The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Hats off to the Saints for drafting the players they believe will help get the team back to the playoffs. Who cares if the so-called media experts are not that enamored of the modest Who Dat haul? The 20-20 visionaries prefer lots of picks, and when a team has only five it limits the pats on the back. The true measure should be that the team used some choices to trade up and acquire players they believe will contribute, either now or down the line. A team can act in the draft or they can react to what the teams around them do.
The Saints acted in trading up to acquire Ohio State S Vonn Bell in the second round, and they traded up to get David Onyemata, an unknown defensive lineman from the University of Manitoba, in the fourth round. I’d love to hear the stories and motivation behind those decisions. I wonder how many stories this year’s Saints’ picks will generate for the next generation of retired NFL types? I have seen a lot of acting and reacting over the years. Some moves work. Sometimes patience pays. And, at other times, you just get a good story.
Jim Finks once told me the best pick he ever made when he was the Chicago Bears GM was an unknown defensive end from Tennessee State in the eighth round. More than 200 players had come off the board in the 1983 draft and the Bears were on the clock. Finks liked the player’s physical gifts but every other team had passed him by multiple times because of his skinny frame of barely 200 pounds over a 6-5 frame. But Finks had done his homework and found out that the player did not eat well because he had bad teeth and it hurt him to chew. Finks acted, got Richard Dent’s teeth fixed and wound up with a future NFL Hall of Famer.
I was in Chicago during the 2001 draft, and we took WR David Terrell of Michigan with the No. 8 pick. But as the picks fell off the board, GM Mark Hatley wanted to trade back into the first round for a player he loved. He talked with his counterpart at the Saints, who were picking No. 23, and offered the Bears’ second-round pick along with the Bears’ No. 1 pick in 2002. But Hadley had to get the approval of the team president who did not want to give up a future first-rounder. The deal dead, the Saints used the pick on Ole Miss RB Deuce McAllister, the man Hatley coveted.
I was in the Saints’ war room for the 1987 draft. We were picking in the No. 11 slot, and we had our guy targeted. Personnel director Billy Kuharich suggested we trade up to make certain we got our guy, but GM Jim Finks didn’t want to give away any picks to move up when we needed all the help we could get. So we waited and sweated, and our guy was still there with only the Pittsburgh Steelers ahead of us. Sure enough, the Steelers plucked the gleams from our eye when they picked DB Rod Woodson of Purdue.
The draft is act or react, so that left us with Plan 2. Our defensive line was shaky and Finks wanted a defensive lineman. But Kuharich jumped on the table and lobbied hard for North Carolina OT Harris Barton, saying Barton would lock up a position for ten years, and he’d be in the Pro Bowl. But we needed a defensive lineman more than another offensive lineman, so Finks insisted we draft for need. Anybody remember Sean Knight? Barton exceeded Kuharich’s prediction with a 12-year career that included Pro Bowls, All-NFL selections and three Super Bowl championships with the hated 49ers. Sometimes you act, and sometimes you react, then at other times you just get a good story.
I was in Buffalo during the 1997 draft, and we picked a player in the fifth round who the media experts predicted would go in the second round. However, our scouts and apparently everybody else’s scouts knew what the Mel Kipers did not, that the player wasn’t exactly a brain surgeon. Hell, he had a hard time cutting his steak. So when our player personnel director Dwight Adams met the press, the first question was “why did he fall so far?” Dwight, a syrup-voiced southern gentleman from Arkansas, did not want to embarrass the player before the world. So he thought a minute and then commented: “Let’s just say he’s a slow blinker!”
Sometimes you act, sometimes you react, and sometimes you just settle for a great story!
For anyone who has ever sat in an NFL war room on draft day, you know that the players your team ultimately select often depends on one question. Where do they draw the line? It is one of the frustrations of draft day that when you are picking in the No. 12 hole, your evaluations tell you there are only eight players above the first line. But NFL decision-makers are a resourceful lot, and you can still help your team if you pay attention to the lines. And that’s when the fun begins.
Here’s how the lines work. Picture an NFL draft board like a graph in which hundreds of prospects are listed according to skill and position. The horizontal line across the top lists the dozen or so positions, and at the far left a vertical line designates the numerical grade of each player. In the middle of the graph, the players are placed under their position at their appropriate grade level. When the final board is set, inevitably after late tweaks on Draft Day, you know how your scouts and personnel people rank the draft class. And then you look at where they draw the lines.
