Archive for the ‘dealing with adversity’ Category

The Alpha and the Omega of Championship Coaches

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

This past Saturday Dean Smith passed away. During his final years, poor health denied both he and his adoring public of the relationship each desired. He’s been fondly remembered by nearly everyone, inside and out, of college basketball, including this site (see yesterday’s blog).

Now the news is another basketball coaching icon, Jerry Tarkanian, is near the end. Jerry, also, has been in failing health for some time. Last April he was hospitalized for, what at the time was believed to be a stroke. Whether it was a stroke, heart attack or pneumonia, the setback took its toll on the 84-year old championship coach, husband, father of four and grandfather of 10. As with others who experience such a shock to their system, his life was never the same. Gone was the outgoing, fun-loving guy who constantly needed to be around people.

Seldom, if ever, has anyone possessed the number one people skill as well as Jerry Tarkanian: the ability to make people feel important. I recall the day I saw him sitting in his office, listening to someone who was standing, out of my sight, diagramming plays at the white board on his office wall. When the guy left, I asked Jerry who he was. He told me that he had simply walked in (our secretary was on her break), knocked on his door (which was open) and introduced himself.

In classic Tark fashion, he couldn’t remember the guy’s name. They began talking and when Tark’s new best friend mentioned he, too, was a basketball coach, Jerry asked him what he did against a 1-2-2 zone. That’s what led to the scene I had witnessed.

Later on, I found out from the person this guy was actually there to see that, when he saw the basketball office door open, he walked in. Then, he noticed Jerry’s door was open and felt he’d take a chance on meeting his coaching idol. Who then, naturally, requested the mini-clinic, because he thought he might learn something. In no way was he putting this guy on.

Three weeks ago I visited the last of my bosses from a 30-year college coaching career. Jerry couldn’t walk, talk, had a feeding tube in his stomach and he was on oxygen. Yet, when his son, Danny, his daughter, Jodi, and I stated telling stories from our Fresno State days, a glimmer in his eye appeared and a smile began to curl up the corners of his mouth. It was sad that his health had deteriorated so badly but rewarding (although not surprising) to see that he was still battling – because one of his defining traits is he hated losing.

Dean Smith won 879 Division I games, with a .776 winning percentage. Jerry Tarkanian won 784, with a .795 percentage. Each respected the other’s ability to get his players to compete to their maximum potential. Dean’s University of North Carolina guys, for the most part, were clean cut, McDonald’s All-Americans. Jerry’s, for the most part (independent of which school he was coaching), were kids who needed a second (and, occasionally, an additional) chance and the only McDonald’s they knew had arches. Yet, these two giants of college coaching put up such gaudy numbers because they were innovators who cared deeply about the young guys they coached. In addition, there was a shared loyalty that existed between coach and player.

Since Coach Smith’s passing, people who didn’t realize all he’d accomplished regarding civil rights have been educated of his courageous actions – while doing it in the South at a time it wasn’t very popular. What just as many people aren’t aware of is Tark’s stand during the 1968 Olympic Trials. The story shows there is a connection between Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian and their views against racial prejudice.

It was 1968 and the Olympic Trials consisted of three NCAA all-star teams, one NCAA college all-star team, and separate all-star squads representing the AAU, NJCAA, NAIA, and U.S. Armed Forces. Jerry coached the junior college (NJCAA) all-stars, selected in large part because he had previously won four straight California junior college championships. It was a round robin event, won by Tark’s JC guys.

At the press conference which followed the championship game, a reporter asked Jerry if he was making a statement by starting five black players, a first for any team competing in the Trials. Jerry gave a response that people who know truly him only can laugh and shake their heads:

“I did?”

Dean Smith Remembered – in a Humorous Story

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

With the passing of Dean Smith, the world is being inundated with wonderful stories from many of his former players (the famous and not-so-famous) as well as coaches (past and present). If not the best coach ever, Smith was, by far, the most innovative.

The “four corners” offense, the “run & jump” defense (while maybe not its actual inventor, definitely the coach who used it most effectively – and, thus, the coach that most coaches from the 1970s generation on believe invented it), a player acknowledging the passer after he scored, understanding special situations, e.g. the use of fouls and times out at the end of a game in order to lengthen it when UNC was behind, were among the ideas he either introduced or became famous for as a coach. And lest we forget, if it wasn’t for his sterling coaching accomplishments, his work in civil rights in the South – before he was a head coach – might be his legacy.

