Friday, November 30, 2012

Destiny or Dynasty

“Great moments are born of great opportunities …
You were meant to be here. This is your time.
Their time is over … this is your time!”

Herb Brooks to 1980 US Hockey Team (as played by Kurt Russell)
Can the 2012 Georgia Bulldogs become the team of destiny their fans have dreamed of for three decades?
Can the Red and Black, last champions of the college football world in 1980, conjure up an inspired effort like the gold-medal winning Red, White, and Blue U.S. Hockey team from that same year?
Can this team, this underdog, take down its very own crimson menace, and the sport’s reigning bully?
To win … to become this team of destiny … Georgia has to dethrone a dynasty – the mighty Crimson Tide of Alabama.
When Georgia and Alabama meet in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday in Atlanta, the Bulldogs face not only a fearsome opponent, but also the pent up frustration of chronic unmet expectations. Bulldog players, coaches, fans, and followers consider the program elite, but since Georgia last won college football’s grand prize in 1980, five Southeastern Conference programs have captured a combined ten national championships. Imagine a grating drum roll for Georgia fans as you read the list.
1992 – Alabama
1996 – Florida
1998 – Tennessee
2003 – LSU
2006 – Florida
2007 – LSU
2008 – Florida
2009 – Alabama
2010 – Auburn
2011 – Alabama
Think that championship roster doesn’t gnaw at Dog fans? The perception of Georgia nationally is at odds with the Red and Black base. Fans in Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, and Baton Rouge … talk radio hosts in Birmingham, Nashville, and Atlanta … the pretty boys and girls talking on ESPN and Fox … all of them consider Georgia underachievers.
These five keys should decide whether Georgia can overcome the doubters and become a team of destiny Saturday afternoon.
1. Aaron Murray must outplay A.J. McCarron. If Murray comes back for his senior season, he will become the most prolific passer in SEC history. While the Dog QB has been maligned for coming up short in big games, those criticisms are perhaps off base. In losses to South Carolina this season, LSU (last year’s SEC title game), Boise State (last year’s season opener), and others, Murray faced defensive fronts that shut down Georgia’s running game and nullified any play action passing with a fierce pass rush. A.J. McCarron heard similar questions about whether he could handle the big stage until he proved himself in last year’s national championship game. That title game success muted criticism of McCarron’s less-than-stellar play in the Tide’s loss to Texas A&M. Murray should be the equal of McCarron (or better) and can prove it Saturday. But, he will need help … which takes us to a second key.
2. Georgia’s offensive line must play Alabama’s defensive front to a near-stalemate. The Dogs will not dominate Alabama up front. The Tide is too well-coached, seasoned, and disciplined on defense to get pushed around. But, they are not that big and they do not generate much of a pass rush from their front three. Nick Saban has a history of trying to completely take away at least one aspect of an opponent’s attack. I expect Saban and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to do whatever it takes to stop Georgia’s rushing attack. As a counter, watch for Georgia to throw the ball a lot early … instead of running to set up the pass, Georgia should pass to open up some running lanes for Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Gurley doesn’t need much space to keep the chains moving. If the Georgia offensive line can at least hold its own, that would be a net plus for the Bulldogs. While much attention has been paid to the pairing of Alabama’s great offensive front taking on Jarvis Jones and the Georgia defense, I think this is the more important matchup.
3. Alabama may be able to advantage of the aggressive Georgia secondary. Georgia has more talent on defense than anybody – including Alabama. Period. The Dogs are bigger and faster, and their edge in the secondary (even considering the Tide’s terrific Dee Milliner) is the most pronounced of the defensive position units on either side. The Bulldog defensive backs, especially safeties Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo will support the run defense aggressively and deliver a strike. Still, they are at times too aggressive (a trait sure to be amplified in the heat of such a big game), prone to penalties and to biting on play fakes. Watch for Alabama to bait the Dog DBs with pump and go action, or simply with play action passes, and try to hit some deep balls. The Dogs secondary boasts great athletes, but they must play with controlled aggression.
4. Which team will deliver the big plays? Will Eddie Lacy rumble through tacklers for the Tide? Will T.J. Yeldon take a McCarron screen pass to the land of milk and honey like he did in the showdown with LSU? Will Milliner pick off Murray? Or, will the sublime Dog duo of insider linebacker Alec Ogletree (the best athlete on the field) and Jarvis Jones control the action, with Ogletree chasing down Tide runners sideline to sideline and Jones wreaking havoc in the Alabama backfield? Will Gurshall (the nickname for Gurley and Marshall in homage to the great Herschel Walker) provide the Dogs with a little thunder and lightning at the running back position. Will either team break a punt or kickoff return? Remember that the Honey Badger – Tyrann Mathieu of LSU – undid the Dogs in last year’s title game with punt and interception returns. Somebody is likely to make a big play … who?
5. Does Alabama realize the intensity they will face Saturday? Few of these Tide starters have played significant roles in an SEC championship game, many of the Dogs have. This is a hungry Bulldog team with unfinished business in the Georgia Dome. Last year they soundly outplayed LSU for a half, but crumbled under the pressure in the third and fourth quarters and got humiliated. Alabama took the backdoor into the national title game and missed the SEC championship. The Tide hasn’t been here since 2009 and it is an intense setting (the teams do not have five weeks to rest and prepare as they would in the national championship game). Beyond the players and staffs though … there is something deeper that I’m not sure many people have calculated. The Bulldog crowd, disappointed and mostly dormant for three decades, will absolutely dominate the Dome on Saturday afternoon – in numbers and intensity. If Georgia gets off to a quick start, it will ignite a passion – even fury – from Georgia fans that has not been seen since Munson was at the mike, since big #34 was stalking the end zone, since … since the Dogs were national champions. It would surprise me if Alabama realizes that potential factor.
Destiny … or dynasty.
This is Georgia’s game. This is Georgia’s season. This is their time.
Georgia 24 Alabama 20

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Flea Flickers and Fixes

Flea Flickers and Fixes: A Brief History of the Alabama-Georgia Rivalry

Much of the history of the Alabama-Georgia series is strange.

The schools sit just 275 miles apart, and often have represented the class of the Southeastern Conference, but Saturday's SEC Championship Game will only be the 15th meeting between the Dogs and the Tide in the past 47 years, and their 66th overall meeting.

The schools played football against one another for the first time in 1895, with the immortal Pop Warner leading the Dogs to one of his 319 career victories - a 30-6 conquest played in the border town of Columbus, Georgia (one of six cities to host the game over the years). A six-year hiatus followed as the fledgling sport found its footing on both campuses, then varsity squads met every season from 1901 to 1965 excepting a couple of years during World War I and a five-year drought during the depression-era 1930s.

Alabama leads the overall series 36-25 with 4 ties. The game has been played on Alabama soil 39 times, with the Peach State welcoming the matchup 26 times. For a couple of decades in the 1920s and 1930s, Birmingham was the host city - much like Jacksonville is home to the annual Georgia-Florida game.

A sensational accusation of game-fixing influenced the decision to put the series on hold after 1965.

The Fix

"Well, what the heck could Wally Butts do for you?"
Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy to Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, March 1963

Just months before his brother's fateful trip to Dallas, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy met with Alabama's Bear Bryant in Washington (at the behest of mutual friend Bud Wilkinson, the Oklahoma football coach already considering a move into politics ... he encouraged Bryant to do the same and suggested he meet with RFK). During their discussion, Bryant mentioned a pending Saturday Evening Post article (March 23, 1963) that would accuse the Alabama icon, and Georgia Athletics Director Wally Butts, of conspiring to fix the 1962 Alabama-Georgia game. Kennedy's sardonic reply to the charge reflected the ease with which the Tide had rolled to a 35-0 victory (in a game remembered mostly as the college debut of Joe Namath).

Butts sued the Post for $10 million and was awarded a judgment of $3,060,000 (the amount was eventually lowered and Butts received around $136,000 after taxes). Bryant also sued and ended up settling out of court for $300,000 - tax free.

