The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
At first blush, the Pelicans’ signing of veteran point guard Rajon Rondo should make a Kentucky fan in New Orleans ecstatic. After all, now the local NBA franchise has a genuine Wildcat flavor, with stars Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins joined by free agent Darius Miller and now Rondo. After Rondo’s signing, one Wildcat fan sent out a tweet declaring a fantasy NBA divisional setup with New Orleans as UK South, Phoenix as UK Southwest and Sacramento as UK West (the Suns and Kings also have four former Wildcats on the roster). I even suggested a Big Blue Nation South in my tongue-in-cheek prediction for 2017 that John Calipari would become the Pelicans’ coach and assemble an all-UK alumni team that would be renamed the Pelicats.
All great fun, but when you look at the reality of the Rondo move, I’m holding my applause for results. Rondo’s skill is unquestioned. He's a basketball genius who understands the game as well as anyone in the league. He can find passing angles others can't and see defenses shifting before even they know which way they'll be moving. Rondo simply knows their tendencies better than they do. But Rondo also has a mercurial temper. He's sometimes too smart for his own good, getting angry when players don't grasp the game in the same manner he does.
What’s curious to me is that the Saints have done a good job at bringing in solid citizens who are good locker room guys, good teammates who are unselfish and put the team first. With the same management oversight, the Pelicans do not seem to be following the same plan.
The enigma of "Who is Rajon Rondo?" is nothing new. He spent two years at Kentucky under Tubby Smith, but even then he and his head coach butted heads. At one point Smith even suspended Rondo for six games. Following his sophomore year in 2007, Rondo was drafted in the first round by Boston and became distributor for a Celtics team that featured Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. With three future Hall of Famers around him, Rondo seemed to go with the flow and won the 2008-09 NBA title. But after his relationship with Coach Doc Rivers soured, Boston very publicly put Rondo on the trading block. Rivers's decision to leave after the 2012-13 season to coach the Clippers was rooted in his relationship with Rondo.
Rondo's spats have led to him living out of a suitcase, playing for four teams in the past four years. He was shipped to Dallas during the 2014-15 season, but he and Coach Rick Carlisle engaged in a shouting match that resulted in a one-game suspension. Next stop was Sacramento where he and fellow Wildcat Cousins immediately bonded, although Big Cuz’ battle with authority led to Rondo’s rant that the Kings organization was “dysfunctional.”
When the Bulls decided to move on from Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose before the 2016-17 season, GM Gar Forman and President of Basketball Operations John Paxson handed two-year contracts to guards Dwyane Wade and Rondo. Wade had a borderline All-Star season for his hometown team, but things weren’t as easy for Rondo. The 30-year-old guard was benched in the second half of a loss to the Pacers and Coach Fred Hoiberg said he would not start him going forward. Rondo met with Bulls management after the game and said he wanted out. And here we are.
I still think the Pelicans' acquisition of Cousins was a great move, although Boogie’s problems at Sacramento were well documented. And that could be the silver lining in the Pelicans bringing Rondo aboard. In Sac, Rondo called Cousins "the best big in the league" and said the 25-year-old center has "become like a little brother to me." Rondo said Cousins has room to improve, and said: "He's one of the guys that's very selfless. He has to find other ways to get it done. He's going to continue to grow and learn.”
Rondo said at the time he would "love to continue to play with" Cousins. Now he’s got the chance.
University of New Orleans basketball and baseball followers were heartened this past year by the Privateers’ success. Mark Slessinger’s hoopsters defied logic when they won the Southland Conference title and made it to the school’s first NCAA basketball tournament in more than 20 years. Blake Dean’s diamond dogs had their moments during the season, including an 11-8 win over then No. 2 LSU, before winning two games in the conference baseball tournament on their way to a second straight winning season.
Most followers know about UNO’s post-Katrina travails (and if you don’t, click on my book Where the Water Kept Rising in the column to the right!). But even the most avid follower doesn’t really understand how big those accomplishments were. No, you don’t. Like Jim Mora famously said, “You think you know, but you don’t!” And I will admit that even I probably did not realize it until last week when USA Today published its annual list of athletics revenue and expenses for 230 Division I schools.
