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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Uncrowned: Fine, Benko and Kaidanov

Sometimes, even the greatest competitors in a given sport are unable to win one particular event--tennis provides several prominent examples of this, including Borg at the U.S. Open, Lendl at Wimbledon and McEnroe and Federer at the French Open.

Chess Grandmasters Reuben Fine, Pal Benko and Gregory Kaidanov won many strong, prestigious tournaments but never captured the U.S. Championship (though Kaidanov is currently ranked seventh in the United States and could end that drought next month when the 2009 U.S. Championship is held in St. Louis).

My newest article for Chess Life Online examines the U.S. Championship results of these three Grandmasters. CLO Editor Jennifer Shahade--who won the U.S. Women's Championship in 2002 and 2004--did a really nice job of selecting archival Chess Life magazine covers to illustrate the article. You can check it out here:

The Uncrowned: Fine, Benko and Kaidanov

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What Part of the Word "Voluntary" Does ESPN Not Understand?

Various ESPN platforms--ESPN.com, SportsCenter, the Bottom Line, etc.--breathlessly informed the world on Monday that newly acquired Buffalo Bills wide receiver Terrell Owens "misses start of program," as the ESPN.com headline clumsily put it--the headline is clumsy because it sensationalizes the situation and stigmatizes Owens rather than simply conveying information in a concise manner; without reading the story, you don't know if Owens did not read the opening pages of a game program, if he did not attend a school play or if he failed to show up when the federal government began a new program to fix the economy.

It turns out that the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader" activated all of its platforms to Def-Con 1 because--brace yourself for impact--Owens did not show up for a voluntary offseason conditioning program. In case you have not been paying attention or forgot, this is the same player whose yoked physique appears to consist of approximately .0002% body fat and who purportedly runs faster at the age of 35 than he ever did before. You can take shots at Owens for a lot of things--as ESPN has done and no doubt will continue to do--but questioning his dedication to conditioning simply is not one of them. Considering that the Bills have been stuttering 7-9 records for three straight years, there are no doubt plenty of players on their roster who would be well advised to report to any and all conditioning programs but it is safe to assume that whatever Owens is up to at the moment he is most assuredly not getting out of shape.

"Voluntary" means optional, in case the headline writers, reporters and columnists at ESPN don't have a dictionary handy. If the league, teams and union agree to make these offseason programs mandatory then by all means it would be newsworthy to report about players who do not show up. Until that happens, surely there are better uses of ESPN's vast resources than this kind of drivel--or, if ESPN's editors really think that this is a big story, then they should take a league-wide survey and find out exactly how many players show up for voluntary programs. Of course, whether that number turns out to be 10% or 90% it still does not mean that someone is wrong to not do something that he is not required to do.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Five Things That You Didn't Know About March Madness

Has your bracket already been busted? Don't worry, no one is likely to fill out a perfect bracket this year (or any other year): the odds against that are 9.2 quintillion to one according to R. J. Bell from Pregame.com--that is 9.2 followed by 15 zeroes! You literally have a better chance of winning the Powerball than crafting a perfect bracket. If every single person on the planet filled out a bracket, the odds would be a billion to one against any of them being perfect.

That is just one item on AskMen.com's list of five things you probably didn't know about March Madness:

Five Things You Didn't Know: March Madness

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Garry Kasparov: Great Chess Champion, Greater Human Being

Courage is essential in every walk of life, beginning with the courage to think creatively, especially in times of crisis. Fear comes in many forms related to decision-making. The fear of being wrong, the fear of change, fear of the unknown, the fear of hurting those who are important to us. Failure to control these fears leads to slower and inferior decisions and, in turn, to greater fear the next time--Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov is arguably the greatest chess player of all-time but--more importantly--he is also a courageous, passionate and well informed champion of human rights and political freedom. He understands how the forces of history and human psychology work and he is willing to risk his life to fight the evil regime of Vladimir Putin. "Evil" is not a popular word in today's era of moral equivalence but if you are unwilling or unable to properly identify evil then you have no chance to defeat it.

Kasparov recently visited India, where he gave a brilliant speech that discussed not only Putin's evil regime but also explained that change is an inevitable part of life. As Kasparov put it:

That is the first and most important message of change: it is happening whether you like it or not. If there’s rain, you can complain about the weather, you can take an umbrella, but you can’t stop the rain. You can ignore change, join it, or try to control it, but it is happening on a permanent and accelerating basis. Positive change is nearly impossible without courage, a word I will use many times here today. As Nehru said it well, “the policy of being too cautious is the greatest risk of all.”

