Thursday, November 30, 2006

Kronk Dead, But Only As A Building

The Kronk Gym is dead, and in much the same way that a terminally ill loved one passes. The end is expected, hoped against, but always seemingly inevitable.

The Detroit City Council pulled the plug on the famous Kronk Recreation Center -- breeding ground for countless champion boxers, pro and amateur -- the other day, and you really can't blame them. The Kronk has been experiencing financial difficulties for years, and not even the tireless efforts of the daddy of all champions, Emanuel Steward, could prevent it from shuttering.

The death knell was the September thievery of all the gym's copper tubing and piping that lie in the basement, which carried all the water throughout the building. Copper's soaring prices have led to thieves pilfering a multitude of items that contain the metal, including tubing and even the coils from home air conditioning units, which have also been targeted.

After the September crime, Kronk's boxers have been training at a Gold's Gym in nearby Dearborn.

Already, efforts are underway to build a new Kronk, though it may not carry the same name. That's the least of the worries right now. As part of that effort, a fundraising event will be held this evening at the Star Theater in Southfield. Actor Sylvester Stallone is expected to appear at an advanced screening of "Rocky Balboa," his new movie that premieres nationwide around Christmas. Tickets are $25 for the screening, and $100 for VIP tickets, which includes a reception prior to the 8:00 p.m. screening. For more information, call the Star at 248.388.3799.

Steward, when we spoke in August, told me that one of the attractions the Kronk had for the aspiring kid boxers around town was its access from the nearby suburbs.

"We used to have busloads of kids coming in," he said of the gym, located near the city's southwest side.

The Kronk, as you know, helped produce champions from Tommy Hearns to Oscar de la Hoya. Steward, who once used to work at Detroit Edison and for years considered his Kronk work a "side job," has been associated with the gym for nearly 40 years.

But now the Kronk has not only been given its last rites, the coffin has been ordered and it will soon be laid to rest. But its legacy still lives, through the bodies of today's boxers who've only recently had their taste of Kronk's aura. So you may know, Steward has often put boxers up in his own home while they train at Kronk. There were a few there, in fact, when we chatted in August in his dining room following a Roundtable discussion for Motor City Sports Magazine.

The venue may change, but Steward is still going to be involved in the "new" Kronk, should it ever get off the ground. But rest assured he'll figure something out, for the next generation of boxing champions.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Big Ben's Chimes Out Of Tune In Chicago

Prima donna.

It's a term that is now being used in Chicago, by the Windy City's ink-stained wretches. Probably by their blogging community, as well. The target of their derision is Ben Wallace, the Bulls' brand-new, $60 million center who has a fetish for headbands and loud music, apparently.

Funny how neither of those items of fancy bubbled to the surface in Detroit.

Funny, also, that the prima donna label is being affixed to Wallace, who we were told personified the Pistons' work ethic and "team first" mentality.

Of course, some of that luster was lost when Big Ben left Motown for Chitown, going for the green, then taking a few swipes at Pistons coach Flip Saunders while trying on his new Bulls jersey on Media Day. Turns out that Wallace had issues with Flip, and that the Pistons had no real hope of ever signing him back, after all. So when the Bulls swept in with their Brinks truck, that sealed the deal.

But now Wallace, who is openly defying coach Scott Skiles' edict on no headband-wearing and loud music in the lockerroom before games -- not to mention no practicing without taping your ankles first -- is already considered a mistake signing by the coverers of basketball in Chicago. It can't be much longer before another nasty term is used to describe him.

Coach Killer.

The good ole days (four months ago)

It's a most incorrigible pair of words to be used against any professional athlete. But it may be appropriate, when it comes to Ben Wallace -- a defender and rebounder extraordinaire who is doing neither as much rebounding or defending as hoped for, especially after that sixty million dollar pact. The blocked shots aren't there, either, nor is the intimidating presence Bulls folks were accustomed to seeing be used against them while Wallace toiled as a Piston. Now he is blatantly, openly defying his coach, and doing so unapologetically.

Wallace played 20 uninspired minutes against the Wizards last week, a third of an hour in which he grabbed no rebound and scored no points. Not that he's there for his offense, but it was a double goose egg nonetheless. The next game, Wallace put the headband on and was yanked just two minutes into the game -- a sure fire show of authority by Skiles, and an attempt to show up his new big man.

Now, it would be easy to chuckle and snicker over the drama being played out in Bulls Land, since they and the Pistons haven't exactly been two peas in a pod over the years. Even more so might be that inclination, considering Wallace's apparent disdain for Saunders and his ways. In other words, had Ben re-upped with the Pistons, maybe the implosion would have happened in Detroit instead.

Once you get a reputation of Coach Killer in the NBA, it's awfully hard to live down. Sometimes it's been wrongly affixed. Doesn't matter. Just ask Joe Barry Carroll, who was nicknamed "Joe Barely Cares." Or Benoit Benjamin. Or any of a number of other players who've supposedly increased their coach's blood pressure by way of their antics on and off the court.

They're already calling Ben Wallace a prima donna in Chicago. If he ends up driving Scott Skiles to quit or be fired, they'll add Coach Killer into the mix. He'll still be a multimillionaire, but he'll be a tarnished one. Now, whether Ben cares about that, we'll be left to wonder.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

OK, OK -- I Admit It: Time For Millen To Go

Bill Ford Sr. is a man of loyalty. To a fault. It rankles him to have to sign off on a firing, which explains why some of the bozos who've coached the Lions -- Wayne Fontes included, even though Wayno had some good years here -- have overstayed their welcomes. Ford is the host who looks at his watch but hates to tell the overstaying guest that it's time to go.

Which is why I chuckle every time the simmering "Fire Matt Millen" stew boils over from time to time. Ford has never, that I know of or can recall, made a move based on fan reaction or outrage. It's one reason why he has been accused of being out of touch with his paying customers.

The thought that Lions president Millen might be fired soon, or has been fired, or will be fired at the end of the season, is taking on another dimension this time, however. Detroit News writer and occasional contributor to Motor Citys Sports Magazine, Terry Foster, wrote over the weekend that rumors of Millen's impending departure are hotter than normal, and have a little more substance to them this time around. The three scenarios Foster said were being knocked around include: 1) NOT firing Millen; 2) Firing him, as soon as this week; and 3) Blowing the whole thing up -- meaning that not only Millen, but top executive Tom Lewand and others would bite the dust, including (maybe) head coach Rod Marinelli and his staff. The Lions, in option #3, would be considered an expansion franchise and would receive help from the NFL in finding someone to commandeer the organization, from top to bottom.

Until #2 or #3 happens, though, the option that is being exercised is still #1.

I have been in the minority of folks -- and I admit, I use minority in the same way that I would call a 12 year-old child who likes liver a minority -- who have never been on the "Fire Millen" bandwagon. I haven't participated in marches, or worn the colors of the opposing football team, or wanted to stage a walkout during the game, or called in to yammer on sports talk radio about dismissing MM. Not only haven't I done those things, I've actually defended the man. One of my beefs with the whole "Fire Millen" movement is that not once have I ever heard a name tossed out as a possible replacement by that ilk.

"Who are you gonna get," I've asked many a Millen basher, "if the Lions were to give Matt Millen the ziggy?"

Not once have I heard a name mentioned in reply.

"I don't care! ANYONE!," is the usual response.

Sorry. Not good enough.

Until now.

Something Foster wrote struck home with me, and today causes me to call, for the the first time, for Matt Millen's removal as team president, and forthwith.

T Foster rightly points out that the time has come to make such a move, if only to at least plug the dam temporarily, which has burst and lost Lions supporters to frustration and apathy. It would be a move, Foster pointed out, that would perhaps bring some of those fans back. At least it might stop the hemorrhaging.

I must say that I agree this morning. It doesn't necessarily matter, right now, who the choice is to replace Matt Millen as Lions president and GM. His firing should be looked at as almost an act of compassion -- for the fans, for Millen himself, and for the organization as a whole. It just isn't going to work out, I fear, with Matt Millen running this football team. Perhaps I am tardy in this realization, granted. It might also spell the end of the Marinelli era before it began, because a new leader might want a new coach. Although, that recipe didn't work the last time the Lions tried a shakeup. Millen, after all, failed to keep Gary Moeller, and we saw how that turned out.

Could a new president/GM come in and win with Marinelli as his head coach? Sure. But right now the issue isn't the head coach. It's higher than that. And higher than even that. A fish stinks, the saying goes, starting at the head.

But the head isn't going anywhere, so at least you can throw out the rest of the fish. Might cut down on the smell some.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Well, I NEVER!

It’s funny how some things can occur to you out of the clear blue.

I was watching the Red Wings on the tube the other night and the puck went along the boards. Naturally, several players arrived forthwith, trying to slap it away from the dasher and move it along to a teammate. Three or four skaters slapped, kicked, and whacked at the hard rubber disc. I can’t even remember what happened after that: a face-off, Red Wings’ puck, opponent’s puck – whatever. Doesn’t matter.

