I’m old. I like the familiar, the comfortable, that which I already know. That’s why I loved the Great Lakes Valley Conference and I loved that my college – Northern Kentucky University – played in it. It was, without question, the best overall Division 2 men’s college basketball conference in the country. It regularly filled half the bracket or more for the Great Lakes Regional. As often as not, it seemed, a GLVC team was playing for the Division 2 National Championship. Twice Northern Kentucky University was that team. That both were losses hardly matters now, other than the fact that Shannon Minor’s three-point attempt as time expired in the 1997 championship will haunt me forever. I sat right on the line from him to the basket, and from the time it left his hand, it looked like it was going in and me and my Norseman helmet (Oh, did I mention that I was once the NKU mascot [1986-88]? And yes I still have the helmet. Never mind how or why) were about to storm the court. Except it didn’t go in, and I just sat there stunned.
Regardless, I loved the GLVC and I love Northern Kentucky University and, again, I Iike the familiar. So it was that more than a little bit of nervousness mixed with my excitement when NKU declared its intention to move to Division 1 athletics. I’ve been in or around college athletics since…well, since I was the Norseman. I knew the incredible challenge ahead of my school – and the few people I knew from my days as a student who were still there. And I knew the possibilities.
Well, those possibilities became realities today when Dave Bezold was relieved of his duties as NKU’s (now just the Norse) head basketball coach. In the interest of not so shocking full disclosure. I am an unabashed Bezold fan. He was an assistant as far back as my days at the university (which finally came to a close in 1991), and he was on the bench for both of those National Championship games as an assistant to Ken Shields. When Shields retired, Bezold was elevated to the head coach position. He inherited a tradition not only of winning at NKU, but a tradition of the head basketball coach being one of the best men on campus. For eight years, he carried on both traditions spectacularly. Bezold compiled a 161-79 record in eight seasons in the GLVC. He won or shared three division titles and finished second two other times.
He also continued being a tremendous representative for the University. Still in the Division 2 days, Bezold hired Jillian Daugherty, an NKU student with Down syndrome, as a student manager for the team (Jillian’s dad, outstanding Cincinnati Enquirer sports columnist Paul Daugherty has a book coming out about Jillian, you should probably read it). This year he and his team began playing wheelchair basketball with a team in Cincinnati.
If you watched the video, that’s Bez in the yellow shirt.
The winning over the three years since NKU made the jump to Division 1 hasn’t come as easily for Bezold and the Norse. Making the move to college athletics’ highest level is hard, and intentionally so. It is a gateway intended to ensure that only schools that are fully committed to the responsibilities of making the move even try. Among the difficulties of the jump are four-year bans on playing for a league championship or in the NCAA Tournament. That means that for a few years, Bezold and his staff were recruiting to a promise of…nothing. No matter how good you got how fast, there was nowhere to go once the regular season ended. There would be no confetti cannon, no trophy presentation. Few high school kids with the ability to play Division 1 sports are interested.
Regardless Bezold finished .500 in the Atlantic Sun Conference in his first year. The league includes a Florida Gulf Coast team that beat Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 that season (NKU led them by five with 10 minutes to play in Highland Heights that first season). He dipped to 5-13 in the league the next year.
This season the A-Sun allowed NKU to compete for league titles two years ahead of schedule. The announcement came in July, long after recruiting for this past season had come to a close. The advantage would come for the coming season. The NKU coaches would finally have something to give kids to play for when they came to NKU.
Bezold got the Norse back to .500 in the league this season and they hosted an A-Sun Tournament game (in Regents Hall, the old, comfortable Division 2-level gym. The Norse’s usual home had already been leased to the high school regional tournament). The Norse lost that Tournament game. It would be Bezold’s last game in a 25-year tenure in Highland Heights. He was fired today, with one year left before NKU’s transitional period ended.
It’s a move that feels cynical, shallow, uncomfortable. Maybe it’s not the case, but the change feels like the plan all along was to leave Bezold as a placeholder, just good enough to do the heavy lifting on the way to Division 1, but not good enough to give him a real shot to compete. Now with NCAA Tournament eligibility looming it’s time get a “bigger name” or an “up and comer.”
I have always been a proud NKU alumnus. I tell everybody where I went to school. I had a tremendous experience there and I will always value it. Again, I was the Norseman for two years.
Not long ago, a scandal erupted in the NKU athletics department when then-AD Scott Eaton was charged with (and eventually convicted of) embezzling more than $300,000, mostly in Kroger gift cards no less. I wasn’t embarrassed when that story broke. One idiot did something bad. That happens. It’s a one-guy issue, not a University issue.
Today I’m a little embarrassed. This is a classless move and sends a guy who gave 25 years to the University packing. It’s exactly the kind of thing – the kind of change – I feared when the Division 1 announcement was made.
The Norse may well go on to great things from here. They certainly have the potential. It’s a good school with a beautiful basketball facility, although they will desperately need a different league if they want to draw better at the 10,000-seat Bank of Kentucky Center. Few in Northern Kentucky have heard of most of the teams in the Atlantic Sun outside of Florida Gulf Coast. Fewer care to see them play. But whatever happens from here, it won’t feel familiar, and it definitely won’t feel comfortable.
