Monday, March 30, 2009

Spartans Need To Look At Detroit Thru Visitors' Lens

If I was Tom Izzo, I'd blindfold my team, drive them around in circles, and try to convince them that the Final Four in which they're about to participate is nowhere NEAR Detroit.

I'd cover all signs that say Ford Field. I wouldn't let them look at anything until they were in the locker room. THEN I'd remove the blindfolds. Maybe I'd pipe in some phony anti-MSU rhetoric and tell them that they're in Chapel Hill or Dallas or Orlando. Anywhere but in Detroit.

I know, not feasible. If only.

There are two sides to the sword, as you know.

One side says that the Spartans, who advanced to the Final Four Sunday by virtue of spanking the Louisville Cardinals (and good), have it made -- playing in the Final Four in essentially a "home court" situation. How can it NOT be an advantage, playing such monumental basketball in an arena 90 miles or so away from campus?

But look at which team has all the pressure on it this morning.

The Spartans are in a box. If they fail to win the championship, they'll go down as the team that couldn't seal the deal with "home court" in their favor. How many teams even GET such an opportunity?

If they win, well, then they SHOULD have won. They have home court, after all!

Of course, winning is always the best option. Who cares what they say about you, once you've become a champion?

The point being, I hope Izzo -- and knowing him, he'll probably take my unsolicited advice -- de-emphasizes, as much as possible, this supposed home court advantage the Spartans possess.

Because it really ISN'T a home court advantage.

It's not like Ford Field is going to be populated with 90% Spartans fans. The NCAA people didn't go quite THAT far when they awarded the Final Four to Detroit.

"Oh, and if any local team should qualify, then they will be allotted all the tickets."

Not quite.

The advantage isn't really all that much of one. It's all in the head. And the more the Spartans think they hold an advantage, then the worse off they are.

And if they think that UConn is going to cower and bow to them meekly, simply because the game is being played in Detroit, then MSU is REALLY going to be in a world of hurt.

Izzo, who can make the original Prince of Pessimism, Chuck Daly, look positively like Barney the Dinosaur, will no doubt put on his best tired, haggard face and tell the media folks that nothing is in the bank until the check clears. As well he should.

It's terrific that MSU was able to pick this year, of all years, to make it to the Final Four. Thirtieth anniversary of the 1979 team winning it all. Revenge against Kansas for the 1986 clock debacle. And, of course, the event taking place in Detroit.

But this is Ford Field, not the Breslin Center. The Spartans will be playing on that floor for the first time, just like the other three teams. The stands will not be full of green, from one end to the other. No Izzone.

Conversely, if I was UConn coach Jim Calhoun, I'd make a big deal out of it. I'd tell anyone who'll listen how tough his kids have it, facing MSU in Detroit. It's time for some mind games right about now.

MSU in the Final Four, in Detroit? Great!

But not so great, really. And they need to be reminded of that. A lot.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Porcello A Potential Ace Between The Ears, Too

There’s no telling how good Dave Rozema could have been, if only he’d taken his career seriously.

Rozema, “Rosie” to his adoring fans and to some of the more informal members of the media, was what some of us old-timers used to call players of his ilk, a “flake.”

The flake was the odd, the goofy, the unstable player. He could be a fun-loving flake or someone you’d just as soon not be alone with in the same room.

Baseball has been full of them. I think it’s the long season, being cooped up with the same guys from February till October, that can cause some guys to get flaky. Or worse.

Alex Johnson was a Detroit kid, grown up on the west side. His brother, Ron, was a star football player who thrilled the folks in Ann Arbor as a running back for U-M before having a decent career in the NFL.

Alex was…different. A flake? Perhaps. Or maybe just plain weird.

A.J., as they called him, was a terrific hitter. He won the 1970 A.L. batting title. But he was strangely unhappy most of the time. A professional might even call him paranoid and/or depressed. Alex Johnson was a good baseball player who thought everyone was out to get him.

Once, while playing for the Angels, Johnson accused teammate Chico Ruiz of waving a gun in his face in the locker room. Ruiz denied it. Johnson stuck to his story.

Johnson played for the Tigers in his last season, in 1976. Folks around town made a big deal of A.J. coming home, finally, to play big league ball, but I don’t think Johnson cracked so much as a grin while he was here. Then again, A.J. never did smile much. At all.

Dave Rozema happened upon the scene in 1977. One year after Mark “The Bird” Fidrych thrilled baseball audiences. Rozema’s fastball couldn’t break a pane of glass, but he could get hitters out with precision control and changing speeds. Rosie was 21, fun-loving, and a jokester during his rookie season in ’77.

Rozema was the antithesis of Alex Johnson. Where A.J. moped and brooded, Rosie always had a smirk on his face. He was the cat who ate the canary. Then he fell in with Kirk Gibson and that’s what did him in.

Rosie and Gibby. What a pair!

They partied together. They dated sisters – “exotic dancers”, to boot. Then they eventually married them. Gibson, a self-admitted jerk in his formative big league years, was hardly the best influence on the impressionable, flaky Rozema.

Rozema’s career moved on, decently, but never did he truly improve upon his 15-win rookie campaign. He had the talent. He had the ability. He just didn’t seem to have the moxie.

Then, in a moment of foolishness in 1982, Rosie sealed his fate for good.

The Twins and the Tigers brawled at Tiger Stadium. As far as baseball fights go, this one was pretty brutal. It was the kind where fists truly flew and the potential for something dangerous to happen was high.

Enter Rozema. Literally.

He came from the dugout, or the bullpen – not sure which – and spotted Twins player John Castino. Rosie got up a running start and, leaving his feet, tried to execute a Jackie Chan-like karate kick at Castino.

Rosie blew out his knee trying to impersonate Chan.

Tigers manager Sparky Anderson wasn’t amused.

Rozema was even less the same after his karate kick. But he didn’t learn his lesson.

A couple years later, Rozema was goofing around in the Tigers clubhouse and, while clowning, fell on his rear end. A small glass jar of medicine that was in his back pants pocket broke. He got cut up in his…posterior.

Sparky wasn’t amused again.

The Tigers eventually let Rozema go, and he ended up with the Texas Rangers. While with the Rangers, Rosie, in a relief appearance, ended up facing Kirk Gibson one night down in Arlington. The TV cameras caught Rozema giggling like an eighth-grader, unable to keep a straight face, as he prepared to pitch to his friend Gibby.

Rozema’s karate kick was immortalized in a bobble head doll last summer at a minor league game in Grand Rapids

The Tigers, in 2009, have themselves a young stud named Rick Porcello. He’s a 20-year-old right-hander who doesn’t have a whole lot of professional experience but who has baseball folks dismissing that forthwith. This is because Porcello possesses a golden right arm that has the real possibility of thrilling baseball fans in Detroit for years to come.

But it’s not just Porcello’s talent for throwing a baseball that has impressed folks down in Florida this spring training. It’s also his demeanor. The veteran players love how he conducts himself.

“He’s the kind of pitcher who, if he gives up a home run or something, just asks for the ball and says, ‘Let’s go’,” said designated hitter Gary Sheffield, no less, a couple weeks ago. “He doesn’t let anything bother him.”

The accolades regarding Porcello’s arm have been out there since last summer. Now they’re starting to pour in about his head. The words are similes of the best kind.

Composed. Mature. Unflappable. Focused.

And so on.

Porcello has a shot, albeit an outside one, to make the Tigers’ Opening Day roster. Manager Jim Leyland’s starting rotation is a little in shambles right now, due to injuries and others not doing so great. And Porcello, save one shaky outing on Thursday, has pitched well.

“It’s an honor to still be here and still have a chance,” Porcello said the other day.

On other occasions, Porcello has been one of his toughest critics. He already has that perfectionist thing about him. A lot of the great pitchers have that gene.

Dave Rozema was out of baseball by age 30. The karate kick didn’t help. But the kick was merely symptomatic of his bigger issue, which was a distinct lack of professionalism in his approach toward the game.

He had his fun, though. Maybe that’s all he was in it for. Mission accomplished.

Rick Porcello wants to have fun, too, I’m sure. He just wants to do it more responsibly and with more long-term success.

If only someone was able to give Rozema’s head that final screw to the right. Just another quarter turn might have done it. Oh well; you amused us, David, if nothing else.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Enberg, Packer The Pins To Our MSU/ISU Balloon

Shame on Dick Enberg. He's a Michigan born-and-reared kid. He ought to know better than to rain on our parade in this state.

And here I thought that the 1979 Michigan State-Indiana State NCAA Final -- aka Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird -- was some good television.

But now here's Enberg, trying to spoil the fun just as MSU is set to take on Kansas in a regional semifinal tonight.

"It's almost sacrosanct to refer to it as one of the great games of all time," Enberg, who called the game for NBC and who now works for CBS, told USA Today.

Well, nuts.

Enberg didn't stop there. Not only should we stop holding the game in such high regard, he said, and not only wasn't it one of the greatest finals ever, it was downright...bad.

"But had Magic and Bird been NBA busts, I don't think we'd look back on it as a great game. It was not a great final. As I left, I had the same feeling as after Super Bowl blowouts -- that it wasn't very exciting."


Enberg's sour puss was joined with that of broadcast partner Billy Packer, who echoed the downer words of CMU grad Enberg.

"It was one of the poorer finals games I ever broadcast," Packer said. "What Bird-Magic eventually became made that game, not the other way around."

Well, now that last statement of Packer's, I can swallow.

I won't quarrel that Magic and Bird's NBA careers certainly added to the image of the '79 Final, when MSU met the Indiana State Sycamores. The Spartans had breezed -- as much as a team can "breeze" thru an NCAA tourney -- thru the brackets, and waiting for them were Bird and his flock, who were 33-0.

But take it from me, who's old enough to still recall the game (I was 15): the game wasn't a dud.

Maybe I'm looking at it through too much of a local prism, but I seem to remember that, although the Spartans led most of the way, it was never a blowout, and Bird did his best to make sure it would never be such.

I'm perplexed and a little disappointed to hear such wet blanket words from Enberg and Packer, because it's not like Magic and Bird weren't already superstars -- at the college level. NBC, I'm sure, enjoyed terrific ratings that night -- the only time Magic and Bird met in college.

