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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Final Four is Full of Nostalgia

Just when it looked like all the nostalgia talk at the 2009 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Final Four was going to be about 1985, the Michigan State Spartans threw a wrench in the plan and ensured that the 30th anniversary of their first championship would be properly remembered.

By trouncing top seeded Louisville 64-52, the Spartans denied the Big East’s bid at taking three teams to the Final Four for the first time since 1985. With the Final Four being played in Detroit, Michigan State is looking to be the first team since UCLA in 1975 to win the national championship in their home state*.

Of course, the return of Villanova to the Final Four for the first time since winning the title in 1985 ensures that there will still be lots of talk about that unbelievable upset.

While I personally believe that North Carolina State upsetting Houston in the 1983 finals was a little more improbable, it is hard to dispute that Rollie Massimino and his 1985 Wildcats played one of the best games in tournament history to defeat defending champion Georgetown.

Having twice faced the Hoyas during the regular season and lost close games both times (52-50 in overtime in Philadelphia and 57-50 in Washington), Villanova wasn’t intimidated by the defending NCAA Champions and their lineup of stars, which was led by senior All-American Patrick Ewing.

In the era before the shot clock and three-point line, the Wildcats knew that the key for them was to break the pressing defense of the Hoyas and then to make the most of every possession by waiting for the opportunity to take good shots.

What ensued was a 40-minute clinic in which Villanova executed that game plan to perfection.

Villanova connected on an amazing 72.2 percent (13 of 18) of their field goal attempts in the first half and led 29-28 at intermission. The hot shooting made for a great half of basketball, but surely they would cool off in the second half and Georgetown would pull away for the expected victory.

Not only did the Wildcats not cool off in the second half, they actually improved. Villanova connected on nine of 10 field goal attempts in the final 20 minutes to finish the game at 78.6 percent, easily the best showing ever for an NCAA final. And it wasn’t as if Georgetown was throwing up bricks. They hit on a very respectable 54.7 percent of their field goal attempts.

A 6-0 run late in the second half gave Georgetown a 54-53 lead with just under five minutes remaining. The Hoyas tried to run off some clock, but a steal by Dwayne McClain and a basket by Harold Jensen gave Villanova a lead and they would never again trail. The final score was Villanova 66, Georgetown 64.

The 1979 NCAA Championship victory for Michigan State was not quite as surprising, but it did prove to be just as memorable.

Unbeknownst to those watching the game that night, the meeting between the undefeated Indiana State Sycamores, led by senior Larry Bird, and the Michigan State Spartans, led by sophomore Magic Johnson, would serve as the trigger to a rivalry that would forever change professional basketball.

Still the most watched college basketball game ever, the 1979 Championship game wasn’t a barnburner with a final pivotal moment. In fact, Michigan State pretty much controlled the contest throughout and won 75-64.

However, in an era before ESPN and the over saturation of college basketball on television that exists today, the game served as a coming out party for two future legends. The game introduced the nation to a 6-8 point guard who had the charisma, smile and all-around basketball ability that would eventually captivate a nation. It also gave fans across the country a chance to see the grit and determination of a farm boy from French Lick, Indiana, who didn’t play his best game, but still did everything he could to keep his team in the game.

Of course the game was the final college game for both players and, as they say, “the rest is history.” Bird went on to lead the Boston Celtics to three NBA Championships, including a win over Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1984 Finals. Johnson would play in nine NBA Finals for the Los Angeles Lakers and the team won five championships. After losing the 1984 title to Boston, the Lakers edged Boston in both 1985 and 1987.

The game also helped usher in a golden era for the NCAA Basketball Division I Tournament. The 1979 tournament featured 40 teams, but over the next six years the field was twice expanded until it reached 64 teams in 1985. NBC paid only $5.2 million to broadcast the tournament in 1979, but by the time CBS snatched the rights away in 1982 it was $48 million. The current contract for rights to what is now known as “March Madness” is $6 billion over 11 years.

While both Villanova and Michigan State bring nostalgia to the 2009 NCAA Final Four, the championship pedigrees of the other two Final Four participants are also pretty impressive. Like Michigan State, which claimed the title in 2000, Connecticut (2004) and North Carolina (2005) are looking to join Florida as the only school to claim two titles this decade.

The Tar Heels are looking to join UCLA (11), Kentucky (7) and Indiana (5) as the only schools with at least five NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championships. If Connecticut can claim the championship, Jim Calhoun would become only the fifth coach in NCAA history (joining John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Bobby Knight and Mike Kryzewski) to lead a team to at least three championships.

