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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Small Schools Still Have an Impact on the NFL Draft

As teams prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft, scouts and analysts have scoured the country to find the college football players who can provide an immediate impact for the 32 teams competing to reach Super Bowl XLIV next February. In a world of “draft experts” and the internet, there really is no such thing anymore as an “unknown.”

Every potential draft pick –no matter whether they played for a major college or a Division II school– has a Wikipedia page and his 40-time posted on multiple draft boards floating around the World Wide Web.

When the draft starts this weekend, most of the players selected will hail from schools with names that are familiar to college football fans, such as the University of Southern California, Penn State, Oklahoma and Georgia.

However, there will be a few players selected who attended schools that you need a Google map to find. Places such as Western Illinois, Central Arkansas, Liberty, Sam Houston State and Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo.

While today most of the players selected from these obscure schools will be chosen in the middle or late rounds, there was a time not so long ago when all NFL scouts were regularly finding future NFL stars in some out of the way places.

Since 1960, a total of 3,623 players (22% of all draft selections) have hailed from schools that were not classified as NCAA Division I-A (now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision). However, the percentage of small school players has significantly declined from 28.5% in the 1960s and 27.6% in the 1970s to only 10.3% in the current decade.

The list of great players from small schools is long and illustrious –including many Hall of Fame members and All-Pros. It would take pages to list all the great small school players, but among the names at the top of the list are Walter Payton (Jackson State), Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Gene Upshaw (Texas A&M-Kingsville), Don Maynard (Texas Western), Willie Davis (Grambling State), Art Shell (Maryland-Eastern Shore), and Willie Lanier (Morgan State).

Twice in the 1970s, the first pick in the NFL Draft was from a school that –at the time– was not a Division I-A school. Terry Bradshaw was chosen first overall in 1970 out of Louisiana Tech and Ed “Too Tall” Jones was the first pick in the 1974 draft from Tennessee State.

Overall, a total of 80 small college players have been selected in the first round of the draft since 1960. Like the overall number of picks, however, that number has steadily declined from 19 in the 1960s and 34 in the 1970s to only five in this decade (including Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Joe Flacco in 2008).

There are certainly a number of reasons that NFL rosters are regularly including fewer players from small schools.

Probably the most significant is that after decades of reluctance, the 1960s and 1970s saw many major football conferences finally start recruiting talented African American players. From the 1950s through the early 1970s, historically black colleges such as Grambling State, Jackson State and Morgan State became known as pipelines to the NFL as they offered talented athletes who could not find a scholarship at schools in the Southeastern Conference and other major Division I conferences a place to showcase their talents.

While major colleges once let future Hall of Famers such as Elvin Bethea, Buck Buchanon, Charlie Joiner and Lem Barney toil away at small schools, big-time programs are now eagerly scooping up all the top talent.

The past decade has also seen an influx of schools that previously competed at the I-AA (Football Championship Subdivision) level to Division I-A. This has slightly reduced the talent level at Division I-AA as many talented players who once fell to those schools are now going to Division I-A schools.

Another move that has increased the availability of Division I-A scholarships is the change over the last 20 years by the NFL to allow college players to enter the NFL before the completion of their college eligibility. This has increased the churn rate at some of the top colleges and had trickle-down impact at all college levels.

In 1993 the NFL cut the NFL Draft to eight rounds and the following year trimmed the draft to its currently size of seven rounds. It is apparent that the reduction in draft size has impacted the draft philosophy of many schools.

Whereas teams were once willing to spend low round picks on players from small schools, they are now choosing to use their lower round picks on players from major Division I-A conferences and instead sign players from non-BCS (Bowl Championship Series) and non-Division I-A schools as free agents.

In 1992, the final year of a 12-round draft, 36 players from non-I-A schools were chosen in the first seven rounds of the draft. The last three drafts have seen an average of 25 players from small schools chosen.

However, the impact of players from smaller schools on the NFL is still significant.

In addition to Rogers-Cromartie and Flacco, other players from recent NFL drafts that have made an impact in the NFL include Marques Colton (Hofstra), Donald Driver (Alcorn State), Brian Westbrook (Villanova), Aaron Smith (Northern Colorado), Antoine Bethea (Howard), Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg), Zak DeOssie (Brown), Rashean Mathis (Bethune-Cookman), Jared Allen (Idaho State), Robert Mathis (Alabama A&M) and Willie Colon (Hofstra).

In fact, of the 21 small college players selected in the 2006 draft, 20 made NFL rosters and 17 were still in the NFL in 2008. If the 2009 NFL Draft goes as expected, you will probably see about the same number of small college players chosen in the draft as in recent years.

It is doubtful that a non-I-A player will be picked in the first round this time, but after hearing all the big schools repeatedly called it will certainly be refreshing when the draft experts start talking about players from places like Richmond, Tennessee State, Furman and Stillman.

I just hope someone is ready to break out the maps.

