Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Death to the College Football Playoff

It all ends on January 1, 2016.

That will be the day that the Rose Bowl game will happen and, for the first time in its illustrious history, no one will give a shit. It will take place the day after that season’s two playoff games.

sugar bowl empty seats
Could you imagine if the NIT final was held the Sunday after the Final Four?

The positioning of the bowls in the New Year’s Six illuminates everything that is wrong about the four-team playoff.

You thought the BCS was bad? This is even worse.                                                   
New Year’s Day was traditionally the end of the college football season. The BCS messed that up so bad that the NHL – yes, hockey – was able to carve out an audience with the Winter Classic. Understandably unhappy with that development, the new college football playoff aimed to reclaim New Year’s Day.

As the 2014-15 bowl schedule reveals, the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl will host the playoff games on New Year’s Day after the other major bowls are played, with three on New Year’s Eve. It builds to a crescendo. It makes sense.

The trouble comes in the other two years in the three-year cycle. The Rose Bowl, with its tradition and money, didn’t want to leave its New Year’s afternoon slot. It would seem to make sense, to keep building to that crescendo, to have one playoff game on New Year’s Eve night and one on New Year’s night after the Rose Bowl.

But the SEC and the Big 12 felt slighted. Like a silver spoon child throwing a temper tantrum, they created their own “Champions Bowl” – now the Sugar Bowl – that will almost never consist of any league champions. The result? A semifinal game on Dec. 31, 2015, will kick off at 4:30 p.m., or 1:30 p.m. in California, where a good deal of Americans will still be at work.

It is the definition of stupidity. It is the work of a cartel circling the wagons to ensure all the money stays within the cartel. It is a continuation of the work the BCS started except under a better name that has suckered college football fans into cheering its arrival.

The absurdity reached new heights when SEC commissioner Mike Slive announced a “new” scheduling philosophy for his conference. That included the exact same conference schedule setup and the “mandate” that SEC teams play one team from another Power Five conference.

He literally announced nothing.

But it did not stop moronic sportswriters from carrying his water. The SEC teams will still not play five of its conference mates. They can still play three cupcakes at home. Teams like Alabama will still never leave the South, accepting million-dollar contracts for neutral site games in lieu of road trips to East Lansing.

Do you realize college football has had a playoff since 1998? It was a two-team playoff. It was the literal definition of a playoff as only two teams advanced after the regular season concluded.

And you know what? It actually worked, for the most part, in the playoff aspect. In its last five years, there were four controversy-free BCS Title Games. In fact, the only controversial game was in 2011 because of dumb luck – the best two teams happened to share the same division and played in the regular season.

In the great irony of ironies, what caused that controversy was the rematch aspect. You know what is far more likely to happen? You guessed it – rematches. It could’ve happened in 2010 with Stanford and Oregon. In 2008, the semifinals would have been two rematches in Oklahoma/Texas and Alabama/Florida. In 2012, Stanford likely would’ve played Notre Dame again. Just last year, Alabama/Auburn would’ve played again.

Let me make myself very clear – I am glad the BCS is gone. But I want a 16-team playoff. I don’t want this farce of a four-team playoff that has arrived.

How will teams be selected? Who knows? Strength of schedule has been touted constantly but the SEC and others seem intent on limiting nonconference exposure. There has been discussion about the much-disdained “eye test” about selecting teams, which seems to go against using data points. Conference champions will be given “weight” as if that subjective term is objective enough to matter.

The selection committee was supposed to act in lieu of polls that slotted teams improperly based on only some on-field results. These rankings were rigid, based on preseason perceptions, and prevented movement. The hope – the assumption? – was that this would be a thing of the past and college football would emulate college basketball.

Instead, the selection committee will release rankings weekly during the season.

So we traded the BCS rankings, a poll of more than 150 people and computers, for the College Football Playoff rankings, which is a poll of only 13 people.

This is better how?

mike slive sec 2014
All of this is before we discuss how the Power Five now rule the sport thanks to its bottom line. The other five conferences – the AAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Conference USA and MAC – have zero chance to play for a national title. Maybe they didn’t before, but now it’s set in stone.

The other bowl matchups were set up to box out the other five from getting an opportunity to play a “big boy” in the postseason. It does not help the Big 12 when its champ gets blown out by UCF.

It shows how badly the BCS messed everything up that the system that replaced it, which is even worse, can get a free pass from fans and media alike.

They are so excited to see extra games that mean something that they are willing to forgive, well, everything.

It’s okay because those who run college football haven’t figured it out yet. On January 1, 2016, they will. They tried to have their cake and eat it too. They are trying to maintain an outdated bowl system while compromising to give the fans a playoff.

The fans want a true playoff. They watch the bowls because they are there. They’d rather watch a playoff.

Once Pandora’s box is opened, it cannot be closed. Once fans get a taste for playoffs, they’ll want more. If Alabama won’t visit Michigan State in September, maybe they’ll be forced to do so in December.

Everything is driven by money. The windfall from this farce of a four-team playoff is only a tiny speck of what could be made from a 16-team playoff.

Could you even imagine? ESPN pays $130 million per Monday Night Football game. A college football playoff would consist of 15 games, all of which would outdraw all but the best Monday Night Football games.

ESPN pays more than $1 billion every single year for Monday Night Football. What would it pay for a 16-team playoff? What would Fox pay? What would NBC? What would a combined bid from, say, ESPN and CBS net? Is it now reasonable to think a 16-team college football playoff would be worth $2 billion every year?

It is comical, to say the least, to hear college athletic directors wonder about the affect unions and paying athletes would have on the bottom line when there is literally billions of dollars being left on the table every year.

Thankfully, money always wins.

The four-team playoff will be a great success in Year 1. The playoff games will do great ratings. But in year 2, ESPN will start to question why it’s wasting a playoff game on New Year’s Eve afternoon, as ratings for the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl fall off a cliff.

When the same thing happens in Year 3, as more deserving teams just miss the cut for a four-team playoff, the grumblings will become louder.

The four-team college football playoff has a three-year shelf life.

The four-team playoff will fail.

The 16-team playoff is almost here.  

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Post In Which I Praise Gary Bettman

The NHL has never been more popular. But Gary Bettman sucks, right?

I feel like if I keep writing this post my NHL fan card will be revoked because you cannot be a hockey fan and say nice things about Gary Bettman. One of the sport's newest traditions is to boo the living crap out of Bettman when he takes the ice to give out the Stanley Cup.

Is he really so bad?

For all the criticisms levied at Bettman in the past two decades, the past two weeks have produced arguably the best start to any NHL playoffs in history.

