Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Hanging by a thread

These are the things the dreamers didn't tell us about, back when the dream seemed to make sense. Maybe it still does -- maybe once you go down a certain path, turning back becomes impossible -- but it sure doesn't seem so right now.

Not when the women's tennis team at IPFW is headed out to Denver, Omaha and South Dakota, with one unplanned stop added to its itinerary.

That would be "oblivion."

Cash-strapped athletic departments do not make a tidy fit with cash-strapped universities in general, and so last weekend the former at IPFW metaphorically fell on its sword to help the latter. The immediate victims were the men's and women's tennis programs, which will both be eliminated to save $450,000 annually -- not a small consideration for an athletic department which, like a fair number of  D-I athletic departments, is not self-sustaining.

Its annual  $7.5 million budget ranks 216th out of 230 NCAA Division I schools, and a good chunk of that comes from student activity fees. The worst part is that eliminating the tennis programs takes IPFW down to 14 sports, the minimum required by the NCAA to maintain a Division I presence.

So they're hangin' by their fingernails.

And again you're compelled to ask, as we were 15 years ago when all this happened, if D-I athletics is a feasible play for schools with IPFW's resources. With the exception of the men's volleyball team's visits to the Final Four and the men's basketball team's near-brush with the NCAA Tournament last year, the national exposure promised by the D-I architects has never materialized. That it still could, of course, is always out there. And that's why taking a step back to D-II remains an unthinkable prospect.

Here's what I know: Without IPFW going D-I, a lot of what's happened on the campus in the last 15 years would not have happened. If the national exposure never happened, the mere cache of Division I raised the school's own image of itself. It went from being a commuter school to an actual university, drawing students from all over the world into its orbit.

 And a lot of those students came here to play basketball or volleyball or soccer or, yes, tennis. Their presence has enriched campus life and made it a far more cosmopolitan environment than would ever have been possible otherwise.

The cost, of course, was driven home last weekend. The elimination of the tennis programs deprives IPFW athletics of two of its brightest lights. Not only were they the school's best academic performers, they were also the most successful on the playing field, winning six conference titles combined in the last seven years. And the women's team has made the NCAA Tournament three times since 2010.

But they generated zero money, and that, by necessity, is the priority if you're a Division I entity. And so they're gone.

Money would still be issue in D-II, but obviously not to the extent it is in D-I. And so, economically, abandoning the latter might make sense. But from the standpoint of who you are as a university and to what you ultimately aspire, it makes none.

Let's Be Smalltime Again, after all, has never been much of a mission statement. Or a rallying cry.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A Spartan existence

You know who you're rooting for now, if you have a morsel of soul in your body. This photo here is only a small giveaway.

It was taken in the aftermath of Michigan State's 76-70 overtime win over Louisville in the East Regional title game Sunday, a victory that sent the 11-loss, 7-seed Spartans to the Final Four. The players are crowded around head coach Tom Izzo, wearing glow-in-the-dark smiles and hats that proclaim them regional champs. One of them -- forward Matt Costello -- is reaching past guard Travis Trice to put a large paw on Izzo's head, ruffling Coach's thinning hair as if he were some little tyke.

Which fits, because Izzo's wearing a little tyke's Christmas-morning expression: Eyes squeezed shut, giggly grin, nothing put pure joy rolling off him in waves.

How do you not root for that?

How do you not root for a coach so unencumbered by the rigid top-down autocracy of his profession that his players feel familiar enough with him to ruffle his hair? Who dresses up as various pop culture figures (Ironman one year, "Gladiator" another) every year for the Spartans' Midnight Madness?  Who is the undisputed Wizard of March, time after time getting his struggling kids to put it together in time for Da Tournament?

Go back a month, two months ago, when the Spartans were losing at home to Texas Southern. Or losing at home to Illiniois. Or losing at home to Minnesota, and at Nebraska. Did anyone, anywhere, see them as a Final Four team then?

But now Costello and Trice and Branden Dawson and the best name in college basketball -- Lourawls Nairn Jr. -- are going back to a place Izzo has taken his teams seven times. And thank God for it, because without them, the Final Four is little more than a chalkfest: Kentucky, Duke and Wisconsin, three 1-seed heavyweights who were fully expected to be where they are, and therefore not at all interesting save for the fact that Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes, the MVP of the postgame presser, has emerged as the most appealing kid in the tournament.

 Michigan State at least saves the last weekend of March Madness from not being very Mad at all, and so God bless it. The Spartans probably can't beat Duke, and Wisky probably can't beat Kentucky. But for awhile, at least, they'll inject a little fun into what's likely to wind up a numbingly predictable showdown between the usual clash of dynasties -- mirror images in fact as well as essence this time, because their Nike-designed uniforms are virtually identical.

I'll take the guy with the well-ruffled hair instead. Every time.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Perfection imminent

This was the chance, as the minutes got skinny and Notre Dame kept Kentucky in its wake. All along the smart guys said it was the Irish who likely had the physical skills and mental toughness to take down the Wildcats; Saturday they proved it, right up until Jerrian Grant's last desperate three from the corner fell unblessed.

The Irish could have. But they didn't.

And now?

Now Kentucky has history on a platter, because immutable laws of nature are at work. And the immutable law of nature that is most at work here is the one that proclaims you get one chance to ruin a quest like this.

And now the one chance is in the Wildcats' rearview.

They are going to go 40-0. Last night confirmed it.

They are going to go 40-0, and the Blob will duly eat the words it said it would four months ago, when it said the Wildcats would not, no way, uh-uh, go 40-0. The words will be served with a piquant marinara, or so I've been told by certain Wildcat fans with a vested interest in the impending humiliation. Some blue thing called a Wildcat-tini will be at hand to wash it down.

And, yes, I know the Wildcats get Wisconsin next, and other smart guys have been pointing to this matchup since the brackets were released. But the immutable law has doomed the Badgers. They're too late to the party. Notre Dame beat them to the Big Chance, failed or not.

And so a new prediction from the Blob, which doesn't have the sense God gave floor wax. It simply doesn't know when to quit while it's behind, and so it now proclaims that Wisconsin won't give UK the game everyone assumes it will, and two nights later the Wildcats will stick a fork in history by pounding whatever schlub comes out of the other national semifinal.

Likely it will be either Duke or Gonzaga, according to the chalk. Neither will be able to hang with the Kats, and the discussion will begin as to whether or not they're the greatest college basketball team ever assembled.

(The Blob's consensus: No. The 1990 UNLV team would beat them. A couple of the John Wooden UCLA teams would. But they'd smoke the last undefeated champion, the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Too much athleticism and size inside).

In any case ... they win. And the Blob looshushes.

Sorry. Mouth was full.    


Friday, March 27, 2015

The cost of "freedom"

This begins early on a Tuesday morning in Indianapolis, in a ballroom in the Marriott across the street from the old Convention Center/Hoosier Dome. A frayed bunch of  national media types are sitting around tables, picking at the late-night/early-morning spread. It's their way of taking the edge off the annual insanity that is deadline on the night of the NCAA championship basketball game.

The man with the floor is Bob Ryan, the Hall of Fame basketball writer for the Boston Globe.

"I love Indianapolis," he's saying. "They could hold the Final Four here every year for all I care."

A silent chorus of nods all around. Yes, the national media loves Indianapolis. It's friendly, it's efficient, the entire event is almost ridiculously self-contained. And downtown has enough quality restaurants to keep even the culinary snobs happy -- not that there are all that many in a fraternity for which the stadium/arena/ballpark hotdog is one of the four major food groups.

Wonder what they're all thinking today.

Actually, there is no reason to wonder; the reaction is coming from everywhere. Indiana, world headquarters for assbackward, has surrendered again to its worst impulses. The lege passed, and, behind closed doors, Gov. Mike Pence signed into law a bullheaded measure that its supporters claim is benign but whose very existence shouts otherwise --  in essence, if not in actual fact.

And now the backlash. A $50 million convention bailing on Indy. At least one billion-dollar corporation reconsidering whether it wants to do business here. And the president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, saying that the organization is going to have to reconsider basing its headquarters in Indy, or ever playing a Final Four again in one of the national media's favorite Final Four sites.

Perception matters. And so while the Religious Freedom Restoration Act probably won't result in businesses closing their doors to gays on religious grounds -- the rhetoric has grown absurdly overheated in that regard -- it once again demonstrated that Indiana's antipathy toward gays is very real. When you spend as much tax money as the state spent fighting its gay citizens' right to be treated as equals under the law, and then react to losing the same-sex marriage fight by introducing a gilding-the-lily measure that protects freedoms already guaranteed by the Constitution ...

Well. You get what you pay for, as they say. And the price for Indiana is it no longer gets the benefit of the doubt on this. The state may not in fact have anything against gay people, but it sure as hell acts like it does.

And so the NCAA's reaction to this is not at all an overreaction. Nor will the NFL's be when it starts considering whether to bring another Super Bowl to Indy, no matter how flawlessly the city pulled it off in 2012.

Pence and his ilk can shout from the rooftops that 19 other states have laws that are some form of  Indiana's new law. But the timing of it, plus the fact the governor signed it under what amounted to the cover of darkness, makes the motives behind this particular measure suspect. It may well be only a guideline aimed at "government overreach" in conflicts over the exercise of one's religious faith. But given Indiana's previous actions, how do people not think the state will use "government overreach" as an excuse to override local statutes prohibiting discrimination based on sexual preference?