Check out this list of the top Late Round Draft “Gems” from Small Colleges

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Isiah Thomas: Latest Big-Time Coach Looking for Success at a Small-Time Program

You can now add the name of former NBA player, coach and executive Isiah Thomas to the long list of “big time” coaches who have retreated to the perceived safety of non-major college basketball to try and rehabilitate a damaged reputation.

With the announcement that Thomas will take over as head basketball coach at Florida International University (FIU), he is following a path that has been tried by many, but with surprisingly mixed results.

The history of college basketball is filled with coaches who enjoyed tremendous success at the highest level of competition, but for one reason or another fell from grace and no longer commanded the interest of top programs.

Many smaller schools are constantly looking for opportunities to increase exposure and contend with the major athletic programs, so lower-level Division I schools are often willing to overlook any baggage and accept their new coach with open arms.

What is different about the hiring of Isiah Thomas is that he has absolutely no experience coaching at the college level. You can also argue that with the exception of his stint as head coach of the Indiana Pacers, where he posted a 131-115 record in three seasons, his post-playing career has been anything but successful.

Thomas was an abysmal failure during front office stints with the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks. During two seasons coaching the Knicks, he posted a record of 56-108.

He also is credited with driving the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) into bankruptcy during his stint as owner of the league.

Most coaches who have made the transition from a major program to a lower-level Division I school have struggled not only with the increased challenge in recruiting players to a non-marquee school, but also with the realization that they are no longer at a school where the coffers of the athletic foundation are filled with cash.

Because in most cases the school is paying their marquee coach significantly more in salary than they had previously paid, there is immediate pressure to increase revenue through ticket sales, advertising, and booster contributions.

However, while the addition of a big name coach usually provides an immediate bump in interest and exposure, that increase is often temporary. If the new coach isn’t able to immediately put a winning team on the floor –often a challenge because the coach generally inherits a team that has not had recent success– it isn’t long before the new coach must begin to accept the realities of life at a non-major program.

When Lefty Driesell coached at James Madison University –after being forced out at the University of Maryland following the death of Lenny Bias– the quote floating around the school was that Driesell “had an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it.”

Driesell arrived at James Madison in 1989 amid great fanfare and expectations that he could raise the national profile of the college. After posting first round NCAA Tournament upsets each year between 1981-1983, the basketball program had struggled with only one winning season in the immediate three years before Driesell’s arrival and fans were excited about the prospect of “Lefty” taking the team back to the NCAA Tournament.

He immediately elevated expectation and alienated the other members of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) by saying that getting to the NCAA Tournament should be easy because all you have to do is win the conference tournament.

It proved to be an ominous statement as Driesell took JMU to the championship game of the CAA Tournament five times during his eight-year tenure, but registered only one tournament title. After he left in 1996, the JMU program struggled for more than a decade before registering a winning season in 2009.

Driesell finished his coaching career a peg further down the coaching totem pole at Georgia State University. He retired ranked 9th all-time among Division I coaches with 786 career victories.

In addition to Driesell, a number of other former big-time coaches posted only moderate success at smaller schools.

Hugh Durham, who led both Florida State and Georgia to the NCAA Final Four, became head coach at Jacksonville University in 1997 and posted a 106-119 record in eight seasons.

After leading the University of Alabama to eight NCAA appearances and four SEC Championships, Wimp Sanderson became head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock in 1994. In five seasons, he led UALR to an 85-58 record, but never reached the NCAA Tournament and made only one trip to the NIT.

After leading the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA title and Loyola-Marymount to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, Paul Westhead arrived at George Mason University in 1993 amid high expectations. In four seasons, he led the Patriots to a 38-70 record. After spending most of the past decade as an NBA assistant, Westhead was recently named the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Oregon.

One coach who was able to parlay his reputation into success was Gene Bartow. After leading Memphis State to the NCAA Championship game in 1973 and UCLA to the Final Four in 1976, Bartow left the spotlight to start the athletic program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB).

Bartow enjoyed tremendous success during his 18 seasons at UAB, including nine trips to the NCAA Tournament. The team made seven consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament from 1981-1987 –including a trip to the Elite Eight in 1982.

A number of current coaches have also found success away from the bright spotlight of major college coaching.

Despite registering a 146-104 record and reaching the NCAA Tournament five times during eight seasons at the University of Virginia, Jeff Jones was fired after posting an 11-19 record during the 1997-98 campaign.

In 2000 he moved from the bright lights of the ACC to the shadows of the Patriot League as head coach at American University. Jones recently completed his ninth season at American by leading the Eagles to a 24-8 record and their second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament –where they gave eventual Final Four participant Villanova all they could handle in a first round matchup.

Todd Bozeman experienced amazing highs and dramatic lows during his turbulent tenure as basketball coach at the University of California, Berkley, from 1993-1996. In 1993 he became the youngest coach ever to lead a team to the “Sweet 16” of the NCAA Tournament.

