Wednesday, January 31, 2007

'07 and '91 Pistons Have Things In Common, A Little

The players trudged off the basketball court, and one by one they were greeted by the team's GM, tears in his eyes, as he embraced each one and gave a heartfelt pounding on the back. Except, the game was still going on, and in order to make it to Jack McCloskey, the Pistons had to walk past the bench of their vanquishers, the Chicago Bulls.

It was Game 4 of the 1991 Conference Finals, and the Bulls, the new kings of the court, were in the process of putting the finishing touches on a sweep, staging a complete and thorough overthrow of the basketball government. Going home would be the Pistons, two-time defending NBA champs. But they wouldn't be going without one last middle finger, so to speak.

They left, one by one -- Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson, a few others -- and without so much as a glance in the Bulls' direction. The video images of Michael Jordan looking at his defeated opponents -- the team he had tried and failed to beat in the playoffs three straight springs -- with a look of incredulousness and bemusement, are priceless.

The Pistons, the Bad Boy Pistons, were painted, of course, as classless goons after the blatant snub of the victorious Bulls.

Last fall, over the telephone, I asked McCloskey -- retired and living in Georgia -- what he said to the players as they walked off the court that Memorial Day, 1991.

"I just thanked them, and told them how special they were," McCloskey said, conveniently disregarding the planned and indignant walk-off. But then, he hadn't planned it -- the players did. Thomas was the suspected orchestrator.

The '91 Pistons were in their fifth straight conference final. They had won three of them, and were about to lose their second in that time frame. Their capitulation to the Bulls was blamed, mostly, on simply running out of gas after years of basketball played into June. The series prior to the Bulls in 1991, the Pistons survived a classic six-game semifinal with the Celtics, the last of those two teams' great playoff battles.

The Pistons, modern version, have appeared in four straight conference finals. Their record stands at 2-2 in such series. Many believe, despite their recent pratfalls, that the Pistons should be there again, playing for conference supremacy, for a fifth straight year. It will be another test of endurance, playing basketball until late May, at least, and a year after fatigue was blamed for the conference finals loss to Miami.

This year's Pistons, optimists will tell you, aren't in the same boat, truly, as the 1991 team. They are slightly younger, and have a new player, Chris Webber, to inject some energy and confidence into their portfolio. And they have the chip on their shoulder of losing to the Heat last year. Optimists will tell you.

The pessimists, the ones with WDFN andWXYT on their cell phone's speed dial, will tell you that the "window" is closing , and fast, and that this is the last hurrah. Chauncey Billups might flee as a free agent. The Wizards are better. The Cavaliers, even, are better. And watch out for the Bulls. Pessimists will tell you.

The truth? Somewhere in between, as always. There's still time for the Pistons to jell and shake off these midwinter blahs. Still time to make a late run, and go into the playoffs with momentum, that ancient word. And also time to slip further back.

See? Somewhere in between.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Detroit In The Dead Of Winter: A Super Hangover

No Jimmy Kimmel at the Gem Theatre. No hordes of people in the Campus Martius area, enjoying ice skating and basic fellowship, rarely seen downtown. No "dress to the nines" parties sprinkled throughout metro Detroit. No live sports shows setting up their cameras and lights in area venues.

We're in the dead of winter here, and there is no warmth of a Super Bowl to help with the thaw. Not this year. Maybe not ever again. Certainly not anytime soon.

I don't know what it's like in other big cities, this Super Week, but in the city where all the pomp and circumstance occurred last year, I feel a twinge of sadness.

It hit me, oddly, while watching the NFL Network the other night. The trio of Rich Eisen, Marshall Faulk, and Steve Mariucci were chatting up former head coach (and should-be president of the Lions) Don Shula. Makes sense. Shula. Miami. Trot out all the guests local to the host city. It was the same tact used last year, when various Detroit sports icons found their way on various sets.

But as I watched the NFL Network guys talk to Shula, with the conspicuous palm trees in the background, it hit home with me: we're not hosting the Super Bowl this year, are we?

No. Very much no.

The city is experiencing the usual bitter cold, stark winter that blows into town every year -- the Tigers still a month away from spring training games, the Red Wings and Pistons still three months away from playoffs. The kind of weather that makes you want to stay inside and watch ... Super Bowl hype.

The same feeling as last year, really, but knowing that the hype you were watching was a 20-minute car ride away made it more compelling, somehow. And you might have brought along your ice skates, too, for good measure.

I guess I'm a little forlorn. Call it a Super Hangover. Post-hype syndrome. Whatever. But this Super Bowl has the feel of some other city taking what should be ours -- even though we've only played host twice in 41 years.

I wonder why that is.

Monday, January 29, 2007

"Can't Miss" Kids Very Often Do

I was watching the Michigan State Spartans tussle with the Ohio State University Saturday night in basketball, and much of the talk seemed to return to the Buckeyes' freshman center, Greg Oden.

It didn’t hurt that Oden had scored the Buckeyes’ first seven points, and it didn’t hurt when OSU began to pull away and thump the Spartans in the first half. Oden is a young beast that has begun to dominate his conference, the suspect Big Ten, and his team is ranked in the top five in the nation, despite playing in an inferior grouping of basketball schools.

Midway through the first half, ESPN went to a montage of collegiate big men from back in the day. Suddenly the screen was filled with slo-motion footage of college behemoths blocking shots, dunking, and otherwise terrorizing opponents.

Patrick Ewing. Hakeem Olajuwon. Shaquille O’Neal. These three were the behemoths shown in the ESPN montage. And, after the clips, a graphic, comparing the statistics of freshman Oden with those of the three Hall of Famers who appeared in slo-motion beauty, during their freshman seasons.

“And you can add Ralph Sampson in there, too,” analyst Dickie Vitale tossed in. “He had a sensational freshman season, as well.”

So there you have it. Oden is, after 20 games or so, already in the same class as Ewing, Olajuwon, and O’Neal. And you can add Sampson in there, too.

Some have already taken to call this year’s NBA Draft the “Greg Oden lottery.” The implication is clear: Greg Oden is too good, too overpowering, to wittle away his basketball playing time at a tiny college like Ohio State. He needs to be in the NBA – and soon!

Doubtless, Oden will be labeled with the cursed “can’t miss” tag. A shoo-in for NBA greatness. Why not, if he’s already as good as a trio of Hall of Famers? And Sampson, too. Bet the farm, Marge, because Greg Oden is coming into the NBA to dominate.

Can’t miss. Or can he?

I remember hearing about a kid with a funny name – Gretzky, I think it was – who, at age 14, was being touted as an NHLer, and not just any NHLer. A Great One. The hype about the youngster from Brantford, Ontario preceded him by a country mile. I sniffed. I mean, he was 14, for goodness sakes.

He lived up to the hype a little bit, though.

But I also remember hearing about a kid with a very normal name – Bobby Carpenter – in 1980, and he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was a hockey player from the east coast of the United States, and the words above his photo on the SI cover went something like this: And NHL scouts say that he’s the greatest U.S.-born hockey prospect that they’ve seen. Ever.

Bobby Carpenter made it to the NHL, alright, and was a serviceable player. But he wasn’t anywhere near great as a pro. He was no Wayne Gretzky, in other words, who by then was celebrating leaving his teen years by being the greatest hockey player in the world.

We love to anoint in this country. And we’re eager to lift the youngens onto pedestals, teetering them alongside the proven greats. Then we frown and deride them when they topple over, like Humpty Dumpty. Been doing it for years.

We’ve done it here, too, in Detroit.

We wanted to believe – Lord, did we want to believe – that a stud QB out of the University of Houston named Andre Ware, who’d broken a bajillion passing records in college, was going to turn us on with feats of chucking. And he did – of upchucking.

Ware was “can’t miss,” once. It was 1990, and the Lions were in Year Two of their Run ‘n Shoot offense – in which the quarterback has one running back and a boatload of receivers running around the field, trying to confuse the defense. And since the running back was named Barry Sanders, head coach Wayne Fontes figured he was off to a good start. He had the Run part down, in other words. It was the “’n Shoot” part that fouled things up.

