The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
As an amateur historian, I am sensitive to the lessons that history teaches us. My favorite, and probably the most oft-repeated, is the caution: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Men and women smarter than I debate whether that line was first uttered by Winston Churchill or the philosopher George Santayana, but whether a world leader or thinker gets the credit, the message has descended intact to the level of sporting writers and readers. Whether it has penetrated the collective crania of NFL execs is another matter.
The foregoing is an unnecessarily erudite way of saying to the Saints: Remember Jairus Byrd? Then get over this Malcolm Butler thing and draft a young player who might turn out to be better. If you do, you would avoid another overpaid contract and an inevitable decline in performance following said big contract. As a bonus, if it’s the right player, you get four years of reasonable fiscal control and a guy who already has earned the loyalty of a large segment of the local fandom. I can see Commissar Goodell now: “With the 32nd pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, the New Orleans Saints select defensive back Tre’Davious White from LSU.”
Anybody who has watched White during his career at LSU saw a solid NFL prospect who makes plays. He is just what the Saints need! But over the weekend, our local heroes were still contemplating the acquisition of Patriots cornerback Butler. They would likely have to give up the No. 32 pick in the first round, and possibly the No. 103 pick from the third round, that they obtained when they sent WR Brandin Cooks to New England. It would have been much simpler to have traded the players one for the other, but the rules governing restricted free agents such as Butler, prevented anything easy.
But maybe we have been unfair to our local braintrust. Peter King of Sports Illustrated believes the Saints already have put Butler in their rear-view mirror. Writing today in his Monday Morning QB column, King said: “The Saints believe that their board between 25 and 75 has a slew of players capable of contributing immediately, with grades close to each other, and the thought of dealing one or more picks for Butler, then paying him a huge contract, is less attractive than it once seemed.”
If this is all true, and they have moved on, then the Saints’ brass did remember their history and one big mistake from the past. Arguably the worst free agent signing the Saints have made in recent years was bringing in three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd from Buffalo. It appeared to be a coup at the time, the Saints finally getting the ball-hawking center fielder they had been missing since Darren Sharper’s 10-pick Super Bowl season. But big contracts do funny things to players. Byrd’s response to a six-year, $50 million payday was a series of back and knee injuries and general disinterest until the Saints admitted their mistake and launched him after the 2016 season.
So if the Saints keep all their picks, what do they do with them? Conventional wisdom says they will pick a rush end in the No. 11 spot and White, or another promising cornerback in the No. 32 slot. The name most mentioned for the No. 11 pick is DE Derek Barnett of Tennessee, but does anyone really believe the Saints will sit at No. 11 and No. 32 without trying to improve both slots? Not I, Gunga Din!
Later in the week, I’ll take a look at some trade scenarios and the way teams value each slot. For now, let’s hope the Saints are looking in that direction and, as Jim Finks would say, “give Malcolm Butler an apple and a road map and wish him well!”
The death of Dan Rooney, the longtime president and chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, marks the official passing of my NFL, the one I experienced during my 21 years in the League. My NFL was vastly different from the one that exists today. I am not saying that issues such as player safety, performance-enhancing drugs, misconduct or off-the-field problems did not exist in those days. But My NFL did not exist in a world of 24/7 internet scrutiny, social media or ubiquitous cellphones that can turn private moments into the latest exposé.
My NFL was a time when the average player salary was $91,000, as I wrote in my first assignment as the new information director of the NFL Management Council in 1981. Today, the average NFL salary is closer to $150,000. Per game! Let me tell you how My NFL was different from today’s version which appears to the public like just another Fortune 500 board meeting.
In my NFL, owners challenged each other to fist fights. I remember a remark by the Raiders Al Davis during an owners’ meeting that incensed the Patriots’ feisty owner Billy Sullivan, who stood up, called Davis a “c--------r” and leaped over the table to get at him before he was restrained. In My NFL, Colts owner Bob Irsay explained his objection to the innovative idea of installing microphones in the quarterback’s helmet by pointing to a news story that revealed Russian workers had installed listening devices in a renovation of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. “If the Russians can put bugs in our Embassy, the Browns can steal our plays,” Irsay fumed. That comment prompted bemused Browns owner Art Modell to exclaim: “Sit down, Bob. I’ve seen your playbook, and there’s nothing in there worth stealing!”