What usually occurs when someone dies is an abundance of positive stories about the deceased abound. Former Tarheel great, Jerry Stackhouse, said the best advice he ever received from his coach/mentor was, “Always treat people like you’re going to meet them again.” Possibly the greatest tribute to Dean Smith was given by former UNC All-American, Larry Brown. In response to author John Feinstein’s question regarding why the loyalty of those who played for him and then coached under him was so incredibly intense, Brown replied, “He’s the single most decent man I have ever met.” Could there possibly be a nicer way to be remembered?

Yet, with all the success in coaching Smith realized, inevitably came jealousy – from other coaches (usually those with significantly inferior records). “Sure, Dean wins but with those players who couldn’t win?” Also heard were complaints about favorable – and timely – calls by referees. No surprise there. And, of course there’s the most famous dig at Coach Smith – that he was the only person who could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points in a game. (Let the record show, as 1984 USA Olympic head coach, Bob Knight, has stated numerous times in defense of Smith – a defense Knight fully realized the Tarheels’ coach never needed – that Michael Jordan led that Gold-winning team, averaging 17.1 ppg).

Because I coached on the intercollegiate level during that time period, I got to know Dean Smith (a little) – mainly due to my friendship with his assistants, Eddie Fogler and Roy Williams. One thing that was apparent to those who knew him was that, although it wasn’t on public display that often, Smith possessed a very good sense of humor. Because of that, I’ll close with a funny story.

Bill Foster, the one who coached at Duke, not the one at Clemson who shared the same name (a coincidence that caused a great deal of confusion back then, especially in the ACC) was a highly successful head coach for 32 years on the college level (at six institutions). In fact, Foster led the Blue Devils to the National Championship game in the 1977-78 season (losing 94-88 to Kentucky). His clubs battled Smith’s UNC squads on numerous occasions during his six-year tenure there, winning several of those match-ups. While Foster had a tremendous amount of respect for Smith, he was, after all, a New Jersey guy with a sarcastic wit (I know, that’s redundant). During one post-game press conference he became so frustrated with the reverence all the sportswriters gave Smith in their stories, at ACC Media Day, at the conference tournament and during pressers, that he once said:

“I thought the guy who invented basketball was named Naismith, not Deansmith.”

Flying the (Not So) Friendly Skies of Recruiting

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Both sisters-in-law coming to visit us – and see their two (ahem, favorite) nephews. This blog will return on Tuesday, Feb. 10.

As any college football fan(atic) knows, yesterday marked the first day football prospects could sign the national letter-of-intent (which binds the player to the school) and the scholarship papers (which binds the school to the player). That act puts an end to the recruiting madness and allows the prospects – and the schools who signed them – to begin what will be at least a two-year “marriage,” and as many as five (sometimes, even, six) years – of working toward individual and team goals.

Most fans have little understanding of how the actual recruiting process works – from the very beginning to the, often, bitter end. Many of the stories told by coaches are hilarious, ridiculous, heartwarming and, occasionally, tragic.

I recruited for several years, albeit on the basketball side, and have stories of my own (some of which make up a chapter of my book, Life’s A Joke, which was published in 2001). One of the more hair-raising of them follows.

Returning from a recruiting trip in Birmingham, AL, our head coach, Don DeVoe, Bob Burton and I got on our school plane, a real convenience that schools like the University of Tennessee have. This particular UT aircraft had six seats – pilot, co-pilot (who didn’t accompany us on this trip), two seats facing another two behind them. Bob, our other full-time assistant, sat back-to-back with the pilot facing me, with Don to my right. He and I faced forward.

As the plane’s nose lifted and we had barely left the ground, I jokingly said to Bob, “I think you forgot to close the door.”

Bob looked at me and said, “You really shouldn’t kid about that,” and proceeded to tell a story about the time he was an assistant at Wake Forest. They were on a trip in one of their school planes and the door actually did fly open shortly after takeoff. “You know,” Bob continued, “this is about how high we were when it happened.”

As he said it, all of a sudden, our plane went almost vertical. It was like Don and I were flat on our backs. I was looking straight up – at Bob who was kind of hovering over me. His eyes were wide open. I imagine the pair he was looking down at were in just as much shock. I turned toward Don who was looking out the window to his right. Beyond Don’s window I could, clear as day, read the numbers on the plane that was “just passing by us.” Safe to say, the three of us were in panic mode.

Don yelled up at our pilot, “Hey, Steve, what the hell just happened?” Steve didn’t answer but we could see was the back of his head, bobbing up and down, like he was really chewing somebody out. After we finally leveled off, he half-turned and told us there had been a mistake made in the tower. While he was told it was safe to take off, the other pilot was given the okay to land. Apparently, they didn’t realize we both were using the same runway.

