Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Is 91-0 football victory the same as bullying?

Among my journalistic stops while in “retirement” was servicing as n online copy editor for the Aledo (Tex.) Community News, serving a small bedroom enclave just west of Fort Worth. As is the case with most of Texas’ major metro areas, it is a place where people call home – where they sleep – without having the benefit of actually working there.
In Aledo, the largest source of community pride is its high school, at the Class 4A level (second highest attendance zone as established by the extra-curricular ruling University Interscholastic League) for the past 6-7 years. And the biggest symbol of that Bearcat pride is its multi-championship football squad.
But the big news this week among high school squads has been the formal complaint of “bullying” filed against the team by a parent from an opposing team which got shellacked 91-0 by Aledo last Friday night.
When Aledo plays, it isn’t usually a close game, and the 2013 season is no exception. AHS plays in perhaps the weakest district in the entire state, manned by Fort Worth schools, which, sadly, are terrible and cannot dream of competing with Aledo’s perennial powerhouse offense.
AHS averages (in 32 minutes of game action) a whopping … 69.3 points per game, including lopsided, non-district victories over famed Highland Park (44-3) and Stephenville (56-14). Between the two opponents sit almost a double-fistful of state titles. Baylor coach Art Briles got his reputation at Stephenville and two HP alums are Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, teammates for football and baseball.
They are joined by legendary Hall of Famers Doak Walker and Bobby Layne – just to name a few.
From 2009-11, Aledo won three consecutive 4A-Division II championship trophies, mostly by wide margins over some of the best programs offered in the Lone Star State. In Texas, there are SO many schools – all wanting a piece of a championship pie – the UIL employs a two-level system (based on attendance) for each classification. Instead of having five overall champions (plus six-man football, a blast if you’ve never seen it in person), there are 10 state titlists – double the pleasure and double the confusion.
Aledo has always been known as a high-scoring football team, established in 2009 when a freshman named Johnathan Gray stepped on to the field. When his high school career was completed, he was named National High School Player of the Year twice (an unprecedented feat). He set the all-time touchdown record of 205 (eclipsing the previous mark of 204 set by a familiar Michigan name – Mike Hart).
His squad won three consecutive 4A championships and he rushed for 10,881 yards in his career (on 1,209 carries) and a 9 yard average.
Gray’s biggest performances were reserved for those three state title games. In 2009, he ran for 252 yards and four touchdowns as AHS defeated the Brenham Cubs.
In 2010, he gained 323 yards and scored eight touchdowns as Aledo swarmed the defending champions from LaMarque. Those TDs helped Gray top the total of 57 scored by the legendary Kenneth Hall of Sugar Land in the late 1950s.
And a senior, playing his final high school game, Gray rushed for 241 yadrs, and scored the record-breaking 205th touchdown to overcome Hart’s mark. He finished his high school career first all-time in touchdowns and second all-time in points scored.
Such is the legacy at Aledo High School.
Sidenote: Gray is Texas’ leading rusher this season with 562 yards on 11 carries and four scores.
In District 7-4A, there is no adequate competition and it’s no one’s fault other than the UIL’s bi-annual redistricting bundling. Year and year, Aledo finds nothing but cupcakes when district play takes place. Through the first four games in 7-4A, Aledo has outscored its opposition by an average of 77 points! And it includes last Friday’s spectacular 91-0 drubbing of poor Fort Worth Western Hills (which followed an 84-7 win over O.D. Wyatt).
As a result, some unnamed parent from Western Hills has filed a formal complaint with the district committee for investigation of … bullying! With such activity ever increasing among students at all grade level, Texas law requires each district to provide bullying complaint forms on its website; the district’s high school principal is then required to check out the allegations and file a written report.
Aledo Head Coach Tim Buchanan is caught on the (Long)horns of a dilemma – what constitutes “bullying” on the football field when it’s only about the final score.
“It’s not something you can laugh off or anything like that,” he said. “What they said was that I should’ve told my players to ease up and not play so hard.”
It is simply impossible to ask a player, possibly a fourth-stringer, getting his only chance to play all season, to give less than his all. He isn’t coached that way and shouldn’t play that way. When young men are asked to play less than 100 percent, they get hurt – seriously hurt. That is not bullying.
Football as an official means of bullying is not defined in the Texas Education Code, which classifies bullying as “as engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity … and that has the effect or will have the effect of physically harming a student … or is sufficiently severe, persistent, and pervasive enough that the action or threat creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for a student.”
Even Western Hills Coach John Naylor agrees.
“I think the game was handled fine,” he said. “They’re No. 1 for a reason, and I know Coach Buchanan. We’re fighting a real uphill battle right now.”
Western Hill brought only 30 players – not an adequate amount on the roster to face such a “buzzsaw” as Naylor described AHS.
“Aledo just plays hard, and they’re good sports; they don’t talk at all,” he added. “They get after it, and that’s the way football is supposed to be played in Texas.”
In Buchanan’s defense, he pulled his starters on offense after 21 plays and a running clock was implemented in the third quarter. Aledo’s quarterbacks only attempted 10 passes.
“I’m upset about it,” Buchanan said. “I don’t like it; I sit there the whole third and fourth quarter and try to think how I can keep us from scoring.”
The real question is the quality of the opposition. Should a game (and lopsided outcome everyone knows is coming) actually be forced upon either team? Nothing is learned by teams like Aledo when winning by 77 points and nothing is gained by a school enduring such a scoreboard beating.
It’s sad; perhaps a tad tragic, but is it bullying? The simple answer is no and the hurt feelings of a parent, rooting for a team that simply cannot compete, is not grounds for any kind of investigation of innocent children.
