Dear Sports: Welcome to the 21st Century

“I’m gay.”

A short, declarative sentence. A sentence said, in other contexts, many times a day. A sentence that most of us are no longer shocked by.

And yet, with that sentence, the sports world finally entered the 21st century.

When Jason Collins came out in an article in Sports Illustrated, he brought into the open a fact that any thinking person already knew was true: there are professional athletes that are gay. We all knew it — every player and coach knew it, all the GMs knew it, all the suits knew it. The only problem was, no one talked about — at least, not openly. No one was willing to be the first.

Now that Jason Collins has broken the silence, we will surely learn of other gay athletes in the four major male professional sports. There were already openly gay players in the women’s sports (Britney Griner, for just the latest example). But until this week, no male pros had gone public. Now one has, and we can be thankful: thankful for his courage, thankful that we no longer have to keep up a charade, thankful that others now have the psychic space to be who they are, thankful that another area of secrets has been made unnecessary.

Jason Collins has had a peripatetic pro basketball career. He has not set the basketball world on fire, averaging about 3 points a game and playing with a number of different teams. He is, in short, a pro basketball journeyman.

So it is with both pride and excitement that we can say something that a few days ago seemed unlikely:

Jason Collins, your play was a game-changer. Congratulations.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

If you know me, you already know what this is about. It’s about being a college basketball fan in March. It’s about March Madness.

It’s about filling out brackets. Not “a bracket” — BRACKETS. One for your favorite team to win it all (no matter how improbable). One for what you think is going to happen. And one filled with upsets, just for fun. Who knows? Maybe you win the Bracket Challenge on ESPN ($10,000!) or the office pool. Or you just get to rub it in with your friends and even a few so-called friends.

It’s about telling your spouse, family, friends, and boss that you’ll be extra busy for the next three weekends. Nope, sorry, can’t stay late this Friday to work on that project. In fact, I’m leaving early that day. In fact, I’m taking a vacation day on Friday. In FACT, I’m taking vacation days for the next three Thursdays AND Fridays!

It’s about being a fan online. It’s about posting cheers on Facebook, snarky comments on Twitter, and pictures of the winning shot on Pinterest. It’s about finding an online community you are comfortable with, and reading and posting so much that it becomes like the neighborhood bar: you know the regulars, you get the inside jokes, and you join in the site superstitions. (No pictures of gnomes or Leonardo DiCaprio in the game threads.)

It’s about having the same feeling in your stomach that you had as a kid on Christmas Eve. Wondering if you got that bicycle you asked for, wondering if your team can actually beat that higher seed. A mix of excitement, fear, anticipation, joy, and anxiety. You care SO MUCH about the outcome, but you can’t do anything about it except watch. And cheer. And moan. And jump up and down. And cry.

It’s about cheering for your team, sure — but it’s also about the game itself, the poetry of great basketball, the thrill of watching a great individual performance, the satisfaction of watching great team execution. It’s about the upsets, the Davids beating the Goliaths, the last-second buzzer beaters, the out-of-nowhere beatdown of a supposedly great team. Unlike some cliches, it is truly about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

It’s a mix of fandom, and loyalty, and bragging rights, and love of the game, and love of the players. It is an emotional attachment and enjoyment that can’t be explained to those who don’t get it and doesn’t need to be explained to those who do. It is the most glorious highs and the most devastating lows — and we love it. All of it. And every year, we can’t wait to do it all again.

Let the Madness begin.

A Tainted Investigation

Most of us have watched enough law-and-order television that we understand the concept of “tainted evidence.” If the blood stains were accidentally (or intentionally) mixed with someone else’s blood, they are tainted and must be thrown out as evidence. If a confession was obtained through coercion, it is tainted and must be thrown out.

Is it possible for a prosecution team to screw up so often and so badly that instead of throwing out just the tainted evidence, the judge throws out the entire case? IANAL, but I assume that can happen.

It’s not criminal law, and it’s not your standard judge and jury, but the NCAA case against Miami is so badly tainted at this point, it should be thrown out — by the NCAA itself.