The Columbus/Pittsburgh series by itself featured four two-goal comebacks in a row. The Blues and Blackhawks went to overtime four times in five games. It has been mesmerizing each and every night.

gary bettman stanley cupThe ratings reflect that, even though the league has national coverage blacked out in local markets, making it tough to gauge its success versus the NBA, even though a supposedly reputably source like Forbes tried.

Still, Game 4 between the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings surpassed 1 million viewers. That is on a Thursday night, against shows like the Big Bang Theory and the NBA playoffs. There was even another NHL game going on! And it doesn't include one person who watched the game locally in Detroit or Boston.

It is, simply put, a remarkable number.

For all the bad decisions Bettman has made over the years, he made one decision that is so great that it, for all intents and purposes, makes up for all the others.

After the disastrous labor war that wiped out an entire season, there was a very vocal group of owners –  and an even more vocal group of hockey fans – that demanded the NHL remain on ESPN. It made sense. This was a pre-NBCSN and Fox Sports 1 era. There were many who assumed that by leaving ESPN meant leaving the national consciousness.

When the NHL had games on the then-poorly named Outdoor Life Network, these fears seemed realized. The ratings on OLN and then Versus were poor, which is being polite. While NBC did a great job of showcasing the league, NBC was in arguably the worst shape of any broadcast network has ever been in history.

The NHL and the NBC were both struggling. Somehow, less than a decade later, they are both thriving. ESPN has been forced to cover the league more because the league has more fans and are garnering more attention.

Thanks to the Voice, Sunday Night Football and The Blacklist, NBC now features shows people actually watch. Thanks to Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Alex Ovechkin, the NHL now features players people have actually heard of.

If the NHL had stayed on ESPN, does it become as popular? Does ESPN, overloaded with college basketball and the NBA, air as many games as NBCSN? Does ESPN take the lead in making the Winter Classic a New Year's Day tradition when it has the Rose Bowl? Does it bother with more outdoor games? Does it actually cover the sport more than it does now? Doesn't the NHL's position as the "outsider" sport too cool for ESPN actually help its brand?

Under Bettman, the quality of play has gone up exponentially in the past decade, after hitting a nadir with the trap-loving Devils. There are goals. There are great saves. There is energy in every arena because good players will be able to make good plays.

The game isn't perfect, but what sport is? The NFL may rule with an iron fist but has a concussion problem that would submarine any other corporation, were it not too big to fail.

Even the league's decision to move back to the divisional alignment that existed for two decades prior to Bettman changing to a conference set up a la the NBA has been a breath of fresh air, revitalizing rivalries and creating new ones. It just feels right to have the Flyers and Rangers, or Blackhawks and Blues, battling it out in round 1, giving some regional, old-school flavor to a sport that is defined by its tradition.

The NHL could be better. There should be 8 teams in every division. The Sun Belt expansion was too aggressive. The suspensions doled out by the NHL office vary too much and lack common sense at times. Fighting is still an issue that the league can't, or won't, figure out.

To take stock of where the NHL is compared to 10 years ago, or even 20 years ago, is absolutely remarkable. I don't think NHL fans give Bettman enough credit for what he's been able to accomplish.

When Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr won back-to-back Stanley Cups, the finals were aired in Connecticut where I grew up on SportsChannel. It doesn't exist anymore. And not all the games aired live.

When people talk about the NBA pre-Magic and Larry that was the NHL in 1992 despite being post-Gretzky.

Gary Bettman is an easy target. The NHL is still the fourth-most popular professional league in the United State. Based on the nature of the game itself – ya know, the ice part – that is likely never going to change. But the league is undoubtedly in a better position now that it has possibly ever been.

If we blame Bettman for everything, maybe he deserves a little credit too?

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Assessing the AAC after Year 1

Mike Aresco is very happy. Mike Aresco is very worried.

Such is life when you're the commissioner of the first new major college conference since the Big 12 formed in 1996 after the Southwest Conference disintegrated. But in 1996, the Big 12 was adding Texas and Texas A&M to a conference led by Oklahoma and Nebraska. That was easy.

uconn men title
The American Athletic Conference has a much tougher path to success. Its birth was littered by bad decisions and greed.

The Big East would still be a power conference if the membership from early 2011 stayed intact. The conference turned down a billion-dollar deal from ESPN in hopes of a bigger payday down the line. But before NBC or Fox could even load up the Brinks truck, ESPN conspired to destroy the league. They pried Pittsburgh and Syracuse away and it became a battle for survival. ESPN effectively saved itself a billion dollars. The majority of Big East football schools ended up in better situations.

For UConn, Cincinnati and USF, they most certainly did not. As the American Athletic Conference was born on July 1, 2013, the most notable thing to celebrate the occasion was ESPN immediately deleting the Big East blog. It was not the most promising start.

The entire goal of the AAC is to prove it is a major conference and to extract a much more lucrative television contract after the current deal expires in 2020. That gives the league six years to do something special.

Six years in college sports is a literal eternity. As we look ahead to the 2014 football season, the AAC is in limbo. It is not on par with the Power Five, but it clearly sits above the other Group of Five conferences.

To see into the AAC's future, we must first examine its brief past. Here's the good and bad from Year 1

Good: UConn basketball
I mean, obviously, right? The UConn women winning another national title was almost a given based on the talent assembled but it still meant something that it happened. It meant more, however, that it came a day after Kevin Ollie and the men cut down the nets in JerryWorld.

From the beginning, Aresco had pointed to Cincinnati and UConn as the lynchpins of the conference. They have combined for 3 BCS berths since 2008. They have become perennial Top 25 teams in basketball, with UConn establishing itself as the nation's premier program since 1999. There is no need to rehash the UConn "fall from grace" story but its run in March once and for all put it to rest.

The AAC is a major conference in basketball.

Bad: Temple everything
What the hell happened here? When Temple was brought back into the Big East fold, there was some good vibes around a football program that had returned to bowl games under Al Golden and appeared to become a solid asset to the conference in a major American city. Instead, Temple was one of the worst teams in college football last year.

While that may have been okay, the basketball team decided to toss in what has to be considered the program's worst year since, I don't, ever? Temple basically became the AAC's DePaul, with its inclusion due to location. It certainly did not help that both St. Joe's and Villanova had banner years, with the former winning the Atlantic 10 tournament and the latter being a Top 10 team.

Major conferences usually don't include the 3rd best team from a city. Temple needs to get its act together.

Good: UCF football
We should take another moment to thank Louisville for its one-year stay in the AAC because they made UCF football. Without the win at Louisville, UCF's win in the Fiesta Bowl may have been looked at as a fluke. But thanks to that win, which was admittedly viewed as a fluke at the time, the Fiesta Bowl victory proved to be validation.

The AAC now enters 2014 with a true standard bearer and, as a bonus, it's a school that is actually happy to be in the conference! What a concept right?