Oh, by the way, 91 points – a great total for a basketball team – is NOT the Texas record; that was set in 1969 by Valley Mills with a 103-point showing against Grandview.
That wasn’t bullying either.

Monday, October 21, 2013

O.A. Phillips: He was no ‘Bum,’ just a great coach

Most death notices simply float past most readers; they tell the story of a stranger or someone not involved in one’s life. Not so with the notification of the passing of Oail Andrew Phillips last week at the age of 90.
The man everyone called “Bum” was the head coach of the NFL Houston Oilers, when I stepped off a Trailways Bus in the Houston suburb of Conroe, in June, 1976, and my first real contact with pro sports as I began my new career. He was, aside from Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, the most unique character in that role of the many I would encounter in more than 30 years of reporting on sports in Texas.
For me, it would be one of my initial contacts with a major Houston sports franchise during a time when none of that city’s teams were worth much of anything; the Astros were mediocre wearing orange softball-like uniforms, the Rockets had yet to trade for Moses Malone (two months after that 1976 Oilers camp) and the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association were all about the (Gordie) Howe family and that was about it.
After all, Texas was a football-crazed state, dominated by high schools on Friday night (crowds in excess of 15,000 were considered the norm), the University of Texas and Texas A&M on Saturdays and the Cowboys on Sundays. Houston was a rapidly-growing city in the middle of what Newsweek labeled “The Super State” but without a reciprocal standing in pro sports.
In 1976, the Oilers were still trying to find an identity, other than less-than-successful and also-ran. That season’s training camp was just up the road (30 miles away) at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.
To say it was fairly informal would be a classic understatement. With a handful of reporters (print, radio, TV) attending, it was not unusual to hold an impromptu press conference under a shady tree (when it was more than 100 degrees and ridiculously high humidity during practices), as the coach held a cold can of Lone Star beer in one hand and a giant Stetson in the other.
When I attended that Oilers camp, the big news was the consternation among the hierarchy and coaching staff about cutting a fourth-string wide receiver out of Tulsa named … Steve Largent, who would only have a subsequent Hall of Fame career with the Seattle Seahawks.
Bum liked Largent as a player, but the team was built around the big play quarterbacking of Dan Pastorini and wide receivers like Kenny “00” Burrough. Like a good former American Football League team, the big play was more than a single play; it was a team’s identity.
Even in Houston in the mid-1970s, the Oilers played second banana to the Cowboys some 225 miles to the north. When the teams would meet in the fictional Texas Super Bowl in 1976 (played in the Astrodome), more than half the crowd cheered openly for Dallas, infuriating many Oiler starters like center Carl Mauck, whose R-rated statements on the subject could never be aired except on pay cable stations that didn’t yet exist.
Many things were different back then, notably how the press covered sports. First, it was called the “press” – not the media. A small daily sports editor, such as myself (for the Montgomery County Daily Courier), was granted equal access to any press box and locker room as the beat reporters for the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post (when every major city in America had at least two daily newspapers in firm competition).
There were only three major television stations in town and no one was watching cable television. Sports were confined to AM radio but only at night; the concept of 24/7 talk radio was simply … unthinkable.
So in-town press conferences were usually held at local restaurants (not practice facilities) to entice the press to attend, players openly fraternized with reporters and coaches blended into the community’s identity than today (where all too often they are just managers reporting to a major corporate entity).
When Phillips arrived in 1975, he began to alter the attitude in the locker room and on the field, through shrewd trading, decent draft choices and proving to the fan base that he could turn the team into a competitive unit.
And then things started to change. A small but speedy wideout named Billy Johnson began to dance the Funky Chicken as his touchdown celebration in the team’s white shoes, a future Hall of Fame defensive tackle named Curley Culp was acquired from Kansas City to bolster Bum’s new 3-4 defense (joining Elvin Bethea) and a linebacker, who compared favorably to Adonis, named Robert Brazile (out of Jackson State), was Phillips’ initial first-round draft choice in 1975.
The offense still had colorful Pastorini (whose interesting late night adventures in bachelorhood were chronicled daily in the Chronicle), Burrough and All-Pros Mike Barber, Mauck and rookie offensive guard Bruce Matthews (another future Hall of Fame choice). Pastorini also had a long-standing feud with a Chronicle reporter named Dale Robertson and on more than one occasion, the two were seen tumbling out of the locker room in a wild flight over some item Robertson had written.
The team’s reliable placekicker, Austrian Toni Fritsch, would wait for his services to be required, and sit at the end of the bench, far away from his teammates, smoking a pack of Marlboros ... during the game.
After stumbling to 5-9 in 1976, the Oilers’ first overall choice of the 1978 draft was a game changer – Texas’ Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell. Suddenly, Houston had a legitimate running game and instant credibility. The fan base was sparked like a Roman candle and overnight, a new identity emerged “Luv Ya Blue!”
The Oilers became the darlings of the Bayou City (it wasn’t hard with the Rockets stumbling and the Astros still trying to make something of themselves). The ‘Dome was packed for every game; fans waived blue and white pom-poms, trying to raise the roof off the facility. The crowd gladly sang the words to possibly the worst, corniest fight song ever record, “We Are The Houston Oilers!”
In 1978, Campbell won the Offensive Rookie of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year, rushing for 1,450 yards, most of them directly through and literally over defenders, sending many of them crashing to the turf as a “34” blur ran past them.
It WAS the best of times, with the worst of times on the horizon. The Oilers made the playoffs with a 10-6 record, qualifying for the newly-created fifth Wild Card spot. In that game, Houston the Oilers stunned the Dolphins in Miami 17-9 to advance to the Divisional Playoffs.
