Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mr. Irrelevant: Why It Won't Matter Who Notre Dame's Next Coach Will Be

Right now, it's 33 degrees in South Bend, Indiana. A mixture of sleet is expected later this evening. This news can't be much of a surprise to anyone who's been there. The average high temperature in the city doesn't even get above 60 degrees. In a nation that's getting increasingly weary of the cold, in a nation that seems to be moving further south and west, that doesn't bode well for future growth and economic prosperity.

And it hasn't.

South Bend's population dwindled to 103,807 in July 2008, down 3.7 percent from the 2000 census. 22.3 percent of those nearly 104,000 people lived 2007 in poverty, including 38.1 percent of the community's African-American population. The estimated median household income in 2007 was only $34,774 well below the Indiana state average of $47,448.

But still South Bend attracts some of America's brightest teenagers to attend the University of Notre Dame. Their academic prowess is renowned the world over as it possibly the finest Catholic education this side of Vatican City. However, that is starting to slip as well. In 2009, Notre's Dame law school fell out of the US News and World Report's Top 25 for the first time in six years and actually ended up tied with their southside public brethren, the University of Indiana. Their MBA program has slid all the way back to 34th, and can't even be considered the best MBA program for a Catholic university any longer. Georgetown and Boston College both rank higher in the same 2009 US News and World Report survey, 22nd and 32nd respectively.

Most don't recognize these facts, though. Most are only aware of Notre Dame's struggles as a once-powerful college football giant struggling to regain the tarnished luster that used to be about the Four Horsemen, Win One For The Gipper, Joe Montana and Touchdown Jesus.

What it seems to be about now, much like the city of South Bend and its academic reputation, is decline. It seems to be about a football program that boasts an impressive 11 national championships but hasn't won a New Year's Day bowl game since 1994. It seems to be about 119 seasons with a winning percentage of .733, but only has a winning percentage of .575 since 1997. It seems to be about the Chicken Soup game and the Catholics vs. Convicts matchup, but is now more famous for the Bush Push contest.

Notre Dame won the first aforementioned two. They lost the aforementioned third.

South Bend, Indiana is a two-hour car ride from the nearest major airport, Chicago's Midway. It's a little longer if you want to fly into O'Hare, and a lot longer if you get stuck in Chicago's notorious traffic jams. For many recruits, both academic and athletic, Notre Dame is definitely not the easiest place to get to. Certainly, there are harder campuses to get to that play Division I football, but there's also a reason why they aren't traditional powerhouses.

Pullman, WA is the home of Washington State University, but even Washington State residents would have a hard time finding it on a map. It's almost two hours southeast of Spokane, practically sitting on the chimney of Idaho in the extreme east corner of the state. Right now, it's 12 degrees in Pullman.

It will be 16 degrees there tomorrow.

Starkville, MS is the home of Mississippi State University, and its athletic program has at least one thing going for it. 14,991 people made their way to Dudy Noble Field, Polk-DeMent Stadium to see the Bulldogs play baseball against the University of Florida on April 22, 1989. That game still holds the NCAA baseball on-campus attendance record. While it is widely regarded as one of the best places to watch a college baseball game, unless you live around Starkville chances are you're probably not going to see a baseball game there. Starkville is about two hours, fifteen minutes from the nearest significant airport in the state capitol of Jackson. It's about two hours, thirty minutes from Birmingham, AL.

Washington State and Mississippi State's combined football record since 1990 is 110-237. They've both had some good moments, of course. Washington State made two Rose Bowl appearances since 1990, once in 1998 and another in 2003. They lost them both.

Mississippi State made the 1998 SEC Championship game. They lost that game to Tennessee 24-14. Their consolation prize was a matchup with traditional powerhouse Texas in the Cotton Bowl. They lost that too 38-11.

While anomalies certainly exist in the college football hierarchy, it would appear that location, specifically the proximity to an airport of significance, does play a major factor in 21st century success.

The following is the final BCS Top 10 ranking. In parentheses is the distance from the airport of nearest significance and the major carrier that flies there. A major international hub is duly noted.

