The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Several unlikely comebacks dominated the news over the weekend, but be honest with me. LSU basketball coach Will Wade’s comeback receives points for the sheer unlikelihood amid a seemingly incriminating FBI wiretap. But he’s back. And you have to give the Pelicans a nod that their comeback to relevance might have begun with the news that the respected David Griffin has agreed to become their head of basketball operations. And a few days ago, weren’t you thinking that the biggest comeback of the weekend would be renewal of the Game of Thrones franchise after two years? That would have been my choice until Tiger Woods got hot.
It’s been almost a full day since Woods did the seemingly impossible, returning from a decade of injuries, scandal and personal purgatory to win the most coveted trophy in golf, the Masters green jacket. It was Tiger’s fifth jacket, his first in 14 years, and his first major victory in 11 years, but if you watched Sunday’s final round you know all that. People who are paid to comment on the flow of sports are oozing hosannas on the achievement of perhaps the greatest comeback in sports history. Honest, some have called it that!
I don’t know if I’d go that far, but in trying to put a different spin from my little corner of the universe, I can’t think of another that tops it. The term “comeback” requires high achievement, which we saw when Woods came from three strokes off the lead with six holes to grab a two-stroke lead with two holes to play and ultimate victory. But the term also implies failure of some sort, something ill-fitting and just plain bad that he had to come back from. That occurred when marital infidelity toppled him from his admirable perch in which he had spent 683 weeks (more than 13 years) as the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world. That is 352 more weeks that the No. 2 man on the list, Greg Norman.
We remember with equal doses of revulsion or regret the images of Woods’ decline. The press conference admitting his infidelity, the police mug shots taken after the accident that he says was caused by medication, the pathetic attempts to compete that forced him to pack up his clubs and go home in the middle of tournaments. Physical deterioration likely brought on by the tremendous torque of his swing prompted back surgeries that turned Woods into a recluse who seldom went outside. For years, his physical recovery received less attention than the back page snippets such as his three-year relationship with world class skier Lindsey Vonn.
But then things began to change. Woods’ body began to heal, he assumed the role of a parent with daughter Sam and son Charlie and he began to compete again. Last year, Woods gave us hints that he was again a factor when he contended for the 2018 PGA Championship and the British Open before a memorable Tour Championship victory. Still, this week he was a 10-to-1 long shot to win his first major since 2008, but he shook off three bogies in the first ten holes to outlast his rivals’ gang immolation. Watching the back nine, I thought of the Chinese proverb: “If you sit at the bank of the river long enough, you will watch the bodies of your enemies float by.”
The buzzle now turns to the question that seemed so assured when Woods was 32: Can he beat Jack Nicklaus’ record of winning 18 majors? The Masters was No. 15, but Woods has won 81 tournaments, eight more than Jack, and only one behind all-time leader Sam Snead. At 43, how many more good years does Woods have to give both records a shot? Nicklaus’ last Masters was in 1986 when he was 46. Does anybody remember the 1998 Masters when Jack was two strokes off the lead on Sunday only to fade at the end? After Woods sealed his comeback on Sunday, I would not count him out.
Yes, it's Masters week and whenever somebody mentions "Jack," the first reference goes to Mr. Nicklaus. But my thoughts this week go to another Jack, a guy who Masters Jack would have appreciated. I met Jack Hensley on the golf course. He was the ringleader of a regular group of rollicking retirees who played every day but never bet on their games, mainly because their games weren’t worth losing money over.
When Jack invited me to join his group, I soon learned that the difference between me and Jack’s group was that, unlike me, some of them had been very good golfers in their day. The trouble was that their day was during the Nixon administration. A hundred years later, their swings still showed rhythm and grace but that doesn’t guarantee distance when you’re playing in your eighth or ninth decade. Jack’s group was not one that played cut-throat golf. It was civilized golf, kind of like happy hour at a favorite watering hole.
