Sports

As the Bracket(s) Turn(s)

First, some theme music …

… that signifies it’s time for the three weeks of March Madness. (Which actually started with the “first-round” games in Dayton, Ohio, Tuesday and Wednesday, but never mind that.)

For those who have managed to miss the brackets, here’s one for your own use:

NCAA2014MensBasketballfullbracket

I have tried various systems over the years. You may be familiar with the Blue Jersey Theory, which holds that a team that wears blue jerseys will defeat a non-blue team. Given that the list of traditional basketball powers includes Duke, North Carolina and UCLA, it’s not a bad theory. Indeed, number-one seeds Arizona, Florida and Virginia are all blue schools, as are number-two seeds Michigan, Villanova and Kansas. (What you do if two blues face each other? Good question. And what do you do if two not-blues face each other? Is green blue? Is purple blue? What about black?)

There’s also the Favorite, or Most Fierce, Mascot Theory, in which teams are picked because of their mascots. That in some cases is about as sophisticated as rock/paper/scissors. (What is more fierce — a badger or a wolverine?)

The one rule I have applied over the years is to discount Big Ten teams because the Big Ten is overrated as a basketball conference. Big Ten teams have been the victims of some of the most unbelievable upsets over the years, including Illinois’ loss to Austin Peay (“Let’s go Peay!”) and Indiana’s loss to Cleveland State. It may be heresy to say this, but I think the quality of Big Ten coaching is worse than it used to be. Does anyone seriously think Tom Crean is a better coach than Bob(by) Knight was?

Truth be told, the only year I get the picks mostly right is when an absolutely obvious team — Kentucky in 2012, for instance — wins the national championship. In such situations, everyone picks the same national champion, so I will win no pool.

The fun part is trying to figure out where the jaw-dropping upsets will be. (To wit: 2000 after Wisconsin won its first NCAA team. I guarantee you that no one predicted Wisconsin to play in the Final Four that year.) I have picked a 15-over-2 upset, a 14-over-3 upset, and a few 13-over-4 and 12-over-5 upsets. The problem with those is (1) by nature, upsets are unpredictable, and (2) if you pick one and you’re wrong, you’ve lost not only the next round, but however many rounds the non-upset team goes.

For that reason, it’s considerably easier to pick games by round than to start from today and pick every game. If you pick a team to win the national championship that loses in the regional semifinal (as Duke did one season), well, you can kiss your entry fee goodbye.

This year features, once again, Wisconsin, as well as UW–Milwaukee. It does not include UW-Green Bay, though the Phoenix probably should have been picked, and it doesn’t include Marquette, which also failed to get a National Invitational Tournament and then declined a College Basketball Invitational berth. (As did Indiana, current employer of former Marquette coach Tom Crean.)

The Badgers are perfect under coach Bo Ryan in getting into the NCAAs, unlike the previous decades under Ryan’s predecessors. Once they’re in, well, they haven’t gotten farther than the regional final, and at that just once, 2005. They have five first-round punchouts, including last year to Ole Miss, which ended a two-season streak of getting through the regional semifinal, and a six-season streak of winning at least one tournament game.

The Badgers appear to be an early favorite, at least in the minds of some at ESPN, according to Jeff Potrykus:

If you watched Sunday night as ESPN’s analysts dissected the 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament field, you were left with the impression Wisconsin has a legitimate chance to reach the Final Four.

“I love Wisconsin’s draw here,” Jay Bilas said. “I think as a two seed they got a fabulous draw.”

UW, seeded No. 2 in the West Regional, opens Thursday at the Bradley Center against No. 15 American University of the Patriot League.

The winner gets either No. 7 Oregon or No. 10 BYU.

Bilas believes UW is the best defensive team of the four.

“What is the best ball-control, defensive team there?” he asked. “Wisconsin, they haven’t protected the lane as well as they have in the past. But I think they’re the best defensive team out of this group.

“Wisconsin is better offensively than they are defensively but they’re better defensively than anybody else there.”

Bilas, Jay Williams, Digger Phelps, Seth Greenberg and Dick Vitale offered their views on the 68-team field.

Of that quintet, Bilas and Williams picked UW to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2000 and the first time ever under Bo Ryan.

Bilas sees UW defeating No. 4 San Diego State in the regional final but losing to defending champion Louisville, which must fight through the loaded Midwest Regional, in the national semifinals.

“I think this is the Badgers’ year,” he said, referring to a Final Four berth. “They’ve had better teams but I like their draw.”

Bilas likes Louisville better.

“Louisville was mis-seeded in this tournament,” he said. “I think they are playing exceptional basketball right now.”

Williams believes UW will oust Arizona in the regional final. Coincidentally, No. 8 UW upset No. 1 Arizona in the second round of the 2000 NCAA tournament en route to winning the West Regional.

“I love the way this Wisconsin team passes the ball,” Williams said. “The Badgers, with their veteran guards and Frank Kaminsky down low is going to be a handful.”

Alas, UW fans, Williams sees the Badgers falling to Louisville in the national semifinals.

“Louisville is able to change pace,” he said. “They can (turn) Wisconsin over. Montrezl Harrell can be the difference in that ball game down low.”

Phelps and Vitale picked UW to reach the regional final in Anaheim.

Phelps expects sophomore guard Marcus Smart will lead No. 9 Oklahoma State past No. 1 Arizona in the third round and then past UW in the regional final.

“Oklahoma State is the team that’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Phelps said.

Vitale picked Arizona to end UW’s season in the regional final.

“I like their defense,” he said. “I think too much for Wisconsin.”

Greenberg was the only analyst who didn’t pick UW to reach the Sweet 16. He picked No. 7 Oregon to upset UW in the third round in Milwaukee.

All five analysts picked Big Ten tournament champion Michigan State, seeded No. 4 in the East, to win the title.

Call me skeptical (“You’re skeptical!” “No, I’m Steve”), but I’m not on the Badger bandwagon. The last time UW played in Milwaukee, 2004, the Badgers lost to third-seed Pittsburgh at the supposedly friendly Bradley Center. (Truth is, UW plays there only once every other year, against Marquette.) More to the point, I see Saturday opponent Oregon giving Wisconsin problems with its tempo, which is a problem when UW is not a good defensive team by usual Dick Bennett/Bo Ryan standards. Which is too bad, since this team is an order of magnitude better on offense than usually seen with Slow Bo.

Having said all this, I remind Badger fans that we are in an era of unprecedented Badger basketball success. The regular NCAA appointments started in 1994 under Stu Jackson, and picked up in earnest when Dick Bennett arrived in 1997. Before Jackson, the Badgers last played in the NCAA in 1947. My parents were in grade school at the time. In my five years at UW, the Badgers got to .500 exactly once. We thought that might be enough to get an NIT berth. It didn’t happen.

A couple years ago, I did a bracket based on Ken Pomeroy‘s efficiency rankings. Efficiency is an interesting concept, because it tries to create, through statistics whether team A might beat team B based on something other than offensive points per game and defensive points per game.

This year, I decided to do three of those — first based only on offensive efficiency …

offensive efficiency bracket

… which has what would be a remarkable result — Creighton defeating Kansas to win the national championship.

Another bracket is based on defensive efficiency …

defensive efficiency bracket

… with Arizona defeating Virginia Commonwealth (coached by Oregon native Shaka Smart) winning the national title.

Bracket number three is where the most efficient team — offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency — wins.

net efficiency bracketThis bracket has fourth-seed Louisville winning the national championship over Florida. This is not out of the realm of reality, given that at least the CBS Sports selection show experts thought the Cardinals got a ridiculously low seed.

Truth be told, I’m not sure I buy any of those brackets, even though I’m interested in the efficiency concept. It’s true that Wisconsin isn’t exactly a stellar defensive team under Ryan’s usual standards, but do you really think 15th-seed American is going to beat them? Creighton has, as Sports Illustrated will tell you, one player of note — Doug McDermott (son of coach Greg), currently averaging 26.9 points per game. I’m not sure very many NCAA tournament games are won by one player, unless McDermott has Danny Manning-style performances every night, when you know whoever the Bluejays play will be working overtime figuring out how to stop McDermott.