Bad: The dregs of the conference
In both men's basketball and football, the conference had several very strong teams on top and a bunch of brutally bad teams on the bottom. In basketball, this led to horrible underseeding in the NCAA Tournament and SMU missing out on the tournament completely. In football, it led to UCF not even cracking the Top 10.

Simply put, the teams at the bottom need to stop sucking so badly. Temple, USF, UConn and Memphis were four of the worst football teams last year and they were all in the same conference. Temple, USF, UCF and Rutgers were four of the worst basketball teams last year and they were all in the same conference.
That cannot happen again. Not for a league fighting for any ounce of respect it can get.

ucf baylorGood: The New Year's Six
The new bowl system arrives with six major college bowl game on New Year's Day and New Year's Eve. While two are designated as playoff games, the other four are just bowl games with huge payouts. One team from the Group of Five conferences, which includes the AAC, MAC, Mountain West, Conference USA and Sun Belt, will get a berth.

Thanks to UCF's rise to prominence last year, the AAC will be the favorite to get that berth in 2014. In fact, due to Boise State's decline, the AAC should be the favorite to get this berth every year moving forward. Little has changed from previous years as if this system was in place in 2013, UCF still would have played in a big bowl game, though likely one closer to home.

This is a good thing. The AAC needs to make this guaranteed berth theirs.

Bad: The College Football Playoff
An AAC team is not making the four-team playoff if it goes undefeated. At least not in 2014. It would take several high profile non-conference wins to even be in consideration.

The game is rigged. The AAC cannot win a national title in football.

Good: Television exposure
The ESPN contract is not good from a bottom line standpoint, everyone can agree on that. But the ESPN contract is really, really good from an exposure standpoint.

I live in Washington, D.C. Every single UConn conference game in basketball was on my television. Starting in 2014, the same can be said for football. This is huge. The contract states that every conference game must be shown on a national network, which means ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPNU or the rapidly improving CBS Sports Network. The latter two are available nationally, though usually on sports tiers. Still, they are widely available. For a conference fighting a perception battle, this is fantastic.

I live in Washington, D.C. I don't even have the option of getting the Pac-12 Network. The Big Ten Network is not available nationally. The SEC Network likely won't be. Those conferences are certainly making more money but the AAC does, begrudgingly, have the power of ESPN behind them. That helps.

Bad: Cost of Attendance
Mike Aresco has made it clear that his conference will match anything the Power Five will provide to student-athletes (employees?) and SEC commissioner Mike Slive is already making noise on what he wants to provide.

Can every AAC team afford this? Sure, UConn and Cincinnati won't break a sweat. But what about Tulsa? Tulane?

Good: Geno Auriemma
If there was anyone associated with the conference that should be bad-mouthing it, it's Geno. And he loves to run his mouth. But during UConn's undefeated run, he said only the right things about the AAC. No team will be affected more, at least in the short team, by the conference. There are no other good women's basketball teams.

But Geno has said repeatedly that it doesn't matter. They are still the UConn women. They are still one of the few, if only, women's program that makes money and they make a lot of it. They will be fine even if Notre Dame is too afraid to play them.

Bad: The Horde
Throughout UConn's run to dual championships, the Connecticut media hammered home the notion that the Big Ten and ACC were foolish for passing on UConn during realignment. This is likely true. At this point, it doesn't really matter anymore. It happened. It's over.

Time and time again, UConn president Susan Herbst and UConn AD Warde Manuel were asked about it. Time and time again, they towed the conference line. As they should, because we know UConn wants to leave but it doesn't need to be stated.

The Horde, which covers UConn sports, harped on it so much that it has infected UConn fans, who now collectively want nothing to do with the AAC. Is it really so bad? The team won dual national titles in the Big East and the AAC. It seems to be working out, right?

I wish The Horde, and by proxy UConn fans, would focus on the program and not the confusing world of realignment.

Good: East Carolina football
Tulane, Tulsa and East Carolina join the AAC in 2014, replacing the departing Rutgers and Louisville. Of the three, East Carolina football is by far more the most intriguing and exciting. The program has been a consistent winner in Conference USA for years and routinely draws home crowds of 50,000+. Like UCF, a move to a bigger conference and a bigger stage - weekly games on ESPN - could turn East Carolina into a true football power.

It's been a long time since Jeff Blake and East Carolina made a New Year's Day moment, but the past shows the program can make a national impact.

usf empty seats
Bad: Football attendance
Temple, Memphis and USF were the three worst teams in the conference. They also play in large NFL or NFL-sized stadiums which meant 40-60,000 empty seats during games. Having been to a Temple game in a 1/10th-filled stadium, it is really, really depressing. Even if the beer lines are short.

Obviously, the losing doesn't help. But the AAC needs more games on television that look good on television. UCF played two games late in the season, one at Temple and one at SMU during an ice storm, that gave the appearance of a high school game. It's not a good look for a team trying to crack the Top 10, ya know?

Good: Rutgers is gone
While it was great to have Louisville in the league for one year, it was awful having Rutgers. They didn't want to be there, carried around a black cloud of controversy and played poorly. UCF's big Thursday night moment late in the season was ruined because Rutgers was the opponent and all the announcers could talk about was how crappy Rutgers was, diluting the fact that UCF was really, really good.

Bad: Conference branding
I don't like the name. The conference didn't want anyone to call it the AAC as to not confuse it with the ACC but AAC is all anyone uses. It was pretty absurd to think the sports media was going to run with The American and the American Athletic Conference in full doesn't roll of the tongue.

To be fair, the big A logo with the star is bad-ass and looks great on a football field. The name has left much to be desired.

Good: The Perception
And ultimately, this is the most important. It helps that when the league started, the perception was that the league was going to fail in the most tragic way possible.

Instead, it has a BCS bowl win and two national titles to its name. It has established itself as a major college basketball conference. It has staked its claim to be the sixth-best college football conference. It has momentum. The media's criticisms have waned. The jokes have mostly subsided.

The first year for the AAC was not perfect. It was very, very good. The league remains in perpetual limbo, but it is trending closer to the Power Five than the Group of Five.

That means Year 1 was a success.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Big Ten Football Has a Crippling Image Problem

This year's NCAA Tournament selection committee did not think much of the newly formed American Athletic Conference.

Despite having 5 teams in the Top 25 for most of the season, the league only got four bids. The teams that did get in were underseeded. Pre-tournament favorite Louisville was a #4 seed. The eventual tournament champion, ranked #21 in the final AP Poll, somehow ended up as a #7 seed. The greatness of Kevin Ollie meant that UConn fans didn't care about the seed in April.