The first line is the sure-fire, can’t miss difference-makers who can step into the lineup and contribute immediately, maybe future All-Pros. The second line is drawn to include the next level of players who could contribute in the first year but who should be a solid starter. The third, fourth or fifth lines are drawn according to each team’s evaluation of the players and their own needs. But your lines do not necessarily include the same players as those drawn by the 31 other teams. So who will the Saints pick at No. 12 in the 2016 NFL Draft this week? It depends on who is above the first line.
Armed with that knowledge, let me tell you what I would do if I were making the decisions for the Saints. Defense is the obvious area of concern, especially after a season in which the Saints ranked statistically among the worst defenses of all time. But there is such a thing on draft day as being “too obvious.” That might be a benefit to the Saints in a draft that reputedly is one of the deepest in years in defensive linemen. Most mock drafts have the Saints taking DT Sheldon Rankins of Louisville. At 6-1, 299 pounds, Rankins is a little light inside for my liking, but he is reputed to have good quickness and ability to penetrate. I believe smaller guys get pushed around, but it all depends on where the Saints draw the line on Rankins.
If they love him, they take him, but what if another player above my first line works better for my team? I might be tempted to trade down a few slots and pick up maybe a fourth- or fifth-rounder, and then select Ole Miss’ WR Laquon Treadwell. At 6-2, 222 pounds, Treadwell is a big receiver who could take the Marques Colston vacancy for the next ten years. Most mock drafts have Treadwell falling well below the No. 12 slot, but just remember Jerry Rice fell to No. 16 in the 1985 draft. Wonder where the Saints draw the line on Treadwell, who would thrive in the Payton-Brees offense?
I have not abandoned defense, and I still have my sights on a contributor. With Treadwell in the barn, I would lay behind a log until the bottom of the first round and see if my dark horse candidate is still waiting by the phone. If so, I would try and trade back up into the first round and select DE Kevin Dodd of Clemson. Dodd is an interesting guy, because if you look at the Mel Kipers or Todd McShays of the world, nobody has him in the first round. And why not? He is a 6-5, 277-pound edge rusher who came on strong last year with eight sacks in the Tigers’ final five games, outperforming his more highly regarded teammate, Shaq Lawson. He is considered raw with only one full season of extensive playing time, but I like him for another “out there” reason.
My friend Jeff Duncan of the Times-Picayune has a good insiders’ opinion of what the Saints will do, and Duncan has picked Dodd for the No. 12 spot on several of his mock drafts. Nobody else has picked him that high, but Duncan often knows something the rest of us don’t. The Saints have made a special trip to Clemson to scout Dodd, and it is an area of crying need. This scenario only works depending on where the Saints have drawn the line on Dodd.
After those two picks, I’d take the best offensive tackles, offensive guards or rush ends on the board, depending on where I’ve drawn the line.
He hasn’t yet, but if University of New Orleans president Dr. John Nicklow asks for my advice on how he can lift UNO out of its post-Katrina doldrums, I have an answer. Do whatever it takes to give baseball coach Blake Dean whatever he needs to assure success for the Privateer program.
It’s not THE answer, because UNO has sustained more self-inflicted damage and mismanagement than any institution short of the Republican Party. But AN answer is to put the bulk of your marketing budget into the athletic program, and at UNO it starts with baseball. The Privateers were the first school in Louisiana to play in the College World Series and enjoyed multiple NCAA tournament appearances, even after Hurricane Katrina.
Nicklow, who has been on the job for one month, has a chance to do what his predecessors did not, for varying reasons. Peter Fos, who retired last year, was simply overwhelmed by the job, while his predecessor, Tim Ryan, thought the way to solvency was by diminishing people and programs, including athletics. The real shame is that UNO Athletics was rebounding nicely two years after Hurricane Katrina, with conference baseball titles and NCAA appearances. Add to that a dynamic young basketball coach whose team upset the No. 21-ranked North Carolina State on his first road trip, and athletics at UNO was poised for a revival.