They say it takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong, and while I’m not quite as big as I used to be, I am still well within the apology weight range. As the University of Kentucky gets ready to tip-off against the Wisconsin Badgers in the Wildcats’ third Final Four in four years, I can’t help but look back at everything I’ve written and said about this team over the course of this past season. And I owe SOMEBODY an apology.
Like so many others, I had my fair share of questions about this team. At times I questioned their heart. I questioned their effort. I questioned whether or not an annual rollover roster filled with freshmen was capable of winning at the level that is expected at Kentucky (and to be fair at all elite level programs, no matter what Michael Wilbon says. You think Duke fans are happy about how their season ended?). The thing is, I don’t really have to apologize for any of that. At times, with the way this crop of Cats played all of those questions were fair enough.
However, I do need to apologize to Aaron Harrison. After the Wildcats lost to a bad South Carolina Team in Columbia a little over a month ago, Aaron famously said the following:
“Because we know what we can do. We know, we talk about it. Even after the game, we just, we know what we can do and we know we’re going to make a run to have a big, great story for everyone to talk about.”
You can watch it here (courtesy of Kentucky Wildcats TV):
The next morning on Community Trust Bank Sunday Morning Sports Talk (9 am-Noon on NewsRadio 630 WLAP), well … let’s just say I was incredulous. And I’m reasonably certain that I used stronger words than that on the show. I was wrong (Mercifully, I’m wrong a fair amount. I get used to it.).
Whatever happens tonight (and hopefully on Monday), the Wildcats passed the “great story” threshold a long time ago. Maybe their run in the SEC Tournament wasn’t enough, but certainly them knocking out top seed and previously undefeated Wichita State at least made it a great short story. For this Cats squad to go on from there to knock off Louisville and Michigan to reach this year’s Final Four may be the War and Peace of great sports stories, made all the more amazing because it was Aaron — so full of confidence and hope that ugly afternoon in March — who hit the ridiculous three-pointer to give Kentucky the win over the Wolverines (speaking of — hey, CBS/TNT/TBS/TruTV, how about you replace one of the eleventy billion annual replays of the Laettner shot with that one in future Tournament promos, huh?).
I’ve long said that regardless of how good you think your team is, the Elite Eight is as far as you can reasonably EXPECT a team to go int he NCAA Tournament. At that point you’re almost always playing a really good basketball team and the game should be considered just about a push. A Final Four trip — ANY Final Four trip — is gravy time. That’s especially the case for this Kentucky team.
The old “we overcame so much” is one of the most worn out story lines in all of sports. It is used equally when the No. 1 team in the country makes the Final Four and when an unheralded mid-major makes the trip. So I won’t use it here. Instead of overcoming obstacles, hardship or whatever you want to call it, this team grew. Game by game, week by week, these young Cats learned a little bit more of what they needed to know to be great. Aaron Harrison saw it a month ago — even if he was the only one — and he wasn’t afraid to say so. I’m sorry I laughed when he did.
Bracket Madness Update
Congratulations to jpayne5150, Kelly192510 and GREG0667, the most likely winners of the ESPN Bracket Challenge group I set up to track the progress of the brackets in my bracket selection post. Jpayne will win if Florida wins the title over Connecticut in the championship game. Kelly192510 will win if Kentucky beats Florida in the Final. GREG0667 will win if Florida wins the title pretty much regardless of who they play. All of that is unless I have done the math wrong, which is a very strong possibility.
Among the brackets I put together, not surprisingly just picking the favorite is in the lead (it won going away last year). SHOCKINGLY, however, my actual picks are second among the group (it fared…poorly…last year). Sadly both brackets have Florida winning the title (which TO BE CLEAR I do NOT want to happen). Pretty much all other options have been complete failures, although there is still hope for my homer pick bracket, because…well…GO CATS!!!!!
Sequels don’t always go well. Some are Godfather 2 and some are Major League 2 (which NEVER happened and will never be spoken of here again), so I prefer to refer to this as a gimmick as opposed to a sequel. Gimmicks last longer. Hell, Bill Engval has been giving out signs since I was in college (No, seriously, he has. I saw him live at the Funny Bone in an out-of-the-way strip mall in Montgomery, Ohio, about 25 years before the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Same bit, except funnier because I’d never heard it before. Honestly, it was hysterical).
Choose poorly and somebody at your office may hand you a sign.
This can be a very stressful time of year. With all the bracket challenges out there — including one where you can win $1 BILLION — it can be overwhelming trying to fill yours out. Sure there’s the billion to be worried about, but since you have about the same chance of winning that as you have of winning the lottery while being mauled by a bear and struck by lightning at the same time, the bigger concern is the scorn of your friends, family and coworkers should your brackets fail. You only have a handful of hours left to get your brackets in and you’re feeling the pressure. We (meaning me) at meisterblogger are here to help you once again.
Keep in mind, there are a TON of ways to fill out a bracket. We are going to stick to some that have some basic bracketing principles, ranging from nearly science to completely absurd. This leaves out things like favorite colors, because while mine is blue — or maybe green — yours could be red or orange, or if you are a woman, a shade of a color I have never heard of, like ecru or topaz or something.
