The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
I have been fortunate in my career as a sports executive and journalist to have attended a number of prominent sporting events. I was in Shea Stadium when Mookie Wilson’s grounder bounced through Bill Buckner’s legs, and I was at Candlestick Park when Dwight Clark made “The Catch” that beat Dallas and put the 49ers into a Super Bowl. I saw Pele play soccer and the young Cassius Clay fight. But with Kentucky’s 2012 NCAA basketball championship in New Orleans running a close second, the most exhilarating sporting event I ever attended was the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla in Louisville. And that is why I’m excited today as the 2014 Ryder Cup tees off Friday at Gleneagles in Scotland.
Once again, most experts say the American team is a lock for second place, especially after the 2012 Meltdown at Medinah when the USA lost a huge lead on Sunday. It doesn’t help that arguably the two hottest American golfers will be watching from the comfort of their living rooms. Billy Horschel won the Tour Championship and its $10 million bonus two weeks ago, and in second place was Chris Kirk who also finished strong at the end of the season, but after Captain Tom Watson had made his final selections for the team. Still, it’s the Ryder Cup, and it bears three days of intense watching by the serious sporting fan.
Rickie Fowler set a competitive tone when he showed up in Scotland with “USA” shaved neatly into the right side of his head. The Wall Street Journal’s crack staff even reported that despite the odds against them, the USA team actually ranks better than the Europeans in key areas. It would be nice for the USA to spring an upset, because, although the Ryder Cup is a great event, it’s even greater when you win it!
Winning certainly made the 2008 Cup at Valhalla special, especially with key roles played by hometown Kentuckians Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes, but the event itself is like none other in sports. I can only equate the three days of competition to two dozen high school football games played all at once on adjoining fields. Because of the crowds, spectators either pick their spot and watch the players pass or they follow their favorites. Neither method allows you to see all the great moments, but the noise from the crowds leave little mystery who is winning. Cries of U-S-A, U-S-A or the soccer chant Ole-Ole-Ole-Ole bounced off the rolling hills after a long putt or chip-in won a hole. It was an unforgettable experience.
I did not travel to Newport, Wales, in 2010 to watch the rematch, but I did the next best thing. Coincidentally, I was in Kentucky for a horse show, so on the second day of the Ryder Cup, I was back at Valhalla, chopping my way through the poa pretensis (that’s “bluegrass” if you flunked Biology, Latin or both) as the world’s best golfers were battling a half a world away. The temperature was a crisp 60, red and gold leaves were falling into Floyds Fork and the memories of the previous Ryder Cup were still fresh. The day was bittersweet, not only because I could not have beaten a dusty rug, but across the Atlantic the USA team was putting itself in position to lose the 2010 Cup the next day.
Things did not improve in 2012 at Medinah, when the USA took a four-point lead into Sunday, only to lose eight and tie one of the twelve matches to lose another Cup. The loss did not erase my memories, but it’s always better to win. I have attending Super Bowls, NBA championships, World Series, NCAA Final Fours and even a Stanley Cup semi-final. But the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla, which the USA won, topped them all.
I had this strange dream while watching LSU’s dismal performance against Mississippi State Saturday night. I dreamed I was watching a race between a pickup truck with muddy tires and a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror lined up against a dazzling creation with sparkling chrome accoutrements, Lake pipes streaming down the side, Rota racing wheels and a stylish interior featuring a Hurst competition shifter stick. The gun went off, and as I was waiting for this 21st century fox to roar into gear, nothing happened. It just sat there sputtering and coughing while the pickup was out of sight in six seconds flat. Then my eyes flickered open, and I realized I wasn’t dreaming.
Like the car with all the attachments but nothing under the hood, the LSU offense clearly lacks a quarterback who can take advantage of the weapons Coach Les Miles and his staff have recruited. LSU struggled on offense in Saturday's 34-29 loss to Mississippi State when it fell behind 34-10. Sophomore QB Anthony Jennings couldn’t get things going, fumbling twice and missing open receivers. He was 13 of 26 passing for 157 yards. LSU didn't score an offensive touchdown until the fourth quarter when freshman Brandon Harris came off the bench to delay Mississippi State’s celebration until the gun.
Jennings has more experience with five career starts and is said to have won the job because of his poise. Heck, to me “poise” is a brand name for an underwear liner to prevent bladder leakage. It doesn’t equate to a top-flight SEC quarterback, which begs the question: Why can’t LSU recruit and develop a top-level quarterback who can come in and make a difference? Miles gets far too much criticism for his coaching style and questionable decisions, but success in college football is determined solely by recruiting. Good players make good coaches, and Miles does not appear to be one who can recruit and develop quarterbacks.