In other words, these guys weren't chopped liver who became NBA Hall of Famers. They were already damn good, and that's why the MSU-ISU game was looked forward to with so much anticipation.

Maybe Enberg and Packer expected TOO much.

But we fans expected a lot, too, and I simply don't remember being disappointed. MSU won, 75-64, but it wasn't until the final minutes that you could, as a Spartan fan, relax. As long as Bird lurked, no lead felt truly safe.

I've wondered for years if the outcome would have been different had the three-point shot been made available to Bird in 1979.

I don't know what Enberg and Packer were hoping for, but to broadcast a college game with two high-profile studs like Magic and Bird in it, squaring off...well, unless the game was a complete dog, you'd think you'd have a little more respect for its memory than what they told USA Today.

Yes, the game has grown in legend in 30 years. And yes, much of that -- if not all of it -- is because of what the two players did in the NBA. But doesn't every good-to-great game's stock grow over time?

If we're going to start telling tales out of school, then I'll throw one back into Enberg's face, who was about my 1979 age when it happened: the 1958 NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. You know, the "Greatest game of all time"?

Not so much, really. Had it not been the first (and only) overtime game in NFL Championship/Super Bowl history, I don't know that it would be known as the greatest game.

Oh, it was close -- no doubt about that. But there were turnovers and dropped passes and it lacked a big game from any of the very talented skill players that both teams employed at the time.

So there. Two can play at this game.

Don't get me wrong; I love Dick Enberg. He's been a rock in the business. I still get chills thinking about his game show, "Sports Challenge", which aired in the mid-1970s to early-1980s. And his voice was the one calling all the plays on my Talking Football game. For those who don't know, Talking Football was played with two people. You selected an offensive play, which was a tiny recorded disc, and dropped it into the disc player. Your opponent spun the disc to match up with the defense he was calling. Then you plunged the disc down, and the player described the play.

My favorite was, "A LEAPING interception....he's going to go...all the way!! TOUCHDOWN!"

So Dick Enberg is OK in my book. Not so much Billy Packer, but there you go. But my man Enberg's memory might be the one that's not so good.

It's OK to keep lauding MSU-ISU from 1979. You have my permission.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Return Of "The Knee Jerks"!! Mourning Kell, Making Over Bubbles, Thinkin' Stafford No. 1

Just when you thought it was safe to go back onto the Web on Thursdays -- "The Knee Jerks" are back after a one-week hiatus!

As you must know by now, every Thursday I get my chat on with the MVP of the MVN, Big Al of The Wayne Fontes Experience.

This week, we mourn the passing of George Kell; start to concede that the Lions will select Matthew Stafford first overall; ruminate about "Bubbles" the Lion getting a makeover; talk a little NCAA hoops; and deal with the usual suspects: Word Association and Jerk of the Week.

Carry on....


Eno: It's Thursday, and we're baaaack! It's "The Knee Jerks: WTF? With Eno and Al," and we're returning after a one-week hiatus. I'm Eno, aka The Journalist, and he's Big Al, aka Mr. Big Shot. Al, good to see you; I've missed you!

Big Al: Awwww, that's so sweet, I miss...No, I'm not getting all sappy. We're a couple of manly men talking about manly men things! Such as Detroit sports! With us Jerks taking a week off to charge our batteries, there should be plenty to talk about. What's on Eno's mind today?

Eno: Well, may as well get the sad stuff out of the way first. The legendary George Kell passed on Tuesday. It's so hard to say things that haven't already been said, but what are some of the things that spring to the top of your mind when you reflect on Kell and his career?

Big Al: Well, George, along with Ernie Harwell, was THE voice of the Tigers for several generations of fans. Especially those of us who came of age in the pre-cable days of TV. I'm sure most of us spent untold Saturday afternoons with George and Al Kaline calling the games on (what was then WWJ-TV, now WDIV) channel 4. When you were lucky to get one game a week televised, you made a point to watch. It helped that George was a GREAT broadcaster, with a voice most of us (of a certain age) imitated. "Hell-O Everah-body!" It takes me back to a time when I wasn't quite so jaded by big-time sports.

Eno: I used to pretend I was a ballplayer on the driveway, and I'd also pretend to be Kell, announcing my heroics. I started watching the Tigers when he was teamed with Larry Osterman. I loved the "Thanks, Larry, and good afternoon everyone" that began every broadcast. Remember Kell's pre-game show? It would come on at 2:00 on Saturdays, when the games started at 2:15. It's funny; Kell hasn't been on the air since 1995, but it's like he died during a baseball season in progress. That's how much he was in our consciousness.

Big Al: Kell was just as important to us fans as the players were, if not more. The players would change from season to season, but George Kell was always there, decade after decade, calling the games. It feels like we lost more than a play-by-play man; we lost a friend. He also deserves kudos for allowing Kaline to grow into the job as color man. Kaline was, to be blunt, lousy when he first joined Kell. But the longer they worked together, the better Al got. How many fan bases can say they had a pair of legit Hall of Famers calling their team’s games? It feels like we lost a friend, and I dread the day we have to eulogize Ernie Harwell.

Eno: Oh, I know re: Harwell. And you're right – Kaline wasn't very good in his first couple of seasons, at all. I'm just struck by how Kell stayed in the same town, and the same HOUSE, in Arkansas, all his life. Remember when it burned down a few years ago and they had to save him? Suddenly an old home movie of our daughter, from 1993, is even more precious now because while I shot it, the Tigers were on in the background. Not like when you and I were kids, when the movies were FILM and had no sound. This is videotape, and Kell and Kaline are on in the background. Awesome stuff.

Big Al: Indeed. They are of a different era, one that will never be replicated. So what else on your mind, Eno-sabi? Anything grinding your gears, get your goat?

Eno: Sure. I'm kinda annoyed, for whatever reason, about the Lions' coyness when it comes to their new logo, etc. It's getting tiresome to hear management REFUSE to confirm or deny the rumor. Why does that bother me?

Big Al: Losing your patience in your old age? I think the Lions are being forced to coy by the No Fun League. I'm sure the Lions are sick and tired of the hide-and-seek games as you. It quite possible the Lions will reveal everything during the draft, and introduce their number one pick in the new uni, next to the new, improved Bubbles the Lion. (I LOVE that name!) What do you think of the new Bubbles? I know it's no big deal, and only a merchandising grab, but I actually like the new Bubbles and logo font. As long as they don't f*** with the colors. The Lions ARE Honolulu blue and silver!

Eno: Yeah, it was alright. A subtle change, but sometimes subtle is all that's needed. Amen to keeping the color scheme! But why doesn't the team just SAY, "We'll have an announcement during the draft"? That would quiet just about all of the speculation. And yes, I AM getting crotchety. Been headed down that path for years!

Big Al: I'm waiting for you to yell, "Git of my lawn, you ne’er do well, you whippersnapper you!" I bet you walked uphill to school, in blizzard conditions while carrying 100 pounds of books, and battling the Nazis!

Eno: Not the Nazis – the Viet Cong. I was a Vietnam War-era kid! Don't make me older than I already am! Anyhow, what you got?

Big Al: I was just trying to Godwin our chat! I bring up the Nazis first, I win! We are trying to win, right? Oh, never mind. What's rolling around in the empty spaces of my mind? Well, speaking of the Lions, there are lead stories in the papers this week saying the Lions are entertaining offers for their second 1st round pick (number 20 overall), and would like to hear offers for the 1st overall. Personally, anyone who believes the Lions can trade the 1st overall selection has multiple screws loose. The contract is a cap killer, which is why I don't believe the Lions can do anything with the pick, other than draft the best player on the board, whoever it may be. As for number 20, they best receive multiple picks in return, including someone's number one, to make it worthwhile. In the end, I doubt the Lions make any draft day trades. Thoughts?

Eno: You know, you're probably right, although if they do anything, I think it'll be the No. 20 pick. I would be shocked if they trade the No. 1 overall. Speaking of that pick, there's some heavy chatter that Georgia QB Matthew Stafford is the guy. "Sources" are starting to indicate that the Lions have pretty much made up their mind. And they do appear to be spending more 1-on-1 time with Stafford than any other candidate. Does your gut tell you that it's Stafford, or no?

Big Al: If only for one reason, the money. Very few positions on the field can justify the sort of contract a 1st overall selection gets, which is likely to be in $35 million-plus range. QB is one of the few. It comes down to this...if the Lions think Stafford is the best player on the board, then DRAFT HIM. If they believe it's one of the left tackles (another position where you might be able to justify big dollars), say Jason Smith or Eugene Monroe, then DRAFT HIM. That the Lions are supposedly negotiating with multiple parties tells you they have 2-3 interchangeable players, talent-wise, at the top of their board. The first to agree to terms, is the first selected. I still think it'll be Stafford in the end, though.

Eno: Yeah, me too. I guess I've also kind of accepted the fact, too. As you know, I've not been crazy about the Lions going QB with the No. 1, but I guess that's simply being gun shy due to past mistakes. If it's Stafford, then that's cool. Whomever they pick is gonna feel the pressure, of course. If they DO go Stafford, how do you see it playing out? Daunte Culpepper is the starter, obviously. Does Stafford challenge this season, or not?

Big Al: If the Lions are smart, no. I repeat, NONONONONONONONO! It's not as if the Lions are playoff contenders. Culpepper is under contract for one more season, so let him play it out as the starter. Let Stafford hold the clipboard on game days, and watch and learn for a season. There are very few rookies, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan being big time exceptions to the rule, who can step in under center, and win games. The Lions messed up badly by forcing Joey Harrington into the starting role before he was ready. I'd hope they would have learned their lesson, right? RIGHT?

Eno: Wellll.....yeah, know. OK, so if not in 2009, when? At what point do you bring the kid in? It's not like a pitcher who you can shove into the fifth starter spot in the rotation. Stafford's either in or he's out at some point, right?

