Category Archives: Sports

Opening Day

Busch Stadium in St. Louis, one of my favorite places on earth.

I start to get excited as soon as I can see the lights of the stadium.  It doesn’t matter which stadium – Wrigley, Busch, Comiskey (I don’t care what they’re calling it now. It will always be Comiskey).  I start to get excited as soon as I can see the lights.  Approaching the stadium, the excitement builds.  People are coming in off the El or crossing the street in hoards.  I always buy my peanuts from a guy outside the stadium because it’s a buck cheaper.

I love the colors of baseball.  Blue, gold, white, and green.  These are the colors of baseball for me.  Blue sky.  Green grass.  Golden infield with crisp white lines.  I always pause at the first site of the field.  Everything is perfect.  Nobody has kicked up the batter’s box.  Nobody has groomed their own place in the field.  The rubber and the bases shine.  The scoreboard is big and bright and full of information, but right now there are only zeroes on it.

I love the smell of baseball.  The cinamon from the churro stand.  Onions caramelizing on the grill.  Hot dogs sizzling on their roasters. I breathe it in.  I don’t bring my glove to games (because I’m a grown man), but I can still smell the leather. I’ve buried my face in my glove enough times to recall the smell – especially at a ballgame. I find my seat and evaluate my odds of getting a foul ball. I fill out the lineup card and let the sun pour over me. I look at the names on my scorecard and wonder, “Who’s going to hit a home run?  Who will get the first hit?”

I love the sounds of baseball.  The vendors are hawking their $9 beers. The crowd is a low murmur, ready to explode in an instant. The organ plays tunes that were not meant to be played by pipe organs, but somehow they fit. The game starts, and I wait for the greatest sound of them all: bat on ball. The crowd comes alive. The players move in perfect synchronicity to the place they need to be – covering every possible angle that the ball may travel.

I’ve never been to a game on Opening Day, but I can only imagine the sense of excitement. For those in the city that that celebrated just a few months ago, or those in places that have been waiting generations, the excitement of Opening Day is connected directly to hope.  Hope springs eternal on Opening Day The team hasn’t lost a game yet.  Everyone’s in first place. Every team has a chance. Every fan knows that on Opening Day, anything can happen.

For those of us that love the game, baseball is the soundtrack of the summer.  It will be on the radio and TV.  We will check scores from phones, and open up the agate page in the sports page.  Phrases like “rubber match, games back, get-away day,” will reenter our vocabulary.  Every fan hopes that what begins with a cool day in April will end with a cool celebration in October.

The season will be filled with ups and downs. There will be winning streaks and hitting streaks; losing streaks and slumps. There will be lazy fly balls and screaming line drives. There will be thrilling comebacks and heartbreaking losses. Our team will win. Our team will lose, and the summer will move on. Eventually, the season will be over, and we all want it to end with a parade through our city.

Isn’t that what life is all about? When I die, I don’t expect that there will be a parade, but I have assurance to know that there will be a great celebration. Jesus gave us some simple instructions for life, “Follow me,” he said. Follow him in service, compassion, grace, and love. He told us to love ourselves, love our neighbors, and love our God. He told us to break bread with each other, forgive and be forgiven, and be willing to sacrifice for the sake of others.

We go through this season of life and surely there are going to be slumps, bad outings, and losing streaks. Everyone faces the dog-days of summer and the nagging insecurities of a fallen world and a sinful nature. Today though, we have hope. Today can be Opening Day. There are a lot of questions we have to answer. There is potential that we can still unlock. There are stories to be told, and lives that we can touch. There swings to be swung, pitches to be pitched, and games to be won. Today is Opening Day.

Play Ball!

Why I love baseball

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Looking for a team to cheer for in March Madness?

Are you looking for a team to cheer for in March Madness this weekend?  It’s still early, so most people’s brackets are still in tact.  Maybe you don’t need extra incentive to cheer for anyone in the Big Dance, but let me suggest to you a team from the “Little Dance.”  The Division III NCAA Final Four is being held this weekend.

The women are playing in Holland, Michigan while the men are playing in Salem, Virginia.  While the big schools of Illinois went ‘ofer’ the tourney, sorry Wildcats, Illini, Salukies, Blue Demons and the like, two teams from Illinois have kept their championship dreams alive.

The Titans of Illinois Wesleyan have a team in both Final Fours (and I should add that the Titans would mop up either Final Four in a mascot bracket).  Division III athletics might not have the flash or the talent of their DI counterparts, but they mostly don’t have the agents, egos, shoe deals or point-shaving scandals either.  They also still live up the moniker student-athlete.

The Illinois Wesleyan Women have had an especially tumultuous season.  In today’s Chicago Tribune is a fabulous piece by David Haugh.  Titan head coach Mia Smith has coached the majority of this basketball season while undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

According to Haugh, she started chemotherapy in December.  On December 10, the Titans record was an uncharacteristic 3-4.  In 2011, the Titans fourth loss came in late January on their way to the school’s first-ever trip to the Final Four.   In 2010, the Titans lost only two games all year.  It is hard to say why they had the difficult start, but the four teams they lost to all finished in the top 20 according to  According to some figures, the Titans faced the second toughest schedule in the nation.  When you factor in breast cancer into their list of opponents, I think it’s safe to say it was tougher than that.

Mia Smith is the all-time winningest coach at Illinois Wesleyan.  In her 14th season, Smith is at the helm of one of the dominant programs in the country (since the 06-07 season her Titans are 159-23) .  Her teams play a frenetic full-court press that she likes to call “Run and Jump.”  They shoot well, run fast, dive for loose balls, and scrap for every rebound.  They are a fun team to watch and have developed a strong fan base that well surely support them well in Holland this weekend.

Smith has had  a lot of support this season.  Chemotherapy is one of the worst things a person can endure.  I don’t know all the details, but it is basically poison that kills everything it can.  To say that it leaves people with less energy is like saying a marathon is a light stroll.  Coaching basketball is a high-energy profession.  Clearly the Titans have fed off of her strength, but according to her she has fed off of her player’s strength as well.