Suddenly I found myself thinking about the strongest Red Wings player that ever was, post-Gordie Howe: Joey Kocur.

Don’t EVEN argue with me about this. Kocur, a Red Wing from 1985 to 1999 (with some stops elsewhere along the way), was simply inseparable from the puck during one of those scrums by the boards. Joey always, and I mean ALWAYS, ended up with the puck once the snow cleared. It was amazing.

So this is where the thing occurred to me out of the clear blue.

We tend to get wrapped up in the things that we’ve seen in our experiences watching sports. But what about those that we haven’t seen? Those are pretty amazing, too.

I’ll start with Kocur. I never saw Joey Kocur lose a battle for the puck along the boards. Never did. Uh-uh. Never happened, on my watch. And it shouldn’t, if you’re the strongest player in the National Hockey League – which is what I contend Kocur was when he roamed NHL ice surfaces.

I never saw Aurelio Rodriguez make a bad throw. Rodriguez, the smiling third baseman for the 1970’s Tigers, possessed a howitzer of an arm. I can see the image now, as I type this: Rodriguez snaring a hard groundball, to his left, then righting himself, and with enough time to pump once before firing the ball to first base, seemingly using only his wrist. Perfect strike into the first baseman’s glove, every time. Never saw him make a bad throw. Sorry – he played a perfect 1.000 third base when it came to throwing the ball.

I never saw Barry Sanders get tackled by the first person who touched him. Barry got hit plenty of times behind the line of scrimmage – we all can agree on that. But I’ll be darned if the first person who hit him, ever actually tackled him. He had that pinball thing going on in those instances. Sure, he may have been swarmed over eventually for a loss of yards, but that first person against Barry was the football equivalent of the Washington Generals against the Harlem Globetrotters. And that would be Barry in the role of the Globetrotters, thank you very much.

I never saw Steve Yzerman lose his cool on the ice. I didn’t see all of his games as a 22-year Red Wings player, but I saw a bunch of them. And I can tell you that not once did he lose control of himself – swinging a stick wildly or sucker punching an opponent, or bumping an official. Lord knows there were times ….

I never saw Isiah Thomas miss a clutch shot. Though I sure as heck saw him make his share of them. But this column is about what I never saw, and I will go to my grave believing that I never saw Isiah miss a shot that absolutely had to be made. He was the kind of player who could dribble the ball off his foot and handle it as if it was coated with WD 40, just like all of them, for 47 minutes. But in that 48th and final minute, Isiah would return to being Isiah again, and pity the other team if they were foolish enough to let him take a crucial shot.

I never saw Johnny Grubb take a bad swing. Grubber, a Tiger from 1983 to 1988, had the smoothest swing of any lefthanded hitting player the Tigers ever had during my ongoing tour of duty. And when he was ahead in the count, 2-0 or 3-1? Katie bar the door, school’s out, batten down the hatches, and all that. He didn’t always hit safely, but he had a wonderful, slightly uppercut approach that looked like it was the product of well-oiled gears and could have been a stand-in for Ted Williams’ swing.

I never saw Scotty Bowman show any emotion behind the Red Wings bench. This is kind of like the aforementioned Yzerman, but even more so. All of the TV shots taken of Bowman during games may as well have been the same one reused over and over again, because they all had the common look: hands crossed in front of him, the Rock of Gibraltar jaw set, the head slightly raised as he looked over his players’ helmets toward the action on the ice. You literally couldn’t tell if the Red Wings were losing 5-1 or about to win another Stanley Cup, if you had to depend on Bowman to clue you in.

I never saw Bob Lanier smile as a Piston. And it’s a damn shame. Lanier was only the best big man to ever play in Detroit, yet his time was tumultuous here. He ended up being the perpetually brooding player. A dour giant. He played in Detroit nearly ten seasons, but always with that look of consternation on his bearded face.

I never saw a pitcher say a cross word to Sparky Anderson on the mound when said pitcher was about to be removed from the game. Sparky made sure of it, I know, but nobody was an exception. The rule was simple: you lay the baseball gently in his palm (“like an egg,” Sparky would say), and walk away, toward the dugout. No words, not even any eye contact. Just … go. Seventeen seasons in Detroit, and not one of them did it wrong. Not even Jack Morris. Sparky made sure of it.

I never saw a Lions coach not end up with that defeated, resigned, baffled look on his puss. I’ve seen plenty of smiles at the time of their hire, of course. But always they end up the same. It’s already happening to current coach Rod Marinelli. Maybe he’ll end his career in Detroit with smiles, like it always begins for the Lions coach.

Never saw that, either.

Friday, November 24, 2006

No Hall Of Famer, But Pal Joey Proves He Can Be A Winner

The way I see it, about the only thing that was proven in the Lions' most recent Thanksgiving Day yawner is a basic creed of football: your quarterback is only as good as his supporting cast.

Joey Harrington, last I checked, never lined up on the offensive line, never tried his hand at covering opposing receivers, never rushed the other team's quarterback. He didn't install the West Coast offense, didn't drop passes, and didn't draft players and hire coaches without doing the necessary due diligence.

None of this should be news to anyone around here, but I get the feeling that there is a robust segment of the Lions fans population to whom it is this morning as they stab at their cold turkey and dried out stuffing.

Good for Joey.

That was pretty much my thought as I saw Harrington fillet the Lions for three TD passes in the Miami Dolphins' 27-10 whipping of the Honolulu Blue and Silver yesterday at Ford Field. It was also my thought when my boss at MCS Magazine, publisher Muneesh Jain, called me after the game and told me that Harrington could barely wipe the grin off his face as he spoke to the media.

Good for Joey.

He's gone now, enjoying the sun and reduced pressure of South Florida. Today he plays with Dolphins in Miami, after four seasons in which the football denizens around Motown would have him swimming with the fishes.

Maybe the problem people had with Joey Harrington in Detroit was -- and I think this might be semi-legitimate -- there wasn't the feeling that he could rise above some of the muck and present himself as a diamond stick pin amongst the tattered hand-me-downs. Never did the folks in Detroit think, "Well, the rest of the team is horse feathers, but at least we have Joey."

You know, what they said about Barry Sanders.

But Harrington is not the QB version of Sanders, and how unfair is it to expect him to be? Yes, the quarterback will forever be the lightning rod for every struggling NFL team, of which there seems to be 16 every week. But not often are they the sole problem. In fact, rarely are they so.

Troy Aikman. Terry Bradshaw. Joe Montana. Steve Young.

I'll give you your pick of any of these names to run your football team in their prime, and I doubt you'd be unhappy with your choice. Hall of Famers, all of them. But each of them was a version of horse feathers before personnel and system changes were made that turned them into stallions.

Aikman: suffered through a 1-15 season in Dallas before drafts and trades brought him Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and an offensive line. Super Bowl wins followed, "miraculously."

Bradshaw: was a stumbling, bumbling hick from Louisiana until he righted himself, helped greatly by a dynamic defense, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, and John Stallworth. Lombardi trophies ensued.

Montana: The 49'ers were a team in disarray, O.J. Simpson's swan song club, when Montana and coach Bill Walsh arrived at the same time. Some offensive philosophy changes, some influx of talent, and within three seasons, Walsh was being carried off the field at the Silverdome, a world champion. Montana-led champs.

Young: A lefty gunslinger who scuffled along in the old USFL, then in the NFL with the putrid Buccaneers of Tampa Bay, before finding his way as Montana's heir apparent in San Francisco. Funny how his Hall path ventured thru the Bay -- and I don't mean Tampa's.

Joey Harrington is not a Hall of Fame quarterback. That much is fairly certain. But he proved yesterday that he can be quite serviceable, if surrounded with the right people and in the right environment. The fact that neither were present in Detroit during his four years here hardly was proven yesterday. That had been sealed long ago.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

On Eve Of Turkey Day, Some Thanks Are In Order

Some reasons to be thankful this holiday...

Jim Leyland. You helped make baseball fun around here again, skipper. And made a group of ragamuffin players believe in themselves.

Steve Yzerman. You're not on the ice anymore, but your time was everyone's time -- from a shy kid in October 1983 to a shy vice president in 2006.

Bo Schembechler. Oh, how fall Saturdays would have been boring in Ann Arbor without you.

Kenny Rogers. Thanks for an amazing postseason run. I've never seen anything like it, and may never again.

Jim Myers, a.k.a. George "The Animal" Steele. You spent several hours at our MCS Magazine offices in July regaling us with tales and anecdotes from your career in pro wrestling, which will appear in the December issue. Thanks for a memorable afternoon.

Charlie Sanders. Whether or not you get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- and you damned well better -- it's time you were thanked for ten marvelous seasons as the consummate tight end.

Jerry Green. Still churning out weekly online columns at age 78. And a supporter of mine, for which I'm deeply grateful.

