The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
When top ten high school basketball player Hamidou Diallo enrolled for the spring semester at Kentucky on Wednesday, it was more than just another phenom added to the Wildcats’ already top-rated recruiting class for 2017. Diallo, from Queens, N.Y., finished his high school requirements early, which could be a portent of things to come for top basketball recruits. Early enrollment of top high school basketball players follows a trend that has been a long-time practice for high school football stars where potential pros are locked into at least three years of college before they can test their NFL aspirations.
"I’m blessed and excited to be here at the University of Kentucky," Diallo said after signing a financial aid agreement. "I can’t wait to hit the floor and get rolling and get better each and every day. I chose the University of Kentucky because the plan Coach Cal had for me was just phenomenal and I felt like this was the best place for me to achieve my goals. I felt like this was the best choice for me and my family."
The "plan" includes the extra semester that has given football players a platform for early playing time in their freshman year, which translates into experience that can speed their NFL readiness. Anyone who has been around college sports knows that the comfort level can be increased if a player has extra time to learn how to balance the academic requirements with interminable obligations such as strength training, getting to know your position coach, forging bonds with teammates, learning the playbook in meetings, and participating in practice.
Tim Tebow enrolled early at Florida and went on to win a national championship, but the process dates back as far as January, 1991, when Eric Zeier enrolled early at Georgia and set a range of school and SEC records before heading on to a six-year NFL career. This week, LSU welcomes 4-star dual-threat QB Lowell Narcisse and friends, following the practice of last year when WR Stephen Sullivan, LB Michael Divinity and DB Saivion Smith enrolled in January. Six football players joined Diallo and enrolled at Kentucky this week, including Mr. Football candidate QB Walker Wood of Lexington Lafayette.
The story is similar at most other football schools, but it’s not yet so prevalent among top basketball players although early enrollment in basketball makes far more sense. Diallo is not going to break into the Wildcats’ lineup right now and is not expected to even suit up this season, but he will begin academic classes, practice with the team, begin strength training and generally get a big head start on the 2017-18 basketball season. When the first ball is tipped next year, Diallo will essentially have one year of experience under his belt. He will be more prepared for the rigors of an elite program with the added experience that many true freshmen do not get. Kentucky fans know the value of an extra year for players such as Isaiah Briscoe, who often struggled as a freshman, came back for a second year and is today the acknowledged leader of the Wildcats’ team.
Diallo could be the same guy for next year’s class that already features a handful of top 25 prospects. Most are “one and done” aspirants who next year will be joined by a likely “1.5 and done.”
My old boss, Jim Finks, had so many sayings that he kept me busy in our years together trying to write them all down. Of the 75 or so that I memorialized, some were pithy while others were not suitable for a family newspaper, but all made perceptive points. I thought about one of those sayings a few days ago after the Saints announced that five assistant coaches were being fired. Was it because somewhere along the way, they lost their edge or they got fat and happy to the point they just aren’t good coaches anymore? The more likely answer is that, no, they still have the knowledge it takes to survive in a business that insiders define as “NFL - Not For Long.” But a Finks quote provides some between-the-lines reasoning why Payton jettisoned coaches he had worked with for more than a decade.
“Good players make good coaches,” Finks often said. That tells me the reason the coaches were let go is that the Saints don’t have enough good players to make coaches good coaches. Joe Vitt, Bill Johnson and special teams coach Greg McMahon were on the staff when the Saints won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season. If they were good enough to win a Super Bowl, how are they bad enough now to get fired? Did the 2009 Super Bowl champions have more “good” players than the current team? A little roster comparison is reasonable, particularly on defense.
Often the definition of “good” players is a bit nuanced. An experienced player is sometimes more valuable to his team than an inexperienced player although their skill set might be similar. Would you rather have Charles Grant or Kasim Edebali? How about Scott Fujita or Nate Stupar? And certainly a healthy player is better to have than one susceptible to injury. Tracy Porter or Delvin Breaux? Jonathan Vilma or Dannell Ellerbe?. Maybe a veteran with a sterling career behind him continues playing at a high level while another does not. Would you rather have Darren Sharper at 34 or Jairus Byrd at 30?
It would be hard to find much difference in the offense between 2009 and 2016, obviously because QB Drew Brees continues to perform at a high level. The Saints ranked No. 1 in the league in 2009, while the 2016 team ranked second. Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower gained 1,591 yards between them this year, still short of the 1,837 recorded by the tandem of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush. However, you could argue that today’s receiving corps of Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas and Willie Snead, with 242 catches, is superior to the 2009 team of Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meacham, who caught 166 balls between them. The 2016 offensive line performed amazingly well although the 2009 group drew more plaudits.