Some will say Miles prefers a running game and a 5-star pro-style quarterback will never come to Baton Rouge. There is some evidence of that, discounting Zach Mettenberger, who was a fortuitious transfer situation for the Tigers. As a high school quarterback, Brandon Harris ranked fifth in the nation last year among Rivals.com’s “dual-purpose” quarterbacks. The Tigers did not sign any of the Top 30 “pro style” quarterbacks in Rivals.com’s list of top 2014 recruits. The case was slightly different the year before when LSU did sign four-star pro-style Hayden Rettig of Los Angeles Cathedral High School, who was ranked No. 4 among pro-style quarterbacks. That was the same year LSU also signed Jennings, who carried a four-star ranking and ranked No. 6 among “dual purpose” quarterbacks. After one season at LSU, however, Rettig saw the writing on the offensive chalkboard and transferred to Rutgers.
It doesn’t look like things will change much for LSU next season. Jennings and Harris presumably will be back, and the only quarterback committed to LSU for next season is Justin McMillan a 6-1, 177-pounder from Cedar Hill, Texas. Rivals.com gives McMillan a mediocre two-star rating. Of course, it’s early, but it can't be encouraging when you look at Rivals.com’s list of total 2015 commitments, which lists LSU as eighth best … in the SEC! Alabama's 21 commitments rank first in the nation in star quality, South Carolina is second with 28, Georgia is third with 21, Texas A&M is fifth with 20, Tennessee is eighth with 22, Auburn is ninth with 20 and Mississippi State is No. 11 with 27. The Tigers currently rank 15th with 15 commitments.
I have always believed that the most successful coaches in the country tailor their offense to their talent. If you are fortuate enough to persuade a top quarterback to come to your school, then you will do everything you can to utilize that player’s talent. But it seems that Miles' preferred scheme features a "deal-purpose" quarterback, and that is what he recruits.
Random thoughts on the Saints’ woeful start while wondering what is happening to the game I love?
I don’t care what anybody says, the Saints’ shocking loss at Cleveland on Sunday came down to one poor coaching decision. You remember, less than two minutes remained in the game, and the Saints had the ball with a third and five at the Browns’ 31-yard line. That was well within the range of kicker Shayne Graham, so why not hand the ball off tackle to Mark Ingram, who had been running well all day? Even if you don’t make the first down, Ingram could have picked up at least two or three to give Graham a 44-yard attempt, well within his comfort zone.
But, no, Sean Payton outsmarted himself again and called a pass play in which four things can happen and three of them are bad: incompletion, interception or sack, which is what happened when Pierre Thomas apparently missed a blocking assignment. That put the ball back on the 38-yard line and forced a punt. Browns QB Brian Hoyer probably watched the video of how Matt Ryan carved up the Saints’ pass defense last week, and proceeded to do the same thing. Patrick Robinson was called for pass interference, but on the other side of the field, the Cleveland receiver was left wide open on a busted assignment, and, to quote the famed sporting philosopher Yogi Berra, it was “déjà vu all over again.”
Rob Ryan’s pass defense over two games now has the dubious stat line of allowing four touchdowns, 652 total yards and a completion percentage of 65 percent. By the way, that comes with zero intereceptions from a secondary that was supposed to be a strength this year. If it takes three years to judge a draft pick, then Robinson has now taken two games to convince everyone that he’s a liability. By the way, I didn’t hear Jairus Byrd’s name mentioned very much on Sunday, and ditto strong safety Kenny Vaccaro. Do they still have the sophomore jinx?
Even without the Saints stumbling out of the gate, last week was painful enough in the NFL, which has endured much criticism for Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice affair. We said here when it happened that a two-game suspension for domestic abuse was lighter than light, but Goodell responded this week that the penalty came after discussions with Rice and his victim/wife. The commish said he did not want to unduly embarrass Mrs. Rice. I’ve seen this movie before. No good deed goes unpunished! Rice is a thug, and he deserved a far heavier penality, even if his wife comes across as a bit less than Little Mary Sunshine.
The Rice deal is bad enough, but the NFL was heavily penalized last week in the public eye for excessive piling on. RB Adrian Peterson of Minnesota, who has always been held up as a paragon of integrity and professionalism, has been indicted for hitting his son with a switch. I do not know if the “switch” was a four-foot wagon tongue or if it was pulled off a weeping willow tree, which I experienced a couple times in my own youth. But the ensuing chatter has reminded us that last year, another of Peterson’s sons was murdered, allegedly by the mother’s live-in boyfriend. Peterson had only learned he was the boy’s father two months before his death and had been planning to meet him. ESPN quoted Peterson as saying he was now “more careful to cherish his time with the four children who don't live with him.” That doesn’t count a 3-year-old son with a woman Peterson just married on July 19.
