Divorcing your college sports spouse

I used to be a University of Louisville fan.

Growing up, I cheered for Kentucky and Louisville more or less equally. I watched Wes Unseld muscle his way around in the post and Terry Howard methodically hit free throws. I rooted for Dan Issel and Mike Pratt as they dominated the toothless Southeastern Conference. I fell asleep in the grainy glow of a small black and white TV in my room listening to Cawood Ledford and John Tong. As a twelve-year old, I attended the Rupp-Issel-Pratt basketball camp, an extravagant Christmas gift from my parents.

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Photo by Flickr user “K. Coles”

(Dan Issel told me “good rebound” once. This was, sadly, the apex of my basketball career.)

But somewhere along the line in high school, I started resenting the superior, dismissive attitude of UK fans toward U of L. Sure, Kentucky had won national championships, and UL was only a few years removed from life as a small, municipal college. But by the time I entered as a freshman in 1976, we (UL was we by then) had made it to two final fours under Denny Crum, and everybody else in the country considered the Cardinals a basketball power.

 

Not only did UK fans not share that opinion, the school refused to even schedule us. The “little brother” BS reached its zenith under the brief (though eventful) tenure of Eddie “I’d crawl to Lexington for the UK job” Sutton. Like most UL fans at the time, I thought we held the moral high ground over UK. The Wildcats seemed to periodically run afoul of the NCAA on a Halley’s Comet type schedule, and Denny Crum’s program and reputation remained unsullied.

By the time I got to college, I was a rabid fan and ardent UK-hater. I sat in the rain in 1977 and watched UL beat Indiana State in front of only about 5,000 fans to clinch their first bowl berth since 1970. I sat in a raucous, sweaty Red Barn in 1980 as the Cards clinched a sweet sixteen appearance, and we all chanted “Bring on the Cats!” (who folded to Duke five days later, thereby avoiding a “dream game”. In 1983, UK could no longer duck us when we were pitted in the NCAA tournament. I watched in our apartment in Terre Haute, Indiana, with equal parts joy (when we surged to the lead) and nausea (whenever UK made a run). I was completely spent emotionally by the time Milt “Iceman” Wagner and the McCray brothers got us the 80-68 overtime win.

I can’t claim the bonds to my alma mater weren’t loosened when we moved to Indiana. But they frayed further when AD Tom Jurich hired Rick Pitino to replace Denny Crum. Besides the whiff of scandal that seemed to follow in his wake and his obnoxious East Coast attitude, the worst part was that he’d coached at UK. The rumor was that Jurich had actually forced out Denny Crum – two-time NCAA championship winner –  for this guy, a UK guy, for cryin’ out loud.      

So with two kids (and eventually three) headed to Indiana University, I started rooting the Hoosiers. (It helped that Bobby Knight left.) I kept my allegiance to UL football, and all other sports; but I decided I couldn’t support them in basketball until that man left.

Then things went from bad to worse. First, there was Pitino’s sordid affair involving public sex and blackmail. Then Jurich hired Bobby Petrino, who was lugging his own tawdry baggage that included quitting an NFL job in mid-season and wrecking a motorcycle while out for a ride with his mistress – whom he’d hired in to his school’s athletic department. Then, in quick succession, Pitino’s sex-parties-for-recruits scandal and Petrino’s acceptance of Wake Forest game planning data from a disgruntled ex-coach. Both Pitino and Petrino denied any knowledge of the goings-on, of course. But when two noted control freaks don’t know something about their programs, it’s because they don’t wanna know.    

I’ve been calling for the university to clean house and fire Jurich for years.I don’t donate to the University, so I’m sure my opinion is immaterial to them. But it feels like my old school has become the current version of UNLV in the 1990’s. All we need is a point-shaving scandal or photos of players in a hot tub with a mobbed-up gambler.
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Miscellany

I can’t in good conscience say that Savannah State played the role of giant-killer last weekend when they upset Oregon State in overtime. After all, the Oregon State Beavers staggered into the game dragging a record of 3-6 with losses to such luminaries as Lamar, Tulsa, and Fresno State. So maybe the Tigers were “moderately-tall-troll” killers? “Heavier-than -average- ogre” killers?  

Either way, they made 15 of 34 three-point shots en route to a 93-90 overtime win. According to a report in Oregon Live, the Beavers were so stunned by the loss that the coaches held a two-and-a-half hour film session on Monday, followed by the traditional team meeting where players yell at each other.

