traction, having been formed three years earlier in a Hupmobile auto showroom in Canton, Ohio. College football was the main attraction after Babe Ruth and baseball, with few fans showing up for pro football games.

One day, that bookmaker, Tim Mara, had a good day at the racetrack and bought the first pro football franchise available in New York for the princely sum of $500. The team struggled to get fans and over the next fifteen years played to sparse crowds.

Then, in 1939, a watershed moment in sports history occurred when Fordham University played Waynesburg College in the first football game ever televised. Incidentally, the announcer that day was the legendary Bill Stern, who, sixteen years later, paid me out of his own pocket to assist him in doing the NBC Southern Cal-Minnesota radio broadcast. I was red-shirting after transferring to Minnesota when Fordham dropped football.

I remember him saying to me at game’s end, “You did a great job, kid,” and then slipping me five bucks!

These sixty-odd years later, I can only hope I’m safe from NCAA censure, and that neither Stern nor Vince Lombardi were breaking any rules when the former slipped me that $5 and the latter drove me from the Bronx to West Point in his Buick Roadmaster to introduce me to the coaches at the United States Military Academy about transferring there when Fordham suddenly dropped football.

The first coast-to-coast pro football telecast happened a decade later, and then in 1958, the “greatest game ever played,” — the New York Giants against the Baltimore Colts and Johnny Unitas–an overtime championship thriller–tuned in all of America to the Sunday afternoon ritual of the NFL.

Members of the Mara family have run the Giants ever since, most notably Tim’s son Wellington who had the good sense to make the acquaintance of a young Lombardi while they both attended Fordham.

Wellington then got Vince coaching jobs at Fordham and the Giants, sending him on his way to his legendary Green Bay Packer career.

The NFL is now a $12 billion a year business, and the Giants–winners of four Super Bowls–are valued at $2.8 billion..

Not bad for a fledgling bookie’s $500 investment.

The Forty-Niners

As with all good stories, you have to start at the beginning. But sometimes the beginning goes way, way back.

In 1750, sailors in Bombay purchased a thick indigo-dyed cotton cloth near a fort called Dongri.

The material was taken to Italy where it inspired an industry that exported a similar material out of Genoa. This came to be known as blue de Genes, or “Genoa Blue,” which was made into pants and came to be called “blue jeans.” A related fabric was known as “Serge de Nimes” after the French port from which the term “denim” derives.

In the late 1840s, a struggling Bavarian immigrant in the bowels of the garment district in Brooklyn envisioned a use for a few bolts of such fabric sitting idly on his shelf. Aware of the gold rush taking place in California, he directed his brother to tend the New York store as he bravely began the arduous journey by ship down the Atlantic coast of the United States. The Panama Canal hadn’t been built yet so he made his way across the Isthmus of Panama by walking, riding a mule, taking a train or boat ride or a combination of all these until he reached the Pacific Ocean where he boarded a ship bound for San Francisco.

Before he departed Brooklyn, he had sewn small rivets into the pants, anticipating the miners would need the strongest pants possible to work continuously in searching for gold. When he got to California, he went directly into those mines hawking his pants that became such an instant success they were the only work pants worn in the mines after that.

That patented rivet design is what made his company eminently successful.

That man’s name was Levi Strauss. What began as a desperate journey relying on hope and faith turned into the presence of a quintessential garment worn by nearly everybody at some point in life, whether we called them dungarees (Dongri), blue jeans (Genoa Blue) or denims (Serge de Nimes.)

Collectively, they came to be called simply, Levis.

The recently built NFL stadium in Santa Clara housing the San Francisco 49ers proudly displays the name, “Levi’s Stadium,” in tribute to an impoverished immigrant who saw a chance for a better life all the way across a challenging country and went after it. It is appropriate that the stadium is simply called “Levi’s.” Research showed he preferred that everyone call him by his first name alone.

Today, Levi Strauss and Company pays the NFL $10,000,000 per year for those naming rights, clearly showing Levi’s commitment to his fellow Californians in allowing them to enjoy their 49ers in a state-of-the-art facility so aptly connected to the historic 1849 gold rush.

Somewhere Levi Strauss is looking down at that field with great pride and admiration.

