The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
While the college football cognoscenti spent the weekend trying to determine which teams will occupy the four seats on the championship bus, the two favorite teams of this column’s readership broke out the champagne for other reasons. After flirting with head coaches from other schools, LSU finally named interim coach Ed Orgeron as the school’s 33rd head football coach. In similar fashion, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops saw his program turn a major corner by defeating 11th ranked Louisville, 41-38. Beside winning bragging rights over their major in-state rival for another year, the Wildcat victory legitimized the belief that Kentucky football could be on the verge of something special under Stoops.
Both Kentucky and LSU suffered similar pains early in the season but handled it in very different ways. Sure, LSU head coach Les Miles almost was thrown overboard at the end of last season by AD Joe Alleva, but he was given a reprieve by school president F. King Alexander after a show of loyalty by players and fans. Miles’ rescue crew was convinced that with RB Leonard Fournette and a raft of other NFL prospects returning in 2016, even Miles couldn’t screw up what was surely a team that would content for the NCAA championship. But after an opening loss to Wisconsin, two lackluster wins over Jacksonville State and Mississippi State and a shocking 18-13 Tiger Stadium loss to Auburn, Miles was jettisoned.
Alleva, likely muttering “I told you so,” named Orgeron interim head coach while he rekindled private talks with Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher who was all but signed to replace Miles the previous year. But Jimbo’s people smelled leverage and set the financial bar beyond what even Alleva was willing to pay, so the AD turned to Houston coach Tom Herman. The day before Thanksgiving, ESPN and other news organizations reported that Herman would be the next head coach at LSU. However, if Texas boosters understand anything, it’s a cattle prod being applied to your hind quarters, and they swiftly locked up Herman and ousted Charlie Strong. That left Alleva with the choice he should have made all along (and this column recommended on October 10!), to name the native of Larose, Louisiana, as the Tigers’ head coach.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops was also dodging early gunfire. His team blew a three-touchdown lead to Southern Mississippi in the season opener at Commonwealth Stadium then waved a white flag early in a 45-7 pummeling at Florida. Stoops topped most “coaches on the hot seat” lists, and who could blame them? After a 2-10 “no hard feelings” inaugural season in 2013, Stoops’ 2014 and 2015 teams flirted with respectability early before losing their final five SEC matches and the grudge match to Louisville. But during that time, Stoops was actively recruiting players who could come in and make a difference. Instead of signing players who also were offered scholarships by Conference USA and Sun Belt schools, Stoops’ was now winning recruiting battles with Alabama, Ohio State and Tennessee.
Things started to look brighter this year after a 34-6 loss at Alabama when JC transfer QB Stephen Johnson was installed to oversee a running game led by Sophomore Stanley “Boom” Williams and Freshman Benny Snell. The key was the sudden maturity of a young offensive line in which offensive coordinator Eddie Gran rotates nine bodies. The result has been a sudden identity as a smash-mouth running team that won four SEC games for the first time in a decade. UK also takes advantage of the long ball, as Johnson did with three long TD passes against Louisville.
That victory put the Stoops rebuilding program definitely on schedule. As Lexington Herald columnist John Clay wrote after the win over Louisville and its Heisman Trophy candidate QB Lamar Jackson: “Four years of work, four years of faith, all paid off at exactly the right time to produce a ‘significant’ victory over not just UK’s arch-rival, but a very good football team with a very good head coach and an outstanding quarterback.”
Rookies have a hard enough time in the NFL, but when the season passes the halfway mark, and they are just starting to feel comfortable, the veterans subject them to the oldest trick in the NFL, the Thanksgiving turkey giveaway. Different teams conduct it with different gags and their own puckish frills, but generally the rookies are told that a local market will give them a free turkey if they show up to collect. When they arrive at the designated location – which often ranges from a vacant address to swampland - they are informed in some manner that they have been had.
Local stories in recent years have suggested that Coach Sean Payton or QB Drew Brees are behind the current one-day humbling of their younger players, but the Thanksgiving turkey giveaway has been an NFL staple for longer than the half-century the Saints have been in New Orleans. The Saints likely performed the prank in the first year of the franchise, according to longtime trainer Dean Kleinschmidt, who remembers it the first year he came to New Orleans as an assistant trainer in 1969, the team’s third season. I worked with Dean for ten years, and our recollections are consistent with pranks from other years and by other teams.
During our time, equipment manager Dan Simmons orchestrated an elaborate hoax, conspiring with Joey LaBella of LaBella’s meat market. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, LaBella’s would send a huge turkey to the Saints office, which Simmons placed tantalizingly in the locker room. When the players came off the field after practice, they destroyed the bird in about 32 seconds, leaving it completely stripped down to the skeleton. The trap set, Simmons handed out written invitations to the players to visit LaBella’s after Thursday practice and pick out the turkey of their choice.
