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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

It was the most memorable sports weekend ever!

by J.W. Miller on 11/02/15

You may be just sobering up from that fantasmagorical Saints’ shootout win over the New York Giants on Sunday, but when you finally come to your senses, consider this: We have just experienced what might be the most memorable 30-hour streak in sports history. I am not talking about wall-to-wall ball of close games. I am talking about a series of events that sporting fans will still be talking about ten years from now. And, although it is during the meat of the college football season, not one college game entered into it. 

In order, beginning just after 5 p.m. on Saturday, we saw the following: American Pharoah’s last race, a thrilling New York Marathon, a record-setting Saints’ victory and, ending just after 11 p.m. Sunday, a World Series championship. Let me make my argument, and then I welcome you to come up with another previous window that can equal it. 

American Pharoah had done enough to garner all-time status by becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. But on an overcast day at Keeneland, the nation’s most beautiful race course, Pharoah won the prestigious Breeders Cup mile-and-a-quarter Classic in a course record of 2:00. That performance was an incredible send-off, considering it was a full five seconds off the course record and stunningly close to Secretariat’s all-time Kentucky Derby record of 1:59 2/5 over the same distance. Being one of 12 horses to win the Triple Crown, American Pharoah was already legendary, but thanks to horse racing's 1984 creation of this annual two-day best of the best, American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner to double down, and he did so by a dazzling 6 1/2 lengths.

On Sunday morning, two Kenyans won the women’s and men’s New York Marathon races, a not-so-memorable fact until you look at the individual performances. Mary Kitany dominated the women’s race in 2:24.25, more than a minute ahead of her closest competitor. Stanley Biwott ran a cautious race then accelerated into a blistering finish, winning his first major marathon, in 2:10.34. Biwott was in a four-man pack until he launched three hammering miles between Miles 21-23 of 4:24, 4:30 and 4:33 to surge ahead. The New York Marathon stands on its own as the epitome of speed, strength and endurance, qualities that were exhibited once again Sunday.

Around midday, lovers of offensive football were in their glory during the Saints’ victory over the Giants. QB Drew Brees tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes, and his 511 passing yards fell 43 short of tying the NFL’s single-game record. His opponent, homeboy Eli Manning, threw six touchdown passes of his own, a combined total that broke a 46-year-old N.F.L. single-game record for touchdown passes by two quarterbacks. Brees’s seven touchdowns tied a league record, and the 101 points were the third-highest total in N.F.L. history. Brees also set the NFL record for most career games with five or more touchdown passes with his 10th, breaking a tie with Eli’s big brother, Peyton.  It was almost an injustice that the game was decided on a field goal, the first attempted by either team, as Kai Forbath drilled a 50-yarder to give New Orleans the walk-off victory. 

If you weren’t stoked by then, Kansas City’s ninth-inning rally and 12th-inning explosion gave the Royals their first World Series championship since 1985. The Mets seemed to have it in the bag as the ninth inning began, leading 2-0. Mets Manager Terry Collins wanted to go to the bullpen, but starter Matt Harvey talked him into one more chance to pitch the first complete game World Series shutout since Curt Schilling did it with the Phillies in 1993. But as the Royals have shown time and time again, you can never count them out. 

Harvey walked leadoff batter Lorenzo Cain who stole second base and scored when Eric Hosmer ripped a double to left field. Jeurys Familia was brought in, and Mike Moustakas’ grounder pushed Hosmer to third base. Salvador Perez hit an easy grounder to David Wright at third base, who looked Hosmer back then casually tossed the ball to first base. Hosmer bolted home, and first baseman Lucas Duda made an errant throw to catcher Travis d'Arnaud, and the game was tied at 2-2. For the sake of full disclosure, I will admit that I watched two more innings, and then went to bed, one inning too early. 

In the 12th, Perez singled, and pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson stole second base then moved to third on Alex Gordon’s ground out to first. Christian Colon put the Royals up 3-2 with a line drive single to left field. That would have been enough, but to add insult to injury, second baseman Daniel Murphy, as he did in Game 4, booted a sure double-play ball which opened the gates. Alcides Escobar doubled to left field, adding an insurance run, and Cain drilled a bases-clearing double to left-center, for the 7-2 final score. 

If your favorite college team had an especially big win, you can start the clock a bit earlier on Saturday and roll that into the mix. But for my money, the events above provided a weekend for the ages! 

Retired marathoner looks back at his last race

by J.W. Miller on 10/29/15

The New York Marathon is Sunday, and it’s an anniversary for me. I ran my last marathon thirty years ago this week, at the 1985 New York Marathon. I was a pretty good runner in those days and the previous May I had broken the three-hour barrier with a 2:58.28 at the 1985 Long Island Marathon. The precise numbers reflect an indelible fact about runners. They never forget their personal best times, whatever the distance, which should be a lesson for politicians. More on that later.

