Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rodriguez Continues to Lose Ground in Ann Arbor

To say that Rich Rodriguez has had a bumpy two-year start to his tenure as the football coach at the University of Michigan would put you in the Hall of Fame of Understatements.

Rodriguez has done nothing but lose football games on the gridiron, and now he’s losing traction as an upstanding coach.

The NCAA has spoken after a five-month investigation into U-M’s football program, and the results aren’t pretty.

Here it is, in a nutshell.

The NCAA alleges that Rodriguez "failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the football program," and that the athletic department "failed to adequately monitor" the team.

Note the use of the word “failed” twice; that’s become the new “F” word in Ann Arbor when it comes to football.

The school that couldn’t even beat Toledo at home, the one that’s gone 8-16 the past two seasons, the one that sloppily handled its coaching search following the announced retirement of Lloyd Carr, that school is now on the hook for some NCAA violations that it will need to address this spring and summer.

Hail to the Victims Valiant.

Rodriguez, heading into his third year as coach, still has stench on him. There’s a lot of sheister about him. Remember his clumsy parting from West Virginia? Remember the allegations of document shredding at WVU before the school could get its mitts on pertinent papers?

Remember the scuttlebutt over the amount and lengths of practices last summer? Remember the defection of players who were disgusted by the Rodriguez Doctrine?

Then there are the losses. Oh, those losses. The Big House is now the Fun House for opposing teams. Schools who could only win in Ann Arbor in their wildest dreams have been doing it for real for two years now. In the past, if Toledo had come knocking, you’d have directed them to Pioneer High School across the street.

“I believe you’re at the wrong field,” you’d say to the Rockets.

Granted, the violations that the NCAA alleges, the list of which you can read here, aren’t necessarily in the major category of transgressions. But they’re not of the parking ticket variety, either.

Perhaps most troubling is the one citing a graduate assistant who allegedly provided willfully false information to the NCAA.

Rodriguez said Tuesday that his football program misinterpreted rules and made mistakes.

Welcome to Michigan, new Athletic Director David Brandon!

“This is a tough day for Michigan,” the new AD said in the wake of the news, which was announced Tuesday. And he doesn’t mean the state; I know some folks in East Lansing who probably can’t wipe the grins off their faces today.

“It’s on me,” Rodriguez said.

It’s all on RichRod now—the losing, the investigations, the allegations, the incredibly shrinking violet that once was U-M football.

They used to play football at Michigan, win a lot, and do it cleanly. Now they lose, and do it with odors.

This isn’t your father’s Michigan football program. It’s the Godfather’s, now.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Something Funny Happened to Team Canada on the Way to Olympic Gold

Someone should tell the big, bad Canadian hockey team not to mess with the Americans in the Olympics in any year that ends with a zero.

Squaw Valley, 1960. Lake Placid, 1980. And now, Vancouver, 2010?

The USA won Olympic hockey Gold in ’60 and ’80, and while they still have a long way to go to duplicate those feats, they took a big stride in that direction Sunday, snowing on the Canadians’ parade in front of a partisan crowd in Vancouver. Final: USA 5, Canada 3.

It was the Americans’ first win over Canada in Olympic play in 50 years.

So much for entitlement.

Sports don’t always follow scripts, especially the Olympic Games. You can pen it, if you’d like, and figure that you have a proper ending all worked out, but all it takes is a petulant, stubborn little player who doesn’t like the first draft to screw everything up.

This is hockey and it’s the official Canadian pastime and these are the Olympics and the Olympics are in Canada, and the Canadian team is filled with an NHL All-Star team, so let’s fast forward to the medal ceremony and drape those Golds around the necks of those guys from the Great White North.

Nuh-uh—not so fast.

The Americans are obviously not too crazy about that version of how this 2010 Olympic Mens Hockey story should play out.

Our neighbors to the north don’t hope for hockey Gold. They’re not wishing for it. They don’t think it would be nice. They don’t even demand it.

Canada—and I don’t mean the hockey team, I mean the country—positively expects the Gold medal. If coach Mike Babcock’s neck isn’t adorned with the Gold come next weekend, he won’t even need a neck because Canada will have his head.

What else do the Canadians have, really? The Blue Jays aren’t really any good. No one cares about the CFL. The Expos haven’t existed for years. The Raptors are a rumor.

