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SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on February 24, 2012 at 11:06 pm

COLLEGE BASKETBALL “STUFF”

BLOOD IS THICKER THAN…Wouldn’t want to be a head coach at the University of Illinois…first, athletic director dispatches football coach and now has basketball coach Bruce Weber in his firing cross-hairs… it’s the same old story of a boss wanting “his own people” in leadership posts…despite Thomas’s micro-managing and refusal to support his coach in mid-season, Weber’s Illini tem still may wind up with 20 wins and a .500 record in the Big Ten…plus, his squad played in the national championship game only two years ago

IT’S A RAINY NIGHT IN KENNESAW…At the bottom of the Atlantic Sun Conference is Kennesaw State – still winless in league play at 0-16 under its first-year coach….but across town, first-year coach Ron Hunter aims for 20 victories with Georgia State in the Colonial, which had six 20-game winners last season and may have five this year…plus, the Colonial has advanced two teams (George Mason and VCU) to the Final Four the last six years

CAPITAL COLLAPSE…a once-proud basketball program now struggles to reach.500…Siena, located an air-ball away from Albany is 12-15 and in 6th place in the 10-team MAAC…the Saints are 7-9 while crosstown rival Albany is 17-13 in the America East Conference…problem with the Loudonville, N.Y. school is it can’t keep a coach: Fran McCaffrey left two years ago for Iowa…other defectors include Paul Hewitt (Georgia Tech, George Mason), Mike Deane (Marquette), Louis Orr (Seton Hall) and John Griffin (St. Joseph’s)…another Jesuit school (Xavier) with a search committee on staff is Xavier, which has also lost five coaches to the “bigger” time: (Pete Gillen) Virginia, Skip Prosser (Wake Forest), Bob Staack (Wake Forest), Thad Matta (Ohio State) and most recently, Sean Miller (Arizona)…only six other college programs have “lost” more basketball coaches than both Siena and Xavier.

GOLDEN YEARS TARNISHED…what has happened to Oliver Purnell at DePaul? The Maryland-Eastern Shore native went 7-24 in his first season there and is 11-12 this year. His combined Big East record is 3-26. The results in Chicago are unlike Purnell’s resume, which includes stints at Radford, Old Dominion, Dayton and Clemson. Three times, he was named “coach of the year” – each time in a different conference. In his last year at Radford, he was 22-7.  At ODU, he won 20 games in two of three seasons, advancing to the postseason each time. At Dayton, he won 20 or more games in five seasons with just as many postseason visits. At Clemson, his Tiger teams played in the postseason 6 of 7 seasons. He won 93 games in his last four seasons at Clemson before being granted a 6-year contract extension. But two years later, he bolted to DePaul. OK, Purnell is 0-6 in NCAA Tournament play, but still…the ACC may be “hell” if you aren’t Duke or North Carolina but playing Georgetown, Syracuse, Marquette, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, UConn, Notre Dame and Louisville on a nightly basis isn’t much easier.

ANYONE REMEMBER BRUCE HORNSBY? If you do, you know that Bruce loves the game of basketball and frequently would play pick-up games (against the advice of his talent agent) in his hometown on or near the campus of William & Mary. Nowadays, Bruce’s son, Keith plays for NC-Asheville, which leads the Big South Conference with a 19-9 record, 14-2 in league play.

CAMPUS JEWEL…the Rotunda may be the cornerstone of the University of Virginia campus but the John Paul Jones basketball arena is special. Recently, I watched the Cavaliers trounce Maryland before a sellout crowd of 14,500. In the “end zone” lobby is a Hall of Fame, which honors the Cavalier hoop greats – Buzzy Wilkinson, Barry Parkhill, Wally Walker, Jeff Lamp, Ralph Sampson, Sean Singletary and Cory Alexander. The JPJA dwarfs neighboring University Hall, where the Cavs played until 2006. “You could put that building inside this one,” said Parkhill, after the game.

WHAT HAVE I DONE? First-year coaches with a season to mothball include Mark Montgomery (3-23 at (Northern Illinois), Mike Longeran (9-18 at George Washington), Mike Jones (6-23 at Radford), Brian Gregory (9-18 at Georgia Tech), Lewis Preston (3-26 at Kennesaw State) and Pat Skerry (1-29 at Towson)

SECOND-YEAR NO BETTER…Buzz Peterson is 9-18 at NC Wilmington. One of his team’s losses came to Towson, which is 1-29…Peterson, again may be moving on…he’s had six head-coaching jobs in 12 years…Chuck Driesell, Lefty’s son, is hurting at the Citadel with a 6-22 mark… former Temple guard Mark Macon is 1-26 at Binghamton

NAVY SINKING…the Midshipmen basketball team has lost 20 straight and 24 of the last 25 under first-year coach Ed DeChellis, who previously coached at Penn State for seven years…the Mids are young with just three seniors on the roster and one with scoring punch – Jordan Sugars (11.7 ppg) from Winchester…meanwhile, fellow Patriot League member American is 18-10 and in third place

LARRANAGA STILL A WINNER…Jim Larranaga, the former coach at George Mason in his first year at  Miami, is 16-10 and in sixth place in the ACC with a 7-6 league mark…outside of losses to North Carolina by an average of 13 points, the Canes other league losses have been close: to Virginia (by 1), to NC State (by 5), to Florida State (by 5) and to Maryland (by 5)…Miami also has defeated (then #5) Duke by four in overtime in Durham

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SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on February 3, 2012 at 6:32 am

“STAR-LIGHT” IS BLINDING

It’s sad we really don’t know today’s professional athlete. But how can we? The hero-worshiping sports media is too busy glorifying their subjects to see they are human beings with feelings and insecurities just like the zealous fans who wear their jerseys and drink beer in the stands.

