Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Was it Worth it, Big Blue? The Risk of Hiring John Calipari

When Kentucky hired John Calipari in 2009, Pat Forde wrote for ESPN, “They want their winner and they want him now, and they’re not worried about what happened at his previous place of employment.”

Kentucky got its winner, and the wins came in a big way, fast. Final Fours. A National Title. Lottery picks. Cal won elite recruits over with his hip arrogance.

Today, that arrogance has become blame. For the school. For the media exposure. For the players. This is what Kentucky signed up for when it got its winner. A man who says of his players, “The program almost got hijacked,” or “They’re counting on me too much.”

Was it worth it? The Kentucky brass knew the man they was getting into bed with. They knew the bridges he burned and the ashes he left at every other stop in his career. This should come as a surprise to no one. 

It should also be a very sobering thought for anyone clamoring for their school to hire a new coach. We should all ask ourselves, “What do we want and what are we willing to give up to get it?” Winning is amazing, but is it worth what Kentucky is going through now? We forget that we're building our school pride and identity around 18 and 19 year old students, using their talents and abilities as long as they are useful to satisfy what it is we're coming to sports for. Cal has been a master at manipulating this to his own advantages.

Forde concluded his 2009 article with the assumption that Memphis fans probably didn't care about what happened at Cal’s previous place of employment when they hired him ten years earlier.

“Ask them how they feel today.”

Big Blue Nation needs to take a long look at whether or not this is what they want from their program going forward.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Jeronne Maymon Deserves Our Appreciation Saturday

Remember Jeronne Maymon’s 32 and 20 game against Memphis in Maui?

It was all anyone could talk about for weeks concerning Tennessee basketball. Pearl had just been fired. No one knew how to spell Cuonzo. Stokes hadn’t yet joined the team. Maymon’s epic performance was the bright spot that gave everyone hope that all was not lost. 

It’s difficult to watch Maymon play now. He looks like he’s in constant pain during every game, and his knee seems like it could fail him at any moment. He doesn’t look at all like the guy he was two years ago. His stats are similar, with a slight dip in PPG (12.7 in 2011-12 to 10.4 this season), but he seems more like a guy keeping his fingers crossed he can make it down this home stretch.

I’ve always liked him as the heart of the team. I don’t know if he is or isn’t in the locker room, but he embodied Martin’s tough style and gritty attitude. When Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson left, Maymon stepped in as the face of Tennessee basketball when it needed it most.

Saturday is senior night. It’s been overshadowed by all the talk swirling about making the tournament or Martin’s future with Tennessee, but it will be the final home game for Maymon and Jordan McRae. McRae clearly has a future as either a role player off the bench in the NBA or playing overseas, but Maymon’s playing days are likely drawing to a close. Speculation about the future of the program sucks me in as much as anyone else, but lets not let Saturday come and go without appreciating who Maymon was to the program and who he was to us as fans. He gave his all for Tennessee.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

I was Expecting to Grow Antennas When I Turned 30...

I turned 30 today. 30 years old. I thought there would be more to it. It sounds like such an ominous number. 30. If I was an athlete, analysts would have conversations about if I’d lost a step or if my body would hold up much longer. It’s the number that hangs over youth, waiting to pounce with the yolk of adulthood.

My life looks very different than I envisioned the day I turned 20. Back then, you might have heard me say words like “stoked” or a sentence like, “Lawn Boy is Phish’s sell out album”. You might’ve heard me say something about my strong opinions concerning the war in Iraq, or my plans to move out west, or that I didn’t go to Wal-Mart because they were “corporate”. Really, you would’ve just heard me say whatever I thought might make me look cool.

I was this way because the only thing I’ve ever aspired for was to be liked. For other people to believe I was strong. Capable. Significant. That my words carried weight. That I was important. 

I worked very hard at this. So much so that I created versions of myself to fit any possible setting to gain the affirmation I wanted. In college, I bought books simply because they would impress girls who saw them on my bookshelf. I once had a conversation with a girl about our favorite Ernest Hemingway novels, having not read a single word of an Ernest Hemingway novel. I once bought a Sigur Ros album, and lit candles while I listened to it in my apartment. I even majored in English.

This need to create an image has hung with me throughout my twenties. After college, I was ashamed to tell people I worked in my dad’s business because I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t capable of having my own career. I wanted so badly to have grand achievements that left people awestruck, and we could talk about how much the (insert cool career field) world was changing.

