Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Strongest Choice For Baylor

I have a certain affinity for Baylor.  My sister went there.  She met my brother-in-law there, and they now have two hilarious boys that call me Uncle Matt.  Through them, I know a bunch of their friends from Baylor.  They invited me into their fantasy football league, and they've done an exceptional job of tolerating the lone Longhorn in the group.

In addition, my very first job interview after college was in Waco.  It's a surprisingly pretty town that's only been accentuated by the brand new McLane Stadium, Baylor's gorgeous new stadium right on the Brazos River.

Plus, I've always a great time at Cricket's, Waco's venerable college pub.  But Waco is a tough sell to many, especially now.  Most still associate Waco with the Branch Davidian cult and massacre of the early 1990s.  Many more associate Baylor with the Dave Bliss scandal of 2003 where he lied about his ties to murdered basketball player, Patrick Dennehy, and accused the deceased Dennehy of dealing drugs in order to deflect the fact that he was paying him under the table.  

Most recently, though, Baylor is thought of as the Baptist university that hired Art Briles, an architect of a high-flying offense, and a Christian man who looked the other way when women came forward with allegations of rape by his football players.  At least two different players were convicted of sexual assault under Briles' watch, and no discipline was handed down against running back Devin Chafin despite the fact that Briles and the team chaplain both knew about the incident.  

Baylor dismissed Briles, athletic director Ian McCaw and university president Ken Starr in wake of the scandal.  Baylor has spent these last few months trying to maintain a cohesive football team despite all the upheaval, and is now searching for a new coach due to interim coach Jim Grobe's decision to move on from the Bears.  

Baylor's leading candidate so far is California's Sonny Dykes whose 41-45 lifetime record is apparently good enough to at least consider a lateral move from the liberal utopia of Berkeley to conservative bastion of Waco.  Perhaps it's because no one else really wants to take on the challenges of picking up the pieces from the successful and troubled Art Briles, but the Dykes rumors seem to be uninspiring at best.  

Dykes finished his 2016 campaign with a 5-7 record, and apparently this is good enough because he's the son of former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes.  Maybe Sonny Dykes will be a good fit, but this choice reeks of nepotism and a good ol' boy networking con job.  The hiring of Dykes really doesn't speak to an act of contrition towards the women that have been aggrieved due to the Briles administration.  In addition, Dykes' interest in the job seems disingenuous at best given that he has a 19-30 record in his four seasons at California, and has been in danger of losing his job as a result.  Dykes interest may be more proactive given that he may not be in the Bay Area for much longer anyway.  

If a 41-45 lifetime record is the best Baylor will consider, they need to consider that there's someone else out there, someone else who finished with a 5-7 record this year too, but who is a way better fit for the situation the Bears are in now.  

I won't take back anything I've said about Charlie Strong.  Strong's tenure at Texas was chaotic at best.  It was marred by inexplicably bad coaching decisions, wretched special teams play and inconsistent preparation.  That said, Strong is absolutely the best candidate for Baylor job given the pedigree of coaches they are currently leaning towards for three reasons.

1.  Hiring Charlie Strong is a fantastic PR move.

Strong would bring to Waco his five Core Values for his players: honesty, no drugs, no stealing and no weapons...and treating women with respect.  For a school rocked by sexual assaults by its football players, Charlie Strong would absolutely bring back integrity to a Christian university in desperate need of reform.  In addition, Strong would have absolutely no issue removing potential predators left over from the Briles regime.  Strong would rather abdicate wins than tolerate misogyny.  

Hiring Strong would send a clear message to the community, to the university and to college football, that it is ready to shed its shameful past, and clean house by any means necessary.  Furthermore, when the NFL was trying to figure out how to rehabilitate its image after the scandals involving Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, Commissioner Roger Goodell turned to Charlie Strong for advice during a breakfast meeting in Austin.

Goodell is perhaps the most powerful man in sports, and he flew down to Austin to figure out how to change.  Waco is just up the road.  Baylor would be wise to listen to him now that he's available.  