The “American Dream” Team

In 1950, 100 years after his forebears had emigrated from Bohemia in Eastern Europe to an eponymously named village on Long Island, newly arrived Martin Szabados tried out for the Sayville High football team.

That same year, George Mihaly’s family arrived from war ravaged Yugoslavia. He played baseball and basketball at Sayville.

Back then, Long Island was a string of suburbs, running one-hundred-and-twenty sleepy miles from Queens to Montauk, nothing like today’s ever-growing metropolis.

I was in the same class as Martin and George. Sixty-six-years later, I well remember their devotion to team play. They were determined to become a part of America and athletics was the door they’d enter to make that happen.

 

I recall Martin, a small guard on the football team, meticulously studying his play book, learning who to block on every play, seldom speaking what little English he knew in favor of just getting the job done. During practice, a teammate accused Martin of blocking the wrong man. Martin shot back, “I know my plays!” The coach stopped the practice, called over the two players and admonished the boy for mistakenly accusing Martin, saying “He knows his blocking assignments better than all of you.”

Lesson learned.

George was a crafty left-handed pitcher on the diamond, a studious kid whose father wanted him to assimilate into American culture. Dressed in shirt and tie, George would get on the school bus every morning carrying his school bag, the antithesis of all us James Dean wannabes more concerned with our combs and cigarettes.

George loved basketball, too. Seldom seeing game action, he was the first kid out to practice and the last to leave. However, his lot was to guard future All-American and NBA player 6’7″, 225 pound Bill Thieben. In daily scrimmages, George would drop from exhaustion rather than quit. Practice over, he would shower, get on the bus, and start studying.

We won the conference basketball championship that year with Bill setting a Long Island scoring record. George contributed to that title as much as any of us.

The world may have been a different place in the ’50s, taking its first tentative post-war steps. Since then, world events have too often made us wary of the foreign.

The times dictate we must be careful in protecting what all of us have built in America, but it mustn’t preclude our welcoming those who will enrich us even further with their presence, as Martin and George once did.

Those many years ago, Martin and George allowed me to witness something I’ll never forget. Given a fair chance, they made it, showing me how vital both teamwork and sacrifice are to success.

And so, to the many Martins and Georges out there pursuing the American Dream, I say, “Go for it. Be prepared, step up to the plate and swing for the fences!”

Can the Cubs Win?

 Nineteen different presidents have sat in the Oval Office since the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series (1908).

Their last National League pennant flew in the year FDR died (1945).

Today, as we approach the mid-point of the 2016 season, there is reason to believe those long baseball droughts may be over. Thank Heaven for Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein, the reasons for the ‘Windy City Renaissance.’

Even with a return to normalcy, 25-20 after a Seabiscuit-like 28-6 start to the season, the Cubbies seem poised to breeze through the second half, taking the Central Division of the National League as they now hold a ten-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cubs are, by percentage points, the best team in baseball, and they will play half of their remaining games within their own division, arguably the weakest in all of MLB.

When, in the name of Ernie Banks, did that last happen?

The Cards are an interesting study. They are 25-15 on the road but only 15-21 at home, suggesting they should stay at a hotel when playing at home. Home cooking must not agree with them. Side stat: When the legendary Stan Musial played for the Cards, he accumulated 3,630 hits, 1,815 at  home and 1,815 on the road. Stan “The Man” probably could have slept each season in the overhead cab of an Interstate eighteen-wheeler and still gotten off at Cooperstown.

Joe Maddon may be the best manager in baseball. He took the lowest payroll team, the Tampa Bay Rays, to the World Series in 2008, losing to the Phillies. He consistently had them in contention until he opted out of his contract after the 2014 season to manage the Cubs. In 2015, he won 97 games, an improvement of 24 games over the previous year, securing a playoff spot for the Cubs after a 12-year absence.

He was always a friendly figure around Tampa, chatting amiably over coffee at Starbucks with fans or breezing around town in his ’72 Chevelle convertible, grey hair and big sunglasses clearly visible.

He visits his roots in Pennsylvania every year, helping to raise money for worthy causes. His father died a few years ago and Joe’s mother, Binney, is still a waitress at “The Third Base Luncheonette” in their home town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania.

Joe is old school and his players believe in him. Having never gotten above the low minors as a player, he toiled 31 years with the Angels.

