The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
A week or so ago, I had planned today’s column as the official wake for the New Orleans Pelicans. After all, they had betrayed the promise of a four-game win streak before the All-Star game by losing to some really bad teams like the Pacers and the Magic. Then, they lost their only superstar when Anthony Davis reinjured the shoulder that kept him out of the All-Star game, and long-range bomber Ryan Anderson went down with a knee injury. With point guard Jrue Holiday already sitting in the whirlpool, the Pels feature the NBA’s most expensive training room. The trading deadline came, and while other teams in the West were loading up for the stretch run, the Pelican brass moved the deck chairs around on the sinking deck, trading Arnie Portocarrero for Danny Kravitz.
Excuse me, but when you trade John Salmons for Norris Cole and acquire cap expendables such as Shawne Williams, Justin Hamilton and Ish Smith along with draft rights to somebody named Latavious Williams, it puts me in a 1957 baseball trading card mood! Everybody else in the West helped themselves, including Phoenix and Oklahoma City, the Pelicans’ main competitors for the eighth playoff spot. And with Davis and Anderson out for at least two weeks, what were we to expect but to fall lower in the standings, possibly low enough to fall out of contention altogether before Easter?
So what do they do? They screwed up a good column by winning. I don’t know how. The Pelicans roster is the NBA’s version of the Witness Protection Program because nobody has ever heard of them. The only way most of these guys would qualify as McDonald’s All-Americans would be to eat twenty Big Macs at one sitting. Call it smoke and mirrors, legerdemain or just some old fashioned New Orleans gris-gris, these guys are suddenly playing like NBA players, which has rekindled playoff hopes in the NBA’s toughest conference.
It’s a major tribute to Coach Monty Williams, who is considered one of the better young coaches in the league. He has the team in a defensive mindset, guarding the 3-point line and relying on Omer Asik and the revivified Alexis Ajinca to guard the bucket. He is getting heroic offensive performances from different guys every night. Ajinca scored 16 points and Luke Babbitt picked up 18 as the Pels came from 18 down to beat Toronto 100-97 on Feb. 23. Even newly acquired Danny Kravitz, er, uh, Norris Cole, added 15 in that game. Another new arrival, Quincy Pondexter, (wasn’t he the bandleader on Saturday Night Live?), scored 25 in a 102-96 win over the Nets. Ajinca did his best impression of Davis, scoring 24 in a 104-102 win over Miami. Even Eric Gordon, who has spent more time in the recovery room than Marcus Welby, scored 24 in a 105-91 win over Miami. And Sunday night, the Pelicans won their fifth in a row as Tyreke Evans, the only star still standing, scored 22 points, and the defense held off the struggling Denver Nuggets 99-92.
We can play the what-if game and say what if the Pelicans were in the East Conference, they would be tied with the Bucks for a No. 6 seed. The No. 8 seed in the East right now is nine games under .500. However, they live in the NBA’s Western Division where ten teams have winning records and a rich playoff heritage.
Despite the current surge, GM Dell Demps is still on my hot seat. After Davis fell into their lap at No. 1 in 2012, they spent a No. 10 pick on Austin Rivers who should be finishing up his senior year at Duke. The disastrous trade in which the team acquired Jrue Holiday in summer of 2013 for two No. 1 picks is haunting them. They traded this year’s No. 1 for Asik, which so far has turned out for the better.
But with no picks this year in what could be a good draft, the Pelicans had better hope that the training room clears out soon and stays empty for the foreseeable future. The no-names are winning, but a return to good health would be the best prescription for success.
If any of you are now, or have ever been, in the position of hiring and firing people, then you can understand what I am about to tell you. As regular readers know, in my seven years as athletic director at the University of New Orleans I hired some great coaches, and I hired some who did not turn out so great. I was prodded by both ends of the hiring pole on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.
First, the good news. I received a text Wednesday morning from UNO’s former swimming coach, Randy Horner, now head coach at Florida International University. Randy had sent a link to a story that described how the FIU swimming team had won the Conference USA championship last weekend and that Randy was named CUSA Coach of the Year. Attached was a note saying “Thanks for all you did to give me my start.” I carried a little pride around with me most of the day, thinking about the other great coaches we had at UNO, particularly Tom Walter in baseball, Joe Pasternack in basketball and Jozsef Forman in volleyball.