As my heart was pounding through my chest, I asked him a question I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. “How close were we, Steve?”

He said, “About 500 feet.”

I thought for a second and said, “500 feet is about a football field and a half; that’s not all that close.”

His reply was something I won’t forget for quite some time (it’s been over 30 years and what he said is still remarkably vivid in my memory). “Well, I saw that pilot right about the same time he saw me. I went straight up 250 feet and he went straight down 250 feet. That’s where the 500 came from.” Throughout the rest of the trip, I kept looking out my window for other planes.

“Did you ever notice that some of the things you laugh about now weren’t all that funny when they happened?”

Another Analysis of the Super Bowl

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

Ever since the Super Bowl ended, it’s been a constant harangue directed toward Seahawks coach, Pete Carroll, and his decision to throw the ball on second down as opposed to give it to the Beast Mode, Marshawn Lynch. Will we ever know (unlike those who say they know when, really, they’re just guessing like everyone else) whether Carroll wanted to win with an unconventional call – to show he could – and it would be more fun that way?

Ya, it’s understandable that people would be upset Lynch never even got a chance to run it in. I mean, if you want to throw, at least use Lynch as a decoy and run play-action, faking the ball to the guy their goal line defense was in there to stop, like Carroll surmised. And, as has been hashed and rehashed, why not throw to the outside of the field so, if there’s indecision, the ball can wind up a souvenir for a fan sitting a minimum of three rows deep?

Hey, did it cross anybody’s mind that maybe the media gods didn’t want to upset their universe because they knew if that guy scored the winning TD in the Super Bowl, that he wasn’t going to talk to anybody about it. Probably not because then he would have won the MVP award and everybody wanted to see him get the trophy – and a hug? – from Roger Goodell.

Whatever the case, there are other items of discussion that also should be taken into consideration when ruminating over Super Bowl XLIX. Some already have been bantered about, because how long can the diatribe aimed at Carroll go on without a break of some sorts? Let’s stay with that last play bu look at it from a different angle.

Why is there so little talk of Russell Wilson’s pass? Had Wilson not led Ricardo Lockette but, rather, thrown the ball lower and at his back hip (or even back number, i.e. the “3” on his 83 jersey), the receiver would have had an easy catch. Nothing’s certain but it’s a pass an NFL QB ought to be able to read, especially one of Wilson’s intelligence and ability. If he does and the pass is complete, then everybody is talking about . . .

why didn’t Patriots coach Bill Belichick call time out after Lynch ran to the one-yard line? He wold have had about a minute left, one time out and, best of all, Tom Brady. Didn’t he have faith his future Hall of Fame QB could lead a drive for a touchdown – or at least a field goal – because they would have been down only three? After all, Wilson led a drive for a TD with only 31 seconds to go before the half. Is Belichick really that smart that he knew Carroll was going to call a pass play and Wilson would throw a pick – Seattle’s only turnover of the game? Nah. He lucked out. But that’s OK because after David Tyree’s catch to steal a Super Bowl from New England, to have another one snatched by Jermaine Kearse’s even more incredible catch, . . . well, maybe luck evens out. As it should.

When all is said and done (as in now), the game was decided by an outstanding play made by Malcolm Butler, an undrafted rookie, who just as easily could have been the goat (because fans need to be able to blame somebody when outcomes don’t go their way), even though his coverage on that miracle catch was as close to textbook as possible. Then again, it was also Butler who got away with pass interference because grabbing the foot of the receiver you’re supposed to be covering isn’t legal. Years from now, when instant replay will be immediately decided by computers in New York (or maybe the Philippines), that DB will be penalized. And maybe there will be a different winner.

Speaking of calls that had a major impact (or would have had they been called), how about the “running into the kicker” that, supposedly, by rule, should have been roughing – and an automatic first down? Another botched call, at least in the eyes of this viewer (and everyone in the room with me), was the catch by Kearse at, if I’m not mistaken, 5:36 in the second quarter on a third and six, that went for, maybe, six yards. Was that not a generous spot? It looked as though that Kearse caught the ball short of the line, yet the ball was placed on the opposite side of the line, resulting in an automatic first down. Certainly, they could have made it on fourth down (rendering the point moot) but that first down allowed the Hawks’ drive to continue, eventually resulting in Seattle’s first TD.