She told David Haugh “People have thanked me for being a good role model for these young ladies as I endured hardship, but I’m telling you, it’s the other way around.  All I had to do was think of how hard those girls work at practice, and that was all the inspiration I needed to get up.”

So tonight as you’re following the madness on four different national cable networks plus highlights on the ESPN family, can I suggest one more team to support?  They aren’t on any of the brackets you filled out, but they’re worth a moment or two.  Drop by this site to watch the games.  There won’t be any agents or NBA scouts.  There will be eight teams playing their hearts out and a few thousand loyal fans hoping to witness their own one shining moment.

There will be one coach that has stared down cancer, and a team that has carried her through it.  I’ve said it before, but tonight with my computer on my lap as a I agonize over every basket while switching between games, it will never be more true.  I’m proud to be a Titan.

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The 2012 Mascot Bracket

Iowa State Cyclones have a pretty formidable mascot. It is really hard to beat a weather system, even if it is some strange tornado-bird hybrid.

The 2013 Mascot Bracket

Filling out the bracket is one of my favorite annual events.  I’ve been filling out brackets for over 25 years.  In all my years of filling out brackets, I’ve only won a group once.  I stopped doing pay-for-play brackets many years ago, but I did finish in the money once when I was a kid.  The only time I’ve ever won a group was in 2010, when my Mascot Bracket beat about 30 other submissions in my free yahoo group.  Among the submissions were President Obama’s and Joe Lunardi, the man who coined the term “bracketology.”

What is the Mascot Bracket?  It is simple: pick the winners of the entire NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament based solely on which mascot would win in a fight.  To accomplish this task, I have come up with some rules.  The 2012 bracket has the first major rule change.  In the past, I used a simple food-chain style set of rules which placed weather systems at the top.  I’ve decided to make a change, so that the rules form more of a rocks-paper-scissors format.

Do you think you can do better than The Mascot Bracket?  Then join this free yahoo group.

Click here for a pdf version of the Mascot Bracket.

The rules

      1. Inanimate objects, e.g. colors and plants, always lose to animate objects.
      2. Predators beat non-predators and unarmed humans.
      3. Humans beat non-predators.
      4. Humans with weapons beat predators.
      5. Humans with weapons beat humans without weapons.
      6. Humans with superior weapons/training win.
      7. Supernatural beings and killer weather systems defeat human warriors.
      8. Many animals, especially birds and fish, can survive devastating storms.
      9. Ties go to the high seed.
      10. Prepositions lose to everything. (See explanation of What’s a Hoya)

17.  Don’t turn your back on bears.

South Region (Atlanta)

First Round

Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils def. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.  We start right off the bat with two unique mascots.  The Hilltopper’s Big Red is perhaps the most mysterious mascot of them all.  He looks like the love-child of the Red M&M and Ronald McDonald’s best friend. At first, I thought a hilltopper was going to be some sort of military guy – someone like Teddy Roosevelt reaching the top of San Juan Hill.  I was wrong. The only explanation I can come up with for the name “Hilltopper” is that the school, in Bowling Green, is a beautiful hilltop campus.     A Delta Devil is some sort of demonic creature that I presume comes from the Mississippi Valley.  The school’s website doesn’t give a lot of help.  Western Kentucky’s Big Red really defies all the rules. I suppose the only category it can fall into is the non-predatory animal.  The Delta Devil looks like it will be pretty tough to beat, even in that fancy green cape.

Second Round

(16) Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils def. (1) Kentucky Wildcats.  A game like this just makes me shake my head and consider instituting a No. 1 seed exemption.  Seriously, No. 16 seeds are 0-108 in the history of the tournament, and I already know I’m picking at least two to win this year.  This Delta Devil is going to be tough to beat.

(8) Iowa State Cyclones def. (9) Connecticut Huskies.  This is kind of sad to think about, but I just don’t see how a Huskie stands up to a Cyclone.

These two look like cousins to me.

(12) Virginia Commonwealth Rams def. (5) Wichita State Shockers.  A Shocker is basically a walking shock of wheat that has a Lady Elaine-like profile.  When you get down to it, a Shocker is just a pile of grass.  Even if you go back to the mascot’s roots, which paid homage to the fact that many Wichita State students shocked wheat as a summer job, I don’t think their heads would be hard enough to take out  a ram.

(12) New Mexico State Aggies def. (5) Indiana Hoosiers.  A few years ago New Mexico State really hurt its own chances in the mascot bracket by giving the guy in their logo a lasso instead of a six-shooter.  Fortunately for the Aggies, a Hoosier is just a person from Indiana.  While I found this pretty interesting explanation for the etymology of the word Hoosier, it really doesn’t help their cause.

(2) Duke Blue Devils def. (15) Lehigh Mountain Hawks.  The Blue Devils are a perennial power in the Mascot Bracket (see 2010).  At first glance, they seem to be a supernatural entity, bound for an epic clash against the Delta Devil in later rounds.  After doing some research a couple of years ago though, I found that the Blue Devils are named for a squadron of French military made famous in World War I.  A soldier shoots any kind of hawk, even a  mountain one.

(10) Xavier Musketeers def. (7) Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  This is actually a fight that I could imagine happening.  Couldn’t you just imagine a hard-nosed Irishmen’s reaction if this guy walked into a pub.  He would certainly pick a fight.  Unfortunately for Patty though, the Musketeer would have a musket (or he would be known as something else).  Unless the Fighting Irish start the fight with a sucker punch (which isn’t beyond the realm of imagination), the Musketeer wins.

(3) Baylor Bears def. (14) South Dakota State Jackrabbits.  This one wouldn’t really be a fight.  It would just be a snack.

(6) UNLV Runnin’ Rebels def. (11) Colorado Buffaloes.  A man out west with a gun versus a buffalo.  I think history has taught us how this one ends up.

