Monday, March 29, 2010

One More National Title Would Lift Izzo into Rarified Coaching Air

Here Tom Izzo is again.

Izzo is in another Final Four. He must have a VIP Card by now.

Izzo, the legend-blazing basketball coach at MSU, is maybe the best college coach to have won only one National Championship. If he doesn't win another, Izzo's is going to be a legacy where folks scratch their heads when asked how many titles he's won. It'll be a trick question.

"Gosh, Tom Izzo? What did he win, two or three? At least?"

Trick question!! One!

I hope that's not the case. If Izzo, who's bringing his kids back to another FF in Indianapolis this weekend, wins just one more national title, his place is secured as one of the all-time greats. And I'm talking Wooden, Knight, Meyer, Krzyzewski---guys like that.

Izzo shows up to these things---six in 12 years---but has only come away with the grand prize once, and that was 10 years ago.

But I'm about to give you a tidbit that is both amazing and validation of his stature.

Since Izzo's been coach at MSU (he started in 1995), NO player who's spent four years with him has ever NOT made a Final Four.

Think about that for a moment.

This is, arguably, Izzo's finest coaching job. It's been a higher maintenance group than he'd like, and he's ridden point guard Kalin Lucas so relentlessly that if you look up "tough love," there'd be the coach and Lucas, splattered on the page.

Now Lucas isn't even available thanks to his popped Achilles, but the Spartans keep winning anyway.

Prior to all the Madness, there was another implosion in the Big Ten tournament, but no one cares about that, really---especially if you dance like Izzo does in the 64-team soiree.

Izzo's teams, in the NCAA tournament, typically win small and lose big, when they do lose. They'll do great in the nail-biters, but then sometimes they prove to be no match in the games they lose. It's a fascinating trend.

Izzo's back in the Final Four. If the FF was a restaurant, the staff would yell his name cheerfully, guide him to his favorite table, and he'd order the usual.

But if he could just manage one more National Championship, that would be groovy. Final Four appearances are lovely, but rings are even better.

Don't get me wrong. Izzo will go down as a great coach (Hall of Fame material for sure), regardless if his resume lists only "2000" under the heading "National Championships Won."

But one more would lift him to that truly elite level.

This 2010 run has already included two last-second wins. Izzo always wins those types of games.

Next up is a date with Butler, a fellow No. 5 seed. Butler, who plays in the league of the University of Detroit-Mercy. A couple of bratty teams, these No. 5 seeds are.

Izzo is in another Final Four. Every year you kind of shrug, shake your head and make a face if someone asks you how the Spartans will do in the tournament. Because the regular season---and the Big Ten tourney---is always pockmarked with curious losses.

And so often, you turn around and there Izzo is, in the Final Four.

He's great at getting there. I'd love for him to be better at winning it.

What have you done for me lately, Tommy?

Such a thankless profession this guy's in, eh?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Babcock's Finest Hour Occurring Right Now

You can never tell if the great hockey coach is winning or losing.

When he stands behind the bench, he always looks as if he’s trying to remember if he left the stove on—while also having to go to the bathroom.

His team could be ahead by three goals or down by two. You'd never know.

If he didn’t make a mint in hockey, Scotty Bowman could have fleeced all comers in a game of poker. Scotty didn’t smile, Scotty didn’t grin. Scotty didn’t scowl, Scotty didn’t wince.

Bowman, a legendary coach with so many Stanley Cup rings on his fingers that his hands are their own brass knuckles, had a lockjaw and the posture of a British Beefeater. It could be Game 7 of the Cup Finals and with Bowman, you’d find more emotion on a frog.

This is because Scotty’s games were played in his head while his players played them on the ice.

Mike Babcock doesn’t have the stoicism of Bowman, but you still can’t tell if his Red Wings are playing keep away with the puck or are being used as the other team’s personal Zamboni.

Babcock’s eyes narrow into slits and his head bobs back, forth, and then up to the scoreboard and then back to the left. That and he always looks like he can’t find his keys.

Babcock has the typical face of a former hockey player: chiseled, scarred, the texture of leather. His hair is unkempt and his clothes fit him like a paper doll’s.

You show me a hockey coach who’s a fashion plate and I’ll show you Don Cherry and no one else. And Don didn’t win much of anything before making a king’s ransom as a buffoon on television—the Dick Vitale of hockey.

The great hockey coach looks like he slept in his threads, and for about 45 minutes.

Babcock is a great hockey coach, and is having his greatest of seasons.

His greatest season wasn’t in 2008, when he brought the Cup back to Detroit after a five year absence. It wasn’t last year, when he nearly did it again.

His greatest season is right here, right now, guiding what was, for most of the year, a M*A*S*H unit through the rigors of an NHL campaign.

Babcock should get the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year, and mainly because he never put a pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger.

The Red Wings are on the verge of making the playoffs for the 19th consecutive season, and they’ll have done it with an injury-ravaged roster that was already reeling from some free agency losses and a player vamoosing to Russia unexpectedly.

If it wasn’t so damn serious, it would have been funny. Almost all the players on the Red Wings have been lost to injuries, starting almost immediately when Johan Franzen went down with a serious knee disturbance in the first week.

This wasn’t the usual frolic through the regular season, with the divisional title wrapped up in January. The regular seasons for the Red Wings have been mostly Mai Tais in the Bahamas; this one was rice paddies and Vietnam.

General Mike Babcock led them past all the land mines and, with a team of medics trailing him, he has positioned the Red Wings for the Purple Heart.

It hasn’t just been all the injuries.