The Canadians have clean cities and Donald and Kiefer Sutherland and socialized health care and beer. And hockey.

So you’ll forgive that country if there’s a spike in the sale of razor blades, and rope for nooses this morning. I heard the United Nations officially put Canada on a suicide watch.

The Canadians may have Sidney Crosby, but the Americans have…Brian Rafalski?

Yes, Rafalski—the Red Wings’ ancient defenseman—has suddenly become a scoring machine. He had two more goals and an assist yesterday, and played solidly in his own zone, too. He is, so far, the Olympics’ Conn Smythe favorite.

The Americans jumped on the Canadians 41 seconds into the game, with Rafalski pausing at the point, apparently waiting for Crosby’s stick to get in the way, then slid a shot toward it. The puck deflected dutifully, and eluded Team Canada goalie Marty Brodeur.

The Canadians kept coming, but all they could manage were a couple of ties—1-1 and 2-2. Team USA goalie Ryan Miller (MSU) was getting all Jim Craig-ish, repelling the furious Canadian onslaught at almost every turn.

Most impressive was Miller’s performance after Crosby brought Canada to within 4-3 with 3:09 remaining. For about 90 seconds, Miller flopped, slid, flailed, and kicked, and whenever he did something like that with his body, the puck hit it. The outcome wasn’t determined until the ubiquitous empty netter that normally quells hockey riots.

All is not lost for Canada, though. They can still win Gold—they just have a harder route to take now. The Americans are safely in the quarterfinals, while Canada has to dispatch Germany on Tuesday in order to get there.

Could Team USA and Canada meet again? Certainly. Could Canada, in that contest, wash the Americans’ faces with snow and snap their suspenders? Absolutely.

Will Babcock escape Vancouver with his life? Or will Brad McCrimmon have to take over the Red Wings when NHL play resumes?

Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Woods Doesn't Owe You or Me an Apology; He Just Needs Help

In journalism, it’s called burying the lead.

It’s the transgression of tucking the most important part of a story several paragraphs down, instead of in the opening, where it belongs.

Tiger Woods buried the lead.

First, Woods, the disgraced golfer, pitchman, and icon, doesn’t owe me an apology. He doesn’t owe you one, either. Or the person to your left, to your right, behind you, or in front of you.

He doesn’t.

The only people to whom he owes a big old “I’M SORRY” are his family and the companies who hired him to sponsor and promote their goods and services. That’s it.

I watched Woods slog through his scheduled statement on television on Friday, as did millions of others—also to whom Woods owes no apology, by the way—and while I found the dramatic pauses and looks into the camera and heavy sighs to be a little too rehearsed for my liking, I didn’t hear what was truly important until several minutes into the monologue.

Woods said, finally, about 10 minutes into his spiel, that he needs help, and has been getting it, by way of therapy—for some 45 days or so.

That was what he should have begun with; that was his lead, and he buried it.

I’ve never been a fan of the public apology. It’s the ultimate closing of the barn door after the horses are out.

“I’m sorry that I got caught,” is what the deliverer of such an apology is really saying. And don’t get me started on the apologies that, in reality, place the blame on those harmed.

“I’m sorry if you were offended,” is how those apologies go.


But Woods, at least, admitted that he needs help for his problem, which seems to be addictive in nature. That his addiction comes in the form of something that looks like 36-24-36 doesn’t make it any less problematic, or that which shouldn't be taken seriously.

I don’t know what else you can ask from someone, if they admit to a problem, albeit a tad late, and take steps to get help for that problem.

The apology that comes without that addendum isn’t much of an apology; it’s merely a bone tossed to the masses over which we are to fight.

Tiger Woods, I’ve written before, is the Muhammad Ali of our time.

Ali, at his peak, was the most recognizable athlete in the world. You could argue he was the most recognizable person in the world. He dominated his sport and dwarfed his competition, both in terms of ability and charisma and largesse. When he left the sport briefly—forced out because of avoiding the draft—boxing wasn’t even close to the same as when he was in it. When he returned, so did boxing.

Woods dominates golf now like no man before him. I’ve seen Nicklaus and Palmer and Norman and Watson and Miller, and none of them distanced themselves as far from the rest of the field as Woods now has from his brethren.

