Saturday, December 29, 2007

Spin Doctors

They name streets after guys like that -- One Way and Dead End ... He's just an idiot. ~ Tony Stewart (on Greg Biffle, but it could have been any number of others)
 I don't know if someone at the Montgomery Advertiser has a sense of humor, or it just worked out this way, but they certainly put an interesting pair of articles together. Like most newspapers these days, the Advertiser has cut back on some of its coverages, particularly in the Sports section. What is amazing is that their coverage of NASCAR racing is one of the things that has taken a hit. Given that the Advertiser is published in Montgomery, Alabama, and Alabama is the home of Talledega, the Allisons, and other notables in stock car racing, this is just another indication of how NASCAR is slowing slinking into the sunset.

The nature of the stories in the Sports section was also an indication. Story number 1 was headlined, "NASCAR sees spike in accidents spins." Right next to it was "Rookies got crash course in driving." Hmmm. Seems like there might be a connection there.

In the first story, we learn that the number of accidents and spins is increasing. The Chase alone had 89 incidents (a 14.1 % increase over last year) and there were a total of 240 for the season. What's frightening about the latter number is that it's less than the number in 2005 when we sat through 253 incidents.

If you thought you were seeing a lot of yellow flag laps in the last few years, you were most certainly right. And, remember, this isn't counting those mysterious "debris" cautions.

What could be causing so many cautions? See story number two. Here are some stats to consider:

  • David Regan had 22 crashes in 36 races.
  • J.J. Yeley had nine, which was a significant improvement over the 17 he had the year before.
  • Robbie Gordon, who ain't no rookie, managed to have 16 accidents or spins.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya, who ain't no rookie except in the eyes of NASCAR, had 11 incidents.
In other words, rookies and open wheel guys don't know how to drive these here stock car thingies.

It isn't going to get any better. Next year we're going to be treated to Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve, and Sam Hornish spinning and crashing all over the place. Hornish, in particular, should have a lot of shortened races. He already drives like a loon in the Indy cars. Roger Penske managed to settle him down some, so he was able to stay on the track long enough to win a championship a couple of years ago, but don't count on him finishing many races with all his fenders on in Cup racing.

It's not like Penske isn't trying to give him a break. Figuring that Hornish will never qualify on his own, he's gotten permission to apply his owner points to Hornish's car rather than the car of Kurt Busch. What this means is that former Cup champion Busch will have to qualify on speed, while Hornish will be an automatic qualifier for the first five races next season.

After that, of course, he'll have to be in the top 35 drivers to get an automatic entry. Given his rather poor runs this past season, it's likely he won't be around for many races beginning with number 6.

Once upon a time, drivers had an apprenticeship. They raced in ARCA or ASA, often after driving local dirt tracks for a while, and worked their way up to Busch (now Nationwide) racing. They raced there for a few years until they finally looked ready to run with the big guys. Now, all they need to be is photogenic.

The Car of Tomorrow (COT) isn't going to make it any better. Take a bunch of bad drivers and put them in closer racing and what you'll get is even more wrecks. Hendricks, of course, won't be worried because somehow their COTs will amazingly go faster than everyone else's, just like their Chevrolets run faster than everyone else's Chevrolets. Everyone else, though, is going to be getting caught up in Juan's or Dario's or hot-shot-rookie-who-did-one-year-in-Busch's accident. Well, they might get caught up in David Regan's wreck or Robbie Gordon's, since those two accidents-waiting-to-happen will still be driving.


Of course, this all could be part of Brian France's master plan. After all, more cautions means more time for commercials. More commercials means more money. It could be setting the scene for NASCAR's next TV negotiations. "Hey," NASCAR reps will say, "Where else can you get a four-hour event that has enough breaks in the action for 3 1/2 hours of commercial time?"

Sounds like a plan to me.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Strange Sort of Moral Character

... an example for what college athletics should be--turning out men of high moral character. ~ BSC Betrayed

Back in May, I wrote in praise of the move by Birmingham Southern to move to Division III athletics. "BSC Betrayed" took serious exception to my opinion in a flame which included the quote above. Well, let's see how those builders of high moral character are doing these days.

Les Miles strings Michigan and LSU along while he tries to get his BCS Championship game bonus and still jump to Michigan. Michigan gets tired of that game and signs Rich Rodriguez, without bothering to get permission from Coach Rodriguez' employer, West Virginia, to even be talking to him.

Coach Rodriguez, who played footsie with Alabama last year to sweeten his contract at W. Va. not only jumps his contract but threatens to sue the university to avoid the buy-out clause that the coach agreed to a year ago. He claims the university has not kept unspecified promises that were made (apparently the gold-plated toilet in the coach's john didn't come through).