It’s been a veteran goalie who lost his job to a rookie who couldn’t have had more question marks plastered on him before the season if he was were the Riddler.

It’s been the overall improvement of the Western Conference, whose teams have reveled in kicking the Red Wings while they were down earlier in the season.

It’s been the under-achieving for most of the season of two key players who’ve managed to stay relatively healthy. Read: Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

It’s been the distraction of also coaching Team Canada in the Olympics, and the “Get Gold or ELSE” mentality that an entire country levied against Babcock and Team Canada director Steve Yzerman.

It’s been all those things, and yet here the Red Wings are, four points in front of ninth-place Calgary and nipping at the heels of as high as the fifth seed. They’re on a 10-2-1 streak when it’s counted the most.

You tell me that this hasn’t been Babcock’s best coaching job in Detroit. Hell, it’s been his best coaching job, period.

No one pacing behind an NHL bench has done more this season with less, and with as many obstacles, as Mike Babcock has done with the Red Wings. Not even close.

But here’s the punch line: he doesn’t have an ice rink’s chance in Hades of winning the damn coaching award.

They’ll give it to someone who coaches a bunch of rag tags. Coach of the Year, in every team sport, has often been code for “Least embarrassing season by a coach with little talent.”

But that’s OK. Babcock doesn’t need a Jack Adams on his mantle to validate the job he’s done this season. Nor does he care about that stuff, anyway.

The great hockey coach also knows when he has the horses to make a legitimate “kick at the can,” as they say.

Babcock knows he has the horses. He’s dropped hints during his post-game comments, putting the other teams on notice that it would be unwise to wish to play the Red Wings in the playoffs.

The great hockey coach doesn’t make excuses or let his players feel sorry for themselves. He doesn’t long for the players who aren’t available.

The great hockey coach does the best he can with what he has.

Then he kicks his opponents between the back pockets come springtime.

The smart money is still on the red numbers.

Monday, March 22, 2010

March Madness Not Limited to Hardwood as Red Wings, Spartans Both Beat Buzzers

It was Yogi Berra Weekend when it came to our teams over the past few days.

The venerable Yankee, who famously extolled that it's "never over till it's over," would be smiling that moon-faced smile if he was plugged into the scene here.

The Red Wings and the Michigan State Spartans both squeezed the clock dry in thrilling fashion. The Red Wings got one-and-a-half victories engaging in such drama, and the Spartans scored a big-time win the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

First, it was Brian Rafalski burying the puck with 0.2 seconds left in the third period in Edmonton on Friday night, tying the game and giving the Red Wings a much-needed point. They went ahead and lost the "third point" in a shootout (ugh!) but Raffi's goal avoided an embarrassing (and costly) goose egg against the Oilers.

The next night, it was Henrik Zetterberg flipping a backhand past Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo to give the Red Wings an overtime win. Zetterberg wasn't quite as efficient as Rafalski; there were 0.3 seconds left when Hank struck.

As if that wasn't enough, MSU escaped the second round and a furious Maryland rally late in the game to win, 85-83, on Korie Lucious's three-point dagger as the clock expired.


Between those three games, there was half-a-second remaining on the clock, combined, when the heroics happened.

The Red Wings' late-game fun was no less important, or clutch, than the Spartans' survival into the Sweet 16. Those three points the Wings gathered over the weekend will loom large when the final tally is counted at the end of the season.

Tonight, it's the Penguins at Joe Louis Arena, and the last time the Pens skated the JLA ice surface, it was with the Stanley Cup above their heads and champagne in their eyes.

This is as good as it gets for any regular season game that the Red Wings have played in March over the past 20 years or so.

The defending Cup champs, in town for the only time this season. The Red Wings with the memories of the Penguins celebrating the winning of hockey's Holy Grail in the Wings' own building. A playoff spot squarely on the line for the Winged Wheel.

This is one night when the adage is a lie: that "the regular season don't matter in the NHL!"

Like hell it doesn't.

There are no throwaway games left now. No more mulligans. Every point is precious. A two-game losing skid can kill you. A three-game winning streak might lift you a few spots in the standings, just like that.

As for Sparty, they live to fight another day---specifically this Friday against Northern Iowa, who just happen to be the belles of this year's ball.

Ice ran in the veins of "Luscious Lucious" as he took a pass, glanced at the hoop, decided against firing, then calmly dribbled and took a couple steps to his left before lining up his game-winning triple.


It would have been a horrible loss; the Spartans had the Terrapins by 15 points with less than ten minutes to go in the game. A late 80-71 lead evaporated like spilled water on a Phoenix sidewalk.

Three key games over the weekend for the Red Wings and Spartans. Three heart-stopping buzzer beaters. Three happy (mostly) endings.

It's mad, I tell you!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Baseball’s Glamour Position Kid Jackson’s Now in Detroit

It’s the most romantic, glorified position in our most romantic, glorified sport.

Even when baseball was played with mushy balls by men wearing baggy uniforms and pillbox hats, when you traveled to the ballpark by horse and buggy or traipsed there by foot, centerfield was the glamour position.

Ty Cobb started it, pretty much.

Cobb used his freakish speed and sheer determination to patrol center, in between slapping base hits all over the field at a robust .370+ clip every season.

Then there was Tris Speaker, the Texan who splashed onto the scene with the Boston Red Sox before being shipped mysteriously to the Cleveland Indians in a trade that doesn’t get panned as badly as the sale of Babe Ruth, but was almost as bad for the Bosox.

Centerfield’s standing in baseball as the Rolls Royce of positions grew as time marched on.