At New England, in front of 61,297 Patriot fans, Campbell and Company stomped their way to a 31-14 victory, setting up a clash with the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers in Steel City, USA. This encounter would end with Pittsburgh ripping the Oilers 34-5.
After the loss, the Oilers were greeted by 50,000 loyal fans at the Astrodome holding signs saying “Luv Ya Blue.”
In 1979, Houston posted an 11-5 record, again qualifying for the playoffs as a Wild Card. In the first playoff game ever held at the Astrodome, the Oilers beat Denver 13-7, but lost several key players, including Campbell and Pastorini to injuries.
Without that heart of the Houston offense, the Oilers still defeated the Chargers in San Diego 17-13 in the Divisional Playoffs, as safety Vernon Perry intercepted future Hall of Famer passer Dan Fouts four times – a playoff record.
Next up would be the bane of the Oilers’ existence – the Steelers again in Pittsburgh.
The Oilers were one play from the Super Bowl when officials rule an apparent touchdown catch by former TCU star Mike Renfro as out-of-bounds in the third quarter as Houston tried to tie the game. Replays and every Houston fans alive clearly showed the error of the call, but instant replay (in the NFL) was only a figment of some reporter’s imagination.
It would prove to be a backbreaking play and decision as Houston crumbled in the fourth quarter, losing 27-13. And again, the Oilers returned to the Astrodome, only to see 70,000 appreciative fans show up early in the morning to greet them in another “Luv Ya Blue” rally.
In 1980, Campbell continued to dominate with an amazing1,934-yard season, including by consecutive 200-yard games as he narrowly missed a 2,000-yard season.
The Oilers would finish with an 11-5 record, but were forced to settle again for the Wild Card berth after losing the division title to a tiebreaker. In the Wild Card Game, played at Oakland, Houston stymied by the Raiders’ defense (with a fistful of future Hall of Fame players), losing 27-7, to the eventual Super Bowl Champion for the third consecutive year.
However, Oiler owner Bud Adams was not satisfied with the outcome, and Phillips was unceremoniously fired, replaced by assistant coach Ed Biles.
Adams, a rich oilman who was a totally unlikeable person, became the type of symbol burned in effigy by Oiler fans on a weekly basis. So when Adams moved the franchise to Tennessee in 1997 (Memphis the first season and then Nashville), the entire city felt betrayed to the highest degree. Memories are long like elephants in Houston and every time the Titans play in Houston, the booing from the home side was directed more at Adams then the Titan roster.
So it was beyond ironic to read of Adams’ passing Monday, at the same age of Phillips.
It took until 2002 after Houston voters approved higher taxes to build Reliant Stadium (on the same grounds as the Astrodome) to garner an expansion team named the Texans. And to this day, no Houston pro football team has played in a Super Bowl.
Phillips continued (and concluded) his coaching career with almost five seasons in New Orleans, leading the Saints. Yet he could not produce that franchise’s first winning season and playoff berth. On Nov. 25, 1985, 12 games into the season, he announced his retirement, one day after the Saints beat Minnesota 30-24.
Bum returned to his ranch in Goliad, hawked his own line of Blue Ribbon sausage and thoroughly supported the coaching career of his son, Wade, including a stint as head coach of the Cowboys. Wade Phillips is currently the defensive coordinator of the Houston Texans, and Bum was pictured at every turn wearing the Texan logo.
So when games were played two days after his death, people, especially in Texas and the vast Houston area, paused to remember the jovial, affable man called “Bum.”
And every football fan should.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Michigan-Indiana recap: Mirror, mirror on the field

“Mirror, mirror, on the field
How many points will our defense yield?”
Among the circles of personal interest I navigate in my life, Celtic music ranks among the top three. I have met and befriended many of that genre’s top performers through my association with the North Texas Irish Festival (held annually at Dallas’ Fair Park on the first weekend of March).
One such good friend is Nelson Stewart (and his wife, Jeania) as the front man and leader of the Celtic rock band, the American Rogues (even though Nelson is a proud Canadian from Hamilton, Ont.). If you are ever presented with the opportunity to see and hear them perform, at a festival or venue near you, do NOT miss the chance to do so.
I tell you this (in brief) because the Stewarts were among the 109,503 fans at Michigan Stadium last Saturday to see the Wolverines play Indiana. A friend of the band invited them to enjoy their initial Game Day experience – the Full Monty treatment, complete from tailgating, collecting souvenirs and the game itself!
Rather than be jealous of their good fortune, I was giddy for them, knowing they would see what a great time can be enjoyed at a U-M game – from downing a few brats and suds to seeing the Michigan Marching Band enter the premises to hearing the thunderous roar of the largest crowd in college football! I’d have given a million dollars simply to witnesses their faces as each chapter unfolded before their eyes.
Little did I know they would watch what turned out to be nothing more than a video game on turf. Michigan’s 63-47 victory was certainly nothing the defensive coaching staff wishes to cherish. Frankly, it mirrored the famous (or infamous) 2010 triple-overtime 67-65 win over Illinois in Rich Rodriguez’s last season in Ann Arbor.
In this case, Michigan was facing an almost identical facsimile of the RichRod-led team – an all-out, hurry-up offensive onslaught but a team with absolutely no semblance of defense. The Hoosier secondary was shredded by the combination of Devin Gardner-to-Jeremy Gallon worse than any pulled pork sandwich you can find.
The numbers were staggering AND absurd as they collected 369 yards on 14 completions (not counting three passes Gallon dropped when wide open) – a Big 10 and U-M record for reception yardage in a single game (and second-highest total in NCAA FBS history). For the most part, Gallon was so wide open, left alone so often by the IU defenders, you’d thought he was carrying a lethal virus or something; no one wanted anything to do with him, other than Gardner.