2.  Charlie Strong knows the Texas recruiting trail.

Let me get this straight.  Baylor is heavily courting a guy who has no head coaching experience in the state of Texas.  His biggest claim to Texas is his dad.  He has spent the last four years in Berkeley, CA, the cultural antithesis to Texas.  And now Baylor thinks this is the guy who is going to convince guys to come to Waco?  

That's absolutely ridiculous.  Charlie Strong just finished the 2015 recruiting campaign with the eleventh best class in the country, and the best in the Big 12.  Baylor would be foolish to consider a guy who has spent the last four years as an outsider to the state when a guy who knows the recruiting trails in Texas incredibly well is available, and only lives 90 minutes away.

3.  Both Strong and Baylor are in need of redemption.

Baylor needs redemption way worse than Strong for all the reasons previously stated.  But Strong needs this too.  He needs to be able to prove that he can take his Core Values and win elsewhere.  Furthermore, we have seen coaches fail miserably in one place, surface with a different team, and win in resounding fashion.

Bill Belichick was dismissed from Cleveland.  He found redemption and four Super Bowl rings in Foxboro.  More recently, Gary Kubiak presided over a 2-14 disaster in Houston, only to win a Super Bowl ring two years later in Denver.  

Baylor needs to prove that it can win with integrity.  Strong wants to prove that integrity is integral to winning.  Strong and Baylor seem like they need each other at this point in time.

I sincerely hope that Baylor reconsiders their choice of coaches.  Maybe Sonny Dykes is a good man who will do well in Waco, but based on what I've read and seen, it sounds like a pick rooted in desperation rather than in confidence.  

I'm not sold on Charlie Strong, the football coach, but I know one thing for certain.  He won't tolerate that Good Ol' Baylor Lie.  

Sweat The Small Stuff. The Real Reason Why Charlie Strong Failed

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I knew Charlie Strong was not going to work out in Austin.

October 11, 2014 against OU.  The Longhorns outgained the Sooners 482-232 in total yards.  They had 24 first downs to Oklahoma's 11.  And yet with 12:50 to go in the 4th quarter, Oklahoma was leading 31-13 in part because of Texas' 11 penalties.  Charlie Strong seemingly came unglued at several points in the first half, screaming at his players and his coaches.  He looked uncomfortable and panicky.  The Longhorns statistically were in many ways better, but were being thoroughly outplayed by the Sooners when they had the ball.  Strong preached consistently about discipline when he took over the program, but both he and the team looked as if they had none of it.

The Horns cut the lead to 31-20 with 8:24 left in the fourth quarter after a six-yard touchdown toss from Tyrone Swoopes to John Harris.  The defense got a stop, and with 4:57 left to go in the game, Swoopes scampered for a 12-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to 31-26.

Do the math right here for a moment.  You have to go for two in this scenario.  And this is where Charlie Strong failed.  They didn't have a play ready to go.  He looked panicked.  The players looked confused.  A timeout was called.  A play was drawn up.  

And it failed.  The Horns never got the ball back, and the score never changed.  They lost 31-26.

It was that moment amidst the confusion that I knew Charlie Strong was not going to work.  Even stoner doofuses playing Madden knew what had to happen in that situation.  The fact that he and the team weren't prepared for that scenario spoke volumes about how good he really was.  They were down by eleven in the fourth quarter.  Strong had to know that in order to tie the game, a two-point conversion was necessary immediately after a touchdown.

They were down by three scores in the fourth quarter because the team was undisciplined.  And they ultimately fell short because Strong was unprepared for a moment that everyone except him knew was coming.

Put simply, the fact that Strong didn't have something ready in that instance was inexcusable.  Worse yet, I knew that this wasn't something that could be fixed.  It's one thing to make that mistake if you're a rookie coach screwing up at a high school level or at an NAIA school.  But to make that mistake in the Big XII?  Charlie Strong was vastly out of his element.  He was a defensive coach whose first major head coaching gig was gift-wrapped with a future NFL quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, and a Louisville schedule that had more cupcakes than a PTA bake sale.