Joe DiMaggio, a skinny Italian kid from California’s Bay Area, turned centerfield into Beverly Hills. Left and right fields were Fresno.

Then came the 1950s.

Baseball’s epicenter was New York. The Dodger Bums from Brooklyn, the Giants from northern Manhattan, the Yankees from the Bronx—it was the most storied time for baseball in and around Gotham. Every team was competitive; one of the three was always in the World Series.

Centerfield was lockstep with all that team glory in New York.

Duke Snider with the Dodgers. Willie Mays with the Giants. Mickey Mantle with the Yankees. The debate about who was the best centerfielder among the three raged throughout the five boroughs. No player from any other team was even in the discussion.

The Tigers’ Al Kaline started as a centerfielder. And he was every bit as good as Snider, Mays, and Mantle, but someone realized that to waste a howitzer of an arm like Kaline’s in center, when it could be better put to use in right field, would be an egregious mistake.


It’s the pulse of the diamond. It’s where the fastest, best, most sure-handed players are assigned. The greatest outfield plays in baseball history have been made by centerfielders.

The great centerfield debate in New York was fueled by the fact that the three ballparks involved—Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and Yankee Stadium—each had vast outfield acreage to cover. If you wanted to play some good centerfield in those stadiums, you had to be part gazelle, part park ranger.

The centerfielders also usually batted in the glamour spots of the order—leadoff or No. 3 or cleanup. They were the defensive wizards and the offensive spark plugs.

The comedian/actor/director Billy Crystal said he used to dream of playing centerfield for the Yankees. He and millions of other little boys.

Tiger Stadium was another of those vast ballparks in centerfield. It was 440 feet to dead center, with power alleys that could cause lesser outfielders to want to phone a cab if a gapper got slapped into left or right center.

Mickey Stanley played it as well as anyone. Mickey was a Grand Rapids kid and after playing center for a few years, he was all of Michigan’s. With Stanley in center, you could relax when the ball left the infield.

Ronnie LeFlore, practically straight from Jackson State Prison and into a Tigers uniform, had a devil of a time with centerfield in the late-1970s. LeFlore was signed from prison because of his speed and his bat. When it came to his defense, everyone politely looked the other way.

Chester Lemon was brought over from the White Sox for Steve Kemp in 1982, and manager Sparky Anderson took leave of his senses and made Lemon a rightfielder for a season, before re-depositing him in center, where he played with brilliance before the trade—and where he wowed us for the Tigers for eight seasons.

Others have come and gone since then: Gary Pettis and Brian Hunter, who each had blazing speed but cooked noodles for arms; Milt Cuyler, who also had the required speed but who lacked the anticipation and proper routing needed to chase down baseballs driven to his right or left; and a host of others who leased time in center, and whose names wouldn’t be worth the time for me to write nor for you to read.

Today, all of Tigers fandom is still in mourning over the trade of good guy Curtis Granderson. Four years ago, in Granderson’s first full season as the Tigers’ everyday centerfielder, I wrote that he’d turn the town on with his splendidness, both on and off the field. It was one of the few times when I was spot on.

Granderson’s play in center took me back to the days of Mickey Stanley and, really, to even those big boys of the 1950s from the three New York boroughs.

He’s gone now—so fitting that he’s with the Yankees—and centerfield in Detroit will now be entrusted to a raw rookie.

Austin Jackson hasn’t played an inning in the big leagues. But he’s supposed to be quite a player—the best prospect in the Yankees’ organization before being traded to the Tigers in the Granderson deal.

Reggie Jackson, no less, has raved about him. Tigers manager Jim Leyland’s eyes light up when he talks about Austin Jackson’s play this spring training.

In one fell swoop, the Tigers are asking the kid to: a) replace Granderson in centerfield; b) take over the leadoff spot in the batting order; and c) get on base and steal bases.

That’s all.

And oh, by the way, if you don’t do those things too well, Austin, our chances to win decrease exponentially.

It’s a glamour profession, centerfield is. It’s bright lights, big city out there. No one hides an iron glove in center. You can’t be inconspicuous batting leadoff.

“Leading off, playing centerfield…”

It rolls off the tongue. And millions of boys have inserted their own names into that fictitious P.A. announcement. Billy Crystal is hardly alone.

We’re about to find out if this kid Jackson has the goods to not be dwarfed by the specter of playing centerfield in the big leagues. He’s not following Cobb or DiMaggio or Mantle or Mays, but you’d think so, gauging by the fans’ take in post-Granderson Detroit.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Pistons' Rapid Fall from Grace is Stunning

It's been a long time since the Pistons have provided this much fodder for the ink-stained wretches and bottom feeding bloggers around town.

Being a card-carrying member of both of those groups, I can attest to this from experience.

Another one of our four children in Detroit has gone astray.

The Lions have been, for decades, the one kid that just can't seem to get it together. He's the one who is most likely to ask for money or call you in the middle of the night from jail---things of that nature.

Now the Pistons have fallen off the wagon.

They dropped yet another game last night---a fairly spirited try (for a change) but the same old result. The Cleveland Cavaliers beat them, 113-101. It wasn't all that long ago when the Pistons kept the Cavs at arm's length in the Central Division. These days, the Cavs all but toy with them before putting the Pistons out of their misery.

I've written it before: the Pistons are a fraud of a team that is bereft of a plan, sans an identity. They're a franchise that was once a model for others in the NBA. Today they're a cautionary tale.

President Joe Dumars took a wrong turn somewhere and now is in desperate need of a GPS system to get himself back on the right path.

Half the time the Pistons don't compete, because they can't. The other half, they don't compete because they care not to.

