How Small Talk Led to an Enlightening Experience

November 26th, 2014

Thanksgiving for the Fertig family is going to be in Monterey this year since younger son, Alex, and his Cal State Monterey Bay Otters have a game on Friday. Older son, Andy, will be making the not-so-fun drive (especially the day before Thanksgiving) from Orange County to the Central Coast – a five hour jaunt with no traffic. This blog will return on Tuesday, December 2.

Last Saturday my wife, Jane, and I attended Alex’s game against Notre Dame (not that one) – as we do for each one of the Otters’ contests. The site of the game was Belmont, CA, a suburb of San Francisco. Since game time was 3:00pm, we had a chance, not only for some fine dining (as opposed to settling for whatever is open after 10, about the time we make it to a restaurant after a 7:30 start) but an opportunity to do so in San Fran.

Whenever I’m asked to pick a place to eat, 100% of the time my choice is an Italian joint. Luckily, Jane also likes Italian food (maybe not as much as I do as my taste buds rival Tony Sopranos’) but, truth be told, independent of the restaurant, nearly every time we go out, she orders salmon. So, following the Otters’ win, we headed to North Beach, the Little Italy of San Francisco. After asking for suggestions from people in the area, we decided to go to, where else, the North Beach Restaurant. Usually I like going to an Italian restaurant whose name ends in a vowel but, if you ask for advice from the locals, you might as well listen.

Normally, I’m like “time,” i.e. I wait for no man. Or restaurant. But since the valet had taken our car and it was long gone when we heard the news of a 15-20 minute wait, I concluded sitting at the bar would pose no problem. I didn’t see any open tables so when the maitre d’ came and told us to follow him, I was a little surprised – until he took us downstairs, to their “wine cellar,” and another 30 or so tables. Our maitre d’ told us the place seated 344 people. Considering the place was packed – in the middle of “Little Italy” – it looked like we made the right choice after all. When Jane mentioned to him that this was our first time in his restaurant, he coolly said, “We just opened – 44 years ago.” That quip told me this guy was all right.

At the table next to us was a couple of guys wearing Washington Redskins jerseys (the 49ers’ opponent the next day). I asked them if they were locals who rooted for the ‘Skins (doubtful, with the history of the 49ers, nearly every football fan in San Francisco pledges allegiance to them) or if they’d flown in for the game. As I suspected, their plane landed the previous day. “In addition to my season tickets, I go to a few road games every year,” said the “spokesman” of the two. “I was out here for business last year but didn’t have time to see the city.” We chatted about a number of items – former players from their championship years to comparing DC and SF as cities. Then I asked him the hot topic question – what did he think of the logo controversy?

This led to quite an interesting conversation. It was an exchange of information, the kind in which the participants are wiser at the end of it than they were before having spoken. Too many times people engage in a discussion in which one or both of them feels there has to be a winner and a loser, then does whatever they can to “defeat” the other. Issues creep in, many of which add nothing to the dialogue and often, the parties’ comments take on a spiteful, personal nature that destroys the conversation and usually winds up with neither being wiser, but both believing (although skeptically) they won. In fact, this type of verbal abuse yields only losers.

I asked him if the protests in Washington were the work of actual Native Americans or simply groups looking to advance a cause – because I didn’t know and figured he might. I’ve always felt that the decision regarding the team being called “Redskins” should be voiced by those who were offended, i.e. Native Americans, not by those who felt like Native Americans should be offended. He remarked that the nickname was given as a measure of respect, not ridicule. I responded by with the comment that while that might have initially been the case, times change and today’s generation of Native Americans could see the nickname as derogatory toward their people.

He said, and I had the feeling that he was speaking for an entire group of loyal backers, “I’ve never felt as though I was cheering for actual “Redskins,” as in Native Americans. I was only supporting my favorite team, just like Eagles fans don’t think they’re cheering for birds or Cowboys fans believe they’re rooting for guys with six-shooters.”

Naturally, because he was a long, long time fan of the team, he was emotional about the issue. “One thing I know is that Dan Snyder will never change it.” Then he added:

“No matter what is finally decided, they’ll always be the ‘Redskins’ to me.”

Interestingly, since that conversation, I was privy to an article written by my favorite sportswriter (as well as most everyone else’s – certainly if they’re older than 35). It was written on November 22, 1973 for his employer, the LA Times. The topic was what he was thankful for. It began,I’m thankful the Old South finally got blacks in university backfields and lines – but I’d be more thankful if the rooting sections would put away those Confederate flags. To a black, that must have all the warmth and charm of a swastika.”

Some perspective from a wise man.