We’ll start with five ways that approximate something like science:
The Wall Street Journal Blindfold Bracket
Unveiled a couple of years ago, the Wall Street Journal Blindfold Bracket has fast become one of my favorite parts of the Tournament season. Wall Street Journal staff assigns each team in the field a rating in each of six categories (offense, defense, rebounding, experience, 3-point shooting and hot streak) and without giving you team names, matches the teams up. You pick based on the rankings, theoretically giving you an unbiased look.
The first year we used this one, they gave all the teams awesome animal names, like wombats. Last year it was tools and utensils. This year, it was jobs — and not particularly glamorous ones. Only Cosmonaut and game show host stood out. Sadly, neither came out on top in my run.
When I ran through the group, Florida (which I think was the Piano Tuners if you want to cheat) won it all, but maybe a little surprisingly in a National Championship Game against Wichita State. Even in the early rounds there weren’t a ton of upsets, although I did end up with all four 12 seeds winning. The biggest surprise was New Mexico (7) making the Elite 8 and to a lesser extent Creighton (3) beating Arizona to make the Final Four.
Pros: Still fun and fair.
Cons: They appear to be running out of cool names for teams. The Blindfold Bracket did NOT fare well last year, finishing sixth out of eight efforts, including finishing behind flipping a coin.
Each of the past two years, we’ve given you the rundown of two major computer rankings. This year in addition to Kenpom and RPI we’re adding the made-for-ESPN BPI. We add the BPI primarily because we hope it will fail so we can mock ESPN for making up its own system and ramming it down our throats, much like they did with the QPR quarterback rating. Again, I have no idea what any of these measures other than strength of schedule, but Kenpom has the most complicated sounding category names. On to our three “mathy” systems.
Use the RPI Rankings
These are the rankings most used by the actual NCAA selection committee. They are considered gospel by some and derided by others, and while they don’t EXACTLY mirror the bracket seeds, they come pretty close. So you rarely end up with a true upset. Even with the RPI’s inclusion in the selection process, there are some teams that RPI thinks are mis-seeded. Three of them are piled on top of each other in the Midwest bracket. RPI has Kentucky underseeded at 8. Their RPI of 18 would have them as a 5. Kentucky’s first-round opponent Kansas State is one of the more overseeded teams in the tournament at 9 while their RPI of 50 would have them as a 12 (barely in the field). Then there is St. Louis, whose RPI of 31 would indicate an 8 seed instead of their 5. Maybe the committee just confused Kentucky and St. Louis. The biggest shock of the Midwest bracket is that according to RPI, Louisville — whose 4 seed was universally derided — is actually seeded a little BETTER than their RPI of 19 would indicate (5).
Other underseeded teams include New Mexico (RPI-12) which should be a 3 as opposed to a 7, North Dakota State (33) which would be a 9 as opposed to a 12, and a little surprisingly Gonzaga, whose 20 RPI ranking would have them as a 5 as opposed to an 8. The most overseeded team in the Tournament other than K-State is 1-seed Virginia who looks more like a 3 with an RPI of 9.
When you play the brackets out though, you get ZERO first-round upsets and only VCU gets to the Sweet 16 among teams seeded below 4. Duke is the only 3 seed that makes the Elite 8. And This year you end up with three No. 1 seeds — Florida, Arizona and Wichita State — and second seeded Villanova in the Final Four with Florida beating Arizona for the title.
Pros: Easy system to follow.
Cons: Not many upsets. Florida wins. Middle of the pack finisher the last two years.
Use the Kenpom Rankings
Kenpom is apparently the more advanced of the two older computer models and it’s touted by the same guys who love Sabermetrics or whatever the newest thing is in baseball (think Moneyball on hardwood). Since it has nothing to do with the NCAA selection criteria, you end up with many more teams “out of seed” than you do with the RPI. The biggest difference is that Kenpom LOVES the Louisville Cardinals. According to Kenpom they should have been a top seed with their No. 2 ranking. Kenpom also has Kentucky, Oklahoma State and Gonzaga underseeded along with Tennessee (play-in game) and VCU (No. 13 Kenpom). It also has far more teams overseeded, including Oklahoma and St. Louis as well as Texas, Michigan and Iowa State. Kenpom would have No. 3 seed Iowa State as a 6. Tennessee by contrast (Kenpom 13) would be a 4.
Kenpom allows for a few more upsets. VCU gets all the way to the Elite 8. Regardless of the winner of the Tennessee/Iowa play-in, that slot gets to the second round. However, you are down to the top seeds again by the Sweet 16, with VCU the only seed lower than 4 to get through the first weekend.
Kenpom does give you some excitement in the Tournament’s second weekend with Creighton beating Wisconsin, Duke beating Michigan and Louisville making the Final Four. And it diverges from the RPI with Arizona claiming the title.
Pros: Slightly more upset friendly. Was the second most effective bracket method a year ago.
Cons: Still not a lot of excitement.
Use the BPI
BPI or Basketball Power Index is ESPN’s in-house ranking system. Why they needed a new system, we’ll never know. Maybe they had run out of things for Skip Bayless to be wrong about and had to scramble. BPI points to a number of the same seeding issues as Kenpom — Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Louisville, St. Louis, but is the one rating that has New Mexico right where they are as 7 seed.
