Pass the clipboard

I may have mentioned that I grew up in Kentucky. Consequently, when our family gathers for the holidays, we don’t usually argue about politics; we argue about basketball. Which recently led to another argument about the University of Louisville and its recent troubles.

After finally firing Rick Pitino, UL hired assistant coach David Padgett to run the program as interim coach. For $800,00 per year. I’ve said that my preference as an alum is that the University shut down basketball completely for 3-5 years and then start over. I understand that’s probably unrealistic. But I do think the university should at least wipe away all traces of the Jurich/Pitino regime until a new, squeaky clean coach can be found. Not that there’s any evidence that Padgett was involved in all the skullduggery; but the program needs a completely clean sweep.   News reports indicated that the University president said (paraphrasing here) that they wanted to appoint somebody who was already familiar with the players because UL expected to be good this year.

The points presented to me were that UL went as far as it should go in house-cleaning, and bringing in an interim coach from outside the program would penalize the current players who – so far –  have not been accused of any wrongdoing. And that a coach unfamiliar with the players and their program would have little chance to effectively lead the team.

Regarding the last observation, I countered that it’s just basketball. Nobody has invented new plays or defenses in a long time. Most teams run pretty much the same stuff. Danville coach Brian Barber told me that his team runs one out-of-bounds play called “America”.

“We call it that ‘cause everybody in America runs it,” he said.

All of which started me thinking about the relative importance of coaching in basketball. I’ve been playing, watching, coaching, and refereeing basketball my whole life (though, obviously, well below the major college level).   Robert_Timmons_(basketball_coach)

What are the major recent innovations in the game? The Pack Line Defense? Land sakes, it’s so complex. You have to play off your man to within 16 feet of the basket unless he has the ball. That’s it.

The VCU “Havoc” defense? Um, it’s a press. You play defense for 90 feet instead of 45. Thirty years ago Arkansas ran the same thing, but they called it “Forty Minutes of Hell”. Quick, somebody run some computer simulations!

The Triangle and Motion offenses are like fifty years old. They’ve been running the pick and roll for about a hundred years, and, when executed properly, it still works.

One time I asked veteran Indiana high school coach Ron Hecklinski how you tell the difference between a good basketball coach and a bad one. He said it basically comes down to who can get his team to play harder. Whether it’s through fear of running sprints after practice or adoration of the coach doesn’t matter. If two teams are equal in talent, the team that plays harder usually wins. If they’re not equal in talent, then the lesser team has to play a LOT harder to win.  

I’ll concede that some coaches make better in-game adjustments than others, but I also think it’s really hard for an outsider to make that assessment. Just judging the effectiveness of a strategy move based on results is dicey. It’s awfully tough to isolate the variable. Did the coach change defenses? If so, was the other team ready for it? How did they adjust? If it was such a stroke of genius, why didn’t the team start out in that defense?  

I think coaching has a much greater impact on football and baseball. In the latter, the manager is potentially making decisions prior to every single pitch. Moving fielders, calling pitches, considering pinch hitters on both his or her own team as well as the opposition. In football, the playbooks run to hundreds of pages, with blocking schemes changing every play.

None of which necessarily makes these games more compelling to watch than basketball. It’s not that much fun to watch somebody think. I do believe that basketball coaches in particular get too much credit and too much blame for team performance. The game just moves too quickly for coaches to make the micro-changes during each play that might accumulate over the course of the game.   

  Bill_Blakeley

 

We have met the enemy, and it is us

We’re not the team. You’re the team. We’re only the equipment – like the jockstraps and the helmets.”

Phil Elliott in “North Dallas Forty

 

It’s easy to demonize Rick Pitino for what he’s done to the University of Louisville. Especially for me. I never liked the man, and haven’t been a fan of UL basketball since he arrived in my hometown. But I can’t say I saw this coming. I just hated that 1) he was a University of Kentucky guy, 2) he had prior NCAA problems, and 3) in replacing Denny Crum, the school chose to go with a quick fix “star” instead of growing the program with an up-and-coming coach or Crum assistant. To be perfectly candid, it probably also had something to do with the natural animus a Kentucky boy holds for a slick-haired, fast-talking New Yorker.