The Poor Kid Was Just Trying to Fit In

November 25th, 2014

Last night Jennifer Aniston was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Whenever stars are on talk shows, you can pretty much bet they either are in a new movie, have a new TV show or have written a book. As most people are aware, Aniston is one of the headliners in the movie, Horrible Bosses II. When I heard there was going to be a sequel to . . . (if you don’t know what the original movie was called, I’ll let you try to figure it out on your own – basically, what Common Core is all about), it brought a smile to my face. Actually, I laughed out loud, thinking about the story I’m about to tell.

During my final year of teaching (three years ago), I had a class for juniors and seniors called Algebra Topics. The students in this class were kids who couldn’t handle Algebra 2. The purpose of it was to get the juniors ready for Algebra 2 and get the seniors ready for the community college placement test. Without three years of college prep math (Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2), students had to go the community college (also referred to as, junior college) route. JCs had three math courses: “bonehead” math (my term, but at least you understand what it is), basic algebra and actual college math (the only one of the three that would transfer to a four-year college). The course content was designed to get the seniors to a point where they, at least, could enter at the second level. Bottom line: These kids were beyond bad in math. Nice enough kids, but when it came to math knowledge, 90% were bone dry.

Around the second week of school, I’d let the class know that, in nearly every problem they’d face, the ultimate goal was to “get the x by itself.” We started with a very simple problem, x + 2 = 5. “In this problem,” I’d ask, “what’s keeping the x from being by itself?” No sweat. They’d all answer, “the 2.”

“Absolutely right. Now, does everybody know what the word ‘stalking’ means?” In today’s classroom atmosphere (especially the school district in which I taught), teachers had to be extremely careful with the words and examples they chose. However, I was somewhat of a maverick, plus this example had been so successful in getting my point across, it was worth any potential risk.

A brief discussion of stalking’s definition ensued until we agreed on its meaning. The class came to the conclusion that stalking meant one person was constantly harassing another and that the person being stalked wanted the stalker gone. “In this problem, the +2 is stalking the x. If we can eliminate the +2, the x will be by itself and we’ll have solved the problem.” I continued, “What’s the best way to eliminate the stalker?” This led to a multitude of answers, some more radical than others, but invariably, somebody (usually the rebel, sometimes the clown) would blurt out, “Kill him!”

Just to let those of you who wondered why I used this, here was my reasoning: I would erase the +2 and tell them “I just ‘killed’ the +2″ and point out that wasn’t the right answer. Then I would ask them why killing a stalker is not a good idea. In every case, someone would say because it’s against the law. I would tell them they were right, that they would have to find another – legal – way to get the x by itself. Enough of the math lesson, let’s get to the reason for this blog.

In this, my final year of teaching, in addition to the “Kill him” people, one of them said, “Hire a hit man.” One of the students in the class was a kid from a group home. He was new to our school district. I noticed from his transcript that he’d lived in several places. While his behavior wasn’t exemplary, he didn’t seem like a trouble maker. So, when, after the comment, “Hire a hit man,” was made, I was shocked to hear his voice from the back of the room.

“Yeah, like Motherfucker Jones.”

Dead silence. I thought I’d heard him correctly but because I had never heard anything so blatantly profane, I said,” Excuse me?”

He looked at me, smiled, and said, “You know, like Motherfucker Jones.”

I couldn’t help but smile at how brazen his remark was and how casually he said it when I asked him to repeat it. “Sorry, buddy, I’m going to have to write you up on that one. I can’t have it going around school that a student said that and I let it slide. Explain yourself to the person in the SRC.” He gave me a confused look but took the referral and went a couple doors down to the Student Responsibility Center.

It wasn’t until a month or so later, when I went to watch the movie Horrible Bosses in which three guys have horrible bosses and one of them says how much better their lives would be if their bosses were dead. They, then, hired a hit man. I’ll give you one guess what that character’s name was.

All this new kid in our school was trying to do was join a conversation. He didn’t know math but when the subject of “hit men” came up, he chimed in. And got thrown out of class. When I returned to school the day after I saw the movie, I pulled him aside and said:

“My bad.”


Was the Contract for Stanton a Good Move?

November 21st, 2014

The Cal State Monterey Bay Otters won last night, improving to 2-1 on the season. Their next game is tomorrow and my next blog will be Tuesday, Nov. 25.

When Giancarlo Stanton signed his new contract for 13 years and $325 million, naturally it caused quite a buzz throughout the nation. One thing it did was created a forum for come one, come all as far as comments about the contract. One thing that needs to be understood is that the contract is back-loaded. Stanton receives $107M in the first six years, averaging $18M/year, then will average $31M/year for the last seven.