This bunch has taken the Pistons name, which used to stand for excellence and hard work and elitism, and made it into a league wide joke. It's hard to say if league observers look at the Pistons with pity or with smirks.

This is a great time to be a Pistons hater, whether you are an old-school protester from the Bad Boys days or a Johnny-come-lately since 2004. It's reminiscent of how it was in Detroit when the Celtics of the 1980s got old and decrepit and stumbled through the league, a shadow of their former selves. We relished that unabashedly.

Dumars has dug himself a hole of horrific proportions.

How are those free agent signings from last summer looking?

How's his wallet, going forward? Lighter than a feather.

Dumars has no vision anymore. He's become Mr. Magoo, and no one is more of a shadow of himself than Joe D. He's the Incredibly Shrinking GM.

The Pistons still try to use "Going to work" as a marketing hook and it's laughable. This team only goes to work for coach John Kuester on occasion; the rest of the time it's out to lunch.

It's sad what's happened to this team, but that sadness pales in comparison to the future's outlook, which is chillingly bleak.

Forget free agency; even if Dumars finds some dough, his team isn't anywhere near any star player's short list of possible destinations. Dumars would have to pull off a snow job of unprecedented proportions to con any player worth his salt to become a Piston for the next four or five years.

That leaves the draft.

The Pistons are lottery-bound, and if you pull for this team, you'd better gather as many rabbit's feet and horseshoes as you can find. Prayer and meditation wouldn't hurt, either.

The Pistons have a bunch of crooked shooting small guys and a center who couldn't score 20 points unless you gave him a week to do it. They have no leapers, few athletes, and matador defenders.

Add to that financial constraints and a history of suspect drafting, and you have a recipe for disaster.

I'm sorry to ruin your St. Patty's Day with such negativity, but like comedian Jeffrey Ross said in a recent celebrity roast: "These aren't jokes, these are facts!"

The Pistons' best bet at this point is to go young and cheap, and hope that some of the kids they have and will draft, pan out.

There are some bright spots: Jonas Jerebko, Austin Daye, Will Bynum, and Rodney Stuckey. None of them make an obnoxious amount of money, and all of them have encouraging upsides. Add a lottery pick (preferably a scoring big man) and Dumars might be able to save some face and get the Pistons back to respectability in a couple years.

It's disgusting to watch the Pistons play on most nights. They're having trouble staying in games before halftime. The Celtics brutalized them on Monday night with nary a whimper from the boys in red, white, and blue.

The Pistons' situation isn't hopeless, but it's close.

All this, and Karen Davidson has to find a sucker to buy them, too.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Like Crozier 44 Years Ago, Howard Looks Like a Fuzzy-Faced Playoff Starter

If you never got a chance to see Roger Crozier play goal for the Red Wings, I can replicate the experience for you.

To recreate the acrobatic, helter-skelter manner in which Crozier tended net, drop a few unpopped kernels of popcorn into a pot coated with sizzling oil. Then try to predict in which direction those kernels will fly once they pop.

That was pretty much it when it came to Crozier, who used the goal crease as his own gymnastics mat.

Crozier, who passed away at the too-young age of 53 in 1996, was a highly entertaining goalie who wasn't above using any part of his body in any location, no matter how unnatural, to stop pucks. I actually think I once saw Crozier break apart, like a man made of Lego, just so he could get a limb, or maybe it was a rib cage, in the way of a speeding vulcanized disc of rubber. Then he put himself back together again.

Crozier played maskless, so we could all see the terror and desperation on his face. He tended goal in the same slapstick fashion as Lucille Ball in that famous candy-wrapping/conveyor belt scene of "I Love Lucy."

Crozier was a fuzzy-faced 24 year-old when he goaltended the Red Wings to the 1966 Stanley Cup Finals against Montreal. He was in just his second full season.

Crozier played every game (you heard me) in the '64-65 season---70 in total. He was the Calder Trophy winner as Rookie of the Year thanks to that yeoman work. He played in 64 games in '65-66. It's amazing that he didn't give himself whiplash, or seizures, with the frantic gyrations that he underwent in goal.

Crozier was so good in that '66 Cup Final that he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, even though the Red Wings lost to the Habs in six games. The Cup-winning goal was a controversial one: Montreal's Henri Richard and Red Wings defenseman Gary Bergman slid into Crozier---and into the net, and the puck went in with them. Old-timers will still tell you that the Wings got rooked on that one.

It only LOOKS like Roger Crozier lost his head making this save, but with him, you never know

It's 44 years later, and it looks like Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is going to ride his rookie goalie, Jimmy Howard, in the playoffs for as long as the kid will take them---if the Red Wings qualify, of course.

Howard will turn 26 soon, but he had fewer games in with the Wings (9) prior to his first full-time season as Crozier did (15) prior to Roger's first full-time season in '64-65.

I guess I was wrong. All season I've been trumpeting Chris Osgood as the man to step into the crease when the post-season started. I believed the Howard emergence was a nice story, but that once the "second season" began, Babcock wouldn't trust a rookie in goal.

But it appears that Babcock will do just that; Osgood hasn't started a game since a loss in late January.

It doesn't appear logical now to insert the 37-year-old Osgood when the playoffs start, simply because he's the veteran with the Stanley Cup rings.

The timing might be right for a Jimmy Howard playoff run. If there's ever a year for the Red Wings to start a rookie in goal in the playoffs, it's this year.

The Red Wings will be on virtually no one's mind when it comes to handicapping the Cup contenders next month. They might get some token consideration due to long and faithful service, but little more.