Andre Ware, a “perfect” fit in the Lions’ system, since he ran a variation of it in college, held out of training camp until very late. And when he finally bothered to show up, he quickly proved that he couldn’t ‘n Shoot very good as a pro. Because you can’t ‘n Shoot if you can’t ‘n Throw it anywhere near a receiver.

Pistons GM Joe Dumars convinced us, in 2003, that we should all thank our lucky stars that the NBA’s lottery ping pong balls tumbled the Pistons’ way, enabling him to select – cue drumroll, please – Darko Milicic with the #2 overall pick.

Darko was “can’t miss” because Joe D told us so, and whatever Dumars says, the town usually believes. Myself included, truth be told.

Just wait until you see this kid Darko, Dumars told us through the newspapers and radio. He’s raw and unproven now, but he’s the real deal.

He’s “can’t miss.”

Sitting unchosen by the Pistons, after the can’t miss kid Darko, was Dwyane Wade – a bona fide “can’t miss” kid. But the Pistons did miss him, alright – they missed him by one selection. The Miami Heat, next up in the 2003 draft, snatched Wade up like jacks.

Today, Darko Milicic still struggles to find his game – as a member of the Orlando Magic. He has said publicly that his 2+ seasons in Detroit were mostly awful. But even though he plays a lot more in Orlando, he’s still nowhere near worth the #2 overall selection, unless the choosing was taking place on a playground during recess.

Oh, there’ve been more, of course. The can’t misses who somehow managed to, anyway. Of course, they haven’t all been bad. If you select enough can’t misses, you’re bound to hit.

I don’t know if Greg Oden will say so long to Ohio State after just one season, or not. But I do know this: whenever he decides to turn pro, he’s going to be an elite draft pick.

A kid as good as Ewing, Olajuwon, and O’Neal after just 20 collegiate games can only be one thing. Unless it turns out that he isn’t.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Gary Bettman's NHL: Too Big, And In The Wrong Cities

In the late 1970's, the NBA Finals were shown on CBS ... on tape delay. Believe it. This was the league's place, before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson joined -- conveniently located on each of the two coasts, and even more conveniently with two of the NBA's most storied franchises. How the Lakers and Celtics snagged the picks to select those two players would be wonderful stories, indeed.

Anyhow, with those two players as star power, and with their teams facing each other almost every year in the Finals, the league was resuscitated.

The NHL, a case could be made, is at least as bad off as the NBA was, pre-Bird and Magic. Their finals aren't shown on tape delay, but what's worse -- tape delay on CBS, or live on ... Versus?

Gary Bettman's league, too large and in too many cities that don't give a puck about hockey, is in trouble. Big trouble. When ESPN tells you thanks, but no thanks -- and because they feel they could do better by showing poker and volleyball -- and when you're paying NBC for air time, and when arenas are becoming more and more occupied by empty seats, and when you have an unbalanced schedule that keeps the young superstars out of big money cities (like Detroit) ... well, you're not exactly the darling of pro team sports. You're not the NBA, in other words, post-Bird and Magic.

The NHL was lulled into a false sense of security in the 1990's, when upstarts like the Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks scored playoff upsets (the Panthers made it all the way to the Finals, in 1996), and attendance in those cities, and others, benefitted from the novelty factor. So Bettman got greedy, and placed franchises in Atlanta and Phoenix (via Winnipeg), and more recently, Nashville and Columbus. Cities whose denizens are probably prone to asking how the pucks get inflated.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, unable to be saved by the famous owner Mario Lemieux, might not be much longer for the Steel City. They need a new arena, badly, but the city is unwilling to spring for one. So in the age old threat, the team might go somewhere else -- to some city who WILL afford them a shiny new hockey building. Kansas City has been mentioned (tried and failed in the mid-1970's).

Ice hockey is, whether we choose to admit it or not in Detroit, a niche sport. It's best sold to cold weather climates, and in places where there aren't too many distractions. And how many of those cities are there, anymore? The NHL, under Bettman, enjoyed for a while expansion with impunity. The league enjoyed spreading the joy of big league ice hockey all over the continental United States. Bettman played Johnny Appleseed, and it worked for a bit. But to use another fable as an example, Gary Bettman's NHL is like this: he's the pied piper of Hamlin, only when he stops playing long enough to see how many people are following him, the only thing he runs into is his own shadow.

A fading shadow.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sharp Finally Comes Around RE: The Forsberg Cause

I thought Drew Sharp was supposed to be more on the ball than this.

How can he only just now, at the end of January, suggest something that was found in this space back in mid-November?

Sharp, in today's Freep, bangs the drum for the notion of the Red Wings going after Peter Forsberg, who's a diamond stick pin on the worn out, raggedy suit that is the Philadelphia Flyers.

Glad you joined me, finally, Drew -- and the water's fine.

Wayyy back on November 15, I banged this out for you faithful readers.

So now it seems that Sharp is finally coming around, and for the reasons that I suggested, some sixty or so days ago.

I'm not ragging on Sharp, though I've been known to do that on other occasions. I'm not even making fun of him. If anything, I thought it was amusing that he's making this suggestion only now, even though the Flyers have been bad since, well, opening night.

Perhaps it's because the NHL trading deadline is about a month away, and the talk is sure to heat up about who GM Ken Holland might go after. Perhaps it's because we reached the All-Star break.

Regardless, it's good to see Mr. Sharp joining the cause to pry Forsberg loose from the Flyers and put him into a Red Wings sweater.

But let it be known that the cause began here. Anyone want to challenge me on that?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Despite The New England Dialect, Fidrych A Detroiter At Heart

Talking to Mark Fidrych, you're immediately beamed into cozy New England territory. You halfway want to look around you for cranberry bushes and lobster.

Fidrych, 52, was on the other end of the phone, regaling me with stories about that magical 1976 season, for an upcoming piece in Motor City Sports Magazine, and the Massachusetts lilt was prevalent, as always. But despite the accent, Fidrych considers himself a Detroiter at heart.

"Oh, for sure," he said when I put the question to him. "I only spent six years there (in Detroit), but it's like a second home to me. The people have always been real nice."

What would you say, I asked, to the fans in Motown today?

"Thanks for sticking with me when I was up. Thanks for sticking with me when I was down. And thanks for sticking with me now."

That's all very nice, but I still think the thanks are owed by us, and not the other way around.

Fidrych created a spike in the interest in Tigers baseball at a time when we were smack in between two championship eras -- that of the '68 heroes and the 1984 squad. He was a convenient side show when the rest of them weren't much to look at.

Still, the Tigers sent three starters to the '76 All-Star game in Philadelphia: Fidrych, and outfielders Rusty Staub and Ron LeFlore.

Fidrych pitched in perhaps the most celebrated regular season game in team history, in terms of retrospect, when he faced the mighty Yankees on June 28, 1976. His record was 7-1, and by the time the night was over with, he was a national mini-icon. He shut down the Yanks on seven hits in a complete game, 5-1 victory.

When we spoke the other day, he recalled a conversation he had with teammate Tom Veryzer on the way to the ballpark the afternoon of that Yankees game.

"Tommy says to me, 'Well, Monday Night Baseball, kid. This is gonna be beamed into your hometown. Mine, too.'"

Upon arriving at the park, Fidrych was struck by the "tons of people" milling about.

"I went to warm up, and there were so many people, I was like, 'Wow.' But then I just told myself that it's baseball, like any other game. Let's go out and get 'em. And that's what we did."

Fidrych didn't make his first start that season until May 15. Yet, he ended up with an amazing 24 complete games.

"They told me, when I made the team, that I would observe for awhile and then when they needed a fifth starter, I'd get a shot," he said. Except that observe was "obsuv" and starter was "stahtah."

The following spring, Fidrych hurt his knee shagging flyballs. ("I came down hard and heard a pop and then felt something 'slushy' down there," he says). Staub, who had warned him of such shenanigans, told him to go see the trainer.

"That's when they told me I had popped some cartilage," Fidrych said. The knee injury caused a slight change in his delivery, which led to shoulder problems that would ultimately end his career by 1980.

I asked him if he ever gets tired of talking about that incredible season.

"No, you never get tired of it," he says. "That's what the people in Michigan want to talk about. They tell me about this game or that game they saw that year. And then, you know, you just get into conversations."