While cleared in court, the ugly episode played a role in moving Georgia and Alabama to the back of the rotation when the SEC implemented a new scheduling format after the 1965 season. The teams would play only ten more times over the next thirty-five years ... four times in the 1970s, twice in the 1980s, and four more times in the 1990s.

The 1965 game was a memorable way to conclude that historical era of the series.

The Flea Flicker

"The most exciting play I've ever seen ..."
Bud Wilkinson on NBC telecast of Georgia-Alabama 1965

Vince Dooley opened his second season in Athens with the unenviable task of facing Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide. Bryant and Alabama were in the midst of a remarkable 45-4-1 regular season mark over the past five years, and were the defending wire service national champions. The Bear had welcomed the Dog's young leader to big-time college football the year before with a 31-3 pasting in Dooley's first game.

The 34-year old upstart upstaged the master in Sanford Stadium on September 18, 1965.

The Dogs jumped to a quick lead on a Bobby Etter field goal, and soon pushed it to 10-0 in the first quarter when left defensive tackle Jiggy Smaha deflected a Steve Sloan pass and right defensive tackle (and eventual two-time All-American) George Patton grabbed the interception and scored on a 55-yard return.  The Tide fought back all afternoon and finally overtook the Dogs by a 17-10 advantage late in the fourth quarter.

Enter a trio and a play etched in Georgia lore.

Backup quarterback Kirby Moore (playing in place of injured Preston Ridlehuber) threw a short pass to end Pat Hodgson in the right flat. An instant later Hodgson tossed a lateral to sweeping Bob Taylor and the halfback raced down the right sideline for a 73-yard touchdown.

Dooley then refused to settle for a tie (no overtime back when football was played like it should be!) and went for the two-point conversion, which Moore successfully completed with another pass to Hodgson.

Alabama would recover to win the 1965 national title (jumping from 5th to 1st after the bowls), but it was the Dogs who sent the soon-to-be-dormant series out in style with that classic 18-17 victory.

What Might Have Been

Over the next 35 years college football fans missed out on what could have been memorable match-ups between the two premier programs in the SEC.

In the dozen seasons between 1971 and 1982, Alabama and Georgia won every SEC title. From 1978 to 1980, the two schools won or shared all three national championships. Alabama won the SEC in 1977, 1978, and 1979. Georgia won the SEC in 1980, 1981, and 1982. They rarely met on the field during those halcyon days of dominance (playing twice in the mid-1970s).

Nick Saban gets to face Gur-Shall on Saturday (the moniker given to Georgia’s freshmen tailback tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall), but the Bear never had to defend against Herschel.

From Pop Warner to Flea Flickers, Fixes, and what might have been … the strange story of the Alabama-Georgia series.

Visit The Campus Game again this week for the SEC Championship Game preview and Professor's Prediction.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Old America - New America

Will Oregon win a BCS championship and signal the ascendance of "New America" even on the football field?

Or will Kansas State, Notre Dame, or one from a horde of SEC challengers slow the fade of "Old America" by shooting down the Ducks?

We will not know for another several weeks, but the battle lines drawn during this year's political contests seem to be spilling over to the gridiron.


"New America" supposedly represents an ever-changing, fast-paced society ... is anything faster-paced than Oregon's offense (which leads the nation in scoring)? Forget about going to the fridge when the Ducks have the ball, odds are you'll miss four plays and a touchdown before you pour the Coca-Cola.

"New America" supposedly represents a sprawling, teeming mishmash of a multi-cultural populace ... Oregon features a star quarterback from Hawaii in Marcus Mariota (and seven other islanders), a slithering, slippery Black Mamba from South Central Los Angeles (De'Anthony Thomas), a Dane from the North Pole (WR Dane Ebanez from North Pole, Alaska), an exotic-sounding Canadian (LB Boseko Lokombo from British Columbia), and other players hailing from Florida to the great Northwest.

"New America" supposedly represents the need for Uncle Sam to act as a sugar daddy, giving out treats galore to citizens eager for the freebies ... the Ducks feature Phil Knight, founder of Nike and the biggest athletic booster of them all, his largesse resulting in palatial football facilities, and more uniform combinations than a mathematics professor could calculate.

So, is "Old America" resigned to the slag heap of history, destined to go the way of the wing-T, leather helmets, and quick kicks?

Maybe not. Consider:

"Old America" treasures conservative values like a strong defense. The five closest pursuers to Oregon - Kansas State, Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida - all rank in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense, with the Tide, Irish, and Florida making up the top three (Bama and ND are tied at #1 this week). The Ducks rank 30th - tied with Minnesota.

"Old America" honors tradition and experience. Does any team have the tradition of Notre Dame? The pedigree of Alabama? The stolid leadership and experience of Bill Snyder at K-State? The Tide and Irish have combined for more football national titles than any other two schools. Bill Snyder could have been the model for the farmer in American Gothic.

"Old America" supposedly believes in doing things the old-fashioned way. Bill Snyder played defensive back in college, earned his stripes as an assistant coach with John McKay and Hayden Fry, and built K-State from arguably the worst program in America to a team that would be in the championship game if the season ended today. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly played linebacker in college, and worked his way up through head coaching stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati before landing the Irish gig in 2010. Nick Saban played defensive back in college, worked under Bill Belichick, has led programs at Toledo, Michigan State, LSU, and the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. Oh, he has also won three BCS championships. Mark Richt of Georgia played QB under Howard Schnellenberger at Miami, and spent two decades with Bobby Bowden at Florida State. Will Muschamp of Florida played defensive back at Georgia and coached under Saban, Tommy Tuberville, and Mack Brown. By contrast, Chip Kelly never played college football and worked his way up through non-traditional programs at Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and New Hampshire.

New America won a presidential election last week, and (as represented by Oregon) looks favored to win another championship in early January.

Old America took a kick to the stomach in the 2012 election, but Kansas State, Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida are anxious for an opportunity to show the old ways still work pretty well.

New America.

Old America.

College football 2012.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

ND-Bama: Memory Lane Up in the Headlights

"Memory Lane up in the headlights,
It's got me reminiscin' on them good times."
Dirt Road Anthem
(Jason Aldean 2011)

Could Notre Dame and Alabama play for a national title this season?

It's still doubtful (mainly because ND probably will not win out), but the Irish and Tide have me reminiscing on them good times - of December 1973.

That New Year's Eve, those two teams played what was - and remains - my favorite college football game (just edging out the great Nebraska-Oklahoma 1971 Thanksgiving Day classic). A crowd of over 85,000 filled old Tulane Stadium in New Orleans and saw two unbeaten teams battle to the final whistle with Notre Dame pulling out a 24-23 victory and laying claim to the National Championship. (A note on rankings in 1973: the UPI or "Coaches poll" still announced its champion at the end of the regular season - and ranked Bama #1 with the Irish #4; the more popular Associated Press (AP) or "Writers poll" waited until after the bowls and named ND champion). The UPI started holding its final ballot after the bowls the very next season.

Even though I was a Georgia boy, not a Catholic, and had never been north of Kentucky best I can remember (other than being born in Dover, Delaware, and living there a few weeks courtesy of the US Air Force), the Irish held a special place in my sporting soul (still do). Thank the great Lindsey Nelson for that affection. Like scores of thousands of others, I watched and loved the old Notre Dame football replays on Sunday mornings featuring the plaid-clad Nelson and the Golden Boy Paul Hornung. Those of you who don't remember pre-ESPN days should realize most Saturdays offered only one college football telecast, with the occasional national-regional double feature. So, the team I got to see the most on that old Zenith was Notre Dame ... and the Irish always seemed to be ahead by forty points as Nelson switched to further action, his signature line. (An aside - years later I would date a pretty girl at Georgia a couple of times - named Lindsey Nelson! A few years after that, in grad school at Tennessee, I got to meet the real deal when Mr. Nelson spoke to a sport history class - he lived on a bluff over the Tennessee River - what a man).

