The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Every couple of months, I get together at Commander’s Palace restaurant with some old colleagues from my University of New Orleans days in what we call our "Ernest Gaines luncheons." Gaines, as you might know, grew up impoverished in slave quarters on a Point Coupee Parish plantation but escaped that life to become one of Louisiana’s most prolific authors. Probably his most notable work is “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” but our periodic get-togethers appropriately celebrate another of his classics, “A Gathering of Old Men.”
Yes, some of our discussions involve literary topics and our current projects, but once we have finished the second round of 25-cent martinis (honest!), the conversation progresses to reminiscences, then rants about what might have been. I won’t reprise the strident nature of the complaints, which you can read for yourself in my book prominently advertised at the top right of this page, but we did talk about the current state of UNO Privateers athletics. And, judging by a field trip a couple of us took after lunch, things are starting to look up.
The event was a basketball game between the Privateers and Houston Baptist at Lakefront Arena. I had not attended a UNO basketball game since I was athletic director, simply because it was too painful. But since time heals all wounds (or wounds all heels!), I went to the game and was glad I did. Coach Mark Slessinger was bouncing all over the bench area, shouting instructions to his players and advice to the officials throughout the Privateers’ 72-64 victory. It was great fun, and the modest crowd got its money’s worth. I was happy to see the student participation as several student groups boasted their colors, and even some alums wore their old fraternity tee-shirts in a terrific display of school spirit.
Even better, the win put New Orleans closer to first place in the Southland Conference, a position they attained two days later with an 81-63 victory at Central Arkansas on Saturday. It’s been a while since a UNO team was in first place in anything other than shipbuilding or film studies, and there’s a long way to go, but, hey, let’s enjoy it while we’ve got it.
I knew Slessinger knew what he was doing with his early schedule. It’s the plight of mid-major basketball budgets that you are required to offer yourself as a sacrifice to bigger schools that will pay you to come in and lose gracefully. The Privateers did that with road losses at Oklahoma State, Tulsa, Southern California and Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois. But they also pulled off the mid-major’s dream of going into a bigger venue and bringing home a victory along with the check, as they did when they defeated Washington State on December 3. That game was less than a week after UNO had pounded Tulane 74-59 at Lakefront Arena in a game the local wipe covered from the Tulane angle. I guess even the championship of New Orleans can’t draw much attention from the local rag, but maybe now the news media will start looking more closely.
It is certainly conceivable that the Privateers could win the conference tournament and get their first NCAA bid in forever. But don’t just hang your hat on basketball at UNO. Coach Blake Dean is building on the legacy of Ron Maestri and last season restored respect to Privateer baseball with a 31-26 record. Dean’s Twitter messages about recruits suggests his team is going to better that mark this year. Two new pitchers, Kyle Arjona and John Barr, are enough to give the coach reason for optimism. Arjona pitched at Division I Jacksonville University as a freshman last season, posting a 3-2 record with two saves and a 3.79 ERA. Barr came to UNO from South Alabama last season, and already has experience pitching at Maestri Field, having made a relief appearance when the Jaguars played at New Orleans last season.
We’ll find out when the season starts February 17 with a weekend of games against Southern, Illinois-Chicago and Prairie View, although Dean can be forgiven for looking ahead to his next game. The LSU Tigers, Dean’s alma mater and the No. 2 team in the nation according to Collegiate Baseball, comes to the Lakefront on Tuesday, February 21. So do yourself a favor. Go out and see Privateer basketball and then mark your calendar for the baseball season. It’s finally time to put UNO back on your list of teams to see!
We all come across people in our lives who make an indelible impression on us. They could be classmates in high school or college, or men or women we meet at work or even those with whom we share a particular interest such as church or golf. One of those people in my life was Dr. Charles L. Brown Jr., who was the team physician during my ten years in the Saints’ front office. Charlie died Saturday evening at the age of 87, leaving behind a legacy of professionalism and warm memories among those of us who knew him. He was largely unknown to the public, but to those of us fortunate enough to have worked wth him, he was a giant in Saints history.