Getting your main evidence from a convicted criminal with a grudge against the institution certainly shows a lack of judgment on the part of the NCAA. Using that criminal’s lawyer to ask the questions shows an amazing lack of judgment. Firing the head of the enforcement unit, but proceeding headlong with the case regardless, shows an even more amazing level of hubris.

The NCAA has kept the University of Miami twisting in the wind for years, while it tries to piece together a case. Meanwhile, the University has self-imposed a number of penalities, and most of the coaches involved in whatever took place have moved to other schools. There is nothing to be gained by raising the curtain on the amateurish production that is the NCAA’s case.

It is time for the NCAA to show the same level of humility that it expects athletes and coaches to show. It is time for the NCAA to admit it completely botched this investigation, accept Miami’s self-imposed sanctions, and close the book on this chapter.

NSD == No Serious Determiner

OK, so the title is a stretch. Trying to come up with a decent alternative acronym on the fly that also relates to the point of your post requires more thought and coffee than I’ve got right now.

But, the basic point is still valid: As far as I’m concerned, National Signing Day has become a giant hypefest with very little real meaning.

For years, we have heard how so-and-so is a four-star recruit, or even – OMG!! a FIVE-STAR coming to OUR TEAM! We have heard how this team’s recruiting class is ranked first, or fifth, or 37th, or 85th. (Actually, if the class is rated 85th, we don’t hear anything, because the athletic department unplugs the phones, turns off the lights, and pulls the blinds.)

And you know what? In the long run, it doesn’t matter. Not all five-star recruits become five-star players. Not all two-star recruits become also-rans. The schools with the top recruiting classes don’t automatically get handed the championship trophy a year later. As the PTI guys say, that’s why you play the games.

I’m also frankly offended by the hype. We put some 17-year-old on national television just so he can announce which football team he’s going to play for — not the college, necessarily, just the team, because that’s all that matters — and then we wonder why he gets the big head and becomes a “problem.” I suppose you could see it as a reverse character test: if we give you everything in the world, can you still remain humble and grounded and teachable?

Don’t get me wrong — I understand the importance of recruiting. I just think we have blown it way, way out of proportion, to the point that 40-year-old men are groveling before 17-year-olds who haven’t voted, paid taxes, or worked a full-time job. And then we put the whole thing on television, and moan or celebrate because that kid chose our school (really, just our team) or not.

So, I’ll read the National Signing Day stories, and scan the ratings. Then, I’ll make the same final comment I make every year when this happens: “Get back to me when they play an actual down.”

Being a Successful Jerk

Lots of storylines for this year’s Super Bowl. Enough to keep the sports punditry industry happy for the next few weeks. I’m sure the incident that prompted this post — Bill Belichick blowing off the post-game interview — will soon be forgotten.

I have to note, though, that one of the things sports supposedly teaches is sportsmanship. Last time I checked, sportsmanship includes being gracious in both victory and defeat. And that includes crusty old curmudgeons like Belichick.

Most people will probably give Belichick a pass. Why? Because he’s successful. If he was both a bad coach AND a jerk, people would be less likely to forgive. But, since he’s obviously a great coach, the public tends to overlook his jerkness.

Not Shannon Sharpe. He called out Belichick after the game, calling his behavior “unacceptable.” Guess what? I agree. If you’re going to hold a leadership position, you take the good with the bad and you deal with defeat. Even if someone is being rude, you manage yourself appropriately.

Belichick is a great coach. He is probably a warm human being in certain circumstances. He is effective at what he does and does not suffer fools gladly.

But that doesn’t give him a pass to be a jerk in defeat.

Coach-Speak vs. Strong-Speak

The past few weeks have been interesting ones for Cards and Vols fans. One school tried desperately to get someone to be its new coach, while the other tried desperately to hold on to its current one.

We’ve all heard coach-speak: “It’s all about the players.” “I am only focused on the upcoming bowl game.” “This is the only job I’m interested in.” And, if you’ve been a Card fan long enough, you remember the epitome of coach-speak — Bobby Petrino telling everyone how happy he was here and how he planned on staying in Louisville for a long time, even as he was interviewing with Auburn.

So when Charlie Strong didn’t knock down the rumors in his press conference on Monday, only saying that he would address things “at the right time” — and then proceeded to compare Cards fans to that other school in Lexington — many people assumed that he was both gone, and bad at PR.

