Monday, March 22, 2010

Why John Calipari May Not Be the World's Biggest Scumbag...

For whatever reason during the NCAA Tournament, the nationwide jubilation at the games themselves causes a general love-fest for the NCAA as a whole. The closest anyone gets to criticism is whether the tourney field should be expanded. So I guess I should just hop on the bandwagon write my own ‘ode to the NCAA.’ Here goes:

The extent to which college basketball’s inner-workings completely contradict its popular image is almost laughable. On the outside, we tend to idealize the college game. Look at the fans, the passion and the NCAA Tournament; a place where even lowly George Mason can make a run at greatness. This is what we see, mostly because that’s the picture painted for us.

Why is this? The popular consensus is the involvement (or lack thereof) of money. This makes some sense too. Young college stars aren’t sitting on monstrous contracts; hence they aren’t possessed with the kind of complacency of someone like Eric Dampier. The college guys are hungry.

What’s lost in the translation is that there is a lot of money in college basketball. It just exchanges hands with more subtlety. Obviously, since college basketball players don’t receive an appropriate slice of the money that they generate, far less scrutiny is directed towards the avalanche of NCAA money. And trust me; it’s quite a sum of money.

In 1999, CBS (the company that has exclusive rights to Tournament broadcasting) signed a brand new, 11 year six billion dollar deal. Six billion dollars! That’s enough to send the goddamn space shuttle (the most expensive vehicle on the planet) on ten missions. All this money is being spent to broadcast a game where the main people involved don’t get paid.

Since the main actors in the process (the players) aren’t receiving more than token benefits of that six billion, most people tend to think of NCAA sports as a more pure version of the game. This couldn’t be more wrong.

Calipari: the usual suspect

Love him or loathe him, Kentucky Basketball Coach John Calipari is one of the most polarizing figures in college basketball this side of Coach K and Duke. He currently holds the unofficial title of best recruiter in all of college basketball. In certain ways he’s an undeniable trendsetter, being the first to openly adopt a style that took advantage of the ‘one and done’ mentality among pro-prospects in the college game (a trend that has emerged since the 2006 rule requiring a minimum NBA age of 19.) Still, he’s by far the best known of the coaches who fall into the category of having questionable morals (or, as I like to call them, scumbags).

Everywhere Calipari’s gone as a coach, he’s stirred up controversy like bear swatting a bee’s nest. At UMass his best season was erased from the record books after illegal recruitment practices were discovered with star player Marcus Camby. This didn’t stop Calipari from being hired at the University of Memphis, where he achieved some of his finest moments to date (including an NCAA record four straight 30-win seasons). Yet the pinnacle of his tenure (Memphis’s 2008 run to the NCAA Championship game) was again erased from the record books when severe academic violations were discovered with (surprise) his star player, Derrick Rose. It was also discovered that Rose’s brother, Reggie, had been illegally allowed to travel with the team on Memphis’s dime.

Still the school administrations at Umass and Memphis probably look on Calipari’s time with them as a golden age. Beyond the obvious exposure they received because of his victories, new athletic facilities and expanded athletic budgets were a direct result of Calipari’s time at those schools.

In this way, you could almost sympathize with athletic directors at schools like this. Think about it: in the ever-combative debate over school budgets, the only surefire method to generate funds is by winning. And say what you want about Calipari, but the guy can win. So for an athletic director (whose probably very conscious of the fact that his own ass is on the line) to hire someone like Calipari makes all the sense in the world. This is completely because the only thing separating this AD from a job and the unemployment line is a consistent string of tourney appearances.

The hidden-handed powerhouse of college basketball

While John Calipari was well established as a national scumbag in 2008, it’s revealing then that he was hired by Kentucky the next season. With such a controversial record, how else can Kentucky justify his hiring other than the fact that they want victory at any cost? Let’s be honest: when you hire a guy whose had multiple seasons at multiple schools voided by the NCAA due to unsavory tactics, it doesn’t exactly feel like your waving the flag of the scholar athlete.

So in reality it’s not even John Calipari who’s really the worst of the worst. As despicable as his methods may be and as brazenly as he disregards academic and NCAA standards, it wasn’t John Calipari who hired John Calipari at any of these schools. It was the university, who were well aware of money they stood to gain from anyone who could produce post-season success and national exposure.

