Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Coaching On The Cheap: The Lions Are Still Doing It

All of our recent World Champions -- and by recent I mean starting with the 1984 Tigers -- tried the same tack, and all failed miserably doing it.

It was called coaching on the cheap.

The prevailing wisdom, with the Tigers, Red Wings, and Pistons, was that an assistant, or a prime time wannabe, would be a suitable choice to be the coach, or the manager. Mostly, they had one and only one thing going for them: convenience.

The Pistons, when they were still slapstick in the 1960s, constantly promoted assistants to take their turn with the silver whistle and clipboard. They had names like Donnis Butcher and Paul Seymour and Red Rocha. And each would do their thing for a year or so, and then vanished into the NBA night, never to be heard from again. The trend continued thru the 1970s, though it got a little better, with Coach of the Year Ray Scott interrupting the madness for a few years.

The Red Wings were experts at getting coaching on the cheap. When the team was constantly stumbling through the NHL schedule in the '70s and early-1980s, they turned to assistants or minor leaguers, always with disastrous results. Teddy Garvin, Doug Barkley, and Wayne Maxner were among those who blew in and out of town, with already unimpressive resumes weakened by their time here.

The Tigers, after the departure of Sparky Anderson in 1995, got cheap, mostly. Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish, and Luis Pujols were either convenient or unwanted elsewhere. Phil Garner was duped into thinking the team was going to spend some money. Alan Trammell was convenient, and a reminder of better times.

But times didn't get better for the Pistons until they hired Chuck Daly, and paid him enough money to get him to stay. World titles and annual appearance in the NBA's Final Four became commonplace before long. Then after some down years in the late 1990s, the Pistons eventually hired Larry Brown to nudge them back to the top again. The Red Wings scuffled along, hoping to overachieve every year, until snagging Scotty Bowman and his Hall of Fame background. Stanley Cups soon followed. The Tigers made a splash in 1979 when they hired Anderson, and were champions within five years. Then after their cheapness stage, they landed Jim Leyland last year.

None of these teams found any success until they quit hiring the unknown soldiers and started going after higher profile guys with rich pedigrees.

But there is one team conspicuous from its absence from this group.

The Lions haven't, truthfully, ever gotten away from hiring coaching on the cheap. And I don't mean cheap in terms of strictly dollars and cents. I mean cheap in terms of poverty of pedigree.

Oh, there were the just plain cheap ones, money-wise (Tommy Hudspeth and Rick Forzano come to mind). And there were convenient ones (assistants Wayne Fontes and Gary Moeller). And there were those who were neither, but also not qualified (Darryl Rogers).

The Pistons have their Chuck Daly and Larry Brown. The Red Wings have their Scotty Bowman. The Tigers have their Sparky Anderson and Jim Leyland.

The Lions have none of that, harkening back to the late 1950s, early 1960s.

Don't talk to me about Steve Mariucci, whose background and style were both ill-fits with the team. And don't talk to me about Bobby Ross and his Super Bowl appearance with the Chargers. The list of coaches who've taken their teams to Super Bowls -- and lost -- isn't all that impressive.

Rod Marinelli wouldn't, on first glance, appear to be the Lions' Daly or Bowman or Leyland. His team went 3-13 in his first season. He was a career assistant, and never a coordinator -- supposedly a requirement to be a capable head coach. He might be another example of coaching on the cheap -- again, not in terms of dollars.

Whether Marinelli succeeds or not, the fact remains: the Lions have never made the splash at the coaching position that other NFL teams have made. Never have they brought in a bona fide, high profile, rich-with-winning guy who is capable of turning a franchise around.

They've let a few of those go, though, to other teams.

Don Shula was a bright young assistant, working with the Lions' defensive backs, in the early part of the 1960s. But by the time their head coaching job was open, Shula was starting to make a Hall of Fame name for himself with the Baltimore Colts. Charles "Chuck" Knox cut his football coaching teeth as a Lions assistant in the 1970s, but was shunned by the team after Joe Schmidt resigned in 1973. Knox then went on to great success as leader of first the Rams, then the Seahawks.

Did you know Bill Belichick started as a Lions assistant? Or Jerry Glanville? Or Marty Schottenheimer?

It's true. As Casey Stengel once said, "You can look it up."

Marinelli could be our Knox, or Shula. Maybe he's the assistant that his former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will rue letting leave.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

It's Tuesday, So It Must Be "The Straightaway"

(every Tuesday, "Out of Bounds" will feature "The Straightaway" -- NASCAR commentary from Siddy Hall, who's been following the sport for nearly 15 years)


by Siddy Hall

It’s a good thing for the Detroit Lions that the NFL doesn’t play by NASCAR’s rules. They certainly wouldn’t be securing the second best player in the upcoming April draft. Their best talent, on and off the field, would have fled long ago to better situations. If the NFL were NASCAR, the Detroit Lions would probably be out of business.

Unlike other team sports, NASCAR does not award franchises. So if you can’t motor quickly enough, your team crashes and burns. Lacking some success, the value of a team can be reduced to the resale value of its auto parts and shop equipment.

To survive in NASCAR and be assured of living for at least another year, a team’s car needs to be in the top-35 of the points standings. Teams in the top-35 are guaranteed a slot in the next race. Currently, with two races in the books for the 2007 season, NASCAR is reverting to the 2006 final standings to determine the top-35 guaranteed spots. This is done for the first five races of the year. Then at race six, Martinsville, the 2007 standings are used to determine the guaranteed spots. One slot in the starting grid is also reserved for a former champ, the so-called “Champion’s Provisional.”

The remaining seven car slots for each race are determined by pre-race qualifying. At California this past weekend, fifty-two cars showed up trying to make the show. Sixteen cars were trying to fill the final seven spots. At Daytona, twenty-five cars attempted to fill those same seven starting grid spots. This sort of pressure will lead people to do desperate things.

This is why Michael Waltrip’s race team added jet fuel to its race car at Daytona. Waltrip’s NAPA Auto Parts car did not exist last year. It’s a new race team. They have no points from last year and no top-35 safety net to fall back on for the first five races this year. They have to get in based on speed. Those two lonely qualifying laps, where a simple change in cloud coverage or an air temperature change can help send a team home before the race even begins, is its key to survival.

Waltrip: No safety net led to jet fueling

Former racer and current TV guy, Rusty Wallace, said of Waltrip’s cheating, “What I don’t understand is that this is only qualifying. It’s not that important.” Hey Rusty, that’s easy to say when you always own a Champion’s Provisional.

After the embarrassment of Daytona and a 100-point penalty, Waltrip failed to make the California race. His current point total is sub-zero. This means that when 5 races are completed, he will likely be out of the top-35 cars. His team will continue to sweat and pray while trying to pull a quick two laps at qualifying.

Looking ahead, Michael Waltrip’s goal should be to finish in the top-35 at year’s end – just so they can plan on entering races in early-2008 without sweating. That’s something that his team can build on. If he fails, Waltrip’s team could go out of business.

NASCAR INTEGRITY: NASCAR tooted its own horn quite a bit at Daytona by issuing numerous fines and penalties to protect the “integrity” of the game. During Race # 2 at California, a questionable caution, which arrived with only 23 laps remaining, raises a question about NASCAR’s own integrity to officiate a race.

Prior to the caution, the green flag had been waving for 106 laps, or nearly one-half of the 500-mile event. Defending series champ, Jimmie Johnson, appeared to have a comfortable lead and a trip to Victory Lane looked probable.

NASCAR preferred a more exciting finish. Thus, a caution flag appeared for “debris” on the track. The yellow flag forced pits stops which re-shuffled the cars and helped produce a different outcome as Matt Kenseth won. A perturbed Johnson, who finished third, said afterwards, “NASCAR had one of those debris cautions. Five trucks drove around and they didn’t find a thing.”

