Saturday, December 31, 2011

UCLA vs. Illinois--Gamblers' Nightmare

In bowl history, there have been few like this afternoon's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, pitting UCLA (6-7) against Illinois (6-6) in San Francisco.

How often do you have a bowl game where both teams are headed by interim coaches because both head coaches were sacked at the end of the season? Another coaching problem with Illinois--four assistant coaches publicly and angrily griping about contracts. Just imagine what practices are like in both camps. Bowl game practices are supposed to help get teams ready for spring practice, but both these teams are so riddled with question marks due to regime changes, these practices are meaningless.

For those who are wagering, what do you use as a guage? For instance, Illinois has a superb defense--ranked No.7 in the nation--but amid all the turmoil, will the unit be at its best? Also, the team's best runner, Jason Ford, isn't playing, putting that offense out of sync. UCLA has a better offense, but at times it has completely and inexplicably vanished. How will that offense play?

Illinois is favored by three, but why? The coaching uncertainties taint all guages. There are so many X factors, this game could go in any direction. Both teams could easily come out flat.

Be smart. Don't bet this game.

One last thing. There's the bowl-name issue. Was there ever a worse name then the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl? Smart alecks have come up with some other titles for this one--like the Waste of Time Bowl. Gamblers have dubbed this one, for obvious reasons, the X Factor Bowl.  My favorite? The Who Cares? Bowl.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Washington vs. Baylor: Closer Than You Think

A 9.5 favorite against Washington (7-5), No. 16 Baylor (9-3) should win what promises to be an offensive explosion in tonight's Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. When the offenses are on the field, the defenses will be clearly overmatched. To put it mildly, both defenses stink.

Which defense is worse? Probably Baylor's, but not by much. Among 120 teams, Baylor's defense is ranked No. 114. Only twice has this defense given up less than 400 yards. The key Washington stat:  its pass defense is nearly bottom of the barrell--No.116, surrendering an average of 283.8 yards per game. Certainly Baylor QB and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III can't wait to attack that lousy Washington secondary. He's looking to beef up stats that are already gaudy--72% completions, nearly 4,000 passing yards, 36 TD passes and only six picks.

Washington has weapons to take advantage of Baylor's bad defense, mainly RB Chris Polk (1,341 yards) and QB Keith Price, who broke the school single-season record for TD passes with 29. On the down side, though, both tailed off in the second half.

Common sense says favor a Baylor team that beat Oklahoma, Texas and TCU, fueled by an offense led by a Heisman winner that averages nearly 44 points a game. But Washington, isn't that bad. Remember three of its five losses were to Top Ten teams--Stanford, Oregon and USC.

Everyone keeps pointing out that Baylor finished with a five-game-win streak. But that's not necessarily a plus. In bowl games, momentum isn't that much of a factor since teams have nearly a month off between games. Playing in a bowl game is almost like starting a new season.

Something else to keep in mind about RG III. After a month of making the celebrity rounds as the new Heisman winner, he might not be his usual, highly-focused self. Quite possibly a razor-sharp RG III might not show up at the Alamo Bowl.

Being a big bowl-game underdog shouldn't bother Washington. Remember, in last year's Holiday Bowl, as a 14-point dog, Washington whipped Nebraska 19-7, with RB Polk running for 177 yards. Look for Baylor to win a shootout but Washington, which has a clear edge in special teams, should beat that 9.5 spread.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cal vs Texas-betting tips

Texas is favored by three points in tonight's Holiday Bowl in San Diego. But there are sound reasons to favor underdog Cal in this battle of 7-5 teams.

This is not the usual Cal team that plays well in the first part of the season and then fizzles in the second half. This time the Bears won three out of their last four, the lone loss to a superior Stanford team by only three points. So Cal is bolstered by something new--late-season momentum. On the other hand, Texas started strong but limped down the home stretch. Momentum is not on its side.

The Texas offense was the problem. Starting QB Garrett Gilbert clashed with coach Mack Brown and quit the team, leaving the Longhorns to alternate inexperienced youngsters, David Ash and Cash McCoy, who have not been impressive. Both running backs, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, were banged up late in the season, which slowed the offense even more. Both RBs, however, should be healthy for this game.

What success Texas has had is mostly due to its rugged defense, which is ranked third nationally. That defense is Texas' ace in the hole. It could derail the Cal offense, which is based on the running of mini powerhouse Isi Sofele (1,270 yards, 9 TDs) and the passing of Zach Maynard. After a shaky mid season, Maynard calmed sown, improved his accuracy and stopped throwing picks. What happened is that Cal coach Jeff Tedford shifted the offensive emphasis to the running and took some of the pressure off Maynard.

Cal's defense, which is ranked 14th, is among the best in the country. It has blossomed in the second half, holding three out of the last six opponents to ten points or less. Strongest against the run, it's been vulnerable to quality passing attacks which, however, Texas doesn't have.

Something else in Cal's favor: normally a notoriously bad road team, the Bears have played much better on the road this season. Also, because the game is being played in the Bears' home state, Cal has a slight home field advantage.

The key to the game, aside from the usual X factor, turnovers, is the performance of QB Maynard. If he plays well, which means making smart decisions and few mistakes, Cal should win. Quite simply, betting on Cal is betting on Maynard.

Another tip. Though Holiday Bowls traditionally have been shooutouts, this one, because of the two potent defenses, shapes up as a more low-scoring contest. That means it makes sense to bet the under--47.5.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

USC Minus Kalil Equals No National Title

USC has it all wrong. They've been celebrating the wrong Matt. Their No. 1 Matt, their best player, isn't QB Matt Barkley but left tackle Matt Kalil.

The big news regarding the Trojans' next season isn't Barkley's announcement just before Christmas that he's coming back but Kalil's Dec. 15 decision, with much less fanfare, that he's not coming back. Instead he's making himself available for the NFL draft. Good for SC that Barkley will be back at QB, but not good that Kalil won't be around to protect his blind side. Of course, linemen don't get the applause offensive skill players get, so Kalil didn't get many headlines. That's a shame since left tackles this dominant don't come along very often.

Why did Barkley look so good so consistently? Why was he able to break the school record, passing for 39 TDs? Why was WR Robert Woods able to crack the Pac 12 pass-catching record with 111? Yes, Barkley did some fancy passing but phenomenal protection played a huge part in his success. SC led the country in sacks allowed with eight. The boulder of this stone wall of an offensive line was Kalil who, incredibly, didn't allow a sack. Barkley never had to worry about his blind side. Without this level of protection, Barkley and Woods wouldn't have been running wild. This line rivals some of the legendary units of coach John McKay's teams back in the day.

If you want to see how left tackle should be played at the collegiate level, look up Kalil's highlights on YouTube and you'll see him flattening a parade of opponents. The NFL sees him as the next surest thing after THE sure thing, Stanford QB Andrew Luck, the certain No. 1 draft pick.. Look for Kalil to be drafted second, by the Vikings, to protect young QB Christian Ponder's blind side for many years. Now 6-foot-7, 295 pounds, Kalil will bulk up to 320-330.

Some members of that great SC line will be returning next season, but there's no one of Kalil's caliber. It's not clear who'll replace him but whoever it is won't be as good. Without impenetrable protection, Barkley will be vulnerable to sacks and will probably throw more picks than the seven he threw this year. A less efficient Barkley will likely translate into losses..

National title for USC next season? Without Kalil, Mr. Blind Side, no way.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Boise Sate vs. Arizona State--Strange Game

Don't listen the the pre-MAACO Las Vegas Bowl hype. Boise State, 11-1 and 8th ranked, doesn't want to be in this bottom-tier bowl, playing Arizona State, a 6-6, Pac12 team that suffered such an ugly collapse at the end of the season that its coach, Dennis Erickson, was fired.

Boise had its sights on a big-time BCS bowl, but a 36-35  loss to TCU on a missed field goal ended that dream. This isn't even a good non-BCS bowl. Its one of  those pre-Christmas bowls, which have zero prestige. For Boise this is deja vu. It was stuck in this same stinker last year, again due to a loss because of a missed field goal. Last year, Boise rose to the occasion and walloped Utah, 26-3. When they got word they'd be bowling in Vegas again, you just know they were moaning: "Oh no not again!" But all you heard from them was that "glad to be in Vegas" malarkey.

Nobody gives Arizona State, a 14-point underdog, much of a chance. With fired leader Erickson coaching his last game, things do look bleak. It's hard to imagine the Sun Devils entering this game with a positive additude, particularly with their best player, Vontaze Burfict in Erickson's doghouse for misbehaving in the season-ending Cal loss. Burfict might not play, which robs Arizona State of one of its best weapons.

It's hard to tell if Boise is really that much better than Arizona State. Boise is a good team playing in a lousy conference. They finished the season manhandling an awful New Mexico team, 45-0. Manhandling bad teams is what Boise does best.  Arizona State did start 6-2 and was ranked in the Top 25. The Sun Devils' QB, Brock Osweiler, is one of the best in the country, boasting stats as good as Boise's heralded  QB Kellen Moore.

With the Sun Deils in such turmoil, it's hard to imagine them winning outright, but it's likely they'll at least beat the 14-point spread. Remember Boise is no better than a fourth-or-fifth place Pac 12 team.. Another thing to keep in mind--early in the season, the Sun Devils beat USC. The talent is there. If their mental attitude is right they could give Boise a good battle.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Though it's only a preseason game, tonight's Lakers-Clippers matchup is crucial for the Lakers--easily the most important in many years.

In Monday's game, the Clippers were the big bad alley cat and the Lakers were the helpless mouse. The cat toyed with the mouse. That 114-95 Clipper win could have been worse. To quiet worried fans who are equating the Lakers with the Titanic, the team needs a strong showing tonight.

But forget all that.

Suddenly this just another meaningless pre-season game. There's been a startling development today, one that's potentially catastrophic. The Laker's best player, Kobe Bryant, isn't playing. Turns out there's a torn ligament in the wrist of his right hand-- his shooting hand--which he hurt in a spill in Monday's game. Depending on the severity of the damage, he could be out for a few days, or a few weeks. Without Bryant the Lakers have no chance tonight. They'll lose for sure, probably by more points than Monday night.