Third Round

Iowa State Cyclones def. Mississippi Valley Delta Devils.  This is an epic match-up.  A super-natural entity against a killer weather system.  I’m going with the Cyclone because it is a real thing and they are the higher seed.

New Mexico State Aggies def. VCU Rams.  A look at the Aggies official site reveals that farmer is still packin’ steal.  That means Ram stew.

Duke Blue Devils def. Xavier Musketeers.  Rule 6 – Superior weapons.

UNLV Runnin’ Rebels def. Baylor Bears.  Rule 5 – Human with weapon.

Regional Semis and Finals

Iowa State Cyclones def. New Mexico State Aggies.  Duke Blue Devils def. Runnin’ Rebels.  Iowa State punches their ticket to New Orleans by blowing past the Blue Devils.

West Region (Phoenix)

First Round

The Iona Gaels have a mascot that is “spunky” and “is consistent with the school motto ‘fight the good fight'” (from the official website)

Iona Gaels def. BYU Cougars.  In my real bracket, I’m picking Iona to be this year’s VCU.  That probably means they’ll get beat by the Jimmerless Cougars.  In the mascot bracket, that little club is enough to fight off the cougar (okay, maybe its a little Scotch-Irish bias, but I’m a McCoy!).

Second Round

(1)Michigan State Spartans def. (16) LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds.  This time the No. 1 seed cruises.

This statue sits on the campus of Saint Louis University. Reminds me of that old SNL skit, “You put your… in there”

(8) Memphis Tigers def. (9) Saint Louis Billikens.  A Billiken is basically a chochtky (sp?).  It’s a made-up good luck charm that some lady dreamed of 100 years ago.  Weird, right?  Picture a tiger – a huge, ferocious tiger – fighting the old troll key chain you had in high school.  Not much of a fight, is it?

(12) Long Beach State 49ers def. (5) New Mexico Lobos.  First of all, I love the fact that Long Beach State’s uniforms read simply “The Beach” across their chest.  That doesn’t help them much in this fight against a wolf.  What does help them is the giant pick ax this dude is carrying.

(13) Davidson Wildcats def. (4) Louisville Cardinals.  I’m not really sure how this fight would go down, but I don’t see a Cardinal being able to mount much of an offense.  Does Steph Curry have any eligibility left?

(15) Norfolk State Spartans def. (2) Missouri Tigers.  I would really like to make the case for the Tigers here, but if this Mascot Bracket is going to have any integrity, I have to go with the armed and well-trained Spartan (plus, Michigan State vs. Memphis is coming in the next round of this region, and I assume your memory is long enough to notice if I am inconsistent here).

(10) Virginia Cavaliers def. (7) Florida Gators.  I’m not sure if a sword is enough to take on a Gator, but if Swamp People has taught me anything, it has taught me that Gators can be manhandled by anybody (BTW, Swamp People hasn’t taught me anything).

(14) Iona Gaels def. (3) Marquette Golden Eagles.  Rule 4 – human with a weapon.

(6) Murray State Racers def. (11) Colorado State Rams.  This is a genuinely difficult one to judge, but the Murray State Racer is a thoroughbred horse.  I could probably be swayed, but I think a horse is just too powerful.

Third Round

Michigan State Spartans def. Memphis Tigers.  See the previous round – Norfolk State over Missouri.

Long Beach State 49ers def. Davidson Wildcats. Again, the man with the pick axe takes out the overgrown cat.

Norfolk State Spartans def. Virginia Cavaliers.

Murray State Racers def. Iona Gaels.  This is an exception to rule 4.  I just don’t see that shillelagh being enough against the thousand pound horse.

Regional Semis and Finals

Michigan State Spartans def. Long Beach State 49ers.  The Spartans were some of the greatest warriors in history.  The 49ers were some guys hoping to score a gold nugget.  It would be a massacre.  The Norfolk State Spartans def. the Murray State Racers.  Again, Spartans are bad-asses.  Finally, Michigan State Spartans def. the Norfolk State Spartans because ties go to the higher seed.

East Region (Boston)

Second Round

(16) UNC Asheville Bulldogs def. (1) Syracuse Orange.  At least when Syracuse was the Orange Men, they had a fighting chance.  Now that they’re just a color, they kill my mascot bracket every year.

(9) Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles def. (8) Kansas State Wildcats.  Air-ground battles are the hardest to decide.  It’s hard to imagine how this fight would even work, but I’m not sure how the wildcat would be able to mount an offense.  Eagles are pretty powerful birds, and wildcats are not very big.  A couple of good strikes at 80 mph would probably do it.

(5) Vanderbilt Commodores def. (12) Harvard Crimson.  People love picking the Ivy League upset, but I don’t see it happening.  This has already been established.  Colors lose to everything.

(13) Montana Grizzlies def. (4) Wisconsin Badgers.  Badgers are mean, but one would not stand a chance against an 800 pound grizzly bear.

(15) Loyola (MD) Greyhounds def. (2) Ohio State Buckeye.  Remember when I said that colors lose to everything?  So do plants.  This region is killing me.

(10) West Virginia Mountaineers def. (7) Gonzaga Bulldogs.  Mountaineers usually go pretty far in this bracket, largely due to the large beard, I mean shotgun, this guy is sporting.

(3) Florida State Seminoles def. (13) St. Bonaventure Bonnies.  The Bonnies have gone through several different mascots over the years.  They have settled on the Bona-Wolf.   A Seminole could kill a wolf.

(11) Texas Longhorn def. (6) Cincinnati Bearcats.  Bearcats are also known as Binturongs, which I think is a much cooler mascot name.  They are tough little creatures, and a match against a Badger would be interesting.  A match against a Longhorn would just be cruel.

Third Round

Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles def. UNC Asheville Bulldogs.  If an eagle can beat a wildcat, it could beat a poor bulldog too.

Vanderbilt Commodores def. Montana Grizzlies.  While a matchup between a Grizzly and The Commodores would be brutal, but I don’t think that is the kind of Commodore we’re talking about.