As it turned out, HCCS was doing something new: honest-speak. He hadn’t interviewed for the UT job, but he knew it was on the table. He wanted to give himself time to think it through; for someone who had always wanted to coach in the SEC, what bigger decision could there be?

And his comment about UK fans? Honest feelings, honestly expressed. Not the best way or the best timing, a fact that Coach would surely agree with. But, not coach-speak.

Most amazingly of all, when it came time to make the decision and to share it, we discovered a new depth to Charlie Strong. All that coach-speak about values, and family, and being there for the players, and investing in young men? It was actually real-speak — our coach not only talks about those things, he lives them out.

I have to admit, over the past few years I have gotten somewhat jaded about college athletics. When college presidents and other so-called leaders can lie in order to get their school into a new conference — a conference that makes no sense in terms of tradition or geography — for the sole purpose of the Benjamins, it is hard to believe anything else they say. Ohio State, Penn State, Miami — the list of big-time programs with big-time scandals just keeps growing. It’s a big business, and often a shady one, and coach-speak just goes with the territory, like cheating.

So it was refreshing, and even inspiring, to have a coach turn down a big-time job offer for loyalty, and family, and of all things, student-athletes. We are fortunate to have Charlie Strong as our coach, and those young men are fortunate to be able to play for him. Thank you, Coach Strong, for restoring a little bit of the honor to college athletics, an area of endeavor in need to it.


Monday Morning Quarterback: Should Dooley Be Fired?

I sat up until 1 AM Saturday night (well, Sunday morning), hoping to see Tennessee pull out the upset. As they chewed up yardage running the ball, showing an offensive line prowess that had been missing in the past, my hopes grew. When they closed to a 3-point deficit, I started thinking “They’re going to pull this off!”

Then the Vols gave up a turnover on a punt, Mississippi State put another touchdown on the board against a Vol defense that suddenly seemed to collapse, and it was over. Again. Just like the previous 13 losses to ranked teams.

There was a time when Tennessee would be the team on the top end of the streaks. There was a time when Tennessee would have won this game by halftime. There was a time, believe it or not, when Tennessee was seemingly a permanent member of the Top 10, and losing to anyone outside Florida or Bama, much less the Mississippi schools, was just not even discussed.

Those times are gone, at least for now, and a new “time” question is on everyone’s lips: Is it time for Dooley to go?

According to more than one FB friend, the answer is Yes. According to many commenters on various Vols sports sites, the answer is Yes. And if the major boosters are also saying Yes, then I’m pretty sure that’s going to be the final answer.

But I disagree. I think Dooley should be given one more year. Let me tell you why.

I saw progress on Saturday night. I saw a defense that more than once made the plays, got the stops, and kept the game from getting out of hand. I saw an offense that could move the ball, could convert third downs, and could score on a very good MSU team.

Most of all, I saw the foundation for next year: a team where Tyler Bray has one more year of maturity, where the freshmen and sophomores of this year are sophomores and juniors of next year, a team with more returning coaches than new ones.

There seems to be no doubt that UT had dropped significantly behind the rest of the SEC in recruiting, and changing coaches three times in three years just made it worse. Dooley inherited a mess, and while it can be argued that he should have done better than he has, I think there is no doubt that the team is getting better.

The bottom line, for me, is that another coaching change at this point would just move us back to where we were a few years ago, AND make it almost impossible to attract any other coaches to come work on The Hill. Who wants to work under that pressure AND be given only two-three years?

AD Hard needs to evaluate, and he needs to have clear expectations about what Year 4 Progress looks like. But at this point, my opinion is this: It’s not the right time to let Dooley go. Give him that fourth year.

Crum versus Pitino: By the Numbers

After some of the talk over the past few weeks, I decided to pull the records for Denny Crum’s last ten years and Rick Pitino’s first ten, just to see. Not a lot of surprises, but if you like numbers, you might like looking this over.

I pulled the records from the UofL site, then did a fancy gradient to show winning percentage for that year. (Actually, Excel did the fancy gradient; I just clicked a few commands.)

