Saturday, December 31, 2016

One lousy year

So here goes 2016 exiting stage left, and the temptation is to run after it and put your hands in its back. No year with its cruel resume should be allowed to leave the premises unassisted. There should be a good hard shove in the process somewhere, preferably into the path of a speeding Humvee.

It is not just that 2016 took Prince and Princess Leia and the Star Voyager, John Glenn, from us. That's just in the wider world. In the sports world ...

Well. It's an awful year that takes Muhammad Ali from us, and then Gordie Howe one week later. And then Arnold Palmer. And, closer to home, Eugene Parker and Bob Chase.

In different ways they put a quiet Midwestern city on the map, took it in national in a way perhaps no one else ever has. Parker was the Concordia grad whose work as a player representative, out of an office in tiny Roanoke, changed the very structure of labor relations with the National Football League. And Chase, of course, was the very voice of winter, taking a minor-league hockey team in Fort Wayne, Indiana -- and Fort Wayne, Indiana, itself -- all over North America via WOWO radio.

If not the face, he was the voice of both his sport and his community, an ambassador for both without peer. As was Eugene Parker, whose moral center and the way he applied it to his work made him admired and loved not only by his clients, but even by those with whom he negotiated so toughly.

In their own way, in their own worlds, he and Chase were as much icons as Ali or Gordie or Arnie. 2016 was a hard year for icons because of all of them, and because of Prince and Princess Leia and the Star Voyager and Merle Haggard and all of the many others, too.

And so out you go, 2016. Don't trip and fall in front of that Humvee.

On second thought, please do.

Anatomy of a fall

This is how they happen sometimes, these tumbles from the mountaintop. One moment you are invincible and famous and the baddest man or woman on the planet; the next, you are as vulnerable as everyone around you -- and perhaps more because of that lost aura of invulnerability.

Ronda Rousey's went away with one roundhouse kick to the head from Holly Holm13 months ago,  and it did not magically reappear last night. This time it was reigning champion Amanda Nunes who took Rousey out, battering her into a TKO in just 48 seconds.

The comeback fight was never a fight. It was an execution, and if onlookers were shocked at how helpless Rousey looked, they missed the essential lesson: That an aura of invincibility, once gone, is gone for good. In its place, stripped of the armor that aura provides, is not just another fighter, but no fighter at all.

She looked like someone who didn't want to be in the octagon anymore. Who didn't, in fact, want to be within a thousand miles of it.

In retrospect maybe that shouldn't have been so shocking, given the way Rousey, once the most media-savvy personality in mixed martial arts, shunned the media in the runup to the fight. She skipped all the pre-fight availability, saying she wanted to focus only on the bout. In an odd way, maybe that was a clue that her heart wasn't in this. Why else would she regard a few sitdowns with the media as a distraction otherwise?

She wanted to focus on the fight because she knew, maybe, that there wasn't enough fight in her anymore to waste a second's focus on anything else. It's as good, or as bad, a theory as any.

So that does that mean she's done?

Hard to say. If she can regain the hunger that made her who she was, probably not. If she can't ...

Well. Pretty easy to finish that sentence.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Calling all Peytons

The Indianapolis Colts pack up and go home after whatever happens against Jacksonville this weekend, and we all know what that means. It means that, the next day, head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson will likely be sent packing, too.

That's what everyone says, anyway, and they're probably right, because kumbaya moments like last year's don't have any shelf life when a franchise that four years ago was openly targeting the Super Bowl misses the playoffs for the second year in a row. And so there'll be no replay of Jim Irsay getting Pagano and Grigson together and telling the world that, from now on, everyone will be getting along famously.

Instead, they're likely to be getting on down the road.

Which of course has gotten the rumor mill cranking.

There is, after all, a certain man hanging out in his bathrobe these days, a man selling pizza and Direct TV, a man calling his brother on game days and inviting him over for nachos. That would be Peyton Manning, of course. And, except for commercials highlighting that he's not really doing anything these days, he's not really doing anything these days.

And so everyone's wondering if Irsay might be thinking about bringing him back to Indianapolis in some front-office capacity, perhaps even GM. That would require another kumbaya moment, given that Irsay is the guy who pushed Manning out the door to begin with. But Peyton remains an icon in Indianapolis, and he spent the last few years of his playing career watching John Elway, an icon in Denver, successfully run the Broncos. Presumably he learned something.

So this makes all kinds of sense. With a couple of  caveats.

One is that the impeccable mind Manning brought to the football field every weekend doesn't necessarily translate to the front office. It has in Elway's case, but every case is different. Dissecting defenses, after all, is not the quite the same as dissecting other teams' front offices on draft day.

And the other caveat?

That hiring someone with Manning's credentials and profile might narrow the field of prospective head coaches.

If you put Peyton Manning in charge of the front office, after all, he's not going to be a figurehead. He's going to be in charge of the front office. Which might chase off a few coaching prospects with lofty profiles themselves, because a lot of those are likely to want some control over the front office as well.

That's not going to happen if Manning's there. It didn't even happen with Grigson and Pagano, and neither of them are Peyton Manning.

So maybe you get Manning in the Elway role and some high-profile coordinator with prior head coaching experience. That could work.

And surely worth a shot.

Meanwhile, in those other bowls ...

This is not the time to raise certain questions about the bowl system, like when the Peach Bowl became a major bowl instead of what it's always been, which is one of those bowls that's played on December 28 or thereabouts and features the likes of 6-6 Whatsamatta U. vs. 7-5 Directional Hyphen Tech.

(I mean, OK, the Fiesta Bowl as one of the national semifinal games I get. But how did the Peach Bowl get the other one? The Peach Bowl? When it did it crash the Fiesta-Rose-Sugar-Cotton-Orange nexus?)

Anyway ... this is not the time to ask those questions. Instead, it's the time to ask Razorbacks tight end Jeremy Sprinkle what he was thinking the other day when he did what he did.

Here's what Sprinkle did, see, to get himself kicked out of the Belk Bowl: He shoplifted. From a Belk store.

He shoplifted from a Belk store, even though, as part of his bowl swag, he got a $450 Belk gift card to spend. And not only that, but among the additional $280 worth of items he got nicked for shoplifting was ... a pair of socks.

A pair of socks?

OK, sure, so maybe the kid really likes socks. And maybe they were really nice socks. But come on. Who shoplifts socks?

I guess it was a good thing he got caught when he did. Who knows how many packages of underwear he could have spirited away?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Your surreal moment for today. At least.

So, you think 2016's been like the kind of dream you have when you scarf down a pizza with everything right before going to bed? Like that dream where you wake up the morning of that chem final and realize you haven't gone to class all semester, and then you show up and you're not wearing pants, and suddenly it's not a chem final but an NBA game from the 1980s and you're playing for the Celtics with Bird and McHale, and they're both pointing and laughing and getting mad because Magic Johnson keeps stealing the ball from you.

We've all had that dream, right?

Um ... right?

OK, so maybe not. But, admittedly, 2016 has been plenty surreal, and not just because Prince died and Princess Leia died and John Glenn died, and the Russians and the FBI helped put a raving loon in the White House. Now comes the most surreal moment of all.