West Virginia Mountaineers def. Loyola (MD)Greyhounds.  Rule 4 – human with weapon.

Florida State Seminoles def. Texas Longhorns.  Again, rule 4.

Regional Semis and Finals

Vanderbilt Commodores def. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles.  Florida State Seminoles def. West Virginia Mountaineers.  I feel like I might be getting into hostile and abusive territory here, so I’ll forgo more explanation, and just put Vanderbilt into the Final Four.

Midwest Region (Saint Louis)

First Round

Vermont Catamounts def. Lamar Cardinals.  In case you were wondering, a cardinal is a little red bird that is quite popular in the midwest.  I’m pretty sure the big wild cat would eat it.

California Golden Bears def. South Florida Bulls.  This would be a devastatingly violent affair.  This is all about rule 17.

Second Round

(1) North Carolina Tar Heels def. (16) Vermont Catamounts.  The Tar Heel name is the stuff of legend, but according to the UNC website, it started during the Civil War and refers either to the North Carolina soldiers’ stubborn ability to stand and fight, as if they had tar on their heels; or was a slur used to make fun of the poor and dirty soldiers that made tar.  For the purposes of the Mascot Bracket, I’m going with civil war soldier.

(9) Alabama Crimson Tide def. (8) Creighton Blue Jays.  The Crimson Tide pose an interesting problem.  Are they a weather-like mascot – like the tide rolling in?  Are they just a color?  Or are they elephants?  If they are the tide rolling in, a blue jay could wait that out easily.  If they are a color, then the animate bird wins.  I’m going with elephant.  Roll Tide.

(12) California Golden Bears def. (5) Temple Owls.  Do I really need to explain this?

(4) Michigan Wolverine def. (13) Ohio Bobcats. My gut is with Hugh Jackman.  This website concurs.

(15) Detroit Titans def. (2) Kansas Jayhawks.  The Titans ruled the world before the Greek gods defeated them.  They are also guys that look a lot like Spartans when turned into mascots.  Jayhawks, besides looking a lot like a Foghorn Leg-horn, actually have a pretty interesting history.   According to the school website, the Jayhawk refered to pioneers in Kansas that bugged other pioneers, notably from Nebraska.  As Kansas moved toward statehood, there was quite a public debate over whether Kansas would be a free or a slave state.  Ruffians on both sides of this battle were dubbed “Jayhawkers” and were known to rob, vandalize, sack, set fire to, and steal horses from the other side.  In time, the Jayhawks referred mainly to the free-staters.  So, that is a very long-winded way to determine that the true meaning of Jayhawk is not a stupid little bird, but a 1850s thug that was against slavery. Pretty cool, yes.  Able to defeat a Greek god?  I don’t think so.

This Gael is significantly different and more formidable than the Iona Gael.

(7) St. Mary’s Gaels def. (10) Purdue Boilermakers.  The Boilermaker has a big hammer, but this version of the Gael is in full armor.

(14) Belmont Bruin def. (3) Georgetown Hoyas.  And now, my annual explanation of Rule 10.  You might be asking yourself, “What’s a Hoya?”  Well, that is a question that Georgetown opponents have been chanting for decades.  Wikipedia gives us the answer – it appears to have come from a chant, “Roxa Hoya,” which is loosely translated from Latin to “such rocks.”  Hoya is basically Latin for “Such as.”  So, if you’re using that – I think we finally found the only mascot that would lose to the Orange or the Buckeyes – a preposition.  Yet, their mascot is a bulldog.  A bulldog could be tough, but not against a Bruin (Rule 17).

(11) North Carolina State Wolfpack def. (6) San Diego State Aztecs.  I am so tempted to insert a clip from The Hangover here, but it is kind of vulgar, so I won’t.  Just google “one man wolfpack” for a laugh.  The truth is, if NC State were a one-man wolfpack, the Aztecs could win.  I’m assuming its an actual pack, and  this statue confirms this.

Third Round

North Carolina Tar Heels def. Alabama Crimson Tide.  This is a tough call, but I’m invoking rule 4.

California Golden Bears def. Michigan Wolverines.  Sorry Red Dawn, Rule 17 strikes again.

St. Mary’s Gaels def. Detroit Titans. This is the mascot the Titans use.  Have you seen Full Metal Jousting?  That stuff is insane.  I’m going with the guy in full armor.

NC State Wolfpack def. Belmont Bruins.  Bears are tough, but a whole pack of wolves would never have to turn its back.

Regional Semis and Finals

North Carolina Tar Heels def. California Golden Bears.  Rule 4. St Mary’s Gaels def. NC State Wolfpack.  Rule 4, plus the armor would go a long way in fighting off wolf bites.  North Carolina Tar Heels def. St. Mary’s Gaels.  I don’t think the armor would stop the bullet.

Final Four (New Orleans)

Iowa State Cyclones def. Michigan State Spartans.

North Carolina Tar Heels def. Vanderbilt Commodores.  This is a tough one.  The Commodore outranks the Tar Heel, but that doesn’t mean he’s tougher.  I’ll take the hardened Civil War vet in a fight.

Iowa State Cyclones def. North Carolina Tar Heel.  The Tar Heel might stick in the mud, but it wouldn’t be enough to stand against a cyclone.

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2011 Mascot Bracket

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Also of interest – The Best College Basketball Program Without a National Championship


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Weber a decent guy and coach. Is it too much to ask for more?

The Bruce Weber era at the University of Illinois is over.  He finished his career at Illinois with a 210-101 record and a Big Ten record of 89-65.  His career includes a national runner-up and two Big Ten titles.  This does not look like the record of a former coach, but a closer look reveals the problem.  Dee Brown and James Augustine graduated in 2006 with the most wins of any starters in Illinois basketball.  Since then, the Illini have been 50-56 in the Big Ten and 1-3 in the NCAA tournament (they will presumably not make the tournament this year).