But as that eminent philosopher of western civilization, Willie Nelson, wrote: “Regret is just a memory written on your brow, but there’s nothing I can do about it now!” If you want the details, buy the book to your upper right that delineates the sad deterioration of a once-proud program, but the purpose of this screed is to promote a path to prosperity. Hell, long-time UNO followers would take a few years of middling after the disaster of the past five years! What we are seeing on the Lakefront right now, however, portends even greater things.
The UNO baseball team under first-year coach Dean has a 20-15 record at this writing, the first winning record of any major UNO team since the Ryannihilation of athletics in 2010. That puts them in the middle of the 13-school Southland Conference, which is a good baseball conference. It's a step forward, and it is not surprising that it started with Ron Maestri. The UNO legend left a cushy semi-retirement (God, he'll hate that!) three years ago to come back and fix the damage. His teams showed more spunk than their records would indicate, but Maes put things back on track with his hiring of Dean. The former star of LSU’s 2009 NCAA championship team has just turned 28, but already he has displayed his understanding of success in college athletics: a relentless passion for recruiting and selling your program.
So, how is this good advice for new president Nicklow? Effective marketing of your product is simply making the public aware of your principal assets. Athletics, particularly baseball and basketball, are news events that are covered (for free) by the local media. Best of all, it keeps the UNO name before the public, opening the door to the university. Once you get them in the door, you can show them any number of other attractions you have to offer. The modern bonus is that you can promote your best assets basically for free through the social media explosion - Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blogs, websites and other devices we haven’t even thought of yet.
For example, I received a Twitter this morning from a certain 28-year-old head coach that went like this: “So PROUD of this team! They get punched in the mouth but get back up and continue to fight! Reached our 20th WIN!!!” Blake Dean understands it. I hope Dr. Nicklow does, too.
The veteran player sat in front of the general manager’s desk, his head in his hands. He had spent the previous season, his sixth in the NFL, on the injured reserve list with a knee injury. Now, in training camp, he had blown out the other knee when tackled on a kickoff return. He knew it was over. The GM had been in this situation many times, when a player comes to the end of the road, and he knew it wasn’t easy. But he saw something in this young man who had survived six years after becoming the 249th player drafted in 1981, in the 10th round. He might not even have been drafted years later, when the draft was limited to 224 slots. He had defied the odds, enjoyed a solid career, and now the GM had other plans for him.
“Hokie,” said GM Jim Finks. “How would you like to be a scout?” This scene really happened, because I was sitting in the room when Howard “Hokie” Gajan from Baker, Louisiana, was given the opportunity to spend his lifetime around the sport he loved. It’s ironic that only days after another former Saint, Will Smith, was tragically killed in violence that another icon of Who Dat Nation was felled by cancer. But we mourn differently, and while we mourn Will Smith with sorrow and confusion at his needless loss, we mourn Hokie with a smile on our face and a celebration of a life well lived.
To a modern generation of Saints fans, Hokie was the color man to Jim Henderson on Saints broadcasts. While Henderson was George Burns or Bud Abbot, usually the straight man, Hokie was Lou Costello or Gracie Allen, whose analysis often resembled a punchline. Even a poignant moment, such as the Saints’ return to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, was captured in the Hokie-Henderson repartee. “I just get goosebumps all over my body when I see this,” Hokie said, “and you know how hard that is.” Henderson’s rejoinder: “It would be even harder for me looking at your body covered with goosebumps.” “Well, that’s your problem,” Hokie replied.
Hokie’s analysis of plays and players was littered with down-home descriptions. In a 2012 broadcast, Hokie said that trying to tackle Darren Sproles was "like trying to tackle a fast armadillo!" Still my favorite was his call of Reggie Bush’s zig-zag between tacklers for a touchdown. “He was runnin’ around like a sprayed roach,” Hokie said fondly. Hokie’s status as a broadcaster opened an unlikely door as a pitchman, a job he was amazed that people would pay him to do. But his commercials, which ranged from a foundation shoring company to a waste disposal company – “Our business stinks, but it’s picking up!” - became treasured New Orleans standards.
Back to the beginning, Hokie was a good scout, responsible for any NFL prospect in Louisiana’s abundant college football system. In the war room during the draft, when a player’s name would come up, Jim Finks would ask the area scout to talk about him. Humble man that he was, Hokie was not comfortable at first telling a roomful of football lifers how much he knew, but when it was his job and when the boss asks, Hokie delivered. But he was still Hokie.