Looking beyond this game, though, where are the Lakers? Are they the Titanic, having just bounced off an iceberg? Possibly. Most likely Bryant's injury--even if it's not maximum severity--will hamper his shooting for a while, cutting down on the team's early-season point production. Remember center Andrew Bynum is suspended for the first five games. So without him, and with a subpar Bryant, the Lakers could be off to a wobbly start, something they can't afford in this shortened, 66-game season.

Bryant's injury and Bynum's five-game absence will magnify the deficiency at point guard. Aging Derek Fisher is the team's glaring weakness. In Phil Jackson's triangle, which didn't rely on a point guard, masking Fisher's limitations wasn't that difficult. But in new coach Mike Brown's more standard system, he will really be exposed.

On defense, Fisher is particularly a liability. He just can't keep up with the league's speedy point guards. With offensive production down, the Lakers' will need a stronger defense. Most likely, they're not going to get it.

Things are different now. There are a bunch of new players. There's no more Lamar Odom and former starter Ron Artest--or Metta World Peace--is older, heavier and slower and adjusting to his new role, leader of the second unit. Amid these tumultuous changes the Lakers are tryng to learn coach Brown's new system, which stresses defense. This team is used to the triangle, with its slower pace, unique spacing and unusual passing demands. But the triangle is history. According to some, so are the Lakers.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Pac12 Basketball Stinks

You know the Pac12 is in trouble when all it has to brag about is a loss--Stanford falling to No.1 Syracuse last month. Call it a near victory, which sounds better. Stanford led most of the way before Syracuse took control in the last few minutes, winning 69-63.

For Pac12 men's hoops this brush with victory in a game against an elite team is as good as it gets. The conference has nothing else to brag about. Any discussion about Pac12 basketball winds up listing negative after negative. Most damning is that the conference hasn't has a team in the AP Top 25 for a couple of weeks. Another black eye: no Pac12 team has a victory over a Top 25 team. There's more. In conference ratings, the Pac 12 is shockingly low, down there with the obscure doormat leagues.

This abyss was unexpected. The season began so hopefully, with UCLA, Cal and Arizona appearing on most pre-season Top 25 lists. Then reality set in.

UCLA was the first to flop, with shocking losses to rinky-dink teams. Its best player, Reeves Nelson, always a fragile head case, spun out of control and was kicked off the team. Center Josh Smith, a key player, showed up fat and slow-footed and is still many weeks away from reaching his top shape. Aided by a soft schedule, UCLA has limped to 5-5, way below expectaions.

Considered by some writers the best team in the conference, Cal, featuring defensive whiz Jorge Gutierrez and sharpshooter Allen Crabbe, has also stumbled, losing to two Top 25 teams. The Missouri loss was a slaughter but the Bears were nipped by San Diego State during the short suspension of starting power forward Richard Solomon. Then No. 24 and the lone Pac12 presence in the AP Top 25, Cal--and the conference--fell off the list. Look behind that glossy 9-2 record and you see that the Bears have been gorging on little teams. Adding wins in conference play may not be easy. They just got some more bad news about Solomon, that he's out for a few weeks with a stress fracture in his foot. 

Arizona's ranking was based on its hotshot freshmen blooming quickly. They haven't, which has contributed to the Wildcats' shaky start. Washington, with solid veteran Abdul Gabby and talented freshman Tony Wroten, has promise, but getting wiped out at home last weekend by lowly South Dakota State, 92-73, raises some red flags.

Amid all this gloom, picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference, Stanford, with its 9-1 record, has been a pleasant surprise. But are they for real? Boasting size, depth and some scrappy young players like freshman Chasson Randle and sophmore point guard Aaron Bright, they have potential. But the Cardinal, which has yet to beat a good team, could also crumble against conference competition.

As you might expect, since the Pac 12 has no headline-grabbing teams, it also has no headline-grabbing stars. The elite teams are wobbly and the rest of the league is mediocre. This shapes up to be one of the worst conference seasons in many years. And just wait until March Madness. Pac12 fans won't just be mad, they'll be embarrassed. The conference will be lucky to get three invites.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Denver vs. Tebow--For Gamblers

If you're going to bet the Denver-New England game, forget all that Tebow-has-a-pipeline-to-Jesus nonsense. There are five reasons teams win or lose--talent, injuries, play-calling, mental attitude and mistakes. Jesus has nothing to do with it.

After consulting with astute members of the gambling community, it's clear that the absolute key to this game is the availability of two injured players in the Denver secondary--saftey Brian Dawkins and corner Andre Goodman. To win, Denver has to limit Patriot QB Tom Brady's passes to WR Wes Welker and TE Ron Gronkowski. Without Dawkins and Goodman it will be nearly impossible for Denver to win. Even with that pair at less than 100% it will be tough.

This game is all about the Patriots' passing vs. Denver's secondary. The Broncos have a chance if they keep the Pats' potent offense at bay. That will keep the score down and within range of Denver's formula--strong running backed by tough defense.

A big reason the Broncos has won all these games is, quite simply, they haven't faced any superb pass offenses. Their lone encounter--against the Lions' passing game--resulted in the only loss in the Tebow streak. Dealing with somebody like Brady is a first for the Broncos. Denver will score against the awful Patriot defense, but can they keep pace if the Broncos' secondary isn't healthy?

Bet at the last second. If Dawkins and Goodman aren't playing or seem too damaged to play, go for the Patriots. Against a banged-up Denver secondary, New England will easily cover that 6-7 point spread.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Back To The Bad 49ers?

When a good team loses to a bad team, it raises red flags, like early in the season when the horrible Rams marched all over the Saints. Turns out, though, that loss was just an aberration. The Saints really are good.

How about the 49ers, the big success story of the season?  Despite being a solid favorite, they laid an egg Sunday in Arizona, losing 21-19. Not only are the Cardinals a bad team, but they were led by an obscure backup QB, John Skelton. This nobody, howled Niner fans, beat the Niners? He certainly did. In the second half, Skelton, who began the game with a puny 57.3 passer rating, turned into Tom Brady, using a sharp passing attack to turn a 19-7 deficit into a 21-19 victory.

Does this loss mean the bubble has burst, that the Niners are sinking back into medocrity, that the clock has struck midnight and QB Alex Smith's Cinderella days are over? Here are the reasons why it's probably not doomsday for the Niners.

First of all, this could be just a normal letdown game. Last week, the Niners did cinch a playoff spot, so their intensity level would naturally drop a bit, which was evident in the fourth quarter, when they blew the game. Also, the law of averages might have finally caught up with them. They were overdue for a stinker. They haven't really had one this season. Those losses to Dallas and Baltimore don't really qualify.

Clearly, in the Arizona game, the defense, which uncharacteristically failed down the stretch, was a problem. It wasn't its same old swarming, killer self. That's at least partly because its leader, LB Patrick Willis, was out with a hamstring pull, missing only the second game of his career. Without him, the defense, with replacement Larry Grant, loses some punch.

The Niner offense wasn't the same either--on purpose. With an eye to the playoffs, trying to show teams they can do more than run, coach Jim Harbaugh experimented was a pass-first offense, limiting his primaary weapon, RB Frank Gore, to just 10 carries. The experiment wasn't a big success. Against a weak pass defense, Smith was just 18 for 37, for 175 yards and was alarmingly off target all day. In the next few games, look for the Niners to continue to try to polish their passing.

The negative buzz from the skeptics may continue after Monday night's game against Pittsburgh, which could be another loss. If Smith had trouble against the Cardinals' defense, imagine his frustrations trying to penetrate that steel-curtain pass defense. In the Niners' favor, though, is that Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger's sprained ankle may keep him out of the game.

So losing to the lowly Cardinals doesn't necessarily mean the 49ers are regressing. It probably just means their foot is off the gas pedal and, with the regular season in the rear view mirror, they're in cruise control and the focus is just on what's up ahead--the playoffs.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lamar (Boo Hoo) Odom

Lamar Odom is 32 years old. Lately, though, he's been behaving like a three-year-old. Boston Celtics' Glen Davis is called Big Baby. Wrong. Odom is the real big baby.

Last Thursday, when he was still a Laker, Odom was included in a trade for Chris Paul that was obviously assembled on the fly. General Manager Mitch Kupchak didn't have time to alert Odom that he was being shipped to New Orleans as part of a three-team deal. No time to soothe hurt feelings. So Odom found out about the trade second-hand, from a reporter. But no sooner than the trade was assembled, it was nixed by NBA commisioner David Stern. So within hours, the multi-skilled forward was a Laker, not a Laker, then a Laker again.

That was too much for Odom's sensitive psyche. After the trade collapsed he was expected to report to training camp, to a team that had just tried to unload him. He brooded publically, moaning in a interview with radio-talk show host Stephen A. Smith that he felt disrespected. Angry, Odom refused to report to Laker camp and demanded a trade. So Kupchak, in a hastily assembled deal, sent him to Dallas, essentially for nothing in return.

Kupchak no doubt felt that an unhappy Odom would be a liability to the Lakers. Under normal conditions,
he mentally checks out from time to time and plays badly. A brooding Odom would definitely have those lapses more often. Bottom line. Like a spoiled, sulking kid throwing a tantrum, he forced the trade.

Odom should be ashamed of himself. What an infantile whiner. How unprofessional, how selfish. Just because Kupchak didn't have time to hold his hand through the first trade talks, he didn't want to be a Laker any more.

Odom, who's been traded twice before--by the Clippers and Miami--still doesn't get it. The NBA is a multi-billion-dollar business. The Lakers were making a business deal. Nothing personal. No place for emotions. But he let his emotions come bursting in and crash went the Lakers.

Now there's a big hole in the Laker rotation where Odom, the NBA's reigning Sixth Man of The Year, used to be. The Lakers signed ex-Pacer Josh McRoberts (7.4 points, 5.3 rebounds) to fill the gap. An OK player, he's nowhere as skilled and versatile as Odom.

The Dwight Howard deal is dead and the Chris Paul deal is almost dead. So after all this, the end result is that the Lakers are without one of their best players. So the team isn't as good as it was last year and Odom is now a member of the Dallas Mavericks, the team that dismembered the Lakers in the playoffs. He's in great shape, but the Lakers......?