I started to do a bracket that took each team’s offensive and defensive efficiency and figured offense vs. defense for each team, but it came up with 16th-seed Weber State beating number-one-seed Arizona, and stopped. Some year a 16th seed will defeat a number one seed, but not this year.

The problem is that statistics as they currently exist are better explainers than predictors. They can show how a team did over an entire season or a stretch of games. They can’t really predict what happens if the star player gets into foul trouble, or the team suddenly goes cold from the field, or someone gets hurt. Statistics cannot predict intangibles, and intangibles often win games between relatively even teams.

What wins in the NCAAs, I’d argue, is coaching. Which is why I’m picking Louisville, despite its fourth seed, to win another national title over Florida, whose coach Billy Donovan has won two national titles, which is as many as Louisville coach Rick Pitino (former coach of player Donovan).

ESPN bracket

Categories: Sports | 3 Comments

Class division

Seeing as how state tournament basketball is on the mind this week

One thing that will always generate arguments is how any state tournament is arranged. If you have one tournament for all regardless of size, it will be seen as unfair that schools have to compete with schools 10 to 20 times their enrollment. How teams get in will be argued ad infinitum. Should teams be lined up in some random order, or should they be arranged based on record?

The state basketball tournament was just one class for its first nearly 60 years (except just before World War II). The movie “Hoosiers” was about a tiny high school taking on a big urban high school in the Indiana state championship — something that usually didn’t happen because larger schools would knock out the small school on the way to state. That’s why Reedsville and Dodgeville are fondly remembered by long-time Wisconsin high school basketball fans, because they were Wisconsin’s “Hickory.”

If you look at the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s state tournament records, you will see some odd team records — that a school was 1-2 at state one particular year. That’s because the state tournament used to include winners’ and losers’ brackets. Every participant apparently was guaranteed two games in some years. It’s not clear when the loser’s bracket was eliminated and the tournament played as a single-elimination format from subregional to state, but that was addition by subtraction, because the won-or-done format makes the postseason so great and so heartbreaking.

The tournament went to two classes in 1973, three classes in 1975, and four divisions in 1991. When classes started to be added, the largest class — first Class A, then Division 1 — had eight teams, whereas the other classes or divisions had four teams each. This changed when Division 5 was added; now, all five divisions have four state participants, after a one-year experiment with Division I “super-sectionals” (a game played between the sectional final and the start of state) an idea that should have been dropped before it was introduced.

The Wisconsin State Journal held a debate between two sportswriters, the Racine Journal–Times’ Gery Woelful and the State Journal’s Rob Hernandez, on the merits of the five-division final four:

First, Woelful:

Once again, WIAA’s inept decision to reduce the number of Division 1 schools in the state tournament from eight to four is rearing its ugly head. Just like last year’s tournament, schools in the basketball-rich Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha area are getting short-changed.

Last year, there were five teams in the Horlick Sectional that were ranked in the Associated Press state poll, including three of the top seven. Only one advanced to state.

This year, it’s even worse. There were four teams among the AP’s top 10 Division 1 teams assigned to the West Allis Central Sectional and two others that received votes. Brookfield Central is No. 1; Milwaukee King is fourth; Case is ninth; Milwaukee Hamilton is 10th, and Park and Milwaukee Riverside each received one point in the voting by a statewide media panel.

It is an absolute farce that either Brookfield Central or Milwaukee King — again, the Nos. 1 and 4 teams in the AP state poll and the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the WisSports.net state poll — won’t even reach the sectional final as they’ll play each other Thursday night in a sectional semifinal.

Like last year, there isn’t another sectional in the state that remotely boasts so many exceptional teams — and yet just one of them will go to Madison for the state tournament.

If the WIAA truly cared about giving the prep basketball fans throughout the state the best and most entertaining state tournament, it would never have reduced the number of D-1 schools in the state tournament in 2011 just to establish an unnecessary fifth division.

Hernandez counters:

The WIAA’s courageous decision to right a wrong and give what once were small, overmatched Division 1 schools a fighting chance to get to the state boys basketball tournament as newly minted Division 2 schools has restored some excitement to the WIAA’s most-followed tournament. Did you see some of the results of Saturday’s Division 2 regional championships?

Mount Horeb outlasted Monona Grove in two overtimes. Sauk Prairie won a double overtime battle with Reedsburg. La Crosse Central also needed a pair of extra sessions to pull away from Mississippi Valley Conference rival Holmen.

Of the 16 games played in Division 2 on Saturday night, five of them needed at least one overtime to determine a winner. Of the other 11, seven were decided by fewer than 10 points.

More importantly, five of the 16 Division 2 winners Saturday night (Rhinelander, Greendale, Milwaukee Tech, Milwaukee Pius XI and La Crosse Central) were Division 1 teams in 2010 — the final year of the four-division WIAA tournament series, when eight teams comprised the largest division. Two other regional champions (Sauk Prairie and Shawano) had been Division 1 teams at some point during the final years of the four-division format.

Of those seven, only two — Pius in 2005 and Rhinelander in 2001 — ever made trips to state as Division 1 schools after 1995. That tells me the WIAA’s control of enrollment ranges in place the last three years are working. …

In 2010, just three of the eight schools in the Division 1 field were from the fertile hardwood of southeastern Wisconsin. In 2014, it’s quite possible the same number of sectionals in Divisions 1 and 2 could produce six.

That’s SIX out of eight sectionals. Apparently, just not the right six.

And that doesn’t even take into account the star-studded Milwaukee-area teams in Divisions 3, 4 and 5. Like Brown Deer in Division 3. Or Whitefish Bay Dominican or Racine St. Catherine’s in Division 4. Or Burlington Catholic Central or Milwaukee Academy of Science in Division 5.

The same problems that exist in the five-division format — loaded sectionals like the one featuring Brookfield Central and Milwaukee King — existed in the four division format. And back then the WIAA had as many as four sectionals to divide the talent and still struggled to avoid state tourney-worthy battles.

But that’s a problem across all WIAA tournaments, not just basketball, and it does need fixing. I applaud the WIAA and its efforts to preserve geographical representation in its state tournament fields, but not when the qualifiers aren’t representative of a the best teams in a given geographical area.

I’d probably feel differently on this issue if the five-division format were truly depriving us of “best and most entertaining state tournament” but that isn’t remotely the case.

In the three years of five-division play, we’ve been treated to exceptional players from each of the lower divisions.

Guys like Merrill’s Paul Jesperson (Division 2 in 2011), Onalaska’s Matt Thomas (Division 2 in 2012 and ’13), La Crosse Aquinas’ Bronson Koenig (Division 3 in 2011 and ’13) and Marshall’s Cam Ward (Division 3 in 2012). Or Whitefish Bay Dominican’s dynamic duo of Diamond Stone and Duane Wilson (Division 4 in 2012 and ’13). And, of course, Sheboygan Lutheran’s Sam Dekker (Division 5 in 2012), one of the most electrifying players ever to make it to state. …

Of the 15 games played at the Kohl Center a year ago, nine were decided by single-digit margins. Of the six that weren’t, three were Division 1 games.

At the end of the day, the only ones who who could possibly be griping about the 4-year-old format of the WIAA tournament are the coaches who made the most of the four-division format to get into the Kohl Center via the backdoor.

When I started paying attention to high school basketball, Class A consisted of schools of 800 or more in enrollment, with Class B 400 to 800, and Class C smaller than 400. That changed to where Class A was the 128 biggest schools, with B and C splitting the rest. That modification meant that every Class A school would have the same number of games to get to state — regional semifinals and finals, followed by sectional semifinals and finals — because Class A was supposed to represent about half of statewide student enrollment (which is not the same thing as half of the number of high schools). Some Class C schools needed six games — two subregionals, two regionals and two sectionals — jammed into 11 days to go to state.

With any postseason format, of course, there will be schools that benefit and schools that don’t. Twice during the 1980s I saw Monona Grove — the smallest team in what then was the Badger Conference — get routinely hammered in the conference season, only to face schools its own size in the Class B postseason and go farther than one would have expected.