The stars make millions. They drive Bentleys, not Corollas. They date models, not the girls next door. They eat at 5-star restaurants, never opting for a burger at the local tavern. So what. Excessive jewelry and sunglasses can’t hide their pain, their fears, their self-doubts that one bad break on the field and they, themselves will be sitting in the stands after a day of selling insurance.

The Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton recently was spotted in a bar, drinking. “Relapse” the headline screamed. But nowhere in the ESPN story was there a mention of what happened last spring, when Hamilton playfully tossed a ball into the stands, where a man stretched and reached for the would-be souvenir. He missed and fell to his death. His school-aged boy also missed — he never got the ball and lost a father.

But the media was too busy covering up how Hamilton might have felt. Stories were written about how Hamilton should and would continue to toss balls into the stands. Even the widow of the deceased agreed. “All’s well in the baseball world of Josh Hamilton,” we were told. After all, his team was in the World Series. He was on national TV and ready to sign a lucrative contract extension. Why wouldn’t he be celebrating?

But the media experts could not personify what happened that day in Arlington, Texas. No one bothered to put himself in the cleats of Hamilton. They were too busy watching him hit home runs to realize what was going on inside his head. Who knows how many drinks Hamilton has had since that incident? Odds are Hamilton didn’t opt for a lemonade the night of the tragedy. The better story would have been a “sit down” with Hamilton’s accountability partner, nee babysitter, about how one copes with something like that. How did Hamilton manage to focus in the batter’s box? How could he concentrate while tracking a ball in the outfield? What did he feel when Rangers fans yelled, “throw it up here, Josh” during pre-game warm-ups? Hell, how did the man even sleep?

Another recent headline on ESPN’s web site read, “Stars Align” with a picture of Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. Bryant (I prefer to use his last name since we’re not friends) had his trademark grin which told me, somehow he really isn’t hurting over his divorce. When it was announced two months ago, there were old pictures of his ex, shown in a girly, dress-up outfit at a Lakers home game. On her finger was the $4M ring Bryant bought her after being cleared of a rape charge in a Colorado hotel a couple years back. All the readers knew was Bryant’s apology came with jewelry. The ring was described in detail. What wasn’t was the Bryants’ efforts to save their marriage. The human side was ignored since the media experts were too busy with the glitz. There was a child in the picture too but we never heard about her feelings either. “Hey, he’s a star and she’s a babe with a shiny rock on her finger. What else needs to be known?”

During Super Bowl week, you’d think Peyton Manning was playing on Super Sunday. There was more written about his medical status and where he was going to play next year than was about Eli, who actually was playing in the sport’s biggest game. That’s the problem with media hordes camping at the team’s hotel for 7-plus days. They are bored and lower their standards (if that is possible) to write about such things as what songs are on the players’ Ipods. Do these writers actually have Journalism degrees? Peyton has played 14 years and won a ring but he still couldn’t avoid the minions of the media who could not wait to interview him. An unselfish sibling would have said, “Talk to Eli. He’s playing on Sunday, not me.”

Manning has had repeated surgeries on the vertebrae in his neck. Nowhere did I read about the intricacies of that procedure. The lemmings in the media were copying what others wrote and harping on when their idol would return to the playing field. Priorities, I guess. I know about such a procedure. Six years ago, I was on my way to the hospital for “pre-op” before having my spine fused between vertebraes L4 and L5. I was lost and poked my head in a vacant office. A nurse was there. We talked briefly. When she asked who my surgeon was, I told her, which drew a big smile. “He operated on my husband,” she said. “He had vertebrae in his cervical area (neck) fused,” she said. “We were worried because the cervical area of the spine controls breathing.”

Hmmm, I never read this about Peyton. Now, stop and think about Peyton taking a blind-side shot to the back. The man could die on the field but of course, we’ve never read this. Instead, we’re treated to what it would be like to have the Manning brothers in New York. Or, maybe Manning-to-Washington will rescue the hopes of a coach who is a winless September away from being fired.

Ahh, life. Sad sports journalists are so driven by fantasy they can’t report what’s really important.

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on January 13, 2012 at 3:44 pm

A LITTLE RESPECT, PLEASE

What is with the media’s fixation on Tim Tebow and his praying? It is a non-issue that has been blanket-covered by today’s rubber-stamp media.

For years, athletes have blessed themselves before digging into the batter’s box or taking a free throw. It’s commonplace for a runner crossing home plate to point to the sky. Priests at Jesuit schools sit at the end of the bench during basketball games. “God Bless America” is more a part of the seventh inning than stretching.

After NFL games, players from both teams gather at mid-field for a prayer. It’s part of the Fellowship for Christian Athletes post-game ceremony. By the way, each one is kneeling and or holding each other’s hand. I’ve never heard a reporter call attention to this circle of fellowshiop, yet make fun of it. So why the ridiculing of Tebow?

It can’t be because he’s some sissy. Ever see the guy’s biceps? Watch Tebow on a quarterback keeper off the option. He doesn’t dodge a tackler or take a slide. When being tackled is inevitable, he crashes into the defender and picks up two more yards. Think all he cares about is gesturing? Think he doesn’t care about winning? On the sideline during the Pittsburgh playoff game, he was as intense as could be. Players were feeding off it. So was Coach John Fox, who was caught open-mouthed at the vigor displayed by his first-year starting quarterback. Guys weren’t high-fiving him but slapping him across the chest and on the shoulder, so hard it would’ve knocked a line of books off a shelf.

