Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Bob Diaco Needs to Be a Better Coach, Now

If UConn fired Bob Diaco after Saturday, I’d understand. I wouldn’t agree, but I’d understand.

It is completely inexcusable to lose a game when you have the ball at the 1-yard line because the clock ran out. An interception. A fumble. A bad offensive play. A good defensive play. These things happen. Not getting a play off? That’s unacceptable.

Yet the most confounding thing about UConn’s loss on Saturday to Navy is how many UConn fans are okay with it. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that UConn used to be so bad that we should encouraged they played well.

The low point was a piece on the UConn Blog that surmised the “feeling” of the Navy game was the real victory.

“But the way I know you felt, you probably haven't felt that way watching this team in five years.”

Come on, seriously? In the immortal words of Herm Edwards, “You play to win the game.” UConn lost the game.

uconn clock runs outLet’s be absolutely clear – Bob Diaco is in his third year as UConn’s head coach and the team made a bowl game last year. UConn is the only team to beat Houston in two years. I’m supposed to feel good about losing to a Navy team playing its backup quarterback?

No, I’m not. No one is.

UConn is in the midst of trying to prove to the world that he deserves to be in a Power Five conference, specifically the Big 12. How is taking a moral victory from a loss to Navy going to show that to the Big 12?

Navy is a solid football team and has been for more than a decade. However, this is not a vintage Navy football team – not with Keenan Reynolds off to the try the NFL and not with its 2016 starter being lost for the season in week 1. This was a game UConn should have won. They didn’t because the coach failed them.

I can accept our players not executing. I can accept play calls not working out. I cannot accept our head coach preventing the team from winning.

Most troubling has been Diaco’s response to the loss, which should have started with the words, “I’m sorry.”

Instead, Diaco’s reasons are worrisome. First, he said UConn blew their last timeout because the clock was running – the clock was not running. Second, he said that the players wanted to run the ball and he was “fine with it” as if he’s not the, you know, Head Coach who makes that decision. Third, he said that he was there to be held accountable and he should take the blame – um Coach, who else were people going to blame?

Bob Diaco has certainly improved UConn since 2013. But UConn in 2013 was literally the worst team in college football. I’m not going to celebrate that improvement like he walked on water. I watched Randy Edsall win football games for a decade. I have a higher standard for UConn football than close losses to Navy.

What has really annoyed me about the post-game fallout is my real issue with Bob Diaco’s coaching – how the hell was UConn down 21-0 to Navy? It was a continuation of Diaco’s worst trait, as UConn seems to consistently start games slow.

Against Navy, how was our defense so initially unprepared for the triple option? Where was the passing game in the first half? Where was the aggressive play calling? Does UConn have to be down three touchdowns before throwing the ball downfield?

The worst part about Navy’s loss is how close UConn was to something special. They would be 2-0 heading home to face two ACC teams that they should be favored against. They were staring a 4-0 start in the face leading to a primetime showdown on ESPN vs Houston with untold hype.

It’s all gone because Bob Diaco is the only football coach in the world that doesn’t throw the ball  -- or at least rolls the damn QB out of the pocket for a pass-run option. He called the worst possible play and then told the world the players called it.

If you’re read my views on UConn, you know that I have been on-board with Diaco since Day 1. I found 13 reasons to be excited about the ultimately ill-fated 2014 season. I’ve made trips up from DC to the Rent to watch some terrible football over the past few years. But I’ve never wavered in my support for Diaco. Until Saturday.

Simply put, a competent football coach does not allow the clock to run out like that. It was a fireable offense. At a school like Texas or Oklahoma, it could be. Instead, UConn fans shrug their shoulders and take solace in the fact the Huskies don’t suck anymore.

Most frustratingly, the same people who think we should be happy that UConn improved will be the same people decrying the empty seats this Saturday against Virginia. Those fans are the problem because those seats would be filled if UConn beat Navy.

There’s nothing confusing about sports. You play to win games. Fans pay to see teams that win games. Right now, UConn isn’t winning football games, so fans aren’t paying to watch them.

Before the season, I believed UConn had the potential to win 9 games, 10 if you include the bowl game. When you have the potential to win that many games, there are no such things as moral victories.