With UNO ranked near the bottom at 226, any achievement at all on the Lakefront is incredible. But even I, former AD and professed wizard of sports economics, was shocked when I saw UNO’s 2015-16 listed revenue at $5,373,036. That number sounded vaguely familiar, so I dug deep into a largely ignored desk drawer and pulled out a flash drive that contains every scrap of financial information that existed during my years at UNO. I found the spreadsheet for the 2004-05 academic year, my first full year as AD, that my punctilious assistant AD for finance, Mike Dauenhauer, certified and sent to the state. Our revenue that year was $5,387,378. Sound familiar? That means that this program in 2015-16 was operating at an 11-year deficit of $14,342, or -0.3% (minus-point-3-percent)!
I never thought anything in life goes down! Do you weigh the same as you did 11 years ago? Neither do I! But there was the proof that UNO is trying to compete in today’s cash-rich NCAA with roughly the same revenue it produced more than a decade ago. Let’s put this in perspective. LSU was ranked No. 7 on the list with revenue of $141,651,460. Their 2004-05 revenue, according to the Baton Rouge Business Journal, was $60.9 million. The Tiger revenue has increased by about 8% annually and 132.6% over the 11 years. UNO’s athletic revenue would pay about seven months of Nick Saban’s salary.
Of course, UNO went through Katrina and was poorly managed in the aftermath, but the 2004-05 program supported 15 men’s and women’s sports, the same number that they do today. And these kids don’t get any more help while trying to compete against schools that are making a lot more money. How much more? The USA Today the column was headlined: "Colleges are spending more on their athletes because they can," an obvious reference to the explosion in athletics revenue over the past decade.
Conference realignments have created lucrative programming for television networks willing to pay for whatever will boost the number of viewers, which is the trigger for increases in advertising rates. So you wonder why the Southeastern Conference added Mizzou and the Texas Aggies in the past few years? Because there are a lot of TV sets in St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas and Houston tuned in to sports. The more people watch, the more money advertisers will pay to expose their products, and the more big-time college athletics can pocket. That's "big-time" college athletics, which UNO is definitely not.
I can hear somebody out there thinking that I should compare UNO with its “peers,” and not with LSU or the big-money programs. My response is that UNO has no financial peers. Look at the list yourself. It’s the only school of the bottom 11 schools that is not a modestly-supported predominantly African-American school from the SWAC or the MEAC.
UNO has no peers, because nobody else in the country is faced with the same grinding-to-be-better-with-less challenges that Privateers coaches, student-athletes and administrators are faced with every day. And while that’s nothing to be envied, it is certainly something to be proud of.
It’s no surprise that LSU will be playing in the College World Series finals against Florida this week. What is surprising is Coach Paul Manieri's selection of little-used senior pitcher Russell Reynolds to start the series Monday night. That’s the same Russell Reynolds that faced six UNO batters – giving up three hits and one walk - in the Privateers' 11-8 win on February 21.
The rest of Reynolds’ season wasn’t much better. In 14.2 innings, he gave up 20 hits, four of which were home runs, walked 11, threw four wild pitches and gave up 14 runs. His 8.59 ERA might be the highest ever for a pitcher starting in a CWS final series. I’m not sure what Manieri sees in Reynolds, a 6-2 senior from Parkview Baptist in Baton Rouge, but whatever it is, he’s comfortable with the decision. "The moment is not going to be too big for him,” Manieri told the Times-Picayune. “He's going to go out there knowing that he's got a really good team playing behind him and I believe he's going to do the job for us. I don't know how long he'll be able to go. We'll just play the game as it plays out. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he did very well."
That sounds like less than a ringing endorsement, but the LSU coach, who played for Ron Maestri at UNO, doesn’t have much of a choice. Twelve-game winner Jared Poché pitched into the ninth inning Wednesday and 10-5 Alex Lange went into the eighth on Friday, An injury to No. 3 starter Eric Walker and the use of Caleb Gilbert deep into a 6-1 semifinal win Saturday against Oregon State left LSU (52-18) needing another pitcher to start the series opener. Mainieri said he wanted Poché and Lange to be as rested as possible against Florida.
