Monday, January 30, 2012

Novak is No Joke: Djokovic Defeats Nadal in Match for the Ages

Novak Djokovic's epic 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 victory over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final dramatically demonstrated that Djokovic is still the best player in the game today. Since Nadal has accomplished so much more than Djokovic in Grand Slam events despite the fact that their careers almost perfectly overlap, it was fair to wonder if Djokovic's sensational 2011 campaign merely signified a one year wonder or in fact marked the belated rise of a true all-time great (Bjorn Borg's career--arguably still the greatest in the Open Era--was already all but over by the time he was Djokovic's age). I don't believe that one event necessarily proves or disproves a sweeping characterization of a player's career but the 2012 Australian Open certainly lends credence to the idea that soon--if not right now--Djokovic must be ranked somewhere among the all-time greats; I will refrain from making the all too common mistake, particularly among tennis commentators, of hastily proclaiming Djokovic to be the greatest player of all time, a pronouncement that seemed to follow every Grand Slam victory by Roger Federer--but it is clear that Djokovic is the greatest player of this time and the longer this time lasts the stronger a claim Djokovic will have to be ranked very highly on the all-time list.

Djokovic's triumph over Nadal is the longest Grand Slam singles final match ever, officially lasting 5:53. The play was hardly perfect--Djokovic committed 69 unforced errors while hitting 57 winners and Nadal had an even drearier ratio of 71 unforced errors to 44 winners--but it was fast, furious and tenacious, making for gripping viewing that may have been almost as emotionally draining for the spectators as it was for the players.

Djokovic has joined an elite group of men (Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) who won at least three Grand Slam singles titles in a row since the Open Era began in 1968; Nadal lost to Djokovic in each of those championship matches, earning the dubious distinction of becoming the first player to lose three straight Grand Slam finals. Nadal has now lost seven straight matches overall to Djokovic, each of them a finals match. Nadal still enjoys a narrow 16-14 advantage head to head, but Djokovic has the edge in finals matches (7-5) and Grand Slam finals (3-1). This was the first five set duel in the 30 Djokovic-Nadal encounters.

Nadal is just one year older than Djokovic but has won twice as many Grand Slam Singles titles (10-5). The Australian Open is the only Slam that Djokovic has won multiple times (three) and the French Open is the lone Slam that he has yet to win; Nadal has already completed the career Slam, along the way winning a pair of Wimbledon titles and tying Borg's record with six French Open crowns. Nadal twice won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year (2008 and 2010), coming close to equaling Borg's fantastic feat of winning both events for three consecutive years (1978-80; Borg won the French Open in 1974-75 and 1978-81 and he took five straight Wimbledons from 1976-80).

It is the beauty and agony of sports that dominance can balance on a razor's edge; in the 2007 NFL season, the New England Patriots came within three minutes of achieving unprecedented 19-0 perfection but the story of that season ultimately became not their drive for an undefeated championship season but rather the emergence of Eli Manning and the New York Giants. The story of the 2012 Australian Open ultimately is Djokovic's victory but Nadal came within two points of taking a 5-2 lead in the fifth set; if Nadal had come back from a two set to one deficit to triumph in five sets we undoubtedly would look at both players differently, even though objectively the difference between those divergent outcomes can be literally measured in inches.

Nadal survived three break points at 4-4 in the fourth set en route to winning that set in a tiebreaker and he seemed to have the match in hand when he took a 4-2 lead in the fifth set--but Nadal missed a routine backhand volley that could have put him up 40-15 in the seventh game and Nadal unraveled after that, while Djokovic managed to hit timely shots despite showing obvious signs of physical fatigue (I make a distinction between physical and mental fatigue because I think that the outcome--and those timely shots that Djokovic converted--indicates that he retained mental sharpness throughout the match even as his body began to betray him).