Bobby Petrino, who signed a ten-year contract with Louisville only to jump to the Atlanta Falcons and sign a five-year contract, skips out before the end of his first season to sign another five-year contract with Arkansas. He arrives saying all sorts of wonderful things about being in Arkansas. It's safe, I think, to predict that he will be named as a primary candidate for the first big-paying coaching opening that comes along next year.

Jimbo Fisher gets named official coach-in-waiting at Florida State. Guess who's being hyped as a prime candidate for the West Virginia gig?

That's just the college ranks. In the NFL, the current sport seems to be to spit in Arthur Blank's eye. Mr. Blank owns the Atlanta Falcons. After getting figuratively kicked in the head by Michael Vick, he's abandoned by Bobby Petrino. Five of the men of high character who play for the Falcons pulled up their jerseys to reveal t-shirts saying, "Free Mike Vick" (or something close to that). As if that's not enough, Bill Cowher turns him down for the coaching job (despite the fact that I stated quite clearly what a good fit that would be).

Just to add insult to injury, another man-of-character-from-being-in-football, Bill Parcels sort of agrees to be VP of football operations, except that he has no intention of going to Atlanta. It seems that he's merely using Arthur Blank as leverage with the Miami Dophins. Frankly, Parcells and Wayne Huizenga deseve each other.

Speaking of Florida State, they've got 25 or so players suspended for cheating on exams, with the assistance of the tutors assigned to supposedly help them actually learn something. They may well end up forfeiting all or most of their seven wins this season. The only silver lining to this cloud is that a real man-of-character, Joe Paterno, would once again be the winningest coach of all time.

I love watching college football, but it's getting to be harder to enjoy all the time. Coaches jump ship at the drop of a hat; coaches get fired for not having perfect records every year. Players get arrested in bunches at times of day when they should be tucked in bed, if coaches still actually enforced curfews. The "rules" of college football allow players to be on teams so long that they would qualify for a pension if they were pros. We're treated to such terms as "sixth-year senior" (Auburn's Brandon Cox is one) and to the knowledge that some players are taking one course to maintain eligibility (like Matt Leinart taking ballroom dancing or another star who took a course in billiards).

This is character building?

It's not just the coaches, players, boosters, and athletic directors who are at fault here. The presidents of these supposed educational institutions need some character-building, too. The president of Michigan should take a few of the ethics courses offered at his school to remind him that stealing coaches is not an honorable activity (Michigan has now swiped both the basketball and football coaches from West Virginia). The president at Florida State has obviously let the athletic program get completely out of hand. And the president of Appalachian State should stop cavorting around during playoff games with his team's trophies from previous wins. Perhaps if he would behave himself, his student body and fans wouldn't tear down goal posts (a dangerous and expensive thing to do) as if the team had never won a game before.

Enough already. It's time for some real rules. First of all, players get four years of eligibility. Period. If a player gets hurt, they still get their athletic scholarship as long as they stay academically eligible, allowing them to get their degree--which is why they were supposed to be there in the first place.

Second, as I've said before, coaches get one-year contracts with a one-year mutually renewable option. But, let's go one step further. Just as their are rules governing when and how many times a player can be recruited, the NCAA needs to put in rules about contacting coaches or their representatives during the season. Basically, no contact would be allowed from the beginning of fall practice to the last game of the season (including bowls and championships). A school that violates the rule get puts on the same kinds of probation that they get for recruiting violations. A coach who initiates the contact could also be suspended. And these rules would include boosters and agents.

Oh, and the college presidents should concern themselves with the educational aspects of the institutions they run. They hire athletic directors to run the athletic programs. Set a budget for the athletic department and let the AD manage it. The presidents have more important things to worry about.

Like building character, not tearing it down.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

And the Coaches Go Round and Round

Early in his career, Rick Pitino was famously called Larry Brown on training wheels. Petrino isn't Larry Brown on training wheels; he's Larry Brown in a Maserati. ~ Pat Forde, ESPN

Well, well. I wonder who it was that wrote back on November 25: "Oh, and let us not forget Bobby Petrino. The whole Falcons thing has turned into a nightmare, very little of which is due to Petrino. I suspect that every major opening over the next couple of months will have a Petrino angle to it. Which would be perfectly normal, wouldn't it?"

I know, I should have been more specific about where he'd end up, but at the time there were more jobs open.

