The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Readers of the Monday morning wipe in New Orleans learned of an $11 million donation by Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The first $10 million of the gift would support a $24 million renovation of the Hall of Fame’s Fawcett Stadium while the remaining $1 million would go to a mixed-use residence for Hall of Famers and other retired NFL players and employees. (Gee, I wonder if I can use it, as a guy who slogged through twenty years in the NFL background?)
Just below that front-page story appeared another one, reporting that the University of New Orleans may have to terminate its popular UNO Poll because of budget cuts. It was an interesting juxtaposition that awoke an old ghost. Tom Benson never paid $100,000 from a 2002 pledge to help renovate the UNO baseball facility. Of course, strings were attached, some known and some unknown, and maybe Benson believes UNO did not fulfill its end of the bargain, or maybe he just forgot. I’ll let you decide when you hear the rest of the story.
Let me say up front that nobody has more respect for Tom Benson than I do. I worked for him for ten years and even after he let me go a few months ahead of Jim Mora in 1996, he tried to help me find another job in the League. Forget that it was Buffalo, Benson’s philanthropy is probably unequaled in the tier below the Bill Gateses of the world. New Orleans’ most important sportsman donated $8 million to his alma mater Loyola University in 2010, $5 million to Ochsner Hospital in 2012, $7.5 million toward the construction of Tulane’s Yulman Stadium, $10 million to Brother Martin High School and $5 million to Team Gleason for ALS research. Benson donated funds to build the Benson Memorial Library at Central Catholic High School, and he and his wife, Gayle, funded the building of a football stadium known as Gayle and Tom Benson Field on the campus of University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
But then there’s that UNO thing. In the fall of 2002, after I had applied for the job of Athletic Director at UNO, I was invited to a retirement dinner for Ron Maestri. Tommy Lasorda and the late Kirby Puckett spoke, and it was a nice tribute to the end of Maestri’s first career as UNO’s baseball coach and AD. But during the dinner, then-chancellor Greg O’Brien made the announcement that Tom Benson had pledged $200,000 in a matching grant to help fund improvements to UNO’s baseball stadium. The facility had deteriorated after its last renovation in 1993, paid for when Rob Couhig brought the Zephyrs baseball team to New Orleans.
I thought at the time that it wasn’t much money for naming rights to the grandstand, which O’Brien announced would be called “Benson Pavilion.” Of course, there was a lot about UNO I did not know until I got the AD job in January, 2003. I later learned that Benson, a Navy veteran, allegedly made the pledge in return for O’Brien’s promise to use UNO’s influence to persuade the state to buy and renovate the old Coast Guard Station at West End. Ignorant of such an agreement, my first fund-raising effort was, indeed, the baseball project.
Our efforts quickly surpassed the original $200,000 that would trigger Benson’s pledge. But we never saw any money until I had conversations with Arnie Fielkow, who was the Saints’ chief operating officer at the time. He assured me the money was coming, and we received the first $50,000. We did not see any more money for several months, but after I bought a car from a Benson dealership, I called Fielkow and told him to make sure Benson knew it. Another $50,000 came shortly thereafter, but Fielkow suggested that Benson wanted to make sure UNO could raise the rest of the money it needed before he would hand over the rest of his pledge.
A seismic event occurred about that time that might have changed Benson’s thinking. O’Brien was fired by the LSU System, which governed UNO. I still did not know about O’Brien’s discussions with Benson, but the fact that O’Brien was out of the picture could have torpedoed the agreement. Hurricane Katrina soon changed everything for all of us. Fielkow was fired for standing up to Benson’s inclination to move the Saints to San Antonio, and I was just trying to keep a crippled program together.
I don’t know why Benson was not approached again by UNO for a donation, and maybe he was. But when the story appeared Monday morning touting his latest multi-million dollar gift right above a story of UNO’s continued financial decline, it triggered some memories. Fulfilling a pledge of $100,000 today might not salvage UNO’s Research Center, but it might put some old ghosts to rest.
I once knew a guy I called “Yebbit,” because no matter what opinion I would toss onto the table, he would respond with “yeah, but …” and then go off on his own ill-informed tangent 180 degrees the other way. Sometimes right, and sometimes wrong but always in a direction opposite my own. So I took that person’s “yeah, but …” response and came up with the name “Yebbit.” The loyalists in Who Dat Nation are channeling Yebbit today after the Saints’ disappointing 27-10 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday. If you haven’t participated in these discussions already at work or in the grocery or at school, they are not hard to envision.
“To have a 4-6 record at this point in the season is hugely disappointing,” says the Unbeliever. “Yeah, but …” responds Yebbit, “they have lost four games by a total of nine points, so they could just as easily be 8-2 right now.” The Unbeliever invokes the wisdom of Coach Bill Parcells, who once said: “You are what your record says you are.” “Yeah, but … the Saints are still tied for first place in the dog ass NFC South,” responds Yebbit. The Unbeliever corrects him that Atlanta has the tie-breaker, so the Saints are really in second place right now. “Yeah, but … they play Atlanta again, at home, and Carolina at home and Tampa is so bad they could play on the runway at Tampa International Airport.”