Woods doesn’t yap like Ali did, but that doesn’t make him any less famous or iconic. There’s Tiger Woods, and then there’s the rest of the PGA tour members. He’s the dragon they all try like mad to slay every weekend, and just about every Sunday they fail.

But no golfer, that we know of, ever did the kinds of things that Woods has now admitted—to a degree—to doing. None of them ever had to schedule TV time to look their public in the peepers and say “sorry.”

But it’s not the “sorry” that’s important here. Anyone can get their hand caught in the cookie jar and schedule a time to publicly express regret. And they have.

But it’s taking that extra step—the admission of an addiction to cookies, for example—and seeking professional help that gives the public apology some credence.

Woods said that he plans on returning to golf someday, though he readily admitted that he has no idea when that day might come. He is rightfully placing his therapy and treatment on the front burner. Golf will always be there, waiting, when Woods is ready to grip a club again.

Woods says he has a long way to go—and he probably wasn’t just referring to his treatment. He has a marriage to repair, and that may not even be possible. Golf will always be waiting, but his wife might not.

Woods has a long way to go with his public, too, though that should be of less concern to him. He doesn’t have to be popular to make more money in golf. He doesn’t have to be the sport’s darling anymore to continue to dominate it.

Tiger Woods is a man with human frailties and an obvious weakness, and he’s paid the price for that. Now he is moving to fix it. I don’t know what else anyone should want other than that.

The apology was fine, but not necessary. He didn’t cheat on me. He didn’t cheat on you. He didn’t cheat on anyone other than his lovely wife and his beautiful children. Oh, and he cheated himself, for he may have lost that lovely wife and thus broken up what, on the surface, appeared to be a happy home.

He may have lost all that truly matters. No amount of Masters wins or U.S. Open victories or contracts to hawk Gillette products can make up for that kind of loss.

The end of this story, this cautionary tale, hasn’t been written.

But Woods is seeking help. He’s taken the first baby step to reparations.

That’s far more important than any “I’m sorry.”

Monday, February 15, 2010

It's a Slam Dunk: Laimbeer will be an NBA Head Coach One Day

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been in the NBA since 1989, and they come to town once a year, thanks to the league’s unbalanced schedule. So by my count, I’d say this Tuesday will mark the first time in 21 trips to The Palace that we’re going to pay any attention to any of the T-Wolves’ assistant coaches—ever.

That’s because Bill Laimbeer now sits on an NBA sideline again—this time in Armani.

Laimbeer abruptly quit as head coach of the WNBA’s now-defunct Detroit Shock last summer because, well, because Bill Laimbeer pretty much has done whatever he’s wanted, whenever he’s wanted.

He abruptly quit as a player, too, retiring in November 1993 because he lost his competitive fire on the court. He was 36 and fed up with the NBA. That was then.

Today, he’s 52 and is serving as an apprentice under T-Wolves head coach Kurt Rambis, positively smitten with the league once again.

“That's my stated goal of why I got back into the NBA and the assistant coaching ranks,” Laimbeer recently told Pioneer Press columnist Bob Sansevere. “To learn and prepare to be a head coach.”

Laimbeer made no bones about that when he quit the Shock, although he truthfully said that, at the time of his self-ziggy, he had no NBA coals on the fire. But the NBA was his unquestioned desired destination.

And he’ll continue his on-the-job training when the T-Wolves visit the Pistons Tuesday night.

The Timberwolves, like the Pistons, aren’t any good, either. They’re 13-40, 4-22 on the road. It’s a far cry from Laimbeer’s days as a player and as coach of the Shock, when winning was a constant.

There are still those around town who’d like to see Laimbeer end up with the Pistons—as a head coach, not an assistant. But when President Joe Dumars went on his bi-annual search for a new coach last summer, Laimbeer wasn’t seriously considered.

It was quite evident that Laimbeer wasn’t going to make the leap from the WNBA to the NBA as a head coach in one fell swoop, so he was all ears when Rambis, an old on-court rival with the Lakers, called.

Laimbeer (left) jumped at the chance to work for old on-court rival Rambis (right)

“I’m excited to add someone with Bill’s experience to the staff,” Rambis said when he made the mildly surprising hire in late-August. “We can’t wait to get with our players in training camp.”