The veterans knew what was coming, having been fooled themselves, but the rookies saw a free meal. After practice, video director Erby Aucoin, and later his son Albert, would hustle to LaBella’s and set up a hidden camera to give the festivities a "candid camera" feel. When a rookie would arrive and demand his turkey, the clerk at the front would direct him to Mr. Joey’s office in the back of the store. Joey would give the rookie a note, and many just stuffed the note into their pockets. But Joey said the player must read the note before he could get his turkey. And from the note they learned the sad news: “Gobble, gobble, gobble. You have fallen for the oldest prank in the NFL. Happy Thanksgiving, turkey!”
Most rookies took it in stride, while others claimed the next morning that they knew it was a joke and did not go. But at a team meeting Friday morning, Jim Mora had Aucoin play the video, and guilt was clear, denial or not. The Saints had given the players the bird, but not the turkey!
Not all rookies took the prank in stride. Kleinschmidt recalled how defensive end Joe Campbell, a No. 1 pick from Maryland, showed up at the market demanding his turkey. After he was informed of the prank, Campbell, who was a volatile sort on the field, grabbed the first frozen turkey he saw and walked out the door. Nobody was about to stop him. Kleinschmidt, who retired from the NFL last year after seven years with the Detroit Lions, recalled that not only rookies were victimized by the prank. The Lions team president added legitimacy to the prank one year by announcing the giveaway after practice on Wednesday. He was so convincing that not only the rookies showed up, but a 10-year veteran lineman.
Beloved strength coach Russ Paternostro was in his first year with the Saints when he received an invitation. He immediately called wife Mercy and told her he was getting a free turkey, but Mercy protested that she already had bought the family’s turkey. “Take it back to the store,” Russ said, and she did. No record exists of what the Paternostro family ate for Thanksgiving dinner that year, but you can bet Russ ate crow at home for a while.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!
Nicknames are a funny thing. Most of us have gone through life with at least one, and some of us have the ability to come up with an embarrassing label to fit every acquaintance, family member or friend. And then there are sports nicknames which inflame the masses, incite torchlight parades and provoke burnings in Effigy, (which is a little town outside Boutee). Such is the current state of local Triple-A baseball affairs where team management tossed “Zephyrs” over the fence, and, after an exhaustive two-day search and polling of fans, or so they say, they adopted the unique nickname “Baby Cakes.”
That might sound cool or catchy to a San Diego marketing group from whence the moniker sprung, but to anyone growing up or living in the Big Easy long enough to experience at least one Carnival, it’s stupid. Just plan stupid! That’s not just your intrepid scribe who is saying that. A current NOLA.com poll reveals that 89% of fans responding agree, and others object through a website: www.nobabycakes.com. One writer to the local wipe who claimed to have taken part in the focus groups called the decision “the most demeaning, insulting, embarrassing, inauthentic name possible for a New Orleans baseball team.”
Of course, in their great delight to reveal the new name, team management, who aren’t from here either, tried to make a case that “Baby Cakes” has something to do with the Mardi Gras king cake tradition in which a plastic baby is inserted in the cake. The baby symbolizes luck and prosperity to whoever finds it in their slice of cake, and, oh by the way, they earn the dubious honor of having to buy the next king cake. But I’ve never heard anyone refer to the baby, the cake or the honoree as “Baby Cakes.” The closest I can come to that nickname in sports was Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, whose nickname of “cakes” came from his longtime sponsorship of Tastycakes, a popular packaged cupcake sold in Baltimore.
But maybe the culprit is the team’s parent club, the Miami Marlins, who recently changed the name of their Double-A team in Jacksonville from the longstanding Suns to the “Jumbo Shrimp.” That makes more sense, but good sense has little to do with team nicknames. Probably the three most inane team names extant today apply to franchises that were hijacked and relocated from someplace else. I mean, there are no lakes in Los Angeles, but the nickname created by the land-of-a-thousand lakes Minneapolis Lakers made sense. I’m not picking on L.A., but how many trolleys are they dodging there after they were hijacked from Brooklyn, whose team was once called the Trolley Dodgers? I do not even have to throw in the local travesty when the New Orleans Jazz was hijacked and taken to Utah, locks, jocks and nickname.
Other pro teams have interesting histories behind their current nicknames. When Dallas joined the NFL in 1960, management planned to call themselves the Steers until GM Tex Schramm realized that having a castrated mascot might not be a good idea and switched to Cowboys. The new Oakland AFL franchise in 1960 sponsored a name-the-team contest, and the winner was Señors, an allusion to the old Spanish settlers of northern California. But the Oakland Tribune claimed the paper did not have the accent mark for the “n” in their headline type, and they changed the team’s nickname to Raiders. Even the Boston Celtics, as proper a Boston Irish name as you can get, were almost the Unicorns in 1946 because owner Walter Brown’s PR guy told him "No team with an Irish name has ever won a damned thing in Boston.” Brown recalled the winning tradition of the New York Celtics, a successful franchise during the 1920s, and held fast.