The Unbeliever notes that the Saints go on the road this week to Baltimore, which has won four in a row at home, as well as at Chicago, where the Saints never win. “Yeah, but … the Bears have lost three of four at home this year and I’d take a split with the Ravens and Bears.” Don’t forget that the Saints also go to Pittsburgh, which is 4-1 at home. “Yeah, but … their home loss was to Tampa! That makes them beatable anywhere!” Well, two straight losses at the Dome has taken the bloom off the so-called invincibility of the Superdome as a place that visitors fear. "Yeah, but ... name one other place where nobody wants to play. "
Well, part of home-field advantage is stopping the other team, which the Saints haven’t been able to do very well. “Yeah, but … four of the teams they have yet to play have worse defenses. The Saints defense is ranked No. 21 today, but Atlanta, Tampa, Chicago and Carolina are all ranked lower.” The Saints defense isn't going to get much better if it continues to lose players at key positions. “Yeah, but … those other teams don’t have an offense like we do.”
Drew Brees has not exactly been his old self in the clutch this year. His turnovers have cost more games than he has late comebacks. “Yeah, but … I would still rather have the fourth best passer of all time running my offense, and Jimmy Graham on the receiving end.” Don’t you think Brees often depends too much on Graham even when he’s double- and triple-covered? “Yeah, but … he’s got Cooks and Colston and Stills, all of whom caught at least four balls Sunday.” What good are wide receivers when Brees has almost abandoned the downfield pass? He didn't complete a pass over 17 yards, maybe because the offensive line is not giving him enough time? “Yeah, but … he can still keep a defense off balance with quick pops to the running backs. The backs caught 15 balls against Cincy.”
Bottom line is the Saints are 4-6, and you have to admit they are not a very good football team right now. “Yeah, but … we’ve got six more games, and anything can happen!”
Earlier this week, my friend and golfing buddy Scott Whittenburg sent me pictures of the first snowfall of the season at his home in Missoula, Montana. A former vice chancellor at UNO, Scott moved to the Far West a couple years ago and, with the exception of the shorter golfing season, has found his little bit of heaven. How can you not love it when you see the picture out his back door of a snow-covered meadow bordering a meandering creek that backs up to a mountain range? That is pure National Geographic!
Scott’s snowfall picture is purely coincidental to the 45-degree reading in South Louisiana this morning or the mid-20 readings in Lexington. But, ladies and gents, to borrow the catchline from Game of Thrones: “Winter is coming!” It might not snow this year in the swamplands of south Louisiana, but this week’s drop in temperatures is a good reminder to start planning your winter workouts. You’re never too old to stay in shape and maintain your conditioning, no matter if it’s snowing outside or whether it’s just a bit less pleasant than you prefer. Colder weather is no excuse to stop exercising, especially for those of us who have graduated to the exalted status as "seniors"!
Regular readers of this space know I’ve been running for more than forty years, in good weather and bad and despite some nagging injuries along the way. I am right now in the middle of rehabbing a pulled thigh muscle which has kept me off the streets since September 15 and probably will into the new year. But a forced layoff only means you go to Plan B and find a substitute for your preferred routine. My alternative is an exercise bicycle, which is boring as mud but which allows me to work up a sweat over a 30- to 40-minute session.
You may not know this, but inside this lithe, 175-pound frame is the heart of a 225-pound defensive end. At least, that is how much I weighed and the position I played in high school. I took the reverse route from most college students, who put on the Freshman 15, when I lost about forty pounds my first two years of college. My secret was the Luden’s menthol cough drop diet. Whenever I would get hungry, I would pop a cough drop, which instantly killed my appetite until I needed another. I started running when I received my induction notice on June 1, 1971, thinking I’d better get into some sort of shape before basic training killed me. Over the next three weeks, I worked up to two miles and basic training became more mental tedium than physical agony. But I digress.
My message today is to avoid the months of Fatember and Flabuary by adopting or maintaining a regular workout program. I have a guide on the “Stay Fit” tab of this page that includes some easy stretching exercises that will strengthen your core muscles. As my own satisfied customer, I can assure you that these exercises over the past three years have reduced my recurring back pain and given me a great start to the day. That is important to a card-carrying Sixty-Something. I can’t stress more sincerely: if you don’t use it, you will lose it. Get out there and do something!
As Southeastern Conference schools continue to cannibalize each other, their worst nightmare is quickly becoming reality. The early giddy fantasy that three of the four teams in college football’s first-ever playoff would carry the SEC label is gradually disintegrating into a possible SEC Shutout. Disciples of SEC football do not like to consider the possibility that their meat-grinder schedules might work against the best football conference in America and produce exactly zero representatives when the selection committee makes its final decision on December 7.
The irony of SEC hopefuls being sunk on Pearl Harbor Day increased Saturday with Texas A&M’s upset of a formerly invincible but suddenly fumbling, bumbling Auburn, which gave the Tigers two losses. How can it happen, you cry, with No. 1 Mississippi State still undefeated and Alabama slipping back into the top four with its road victory at LSU? Watch closely, grasshopper.