Big Al: That some point being 2010. At the very least, let him get his feet wet by slowly going into the pool, so to speak. Don’t shove the kid into the lineup because the Lions lose their first four games. Again, they aren't a playoff caliber team by any means. [Coach] Jim Schwartz has to think somewhat long-term, as he's essentially rebuilding the team from scratch. You have a stopgap for a reason, to play him till an understudy is ready. Culpepper is that one season stopgap, so use him as such, and plan on Stafford taking the reins in 2010. Seems simple, but for whatever reason (pressure from fans, the owner, the media, or in order to save their job) head coaches don't do the logical thing, which is sitting rookie QBs for a year. It was once common practice, but with today's "win now, or else" philosophy, it's common no longer. Schwartz is in an odd position, where he's not expected to "win now." He should use it to his advantage, and work a rookie QB in slowly. We can only hope...

Eno: True. Unlike with Harrington, the Lions have a coach who has, we presume, some honeymoon time in the bank. I agree that Culpepper is, for sure, the starter in 2009. But I worry about Daunte's health. Before we move on, how does Drew Stanton or a veteran backup play into the Culpepper/health thing?

Big Al: From what we hear out of Allen Park, it sure sounds like Stanton is not long for the team. Martin Mayhew is on record saying he would like to sign a veteran QB. We've seen two different coaching regimes shuffle Stanton to irrelevancy, which says volumes. There's no reason why the latest regime would see anything different in Stanton. It seems the only person on the Lions who liked Stanton was Matt Millen. That and 50 cents will get you a phone call telling the folks you've been cut. At this point, I can't see the Lions salvaging Stanton's career, do you?
Eno: Well, I can still see him as a practice squad guy, vying for a spot as a backup. You have Culpepper, a veteran, and if Stanton's the backup and Stafford is no. 3, then yes, you've got two kids, but do you really think you're going to the playoffs one year after 0-16? So, if Daunte goes down, you got a couple kids to take a look at. It might be similar to when the Cowboys teetered between Steve Beuerlein and Troy Aikman in the early-1990s.

Big Al: Unfortunately, sending Stanton to do battle with Stafford (if that's what happens), it would be the equivalent of sending him to a gunfight armed with only a knife. Stanton is the wrong guy on the wrong team at the wrong time. It might be best for all involved to cut bait. The Lions need to completely move on from the Millen Era, and to Stanton's dismay, he'll always be associated with the biggest GM failure in recorded history. If it weren't for bad luck, Stanton would have no luck at all.

Eno: Well, there's that. Good point. I'm not pushing for Stanton; if the Lions cut him, so be it. I just thought it would be nice for the MSU kid to make it as a Lion, but the team hasn't had too much luck with former Spartans (see Rogers, Charlie). Let's hope that changes with Julian Peterson. OK, I believe I hear the low spark of High Heeled WordAss!!


Big Al: OK, Mr. Winwood, feel free to get your yah-yahs...uh, I mean, WORDASS out!

Eno: Let's go back to Mr. Peterson. Your knee jerk reaction/word association for the Lions' new Pro Bowl LB?

Big Al: A good trade! Anyone who thought Cory Redding was a young, effective player, (like a certain NFL rumor website that'll remain nameless...*cough* PFT *cough*) hasn't watched the Lions' defense over the past two seasons. The Lions needed a playmaker on defense, and Julian Peterson has been one his entire career. The question is, at 31 years of age, can he remain one? I think it was worth the risk.

Eno: I wrote at OOB that I hope he's not another Pat Swilling, but I really don't think so. OK, next: Allen Iverson.

Big Al: Aww, the GF just gave me some flowers! Lucky me! She likes me, she really likes me! But I digress. Um, The Answer? He'll never play for the Pistons again. A failed experiment for Joe Dumars. We can only hope he makes very good use with the cap space over the next two seasons, or the Iverson deal will truly go down in infamy.

Eno: Never again? Wow. OK, next: Tom Izzo's boys in East Lansing. AND, Suzy Merchant's girls from the same school.

Big Al: Izzo has a Final Four-caliber team. The odds are he'll never have another opportunity to actually have the home court advantage in a Final Four. He realizes it, and will coach accordingly. I wouldn't bet against him, I'll say that. As for the Sparty women, it sure had to feel good to beat the coach who essentially left MSU standing at the altar. That it was Dook made it even sweeter. Turns out Merchant can coach with anyone, even Joanne P. McCallie.

Eno: Indeed. One more: I say Tigers' fifth starter and you say....

Big Al: Nate Robertson, who has pitched well as of late in spring training. Uber-prospect Rick Porcello heads to Erie, and is in the rotation mid-season, while Dontrelle Willis starts in Toledo. At this point, he's a lost cause, a $22+ million mistake, you think?

Eno: Wow – I think you and I are 100% on this! That's exactly the way I see it going down, too. Can't wait to see Porcello, though. OK, your turn, Alness!

Big Al: Let's start with your take on the Tigers' bullpen, as you asked me about the fifth starter. I say Tigers' closer at the end of the season, and you say...

Eno: Oh, Brandon Lyon. No doubt. Forget the four straight dingers the other day. He's the closer; that's why the Tigers called him, and that's why he came.

Big Al: Even at the end of the season? OK. What about the young spring training phenom, the assumed Tigers closer in waiting, Ryan Perry?

Eno: Hmmm....2010.

Big Al: Close enough, though I think we may see him sooner, especially if the Tigers contend. *knock on wood* Next, knee jerk thoughts on the latest newspaper to go under in the U.S., one known for their in-depth coverage of the Michigan Wolverines, the Ann Arbor News.

Eno: Yeah, I read that the other day. As Fletch said, "It's ALL ball bearings now!" But seriously, I'm afraid this is the wave of the future. Just as long as the "papers" don't disappear entirely. At least the A-squared News is remaining online.

Big Al: The world is always going to need beat writers, right? It's the columnists who should be worried. I think the big local dailies are going to look quite different five years from now. We're the guys on the front lines of change. One more for you, Eno-san. I say this past season of Michigan Wolverines basketball, and you say...

Eno: A step in the right direction. I think the Wolves finally found their basketball coach. It's about damn time!

Big Al: Agreed. John Beilien went one game deep into the NCAAs with two walk-ons getting big minutes. If that doesn't prove Beilein isn't one of the best Xs and Os coaches in the nation, nothing will. Before we get to the Jerk of the Week, anything else you want to bring to the fore?

Eno: about the Red Wings? We're getting VERY close to playoff time. Guys are still banged up, but that's to be expected now. What's the biggest concern that doesn't have the word "goaltending" in it?

Big Al: Defense, with a capital D. Sure, the goaltending is an issue, and we couldn't consider ourselves Wings fans in good standing if we didn't worry about who's between the pipes. It's what we do. But it can't all fall on Ozzie [Chris Osgood] and Conk-Block [Ty Conklin]. When you give up five, six, seven goals, the defensemen have to answer for it as well. It's funny, the Wings have an All-World D-man in Nick Lidstrom, and Brad Stuart is having the best season of his career, and may get some Norris Trophy votes, but the D is still an issue. Maybe Mike Babcock should be playing Chris Chelios? I kid, I kid! Then again...

Eno: Niklas Kronwall has been off all season, and that's been a concern. Call me nuts, but I think that the defense will tighten up, maybe magically, in the playoffs. OK, your Jerk of the Week, fine sir?


Big Al: I'm going with UConn head basketball coach Jim Calhoun. A few weeks ago, he went ballistic defending his salary, as the highest paid Connecticut public servant, in a time when most people worry about having a paycheck from week to week. He came off as a condescending prick. Wednesday, Yahoo Sports broke the news that UConn violated several NCAA recruiting rules regarding a player Calhoun ended up dismissing from the team. Not exactly how you want to go into the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAAs, eh? I hope Purdue cleans Calhoun's self-righteous clock. Who you got, Eno my man?

Eno: I've never been a Calhoun fan, and this doesn't do anything to change that! My Jerk – or in this case, Jerkette – is Duke womens basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie – if only because she had to feel like one as the MSU faithful booed her unmercifully while the Spartans woman-handled her team in the NCAAs. How's that "dream job" looking now, Joanne?

Big Al: I'm sure they are quite happy with her comeuppance in EL today, and deservedly so. I think that wraps up another webisode of the Knee Jerks. I think we did quite well after taking a week off. It's just like riding a bicycle, but I don't need a helmet...though some readers may think otherwise...

Eno: Some readers may think that you were one of those kids who wore a helmet to school, and rode the "little bus". Ahh, I kid you, my fine, Jerky Friend!

Big Al: Jerks to the end, sir! Till next time, then. I'll see you at the same Jerk time, same Jerk channel!

Eno: Adieu!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

George Kell: Sadly, God Waaaved Him In!

I always found it so ironic that George Kell mastered the art of the strikeout call, when he hardly struck out himself.

Kell, who died Tuesday at age 86, won the 1949 batting title, nosing out Ted Williams, no less. That much, you probably know. But how about this? In doing so, Kell struck out 13 times. Total.

A big league season is about six months long. So Kell, in hitting .342, struck out about twice a month. Once every 15 days or so.

Yet of all the signature calls that Kell, as the Tigers' longtime broadcaster, had, I think I'd put his strikeout call in the top two or three.

There were a few versions.

In a non-crucial portion of the game: "He STRUCK him out," in that Arkansas-coated accent.

In a more important situation: "Hey, he struck him out!"

In the last out of the game, a big Tigers' win put to bed: "STRIKE THREE! OH, HE STRUCK HIM OUT!"

I remember on one occasion, channel 4 edited together all of Kell's strikeout calls during a Jack Morris win in Kansas City. Morris fanned ten or eleven guys, and the montage was all of the third strikes, as described by Kell.

They were pretty much all the same. "Heee....struck him out." Nothing too exciting. But the fact that they WERE all the same was, to me, fascinating. For that wasn't a sign of boring repetition, but rather of sameness and reliability and, because of it, the comfort that Kell provided the viewer/listener.

He was a speaker of half-sentences, and that was OK, too.

I found one of our daughter's baby videos last summer, and it was shot back in 1993. The TV sound was on in the background, and, clear as a bell, there's Kell and Al Kaline, describing a Tigers game in Milwaukee.

