The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
We should be giving proper attention to the Saints this morning after their resuscitative victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, and we will. It’s just that I have such a juicy report to deliver that I can’t wait. My sources, many of whom come to me in visions, say Michigan is set to hire 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. If that happens, Tiger fans, you are stuck with Les Miles!
Michigan is expected to fire Brady Hoke sometime this week, a move that many LSU fans are hungrily awaiting. Their logic is that Miles will surely take the job he passed up when Hoke was hired. Les is not more, but less, to many LSU fans, who are disgruntled with his lack of multiple national championships, his failure to recruit a top drop-back quarterback, his play selection, his choice of white hats or other reasons of orderly minds. I guess they figure if Nebraska can fire Bo Pelini, who was 67-27 in seven years, they can fire Miles, who is 69-22 over the same period?
As Saints fans giddily watched their local heroes control the Steelers, they might have missed the trailer tease that the 49ers are looking to trade Harbaugh in the offseason to another NFL team. Harbaugh has one year left on his five-year, $25 million deal, and the tales of his rocky relationship with the 49ers ownership are old news. Speculation about his future with the 49ers resurfaced after a 19-3 home loss on Thanksgiving to the arch-rival Seahawks. After the game, CEO Jed York tweeted an apology to the fans, something that was interpreted by many as a shot at Harbaugh. General manager Trent Baalke's daughter also tweeted that offensive coordinator Greg Roman should be fired. That might tell you something about the 49ers, when the GM's daughter is quoted as an authoritative source!
The trading of coaches is rare, but not without precedent in the NFL. The last trade involving a coach came in 2002 when the Raiders sent Jon Gruden to the Buccaneers for Tampa Bay's 2002 and 2003 first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and cash. Reports surfaced a year ago that the Browns offered the 49ers a similar package for Harbaugh, but in the end, Harbaugh decided not to leave and the Browns went on to hire Mike Pettine.
I think Harbaugh will stick it in York’s ear and quit the NFL for the friendly confines of Ann Arbor. Leaving without compensation to the team would be the ultimate slam at an organization he neither likes nor respects. The Michigan grad and Bo Schembechler disciple has to be looking closely at his alma mater. Money should not be a problem, as big-time college mentors are now making as much as NFL coaches. That move would not be welcomed in Baton Rouge, but the only thing for certain is that Harbaugh’s tour with the 49ers is over. Any bad news for that organization should be good news in New Orleans, as it is for at least one former Saints employee who will never forget years of suffering under the Niner boot heel.
Speaking of the Saints, the return to form of Drew Brees and his band of merry miscreants Sunday took a back seat to a sudden resurgence by Rob Ryan’s withering defense. November has not been kind to the Ryan brothers, with Rob’s defense the main culprit in three consecutive losses and brother Rex’s Jets having departed early for the off-season.
But against the Steelers, Ryan’s Express showed they can play this game after all. Patrick Robinson’s two dropped interceptions, one for a sure TD, supported the old football-ism that cornerbacks would be wide receivers if they could catch the ball. Other than that, Robinson played his best game as a Saint, giving the much-maligned secondary a needed jolt of confidence. The line kept RB Le’Veon Bell bottled up after the first quarter, which left it to QB Ben Rothlisberger to win a game that was out of control.
My mysterious sources did not have any more juicy tidbits about Saints owner Tom Benson, but we could make one up. Benson has a history of changing the names of his franchises (see: “Hornets to Pelicans”), so how about spreading the rumor that the Saints boss has yielded to the erratic performance of this team this season and is considering changing the name of his football team?
How about the Crescent City Conundrums? As our more erudite readers know, a conundrum is defined by Webster as “any puzzling question or problem; a mystery.” And if that doesn’t describe our local heroes through twelve games, then nothing does. Of course, I think the major criterion of a new name is that the majority of fans must be able to pronounce it, so I guess “conundrum” is off the table. Hey, three syllables are as rare in south Louisiana as crawfish in August!
