Tuesday, September 30, 2014

There's No Good Time to Bury Bad News in 2014

It is appropriate that very traditional Michigan learned we live in very non-traditional times.

Just before 1 am Tuesday morning, Michigan's athletic director Dave Brandon released a statement regarding the university's handling of concussed quarterback Shane Morris. If you were following the saga, embattled head coach Brady Hoke had insisted a statement was coming during a Monday afternoon press conference and that would confirm Morris did not have a concussion.

shane morris concussed
Instead, the statement came out roughly 12 hours later. And it confirmed what anyone with eyeballs already knew: Shane Morris was sent back into a football game with a concussion. There are many, many others who will write about the football fallout but as a Director of Communications, it amused me that Michigan had the audacity to think they could slide the bad news out into the ether without anyone noticing.

We live in a 24-hour news cycle in 2014. There is quite literally no time to release bad news. In fact, using an old, tired PR trick only makes the fallout that much worse.

When I began my career as a newspaper reporter back in the summer of 2003, the Friday afternoon press release was a running joke in the newsroom. In that pre-social media world, it was indeed possible to slip bad news out over the weekend. Sure, there was still weekend coverage and the Internet. But many Americans still unplugged leaving the office on Friday afternoon and didn't pay attention to the world at large until Monday morning.

Those halcyon days for PR professionals are long, long gone.

Football has provided a masterclass in the changing dynamics of public relations and the evolution of news coverage. It began when Ray Rice gave his forgetful and ill-conceived first apology for his domestic violence arrest. You may remember it as the press conference where his wife apologize for her role in getting punched in the face by an NFL running back.

The press conference took place on a Friday afternoon, presumably following tried and tired PR rules. In fact, the complete opposite is true. Since no one releases news on Friday afternoon, it is the perfect time to gain a tremendous amount of attention.

I had the misfortune of working from home that Friday and watched the press conference in its sickening entirety. I tweeted several times to show my disgust and they were quickly retweeted. I was far from alone. Suddenly, Ray Rice became a worldwide trending topic for the first time and the Ravens had made a serious mistake: their attempt to hide Rice had exposed him.

Other NFL teams should have learned from this PR blunder. Instead, the Vikings released a statement in the wee hours of the morning to announce the indefinite leave of absence of star running back Adrian Peterson following child abuse charges. Just a day prior, the Vikings had re-instated Peterson before realizing that was a really, really, really bad idea.

By releasing it near 2 am, it gave the impression that something to hide. The University of Michigan, having apparently learned nothing, did the same thing. Both times, the fallout was even worse. Both organizations had to deal with the bad news and the cowardly distribution of news. Who sends a statement to reporters at 12:52 am? Unless it's to announce the killing of Osama bin Laden, it's bad form.

The rules of public relations have changed dramatically in the social media era but it appears few companies and organizations have realized this. So here's my not-so-subtle advice to PR pros: do not try to bury bad news.

If you have bad news, just announce it. You have to convince your superiors there is simply no good time to announce it. If you take the plunge and accept the consequences during a normal time, it will give the public one less thing to be angry about.

Secondly, do not believe for one second you can sneak anything past the general public anymore. Everyone with access to Twitter or Facebook is now a journalist. There will be someone, somewhere who will notice any bad news and start it spreading like wildfire.

If you want to control your message, you need to accept that you cannot. Only then can you start to repair your image.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

The NFL Needs to Use College Football’s Targeting Rule

Two plays in a span of four showed why the NFL has not done anything to prevent concussions.

On a pass play over the middle, Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson was hit by Bears safety Ryan Mundy over the middle. It was as routine as a football play can be – Nelson jumped up the catch the ball, landed and Mundy hit Nelson with his shoulder. So obviously, a flag was thrown for Mundy hitting a defenseless receiver.

nfl knocked out cold
It was the type of play that gives credence to the cretins tweeting National Flag Football League. Nelson was not defenseless. If he was, every receiver ever catching a ball would be defenseless. Mundy didn’t lead with his helmet or aim for Nelson’s head.