Weber seemed to be a decent guy.  All accounts show that he ran a clean program in terms of NCAA rules.  With a few notable exceptions, e.g. Jamar Smith and Jereme Richmond, his players have seemed to be decent guys too.  Weber always seemed like an honest, hard-working, straight-shooter.  He went to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and coached at Purdue and Southern Illinois.  He is a Midwestern guy with a Midwestern ethic.  He brought no glitz or glamour.  His voice was always horse and his smile and orange blazer were always endearing.

The consensus opinion of Weber was that he was a good coach and a bad recruiter.  The problem was that he was a decent recruiter, and only a decent coach.  Close watchers of Illini basketball were frustrated by their lack of improvement.  Guys like Demetri McCamey and Brian Randle had loads of talent, but seemed to make the same mistakes as seniors as they did as sophomores.  The team seemed to constantly struggle against zone defenses. The easy basket on an in-bounds play or well drawn-up quick shot were rare.  Basketball “experts” seemed to talk about Weber’s great motion offense.  To me, his motion offense seemed too often to entail passing the ball around the perimeter for 30 seconds and then chucking up a three.  When it was Head, Williams, and Brown doing the chucking, it worked brilliantly.

Illinois remains the best program in college basketball to never win a title.  Over the last couple of seasons, it grew more obvious to me that Weber was not the man that would end that streak.  That said, I take no joy from the firing of Bruce Weber.  I also don’t worry much about him.  He has been compensated very well at Illinois, and he will surely be on a coaching staff somewhere very soon.  In the end, I will remember Weber as a decent guy and a decent coach that ran a decent program for awhile.

Is it too much to ask for more?  In the current climate of NCAA sports, I’m not sure it is possible to be clean and win championships.  A recent sports radio program asked Illinois fans, “Do you want a coach that is willing to cheat to win a championship?” In other words, do you want a temporary banner?

My answer is a resounding “no.”  Am I being naive in thinking it’s still possible to win at Illinois without cheating?  I really don’t think I am.  I guess I just want to believe that it is possible to win and be (relatively) clean. Part of the problem is that the NCAA’s rule book is ridiculously long, and sometimes illogical. I’m sure that there are small-scale rules violations all the time. The real systemic problem seems to be the AAU coaches and the pseudo-agents that HS kids get when they are in 9th grade or earlier. When coaches get enmeshed with these shady characters, that is when the real muck gets stirred.

I would not want a guy like John Caliparri to be the coach at the U of I. I just couldn’t cheer for the guy because all of the banners he wins are temporary. I believe that it is still possible to put together a solid basketball program without getting all of the 5-star recruits and getting involved in all that comes with them. Teach good, fundamental basketball to hard-working athletes and I believe you can have a consistent sweet 16 program, and break through every once in awhile.

Is that too much to ask for?

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(BTW, if you do a Bruce Weber image search on google, it would be a good idea to include something like “coach” or “basketball,” or you will be quite surprised.)

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Paterno’s legacy (not his eternity)

I believe in a God whose love is more powerful than the worst of human nature, so I stay out of the guessing game as to who is going to be rewarded in heaven and who is going to face eternal damnation.  I don’t have the theological arrogance to try and guess at that sort of thing.

Joe Paterno died yesterday, and the commentaries, columns, blogs, status updates, and tweets started to pour out.  Some of it has been vitriolic.  Some of it has been too flowery to stomach.  Joe Paterno was a man.  He was a sinner like all of us.  He had some great victories, and some terrible failures.  I would not want to be judged by my worst moments, but I’m not judging him as a man.  I do not venture into that realm.  I am commenting on his legacy – the way in which he is remembered.  His legacy and his eternity are two very different things.

Here are few things I have to start with:

  • God’s grace is offered to all.  I believe in a God of forgiveness, and I do not claim to know the will of God.  I know absolutely nothing about Joe Paterno’s relationship with God – or Jerry Sandusky’s or Mike Mcqueary’s or any of the Penn State board members or any of the former football players that have come to Paterno’s defense.
  • God’s healing is possible for all.  I believe in a God of healing, and I pray that there is healing for all those that are involved.  I pray for the victims, for Sandusky, and for all that have been hurt.  I know that there are a lot of broken hearts, and I hurt for all of them.  I imagine that Joe Paterno has gone through a lot of turmoil these past few weeks, and I take no pleasure in that.  I pray that he may indeed rest in peace, because I believe in the peace of Jesus Christ that surpasses all understanding.
  • Joe Paterno did not molest, rape or harm any child.  Jerry Sandusky is accused of doing those things.  He will get his day in court and face his accusers.  I’ve read some of the testimony, and it looks pretty convincing.  There is little doubt the prime “bad guy” in all of this is Sandusky.
  • We can take a lot of lessons from this tragedy, and one is this: you never know.  Paterno trusted Sandusky.  That trust was obviously mispaced.  I do not blame him for trusting the wrong person.  Any of us can do that.  I blame him for the inaction after he was told the truth.  And to that end, there seems to be plenty of blame to go around.  As I read the timeline of this story, I just wish that one person – ONE – had the courage to address the problems that began to surface in 1994.
  • Another lesson is this: maybe we should stop building up coaches – or anyone for that matter – with so much adoration.  This is something I wrote about in a post called Congratulations Coach.
  • My argument here is about Joe Paterno’s legacy.  Not his eternal salvation, not Sandusky’s innocence, not the the board, or McQueary, or anyone else.  I read the headline of a column that read “Paterno’s legacy outweighs the scandal.”  I disagree, and here’s why:

Joe Paterno built a strong legacy, and it was on the strength of that legacy that Sandusky preyed (I’m going to allow you to insert the word “allegedly” here because it will get tiresome to type it every time.) on children.  Paterno’s legacy gave Sandusky legitimacy.  It gave him access.