Like the other two sciency rankings, there isn’t much to work with upset-wise. The winner of the Iowa/Tennessee play-in beats UMass and 9 seed Oklahoma beats Gonzaga, but that is it. Duke is the only 3 seed to make the Elite 8 and all four 1 seeds reach the Final Four. Arizona again knocks off Florida in the title game.
Pros: You have math to back up your picks.
Cons: Like the other rating-based methods, not much excitement.
Pick the Higher Seeds
There’s no mystery here. You trust the Selection Committee — which many people do not — and pick the team they say is best. Florida wins over Arizona in the Championship Game thanks to the Selection Committee’s S-Curve.
Pros: Runaway winner last year, receiving 93% of possible points int he ESPN bracket challenge.
Cons: No fun at all and you feel dirty just doing it. Florida wins.
And that does it for ways that make any rational sense at all, which takes us to the ridiculous — some variation of which will undoubtedly win your office pool.
Toss a Coin
Two years ago, we sat and tossed an ACTUAL coin, but that stuff is for suckers. Last year we went to a virtual iCoin. It’s way easier on the table and it doesn’t wake up your family. Just like last year heads gave the game to the top team in the bracket and tails to the lower team.
This year our coin picked only 17 of the 32 higher seeded teams to win their games in the first round and picked only 25 higher seeded teams overall. In a world in which a No. 1 seed has NEVER lost to a 16 seed, the coin knocked off three of the four 1 seeds in the first round leaving only Arizona. The blood-letting continued through the rest of the bracket, giving me a Final Four of Stephen F. Austin (It’s a real school in Texas. Look it up.), George Washington, BYU and NC State, with George Washington knocking off NC State for the title.
Pros: No thought needed at all. The coin DID predict the two 15 over 2 wins in 2012. It was the best of the non-scientific brackets last year. Your results may vary.
Cons: It’s absurd and the teams most likely to win were already out before the games really got started on my sheet.
Choose by Mascot
This is probably my favorite option. There are a number of ways to do this, for example, you may own a bulldog, so you want Bulldogs to win. Also, while not exactly mascot oriented, when my younger son filled out his first ever bracket (at about 7 years old) he picked American (back in the field this year) to win it all, explaining “after all, we ARE all Americans.”
We aren’t doing either of those things. We go with “which mascot would win in a fight,” and we don’t mean a fight between their costumed characters (although we ALWAYS encourage those). We mean if their real world counterparts squared off. There are a few easy principles. Fierce warriors beat other humans and most animals. Wild animals fare pretty well. Pets fare less well than wild animals. Mythical/Supernatural creatures are evaluated on an individual basis and if they seem terrifying they win; Devils do well as a result. Natural disasters are unstoppable. In case of a mascot tie, higher seed wins.
The South bracket was no problem, as the Golden Hurricane of Tulsa powered through with ease, knocking off the New Mexico Lobos (most terrifying animal left after the Gators) in the Elite 8.
The East was close to as simple. The Iowa State Cyclones blew into the Final Four with a win over the Michigan State Spartans in the Elite 8. The most difficult match-up was in the first round between the Villanova Wildcats and the Milwaukee Panthers. In this case size does matter and the bigger cat wins.
The Midwest produces chaos. Even with Cal Poly (Mustangs) winning the play-in game over Texas Southern (Tigers), Cal Poly has enough to get past Shockers and Wildcats to make the Sweet 16. With North Carolina State winning their First Four game, though, the Mustangs get taken down by the Wolfpack. The Duke Blue Devils overcome the Wolfpack to get to the Final Four.
The West has the most fun matchups. In the first round alone a pair of Wildcats (Arizona and Weber State) face off (Arizona advances on seed). The Oklahoma Sooners take their toll on the North Dakota State Bison just like in settler days. We are giving the nod to the American Eagle over the Wisconsin Badger, mostly because of the flying thing. And we don’t care how Ragin’ a Cajun is, have you ever been dive bombed by a Bluejay? Those things are vicious. Bluejays romp. In the second round the fierce warrior Aztecs from San Diego State wipe out the Oklahoma Sooners and the Eagle quits soaring when the BYU Panthers get a hold of him. In the end Baylor comes out of the region to face Duke in the Final Four.
In that final weekend, the two disasters face off in one semifinal with Tulsa knocking out Iowa State. Hurricanes are bigger and I don’t know what Golden Hurricane is, but I don’t want to find out. It’s more terrifying than the Cyclone. In the other semi, the Blue Devils pitchfork the Bears. In the end though it’s a Hurricane on top two years in a row as Tulsa takes the fierce mascot bracket title.
Pros: Fun to think of mascots fighting.
Cons: Hasn’t been very effective. Finished last a year ago.
Pick Like a Complete Homer
Have a team you like? Send them to the title. Have a team you hate? Send them home early. In my case, this means good things for Kentucky, teams from Kentucky (except Louisville), Xavier (had they won their play-in) and teams from Southeastern Ohio (except Cincinnati) and Ohio State. It means bad things for Louisville, Cincinnati, Michigan, Florida, Tennessee, Arizona (for beating Kentucky in the 1997 Championship Game) and Connecticut (2011 Championship Game).
Since I used to work in college athletics there are also teams where I have friends on the athletics staff. Those teams get bumps too. This year, however, none of those teams made the tourney.
In a game where I am indifferent to both teams, higher seed wins.