You think I’m lying about remembering finishing times, down to the second? The same year of my last marathon, I ran a 10-miler sponsored by the New York Road Runners Club in Central Park in 1:01.15. The following January, I ran a 36:30 10-kilometer race at the Pert Classic in New Orleans. That was the morning of Super Bowl XX, and I was in town for the Bears' eventual blowout of the Patriots and for my interview the day before with Jim Finks for a job with the Saints. 

We all know there are races and then there are races. There are marathons, which virtually any one of us could complete. There are horse races, in which only rich guys like Tom Benson can participate, as he is doing Saturday when his horse, Tom's Ready, runs in the Sentient Jet Breeders Cup Juvenile at Keeneland. Then there are political races, with their incessant debates, TV commercials and yard signs that seem to stay up long after your candidate has bitten the dust. 

This is a fond memory column and not intended to be political, but the runner’s ability to remember a precise time in big races is one reason I can never completely trust likely new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Although I consider myself a Lincoln Republican, I will never forget Ryan’s claim, when he was the GOP’s vice presidential candidate in 2012, that he had run a marathon in “under three, high twos.” An investigation by Runner’s World magazine prompted Ryan to admit he’d actually run 4:01:25, at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1990. To claim “high twos” when you actually couldn’t break four hours is like a golfer claiming he shot 78 when he really shot 95. 

But let’s return to my fond memories of running the New York Marathon. The morning of the race, I took an early train from my suburban home in pristine pre-Clinton Chappaqua (equal time) to Manhattan and grabbed a runners bus out to the starting line on Staten Island. I don’t remember much about the staging area at Fort Wadsworth except for the New York Road Runners’ claim to have constructed the “world’s longest urinal.” It was an open metal construction that started atop a small hill, to take advantage of gravity, and ended, presumably, somewhere in the vicinity of New York Harbor. 

I do remember the first mile of the race was the slowest, a 10-minute slog through a crush of like souls, to the crest of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge which spilled into Brooklyn. The next 11 miles went through rich ethnic neighborhoods before we ran over the Pulaski Bridge and entered the borough of Queens. The run through Queens was not memorable except for a short incline that led onto the Queensboro Bridge and the carpeted pedestrian walkway over the East River. 

I will never forget the ovation when we made the turn onto First Avenue into Manhattan. That was the 16-mile point of the race, and the crowd was thick for the next three miles through the Upper East Side. We crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge into the South Bronx, which in those days was the only part of the course devoid of bystanders. The relative quiet soon ended when we crossed back into Manhattan over the Madison Avenue Bridge and entered Harlem at the 21-mile mark. Despite that borough’s recent reputation, the crowds were enthusiastic and gave us much needed encouragement for the stretch run down Fifth Avenue and into Central Park at 86th Street. 

I can say with authority that there is no greater relief for an athlete than to cross under the finish line banner at Tavern on the Green. Although the memories are vivid, my certificate of completion was among the personal treasures I lost when Hurricane Katrina inundated our house in 2005. But, thanks to the wonders of the internet, a Google query confirms that I finished 1,019 of 15,896 finishers in a time 3:04.57.  It even showed that I wore bib number 1771, which was about the only fact that I had forgotten about my last marathon. 

There's no question I'd do it again if I could, but thirty years later, the tires are bald, the brakes are bad and the suspension is shot. That's too bad, because the engine still purrs like a kitten!

Offensive geniuses like Payton can outsmart themselves

by J.W. Miller on 10/26/15

After a hundred years in the sports business, you develop some pet peeves, a few of which were on display Sunday during the Saints’ 27-21 victory at Indianapolis. First, I have no respect for a player who somersaults into the end zone for a touchdown then jumps up into a Billy White Shoes Johnson impersonation when his team is behind 27-0! The Colts’ T.Y. Hilton is an idiot!

Second, I hate it when officials call the exact same play two different ways, and not once but twice! Saints Coach Sean Payton unsuccessfully challenged two pass plays in the first quarter that were called incomplete because the officials ruled the Saints receivers did not “maintain the ball through the catch” when the receiver hit the ground. The same thing happened two other times later in the game when the receiver caught the ball, which popped out when he hit the ground, but both were called catches. If the ground can’t call a fumble, then why does a ball that pops out of the receivers hand when he hits the ground not count? I don’t get it, and I don’t care which way it goes, just call it the same way all the time.

But my greatest peeve, and it happens all the time, is the offensive coordinator or play-caller who outsmarts himself. The Saints were up 20-0, and Mark Ingram is running through the Colts’ defense like a knife through hot butter. Big gain on his first carry, nice gain on his second carry, then a 44-yard burst up the middle which goes to the Indianapolis two-yard line. The run is working. Indy can’t stop it. But I am familiar enough with Payton’s play-calling that I turned to the Lovely Miss Jean and said: “Watch, he is going to call a pass!” 

