Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Jimmy "the Greek's" Take on Legalized Sports Gambling

ESPN's 30 for 30 series of one hour documentaries has covered several interesting subjects, including the rise and fall of the USFL, the Ali-Holmes fight and the death of Len Bias. This week's episode looked at Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, who starred on CBS' NFL Today pregame show from 1976-87. The NFL Today dominated the airwaves during a pre-internet era in which cable TV was just getting started; the show began several years before ESPN was even created. Brent Musburger--who of course now works for ESPN, primarily covering college football--hosted the NFL Today, former Miss America Phyllis George contributed player interviews, ex-NFL defensive back Irv Cross provided a player's perspective and Jimmy "the Greek" made game predictions, explaining his reasoning with a lengthy toteboard that broke down each matchup in several key categories. The NFL was very touchy about any explicit mention of gambling or point spreads, so Jimmy "the Greek" danced around those issues with thinly veiled euphemisms, saying that he liked one team purely because of home field advantage (customarily worth three points) or concluding that a certain team would probably win because of a late field goal.

Seeing the 30 for 30 footage of NFL Today brought back some fond childhood memories. George recalled that during that time people would race home from church to watch the NFL Today. I certainly remember that the first thing I did after coming home from Sunday School was to turn on the NFL Today. At that time I did not really understand that Jimmy "the Greek's" predictions segment had anything to do with gambling but I was fascinated by the way that he systematically analyzed each team and explained the logical reasons that one team should be favored; I have always watched sports analytically--even as a child--and each week I hoped that he would talk about the Browns, my favorite team. My dad used to complain that we should watch the pregame show on NBC because NBC covered the AFC teams at that time while CBS had the NFC teams but I insisted that we watch the NFL Today: it was more informative and more entertaining. It is pretty clear that I was right on both counts--I sure don't hear anyone speaking nostalgically about NBC's pregame show circa 1978 but the NFL Today is rightly recognized as a classic piece of Americana/sports history.

A lot of the narrative of the 30 for 30 show sounded familiar to me but as a student of sports history I quickly figured out why this is the case: the episode was largely if not entirely based on a great Sports Illustrated article that Frank Deford wrote in 1980 (Deford was interviewed on camera throughout the show but ESPN neglected to mention Deford's article). I have that old SI issue somewhere in my archives but thanks to the SI Vault anyone can find it easily. After watching the show, I reread Deford's article. One passage caught my eye and is particularly relevant today in light of the bill recently passed in Ohio that paved the way for the opening of several casinos; Cleveland Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert loudly supported the bill and because of his interest in the future Cleveland casino he figures to become substantially wealthier as a result of this vote. Jimmy "the Greek" is widely credited--or blamed--for taking sports gambling "out of the closet" and making it a mainstream, socially acceptable activity but even in 1980 when he was at the height of his fame and influence (and likely could not have imagined just how mainstream sports gambling would become in the next few years) he had serious misgivings about the potential widespread legalization of sports gambling. Deford wrote:

Yet for all that gambling has done for him, The Greek is suspicious of its universal charm, especially of those entrepreneurs and politicians who tout it as a bounteous cure-all. Widespread legalized gambling is a scourge upon the land, he declares. "Gambling should be made difficult for the average man. It should be something he budgets to do once or twice a year. Vegas was best when it was hardest to reach," he says.

"You see, it isn't the two or three percent, the house edge, that beats you. Otherwise, people would only lose two or three percent, and so what? It's the psychology. A guy goes to a casino. He wins $500, he's ecstatic. He goes home, buys his wife a present, springs for a night out. Fine. Now he goes back. This time he loses $500. O.K., altogether he's even. But does he quit $500 down the way he did $500 up? No. He takes another $500 out of the bank. And now he's pressing, so he blows that and borrows $500. Now he's out $1,500, and this is a guy who only makes 20 to 25 grand a year. He goes home, gets into his wife's checking account.

"This is what happens when gambling is too accessible. Everybody gets hurt but the casino. The guy can't buy the new summer suit or the new shoes for his wife. He lets the tune-up go. The stores are hurt, the restaurant, the gas station. This is the kind of stuff you'll start to see soon at Atlantic City.

"And if they legalized sports betting, the little guy would be just as dead. We'd find a way to beat you. Right now, if we—me, anybody—tried to bet more than $50,000 on any game, we'd have a hard time. And when you only got $50 riding, you can't pay enough to fix a game. Put a pencil to it. But with legalized gambling, there'd be so much money bet you could get down a million or more on one game. So now it's worth it to pay for a fix, isn't it? And that's easy. You don't need the quarterback. Just gimme the center. Gimme the referee. All I'd need is one offside at the right time. You don't even need to get a guy to throw it for you. Suppose we just pay a big star $50,000 to stay home with the flu? Nobody ever thought of that before, did they?"

Jimmy "the Greek" made a fortune not only with his knowledge of sports handicapping but also by wagering on the outcome of political races (he bet thousands on Truman in the 1948 Presidential election even though the "experts" were sure that Dewey would win); in other words, he was not only a numbers whiz but he also understood psychology and knew how to read people. Ohio residents--and the residents of other states that have legalized various forms of gambling--better hope that Jimmy "the Greek's" ominous 1980 prediction does not come back to haunt them 10 or 20 years after Gilbert and his cronies build their casinos; guys like Jimmy "the Greek" can "beat the house" because they are smart and because they do their homework but the reality is that most people who place bets are not that smart and they don't do their homework.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Raymond Berry Invented the Modern Wide Receiver Position

Long before Larry Fitzgerald began catching passes at their "high point" and long before Jerry Rice ran up and down his famous hill, a slow, relatively unathletic perfectionist named Raymond Berry invented the modern wide receiver position, as Mark Bowden explains in an excerpt from his 2008 book "The Best Game Ever." Berry's meticulous devotion to honing his craft brings to mind the modern studies about how achieving greatness is predicated on putting in at least 10,000 hours of "effortful study". Bowden concludes, "Like those of any pioneer, Raymond's obsessions redefined his field. It just happened that his had goalposts at either end."

Berry did his thousands of hours of lonely work without ever knowing how--or even if--it would pay off. Berry's labors of love enabled a player who had been drafted in the 20th round (!) to catch 12 passes for an NFL Championship Game record 178 yards in Baltimore's 23-17 overtime victory versus the New York Giants in 1958. That game put the NFL on the road to becoming the multibillion dollar business that it has become and is one of the highlights of a career in which Berry caught 631 regular season passes, the NFL's career record in that category until rules changes altered the game and ushered many players past that mark.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Wall Street Journal Publishes Another Sloppily Rendered Chess Article

I wrote two detailed critiques of a Wall Street Journal article about the Kasparov-Karpov 25th anniversary match; the Wall Street Journal article not only contained several basic factual errors but also demonstrated that its author had no understanding of chess history and how chess strategy/tactics have evolved over the past 150 years. The Wall Street Journal's most recent attempt to cover chess is equally unsatisfactory: Barbara Jepson's piece titled Abolish Women's Chess Titles inspired a passionate and detailed refutation by GM Alexandra Kosteniuk, the reigning Women's World Chess Champion.

The issue of whether or not FIDE should award separate titles--with significantly lower standards--to women is interesting but the more pertinent matter in this instance is the fraudulent way that Jepson put together her story. Kosteniuk explains (in a comment posted beneath the blog post cited above):

What's upsetting is that the Wall Street journalist, Barbara Jepson, tricked me by telling me that the article she was writing was about "Women's Chess", which made me very happy, as I supposed she would be writing something to support women's chess (not destroy it), that's why I took great care to answer in a positive and honest way (as I always do).

She asked me several questions including if I thought special women's titles should be eliminated. In my answer to her, I wrote very clearly with my reasoning that "Women's titles and tournaments should exist". And then she changed the title of her piece to "Abolish Women's Chess Titles", and used my name in it (I guess to add some authority to it, as if to boast she consulted with the women's world champion about it), only quoting some insignificant point I made to another question about sponsoring, without stating I was against that idea of abolishing women's titles, so that most people thought I agreed with the idea of abolishing women's titles since I was featured in her article and said nothing about the lead question of abolishing titles.

This apparently caused on purpose misunderstanding led me to get several emails from people asking me why I supported abolishing women's titles. This lie started to be posted all over the web and can still be seen on several web sites. I had to immediately respond on my blog and set things right.

Now you, dear reader, please judge for yourself what kind of article that Wall Street Journal was?

Whether or not one agrees with Jepson's premise, it is irresponsible of Jepson to mislead her readers to believe that GM Kosteniuk supports the abolition of separate FIDE titles for women. Sadly, this type of agenda-based "reporting" is all too typical; journalists form a conclusion and then shape their coverage to reflect their biases, as opposed to objectively researching a subject and reporting what they discover. I provided several examples of such tendentious coverage in a post titled How the Media Works--or Doesn't Work.

Another related problem is the media's obsession with "breaking news"; every outlet wants to cover a story first, often at the expense of covering that story accurately: the Washington Post's Dana Milbank declares that because of such haste The News is Broken. The 24 hour news/sports/entertainment channels are contributing to the death of real journalism, because the "beast" must be fed nonstop content 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even if there is nothing true, significant or meaningful to report. Ratings go down--and revenues thus drop--if the networks do not constantly offer up "new" stories, so these channels constantly "break" stories without providing any depth or context. Then they move on to the next "breaking" story without bothering to fix the stories that they literally broke.