At the close of the postgame show on CBS last week, host James Brown and his crew all made the Tebow prayer gesture with grins while signing off. Whose idea was this? Some lame-brained producer who wanted to be cute? Hopefully it wasn’t Brown, who always has exuded Ivy-League class. I expect Brown to make an on-air apology this weekend because I know he insulted many viewers, me for one. I don’t attend church services and haven’t for decades but why make fun of someone’s praying? Compare it to other on-field gestures and it’s most worthy.

Commonplace at NFL games used to be a fan  in the endzone seats who would hoist a sign with “John 3:16” when the football was spinning end-over-end between the uprights.  No media mention of that, ever. I don’t read the Bible so I don’t know what that verse means. Maybe we’d all be a little better off if we looked it up. Some signs are vulgar. Remember the fan in the Boston Garden who held up a placard that read “Zulu” to mock Patrick Ewing and the visiting Georgetown Hoyas basketball team? Now that’s a display that needs to be criticized.

The media once again has shown its’ collective ignorance by focusing on something personal and private. Freedom of religion and speech are constitutionally protected. The showboats who call themselves reporters or journalists should remember this before making fools of themselves —  a common occurrence today.

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on December 27, 2011 at 7:53 pm

SNYDER MISSES HIS CUE

   How can Dan Snyder stand to watch his team’s free-fall? This time around, Vinny Cerrato can’t be blamed. Neither can Albert Haynesworth. Nor Donovan McNabb.

With “Black Monday” a day away, you’d think Mike Shanahan could get his team ready to play in the season finale versus Philadelphia. Instead, the Redskins continued to stumble and bumble to finish 5-11 in a familiar locale – the NFC East cellar. The Skins managed one touchdown and were outscored by the Eagles by 24 points. Like against the lowly Vikings, this game wasn’t close, either.

On a day when two NFL head coaches (Steve Spagnuolo of the Rams and Raheem Morris of the Bucs) were fired, Shanahan was clowning around at his year-end press conference. Instead of explaining why he’s failed the past two years, he turned it into his own comedy hour. Snyder must be sick, having paid $14M for 11 wins, a little more than one mill per victory.

The owner must wonder what it’d be like to have Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Mike Sherman, Jeff Fisher  or Brian Billick coach his team. Each has been to and won a Super Bowl except Fisher. And each is out of coaching. Yes, Shanahan had the same credentials (when hired two years ago) but winning 11 games over two seasons isn’t “super.” Maybe Snyder’s self-conscious about first firing Norv Turner and then hiring and firing Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn. In Washington, the lemming-like media hordes would chastise him for another rush to judgment. But I’d applaud a coaching switch.

Shanahan has done no better than Todd Haley (fired by the Chiefs) and Tony Sparano (fired by the Dolphins).  Why keep him?  What has he done to warrant a third year at $7M per? His experience was supposed to count for something but it hasn’t. If Snyder waits too long, that illustrious coaching list will go “Poof.” Andy Reid of Philadelphia was reprieved but did finish 8-8, just one game off the division lead. Turner also kept his job but had his Chargers in contention until the last weekend of the season. It’s called being competitive, something the Redskin coach isn’t.

In Week 16, you’d think a coaching staff would have eliminated silly, mental mistakes. But we saw Santana Moss yank off his helmet to draw a 15-yard penalty. Then we saw the field goal unit zig-zagging on and off the field until time expired in the first half. And yes, Rex Grossman continued to throw off his back foot, tossing yet another interception.

At his press conference after the Vikings loss (Week 15), Shanahan muttered the word, “progress” over and over. Progress?! Where’s Jim Mora, Sr. when I need him? I don’t care if Evan Royster had rushed for 300 yards. The team still had no business losing to a 2-12 squad which lost both its starting quarterback and all-world tailback at halftime. Shanahan can be proud of his zone-blocking schemes all he wants but where are the wins?

The pinnacle of the ridiculous was three weeks ago when Shanahan dodged the DeAngelo Hall fiasco, saying “The players elect the team captain,” after Hall was penalized twice on one play – once for throwing an official’s flag. If Redskin players think Hall is a leader, you’ve got a serious roster problem. Hall is mouthy and a poor tackler, not mentor-material. All Shanahan had to do was strip Hall of his captain’s title and say “I won’t stand for one player’s lack of discipline hurting my team.” Instead, he passed the buck and looked timid. How does that motivate a team?

Against the Vikings, Shanahan’s defense gave up 23 points in the second half to an offense run by a second-string quarterback and kick-started by a bench-warming fullback. Remember, all-world tailback Adrian Peterson was AWOL in the second half with an ACL injury – after being knocked out by safety Reed Doughty, who finally made a tackle.

Instead, Shanahan ought to be embarrassed, losing to a team that scored 33 points — one shy of its season-high — on the road!. When Grossman was intercepted in that game, it was the first pick by the Vikings defense in two months.

I hear how defensive end Brian Orakpo should have received a Pro Bowl invitation. I hear how first-year defensive end Ryan Kerrigan is one of the best rookies in the league. The Redskins have the NFL’s leading tackler in London Fletcher. So, how did such a “prized” unit collapse against an offense devoid of an All-Pro?