Perception matters. And the perception here is that Indiana sees its gay citizens as some sort of "threat" to people of faith. In truth, there is no such threat. The law is superfluous. So why, then?

Can't blame the NCAA, or anyone else, for asking that question.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Rooting interest

It's simple transference, I suppose. And so, when you make your bones writing about sports, you  quickly accept as a condition of the job that fans of whoever you're covering will assume you're just like them.

Which is to say, they always claim one of two things:

1. You hate (name of fan's team/school/rooting interest).

2. You love (name of fan's rival team/school/rooting interest).

It isn't true, of course. It never has been. Most sportswriting galley slaves I've known over the years were too busy sweating deadlines to care about whether or not Team X or Y was winning or losing. But you were never going to convince Joe Fan of that, and so after awhile you just accepted it and quit trying.

Here's the thing, though: Just because we don't root the way fans root doesn't mean we don't root at all.

What we do, and it's admittedly a subtle difference, is root for storylines. Some are just better than others. And so let me put it out there right now that I am unabashedly rooting this weekend for the storyline that has Notre Dame and Kentucky meeting in the Elite Eight -- and Notre Dame knocking off the Wildcats.

This is not because I have any particular feeling about Notre Dame one way or the other. I don't.  It would just be a hell of a storyline if it happened: After years of trying, one of the best guys in the business, Mike Brey, finally gets to the Final Four. And does so a week after losing his mother.

Most of America knows the story so far: That Brey found out his mom had died of a heart attack before the Butler game last week, and kept it to himself to avoid tipping his team's focus. Only after his boys had beaten Butler in overtime -- on Brey's birthday, no less -- did he almost casually announce it in the postgame.

He still hadn't told his team, preferring to let them savor their win over Butler and even joining them in the celebration. I can't imagine what emotions were roaring through him during that time. But again, he suppressed them for the good of his kids.

Selflessness like that deserves its reward. The fact that this is the best basketball team Mike Brey's ever had at ND only adds to the narrative.

And so: Go, Irish.

Not because it's the Irish, mind you. Because it's a story that practically writes itself.

And there's nothing a sportswriter loves more than that.     

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Arteries, schmarteries

The snow's almost gone (and thanks for that, Mr. I Was Just Kidding About That Whole Spring Thing).  The mercury's climbing shakily toward 60 again. And there are actual by-God thunderstorms in the forecast.

So, as the sole executor of this Blob, I say we talk some baseball.

OK. So not baseball, exactly.

Instead, let's talk about a glorious summer afternoon at the ballpark, specifically Miller Park in Milwaukee, and what you're going to be experiencing there on such an afternoon. Cold beer, you bet. An expanse of green so, well, green, it sears your retinas. And one more thing.

Say hello to nachos on a stick, America!

Yes, coming this summer, Brewers fans will get to chow down on something called Inside The Park Nachos, aka A Heart Attack You Can Hold In One Hand. It's a stick of beef and refried beans rolled in nachos, then deep-fried to a cholesterol-spikin' golden brown. Then it's drizzled with sour cream and cheese, just in case you have a stray artery somewhere that has managed to escape the rest without slamming shut.    


 Of course, there's more. This being Milwaukee, there will also be the Down Wisconsin Avenue Brat. It's an 18-inch bratwurst smothered in gravy, fries, cheese curds, cheese sauce, fried sauerkraut, jalapenos, sour cream and chives. And don't forget the Miller Park Bratchos, four kinds of sausage   (chorizo, Italian, Polish and bratwurst) chopped up and served atop kettle chips with sour cream, fried jalapenos and sauerkraut.

Double yu--!

Whoa. Heart stopped beating there for a second.

 I think I know what'll fix that.

Another bite, anyone?


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A good start

So the NFL has suspended its war on fans for a year, and that calls to mind an old but always dependable joke.

Q: What do you call 100 lawyers at the bottom of the sea?

A: A good start.

Or in this case: "What do you call suspending the NFL blackout rule for a year?"  Same answer.

It is a good start, and if what's back of it is the threat of Congress stepping in to arbitrarily abolish it completely, then the libertarians are wrong. Turns out government can make our lives better sometimes.

Because, listen, the blackout rule is nothing but straight consumer blackmail, and it's time it vanished forever. And if the NFL won't do it voluntarily, the government should step in and do it for them. That prospect doubtless sends a cold shiver down spines in the NFL's boardrooms, because once you open that door, you open that door. And no one wants to do that, because they've got too cushy a deal going.

Take the blackout rule itself, for instance. It breeds nothing but ill will among fans, but that's a minor consideration for the NFL, which has grown beyond the need to stroke its fan base. Its real purpose is to protect lousy owners who, because of it, can continue to put an inferior product on the field at premium prices and get away with it.

It used to be a dependable axiom that you if you wanted your business to thrive, you threw the stick away and offered the carrot. The NFL has turned that on its head. The Shield's way of doing business is to shove a metaphorical gun in your face and tell you to pay up or else -- the "or else" being,  "or else we won't let you watch your team."

Here's the thing about that: Most people out there, in a recovering but still sluggish economy, can't afford anything but the "or else." Thanks no doubt in part to the blackout rule, which helps keep ticket prices artificially high, it cost a family of four an average of $641 to attend a 49ers game last year. That was the highest in the league, but it was still a representative number.

The Cowboys, for instance, charge $75 just to park at the Jerry Dome. The Patriots' cheapest non-premium ticket last year was $122, a number sure to go up now after winning the Super Bowl. And the cheapest ticket in the league was $54, which is what the Browns were asking last year.  

That's still north of $200 for a family of four just to get in the building. Not that the NFL minds. The league's too busy counting its pile and pushing around all the Joe Fans who have historically been the game's lifeblood. It's a shameful display of naked greed from a corporate enterprise that's become so bulletproof it really doesn't have to care how it looks anymore.

And yet the eternal verities, as they say, remain.

You want more fans to come to the games?

Get your hands out of their wallets and give them back their game. And quit clinging to the threadbare fable that if you give fans the games on TV, it'll hurt your gate.

That old saw goes back almost a century, to the days when baseball owners were opposed to this newfangled thing called radio for the same reason. The opposite, of course, turned out to be true; radio actually filled the ballparks by broadening the fan base.

Same deal with TV some 90 years later.

That the NFL secretly knows this was exposed by its decision to suspend the blackout rule. And that made the league look even more cynical than it already did.

The only cure for that?

Get rid of it altogether.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Da Weekend, in so many words

So now we're on to the Sweet Sixteen, and everyone can breathe for a second. And while you do, a few brief thoughts to chew on around the cheery fire you've made from your many brackets, at least one of which had Hampton winning it all ...

(Because, you know, it's the Madness, and men can dream).

1. Never, ever, ever pick against Tom Izzo in Da Tournament. Ever.

Well, at least until he gets to the Sweet Sixteen.

This is because Izzo goes to the Sweet Sixteen the way most of us go to the store for a gallon milk, and it really doesn't matter what he has. This time around he's got Branden Dawson and Travis Trice and that Valentine guy, and the usual collection of lunch-bucket Who's Thats.

Doesn't matter. It's March, and in March (to borrow a line from "Slapshot"), the Spartans put on the foil. Easiest pick in the tournament, them over Virginia.

2. Speaking of  Izzo ... coaching matters.

This is obvious in a college game in which coaches get nine gazillion timeouts, a circumstance that at times makes the product nearly unwatchable. But every year we seemed to require reminding.

And so the Sweet Sixteen comes up, and, whoa, hey, looks who's there.  Izzo. Krzyzewski. Rick Pitino with a flawed Louisville team. Bob Huggins with a flawed West Virginia team. John Calipari and Bo Ryan and Mark Few and Roy Williams and all the usual suspects.

Like you were expecting something different?

3. Can we please stop calling the likes of Wichita State, Butler and Gonzaga mid-majors?

Had a friend of mine observe, after the Shockers held off Indiana, that there was a day when Indiana would never have lost to a Wichita State team that had better talent. Well, yes, and there was also a day when the horse-and-buggy ruled the road. Both of those days are gone.

That's less a reflection of what has happened to Indiana than what has happened to college basketball generally. The one-and-done rule has changed the game fundamentally, in the sense that they've destabilized high-gloss programs and elevated programs who must still do it the old-fashioned way, with players who stick around for three or four years.

Thus, mid-majors are not really mid-majors anymore. Wichita State has won more games than any program in college basketball across the last three seasons. Gonzaga has been to five Sweet Sixteens  since the turn of this century. And Butler ... well, we all know about Butler. They've gone from the Horizon League to the Big East and have lost in the first round of the Da Tournament only once since 1999. They're a major program playing in a major conference now.

  So ... enough. Everybody's got players now. Even the "mid-majors."

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Throwback Saturday. Sort of.

Look, the Blob's position on this is crystal, and has been for a long time: Hoosier Hysteria died on the last Saturday in March in 1997, when Bloomington North cut down the nets in the last single-class state finals, and a whole pile of ink-stained wretches wrote their valedictories.

What that means, what it's always meant, is that Hoosier Hysteria was a certain brand, and that brand was not transferrable. If you were going to alter the entire structure of high school basketball in the state that defined it, you were going to have to call it something else. Because it was something else.

Here what that doesn't mean: It doesn't mean people still won't come if you put up a basket in March in Indiana and let kids shoot at it.

Those were the glad tidings Saturday afternoon from Huntington, where I sat in line to turn left off U.S. 24 half an hour before the tip between Bishop Dwenger and Griffith. And sat. And sat. And ... sat.