Friday, October 16, 2009

"If I Have to Integrate Heaven, I Don't Want to Go"

I have authored several pieces that lament the sorry state of the writing business today (my most recent such offering can be found here). Some readers have requested that--in addition to providing on-point critiques of poor writing/editing--I also give examples of excellent writing/editing. The sad truth is that such examples are becoming increasingly hard to find but I agree that such praiseworthy efforts deserve recognition.

The October 12, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated features a powerful, moving and well researched Alexander Wolff article titled The NFL's Jackie Robinson. Wolff tells the story of Kenny Washington, a college teammate of Jackie Robinson who integrated--or, to be precise, re-integrated--the NFL, a league that employed black athletes initially before a shameful 12 year period (1934-46) during which an unwritten--but strictly followed--rule turned the league lily white. Wolff's companion piece at pioneers deserve to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame--is also a must-read.

Washington only played briefly in the NFL, arriving on the scene past his prime with battle-scarred knees (he had starred for several seasons in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League). Washington's teammate Bob Waterfield--a Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Rams to two NFL titles--eulogized Washington in 1971 by declaring, "If he had come into the NFL directly from UCLA, he would have been, in my opinion, the best the NFL had ever seen."

Washington's UCLA teammate Woody Strode also joined the Rams in 1946. Wolff's article cites a poignant quote from an unpublished interview that Strode did with Sports Illustrated shortly before Strode's death in 1994: "Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life. There was nothing nice about it. History doesn't know who we are. Kenny was one of the greatest backs in the history of the game and kids today have no idea who he is. If I have to integrate heaven, I don't want to go."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wall Street Journal Attempts to Correct Faulty Chess Article

In a BEST post titled Why Does Chess Not Receive Intelligent Mainstream Media Coverage? I discussed a flawed Wall Street Journal chess article. On September 30, the Wall Street Journal published the following correction notice regarding that article:

Bobby Fischer played the chess opening Alekhine's Defense a number of times prior to his 1972 match with Boris Spassky, and Mr. Fischer opened his sixth game with Mr. Spassky with the move c4. In addition, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov played their final world-championship chess match in 1990. An article in the Sept. 26 Weekend Journal about a recent match between Messrs. Kasparov and Karpov incorrectly said their last world-championship match was in 1987. The article also incorrectly said that Mr. Fischer had never played the opening Alekhine's Defense before and that he opened his sixth game with Mr. Spassky with the move d4.

The day before the Wall Street Journal published the above note, I received this email from Peter Saenger, the News Editor for the Weekend Journal (Saenger's reply is placed in italics to separate it from the text of this post but is otherwise reprinted exactly as he sent it, including the misspelling of Botvinnik's first name):

Dear Mr. Friedman,

Thanks for your comments. We always appreciate hearing from readers. We will deal with some of the other issues you bring up in a correction to be published soon, but I wanted to point out one thing: When we published the part about Mr. Botvinnik, we hoped it would be clear from the context that we were not saying he was the first world champion ever:

For 4 1/2 decades after World War II, with only one short interruption, the world champion was a citizen of the Soviet Union. / Miikhail Botvinnik was the first champion, in 1948, and to a large extent he established the nature of the modern game.

Again, thanks for your comments, and please don't hesitate to write us again over any issue. Thanking you, I am,

Sincerely, Peter Saenger / News Editor / Weekend Journal

Arguing that "context" clarifies sloppy writing is a poor excuse. Contrary to what author David Szalay implied, Russia's chess tradition predates Lenin and the Soviet Union and includes such great players as Alexander Petrov, Carl Jaenisch, Mikhail Chigorin (challenger for the World Chess Championship in 1889 and 1892), Emmanuel Schiffers and Alexander Alekhine (World Chess Champion, 1927-1935, 1937-46). The 1914 international tournament held in St. Petersburg, Russia is a landmark event in chess history: the top five scorers were World Champion Emmanuel Lasker, future World Champions Jose Raul Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine, Siegbert Tarrasch (challenger for the World Chess Championship in 1908) and U.S. Champion Frank Marshall (challenger for the World Chess Championship in 1907). Many sources state that Czar Nicholas II conferred the title "Grandmaster" on those five players as a result of their success at St. Petersburg, though historian Edward Winter is skeptical of those accounts.

Instead of relying on "context," Szalay could have provided his readers with more information by writing: "Alexander Alekhine, heir to a Russian chess tradition dating to the 19th century, defeated Jose Raul Capablanca to become World Champion in 1927, lost the title to Max Euwe in 1935, defeated Euwe in 1937 and retained the crown until his death in 1946. Alekhine, like his predecessors, enjoyed the right to handpick his challenger but after his death FIDE (the International Chess Federation) took over the World Championship and in 1948 held a tournament to crown Alekhine's successor; Soviet star Mikhail Botvinnik won that event and for the next four and a half decades--with one brief exception--the World Chess Champion was a Soviet citizen."

My version is 64 words longer than Szalay's version but my version is written much more clearly and it is historically accurate. The problem with what Szalay wrote is not just that he erroneously called Botvinnik "the first champion" but that he asserted that Botvinnik "to a large extent established the modern nature of the game." Botvinnik certainly made a significant contribution to the evolution of chess but it is wrong to deny or diminish the contributions made by Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz, Aron Nimzovitch and other great players/theoreticians. Szalay clearly is not an informed student of chess history, nor did he do the necessary homework prior to writing his article and that is why his text is littered not only with the most basic factual errors but also presents a slanted take on the history of the sport.

Neither Saenger's email nor the Wall Street Journal's published correction address Szalay's confusion about the difference between a "match" and a "game"; Szalay bizarrely stated that Kasparov and Karpov drew a "speed chess match" in 1999, when in reality Kasparov beat Karpov three times while ceding only one draw en route to winning a rapid chess event in Frankfurt that year. Szalay oddly neglected to mention that Karpov defeated Kasparov in a four game rapid chess match in 2002.

I don't understand how writers, editors and fact checkers who have access to proper research materials make so many mistakes; switching gears to basketball, it befuddles me when the "crawl" on ESPN calls the legendary Oscar Robertson "Oscar Robinson" or when Chris Berman declares that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed game six of the 1980 NBA Finals due to a migraine (Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle during game five and that injury kept him out of game six, opening the door for Magic Johnson to author a legendary performance). Granted, anyone can make a mistake but why do so many people/organizations who are purportedly the leaders in their fields make so many basic mistakes? If you don't know a fact or statistic then before you write it or say it, take five minutes to confirm it. Szalay's mistaken references to Bobby Fischer's opening repertoire are easily refuted by consulting any number of sources, including the book Bobby Fischer's Chess Games (Wade and O'Connell, 1972), which contains all of Fischer's tournament and match games prior to his 1972 World Championship Match with Spassky and indexes each of those games by opening variation. Half of Kasparov's final World Championship match with Karpov took place in New York City in 1990, so it is ironic that the New York City-based Wall Street Journal is apparently unaware of a significant event that took place so close to their headquarters--and it is hard to take Szalay seriously as a chess writer if he does not know such recent history.

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, who is now perhaps ESPN's best NFL analyst, refers to quarterbacking as a "craft," insisting that quarterbacks should study the game and practice their techniques with the mindset of perfecting their craftsmanship; Young certainly took that approach during his playing career, evolving from a scrambler to become the highest rated passer in NFL history. Writing and editing are also crafts and the practitioners of those crafts should have enough pride in their work that they put forth the effort to know their subject matter and express their ideas clearly.

The Wall Street Journal properly corrected Szalay's basic factual errors but this does not change the reality that Szalay's piece distorts chess history by belittling Russia's great chess tradition, minimizing the greatness of Botvinnik's predecessors and inexplicably contending that during their recent match Kasparov and Karpov reprised "their younger, fiercer, hungrier selves." Szalay's article fails at all levels because he does not know the basics of chess history, he does not appreciate the subtleties of how the sport has evolved and he obviously has no familiarity with the Kasparov-Karpov rivalry past or present.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why Does Chess Not Receive Intelligent Mainstream Media Coverage?

Former World Chess Champions Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov recently played a 12 game match in Valencia, Spain to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their first World Championship Match. The 46 year old Kasparov defeated the 58 year old Karpov 9-3, prevailing 3-1 in "rapid" games (25 minutes per player per game, plus a five second increment added after each move) and 6-2 in "blitz" games (five minutes per player per game, plus a two second increment). Kasparov's lopsided victory is hardly surprising considering the age difference between the players and the recent dramatic decline in Karpov's playing strength (he no longer ranks among the world's top 100 players) but it is worth remembering that their five World Championship matches were each tightly contested and yielded a cumulative score of 73-71 in Kasparov's favor. Their 1984-85 marathon match was suspended without conclusion, ostensibly because the players were exhausted after five months of combat; challenger Kasparov vociferously protested this decision because it certainly seemed designed to keep the title in the hands of Karpov, the defending champion who had been fading fast after taking a lead of five wins to none. Karpov led 5-3 when the match ended--with 40 draws (!) not counting because the match format required the winner to win six games--but Kasparov had just won two games in a row. Not surprisingly, that match format was altered when the players began a new match in 1985 and this time Kasparov triumphed 13-11 (five wins, three losses, 16 draws) to become the youngest official World Chess Champion. Kasparov successfully defended his title three times versus Karpov, beating him 12.5-11.5 in a 1986 match (five wins, four losses, 15 draws), drawing a 1987 match 12-12 (four wins apiece, 16 draws) and winning a 1990 match 12.5-11.5 (four wins, three losses, 17 draws).