Working with orthopedists Ken Saer, Terry Habig and later Tim Finney, Brown headed the team behind the team that worked with trainer Dean Kleinschmidt to assure the best medical care possible for Saints players. Team doctors have been maligned in recent years about ignoring players’ ailments, particularly concussions, if it means losing valuable playing time. “Put a Band-Aid on it” might be a clichéd cure-all in some fantasy world, but not to men like Charlie Brown.
He was big man, standing a few hands over six feet, with a deep, infectious laugh that could brighten anyone’s day. His specialty was oncology, a profession not prone to laughter but to somber expressions of concern for the patient’s condition. But Charlie was a person whose presence was comforting, whether you were chatting on the sidelines at practice or if you were a patient.
He took charge when my boss Jim Finks became ill during the 1993 draft and it was Charlie who told us that Finks, a lifetime smoker, had lung cancer. Charlie designed the treatment protocol, and I remember his optimism several months later when he said Finks was responding so well that he could not detect any cancer. But he was quick to cautioned us that cancer is an insidious and persistent disease. Almost predictably, the cancer reappeared and brought on Finks’ death.
Charlie Brown was respected among his peers and was named NFL Team Doctor of the Year in 1990 by the Professional Athletic Trainers’ Association. An impartial view came from Rob Huizenga, then a team physician for the Oakland Raiders, who described his first meeting with Dr. Brown in his 1994 book “You’re okay. It’s just a bruise.” The scene was the NFL Combine, which met in New Orleans in 1984 and 1986 before moving permanently to Indianapolis.
“Toward the end of the morning, as the influx of new players slowed to a trickle,” Huizenga wrote, “in strode Dr. Charles Brown, the team physician for the New Orleans Saints. A graying man in his mid-fifties, he was tall and thin, with a classic bespectacled professorial look. He was the president of the eighty-or-so-member National Football League Physicians Society, a group of orthopedic surgeons, internists, general surgeons, psychiatrists and even dentists…Dr. Brown had been overseeing the entire health portion of the combine, making sure all the medical and orthopedic exams were going smoothly. He had also been meeting with the NFL hierarchy about ways to stem the use and abuse of drugs and begin an educational program.
"I overheard him making arrangements to go deep into the French Quarter for lunch with a group of similarly distinguished looking team doctors … We caught a couple of cabs to an elegant New Orleans landmark. It had fans overhead, waiters scurrying around, and a very in-looking clientele. I ordered a beer and a shellfish appetizer, and in the next 45 minutes of lunch I learned more about sports medicine than I had in the previous month or two.”
Charlie loved the cuisine of the city, and I last saw him when he called and invited me to have lunch at Lilette’s, a fashionable spot on Magazine Street. We shared fond memories of the coaches and players we had worked with, and then he dispensed a final bit of advice that is as effective as any pill he ever prescribed. “Never lose contact with your contacts,” he said. “It is critical to remain socialized.” Thanks, Charlie, for giving me the honor to have known you.
When top ten high school basketball player Hamidou Diallo enrolled for the spring semester at Kentucky on Wednesday, it was more than just another phenom added to the Wildcats’ already top-rated recruiting class for 2017. Diallo, from Queens, N.Y., finished his high school requirements early, which could be a portent of things to come for top basketball recruits. Early enrollment of top high school basketball players follows a trend that has been a long-time practice for high school football stars where potential pros are locked into at least three years of college before they can test their NFL aspirations.
"I’m blessed and excited to be here at the University of Kentucky," Diallo said after signing a financial aid agreement. "I can’t wait to hit the floor and get rolling and get better each and every day. I chose the University of Kentucky because the plan Coach Cal had for me was just phenomenal and I felt like this was the best place for me to achieve my goals. I felt like this was the best choice for me and my family."
The "plan" includes the extra semester that has given football players a platform for early playing time in their freshman year, which translates into experience that can speed their NFL readiness. Anyone who has been around college sports knows that the comfort level can be increased if a player has extra time to learn how to balance the academic requirements with interminable obligations such as strength training, getting to know your position coach, forging bonds with teammates, learning the playbook in meetings, and participating in practice.