A nickname maven could argue that college athletic teams have even worse names than “Baby Cakes.” How about the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs who would probably gnaw through any defense put up by the Scottsdale Community College Fighting Artichokes. Other names appear incongruous, like the Mary Baldwin College Fighting Squirrels or the Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishops which is a poor man’s Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Minor leagues teams are commercial enterprises that try to sell local product, which explains the Modesto Nuts or the Montgomery Biscuits, but I’m not sure what the minor league hockey team in Georgia is selling at matches of the Macon Whoopee.
Far on the edge of propriety are other schools whose names flirt with good taste, like the Mt. Clemens (Mich.) Battling Bathers or even the Beaver (Okla.) Dusters, which sounds like something you'd order online, on a secure site. Modest research suggests that the worst taste in nicknames might belong the Rhode Island School of Design “Nads.” Throughout their games you can hear their favorite cheer, "Go, Nads!” led by their anatomically correct mascot named “Scrotie.” I am not making this up!
So even if you don’t like “Baby Cakes,” it could be a lot worse! Go, Nads?
Before I left the Athletic Director’s chair at the University of New Orleans in 2009, I submitted a report to the administration on how the university could bring back football. I have beaten this dead horse until its hide whinnies, and I do so again after the recent investiture of John Nicklow as the new president of UNO. A footnote to Nicklow’s elevation was the sobering news that UNO’s fall attendance continues its post-Katrina swan dive, to just over 8,000 students. Trying to make a logical case for football at UNO has long been an exercise at howling at the moon, but maybe its time has arrived. How much worse can things get on the lakefront before radical thinkers do something, well, radical?
What rekindled the fire in me was an example of such radical thinking that appeared in Monday’s Wall Street Journal where one college used football strategically to address a similar prevailing problem. At the tiny College of Idaho, enrollment was down and the gender balance of the 1,000-member student body was out of whack. Nearly two thirds of the students on the residential campus 30 miles outside of Boise were women. After years of dominance on college campuses by men, women earned parity in numbers during the 1980s, and today women outnumber men 57% to 43%. Enrolling more males would improve that ratio, and the College of Idaho believed football was the answer.
“When we did a market analysis, we realized this was a gold mine,” said Marvin Henberg, the former College of Idaho president, who pushed to bring football back to the school. Three years after announcing their team, total enrollment was up more than 10% and the gender disparity was gone. UNO does not have a gender disparity, with its published gender ratio at 50-50, but it does have an enrollment problem. Could football fix that? The Journal suggests that other colleges think so, reporting that between 2005 and 2015 at least 86 colleges and universities fielded new football teams. Of that pool, 67 saw an uptick in male enrollment on the day of their first game, compared with three years earlier.
My plan was not for UNO to jump right into Division I football but to first revive the club team that enjoyed modest success several years ago as a strictly extra-curricular activity. My proposal was to create a university-supported club team that could be an attractive outlet for the region’s many student-athletes who are not quite ready for NCAA football but who want to keep playing and would be willing to pay for the opportunity. The idea would be to recruit about twenty-five local players and a similar number from out of state. Even if half the locals were eligible for scholarships through whatever is left of the TOPS or other programs, the other dozen or so would pay the full in-state price, and out of staters would pay the full out of state price.
According to the UNO website, those tuition numbers for the current semester are $8,094 for in-state and $21,911 for out of state. As any parent with college students in the house knows, the numbers grow significantly when you add in another chunk for Room and Board, books and fees. You can plug in your own math, but if UNO recruited a dozen local walk-ons at the full price, another 13 at a discount and twenty-five out of staters, the University would realize a grand total of fifty new students and seven figures of revenue that they didn’t have before football. The expense of uniforms, travel and medical care would be a fraction of the potential cumulative revenue. Additional revenue would come from ticket sales, concessions, souvenir sales or increased donations when alums gather, tailgate on crisp fall afternoons and bask in school spirit that is so mournfully lacking.
Fifty additional students is a start, but the more compelling argument is the “intangible benefit” derived from football that previous administrations never could understand. We submitted a report to the administration in those days that showed free advertising from newspaper stories and media coverage of UNO athletic teams had a market value of roughly $3 million if the school tried to purchase such publicity. And 99% of those stories put the university in a positive light.
College administrators, like those at the College of Idaho, work diligently to create “co-curricular” activities in which every activity on campus is designed to enhance the university’s educational mission. Past UNO administrations were too fixated on what was and could never envision what might be to understand such a concept. But maybe it’s time for a new look. Reviving club football should be a consideration that some enterprising supporter puts onto the desk of President Nicklow.