Three years later –following a number of NCAA rules violations– he was slapped with a “show-cause” order than basically prohibited him from coaching in college basketball for the next eight years.

In 2006 he became head coach at Morgan State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and in 2008-09 led the Bears to a 23-12 and their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

It is difficult to predict whether Thomas has the patients and temperament that will be needed to overcome the pitfalls and build Florida International into a successful winner. He inherits a team that has posted a 23-39 mark over the last two seasons and hasn’t had a winning record since the 1999-2000 season.

Given the reputation hits that Thomas has taken in recent years, the job at FIU may be exactly what the one-time NBA star needs. Being in the Miami market will provide him with some notoriety and exposure, but he shouldn’t have the constant scrutiny that he endured during his tenure in New York.

If he is able to turn FIU into a consistent winner, Thomas will not only be resuscitating the Panther basketball program, but also his own damaged reputation.

It won’t be easy, but considering the flair for the dramatic that Thomas has shown throughout his career, you can bet that his time at FIU will be interesting to watch.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What Does "Best Ever" Mean?

Over the last couple weeks, I have started following and submitting material to a web site called “Bleacher Report”. It is a sports web site full of user generated content that provides a forum for bloggers and sports fans to post material about sporting events, players and sports news that are of interest to them.

For the most part, the people who submit to this site seem to be dedicated sports fans, rather than actual members of the mainstream media. Some, like myself, are trying to break into the field of sports blogging and looking to increase exposure for themselves and their own sports blogs, while also creating a following of readers.

There are also a large number of high school and college age young men writing for the site who love sports and like the opportunity to show off their knowledge and abilities to a potentially large audience. I can tell you if this kind of opportunity had existed 25 years ago when I was in high school, I would have been all over it.

While I applaud the concept and embrace the opportunity to have some of my thoughts and opinions spread to a larger audience, I also am starting to see some of the potential traps that come with the growing trend toward sites that emphasize user generated content.

There is no question that everyone is entitled to an opinion and the opportunity to express such, but the prominence of web sites that provide anyone with an interest and something to say with a platform as well as a measure of instant credibility also has the potential to assist in the dissemination of inaccurate or flawed information.

I encountered one such example when checking Bleacher Report this morning.

As a life-long football fan and connoisseur of the NFL’s 90-year history, I am always interested to see lists that claim to give a comprehensive history of something by using the moniker “Greatest Ever” or “Best of All Time.” For that reason, I was immediately drawn to an article entitled “The NFL’s 25 Best Undrafted Players of All Time.”

The picture slideshow that followed was nicely presented, but it basically was a chronicle of the best undrafted players of the last 15-20 years, rather than a truly comprehensive list of the greatest undrafted players of all-time.

The list included only two players, Warren Moon and Dick “Night Train” Lane, who started their careers before 1990. It excluded 11 undrafted free agents who are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including Emlen Tunnell (79 interceptions, nine Pro Bowls), Willie Brown (54 interceptions, nine Pro Bowls), Marion Motley (4,720 rushing yards, two-time All-Pro), Joe Perry (9,723 rushing yards, three Pro Bowls), Lou “The Toe” Groza (1,608 points, nine Pro Bowls), Larry Little (five Pro Bowls) and Jim Langer (six Pro Bowls).

It also did not include four undrafted players from the 1970s who were all part of Super Bowl Championship teams and arguably belong in the Hall of Fame. Omitted from the list were Drew Pearson (489 receptions, 7,822 yards, 3 Pro Bowls) and Cliff Harris (29 interceptions, six Pro Bowls) from the Dallas Cowboys, Donnie Shell (51 interceptions, five Pro Bowls) from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Bob Kuechenberg (196 career games, six Pro Bowls) from the Miami Dolphins.

The list did include current Green Bay Packer running back Ryan Grant, who has rushed for 2,159 yards in his two-year career, as well as defensive back Nick Harper (20 interceptions, no Pro Bowls), linebacker Bart Scott (16 career sacks, one Pro Bowl), linebacker Antonio Pierce (7.5 sacks, one Pro Bowl) and wide receiver Wes Welker (319 career receptions, 3,461 yards, one Pro Bowl).

I applaud the author for picking an interesting subject and doing a nice job identifying current players for the list. However, I wish he would have either done the required research needed to recognize that NFL history is full of great players who were undrafted or that he would have narrowed the scope of his title and called it the “Top Undrafted Players of the Last 20 Years” or something else that better articulates the reality of his list.

In my opinion, this slideshow illustrates both the danger associated with the lack of checks-and-balances for sites that emphasize user generated content and the even greater issue that young sports fans of today –as well as many members of the media– seem to forget that there is a plethora of history that occurred prior to the last 20 years.

Since the slideshow was posted, it has been viewed more than 3,500 times, which is a very impressive number. The slideshow also has received more than 75 comments and only three (including one from me) expressed any significant concern that the list missed players from the pre-1990 era.