Thirty-one years later, those conversations are still going strong.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Nick Lidstrom: The Red Wings' Mechanical Man

I was watching the cute little Versus Network broadcast the Red Wings game last week, when they subdued Montreal, and Keith Jones, another of the jock-turned-talking heads on TV, raved after the game about defenseman Nick Lidstrom.

"Look at Nick Lidstrom," Jones pointed out as the screen was showing us nifty effects that flashed Lidstrom's image amongs the others in the freeze frame. "Watch him make this play perfectly, effortlessly."

The screen then showed another play, and again Lidstrom was highlighted via the fancy shmancy, flashing locator.

"Here's Lidstrom again. Watch how he breaks up the play and works the puck up ice, in one motion," Jones gushed.

Then another play, this one showing us Lidstrom's penchant for joining a rush.

Then it dawned on me. We're so used to seeing Nicklas Lidstrom do his thing, do it "effortlessly," as Jones correctly pointed out, that his greatness is accepted casually, and almost with some sort of entitlement.

Lidstrom's greatness lies in the fact that we don't even appreciate how great it is. How often have you seen Nick Lidstrom cough up a puck in his own zone? In his career.

He plays such perfect defense, so fundamentally sound, that he could very well be this city's second Mechanical Man. That's what they called second baseman Charlie Gehringer back in the day, because his infield play was so perfect as to be robotic.

Lidstrom doesn't have Steve Yzerman greatness -- the kind that thrilled and chilled and oohed and ahhed. He doesn't have Gordie Howe greatness -- the kind that was filled with legendary stories and a wink at the rule book.

But he has Nick Lidstrom greatness, which is a greatness category unto its own. I'll spot you the five best defensemen you've seen in NHL history -- and even those you haven't seen -- and I'll take Lidstrom over any of them.

An annual event, almost: Lidstrom gets the Norris Trophy

Sorry, Orr, Harvey, and Pronovost. Move down a notch, Bourque, Pronger, and Coffey. Lidstrom is the standard bearer for those who patrol the blueline. How can he not be, when he is, at once, the best offensive and defensive defenseman on the ice, at any given moment? How can he not be, when kids are told to watch how he defends in his own zone, and also how he mans the power play? How can he not be, when he is able to deny great players scoring chances, without so much as laying a glove on them?

"I don't know how he does it," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock was quoted as saying a week or so ago. "He just goes and goes. He just plays perfectly, every night. It's weird."

Tonight, Lidstrom will take the ice as a starter in the All-Star game, his ninth. Typical of the great hockey player, he deflects the praise.

"It's always fun to play with all the great players in the league," he said the other day. Umm, and vice versa too, you can bet.

Nick Lidstrom is a perfect defenseman in an imperfect league, playing an imperfect game with perfection. The Mechanical Man, Part Deux.

And we shouldn't need Keith Jones, bless his heart, to tell us that. But the fans in other cities should know, so Jonesy has my approval.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

My Introduction To Hockeytown

I had pancakes. That much I remember. And more. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more of that day came back to my recollection.

It’s the curse of the sports fan. To not be able to recall when you took your last shower, or what day the meatloaf was for dinner, yet to somehow manage to rattle off, forthwith, the order of scoring in the Lions’ 1980 season opener (a 41-20 win over the Rams; 0-6; 3-6; 10-6; 10-13; 10-20; 17-20; 20-20; 27-20; 34-20; 41-20. Trust me, it’s right).

Same thing with January 21, 1973. Thirty-four years ago. My first Red Wings game in person, in the old red barn known as Olympia, at 5920 Grand River (at McGraw). It was a Sunday, just like this year’s January 21st.

There were so many oddities about that day; I suppose that’s what’s helping to oil my wayback machine. To start with, they dropped the puck at the unusual hour of 12 noon. It was the NBC Game of the Week. And in the booth that day, working the network broadcast as an analyst with play-by-play man Tim Ryan, was former Red Wings great Ted Lindsay.

Because of the noon start, my folks stopped for breakfast at Big Boy. Not sure which one, but I’d lay a bet that it was somewhere on Michigan Avenue, because this was before I-96, and that was the way my dad usually drove into Detroit from our Livonia home.

So there were pancakes, for sure, along with the anticipation of seeing the players who I’d only known as small, red-uniformed figures moving around our television screen. But they’d be larger, much larger, and in their home whites. The home games from Olympia weren’t televised locally back then – just the road contests. I wolfed down my breakfast, wishing my parents would do the same so we could get there, already!

There was the escalator ride. I remember that. Olympia had this ridiculously steep, narrow escalator that must have risen toward the heavens at an angle of at least seventy degrees. I think if you rode the escalator at Olympia and leaned back even a smidge, you just might fall backward and topple everyone behind you like dominoes. And it was about three feet wide, it seemed. It was like taking a playground slide in reverse.

The day only got more odd, and more memorable.

My folks bought me a game program, and I was thumbing through it, milling about before we took our seats, when I spotted him. He was unmistakable – a pudgy, button face, but also with one arm missing, the result of a WWII injury. Budd Lynch, at the time the Red Wings’ radio and TV man, sharing those duties with Bruce Martyn. And only the best hockey broadcast team EVER, thank you very much.

I alerted my dad that Lynch was nearby. Either he or my mother approached him and asked if he’d sign my program (defenseman Larry Johnston on the cover; I remember that, too). I stood there, dumbfounded, dangling the thin book before him. It was evident he’d need help due to his disability, so I remember my mother snatching the program from my nine-year-old hands and placing it on a nearby bistro table so Lynch could sign it easier.

And there was that rich, baritone voice. I don’t recall what he said, but I remember how it sounded: why, just like on TV. Funny how that works. So he signs it and he’s gone. All these memories, and we’re not even to game time yet.

We took our seats, which seem to have been somewhere in the upper bowl, but not bad, kinda around center ice. The Red Wings started a goalie named Andy Brown, who was one of the last netminders in the NHL to play without a face mask. The opponents were the Minnesota North Stars.

I remember my dad kept telling me – on the way to the game and in our seats – that after pregame warm-ups, and just before the ice was cleared for the Zamboni machine, the players were going to skate around the perimeter of their end really fast. So I watched for that. He was right.

The game started, and Brown was awful. He gave up three goals in the opening minutes, and the boobirds were out. But they were replaced by cheers when coach Johnny Wilson lifted Brown for Roy Edwards, who I wanted to see play anyway. Edwards was one of my favorites.

The Red Wings chipped away at the deficit, and got to within 4-3, though I don’t remember any of their goals, strangely. In fact, most of my memories from that afternoon have nothing to do with the game itself. I remember Brown letting in a soft goal just before being replaced, and I remember the final moments.

The Red Wings pulled their goalie, and the puck squirted into the neutral zone. One of the North Stars players fired it toward the Detroit net, and I can still see, to this day, one of the Red Wings diving head first to stop it. But he was too late, and the puck found the open net. Game over. 5-3 North Stars.

The memories weren’t finished. On the way out of the stadium, in the concourse, there was a commotion. Some sort of a fight. The kind with flailing fists, the whole shot. A woman was consoling a child, saying something about getting “Uncle so-and-so out of there.” I figure the game ended around 2:30 p.m., on a Sunday. But obviously not too early to have consumed a few pops, which I’m sure led to the fracas.

My folks had bought me a commemorative Gordie Howe magazine from a couple years prior that they were still selling at Olympia. And I remember flipping through it as we edged into traffic, trying to find Michigan Avenue.

Oh, and Ted Lindsay and Johnny Wilson? Still around, and co-panelists with me for a hockey Roundtable in the November 2006 issue of MCS Magazine. Budd Lynch? Still the public address announcer for Red Wings games at Joe Louis Arena. The team won’t let him retire. Andy Brown? Not sure, but I shudder. To play goalie without a mask?

I’m pretty sure the pancakes were good, too. They had to be. They were seasoned with bursts of anticipation, which always makes food taste better. Especially for the fourth grade tummy.

Friday, January 19, 2007

2007 Tigers Have Chance At Repeating Ancient History

The years roll off the tongue, when it comes to talking about Tigers baseball.

1968. Thrilling, come-from-behind victories. A hero every night. McLain and his 31 victories. A stunning comeback from a 1-3 hole in the World Series.