UNO fans can take modest delight in the fact that LSU made it to the CWS. After all, the Privateers’ victory over the Tigers was its biggest in several seasons. I know, I know, it was a midweek game played a week before Mardi Gras at UNO’s Maestri Field. Midweek games are usually diminished since the ranked school’s best pitchers are saved for the weekend conference matchups, while the underdog throws everything it has in an effort to snag a signature victory.
I attended that game and cheered hard for the Privateers, but I didn’t remember who pitched for LSU or much about the details, other than UNO’s six-run fifth and four-run sixth innings that handed them the win. I went back and looked at the boxscore and discovered Reynolds’ appearance, and realized that LSU’s starter was Gilbert, who on Saturday hurled a gem against top-ranked Oregon State. Gilbert turned out to be, arguably, LSU’s most effective pitcher, finishing with a team-leading 2.16 ERA and a 7-1 record in 28 appearances, second only to fire-balling Zach Hess’ 29.
So let’s not count out midweek games. Let’s remember them for what they are, and to UNO fans that one became even more special this week.
I’ll never forget something I was told the first week I moved to New Orleans in 1986. I was renting a townhouse, and my landlord warned me to know about my new employer. “The Saints have never had a winning season for one reason,” he said, drawing closer to make certain I heard every word. “They built the Super Dome on a yellow fever graveyard, which cursed the team forever!” So I figured I had two options. I could throw up my hands, tear up my lease and beg my old boss at the NFL Management Council to take me back. Or, I could laugh it off as abject superstition based on nothing but … well, nothing!
Obviously I chose the latter, although strange occurrences, especially in the past few years, have made me revisit that conversation's element of truth. According to various accounts, in 1822 the city allowed the burial of various citizens in a section that became known as "the Protestant Cemetery." The plot was located roughly on the area now occupied by the parking lot between Champions Square and Girod Street. In fact, the city eventually named it the Girod Street Cemetery, although early residents called it "the Protestant burying ground." Creoles called it the Cemetery of Heretics, which is an apt early description of Who Dat Nation.
I present this history lesson as yet another head-scratcher on the current question: “Does a curse explain the Saints and Pelicans injury problems?” The recent prevalence of injuries and illness experienced by the Saints is only the latest manifestation of an inexplicable problem that has hobbled the two professional sports teams that play their games adjacent to the Girod Street Cemetery. My old boss, Jim Finks, said many times that “Injuries are the worst thing about sports,” probably because that was about the only thing in sports the wizened Finks could not explain. He was right. Team executives work tirelessly to put together a team that will contend for a championship, but then an injury here or an illness there and their plan crumples like a cheap suit in August.
The most recent example is what has happened with the Saints since beginning their OTA’s this spring. First, DT Nick Fairley, whose stellar play last season earned him a new four-year contract, suddenly found his career threatened by a heart ailment. Fairley came into the league with the problem, but recent examinations apparently found that the problem has worsened. There is no prognosis yet on whether he will play this season or ever after. Then, center Max Unger, who has anchored the offensive line into one of the league’s best at protecting the passer and making holes for a run game, sustained a foot injury. The injury was initially feared season-ending, but the latest prognosis, according to Dr. Sean Payton, is that Unger will be back for the regular season. At what level of efficiency he can play after missing training camp is unknown.
And last week came probably the worst news when we learned that the team’s rising young star at left tackle, Terron Armstead, might be lost for the season after sustaining a shoulder injury. Armstead is scheduled to undergo surgery Monday to repair a torn labrum and is expected to be out 4-6 months. Draft skeptics aren’t whining so much now about the team drafting OT Ryan Ramczyk with the No. 32 pick.
The injury situation has been similar across Girod Street, where the Pelicans have been among the NBA’s top teams the past few seasons only in games lost to injuries. Several Pelicans have missed time from a multitude of injuries, although the star of the team, Anthony Davis, was relatively healthy last year, missing only seven games. That was not true for the supporting cast, including former All-Star Jrue Holiday, who has battled severe injuries to his shin over the past three seasons. Quincy Pondexter - remember him? - has missed the past two seasons due to his knee ailments.