An NBA player actually defended the league's refs!

No, really. Kevin Durant actually did that.

And the really surreal part is he's right.

He's right that the NBA's "Last Two Minute Report" is bullpucky, mainly because it's so rampantly hypocritical. As KD points out, players get whacked with chunky fines if they so much as clear their throats about the league's officiating. But it's OK for the league to turn the lens on their officials for the last two minutes of a game and then publicly pick them apart for any misstep they make in those last two minutes?

As KD also points out, what about the rest of the game? What if, for 46 of the 48 minutes, Stripes has called an impeccable game? And then, in the last two minutes, he misses a call? The NBA's selective lens, and its exposure of same, leaves the general public -- which already thinks NBA officiating stinks on ice -- with the impression that NBA officiating stinks even more than it thought.

The thing is, it doesn't. Do NBA refs miss calls? Yes, they do. Do they miss them any more egregiously than officials at the college or small college of high school level? I've never seen any data that supports this. Show me that data, and I'll buy in.

But the NBA isn't doing that. In fact, its approach to officiating is completely bipolar. On the one hand, it defends its game officials and punishes any coach or player who criticizes them. On the other, it puts out for public consumption an analysis of that officiating that does a disservice to those game officials by presenting a distorted and utterly incomplete picture of their work.

As KD said. Surreal or not.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A few brief thoughts on NFL Week 16

And now this week's edition of The NFL In So Many Words, the Blob feature that just goes on and on forever, like the cosmos, like "Law & Order" reruns, like time itself until Time Itself finally says "OK, that's enough. Knock it off and go to bed.":

1. Hey, look! It's the Browns!

2. And they won!

3. No, really. I'm not kidding this time. I'm not.

4. Meanwhile, the Chargers will spend this week reworking the marketing plan that introduces them to Los Angeles by saying, "You know the Browns? We're better than them."

5. Hey, look! It's Tony Romo!

6. Still lookin' good in that ballcap, big guy.

7. Finish this sentence: The Bears were so bad on Christmas Eve that the fans in Soldier Field A) booed lustily; B) booed lustily for Jay Cutler in particular; or C) implored Santa Claus just to go ahead and give the place a miss this year, on account of the Cubs won the World Series so no one really cares about the Bears anymore, anyway.

8. The correct answer is "D", "Fans in Soldier Field? You mean there was more than one?"

9. Finish this sentence: The Texans won the AFC South ...

10. ... because not everyone could lose it. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas and such

It's Christmas Eve now, and time for the Blob to knock off for a couple of days of revelry and assorted other merriment. But because the Blob is a cultured joint, I'll leave you all with a line of prose poetry from Dylan Thomas, whose "A Child's Christmas In Wales" is the Blob's favorite Christmas work:

“All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find ..,”  

May all your Christmases (or holidays in general) roll down toward the two-tongued sea. Joy to all.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

He be trippin'

The great thing about college basketball, as with college football, is its reverence for tradition. All the great programs have them, and all cherish them.

Take Duke, for instance.

They have Coach K. They have Krzyzewskiville. They have the Cameron Crazies. And, of course, they have the snot-nosed entitled little jerk who plays dirty.

The current version is named Grayson Allen, who, in the fine tradition of The Chest Stomper, Christian Laettner, has made his rep as The Tripper. Last night against Elon he stuck out his foot and tripped an opposing player for the third time, and maybe now Coach K will do something about it.

Not that I'm holding my breath.

I'm not holding my breath, because he apparently didn't do anything the first two times, hiding behind the coaching cloak of invisibility known as This Will Be Handled Internally. Yet Allen continues to trip people.

Not that K gives a hoot what all of us think about that.

"I handle things the way I handle them,'' he said last night. "And I think I've handled this correctly, and I will continue to handle it correctly, and I don't need to satisfy what other people think I should do.''

Which is true, of course. He doesn't need to answer to any of us. But he does need to answer to his own standards for Duke basketball, which apparently include tripping opposing players and stepping on their chests when they're lying on the floor. At least that's what his obvious lack of effective discipline in these cases would seem to indicate.

And so, he needs to sit on Allen. Suspend him for a game or two, perhaps. Show the world this isn't what Duke basketball is about. Because right now the evidence is all to the contrary.

Besides ... it's in the kid's best interest. After three of these incidents, everyone Duke plays knows what he's about. And so you've got to believe opponents have figured out a way to protect themselves if Allen tries to pull his little stunt again. And those protective measures probably aren't going to be good for Allen's health.

A busted leg, for instance, would likely make him seriously re-think the whole tripping thing.

Just sayin'.

Update: Duke has suspended Allen indefinitely. So good for Coach K. My doubts proved unwarranted.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Firing 101

OK, class. Today we're going to discuss the right way, and the wrong way, to fire your head coach. Pay attention. Someday Gus Bradley may be your head coach, after all.

Anyway, here's the thumbnail:

1. The right way: Invite Coach to your office, close the door and quietly tell him you appreciate all his hard work, but it's time to make a change. Ask him to gather the team. Show up in person to inform them, then give the players the opportunity to reach out to Coach privately to tell him goodbye.

2. The wrong way: The way Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell did it.

Which was to inform Bradley he was pink-slipped as the players were leaving the locker room after Sunday's 21-20 loss at Houston. Many of those players, consequently, found out about it on social media. Then they looked up, on the plane ride home, and there was Bradley on the same plane.

This produced a few awkward moments, to say the least.

"Yeah, that sucked," defensive end Sen'Derrick Marks said Tuesday. "If I had an opinion on if I thought that was the right move, I don't think that was the right way to do it. He had to ride the plane home back that way, but that ain't my call. They did it. They made the move.

"Gus was very cordial about it. Spoke with everybody. Came through the plane shaking hands and just talking with people. Gus has always been a great person in that aspect, but I don't think we as players were in the mood or were ready to actually see that at that moment."

And, yes, class, I'm sure you all have the same questions Marks and his teammates had. Like, why didn't Caldwell wait until they were back in Jacksonville to tell Bradley he was canned? Why do it immediately after the game -- especially since the Jags' brain trust (to use the term loosely) had already determined before the game they were going to let Bradley go?

They'd waited that long. They couldn't wait a couple more hours, just to spare the poor guy the embarrassment?

You there, in the back.

Yes, I do think this sort of cotton-headed decision on the part of Caldwell speaks to his general level of competence. But, no, I don't know if it will impact his job status.

But God knows it should.   

(Un)bowling for dollars

You know the romance is gone when there is a Motel 6 Cactus Bowl, but no longer a Poulan Weed Eater Independence Bowl. It is bowl season in America again, which means it's time to get revved up for the Dollar General Bowl, and also the Belk Bowl. And don't even try to contain the excitement surrounding the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl.

Which is to say, snarkily, there are too many of these things, surprise, surprise. And none of them matters a tinker's dang to anyone, especially the unpaid mercenaries who are called upon to play them.

And so now comes the news that a couple of the unpaid mercenaries are going to sit out these glorified exhibitions, on account of they have  the future to think of and don't particularly feel like leaving it on the field in the Quick Lane Bowl. Or the Hyundai Sun Bowl, for that matter.