Caught in traffic for a basketball semistate. Talk about your nostalgia rushes.

Huntington North's gym seats 5,500 and the place was jammed for the Class 3A and 4A semistates, every seat filled and the SRO crowd hefty enough to make the fire marshals nervous. What that told you is that Hoosier Hysteria may be long in its grave, but the game itself remains a bone-deep thing in this state. If what we have now is not what we once had, it's still high school basketball in Indiana in March. No matter how desperately the dead-enders want to believe otherwise, nobody gives a damn anymore if it's four classes instead of one.

After 18 years, it's just details.

That's why the quixotic campaign to raise the Hoosier Hysteria corpse a couple years back was doomed from the jump. The voting might have betrayed a certain aching nostalgia for the dead past, but that's all it was. It was like pining for drive-in movie theaters or the milkman leaving a couple of sweating glass bottles on your doorstep at dawn: You know those days are never coming back, but weren't they something?

Mind you, this comes from a man who was adamantly opposed to killing off the Hysteria, on the excellent grounds that it was still the most wildly successful high school basketball tournament on the planet. The archives are full of what I wrote then, carefully crafted arguments that made perfect sense at the time they were written.

But what I missed, what we all missed, was how little was going to change at the molecular level. Basketball was still going to be basketball, and Hoosiers were still going to be hard-wired to flock to it. Everything else, again, was details.

And so on to Saturday afternoon, when the Homestead and South Bend Riley sections were full even for the 3A game, and the Dwenger and Griffith fans stuck around for the 4A game. Because,  basketball. It's our siren, our deal, our north star. It's who we are.

 "I've very thankful to be a part of this ..." Dwenger guard Kyle Hartman said Saturday, after the Saints went down valiantly to Griffith.

Of course he is. Aren't we all?   

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Only one is done

And it's not Tom Crean, haters.

It is, however, Indiana, which was given no shot at Wichita State but got in plenty of shots, only to see the Shockers boot them from the tournament with an unbreakable second half.  Neither team ever actually cracked, but the Shockers cracked less, forging a precarious lead and then refusing to give Indiana the opening it needed as the minutes got skinny.

And so the Hoosiers went out on their feet, not on their shields. And if March is a construct that awards no points for that, it was at least enough to turn down the braying for Crean's head to a dull roar. His flawed team pushed Maryland in the Big Ten tournament and then pushed Wichita State, and that will be plenty for now to ensure his continued presence on the Indiana sideline.

Not that he was going anywhere, anyway, of course.

The plain-wrapper truth is his athletic director has his back, and until that changes Indiana fans pining for something better can spin their happy fantasies. Brad Stevens isn't going to come riding in to save the day, not when he coaches the NBA's most storied franchise (the Celtics) and has begun to turn that ship into the wind.  But it's a harmless indulgence to think so, as is the speculation about Crean bolting for Alabama and some Flavor of the Month shipping in to take his place.

The dynamic here is that Indiana could do worse, much worse, and has. Kelvin Sampson may be long gone, but in a weird sort of way he continues to influence the direction of the program. As long as his memory lingers, Crean will always benefit by comparison, no matter how many fans pound the drums for his ouster.

Losing in the first round by five to Wichita State? That's not bad. We've seen bad, and that isn't it.

Or something like that.

At any rate, Crean will stick around. There's a lot you can pin on him -- his failure to recruit quality bigs being foremost -- but there's a lot you can't. The final image of him from yesterday, after all, was his frantic motioning for his kids to foul in the closing seconds, and the kids failing to get the message. He told them what to do; they didn't do it. That's not on him.

Players gotta make plays, at some point. And coaches gotta coach.

For at least the time being, Crean still will.


Friday, March 20, 2015


So it's halftime of the two best days in American sport, and already I am winged out, beered out, OMG-ed out. There have been some great first days of the NCAA Tournament.  But none better than this one.

It was the kind of day that made a coach (Georgia State's Ron Hunter) fall off his chair. The most talked-about shot was a game-winning 3-pointer that never got to the rim. And a bunch of actual scholars (Harvard) nearly took down Theory of Breathing/Underwater Basket-Weaving U. (North Carolina).

For the game of the day, you had to wait until evening, when Purdue and Cincinnati swapped the lead 16 times, the Boilers blew a seven-point lead with 48 seconds left in regulation and Troy Caupain's no-hope, double-pump layup beat the buzzer to force overtime and eventually get Cincinnati home. Two 14 seeds won in the tournament's first four hours. Another (Northeastern) probably should have.

If you were a fan of chalk, Kentucky was there for you, idling past a Hampton team so comically undersized you were tempted to check if its point guard wasn't a certain B. Baggins. If you were a fan of the bizarre, Bryce Alford's aforementioned game-winning 3 had your back; down two with 11 ticks left, he came off a curl, launched a wheezing fallaway jumper that was going to gasp its last somewhere around the front rim -- and got a reprieve when an SMU player unaccountably went up and grabbed it as it tumbled toward oblivion.

Goaltending, SMU. Three points, UCLA. Game, set, match, UCLA.

 Tell me something more weird than that's going to happen today. Or something more weirdly heartwarming than watching R.J. Hunter straight-line a game-winning dagger 3 for 14-seed Georgia State against 3-seed Baylor, prompting Hunter's dad, Ron, to fall to the floor, his ruptured Achilles (don't ask) failing to support him.

You know that one makes the One Shining Moment montage. Caupain's layup, too. The Goaltend Heard 'Round The World. On and on.

It was a day when brackets exploded in a shower of   "I can't believe I picked Iowa State!" and "Georgia State?! Who the hell is Georgia State?" Four double-digit seeds won. Eleven games were decided by fewer than 10 points. Nine were decided by fewer than five.

It bore out what everyone was saying, which is, with the possible exception of Kentucky, anybody can beat anybody in this tournament. The distribution of wealth in college basketball -- particularly upperclassmen wealth -- has never been more ecumenical. If the one-and-done rule has done anything remotely positive for the college game, that's it.

And now, we get to do it all over again today.

It can't help but be anticlimactic. Can it?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Slide rule

Aha. So that's what the other shoe not dropping sounds like.

It's sort of a soft sidling away from the late unpleasantness, in which Syracuse University discovered that its Hall of Fame basketball coach had been presiding over a dirty program for the last decade-and-a-half or more. It cost the school 108 victories and 12 scholarships, and it cost the coach, Jim Boeheim, a nine-game ACC sitdown next season.

Clearly Syracuse thought that was enough.

Maybe in another time, or perhaps an alternate reality, the school would have kicked Boeheim to the curb for the academic fraud running through his program, 900-some wins or not. But academic fraud apparently isn't a fireable offense anymore in college athletics, which at Syracuse's level stopped being about academics long ago.

It's a business now, and Boeheim is a rainmaking CEO. And so the school will invoke the Slide Rule and let both him and athletic director Daryl Gross up easy.

Boeheim gets to go out on his own terms, announcing yesterday that he would coach three more years and then turn the program over to longtime assistant Mike Hopkins. And while Gross (who's been around long enough to be culpable in this, too) was ousted as athletic director after 10 years, it really wasn't much of an ousting.

After all, instead of plowing through the want ads this morning, he's still employed by Syracuse. He will, the news stories reported, "transition" to vice president and special assistant to the chancellor, and become an adjunct professor in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics.

I don't know what the going rate for all that is. But suffice to say he's still going to be drawing a chunky paycheck from the university.

And what's wrong with that picture?

Come on, you know: It's yet another illustration of the commercial nature of big-ticket college athletics, and how its priorities supersede everything. Paying for a recruit's cheeseburger is one thing, and it can at least be explained away as simply the way you do bidness these days in the corporate ethos of Big 5 football/basketball. But academic fraud strikes at the very heart of the alleged compact between that ethos and the stated mission of the university.

If you can't get fired for that, then does the compact still actually exist? Or is it a mere pale nod to a culture long vanished?

You know the answer to that one, too, and so do I. On the same day Syracuse rewarded Boeheim and Gross for their service to the corporate ethos (er ... university), a number popped up on my TV screen. It was $1.13 billion. That's how much advertisers spent last year on March Madness, a basketball contest among academic institutions.

And Jim Boeheim's one of the guys who've helped generate it.

How's the saying go again, sort of?

Money talks. And it'll never make you walk. 


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bracketology 102

But first, an obligatory bit of correspondence.

Dear Guy Who Picked Manhattan To Win It All:

Sorry about that.



Now, then. Where were we?

Well, not with the Jaspers, who lost the first play-in game.

(You there in the back, wearing the NCAA pin: Pipe down. Play-in games are what these are and it's what we're going to call them. You can call it the First Four if you want -- hell, shout it from the rooftops -- but no one's buying it).

So not Manhattan, and also not Hampton, the team that beat it. Hampton gets Kentucky now, so, thanks for playing, guys. Don Pardo is waiting backstage with your lovely parting gift.

Not Manhattan, not Hampton, and, while we're on the subject, not Lafayette, Coastal Carolina or the winner between Robert Morris and North Florida. Those are your 16 seeds. Someday a 16 seed will beat a 1 seed, but it won't happen this year. Not even when one of the 16 seeds (Coastal Carolina) has the completely awesome nickname of "Chanticleers."

(Although how cool would it be if  Robert Morris/North Florida beat Duke? Just because, you know, Duke).