Chess aficionados eagerly follow the moves played by the game's greatest champions and the internet has made it possible to do so instantaneously (subject to technical difficulties) as opposed to having to wait for the game scores to be published in newspapers, magazines or books; I remember getting together with a group of chess friends in 1990 to "watch"--via an internet connection--the first game of the Kasparov-Karpov match, a big change from previous World Championship Matches when I had to wait until the next day to find the moves in USA TODAY and could only find quality analysis of the games in magazines/books that were not published until weeks (or months) later.

The general public--at least in America--largely ignores what is happening in the chess world unless someone who is a child prodigy and/or has a charismatic personality captures their imagination: Kasparov, Bobby Fischer and Josh Waitzkin (the subject of the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer") are three examples of chess players who achieved a certain degree of "mainstream" fame, though Waitzkin's story is no doubt much more widely known than his actual name. Kasparov is certainly more famous than Viswanathan Anand--the current World Chess Champion--and for that reason the recent Kasparov-Karpov showdown attracted a lot of attention from media outlets that generally provide little or no chess coverage.

I am ranked at approximately the 95th percentile of U.S. chess players and I consider the mano a mano competition in chess to be a welcome contrast to the subjective way that many other fields of endeavor--including writing--operate, so at one level I am happy to see chess receiving mainstream attention but at the same time I also am frustrated that the sport and its history are not presented more accurately. Chess is an ancient game that enjoys world-wide popularity among an incredibly diverse group of people who defy categorization by age, socioeconomic status, gender or race--so why is it so rare for a mainstream American media publication to offer an intelligent portrayal of this sport/art/science?

The September 27-28 edition of the Wall Street Journal includes a lengthy article by David Szalay titled "Old Kings, New Game." Szalay tries to place the Kasparov-Karpov rivalry in historical context but he paints an inaccurate picture of the development of the sport and he is also ignorant of several basic facts. Here is the text of a letter that I sent (via email) to the editors of the Wall Street Journal:

As a U.S. Chess Federation rated expert, I am happy to see chess receive "mainstream" coverage but overall I am disappointed in the rather superficial--and, in some cases, simply inaccurate--article written by David Szalay.

The WSJ article titled "Old Kings, New Game" asserts that Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov "played their final world championship match in 1987." In fact, their final world championship match took place in 1990, with 12 games being held in New York and 12 games being held in Lyon, France. Kasparov won 12.5-11.5 to retain the world championship title.

Also, Szalay describes Mikhail Botvinnik as "the first champion" but that is not correct. As noted below, several world champions preceded Botvinnik--nor was Botvinnik the first player of Russian descent to hold the title (if that is what Szalay meant to say); Alexander Alekhine was born in Moscow.

Wilhelm Steinitz was the first official world chess champion; his reign officially lasted from 1886-1894, though he is widely credited as being the world champion for the period 1866-1894. Steinitz was succeeded by Emmanuel Lasker, who reigned from 1894-1921. Jose Raul Capablanca defeated Lasker in 1921. Alexander Alekhine beat Capablanca in 1927 and remained the champion until he died in 1946, with the exception of the years 1935-37, when Max Euwe took the title from Alekhine. Botvinnik ascended to the throne by winning a world championship tournament held in 1948, an event that featured several top contenders vying for the title vacated by Alekhine's death.

Furthermore, Szalay shows a lack of understanding of the evolution of chess when he dismisses the strategic understanding of Paul Morphy and presents Botvinnik as the creator of "modern chess." Many of Botvinnik's predecessors--including Steinitz, Aron Nimzovitch and Morphy himself--made significant contributions to the development of the "modern" game and Szalay neglects to mention that in 1960 Botvinnik suffered a championship match defeat at the hands of Mikhail Tal, a player whose style was not scientific but who played very much in the tactical/romantic manner that Morphy did; Tal's moves sometimes were refuted in post-match analysis but Tal put pressure on his opponents to find solutions during the game, with the clock running and the tension mounting.

I disagree with Szalay's conclusion that during the just concluded Kasparov-Karpov match in Spain that the players "slip(ped) back into their younger, fiercer, hungrier selves." While it is true that Kasparov and Karpov were not on cordial terms during their rivalry in the 1980s and early 1990s, they have since become friendly and the reality is that this match had a completely different tone than their earlier showdowns.

In his article, Szalay simply communicated his biases/lack of understanding about chess as opposed to researching the subject in depth or even bothering to follow what actually happened in the match in Valencia, Spain. I sincerely hope that the next time the Wall Street Journal provides such prominent coverage to chess that it uses a writer who is much more well versed about the subject.

--David Friedman

Although I doubt that the editors will either publish my letter or even respond to it, I kept it at a publishable length and thus did not do a complete recitation of all of the errors/distortions in Szalay's article. For instance, Szalay wrongly stated that Fischer began game six of his 1972 World Championship Match versus Boris Spassky with the move d4; Fischer in fact played c4 on the first move of that game, though by transposition the players eventually reached an opening that generally begins with d4. Szalay also referred to a "speed chess match" that Kasparov and Karpov drew in 1999, but they did not draw a "match"* in 1999, nor is what they did play properly called "speed chess": both players participated in a four player rapid chess event called the Siemens Giants held in Frankfurt, Germany; Kasparov and Karpov faced each other four times in this round robin tournament, resulting in three draws and one Kasparov victory. Kasparov took first place in the tournament, while Karpov finished fourth (last). As noted above, in "speed" chess each player generally has five minutes to complete all of his moves, while in "rapid" chess each player generally has 25 minutes to complete of all his moves; writing as if the two forms of chess are the same--or that they can be compared to games contested at slower time controls--is similar to writing as if a three on three tournament or a slam dunk contest are the same thing or that they can be compared to organized five on five basketball games. Furthermore, it is strange that Szalay chose to mention the 1999 event but did not say anything about the four game 2002 Kasparov-Karpov rapid match in which Karpov emerged as a surprise winner by the score of 2.5-1.5, an impressive victory for the older Karpov against Kasparov, who at that time still ranked number one in the world (though Kasparov was no longer the official World Champion).

In the literary world, Szalay's alleged expertise about chess has earned him not only prominent placement in the Wall Street Journal but also contracts to write chess-themed fiction books; over the board in the chess world, such "expertise" about how to play the game would only earn a humiliating defeat--or, in the immortal words of World Champion Emmanuel Lasker, "On the chess board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."


* Journalists who are not chess players appear to be chronically incapable of correctly using the most basic chess terminology: they are often confused about the difference between a "game" and a "match"; a game is one encounter between two players and can take place either in a tournament (which consists of a series of games played against different opponents) or in a match (which consists of a set number of games contested by two opponents). When I read a story about chess that incorrectly uses those terms interchangeably I feel like I am hearing fingernails scratching a chalkboard, because it is frustrating that some reporters apparently make no effort to do even the most basic research about their subject matter. In the 1999 Frankfurt event, Kasparov and Karpov played four games as part of a round robin tournament; loosely speaking, one could say that they contested a "match," but their battle was just one part of a larger tournament, in contrast to a true match that only pits two competitors against each other.

The chess concept that is most often misrepresented in the media is "stalemate," a word that non-chess players frequently--and incorrectly--use as a synonym for "impasse" or "deadlock," but the actual meaning of the term is quite specific and does not refer to two parties that are equally balanced in a standoff. In chess a stalemate is a particular type of draw, namely a situation in which one side enjoys a material superiority but has carelessly left his opponent with no legal moves without putting him in check (in contrast to checkmate, when the losing player has no way out of check); in chess, all stalemates are draws but not all draws are stalemates, an important distinction that is usually completely ignored in general parlance.

Monday, August 10, 2009

International Master Justin Sarkar's "Perfect Game"

I first met International Master Justin Sarkar at the November 2006 Kings Island tournament, where Sarkar tied for first place after defeating Grandmaster Zviad Izoria, a very strong player who outrated Sarkar by nearly 300 points at that time; such a difference means that Izoria would be expected to win roughly 75% of his games versus players of Sarkar's rating. After the tournament ended, IM Sarkar enthralled National Master Jerry Hanken and me with a fascinating analysis of his victory, including insights into how a top level player thinks during such an encounter. Hanken subsequently wrote about Sarkar for both Chess Life magazine and Chess Life Online.

Sarkar is a highly talented player but he has traversed a very challenging path to attain the IM title and you can learn about some of the details of his struggle with autism by clicking on the links in the previous paragraph. I spoke with Sarkar several times in the past few days at the 110th U.S. Open Chess Tournament. Sarkar said that originally he had not planned to play in the U.S. Open but then at the last moment he decided to jump into the fray. After taking byes for the first three rounds and reeling off five straight wins Sarkar needed just one more victory to tie for first place and earn a spot in the 2010 U.S. Championship. Sarkar is particularly proud of his eighth round triumph over Robert O'Donnell, a strong Expert from Michigan who for many years held a National Master level rating. Sarkar is soft spoken and modest about his achievements, so when he earnestly told me that he had played a "perfect game" versus O'Donnell and then lamented that most people don't understand how difficult it is to play a perfect game of chess I knew that I had to see the moves for myself:

IM Justin Sarkar - Robert O'Donnell [E32]
U.S. Open 8/8/09 (8)

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 0-0 5.e4 Bxc3+!? 5...d5 6.e5 Ne4 is the normal continuation. 6.bxc3 White has a slight edge now; he has obtained a massive pawn center without having to spend a tempo by playing a3. 6...d6 7.e5 dxe5 8.dxe5 Nfd7 9.Nf3 Nc6 10.Ba3 In the only other game I could find in this line, Sergey Beavenets defeated Viacheslav Ragozin, a famous Grandmaster who is renowned for his theoretical knowledge and who helped train World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik:

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Qc2 Nc6 5. Nf3 O-O 6. e4 Bxc3+ 7. bxc3 d6 8.e5 dxe5 9. dxe5 Nd7 10. Ba3 Ne7 11. Rd1 h6 12. Qe4 Re8 13. Bd3 Nf8 14. O-O Rb8 15. Qg4 Bd7 16. Bc1 Nf5 17. Qh3 Ng6 18. Be4 Qe7 19. g4 Ba4 20. gxf5 exf5 21.Qxf5 Bxd1 22. Rxd1 Qe6 23. Qxe6 Rxe6 24. Rd7 Nxe5 25. Nxe5 Rxe5 26. f3 Rbe8 27.Rxc7 f5 28. Bd5+ Kh8 29. Bf4 Re1+ 30. Kg2 R8e2+ 31. Kh3 g5 32. Bd6 Rg1 33. Re7Rxe7 34. Bxe7 b6 35. c5 bxc5 36. Bxc5 Rd1 37. c4 a6 38. Bb7 Rd3 39. a4 1-0 (1935 Soviet Championship).