If UConn wants to be a Power Five school, everyone needs to start acting like it, including the fans. The players did their part in the second half against Navy. Now, the head coach needs to do his part.

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Friday, September 9, 2016

UConn Football's Most Important Game, Ever?

A September game against Navy should never be the most important in school history. Yet, here we are with UConn football.

The first weekend of the 2016 college football season could not have started any worse for UConn, who stumbled through a thoroughly uninspiring last-second win against Maine. Maine might be great this year, but they play FCS football and were 3-8 in 2015. UConn needs to win that game by more than 3 points.

For all the hand-wringing and disappointment about the opener – terrible offensive line play, awful defensive lapses, an empty stadium, the looming feeling of being stuck in the Group of Five – the first weekend of the 2016 college football season could not have gone any better for UConn.

That all starts with Navy, who thrashed Fordham in week one but lost its starting quarterback, who in turn was replacing the school’s best QB (Keenan Reynolds) since Roger Staubach. Vegas has noticed, as the line for the Navy/UConn game has shifted dramatically toward the Huskies, down from an opening line of Navy -7.5 to Navy -3.5.

What looked like a terrible loss after the Maine game now looks eminently winnable. Beating Navy and Maine should not be cause for celebration at most places. UConn is not most places in football. It’s been a long, hard, painful slog since Randy Edsall left and UConn made the single worst coaching hire of the 21st Century.

Is being 2-0 that important? Yes. UConn has gone 2-0 once since 2008 and it was last year when UConn beat Villanova and Army, then promptly followed it up with five losses in six games. This could be so much different.

We don’t need to address the elephant in the room – UConn needs to impress the Big 12, ACC, Big Ten and/or ESPN. A huge part of that is ticket sales. How do you sell tickets? You win football games. UConn has not won many football games.

A win over Navy, though, could be a springboard. Did I mention how well the opening weekend went for UConn? After Navy, UConn returns home to face a Virginia team that just got throttled by FCS Richmond and is clearly already deep into a “tear it down to build it up” year. UConn should win that game.

Okay, now we’re talking about a 3-0 UConn team – UConn hasn’t been 3-0 since 2008! – with past, future, and always rival Syracuse coming to town for the first time since 2011. It’s already a game circled on every UConn fan’s calendar. It will almost certainly be a sellout, if both teams were 3-0 or 0-3. Even better, Syracuse is beatable. Yes, they could be improved, but they are well within UConn’s reach.

Let’s see, four games, four potential wins, could UConn actually end September undefeated? What would that do for the fan base? What would that to do about the “narrative” that UConn football stinks? How would that play in the Big 12 offices?

This is where I reveal why Navy – and all the subsequent games – are so important. UConn ends the month by traveling to Houston for a Thursday night primetime showdown on ESPN. Houston is already ranked #6 and should remain in the Top 10 when UConn rolls into town. Houston is by far, by an order of magnititude UConn’s toughest opponent. Still, UConn beat Houston with a backup quarterback last year.

Can you see it? Can you see the ESPN hype?

Undefeated Houston hosting the only team that’s beaten them in two years and, oh by the way, they’re undefeated too with 2 wins over ACC teams. It’s the type of game that not only puts UConn on the map, but also solidifies the AAC as the top Group of Five conference. Like in 2006 and the Big East’s big Thursday night games, it could be the catalyst for the AAC to be taken seriously as a football conference on the same level of Power Five conferences.

Am I getting ahead of myself? You damn right I am. That’s the beauty of sports. And it’s the beauty of having everything fortuitously fall into place.

Houston had to beat Oklahoma. Navy needed to show vulnerability. Virginia had to show it sucked. Syracuse had to, well, just be Syracuse.

Walking out of the Rent following the Maine game, I would have slapped anyone who said, “UConn should be 4-0 when it plays Houston.” Yet just a week later, I’m saying the exact same thing.

It all hinges on Navy. Sure, UConn should still beat Virginia and could still beat Syracuse and enter the Houston game at a respectable 3-1. It’ll be a fun storyline with the revenge factor. It wouldn’t, however, move the needle.

An undefeated UConn facing an undefeated Top 10 Houston in a revenge game would definitely move the needle. That, in a nutshell, is what the Big 12 is looking for. Fans can spout garbage about attendance or market sizes or apparel contracts. The Big 12, and any Power Five conference, wants to add a school that moves the needle in football.