Theo Epstein, now the General Manager of the Cubs, was a boy baseball genius who, at the age of 28, became GM of the Red Sox, directing them to their first World Series victory in 86 years, ending forever the “Curse of The Bambino.”

His grandfather and great-uncle both received Oscars for co-writing the screenplay for “Casablanca.”

Given all that, upon bringing Maddon to Chicago, he might well have paraphrased, “Joe, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”

Jordan or James?

Who is the better player, James or Jordan?

James labored in relative mid-level success in Cleveland for seven years before finding two championships with the Miami Heat. His first Cleveland experience was lacking in support from teammates unable to go the distance to a title. Jordan, on the other hand, had talent galore during his first three-peat run with the Chicago Bulls.

Consider this. The year before Jordan left to play baseball, his Bulls won 57 games. The first year he was gone, they still won 55. The year before LeBron left Cleveland to join the Heat, his Cavaliers won 61 games. The following year with James gone, they won 19.

Clearly, Jordan had a much greater supporting group of teammates in Chicago than James initially had in Cleveland.

Since then, of course, James has won three NBA titles, two in Miami and one in Cleveland. Many think that had Cleveland avoided season ending injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving last year, they might well have earned another title for Cleveland and James in his return to the Cavaliers.

When Jordan played, there was no one better. Six NBA titles are validation. The same could be said of James.

Jordan_James

James, however, did what no player had ever done before, that is, rally from a 3-1 deficit in games to win a title. In two of those wins, he scored 41 points. He did what no one ever accomplished before him, statistically. He was the individual leader in all five categories of points scored, assists, rebounds, assists and steals.

James was the essence of professional basketball in the NBA Finals. Golden State could not stop this player-on-the-floor-coach, instructor, motivator, human highlight reel, and crowd intimidator. Laboring under a seven-point halftime deficit, he erased that, times two, and dominated the entire game down the stretch, shooting and rebounding, and when needed, soaring above the rim to block Golden State fast break lay-ups.lebron-plane

Both have been shining examples of solid citizenry, providing positive role models for so much of America’s youth, James’s ascendancy, especially, from a difficult start in life, to a devoted family man with three beautiful children. Michael’s strength upon the murder of his father is equally telling of the man’s outstanding character.

Kareem, Magic and Professor William Fenton Russell, along with Michael, are flying towards basketball immortality, but make no mistake, it is LeBron James piloting the plane.

NBA MVP Part One

There is equal reason to name the NBA Most Valuable Player award after Bill Russell as there is to name the Super Bowl Trophy after Vince Lombardi. Both brought their respective sports, and the leagues they represented, to the attention of millions through their dedication to excellence and fair play.

This year, LeBron James raised himself towards their levels with a victory for the ages. More about his performance in next week’s ‘Coach’s Corner’. For now, let’s chat about Russell.

Bill Russell stood on the mid-court NBA stage with the winning team, owners, friends, and attendant hangers-on as jubilation ran amuck, high fives and hugs the preferred form of congratulatory missives.

Off to one side, standing silent sentry as the award named for him was being man-handled all around, was the winningest person in sports history, his 6’10” frame somewhat shortened by eight decades of life, his greying hair and beard just waiting to accent another famous high-pitched Russell cackle.

An aide held onto his arm lest he be jostled off the platform, nobody recognizing his presence as he was denied presenting the MVP. I felt sorry for him, as ridiculous as it sounds to need to stand up for the man who taught Wilt Chamberlain the game of basketball.

Bill Russell had fifteen chances to win an NBA title, thirteen as a player and two as a coach. He succeeded every time but two.

He had two chances to win the NCAA  basketball championship in college at San Francisco, and won both, piling up fifty-five straight wins in the process. He played on the USA team in the 1956 Olympics, taking home a Gold Medal.

He was a pall bearer at Jackie Robinson’s funeral because the former Dodger had left instructions with his wife, Rachel, that Russell, whom Robinson had never personally met, was the greatest athlete he had ever seen.