Thanks a lot, Lamar.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

UCLA's Mora--Not The Best Choice

On the Wow! scale, UCLA's hiring Jim Mora Jr. as its new football coach a few days ago ranks way down, somewhere between No Way and Who?

This venerable program deserves better than a NFL has-been who can't even find a job in pro football. After he was kicked out of Seattle early last year so the Seahawks could hire Pete Carroll, he interviewed for defensive coordinator positions in Denver and Philadelphia that he didn't get. He's been working as a TV broadcaster while keeping his eyes open for coaching jobs.

Let's face it. If he was that good at coaching wouldn't he, at the young age of 50, have a prime job or at least be in demand? UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero offered Mora the position because the guys he really wanted turned him down. Under the gun, Guerrero, who really bungled the coaching search, had to hire some one right away. Mora was the fall-back choice. But he didn't let his ego get in the way. When someone is offering a five-year-contract worth $12 million, you swallow your pride and leap at it.

Mora is well schooled in the pro game, but the difference between coaching pro and college is night and day. In the NFL you get to work with skilled, grown men all day, while in college you deal with youngsters who are students part time and athletes for only a few hours a day. Mora may be familiar with pro athletes, but you can't treat college kids like pros.

So Mora starts out with a major handicap. Not only does he have limited college experience--a year as a grad assistant in Washington back in 1984--but, because of his career pro focus, he's doesn't know the college game or the intracacies of its most crucial aspect, recruiting.

On the recruiting trail, Mora does have one advantage that's bound to help him lure hot prospects. Kids with an eye on the NFL might think it's a smart move to team up with a coach who spent his career in the pros. You can be sure that Mora is hoping some four-or-five-star QB prospect--the potential backbone of a team--will think that way.

Naturally, everybody is making comparisions with USC hiring Pete Carroll back in 2000, when he was an out-of-work ex-NFL coach. But Carroll lucked into a position at a premier football school. Mora, however, is taking over at a college where basketball has higher priority, the football facilities aren't first rate and the  administration isn't fully committed to the kind of funding that would keep a program consistently in the Top 25. Carroll was set up in a prime position to succeed, while Mora starts out in a hole, surrounded by so many obstacles.

For Mora, it's scrambling time. While engaging in some heavy-duty recruiting, he has to familiarize himself with a new position and learn the complexities of a new sport. Can he do it? Known to be an affable hard worker and a capable leader, he certainly can, particularly if he surrounds himself with a savvy staff. But it's not going to be easy.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why UCLA Can't Find a Football Coach

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero has knocked on many doors trying to fill the vacant football coaching post. Boise State's Chris Petersen said no--again. Other prominent options--Houston's Kevin Sumlin and Miami's Al Golden didn't pan out.


How come prominent coaches aren't jumping at this job--a prestigious position at a big-time university?  Money has been a problem in the past, but not this time. The pot has been sweetened with a new batch of TV money, in addition to heftier booster contributions. So what's the problem?

Very simple. Too many negatives.

First of all, Rick Neuheisel didn't exactly leave a championship team behind. Fired coaches never do. So the new coach would inherit a program that has been chugging along in first gear for years, one badly in need of a major overhaul, one featuring some good players but no great players, one without a top-notch veteran at quarterback. What's so appealing about undertaking a massive rebuilding job, one that may take at least two years, in the uncomfortable heat of that huge LA spotlight? The coach's prestige would definitely take a beating for quite a while.

Meanwhile, the Pac 12 takes giant steps forward, with some hot new coaches--Washington State's Mike Leach and Arizona's Rich Rodriguez--joining the charge led by USC's Lane Kiffin and Oregon's Chip Kelly. In such fast company, it would be very easy for UCLA, with a few wrong moves, to get left in the dust. A candidate has to be thinking: "Is this something I really want to step into?"

Another big headache for the new coach is coping with revitalized USC. Challenging the Trojans will be as tough as it was in the heyday of Pete Carroll. So recruiting top local talent won't be easy. Neither will beating SC on the field. Neuheisel couldn't do it and look what happened to him.

Bucking USC isn't the only recruiting hassle that makes candidates think twice about the UCLA job. Young kids savor flashy, state-of-the-art faciliities, the kind that Oregon has boasted for years, that the University of California's Berkeley campus will offer next season. The Bruin facilities aren't awful, but they're nothing special either, certainly nothing that recruiters can use as a lure.

Then there's the age-old hurdle of UCLA's high academic standards. Many blue-chip athletes who are easily admitted to schools like Boise State and Houston have no chance of getting into UCLA. It's an extra and very important obstacle that some coaches just don't want to face.

Guerrero has only himself to blame for this mess. He's unprepared. What's happening now feels very last-minute. He should have seen this coming--as early as the diastrous Arizona game. Everybody else certainly did. An athletic director who's really on top of things would have had the hire-a-coach wheels quietly in motion in mid-season, when Neuheisel was clearly hanging by a thread.

What's funny is that there are plenty of coaches who would kill for this job--capable, creative guys who could turn this program around. But they're not big names. So what? Stanford found Jim Harbaugh buried in the University of San Diego. Oregon's Chip Kelly was an offensive coordinator at New Hampshire when he was discovered by Mike Bellotti. Good candidates are out there. Guerrero just has to do his homework and find them.

Right now Guerrero is looking at Jim Mora Jr., a failed NFL coach. Not a wow! or sexy choice, but USC went in that direction about a decade ago, with Pete Carroll, and that turned out OK. At this point Guerrero doesn't have much choice. He's running out of options.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In Defense of Ndamukong Suh

The Detriot Lions' defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh may be King-Kong like in the way he often swats offensive linemen aside like rag dolls, but he's not the monster he's made out to be.

At the moment he's the NFL's premier villain. Suh, who, incidentally, wasn't hurt when he crashed his 1970 Chevy into a tree in Portland, Oregon around 1a.m. Sunday morning,  is not only at the top of opposing fans' hate list. The rest of the NFL hates him too.  He was voted the league's dirtiest player--by the other players. Much of that reputation isn't based upon plays involving offensive linemen but on Suh being fined for illegal hits on quarterbacks Jake Delhomme, Jake Cutler and Andy Dalton.

At the moment Suh is serving a two-game suspension for a Thanksgiving Day transgression. In the loss to Green Bay, he was caught first dribbling the head of Packers' offensive lineman Evan Dietrich against the turf and then, moments later, using him as a doormat. It didn't help Suh that the video of this nasty encounter went viral.

In Suh's defense, he was just retaliating. There's a DVD going around that focuses just on Suh on every play in various games. Because he's such a force--the defensive rookie of the year last year--he's constantly double-teamed and singled out for special attention by blockers. In the Green Bay game, before he pounded Dietrich, he was the victim of some brutal, underhanded hits, including some punches, which officials either missed or didn't bother to penalize. On this DVD, featuring an array of Suh plays, including action in games against the Carolina Panthers and the 49ers, he absorbs a lot of punishment, some of it clearly illegal.

On Thanksgiving, Suh was in raging payback mode and simply got caught. That happens a lot, a player getting flagged for a penalty but the officials missing what an opponent did to ignite the illegal reaction. Offensive linemen  know Suh has a bad temper, so they goad him into overreactimg, hoping to get him penalized, ejected from the game or suspended. All of the above happened to Suh in the Green Bay game.

Don't get me wrong. Suh is no saint. Those crunching quarterback hits for which he was fined did cross the line. But in many instances, he was neither the bully nor the instigator but just a victim fighting back.

Friday, December 2, 2011

In NFL's AFC West--Props to Raiders' Jackson and Broncos' Allen

San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh is a shoo-in for the NFL coach of the year award. What he's done in his first season is miraculous--molding a playoff team out of essentially the same misguided bunch of 49ers that underperformed for Mike Singletary last season.

But should Harbaugh be a slam-dunk winner?

Hardly anybody is noticing, but right across the bay another rookie coach, the Oakland Raiders' Hue Jackson, is also doing a bang-up job. Leading the AFC West by one game, his team is poised to finally make the playoffs for the first time since their 2002 Super Bowl year. Without an overwhelming favorite like Harbaugh in the mix, Jackson might get serious consideration for the Coach of the Year award--assuming the Raiders don't falter that is.

A major Oakland stumble is unlikely, though. Under the guidance of Jackson, who honed his coaching chops in college at Cal and USC, the Raiders have become a solid, consistent team. For the first time since their Super Bowl team back in the last decade, the Raiders look well-coached. Even in their 8-8 season last year, they seemed shaky much of the time.

You can argue that Jackson has had a tougher job than Harbaugh. All he had to do with the Niners was upgrade their mind-set, expose them to some sensible coaching and erase all remnants of Singletary's chaotic, fear-filled regime. But Jackson's path to success has been a veritable minefield.

First of all, he got a job that nobody else wanted. Eager but thoroughly inexperienced as a head coach, he was owner Al Davis' umpteenth choice. Nobody wanted the job because nobody wanted to deal with Davis' notorious meddling. Then Davis did Jackson a big favor. He died on Oct.8, removing what was perhaps Jackson's biggest obstacle.

Jackson started out coping with a coach's worst nightmare--quarterback troubles. The Raiders weren't going anywhere with QB Jason Campbell, who broke his collarbone in their October, 24-17 win over Cleveland. So when the Bengals loosened their grip on veteran QB Carson Palmer's throat, the Raiders pounced. After a rough breaking-in period, Palmer has shaken off the rust and turned into the best QB in the AFC West.

That's not all. Giving Jackson a crash course in being a Raider QB was difficult enough. Jackson has also had to run this offense without its No. 1 weapon. Basically a running team, the Raiders have been operating without their best runner--banged-up Darren McFadden. So far, so good.

One reason Jackson is flying under the radar is because any attention give to the AFC West invariably focuses on the Denver Broncos and their QB Tim Tebow, who's a lousy passer but a savvy runner, an exceptional leader and a magician in clutch, fourth-quarter situations.