(*Note: The University of Kansas won the 1988 title at Kemper Arena, where they regularly played one home game a season, but the arena is located in Kansas City, Missouri, rather than in the state of Kansas)

Monday, March 30, 2009

“Much Traveled Lou” Embodied a By-Gone Era of Professional Football

The sports world lost a legendary character on Sunday with the death of former football player, coach and administrator Lou Saban.

Known as “Much Traveled Lou” for his penchant of hopping from job to job, Saban is best remembered for his 16 years as a head coach in the AFL and NFL.

Though it has been 33 years since he last coached in the NFL and he spent most of the last three decades floating from one small college coaching job to another, Lou Saban’s fiery personality will forever be immortalized in some of the most memorable moments in NFL Films history.

If you have ever watched any of the NFL Films where they show coaches on the sidelines or in the locker room, then you have probably seen Saban’s antics. His intensity and spontaneous comments reflect a truly by-gone era in professional football. While the NFL of today is part sport and part entertainment, Saban thrived during an era when both the players and coaches reflected the brutality and harshness of the game.

After hearing of his passing last night, I went back and re-watched some of the segments in which he and other coaches from the 1960s and 1970s display the emotion and passion of the times. Unlike modern coaches whose passion and intensity are perhaps slightly tempered by the safety nets of guaranteed contracts, you can see in their sideline antics how Saban and other coaches of his generation truly lived and died with every play.

In one set of clips from while he was coaching the Denver Broncos, Saban first yells, “My daughter could do better, my daughter could do better.” At another moment he brutally cries out to an assistant “They’re killing me Whitey.”

Perhaps Saban’s most famous NFL Films moment occurred before and after a 1974 battle between his Buffalo Bills and the defending Super Bowl Champion Miami Dolphins. In a rare glimpse into an NFL locker room, the piece starts with Saban telling his players not to be too proud to take in all the fluids they might need to make it through the South Florida heat. He then reflects to them the urgency and opportunity of the moment.

“If we die, we die together,” he bellowed in a gruff tone. “You can get it done, you can get it done. What’s more, you’ve got to get it done.”

Despite a dramatic late game rally led by rookie backup quarterback Gary Marangi, the Bills lost the game when Miami marched down the field to score a touchdown in the final minute.

After the game, Saban is shown not standing at a podium as is the custom today, but sitting in the locker room with reporters gathered around him. Even after a disappointing loss, he reflects the straightforward approach that was part of that era of NFL football.

“Boy oh boy, 56 seconds and we let them off the hook,” Saban said. “We’ve got to beat these people one of these days and we haven’t been able to do it. We’re coming after them again next week.”

After playing college football at Indiana University, Saban was twice a first team All-AAFC selection while playing for Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns from 1946-49.

In 1950 he started his coaching career as the head coach at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland. He also coached at Northwestern and Western Illinois University before embarking on his professional coaching career.

Saban joined the fledgling American Football League as head coach of the Boston Patriots in 1960 and amassed a 7-12 record before leaving midway through the 1961 season. In 1962 he joined the Buffalo Bills and led the team to back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and 1965. However, he left the franchise after a disagreement with owner Ralph Wilson and spent the 1966 season as the head football coach at the University of Maryland.

Resurfacing in Denver in 1967, Saban coached the Broncos for four and a half years, but never won more than five games in a season. Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of his tenure occurred in 1968 when Saban became the first modern AFL or NFL coach to start a black quarterback. Marlin Briscoe started five games for the Broncos with the team posting a 2-3 record.

Briscoe moved to Buffalo the next season and spent the rest of his career as a wide receiver, but Saban’s decision to give a black quarterback an opportunity to start put the wheels in motion for other coaches and black quarterbacks.

Saban returned to Buffalo in 1972, but the Bills he inherited were a far cry from the championship team he left nearly a decade earlier. He did manage to post three winning seasons and make one playoff appearance, but the team was never a championship contender.

His second tenure with the Bills is best recognized for serving as the launching pad for O.J. Simpson’s amazing five-year stretch as the best running back in football. After not rushing for more than 742 yards in any of his first three NFL seasons, Saban made Simpson the emphasis of the offense when he arrived in 1972. Simpson responded by leading the NFL in rushing in 1972 and the next season became the first running back (and only one in a 14 game season) to break the 2,000-yard mark. Overall, Simpson gained 7,699 yards between 1972-1976 and led the NFL in rushing four times.

After starting the 1976 season with a 2-3 record, Saban quit as coach of the Bills during the week of his 55th birthday and never again coached in the NFL.

Saban became the head football coach the University of Miami in 1977 and though the Hurricanes posted a 9-13 record during his tenure, he is credited with laying the foundation that led to Miami’s emergence as a national power in the 1980s.

