Tuesday, March 31, 2009

This isn't your father's NCAA

When Billy Gillispie eschewed a happy home at UTEP for the allegedly prestigious trappings of Kentucky I thought he was making a big mistake. After just two seasons, Kentucky pulled the plug on Gillispie and they seem poised to lure John Calipari away from Memphis. This is a big mistake for Kentucky. Calipari is too in love with himself to pass up the job. He’ll go to Kentucky, act like he’s god and in about four years he’s going to realize that Kentucky’s trustees and boosters aren’t willing to change their ways.

Gillispie was in the middle of rebuilding the Kentucky program to succeed in the modern era of college basketball. That’s where teams embrace the so-called one-and-done players who only play in college because the NBA insists that they wait a year before joining the league. Old school coaches want to establish continuity and recruit upstanding citizens who believe in the school and want to play for four years. That’s a formula that just isn’t working. Just ask Duke about it.

Granted North Carolina and UConn are in the Final Four and they feature allegedly old school coaches as well as players who seem committed to the names on the front of the jerseys, and Michigan State managed to bully its way into the picture with a bunch of guys that probably don’t pique the interest of most NBA scouts. While it’s true that experience goes a long way in the tournament, athleticism matters too. Experience doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the athletes to get you there. So balance is the key. Coaches can’t focus entirely on NBA ready talent, but they shouldn’t limit themselves to players who have to spend four years in college either.

By all accounts, Billy Gillispie was doing a good job as far as recruiting, but because Tubby Smith tried to recruit four year players who wanted the honor of playing for a storied program, Gillispiie faced the challenge of opening doors that Kentucky simply hadn’t knocked on before. Players are committing to programs earlier and earlier. For some reason the NCAA doesn’t see a problem with coaches cultivating relationships AAU clubs and tendering scholarship offers to players before they even play a varsity game. That forces a guy in Gillispie’s situation to either focus on a four year plan or betray a lot of trust by coaxing kids to renege on early commitments.

Gillispie made his own bed. He had a pretty sweet deal with UTEP. Fans and trustees don’t expect a sweet 16 finish every season but they still value a good coach who keeps their team competitive. Gillispie thought the grass was greener at Kentucky because he was caught up in the mystique of that program. But that mystique was in his own mind.

Calipari, like most coaches, craves the spotlight and at Memphis it’s not on him all the time. Memphis plays in a smaller conference so Calipari’s not a celebrity until his team makes the Tournament. At Kentucky, Calipari have all eyes on him throughout the season. Especially in his first season or two, where people would be curious to see how his game holds up in a tougher conference. Calipari, however, had better hope success comes sooner rather than later.

Players today don’t care about history. It’s likely that they never really did. I can only speak for myself, but when I was of the age that these players are committing to colleges I thought four years ago was ancient history. Because when you’re 16 it is. When I was 12 I was a lot more interested in watching Thundar the Barbarian than I was in the Final Four. That changed quickly but when I did start taking an interest in watching sports I couldn’t be bothered with educating myself as to who won the title three years earlier.

My perceptions were shaped by the adults I knew and what my friends were thinking. I didn’t know anything about Adolph Rupp at the time. I was trying to find a team I could identify with and being a Cleveland-area boy I took an interest in Cleveland State because around the time I started enjoying sports as a spectator Cleveland State was in the process of upsetting Indiana in the NCAA Tournament. Even so, I was much more enamored with the NBA because the players were better and the games were more fun to watch.

I know, there are college basketball “purists” who argue the point and insist that the fundamentals of the college game are better. That’s a load of crap. 99% of the players playing college basketball right now couldn’t mop the locker room floor in the NBA. LeBron James, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard would cruise through the NCAA tournament 3 on 5 and not one game would be close.

So it’s not surprising that great players want to get to the big stage as quickly as possible. Especially before some egomaniacal college coach ruins them by putting his own interests ahead of the interests of his players. That’s a huge problem in college hoops. Coaches are driven by ego. It was the reason for Bobby Knight’s demise at Indiana, and it is undoing Coach K at Duke. If Calipari leaves Memphis for Kentucky his ego will ultimately do him in as well.

Kentucky’s run in the sun could be over. Besides all of the shady deals—the hiring of parents and AAU coaches, the offers of scholarships to friends and family—players are lured to luxurious facilities and national exposure. Nobody cares about the history of Cameron Indoor, kids aren’t going to fall in love with Rupp Arena. They want to know how many games you play on national television and how often you get into the NCAA tournament. Forget about the “college experience”; where’s the bling?

Right or wrong, that’s how it is. Most people go to college to get something in return. They hope that they can parlay the time they invest at school into a bigger salary when they get out. Ambiance and history are secondary to that. Why should athletes be any different? College is a means to an end and the programs that will be successful in the future will be the programs that get players where they want to be faster.

