The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Random thoughts while still marveling at Malik Monk’s 47-point performance in Kentucky’s 103-100 win over North Carolina Saturday …
Is it just me or are college football players really the most selfish sonsabitches on earth? In the past few days, both LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey announced they will forego their team’s bowl appearances because they are preparing for the NFL draft. Then there is the boycott by University of Minnesota football players who say they will sit out the Gophers’ bowl appearance because ten of their “brothers” have been accused in the gang rape of a coed. Maybe it’s just something about bowl games that make kids goofy, but let’s consider these one at a time.
McCaffrey announced Monday that he won't play in the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Dec. 30 in El Paso, choosing to begin his preparation for the 2017 NFL Draft "immediately." I’m not quite sure why McCaffrey needs to begin preparing for an event that is five months away, especially since the bowl game is less than two weeks away. Unless conditioning guru Mackie Shilstone has created a rigid schedule that dictates every second be spent on workouts, proper diet and high personal behavior, McCaffrey’s reluctance to join his teammates smacks of selfishness. Sure, he says he has the "100 percent" support of his teammates, but I’m sure a few of them are characterizing him with some choice epithets, including but not limited to the “P” word.
Fournette’s reluctance to participate in the Tigers' match-up with No. 15 Louisville in the Citrus Bowl might be more explainable because of the ankle injury that bedeviled him all season. I will acknowledge that Fournette’s ankle was a contributing factor to LSU’s disappointing season, but he owes it to his teammates to suit up, even if he doesn’t play a down. Call it a final farewell to the LSU fans who cheered him when he was arguably the best running back in the country and also when he was playing hurt.
Fournette will have had more than a month to rest the ankle since the Tigers’ last game, Nov. 24 against Texas A&M, which should be sufficient rehab time unless there is more to his injury than has been publicly revealed. If the injury is that severe, Fournette should have had surgery by now to correct the problem. Doubtless, he is looking ahead at the NFL Combine that runs from February 28 to March 6, where the medical check will be critical. A “loose ankle” is correctable, and in the short term, Fournette’s function can be restored. If he corrects the problem with surgery soon, NFL teams will look at past performance and be thankful that the healing process is a few months ahead of schedule. Treatment and rehab leaves the threat of recurrence marked in bold red letters in NFL reports. Although I think he owes it to his fans and teammates to be in uniform, I’ll give him a pass because injuries shorten careers.
Where I can’t excuse selfish behavior is that displayed by the University of Minnesota football team who threatened en masse to boycott the Holiday Bowl because of the suspension of 10 players accused of sexual assault. The team will go ahead with its Dec. 27 game against Washington State in San Diego after getting assurances that those accused will get a fair hearing next month. But, as Sally Jenkins said last week in the Washington Post, the players’ statements offer no recognition of the terrible complexity of the campus sexual abuse problem, and that is what makes their boycott disappointing and even objectionable. They don’t recognize that women on campuses face an epidemic of sexual crime and that both law enforcement and well-intentioned administrators are grappling for balance and answers in dealing with both false and true accusations.
“A college football team,” Jenkins wrote, “finally has recognized its power and leverage over campus administrators but for a queasy-making cause: solidarity over an unprosecuted allegation of multiple sexual assaults … There is something jarring about this, some missing sensibility. What’s missing is any recognition that campus officials have the right to hold students to a higher standard than simply being non-felons.”
Any father of daughters has to be concerned about sexual abuse, especially in the revered context of college athletics. The Florida State, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Baylor administrations reportedly discounted victims’ stories and sheltered athletes from consequences, while at Duke and Virginia false accusers and botched investigations tarred the innocent. At Minnesota, police and prosecutors decided that the case did not meet the burden of criminal proof, but the campus Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action investigators nevertheless recommended discipline against 10 players for violating student conduct standards, and the players were suspended by Athletic Director Mark Coyle and President Eric Kaler.
In questioning the standard of conduct in Minnesota football and their disciplinary code, Jenkins said "The trouble with this boycott is that it suggests that both bars should be abysmally low. It suggests that unless something is a verifiable crime and prosecutable, then college authorities have no right to regulate their conduct at all. And that’s not a great precedent for college students. In fact, college administrators might have every reason to find aspects of this episode objectionable and worthy of discipline under the student code of conduct, which contains provisions about respect and prohibits harming other students in any way or making them feel harassed or uncomfortable. "
The boycott of a bowl game is not an action that compels me to take their side and congratulate them for taking such a strong stand. There are a million good social-justice causes over which a major college football team could boycott. This isn’t one of them.