As a public service for our Saints-weary readership, we turn our attention to the college football weekend that is commonly called “Rivalry Weekend.” Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports identified thirty matchups this week that could be described as rivalry games, and we present ten of them here, ranked in order of local and national interest:
1. Auburn at Alabama aka the Iron Bowl. With a victory, the Crimson Tide (10-1) win the SEC West and take a big step toward the College Football Playoff. A win by Auburn (8-3) likely would crush Alabama’s national championship dreams for the second straight year. Alabama leads the series 42-35-1, although Auburn has won eight of the last 12, including last season’s unlikely field goal return TD. Pick: Alabama 35, Auburn 17. 2. Oregon at Oregon State, aka the Civil War. With a win, Oregon (10-1) would remain in the CFP top four heading into the Pac-12 championship game. Oregon leads the series 61-46-10, including the last six games. Pick: Oregon 44, Oregon State 21. Marcus Mariota places a stronger grip on the Heisman Trophy.
3. Florida at Florida State, a traditional rivalry which, oddly enough, is not identified with a name. Seminoles hope to keep their perfect record and CFP standing intact, while the Gators would love to send fired coach Will Muschamp out on the kind of high note he rarely hit in four seasons. Florida leads the series 34-22-2, but Florida State won last year and has won three of the last four. Pick: Florida State 21, Florida 20. 4. Mississippi State at Mississippi, aka the Egg Bowl. With State (10-1) playing for a spot in the playoff and Ole Miss (8-3) ranked in the top 20, it’s certainly the biggest meeting of the last half century, if not longer. Ole Miss leads the series 61-43-6, but State has won four of the last five. Pick: Mississippi State 23, Mississippi 17.
5. Michigan at Ohio State. A game too big for a name, the Buckeyes (10-1) are playing to remain in contention for the playoff, while the Wolverines (5-6) hope to bid a fond farewell to embattled coach Brady Hoke. On the hate meter, the only thing separating this rivalry from Alabama-Auburn are two dead trees at Toomer’s Corner. Michigan leads the series 58-45-6, but the pick is Ohio State 38, Michigan 14. 6. Georgia Tech at Georgia, aka Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate, although Bulldogs fans seem to direct more venom toward Florida or Auburn these days than Tech. Georgia leads the series 64-39-5 and Mark Richt is 12-1 against the Jackets. Pick: Georgia 32, Georgia Tech 28.
7. Arizona State at Arizona, aka the Territorial Cup. One of the biggest meetings ever, with both teams ranked for the first time since 1986. If Stanford beats UCLA in a game that kicks off at the same time, the winner of this one takes the Pac-12 South. Arizona leads the series 47-39-1, mostly because it won 20 of the first 22 between 1899 and 1948. Pick: Arizona 34, Arizona State 31. 8. Minnesota at Wisconsin. In terms of importance, this is the biggest matchup in years. Winner takes the Big Ten West and plays for the conference championship against Ohio State on Dec. 6. Minnesota leads the all-time series 59-56-8, but the Badgers have won the last 10 meetings. Pick: Wisconsin 24, Minnesota 13.
9. Kentucky at Louisville. After a 5-1 start, Wildcats have scrambled since their defense disappeared several games ago. The No. 22 Cardinals are trying to put the finishing touches on a 9-3 season that was close to being much better. The hate meter is high, but there are no fistfights at dialysis centers during football season. In fact, if this game were still played as the season opener, in-fighting would be higher, but it’s basketball season now for Kentucky fans, and more than a few Louisville fans as well. Kentucky leads the all-time series 14-12, but the Cards have won three in a row. Pick: Louisville 34, Kentucky 14.
10. LSU at Texas A&M. Nothing tangible on the line this year for either team other than avoiding sixth place in the SEC West. LSU leads the all-time series 29-20-3, thanks to a one-sided deal that kept the game in Baton Rouge every year from 1960-75. Pick: LSU 25, Texas A&M 21. Then a few people might try and talk Les Miles out of leaving for Michigan.