ESPN INTEGRITY: The phantom caution for debris also set the stage for a horrific hit suffered by rookie driver, David Reutimann. Greg Biffle nudged Reutimann’s Domino’s Pizza machine, sending his car head-first up the track and into the wall. After the wreckage, his in-car camera showed Reutimann slumped towards his steering wheel.
ESPN included this footage during its recap of the race on SportsCenter. The anchors said amid much laughter, “How do you like your pizza? Extra charred?”, and “Pizza’s not going to get there on time is it?”

Reutimann's crash was comic fodder for classless ESPN blowhards

Why was this wreck funny to these people? Were they broadcasting from a pub while having a drink? Head first wrecks are what kill drivers. At most, a driver is allowed two hits like this before hanging up the steering wheel and calling it a career. NASCAR now records the G-forces on collisions and they called this wreck one of the worst ever.

Meanwhile the ESPN anchors are yucking it up. Next time, a hockey player is lying on the ice in a pool of blood I want to hear these same loser announcers laugh about how the injured player is painting a new face-off circle. That would be really classy.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Is There A Draft In Here? (NOT YET, And That's The Problem!)

There are almost two full months left until the NFL Draft, which means about 60 more days of mocks and conjecture and theories and smokescreens and ... I don't think I can take it. Seriously.

It seems worse this year than any other, the pre-Draft hype. For the amount of coverage it's being afforded, you'd think it was happening tomorrow. Or right now.

Back in the early 1980s, when ESPN decided to provide blow-by-blow coverage of the Draft, the network was scoffed at.

"They said it would be as exciting as opening a telephone book and reading it," longtime anchor Chris Berman once said in a documentary about the history of sports on television.

Now, in a fit of irony, the network has fueled a rage that makes me long for some telephone book reading.

I just can't stomach anymore Draft talk, here in late February. Almost makes me want to switch over to some more Anna Nicole Smith coverage.

The posturing and "press conferences" at the combines in Indianapolis would best be done, I believe, about a week or so before the actual Draft. A little of gamesmanship thru the media is OK by me, but not when the actual event is two months out. Then again, I'm all for one week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, so you know where I'm coming from here.

What's the use of so much coverage? Granted, this is a sort of dead time in sports, with March Madness not here yet, and the NBA and NHL playoffs still weeks away. But the daily updates on which quarterback leapfrogged the other, or whether there's in-fighting amongst the Lions braintrust (THERE's an oxymoron for you) about who to select, or if Joe Thomas suffered a hangnail today -- it's starting to get on my nerves.

OK, then, Eno, don't listen to it. Don't read it. And what are you doing right now?? You're WRITING about it!

I'd love to not listen to it, and not read about it, and not write about it anymore, until it's actually upon us, but ... how do you suggest I do that? I mean, other than stay in bed with the sheets pulled over me?

NFL Draft coverage is everywhere right now. I think I saw Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs talking about it the other day. Maybe not. But you get the drift.

Enough. I'm all Drafted out.

So how do I get through these next sixty days without stabbing knitting needles into my eyeballs? Without running a cheese grater over my tongue? Without ... turning to more Anna Nicole Smith coverage?

Help me!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Sounds Of Science

They wore mustaches – some of the handlebar variety. Their uniforms were even outlandish: garish combinations of Kelly Green, white, and Fort Knox Gold. I’m not making those hues up; that’s their official description, according to the team’s owner, who was just as colorful as the threads.

Oh, and they battled. Fought. Hard. Some real knockdown, drag outs. And that was with each other.

The Oakland Athletics of the 1970s, one could say, didn’t appear to have any business doing what they did, which was win three straight world championships of baseball. How could they have done it, when they didn’t have that supposed necessary ingredient?


It’s perhaps the most overused word in sports, and that’s saying something, when you’re talking about an entity never known for its suppression of the largesse.

I challenge you to go an entire week without hearing the word in reference to our athletic heroes and the teams on which they play.

It came up the other day, when Chicago Bulls GM John Paxson was talking about why he didn’t pull off a trade, after the NBA dealing deadline came and went Thursday.

“I was concerned about chemistry,” Paxson said.

At the time of his words, the Bulls were entrenched in third place in their division, the Pistons’ division. They were scuffling along, a few games over .500. Only the delusional consider them title contenders. Yet Paxson was worried about ruining team harmony.


One spring, the mantra around Tigers’ training camp in Lakeland, Fl. was how chummy everyone was with one another.

“Everybody here gets along so well,” utility man Shane Halter gushed to the scribes somewhere around the grapefruit trees. “And that’s so important. The chemistry is really good here.”

The pH-balanced Tigers then went out and lost about a hundred games that season. An “A” in chemistry, an “F” in execution, mainly due to another failing grade in the most important ingredient of them all: talent.

Charlie O. Finley’s Oakland A’s won those three World Series in 1972, 1973, and 1974 not because of their top marks in chemistry. They won because they overwhelmed their opponents in the talent department. End of discussion.

Reggie Jackson. Joe Rudi. Sal Bando. Catfish Hunter. Rollie Fingers. And that’s just for starters. Those A’s teams were loaded, so no wonder they hoisted three straight trophies. And no wonder that when they fled Finley’s eccentric ways via the new thing called free agency, the A’s went promptly into the porcelain Standard.

It was once said of the great Yankees teams of the 1950s and ‘60s: “When the Yankees go out to dinner together, they sit at 25 different tables.”

Light on chemistry, heavy on winning. Talent, again, trumped all.

The 1970s A’s were the last back-to-back-to-back World Series winners until the Yankees of 1998, ’99, and 2000. And those recent Yankees teams weren’t particularly noted for joining hands and humming folk tunes. But guess what? They had the best baseball players on the planet.

The funny thing is, I’m not even sure what chemistry is – when it comes to sports. And I’m almost certain that most of the people in sports who use the word aren’t really sure what it means, either. But they just gotta have it.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland, early in spring training this year, talked about the ubiquitous term. And, being an old school guy, he pooh-poohed it.

“I’m not a chemistry guy,” he said. Then he went on to discuss why good ballplayers are what turns him on.

So what IS chemistry?

If it was the players being chummy and all, then Leo Durocher would have been wrong.

“Nice guys finish last,” Leo the Lip said. Well, almost.

Leo was actually talking about a team in the 1950s that hadn’t been faring too well in the yearly standings. “They’re nice guys. But they finish last. Nice guys. Finish last.”

Maybe it’s more likely that “chemistry” is actually code for a bunch of talented guys who happen to play well together. But there are those who would have you believe that what goes on off the field, and in the locker rooms, somehow has terrific effect on what happens during the playing of the games.

Again, phooey.

Another Oakland team, the Raiders football club, was, for years, a band of renegades and ne’er do wells. Many were outcasts from other NFL teams. They were judged to be miscreants and locker room “cancers.” Well, the former was probably true, anyway.

Yet all “da Raiders” did was win, win some more, and win just a little more. They captured Super Bowl titles in 1977, 1981, and 1984. Their owner was like the A’s’ Finley. Al Davis, with his “Just win, baby” approach and “Commitment to Excellence” on team stationery, didn’t care, frankly, what kind of a person a man was. Could he play football?

Today, the Raiders aren’t winners. Far from it. And the only possible miscreant they employ is the receiver Randy Moss. So the argument could be that they need more snot noses on their team.

Chemistry. The word is so often used, and its powers are thought of so highly, that some general managers and accumulators of personnel, like the Bulls’ Paxson, become practically paralyzed with fear of disturbing it.

That’s OK. Perhaps the immobility of John Paxson was a help to the Pistons’ mission. No moves for the Bulls. Thus, it would seem, no improvement, either.