Gone were the days of preparing for East Carolina, Tulane and Central Florida with a future Minnesota Viking running the offense.  Strong had to work with a good, but not great, Tyrone Swoopes against Stoops, Snyder, Patterson, Gundy and Briles, and played over the last three years in a fashion that was so inconsistent it would make a schizophrenic blush.  They beat OU and Baylor in dramatic fashion.  They lost to maybe the worst FBS school in Kansas.  They were shut out by Iowa State.  They won the game of 2016 in double overtime against Notre Dame.  They were blanked by Notre Dame in 2015.

The Longhorns weren't a football team.  They were a car ride with Billy Joel.  Moreover, the end result of the last three years actually makes Strong look like a hypocrite.

Charlie Strong preached discipline the second he stepped onto the 40 Acres with the same fervor that Hulk Hogan had to the Prayers, Training and Vitamins.  To be fair, he emphasized many key points that are essential like going to class, graduating and treating women with respect.  No one really faults him for bringing honor to these values, nor should they.

But I think Strong missed a huge component of discipline, and it was to his own detriment and the Texas Longhorns.  The idea of discipline is often something dramatic we conjure up in things like boot camp.  Discipline is cloaked by figures like Vince Lombardi or Catholic school nuns.  We think of stern task masters making us do things we don't want to do.

In reality, discipline is so much more than that, and oftentimes less dramatic.  Discipline is getting to work on time.  It's being prepared for meetings.  It's making sure you have enough money in your bank account.  It's resisting the doughnut for breakfast, and the cocktail at night.

This is where Strong failed.  Charlie Strong wanted to be a symbol like Vince Lombardi so badly that he forgot reality.  Vince Lombardi isn't reality.  The single mother making sure she gets to work on time with gas in the car, and food on the table for the kids is.  Discipline isn't just a big idea, but a series of much smaller actions.

Smaller actions like not committing penalties.  Like not screaming at your coaches when the chips are down.  Like not making contact with an official in a crucial moment of a game like the way Strong did in the 2015 Oklahoma State game.  Like knowing what to do when your team scores a touchdown when you're down by eleven points in the fourth quarter.

It's unclear if Tom Herman will be man to right the Texas ship.  But on October 11, 2014, it should have been really obvious that Charlie Strong was just a captain only out to capture his Moby Dick of Discipline, completely oblivious to the ocean around him.

Call him a failure.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Three Best College Football Rivalries That Haven't Happened Yet

It's football again in America, and all is right with the world.  Summer days, oppressive and cruel, like North Korean dictators, will soon meet their demise.  Leaves will soon turn to glorious shades of burnt orange, and also occasionally other colors like yellow or hideous crimson.  Days become shorter; nights are longer and tinged with firewood smoke.

It also means tailgating is back.  Football season is fried alligator served in the bayous of Baton Rouge drowned with Abita Turbo Dog.  Football season is smoked salmon upon the party boats of Lake Washington adjacent to Husky Stadium.  Football season is for brisket cook-offs and show-offs in Austin.

Football season is for The Grove.  Sweet mercy of The Gods, it was made for The Grove.

One other beautiful aspect of football season are the rivalries.  Some have stayed with us (Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, Army-Navy).  Others have faded with time and conference reshuffling (Texas-Texas A&M, Kansas-Missouri, Notre Dame-Michigan).  Then there's another class of rivalries that haven't been born just yet, and it's unclear why that's the case.  Here are three rivalries that the college football world needs to see.

1.  Virginia-West Virginia

On the surface, this seems like a classic border skirmish we see so often in college football.  Texas-Oklahoma and Michigan-Ohio State both come to mind in this respect.  However, both the states' history and the culture clashes make this one so much more compelling.