He finished with 503 yards passing for a new school standard and 584 yards in total offense, just one yard shy of tying the Big 10 record, set in 1980 by Illinois’ Dave Wilson (of whom no one can remember). The team offense of 751 yards was a record and Indiana was allegedly a better program than Delaware State, against whom U-M put up 727 yards in 2009 … under you-know-who.
At the final whistle, the two teams combined for 110 points (no overtime needed) and 1,323 yards of offense. I’m sure Al Borges’ thumbs were sore from all that action on his Xbox clicker in the press box – because that’s what it looked like.
Frankly, it was getting ridiculous to have big play after big play on every second-half possession, without any team deciding to demonstrate a lick of defense. The prospect of suffering another upset to a decided underdog took the crowd from mild annoyance to definite possibility, especially having lost an 11-point halftime lead on the first series of the third quarter.
Each time Michigan scored, Indiana struck back with lightning quickness and no one could feel comfortable, even when leaving the stadium to go home. People went to sleep wondering if IU was still on the field, scoring more touchdowns.
After Gardner fumbled a center snap at the IU 2 with the home team up by only 2 points, you could feel (through the TV) the terrifying shiver sent through the crowd, with visions of the Penn State debacle flashing before their eyes. Could this be happening two weeks in a row?
All those high-powered offensive numbers would have meant diddly-squat had Indiana hurried its way on a 98-yard drive to secure the lead. Yet, in the end, it took three mistakes (two Thomas Gordon interceptions, which were great because he was MIA up to those moments) to seal the victory for Michigan. Gordon’s first interception (and return) allowed Big House fans to exhale.
No one knows, the Gardner turnover could have broken the back and spirit of the Wolverines ... but no one will ever know, thanks to an ill-conceived decision by IU coach Kevin Wilson late in the third quarter.
Late in the third quarter, after Indiana had closed the gap to 35-34 on a 23-yard field goal, and then drew to within two points (42-40) on a 67-yard touchdown pass from Tre Roberson to Kofi Hughes, it was the choice to go for the tie ... at that exact moment and time. But a pass from Roberson was off target and when Michigan scored 100 seconds into the fourth quarter, an automatic PAT kick pushed Indiana behind a bigger eight-ball than was necessary.
With more than a quarter left to go, and lots of opportunities remaining, the premature call from the IU sidelines meant the contest was a two-possession affair provided Michigan produced touchdowns – which it did three times in the final 15 minutes!
Such small decisions often play significant roles when post-mortem autopsies are performed – such as this one. Indiana had Michigan reeling after scoring an unimaginable 23 points in the third period, and if it were constantly within one play of tying the game, a better opportunity might have presented itself.
But that’s the kind of small mistake first-time head coaches, like Wilson, can make. He’ll learn from it, but, for the sake of Hoosier fandom, he’ll also discover football is a three-sided triangle – offense, defense and special teams. Michigan was able to exploit one side to its fullest and came away with a victory, albeit nail-biting to the very end.
I can’t wait to e-mail, or Facebook message, with Nelson, to obtain his reaction concerning his Big House experience.
“Welcome to the Michigan football family … even if what you saw wasn’t real.”

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees announced

After a few weak sister classes of nominees, the 2014 list for potential inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally has an abundance of talent, history and riches for fans and other voters to choose.
The 2014 nominees are Nirvana, KISS, Hall and Oates, YES, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel, Chic, Deep Purple, The Meters, N.W.A., LL Cool J, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Link Wray, The Replacements, Cat Stevens and The Zombies.
Balloting ends in December and the 2014 induction ceremony will be held in New York City on April 10 and later broadcast on HBO (always one of the best programs of the season).
Let’s examines the possibilities. The very fact that KISS is NOT already in the Hall of Fame is a sham and a stain on that institution. For its longevity and popularity, this group should be unanimously given its due (and long, LONG overdue).
The blue-eyed soul Philadelphia sound of Daryl Hall and John Oates produced as many hit records as anyone in the late 1970s and 1980s and should be another unanimous balloting selection. They packed arenas and sold millions of albums; what more must be asked?
Deep Purple was a British group that brought heavy metal to the forefront as early as 1969 with its release of a Billy Joe Royal song, “Hush.” What followed was a catalog of major hits, including the seminal “Smoke on the Water” and “Woman from Tokyo.” No Deep Purple, no Metallica, no Black Sabbath or Judas Priest or Ronnie James Dio.
With rap and hip-hop becoming a more prevalent presence in the HOF, and with the induction of Public Enemy last year, the group/artist deserving the next slot is N.W.A., led by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. “Straight Out of Compton” was an album that altered musical tastes and standards.
Unless you appreciate 1950s instrumental rock music, you won’t fully comprehend the true greatness of guitarist Link Wary. His record, “Rumble,” also altered the way that instrument was heard, recorded and appreciated. His influence touched the likes of Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton – just to name a few of the greatest.
You have five right there and the argument could extend to Linda Ronstadt (well, well deserving of inclusion for her body of work), YES (defined what progressive rock was and will be), Cat Stevens (before his religious conversion, he was a leader in terms of songwriting and singing), Peter Gabriel (already a Hall of Famer with Genesis) who combined the African sound he cherished with personal politics (“Biko” is the best example), and The Zombies (another member of the 1960s British invasion with its unique, non-Beatles sound such as "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season").
And then there is Nirvana, whose star shone white-hot bright and then, in a needle’s push, was gone. As in the case of Guns ‘n Roses, voters must ask if an album or two in a relatively short period of time qualifies for Hall of Fame status.