When the four-division format began in 1991, divisions 1 and 2 had roughly the same number of schools each, and divisions 3 and 4 had roughly the same (but more than 1 or 2) number of schools each. That resulted in the oddity that some Division 1 schools could get to state having played just three pre-state games. What fixed that was the inclusion, starting in 2000, of private schools from the former Wisconsin Independent Schools Athletic Association. Letting in the private schools meant that the divisions were increased in size from the bottom, because most private schools are considerably smaller than their public-school neighbors. (More about private schools later.) Interestingly given the trend of decreasing high-school-age population, especially in rural areas, the number of Wisconsin high schools has actually increased. The trend of small school districts merging really hasn’t gone beyond the wave in the ’50s and ’60s. (I can think of three in the past 25 years — two are Blair-Taylor and River Ridge, which was the former West Grant and Bloomington. Ondassagon closed, though they went out with a bang by sending their last girls basketball team to state.) Some religious schools have opened, other religious schools now have sports programs, and the growth of Milwaukee charter schools means nearly every year features at least one team you’ve never heard of in the brackets.

The teams that generally don’t fare well are those at the bottom of their division. Prentice’s girls basketball team won the 1992 Division 4 title, only to be bumped up to Division 3 one year later, to lose to Cuba City. While I was covering the winning Cubans’ festivities, Mrs. Presteblog was listening to Prentice coach Joe Foytek say that “Cuba City doesn’t belong in Division 3, and neither do we.” In contrast, when Ripon won two state football titles in three years, the Tigers’ players, coaches and fans were relieved that they were one of the bigger Division 4 schools instead of one of the smallest Division 3 schools.

In the next to last year before the four-division basketball tournament, I announced a regional final between the top two boys’ basketball teams in Class C, number one ranked Bloomington and number two ranked Iowa–Grant. I–G was about twice the enrollment of Bloomington, and I–G won. (The regional final was in I–G’s gym, which undoubtedly also helped.) Going to four divisions didn’t help Prentice, because enrollments change — not only your schools’ head count, but everyone else’s.

The four-division format was intended to address the complaints of the smallest schools by giving them their own division. At the same time, though, the smallest Division 1 schools complained that they had almost no chance to go to state because they too were playing schools twice their own size in the playoffs. That was dealt with to some extent by going to five divisions, though as you’ve already read, some still don’t think the right teams (read: Milwaukee teams) are getting to state.

The truth is that the more deserving teams, based on their regular season performances, are probably getting to state now than in the past. Seeding teams by regional or half-sectional, with higher seeds hosting through the regional finals, means that tournament upsets are less likely, though certainly not impossible, particularly when conference rivals meet for the third time in the postseason. Going to neutral-site sectional games is also more fair. (Madison La Follette may not have gotten to state had its epic sectional semifinal against crosstown rival Madison West been played at West, or somewhere else.)

Woelful’s comments about not enough Milwaukee teams going to state — despite the presence at state of Whitefish Bay Dominican in Division 4, Brown Deer in Division 3, Wisconsin Lutheran and Greendale in Division 2, and Germantown, Milwaukee King and Mukwonago in Division 1 — bring up a motivation for going from four divisions to five. One reason the WIAA went to five divisions was to stop the trend of decreasing state attendance. You’ll never get a WIAA official to admit this, but Milwaukee teams do not draw well at state. Madison-area schools do draw well at state, but Lodi in Division 3 is the only school remotely close to Madison at state. So if you read about a drop in state attendance, that’s why.

Here’s another potential reason, something I can’t believe the WIAA didn’t consider. The old format featured 16 games — seven (four quarterfinals, two semifinals and one championship game) in Division 1 and three each (two semifinals and one championship) in the other three divisions, in eight sessions — Thursday and Friday morning, afternoon and evening, and Saturday afternoon and evening. Going to five divisions eliminates one game, but more importantly one session (Thursday morning), which means, since tickets are sold for two games per session, one fewer opportunity to sell tickets, concessions and WIAA swag. (The divisions 5 through 3 championships are Saturday during the day, and the division 2 and 1 title games are Saturday night.)

It seems to me that if the WIAA is concerned about revenue, the WIAA needs to re-expand Division 1 to eight teams. That most likely would mean adding two Wednesday sessions, expanding the tournament to four days, and adding four teams’ fans (and their wallets) to the Madison mix. Another possibility would be going, somehow, to three sessions on Wednesday and four sessions on Friday, which probably would mean starting at 8 a.m. and ending around midnight, similar to the night NCAA basketball tournament games held in the Eastern time zone.

The other possibility that comes to mind is a week-long state tournament similar to Iowa, whose state tournament has four eight-team divisions. State started Monday and ends Saturday, with third-place and championship games today and Saturday. (However, only semifinal and final games are live on TV, on a network that could be described as statewide in name only. I’m not sure you could get the WIAA TV network to agree to carry 24 games and dump their prime-time schedules for two entire weeks.)

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin State Journal’s Art Kabelkowsky reports:

A petition to add a multiplier to private school enrollments for the purpose of division classification has been signed on by at least 10 percent of the WIAA membership, setting the stage for a vote on the issue at the April 16 annual meeting — the one time and place where constitutional amendments can be approved.

The Board of Control approved the petition Tuesday to present the proposed constitutional amendment to its membership at the annual meeting.

The petition calls for the actual enrollment number of every WIAA-member private, religious or independent school to be multiplied by 1.65. The resulting number would be considered that school’s official WIAA enrollment for placement into enrollment-based divisions for postseason play.

The enrollment multiplier would shift several private schools into higher divisions (and some public schools into lower divisions) across the entire spectrum of sports — from football to basketball to track and field and more.

For instance, it appears if the 1.65 enrollment multiplier had been applied to this year’s five-division basketball postseason:

• Three Division 2 schools (Milwaukee Pius XI, Green Bay Notre Dame and Wisconsin Lutheran) would move up to Division 1.

• Five schools (Madison Edgewood, Appleton Fox Valley Lutheran, Milwaukee St. Thomas More, Watertown Luther Prep and all-girls Milwaukee St. Joan Antida) would move up from Division 3 to Division 2.

• Fifteen private schools would jump from Division 4 to Division 3, and a similar number would move up from Division 5 to Division 4.

Changes would appear to be even more prevalent in the seven-division football playoff series.

Public- and private-school representatives have been debating the possibility of introducing an enrollment multiplier since the WIAA first began to discuss admitting the members of the former Wisconsin Independent Schools Athletic Association.

WISAA schools first were absorbed into the WIAA membership in the 2000-2001 school year. No enrollment multiplier has been applied — although schools have had the opportunity to “opt up” into a higher enrollment division for particular sports.

Notice that state has seven Milwaukee schools? Well, state has five private schools — Green Bay’s NEW Lutheran and Sheboygan Area Lutheran in Division 5, Whitefish Bay Dominican in Division 4, and Wisconsin Lutheran in Division 2 — and could have three private-school state champions. Once upon a time, about 10 percent of the state’s high schools were private, so having one-fourth of the state field be from private schools offends some observers’ sense of proportionality.

The issue, of course, has to do with the small private schools from large areas — not just NEW Lutheran or Dominican, but Burlington Catholic Central (which draws from a much larger area than Burlington), and schools still in the state girls field heading into Saturday’s sectional finals, including Green Bay Notre Dame and Milwaukee Pius XI in Division 2; Kettle Moraine Lutheran in Division 3; Eau Claire Regis, Onalaska Luther, Fond du Lac Springs (which beat Oshkosh Lourdes Thursday) and Dominican (which beat Racine Prairie Thursday) in Division 4; and Wisconsin Rapids Assumption (which beat Wausau Newman Thursday) and Milwaukee Heritage Christian in Division 5. Each of those schools is from a community with Division 1 or Division 2 schools (Fond du Lac High School and Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln are two of the biggest high schools in the state), and thus a huge potential enrollment base, playing against schools from areas of the state in keeping with their small enrollments. On the other hand, the number of private schools that do well in athletics is considerably smaller than the number of private schools, and trying to handicap the former will result in crushing at least some of the latter when schools that really don’t belong together end up playing each other in an early-round game.