He spent the 1979 season as the head football coach at Army and later made a brief foray outside of football serving two seasons as President of the New York Yankees, which happened to be owned by longtime friend George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner had served as an assistant football coach for Saban at Northwestern. He also spent 19 days as the Athletic Director at the University of Cincinnati and reportedly quit during halftime of an early season football game against Ohio University.

Saban also spent two seasons as the head coach at the University of Central Florida from 1983-84. He helped set the wheels in motion for the Golden Knights to move from Division II to Division I, but again didn’t stick around long enough to reap the rewards of his labor.

Over the next two decades, Saban continued to wrack up lines on his resume with each position seemingly taking him further and further away from the limelight. He coached at the high school level in the late 1980s and except for a brief stint coaching in the Arena Football League spent the remainder of his career starting or building college programs at a number of small schools including Peru State, Canton Tech, Alfred State and Chowan.

The numerous obituaries about Saban that have emerged on the internet say that he had a short temper and that may partly account for why such a decorated professional coach completed his coaching career at such off-the-beaten-path locations.

Dick Finnegan, an Orlando area businessman and a friend of this blog, crossed paths with Saban when they both worked at the University of Miami in the late 1970s and he described Saban as being “gruff...thick-bodied, harsh tone. You got the impression he lived a full life and showed the fun side to close friends only.”

There is no doubt that Saban was a true sports character the likes of which we will probably never see again. However, while Saban may be gone, thanks to NFL Films, his intensity and passion will never be completely forgotten.

(Click Here to watch Saban and other NFL Coaches from the 1960s and 1970s in a classic NFL Films montage)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Perfection is Never Easy

When they led by 14 points early in the second half of the NCAA Finals, it looked like the University of Findlay would cruise to the 2009 NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship and an undefeated season. However, in the end it took overtime and a three-point basket as time expired to help the Oilers complete the season with a perfect 36-0 record.

Regardless of the level of competition, completing a college basketball season undefeated is never an easy task and deserving of appreciation. Findlay became just the fourth team in Division II history, and first since Fort Hays State in 1996 to accomplish the feat.

They join the George Fox University women’s basketball team, which claimed the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championship with a perfect 32-0 record, as undefeated NCAA basketball champions this season.

With four more victories, the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team could add their name to that list. The Huskies are aiming for the third undefeated season in their history and the fifth such season in NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball history.

For the 33rd straight season, there will not be an undefeated national champion at the NCAA Division I men’s level. No men’s Division I champion has finished undefeated since Bobby Knight led Indiana University to an undefeated campaign in 1976.

It has been 30 years since Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores became the last Division I team to reach the NCAA Finals with an undefeated record. They were 33-0 before losing the national championship game to Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans.

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels are the only team to reach the Final Four with an undefeated record. They lost in the national semifinals to eventual champion Duke.

A few teams, including Illinois in 2005 and Memphis in 2008, have flirted with entering the NCAA Tournament undefeated. However, eventually the grind of a long season, pressure of perfection and difficulty of maintaining such a high level of play for every single game have proven to be too much for even the best teams.

If a team is ever to again go undefeated in NCAA Division I men’s basketball, it will probably follow the pattern of Indiana State, UNLV and Memphis. All three of those teams, along with the University of Massachusetts, which started the 1995-96 season with 26 straight wins, hailed from a conference not considered among the “power” conferences of the NCAA.

While conferences like the ACC, Big East, Pac 10 and Big 12 annually boast at least two teams capable of winning the national title, top teams from other conferences can often run the table in their league and depending on their non-conference schedule could conceivably be undefeated come time for the NCAA Tournament. The question then becomes whether a team that hasn’t faced significant challenges on a regular basis will be able to withstand the rigors of the NCAA Tournament.

Memphis, which lost in the Sweet 16 in 2009 after coming within a last-second shot of winning the title a year earlier, has proven that a rigorous conference season is not necessarily mandatory. The Tigers have won 61 straight Conference USA games since last losing to a conference opponent in March 2006. However, I’m willing to bet that John Calipari and supporters of the Tigers would trade in a couple Conference USA wins if it helped them claim that elusive national title.

While no school would turn down an undefeated season and it would be fun to watch a team make that kind of magical run, the reality of college basketball is that unlike football’s Bowl Championship Series when an undefeated season is no guarantee of a title (just ask Utah) and one last second loss can end your chances at a championship (see Texas), in college basketball a teams final record isn’t going to have a real barring on who claims the national title.

Come the first week of April, the only record that matters is how your team performed in the climactic NCAA Tournament and to cut down the nets at the Final Four you don’t have to be perfect for four months, just for the final three weeks of the season.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

NASCAR Remembers Its Roots

The National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) will return to its roots this weekend with the running of the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 in Martinsville, Virginia.