As far as I’m concerned, the contract made more people happy than any other I can recall. The city of Miami is ecstatic because the Marlins kept their best guy in town, which translates into . . . the reason they open their stores. It certainly doesn’t seem like his teammates begrudge the new contract – but the returns from TMZ aren’t in yet. Opponents’ superstars are no doubt delighted with the new standard that has been set. The Marlins fans love it because their favorite – and best – player will be playing there for the foreseeable future. Fans get upset when their team loses a great player to free agency. Their chant is, “We shoulda locked him up with a max deal when we had the chance.” (Of course, when the player is in his later years, the same fans are saying,”They – note the pronoun change – gotta dump that contract; it’s hamstringing the franchise.”)

In a piece Ken Rosenthal did for FOX Sports, he compared what the Marlins did to be along the same lines as the plan the Rangers, Angels and Tigers did before signing new local TV contracts (the position Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria finds himself in), i.e. make your product more attractive by spending big. Rosenthal pointed out that the Marlins’ win total improved by 15 (62 in 2013 to 77 in 2014) – and that’s “with Jose Fernandez making only eight starts and Stanton missing the final 18 games of this past season. Their young players, including Stanton, are only getting better and if they sign a No. 2 starter, upgrade at first base and find a better solution at second,” the club might be looking pretty good around playoff time.

His summary was compelling, “Why shouldn’t a team succeed in Miami, which in many ways is the capital of Latin America (Stanton is of Puerto Rican, African-American and Irish descent)? Why can’t Stanton become an institution in the city, one of the faces of baseball? The Marlins could have traded Stanton for the sun, moon and the stars. But no, Loria wants to win. He often has an odd way of showing it. But no one who knows him questions his competitiveness.”

Now, for the opposing side to all of this. Keith Olbermann, the man whose job is his hobby, i.e. making fun of people and showing how smart – and smug – he can be on national television (all while making considerable money himself), perfectly nailed the Stanton deal (according to no greater authority than himself – and his Kool-Aid drinking minions). He mocked Stanton for taking  only $107M the first six years (“Russell Martin money” he compared it to). He said Loria was pulling another scam, as he had done it before. Olbermann continued to denigrate Stanton (although not face-to-face, alone in a room – apparently not his style) by declaring that, although the slugger would be making $31M/year for the next seven years, if he, or anyone else, thought the top salary in seven years would be $31M, they weren’t paying attention to the trend in baseball.

Did Mr. “I-May-Not-Know-It-All-But-What-I-Don’t-Know-Is-Irrelevant” ever consider that, perhaps, Stanton likes living in Miami (although he originally hails from Southern California). With the advantage of the tax break residents of Florida get (one reason James/Wade/Bosh could afford to take less money in exchange for a couple championships), Stanton and his family ought to be able to live a comfortable life there on only $17M/year (not including endorsement money). His agent, while back-loading the deal (allegedly to give the club more money to sign other players), did include an opt-out clause in 2020 (if, in fact, this whole thing is a scam) and he didn’t want to look foolish by working for a meager $31M/year for the next 7 years.

While ridiculing the deal and excoriating Loria, Olbermann never once mentions that in the last 20 years, of the 30 major league baseball teams, just 10 have won the World Series and only half of those have won at least two (the Marlins being one of that special group of five, Jeffrey Loria being the owner during the second championship). The berating of Loria, Stanton and the Marlins organization by KO (which definitely would have been the result of a private one-on-one session between Stanton and Olbermann had the latter summed up the courage to insult him) would only have been worse had the Marlins not locked him in and lost him to free agency.

The classiest (or most gullible, depending on your outlook) guy in this whole scenario has been none other than Giancarlo Stanton himself who answered the question of whether he should feel embarrassed making this kind of money, by saying, “This is the start of new work and a new job, for this city. It’s a huge responsibility, and one I’m willing to take. . . I know I have a lot of expectations to live up to, which I need to do and am willing to do.”

The best line in his reply might just have been:

“This isn’t like a lottery ticket and ‘peace out,’ all right now?”

Comments on Various Topics

November 19th, 2014

Brief reminder: no blog tomorrow, next one will be Friday, Nov. 21.

Random thoughts:

*Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen was criticized last weekend during the game by many for seemingly trying not to win, but simply to score and walk away with a “close” 25-20 loss at Tuscaloosa. He was chastised by everyone, from the top all the way to the bottom, i.e. from color analyst Gary Danielson to . . . me. And when I spoke with others later on and the MSU-AL game was brought up, sure enough, the feeling was unanimous.

I’ve seen coaches (worked for one, too) who held onto their times out like they could use them when their time came. “Oh,” they must have thought the Grim Reaper would say. “You have many TOs that you didn’t use. OK, you can stay another couple hours.” While the last minutes were ticking off, I kept wondering why Mullen wouldn’t stop the clock during the Bulldogs (what proved to be their) last drive?