With no friend teams getting in, this bracket was far less complicated than last year’s. Kentucky and Ohio State go to the Championship Game with Kentucky winning. Florida becomes the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 and Arizona becomes the second. In other words this is a train wreck.
Pros: Cathartic. Allows you to support your teams and add some extra loathing on the ones you hate. No rooting for teams you don’t like because “you have them in the pool.”
Cons: Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to…losing apparently. If you hate really good teams, you’re in trouble. This bracket beat only the mascots last year and that was without my two favorite teams — Kentucky and Xavier in the field at all.
Pick Who You Think Will Really Win
Otherwise known as thinking you know what you’re doing, this is for people who watch a lot of basketball and agonize over their brackets. Although this year there doesn’t seem like that much to agonize over. Sure you can pick an upset or two — my biggest are Stephen F Austin over VCU and North Dakota State over Oklahoma in the first round and New Mexico over a hobbled Kansas team in the second. I do have an odd Final Four, with Michigan State, Louisville and Creighton joining eventual champion Florida.
What I don’t have is Kentucky making a deep run. I hate it, but I just don’t see it. I know a lot of UK fans look at Wichita State and see a win, but Wichita is the EXACT team that Kentucky has struggled with. They are tough, physical, experienced, defend and play smart. Unless Kentucky has learned to deal with getting smacked in the face, I think this is trouble for them. The biggest issue is that they can’t just “play with” a good Wichita team. They have to BEAT a good Wichita team. They still haven’t shown that they can do that.
So between that and having Florida winning, I think I’ll go take another shower. I feel dirty.
Pros: You feel like you are actually working at something. If you do well, you can claim expert status.
Cons: If your team isn’t great and a tam you hate is, you feel like a traitor.
So that’s it for 2014. If you want to see how your bracket stacks up against science and insanity, feel free to join here. There’s no prize — certainly no $1 Billion, but you can trash talk me, which is almost as fun.
Maybe there’s something in the air, I don’t know (in related news, maybe it’s the same something that has made me cough nonstop for the last eight days). But today, more than any other day, it seems like people have lost their collective minds. I have been hosting Community Trust Bank Sunday Morning Sports Talk for a little over five years now, I don’t remember ever having been as frustrated as I was leaving the studio today.
The frustration started almost as soon as I got in, well before the show started. I went to grab the Herald-Leader sports page (I think their sports team does a great job, for the record) and accidentally caught a glimpse of this morning’s Joel Pett cartoon. The cartoon depicts two homeless men with a copy of the “Herald-Cheerleader” announcing the upcoming $110 million Commonwealth Stadium renovation with pictures of UK President Eli Capilouto and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. One of the men says to the other “And people think WE’RE out of our minds.” Pett’s tie of the renovation money to homelessness is at best misinformed and is at worst – and likely – intentionally misleading.
The money being used to renovate Commonwealth Stadium is bonded by the University of Kentucky Athletics Association and will be repaid by the Association out of revenue and donations. No tax money is involved. No services are being threatened. Kentucky athletics is borrowing money to improve its facilities and improve its product. Since UK Athletics is in the business of fielding athletic teams, that makes them only about the billionth business on earth to borrow money to make improvements – nothing more, nothing less. Although in this case, UK athletics will also be paying for $65 million dollars of the construction cost of a new science building as well.
While I wasn’t surprised by the Pett cartoon – he’s made a cottage industry out of making a fool of himself – I was surprised that the angst over the stadium renovations extended to apparently a fair number of the fan base, based on calls and e-mails to today’s show.
The biggest concern seemed to be that the renovations don’t do enough for the fan, while the price of admission is likely to go up. Here, there are two important things to remember:
1) The greatest possible benefit to the fan is to improve the product on the field. THAT should always be the overriding goal of any money the athletics department spends. The average UK fan has NO IDEA how the new softball stadium and the new soccer stadium have improved the fan experience. My guess it that the fan impact of those projects is not significant. What is significant is that they are expected to benefit the teams’ preparation and performance and make the teams more attractive to potential players. The same can be said for the Commonwealth Stadium upgrades. Frankly, I’m not sure what more fans want out of the upgrade beyond the better bathrooms, wider concourses and increased concessions. What were you expecting?
2) The price will go up. And it has to. In the college football world, Kentucky has been practically giving away tickets to games. In the college football world, Kentucky fans have largely gotten what they paid for.
As of 2012 (the most recent numbers I could find between coughs) Kentucky spent the second least on football in the best football conference in America. That ain’t going to cut it. Certainly the numbers have risen since the Mark Stoops hire, but as of 2012, Kentucky spent $25 million less on football than Auburn. TWENTY-FIVE! It was $18 million less than Alabama. So, Big Blue Nation, here are your options. You can either demand that Kentucky play competitive football or you can demand that they continue to play football on the cheap. You can’t demand both. For years, Kentucky football faithful carried on about the need for a recruiting room. That recruiting room is included in the upcoming renovations. That recruiting room costs money. The renovations will include an improved locker room for the team. Have you seen the locker rooms at some of the power teams in college football? No? Well here’s Alabama’s locker room.
Oh and here’s Oregon’s locker room.
Should kids be swayed to come to your school because of a snazzy locker room? Maybe not, but you know who plays college football? Teenagers, mostly. You know what impresses teenagers? Cool stuff. Cool stuff costs money.