If you notice a similarity between the how-many-schools-at-state argument, the how-big-should-the-divisions-be argument and the public-vs.-private-at-state argument, you are an observant reader. It should bother even the most enthusiastic high school basketball fan that the question of who belongs at state is a question whose answer depends on whom you ask and that person’s definition of the word “fair.” Life is not fair in even a general sense, and there is no way to make a high school sports postseason “fair” because of the obvious mutually exclusive goals.

Obsessing about who should go to state also loses sight of the fact that, as an educational experience (which high school sports is supposed to be), the journey is more important than the destination. Getting to state requires winning four or five consecutive games, with no slip-ups and no bad nights. At the risk of offending my 1979-83 self, who was not happy the two years La Follette missed state and the year La Follette lost in the state semifinal, the objective should be to get to state, regardless of how you decide who goes to state. To win state is a great goal, but if you think your season is a failure because you didn’t win state, you’re probably going to experience a lot of disappointment in your life.

Categories: Sports | 1 Comment

Being there

I was going to write about a political topic this morning, after my 6 a.m. (Central Daylight Time) post, as is typical for this blog on days that don’t start with F or S.

But that 6 a.m. post — about the 99th anniversary of the WIAA state basketball tournament and the Wisconsin State Journal’s excellent section thereupon — got me thinking about state specifically and school more generally. (Which may be ironic since the schools at state today and Friday probably won’t have school today and Friday.)

The state basketball tournament, as I’ve written here before, was a big deal for our school, including its juniors. I didn’t play on the team (no athletic team that was worth anything would have me, for good reason), but I played in The Band (which was central to my getting into the UW Marching Band), which accompanied the team to state. That was also a good semester to be the high school newspaper’s sports editor.

Those were my two biggest high school involvements. La Follette went to state twice while I was there, but the band that went to state my freshman year didn’t have freshmen in it. I went to a high school of 2,000 students (which now is about 20 percent smaller in enrollment), and I had about 500 people in my class, which is as big as the local high school — all four of its classes. Things like band and the newspaper not only make the high school smaller; they also bring you in contact with those older and younger than yourself. (Girlfriends? I resemble that remark!) Certainly no workplace has employees all of the same age.

You may roll your eyes, sigh and scoff at a suggestion, to the point of storming out and slamming the door, that high school and its assorted hormone- or feeling-driven dramas represent so-called “real life” at all. But unless you somehow find a line of work that includes neither coworkers, bosses nor customers, and you avoid marriage, church, or contact with anyone else, you have to learn how to deal with and work with other people, whether they’re like you or especially if they’re not like you.

None of our kids are in high school yet. They’ve been involved, though — basketball, swimming and baseball, plus school musical groups and school plays and musicals, a community musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” and a ballet. (The obvious statement would be that scheduling is a challenge at our house.)

Yesterday morning I went to a concert of fifth-grade musicians, a recruitment tool aimed at future fifth-graders.  The principal noted the importance of getting involved in school beyond schoolwork.

That may seem ironic coming from a principal, given that the ramifications of failure to do schoolwork often include being left out of those involvements, particularly athletics. Those outside-the-three-Rs involvements, though, arguably more closely parallel the post-education world than most classrooms (at least those without project-based work) do. He didn’t say this, but I will: Participants in those activities remember more of those activities than anything they do in the classroom.

(Of course, music is an academic subject. As the Children’s Music Workshop puts it, “In music, a mistake is a mistake; the instrument is in tune or not, the notes are well played or not, the entrance is made or not.” In addition to the academic benefits, music builds self-esteem not by dubious self-psychology, but by accomplishment and public performance.)

What do (or should) you learn on a basketball team, or in the band, or in the school play, or in some other activity that gets a page or two in the yearbook? You learn hard work as its own virtue, not just to get a grade. (In most lines of work, your reward for your work is a regularly arriving paycheck; sometimes it’s getting more responsibility or more money, but not always. In some lines of work, the only feedback you get is negative feedback.)

You learn about being something bigger than yourself, and being one part of that thing bigger than yourself. You learn that others may get bigger roles than you, deservedly (in your opinion) or not — a starting spot on the team, a starring role, first chair in your musical section, or a title. You eventually may get that bigger role, or not, and you learn how to deal with disappointment, or the increased responsibility of a bigger part.

Leadership is really not something you learn in a classroom before college. (Some people never learn leadership anywhere, which is OK for non-leaders, but not for those who are supposed to lead.) At some point members of a team, athletic or not, discover that a team is only as strong as its weakest members. A publication may have great writers and editors, but without good people to sell advertising and subscriptions, few people will get to read their work. Conversely, good sales people won’t give their clients much reason to advertise if the editorial content is poor. Everybody has to contribute, including those whose contributions aren’t seen or noticed by the public.

One valuable lesson of a sports season or another activity that produces more than one something (for instance, a school newspaper) is that you’re only as good as the last thing you did. Even if you did well in one game, that doesn’t mean you’ll do well in the next game. Conversely, you also learn that what’s important is not what you just did, it’s what you do next.

Few people who watched the 1982 WIAA Class A boys basketball championship probably realized at the time that Madison La Follette’s Rick Olson had, by his standards, a subpar game for about 29 minutes, shooting just 6 of 21 from the field. Olson got to 24 points by hitting his last four shots, followed by the biggest assist of his life, to teammate Scott Hogan for the game-winning basket with 30 seconds left. To use a pro example, no one remembers, in the 1981 NFC championship  game between San Francisco and Dallas, the 49ers’ six turnovers, including three Joe Montana. They remember Montana’s last pass, to Dwight Clark.

Education isn’t limited to a classroom.

Categories: Culture, History, Sports | 1 Comment

A must state read

If you have access to the Wisconsin State Journal, I strongly suggest you get one today.

To commemorate the WIAA state boys basketball tournament (which, conveniently, starts this afternoon at the Kohl Center in Madison), today’s State Journal includes “Hometown History,” a chronicle of the 99* previous state tournaments.

(What does the asterisk mean? I put it there because, well, how many state tournaments there have been depends on how you define “state.” The first high school state-ish tournament in the U.S. was held at Lawrence College (now University) in Appleton from 1905 to 1918. The history of what now is the WIAA state tournament dates back to 1916, when the state Normal Schools — then schools to train teachers, now known as UW–______ —  held a tournament organized by the normal schools’ athletic directors. The normal schools and Lawrence tournaments were held until 1918. What is now the WIAA took over in 1920, but the WIAA counts the normal schools tournament as the first state tournament.)

Stories include one observer’s list of top moments, Madison’s state champions, fabled teams from the late Milwaukee Lincoln and Dodgeville (Wisconsin’s answer to “Hoosiers”), and The Shot.

There’s also a piece talking about the impact of having the entire state tournament on free TV, by the announcer of many of those state games, Jay Wilson. (Who now is not announcing said state games because he works for a competing station.) Wisconsin apparently is the only state that broadcasts every game of the state boys and girls tournaments on free TV. (And let’s hope that continues despite the logistical headaches of the WIAA’s wrongheaded move to move girls’ state to Green Bay.) And, by the way, you can watch every game today through Saturday, on the air, online and — new! — on a mobile device.

The section includes a story about a certain Madison high school’s state title, written by someone who was there.

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A future American Olympics? Pass.

It’s safe to assume the U.S. Olympic Committee will try to convince the International Olympic Committee to award a Winter or summer Olympics to the U.S.

Should the U.S. pursue another Olympics? USA Today explores pros and cons:

The leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee intend to bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics if certain criteria are met. In the next two months, the USOC will likely have a short list of three candidate cities and by the end of the year will be in a position to make its decision.

There’s also the possibility that the USA will consider bidding for the 2026 Winter Games, even though the Summer Games is the more prestigious prize.

Whatever the case, given the expense, security concern and politics – all central issues heading into Sochi – is it worth it? Does a country like the United States need the Olympic Games?