Danielson, whose praises have been listed in this space on numerous occasions as one of the G.O.A.T. college football color analysts, was classy enough not to second guess – until it became evident Mullen’s goal was to see MSU score at least once more, and not “lose by too much” – and drop too far, i.e. out of the top four. When the coach’s actions were that obvious, Danielson made the comment that most of those closely watching were thinking, i.e. that a five-point loss was better than one by double digits – or worse – had the Tide scored again and expanded their lead even further.

But “style points” aren’t supposed to matter. Coaches always, with a very few exceptions, have deplored “running up the score” to impress poll voters. But that was prior to the College Football Playoff. There’s no politicking your team’s way to a national championship now.

*Florida State has been dropped from #1 to #2, and #2 to #3 – and haven’t lost this year. Or last for that matter. If they get behind yet again, but are on the winning side when time runs out, could they be dropped to #4? And if it happened in the ACC title game, could the ‘Noles actually be left out of the playoffs - and not be able to defend their national championship – even though they’d finish undefeated? For a second consecutive season? Apparently “style points” do matter.

*At the beginning of the Lakers season, Kobe Bryant, as competitive as he is, might have thought, deep down, he and his boys could “fool the world.” Even after Steve Nash was forced into retirement (you are retiring, Steve, right?), Kobe probably felt they could still be a factor because 1) most likely, he hadn’t planned on that many games from Nash at a high level because those close to the team understood how badly Nash was hurting and 2) he felt he could mold the young guys into, if not like the cold-blooded assassin he is, a formidable club who’d get after it like he did game after game.

Even when Nick Young went out for a while, Kobe felt he and the others could hold down the fort until their “Swaggy P” returned. What I saw when Julius Randle, a Bryant favorite, went down and out – for the season – was what most everybody else in the sporting world noticed, mainly because so many cameras are focused on the Black Mamba. His shoulders slumped. There was no replacing what they had in Randle, even if he was an untested rookie.

How an intense guy like Kobe Bryant is going to make it through an 82-game season, losing game after game (even when playing to about as high a level as they can perform), is a mystery. The Lakers got one yesterday but it’s almost as if there ought to be a parade every time they come out on the winning side.

*Kentucky, a nice mix of freshmen and veterans (all of them uber-talented), has drawn the question, “Can they go 45-0?” (I’m assuming they can play that many – nobody, independent of how talented, can win more than they play – although if there’s a fan base that would expect it, Lexington would be their home).

John Calipari has done even more than he thought possible. He, and his staff, recruit the best group in the country every year. What’s so attractive to the recruits is how he prepares them for the NBA and has no issue if their goals are to be one-and-dones). Yet, this year he outdid himself. Some of the one-and-dones stayed! This left him with a problem no other coach – not John Wooden, Guy Lewis, Dean Smith, no one – ever had. The sheer number of talented players.

Some coaches would say that team chemistry might be a problem. That’s true – except this year Cal’s sheer number of talented guys exceeds any kind of chemistry problem. Or biology, physics, zoology, even epigenetics. And don’t think for a minute Cal just rolls it out. The guy is an excellent coach. The biggest obstacle UK will have to overcome is the media. They will have so many requests, their guys will be hounded - maybe into submission. And let’s not forget – although we’d like to – those on social media who want nothing more than to be the one who takes down Goliath.

*There was a sports story about the Niagra women’s basketball team being stranded on their team bus in of those famous Buffalo snowstorms. Luckily, the story had a happy ending and everybody is safe.

In the mid-80s I received a lesson in hometown pride. I was recruiting in Buffalo and had to walk through the biting cold, on sidewalks that were filled with snow, except for the parts that were “cleared,” leaving slush and ice. By the time I got to the school to watch the game, my shoes were ruined. Since I didn’t know the area, I called a friend who lived there and, thankfully, he agreed to drive me to the tilt. As we left the gym, I said to him, “Irv, I don’t mean to be condescending, in fact part of me admires that you can live here – and in your case – actually enjoy it, but I gotta ask you, “how do you do it?”

He looked at me and said, as if the answer was obvious, “Jack, you just learn to deal with it.”

I gave him the only response that I could think of at the time (in my best Jerry Seinfeld whiny voice):

“But I don’t want to learn how to deal with it.”

The Parents’ Guide to Proper Behavior at Athletics Contests

November 18th, 2014

First of all, I owe you readers an apology. When I go out of town (and suspend posting on this site), I always alert you. When we decided to leave a day early for Alex’s two games in Riverside, CA, I went to my computer and . . . couldn’t log on. There were issues with GoDaddy that didn’t get resolved until yesterday. For everyone’s information, after today there will be blogs only tomorrow (Wed) and Friday this week. Next week’s posts will begin on Monday.