It is hard to take seriously the notion that Roger Federer is the greatest player of all-time for the simple reason that Federer is not even the greatest player of his time; Nadal owns a decisive 18-9 head to head advantage versus Federer, including a victory in the 2012 Australian Open semifinal that increased Nadal's margin over Federer in Grand Slam play to 8-2. Nadal has accumulated enough overall achievements to merit inclusion in the greatest player of all-time discussion; in addition to completing the career Slam, Nadal has won 10 career Grand Slam singles titles overall (tying with Bill Tilden for sixth-seventh on the all-time list) and he has spent 102 weeks as the number one ranked player (the sixth most since the ATP began using computerized rankings in 1973), finishing in the top spot in the year end rankings twice (2008 and 2010). If all Nadal had to his credit was a slight head to head advantage over Federer in a small number of matches then those head to head results would just be a bizarre historical footnote--but Nadal has beaten Federer decisively head to head in a large sample size of encounters and Nadal has not just defeated Federer due to some matchup quirk but he has also been a dominant player for quite some time. A little over a year ago, Djokovic was not even on the radar in terms of being the greatest player now--let alone the greatest player of all-time--and his recent head to head dominance against Nadal still has not wiped out the huge advantage that Nadal built up versus Djokovic in previous years. Djokovic is the best player right now but his overall career can not yet be compared favorably with Nadal's or Federer's. Instead of prematurely trying to rank and classify every player we should simply enjoy the great tennis being played by Djokovic, Nadal and Federer; the all-time rankings will sort themselves out over time, as we saw with the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry that started out lopsided in Evert's favor before becoming even more lopsided in Navratilova's favor.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Joe Posnanski on Joe Paterno's Upbeat Spirit

Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski spent some time with Joe Paterno in the days before the legendary Penn State coach passed away. Posnanski reports that Paterno had a very positive outlook despite the unceremonious and shameful way that Penn State's Board of Trustees fired him and despite suffering from terminal cancer:

"In the moments after Joe Paterno died, it became common for people to write and say that he died of a broken heart. He did not. Joe Paterno died of lung cancer and the complications it caused. He did not die a bitter or broken man."

Posnanski provides several quotes from Paterno. Here are two of them:

"I made a lot of mistakes in my life. But I thought people could see that I tried my best to do the right things. I tried to do the right thing with Sandusky too."

"It doesn't matter what people think of me. I've lived my life. I just hope the truth comes out. And I hope the victims find peace."

I look forward to reading Posnanski's upcoming Joe Paterno biography and I am confident that it will be much better than the salacious book that Posnanski's fellow SI writer Jeff Pearlman wrote about Walter Payton.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Joe Paterno's Legacy

"They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."--Joe Paterno, 1926-2012

Joe Paterno, who led Penn State's football team with distinction and honor for 46 years, passed away on Sunday, succumbing to lung cancer at the age of 85. Paterno's legacy first and foremost is the "Grand Experiment," which Paterno once described as "not football that puts winning first, but first class football played by students who put first-class lives first." Paterno arrived at Penn State in 1950 and served as an assistant coach under Rip Engle through the 1965 season before taking the helm in 1966 after Engle retired. Penn State was lightly regarded as both an academic institution and a football program but Paterno quickly elevated Penn State's status in both categories: after posting a 5-5 record in 1966 and an 8-2-1 mark in 1967, Paterno led the Nittany Lions to twin 11-0 records in 1968 and 1969, capping off both campaigns with Orange Bowl wins. Paterno's on field success combined with strong moral character greatly raised Penn State's overall national profile and helped to enhance Penn State's reputation as an academic institution. Paterno did not just give lip service to the value and importance of education; he made sure that the vast majority of his players graduated and he worked tirelessly to help Penn State grow: Joe Paterno and his wife Sue donated more than $4 million to various departments and colleges at Penn State.