But at least the Bulls have harmony. A bunch of nice guys, apparently.

Cue Leo the Lip.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Johnson Will Live Forever In Pistons Fans' Memory Banks

It was like my Kennedy assassination.

I remember where I was, who I was with, and what was happening around me when Dennis Johnson laid a basketball into the hoop at Boston Garden, after Larry Bird's steal, sealing Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals for the Celtics over the Pistons.

My friend Dan Silva and I were at a bar on Wayne Road, south of Warren, in Westland. It was one of those Irish joints. The game was on the big screen. We were in a room, away from the main floor, of maybe 50 people.

The final moments of that game are well-documented. Pistons clinging to a one-point lead. Series tied at two games each. Larry Bird thumping the basketball, biding his time, waiting for the moment to attack the basket. And everyone in the place, and all of us watching on TV, knowing that that's the way it's going to be.

Bird made 0ne last look up at the clock, then did his thing. And for a millisecond his path to the basket was open. But then Dennis Rodman, the Worm that he was, came from nowhere and swatted away Bird's floating shot with a vengeance. There was a scramble. The ball went out of bounds. From our vantage point, it looked like it was off a Celtic player.

The refs agreed. Deeeetroit basketballllll!

The ball had been knocked off the body of Boston's Jerry Sichting. Only a few seconds remained. The crowd in the bar started high-fiving, hugging, dancing, hooting and hollering. They figured the Pistons were now leaders in this series, 3 games to 2. And with Game 6 in the unusual yet friendly confines of one of the corners of the Pontiac Silverdome.

But I wasn't a high-fiver. I hugged no one. I certainly didn't dance, and I didn't hoot. But I did holler. Because these were the Celtics, and this was Boston Garden, and I'd seen some pretty strange things happen there to teams in road jerseys.

The thing that I hollered was this: "IT'S NOT OVER! IT'S NOT OVER!," literally trying to quell the madding crowd with my arms akimbo, like a quarterback trying to quiet the 12th man at the line of scrimmage. I stood in the middle, trying to be heard. Trying to encourage cooler heads, until the final few ticks ran off the clock.

Then it was the bar crowd's turn to holler. As I pleaded for sanity, there was an awful sound, kind of like 50 people being slugged in the gut at the same time.

I looked at the big screen. And there was Johnson, laying the ball in. I hadn't even seen Bird's steal, until the television replay showed it to me, in all its big screen horror.

One second remained, and a desperation heave by the Pistons finished the game. And, essentially, the series, even though the Pistons showed remarkable resolve to win Game 6 and darn near win Game 7.

I was inconsolable after the play. For the rest of the evening, and for the ride home, I spoke not one word. It was so bad that even my friend Silva, who was like a pallbearer himself after such things, was trying to cheer me up. But I would have none of it. I literally said nothing.

GM Jack McCloskey once said, before the Pistons would win two championships themselves, "On my death bed I'll probably say, 'We shouldn't have made that pass.'"

Dennis Johnson is gone now, dead suddenly of an apparent heart attack at age 52. He's the first of the protagonists in that '87 conference final to leave us. And doubtless none of the remaining ones will ever forget their role, however insignificant, in that play.

I'm telling you, it was bad enough having to watch it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

New "Out of Bounds" Feature: "The Straightaway"

NASCAR is something that, frankly, I haven't been able to get my arms around. But I also recognize that it's followed by a bajillion people, which must make me in the minority in some given group.

To recognize the sport's popularity, I will begin running weekly NASCAR commentary from my good friend and colleague, Siddy Hall, who's been following the sport for nearly 15 years.

Siddy's commentaries will run every Tuesday here, but I debut him today.


Feedback is always welcome.

The Straightaway
Weekly NASCAR commentary

by Siddy Hall


Like the NFL Pro Bowl following the Super Bowl, NASCAR now presents the Auto Club 500 from the California Speedway one week after an epic battle at Daytona. No doubt some first-time NASCAR viewers who saw the Daytona 500 will return to view this race with hopes of discovering more stock car racing excitement. They’ll probably be disappointed.

California is a track that reinforces an image held by many who haven’t warmed to auto racing. Cars go round and round with nothing really appearing to happen. And in this case they’re probably correct. Drivers like it there. They can mash the gas and the turns are really wide. While the speeds are fast, the danger is relatively low. So to keep things from getting too boring, cautions need to be brought out to bunch the cars back together.

During last year’s two California races, a total of 14 yellow flags were waved. Nine of these were for either debris or oil on the track. I can imagine a crew of people turning hot dog wrappers into greasy paper airplanes waiting for their instructions to hurl them onto the track to bring out a caution. Heck, last year’s February race had a 210-mile green flag stretch until, surprise, ”debris” was found on the track. Hey, you want some debris? How about rolling out a huge boulder onto the track for the cars to swerve around and avoid.

What hurts is that until recently NASCAR had a great race with which to follow up the high jinx of the Daytona 500. Rockingham, or “the Rock,” is arguably the best track on the circuit. It was slightly over one mile long with high banking in the corners. When the rubber began to wear, the cars were all over the place. No two races at the Rock were ever alike.

But, in the quest for bigger markets, like southern California, Rockingham was victimized. The races traded places. A great track was replaced by a clean, generic one. And like the old Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, LA just ain’t buying it. Maybe it’s the track. Can somebody please build another Rockingham? Why is this so hard?

Silly Boys: The wreck at Lap 153 between Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch during the Daytona 500 could lead off a DVD titled, “Daytona’s Biggest Blunders.” Earlier, near Lap 70, these two piloted machines that broke away from the vacuum of the Daytona draft. It was an impressive sight, one that you rarely see at that track. So why were they racing each other so hard at Lap 153? They could’ve continued to team up and then settled it at the end. Busch accepted the blame for the wreck but I blame the wreck more on Stewart than Busch. Tony came up through the field and should’ve settled in comfortably behind Busch like they had earlier. By passing Busch, Stewart brought out his hyper-competitive instincts and then the race - and the wreck - were on. These two drivers led 130 of the 202 laps but combined for about the same number of points as the 25th place car, Greg Biffle.

Stewart (left) and Busch: Ill-advised moves led to Daytona wreck

Thanks for the Help: Daytona 500 winner, Kevin Harvick, ought to give some of his points to 27th place finisher Matt Kenseth. It was Kenseth’s DeWalt Ford that helped Harvick slingshot around the outside of the lead line of cars that was led by Mark Martin. It’s amazing that Kenseth could have pushed Harvick so close to the finish line and then finish 26 spots back.

Common Sense for Rules: NASCAR was right by delaying their caution until after Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin crossed the finish line. If you’re being technical then Mark Martin had reason to complain. He was definitely leading when the sheet metal started crumpling behind him. But by waiting a few seconds, NASCAR let the cars and not the literal interpretation of the rules decide the outcome of a great race.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Leyland Again Leaves No Doubt That He's In Charge

Jim Leyland is displaying an authority and level of control that hasn't been seen by a man piloting the Tigers since a white haired, petite man named Sparky roamed the dugout from 1979 to 1995.

The latest example is Leyland's rapid and blunt response to former Tiger Dmitri Young's assertion that the team didn't "support" him enough last season as he went through one personal crisis after another. The Tigers released Young in September, robbing him of his opportunity to play in the postseason.

Ahh, but there's the rub. I just fell into a trap that Young, in a much more personal way, has also fallen into. For it's not that the Tigers robbed Dmitri Young. He did that just swell by himself, to himself.

"For Dmitri to say the Tigers didn't support him is totally out of line," Leyland told reporters in Lakeland, reading aloud to them Young's quoted concerns before launching into his diatribe.