Why is there no outrage at the Legion of Boom, a group that wanted to be in the discussion as  one of the NFL’s greatest defensive teams ever? Allowing their club to lose after being staked to a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter? Letting their opponent score four touchdowns, all of which were the results of sustained drives (9 for 65 yards, 8 for 80, 9 for 68 and 10 for 64)?

As for the crucial play? “I knew they were going to throw it,” Butler said. “Why,” he was asked? His answer was something every kid playing a team sport of any kind should remember. Butler, a household name (in his own house), an undrafted rookie from West Alabama, explained that he had paid attention in their position meetings and simply read the play he recognized the Seahawks would make in that situation. And that is why coaches put so much time into game plans.

For those players who claim meetings are monotonous and tiresome, think of what Jon Kabat-Zinn, another unknown (at least to me), said:

“When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.”

How Negatives Can Become Positives

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

Many people have seen the ESPN 30 for 30 Unguarded show about Chris Herren, the basketball player from Fresno State who fell deeply into the drug world, only to escape with a second chance, one he worked hard for and nearly didn’t get.

Yesterday Chris spoke to my last place of employment, Buchanan High School. He spoke in the afternoon to the BHS students and again last night to another packed house of 2600 in the Bears’ gymnasium. I witnessed both. Earlier in the day, I had lunch with Chris who got to Fresno State a couple months after I was hired as director of basketball operations by its new head coach, Jerry Tarkanian. Truth be told, Chris came to us after having to leave Boston College for failing drug tests.

When Chris came to Fresno, I hadn’t seen anyone with that kind of charisma since I was 12 years old and John F. Kennedy came through my little hometown (seriously). It wasn’t just the players and coaches who loved him but the other college students, little kids who attended games, adults around town and even the boosters (who bought tickets on the plane, enabling us to charter to away games). Some of them were in their 70s and 80s. As the old saying goes, “women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be him.” He was Fresno’s version of James Bond.

On the court, no one could guard Chris, whether conference foes or players on some of the best teams in the nation (and we played some of the best – I know because I was in charge of scheduling). Although we played teams from the ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-10 (before the Pac-12 and Big East), we had a home-and-home series with UMass which meant so much to Chris because that was the state university of his state. In Amherst he scored a (then) career-high 25 points to lead the Bulldogs to a 102-81 win. It was the most points put up by an opponent in the Mullins Center and we became the first non-conference opponent to win in the building since it opened during the 1992-93 season.

The revenge game was the following year in Fresno and Chris was stoked. His mother and grandfather had flown cross country to see him play. Although he scored only 19 points, he controlled the game and Fresno State won, 82-64. Life was great – until our trainer came in the next day and told Jerry that Chris had tested positive. We were stunned. Deep down, Chris wasn’t.

While Chris could hold his own with anybody on the court, there was another battle he was losing. It was against his demons – and he had no idea how badly he was being beaten. Drugs will do that to a person.

A family friend of his came to me and said Chris and his mom respected me because I was honest and level-headed. He was getting getting bad advice regarding how to deal with his current problem. One idea was to claim he was being suspended for academics and that was why he would no longer be with the team. I told them I had an idea, stating it was only advice and if they didn’t take it, I’d have no problem with their decision. They wanted to hear it.

“Chris,” I said, “if it was any other player, we’d just send out a press release but, because you’re so good with the media, I think we should hold a press conference. But . . . here are the ground rules. Number one, you have to write it. You like to “wing it” when you’re with the media. There will be no winging it. Number two, you have to practice it. You don’t have to memorize it but it’s going to be hard so you need to understand what you’re saying to get through it as smoothly as possible. Number three, you have to read it. You know you’re going to become emotional. Keep your head down until you get to the end. Number four, when you’re done, get up and get out. Let Coach Tark handle the questions.” They were in agreement.

The evening of the press conference, as expected, the room was packed. Everything went off as planned and, when Chris completed his “speech,” there were few, if any, dry eyes in the room. Only the most reproachful and heartless person couldn’t be affected by a 21 year old kid, telling a national television audience, he was a junkie and needed to go away to “dry out.” Jerry was also emotional answering the media’s questions, stopping several times for water, his way of controlling himself.

At the end of the presser, my cell phone vibrated. I looked down and saw a 203 area code. Since I’d recruited for so many years (and was a “numbers guy,” having majored in math), I knew most of the country’s area codes. “203,” I thought, “that’s Connecticut. Who can be calling me from there?” I answered, only to hear a concerned voice on the other end.