The Bulldogs go to Alabama this weekend, so one of them will lose. If Bama wins, then State drops probably to No. 4, still in the mix. However, the Bulldogs wind up the season at arch-rival Ole Miss, which already has played its way out. If the Rebs win, State has two losses and drops out of the top four. If Bama wins, it still has the Iron Bowl game with Auburn. Worst case: Bama beats State and loses to Auburn then State loses to Ole Miss. Every SEC contender has two losses, which will make it tough for them to overcome the handful of hopeful one-loss teams.
Speaking of whom, the group of non-SEC teams inching toward the top cluster all face favorable schedules. Florida State should waltz home undefeated with games against Miami, Boston College and Florida to take over the top ranking. Oregon would hold onto No. 2 with wins over two average teams, Colorado and Oregon State. Of the others hoping to move into the top cluster, TCU seems to be the pollsters’ darlings and has only Kansas, Texas and Iowa State remaining. The Longhorns could surprise the visiting Frogs, but that’s a longshot. Arizona State inserted itself into the conversation with a resounding win over Notre Dame on Saturday and has two easy home games with Oregon State and Washington State before heading to arch-rival Arizona on Thanksgiving Saturday. Baylor has a bit tougher road with Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Kansas State, but it plays the Cowboys and Wildcats at home. Ohio State also is moving up the chart and has only Minnesota on the road before coming home to face pathetic Indiana and even more pathetic Michigan. Sweeps by any of these teams could propel them into the mix if one or more of the aforementioned teams slip up.
That paints a darkened scenario for the SEC, but one that must be measured according to the committee’s published standards. You can read it for yourself on the committee’s website: http://www.collegefootballplayoff.com, but this is what it says: “The committee will select the teams using a process that distinguishes among otherwise comparable teams by considering conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory) and other relevant factors that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.”
That probably doesn't make anyone between the Ohio River and the Sabine feel any better. For two SEC teams to make the Final Four, the best-case scenario would be for Alabama to beat both Mississippi State and Auburn and for Mississippi State to beat Ole Miss. Only then would the earth’s rotation return to normal in the southern football hemisphere.
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, a sport it sponsored between 1965-1971. Of course, it would not be Division I football that enamors the masses, but it would be football and it would create a platform where alums could gather, tailgate on crisp fall afternoons and generate some school spirit that was so mournfully lacking.
I bring this up because a story in a recent Sports Illustrated issue informs us that despite the negative press that college football has generated recently with antitrust lawsuits, efforts to unionize and player misconduct, seven schools from NAIA up to Division II introduced new teams this year. According to the National Football Foundation, the number of football teams across all divisions is 767, an all-time high. The current buzzword behind all this is an effort to increase “co-curricular” activities which means that every activity on campus contributes to the university’s educational mission.
That last statement was one the former UNO administration never could quite understand. My proposal would have created 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 would be willing to pay for the opportunity to keep playing. 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 such as the TOPS program, the other dozen or so would pay full in-state price, and the out of staters would, presumably, pay full non-resident prices.
According to the UNO website, those numbers for one academic year are $7,242 for in-state tuition and $20,852 for out of state. As any parent with college students in the house knows, the numbers grow significantly when you add in another $10,000 for room and board, books and fees. So if UNO recruited a dozen local kids at the full price of about $20,000, another 13 at the discounted rate of $13,000, and twenty-five out of staters at about $33,600, you get a grand total of fifty new students and $1,249,000 in revenue that you didn’t have before football.
That does not take into account additional revenue from ticket sales, concessions, souvenir sales or the increased donations that usually follow athletics. Of course, you have expenses, but even factoring in costs of uniforms, travel and medical care would not get close to the potential cumulative revenue. In addition is the argument of “intangible benefit” - school spirit, pride and loyalty - that the previous administration never could understand.
Another report submitted to the administration in those days included a chart showing that free advertising from newspaper stories and media coverage of UNO's existing 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. UNO did sponsor a club team for a couple years, and it achieved some early success, but in typical UNO fashion, the administration was too fixated on what was and could never envision what might be. Trying to make a logical case for football at UNO turned out to be another familiar exercise of howling at the moon.
Unfortunately, after a positive start, the present administration seems to be tracking the path of the old one. Such things as Privateer Awards for top out-of-state students and tuition waivers for graduate assistants have been jettisoned. It just does not appear that UNO is doing anything to attract top out-of-state students looking for an educational bargain in a great city. Enrollment that had hit 17,300 before Katrina, and fell to 12,000 Katrina, now hovers around 8,500, according to my sources. With the twin crises of falling enrollment and decreased state funding taking most of the attention, reviving club football probably is not a consideration. You can’t take something off the table that was never on the table.
The SI story did ask and answer one question that UNO administrators should consider: Q: Why start a football team in 2014? A: To become a “sepia-toned piece of genuine Americana” because for 3,000 or more people to show up at a college activity and almost nobody goes home unhappy is a good thing.