With no regard for the consequences, countless universities have made this same compromise in their standards in order to attain a faster route to win-generated cash. For a second though, I’d like to look at the consequences that they generate in doing this:

  1. Scumbag coaches keep getting better and better jobs despite the fact that they have the morals of Rod Blagojevich.
  2. These coaches directly impact the recruiting class in each season. In particular, the way that they treat high school phenom/pro prospects is appalling. Instead of telling them “you probably want an education so that you don’t end up in the terrifyingly large group of former millionaire pro’s who are now broke,” they’re pitched a different narrative.
  3. Guys like Calipari will tell the John Wall’s of the world that their future is in the NBA anyway, so why not just go to a place where they can start right away and where academics is a non-issue. This helps to encourage a mentality where dozens of young men view college as merely a one year stepping stone to the ultimate prize as a lottery pick in the NBA draft (whether those expectations are realistic or not).
  4. As a result of recruiting flocks of ‘one and done’ players like Wall, an enormous sum of scholarship money is wasted on guys have no intention of getting a degree. More money than usual is required to upkeep this kind of recruiting strategy, because the team cannot retain its star players for more than one year.
  5. Due to the increased demand on money, other areas of the university might suffer if there’s a down year. Namely, other sports, which can either see drastic scale-backs or being cut completely. Mostly though, it effects the school’s academic departments, which suffer in silence (since their stars usually don’t go onto be on national television every night like their hoops counterparts.)
  6. Since scumbag coaches bring wins and money, the Conference they play in gains more power. This in itself creates problems because the NCAA tournament selection process is driven by the powerful conferences who get many more bids. This is just another example of how much a college stands to gain from a “good coach” (translation: an immoral coach).

The list goes on and on, but those are some of the major consequences. Basically the ripple effects caused by a school employing a coach like Calipari are too big to ignore. The flagrant disregard for an acceptable standard of scholarly athletics all in the name of money is, in my opinion, an even more criminal offense than anything happening in the NBA. Yet we continue to go on looking the other way as guys like John Calipari and Bob Huggins (who has gotten two more coaching jobs since posting a one in three graduation rate at Cincinnati) get top jobs.

But on the bright side…how bout Cornell?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Greatest Team Nicknames...or most of them anyway

Despite the fact that new champions are crowed every year in sports, most of them fade into distant memory within only a few seasons. The 2007 Red Sox, for example, are a team I will love forever, yet I won’t deny they lack staying power. That they were the second Sox team to win in 80-plus years doesn’t help (that’s like being the second man to walk on the moon…sorry Buzz), but they also lacked the charisma and indelible team identity needed to be immortalized. It takes the right circumstances for a team to vault themselves into legendary status. One step in this process is undoubtedly a great nickname. The best team nicknames are just as memorable as the teams they’re synonymous with. Here’s a look at the top few:

8. University of Houston Basketball 1982-1984 ('Phi Slama Jama')

Houston during this time was probably one of the most entertaining college basketball teams of all time. Of course, any team with Hakeem Olijawon and Clyde Drexler are bound to be fun to watch. Dominating teams with pure athleticism, they earned the very apt nickname Phi Slam Jama. While other college teams stressed fundamentals and blue collar basketball, Houston coach Guy Lewis encouraged dunking on a regular basis. He saw the players at his disposal (that they’re vertical leap was off the charts) and simply had no qualms unleashing that caliber talent in the best way possible: dunking (what they called ‘high percentage shots’.) They’re ability, coupled with the nickname intimidated the hell out of most opponents. In those glory days for Houston fans, each game was a highlight reel.

7. 1985 Chicago Bears (‘The Monsters of the Midway’)

Much is usually made of the ’85 Bears in the discussion of ‘best team ever.’ They are the perfect representation of football the way Mike Ditka thought it should be played: run the ball and play relentless defense. Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense was truly a spectacular combination of talent and an innovative defensive scheme (the strategy was a video game defense sprung to life). Basically the defenders were put on the field with one unerring goal: get the quarterback. Hence there have been few nicknames more fitting than the one bestowed on the ’85 Bears because, as Tony Eason can attest to, they were decidedly monstrous.

6. Real Madrid (‘Los Galaticos’ meaning superstars)

This gets extra points because it sounds cool even when you don’t know what the word means. I definitely would have thought this meant something involving the word galaxy (since I have enough trouble with the English language.) It was the perfect summary of the Real Madrid teams in the days when the nickname was coined (the early part of this decade). World greats answered the call every summer from 2000-2004 (and more recently this past summer). All of them former World Players of the Year, all of them more expensive than the next. And like so many extravagant business plans, their early promise was about as impressive as their catastrophic collapse. The phrase took on an ironic meaning, implying the ever-increasing sense that they were a bunch of prima donnas when the gushing stream of trophies dried up.