Ironically, Tebow is not only keeping the spotlight from Jackson, he's also hogging media attention that belongs to another Bronco--defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

Tebow may be the star, but he'd be nowhere without Allen, whose unit keeps opponents out of the end zone. Look at November, when the Broncos won four games. That crack defense surrendered only 60 points the entire month. Tebow wouldn't be in a position to orchestrate fourth-quarter heroics if the other team was scoring 25-30 points a game. In low-scoring contests, Tebow, with his limited skills, reigns.

If any other Bronco outside of Tebow gets credit it's head coach Jim Fox. So let's here it for two unsung heroes of the AFC West--Raiders' head coach Hue Jackson and Broncos' defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. They deserve some recognition too.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lane Kiffin Was Robbed

Stanford's David Shaw, Pac12 Coach of the Year? You gotta be kidding.

Anybody who follows Pac12 football knows who's the REAL coach of the year--USC's Lane Kiffin. Oregon's Chip Kelly is actually more deserving than Shaw, who fell into a can't-miss situation. The Stanford coach not only inherited a ready-made championship team from Jim Harbaugh but was blessed with an easy schedule for the first seven weeks. But Kelly, acerbic and snippy, aleniates award voters.

So does Kiffin, but with a different set of negatives. He's smug, snooty and whiny. But he also did the best coaching job in the Pac12 this year.

Remember, when the season started, prognosticators forecast a so-so year for the Trojans due to a laundry list of problems. First of all, they predicted, sanctions that removed the team from championship consideration and bowl games would eat away at players' motivation. Also, experts warned, the offense line was weak, the unreliable defense consistently collapsed in the fourth quarter and Kiffin had to rely on too many inexperienced players. What's more, the early suspension of his best RB, Marc Tyler, would damage the running game.

But Kiffin, while antagonizing people right and left, cannily overcame these obstacles. SC did start slowly, with shaky wins over Minnesota, Utah and Syracuse and a loss in Tempe to Arizona State, partly due to rookies suffering road jitters. But then, QB Matt Barkley, with a boost from WR Robert Woods, morphed into one of the top five QBs in the country. Freshman receiver Marqise Lee came from nowhere, blossomed into a star and paired with Woods to form a tandem that terrorized the conference. RB Curtis McNeal became one of the Pac12's better backs and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Lane's dad, polished the rough edges of that unit.

By midseason SC turned powerhouse, losing by a hair to Stanford, whipping Notre Dame in South Bend and then accomplishing the impossible--beating Oregon in Oregon. Right now, SC is not only the best team in the Pac12 but in AP's Top 10. At the end of its season, SC was playing as well as any team in the country. According to bookies, the Trojans would be favored in a game against any team--except LSU and Alabama. At the start of this season, few thought the team would reach this level.

Who's responsible for all this? Lane Kiffin of course. He may be a jerk at times but--and apologies to all SC haters--he really is the Pac12 Coach of the Year.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Black Friday For Rick Neuheisel--Now Ex-Coach

Dan Guerrero couldn't wait.

UCLA's athletic director usually won't fire any coach during the season but dutifully waits until the end of the season blah..blah....Forget all that. He decided to sack football coach Rick Neuheisel today. Apparently the stench of UCLA's 50-0 trashing by USC Saturday night was so strong that he had to get rid of the coach before the Oregon game. Neuheisel was on borrowed time anyway. He should have been canned last Oct. 20--and apparently almost was--after the team quit on him in Tuscon and was steamrolled by Arizona.

Neuheisel will coach Friday's game in Oregon and, win or lose, he's finally out--an exit many hard-core fans have been longing for all season. A going-away victory would be a nice present but, considering that UCLA is a 30-point underdog, winning isn't a realistic option. If UCLA winds up in a bowl game, coordinator Mike Johnson will serve as temporary coach.

What prompted Guerrero to speed up Neuheisel's exit was probably the fact that so many coaches were fired in the last 24 hours that he didn't want to be last in line approaching hot prospects. Vacancies at schools like Kansas, Arizona State and Illinois have to be filled. And somebody has to fill JoePa's shoes at Penn State.

The hottest prospect out there is probably Boise State's Chris Petersen. Guerrero covets him, but so does everybody else. And Cincinatti's Butch Jones will have athletic directors camped outside his house. The next week or two will be very interesting.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Neuheisel Out--Just About--At UCLA. Next Coach?

According to two sources close to the UCLA athletic department, football coach Rick Neuheisel has already been fired--unofficially that is. One of the sources advised that the best way to look at it right now is to say Neuhiesel is 99% out the door. It's just a matter of AD Dan Guerrero making an official announcement sometime after Friday's Pac12 championship game against Oregon in Autzen Stadium.

That 1% chance Neuheisel may stay is based on the possibility--extremely remote possibility--that UCLA wins the game and represents the Pac12 in the Rose Bowl. A win would save his job, temporarily at least, since that would extend the season and Guerrero has always said he would wait until after the season to evaluate the coaching situation

On the one hand, reports an insider, Neuheisel, Mr. Never-Say-Die, is still trying to convince Guerrero to let him stay. But one the other hand, you know Neuheisel, a smart, USC-trained lawyer, is already packing and job-hunting. He'll never say it but he knows it would take a miracle for the Bruins, an underdog by several touchdowns, to win in Autzen Stadium.

Face it. Oregon is just too good, ridiculously outclassing the Bruins. One of the gripes against Neuheisel is that his UCLA teams have a horrible road record. You think that trend is going to be reversed in a championship game against those Oregon greyhounds?

Preparing for Oregon won't be easy. With the coach's head on the chopping block, there's a dark cloud hanging over practice, floating doom-and-gloom messages to both players and coaches. No question, the Bruins are like lambs headed for the slaughterhouse.

Who's the next coach?

It's clear who's not a candidate. Forget Miami's Al Golden and former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. They were never serious possibilities anyway. According to a source close to the athletic department, there have been prelimary, undercover negotiations with Boise State's Chris Petersen, who's concerned about possible upcoming sanctions against Boise. Some, though, say he's at Boise forever. But whenever there's a big-time coaching job vacant his name is thrown into the mix.

Another name mentioned: Houston's Kevin Sumlin. But there's no Case Keenum clone in Westwood. And can you imagine that zippy spread offense working at UCLA with QB Kevin Prince? Also possible: Butch Jones, who replaced Brian Kelly at Cincinatti in 2009. With Cincy 8-3 and about to play Connecticut for a piece of the Big East title, Jones is a hot commodity. Reportedly, he's also on the short list for North Carolina and Illinois, which just fired Ron Zook after a blah 6-6 season that started 6-0.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dodger Fans, Stop Whining

I've had it with the whining.

Dodgers fans are way off base, on a non-stop whining binge about Milwaukee's Ryan Braun winning the MVP over their beloved Matt Kemp. No doubt, this whining will continue all throughout the winter. Unfortunately Braun, who lives in Malibu, can't escape it.

What Dodgers fans are so angry about is that Kemp had superior numbers but still lost. Kemp bested Braun in home runs, RBIs, stolen bases and on-base percentage. Braun, however, came out on top in just one major stat category--slugging percentage.  What's more, whine LA fans, Kemp is a better defensive player. He's a Gold Glove center fielder while Braun is just an average left fielder.

So how did he win?

Simple, by being top dog in a category that's not supposed to figure in the voting decision but figures heavily anyway. Braun was the best player on a winning (96 victories) playoff team while Kemp's Dodgers won only 82 games--barely over .500--and missed the playoffs.

When casting their votes, members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America are supposed to ignore team standings. It's a well known fact that a statement on the ballot cautions them to do just that. It's also a well-known fact that the voters totally disregard that caution. It's tradition.

Here's how the thinking goes. To the writers,  the valuable in "most valuable" means valuable to a post-season team. A player who puts up big numbers in a tense playoff run is supposedly a bigger asset than one who stars on a team that goes nowhere. Players on non-playoff teams have won the MVP award, but they're the exceptions.

Since the Dodgers were out of the playoff hunt pretty early, Kemp was working in a relatively relaxed atmosphere and could focus on building up his stats. Braun, though, didn't have that luxury and consequently deserves more credit. He also gets extra points for being a force on a winning team. This is the standard thinking anyway.

Dodger fans look at the situation differently. They gripe that Kemp had it rough, that he was a diamond in a lineup filled with coal and it's tougher to shine under those circumstances. Braun, they charge, had it comparitively easy. He was a surrounded by gems. In fact he got a considerable boost from batting ahead of one, Prince Fielder, who was in the thick of the MVP race. No doubt that Prince's "protection" pumped up Braun's numbers.

But, Dodger fans, here's a major point. Kemp's and Braun's numbers were basically in the same range. For Kemp to make up for the Dodgers being out of the playoff hunt most of the season, he would have needed monster numbers--numbers that would have dwarfed Braun's. But Kemp did post those overwhelming stats.

Consequently he lost. He couldn't buck tradition. What happened, Dodger fans, was that local media, unfortunately and unfairly, built up your hopes, constantly insisting he might win. But, realistically, Kemp never had a chance.

So, Dodger fans, deal with it and stop whining.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Penn State Fans--The Fans Nobody Wants

State College, Pa., home of the Penn State campus, is a typical college town, full of the kind of people you'd find in Small Town, USA. Though apparently nice, pleasant folks, nobody seems to want them around.

There's an ugly dark cloud hanging over them. That chilling child sex-abuse scandal, which cost football coach Joe Paterno his job, has stained State College--permanently. Others have been fired and as the investigation continues and the probe deepens, more people will undoubtedly get the boot. In fact, a thorough house cleaning is inevitable. Clearly, just about everyone in that town is tainted.

What's worse, so many of these State College folks openly support Paterno, who's largely seen by the rest of the world as a cowardly enabler who could have put a stop to the abuse years ago but selfishly didn't want to rock the Penn State boat.  So, the thinking goes, if these people back Paterno, something must be wrong with them. Though outsiders don't want them around, they might not have a choice.

Penn State has a solid, Top-20 team that just might wind up in a top-tier bowl, maybe even the Rose Bowl. Wherever the team winds up, a sizable State College crowd is sure to follow. Officials of several bowls have said they won't mind having Penn State but no one really believes them.

The fear, of course, is that a Penn State presence may keep some fans away, that it may also negatively effect TV ratings and sponsorship. Pre-bowl game hype is supposed to be positive. But with Penn State on the bill, how is that possible?