The fact that a whole slew of my cousins and an uncle or two ate, drank, and slept Alabama football also had my adrenaline flowing for the '73 Sugar Bowl. If my (admittedly fading) memory serves me, I made a long-distance call to the Heart of Dixie to gloat just minutes after Irish QB Tom Clements calmly hit TE Robin Weber with a long-pass from the ND end zone to ice the game. Long-distance calls were nothing to take lightly in those days, but my mother let me have my fun. I don't think any other football score has ever been so much fun since.

Aside from personal interests, the game held broad national implications too. The two schools had never met on the football field. Many southern football fans, and Alabama fans in particular, chafed at what they saw as preferential treatment in the polls for Notre Dame. More people in northern cities, more television and newspaper exposure, more northern sportswriters with big-city biases, all those factors rubbed Bama and other southern fans raw. And there was 1966 of course. That season the Irish were voted national champs after finishing the season with a 9-0-1 record that included a tie at #2 Michigan State in the next to last game of the year. Alabama finished 10-0 (and then won the Sugar Bowl over Nebraska), but still finished #3 in both polls. Want to start a fight in Alabama? Bring up that vote.

While the ND-State tie is long-remembered, the fact that the Irish won at Oklahoma and then crushed USC 51-0 in the season finale is often overlooked. Guess where Notre Dame plays this weekend? Guess where the Irish finish the season? Yes and yes ... Oklahoma and USC.

I don't think it will happen. I doubt the Irish can handle the Sooners on the road this weekend. I question whether ND will be able to stave off the future NFL squad at the LA Coliseum. They are too young, too fragile, too accustomed to losing big games the past decade or so.

But, oh just savoring the possibility for one more week ... the Irish got me reminiscing on them good times.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Back to Campus - Welcome to the 2012 College Football Season

Welcome back to campus (and The Campus Game!) and the kickoff of the college football year.
The best and briefest sport season on the American calendar opened with a five-day football feast … and after the first Saturday, college football 2012 looks a whole lot like a replay of 2011.  These “Cliff’s Notes” summarize my review of toe meeting leather on weekend one across the nation.
Head of the Class
Three teams stood out to me in these initial games:
Alabama … the Crimson Tide program remains on a different level. In crunching Michigan 41-14, Bama dominated all phases of the game. The offensive line looks absolutely nasty and should be the nation’s best. That group paved the path for freshman T.J. Yeldon to establish himself (after only one game) as Alabama’s best running back, even though junior Eddie Lacy and Dee Hart (another frosh) are certainly serviceable. Yeldon is just different – and so is the Crimson Tide. Until somebody proves otherwise, Nick Saban’s squad remains the valedictorian of not only the SEC, but also the entire country.
USC … this is the most polished team in America. Senior QB Matt Barkley could just as easily be tossing touchdowns for an NFL team next week as throwing them for the Trojans (he hit Marqise Lee for a 75-yard TD on SC’s opening offensive play of the season Saturday night against Hawaii in a 49-10 victory). Barkley leads a balanced attack that features all-star receivers Lee and Robert Woods, and the Trojans make up for depth issues with pure talent. My preseason prediction for the BCS title game was USC-Oklahoma, but I’d really like to see Lane Kiffin and company take on Saban and the Tide.
Oregon … yes, a good, physical defense would probably stifle the Ducks, and their pinball wizard style of offense can result in a “tilt” if they fall behind in down and distance for any given series. But, boy does Oregon have speed and play fast. New QB Marcus Mariota led a dazzling Duck raid on Arkansas State when Oregon blazed to 50 points in the first quarter and a half of the game. I truly believe Oregon could have fairly easily posted triple-digits on A-State had not Chip Kelly called off his flock and settled for a very misleading 57-34 win. While I favor defense and physicality, you best believe the professor will be hunkered down to watch USC play Oregon (both times – they’ll meet in the PAC-12 title game too).
A Good Start
Fans of these programs should feel pretty good after opening week:
Tennessee: While it’s just one game, the Vols might finally be on the march back to contender status. They sure showed a lot of speed and talent in a nice 35-21 thumping of well-thought-of NC State. Junior college WR transfer Cordarrelle Patterson electrified a pro-Big Orange Friday night Georgia Dome crowd with two long touchdowns (a 41-yard catch and a 67-yard run) and QB Tyler Bray looked like the gunslinger he is in whipping the ball around for 333 yards and two TDs with no interceptions. The Vols also looked fast on defense, with sophomore LB Curt Maggitt showing star potential. The Vols are far from a finished product, but Derek Dooley and his young team may grow up this season.
MAC Teams: The professor holds a soft spot for the MAC, and the underrated conference played several nice games. Ohio beat Penn State at Beaver Stadium, notching a win for Frank Solich in a highly publicized pairing. Northern Illinois played Iowa to within a point on the road, Toledo took Arizona to overtime in Tucson, Buffalo rang up 23 points against highly-rated Georgia between the hedges, and Bowling Green scrapped with Florida at the Swamp before falling 27-14. Kudos to the Mid-American.
Notre Dame: The Irish finally started a season without moving as if in a fog. Maybe it was the trip to Ireland that lifted ND’s spirits, perhaps it was a Navy squad that might be the worst team the Domers play all season, or possibly it was the calming influence of QB Everett Golson or the upgraded size and power of the lines. Whatever. Irish fans will take it after dismal starts in Brian Kelly’s first two seasons.
Ohio State: No need to get too excited yet, but next year – oh yes. Urban Meyer has a perfect QB for his system in Braxton Miller and the bowl ban this season will provide Meyer and his charges with all the anger and edge needed to be a real threat next year. The Bucks may be the B1G’s best team before this season is over (but probably not). Won’t be long though.
Of Concern
Fans of these squads might call for some extra tutoring or time in study hall because they did not impress the first weekend:
Penn State: No need to say more about this situation. While normally a Nittany Lion fan, I took a wee bit of guilty pleasure in seeing PSU take a kick to the gut from a MAC school – mainly because of the shameful way the trustees buckled to the Freeh Report and turned on Joe Paterno. Billy O’Brien is a class act, but he and Lions fans are in for a tough year.
Florida: The Gators looked awfully ragged in their opening win over Bowling Green. While the game was never in doubt (a slight improvement over some of their performances last year), the sloppy penalties and sluggish offense is very reminiscent of Will Muschamp’s first season in Gainesville. The Gators have too much talent to look so fragile.
Savannah State: OK – nobody even knows them, but what was the AD doing scheduling Oklahoma State (84-0) and FSU to open the season? $375K, which is the payout for the Stillwater scalping, is not sufficient for the beating this team took. Hope Jimbo Fisher is feeling charitable next weekend in Tallahassee or there may not be a SSU Tiger team to pull for the last ten weeks of the season.
Enjoy the Labor Day matchup of Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Drama, Tragedy, and Sport - Forty Septembers Ago

Forty Septembers ago, sport and politics intersected on an international stage, resulting in drama and tragedy unmatched before or since.

The 1972 Summer Olympics were supposed to mark Germany's ultimate return to prominence one score and seven years after the end of World War II. At least that was the plan for republican and free West Germany - Deutschland was still divided, East Germany a Soviet satellite trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

The Games had last been held in Germany in 1936. Adolph Hitler sought to use those Olympics as a showcase to demonstrate the competence of his ruling national socialist party. Now often called the "Nazi Olympics," the Berlin Games were successful in an overall sense ... filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and games organizer Carl Diem creating one of the first true sporting spectacles; the great American sprinter Jesse Owens (the most famous of a bevy of African American athletes) shattering any notions of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals.

As the '72 Games approached, the West Germans wanted no links to the aggressive, militaristic history many people around the globe associated with the Germany of WWI and WWII, and they certainly sought to avoid connection with 1936 Berlin.

The Munich Olympics were to be the "Happy Games."

Security personnel carried no visible weapons, even dressed in soft pastel colors. This laxity proved tragic.