5. The Cincinnati Reds (‘The Big Red Machine’)

Without a doubt one of the better baseball teams ever (which should come as no surprise except for the fact that they’re often overlooked.) As they weren’t an east coast team, it’s reasonable to see why they’re passed over in history, though it doesn’t make it right. Still, Reds fans can look back on this team with and correctly label this period as the good old days for Cincinnati baseball. The brand of baseball they played was truly machine-like. With an impeccable combination of speed, power and hustle, Cincinnati methodically dismantled the Red Sox and Yankees in consecutive years.

The ’75 World Series was a particularly perfect microcosm of the Big Red Machine. While the media was focused on the bigger and more popular Boston Red Sox, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and some guy named Pete Rose set themselves about winning. The defining moment of that series (Carlton Fisk’s euphoric walk-off homerun in the 12th inning of game 6) was but a bump in the road for Sparky Anderson’s team, who shook off the loss and sealed off Boston momentum in game 7. The machine churned on all cylinders in that game, as they won at Fenway to break the hearts of New Englanders once again.

4. Dutch Soccer (‘Clockwork Orange’)

The nickname (a play on Holland’s national color and their style of play) is accurate on more levels than most Dutch would care to admit. That they’re nickname is taken from a psychological thriller is fitting, as no European team has sent their fans on such a roller coaster of promise, success and failure followed quickly by more promise. That said, a lot of the meaning is derived from the clockwork way in which a Dutch national team works its opponents. The constant shifting, weaving runs and perfectly weighted passing are enough to see off most opponents like clockwork. At various times in the last 30 years Holland has truly earned the nickname.

Their best moment, indeed the finest moment in the history of the Dutch national team, came at the European Championship in 1988. Coached once again by Total Football mastermind Rinus Michaels, it marked the flowering of a grand generation of Dutch stars. Ruud Guilit, apart from looking like the third member of Milli Vanilli, embodied Dutch versatility while others like Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkard ensured that, for once, Holland was as much bite as it was bark. It was Marco Van Basten though, a true artist, who painted a masterpiece in the final. Facing a similarly organized Soviet team, Holland were kept from their usual clockwork performance until they turned to the A.C. Milan man for divine intervention. Looking at a clearly impossible angle in the 88th minute, Van Basten did what any once-in-a-generation talent would do: he unleashed an unstoppable volley that nearly rolled back 20 years of failure and shortcomings on the international stage. At a stroke the Dutch were European champions, their only trophy to this day.

3. The L.A. Lakers in the 1980’s (‘Showtime’)

Long before the on-demand TV network bearing the same name, the aptly named offense run by the Lakers during Magic Johnson’s prime embodied their city to a tee. It was glamorous, modern and fun to watch with a trendsetting point guard (Magic) running with a slew of other Hall of Famers. They could wow even the most jaded basketball fans with an entire arsenal of no-look passes, half court alley-oops and knifing passes capable of unlocking any triple team. Of course the reason ‘Showtime’ worked so well was that there was an equally important part that remained relatively unseen: the defensive work of players like Michael Cooper and the hustle of guys like Kurt Rambis. The balance was the key to ‘Showtime.’

A footnote to this is the fact that L.A. was able to put together a roster of superstars thanks to the NBA’s front office equivalent to the Wild West era. The years of the mid to late 70’s spanning right into the mid 80’s represented an era where the rich got much, much richer and the poor squandered their draft picks to the rich in a series of shockingly bad trades. The only reason L.A. (then equipped with a Kareem Abdul Jabbar in his prime) were able to draft Magic in 1979 was that they got three draft picks from New Orleans after Gail Goodrich left the Lakers in 1976. And swingman James Worthy was attained only after the reckless Cleveland front office gift wrapped the first overall pick in the draft to L.A. yet again in 1982. Think about how ridiculous it is that the team with the NBA’s all-time leading scorer getting the first pick in the draft twice in a four year stretch (each time in a trade). It will never, EVER happen again. Too bad, considering the result was ‘Showtime’.

2. The 1927 New York Yankees (‘Murderers Row’)

Ok, so this proves I’m being non-bias. I hate the Yankees and pretty much everything they stand for, but even I have to admit that nickname is pretty badass. This also proves that sportswriters and fans were much more original back in the day (there were no ‘Arods’ or ‘Dwades’ then because people actually thought about nicknames for more than 30 seconds consecutively). Anyway, the Yankees in 1927 were a pinstriped explosion of offense, ‘hammering any and all comers.’ Certainly Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were the powerhouse, as Ruth set the record for homeruns (60) while Gehrig drew no fault by clubbing 47 on his own. They also had ridiculous batting averages (Ruth .356, Gehrig .373) and had insane RBI totals (Ruth 164, Gehrig 175). I mean…that’s just mind boggling (especially considering steroids were still decades away).