"Here comes Cecil," was all Kell said at one point. That's all that needed to be said. Then, after the first pitch: "Up high." Again, all that needed to be said. A few moments later, after some blissful silence that today's announcers fear like the plague, there was this in the background as our two-month-old daughter rolled around on the bed: "Ball two, strike one. (long pause) Ground ball to short....(pause, then Milwaukee crowd cheers)...two out, in the sixth.

"Now it's up to Gibby!"

Man, it doesn't look nearly as good in print as it sounded to my ears, but those who grew up listening to Kell are probably smiling.

The one that gave you chills -- at least me -- was when a runner would try to score on a base hit and the ball was being hustled in to the infield.

"They're WAAAVING him in!" Kell would yell, and there wasn't anything more exciting. "There's gonna be a play at the plate!"

A ball would be fouled off, rather hard, into the stands. "Look OUT!" Kell would warn, as if the fans could hear him.

Of course, I could go on and on. And I'm really not imparting anything to you that you don't already know. That's what happens when the famous, the beloved pass away. We all say the same thing, pretty much -- but we somehow feel remiss if we don't say it.

Oh, and there's this. I used to be a pretend Detroit Tiger in my Livonia driveway as a kid. Sometimes I'd be myself, magically inserted into the Tigers lineup, or I'd be one of the real players -- Willie Horton, Norm Cash, etc. I'd have my plastic bat and my Tigers cap on and I'd dig in against an imaginary pitcher.

The "pitch" would be delivered and I'd swing. Funny how I always connected, dead-on.

Then I'd be Kell, announcing my heroics.

"There's a lonnnng drive! Way back! That ball is...GONE!"

I think I even tried to do Kell's Arkansas accent, as an 8-year-old.

Kell hasn't announced games regularly since 1995. But despite his 13 years away, his loss is still like it happened while he was an active broadcaster. He retired, but never truly left us.

Until now.

But only physically. There's still that home movie that I have, for example. And the stuff rattling around in my head.

"Thanks, Larry, and good afternoon everyone. The weatherman says we're gonna get this one in."

Stuff like that.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Curry Robs Pistons Of A Last Shot Vs. Heat

I'm beginning to think that Michael Curry was smarter and was a better coach when he was a player.

Curry lost, for the Pistons, yesterday's nationally-televised game against the Miami Heat at The Palace. At the very least, he robbed the Pistons of a chance to win it. Practically the same thing.

Curry first lost his cool, then his head, and because of all that losing it, the Pistons, well, lost.

The Heat were down most of the game, but that's not a concern anymore when you play the Pistons in Auburn Hills. It once used to be a frightening place to play for visiting teams. Now, it's more scary for the Pistons, truth be told.

So the Heat spotted the Pistons a dozen or so points, stayed within four-to-eight points for most of the second half, then, as if sensing that they could snatch the game at will, decided to nudge even closer in the fourth quarter. Finally, tired of playing catch-up, the Heat tied the game and eventually took the lead in the waning minutes.

Curry lost the game, for good, at the very end -- more about that in a moment -- but he didn't do his team any favors down the stretch, when he used peculiar defensive assignments against Dwyane Wade and didn't crack the whip when the Pistons went into statue mode offensively.

All that, and the Pistons still held a 96-95 lead with 13 seconds to play, thanks to a Walter Herrmann three-pointer.

Then the Pistons couldn't corral a bobbled inbounds pass, and after some pinball action, the basketball landed in the hands of Udonis Haslem, who coaxed a soft eight-footer into the hoop for a 97-96 Heat lead.

Curry, when he was a player, wasn't much of a scorer. His reputation was that of lockdown defender and an analytical mind on the court. Those two traits, plus his work ethic, made him a basketball observer darling. Often during his two stints as a Piston, we heard of how Michael Curry was good "coaching material" because of his being like the cliched "coach on the floor."

Well, Curry acted like a player at the end of Sunday's game -- a frustrated, out-of-control player. Not at all like the cool, calm, collected coach he is supposed to be in crunch time.

Curry had issues throughout the fourth quarter with the way Wade was viewed through the officials' eyes. Get in line, coach!

So Curry is upset that Wade is getting to the foul line on some suspects calls -- his version -- and wonders why the same courtesy isn't being extended on the other end. Again, not unlike what goes on every night in every game that players like Wade and LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, etc. participate in.

The Pistons' talented young point guard Rodney Stuckey drove the lane in the final few seconds, and Wade was right there with him, contesting everything. Stuckey tried a shot, and Wade not only slapped it away, he managed to grab possession of the ball while staying a fraction of an inch inbounds. He passed to a teammate, who was fouled. There was about a second left on the clock.

Curry couldn't contain himself. He railed at the officials so much, he was given two technicals and therefore ejected from the game. He left the court, and the Pistons' chances went with him.

Because of Curry's temper tantrum, the Heat were able to toss in four free throws -- two for the techs and two for the foul.

The two extra free throws due to Curry's technical fouls were killer. Had the Pistons been down, 99-96, they'd at least have a fighting chance for a game-tying triple. Instead, the Heat led 101-96. End of game.

No one said it would be easy for Curry, a rookie head coach with just one year of assistant coaching experience under his belt. No one could have foreseen the trade of Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, nor the myriad of injuries to Pistons players who normally don't miss a lot of playing time.

Curry is not all to blame for what's gone wrong in this haywire, 34-35 Pistons season.

But he hasn't really done a lot to stem the tide, either. Yesterday's brain freeze, preceded by some "meh" coaching in the fourth quarter, was another example.

The ABC announcers were incredulous after Curry got himself thrown out.

"All you have to do is wait 0.6 seconds to complain!" screamed Jeff Van Gundy, himself a former coach.

But Curry couldn't wait. His rookie status reared its head at a most inopportune time.

Funny, but Michael Curry, the player, probably wouldn't have done that. What is it about putting on the Armani suits that's making him dumb?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Draper’s Thousand Games With Red Wings Simply Grand

To get an idea of Kris Draper’s time spent on the ice in a Red Wings uniform, go to the nearest calendar and look ahead ten days. Then add ten hours from the time it is currently.

Now, imagine Draper zooming up and down the ice, forechecking, pestering, winning face-offs, killing penalties, backchecking. Imagine him doing that, 24/7, for those ten days and ten hours. Non-stop.

Draper just played in his 1,000th game as a Red Wing. He’s done so mainly as a fourth-liner, meaning that he plays about a quarter of each game.

So, a little math.

One-thousand games, times sixty minutes per game (not including overtime), equals 60,000 minutes. A quarter of that is 15,000 minutes, or 250 hours. And there’s your ten days, plus ten hours.

It was almost thirteen years ago when it was feared that Draper wouldn’t play another minute in the NHL.

Hockey players aren’t pretty. Their faces are full of scars and crevices and their noses are disjointed and their dentist is on speed dial. Ted Lindsay’s face looks like it’s made of a combination of corduroy and rough-hewn leather, to show you. You half expect to see bolts sticking out from his neck.

Teddy knows he’s not pretty, so I’m not worried about making him angry.

Be aware of the pretty boy hockey player, for he’s probably not worth a hill of beans.

The red-headed Draper isn’t pretty, either. He looks like a Howdy Doody doll that got caught in a garbage disposal. But he’s still playing, thirteen years after they thought it was all over for him.

Hockey is a great sport for those who love to hate the guys who wear the black hats. Lindsay was hated in each of the other five cities that had NHL hockey in his day. They didn’t call him Terrible Ted for nothing. Once, in Toronto, there were death threats during the playoffs.

“We were skating warm-ups, and nobody wanted to be near me,” Teddy recalled once about the threats in Toronto. “I asked Gordie (Howe) why, and he said, ‘What if they’re a bad shot?’”

Well, Teddy scored the game-winning goal in overtime, and he skated around the Maple Leaf Gardens ice, “shooting” the crowd with his hockey stick, as if it was a pretend machine gun.


In the 1996 Western Conference Finals, the black hat was firmly atop the head of Colorado’s Claude Lemieux. The Red Wings were the best team in the NHL during the regular season, but they were having a devil of a time in the playoffs. They struggled to get past the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues before meeting the Avalanche in the conference finals. The NHL’s version of the Final Four.

Lemieux was the worst type of black hatter, because he lacked courage and professional courtesy. He was a drive-by type of bad guy – hitting from behind, jabbing with his stick, sucker-punching.

Draper was against the boards, trying to finagle the puck, his back toward the charging Lemieux. Which meant that Lemieux had Draper just the way he preferred all of his victims: unaware, defenseless.

The resulting hit from Lemieux’s cowardice, which slammed Draper’s face into the boards, rearranged the Red Wing’s facial structure. Lemieux cracked Draper’s face like a walnut, and then skated away. Typical.

They showed photos of Lemieux’s destruction a couple days later, and Draper’s face – the eyes still blackened, the mouth still swollen, the jaw wired shut – reminded me of the famous photo of Tony Conigliaro after he got beaned while with the Red Sox in 1967. Tony C wasn’t the same, and was out of baseball a few years later.

Lemieux attacking Draper in '96 (top); the aftermath, after some healing (above)

Draper, it was speculated, might never play again – or at least, not with the same fervor and energy.

Well, it’s 2009 and he’s still out there, every night, still with the trademark speed and still being a pain in the other team’s keister.

Draper, in typical hockey player fashion, is taking an “Aw, shucks” attitude to having reached his milestone of one-thousand games as a Red Wing. He started listing the others who have done it: Steve Yzerman; Gordie Howe; Alex Delvecchio; Nicklas Lidstrom.

“Geez, to see my name among those guys,” Draper said as he was on the verge of playing Red Wings game No. 1,000. “It’s like, which name doesn’t belong?”

I’m not so sure about that sentiment.

Draper is one of the four-time Stanley Cup winners on Detroit’s roster. That’s one more than Yzerman, by the way. And he’s played those thousand games with the same effort every night. You’ve never had to worry about what you’re going to get from Kris Draper from game-to-game.

He doesn’t score much, and with all due respect, he’s one of those who makes you cringe when he bears down on the goalie with a breakaway. His hockey hands are as soft as granite.