In the early morning hours of September 5th, during the second week of the Games, Palestinian terrorists dressed as athletes scaled a fence and entered the Olympic Village. The eight terrorists broke into apartments housing Israeli athletes and coaches. They immediately killed two of them, and took nine hostages. After nearly 18 hours of negotiations - played out on television - a bus ferried the terrorists and their hostages to the NATO air base at Furstenfeldbrook. There a poorly planned attempt to free the hostages by German authorities resulted in the murder of the remaining nine Israeli hostages, the deaths of a German policeman caught in the crossfire and five of the terrorists, and the capture of the remaining three terrorists (who would be released in a prisoner exchange by the West Germans within weeks).

After a one-day period of grieving, IOC President Avery Brundage announced "the Games must go on."

And they did.

While nothing compared to the tragedy of the massacre, other controversial events took place as well. Brundage was roundly criticized for his decision to continue the games after only 24 hours. Controversial calls at the end of the gold medal basketball game allowed the Soviet Union to prevail over a U.S. team that had never lost in Olympic basketball competition; the Americans refused the silver medals (which sit even today in a vault at IOC headquarters in Lausanne). U.S. sprinters were given an old schedule by their coach and the 100 meter favorite (Eddie Hart) never even made it to his preliminary heats (having to settle for gold in the 4x100 relay). American swimmer Mark Spitz won 7 gold medals (a record that would stand until Michael Phelps won 8 in 2008) but left the Games immediately after completing his event (the Jewish Spitz uncomfortable staying in Munich).

Altogether, the Olympic Movement would not truly recover from these events until the 1992 Barcelona Games (1976 Montreal Games faced boycotts and financial problems; 1980 Moscow Games saw an American-led boycott by western nations; 1984 LA Games saw a tit-for-tat boycott by the Soviets and eastern-bloc nations; the 1988 Seoul Games were marred by the Ben Johnson steroid scandal and controversial judging).

At the same time the 1972 Olympics captivated the world's attention, two nations played out their own international drama on the ice.

Canada and the Soviet Union competed against each other in eight games, starting on September 2nd with four games played in four cities across Canada, and ending on September 28th after four games played in Moscow.

The "Summit Series" never garnered as much attention as the 1972 Munich Olympics, but the hockey was riveting, with Cold War tensions spilling onto the rink nearly a decade before the United States would win the "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY.

Most hockey aficionados - fans, experts, and players alike - expected the mighty team of Canadians to dominate the Soviets. Canada is considered the historical home of ice hockey, the game originating there in the 1800s and the first official match taking place in 1875. Open professionals from the NHL, which comprised the roster of team Canada, could not compete in the Olympics at the time, so this series was the first true opportunity for the pros from Canada to take on the Soviets, a team comprised of Russians who had dominated international amateur hockey for a couple of decades (the Russians were "amateur" in name only; they played hockey for a living).

On September 2nd, the Soviets stunned the Canadians with a 7-3 victory in the first game, overcoming a quick goal by Phil Esposito with flashy speed and precision on offense, especially from forward Valeri Kharlamov who scored twice and would become the USSR star of the series (along with goaltender Vladislav Tretiak). Canada came back to win Game Two on September 4th in Toronto (the same night the Olympic Village in Munich fell into peaceful slumber - hours before the terrorist attack), and the teams played to a tie in Winnipeg on September 6th.

When the Soviets prevailed 5-3 on September 8th in Vancouver, and then 5-4 two weeks later in Moscow, the USSR held a 3-1-1 lead in the competition. Team Canada would need to win the three remaining games - all in Moscow - to salvage the series.

And they did.

In one of those remarkable turnarounds that happen only in sport, Canada eked out a 3-2 win in Game 5 with Paul Henderson (remember the name) scoring the clincher. In Game 6, the great Esposito willed Canada to another clutch victory by scoring two goals, with Henderson again punching in the game-winner in the 4-3 final.

In the last game, Canada trailed 5-3 in the third period but surged to a 6-5 thrilling win when Esposito scored two more goals and Henderson - yes that man again - slammed in a rebound with seconds remaining to secure the Summit Series.

The 1972 Munich Olympics.

The 1972 Summit Series.

These overlapping competitions forty Septembers ago provided simultaneous examples of tragedy and drama, sport and politics, seen neither before or since.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Day of the Jackals

The jackals of American media loosed themselves fully on old Joe Paterno last week.

Whether attacking alone or as a pack, the nation's self-appointed pundits and protectors of the truth - sportswriters, sports talk radio hosts, even national network news readers who rarely deign to dirty their hands in the world of sports (unless a fresh scandal is ripe) - all of them tore away at the old man's legacy, trying to rip away any last flecks of flesh from the bare carcass of the once revered man's reputation.

On Thursday (July 12), the day the Freeh Report was made public, I spent nearly seven hours listening to talk radio while driving from north Georgia to the panhandle of Florida. The weather - alternating between cloudy gray skies and heavy downpours of rain - aptly fit the mood generated by the report. Starting with the Atlanta stations in the morning, switching to national big hitters during lunch, finding a small-town south Alabama program at mid-day, and finishing up with the ubiquitous Paul Finebaum in late afternoon ... virtually all the conversation focused on the Freeh Report and what it said about Paterno.

While recognizing the sickening and horrific nature of the crimes committed by the serial pedophile Jerry Sandusky, the comments I heard from hosts and their guests (not the callers so much - they were much more measured) about Paterno still felt too ugly, too hateful and hate-filled, opinions toppling out in near unanimous chorus with little room for nuance, discussion or reflection, the obligatory condolensces occasionally cast toward the victims seeming incidental, even empty. Almost all the vitriol spewed straight at Joseph Vincent Paterno. By the end of the ride, had I not known better, Paterno could have been the molester instead of Sandusky.

The jackals proposed an array of penalties for the dead man. Remove the statue from Penn State's campus. Strip Paterno of his wins from 2001 forward. Take his family's pension. Put the football program on probation for a year, two years, five years, or just shut it down permanently.

Unfortunately, none - NONE - of the hosts, guests, or callers had read the Freeh Report that day. None of them had read the report. Let that register. They couldn't have read the full report because it was released only that morning. The findings run one hundred and forty-four pages (144) in length, with another hundred and twenty-three pages (123) of end notes and addendums, for the oft-cited (and somewhat misleading) total of two hundred and sixty-seven (267) pages. I know the count - I read every word on every page ... all of them ... again and again before sitting down to the keyboard.

In their rush to judgment, the jackals had to be first, had to be loudest, had to outshout everyone to make sure they were heard, or their websites got the most clicks, or their editors could preen and publicize their appearances on ESPN, Finebaum, Rome, Yahoo, and the rest.

[As an irritating example - Christine Brennan of the Washington Post (whom I usually admire and enjoy reading) tried to equate Paterno's legacy with that of disgraced former President Richard Nixon (the irony hopefully not lost on her of the animosity Paterno felt toward Nixon dating to 1969). In making her case, she tried to cite what she called the many positives of the Nixon years ... opening relations with China, passage of Title IX legislation, the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Wait a minute. What? Yes, in a discussion about a terrible child abuse case, Brennan felt it appropriate to cite a court ruling that has resulted in the _______ murder/termination/killing/aborting (choose your term) of between 30 and 50 million unborn American babies - again, while discussing a child predator case. That's in poor taste. For good measure, Brennan - in arguing for the termination of the PSU football program - proclaimed how much she loved, loved, loved, loved college football, especially Penn State and recalled watching the famous 1973 Alabama-Penn State Sugar Bowl. Ummm ... Christine, as every Finebaum listener probably knew, Alabama played (and lost to) Notre Dame in the 1973 Sugar Bowl. She meant the 1978 game, but the sloppiness is indicative of the work done by media that day. I lost a lot of respect for Ms. Brennan on that drive.]

So, the excesses of the jackals aside, what about the Freeh Report? Here is my personal opinion of the Freeh findings:

* Louis Freeh and his the Special Investigative Counsel (SIC - the group that conducted the inquiry and developed the report) draw stronger conclusions about the role of Joe Paterno "covering up" the scandal than their own evidence warrants.

* The SIC purposefully emphasizes information most damaging to Paterno (through wording, their own italicized font, etc). I found this curious.