That's where Stanford is going, but star running back Christian McCaffrey isn't going with them. Ditto LSU running back Leonard Fournette, who's giving the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl a miss.

Both of them, after all, are headed to the NFL Draft, and they both have good memories. Who could forget Notre Dame (and former Bishop Luers) star Jaylon Smith blowing out his knee in the Fiesta Bowl 11 months ago, thereby costing himself millions as he went from a likely top-five pick to a late first rounder?

Smith declares now that if he had it all to do over again, he'd still have played in the bowl game. Maybe. But you can't blame McCaffrey and Fournette for seeing him as a cautionary tale.

Ninety-nine percent of these bowls have never been anything but gussied-up exhibition games anyway, after all. With the advent of the College Football Playoff, that's doubly so. So what's the upside to playing in them if you're NFL bound? Especially when you're not getting paid to do so?

The future is now, everyone says, and so, sorry, TaxSlayer Bowl, and also R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. Hardly anyone utters a peep when coaches choose the future over the past and bail on their teams' bowl games to get started on their next job. Why should the players be any different?

And besides, it's not like there's a Poulan Weed Eater Independence Bowl anymore.

Oh, no. Now it's the Camping World Independence Bowl.

Sis-boom-bah, baby.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A few brief thoughts on NFL Week 15

And now this week's edition of The NFL In So Many Words, the Blob feature widely rumored to have collaborated with "a certain rotund individual of merry countenance" to bring "joy and wonder to the children of the worl-- Oh, forget it, no one's going to believe that:"

1.  Hey, look! It's the Colts!

2. Starring in yet another production of "Where's This Team Been All Year?"

3. (Possible answers: Hiding in Andrew Luck's neck beard  ...  Christmas shopping ... Understood Roger Goodell to say "Hey, I've got an idea! Let's make everything until December 18 the preseason! Come on, guys, give it a try!")

4. Hey, look! It's the Chiefs!

5. Losing to the Titans in Arrowhead.

6. (Possible reactions: "Come on, no one believes that" ... "Sure, and next you're gonna tell me Marcus Mariotta won the Heisman Trophy" ... "Oh, and the Cubs won the World Series, yeah, right")

7. In other news, the Browns!

8. Won!

9. Ha. Got ya.

10. Next week's marquee matchup: Denver vs. Denver in Denver. Offense will be shirts; defense, skins.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Renaissance man

So the Indianapolis Colts pillaged, plundered and several other Viking metaphors yesterday, beating the Minnesota Vikings 34-7 up in the great frozen north and making off with all their gold and precious stones and whatever other loot for which Vikings used to pillage and plunder.

This was appropriate, given what else happened over the weekend.

What happened is former Indianapolis mayor Bill Hudnut died, and if the Colts won that means Hudnut went out a winner, too, because he and the Horsies will always be forever tied together. It was Hudnut, after all, who played a major role in bringing the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984, and made Indy a major-league city once and for all. And it was also Hudnut who convinced the Simon brothers to buy the Pacers and keep them in town when it looked as if they are going to bail in the early 1980s.

That was all part of the larger mission, which was to give a nondescript Midwestern city a definable identity. Hudnut turned to sports to do that. On his watch, the Hoosier Dome got built, the Colts came, the city played host to the Final Four for the first time and, in 1987,  the Pan-American Games came to town.   India-No-Place became India-Some-Place.

And remains so to this day. Everything that has happened since is, in some sense, Bill Hudnut's legacy: Lucas Oil Stadium, Banker's Life Fieldhouse, the NCAA moving its headquarters to Indy, the 2012 Super Bowl, the numerous Final Fours that have come to the city since the initial one.

I am thinking now, on the occasion of Hudnut's passing, of one Final Four in particular. It was in the mid-2000s sometime, and the games were done, and we were all sitting around the post-midnight brunch which has become a Final Four tradition on the night of the championship game. I happened to sit down at a table where longtime Boston Globe basketball writer Bob Ryan was holding court.

The subject was the Final Four, and Indianapolis. The consensus was that Indy was a great site for it, because the event is so self-contained and downtown had all the amenities and it was just about logistically perfect.

"I love Indianapolis," Ryan said. "They could hold the Final Four here every year as far as I'm concerned."

Something else to add to Bill Hudnut's legacy.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Cougar nation

This is what he saw that bright winter afternoon, this night and this school and this trophy being raised toward some benevolent southern sky. He saw football, where before there had been none. He saw excellence. He saw a particular way of doing things, a way from which there would be no wavering, a way that would be defined by him right down to the minute hand on the clock.

Every football player at Saint Francis for the last 19 years has learned it: There is Eastern Standard Time, and there is Kevin Donley Standard Time. The top of the hour (or any other part of the hour) arrives five minutes sooner in the latter.

It's safe to say we're all on Donley Time today.

Welcome, everyone, to an NAIA national championship, Donley's second but the first he and his football players will bringing home to Fort Wayne. And if it took four visits to the title game to make it happen, it was exactly what he saw that afternoon in 1998.

We sat across from each other in a restaurant on West Jefferson that day, two old friends from years back. I'd known Kevin since the late 1970s, when he was a young head football coach at Anderson University and I was a young sportswriter for the dearly departed Anderson Daily Bulletin. When it was announced Saint Francis was starting a football program, and it was hiring Kevin Donley to build it from the dirt up, I knew what Fort Wayne was getting. You're gonna love this guy, I said. And that football program he's coming to build is going to turn into something.

I wasn't half as smart as I thought I was. Because even though I knew Kevin, and I knew what kind of football coach and what kind of man he was, I never saw coming what was coming.

I never saw that by the second year Donley would produce an 8-2 football team that would win its conference. I never saw that by his seventh season Saint Francis would come within 10 seconds of a national championship. I never saw it would become the winningest program in Indiana for awhile, and that one year the Cougars would go down to Indiana State and lather an NCAA FCS school 42-10, and that there would be 188 victories against only 44 defeats in 19 seasons.

The last and most important victory, of course, being that 38-17 ball-peening of Baker in the national title game last night.

Donley might have seen it that day in the restaurant, but surely no one else did. He had his vision -- he would do this the right way, he said, and his kids would go to class, and there would be pride and commitment and an awareness of what they represented -- but he had no players and no facilities as yet.

That would all come. Eventually.

That August, I pitched a story on what building a program from the ground up looked like from the inside, and Kevin graciously accommodated me. I had access to their practices, their team meetings, everything. This was ground zero: The team practiced on what is now a parking lot, and the newly-laid turf on the new game-day football field tended to turn into lasagna when it rained.

The players, meanwhile, ran the gamut. One of Donley's quarterbacks was 36 years old and commuted everyday from Angola in his beater ride. The other two were a kid from South Side (Antoine Taylor) and a cannon-armed kid from Hamilton Southeastern (Jeremy Hibbeln). The star wide receiver, Jeremy Dutcher, was a 24-year-old sophomore from Grand Rapids.

Donley spent most of that camp pacing back and forth, muttering "Faster ... faster ..." as the Cougars ran plays. Finally, it was time to board the buses and head off to Chicago to play St. Xavier.