It’s hard to know Coach Broadnax’ tone from a printed quote (he’s still not returning my calls), but it sounds like he’s moved off his early season stance that he was just experimenting with the high shot volume approach. Quoted in Associated Press, Broadnax said “We want to play fast. If people want to play fast with us, that’s great.”

                                                                              *****

I spent some time signing copies of Thirty-Two Minutes in March at the Southport Shootout last weekend. The main attraction at the event was the 2 PM game between Indianapolis North Central and New Albany. Two of the best players in the state were on the floor in North Central senior Kris Wilkes (headed to UCLA) and New Albany junior Romeo Langford.

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Almost all of the 7,000 seats in Southport Fieldhouse were filled, with a significant number of people standing in the open concourse that encircles the seating area. Fortunately, Southport set up a table for me in a corner of the concourse, so I could watch some of the game action.

After that, the crowd thinned out considerably for the next four games on the schedule. Still, the fact that over seven thousand people showed up for an afternoon high school game in December just confirms what I’ve thought all along. High school basketball is still really important to Hoosiers, and there are still many fans who follow teams other than the ones they root for. One couple I talked to drove all the way from Madison, Indiana just to watch a day of high school hoops. Wearing Shawe High School sweatshirts, they said they make the trip every year, even though their school isn’t invited.

Somebody should write a book about this stuff.

                                                                             *****

Fantasy football is over for another year. At least for me and the other teams that didn’t make the playoffs. Several of us started a weekly NFL pool picking five games each week against the spread for fun and prizes, so I’m down to one reason left to follow pro football.

We’ve also started a weekly NCAA basketball contest, again picking five games against the spread. My initial performance has been unimpressive. Despite my obvious gambling expertise, basketball knowledge, and subscriptions to kenpom and College Basketball Blue Book, I’ve stumbled to an 0-3 start. The worst part is that I’m currently trailing Charlie, who hasn’t paid much attention to college hoops for years.

Since I always want to be transparent (if not invisible), I have to admit that I did in fact bet against Savannah State in the Oregon State game. In my defense, the Tigers were returning from the east coast to the west coast a week after getting destroyed by Oregon 128-59.

There’s an old gambler’s axiom: The race is not always to the swift, and the battle not always to the strong. But that’s the way to bet. Unfortunately, that old saw doesn’t take karma into account. I may not always bet the Tigers to cover, but I’m not betting against them anymore. At least not this week.    

“Hello; Comcast? Yeah, I’d like to request you show the Savannah State game.”

As of today, I am a big fan of Savannah State University basketball.

The Tigers play in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and their coach is Horace Broadnax. If that name sounds familiar, it may be because Broadnax played for Georgetown during the glory years of Hoya basketball, winning a national championship in 1984. After graduation, he want on to earn a law degree, but signed on as coach of Savannah State in 2005.                                        

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(Note: all of the following statistical data comes from Ken Pomeroy’s excellent website kenpom.com. If you’re a serious college basketball fan (or a serious college basketball wagering fan), you should go there and subscribe immediately. In addition to all the stats, Pomeroy writes an entertaining blog about college hoops and provides a perspective you can’t get anywhere else.)  

Saying that the Tigers have been defensive-minded under Broadnax is like saying Kentucky has attracted good recruiting classes. Over the past few years, Savannah has twice limited teams to fewer than 42 points – and still lost. They hold the NCAA record for fewest points in a half (four). They’ve accomplished these milestones by slowing the game down to a crawl, ranking 337th in the country in offensive tempo (possessions per 40 minutes of play) in 2013.

But it seems Coach Broadnax has, to put it mildly, had a change of heart. So far this year, they are playing at the second-fastest tempo in the country (82). If they keep up their current rate of three-point attempts, they will set an NCAA record. They rank 345th – out of 351 – in defensive efficiency.

I haven’t seen this team play (though I’m closely following the schedule, hoping they’ll pop up on one of the lesser ESPN channels (like maybe “The Ocho”). But I believe it’ll be like watching a pickup game at the Y, only with D-1 college athletes.

So why is Broadnax doing this? I sent him an email to ask for an interview a couple of days ago, but haven’t heard back yet. The Tigers are ineligible for the NCAA tournament this year due to a lack of academic progress. (There’s only one other school – Alcorn State – suffering this penalty in 2016.) So maybe he thinks this is a throwaway year, and he might as well experiment with a 180-degree change in his philosophy. It could be that he’s using it as a recruiting angle for future seasons; “Hey kid, look at all the freedom I give my players!”        