* While the SIC boasts of examining more than 3.5 million "electronic data and documents," three emails refer to Joe Paterno. Read that again ... three emails reference any involvement of Joe Paterno. (See Exhibits 2A, 2C, and 2F)

* Of those three emails, only one (2F) indicates any information that might be construed as damaging to Paterno. More in a minute on the emails.

* The SIC falls into a trap of looking at evidence with the advantage of hindsight (they should have had historians on the team). Freeh and his investigators already knew that Sandusky was a pervert and monster ... Paterno, PSU President Graham Spanier, Vice President for Business and Finance Gary Schultz, and Athletic Director Tim Curley did not know in 1998 and could have only suspected so in 2001.

* Those who believe Paterno would face or be convicted of criminal conduct as a result of this report are - again, in my opinion, wrong. I don't see the evidence in this report to make that claim.

Were the four primary leaders at Penn State without blame or fault in letting Sandusky's reign continue for a decade or more? Absolutely not ... but to condemn them based on the Freeh Report is premature.

Allow me to close using the method of the SIC ... here is my own executive summary:

* Freeh's conjecture that Spanier, Schultz, Curley, and Paterno "covered up" the Sandusky case to protect the institution and their jobs is just that - conjecture. None of the emails or other supporting documents (that I can find) support that claim. It seems more likely to me that the men were overly sensitive to Sandusky's feelings (that seems foolish now, but again they were acting without knowing what we do now), and completely unaware and inept in recognizing how to handle suspected child abuse situations.

* There was absolutely no inappropriate conduct by Joe Paterno in 1998. State College police and the Department of Public Welfare investigated a complaint against Sandusky between May 4-May 30 before concluding that no crime had taken place (read the full report if you want the details of the accusation - my focus is on Paterno and his actions). The District Attorney declined to prosecute Sandusky. On May 4th, AD Curley responded to a Schultz email by noting that he had "touched base" with Paterno. Eight days later he asked for an update from Schultz, mentioning Paterno was "anxious" to know of any news. That's the last time Paterno is mentioned. It seems reasonable to me for Paterno and Curley to want to know more information ... again, there is no evidence to suggest they knew he was a predator.

* The worst part of the report for Paterno was an email Curley sent in 2001 (Exhibit 2F) that suggests (my emphasis added) Paterno might have (my emphasis added) changed the direction of the University's response to the 2001 incident that eventually broke the case nearly a decade later. See how we can influence opinion by adding an emphasis here or there (Freeh always used this strategy to make Paterno look as bad as possible - in my opinion). Again, we benefit from hindsight and current knowledge, but the Penn State leaders - including Paterno - made a series of misjudgments in handling this allegation against Sandusky. I'll spare the details (again I encourage you to actually read the report), but any number of people could have stopped Sandusky at this point. Mike McQueary doesn't know what he saw based on his conflicting comments of the time and should have went straight to the police (instead of calling his father, waiting overnight to alert Paterno and then being vague in his story); Paterno should have called Curley immediately instead of waiting overnight; the list goes on. None of them called the police as they should have done and were required to do by law. Poor - and tragic - mistakes.

* Blaming Paterno and the football "culture" at Penn State for personal cowardice is taking the easy way out for Freeh. Two people actually saw Sandusky committing crimes - a janitor in 2000 and Mike McQueary in 2001 - neither went to the police. That Penn State janitor reported seeing Sandusky assaulting a child in late 2000 (in the same shower as the 1998 case), informed two other custodians, but all three failed to notify anyone else - reportedly for fear of losing their jobs. The SIC repeatedly takes the four senior leaders at Penn State to task about not informing authorities, but why are these men not held to the same standard? Because they don't make as much money or wield as much power, they shouldn't be expected to report what the witness claimed (a decade later) was worse than anything he saw in Korea? Unlike this man, Paterno and the others were not witnesses. The same for McQueary. He obviously panicked, grew flustered, and couldn't think straight that night in 2001 when he walked into the Lasch Building and saw Sandusky. He should have stopped what was taking place and called the police. It's what any of us would (or should) have done. Blaming Paterno for the personal cowardice or mistakes of these men is not right.

The sickening saga at Penn State carried out for more than a decade (and probably longer). It was tragic for the many victims of a monster. It is merely sad for Joe Paterno, a man who stood alongside John Wooden, Dean Smith, Pat Summitt, and others as one of the true leaders of intercollegiate sport in America.

Like Joe said, he should have done more. Now the jackals have moved in to devour his remains.

[Click to view the full Freeh Report]

Thursday, June 7, 2012

An Uncloudy Day

The Campus Game is now hosted at

Please visit to read "An Uncloudy Day"


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Driving the Train

With the resignation of Big East commissioner John Marinatto setting off yet one more round of discussion about college athletic conference realignment, here is a simple statement to keep in mind on the topic.

Football and television are the sources powering this train.

Football is king of the campus. Since the beginnings of American intercollegiate athletics in 1852, a crew (rowing) race between Harvard and Yale, no sport has reigned supreme like football does today. The campus game generates more interest, more money, and exerts more influence than any college sport has at any time since those rowers paddled on Lake Winniepesaukee a century and three score years ago.

Conference Realignment

Television is the locomotive to college football's coal. With an ever-increasing number of networks seeking to fill programming hours with college sports - especially football - rights fees have exploded in the past five years. Schools in the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and others collect in the neighborhood of $15-20 million annually from TV contracts. That's a nice neighborhood.

Television money also comes into play for post-season games. The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was only devised to determine which two teams should play for the national title, but - due to conference tie-ins among the big six conferences and the major bowls, access to the so-called BCS bowls (much like membership in lucrative conferences) has become a common crusade for college athletic directors. For the past year, institutions across the nation have been trying to maneuver their football programs into conferences that assure huge television revenues and access to big-money BCS post-season football games.

Because of that scramble, we end up with geographically strange partners ... Missouri in the SEC East, West Virginia in the Texas-centric Big 12, Boise State in the Big East. The scrambling has mostly settled for the time being, but the Big East may be a tenuous group.

Future of Big East and Notre Dame

So, what does the future hold for the Big East Conference and its semi-member Notre Dame (the Irish compete in all Big East sports except football)?

The Big East has two problems and one nice hole card. Pitt, Syracuse, and West Virginia bolted the conference last year, the first two schools going to the ACC and WVU to the Big 12. To counter, Marinatto and the Big East added a mishmash of schools in an effort to maintain BCS automatic qualifying (AQ) status. In the next few years Boise State, San Diego State, and Navy are slated to join in football only, while SMU, Houston, Memphis, and Central Florida are joining in all sports. Temple is coming aboard from the MAC to give the conference eight teams this season. That wild grab for teams with little in common aggravated the Big East schools more known for basketball (Louisville, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, etc). Those schools could leave and go back to the conference roots (the league started as a basketball conference).

The other problem comes in the recently announced plan to alter the BCS and start a four-team playoff. The AQ designation will be eliminated for all conferences, so access to the big BCS bowls is no longer assured for the new members (especially pertinent for Boise). That could mean the league splintering from two sources - basketball and football.

What is the potential trump card? Television rights.

Fortuitously, the Big East is set to negotiate a new television agreement in September. Reports are that last year the league turned down an offer similar to what the ACC landed ($155 million annually). If the Big East can score that type deal again, the grass might look a whole lot greener to schools considering jumping ship.

Where does Notre Dame come into play?

Notre Dame treasures its independent status in football and hopes for a healthy Big East to house Irish sports other than football. Supposing the Big East survives, only two factors could change ND's status. First, if the Irish television contract with NBC ever falls through, Notre Dame would need to find another network or (as a last resort) join a conference. If NBC ponies up, expect the Irish to stay situated as they are ... unless ... The other sticking point with Notre Dame involves the new BCS playoff format. Should the format be limited to conference champions only, ND would nearly be forced to move into a BCS conference. Most who have studied the issue suggest the ACC might be the landing spot, although the Big Ten makes most geographic sense. If the playoffs are open to any team ranked in the top four, the Irish would again stay independent.