That Friday afternoon, Donley gathered his new team around him on the Cougars' game field and laid out his expectations. This was a business trip, he said softly. This was about football and nothing but football. There would be total focus on the job at hand.

"Any questions?" he asked.

Up popped a hand.

"Coach, can we take our bathing suits?" someone asked.

Donley just shook his head.

Of course, the next day, the Cougars won the first game in the program's history, whipping St. Xavier 56-28.

Winners then. Winners now.

Friday, December 16, 2016

To Dak or not to Dak

Everybody loves quarterback controversies, especially when they happen to someone else. And especially -- especially -- when they happen to the Dallas Cowboys, because Jerry Jones owns the Cowboys, and no one can turn nothing into something like Jerry Jones.

This is partly because he's Jerry Jones. And, yes, it's partly because he owns the Cowboys, still one of the NFL's dominant brands despite two decades of playoff silence or the next thing to it.

And so it's positively delicious (at least if you're not a Cowboys fan) to watch from afar as the debate over whether or not veteran Tony Romo should replace rookie Dak Prescott before it's too late heats up. After all, the Cowboys have lost two whole games this year with Prescott at QB. How could possibly the rook after that sort of underwhelming performance?

I am, of course, being facetious -- and not a little sarcastic, which is even more fun. To be honest, watching from afar, this does not seem like much of a debate to me. Unless the kid completely blows up in the next two weeks, you stick with him.

Yes, he's had two spotty performances in a row. And, yes, if you count the 17-15 win over Minnesota the week before, the Pokes have scored only 24 points in their last two games.

On the other hand, he was going up against what are right now two of the best defenses in the NFL. And he won 11 games in a row as the quarterback of the Cowboys between the two losses to the Giants -- a performance that has him in the running for league MVP. Do you really yank him now for a 36-year-old who's had two back surgeries and a broken collarbone in the last three years?

That is, after all, what you're getting with Romo. You're getting a busted-up guy with some mileage on him who hasn't played in a regular-season football game in a year. You're getting a fragile piece of work who, if he gets hit right again, is going to be lost to you anyway.

Here's the thing: The people arguing for Romo aren't talking about the 2016 Romo. They're talking about the 2012-13 Romo. Sure, that Romo could win you a Super Bowl with the team the Cowboys have put together. But this Romo?

This Romo's not that Romo. This Romo's got a lot of Bondo holding him together at the moment. This Romo's got a bad back and a ton of miles on him. And, again, he hasn't played in a year.

Unless Prescott completely goes to pieces, you're gonna bench him for that?

But what about last week, you say? What about the 17-of-37, 165-yard, two-interception day Prescott had against the Giants?

Well, a couple of weeks ago, another quarterback in the league had a day like that, only worse. He threw three interceptions in a loss to the Lions. Last week he threw three more in a loss to the Buccaneers. His team scored 24 points in those two games, same as Prescott his last two games.

Yet the last I heard, no one was talking about benching Drew Brees. Maybe that's because he's also thrown for 30 touchdowns and 4,170 yards so far this year.

Now, granted, Dak Prescott is not Drew Brees. But he's not 2016 Romo, either.

And so, for now, anyway, the Blob says you dance who brung ya. And Dak brung ya.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Exit ramp ahead

No, no, no, Horsey Nation. You've got it all backward about your Indianapolis Colts.

Luck is not about to run out for head Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson, barely a year after Jim Irsay gathered them around, sang "Kumbaya" and gave them both chunky contract extensions. Luck is about the only thing that hasn't run out on them.

That would be Andrew Luck, of course, aka the toughest nerd you'll ever see. Seems he got whacked around (again!) Sunday by the Houston Texans, and yet he vows to play on. The Texans hit him 13 times, leaving him with (as former IU coach Bill Mallory used to put it), a boogered-up shoulder and elbow on his throwing arm. Yet he swears he'll answer the bell up in Minnesota in three days, where the Vikings will no doubt rough him up again.

The slide rule boys at ESPN Stats & Information tell us Luck has been hit 456 times since entering the NFL in 2012, which means he's a very old 27. Over the years he's lacerated a kidney, been concussed and had various other body parts knocked out of round. He's also played behind 32 different offensive line combinations, which brings us back to Pagano and Grigson.

The football team they patched up their differences to put on the field this year stands at 6-7 now, and is in dire peril of missing the playoffs for the second year in a row for the first time in almost two decades. This despite playing in the AFC South, a division so pathetic you could win it with two boxtops from your favorite General Mills cereal. And this despite the contention of some that the Colts should actually be much better than 6-7 for that very reason.

The bad news here is the contention of some is dead wrong.

The Colts, frankly, are exactly what their record says they are. They are not a 6-7 football team with 9-4 talent, or even 8-5 talent. They are a 6-7 football team with 6-7 talent.

They have Luck and they have Frank Gore and they have T.Y. Hilton, and outside of that the cupboard is dust and cobwebs. Their offensive line still can't block a summer breeze. With the possible exception of Vontae Davis when he's healthy, they have no playmakers on defense. Draft-day busts litter the landscape like, well, litter.

This state of affairs is clearly on Grigson, and it's just as clearly not going to get better until he's gone. A man can only blow so many draft picks before you stop believing that this time -- this time, by God -- he'll get right. He's not going to get it right. And so he needs to get gone.

Ditto Pagano. There isn't a human worth the name who doesn't admire the man personally, but he's just not the guy who can turn 6-7 talent into a 9-4 football team. Some coaches can. Some coaches have. But Pagano, saying the same things in the same situations every week, has clearly run out of ideas. And his playcalling has a bad habit of drifting toward the bizarre -- such as that moment last week when Pagano, needing to convert on fourth down to keep a possible game-winning drive alive, dialed up a screen pass to backup running back Robert Turbin.

The first thing wrong with that is it was a screen pass. The second thing wrong was it was to Robert Turbin, the face on the milk carton who passes for depth at running back for the Colts these days.

Pagano tried to correct all this by blowing up his coaching staff last year. But now it has to have become clear even to Irsay that wasn't nearly drastic enough a fix.

Rearranging the deck chairs isn't going to save this Titanic, in other words. It's time to plug the damn hole.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Caveat emptor

In other words, "Let the buyer beware."

Which is all the Blob really has to say about the fact that Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue has announced that, not only will LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love be sitting out tonight's game in Memphis, they won't even be making the trip. Which of course will prompt the usual stuff about how it's not fair to the fans who shell out major bucks for tickets to see LeBron 'n' them play, and blah-blah-blah.

Two points about that:

1. Caveat emptor.

2. Which means, by now everyone knows that LeBron (and Kyrie, and Love) occasionally sit out games. This is common knowledge. The Cavaliers don't try to hide it. So if you're thinking of buying tickets to an NBA game, and it's the Cavaliers coming in, you try to get as much information as you can as early as you can, and you weigh your options accordingly.

Pretty simple, right?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Aaaand so it begins.

You may activate the rumor mill ... now.

You know that guy at Michigan? That Jim Harbaugh guy?

He hasn't been there two years, and already two things have happened. Both of them, needless to say, are completely predictable.