This perfectly illustrates why I created the “Sports Then and Now” blog earlier this year. Too often the media and fans of today forget that sports actually started before 1990. Most of today’s top stories and great moments can be tied to moments and stories from the past to provide context and history. That element is often missed in the rush to brand something that happens today “the best ever” or “greatest of all-time” when in reality something pretty similar has probably happened before.

While my focus in this particular column is a slideshow created by a 25-year old sports fan, veteran members of the national media –who should know better– are also guilty of throwing around superlatives as if they were free t-shirts.

The first column I posted on “Sports Then and Now” back in February focused on the declaration by several members of the mainstream media that with their sixth Super Bowl victory the Pittsburgh Steelers cemented their claim as the “Greatest Team in NFL History.”

My question then was exactly when does sports history start given the fact that while the Steelers now have more Super Bowl victories than any other team, the NFL held annual championships for nearly 50 years before the first Super Bowl was ever played and the Steelers never even played in one of those title games.

Through this column I am not at all trying to dismiss the great talent of today’s athletes. Athletes accomplish amazing feats every day and I think they deserve to be celebrated. However, rather than just recognizing them “in the moment”, it is my hope that the media and young sports fans will look at them in context with the past and therefore celebrate not just the current player or accomplishment, but also remember those who came before.

In my opinion, looking at the today’s greats in context of the past makes their accomplishments all the more impressive and special. That is what I will continue to do with “Sports Then and Now” and I invite you to continue checking in as I look at today’s sporting events, players and news with a historical perspective.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Player Finally Ending Battle Against Father Time

The announcement that Gary Player will be making his final appearance at the Masters in 2009 is just another reminder that even great golf champions can’t outrun Father Time forever.

However, no one has done a better job of holding off the inevitable than the Black Knight from South Africa.

While professional athletes in most other sports begin dealing with the inevitability of decreased skills and retirement while still in their 20s or 30s, golf is one sport where top performers seemingly can play forever.

Sure the window for a golfer to be at the peak of the profession is not unlimited, but with the opportunity to start a career as a teenager and then to continue playing at a competitive level –whether on the regular or senior tour– for decades to come, there can be a long time between hello and goodbye.

Player turned professional at age 17 in 1953 and as a 20 year old made his first appearance in a Major Championship a memorable one with a fourth place finish at the 1956 British Open.

He made his first trip to Augusta National as a 21year old in 1957 and in 2009 will be making his record 52nd consecutive appearance in the tournament. Of the 95 competitors teeing it up at the Masters this week, 89 weren’t yet born when Player traveled down Magnolia Lane for the first time.

Having finished second at the 1958 U.S. Open (his first appearance in that tournament), claimed the 1959 British Open title, and finished in the top 10 at both the 1959 and 1960 Masters, it wasn’t much of a surprise when Player became the first non-American to win the tournament in 1961. When he won the title at the age of 25 years and five months, only Byron Nelson had won the title at a younger age. Player still ranks as the fifth youngest player ever to win a Masters title.

By the time he claimed his third Masters crown 17 years later, the 42-year old Player was the oldest competitor ever to put on the Green Jacket (Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw would eventually become older champions).

Player never won another Major after the 1978 Masters, but his career was nowhere near over. Known for staying in great shape, Player finished second at the 1979 U.S. Open and –at the age of 48– very nearly became the oldest player ever to win a Major Championship as he finished second at the 1984 PGA Championship.

In 1995 he made the cut at the U.S. Open at age 59 and three years later, at age 62, became the oldest player ever to make the cut at the Masters. Despite now being in his 70s, Player has registered at least one round below 80 in each of the last four Masters.

Joining the Champions Tour in 1985, Player again flourished against golfers of his own generation. He won a total of 19 official Champions Tour events and all-told claimed 32 senior tournament titles. Included in that total were nine Senior Major Championships. Player last won a Champions Tour event in 1998 and his last victory of any kind came at the 2005 Nelson Mandela Invitational.

Player’s retirement officially concludes one of the greatest eras of golf history as he combined with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to form the “Big Three” during the 1960s and 1970s. The trio helped expose the sport to an entire generation of fans as their regular battles on the links were shown across the nation on television.

Time may have finally run out on Gary Player’s professional career, but given his incredible accomplishments and longevity, it is pretty clear that Player and his legion of fans were the real winners.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Celebrating the Greatness of Hank Aaron

Given how much emphasis sports put on championships, it may seem a little strange that the most significant home run in Major League Baseball history was not hit during the month of October, but instead was struck in early April by an aging player on a team that wouldn’t come close to reaching the postseason.

Such was the case 35 years ago this week, on April 8, 1974, when Hank Aaron forever cemented a place for himself in baseball lore with his record breaking 715th home run.

Every die-hard sports fan has a number of moments that are forever etched in their subconscious memory – to the point that even years after the fact they can recall not just the special moment, but also where they were and what they were doing at the time.

