Cheaters never prosper… except at the University of North Carolina

Tonight the University of North Carolina will take on Gonzaga for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship. The Tarheels are favored to win. And speaking of favoritism, there’s been very little press about the UNC decades-long cheating scandal where hundreds of athletes (especially in the revenue-generating sports of basketball and football) took sham/non-existent classes to boost their GPAs and maintain their eligibility.

News of the scandal broke way back in 2011, thanks to Raleigh’s News & Observer newspaper, which reported that an incoming freshman football player had been enrolled in an upper-level African studies class and received a high grade. That transcript ultimately exposed 18 years of fake classes, most of them created by Deborah Crowder, a clerical employee in the African and Afro-American Studies Department. UNC’s internal investigation blamed Crowder and a “rogue professor,” Julius Nyang’oro, and claimed that no one on the athletic side (AD, coaches, tutors, athletic advisors, et al.) knew anything about it. Which just ain’t so. The latest NCAA allegations (which came out in December of last year) say UNC and the athletics department “leveraged the relationship with Crowder and Nyang’oro to obtain special arrangements for student-athletes in violation of extra-benefit legislation.”

“Many at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football and men’s basketball, used these courses for purposes of ensuring their continuing NCAA academic eligibility,” the notice said.

But the only current article I can find about it is from the New York Times – it’s a great read. You’d think there’d be more talk of it, especially in light of the fact that UNC won two national championships during the years in question. This year’s group of athletes wasn’t part of the scandal, but you could rightly argue that if the NCAA had handed down any sanctions (postseason bans, scholarship reductions, etc.), this year’s team might not even be playing.
Funny how the NCAA is so quick to slap penalties on players and programs for the most minor of infractions, but in this case, with widespread, systemic cheating, it’s been radio silence. “Too big to fail”?
 

 

 

X Marches On!

My beloved Xavier Musketeers pulled off another upset last night (actually one a.m. this morning for most of us), rallying from 8 down in the second half to knock off #2 seed Arizona, 73-71.

Speaking of Bill Murray, his son Luke is an assistant coach for XU, and Bill has attended every tourney game, cheering on the Muskies. After they won last night, Bill celebrated by giving a good-natured “noogie” to the elderly woman in front of him…

That woman happens to be a nun – Sister Rose Ann Fleming, who as the longtime academic advisor to Xavier athletes, has as much to do with their success in the classroom as the coaches have to do with their success on the court.

Xavier has graduated every senior men’s b-ball player since 1986. (That’s the year I graduated… concidence? I think not!)

After the game, Bill Murray summed up how the game played out very well.

Beating Arizona in the Sweet 16 was pretty sweet too. Their coach, Sean Miller, left Xavier for Arizona several seasons ago. He was, and still is, a fantastic coach, and I have a ton of respect for him. Xavier coach Chris Mack was an assistant under Miller and they are great friends. Mack was less than thrilled about having to face his mentor for the 2nd time in 3 years:

But there’s one comment Sean Miller made that sticks in the craw of many XU fans. After he left Xavier for Arizona, he told a recruit it was like going from a Buick to a Lexus. Grandma has a message for him:

Now Xavier plays Gonzaga in the Elite 8. Two small Jesuit schools that have had great basketball programs for the past couple of decades… and one of them will finally reach the Final Four for the first time. So either way, I’ll be happy, but I’ll be happier if X marks the spot.

 

How Sweet 16 it is

Xavier pulled off another upset in the NCAA tourney last night, trouncing #3 seed Florida State 91-66 to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16. It’s been a rough season for the X-men. Senior guard Myles Davis started the season with an indefinite suspension, missed the first 15 games, returned for 3 and then left the program for good. Their super soph point guard Edmond Sumner blew out his ACL halfway through the year, and leading scorer Trevon Bluiett hurt his ankle and missed a couple of games and was ineffective in a few more after returning. Not surprisingly, those injuries led to a six-game losing streak toward the end of the regular season in the brutal Big East.

However, the Musketeers showed signs of life in the conference tournament and squeaked into the NCAAs as a #11 seed. They upset #6 Maryland in the first round, and yesterday they played what was easily their best game of the season.

 

It’s so true that in college basketball, “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” Now Xavier will take on Arizona, coached by Sean Miller… who left XU for ‘zona about 8 years ago. The odds are against them once again, but I don’t care, because they’re playing with house money now.

I don’t know why they call it “March Madness”

Taking two days off work and setting up 4 TVs (and a laptop) in your living room to binge watch college basketball games for 12 hours straight each day sounds perfectly sane to me.