But that’s never been his role, and it’s never been something the Red Wings have expected from him. Basically, you wind Draper up, tell him to check and skate and win face-offs, and that’s pretty much what he does. Night after night. For a thousand games, and counting.

Draper’s face has long since been repaired after Lemieux’s horrific hit. Though there’s a big difference between being repaired and being fixed. Mothers and wives are the only ones who matter, anyway.

Draper’s No. 33 probably won’t go up to the rafters at Joe Louis Arena when he’s done playing, like the others in the 1,000 Game Club (Lidstrom’s No. 5 is sure to be raised). He may not get any consideration at all for such an honor, which is weird, because why not? He’s contributed as much as anyone to bringing four Cups down Woodward Avenue.

Kris Draper, the red-headed stepchild. Literally.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Peterson Another Who Finds 0-16 Lions A Welcome Challenge

The Pro Bowl linebacker arrived in town, after some stellar years elsewhere, and even though he was on the wrong side of 30 and coming off an off-year, he spoke bravely of recapturing his glory days. And he declared himself thrilled with his new team and of the coaching staff. The Lions, in turn, had finally, they thought, acquired the difference-making, playmaking linebacker they had long sought.

Then Pat Swilling crossed the line.

He asked to wear No. 56.

It was 1993, and the Lions had pulled off a draft day trade, acquiring Swilling from the New Orleans Saints. Swilling was to be the energetic, two-for-one LB that coach Wayne Fontes craved -- a guy who could rush the passer and contain the run. But Swilling wore 56 in his Saints days, and thought it would be swell if he could wear it in Detroit, too.

Someone with the Lions, I hope, cleared their throat and said, "Um, Pat, 56 was worn by Joe Schmidt. The Hall of Famer, Joe Schmidt."

Swilling wanted 56 anyway. And here's the joke: the Lions let him have it.

Now, the punch line: Swilling soiled the number, playing two uninspired seasons in Detroit. He made the Pro Bowl in '93, but it was one of those "reputation" things. He wasn't two-thirds the player in Detroit as he had been in New Orleans.

No. 56 went back into storage -- and I hope it never again sees the light of day.

The Lions introduced Julian Peterson to the media folks the other day, and I hope he's not the modern day version of Swilling.

Peterson will be 31 soon, and he's coming off an "uh-oh" off-season in 2008. But prior to that, Peterson was a beast for the 49ers and the Seahawks. The Lions acquired him earlier in the week for DT Cory Redding and a fifth-round draft choice.

Peterson: 2008 a fluke, or the start of a trend?

Lions coach Jim Schwartz sees Peterson as still being capable of being the playmaking, two-for-one linebacker that he was through 2007. Peterson has made five Pro Bowls -- or five more than the Lions' current LB corps has made, combined.

Peterson, for his part, is tickled at the prospects of coming to the 0-16 Lions. He went to Michigan State, and so he has local ties. And he loves what he sees from Schwartz and his staff. You can read what he had to say about becoming a Lion HERE. It doesn't sound like bull, but then again, who knows?

But one thing is becoming clearer to me as the off-season drones on.

The Lions' status as the first team to go winless throughout a 16-game season doesn't seem to be as dissuasive as you might think. In fact, it might even be a recruiting tool for some players.

Players like Peterson, and others who the Lions have acquired via free agency and trade, and potential No. 1 draft picks like Matthew Stafford and Aaron Curry, have all sung the same tune. They all, they say, would love to be part of a rebirth of pro football in Detroit. The allure of contributing to the rise from the ashes is apparently pretty strong.

On second blush, this shouldn't be too surprising. Professional athletes -- the ones worth their salt, anyway -- love challenges. Sometimes the best motivator is to tell a player, or a group of the right kind of players, that they can't do something.

Having said that, there's no question that the Lions probably lost out on landing some of the bigger name free agents. Again, not surprising. The upper-tier guys usually have either won or have lost a lot, so the prospect of going to a winless team doesn't appeal to them, no matter how optimistic or how many changes that winless team can boast.

But there are plenty of good, solid NFL players out there who, if put into the right system, can come together and be the missing pieces that can bring a team from 0-16 to near .500 in Year One, then into the playoffs in Year Two. The Lions, it says here, have added several of those types since the curtain fell on 2008.

Julian Peterson says he wants to prove to everyone, and to himself, that his subpar 2008 season was a mirage and not the beginning of the end. He says he's happy and that the trade to Detroit was a "good fit." He likes the new coaching staff. He likes the area.

And he wears No. 59, not 56. So that's something, right there.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Knee Jerks: Takin' The Week Off

Hey, all you Jerksters out there! I know it's Thursday, and you're used to seeing another webisode of The Knee Jerks in this space. But real life got in the way this week, so we'll have to take a pass.

But we'll be back next week, with a vengeance!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ford's Eulogy One For The PR Types

They eulogized Bill Davidson yesterday. The place was filled with a Who's Who of Detroit and national sports. As well it should have been.

There's no riddle when it comes to the legacy of Davidson, Mr. D, who passed away last Friday at age 86. There's no need for a spin master or a cadre of P.R. types to punch up his bio and his legacy.

It's all there: championships; the resuscitation of a moribund franchise; a star-studded player roll; an entertainment empire that reaches beyond sports.

You don't have to be clubbed over the head to "get" why Davidson's legacy will land among the greatest of those in Detroit sports history.

I wonder what Bill Ford Sr. is thinking today.

It's ghoulish and morbid, but whenever one in a small clique passes, the other surviving members are looked at cross-eyed.

Ford is on the clock. So is Mike Ilitch -- in the legacy department. Unseemly, but true.

Ilitch is going to be 80 this summer, but by all accounts he seems to be in pretty good physical condition. Besides, he's a four-time Stanley Cup champ with the Red Wings, and a World Series participant with the Tigers. He's won enough to keep even the vermin-like fans among us from wishing his obituary to be printed.

But Ford? You don't want to know what they're wishing about his health. It's not very nice.

But that's what happens when you take a franchise and drive it into the muck, repeatedly, for 45 years.

Davidson, actually, was much like Ford -- in the beginning. He, too, emerged from a group of potential owners and bought out the syndicate so that he could run a team all by his lonesome. Davidson did it in 1974, ten years after Ford did it.

One of the folks who Ford bought out was Ralph Wilson, the longtime owner of the Buffalo Bills. Yeah, I know what you're thinking.

As I read of Davidson's funeral, and all of the A-list folks who attended and spoke on his behalf, it was hard not to think of what they might say about Ford, who turned 84 last Saturday, when it's his time.

What will the legacy be?

The sports broadcasting heads like to say, "If the playoffs started today..." as an excuse to talk, today, about things that are better talked about in the future -- like when they actually happen. So I'll borrow from that and say, "If Bill Ford's funeral was today..."

Morbid? Maybe. But it's a question worth asking: Just what WILL Ford's legacy be, should they lay him to rest before another pro football season is in the books?

Lemme see...

Well, I suppose they could speak of his integrity and his family's car company contributing greatly to the NFL's success in the 1960s and '70s, courtesy of advertising dollars. They could talk about how nice of a man he was. They could say that he wasn't a loud-mouthed buffoon, like so many of his contemporaries. They could talk about his loyalty to his employees and how he was, by what we've read and heard, simply wonderful to work for.

They will not, however, be able to say that he was a winner. Like Bill Davidson. Like Mike Ilitch. That part will have to be left out.

Ford's failure to field a championship-caliber football team won't, I maintain, determine the size of his funeral or the stature of folks who'll fly in for the event. He'll still draw the A-listers, mainly because of his longevity. The NFL will throw tons of bouquets at his memory. You really can't blame them; Ford has been, indeed, one of the league's classiest owners when it comes right down to it.

None of that nice guy, classy, loyal stuff means much to the hard-working, blue collar football fans in Detroit, however. And it's not like you can have one and not the other; we've seen how Davidson operated (and how Ilitch still does), and Mr. D was all those things that they'll say about Ford -- PLUS he was a winner. So it CAN be done.

It just wasn't done with the Lions, like it was done with the Pistons. Davidson took over a team that was in far worse shape than the Lions, in terms of fan support and tradition, bought out his partners, and went to work. He stumbled along the way (see Vitale, Dick) but then corrected himself in short order (see McCloskey, Jack). Davidson was bold, unwavering, and generous. Ford, sadly, has been only the last of those three.

I have no idea when the need will come to eulogize Bill Ford. I'm not one of those hoping for his demise. But time is running out to fashion a legacy of success that won't need to be camouflaged with flowery talk of how nice of a man he was.

All they had to do at Davidson's funeral was recite his resume. It'll take more than that to celebrate the Ford Ownership, when that time comes. A lot more.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Michigan Basketball: One-Shot Deal, Or The Start Of A New Trend?

University of Michigan basketball is back. For one more game, anyway.

The NCAA selection committee found the phone number to A.D. Bill Martin, after all, and shot an invitation to the Wolverines, asking them to be there at 7:10 p.m. sharp Thursday, so that they may take on the Clemson Tigers in Round One. The Tigers, who started 16-0, finished at 23-8. Maybe their most impressive win was a 74-47 thumping of Duke, no less, at Clemson. The Wolves beat Duke, too.

U-M joins Michigan State in the tourney. The selection committee knows the Spartans' number by heart.

I'm not a Michigan fan, though I've softened my stance over the years. Maybe it's my inferiority complex from having attended Eastern Michigan University, seven miles down the road and firmly lost in U-M's shadow.

I've been an MSU leaner, though I'm hardly heartbroken whenever the Spartans lose anything of note. I guess that makes me semi-objective when it comes to commenting on the two schools.

Regardless, I'm actually thrilled for Michigan -- both the university and the state. How can it not be better, when both the Wolverines and the Spartans are in the "Big Dance", as they call it. I remember how exciting it was when the University of Detroit took on powerful Michigan in the 1977 tournament. Michigan won, but not before the Titans scared the bejeebers out of them.

Of course, the only way MSU can play Michigan in this year's tourney is if they meet in -- gasp! -- the Final. In Detroit.

You can stop fantasizing now.

The Wolverines have been AWOL from the Dance for so long, the players who last played on a Michigan tourney team are now retired from the NBA.