Not Manhattan, not Hampton, not the 16 seeds, and not Purdue, either. Look, I like the Boilers. I like A.J. Hammons. I like the fact they can bring another moose, Isaac Haas, off the bench. I like that Matt Painter has put a team on the floor that actually looks like Purdue again: hard-nosed, tough-minded, gets in your grill and stays there,

But except for Jon Octeus, none of them have played in an NCAA Tournament before. And the only teams they've beaten recently, they should have (Penn State and Illinois). And Cincinnati's no walkover.

Oh, yeah: And even if they beat Cincinnati, they get Kentucky in the next round. Thanks for playing ... Don Pardo ... yada yada.

So not Manhattan, Hamption, the 16 seeds, Purdue nor, while we're at it, any of the other schools from Indiana. The Hoosiers will excite their fans by hanging with Wichita State at halftime, then get smoked in the second half (or vice-versa). Butler, a 6 seed, could actually lose to 11-seed Texas in its first game, the former lovable underdog suffering the fate of all those over-dogs upon which it made its bones. And Valparaiso might cause a stir by taking down Maryland in the first round -- I'm telling you, it could happen -- but won't go much further.

That leaves Notre Dame. I don't think the Irish are going to win, either, because it's Da Tournament and the Irish never win in Da Tournament. But if there's any team that can knock out Kentucky before the Final Four, they're it. Unlike Notre Dame teams in the past, they're quick and athletic and they don't live and die at the 3-point line. Plus, they just won the ACC by throwing rotten fruit at its royal family, beating Duke and North Carolina back-to-back. So they can hang with anyone.

Plus, it looks like that kind of tournament this year. There's a lot of rickety there among the middle seeds, and a lot of imminent doom among the higher seeds. Look out for Eastern Washington,  a 13 going up against Georgetown, a 10-loss No. 4. Ditto Ole Miss, an 11 taking on Xavier, a 13-loss No. 6. Ditto Wyoming vs. this year's Butler, Northern Iowa, just because I like Larry Nance Jr. and I have a bunch of relatives who live in Wyoming.

And then there's your obligatory 5-vs.-12 Look Out Specials, An Official NCAA Tournament Meme. This year's top picks: Buffalo out of the MAC, up against West Virginia; Wofford out of the Southern Conference, a yummy pick to erase Arkansas despite losing to The Citadel this year.

So, there you have it. All the people who are not going to Dance the last Dance. And who will?

"I picked Notre Dame to win it all," someone said to me the other day.

The Blob is not going to get that crazy. In fact, there's so much bad craziness being predicted already, it's tempted to do something really crazy and predict that Da Tournament, perverse animal that it is, will go straight chalk this year.

Which means Kentucky wins.

Or Wisconsin, maybe, because it has the best player in the country (Frank Kaminsky). Or Arizona. Or, I don't know, Northern Iowa, providing it can get past my Cowboys.

You heard it here last. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Leaving, Part Deux

And now another NFL player flees the building, and this time there are no alternative explanations for why.

Say hello to Chris Borland, outside linebacker for the 49ers, 5-11, 248 pounds of mean. Or, rather, say goodbye to him.

Borland, 24, has announced he's retiring, and not even the money -- a multi-year deal worth $3 million -- can talk him out of it. The paycheck no longer carries more weight than what earning it will mean for his future, or perhaps the lack of same.

Simply put: Borland doesn't want to wake up someday and find his melon has turned to squash.

"I've thought about what I could accomplish in football," he told ESPN's Outside the Lines. "But for me, personally, when you read about Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, you read all these stories, and to be the type of player I want to be in football, I think I'd have to take on some risks that, as a person, I don't want to take on."

He's the fourth player younger than 30 to walk away from the game in the last week, and if that alone should give the NFL pause, Borland in particular is especially worrisome. He is, after all, the only one of the four to specifically say he's leaving because of the mounting evidence that playing professional football will either shorten your life or significantly diminish its quality.

You could read all that between the lines when seven-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, Titans quarterback Jake Locker and Steelers LB Jason Worilds hung it up last week, but you didn't have to bother doing that with Borland. He came right out and said it: The game has simply become too brutal.

"I just thought to myself, 'What am I doing? Is this how I'm going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I've learned and know about the dangers?'" said Borland, who says he started thinking about it in training camp last year, and did extensive research concussion-related CTE when the season was over.

And if this were a placekicker or a punter or even a quarterback, maybe you say (or maybe the NFL says), "Yeah, of course the game was too brutal for you." But Borland played the position that perhaps most rewards brutality. Linebackers earn their hard dollar a collision at a time, and the more devastating the better. And Borland was good at that, making 107 tackles last season for the Niners and earning NFL Defensive Player of the Week honors after making 13 tackles and intercepting two passes against the Giants.

When the bringers of mayhem start having doubts about it, you've got a problem. Especially when you've built your entire corporate entity by selling that mayhem, tapping into the bloodlust of your fan base with highlight videos of car-crash collisions and helicoptering wide receivers literally being knocked for a loop.

The NFL doesn't sell those Hardest Hits vids anymore, but the instinct that produced them -- the marketability of the game's sheer physical violence -- was surely behind the league's reluctance to acknowledge, for an unseemly length of time, that it had a concussion issue. Now that worm is turning on it viciously; if players younger than 30 quitting the game actually becomes a trend, it will  at least partly be because the players no longer trust the league to look after their well-being. And the NFL will have no one to blame but itself for that.

Denial carries a price. This is it.

For the NFL, it's a price that will continue to mount, because the most disturbing part of this, if you're one of the suits sitting around the gleaming conference table in the league offices, is that there there's only so much Roger Goodell or anyone else can do. Football is inherently violent. If you remove that violence, the game dies. They're up against physics here, and physics is implacable: A player weighing X who runs the 40 in Y delivers Z foot pounds of force.

In 2015, X, Y and Z have become unsustainable. Fifty years ago the game was played by relatively normal-sized human beings who didn't run all that fast. Now 250-pound linemen have become 350-pound linemen who run as fast as a lot of wide receivers once did. The damage they can inflict is exponentially more catastrophic -- and it has reached a tipping point.

For Chris Borland, that tipping point became clear over a matter of months last year. And so he's quitting.
"I just want to live a long and healthy life," he says.

The worst part of that for the NFL?

That's one desire it can't fulfill.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Bracketology 101

Partial transcript of the secret recordings made at selection committee headquarters in Indianapolis Sunday, delivered late last night in a plain manila envelope by an unidentified man in a plain black hooded sweatshirt:

(Rustling papers. Sound of door opening and closing. More rustling papers).

Voice No. 1: Well?

Voice No. 2: Sorry. No dice. It's Indiana, remember? Couldn't hook a sixer on Sunday if you were Robert Montgomery Knight his ownself.

(More rustling of paper. Sound of someone clearing throat).

Voice No. 1: Damn.


God, I hate Indiana.

Voice No. 3: Me, too.

Voice No. 4: Preach it, brother.

(More rustling papers. Sound of chairs being shifted).

Voice 1: So, what do we have, guys?

Voice 3: Well, speaking of Indiana, we've got five schools in this thing. IU, God knows how. Also Purdue, Notre Dame, of course, Valparaiso and Butler.

Voice 4: Valpo, I like Valpo. Bryce Drew, Ole Miss, all that.

(Uncomfortable pause).

Voice 1: Yes ,,, well ,..


So, gentlemen, what do we do with 'em?

Voice 3: Let's send Purdue to the West Regional!

Voice 1 (exasperated): Good God, you say that every year.

Voice 3:  That's 'cause it never gets old. We send 'em West, Keady flips out ... those were fun times, man.

Voice 1: No, we've got to stick it to 'em good this time. And I don't mean Purdue. I mean the whole lousy we're-too-high-and-mighty-to-sell-Bud-Light-on-Sunday state. I mean, there's five of  'em, right? If we don't play this smart, we could end up with four teams from Indiana in a Final Four in Indianapolis. That'd  be way too much Indiana even for Bobby Plump.

Voices 2, 3 and 4: Who's Bobby Plump?


Voice 1: Idiots.

(More rustling papers).

Voice 1: OK. So let's do this. Let's put 'em all in the Midwest Regional. Make it so Notre Dame would play Butler in the second round, and then play Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen.

Voices 2 and 3: As if.

Voice 1: Anyway ...

Voice 4: What about Valpo?

Voice 1 (sighing loudly): Again with the Valpo. Look, we throw Valpo at Maryland in the first round. Get rid of 'em right off the bat.

Voice 4 (barely audible): I don't know about that. Bryce Drew ... Ole Miss ...

Voice 1: Yeah, whatever. Let's move on, shall we?

Voice 3 (excitedly) What about Purdue? Is this the part where we make a last-second change and send 'em to the West Regional?

(Frantic rustling of papers).

Voice 1: No, dammit! Here's what we do. This is beauty: Not only do we put all the Indiana schools in the Midwest Regional, we stick Kentucky in there with 'em! How do you like them apples?

Voice 2 and 3: Oooh!

Voice 4: Nice!

Voice 1: And of course, we arrange it so Purdue has to play them in the second round, assuming it can beat Cincinnati in the first round.

Voice 3 (excitedly): In other words, we find a whole new way to screw the Boilers! I like it!

 (Loud babble of voices talking over each other).

Voice 1: OK, OK. Settle down. So we're all agreed, right? This is what we do?


Yes, (name redacted).

Voice 4: And then we do what we usually do and give Duke the easiest path, right?

Voice 1: Of course ...

End of transcript.