“It’s a big, heavy burden on cities and states,” USOC CEO Scott Blackmun acknowledged, given the federal government is only responsible for helping with security and transportation. “The payoff is what it does to transform sport in (a host city’s) community and what it does for the nation.”

Given the cuts in college sports programs, which serve as a feeder system for most summer Olympic sports, Blackmun said a Games in the United States would help boost those programs. “Bringing the Olympics back to the U.S. makes sure that the level of interest in those sports stays high,” he said.

Sochi spent a record $51 billion on these Games. Unlike Sochi, which had to build everything from nothing, the USA would have a far more developed infrastructure in place. On top of the list of potential bid cities are New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but of those cities, only Los Angeles has publicly expressed interest in hosting the Games.

Other cities around the world that have expressed interest in bidding for the 2024 Games include Paris; Doha, Qatar; and Durban, South Africa. The International Olympic Committee vote on the 2024 Games will be in 2017. …

Until recently the USOC was considered a four-letter word in IOC circles. Both American bids to host the 2012 and 2016 Olympics (New York and Chicago) failed miserably in large part to a revenue-sharing feud between the USOC and IOC. Two years ago the two sides resolved that dispute and under Blackmun the USOC is now in back in the IOC’s good graces. Both USOC chairman Larry Probst and Blackmun have spent significant time the past two years building friendships and support and Probst is now an IOC member.

Given the backlash over Russia’s anti-gay legislation, the IOC has been pressed to consider human rights issues as much as it considers venues and finances when awarding future Games.

“Our message well before the human rights catastrophes of Sochi has been you cannot have a successful Olympics where you have major human rights abuses,” said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

When criticized for not forcefully speaking out against human rights issues in past and future host cities, IOC leaders have repeatedly said they rely on “quiet diplomacy,” reminding their critics that they are a sports organization, not a government or political body.

IOC president Thomas Bach made this clear in his opening and closing marks in Sochi. “Please understand what our responsibilities are and what your responsibilities are. Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes,” Bach said in opening remarks.

Though he didn’t publicly named the Obama administration, the inference was clear. The White House named three openly gay athletes to its delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, which was seen as a direct message of opposition to Russia’s anti-gay laws. Clearly this insertion of politics irked Bach, and other IOC members.

Dick Pound of Canada said that the White House’s response was unfortunate and unwise. “This is how the United States of America, the world’s most important, influential nation handles this issue? In an Olympic context, at a time when you’re thinking about bidding for the Olympic Games?” Pound told USA TODAY Sports.

USOC members went out of their way in Sochi to make nice. In their closing news conference, Probst said Russia did a “phenomenal job” mentioning everything from smooth transportation to Vladimir Putin’s presence throughout the Games. “We are very, very impressed,” Blackmun said.

So getting the IOC to award the U.S. a bid requires making nice to not merely the IOC, but the likes of Vladimir Putin. Americans should immediately lose interest.

Beyond that, there is the Olympics’ immense cost without corresponding long-term benefit. Obviously millions of tourist dollars get spent, arguably tourist dollars that wouldn’t otherwise be spent in a host area. However, the money spent on Olympic infrastructure is not money that magically appears out of nowhere, and it is often spent on buildings that don’t have use after the Olympics. The Olympics are a repeatable argument about whether sports facilities make economic sense every time a new one is built. Unless you’re planning to open a university, what do you do with an Olympic village? What do you with ski jumps, or speed skating tracks, or whatever you want to call the various extreme sports venues?

Hosting an Olympics makes sense if you already have the majority of the facilities on hand, or if you have future uses for the facilities. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics used the L.A. Coliseum (which hosted the 1932 Olympics) for opening ceremonies and track and field. UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion hosted gymnastics. The L.A. Sports Arena hosted boxing. The Forum hosted basketball. Facilities at other Los Angeles-area colleges hosted events. The Rose Bowl hosted soccer. Only two new venues, for swimming and bicycling, were built; the latter was torn down in 2003.

Can a U.S. city host an Olympics as well as Los Angeles did? The nightmare scenario is Montreal, whose Olympic Stadium doubled in cost between design in 1970 and (unfinished) opening in 1976. The stadium was paid off in 2006, finally being the second most expensive stadium in history.

Then there’s Atlanta, which did two seemingly clever things for 1996: It built the Georgia Dome, and used half of it for basketball and the other half for gymnastics. The new Olympic Stadium was partially disassembled to become Turner Field, the Braves’ new ballpark. Now, however, the Braves are leaving Turner Field, and the Falcons want out of the Georgia Dome. (The Omni hosted volleyball. It’s gone, replaced at the same site by Philips Arena, used by the Hawks and Thrashers.)

This list of caveats doesn’t include the bazillions in construction costs for upgraded roads and mass transit (the latter of which doesn’t get used after the event), not to mention the inconvenience for locals who may not be able to afford to go to Olympic events, but will be paying for them one way (taxes) or another (increased costs of sponsors’ products), not to mention the civil-liberties-infringing security in this post-9/11 world.

Who wants the Olympics? (Besides NBC, that is.)

Categories: Sports, US business, US politics | Leave a comment

Rivals

Madison Newspapers wants you!

As a Prep Zone newsletter subscriber and/or someone has entered our contests in the past, we thought you’d want to know about our latest contest, in which we’re seeking the best high school sports rivalry in Wisconsin.

The two winning schools in the top rivalry will each get $250 to use for their athletic programs.

Vote!

You can vote once per day; the field will be narrowed to the finalists on Monday, Feb. 17.

A book about the football rivalry between Georgia and Georgia Tech is called Clean Old-Fashioned Hate. This blog is about high school rivalries, not college (for instance, Wisconsin vs. Minnesota) or pros (for instance, Packers vs. Bears), but the concept is similar.

The easiest way to define a high school sports rivalry is: Lose to this team, and your life is temporarily ruined, at least from the fan’s perspective.

Rivalries are big for everyone involved, but they’re bigger for fans than players. That’s because players have grown up playing each other, particularly in these days of year-round sports. Fans have less personal stake, but take it more personally. That seems odd, but it also seems to be the case. Players wear uniforms; fans dress up in team colors with various team accessories.

The State Journal’s list does not (or did not until I added it) the longest running high school football rivalry in the state, Ripon vs. Berlin. Nor does it include Stratford–Edgar or many others outside the State Journal’s readership area.

There are probably two kinds of high school rivalries. The first could be called Proximity Breeds Contempt — your closest rival in geography. The State Journal’s list includes Holmen–Onalaska, Middleton–Verona, De Forest–Waunakee, Lancaster–Platteville, Dodgeville–Mineral Point, Omro–Winneconne, and Kaukauna–Kimberly. That obviously also includes every in-city rivalry, such as Craig vs. Parker in Janesville, Central vs. Logan in La Crosse, Memorial vs. North in Eau Claire, and every combination of Madison high schools, but particularly East vs. La Follette and Memorial vs. West. Madison East vs. Madison West qualifies because they are the two oldest surviving high schools, since Central was replaced by Memorial in 1970.

The other rivalry could be called Quality Breeds Contempt. That’s a sport-based rivalry, when your number one target is the traditional power in the conference. In Southwest Wisconsin basketball, that’s Cuba City, whose teams have combined for 10 state titles since 1981. In football, that’s Lancaster and Hartland Arrowhead, among others. That kind of rival produces the game on which you base your season, whether you beat the best (over time, not a single season) program in your conference.

Both kinds of rivalry were featured in one 2003 football game, when undefeated Berlin, which was giving up 5 points a game, hosted undefeated Ripon, which was scoring more than 50 points per game. I got to announce that game, and it was a great game … at least from the perspective of the Ripon fans, because the Tigers won 49–0 on the way to their first state title. Four months later featured almost the reverse, with conference boys basketball champion Berlin beating Ripon in double overtime in the regional final on Berlin’s way to losing its sectional final to perennial state participant Seymour.