1972. Good pitch, no hit bunch who captured an improbable AL East flag on the season's final weekend, beating Boston in Detroit. A heartbreaking, 3-2 series loss to the A's in the ALCS.

1984. 35-5. Wire-to-wire lead. Willie Hernandez's unconscious season. Gibby's blast off Gossage to cap a 7-1 postseason. World champs again!

1987. An 11-19 start doesn't portend what is perhaps the most thrilling final week of baseball we'll ever see. A 3-1/2 game deficit with eight days to go. Then the Blue Jays go in the tank, and the Tigers win the division on the final day, behind Frank Tanana's crooked, creaky arm that manages a 1-0 win over Toronto. Then, a flameout in the ALCS -- probably because the team was emotionally spent.

These years are treasured by baseball fans in Detroit. And you can certainly now add 2006 to that list.

But how does the following sound? The '69 Tigers. The Tigers of '73. The '85 Bengals. Those Tigers of 1988.

Not so magical.

The Tigers, 2007 version, have a chance to do something that hasn't been done since, well, 1935. And that is to win consecutive American League pennants. It's also the last time the Tigers qualified for the postseason in two straight seasons.

The winter caravan winds down today -- that bus full of Tigers players, coaches, and media interlopers -- and the reception at every stop for the two separate buses has been, as expected, quite audacious. The fans are still inebriated from last season's success, and they're treating their baseball heroes like ... heroes.

It wasn't always that way, of course. Even last year, despite the hiring of Jim Leyland as manager, skepticism reigned. Hope may have peeked out, like the groundhog on February 2nd, but instead of seeing his shadow and thus predicting more cold, dark winter, there was the feeling of a thaw perhaps happening.

"We won't cheat you," Leyland told one of the crowds yesterday. "We'll put on a show when you spend your hard earned money."

That, too, is different talk.

But this time the skipper has something with which to back up his words. He has a fine, talented team -- a nice blend of youth and experience. Heck, even the youth is experienced. And playoff-tested. He has all those young pitchers, plus the veteran Kenny Rogers. He has a brand new big bat -- the sometimes enigmatic Gary Sheffield. And he has more players coming, courtesy the suddenly prosperous farm system.

He has all these things, and more. The tools are in place for another playoff run.

But they were in place in 1969, when the Tigers returned just about everyone, including the ostentatious McLain, and finished 19 games behind the Orioles.

The Tigers of '73, another year older and with no young help on the way, kept things interesting until mid-August, when manager Billy Martin did his usual implosion and got the ziggy. The team limped home in third place.

The 1985 bunch, like their predecessors sixteen years earlier, pretty much returned the main cast of characters from the previous year's championship roster. But there was no magic, and the Tigers finished a distant 15 games behind the Blue Jays.

The 1988 Tigers, sans Kirk Gibson, who fled to Los Angeles, were actually part of a multi-team race that nobody seemed to want. But a late season swoon hurt them, and they finished a game behind the Red Sox.

So not since the 1934-35 Tigers has a Detroit baseball team done the back-to-back postseason shimmy.

It should be pointed out that the '34 team lost the World Series, too. To the Cardinals, too.

The 1935 team beat the Cubs in the World Series.

Will history repeat, some 72 years later?

Well, the Cubs were active this offseason ...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Stop The Groin Jokes: Hasek Playing At Playoff Level

Terry Sawchuk, perhaps the greatest goaltender in NHL history, was actually, believe it or not, somewhat of a journeyman. Besides the Red Wings, Sawchuk played for Toronto, Los Angeles, and the New York Rangers. He did three different stints in Detroit.

Dominik Hasek is on stint #3 with the Red Wings, tying the famed Sawchuk and little Jimmy Rutherford for most different appearances on a Detroit roster by a goaltender. It can also be said that Hasek, lately, has been a journeyman, but in a different way. A retirement and a lockout separated him from the Red Wings, and in the middle of all that there was some time as an Ottawa Senator.

Some chuckled when Red Wings GM Ken Holland signed Hasek, who'll turn 42 before the end of this month, to a contract last summer. It was after the team's courtship of Eddie Belfour fell through.

And thank goodness for that.

Hasek is in postseason form; is he peaking too early?

Hasek, who just recorded his sixth shutout of the season Monday night against Montreal, is playing at a level that is playoff-ready. Until a hiccup against San Jose recently, his GAA was well under 2.00. Even now, it still leads the league at just a tad over that mark. He was a blatant All-Star snub.

The Wings, when they signed him, gave Hasek an incentive-laden contract. The salary was obscenely low, and the team protected itself, mindful of The Dominator's funny groin, which has gone "pop" at the most inopportune of times in the past.

Now Hasek plays at the highest level, and the Red Wings have the best bargain in the league tending goal for them.

The night the Red Wings retired Steve Yzerman's #19, I spent some time in the alumni suite. I asked Steve Duchesne, who won a Cup with Hasek in 2002 in Detroit as a defenseman, what he thought of Hasek's play.

"Is he playing as well," I asked, as when you guys won the Cup in 2002?"

Duchesne looked at the action on the ice below and paused for a moment.

"He could be," he finally said, before adding, "but he tends to break down."

The label, once applied, is almost impossible to remove. Sort of like a tattoo. And Dom Hasek wears the label/tattoo of "injury-prone", like it or not, as sure as the back of a t-shirt.

The groin went pop in 2003, when Hasek came back to the Red Wings after a one year's retirement. He was finished, around the new year. It went pop again last winter, after the Olympics. It finished his Senators career on a sour note.

So when the Red Wings inked Hasek after failing to sign the far less worthy Belfour, the groin jokesters were out in full force. They've been quieted now, but probably only temporarily. They won't truly be silenced until Hasek makes it through a full NHL schedule, plus playoffs.

For what it's worth, Hasek told the Versus Network after Monday's win that he feels great, and that the care he took for his body in the summertime is paying off.

"I know I can play at the highest level if I stay healthy," Hasek said.

Cue the jokes about the word "if."

But stop with the groin cracks -- at least for the moment.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Flip Saunders: 47 Games, Plus Playoffs, To Save His Job

When Chuck Daly coached the Pistons, he likened the job to managing twelve different corporations. He understood that there was a time to push, a time to pull back, and a time to simply let the players police themselves. It didn't hurt that he had several deputies on the roster, like Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, to enforce the Pistons man law.

Flip Saunders, perhaps, doesn't have the same deft hand as Chuck Daly did. But then again, not too many did when Daddy Rich was in his heyday. Certainly never in Detroit, and certainly not since Joe Dumars began hiring coaches and firing them, right on schedule, every two years.

Chemistry is the word, and it is perhaps the most overused, ultimately meaningless group of vowels and consonants in the entire lexicon of sport. And it has popped up in Pistons Land. Tayshaun Prince was the user of it last week.

The chemistry, Prince -- the usually quiet-as-a-mouse Piston -- said, is unbalanced. Can't put his finger on it, but maybe not enough of this, or perhaps too much of that. Maybe not enough respect for the coach, and his system. Maybe too much complacency, again. Something.

Others disagreed with Prince's assessment, uttered before two ridiculous losses to the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks, which join several other ridiculous losses this season. Lindsey Hunter, the most veteran Piston in terms of years of service, shrugged off the analysis of Prince as much ado about nothing. Cynics would say that even disagreements about whether there are chemistry issues to begin with is, by itself, a sign of discord.

Rip Hamilton has been awfully cranky, on the floor. But it makes one wonder if there is an edge off the floor, as well. Meanwhile, though, Hamilton scores relentlessly, through wins and losses. He is beginning to rack up technical fouls at a rate usually reserved for ...

Rasheed Wallace, who has begun to complain sublimely about "things".

"Just life, man. Life and basketball. Life is bigger than basketball. But just things that I'd rather not talk about," Wallace said last week, talking to the reporters who asked him, basically, "Wassup?" It was after Sheed admitted to not being a happy camper.

Chauncey Billups, as you know, can leave the team this summer -- vanish into the night -- via free agency. But Denver, a supposed Billups destination, is probably out of the mix now that they've acquired Allen Iverson. Still, whenever a prized player can leave, it's cause for concern. Read: Ben Wallace.