But the old CYO coach in me thinks it’s just fatigue. It’s hard to get kids to work on defense. It’s kind of boring, and, in today’s immediate-gratification society, you don’t see the benefits of the other team missing shots until the end of the game. Casual fans often don’t appreciate the work on the defensive end; many would rather watch their team lose 88-86 than see them win 56-50. And you’re not getting on Sportscenter by working your way into good position, cutting off a drive, and making your man pass the ball.

So I wonder if Broadnax just said to himself, “I don’t need this. I’m working my ass off every day, trying to make these kids focus on the right things, and for what? So we can play in the MEAC tournament, get on ESPN 3 for the Tuesday morning final, then go home even if we win it? Let’s put up shots, let the kids have some fun, and get through this dismal season”.

In their last game, the Tigers scored 59 points, but gave up 128 to Oregon. Their next contest is December 11 at Oregon State. They’re not on the ESPN schedule, but sometimes games get shifted around. Still hoping to catch my Tigers on the Ocho.  

*****

A couple more book promotion events coming up:

On Monday, December 12 I’ll be on the radio at about 11:30 AM with Coach Ron Hecklinski on Indiana SRN sports talk radio at http://indianasrn.org/. Even if you’re tired of hearing me talk about the book, it’s always fun to hear Coach Heck. He’s the best!

On Tuesday, December 13 I’ll be on WCSI Columbus (1010 AM) at 8:30 AM to talk about the book and the signing on Thursday at Viewpoint Books in Columbus.

 

 

 

 

 

Enough with the sports commentary; let’s talk leaf blowers

I’m often accused of being a cranky old man. Sometimes, the charge is not entirely without merit. But on this one issue, I’m not angry, just mystified.

Why does my leaf blower have more than one power setting?

I can’t imagine any circumstances under which I’d find lower power useful. If I have to use a leaf blower, I’d like the chore to be over with as soon as possible. It’s hard for me to envision standing in the yard during a bright, sunny, autumn day, wearing a flannel shirt and blowing leaves as slowly as possible as a wisp of smoke from the chimney curls up to the cloudless sky. I mean, I’m not making a Lowe’s commercial here. I want to dispatch these leaves quickly so I can get back to the couch.

All I can figure is that the manufacturer put the lower setting on there to make me think I’m getting more power than I really am.  

Scene: A large, windowless room, filled with electrical equipment and tools, parts of lawn mowers, snow blowers, and tractors lying inert on brightly-lit tables, each with an electrical engineer in a white lab coat and safety goggles peering intently at its insides.

Suddenly, an obese, middle-aged man in a brown suit bursts through the double doors, leaving cigar smoke, a secretary, and a vapor trail of impatience in his wake.

“Peterson! Peterson! Where’s Peterson?”, he barks. One of the lab coats turns and tentatively raises a gloved hand.

“Um. Right here, sir.”

“Peterson!” The big man wheels in the aisle, knocking a can of lubricant off a table, and races over, taking long, quick strides.

“It’s almost June, Peterson! We need to ship the new Articulated Scoop N’ Suck Leaf Blowers by July! Where are we?”

“Almost – almost there, Mr. Spacely”, Peterson stammers. “Last step is this power switch, then it’s ready to go to production.”

“Hmmph. Hmmph,” Spacely grunts. He yanks the leaf blower away from Peterson, knocking a glass beaker to the floor that shatters. A long-suffering maintenance man walks over with a broom as Spacely turns the blower upside down, right side up, then sideways.

“How many power settings does it have?”

Peterson looks at him quizzically. “How many? Well, um, just the one, Mr. Spacely. We call it ‘On’”

“One!? Are you kidding me, Peterson? How are we going to sell leaf blowers with only one setting?”

“Well, market research tells us nobody ever uses anything but maximum power anyway, sir. And besides, it’s already blowing 600 cubic feet per minute. That’s enough to knock a passing paperboy off a Schwinn.”

“Dammit, Peterson! The actual performance has nothing to do with it! We’re not selling the steak, son; we’re selling the sizzle! What self-respecting suburbanite is going to stand around the gas grill on a Saturday and brag to his neighbors that he has a leaf blower with one setting? That guy’ll be running to the drugstore to fill his Viagra prescription in minutes! He’d be a laughingstock, boy, a laughingstock!