I often hear the story of a columnist who writes a column that he thinks is outstanding and after it's published, sits back to await the plaudits. Several readers compliment him before he gets a call from a source with intimate knowledge of the subject, who tells him: "It is a well-written column that would be outstanding if it were true!"
Cue the gong!
I have learned that the story below, which I believed was 100% accurate when I wrote it on Monday lost a big chuck of that accuracy percentage on Tuesday. The gist of the story was that Saints owner Tom Benson had not fulfilled a pledge of $100,000 that he made in 2002 to help the UNO baseball program.
I learned today that Benson fulfilled the pledge earlier this year after Ron Maestri, former and current head coach, called him and asked him for it. Maestri had not revealed that he received the donation because he properly wanted to recognize Benson in a ceremony on campus. However, Benson was going through a knee surgery at the time of the donation, and Maestri decided to save the news until a ceremony could be held. The ceremony has yet to be planned, but at least the news is now out that Benson did honor his pledge.
Although the story was accurate for more than a decade, it isn't anymore. Miller regrets the inadvertent error.
Readers of the Monday morning wipe in New Orleans learned of an $11 million donation by Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The first $10 million of the gift would support a $24 million renovation of the Hall of Fame’s Fawcett Stadium while the remaining $1 million would go to a mixed-use residence for Hall of Famers and other retired NFL players and employees. (Gee, I wonder if I can use it, as a guy who slogged through twenty years in the NFL background?)
Just below that front-page story appeared another one, reporting that the University of New Orleans may have to terminate its popular UNO Poll because of budget cuts. It was an interesting juxtaposition that awoke an old ghost. Tom Benson never paid $100,000 from a 2002 pledge to help renovate the UNO baseball facility. Of course, strings were attached, some known and some unknown, and maybe Benson believes UNO did not fulfill its end of the bargain, or maybe he just forgot. I’ll let you decide when you hear the rest of the story.
Let me say up front that nobody has more respect for Tom Benson than I do. I worked for him for ten years and even after he let me go a few months ahead of Jim Mora in 1996, he tried to help me find another job in the League. Forget that it was Buffalo, Benson’s philanthropy is probably unequaled in the tier below the Bill Gateses of the world. New Orleans’ most important sportsman donated $8 million to his alma mater Loyola University in 2010, $5 million to Ochsner Hospital in 2012, $7.5 million toward the construction of Tulane’s Yulman Stadium, $10 million to Brother Martin High School and $5 million to Team Gleason for ALS research. Benson donated funds to build the Benson Memorial Library at Central Catholic High School, and he and his wife, Gayle, funded the building of a football stadium known as Gayle and Tom Benson Field on the campus of University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
But then there’s that UNO thing. In the fall of 2002, after I had applied for the job of Athletic Director at UNO, I was invited to a retirement dinner for Ron Maestri. Tommy Lasorda and the late Kirby Puckett spoke, and it was a nice tribute to the end of Maestri’s first career as UNO’s baseball coach and AD. But during the dinner, then-chancellor Greg O’Brien made the announcement that Tom Benson had pledged $200,000 in a matching grant to help fund improvements to UNO’s baseball stadium. The facility had deteriorated after its last renovation in 1993, paid for when Rob Couhig brought the Zephyrs baseball team to New Orleans.
I thought at the time that it wasn’t much money for naming rights to the grandstand, which O’Brien announced would be called “Benson Pavilion.” Of course, there was a lot about UNO I did not know until I got the AD job in January, 2003. I later learned that Benson, a Navy veteran, allegedly made the pledge in return for O’Brien’s promise to use UNO’s influence to persuade the state to buy and renovate the old Coast Guard Station at West End. Ignorant of such an agreement, my first fund-raising effort was, indeed, the baseball project.
Our efforts quickly surpassed the original $200,000 that would trigger Benson’s pledge. But we never saw any money until I had conversations with Arnie Fielkow, who was the Saints’ chief operating officer at the time. He assured me the money was coming, and we received the first $50,000. We did not see any more money for several months, but after I bought a car from a Benson dealership, I called Fielkow and told him to make sure Benson knew it. Another $50,000 came shortly thereafter, but Fielkow suggested that Benson wanted to make sure UNO could raise the rest of the money it needed before he would hand over the rest of his pledge.