1. Alabama (Birmingham Int'l Airport--approximately 56 miles from campus/Southwest)
2. Texas (Austin--same city/Southwest)
3. Cincinnati (Same city/Delta)
4. TCU (Fort Worth--Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport/Major Hub)
5. Florida (Jacksonville--approximately 113 miles/Southwest)
6. Boise State (same city/Southwest)
7. Oregon (Portland--approximately 110 miles/Southwest)
8. Ohio State (Columbus--same city/Southwest)
9. Georgia Tech (Atlanta/Major Hub)
10. Iowa (Des Moines--approximately 112 miles/American)

What we can discern from the Top 10 is that majority of the schools are located right next to airports that are nearby, if not in the same city. The schools that aren't certainly have plausible explanations for their success. Gainesville is centrally located in Florida, and they are right in the middle of what is arguably the most fertile recruiting base in the country. Alabama is much the same way especially with their traditional degree of success in the football-mad southeastern region of the country.

Oregon has benefitted from their most famous graduate, Nike founder Phil Knight, dumping millions of dollars of his fortune into their athletic program and sparing no expense in turning the Ducks' training facilities into a gridiron palace that rivals the best of the NFL.

The only genuine anomoly of the Top 10 is Iowa, and their coach, Kirk Ferentz, has been long regarded as one of college football's best coaches. Due to his NFL ties, he has long been rumored to return to his roots, but has yet to do so.

Much like real estate, college football success as we approach 2010 is predicated greatly on location. Either the campus had better be readily accessible by airplane or the campus should be centrally located in area visible to top recruits if constant BCS attention is desired. Furthermore, half of the schools, including four of the top five in the BCS Top 10, are located in what are thought of traditionally as warm-weather climates. In a day and age where Americans are leaving colder climates in droves due to both economics and just plain ol' bad weather, it makes sense for top recruits to follow the current sociological trend as well.

Washington State and Mississippi State both recognized these trends years ago, and are content to enjoy the success they receive from time to time.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame just rejected a bowl offer, and will not be playing in the 2009 postseason. Just like Washington State and Mississippi State.

He has been sarcastically called Saint Tebow of Nazareth. But Florida quarterback will walk away from college football as one of the all-time greats. He has won one Heisman Trophy, possibly another on Saturday and has won two national championships. And he also wears divinity on his face. Literally.

Tebow has been known to sport eyeblack referencing John 16:33 which states, "These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."

His Christian devotion is so famous that he even managed to recruit his head coach, Urban Meyer, to travel with him for one of his mission trips to the Dominican Republic.

Tebow's comparably famous counterpart, Texas Longhorn quarterback Colt McCoy, is nearly as successfully and devoted to the Christian faith as he is. McCoy, who is considered the front-runner for the 2009 Heisman Trophy, became college football's all-time winningest quarterback this year.

He, like Tebow, also has traveled significant distances for missionary work. McCoy has spent past Spring Breaks in Peru doing humanitarian work, and still manages to find time to visit local Austin children's hospitals as well.

Notre Dame has long prided itself on being not just a top-tier university or just a top-tier football program, but on producing top-tier student-athletes. While there are certainly a fair number of programs that allow sketchy characters to play football at their respective universities, it is also clear that football players do exist that excel both at the highest levels of athletics and their devotional calling. So why couldn't Notre Dame land either Tebow or McCoy? They may not necessarily be Catholic, but they would certainly embody many of the traits that Notre Dame is looking for.

At first glance, the obvious answer is proximity. Tebow and McCoy are from Florida and Texas, respectively. But there are other reasons too.

The first two pictures are obviously Tebow's female admirers. The third picture is reportedly Colt McCoy's girlfriend.

Is it to suggest that girls that are as attractive as the following three are impossible to find at Notre Dame? No, but all you need to do is go to virtually any Southern school in the country to know that the girls are quite a bit more attractive than the norm due to, in large part, the better weather. Even as devoted as Tebow and McCoy are to their Christian faith, let's face it, they are still young men who know how well they have it in the South. The beautiful weather, the good-looking girls, the chance to lead a football powerhouse, and a chance to nurture their spiritual nature all without having to leave home?

Isn't the decision a no-brainer for Tebow and McCoy? And if you're the next Notre Dame head coach, well...could you blame them?

That next Notre Dame head coach has been rumored to be Cincinnati's Brian Kelly. He has lead the Bearcats to an undefeated record this season and a Sugar Bowl showdown against Tebow's Florida Gators. Should he accept the job, no doubt it will be a tremendous pay raise. But along with it, he will have to accept an enormous degree of obstacles along the way. He will have to accept that the job he's taking is located in an economically depressed city in an economically depressed part of the country that's pretty hard to get to. He will have to find recruits that not only can pay only devotion to Christ, but can pay no mind to nearly five months of winter.