Though I was only six-years old, the night when Aaron set the home run record is one of those moments for me.

My family was paying special attention to the record because we had family friends who were from Atlanta and thus big fans of Aaron and the Braves. “Hammerin’ Hank” had tied the record during the season opener in Cincinnati and there seemed to be little doubt that he was going to set the record during the home opener, which was being shown on national television by ABC. However, for a while there was some doubt whether we would be able to see it.

It was a stormy Monday night in my hometown of Keysville, Virginia, thanks to a powerful early spring thunderstorm that brought lightning, thunder and heavy rains. There was no such thing as cable television in our town in 1974 and because we were about 75 miles from the closest television station, even with having an antenna on the roof we never really had crystal clear reception. The general practice at that time was also to unplug the television during electrical storms so that the TV wouldn’t get zapped.

As the storm continued and it got closer to the 8 p.m. start time, there were serious concerns around my house as to whether we would get to watch the game. Fortunately, by game time the lightning was over and we were able to see the game.

As the game got underway, I remember anxiously sitting in front of the television waiting to see if Aaron would do it. The magical moment came in the fourth inning when Aaron launched into a pitch from Al Downing and sent the ball majestically through the air and over the fence. The ball was caught in the Braves’ bullpen by reliever Tom House, who quickly raced to the field and presented it to Aaron.

Even though the home run happened after 9 p.m., my mom and I were so excited that we called our friends and relived the moment with them.

That is about where my personal memory of the evening ends, but having now watched the moment hundreds of times over the years on various television programs, I know the home run itself was only part of the larger story.

The 1974 season would be Aaron’s last in Atlanta as he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers following the season. Though he had spent his entire career with the Braves organization, the team had been in Milwaukee until 1966, so returning to Milwaukee provided Aaron with a chance to complete his career where it began.

Around that same time, I wrote Aaron a letter congratulating him on his accomplishment and asking for an autograph. I still proudly have the auto-stamped picture of Aaron, wearing a Brewers’ uniform, which I received back.

It was only years later that I learned that many of the letters that Aaron received around the time of his special accomplishment were not as pleasant as the one I sent.

When I re-watch Aaron’s record-breaking home run, as well as interviews he gave during that time, I can’t help but feel a little sad.

I don’t at all mean to downplay the social significance that Aaron’s accomplishment represented, but it seems to me that too many people got caught up in that part of the story. Because of that, they weren’t able to appreciate Aaron’s tremendous talent and milestone achievement with the joy that I did as an innocent six-year old.

All the interviews I have seen of Aaron and his family during that period clearly illustrate that an experience that should have been so joyful was anything but.

One such interview described how Aaron’s mother raced to the field and put her arms around her 40-year old son to protect him in case anyone started shooting.

Aaron’s own comments right after the home run seem to sum it up pretty well. “I just thank God it’s all over with,” he said to the crowd on hand at Fulton County Stadium.

Over the 35-years since that glorious night, the sports world has struggled to completely understand and appreciate Hank Aaron. For some, the reluctance to embrace Aaron was certainly racially motivated. However, I also think there was a segment of baseball purists who would always consider Babe Ruth to be the greatest home run hitter in baseball history and thus believed that embracing Aaron would minimize the larger-than-life stature of Ruth.

Ironically, now that someone else technically has the MLB home run record, Aaron’s greatness is finally being fully recognized.

It has only been in the last few years – perhaps because the dramatic super-sizing of offensive statistics has distorted their significance – that many baseball purists have started to embrace Aaron. They seem to now acknowledge that while the basic rules of the game have always been just about the same, each era has had its own nuances and therefore the players within that era should be viewed on their own merits and appreciated accordingly.

The reality is that regardless of the era, Hank Aaron was a special player. I could spend all day talking about Aaron’s impressive statistical numbers, but instead will share just this one thing. Aaron finished among the top-17 in the National League MVP voting for an unprecedented 19 consecutive years (13 times in the top 10). In other words, Aaron wasn’t just consistently good; he was consistently one of the best players in the game.

In 1990, while interning for the Richmond Braves, I had the great pleasure to meet Aaron, who was representing the Atlanta front office at the Triple-A team’s season opener. He was amazingly gracious and spent time talking to me as well as to many other fans. Aaron even returned to the park the next morning and posed for a photo with our entire front office staff.

I am no longer the six-year old who watched Aaron’s record setting home run through a veil of awe and innocence. However, now as a 41-year old, when I think of Hank Aaron and how he has lived a life of grace and dignity despite all he had to withstand, it reminds me why I have loved sports for my entire life and why, contrary to what Charles Barkley and others may say, some athletes can indeed be our heroes.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Opening Day Doesn't Bring Same Hope for All Teams

With Opening Day of the 2009 baseball season just around the corner, it is time for the obligatory comments about how the start of the season is so great because every team starts at the same place and has a renewed sense of optimism and hope.