Beating rivals makes postseason accomplishments better. One of the favorite teams I ever covered was the 1987 Madison La Follette girls basketball team, which finished 9-11 in its regular season. Two of those nine wins were over Madison East, both in overtime (including an overtime shutout of East in the regular season finale). East, thanks to its foreign exchange student, finished higher than La Follette in the Big Eight Conference. So of course La Follette and East had to play in the regional final. And of course the game went to overtime. And of course La Follette won, this time on a buzzer-beater.

Up next was another archrival, Madison Memorial, which won the Big Eight title and beat La Follette twice in the regular season, but not the third time in the postseason. The sectional final then featured a new rival, Portage, which had beaten La Follette in the sectional final the previous year, but not this year.

The same thing happened two years later with another team, the Lancaster baseball team, which also had a 9-11 regular season. The first postseason game was delayed two days because of rain, a problem because of the WIAA’s pitching rule, which prohibits pitchers from throwing more than seven innings over three days, and the fact that instead of starting in three days, the sectional took place after the regional game.

After wins in the regional Thursday and the sectional semifinal Friday, Lancaster faced archrival Platteville, which had beaten the Flying Arrows like a hammer until their last regular-season meeting. Neither Lancaster nor Platteville expected to be in the sectional final anyway; both beat teams with twice as many wins. Lancaster got two innings out of its regional starter, then handed the ball to  his freshman brother for his first varsity pitching assignment, with only a state tournament berth at stake.

Lancaster overcame a 4-0 deficit to take the lead, lost the lead in the top of the seventh inning, and then won the game in the bottom of the seventh. I’ll never forget the Arrow fans’ reaction upon the winning run’s scoring — 30 seconds of wild cheering, followed by disbelieving silence.

One of the first high school basketball games I went to was my freshman year, a huge game between La Follette and Janesville Craig, won by the Lancers on two free throws with five seconds left. A month later, the two teams faced each other in the state Class A semifinals, where Craig ended La Follette’s season in their third meeting. Playoff arrangements more often than not follow conferences, but not always, and so for years Madison schools have been in one sectional, while Janesvilles Craig and Parker and Beloit Memorial have been in another.

Readers of this blog know what happened two years after that. La Follette, Parker and Madison West all tied for the 1981-82 Big Eight boys basketball title. Parker went a different postseason direction and lost to Lake Geneva Badger, but La Follette and West’s third meeting was in the sectional semifinal at La Follette. Each team had a legendary coach — West’s Jim Stevens vs. La Follette’s Pete Olson. West had three 6-foot-7 starters. La Follette had guard Rick Olson, who would start four seasons at Wisconsin, plus Steve Amundson, who played at Western Michigan, and Tim Jordan, who played football for Wisconsin and the New England Patriots.

The La Follette gym (which should be named for Pete Olson) was packed beyond capacity, hot and loud the entire 32 minutes of play. La Follette trailed 59–51 with 1:30 remaining, then, as the gym impossibly got louder, outscored West 13–4 over the final 90 seconds (in, remember, the era before the three-point shot), topped off with two free throws with 11 seconds remaining to continue La Follette’s postseason and end West’s. Given the reaction after the game, you would have thought La Follette had won state, which took another week to accomplish.

Six years later, I changed from student to reporter, and watched La Follette knock off West 43–41 in the sectional semifinal, this time at West. One year after that, the reverse occurred, with West’s ending La Follette’s season in its own gym. Two years later, West beat La Follette to get to state. That’s what rivalries are about.

One of the unwritten rules of sports is that if your rival gets farther in the postseason than you do, you should root for your rival. I have never understood that, not because of high school, but because of my experience as a fan of the inept 1970s Wisconsin football teams. You could set your watch to the annual annihilation of the Badgers by Michigan and Ohio State, one of which would then end up in the Rose Bowl. If you had to sit through 56–0, 59–0 and 55–2, why would you then root for the team that obviously (to a young fan) ran up the score on your team?

This became a brief issue in between La Follette state appearances. West went to state in 1981 with a star guard who previously played at Sun Prairie. The players’ parents were divorced; one lived in Sun Prairie and the other lived in West’s attendance zone. In the days before open enrollment, it was controversial for a player to shift from one household to another to play for a better program. My geometry teacher, who bled cardinal and gray, announced before state that while we should ordinarily root for a conference team at state, it would be OK to not root for West because West was gaming the system.

The theory, I guess, is that team A beats team B and goes on far in the postseason, that makes team B look better in retrospect. That’s one way to look at it; another perspective is that team B was just an obstacle in A’s way. If you were a Packers fan in the 1970s, that theory led you to watch the Vikings lose three Super Bowls.

I have since devised (or stolen from somewhere else) what I’ll call the Utility Theory of Rivalry. I came up with this during the 1993 and 1998 college football seasons for the same game, Michigan and Ohio State. In each of those years, the right team needed to win for Wisconsin to have a chance to get to the Rose Bowl. So in 1993 Badger fans rooted for Michigan, and the Wolverines won. In 1998 Badger fans rooted for Ohio State, and the Buckeyes won.

So when should you root for a rival? When that rival’s winning benefits your team. Not otherwise.

Categories: History, Sports | Leave a comment

Avert your eyes!

Chris Mehring, the excellent announcer of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, has been blogging during the interminable interregnum before baseball resumes.

(That is, if baseball is actually played in Wisconsin this year. Given the 345-foot frost depth and the depth of snow, I have my doubts.)

I have followed the Timber Rattlers since we moved to Appleton in 1984. But apparently I wasn’t paying enough attention, because I managed to miss their interesting, to put it one way, throwback and special uniforms over the years.

Mehring’s favorite apparently is a throwback to the 1970s of the Milwaukee Brewers …

… which is a bit ironic for a couple of reasons. The first-season Brewers uniforms were the only-season Pilots uniforms. That’s because the bankruptcy sale to Bud Selig took place during 1970 spring training. So the franchise arrived in Arizona as the Pilots and left as the Brewers. Something similar happened to the 1953 Boston-turned-Milwaukee Braves, but all that was required there was to change the hats from a B to an M. With the Brewers, the franchise literally took the PILOTS and SEATTLE lettering off and stitched BREWERS in their place.

This look replaced the Pilots-turned-Brewers uniforms. The other irony is that the Brewers were quite bad in this uniform. The 1978 pinstripe uniforms with the ball-in-glove logo coincided with a team that started to play like a baseball team, with the arrival of general manager Harry Dalton and manager George Bamberger.

Since changing from the Appleton Foxes to the Timber Rattlers in 1995 and moving from ancient Goodland Field to Fox Cities Stadium, the Timber Rattlers also have honored their current and hopefully permanent parent club …

… plus Appleton baseball teams of the past …

… the “Star Wars” movies …

… the nation on Independence Day …

… the military …

… hunting (yes, that’s camouflage and blaze orange) …

… and mothers:

(That look is a takeoff on the 1975–86 Houston Astros, whose uniforms with multiple shades of orange …

… were called the “Tequila Sunrise” uniforms by some and “rainbow guts” by others.

Given the Timber Rattlers’ colors (dark red and black), it’s surprising they haven’t chosen special rainbow-guts unis of their own, given that last year Louisville …

… and Mississippi State did:

Or perhaps they could emulate the worst uniform in baseball history, possibly the worst in all of sports history:

Categories: Sports | 1 Comment

Because more football!

Interesting news from the world of sports media that has nothing to do with the Olympics, from Awful Announcing:

There were a lot of surprises coming out of the NFL’s announcement that CBS had picked up half of the package for Thursday Night Football. That Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are suddenly, primarily moved to a primetime package without as much Sunday work. That CBS won it at all, even though you would argue NBC and Fox needed the primetime ratings boost, especially on Thursdays.

The biggest one, and the most pleasant one, to me is the return of Saturday NFL games. Though NFL Network and, two seasons ago, ESPN have occasionally played on Saturday in recent years, and the league had to play on Saturday due to Christmas a couple of years ago, the NFL has been largely dormant on Saturdays since the early 00s. That’s a shame, in my opinion.