Many are miffed that Penn State is still playing. A huge faction called for the team to cancel its entire schedule, starting with the Nebraska game two weeks ago. Ignoring these pleas, Penn State instead forged ahead, losing to Nebraska but beating Ohio State last Saturday and is now just two wins away from representing the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl. A Rose Bowl official insisted they'd welcome Penn State to Pasadena.

Sure they would.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Recipe For USC Upset Over Oregon

USC can beat Oregon. Sounds far-fetched, but it can happen.

It all starts with the offensive line, which is led by Matt Kalil, one of the top ten linemen in the country. Stellar run-blocking for Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler can not only lead to points but can also eat up the clock and keep that fearsome Oregon offense off the field.

The second key is QB Matt Barkley, who has 29 TD passes and only six interceptions. That's impressive, but if SC is to pull off an upset, he must play even better. That might not be easy since WR Robert Woods is banged up.  But here's a secret. Though Woods gets all the attention, the other receiver, Marquise Lee, is actually superior.

The third key is Monte Kiffin's defense which, in the last month, has blossomed into a ferocious force. In the last five games--Stanford being the exception--the SC defense has not given up more than 17 points. The steadily improving run defense has crept into the national top ten.

For SC to win, it needs considerable help from Oregon. This means the Ducks must have an off game, contributing at least four turnovers to the Trojans' cause.

Several things are working against SC. First of all, the Oregon defense, once considered the team's weak link, has turned into one of the best in the conference. Also, whipping Oregon at Autzen Stadium is nearly impossible. Just as impossible is slowing down that race-horse offense. Only LSU, with that Rock-of-Gibraltar defense, has held the Ducks' offense below 34 points. By the way, SC is averaging 34 points per game. So, to win, SC must top its scoring average while keeping Oregon in the five-touchdown range. Not an easy task.

Beating Oregon is definitely a long shot, but certainly possible. If the Trojans can play a close, competitive game, like they did against Stanford, that will be a victory in itself.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Bone-headed Tebow Misadventure

Warning to the Denver Broncos. It's time for a reality check. You're making a big mistake.

Don't let this improbable love affair with QB Tim Tebow go any farther. It's insanity. It's undermining the team. Sure, there are inescapable positives: first and most important, he's 4-1 as a starter, boosting the Broncos to 5-5, reversing their 1-4 start under Kyle Orton. No question, Tebow is the master of engineering last-second, come-from-behind victories, like last night's triumph over the New York Jets, 17-13.

But he's not Superman--just a clumsy QB who's been cleverly placed in a position to succeed. Bronco coach John Fox and his assistants have, ignoring common sense, installed the ancient collegiate option system, junking the pass-happy format used by all NFL teams. Since its similiar to what he ran as a college QB in Florida, Tebow is comfortable with the option, which stresses running and minimizes the pass. This suits Tebow, who's a punishing runner but a terrible passer, just fine.

The option isn't all that's in his favor. Bronco-friendly circumstances have figured prominately in his four wins. For instance, beating the Jets wasn't that difficult, considering they have no running game, allowing Denver to focus on the shoddy passing of slumping QB Mark Sanchez. In most possessions in all these wins, Tebow has been awful. But, to his credit, he's come through in clutch situations, turning potential losses into wins. That, coupled with the fact that he's extremely likable and a stout-hearted Christian, has made him a fan favorite--particularly with the Christian Right.

But Tebow is just a quick fix. It started with management promoting him over Orton when, at 1-5, the Broncos had nothing to lose. Rather quickly the NFL, which lives by the pass, will devise a plan to silence the run-oriented option and knock Tebow off his pedestal.  The QB's downfall may even happen in Denver's next game, against San Diego.

Then what? The old-fashioned Denver offense is just a step or two from extinction. When sanity finally sets in, the option will be junked, and so will Tebow. As the losses pile up while the Broncos struggle to adjust to the standard pass offense, this Tebow adventure will seem, in retrospect, pretty foolish.

UCLA Basketball, What Went Wrong?

UCLA, a pre-season Top 20 team favored to win the Pac12 title, is off to a shocking 0-2 start, losing embarrisingly at home to two rinky-dink teams that they should have disposed of by half-time. These double-digit defeats rank with the worst two-game loss stretch in the post-Wooden era..

A big reason for these losses is the selfish, childish behavior of 6-8 junior forward Reeves Nelson, UCLA's leading scorer and rebounder last season. He played, though not very well, in the 69-58 loss to Loyola Marymount but, due to a suspension for acting like a spoiled brat, missed the Tuesday night thrashing by Middle Tennessee State, 86-66.

According to sources with access to the team, Nelson has an acrimonious relationship with some of the players and coach Ben Howland. Rather than being the team leader, he's the leading distraction, creating an atmosphere of tension that's undermining the coach's efforts. He's a jerk, but a talented jerk and easily the team's best player.

Even with Nelson not behaving badly, UCLA would probably be struggling. In those two games, the offense was stagnant, highlighted by horrible shooting, especially from long range. The team is particularly deficient at point guard, with Lazeric Jones, who isn't quick enough and both shoots and passes poorly.

The defense, coach Howland's specialty, needs serious polishing. Against Middle Tennessee, it was exceptionally leaky, allowing the Blue Raiders to shoot 71.4%. In both games, time after time,  opponents were blowing by sluggish defenders for easy layups, unchallenged by any backups. Center Josh Smith wasn't much help. A potential beast if he ever slims down, he clearly spent his off season binging on fast food.
To make things worse, the perimeter defense was non existent, with both teams steadily bombing the Bruins, hitting a combined 20 out of 26 three-point attempts.

It turns out that the loss of two of last season's stars, Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee, left really gaping holes. So far the Ware twins, expected to help fill those gaps, haven't done much. They're neither athletic enough nor superior shooters. And it looks like guard Jerime Anderson, just off suspension, doesn't have what it takes to be a Pac12 star.

A continuing problem is that Howland is trying to fit players into a system unsuited to their skills. He covets the man-to-man defense, one that his players simply aren't athletic enough to efficiently execute. The zone defense, not his favorite, is a better fit for this crew. But reality is finally setting in. In the wake of those disastrous losses, he's now saying he may sprinkle in some zone schemes.

Though badly in need of fan support, the Bruins have had little so far. While Pauley Pavilion is being renovated, the team is stuck in the Sports Arena, located in a seedy downtown area where many UCLA fans fear to tread. So crowds have been tiny, just when the team needs all the cheers it can get.

It's way too early to give up on the Bruins. After two unpleasant days, Howland lifted Nelson's suspension, quelling rumors that he might either transfer or be kicked off the team. If the volitale forward stops being a knucklehead, plays up to his potential and embraces the leadership role, the Bruins just might spiral out of this funk.

On Monday in Maui, they play a Division II school, Chaminade. This should be an easy win. But if they lose or limp to a victory, there's clearly big trouble ahead.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In State College, Pa. JoePa Is Still The Man

No way Carl, a 52-year-old ex-big city cop, could miss the Penn State-Nebraska game last Saturday. Positively had to be there in person in the stadium packed with more than 107,000 people in State College, Pa.

But he's not a Penn State fan. Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, he's a crazed Nebraska fan, such a crazed fan in fact that he swears, as an infant, his first words were "cornhusker."
He stayed a few days with an old friend, a local bigwig, who lives with his large family in a big house not far from the Penn State campus. A pretty sharp judge of people, Carl had some insightful observations about the folk in this quiet, isolated college town, rocked recently by a child sex-abuse scandal that dethroned the Penn State god, football coach Joe Paterno:

"It's like 1950. There's a world outside and they don't know it exists. I've been here before and thought these people were a little backward, but in light of what happened this week, it's jumps out at you that their heads are in the wrong place.

"I went to a bunch of parties, from Thursday until I left on Sunday. I met a lot of people, a big cross-section in all ages and colors and classes. They were all for Joe Paterno, felt sorry for him, couldn't understand why he was fired. They sympathized with those students who rioted after Joe was fired. There must be people who think diffferently but I didn't see them--and I was looking for some.

"To people in that town Joe was bigger than life, bigger than the President, bigger than anybody. It's like they can't bring themselves to think he'd do anything bad. Joe is innocent. That's what they were saying.

"These aren't dumb people. But it's like they've been brainwashed. You've got to be there in person and talk to them to see how they think. I didn't talk much. I just listened, trying to get a feel for how they think.

"And they were really into the game. That was the main topic of conversation, even more than Paterno. You'd think they'd feel shame, embarrassment--feel sad for those abused kids. If they felt that I didn't sense it. The game really mattered to them. They live and die with Penn State football. Even in the middle of that horrible scandal, they were so into the game. They were crushed when Penn State lost--crushed."

Carl, who had a hefty bet on his Cornhuskers, was happy they won. But, overall, he wasn't happy about the weekend. "I was supposed to stay until midweek, but I was able to get a flight out on Sunday and I took it," he said. "Nice people--pleasant and hospitable. But there was something really creepy about them. I had to get the hell out of there.".

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Penn State vs. Nebraska--No Game Like it

Penn State vs. Nebraska, today in State College, Pa. The strangest game in the history of college football? No doubt about it.

There never was and probably never will be a game like this one--played on the campus of a university with this kind of an open wound. Penn State is in chaos because of a child sex-abuse scandal that's been unfolding all week. Legendary football coach Joe Paterno was fired, triggering an ugly student riot. The school's president was forced to resign. The FBI was called in to investigate. There are rumors that, in terms of the scandal, what's just been revealed is the tip of the iceberg. For certain more heads will roll. Next season, there will likely be an entirely new coaching staff.

Many called for this game to be cancelled, for the rest of the Penn State season to be called off. Many, in protest, will not watch the game. But more, loving a train wreck, will watch.

Imagine what the Penn State players are feeling, with their beloved coach ousted in shame and a deer-in-the-headlights assistant suddenly in charge. How can they properly prepare for Nebraska (7-2), the most ferocious team in the Big Ten, under these circumstances? Penn State, 12th-ranked and sporting a flashy 8-1 record, is a very good team, with a two-game lead in the Big Ten Leaders division, headed for a major bowl. But, for this game, the players definitely won't be at their best.