Jeff Daniels. Thanks for taking time out to answer my voluminous questions for the November MCS interview. And thanks for laughing at my old Gordie Howe stories.

Magglio Ordonez. The World Series may have been a stinker, but thanks for providing a landmark moment in this town's sports history with your walk-off homer in Game 4 of the ALCS.

And thanks to my wife, Sharon, who somehow puts up with me; my writing staff at MCS Magazine (you know who you are); my boss, Muneesh Jain (MCS's publisher); magazine marketing guy Chris Okroy (who I debate sports with daily; sometimes hourly); and all my fellow bloggers who are kind enough to post links to this little space.

And, finally, thanks to all of you who stop by here from time-to-time and read these words of tarnished wisdom.

See ya Friday.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tigers Get It Wrong By Giving Sheffield No. 3

It took about nine days for Gary Sheffield's presence to resonate with the Tigers.

Maybe it was a birthday gift (Sheffield turned 38 Saturday). Maybe someone on the Tigers just took leave of their senses. Maybe the spirit of Pat Swilling took over Sheffield's life form.

Sheffield, the Tigers' new DH/outfielder, acquired in a trade with the Yankees on November 10th, will wear uniform no. 3 next season, and the two seasons beyond that, presumably. Unless whatever controlled substances they're consuming at Comerica Park wear off before then.

That's right -- Sheffield, a Tiger for just nine days when the announcement was made, will wear the no. 3 that was done oh-so-proud by shortstop Alan Trammell for 20 seasons.

The real no. 3

Imagine that. Giving away no. 3 so easily -- to a player whose current age is the same as Trammell's when he played his last game for the Tigers.

I wonder what was going thru Sheffield's head when he even inquired about the number. Just like I wondered what Swilling was smoking when he asked about no. 56 when he was acquired by the Lions in 1993. Then the Lions gave it to him, and thus proved that they were even more ripped than their new linebacker.

The Lions' 56, of course, was the Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt. And the no. 56 jersey was rightly kept out of circulation, forever put away, never to be disturbed again, for no one could ever wear no. 56 with as much aplomb as Joe Schmidt.

Or so I thought.

The Lions traded for Swilling during the '93 draft, and it wasn't long before he asked about 56 -- his number as a New Orleans Saint. Even Joe Montana, when he was traded to Kansas City, didn't even bother asking about no. 16. That number was worn into the Hall of Fame by Len Dawson. So Montana settled on 19 as a Chief. But even if Swilling wasn't up to snuff on his Lions history, it was incumbent on some sane voice of reason in the Lions offices to kindly tell him that it was time to wear a new number on the NFL fields. Didn't happen, and they trotted out poor Joe Schmidt for a hastily-called press conference to present his 56 to Swilling.

I thought such nonsense was reserved for dysfunctional franchises like the Lions.

But now the Tigers, just a month removed from their first World Series appearance in 22 years, have repeated the mistake their feline football cousins made, 13 years ago and some change.

Trammell, for his part, offered the expected "it's fine with me" comments when reached after the decision was made to give his number to the new Tiger Sheffield. But what else is he going to say? Kirk Gibson, when he was brought back to join Tram's staff as a coach in 2003, recognized the new status that his no. 23 had assumed in Detroit. Gibby wore 23 as a player, but by 2003, a statue of the original 23, Willie Horton, had been erected at CoPa. So Gibson, in a class move, didn't bother to put the Tigers on the spot; he asked to wear no. 22 instead.

Yes, Trammell's number isn't yet retired by the ballclub. So, theoretically, it's up for grabs. And Sheffield isn't some bum off the street; he may someday end up enshrined in Cooperstown. No matter. A number is worn for 20 seasons, and in the manner that Alan Trammell wore no. 3 -- that number should be stored away forever. Retirement ceremony or not. What's next? Is Lou Whitaker's no. 1 in jeopardy?

Sheffield wore no. 11 with the Yankees for the last three seasons. I don't ever recall him wearing 3 in any of his other baseball stops, which makes this request doubly odd. In fact, my first thought after the Tigers made the trade was, "Will they give him no. 11? That was Sparky Anderson's number, and no one has worn it since he left after the 1995 season."

No, they didn't give Sheffield no. 11. They did worse than that. They gave him no. 3.

Shame on them.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Unknown To Him, Furrey Uttered The Most Apt Of Lions Words

They were words spoken after another uninspired, uninspiring performance by a football team who collects those like a wool coat collects lint. Lions wide receiver Mike Furrey uttered them on Fox Sports Detroit, in the wake of the team's latest slip down the NFL totem pole.

"We always seem to do the worst thing at the wrong time," Furrey said.

Seldom have any bon mots that come forth from an athlete's pie hole resonated as true and as historically fitting as those that landed into the FSD microphone yesterday afternoon in the Arizona desert.

"We always seem to do the worst thing at the wrong time."

They might do very well as the Lions' franchise slogan. You could arrange them on a Honolulu Blue and Silver placard above the team's offices, or near the lockerroom entrance, and they'd hardly be out of place. Today's young marketing hotshots with their Armani suits and Blackberry devices and grande lattes can only dream of coming up with something as rich and as genuine and as perfectly appropriate for the Lions' state as the statement of malaise Mike Furrey delivered after the Arizona Cardinals -- the league's other finalist for Most Dysfunctional Franchise -- whipped the Lions, 17-10, to make both teams 2-8 this season.

"We always seem to do the worst thing at the wrong time."

Furrey, of course, was speaking specifically of Sunday's debacle, but think back a moment and consider how many other times in Lions history those italicized words would be fitting.

1964. Bill Ford Sr. has just bought controlling interest of the Lions from the syndicate of nearly 200 that own them up to that point. One of his first deeds as sole owner is to tell the incumbent head coach, George Wilson -- the last Lions coach to win an NFL championship -- a fine man adored by his players, that his assistants must go if he is to stay. Wilson thinks about it for a few days, then tells Ford to stick it up his rear fender. Wilson resigns, and Ford hires Harry Gilmer as coach, who lasts two horrific seasons.

"We always seem to do the worst thing at the wrong time."

1973. The last Lions coach to post a career winning record while in Detroit, Joe Schmidt, has just finished a four-year string in which the team won 34 games and lost 19, with a few ties thrown in. It's a decent run, one that would get a Lions coach elected mayor of Detroit nowadays. But this is the days before multiple wild cards, so there's only one playoff appearance in those four seasons. As a result, Schmidt loses a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas, perhaps one of the most villified executives in Detroit sports history.

"We always seem to do the worst thing at the wrong time."

1985. The Lions hand the keys to their Edsel to Darryl Rogers, a college coach with absolutely no ties or connections to the pro game. The team even allows him to bring with him almost his entire staff from Arizona State University. The blind leading the blind, if you will. Rogers is fired three years later, the team in shambles, the drafts miserable flops.

"We always seem to do the worst thing at the wrong time."

1990. Draft day, and the Lions are enamored with a gunslinger from Houston, the quarterback Andre Ware. He will be a perfect complement to their newly-installed Run 'n Shoot offense, with its Arena Football-like urgency. It's the offense, after all, that Ware ran at the University of Houston, where he set a zillion pass records. But Ware becomes the poster child for why college ball ain't the same as the pros, son. He's another draft flop. Busts, they call them.

"We always seem to do the worst thing at the wrong time."

1999. The only true star the Lions have had in decades, running back Barry Sanders, ups and quits on the team on the eve of training camp. The fans are caught off-guard. It's considered a complete shock. Yet it turns out that Sanders' father and others had warned the Lions that their star wasn't happy, dating back nearly a year. His concerns, according to those who purport to know, weren't addressed to Barry's satisfaction. So even after an act that appeared, on the surface, to be totally unexpected and even mean spirited in its timing, the Lions come out looking like it was self-inflicted.

"We always seem to do the worst thing at the wrong time."

2001, 2003. President Matt Millen hires, as his first two head coaches, an Unknown Soldier (Marty Mornhinweg) and a Semi-Decorated NFL War Hero (Steve Mariucci). In neither occasion does he perform the due diligence necessary to assure himself that his choices are who they appear to be. Mornhinweg is hired after one interview and a late night film session with Millen, and Mariucci is inked without any research as to what happened in San Francisco, and whether his offense or his style of coaching are suited to the Lions current personnel. Marty wins five games in two years, and Mariucci cobbles together 15 in a little less than three seasons.

"We always seem to do the worst thing at the wrong time."

Oh, I could go on and on. And on. But don't Furrey's words ring true in every aforementioned instance?

I can see the bumper stickers now.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Bo Grew On Me, And That's A Good Thing

I never met Bo Schembechler. We weren’t, that I can ever recall, even in the same room together. Yet I knew him.

He was that way. One of those sports icons that everyone seems to know, from your Aunt Gertrude to your teenaged neighbor – male or female. And I don’t mean just someone that they’ve heard of. There are plenty of those around, and not too many of them would you like to know, anyway.