A seismic event occurred about that time that might have changed Benson’s thinking. O’Brien was fired by the LSU System, which governed UNO. I still did not know about O’Brien’s discussions with Benson, but the fact that O’Brien was out of the picture could have torpedoed the agreement. Hurricane Katrina soon changed everything for all of us. Fielkow was fired for standing up to Benson’s inclination to move the Saints to San Antonio, and I was just trying to keep a crippled program together.
I don’t know why Benson was not approached again by UNO for a donation, and maybe he was. But when the story appeared Monday morning touting his latest multi-million dollar gift right above a story of UNO’s continued financial decline, it triggered some memories. Fulfilling a pledge of $100,000 today might not salvage UNO’s Research Center, but it might put some old ghosts to rest.
I once knew a guy I called “Yebbit,” because no matter what opinion I would toss onto the table, he would respond with “yeah, but …” and then go off on his own ill-informed tangent 180 degrees the other way. Sometimes right, and sometimes wrong but always in a direction opposite my own. So I took that person’s “yeah, but …” response and came up with the name “Yebbit.” The loyalists in Who Dat Nation are channeling Yebbit today after the Saints’ disappointing 27-10 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday. If you haven’t participated in these discussions already at work or in the grocery or at school, they are not hard to envision.
“To have a 4-6 record at this point in the season is hugely disappointing,” says the Unbeliever. “Yeah, but …” responds Yebbit, “they have lost four games by a total of nine points, so they could just as easily be 8-2 right now.” The Unbeliever invokes the wisdom of Coach Bill Parcells, who once said: “You are what your record says you are.” “Yeah, but … the Saints are still tied for first place in the dog ass NFC South,” responds Yebbit. The Unbeliever corrects him that Atlanta has the tie-breaker, so the Saints are really in second place right now. “Yeah, but … they play Atlanta again, at home, and Carolina at home and Tampa is so bad they could play on the runway at Tampa International Airport.”
The Unbeliever notes that the Saints go on the road this week to Baltimore, which has won four in a row at home, as well as at Chicago, where the Saints never win. “Yeah, but … the Bears have lost three of four at home this year and I’d take a split with the Ravens and Bears.” Don’t forget that the Saints also go to Pittsburgh, which is 4-1 at home. “Yeah, but … their home loss was to Tampa! That makes them beatable anywhere!” Well, two straight losses at the Dome has taken the bloom off the so-called invincibility of the Superdome as a place that visitors fear. "Yeah, but ... name one other place where nobody wants to play. "
Well, part of home-field advantage is stopping the other team, which the Saints haven’t been able to do very well. “Yeah, but … four of the teams they have yet to play have worse defenses. The Saints defense is ranked No. 21 today, but Atlanta, Tampa, Chicago and Carolina are all ranked lower.” The Saints defense isn't going to get much better if it continues to lose players at key positions. “Yeah, but … those other teams don’t have an offense like we do.”
Drew Brees has not exactly been his old self in the clutch this year. His turnovers have cost more games than he has late comebacks. “Yeah, but … I would still rather have the fourth best passer of all time running my offense, and Jimmy Graham on the receiving end.” Don’t you think Brees often depends too much on Graham even when he’s double- and triple-covered? “Yeah, but … he’s got Cooks and Colston and Stills, all of whom caught at least four balls Sunday.” What good are wide receivers when Brees has almost abandoned the downfield pass? He didn't complete a pass over 17 yards, maybe because the offensive line is not giving him enough time? “Yeah, but … he can still keep a defense off balance with quick pops to the running backs. The backs caught 15 balls against Cincy.”
Bottom line is the Saints are 4-6, and you have to admit they are not a very good football team right now. “Yeah, but … we’ve got six more games, and anything can happen!”