I remember the American Bowl game in 1990 when the Saints traveled to London to play the Raiders. The night before the game, personnel chief Billy Kuharich took the scouts and other execs out for dinner at a white-cloth London restaurant. I was sitting across from Hokie, who seemed confused by the menu. Finally, he ordered fish, but when the order came, he looked at the plate and saw his meal - head, tail, fins and all. He looked across the table at me and said: “I’m sorry, Mr. Miller, but I can’t eat nothing that looks like a mullet staring back at me!” That was Hokie.
Today we mourn another beloved Saint, but, thankfully, when we mourn Hokie Gajan, we can do it with a smile.
The death of former Saints’ player Will Smith is tragic for many reasons, not the least of which is “why?” First reports said Smith’s death was the result of road rage by a man whose Hummer rear-ended Smith’s Mercedes. Later reports suggested that the shooter, Cordell Hayes, knew that Smith and his wife had dined that evening with a former police officer who was connected with a wrongful death suit Hayes filed against six police officers after police killed his father in 2005. Did he follow the Smiths home and precipitate a confrontation?
Either way, the death was senseless, as violence usually is, but our reaction reveals much about ourselves. Most of us never met Will Smith, but we knew he played for the Saints, therefore, he was beloved. He was a first-round draft choice in 2004 and an important member of a team inherited by new coach Sean Payton in 2006. Smith led the Saints with a career-high 13 sacks in 2009, when the club won its only Super Bowl, and his 67½ career sacks rank fourth in team history.
Smith’s death is not more important than that of any other person who dies from violence, but we pay more attention to it. The deaths of innocent victims appear in the news every day in nearly every major city, but we have become numbed. Most reported homicides contain evil intent such as gang rivalries, violent robbery or drug deals gone wrong. Most of the time we turn the page or wait until the weather report comes on, ignoring that human tragedy leaves collateral damage. Children, parents, spouses and friends of a man killed violently are left to wonder why it happened. But when a prominent figure, well known in the community, is an innocent victim, the collateral damage is extended to us. Stay tuned for the weather.
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What can you say about Jordan Spieth’s implosion that cost him his second straight Masters? Weekend golfers are telling their friends today that they can relate. If it hadn’t been for those triple bogeys on No. 2 and No. 10, I woulda broke 90! No, bunkie, that’s not relating to what Spieth did. Not at all.
First off, Spieth had a quadruple-bogey, which weekend golfers never get because of something called the Equitable Stroke Control system. The penalty slides depending on a player’s official USGA handicap, but amateurs with handicaps of 10-19 are limited to a three-over-par score on any hole. In other words, if I and my 17 handicap had done what Spieth did – plunked two in the water then hit over the green into a trap, my next shot is my last official stroke. whether it goes in the hole or I blade it into the water.
Three lost balls is my worst penalty, I write 6 on my card and move on. But I can’t relate to what Spieth did. He lost a Masters jacket, a lot of money and an adoring public who doesn’t recognize that even the best among us is mortal.
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I’m enjoying the baseball season already. The reason is that in December, I switched from cable to DirecTV, whose vast array of channels includes NESN, the New England Sports Network. Already, I have watched parts of all five Red Sox games and have some confidence that my favorite team will do well this year. But more importantly, NESN brings up fond memories of my late father.
Dad was a Red Sox fan from boyhood, when Boston’s top farm team was the hometown Louisville Colonels. He was a fan back when Pee Wee Reese was a Colonels’ shortstop and would have been called up to the big team if the player-manager had not been Hall of Fame shortstop Joe Cronin. Not ready to give up his position, Cronin traded Reese to Brooklyn, and the rest, as they say, is history.
When the big satellite dishes came out, Dad dismissed them like any other newfound disruption to his unhurried life, until he discovered that he could use it to watch the Red Sox. Satellite dishes in those days were huge bowls that looked strangely like the space disks that UFO watchers supposedly caught on film. But Dad did not care what it looked like. He had it installed between the house and the barn as a testament that even Charlie Miller of Clark’s Station, Kentucky, could take advantage of technology.
And that’s where my brother and I could find him whenever the Sox were playing, at his favorite easy chair in front of the television watching his favorite team on NESN. Happy Patriot’s Day, Dad!