“Jack, it’s Digger.” Earlier in the season, Digger Phelps had done the color commentary for one of our games and he and Chris really hit it off. “What happened?” he asked. I explained the situation and could tell he truly sorry he felt – for a kid he’d met once. Like I said, Chris had charisma.

The next day, our office as flooded with faxes and emails. All our phones had texts and we were receiving calls from all over the country. As days went by, we began getting a torrent of mail, all addressed to Chris Herren. Most carried the same message. “You are so brave. My father/mother/brother/sister/friend has addiction problems and . . .”

After Chris got back from the 30-day stay in the Utah facility, he received a call from Chris Mullin who had battled alcohol dependency. “I’d like for you to come and live in my house as you prepare for the upcoming draft.” It was the greatest example of turning a negative into a positive I had ever seen.

Until I witnessed Chris Herren speak. For the afternoon session, the high school kids were shown the 30 for 30 in its entirety, since none of them were born when he played at Fresno State. I wondered how Chris could hold their attention after so long a video. Was I ever wrong! The 2600 students were mesmerized and he held their attention for over an hour. Then, held a Q&A. During the evening session, the video was condensed but the audience’s reaction was identical.

Chris says he speaks 250 times a year and enjoys the high school groups best because he feels he has the greatest impact on them. However, he has spoken before both of the Super Bowl teams, each of the “final four” teams from this year’s College Football Playoff and, yearly, speaks to the NFL and NBA rookies. He has started Project Purple (to bring awareness to the dangers of substance abuse) and that has become his passion now – in addition to his speaking.

No matter how many times he tells his story, he genuinely struggles sharing it. It’s not easy baring your soul in front of, mostly, strangers – especially when he has to relive so many years of what was such a dreadful life. Far and away the best word to describe his message is powerful.

The best quote I’ve seen to explain Chris’ talks is by Jaeda DeWalt:

“I don’t like and even resist, being broken wide-open. But, when the contents of my unconscious self spill out of me and I sift through all the disowned parts of who I am… it’s an uncomfortably enlightening and eye-opening experience. It feels a bit like emotional bloodletting. I guess every now and then, I need that release valve to open all the way…”

 

 

Why College Players Get Dismissed

Friday, January 30th, 2015

Off to watch the Otters play in SoCal. This blog will return on Tuesday, Feb. 3.

The college basketball world was shocked with the news that Duke’s junior wingman, Rasheed Sulaimon, was dismissed from the squad this past Thursday.

“Rasheed has been unable to consistently live up to the standards required to be a member of our program,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a release. “It is a privilege to represent Duke University and with that privilege comes the responsibility to conduct oneself in a certain manner. After Rasheed repeatedly struggled to meet the necessary obligations, it became apparent that it was time to dismiss him from the program.”

Duke is currently sitting at 4-3 in the ACC after losing to Notre Dame. They play at Virginia tomorrow. The game will be vastly different from the Duke-UVA games of yesteryear for several reasons. One is that the Cavs are undefeated. Another is that without Sulaimon, the Blue Devils are left with only eight scholarship players – and sans one of their few capable wing defenders. Nearly as astonishing as Virginia being undefeated is that, should the Blue Devils lose, it would more or less knock them out of the conference championship race – this early in the conference season.

No big deal, you might say, the NCAA tourney is what Coach K focuses on. Unless he’s been fooling everybody all these years – and I believe Mike Krzyzewski is as straight up a coach as exists in Division I, i.e. spews less coachspeak than nearly all D-I head men – he has always claimed a prestigious goal – and honor – is winning the ACC title. Therefore,if anybody thinks the dismissal of Sulaimon was a knee jerk reaction for some indiscretion, well, they’re simply wrong.

So, what’s in store for the, now, ex-Dukie? Naturally, he could declare for the NBA this year but if he decided on that route, he’d better wow pro scouts at the draft combine (assuming he gets invited). Also, it’s certainly possible he could attempt to turn pro right away, whether in the D-League or overseas.

Another option would be to transfer to another university. Although Sulaimon is in good academic standing, it has yet to be revealed as to whether he has the capability to graduate this year, meaning he’d have the option to transfer to another Division I school and be immediately eligible. If not, he would have to sit out next season, with only one to play. This poses a couple questions, namely, would he be willing to wait two years to become an NBA player (even though it might be beneficial to him to do so)? The second one is, how many schools out there would be willing to tie up two years of a scholarship for a one year player?

Something else needs to be taken into consideration as well. With Rasheed Sulaimon being the first and only player dismissed from a team coached by Mike Krzyzewski, how many teams would gamble on a player with that kind of albatross? With 351 Division I teams, Las Vegas might put the over/under on the number of such teams at 325. I’d still take the over.