While it is true that every team starts the season with the same record, we all know that teams don’t really start with the same sense of hope. I’m willing to bet that fans of the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies are significantly more confident about the potential for their team to reach the playoffs in 2009 than fans of the Royals, Orioles, Pirates or Reds.

Now I know that every year at least one team surprises the experts and makes an unexpected run at the title. Last year at this time many were ready to sell playoff tickets in Detroit while few predicted that the Tampa Bay Rays would finish out of the American League East basement. Of course, the Rays reached the World Series while it was the Tigers who finished last in their division.

It is likely that again in 2009 some team will rise from the ashes to contend for the playoffs while at least one predicted contender will have a disappointing year. Rather than fill this space with a futile attempt to predict which teams will rise and which will fall, I thought it would be interesting to look at four franchises that were once considered among the elite of the game, but in recent years have fallen on difficult times.

Between 1960 and 1997, the Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates combined for 10 World Series titles, 17 Pennants and 32 Division titles. All four franchises had extended periods of success and were considered among the top franchises in the sport. However, over the last dozen years all four teams have gone from the penthouse to the outhouse as their performances have been among the worst in the game.

Baltimore Orioles

Then: The most consistent team in baseball for more than two decades, the Orioles registered a winning record in 24 of 26 seasons between 1960 and 1985, including 18 straight winning seasons from 1968-1985. The Orioles registered 17 seasons of 90+ victories and reached 100 wins five times. Baltimore appeared in the World Series six times and won three titles. The opening of Orioles Park at Camden Yards in 1992 ushered in a new period of economic prosperity for baseball as the Orioles regularly sold out every game and the retro-stadium led to similar stadiums popping up around the league.

Now: You could call it the curse of Davey Johnson as since the former Orioles player and manager was fired despite leading the team to the American East title and American League Championship Series in 1997 the Orioles have posted a losing record for 11 straight seasons. They have not won more than 78 games in any season this decade and annually seem to swoon as the season reaches its final months. It used to be almost impossible to get a good seat for an Orioles game without planning months in advance, but now the team plays almost every game in front of thousands of empty seats.

Future: After years of trying to make a quick fix, since Andy MacPhail became team president in 2007 the Orioles seem to finally have a plan for rebuilding. The Orioles of the glory days were built through a solid farm system and a foundation of pitching and defense. MacPhail has reloaded the farm system and the Orioles are believed to have one of the deepest pools of minor league pitching talent in the league. Baltimore will probably not contend in 2009, but it shouldn’t be many more years before they are challenging in the toughest division in baseball.

Cincinnati Reds:

Then: Baseball’s first professional team, the Cincinnati Reds have produced some of the greatest squads in baseball history. Between 1961 and 1995 the Reds produced 26 winning seasons, three World Series champions, six pennant winners and eight division champions. The “Big Red Machine” of the 1970s is still considered one of the greatest collections of talent in baseball history.

Now: Like the Orioles, the downfall of the Reds could perhaps be traced to a curse from former manager Davey Johnson. The Reds have not made the playoffs since Johnson was fired after leading the team to a division title in 1995. Cincinnati did win 96 games in 1999, but lost a one game playoff with the New York Mets for the wild card spot. The team has not had a winning season since 2000. Bad luck is partly responsible for their disappointing performance after the team made a bold move to sign Ken Griffey, Jr. in 2000. Unfortunately, Griffey suffered from a variety of injuries during his tenure with the team and never displayed the ability that made him the best player in the game in the 1990s.

Future: After failing in attempts to rebuild through trades and free agency, the Reds have showed promise for the future due to the development of several homegrown players. The team has also jettisoned several veteran players in exchange for young players who can develop into regulars. The result is a young nucleus of position players and pitchers that could eventually make the Reds contenders. Because the National League Central is a very difficult division to predict, the Reds could find themselves in the playoff hunt either this season or in 2010.

Kansas City Royals:
Then: From the time they joined the league as an expansion team in 1969 until the player’s strike of 1994, the Royals were a regular contender. Excluding their first two expansion seasons, the Royals posted winning campaigns in 17 of 24 years, including eight years of 90 of more victories. They won the American League West seven times in a 10-year period from 1976-1985 and claimed the 1985 World Series Championship.

Now: Since baseball labor peace was restored in 1995, the Royals have registered only one winning season (83-79 in 2003). They have lost 100 or more games in a season four times and reached 90 losses four other times. Along with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Royals have been hit the hardest by the changing financial structure of the sport. Always a “small market” team, the Royals have been unable to build a consistent winner as most of their homegrown stars have ended up leaving for greener pastures with other teams.