West Virginia used to be a part of Virginia.  However, it broke away from the rest of the state in 1861 when Virginia became a part of the Confederacy.  Virginia had a vested interest in slavery, but West Virginia's farmers were less reliant on the trade.  The differences were irreconcilable, and the state we know today as West Virginia joined the Union as our 35th state in 1863.

That seems to run contrary to what most people would think in 2016.  The University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and the entire campus along with Jefferson's home, Monticello, are World Heritage Sites.  UVA is widely regarded as one of the most prestigious public schools in the country, and has an oversized reputation for snobbery.

I visited Charlottesville when I did a hiking trip of Shenandoah National Park a few years ago.  I have never seen so many BMWs with vanity plates in one spot in all my life.  Even better were the 18-21 kids that I talked to that drove these cars thinking that their scholastic achievements bought them their BMW.  I don't think it ever dawned on them that Mommy and Daddy bought them their car.

Those criticisms aside, it really is an amazing campus.

The first picture is the campus at sunset.  The other picture is one that I took at the nearby Monticello vineyards.  Jefferson was inspired by Palladian archtecture which emphasizes the symmetry of Greek and Roman design.  Everyone you go on the UVA campus, you see Jefferson's influence.  You understand quickly why this became a World Heritage Site.  Whatever criticisms I have of the kids that go to UVA, I cannot criticize where they are going.  It was the first public university in America, and still possibly the best.

Then there's West Virginia.

In case you haven't heard, West Virginia burns couches.  A lot of them.  Morgantown goes through couches at about the same rate that the Dudley Boyz went through tables.  The Mountaineers are profanity-laced, couch burning, chaw-chewing SOBs.  Cavalier, they aren't.

And that's what makes this potential rivalry so compelling.  West Virginia and Virginia are border rivals that share virtually nothing in common except their own paradoxes.  The University of Virginia is an elitist university founded by a slave-owning president who knocked up one of his servants.  The state of West Virginia was founded in an attempt to break away from slavery, but now have perhaps the worst employment situation in the union.  UVA prides itself on driving cars with fine leather upholstery.  West Virginia looks at fine leather upholstery as kindling.

It would be a clash of the aristocracy bonded by slavery versus the deeply conservative hillbillies who fought to save the union.  No matter who wins this potential grudge match, the booze will flow after the game.  Chardonnays for Charlottesville, white lightning for Morgantown.

2.  North Carolina-South Carolina

Here's another border skirmish that sounds like it should be a huge rivalry.  We all know North Carolina hates Duke especially in basketball.  We all know that South Carolina hates Clemson especially in everything.  But how come North Carolina and South Carolina don't hate each other?  This seems like this should be such a natural rivalry for a few different reasons.

First off, North Carolina is far more metropolitan than South Carolina.  The Charlotte metro area is a shade over 2 million people, and the city itself is the seventeenth largest in the country.  Charlotte is respected as one of the financial hubs of the south.  Bank of America is based out of Charlotte, and Wells Fargo's east coast operations are located there as well.  As a result, Charlotte is the second-largest banking center in the United States.

Contrast that to South Carolina's largest city, the state capital of Columbia, which has only 130,000 residents.  Columbia's biggest industries all have government ties, including the University of South Carolina and its proximity to Fort Jackson, the Army's largest installation for Basic Combat Training.  Meanwhile, Raleigh, North Carolina, the state capital, sits in the heart of the Research Triangle, one of the United States' premier regions for higher education and medical schools.  That area includes North Carolina in Chapel Hill along with NC State in Raleigh and Duke in Durham.  As a result, the Research Triangle has attracted top-flight employers from across the country including GE, DuPont and Sony.   

So we know that North Carolina is bigger and more erudite than South Carolina, but the Tar Heels also boast one of America's great treasures.  North Carolina is home to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It is the most visited national park in America, and from a certain angle, it looks like this:

The Great Smokies have been designated a World Heritage Site, and almost 20 million people visited the park last year.  That's double the number of the visitors to the Grand Canyon.  In contrast, South Carolina also has a national park but few even know of its existence.