Just remember to root for the team favored by award-winning actors everywhere:

So far, so good…

 

 

Dat Dude BP

The Cincinnati Reds traded second baseman Brandon Phillips to the Atlanta Braves a few weeks ago, in a youth movement/salary dump move (even though the Reds are still paying almost all of his salary). I’ve never seen a better defensive second baseman… he made amazing plays on a daily basis. Barehanded. Leaping. Diving. Over-the-shoulder. Behind the back. Between the legs. A true magician with the glove.

 

He even tagged a guy out behind his back and between his legs once – it’s one of the photos I use for my blog header.

 

More importantly, he never lost his youthful enthusiasm, love of the game and respect for the fans. In an era of prima donna players, “Dat Dude BP” was easily the lovable and most accessible Reds player. I took my sons to dozens of Reds games when they were younger, and we’d go down behind the Reds dugout prior to the game in hopes of getting an autograph or three. Most players would completely ignore the kids yelling their names, or half-heartedly and hastily sign two or three autographs before retreating to their dugout cocoon. But BP would greet the fans before every game, and sign autographs for as many kids as he could, flashing his megawatt smile the entire time.

“The thing about Phillips is that there is obvious joy in his game,” says Will Leitch, senior writer for Sports on Earth and New York’s go-to sports scribe. “He’s always having a good time. That’s extremely appealing.”

“This ain’t a career. This ain’t a job. This is fun,” Phillips recites, mantra-like, over a glass of ice water in the Art Deco confines of the bar at the Netherland. “I wanna smile out there. Some people like the old-school way. Nah, you gotta show some emotion.  The fans feed off that.”

(From a Cincinnati Magazine article in August of 2013)

Heck, BP even showed up at a Little League game once thanks to a Twitter request. And had some fun with hecklers in Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty wrote a nice column about BP after the trade. Here’s an excerpt:

And yet it’s impossible, if you are a Reds fan, to say you won’t miss him. Phillips was a fixture along the railing before games, signing autographs. He was a mainstay in the community. When most of his well-known teammates were enjoying a full winter break, Phillips was boarding a bus for places like Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, as a member of the Reds Caravan.

Brandon Phillips Field was the first baseball field built under the auspices of the Reds Community Fund. Phillips, along with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, was also a prime financial supporter of the team’s Urban Youth Academy.

“In this day and age, he’s a rarity,’’ said Charley Frank, the community fund’s executive director. Even in recent years, when Phillips’ contract didn’t mesh with the team’s reboot, “He was still out there making fans feel wanted,’’ said Frank. 

Phillips hit anywhere he was needed in the lineup. As a cleanup man, he hit 30 home runs. As a leadoff guy, he stole 30 bases. Phillips played hurt frequently and never made a big issue of it. He played at least 141 games in 10 of his 11 seasons here.

He approached baseball with a child’s heart. Some didn’t understand that. Some found it bogus, some thought it was a self-serving act. Old Schoolers didn’t care for Phillips’ flair, though the truth is, baseball needs all the flair it can get.

Even after he was traded, he still showed some love for Reds fans.

I understand the economics of baseball for a small-market team like the Reds. But our whole family — and all Reds fans — will miss Brandon a bunch.

 

 

 

Super-conflicted

I’m torn about which team to root for in today’s Super Bowl, sponsored by JET LI.

(Wait, I’ve just been told that the “LI” in “Super Bowl LI” is actually Roman numerals… my bad. Better luck next year, Jet. And Jets.)

Normally it’d be a no-brainer because I can’t stand the New England Patriots. It starts with their GQ pretty-boy quarterback Tom Brady, who just happens to have a supermodel wife, and already has so many Super Bowl rings that he probably uses half of them as door pulls on his kitchen cabinets. And then there’s the evil Darth Vader  head coach, Bill Belichick, who is a genius with Xs and Os and player moves, but a complete jerkwad outside the lines, especially to the media. Throw in a “Gronk” (yeah, I know he’s hurt but his frat-boy specter still looms large over the entire franchise), a complete pest like Julian “Short Man’s Disease” Edelman, and a bunch of no names that come up big when it counts (looking at you, Malcolm Butler) and it’s very easy to hate the Pats, especially if you live outside of New England and like to root for the underdog. Oh yes, and as a Raiders fan I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the infamous “Tuck Rule” playoff game.

 

But I’m super-conflicted this year because one of the New England Patriots cheerleaders is the daughter of my first cousin. (Does that make her my second cousin? First cousin once removed? Cousin to the nth degree?)

   

Jamie is super-nice and very funny. She grew up in New Hampshire, she now works in Boston and she’s loved to dance since the time she could walk. So it totally makes sense that she would be a Pats cheerleader. But c’mon, this is the Evil Empire we’re talking about.

  

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady chats with Donald Trump (Photo by Donna Connor/WireImage)

I guess I’ll have to split my allegiance… I hope the Patriot cheerleaders have a flawless game, and I hope the Falcons beat the football Patsies by a gazillion points. (Even though I know that odds are the Brady mansion kitchen cabinets will have a little extra bling very soon.)