The last original NASCAR sanctioned track still hosting a Cup Series event, the Martinsville Speedway is the shortest track on tour at .526 miles. The Bristol, Tennessee track, which hosted last week’s race, is the second shortest at .533.

Constructed more than a decade before the Daytona International Speedway, the Martinsville Speedway hosted its first NASCAR sanctioned race on July 4, 1948 and a year later was one of eight tracks to host a race in the initial year of what was then called the Strictly Stock Series and is now known as the Sprint Cup Series. After hosting one race in 1949, Martinsville has hosted two Sprint Cup races every year since 1950. Other than being paved in 1955, the track configuration has not changed from its original design. The track originally had seating for 750 spectators, but today has a capacity of 60,000.

While short tracks played an important role in laying the foundation for the success of NASCAR, as the national and international appeal of the sport has increased over the last two decades, a number of smaller tracks with longstanding traditions have been removed from the Sprint Cup schedule in favor of larger tracks in locations that expand the exposure of the sport to new audiences. Bristol, Martinsville and the Richmond International Speedway (.75 miles) are the only tracks remaining on the Sprint Cup schedule with a lap distance under a mile.

Richmond hosted its first race in 1953 and has held two NASCAR Sprint Cup events every year since 1959. Originally a half mile track, it expanded to .75 miles in 1988 and has a spectator capacity of just over 112,000.

The Bristol Motor Speedway was completed in 1961 and has hosted two NASCAR Sprint Cup races every year since. The Speedway began with 18,000 seats for its initial race on July 30, 1961 and has undergone a number of grandstand renovations to increase capacity to its current level of 160,000.

Though NASCAR made its initial foray into the Mid-West and West Coast markets in the 1950s, it took the sport decades to finally gain a solid foothold outside the traditional Southern hotbed. Since 1988, NASCAR has brought the NASCAR experience to strategic locations across the country including Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Phoenix, Sonoma, Fort Worth and Las Vegas.

The price for this nationalization of the sport was the reduction of NASCAR races at traditional home tracks, primarily in the South. While Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond have managed to survive, other places such as Rockingham, North Wilkesboro and Nashville did not.

However, there has been talk that Martinsville could be the next casualty of the nationalization of NASCAR. Because the region around Martinsville has never had a booming economy, even in good economic times the track has struggled to sell out despite having one of the lowest spectator capacities on the circuit.

While the global economic crisis might at first blush seem to increase the pressure on NASCAR to move at least one of the Martinsville races, I contend that the opposite is true.

Though the overall fan base has grown over the last decade, the greatest concentration of loyal die-hard fans remains in the South and specifically in rural areas of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Many of these fans have been life-long NASCAR lovers and cherish the history and tradition of the sport.

As the last original NASCAR track, Martinsville represents an important connection to the past and at the same time can also be a key part of the future for the sport. NASCAR generally has done a very good job walking the tight rope of embracing the past while also looking toward the future. At a time when they are needed most, many loyal fans could become disenchanted with NASCAR if it eliminates the annual trips to Martinsville.

Rather than consider dropping Martinsville from the schedule, I hope NASCAR will instead recognize the value of its oldest track and ensure that the Martinsville Speedway remains an important part of the annual circuit for decades to come.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Is Curt Schilling Hall of Fame Worthy?

The recent retirement of Curt Schilling offers the opportunity to rekindle the timeless debate of just what makes a player worthy of being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It has been very interesting reading impassioned sports writers and fans debate the question. Those who believe Schilling is worthy of the Hall of Fame are quick to highlight his postseason prowess as well as his status as a clear staff ace for a portion of his career. His detractors quickly point to his relatively low career victory total and significant number of pedestrian seasons within a 20-year career.

Both arguments certainly have merit, but I believe the real issue goes beyond just Curt Schilling and instead is really about how modern era pitchers are viewed by those who decide induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Of the 72 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, only 23 have pitched a game in the last 50 years. While three modern era relief pitchers (Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter and Rich Gossage) have been inducted into the Hall of Fame in the last decade, a modern era starting pitcher has not received such recognition since Nolan Ryan entered the Hall in 1999.

Hall of Fame voters of the last two decades have tended to give excessive merit for lifetime statistical achievement while virtually ignoring short-term dominance. That is among the reasons it took Jim Rice 15 years to earn a spot in the Hall and why starting pitchers from the modern era have been completely overlooked.

The Hall of Fame includes 16 starting pitchers with fewer wins than Schilling’s career total of 216, but only two of those pitchers, Don Drysdale, who retired in 1969 with 209 wins, and Sandy Koufax, who amassed 165 victories before retiring in 1966 are from the modern era. The last starting pitcher with fewer than 300 wins to be elected into the Hall of Fame through the regular voting process was Fergie Jenkins in 1991.