Future: The Royals have increased their victory total in each of the last three seasons and last year finished out of the Central Division cellar for the first time since 2003. The team has a young nucleus of talented players and has tried to supplement that by signing a number of veterans. As has been the case over the last decade, the key will be whether the Royals are able to keep their young players long enough for them to mature into a cohesive unit.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

Then: Another storied franchise with a history dating back to 1882, the Pirates registered 21 winning seasons between 1960 and 1992 while winning three World Series titles. The team claimed six division titles in the 1970s and then won three straight division crowns from 1990-1992.

Now: Since losing to the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 National League Championship Series, the Pirates have not finished a season with a winning record. For nearly a decade they said that building a new stadium was essential if they were to compete in the current economic structure, but since moving into their new publicly funded facility in 2001 the Pirates have averaged 93 losses per year, with at least 94 losses in each of the last four seasons.

Future: Unlike the Orioles, Reds and Royals who all at least seem to be trying to build a winning franchise on the field, the ownership of the Pirates seems to be most interested in increasing the profit margin. That is really a shame for Pirate fans, which have traditionally been among the most loyal in the sport. As a kid my family annually visited our relatives in Northwest Pennsylvania during the summer and it seemed like every television in town was always tuned into the broadcast of the Pirates game. I expect that MLB will do everything they can to keep a franchise in Pittsburgh, but unless the next labor agreement includes a clause that forces all franchises to reach a minimum payroll, don’t expect the Pirates to break out of their current streak of losing seasons.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Something is Rotten in Denver

Isn’t it amazing how quickly things have changed in Denver? Seems like just yesterday that the Denver Broncos were considered one of the more stable franchises in the NFL with a veteran head coach and an owner who generally knew well enough to leave the football decisions to his front office staff.

I don’t know if Pat Bowlen suddenly decided to take a page out of Al Davis’s book or if he just got bored, but things have spiraled downward amazingly fast for this proud franchise.

First Bowlen decided to jettison his two-time Super Bowl winning coach Mike Shanahan in favor of a 32-year old “flavor of the month.” Then, after new head coach Josh McDaniels tried to secretly orchestrate a trade of the Broncos’ franchise quarterback in exchange for one of his former pupils, the young quarterback with the a big arm and a big ego got mad and threw a tantrum.

According to many NFL experts, what should have happened next was that McDaniels and Jay Cutler should have realized that sometimes the best moves are the ones that don’t happen and decided to play nice together in the sand box. After all, the NFL is a business and you can’t take things too personally.

No one outside of the organization seems to know exactly what has transpired over the last ten days, but for sure no one is kissing and making up. Instead, the ordeal has evolved into a “he said, he said” that now seems destined for a messy divorce.

Bowlen claims that he and McDaniels have made numerous attempts to contact Cutler without any success and therefore now believe the only recourse for the team is to trade the young quarterback. Cutler and his agent, Bus Cook, have asked for a trade, but also claim that no one from the Broncos tried to reach Cutler until this week.

Since very little about the NFL surprises me anymore, the two sides could eventually realize that they need each other and this could all blow over, but that seems very doubtful at this point. What is more likely is that Cutler will be wearing a different uniform next season and McDaniels will have the added pressure of being a 32-year old rookie head coach who ran the franchise quarterback out of town.

NFL history isn’t plush with examples of three-year veteran quarterbacks with a proven pedigree (Cutler has passed for 9,024 yards and 54 touchdowns in three seasons) and secure position in the lineup demanding a trade. Generally starting quarterbacks only get traded after they have lost their job or if the team believes they have a better option.

Considering that Denver moved up in the draft to select Cutler with the 11th pick in the 2006 draft and the only other quarterbacks on the roster are a former free agent from Alabama-Birmingham (Darrell Hackney) and a recently added veteran who hasn’t started an NFL game in more than two years (Chris Simms), it is pretty obvious that trading Cutler was not part of the team’s plan for the upcoming season.

One example that has some similarities is the case of Jeff George, the first pick in the 1990 draft. After four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, George became disgruntled and was traded to Atlanta. At the time it was believed that George could be a franchise quarterback, but that theory was eventually disproved. His career statistics were relatively impressive (27,602 yards, 154 touchdowns, 113 interceptions), but his record as a starting quarterback was an abysmal 46-78. George was eventually labeled as a malcontent and cancer and though he still is trying to find a job hasn't been on an NFL roster since 2001.

The Broncos have a losing record (17-20) with Cutler has their starter, but part of the blame should certainly go to a defense that has annually ranked among the worst in the league. There seems to be little doubt that Cutler has the physical tools to be a standout NFL quarterback, but George proved that it takes a lot more than just a strong arm to become a winning NFL quarterback.

It will be up to potential suitors to determine if the ego, pride and stubbornness that Cutler has displayed in this disagreement with the Broncos is something that can be controlled or if it is the flaw that will keep him from achieving NFL glory. Considering that the Broncos are reportedly asking for at least two high draft picks and a starting player in return, the price to find out is awfully steep.