Right now, Houston is moving the needle in football. If UConn wants to rejoin the big leagues, they need to start moving the needle in football again. It won’t happen with a win over Navy on Saturday – but it cannot happen without a win.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Believeland was Another Disappointment for Cleveland, and ESPN

If I watch a documentary and don’t learn any new information, I get angry. What was the point?

Those were my feelings after finally watching ESPN’s much-hyped Believeland documentary on the history of sports teams losing in Cleveland. Instead of revealing more about the city, it revealed how far ESPN’s sports documentaries had fallen since the 30 for 30 series began.

the fumble reaction
When Bill Simmons initially floated the 30 for 30 concept, it was a direct response to the formulaic nature of sports documentaries, particularly coming from HBO. Yes, the irony is dripping everywhere as Simmons begins his new partnership with HBO.

At the time, HBO’s docs had fallen into a usual formula, with talking heads reflecting on past moments, spliced with archive footage. Sometimes, the source material was so compelling – such as the Miracle on Ice or the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry – that it didn’t matter about the format. However, duds like the boring doc on the UNC/Duke rivalry showed that HBO was stuck in a rut.

It’s the same rut that ESPN now finds itself in. Recent docs have all followed the same formula, with fans, media and participants reflecting on what happened. Believeland felt no different in structure than Trojan War, ESPN’s look at the rise and fall of USC’s football dynasty under Pete Carroll.

Believeland, like Trojan War and others before it, was so disappointing because we never delved beneath the surface. Going into Believeland, you knew that Cleveland had tough losses. Leaving Believeland, you knew that Cleveland had tough losses.

Believeland, though, was extra frustrating because it came annoyingly close to uncovering interesting and unexplored aspects of the city and its psyche.

For example, one talking head makes the claim that Cleveland has a bad reputation nationally because of the losing, while Pittsburgh is buoyed by all of its championships. While that may be true now, the time frame discussed was the 1980’s and 1990’s. In the 90’s, Pittsburgh was a national laughingstock – the Pirates couldn’t afford its players and the Penguins ended up in financial ruin. There was more there, but it was never explored.

Similarly, Art Modell’s move to Baltimore was presented in two ways. His son said Art had given so much money to Cleveland that he was broke, and the fact the city build new arenas for the Cavaliers and Indians but not him was a slap in the face. City leaders, though, said Art was lying and he had plenty of money.

This is a massive part of the Browns’ departure – who was telling the truth? Instead of spending any time investigating this, the documentary moved quickly from this opposing viewpoints to the standard “I was sad when they left” sound bites.

This particular sequence was infuriating because the Browns leaving Cleveland is a seminal sports story. If you’re not able to do it justice, why even broach the subject? It was the most basic way to approach a story. It made me think of the NFL Network’s amazing Football Life documentary “Cleveland ‘95” where they told that story through the coaching staff and front office employees. That was unique and enthralling.

As ESPN pushes its latest project, “OJ Made in America,” they put an original 30 for 30 doc on-demand – June 17, 1994. That title is one of my favorites 30 for 30 entries because of its daring uniqueness. There are no talking heads or voiceovers – it’s 60 minutes of edited live footage from that day in the world of sports. It’s fascinating. It’s engaging. It’s eye-opening.

The initial 30 for 30 series was filled with unique takes and approaches to subjects. They didn’t all work but I always appreciated the chances. The documentary on Ricky Williams, filled with mostly home videos, was tremendous. The saga of Marcus Dupree was essentially a talking head documentary, but seeing the current Marcus Dupree going back to his childhood home or his old high school added a layer to the proceedings unmatched by Believeland or Trojan War.

Part of the problem is that ESPN is trying to tackle broad subjects that have mass appeal to audiences, like USC football or the Duke lacrosse rape hoax. The problem is that sports fans already know the key notes – those documentaries only work if we learn more.

At the end of the day, ESPN’s success will not be determined by the quality of its documentaries. But after building so much brand equity with a stunning first 30 films, the quality of its documentaries have noticeably declined.