To say that Bobby Petrino is being criticised by sports writers and talk show hosts is putting it mildly. Petrino is being blistered. Mike Greenberg on ESPN's Mike and Mike In the Morning reminded us that in about 18 months Petrino has signed 20 years' worth of contracts (10 at Louisville, 5 in Atlanta, and now 5 at Arkansas). In the article linked above, Pat Forde describes Petrino in terms normally reserved for former Enron executives. Forde does think Arkansas may actually get to keep the "disingenuous drifter" as he calls Petrino: "
The good news for Arkansas is that it might be the last school willing to give this guy anything more than what he deserves: a one-year contract and a monitoring device on his ankle."

Ouch.

As I said here, the solution is simple. The NCAA should mandate one-year contracts with a one-year option for all coaches. If the school loves the coach to death, they can renew his option early; if the coach loves the school to death, he can accept it. One rule, though: Contracts can only be extended one year at a time, beginning at six months prior to expiration. Otherwise, some bright AD would pick up the coach's option for the next five years.

Which brings us to Les Miles.

You remember ol' Les. He's the guy who swears on the Eye of the Tiger that he's never, ever, ever leaving LSU in one breath while talking about his undying love of Michigan in the next. He's got permission to talk to Michigan, then he's got a new contract at LSU. Then, lo and behold, he's talking to Michigan again.

Now, by the usual rules of the game, Miles have given a denial-denial, which should have him staying at LSU. But, frankly, something stinks in Baton Rouge here. What is really going on is that Miles stands to make a pile of money if he coaches in the BCS game; $2.8 million can put a longing for Ann Arbor way on the back burner.

Now for a little wild speculation with no basis in fact other than some logical thinking. Here's what I think went down.

Michigan secures permission to talk to Miles. As I've said before, this sort of thing is a formality, and it can probably be assumed that someone close to Miles has talked to someone in a position to deal at Michigan. So a potential deal was struck with a huge proviso. If LSU would win the SEC championship and the other dominoes fell into place to get the Tigers to the BCS, then Miles would coach the championship game and collect the fat paycheck.

After that, Ann Arbor, here he comes.

I've got nothing to go on here, except recent history which says that all contracts are signed in disappearing ink. But, I'd put the price of an extra-large diet cola on "Miles goes to Michigan."

Speaking of coaches jumping contracts brings us back to Atlanta and Arthur Blank who has to be wondering what he did to deserve what's happened to him. I've got a solution for Mr. Blank, which is so obvious I'm surprised it hasn't already made the rounds. Hire Bill Cowher.

Yes, I know, Cowher retired. So did Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells, Dick Vermeil, and Led Zeppelin. When he called it quits, a lot of people felt it was a sabbatical to recharge the old batteries. Well, he's had a year of TV appearances and sitting around the living room now, and I suspect he's ready to come back. And, for Arthur Blank, he can come back for a whole lot more cash than the lowballing Rooney family was willing to pay.

Frankly, Mr. Blank could do a lot worse than Bill Cowher. Cowher is a good judge of talent, knows how to rebuild a team, and is a player's coach, all of which the Falcons desperately need. The ex-coach's name has been bandied about for college jobs, most notably Michigan (not going to happen; Les is checking out real estate in Ann Arbor), but a successful NFL coach doesn't want to end up like Charlie Weiss. Cowher is smart enough to avoid that. At least, Bill Cowher wouldn't be jumping a contract.

Miles to Michigan and Cowher to Atlanta. It could happen.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Coaches, Playoffs, Heismans (or is it Heismen?)

When in doubt, punt! ~ John Heisman

The story so far:

Coaching-go-round

Coaches are going every whichway, but the two stories that are most intriguing involve Michigan and Arkansas. These major programs are having surprising difficulties landing a new football coach. Apparently, Michigan won't pony up enough money while there's not enough money anywhere to interest anyone in the Arkansas gig.

Michigan looked to have Les Miles all locked up. They asked for and received permission to talk to Miles, normally a good sign that unofficial communications had gone on (translation: the coach's agent has been talking to people in a position to know what the university's deal would be). Miles, after crying great crocodile tears about his love of Michigan, promptly gets a new deal from LSU. Michigan's Athletic Director promptly goes sailing and is unavailable to react.

Up until that last sentence, it all made sense. It does make sense if you consider that maybe Michigan just wasn't willing to pay the kind of dough that SEC coaches are pulling down. The fact that Rutgers coach Greg Schiano turned the Wolverines down would seem to bear that out. No other explanation fits (unless Jim Tressel is that frightening) for a program that is as successful and loaded as Michigan to be having trouble filling Loyd Carr's coaching cap.