What better way to try to capitalize on those low expectations than to start a rookie in goal and give him invaluable experience?

It won't be like when Ozzie was a rookie in 1994, when he was thrust into the fire of the playoffs because of the ineptitude of starter Bob Essensa. Howard has been the No. 1 goalie for the Red Wings since around Thanksgiving, virtually. Just like Crozier in 1966, Howard will have gobs of games under his belt, accumulated during the regular season, when playoff time rolls around.

Babcock has made no bones about Howard's play, being effusive in his praise of the rookie. And the coach has been no less forthright in his gentle criticisms of Osgood. It seems pretty clear to which man Babcock is leaning for playoff playing time.

They say a rookie isn't a rookie anymore when the season is this near the end. That might be true in other sports, but it's laughable in the NHL for a goalie who hasn't played a second in the playoffs.

Jimmy Howard will notice the difference about 30 seconds after the puck is dropped in Game One. But Babcock thinks the money is still smartest if placed on Howard's seemingly unflappable approach to his craft, plus his 50-plus games played this season.

I guess we're about to see.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Olsen a Gentle Giant, Unless You Wore Opposing Colors

Merlin Olsen always fascinated me. I considered him borderline schizophrenic.

On the football field, Olsen was part of the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome defensive line that swallowed ball carriers whole. He, Lamar Lundy, Deacon Jones, and Rosey Grier gave no quarter on Sunday afternoons. You’d be better off running through a fire wearing a suit soaked with gasoline.

Olsen, like his line brethren, was mean, nasty, unforgiving, snarling, and angry.

But it was what he did, not what he was.

Jones, on the other hand, reveled in his reputation as a virtual madman. He never tried to shed that skin. Even today, at age 71, Deacon’s eyes get wild and they dance when he talks about his playing days and how much he liked to inflict punishment. Deacon takes credit for inventing the term, and stat, “quarterback sack.” Not that anyone in their right mind would argue the point with him.

Olsen, the Hall of Fame football player (in pro AND college) who passed away this week at age 69 from cancer—talk about things that are unforgiving—was a cerebral football player. Literary, even. No one had to fix his grades in college, nor feed him Basket Weaving 101 to help him earn his degree.

The fascination I had with Olsen began when I first heard him speak. He was still a player at the time. I was an adolescent.

This is going to sound terribly ignorant on my part, but I had no idea football players could talk like that.

Olsen, as a player and later as a TV analyst and eventually actor, spoke with eloquence and intelligence and he could string more than a few sentences together without needing a timeout. Or an oxygen mask.

This was the same man on the gridiron every weekend, crushing quarterbacks like a nutcracker?

You don’t play pro football without anger or passion or a hatred for the other team. It’s still the most violent of all the sports, because the collisions and the brutal physical contact are constant—on every play, without let up.

Olsen retired as a player over 30 years ago, and I still can’t fathom him harming a fly, let alone head slapping some poor offensive guard silly.

Then Olsen went and became a TV analyst, and displayed every Sunday that dichotomy between the angry, punishing player that he was in pads and the gentle, laid back, egghead orator he had become in suit and tie.

Olsen and Michigan kid Dick Enberg partnered for years as the lead announcing team on NBC. They broadcast Super Bowls and Rose Bowls and the biggest games of the regular season.

Olsen used words found in Webster’s Dictionary, which was a step in the right direction in understanding him. He didn’t yell “Boom” and “Bam” and turn your TV set into an Etch-a-Sketch with his TeleStrator. He wasn’t a former coach who was still trying to coach from the broadcast booth.

You know who I’m talking about, and there’s nothing wrong with that, if you prefer your football analysis to be espresso. Olsen, on the other hand, was a soothing cup of warm tea.

Tea and football might not seem to mix, but Olsen’s calm, in-control style worked fabulously with Enberg’s, which was steady professionalism sprinkled with the occasional, voice-cracking “Oh, my!”

Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen were Batman and Robin, where so many of the other broadcast teams were Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

Then Olsen, while still calling football games, turned to Hollywood as an actor, but that wasn’t new for the pro football player. Jim Brown, Crazy Legs Hirsch, Fred Williamson, Bernie Casey and Joe Namath and others tried their hands at it. Few were any good.

Yet Olsen and another former Rams defensive lineman, Freddie Dryer, actually excelled on the screen, each starring in their own TV shows.

But while Dryer imported his tough guy image into his police officer character on television, Olsen played…Father Murphy!

Oh, and Olsen hawked flowers for a time, becoming the official spokesperson for FTD Florists.

Like I said, schizophrenic.

Olsen attended Utah State University and graduated summa cum laude and Sigma Chi with a degree in finance in 1962. That’s the resume of a nerd, not a bone-crushing football player.

Olsen played pro football for 15 seasons and made the Pro Bowl in 14 of those, missing only in his final season of 1976.

“After a few games I knew I was going to be able to compete,” Olsen said of becoming a pro out of Utah State. “The idea of being a star never crossed my mind.”

Last year, Olsen was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs that is normally caused by too much exposure to asbestos. In January 2010, Olsen filed a lawsuit against NBC Studios, NBC Universal, and 20th Century Fox for exposing him to the asbestos that he believed led to his cancer.

On Thursday, Olsen died in a California hospital.

The Fearsome Foursome is down to two. Lundy passed away in 2007.

“Our whole philosophy was to intimidate the quarterback,” Olsen once said. “We were able to do it. We were pioneers. People still recognize us as, maybe, the best defensive line of all time.”