The debate has been waging for years over whether modern era pitchers Tommy John (288 career wins), Bert Blyleven (287) and Jim Kaat (283) deserve induction into the Hall of Fame. While their contemporaries Phil Niekro, Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry reached the 300-victory plateau and cruised into the Hall of Fame within their first five years of eligibility, John, Blyleven and Kaat have had their entire careers picked apart to find the flaws that justify their exclusion.

Another modern pitcher who has received little support from voters is Jack Morris. Despite amassing more wins than any other pitcher in the 1980s and finishing his career with 254 career victories, Morris has never received more than 44% of the vote in his 10 years on the ballot. What could prove to be telling is that like Schilling, Morris was known for his postseason heroics and clear status as a staff ace.

The increased reliance on five man rotations and relief pitchers over the last two decades has made it significantly more difficult to rely on victories as an accurate measurement for pitching greatness. Assuming that Randy Johnson (currently sitting at 295 career victories) joins Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Tom Glavine as pitchers who have reached the 300-victory total this decade and becomes the 24th pitcher all-time to reach that mark, it is likely that the club will never see a 25th member.

Excluding Glavine and Johnson, the active pitcher with the most career wins is 46-year old Jamie Moyer with 245 career victories. While Moyer won 16 games last season for the World Series Champion Phillies, he would have to nearly match that total for the next four seasons to pass the 300-win plateau.

Among pitchers under 40, 36-year old Andy Pettitte is the leader with 215 victories, but there was some question as to whether he would be back this season and it is highly unlikely that he will pitch long enough to get anywhere near 300 wins. CC Sabathia, who will be 29 in July, has 117 victories through his first eight major league seasons for an average of 15 per year. He would have to maintain that average for the next 12 years to reach 300.

What this means in relation to the Hall of Fame is that in the coming years HOF voters will no longer be able to rely solely on wins and losses or other traditional statistics when evaluating career accomplishments. The other prominent stat generally used to assess greatness has been the earned run average (ERA). While ballparks have shrunk and players grown larger over the last two decades, ERAs have steadily increased. Statisticians have developed a concept called ERA+ to try and quantify pitching success compared to the overall rate of run production in the league. This concept has attempted to level the playing field when comparing the low ERAs of many old-timers with the higher averages of modern pitchers, but has yet to gain universal acceptance.

There is little doubt that Maddux, Glavine and Johnson will be easy decisions for the Hall of Fame voters in the coming years (with Clemens falling under his own category due to his alleged steroid use), but in addition to Schilling, there will be other tough choices regarding starting pitching candidates over the next decade.

Given his sharp decline in recent years and inability to find a club to offer him a contract this spring, it is doubtful that Pedro Martinez will add too many more wins to his career total of 214. With a .684 winning percentage and 2.91 career ERA, Martinez is expected to earn easy entry, but the reality is that for all his dominance he posted only two 20 win campaigns and he has fewer career wins than Charlie Hough or Kenny Rogers. If the HOF voters typical pension for gaudy career numbers remains, Martinez may meet some resistance.

Another interesting case will be how the voters view John Smoltz. He enters his first season with the Red Sox with 211 career victories despite spending nearly two decades playing on consistent winning teams for the Braves. While his 24 wins and Cy Young award in 1996 provide Smoltz with a signature season, it marked his only campaign with more than 17 victories. What might help his cause is the four years he spent during the middle of his career as a dominant closer. Much like the case for Dennis Eckersley, the combination of success both as a starter and reliever could help get Smoltz into the Hall.

So, is Curt Schilling worthy of a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame? I started writing this column convinced that he was not deserving, but now at least recognize that he merits serious consideration. The question is whether Hall of Fame voters will start recognizing that while career statistics are one way to evaluate greatness, in an era when statistics tell only a small portion of the story they cannot be the onl
y guide.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Time for Cinderella to Dance

So how does your NCAA bracket look? If yours is anything like mine, the toughest choices have not been in picking Final Four teams, but instead in trying to predict which school will come out of nowhere to crash the party.

Almost every year at least one school that is familiar only to people within its home area code suddenly becomes a national darling thanks to an upset, or near upset, of a team with significantly more national recognition. These schools are often referred to as “Cinderella” and just to avoid the kind of confusion that occurred at my house the other night when my four-year old daughter heard a promo for the NCAA Tournament and thought it meant one of her favorite princesses was going to be playing basketball, in this case Cinderella does not have flowing blonde hair, a glass slipper or a Fairy Godmother.