Sunday, March 15, 2015

Um, forget what I said. Maybe.

Remember yesterday?

Such a golden time, yesterday. We were young...er. The sun was out. The air was soft. Life was full of possibility, and we were so sure of everything, so in tune with the eternal verities, that the road ahead was bright and shining and we could glimpse, down at the end of it, the happy nirvana of next Thursday.

Wings. Beer. Oh, my God, look, Belmont just knocked off Duke.

In those false, lying times, the Blob said with stone certainty that Indiana was in the Madness. It said the bracketology nerds had the Hoosiers so far inside the rope the security guard manning it looked as tiny as Anna Kendrick.

And then ...

And then a sound from out west, oddly triumphant. A full-throated roar, punctuating by the merry clink of adult-beverage bottles, from the direction of lovely mountain-swaddled Laramie, Wyoming.

Their Cowboys had just whipped San Diego State for the Mountain West title. Which meant the Mountain West will now have two teams in the Madness instead of one, because the Aztecs were already a lock to get in, and the only way Wyoming was going to was by beating them.

And now the slide-rule and coefficient boys referenced here yesterday are saying that knocks Indiana off the bubble, because it effectively gobbles up a precious at-large bid reserved for them. And if UConn, which plays for the American Conference title today, can manage to upset SMU for the American Conference title today (the Huskies probably won't, but you never know), that will almost certainly send the Hoosiers off to the wilds of the NIT.

Or so say the pocket protectors.


I say if there is any day which gives the eternal verities the back of its hand, it's today. Yesterday was a golden time. Today is a time for a bunch of guys holed up in a hotel room figuring out whose hearts to crush in their fists while squabbling over who gets the last slice of pepperoni.

In other words: It's too close to call.

But if Indiana gets shut out ("Heads they're in; tails they're out," shouts one sleep-deprived selector, flipping that last slice of pepperoni in the air), it'll be the doorway to a world we never thought we'd see.

Wyoming makes the NCAA Tournament, but Indiana doesn't.

How's that for possibility?


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Relax, they're in. Probably.

If the slide-rule-and-coefficient boys are right, Indiana and Purdue both won yesterday, even if only one of them actually did, and even if the one that won looked less like Miss America than the third runnerup in the Miss Klingon Home World contest.

(Translation available by sending $1 and the keys to a vintage Jaguar XKE to Blob Properties Esq. No, this is not a scam. OK, it is. But come on, it's my only shot at a vintage Jaguar XKE).

Wait. Where was I?

Oh, yeah. Something about Indiana and Purdue both winning yesterday, kind of, and how it was a prime example of what a false-bottomed thing the Big Five conference tournaments are.

As has been noted here before, they're little more than ATMs for big-dollar athletic departments, with no intrinsic value beyond that of determining who does and doesn't get into the real tournament, which begins five days from now. No one really cares who wins them, except in the context of how it impacts the Madness. If, for instance, 12-17 Hand Sanitizer Tech wins the Just Us Folks Conference tournament, that's news, because it likely means some more deserving school -- like, say, 20-12 Fleabag State -- won't get in.

But let's say Hand Sanitizer Tech loses 95-12 to Damn They're Good U. in the second round. And the top four seeds reach the semifinals. And Damn They're Good goes ahead and wins the thing. What does it all mean?

Zip. Nada. Dial tone.

And so when Purdue finally got Penn State to quit biting its ankle like an annoying schnauzer yesterday, whatever value the Big Ten tournament had for it vanished. Ditto for No. 7 seed Indiana, which put up a brave fight but eventually went down to 2-seed Maryland after having already won the game that mattered -- a first-round bout with Northwestern.

Or so says the pocket-protector crowd, admittedly a squirrely bunch. After pushing up their black horn rims for the thousandth time, they wrinkled their noses over the tea leaves and announced that Indiana would be in the Madness if it beat Northwestern, and Purdue would go from lock to mortal lock if it managed to get Penn State to quit pooping on its lawn.

Now it's the top four seeds in the semifinals, and, realistically, what do any of them have to play for? It might matter to Wisconsin, which is still in play for a No. 1 seed in the Madness, or Maryland, which could land a 2 seed if it wins the thing. But Purdue and Michigan State are going to be farther down the line, seed-wise, no matter what happens. And the main thing is, they're all in the show already.

That's even true in the ACC. Although the top seeds (Duke and Virginia) went down to Notre Dame and North Carolina, it's not like they got taken out by Hand Sanitizer Tech. Notre Dame and Carolina, worthy adversaries both, were already headed for the Madness anyway. They'll likely be higher seeds now, but, as we are reminded almost every year, seeding hardly matters in this thing unless you're a 1 or a 2. Even 3s occasionally go down to a 14, and don't even start with the 5s vs. 12s. The 12s have won so many times, it's actually a thing now.

So no outlier at-large bids there. And, really, aside from where a school gets seeded, outlier at-large bids are all that's really at stake. If you want to see a conference tournament that means something, you have to watch the smaller ones, in which only the winner will get a bid to the Madness.

No coincidence those tournaments usually provide the most electric moments.

Well. Until Hand Sanitizer Tech whips Damn They're Good, of course.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

What Chip Kelly is thinking. Or not.

We've got it all wrong about Eagles coach Chip Kelly. The man's not just an entry-level genius, he's a corner-office, CEO-with-a-benefits-package-that-could-choke-Secretariat genius.

Sure, you might think he'd lost his mind, sending one of the two or three best backs in football (LeSean McCoy) off to Buffalo only to go after another of the two or three best backs in football (DeMarco Murray, who's headed to Philly today to talk deal). And you might think that if he had a mind, he'd be outside playing with it, trading a perfectly good quarterback (Nick Foles) for a quarterback who'll arrive in a crate labeled Some Assembly Required (Sam Bradford).

 A QB coming off two straight ACL surgeries, to run a system that values mobility at the position? Yes, please!

And how lucky were the Eagles to get him? As Kelly said, if  he weren't damaged goods, they'd have never had a shot at him.

(Brief pause to let the logic of that sink in. Longer pause. Really, really, long pause, like, say, a pause lasting the entire expanse of the Tudor reign).

So, anyway. Kelly -- who also dumped Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin but kept the barely functional Riley Cooper at wide receiver -- seems to be missing a few sandwiches from his picnic basket. But that's just because he's operating on a mental plane far, far beyond the ability of mere mortals to comprehend.

Trust me. We'll all be dining on crow next season when the Eagles go 19-0, Sam Bradford throws for 5,000 yards and 72 touchdowns and Riley Cooper becomes the greatest wide receiver in football. We'll rave about what a visionary Kelly was. We'll skulk around and mutter about how wrong we were.  We'll finally divine his master plan, which was to make everyone think he was crazier than that uncle you keep stashed in the attic, therby luring opposing coaches into complacency.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin: So, guys, what do we do against Kelly this week?

Giants staff: Increase his medication?

(General laughter).


Seahawks coach Pete Carroll: Guys, this it. We beat the Eagles this week, we're in the Super Bowl again. Let's not look past them. Chip Kelly's a genius and I'm sure he'll have a brilliant scheme prepared for u--

(Interrupted by general laughter, howling, slapping of knees. Richard Sherman laughs so hard he swallows his tongue and has to be revived by Russell Wilson).


Colts coach Chuck Pagano (in regular mid-week presser): This is a dangerous team we're facing. Sam Bradford's a great quarterback. He's a lot like Andrew would be if Andrew broke something every time someone looked at him funny. Any questions?

Assembled media (in unison): Huh?

I'm tellin' ya. He's got us right where he wants us.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Leaving, with seemly haste

The feets were failing him now. That was the word out of San Francisco yesterday as Patrick Willis, a seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker, looked at the rest of his life through a blur of tears and announced he could see no football in it.

This happens all the time to old football players, of course. And so it hardly bears mentioning except for one rather hefty detail.

Patrick Willis isn't an old football player.

Neither is Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds, who also announced his retirement yesterday. Ditto Titans quarterback Jake Locker, who decided he'd had enough, too.

None of them is 30 years old yet.

Willis is 29, Worilds 27 and Locker 26. But the game has become so brutal, and has exacted such a toll, that none of them could see a point to continuing with it, no matter how hardwired into their DNA it had been since they were children dreaming their dreams in the backyard.

None of them said as much, of course, but they didn't have to. Willis' ravaged size-13 feet spoke quite eloquently enough for him. Locker's medical history -- 34 missed games in four seasons because of dislocated shoulders and Lisfranc injuries and various sprained joints -- did the same. And merely the fact that Worilds was stepping away at 27 after two seasons in which he'd recorded 15.5 sacks thundered volumes without Worilds having to utter a word.

To wit: This ain't worth it. Not even for the elites.

This wasn't, after all, three bench jockeys walking away. Willis was the 11th pick in the draft in 2007 and only the third player in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first seven seasons. Locker went eighth overall in the 2011 draft. And Worilds was a second-round pick in 2010 who started every game for the Steelers last year and tied for the team lead in sacks with 7.5.

In other words, he was just coming into his prime. And yet he's through with it.

You're always wary of cold-jumping a thing and calling it a trend, but if it is, it's not one the NFL can be very enthused about. Though none of the three players said as much, you have to wonder how much their early leave-taking was an indictment of the NFL's culture of denial that playing the game was essentially a forfeiture of your life, or at least a good chunk of it. No one talked about concussions or CTE, but they didn't have to. The headlines have done enough talking.