The Saints’ 16-11 loss at Tampa Bay Sunday brought the club to a familiar moment in Saints’ history. In the team’s 50 years on the NFL planet, five Saints head coaches have presided over a third straight losing season, and four of them were fired or resigned during or after that season. After the game, safety Jairus Byrd voiced what all of Who Dat Nation must be thinking: "Something has to change. Something. We have to look at everything. Ourselves, everything.” Does that also mean the head coach?
Should Sean Payton, whose team has posted two straight 7-9 seasons and is headed that way in 2016, be the fifth head coach to feel an icy axe on the back of his neck after his third straight losing season? Let’s look at the record to see if history could repeat itself for Payton in his 11th year in New Orleans. The first Saints’ head coach, Tom Fears, suffered through three straight losing seasons in the team’s formative years, 1967-69. He survived, but after a 1-7 start in his fourth season, he was fired. John North was named head coach before the 1973 season, but his teams went 5-9 two straight years and then 1-5 to open his third season before North was fired.
Jim Mora encountered problems in the middle of his third straight losing season, going 7-9 in both 1994 and 1995 before resigning in 1996 when the team was 2-6. Mike Ditka, a disaster from the start, hit the three-season losing bar before he was summarily ousted. The third losing season has been a harbinger of disaster for Saints’ head coaches.
And now, taking the stand is Sean Payton, whose Saints stand at 5-8, after consecutive 7-9 seasons. Guilty or not guilty? I don’t believe that any coach who leads a team to a Super Bowl championship and was 48-16 between 2009-2013 (excluding 2012 when he was suspended) is all of a sudden a bad coach. Coaches develop their philosophy of a system throughout their career, and if their systems work, they stay employed. It helps when you’re giving the ball to a quarterback who is a lock for Canton. But in the NFL, good players make good coaches, and the Saints have lagged behind their peers in replacing players who retired, declined or left in free agency.
QB Drew Brees has been the only constant during the Payton era, performing at a generally high level (the Detroit and Tampa losses rare exceptions!). However, consistency at other positions has been, well, inconsistent. It seems that each year one unit collectively fails and pulls the rest of the team down with it. The defense has suffered most of the slings and arrows the past three years, but judging by Sunday’s game and a few others, you know that defensive lapses alone can’t be blamed for the overall implosion.
The secondary appeared solid only two years ago, but injuries to corner Keenan Lewis and salary cap casualties safety Malcolm Jenkins and corner Jabari Greer left the team scrambling for replacements. Byrd has not lived up to his mega-contract, although Kenny Vaccaro appears solid and the young corners will get better. The defensive line has been a revolving door behind all-Pro Cameron Jordan, and the team could use a couple more players like rookie Sheldon Rankins. The linebacker corps consists of a hodgepodge of free agents and mistake-prone youngsters. Rickey Jackson and the rest of the Dome Patrol never looked so good!
On Brees’ side of the ball, the offensive line was a disaster a couple years ago, but now seems to have stabilized with all-Pro center Max Unger, left tackle Terron Armstead (when healthy), and the rejuvenated Zach Strief at right tackle. The only position group that has turned over completely and still maintained a high level of proficiency is the cadre of Brees' targets. It’s hard to replace a group like Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham, but Brandin Cooks, rookie Michael Thomas and steady Willie Snead have been adequate and sometimes spectacular. Graham was bait to solidify the offensive line in exchange for Unger, but the tight end position is no longer the go-to target for Brees. Benjamin Watson did a yeoman’s job in his one season in the role, but Coby Fleener has done little to justify his $7 million per year contract. He doesn’t make the tough catch, he doesn’t run well in space, and he seems more spectator than participant.
So is Payton to blame for the team’s lack of contention the past three years, or is it something else? We can always blame the personnel guys, but the personnel guys do not bring in anyone who Payton does not approve. The head coach has as great influence in who is drafted and which free agents the team pursues as any coach in the league. My guess is that Tom Benson’s loyalty to Payton as the coach who gave him the one thing he can’t buy – a Super Bowl championship – gives the coach some breathing room. But Benson also is a smart enough businessman to judge any employee by “What have you done for me lately?”
I was held hostage on Sunday, driving home in a relentless rain made worse by even more deafening elements. I was returning from a road trip to Lexington to see the No. 1 Wildcats take apart the pretenders from UCLA, although the game did not quite work out the way I had envisioned. The talented and veteran Bruins exposed Kentucky’s lack of an inside game to win, 97-92, in a game that really wasn’t that close. Humbled by that humbling, I returned southward on Sunday, relying on Sirius radio for the college football playoff announcement and hopefully finding the Saints game along the way. The trip soon became a lesson in “be careful what you wish for.”
The college football announcement was not a surprise. No. 1 seed Alabama will play No. 4 seed Washington while No. 2 Ohio State will play No. 3 Clemson with the winners facing off for the national championship January 9 in Tampa. But once the news was announced, the backbiting began! Irate callers to the sports channels, mostly representing spurned teams, offered mountains of evidence proving that the committee got it all wrong again, that Washington was less deserving than Penn State, Michigan, or any number of other schools!