Now, Rambis, Laimbeer et al probably can’t wait for the season to be over with.

Laimbeer’s stock as a blue chip coaching prospect has its skeptics, to be sure. Those types will tell you that he’s too bombastic, too sassy to work effectively with today’s NBA players. But those traits are the same ones that have the pro-Laimbeer people convinced he’d be a terrific NBA head coach, so there you have it.

Bill Laimbeer, as far as I’m concerned, has always been one of the most cerebral, attentive, sophisticated men to ever play in the NBA, though he rarely gets credit for it. Beyond the pouting and flopping and the whining to the officials has always lied a brilliant basketball mind, and a very astute businessman.

I have a hunch that if given the opportunity, Laimbeer will know when he needs to push and prod, and when he needs to just back off. Don’t forget that he likely learned a thing or two from Chuck Daly, and you can find dumber brains to pick than Daly’s, for sure.

Whether it happens in Minnesota or Detroit or Atlanta or Sacramento, Bill Laimbeer will be an NBA head coach. He’s never done things without a purpose, and he’s rarely been unsuccessful in his basketball life.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

30 Years Haven't Dimmed Light of 1980 USA Hockey Team

They were kids, for goodness sakes. Kids with sticks and stones, going up against an army of men with howitzers and tanks.

If they had scheduled that hockey game in 1980 in anywhere but the Olympics, it wouldn’t have been sanctioned. It would have been deemed illegal—child abuse.

Would you put an adolescent Gold Gloves boxer up against Muhammad Ali? The school mini-golf champ against Tiger Woods?

30 years have passed—it’s another time where it’s my duty to point out how old we all are—since those American kids met the Russians on the pond after school and made like David against the Soviets’ Goliath.

Billy Bonds helped spoil the surprise, though.

The game was televised by ABC, but on a tape delay basis. The local affiliate, channel seven, knew the outcome but didn’t want to ruin the drama for their viewers.

Someone forgot to tell Bonds—or maybe they did, and Billy was too tipsy to remember. Anyhow, in the early evening during a newsbreak, Bonds went on the air and let the cat out of the bag: the USA hockey team had defeated the mighty Soviet Union squad in an upset of cataclysmic proportion.

Film at 11.

So it was that I knew the outcome of the game before tuning in. I was on my way to a high school basketball game that evening when my buddy Mike Lank made like Bonds and ruined my surprise.

“The United States beat Russia!” Mike said as he piled into our car. He had heard it from Billy.

It was all I could think about that evening, as the basketball game droned on below me.

Bonds took a lot of heat for scooping his own station, but maybe he brought in viewers who otherwise might not have flipped on the game. Of course, the trade-off was that those viewers, for the most part, knew how the game ended.

But it doesn’t matter with miracles, really. If I were to tell you that if you stare at the Empire State Building and in ten seconds it’s going to disappear, thus ruining the “surprise,” would that make it any less amazing when it vanishes?

The USA hockey team had no business being on the ice with those Russians in Lake Placid, New York in 1980. It was a mismatch of the highest degree. Less than two weeks earlier, in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden, the Soviets beat the American kids, 10-3.

This was Olympic hockey pre-NHL players. In those days, you played for your country, then you tried out for the NHL. The average age of that USA team was around 22 years old. The Soviets were grizzled and experienced and they played with guns at their heads, practically. A stint in Siberia awaited them if they took home anything short of the gold medal.

The USA captain was from the East Coast and talked like it. If you heard Mike Eruzione speak you’d think you were listening to a Bowery Boys flick from the 1940s. Hockey people don’t talk like that. Eruzione sounded like a punch drunk boxer, not like a hockey captain.

The Soviets had the best goalie in the world, Vladislav Tretiak, who was just slightly less imposing than the Berlin Wall, in the wall’s heyday. USA had Jim Craig, a nice young man from Massachusetts, between the pipes.

So they drop the puck and the game carries on and it’s already an upset that after five minutes the United States isn’t trailing by two or three goals, though the Soviets did score first. Buzz Schneider of Babbitt, Minnesota—don’t ask—tied it. The Soviets moved ahead, 2-1, but with one second left in the first period, Tretiak misplayed a rebound and Mark Johnson took advantage, depositing the puck behind the All-World netminder for a 2-2 tie.

Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov replaced Tretiak after the first period with backup Vladimir Myshkin, which shocked many, including his own players. Former Red Wing Slava Fetisov, who played for the Soviets, called Tretiak’s removal the turning point of the game. He may as well have called it the turning point in sports history.

Yet the Soviets led, 3-2, after two periods. Craig played well in the net for the Americans; the Soviets would outshoot their opponents, 39-16, for the game.

Johnson struck again for the United States 8:39 into the third period to tie the game. Barely a minute later, Eruzione fired a shot from the high slot past Myshkin, who was screened by his own player. The U.S. had its first lead of the game, which is the only lead it would need.

Craig repelled one Soviet rush after the other in the frantic final half of the third period to clinch the victory. But you know all this.

I have a bone to pick with that 1980 USA hockey team, however.

They ruined the sports upset, forever.

The New York Jets were on the top of the heap in that department for 11 years, after their unforeseen—except by Joe Namath—win over the mighty Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in January 1969. Nothing could compare to the Jets’ dismantling of the Colts, who were 18-to-20 point favorites in that game.

Nothing, until Feb. 22, 1980.

And nothing has come close to it since. Perhaps nothing will ever top it, as far as that goes. It’s lockstep with Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak when it comes to feats that will likely never be equaled, much less surpassed.

The United States didn’t win the gold medal that night, contrary to legend. They did that a few nights later, dispatching Finland, 4-2. Maybe beating the Finns was a greater test for the American kids, as they shook off the expected letdown after beating the Soviets.

USA coach Herb Brooks anticipated such a letdown in his pre-game talk.

Eruzione recalled it, “Herb said, ‘If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your bleeping graves.’ Then he turned to walk away, stopped, turned around, and said, ‘To your bleeping graves.’”

The Miracle on Ice—so dubbed thanks to ABC’s Al Michaels and his indelible “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” call as the final seconds ticked off the clock—happened 30 years ago next week.

The United States kids should have been used as the Soviets’ personal Zamboni with which to clean off the Lake Placid ice, much less win the bleeping game.

It was 30 years ago, and I still can’t believe it. I guess I need some more time.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Babcock's Coaching Chops About to be Found Out

Mike Babcock is in his fifth season of coaching the Red Wings, so I suppose it's about time to find out whether he can actually, you know, coach.

Don't snicker---I'm not being flip. Since Babcock arrived in Detroit in the summer of 2005, when has he had to coach the team in the regular season like he has to at this very moment?


Ticket brokers serve you, the people, to provide you with the best event tickets, from Pistons to Lions and even Tigers tickets. Make sure the company you purchase tickets from are a member of the Better Business Bureau. This ensures the company’s reliability to best serve their customers.

If the Red Wings were being overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, their threat level would be elevated a color.

This is big doings, folks. We're closing in on 20 games remaining in the regular season, and the Red Wings haven't been cleared for playoff flight yet.

Enter Babcock, whose mystique as a prickly, no-nonsense guy is about to be put to the test in a manner like never before in Detroit.

He should be warmed up by now. Babs has already had to parry remarks made to the press by goalie Chris Osgood about playing time. He ran Ville Leino out of town.

But those are mere morsels---hors d'oeuvres to what lies ahead.

Scotty Bowman, of course, was the granddaddy of the mind game when it comes to hockey coaches, and maybe of any coach in any sport. He didn't need to use it very often with the Red Wings, but when he did it usually worked. Just ask Brendan Shanahan, or Luc Robitaille, or Brett Hull. Hell, ask Steve Yzerman, no less.

Babcock might be Bowman Lite, but that doesn't mean he's calorie-free.

The situation with Osgood has gotten the most press. Babcock has gone out of his way at times---at least it seems that way---to praise rookie Jimmy Howard in a manner that hints that he's taking a swipe at Ozzie.

Osgood has openly questioned Babcock's knowledge of goaltending. He's even proclaimed himself a one man team.

"I got him to two Stanley Cup Finals," Osgood said a few weeks ago.

I guess the 18 skaters who played in front of him were chopped liver.