One team that, in all likelihood, would not be pursuing Sulaimon is the University of Washington who recently dismissed a bright prospect in center Robert Upshaw. The 7-footer had troubles of his own. After transferring high schools, as well as changing AAU teams between his junior and senior years, Upshaw committed to Kansas State, only to de-commit when then K-State coach, Frank Martin, left Manhattan to assume the head coaching position at South Carolina. He, then, signed with Fresno State but after a lackluster frosh season (marred by injuries and suspensions), he transferred to UW, where he found trouble in his redshirt season (he wasn’t allowed to attend practices or games during the second semester).

This season began with such promise for the big man. Up until his being asked to leave, he was the nation’s leading shot blocker. Blessed with the wingspan of a pterodactyl and extraordinary timing, he was a major deterrent for any of the Huskies’ opponents who attempted to score in the lane. While Upshaw was a very personable young man, with social skills beyond his 21 years of age, rumor has it he struggled to pass tests. Since he is an intelligent youngster, the “tests” were possibly of a non-academic nature.

While Sulaimon had no such issues at Duke, he too often displayed one of Coach K’s pet peeves: bad body language. I recall during the 1992-92 season when I was on the staff at USC, we beat UCLA at Pauley Pavillion for the second consecutive year. The day after the game, our head coach got a call from Coach K. “He told me he knew we were going to win after the second media time out,” George Raveling told us.

“When I asked him why,” Rav continued, “Mike said he could see the difference in the body language of the players. He said our guys exuded so much confidence, while their guys looked like they didn’t want to be there.”

Obviously, Sulaimon’s dismissal had more to do with than just bad body language, but as C.L. Brown of ESPN.com wrote (and it was true of Robert Upshaw – and truth be told – nearly every player who’s ever been released):

“His issues didn’t outweigh his talent.”

 

Fans of Two Diametrically Opposed People Battle

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

On first look, there couldn’t be two people more different (in the sports world) than Ray Lewis and Bill Simmons. Lewis currently works at ESPN as a football analyst. When he played football for the Baltimore Ravens, he was frightening. And that was if you were watching him on television. His look could hurt you, what with those bulging muscles, eye black, menacing stare and ferocious actions on the field.

Bill Simmons, also of ESPN (although no one is sure for how much longer), can be frightening as well, but the weapon he chooses is the written and spoken word. If he dislikes someone, there will be no (figurative) punches pulled. His latest victim was none other than the Ravens’ sure-fire Hall of Fame linebacker (eligible for induction in 2018).

Simmons “took on” Lewis after Ray, who battled the Patriots during his career with the Ravens (Baltimore and New England were bitter rivals in the AFC), claimed New England should have an asterisk by their name in the record book because of allegations of cheating. It should be noted that, in all probability, Lewis’ remarks touched such a nerve with Simmons because Bill is as big a Pats fan as exists.

Simmons posted a link which contained a photoshopped picture of Lewis in deer antlers. During his final NFL season, Lewis was implicated by Sports Illustrated that he used deer antler spray to recover from an injury which contained banned substances, although Lewis denied it and did not test positive.

The entertainment business and politics have their share of devoted supporters but the world of sports (college and professional) brings out some of the most loyal – and whacked out – fans of all. Which is exactly what emerged after Simmons “called out” Lewis.

Following the brief story, for what reason I don’t know, I clicked on “Comments” (maybe because retirement gives me too much time on my hands). What anonymous fans of both Simmons and Lewis posted were mostly just attacks directed at the “other guy.” Simmons’ followers spoke of “the limo incident,” a case in Atlanta in which Lewis was originally was charged with two counts of murder but pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. The assailants in the case were never found and Lewis received one year of probation and a $250,000 fine by the NFL (wisely, Simmons avoided the topic in his criticism of Lewis).

Those in Simmons’ camp  used words such as punk, stupid, murderer and thug (if you never understood why it’s said that social media is the ultimate vehicle for cowards, maybe those comments will shed some light on that thought).

Some people on the other side of the argument simply didn’t care for Simmons, e.g. “Who is Bill Simmons and why should anyone care?” Another response, more anti-Bill than pro-Ray simply said, “Hopefully Ray will just snap and kick Simmons’ ass. Long overdue.”

I’ve always tried to read to be educated, enlightened, motivated or amused. The reason I will never again open “Comments” (basically, Internet gossip) can be read in the following line (I’m not even sure which side this guy was on):

“Besides being a douche, your (sic) also a Moron!”