The rest of Leyland's words, I'll leave out, because by now you've probably read them a dozen times. But the swiftness with which he responded, combined with his conviction, are part of why Jim Leyland cuts a path through the Tigers that is the widest since Sparky Anderson's during the '80s and half of the '90s.

Player A and player B get into an argument over the type of music to be played in the clubhouse after a game -- a win. It gets loud and distracting (the argument, not the music). Out steps Sparky, and says, according to the story, but one word.


Then he retreated back into his office.

The story is probably not apocryphal. I heard it over 20 years ago, with Sparky at his zenith in the Motor City. The source was credible -- one of the beat writers at the time.

To me, that story has captured, in a most succinct fashion, the authority and tightness of ship that Anderson displayed while Tigers manager. And looking at his successors, no one else comes close to that command.

Buddy Bell didn't have it, and neither did his replacement, Larry Parrish. Phil Garner might have been that guy, but he didn't last long enough. Luis Pujols? HA! And good guy Alan Trammell, bless his heart, didn't cut that path either.

But Jimmy Leyland does, and I'm convinced that he'll remain manager here for as long as he chooses. Then again, I once had trouble with the idea of Tram being fired, early in his managerial career. But the Packers fired Bart Starr as coach, so there you have it.

Leyland's tit after Young's tat, along with making sure everyone knew that it was his decision to release Young and nobody else's (whether true or not), is yet another example of why there shouldn't be any worries when it comes to wondering whether the Tigers will suffer from sort of post-2006 hangover.

The skipper has a firm hand on the wheel, and not for a long time have we been able to say that about any Tigers manager.

Over ten years, in fact.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Shanny's Fleeing Has Finally Put Red Wings In A Quandary

A top six forward.

The words are becoming ingrained into our psyche now, just like "lefthanded bat" when it came to the Tigers late last summer. The Tigers just had to have a lefthanded bat, don't you know. So they traded for Sean Casey at the deadline.

Now Mike Ilitch's other team has an urgent need, apparently. And the GM won't rest until he satisfies that need.

A top six forward.

Red Wings GM Kenny Holland has $5 million of salary cap and plenty of ideas. Trouble is, he's not the only one shopping, so the vendors in the marketplace are placing premium prices on their goods.

The top six forward, it is presumed, will have toughness, scoring ability, and veteranship. Of course that's a need, if you're going to put it that way. Who wouldn't want to add such a player?

Funny, but those traits that the Red Wings so badly feel in need of in a potential new player just happen to describe one person to a "T".

Brendan Shanahan, though recovering now from a horrifying collision over the weekend, is exactly what the Red Wings crave, if you go by the skill set that's being outlined for the new player.

Someone like...HIM

But Shanahan fled for New York over the summer, a free agent who felt that this was the time to let a new regime lead the Red Wings. His decision came shortly after Steve Yzerman retired.

So it's Shanahan's self-exodus that has put the Red Wings in need of a "top six forward." But it's also why they have $5 million to spend on such an addition. Cause and effect.

There's no telling where the Wings would be today with Brendan Shanahan in their lineup. Maybe they couldn't improve much on their record, which is a surprisingly gaudy 38-16-6. But as far as this day forward, when the stretch run unofficially begins and teams begin thinking about the playoffs, a player like Shanahan would look mighty good in red and white.

Shanny's not an option, obviously. Some other power forward, probably one well past 30 years of age, also, will have to be the Red Wings' new "top six forward."

You always thought Shanahan's departure would come home to roost. And now here we are.

I'd hate to see Ken Holland's cell phone bill.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

In The Spirit Of Hate

I have to thank Tim Hardaway. Before he and his hateful mouth came along this week, I didn’t realize how much hate I had stewing in my blood.

Hardaway, the former NBA player, is the second one of his ilk to come out of the closet in recent days. The first, John Amaechi, admitted to being gay. Hardaway admitted he hated the John Amaechis of the world. Tit for tat, sort of.

But then I realized … you know, I hate, too. But not gays. And not even the people who hate gays. My hate isn’t quite as dramatic or headline-grabbing. But it’s there.

To wit …

I hate it when you turn a game on the radio and the announcer refuses to give the score, instead saying cryptic things that describe everything BUT the score.

I hate it when a good standup comedian abruptly ends his act with, “You’ve been great, goodnight!,” leaving you thirsting for more laughs.

I hate when the puck goes out of play in the middle of some great end-to-end hockey action, necessitating a bothersome faceoff.

I hate when people don’t use their turn signals. It’s telling me, “You don’t need to know what I’m doing. Just stay out of my way until I reveal my intentions.”

I hate when a pitcher won’t throw the damn ball, causing the batter to step out of the box. Then I hate it when the pitcher takes that opportunity to step off the mound and rub up the baseball.
Hello! There’s a game to be played!

I hate when I’ve packed a mouth-watering, hearty lunch … and realized I’ve left it on the kitchen counter when I’m halfway to the office.

I hate when a defensive lineman on my football team jumps offsides on a third-and-four.

I hate that everything is packaged nowadays like it’s intended to survive a nuclear holocaust.

I hate when a basketball player misses a dunk. I mean, that’s like eating spaghetti and missing the sauce.

I hate it when the guy in front of me at the ATM is using the machine to apply for a mortgage. Probably the same dufus I get behind at the drive-thru who’s ordering food for the entire GM Tech Center day shift.

I hate when a football announcer on television says a player is tackled on, say, the 33-yard line, when it’s clearly the 34. I’m big on field position accuracy.

I hate when you spend precious time punching in an account number during an automated message to _____ company, and when a human being actually comes on the phone, the first question they ask you is, “What’s your account number?”

I hate an inning-ending double play, or a rally-killing popup.

I hate biting into a hot pepper that’s not hot.

I hate being five games out of first place with four to play.

I hate turning on the radio when one of my all-time greatest hits is in its final ten seconds of airplay.

I hate the uniforms of today’s teams. Since when did we start the trend of brown mustard as a base color? It’s the Gulden Age, I tell you.

I hate the overuse of the term “on the same page,” and this new one, “SHOOT me an email.” And I hate that I have used them myself.

I hate when a quarterback calls time out because he “doesn’t like what he sees.” Maybe I hate that because we can’t do that in real life. Though it’d be nice, I must admit.

I hate spandex and shorts and tank tops on any member of either gender who has as much business wearing them as Matt Millen has with a high draft pick.

I hate $20 for parking near Comerica Park. And I hate that the folks who are charging that won’t take any responsibility for your car while it’s under their noses.

I hate the fact that kids don’t play baseball anymore, and if they do, it’s with a video game controller in their tiny hands.

I hate the idea of “blocking” tight ends and “pass receiving” tight ends. And I hate that it took 30 years for Charlie Sanders, who could do both splendidly, to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

I hate trying to spread rock hard butter on tear away bread.

I hate umpires who won’t call strikes.

I hate music-free, commercial jams on the radio.

I hate press conferences for new head football coaches, because they’re like x-rated movies: you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Or so I’ve been told.

I hate the politics in Warren, where I live. I’m convinced that Council President Jim Fouts would engage mayor Mark Steenbergh in a debate over the color of the sky. And white rice.

I hate that the NHL regular season means absolutely nothing come playoff time. So it’s 82 games for … what, exactly?

I hate that you can’t get paper bags at the grocery store anymore. You mean I have to actually bundle my newspapers now?

I hate the overkill of men proposing marriage to their girlfriends in front of tens of thousands of people at a sporting event. Like she could actually say no without people throwing beer on her.

I hate the fact that certain baseball players simply “don’t bunt,” when sometimes a mere base hit to center field, scoring a runner from second, is all that’s needed to win a game.

I hate “spring forward.”