Meanwhile, Arkansas is offering millions and getting turned down by everyone (they haven't offered me the job yet; for $3 million bucks, I can do a mean Soooooooooeeeee Pig). Frank Broyles is supposed to be retiring December 31, so the problem of working with a school legend isn't there. Arkansas may not be the plum of all jobs, but it isn't chopped liver, for crying out loud. The problem could be boosters, or course. Houston Nutt may not have been the greatest coach, but he didn't do badly, yet Arkansas fans (and presumably some of the more notable contributors) evidently were tired of him.

On the other hand, anyone who coaches knows that the same boosters that loved him when they were winning titles will disavow him quicker than a captured Mission:Impossible team member. Unless said boosters are already issuing threats, it seems unlikely that this would be a sticking point. It makes one wonder if there is some sort of rumor of an NCAA investigation running around.

What's silly is that there are, no doubt, some very good Division I-AA and II coaches who would jump at the chance to go to either school. The big schools have a thing for trying to find coaches at their level who are willing to jump ship for a bucket of cash. For some reason, these same schools are surprised when such coaches jump ship yet again for a bigger bucket of cash. Hiring a lower division successful coach would seem to be a bright idea.

It certanly has worked out well for Ohio State.

The BCS Stinks Worse Than Ever

I am an Ohio State fan, and even I am sick of the silliness that is the BCS. Okay, it's been a goofy year where no one really wanted to be number 1 -- or 2, 3, 4, or 5, for that matter. Now we can argue about how the poll voters vote all day, but one thing is becoming obvious: The people who vote in the polls, which are currently the bulk of the BCS rating, are clueless. A loss early is forgiven while a loss late in the season is peanalized. OSU lost to Illinois fairly late and dropped to number 6 or 7. But they lost early enough. Beating Michigan and then not playing for two weeks moved them back to number 1.

LSU lost twice, yet they are number 2 ahead of a 1 loss team (Kansas) and an undefeated team (Hawaii). In fact, LSU had been in the top two twice during the season, yet the voters kept putting them back. The Tigers looked really ugly in beating Tennessee, too. In fact, had the Volunteer quarterback not thrown the two worst interceptions I've seen in ages, LSU isn't the champion of the SEC. In that event, Georgia, which lost to that same Tennessee team would have become number 2.

Meanwhile, Kansas is out because they play such a weak schedule. Well, everyone knew about that schedule all season. Well, LSU played out-of-conference powerhouses Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, and Tulane. Ohio State played Kent State and Akron. So, now the Big 12 is a lousy conference? If that's the case, how did they have both the number 1 and 2 teams at one point? And how did Oklahoma vault to number 4 beating a weak sister like Missouri (who was ranked number 1 for beating the aforementioned Kansas team with the weak schedule).

There are only 11 conferences in all of Division I-A. You can't come up with a playoff system with only 11 division winners and an at-large invitee (so Notre Dame can get in whenever they get six wins)?

School presidents go on and on about how it would require so many extra games and that would be bad for the student athletes. Bull. The presidents certainly haven't minded going from 10 to 11 to 12 games, with a 13th for championship games. If a playoff system went in, they'd have to get rid of those cupcake games against Division II opponents that allow them to soak fans for more money for season ticket packages. A playoff would require them to cut back on the regular season, and they aren't about to give up those games. After all, they've got to come up with the money to pay those head coaches (both the ones they have and the ones they fired the year after giving 4 year extensions).

Until the NCAA can figure out a way for the schools to get as rich in a playoff scheme as they get by scheduling Punxatawney Tech, there will be no playoff system in Division I-A, allowing it to continue as the only major collegiate sport where the true champion is not decided by playing the game.

Heisman Ho-Ho's

I wonder if John Heisman would like what has been done with the award that bears his name. I don't think so. The man who once said to players, "Gentlemen, it is better to have died a small boy than to fumble this football," doesn't strike me as a man who would care for the fact that the award for the most outstanding player in college football has turned into a PR-driven joke.

Frankly, winning the Heisman is no guarantee of future success. It's also no curse. But, it doesn't really make much difference in where a guy gets drafted or how he does in the NFL (assuming he even gets there). But colleges want to have Heisman award-winners because it makes it easier for them to recruit and gives the school prestige Academics be damned; we've got Heisman winners!

It's not just PR, either. Teams will tailor their offenses (defensive players need not apply to be considered the best player in the land) to showcase a given player. Case in point: Tim Tebow. Now Mr. Tebow is, no doubt, a very good athlete, a running quarterback that can also through. But, when a quarterback scores 21 touchdowns on the ground, the offense is set up for him to score that way. Or consider, Hawaii's Colt Brennan. He plays in an offense that is guaranteed to generate mega-yards for any reasonably talented quarterback.