And Notre Dame should accept the fact that as we head into a new decade, their football program may not be what it once was, and may never be again. Meyer along with former Super Bowl winning coach Jon Gruden declined interest in the Notre Dame opening five years ago. Perhaps it's because they knew all of these truths, and knew Notre Dame was unwilling to accept these truths to be self-evident. Perhaps they recognized that Notre Dame should reassess itself as an academic powerhouse, and reestablish itself as the world's preeminent Catholic university.

Perhaps they both recognized that Notre Dame's football program is closer to Stanford and Northwestern than Florida and Texas, and that distinction is actually something to be proud of, not to be scoffed at.

But the Fighting Irish refuse to believe that. So Notre Dame is entrusting Brian Kelly to wake up the echoes, sounding Her name.

And if he fails? Then Notre Dame football will always be exactly that.

Just an echo.

Monday, July 13, 2009

In Defense of the Home Run Derby

It has become all too commonplace amongst sports media elitists to suggest that the Home Run Derby, much like rotten milk, stale bread and Aerosmith, is well past its prime. If you've listened to enough sports radio and heard the talking heads on ESPN over the course of the last few days, you'd swear the Home Run Derby was a relic from the horse-and-buggy era, an event that has long worn out its welcome and is now passed out on the couch like Uncle Jack after a few boilermakers. Worst of all, though...

It's a meaningless exhibition.

God Forbid That, of course. We can't have meaningless exhibitions in a sport where the Pirates and Nationals and the Royals and Orioles routinely play each other even when both teams are about 25 games out of their respective divisions, and the outcome of the game itself is, um, meaningless.

Except in the truly phenomenal games does sports ever mean anything at all. I went to an Astros-Pirates game with two of my closest friends for my 30th birthday, and we had a great time. 'Stros won too, 6-4. Can't say the game itself changed my life, my perspective or altered my thought process in an impactful, soul-altering sort of way. Neither the Astros nor the Pirates will probably figure into the NL Central race, so the outcome was likely void of meaning. But it was a great day at the ball park and we had one hell of a good time, having drinks, watching the game, and busting each other chops. Probably spent a little too much money, but such is life.

In other words, JKIII, Brad and I saw a meaningless exhibition, and I really don't care. Lance Berkman wasn't having some sort of existential conflict playing first base. I seriously doubt that Astros manager Cecil Cooper was contemplating a double switch via Socratic method. Nor do I think I think Michael Bourne views his center field position as an extension of Nietchze's theory of religion (God is Dead. Just like potential triples hit to the flag pole on the hill at Minute Maid Park).

Sports can teach us many things, and perhaps I sometimes think a little too hard about what particular outcomes could mean in a much broader context. But at the end of the day, baseball, and sports in general, aren't philosophy classes. Why these sports pundits are all of sudden concerned with meaning when most of their lives are spent talking about nothing is beyond me.

But just in case they need a reason to care about something so utterly frivilous as the Home Run Derby, here I am to share a brief story of enlightenment.

I had the distinct honor and privilege of attending the 2004 Home Run Derby and All-Star Game. Mom, Dad, Grandma Tray and I arrived at Minute Maid Park literally hours before the festivities just to watch batting practice.

Let's stop right there for a second. The four of us drove into Houston, fought traffic and found parking to show up and watch a bunch of guys hit a baseball for no other reason than for warming up and practice.

Nothing that Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. or Albert Pujols hit counted towards anything at all. It was the very definition of meaningless. After all, we were talkin' 'bout batting practice. Not the All-Star game. Not the Home Run Derby. We were talkin' 'bout batting practice.

How silly was that?

Simply put, we were in awe. Especially of Pujols. Keep in mind, this is pre-2005 so Pujols wasn't Public Enemy #1 in Houston just yet. Pujols and his peers kept hitting perfectly curved comets of leather and stitching into the nether regions of Minute Maid Park, slipping the surly bonds of Earth only to crash with a rickety thud into the vacant Crawford Box seats. Pujols, himself, hit a few shots that Rube Goldberged their way across the train tracks above the bleachers.