Consider me against any playoff. Period.

I know it's going to happen, but when do any of the power brokers ... from commissioners like Mike Slive, Larry Scott, and Jim Delaney, to media members who dislike the BCS (Dan Wetzel for example) think of the players? Alabama played fourteen games last year; under the new format the Tide would need to come back for one more.

So, we are going to take away a bowl trip from the four most deserving teams (think squads in the playoff will be visiting the French Quarter at the Sugar Bowl or the beach at the Rose?) and make them play one more game. Count my vote as a NAY.

When the playoff commences, the remaining questions are: which teams will be eligible to play, who will select them, and when and where will the teams play?

The best estimates seem to be:

Who ... either the top four teams (the Mike Slive model), or some combination of conference champions that have a minimum ranking (the Jim Delaney) model. Only choosing the top four teams makes sense. Limiting the field of potential teams would simply be a ploy to keep one conference (SEC anyone?) from landing two spots in the semifinals.

Who will choose ... this is a tough one. I like a committee model like the basketball selection panel, but we may just use polls.

When and where ... again, best guesses seem to be using a rotating pair of the existing BCS bowls (Fiesta, Orange, Rose, Sugar) as semifinals and playing the games on or near New Year's, then bidding out the championship to a host site and playing it a week later. A proposed revision of this model called for the semifinal host to be the bowl linked to the higher seed's conference. So, if a Big 12 team was seeded #1 and an SEC team #2, the Fiesta and Sugar Bowls would host semifinal games.

With a few long summer months between now and opening kickoff, we college football fans have to amuse ourselves with discussions like these.

Just keep in mind ... football and television ... they power the train.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hogs (not Jeff Long) take High Road

The University of Arkansas fired head football coach Bobby Petrino yesterday.

Razorback Athletic Director Jeff Long made the announcement during an emotional press conference. Long was admirably straightforward in his remarks, clearly (and occasionally bluntly) stating the various reasons for the dismissal. Even with all Petrino's baggage and flaws (both past and immediate), the move was mildly surprising because of the coach's success in Fayetteville and a very promising 2012 season on the horizon. In the end, Petrino's sleaziness, moral corruption, and inappropriate personnel management (hiring his mistress from a pool of 150+ applicants) left the university little choice but to send the ex-Louisville, ex-Atlanta Falcon coach packing. The school may lose a few more games the next year or two, but is better off without the little man with the outsized ego.

Jeff Long handled the press conference with aplomb and is receiving quite a few accolades among college football media and fans for pulling the plug on Petrino. That acclaim makes me a bit uneasy for a couple of reasons.

First, Long was among the decision-makers that brought Petrino to Fayetteville in the first place. He had to know the risks involved. Keep in mind that Petrino, already earning an annual salary in the multi-millions as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, abandoned the NFL team in mid-season after only thirteen games. The manner in which he left was as bad as the timing ... coaching a Monday night game, secretly scampering out of town without facing his team or owner Arthur Blank, leaving a brief copied note in player lockers, showing up the next night at Arkansas doing the Wooo-Pig-Sooie chant. The lack of class and common professionalism in that departure, along with all the other underhanded behavior in Petrino's past, should have been quite a red flag for Long and the search committee at Arkansas. They knew the kind of man they were hiring and should not be shocked now to find out that Petrino is still the same sorry guy.

Second, while the firing was merited and certainly deserves applause, the bulk of the praise for that decision should be aimed far above Long's administrative level. I've been a college professor for nearly two decades (at institutions large and small) and for many of those years worked closely with the schools' athletic departments as either Faculty Athletic Representative or Athletic Council chair. Believe me, virtually no decision - and certainly not one as significant as firing the head football coach at a BCS level university - is made solely by the Athletic Director. At the very least, the university president or chancellor would be deeply involved, and (more significantly) the power brokers of the institution's trustees would need to approve a move of this magnitude.

So, while Jeff Long deserves his share of pats on the back for firing Bobby P (or his share of blame if you support the coach) ... Arkansas Chancellor David Gearhart and the university's Board of Trustees made the decision. Without question. Good for them.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Games People Play

Cause you've given up your sanity,
for your pride and your vanity
turned your back on humanity ...
oh, the games people play ...

The Games People Play
Joe South 1968

Will the University of Arkansas give up its sanity for the pride and vanity of winning football games?

Apparently, Bobby Petrino is intent on finding out.

Petrino, Razorback head football coach and serial scoundrel with the great offensive mind and even more offensive personality, skidded into his latest ethical lapse when he wrecked a motorcycle last week. Petrino emerged from the crash looking like he'd gone twelve rounds with the truth, but the real pain for him - and Arkansas fans - arrived when the police report of the accident noted that a young lady had been a passenger on the bike. That woman, a twenty-something former Hog volleyball player, was also an Athletic Department employee, hired by and reporting directly to Petrino. Following personal form, Petrino initally lied to Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long about the details of the crash until just before the police report went public.

Long now finds himself in the unenviable position of either firing a talented head coach, or retaining an untrustworthy employee.

Petrino's record the past two seasons is 21-5 and includes a BCS appearance (Sugar Bowl). The Hogs return a strong nucleus from last year's squad (including quarterback Tyler Wilson), host SEC West Division rivals Alabama and LSU this fall, and are likely to enter the 2012 campaign as a pre-season top ten team. Should Long fire Petrino and the team falter, the Athletic Director's head may be the next to roll. Still, Jeff Long and the Arkansas administration must measure those factors with others.

Petrino leaves a trail of stench like a skunk. You can follow the smell from Louisville to Auburn to Atlanta, and now to Fayetteville.

Since I want readers of all ages to be able to enjoy The Campus Game, we will avoid a full review of all Bobby P's moral lapses (those interested can read Pat Forde's litany), and cut to the crux of the matter.

Jeff Long, along with the Arkansas administration and trustees, has every right to fire Petrino. At the least, his head coach broke the morals clause of his contract. Petrino also abused power by hiring someone with whom he had a personal relationship. He then blatantly misled Long by omitting details of his accident (thus causing the university to issue an inaccurate media release).

So ... yes, the University of Arkansas should fire Petrino. But, the school probably will not because he's winning football games.

Oh, the games people play.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Sports Fan's Paradise

Perhaps there is a better time to be a sports fan in America than these first days of April, but one doesn't come to mind immediately.

How's this for an Easter week sports celebration?

College basketball offers championship games tonight (men) and tomorrow (women). Major League Baseball openers announce the arrival of another season. College football spring practices and spring games keep the gridiron game on the front burner. And, golf's most scenic major - the Masters - wraps up on Easter Sunday.

March Madness

Two of the most storied programs in NCAA history meet tonight when Kentucky and Kansas vie for the men's championship. The Wildcats from the Bluegrass State have won more games than any other college basketball program and the Jayhawks rank second. Kentucky features the wonderfully talented freshmen trio of big man Anthony Davis, quick and smooth point guard Marquis Teague, and do-it-all swing man Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Cats' coach John Calipari has fully embraced the one-and-done mentality of bringing in NBA-bound players and trying to win a title in the few months they are on campus.

Kansas is a more veteran squad. The Jayhawks feature a strong inside game with stellar junior forward Thomas Robinson and 7'0 classmate Jeff Withey. KU won the Big 12 conference regular season title for a mind-boggling eigth consecutive time.

Like most, I'll go with the Wildcats in this one. The team has terrific speed and tenacity, and are a really fun group to watch. The Jayhawks have started slowly in most games during the tournament run and cannot afford to do so tonight.

The women's bracket also features a premier matchup with Notre Dame playing Baylor. The Irish earned a second straight trip to the title game by knocking off Connecticut in the semifinals (ND did the same last year); the team is led by popular senior guard Skylar Diggins and clutch classmate Brittany Mallory.

The Irish will literally face a tall test against unbeaten Baylor. Center Brittney Griner leads the Bears and earned fame as the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game. Griner's impact reminds me much of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) at UCLA ... most teams have no answer and the psychological impact of facing the "giant" is almost as significant as the physical presence.