Sure enough, a pass went to TE Josh Hill for an apparent touchdown, but a lot of freaky things can happen on a pass play. This time, Hill had slapped the defensive back across the face and was called for offensive pass interference. First and goal at the 12 yard line. Now that Payton could justify a pass, he calls a run, and Ingram gets seven yards, which would have been an easy TD on the previous play, but now merely sets up another pass. QB Drew Brees throws to Willie Snead, who has it in his hands in the end zone, but it’s stripped by an Indy defensive back. Predictably, on the next play, Brees throws high and it’s picked off. No points, and another case of an offensive play-caller outsmarting himself. A 27-0 lead at that point would have saved Who Dat Nation some anxiety later when the Colts made the final score appear closer than the game actually was. 

Commentator John Lynch had a good description of Payton – and perhaps most offensive coordinators - when he called him “counterintuitive.” That’s a non-football term that describes a person who doesn’t do what he is expected to do. Les Miles is called the “Mad Hatter” when he calls such plays, but Payton is “counterintuitive.” And that’s okay at the right time. Like calling an onside kick to open the second half of a Super Bowl or throwing a pass on a fake field goal early in the game. But when you are running the ball down the other team’s throat and have a first down at the 2-yard line, it baffles me why a team doesn’t go conventional and keep running the ball, for at least two more yards! 

Ah, but then you must understand the curious and complicated mind of the offensive genius, which doesn't work like that. He’s in the middle of mano-a-mano combat. He is trying to read the mind of his defensive counterpart, who  obviously expects another run since his players haven’t stopped one yet. So the offensive genius decides to really confuse the defensive coordinator with a pass.

The closest we can get to understanding the thought process of an offensive genius is to watch Robin Williams describe how the Scots invented golf! "Let's really f---- 'em up!" Meanwhile, Woody Hayes and Vince Lombardi are spinning in their crypts, and the defensive coordinator is mumbling: “God of all blessings, source of all life, giver of all grace …”

Success of UNO alums rekindles my anger!

by J.W. Miller on 10/19/15

I am very excited that UNO legend Bo McCalebb is finally getting a chance in the NBA, with his hometown New Orleans Pelicans. Bo scored four points Saturday night in the Pels’ lost to Sacramento at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The grown-ups among us realize that the Sun Belt Conference’s all-time leading scorer is likely just filling a pre-season roster spot until G Norris Cole returns from injury, but so what? It’s the NBA, it’s a chance, and once you get the chance, anything can happen. 

It’s been a good year for former Privateers. Johnny Giavotella was the starting second baseman for the Los Angeles Angels for most of the season. Johnny G. played in 129 games, batted .272 and had an impressive .694 OPS average (on-base plus slugging). A teammate from the 2007 and 2008 UNO teams that appeared in the NCAA tournament, outfielder Joey Butler, had his longest stint in the major leagues in 2015, hitting .276 with 8 home runs and a .742 OPS in 88 games for Tampa Bay. That those three athletes are still playing at the highest level of their sport provides some indication of the quality of student-athletes that UNO featured not too long ago. 

Those players and others who wore the silver and blue had the opportunity to display their skills on a national stage. Helping them get there was a coaching staff that I would put up against any other school at UNO’s level and many above it. Just looking at what they also have achieved since being run out of UNO is testament to their ability. 

Basketball coach Joe Pasternack is assistant head coach at perennial Top Ten Arizona. It’s only a matter of time before this New Orleans native gets another shot at a Division I program. Baseball Coach Tom Walter has returned his Wake Forest team to the ACC Championship tournament and defeated such nationally ranked teams such as Clemson, Florida State and Virginia. Swim coach Randy Horner, whose first UNO men’s teams achieved a national ranking, was named 2015 Conference USA Coach of the Year after  guiding Florida International to its first C-USA title. Volleyball coach Joszef Forman is in his fourth season at Coastal Carolina, where he became the first head coach in school history to take the volleyball program to three straight Big South championship matches and into the NCAA tournament. 

Sadly, the success of these former UNO student-athletes and coaches rekindles my anger at the needless implosion of the Privateer athletic program after I retired as athletic director. I am not diminishing the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent resistance of the LSU governing board and the State Government to make UNO a priority in its recovery efforts. But the fact that the administration sacrificed its most cost-effective marketing tool in a panicked effort to cut its way to solvency gives you an idea of the business expertise, or lack thereof, that ran the university then. 