With Bo Schembechler, the legendary University of Michigan football coach who passed away Friday at age 77, you felt like you truly knew him, because of all the stories others have told, and through television and radio and newspaper interviews. He was one person who you could just envision meeting if you hadn’t; you almost could imagine precisely how such an encounter would go. You might even have fooled yourself into thinking you had met Bo. His reputation truly preceded him.

I put Bo in the same category of athlete and coach who I began loathing, or at the very least dismissing, but who I then eventually came to appreciate, and then admire.

Larry Bird was one. I used to sneer in disdain at Bird and his squawking beak when he was at his heyday with the Celtics as a player. It pained me to admit how great of a player he truly was. But after he retired, and became coach of the Indiana Pacers – and eventually the team’s GM – I looked at Bird in a different manner. I enjoyed the way he approached the coaching gig. He was honest, for one. A refreshing change from some of the snake oil salesmen who’ve masqueraded as coaches.

“I don’t really coach the team,” Bird would say to anyone who’d listen. “I let my assistants do that. I guess I’m there to call the shots during the games, but my assistants coach the team, really.”

And this: “To tell you the truth, I really don’t like coaching.”

True to his word, Bird quit coaching after a couple of seasons – which included a trip to the NBA Finals – kicking himself upstairs in the process.

Through it all, I found myself admiring Larry Bird. He wasn’t the “hick from French Lick (IN)” any longer. He had matured into a savvy basketball person.

Wayne Gretzky was another that grew on me.

I saw #99, at first, as an anointed heir to the throne previously occupied by Gordie Howe. But with a cache of lieutenants to protect him on the ice. There was a lot of crybaby about him, back in the day.

But, like with Bird, as Gretzky became older and was nearing the end of his marvelous playing career, my opinion of him changed. Maybe it was his maturity, once again. Or mine, frankly. Regardless, I am now rooting for Wayne Gretzky in his role as coach and part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes.

Bo Schembechler, I had no use for, for a number of years. First, I wasn’t a Michigan fan. I got that from my dad, who loathed the university. He would always complain that the players that played in Ann Arbor were college carpetbaggers – athletes from other states who wouldn’t know Warren from Dearborn, or a catalytic converter from a hole in … the wall. It goes on all the time now, of course – the wooing of the out-of-state athlete – but my father gave no quarter when it came to U-M.

Bo loved Michigan, and Michigan loved him back.

So it was that Schembechler represented a sort of Evil Empire at the college football level, to me. I barely rooted for Michigan against even Ohio State, believe it or not. And when I came to be a freshman at Eastern Michigan University, a mere keg roll away from Ann Arbor, my resentment of U-M grew. I’m sure jealousy was part of it. That, and the arrogance. It was there, I’m sure of it.

Then, Bo did himself no favor with me when he had become president of the Tigers in 1990, and later that year took the bullet for canning radio announcer Ernie Harwell. He might as well have tripped Santa Claus and shoved his face in some yellow snow. That was perhaps the nadir of my admiration, such as it was, for Schembechler.

But once again, a transformation occurred. And, right on schedule, it coincided with retirement. Bo left the Tigers in 1992, and once he became the former coach, the former athletic director, the former baseball team president, I kinda got a hankering for the old codger.

Maybe, as with Bird and Gretzky, it was my maturity that kicked in. Upon reflection and an inventory of Schembechler’s career, and realizing his deep love for Michigan football, I thought he was alright. Gradually, Michigan became my school of choice to root for. It didn’t hurt that the current coach, Lloyd Carr, is one of the best people in sports today. I’ve met him.

Bo loved Michigan, and Michigan loved him back. He was fiercely loyal to the school, and I gotta tell ya, he ran a squeaky clean program in a time when that wasn’t always the norm. Or cool. And I had come to enjoy reading and hearing his thoughts about the university, college football, and just about anything else.

He was back at it again earlier this week.

Speaking to reporters in impromptu fashion, Bo was railing about Michigan’s last trip to Columbus, two years ago, when bomb-sniffing dogs were used to search the team and its entourage upon arrival. The thought of that disgusted the old coach.

“Whoever decided to allow that …,” he fumed. “They’d better not do it this year. By God, they’d better not do it to Michigan.”

I read that and could practically hear Schembechler saying it. How many people can you say that about? When you can read a quote in India ink on white newsprint and close your eyes and imagine the speaker launching them verbally, as if the newspaper suddenly turned into a radio? And I smirked. Old Bo. Still a defender of Michigan. Still cranky about Ohio State week.

I never met Bo Schembechler. But yet I at first disliked him, then dismissed him, then grew to admire him. If he only knew.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Sure Bet: No Ties In The "Big Game"

I don't do predictions. I'm not that type of sort, mainly because whenever I try it, I'm way more often than not wrong. Dead wrong.

One time, in the early 1980's, I was wrong again, but I was fantastically wrong.

Ken Norton was to fight Gerry Cooney in a heavyweight boxing match in May, 1981. Norton was well into his 30's, and Cooney was a 24-year-old young gun ready to splash onto the boxing stage. My pals at school asked me how I saw the bout shaping up.

"Cooney... in 57 seconds of the first round," I crowed. My friends laughed. It was a mismatch, for sure, but THAT much of a mismatch?

Like I said, I was wrong. Cooney TKO'd Norton in 54 seconds in the first round. Those three seconds still haunt me to this day.

So I won't be like everyone else and make predictions about tomorrow's Michigan-Ohio State football tilt. If you don't like that, tough. OK, OK -- I'll make this prediction: the game won't end in a tie.

Thanks to overtime, that's impossible. And so is any assemblance of a replay of what happened back in 1973.

Both the Wolverines and the Buckeyes were undefeated. It was in the era when the Big Ten was truly the Big Two and the Little Eight. The only conference game that usually meant a hill of beans was the U-M/OSU battle on the last Saturday of the regular season. Never was it more true than here.

The clubs slugged it out to the tune of a 10-10 tie when, in the closing seconds, Wolverines placekicker Tom Lantry, a left-footed, straight-on booter, came on to the field at Michigan Stadium to try a 34-yarder. He missed. Barely.

No OT in '73, so the game went into the books as another of those famous 10-10 ties, similar to the one Michigan State and Notre Dame played to in 1966.

Ah, but who would represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl?

The matter was decided by a vote of the other Athletic Directors in the conference. If the Little Eight would have split, 4 to 4, commisioner Wayne Duke was set to break the deadlock. Kind of like the U.S. Senate, with Duke in Dick Cheney's position. But Ohio State got five votes to Michigan's three. And guess who voted for the Buckeyes? Michigan State!

Sparty got a jab in.

Of course, U-M coach Bo Schembechler was beside himself.

"What am I going to tell my players?," Bo wondered aloud, in a car ride back to Ann Arbor after getting the results of the vote, according to longtime Detroit News sportswriter and columnist Jerry Green, who was in the car with Bo. Jerry wrote about it last week in his online column. In those days, Big Ten teams weren't permitted to play in other bowl games outside of the Rose Bowl.

Later, Bo "encouraged" the NCAA to allow the Big Ten to send teams to other bowls. But mostly all it did was enable the Wolverines to lose to teams other than Pac Ten schools, in other venues, in those other bowls.

Regardless, such an absurd occurrence is bound to not happen this weekend. I predict it.

Another prediction, if you must: there won't be any left-footed, straight-on kickers anywhere near Buckeye Stadium tomorrow.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Latest Indictment Of MSU Football: Davis To UNC

Let's play a quick game of word association.

When I say "Michigan State University," what sport immediately springs to mind?

Basketball? Sure -- there have been National Championships and Final Four appearances, frequently, in the past 25-30 years. Hockey? I can see that -- what with NCAA Championships and Frozen Four battles dotting the landscape in the same time frame.

Some of you may have said football. Maybe because that's the season that we're currently winding down. Maybe because the Spartans are off on another coaching search. But doubtful that too many associate the sport with Michigan State University, especially if you were to ask in, say, May.

Butch Davis is one of those college football coaches who should keep his rear end firmly planted in the sphere of academia. The NFL is not for him. No surprise, for you could write a book about all the great pro coaches who made a seamless transition from college, and that book could be read -- and reread -- on the way to the corner store for bread and milk. And you'd still have time left over.

The most recent indictment of the Spartan football program was the acceptance, by Davis -- whose failed NFL try came in Cleveland after some success in college at Miami (FL) -- of the coaching gig at the University of North Carolina. Another school whose association is hardly with the gridiron.

UNC is a basketball school. Dean Smith, Michael Jordan, all that. It is not a football school. Some would say that puts it in line with MSU, indeed.

But the fact that Davis, who reportedly was being considered in East Lansing, apparently rebuffed the Spartans so that he might coach football on Tobacco Road, is the latest stab at the health of the Michigan State football community. There was a time, not all that long ago, when the thought of choosing UNC over MSU, in football, would have been considered folly for someone of Davis' college resume. No longer. It barely registered a blip on the media's screen.