I hate that there are no jump balls in college basketball. We can’t teach the refs to toss a ball three feet in the air, straightly?

I hate a good column that ends abruptly.

Don’t you?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Forsberg Not A Wing? There Goes The Cup! (Maybe)

The big, bruising defenseman that the Red Wings just HAD to have was still available as the trade deadline approached. He toiled for the dregs of the league, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and would be a free agent at the end of the season. The prototypical rent-a-player.

He was the nasty, physical presence that the bleating critics said the Red Wings needed, or else Lord Stanley's Cup would go to another team. He was a MUST have, despite his impending free agency. The final piece.

But then, on March 19, 2002, Darius Kasparaitis was traded ... to the Colorado Avalanche!



Red Wings fans cursed the luck. Not getting Kasparaitis and his 5'11", 215-pound frame was bad enough; but for him to go to the hated Avs? If this was Montreal, they'd have screamed "sacre bleu!"

"#$!&," the fans screamed. "The #$@! Avs just traded for the Stanley Cup!"

A little over two months later, the Red Wings skated against the Avalanche in Game 7 of the Conference Final, and as the Joe Louis Arena crowd roared and laughed, the Red Wings beat the Avs, 7-0. Five games later, the Red Wings were Cup champions.

Darius Kasparaitis and his Cup-bound Avalanche watched the Finals on TV, it's presumed. Or maybe listened to them on the golf courses.

Peter Forsberg is another of those "missing pieces" guys. He can, when healthy, score, assist, and still skate like the wind. He's a wizard with the puck and has immeasurable playoff experience. The Red Wings, it was widely speculated, were frontrunners for his services. Another rent-a-player, though. Forsberg can be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

But Forsberg and his nifty resume won't be coming to Detroit. The Nashville Predators were willing to pay the steep price, sending several players and some draft picks to the Philadelphia Flyers yesterday.

Yes, the Nashville Predators, occupants of first place in the Central Division, just ahead of the Red Wings.

Doubtless some in Detroit are screaming that the Predators have the missing piece that is still missing from the Red Wings roster. They don't want to be consoled by the fact that there are still other missing pieces out there: Billy Guerin, Keith Tkachuck, Todd Bertuzzi. And probably others. All they know is, Forsberg was "the man," and now he's going to be wearing the ugly gold and brown of the Preds.


But the Avalanche traded for Darius Kasparaitis in 2002, robbing the rival Red Wings of that missing piece, supposedly. Yet the Red Wings won the Cup without that piece, although they did trade for Jiri Slegr -- kind of a Kasparaitis Lite.

As for Kasparaitis, he became a free agent on schedule, and signed a fat contract with the New York Rangers.


There are other fish in the NHL sea. Wings GM Kenny Holland will probably find one on his hook before the deadline arrives on the 27th. Maybe it'll be Forsberg Lite.

We can only hope.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Prince: I Was Misunderstood When It Came To "Chemistry" Concerns

In the Pistons' chemistry lab, all is well. It never was that out of whack to begin with.

So says Tayshaun Prince, who told me that he was taken out of context when it was written that he had called into question the team's chemistry last month.

"I was just saying that our focus wasn't where it needed to be," Prince said into a telephone, for next month's interview for MCS Magazine. "We weren't focused like we were last year, or in the playoffs when we went to the Finals."

But then the team signed Chris Webber, and whatever concerns Prince had vanished almost as soon as Webber joined the club.

"He's such a good passer ... he gives us easier scoring opportunities. And before he got here, our opportunities weren't that easy. Now, we go to our third and fourth options more."

And just like that, the winning returned. End of "chemistry" issues.

But when the conversation turned to the Pistons' flameout in last year's playoffs, Prince acknowledged that the burdensome regular season, when the team flirted with 70 wins, took its toll.

"We were playing 41, 42 minutes (a game)," he said of the regular season, "and when you've been to two Finals and looking forward to going to a third, playing that much could definitely hamper you."

Was it a fair critique, I asked, to say that the Cleveland Cavaliers, in Round Two, made coaching adjustments midway thru their series with the Pistons, which weren't countered properly by Flip Saunders?

"Well, as far as adjustments, we made them, but when you have a great player like LeBron James, he can make adjustments back. And we were slow to respond. Before you knew it, we were going seven games."

So, is it on the coaches, or the players? Prince didn't throw Flip under the bus.

"I always say that in a playoff series, the players have a better understanding than the coaches as far as what needs to be done on the court," he said. "The coaches can watch film and everything, but the players should know what to do."

With the All-Star game being played in Las Vegas Sunday, I put Prince on the spot.

Play oddsmaker, I said, and give me the odds of another Pistons championship.

"Five to one," he said after some hemming and hawwing.

"That's not very good," I said.

"Well, we're the underdogs. We didn't win it last year."


The interview, in its entirety -- including Prince's version of The Block on Reggie Miller in the 2004 conference finals -- will be published in the March issue of MCS Magazine.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Is Michigan-MSU Still A Big Basketball Game? Two Alumni Think So

When Gregory Kelser played basketball for Michigan State University, it was a time when MSU and the University of Michigan were regular competitors for the Big Ten title. It was the late-1970s, and these were the Spartans of Magic Johnson, Kelser, and Jud Heathcote -- going up against the Wolverines of Rickey Green, Phil Hubbard, and Bill Frieder. And other supporting players.

Almost 30 years later, Kelser -- now educating us about basketball in grand fashion as one of the game's best TV analysts -- can still recall every U-M/MSU meeting that occurred while he attended school.

"Each year we had a very, very frustrating loss to the Wolverines," Kelser says in this month's issue of Motor City Sports Magazine. "But the last time we played them at (MSU's) Jenison Fieldhouse, we blew them out by like 30 points. We were on our way to a national championship, so that win mitigated all the psychological damage those losses did to me personally."

Tonight, the Wolves and the Spartans get it on for the first time this season in East Lansing, and even though neither is in contention for first place in the conference, and the Spartans have dominated the series in recent years, it's still, in one Michigan alum's eyes, the school's biggest rivalry.

"It was the best rivalry we had," says former Michigan center Tim McCormick, who also turned into a fine TV analyst. "The crowd was very intense and passionate, and the players all knew each other very well from summer ball and high school, and it was very competitive."

Kelser also points out that the schools are now, for better or worse, more evenly matched now than in recent years. The bad news for Michigan fans is, the reason for that isn't so much that the Wolverines have improved all that much, but that the Spartans have dropped back to the pack. A pack of also-rans that once again includes Tommy Amaker's group.

When was the last time, for example, you saw a Tom Izzo team score 38 points, as they did in a loss last week? The Spartans were hurt drastically by graduation, and it's all guard Drew Neitzel can do to keep his team in ballgames by himself. It smacks of the dreaded "rebuilding" word, but the folks in Ann Arbor have been "rebuilding" for nearly a decade. Since Izzo took over the Spartan program in 1995, MSU has played in 31 NCAA tourney games, including a national championship in 2000. In the same time frame, Michigan has played in four tournament games.

"Not being the favorite is not something I want to get accustomed to," Izzo said before the season. "I hope this happens only every eight or nine years, but that's where we are right now."

As for Amaker, the vultures are out. His ouster is being called for, in his sixth season. The doomsayers don't seem to care that a new coach would mean some more of that lovely rebuilding.

"Michigan-Michigan State is always a special game," Amaker told MCS by e-mail recently. "We have a lot of respect for them and the rivalry itself."

They should. They hardly ever beat MSU anymore.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Pistons MVP? It's Wallace, Guaransheed

It started, as usual, with a technical foul. Slapped with it, the basketball player did what pissed off basketball players tend to do: waving the arms in dismissal of the referee, scowling, and saying some not nice words. The crowd roared in approval – of the player. Then they, too, joined in with the not nice words.