Nazr Mohammed is a square peg in a round hole, and is clearly confused and frustrated. Flip Murray wonders whether Detroit was a smart choice, and, frankly, vice versa. Others have appeared mystified by their ever-changing roles.

A month or so ago, I wrote in this space that Saunders must have that secure feeling, because he employs two former NBA head coaches on his staff: Terry Porter and Dave Cowens. And that may still be true. But navigating an NBA team through the waters of a sometimes meaningless 82-game regular season takes a special type of captain. But, as Daly so astutely realized, you need capable crewmen to keep everyone in line.

There are question marks, in 16-point font, about whether the Pistons have the cohesiveness that's necessary to win big in the playoffs. There still seems to be, among my fellow media members, the feeling that Flip Saunders will be another in the ever-growing list of short-timers who've served as Pistons coach under Dumars' watch, joining George Irvine, Rick Carlisle, and Larry Brown. The signs seem to point that way, I admit. Early playoff failure this spring might be the last straw.

Now the Pistons are set to bring Chris Webber into the mix, and maybe that'll be some sort of salve. But minutes will be reduced for key players, like perhaps Wallace, or Mohammed, or Antonio McDyess. And reducing players' minutes has never been a recipe for NBA harmony.

Saunders, it says here, has exactly 47 more regular season games, and however many playoff contests the Pistons participate in, to make a case for returning as coach in 2007-08. He works for a man who has a fetish for canning coaches on schedule, don't you know.

Even the alchemist that was Chuck Daly was rumored to be run out of town, before the championship years. Certain players wore scowls on their pusses, and the ever-important chemistry was in danger. One of the sour pusses was worn by Kelly Tripucka, and he was traded, for Adrian Dantley, no less. Proof that you just might do anything to get rid of the unhappy basketball camper.

Joe Dumars hasn't been one, though, to get rid of players to save his coach. So there you have it: 47 games, plus playoffs. Flip Saunders, whether you choose to believe it or not, is on the clock.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Steelers' Coaching Consistency Defies The Odds

Think about this for a moment: The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers had to go searching for a new head coach, the Internet wasn’t around. The time before that, man hadn’t been on the moon.

It’s true.

The Steelers today are on a coaching hunt, and you’ll forgive them if they’ve hired a consulting firm to reacquaint them with the process. Like, for example, forget looking for resumes with watermarks, or telephone numbers that actually ring inside someone’s home. And not to be alarmed if there is no employment history dated before 1992.

It’s an unusual position the Steelers are in – for them – to be searching for a new head football coach, but there is that necessity now that Bill Cowher has stepped down after 15 years on the job (1992-2006). Before Cowher, someone named Chuck Noll prowled the Steelers sidelines – and for 23 years (1969-1991). That’s two coaches in 38 years, folks. The Supreme Court has more turnover. Much more, in fact.

Two in 38: Noll (top) and Cowher are the only Steelers
head coaches since 1969

Cowher is a Pittsburgh kid, through and through, and his jut jaw would make Scotty Bowman envious. Noll, to give you an idea, played football in the 1940’s, and he was just two coaches ago.
In Detroit, we boast of consistency at the placekicker position: the Lions have employed but two there for more than one game (Eddie Murray, 1980-1991; Jason Hanson, 1992-present).
Terrific. That and a dime will get you a cup of coffee, but that and millions of dollars has reaped nothing more than a single playoff victory. And none since Hanson’s arrival.

Both the Steelers and the Lions are family-run businesses, and both in blue-collar towns. The Rooneys have controlled the Steelers since their inception in the NFL back in the 1930’s, and Bill Ford Sr. wrangled sole ownership away from the consortium of over 100 shareholders back in 1964. Yet the Steelers are a model NFL franchise, while the Lions are a cautionary tale.

So the Rooney family has a Super Bowl ring for each finger and their thumb, while Bill Ford Sr. and Jr. have never come close to even a pinky ring. Mostly, the only finger associated with their franchise has been the middle one.

But hold on. The Steelers weren’t always winners under the Rooney name. In fact, for a very long time, they were very bad. The dregs of the league. Laughing stocks. Perennial losers. All that, they were.

But then Art Rooney stumbled upon Noll, an old messenger guard for Paul Brown in Cleveland. He hired Noll in early 1969, months before Neil Armstrong took his small step and giant leap on that big piece of cheese in space. Noll won his first game in 1969 – against the Lions, natch – and proceeded to lose the next thirteen. That landed a top draft pick, which Noll used to select QB Terry Bradshaw from Louisiana Tech, in 1970.

Yet Bradshaw, a Hall of Famer, was awful when he entered the NFL. In his rookie year, he threw 24 interceptions in 216 attempts – a pick for every nine passes. The fans in Pittsburgh called him names and hung him in effigy. People even thought he was too dumb to be a useful NFL quarterback. Sort of what they said about him when he entered broadcasting, though I’ve never considered that business populated by Rhodes Scholars.

The point is, the Steelers struggled to find their mojo. Big time. So when they hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl winners for the first time, after the 1974 season, over 40 years of failure and being a league joke vanished. And, to be sure that it never returned, Chuck Noll’s teams went out and won three more in the next five seasons. They’re otherwise known as the Team of the ‘70’s.

The Lions are the Team of the 70’s, too. As in, 72 losses in their last six seasons. As in, the last decade in which their head coach compiled an overall winning record. But I digress.

The Rooneys didn’t get their act together until they hired Chuck Noll, who’d never been a head football coach. He won four Super Bowls. Then the torch was passed to Cowher, who’d never been a head football coach. He went to two Super Bowls, and won one. Along the way there were many divisional titles and playoff victories.

So the Rooney family has a Super Bowl ring for each finger and their thumb, while Bill Ford Sr. and Jr. have never come close to even a pinky ring. Mostly, the only finger associated with their franchise has been the middle one.

The Lions have Rod Marinelli as their coach, who’d never been a head football coach. But if that’s all you needed to have in common with Noll and Cowher to succeed, we’d see statues of Tommy Hudspeth and Marty Mornhinweg outside Ford Field. So obviously it takes more than that. But it’s worth stating that you can find a diamond in the rough, and it can lead you to studded rings.

The Rooneys didn’t find their football god until they’d owned the team for nearly 40 years. The Ford ownership passed the 40-year mark a couple of seasons ago. So there’s still hope.

There has been some scuttlebutt, probably started by a bottom feeder like a blogger or sports columnist (or magazine editor), that Bill Cowher is merely taking a year off, to reenergize himself, before plunging back into the shark-infested waters of NFL head coach. The scuttlebutt goes on to say that the Lions might be one of the teams interested in him when he decides to take that plunge. And that there might be mutual interest.

Hey, if you’re going to jump back in with the sharks, may as well do it in the most densely populated body of shark water of them all.

Another way to use the word “dense” when referring to the Lions.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Webber Thing Has Been Done Before, And Mostly Without Success

Derrick Coleman tried it with the Pistons, but he was too old, too decrepit, too out of shape to make it work. The Tigers took a flyer on Alex Johnson, but he was too old, too decrepit, and too crazy to make it work. The Red Wings and Jimmy Carson tried to make a go of it, but the pressure was too much and Carson flamed out, falling far below expectations. Wearing Alex Delvecchio's #10 didn't help. The Lions brought DB Todd Lyght home, but he was another of those too old, too decrepit guys.

Now the Pistons appear to be on the verge of wedding Chris Webber in another of those "let's bring the hometown kid home" things.

The above dudes, all (at least metro) Detroit-born and bred, eventually meandered their way back to Motown, presumably seduced by the idea of slipping on the pro jersey of the team they grew up watching. With the exception of Carson, though, they were all long in the tooth, and didn't have much left in the tank.

Webber, at age 33, is in danger of being one of those players low on fuel. Yet he says he feels great after some surgeries on his legs, and why wouldn't he say that, when he's trying to attract suitors?

The Detroit Country Day product is an unrestricted free agent, and rumors are hot that he will land in Auburn Hills, becoming a Piston some 13 years after entering the league from the University of Michigan.

It may be harsh to say, but you can make a case that Webber is, at this stage, nothing more than a talented journeyman. But a journeyman nonetheless. Golden State, Washington, Sacramento, and Philadelphia have employed him. Now one more team will be added to the Employment History portion of his resume.