The early reviews on the next OJ film have been overwhelmingly positive, so let’s hope the company continues to take the road less travelled on documentaries as opposed to walking the same streets we’ve walked for years.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Jared Goff is the Next Ryan Leaf and the Rams are Doomed

He even looks like Ryan Leaf.

When the Rams made the trade to acquire the #1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, I was convinced they were taking North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz. There was no way, I thought, that the Rams were going to mortgage their future on a guy who wasn’t even the best QB in his league.

I was wrong. And the Rams were wrong too.

jared goff shaving
While Goff clearly has the arm strength and ability to be an NFL quarterback, he has given zero indication that he’s ready to be a franchise quarterback. The fact that he’s going to be the franchise QB for a team moving to Los Angeles and will now be featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks just adds to the unrelenting pressure that is going to break him.

It was obvious on draft night that the Rams made the wrong choice. On Draft Day, I watched ESPN on my lunch break and watched Goff give an interview as he was being shaved, to help promote Gillette. Throughout the night, his Twitter feed was a #brand special, as he apparently sold his name to anyone willing to give him money. It was not a good look.

It provided a pretty clear window into the head of a guy already indulging in the fame of playing NFL football, before even playing NFL football. Now Goff isn’t the first first-round pick to exploit his notoriety for money before playing a down – particularly since Deion Sanders set the template three decades ago. But rarely, if ever, has a QB managed to do that and been successful.

In fact, if you look at the NFL’s top QBs, there is almost always a story of triumph over adversity. Tom Brady and Tony Romo were not #1 picks. Drew Brees was thought to be done a decade ago. Joe Flacco had to drop down to the FCS level to play. Russell Wilson was too short. Even top picks who made it were not flashy – Peyton Maning and Andrew Luck entered the league as sure-fire stars, but were not exploiting their #brand from day 1.

The parallels between Goff and Leaf will hopefully only remain confined to the field – Goff has not given an indication yet that he’s a moronic hothead ready to pop off at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, he has given an indication that he shares Leaf’s characteristics on the field.

I’ve been wrong before, because I would’ve taken Leaf over Peyton in a heartbeat in 1998. Of course, I was 16 and not a good evaluator of men. But in terms of talent, I didn’t even think it was close. Leaf had carried an extremely average Washington State team to the Rose Bowl and nearly knocked off eventual national champs Michigan. The Cougars had zero right to be in that game, but Leaf was a difference maker. Seriously, the dude threw for 331 yards against that Michigan defense!

Leaf played a brand of high-velocity, wide-open West Coast football that was the antithesis of the NFL, and he couldn’t  adjust. While the NFL is more like college football today than in 1998, the Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid offense is still nothing like what you’ll see on Sundays.

todd gurley rams
Even more confounding about the whole thing is that Jeff Fisher coaches the Rams and Jeff Fisher is going to run the ball 40 times a game. Hell, if you had Todd Gurley, you would too.

This is where I pre-emptively blame Jeff Fisher for Goff’s failure, similar to how Fisher’s tenure ending up derailing the career of Vince Young. Let’s be honest – Jeff Fisher is a very mediocre coach who has somehow parlayed one Super Bowl appearance into a never-ending NFL coaching career.

This is where I pre-emptively blame Rams’ management for Goff’s failure, because why did they need a QB? The franchise is going to be Todd Gurley and they already have him. They need a better offensive line. They need better receivers. They need to boost the back-end of the defense. The QB pick was one for show, to try to sell tickets and move the needle in a city that doesn’t give a shit about the Rams.

Even then, I still don’t know why they didn’t draft Wentz! He played in a pro-style offense in college. He has the perfect temperament to be the starting QB, yet defer to Todd Gurley. Why couldn’t they sell tickets on the back of the game’s best running back?

Instead, the Rams are stuck with a walking advertisement who has yet to win a big game in his career. Do the Rams think he’s going to suddenly step up and knock off top teams as a pro?

Even worse, there will be no time for Goff to develop. He must produce in year 1, because Jeff Fisher needs to start producing or he’s shown the door. They share a division with two bona fide Super Bowl contenders in the Seahawks and Cardinals, and a total wild card in the Chip Kelly-led 49ers.

I’m not rooting for Jared Goff to fail. It’s just that he will. And I feel bad, because it’s not his fault the Rams made a terrible trade, compounded by a terrible draft pick.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The American Pharoah Effect is Real, and It’s Spectacular

It’s hard to quantify a feeling. It’s easy to quantify cold, hard cash.