It continued to the next possession, when the pissed off player called for the ball, angrily, in the low post. His method of doing so was picked up by the Fox Sports Detroit microphones. Rip Hamilton was bouncing the ball in the corner, and Rasheed Wallace wanted it. Very badly.

“Give me the ball!,” Rasheed yelled, only he stuck a word before “ball” that was one of those not nice ones.

Hamilton floated the ball to Wallace, who was working against a Toronto rookie, and Rasheed was madder than a hornet. He took a couple of dribbles, backed into the kid, made a move, and hooked the ball into the basket. And got fouled.

That’s when the real show started. More scowls and arm pumping. Wallace was, it seemed, more animated then, after success, than he was moments earlier, after disappointment.

To the foul line he went, jabbering the whole way. It was unclear if his vitriol was directed to the referees or the Raptor player(s).

Several minutes later, standing along the lane waiting for a Pistons free throw, Wallace started jawing with the young Chris Bosh – who was the victim of much of Rasheed’s schooling, and the maligned defender against Wallace’s 28 points. The discussion seemed to be quite the scolding one.

Later in the fourth quarter, the game still in doubt, Wallace took a pass beyond the three-point line and buried the shot, sticking a dagger into the Raptors’ five-game winning streak. Toronto called time out.

“Don’t mess with me!,” Rasheed screamed toward the Toronto bench. Only he didn’t say “mess” – unless he really mispronounced it badly.

Even after the game, after another win was safely in the books, Wallace had to be led away from the officials. The FSD cameras caught him, in plain view, constantly looking over his shoulder and saying some more not nice words, on his way to the locker room in his crooked path way. Teammates patted him on the back as if to say, “It’s OK, man. We WON.”

Rasheed Wallace plays basketball with a sound and a fury that I’ve never seen before. He’s at his best when his emotions spew from him, like a human volcano. He is genuinely not as good of a performer when he’s trying to suppress himself. Every time he does that, his coach recognizes the silliness of even trying, and takes off the shackles. Instantly, his play improves. Wallace without anger and emotion is like Kool-Aid without the sugar, in a dichotomy sort of way.

Three years ago, at the trading deadline, Pistons President Joe Dumars swindled Wallace from the Atlanta Hawks, who had him for just one game. Sheed entered his first press conference as a Piston wearing a Kansas City Chiefs football jersey. And he’s been accumulating yellow penalty flags and blitzing his opponents ever since.

Rasheed Wallace is, whether you choose to believe it or not, the barometer of the Pistons.
“We’ve tried to get him to keep his emotions in check, but he’s not as effective that way,” Pistons coach Flip Saunders explained it a couple of weeks ago, after Wallace had racked up some more technical fouls, edging closer to the cap before suspensions start taking effect. “Sheed needs to play with emotion.”

Last week, Wallace felt the volcano about to erupt. Instead of incurring another technical, he marched directly to the Pistons bench, specifically to Saunders, as if he was the human version of a Monopoly token: do not pass GO, do not collect $200 – or another “T.”

“Get me out,” Wallace told his coach. He felt a technical coming on, and wanted to avoid it.

Saunders got him out. Antonio McDyess replaced him.

Moments later, in the motherscratcher of all ironies, McDyess was nailed with two technical fouls and was ejected from the game. His replacement? Rasheed Wallace!

Well, at least he had tried to avoid trouble.

I’m asked it often: Which Pistons player is most valuable to the team? It’s a question that is supposed to elicit pained thinking and consternation. How can you pick just one player, folks would say, from a team that prides itself on being one with no “stars”?

Easy. I’ll do it for you right now. Rasheed Wallace is, whether you choose to believe it or not, the barometer of the Pistons. This conclusion is so simple in its method, you’re gonna smile when you read what it is.

The Pistons usually lose, especially in the playoffs, when Rasheed Wallace has a poor game. And they usually win, especially in the playoffs, when Rasheed Wallace has a good game. And isn’t that the true meaning of the word “valuable”?

Back in the Bad Boys days, I came to the same conclusion about another big man, but in a funny way: without any hypothesis.

Bill Laimbeer played over 500 consecutive NBA games, at one point in his career. It was impossible to gauge his importance to the Pistons, conventional wisdom said, because the team had never actually experienced him out of the lineup. Which is precisely why I said the Pistons could afford to lose Laimbeer the least. The very thought of the team not getting what Laimbeer was providing – relentless rebounding, outside shooting, grittiness, attitude – always made me shudder.

This version of the Pistons has the beanpole shooter and whirling dervish, Richard Hamilton, who’s leading the team in scoring. It has Chauncey Billups, aka Mr. Big Shot. It has the quiet assassin, Tayshaun Prince. And now it even has big man passer extraordinaire, Chris Webber. That’s all very nice. But if Rasheed Wallace isn’t Rasheed Wallace – if he is diluted and polished and vanilla, then he isn’t Rasheed Wallace. And if he isn’t Rasheed Wallace, then he isn’t the Pistons’ MVP.

Give him the #%!# ball!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Amaechi's Admission A Non-Story

John Amaechi's admission that he's gay is laughable if you think that this is some sort of real revelation.

Amaechi, the former NBAer who has come out of the closet to promote his new book, apparently wants us to believe that the idea of a homosexual athlete is shocking in some way.


Now, what I'm about to say has no hard facts to support it, and is therefore strictly a hunch -- but a strong one. Homosexuals have been players on professional (and college, and even high school) sports teams for eons -- probably since the dawn of sports.

Charles Barkley, last night on TNT, casually said that he's played with known gay players. And, Barkley said, it didn't matter to him what a dude's sexual preference was, as long as they guy could play. I wasn't able to glean whether Barkley made the comment based on fact/someone's admission, or if he believes the odds are so strong that he has played with a gay player, that it might as well be fact. Regardless, his point was consistent: it just doesn't matter.

Former Redskins receiver Jerry Smith and baseball player Billy Bean are just two from other sports that have felt it incumbent upon themselves to reveal their sexual orientation. Why, I'm not sure. But it would be incredibly myopic to think that these men are isolated cases. But the bottom line is the same: as long as others were either unaware or not made uncomfortable by this trait, then whose business is it, really?

The real story, I believe, is if someone were to come out with credible evidence that an openly gay player made unwelcome advances on a teammate, even after being told not to do it. And even that's an incident between those two people -- but it would be more newsworthy. I think it would be, anyway.

Amaechi was certainly not a star in the league (he averaged about 6 PPG in five seasons), and maybe that's yet another reason to merit this story as being mostly a non-story. But again, if a teammate of Amaechi's unearthed stories of physical touching and groping that was the equivalent of sexual harrassment, then that's a whole new can of worms, regardless if he was a star or not.

Just about every heterosexual man, no matter the workplace/school/circle of friends, has encountered gay men in these venues without his knowledge. This is because someone's sexual orientation is nobody else's business, as long as it's kept to themselves and not done to intimidate or make coworkers uncomfy. Like the heterosexual harrassers have taken to doing time and again.

John Amaechi, ex-NBA player, is gay?

And the significance of this is ...?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Red Wings Up To Old Tricks: Winter Greatness

It used to be given more than cursory time on the network, but now it's reduced to some chatter once a week, usually Wednesday or Thursday.

The NHL, back in the day, had a significant presence on ESPN. Games were broadcast weekly, sometimes doubleheaders. Then the ratings went into the tank, and interest waned. Before the lockout of 2004-05.

So now, we're given barely a snapshot of the league, through the eyes of Barry Melrose, on ESPN News. Once a week.

And it was Melrose, last night, who engaged in his annual gushing over the Red Wings.