Yet the thing that gave Murderers Row its teeth was the lineup’s depth. Leadoff hitter Earle Combs stamped out a .356 average while Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri also added more than 100 RBI each. In one mid-season game they smoked the Washington Senators 21-1, causing Senators first baseman Joe Judge to dejectedly say after the game: “I wish the season was over.” Not surprisingly, the Yankees did end many seasons in the course of that year, as their pitching also lead the league. They breezed to the World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates acting as the sacrificial lamb for New York’s Championship onslaught…but that doesn’t stop me from still think they’re scumbags.

1. The 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers (‘The Steel Curtain’)

The Steel Curtain is certainly one of the most iconic nicknames in American sports. The 1970’s Steelers of Chuck Knoll were, in the words of NFL films, ‘married to the Lombardi trophy’ (and this was no Charlie Sheen marriage). Representing the blue collar steel town of Pittsburgh, they showed the rest of the NFL that shrewd drafting, coaching stability and patience was the formula to weld together a winner.

The actual reference ‘the Steel Curtain’ was about Pittsburgh’s legendary defense. In particular, it referred to their defensive line. Composed of ‘Mean’ Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White, it was arguably the most menacing unit of its kind in NFL history. And just in case the opposition happened to pierce the forward ring of the Curtain, NFL All-Pros Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Mel Blount and Mike Wagner waited in the secondary for a chance to pounce.

1976 was their finest season. With a rash of early season injuries taking their toll (they started the year just 1-4), the Steel Curtain descended on the NFL to salvage the year. Over the next nine games, eight of them ended with the opponent having not scored a touchdown. In that stretch there were five shutouts, three of them coming consecutively. Though that particular season did not actually end with a Lombardi Trophy, no one could blame the defense.

Perhaps the best part of the nickname is that it originated out of a local radio contest in 1971. 17 people forwarded the name the Steel Curtain, so when it won the contest a name was drawn from a hat to determine the real winner (kind of a weak system in all fairness). Ninth grader Gregory Kronz won the drawing, winning whatever the hell local Pittsburgh radio stations give out for these kinds of things (probably something semi-worthless…maybe some Billy-beer?)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Capped and Crunch (...or don't sound it out)

Think about this: since the fall of 1994, the NFL team who plays in the least populated city has had the same amount of playoff wins as both New York teams combined. As much as this runs completely opposite to the undeniable trend of big city money dominating modern sports, it’s true. The Green Bay Packers, (both with Farve and post-Farve) have accomplished just as much in the postseason as the Giants and Jets put together during that same stretch.

Tell me, in what other league does that happen? Certainly not in baseball, where there’s a goddamn investigation every time the Yankees miss the playoffs (which has only happened once in the last 15 years). The L.A. Lakers seem to have an inexhaustible supply of lopsided trades waiting for them whenever trouble looms, precluding them from the commoner’s life of an occasional playoff drought.

The point is obviously that the NFL had the original and best model for salary caps and revenue control in the major American sports leagues. Don’t ask me how, but football managed to conceive and (more impressively) agree to a format where the money is split up evenly to the point where the blue collar residents of Green Bay are able to enjoy the kind of success usually reserved for their cosmopolitan counterparts in places like New York and Los Angeles. The result of this? Nothing really impressive…only that the NFL has become the most successful cash cow league in the history of sports.

As intriguing as this is, it should then be clear just how insane the current disagreement between the NFL owners and the NFL Players Association is. Who the hell cares if you get paid 10 million instead of 15 million? Especially in this current period of economic recession, normal people just have a complete disconnect with the athletes (and more specifically their agents/businessmen) of our favorite league who are greedily seizing at an opportunity to gobble up more pieces of the NFL’s revenue pie.

Of course I realize there are legitimate flaws in the current system. The lack of guaranteed money and systematic roster purges, coupled with no insurance for players who are either hurt or over the hill makes a for a harsh workplace environment. On the other hand though, the cap has inflated from a reasonable $34.6 million to an astronomical $128 million this past season (a 57.5% increase in not even 20 years).

So there are issues to be worked out. I get that…but like so many regular people who think even $1000 is a lot of money, I just can’t find a way to accept not having the NFL around for a whole season. And especially for a shitty reason like people who already make millions of dollars striking because they might not make a couple more million (but really they won’t go hungry because play in the most lucrative sports league in the world.)