Why is it taking a “coaching legend” so long to win when first-year coaches Jim Harbaugh (49ers), Mike Munchak (Titans) and Hue Jackson (Raiders) won big in year one? Harbaugh and Munchak are in the playoffs. Jackson was in contention until Week 16. Enough whining about Grossman. QB Alex Smith of the 49ers was a bust before Harbaugh (with zero NFL coaching experience) took over the Mike Singletary mess and turned him into a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.

Speaking of first-year turnarounds, look what Bill Parcels did in New York and New England. Look at what Rex Ryan did with the Jets. Shanahan has coached 32 games with Washington and won 11 — one game worse than Zorn’s two-year mark. Shanahan might have long ago lost this team. If starters Trent Williams and Fred Davis were committed to his system, why was each busted three times for substance abuse?

We’ve heard how Shanahan had an eye for quarterbacks.  He inherited John Elway in Denver. McNabb was a major backfire. How could Shanahan have been so “high” on John Beck, a 30-year-old who failed miserably when given the offensive reins in mid-season?

Shanahan can’t even compete in his own division. This year, the NFC East champ was 9-7 while the second and third-place teams each were 8-8. Is playing .500 ball too much to ask of a coach? I bet Snyder would love to ask Shanahan that one.

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on December 7, 2011 at 6:57 pm

The “Bowl Championship Series” is a misnomer. There is no series, just one game between two teams. This year, the 2-team sweepstakes is between No. 1 Louisiana State and No. 2 Alabama. Forget every other team. They only are playing for goodie bags and the right to wear a bowl insignia taped to their shoulder pads. Makes you wonder why we follow the Top 25 national poll when just Nos. 1 and 2 matter to the BCS.

The BCS format is a light year away from the excitement and team equity of March Madness, where every single Division I team from a conference has a shot at  winning it all and being interviewed by Billy Packer and Jim Nantz. It’s a bracket where the lowliest underdog can go as far as the No. 1 seed. Testament to that are the runs of these “unheard-ofs” who made it all the way to the Final Four: NC Charlotte of the Sun Belt in 1976, Indiana State of the Missouri Valley in 1977, George Mason of the Colonial in 2006 and VCU, also of the Colonial, in 2011.

This year, there are 35 bowl games, some bearing the names Chick-fil-A, GoDaddy.com and MAACO. Think this “series” is corporate-driven? Aside from the LSU-Alabama game, who’s going to watch the other 34 extravaganzas? Alums, friends, families and viewers who haven’t discovered NCIS and Law and Order marathons on USA Network.

Forget that a bowl game is a reward. Thirteen teams have a .500 record and one, UCLA, bears a losing mark.  At least the 6-7 Bruins are playing for a worthy cause — in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

Think Notre Dame’s excited to be in the Champs Sports Bowl vs. Florida State? To that end, think the Seminoles are jacked up? This stellar match-up insults each program which has captured multiple national championships.

But for Ohio University, one more TV game is valuable when recruiting against Miami of Ohio and Bowling Green for that prized safety out of Shaker Heights High School. For those interested, the Bobcats face 7-5 Utah State from the Western Athletic Conference in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl Dec. 17 at 5:30 EST time. For most other teams, TV exposure means little since most their games are on some ESPN channel every Saturday.

Michigan is in the Sugar Bowl, which sounds great but means nothing. Brady Hoke and his crew had one goal (OK, two, including beating Ohio State) back in August and that was to win the national championship, not a New Year’s Bowl game with zero national title implications.

Not only isn’t the BCS a “series” but it’s blatantly unfair, especially to schools outside major conferences. Since the BCS contracts with only the biggies (SEC, ACC, PAC-10, Big Ten, et. al.), schools like Boise State (formerly of the Mountain West) have basically no shot at the national championship. Even if the Broncos go undefeated, they’d probably be left out of the picture.

Even perfection for the big boys guarantees nothing in the eyes of the BCS.

Penn State finished 12-0 in 1994, including a Rose Bowl victory over Oregon but finished second to Nebraska in the final poll. Imagine Joe Paterno saying to his team, “Sorry boys, we’ll have to do better next season. Twelve and oh just didn’t cut it.”

Or Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville telling his players, “Fellas, let’s try to bring it up a notch next year,” after his team went 12-0 in 2004 and defeated Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl only to finish No. 2 in the final poll.

This year, five teams finished at either 12-1 or 11-1 and among them, only Alabama (11-1) in playing for the title. Oklahoma State, Boise State, Houston and Stanford  — all 1-loss teams –will compete in other meaningless bowl games.

No wonder Boise State and Texas Christian wanted “out” of their former leagues. The Broncos will now play in the Big East for football only. So much for regional rivalries vs. Utah, BYU and Air Force. I’d hate to be the athletic director running my new travel budget by the VP for Student Affairs. But if the national title is goal No. 1, Boise St. had to make the move – a senseless one, logical only in the eyes of the money-driven BCS.

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on November 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm

The NBA’s been dormant for a month and now that college basketball is underway, do fans miss the pro game? I don’t because I haven’t followed it since the late 60s. I relished match-ups between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers in the championship round. Sure, New York had flash with point guard Walt Frazier. But the team seemed more about the hobbled but able Willis Reed in the middle as well as outside shooters Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere and heralded sixth men Cazzie Russell, Phil Jackson and Mike Riordan.

The “team” concept drew my interest. The Lakers’ Wilt Chamberlain didn’t  – whether it be his point or blocked-shot totals  or off-court conquests for that matter. As a fan, I was concerned with the Knicks thwarting Jerry West’s outside jumper and Jim McMillian’s baseline drives. Those series usually took seven games to decide and every game was interesting.