In My NFL, Tampa owner Hugh Culverhouse, as head of the Finance Committee, urged his fellow NFL owners to buy their own satellite from which they could get rid of the networks and have exclusive control of NFL broadcasts. His proposal was voted down because the $8 million price tag to hurl a satellite into space was deemed excessive. In My NFL, Lamar Hunt, millionaire owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, arrived two hours late to a Management Council executive committee meeting in New York. The reason? His flight was overbooked, and he couldn’t pass up the airline’s offer of a bonus ticket if he volunteered to take a later flight.
In My NFL, the Saints’ new owner Tom Benson wanted to circle the playing field with cars from his various dealerships to promote sales until the team’s public relations director nervously informed him it was against league policy. In My NFL, Denver owner Edgar Kaiser called in bulldozers from his construction company to level his mansion in suburban Denver to remove it from the property settlement in his nasty divorce case. In My NFL, the 1982 players’ strike prompted much disagreement among owners over Patriots’ president Chuck Sullivan’s chairmanship of the labor committee. Eagles combative owner Leonard Tose was minutes from appearing on Good Morning America to object to Sullivan’s approach when he was told his appearance was cancelled. Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev had died unexpectedly, and ABC was devoting the entire program to the death. Tose remarked to those around him. “Died, my ass! F-----g Chuckie had him killed to shut me up!”
In My NFL, Jets’ GM Jim Kensil, a former Associated Press reporter, liked to visit the Management Council office late at night and call the NFLPA pretending to be “Stan Hochman of the Philly Daily News.” The old reporter was able to induce chatty union officials to reveal inside information unknown to management negotiators. In My NFL, New Orleans’s new GM Jim Finks offered me a job to come to the Saints, which he called “a bird’s nest on the ground.”
My old boss, Jack Donlan, asked me before I left to hire my replacement, and I offered the position to a bright, young PR assistant in the League office. After several long conversations, the young assistant declined, saying he had discussed it with Commissioner Pete Rozelle, and “Pete has other things in mind for me.” I wonder whatever happened to that Goodell kid?
Men like Dan Rooney and Wellington Mara of the Giants and Rozelle before him belong on the NFL's Mount Rushmore. Now, they are all gone, and so is My NFL. Sad.
I spent the weekend on Augusta, and what a weekend it was as Sergio Garcia won his first major in a thrilling Masters playoff with Justin Rose! Augusta National Golf Club is, indeed, the cathedral of golf, draped in garments of azaleas, dogwoods and flowering camellias, the birds in the trees the only sound as the hushed crowd held its breath with every putt down the stretch. Before I get too carried away, however, some explanation is required.
I did not attend the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, but I did watch most of the tournament from my new world headquarters on Augusta Way in our new golfing community on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, or Golf Coast, if you will! And while fan favorites Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson were scrambling to catch Garcia and Rose on Saturday, I went out and bought a golf cart. Yeah, my first one! I had not intended to make the purchase until the boxes were unpacked and the new house was in some semblance of order, but I couldn’t resist.
After the Lovely Miss Jean and I relocated from New Orleans and moved into our new digs in March, we put together a wish-list of things we needed for the new house. Landscaping was No. 1 on the list and a new couch was No. 2 and something else was No. 3 and No. 4, and a golf cart was somewhere down the list. But last week I received a postcard announcing that a local golf cart retailer, one of three adjacent to our community, had an open-house on Saturday, complete with a free fried catfish lunch! Just come in and browse, the card read, no obligations! Forget the sweet sounds of birds in the trees, this was the Sirens luring me onto the marital rocks!
Picking catfish bones out of my teeth, I looked over options and body styles, delivery dates and payment plans. I settled on a style that can be ready in about a week with a Wildcat blue body and big wheels, room for a cooler and space for the grandchildren to ride when they visit! We still have boxes to be unpacked and pictures to be hung, and I will attack those tasks diligently and with purpose, I promised, but at least one of the reasons we moved to a golfing community has been expedited. Jean, who also plays golf, bought into it, so with that monumental goal achieved, I spent Sunday watching the Masters.
After Spieth imploded early and Charley Hoffman returned to the driving range, I started pulling hard for Sergio. I had always liked the plucky Spaniard, but I developed a special affinity following him at the 2014 PGA tournament at Valhalla with Brother Jerry. Sergio seemed to be enjoying himself, bantering with the gallery and exchanging winks with his then-girlfriend, German-born Katharina Boehm, who also was worth following. It was an unspectacular tournament for Sergio, who finished tied for 36th place at minus-three, but it left an impression.