It was like watching a 4th of July fireworks display conducted by a pyromaniac. Shots flying everywhere in any which direction, full of oohing and ahhing and a smattering of "Holy crap, that was pretty cool."

A few hours later, ESPN began the broadcast of the Home Run Derby by bringing onto the field every living member of the 500 Home Run Club. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson and my father's hero, Ernie Banks were all introduced by Chris Berman to the spastic Houston crowd.

Shortly after the introduction, we all cheered on our hometown guy, Lance Berkman, as he made the second round of the Derby. I think he had eight home runs, none of which were of prodigious note. I distinctly recall Dad and I admiring the hell out of Rafael Palmeiro's swing. Little did we know he was juicing at the time, but damn...his swing was as smooth as Billy Dee. Rafael Palmeiro might have been roided out of his mind, but that night it was like he was swinging equal parts of velvet and Godiva, Jameson's 18 and Sinatra at The Sands. During that first round, I developed a veritable man-crush on Raffy's swing. I have no shame in admitting this.

The second round was perhaps most memorable. Minute Maid Park pulled back the retractable roof and let Lance Berkman take dead aim at Crawford Street. Right around about the seventh or eighth home run, he wasn't just hitting them on to the street. He was smacking light poles on Crawford Street. He forced accidental pedestrians to duck for cover like they were in the middle of a misbegotten hail storm. Lance Berkman became Genghis Khan with a Louisville Slugger, and every baseball he saw was China. He crushed them further and further into the Houston night, exiling the baseballs some 520 feet away, sentencing them to solitary confinement far beyond the maddened crowd.

Berkman could hit only a few more home runs, finishing with ten, an incredibly respectable number in the second round. Miguel Tejada stepped up quietly afterwards, and while he didn't hit them as far, he carefully measured each shot precisely into the Crawford Boxes, only 315 feet away. He not only won the round from Berkman, but also won what was the all-time record for most home runs hit in a round with 15. Furthermore, he ended up pulling a Maximus and winning the crowd as well. A crowd that had already cheered its hometown hero with delirious praise. Dad and I actually gave Tejada a standing ovation, and remarked how much we'd love to have him on the Astros someday.

Tejada ended up defeating Berkman in the final round. I can't even honestly say I remember how many home runs either man hit at the very end. All I can tell you is this, though. The 2004 Home Run Derby was one of the 15 happiest days of my life. No joke. Everything about it was inherently meaningless, true. But watching Berkman and Tejada duel in that second round, watching Palmeiro swing the bat without any degree of effort it seemed, validated all those moments in the driveway re-enacting past Home Run Derbies with Dad and my sister, Caitlin. It validated all those summer days with my cousins playing Home Run Derby in their backyard, and later in the cornfields of Shenandoah, Iowa as well. That meaningless home run derby? Like hell, it is.

It is the connection between our past to our present. It is the connection between Banks to Berkman, a bridge so that we may not forget who we were at one time and to remember that it's not too difficult to go back to that place every so often.

Moreover, isn't happiness life's ultimate pursuit? If this is what makes people happy, how can it be meaningless?

So to those grizzled sportwriters, pundits and talking heads, I say this: Embrace your inner child and give it a hug. Grab a wiffle bat and go out to the driveway. Stand their with the bat in your hand, crouching, legs spread apart just like Jeff Bagwell. And just stand there in your Bagwell stance.

For about at least a couple of hours until it really starts to hurt, you pretentious asses.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Revisionist History: What We All Seem To Be Forgetting About Michael Jackson

50 seems about appropriate.

Contrary to what the suddenly gushing press and bloggers seem to be saying, I don't truly believe that Michael Jackson had another comeback in him. I think he could still sell out arenas, yes, but not in a good way.

Michael Jackson touring past 50 years old would have been an inglorious train wreck, featuring a pop culture carnival with PT Barnum on lead guitar and the Elephant Man dancing back-up. Thinking Michael Jackson had one more in him would be like suggesting that Mark McGwire still had at least 100 more home runs in him.

Honestly. Take a step back for a moment. Can you really see an aging Michael Jackson and whatever was left of his face try to carry on with the swagger of Mick Jagger or the grace of Tina Turner?