Just three plays later, the Bears appeared to have a defensive stop as Eddie Lacy was tackled short of the first down. However, there was a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness on Bears LB D.J. Williams who – like an idiot – launched himself helmet-first at Lacy as he lay on the ground. It was a terrible, stupid play by Williams. Of course, everyone in Soldier Field booed.

That, in a nutshell, is why concussions are not being eliminated from the NFL. There is no consistency and, even worse, no true punishment. The play by Williams is exactly the play that needs to be removed from football forever – the moron morphing into a projectile missile. However, he received the same penalty as Ryan Mundy did for making a solid football play.

We wonder why NFL players get upset. Roger Goodell, as he usually does, has contrived so much noise and bluster about protecting players that nothing has changed, except players are getting fined more. Those fines don’t make concussions un-happen.

Meanwhile, the amount of vicious helmet shots on Saturday has dwindled dramatically and noticeably. In fact, it becomes national news when one player is not called for targeting and another player is not benched despite suffering a likely concussion.

It is all thanks to the targeting rule, which I said could save the sport of football. I don’t know if it will save it – that ship may be sailing – but it could change it.

During the very first game of the year, a South Carolina wide receiver went to catch a post pattern in the end zone. The Texas A&M defender – later revealed to be a mere freshman – turned his head and hit with the shoulder directly on the football to break up the play. Neither player went to the ground. Neither player was carted off. Most importantly, no one cried foul about college football turning into flag football.

So why the difference? Because a targeting penalty in college football carries a substantial punishment – you are ejected from the game. And if it happens in the second half, you miss the first half of the next game.

While its initial introduction was controversial, the NCAA made the smart decision to ensure every targeting call and ejection is reviewed. From the games I’ve watched, every ultimate decision has been correct. Yes, sometimes a flag is thrown for a good play. Yes, it is momentarily annoying. Yes, it is immediately rectified.

The targeting rule is perfect in its simplicity. If you lead with your helmet or target the head of another player, it’s a penalty. That’s it. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what you can and cannot do.

The penalty is likewise perfect because it sends a clear and distinct message to players to change how they play. Players want to play. If you take that away, there are consequences and they have to answer to their coaches and teammates.

In the NFL, players are fined – a punishment that ultimately means little and only antagonizes players. If players are suspended, they rightly get upset because there is no consistency and the NFL is constantly changing the rules on them.

Look above to Ryan Mundy’s penalty; it was based on the subjective notion that Nelson was defenseless. Meanwhile, in college, the rule is cut and dry – don’t hit a guy in the head or with your head!

It’s remarkable to think that the NCAA, one of the worst organizations on the planet, is so far ahead of the NFL, one of the most profitable organizations in human history.

If football wants to survive as a sport, it needs to fundamentally change. We are seeing that on the college level. The sport is still football but the nauseating helmet-to-helmet hits are thankfully starting to disappear. They aren’t all gone. But the idiots who remain are quickly ushered to the locker room.

In the NFL, players like Brandon Meriweather still do this:

And still say stupid things like this:

“I tried to aim at his numbers,” Meriweather said. “I kind of seen the pass go, and I went in and aimed low, and I hit him with my shoulder. I did everything my coaches taught me to do, and I got the flag."

Brandon Meriweather was looking at the ground when he made that tackle. In an era where we know so much more about concussions, that should be an obvious no-no. Instead, Meriweather claims he was in the right and complains about a two-game suspension.

If the NFL had the college football targeting rule – a clear, cut and dry definition – he would have nothing to say.

That’s why the NFL needs the targeting rule. 

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Baseball’s Quiet September: Do You Remember Pennant Races?

"It was probably the biggest hit of my career, maybe one of the biggest hits I'll ever get,” said Evan Langoria. “It was just an unbelievable memory, a great day overall, and something that's just hard to put into words."

Is Langoria talking about a postseason appearance? Nope. Is he referring to his only foray into the World Series? Nope. He is reflecting on the last night of the 2011 Major League Baseball season, when the Rays overcame a 7-0 deficit to the Yankees to make the playoffs following a collapse from the Red Sox.

2011 tampa rays
On an incredible night that featured four heart-stopping games going down to the final out within minutes, baseball had reached its peak – and has subsequently pissed it all away.