In politics, as in the business world and in the natural world, the status quo is always dying. This is simply Darwin’s law. 150 years ago he wrote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” This is also true for systems of government and international institutions. And even though we are in a time of great turmoil and change, they are not adapting nearly fast enough.

Kasparov's entire speech is well worth reading and, more importantly, it deserves serious attention from world leaders and all concerned citizens not just in Russia but everywhere, because Putin is a threat and menace not only to his own people but--by virtue of his support for and active collaboration with despotic regimes in Iran, Syria and elsewhere--to the freedom and security of the entire world.

Here is a link to a complete transcript of Kasparov's speech: The Politics of Change

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wilson Sporting Goods and the NCAA Team Up to Fight Cancer

Wilson Sporting Goods and the NCAA are taking advantage of the popular Facebook site to run a promotion enabling college hoops fans to participate in the fight against cancer.

All you have to do to take part in the "Every Pass Counts: Ultimate Assist" program is log in to Facebook and search for "Wilson Sporting Goods." Sign up to become a fan and then send virtual passes with a Wilson basketball to all of your friends with just a click of a button. Wilson will donate 10 cents to Coaches versus Cancer for each pass and the user who makes the most passes will win $1000 in Wilson Sporting Goods equipment. Wilson Sporting Goods has set a goal of 500,000 virtual passes.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Does Cutting Terrell Owens Bring Dallas Closer to Winning a Championship?

Although the declining economy has forced many owners of professional sports franchises to make moves purely to cut costs, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones--who just built a new football stadium that cost more than $1 billion--is not one of those owners. So, any evaluation of his decision to cut wide receiver Terrell Owens can be boiled down to answering one simple question: "Does cutting Terrell Owens bring the Dallas Cowboys closer to winning a championship?"

Terrell Owens is consistently portrayed in a negative light in the media, so it is not surprising that many commentators immediately praised Dallas for releasing him. The interesting thing about Owens is that even though he has had celebrated and very public disagreements with one or two players on each of his previous teams (including Philadelphia and San Francisco before he arrived in Dallas three years ago), when push comes to shove most of Owens' teammates have publicly taken his side in those disputes. ESPN's Mark Schlereth asserted that this is because Owens "lobbies" the other wide receivers and the defensive players in order to divide the locker room but that makes no sense; those players are all grown men and if there were not good reasons to support Owens then I'm sure that they would ignore his alleged entreaties. Usually, when most of a player's teammates support him that is considered to be something that speaks in his favor; Owens is the first player I've ever heard of who is considered by some people to be a bad guy because he allegedly "lobbies" his teammates to be in his camp. If Owens is that good of a "lobbyist" then maybe he should get a job on Capitol Hill.

Owens has never had any off field problems, nor has he ever run afoul of the law, so when Keyshawn Johnson--of all people--says that Owens will probably be signed by someone because a team would sign Charles Manson if Manson could play that comment is more than a little out of bounds. How can anyone justify comparing Owens to a murderer who tried to incite a race war?

ESPN reporter Michael Smith--one of the network's supposed resident football experts--hemmed and hawed when asked if Owens should be voted into the Hall of Fame. Fortunately, Smith prefaced his answer by noting that he does not have a vote. Let me clear things up for Mr. Smith: Owens ranks second in career receiving touchdowns (behind only Jerry Rice), is tied for fourth in career all-purpose touchdowns with LaDainian Tomlinson (trailing only Rice, Emmitt Smith and Marcus Allen), ranks fifth in career receiving yards (behind only Rice, Isaac Bruce, Tim Brown and Marvin Harrison) and is tied with Andre Reed for sixth in career receptions. He has led the NFL in receiving TDs in three different seasons and has ranked in the top ten in that category in 10 of his 13 seasons. He has three signature postseason moments: the game-winning TD catch for San Francisco versus Green Bay in 1999, his nine reception/177 yard/two touchdown performance in San Francisco's 39-38 come from behind win versus the New York Giants in 2003 and his nine reception/122 yard performance on one leg in Philadelphia's 24-21 loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXIX. Owens is a five-time first team All-Pro and a six-time Pro Bowler. He should be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Of course, Hall of Fame voting is highly mercurial, so I make no prediction about what actually will happen but it is absurd for anyone to even hesitate to say that Owens has accomplished enough to deserve to be inducted.