Cats fans have demanded that UK try to play with the big boys on the gridiron. They appear to be poised to make that effort. And STILL UK fans complain about that effort.
Despite my surprise at the negative reaction to the stadium upgrades it wasn’t close to the most shocking part of the show. That came when a caller said that we should start looking now for a new coach. Seriously. That happened.
Mark Stoops has been on the job for slightly less than a year. He inherited a program that was at one of the lowest points in a school history filled with low points. He inherited a roster without a clear quarterback and that was – as the lament went last year – devoid of playmakers on offense. In less than two months on the job he produced one of the highest ranked football recruiting classes in school history. Before this season started, he had garnered commitments from players in a recruiting class that would eclipse that first one. He had successfully recruited one of the two best players in the state in Drew Barker and was still very much in the hunt for Defensive Lineman Matt Elam who is the other one, as evidenced by this tweet on Sunday:
— Matt Elam™6⃣9⃣ (@FballIsLife69) December 1, 2013
Players who would have never have considered Kentucky before were getting in line to play in Lexington based on a promise of better days (and not coincidentally better facilities) to come.
Beyond the recruiting, despite a 2-10 record identical to last year’s, the product on the field was demonstrably better. A defense that had looked confused in 2012 and was relentlessly shredded looked more organized, tougher and kept teams in games. Offensively, the numbers weren’t what UK fans had hoped for with the return of the “Air Raid” offense – an offense that Kentucky couldn’t truly run this season. But on offense Kentucky did show that it had players from that first Stoops recruiting class that had the kind of explosive potential that left Lexington with Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke.
This program didn’t get broken in a year and it wasn’t going to be fixed in a year. If you’re already bailing on this coaching staff, feel free to stay bailed.
In addition to having the opportunity to host Sunday Morning Sports Talk, I have been a season ticket holder for the past three seasons. I have greatly enjoyed having the opportunity to share time with my family at games. Am I concerned that the process of strengthening Kentucky football will price me out of that time? Absolutely, I am. If in the coming year or two years, I have to make a decision that we can no longer do that, I will miss the experience, losses and everything. However, as a UK fan, I am much more concerned about Kentucky fielding a football team the entire Commonwealth can be proud of than I am about whether I watch that team from the stadium or from my couch.
On a sweltering July 4 morning in 1986, an already out of shape and well past his prime 17-year-old former cross country runner struggled through four miles in his Northern Kentucky town’s little Independence Day race. He wobbled home about four minutes slower than he had finished the same race over the same route two years before. So ended his – my – running career. Well, at least until tonight.
After a couple of false starts, Community Trust Bank Sunday Morning Sports Talk co-host Larry Vaught has finally roped me into a 5k, and I managed to be in reasonable shape and haven’t hurt myself long enough to actually run it. So I’ll be in Danville tonight taking part in the Pigskin Classic Twilight 5k. I’ll be running in a challenge with Larry, Ryan Lemond of Kentucky Sports Radio, Amanda Lemond and Jen Maggard (the wife of former UK quarterback Freddie Maggard. At one point it was supposed to be me and Jen versus Larry and Amanda, but when Ryan agreed to get involved, I think it became all of us against him. And that will be the extent of my “racing” tonight. Unlike the cross country days, I am nowhere near fast enough to win anything (although after turning 45 last month, I will be one of the youngest people in my age bracket, so there’s always a chance for that, I guess).
While tonight will be my first race in a long, long time, it won’t be my first run. It actually falls 10 months almost to the day after I hit the road again for the first time in a couple of years (a previous effort ended in a fall, ER visit and hip injury). I started running not because I love the idea of exercise (I decidedly do not) or on some sort of journey of self discovery (although as journeys of self-discoveries go, this one is touching, funny and involves Godzilla. I highly recommend it.)
I started running again in October because one day I thought I was going to die. Sitting at my desk I heard and felt three big pulses in my left temple and heard and felt a little snap. The only other person I knew of who had reported such a sensation passed away from an aneurysm, so we rolled off to the hospital. Clearly I didn’t die and the hospital trip resulted in STILL not knowing what had caused the sensation, but after years of being at least a little (maybe more than a little) overweight and having some high-ish blood pressure issues, it seemed like as good a time as any to start taking it seriously. The next Sunday following the show, I started a Couch to 5k program.
To be clear, I HATED running, even when I was young, in shape and good at it. I didn’t imagine I’d like it any better now that I was older, heavier and slower. But since I despise all forms of exercise equally and running was the one I knew and that I thought I could at least see progress with, that’s what I went with. And a funny thing happened. As I started to lose weight and started to see some improvements in distance and speed, I started to enjoy running, really for the first time in my life. The 45 minutes or so three or four times a week where I was unable to read text messages, or e-mail, or twitter or even answer my phone became some of the best, most relaxing times of my week. So I was able to continue. In fact, in the stretches where I haven’t had time to or been able to run, I’ve missed it.
So tonight, nearly 25 pounds lighter than I was in October and without the dizzy spells that marked the blood pressure problems, I will take my first “competitive” strides in more than 26 years. Certainly I hope I beat Larry and Ryan, but more importantly I’ll be in better shape than I was in at 35 and probably at 30. I feel better on a daily basis than I have in years. I’ll be pretty close to as fast as I was that July 4 in 1986. And even if they beat me; I’ll tie up my shoes and run again on Monday and start looking for my next 5k.