Walter, whose Privateers won a Sun Belt title and participated in two NCAA tournaments, is head coach at Wake Forest where he has received much personal acclaim for his decision to donate a kidney to one of his players three years ago. Pasternack is assistant head coach at top-ten Arizona and will no doubt be in the running for a high profile head coaching job in the next year or two. Forman is head volleyball coach job at Coastal Carolina, where his Chanticleers won the Big South conference title last fall with a 25-6 record to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. Tennis coach Burzis Kanga and track and field coach Willie Randolph could have risen into that category, but we were forced to drop their sports after Hurricane Katrina. Kanga later returned to UNO as tennis coach while Randolph is currently coaching at the University of Virginia.
And now for the bad news. Tuesday, a reporter for the Washington Post called saying he was writing about the upcoming Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament and wanted to talk about Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams. Anybody who knows anything about UNO knows that I hired Williams after Monte Towe resigned, and Williams bolted without warning nine months later for greener pastures. The reporter was curious about the circumstances under which Williams surprisingly left Marquette after last season for Blacksburg, Va., and he wanted to see if any parallels existed with his defection from UNO.
I responded with uncharacteristic diplomacy, saying that every basketball coach aspires to coach at the highest level, and you don’t get much higher than the ACC. But the reporter had heard rumors that Williams had fled Marquette one step ahead of the posse and what did I think about that? I will leave the rest of our conversation to the eventual story, except for one comment. When he asked me if I was surprised when I heard Williams had left a program that was a perennial NCAA participant for an ACC doormat, I told him I wasn’t surprised, but it was hard for me to picture Williams’ face on the Mount Rushmore of ACC coaches beside Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino, all of whom have won NCAA titles.
The other reminder of a failed UNO coaching hire came Wednesday night in an exclusive report by WVUE-TV on former UNO women’s basketball coach Amy Champion. WVUE’s crack investigative reporter Lee Zurik, he of multiple Peabody and Edward R. Murrow awards for excellence, presented documents that showed when Champion was named athletic director at UNO in 2010, she continued to receive a salary for coaching basketball on top of what she was being paid to serve as athletic director. UNO President Peter Fos, who inherited the mess, appeared uncomfortable and a bit helpless when Zurik asked him about it. Former Chancellor Tim Ryan promoted Champion after my successor, Mike Bujol, resigned just a few months after I retired on December 31, 2009.
I hired Champion in 2004 after strong recommendations from Pat Summitt at Tennessee and Kim Mulkey at Baylor. With the elite of college women’s basketball promoting Champion, how could I believe she would be anything but successful? Well, after 53 wins, 126 losses and Mike Wallace in her waiting room, I guess she wasn’t such a good hire, either.
I remember all those years traveling to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, but a few memories stick out. One is the opportunity to dine at St. Elmo’s Steakhouse, an Indianapolis institution. Another is the sub-zero walk from my hotel to the dome in a driving wind. It was only about three blocks, but it was far enough and cold enough that I thought my head would explode. And, oh yes, there was also football that was guarded as closely as the recipe for Coca-Cola.
In those days, the NFL Combine was a secretive affair with only NFL employees and players admitted into the Hoosier/RCA Dome to measure, weigh and time the next generation of stars and journeymen. Reporters and agents would congregate in hallways of the adjoining Hyatt, linked by an overhead bridge, waiting for a scout or coach to walk out so they could find out how individual players performed. It sounds glamorous to a civilian, but years of shuttle drills, standing broad jumps and 40-yard dashes always made me wish I had brought a book.
Interestingly, the first combine I ever attended was in the early 1980’s at the Superdome. Tex Schramm, the president and general manager of the Cowboys and head of the NFL Competition Committee, persuaded the two main scouting groups, National and BLESTO, to merge all their individual workouts into one massive invitational. The first combine was held in Tampa in 1982 and in New Orleans in 1984 and 1986 before moving permanently to centrally located Indy in 1987. But enough history.
Let's talk about two things that jumped out at me from the 2015 Combine. The first concerns the quarterbacks, and the second is an educated guess on who the Saints will draft at No. 13. Scouts and onlookers were mesmerized at the performance of the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners, Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Jameis Winston of Florida State. ESPN’s John Clayton said Sunday that Winston’s performance almost assures that Tampa will select him at No. 1. Having Winston in the Saints’ division would be fine with me.
Why does our first glimpse of football in just a few weeks have the professionals giddy at Winston’s accuracy, arm strength and interviews? I still see a big separation between the two, and that reason is character. In a time of increased scrutiny by the NFL, the media and the public, it makes no sense to me that a team would consider drafting a player with character issues. Especially at the most important position on the team. Winston has proven he is an accomplished player, but he also has proven that he can be a loose cannon the other six days a week. I don’t have to repeat Winston’s litany of arrests, on-campus incidents, suspensions or discliplinary hearings. That’s public record. But for a team to ignore all that is an expensive gamble.