1. He's turned Michigan into Michigan again.

2. He's become the subject of coaching rumors, now that the Rams job has come open.

Stan Kroenke doesn't have much of a team but he does have lots of money to throw around, and he does have the West Coast to sell. Both are major incentives -- particularly, where Harbaugh is concerned, the West Coast part, given that he spent so much time there at Stanford and, in the NFL, with the 49ers.

And, OK, sure, he's a Michigan guy. And, yeah, he's barely started his work there. But this is what you're always going to get with him, because he's not a long-term kind of guy, and he had enough success in the NFL to make him an attractive option for, say, guys like Stan Kroenke.

As the Blob predicted on December 30, 2014, the day after he was hired:

It says here the Harbaugh Era in Ann Arbor lasts no more than five seasons, and then it'll be back to the NFL. The only reason he's in Ann Arbor now, frankly, is because Michigan's going to pay him $5 million a year to be there, and all of the NFL jobs currently available (Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, the Jets) are dead ends.

So home he comes, for the time being. But never forget that he's a Super Bowl coach who didn't quite get it done in the ultimate football game America produces. That's a powerful incentive to go back and finish the job. Sooner or later -- probably sooner, if he gets Michigan back to being Michigan in the next three or four years -- the right NFL team is going to come after him. When it does, he'll be gone, if for no other reason than that's what his entire job history suggests.

So Michigan, love him while you've got him. But don't get too attached.

True then. Truer now.

Goodbye to all that

So, remember last August, when Notre Dame football coach  Brian Kelly had two seasoned quarterbacks to choose from and the season that lay ahead held such shining promise?

Seems like only yesterday, right?

OK, so it doesn't. Actually, it seems like eons ago, like so long ago Knute Rockne was still playing end for the Fighting Irish and World War I hadn't even kicked off yet, and the big game every year was still Army.

Between August and now, after all, some stuff happened, very little of it good. The Irish won all of four football games, losing to basketball schools (Duke) and Hokies (Virginia Tech) and even hurricanes (North Carolina State). Boos were heard in Notre Dame Stadium as leads evaporated and crisp autumn afternoons gave way to crisper autumn evenings. Kelly fired his defensive coordinator and, as is his habit, allowed the wheels of the bus to go 'round and 'round over various other scapegoats.

And the quarterbacks?

One, Malik Zaire, announced he was leaving Notre Dame for presumably greener pastures.

Ditto the other quarterback, DeShone Kizer, who announced he was declaring for the NFL Draft even if a lot of the standard draft gurus think he'd be better off staying for one more year.

That Kizer is fleeing South Bend anyway speaks volumes about the state of things there right now, which could be charitably described as unsettled. The Domers are unhappy with where the program is, and where they perceive it to be headed under Kelly. If he will survive the 4-8 disaster that was 2016, it can hardly be counted as much of a victory. The ice beneath his feet is still wafer thin, which suggests further turmoil ahead.

You get a sense that one more arrest of one of his players, on top of all the other arrests of his players that have happened on his watch, might be enough to topple him. At the very least, there's an uncertainty around the program now that convinced both his seasoned quarterbacks it was time to leave.

Kizer in particular is a telling case. He's got some nice numbers, accrued almost entirely over the last 23 games, all of which he's started: 5,809 yards passing, 47 touchdowns, 992 rushing yards and 18 more scores. That's 65 touchdowns he's been responsible for in just 23 games.

He also has the kind of prototypical size (6-4, 230 pounds) NFL teams seem to favor. What he doesn't have is the sort of sample size NFL teams seem to favor -- although one team in particular has reportedly done some extensive scouting work on Kizer.

That team is the Cleveland Browns.

Who, as of Sunday, are 0-13 and undisputedly the worst franchise in professional football.

 Yet DeShone Kizer, apparently, would choose the Brownies over Notre Dame right now.

Now there's a ringing endorsement for you. Not.

A few brief thoughts on NFL Week 14

And now this week's edition of The NFL In So Many Words, the seasonally festive Blob feature talk radio in Los Angeles has declared "not as stupid as Stan Kroenke" and "not something we would terminate in a short week with three games left in the season, like that stupid Stan Kroenke did with Jeff Fisher":

1. Speaking of Jeff Fisher, the Department of Nickname Re-Assignment has declared that "7-and-9" is now available again.

2. Also, Fisher's new nickname is "Offering Mediocrity At A New Low, Low Price, Just In Time For the Holidays."

3. Also, Los Angeles, because it's Los Angeles, has been assigned two nicknames: "Suck-errrrs!" and "What Did You Think You Were Getting? An Actual NFL Team?"

4. In other news, the Browns!

5. Are still the Browns, i.e., Stan Kroenke's fallback position when people in L.A. ask him when he's going to bring an actual NFL team to the city, instead of, you know, the Rams. "Hey, at least we're not the Browns!" Kroenke is fond of saying.

6. Hey, look, it's the Packers!

7. Beating the child-proof stuffing out of a team vaguely resembling the Seahawks!

8. This just in: Tom Brady is a cyborg.

9. This also just in: And the Colts are not.

 10. But at least they're not the Browns.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The stupidest thing you'll hear today

No, not Bengals defensive back/nitwit Pacman Jones repeatedly calling Terrelle Pryor of the Browns "garbage." Really, Pac, isn't just playing for the Browns punishment enough? You gotta pile on the poor guy?

Then again, three other nitwits in the state of Washington would likely use rampant trashing of players by other players as evidence that, yes, football stadiums truly are lawless places, which is why people should be allowed to pack heat there.

The three nitwits who came up with this harebrained idea are, sadly, three Washington state reps. All jacked up on testosterone and Trump triumphalism, presumably, they've introduced a bill that would make it illegal for even privately run entities like football stadiums (or any other sporting venue) to bar people with concealed carry permits from exercising their God-given right to carry their shootin' irons into, say, a Seahawks game.

This is just a wonderful idea, given the level of drunken mayhem that's already rampant in NFL stadiums. You know, like here, for instance.

The three nitwits, of course, argue that allowing some of the drunks to carry firearms would lessen this sort of mayhem, not escalate it.  How this makes sense to anyone with a working brain cell is   far beyond the Blob's ability to decipher -- other than to note that, since a good chunk of the country seems to have lost its collective mind these days, perhaps we should become used to this sort of diseased thinking.

On the other hand, crazy face-painting drunks (or worse, self-appointed guardians of order) waving their Glocks around would at least ensure ISIS wouldn't dare try to infiltrate Seahawks games. Yeeaaahhh.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Knight(s) time

They played a football game yesterday in Baltimore that was what college football used to be before bowls and bloated TV contracts, before every major power became a corporate brand and paying the help became an issue only because everyone else was getting paid, and significantly.

Which is to say, I watched the Army-Navy game yesterday.

It's become a regular thing with me the way tuning into the Ivy League game of the week on some long-forgotten cable channel used to be years back: Because it reminded me what collegiate athletics are supposed to be about. Actual students play in those games; in the Army-Navy game, they are actual future generals and admirals. In other words, the Browns' first-round draft pick this April wasn't out there.

The men who were out there laid it all on the line the way, in a more serious fashion, they will soon be laying it on the line for their country. In a venture that has become almost solely mercenary in the places Alabama and Ohio State play football, I find that refreshing. I also find it the very embodiment of the sort of tradition that has always made college football miles better than the Sunday version.