“Now here’s what you’re going to do, Peterson. You’re going to add a lower power setting to this thing ASAP. We’re going to call the lower setting “High” and call the regular setting “Road grader”. Got it? ABC, Peterson, ABC. Always be closing.”

Spacely jams his cigar back in his mouth and turns away quickly, his suit coat knocking a can of soda off a table as he bulls his way out the door. Peterson turns glumly back to his work.

“Well,” he mumbles to himself. “I’m glad I didn’t show him the Breast Cancer Awareness model.”        

*****

Now that we’re getting into basketball season, the signing events are picking up for Thirty-Two Minutes in March. On December 2, I’ll be signing and selling copies during the Southport game at Center Grove.

On December 10, I’ll be at the Southport Shootout for most of the day at the fabled Southport High School Fieldhouse. It’s the tenth largest gym in the state, seating over 7,000. Southport has put together a strong lineup for the day. I’m looking forward to seeing Romeo Langford (probably the 2018 Indiana Mr. Basketball and a high-level D-1 recruit) in person. The schedule is:

Castle vs. Mt Vernon (Fortville)………………………..12 noon

New Albany vs. North Central (Indianapolis)………..2:00 PM

Cloverdale vs. Park Tudor……………………………4:00 PM

Fort Wayne Snider vs. Hamilton Southeastern……..5:40 PM

South Bend Riley vs. Southport………………..…….7:20 PM

Return to Center Grove

One of the teams that I focused on in Thirty-Two Minutes in March was Center Grove High School and their first-year coach, Zach Hahn. He was a head coach in one of the largest    schools in Indiana, and only three years removed from playing in the NCAA championship game for Butler University.              1478887301___coachhahnwatchesthetrojansatpractice                                                

Whenever we spoke, two things stood  out. First, that he was a very intense young man. Second, that he was totally committed to building the Center Grove program for long-term success.

A few weeks ago I interviewed him again during an early pre-season practice for 2016-2017. Neither of my previous impressions have changed. Hahn is still all in on growing Center Grove basketball, and unrelenting in his belief that the Trojans can compete with anybody. But even Hoosier-state legends age over a couple of years, get a little older, a bit wiser, and more introspective.

“I’m working harder on reflecting more after games,” he said, with the sound of bouncing basketballs echoing off the rolled-up bleachers in cavernous Vandermeer Gym.”They all say ‘Coach, don’t criticize’, and there have been some times when I criticized more than coached. I need to do a better job of that.”

As I watch practice, I notice that the assistants are a lot more involved in the drills, instructing players, making their voices heard. Two years ago, Hahn never would have walked away to talk during a practice. Now he mostly stands or squats on the side, watching intently, only jumping in periodically to emphasize points or make observations. He’s only lost one assistant coach over the first two years, so they all understand what he wants.

As we stood on the sideline, Hahn spoke at length about the season and his players, but his eyes rarely left the court. “I can come over here now,” Hahn says. “I can watch the big picture while the assistants run the drills.”                      coach-hahn-makes-a-point-during-practice

He’s also made wholesale changes in the Center Grove youth league, binding it more tightly to the high school program.  

“We run the evaluations for the youth teams now, and we pick the travel teams. Those guys are all a big part of what we do. The middle schools are much more involved now. Last year we hired a middle school liaison to help teach them our systems. I think people are excited about our program, because they see not only me, but our players and coaches out in the community, doing things like going out and watching youth league games.”

In his first year, Hahn said there were times when he thought referees were trying to set a tone and let a young coach know that he couldn’t get calls by being loud and assertive. He was consistently vocal with referees, but got only one technical foul all year. I asked him whether he noticed any difference last year with a full season under his belt.

“I’d say it was the same,” he said drily. “A lot of guys just want to come in and make sure I understand it’s gonna be what they want and not what I want. That I’m not going to dominate the game vocally. And that’s another thing I’m working on as a young coach who’s fiery and pretty passionate. I’ve got to adjust my coaching a little bit when I deal with referees.

“But I think the players this year have done a really good job of adjusting to me. It hasn’t always been that way. I think these guys are a little more tough-minded.

“It’s their third year with me now. After my first year I lost seven seniors, and we only had a couple of guys coming back with any varsity experience. We had three freshmen in our top eight last year. This year we have six guys coming back that will play in our top ten. So they have a better understanding of the process and how things work day in and day out.”

In that first season, Hahn was concerned about scheduling, especially on weekends with games on both Friday and Saturday nights. He couldn’t eliminate all of those scenarios due to the five-year lead time needed to change conference schedules. He’s got three weekends of Friday/Saturday games in December. And in January he’s got two very good teams – Ben Davis and Roncalli – on back-to-back nights.