The answers should be interesting.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Michigan-Penn State recap: Wolverines lose in un(Happy) Valley

So many words can be said about this embarrassing loss last Saturday pertaining to the Michigan football program at this exact moment in the time-space continuum. To put it mildly, the Wolverine Team 134 had its Saturday Night Live moment and proved, at least midway through the 2013 season, is Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time.
The 43-40 quadruple overtime loss at Penn State was a combination of lots of “poor” this and that, so much so someone needs to call United Way for help. The blocking was poor; the kicking game fell into that category; the play calling went beyond “poor,” all the way to atrocious without stopping at GO! and collecting a road win; and, worst of all, the entire approach in the fourth quarter and entirety of the four overtimes, was worse than poor – it was a case of NOT playing to win the game.
The latter is what really mattered in the end, because it involved all those aforementioned aspects, rolled into one bad cake batter recipe. By playing it safe, and never really sniffing for the end zone, settling instead for field goal attempts, Michigan snatched defeat from the jaws of Joey Chesnutt.
Right now, Michigan has no running game, whatsoever! Neither Fitzgerald Toussaint nor Derrick Green could do anything, combining 30 carries for exactly 28 net yards. In fact, when one subtracts Toussaint’s 12-yard run to start Michigan’s initial scoring drive of the game, he ran an amazing 26 times for just 15 yards!!!
With or without All-American tackle Taylor Lewan, the offensive line was a bad replica of Swiss cheese – too many holes to even be mediocre. Penn State stuffed and stopped any plays between the guards, yet time-after-time, there was Toussaint, Green and quarterback Devon Gardner attempting to do what was clearly impossible – gain any ground against the Nittany Lions’ front four.
Yet … no plays were called to quick pitch the ball to any back to go wide; no “trick” play was signaled for a reverse or end around; no misdirection … no nothing! Michigan played an “insane” brand of rushing – trying the same play over and over and expecting a different result. It was bad, bad play-calling from the sidelines.
It didn’t help that the running backs would instantly turn to an east-west path at the lines of scrimmage instead of north-to-south. Green will probably be an outstanding talent in the coming years, but right now, he couldn’t push through a cheap high school booster banner, let alone a defensive line.
But Michigan’s rushing game has been reduced to those two players; no one else has been on the field since the first game against Central Michigan. Milk cartons might well have photos of Thomas Rawls and De’veon Smith on side panels to ask for help to find the missing people.
Gardner cannot be the be-all and end-all of the offense; it will be ridiculously simply to game plan against Michigan going forward; simply double team two receivers (Devon Funchess and Jeremy Gallon) and shadow Gardner’s every step. No other offensive threats have been established.
Of all the linemen suffering through a miserable day, none was more obvious than redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis, who was spun around more during pass blocking than little boy’s spinning top. In all, the offensive line allowed 11 tackles for loss by PSU – a shameful stat to say the least. He was also flagged for a dumb deadball foul that cost UM field position and ultimately possession.
Again, he has potential but fans need to realize (as I have) this is a young team, NOT up to certain challenges. You must wonder how Michigan handled Notre Dame earlier in the season (and how Michigan State did not).
Gardner must also shoulder some blame for the debacle; again, he resorted to being a turnover machine, leading to Penn State’s 21-10 halftime advantage. On the 2013 season, of the 15 turnovers committed by Michigan, Gardner is directly responsible for 13 of them. It is doubtful any other Division 1 player has such a percentage; certainly NOT Denard Robinson in his 2 ½ seasons as a UM starter.
Robinson did have his share of miscues but … he also possessed FAR more explosive speed and ability to instantly turn disastrous losses into huge gains. Right now, Wolverine fans wish Gardner would be HALF the player Robinson was; this is for sure, Denard Robinson would NOT have let Michigan lose at Penn State.
One reason for Gardner’s constant interception rate (the recent Minnesota game is the only career contest Gardner has started and NOT throw an interception) is his release point; a blind man can see it.
On his second interception, the defender has to merely reach up to snag the aerial when Gardner did not, or could not, put enough air under the throw to lift it over the defense and into the hands of an open receiver. It has happened often this year yet people only concentrate on his footwork; he needs lots more coaching on his “touch.”
Lest we forget, the Wolverine defense was suddenly exposed by Penn State on its final drive in regulation. Christian Hackenberg might be a fine quarterback in PSU future; he could well rewrite the record books and make University Park/State College (which one IS it?) fans forget all about Todd Blackledge.
On Saturday, he was essentially an immobile pocket passer who found the holes in the UM secondary and engineered an improbable (yet somehow predictable) game-tying scoring drive. Poor Chris Stribling had the “8” scorched off his uniform by PSU’s Allen Robinson, a taller more athletic receiver than the man covering him.
The question I kept jotting down – constantly – was simple, “Why is Michigan ONLY rushing three players?” Hackenberg displayed no ability to run from pressure (he was sacked four times) yet was allowed to sit in that cocoon and find receivers 23 times – for three touchdowns.
And if you play such a passive prevent defense with eight in coverage, why was Stribling alone on an island TWICE with PSU’s top receiver? That, folks, was a sideline decision.
After Saturday, what was almost considered automatic – field goal kicking by Brendan Gibbons – is now back in the suspect category. What happened at PSU has to weigh heavily on Gibbons’ mind for the rest of the season.
But it should have never come to that and the final scrutiny goes to where the blame really must be centered. This was by far the worst coached game of Brady Hoke’s tenure at Michigan, perhaps in his entire career. By NOT playing for the end zone (especially in overtime), you play to lose.
A developing team (which is what Michigan is) must always play to win – on every down! That did not happen last Saturday.