For many, many years, after the end of college football season, the NFL would sort of take its place on Saturdays in December. It would usually amount to an early afternoon game and a late afternoon game on both the regular AFC or NFC networks. Towards the end of the arrangement, ESPN was able to get in with some games, too.

Once the new agreement in 2005 came about, the NFL has mostly been without Saturday NFL games, save for the occasional NFL Network or ESPN game. One of the more famous Saturday night games happened in 2007. The New England Patriots completed their 17-0 season over their future Super Bowl usupers, the New York Giants. …

It’s good to see that as part of this new deal, we’ll see a Saturday Week 16 doubleheader on NFL Network. Even if it’s a 4:30/8 p.m. ET-style doubleheader, it’ll be a return to a good thing the league had going for quite sometime. It may be a silly thing to feel nostalgic about, but I’m weirdly happy to see it back.

This is a big win for CBS, which already is the most watched TV network, though Fox is number one so far this season among adults 18–49, thanks to Super Bowl XLVIII. In the most recent sweeps, in November, NBC was number one largely because of Sunday Night Football. Thursday night games may not have the ratings Sunday night games have, but you can bet they’ll be up near the top of the fall 2014 ratings.

Some commentators wanted NBC or Fox to win the contract for their cable sports channels. That ignores the fact that millions of Americans still get nothing but over-the-air TV, and the amount of live sports online (at least, sports people would actually want to watch) is very limited. (Fox had Super Bowl XLVIII online, but only if you were a subscriber to the right cable operator, and I believe that included no one in Wisconsin. Last year, though, CBS had Super Bowl XLVII online for anyone online.)

Categories: media, Sports | Leave a comment

Two events, one week, zero chance of my going

The center of the sports world will veer from the Meadowlands of New Jersey to a Russian resort in the next week.

There were dire predictions and considerable criticism about locating the Super Bowl outdoors in a cold weather area. Both are being realized, according to CBS:

On Tuesday afternoon, there were still 18,000 tickets available for the Super Bowl, CBS 2′s Emily Smith reported.

The NFL’s biggest game of the season draws fans from around the world to its host city, but this year the game is in New Jersey, the forecast is frigid, and thousands of tickets are still available.

Tri-State area residents said that without the Jets or Giants playing on Sunday, the big game isn’t a big deal. Especially in New York where residents are used to hosting big shows and seeing celebrities walking around.

“It’s just aggravation. Going there, getting there. I’d rather sit in my living room,” one New Yorker said.

Ticket prices have fallen to $1,500 and haven’t stabilized so they could fall even lower. But it still may not be enough to get some local residents to Metlife stadium.

The fact that former Badgers Russell Wilson and Montee Ball are playing for the two teams doesn’t particularly interest me.

More interesting are the comments from Super Bowl XLV-winning coach Mike McCarthy, as reported by Monday Morning Quarterback:

We completed our game-plan work in Green Bay during the off week, preparing right up until our flight for Dallas on the Sunday before the game. Upon arrival, we were given an amazing welcome on the tarmac by two fire trucks that shot water over our plane. An ice storm hit Dallas that night, which in hindsight, I believe helped us. The storm created travel limitations, and as a result, our young team was doing a lot of things together that fostered bonding and camaraderie. …

Once Friday arrived, from a scheduling standpoint, the next 48 hours were pretty normal for us. I knew Sunday was going to be a long day, and as I had done in the past with night games, I pushed my themed talk to the team from Saturday night to Sunday morning. On Saturday night, we had a motivational speaker, Dr. Kevin Elko, speak with the team. Prior to his presentation, many of the guys were hanging out around the meeting rooms where they found a baby grand piano.

C.J. Wilson started playing while Greg Jennings and a number of guys sang spiritual songs for a good 25 to 35 minutes. It was special and something I’ll never forget. That moment gave me a lot of confidence that the guys were dialed in and ready to play. I always look for stress points in our team’s behavior and that was a very confident moment. Dr. Elko had a great talk that evening and after that meeting broke, the players walked out and were measured for their Super Bowl rings. The players really enjoyed the opportunity to see what they were playing for, not to mention the timing of that message. Like all nights before games, Saturday night concluded with a team snack. I’ve never heard so much hooting and hollering; the camaraderie, energy and confidence were through the roof. Dr. Elko and I were talking that night about the week and the interaction he observed among the players. He was amazed and I very clearly remember him telling me, “Mike, you’ve already won this game.” It’s easy for me to say it now, because we won the game, 31-25, but I felt very confident Saturday night.

The opportunity to speak to the team on Sunday morning is something I’ll always cherish and remember. My message was simple; it was about the “Power of ONE.” Our team was unified in the pursuit of ONE goal, and like the three letters in the word one, our team was made up of three units—offense, defense and special teams. Additionally, our team’s identity was characterized by three components—discipline, toughness and being fundamentally sound. Finally, I left the players with the reminder that they carry the history and tradition of the Green Bay Packers with ONE mind, ONE heart, ONE purpose and ONE goal. We were playing that night to take the Lombardi Trophy back to the ONE city where it belongs. It was our time to take it home. …

I did make one mistake surrounding the game, and it’s something that I regret to this day. I was not prepared for the postgame atmosphere after our Super Bowl victory. I had heard other coaches talk about postgame after they won and, frankly, I forgot all about it. That’s the only thing I wish I could change about my Super Bowl experience. We all work tirelessly for that moment and our families make sacrifices and support us, and I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy it with them or the team the way I would have liked to in the immediate aftermath of the game. …

Overall, I really treasure the entire Super Bowl experience, but it’s easy to get consumed in the preparation for such a big game and everything surrounding it that you forget about the little things. Except when you look back, those things aren’t so little. A good friend of mine was coaching for the Ravens last year and I told him, “Whatever happens, make sure you get your family on that field after the game and enjoy that moment with your family and players. Don’t let that slip away.” When the Green Bay Packers win their next one, I’ll be much better prepared for that part of the experience.

Thanks to the outdoor setting, this game may well be determined by the weather. (Sunday’s East Rutherford, N.J., forecast: Cloudy, 30 percent chance of rain before noon, then a slight chance of showers after noon, high near 48, low 27, west wind 5 to 9 mph.) If the weather forecast is accurate, the conditions shouldn’t affect Peyton Manning much. If it’s more windy (and Giants Stadium was known for infamously swirling winds) and he can’t throw accurately, Seattle will win.

The Olympics got off to a Vinko Bogataj-like start, at least from the perspective of patriotic Americans, thanks to, of all things, a women’s hockey goaltender mask (from In Goal magazine):

The good news is the real gold can stay on Jessie Vetter’s new mask for the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Unfortunately, the image of the United States constitution had to go, along with her name.

Those were among the biggest changes to Vetter’s new Vaughn Custom Pro’s Choice mask, which debuted on InGoal just last week, as mandated by International Olympic Committee rules. Artist Ron Slater of Slater Lettering and Graphics was also forced to repaint the chin of Vetter’s mask, removing Olympic rings similar to the ones Ryan Miller wore on his chin without a problem at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (Miller did have to remove his long-time “Miller Time” tag line from the backplate, however).

“No writings of any kind to promote the country is allowed,” Slater explained in an email to InGoal. “A sort of ‘our country is better than your country” kind of thing that the IOC frowns upon. Her name had to come off because they see it as self promotion. They wanted everything to be team based. … Our original idea was ‘land of the free, home of the brave,’ and that would have had to have been removed as well.”

This should not be surprising from the famously hypocritical and, among other attributes, anti-Semitic IOC. (See 1936 and 1972.)

This Olympics, really unlike any other before this, has the scepter of terrorist threat over it, and heavy-handed response to said terrorist threat over it, to the point that U.S. athletes have been telling their families to not come to Sochi. That would seem an overreaction in this country, but Russia is not the U.S.

The sports part of the Olympics is difficult to predict. No one thought that a group of college hockey players would win gold in 1980. Unfortunately, the Olympics has metastasized far beyond mere athletic competition, which makes it less worth your while.

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Who works (besides the players) Sunday

On Sunday, CBS will carry the AFC championship between New England and Denver, and Fox will carry the NFC Championship between San Francisco and Seattle.