I must confess I have nothing against the University of Washington. I enjoyed the book “Boys in the Boat” about the 1936 University of Washington rowers who won the Olympics that year, but callers reminded me that the Huskies have not had much success since. I did not realize that the school's only official NCAA national championships have been won by women - three NCAA titles in rowing (1997, 1998, 2001), along with softball (2009), volleyball (2005) and cross country (2008). The men have zero NCAA titles. True, Washington lost only one game, but it was to Southern Cal, 26-13, a team that was embarrassed by Alabama, 52-6. The cellphone extrapolators added the scores and computed that the Crimson Tide would roll the Huskies by 62-0, or worse.
Most adamant were snubbed Penn State fans who were asking how their team, which beat Ohio State and won the Big Ten championship - a game the Buckeyes didn’t even qualify for - were left out while Ohio State gets a crack at winning a national title? Penn State beat the Buckeyes straight-up in October, and won a stirring come-from-behind victory over Wisconsin on Saturday, but they won’t go to the playoff round. Tough. Remarkably, Michigan fans were almost as resolute, and with less reason. True, Michigan blew out Penn State, but the Wolverines played eight of 12 games at home and lost to an ordinary Iowa team on the road late in the season. Callers did not want to be reminded that their chance to make the playoff came in the season finale versus Ohio State, and they lost in double overtime. Double tough!
I gave up on complaint radio and looked for the Saints’ game. Sure enough, the dulcet tones of Jim Henderson came through the airwaves on Sirius’ Insight channel which normally carries talk and information programs. I was looking for a statement game for Drew Brees and his powerful offense to blitz Detroit’s No. 27 ranked pass defense, like they did the Rams last week. With the Falcons playing the dangerous Chiefs, a victory could put the Saints right back in the South Division hunt.
It was about that time that, through my wiper blades, I saw the traffic indicator flashing a warning. The Interstate would be closed ahead and traffic diverted around the trouble spot. Two more plans were about to be blown to bits! Much like my travel, in which I bumper-to-bumpered seven miles over the next 90 minutes, the Saints offense slogged its way to season lows in just about every category in the 28-13 loss. The Lions defense looked like the ’95 Bears, while Matthew Stafford picked apart the mistake-prone Saints at will. Although the Chiefs beat the Falcons, the Saints' performance likely eliminates them from the playoffs. I switched channels again, looking for a bright light among the gloom and, finally, I found redemption!
I made the first decision of the day that turned out right. Having been held hostage to football the previous eight hours, driving in an endless rain, it was refreshing to hydroplane home with Jerry Garcia on the Grateful Dead channel. "Truckin' like the Doo-Dah man..."
While the college football cognoscenti spent the weekend trying to determine which teams will occupy the four seats on the championship bus, the two favorite teams of this column’s readership broke out the champagne for other reasons. After flirting with head coaches from other schools, LSU finally named interim coach Ed Orgeron as the school’s 33rd head football coach. In similar fashion, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops saw his program turn a major corner by defeating 11th ranked Louisville, 41-38. Beside winning bragging rights over their major in-state rival for another year, the Wildcat victory legitimized the belief that Kentucky football could be on the verge of something special under Stoops.
Both Kentucky and LSU suffered similar pains early in the season but handled it in very different ways. Sure, LSU head coach Les Miles almost was thrown overboard at the end of last season by AD Joe Alleva, but he was given a reprieve by school president F. King Alexander after a show of loyalty by players and fans. Miles’ rescue crew was convinced that with RB Leonard Fournette and a raft of other NFL prospects returning in 2016, even Miles couldn’t screw up what was surely a team that would content for the NCAA championship. But after an opening loss to Wisconsin, two lackluster wins over Jacksonville State and Mississippi State and a shocking 18-13 Tiger Stadium loss to Auburn, Miles was jettisoned.
Alleva, likely muttering “I told you so,” named Orgeron interim head coach while he rekindled private talks with Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher who was all but signed to replace Miles the previous year. But Jimbo’s people smelled leverage and set the financial bar beyond what even Alleva was willing to pay, so the AD turned to Houston coach Tom Herman. The day before Thanksgiving, ESPN and other news organizations reported that Herman would be the next head coach at LSU. However, if Texas boosters understand anything, it’s a cattle prod being applied to your hind quarters, and they swiftly locked up Herman and ousted Charlie Strong. That left Alleva with the choice he should have made all along (and this column recommended on October 10!), to name the native of Larose, Louisiana, as the Tigers’ head coach.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops was also dodging early gunfire. His team blew a three-touchdown lead to Southern Mississippi in the season opener at Commonwealth Stadium then waved a white flag early in a 45-7 pummeling at Florida. Stoops topped most “coaches on the hot seat” lists, and who could blame them? After a 2-10 “no hard feelings” inaugural season in 2013, Stoops’ 2014 and 2015 teams flirted with respectability early before losing their final five SEC matches and the grudge match to Louisville. But during that time, Stoops was actively recruiting players who could come in and make a difference. Instead of signing players who also were offered scholarships by Conference USA and Sun Belt schools, Stoops’ was now winning recruiting battles with Alabama, Ohio State and Tennessee.