After I started playing with Jack’s group, I realized that some of the regulars were better than others but none were head and shoulders above the rest, unless you count the 65-year-old "kid" who still showed flashes of his years on the Southern Miss golf team. The majority of the members were from somewhere else. The Count was from Cleveland, Gout was from Canada, and Dugout was retired military and from everywhere. Another former soldier, KP, played on a prosthetic limb that replaced the leg he lost in Vietnam. He’s a little wobbly on a sidehill lie, but I wish I could drive the ball as far. Other members of the group had special powers. The Doorman’s tip to keep my back shoulder low through the ball magically added 20 yards to my drive. Charlie O. not only could smell if a snake was slithering nearby but could tell if it was poisonous or harmless simply by the odor.
That was Jack’s group. Unique, fun and good guys, and all of us were there Monday at Jack’s final 19th hole to wish him farewell on his final journey to another course where the grass is emerald, the greens roll true and the sun shines every day forever.
When I started playing with the group and Jack learned of my background, he would call frequently with questions about his beloved Saints. He was a fan but an educated one. I’d see his name on caller ID, and I knew his mind was going a mile a minute. “I have a question,” he would announce. “Why in the world….” and I would be put on another spot as a guy who should know the answer. “Well, okay,” Jack would respond, letting me think I had given him an answer that satisfied him, although it probably didn’t.
Another time after I appeared on WWL-TV talking about the Saints, Jack told me that he was a huge fan of WWL anchor Karen Swensen. “She has such a great smile, always seems to be happy and enjoys what she’s doing,” Jack said. Having gotten to know Karen through my appearances, I confirmed that she was a very nice person.
So when Jack’s health started to decline last fall, I sent Karen an e-mail asking if she would write him a note or send him an autographed photo. She countered with an idea that confirmed Jack’s opinion of her. “Give me his phone number, and I’ll give him a call,” she offered, and I did and she did. Jack called me right away, sounding like I had sent Publishers Clearing House to his door with the big prize. He could not stop smiling for days after, and I wrote Karen another note thanking her for her kindness. I did not know that at the time she was going through her own personal tragedy of her husband’s illness and eventual death.
The last few times Jack played with us his body had declined to the point he had to tee off from the “super senior” tees that are placed about 20 yards forward of the women’s tees. He would play three or four holes, take his cuts and generally send the ball out to the vicinity of where the rest of us had hit. It will be different next time Jack plays. We all agreed Monday that the next time Jack Hensley tees it up, he’ll be hitting from the back tees with no pain and a new group of players who will come to know and love him as much as his last group did.
In sports, there are hopes and then there are expectations. Fans of Auburn’s basketball team has hopes, while fans of the team they beat on Sunday to earn their first trip to the Final Four live - and die - with expectations.
And while the War Eagle’s overtime defeat of Kentucky showed a team that played ferocious defense and clutch shooting, Big Blue Nation’s latest nightmare revealed a team that could not hit shots, missed too many free throws and suffered too many defensive lapses. Auburn fans are probably still dancing around the Toomer oaks today because their hopes of going to the first Final Four in history have been realized. Meanwhile, in Lexington, couches that lined State Street in preparation for the ritual bonfire that celebrates a Wildcat triumph, have been returned to the houses to await another day.
The failed expectation of Kentucky basketball reaching its annual goal is harder to take than mere lost hopes. Auburn wasn’t expected to be the last SEC school standing while Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU sit at home. But their fans had hopes that Coach Bruce Pearl’s team of over-achievers might overcome the hint of scandal after two assistant coaches were fired for recruiting improprieties. They had hopes after they lost to Kentucky in Lexington 80-53 that they would correct their mistakes and turn around their season. They had hopes that they would get hot at the right time and blow past their SEC rivals to win the conference tournament. Once those hopes were realized, they had hopes that a No. 5 seed could play above its ranking and win a national championship.
If it doesn't happen, there is still the victory that your team wasn’t expected to do much but outperformed the prognosticators, keeping hope alive. Even failure comes with the satisfaction of a good effort, e.g. Wofford, Buffalo or even Houston. Yes, the mood on the Plains today shows clearly that hopes are are a positive thing, whether they are fully realized or not.
Now, let me tell you about unfulfilled expectations. Kentucky fans expect their Wildcats to win every game by 20 points. Unrealistic maybe, but that’s what is expected. They look at their previous eight national champions and expect every team that wears the royal blue will do the same thing. At worst, they look at the 2015 team that came into the Final Four at 38-0 and expected them to roll to 40 wins and bring another title back to the Bluegrass. Even this year’s team that was a pre-season co-favorite with Duke was expected to bounce back from the opening-game pummeling by the Blue Devils and exact their revenge in the Final Four.