Since then, there’s been Magic, Michael and Larry. Nowadays, it’s about LeBron and Kobe. The stars today are on a first-name basis. Teams today seek to “buy” titles. Boston tried with Paul Pearce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. More recently, Miami tried and failed with LeBron, Dwayne Wade (should I say D-Wade?) and Chris Bosh. Try and name the other two starters. Sixth man? Don’t even try to guess who.

Sure, the skill level of the pro game is high. But the game’s about acrobatics, clear-outs, one-on-ones, spin moves, dunks. It’s like “Dancing with the Stars” in sneakers. It’s about showtime, not gametine. Then again, the NBA’s always been about flash and the dominant player. Back in the 70s, halftimes of televised games featured 1-on-1 contests which Houston’s Mike Newlin or the Jazz’s Pete Maravich regularly won.  So much for promoting the team concept.

I think of the NBA and I see headbands, tattoos, fights and the latest player to date a celebrity. I don’t see starting fives, unselfish back courts, body-sacrificing screens or the legendary coaches (John Wooden, Coach K, Bob Knight, Don Haskins, John Cheney, Eddie Sutton, Tom Izzo, John Thompson, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams, Dean Smith, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Ray Meyer, ) whom players not only respected but listened to. The college game is unified, the NBA divided, individual and therefore, sterile.

Here it is, November, and there’s already brimming excitement in the college game. The MEAC’s Norfolk State was a soft-rim away from upsetting nationally ranked Marquette in a Virgin Islands tournament. Maybe there’ll be another “Hawaiian Punch” similar to Chaminade’s upset of Virginia and Ralph Sampson. I can’t see the L.A. Clippers ever doing that to the Mavs or Heat.

The NCAA Tournament, itself is a showcase of David, not Goliath. The little guys who led their teams to new levels — Billy Donovan’s Providence team advancing to the 1987 Final Four. The heroics of Cleveland State’s Mouse McFadden, N.C. State’s Monte Towe, Valparaiso’s Homer Drew and a service academy led by David Robinson which toppled mighty Syracuse. Or the CAA’s George Mason and VCU each advancing to a Final Four in the last five years. Then there’s Butler, giving life to the Gene Hackman-led Hickory HS team in “Hoosiers.” It’s all storybook stuff absent in the pro game.

What else makes the college game better? Maybe it’s because college players have no agent or harem or paycheck or weapons arsenal or shark tanks in their living rooms or garages full of Bentleys. Maybe it’s modesty and a degree of innocence the fan prefers to embrace. For the ‘love of school” is a better attraction than “love of self.” During this two-year recession when the average Joe fears for his job and no longer looks at the mutual fund statements, it’s healthier to root for the “regular ” guy. Does anybody feel sorry for Kobe missing out on a million-dollar paycheck? OK, maybe his wife does.

Too bad the CBA isn’t healthier. That used to stand for the Continental Basketball Association but today is more commonly knows as a collective bargaining agreement. I once saw ex-Maryland guard JoJo Hunter play for the Albany (N.Y.) Patroons for Coach George Karl at the downtown Civic Center. Small crowd, rickety old gym, a heating system that didn’t work, cold hot dogs and meager pay-day for the CBA players. Those things, alone made it appealing. It had a small-college atmosphere. The lights in the ceiling weren’t all working. The public address system was scratchy and the uniforms on the same team didn’t match.

It was fun to see the starting lineups announced without erratic strobe lights, decibel meters on “tilt,” billowing smoke, seductive dance girls jiggling, ribbon lights gone wild and sirens blaring. Just give me the game of basketball and save the glitz for when the circus comes to town.

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on November 2, 2011 at 7:31 am

Washington Redskins fans wonder why a coach fitted for two Super Bowl rings and a $5M salary can lose three straight games – twice to teams with just one win and another by way of shutout for the first time in his 267 games as a head coach or offensive coordinator.

During the Buffalo game, Thom Brennaman and Troy Aikman snickered, watching the Redskins’ offense fall apart and later criticized their offense for not calling two plays in a huddle while down by 20 in the fourth quarter.

At one point, Aikman said, “It’s beyond the head coach.” But this was a stretch. Before Dan Snyder hired Mike Shanahan, he fired deputy Vinny Cerrato and since, has stayed out of Shanahan’s way. There have been no more “sexy” player signings or meetings with the coach in the bowels of FedEx Field after games.

Point is, Aikman still is bitter toward Snyder for firing Norv Turner – Aikman’s offensive coordinator in Dallas during that dynasty’s trio of Super Bowls.

Back in the spring of 2010, how could Shanahan have been wrong on quarterback Donovan McNabb? He’d coached for 25 years and McNabb had played for 11. What didn’t he know about the Philly veteran? He was supposedly the expert on quarterbacks. Then, months after signing McNabb, son, Kyle tried to change McNabb’s drop-back style. Seems odd, a then 29-year-old assistant toying with the mechanics of a player who’d been to five NFC Championship games. It’s hard to fault McNabb, wondering why his footwork was – all of a sudden – being scrutinized, especially by an assistant coach five years his junior.

The next Shanahan gaffe was Rex Grossman, who “roomed” with Kyle while the two were with the Houston Texans in 2009. Rex was benched as the Redskins starter after a 4-interception game vs. Philly, less than a third the way through the season. The fact he roomed with a player he coached points to Kyle’s naivete. Knowing this, think John Beck was surprised when he wasn’t named the starter seven weeks ago?