An Inspiring Story from the Classroom

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

In the aftermath of Deflate-gate, the Cleveland Browns’ Josh Gordon and, most recently, the University of Washington’s Robert Upshaw, the following is not only an uplifting story but one in which I played a major role.

Somewhere around the midway point of my last job (for now) – a ten-year stint teaching high school math – our principal (the second of three I’d have during that time) came up with an idea to reward hard working students, those kids who were doing their best to fully realize their potential. He asked each teacher to nominate one of our kids who was doing exceptional work for an “award” he would personally present in class.

To set the stage, our high school is located in an upper middle class area of the city. In order to diversify our student population, the district bussed in kids who had attended one of the elementary schools from a lower socioeconomic section of town (who normally would have fed into another of the district’s high schools).

I taught Algebra I, a predominantly freshmen class. Since half of our freshmen had passed that level of math in the eighth grade, this meant that my class was made up of the lower half, academically, of the freshmen (as far as mathematical knowledge was concerned). Add in some sophomores (who, not only didn’t pass it in eighth grade but failed it their frosh year), and teaching that group could be quite a challenge.

Naturally, understanding of the course content by the teacher was vital. More importantly, finding a way to transfer your knowledge to the minds of the students – most of whom had yet to achieve much success in math through their elementary and junior high years – was incredibly demanding.

Of all the students in the four Algebra I classes I taught, there was one who was a little different from the others in one of those classes. The youngster, a Mexican kid I’ll call Jerry (not his real name), was from that “lower income” side of the city and it was readily apparent in his clothes and appearance. Nothing was ever said and if it bothered Jerry, no one could ever tell. He had a terrific attitude toward the class and his classmates – a feeling that was reciprocated. I selected him because him because of a laundry list of reasons. First and foremost, he was what every teacher dreams of – someone who gives a complete effort.

Next, for lack of a better term, he “bought what I was selling.” I later discovered he and I must have connected in some way because when I spoke so glowingly of him to some of his other teachers, they didn’t have the same impression. Not that he wasn’t working hard in their classes, but that he wasn’t working that hard. Believe me, it’s not too often (in a required course, anyway) that students who haven’t experienced a significant amount of past success fully engage themselves in what you’re explaining. And actually get it! Jerry’s average was above 96.

Another reason for his selection was that his class participation (despite a pronounced lisp) was that of which teachers dream. In some of my classes it was difficult to get someone to respond – voluntarily – to the question, “If x-7=18, what does x equal?” Jerry would not only be my “go to guy” if no one else raised their hand, he did so with genuine enthusiasm. If it was a difficult problem, he would offer an answer and if it turned out to be wrong, he tried to figure out why. When I had checked his prior years’ standardized test scores, I found that, while he did possess some math skills, his scores weren’t inordinately high.

On the day the principal came to our classroom, he announced the “winner” was to receive a $10 gift certificate to Marble Slab, a local ice cream store. The “oohs” and “ahs” of 14- and 15-year olds could be heard down the hallway. “The winner is . . . Jerry D,” announced the principal and as Jerry made his way up to the front of the class to claim his reward, cries of, “Hey, Jerry, I’m your friend” and “Jerry, take me to Marble Slab, please!” were heard – by kids who barely knew him.

Every day at lunch, a group of four math teachers would eat lunch in my room. Sometimes we’d go out, other times we’d brown bag it, but every lunch period the four of us would congregate in room 303 to discuss sports, news or, occasionally, math. A week or so after the “student of the class award” occurred, who should drop in but my man, Jerry.

Of course, we all had told each other which kid we’d picked, so when Jerry walked in, one of the guys said to him, “Jerry, how did you enjoy that gift certificate?” He gave us a reply that we would continually refer to whenever we got frustrated with some of the (many) spoiled or problem children we had in class:

“I gave it to my parents for an anniversary present.”

Life’s Lessons Can Be Tough

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

Possible opportunity for outside work (you gotta do something when you retire). Meetings in Las Vegas. This blog will return on Friday, Jan. 23.

As loyal readers of this blog space know, our younger son, Alex, is a junior basketball player at Cal State Monterey Bay. Heading into this season, the team was optimistic as several guys were returning. A major blow was dealt to the Otters when last season’s leading scorer, Ryan Nicks, broke his foot and was forced to redshirt.

The team still was left with, if not an abundance of talent, enough to compete in their conference. Outside the league, the team won four of six contests so there was nothing to dampen spirits. To date, though, the squad is 4-6 in the conference and last night’s loss really stung.