Sitting in my portable rocking chair (after nine back surgeries, it’s about the only thing that makes watching games tolerable), the subject of yelling at referees was came up. Especially when it’s the parents of the participants doing the complaining. In today’s world it seems as though a large majority of moms and dads believe the proper way to display parental love is to claim their children never do anything wrong (anyone who’s taught within the past 15 years or is teaching now will understand this theory). Whether parents are loud or silent, the general consensus (among our little group, anyway) is that, independent of how incredibly horrendous any referee’s call is (or calls are), kids do not want their parents to be heard directing comments toward the officials. The players’ motto could be, “Love me all you want at home, but leave me alone in the gym.”

The ultimate humiliation for players is when a parent screams so much he (or, “you’ve come a long way, baby,” she) is asked to leave the gym in which they and their friends and teammates are playing. One of the other parents told a story of getting thrown out of a summer league game that she (no misprint) was coaching, and having to hear about it, not only from her son, but from her other children as well.

This reminded me of a game I witnessed eight years ago, an 8th grade AAU contest in Sacramento. The summer is a time that teams, coaches and the individuals are all attempting to improve their craft. It’s the same for the officials – usually, there’s an evaluator on sight to determine which officials get assigned to the different levels, e.g. junior high, frosh . . . all the way up to the professional ranks.

Suffice to say that at this particular event, there were no NBA candidates. It just so happened that one of the referees was a female. And, on this day, she was struggling – not only with the 50-50 calls but with some relatively easier ones. Maybe she had other things on her mind, maybe she felt pressured with someone observing her and taking notes, maybe it was just a bad day, or maybe officiating basketball wasn’t the right profession for her. Whatever the case, she had missed about three calls in a row.

I always try to sit as far away from my son’s bench as possible. At this game I was sitting diagonally opposite his team, beyond the baseline (in another portable rocker – I’ve broken about a dozen throughout the years) with a coaching friend of mine (who also had a son on the team). Actually, he was standing directly behind me. Following that third blown call (on the baseline directly in front of us), he said, “Hey, honey, maybe you oughta just put that whistle in your pocket.” Time has been known to fool with a memory, so I’m not sure that’s what he said verbatim.

Upon hearing his remark, she whirled around, pointed and said, “You, you’re outta here.” I thought it odd that she her finger wasn’t higher. When no one moved, she repeated – only this time, more specifically – “You, in the chair, you’re outta!” I know my face reddened and I could faintly hear my friend chuckling behind me. No way was he coming to my rescue.

Very calmly I got up and walked toward her. In a voice only she could hear, I said, “First of all, I wasn’t the one who made that comment, it was the guy behind me and, secondly . . .

that’s another call you missed.”

Texas Ups the Ante in College Athletics

October 24th, 2014

It started out as a threat to the NCAA: You’re not omnipotent any longer. We can’t stand by and let a couple hundred plus schools determine how we should run our athletics programs (meaning football). So said the power five conferences (and, of course, Notre Dame). Anytime rule changes were brought up that involved increased spending, the “low-to-mid major” schools would prevail due to their sheer numbers. Finally, the big boys had enough and said they were going to “go their own way.”

What?” cried the sports nation. “That means we’ll never again see a 33-point underdog Appalachian State team beat a Michigan squad 34-32, in the Big House, using only 27 players? We’ll never again see a Utah (back when Utah was with the “little” guys) throttle an Alabama in the 2008 Sugar Bowl 31-17 in a game that wasn’t nearly that close (the Utes were ahead 21-0 in the first quarter)? We’ll never again see a Boise State and their trick plays beat an Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, after a pick-6 put them behind 35-28, with 1:02 to go in the game? Noooooo!!!” Uh, we actually did get to see an Appy State-Michigan rematch, naturally in the Big House again. This time the roles were reversed with the Wolverines squeaking out the victory, 52-14.

So, it looks as though money has spoken (doesn’t it always)? How you feel about the new breakup of the “Power 5″ conferences (and, of course, Notre Dame) and the others which used to all be part of the same “division” – even though the chasm between the two groups was Grand Canyon-like – depends on where you reside. For instance, my family lives in Fresno where the football team has had some highly successful teams in the last 15 or so years. Many of the folks here are up in arms that the Bulldogs will be left out of the big prizes (and the money that comes from them). Prior to Fresno, I worked at USC. The people there are on . . . guess which side? Before SC I worked at the University of Toledo (Fresno State-like thinkers). My previous employer had been the University of Tennessee. Yeah, no joke. Needless to say, I’ve heard both sides – and everybody is so passionate it’s a shame there have to be losers. Yet, that what athletics is: you win or you lose.

Initially, an agreement was made (more like mandated – and for a change, it wasn’t the NCAA calling the shots), in which colleges were allowed to give a “basic cost of living stipend” to their athletes. The number kicked around was between $2-3K. Based on what the bowl payouts were, this stipend would be a line item the power schools could easily handle but the other guys would have a tough time fitting into their budgets. However, it seemed the power group was appeased and a cessation from the NCAA would be averted.