UNC hasn't done much of anything in football recently. Their record in their last 70 games is 25-45. Not unexpected, coming from a basketball school.

MSU is, in most people's eyes, a basketball school. The niche folk would say it's a hockey school. It is losing whatever status it had as a football school very rapidly.

I don't know who the next coach will be, nor where he will come from. But I do know that whether you consider Michigan State University a basketball school or a hockey school, one thing is certain.

It didn't used to be that way.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Despite Hot Start, Always Room For Forsberg On Red Wings Roster

One of the nice things about being an ink-stained wretch and a know-it-all blogger is how freely you get to spend other people's money. Even those with budgets. And I am here to dip into Mike Ilitch's deep pockets, thru Kenny Holland.

Red Wings GM Holland has my permission to turn vulture and start picking away at what is a surprisingly early-arrived Philadelphia Flyers carcass.

The 3-12-1 Flyers have already dumped their coach, and their longtime GM has resigned, citing burnout. And toiling away for the Flyers is a diamond among costume jewelry named Peter Forsberg.

Yes, I am ready to sign off on a deal for Forsberg. Kenny Holland may proceed.

He'd look mighty good in red and white

The Red Wings might not seem to need my help, sitting pretty at 12-4-1 and with a nine-game winning streak, which ties a franchise record. Their record is almost 180 degrees from the Flyers'. But sometimes it's the trades you make in November and December, not necessarily the panic-driven ones made on Deadline Day, that will put you over the hump.

Submitted: December, 1995. The Red Wings blitz Montreal Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy for nine goals on their way to a stunning 11-1 romp at the Forum (or whatever they called it back then). Roy, humiliated from being left in for so long, basically quits the team that night. He needs to be traded. And off to Colorado he goes, to become an Avalanche player (when you refer to them individually, is it a Snowball?) and on his way to being one of this city's biggest villains. The Avalanche win the Stanley Cup the following June, upsetting the 62-win Red Wings in the Conference Finals. Patrick Roy is on the short list of reasons why they won the Cup. And he was no Deadline Day pickup.

Prying Forsberg loose from the Flyers might take a little bit of creativity due to salary cap considerations, but the Red Wings did not become what they are by being a vanilla, non-progressive franchise. When there's been a will at Joe Louis Arena, there's usually been a way.

The ingredients Forsberg could add to the Red Wings spicy recipe are numerous: tough play around the net; a goal scorer's knack; playoff experience; a winner's mentality; skills beyond belief. And he just might be easier to snag than you think.

The Flyers have been rumored to be shopping Forsberg, in essence raising the white flag on their season before Thanksgiving. Fitting, because the coach got canned and the GM quit before Halloween. Maybe the Red Wings can get Forsberg by Christmas. Or trade for him New Year's Eve Day and toss him onto the JLA ice in front of the tuxedos and gowns that night. Happy New Year!

So Ken Holland may proceed whenever he would like. He has my approval.

Mr. Ilitch can sign off for me. I'm giving permission on that, too.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Trammell, Gibson Will Wear Unfamiliar Colors In 2007

First, Alan Trammell had to be imagined in a Chicago Cubs uniform. Now, Kirk Gibson in the purple, gold, and black of the Arizona Diamondbacks?

It's true. Tram is the new bench coach for just-as-new manager Lou Piniella in Chicago, and Gibby just signed on to help his old teammate Bob Melvin as the D-Backs bench coach. What's next? Lance Parrish as the bullpen coach for the Toronto Blue Jays?

If anything, Trammell and Gibson should change places. For it is Trammell, the San Diego kid, who I can more picture toiling in the Arizona desert, while Gibson, the Michiganian, is more suited, it seems, for the northern climate of Chicago. Gibson, in fact, wouldn't be out of place sitting in a dugout in the frozen tundra of Antarctica.

But there they are, two former Tigers heroes who were drummed out of town after serving their purpose as part of the 1984 Gang who mostly filled out the coaching staff here while the team was something you looked at with one eye open and the other closed. Well, maybe with both eyes closed. Trammell will wear the famous red "C" on his blue baseball cap, and I wonder how he'll look in pinstripes? Gibby at least has one thing in Arizona that matches his personality: the fearsome Diamondback Snake that sometimes adorns the baseball lids there.

Trammell's case is interesting. When a player who's played his entire career in one city, in any sport, is then hired as that team's coach, he has all but guaranteed that he won't be leaving town under his own volition. How can they fire Alan Trammell? Just watch. The Packers fired Bart Starr, after all -- but only after many years of failure. But what makes Tram's situation unique is that those types rarely turn up someplace else. Kudos to Piniella for disregarding Trammell's 300 losses in three seasons as Tigers manager, realizing that not even John McGraw or Joe McCarthy could have succeeded under such conditions. Instead, Lou looked at Trammell's baseball knowledge, and rightly assumed that his time spent as a manager, despite the long odds against him, could only help him develop as a baseball bench mind.

As for Gibson, he wasn't all that well-liked, or even respected, by certain segments of the Tigers clubhouse last season. Whispers arose that he was derisively nicknamed "Two Swings" by the internal detractors, a reference to his two famous World Series homers, off Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley. Maybe he has mellowed some. When I spoke to him in September about a possible feature story for MCS Magazine, he was soft-spoken but still fiercely loyal to Trammell, his old boss.

"If the Tigers had any class at all, they'd fly Tram in for Game 1 of the playoffs and let him throw out the first pitch," Gibby told me, and then he quickly agreed with me when I told him that was highly unlikely.

Yet who threw out the first pitch of Game 2 of the World Series? Alan Trammell. And HIS old boss, Sparky Anderson.

Gibson did, after all, have some clairvoyance about that. Bob Melvin might have seen that intangible when he tabbed old #23 to sit on his bench in AZ.

Maybe it's appropriate, on second thought, that Gibson should coach in Arizona. He never did shrivel from the heat.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Lions Once Again Out To Lunch When Opportunity Knocks

Forgive my indulgence this morning, but I'm correct about things oh-so-infrequently anymore, so I thought I'd call attention to some words that appeared in this space one week ago today:

The Lions will play host to the San Francisco 49'ers, who despite their 9-3 win over Minnesota yesterday have only one thing in common with the glory days of the 80's and 90's: the throwback uniforms they wore against the Vikings. The 49'ers are among the league's dregs, and at 3-5 are a team that the Lions should beat, especially at home.

Which means they won't, most likely.

That's the way it goes with the boys in Honolulu Blue and Silver, you know. Games that look very winnable on the proverbial paper that such things get written down on, are in fact the ones that get them. And the contests that look like, well, NO contest, are the ones they grab and put in the left hand column.

The Lions proved this old codger right, playing uninspired, flat football in losing to the San Francisco 49'ers, 19-13, in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicates. Maybe they were looking ahead to the big Cardinals game at Arizona next week.

But first, a word about the word "flat."

Years ago, seething after a loss to the Bears, defensive lineman Marc Spindler went off on a semi-famous rant when a reporter suggested the Lions had come out flat. What follows is some paraphrasing.

"FLAT? What the hell does that mean, FLAT? We weren't flat. You guys always come in here and use that word, FLAT. FLAT. Were we flat? They KICKED OUR ASS, that's what happened. FLAT!"

It wasn't quite as notorious as Colts coach Jim Mora's "PLAYOFFS?" postgame presser, but Spindler's blast-off was quite entertaining.

Now, as far as that word "flat" as it relates to the Lions yesterday, it's kind of like art. I'm not sure what I like, but I'll know it when I see it. And I saw it yesterday at Ford Field.


The Lions weren't anywhere to be found when the roll call was announced Sunday. If yesterday's game was a movie scene, it would have been the moment in Ferris Bueller's Day Off when Ben Stein's teacher character took attendance and said, "Bueller....Bueller...Bueller," while the camera focused on Ferris' empty chair. So close your eyes and imagine Stein: "Lions...Lions....Lions?"

"Jones? Furrey? Run defense? Anyone?"

Works for me.

How a team like the Detroit Lions can play as if the 3-5 49'ers would somehow be intimidated by the Ford Field environs and act enthralled by the 2-6 occupants that play there, I don't know. But that's the thought that ran through my mind, like Frank Gore through the Lions defense: "My goodness, the Lions have taken the 49'ers lightly!"

"They flew across the country and handed it to us," receiver Roy Williams said, eschewing his bravado and rose colored views after the game.

But not all Lions inhabit our planet.

"We're better than that. Everyone knows we're better than that," tight end Dan Campbell said.

Please. Stop.

No, you're not, Dan. You may be predictable -- losing a game to a suspect opponent and squandering an opportunity for improvement in the process -- but that does not equate to being better than anything.

The only thing the Lions are better than anyone at is being out to lunch when Opportunity comes a knockin'.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

I'm A Swinger -- A West Coaster, That Is

They are beamed into my home from California places like Inglewood; San Jose; Anaheim; Oakland; and Sacramento. Or sometimes they come from those Pacific Northwest metropolises like Portland or Seattle. And with funny game times like 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. The news hour here.