On the other hand, you have Darren McFadden of Arkansas (school motto: Will someone please come coach for us?). He is the offense because they don't have anything else. Because of that, if I were picking, I'd probably pick Mr. McFadden for the award. But the hype machine is picking Tim Tebow, which has some people's BVD's in a wad because he's a sophomore.

So what? With so many players leaving at the end of their junior year, sophomores are the new juniors. Besides, if a voter really thinks the guy is that outstanding, he or she should vote for him. I don't see the big fuss here.

Let's face it. Individual awards are nice, but football is a team sport. The greatest player on earth cannot win all the games for a team that's otherwise lousy. At least team laurels are earned on the field.

Well, except in Division I-A, where they're earned in the polls.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Coaching Circus

Being in politics is like coaching football. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important. ~ Eugene J. McCarthy

And vice versa.
~ The Gog


All sports have silly seasons, that point during the year or after the end of the season when the rumors start. In pro sports, this is usually about big name players (or drivers in the racing world) moving from one team to another. In college it's about coaches getting fired or jumping ship to follow the money, er, excuse me, follow their "dream jobs." Strangely, the "dream jobs" normally seem to involve getting paid a lot of money.

No, this isn't going to be a rant about misplaced priorities at our colleges. I've done that one already, although I won't say that I won't again some time. There are advantages to having only 2/3 of a reader. Repeating yourself is one of them.

No, I wanted to dwell a little on the annual insanity that is the coaching carousel in big-time college football. Let's see, Dennis Franchione and Les Carr "resigned", along with the Southern Miss coach (whose name escapes me at the moment). Bill Callahan and Ed Orgeron were canned outright. Houston Nutt resigned from Arkansas only to turn up the following day as Ed Orgeron's replacement at Ole Miss.

Tommy Tuberville is the absolutely, positively number one candidate to replace Franchione at Texas A&M, except that they hire someone else and never even ask permission to talk to Tuberville. Meanwhile, Michigan talks about everyone but Les Miles, who everyone knows is their first choice for the job vacated by Carr. Then, they suddenly ask permission from LSU to talk to Miles, which LSU allows very publicly. But such talks are not to begin until after the championship game today.

Then the LSU AD announces today that a contract for Miles to stay at LSU has been hammered out and is only waiting for Miles signature. Then the coach calls a press conference to issue non-denial denials about Michigan, which translates into, "I'm waiting for the counteroffer after the game, but I want my players to think I'm staying for sure so they won't tank today's game."

Meanwhile, Tommy Tuberville goes hunting in Arkansas (a scheduled outing for the coach and his assistants) and an Arkansas media outlet promptly announces he's accepted the job to Replace Nutt. Tuberville, on the other hand, issues his own non-denial denials and continues working on his new contract. Initially, the sticking point is supposed to be facilities and longer contracts and higher pay for his assistants. Now it seems that none of that was at issue; he wants to remove the buyout restrictions in his contract. In other words, he wants Nick Saban's deal.

And Nick Saban is going back to LSU, even though there's no job opening there.

Still with me?

With Saban, it's been all highs and lows with nothing in between. Early on, Bama fans were ready to have him declared a saint (only because Savior might have been presumptuous). Now, he's down to getting lukewarm accolades, (keep in mind, though, that Mr. Finebaum expected Rich Rodriguez to be coaching Alabama this season) basically saying, "Well, he's better than Mike Shula." Heck, anyone would be better than Mike Shula. Well, maybe not Charlie Weis, but most anyone would be.

As usual, yours truly takes a more balanced view.

The problem here is that colleges keep signing coaches to ridiculous long-term contracts when they are willing to drop them in a heartbeat if they have a single off year. The end result is that we have colleges, which should be spending money on education, instead paying people not to coach for them. On the other hand, we also have coaches signing contracts that they have no business of honoring if something better comes along.

Coaches should be signed to one-year contracts with an automatic option year that can be voided by either party. If the school doesn't pick up the option, they owe the coach a year's salary (or some severance amount). If the coach doesn't want the option, he's free to do whatever he wants.

Please don't start moaning about coaches needing security. Their willingness to switch jobs would indicate that security isn't one of their major concerns; making big bucks, on the other hand is. Colleges, meanwhile, are worried they may go a year without a national championship. This way, they can change coaches every year if they want. It's a simple yet elegant solution that leaves everyone doing exactly what they're doing now.

I may copyright the idea.