No one has ever questioned Owens' work ethic, preparation or on-field effort. In fact, Steve Young--who was Owens' quarterback in San Francisco for three years plus the first three games of the 1999 season and is ESPN's best, most thoughtful NFL analyst (along with Ron Jaworski)--said that Owens is the only player he has ever seen whose work ethic "challenged" the work ethic of the legendary Jerry Rice. Owens has had disagreements with Dallas Coach Wade Philips and Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett, neither of whom could be accused of overpreparing the Cowboys last season; the Cowboys often looked unprepared and undisciplined--that kind of environment frustrated alleged malcontent Corey Dillon in Cincinnati but after Bill Belichick signed him Dillon helped the Patriots to win a Super Bowl. Schlereth snidely noted that Owens has been in the NFL for 13 years and has yet to win a Super Bowl--but I don't recall seeing Philips or Garrett holding any Lombardi Trophies, either (I'm not counting the two Super Bowl rings that Garrett won as Troy Aikman's clipboard holder). The Cowboys went 31-17 in the regular season during Owens' three years with the team after going 25-23 in the three previous seasons. Owens led the NFL in TD receptions in 2006 with 13 and ranked third in that category in 2007 (15) and fifth in 2008 (10). He not only makes plays but he demands extra defensive coverage that opens up opportunities for his less talented teammates.

Owens will be 36 years old in December, so he is obviously much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but thanks to his brutal workout routine he is in terrific shape. He claims that he is faster than ever and his 15.2 yards per reception average in 2008 (better than his career norm of 14.8) belies criticisms that he is too old, too slow, unable to get open or unable to separate from defensive players.

The Philadelphia Eagles made the Super Bowl in Owens' last full season with the team after posting 13 regular season wins, the most in franchise history. As mentioned above, Owens caught nine passes for 122 yards in Philadelphia's 24-21 Super Bowl XXXIX loss to New England, making a miraculous comeback from a serious ankle injury that he suffered earlier in the season. Owens risked his career to try to help his team win a championship and, as he noted, Brett Favre would have been universally praised had he done what Owens did. Instead, after Owens asked to renegotiate his contract and criticized quarterback Donovan McNabb's Super Bowl performance, the Eagles released Owens in the middle of the next season and they have only won 10 regular season games once in the past four seasons. When the Eagles got rid of Owens, Michael Irvin said that they were "losing their ass to save their face" (i.e., appeasing McNabb for public relations purposes but actually making the on field product worse).

It will be interesting to look at Dallas' record in the next two-three seasons but it is hard to believe that cutting the team's hardest worker and most productive playmaker really brings the Cowboys closer to winning a championship.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Coke Zero "March Madabase" Provides Fans an Opportunity to Contribute to a Nationally Featured Ad

Coke Zero's "March Madabase" is a place where fans can share photos or videos of their favorite college basketball teams. The best images may be featured in a national ad that will air during this year's Final Four. Coke Zero has previously made two such ads featuring fan submitted material. Here is one about the Kansas Jayhawks:

Rick Reilly's Fastball Still Hums

I'll be honest: there are very few people in this business who I truly respect for their writing abilities; I've dealt with a few nice people and far too many jerks but very, very few people in either category who can really write, who can make words sing and dance off of the page (or computer screen). A real writer sculpts his words like Rodin, paints a verbal picture like Van Gogh, composes his thoughts like Beethoven--but too much of what is being cranked out nowadays reads like it was hacked together by Edward Scissorhands or simply popped out unedited from the uneducated mind of a distracted child. Yeah, I read a lot less than I used to, because writing that truly engages your heart, mind and soul has become an endangered species.

Forgetting the "real world" for a second, in the sports world there used to be high quality writing in Sport, Inside Sports, the Sporting News and SI, plus periodic lengthy features in mags like Esquire and GQ. The first two of those no longer exist and the others are empty husks compared to their glory years. If you grab an old enough back issue of any of those titles, you can find work that stands the test of time. When was the last time you saved a sports mag because the writing was just so great?

A lot of the people whose writing I respect the most are, sadly, no longer with us.