Although an Irish fan, Goliath typically wins these battles. I'll go with Baylor.

MLB Season

Much as I would love for the Braves to reach a World Series, it looks tough.

In the National League, the Phillies appear the team to beat but watch the Marlins and Nationals out of the East as well.

The junior circuit (hey, the American League has only been around since 1901 ... a full quarter century later than the National - or "senior" circuit started) provides old (Yankees and Rangers) and new (Angels with Albert Pujols and Tigers with Prince Fielder) contenders.

The Masters

Can Tiger Woods win a fifteenth major championship in his quest to surpass the eighteen of Jack Nicklaus? Of course he can, but he'll need to beat a host of challengers, of both the experienced and novice variety.

Phil Mickelson has won three green jackets and if his putting holds up should be in contention. Young Americans Keegan Bradley, Billy Haas, Webb Simpson, Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, and Jason Duffner could be threats. Luke Donald (England), Adam Scott (Australia), and defending champ Charl Schwartzel (South Africa) lead an always strong international contingent.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Tiger, Phil, or anybody else is Rory McIlroy. The young Irishmen took a four-stroke lead into the final round in 2011 only to falter badly. He rebounded to win the U.S. Open and is one of the pre-tournament favorites.

Just a hunch but I'll go with Billy Haas to win.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Joy of Sport

Welcome back to campus. Please enjoy a few notes on the passing scene ...

The Joy of Sport

The late winter months are rather slow ones on the sports calendar, at least until March Madness percolates and wakes us up like a hot cup of coffee (or an iced-cold Coca Cola for us non-java types). College basketball offers some nice conference blockbusters (the Duke-North Carolina game comes to mind), the NBA is more interesting than usual due to the shortened season, golf just offered a nice Phil-Tiger pairing at Pebble but really starts at Augusta National, baseball is barely slumbering out of hibernation, and much of this sports-crazed nation is recovering from a sort of post-football hangover.

The calendar makes this a nice time to reflect on sports heroes.

Every spring in my Sport in Society course, students learn about real sport stars. Most everybody recognizes names like Kobe, LeBron, Peyton, Tom Brady, Tiger, Derek Jeter, A-Rod, and the like. But ... do you know Lou Zamperini? How about Maggie Maloy or Darryl Williams? Maybe Sam Paneno?

Didn't think so.

Sadly, those names do not garner much attention, even though they are every bit the heroes as the media darlings.

Zamperini, who turned 95 in late January, is a former American Olympic distance runner. He is better known for being a World War II prisoner of war, where his stature as an American athlete brought down the wrath of his sadistic Japanese capturers (the wrath of one in particular - the notorious Mutsuhiro "Bird" Watanabe). Zamp is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's terrific book Unbroken (the best book I've read in the past few years).

Maloy and Paneno were the initial recipients of the NCAA's Inspiration Award for student-athletes who overcame life altering events to succeed and inspire. Maloy endured a violent attack as a high school runner, and a severe auto accident while at Defiance College that broke her pelvis, but in both instances she came back to compete. Paneno was a star running back at UC-Davis before suffering a knee injury in 1999. Complications arose that led to his lower right leg being amputated. Paneno survived and continued to thrive as an athlete, using four different prosthetic devices for various activities.

Darryl Williams (whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak at conferences) died nearly a year ago, but his courage will remain inspirational for a long, long time. As a high school sophomore football player in the Boston area, Williams was shot during a game in a racially motivated crime. He survived, but spent the remainder of his life as a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair. Rather than falling victim to bitterness and racism himself, Williams became a motivational speaker teaching others about tolerance. Quite a man.

During this slow sports season, we should spend some time reflecting on true sports heroes ... not those named Kobe, LeBron, Peyton, or Tiger ... instead think of Zamp, Maggie Maloy, Sam Paneno, and Darryl Williams.

They truly reflect the joy and power of sport.

Until next time.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Fightin' Side of Me

"If you're runnin' down my country, man,
you're walkin' on the fightin' side of me."

The Fightin' Side of Me
Merle Haggard 1968

My fighting side is boiling today and there are a number of reasons why.


Joe Paterno died this morning.

"Joe Pa" all the Yankee sportswriters and fans called him, but down South my buddies and I knew him simply as Papa. In SEC country, we loved him just about as much as Bear, Archie, Bo, and Herschel. We're college football fans see, not fairweather cowards. If he'd have coached at Alabama, or Tennessee, or Georgia, or LSU ... I doubt we'd have run him off and humiliated him because a weirdo had been on his staff fifteen years earlier.

Lung cancer gets cast as the culprit in Papa's demise, but you, me, and everybody with sense enough to come in out of the rain (which excludes Penn State Trustees and much of the school's administration) knows he died from a broken heart. The chemo and radiation Joe fought through these past few months couldn't have been nearly so painful as the shameful, hurtful treatment the gallant old lion suffered at the hands of those ungrateful "leaders" at Penn State. A trustee phone call in November saying simply "you're through" (let that cold-blooded statement sink in) ended more than sixty years of service for a man who'd lifted a rinky-dink cow college into international prominence. I won't name that squirrelly trustee, but man he's walking on the fightin' side of me. Let's also save a bit of vitriol for the sheep-herd mentality of the shoot first-find out facts later media that pressured the spineless Penn Staters. What a miserable group - the whole lot of them.

I'll choose to remember Joe Paterno for his greatness.

Papa was an Ivy-League educated football coach, a man who could've been a priest and considered practicing law. His teams were just that - teams ... players working together, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. This man coached Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris in the same backfield, the great Curt Warner, a list of linebackers that reads like a Hall of Fame roster, yet always the individuals sacrified their personalities into the group. Happy Valley was not a place for prima donnas.

Paterno won two national titles (1982 and 1986), had a legitimate argument for four others (1968, 1969, 1973, 1994), led five unbeaten squads, won over 400 games (the only FBS coach to do so), coached (37) and won (24) more bowls than anybody, and is the only person to win all the majors bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta).

While different in demeanor and temperament, Paterno most reminds me of the great Vince Lombardi. Brooklyn boys, both considered the priesthood and law before settling on football - at the time still a rather minor distraction in the pantheon of American sports - as the profession where they'd make a mark. Unlike the whiners of contemporary society, where racism and bigotry are claimed at the slightest inconvenience (like having to work for instance), these two men overcame real prejudice against Americans of Italian descent ... Lombardi being passed over by schools and teams that were not ready for a coach with a last name that ended in a vowel, Paterno shunned by the WASPy elite at Brown. Neither man forgot those slights and went out of their way to champion fairness on their teams, regardless of skin color or ethnic background.

Penn State did not deserve him ... and he surely did not deserve the shameful treatment they gave him these past few months.

College football will not see another Paterno. RIP Papa.

Have We Lost Our Minds?

Let me continue my rant by asking whether this nation has collectively lost its mind.

President Obama seems an incompetent. If news articles and essays are accurate, he may also be condescending and arrogant. Even the first lady seems to be wearing so thin on many Americans that even the reliably liberal NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently took her to task.

But ... do you think Republicans have an answer?

Think again. The Grand Ole Party seriously could be about to nominate a caricature. Newt Gingrich and I have at least two similarities. We both taught at West Georgia College (he a couple of decades before me) and probably neither one of us should be elected President of the United States in 2012. Rumpled, bombastic, and undisciplined for most of his professional life, I predict the President (who is disciplined if nothing else) would defeat him handily in a general election.

This president deserves to lose, yet the nation seems too fearful to fire him. I think political correctness rears its ugly head as part of this equation ... too many Americans probably think someone will consider them racist for an unkind word against Obama. Well, it's not racist to call him disappointing and following unsound economic and foreign policies.

Is it too tough to understand that as a nation we spend too much?