Less of a gamble is the player the Saints liked well enough to pick at No. 13, and I have the guy! I am jumping up on the table today and predicting that the Saints will draft Kentucky pass rusher Alvin “Bud” Dupree. Alright, alright, this is not just a sentimental choice. It is built on a stickout performance at the Combine and solid career numbers. Dupree ran the 40-yard dash on Sunday in 4.56, which would be a tad slow if he were a wide receiver, but for an edge pass rusher who is listed at 6-4 and 269 pounds, it’s dazzling. Dupree also ranked first among linebackers with a broad jump of 11 feet, 6 inches. The next best broad jump among linebackers was Texas' Jordan Hicks at 10 feet, 4 inches. His 42-inch vertical jump was second at his position. Of course, athletic measurables don’t always equate to football performance, but Dupree has those credentials with 23.5 sacks and 37 tackles for loss as a three-year starter and defensive captain for UK.
Some analysts question whether Dupree could play defensive end at the NFL level after playing more like a 3-4 outside linebacker in college. Dupree told ESPN.com Friday that he felt comfortable playing on the line as a rush end if the team that drafted him wanted him to do exclusively that. "Because of his ability to play both in the pass rush and in coverage, Dupree offers the kind of versatility that will make him a popular prospect," ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold said. "And his speed in Indy was a little more than scouts expected." NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock echoed those sentiments during the NFL Network's telecast, saying Dupree “shows an incredible lower-body explosion."
I’m confident that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan could find the right spot for anybody who can get to the quarterback, a glaring deficiency in the Saints’ defensive schemes last season. We are still more than two months from the draft, which provides ample time to identify the best fit available. Suffice it to say that the Saints scouts and braintrust sifted through the Combine talent and saw the guy they are going to draft, and it just might be Bud Dupree. Do the Saints need a pass rusher? Does Troy Landry of the Swamp People TV show need a “chooter?”
It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the greatest free bacchanal on earth and the worst week of the year for anything meaningful in a sporting fan’s life. The All-Star game might have provided some respite, but when Pelicans’ star Anthony Davis opted out with a bruised shoulder, it wasn’t worth it. I’m not much into NBA skills competitions that generate canned assorted ooo’s and ahhh’s at behind-the-back and over-the-head dunks which leaves a sports junkie marooned in a city that stops.
Schools are closed, mail service is suspended and traveling from Point A to Point B in the metro area requires a Parade App for your phone, a roadmap, infinite patience and for the truly prepared, a filled flask. Even the Mayor abdicates his office for one day to the King of Carnival. It is a day like no other, and it comes with many views, depending on your tolerance and the number and age of your children.
Parents of pre-teens and younger children wrestled their ladders onto the top of the SUV in hopes of finding an advantageous location to catch whatever is being thrown this year from drunken riders. Teens and young adults spend hours on their cellphones to determine how close to Superior Grill their group is hanging. I have it on unimpeachable authority that this year high schoolers gather at Amelia Street and St. Charles Avenue, while the college tailgaters set up further west at Peniston Street. Parents of said reprobates toss out all the life lessons when they agree to snake through the city’s back streets to deposit their little darlings into the belly of the bead beasts. Of course, the trip into the party zone comes with the understanding that your children will 1. Not drink too much, 2. Not get arrested, and 3. Not call you past midnight for a ride home. But sometimes you’re a good sport and go retrieve them, because the alternatives aren’t always so good.
The Lovely Miss Jean and I confined our Carnival this year to Sunday afternoon on St. Charles Avenue, toting our cooler and canvas chairs at least ten blocks so we could set up for three parades and the best people-watching this side of the Oscars. This year, it included 50-something moms in their green and purple tutu’s, groups dressed like a macabre wedding party, a chain gang or the latest oil spill. Skin-tight body suits of various hue are adorned with boas, masks or hand-painted college logos.
My personal highlight of the day was finding friends who set up a spit in the middle of the median and were roasting a pig. I am dying if I’m lying! They offered me a slice of succulent fried pork but only if I wore a pig snout the rest of the day. Hey, it was great pork! When the cooler began to lose its heft and its wisdom, we decided to retreat home before dark.