For a 68-team tournament, the image problem of the AAC meant relatively little. You could argue it points out the meaningless nature of the regular season in college basketball, but in the end, that image problem was solved by wins.

This is not the case in college football. Even with the dawn of the four-team college football playoff, image will remain everything in the sport.

braxton miller michigan
Going into the final week of the 2013 regular season, there was a serious debate about whether an undefeated Ohio State or a 1-loss SEC team, either Auburn or Missouri, should play in the BCS Title Game against Florida State. It was a fascinating debate because it centered only on Ohio State.

You see, Florida State and Ohio State played almost the exact same schedules in 2013. Florida State played one really good team in Clemson, Ohio State played one really good team in Michigan State. Of course, the loss to Michigan State for the Buckeyes rendered the whole thing moot. But the fact the conversation was even taking place said more than words about how far Big Ten football had fallen.

The final AP Poll, after the bowls were played, included 3 ACC teams and 3 Big Ten teams. Yet it was the ACC team, who played no one of consequence out of conference, that was above reproach in late November while Ohio State was dissected daily.

In fact, the perception of the Big Ten had faded so poorly that even Northern Illinois was affected. Before they lost the MAC Title Game, the critics pointed out the weakness of their schedule and the fact their best win was merely a road win over Iowa, a Big Ten team that would play on New Year's Day.

In the BCS, this image problem posed only a minor inconvenience for the Big Ten. When there are only two teams involved and no true criteria for ranking team, the default was always ranking by the loss column.

As we look ahead to 2014, everything changes. The one constant that has been pounded out by the College Football Playoff's PR armada has been the focus on strength of schedule. Right or wrong, teams will be slotted by the teams they played.

For me, placing such a high emphasis on strength of schedule is a fool's errand. Yes, strength of schedule should play a role, but not the role. Is it really Ohio State's fault that two traditional powers, Michigan and Penn State, are in downturns? Should Alabama be punished because its two conference cross-over games are against lean Florida and Tennessee teams?

But while I may have objections, they matter little. There will be an overwhelming emphasis on strength of schedule. For the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC, this is great news as all three experience positive vibes from the media. For the ACC, this could be problematic but having Florida State and Clemson coming off of BCS bowl wins eases that burden.

For the Big Ten, it is crippling.

I wrote that Notre Dame will make the college football playoff because its burden for playing for a national championship has been lowered. With the schedule they play in 2014, they will get the benefit of every doubt.

For Ohio State, the burden of playing for a national championship may have actually been raised despite the number of teams growing to four. If you think Ohio State was dissected harshly last year, just wait until this year if a similar scenario plays out.

While I am using Ohio State as the example here, it can apply to any Big Ten team making a bid for a playoff berth. There are simply too many poor to average teams in the league and not enough great ones.

As if the image problem of the 12-team Big Ten wasn't enough, they are adding two teams in Maryland and Rutgers that have been mocked relentless for their football prowess since their Big Ten moves were made public in November 2012.

In fact, the aforementioned title run by UConn led to a wave of stories, particularly in the New York City market, about the poor choice of adding Rutgers. While the conference is chasing TV dollars, its counterparts are chasing championships.

Ohio State needed a better schedule in 2014 than in 2013. They now have games against Maryland and Rutgers, two perennial also-rans that have combined for a grand total of 1 major bowl berth in my lifetime.

15 million more subscribers to the Big Ten Network will do very, very well for the bottom line but will ultimately mean nothing to the men and women who gather in December to decide who plays for the national championship.

capital one bowlAs with The American, and yes I am now comparing the Big Ten to the AAC, the only solution is winning. No conference will be as scrutinized in September as the Big Ten. If they suffer through another indignant late summer, like Nebraska losing to UCLA twice, it will be another long, long fall.

Of course, the Big Ten rarely challenges itself out of conference. Indiana just dropped USF, those 2-10 USF Bulls, because it felt last year's schedule was too hard. Yes, that's the same school whose head coach complained about playing Navy.

It will added extra importance to the few non-conference games of note. Pay attention to these, as they may determine the Big Ten's fate for this season and beyond:

UCF vs. Penn State in Ireland, 8/30
Ohio State at Navy in Baltimore, 8/30
Wisconsin vs. LSU in Houston, 8/30
Cal at Northwestern, 8/30
Michigan at Notre Dame, 9/6
Michigan State at Oregon, 9/6
Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 9/6
West Virginia at Maryland, 9/13
Illinois at Washington, 9/13
Nebraska at Fresno State, 9/13
Minnesota at TCU, 9/13
Iowa at Pitt, 9/20
Miami at Nebraska, 9/20
Cincinnati at Ohio State, 9/27

Those are 14 key games with Ohio State figured to win three of them. If the league can't win 6 of the other 11, they are in serious, serious trouble when it comes to getting any teams in the playoff.

There are now four teams in the playoff, not two. For Ohio State and every other Big Ten team though, nothing has changed.

They have to win every single game to play for a national title.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Notre Dame Will Make the First College Football Playoff

If not for turnovers and Tommy Rees, Notre Dame would be entering 2014 having played in three straight BCS bowls.

brian kelly notre dame
Instead, the undefeated 2012 season is viewed as the anomaly and Notre Dame will open the 2014 near the bottom of the Top 25.

In reality, Notre Dame is much, much better than you're giving them credit for. And with Tommy Rees and his turnovers finally banished from South Bend, the odds are good that Notre Dame will revert to its 2012 form.

The similarities between the 2011 and 2013 seasons for Notre Dame are startling. In 2011, Notre Dame started 0-2 with crippling losses to USF and Michigan, both of which changed on turnovers. Who can forget Notre Dame's first drive of the season ending in a 96-yard fumble return for USF? Who can forget Tommy Rees literally dropping the ball in Michigan's red zone?

That nightmare season continued against USC when Dayne Christ was inserted for one play near the goal line, which ended up in a fumble and another near 100-yard fumble return. Only in the season finale against Stanford and Andrew Luck did Notre Dame stand no chance.

In 2013, the story was strikingly similar. The night loss at Michigan was aided by a brutal late first half interception by Rees. The home loss to Oklahoma was fueled by an early Tommy Rees pick-six that gave the Sooners an early 14-0 lead that changed the entire complexion of the game.

Of course, the Rees masterpiece came against Pittsburgh. The interception into the endzone as Notre Dame was going to take the lead. The  brutal fourth quarter pick that eventually gave Pitt the lead. It was one of the worst losses I have ever seen in my life -- so rare in football is the game in which the dominant team plays so much better than the opponent yet losses. But, that is the magic of Tommy Rees.

As in 2011, Notre Dame lost the finale to Stanford on the road. But in 2013, they battled the Cardinal better on The Farm than Oregon did, succumbing only when a final drive was thwarted by, you guessed it, a Tommy Rees interception.