Their results sometimes make the next morning’s late edition papers, sometimes they don’t. If you’re unlucky and crack open the Free Press or the News, and you didn’t see the game the night before, you’ll find the dreaded (N) or (inc) next to the contest, where the game score should be. Oh, what did we do before the Internet?

To be a follower of the sports teams around town, especially baseball, basketball, and hockey, one must gird himself for the inevitable Swings. The West Coast Swings.

They are the redheaded stepchildren of any Detroit sports schedule, for the common fan. One of the first things I do when the new schedule comes out for the Tigers, Pistons, and Red Wings is to look for those pesky West Coast Swings, when for a week the viewing and listening habits are going to be tossed upside down. Or maybe, to be more accurate, veered left. About 3,000 miles left.

But it’s not without some degree of romanticism.

So my mother may know, I spent some nights in bed in April or May, before school was out, with a radio surreptitiously tucked near my ear, listening to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey paint me a baseball picture from The Big A in Anaheim, or the beautifully long-named Oakland Alameda County Coliseum. I’d listen to the Tigers give the Angels or the A’s, and later the Mariners from Seattle, a tussle for several innings before I nodded off, waking up to J.P. McCarthy doing his thing in the morning.

The west coast games were rarely on TV back then (circa the late-1970’s), so radio was the only outlet. Bruce Martyn’s excited, nasally voice filled my bedroom like oxygen as I imagined the puck being sent up and down the ice while the Red Wings did battle with the Kings in Inglewood at the Fabulous Forum. Dale McCourt or Vaclav Nedomansky would put one in, and Martyn’s famous “He scooooores!” would come at 11:45 p.m. or 12:25 a.m., according to my nifty digital clock radio. I’d even do my own backtiming, subtracting the three-hour time difference to imagine what the clocks at those California arenas were displaying for the local denizens there.

The Tigers were the first team to start showing the West Coast games on television with any consistency, and even then they were mainly the day games, which would begin at 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. here, of course. Child’s play. Anyone can stay up to watch the ends of those matches, even the seniors. It was the 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. starts that the “real” fans endured in their entirety.

Now, as a married man and father, I have new memories. They are of watching the Red Wings in the playoffs, in a land far, far away, with the wife and child deep, deep in slumber. Being wrongly located in the NHL’s Western Conference means our hockey club has to traverse multiple time zones throughout the season. And in the playoffs, it always seemed like the Red Wings’ road to the Stanley Cup would have to make stops in Anaheim or Los Angeles (Inglewood) or San Jose.

But if I can watch the Red Wings in the playoffs till nearly 3:00 a.m., the West Coasters can suck it up and set up a TV tray in front of their tube to watch their Lakers

And guess what happens in playoff hockey games? Overtime!

I remember a battle in Anaheim against the Mighty Ducks. It was during the Cup run of 1997, I believe. The game was headed for its third overtime, it looked like. The Detroit clock read nearly three in the A.M. As so often happens in playoff overtime hockey, the game had settled into one of those affairs where neither team comes close to popping in the winning goal.

I said to myself that I couldn’t possibly abide a third overtime. It was a work night, after all. To go to bed before a playoff game had ended was sacrilege, but when the eyelids fail you, what choice have you, really? So it was that I made up my mind: no more hockey if the game is still tied after 40 minutes of overtime.

But then, suddenly, as is the wont in playoff overtime hockey, there’s a scramble in front of the Ducks’ net. Brendan Shanahan shoves a Duck player out of the crease so he can find and swat at the puck. After a swipe with his stick, the rubber disc is gloriously hitting the twine of the net. Game over. Silent yelling, so as not to wake the family. And to bed, forthwith.

The Pistons haven’t provided as much late night excitement, but that’s because they are properly placed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. So no playoff games out west for them. Even the NBA Finals, when they happen in Los Angeles (Inglewood), begin at the reasonable hour of 9:00 p.m. Well, maybe not reasonable for the Lakers folks, because who heard of a game commencing at dinner time? But if I can watch the Red Wings in the playoffs till nearly 3:00 a.m., the West Coasters can suck it up and set up a TV tray in front of their tube to watch their Lakers, as far as I’m concerned.

Still, I have a Pistons/West Coast memory. It occurred in 1977, when the NBA subscribed to their own skewed geography and had the Pistons placed in their Western Conference. That meant a playoff matchup with the Golden State Warriors, who played in Oakland. It was a best-of-three mini-series that the NBA was famous for back in the day. Game 1 was out west, and it was at night. Late at night.

The Pistons upset the Warriors, and I pumped my fist and yelled in delight. My mother admonished me; dad was trying to sleep and had to be at work the next day. It was one of the times when I didn’t have to sneak a transistor radio in bed with me. Sadly, my exuberance was short-lived. The Pistons dropped the next two games and were bumped out of the playoffs. But they had provided me with some joy after the witching hour.

The Pistons, as I write this, are in the throes of one of those West Coast Swings. They lost the first two, but then whipped the Lakers Friday night. I know the result. So the newspapers can take their (N) or (inc) and
shove it up their printing press.

As George W. Bush would say, I love the Internets.

Friday, November 10, 2006

It's Early, But Red Wings Seem More Playoff Ready, Already

It's tempting to say, "Here they go again." And in doing so, you might feel a little shiver run up your spine.

The Red Wings are at it again -- making the regular season their playground, piling up points like frequent flyer miles. Only, when they've gone to cash them in at the end of the season in recent springs, they've been told that their flight deep into the postseason has been interminably delayed.

Yes, it's easy to look at the team's 10-4-1 getaway, including their current seven-game winning streak, and shudder, believing the Red Wings to once again be setting themselves up for knocking down by a lesser weight in the playoffs.

But this team seems grittier, faster, and bonus -- they don't let the other guys shoot at their goalie. The Red Wings are playing the tight, playoff-style hockey that wins in May and June. Which means they are in danger of turning goalie Dominik Hasek into the world's most expensive Maytag repairman. The Edmonton Oilers -- the team that sent the Wings to the golf courses last May -- came into Joe Louis Arena the other night and to say that Hasek was not needed in the first period would be a literal statement. The Oilers played the first twenty minutes and registered nary a shot on goal. Sports are funny; you spend a lot of money to get a guy like Hasek, then you build a team whose goal is to keep him from working hard enough to earn it.

I know it's early, and I know we've been fooled before. I wrote in training camp that the Red Wings were flying under the radar due to the Tigers, and that they had several questions hovering over them. But that was a good thing, I wrote. Sailing through the regular season and winning the Presidents' Trophy hasn't amounted to much over the years, so why not try it the other way?

But yet here they are, racking up wins and leaving shot-less opponents in their wake.

Its not even the end of November yet, I know. But today the Red Wings play with a different kind of purpose, and one that could bode well for them come springtime.

When they'll have to battle the Tigers for headlines again.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Carr Faces Bigger Challenge This Week, Not Next

Lloyd Carr must know that today and tomorrow, he needs to put the finishing touches on his best coaching work of the season. Maybe of his career, at Michigan. Certainly he knows that Saturday's game at Indiana will be no walk in the park. Not so much because of the prowess of the Hoosiers -- the Wolverines are heavily favored -- but because it is the last game before The Game. The Ohio State Buckeyes loom the following Saturday.

It can't be an easy task, to keep a group of college kids focused on a lesser opponent when the biggest football game of their young lives lies just behind it.

The newspapers don't help matters. They run Countdowns daily, ticking off the days until The Big Game. They treat the games prior to the Ohio State matchup as mere annoyances, contests to be suffered through until the Big Two of the Big Ten collide like two behemoths. The Ohio State talk started in September, really, when both schools appeared to be headed for very special seasons.

The U-M/OSU game, rife with history, is already the biggest game on the schedule. But this year, 2006, with both teams unbeaten, #1 and #2 in the polls, it is accorded Super Bowl status. It figures to be the most-watched game of the season, and has direct National Championship implications. All this, and coach Carr has to somehow get his players ready for 5-5 Indiana, on the road.

Carr: Toughest job yet is this Saturday

It's been argued that the Wolverines learned their lesson last Saturday, when they monkeyed around with Ball State before finally prevailing, 34-26. It was a mighty struggle in a game that should have been a cake walk. But they got it out of their system, the U-M apologists said. Lesson learned. Won't do that again.

It would be almost too much to ask anyone who is human to play the Indiana Hoosiers and not think about the school from Ohio. The Buckeyes, similarly, have a road game against a far inferior opponent, the 3-7 Northwestern Wildcats. And that comes after Illinois gave Ohio State a slight scare, just as Ball State did to Michigan. Perhaps Jim Tressel's bunch learned a lesson, too, from their tussle with the Illini.