Dick Schaap.

David Halberstam.

Ralph Wiley.

Read some of their writing and compare it to most of what is out there now and you want to cry. Seriously. Billy Joel was right:

Michael Hutchence's succinct take comes to mind, too: "You can stop the world and let off all the fools." Of course, the world keeps right on spinning and, last I checked, none of the fools have volunteered to leave.

I've heard some chatter that Rick Reilly--formerly of SI, now with ESPN--has lost some MPH off of his literary fastball. I'll admit that I cringe at some of the dog and pony garbage that ESPN has him doing. The sports' Mt. Rushmore? You hire a guy who basically retired the Sportswriter of the Year award--he only owns as many of them as Bill Russell has NBA championship rings--and that is the best forum you can create to showcase his talents? Really? Of course, they previously turned Tony Kornheiser--a truly top notch sportswriter in the 1970s and 1980s, one of my favorites--into a caricature on PTI and MNF, so I'm not really surprised. It's not like I'm crying crocodile tears for those guys, either; ESPN has helped make them as rich as Croesus, while I'm sitting here...just sitting here, definitely not rich as Croesus.

Anyway, if you bought into the fiction that Reilly's heater only hits about 85 on the gun now, then take a couple minutes and check this out:

Hey, pro, don't want to be a role model? It's not your choice.

Yes, Rick Reilly's fastball still hums. Hopefully, ESPN will let him throw it more often instead of using him in the equivalent of slow pitch celebrity softball.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Curious Start to Mangini Era in Cleveland

The Cleveland Browns have only had winning records twice in the 10 seasons since the franchise's rebirth in 1999 and they have only made the playoffs once, as a 9-7 Wild Card in 2002. It is certainly understandable if newly hired Coach Eric Mangini looked at that track record and decided that the organization and the roster need to be completely overhauled. However, some of the early moves of the Mangini regime look puzzling on the surface.

The Browns have not exactly been stuffing the Pro Bowl roster in recent years, so one would think that retaining Pro Bowl quality players would be an organizational priority. Instead, during this offseason the Browns have already traded one Pro Bowler and may have irrevocably damaged their relationship with another Pro Bowler.

Tight end Kellen Winslow--a 2007 Pro Bowler after tying the franchise single season record with 89 receptions--has literally been injured for half of his pro career but no one can deny that he has great hands and that he always plays hard. The Browns shipped him to Tampa Bay for a second round pick this year and a fifth round pick in 2010. Maybe he has already seen his best days; maybe he will never be healthy for long enough stretches to be productive--but he is a 25 year old who was the sixth overall selection in the draft just five years ago: what if he plays 10 more years and makes the Pro Bowl several times? The Browns are unlikely to get players who are that productive with the two draft picks that they acquired. Mangini deserves the benefit of the doubt and must be given an opportunity to build a team the way that he thinks it must be constructed to be successful but watching the Browns the past few years I did not get the impression that Winslow was the big problem. Put it this way: without shaming anyone by naming names, there are more than a few other players I would have gotten rid of before shipping off Winslow. The Browns have a long history of giving up on players who become productive elsewhere, which reflects poorly not only on the people who are evaluating those players but also the people who are coaching them. Of course, Mangini is not responsible for those past failures but Browns fans have to hope that he has not added one more name to that list.

Whether or not this seems petty, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Shaun Rogers is convinced that Mangini snubbed him at a Cleveland awards banquet. Rogers is upset that Mangini has not reached out to contact him personally and that the Browns apparently have questioned his conditioning even though that was not a problem at all last season. Rogers has indicated that he no longer wants to play for the Browns, though his options in that regard are limited and the team is attempting to smooth things over with him. Rogers had a questionable reputation in Detroit but he seemed to completely turn his career around last year. He is the kind of player who you build a playoff team around. What kind of message does it send--to players on the team as well as players who the Browns might try to sign--when the new coach gets off to such a rocky start with arguably the team's most productive player? Maybe Rogers is overreacting, maybe he is simply posturing to try to get a bigger contract but a big part of being a leader is forming solid relationships and this situation does not reflect well on Mangini in that sense.

As a Browns fan, I have no problem whatsoever with Mangini cleaning house--but I expected him to start with the underperforming players on the roster, not the Pro Bowl tight end and the Pro Bowl defensive tackle.