In the Buffalo game, Leron Landry and DeAngelo Hall’s names were hardly heard until a blown coverage in the Skins secondary helped give the Bills a touchdown. London Fletcher played with a pulled hamstring but made 12 solo tackles and had an interception in the end zone. How many stops did the Skins safeties make? How many INT’s? How many times did the duo reach the quarterback on a safety blitz? Besides six combined solo tackles, “nada” are your answers.

We’ve been force-fed the “3-4” as if it’s a magic potion concocted by defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Basically, the Skins have a four-man front, only Ryan Kerrigan isn’t bent over in a 3-point stance. Former defensive coordinator Greg Williams had a much better defense here but was bypassed for the head coaching job that went to Jim Zorn. A year later, Williams took over the defense in New Orleans and won a Super Bowl.

Barry Cofield is an upgrade over Haynesworth at nose guard but he doesn’t remind anyone of Bob Lily, Randy White or Merlin Olsen. How many times have we seen him break through the muck to reach the quarterback? Again, nada is your answer. When Bills running back Fred Jackson took a hand off , he usually ran untouched until he reached the second level on his way to 120 yards.

We know the Skins’ replacements are lean on the right side of the offensive line. So why weren’t there roll-outs designed to take Beck to the left? Why wasn’t an H-back planted in the backfield? Why didn’t the team have a tight end on the right side the entire game? Where were Beck’s hot reads? It’s up to the Shanahans to provide answers but there weren’t any versus Buffalo.

Snyder should be fuming. As one writer put it, he could have kept Jim Zorn around for these results at a much cheaper rate. The owner didn’t balk when Mike wanted to deputize his son to run the offense. But how much experience did Kyle have? A couple seasons with the Texans? He was the coordinator there because Texans Coach Gary Kubiak was an assistant on Mike’s staff in Denver for years. Snyder should have balked and said, “OK Mike, bring your son on board but as an ‘offensive assistant’ under a seasoned coordinator like Mike Martz or Kevin Gilbride”

Buffalo is 5-2 with Fitzpatrick running the offense. He’s the same age as Beck with equal experience. Yet against the Redskins, his passes were uncontested, like practice where receivers are “allowed” to catch the ball. Buffalo is Fitzpatrick’s third team. Before this year, he’d never played on a winner but now his team is tied with the Patriots for first place in the AFC East. Fitzpatrick was a seventh round pick, Beck a second-rounder. And Beck played at BYU, whose pro-style offense threw the ball a bit more than did “Fitz” at Harvard.

For years as a landscape designer, my customers ask, “Is it the soil? Do we need to take out the old and bring in all new for the plants?” To that, I always say, “That’s unnecessary.” But when I apply the axiom to the Skins, I’m unsure.

Why is Marty Shottenheimer fired after going 8-8 and the very next year goes 14-2 with San Diego? Why does Steve Spurrier “lose” his coaching acumen with the Skins but regains it in Columbia, S.C., transforming an anemic Gamecock program into a national contender? How does Turner go from being fired in D.C. to taking his Charger team to the playoffs every year? How does Marty’s son, Brian go from being clueless with the Redskin offense, to advancing to two straight AFC Championship games as the New York Jets coordinator? What about Hue Jackson, who was fired here as a Zorn assistant, yet has his Raider team tied for first place? And while I’m at it, Bills’ defensive coordinator George Edwards (who coordinated the Skins defense in 2003) designed a defense last week that held the Skins to 26 yards rushing and 4-of-14 on third-down conversions.

It’s yet another coaching regime at work in Washington, producing the same, lame results. No one has answers, not even those at the top.

 

 

 

 

 

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on October 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Pitching always beats hitting although Phillies manager Charlie Manuel might disagree. His Fab Four of Ray Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels couldn’t advance to the NL Championship Series. The foursome couldn’t even dispatch the Cardinals, who a month ago, were about out of the NL Wild Card race.

Imagine how Manuel feels. What do you think the West Virginia native earned as a rookie outfielder with the Minnesota Twins in 1969? Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven was a Twins rookie the following year. What do you think “Be Home By” made when making his MLB debut at RFK Stadium against the Washington Senators?

For all the money the Phillies deposited into the accounts of the aforementioned aces, the team won the NL East, making them better than the Braves, Nats, Marlins and Mets. Whoppee! Not sure that’s celebrated right now in suburban Philly taverns.

A day after the Yanks were eliminated by Detroit, Hal Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman were in spend mode, worried about keeping their ace, CC Sabathia, happy. Apparently, the big fella may opt out of the remaining four years on his contract – a paltry $23M per. Reports are he wants $24.2M a season in a new pact. For what? Failing to reach the ACLS? In the eyes of Yankee brass, he’s partially responsible for a “disappointing” season, to quote Hal. He’s also overweight. And ringless in the Bronx, Cleveland and Milwaukee. If the Yanks decide not to bump up CC’s salary, think he’ll stay in pinstripes or film another soft drink commercial to increase his exposure to other suitors?

Baseball team owners never get it, especially the Steinbrenner clan.

During the last off-season, Yankee captain Derek Jeter sought $24M over six seasons. Think his demand had anything to do with “Yankee Pride?” All the revered No. 2 wanted was cash. One baseball executive said during those negotiations, “The Yanks should offer him what he’s really worth – about $10M a season. What team’s going to outbid the Yanks, Cincinnati?”

