The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
If you are one of the rare sporting neutrals on the subject of college football, you have only five days left to see Southern gentility and charm on display in Louisiana’s state capital. So rush up there and have lunch at Chimes where you can enjoy an order of boudin with your locally brewed Tin Roof beer, then walk along the riverfront near the state capitol tower that Huey Long built or visit the pre-Civil War barracks where the Old War Skule first convened. By then it will be time for dinner, depending on your proclivities for seafood at Mike Anderson’s or steak at Sullivan’s. And after you enjoy those delights, get the hell out of there fast, because the wall goes up on Saturday.
Donald Trump can talk all he wants about building a wall to protect the nation from immigrants, but Baton Rouge has perfected the art of making interlopers feel unwelcomed, at least between the first day of college football season to the final game. Unless you are part of the Tiger faithful, you do not want to go anywhere near Baton Rouge for the next four months. Even if you are just driving through on I-10, you’d better strip your car of those Aggie, Bama or Longhorn stickers, which serve as nice targets for all the Purple and Gold Ford 150’s on patrol just waiting for you to drive through and make eye contact.
Don’t even think about attending one of the games, especially in your school’s team colors. A friend who moved from Lexington to New Orleans two years ago made the mistake of taking his 5-year-old son to Tiger Stadium when Kentucky visited last year. The dad was shocked at all the mean-spirited taunts they received and the little boy was in tears even before they got to their seats. Despite their inner feelings, most college fans are hospitable and respectful of the visiting team’s fans, and some even invite visitors to have a beer at their tailgate party. However, if the trolls at Tiger Stadium offer you a beer, make sure one of them takes the first sip.
And this year, Tiger fans have even more reason to be insufferable. Although most national pre-season polls have LSU ranked around 13 or 14, ESPN’s football analysts this week picked LSU not only to win the Southeastern Conference title but to wind up in the Final Four of College Football’s Playoff II. Lee Corso jumped on the LSU bandwagon after predicting that the Tigers will win it all in 2015, while Corso’s co-host, Kirk Herbstreit, predicted the Tigers to win the SEC crown and punch their ticket to the playoffs in his annual “Herbie” predictions. Corso, the ESPN College Gameday host and everyone’s favorite headgear enthusiast, predicted LSU to bounce back from an 8-5 campaign last season to defeat Ohio State in the college football playoffs and win the national championship. Although Herbstreit predicts LSU will get to the championship game, he sees them stumbling against Ohio State.
Personally, I can’t see them going that far without a dominant quarterback, but even LSU’s critics can’t deny their incredible ability up and down the lineup. Sophomore RB Leonard Fournette gets most of the attention, but WR's Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre could start for some NFL teams, and OT Vadal Alexander is another sure-fire first-rounder. Defensive players who will eventually play on Sundays are LB Kendell Beckwith and lineman Davon Godchaux, while the secondary that includes Jalen Mills, Jamal Adams and Tre'Davious White, is the best in the country.
So, hey, if quarterbacks Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings can stay out of the way, maybe Tiger fans do have something to shout about this season. But I’d still stay out of their way until the season’s over.
(Another personal look back at the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, excerpted from my book, Where the Water Kept Rising)
New Orleans ordered a mandatory evacuation for all residents on Saturday, August 27, because of the threat of Hurricane Katrina. Despite living in a city that sits between 2 and 15 feet below sea level, New Orleanians had ignored threats about "the big one" for years. We had evacuated before, and two or three days later after electricity was restored we went back to our homes, cleared the fallen limbs and went on about life.
Reluctantly heeding another inconvenience, we packed three days of clothing, mostly shorts and casual wear, packed our bags in one of our two cars and left for a hotel room in Baton Rouge, which was outside the western edge of the hurricane's predicted path. The storm blew through New Orleans mid-morning on Monday, August 29, and early reports suggested that the eye had moved farther to the east, again bypassing the city. We were excited about it and looked forward to getting back to our home.
Communication within the city was largely cut off, which meant no live TV coverage was available, so the city's condition was unknown until late in the evening when news reports confirmed fire and police reports that some levee walls had failed. We did not hear confirmation until Tuesday when radio reporters in boats confirmed that much of the city was, in fact, under water. TV crews still had not be permitted to fly over the city, so no visual communication was yet available until Wednesday when we first saw the full effect of the storm. Cell phone towers also had been blown down, so phone service was non-existent.