10...Ndxe5 11.Nxe5 Nxe5 12.Rd1 Qh4 13.Rd4 Qf6 14.Bxf8 Kxf8 15.Qxh7 Ng6 16.h4 e5 17.Rd2 e4 18.h5 Qxc3 19.hxg6 Qc1+ 20.Ke2 Qxc4+ 21.Kd1 Bg4+ 22.f3 Qa4+ 23.Ke1 e3 24.Rd3 Qb4+ 25.Ke2 Qb2+ 26.Kxe3 Re8+ 27.Kf4 Qe5+ 28.Kxg4 Qe6+ 29.Kg3 Qe5+ 30.f4 1-0

Note how Sarkar eschewed taking the f8 Rook on move 13 and instead gained a tempo by activating his Rook while harassing O'Donnell's Queen. O'Donnell could have offered stronger resistance at certain points but Sarkar is understandably pleased with this game because of how relentlessly and logically he played after O'Donnell's slight inaccuracy on move five; O'Donnell's rating places him above the 97th percentile of U.S. players, so defeating a player of that caliber is not nearly as easy as Sarkar made it seem to be.

Grandmaster Jesse Kraai beat Sarkar in the last round, thereby sharing first place with five others and dropping Sarkar to a tie for 18th place. Kraai's rating had plateaued between 2400 and 2500 for about eight years before recently jumping to nearly 2600. Kraai has described how he attained the Grandmaster title at a relatively late age (the 37 year old achieved that goal two years ago, but most GMs reach that level in their teens or twenties) by virtue of hard work and I have much respect for anyone who plays chess that well because I know how difficult it is to do that. However, I also sympathize with Sarkar's quite understandable feeling that his accomplishments in the face of adversity have not received their just due; in the Hanken article cited above, Sarkar notes that his great performance in the 2003 U.S. Championship did not attract much attention and on Sunday he told me that he had hoped to jump start his quest for the Grandmaster title by finishing the U.S. Open on a strong note. Sarkar's living situation and his state of mind make it difficult for him to study and prepare the way that most top flight players do, so he relies heavily on natural talent, trusting his instincts to help him figure things out over the board (as opposed to making the in depth pre-game preparation that is de rigueur at the IM and GM level). Sarkar has defeated many top GMs and certainly has the ability to attain that coveted title; hopefully he will produce more "perfect games" en route to achieving that goal.

1/9/10 Addendum:

IM Sarkar recently emailed me some further insights about his "perfect game" and I am happy to share his perspective with my readers; he feels that it is very important to understand that he not only played this game very accurately but that he did so very quickly. IM Sarkar writes, "I didn't exactly blitz out the game, though I was comfortably within the 3 minutes a move avg and like I said was even up over an hour on the clock. My 16th move (h4) was important to find and recognize over the board as the best plan in the position. I took one of my longer thinks on move 24 (Rd3) as I had a nearly equally promising continuation. The computer at first seemed liked the other, then with more time to think liked my move even better. Note that it's a bit scary, as it involves 'almost getting mated'. It's good I was able to accurately calculate this with confidence, even though I saw another 'less scary' way that I also felt was most certainly winning. And in general, when he gave me the knight on g6 for an attempted perpetual check or attack on my king, I had to accurately foresee the best way out of the series of checks."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Debunking Myths About Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Roger Federer

If you are only a casual tennis fan and/or are too young to remember the early 1980s, then you might believe the popular fiction that after Bjorn Borg lost to John McEnroe in the 1981 U.S. Open Final he walked off of the court and never played professional tennis again (save for a brief comeback in the early 1990s and some matches on the senior tour). McEnroe has done nothing to discourage people from accepting that version of events as the truth and journalist Mike Lupica is fond of repeating McEnroe's statement that Borg retired because Borg mistakenly believed that McEnroe would never mess up. Lupica and others--including McEnroe himself--claim that McEnroe never quite reached the heights that he was capable of reaching because in some way McEnroe mourned Borg's premature exit from center stage and thus never pushed himself as hard as he could have. That is a completely illogical contention, because if Borg had kept playing a full schedule well into the 1980s it is highly likely that McEnroe would have won fewer events as opposed to enjoying greater success.

Although many people act like Borg retired in 1981, he won four big money events in 1982 and did not officially announce his retirement from professional tennis until January 1983. So why did Borg not play in any Grand Slams after the 1981 U.S. Open? The International Tennis Federation ruled that any player must participate in a minimum number of sanctioned tournaments in order to avoid having to play in the qualifying rounds at the Grand Slams. Borg--the four-time defending French Open champion who won a record six French Opens overall and also won a record five straight Wimbledons--understandably did not feel like he should have to play in qualifiers under any circumstances. So, in 1982 he skipped the Grand Slams rather than obey this silly rule. Though Borg did not play in the number of events that the lords of the sport thought that he should have played in, he was still training and, if anything, his game was actually getting better in some ways; he became stronger and he was serving harder than he ever had before: if you don't believe that or are still convinced that Borg could no longer handle McEnroe after 1981, consider what happened in November 1982 in the Akai Gold Challenge Round Robin; Borg won the event by defeating the number one ranked McEnroe 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 and trouncing Ivan Lendl--who just months later would become the number one ranked player--6-1, 6-4, 6-2. Check out Borg's speed, power and deft shotmaking versus McEnroe:

In that footage you will notice how Borg repeatedly bludgeoned McEnroe with savage two-handed backhand winners. The interesting thing about Borg's two-handed backhand is that when it was subjected to frame by frame analysis (not specifically from this match but earlier in Borg's career) it turned out that Borg was actually flexing his left arm muscles more than his right arm muscles; in other words, Borg's two-handed backhand was, in effect, a left handed forehand!

A lot of people are entertaining themselves with delusions about how McEnroe would have done versus Borg in Grand Slams in the 1980s or what a hypothetical Borg-Federer matchup would look like. The above 1982 footage clearly refutes any notion that McEnroe had flustered or bewildered Borg. Federer has consistently struggled versus Rafael Nadal--a fit clay court specialist who has adapted his game to other surfaces--and Federer would not have fared any better versus Borg, a fit clay court specialist who not only adapted his game to other surfaces even better than Nadal has but was also savvier and possessed more touch than Nadal.

Borg still holds the record for being the youngest player to win 11 Grand Slams (25)--and he never played in a Grand Slam after the age of 25! This is kind of like Jim Brown retiring from the NFL at the age of 29 while holding the all-time career rushing record. Other players have rushed for more yards than Brown but there are not too many knowledgeable observers who believe that current record holder Emmitt Smith was a greater running back than Brown--and Federer is not the greatest tennis player of all-time just because he has won a record 15 career Grand Slams.

Two important factors are not properly considered when people compare Federer to Borg:

1) Borg's overall Grand Slam record is more impressive than Federer's.

Borg won 11 out of the 27 Grand Slams he entered (a .407 winning percentage that is an Open Era record). Borg won seven of the final 12 Slams that he entered and made the Finals in 11 of his final 12 Slams. His career match record in Slams is 141-16 (.898), the best such winning percentage in the Open Era. Borg's "triple double" (winning the Wimbledon and French titles in the same year three years in a row, 1978-80) is unprecedented in tennis history and will not likely be duplicated. Borg won three different Slam titles without losing a set, something no other player has done more than once.

At one time, Borg held the record for being youngest French Open champion (18 in 1974) and youngest Wimbledon champion (20 in 1976; he also was the youngest Italian Open champion and youngest player to win a Davis Cup match--and he still holds the latter record); in contrast, by the time Federer was 20 years old he had yet to win a Grand Slam title and had amassed five first round losses in Slams.

Borg made the semis in 17 out of 27 Slams, made the quarters in 20 out of 27 and never lost in the first round; Federer has made the semis in 23 out of 41 Slams, has made the quarters in 25 out of 41 and has lost in the first round six times.