Joe Paterno did a lot of amazing things.  I’m sure that I don’t have a full understanding of all of the positive that he did, but that doesn’t matter.  All of the positives, achievements, and good-will that he created gave him credibility and the moral high-ground in almost every matter.  Most people consider him to be the most powerful man at the university – perhaps the most powerful man in the state.  And it was power that he earned.  It was a power that was based on the values he preached.

Joe Paterno wanted to create a football program that was about more than winning.  His “grand experiment” was about melding football, academics and character.  He wanted to mold boys into men and develop leaders.  He preached about things like respect, honor, accountability, and faith.  He wanted to create something that was good, almost holy.  On the surface, that is exactly what he did.  He created a program that was treated as if it was holy – untouchable.  He had the moral high ground.  This article in 2008 talked about how the program seemed bigger than the institution.  And Joe Paterno WAS the program.

Joe Paterno had the moral authority to stop Jerry Sandusky when he was informed about it.  Instead, he abdicated that authority when he was relatively silent when faced with the biggest challenge of his life.  All of his achievements do little more than make his inaction more inexcusable.  Did Jerry Sandusky fail? obviously.  Did Mike McQueary fail? Certainly.  Should he have gone to the police? Of course.  But he was also deeply enmeshed in a culture of cover-up, and he went as high as he could possibly go – to Joe Paterno.  Did the Athletic Direct, President and the Board fail?  Yes.  They were a part of the institutional mess that lacked the courage to do anything detrimental to the football program.  It seems like even the current governor of Pennsylvania failed.  Why? Because no one wanted to cross Joe Pa.

It was only Joe Paterno that could have stopped Jerry Sandusky.  And he failed to do so.  If we believe that Paterno was told about Sandusky in 2002, then there are many questions to ask.  Why was he still hosting football camps on other Penn State campuses?  Why  was Paterno still involved with Sandusky’s Second Mile Foundation?  Jerry Sandusky used the legacy of Joe Paterno to prey on children.  He gained access, trust, and funds because of his relationship with Joe Paterno, and Paterno let it happen.

I do not believe that I am rushing to tarnish his legacy unfairly.  I am judging it only by his own standard.  He once said, “Losing a game is heartbreaking. Losing your sense of excellence or worth is a tragedy.”  It seems to me that Joe Paterno lost his sense of excellence.  That is (by far) not the greatest tragedy of this story, but it is nonetheless the tragedy of Joe Paterno’s legacy.

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Filed under Personal Reflection, Sports

Bears 1st Rounders

ImageJerry Angelo was fired today as the Bears General Manager. You can read all about it on other sources, like ESPN, or the Chicago Tribune, so I won’t go over the details.  I do however, think it was a good move.  I also am glad that they kept Lovie Smith.

His departure got me wondering about the most highly publicized choice that a general manager makes every year – the number one draft pick.  Here are Jerry Angelo’s top draft choices each year:

2002 – Mark Colombo.  A complete bust with the Bears.  After three injury-plagued years he played one game in 2005 before being released.  Since then he has had a respectable career with the Cowboys and now the Dolphins.

2003 – Rex Grossman.  Sexy Rexy defined inconsistency during his Bears tenure.  It seemed like every game was a toss-up whether you’d get “Good Rex” or “Bad Rex.”  In his only full season as a starter, the Bears went to the Super Bowl, but he had more turnovers than touchdowns.

2004 – Tommie Harris.  After three seasons, Harris looked like he could be the dominant defensive lineman in the game.  After Pro Bowl seasons in 2006 and 2007, he kind of disappeared.  In 2011 he bounced from the Colts to the Chargers.

2005 – Cedric Benson.  Angelo decided to keep Benson over Thomas Jones after the Superbowl season of 2006.  He responded with 674 yards rushing in 11 games.  He’s had a decent career with the Bengals.

2006 – No pick

2007 – Greg Olsen.  It seemed like every preseason people said that Greg Olsen was going to have a break out year.  His best year was 2009 with 612 yards receiving and 8 touchdowns. Now he’s a Panther.

2008 – Chris Williams.  Williams is an offensive lineman who had back problems coming out of college and has had back issues as a pro.  He was moved from tackle to guard, and in 2011 he injured his wrist and went on IR.

2009, 2010 – no pick, trade for Jay Cutler

2011 – Gabe Carimi. The lineman from Wisconsin could barely stay on the field this year and ended the season on IR.

Not exactly a great track record.  Exactly 0 of these players finished on the Bears depth chart in 2011.  Three O-lineman with injury problems, an inconsistent QB, a flash in the pan D-lineman, a head case running back and an above average pass-catching tight end that can’t block.  It’s not exactly the stuff championships are made of.

In the same time period the Green Bay Packers first round draft choices have included some busts (i.e. Justin Harrell and Ahmad Carroll).  They have also included a couple of Pro-Bowlers in Javon Walker and Nick Barnett, two solid linebackers in AJ Hawk and Clay Matthews, two good (though currently injured) O-linemen in Bryan Buluga (NFL All-Rookie Team last year) and Derrick Sherrod (actually a little too early to tell if he’s good or not).  And then there was that Aaron Rogers guy.

The Steelers’ drafting in that span included Troy Polamalu (’03), Ben Roethlisberger (’04), Heath Miller (’05), Santonio Holmes (’06), Lawrence Timmons (’07), Rashard Mendenhall (’08), and Maurkice Pouncey (’10).  All of those guys contributed significantly to one or two Superbowl championships.

There was a time of course, when the Bears did draft well.  Check out the Bears’ first round drafts from 1979-1985.  This is what championships are made of:

1979 – Dan Hampton and Al Harris.

1980 – Otis Wilson

1981 – Keith Van Horne

1982 – Jim McMahon

1983 – Willie Gault and Jim Covert

1984 – Wilber Marshall

1985 – William Perry

Hampton is the only Hall of Famer, but Al Harris was the only player that was not a major contributor to the Bears’ last Superbowl championship.