Simply put, too much damage, permanent and irreversable, had been done too many years ago, and Michael Jackson was too old and too much of a freakshow to make any lasting musical comeback seem like anything other than a novelty act. Maybe Jackson would have been put on some great shows, and maybe he would impressed the media to an extent, but then again, so did Axl Rose with all of his recent performances and Chinese Democracy still went over about as well as a fart in church with the public.

And that was no accident. Similarly, Rose wasted two whole decades as a troubled hermit before he decided to try and become relevant again. His bout with relevance was met with indifference, and not because he wasn't talented. He was and is. And not because Chinese Democracy sucked. It didn't.

But what so many critics failed to realize was that the performances can only be so great. The albums can only be so important. But once the public gets past a certain point, the most important things cannot be forgiven.

The constant controversy involving children. The battered women.

The constantly changing face. The constantly changing time for the concert to start.

The behavior that likened Howard Hughes. The behavior that likened J.D. Salinger.

The undeniable talent forever shrouded by what they had done, and what they had failed to do, not by what they had truly accomplished.

I can't help but think that a 50-year-old, a 60-year-old, a 70-year-old Michael Jackson performing would have had all the impact of Mike Tyson in The Hangover.

Amusing? Yes. Occasionally brilliant? Perhaps. Slightly more than pathetic? Absolutely.

One night a few years ago at a bar in Downtown Austin, Brad and I were going to play bocce ball and have a few drinks when one of the TVs stuck on ESPN Classic started replaying old fights of a young Mike Tyson. We were mesmerized. We abandoned our company, quit talking to women and simply watched Tyson kick ass and dominate for close to an hour.

He was young, in his prime and nobody had ever come along and dominated quite the way he did in the late 1980s. Not Ali, not Lewis, not Foreman. Tonight, I watched a young Michael Jackson in his prime on YouTube, and I can honestly say nobody had ever come along and dominated quite the way he did in the early 1980s. Not The Beatles, not Elvis, not Zeppelin.

But just like Tyson, Jackson had become a sad, cliched punchline. Always good for a laugh, and a constant reminder of eccentricity gone horribly wrong. I don't think anybody would enjoy seeing a 50-year-old Michael Jackson trying to dominate the way he did when he was 20 any moreso than watching a 50-year-old Tyson, a 50-year-old Rose, a 50-year-old McGwire try to recapture a glory that had been tainted so long ago by unforgivable sins, and a public that can no longer embrace, but has chosen to make fun of them.

Perhaps on Friday morning and throughout the weekend, nobody will be here talk about the past. Perhaps most people will simply choose to forget and forgive Michael Jackson now that he's dead. Artistically, it's always the more convenient choice.

But I will talk about the past. And it was the past that dictated how so many people truly felt about Michael Jackson up until today.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

If It Matters At All: Thoughts on Manny Ramirez

I can honestly tell you that I remember everything about the moment, all except for the Blue Jay who foolishly pitched to Manny Ramirez.

Six weeks into the 2004 season, early May I believe. 2-2 count, and some middle relief rack threw a slider to Manny that didn't dive. It hung there suspended in mid-air as if the baseball were on an invisible tee that only Manny Ramirez could see. I was drinking a Magic Hat #9, and started to choke on a swig, as he began to swing. He hadn't even connected just yet, but I knew what the hell was going to happen.

Manny Ramirez was going to hit the ball harder than any human being ever had before. Bat connected with baseball. Beer went flying out my nose.


Magic Hat #9, the only good thing to ever have come out of Vermont, went shrieking out my nose burning like cocaine in reverse. Manny Ramirez freaking destroyed this baseball, not in The Natural Roy Hobbs way. He hit that hanging slider the way Ike hit Tina, or Forrest Gump beat the ever-living shit out of that thug at the Black Panther party. Manny smacked it merciless and cruel like a bad-wielding Machavelli with a stick of black chaw spewing from his gums. Fenway didn't even cheer for Manny. They audibly gasped as if they were trying to keep the $10 beers from coming out of their collective noses as well.

The baseball that Manny Ramirez hit was still ascending over the Coke Bottle behind the Green Monster behind the Citgo sign. That's about 420 feet away and still climbing.

To put that in perspective: The dead center field flagpole at Minute Maid Park in Houston is about 430 feet away. Manny Ramirez's home run that night in Boston would have had a legitimate shot of sailing higher than the flagpole.