The saying is that they do things BIG in Texas. Well, it looks like those engaging in the big vs. little battle were short-sighted. The University of Texas fired the first salvo in what could be compared to WWII, except the combatants fighting wouldn’t be the Power 5 (and, of course, Notre Dame) vs. the other (used to be D-I) schools but the institutions with big money vs. the institutions with obscene amounts of money.

Texas let it be known that, for each of its 600 or so athletes, the money each would receive for “college expenses that aren’t covered by a traditional full scholarship,” coupled with “compensation for the university’s use of his image” (the second part emanating from the NCAA losing the case against Ed O’Bannon – a story about using an athlete’s likeness) would be $10,000! Yep, a one with four zeroes – all of which are to the left of the decimal point.

All of a sudden, many of the so-called “big boys” began sweating – profusely. They couldn’t afford $6 million any more than . . . the smaller schools could afford the $2-3 thousand. “What is Texas talking about?” many of their (they had thought up until the five figure number was mentioned) contemporaries. It turns out that Texas’ director of athletics, Steve Patterson, said that figure would be only if the NCAA lost the O’Bannon decision (that they appealed). But, if the verdict is the same, $10K is what UT is prepared to pay.

More on this tomorrow, or as they say on some of my favorite shows, To Be Continued . . .

Long ago  I read a quote that for the life of me I can’t exactly recall. Nor can I remember who said it, but it was something to the effect of:

“The world is composed of two groups: those who have more food than appetite and those who have more appetite than food.”

SI’s Story on Homeless Athletes Brings Back a Memory

October 23rd, 2014

Last week’s Sports Illustrated cover story was about homeless athletes. That subject reminded me of a story I retold in a blog from August, 2013. Due to the timing and impact of the SI story, I felt it might be a good time to re-post it.


Many of Jerry Tarkanian’s critics claimed he gave his players too much leeway, i.e. his disciplinary beliefs were entirely too soft, even non-existent. I’ve always maintained that one thing I particularly liked about working for Jerry was that he let you be yourself. Of the ten head coaches I worked for, he was definitely the best in that regard. (I worked for him at Fresno State). He felt that he hired us to do a job so why not let us do it. That’s not to say he wouldn’t take us to task if our job performance wasn’t up to par.

In the case of players, the standard line Tark would use when one of the guys would get in trouble was, “He’s a good kid.” Where his philosophy might have backfired was several of the players we had shouldn’t have been themselves. Being themselves is what got them where they were. True, many of his players took advantage of his ultra-loyal nature. Many people wondered, “How could an intelligent guy” – which when it came to understanding people, Jerry was as good as anyone – “be duped so often?” A story from his early coaching years sheds evidence on his behavior better than any psychological explanation can.

It was at the beginning of his junior college career and Tark was no different than most budding, young coaches of the time – a fiery leader who wanted to show he was in charge and was going to demand full intensity at every practice. One of his best players had a really bad practice, playing well below his potential. Making matters worse was that it was the young guy’s second subpar practice in a row. If anyone knows Jerry, practice is absolutely sacred time. It’s when teams are made into winners. Or losers. Any great coach feels exactly the same. He told the kid to see him in his office after practice.

Once the player walked in, Jerry immediately lit into him – yelling about how he was letting the team down, that the only chance they had of being a great squad was for this kid to be a leader – that his effort would dictate how practices, and then games, would turn out. He got hit with the full wrath of a young Coach Tark.

Jerry said the player had tears in his eyes and began to apologize. What he said would have as much of an impact on Jerry Tarkanian as any other incident in his long and storied career.  “Coach,” the youngster began, “I know I’ve let you and the team down the past few days. It’s just that I haven’t had anything to eat for the past three days but ketchup and water. We don’t put the water in to make it taste better, just to make it last longer.”

Tark has said he felt about an inch tall. He got a lump in his throat, as he does to this day when he recounts that story. “I never, ever, considered that was the reason the kid was having bad practices. I couldn’t believe anybody had to live like that.” The coach made sure the young man got something to eat from there on out and, sure enough, he became the player Jerry thought he would be.

There are many versions of the following quote but the most pertinent in this case – and the most telling when it comes to explaining Jerry Tarkanian’s feelings toward his players – might be:

“Try walking a mile in my shoes and see how far you get.”

If Only “No Child Left Behind” and “Common Core” Were Really the Answer

October 22nd, 2014

Every teacher has his or her own method of getting across the information, of teaching the kids in class. I recent years administrators, who get their orders from above (administrators and politicians think the chain of command ought to be vertical), have attempted to come up with various strategies to improve how teachers teach (rather than asking teachers what they thought – and then listen to what they have to say).