If you've watched Notre Dame football as long as I have - my Dad's a grad and his whole family are Domers - you have watched a lot of Notre Dame losses in the past 20 years since Lou Holtz left. The difference between Brian Kelly's "bad" teams and those of his predecessors is striking.

Notre Dame has not gotten blown out - save for the Alabama game, naturally - since 2010. That is three full regular seasons where Notre Dame could have conceivably won every game they played. I know that may not sound like a big deal if you root for Alabama or Ohio State, but if you root for Notre Dame, it's a sign things have changed.

Kelly has revitalized the Notre Dame program through stellar recruiting and a winning attitude that, shockingly, had gone missing. While the national media loves to criticize Kelly's red-faced antics on the sidelines, they have made the mission at Notre Dame clear again.

Notre Dame is closer to being great than being bad. That's not something you could say under the past three coaches. We've seen what Kelly has been able to do at previous stops. As a UConn football fan, I saw firsthand how Kelly took Cincinnati from a good football program to the cusp of the national title.

As we look ahead to the 2014 season, everything for Notre Dame seems eerily familiar to the lead-up to the magical 2012 season. There were a lot of questions surrounding just how far the talent had come. The 2011 season, without being dissected, appeared to be a failure, with bad losses and an unranked finish. They went into 2012 with an unproven quarterback and an antsy Irish public questioning where Brian Kelly was the guy.

There was also the matter of the 2012 schedule, which looked beyond daunting. It featured road games against Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC, with Stanford and Michigan also on the slate. That supposed murderer's row still proved plenty difficult - Stanford won the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma played in the Cotton - but it was not the end of the world.

As we go into 2014, there is a distinct lack of buzz surrounding the Notre Dame program nationally. Forget that Everett Golson has returned or that redshirt Malik Zaire looked like a new-age Steve Young in the Spring Game, the questions remain. If the talent is there, why were they 8-4 last year? Was 2012 just a confluence of lucky breaks? Did Alabama expose them as frauds?

There is also the matter of the 2014 schedule, which looks beyond daunting. Road games against Florida State, Arizona State and USC. Visits to South Bend from Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina and Louisville. Those are 7 teams that could be in the preseason top 25, including a road game at the definite preseason #1.

everett golson touchdown
For the first time in a long time, if ever, that insane schedule may be the best thing that has ever happened to Notre Dame. We are entering a new era of college football as the four-team playoff arrives and one of the main talking points has been strength of schedule.

The rise of mega-conference has diluted the schedules for nearly every school outside of the Big 12, which still has a round robin. The Pac-12, with 9 conference games, comes closest to keeping its teams' strength of schedules high. But the SEC, Big Ten and ACC - by virtue of 14 teams and 8 conference games - do not. When you don't play five of the other teams in your conference, there is a high probability that one or two or three of those five teams are going to be good.

Notre Dame, as an independent that has always scheduled aggressively, has no such problems. It plays 10 major conference teams, with only Rice and Navy being the exceptions. Some exceptions, right? Rice is the defending Conference USA champion and Navy won 9 games last year. Alabama plays Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina.

So the stars are aligning, again, for Notre Dame. They are going to start the season under the radar, or at least what passes for under the radar in South Bend. If they can get past Michigan in week two, they should stroll past Syracuse and Purdue to enter October 4-0, when they will play Stanford and the season begins proper. For a daunting schedule, it certainly helps that they play 3 of their 4 easiest games in the first month of the season.

Notre Dame has the talent now to play with anybody. The Spring Game was littered with underclassmen on both sides of the ball who had multiple stars attached to their name in high school. Brian Kelly has proven he can build a winner.

The bar at Notre Dame has always been set to win every single game. I don't think that's changed.

But the goal is also to win the National Championship every year and that hurdle has been lowered. At 11-1, Notre Dame will certainly be in the playoff.

However, even at 10-2, Notre Dame will likely get consideration based on that schedule. It will depend on the losses, but recent history and parity suggests that there is always a 2-loss team lurking in the Top 5 in the final BCS standings. And that was before such a significant emphasis has been placed on strength of schedule.

Notre Dame should have been at least 10-2 last year. If they can do that again this year, they will be playing on New Year's Day.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

The Unfathomable Irrelevance of Nebraska Football

Nebraska has not played in a major bowl game in a dozen football seasons.

For someone near my age of 31, that is stunning. For someone older than me, that is unfathomable. For today's college football players, that is routine.

nebraska cat
Nebraska gained some national headlines when Bo Pelini held up a cat before the program's spring game. It was homage to the Faux Bo Pelini Twitter account that is popular with the Husker faithful.

It was cute. It was fun. It was needed. Because who is writing about Nebraska's spring game otherwise?

As I was writing about what success looks like for UConn football is in 2014, I did some research to find if any other team had been hurt more by a BCS appearance. Remember, UConn played in the Fiesta Bowl just three seasons ago. But a confluence of events ruined everything about it.

UConn was the poster child for all that ailed the BCS. They were overmatched. They didn't sell any tickets. The ratings were down. They didn't deserve to be there. Well, two days later, Virginia Tech got smashed by Stanford in an Orange Bowl that no one watched and no one attended. Does anyone bring up the 2011 Orange Bowl?

It was the wrong place at the wrong time for UConn, just like the 2002 Rose Bowl was for Nebraska.

What if Nebraska doesn't get that title game berth they didn't deserve? What if they don't play arguably the greatest college football team in history? What if that season is remembered as the season when Eric Crouch won the Heisman and Nebraska won the Orange Bowl – instead of one that ends in embarrassment?

Nebraska hasn't meant anything nationally since and it's starting to appear that the Nebraska faithful have accepted this.

Bo Pelini has lost four games in each of his six seasons as Nebraska head coach. Tom Osborne never lost four games in his 25 years as head coach. His predecessor, Bob Devaney, lost four games twice in his 11 years, which is equal to the number of national titles he won.

What in the name of Johnny Rodgers is going on here?

As I was growing up, Nebraska played on New Year's Day – that was part of the deal. They played in Orange Bowl six out of seven years in the 1990's, taking a break only to dismantle Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. This was the program in college football. It was the one that all the others were measured against.

It wasn't just like that in the 1990's. For a full four decades, Nebraska was one of the defining brands of college football.

Now? Nebraska is mediocre and irrelevant.

When's the last time Nebraska truly mattered in the national discussion? When was Nebraska considered a powerhouse? When did other teams fear Nebraska?

It boggles my mind that UConn football fans are aghast with our program, just three years removed from a Fiesta Bowl berth. When Nebraska last played in a BCS bowl, UConn was not even a full-time member of major college football!