Rather, the typical Cinderella of the NCAA Tournament is a school that has been playing good basketball throughout the year, but has stayed under the radar while schools from the power conferences hog the national television spotlight and spots in the national polls. One of the endearing elements of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is that the opening rounds of the tournament are the one time each year when those power conference schools must share that spotlight with schools that aren’t so familiar to a national audience.

Unlike during any regular season match-ups that are almost always played at the home site of the power conference school and come with all the trappings of a home court edge including rowdy student sections and officials assigned by the host schools conference, when power conference schools face schools from smaller conferences on a neutral court in the NCAA Tournament anything can happen.

Over the years, the results have included some of the most memorable upsets in NCAA Tournament history. Over the last 30 years many schools have played the role of Cinderella, but I have chosen to highlight five schools that wore the glass slipper with particular distinction and helped create the concept of “March Madness.”

James Madison University – 1981, 1982, 1983 –
Few outside of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley had heard of James Madison University, which had been known as Madison College until 1977, when the Dukes made their first trip to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament in 1981. However, under the guidance of head coach Lou Campanelli, they quickly developed a reputation as a team higher seeds did not want to play. The 10th seeded Dukes defeated seventh seed Georgetown 61-55 before losing to second seed Notre Dame 54-45. The following season, JMU defeated Ohio State in the opening round before quite nearly pulling off the upset of the century. Facing top-seeded North Carolina, JMU gave the eventual national champions everything they could handle in a 52-50 decision that wasn’t decided until the final minute. The following season, JMU made it three straight years with an NCAA Tournament victory as they defeated West Virginia 57-50 before being eliminated by North Carolina in the second round.

University of Richmond – 1984, 1988, 1991, 1998 –
During the 1980s and early 1990s, no team wanted to play Dick Tarrant and his “Giant Killers” from the University of Richmond in the NCAA Tournament. The Spiders made their initial NCAA Tournament appearance in 1984 a memorable one as they defeated fifth seeded Auburn, led by Charles Barkley, before dropping a tough 75-67 decision to Indiana. Four years later, the Spiders got their revenge on Bobby Knight and the defending NCAA Champions as the 13th seeded Spiders defeated fourth seeded Indiana 72-69 in the first round of the tournament. However, they weren’t done as they reached the Sweet 16 with a 59-55 victory over fifth seed Georgia Tech. The top seeded Temple Owls finally eliminated them in the round of 16. In 1991 the Spiders became the first 15th seed in NCAA Tournament history to win a game in the tournament as they shocked second seeded Syracuse, led by Derrick Coleman, 73-69. Though Tarrant’s retirement in 1993 signaled the end to a period of dominance for Richmond, they did return to the tournament in 1998 under the guidance of head coach John Beilein, now the head coach at the University of Michigan, and continued their upset tradition with a 62-61 win over third seeded South Carolina.

Loyola Marymount – 1990 –
Few teams have tugged at the heart strings of college basketball fans the way Loyola Marymount did during the 1990 NCAA Tournament. An exciting team that set a new NCAA record by averaging 122 points per game under the guidance of former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Paul Westhead, LMU entered the 1990 West Coast Conference Tournament looking to secure a third straight bid to the NCAA Tournament. However, tragedy struck late during their first round conference tournament game against Gonzaga when All-American center Hank Gathers collapsed and later died due to a heart condition. The tournament was immediately suspended with the regular season champion Lions awarded the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Few expected the Lions to make much noise when they started play in the NCAA Tournament as the 11th seed in the West just 13 days after the death of their star player. However, led by emotional leader Bo Kimble, the Lions captivated the nation by defeating sixth seeded New Mexico State 111-92 in the opening round and then whipping defending national champion Michigan 149-115 to reach the Sweet 16. LMU then edged Alabama 62-60 before losing to eventual national champion UNLV 131-101 in the West Regional Final.

Gonzaga – 1999, 2000, 2001 –
Consistent success over the last decade has earned Gonzaga a tentative spot among the “Big Boys” of NCAA Division I basketball, but they most certainly wore the Cinderella slipper when they reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in 1999 and then followed that run with consecutive trips to the Sweet 16. Gonzaga had made only one previous trip to the NCAA Tournament (losing to Maryland 87-63 in 1995) when they earned a bid to the 1999 tournament. The Bulldogs ripped through the field with wins over seventh seeded Minnesota, second seed Stanford and sixth seeded Florida before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut in the West Regional Final. In 2000 the Zags defeated seventh seeded Louisville and number two seed St. John’s before falling to Purdue in the Sweet 16. In 2001 they edged fifth seeded Virginia and dominated Indiana State before losing to top seeded Michigan State.