If those games happened this year, they would mean nothing. The addition of a second wild card has robbed baseball of any semblance of relevancy in September. In fact, if it weren’t for the power of Derek Jeter, baseball would be completely and totally ignored.

The second Wild Card could end up being – potentially even more than his failed drug policies – Bud Selig’s enduring legacy. The league has increase revenues in spite of their incompetent leader. It is similar to the regard that NFL owners hold they lying Roger Goodell in because their bank accounts have fattened. As if Selig or Goodell were responsible for DVRs, Netflix, social media and the million other things that have put a premium on live sports and created time-shifted viewing.

This year, there is no drama in the baseball season with a week to go. The Oakland Athletics have been playing historically bad baseball for nearly two months and should still sail easily into the postseason. The five NL playoff teams have been established for weeks now.

But there’s an alternate universe out there where the Kansas City Royals’ push for its first postseason berth in three decades is daily, national news as they battle with the collapsing A’s. In the NL, the Pirates and Giants could be waging a Wild Card battle for the ages. Instead, they are basically killing time until a one-game playoff.

It would make sense if an extra MLB playoff game would bring the type of windfall the NFL is chasing – ESPN pays more than $100 million per Monday Night Football game, meaning two extra playoff games could add an absurd $300 million to the NFL’s bottom line. MLB does not command anything near that for a pair of games that draw less than 5 million viewers.

Last year’s Tampa Bay/Cleveland Wild Card lost in the ratings to a regular episode from Sons of Anarchy. I feel like FX isn’t paying $100 million per Sons of Anarchy episode.

So this one extra playoff has rendered an entire month of baseball an exercise in the pointless. I follow the Nationals here in DC and they clinch seemingly years ago. Ditto for the Orioles. No one in the District has been talking baseball after the sudden surge following the #clinchmas. I mean, what is there to do besides count down until the playoffs?

The reward for winning a division title is supposed be enough, by avoiding the one-game Wild Card playoff. While that may be true for the teams involved, it has elicited nothing more than a yawn from fans. They have been trained to accept that you either make the tournament or you do not. Whether the Pirates play in the Wild Card round or the Division Series provides absolutely zero interest to the general public.

pennant race empty seats
As such, the sport has been completely wiped away this month. Did no one in the MLB offices realize that these pennant races were keeping the sport relevant against the football goliath?

Instead, this month of September been 100% football talk and that’s it. Even European soccer, thanks to the strength of the Premier League, and the new-fangled NASCAR Chase have attracted more attention.

When the Wild Card was first introduced in 1994, it was done largely to enhance the regular season. As the number of teams grew, the two-division format had grown outdated. The sport faced a similar problem to now – most years featured little intrigue in September, though it was epic when it did.

From 1995 through 2011, the Wild Card provided nearly every season with September intrigue. They weren’t all at the level of 2011 but they provided indelible images. This September, the only indelible images came from a Gatorade commercial.

You can’t put the toothpaste back and baseball has destroyed what set it apart in American sports. Despite having the longest regular season, it had the most intense. There was something unique about a pennant race as the temperatures drop, the kids go back to school and the pressure ratcheted it up.

Instead, baseball has radio silence. By the time the playoffs start, many casual sports fans will have already moved on and forgotten. It has made baseball an even more local sport than it already was – who outside of the District really cares about the Nats, since they have been ignored nationally for a month?

As someone who loves the sport of baseball, it’s truly disheartening to see its soul ripped.

Thanks, Selig. Your reign of terror can’t end soon. Congratulations on killing the pennant race. 

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Week 5 College Football Picks: The Calm Before the Storm

This Saturday's slate is, well, it's not pretty. There's not a single matchup of ranked teams. ESPN Gameday eschewed history at the Yale Bowl for an uninspiring SEC matchup between one team that just lost to Indiana and one that barely beat Vanderbilt. Even the ABC primetime game offers little, as Notre Dame travels to MetLife Stadium to pummel Syracuse.

ole miss alabama
Of course, this is college football so we shouldn't be surprised when there are multiple upsets, close calls and a Hail Mary near 2 a.m. on the East Coast.

Oh wait. That just happened.