Each network will use its top NFL announcing pair — CBS’ Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, followed by Fox’s Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, who will also announce Super Bowl XLVIII.

And Awful Announcing asks why:

This Saturday you couldn’t help but notice the diametrically opposed CBS and Fox announcing teams for the NFL Divisional Playoffs.  In the early game, Fox rewarded the team of rookie play by play man Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch with their first playoff assignment.  In the late game, Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf announced his last game alongside Greg Gumbel for the eighth consecutive year.  Dierdorf had called a playoff game for CBS every year since joining the network for the 1999 season and Gumbel has been either the #1 or #2 announcer at the network save for two seasons when he hosted The NFL Today.

Only one of the broadcast teams were there based on merit – the Fox duo of Burkhardt and Lynch.  The pair received positive reviews for their work on Fox throughout the season and the network has made it known their second playoff assignment is no longer set in stone as it had been for several years.  Last year Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick replaced Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, and Tony Siragusa for the Divisional Round game.  This year it was Burkhardt and Lynch.  Fox has shown they are willing to give deserving announcers a chance on the big stage instead of depending solely on entrenched boardroom hierarchy. …

Announcing jobs in sports is one of the few professions in society that isn’t continually based on merit.  Imagine if your productivity or quality of work dropped at your day job.  You would be demoted or even fired if your work suffered a great deal.  What about the sports that these networks cover?  The Super Bowl and World Series aren’t contested between the same two teams every year, so why should networks assign the same announcers week after week, year after year to their biggest sporting events?  Fans should ask themselves – is it really the birthright of Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Joe Buck, Tim McCarver, Al Michaels, Bob Costas, Chris Berman and others to be in their positions as lifetime appointments?  Instead of a merit based system, once announcers climb the ladder to the top they stay there until they decide to walk away no matter how much criticism or praise their work may receive.

All over the sports world are examples of deserving announcers being held back from great opportunities because of the holiness of the status quo.  In fact, there’s almost too many to list in this space.  It’s the central reason why Gus Johnson left CBS for Fox Sports – he couldn’t break the March Madness glass ceiling that was Jim Nantz.  How many years has Trey Wingo deserved to be the lead studio anchor for ESPN’s NFL coverage for his excellent work?  It’s a subjective business, but consider how many younger announcers have been passed over by multiple networks that have decided to stick with older announcers who are bigger names, but well past their prime.

For multiple seasons now, media analysts and fans alike have been calling for Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts to receive a promotion from CBS, much like Fox gave Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch.  Eagle and Fouts have proven to be the best NFL announcing team at CBS over the past few seasons.  In a merit based system, they should be the ones who deserve an opportunity to call the AFC Championship Game this weekend.  They are informative, entertaining, and have great chemistry together.  However, Eagle and Fouts will never sniff that kind of opportunity as long as Nantz and Simms have working vocal cords, let alone a chance to move to #2.  CBS has refused to budge from their predetermined hierarchy, no matter how deserving younger and yes, better, announcers may be. …

Imagine how much different it would be if announcing assignments were based solely on merit and not longevity or name recognition.  What if networks rotated who got to call the Super Bowl or host the Olympics?  We got a window into that realm with Fox’s NFL Playoffs assignments this weekend and the universe shockingly did not collapse on itself.  In fact, it turned out to be a victory for everyone involved.  Fans were given a higher quality broadcast for Saints-Seahawks and Fox now has a legitimate top NFL announcing team in Burkhardt and Lynch.  If more announcers were given more opportunities across sports, it would do wonders in giving a new, fresh perspective to broadcasts and build new stars across the industry. And isn’t that more beneficial than seeing the same ol’ same ol’ year after year?

There are a lot of things, other than their failure to employ me (and other great choices), that might mystify the sports viewer about the networks. The reason Fox uses Buck and CBS uses Nantz is that that’s what their contracts specify. Buck is Fox’s number one NFL and baseball announcer, and Nantz is CBS’ number one NFL, college basketball and golf announcer. Those decisions are based on business considerations, namely ad revenue and ratings.

But when you’re on the top, you’re a target. Bleacher Report selects its own bad Super Bowl announcers …

Phil Simms

Simms is sort of like Jon Gruden-light, in that he seems to really try and avoiding criticizing many of the players he covers. He’ll spar with fellow analysts and announcers or when he’s doing something that isn’t live game commentary, but during a game, he keeps it safe. …

Troy Aikman

I have been trying to figure out how Aikman manages to use more words than any other sportscaster in the history of broadcast to say so little. Aikman will take five minutes to tell you about a 20-second play.

I don’t think the man has ever heard a cliche he didn’t like and use. And use. And use.

I think Aikman has some great insight. I just don’t have 45 minutes to wade through the wordage to figure out what it is. The game is going on and Troy’s just rambling on and on. …

Joe Buck

You know, there are some people who really like Buck’s forced enthusiasm but listening to him is like listening to a drunk guy try to convince you that he’s REALLY happy to be at the party his wife dragged him to.

Of course, there are large stretches of time when he’s not even faking it. He just sounds like he’s watching some game. You know, whatever, just some game.

Maybe that cuts it in baseball, where they play for 18 hours and the pace is slow but constant. In the NFL where the stop and start of a play, the rhythm of a game is violent and sudden? You need someone who sounds like they understand that every play is huge.

Buck calls a major play the same way he calls a minor play. ‘Oh, did that happen? A 70-yard catch? That’s interesting, first and goal.’

… which you may notice are three of Sunday’s announcers, and three of the four announcers who worked last year’s Super Bowl or will work this year’s Super Bowl.

There is a familiarity-breeds-contempt aspect to this. NBC’s Curt Gowdy, who announced seven of the first 13 Super Bowls, was also NBC’s lead baseball and college basketball announcer for most of that time. (Gowdy therefore also did 12 consecutive Rose Bowls on NBC, and did every Olympics on NBC and ABC from 1964 to 1984. He worked for ABC before he moved to NBC, yet still hosted ABC’s “The American Sportsman.) The latter stages of Gowdy’s career coincided with the rise of newspaper TV critics, and the latter weren’t kind to Gowdy toward the end of his career. (Gowdy, however, was in 22 halls of fame, and has a state park and post office in Wyoming named for him. Take that, Gary Deeb.)

Ratings may explain why some football fans prefer announcers other than the networks’ top announcers. Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman complained for decades that the top NFL announcer teams weren’t sufficiently focused on the actual game — line play and defensive schemes, for instance. The reason, of course, is that playoff games and specifically the Super Bowl and conference championship games attract more casual viewers than regular-season games. The announcers down the pecking order, who are only contract employees of the networks for the length of the NFL season, stick to the game because that’s their audience.

Readers know that I believe NFL viewers should have the right to decide on more than one set of announcers they want to listen to during the game. ESPN’s final NCAA football Bowl Championship Series game allowed viewers to choose between Auburn’s and Florida State’s announcers, in addition to ESPN’s duo. CBS did that during its NFL coverage in the 1950s and 1960s without the technology that exists today. For, say, a Bears-Packers game, if you were a Packer fan in Madison or Eau Claire (because the NFL blacked out home games in home markets), Ray Scott and Tony Canadeo delivered the game to you, while in Illinois, Red Grange and George Connor announced the game. Same video, but different audio.

The networks weren’t always locked in to announcers by ranking. Jack Buck was never CBS’ number one NFL announcer, but got to announce Super Bowl IV, won by his future partner, Hank Stram.

NBC used announcers of the participating teams in the World Series through 1976. The 1965 World Series featured Scott, who had worked for CBS, along with Vin Scully, who would later work for both CBS and NBC.

Because of that, baseball viewers got to hear the work of announcers they’d never otherwise get to hear, for better or sometimes worse:

Now, the only way you hear a local announcer nationally is if he’s also employed by the network:

And since, in this case, Nantz and Buck are full-time employees of CBS and Fox, respectively (as is NBC’s Al Michaels and ESPN’s Mike Tirico), they’re all you get, like it or not.

 

Categories: media, Sports | 1 Comment

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