After a PSU field goal narrowed a seemingly-safe 10-point UM lead to seven, the Wolverines began to grind (like 8 O’Clock coffee at the old A&P) out yardage and clock. A Gardner run gave Michigan possession at the PS 28 with 3:10 remaining. Looking good, right?
Then the “insanity” re-appeared – running two plays for 1 yard and a procedure flag, continuing Michigan’s advancement to the rear. Instead of calling for a fairly safe pass play (a screen which went unused in the contest),Toussaint was dumped for a 3-yard loss at the PSU 35.
Punter Matt Wile was unable to pin Penn State inside its 10 and Michigan returned possession for what amounted to only a 15-yard gain. Hackenberg delivered manna from heaven and the game was tied with 21 seconds remaining.
Michigan might have had a better chance to win at the last second, but wasted one play, spiking the ball after Gallon caught a pass for 25 yards (following Dennis Norfleet’s 34-yard kickoff return). The next play was just for 5 yards to Justice Hayes with 7 seconds left.
There was certainly enough time for another play, another possible 5-7 yards closer, for Gibbons to try to win the game with a kick under 50 yards. But the coaching staff settled for what it had at that moment and it misfired.
In overtime, PSUs first possession was a missed field goal and Michigan reverted to conventional wisdom, which isn’t wise at all. There were three meaningless rushing plays to “position” the ball for a game-winning field goal kick; at NO time, were any of those snaps directed toward scoring a touchdown.
As a result, the field goal was blocked – wasted opportunity number 1 by the boards.
In the second OT, Michigan had a first down at the PSU 13 and tried just ONE pass play to the end zone, which was incomplete. Gibbons’ kick gave UM a slender three-point lead which was erased when PSU kicked it own field goal.
For overtime number three, Penn State again gift-wrapped the game when a fumble was recovered by Frank Clark.
But would UM go for six points and leave no doubt to its fans and observers? Uh, no! Toussaint went nowhere on third down and Gibbons pushed his field goal try wide left. Why didn’t Michigan TRY for six points on that third-down conversion when everything witnessed for the entire game told everyone running the ball was Borg-like (resistance is futile)?
By the way, I have always maintained that overtime statistics should NOT count on official NCAA game tallies. On extra-points, no yardage on a two-point conversion attempt counts on the official tally sheet because the clock does not run; same should hold true for overtimes.
This particular loss falls on the coaches, for playing too safe and, apparently, too scared to score and succeed. If this is not true, the proof has yet to be placed in the pudding.
Under Hoke, Michigan is a lousy 5-8 away from the Big House. It’s hard to say why (crowd intimidation, change of playing surface, circumstance of importance), but unless that trend is reversed, Michigan will not be a contending team – either for conference or national honors.
Everything has to change and soon. Indiana won’t be anyone’s patsy this Saturday at home and fortunately, Michigan has a bye week before a (now dreaded) trip to East Lansing against the now-division leading Spartans. It actually looks as if Sparty will play Brutus Buckeye for the conference title on Dec. 7.
Michigan, on the other hand, doesn’t have that look about it.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A student-athlete's choice: can the money wait?

There is a particular Big 10 Conference public service ad, running on the Big Ten Network and elsewhere when a conference school is featured on a football telecast, featuring Michigan All-American offensive tackle Taylor Lewan. In 30 seconds, it tries to explain why Lewan, a bona fide first round NFL draft choice (probably high lottery pick), chose to return to the Ann Arbor campus for his senior year instead of following the advice of the Steve Miller Band (“take the money and run”).
His statement was basically the same as when he announced his non-departure last spring; he really, really, REALLY liked being a student at the University of Michigan and loved playing for Brady Hoke. He felt confident he would perform well in the 2013 season and all those financial rewards would still be waiting for him.
But for the present, he is where he WANTS to be.
In other words, God bless Taylor Lewan; not just for his athletic ability being a potential Wolverine great, but as a student-athlete who enjoys both aspects of that title. He’s at Michigan because he wants to be there and it will only happen once in his lifetime.
Lewan will become a very wealthy young man in his early 20s in about eight months’ time. If his knees hold up, and if he can avoid any major injury (not really within his control), he will be paid handsomely.
There is only ONE Taylor Lewan on the Michigan football team, whose future is SO certain. There are more than 100 other players, most of them on some sort of scholarship plan, whose future is not as set in concrete; they possess different degrees of talent and opportunity, yet work just as hard as Lewan and enjoy the same collegiate experience.
But most of them struggle to make ends meet when it comes to living conditions. Within the entire athletic department, there are almost 1,000 such “scholarship” athletes, employing their talents in various sports to secure an education. The question bouncing around the NCAA at the moment is whether these athletes should be “paid;” especially within the four possible revenue-producing sports (football, basketball, hockey, baseball).
One of these days, the legality of institutions, such as the NCAA and the University of Michigan, using images, names and the sweat equity of these “amateur” athletes to enrich their bank accounts, will be decided by the Supreme Court. Former athletes who have taken the NCAA and companies like EA Sports to civil court have emerge with some victories to prove their premise – if you use our images, you need to pay us!
Hollywood stars and recording artists have their images and talents protected by law from unauthorized use, but college athletes do not, and the market keeps growing from contract to contract making someone a whole steamer trunk load of money.
When Denard Robinson was chosen to grace the EA Sports ’13 College Football game, he had already turned professional through the NFL Draft and signing with an agent. He could accept any remuneration without penalty to himself or the school.
But what if it was Texas A&M star/Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manzell, who is only a sophomore? If his likeness is selling EA Sports’ product, why should he enjoy the fruits of his labor, instead of the NCAA through some “licensing agreement.”