Regardless, this is the toughest part of Lloyd Carr's job. These are the games in which the big time college coach earns his big time paycheck. Not so much games against Ohio State, although the success against the Buckeyes trumps all. I'm talking in terms of overall preparation. Carr has his hands completely full as this week winds down. He must summon his players to treat the Hooisers as something more than a three hour scrimmage prior to playing the "real" game the following Saturday. Same thing with Tressel in Evanston.

The big time coaches earn their big time pay this weekend.

Because only nine days to go until ... you know.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Players' Support For Marinelli Rare In Detroit

Sometimes you don't realize how much something was missing until you realize its presence.

It's easy to scoff when Lions players wax optimistic about their 2-6 record. The receiver Roy Williams hasn't been derisively tagged as "Roy Blue Skies", like a certain quarterback was, yet all he does is say things like, "Nobody can stop us when the offense is going," and "Jon Kitna is the best quarterback in the league." And, of course, the horrific "We're the best 2-6 team in the league."

Others are joining the bandwagon. Dominic Raiola, the compact center, says, "You can see us building a foundation. There's hope." Tackle Jeff Backus, who after last season wasn't sure he wanted to sign a longterm contract to stay in Detroit, did so after the team hired Rod Marinelli as coach. And Backus is among those who rave about the team's direction, personified, in his mind, by Kitna's very physical response to Falcons CB D'Angelo Hall's cheap shot Sunday. The underlying feeling of the players is this: We finally have a coach and a staff that knows what it's doing, and we don't care about our record now. The wins will come.

Defensive lineman Cory Redding says of Marinelli, "I want to be like him when I grow up, man. He's an old guy who doesn't give a dang about what you think. He's tough."

Yes, so easy to scoff at that. The Lions are on a pace to win four games. Another lost season. Once again, no meaningful games to play in November, let alone December. Same old, same old.

But is it, really?

Thinking back, I can't recall this much optimism among the men who wear the Honolulu Blue and Silver since, well, maybe ever. Certainly not during another losing season. There's been false bravado, even when the record was north of .500. But it's easy to crow when you win nine or ten games. Not so easy when you're on a pace to win four. And even harder to get the denizens who follow pro football around here to buy it.

But count me among the buyers.

The unbridled optimism and belief the Lions players have in their coach and his system, perhaps fueled by the team's offense, which is flourishing under coordinator Mike Martz, is something that hasn't been present. And when you're looking for reasons to be convinced why the Lions might, MIGHT, be on the right path, you need look no further than that.

Public support for a Lions coach by his players such as what we're seeing for Rod Marinelli, has been virtually nonexistent. In fact, the last time I can recall players throwing their weight behind a coach was when Gary Moeller took over at the end of the 2000 season. And before that? How many occasions do you recall Bobby Ross being festooned with bouquets from his players? Wayne Fontes? The players loved Wayne-o, mainly because he was a "player's coach," which is code for he's easy on the players. And you can count how many "player's coaches" have won a Super Bowl on one hand, and still have fingers left over.

A journey of a thousand miles, the proverb goes, begins with a single step. The Lions would certainly appear to be about a thousand miles away from a Super Bowl title. But with their unification behind Rod Marinelli, I believe they've taken that single step.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Lions Play The "Any Given Sunday" Card, And Give The Falcons The Bird

"When Kevin Jones gets 100 yards, and a receiver gets a hundred yards, there's nobody in the world that can beat us."

No, those aren't the bleatings of a Lions fan whose chest is puffed out after a typically unexpected victory over a superior opponent. They are the bleatings of the team's star wide receiver, who can somehow still catch all those balls thrown his way, despite wearing rose-colored glasses. Roy Williams, though, isn't tagged with the derisive nickname of "Roy Blue Skies", like Joey Harrington was. I wonder why.

Regardless, the Lions won one, 30-14, yesterday over a 5-2 Atlanta Falcons team, but also one which has bouts of schizophrenia itself. It can be a difficult task to accurately determine which Falcons team is going to show up on any given Sunday, that ancient NFL phrase.

Less difficult is it, though, to correctly choose which version of the Lions will run onto the football field.

Don't believe me? Well, if a Lions' win over an upper-echelon NFC team, at home, with the record in the toilet, shocks you, then there must be a turnip truck around with your fresh imprint on it.

So it is that it becomes even easier to forecast the team's weather next Sunday.

The Lions will play host to the San Francisco 49'ers, who despite their 9-3 win over Minnesota yesterday have only one thing in common with the glory days of the 80's and 90's: the throwback uniforms they wore against the Vikings. The 49'ers are among the league's dregs, and at 3-5 are a team that the Lions should beat, especially at home.

Which means they won't, most likely.

That's the way it goes with the boys in Honolulu Blue and Silver, you know. Games that look very winnable on the proverbial paper that such things get written down on, are in fact the ones that get them. And the contests that look like, well, NO contest, are the ones they grab and put in the left hand column.

And looking ahead to that Urban Myth called the Thanksgiving Day Game -- you know, the game that Lions fans seem to think the Lions always win, when the record is about .500 -- the Lions will face the Miami Dolphins and Joey Harrington. That game might be one that could give prognosticators fits. For it's the colliding of two titanic forces: the Urban Myth that the Lions always win on Turkey Day, and the force that says a QB returning to his old haunts on national TV is destined for victory. The crash may be heard all the way to Timbuktu. And there's no telling how it will turn out.

But that's down the line. Next up are the 49'ers, and to hear Roy Williams tell it, that game's in the bag if, as he says, "Kevin Jones runs for 100 yards and a receiver gets a hundred yards." Because, Roy says, if that happens, there's nobody that can stop the Lions. In the world.

Except the Lions themselves. And they have proven to be the most formidable of opponents. Too bad they have to show up every Sunday, too, along with the other guys, and wreak their havoc.

The Lions won one Sunday. It must have been their given Sunday. But it won't mean a hill of beans if they don't go out and grab some more of them.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Detroit's Metamorphosis Into Hockeytown Began With Jimmy D.

He was, at the beginning, a rink rat without skates. A strange fellow, for who would want to prowl the cold environs of an ice hockey rink when there is no hockey to be played, and no son to watch?

Jimmy Devellano is a self-taught architect. There was no school he attended to become what he became, which is only one of the greatest NHL executives to ever wear an ill-fitting suit and crooked necktie.

Jimmy D., they call him. Too hard to pronounce Devellano, after all. Especially if your teeth are chattering, standing in a hockey rink in Guelph, Ontario, or International Falls, Minnesota, or in the redness of Moscow.

Devellano, who was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame last Monday at Cobo Hall, was Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch’s very first hire after Ilitch bought the team in the summer of 1982. He was the first in a tandem of people whose last names were funny-looking, funny-sounding, and on top of that, completely unknown when they arrived in Detroit. The second part of the tandem was an 18 year-old center from the Peterborough Petes named Steve Yzerman.

It was Devellano who drafted Yzerman with the fourth overall pick in the 1983 draft, the first that Jimmy D. presided over as Red Wings general manager. Local folks lusted after Pat LaFontaine, a wonderkid from up I-75, in Waterford. But LaFontaine was snatched off the board by the New York Islanders one spot before the Red Wings’ turn. Detroit hockey fans groaned. They had wanted the local kid, LaFontaine. But instead they were stuck with the kid with the funny-looking, funny-sounding name. Yzerman.

Pat LaFontaine had a fine NHL career, until it was ended prematurely due to multiple concussions. But it was nowhere near the swath that Yzerman cut into the NHL.

At the induction dinner, a video clip was played. It showed a much younger Devellano waxing justice about his selection of Yzerman.

“We feel he can contribute right away,” Jimmy D. said in the now familiar squeaky voice of his, laced with Canada. “My only concern is that because of his age – he’s only 18 – his strength is a question mark.

“But I think he’s gonna make it.”

Yeah – just a bit.

I tracked down Yzerman after the dinner and served up Devellano’s 1983 comments about him for his consumption.

“Well,” Yzerman said with typical bashfulness, “not many people knew for sure back then, eh?”

Au, contraire. I’ll bet the farm and the chickens that go with it that Jimmy D. knew exactly what he was getting when he selected Steve Yzerman with the #4 pick in 1983. Rink rats have good sniffers, you know.

“I got my first job in the NHL as a scout for the St. Louis Blues in 1967,” Devellano said at the podium upon his presentation as one of the Hall’s Class of 2006. It was a story that’s been often told and heard, but there are still some who should know.

“I worked with a young coach there named Scotty Bowman, and he really helped me along,” Devellano said, nodding to Bowman, who was in the audience. “Scotty and I developed a nice relationship.”

It was while working for the Blues that Devellano began to acquire his skills and knack for finding hockey diamonds in the rough. He never played the game, never coached it. In fact, his sport of choice as a spectator was baseball. He watched a lot of minor league ball in Toronto. Yet by the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, Devellano, the skateless rink rat, was building a reputation, quietly. The reputation was of someone who knew hockey players up, down, and around. Not hockey, necessarily, but hockey players. The distinction is important. Anyone can watch a hockey game and tell you what happened. Jimmy D. perfected the art of watching a hockey game and picking out the best players.