It is also important to remember that in the 1970s most of the top non-Australian players skipped the Australian Open; Borg played there just once, at 18 years of age in 1974, Jimmy Connors only played there twice, Arthur Ashe played in four of the 13 Australian Opens held during his career and Ilie Nastase--the first player classified as number one in the world when the ATP began using computer rankings in 1973--played in the Australian Open once (1981) in a Grand Slam career spanning 1966-1985. John McEnroe, whose Grand Slam career lasted from 1977-92, played in just five Australian Opens. Federer's Grand Slam total includes three Australian Open wins. Referring back to the NFL analogy, comparing Federer's 15 Grand Slam wins to Borg's 11 is like comparing Emmitt Smith's rushing total to Jim Brown's without taking into consideration that Smith played for 15 seasons compared to Brown's nine and that during Smith's career the NFL season lasted 16 games instead of the 12 or 14 games that a season lasted during Brown's era; Federer's Grand Slam career has already lasted 11 years compared to Borg's nine, so Federer has had many more opportunities to pad his Grand Slam total--and he has done just that by winning an event that was so insignificant during Borg's era that many of the top players regularly skipped it. It took Federer 14 extra Slam appearances to produce four more Slam wins than Borg--and three of those "extra" wins came at the least important Slam.

2) The importance of the Grand Slam events has changed in the past few decades.

Prior to reading this article, you probably had never heard of the aforementioned Akai Gold Challenge and therefore you surely must wonder how important it could have been. That event may be largely forgotten now, but it was very important to the players at that time: it featured a larger prize fund than the Grand Slams did! Part of the reason that so many players skipped the Australian Open in the 1970s is that the event's prize fund was meager but even the more prestigious Slams were not the highest paying tournaments in the world at the time. For instance, the Pepsi Grand Slam was held annually from 1976-81; the invitation-only tournament featured a field of four players who had most recently won one of tennis' traditional Grand Slam events. As Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick noted in a January 31, 1977 article about Borg's Pepsi Grand Slam win over Connors, "Borg's $100,000 first prize was more than the entire amount he earned in winning his 1976 Wimbledon and WCT titles. Connors' winner's paycheck of $30,000 at Forest Hills was less than his runner-up Grand Slam take of $50,000." Borg won the Pepsi Grand Slam four straight years (1977-80), consistently besting the other top players in the world in a high stakes event that paid significantly more than the Grand Slams did.

While it has become very fashionable to talk about Grand Slam win totals, that was not the primary consideration for players in the 1970s--as indicated by the fact that three of the four players ranked number one in the world by the ATP during that decade (Nastase, Connors, Borg) regularly did not play in one fourth of the Grand Slam events (Australian John Newcombe, who was ranked number one for eight weeks in 1974, won a pair of Australian Open titles). Sure, players from that era aspired to win whichever Grand Slam event best suited their playing style but no one could match Borg's consistent, simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open success. Nowadays, it is easier for players to travel around to all four Slams and the tennis bureaucracy--while far from perfect--is much more professional than it was over 30 years ago, when there was constant infighting among various organizations, which resulted in various players being banned from or boycotting certain Slams.

Wilt Chamberlain once said that if he had thought that anyone was going to break his all-time NBA career scoring record then he would have put it "way out of sight." If Borg had been interested in setting the career Grand Slam record, then he would have annually journeyed down to Australia and most likely dominated that event the way that he dominated Wimbledon and the French Open--and he certainly would not have skipped the 1982 French Open when a victory there would have tied Roy Emerson's then record total of 12 Grand Slams (six of which were Australian Open titles won by the amateur Australian player between 1961 and 1967; professional players were banned from playing in any of the Slams until the start of the Open Era in 1968).

After Borg officially announced his retirement, Ashe said, "I think Bjorn could have won the U.S. Open. I think he could have won the Grand Slam (i.e., win all four Slams in one calendar year). But by the time he left, the historical challenge didn't mean anything. He was bigger than the game. He was like Elvis or Liz Taylor or somebody."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Lance Armstrong: Hero or Charlatan?

Lance Armstrong, who won the Tour de France a record seven times in a row (1999-2005), has returned to the grueling endurance race at age 37 and is a serious contender to post his eighth Tour victory. Armstrong survived a bout with cancer in 1996 and he announced his current comeback by declaring on his website, "After talking with my children, my family and my closest friends, I have decided to return to professional cycling in order to raise awareness of the global cancer burden." While Armstrong is certainly at least partially motivated by a champion's desire to once again be the best in the world at what he does--much like George Foreman and Michael Jordan were when they came back--there is no denying that he could do a tremendous amount of good for millions of people if his efforts lead to more funding for cancer treatment research

The Tour has been tainted for decades because of the large number of competitors who use performance-enhancing drugs; many of the sport's champions have either tested positive for drugs and/or confessed to using them. Armstrong's name has been at the forefront of PED speculation for many years but he steadfastly denies all such allegations and has never been caught redhanded. However, when you watch him outrace competitors who are much younger--many of whom probably are cheating--you inevitably ask yourself, "Is Lance Armstrong such a great and highly dedicated athlete that he can be clean and yet still beat younger athletes who are dirty--or is Lance Armstrong one of the greatest frauds in sports history, loudly proclaiming his innocence merely because he has found a way to beat the system?"

It is so sad that we have to wonder about this and if Armstrong is truly clean then I feel bad for even speculating about his character--but Marion Jones declared in bold print in her autobiography that she never used PEDs only to later tearfully admit to being a lying, cheating criminal. I would love to believe that an honest, forthright American hero is beating a bunch of liars and cheaters at what they consider to be "their" sport--but to believe that is to believe that Armstrong is superhuman, that he can outperform human beings are artificially enhanced. Forgive me if I have my doubts.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Revelations About Sosa Show That MLB Must Fumigate the Record Book

You can now add Sammy Sosa to the list of disgraced Major League Baseball sluggers from the 1990s and 2000s--and MLB should take action to fumigate the record book once and for all, purging it of the foul smell generated by the names Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi and all the rest of the performance-enhancing drug (PED) cheaters. Those guys--and many others--have cheated the game and should have their names wiped out of the record book and their awards given to the next highest vote getter whose name is not sullied, much the way that the Olympic sports and cycling deal with their cheaters. If MLB had a real Commissioner with a backbone instead of a guy who shrugs when the All-Star Game ends in a tie and who has had his head in the sand about PEDs during the whole "Steroids Era" then the sport would have already taken action to restore meaning and integrity to the record book. Can you imagine a similar situation festering with David Stern on the case?

The baseball record book has been hijacked by the PED crowd. Four of the top 10 home run hitters of all-time--Bonds (1), Sosa (6), McGwire (8) and Palmeiro (10)--are dirty players who have shoved aside true legends of the game like Reggie Jackson (11), Mike Schmidt (14) and Mickey Mantle (15), not to mention McGwire stealing Roger Maris' single season home run mark. Five of the six players who hit the most home runs between 1994-2006--Sosa (518), Bonds (512), Ramirez (468), Rodriguez (464) and Palmeiro (437)--have been linked to illegal use of PEDs. Jim Thome, who is fifth on that list (462), has yet to be linked to PED use but consider this: in his first seven full MLB seasons he hit 40 home runs once (40 in 1997) before reeling off 49, 52, 47 and 42 from 2001-04. He was injured for most of 2005 but hit 42 home runs in 2006 at the age of 35. You be the judge if those numbers seem like a normal career development pattern; keep in mind that it used to be rare to hit 50 home runs in a season: after Willie Mays hit 52 in 1965 no one reached the half century mark until George Foster cracked 52 in 1977 and then no one hit 50 again until Cecil Fielder had 51 in 1990. Then, from 1995-2002 at least one player hit 50 home runs every season. Let me be clear that I am not accusing Thome of using PEDs, nor do I support taking action against a player merely because his numbers may look odd. At this point, though, the only big time sluggers from the "Steroids Era" who I would be surprised to find out used PEDs are Ken Griffey and Frank Thomas; Griffey never had an unusual power spike, nor did his physique change unnaturally, and the same can also be said of Thomas, who was robbed of an MVP by Giambi (Thomas probably should have won the 2000 MVP anyway and he definitely deserved it more than a player who cheated).

All of the players who have been caught by the drug testers, outed in the Mitchell Report or otherwise reliably linked to illegal PED use should either be removed from the record book completely--much like the NCAA "vacates" results by programs that cheated--or, at the very least, listed separately under a heading that indicates that their numbers are fraudulent to some degree. If the Players Association or individual players complain, then MLB should invite the aggrieved parties to file a lawsuit and then testify under oath that they are clean; that way, those players will open themselves up to criminal charges of perjury. Somehow I doubt that Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and crew will be interested in placing themselves in that kind of jeopardy.

There are two reasons why MLB must act so forcefully:

1) It is important to be fair to the players--past and present--who did not cheat.
2) The two main reasons that the cheaters cheated were to get paid and to establish a place for themselves in history (Sosa just smugly spoke about being elected to the Hall of Fame because of his great numbers); the best message that MLB can send to young baseball players is that cheaters do not prosper and that when they are caught all of their numbers are nullified.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sports Illustrated Figures Out That It Was Premature to Crown Federer

On June 9, 2008, I wrote a post titled Fantastic Four: Nadal Matches Borg's French Open Streak that contained this declaration (emphasis added): "For quite some time, people have been trying to anoint Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time but despite his impressive accomplishments it makes no sense to confer that title on him when it is not even certain that he will be considered the best player of the current era: his main rival Nadal owns an 11-6 head to head record against him and has come much closer to beating him on the grass at Wimbledon than Federer has come to defeating him on the clay at the French Open. Considering that Nadal is almost five years younger than Federer it is entirely possible that he will eclipse what Federer has done; after all, five years ago Federer had just won his first Grand Slam, while Nadal already owns four Grand Slam titles, beating Federer along the way each time."