The baseball ended up careening off a building, skipping through a parking lot and ended up on the Mass Pike almost 800 feet away. It was unquestionably the most massive shot I have ever seen anyone hit my entire life.

I watched Manny trot around the bases thinking, "Holy crap, there's no way what he just did was humanly possibly."

Turns out, I was right. It wasn't.

Here's the implausible explanation that Manny Ramirez: He has broken junk. The same man who beat a baseball into submission will now take a 50-game vacation for using gonadotropins, or simply put, something prescribed to address erectile dysfunction.

Well, at least he and Rafael Palmeiro now have two things in common, I do suppose.

Maybe more than that now that I really consider it closely. Both had swings that were Grand Canyon at Sunset pretty. Call me naive, but I will never believe steroids would have made their swings better. Steroids improved the results of their at-bats, no doubt, but damn, I'm convinced their swings would have looked just as graceful flailing at air.

They were also unequivocally bad guys, as well, and no, their steroid use isn't indictive of their character. Rafael Palmeiro was arrogant and defiant in front of Congress, lying to everyone and pretty much everything about what he was really doing. Manny may not have lied--at least not that we're aware of--but he was accused of shoving the 60-year-old assistant around (roid rage?), sulked and essentially quit on the Red Sox, forcing a trade to the Dodgers.

And as soon as he got to Los Angeles? He reverted back to the Manny of that night in May 2004, demolishing every baseball in the National League with a wooden, Louisville Slugger-style jackhammer. After the season was done, he held the Dodgers hostage in a Favrian manner, continually toying with them until they gave him a contract that even AIG would have blushed at.

Manny Ramirez, in the Dodgers' mind, was too big to fail.

He did anyway.

Manny Ramirez, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds.

Four guys that were unquestionably heading for Immortality. Now they're just four rich bastards that no one will ever trust again. But that's not their problem. Those four guys will simply insulate themselves with their friends, their peers, their hangers-on, their butt-kissers, their groupies and a million other people who will make their excuses for them.

Trust? That's hardly their problem. It's yours.

But there's a greater problem with sports now, and it doesn't have the slightest thing to do with steroids, in and of itself. Sports has a credibility problem, and it's manifesting itself in every possible avenue. Today's news about Manny Ramirez is hardly shocking. Yao Ming picking up three quick fouls in the Rockets loss to the Lakers was NBA refereeing at its finest. Yao picking up three quickies all but ensured a Lakers win, and tied the series up at one a piece.

Hell, I actually bet my friend Brad, a Southern California native and die-hard Laker fan, a bottle of 18-year Jameson's that the Cavs would beat the Lakers IF they both got to the NBA Finals. Simply put, David Stern would rather market the entirely likeable LeBron James, as opposed to probable rapist, Kobe Bryant. I am 100 percent certain of the outcome in the same way that I am certain the sun will rise in the east, this summer will be hot and Amy Winehouse will be ugly tomorrow, the next day or the day after that. It's a foregone conclusion that the NBA refs will ensure the Cavs (read: LeBron) gets their first ring, and then market the hell out of him, trying to make him the next Michael Jordan. And that's why I'll be drinking some of the finest Irish whiskey in the world come late June. It's not because I think the Cavs are better.

It's because the outcome that I'm betting on is more favorable to the business of the NBA.

The BCS is such a farce it's not even worth mentioning. And even the NFL isn't immune from this credibility problem. They have a steroid problem every bit on par with MLB, but people are all too willing to sweep their problems under the rug in the name of gambling, fantasy football and all the other things the make the NFL so popular.

Perhaps I'm wrong about all of these things. Maybe I will watch Brad drink a bottle of my favorite whiskey right in front of my face. And maybe Yao really did pick up those three fouls, and maybe--just maybe--Manny Ramirez really does have broken junk.

But when he comes back 50 games from now, thousands upon thousands of people will flock to Dodger Stadium to watch a man fallen from grace hit a baseball farther than perhaps anyone on the planet ever could.

The sun will shine in Los Angeles, the beers will flow, Vin Scully will wax eloquent about days gone past, Dodger Dogs will taste better than ever.

And Manny Ramirez will round the bases without a care in the world.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Year Of Meh: Why I'm Having A Hard Time Liking College Basketball This Season

I've said before that I have a relationship with baseball like I would hope to have with my future wife. I love it. I care for it. I oftentimes worry about it, but I hope to grow old with it. Its values and heritage I would hope to pass down to my children so that they can cherish as much as I do.