George Mason – 2006 –
Of all the Cinderella teams from non-power conferences that have made runs in the NCAA Tournament, George Mason is the only one ever to make it all the way to the Final Four. The 2006 Patriots had needed a surprising at-large bid just to get into the tournament, but proved that the committee knew what they were doing. GMU upset sixth seeded Michigan State 75-65 in the opening round. They then shocked defending national champion North Carolina to reach the Sweet 16. After defeating fellow Cinderella Wichita State in the round of 16, the Patriots defeated top seeded Connecticut 86-84 in overtime to advance to the Final Four. Though they lost to eventual national champion Florida 73-58 in the semifinals, George Mason proved to the country that teams from smaller conferences deserved the chance to hang with the big boys in the NCAA Tournament.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Playing for All the Marbles

The six-overtime thriller between Syracuse and Connecticut in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament will certainly go down as one of the greatest conference tournament games in college basketball history. The game included all the highs and lows associated with a classic tournament confrontation, but imagine just how much greater the intensity might have been if the loser knew that their season and chance to win the National Championship was over without even having the opportunity to compete in the NCAA Tournament.

That was the scenario 35 years ago on March 9, 1974 when North Carolina State and Maryland met in the finals of the ACC Basketball Tournament. The game would go down in history as one of the greatest games in college basketball history and directly result in changes that helped turn the NCAA Tournament into “March Madness.”

When the Wolfpack and Terrapins took the floor at the Greensboro Coliseum, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Both teams were ranked in the top-5 in the country, but only the winner would get a chance to unseat seven-time defending NCAA Champion UCLA. While today 65 teams reach the NCAA Tournament with 34 of those bids going to at-large teams, back in 1974 the NCAA Tournament included 25 teams with all bids reserved for conference champions and major independents.

Both teams were filled with All-Americans and future NBA stars. High-flying David Thompson, center Tom Burleson and guard Monte Towe led N.C. State while the Terrapins had their own stars in guard John Lucas, forward Tom McMillen and center Len Elmore. In all, the NBA would eventually draft a total of ten players from the two teams.

Despite playing their third game in three nights, Maryland, which had easily defeated Duke and North Carolina to reach the finals, raced to an early advantage and led by as many as 13 points in the first half. The top-seeded Wolfpack received a first round bye in the seven-team league and had easily dispatched the University of Virginia in the semifinals.

The Wolfpack recovered from their early deficit and in the second half was clearly the fresher team as they rode the hot shooting of Burleson and Thompson to catch the Terrapins. With the game tied at 97-97, Maryland had the ball with time running out in regulation. John Lucas missed a last second shot as the game went into overtime.

A basket by Phil Spence with 1:59 remaining in overtime gave the Wolfpack the lead and a pair of free throws by Monte Towe in the finals seconds ensured the 103-100 victory and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

N.C. State went on to defeat UCLA in double overtime of the NCAA Semifinals and then earned the national title with a win over Marquette. Despite finishing the season ranked number four in the country, Maryland’s season ended with that loss as they chose not participate in the National Invitational Tournament. The 1974 Terrapins are still considered the best team not to participate in the NCAA Tournament.

Recognizing the need to ensure that future top teams did not suffer a similar fate to the Terrapins, the NCAA expanded the tournament to 32 teams in 1975 to allow for at-large participants. The field expanded to 40 teams in 1979, 48 teams in 1980 and to 64 teams in 1985.

So, while Connecticut fans may be disappointed that their team will not claim the Big East Tournament Championship, they can take solace in the fact that the Huskies still have a chance to cut down the nets next month at the Final Four in Detroit.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Conference Tournaments Play Key Role in March Madness

With conference tournaments underway and the Division I men’s basketball pairings to be announced on Sunday, we are officially in the middle of “March Madness.” For college basketball fans, the next four weeks are nirvana as every basket, steal or turnover has the potential to catapult one team to a title while leading to the end of the line for another.

For teams from major conferences already sure that they have secured one of 34 at-large bids into the NCAA Tournament, conference tournaments provide a dress-rehearsal for the real show the following week. However, for teams from conferences that rarely receive more than one tournament bid and for those schools from major conferences who are “on the bubble”, conference tournaments provide an opportunity to guarantee a spot in the greatest dance in college sports.

One of the enticements of this time of the year is the feeling of hope that perpetuates among basketball fans on college campuses across the country. After a long season, slates are wiped clean and any team winning their conference championship can earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of how they performed during the regular season.