But when the reality falls short of the expectations, it’s painful. Expectations are not blown away with time like lost hopes. Expectations gnaw at you and you don’t forget them. Big Blue Nation carries the burden of many unfulfilled expectations: A 3-for-33 second half shooting in a 1984 Final Four loss; Nazr Mohammed hitting 1 of 6 free throws in a 1997 Final Four overtime loss; the 2010 Cold ‘Cats of John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins who hit only 4 of 32 from behind the line in a seven-point Elite Eight loss; Terrence Jones going 1 for 5 in a two-point 2011 Final Four loss; even warrior P.J. Washington’s missed free throws both last year and against Auburn linger.
A team that is expected to contend for a championship but fails, falls with a thud. That is Big Blue Nation today. Fans are upset at the loss, second-guessing the plan and some are even calling for Coach John Calipari’s head because in his ten years at Kentucky he has only taken his team to four Final Fours and won only one national championship.
So good luck to Auburn whose fans hope that they can win two more games, while Kentucky’s fans live in the sweet agony of expectations, watching Calipari's recruiting to see which new players will come in and again set the bar at nothing less than another national championship.
Sports is a wonderful thing, but it’s not perfect, and two reasons why it's not perfect are injuries and officiating that we think hurts our team’s chance of winning. I thought about that this week in the context of two prominent events: The NFL convened its annual owners’ meeting, and the NCAA men’s basketball championship is down to the Sweet 16. Two topics among both colleges and the NFL have been injuries and bad calls, and we can wail and moan and huss and fuss, but there's not a darned thing we can do about either!
Let’s talk about injuries first. College and pro teams hire the best medical and training professionals, refine conditioning methods and spend millions for the best equipment available to make their athletes better able to endure the rigors of their individual sport. Still, we as fans are left holding our breath and crossing our fingers that the “injury bug” doesn’t bite important players on our favorite teams.
That topic is close to my heart at the moment, because Kentucky’s chances in the next round of NCAA tournament play will depend largely on the status of their leader, forward P.J. Washington. The team's top scorer and rebounder during the season, Washington sprained his foot with two minutes to go in their SEC tournament loss to Tennessee and has been idle ever since. The Wildcats have survived the first two NCAA tournament games through good defense and contributions from the rest of the lineup, but their chances of going much further diminish without Washington.
Friday night against Houston will be a major test with Washington or without him, and if they pass that one, they will face either North Carolina or Auburn. Kentucky beat both of them during the season, but with Washington. Big Blue Nation cardholders are wringing their hands and still have nightmares of past injuries to players such as Mike Casey, Derek Anderson, Keith Bogans and Nerlens Noel that might have cost them national championships.
So you’re a Duke fan and don’t care? That’s a good segue to a subject you do care about: controversial officiating. That is a hot topic this morning in the NCAA tournament, especially if you saw the final seconds of the Duke – Central Florida game Sunday. UCF ahead by three and poised to spring an upset of the kind UMBC and Loyola of Chicago pulled last year. But it appeared to some that Duke’s star Zion Williamson, driving to the basket, steamrolled UCF big man Tacko Fall. Not so, said the refs, who called a blocking foul and Fall fouled out.
Zion missed the FT that would have tied the game, but teammate R.J. Barrett leaped over a UCF player for the rebound and the winning putback. Did Barrett push off to get position? Some would argue he did. But he didn’t, at least according to the officials. Those calls could have gone either way, but didn’t. And we sure know about no-calls down here in Who Dat Nation, don’t we?
Since we are talking about injuries and officiating, I think it is ironic that the no-call controversy in the Rams game was not over a helmet to helmet hit so much as pass interference. As much as the NFL harped on the injury issue all last season, to have them miss a major injury-related offense is what really blew my skirts up.