Perhaps the real culprit in all this is not coaching, but scouting. The 2016 and 2015 drafts appear to be full of keepers, but Cooks is the only player left from the 2014 draft and Kenny Vaccaro and Terron Armstead are the lone survivors from the 2013 draft. Not one player drafted in 2012 or 2010 is still on the roster, and only Cameron Jordan and Ingram are still here from the 2011 draft. Jimmy Graham was selected in 2010, so to be fair let’s consider Max Unger, who was acquired in the Graham trade, as a benefit of the 2010 draft. Six starters from five drafts between 2010-14 is not conducive to winning. I won’t even go into the poor record of recent signing free agents such as James Laurinaitis and Brandon Browner.
Finks was right, good players do make good coaches, but when your player acquisition department fails to provide enough good players, your coaches usually pay the price.
Lace 'em up Agnes! Here are our bold predictions for 2017!
LSU opened the Ed Orgeron era with a big win over Louisville in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, but the big news came before the game when former coach Les Miles announced that in sympathy with Leonard Fournette, he, too, was sitting out the game. In the College Playoff championship game, Alabama’s stifling defense shuts down Clemson’s high-powered offense as the Tide rolls to a 24-10 victory. ESPN reports that after the game Nick Saban was spotted breaking into a brief smile, but subsequent reports downgraded it to a smirk.
Saints owner Tom Benson announces that coach Sean Payton has been traded to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for the Rams’ No. 2 draft choice in 2017, a No. 1 choice in 2018 and a box suite at Santa Anita race track. Les Miles immediately announces he is a candidate for the job, but Benson names Alabama’s Nick Saban as the new head coach. Lane Kiffin, newly named head coach at Florida Atlantic resigns and is named head coach of the Crimson Tide. At their March meetings, NFL owners approve the move of the Raiders to Las Vegas, but on the condition that none of the Raiders games will be televised. Said Commissioner Roger Goodell, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!”
In April, Kentucky defeats Louisville and UCLA to win their ninth NCAA men’s basketball championship, and on the first Saturday in May, another of Tom Benson’s horses fails to win the Kentucky Derby. Cleveland makes it two in a row over Golden State to win the NBA Finals, and Benson fires GM Dell Demps and Coach Alvin Gentry. Les Miles immediately announces he is a candidate for the job, but Benson hires Kentucky’s John Calipari as head coach and general manager.
The Cleveland Browns pull another draft surprise by taking North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky as the first player in the 2017 NFL draft. Trubisky is the fifth quarterback the Browns have taken in the first round since Drew Brees has been in the league. The 49ers, picking second, take Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M, and LSU RB Leonard Fournette goes third to the Chicago Bears. The Saints' Saban goes for familiar faces on defense in the draft, selecting ex-Bama star DE Jonathan Allen in the first round and LB’s Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams in the second round.
In golf, Tiger Woods ends his victory drought at an invitational tournament sponsored by Nike, IMG and the Tiger Woods Foundation. Woods defeats Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and forty-six club pros to earn his first victory in three years, and in baseball, the Boston Red Sox defeat the Chicago Cubs in a rematch of the 1918 World Series.
Before NBA training camps open, new GM John Calipari trades Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Buddy Hield along with first-round draft choices for the next four years to acquire Sacramento C DeMarcus Cousins, Washington guard John Wall and Phoenix guard Devin Booker. He then boldly changes the team colors to blue and white and predicts that his new acquisitions will join Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones in an all-Kentucky starting lineup for the newly renamed New Orleans Pelicats.
LSU blasts out of the gate and rolls to an 8-0 record before falling to No. 1 Alabama at Tuscaloosa. From there, the two teams run the table and both qualify for the College Football Playoff. Joining them will be one unnamed team that didn’t qualify for its own conference championship game, prompting President Donald Trump to appoint a panel to investigate. The panel concludes that the playoff format accomplished its goals of squeezing more money out of fans, television networks and advertisers, to which the President remarked: “That’s the American way, and it’s a beautiful thing!” Meanwhile, Kentucky goes 9-3 and earns a spot in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.
Nick Saban’s 13-3 Saints shock the NFL behind their top-ranked defense and are the NFC’s top seed for the playoffs. Unable to find work, Les Miles announces he is joining Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow to launch a new reality show appearing on the SEC Network titled Dancing with the Fallen Stars.
That's all I got! Happy New Year!
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?”