As soon as I heard the news that the 76'ers had bought out Webber's contract, I said without hesitation, "I bet he becomes a Piston."

This is the type of move that Pistons President Joe Dumars revels in -- the signing of a popular player who won't cost the team an arm and a leg. The risk of disturbing team chemistry, those ancient and overused words. But a possible upside that is too intriguing to pass up, especially at what will almost sure to be bargain basement pricing, in NBA terms.

Webber says his wish list includes Detroit, Miami, Dallas, and the Lakers. The usual suspects. Wouldn't that be the wish list of 80% of the players who don't play for those teams? But the deep throats in the league say he is leaning toward Detroit. His hometown. Another player past his prime who would like to experience the aura of playing for the team he watched on TV as a child.

Oh, I should mention that this scenario actually played out for the good, back in the day. The Tigers acquired pitcher Frank Tanana in 1985, bringing the Catholic Central grad home. And Tanana, despite being over 30 years of age, helped the Tigers win the AL East in 1987.

But there have been far more busts than jackpots, when the hometown kid returns as the vagabond pro.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sheed's Tardiness Breaks Season's Monotony

The NBA, probably more so than any of the other three major team sports, is a tonic-filled league.

Feeling down, Bunky? Losing a few games? Take some Philly. Maybe a teaspoon of Atlanta. I heard some Charlotte mixed in with your orange juice could work wonders.

It's a league of dregs, really. No real middle class. The Haves and the Have Nots.

The Pistons were a little wobbly going into Philadelphia last night, losers of four of their past five games. They're playing without starting point guard Chauncey Billups. Tayshaun Prince was quoted as saying team chemistry was off kilter. Others denied it, but there you are.

And Rasheed Wallace was late for practice.

Coach Flip Saunders held Sheed out of the starting lineup against the Have Not Sixers, presumably as some sort of disciplinary measure for being late Monday.

Coming off the bench, Wallace played about 30 minutes, scoring eight points and snaring six rebounds.

"I'm straight," Wallace said afterward. "I might even ask him (Saunders) to do it tomorrow. Maybe that's one of the things that we need, just try something different."


Even Saunders admitted in his postgame comments that he liked the way the team played with Wallace coming off the bench. Jason Maxiell started.

The Wallace "benching" is a non-issue. The reality is that the Pistons are in the middle of a glorious part of their schedule, where they play Charlotte (9-23), Atlanta (10-22), Boston (12-21), and Minnesota twice (17-15).

NBA Tonic.

That's how you do it in pro basketball. Wipe the floor with the Have Nots, and try to break even with the Haves. I'm telling you, a team could chalk up 50 wins easily if they follow that recipe. Especially in the Leastern Conference, where the Have Nots mostly reside. Nine of the conference's 15 teams are playing below .500 ball, and four of those are under .400. Two are even below .300.

The cure for what ails ya.

It's the time of the season -- the frigid cold of January, the playoffs months away -- to exercise in experiments such as Rasheed Wallace off the bench. The players are bored. And what better time to tweak, with the Have Nots dotting the schedule over the next couple of weeks?

But circle next Wednesday, the 17th, on your basketball calendar. The Pistons host the Utah Jazz that evening. A real life Have. A Western Conference team, natch.

Even the defending league champs, the Miami Heat, are a Have Not, currently. The curse of the East.

All will be right again with the Pistons after they take their generous dose of league tonic this week and next.

Then they'll be ready for Sheed to be late again. Maybe he should come off the bench against some Haves. It's still January, after all. Experiment time.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Overwhelming Rejection Of McGwire Stunning

There is no such thing, really, as "qualifying" for a Hall of Fame, in any sport. It's a misnomer, so don't let anyone use that word -- "qualifying" -- without challenge.

You can get elected into a Hall. You can be admitted. You can be enshrined. You can even be allowed.

But you cannot qualify.

There is no qualification, because there is no threshold -- no minimum accomplishments to achieve that mean automatic inclusion.

This has never been more true than today, when voters who cast the ballots for Baseball's Hall of Fame so overwhelmingly rejected the, ahem, "qualifications" of a man with 583 career homeruns, its effect should reverberate for years.

Mark McGwire is not a Hall of Famer today. Not even close. Only 23.5% of 545 ballots tabulated had his name on it. Seventy-five percent is needed to be elected, so he came over 50% shy of what was necessary to order his bronzed plaque in Cooperstown.

Normally, a ballplayer with almost 600 homeruns would cruise to election. He would be in the same percentile range as Cal Ripken, Jr. (98.5), and Tony Gwynn (97.6), both of whom were elected today. We would be talking about the dodos who left him off their ballots, rather than what we ARE talking about, which is how much this rejection is directly tied to the cloud of suspicion of steroid use that hovers around McGwire like that ball of dirt Pigpen from Peanuts comic strip fame walks among.

Cheater! Fraud! Lab experiment!


All those, and more, will be used to justify the dismissal of McGwire's Hall eligibility like so much lint off a coat. He got what he deserved, it will be said, written, and otherwise argued. We don't let cheaters into the Hall of Fame!

Yet Gaylord Perry is enshrined. And so overt was Perry's admission of doctoring baseballs, done with a wink and a smile, that doubtless some voters chuckled in recollection of his exploits as they filled in his name.

There are others, too, whose likeness resides in the Hall, who engaged in various other shenanigans, like sign-stealing, more baseball doctoring, and magic with the insides of their baseball bats.

Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.

But McGwire's transgressions -- unproven, mind you -- are considered to be so heinous that not even one-quarter of the voters felt obligated to grant him induction, despite his 583 homeruns.

No liars. No cheaters.

Not this time, anyway.

Mark McGwire is not a Hall of Famer, not today. Not even close.

Barry Bonds, beware.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Schmidt Told Ford, Lions Where They Could Stick Their Edsel

There they sat, the two Lions football greats – one still playing, the other out of pads but still on the sidelines every Sunday. And they spoke at a watering hole, tossing down beverages of their choice.

“I can’t take it anymore,” the retired player, by now the team’s coach, said to the player/drinking partner, in so many words. “They’re killing me. Sometimes I don’t know what they want from me.”

More drinking, and more words of frustration and anger were spewed by the coach. It was a moment from a long-ago era. Can you imagine Bill Parcells complaining about Jerry Jones to a player? And over a beer?

The player listened to the coach and thought for a moment.

“Well, then, why don’t you quit?,” he asked the coach, who was once his teammate on some of the greatest football defenses ever seen in Detroit.

The coach looked the player square in the eye.

“That’s the stupidest ---damn piece of advice I’ve ever gotten!,” the coach bellowed before taking another swig of beverage.

This was the scene, according to former Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras, as described in his book, Even Big Guys Cry. He was drinking some pops with coach Joe Schmidt, circa the late 1960’s. Schmidt was in the midst of his six-year run as head coach.

Little did anyone know that those six seasons would be looked at now, some 34 years after they ended, as the salad days of Lions football – post-championship years of the 1950’s.

Schmidt giving it to the Packers in his inimitable way

Schmidt was, in some folks’ eyes, the greatest Lion ever, as a player. The oft-credited inventor of the middle linebacker position. A Pittsburgh kid who fit in nicely in the shot-and-beer town of Detroit, where he played from 1953 to 1965. Where he won some championships, and knocked on the door of a few others. And he appears to be, as history grows kinder and kinder to him, one of the franchise’s greatest coaches ever, too.

The latter honor is bestowed accidentally, but there are always the numbers.

Schmidt coached the Lions from 1967 to 1972, supplanting Harry Gilmer, whose feeble two-year run ended with fans in Tiger Stadium throwing snowballs at his cowboy hat-attired head as the team ran off the field following a season-ending loss.

In those six seasons, Schmidt’s record was 43-34-7, plus a playoff loss following the 1970 season. In his last four seasons, Schmidt went 34-19-3. If a Lions coach accumulated such a record nowadays, the mayor’s residence would await him. Maybe even the governor’s mansion.

He didn’t quit that time, as described above, sitting and sharing some drinks with Karras, his old teammate. Something caused Schmidt to stick it out. But in January, 1973, Joe Schmidt told the Lions to take their job and shove it. Right around this time of the month, in fact.