It seems clear that, while there are certainly other factors, the success of a team is hinged largely on the ability to nail that first round pick.  The Packers and Steelers have been doing it a lot lately, and they are two dominant teams in the NFL.  The Bears used to do it on a regular basis and built a perennial power.  Angelo was unable to do it, and today he was fired.

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Congratulations Coach

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, left, greets Bob Knight after win No. 903

Congratulations are in order.  The coach has just set the all-time mark in victories.  What’s more impressive than the long list of victories however, is the way in which he did it.  Over the last few decades he has done more than win games.  He has molded men with class and dignity.

The coach has been the single most popular figure in the history of the university.  But he has been more than popular.  He is an almost mythic figure that  has created a brand that goes beyond the sports field.  The university is as much defined by his legacy and his sport as it is by any academic endeavor.  He has stood for a strong ethic and moral decency.  In an era when coach after coach goes on to the next big thing, he has remained a stalwart in the community and is an icon in the sport.

All the while, he has never been investigated by the NCAA.  He did it the right way and for the right reasons.  Everyone around him knows that he is about more than his sport.  He is about more than wins and losses.  He is about character, and molding boys into men.  He is about dignity and respect and honor.  For his efforts, he has legions of fans that love him.  They honestly love him.  They name their children after him.  They dream of their sons playing for him someday.

Ousted President Graham Spanier, left, presents head football coach Joe Paterno with a plague commemorating his 409th win

Alas, Joe Paterno will not be coaching anymore because when he was presented with the biggest moral question he ever dealt with, he balked.  He passed the buck.  He missed an opportunity to bring a friend to justice and he failed all of those that ever loved him.   He failed all of those that believed that he stood for anything more than wins and losses and image.  I do not know Joe Paterno’s heart.  I do not wish to be judged by my worst moment. I do not believe all the good he has done is wiped out because of his failure, but I think the Penn State scandal gives us a chance to step back for a moment and hold off on creating mythical figures out of mortal men.

Today, many are pouring adoration upon Mike Krzyzewski.  The last few paragraphs, save the last, could as easily be about him as it was about Joe Pa.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t congratulate Coach K.  What he has done at Duke is remarkable.  It is unfair to Coach K to make any comparisons to Joe Pa right now, but this isn’t about Coach K.

This is about priorities and perspective.  This is about idolatry.  When we turn humans into mythical creatures, we will almost always be disappointed.  The sports world is full of myth.  Sports are full of heroes, villains, gods and devils.  Maybe as sports fans we need to stop.  Let’s stop making these people into more than they are.  Maybe then the next time one fails it won’t hurt so much.

Some may say that I’m being cynical, but I don’t need sports figures to be my heroes.  When I was a kid I loved Walter Payton.  I cheered for him.  I wanted to be like him, but he was never my hero.  My heroes lived in my house.  Let’s all just agree to be grown ups and stop idolizing people because they wear the right uniform or coach on our sideline.  Let’s stop putting our faith into coaches and athletes.

As a Christian man, my faith belongs in one place.  I still love sports.  I love my teams.  It matters to me if the Illini or Bears win or lose. But if sports start to come between me and my family, or me and my God, there’s a problem.  Let’s stop believing that athletic prowess has any relation to moral righteousness, even (especially?) if said athlete points to the sky or bows on one knee in the middle of the game.  It shouldn’t make us love our games any less, but if it does, maybe that’s a good thing.

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If LaRussa goes to HoF, why not McGwire?

In the 2011 Hall of Fame voting, Mark McGwire received 19.8% of the vote, far short of the 75% required to gain admission to the Hall.  His 583 career home runs are the most of any player that is eligible for the Hall (retired 5 years), that has not been enshrined.  For many years that honor belonged to Dave Kingman and his 442 home runs.  In McGwire’s first year of eligibility he received 23% of the vote.  For right now, the trend shows that Mark McGwire will never be elected into the Hall of Fame.

Neither will Rafael Palmeiro.  Palmeiro is one of four players to have 500 career home runs and 3,000 hits.  The other three are Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray.  In his first year of eligibility, Palmeiro received 11% of the vote.  No one has ever made the Hall after receiving 11% of the votes.  Palmeiro and McGwire are exhibits A and B for the steroid era sluggers making the Hall of Fame.  Both of them are confirmed users.  Both have incredible, HoF-worthy numbers.  Neither will be enshrined in the near future.

Why do I bring this up? Because this week Tony LaRussa retired.  He retired after an emotional run to his third World Series championship.  He retired after what was a mixed-bag of managing. In the Series he made some world-class gaffes as well as incredibly shrewd moves.  There is little doubt that LaRussa is a Hall of Fame manager.  He has won three World Series titles, including wins out of both leagues.  He has won division titles with three teams.  He has won the manager of the year twice (and will likely win it again this year).  He is third on the all-time list in managerial wins behind only legends Connie Mack and John McGraw (and is second all-time in losses).

Shortly after he retired the accolades, congratulations, and well-wishes came pouring in.  It seemed like every news source and commentator was fawning over his incredible achievements and his already paved route to Cooperstown.  I just want to say, “Hold on a second.”

While McGwire and Palmeiro sit outside Hall, we’re going to let LaRussa stroll right in?  No, he never used performance enhancing drugs, but he certainly benefited from them.  It has been argued that LaRussa is the most complicit manager of the steroid era.  Tony LaRussa managed Mark McGwire in two different stops – his two most successful, I might add.  McGwire has finally admitted to using steroids, first in Oakland in 1989, and again in his famed run toward 73 home runs with the Cardinals in 1998.  His manager both times? Tony LaRussa.  He claims that LaRussa, who has time and again defended McGwire, didn’t know anything about it.

This book was "bashed" at first, but most Canseco's assertions have been vindicated.

At best, it seems hard to believe that LaRussa knew nothing – twice.  At worst, he was a complicit participant in the greatest systematic cheating scandal in the history of the game.  Some go so far as to say that he was actively covering up the steroid use of his players while at the same time berating any reporters with the gall to ask questions.  And according to Jose Canseco, the guy who has been proven right over and over again despite being ridiculed and insulted when he first made his accusations, LaRussa knew everything.