Two decades after Robinson’s family had left the segregated deep South for greater opportunities in Southern California, Russell left the backwood bayous of Louisiana with his parents and his brother for Oakland, part of the six-million person exodus of blacks deserting the dirt poor South between 1910 and 1970, chronicled so brilliantly in Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize winning, “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

I saw Russell, from a front row seat in the mezzanine of the old Madison Square Garden in 1956, give Holy Cross and future Boston Celtic legend Tommy Heinsohn a lesson in guile and cunning as he drove a totally exhausted Heinsohn to the bench in the final minute of a hard fought title game. From my vantage point, twenty-feet straight up, I saw Russell come over to the Holy Cross bench, extending a handshake to Heinsohn, too spent to even rise. As fellow players and coaches, the two went on to fifteen years of excellence with the Celtics.

After the ceremony, James found Russell, and like everybody else, listened intently to the wisdom of Bill Russell.

Three Home Runs

Fifty-five years ago, three home runs were hit that still retain historical baseball significance.

All Ted Williams ever wanted was to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” Williams played his last game at Fenway Park on September 28th, 1960, at the age of 40. He was denied his place at the top of baseball history by his absence from the game for nearly five seasons serving his country as a fighter pilot in two wars, and also because of the competitive presence of Yankee great Joe DiMaggio, himself a legend. DiMaggio indeed called Williams the best hitter he’d ever seen. Williams hit .388 two years earlier, the closest anybody has ever come to his own record setting .406 in 1941. Williams always had a love-hate relationship with the Boston fans, somewhat self-induced. Only 10,000 showed up on a rainy day at Fenway to say goodbye to ‘Teddy Ballgame.” In his final at-bat, he got all of a high hard one and in the classic swing he had shown so often before, he ripped it out of the park. Everyone wondered if he would acknowledge the cheers of the fans who had so often cursed him with a tip of his cap. He did not. John Updike chronicled the event in a marvelous story for the New Yorker Magazine, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”

Bill Mazeroski was a kid from West Virginia who hit the greatest home run in Pittsburgh Pirate history when he drilled a fastball from Yankee pitcher Ralph Terry in the bottom of the tenth in the 1960 World Series, the only game seven walk-off home run in the history of the game. Unlike Williams, Mazeroski reveled in the fans’ adulation, jumping up and down as he rounded the bases. And why not? The high and mighty Yankees, winners of seventeen World Series championships since the Pirates’ last title in 1925, had outscored the Pirates 38-3 in their three wins leading up to the deciding seventh game. Singer Bing Crosby owned a piece of the Pirates back then and afraid he’d jinx them by going to the game, he went instead to Paris with his wife Kathryn to get away from the tension at Forbes Field. So delighted was he with the win that he managed to get the original film of the entire game from NBC, the only copy in existence. Game films were immediately destroyed back then, television suits thinking once a game was over, nobody would want to see it again. That film stayed in a file cabinet in Crosby’s den at his California home for two decades until accidentally discovered after his death and released for viewing after its transfer to digital format.

On October 1st, 1961, Sal Durante asked his girl friend, Rose Calabrese, to travel with him to Yankee Stadium from Staten Island to see if Roger Maris could break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. A rich restauranteur from California was offering $5,000 to the person who caught the ball in the stands. Fourth inning, pitcher Tracy Stallard of Washington showed Maris a fastball and the rest is history. Sal, then the embodiment of John Travolta in “Grease,” duck tail and all, and today a father of three and grandfather of six, all boys, is well known in New York as the greatest Yankee fan ever. Like Ted Williams, Maris was reluctant to accept the pleas of the fans to take a bow. Literally pushed out of the dugout, he waved to the crowd. There was much resentment against him for breaking the record of the revered Bambino, especially since it took him 162 games rather than the 154 it took the Babe to get his 60. When Sal caught the ball, he was escorted to the Yankee clubhouse where he offered the ball to Maris as a gift. Maris graciously demurred, telling Sal to take the $5,000. Sal and Rose had a blessed marriage of 57 years before her recent death. His obituary will read, “Sal Durante, the man who……..

The other day somebody asked me what baseball has to do to become the National Pastime once again. I answered, “Hit more significant home runs!”

Financial Follies

What follows is a brief list of recent sports financial follies. There will NOT be a pop quiz.

Uniform manufacturer Under Armour has just signed a fifteen-year $280 million dollar endorsement deal with UCLA, in conjunction with a family deal that will send all three of the basketball playing Ball sons, Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo, to the school over the next three years, starting this fall. Their father, LaVar, has said that the UCLA coach has committed to changing his offense to accommodate these fast breaking run-and-gun three-point sharpshooters. That’s how good these kids are supposed to be. Their California high school, Chino Hills, averaged 122 points per game this past year in going 35-0, one win by a ludicrous 89 points. The UCLA coach did not state his position on changing his offense. Let’s keep an eye on this situation.