Safe in my TV cave, I curled up on the couch to watch a movie, and I found a classic that gave me the day’s only sporting moment! “Bridge on the River Kwai” tells of a British prisoner of war camp in the South Pacific during World War II in which the Japanese commandant orders the POW’s to build a bridge to facilitate the transport of Japanese soldiers and equipment. The theme of the song is itself classic, a tune titled the "Colonel Bogey March" that was whistled by the British POW’s to keep up their spirits as they headed for another day of hard labor.
The sporting moment? Every time I hear the tune, I think of a story Archie Manning told me about an event in the 1984 season, his last as an active player. He had been traded to the Vikings in 1983, but after that season longtime head coach Bud Grant retired. GM Mike Lynn promoted wide receivers coach Les Steckel, a Marine veteran who had served in Vietnam. As head coach, Steckel made a great drill sergeant, a factor that made him the antithesis of Grant. “He ran practice like a boot camp,” Archie told me, and the players were soon fed up. After one particularly exhausting practice, the players dragging themselves toward the locker room, one of them began whistling the theme.
Pretty soon, every player was whistling in concert, turning the practice field at Eden Prairie into the jungles of Burma. Steckel stood seething like Sessue Hayakawa glaring at Alec Guinness and the defiant British soldiers. The Vikings never recovered. They lost their first two games, won their next two and then went into a tailspin, losing 11 of their last 12. Steckel was fired and Grant was brought back for one season. Click on the You Tube link below, shut your eyes and picture 53 bloodied, battered and bruised football players making an audio statement about a tyrannical coach. It was a fitting end to another Mardi Gras.
The sporting groundhog climbed out of his Super Bowl stupor this week, saw his shadow and predicted six more boring weeks until the NCAA Final Four. Yes, fans, welcome to the annual “Dead Zone” of Gulf Coast sporting spectatorship. The Super Bowl is over, the NBA is boring, the pitchers and catchers haven’t reported, nobody cares about hockey, and NCAA basketball doesn’t mean anything until the Ides of March.
The preceding was a universal statement that does not apply to gamblers, parents of athletes or fanatics of any of the above activities. Speaking of which, recovering Saints fans might want to switch on ESPN Tuesday night to see a college basketball match of local interest. Top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky rolls into Baton Rouge to take on the talented, but enigmatic Tigers of Johnny Jones. I pull for Johnny Jones. I had the pleasure of getting to know him in the Sun Belt when he was head coach at North Texas, and he is a gentleman and a heckuva coach. But I’m on the other bench this week.
Regular readers know that I own various garments of Big Blue hue that I don faithfully before every Wildcat game. If my team isn’t playing especially well, I make a halftime adjustment to another shirt or cap, and that usually works. Honesty also compels me to admit that my Wildcats playing the Tigers in the PMAC scares me to death. I know Kentucky is 23-0, the only undefeated team left in men’s basketball, and I know Coach John Calipari’s team is so loaded that he developed the two-platoon system to keep his legion of McDonald’s All-Americans reasonably content. But I’m not one who expects the Wildcats to go undefeated during the regular season, and Tuesday night could be the night.
LSU has the tools to spring the upset. Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin have the inside bulk to out-rebound the Wildcats, who, despite their length, have had recent problems on the boards. LSU has not been a good three-point team, shooting only 33% on the season, but a streak by G Keith Hornsby could cancel out Kentucky’s long-range threats Devin Booker and Aaron Harrison. Point guard Tim Quarterman was superb against Alabama, and must withstand the pressure of the Kentucky tag team of 6-6 Andrew Harrison and 5-9 pest Tyler Ulis. Both teams have been erratic on the free throw stripe, although Kentucky hit 21 of 22 at Florida on Saturday, and Hornsby was perfect down the stretch in LSU’s 71-60 win over Alabama.
The Tiger fans have done their part, buying up every ticket that the Big Blue traveling circus didn’t get. The combination means the first sellout in the new configuration of the PMAC since Xavier came to Baton Rouge in 2009. Kentucky has seen that one before, though, as every road game is the home team’s biggest game of the year. Tiger fans won’t be any louder than the Florida or Louisville fans, and the Wildcats sent both groups home disappointed.
But I repeat: LSU scares me to death because it has the tools to match up against Kentucky if they can keep them on the floor. A strength of Kentucky’s depth is the attrition game, wearing down the opponent by foul trouble or fatigue. If LSU can stay out of foul trouble, dominate the boards and sneak in some timely outside shooting, Tuesday night’s game could be one that even the sporting groundhog would come out of his burrow to watch.