Back to the Yankees’ latest collapse. In the ALDS versus the Tigers, Sabathia started two games and won neither. His ERA, like his physique, was inflated (6.23). He walked almost as many (8) as he struck out (11). In three games vs. Detroit, the “workhorse” pitched 8 2/3 innings.

Times have changed. Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Jim Palmer, Vida Blue, Steve Carlton, Jerry Koosman, Mickey Lolich, Randy Johnson and Tim Lincecum each pitched more innings in one game when leading their teams to victory during the World Series.

Hal’s expensive slugging duo of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira combined to go 5-for-36 (.138) with just two extra-base hits – both doubles – vs. Tiger pitching. Of those 35 at bats, the pair fanned 11 times. On one K, Rodriguez nonchalantly toed his bat in stride while walking back to the dugout. On the last out of the series, on-deck hitter Teixeira hustled back to the dugout like he needed the john. What was the hurry? Was the Yankee Stadium playing field going to be swarmed with “losing” fans? You lost, Mark!

Even Jeter couldn’t lead with his bat, striking out eight times in 24 at bats for a .250 average. This after signing the inflated 3-year extension last spring for $17M per. He’s paid like one of the best shortstops in the game but didn’t play like it when it mattered.

Just two Yankee regulars – Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner hit over .300 in the Tiger series.

Such stars need not care about the state of our economy but maybe they should consider the following while seeking their multi-millions: the unemployment rate is over 9%, 51M adults can’t afford health insurance, 46M Americans live in poverty, the city of Harrisburg, Pa. has filed for bankruptcy protection, gas prices are rising, home equities are dropping, job layoffs are rampant (35,000 postal service workers will be out of work over the next three years), bank loans have dried up and the country’s credit rating dropped for the first time in 70 years.

Chemistry isn’t in the Steinbrenner vernacular. Nor is it a building block of their Yankee teams. Reggie Jackson, Kenny Rogers, Dave Winfield, Roger Clemens, Rickey Henderson, Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett come to mind. A collection of stars gives a manager just that, a collection of egos and big contracts devoid of morphing into success. And winning the AL East isn’t the pinnacle. Two years ago, Texeira talked about playing for his hometown team, the Baltimore Orioles, when he was renegotiating. The Maryland native played the sentimental angle until the Yanks put big money on the table. All of a sudden, the first baseman didn’t care about playing in front of his family 82 times a year. Gaithersburg, MD is a 40-minute drive to Camden Yards, a little easier than a 3½ -hour commute to New York.

The Yanks would more likeable – and respected – if they developed another “core five” to follow homegrown stars Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams. Competing with their checkbook makes the Yanks winners in the bidding auction but not on the field.

 

 

 

 

 

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on October 4, 2011 at 7:17 pm

On the last day of the baseball season, New York Met shortstop Jose Reyes excused himself from duty after laying down a bunt single in his first at bat. Not wanting to jeopardize his lead over Ryan Braun for the best batting average in the National League, he sat and watched the final eight innings. Meanwhile, Braun went hitless in four trips to lose the title by .005. One has to wonder if Reyes’s agent suggested the move to make the prized infielder more marketable in the off-season.

The bar for such occasions was set high by Ted Williams, who owns the batting average record of .406 in 1941. Before the final two games of the season, he was hitting .39955. Rounded, that’s a .400 average he could have claimed while sitting out the doubleheader. But Williams played both games, saying he wouldn’t have deserved the mark had he not played. Williams went 6-for-8 in the twin bill to finish at 406.

In Reyes’s case, he weaseled out of three at bats. Shameless, but what’s new with the Mets? From ownership to management, to the medical staff, it’s been a dysfunctional organization under owner Fred Wilpon.

Two years ago, the Wilpon family was so awed with Jackie Robinson, it dedicated Citi Field’s rotunda to No. 42. Meanwhile, Met fans completed the tour without finding a trace of the club founder Bill Shea, as well as owner Joan Payson, general manager George Weiss and field manager Casey Stengel.

Where were the placards of Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Gary Carter? Seaver and Carter are enshrined in Cooperstown but were hard to locate at Citi Field. Wilpon grew up a Dodger fan and still is. Not until a fan backlash and media scrutiny were murals of Gooden and company hastily painted on Citi’s blank walls.

The Wilpons even tanked on the field dimensions at the Mets’ new stadium. The Mo Zone generates ad revenue but few home runs. David Wright is the prime example of a hitter suffering due to this cut-out in right field. Many a broadcaster has sighed, “That would have been a homer in any other park.” Balls blasted 415 feet fall into the right fielder’s glove or bounce against the screen for a long double.

Met General Manager Sandy Alderson needed a year-long study to remedy the obvious – move the right-field fence in or home plate out. And the Pikes Peak wall in left needs to be shorter than 16 feet. Fans want home runs and players love to hit ’em. They juice up a dull and slow game during hot summers.

The season began with hopes of ace Johan Santana returning in August. But his arm was never ready. The man won two Cy Youngs with Minnesota but tops off at 12, 13 victories in New York. And at what price?

Wright may not be a superstar but he’s an All-Star. And he regularly hit 30 HRs a year before moving to Citi, where batters need to swing from the pitcher’s mound to clear the fence. Still, why did Wilpon lash out at the second-best player on the team and the most loyal member of his team?

Francisco Rodriguez, the Mets’ closer, was more noted for punching out his father in law than shutting down hitters. Overpaid and over-hyped, he was traded to Milwaukee in mid-season. Meanwhile, the closer in the Bronx was getting accolades from the White House for saving his 600th game.