I’m not saying that LaRussa shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, but it seems clear that a standard about the steroid era has been set.  It will be interesting when 2013, when Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens become eligible for the first time.  If any of them get in, it will surprise me.  Interestingly enough, because managers are voted into the Hall differently, LaRussa will first be eligible (along with Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Bobby Cox) in, how cool is this, 2013.

So it turns out 2013 will be an interesting year for the Hall of Fame and the steroid era.  Three known users and two managers that benefited greatly from the era (Torre managed A-Rod, Clemens, Giambi) will all become eligible.

I’m not passing judgment on LaRussa’s resume, but I’m surprised that almost all national media outlets have been completely silent on LaRussa’s less than sparkling involvement in the steroid era.  It seems to me that there is a double standard.  If the players don’t go in, why would their managers?

For further reading:

Sorry Albert, I don’t believe you.

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Derek Redmond’s Dad

You probably don’t recognize the name Derek Redmond.  You might recognize his story though.  He was a sprinter in 1992 Barcolona Olympics.  He was the British record holder and a contender to do well in the 400m.  He had an injury-plagued career, but as he prepared for the most important 45 seconds of his life, the announcer claimed that he was in the “best form he’d shown.”   About 15 seconds into the race, he tore his hamstring.  He crumpled to the ground in pain.  If that was the end of his race, no one would remember Derek Redmond, but as a trainer started to attend to him, Redmond got up and started limping around the track.  He was determined to finish what he had begun.  He was determined to finish the lap.

As he limped around the track, fans started to cheer.  Several attendants approached him, but he waved them off.  He was alone on the track.  A wide shot of him in the video below reveals a strange scene – one man hobbling and barely able to stand, not the usual group of amazing athletes speeding along the curve.  As he comes around the turn, the crowd is cheering him on.  They understand what he is trying to do.  They admire him for it.  But then something else happens.  Something extraordinary.  Something that until recently, I don’ t think I really understood.  Watch below.

A man comes out on the track.  We don’t see what he had to do to get on the track.  We do see him push past one person that tries to stop him.  He puts his arm around the wounded athlete, and the recognition on Derek Redmond’s face helps us understand.  This is his father.

This is his father who he drapes his arm around.  Suddenly, the emotions of the moment catch up to the pain and Derek Redmond buries his face in his father’s chest.  His father is now literally holding him up as another attendant comes.  This time the guy is more adamant, but there is nothing that is going to take the boy from his father.  You can almost read his lips, as he waves the man away, “Get the hell out of here!”  is what I think he says.

The two finish the race together while the stadium rose to its feet in appreciation for what they had witnessed.  Afterward, the father says, “Whatever happened, he had to finish.  And I was there to help him finish.  I intended to go over the line with him. We started his career together.  I think we should finish it together.”

Derek Redmond is now a motivational speaker.  On his website, he gives an interview where he describes his father as “My motivator, my hero, my pal, my bodyguard, my physio and my masseur some days.”  I have seen this video of him and his Dad before, but the other day I watched again – perhaps for the first time as a father myself.  I started thinking about Derek Redmond’s Dad.

My girls are too young to participate in competitive sports, but I’ve already began to dream about what their future holds.  I think about their lives as dancers, athletes, students, friends.  I think about the relationships they’ll make, the people they’ll know, the places they’ll go, and the accomplishments that await them.  Is the Olympics in their future?  Who knows?

As a father I can dream with them.  I can dream for them.  I can imagine myself watching my daughter in the biggest moment of her life.  I can already be nervous, waiting for her chance to shine.  I do not know what her dreams will be, but I can imagine being at the cusp of them, ready to emerge victorious.

What would it be like to be watching your son or your daughter run in the most important 45 seconds of their life, and then come up injured.  How much would it hurt to see her body lying on the ground, broken; her race over; her career over; her dream over?  How much would it hurt to think of the hours of practice, the trips to the gym, the diets, the training, the injuries, the coaching, the sacrifices that had all come to this point, and end with her crumpled on the ground waiting for the stretcher to carry her off the track so they could keep the schedule of the rest of the event?

Then, what would it feel like to see her get up?  I remember the first time she fell off of her bike, and I remember with pride the moment she got back on her bike and kept going.

As I watch this video of Derek Redmond hobbling around the track I can see my daughters, struggling to finish something that they set out to achieve.  When I dream their future, I don’t dream of them victorious.  I dream of them courageous.  I don’t dream of them with accolades and fame and money.  I dream of them with conviction and perseverance and strength.

And when I see Derek Redmond collapse into the loving arms of his father, I dream that someday I will be able to be there for my daughters.  I hope beyond hope that when they face a obstacle in their life that feels bigger than they can handle, that I will be able to be there for them.  I hope this in part because I know what it feels like to collapse into the loving arms of my Dad.

The fact remains, I might not always be there for them.  So I live every day teaching, praying, reading, dancing, laughing, and crying with them so that they know, and that they will always know that their Daddy loves them.  More importantly, I do these things so that they know, and that they will ALWAYS know that our Father, Son, and Holy Spirit loves them. Amen.

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Filed under Christianity, Sports

The Team Photo

A childhood friend of mine, and self-professed “geek” and football fan created this picture.  She has a funny blog called Geekaroni, which is now the featured site (I’m hoping to make the butter beer cookies soon).  This has got to be the greatest collection of playmakers since the ’00 Rams.  To read about the full team, go to my blog called Fantasy Draft.

Back row (L-R) LG Donkey Kong, WR The Flash, RG E. Honda, LT Grape Ape, TE Goro. Front Row: WR Wile E. Coyote, FB Kool-Aid Man, WR Sonic, QB Superman, C Violet Parr, RB Walter Payton. Seated: Coach Professor Xavier. Not pictured: RT The Iron Giant, Bench: He-Man and Uncle Rico.

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