Tim Tebow enrolled early at Florida and went on to win a national championship, but the process dates back as far as January, 1991, when Eric Zeier enrolled early at Georgia and set a range of school and SEC records before heading on to a six-year NFL career. This week, LSU welcomes 4-star dual-threat QB Lowell Narcisse and friends, following the practice of last year when WR Stephen Sullivan, LB Michael Divinity and DB Saivion Smith enrolled in January. Six football players joined Diallo and enrolled at Kentucky this week, including Mr. Football candidate QB Walker Wood of Lexington Lafayette.
The story is similar at most other football schools, but it’s not yet so prevalent among top basketball players although early enrollment in basketball makes far more sense. Diallo is not going to break into the Wildcats’ lineup right now and is not expected to even suit up this season, but he will begin academic classes, practice with the team, begin strength training and generally get a big head start on the 2017-18 basketball season. When the first ball is tipped next year, Diallo will essentially have one year of experience under his belt. He will be more prepared for the rigors of an elite program with the added experience that many true freshmen do not get. Kentucky fans know the value of an extra year for players such as Isaiah Briscoe, who often struggled as a freshman, came back for a second year and is today the acknowledged leader of the Wildcats’ team.
Diallo could be the same guy for next year’s class that already features a handful of top 25 prospects. Most are “one and done” aspirants who next year will be joined by a likely “1.5 and done.”
My old boss, Jim Finks, had so many sayings that he kept me busy in our years together trying to write them all down. Of the 75 or so that I memorialized, some were pithy while others were not suitable for a family newspaper, but all made perceptive points. I thought about one of those sayings a few days ago after the Saints announced that five assistant coaches were being fired. Was it because somewhere along the way, they lost their edge or they got fat and happy to the point they just aren’t good coaches anymore? The more likely answer is that, no, they still have the knowledge it takes to survive in a business that insiders define as “NFL - Not For Long.” But a Finks quote provides some between-the-lines reasoning why Payton jettisoned coaches he had worked with for more than a decade.
“Good players make good coaches,” Finks often said. That tells me the reason the coaches were let go is that the Saints don’t have enough good players to make coaches good coaches. Joe Vitt, Bill Johnson and special teams coach Greg McMahon were on the staff when the Saints won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season. If they were good enough to win a Super Bowl, how are they bad enough now to get fired? Did the 2009 Super Bowl champions have more “good” players than the current team? A little roster comparison is reasonable, particularly on defense.
Often the definition of “good” players is a bit nuanced. An experienced player is sometimes more valuable to his team than an inexperienced player although their skill set might be similar. Would you rather have Charles Grant or Kasim Edebali? How about Scott Fujita or Nate Stupar? And certainly a healthy player is better to have than one susceptible to injury. Tracy Porter or Delvin Breaux? Jonathan Vilma or Dannell Ellerbe?. Maybe a veteran with a sterling career behind him continues playing at a high level while another does not. Would you rather have Darren Sharper at 34 or Jairus Byrd at 30?
It would be hard to find much difference in the offense between 2009 and 2016, obviously because QB Drew Brees continues to perform at a high level. The Saints ranked No. 1 in the league in 2009, while the 2016 team ranked second. Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower gained 1,591 yards between them this year, still short of the 1,837 recorded by the tandem of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush. However, you could argue that today’s receiving corps of Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas and Willie Snead, with 242 catches, is superior to the 2009 team of Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meacham, who caught 166 balls between them. The 2016 offensive line performed amazingly well although the 2009 group drew more plaudits.
Perhaps the real culprit in all this is not coaching, but scouting. The 2016 and 2015 drafts appear to be full of keepers, but Cooks is the only player left from the 2014 draft and Kenny Vaccaro and Terron Armstead are the lone survivors from the 2013 draft. Not one player drafted in 2012 or 2010 is still on the roster, and only Cameron Jordan and Ingram are still here from the 2011 draft. Jimmy Graham was selected in 2010, so to be fair let’s consider Max Unger, who was acquired in the Graham trade, as a benefit of the 2010 draft. Six starters from five drafts between 2010-14 is not conducive to winning. I won’t even go into the poor record of recent signing free agents such as James Laurinaitis and Brandon Browner.