But goaltending isn't the biggest worry now. It's scoring and protecting leads and playing 60 complete minutes on a consistent basis. It's realizing the urgency of the situation and responding to it appropriately.

You can paraphrase Babcock himself.

Glowing about Howard recently, Babcock said, "It's called goaltending."

With all that Babcock has to do in order to gate-crash his team into the post-season party, you might summarize it thusly.

"It's called coaching."

We're about to find out if this kid Babcock has the regular season coaching chops or not.

I suppose after five seasons, it's time we found out.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Don't Let the Pretty Name Fool You: Drew Brees was Colts' Poison

He has a name sent by the heavens to us cranky, weathered writers. It’s a Hollywood name—even laced with a bit of Native American in its sound.

The Drew Breeses of the world don’t come down the pike too often. The name is the anti-Dick Butkus: melodic, modern, All-American.

He could only be a quarterback—or maybe a fleet-footed wide receiver. Someone named Drew Brees doesn’t work in the trenches. That’s reserved for the Otis Sistrunks and Verlon Biggses and Vern den Herders. Don’t fret if you don’t recall those dudes—I promise that they existed, and they were no Drew Brees types—in looks or in name appeal.

It was Drew vs. Peyton in yesterday’s Super Bowl. One was looking for a piece of greatness; the other was trying to cement his.

The New Orleans Saints are “champions of the pro football world!”—as was famously shouted by NBC’s Curt Gowdy after the New York Jets stunned the mighty Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. They earned every bit of their 31-17 win over the Indianapolis version of the Colts.

The Saints are champs for many reasons, not the least of which is the way they demonstrated the best way to stop Colts QB Manning: don’t let him touch the football.

As Manning fidgeted and looked at the scoreboard and made faces and paced and fidgeted some more, Brees and the Saints dominated possession in the second quarter. At one point, the Saints had run off 20 plays from scrimmage to the Colts’ mere three. It was keep away of the highest order. Dean Smith and his four-corner offense in college basketball had nothing on Brees and the Saints in the second quarter yesterday.

It was a double-edged sword the Colts were battling, for while Manning was being kept on the sidelines, Brees was on the field. And that was poison for the Colts.

Brees filleted the Colts. He carved them like a surgeon. He didn’t let a pedestrian running game stop him. He threw 39 passes, completed 32 of them. Two went for touchdowns, and the completions traversed 288 yards. He was snazzier with the blade than a Japanese steak house chef.

Brees was the game’s MVP—as if.

Eight guys, no less, were recipients of Brees passes for the Saints. Drew was an equal opportunity employer.

The Colts have Peyton, but the Saints have Payton.

How about coach Sean Payton and his onside kick to start the second half? It was as if he was trying to make up for the ill-advised fourth-and-goal running play that went nowhere late in the second quarter.

“No—really—I can coach!” Payton seemed to be saying as he stunned the Colts, hundreds of millions of TV viewers, and his own team by ordering the daring onside kick that precipitated a scrum that was better than anything rugby can dish out.

The Saints were awarded the football after the bodies were unpiled, and Brees got his scalpel out again. Moments later, the Saints were in the end zone and had a 13-10 lead.

Manning was good, but not as good as Brees. Peyton was 31-for-45 for 333 yards and a touchdown (and an interception). Not shabby. But “not shabby” isn’t going to get it done when your counterpart is unconscious.

A Manning finally lost a Super Bowl.

Suddenly, the question isn’t “How many more can that family win?”

It’s, “How in the world can you stop Drew Brees from winning more?’

Drew Brees. It sounds pretty but is drenched with toxin.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Forty Years Ago, AFL Showed the NFL Who the REAL Fools Were

The words stuck in the craw of the proud, fiercely loyal American Football League players and coaches like a popcorn kernel under the furthest molar.

“I think the Kansas City Chiefs are a tough football team,” Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said in the afterglow of his team’s 35-10 win over them in Super Bowl I.

So far, so good. Then Vince laid down the hammer.

“But I don’t think the Chiefs compare to the teams in the NFL. There—I said it. That’s what you wanted me to say, right?”

The NFL beat writers, and commissioner Pete Rozelle, who had just presented Lombardi with the trophy that would later bear the coach’s name, roared with laughter.


Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald ran back to the Chiefs’ locker room. He went straight for coach Hank Stram.