Not maybe, Merlin.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Red Wings are Healthy and Angry Now, So the West Beware

No one knows where the Red Wings will finish in the conference standings, but I can assure you that it will be in the top eight, albeit in the bottom half of those eight.

Which means one of the upper seeds will draw them in the first round of the playoffs.

May the hockey gods have mercy on that poor team's soul.

Enough fooling around now. All you other teams in the Western Conference, you've had your fun. You picked on the Red Wings when they had one hockey gloved hand tied behind their backs. But now they've broken free from their shackles and you'd all better run.

The Red Wings blitzed the mighty (for now) Chicago Blackhawks with a five-goal second period on Sunday in the Windy City, and they made it look ridiculously easy.

This is the Red Wings team that started the season, pretty much, but not the one that played together between games three and sixty. Injuries made sure of that.

But this group of 18 skaters, plus rookie surprise goalie Jimmy Howard, is the team that all those Western foes have been fortunate enough to avoid.

Until now.

"We're not where we want to be in the standings, but until we don't make it back (to the Stanley Cup Finals), then yeah, we're the team to beat," defenseman Brian Rafalski said after yesterday's 5-4 win over the Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks pretty much agreed.

"They're still the team to beat in the West, I don't care what anyone says. They have the lineup to do it," said Chicago forward Andrew Ladd.

And this, from coach Joel Quenneville: "They got so many weapons, so many guys with patience and skill and speed," he said. "They're very adept at turning something offensively against you the other way."

The Red Wings' explosion on Sunday was part shoddy goaltending, part opportunism, part raw skill. All facets of the Red Wings' brilliance was represented in the five-goal outburst.

You like your defensemen scoring? Rafalski and Lidstrom tallied with long-range slap shots. You prefer hard work and driving to the net rewarded? Check out Jason Williams' goal after a perfect pass from Henrik Zetterberg. You like to see soft hands? I give you goals by Valtteri Filppula and the dazzling Pavel Datsyuk, who was so alone on his breakaway that he looked over his shoulder, saw no one within the same area code, and had time to select from one of his hundreds of moves, discard some, and re-consider others before settling on a slick, clean, backhand through the five-hole of backup goalie Antti Niemi. And still there was no Blackhawk near Datsyuk.

All this after the Red Wings fell into an 0-2 hole in the first period to a Chicago team that is battling for first seed in the West.

The scary thing for everyone else is that the Red Wings scored their five goals with that apparent lack of effort that has been their calling card, but which has been missing for the most part until after the Olympic break. The now-healthy Red Wings are 3-1 since the Winter Games.

When they're at their best with puck possession and passing, the Red Wings can drop multiple goals on you in a hurry. They can run goalies like Huet out of the building. And they won't be a fun team to play when those best-of-seven soirees get going next month.

"Last time we played Chicago we outplayed them badly and they beat us (4-3 in a shootout on Jan. 17)," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said after Sunday's game. "They know, and so do we. The good teams in the league are hoping we don't get into the seventh or eighth (playoff) spot."

Good teams like Chicago and San Jose, who are likely to be the top two seeds in the West. The Red Wings schooled the Blackhawks in the conference finals last year, and the Sharks have had a devil of a time with the Red Wings as of late, whether the Detroiters have been healthy or not.

You think either of those clubs wants a piece of the Red Wings coming out of the playoff gate?

The Red Wings played a stinker last Wednesday at home against Vancouver, and it pissed them off. They took it out on the Nashville Predators on Friday, and got their dander up Sunday after the Blackhawks dared to take a 2-0 lead.

The Red Wings are like David Banner/The Incredible Hulk now.

"Don't make me angry," Bill Bixby/Banner used to say on TV. "You won't like me when I'm angry."

The Red Wings are healthy, mad, and chomping at the bit. They're loaded for bear.

Or Blackhawk, or Shark, or anything else ya got.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Tom Izzo: Still Crazy After All These Years

Nothing’s ever good enough for Tom Izzo.

You can read that two ways, and that’s by design.

Izzo has coached basketball with utter brilliance for 15 years at Michigan State University, and every year you watch him and listen to him, you wonder why he puts himself through the pain.

Izzo dies a little inside with every turnover, every missed defensive assignment, every ill-chosen jump shot. He’s been at it in East Lansing since 1995, which I suppose means he must be a walking dead man by now.

Well, not exactly.

Izzo dies inside, but he regenerates himself. He’ll on the one hand wonder how the heck MSU can win another basketball game, then on the other he’ll promise the fans and the media that his team will be back with a vengeance.

He puts himself through these rigors every winter, and you’d like to say he does it because he loves coaching. But does the guy who walks on hot coals love heat, or is he a little bent in the head?

I think Tom Izzo is a little nuts, and that’s OK, because you can’t be a coach in any high-profile setting, college or pro, and not have a little part of you that’s demented.

Izzo might be having fun, in his crazy mixed up way, but he sure as hell doesn’t look like it. His Spartans were 9-0 with a three-game lead in the Big Ten a few weeks ago, and Izzo sounded like Chicken Little, as usual.

“I keep telling you guys (the media are always “you guys” to Izzo) that the back end of our schedule is as tough as it gets. This thing isn’t over yet,” he warned through his grimace in his hoarse voice. Izzo always looks like a hostage when he talks to the media, and his raspy voice makes him sound like he’s been screaming at his captors all night.

No one wanted to listen to Chicken Little, because we’ve all heard it before. Izzo can make former Pistons coach Chuck Daly, the self-proclaimed Prince of Pessimism, look like the president of the local chamber of commerce.

Izzo warned us guys, and damned if he wasn’t right.