Manzell allegedly collected money for signing memorabilia over the summer and was suspended all of two quarters for whatever he did wrong. While he might be a jerk-wad as a human being, such activities (autograph shows, etc.) are considered a legitimate method for earnings. And at last glance, he was considered to be an adult, free to make his own choices.
There are books written on the archaic nature of the NCAA rules and the entire system (controlled not by athletic personnel but by school presidents, who probably make a LOT less than the university’s football coach). Opening paying an athlete to play at a certain school is clearly the wrong thing to do (just ask Southern Methodist), but too many of the “rules” are just plain stupid and unfair to the student-athlete.
One example (from a thousand): it is illegal for a coach or “booster” to buy a meal from Taco Bell on a Sunday night (a non-training table day) for a player (even if that player’s stomach is grumbling in Dolby stereo). However, no such restriction exists for a speech professor to do the same thing for a member of the school’s debate team.
A regular student can gladly accept any money given to him or her from anyone within their lives, but for an athlete, it is considered an illegal gift from a booster.
So what’s the difference? That thing called a scholarship, which covers tuition, room, board and … probably nothing else. It does NOT cover things like laundry expenses, the cost of going to see a movie on campus, or eating burgers at Wendy’s, or what you would consider to be normal everyday happenings. Unless the athlete’s parents can front that extra spending cash, the player goes without.
One of the saddest and most cruel rules violations is for anyone to pay the price of a plane ticket is an athlete must return home on a moment’s notice if, let’s say, there’s a death in the immediate family. What is that person to do? Yet it is considered an egregious violation of some sacred rule book.
The rules were established to keep student-athletes from being held above the regular university student – to maintain an even footing in terms of the pecking order. But those rules have one the opposite; it punishes the athletes in SO many more ways than any other scholarshiped student.
Those on math scholarships do NOT have to perform before 111,000 fans, with 222,000 eyes watching, and scrutinizing (in print, on TV, on the radio), their every move. They do NOT have to go to class, then go through practice on non-game days and study playbooks in addition to their regular requirements to meet the academic class schedule.
An NCAA scholarship, depending on the school, has very decent monetary value (for these young adults), but it has not kept up with inflation, higher cost of living and other financial pressures. It is there where some kind of solution can be found.
I do not agree with open compensation of collegiate athletes. For one thing, it would be hard to justify why football players get more than the gymnast, who works at his craft with as much dedication and fortitude as the running back or … offensive lineman. An athlete is an athlete … and if a university selects to complete on the highest NCAA level in swimming, volleyball or ANY sport, each person should be treated equally – regardless of gender and the number of fans in the seats watching.
Each scholarship awarded to a student-athlete, regardless of the sport (revenue-producer or non-revenue) should include a monthly stipend, explicitly dedicated to those expenses require to live outside of tuition, room and board. The figure agreed upon should be reasonable and help relieve that pressure that often forces the athlete to break the rules.
A stipend can be deposited by the NCAA in that athlete’s student account either in a lump sum or monthly basis. It should be like the J.G. Wentworth ad states, “It’s your money; use it when YOU want to.”
If that athlete’s likeness or name is used to sell video games, replica uniforms or anything where the money goes to enrich someone else, a negotiated percentage should be placed in a trust account for each athlete affected, to be collected upon leaving that school.
And … it means the NCAA has to take a little bit less for its greedy-ass self, so be it. It’s stepped on enough carcasses to get to where it stands now – powerful and wealthier than hell.
And something unusual would be introduced into the sports equation on the collegiate level – fairness.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Methodical Michigan-Minnesota recap: Where did the Big 10 Conference go?

After five games and the first of two bye weeks, the Michigan Wolverine football team might have just found the perfect word to describe its approach and execution to what has been a shaky undefeated season.
And the secret word is … “methodical” (cue the Groucho duck with a crisp $100 bill in his bill).
According to Webster’s Dictionary, “methodical” is defined as “arranged, characterized by, or performed with method or order (such as ‘a methodical treatment of the subject,’) and/or “habitually proceeding according to method (‘methodical in his daily routine’).”
Apply those definitions to Saturday’s 42-13 victory over visiting Minnesota; you will understand why the Wolverines took the Little Brown Jug from its perennial resting place (inside Schembechler Hall) and hoisted it to a sold-out crowd … and returned to its home.
Some might say the game was slightly “boring” or “dull” and perhaps some of us actually nodded off in between game “action” and commercials for the new Stallone movie.
Such a description should apply to the Big 10 Conference overall, but two weeks into league play, the same old faces can be found the same old places – atop the respective division standings. You just KNOW that all eyes will turn to November 30 on the calendar to figure out who will advance to the conference championship matchup one week later.
In a season where the teams were trying to re-establish themselves on par with other respected conference (aside from the Southeastern Conference, which, if you listen to every talking head on ESPN, is on the same level as the NFL ... at least in terms of how much teams pay their coaches and … players), it just isn’t happening yet.
Every conference team, with the exception of Purdue, had a winning record. Now just Ohio State and Michigan remain undefeated.
In fact, when Ohio State shreds Indiana the week before the Michigan game, it will have long before clinched the Leaders Division. And if Michigan is unbeaten for that encounter, it will be a back-to-back series – the first in Ann Arbor and the second in Indianapolis the following Saturday for the Big 10 title.
No one, except for the Wolverines, are on par with the hated Buckeyes. Iowa didn’t look good enough to stop Sparty’s offense, Penn State stunk up the joint at Bloomington, and Northwestern could encounter a major letdown after a spirited affair with Ohio State.
So WHAT else has changed? Nothing. The more things change, the more they stay exactly the same they should be.