This kills me that ESPN and every other mainstream sports medium doesn’t at least discuss this more often. All they talk about is the “un-capped year” that’s now upon us. I don’t totally get how they talk about this and aren’t more afraid. Isn’t it disturbing that a league whose backbone principal over the last 15 years (the salary cap) has become such a hotly contested issue that it’s been abandoned for an entire season? To me, that reads like two very powerful NFL camps who are on complete opposite sides of the spectrum. I just hope they some progress in the next year, or else. And, in the words of someone once stuck in a much worse predicament*, “what that would mean is not for me to explain to you.”

*It was the Cuban Missile Crisis. So yeah, a little bit worse than a potential NFL labor strike, but you get my point…hopefully.

Friday, March 5, 2010

World Cup Barometer

After watching the games during the last international break before the World Cup, it’s becoming clear who the front runners are. Spain are the decided favorites, apparently refocused by their shock setback to the U.S. in the Confederations Cup last summer. The Brazilians, who showed a good combination of classy passing and team depth, remain a close second, though they do have their fair share of issues to work out. After that, the ranking becomes more blurred and where, coincidentally, it becomes interesting.

England’s tale of two half’s against the Egyptians showed both their best and worst traits. Their inability to retain possession, even at home in Wembley during the first half, was disturbing for Fabio Capello (England’s coach and mastermind). The response he got in the second half, coupled with the performance of the substitutes that came on served to put both the game and England’s general mood back on track. Peter Crouch, an interesting candidate for the final roster, spearheaded the comeback by firing two goals past a packed Egyptian defense. On top of this, England settled down and started generating scoring chances like they were an assembly line. They’re clearly a favorite and trouble for the U.S. in the group stage.

Argentina, the great enigma during qualifying, grinded out a win against Germany, but are far from top form. There does seem to be some method to coach Diego Maradona’s madness though, as the team reflects the Argentina teams that Maradona starred in during the 1980’s. They’ve surrounded a superstar (Leo Messi) with one forward and then essentially eight defensive players. Such a negative strategy would be more subtle if Argentina weren’t also blessed with so many good attackers who were riding the bench during Wednesday’s game. Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Diego Milito (guys who always play for their clubs) did not start while Jonas Gutierrez (who plays in the equivalent of the British minor leagues with Newcastle) was a starting midfielder. I’m sure El Diego’s reasoning is that Gutierrez balances the team as an extra midfielder, but his teams do play decidedly negative, it’s just that now they’re getting good at it.

Germany was almost an optical illusion. On paper they did not appear to play that poorly. Firing off almost two times as many shots as the South Americans, the statistics convey a false impression. While German consistency in the World Cup is almost a given, it is worth pointing out that their group will be tough and they aren’t exactly a veteran team. Though core guys like Ballack, Lahm and Klose are still around, Germany’s success or failure will depend on younger guys like playmakers Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and forward Thomas Muller. Defender Jerome Boateng also may find himself in the picture.

Unless those guys step up, the Germans maybe headed home prematurely, though as Germans they will undoubtedly fight to the de…ok bad example.

The Dutch looked a little underwhelming against a U.S. team that was, with all due respect, missing their best defender and four other players all of whom would factor in when healthy. It’s tough to dislike Holland and their style (where they willingly decide to not play defense), but without Robin Van Persie leading the line they seem one-dimensional. If there’s one thing America is good at, it’s defending as a unit. And Coach Bob Bradley has molded an effective (if not aesthetically pleasing) style. The U.S. is adept, especially against more slick-passing opponents, at clogging the middle of the field and squeezing the passing lanes like a pulp. This they did against the Dutch with limited effect. It definitely means their outside backs need to play better (Heath Pearce could have a future on the left) and their center midfielders (Michael Bradley and a player to be determined) have to work in perfect tandem. If those things don’t happen, then fatal gaps open in between the defense and the midfield (both Dutch goals stemmed from this flaw).

The French continue to be a sleeping giant, still with their heads in the sand thanks to eccentric manager Raymond Domenech and his never-ending ability to turn a powerful team in a mediocre mess. They were outclassed by Spain, showing just how far the once mighty national team has slipped. That said, they do have the potential and I wouldn’t be surprised if they make a run if for no other reason than their in South Africa’s group (with no other five star team to cancel them out).

The defending champion Italians are still organizing themselves after tying Cameroon 0-0. That’s not a good sign for a team that relies so heavily on proper organization. Part of the problem is that they can’t find a successful formula for scoring goals. For all their defensive solidarity, Marcelo Lippi’s team has scored one goal in their last three games. The last time they scored more than two was against Cyprus (the same island that’s about half the size of Connecticut). If they don’t find their goal scoring shoes soon, it won’t matter that the rest of their group sucks.