If you happen to be in the Danville area tonight or if you feel like coming down, we’d love to see you. The race starts at 9 and will begin and end in the Danville Admirals’ football stadium, so you can be in the stands to see who wins the old-guy radio running challenge. Be forewarned: I’m more than a little nervous about this, so if you say hello before the race I may throw up on you. After the race you can say hello to a tired, sweaty and quite possibly humiliated version of me. In that sense it will be a lot like meeting me right after the show.
Wish me luck.
Fashion Note: I will be running tonight it a custom-designed Kentucky Catnados t-shirt provided by show listener The Rally Cat. It’s pretty spectacular. Thanks to him for sending it along.
This has to be some kind of record even for me. Andrew Wiggins (the next, LeBron, Jordan, Magic, whoever was Magic before Magic) is a little over 12 hours from announcing which college that he probably really doesn’t want to and shouldn’t have to go to that he will attend for a year or so, and I’m already disgusted by the reaction to it.
To be fair – to me and to the reaction – much like Wiggins’ prolonged decision-making process, the reaction to it is sort of an ongoing entity.
There have been fans who have been upset that he’s drawn the process out for so long, claiming that he’s seeking publicity. God forbid the guy make a thoughtful, rational decision about where he wants to spend his college season and wait until he’s sure.
In the lead up to Wiggins’ announcement every man, woman, child, puppy, badger and hedgehog who covers recruiting – whether on the internet, stone tablets, papyrus or smoke signals has been harassed nearly to the point of retirement with the “Where will Wiggins go?” question. It has been a months-long study in whether or not “I don’t know” really means “I don’t know.”
Once upon a time people complained about high school athletes turning their announcements into massive media events. Now that there’s a cable channel in ESPNU that dedicates a fair portion of its time to helping make these announcements massive media events, the tide seems to have turned. Today I saw Wiggins referred to as a “diva” for making his announcement privately, among family friends and coaches with one print and one TV reporter on hand to chronicle the event.
Moral of the story: No matter which way these kids decide to go, it won’t be good enough for somebody who somehow feels entitled to their decision.
And once Wiggins’ decision hits the airwaves, Twitterverse and wherever else, some set or sets of inexplicably aggrieved fans will take to those same channels and blast the kid. Some of what is said to and about him will be the vilest material you will ever wish you had never read. Sure, Herald-Leader columnist Mark Story has hoped out loud that that won’t happen. That’s what I really like about Mark, he hopes for the good in people. Unfortunately we all know that masses of those people will let him down.
This is what happens when we become obsessed with the decision making of 18 year olds; when we get so wrapped up in the process that they go through to make what may very well be the first major decision of their lives, that we lose all sense of reason, of decency and of civility.
The response has become all too common as fans who were once interested in the scores of actual games, have become increasingly concerned about teenagers who may never play for their team.
I’m not sure when it became this way. I guess somewhere at the conflux of the internet age and the social media boom. The first three high school players I ever remember caring about where they went to college were Dicky Beal and Troy McKinley (Kentucky) and Doug Schloemer (Cincinnati) – all northern Kentucky guys. And even if I had been disappointed in their decisions, I had no way to tell them how angry I was at them. Well, I could have told Schloemer since he played pickup basketball sometimes at a house up the street from me, but I wouldn’t have – and not just because he was bigger and older than me and could shave, but because I didn’t have a say in where he went. Well, that and because he was bigger and older than me and had to shave.
To be clear, I don’t blame the recruiting reporters and the recruiting Web sites for any of this. I respect the work they do, and those guys work their tails off. One of the many things that has made this country great is that if there is a way to make money, somebody can and will make it. I’ll never fault anybody for that, but you can’t say that their proliferation – coupled with the direct access to athletes that social media provides — has been good for us as sports fans.
First of all, it’s turned us into people who never seem to care enough about today, about this game. No sooner had Kentucky won the 2012 National Championship (and in some cases before then), people were talking about the next recruiting class coming in and the chance to win a ninth. And no matter how the last UK season went (ending with a loss in the NIT for those of you who have wiped it from your memories), people were talking about No. 9 again with another round of recruits even before those recruits arrived on campus. Second, it’s turned some of us into monsters, hiding behind screen names and false identities to spew venom at a teenager who had the gall to go to school wherever he wanted.
I’m not sure what the answer is for guys like Wiggins – athletes who live in the public eye at a young age, occasionally reluctantly. I’ve heard it said that he sought all this out. How, exactly? By being good at something? Because he can play basketball better than anybody else his age, that gives college basketball fans a reason to be bothered by a choice he makes? Is it because he plays games on national TV? So should he turn down the chance to play in the All-Star games? Turn down the opportunity to make the most of his abilities in exchange for the chance to not get hassled? How does that make sense?
I will say this; were I Wiggins’ parents (which as far as I know I am not) I would have him shut off his Twitter, his Facebook (if he has one) and whatever other outlet people have to be directly obnoxious to him. No good can come of reading any of that. Of course, that’s unfair to him. I’m sure his friends have those things. Twitter and Facebook are kind of cool, lots of kids have them and I’m sure he’d love to have those options, but in the modern sports world, the tradeoff for his talent is apparently not being able to do many of the things his less sports-talented friends do without worry.