So Kentucky can save the history lesson for the fans and get down to the business that is basketball. The tables have turned, the four year plan is gone. The best players in the country are calling the shots, the prolonged exploitation of the athlete pretending to be a student is over. One-and-done is the norm. Until places like Kentucky and Duke learn to accept that and embrace it, success will continue to elude them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pondering the World of Sports

Can somebody get Jay Cutler a binky? I’m sure that it’s a little unnerving to discover that your new coach would rather have somebody else as his starting QB, but when you really get down to it that’s pretty much how every QB not named Peyton Manning feels. Seriously, Jay, put on the big boy pants and play ball. Every player in the NFL is available if the right offer is made and sometimes teams feign interest in a deal just to make sure that a rival isn’t pulling off a steal.

Speaking of babies, Curt Schilling, announced his retirement and the discussion is raging: is he a hall of famer? A lot of baseball people think he his; even though he falls short of several statistical milestones people revere. What sets Curt apart is his post season success but the Hall of Fame isn’t a post season award, it’s an honor bestowed upon the best players in the game. Should Curt get a pass for all those mediocre seasons? There’s speculation that Curt’s surly disposition could cost him a vote or two and a few baseball writers think that’s wrong. The Hall of Fame is about what you do on the field, they claim. Of course when somebody happens to be a great guy on and off the field they give him credit for being an “ambassador of the game”. So if being a swell guy can help somebody get in, why can’t being a jerk hold somebody back? It seems to me that there should be consequences for being a jackass.

Speaking of jackass, why would the Celtics want to add Stephon Marbury to their team? There’s no question that the dude has talent, but can the Celtics really afford a tantrum in the middle of a tough series against Orlando or Cleveland? You’d think Marbury would have the sense to keep his mouth shut and go along for the ride but one thing Marbury has proven throughout his career is that he doesn’t have any sense. If the Celtics win, Marbury will probably be a model prisoner but the danger is how he might act if the team gets stuck in an 0-3 hole. There’s no question that Boston’s got the talent to win four games in a row, but Marbury could easily derail the effort if he decides to pout. As a lifelong Cavaliers fan, I’m hoping for a classic Starbury implosion.

Implosion pretty much describes the Cleveland Browns. Eric Mangini is remaking the entire team in his own image which is to say that he’s alienating existing players and poaching a roster full of mediocrity from the New York Jets. Rumor has it that Mangini is strutting around Browns HQ with oodles of ego, but that the act isn’t impressing anybody. Mangini squandered his credibility with the New York Jets. He was the hot young protégé of Bill Belichick a few years ago when he was hired by the Jets but aside from stirring up trouble when he blew the whistle on Spygate, his career stalled. The Jets finally cut him loose after he presided over the Jets meltdown last year. Four years from now the Browns will be starting from scratch again with a new coach and a paucity of talent. Perhaps the NFL should put an end to Ohio’s misery by combining the Brown and the Bengals into one semi-respectable team and relegate it to the CFL where they might actually make the playoffs.

Playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs. Not if you’re the Cleveland Indians. Cliff Lee will follow his Cy Young performance with a humbling season of frustration. It was a fluke. Lee is a mediocre pitcher who had everything go his way last year. The Indians will probably be a more productive team this time around but Lee will be lucky to crack the .500 mark. Fausto Carmona will be healthy this year but expect him to look mortal as well. It’s just the reality of the game. A lot of guys have great seasons but great pitchers are few and far between. Mark Shapiro is nuts if he thinks that he’s managed to slip a couple of aces in his deck when nobody was looking.

The Yankees are probably going to be surprised the return they get on their off season investment plan. CC Sabathia is a streaky pitcher who isn’t known for sticking to a conditioning plan. He’s due for a down year and considering the signing bonus he just cashed, I’d bet that he’s going to get off to a slow start. Yankee fan won’t like that and CC isn’t going to like the fishbowl that is New York City. I’m sure there are tabloid editors itching to dazzle readers with clever “CC” nicknames. Calorie Consumer, Check Casher, Chilli Cheese…

I didn’t mention the NCAA Tournament because my brackets--yes there were several (hundred)--are busted. I wanted to pick Cleveland State over Wake but I didn’t. I really thought Ohio State’s size was going to give Siena trouble. Now we’re already staring at the Sweet 16 and there aren’t any surprises. It’s all chalk. Some people like it that way, others don’t. I’ll reserve my opinion until after I see next weekend’s games. The bottom line is that the best teams are supposed to advance. When you have a lot of upsets it only proves that nobody knows what they’re talking about. Most of the time that’s true, but after watching thousands of games played over the course of six months you’d think that identifying the top 15 teams in the country wouldn’t be hard to do. So all the ones, twos and threes are still alive. There won’t be a Cinderella story this year, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good games left to watch. Especially if you want Gonzaga to win it all.