You can bet their heads are spinning. What to do? Play hard and pulverize Nebraska and many will accuse them of being callous and insensitive. With a victory they'll also be accused of siding with Paterno, aiming to win one for JoePa. Losing will probably be better. They won't be maligned as selfish brutes who care nothing about abused kids. But what football player wants to lose?

You can't help but feel sorry for the Penn State players--somewhat unprepared, emotionally torn, unfairly trapped in a hellish situation. They should be thinking about going to a bowl, but they probably can't wait for this season to be over. Some most likely will transfer to another school, where they can concentrate on playing football.

But there's a silver lining. The players have bragging rights. They can always say they played in a historic game--easily the strangest in college football history.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Former Penn State Football Player Talks About His Idol, Joe Paterno

Jerry, a successful bookie who played football for Penn State in the late 80s, explains why he owes his life to Joe Paterno. To him, the Coach, just fired for his role in the Jerry Sandusky child molestation sex scandal, is a truly great man--still.

To hear him talk about Paterno, you'd think he was talking about a god. "When I got to Penn State I was young and stupid, just drifting." recalls Jerry, who donates money to the school and usually wears Penn State T-shirts and sweatshirts. "I was nothing, nowhere, empty, a real zero, just a guy headed for some kind of drab life doing something I hated.  I was looking for direction, for something interesting to do. One of the things I decided to try was football. I was a good athlete and I had been a good lineman in high school, so it was something I could do. That's how I met the Coach."

Jerry's career at Penn State was hardly what you'd call illustrious. He was only a fourth-stringer who played briefly in a handful of games. But that didn't seem to matter. What was important to him was having regular contact with Paterno. "I grew up without a father," explains Jerry, who's from a small Pennsylvania town.
"Coach was like a father to me. He was an inspiration. He taught me discipline, direction, how to be organized. I know I'm not a doctor or a lawyer, but I do make a lot of money and I love what I do and I have a comfortable life. He taught me how to get a grip on life. Without him, I probably would  have gone down the drain."

What about the accusations that Paterno did little to stop the extensive sexual predator behavior of his defensive coordinator Sandusky?

Jerry replies: "He could have done more, but at least he did something. People act like he did nothing. Other people dropped the ball. People are treating him like he was the child molester. That's wrong.

"Don't get me wrong. I feel sorry for those victims. I have two boys myself. I feel for those kids and their families. But Coach isn't to blame, People are wrong to blame him. It's Sandusky."

Jerry remembers Sandusky well: "He was a brilliant coach. But I never liked him. He was mean to some of the players. He had a temper. When he got angry it was scary. There was something weird about him, like he had a dark side. That turned out to be true."

What about the argument that Paterno was part of a conspiracy of silence, part of a group that was more protective of the Penn State image and reputation than the welfare of those abused boys? "I'm siding with the people who don't buy into that," Jerry insists.

He adds: "How can I be mad at him? I owe him so much."

Some of his former players, interviewed in the last two days, have been moved to tears. "If you played for him you know what he's feeling, that he's in pain," he explains. "That tears at guys who know him. Imagining what he's feeling tears at my heart too.

Jerry is concerned about what happens to Paterno now. "Football is his life, what he lives for. It was clear when I was playing for him and it's even more true now. I'm afraid that without his coaching job and the shame of this scandal he's just going to die. Football was keeping him alive. I bet he won't be around next year this time."

Saturday's game, Penn State vs. Nebraska, the first without Paterno in charge in 46 years, is one Jerry is not looking forward to: "I can't bear to watch. I don't know when I can watch another Penn State game again."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Joe Frazier vs.a 10-Year-Old Boy

In the late '70s I met heavyweight champ Joe Frazier several times. The encounters with Frazier, who died Monday at 67, were brief and uneventful--with one exception.

It happened in a swank Beverly Hills office waiting room one afternoon. I walked in and sat down across the room from Frazier, who was dressed casually. He obviously didn't remember me so I said nothing to him. There were two other men in the room, which sat about a dozen. We all sat quietly.

After a few minutes an Asian boy, who looked to be about ten, walked in. There were plenty of empty chairs but he plopped down in one next to Frazier and began staring at him. Frazier turned around and looked at the youngster, who continued to stare intently, boldly and expressionlessly into his eyes, without saying a word. The kid, dressed in a black suit, just stared and stared at him.

Assuming the boy was an adoring fan, Frazier burst into gentle, kid-friendly chatter. But the boy didn't respond. Barely movely, he just continued to stare into Frazier's eyes. Suddenly Frazier knew what was up. He was hip enough to know that he was being challenged to a staring contest by a brazen minor. Here are the rules: stare blankly into your opponent's eyes, don't talk and keep movement at a minimum. The first person to unlock the stare by laughing or talking loses.

Remarkably they went on this way for a few minutes. A secretary came out to get one of the other two men in the waiting room. But Frazier and the boy didn't notice. They were too busy staring at each other.

Suddenly Frazier broke down and started to laugh. "You got me man, you got me," he said. The boy, though, never said a word and continued to stare into Frazier's eyes. Then the secretary came out and told Frazier to come into the office. Looking perplexed and unnerved Frazier followed her out of the waiting room. The boy just sat there, first turning his blank stare at a wall and then, finally,  turning it at me.

 I looked away.

The secretary came out and told me to come into the office. About ten minutes later, my business concluded, I came out of the office and walked though the waiting room. Thankfully the boy was gone.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

LSU vs Alabama-Low-Scoring, Boring

Smart Bettors, I'm told, saw this one coming a mile away.  Ridiculously low scoring, they predicted. Stay away from betting the spread, these guys cautioned, and bet the under.

How right they were. Last Saturday's big college football battle, No.1 vs. No.2, LSU against Alabama, lumbered along, with LSU finally winning 9-6--in OT yet. Hard to believe that it took extra time to pile up so few points. Not only was it low-scoring--no TDs, all field goals--but it was also extremely low in excitement.

In pre-game analyses, what canny bettors saw was that both teams have cream-puff offenses and killer defenses. Neither passes very well so both defenses could concentrate on squashing the run. What we saw mostly was running backs plowing futilely into brick-wall defenses. It's a recipe for a boring game and a primer on how not to play creative offense.

Most fans hate this kind of game, with teams jockeying for field position. NFL scouts, though, were in heaven, positively drooling over all the pro prospects on both defenses. Hard-hitting LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu could play in most NFL secondaries right now. There was plenty of skilled defensive line play too--if that turns you on.

LSU vs. Alabama--game of the century, the hype machine trumpeted for weeks. Turns out that this wasn't even the best game of the day. There were four other candidates, three thrilling upsets and one near upset: UCLA nipped Arizona State, 29-28; Northwestern edged Nebraska, 28-25; Iowa beat Michigan, 24-13; and Oklahoma State escaped an embarrassing home loss to Kansas State, 52-45.

Defense was not a significant factor in either of these four games. Nor were bettors, I'm told, as sharp predicting these outcomes.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Answering NFL QB Questions--Smith, Beck, Tebow 11/5

Is San Francisco 49ers' QB Alex Smith for real?

There are two schools of thought on this matter. One says that the Niners have a gaudy 6-1 record partly because Smith has finally polished his leadership and passing skills and learned how to read defenses and how not to get flustered in crunch time. Credit new coach Jim Harbaugh, who imported a comfortable, low-risk, QB-friendly system from Stanford along with a crew of smart coaches. This system stresses tough defense and relentless rushing. The weight of the offense isn't on passing or the QB. In this reduced role, Smith has blossomed. Expect this new and improved Smith to lead the Niners into the playoffs, a relatively easy task, by the way, in the lousy NFC West.

That's one school of thought. The other way of looking at Smith doesn't include rose-colored glasses. Hard-core, long-suffering, skeptical 49er fans--like me--swear that right around the corner is a Smith relapse, complete with interceptions, fumbles, boneheaded decisions, crumbled confidence and that old deer-in-the-headlights look in clutch situations. We can't savor the good times because we're so sure we're about to be submerged in heart-breaking bad times. Hope this doomsday outlook is wrong but I'm sticking to it.

How bad is Redskins' QB John Beck?

Really, really bad. In Sunday's 23-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills, Beck was a total bust, leading the offense to three first downs and a paltry 62 total yards in the first half. Shockingly, he was sacked ten times. Some were due to the bum blocking by the battered offensive line, but some were due to bewildered Beck hanging on to the ball too long. Under his guidance, the Skins' offense has hit a brick wall. It's officially a corpse. In garbage time--basically the entire second half--Beck beefed up his numbers to respectability. Look behind those numbers, though, and you'll see a stiff who's leading the Skins nowhere. This Sunday, in the 49ers game, when Beck is trying to pump some life into that dead offense, you'll hear these chants from frustrated, desperate fans--We want Rex Grossman, we want Rex Grossman!!...

Is John Beck worse than the Denver Broncos' QB Tim Tebow?

Tebow makes Beck look like Aaron Rodgers. Beck may be bad but Tebow has dragged NFL quarterbacking to a new low. Watching him is painful. A Tebow game is a clinic on how not to play the position. His passing mechanics stink, his footwork is terrible and he continually misreads defenses. In Sunday's 45-10 crushing by Detroit, the Broncos, with Tebow in charge, never had a chance. His totals were decent--18 for 39 for 172 yards with one interception--but they were enhanced when the game was out of reach.  He was sacked seven times and was fortunate the total wasn't bigger. Opposing defenses love to see Denver come to town. On Sunday in Oakland, the Raiders will welcome him. It's a chance to considerably increase their sack totals. Oakland should enjoy this opportunity while it lasts. One more klutzy performance and Denver may finally put Tebow where he belongs--on the bench.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Bama vs LSU In Down SEC Year

There's something unpleasant about the big, bad SEC that shrewd SEC watchers have known all season but have been largely keeping under wraps.

Quite simply, the SEC--usually the best conference from top to bottom--is down this year--way down.

The bad teams, like Kentucky, are uncharacteristically bad and, surprisingly, there are only two really high-quality teams in the conference--college football's top two, Alabama and LSU, which meet Saturday in the latest edition of "The Game of The Century." In a typical SEC season the conference's top five or six teams are as good as any five or six in the country. But this year there's a major dropoff in quality after 'Bama and LSU.