Still, the athletic program prospered against those odds. Keep in mind that it was after Katrina that UNO athletics made its greatest impact in years with NCAA tournament appearances in baseball and contention for conference titles in basketball, volleyball, swimming and golf. How many more Bo’s and Johnny G’s would we be following with pride today if the program had not been diminished? We'll never know because it wasn't allowed to grow and become greater by those who claimed the presence of athletics somehow took away from the university's academic mission. What rubbish!

How many more students would have looked further into UNO’s list of quality academic programs after reading about its quality athletics through the virtually free publicity of the news media? When asked to “justify” athletics in an academic institution after Katrina, I compiled the space given positive stories our athletic teams generated in a calendar year, applied that to existing advertising rates and came up with $3 million in free publicity the university received. One deal that we paid for, to televise basketball and baseball games on Cox Sports TV, exposed the UNO brand to television viewers from Gainesville, Florida, to Lubbock, Texas, the I-10 corridor once identified as UNO’s primary target to recruit new students. 

The fact that you now must click on the Privateers' website to get any news of UNO athletics is the result of the bad decisions and bad management that has bedeviled UNO the past decade. Sure, there have been heroes like Ron Maestri who tried to resurrect the baseball program and AD Derek Morel who sits in an uncomfortable chair trying to spin gold out of a fiscal spider web. And the current coaches and student-athletes who are doing the best with what they have been given. But another president has been tossed overboard, enrollment continues to fall, and the future has never been more in question.

Yes, I am enthused by the success of our former players and coaches, but their success reminds me of what we had in our grasp. The true tragedy of UNO is less what it is now than what it once was and might have continued to be if only given the chance.

Top Ten questions Saints fans are asking

by J.W. Miller on 10/14/15

David Letterman really picked a bad year to retire. What Saints fans have questioned consistently over the first five games would make a worthy contribution to Letterman’s famous Top Ten list. And that list might expand Thursday night against the undefeated Falcons. So, to fill the comedy void in what is otherwise a very unfunny NFL season for the local heroes, we present the Top Ten questions Saints fans are asking:

Question 10 - Is Sean Payton going to stay? Since TV reports on Sunday said the Miami Dolphins are going to investigate Payton’s availability after the season, similar stories erupted from Indianapolis and the University of Southern California. Payton has two more years on his current contract, but anything can be negotiated. My bet is he stays at least as long as QB Drew Brees is here, which could be no more than two years.

Question 9 - Is Brees losing his Magic? The Drew Brees who could fabricate touchdowns had a better group of receivers and an experienced offensive line. Now, a noticeably more finicky Brees waits an extra two seconds in hopes somebody gets open, but his patched-up line can’t hold out rushers that long. The result is more sacks and more fumbles. And why was he still in the Eagles game at 39-10? Official NFL stats shouldn’t recognize pass yardage and TD passes accrued in mop up duty.

Question 8 - Who recommended signing Brandon Browner? Nuf’ said.

Question 7 – Did Tom Benson see C.J. Spiller driving a Ford? The final play of the Dallas game showed what the import from Buffalo can do, but for some reason he is not being utilized as a serious weapon in the manner of Darren Sproles. 

Question 6 - Where will Rob Ryan be coaching next season? It’s easy to blame Ryan for the defensive woes, but an old NFL adage holds that “good players make good coaches.” Conversely, bad players also make bad coaches, and Ryan doesn’t have a lot to work with. Ryan can’t invent a pass rush without pass rushers. 

Question 5 – Did Martha Stewart devise the NFL’s new rules on contact? The Saints players put more emphasis on trying to strip the ball than to tackle the ball carrier. You think some of the Eagles’ 519 total yards came after the initial contact? Save the strip drill for late in the game when you need to get the ball back. When the game is close, just tackle the guy! 

Question 4 – Did the Saints already retire Marques Colston’s number? It’s sad to see the former 7th round pick go out like this. He has been one of the stalwarts during the Payton-Brees era, but his ball-catching skills and speed have clearly deteriorated. After separating a shoulder against the Eagles, he will probably go on IR and then retire at the end of the season. 

Question 3 - How did NFL scouts believe Andrus Peat was the best offensive tackle in the 2015 draft? Sean Payton said his performance against the Eagles was "solid," despite nearly getting Brees killed a couple times. This could go down as a bad year for offensive tackles and House Republicans.

Question 2 - Is it too early in the season for bag heads?  Since Schwegmann’s closed,  wearing a bag over your head can be fatal. Most groceries prefer to use plastic bags, which can kill a fan who chooses to wear a bag to the game and then starts hyperventilating when the game goes south.

And the No. 1 question that all Saints fans were asking on Monday morning: Did they really find the rugby punter in a tryout at McCool's Irish Pub?

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W-Take Panthers +1 at Cowboys
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L-Take Cardinals at 49ers +10.5
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