And then again ...  there is the also the fact that one of Army's players yesterday had the single most awesome athletic name ever.

He's a wide receiver. And his name, I pull your leg not, is Edgar Allan Poe.

It was a good day for Edgar Allan Poe, as it turned out. Army jumped off to a 14-0 lead and hung on to beat Navy 21-17. It was the first time the Black Knights of the Hudson (maybe the greatest nickname in college football, too) had beaten their archrivals in 14 years. The Corps of Cadets stormed the field, and corps and football team celebrated together as the light bled out of the short December day.

Night fell. The Knights, however, this time, did not.

Friday, December 9, 2016


And now a timeout here at the Blob, because it's my Blob, and my rules, which means I have an unlimited number of timeouts and can call them anytime I choose.

In other words, I'm setting aside the games for today.

I'm setting them aside because John Glenn has passed, and John Glenn was a hero of the sort you hardly ever see anymore in these fractured United States. There is bias in that statement, surely. It's the bias of a certain scrawny child with big glasses who grew up a total space program fanboy. It's the bias of a boy who, on command, could rattle off the names of all the Mercury astronauts by the time he was 7 years old -- and who can still do it.

(Glenn, Alan  Shepard, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper. Don't mess with me, pikers)

Anyway,  55 years ago this coming February, John Glenn climbed into a tin can and strapped himself onto a bomb, and off he went into the heavens and immortality. It was 1962, and the temperature of the Cold War was somewhere below zero. The Russians had already sent up Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov. So Glenn was not only strapping himself to a bomb for the sake of science, he was doing it for America itself.

Three orbits later he came down, and by then the tin can was pretty much a rudderless hulk. Every onboard system gradually failed as Glenn whirled above the Earth, glibly noting "Zero G and I feel fine," the quote that would stick with him for the rest of his life. In the end, even the straps holding the maybe-loose-maybe-not heat shield in place burned up as he re-entered the atmosphere.

But the shield itself held, and so did Glenn.

It is impossible now, all these years later, to understate just how brave and foolhardy it all was. Neither Glenn nor any of his fellow Mercury astronauts would ever admit as much, because they were all test pilots, and there was a code among them: Thou Shalt Maintain An Even Strain. Which, as Tom Wolfe explained it in "The Right Stuff," essentially meant you never let 'em see you sweat, right up to the moment you fell out of the sky.

But, lord, these boys were fearless (and probably crazy, too, because it amounts to the same thing). Glenn's capsule, Friendship 7, hangs in the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian now, and it's astounding how tiny it is, how primitive. It's damn near prehistoric, it's so primitive. And so fragile-looking you wonder it didn't simply shake itself to pieces when the Atlas rocket that lifted Glenn into orbit ignited beneath his back.

It was a tiny pimple of metal with a tiny blood-pumping human inside it, and when the Atlas gushed its smoke and flame it hurled both into what was still mostly a black void. There was so much we didn't know about space then, after all. We were as ignorant and as innocent as children. And yet John Glenn -- and Shepherd, and Grissom, and Schirra, and Carpenter, and Cooper -- strapped themselves onto the bomb and went up there anyway.

Now John Glenn is up there forever. Godspeed, indeed.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


OK, here's my theory (this week, anyway):

Theo Epstein is a master hypnotist.

He pulls out a shiny pocket watch, waves it back and forth in front of all those other dopey baseball execs, and they begin clucking like chickens.

OK. So they don't.

Actually, they bark like dogs.

OK. So they don't do that, either.

What they do (actually) is give Theo what he wants.

Oh, you want Wade Davis, the best reliever in baseball over the last three seasons? And all you give up is Jorge Soler, whom you don't even really need?

Yes, Theo. Right away, Theo.

OK, so it probably didn't go down like that. But, boy, did it go down. Davis goes from the Royals to the Cubs; Soler goes from the Cubs to the Royals. Done.

What the Royals get is a promising young outfielder who nonetheless played in only about half the Cubs' games last year (86), batting .238 with 12 home runs and 31 RBI. What the Cubs get is a closer who has a 1.18 ERA and has given up just three home runs over the past three seasons, and whose career ERA of 1.51, according to the metrics geeks at ESPN Stats & Information, is the lowest ever among pitchers with at least 250 career innings in relief.

So, you know, that's fair.

Of course, that isn't all. The Cubs needed a closer because Aroldis Chapman wanted way too much for his services. So Theo let him go to the Yankees, who are now left holding the bag for a 5-year, $86-million deal most seasoned observers think will never pay off.

And now, in the back of your mind, you know what you're seeing.

You're seeing a room. You're seeing Theo. You're seeing a chair, and Yankees GM Brian Cashman sitting in it, and ... a shiny pocket watch.

Brian ... you're getting verrrry sleepy, Brian ...

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Larry. Legend.

Larry Bird turns 60 today, and here's another of those "God, have I really been alive this long?" moments. Why, it seems like yesterday we were standing outside the Indiana State locker room, begging former coach Bob King to let us talk to him.

Bob King would not. He had a policy, that year Bird was a sophomore, not to have his star disturbed by clamoring media hordes. In retrospect, it was simply King trying to protect a  painfully shy young man from coming off as, well, a painfully shy young man -- or worse, a rube. But at the time, it just made us all grumpy, and a trifle pathetic.

"Please?" I remember one reporter whining.

Suffice to say it was not me. Not exactly a landmark moment in professional media behavior, though.

In any case, the painfully shy young man is 60 now, and much has happened since then. Bob King fell ill. Bill Hodges took over as coach. And Larry Bird became a phenomenon, a sensation, as Indiana State went undefeated, reached the NCAA championship game and lost to Michigan State and its own phenom, Magic Johnson.

That game, and what happened later, tied the two men together forever. It's probably not too much to say that no two men ever breathed who were as important to their sport as Bird and Magic were to basketball.

Essentially, they saved the NBA, which was fast devolving into a niche sport as the 1970s came to a close. Bird and Magic, and in particular their battles against one another, made the NBA appointment viewing again. It was a glorious revival of the NBA's most celebrated rivalry, Lakers vs. Celtics for a new generation.

Bird's role in this, it must be said, was far more complicated than Magic's. He was a white star in a predominantly black sport in a nation whose laws and power structure historically favored whites. And he was always seen through that prism -- even though he actively, and admirably, disdained it.

In truth, he turned every racial stereotype on its head. He was the white kid from the white-bread little town in southern Indiana -- the self-described "hick from French Lick" -- who proved to be far more comfortable in a racially diverse cosmopolitan setting than most. His game melded the prototypical deadly Hoosier jumpshot with the instinctual flair and swagger of a New York City playground. And in an era when whites considered talking smack to be disagreeable (i.e.: a blacks-only thing), no one in the NBA was better at it than Bird.

He was the best three-point shooter, the most intricate passer, the most astute judge of angle and physics of his time. Along with Magic, he made sharing the ball as elegant as scoring points; 30 years along, the best player of his generation, LeBron James, is an advanced version of both Bird and Magic in his ability to see the floor and distribute the basketball.