So much wasted time.

Now jump ahead to today...

Today, on my thirtieth birthday, my wife threw me a party. So many people that I love were there. I spent the rest of the day with five of my closest friends, who don’t give a damn about my acheivments or the books I’ve read. At this moment, I’m sitting at my dining room table. My daughters are asleep in their rooms. My dog is curled up in her spot. My wife is asleep in our bed. My entire world is under my roof, and they don’t give a damn about my achievements either.

While I was trying so hard to make people believe I was something I wasn’t, God gave me a life full of people who love me deeply and profoundly for the man I am. No image necessary.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cuonzo Martin, Perspective, and Why I Stopped Caring Who Our Coach Is

I have two ways of feeling about Cuonzo Martin.

Feeling 1: Cuonzo Martin is boring. His style is boring. The games are boring. The players are boring. I miss Bruce Pearl. I miss his sweaty orange jacket. I miss his veiled trash talk. I miss how badly I wanted to be his friend. I wish Dave Hart would make UT the rebellious school that told Mark Emmert to f*** off and hire back our coach that got screwed over because the NCAA wanted to make an example of him.

Feeling 2: We are delusional and acting entitled if we want Cuonzo gone. If not Martin, then who? Who are we, Tennessee, going to lure away to our mediocre basketball program? Some other mid-major guy looking for a pay raise? Are we really going to roll the dice on someone else, hoping for Bruce Pearl again? This really shouldn’t matter so much.

Fans are impossible to please. We come to sports as an unapologetic consumer, devouring everything our athletes and coaches throw out at us. The more wins, the more we gorge ourselves. When those wins don’t come, then the we’re up in arms because our plate is not quite as full as it once was.

Such is the state of Tennessee basketball. Bruce Pearl gave me something. I want it back. FireCuonzoMartin.com.

I go back and forth on this like a teenage girl picking out clothes for a first date. Feeling number two, however, made a strong push Tuesday night against Florida. I sat in the 300 section with my 20-month-old daughter, Ayda, in my lap. This was her second game at Thompson-Boling, but her first men’s game with the arena at a near sell out. Normally, she’s firecracker who rarely stops moving, but the game action and crowd noise had her wide-eyed in stimulation overload. She barely made a sound, or even moved. She got restless only when someone in front of her stood up and she couldn’t see.

In that moment, I stopped caring who our coach was, and started caring that she would be entertained enough to make it at least through the first half. I started caring about laying the foundation that we’ll enjoy sports together as she grows older. That going to games will, at the very least, be something that we share together. Everything else about the game was extra.

A family of Florida fans were sitting behind us (I say it like they’re a species being observed in National Geographic), and their two boys, not older than seven or eight, kept telling their dad who their favorite players were. I’m pretty sure this changed as the game went on because they probably named off six different numbers. (They didn’t know their names.) They yelled basketball terms they didn’t understand, like, “Pressure! Pressure!” and asked questions about nearly every aspect of the game.

That kind of interaction is all I want from UT basketball. I want her to be that excited to tell me who her favorite player is as those little boys were about Scottie Wilbekin. Excuse me, I mean number five. If you want an argument for or against Cuonzo, RockyTopTalk.com has a great post comparing him to previous, non Pearl coaches at Tennessee. But for me, it just doesn't seem that important anymore.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Don't Blame Peyton. The Broncos Loss was a Team Effort.

It took me a long time before I finally gave up hope. Even after Percy Harvin’s kick return, I still believed Peyton could do it. That he could bring them back. When he threw the touchdown to Demaryius Thomas, I thought, “Now here comes the comeback.” 

But it never happened. It was like waiting for a date to show. Every near miss from a receiver. Every missed tackle. Someone was supposed to show up. Something was supposed to happen and it never did. The game was there’s for the taking and Denver never even lifted a finger. Not because they weren’t capable, but because they played not to lose. When two teams make it to the super bowl, one is never significantly better than the other. Denver had the best offense in history. These were professional athletes. They were all prepared. All capable.Yet Denver might as well have been a star struck college team while Seattle played like they knew who they were. This is why the game was so frustrating to watch. Seattle did whatever they wanted. 