Joe Paterno is a unique figure in major college sports history and we will never see someone like him again: no one will have his amazing combination of longevity, on field success and off field integrity. Bobby Knight consistently won at the highest level of college basketball while emphasizing academics but he is also a boorish bully who acted abusively toward his players, staff members, referees, media members and anyone else within earshot; Knight stood for much that is right about college sports but he also is a deeply flawed person. John Wooden perhaps comes closest to matching Paterno in terms of maintaining high standards on the field/court and off the field/court but Sam Gilbert's shady dealings helped Wooden to acquire many of the talented players who built Wooden's UCLA dynasty. Ohio State once hoped/believed that Jim Tressel stood for both victory on the field and integrity off of it but that fictional facade barely lasted a decade before completely crumbling. Perhaps Duke's Mike Krzyzewski comes closest to matching Paterno's standards but I doubt that Krzyzewski will equal Paterno's longevity.

No, I am not forgetting or ignoring the elephant in the room--but when a great man dies, the first words uttered about his legacy simply must describe his decades of good work molding the character and lives of thousands of young men while playing a crucial role in helping to build a little known small town school into an internationally respected academic institution. Joe Paterno was not flawless and he freely acknowledged--perhaps too freely in a soundbite driven media age that abhors context or any semblance of intellectual depth--that "in hindsight" (emphasis added) he wishes that he had done more to stop Jerry Sandusky, the longtime Penn State assistant football coach who has been accused of child sexual molestation. Paterno was not close with Sandusky off the field and in 1999 he made it clear to Sandusky that Sandusky would not succeed Paterno because (in an irony whose full horror is only now apparent) Sandusky was too devoted to his Second Mile charity, the organization that Sandusky founded and apparently used as a convenient source of vulnerable victims.

Only Joe Paterno and Mike McQueary know what McQueary told Paterno on that fateful and now infamous night in 2002 but the grand jury that indicted Sandusky believed the testimonies provided by both Paterno and McQueary. Paterno informed Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and Penn State Vice President Gary Shultz (who was in charge of the school's campus police) that McQueary had observed Sandusky engaging in questionable conduct with a young boy. McQueary subsequently met with Curley and Schultz and provided them with graphic details of what he saw. The grand jury did not find Curley or Schultz to be credible witnesses and thus indicted both men.

Paterno benched key players before big bowl games if they violated rules. "Success with honor" was not just a catchphrase for Paterno but a way of life. It is vile for anyone to suggest that Paterno deliberately and knowingly covered up Sandusky's alleged crimes in order to protect the Penn State football program, particularly since all of the evidence demonstrates that Paterno immediately reported McQueary's concerns to the appropriate authorities. Curley and Schultz dropped the ball (forgive the sports analogy) in this matter. Should Paterno have followed up to see what Curley and Schultz did and/or should Paterno have confronted Sandusky? Those are certainly valid questions but I think that what Paterno was most guilty of is that he trusted Curley and Schultz too much. Sandusky was no longer on Paterno's staff and it should not have been up to Paterno to interrogate Sandusky. What do Paterno's critics think would have been the result of that? Do they think that Sandusky have broken down and confessed? This was not an episode of Perry Mason or Law & Order.