You open a newspaper or go on a website and see another story about another former NFL player blowing his brains out in his 50s or, at an even younger age, talk about all the things he can't remember anymore, it adds up. Even if you don't do so consciously, in some recess of your mind the notion takes seed that maybe this game you used to love so much isn't worth the candle anymore.

Sure, Willis blamed his early exit on his feet, not his head. And Locker's exit might have had less to do with his battered body than with a head coach pining for a quarterback with a different skill set.

But players have been marginalized by regime changes before, and they didn't haul off and quit the game. They just forced a trade and went somewhere else.

So you wonder. And while you wonder, you think about an old saying, and how it carries an entirely  unbidden sting these days.

"NFL," the saying goes, doesn't stand for "National Football League." It stands for "Not For Long."

Yeah. No kidding.      

Oldie but goodie

Look, we all know what Frank Gore is not. But it's early and the caffeine hasn't kicked in, so here's a quick review:

1. He is not Jim Brown.

2. He is not Walter Payton.

3. He is not Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch or Bronko Nagurski or Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch -- although no one's checked his birth certificate in the last five minutes, so there's an outside chance he might have hung out with the latter two back in the day.

Which brings us to the last and most obvious thing Frank Gore isn't: He isn't 23-year-old Frank Gore.

He is, instead, a running back with some miles on him, and by miles we mean "predates airbags by three model years."  The man's 32, which is 85 in running back years. He's never lined up in the single wing, but he's heard stories about it.

So why is this still a smart buy for the Indianapolis Colts?

Because here's one more thing Frank Gore is not: He's not Trent Richardson.

He is, instead, a man who rushes for 1,000 yards the way some people put on coffee in the morning. And he can catch the football. And he can block, which is a big deal if you're Andrew Luck and periodically fleeing your pass pocket like it's a burning building is not your favorite thing to do.

The man's still got some tread on him, and if the Colts got older by signing him they also got better. That will also be true if they land Andre Johnson, a 34-year-old wide receiver who'd make a very nice complement to deep threat T.Y. Hilton as the veteran possession receiver.

Of course, he'd also make a nice complement to Gore. And to 33-year-old pass rusher Trent Cole, whom the Colts also signed yesterday. And to 34-year-old Mike Adams back there in the secondary.

This season's motto: "The Indianapolis Colts. Get Off Their Lawn Or Else."

But if this reverse youth movement is counter-intuitive -- in the NFL, younger's better as long as a player's out of Garanminals and has ditched the training wheels -- it also makes a certain amount of sense. Older might just be older, but it's also cheaper. And if you're a football team that's only a piece or two short of a realistic Super Bowl push ... well, there's no time like the present.

And so: Bring on Bronko Nagurski's homey.

What the hey. If nothing else, he'll crush the Early Bird Special.



Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Farewell to a friend

I don't know much, as faithful readers of the Blob (Hi, sis!) are well aware. But what I do know is this: No one ever got anywhere in this world without help.

You can be as self-made a man or a woman as ever breathed air, but at some point in your life someone either extended you a hand or drew you a road map to show you the way. Anyone who claims otherwise -- and hardly any truly successful person does -- is either a restaurant-quality liar or has been stricken with a convenient and utterly self-serving bout of amnesia.

I'm happy to say I'm neither of those. Which is why my world got a little grayer today when the news came down that Ron Lemasters had died down in Muncie.
Ron was the assistant sports editor at the Muncie Star 40 years ago when a raggedy college kid with disco hair walked into the newsroom to string high school basketball games. I was as green as a blade of April grass, and so what I remember most vividly is sitting in the stands with my scorebook on my knees because I was too dumb to realize that, as a member of the media (so to speak), I was entitled to find a place at the scorer's table.

That and the sheer terror of deadline sticks with me, after four decades. If I'm lucky, none of what I wrote then survives. But I must have impressed someone, because for the next 40 years, Ron Lemasters was one of my greatest champions, a mentor and a friend and one of those people who, yes, shows you the way.

Of course, he was much more than that.

His name might not be familiar to civilians in these parts, but in the cloistered world of sportswriting in Indiana, almost everyone recognizes it. He covered his first Indianapolis 500 in 1961, and he was still hanging around the place last May, having moved some years ago from the Star to the Speedway's own news service. He also covered more than 30 high school basketball state championship games and a slew of other stuff, too, and always with a smile you couldn't erase with a gross of C-4.

The man was simply one of the most relentlessly joyous people I've ever known, a walking sunbeam who clearly loved what he did and made you love it, too. Even on those days when it rained buckets or the wireless was flighty or assorted other job-related headaches descended like Biblical plagues, five minutes hanging with Ron could turn everything around.

And now he's gone, passing at 76 of complications from a stroke he suffered last month. And it's a testament to the happy swath he cut through life that it still seems unimaginable to me. It's impossible, I'm thinking, that I'll walk into the Speedway in May and Ron won't be there, a grin on his face and a chuckle dancing around its edges.

Some people die and your reaction is, "Wow, that's sad." But when a Ron Lemasters goes?

Then it's this: "Come on. Ron Lemasters? No way."

Epitaph for a life well-lived.


Community service

We all know what it's supposed to be like. And maybe it was once upon a fairy tale time.

Athletics as a simple enhancement of college life: That's the ideal, right?

Athletics as an integrated part of their universities' fabric. Athletics that function within the academic mission, not as a market-driven entity so removed from that mission they might as well be a Jimmy Johns just off the campus main drag.

You can still find that idealized model, as the Blob pointed out the other day. But in big-ticket college athletics?

Not so much. And so it's heartening when you get a brief glimpse of it, even if it that glimpse is the exception that proves the rule.

Maybe you read about what happened at Oklahoma University over the weekend, when a bunch of oatmeal-brained frat boys at Sigma Alpha Epsilon got caught on video spewing a racist chant. It was like something out of Mississippi in the '60s, or Southie in Boston during the school de-segregation riots of the '70s: Bunch of uneducated peawits using racial slurs and making references to lynching.

In another time and context there would have been real menace to such a thing. But given that it's 2015 and it was, well, a bunch of oatmeal-brained frat boys, it came off more pathetic and clueless than anything else. Hey, check out these sad sacks. They actually think this stuff is cool. Good God.

Good God, indeed. Mainly because they're too dumb to know what they don't know, which is that there are black Americans still alive who remember the dark legacy of the Black Holocaust, when the lynching of people of color was not just an abstract concept but a bloody reality. Thousands were murdered, untold thousands more left to carry the burden of sorrow left behind.

 And so the university, quite properly, came down with both feet on these clowns, throwing SAE off the premises. And there was a campus-wide demonstration of protest. And guess who showed up?

You got it. The mercenaries.

Football coach Bob Stoops was there. Assistant football coach Mike Stoops. Oklahoma men's basketball coach Lon Kruger. And somewhere around 100 athletes, according to the Tulsa World.

"I was here to be with my guys," Stoops told the World. "We work with beautiful young men and women of all races. It's just -- very little gets me choked up. But that hurt."

It was also a reminder that there are still places -- and more to the point, times -- when athletics is part of the whole. When the individuals brought in to fill the athletic coffers still regard themselves as college students first and commodities second. When what happens outside the athletic bubble still matters, because if you're a Sooner you're a Sooner, and when something besmirches that you link arms and shout it down long and loud.

It was a joy to see. If only, in this day and age, for its novelty.

About those deals

The Blob is nothing if not forthright, and so let me declare right up front that what I know about NFL free agency you could pack in a thimble with room left over for the family dog.

That said ... a couple of observations here on Sunday's two big potential signings:

* Ndamukong Suh is basically a nose tackle, right?

I mean, yeah, OK, technically he's listed at defensive tackle. But his function -- tie up blockers and be a run-stopper in the middle while collapsing the pocket on passing plays  -- is still the same.

And so I'm wondering about the rhetoric coming out of Miami today, which is that Suh is a game-changer who could turn the Dolphins from a .500 team into a playoff team (or a potential playoff team) all by himself.  I'm wondering how a guy who rarely touches the football, and whose signing with the Fish would basically exhaust the club's free-agency capital, is going to do that.

Look, Suh is a transcendental defensive player. There's no debate about that. And there's no question that he'd make the Dolphins defense substantially more stout.

But the Dolphins also need help at linebacker and defensive back, and they wouldn't be likely to get it now. They could lost Mike Wallace, who, as a wide receiver, impacts a game far more than Suh can. And they also need a tight end.

So ... yes, it's a big deal, if the Dolphins get him. But when I think of a game-changer, I think of a wide receiver or a running back or a quarterback. I don't think of a defensive tackle. And I certainly don't think of a defensive tackle as someone who, no matter how good, is going to turn around a team's fortunes.

But that's just me.

*  Frank Gore proves it really is about the money.

The boiled-down version is this: The Eagles get rid of one running back only to sign another running back who's older and has entered the chronological zone roughly known as Boy Did He Go Downhill Fast.

What's up with that?

Well, here's a clue: It's rectangular and green and has pictures of presidents and founding fathers on it.

The Eagles would save a bundle by sending off LeSean McCoy and signing Gore as his replacement as the team's principal back. Gore, at 31, would sign for about half what McCoy was getting, which frees up money the Eagles can use elsewhere.

And if Gore does suddenly enter the Boy Did He Go Downhill Fast zone ... well, he's a running back. And running backs are swiftly becoming perhaps the NFL's most replaceable parts.