Two years ago, the team was ravaged by injuries during a highly disappointing 27-46 season, and seven players, including Davis, ended the season on the injury list. It was so bad then that a voodoo practitioner even ventured the thought that supernatural powers might be to blame. Voodoo priest Belfazaar Ashantison told the Advocate that the Pels were cursed because of “a negative energy that keeps surrounding them."
Which brings up the question: Is there a statute of limitations on the effects from old graveyards?
Today’s quiz: Who was Miller pulling for the hardest during this weekend’s NCAA baseball Super Regionals? Of course, Kentucky is the logical choice for reasons well known to regular readers of this space. Or maybe even LSU, the six-time national champion whose baseball program is managed by good-guy Paul Manieri, one of Ron Maestri’s former UNO players. Good guesses, but wrong. I was pulling hardest for Wake Forest, whose coach is Tom Walter, the best hire I ever made while I was AD at UNO.
I watched as Wake and Florida were tied at 1-1 through interminable weather delays on Friday until the Gators pushed across a two-out run in the 11th inning for the win. I was in front of the TV again Monday, watching Wake resume a game they led 5-4 when it was suspended Sunday by weather. On Monday, Florida tied the score and then loaded the bases in the ninth but Wake stiffened and a walk-off two-run homer in the 11th gave the Deacons one more chance. Alas, in the afternoon match, Wake fell behind 1-0 in the second inning, and another 3-hour rain delay dampened the Deacon bats, in a 3-0 loss.
It was disappointing for those who remember Walter’s years at UNO, but the romantics among us could definitely find a UNO flavor at the Super Regionals. The ability of smaller schools to match up with the big boys should give hope to Blake Dean’s current group of Privateers. Unlike NCAA football or basketball, which is ruled by the same teams every year, NCAA baseball is an island of opportunity for programs that do not have cash ladled out as members of big-money conferences.
I truly hoped teams like Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton, Sam Houston State, Missouri State and Davidson would win, although only Fullerton made it to this week's CWS. Fullerton is the Gonzaga of baseball, a smaller school in a smallish conference, but with a great tradition in their sport. Kind of like UNO in the 1980’s. Fullerton won NCAA titles in 2004, 1995, 1984 and 1979, and small schools still can win it all, like Coastal Carolina last year.
There was even a UNO twist in the fact that Wake Forest was playing Florida. The Gators’ coach, Kevin O’Sullivan, was also in the mix when I hired Walter in 2004. He came to New Orleans for an interview, and I liked the then-assistant at Clemson, but I liked Walter’s experience as a head coach, at George Washington. Another of Walter’s selling points was a booklet he had prepared that was titled “Six Years to Omaha.” He outlined in detail how he would build a program both athletically and academically that could make it to the College World Series in six years.
He might have met that deadline at UNO had that troublesome rainstorm on August 29, 2005, not interfered with so many of our lives. In the aftermath, I met Walter and his players at the Baton Rouge airport when they were flying to Las Cruces to resume classes – and baseball - at New Mexico State. Not all the players Walter had recruited showed up, still beset by questions about the UNO program and the university. Two who did were Johnny Giavotella and Joey Butler who became the heart and soul of Walter’s two NCAA teams at UNO in 2007-08 and are still playing.
Walter moved on to Wake Forest in 2010, but his most notable achievement was not on the field. Days before the 2011 season opener Walter selflessly donated a kidney to outfielder Kevin Jordan, who was diagnosed with a serious kidney disease and needed a transplant. Finding a match was difficult because of Jordan’s uncommon blood type, but when Walter found out he had the same type, he gave Jordan one of his own kidneys and an opportunity at a new life. That’s the kind of person Tom Walter is.
I’m sorry he didn’t get to Omaha this year, but maybe in the near future he’ll be there, and wouldn’t it be a twist if he were facing UNO? Hey, stranger things have happened! This is college baseball.