I do not have any personal insight into the Nebraska football culture but it seems that something is completely amiss. How does Bo Pelini get by with six years of four-loss campaigns when Tom Osborne struggled to completely win over the faithful for 20 years because he only got to Orange Bowl games without winning national titles?

The bar at Nebraska seemed to be set almost unreasonably high, until Tom Osborne broke through and won three national titles in four years. If not for the first Big 12 title game, Nebraska would have played for a national title in five straight seasons.

This streak of dominance didn’t happen in 1977, it happened in 1997. The program should not be irrelevant. Yet it is.

For the life of me, I have no idea why Bo Pelini is still the coach. Nebraska, like Alabama or Notre Dame or Ohio State, just needs the right coach and it will be great again.

Where was Ohio State before Jim Tressel arrived? Alabama before Nick Saban? Oklahoma before Bob Stoops?

The longer the mediocrity continues to linger, the further Nebraska fades into the background. The excuses I've read – that there isn't any local talent, that the competition is tougher, that the game has changed – are the exact same things that permeated through the Notre Dame fanbase for 20 years.

Once you're a blueblood in college football, you're always a blueblood. The reason Notre Dame wasn't winning was because they didn't have the right coach in charge. They had lost for so long that who knows if it could have survived yet another bad hire, but Brian Kelly was the right man for the job. He led them back to relevance. He made them a national story again.

ucla beats nebraska
Bo Pelini is not that guy for Nebraska. If he was, they would be back by now. We have seen time and time again that the right coach can turn a program around -- especially one with the stature of Nebraska – in three seasons. Maybe it takes a fourth. But by the sixth? If you haven't done it by now, what makes you think it will ever happen?

Winning 9 games every year at some places is cause for celebration. If Randy Edsall kept winning 9 games at UConn, we would have built a statue for him. If David Cutcliffe keeps winning 9 games at Duke, they'll rename the stadium after him.

Shouldn't Nebraska football be held to a much, much higher standard?

The last two seasons, any hope for greatness evaporated before fall officially arrived, with September nonconference losses to UCLA. This year, Nebraska must travel to Fresno State before hosting Miami in consecutive weeks before summer closes.

Is there any doubt Nebraska is losing at least one of those games?

Nebraska football is being left behind. It falls beneath Ohio State and Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, and those are merely the teams with more national relevance in its own conference.

Nebraska football is now average. That shouldn't be.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Unfortunate Rise of the Petulant Golfer

The golfer that curses himself for a duck hook into the woods has been around since the game was invented.

The golfer that curses himself for being 20 feet right of the pin on #12 at Augusta National has been around since 1997.

tiger woods angry
As the golfing media fell over themselves to praise Jordan Spieth – no doubt deserved for a 20-year old contending for The Masters title and a green jacket – I was disappointed. I wanted to root for the kid. I enjoyed his first victory last year. He certainly has the game.

But for four days, Spieth annoyed me by getting mad at himself. We all get mad playing golf. But the guy that yells at himself or tosses his club to the ground when he has a 20-foot birdie putt? I don’t feel the need to root for that guy. That guy needs to get over it.

You want to celebrate a good shot? Go for it. You want to be Adam Scott and scream at Augusta after holing a putt? That’s competitive fire I want to see. You want to moan about a shot slightly off-center? Not interested.

It was appropriate that Spieth was battling Bubba Watson, another player who can do no wrong in the eyes of the golf media. Me? I’m not a Bubba fan.

I grew up going to the Greater Hartford Open, now known as the Travelers Championship. Last year, Bubba squandered away a fourth-round lead in the Travelers and bottomed out with a terrible tee shot at the tricky Par 3 16th hole. How did Bubba react?

By yelling at and blaming his caddie. Yeah Bubba, it was his fault you dunked it in the water. Watch for yourself.

As with most things in golf, everything – good and bad – can be traced to Tiger Woods.

In 1997, golf changed forever when Tiger Woods won the Masters. Other sports have had defining culture changes, from Magic and Bird entering the NBA or the NHL emerging post-lockout with Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and a television partner that cared. But only golf had that one singular moment when nothing would ever be the same.

For people my age and older, there was a time before Tiger. I was 15 before Tiger Woods rocked Augusta. My childhood was spent with golfers that had personalities. Guys like Fuzzy Zoeller making (non-racist) jokes and Chi-Chi Rodriguez becoming Zorro after birdie putts. Golfers that shared actual honest to goodness feelings after tournaments instead of providing rehearsed, robotic answers. They cried. They laughed. They were human beings.

Tiger Woods, by all accounts, is human. He just never acted like it. But when you’re Tiger Woods and winning The Masters by a dozen strokes, people tend to forgive you for your faults.

So as Tiger dominated for a decade, no one cared that he was a robot. Other than Jack Nicklaus and a few old-timers, there were not many that made a stink about Tiger’s course etiquette. We heard the F-bombs and the curse words. It was part of the game.

But for a long time, it wasn’t. Yes, guys got angry, but they did not make a public spectacle after routine shots or merely average shots. Tiger was different in almost every possible way.

We forgave Tiger for the f-bombs. We didn’t worry when he would drop his club mid-swing. We didn’t mind when he would kick a club. It was the price of greatness.

As I watched the Golf Channel briefly Wednesday night, the same forgiveness was shown to Spieth, as Nick Faldo and Tom Watson gave their blessing to his petulant antics.

It was not a luxury afforded to Tiger in 2009 after his world crumbled. His meltdowns were cause for public debate. Here is Tom Watson complaining about such in 2010 – boy, his tune changes when golf needs a new star. Maybe Tiger’s decorum wasn’t good for the game in 2010. But they never were. And it’s now too late.

For Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth and a host of others, Tiger Woods is all they’ve ever known. Spieth was only 3 when Tiger won his first major, which means literally his entire life has been the Tiger Woods era. So is it any surprise that he bitches and moans over okay shots like his idol?

There is a lot of good that Tiger Woods brought to golf. He brought more money, more exposure, more tournaments and more excitement. Is the Phil Mickelson narrative even one-tenth as exciting if not for Tiger Woods? How many fewer kids take up the game if not for Tiger Woods’ 2000 run? Is there even a First Tee initiative?

But with the good comes the bad. Tiger Woods took the post-round clich̩ to a new level Рdoing for golf-speak what Jim Tressel did for coach-speak. He has mastered the art of saying nothing. It works for Tiger Woods. It does not work for others.

Likewise, Tiger became the poster child for the petulant golfer. The guy who drops his club in agony because he has a 30-footer for birdie. The player who yells at wind gusts, blames spike marks for missed putts and grades his round. “Yeah I shot a 68 today with my C+ game, so I’m pretty happy.”