After showing some highlights of the team's 4-2 win over Phoenix, Melrose couldn't contain himself.

"The Detroit Red Wings -- where have we seen this before?," Melrose said, a grin spreading across his face. "Playing great hockey in February, March, and April, and into the playoffs."

Umm ... doing OK, Barry -- until the playoffs part.

The Red Wings haven't advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs since their last Stanley Cup, in 2002. They were swept in the first round in 2003 by Anaheim, drummed out in Round Two in 2004 by Calgary, and bounced in Round One last year by Edmonton. In other words, one series win in the last three postseasons.

And where HAVE we seen that before?

In the 1990's, before the Cups, when playoff disappointment ran rampant at Joe Louis Arena. Series losses to inferior opponents. Heartbreaking defeats, with captain Steve Yzerman always left to explain to the vultures what went wrong, in hushed tones in front of his locker.

The current Red Wings are in danger of recalling those days, if they don't make a serious run this spring. Barry Melrose is right -- we have seen this before: sizzling play in the regular season, but it was a precursor to a flameout in the playoffs, and always by hungrier, more desperate teams. And inferior ones, to boot.

I said before the season that it was fine by me if the Red Wings kind of lie in the weeds this season, piddling along in a strong Western Conference, perhaps with a #4 or #5 seed. None of this Presidents' Trophy, Cup or Else pressure. Maybe they could, for a change, ruin a higher seed's season.

Still OK by me, if they can pull it off.

But the team seems to be slipping back into its old ways -- churning out the wins, wearing teams down, climbing higher and higher in the league standings. Damn them.

But it's all good, if the Red Wings finally play like they're capable of in April and May -- if they can get to May. Their last two postseasons have ended in that month's first week. And the one before that ended in April.

Once again, the team looks, on paper, to be a serious contender. Goaltending seems strong. There's forward depth, and a little speed. The defensemen are old, but experienced and injected with some youth now. The coaching appears solid.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

The Red Wings are indeed, as Melrose says, up to their old tricks in the dead of winter. But it's when things thaw out that they've had their problems.

I guess we'll see, won't we? And Barry Melrose can tell everyone all about it, weekly.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Blame Lions, Not Voters, For Sanders' Delayed Entry Into Hall

Charlie Sanders would never say it, but that's what bloggers are for, right? He would never say that the reason his entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame has been delayed lo these many years is largely because of the teams for which he played. He would never say it, but he would be right if he ever did.

Sanders, finally elected last Saturday (he'll be inducted in August), goes in some 30 years after he played his last game. His stats never got any better in that time frame, but neither did the image of the franchise for which he toiled.

The Lions' lack of decent heritage in any decade that happened after the 1950's has gotten some of their other great players, too. I'm still waiting for the Alex Karras enshrinement, for example. And Lem Barney, inducted in 1992, entered the Hall 15 years after he played (nine years after being eligible for the first time). Doubtless that these delays had more than a little to do with the Lions' mediocrity. Karras, Barney, and Sanders each played in one playoff game: the 5-0 loss to the Cowboys in 1970. Most of their teams were .500 or below. And Hall voters like to vote the champions in first -- even if the non-champions were better performers.

Barry Sanders was elected in his first year of eligibility because he was, well, Barry Sanders. His feats were too large to ignore, despite a 1-5 record in the playoffs as a Lion.

The reason I say Charlie Sanders would never squawk about his team is because he's a Lion, through and through. He has immense respect for the Ford family, and that's terrific. But had Sanders, one of a handful of tight ends in the Hall, played for the Steelers or the Cowboys or the Raiders, he'd have been inducted back in 1984 -- his first year of eligibility. No question.

Now that Sanders is rightfully where he belongs, it's time to think about other Lions players who might fall victim to their team's ineptitude, when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration.

Wait. I'm still thinking.

There's Lomas Brown. He played a solid left tackle for over 15 seasons. Chris Spielman, who might have been the best middle linebacker in Detroit since Joe Schmidt and Mike Lucci, might be worth a look. The Hall has never been kicker-friendly, but wouldn't Jason Hanson be a worthwhile candidate? Herman Moore? Maybe not a long enough stretch of brilliance.

That's about it, folks. Slim pickings, considering we're talking some 40 years of Ford family ownership.

So enjoy the enshrinment of Charlie Sanders this summer in Canton. It's likely to be the last such honor bestowed on any Lion in a hideous amount of time. Let's put it this way: Charlie Sanders had to wait 23 years for Hall entry. But that wait may pale in comparison with how much time will elapse between his enshrinment and that of the next Detroit Lion.

Sad, but true, I fear.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Super Bowl XLI's Drama: Slip, Sliding Away

Irony rained down on Super Bowl XLI like the, well, rain that rained down on Super Bowl XLI.

Let me get this straight. The NFL is reluctant to award Super Bowls to northern cities, presumably because of the weather perils. Yet the game itself is played in a dome whenever it's north, and where the temperature is perfect, and there are no wind factors. So it was that last year's tilt, here in Detroit, was played in perfect conditions, climate-controlly speaking.

But the league is in love with Miami, which hosted its ninth Big Game yesterday. And where the weather is always warm and sunny.


XLI resembled, at times, rugby, or Australian rules football. Five fumbles, I believe, in the first quarter. A steady downpour.

It's sad that, after two months of training camp, four preseason games, sixteen regular season games and three weekends of playoffs, that the championship of professional football should have been decided in a rainstorm, when it's clearly avoidable.


That's right. Of course nobody could have predicted such rain as that which soaked Miami yesterday, but that's my point exactly: you can't predict it. True, South Beach has had friendly weather, for the most part, during their Super games. And I can see where a warm weather city like Miami would get Super Bowl consideration, over and over again. But, as we saw while the Bears and Colts sloshed around, playing for Vince Lombardi's Trophy, it can, and does, rain in south Florida from time to time, in February. On Super Bowl Sunday. Mother Nature was never much of a sports fan, I don't think.

So why not place the rotation into the hands of cities that have weather-proof facilities?

First, let me say, I'd be espousing this, even if we didn't have a dome in Detroit. It just makes sense. The folks who paid umpteen dollars for their game tickets were mostly miserable last night, either watching the action from TVs in the concourse, or otherwise getting soaked. So why not ensure that the game, at least, will be treated to lovely weather conditions?

The NFL is afraid of this, because such a plan would take some cities out of the rotation -- specifically the ones that would appear to be tourist attractions. But isn't the game the attraction? Last I checked, a bar is a bar -- no matter whether it's in Detroit, or Miami, or Pasadena. A party is a party. And we put on one helluva shindig last year, if you want to know.

I know football prides itself on being an outdoor game, with the elements an accepted part of the equation. NFL Films has endeared itself to the sport's fans with their ethereal, dramatic homage to games like the 1967 championship, played in Green Bay in minus 15 degree weather. Frankly, I don't think the legends of Dick Butkus and Jim Brown play out well in sterile domes, but I'd be willing to forsake that in order to see a representative product of the game in its biggest moment.

There wasn't anything, truthfully, dramatic or captivating in watching the Bears and Colts drop passes, fumble snaps, or slipping and sliding around the turf. It didn't evoke memories of Butkus or Brown after all. It was just ... rotten football, played in horrible conditions.

The NFL's biggest game deserves better than what Mom Nature can unpredictably deliver.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Which Team Was Most Super? Shula's Crusty, Arrogant Dolphins

Don Shula’s logic is so perfect, just like his team was, that it’s an exercise in futility to argue against it, really.

“Until someone else goes through an entire schedule without losing a game,” Shula was saying on NFL Network the other night, his voice trailing off. No need for him to finish the sentence – I know where he was going with it. And he’s right.