“Slugger” Jason Bay was signed for his power stroke after averaging 33 HRs and 110 RBI in two season prior to his coming to Flushing. But with the Mets, he’s averaged 9 HRs and 52 RBIs. The left fielder hit everywhere he’s played except in New York. The dead bat in the lineup comes at a $16M-a-year cost. During the last week of the season, Bay missed two games with the sniffles. The same day, Tony Romo of the Cowboys played an entire game with a broken rib.

And what’s it with the Mets’ medical staff? It can’t diagnose an ailment, be it Reyes’s hamstrings, Ryan Church’s concussion or knee of Carlos Beltran? The slugging right fielder made his own decision for surgery and missed half a season in 2010. Where was the communication? Disenchanted with having to pay him $18M for another season, the Mets sent him to San Francisco. In seven years with the Mets, Beltran appeared in zero World Series.

Now, the Mets cuddle up at the hot stove with a suspect ace, an undependable pitching staff, a meek-hitting clean-up man and a question mark at shortstop. Ike Davis returns to first base after missing half a season with an injured foot. Even that took months to decipher he didn’t need surgery. At least for now. Daniel Murphy hits .300 but where does the team hide his glove? Is Lucas Duda the best the team can do in right field? Does the team think it’ll win with the combination of Josh Thole and Ronny Paulino at catcher? Will Chris Young and Jerry Meija return from season-ending injuries? Will Angel Pagan ever hit .300 again?

For 2012, the Marlins have a new manager and new stadium. Washington has Stephen Strasburg for an entire season with Bryce Harper ready for MLB duty. MVP candidate Prince Fielder could be the Nats’ next first baseman. Philadelphia, favored to win the World Series, will again win 100 games. Atlanta will again threaten to win the Wild Card.

But the Mets seem headed for the cellar. On the field or off the field, year after year, the team nets newspaper headlines for all the wrong reasons.

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on September 1, 2011 at 7:48 pm

The headline in the Washington Post zinged me: “It will take $160 million to re-sign Ryan Zimmerman.”

That much for a guy who led his team to five fifth-place finishes and a fourth-place finish the last six years? A guy whose team has never had a winning record? A guy whose team averaged finishing 31½ games out of first place the last three seasons?

$160 million is fantasy land.

The economy leans toward another recession. Fourteen million are out of work. Banks aren’t lending. Home mortgages are underwater. New-home construction is stagnant. Stock portfolios are plummeting. How do you “sell” a contract like this to the austerity-minded general public?

Zimmerman’s not going to blast 50 homers or drive in 140 runs. And the Nats aren’t headed for postseason play, averaging 99 losses the last three years.

Didn’t Carl Crawford sign for $140M last year and proceed to post pedestrian numbers the first half of the season? Prince Fielder may seek more money but he’s headed for an NL MVP award and his team will be in the postseason. By the way, the Nationals are seven games under .500 and a blip from falling into the NL East cellar.

The same Post columnist called Zimmerman a “first-ballot Hall of Famer,” then a “sure-fire Hall of Famer” and finally, a “superstar.”

Zimmerman was first compared to George Brett – who played 21 years for the Royals and led Kansas City to nine postseasons, including a pair of World Series. Zimmerman is nowhere near matching Brett’s legacy, having played 14 less seasons and is 9 postseasons shy of Brett.

But there’s more. She then compared Zimmerman to Albert Pujols.

We’ve seen what happens when teams don’t lock up their Zimmermans early,” she wrote. “The Nats want to avoid an Albert Pujols-type situation because if Zimmerman hits the market, all bets are off.”

They are?

For the record, Pujols has 439 HR and 1,308 RBI in 10 seasons, two of them ending in a World Series. He has nearly 300 more walks than strikeouts. His batting average is .328, about 50 points higher than Zimmerman’s. Pujols, like Zimmerman, missed time this year due to injury, but his 31 HRs currently ties him for the NL lead.

The Nats’ third baseman has played just seven years and hit 126 HRs, an average of 18 a year. His strikeouts nearly double his walks (599 to 326). OK, he played 20 games his rookie season and has played in just 75 this year. But still, he’s a light year away from being ticketed to Cooperstown or compared to any player enshrined there.

Loyalty, dependability and following the rules doesn’t qualify one for the Hall. Too many sportswriters today feel the need to label a good player a great, which is an insult to those who’ve been enshrined in the Hall. She said Zimmerman is a “marquee player who will pay dividends.” She’s right but he’s not yet deserving of a bronze bust. He’s got, oh about 10 more very productive years before that connection can realistically be made.

This spring, New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon said his third baseman, David Wright was not a superstar. And he was spot on. Good, sure. Loyal, yes. Productive, yup. But let’s not use the “S” word for this Hampton Roads native, either. David’s on his way to yet another 225-plus strikeout season while his long balls and clutch hitting vanish in cavernous Citi Field.

In the modern era, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey, Ernie Banks, Eddie Murray, Al Kaline, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Carl Yastrzemski were superstars. Each amassed huge numbers. And all but Hank and Ernie led their teams to the World Series.

Some may be sentimental to Zimmerman, which I understand. The Nats overpaid for Jayson erth last year and may offer inflated dollars to Fielder in the months ahead. Werth’s a good, not a great player. Fielder just may be “great” (his 102 RBI lead the NL) but will the pressure of a blockbuster contract cause his numbers to decline?

The same goes for Zimmerman. He’s worthy of a long-term deal but it shouldn’t be a record-setter for a third baseman. Just look at his numbers and you’ll see why.