For years, SI has blithely declared that Federer is the greatest tennis player of all-time, ignoring the mounting evidence to the contrary that I cited in the above post (and in several other posts at this site, dating all the way back to a July 1, 2007 post that asserted that Bjorn Borg should still be considered to be a greater all-around player than Federer).

Now, though, SI has apparently seen the light; in an article titled The Takedown that appears in the May 18, 2009 issue of SI, S.L. Price asks rhetorically, "How can Federer be deemed the best ever when he might not be the best of his own era?"

That is an excellent question and apparently my writing would be more popular in the "mainstream" if I only had the decency to wait to make such rhetorical queries until the rest of the world can figure out that they are valid. Alas, there is little reward for foresight, as Cassandra ruefully discovered many centuries ago.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

John Madden: Style and Substance

John Madden is retiring after 30 stellar years as an NFL commentator for four networks. He started out at CBS in 1979, staying there until that network lost its NFL contract in 1994. He then moved to Fox. In 2002, Madden joined Al Michaels in ABC's Monday Night Football booth and since 2006 he and Michaels have done Sunday Night Football games for NBC.

Depending on your age/predilections, your most vivid image of Madden could be as a Super Bowl winning coach, as a highly animated TV commentator yelling "Boom!" and talking about "turduckens," as the name behind a hugely popular NFL video game--or even as a fixture in Miller Lite commercials:

As a kid, I got a big kick out of those Miller Lite ads. Isn't it something how back then writers knew how to be funny without being crass? Those Miller Lite spots are 100 times funnier than most of the "avant garde" ads from recent years.

I am not quite old enough to remember John Madden's coaching career, though as a student of the game I became quite familiar with it; my earliest recollections of Madden are of him teaming up with Pat Summerall on CBS: it always seemed like they broadcast the biggest games, first featuring the Dallas Cowboys and later featuring teams like the 49ers, Redskins, Bears and Giants. It was a treat listening to Madden talk about what made a young Bill Parcells a good coach or why Walter Payton was so special. Although Madden was always very energetic and enthusiastic during telecasts, if you paid attention to what he was saying you could learn something about the game: he had a keen, quick eye for what was happening on the field and his folksy way of expressing himself should not delude you into forgetting just how much he knows about the sport's strategies.

Madden also understood the human element of the game. Whenever he did Super Bowl telecasts, at the end of the game he would always say something to the effect that for the winning coach this was the greatest feeling in the world, something that no one could ever take away from him.

It was always hilarious to hear Madden carrying on during the annual Thanksgiving game about the "turducken." I first thought that he had just made the whole thing up but there actually is such a thing as a de-boned turkey stuffed with a de-boned duck stuffed with a de-boned chicken. Madden obviously had a lot of fun during the broadcasts but I respect the fact that he did his homework thoroughly before games, meeting with the coaches and key players so that he knew exactly what to expect from a strategic standpoint.

The All-Madden teams honored players who Madden felt played the game the right way and it was always interesting to hear his take about that.

It is very important to not let Madden's outsized persona make you forget that he was a great, Super Bowl-winning Hall of Famer who became the Oakland Raiders head coach at just 33 years of age in 1969. He posted a 103-32-7 regular season record and guided the Raiders to seven conference championship game appearances in 10 seasons, including 1976 when the Raiders went 13-1 in the regular season before drilling the Vikings 32-14 in Super Bowl XI. Madden's Raiders won seven division titles, never had a losing season and never finished lower than second in their division.

The Raiders have always been infamous for welcoming all kinds of characters onto their roster but Madden shaped and molded people who others might have considered misfits into winners. Madden often explained that he only required three things of his players:

1) Be on time.
2) Pay attention.
3) Play like hell on Sunday.

Gus Alfieri, the point guard on St. John's 1959 NIT Championship team, once told me that his Hall of Fame basketball Coach Joe Lapchick did not believe in having a lot of rules for his players; Lapchick thought that if he made too many rules then he would paint himself into a corner in terms of having to punish players and thus lose the flexibility to handle situations on a case by case basis. Alfieri noted that Bobby Knight has great respect for Lapchick and that Knight used a similar approach in that regard during his Hall of Fame coaching career (though the mild mannered Lapchick and the foul mouthed Knight had completely opposite demeanors in terms of how they interacted with people). Many coaches get so caught up in regulating minutiae that they lose sight of the fact that their job is not to control every waking moment of their players' lives but simply to lead and inspire their teams to maximize their potential.

John Madden was a winner on the football field and during his three decades as a TV commentator he added immensely to my enjoyment and understanding of pro football. I hope that he has a long and happy retirement.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

College Basketball's Ten Greatest Dunkers

I just watched a program called "College Basketball's Ten Greatest Dunkers"; it actually originally aired during last year's March Madness but I think that the list is interesting and still timely, so I have reproduced it below, along with a few comments:

1) Darrell Griffith (Louisville): Known as "Dr. Dunkenstein" (like Darryl Dawkins' "Chocolate Thunder" and "Lovetron" references, this nickname has its origins with the Parliament Funkadelic band--in this instance, George Clinton's "Dr. Funkenstein" alias), Griffith had incredible hops that enabled him to do just about any kind of dunk imaginable even though he could not palm the basketball. He was listed as 6-4, but a December 1980 Sports Illustrated article insists that he was actually 6-3.

Griffith averaged 16.2 ppg during an 11 year NBA career spent entirely with the Utah Jazz, transforming himself from a high flyer to a mad bomber who twice led the league in three pointers made (1984, 1985) and once led the league in three point field goal percentage (1984). Griffith earned the 1980 Wooden Award while leading Louisville to the national title and he won the 1981 Rookie of the Year award after averaging 20.6 ppg.

2) Clyde Drexler (Houston): Clyde "the Glide" Drexler was a charter member of "Phi Slama Jama," Houston's high flying fraternity that nearly led the Cougars to a national title. In his prime, he truly did seem to be gliding through the air but even though he made his flights of fancy look easy, the exciting end results were actually the products of a lot of hard work. I have previously written, "Success at any form of competition is based on several factors: mastery of fundamental techniques, supreme focus on the task at hand and maintaining a state of calm in the heat of battle." Specifically, research has shown that 10,000 hours of "effortful study" is required to attain mastery in most fields. Drexler says, "Every dunk is like a custom made suit. It truly is tailored. It can't be duplicated. It wasn't thought out ahead of time. It was just tailored to that moment. Only after playing six, seven hours a day can you begin to even think like that. People think that it's genetic: 'You're a natural.' Sure--after seven hours a day for about 10 years in a row."

Drexler went on to win an NBA championship in 1995 as a Houston Rocket while playing alongside former Cougar teammate Hakeem Olajuwon. Drexler is a member of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List and a Hall of Famer.

3) Vince Carter (North Carolina): "Half Man, Half Amazing" astounded crowds in the NCAA, the NBA and even the Olympics--who can ever forget when he literally jumped over the head of the 7-2 Frederic Weis?

Carter, the 1999 Rookie of the Year and an eight-time All-Star, put on arguably the best dunking exhibition ever while winning the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

4) Dominique Wilkins (Georgia): "The Human Highlight Film" specialized in two footed takeoffs that resulted in powerful finishes, plus tip dunks of errant shots. Vince Carter admiringly says that Wilkins did dunks that no one else could do.

Wilkins won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1985 and 1990 but many fans still think that he was robbed in 1988 in Chicago when home favorite Michael Jordan edged him out with a perfect score on his final dunk. A nine-time All-Star, Wilkins became a Hall of Famer in 2006.

5) Steve Francis (Maryland): Generously listed at 6-3, "Stevie Franchise" was an explosive dunker who could throw it down over players who were much bigger than he was. The 2000 co-Rookie of the Year made the All-Star team three times but never really seemed to fulfill his potential in the NBA.

6) Shaquille O'Neal (LSU): The "Diesel" candidly admits that every time he dunked the ball in college he was trying to tear the rim down. Understandably, no one wanted to get in his way when he had a head of steam. Young Shaq was quick, graceful and mobile while also having tremendous power. If only he had become as interested in blocking shots as he was in dunking...

O'Neal was a controversial selection to the 50 Greatest Players List (he had only been in the NBA for a short time when the list was made) but he certainly went on to prove that he belonged in that elite company.

7) Michael Jordan (North Carolina): Even though this is a list purely about college dunking skills, not pro dunking skills or overall greatness, seventh seems a bit low for "Air Jordan." Everyone knows his resume, so there is not much to say about the man who will be formally inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this fall.

8) Darvin Ham (Texas Tech): Sort of a poor man's Dominique Wilkins, Ham delivered powerful dunks off of two footed takeoffs. He will always be remembered for breaking a backboard during Texas Tech's upset of North Carolina in the 1996 NCAA Tournament. He averaged 2.7 ppg in an eight year NBA career.

9) Harold Miner (USC): "Baby Jordan" could not live up to that unfair nickname but he was an excellent college player and a very creative dunker even though he, like Griffith and Francis, was not as tall as his listed height (6-5 in Miner's case). Miner's NBA career lasted only four seasons but he won two NBA Slam Dunk Contests.

10) Jerome Lane (Pittsburgh): Bill Raftery's "Send it in, Jerome" call helped to immortalize Lane's 1988 backboard breaking dunk versus Providence. Newly hired Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller provided the assist to Lane and jokingly says that he remembers the play as "the pass."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Heels Stomp Spartans

Although the North Carolina Tar Heels were not the number one overall seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, their impressive run--culminating in an 89-72 Championship Game victory over Michigan State--provides in retrospect an air of inevitability about the final result; when people look back on this season in 10 or 20 years they will surely wonder why the Tar Heels were not a prohibitive pre-tournament favorite, because they simply dominated the event from start to finish, winning each of their games by at least 12 points and racking up the second largest aggregate point differential (121 points) in the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The last team to roll to an NCAA Championship with six straight double digit wins was Duke in 2001.