General managers of our teams have been one of two types, it seems. The wildly successful, walk-on-water guys whose every move sails through unquestioned by even the scalawags talking into cell phones in their cars to the sports talk radio stations. Or, they are the objects of disdain, disgust, and contempt. No in-between.

Russ Thomas was the latter type. Oldtimers like me can’t help but chuckle during this current era of disdain, disgust, and contempt with Lions president and de facto GM Matt Millen, for we never thought another Lions executive could turn a town off like Russ Thomas turned everyone off during his decades-long run as Lions GM. But we were wrong.

Thomas was cheap. He was stubborn. He didn’t get along with coaches. He was abhorred by players. And his teams rarely were anything more than a plodding, .500 ballclub. Yet he was in the good graces of owner Bill Ford Sr., and thus was able to retire and leave the team on his own accord, after the 1989 season.

Sound ghoulishly familiar, at least some of it?

Schmidt was stubborn, too, and a damn good football coach. The records during the seasons from 1969 to 1972 were, as follows: 9-4-1; 10-4; 7-6-1; and 8-5-1. So it’s reasonable to assume he had a firmly-planted cleat as Lions coach.

But Schmidt couldn’t abide Thomas, and it’s presumed that he was one of the “they” Schmidt was complaining about to Karras that night over drinks.

After the ’72 season, Schmidt believed the team needed A,B, and C. Thomas must have thought they needed D, E, and F, because the two were butting heads. Schmidt took his beefs to Ford, and basically issued an ultimatum, according to those who might have known: Me, or him (Thomas).

Ford opted for him.

Ziggy is the word, and Joe Schmidt is credited with coining it. It means a coach got fired. And it’s distinctly a Detroit word.

So the apparent loser of an internal power struggle, Schmidt committed a self-ziggy. He quit the Lions, shiny record and all, and got out of football entirely.

You know the rest, for the most part.

It is Schmidt, along with – gasp! – Wayne Fontes who rank #2 and #1, respectively, in career coaching wins accumulated after 1964, when Ford bought out the consortium of over 100 partners and became sole owner. But it is only Schmidt who is the possessor of a winning record, of anyone who wasn’t an interim coach, in that time.

Had Ford somehow been able to broker an arrangement back in 1973 that would have enabled Schmidt to remain as coach of the team, I believe he – Schmidt – would have been coach here well into the 1970’s, at least. And I think winning football would have been the order of the day.

Today the Lions have Rod Marinelli, and I still am among those who believe he can be the right guy, if provided with the proper talent. In Schmidt’s six seasons as Lions coach, the team won 43 games. In Millen’s six seasons as de facto GM, the team has won 24 games. But Millen is in no power struggle with his head coach. And even if he were, it would be wiped out by his close bond with Ford.

Just like Russ Thomas’ close bond with Ford, the strength of which led to the departure of the greatest Lions coach since the Kennedy administration.

We just didn’t know it at the time.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Chelios' Return To Red Wings Completely Unimportant Right Now

I don't know when Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios is going to be back in the lineup, and frankly I don't care. The horrific events that occurred at his Cheli's Chili Bar Tuesday morning, the details of which are even worse than I imagined, render the question of his return to game play absolutely moot.

Employees Mark Barnard and Megan Soroka were brutally stabbed to death Tuesday morning by, police allege, a 17-year-old fired employee, Justin Blackshear, who had gone to the restaurant asking for his job back. Blackshear has an 18-year-old pregnant girlfriend, who herself was also fired from Cheli's.

According to police reports, Blackshear got into a fight with cook Barnard, stabbed him ten times, then lured Soroka to the scene, where he then stabbed her multiple times.

Soroka, it was revealed in the reports, had been speaking with Chelios via telephone just minutes before she was killed. She reportedly told her boss that Barnard was in a fight, and that she was going to "check on him."

So Chris Chelios was the last person to speak to Soroka before she was murdered.

Hockey is hardly important this morning to him, and for who knows how many more mornings going forward.

We at Motor City Sports Magazine sat on pins and needles all day Tuesday, because the IDs of the victims weren't released, and we know one of the female managers at Cheli's. Was she the one who was killed? It wasn't a very pleasant afternoon.

But the fact that Soroka was not our contact did not make this crime any less tragic, of course.

The week has been unkind in the world of sports. Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was slain in a drive-by shooting last Sunday.

Understandably, Red Wings management is giving Chelios however much time he needs before he chooses to rejoin the team. Currently he's helping police in their investigation.

Mark Barnard was 52. Megan Soroka was 49.

It's safe to say that Detroit doesn't exactly feel like Hockeytown to Chris Chelios right now. But in time it will again, most likely. The ice and pucks will someday be a welcome elixir for the 22-year NHL veteran.

There is a life to still lead, after all -- even if it's a drastically changed one.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Saban's Lies Pre-Dated By Rogers' Whoppers

The denials came, fervent and repeated. The college coach wanted the ink stained wretches and TV talking heads to know that he was no way, no how, leaving his current position to take another, at a university in the southwest. Then one day, just 24 hours after the last denial, the news was broken: college coach was leaving, to that opportunity in the desert.

A few years later, the same college coach, tanned now but perhaps restless again, issued more of the same denials. And the same boobs that report such things bought it again, though there were some more skeptics than before.

NO! I am NOT leaving the desert to enter the NFL as a head coach.

The denials were being spewed, right up until the time the press conference was being announced that the NFL team had found its new coach. Then the denying coach hopped a plane and went from the heat of the desert to the cold of a Michigan winter.

This was Darryl Rogers, back in the 1980's. First he said he wasn't leaving MSU for Arizona State. Then he did anyway. Next, he said he wasn't leaving Arizona State for the Detroit Lions. Then he did anyway. In neither case did our teams come out ahead on the deal.

I couldn't help but think of Rogers and his false denials -- the second of which was uttered even as the presser was being arranged to announce his hiring by the Lions -- as the latest Nick Saban drama played out.

Saban explains himself to Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga

Here I thought we'd heard the last of Saban rumors for awhile when he accepted the job as Miami Dolphins head coach, before the 2005 season. Well, hoped was more like it.

Saban is a fine coach, but I'm tired of him. Tired of him being rumored for every stinking NFL job when he was in college. Tired of him being rumored, once he left for the NFL, for every stinking college job. Football's Larry Brown.

Now he's gone again, off to Alabama, despite those same indignant, repeated denials -- similar to those issued by Rogers (who wasn't near the coach that Saban is) -- uttered, once again, almost right up to the moment he penned his signature on the Crimson Tide contract.

Nick Saban, like Darryl Rogers 20+ years before him, lied. To everyone. Forget the media, because who doesn't lie to us? He lied to his players, his owner, and who knows who else. He signed an eight-year contract, but what does that matter, really? Saban had three years left on his Dolphins contract, after all. So how long before Saban is, once again, bantied about as being the perfect choice for another NFL team?

I'm already bracing myself.

Maybe Saban left the Dolphins because he feels that, deep down, he's a college coach, not an NFL coach. Fine. But he didn't even feed us the standard non-denial/denial, which if he had, wouldn't make him look like such the false prophet that he appears to be this morning.

No, I'm not leaving! No way! No how!

Until I sign my next contract, at the next locale, that is.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Some People Never Change, And That's Good In Yzerman's Case

Some people never change, appearance-wise. You know the type. Forever young, maybe a few pounds heavier. But you'd still recognize them upon first look. These people are blessed with good stock.

Then there are the people who never change, inside. Life's experiences never seem to change their countenance. Of course, this could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the person.

In Steve Yzerman's case, it's a good thing. A very good thing.

Listening to Yzerman speak last night at his jersey retirement ceremony, as I was tucked away near the Zamboni entrance (doing some freelance work for Fox Sports Detroit), and hearing him give everyone credit except himself for his amazing career, I realized he was basically the same person, at age 41, as he was at age 18, when I first encountered him.

It's a story I've often told, but here it goes again. October, 1983. I'm working as a cub reporter for The Michigan Daily (U-M's student newspaper), and the assignment is a Red Wings game, opponent long forgotten. And irrelevant. For the story, to me, isn't the game, but the scene afterward, in the lockerroom.