Particularly galling in his case is all the “shock” he voices at every scandal. He was shocked when the woman he had a ten-minute affair with on a bar table wanted more money after he paid for her “health insurance” (which was just enough to pay for an abortion). He was shocked that strippers and prostitutes were provided to recruits in the athletic dorm. He was shocked that shoe company money was being passed to a recruit.

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But the source of tawdry behavior in organized sports goes much deeper than a few desperate, greedy coaches. It’s also easy to blame summer basketball. It’s relatively unsupervised. Sure, there are coaches and tournament/team coordinators. But most of those people have a profit motive in getting the best teams, the best players on their team or to their event. I’ve heard more than a few calls for abolition of “AAU” basketball.

But even this is somewhat misplaced. AAU is a different animal than the elite shoe company sponsored events. While I was writing the book, several coaches told me that AAU is now considered more of a second-tier summer basketball program. Some highly ranked teams may appear in a few AAU-sponsored events. But If a kid is truly a Division 1 prospect, he typically plays on the Adidas/Nike/Under Armour circuit because there’s more exposure.

So how about the shoe companies? Ah. There it is. Filthy lucre. According to ESPN, Louisville has a ten-year, 160 million dollar contract with Adidas. That’s a lot of money, and it’s not even in the top five. Pitino has the richest college basketball coaching contract in the country, good for 7.76 million per year. Over $2 million of that comes directly from Adidas. So why wouldn’t he think of them as his employer?

Fact is, the shoe companies are doing what businesses do. Spending money (on grassroots and college basketball) to make money (selling shoes and apparel). I’m no lawyer, but apparently the ones at the Department of Justice believe passing laundered money to a recruit is a crime. Nobody seems to object to shoe companies paying colleges and coaches to advertise their product, though. And, on the surface, it seems like an open, honest exchange between the shoe company and the school would be a win-win. The product gets exposure, and the college gets money that it could – theoretically, at least – pass on to students in benefits or lower costs.  

What about the players and/or their families who are trying to get an advance on their anticipated pro career? To be sure, there are a lot of grown-ups with their hands out. One coach told me that many elite players have “handlers” as they travel the summer basketball circuit. The handlers – sometimes family, sometimes not – control access to the kid and influence financial decisions. There is no structure for monitoring or supervision of those people.

Reporters contacted the mother of the recruit apparently involved in the Louisville scandal, and she said “I don’t know anything about that.” Wouldn’t you expect an innocent person to deny that it happened? Something like, “Hell no, we didn’t get any money”?

But if I was a top-tier athlete seeing everybody around me making money from my talent, I think it’d be easy to justify taking a piece of the action. Coaches, shoe company employees, tournament organizers. Even the school recruiting me – especially the school recruiting me – is making money hand over fist. And I can’t have an I-phone out of it?

So who does that leave to blame, and what do we do about it? This commercial exchange of talented kids ends up debasing the player, the institution, and all of the adults scrambling to grab a scrap that falls from the table.

This week I refereed a youth soccer game with a guy from Holland. Before the game we started talking about youth sports and the differences between the US and Europe.

“You guys take it so seriously over here,” he said. We were putting on our thirty-dollar referee shirts, adding our badges to the pocket (annual renewal fees of $60 and $80 for high school and US Soccer, respectively). We watched as kids in uniform warmed up for their game ($300-$500 annual league fee). We each had envelopes in our bags with $50 cash for officiating sixty minutes of youth soccer.

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“You know what you get for refereeing in the Netherlands?” he asked. “You get a coupon for a free beer. Half the time the referee doesn’t show up, and a parent officiates with a couple of volunteer linesman. Everybody has played the game over there, so it’s not a problem to find somebody.

“Most people play for ten or fifteen years, then referee for five years after they stop playing. I mean, the really good players are identified and go to academies. But not most kids.”