CBS' locker room access with Michigan State provided some telling foreshadowing, because Spartans' Coach Tom Izzo's pregame speech essentially consisted of the message that North Carolina would make scoring runs throughout the game but that Michigan State had to try to limit those runs to six points instead of 10 or 12. I don't know about you, but I would not find that to be a particularly inspiring message, though I respect Izzo's candor. The reality is that Izzo is an exceptional coach but on this occasion he went into a gunfight with butter knives, which is an impossible task even for an NBA assassin like Kobe Bryant.

North Carolina beat Michigan State 98-63 early in the season and even though the Spartans have improved since then they clearly are not in the same class as the Tar Heels, which is saying something considering that the Spartans reached the title game by beating Louisville--the number one overall seed--and Connecticut, also a number one seed. Any momentum from those triumphs quickly receded into the history books almost immediately after the opening tip of the Championship Game--the Tar Heels led 17-7 after less than five minutes, pushed that margin as high as 24 and never let the Spartans get closer than 13 points the rest of the way. The Tar Heels led 55-34 at halftime, setting Championship Game records for points scored in a first half and biggest halftime lead.

Wayne Ellington earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors after scoring 19 points on 7-12 field goal shooting but Ty Lawson (21 points, six assists, four rebounds, eight steals) and Tyler Hansbrough (18 points, seven rebounds) also had excellent games; Lawson tied the Final Four single game record for steals with seven swipes in the first half alone and he added a second half steal to take sole possession of that mark. Goran Suton led Michigan State with 17 points and 11 rebounds. The physical Spartans won the battle of the boards 40-33, which is a trademark of Izzo's teams, but they turned the ball over 21 times (compared to just seven miscues by North Carolina) and even when they retained possession long enough to attempt a shot they connected just 40% of the time.

North Carolina's roster may contain as many as six future NBA players, though Michigan State's Travis Walton vastly overstated the case when he said, "You're looking at a team that could probably beat the worst team in the NBA"; even the 12th man on most NBA rosters was a star in college, so no team of young collegians--at least half of whom will not make it to the NBA--is going to beat an NBA team full of former college stars who have matured physically and mentally.

It is hard not to think about the NBA while watching college basketball, because the players who have the most upside are only staying in school for one year before jumping at the chance to sign for millions of guaranteed dollars; this process hurts the quality of both pro and college basketball but the NCAA is getting the worst of it. Players who enter the NBA before they are ready lower the standard of play a little bit but then they usually end up with reduced minutes until they mature, so their presence on the roster drives off some more competent veterans who do not have guaranteed contracts but does not drastically affect the quality of the game. On the other hand, the cream of the crop of college players do not stick around long enough to fully mature either as players or as well known faces who can be marketed to boost college basketball's TV ratings. For instance, I would much rather have seen Kevin Durant in the 2008 NCAA Tournament as opposed to watching him chase around NBA shooting guards as he received on the job training while playing out of position. Sure, Durant has blossomed in his second NBA season but it would have been better for college and pro hoops if he had gone through that maturation process as a collegian. It is obvious that we would be seeing better individual performances as well as deeper, more balanced teams if so many future stars did not look at going to college as nothing more than a necessary evil for one year.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Coke Zero "Taste the Madness" Ad Will Debut Monday Night

Last month, I wrote about Coke Zero's "Taste the Madness" commercial that will include videos and photos submitted by fans. The Coke Zero people sifted through more than 1000 submissions to choose 61 fans who will be featured in the new ad, which will air on Monday night before the NCAA Championship Game. Here is one of the winning submissions:

The Florida A&M Snake Pit is a very energetic, spirited place:

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Will the Supersized Big East Become the Greatest Conference Ever?

Seven Big East teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament this year, three earned number one seeds and two have made it to the Final Four. This is an article that I wrote for the November 2005 issue of Eastern Basketball (a sister publication of Basketball Times) examining the top conferences in college basketball history and discussing the possibility that the Big East might top all of them.

Remember when conferences consisted of 8-10 teams? This year the Big East expands to 16 members. If conferences get any bigger they will need to use the U.N. General Assembly to hold their Presidents' meetings.

The Big Ten sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament four different times—1990, 1994, 1999 and 2001—and the Big East accomplished this feat in 1991. The supersized Big East is expected to break this record in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, which has led some to suggest that it will become the greatest conference ever (3/31/09 Note: the Big East sent eight teams to both the 2006 and 2008 NCAA Tournaments). That is a bold prediction because the new Big East has a formidable task just to match the excellence attained by the original Big East during the 1980s. The Big East had seven charter members in 1980—Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Syracuse—before adding Villanova in 1981 and Pittsburgh in 1983. The upstart league quickly asserted itself as a formidable competitor to traditional power conferences such as the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and PAC-10; in the Big East's inaugural year three of its seven teams earned NCAA bids. St. John's lost to Purdue in the second round, Syracuse lost to Iowa in the Sweet 16 and Georgetown made it to the Elite Eight before also bowing to Iowa—not a bad showing but this was just a taste of things to come.

In 1985, the Big East placed six of its nine teams in the NCAA Tournament, became the first conference to provide three of the teams in the Final Four and topped it off by producing both participants in the championship game; that contest turned out to be one of the most memorable upsets in NCAA history, with Villanova shooting a championship game record .786 from the field to defeat the defending champion, Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas, 66-64. Big East teams went 18-5 in the 1985 NCAA Tournament. No conference has ever won more games in a single NCAA Tournament; second place is 15 wins, accomplished by the Big Ten in 1989 and 2000.

The Big East had tremendous individual star power in 1985 as well: future Dream Team members Ewing and Chris Mullin (St. John's) shared Big East Player of the Year honors, Villanova's Ed Pinckney (the 1985 Final Four Most Outstanding Player) and Syracuse’s Dwayne "Pearl" Washington joined them on the All-Big East First Team and future NBA players Walter Berry (who won Big East Player of the Year in 1986), Bill Wennington and Michael Adams made the All-Big East Second Team. The 1985 Big East also had three coaches who eventually earned Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement: Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, St. John's Lou Carnesecca and Georgetown’s John Thompson.

Some Ground Rules for Comparing Conferences

One challenge in comparing conferences, teams and players from different eras is that NCAA basketball has changed so dramatically over the years: from 1967-68 to 1975-76 the slam dunk was illegal during games and pre-game warm-ups, the 45 second shot clock was first used in 1985-86 (and then changed to 35 seconds in 1993-94) and the three point shot was introduced nationally in 1986-87—and these are just a few of the on-court changes. There have also been major shifts in the structure of post-season play. The NCAA Tournament field consisted of only eight teams from 1939-1950. In 1951 the field doubled to 16 and from 1953-1974 between 22 and 25 teams participated each year. Then came rapid growth starting in 1975—from 32 teams (1975-78) to 40 teams (1979) to 48 teams (1980-82) to 52 teams (1983) to 53 teams (1984)—culminating in 1985 with the creation of the 64 team field. In 2001 a 65th team was added via a play-in game. Younger fans who have grown up watching "The Road to the Final Four" may be surprised to learn that the phrase "Final Four" has not always been a part of college basketball’s lexicon. Its first documented, official use came on page five of the 1975 Official Collegiate Basketball Guide—and the phrase was not capitalized until the 1978 Official Collegiate Basketball Guide.

In 1966 Texas Western became the first team with five black starters to win the NCAA title, an achievement that literally changed the face of college basketball by shattering a senseless taboo. If we arbitrarily declare 1966 to be the beginning of the modern era, we can split the past 40 years nearly in half by dividing it into pre-1986-87 and post-1986-87. Post-1986-87 includes the shot clock, the three point shot and the 64 team field.

Now that we have a manageable period of time to examine, neatly divided in two, the next step is to define our terms. What makes a conference great? The most emphasis has to be placed on winning championships and generating legitimate title contenders. Another important consideration is the conference's depth. A great conference should have electrifying star players and fierce, competitive rivalries between its members.

Great Conferences of the Early Modern Era (1965-66—1985-86)

The ACC earned more Final Four berths than any other conference during this period, with four schools combining for 14 appearances and three championships. The PAC-10 (and its predecessors, the PAC-8 and the AAWU) made 11 Final Four appearances—all of them by UCLA, which won eight championships (one of the Final Four appearances was later vacated by the NCAA). The Big Ten sent six different teams to a total of eight Final Fours, winning three titles.