I've also said that while I'm married to baseball, college basketball is my wild sex kitten of a mistress. It's constantly exciting, a thrill-ride to the very end with constant surprises. You have to be careful with college basketball, however, because if you're aren't paying attention you get burned by the choices you make...like when you fill out your brackets.

Even the dynamics of their rites of passage are similar. The first Friday of the NCAA Tournament has now become the unofficial Adult Spring Break. Many people call out sick, and spend all day cheating on their jobs with the best sporting event in the country: A coast-to-coast, never-ending orgy of Madness.

The NCAA Tournament leads right into the First Day of Baseball when these same respectable men who just called out of work to cheat are now completely honest and forthright about their absence. They just want to take their son out to the ballgame and enjoy the day with their family.

For whatever reason, I'm having a really hard time getting the jones to see my mistress this season. College basketball hasn't really sucked me in the way it normally does. Oh, I'm trying to get into it, believe me. But this season is shaping up like a Keanu Reeves blockbuster: No real discernible plotline, not terribly interesting, but it feels like it should be way better than what it really is.

Specifically, I've nailed down the five reasons college basketball just isn't doing it for me right now.

1. Pitt's Number 1? Seriously?

Head coach Jamie Dixon has done a miraculous job with Pitt basketball ever since Ben Howland left for UCLA. Given the fact that the program is ranked number one for the very first time, one could even argue he's done a better job than Howland ever did while he was in Steeler Country.

But Pitt basketball is like Pitt football. They always seem to be in the Top 25, but never in the Top 10, and certainly never ranked number one. Seeing Pitt at the top of the basketball poll is almost as unseemly as seeing Dave Wannstedt hoisting up the BCS Crystal Ball. The collective public is way more familiar with him looking forlorn on a bench with a porn mustache. The same situation sort of holds true for the basketball team. Looking forlorn on a bench.

Minus the porn mustache, though.

Now, I'm supposed to believe that Pitt basketball is amongst the mightiest teams in the land on par with North Carolina, Connecticut and the ilk? Really? Like Dave Wannstedt winning championships, it just seems like so much of a stretch.

2. No Big-Time Superstars To Get Excited About

Tyler Hansbrough is the all-time leader in points scored at North Carolina! He passed Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, and doesn't this make you all so excited! Tyler Hansbrough is so gosh-darn good!


Tyler Hansbrough, sadly, is more the product of being tall and in the right system than he is a great basketball player. According to my handy Rosetta Stone, Hanbrough is Dutch for "Big White Stiff in the NBA next year."

Here's an important key to understanding college basketball. Never let anyone fool you into believing that guard play is the most important part of a college hoops squad. Dick Vitale has squawked about this endlessly for the last ten years in part because of the 1997 Arizona team which featured a three-guard set. In truth, though, the teams that advance the furthest in the NCAA Tournament traditionally have a big-time center leading the way.

Guard play is more important in the NBA than in college basketball due to the fact that in the NBA all the big men are already there. The best guards are the ones who can distribute the ball effectively to the big man (think Steve Nash and Chris Paul). In college basketball, big men are such a premium that oftentimes the team without one simply has no answer to counter the matchup problem. The 2004 Georgia Tech team worked this to perfection using a gangly, red-headed 7-footer named Luke Schenscher to simply overpower everybody else all the way to the NCAA Tournament title game where they lost to Connecticut, and their more imposing big man, Emeka Okafor.

Was Schenscher really any good? Nope, but he created a matchup that the opposition simply couldn't answer.

What does all this mean for Tyler Hansbrough? It means he's taking advantage of a system, not that he's terribly great. Between this revelation and better teams figuring out a way to minimize the shooting touch of Davidson's Stephen Curry, this season really lacks a certain panache. Whether it was Redick-Morrison, Durant-Law, or the Florida Gator squad that won back-to-back titles and became household names in the process, this season just seems devoid of a face or a name or a rivalry that college basketball fans can really embrace.

I mean, I guess the face would be Tyler Hansbrough. But if that's the case, then as the British might say, bloody help us all.