Boog Powell - April Vintage Athlete of the Month

This month I am introducing a new regular feature, the Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month. The purpose of this monthly post will be to celebrate and re-visit the accomplishments of notable athletes from past generations. I will start this month by highlighting the career of one of my childhood favorites, Boog Powell. If you had a favorite athlete growing up that you would like to see featured as the Vintage Athlete of the Month, send me a nomination by e-mail.

Given the super-sizing of professional baseball players in recent years, a 6-4, 240 pound player may not seem all that special, but in the 1960s and 1970 when most players were shaped like string beans, Boog Powell was hard to miss. With tree trunks for arms that looked even larger when wearing the Orioles tight fitting gray uniform top, Boog Powell spent more than a decade launching mammoth home runs and playing first base for the Baltimore Orioles.

A fair-skinned giant with reddish hair, Powell looked like a farm boy from the Midwest, but actually was born in Lakeland, Florida and grew up in the Sunshine State. Though his given name was John Wesley Powell, he earned the nickname “Boog” as a kid due to his mischievous nature. He seemed to always be getting into something and became known as Booger, as in, “What’s that little Booger doing now?” The nickname was eventually shortened to Boog, probably around the time he got big enough to beat the snot out of anyone who would dare call him Booger.

Powell’s prowess on the baseball field was evident from an early age. In 1954 he was part of the Lakeland Little League squad that played in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Signed as a free agent by the Baltimore Orioles in 1959, Powell quickly made his way to the majors. He led the International League in home runs in 1961 and made his major league debut that September.

The next season he became the starting leftfielder for the Birds and was an important reason the Orioles were steadily moving from perennial doormat to contender in the American League. Powell blasted 25 home runs in 1963 and the following season hit 39 homers and led the American League with a .606 slugging percentage despite missing several weeks with a broken wrist.

In 1965 Powell moved to first base and for the next decade his soft hands helped make infielders Davey Johnson, Mark Belanger, Luis Aparicio, Bobby Grich and Brooks Robinson regular Gold Glove recipients. Despite the presence of so many Gold Glovers in the Orioles infield, and the fact that Powell posted a better fielding percentage than the league’s Gold Glove first baseman on several occasions, he never won a Gold Glove.

The 1966 season proved to be a breakout year for Powell and the Orioles. Baltimore won the American League Pennant for the first time and then defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers to claim the World Series title. Powell finished third in the voting for Most Valuable Player, behind teammates Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson, after hitting 34 home runs and driving in 109 runs.

Injuries hampered Powell and the entire Orioles team the next two seasons, but they rebounded in 1969. Baltimore led the league with 109 victories and Powell finished second in the American League MVP voting after hitting .304 with 37 home runs and 121 RBIs. Baltimore lost the World Series in five games to the New York Mets.

The following season, Powell finally earned the AL MVP Award with another productive season. The Orioles also won the World Series in five games over the Cincinnati Reds. The lasting memory of the 1970 World Series is the stellar play of third baseman Brooks Robinson, but Powell also had a pretty good series hitting .294 with two home runs and driving in five runs.

Baltimore returned to the World Series in 1971, losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games, but Powell struggled with injuries during the season and his productivity started to decrease. He followed up seasons of 22 and 21 home runs in 1971 and 1972 respectively by hitting a combined total of only 23 home runs during the 1973 and 1974 seasons. The Birds won division crowns in both 1973 and 1974, but Powell was no longer an everyday starter.

The Orioles parted ways with their popular first baseman following the 1974 season as he was traded to Cleveland for journeyman catcher Dave Duncan. The move reinvigorated Powell as he was reunited with his former teammate Frank Robinson, who was the player-manager for the Indians. Returning to the everyday lineup for the first time in three years, Powell responded with his best season since winning the MVP Award. He hit .297 with 27 home runs and 86 runs batted in while finishing third in the league in slugging percentage.

That proved to be Powell’s final productive season as he hit only nine home runs during the 1976 season before being released by the Indians during the 1977 spring training. He latched on with the Los Angeles Dodgers for much of the 1977 season, but with no designated hitter in the National League and Steve Garvey firmly planted at first base, Powell was relegated to a role as a left-handed pinch hitter. He struggled in this new position and was released late in the season.

While Powell’s play on the field was outstanding, the key to his great popularity was his status as a “gentle giant” of the game. Known for his sense of humor and fan-friendly attitude, Powell was a beloved figure in Baltimore and across baseball. That larger-than-life personality made Powell a popular figure in a number of Miller Lite television commercials following his retirement.
When the Orioles opened their new Orioles Park at Camden Yard in 1992, it made perfect sense that Powell would play an important role in setting the atmosphere of baseball’s best park. A trip to the stadium isn’t complete without a visit to “Boog’s Barbeque.”

Though his career numbers (339 home runs, 1187 RBIs, .266 batting average) aren’t worthy of consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame, the accomplishments and personality of Boog Powell should never be forgotten. For that reason, I am proud to name him the first Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month.
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