Things started to look brighter this year after a 34-6 loss at Alabama when JC transfer QB Stephen Johnson was installed to oversee a running game led by Sophomore Stanley “Boom” Williams and Freshman Benny Snell. The key was the sudden maturity of a young offensive line in which offensive coordinator Eddie Gran rotates nine bodies. The result has been a sudden identity as a smash-mouth running team that won four SEC games for the first time in a decade. UK also takes advantage of the long ball, as Johnson did with three long TD passes against Louisville.
That victory put the Stoops rebuilding program definitely on schedule. As Lexington Herald columnist John Clay wrote after the win over Louisville and its Heisman Trophy candidate QB Lamar Jackson: “Four years of work, four years of faith, all paid off at exactly the right time to produce a ‘significant’ victory over not just UK’s arch-rival, but a very good football team with a very good head coach and an outstanding quarterback.”
Rookies have a hard enough time in the NFL, but when the season passes the halfway mark, and they are just starting to feel comfortable, the veterans subject them to the oldest trick in the NFL, the Thanksgiving turkey giveaway. Different teams conduct it with different gags and their own puckish frills, but generally the rookies are told that a local market will give them a free turkey if they show up to collect. When they arrive at the designated location – which often ranges from a vacant address to swampland - they are informed in some manner that they have been had.
Local stories in recent years have suggested that Coach Sean Payton or QB Drew Brees are behind the current one-day humbling of their younger players, but the Thanksgiving turkey giveaway has been an NFL staple for longer than the half-century the Saints have been in New Orleans. The Saints likely performed the prank in the first year of the franchise, according to longtime trainer Dean Kleinschmidt, who remembers it the first year he came to New Orleans as an assistant trainer in 1969, the team’s third season. I worked with Dean for ten years, and our recollections are consistent with pranks from other years and by other teams.
During our time, equipment manager Dan Simmons orchestrated an elaborate hoax, conspiring with Joey LaBella of LaBella’s meat market. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, LaBella’s would send a huge turkey to the Saints office, which Simmons placed tantalizingly in the locker room. When the players came off the field after practice, they destroyed the bird in about 32 seconds, leaving it completely stripped down to the skeleton. The trap set, Simmons handed out written invitations to the players to visit LaBella’s after Thursday practice and pick out the turkey of their choice.
The veterans knew what was coming, having been fooled themselves, but the rookies saw a free meal. After practice, video director Erby Aucoin, and later his son Albert, would hustle to LaBella’s and set up a hidden camera to give the festivities a "candid camera" feel. When a rookie would arrive and demand his turkey, the clerk at the front would direct him to Mr. Joey’s office in the back of the store. Joey would give the rookie a note, and many just stuffed the note into their pockets. But Joey said the player must read the note before he could get his turkey. And from the note they learned the sad news: “Gobble, gobble, gobble. You have fallen for the oldest prank in the NFL. Happy Thanksgiving, turkey!”
Most rookies took it in stride, while others claimed the next morning that they knew it was a joke and did not go. But at a team meeting Friday morning, Jim Mora had Aucoin play the video, and guilt was clear, denial or not. The Saints had given the players the bird, but not the turkey!
Not all rookies took the prank in stride. Kleinschmidt recalled how defensive end Joe Campbell, a No. 1 pick from Maryland, showed up at the market demanding his turkey. After he was informed of the prank, Campbell, who was a volatile sort on the field, grabbed the first frozen turkey he saw and walked out the door. Nobody was about to stop him. Kleinschmidt, who retired from the NFL last year after seven years with the Detroit Lions, recalled that not only rookies were victimized by the prank. The Lions team president added legitimacy to the prank one year by announcing the giveaway after practice on Wednesday. He was so convincing that not only the rookies showed up, but a 10-year veteran lineman.
Beloved strength coach Russ Paternostro was in his first year with the Saints when he received an invitation. He immediately called wife Mercy and told her he was getting a free turkey, but Mercy protested that she already had bought the family’s turkey. “Take it back to the store,” Russ said, and she did. No record exists of what the Paternostro family ate for Thanksgiving dinner that year, but you can bet Russ ate crow at home for a while.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!