No Child Left Behind was a political edict that those who forced it on schools finally had to admit didn’t work (except for a number of hard-headed fools who still maintain it would have worked if it had been implemented correctly). Since I was knee deep in NCLB, I can tell you there was no way what the higher ups wanted done was going to get done. They were so far removed from the reality of the classroom they didn’t realize, as a colleague of mine said, “We don’t leave any child behind; some of them just choose to stay.”

After NCLB was discarded for the latest panacea, Common Core, the leaders of education explained that teachers were now going to teach the young people how to reason, actually how to process information and come up with an answer – as opposed to memorizing formulas by rote. When I heard it, I was intrigued (most likely because I was retiring). However, it was what I thought should have been done, what I tried to do (in my own way which, naturally, differed greatly from what “they” expected). I was skeptical of what they wanted to do because I’d seen so many times these people using their “seagull” form of leadership. For those who haven’t heard of this management style, it’s modeled after a seagull, i.e. swoop down, make a lot of squawking noises, dump a load of shit and fly away. What I’ve heard from my teaching friends, as well as what I’ve read, Common Core isn’t the answer, either.

What none of these people who, either 1) have never been in the classroom or 2) were in it, couldn’t handle it, so they decided to move “up” into administration understand is, in order to teach a child, that child must 1) want to learn, 2) have support from home and 3) work at it. Sure, the administrators paraded out there in front of TV cameras people like the late Jaime Escalante, a math teacher from Oakland, CA best known for the movie, Stand and Deliver, which documents his career or Ron Clark, a North Carolinian who moved into Harlem and accomplished absolutely wondrous things there and is currently teaching in Atlanta. The 1988 movie made Jaime Escalante “famous” in the world of teaching (since I taught 12 years of high school math, I was a big fan ) and Ron Clark spoke to our school district – and wowed each and every one of us) in the early 2000s. But thinking that studying Escalante or listening to Clark could make me (or any other teacher) as good as them is like thinking that a baseball player could study Sandy Koufax or listen to Derek Jeter and become as good as either of those guys. It takes more and, just like baseball, there’s no one solution for education.

In my class one year was a sophomore cheerleader who had taken algebra 1 her freshman year and failed it. She passed the first semester with a D. Obviously, the material during the second semester was more difficult and, although she had after school remedial help and re-tests following each exam, with four weeks to go in the semester, she was failing.

A little background on how I’d run class. After explaining how to do problems, I would give the class time to work in groups of three (I placed the best math student in the middle of three desks and have the kids on the sides ask the one in the center for help – if there were no questions, I’d make sure the student in the center ask questions to those on either side, in cases of shyness or lack of interest). I’d check the groups to make sure they all were engaged. Then, I would ask someone to explain how to do one of the problems, on the board or from his or her seat.

I would give kids problems I thought they could handle. If, say, #22 was easier, I’d call on kids who struggled and, usually, we could work our way through the problem, with me asking pointed questions if they got stuck. For harder problems, I would choose students whom I felt either knew it, or should have known it. For this girl, though, in order to avoid embarrassment, I wouldn’t ask her to do a problem. Rather, I would say, “OK, who knows the first step to do this problem?” This pattern would continue until we got to a point in which the problem was simple enough that she’d at least know how to do the next step. After a few steps a problem was down to “x + 3x = 200.” I looked at her and said (not her name), “Emily, what is the next step?”

I saw confusion wash across her face until she resignedly said, “Subtract x from both sides.” (For those of you whose algebra is shaky, the answer was to combine x + 3x and get 4x = 200. I’ll let you figure out the answer).

At our school, the semesters were 18 weeks long. Every six weeks each student would receive a progress report which told the parents what their child’s grades were in each class. In May (with about four weeks to go in the school year), I got an email from her mother, stating she was concerned about her daughter’s failing grade. This was the first time the mother had corresponded with me, although she had received two progress reports, one after six weeks, and another after 12 weeks, which said her daughter’s algebra 1 grade was an F. The counselor had told me when she had spoken to the mom that she blamed her poor grade on cheerleading practice, claiming it lasted four hours and her daughter was too tired to finish (or was it, start?) her homework.

At a meeting the following week that the cheerleading coach and I had attended, she asked me how “Emily” was doing. I looked at her and said (also not her name), “Sarah, if I asked Emily what comes next in the sequence, “2, 4, 6, 8, . . . ” she would say:

“Who do we appreciate?”

Just When We Thought Jon Gruden Couldn’t Get Any More Excited

October 21st, 2014

What a color commentator on television is supposed to do is educate – and entertain – the viewer. The job is easier than its radio counterpart because the audience is actually seeing the game, meaning the play-by-play voice on TV doesn’t have to do as much talking. While the radio color guy needs to “get in and get out,” the TV color commentator gets to speak more. I was fortunate enough to do both when I was director of basketball operations (Tark was great about allowing me to make outside income) and, for anyone who knows me, it comes as no surprise I liked the TV gig better. More talking. In either position, the one point the producer stresses for both play-by-play and color commentary is energy.