Then came the viral video of Sergio climbing a tree to play his ball that had nestled between branches, and I was hooked. We had an earlier tie to Sergio that we discovered well after the fact. In 2005, Jerry and his wife Laura and Jean and I traveled to Spain. We rented a car in Seville and drove throughout the Mediterranean coast, included a day trip from our base at Malaga to Gibraltar. On the way, we saw a sign to the Royal Valderrama Club, which was the site of the 1997 Ryder Cup. Jerry and I thought about it, but we did not want to push it with the back seat precinct - it was 30 km up into the Andalucian mountains - so we passed. Last April at Valderrama, Garcia hosted a three-team, international challenge and broke the Guinness World Records title for the “fastest hole in golf by a team of four,” completing a 500-yard hole in 34 seconds!
Garcia's Spanish roots were on display during the past week as he attempted to become the third Spaniard to win the Masters, after his hero, Seve Ballesteros, and Jose Maria Olazabal. He received a sentimental boost as Sunday would have been the 60th birthday of Ballesteros, a two-time Masters champion and inspiration to all young Spanish golfers. I can imagine that after a tough stretch that saw Garcia go from two up to two down against Rose, he might have asked Seve to intercede. Whether it was divine intervention or his own true grit, Garcia ended his majors draught in the first playoff hole.
And my new golf cart will be delivered this week!
We college basketball fans have our lives back this morning after North Carolina limped to victory over Gonzaga for the NCAA title Monday. It was hardly a classic championship game. Neither team was shooting well, and at one point in the second half, Gonzaga did not hit a field goal for 8:25 and still was a point up with four minutes to go before a late spurt pushed the Tar Heels over the top.
But stick around. The daffodils of hope are blooming! for avid college hoops fans, our lives are once again our own, unshackled by our devotion to an exhilarating and frustrating passion. The sweet agony we indulge in every year either ends in ecstasy or gloom, but then we immediately start looking at next year’s recruiting class so we can suffer again. So before you pencil in your 2018 Final Four, consider that other diversions loom in April without the restraint of sports schedules and other frustrations. So let’s look ahead to what actually is one of the great months of the year for sports and entertainment fans, especially in New Orleans.
First up the end of this week is “a tradition unlike any other,” the Masters Golf Tournament, sports’ greatest show on bent grass. Sure, the Masters is snobbish and even the broadcasters are self-righteous, but it’s the first sporting event of the spring where the players are rivaled by the beauty of the venue. Azaleas bloom around the greens, the birds sing in the trees and viewers can almost smell the jasmine. Devine! Competing with the Masters, at least in New Orleans, is the free French Quarter Festival which rocks the Quarter with outstanding live music and great Creole and Cajun foods.
Did anybody notice that the Major League Baseball season opened this week? Now we begin to judge all the off-season trades and free-agent signings and see how much our teams improved. While you can give the Cubbies their due for last year, Boston’s Killer B’s (Bogaerts, Betts, Bradley and rookie Andrew Benitendi, whose three-run home sank Pittsburgh on Opening Day) will bring the World Series back to Beantown this year. And, it’s baseball, for crying out loud! We can live and die with our favorite college or pro basketball or football teams, but baseball still trumps all the others when it comes to history and optimism. And this year, we have the Baby Cakes to cheer for!
Local golf fans are atwitter at the innovative changes adopted by the Zurich Classic PGA stop, which tees up April 27-30. This year, the Zurich has adopted a team format where golfers will pair up and engage in some old-fashioned mud-wrestling on the links. Former world No. 1 Jason Day will team with Rickie Fowler, and 2015 Zurich Classic champion Justin Rose with Henrik Stenson, the Olympic gold and silver medalists, respectively. The 2014 champion Seung-Yul Noh will pair with Byeong Hun An, who made the three-person playoff last year.
The format also will create some great matchups among former SEC golfers. John Peterson and Andrew Loupe, who played for LSU, will form a team, joining the Auburn pairing of Jason Dufner with Patton Kizzire and the Alabama team of Justin Thomas and Bud Cauley. Former LSU player Smylie Kaufman is teaming with Harold Varner III, who wore purple and gold in college - for East Carolina. Florida Gator alums Billy Horschel, who won the tournament in 2013, will pair with Matt Every, and former Georgia Bulldogs Harris English and Hudson Swafford have paired up. The 2011 Zurich champ Bubba Watson (Georgia) will team with J.B. Holmes (Kentucky) in what promises to be a closely watched effort to pump some excitement into the game.