Bird, meanwhile, is an executive now, the president of the Pacers. And he has no problem speaking  out when he needs to. But in some ways, he's still the shy kid Bob King tried to protect that long-ago winter.

A couple of years ago, for instance, I found myself in Indianapolis, working on a magazine profile of the Pacers then-coach, Frank Vogel. I talked to Vogel. I talked to a couple of players. But Bird, I was told, would not be talking, even though he was draped over a courtside chair not far away.

It was that night with Bob King all over again -- except this time, for reasons I never divined, Bird changed his mind. He ambled over, shook my hand and amiably answered every question I had.

I didn't even have to whine.

Today's completely partisan moment

Which is to say, it's time to talk about my Pittsburgh Pirates again, and why they are perfect dopes.

All indications are they're shopping the face of their franchise, Andrew McCutchen, the way used car salesmen shop that 2010 Toyota Corolla that's (really, folks) in MINT CONDITION. Word is the Nationals are hot after Cutch, now that they've missed out on Chris Sale.

(About that: The Red Sox are officially the Yankees now. They get everybody. They get so many everybodies, they even get everybodies they don't even need. I mean, what's a team that's already absurdly pitching rich need with Chris Sale?)

Anyway ... back to Cutch.

I honestly don't know what the Pirates are thinking here -- but then, I hardly ever do. Yes, they need pitching, and, yes, the Nats have pitchers just sort of lying around, like Legos in your kid's playroom. Some of them are good. Some of them are OK. None of them are good enough, in my estimation, to give up McCutchen for.

For one thing, he's only 30. And he's still one of the best position players in baseball, even though he had a strangely down season last year. Are the Pirates betting that because of that one season he's done? And if he's not, why are they trading him after an awful (for him) year instead of after a great year, when he'd command far more value?

As a Pirates fan, I can see him going to the Nationals, regaining his form and helping lead the Nats to the World Series. In fact, as a Pirates fan, I think this is precisely what would happen. And meanwhile, whatever pitcher(s) the Pirates got in return would turn out to be rag-armed flops. Because, you know, the Pirates.

Anyway, I don't get it. Two years ago, the Bucs won 98 games and seemed poised for greatness. Now, after one season when nothing went right, they seem ready to bail again and go back into rebuild mode. The last time they did this, it was Barry Bonds they traded. And rebuild mode lasted 20 years.

Please. Not again.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A few brief thoughts on NFL Week 13

And now this week's edition of The NFL In So Many Words, the Blob feature now required by the Blob dress code to wear a tie, a departure from the previous Blob dress code, which required only pants:

1. Speaking of ties ... Cam Newton!

2. Could have at least worn something besides a turtleneck if he was going to defy Carolina head coach Ron Rivera's dress code.

3.  I mean, seriously. A turtleneck? Nobody wears turtlenecks, Cam. Not unless compelled to by either the law, or the Law of Mom, which dictates that you must wear whatever goofy thing your goofy aunt made for you, at least in her presence.

4. As demonstrated here.

5. In other news, the Browns!

6. Are still Browns-ing!

7. And the Jets are still Jets-ing!

8. You know, the Lions might actually be a force in the pla--

9. (Transmission cut off by Lions fans everywhere who don't want anyone jinxing this.)

10. Although they did make Drew Brees look like Nancy Drew on Sun--

Signature hire

Yes, yes, yes, all you long-suffering Purdue football fans. You coulda had Les Miles. And you've never heard of this Jeff Brohm guy.

Two names, Boilermaker Nation: Fred Akers and Joe Tiller.

Fred Akers was Les Miles 1.0, the name coach from a big school (Texas) who came to Purdue and realized Purdue wasn't Texas -- which is to say, he failed spectacularly. Lasted four years, went 12-31-1, went 9-23 in the Big Ten. A bad fit in much the way Miles would have been, with his prehistoric smash-mouth offense coming to us live from the 1970s.

And Tiller?

No Purdue fan had heard of Tiller, either, until he came out of Wyoming and commenced winning with a spread offense uniquely suited to Purdue's football culture. Quarterback U. plus an offense that threw it all over the lot was a dream match, culminating in Purdue's first trip to the Rose Bowl in 35 years.

Brohm may not be that, exactly. As with failed predecessor Darrell Hazell, the sample size is impressive but small: Three seasons at Western Kentucky, a 30-10 record (including 10-3 this season), two conference titles and three bowl appearances. Because he was only there three seasons, it remains an open question whether he can win with his own recruits as opposed to players from the previous regime headed by Bobby Petrino.

But if certain programs have certain signatures, Brohm at least would seem to fit Purdue's. This season, Western Kentucky averaged 45.1 points, 336.8 passing yards and 517.4 total yards. Those numbers rank second, fifth and seventh nationally, respectively.

So offense is Brohm's thing, as it was with Tiller. And he's a former quarterback, which will hardly make him an outlier at Quarterback U. Hard to imagine anyone fitting the Purdue signature more hand-in-glove.

Whether he can sell that signature to the kind of talent that can take it national again, of course, remains to be seen. But it always does with a new coach.

And so the skeptics, who've already acquired the Twitter domain @fireJeffBrohm, will have their say for the moment.

Until circumstances either bear them out, or don't.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Hey, look, it's that one team

... oh, what's its name, give me a sec, it'll come to me.


Yeah. Those guys.

Wooden. Alcindor. Walton. Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe. That UCLA.

It's been missing for a bit, and its fan base, as insufferable as any in the land, wasn't happy about it, even flew planes over campus last spring imploring the school to fire head coach Steve Alford. Even Alford got in on the act, writing a letter of apology to the fans for the Bruins' sub-.500 record last year.

Then he went back to work, recruiting a bunch of killer freshmen, freshmen he wasn't afraid to put out on the floor right from the jump. And Saturday afternoon, he turned them loose on No. 1 Kentucky, in Rupp Arena, where Kentucky loses about as often as Steve Alford hears a kindly word in Westwood these days.

The result: UCLA 97, Kentucky 92.

It was by far the harried Alford's most significant win at UCLA, and it vaulted the Bruins to 9-0, their best start in a decade. Alford arrived there to a distinct lack of enthusiasm -- even the Blob doubted the hire -- and, until last year, did just enough to keep the UCLA fans at bay. But at the risk of claiming what's been claimed too often, this is a different UCLA team. This is a UCLA team that just strapped 97 points on college basketball royalty, strapped 97 points on and physically dominated a team that hadn't lost on its home floor in 42 games.

This was not Steve Alford's UCLA we were looking at, or it least it seemed that way. This was your father's UCLA, or perhaps your grandfather's.

Yes, the Bruins are young, and, yes, Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf are still freshmen, so, yes, they are going to have their non-senior moments. But for the first time in awhile, this was a UCLA team that looked as if it could play with anyone. This was a UCLA team that looked as if we could actually be talking about it again in March.

Which of course means the UCLA fan base is going to expect nothing less than a net-cutting on the first Monday in April.

And Alford thought last year was tough.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Eyeing the prize

OK, so now it gets interesting.

(Which doesn't mean it wasn't before)

(It's just that now it gets really, really interesting)

"It," in this case, being the answer to the question "Who makes the College Football Playoff?", because it's now become more about the "eye test" than where you actually wind up. It's no longer about such banalities as won-loss records and circumstance. It's a beauty contest.