Finks was right, good players do make good coaches, but when your player acquisition department fails to provide enough good players, your coaches usually pay the price.
Lace 'em up Agnes! Here are our bold predictions for 2017!
LSU opened the Ed Orgeron era with a big win over Louisville in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, but the big news came before the game when former coach Les Miles announced that in sympathy with Leonard Fournette, he, too, was sitting out the game. In the College Playoff championship game, Alabama’s stifling defense shuts down Clemson’s high-powered offense as the Tide rolls to a 24-10 victory. ESPN reports that after the game Nick Saban was spotted breaking into a brief smile, but subsequent reports downgraded it to a smirk.
Saints owner Tom Benson announces that coach Sean Payton has been traded to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for the Rams’ No. 2 draft choice in 2017, a No. 1 choice in 2018 and a box suite at Santa Anita race track. Les Miles immediately announces he is a candidate for the job, but Benson names Alabama’s Nick Saban as the new head coach. Lane Kiffin, newly named head coach at Florida Atlantic resigns and is named head coach of the Crimson Tide. At their March meetings, NFL owners approve the move of the Raiders to Las Vegas, but on the condition that none of the Raiders games will be televised. Said Commissioner Roger Goodell, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!”
In April, Kentucky defeats Louisville and UCLA to win their ninth NCAA men’s basketball championship, and on the first Saturday in May, another of Tom Benson’s horses fails to win the Kentucky Derby. Cleveland makes it two in a row over Golden State to win the NBA Finals, and Benson fires GM Dell Demps and Coach Alvin Gentry. Les Miles immediately announces he is a candidate for the job, but Benson hires Kentucky’s John Calipari as head coach and general manager.
The Cleveland Browns pull another draft surprise by taking North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky as the first player in the 2017 NFL draft. Trubisky is the fifth quarterback the Browns have taken in the first round since Drew Brees has been in the league. The 49ers, picking second, take Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M, and LSU RB Leonard Fournette goes third to the Chicago Bears. The Saints' Saban goes for familiar faces on defense in the draft, selecting ex-Bama star DE Jonathan Allen in the first round and LB’s Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams in the second round.
In golf, Tiger Woods ends his victory drought at an invitational tournament sponsored by Nike, IMG and the Tiger Woods Foundation. Woods defeats Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and forty-six club pros to earn his first victory in three years, and in baseball, the Boston Red Sox defeat the Chicago Cubs in a rematch of the 1918 World Series.
Before NBA training camps open, new GM John Calipari trades Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Buddy Hield along with first-round draft choices for the next four years to acquire Sacramento C DeMarcus Cousins, Washington guard John Wall and Phoenix guard Devin Booker. He then boldly changes the team colors to blue and white and predicts that his new acquisitions will join Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones in an all-Kentucky starting lineup for the newly renamed New Orleans Pelicats.
LSU blasts out of the gate and rolls to an 8-0 record before falling to No. 1 Alabama at Tuscaloosa. From there, the two teams run the table and both qualify for the College Football Playoff. Joining them will be one unnamed team that didn’t qualify for its own conference championship game, prompting President Donald Trump to appoint a panel to investigate. The panel concludes that the playoff format accomplished its goals of squeezing more money out of fans, television networks and advertisers, to which the President remarked: “That’s the American way, and it’s a beautiful thing!” Meanwhile, Kentucky goes 9-3 and earns a spot in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.
Nick Saban’s 13-3 Saints shock the NFL behind their top-ranked defense and are the NFC’s top seed for the playoffs. Unable to find work, Les Miles announces he is joining Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow to launch a new reality show appearing on the SEC Network titled Dancing with the Fallen Stars.
That's all I got! Happy New Year!