Obviously, I don’t know where Wiggins will decide to play his several months of college basketball. The more I read about it, the more it seems nobody else really does either. Wherever that happens to be, though, I wish him well, hope he manages not to get injured playing a season that shouldn’t have to happen and that by and large, the people who seem to feel so entitled to his services don’t spend their entire afternoons acting like idiots tomorrow.
So, Rick Pitino’s Louisville team will face off with Mike Krzyewski’s (and for the 1 billionth consecutive time I had to look up that spelling – by typing in “Duke Head Coach.” Seriously, I can’t even spell it well enough to Google the proper spelling) Duke team for a trip to the Final Four on Sunday. This “lucky coincidence” of the bracket has predictably brought a flood of memory stories and columns about the 1992 UK-Duke Regional Final – the game many refer to as the greatest college basketball game ever played. The great Gene Wojciechowski (also looked up, also without even trying to spell the last name – can’t ANYBODY be named Smith?) called it The Last Great Game in the title of his book on the epic struggle. So I thought it only appropriate that I share my memories of the game as well.
My date that night looked amazing. She had on a gold and black (GO NORSE!) dress and her 90s-era big, curly hairstyle that was all the rage was at its biggest and curliest. And her smile, as always, lit up the room.
That’s pretty much it. I never saw the game. In fact, to this day I haven’t seen more than a few minutes of the game – Sean Woods’ shot to put UK ahead, and of course the Laettner shot that CBS is so kind to show a billion times each February and March. Other than that, I got nothing.
It’s true. In a lifetime of watching sports for sports sake – whether I cared about the game or the teams at all – and of commitment to seeing all of sports’ biggest moments, there is one giant hole in my sports viewing life. I saw NONE of the greatest college basketball game ever played, even though it was my favorite team playing in a huge spot against a team I detest with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
I have a good excuse though…she was so pretty (<- you really need to click that link. I still laugh every time I see it).
I had been living in Texas. It was my first job out of college. I was working in the Athletics Marketing Department at what is now Texas State –San Marcos, then known as Southwest Texas State. In an odd twist, they helped me see my first ever game at Rupp. The Bobcats played Kentucky at Rupp in a classic December mismatch that year. I’ll never forget the column lead in the Herald-Leader that day (wish I could remember the writer) – “nickname Bobcats. Codename cupcakes.” After 20-plus years as a UK fan, I finally got to see a game on a visiting media credential. While “my” team took a drubbing from my team that night (we had to guard Jamal Mashburn with a freshman high jumper named Marcus Cooper we plucked from the track team. Carlos Toomer scored 12 in the 82-36 win, which could have been much, much worse.), it did lead to one of my all-time career highlights – I both met Cawood Ledford for the first time, and at halftime I looked down press row and realized that both me and Cawood were talking on the radio from Rupp at the same time. The big difference was people were listening to Cawood.
Shortly after that game, I flew back home for Christmas and against all odds (those of you who know me well and especially those who knew me then can attest the longshottedness) had a couple of dates with a girl I had known from college. We stayed in touch after I went back to Texas. She visited on spring break (and trust me, while nice, San Marcos is no spring break destination point) and I came back to see her for a week in March. Which is how I came to be at the Northern Kentucky University Delta Zeta sorority chapter’s Spring Formal while the greatest college basketball game ever played was happening. Were there TVs at the formal location? Sure. Had I just flown home the day before? Yes. Did I think it was in my bets interests to sit glued to a TV at her event? No. No I did not. So it came to pass that I…saw…nothing.
Obviously, after all these years and with the advent of such awe-inspiring technology, I could go back and watch the game in its entirety, but I have never been a fan of watching sports after the fact. A great deal of the joy of sports is the unknown. How do things turn out? Can we pull this off? What happens next? Knowing any of those things turns the unique excitement of watching sports into watching an ok-ish cable drama. It’s just not the same. I have to do it sometimes these days, but only because I have to sometimes in order to sound reasonably coherent on First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk (9 am-Noon on NewsRadio 630 WLAP).
So it is that I have no personal recollection of a game that is so fondly remembered by some and still causes others so much pain. Maybe it’s better that I don’t remember. I’ve never been one to handle defeats well (I still hate the Oakland A’s because of the 1972 World Series).
Oh, and that pretty girl? She eventually agreed to marry me. I’ll take the tradeoff.
My annual Blog Bracket experiment has gone fairly predictably. The Kenpom Bracket – last year’s champion – not only has a comfortable lead, but it also has two of four Final Four teams (Louisville & Florida) remaining, as well as Florida winning it all, which makes me want to throw up.
The loss of three No. 1 seeds and the failure to get more than one Elite Eight game matchup right has all but doomed the Higher Seed Bracket at this point, although it still sits in second place and has champion Louisville left.
The RPI Bracket is almost tapped out, but has the nausea-inducing Duke National Championship possibility still alive.
The Coin Toss Bracket even has a championship possibility left in Duke.
At least my Homer Bracket was one of 0.95% in the ESPN Bracket Challenge that picked Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16. Long live Dunk City.