Arkansas and South Carolina, the next tier of SEC teams, are both in the Top 10, but neither really belongs. If you've ever seen them play you'd be skeptical too. Their Top 10 status is rooted in the SEC's reputation as the titan of conferences. Voters must be figuring that these are the next best teams in the SEC, so they must be good. Not this year.

By the way, these two square off Saturday in Arkansas to determine the unofficial  No.3 team in the SEC. The way they have been playing lately, don't expect too much.

For one thing, South Carolina doesn't have much offense. Not only did SC lose RB Marcus Lattimore, the SEC's best offensive player, for the season but also bad-boy QB Stephen Garcia, who was bounced from the team. Replacement QB Conner Shaw doesn't have Garcia's skills. Supposedly the Gamecocks have this superb defense but their fancy stats are inflated, considering they've faced mostly inferior offenses. And if you've seen Arkansas struggle to last-second victories in the last two weeks over SEC weaklings Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, you'd wonder why they're even in the Top 25.

A major problem for the SEC is that, offensively this season, the conference is a wasteland. Blame it on the absence of  stars. With Lattimore gone for the season, there's only one high-class offensive weapon left--Alabama's RB Trent Richardson.

Where are the great QBs in the SEC this year? There aren't any.

Yet, they're everywhere else. In the Pac12 alone there are four passers--SC's Matt Barkley, Stanford's Andrew Luck, Arizona State's Brock Osweiler and Arizona's Nick Foles--who'd scorch SEC secondaries. When it played LSU, West Virginia QB Geno Smith ripped through the Tigers' secondary for 463 yards. In the SEC there's no passer equal to Smith.

The SEC's signature is tough, speedy, smart defenses. But this season, these defenses are rarely tested because there no truly high-powered, passing offenses in the conference. There's no Oregon or Oklahoma or the equivalent of last year's Auburn juggernaut. If they're not consistently facing flashy, high-tech offenses, just how good are these SEC defenses anyway?

When you acknowledge that this is a subpar SEC season, the Alabama-LSU game loses a shade of  its lustre. These powers have risen to the top by subduing so-so squads.

But enough of the SEC beatdown. Now we can focus on The Ouestion--who's going to win The Game?

Though Alabama is favored by four, the teams are pretty evenly matched. However, give 'Bama a slight edge for two reasons:  the Tide has both home field advantage and the best offensive player--RB Trent Richardson.

But before you settle on 'Bama, remember that when two evenly matched teams play each other, the deciding factor is usually turnovers. Whoever makes the fewest generally wins.


Forget all that. This is one of those coin-toss games that smart bettors avoid.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Time For Lane Kiffin the Capable Coach

Lane Kiffin is a popular target these days. Deservedly so. The USC coach has been in everybody's cross-hairs since Saturday night, when SC lost to Stanford in triple OT, 56-48, easily the most exciting game of the season.

The problem is that, the second that game ended, Kiffin the Coach turned into Kiffin the Whiny Jerk, insisiting over and over and over that the refs cheated his team out of a chance to kick a winning field goal in the final seconds of regulation. He charges that the officials not only blundered a call on a out-of-bounds play but also lied to him.

Whining is one thing. But accusing officials of mismanagement and lying is something else. That, fumed Pac12 bigwigs, is going too far. So they fined Kiffin $10,000.  


Kiffin got what he deserved. Instead of behaving like a responsible head coach, he was carrying on like a spoiled brat. Rather than grumbling about one play he should have been dwelling on all his team's positives--as a thoughtful, mature coach would do.

Here's part of the list of positives:

--In the Stanford game, SC traded punches in a tense, brutal battle with one of the sport's heavyweights and came within an unfortunate turnover of scoring a knockout. How many teams could have done that?
--Trojan QB Matt Barkley nearly outdueled mighty Andrew Luck, the Stanford QB who's the Heisman front-runner.
--With a relatively young team, the Trojans went back to that lions den in South Bend and strolled away with a victory over Notre Dame.
--Since shaky wins over cream puffs like Minnesota and Syracuse early in the season, the Trojans have blossomed into a formidable team, on both sides of the ball.

Now that Kiffin the Whiny Jerk has been muted maybe, for a change, Kiffin the Capable Coach can finally take his turn in the limelight and focus on giving the Trojans the plaudits they deserve.

This won't be a popular stance among all the Trojan haters but, to be fair, let's give credit where credit is due.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Urban Meyer Nearly Set As Ohio State Coach

Urban Meyer coaching at Ohio State next season? According to a source close to the messy situation in Columbus, that's about 90% sure.

Rumors have been raging about this for months, all denied, of course, by official university sources. Unofficially, though, insists this source, there's been plenty of action on the Meyer front, with underground negotiations in progress. Adds the source, there's a new sense of urgency since Penn State has also been surreptitiously knocking at Meyer's door--rumors naturally denied by that university's spokespeople.

Famed for his championship teams at Utah and Florida before heart issues forced him out of coaching last year, Meyer, currently an ESPN analyst, is college coaching's biggest prize. Ohio State seems like a natural fit, since he's not only an Ohio native but he also spent two years at the university as a graduate assistant coach. What's more, Meyer has always said that the Ohio State and Notre Dame jobs were his prizes. Brian Kelly is entrenched at Notre Dame, so that leaves Ohio State.

But Ohio State is in limbo, floating in a sea of X factors. The university is awaiting an NCAA decision on sanctions resulting from athletes behaving badly and coach Jim Tressel's lame cover-up attempt. In the wake of that scandal, some athletes were suspended and star QB Terrelle Pyror left. So did Tressel.

In the first six games this season, with defensive coordinator Luke Fickell as interim leader, Ohio State staggered to a 3-3 record. But in the last two weeks, the team has felled two giants--previously undefeated Illinois and 12th ranked Wisconsin. Suddenly Fickell, aided considerably by defensive coach Mike Vrabel, has a supportive faction in his corner. But if you have a chance to get Urban Meyer, you get Urban Meyer.

According to this source, when the dust clears, Meyer will be roaming the Ohio State sidelines next fall, living his dream.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

UCLA's Gift-Wrapped Win

Didn't know UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel was on Cal QB Zach Maynard's Christmas list. Well, this year he is. And what would a coach hanging by a thread need more than anything else? A win, of course. So Maynard, with four interceptions and a botched handoff, thoughtfully gift-wrapped a 31-12 victory and presented it---a little early but so what--to the very happy coach.

This surprising loss wasn't all Maynard's fault.  Also point a finger at Cal coach Jeff Tedford and his clueless coaching staff  for lack of preparation. With the Bruins reeling and undermanned and their coach under fire, this should have been a gimme--one of the year's easiest Cal victories. The Bears should have been sky-high from the opening kickoff, smelling the blood of the wounded bruin, primed to seize control of the game in the first quarter. But the Bears started out flat and proceeded to get even flatter. Motivated by smart coaching, Cal's early 7-0 lead should have been two or three times that. The Bears should have been cruising by the second quarter, with dazed and confused Bruins in their rear view mirror.

The Bruins entered the game with their passing game in ruins, their receiving corps wiped out by suspensions.
So the Bears didn't even have a polished passing game to worry about. As it was UCLA only passed for 92 yards. With just the running game to focus on, Cal's defense should have feasted on Bruin runners. But shockingly, UCLA piled up rushing 294 yards, with QB Kevin Prince, of all people, gaining 163.

Once again the Bears were gunned down by a nimble, running QB powering the pistol offense. It happened last season with Colin Kaepernick running that offense for Nevada, which blew the Bears away. You'd think the Cal coaches would have learned by now how to handle the pistol, how to keep the QB from rushing for huge yardage. Yet, they never made appropriate adjustments and the ground carnage continued.

So now where does Neuheisel stand? Does this win placate the angry mob that was screaming for his head all week after that devastating Arizona loss? Clearly he's soothed his disgruntled players somewhat. Their effort in Arizona was half-hearted. Against Cal it was all heart. But next Saturday, a powerhouse--Arizona State--rumbles into town. That victory over Cal was partly due to Bears playing badly. There'll be no gift-wrapped victories from the Sun Devils. Neuheisel's hiatus from the hot seat will likely last only one week.

By the way, Neuheisel may have company on that hot seat--Cal coach Jeff Tedford.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Predictions: Stanford-USC, UCLA-Cal


SC fans are dreaming. Their Trojans really don't have a chance of beating Stanford. These fantasies flowered after the Trojans won last week in South Bend. So what, they beat Notre Dame. Does that all of a sudden make them a Pac12 titan?  The Trojans whipped a team that's thoroughly overrated, a young mistake-prone team whose reputation is largely based on a 31-13 win over Michigan State. There's only one problem. Michigan State is as overrated as Notre Dame. Beating Michigan State, the class of a weak Big 10, means very little. SC's 6-1 record is all flash. There's not a victory over a top-notch team among those six.

Not that Stanford's 7-0 is full of meaningful wins. There's just one--that thrashing last week of Washington, 65-21.  But Stanford has been an unstoppable force, dominating and bullying its opponents. The Cardinal piled up a school-record 446 yards against Washington, pounding a pretty good team. Stanford's secret weapon is its offensive line, featuring tackle Jonathan Martin,  guard David DeCastro and a trio of monster tight ends. The maestro of this offensive machine is Andrew Luck, the best QB in America. Throw in a formidable defense and you have a team that's just too much for the Trojans.


This one is easy. It has nothing to do with Xs and Os. It's all about the mindset of the UCLA players. They either play their hearts out for coach Rick Neuheisel or, as they did last week in the Arizona debacle, slip into an I-don't-care swoon.

Something ugly is going on between the UCLA players and the coaching staff. If the wound has healed, UCLA--even undermanned because of suspensions following the Arizona fight--could turn this into a close game.  But if the UCLA players play like they did in Arizona, the Bears romp and Neuheisel is one step closer to the exit.  Will a forceful, focused UCLA team show up? Highly unlikely. Those wounds are too deep to heal in ten days.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Answering NFL QB Questions

How will Tim Tebow do for the rest of the season?