Initially, I was thankful my family was safe, but I then began a mental inventory of what we probably had lost; a car that was barely a year old, my golf clubs in the trunk, furniture, clothing, books and memorabilia that represented a lifetime of memories. But nothing was more excruciating than the likely loss of my family's heirlooms to which I had been entrusted. They included a dictionary that had been given to my great-grandfather, also James Miller, upon his 21st birthday in 1873; a family bible dated 1864 that belonged to my great-great grandfather; another bible dated 1891; a book of newspaper clippings, a lock of blond hair and other memorabilia probably collected by my great-grandmother. All were stored in my first-floor home office in a tub behind my desk. My brother Jerry and I have been writing the history of the Millers and I frequently would look at the books and other research that we had collected over the past 30 years that was stored elsewhere in my office.
We couldn't get back into our house for nearly a month after the storm. It took the water three weeks to recede, and then the National Guard and federal troops had the city blocked for another week or so. Finally, on September 24, we were able to bluff our way past a National Guard checkpoint and drove into our neighborhood. It looked as if a bomb had exploded. Everything was covered with a gray soot, and water lines were 9 and 10 feet up across the fronts of the houses. An acrid charcoal smell that was a combination of sewage, gasoline and other toxic waste permeated the nostils. Every house had an orange "X" and date painted on the front indicating when the National Guard had broken into each house searching for bodies.
We arrived on our street and saw the house across from ours with the dreaded code that two bodies had been found inside, confirming that the elderly brother and sister who lived there had refused to evacuate. With masks covering our faces and wearing heavy rubber boots, we pushed open the door of what was our beautiful two-story home. The first two rooms gave an indication of what was to come. Our dining room table which we had only purchased that spring had buckled and collapsed and the chairs that had not floated away were turned upside down.
My home office was a shambles with books everywhere, the book case having collapsed. A 300-pound butcher block had floated from three rooms away and rested atop my desk. We slogged through three inches of mud and waste that covered our floor, numb at the devastation in each room. A huge portrait that hung atop the fireplace still hung with a one-foot waterline across its bottom, indicating how high the water had risen, which was about eight feet inside the house. Another survivor was the notepad and pen that I had left on a wooden snack table that apparently had floated on the water and was set gently down. Up the stairs on the second floor, above the water, it was just as we had left it. Beds were unmade, kids' clothes were strewn about and school books were on top of desks where they had been dropped on Friday afternoon.
The smell made it nearly impossible to remain, so we left and driving back to Baton Rouge, I cursed myself for being so stupid as to leave our heirlooms on the first floor. I hadn't bothered to try and move the desk, fallen bookcase and other debris but all was undoubtedly destroyed. We went back the following week, and my first mission was to see if I could find anything left of the books. Jean immediately went to her dining room to locate her silver, and I moved the desk and fallen bookcase to try and locate the tub that held my family treasures.
I looked around my desk to the corner where I had placed the tub, and I recall a jolt when I saw a notepad that I had put on top of the closed tub was intact and had not been touched by the water. Could the tub, like the snack table, have floated as the water rose? I knew it was doubtful, because several pounds of books would have weighted the tub down. Wouldn't it?
I picked up the pad, lifted the lid and discovered that against all odds and amid all the devastation around it, the Rubbermaid tub had indeed floated, protecting and preserving its priceless contents. The bibles were intact, the dictionary had not been exposed to the water, my great-grandmother's clippings were crisp, and even a forgotten loose-leaf binder that held my 1958-60 NFL football cards also survived in the tub.
I screamed to Jean, who thought I'd been bitten by a snake, and then I cried tears of thanks.
My son and I were watching the movie about the Woodstock music festival a couple weeks ago when one of the film’s highlight acts spoke directly to me. The rock group “Ten Years After” was heavy into its big hit “Going Home” when it hit me that ten years after Hurricane Katrina those of us who were hit hardest have spent much of that time "going home."
Saturday is the tenth anniversary of the nation’s most destructive natural disaster and one which affected nearly every person who lived in and around New Orleans on August 29, 2005. Even if your house did not get the 14 feet of water that inundated our Lakeview house, Katrina changed the way you looked at the immediate past. Since that time and probably for many years to come, our frame of reference is Katrina. How often do you start a sentence: “Before Katrina, we …” or “That happened after Katrina ….”