Overall, it’s disappointing.

The beauty of golf is – was? – how the individual nature of the sport lets you express yourself however you want. You could be Payne Stewart and wear knickers. You could be Seve Ballesteros and make birdie from a parking lot. You could be John Daly, grip it and rip it.

The beauty of golf is – was? – that you didn’t have to conform. There was no coach telling you want to do. You played golf as you lived life. It was up to you. Your swing, like a guitarist ripping a solo, was an extension of who you were. You didn’t have to act a certain way.

Instead, golfers have gone the way of NASCAR drivers, robots sent here to move product and collect paychecks.

What do you really know about Jordan Spieth or Matt Kuchar? And no, naming their alma mater doesn’t count.

As the new generation of golfers presses on, they take their cues from Tiger Woods. They will say little in post-round interviews. They will be annoyed easily. They will be tough to root for.

The era of Tiger Woods appears to be over. Welcome to the era of the Petulant Golfer. 

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Monday, April 14, 2014

What is Success for UConn Football in 2014?

On Sunday, an estimated 200,000 turned out for a UConn-related event in Hartford. On Saturday, an estimated 6,500 turned out for a UConn-related event in Hartford.

The latter was more important.

uconn diaco
On Sunday, downtown Hartford was overrun by a sea of blue and white as the dual basketball champions were lauded during a parade under pristine conditions. The event, much like the UConn faithful taking over Madison Square Garden, felt like a revival.

UConn fans had taken their teams and their championships for granted. In 2004, I covered the dual parade as a daily newspaper reporter. That day was big. Sunday was bigger.

While the national narrative has focused on UConn basketball returning to the elite of the game, the reports of its demise had been vastly exaggerated. The UConn women won the national title last year. The UConn men, despite being banned, would have made the tournament in 2013. UConn fans – and the administration – knew the Calhoun transition would be okay before the 2014 NCAA Tournament tipped off.

But while the UConn community and fans bask in the glow of the sun reflecting off of the mountaintop, there are still the same questions facing its future. While the Big Ten choosing Rutgers has been mocked by many – even the New York Times piled on – it doesn’t change what happened.

Think back to a mere three years ago. The UConn men won the national title. The UConn women made another Final Four, but its quest for a three-peat ended in the semifinals. The UConn football team played in the Fiesta Bowl.

Yes, that Fiesta Bowl happened just three years ago. It might as well have happened three decades ago.

The UConn basketball brands – regardless of who is coaching – will always resonate nationally. Indiana hasn’t won a title in two decades but Indiana is still Indiana. Ditto for UCLA. Basketball was never the problem.

No, UConn football has held the program back. It is why the ACC chose Louisville. It is why the Big Ten chose Rutgers.

You could make a legitimate case that former UConn AD Jeff Hathaway’s hiring of Paul Pasqualoni was the worst football hire in the history of college football. It was more than the losses – it was the timing and it was the apathy. As the realignment wheel spun, the UConn fans that filled the Rent consistently for Randy Edsall found something else to do.

In October 2011, as Robert Griffin III was embarking on his Heisman campaign, he was asked, "Where was the toughest place to play?" He said UConn!

How did UConn football go from an atmosphere that RG3 put above Texas and Oklahoma to a half-filled, quiet, depressing place?

All of this is why Saturday’s Spring Game for UConn football was the most important event of the weekend. UConn needs to be good again at football. They don’t have a choice. It’s about keeping the school relevant.

Football is getting bigger and bigger and the upcoming four-team college football playoff will only make it bigger. Once the money starts flowing, it will keep getting better – regardless of what is said, it will become an 8-team, then a 16-team playoff, because the money will be too great.

For now, though, what is success for UConn football? How good can they be?

To his credit, new coach Bob Diaco has not shied away from the comparisons to the basketball teams. He has said all the right things about positive energy and how “hot” the UConn brand is for recruiting. He’s made the team part of the campus, whether that was hosting an open practice for students or having his players in pads greet the returning UConn women.

There was the feeling, as Warde Manuel was searching for the next UConn coach, that the whole thing had to be burned down. That is how toxic the Coach Pasqualoni era was. The grumblings from Storrs before last season even started was how the team had turned against him. I witnessed QB Chandler Whitmer and WR Geremy Davis yelling at each other on the sidelines during the Michigan game meltdown. This was a team in disarray.

As Diaco comes in, the UConn team is extremely young – the roster will be littered with sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen because too many players recruited by Pasqualoni either left or weren’t good enough.

The 2014 football season is a long five months away, but defining success is here now. For better or worse, the bar is set extremely high for Diaco because of how bad the program had become and how vitally important success is.

1) Increasing the Season Ticket base
In a perfect world, the head football coach would not have to be a salesman. UConn football does not exist in a perfect world right now. Diaco has made great strides already in promoting the program – now, the university needs to ensure this translates to season tickets.

From the moment Edsall left, the season ticket base eroded. It would have been even worse last year had Michigan not been on the schedule to artificially prop it up as there were more than a few Michigan fans that bought season tickets to ensure they had a seat for that game.

2) Sellouts for BYU and Boise State
It’s either a really good thing or a really bad thing that UConn hosts two name-brand programs in September during the nonconference. The BYU opener is a big one, a Friday night primetime game on ESPN proper. There is no reason why they can’t sell 40,000 tickets for that one.

The Boise State game, well, that will be an indication of where the fanbase is because Boise State, post-Chris Petersen, is not the draw they were four years ago. If UConn loses to BYU by 50, do the fans show up? But a good performance against BYU, and a nice Saturday kickoff against a team even my Mom has heard of, should lead to a good crowd. Diaco seems to understand that they need to engage the fans, and they need to get the fans back to the stadium. They have two nice opportunities to kick off the season.

3) Playing in a Bowl Game
The 2014 UConn schedule was made for a first-year coach. Four of the first five games at home. Only four true road games, as the Army game is being played at Yankee Stadium. Four of the five toughest teams on the schedule – on paper, in April – come to Rentschler Field, with only a road trip to East Carolina looming. The other road trips are to Memphis, Tulane and USF. They miss one of the preseason favorites in Houston.

Simply put, UConn should make a bowl game. Anything less, even a 5-7 season, will be disappointing. The bottom of the American Athletic Conference appears to still be weak enough for UConn to pile up wins – should Memphis, Temple, USF and Tulane be considered unwinnable? Throw in Army and the FCS Stony Brook, and there are six games UConn could be favored in.

uconn mccombs
4) A big win at the Rent, or two
It is very likely that UConn will play its four toughest opponents – BYU, Boise State, UCF and Cincinnati – at home. UConn needs to win one of those games. It would be ideal if they won two of them.