 

Walk-a-thon

Here’s the definition of traveling from the NBA Rule Book:

Section XIV-Traveling
a. A player who receives the ball while standing still may pivot, using either foot as the pivot foot.
b. A player who receives the ball while he is progressing or upon completion of a dribble, may use a two-count rhythm in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball.

But NBA officials rarely call traveling, especially on superstar players. Watch this clip below where Russell Westbrook takes about 5 steps before dribbling. What’s funny to me is how long it takes the ref to call it… seems like he only does it because the opposing team (and coach) are screaming for it… and how Westbrook gives the ref some side-eye after the call, like it was a bad call, when clearly he walked halfway across California.

 

 

Good luck charmer

This past Monday, Clemson won the college football championship, thanks in no small part to a former walk-on receiver, Hunter Renfrow, who had 10 catches for 92 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the game winner with a second to go.

One day prior to the game, the sports crew at WBTW-TV, the CBS affiliate in Myrtle Beach, SC, did a national championship preview special, and one segment featured WBTW’s Julia Morris interviewing the hometown kid, Renfrow. In an eerie bit of foreshadowing, Morris says “He has a knack for clutch plays, we’ll see if he can make a couple more tomorrow night.”

I should probably mention that Julia Morris is my niece, the eldest child of my older sister Jeanne and her husband Michael. And since Julia has been doing sports for WBTW, an underdog Coastal Carolina baseball team won the College World Series, and the underdog Clemson Tigers toppled the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide in the college football championship.

Clearly Julia not only is a fantastic sports anchor/reporter (as you can see from her interview with Hunter Renfrow and other clips like this one and the highlight reel below), but she also has the Midas touch. If any major market teams would like to win a title, they don’t need to worry about recruiting 5-star athletes, they just need to recruit Julia to do TV sports in their town.

 

We are the championzzz

Clemson beat Alabama last night to capture the NCAA College Football Playoff National Championship. (The Tide got rolled.) Actually, it was this morning before the game ended. Apparently  it was “a game for the ages,” but one of those ages isn’t 52, because I was fast asleep well before the fourth quarter, which featured four lead changes, and three touchdowns in the final five minutes of play. The winning score came with a single tick left on the game clock… at about 12:25 a.m. In other words, the most exciting parts of the title game happened when most sane people who live east of the Rockies were snoozing.

The game kicked off at 8:19 Eastern time. And college football games used to take about three hours. But now, pretty much any and every play is subject to video review, which is nearly as much fun as watching paint dry. Throw in the requisite injury time-outs, a long halftime and a few extra commercial breaks (broadcast rights ain’t cheap) and you’ve got yourself a sixty-minute game that took more than four hours to conclude.

In their never-ending quest for better ratings, TV networks will pick game times that suit their needs, not the desires of the fans. But in the DVR/internet age, I think more and more fans will skip all the hoopla, catch up on their beauty sleep and catch the five-minute highlights the next day.

Shaving four hours off your total viewing time? Now that’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

This isn’t a picture of me… my skin mask has more of a lavender hue to it.

Dems da breaks

My favorite NFL team is the Oakland Raiders. Because when you spend your formative years (ages 6-17) in Arkansas, there’s no mandatory geographic alliance to any particular team. The Raiders were on TV a lot back then, because they were really good. I liked their logo and team colors (what other reason do you need when you’re six?).

And their players were an odd collection of rejects, castoffs and misfits. I could relate to that too.

The Raiders have been pretty darn horrible over the last decade and a half (and that’s putting it nicely). No winning seasons. 10 seasons with 11 or more losses.

But I’ve stuck with them through it all. Because I’m not a quitter… although I’ve certainly been tempted.

This year the Raiders turned the corner and have been good again. They’ve had some great draft choices and made a few smart free agent acquisitions over the past few years, and those moves have paid off. This year they clinched a playoff berth more than a week ago with a win over the San Diego Chargers. First trip to the playoffs since 2002.

Then this past Sunday, playing at home against the Indianapolis Colts, up 33-14 in the 4th quarter, their young team captain/MVP-candidate quarterback Derek Carr was sacked (first time he was touched by the Colts all game) and suffered a broken fibula.

http://www.nfl.com/m/share?p=%2Fvideos%2Fnfl-game-highlights%2F0ap3000000763039%2FDerek-Carr-injured-on-sack-helped-off-field

(Carr was one of three NFL players to have a broken fibula on Sunday… bad things happen in threes apparently.) Just like that, the Raiders went from dream season to nightmare, from Super Bowl contender to also-ran.

The Raiders’ defense is pretty suspect, and it’s doubtful they would’ve gone all the way this year. But the fickle finger of fate has given Raider fans the finger once again. The autumn wind is a pirate, but apparently God is a Patriots fan.