Then, I added a section on the right for post-season NCAA play. Didn’t include the NIT, because I didn’t want to do another two conditional formats. 🙂

So, here you are. My thoughts after the graphic:

Obviously, Pitino’s first ten years have been better than Denny’s last ten. However, when you look at NCAA records, the two opening-round losses in the last two years really stand out. The program is obviously doing better, yet CRP has as many first-round losses as CDC had when the program had obviously stalled.

I think that is part of the fan frustration that people are feeling. The trendline is either stable or going slightly up, so what’s with the early exits?

Anyway, thought this would be fun to look at. Let’s hope we’ve got a big graph to the right soon!

Thoughts on the Pearl Story

I’m a long-time Tennessee fan, a big Bruce Pearl fan, and a blogger. Still, I’ve held off writing much about the Pearl issue, because I wasn’t sure how I felt or if I understood just what happened. With the recent release of additional information about just what Bruce Pearl did, it’s time to change that. Here, then, are some thoughts.

When I think about coaches and NCAA rules, I rank the infractions sort of like this, from least worst to most worst:

  1. The coach unknowingly committed a secondary violation.
  2. The coach unknowingly committed a major violation.
  3. The coach knowingly committed a secondary violation.
  4. The coach knowingly committed a major violation.
  5. The coach did 3 or 4 multiple times.
  6. The coach did 3 or 4 then lied about it.
  7. The coach did 3 or 4 multiple times, then lied about it.
  8. The coach tried to get others to lie as well.

If you do 1, that probably means you are inexperienced. If you do 2, you’re incompetent — all coaches should know the major violations, without question.

If you do 3, or 4, then you are either desperate, or you don’t have a good moral code. Or, you think the rules are a joke, and you see no reason to follow them. Number 5 is just an extension of the problem, writ large.

I knew Pearl had lied — he said so himself. That moved us to 6, which really bothered me. I wanted to believe that there must be some good reason for Pearl to do this: covering for an assistant, perhaps, or just a momentary lapse of judgment?

This week, though, we learned that not only did Pearl lie about what he did, but he tried to get others to lie as well. He asked the recruits and their families to keep quiet about the visit to his house. In other words, he moved to level 8: knowingly committed a secondary violation, lied about it, and tried to get others to lie as well.

This is bad. This is very, very bad. When your head coach is carrying out a cover-up, how does he continue to be your head coach? How do you trust him? If you’re AD Hamilton, how do you not worry about the other shoe dropping at some point?

Bruce Pearl has done amazing things with the men’s basketball program. He has taken one of the most moribund programs in the SEC and made it not only relevant, but exciting. I think he really loves being the coach at UT. I think he is, basically, a good person.

So, how much slack do we cut him? And don’t give me that crap about “everyone does it.” That doesn’t wash. Coaches may knowingly commit infractions, especially secondary ones, and hope they don’t get caught. Very few of them do so, then lie about it, and contact the recruits and their families and ask them to lie about it as well.

At this point, I don’t think Bruce Pearl can be our coach. I don’t think the University can overlook the cover-up. I think the punishment to date has been too light.

If I were the president of UT, I’d give Pearl a choice: step down as coach in a voluntary suspension for at least a year, with no pay and no contact with the program, or resign. Either hire a coach to run the program during the suspension, or promote one of the associate coaches for a year. (Or ask Pat Summitt to run both programs for a year!)

Too complicated, you say? Too funky to have him be suspended and supposedly coming back at some point? Too hard on whoever tried to run the program during Pearl’s suspension?

Then fire him. Just cut the cord. It’s hard, it’s sad, it will set the program back a great deal. But just do it.

Otherwise, you’re saying that it’s okay for coaches to ask 18-year-olds to lie.

Football Time in Tennessee — Relisted

Pretty much every day, I look to see what I’ve garnered in terms of visitors, and what they come for. Based on my traffic numbers, I’m not ready to support myself from blogging, at least not yet!

Obviously, the latest post or poem gets most of the traffic. There are a few search terms, though, that turn up time and again. One of those is a post I did about a year ago, celebrating one of the most memorable phrases and men in college sports history.

So, in honor of the new season, and for all those who have never heard the story OR the man (MP3s included), I’m linking back to that original story:

“It’s Football Time in Tennessee!”