It was a back and forth game against Humboldt State, located so far north in California, it might as well have an Oregon address. Bottom line, the Otters had a five point lead late in the game, but lost, 75-74 at the buzzer (actually, 0.5 seconds) on a length of the court drive and shot. That game summed up what has been a disappointing season (so far). Of the six losses, four have been by 3, 3, 5 and last night’s crushing defeat.

While this is such a downer for the players, it’s just a series of life lessons that will, eventually, make them stronger people. Why? Because they have no choice. Sure, it’s difficult right now, but what is happening to them is what will happen, at some time, later in life. That’s a hard thing to tell young kids, who expect instant gratification, i.e. work hard for a couple practices and win in blow out fashion. Unfortunately, basketball – and life – seldom work that way.

It seems like everything is going against the guys. What they need to realize is what author Jared Brock said:

“Strength is gathered on the journey, not granted at the outset.”

Different Coaches Have Different Styles

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

Not only do all coaches want to win, they all believe they’re going to win. Maybe not every game, but I’ve never met nor worked for a coach who didn’t truly think his team wouldn’t be a winner. (Is that a quadruple negative? You know what I mean).

In the recent College Football Playoff, each of the four coaches were fairly well scrutinized in terms of their leadership methods and organizational abilities. This past season, all four schools bore the bulls eye on their backs. Florida State was the defending national champions and were undefeated; Alabama has long been the best team in (allegedly) the best conference; Oregon, mainly because of their affiliation with Nike and all the swag and uniform designs were a team others want to beat (in addition to the fact they’ve been a power in the Pac-12), and Ohio State, unquestionably the long-time flag bearer for the Big 10, as well as one of those schools, along with Alabama, synonymous with the college football tradition.

At Florida State Jimbo Fisher not only had to deal with off the field distractions but nearly all of them were about to their best player – the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. And so many of them were incredibly juvenile. Fisher stood tall throughout, never backed down and, whether he enjoyed it or not, seemed to embrace the role of villain. And finished the season as the only undefeated team.

Nick Saban has long been known for (micro-?) managing the Crimson Tide program, thoroughly overseeing each and every aspect of it – from, naturally, practice and game plans, to what their athletes eat and how much sleep they get. With three national championships and a statue, no one questions him.

Mark Helfrich is new to all this, completing only his second season as the Ducks head coach. While he could have tried to simply emulate what his highly successful boss and mentor, Chip Kelly, had accomplished at UO, Helfrich realized he needed to be his own man. No fool he, however, six of his fellow assistants under Kelly remained on staff, making for a much smoother transition for the Ducks.

Urban Meyer won two national titles at Florida – and nearly killed himself doing it. After a year at ESPN (it seems as though an awful lot of coaches, both fired and retired, wind up at the world-wide leader and nearly all of them flourish). That has to say something about the relative difficulty of the jobs. Maybe the studio gig isn’t as lucrative, but a simple means of “staying in the game” while still pulling down a pretty penny. Meyer returned to coaching, signed a contract with his family – more or less promising he would get to know them – and still managed to win it all. Somewhere (naturally in a TV studio), Tony Dungy is nodding his head and smiling.

How is it, then, that each year so many coaches get fired? One reason is the leaders who pull the plug aren’t well-versed in the world of sports. At least that’s the track record of the current version of athletics directors who, as opposed to having toiled in the field of coaching, cut their teeth in the business world (in which everybody can win – of course everybody can lose, too, but then the blame is placed elsewhere, .g. the market or the economy). Another possibility is that the coaches themselves don’t find the job as simple as they originally believed it was.

Case in point: long ago I worked for a head coach (one of the 11 I called boss) who, quite simply, was no more prepared than a goat to perform the duties of the position. A story from my book, Life’s A Joke, will enlighten the reader. Our team was returning from a brief Xmas break and the head man and I were shuttling back and forth between the campus and the airport, picking up the guys as they’d arrive.

As I returned from driving one of our guys to campus, I saw the head coach as he was heading out to the airport. We were having our first practice following the break in a few hours and, with all the hustle and bustle, hadn’t yet had a staff meeting. I asked him if he’d made up a practice plan yet. He said he thought it would be good to warm up first and then, spend the remainder of the time on our defense. As he left, he mentioned he had put together something and a copy of it was on his desk. He said I could run one off for myself and our other assistant.

I walked into our offices, went over to his desk and there on top was the practice plan he’d written. On the sheet it said:

“Warm up. Defense.”

In case you’re wondering, we had a losing season.