The keys to Michigan’s eventual romp were simple, and well-preached over the previous four weeks. The Wolverine offense decided to eliminate mistakes of all kinds – turnovers, penalties, foolish plays. It doesn’t make for an exciting shootout-style scoring machine found in other programs, but, as reflected by the head coach, “methodical” is Brady Hoke’s modus operendi.
Michigan finally played 60 minutes of live game action and kept the ball in the proper manner, and only surrendered possession on punts or kickoffs. Meanwhile, it won the takeaway battle in the best fashion – putting points on the scoreboard, including a coffin-nailing interception returns (72 yards) by Blake Countess, his fourth pickoff in the first five games.
Quarterback Devin Gardner looked more composed behind center and actually ran just seven times for 17 net yards, but one important touchdown with 2:36 to play. He completed 13 of 17 passes for 235 yards and a 24-yard scoring strike to tight end Devin Funchess with 1:25 left in the first half and a 14-7 lead Michigan did not surrender.
Uh, would it really be too rude to call those aerial hookups as “The Men’s Club duo” because of all the double-Ds on the field
Gardner still needs lots of refinement to his game as too many passes were thrown behind Michigan receivers, not allowing for what should be quality yards after catch. The touchdown toss to Funchess WAS one of Gardner’s better thrown balls this season, not just in Saturday’s game.
Funchess clearly demonstrated his star potential; he might be the quickest player at this position since Paul Seal manned the post for Bo in the early 1970s.
The running game remains a work-in-progress but I was impressed with Fitzgerald Toussaint’s performance, not for the two touchdowns, but for the strong leg drive he showed. He hasn’t run that hard in almost two seasons and was responsible for having Michigan convert 10-of-13 third-down conversions.
The only other ball carrier was freshman Derrick Green, who still need to become more of a north-south runner than his tendency to move east-to-west along the line of scrimmage. If you subtract his initial 14-yard scamper on Michigan’s first scoring drive, he gained 9 net yards on 9 carries (and that includes his 2-yard touchdown run). But that’s what freshmen do.
Minnesota’s only major offensive thrust was led by surprising starter Mitch Leidner, who looked like a Tim Tebow starter kit. When he ran for yardage, his long, tall body gained almost as much falling forward as he did upright.
Leidner executed an impressive Gopher drive, 15 plays 75 yards, chewing up almost 10 minutes of the first quarter, to tie the game at 7-7. But it might have been the unknown factor that accounted for the initial Minnesota dominance because the Wolverine defense adjusted, notably in the second half, led by linebacker Desmond Morgan with 10 tackles.
Again, “methodical” works just fine when you’re winning and, in the end, it IS the win-loss column which accounts for the true measure of success.
The Gophers played the game without their head coach, Jerry Kill, as his battle with epilepsy forced him to stay in Minneapolis and overcome yet another seizure earlier in the day. It was the second occurrence this season, keeping Kill from roaming the sidelines (the other came against Western Illinois).
While applauding Kill’s courage for doing what he loves (coaching football) under such difficult conditions, a serious discussion needs to be held in Minneapolis as to whether he can be as effective a leader as the program really requires.
One couldn’t help but wonder how many decisions, and the play-calling, would have changed had he been in Ann Arbor. The acting head coach (also the defensive coordinator) was in the Stadium press box (as normal), sending defensive calls to another assistant to rely to Gopher players.
But it isn’t the optimum game plan to follow for any team – let alone a program aiming to climb out of the gutter it was walking prior to Kill’s arrival. The increasing number of episodes has to have an effect on the players, never knowing if their coach will be present to lead.
And the worst possible sight for Minnesota fans, players and officials would be watching Kill having a seizure ON the sidelines in front of a packed stadium. People already are squeamish at the sight of a player carted off the field on a stretcher, so imagine how many times that video would be played on Fox Sports, ESPN or YouTube. The thought is what should make folks uncomfortable.
This most personal choice DOES belongs to Kill and, hopefully, he will do what is best for himself, his family, his employers and his players. And in any case, I’m sure football fans will be rooting for him.
I know television now controls all aspects of college football, from when-where-how games are played, but it is mid-October and all games AFTER the Indiana home contest on Oct.19 have yet to kickoff times announced. This Saturday’s road trip to State College, Pa. will find an odd 5 p.m. kickoff (local time) and one can only wonder why.
But if you want to travel up to East Lansing, or play for the home game against Nebraska, you have no clue as to what time those contests will begin. That is a terrible imposition upon Michigan fans and those of the opposition … and SO incredibly unnecessary!
When a home game starts should be the provence of the institutions, not the network producers. It should be time for someone to stand up, and step up, for those who actually put their fannies on the seats. They already pay thorough the nose for those seats, it isn’t necessary to have them wait until five minutes before kickoff to disclose the starting times.
I’m real old school on this. You NEVER ever hear athletes praise the production crew for an outstanding performance or for helping carry a team to victory. No, they look into the stands and thanks the fans they can see and hear.
It’s time for some respect to be shown to the gathered faithful live and in person, and not at some Buffalo Wild Wings, guzzling beer and eating chicken wings by the dozens.
And did anyone get a good look at the playing surface in Evanston for the Ohio State-Northwestern game? I know of homes here in Plano, Texas, cited by code enforcement for not mowing their lawns enough, that weren’t as tall as the turf those teams played upon. It looked like the rough at any U.S. Open.
Only thing missing were the Chik-Fill-A cows …
My early (24 hours after Saturday’s game) prediction is a 31-21 Michigan win at Happy Valley. The sanctions against the Nittany Lions are already starting to be fully realized and that egg laid on the road might soon begin to add up to a carton.