Congaree National Park was designated as such in 2003, but in 2015, Congaree attracted a mere 87,513 visitors.  It didn't help matters either when that same year, Congaree was ripped as one of America's worst national parks due to the proliferation of snakes, mosquitoes and poison ivy along with its swamp-like nature.  (Full disclosure: I've been to Congaree, and I'll stick up for it.  I enjoyed my hike there and others have as well.)

You'd think at this point, South Carolina would really want a piece of North Carolina what with their fancy cities and famous national parks.  But we haven't even discussed barbecue yet.  One thing I've learned over the years is that there's no better way to piss someone off than to state matter-of-factly, "Our barbecue is better than yours."

All throughout the south and midwest, them's fightin' words.

North Carolina is famous for their Piedmont style of barbecue which consists of smoked pork served in a "red" sauce blend of ketchup, vinegar and spices.  South Carolina barbecue, meanwhile, is regarded as "Carolina gold" smoked pork topped with a a mustard-based sauce mixed with vinegar and brown sugar.

North Carolina and South Carolina seem like they should be natural rivals.  City versus country.  Pristine wonders versus serpentine trails.  Ketchup versus mustard.  We need North Carolina to play South Carolina every year as a neutral site game in Charlotte for sixty full minutes of fight.

And the rest of us will pass the sauce in delight.

3.  Texas-LSU

I'm going to commit sports blasphemy here.  The Texas-Oklahoma rivalry is way overrated.  The first problem is the location.  It's a neutral site game in Dallas, a city which manages to combine the worst things about Texas (Bible-thumping conservatism) with the worst things about Southern California (pretentious elitism).  Dallas is home to pastor Robert Jeffress who claimed that he would vote for Donald Trump over Jesus Christ, the Farting Pastor Robert Tilton, and the proudly-owned motto Keep Dallas Pretentious.

Here's the other big problem with the Texas-OU rivalry.  The game is played at the Cotton Bowl on the grounds of the Texas State Fair.  If you win, your big reward for victory is sampling some of most heart attack-inducing foods on the planet.  This year "award" semi-finalists include fried Jello and Deep Fried Pulled Pork “FUNYUN®” Dings.  

So just to recap: If your team wins, you get to stay in Dallas and have a heart attack alongside pretentious, farting, Bible-thumping morons.  If your team loses, you get to leave Dallas.

I gotta say...I'm not seeing a downside to losing here.

Furthermore, even if you moved the Texas-OU rivalry out of Dallas, and made it a home-and-home series, are there really Longhorns who would want to hang out in Norman, OK for a weekend, especially after stories like this?

I would make the case that Texas-LSU could be a way better rivalry for a few different reasons starting with the various locations you could play the game.  A home-and-home series would work for everyone.  Tiger fans can come to Austin, and enjoy barbecue, Shiner Bocks, margaritas, the Hill Country and live country music.  Longhorn fans can go to Baton Rouge and enjoy gumbo, Abita Turbo Dogs, hurricanes, a side trip to New Orleans and live zydeco.  In addition, you could play a neutral site game in Houston which serves as a melting pot for Cajun and Texan cultures, especially after so many Louisianans moved to Houston after Hurricane Katrina.

Secondly, Texas and Louisiana both share a common border so it would capture the same feel that Texas and Oklahoma already have.  Plus, both Austin and Baton Rouge are state capitals so our respective governors could make insane bets that only come from people who love football and stupid crap way too much.  Bets like if LSU wins, the Texas governor has to eat a live crawfish.  But if Texas wins, Louisiana's governor has to saddle up on a bucking bronco during a rodeo.  Stuff like that.

I'm not willing to throw away the Texas-OU rivalry, but let's face it.  A weekend with the Cajuns busting your chops sounds way better than a weekend with the Sooners busting your balls.

Longhorns and Tigers, let's make this happen.  You bring the crawfish, we'll bring the brisket.