Hahn shakes his head. “That’ll be a bloodbath weekend. That’s a very physical weekend for us.”

But he has had some effect on the schedule.

“We got rid of New Palestine and picked up Avon, who is more like a sectional opponent. We picked up Southport and got rid of Cathedral to try to create a south side rivalry. We didn’t make the schedule any easier, but we’ve created a level of play that we want to maintain all year.”

Hahn won’t project an expected number of wins. But he thinks Center Grove can compete in the powerful Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference. And as Assistant Coach Brian Keeton once said, “If you can compete in the MIC, you can compete with anybody in the state.”

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Ref for life

Bob White is no longer a licensed referee in Indiana. A car crash robbed him of his mobility and cost him years of pain and physical and mental rehabilitation.

But as he sits in his wheelchair at the center line of a basketball court at the Keenan-Stahl Boys and Girls Club on the near south side of Indianapolis, he looks happy, like he’s in his element. He’s refereeing a basketball game, with several excited eight-year-olds running up and down the court.

“That’s the first time I’ve refereed since the wreck,” he says. “It was fun. Even though it’s just little kids, it’s the first time I’ve put the (striped) shirt back on.”

He laughs. “That shirt is from 1998. It’s the only one I still have.”

Bob officiated for over twenty years, working high school, college, and semi-pro football, along with high school basketball and baseball. He was a founding member of the Crossroads Officials Association, and actively worked to mentor new referees. Even after he was a seasoned varsity official, he’d occasionally work freshman and JV games alongside novice referees to help them develop.

But eleven years ago, that all ended suddenly when he was in a car crash in Indianapolis. Right after umpiring a baseball game.

“I had just gotten married about six months before the wreck,” he says. “I was working in the pharmacy at Community North Hospital, but I sold my house and we moved to West Lafayette.

“I found out a week before the wreck that my wife was pregnant. A friend of mine in Whiteland was having a cookout. My wife was in the car behind me and witnessed the whole thing. A lady T-boned me who was texting, and she didn’t have any insurance.”

Bob was in the hospital for months with traumatic brain injury, almost died a few times. After that it was years of rehab.

“After I got home, I was still doing rehab three times a day. I had to re-learn how to talk, how to eat, everything.

“And then, five years ago, my wife divorced me.”

Bob is 100% disabled from the crash. He says he was angry for a long time, but he gradually decided not to spend the rest of his life in self-pity. He threw himself into service to the community, accepting presidency of the Boys and Girls Club, working at the food pantry, and organizing sports and activities at the club. Making other people happier, healthier, and safer.

“I just try to be positive every day when I wake up and think about the things I can do rather than the things I can’t.

“It makes you feel good to help out. Some of the kids appreciate it and some don’t. But I went to the club as a kid. Sometimes we forget where we came from.

“I really miss being around kids and refereeing. At least at the club, I’m around the kids.”

“(Referees) get yelled and screamed at, but we’re going to protect each other. We’re the only ones that have each other’s back.

“And what better place to be on a Friday night than Southport Fieldhouse in front of five thousand fans, smelling the popcorn, hearing the band play, and you’re in the referee’s dressing room, all fired up like you’re going out there to play.”

During his convalescence, Bob got a lot of support from his officiating crew and other referees.

“People don’t realize that referees are a small fraternity. The ref community came together for me. They bought me an accessible van, really stepped up and took care of me and my family. It was pretty eye-opening.”

As I sit with Bob in the bleachers at the Club, he’s a bit annoyed. He scheduled a basketball tournament for this Saturday morning and got eight outside teams to commit to playing. He even verified the schedule with the coaches over the last few days, or at least attempted to with some who didn’t return his calls. Not one of them showed up. He’s left with two half-court games for the Club kids. They have to play short-sided to keep the age range reasonable. Next to the court sits a pile of prizes donated by local merchants. Bob spent a lot of hours driving around to various businesses, hustling donations for the Club and promotional items for giveaways.    

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An empty gym. In Indiana. In November.

I’m not sure how I’d deal with this kind of frustration. But I can’t help but admire how Bob does. He says he’s going to start on next year’s event earlier, find some way to get other teams to show up. He plans to start making contacts this month.

As I stand to leave, he asks me whether I’m busy the day before Thanksgiving. He’s looking for more volunteers to work at a community dinner that day at the food pantry.