The event of greatest interest, at least in these parts, comes April 27-29 with the NFL Draft. Sport's biggest off-season event prompts fans to channel personnel guys and try to decide where their team will focus. The Saints will generate a great deal of interest this year with two No. 1 picks and five in the top three rounds, if they don’t lose any in trades. They will continue to bolster their defense, which they supplemented by re-signing DT Nick Fairley and adding LB’s Manti Te'o and A.J. Klein and defensive lineman Alex Okafor. Draft day is the epitome of optimism where every pick will be a Pro Bowler.
In the midst of the Zurich and the Draft, the Jazz and Heritage Festival reveals other types of athletes who display their endurance. Anybody who attends more than two or three of the seven-day music festival spread over two weekends is an athlete in my book!
March’s reputation of coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb is kind of wussy when you consider that April can begin in the emotional ecstasy of an NCAA championship or dash you against the rocks and take away your dreams. But the rest of the month provides plenty of opportunity for hope that things can get better.
My old Kentucky home is sad but hopeful today. Obviously sad because my beloved Wildcats came in second to North Carolina Sunday in their bid for another national championship. Hopeful because I am appearing three times this week to promote and sign copies of my new book, “Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanished Tradition.” I’ll talk more about that later, but let’s get the sad stuff out of the way first.
NCAA tournament time is a time of sweet agony for Kentucky fans. We expect our team will not only be title contenders every year but every so often will prevail over all others. UK has won the NCAA title eight times before, more than anybody other than UCLA, and every year since 2012 we have looked for number 9. We won't get it this year after in the 75-73 loss to the Tar Heels for a variety of reasons. Many fans are grousing today about some bad calls by the referees. Bam Adebayo’s waived-off follow-up in the first half was clearly out of the cylinder and not goal-tending, and some questionable foul calls kept De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk on the sidelines for far too long. But blaming the referees is just an excuse when your team shoots 41%, blows at least two layups, your 3-point specialist goes 0 for 5 and you miss six free throws. The offensive breakdown was disappointing after the defensive effort was so intense, but, bottom line, we lost, North Carolina won and we shift into next year mode: Who is leaving, who is staying and how well will the nation’s current No. 1 ranked recruiting class give us the same agony of anticipation next year?
And now, let’s talk about why this is a very hopeful week for your favorite local author. Monday night, I have my first presentation and book-signing for “Integrated.” The location is the Shelbyville Library, just a few miles from the campus of Lincoln Institute, the high school that gave many African American boys and girls an opportunity they might not have had otherwise in a segregated society.
I have talked to many family members and old friends who promise to be there, including many “Lincolnites” who will share in this celebration of their beloved school. Those include Danny Thomas, the sixth man for the 1960 Lincoln Tigers and one of the many Lawrenceburg natives who attended Lincoln. Another expected attendee is Bob McDowell who, as a player at Simpsonville High School, saw the running and gunning Tigers up close. McDowell also provided one of my favorite quotes in the book. Talking about Tiger star Bill Crayton’s jumping ability, McDowell recalls dropping low in perfect defensive position, but when Crayton jumped “all I saw were his kneecaps!”
My second talk-and-sign appearance will be Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Lexington at Joseph-Beth Bookseller in the Mall at Lexington Green, just outside New Circle Road off Nicholasville Road. Hoping to attend is Gary Brown, a 1962 Lincoln graduate who rose to an executive position during thirty years at IBM. Brown, then president of the Lincoln Foundation, was the first person I interviewed about the book and gave me a wonderful sense of pride that Lincoln students carried for the rest of their lives. Gary is listed as questionable, recovering from knee surgery, although he denies he was injured when he tried to take his son-in-law, Tayshaun Prince, to the rack.
The final appearance will be in Louisville at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Filson Historical Society, 1310 S. Third Street. Expected to attend is John McGill, whose story is one of the more impactful in the book. Growing up in the predominantly black West End of Louisville, McGill gravitated to the unlikely sport of tennis, learning on the public courts of Chickasaw Park before rising to become doubles partner to young Arthur Ashe. McGill became the first African American player to start for a Kentucky high school boys basketball champion when his Flaget Braves won the 1960 title. But he still was not allowed to play tennis at the prestigious Louisville Boat Club because of his color.
So put your Wildcat hankies down for an evening and join us at one of these events. I can promise you no bad calls will be made!