Why start a football team at UNO? Well, maybe it's a good thing when 3,000 or more people show up at a college activity and almost nobody goes home unhappy.
It’s good to see the newly 4-4 Saints rebounding from their 0-3 start, but it’s even better to see them do it against their old nemesis, the San Francisco 49ers. Make no mistake, the Saints’ 41-23 victory on Sunday was not against a team filled with guys named Montana, Rice or Craig (maybe Jenny Craig?) But if you were around when the 49ers were dominant – unfortunately, the ten years I was with the Saints, 1986-95 - any victory against the Evil Empire is sweet.
During those years, the Saints totaled more victories than any other NFC team, except the Niners, and ranked third in the NFL after the Bills. Years of frustrating losses shroud a sprinkling of mostly inconsequential victories, but, ironically, it was a close loss to the 49ers that propelled the Saints from being an afterthought into contender status. It was 1987, the second year of the Jim Finks-Jim Mora era, when the 3-2 Saints met the 4-1 Niners in the Superdome. The visitors took a 17-6 halftime lead and held on for a 24-22 victory after Morten Andersen missed a 52-yard field goal at the buzzer. The loss was aggravating, but it was after the game that Mora lit the fuse.
The head coach issued his first, and probably his most famous, public rant, informing the press and the world that his team “ain’t good enough …We’re close, but close don’t mean s--- … I’m tired of saying could have, would have should have.” But Mora also promised that his team would work until it was good enough, and they ran off nine wins in a row, including a 6-3 nail biter three weeks later in San Francisco. Over the next few years, the 49ers provided the Saints with ample amounts of frustration that did not include a happy ending.
A sadistic NFL schedule maker had the 49ers visiting the Superdome in the season opener the next year. It was another close effort by the Saints, who took a 17-10 halftime lead that disappeared under three Montana TD passes in the third quarter, but the home team could not close the gap in a 34-33 loss. The next time the teams met, they were fighting for the division championship with identical 9-5 records, but it was no contest. Roger Craig ran for 115 yards and a touchdown as the Niners essentially won the division with a 30-17 victory. Meanwhile, the Saints would miss the playoffs with a 10-6 record.
The Saints lost twice to San Francisco the following year, including a bitter 24-20 loss at the Superdome. The Saints led 17-10 at the half but withered under three Montana TD strikes, two to John Taylor and one to Rice. Again, the Saints’ 9-7 record was not good enough for the playoffs. The 1992 season was an especially bad memory because I believe that was Mora’s best team. They finished with a 12-4 record, but could not get past the 14-2 Niners. The Saints lost both games to the Niners that season including a November game in San Francisco in which they took a 20-7 lead into the fourth quarter. This time it was Steve Young who hit TE Jones in the end zone twice in the fourth quarter to take a 21-20 victory.
My bitterest memory of a 49er loss, however, came in 1994. Finks had resigned to begin what became a losing battle to lung cancer, and I shared the hot seat with personnel boss Bill Kuharich, trying to give Mora as much ammunition as we could. Our biggest target was free agent Deion Sanders, then at the top of his game, and we made a valiant attempt to sign him. I constructed a five-year contract that would pay him more than DE Reggie White, who was the highest paid defensive player at the time. We brought Sanders to New Orleans and wined him and dined him along with his best friend, rapper M.C. Hammer. By every indication, Sanders was receptive, and his agent gave me every indication that the deal was all but done.
Then, like a scene from Ghostbusters, we were slimed by the 49ers. Our division nemesis signed Sanders to a one-year contract at far fewer dollars than we had offered. We were outraged, but no more than owner Tom Benson who accused the 49ers of “Mickey Mouse” shenanigans. As fate would have it, our next game was at San Francisco. Sanders was in the lineup but appeared to be an afterthought as the Saints took a 13-10 lead at halftime. Young hit Rice for a 6-yard TD pass in the third quarter, and the Niners took a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter. It was a stalemate until the closing minutes when QB Jim Everett led the Saints inside the 30-yard line in 49er territory.
But then, in what would become the enduring symbol of Saints’ frustration with the 49ers, Everett tried to thread an out pass to the left sideline where a drooling Sanders was waiting, napkin tucked neatly under his chin, rubbing knife and fork together. He picked off the pass and then resurrected his Neon Deion personal as he streaked 74 yards the other way, right hand behind his helmet, holding the ball out with the his left, high-stepping and styling with every step. Seconds later, the game was over and the 49ers’ rubbed it in as best they could, playing the Mickey Mouse theme as Benson steamed in his owners box. The Saints owner demanded an investigation, but the league had no interest in challenging its most successful franchise.
Sunday’s win behind Mark Ingram and Drew Brees was nice, but it will never erase the bitterness that some of us dinosaurs still feel toward the team we referred to as the “Forty F----- Niners.”