It was 1998, in case you were wondering. The Wolves got blasted out in the second round, losing to UCLA. Since then, the program has been in flux. And that's a rather kind way of putting it.

How a school of Michigan's stature enabled its basketball program to sink to an almost comedic level is a mystery that I'd dearly love someone to solve someday.

Manny Harris and Michigan will make the school's first NCAA appearance since 1998

But they're back -- in the tournament, for as long as they shall live.

Clemson won't be a pushover. Few teams are, when you enter the tournament as a no. 10 seed, as Michigan is in the South region. Besides, even a win over Clemson will simply likely lead to a second-round date with no. 2 seed Oklahoma. Sayonara!

But U-M is in, and I really do hope that this isn't just a blip on their screen; it would be wonderful if the Wolverines could provide more than token resistance to MSU's basketball dominance in the state. For too long (with the exception of last season), the U-M/MSU thing has been relegated to Michigan dominating in football, and MSU returning the favor on the hardwood. Wouldn't it be nice if the gaps were closed in each of those sports?

Of course, they've been trying to close the gap in football in East Lansing for over 30 years, with little success.

Michigan's a 20-win team again, which used to mean, almost, an automatic invitation. But with the onslaught of conference tournaments, there are fewer at-large openings, since conference tourney winners are often not the teams who would have received an at-large bid had they not gained an automatic berth by virtue of winning their conference tournament. That was a long sentence, and it may take you longer to read it than the Wolverines will last in the tournament. Forgive my sass, but after a 10-year absence, I'm entitled to throw some sass Michigan's way.

Now it's up to them to shove crow down my throat.

Michigan basketball is back. Well, as back as you can be, when they float you an invitation 11 years after the last one.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Lions Made Right Choice In ’80, Despite Sims Injury

Billy Sims and Charlie White were rivals, of sorts, in college football. At least, they were media-created rivals, which isn’t always the same thing, I realize. And one of them was deemed to be the best running back to enter the 1980 draft.

Sims, or White?

Sims was the flashier of the two – galloping with his long, high-step kick for the University of Oklahoma. Sims’s style was one of avoidance; and he had the moves to back it up. Billy Sims chose to run around people rather than through them.

White was physically tougher, in the sense that he didn’t always bother with the fancy twist and turn to dodge tacklers. White played for that football factory on the Left Coast – the University of Southern Cal.

In 1979, Sports Illustrated ran a cover of Sims and White – each clutching the Heisman Trophy in a mock tug-of-war. Who would win the coveted trophy for being the best college player in the country? Sims had already won it in 1978. And White ended up winning it in ’79, after all.

The Lions didn’t win much of anything in White’s Heisman year. The ’79 Lions went 2-14 – the worst team in the NFL. We might be kind of desensitized to such a distinction nowadays, but in 1979, it was still a shock to the system in Detroit, to have the worst professional football team in the land.

The 1970s ended with a thud. The Lions looked toward a new decade with new hope.

Two crown jewel runners would be available in the 1980 draft: Billy Sims and Charlie White. The Lions had the no. 1 overall pick off the board, just like they do in 2009. It was widely agreed that a brilliant skill position player such as Sims or White was just what the doctor ordered for the moribund Lions.

Sims, or White?

As the draft grew closer, a previously-ignored factor emerged: Sims’s age. He would be 25 years old in September, due to a late start in college and being red shirted due to injuries. Charlie White was just 22. The three extra years were thought to maybe dissuade the Lions from drafting Sims.

But in the days prior to the draft, word leaked: the Lions were leaning toward the flashy, whirling dervish Sims over the quick, more bulldozing White.

Turns out that Charlie White wasn’t thought of as highly in NFL circles as the media folks assumed. Imagine.

The Lions snatched Sims off the board, as leaked – the first player chosen in the 1980 NFL Draft. But Charlie White didn’t go second overall. He didn’t go third overall. In fact, 25 more teams made their picks, and White’s name had still yet to be called.

The Cleveland Browns finally ended White’s consternation, grabbing him with the 27th overall selection.

The Lions of 2009, it’s been said, are faced with the “most important draft in their history”. Not sure about that, but it’s certainly the most curious, because even the 1979 Lions managed to win two games. What does an 0-16 team look for, anyway, with a cache of draft picks and more holes in its roster than a pound of Swiss Cheese? What does it do with the no. 1 overall pick? It’s the highest pick possible, but you can still only use it to draft one player.

In 1980, the choice was pretty much limited to Billy Sims or Charlie White.

SI’s September 10, 1979 cover, depicting the rivals White (left) and Sims

In 2009?

There is no shortage of opinions, each trumpeted by the opinioned as being, unequivocally, the best thing for the 0-16 Lions.

The Lions badly need a franchise quarterback, some of the opinionated say. So who better than Matthew Stafford, the flawed but talented QB from the University of Georgia?

No, other opinionated experts say. Defense wins football games, and the Lions have the worst defense in the NFL, by far. So who better than Aaron Curry, the wrecking machine linebacker from Wake Forest?

But wait! What good is a franchise quarterback if he’s under constant attack? You need blocking, so who better than Jason Smith, the wall of a left tackle from Baylor?

It’s not a Sims-or-White thing for the Lions this April.

The Lions better hope that they have as much success with this no. 1 overall pick as they did back in 1980, when they drafted Billy Sims.

Sims, through no fault of his own, isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of all-time leading rushers. That’s because there’s a lot of Gale Sayers about him.

Sayers, the Kansas Comet, was in the NFL and gone, just like that. Just like his running style. Sayers was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1965, and by 1970 he was toast, his knee irreparably damaged. He was the James Dean of pro football; we only got a teaspoonful of his potential before the spoon was snatched away entirely.

Sims burst onto the scene with the 1980 Lions, and immediately he proved the team correct in drafting him first overall.

The Lions played the Rams, on the road, to open the ’80 season. The Rams were defending NFC Champs, and the 2-14 Lions were daring to take them on, in the Rams’ backyard. Sims torched them, rushing for over 150 yards and three touchdowns. The Lions won, 41-20.

The 1980 Lions started fast and faded, but not Sims personally. He finished with 1,303 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. The next season, Sims rushed for over 1,400 yards with a 4.9 yards per carry average, and scored 13 more TDs. He slumped slightly in the 1982 strike-shortened season, but bounced back with another 1,000-yard season in 1983.

In 1984, Sims got off to a terrific start. Halfway through the season, he was nearing 700 yards rushing and his yards-per-carry average spiked to 5.3.

I was at home, watching the game in Minnesota on the tube – the Lions’ eighth game of the ’84 season. It was the week after the Tigers clinched the ’84 World Series. The Lions were rassling with their old nemesis, the Vikings, in the Metrodome.

Sims took a toss from quarterback Gary Danielson and swung to his left. It was a signature play the Lions had been running ever since drafting Sims in 1980. And, also signature, Sims swerved away from the aggressive Vikings pursuers. But Walker Lee Ashley – I’ll never forget his name – crashed into Sims’ left knee and the force of the blow caused the knee to burst like a popping kernel of corn.

Billy Sims’s career was over. Just like that.

The Lions may have gotten shortchanged on their 1980 no. 1 overall pick, but it wasn’t because they chose the wrong guy. Billy Sims proved himself worthy of his draft status. Charlie White was pretty much a dud of an NFL player.

Now, 29 years later, they need to get it right again. It’s one of the few times you hope Lions history repeats itself.

Friday, March 13, 2009

NHL Needs To Get Smaller In Order To Grow

Oh, to be NHL commissioner for one day. Just one.

Just one day is all I'd need to, with one stroke of my commissioner's pen, commit common sense.

I'd place all the Original Six teams in one division.

The rest? I'd let them fight on the floor for scraps.

That may seem like a counter-intuitive move, but what Gary Bettman and the NHL doesn't want to admit is that they have themselves a niche sport. And the sooner they come to terms with that, the better off the league will be, in the long term.

I know the NHL doesn't want to hear that. They fancy themselves a significant player in the world of professional team sports. They are, after all, still inferred to whenever someone invokes the phrase, "four major sports."

Yes, hockey is one of the "four majors", but they're no. 4, and they need a telescope to see the rear end of no. 3.

I've complained for years that the NHL has tried to appeal to the fringe fan at the expense of alienating its core. It's been borne out in the way the league has expanded, force-feeding NHL hockey to the Sun Belt and the West Coast. It's been displayed in many of the rule changes over the years, including the relentless assault on fighting.

If the NHL would only realize that if they cater to and listen to their core, the true hockey fan who's been interested in the game since they were toddlers, and not worry about trying to have mass appeal, then their efforts would be rewarded -- IF they can swallow some pride.

Some franchises might drop off, and so might some of the fringe fans who were hanging on by a thread. But the folks who truly love hockey, the ones who would dearly appreciate moves like creating an Original Six division, would very much stay. And, I submit, they might end up being the best marketing tool the NHL has ever had. Certainly the cheapest. Because they'd be Bettman's Johnny Appleseeds, spreading the word about the NHL to friends, co-workers, family -- you name it.

There's no shame in presiding over a niche sport. Look at NASCAR, for crying out loud. The good people over there don't hold races where there's no interest in racing. They don't change their rules to try to appeal to the fringe racing fan. No, NASCAR sticks to its core and caters directly to it. And that strategy has been pretty darn successful.

The NHL has seen itself come tantalizingly close to being a full-fledged member of the four major team sports, and it's killing them that it's just out of their grasp, in their eyes.

So if they'd only pull back, re-assess themselves and take a hard self-inventory, they'd see that this "appeal to the masses" approach is self-destructing.

A couple years or so ago, I moderated a roundtable discussion with ex-Red Wings Shawn Burr, Johnny Wilson, and Ted Lindsay. I asked each of them what they'd do if they could run the NHL. Burr didn't hesitate.

"I'd have surveys in every NHL arena," he said. "And I'd ask a bunch of questions about the game, to get the fans' opinions." Then, Burr said, he'd use that information to see what the game needed to fix. I thought it was wonderfully simple yet brilliant.

Bettman's been simple plenty of times, but rarely brilliant.