As reported here in Coach’s Corner recently, construction is nearing completion on two high school football fields/stadiums (I think high schools should be still be able to play in fields, not stadiums, if they prefer.) Located in, where else, Texas, these monuments to oversized local egos will cost, sit down now, $62,000,000 each. That’s millions.

University of Oregon football players continue to live in a $68,000,000 football only dormitory/meeting area/training room/dining room, whatever, donated by Nike founder Phil Knight. Not all the players, however, will be able to take advantage of the free rent, food, room, snacks, whirlpools and lounges for all four years. Only 76% of white players will graduate, while just 41% of black players will get diplomas.

Legislation signed into law on the last day of the session, Florida House Bill 7029, will allow a student to transfer to any other school in the state and be eligible immediately to play. The only proviso necessary is that there be room available at the school being transferred to. And there always has been that one seat available, somehow. What had been happening frequently and illegally by a handful of schools in the state has now been given legislative approval to separate even farther the have’s and the have not’s in high school sports. This will further give parents who have birthed the next LeBron James or Tim Tebow (in their minds) to freely shop them in this total regression into maniacal free agency for 16-year old kids, education be damned.

The University of Minnesota finds itself saddled with an ineffective (8-23) basketball coach, who, because of the misguided munificence of his since deposed athletic director in giving him a contract extension after only one season, said new contract including a provision that should he (the coach) be fired, he could back his truck up to the bursar’s office and leave with a $7,000,000 severance package. That arrangement defies any semblance of reasonable judgment. Should that happen, the man will leave coaching with two-hundred-and-eighty times the $25,000 Gopher football coach Murray Warmath earned for winning the National Championship in 1960.

Hooray for Hockey

 

The Tampa Bay Lightning made a gallant run for the second straight year, but in the end, it was the Pittsburgh Penguins who possessed greater speed, a deeper bench, and Sidney Crosby (with much greater bang than Bing!) to garner the 4-3 series. Now the Penguins take on the San Jose Sharks for the Stanley Cup. That’s a whole bunch of frequent flyer miles building up over the next two weeks. Sharks and Penguins? Where have my Red Wings and Maple Leafs gone?

But it was the regal game of hockey, carrying as it did all of sports viewing for the last two months, that came out the true winner. Hockey players are a special breed, fully whiskered, but weaned on only one sport while growing up, hearing and living the legend of the Stanley Cup, following big brothers, uncles, and fathers onto the ice, first on frozen ponds and then in hardened arenas, and then, literally, never abandoning it.

It is a cold weather sport and although Canada has professional baseball, basketball and football teams, Canadian kids are attached to the ice from the day they receive their first hockey stick. It is Canada’s game and they rightfully embrace it as their own. American cities, such as Tampa and San Jose, have seen the wide appeal of men giving 100% all the time, playing as a team as no other sport does, in a clean, protective environment, the culmination of which is a once-in-a-lifetime sincere hand shake with embattled opponents, many of whom they’ve known all their lives. Plus, the glorious opportunity of traveling over their home country for the next off-season, holding aloft their nation’s Stanley Cup, for all to see and touch.

The NFL, saddled as it is with the concussion issue, must keep a wary eye on the healthy growth of hockey, both on and off the ice, as the game catches on more and more in the states. Although it is a tough sport, hockey doesn’t have the consistent blows to the head so evident in interior football line play. Nor does it have the meeting at top speed of two superb athletes going head to head on kick returns. Both games are sixty minutes long, the difference being in football you have over a hundred episodes of play separated by ‘too long’ moments of standing around, while in hockey, it is full go, every minute go-go, with no timeouts until the final horn. It keeps the fan engrossed from the moment the opening puck is dropped to the open-net-end when hope springs eternal for that six-on-five tying goal and overtime.

(Note to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell: Why not let winning NFL players carry the Lombardi Trophy back to their towns, schools, City Councils, local retirement homes, community colleges, etc.? Vince would’ve loved that, as proud as he was of the small town residents of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and how they warmly embraced his Packers.)