“Henry! Henry!” Pope screamed, according to his account given to the NFL Network. “Did you hear what Lombardi said about the AFL?”

Pope told Stram about Lombardi’s zinger. What Stram said in reply isn’t fit for this column. It isn’t even fit for a John Edwards biography.

A year later, Lombardi’s Packers again dominated, this time destroying the 13-1 Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II. Lombardi didn’t need to talk after that one.

After the first two Super Bowls—they were more popularly known as the AFL-NFL Championship Games back then—the nickname of the AFL’s founding fathers seemed to fit them like a glove.

“The Foolish Club,” they called them—eight men who dared to place pro football franchises in cities like Houston and Buffalo (BUFFALO!), and in the backyards of already existing NFL organizations in Los Angeles and New York.

The Packers won the first two championships played between the two leagues by an aggregate score of 68-24.

Foolish, indeed!

Lenny Dawson quarterbacked the Chiefs on that day in January, 1967 in the Los Angeles Coliseum, when the Packers ran away from the Chiefs in the game’s second half. And he was in the stands in the Orange Bowl in Miami two years later, biting almost clear through his tongue.

On the field, Joe Namath and the New York Jets were running roughshod over the venerable Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. It wasn’t even close—much worse than the 16-7 final score indicated.

Dawson was sitting among a group of NFL loyalists. As the game went on, and as the Jets’ destiny was evident, it was all he could do to contain his glee. Dawson was an NFL castoff, foundering with the Pittsburgh Steelers when Stram plucked him off the scrap heap.

“Hank Stram saved my pro career,” Dawson has said.

So while the Jets were humiliating the Colts, Dawson bided his time.

Finally, he could contain himself no longer.

Sometime in the fourth quarter, Dawson stood up, proudly, among the NFL folks.

“Well, well,” he crowed, “what do you think of the American Football League NOW?”

Ah, but it was a fluke. A blind squirrel finding a nut. The Colts were overconfident. If the two teams played again, the Jets would surely go down.

Dawson and his AFL brethren had to hear that for a year.

Such was the stage when Dawson, in uniform now, and the Chiefs made it back to the Big One—Super Bowl IV in New Orleans to face the Minnesota Vikings in January 1970—40 years ago and some change.

The Vikings, like the Colts before them, seemed unstoppable. They breezed through the NFL with a 12-2 record, then demolished the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship Game, 27-7.

Despite the Jets’ victory one year prior, the Chiefs were still “just” an AFL team. They had no chance against the mighty Vikings.

What is it they say about the fate of those who forget history?

As Stram—now famously miked up for NFL Films—hooted and hollered on the sidelines, the quarterback he rescued from the NFL’s trash bin and his 10 offensive teammates razzle-dazzled and powered their way around and through the vaunted Vikings defense.

The Chiefs won, 23-7.

Who was foolish now?

Al Davis was the AFL’s last commissioner. And he was smelling blood. The two leagues had already announced a merger, partly designed to put an end to the talent war that was escalating faster than anything the United States and the Russians were engaged in at the time.

But after the AFL won the IIIrd and IVth Super Bowls, Davis, who was opposed to the merger to begin with—a merger that was agreed to behind his back—snarled.

“Davis thought the AFL had its boot on the NFL’s throat,” Scotty Stirling, a Raiders executive at the time, recalled to the NFL Network. “And he didn’t want to let up. He thought the AFL could have brought the NFL to its knees.”

But the merger was already a done deal, and the two leagues joined forces for the 1970 season. The 10 AFL teams, plus the NFL’s Colts, Steelers, and Browns, formed the American Football Conference.

Two years later, some NFL people were still showing themselves to be slow learners.

The Miami Dolphins, born in 1966 to the AFL, finished the first 14-0 season in history. They advanced to Super Bowl VI with a 16-0 record. Their opponents were the NFL-rich Washington Redskins.

On the cab ride to the stadium, radio host Larry King rode with bookmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. King noted that The Greek had instilled the 11-3 Redskins as a three-point favorite over the undefeated Dolphins.

How could that be, King, a Dolphins fan and ever inquisitive, wanted to know.

“You’re still the AFL,” Snyder told him.

The Dolphins won. Easily. Then they won the next year, too—also easily.