Can someone save the NHL from itself?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Jerks of the Knee: It's Hard To Be A (UDM) Titan; Even Harder To Be A Goalie; And Even Harder To Watch Nate & Dontrelle

Scared colleges; scared goalies (?); scared Knee Jerks of a Lions uniform change; scared QBs (?); scared managers; scared Knee Jerks of the Tigers' rotation...

A lot of fear going on this week, which is yet another webisode of "The Knee Jerks: WTF? With Eno and Al."

For the newbies, every Thursday I chat up the MVP of the MVN, Big Al of The Wayne Fontes Experience. What results is a sometimes ribald, ALWAYS sardonic take on sports.

Everything in paragraph #1 is included in this week's package, plus the regulars -- Word Association and Jerk of the Week.

Keep reading....


Eno: Happy Thursday, you Jerksters! It's "The Knee Jerks: WTF? With Eno and Al." I'm Eno, aka The Journalist, and he's Big Al, aka Mr. Big Shot. Greetings, oh Al one...

Big Al: Oh Al one? As in 0Al1? So what's up, Eno-sabi? Lots going in the sporting world as of late, with all of the local pro and college teams making news of one sort or another. Anything in particular on your investigative journalist mind?

Eno: Well, I caused a bit of a stir at OOB when I wrote what was called a "scathing" piece about why UDM won't play Oakland University, according to OU coach Greg Kampe. What a shame that UDM and EMU continue to scrape the bottom of the college basketball barrel, eh?

Big Al: Unfortunately, as the part of the Detroit area mid-major contingent, they are always going to be part of the bottom of the barrel. It's too bad they don't play each other, as it would do nothing but good, publicity-wise. The Detroit media all but ignores UDM, Oakland, Eastern, Central and Western, unless they are in a conference tournament game of some importance (such as OU losing in the Horizon final Tuesday night). Actually, the Wolverines and Spartans should be in the mix as well, playing many of those teams fairly often. This isn't a huge college hoops market; anything these teams can do to get attention, in a good way, is the right thing to do.

Eno: But UDM HAS tasted success – that’s the thing. They USED to be good and USED to be able to recruit the area. Personally, I believe that Calihan Hall does NOTHING for recruiting. Have you been there? It's like a glorified high school gym. They're never on TV, either, but if the facility were better...Now, I know [UDM alumnus and NBAer] Willie Green paid for a kick ass locker room, but the arena itself is ancient. I don't know. Seems like with all the talent in Detroit, you'd think they could be more competitive.

Big Al: I have to admit, Calihan is one of the few local arenas I’ve never visited (I know, I'm being generous, as Calihan is a glorified gym), but I'm your typical Southeastern Michigan sports fan. College hoops is low on the totem pole – below the four pro teams and college football. College basketball only starts to truly pique my interest now, as we are close to tournament time. Sure, UDM was once relevant, but that was over thirty years ago! It takes someone with the charisma of Dick Vitale to raise the profile of a school like UDM. Hell, I couldn't even tell you who's coaching them now. Have no idea. (Hey, I do know OU is coached by Greg Kampe, but he's made the NCAAs in recent memory) It's sad, but those are the facts of life, coaching at a low mid-major school.

Eno: Ray McCallum is the coach at UDM, succeeding Perry Watson. Oh, and EMU's coach is Charles Ramsey, for the record – until HE gets the ziggy. OK, what's on your agenda of items for today?

Big Al: The Lions continue to keep themselves in the news, with word leaking about a possible color and logo change. As I noted on TWFE, there was a Twitter post stating an unnamed media member as having seen the new look, and wasn't impressed. I realize the Lions do want to move merchandise, and the best way to do so is to change the unis. Am I a bad fan if I say that I like the old Honolulu Blue and Silver? That the “Bubbles the Lion” logo doesn't bother me? That I like their old uniforms? Uniforms and logos don't win games, and isn't there something good about tradition, even if it isn't exactly glorious?

Eno: No, I'm with you, Al! Keep the color scheme! Keep Bubbles! Someone made a comment on your blog about the Pistons' horrifying teal experiment. Seems that when the traditional look is changed, it's always for the worse. Though, as I commented, just because a "media person" says it doesn't look good, doesn't mean that it doesn't look good. But I admit that the change, if it's true, scares me. Of course, if the Lions start winning, the new look will be unjustly credited!

Big Al: EXACTLY! I thought Matt Millen's adding black accents and the all-black alternate jersey was silly. The Lions are one of the NFL's longest-tenured franchises, and should behave as such. Changing the colors would be like the Tigers getting rid of the creamy whites or the Red Wings wearing those God-awful black sweaters I see fans wearing occasionally. They can tweak the logo, if the Lions have to do something. They’ve done so in the past, but leave the colors be! And don't get me going on those mid-1990s teal MONSTROSITIES of the Pistons.

Eno: The funny thing is, the first season the Pistons wore teal, they got off to something like a 26-6 start (actually 24-8 in '96-'97). I asked one of the dudes in marketing, who I knew, if he thought it was due to the new uniforms. Naturally, he said yes! Anyhow, I hope the Lions don't change. The Packers didn't change. Neither did the Vikings or the Bears – at least not significantly. And the Red Wings and Tigers? It's SO cool to look at photos from the 1940s or earlier and see mostly the same look!

Big Al: Damn straight, Eno-meister. So in news that could actually affect things ON the field, the Jay Cutler rumors won't go away. Word out of the Rocky Mountains is that the Broncos QB is pissed, and may not show up for off-season workouts. That could be the beginning of the end for Cutler, a Pro Bowl-caliber QB, in Denver. As we all know, the Lions were part of a deal that would have sent Cutler to Detroit, but which fell through at the last moment. The Lions have several high draft picks to play with. You think they should make another play for Cutler? Even if the cost is high – say the number one overall pick?

Eno: First, let me thank you for never referring to the Detroit sports teams as "we" and "us". A good, self-respecting blogger will ALWAYS refer to the teams in the third person. Anyhow, YES – make a play for Cutler; why not? He's established, and would be one less thing to worry about. But if you think he's unhappy in DENVER...

Big Al: Thank you. The "we" and "us" thing is a big time pet peeve of mine, and I consciously try to avoid that sort of bush league stuff. But I digress... As for Cutler, I agree. He's far better than anyone the Lions have on the roster, and is already proven, compared to whomever the Lions get in the draft. The first overall pick for a Pro Bowl QB is pretty much a fair deal. But if the Lions could get him with the 20th overall, or the 33rd? Then it truly becomes a no-brainer move. Sure, Cutler might not be happy to know he could end up in Detroit, but at least he would know the organization actually wanted him, and would be the starter for damn near infinity. There's a lot to be said about just plain being wanted.

Eno: True that. What do you think of my assertion earlier this week that there's too much time between the end of the season and the draft? It's still a month and a half away, for goodness sakes!

Big Al: Is it too long for the fans? Hell, yes! Too long for the teams? I'm sure they have had all the info they need for quite some time, at least by the end of the combine. But it's not too long for the media, who live to hype the holy Hell out of the draft. It's not too long for the NFL, as they LOVE the publicity. The draft buildup keeps the league in the news essentially year ‘round. It's all about the business side of things, Eno-sabi, and the NFL draft is big business.

Eno: *sigh* I suppose. But an earlier draft would give teams a tad longer to negotiate with their picks. OK, moving right along...[Tigers pitcher] Jeremy Bonderman says he can be ready by Opening Day. Jimmy Leyland concurs. But WILL Bondo be ready?

Big Al: No. Next question. [pause] Oh, you want more? It's too much to expect a pitcher the Tigers have heavily invested in to rush back from what was a very invasive surgery. I'd want the Tigers to err on the far side of caution in regard to Bondo. Even if that means he stays in Florida for a couple of months.

Eno: I agree that it's not necessary to rush him back; not worth it. But hey, what about this kid Rick Porcello, and that Kyle Perry? Pretty exciting, no?

Big Al: Very exciting! Thanks to the performances, or lack thereof, of some of the veteran pitchers (Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis, to name the most obvious), it's a good thing. From all reports out of Lakeland, Robertson is toast. His slider has disappeared, and he's lost a foot off his fastball. Porcello, on the other hand, has dominated so far. Even though Porcello is young [20], he's already a major league talent. Leyland's job is on the line, and he finds himself in a "win or else" position, and has said contracts won't dictate his roster. If I'm Robertson or Willis, I'm worried. If I'm Porcello, I'm looking for an apartment in Detroit. Same goes for Perry. The bullpen will be on a short leash; Perry will be one of the first called up if someone falters.

Eno: Something tells me Porcello may just make the Opening Day roster. Nate Robertson is certainly not making a good case for himself. If Willis wasn't being paid all that jack, the Tigers probably would have cut him by now. Lost in all this is Freddy Garcia. The Tigers quietly let him go last year. Was that premature?

Big Al: I was one of the many who thought Garcia had shown enough in his September audition to deserve a shot at the '09 rotation. The Tigers thought differently, hoping for rebound seasons from Robertson, Willis and Bonderman. Now Robertson looks washed up, Willis is channeling Steve Blass and Bondo is still hurting, while Garcia is pitching well for the Mets, and is on track to be their fifth starter. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but didn’t everyone but the Tigers see this happening?

Eno: I was shocked, frankly, that they let Garcia go so casually. I just looked him up: three starts, 15 IP, 4.20 ERA, 1-1 record. Not horrible. Oh well. How about some WordAss??


Big Al: Feel free to ass away, sir! Wait, that didn't come out right!

Eno: *wince* OK, first up: the tragic end of Kronk boxer Mickey Goodwin.

Big Al: The first boxer I heard of out of Kronk! I was very saddened to hear of his passing. In many ways, he opened the door that Tommy Hearns and Hilmer Kenty (the first Kronk boxer to win a world title, I believe) burst through. If the term, “I shoulda been a contender" fit anyone, it was Goodwin.

Eno: And Marvin Hagler, according to my friend and boxing referee Frank Garza, wanted NO part of Goodwin. OK, how about...the World Baseball Classic?