This February, the money bet on horse racing nationwide increased 6.4% compared to 2015 despite a reduction in the number of race days and races. In March, total money bet rose only slightly, but overcame dramatic decreases of 9% in race days and 8.5% in races.

american pharoah wins derby
While numbers jumped across the board in 2015, it was widely presumed that the American Pharoah effect would follow the equine star to the breeding shed and 2016 would mark a return to the status quo.

Instead, all the hard work performed by the thoroughbred industry over the past decade formed the foundation for a springboard in 2016. As Nyquist blistered down the stretch at Churchill Downs, the sport was actually prepared to take advantage.

It’s been a remarkable decade for the sport, which reached its nadir in 2006 following the death of Barbaro and a string of high-profile injuries and drug controversies.

The depths horse racing had plummeted were revealed this past Friday afternoon, as NBCSN replayed the 2009 Kentucky Oaks. That race, won by Rachel Alexandra in breathtaking fashion, aired on Bravo. Yes, that Bravo. And no, I don’t think they’ve aired a horse race since. It was almost an after-thought; a hastily scheduled show that likely produced a viewership measured in five digits.

The irony of the Oaks replay was when it was aired – during six hours of live NBCSN coverage of the 2016 Kentucky Oaks, featuring Rachel Alexandra’s daughter Rachel’s Valentina.

Horse racing had been steadily preparing for a return to the mainstream, driven by the confluence of cable television and online gambling. In particular, online betting is the future of the sport. While many states once had restrictions, those are slowly being reduced. On, a popular site that gets wide promotion during nationally televised horse races, only 11 states completely restrict wagering.

But online gambling is only good if people can watch the races. While TVG exists to serve the railbird handicapper, the casual fan is not tuning in. For them, horse racing needs to be brought to them.

This is where cable television swoops in to further aid the sport. In recent years, Fox Sports 1 aired select races that helped. Most importantly, NBC has made a significant investment in the sport. This past Friday and Saturday, they aired more than 13 hours of live horse racing coverage. Even more importantly, they actually showed other horse races.

For years, it had been frustrating to watch NBC profile Derby hats as Grade 1 races went on, untelevised, in the background. This year, NBC showed every undercard race in its entirety and handicapped each race. Finally, NBC was treating the audience smartly – it was a welcome change from past years and the “Horse Racing 101” approach.  

Still, the sport needed a catalyst and American Pharoah was that and then some. If you were brought to horse racing in 2015 because of the Triple Crown winner, you were exposed to the absolute best that the sport had to offer.

Not only did you follow the exploits of a legendary star, you were exposed to the grand sport of horse racing. You were introduced to Monmouth Park, Saratoga and Keeneland. You learned about the Haskell, the Travers and the Breeders. You met Bob Baffert and Victor Esponiza.

The biggest obstacle for horse racing in attracting casual, mainstream fans is that the “big horse” doesn’t always win. For all of 2015, American Pharoah flipped that script, producing jaw-dropping performances. Even his loss only enhanced Saratoga’s reputation as the Graveyard of Favorites and added a layer of intrigue to his Breeders Cup coronation, which was a smashing ratings success.

American Pharoah didn’t just introduce horse racing to millions that used to ignore the sport after the Belmont Stakes ended, he introduced the very best version of horse racing to millions. That’s why the number of foals increased. That’s why yearling sales are up.

The sport of horse racing never died. In fact, it was improving. The problem was no one noticed. American Pharoah shone a bright spotlight at the perfect time because it was finally ready for a close up.

The possibilities for 2016 are unlimited. Beholder returned on Sunday and is the best mare in training since Zenyatta. California Chrome dominated the Dubai World Cup in March and is the best older horse in training since Curlin. Nyquist blew away the Kentucky Derby field and is the best Derby winner since, well, okay that wait hasn’t been as long.

The Breeders Cup Classic is very, very far away, but we already have three superstars identified for that race before the Preakness. In some years, there were no stars at all.

Conventional wisdom said a Triple Crown winner wouldn’t instantly thrust the sport back into the mainstream. Conventional wisdom was wrong.