And we haven’t even mentioned the sordid case of Carolina’s Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy who was on the inactive list for Sunday's game against the Lions. Hardy was found guilty in July by a Mecklenburg County judge of assaulting and threatening his former girlfriend.
What is happening to the game I love? Drug suspensions are taken for granted as more than twenty players are now on some form of suspension ranging from two games to one year. Apologists can rationalize and say it's always been there and blame the proliferation of ubiquitous social networking and the fact that nobody can escape their transgressions any more. But since today's athlete has grown up with that scrutiny they should be more mindful of it. You can wring your hands about the Saints’ 0-2 start, but they will straighten out their problems. I am more concerned about what is happening to the game I love, and I don’t have an answer.
My mother-in-law, the Saints fanatic, has been talking about selling her very nice house in the Lake Terrace community and buying a high-rise condo. Thankfully, this decision has been tied up in the committee of her four daughters and their four slobs of husbands who are allowed to listen but not speak. If a decision had been made prior to Sunday’s 37-34 Saints’ loss at Atlanta, then the eight of us and probably selected teams of the New Orleans Fire Department would have spent Sunday night and probably most of Monday coaxing her off the ledge.
Random thoughts while wondering if the Browns should have signed the Texas A&M offensive coordinator instead of drafting Johnny Manziel ...
Well, the first week of the college football season is behind us, and the biggest impression is that the NCAA wanted fans everywhere to know that computers will no longer be picking the season champion. The new playoff system, in which a select panel will choose the four semi-finalists, was Topic No. 1 on every broadcast, and, believe me, I watched a bunch! You heard it from the commentators, you saw it on the bottom-screen crawls and you even saw it during commercials. Did you know that Notre Dame’s beloved Rudy had the idea forty years ago? Well, that’s what the commercial said …
I was tempted to pack it in when Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead against LSU Saturday night, but I told myself I’d watch one more series. Then another series and another, and, all of a sudden, Les Miles looked less the idiot than a savant. LSU was bailed out by its defense, and that's not going to happen every week, but they are undefeated and have a reasonably easy September, which should give QB Anthony Jennings some time to fine-tune his game. He was miserable into the third quarter, and he must get better for LSU to compete in upcoming games with Auburn, Alabama or Texas A&M. By the way, heralded freshman RB Leonard Fournette looked like a freshman without the heralds, but there's nothing like a come from behind win against a ranked opponent to take the pressure off ...
Speaking of Alabama, Nick Saban has his own quarterback problems, whether to stay with fifth year senior Blake Sims or switch to Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. My advice to Nick after watching Sims run the team against West Virginia: It doesn’t matter; just tell him to hand off and not worry about the rest. When you’ve got studs like T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry carrying the ball, why would you even think about floating a pass into the air? The pair combined for 239 yards and three touchdowns, which sounds like classic Saban who always seems to have two good backs who take turns mowing down opposing defenses. Hey, that strategy has brought the Tide three national titles since 2009 and could do it again …
Speaking of studly running backs, if there is another one out there as talented as Georgia’s Todd Gurley, I would stop the season and award the Heisman Trophy today. Gurley scored four touchdowns and set a school record with 298 all-purpose yards, leading the No. 12 Bulldogs to a 45-21 victory over No. 16 Clemson Saturday night. Gurley ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns and returned a kickoff 100 yards for another score. That’s a Heisman-like average of 17.2 yards every time he got his hands on the ball! If the Bulldogs can get past South Carolina in Columbia this weekend, they could be 9-0 when they go to Auburn on November 15 …
Speaking of undefeated, Marc Stoops has to be happy with his second opening day as Kentucky’s coach. Sure, they were playing Tennessee-Martin and not Tennessee-Knoxville, but QB Patrick Towles showed confidence and ability, their running back by committee was impressive and new safety A.J. Stamps had three “Holy Sh--!” moments with a one-handed interception and two big hits. The Wildcats are rebuilding around young players, which means a lack of depth can sink them. However, if they can keep their key players healthy, all of a sudden games with Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Louisville all appear within reach ...
Speaking of playoffs ... Playoffs? Playoffs? Talk of postseason play will be heard in Lexington this year, but not until October 17. That is the date of Big Blue Madness, when the nation’s top-ranked basketball team starts official fall practice.