So in a weird sort of way (the only way the Blob rolls, natch), this makes more sense to me than handing the keys to the vault to Ndamukong Suh.

But again: That's just me.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Your culinary update for today

... which begins, just to jog memories, with something some dumb guy said back in November, when the world was young and Kentucky was not 31-0:

  Kentucky is not going to go undefeated. If I'm wrong, print this out, bring it back to me in April and I'll eat it. I won't even use salt and pepper.

True. The dumb guy, I have it on good authority, is planning on using a nice piquant marinara.

I also have it on good authority that the dumb guy is getting really, really nervous about this, because he has friends (most of them bleeding copious amounts of Wildcat blue) who know about this, and they can barely contain their glee at the prospect of the dumb guy dining on gerunds and prepositions. One of them has even offered to mix the dumb guy a special blue martini with which to wash it all down.

This at least makes the dumb guy a little less glum.

Otherwise ... well, it's been a ride through hell in a clown car, these past four months. The Wildcats have mostly dispatched everyone with ease -- their average margin of victory in 31 straight victories is 21.4 points, tops in the nation by three points -- but there have been enough close calls to make the dumb guy think they're just stringing him along.

For instance: The other night in Athens, Ga., the Kats trailed the Bulldogs by nine deep into the second half, only to eventually win by eight. What was that? I mean, if you're gonna go ahead and win by eight, why get behind by nine to begin with? Unless you're simply the kind of sick people who enjoy pulling the wings off flies?

Or, you know, off dumb guys.

At any rate, here we are. The dumb guy can now only hope the Kats, who have nothing whatsoever to play for in the SEC tournament, lose the third meeting with Georgia. Or get knocked off by, say, Arkansas or Florida or someone else trying to improve their NCAA Tournament lot.

"Ah, don't worry," someone said the other day, temptingly. "The SEC's really weak. Once Kentucky gets into the Sweet Sixteen, they'll run into some really good teams."

Thaaaat's right. Tease the dumb guy.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Legacy's tale

Two things happened Friday, 300 miles and a universe apart. And if one had very little to do with the other, they both spoke to what college basketball is and is not in the era of the one-and-done and franchised Madness -- or perhaps what it is and once was.

One thing that happened was a Hall of Fame coach had his legacy destroyed in the time it took the NCAA to say "Have a seat."

Another thing that happened was two old and implacable rivals met to decide the championship of the Ivy League, the last Division I conference whose commercial brand is not all.

Yale beating Harvard in Cambridge was a throwback to a time when actual students played for universities that viewed them as such, and not as mere saleable commodities. No one on either roster is likely playing for some fat NBA deal; they're there to get fat degrees instead, while playing basketball as a pleasant diversion.

It's that distinction that perhaps explains why the Ivy League is the only conference left that doesn't play a postseason tournament, because everyone knows what those tournaments are about: They're  moveable ATMs, a way for cash-strapped athletic departments to squeeze three to four more paydays from their unpaid workforce. John Wooden, no fan of them, told me as much almost 30 years ago.  And it's even more true now than it was then.

The NBA's absurd restraint-of-trade rule (because that's essentially what it is) has turned the college game into even more of a cynical exercise than it already was. Coaches shamelessly milk 18-year-old mercenaries for every dime they can make off them; the mercenaries, meanwhile, just as shamelessly pass themselves off as "students" until they turn 19 and can enter the NBA.

It's a ridiculous state of affairs. And it has demeaned the college game.

Not that the college game hasn't done some demeaning itself.

The money-grubbing has gotten to the point where it taints everything, which brings us to the other thing that happened Friday: The NCAA handing down almost unprecedented punishments to Syracuse, including stripping the program of 12 scholarships and vacating a record 108 victories. In so doing, it reduced coach Jim Boeheim from Hall of Fame icon to just another guy running a dirty program. Whatever he's accomplished in his long career will now be trumped by how he did it.

And if that is his own failing, at least part of it is a product of the culture in which he moves. Most coaches don't set out to willfully break the rules. Mostly they become adept at looking the other way, particularly when the program attains the level of a Syracuse. Sometimes they do so consciously; sometimes it just happens. But it happens because getting to the Madness becomes all-consuming, and it becomes all-consuming because the Madness is where the money is. The more cash a program produces, the more it finds itself compelled to produce.

Except, perhaps, 300  miles away on a Friday night in Cambridge, Mass. Where the very quaintness of it all spoke volumes.

Damning ones.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Loyalty, schmoyalty

You hear it every time some professional athlete making a pile jumps ship in pursuit of a bigger pile: There's no such thing as loyalty anymore.

The presumption being, of course, that once upon a time there was such a thing as loyalty.

But there is not and there never has been, which is why it's a headline now when a player opts to stick with the one who brung him. That it should also be a headline when the one that did the bringing opts to stick by him somehow never occurs -- although it should, because that sort of loyalty has been found wanting for a lot longer.

Free agency, after all, has only around for 40 years or so. Prior to that, it was only management that could either display loyalty or leave it by the side of the road. And it did the latter a lot. If he were still alive, no one could attest to that better than John Unitas, discarded by the Colts after he had essentially made them what they were.

Which is a roundabout way to ponder what happened to Reggie Wayne today, speaking of the Colts.

What happened was, the Colts cut him loose, after 14 seasons. After 211 regular-season games. After 143 wins. After 1,070 receptions.

The 211 games and 143 wins are franchise records. The 1,070 receptions rank second alltime.

But now he's just a spare part who makes too much money, and so the Colts decided to release him. It was all aboveboard and respectful, a business deal in an industry that long since abandoned the fiction that professional football had anything to with the playing of a game. And so everyone understood, and  Colts owner Jim Irsay said all the right things (no one will forget what 87 did for the Colts, blah-blah-blah), and the team even made it sound as if the Colts were doing Reggie a favor by cutting him loose so he could pursue a deal elsewhere.

All aboveboard. All very respectful. And you know what?

It still sucked.

It still reeked to the heavens that a man could give so much to an organization for so long and then, through no fault of his own, find its doors shut against him. This was not the Peyton Manning thing, after all; that was about a player coming off surgery that might or might not have worked, with the next great franchise quarterback waiting in the wings. This was just about a guy who got old.

And, yes, that happens, and, yes, when it does, organizations are going to do what they have to do to keep moving forward. But how badly would it have hurt the Colts moving forward to let Reggie play out the string as a Colt?  Especially when he wasn't at all sure he was coming back for a 15th season, anyway?

Instead, the Colts moved on this before Reggie even told them what his plans were. Maybe they had to. But it still feels like betrayal, not to say ingratitude.

Look. You can't fuel a successful business on sentiment. Everyone knows that.

But without at least a little, what's that business really worth?



O captain, my captain

It's a damn shame about Derek Jeter. He might have made a terrific baseball commissioner had he not met such an untimely end, dying of early onset godhood and all.

Wait. You mean he's not dead?

Sure sounded like a eulogy the other day, when Yankees GM Brian Cashman went on Mike Lupica's radio show and said the Yankees should never name another captain. It was eerily like Joe McCarthy, the Yankees manager back in the day, declaring the club would never have another captain after Lou Gehrig -- who, of course, did die.

So you can understand the confusion.

 Look. Jeter was a great captain and a mythic Yankee in the finest tradition of mythic Yankees, and someday his plaque will join those of all the other mythic Yankees out there in the monuments beyond center field. And it's not like Cashman was breaking with historical precedent; there was no Yankee captain between Don Mattingly and Jeter, and, after McCarthy's pronouncement, there was no Yankee captain until Thurman Munson ascended to the post in 1976. That's a gap of 37 years.

This suggests that someday there will, in fact, be another Yankee captain. And that's as it should be. Because if you retire the post with Jeter, you're essentially saying he was the greatest captain in Yankee history. And I don't know how you do that without it being interpreted, at least partially, as a slap at the likes Gehrig and Munson and Mattingly, among other worthies.

Those are some kind of names above which you'd be elevating Jeter. And maybe some people -- Cashman, for instance -- are prepared to do that.

But that's prisoner-of-the-moment stuff, and the Yankees more than any other franchise are the antithesis of the momentary. Love 'em or hate 'em, their very history demands the long view.

So pump the brakes, Brian Cashman. All those monuments deserve that.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

This blog was written by HAL

Or Skynet, if you prefer.

You think it doesn't live, but it does, and it's coming for you. OK, so not for you. For me. Also for all my sportswriting colleagues, whose quaint notion that what they do is an actual craft has been crushed the way Linda Hamilton crushed Ah-nold in the last scene of the original "Terminator."

We figured sportswriting in its highest form was a skill and maybe even art, and that it was valued by our employers. Silly us.

This after the Associated Press announced it was going to start using Automated Insights, a "language generation" software, to automate its sports coverage, beginning with baseball. In other words, your next Cubs or Tigers recap will, yes, be written by HAL.

“Much like what we did for the AP around earning reports, I think most if not all of sporting events coverage, at least in terms of writing previews of events and recaps, should be automated to some degree,” AP CEO Robbie Allen told the Poynter Institute.

And if you're saying right now, big deal, nobody reads those recaps anyway ... well, that's probably true. I have to say I hardly ever read them, unless I was on the desk and tasked with editing them. And they are pretty formulaic. I supposed HAL could spit out "Jeff Samardzija struck out six and walked two in six-and-a-third" as artfully as any human.

But that presumes this trend will stop with recaps and previews, and it says here it won't. This is, after all, the newspaper business. No one's more adept at pinching pennies until they resemble copper cow flops. If they could use a machine to do it, they would.