The TP3, the local wipe that angered outhouse owners when it cut its print edition to three days a week after Katrina, is running stories this week on just about every aspect of the storm’s impact on New Orleans. The theme is usually uplifting - recovery and redemption - with a few stories about how individuals withstood tragedy and loss. For example, Sunday’s paper included features on a woman whose church was a beacon for her community after the storm, a family who lived in their garage while their devastated house was being rebuilt, and another about a couple that was stranded in their attic as the waters rose around their ankles. We’ve all got those stories, and I’ll throw some personal experiences into the mix later this week.
But nobody has mentioned how Katrina devastated the University of New Orleans. Nowhere have I read a line or heard a peep about what Katrina did to UNO in general or its athletic program in particular. As UNO’s Athletic Director at the time, I was expecting several phone calls for comments or requests for interviews, and I was interviewed several weeks ago by one local TV station, but I never heard if the interview ever aired. An ESPN reporter who had interviewed me in the aftermath of the storm, when UNO was trying to hold onto a Division I athletic program, sent me a text that she would be calling, but I haven’t heard anything more.
New Orleans can beat its chest, and rightly so, for the grit and perseverance its people and its institutions displayed in bouncing back from an unfathomable event. But what was once the city's largest public institution of higher education and essential to its well-being and growth has not come back and maybe never will. Enrollment at UNO was 17,300 the semester that Katrina hit, but after 11,000 students returned the fall of 2006, enrollment has declined every year. My spies tell me that enrollment in the current semester may hit a post-Katrina low of 7,500. Athletically, only men's basketball is fighting to reach a break-even record in the Southland Conference while women's basketball and baseball are at the bottom of the league.
The media has not ignored Katrina’s impact on the local sporting scene. They have published the obligatory stories on the Saints and Hornicans as well as one story headlined: “(Les) Miles’ handling of Katrina forged bond with Louisiana.” Other features told of young student-athletes who were forced from their local schools and grew up in Houston or Atlanta and prospered. And all seem to have uplifting messages or happy endings.
But there is no joy in Mudville-on-the-Lake. UNO has spent ten years trying to tread water. As my book graphically illustrated, UNO was the place “Where the Water Kept Rising.” Unfortunately, after ten years, it’s still rising.
The first preseason game should never be an indication of what an NFL team will do in the regular season. At least, I hope not. Thursday’s 30-27 loss at Baltimore revealed some striking similarities to the hobgoblins of 2014 in the form of unnecessary penalties, key injuries and the defense’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Other than the first team defense getting pistol-whipped early, most of the problems can be blamed on younger players, some of whom will be free agents by Labor Day. But still, I am troubled greatly at this team’s ability to bounce back into playoff contention in 2015. The defensive question marks that greeted the team when training camp opened have been compounded by other concerns that must be resolved if they are to win more than the seven games of 2014. (e.g., Where is Jairus Byrd? Who is Jairus Byrd?)
But never fear when Drew Brees is here! At least that seems to be the consoling message from one NFL observer who says the Saints’ belief in their offensive system over individual players might be their ticket to improvement. Andy Benoit wrote this week on SI.com that such conviction gave GM Mickey Loomis the confidence to make the moves in the off-season that were intended on shoring up weaknesses. Benoit wrote: “As long as (QB Drew) Brees is under center and (Head Coach Sean) Payton is running his system, the Saints can manufacture offensive production just fine. If, as the GM, you believe this to be true, then your focus shifts from bolstering strengths to eradicating weaknesses. Because after all, the system itself is the strength.”
Benoit agrees with a point that has appeared in this space, that the trade of Brees’ favorite target, TE Jimmy Graham, for former Pro Bowl Center Max Unger was intended to shore up a major weakness. “The Saints’ interior offensive line play has been spotty the past few years, particularly at center. That’s a problem because the man executing the system is only 6-feet and predicates his game on climbing the pocket.” Even with Graham gone, Benoit says, the Saints are betting they can still create matchup problems.
"With five eligible receivers on every snap, there usually is a matchup problem somewhere to exploit. More often than not, Brees can drop back and locate the mismatch naturally. Graham may have often been the Saints’ most obvious matchup problem, but that doesn’t mean he was the only one. This same thinking is what allowed the Saints to move on from Darren Sproles, another matchup problem, after 2013. And, to a lesser degree, it’s what made them comfortable trading deep threat Kenny Stills to Miami shortly after unloading Graham. None of these moves weaken the system, they just reconfigure the system’s cogs.” The loss of their deep threats might force the team into a shorter more vertical passing game, but Benoit believes the system is adaptable.