Last night’s game in Pittsburgh between the Steelers and the Houston Texans saw the visitors jump out to an early 13-0 lead. The game had all the makings of what play-by-play and color commentators dread – a blowout. In those contests, you have to rely on your “filler,” i.e. interesting stories about the players or coaches, their families, fun facts about the organization – anything – to keep the viewer (worse, the listener, if radio) from turning you off.

During the first three possessions the men from the ‘Burgh had little going for them as they started the game with a punt, a sack and subsequent fumble by QB Ben Roethlisberger and another punt, while the Texans answered each possession with a score (a TD and two FGs). On the Steelers’ next offensive sequence they faced a third and 10 on their own 14 when Gruden said something to the effect that it was time they go to Le’Veon Bell because of the mismatch he had with a linebacker. They did, the play went for 43 yards to the Houston 43. Jon Gruden will never be accused of being anything less than enthusiastic but this play – which he nailed – gave even the passionate Gruden a boost.

From that point on, it was pure role reversal. It was three and out for Houston, the Steelers taking over with 1:46 to go in the first half. Pittsburgh’s offense put together a two-play drive, culminating with a 35 yard TD pass from Big Ben to Martavis Bryant. Gruden was excited, as we’d expect, but it was nothing like what was to come.

Houston’s Danieal Manning (not to be confused with, nah, Ed would never spell his kid’s first name like that) didn’t field the kickoff cleanly, then came out and fumbled. With Murphy’s Law in effect, the ball rolled back between his legs, just far enough for him not to be able to locate it easily. He recovered it only in time to be smothered by the kickoff team. At that time Arian Foster had only fumbled once in his last 300 carries, but . . . Murphy’s Law. Initially, it was not ruled a fumble. The replay guys – in New York? – stopped play and reviewed it. Sure enough, conclusive video evidence. The Steelers took over on the Houston 3.

Gruden had just commented on the Steelers’ struggles all year in the red zone. So maybe it shouldn’t have come as a shock they’d go deep into their offensive bag to ensure a touchdown. Yet, it did. Because nobody, and I mean nobody, expected what play call they decided to go with – as Gruden described it, “a toss sweep, reverse pass with a left-handed flanker.” Considering how much football “Chuckie” has seen, the viewer had to pause to fully appreciate his next remark. He said he never had seen that play run inside the five yard line. I guess even guys like Gruden can be surprised.

For the improbability of the next amazing play, we need to go to John Brenkus, ESPN’s science guy. The Texans tried a short pass which Steelers LB Brett Keisel tipped in the direction of teammate Lawrence Timmons. The ball ricocheted off of Timmons’ right shoulder pad back to Keisel which set up their third touchdown in 87 seconds. Brenkus, master of such weird plays made it a 500:1 shot. Gruden was beside himself – which is a frightening thought: two Jon Grudens, side by side.

Bill Gates once said of himself – and it is also true of Jon Gruden (wow, I wonder what could possibly come next):

“What I do best is share my enthusiasm.”

Everybody Should Hear What Drew Brees Said After the Saints’ Loss

October 20th, 2014

The Percy Harvin trade, which came at such an interesting time in the season, has occupied a good deal of the sports news. Jameis Winston continues to polarize the sports world while Florida fans are calling for Will Muschamp’s head. Or, at the very least, his job.

As with any football weekend, there are an equal number of wins and losses (no, I haven’t forgotten the tie between . . . who was it again)? The fans of the winners feel good (other than the ones who never feel good), while the losers’ followers blame the coach/quarterback/kicker/whoever fumbled/offensive or defensive coordinator/referees or somebody damnit!

Well, was there any positive news this weekend (other than Peyton Manning breaking a record that, while it might be broken someday, that someday won’t be for a long, long time – unless Roger Goodell manages to expand the season to 25 games and the “competition” committee passes a rule stating DBs aren’t allowed to touch a receiver until after he catches the ball)? Note: Is that what your high school English teacher used to call a run-on sentence?

Seldom do we find a player who made a mistake (that probably cost his team the game) own up to it. For the third straight week, New Orleans QB Drew Brees threw for over 340 yards. His final stats were 28 of 45 for 342 yards and two touchdowns, but with four min to go on a third and nine play, Brees threw his only pick of the game and the Saints lost 24-23. Being the stand-up guy that he is – and always has been – Brees made the following statement that is a perfect life lesson for all, but especially young athletes who aspire, someday, to be big-time like . . . Drew Brees:

“The worst feeling in professional sports is when you feel like you let your team down.”