3. Where's the Mid-Majors?

Just scanned the AP Top 25. Gonzaga's not there, but probably will be before the Tournament starts. They played possibly the most difficult schedule in the country and right now their win-loss totals reflect that. But there's no other West Coast Conference schools in the Top 25 either. No Missouri Valley teams. No love for the Colonial Athletic--the conference that gave us tournament darlings like George Mason and UNC Wilmington. Ditto the Mountain West as well. Hell, there's not even a Conference USA squad in the mix like, say, Memphis.

There's only the Horizon League favorites Butler and Atlantic-10 power, the Xavier Muskateers, amongst the mid-majors rustling up the Top 25. And Xavier, frankly, is impossible to take seriously after being trounced by Duke 84-62. The game, honestly, wasn't even that close and the Blue Devils could have won by 40 points easily if they had kept their starters in throughout the game.

One of the beauties of college basketball is, just like the mistress, you have to keep track of everything in order to be successful. This year, unlike past years, there doesn't seem to be any real drama unfolding in the Missouri Valley Conference, a conference that has become so good in recent years that CBS has televised its championship game alongside the Pac-10 and SEC.

Gonzaga has lost some of their luster from past years. One of the Mountain West schools, typically either Utah, BYU or UNLV, makes some noise and a Top 25, if not Top 10 appearance.

This year? Well, where the hell are they? It's entirely possible that as the season goes on into February, we'll really get to know one of these Cinderellas. But for now, the polls are pretty top-heavy towards the favorites, but rather skinny on the mysterious teams still lurking.

4. The Longhorns Suck

Yes, I know this isn't a problem that every college basketball fan has. In fact, I'm guessing fans of all the other Big XII schools are quite glad about this point.

I'm the biggest Texas college hoops fan that anyone knows. I actually worked with Coach Barnes on his radio show when I was an intern for KVET-AM in Austin. He was one of the most gracious people I've ever had the privilege of working with during my tenure in radio. When I worked for ESPN, he rememebered me when I called him up looking for an interview. Nobody remembers the intern.

But Coach Barnes did.

So it absolutely kills me to say what I have to say, but this is one of the most unlikeable teams I can ever remember him having. A.J. Abrams is entirely too streaky of a shooter to be effective over the course of the next few months. They have no dominant big man inside, and it showed when Oklahoma's Blake Griffin just bullied his way in the paint all night long during a nationally televised contest. Gary Johnson still hasn't reached his full potential and Dexter Pittman has been playing like a poor man's Oliver Miller. No, that's not a compliment towards either Pittman or Miller.

And then there's the case of Clear Lake High School's Own Connor Atchley. He's seemingly regressed like a basketball playing Charley from Flowers For Algernon. During the 2007-08 campaign, I remember some serious chatter on Austin sports talk radio about the possibility of Atchley actually playing significant minutes in the NBA.

Now it seems like Atchley is trying just to log significant minutes playing for the Horns. He's lost confidence in his once-trusty outside jump shot. He gets abused down low more often a horde of kids sleeping over at Neverland Ranch. His posture is terrible, and it's almost deja vu to when Kevin Durant was literally slapping him around on the floor during 2006 season for taking bad shots.

It's honestly depressing to watch one of Clear Lake High School's own fall so far after so much promise initially.

Given that the Austin community just embraced one of the most likeable and overachieving Longhorn football teams in recent memory, unless everyone gets their act together quickly, Coach Barnes can pretty much forget about riding Mack Brown's karmic coattails for awhile, and start the rebuilding job immediately.

5. A Serious Lack Of Gus Johnson

I need Gus Johnson the way Bruce Dickinson needs cowbell: More of it and preferably louder.

Johnson, right now, is the best basketball play-by-play man alive and it's not even close. Why CBS doesn't make him the lead anchor for March Madness is unfathomable and downright criminal, honestly. If college basketball is my mistress, then Gus Johnson is the spine-tingling orgasm that screams for more.

As far as I can tell, Gus Johnson was put on Earth by God to do one thing and one thing exclusively. He was put here to make things more exciting, and infinitely more dramatic. If he would like to call a game of grass growing or paint drying, I'm dialed in and watching, listening, living and dying with every last word.

And honestly, I need more of that. That's the joy of college basketball and March Madness. The excitement. The drama. A certain innocence that can only come from overexuberance.

I'm missing that right now from this season. But I know there's still time left.

And sometimes in college basketball, a little bit of time is all you really need.