The Spartans indeed have stumbled since that 9-0 start in the conference. They’re 4-4 in their last eight games, including three straight losses to fall back to the pack. Chicken Little’s team now can do no better than tie for the Big Ten title, with Ohio State and possibly Purdue.

The other night with the media in his post-game chat, Izzo shifted in his chair and bit off his words, trying like mad to control his anger. The voice was even hoarser this time. He had the demeanor of someone who’d just been cut off in traffic.

And that was after a victory.

The Spartans had just squeaked by Penn State, and no one squeaks by Penn State, unless they’ve played the game with one hand tied behind their back. Penn State is awful. They’re lucky the Big Ten can’t count, because they sure play like the 11th team in a ten-team conference.

Izzo’s post-game discussion eventually turned downright ominous and diabolical.

“This is gonna be a fun couple of days,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s gonna be fun. I’m gonna have some fun like I used to have some fun. At the end of it, there will be some people standing and playing their tail off, and there will be some people not playing.”

It’s never a good thing to tick off a crazy person.

The Spartans finish their regular season with a home tilt against Michigan on Sunday.

The players were rightfully shaking in their sneakers, because they knew that Coach Izzo had something rotten up his sweaty sleeve.

Sure enough, he had them back at the Breslin Center at 7 a.m. Friday morning for a walk-through, then Izzo planned on putting them through a full practice that evening.

“We never do that,” one of the players said, of having a walk-through and a practice on the same day, just two days before a game.

“This program is bigger than me, and some players are going to find out that it’s a whole lot bigger than them, too,” Izzo added. “We’ll play better on Sunday.”

Or else.

This is what Tom Izzo lives for. It’s almost as if he’s not happy unless he’s miserable, or worried, or mad. He coaches basketball like he’s passing a kidney stone.

Izzo succeeded Jud Heathcote, who wasn’t exactly Prince Charming either, but Jud was never as cynical and pessimistic and as much of a worry wart as his former assistant Izzo, who never met a favorable situation he didn’t like—to tear down.

Izzo not only doesn’t count his chickens before they hatch, he’ll wring his hands that the hens will lay any eggs at all.

It’s been that way since he took over for Heathcote in 1995, and it’s getting worse. Time hasn’t mellowed him. Tom Izzo is aging like fine vinegar.

Yet it works. It must, because there haven’t been too many college basketball programs as successful since ’95 as Izzo’s MSU, which has been to so many Final Fours over the years that the NCAA should owe the university frequent flier miles.

This season, Izzo has picked on guard Kalin Lucas. Relentlessly. Lucas has been the hen-pecked husband to Izzo’s nagging wife. But just as in the world of marital bliss, the bottom line is that Izzo loves the kid. To Izzo, love means never having to say you’re sorry.

But Izzo doesn’t just reserve his vitriol for his players. Sometimes the biggest punching bag for Tom Izzo has been Tom Izzo.

He didn’t have his players prepared. He made some boneheaded decisions. He stinks as a coach. Tom Izzo has heard it all—from his own hoarsey mouth.

Still, for all his success at MSU, Izzo has but one National Championship to show for it, and that came 10 years ago. Not that it’s for the lack of trying, or for not having come close. Izzo looks like he’s the most tormented man in America at times, coaching his kids in East Lansing, but somewhere deep down inside, he must like it.

But like I said, the guy’s a little nuts.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Offense Close to Being OK, But Lions Better Off Focusing on Defense

In producing a list of the all-time great NFL quarterbacks, anyone who knows a lick about pro football wouldn't have Terry Bradshaw anywhere near the top. A sane-minded individual wouldn't put Bob Griese up there, either.

The list would include, in the upper echelon, Francis Tarkenton and Danny Marino and Jim Kelly. Hell, probably even Dan Fouts.

You wouldn't risk being portrayed as a buffoon by including Trent Dilfer or Mark Rypien. Or even Doug Williams, with all due respect.

Yet Bradshaw is a four-time Super Bowl winner. Griese won it twice. Dilfer and Rypien have champion's rings. Same with Williams.

But Bradshaw had an average arm and didn't possess any extraordinary skills. Griese was mobile and precise but not overpowering in stature. Dilfer was mediocre, Rypien serviceable. Williams was big and strong but erratic.

Now compare that to the skill level of Tarkenton and Marino and Kelly and Fouts.

Bradshaw and Dilfer, especially, played on teams glorified for their defenses. Same, to a degree, goes for Rypien and Williams. Bradshaw, for example, would sometimes only attempt 10-12 passes a game, because his punishing running game and the abusive "Steel Curtain" defense didn't require much more from the offense than 14 points a game for the Steelers to win.

Now you have some ammo the next time someone tries to con you into thinking that defense doesn't win pro football championships.

It's been relegated to cliche, and painted as a myth; fool's gold, even.

Yes, it can be hackneyed, but that doesn't make it any less true.

The Lions had a scary offense in 1995, and for a change I mean that it was scary for the opponents, not the fans.

There was the whirling dervish, jitterbug running back Barry Sanders looming in the backfield on every snap. The wideouts were the highly competent Herman Moore and Brett Perriman. Johnnie Morton was a solid No. 3 receiver. The tight end was the promising David Sloan. One-hit wonder Scott Mitchell slung the ball to them, to the tune of over 300 completions and more than 4,000 yards.

The Lions ended the '95 season with a seven-game winning streak, finishing 10-6 and ready to take on the world.

But they couldn't even handle Philadelphia.

The Eagles torched the Lions' defense in the playoffs to the tune of a 58-37 demolishing that wasn't nearly as "close" as that score would indicate.