We cannot raise taxes enough ... or cut spending enough for that matter ... to pay all the Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Obamacare mandates we've promised. That's just at the federal level and does not include all the state pension systems for government workers. We cannot pay those IOUs without major changes. It cannot happen. Democrats are too often shameless partisans (quick to attribute any legitimate dissent against Obama as racism or to demagogue serious politicians like Paul Ryan). Republicans, on the other hand, can be hopeless dupes (buying into one snake oil salesman candidate after another, many of them seemingly in the public realm simply to sell more books or raise speaking fees).

As citizens we should storm the gates.

Social Media

On all the course syllabi distributed in my classes, a policy addresses the use of electronic devices during class (primarily smart phones). Without that policy and frequent subtle and not-so-subtle reminders, I'd recognize the tops of the heads of some students more than I would their faces. The same goes for most social venues, including highways, where Americans are busy tweeting, texting, talking, and pretty much paying attention to the palms of their hands more than the road or their lunch companion.

I like Twitter and following the news online, but I'm not sure young people understand the permanence and potential implications of using social media without a filter. Not every word or thought that comes to mind should be posted for the world to see ... and for future generations to access. Once it's online, those words or actions never go away.

The lewd behavior of an Alabama fan after the BCS national title game obviously comes to mind. I won't rehash the story, but the chicanery involves drunkenness, stupidity, vulgar (and potentially criminal) behavior ... and a viral video of the whole thing that future family members of all involved will be able to show at reunions. Yuck.

Big brother is officially watching ... and he is us.

America in 2012 ... as Brother Merle sang ... if you don't love it, leave it. Or change it.

Until next time.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

SEC Post-Season Awards

Welcome back to campus!

The 2011 college football season heads for the history books, and congratulations to the Alabama Crimson Tide for winning a second national championship in three years.

Here are a few closing notes on the SEC season.

SEC Awards

Most Valuable Player: Trent Richardson (Alabama) ... the Tide defense actually carried this squad, but if you have to single out one player it would be the powerful junior tailback. Richardson rushed for nearly 1600 yards and scored 20 touchdowns. He also set a work ethic on and off the field that was a model of leadership.

Offensive Player of the Year: Tyler Wilson (Arkansas) ... excluding Richardson since he was MVP, this became a close race between underclass quarterbacks. Aaron Murray of Georgia threw for a remarkable 33 touchdowns, but Wilson gets the nod for leading the Razorbacks to an 11-2 record with the only losses coming to Alabama and LSU. He and Murray will be back.

Defensive Player of the Year: Tyrann Mathieu (LSU) ... who else - the Honey Badger! The little defensive back earned the nickname of the year award for his stellar defensive play and game-changing special teams contributions. He nearly single-handedly saved LSU in the SEC title game against Georgia with two long punt returns and a long interception run back.

Special Teams Player of the Year (tie): Joe Adams (Arkansas) and Brad Wing (LSU) ... Adams narrowly edges the Badger by taking three punts to the house and averaging over 16 yards a return. Wing was the only player in major college football to cost his team a touchdown under the new taunting rule, but that was about all that went wrong for the freshman from down under as he averaged 44 yards a punt and was an effective weapon in pinning teams down.

Newcomer of the Year: Jarvis Jones (Georgia) ... this USC transfer lead the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss by a large margin over any other defender. The future NFL first-round pick will return for his junior season in Athens.

Coach of the Year: Les Miles (LSU) ... yes he reverted to confounding form in the national title game where he was completely outclassed by Nick Saban but that cannot wash away a full season of excellence. Miles' Tigers whipped the champions of the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Music City Bowl, the Gator Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and the BCS Championship Game. Yes Saban is the best in the business, but Miles did the best job in 2011.

Professor's Picks

The old professor finished up the regular season at a pretty good 120-41 and then prognosticated a 23-12 bowl record. The blight on the record was missing the BCS title game pick for the first time in eight years (though I'm actually partially blaming a Crimson Tide-following cousin who claims I jinx the Tide whenever I pick them in a big game!).

On Deck

Unless you are a recruitnik, the end of the bowl season brings a bit of deflation to the college football fan.

After watching virtually every minute of all thirty-five bowls, I would watch another tonight if one was on television. Keep an eye on the BCS post-season formula ... I remain staunchly opposed to a playoff but it looks like there is some momentum for a four-team system of some sort (make it the week after the conference championships if it has to be done).

The professor will continue to post regularly so check back often and always feel free to send comments to or

See you at kickoff!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Will It Go Round In Circles?

Will it go round in circles?

I've got a song, ain't got no moral
Let the bad guy win every once in a while

Billy Preston, 1973

The college football world does go round in circles and Southeastern Conference teams keep flying high like Billy's bird up in the sky (click that Preston link for a nice video clip).

Tonight, for the sixth straight time, a squad from the SEC will claim the BCS championship when LSU and Alabama battle in a rematch of their November 5th defensive struggle (won 9-6 in overtime by LSU). Take your pick on the bad guy that's going to win this one.

Will it be the little Nictator?

Nick Saban is already the only coach to win BCS titles at two different schools (and actually I can't think of any other coach to win national championships at two schools even in the pre-BCS period ... maybe it happened when the helmets were leather). Intense, loud, controlling, Saban reigns over Alabama football with an aura unmatched since Paul "Bear" Bryant tilted goalposts in Tuscaloosa.

Like him or not, most fans and analysts consider Saban at the very top rung of the college coaching ladder, if not perched atop it alone.

If Saban is not your villain, how about LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson?

As sports fans our memories are often short when it comes to the shortcomings of the Saturday heroes, but remember that Jefferson narrowly avoided felony prosecution for his role in a fight outside a Baton Rouge bar back in the summer. With Jefferson suspended, fellow senior Jarrett Lee filled in and played extremely well ... until the Tigers' trip to Tuscaloosa in early November. At that point, Jefferson reemerged and showed just enough fight on the field to give LSU a boost (primarily with his option runs) in the overtime win.

Non-SEC fans probably consider both teams the bad guys.

Mike Gundy felt his Oklahoma State team deserved the slot opposite LSU, and Big 12 fans probably agree. Big Ten fans chafe under the annual New Year's Day whippings the boys from the South lay on them. The Pac-12 thought Oregon or Stanford had a real shot at the title this year after the Ducks came close against Auburn last go round, but had to settle for counting all the money the league pulled in from placing two teams in BCS bowls. The Big East posts a strong bowl record most years (including winning lower-tiered bowls against the SEC) but lacks a top-flight flagship program. The ACC ... well, it's basketball season so their fans are now relevant.

So, which team will fly high tonight?

LSU comes into the game with a great deal of confidence. Georgia shut them out and shut them down for half of the SEC title game, but the Tigers never wavered and then blew out the Dogs once special teams turned the game. Punter Brad Wing and returner Tyrann Mathieu (the Honey Badger) are true weapons. The LSU offense also boasts a deep backfield, so keeping fresh running backs in the game will not be an issue. If they can pound the Tide by holding on to the ball that depth could be a factor. I do not see LSU throwing the ball effectively unless they lull the Tide to sleep and hit a deep ball. While Jefferson had some impact with the option, I would expect Saban and Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to shut that down.

Alabama actually dominated most of the first game between these teams and lost primarily because of missed field goals. Trent Richardson should be the best offensive player on the field (Mathieu keeps me from calling him the best overall player in the game), but I'm not real sold on Eddie Lacy or any depth behind him. QB A.J. McCarron does not impress me, but if Richardson can get some movement up front, play-action passes might be available.

My concern with the Tide is the program has developed a tendency to play tight too often. It happened last year against Auburn and it happened as the game wore on against LSU this year. All that yelling and hollering from strength coaches and Saban and from whoever is fine as far as it goes, and it keeps the team motivated, but Alabama needs to loosen up.

There's a sports psychology/motor learning term called "flow" or optimal arousal level. It holds that players need to be excited to reach maximum performance or flow, but getting too excited diminishes performance. The Tide tends to be a bit too high-energy at times in my opinion.

These are the two best teams in the nation and they'll play what LSU coach Les Miles called "big boy" football tonight.

The BCS championship will go round in circles, but only one SEC team will fly high like a bird up in the sky.

LSU 23-21.