I don’t disagree with Benoit’s points, but with the team’s defensive question marks, the question for me is: "Can Brees still maintain one of the NFL’s top offenses at a level high enough to offset a defense that does not provide a lot of confidence for improvement?" The Saints offense ranked ninth in scoring, at 25.1 points per game, last year although the defense ranked fifth worst, giving up 26.5 points. The combination of offensive prowess and defensive futility amounted to 51.6 points per game.
Unless we start seeing more out of the defense in the next three preseason games, all the fuzzy feeling in the world about the offense simply means that a betting man (or woman!) can make a lot of money taking the “over” this season.
I hope you enjoyed your summer, because this is the week it ends. I know it’s a bit hard to realize as you soak in a cauldron of humid 90-degree days, but summer as you have known it and enjoyed it is over! Since this space is meant to inform as much as entertain, let us remind you that Labor Day on September 7 is the symbolic end to summer, although the scientific end does not come until the autumnal equinox when the sun crosses the plane of the earth’s equator around September 22. Of course, we are not talking about the symbolic, scientific or celestial versions of summer’s end but the sporting fan’s version.
For those who consult this space for enlightenment, summer ends when the Saints play their first pre-season game and college football practice begins. Who Dat fans would never confuse the equinox with the solstice (which is either of the two times a year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator, around June 21, the longest day of the year, and December 22, the shortest day). But they do know that summer ends when the Saints travel to Baltimore Thursday night to kick off the 2015 NFL season.
True Dats are already packing up their barbecue grills, draining the pool and are laying in stores of Abita Amber, mixed nuts, chips and ranch dip they will need over the next five - and hopefully six – months of weekly masochism while watching their heroes. After two weeks of training camp, hope usually springs eternal, and this year is no different. Who Dat Nation is already predicting a rousing revival from last season’s 7-9 lethargy. However, success this year depends on a bunch of IF-bombs that include the following: IF Rob Ryan’s defense can protect a lead this year, IF Jairus Byrd can stay healthy, IF Stephone Anthony will remind anybody of Sam Mills, IF center Max Unger can anchor an offensive line that will protect Drew Brees for a change, IF Brees can keep defying the realities of age, IF Brandin Cooks can blossom into a No. 1 receiver, IF C.J. Spiller can do a reasonable impersonation of Darren Sproles, (add your own IF here).
For those fans more inclined toward the college game, LSU is again teasing Tiger Nation into thinking they can contend for the SEC title. I’m sorry, but until Les Miles signs a real quarterback instead of tossing the job up between two guys whose only NFL chances will be at other positions, LSU will continue to waste talent at other slots that is among the best in the conference. I’m anxious to see Leonard Fournette this season, but SEC defenses are sophisticated enough to contain one-dimensional offenses. LSU will win their nine games, but that might not be enough to save Miles’ job one more year.
Expectations are much more realistic in Lexington, where Mark Stoops begins his third year at the Wildcat helm. He has recruited better than any other coach in UK history, which is not yet a ringing endorsement until the team begins winning seven or more games. But I was encouraged by a story last week in the Lexington Herald that said when Stoops and his staff arrived, UK had only five players who could surpass whatever speed scale the new staff was using to measure SEC capability. Today, Stoops has 35 players who surpass that scale. UK will go 7-5 and beat Florida this year, which will make Big Blue Nation content until basketball season starts.
Other events outside the sporting realm also occurred this week that heralded the end of summer. For those of us still paying for the education of entitled offspring, school is starting. Our daughter Layne spent last week in orientation at the LSU School of Nursing, and classes begin Tuesday. Next Tuesday, the newly minted Jesuit grad, Charles Connor, heads off to Oxford, Mississippi, where he will begin making a case for his own future and, hopefully, at least four years in one place. Hotty Toddy!
Of course, just because football is beginning and kids are off to college does not mean the grass stops growing, the temperatures moderate or the pool temperature goes from 92 to 40 overnight. You still have time to take care of all those summery tasks as well as take that last-minute trip to the Florida beaches, which is exactly what the Lovely Miss Jean and I, as greatly anticipating empty nesters, are planning for mid-September.