While UCLA was the dominant team of this era, the ACC and Big Ten were deeper, stronger conferences:
  • In 1973, three ACC teams won at least 23 games--North Carolina State (27-0), North Carolina (25-8) and Maryland (23-7). North Carolina State, led by the sensational David Thompson, defeated Maryland 76-74 in the ACC championship game, but Maryland earned the conference’s NCCA Tournament bid because North Carolina State was ineligible for postseason play that year due to recruiting violations. Maryland made it to the Elite Eight. North Carolina, ranked 11th in the final regular season AP poll, finished third in the NIT.
  • In 1974 the ACC could very well have provided two NCAA Finalists like the Big East did in 1985—but at that time each conference could receive only one NCAA Tournament bid. That made the ACC championship game pivotal not only in determining who went to the tournament but very possibly who would be that year's national champion. Not surprisingly, this situation produced one of the classic games in NCAA history, North Carolina State's 103-100 overtime victory over Maryland. Thompson scored 29 points for North Carolina State and 7-3 center Tom Burleson led the way for the Wolfpack with 38 points and 13 rebounds. Six All-Americans and 10 future NBA draft picks played in the game; Maryland's John Lucas (18 points and 10 assists) became the number one overall pick in the 1976 NBA draft. North Carolina State defeated Marquette 76-64 to win the national championship while Maryland, ranked fourth in the final regular season AP poll, did not participate in postseason play. North Carolina State finished the year 30-1, while Maryland went 23-5.
  • The NCAA changed its rules in 1975 and allowed two teams from the same conference to receive tournament bids; five years later the NCAA permitted more than two teams from the same conference to receive tournament bids. In 1976 the Big Ten became the first conference to send two teams to the Final Four—and both made it to the national championship game. Indiana, led by future pros Scott May, Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner, Bobby Wilkerson and Tom Abernethy, went 32-0 and beat Big Ten rival Michigan 86-68 to claim Bob Knight's first national title. Indiana is the last undefeated team to win the national championship. Indiana and Michigan combined for a 9-1 NCAA tournament record, the most wins by a conference in one tournament in the 1970s.
  • In 1978 four of the seven ACC teams won at least 20 games and all seven finished over .500, for a combined winning percentage of .673. North Carolina (23-8) lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, North Carolina State (21-10) fell 101-93 to Texas in the NIT championship game and ACC champion Duke (27-7) lost 94-88 to Kentucky in the NCAA championship game. Virginia (20-8), the ACC's fourth 20-win team, dropped a 70-68 overtime decision to Georgetown in the NIT.
  • Six of the eight ACC teams in 1980 won at least 20 games; five made it to the NCAA Tournament and the sixth, Virginia, won the NIT. Duke and Clemson each advanced to the Elite Eight before being eliminated. The ACC's winning percentage in 1980 was .654, paced by Maryland’s 24-7 record.
  • In 1981 the ACC had two 29 win teams and five 20-plus win teams. Four ACC teams went to the NCAA Tournament and two more went to the NIT. Two ACC teams reached the Final Four: Virginia (29-4) lost 78-65 to North Carolina (29-8) but defeated Louisiana State 78-74 in the third place game; North Carolina lost the NCAA Championship Game 63-50 to Isiah Thomas and Indiana.
  • The 1982 ACC boasted four 20-plus win teams, including two 30 game winners led by future NBA All-Stars—North Carolina (32-2), which had Michael Jordan and James Worthy, and Virginia (30-4), which had 7-4 Ralph Sampson. All four 20-game winners made it to the NCAA Tournament, but only North Carolina enjoyed an extended run. Boosted by the jump shot that freshman Jordan later said put him on the map, Dean Smith won his first national championship as the Tar Heels defeated Georgetown 63-62.
  • The ACC enjoyed similar success in 1983, but produced a most unlikely—and memorable—national champion. Five ACC teams won 20-plus games and four were selected for the NCAA Tournament. The fifth, Wake Forest, won three games in the NIT before getting blown out by Fresno State. Three ACC teams made it to the Elite Eight, but only North Carolina State made it past that round. The Wolfpack shocked everyone by upsetting heavily favored Houston 54-52 in the NCAA championship game; Houston, known as Phi Slama Jama because of the team's tremendous dunkers, had Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, who were both named to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list in 1996. North Carolina State finished with a 26-10 record, becoming the first team with at least 10 losses to win the NCAA title (since then Villanova had 10 losses in 1985 and Kansas had 11 losses in 1988).
  • In 1984 the ACC produced five 20-plus win teams and none of its eight teams had a losing record. All five made it to the NCAA Tournament and two made it to the Elite Eight. Wake Forest lost in that round and Virginia lost 49-47 in overtime to Houston in the Final Four. Jordan's Tar Heels went 14-0 in conference play and 28-3 overall, but lost to Indiana 72-68 in the NCAA Tournament.
We have already mentioned the tremendous season enjoyed by the Big East in 1985, possibly the greatest single season by a conference. The SEC is similar to the PAC-10 in the sense that one team accounted for most of its NCAA Tournament success during this era—Kentucky, which made four trips to the Final Four and won the 1978 national championship. In 1986 the SEC posted a 12-4 NCAA Tournament record, sending LSU, Kentucky and Auburn to the Elite Eight. LSU advanced to the Final Four before losing to "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison’s Louisville Cardinals, the eventual national champions.

Great Conferences of the Recent Modern Era (1986-87—2004-05)

Four ACC teams have made 20 Final Four appearances and won six championships since 1986-87, while seven Big Ten teams earned 15 Final Four trips and three titles. No other conference has even 10 Final Four appearances during this time. Duke has accounted for three of the ACC’s NCAA championships and nine of the Final Four berths, leading all teams in both categories. North Carolina is second in Final Fours (seven) and tied for second with Connecticut and Kentucky in championships (two).

ACC teams won at least 10 games in the NCAA tournament for seven straight years, 1989-1995. No other conference has come close to putting together such a streak. Duke won back-to-back titles in 1991-92 and North Carolina made it three straight for the ACC by claiming the 1993 crown. The ACC sent at least one team to the Final Four from 1988-1995. The rivalry between Duke and North Carolina is one of the best in sports and the drama is only heightened by the fact that most years the Blue Devils and Tar Heels are not only fighting for conference supremacy but are both viable national championship contenders—including 2005, when North Carolina won the title and Duke made it to the Sweet 16.

As for the Big Ten, let's start with the four years that the conference earned a record seven NCAA Tournament bids, the mark that the newly formed Big East is expected to break. In 1990 only Minnesota made it to the Elite Eight and the seven teams combined for an 8-7 record in the tournament. The Big Ten went 11-7 in the tournament in 1994, with Michigan and Purdue reaching the Elite Eight. In 1999 the Big Ten again sent two teams to the Elite Eight and this time both--Michigan State and Ohio State--made it to the Final Four before losing, leaving the Big Ten with a 13-7 tournament mark. Two years later, the Big Ten went 10-7 and sent two teams to the Elite Eight, with Michigan State advancing to the Final Four before being eliminated. The accomplishment of sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament on four different occasions is somewhat diminished by the early exits of most of those teams and the failure of any of them to make it to the title game in the years in question.

The Big Ten had more impressive showings in 1989 and 2000 despite sending fewer teams overall. Michigan's Glen Rice set single season NCAA Tournament records for points (184; 30.7 ppg) and three pointers made (27) in 1989 while leading the Wolverines to the national title. Illinois made it to that year's Final Four and four of the Big Ten's five entrants advanced to the Sweet 16, giving the Big Ten an outstanding 15-4 tournament record. In 2000, the Big Ten went 15-5 in the tournament, producing three Elite Eight teams, two Final Four teams and the eventual national champion, Michigan State.

Who can forget Michigan's Fab Five teams? Who can name the "other two" who played alongside current NBA players Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose? (Ray Jackson and Jimmy King) The Fab Five Era began with lofty expectations but only produced championship game losses by Michigan in 1992 and 1993. In 1992 Ohio State and Indiana joined the Wolverines in the Elite Eight and Indiana made it to the Final Four; in 1993 Indiana returned to the Elite Eight but lost in that round. The Big Ten went 14-5 in the 1992 tournament and 10-5 in the 1993 tournament.

During most of this period, PAC-10 teams tended to make early exits from the NCAA Tournament. Notable exceptions to this pattern occurred in 1995 and 1997. In 1995, five PAC-10 teams compiled a 9-4 NCAA Tournament record, headlined by UCLA winning the conference's first national title since John Wooden's Bruins claimed the 1975 crown. The PAC-10 did even better in 1997, with Arizona winning the championship, UCLA joining the Wildcats in the Elite Eight and five conference teams combining to win 13 tournament games while losing only four. The PAC-10 went 13-5 in 2001, sending three teams to the Elite Eight--but only Arizona advanced, eventually losing to Duke in the championship game.

The SEC enjoyed a great five year stretch from 1994-98, with Kentucky (two) and Arkansas (one) winning three titles; each team also lost once in the championship game during that time. That period accounts for five of the SEC's nine Final Four appearances during the recent modern era.

The Big East has enjoyed notable success in the recent modern era. In 1991 the Big East tied a record by sending seven teams to the NCAA tournament but none of them made it to the Final Four. St. John's and Seton Hall reached the Elite Eight and the seven teams finished with an 11-7 tournament record. Like the Big Ten, the Big East's most impressive seasons are not the ones that involved earning seven tournament bids. In 1999, five Big East teams went 10-4 in the NCAA Tournament, with Connecticut winning the championship and St. John's also making the Elite Eight. Syracuse won the 2003 championship, capping a 12-3 performance by four Big East teams in that year's tournament. Connecticut made it two titles in a row for the Big East in 2004; that year six Big East teams went 12-5 in the tournament.

The Challenge

So what does the new Big East have to do to become the greatest conference of all-time? Sending a record eight, nine or ten teams to the NCAA Tournament is not sufficient unless several of those teams advance to the Elite Eight and the Final Four. For single season excellence it will be difficult to match the 1985 Big East's combination of three Final Four teams, two Dream Teamers sharing conference Player of the Year honors and one very memorable NCAA championship game. The teams from the new Big East must make 20-25 Final Four appearances and win a half dozen or so national championships in the next two decades to rival the ACC's sustained excellence.