The bottom line regarding Paterno's role in the Sandusky sex abuse case is that Sandusky's alleged crimes did not occur on "Paterno's watch." They happened on Curley and Schultz' watch and on the watch of the Penn State Board of Trustees--and that Board revealed itself to be, individually and collectively, a bunch of clueless cowards and blowhards; the Board members admitted that they had been completely in the dark about the Sandusky matter during the grand jury proceedings but as soon as a media firestorm erupted in the wake of the indictments of Sandusky, Curley and Schultz the Board wasted no time seeking out, finding and executing (I choose this word most deliberately, because the Board in essence hit Paterno with the death penalty) the most convenient and vulnerable scapegoat: Joe Paterno, the public face (and ailing body) of Penn State University. The Board wiped out six decades of "success with honor" with a hastily held meeting culminating in a message to Paterno to call a phone number to find out that he had been fired. Paterno's declining physical health--even before the public revelation that he had the cancer that would ultimately end his life just months later--made it unlikely that he would have been capable of coaching the team for much longer and Paterno had already announced his intention to retire after the 2011 season but the Board could not stand being upstaged nor resist the heat being applied by yellow journalists demanding blood. The Board transformed a Sandusky-Penn State scandal into a Joe Paterno scandal; we hardly heard a word from Penn State University President Graham Spanier (who the Board rightfully fired) or from Curley and Schultz and the Board members admitted that they did not know anything more about Paterno's actions than the information contained in the indictment (which cleared Paterno of any wrongdoing) but the Board terminated Paterno immediately, ensuring that Sandusky's dreadful alleged crimes will always be associated in the public mind with Paterno. Sandusky will get his day in court, as will Curley and Schultz. The Board of Trustees should have, at the very least, met face to face with Paterno to communicate their concerns directly to him. The best solution would have been for the Board to graciously accept Paterno's offered resignation while expressing sincere appreciation for his decades of service.

The media witch hunt not only contributed to Paterno's demise but the media also prematurely reported his death, a despicable lapse of journalistic ethics that has become increasingly common (an article in USA Today called this trend of premature death reporting "obiticide"--a word coined by Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute--and noted that previous victims included Pope John Paul II and Bob Hope). Let it be clearly noted that led the way by incorrectly reporting Scottie Pippen's bankruptcy (Pippen is not broke and has sued 10 media outlets, including CBS)--not only committed obiticide against Paterno but committed plagiarism in doing so, relying on (but not acknowledging) an unverified (and incorrect) report from a student-run news organization. During journalism's free fall from grace it is hard to top a national news network falsely reporting a person's death by relying on an unconfirmed (and unmentioned) item provided by an amateur media outfit staffed by students.

Hopefully, with the passage of time cooler heads will prevail and Paterno will be remembered first and foremost for the "Grand Experiment" (the Big Ten Conference could make one move in that direction by reversing the hasty decision to remove Paterno's name from the Conference's football championship trophy). Joe Paterno was a shining light in the increasingly murky cesspool of college sports.

Although Joe Paterno should be most remembered for the "Grand Experiment," it should not be overlooked that a good case can be made that he is the greatest and most accomplished coach in college football history. Here is a partial list of his achievements during his 46 year career at Penn State:
  1. Most wins in Division I/Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) history: 409 (409-136-3 record overall)
  2. Most bowl wins and most bowl appearances: 24-12-1 bowl record overall
  3. First coach to win Orange, Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Cotton Bowls at least once each
  4. Five undefeated, untied seasons: 1968, 1969, 1973, 1986, 1994; only the 1986 team was officially crowned as the national champion but each of the other four squads also won major bowl games (the first three each won the Orange Bowl, while the 1994 squad defeated Oregon 38-20 in the Rose Bowl)
  5. Two National Championships: 1982, 1986
  6. Three Big Ten Championships: 1994, 2005, 2008
  7. Posted a winning record in 38 of 46 seasons, breaking Paul "Bear" Bryant's record (Bryant had 37 winning seasons in his 38 year career)
  8. Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year: 1986
  9. Five-time American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Coach of the Year: 1968, 1978, 1982, 1986, 2005
  10. In 2009, the Sporting News ranked Paterno 13th on their list of the 50 all-time greatest coaches (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, college basketball, and college football)
Further Reading:

Cowardly Lions: Penn State Acted Slowly on Sandusky Allegations but Swiftly Made Paterno a Scapegoat (November 10, 2011)

Christine Flowers Blasts Penn State for Hastily Firing Joe Paterno (November 11, 2011)

Joe Posnanski Criticizes the Media's Coverage of the Sandusky Scandal (November 11, 2011)