His magic act--engineering miraculous comebacks--won't work consistently. The real Tebow isn't a Magic Man but a running back masquerading as a QB. In the first 54 minutes of the Miami game, his stats were appalling--4 for 14 for 40 yards with 6 sacks, including some bone-crunching safety blitzes. In the closing minutes, though, he morphed into Mr. Clutch, passing for two TDs and running for a two-point conversion, leading the Broncos to a 18-15 OT victory.

But remember who he was struggling against--the pitiful, winless Miami Dolphins. If he could be corraled by that crew of lightweight defenders for most of the game, imagine what a tough, savvy defense would do to him. Smart bettors put money on whoever Tebow is playing against. Once in a while you get the Tebow magic, but more often, he'll break your heart.

What's going to happen to Carson Palmer in Oakland?

No question Kyle Boller--cannon arm, zero touch--isn't the answer.  His jittery, three-pick performance in the first half of the 28-0 Kansas City rout, which earned him a 17.3 passer rating, made that perfectly clear. But the savior isn't former Bengal Carson Palmer either. Trading two premium draft picks for a QB on the downside of his career was a moronic move--something Al Davis would do. Maybe taking Palmer off the Bengals' hands was a homage to the late Davis--a final boneheaded trade like the ones he routinely made.

Could be Palmer's second half against Kansas City--three picks, weak-armed throws, overall rust--is a preview of what the Raiders will get. Still, it's possible that when the rust wears off and he adjusts to his receivers and the limits of his offensive line, Palmer will be as good as he was back in the middle of the last decade.  But don't count on it. By the time he rounds into shape--if he ever does--the season will be over.

What's going to happen with Matthew Stafford in Detroit?

Probably nothing good. In the last two games--both losses--he's regressed, passing for only three TDs.  His mechanics are breaking down. At times he's been throwing with an awkward sidearm motion, which could be a consequence of his January shoulder surgery. In addition, he's now looking tentative in the pocket. Could be his spotty pass protection is giving him the jitters. His hookups with wide receiver Calvin Johnson fueled the Lions' 5-0 start. Partly because the running game is hurting and requires less attention, defenses have been able to focus more on clamping down on Johnson. Even worse, Stafford will be dodging defenders in Denver this Sunday on a bum ankle. If they don't stem the slide this week, the Lions could be sliding back into that familiar loser persona.

It'll be Tebow vs. Stafford, with Detroit a slight favorite. The Lions are shaky but the Broncos are shakier. Look for Tebow to run out of miracles and for Stafford and Co. to prevail.

Will John Beck make Redskin fans forget Rex Grossman?

That shouldn't be too difficult. Grossman is a turnover waiting to happen. In that 33-20 loss to the Panthers, Beck sure seemed like an upgrade, posting respectable numbers--22 for 37 for 275 yards and a TD, rushing for another. Though Beck blundered twice--a fumble and a INT--he takes better care of the ball than Grossman and is a stronger, more confident presence in the pocket.

But even if Beck gives the Skins a slight boost at QB, the team is springing leaks elsewhere, with five signfiicant injuries, including RB Tim Hightower gone for the season and receiver Santana Moss lost for at least five weeks. Weakened Washington should be bowled over by Buffalo, a 6-point favorite that's considerably more talented, this Sunday in Toronto


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

World Series, Then and Now

Decades ago, the World Series used to be something really special, a fall event bigger than Halloween and, for many, one that overshadowed Thanksgiving. Back then everybody knew about the Series and most people---black and white, rich and poor, young and old--cared about it. It was a force so powerful you couldn't escape it. Here's an example.

In 1956, the Brooklyn Dodgers battled the New York Yankees in a Series highlighted by Don Larsen's perfect game in Yankee Stadium. I watched and listened to that game--No. 5--on a street in Philadelphia that housed about twelve businesses, including a grocery store, a bakery, a hardware store and a newstand. A giddy, sports-struck little kid, on a school holiday,  I went from store to store, hearing some of the game on the radio here, watching some on an old black-and-white television there. In every store I went to on that street, fans were huddled around radios and TVs, savoring Larsen's historic feat. And this wasn't even in New York. You can imagine how fans there were mesmerized by the Series.

Could something like that happen today, outside the home cities of the Series rivals? Not a chance.

There's a World Series in progress now, between the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Outside of St. Louis and Arlington and hard-core baseball circles, there's hardly any buzz about it. There would be more interest if big-name franchises like the Yankees, the Red Sox or the Phillies were involved, but Series between small market teams that boast no huge stars simply don't attract that much mainstream attention now. Can you imagine some ladies chit-chatting in a grocery store and the St. Louis Cardinals or Albert Pujols popping up in conversation? Neither can I.

The sports world has moved on and the lustre of basball, once the crown jewel, has dimmed considerably, for a number of reasons--mainly due to the rise of pro football.

Something happened on Monday night at Dan Tana's Italian restaurant in West Hollywood that illustrates my point. There was a Baltimore-Jacksonville football game on the lone TV above the bar, at the same time as a Series game between Texas and St. Louis. The patrons preferred to watch the football game--a really boring, low-scoring, mistake-riddled contest--to watching the Series.

A few decades ago, in baseball's heyday, the choice would have been different.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

UCLA, Skid or Soar?

UCLA players are mired in a nasty quandry, grappling with this prickly question: do we play hard or dog it for the rest of the season?

They clearly are done with coach Rick Neuheisel. If you have a strong stomach, just look at the tape of the first half of the Thursday night drubbing in the desert, that bottom-scraping, 48-12 loss to Arizona. The players were making a statement, loud and clear, dumping all over the coach and his staff.

But what if, in an attack of pride and conscience, the players spiral out of this skid and soar, up and up? It's possible. Remember, this isn't a bad team.  Preseason forecasts pointed to questions at QB and a lightweight offense, but predicted that a powerhouse defense would power the team to the upper levels of the Pac12. What's ailing UCLA has nothing to do with skill or talent. The problem is coaching and motivation.

But what if the players played all out and either won a few games or at least were impressively competitive? That would mean Neuheisel was suddenly Supercoach and maybe athletic director Dan Guerrero might not fire him. The players naturally want to play their best but they also want Neuheisel out. Playing well is also feathering Neuheisel's nest, which is not in the best long-term interests of the players or the program.

What to do? The notion of dogging it for the rest of the season and further embarrassing themselves really sucks. But that's the easy way out and the obvious answer, since it would ensure Neuheisel's exit.  In four of the remaining games--California, Utah, Colorado and USC--a revved up, motivated UCLA has a shot, though a strong showing in next week's Cal game will be tough considering six players were suspended because of the Arizona melee. In the fifth game, against Arizona State, the third best team in the Pac 12, they don't have prayer.

So do the UCLA players finish with a flourish, cannons blasting, or feebly, popgun-style? Would hate to be in their shoes.

But I know what I'd do.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Rick Neuheisel R.I.P.

In a tongue-in-cheek post on Sept. 18 I joked that UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel might survive the season. All joking aside, that's not going to happen.

He'll be lucky to still be coach on Friday. If I were athletic director Dan Guerrero, I would have canned him after that humiliating 48-12 loss to Arizona in Thursday night. Actually Guerrero should have sent him packing at halftime, after the team had been destroyed 42-7, surrendering over 400 yards in total offense. That drubbing, on national TV, is an ugly stain on the reputation of this respected program.

This was a critical game--one that was very winnable, especially with the team coming off a bye week. UCLA wasn't tackling a powerhouse, but rather a 1-5 weakling with a week-old coach and a ramshackle defense ranked 119th out of 120 among Division 1 schools. Losing to such a team is bad enough. Being blown out by this ragtag bunch is unforgivable.

That all-out brawl at the end of the first half was the last straw, a sure sign of an undisciplined team taking out its frustrations on an opponent. The players expended more energy in that fight than they did in the game. No question, Neuheisel has lost this team. They've tuned him out. They've bailed out. The curtain going down on that abysmal first half was also the curtain going down on his UCLA career.

Neuheisel has been cliff-hanging all season. He's been on the hot seat so long his fanny is in flames.

Enough. Get him out. This team will never get to a bowl game. It will never win another game with Neuheisel in charge. As a former UCLA student I declare him an embarrassment to the University.  Season ticket-holders should boycott the team and not attend another game until this stiff has been sacked.

Rick Neuheisel  R.I.P.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dan Wheldon and the Death Wager

In a West Los Angeles sports bar on Tuesday, a tall, skinny young man was holding court at the bar showing tapes on his IPad--tapes that could make you sick.

There were grisly shots from all angles of the aftermath of Sunday's 15-car crash at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which killed beloved IndyCar star Dan Wheldon. This wasn't the relatively tasteful footage shown on TV. These tapes were way at the other end of the spectrum.

Where did he get these tapes, from the Internet?

Tapeman, who said he saw the race in person, never gave a straight answer, only responding cryptically: "Deep underground, you have to know where to look."

This race probably never should have happened. It's the initial IndyCar event at this track in six years and the first time these cars have raced in this 1.5-mile oval since it was banked for speeds in excess of 220 mph.

The way the race was organized, the Speedway was essentially an IndyCar death trap.
Quite simply, too many cars (34) traveling too fast in too little space. The cliche--an accident waiting to happen--really fits here.

Glitzy and heavily hyped, this race was organized to spotlight the IndyCar circuit, which lags far behind NASCAR in attendance. Into this circus-like atmosphere, the sponsors tossed a promotional plum. Wheldon was promised a $5 million bonus if, starting in last place, he could finish first. Did the lure of those millions inspire him to take some risks? We'll never know.

Apparently this race had been red-flagged for some time. Reportedly drivers knew it was dangerous and so did industry experts, who warned that racing IndyCars on heavily-banked ovals was a bad idea.

The gambling community had targeted this race too, for, according to Tapeman, something ominiously called a death wager--something handled by a handful of underground bookies around the world. As he explained it, the bettor puts money on a driver, gambling that he'll be knocked out of the race by an accident or, for a whopper payoff, be killed. Tapeman said one of his buddies cashed in on Wheldon's death, winning several thousand.

Did he have any problem with such a sick wager?

Apparently not.

He replied: "Really, really sorry the guy is dead. but I'm also sorry I didn't bet on him."