The artist that he had become was never more evident than when Devellano worked for the Islanders in their scouting department. He started with the Isles during their inaugural season of 1972-73, and he along with Bill Torrey drafted and traded for the core of players that would end up winning four consecutive Stanley Cups (1980-83). Jimmy D. stuck around for three of those before moving to the Red Wings in ’82.

Devellano’s career as an executive in Detroit is unique, because he was one of the few who was allowed to fail, and fail miserably, before getting it right.

It was during Devellano’s fourth season as Red Wings GM when the team finished a ghastly 17-57-6, giving up over 400 goals in the process. His Band Aid method of managing – signing aging veterans to plug holes until the youth arrived – had popped its stitch. Few executives in professional sports would still be employed with such a hideous record after their fourth season (save the Matt Millen jokes, please), but Ilitch stuck with Devellano. The owner remembered what Jimmy had done on Long Island, and that was with a team that was started from scratch. So he stuck with his GM.

Two things accelerated the Wings’ rise from the days of being called the Dead Things: the drafting of Yzerman in 1983, and the hiring of coach Jacques Demers in 1986. Yzerman gave the Red Wings a player around which they could build. Demers came in and took that 17-57-6 nightmare and turned it into a team that nearly finished .500 the very next season, and made it all the way to the conference finals.

It was Devellano who suggested to Ilitch that the Red Wings pursue and hire his old pal Bowman as coach in 1993. That worked out pretty well, if you recall.

The Red Wings are currently in a streak in which they have not failed to qualify for the playoffs since 1990. In fact, since Devellano joined the franchise, the Red Wings have made the playoffs 20 out of 23 seasons. Many times they’ve been the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup, which they’ve captured three times under Jimmy D.’s watch. He’s no longer the GM – he hasn’t been for over a decade now – but he’s still a very active member of the team’s front office, and is consulted by current GM Ken Holland frequently.

“I wouldn’t be receiving this honor if it wasn’t for Steve Yzerman and Scotty Bowman,” Devellano said at the podium Monday night.

But what Jimmy D. failed to mention was that it was he who brought those two men to Detroit. Hockeytown, USA.

All hail the rink rats!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Tigers' First Good Offseason Move Is Keeping Dombrowski Around

So Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski will be in Detroit thru 2011. A no-brainer, if there ever was one.

Sports executives, the really good ones, don't come along all that often. Some could make an argument that they are even rarer than the successful coach. And the Tigers wrapped up Dombrowski with a four year extension, which is, it can be hoped, the first of many smart offseason moves for a franchise that has only just recently begun to "get it" when it comes to making the right decisions.

Dombrowski will stick around to try to add the NEXT trophy

No coincidence that doing it the right way started happening shortly after Dombrowski took over almost five years ago to the day (11/5/01).

First there was the expected purging of GM Randy Smith, so that DD could take over that title, in addition to that of president. The only surprise about Smith's ziggy was that it came five months after Dombrowski was hired, after a miserable start to the 2002 season. (Manager Phil Garner was fired, too, on the same day).

Then there were the trades.

The three-teamer in 2002 is the most famous, probably. And, ironically, with the two teams the Tigers vanquished in the playoffs this fall: the Yankees and the A's. Gone was pitcher Jeff Weaver -- and this year's World Series notwithstanding, still the right move -- and in was Carlos Pena and a throw in named Jeremy Bonderman. Yes, you have to be lucky to be good sometimes, but the Tigers sought out Bonderman -- he wasn't just selected randomly.

Nate Robertson came over from the Marlins in another fleecing. And Marcus Thames, from Texas.

The free agent signings are stand alone entities that need no further cyber space here.

And of course, the right manager to pull it all together.

It all added up to the awakening of a sleeping baseball giant. The rising up from the ashes, like a phoenix, just three years after 119 losses and into the World Series.

Now, the hope is here that the Tigers don't go the way of some recent lightning catchers. That is, to take themselves so seriously and confidently that they think all they need to do is return the same 23 or 24 players and let them take the next step, as if anointed. The Tigers are in fact ridiculously rich now with young talent, especially in the arms. But they are not a team that can be put away in the closet all winter, sans any tweaking, and returned to Florida in February with the expectations that 95 more wins, or more, are in the offing.

But it's doubtful that Dombrowski will let that happen. He has some money now, and an attractive destination, and there will be additions. And, more starkly, some subtractions. It can all be heady stuff, and that's why it isn't always done successfully by the garden variety general manager. The Tigers have a good one, and those are the kind you don't let go.

Offseason tote board: Good Moves, 1.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Spartan Football Door: Just Another Revolution

John L. Smith had no illusions about the enormity of the task at hand when I talked to him in the middle of summer preparation for the 2006 season.

"We know it's going to take time," Smith told me in a preseason piece for Motor City Sports Magazine. "You'd better know what you're doing and you'd better have a strong philosophy and strong beliefs of what ... it's going to take to have success ... We know what we have to do. It's a slow process."

Smith is out as MSU's head football coach at the end of this season. The university is hanging out another "Help Wanted" sign, right on schedule. They have this fetish of canning coaches at regular intervals. Smith's stint lasted four seasons. Before him, Bobby Williams was given three. Nick Saban did a little better, lasting five seasons, but he was a hotshot who was destined for bigger and better things.

Smith spoke with enthusiasm and pride back in July when we chatted about leading a major college program that hasn't sniffed any real success since winning the Rose Bowl in 1988.

"We want to provide a culture of winning. But it's winning everyday in the classroom. It's winning everyday outside of the classroom, socially. It's winning everyday on the practice field. If we can change that culture, the the wins and losses will follow.

"The kids are going to class. They're doing the right things. Now we're working on the facilities. These are the things that are going to make us an upper echelon Big Ten football team," Smith said at the time.

But none of it was enough, not near enough, for John L. to last for the remaining season of his five-year contract. There were too many embarrassing losses. Too many in-game breakdowns. Too many collapses during the second halves of seasons. And only one bowl game -- a loss.

But the question begs, when football universities acquire a reputation of having a revolving door in the head coach's office: Who will want to coach football in East Lansing?

It can't possibly be a job that will attract the cream of the coaching crop. Maybe at one time. But no longer. The MSU program is beginning to take on that most negative of auras -- the one that says that no one can lead it back to glory. Similar to the football program downtown with the Honolulu Blue and Silver adorning it.

So who, really, wants to take on a program such as that?

When we spoke in July, some of Smith's words turned out to be cruelly ironic.

"We just have to put together a program of stability -- and not one that's going to be changing every darn two years."

MSU is going to be looking for another head football coach this winter, right on schedule. And doubtless that person will have not more than the requisite three, four, or five years to turn around a program that may not be turnaround-able.

It's not enough time, of course, but that'll be all the time that's allotted. So good luck finding a top notch coach to step into that situation.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Pistons Opening Night Shouldn't Be A Banner Moment

The Pistons have another banner to raise tonight, but it's not the "real" one, which means there aren't any rings to pass out, which means there won't be as much pomp and circumstance, which means the tip-off to tonight's season opener against the Milwaukee Bucks shouldn't be too long after 8 p.m.

Public address announcer Mason might not need as many throat lozenges, and maybe the team will even save the cost of the fire being shot through those cylinders near the baskets.

Count your blessings. The Miami Heat last night put on a lavish show to celebrate last June's championship, including the distribution of those gaudy rings, and they promptly got annihilated by the Chicago Bulls, 108-66. I mean, you'd think you'd be safe taking the Heat plus 40 points.

Those time-consuming, pregame festivities seem to be more of a hurdle for the home team to clear than for the visitors. Almost never do the good guys live up to the billing.

In 1988, when the Pistons opened up the Palace against the nice, safe opponents called the expansion Charlotte Hornets, there were the usual dronings on of local politicos, civic leaders, and team management. It went on. And on. Typical. Then, the Pistons, who the season before had lost to the Lakers in the Finals in seven games, played an uninspired, flat game and didn't put the brand-new Hornets away until the closing minutes. Of course, the following June the Pistons won their first world's championship, so who cares how the season began, I suppose.

Opening nights in the NBA are nice and all, but they of course lack the romance and community fervor that grips the city when the baseball season begins. MLB Opening Day is a day at Disney World; NBA Opening Night is an Eminem concert.

The banner the Pistons will raise tonight is the swatch of polyester that represents the Pistons winning the Central Division title last season. There is no banner for setting the franchise record for wins in a single season, which the Pistons did in '05-'06 (64). There is no banner for qualifying for the Eastern Conference Finals, which the Pistons did. And there is no banner for going out and getting some bench help, which the Pistons also did.

So tonight's game shouldn't be delayed too long. Just one banner to raise. No rings. No extended video tributes.

And no Pistons +40 point spreads.