Members of Penn State's Board Attempt to Justify Abrupt Paterno Firing (January 19, 2012)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Members of Penn State's Board Attempt to Justify Abrupt Paterno Firing

There has been mounting criticism of the manner and swiftness with which the Penn State Board of Trustees fired Coach Joe Paterno, so 13 of the 32 members of that Board spoke with The New York Times to try to justify their actions. It has almost been an afterthought that prior to firing Paterno the Board also fired Penn State President Graham Spanier but it should be abundantly clear why that decision was not in any way controversial: Spanier kept the Board largely uninformed about the grand jury investigation of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for multiple charges of child abuse and then when the story became public Spanier immediately issued a statement defending Athletic Director Tim Curley and one of the school's former Vice Presidents, Gary Schultz; the grand jury charged Curley and Schultz with failing to report Sandusky's alleged crimes to the authorities and with committing perjury when testifying to the grand jury.

Whether or not Spanier, Curley and Schultz are criminally guilty, it is obvious that Penn State should want to sever ties with those men. However, the grand jury found Joe Paterno's testimony to be credible and the grand jury concluded that Paterno fulfilled his responsibilities by informing Curley and Schultz--who was then in charge of, among other things, Penn State's campus police--about what Mike McQueary had told him regarding Sandusky's suspicious conduct with a young boy in the Penn State locker room shower area. McQueary did not explicitly tell Paterno that Sandusky had committed sexual assault and thus Paterno understandably turned the matter over to his superiors with the expectation that they would take whatever action was appropriate and necessary. The fact that Curley and Schultz failed to do so is why the grand jury indicted both men.

Paterno has a sterling record not just as a field general but also as a contributor--both in the literal sense of financial contributions and also in the sense of the standards he set for his players--to the Penn State community. Scientists often say that extraordinary theoretical claims require extraordinary proof; that kind of standard should have been applied when the Board of Trustees met to decide Paterno's fate: firing Paterno would place a large taint on his good name and such a decision should not be taken lightly or made hastily. The 2011 football season was almost over and it was pretty obvious that Paterno's physical condition would not permit him to coach the team much longer. Rather than publicly disgracing a man who had served so well for so long, the Board could have and should have permitted Paterno to finish out the season before retiring. Instead, the Board took the quick and easy path, dismissing Paterno with a dismissive phone call; the Board members were too cowardly to even deliver the news face to face.

It is easy for people to say that if they had been in Paterno's shoes they would have handled the situation better. For instance, several ESPN employees made that assertion on the air but their commentaries ring hollow in light of the fact that ESPN and other media outlets suppressed for nearly a decade an audio tape Bernie Fine accuser Bobby Davis made of Fine's wife admitting knowledge of Fine's homosexual/pedophilic proclivities and activities. Unlike ESPN, Paterno did not cover up anything; McQueary made a vague report of alleged improprieties to Paterno and Paterno immediately informed his superiors about what McQueary had said. Sandusky was not a member of Paterno's coaching staff at that time and there really is nothing more that Paterno could have or should have done. On what basis could Paterno have gone to the police based on what he knew? It was up to Curley and Schultz to investigate the situation and decide upon an appropriate course of action. Perhaps Paterno should have followed up with Curley and Schultz to find out what they did but I suspect that Paterno had a great degree of misplaced trust that those men would handle things the right way.

The Penn State Board of Trustees was asleep at the switch for a long time and when the Sandusky charges woke them up they decided to make Paterno a high profile scapegoat for their own inadequacies and for the allegedly criminal conduct of two men (Curley and Schultz) employed by their university.


Further Reading:

Cowardly Lions: Penn State Acted Slowly on Sandusky Allegations but Swiftly Made Paterno a Scapegoat (November 10, 2011)

Christine Flowers Blasts Penn State for Hastily Firing Joe Paterno (November 11, 2011)

Joe Posnanski Criticizes the Media's Coverage of the Sandusky Scandal (November 11, 2011)