Maybe the enemy is us. I say this fully acknowledging that I am a part of the problem. I write about and referee sports, and get paid for both. I don’t know that I’d do either one for a beer, though I have on occasion done them for free. But maybe we shouldn’t be making youth sports so formal. Maybe kids don’t need $150 basketball shoes. Maybe they shouldn’t be traveling to other cities to play soccer when they’re eight years old. They see parents yelling at coaches, coaches yelling at players, and everybody yelling at the officials. What are they supposed to think? That it’s play time?

 

 

 

Hating on the Cincinnati Reds

I have several perfectly good reasons for rooting against the Cincinnati Reds.

The continuing adulation of Pete Rose, for one. I’ve written before (quite artfully, I’d say, right here (https://wordsbymattroberts.com/2016/09/19/judging-pete-rose/) about all the reasons why he shouldn’t be allowed back in baseball. But you still see fans at Reds games sporting Rose jerseys and mounting passionate, ill-informed defenses of why it’s a travesty that he’s not in the Hall of Fame. It’s like some Indiana fans are about Bob Knight; let it go, for cryin’ out loud.

Then there’s the fact that I’m from Louisville. When I lived there, local TV broadcasters frequently referred to the Reds as “your Cincinnati Reds”. They weren’t my Reds. I didn’t live in Cincinnati. Most of the people in my family were Cardinals fans, and I liked the Cubs. (This is a circumstance best left unexplained. Suffice to say that my career choices have amply demonstrated that popularity is unimportant to me.)IMG_20170718_180336135

It felt like they were saying I had to be a Reds fan just because they were geographically closer.  And if some smarmy, slick-haired yokel is telling me to be a Reds fan, well, there’s only one approach that makes sense to me. Be anything but a Reds fan.

Then there’s Marge Schott. She owned the Reds from 1984-1999, having inherited her husband’s auto dealerships after he died of a heart attack. She was under constant pressure from MLB due to a unique talent for expressing racist, homophobic, and otherwise crazy thoughts. Facing a second suspension in 1999, she finally agreed to relinquish control of the team.

So all these things combined, I never understood how anybody could be a Reds fan unless they lived in Cincinnati. Within walking distance of the ballpark. I do, however, go to at least a couple of Reds games every year. Now, I’m usually there because a team I like is playing, or it’s a weekday afternoon game, or there are really cheap tickets available. Luckily, since the Reds have been mediocre to awful for a while, there are almost always cheap tickets available.

In my first few games at Great American Ballpark, I didn’t really care that much for the facility. Sure, it was an improvement over the multi-use, anti-septic, artificially-turfed Riverfront Stadium. But rich guys hadn’t yet ruined Wrigley Field, and it felt to me like GABP was trying to present itself as old school without really getting there. Plus, the beer selection was terrible.

But over the past few years, the ballpark has grown on me. I like that you can take soft-sided coolers and food in. Around the fifth inning, I like to walk around the concourse, stand by the south wall and sniff the Ohio River. The paddlewheelers moving slowly upstream remind me of my old home town, and the beer selection has improved quite a bit.

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I went to a Diamondbacks game there earlier this week. I kind of like going to baseball games by myself. I can sit there and keep score and listen to the conversations going on around me. I wore my D-Backs jersey (see “popularity unimportant” above), and Arizona ended up with an 11-2 win. I got a seat in the 10th row behind the visitors dugout for $30 off StubHub, and actually had empty seats on both sides. After I got back from stretching my legs, there were no fans within twenty feet of me. It was like being at an Indianapolis Indians game in April on a weeknight.

I usually wear opposing team jerseys at Reds’ games, and I’ve never heard a rude or drunken negative comment. Cincinnati’s a lot more like Louisville than Indianapolis; more Catholics, more gambling, a little more relaxed.

They’re still not my Reds. But I’m willing to let bygones be bygones, and I like Great American Ballpark now. They can’t match the pizza at Miller Park, the beer selection in San Francisco, or the gameday atmosphere in Pittsburgh. But at least I don’t feel like I’m being scammed (looking at you, Wrigley Field).

And, like I said. Tickets are cheap.       

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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