Big Al: The NETHERLANDS? WTF? They have to be in mourning in the Dominican, after getting knocked out of the WBC, by of all people, Sir Gene Kingsale, the former Detroit Tiger. I haven't been able to see much of the WBC, as I'm at the lovely girlfriend's place this week, but what I have seen, was entertaining. The WBC still doesn't mean much to Americans, but it has been entertaining baseball.

Eno: Wow; thought you'd take the "Who cares?" route! OK, one more: I say Red Wings' chances in the playoffs and you say....

Big Al: They ride on Ty Conklin's shoulders! Chris Osgood hasn't been just bad in net; he’s been embarrassing. Now the Wings want to play Conk-block at home, and Ozzie only on the road? Does that sound like a team confident in their goaltending to you?

Eno: Ahh, Ed Whitson Syndrome! Yikes; not a warm and fuzzy sign, there. OK, fire away, Mr. Big Shot!

Big Al: Ah, yes. George Steinbrenner's favorite high-priced Yankees punching bag! OK, let's begin with Mrs. Hockey, Colleen Howe, who passed away last week.

Eno: I hate to say this, but now Gordie can have some peace, and so can Colleen. She wasted away horribly, and caring for her was easily the biggest challenge in Mr. Hockey's life. She probably pissed some people off along the way, but so has every trailblazer in history. God rest your soul, Colleen – you deserve it.

Big Al: Indeed. She was the business person Gordie wasn't, or didn't want to be. Next, what do the Michigan Wolverines hear on Selection Sunday?

Eno: about: “This is your lucky day.” I have visions of Harvey Two-Face flipping his coin, like in the Batman movies. The Wolves sneak in, their bubble holding, barely.

Big Al: I'm not so sure it's so close. They have signature wins, and good losses. One win in the Big Ten tournament, and the Wolverines are locks. Speaking of which, now that every conference (save the Ivy League) has one, the explosion of conference basketball tournaments is a...?

Eno: Well, since you said "a" instead of "an", I'll go with...a pretty good thing, overall. I have no problem with it. Of course, those bubble teams who won their conference's regular season title may disagree, because a tournament loss might mean no NCAA invite. One more for me, sir?

Big Al: You want it, you got it. As he has been acting up as of late, unfairly ripping the Red Wings, Mr. Xenophobe himself, Don Cherry.

Eno: He reminds me of George Carlin: funny and hip early on, then mean-spirited, cranky and bitter toward the end. I don't pay attention to him anymore.

Big Al: Spot on. I once thought him funny. Now, Grapes is just a sad, angry old man. Anything you want to get off your chest before we name our Jerks of the Week, Eno-san?

Eno: Well, how about the Orlando Magic and their 0-3 against the Pistons this season? Any playoff fodder there, or no? Remember, the Pistons' mastery over the Magic goes back several years. Would that be in the Magic's head if they met the Pistons in the playoffs?

Big Al: Damn, I thought we might have a Pistons-free zone for the first time in Knee Jerks history! As for your questions, you'd have to think so. The Pistons could start Kwame Brown, Will Bynum and three guys out of the stands, and as long as they were wearing the Pistons red, white and blue, would beat the Magic handily. It would be in Detroit's best interest to meet the Magic in the first round of the playoffs.

Eno: Wow....OK, I'll play the #3. I see you as a #4. That leaves Kwame at #5; we need a silky-smooth shooting guard. Terry Duerod, where are you?? I usually don't go for that regular season/past history means anything route, but I tend to agree here. The Pistons would have a mental advantage GOING IN to the series, but that might go away if the Magic win Game 1. You got anything before JOTW?

Big Al: Save for one thing. I hate mock drafts, even though I'm taking part in one. (Hey, they drive traffic!) Trying to predict the NFL draft is as unscientific an endeavor as it comes. Too much can change day to day, even hour to hour. For example, I took Matthew Stafford for the Lions in the mock in which I'm participating. Today, the Jay Cutler story may make everything moot. Much like all mocks. Call me a hypocrite, but mock drafts are a waste of time.

Eno: God, I agree about Mock Drafts!! Sheesh!! OK...your JOTW is....


Big Al: In fact, make THAT my Jerk of the Week. The endless mock drafts by everyone and their sister! (and me!) ENOUGH ALREADY! Or should I say, Jerks of the Week, plural. As for you, good sir?

Eno: Nicely played. My Jerk is the Denver Broncos’ new head coach Josh McDaniels, for managing to alienate his Pro Bowl QB [Jay Cutler] before St. Patrick's Day. Not the best way to start a new era!

Big Al: Let's all get drunk and piss off our Pro Bowl quarterback! Sounds like an exit cue, Eno-sabi. All good things must come to an end. Even though this doesn't fit the bill, this meeting of the Jerks must end too.

Eno: Indeed, sir. See ya next week!

Big Al: Same Jerk time, know the rest!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

UDM, Once Fearless, Ducks Even Oakland U. Nowadays

There was a time when the University of Detroit (before they added the Mercy part to their name) wasn't a-scared of anybody, when it came to basketball opponents.

Powerhouse DePaul? Bring it on! Marquette, on the road? When does the bus leave? Michigan? Just name the time and the place!

That was a long, long time ago.

U-D is now UDM. They added an "M", but lost their nerve.

Why, UDM won't even play Oakland University, some 30 miles or so north.

It's not the travel, of course -- it's the quality of the Golden Grizzlies.

UDM is ducking OU. Has been for years.

Oakland coach Greg Kampe was chatting with some Internet fans the other day, and portions of the chat were printed by the Free Press.

Who, Kampe was asked, is Oakland's biggest rival?

"It should be the University of Detroit-Mercy," Kampe said. "But they won't play us. So it's Oral Roberts."

Oral Roberts plays in Oakland's league, in case you were wondering. Which is more than you can say about UDM.

UDM doesn't play in many people's league anymore. They're officially a member of the Horizon League, with schools like Cleveland State (who just won the league tournament) and Butler and Wisconsins of Green Bay and Milwaukee. It's not a bad little league, actually; Cleveland State and Butler have caused other teams fits in basketball over the years.

So did U-D/UDM, once upon a time.

U-D had Dave DeBusschere and Spencer Haywood in the 1960s, and Terry Tyler and John Long and Terry Duerod in the 1970s. And it was no picnic playing the Titans -- especially in that glorified high school gymnasium called Calihan Hall.

The Titans still play in old, decrepit Calihan, and their team hasn't caused any trouble for too long. The 2008-09 season that the Titans just completed was another cautionary tale of a campaign: 7-23 overall; 2-17 in league play.

No wonder they're ducking Oakland U.

Dickie Vitale and Dave "Smokey" Gaines and even Don Sicko must be horrified at the notion that UDM won't play Oakland -- not because OU is small potatoes, but because the Titans might very likely get their tails handed to them if they dared play Greg Kampe's kids.

Kampe has Oakland on a great upward path. They win a lot up there, and for a school of its size, OU puts a very competitive team on the floor, year after year.

UDM sits right smack in the very city that produces some of the finest high school players in the entire Midwest, yet they wallow. Have been, with few interludes of success, since the mid-1980s.

Now they won't even hop on a bus for 45 minutes to play Oakland, nor will they host them, thus robbing OU of its biggest rival, according to Coach Kampe.

I remember watching the '76-'77 Titans march into the old Mecca in Milwaukee and take on Marquette -- who would be eventual NCAA champions in coach Al McGuire's farewell season. Both teams were independents at the time, and the game had been scheduled at the behest of Vitale, who wanted his team to play as many top-notch programs as possible.

U-D won, in a game televised back home to Detroit, and Dickie V. did a jig at center court as he was being interviewed after the game. No joke -- he danced, he was so happy.

That was back when U-D/UDM feared no team in no arena.

Now Greg Kampe can't get the Titans on the court, nowhere, no how.

Times sure have changed -- even for a team whose home gym hasn't since the 1960s.

UDM, ducking Oakland University? The shame of it all.

Monday, March 09, 2009

47 Days Till The NFL Draft? STILL?

Only seven more weeks until the NFL Draft!


No other professional team sport has such a lag between the crowning of its champion and its draft. In the NBA, the confetti is barely swept from the streets of the champion's city and then we're at the draft. They don't waste much time in the NHL, either -- usually less than two weeks. MLB has its amateur draft during the season, for goodness sakes.

But the NFL?

The Super Bowl happens in early February. Then we're forced to wait some 12 weeks or so before the league gets around to holding the draft. Why the wait?

The NFL Combine -- that precious vehicle where would-be draftees are watched, measured, timed, and interviewed (rinse and repeat) -- usually takes place before February is done. Yet we still need two more months before we can go ahead and draft those players?

Seriously, what the hell?

I've never understood the gap between the Super Bowl and the draft. Is there money to be made somewhere, the longer the wait? As far as I can tell, the only good the wait does is for the mock drafters and the talking heads on TV -- some of whom surely must be paid by the word.

How come the NBA and the NHL can make up their minds on who to draft in such short order, and the NFL needs the equivalent of nearly an entire business quarter?


The NFL should have its draft, at the latest, by mid-March. Do it before the NCAA basketball tournament begins, if you're worried about competing with another major sporting event. That would give teams a good four months to sign the higher-round picks before training camp begins, presumably reducing the amount of holdouts due to stalled contract negotiations, since teams would have an extra six-to-seven weeks to hammer out deals.

I know -- how DARE I think with any logic about the NFL!

And I use the Super Bowl as a generous plotting point. Truth is, only two teams made it that far. Many of the clubs haven't played a game since late-December. If they don't have at least an inkling of who they're going to draft by NOW, then shame on them. They also have had ample time to run different scenarios through their computers and their brains. They did their combine thing. They've probably watched more film by now than Leonard Maltin has in his entire movie-reviewing life. So get on with it already!!

If it's suspense you're trying to build, then that can be accomplished by mid-March as well.

It's just that I'm so sick of the draft right now, and it's still 47 days away. FORTY-SEVEN.

Why is it necessary to keep us all waiting?

Wish we could somehow tie the draft to Groundhog Day. If he sees his shadow, six weeks till the draft (mid-March). If he doesn't, an EARLY draft (late-February, right after the combine).

If only...