The Broncos O-line allowed Seattle to push them back the entire game. Peyton was constantly under pressure. They played on their heels. The defense never looked aggressive. Denver’s corners were never physical and kept giving soft coverage that gave Seattle all the room they wanted across the field. Even when they were down four touchdowns, Denver still played conservative. Played safe. Didn’t blitz. Didn’t play press coverage. Just played on their heels while Wilson threw wherever he wanted. He hadn’t played that well all season. The Broncos defense gave Seattle’s receivers so much space they were asking them to please not score. While Jack Del Rio and the Denver D clearly spent the entire two weeks planning to stop Marshawn Lynch, Seattle created plays that allowed Russell Wilson to be the confident quarterback he has become. His throws on the run will gain the attention, but his precision throwing across the middle will most incredible. While labeled the “other quarterback”, Wilson affirmed that the Super Bowl is not won or lost squarely on the shoulders of the man under center. It‘s won as a team. Seattle kicked Denver’s ass as a complete team.

As a Manning fan and therefore a Denver fan, watching that game was maddening. Not because they lost. Losing happens. But losing shouldn’t happen the way it did last night.  

When Manning was asked if it was embarrassing, he replied, “It’s not embarrassing... Embarrassing is an insulting word.” The truth is, though, it was embarrassing. Not for Manning, but for the men around him. The ridiculous legacy talk will swirl around him but his teammates should feel embarrassed for letting their leader down. Peyton had a record setting performance last night to cap off a record setting season. But football is a team game. It’s the ultimate team game. No other sport even comes close. One player is only as good as the others around him. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Peyton Manning is Not Superhuman, and I'm Okay With That

All my sports heros from my childhood are gone. Chipper Jones and John Smoltz have retired, Reggie White has passed away, and Brett Favre’s mind is starting to betray him. My last connection to watching sports as a kid is Peyton Manning, but every game gets a little more bittersweet to watch.

Manning, by every conceivable measure, is having the season of his life. But have you watched him play? Have you seen his face during a game? He looks tired and worn down, like a farmer after decades of fighting nature. His eyes are sunken and faded. The man looks old.

Like every other East Tennessee kid around my age, I have lived believing Peyton was mythic. Super-human. Now, even in his success, he seems exposed. Watching him play these last two weeks in New England and Kansas City was like reading “The Death of Superman” or the final scenes of Beowulf. It’s difficult for me to grasp there will be a time he won’t be playing football, but it looks so inevitable now.

However, maybe it’s for the best I see him this way. Not as a fading superhero, but as a man. When I accepted that my dad wasn’t the character I’d created him to be, I grew to appreciate who he was. So much of my devotion to Peyton was built around what he did for me as a fan, but maybe it’s better to see him as a no more of a man than I am. Sport is at its best when we as fans are compelled to be great because we see greatness in athletes. The best thing I’ll ever gain from watching Peyton is to be as amazing in my life as he was on the field.

Still, something in me will change when he’s gone. That connection to my 12 year old, football obsessed self will seem a little more distant, and I’ll be a little bit older. But until then, I’ll watch every snap I can. I’ll get sappy and nostalgic and tell my wife stories about where I was when he did something I’d never seen before, because it's a hell of a lot of fun to feel like a kid.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

We Need to Stop Celebrating Nick Saban

In high school, I was the worst player on my baseball team that was winless for two years. 

I’m not exaggerating. I could not throw, hit, field, or run the bases well. I was an excellent encourager.

To my coach, my inept abilities on the field embodied our team’s inept abilities to come within ten runs of the other team. He went particularly ballistic on my failures, and berated me during games in front of my teammates. The upper-classmen followed suit, and I was the butt of most of their jokes.

I’m a grown man now. I’ve got a wife, two kids, a dog, a mortgage, and all the other normal things grown men have. But I still think of what happened when I was 17, walking off the field at Maryville College with my coach screaming in my ear because I didn’t run to third when I had the chance. I can still see the look on his face, enraged by what I couldn’t do.

Will West’s (WNML) rant about Nick Saban brought me back to that moment on the field. Back to that dehumanizing moment, like I might as well be the shit on the bottom of his shoe. Men like Saban don’t need to be celebrated and worshipped. They need to be stopped. His verbal abuse of players is no different than Mike Rice at Rutgers. It’s just as hurtful, if not more so.

We need to stop accepting this type of behavior as “tough love”. It’s not. It’s abuse of athletes who do not have the ability to speak up for themselves.