The Wings have won this one, and the cameras and microphones and notepads are surrounding the established veterans: John Ogrodnick; Brad Park; Ron Duguay. I'm crowded around them, too, being jabbed away by the brutish camera operators. Standing behind me, dressing quietly by himself, is this teenager who looked more in place in a high school dressing room than that of the NHL.

I asked him a few questions. His answers, I don't recall. But I remember clear as day how they sounded: quiet, barely audible in the din of the lockerroom. He seemed almost ready to blush, that I was speaking to him, when there were grizzled veterans in the same room.

Today, there's been little change.

It happened again last night. Fetching Yzerman for a post-ceremony interview on FSD, he shook my hand and accorded me nothing less than cooperative courtesy. When I tracked him down in late October at the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame dinner, he was the same way.

"I got a kick out of Jimmy Devellano saying, 'We think he can contribute,' during that video," I said to Yzerman, referencing Jimmy D's induction video, when he was describing the drafting of #19 in June, 1983.

"Well," Yzerman said, with that shy grin, "we really didn't know back then, did we?"

Perhaps not. But we know now. Oh, how we know.


During the game, I sat in the suite occupied by Red Wings alumni, along with coaches Scotty Bowman, Jacques Demers, and Dave Lewis. The three of them sat, along with Ted Lindsay, beside me as we watched the game below.

Listening to these guys talk hockey, past and present, as the players of today skated, was wonderfully surreal. Bowman and Demers gabbed for a while, Jacques his usual animated self. Lindsay watched the game intently, as if he was an opposing GM scouting players for possible trades.

Sometime during the second period, I started in on Larry Murphy.

"How badly did you want out of Toronto?," I asked Murphy, who was acquired from the Maple Leafs by the Red Wings at the trade deadline in 1997. Toronto fans took to booing Murphy relentlessly near the end of his career as a Leaf.

"Well, it's all about winning," Murphy said.

Did the booing and catcalls bother him?

"Naah. Not at all."

"They booed you in Toronto for years afterward," I said. "Get over it!"

Murphy laughed and agreed.

I asked Steve Duchesne, a 2002 Cup winner in Detroit, about goalie Dominik Hasek.

"Is he playing as well," I asked, "as when you won the Cup with him in '02?"

"Maybe," Duchesne said. "But he gets hurt a lot. Sometimes he breaks down."


Lindsay finally looked up from his intense viewing and spoke at one point.

"It's a skater's game," Terrible Ted said, to no one in particular.

True again. Not that Ted was much of one. He played with a brute force that is often missed in today's game. But I think he'd like to get on the ice and show the kids a thing or two.


I really enjoyed one particular moment last night.

In the suite was longtime Red Wings team physician Dr. John Finley. I remembered a quote about Dr. Finley from Gordie Howe, and I recounted it to the doc to his glee.

"Someone once asked Howe, 'Who has the hardest shot in the league? Gordie said, "Dr. Finley."'"

Dr. Finley remembered the quote, as I suspected he had. But he was no less happy to hear it again.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Memo To Lloyd Carr: Call Jim Harkema

He took his group of college football kids out west, to that scene of usual horrors, in that goofy, flaky state called California. Another Michigan school figured to get the stuffing beat out of it by a hometown Golden State institution of higher learning.

There was nothing, really, that suggested a victory for the Washtenaw County-based university. But maybe they could go out there and give their opponents, who once again held home field advantage of sorts, a tussle and make their faithful back home somewhat proud.

They did. And more.

Eastern Michigan University – the Hurons back then, before they bowed to the PCers and became the Eagles – was hardly a bastien of good football. They still aren’t, truthfully. Maybe they will never be.

But in 1987, perhaps sprinkled with some sort of magic pixie dust, the Hurons, coached by the no-nonsense Jim Harkema, captured the Mid-American Conference (MAC) title and thus qualified for the old California Bowl, played in Fresno. Sometimes they called it the California Raisin Bowl. No joke.

So Harkema took his kids westward, marching them into an expected tail-whipping, if you listened to the sure-fire experts – the ones who bothered to even pay the California Bowl any attention to begin with.

The opposing school was San Jose State, and they were hotshot. They had a firewagon brand of offense. And they had the prerequisite of any team playing a school from Michigan in a bowl located in California: they were from California themselves.

It was the curse of the Rose Bowl that for years taunted the University of Michigan Wolverines: playing, essentially, a road game in the postseason. The Wolves would traipse onto the field, led by crusty Bo Schembechler, and across from them would be USC or Stanford, perhaps having ridden their bikes to the stadium.

But the Hurons were even bigger underdogs than any U-M team had been in a Rose Bowl. Their history was part of the reason why.

I was a shaggy student at EMU in the early-to-mid 1980’s, and there were times when it was questionable whether the MAC would even allow my school back into its conference for football. Things were that bad.

“I Survived The Big MAC Attack,” the shirts said, emblazoned on the front, and we wore them with whatever pride you muster when you’ve staved off extinction. The mighty Hurons, when I arrived on campus in 1981, were in the throes of a long losing streak in football that would eventually reach in the low teens. I remember the student body president taking a signed petition to EMU President John W. Porter, calling for the removal of head coach Mike Stock.

Stock stayed – for a little while longer, until early 1982, when he finally got the ziggy. But the losing continued, even after the Great Losing Streak had been snapped. Attendance at Rynearson Stadium for fall Saturdays was somewhere between that of a Rotary Club dinner and an appearance by Michael Richards at the Apollo.

It was right about then that the MAC launched its Attack.

Get those attendance numbers up, the conference decreed, or we won’t let you join in our football games any longer.

So the university pulled out all the stops to get as many fannies into Rynearson seats as they could. It didn’t matter how blatantly overt their efforts were. It didn’t even matter if the attendees paid any attention to the action on the field. It only mattered that they have their ticket stubs removed at the gate, and that the turnstile clicked once more.

They brought in comedian Skip Stephenson to perform after a game against Central Michigan. If you’ve never heard of him, rest easy. Hardly any of the fans had either. There was singer Lynn Anderson, who so badly lip-synced “You Never Promised Me A Rose Garden” that the school paper ran an editorial cartoon the next day of her photo being flushed down a toilet.

They even flew the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders in for a game. Male attendance soared. But the beer-filled, chunky testosterone brutes had their collective hearts sink when the girls appeared on the field. This is because instead of their signature halter tops, mini-skirts and knee-high white cowboy boots, the cheerleaders wore blue sparkly spandex jumpsuits. Too cold out for the signature suits. And no skin, no fun, you see.

While all this sideshow stuff was going on, the team wasn’t getting all that much better. But I went to most of the games, usually to see the Hurons give Northern Illinois or Toledo or CMU a tussle before collapsing into defeat sometime in the fourth quarter. Maybe 5,000 others were in the stadium with me.

Yet somehow, the university met the MAC’s requirement for attendance, and by the enforced deadline. I’d still like to measure the noses of the regents who communicated to the conference that the school had gotten the requisite tushies into the seats. Surely those books are in the fiction section of the university library.

Regardless, the MAC let Eastern stay to play football in its conference, and by the middle part of the 1980’s, the school had hired Harkema as coach. Not long after, the wins started to flow, as opposed to trickle, as before. In 1987, with Taylor kid Ronnie Adams at quarterback and Gary Patton running the ball, the mighty Hurons ticked off wins at an alarming rate. Before anyone knew it, EMU was going to the California Bowl.

Westward, ho!

The game, in December 1987, against San Jose State was a classic. Back and forth point-tallying. SJSU would score, and Adams would chuck a touchdown pass. San Jose would score again, and Patton would rip off a long run. Adams would throw another TD pass.

The Hurons scored late, and won 30-27. In fact, in the 11-year history of the California Bowl, EMU was the only school from the state of Michigan to win the thing. Western and Central each had a shot, and failed. The MAC went 4-7 against the Big West champs in the bowl.

So a school from Michigan flew home from a bowl game in California as winners. It wasn’t, at the time, a common occurrence. It still isn’t.

U-M coach Lloyd Carr might want to seek out Jim Harkema and ask him how it’s done, before he takes his Wolverines into Pasadena to take on USC.

Anyone who can survive a Big MAC Attack ought to know a thing or two, I reckon.