There have been XL Super Bowl winners. There have been the Packers of Lombardi and Hornung and Starr. The Steelers of Noll and Bradshaw and Swann. The Cowboys of Landry and Staubach and then those of Johnson and Aikman and Smith. There have been the 49ers of Walsh and Montana, and Siefert and Young. The Broncos of Shanahan and Elway. The Redskins of Gibbs and company.

Terrific teams, all of them. Not only were they Super Bowl winners, they very often destroyed their outclassed opponents in the process. A fine argument could be made, in most cases, that each of them was the best team to play in a football game that had a roman numeral in its title.

“I’m biased, of course, but I kinda like what we did,” Shula said from Miami earlier this week, being interviewed by the eclectic mix of Rich Eisen, Marshall Faulk, and Steve Mariucci.

I kinda like it too, Don.

Shula was talking, of course, about the 1972 Dolphins. 17-0. No, that’s not a football score, that was their record. Nothing in the right hand column. A perfect 14-0 regular season, then a three-game sweep in the postseason.


(btw, the kid on the right is Shula's son David, who would become an NFL coach himself)

It’s not without some sourness that I swallow the fact that Shula’s ’72 Dolphins are the best Super Bowl team ever, because they haven’t handled success with the same class that is carried around by their head coach.

You know the history, most likely. An NFL team dares to go undefeated for a considerable length of time during any given season, and the comparisons to the 1972 Dolphins pop up, like acne before the prom. And former Dolphins are interviewed, and they snarl and harrumph at the undefeated team.

“We’re the best,” former Dolphin says. “You’ll see.”

Then undefeated team loses the inevitable game, and in an orchestrated move, the former Dolphins gather for a champagne party, toasting their continued supremacy.

It’s not, frankly, the best example of “how to be a good winner” that you’ll ever see. Yet Shula’s old players celebrate it shamelessly. No humility. No sportsmanship.

It’s unseemly, really. For when players close in on career records of their still-alive brethren, you’ll see nothing as remotely arrogant as what the 1972 Dolphins engage in. I’m not a big Joe DiMaggio fan, for various reasons, but I don’t think Joe D. popped champagne and stood on the mountain top proclaiming his brilliance, whenever a player’s long hitting streak was snapped. Yet this is exactly what those Dolphins do.

Oh well.

But the logic of their coach is irrefutable. How can you place anyone ahead of a perfect team?
The score of Super Bowl VII was 14-7, Dolphins over the Washington Redskins. But it wasn’t really that close. Kicker Garo Yepremian’s slapstick pass after a blocked field goal was returned for a touchdown by Michigan’s own Mike Bass. And Garo took some abuse for it, yes he did. From his teammates, who looked at him cross-eyed for putting the inferior Redskins within a touchdown of threatening their perfection.

The irony of the Dolphins’ post-1972 insolence is that, when they were on top of the football world, their defense was nicknamed “No Name.” The message was clear: even a group of players who aren’t led by big-name superstars can band together and get the job done. To perfection.

But the No Name Defense helped form the No Class Team. But, then again, it’s No Matter, because I’m waving the white flag: the ’72 Dolphins do indeed trump all.

In 1985, the only Chicago Bears team other than this year’s version to reach the Super Bowl got off to one of those starts that threatened perfection. They were 12-0 when they visited, of all teams, Miami, on a Monday night. The Dolphins were 8-4, led by the young QB stud Dan Marino. They had appeared in the previous year’s Super Bowl themselves, so they weren’t chopped liver. But they weren’t favored.

Marino shredded the Bears’ vaunted defense, and the Dolphins won, 38-24. Frequently, the ABC Monday Night Football cameras captured images of the ’72 squad on the sidelines, wearing jerseys and as fervent as any shapely cheerleader but far more dumpy, cheering openly for the Bears’ defeat.

The pride for accomplishing something that no one else has, I’m fine with. Good for them. But the Renfield laugh that accompanies every loss that ends a team’s perfect season since then? My face contorts the same way it does when I take a shot of NyQuil.

Regardless, I am here to tell you that when you watch the XLIst Super Bowl, you’ll be seeing two fine teams indeed. The Bears with their studly defense and their maligned quarterback, and the Colts with their studly quarterback and maligned defense. Each deserves to be playing for the NFL championship, for sure.

But if you’re wondering where the winner will reside on the list of Super winners in history, you can debate all you want. Place them anywhere you want. Except on the top.

Because until someone goes through an entire schedule undefeated …

Friday, February 02, 2007

Amaker's Buns Warm; Hubbard An Option?

(Note: if the groundhog saw his shadow this morning, it means six more weeks of Super Bowl hype.)

The University of Michigan is, first and foremost, a football school. Always has been, always will be. Which is a shame for those who have toiled for the basketball, softball, and hockey programs -- all of which have seen their share of glory, too. But nothing can top football at Michigan.

The supremacy of football at U-M also means stability at the coaching position, which isn't the case at other universities where the pigskin is revered. Since 1969, the Wolverines have had three head football coaches. Which is how many the Michigan basketball program has had -- since 1996.

Tommy Amaker, if you've been paying attention to anything printed in india ink in the newspapers, or overheard on the radio waves, or -- gasp! -- glowing on your CRT courtesy of the Internet, should have some pretty warm buns this morning. You know, sitting on the hot seat and all. No stability in that coaching job; not even close.

There was a time when that wasn't the case. Michigan, in the 70's and most of the 80's and 90's, had success, and coaching stability in Crisler Arena. Johnny Orr, Bill Frieder, and Steve Fischer were all in Ann Arbor for more than a cup of cappucino. There were some frequent trips to the NCAA tourney, and an NIT championship. The program sent players to the NBA with some regularity.

They were what Michigan State is now, basically.

But for whatever reason, after Fischer left amid a cloud of scandal in 1997, the words "Michigan basketball" have been almost an oxymoron. Brian Ellerbe came and went, and when he left, I believe there were still a bunch of people on campus who asked, "Who was that, again?"

Now we have Amaker, a Duke man, in his sixth season of mostly mediocre, comme ci, comme ca basketball. The NCAA tourney has been unchartered territory for the Wolverines. Pre-Big Ten records have been artificially bloated. The talent, experts say, has actually been decent. The recruiting is holding its own, for the most part. But not so much, the man in the turtleneck and blazer on the sidelines. The Duke man, Amaker.

It seems highly unlikely, the way things are going, that Amaker will be invited back for a seventh season coaching these Wolverine basketball players. Only a terrific second half of the Big Ten schedule, and some noise in the NCAA tournament, it says here, will be enough to save his job. Neither have precedence recently, so there you have it.

The other night, the Wolverines blew one to Iowa, at home. To a Hawkeye squad which hadn't won a road game all season. Until they visited Crisler. A 20-1 Iowa run wiped out a double-digit Michigan lead. And, as usual, Amaker was left to face the media wretches who wanted to know, "Hey, what happened?"

Yes, there was a time when it was unfathomable that a Michigan basketball team could allow dregs like Iowa score a game-turning, 20-1 run on their own floor. Unfathomable until about, oh, ten years ago, when first Ellerbe, and now Amaker, have scratched their heads in folding chairs on the Michigan bench.

No success, no stability at coach. A new trend now, in Ann Arbor, when it comes to mens basketball. A trend that could spell the end of the Amaker Era, and the dawning of a new one, and from a Michigan man, to boot.

If I was AD Bill Martin, I might give Phil Hubbard a call.

Hubbard, a Michigan center from the late 70's, has been working tirelessly in the NBA as an assistant coach. Just a thought, but I'd be willing to bet that Hubbard would listen to a Michigan overture to be their next head basketball coach. Provided they'll need a new coach.

Odds are, though, that they will.