CEO Allen admits, with barely disguised glee, that using robo sportswriters is going to save the AP a bundle. And because there's never been a newspaper exec who'd save one bundle if he could save four or five ... well, even the dimmest bulb can guess where this is leading:

Notre Dame Beats Army

By Grantland "M-5" Rice

Notre Dame beat Army on Saturday, 24-3.

Starring for Notre Dame were four seniors known as the Four Horsemen.

(A cultural reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a Judeo-Christian construct used to symbolize Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. Additional background available by pressing Control AB, for "Additional Background").

The game was contested beneath a partly cloudy sky not unusual for October.


The Indianapolis 500 Is Not Conducive To Leisure Time Enjoyment

By Jim "iPod" Murray

(Colloquial phraseology conflating the traditional command to start engines at the Indianapolis 500, i.e., "Gentlemen, start your engines," with the event's notable tendencies toward fatal injury. Example: "Gentlemen, start your coffins").

I can't wait. To say, "To hell with this," that is.

Or, as they put it in an old "Star Trek" episode about a soulless society utterly controlled by a computer ...

I am not of the Body.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A few thoughts on ins ... and outs

And so the long knives come out, as another shot goes clang and Assembly Hall morphs into Assembly Oh, Hell. Iowa pulls away. Indiana fades. Oops, there goes another happy wanderer, striking tin and then spinning away.

And that rumble you hear in the background?

The twittersphere. Blowing up.

It's Iowa 77, Indiana 63, in the Hall, and the twittersphere (or at least a segment of it) is baying for Tom Crean's head again. It is the interwhatsis at its best, channeling instant judgment without the gentling filter of perspective. Fan bases -- particularly the intensely rabid ones, of which Indiana's stands front and center -- have always been fickle. But now fickle has a megaphone.

Here's what you do with that megaphone this morning: Put it down and step away slowly.

Put it down, step away, and come back for a second to November, before the Hoosiers were 19-10, 9-8 in the Big Ten and losers of seven of their last 11 games. Indiana was 0-0 then, and it was given zero chance to finish any higher than ... what was it? Ninth in the Big Ten?

Now, even after losing two straight in the Hall and three of their last four, the Hoosiers are seventh. They're one W away from 20 wins. And they're still what everyone thought they were in November: A team with no size playing in conference where size is paramount.

If someone had given Hoosier Nation 20 wins out of that team then, would it have taken it?

Hell, yes. And it would have thrown a parade for its architect.

Now it still wants to throw him a parade, only instead of Tom Crean on a float, some of the fanatics want Tom Crean strapped to a rail as the parade heads out of town.

Well. Bad news, children. That's not gonna happen.

It's not gonna happen because the last 11 games were preceded by 19 that were all but sublime. Six weeks ago, Crean's sawed-off runts were 15-4 and 5-1 in the Big Ten. They'd just crushed Maryland by 19. They were a contender, and people were saying this was Tom Crean's finest coaching job. People were saying he might be the coach of the year in the Big Ten.

I know. I was one of those people.

So what happened?

The season happened. The Big Ten is a pitiless grind even if you have size, and if you don't -- and if you're leaning hard on a couple of freshmen to boot -- stuff happens. Shots that dropped earlier in the season stop dropping. Legs get heavier. Suddenly a team that shot 60 percent against Maryland is shooting 38 percent against Iowa, and that same team is no longer the lock for the NCAA Tournament it was six week ago.

The straight skinny: Indiana must play its way in now. Because across the last 11 games, it's played its way out.

Crean, however, is in no matter which way it goes. The body of work will save him. The shallow pool of realistic candidates to replace him -- candidates who'd have won more games and accomplished more with this particular group -- will save him. And the virtues of  continuity will save him.

Something to consider: If you dump Crean  now, you're on to your fourth coach in 15 years. You start over yet again. And you likely start over with less of a marquee name than you imagine, because to be brutally honest, Indiana is simply not the job it used to be. You can't just throw open the doors anymore and expect the next Mike Krzyzewski to walk through them.

All of that undoubtedly carries great weight with Indiana athletic director Fred Glass, who has been very public about how much he values continuity and the long view. The last 11 games notwithstanding, Crean has done nothing that would persuade Glass to change his mind about that.  And so he'll be on the bench again next November.

Let the twittersphere howl on.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A punch that never quite lands

You can sum up the current state of boxing in two sentences, now that Manny Pacquaio and Floyd Mayweather are finally scheduled to fight (and I used the word "scheduled" with all deliberate forethought):

The biggest event in the sport in recent memory will happen on May 2. It will pit two welterweights who are past their prime in a fight that would have been one of the great fights in history five years or so ago, but now will mostly just be a valedictory nostalgia trip for all parties involved.

Once upon a time giants collided in the ring, and the world stood still. Now the best boxing can offer  are two guys whose Giant Cards are either about to expire or already have. Pacquaio, once the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the world, is 36 now and hasn't been the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the world for some time. Mayweather is 38 and, while undefeated, isn't what he used to be, either.

Call it the Rumble In The Rest Home -- if, in fact, you get to call it anything at all. Mayweather and Pacquaio have been ducking each other for so long it's only natural to be skeptical that this fight will ever come off. May is two months away, after all. Plenty of time for Mayweather to suffer a hangnail, or for Pacquaio to strain a deltoid reaching for the tapioca.

Then the mission will be scrubbed and they'll postpone it for six months. Or six years. Or six decades.

In any case, if it happens, when it happens, it will not be what it could have been, and once again boxing will have thrown the big left hand and merely grazed some porcelain jaw. It has a positive gift for doing this, if you haven't noticed. Having chosen to take itself out of the sporting mainstream years ago for the quick cash grab that is pay-per-view, it has made itself irrelevant year by year and fight by fight. Now its marquee heavyweight division is a dial tone -- Where are the Alis? The Fraziers? -- and the best it has to offer is a welterweight bout whose dominant meme is regret.

It could have been an Event, to the extent that any pay-per-view property can be an Event. Now it's just an event, small "e".

If there were any force in boxing that truly cared about the welfare of the sport and not just about how to make a fast buck off it, Mayweather-Pacquaio would have happened years ago. They'd have put it live on ESPN in prime time and marketed it as boxing's Super Bowl.  And Round 1 would have started at 9 p.m. Eastern instead of, as so often happens now, somewhere in the shadow of midnight.

It would have been the biggest thing since Ali-Frazier. And for once, boxing would have had a fighting chance to knock the NFL off the lead on SportsCenter.

Instead, Mayweather will likely win -- of the two, Pacquaio's skills have eroded further and more quickly -- and most of the country will be asleep by the time they climb in the ring. Not that they could have watched it live on cable/network TV anyway.

More's the pity.


Monday, March 2, 2015

March. At last.

There's a fresh layer of frosting on the fence rails out back this morning, and the white piles next to the driveway are newly rebuilt. So unless you have the imagination of a child or an artist, the light at the end of winter's tunnel -- warm and bright and impossibly green -- remains invisible.

But it's there now. Calendar done said so.

With the usual lack of flourish it flipped over to March yesterday, and suddenly you could sense the end of all this arctic fastness. You noticed things: How the daylight comes earlier and dawdles into the evening these days, the very angle of the sun evocative of summer's happy glare. Twenty degrees doesn't feel like 20 degrees felt two months ago, under that sun. The ground is still snowbound, the trees still skeletal fingers clawing at the sky, but the other morning I heard birdsong. Spring is out there somewhere.

Mostly I know this because of what I see on TV now.

I turn it on and here are a bunch of loons in blaring stock cars busting around a circle of asphalt on a gloom-thick day in Atlanta.  Wisconsin is hanging on to beat Michigan State on the basketball floor, and a graphic flashes on the screen displaying Michigan State's remaining regular-season schedule. There are only two games left on it.

On Saturday, in the Gates Center, it was Senior Day already. Out at Saint Francis, meanwhile, the men were playing in their conference tournament. And down in Lexington, Ky., the Wildcats were destroying Arkansas to go to 29-0 on the season.

The very number -- 29 -- signified that the Madness is virtually on our doorstep now.

Two weeks from this Thursday, we'll be sitting in a sports bar somewhere celebrating the de facto national holiday that is the first day of the NCAA tournament. I'm remembering now that there have been years when it's been not just sweatshirt weather on that day but shirtsleeve weather. Suddenly 65 degrees no longer seems like something out of myth, but something that might literally be mere days away.

That as much as the tournament itself makes March the best month of the year, if you've lived your life following the sporting seasons. One my friends and former colleagues used to say February was the worst month of the year, but it had the virtue of being followed by the best. He was absolutely right.

So bring it on, March. It's sheer propaganda that you come in like a lion and go out like a lamb, because at least half the time you go out snarling.  And at some point you will crush our hearts in your fists the way only March can, dropping six more inches of snow on us two days after the mercury hits, yes, 65.

But by that time, we'll be filling out our brackets. Picking Gonzaga into the Final Four against our better judgment. Deciding Duke will go down to Bilgewater U. just because we hate Duke, and also because we like Bilgewater U.'s nickname (the Fightin' Bilges). Figuring Kentucky's gonna win but not picking them because, well, only individuals of weak character pick the prohibitive favorite.

So we pick Arkansas instead. And the sun shines, and the birds sing, and the air feels different, somehow ... until Bilgewater wrecks Arkansas in the second round.

Ah, well. It's still March. And April's coming.