To this day, you won’t find a group of workers more respectful of their roots than the American Football League players and coaches. Even after years of playing in the NFL, those whose pro football careers began in the AFL will always consider themselves “AFL guys.”

Forty years ago, in New Orleans, the AFL squared the Super Bowl series with the NFL at two wins apiece. And, as Davis says, they might have kept it up, had the merger not been in place.

The fools rushed in, after all.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Tarkenton's Selective History On Display Again in Criticism of Favre

It may be unseemly to pick on a guy on his 70th birthday, but it's not like Francis Tarkenton is a sympathetic figure. He turns 70 today but he's not a lovable old coot. In fact, Francis is aging like vinegar.

Tarkenton is no dummy, first of all. You don't play quarterback in the NFL for 18 years with a pea-sized brain.

No, Francis knows exactly what he's doing. He's aware of the 24-hour news cycle and he's counting on the propensity of today's sports fan to take their history in bite-sized morsels---read, anything that happened before ESPN might as well be printed on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Tarkenton is counting on the vacuum of the sports fan's memory while he continues to assail Brett Favre.

I'm not a Favre guy, necessarily, but right is right and wrong is wrong.

Pot, meet kettle.

Tarkenton has had a burr up his heinie about Favre ever since last summer, when he openly wished Brett nothing but the worst as Favre vacillated over whether to sign with the Minnesota Vikings or not. It wasn't the first time that Francis had taken Favre to task.

So Tarkenton was like a dog in heat in the wake of the NFC Championship Game, when Favre's brutal interception late in the game pretty much killed the Vikings' chances of overcoming the New Orleans Saints.

Tarkenton was so eager to talk, that he did so to a Philadelphia radio station---97.5 FM.

"I have never seen any quarterback much less, well he is going to be a Hall of Fame quarterback, make plays like that at a critical time," Tarkenton said of Favre's infamously reckless style of play. "He has done the same thing in the Giants game (a Packers loss in the 2007 NFC title game). He plays at home, has the better team and plays against Eli (Manning). He was a young kid right? And he throws the pick ... and then he does what he did the other night which was just shameful because great quarterbacks, and he is a great quarterback, they don't do that. You don't see Peyton Manning do that."

What Tarkenton didn't say, and what he won't say, because he likes his history selective and convenient, is that Favre leads Francis in Super Bowl wins, one to nothing.

Tarkenton doesn't want you to remember that he's a three-time Super Bowl loser, and he's hardly an innocent victim in any of them.

Tarkenton is clearly deserved of his Hall of Fame status, but when it came to the Big One, Francis shrunk more than a wool sweater in a dryer.

Tarkenton can piss and moan all he wants about Favre and his clunky "retirements" and his daring to play for the Packers' rivals in Minnesota---Tarkenton said he couldn't see himself retiring as a Packer, for example---but the fact is that Favre has won a Super Bowl and Tarkenton didn't even come close, even though he made it to three of them.

Tarkenton's Vikings went to three Super Bowls in four seasons, and in all three of them they were manhandled, chewed up and spit out, by three different opponents.

In all instances, it was Tarkenton's poor play that set the tone for his team's demise.

Good thing there are other old coots around like present company to dust off the record books.

I can see why Tarkenton would like us to erase everything pre-ESPN.

The numbers aren't pretty.

In his three trips to Super Sunday, Tarkenton completed 46 of 89 passes---barely 50 percent---for 489 yards. It gets worse. He threw for one TD pass and SIX interceptions. His cumulative passer rating? A ghoulish 43.7.

And he has the gall to call Brett Favre out for crumbling under pressure?

Tarkenton apparently bleeds purple, and there's nothing wrong with that; it's actually endearing to see former players defend the honor of their old teams. But there's nothing endearing about one Hall of Famer trashing another---especially when the trasher has as many legs to stand on as an overturned bar stool.

The sad thing here is that both Tarkenton and Favre, at their best, were two of the most fun quarterbacks to ever watch play---Tarkenton for his daredevil scrambling, and Favre for his gunslinging style.

Francis Tarkenton drove his fair share of coaches batty, too---believe me. And he played more than a small role in leading the Vikings---his precious Vikings---to ruin in no less than three Super Bowls.

I can see why he'd like us to forget.