The trouble with that 1995 Lions team of the dazzling offense wasn't scoring 30 points; it was trying to keep the other guys from scoring 31.

Some normally sound thinking ink-stained wretches around town, like the Free Press' Michael Rosenberg, have tried to make the case that loading up on offense is the quickest way for the Lions to attain respectability. That may be true; in fact, it may even be likely.

But if the Lions want to kick through the glass ceiling of respectability, and reach for championship sky, they must repair their broken defense.

Coach Jim Schwartz has buttered his bread on the defensive side of the ball all of his coaching life, just about. So it should have been no surprise that he was camped out on the driveway of DT Kyle Vanden Bosch, not WR Nate Burleson, when free agency began at 12:01 this morning.

Literally, camped out.

"I could be anywhere in the world right now," Schwartz told Vanden Bosch via cell phone as the coach's car idled in his former pupil's drive. "But I'm here because you're the guy I want."

This is according to Vanden Bosch, who related the episode to a Tennessee radio station.

Schwartz knows that if his team is going to blow past respectability in the left lane of the NFL freeway and head for the Super Bowl, he needs the horses on defense. It's also why the Lions, despite the signing of free agent Burleson, seem to be focused more on "D," trading for Cleveland DT Corey Williams and targeting a DT with their No. 2 overall draft pick.

Safety Louis Delmas, coming off a strong rookie season, is much like QB Matthew Stafford. Just as Stafford needs a running game and blocking and a second option to go with WR Calvin Johnson, so does Delmas need pieces to the defensive puzzle.

Delmas needs a pass rush. He needs cornerbacks. He needs solid linebacking play. I have a feeling Delmas is a player that the Lions will build around, defensively. So give him some help.

Enter Vanden Bosch, and Williams, and probably the No. 2 overall pick.

If the Dolphins had given Dan Marino, during his 16-year career, a running back and a halfway decent defense, Miami would have been Super Bowl champs again, and maybe more than once.

Rosenberg and others who think like him are on the right track; the Lions of 2009 appeared to be closer to respectability on offense than anywhere else. And if 9-7 and 10-6 is OK with you, then God bless you.

But if you want a parade down Woodward Avenue honoring the Honolulu Blue and Silver in the near future, don't forget the D.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Pistons Need to Cut Ties with Hamilton and Prince Before True Rebuilding Can Begin

The Pistons just slogged through another unproductive, unsuccessful road trip out west. Of course, they can’t really win out east, down south, or up north, either.

“Pistons’ inconsistency maddening to fans,” read a headline on

The Pistons aren’t inconsistent; they aren’t any good—that’s the problem.

They win a game here and there, then lose several, not due to any inconsistency, but due to the fact that they don’t have the goods to hang with most NBA teams on most nights.

But the Pistons can do this re-tool, rebuild on the cheap, if they permanently cut all ties to their glorious past.

It’s time to part ways with Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, and go with what’s left over, then add to it—via the draft and mid-range free agents.

The Pistons have a chance to get through this rough patch and still maintain a degree of dignity, if they make Jonas Jerebko a starter, same with Ben Gordon, and give playing time to Austin Daye and DuJuan Summers.

Rodney Stuckey is the clear choice at point guard, and he should be; Stuckey has what it takes to be a top-tier NBA No. 1 guard.

Start Gordon, Jerebko, and Daye, team those guys with Stuckey and the venerable Ben Wallace, and call it a season. You’re not going to the playoffs; you may not even win 30 games.

Dump Hamilton and Prince, even if it means choking down their contracts. If the Pistons are serious about turning the page and rising from the ashes, then they ought to divorce themselves from the 2004-05 glory years entirely.

Neither player is what he once was. Neither provides leadership or inspiration. Neither is anything special; players like Hamilton and Prince are to the NBA what cooked rice is to a Chinese restaurant.

Prince, especially, is useless. The ball gets dumped into him and he holds onto it for about a week. He has no explosiveness, no moves. He doesn’t draw fouls. His shot is erratic. He’s not a particularly good passer. Other than that, he’s great.

Prince is a 12-point, six-rebound a night guy, and there are about 150 players in the league who can do that.

The Pistons can prevent a total bottoming out if they hit a home run in the draft and bring a low-scoring big man to Detroit. The home run comparison is not only apt, it’s mandatory. President Joe Dumars hasn’t been a power hitter in the draft; sometimes he hasn’t even fouled the ball off. But this summer, there can be nothing less than a drive over the fence in order to save face.

Speaking of faces, who are the Pistons? What is “Piston basketball” anymore? And who is the face of the franchise now?

Answer: no one.

Stuckey is a good player but he’s frightfully low on effervescence. Wallace is too old. Jerebko is too young.

The face might have to be whoever ends up being the Pistons’ first-round choice in 2010. That might be the player who gets splashed on the cover of the media guide and yearbook and whose mug you see on the fold-out schedules that rest on all the counters of all the party stores around town.

Dumars must show signs of having some semblance of a plan. The Pistons are in danger of skimming bottom with no discernible plan or identity. That’s not a good combo.

They can start in both categories—plan and identity—with the cashiering of Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, forthwith. Why not cut Ben Wallace, too? Because Ben comes to play every night and he’s on his last legs anyhow. His better-than-expected season is one of the few things worth talking about when it comes to this group of Pistons.

All I see when I look at Hamilton and Prince are two reminders of what the Pistons used to be; I don’t see where the team is heading.

That is, unless they hang onto those guys. Then I see things getting worse before they get better.