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Book signings, an SEC upset and a Zach Strief review

by J.W. Miller on 09/24/18

I was on the road last week, peddling the two books that you see at the right side of your screen to audiences in Evansville, Indiana, and Georgetown, Kentucky. And since I brought it up, Christmas is coming and the fans on your list just might be appreciative of some good sports education. As regular readers know, Where the Water Kept Rising is the story of our struggle trying to help the University of New Orleans and its athletic program survive in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. My current book, Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanished Tradition, uses basketball as a lens through which to view the little-known story of how one state’s response to desegregation affected the strong tradition of African American high school basketball. 

Both are available at or you can click on the prompts on this page. 

Traveling to the heartland also gave me an opportunity to visit with family and look in on my favorite college team. Thankfully, Kentucky’s football team is showing signs that this could be a special year. The Wildcats turned some heads when they went into Gainesville two weeks ago and defeated Florida for the first time since I moved to New Orleans 31 years ago. There’s not enough notches on your belt to tighten it that far, but at least that starvation streak is over. But could they beat No. 14 Mississippi State? The Bulldogs boasted a 50-point scoring average behind QB Nick Fitzgerald, the type of pass-run virtuoso who traditionally gives Kentucky fits. And the defense might be better than that, boasting a handful of potential NFL draft choices. 

But a strange thing happened after I drank some spiked Kool-Aid while tailgating with family members. The Kentucky defense totally shut down Fitzgerald, while RB Benny Snell ran over, around and through the defensive doggy door. Snell gained 165 yards on the ground while scoring four touchdowns in a 28-7 beatdown of the Sparkleville hounds. Snell reminds me of Mark Ingram, both in size and in the fact that it takes a village to get him down. On defense, edge rusher Josh Allen, who will go high in the first-round next spring, had the State offensive line so rattled that he sparked five illegal procedure penalties for three different linemen who were assigned to block him.

There’s a long way to go in an SEC season, but the upset Saturday night was a game for the ages in Lexington. Better yet, it gives Big Blue Nation something to do while waiting for Midnight Madness next month. 

Driving home, the Lovely Miss Jean and I picked up the Saints-Falcons game on Sirius-XM around Birmingham and nearly ran off the road a couple of times listening to that shootout. What can you say about the Saints except they have a Hall of Fame quarterback trying to outscore a Hall of Infamy secondary? Drew Brees is incredible and will always give the Saints a chance to win, but I fear those upcoming games when the Saints face teams that can limit Brees while tossing raindrops into the end zone on offense. For example, Baltimore has the fifth-best pass defense and the second-best pass offense in the NFL. Likewise, the Rams have the No. 1 pass defense and the No. 3 passing offense in the league. Even the Redskins, who come to town week after next, have the No. 2 team defense and the No. 6 pass defense in the league and cagey Alex Smith leading the offense. Those teams could pose special problems unless the defense improves drastically next week at the Giants. 

And I close with a review of new Saints play-by-play man Zach Strief. I am sure that for the former offensive tackle, it must be like his rookie season as a seventh-round draft choice. Trying to follow a legend like Jim Henderson is tough enough, and to come in without experience and deliver a Hondo-like performance should not be expected by any Who Dat radiohead. But after listening for three hours to Strief and his broadcast blocker, Deuce McAllister, I give him a solid C+. 

He does the basics well. You always know the down and distance and time remaining. But in critical moments I believe Strief tries too hard to paint a picture which sometimes shrouds the news at hand. As an example, a touchdown call sounded something like this: “Ryan goes back, he has plenty of time, he throws one into the back of the end zone. P.J. Williams is defending. Calvin Ridley is inside the pylon. The touchdown puts the Falcons up ….” Here’s how I think he should call the play: “Ryan goes back, he has plenty of time, he throws one into the back of the end zone. Touchdown! Calvin Ridley. P.J. Williams was defending but …” 

Another minor nit was the spin-move touchdown by Brees that had Strief's voice hitting little-girl octaves, but he wasn't the only Saints fan in the stadium squealing. Like the mistakes made by a rookie tackle, broadcasting mistakes are fixable with experience. From humble beginnings, Strief became a solid run stopper and Brees bodyguard, and the guess here is he will do the same in the broadcast booth, given time and good coaching. 

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As if Sunday's debacle weren't enough, memories of Deion Sanders high-stepping to a pick-six in a 1994 victory over the Saints another reason your intrepid scribe hates the 49ers