UConn did not have a signature victory in the past three years – the closest being a 2011 dismantling of Rutgers that kept bowl hopes alive and ended Rutgers’ BCS hopes. Of course, UConn followed that up with an embarrassing loss on ESPN to Cincinnati and that was that.

The team needs something to point to when the season is over. If they go 7-5 or 6-6, it would mean even more to point out – yeah, and we had that big win over Boise State or the nice upset over Cincinnati. Basically, UConn hasn’t beaten anyone better than them since 2010 – the only exception being wins over Rutgers in 2011 and 2013.

5) No blowouts
This may be the biggest – UConn cannot get destroyed and demoralized. If they go 6-6, beat the teams they should beat and lose to better teams, I won’t be thrilled. But if those losses are close games, I’ll be encouraged. It is absurd to expect UConn to compete for a Cotton Bowl berth.

But I don’t want to repeat games when I had to turn the TV off or left the Rent before the final whistle. When Maryland, at full strength, could have scored 50 if not for turnovers. When UCF could have hit 70 if they felt like it. When Louisville could win a game they clearly did not care about or show up for.

The culture for UConn football is changing and that’s a good first step.

For 2014 to be successful, the Rent needs to be filled again, the games need to be close again and UConn needs to send the fans home happy again.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Geno Auriemma: The Al Davis of Women’s Basketball

“They said you had to take what the defense gave you. No, we are going to take what we want.” – Al Davis, A Football Life.

“We don’t go into the tournament wanting to survive and advance. We want to beat our opponent so bad that the next round opponent doesn’t even want to play us.” – Geno Auriemma, 2014 NCAA Final pregame.

geno auriemma wins
When I started watching the “A Football Life” documentary on Al Davis a day after the UConn women had dismantled Notre Dame, I was not looking for some grand epiphany about Geno Auriemma’s standing the sports world. There just wasn’t anything good to watch – Wednesday is a brutal night for television.

Then the Al Davis quotes started coming, like the one above. The slogans he coined – Just Win, Baby and Commitment to Excellence – that were aimed at the singular goal of creating a winner. Davis said his goal in life was to create the perfect sports franchise, one that combined the greatness of the New York Yankees with the iconic brand of play that defined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Though Davis became a caricature late in his life, his impact on the game of pro football and the NFL is felt every single day. Heck, if it weren’t for him, who knows if the AFL and NFL merge or if the Super Bowl brand even exists.

On the field, he did things his way. He wanted the possibility of throwing it deep on every down – taken for granted in 2014, yet absolutely mind-blowing in 1964. He wanted his defense aggressive. He wanted to destroy other teams. He had zero issues with being the villain.

As I continued to watch the Davis documentary, the thoughts of Geno kept floating through because the defiance that Davis portrayed in interviews, even late in his life, are present in Geno. Davis operated his Raiders with a chip on his shoulder because he never felt like he got the respect he deserved, despite the championships.

Don’t you get the same feeling about Geno?

Prior to the Notre Dame final, UConn’s Breanna Stewart was named Player of the Year and Notre Dame’s head coach Muffet McGraw didn’t clap. She thought her player should have won – as if no other player in history had been snubbed for an award.

Some coaches would have deflected it. Some coaches would have alluded to a feud. Some coaches are not Geno Auriemma. He firebombed McGraw, Notre Dame and, by proxy, the entire women’s game.

“Nobody knows what it’s like being us. Nobody knows what we go through every day, what our players go through every time they win an award, everybody gets pissed off. Worst off, they act pissed off because our guys won an award because it’s Connecticut all the time, all Connecticut all the time. People are sick of it. It’s just natural. We live with it 365 days a year. So, if you’re going to come in and try to live in that air then you need to deal with it.”

When I wrote about the greatness of Kevin Ollie, I focused on the X’s and O’s of what he did with a team that appeared in several games to be in trouble. Against Kentucky, for example, they were facing a lineup of future NBA players. Against Florida and Michigan State, they played against teams with supposedly superior front lines. In each game, Ollie made an adjustment to allow his great, but thin, team to take over.

For Geno, he will usually have the more talented team. Now this is not to confirm the national narrative that Geno rolls out the balls and his group of stars simply dominates.

They are coached to perfection by a perfectionist – the “commitment to excellence” if you will.

geno auriemma mad
The prime example came late in UConn’s win over Notre Dame. They were up 20, about five minutes to go and they committed a terrible turnover. Who cares, right? The game and season are over – UConn is on its way to title #9. But no, that’s not how Geno operates. He got mad. He yelled. He gestured. You play for Geno for 40 minutes.

I wish people outside of Connecticut watched the women’s basketball team more often because they would see Geno’s drive and determination on a daily basis. No matter the opponent, he has the volume turned up to 11.

That’s why they are 9-0 in the championship games. That’s why they went 40-0 this year. As Geno said in the postgame, everything builds toward playing your best game in the biggest game.

Geno’s coaching has also led to a dramatic difference in how women’s college basketball is played. Much like how Al Davis wanted to throw the ball deep, Geno wants to speed the game up. He wants the game played fast. He likes up-tempo. He likes a good shot, whether that’s 1 second into the shot clock or 12. He likes pressure. Again, everything is turned up to 11.

It’s actually the reverse of the men’s game, which 20 to 25 years ago was all speed, whether it was UNLV, the 40 Minutes of Hell in Arkansas or the Fab Five. With a few outliers, the men’s coaches have deliberately slowed down the game, working for the best shot and milking the clock. Of course the coaches that actually win – the Roy Williams, the Bill Self, the John Calipari’s of the world – don’t subscribe to that. But the men’s game has slowed down.

The women’s game? It’s sped up because UConn sped it up. The first half of the UConn/Notre Dame final felt like a men’s game in 1992, with players taking open jumpers early in the shot clock and making them. Geno doesn’t overcoach the X’s and O’s – he coaches the players and ensures they make the right decisions.

The parallels with Davis include the fact that both are the villains of their sport, born out of jealously. No one likes Geno. He wins all the time. He’s arrogant. He lets you know about it. Al Davis was the same way.

They also both represented something new, something different, that changed the sport. Al Davis wasn’t Vince Lombardi and people didn’t like him for it. Geno Auriemma isn’t Pat Summitt and people don’t like him for it.

Ultimately, neither man really gave a damn what people thought. Davis won 3 Super Bowl titles in 7 years. Geno has won 9 national titles in 20. Both are absolute legends. Both are among the most legendary figures in their sport.

Both are the bad guys. Davis actually wore black to hammer home the analogy. UConn usually wears white.

They say you should win the right way. For fans of the 1970’s Raiders, and for fans of the UConn women, winning the “right way” means something different than it does for the opponents.

It means winning all the time. Just win, baby.

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