As in, "Yeah, we know Ohio State isn't even playing in the Big Ten title game. And, yeah, we know they lost to Penn State, which is playing in it and could possibly win it. So what? Everyone knows the Buckeyes are REALLY the best team in the Big Ten, because, you know, eye test."

As in, "Yeah, we know Washington blitzed Colorado 41-10 in the PAC-12 title game, and that probably means they stay in the CFP at No. 4. But, dang, we'd really, REALLY like to stick Michigan in there, even though the Wolverines have lost twice. So what? Everyone knows they're better than Washington. Eye test, baby."

As it turns out, Washington probably did clear the fog in this deal by wiping out Colorado, even if (to use the CFP's criteria) everyone knows the committee probably would prefer Michigan, or even Penn State or Wisconsin depending on who wins the Big Ten. But in Michigan's case in particular, even the CFP voters probably can't figure out a way to eye-test into the mix a two-loss team that didn't make its conference title game.

Best thing now would be for Wisconsin to take out Penn State today, but you know, narrowly, so no Badgers drumbeat rises up. That would be the best-case scenario for the CFP, which has descended into true weirdness this fall with this whole eye test thing.

Not that the Blob has anything against weirdness, mind you.

Weirdness, after all, is part of what makes college football marvelous, and far superior, esthetically, to those people who play on Sunday. And this is above-and-beyond-the-call weirdness. It's as if the Cubs won the NL Central but got bumped out of the playoffs in favor of the second-place Cardinals because the National League office decided the Cardinals just looked like the better team. It's as if the Lions, who are leading the NFC North, would wind up winning the division only to have Roger Goodell decide to put the 5-6 Packers in the playoffs instead.

"Well, they're just better than the Lions. Everyone knows that," Goodell's imaginary rationale might go. "I know they got off to a rocky start, but they're playing better now, and besides, they've got Aaron Rodgers. Lots more people want to see him in the playoffs than Matthew Stafford."

In any case, the weirdness means we'll all debate this now, which is as it should be. Debating who should be where in the polls, after all, is a long-standing college football tradition. So is this institution or that thinking it got royally hosed when it doesn't make the cut.

And so, if Penn State wins tonight and doesn't get in, let the caterwauling from (Un)Happy Valley commence. And if Wisconsin wins and doesn't get in, ditto the caterwauling from Madison. And if the whole business goes completely haywire  and Washington gets booted for Penn State, Wisconsin or even Michigan ...

Shoot. They'll knock down the Space Needle and storm the ramparts with it.

And who wouldn't want to see that?

Friday, December 2, 2016

(Old) school's out

"Philosophical differences." Now there's a euphemism for you.

"Philosophical differences" are what Indiana athletic director Fred Glass threw out there as the defining reason for IU football coach Kevin Wilson's forced resignation yesterday, five days after Wilson's Hoosiers beat Purdue for the fourth straight time (something that hadn't happened since the 1940s) and qualified to play in the bowl game for the second straight year.

In other words, the Hoosiers were tracking upward under Wilson, or at least as upward as IU football reasonably can be expected to track. And then, suddenly, he was gone, in a bizarre news conference in which defensive coordinator Tom Allen was immediately elevated to head coach and Wilson was unceremoniously shown the door for reasons Glass wouldn't fully articulate.

The unspoken but apparent reason, however, was that Wilson's treatment of his players had gotten crosswise with Glass's expectations, and not for the first time. Indiana attorneys and athletic officials met with at least six IU players over the last two weeks when allegations of abusive treatment surfaced, and at least one player's father is on record as saying Wilson failed to follow concussion protocols with his son, leading to a worsening of his condition.

"It came to my attention that some things I thought we'd put behind us had bubbled up again," is how Glass characterized all that.

If so, then good for Glass, and good for IU. It's one thing to demand certain standards at your university; it's another to demand them even when doing so costs you a coach who's done what he was hired to do on the field. And Wilson demonstrably was doing that -- as was another former coach at IU, whose three national championships in 29 years led athletic directors of weaker character than Glass's to look the other way when he abused his players.

But this is now, not then. Lawyers tend to get involved in these deals now, and so what was once acceptable for coaches to do to their players, or was at least  tolerated, simply is not going to fly. It never should have, frankly, and the smarter coaches acknowledge that. Even Bear Bryant eventually got around to apologizing to the Texas A&M players he brutalized in the searing heat one summer in Junction, Texas.

That happened in 1954, when Bryant was still a young coach. Twenty-five years later, when the players who stuck it out through that summer invited him back to a reunion, Bryant publicly damned himself for a fool and said he'd felt bad about what he'd done since.

The players, of course, forgave him. Players always do. It's why abusive treatment of players has perpetuated itself over the years, to the extent that old-schoolers weirdly romanticize it. Yeah, I remember when Coach ripped off my helmet and punched me in the throat, then made me run gassers until I puked and passed out. It was 95 degrees that day, if I recall. And we didn't get no water back then, not like these pantywaists now. Those were the days, boy.

Those were the days. But as Indiana demonstrated yesterday, those days are done -- or at least a lot more done than they used to be.

Thank God for it.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Another notable no-show

That was some show they put on last night, down there in Red Heaven. Kyle Schwarber -- Chicago Cubs World Series darling, and a guy who launched a few rockets in Bloomington, too -- returned as an honorary basketball captain. The Hoosiers launched No. 3 North Carolina 76-67. And at halftime, Assembly Hall rose and banged its mitts together for IU's 1981 national champions, 35 years after their big moment.

One of my favorite people of all time -- Ray Tolbert -- was on that team. Randy Wittman was. Landon Turner, Jim Thomas, Isiah Thomas: We all know the names.

It was a team that found its sea legs late, destroying a good Maryland team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Dayton to set the tone. I covered that game for the late, great Anderson Daily Bulletin, and I have one specific memory of it. It's Maryland coach Lefty Driesell calling timeout in the midst of the cave-in, kneeling in front his team and drawling "OK, gahs. You wanna lose bah 30, or whut?"

Great memory. Great team. Great night in Bloomington.

Too bad you missed it, Bob Knight.

No one really expected Coach to be there, of course, because for Coach it's all about ancient and cherished grudges, grudges he nurtures like Fabrege eggs. All the actors in the docudrama of his ousting at IU are long gone or dead, and no one else but him cares about any of it anymore. They all just want him back.

"Come home," Isiah pleaded, when it was his turn at the mic.

He will not, of course. He will not even for the sake of players he claims to love. He will not even for Landon Turner, whose career was cut short by a car accident that left him paralyzed, and that Knight later admitted shook him to the core. He has been there for Turner since.

But not last night. Not if it could possibly be interpreted as Coach finally letting go his grudges, or recognizing that, as badly as it was or wasn't done, he bore responsibility for the way things ended in Bloomington, too.

And that is sad beyond measure, because his players would have embraced him. Tom Crean would have all but lifted him onto his shoulders. And Assembly Hall would have shook with the sound.

It shook anyway, of course. But the one man for whom it would have shook loudest wasn't there to hear it.

 Sad. So sad.