College basketball history is dotted with teams that struggled during the regular season, but parlayed a late hot streak into a conference tournament win and trip to the NCAA Tournament. One need look no further back than to last season when the University of Georgia, which had won only four Southeastern Conference games during the entire regular season, rattled off four amazing wins, including two in one day thanks to wind damage to the roof of the Georgia Dome, to claim an improbable conference title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps the greatest example in college basketball history of a team making the most of an unexpected conference tournament run is the famed 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack under the guidance of the late, great, Jim Valvano. After registering a 17-10 record during the regular season, in large part due to a broken foot that forced star guard Dereck Whittenburg out of action for much of the season, Valvano knew that his team probably had to win the conference championship to earn a spot in the 48-team NCAA Tournament field.

The Wolfpack edged Wake Forest 71-70 and then defeated defending NCAA Champion North Carolina 91-84 to reach the ACC Tournament final. Facing the University of Virginia and All-American center Ralph Sampson, the Wolfpack completed their miraculous weekend with an 81-78 victory to reach the NCAA Tournament.

That victory sparked an improbable run that included a double-overtime victory over Pepperdine, a last second win against UNLV after trailing by 12 points in the second half and a thrilling 63-62 victory over Virginia in a rematch of the ACC tournament final. NC State then secured the NCAA Championship with a semifinal win against Georgia and a memorable last-second victory over top-ranked Houston in the NCAA Finals.

Even for teams already assured of playing in the NCAA Tournament, winning the conference tournament is often a determinate of future success. Of the last five NCAA champions, only the 2005 North Carolina Tar Heels didn’t claim their conference tournament championship. Last season all four Final Four teams had previously won their conference tournament championship.

So, as you get ready to set your NCAA Tournament brackets, you might pay close attention to what teams are cutting down the nets at conference tournaments. It is very likely one of those teams will also be cutting down the nets at the NCAA Finals in Detroit.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Nothing is Free about Free Agency

If he were still alive, I wonder what NFL Hall of Fame center Jim Ringo would think about the $100 million contract that Albert Haynesworth recently signed with the Washington Redskins.

As legend has it, Ringo, an All-Pro center and anchor of the Packer’s vaunted offensive line, brought an agent with him to contract negotiations with Green Bay Packer head coach Vince Lombardi prior to the 1964 season. Lombardi then excused himself and when he returned five minutes later told Ringo and his agent that they would have to go to Philadelphia to discuss his new contract because he had just been traded to the Eagles.

Some historians claim that the actual incident between Ringo and Lombardi is just a myth, but what isn’t a myth is the sacrifice that many athletes from the past made to ensure that the players of today are able to freely negotiate and sign contracts like the one inked by Haynesworth.

For more than a half-century, the contract of every player in Major League Baseball included what was known as the “reserve clause”, which bound a player, one year at a time, in perpetuity to the club owning his contract. Basically, it meant that the player was tied to the team until the team chose to trade or release the player and he had no opportunity to pursue employment with another organization on his own terms. As professional sports leagues started in football, basketball and hockey, owners in those leagues essentially emulated baseball’s “reserve clause.”

As a result, the only recourse for a player was to quit.

Such was the case for future NFL Hall of Fame member Cliff Battles. After rushing for a career-high 874 yards while helping the Washington Redskins win the 1937 NFL Championship, Battles reportedly asked Redskins owner George Preston Marshall for a $1,000 raise to his $3,000 contract. When Marshall refused, Battle retired from pro football after just six seasons and became an assistant coach at Columbia University where he was paid $4,000.

Little changed for another 30 years until one player dared to challenge the system.

When veteran St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood balked at being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in October 1969 after playing 12 years for the Cardinals, initial sentiment questioned why a star athlete making $80,000 would dare to challenge the authority of his employer. However, once the general public began to understand the power baseball ownership enjoyed through the “reserve clause” sentiment began to shift.

Nonetheless, Flood personally paid a tremendous price for his role as a martyr for professional athletes. After missing the entire 1970 season (one in which he had been scheduled to make $100,000), Flood appeared in 13 games for the Washington Senators in 1971 and was out of baseball at age 33.

Flood’s case against Major League Baseball eventually reached the Supreme Court and while the court ruled in favor of the league, the wheels were in motion to change professional sports forever. The “reserve clause” was officially overturned in 1975 and soon professional athletes were able, for the first time, to choose the team for which they would play. It also led to provisions that provide some veteran players the opportunity to decline a trade if they choose not to play for a certain team.

The advent of free agency also led to a rapid escalation of player salaries in all professional sports.

In 1967 the average salary in professional baseball was $19,000. By 1980 the average had risen to $143,000 and the average passed $1 million in 1992. The average salary for a professional baseball player in 2008 was $2.93 million. Average salaries for players in the NFL, NBA and NHL have risen at similar rates over the last forty years.

As the players of today enjoy the spoils of their multi-million dollar contracts, I hope they realize the high price that Ringo, Battles, Flood and many others paid to ensure that they could truly be free agents.
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