At some point this week, the NFL Competition Committee will discuss changes that could reverse poor calls. Under one proposal, replay would be expanded for one year during which time the list of reviewable plays would be expanded to include fouls for pass interference. The rule proposal would also expand automatic replay reviews to include scoring plays and turnovers negated by a foul and any point-after attempt following a touchdown. It might make us as fans feel better when a league tries to remedy bad calls or no-calls that hurt our favorite team, but it won’t stop them. Even worse, the new interpretation might just work against our favorite team the first time it is implemented in live action.
To review, the two worst things in our little sporting worlds are injuries and officiating calls that go the other way. They affect our dreams, they dash our hopes, they curb our enthusiasm for the events we love. You can love sports, but just understand that love of sports doesn't mean sports loves you back.
In the thrilling days of my yesteryear - January, 1981, to be exact - I was sent to New Orleans by the Baltimore Evening Sun to cover Super Bowl XV between the Raiders and Eagles. I did not know it at the time, but it would be the last Super Bowl I covered as a reporter before fleeing journalism for the NFL office a few months later. I had become friendly with a Pittsburgh writer named John Clayton, and a few days before the game we went researching Bourbon Street and looking for a place to eat.
We walked into a couple of restaurants, which were expectedly full, and then we walked into a nice-looking place that featured more empty tables than customers. We asked if they were open, and the maitre’d apologetically told us that the restaurant had just opened that week, hopefully to take advantage of the Super Bowl crowds. And, by the way, sit anywhere you like, which we did. The meal was delightful, and I think I wrote a story about the best unknown restaurant in New Orleans. Word obviously spread quickly because the restaurant, named “Mr. B’s,” likely has not been that empty since.
This is the long version of how I began a long friendship with NFL expert John Clayton, who started out covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as understudy to the legendary Vito Stellino, and then rose quickly to become ESPN’s go-to guy on NFL machinations. After the network trimmed its on-air staff last year, Clayton joined the Washington Post where he continues giving his readers probably the best coverage and historic NFL insight in the country.
And how does this apply to our subject of the day, you ask? Saturday Clayton wrote a story about the conundrum within NFL free agency, which has been a favored recent subject of Who Dat Nation. Clayton’s message: Don’t confuse price vs. value. It is easy to read his story and think about the Saints’ history at letting go veterans and replacing them with free agents. Mark Ingram had value, both on the field and in the locker room. But the price he wanted was out of the Saints comfort range so they let him walk and signed a cheaper version, ex-Viking Latavius Murray. Hopefully, his value will rise to Ingram proportions and it will be a logical swap.
It hasn’t always been that way. Think Jairus Byrd over Malcolm Jenkins or T.J. Spiller over Darren Sproles? How about Brandon Browner over the moths in your closet? Coby Fleener, James Laurinaitis, and others you can name cost money but added little to no value. Clayton also cautioned teams that pay big bucks to become the “winners” of NFL free agency. “It’s rare that the cost actually pays off,” Clayton wrote.
Some evidence he presented included these facts: (1) Of the 49 highest paid players in 2016 free agency, only 14 remain on the teams that signed them. (2) Of the 60 highest paid players in 2017 free agency, only 22 remain. (3) Of players from the 2018 free-agent class who received $5 million per year or more, 14 are already no longer with the teams that signed them. Did you know that only two unrestricted free agents from 2018 made the Pro Bowl? The casualty list is much higher. The Panthers cut left tackle Matt Kalil, who signed a five-year, $55 million contract in 2017. The Bucs traded WR DeSean Jackson, who signed a three-year, $35 million contract in 2017. The Giants and Browns swapped the second highest paid free agency of 2016 (Oliver Vernon) for the sixth highest paid free agent in 2017 (Kevin Zeitler).
Why does this continue to happen? Among other reasons, Clayton cited the high expectations and the stakes of paying high prices so when things don’t go well, teams are less shy about cutting high price players whose performances never achieved value. “In NFL free agency,” Clayton wrote, “there are more failures than successes.”
Thankfully, the Saints haven’t tried to “win” free agency in recent years as much as replacing starters or bolstering depth. This year, our local heroes have been active in free agency, but the prices they have paid haven’t been huge. That makes the expectations of value a bit more realistic. And if that value helps them get back to the Super Bowl, I will invite John Clayton back to Mr. B's.