There is always one weekend, usually in late September or early October, where the college football world seems to stay put. Last year, I had the pleasure (?) of attending UConn/Michigan. It was the ABC primetime game on another day that featured zero ranked matchups. It happens.

Thankfully, it appears our patience will be rewarded because October 4 is shaping up to be one of the best Saturdays in recent memory. There are currently six Top 25 matchups looming, including three from the SEC West, a huge game in the Big Ten and a Stanford/Notre Dame showdown that could have huge playoff implications. That's only the tip of the iceberg -- you know it's a good day when LSU/Auburn could be the sixth most intriguing game.

Alas, that's next week. My only question is: will ESPN come up with a cool nickname? I've always been partial to Separation Saturday, the legendary Saturday in early 2006 that features a slew of ranked matchups. Come on ESPN, step up the plate!

By the way, even though I said all that, I've really buried the lede -- I do think something big will happen on Saturday. You have to keep reading...

Overall Record: 21-25
Best Bet: 2-2
Upset Special: 3-1

I went 6-5 last week for my first winning weekend of the year, thanks to an awesome late cover by Virginia. Thank you Cavaliers! We have officially reached the toughest part of the college season to handicap. This is the time of the year when the light bulb goes on for young players and new coachers that had previously underperformed. It's trouble.

OKLAHOMA STATE (-13.5) over Texas Tech
Am I the only one who is starting to think Oklahoma State was severely underappreciated going into the season? People were treating them like a cupcake going into the opener versus Florida State, but this is a team that played in the Cotton Bowl last year and went into the final regular season game of the year controlling its BCS destiny. That one loss to Oklahoma seemed to erase everything that had happened for the previous 11 games.

I love Oklahoma State at home to make a pretty resounding statement that they will again challenge Oklahoma and Baylor for the Big 12 title. As for Texas Tech, they lost their defensive coordinator under weird circumstances and got curb stomped by Arkansas last time out. I felt last year that Texas Tech was an average team that couldn't beat good ones. I have seen nothing so far to change that opinion.

brett hundley hurt
Ucla (+5) over ARIZONA STATE
If I were doing this for real monies, I would not pick this game. But I am not, so I will. Arizona State definitely won't have its starting quarterback. Jim Mora is playing games about the status of Brett Hundley, which is probably a smokescreen. It feels like he won't play.

UCLA played a whole game without Hundley against a motivated, if not great, Texas team and pulled out a tough, hard-fought victory. You really can't put a price on a performance like that. Arizona State hasn't played anyone yet and goes into its biggest game without their QB. I know the line is a total guess but this feels like a pick 'em to me, so I’m taking the points.

GEORGIA (-17) over Tennessee
This line feels too high, right? It exists to bait you into taking Tennessee, which is exactly what I did when the Volunteers played Oklahoma and I paid for it when a late INT return ruined the cover.

My simple rule when taking any underdog, no matter the spread, is imagining a scenario where the underdog wins. There is no way in hell that Georgia is losing this game. Mike Bobo will run Todd Gurley 35 times if he has to. Georgia seemed mad as hell last week against Troy and I think that continues. Georgia knows they Clemson’d away the South Carolina game and it won't happen again.

Maryland (+5) over INDIANA
This line is a complete and total overreaction to an aberration. Even stranger, the line opened up at Indiana -2.5 and has jumped to what you see here as I write this. I know that Indiana just pulled off a huge win but they lost to Bowling Green the week before. And if you watched any amount of the Indiana/Missouri game, you would know that Missouri put forth a D- effort. Credit to Indiana for taking advantage but they were the inferior team.

Maryland provided me a nice win last weekend with an easy cover at Syracuse and my gut tells me they are a better team than Indiana. I can't get the image of Bowling Green scoring at will against the Hoosiers out of my mind. It may be a shootout but Maryland will win.

NC STATE (+19.5) over Florida State *Upset Special*
Did I mention something big is going to happen? You heard it here first -- #1 Florida State is going down at their own personal house of horrors in Raleigh.

For all the talk of Jameis Winston, there are way more red flags than him. And it starts with the defense, which got exposed by Oklahoma State in the opener and put up little resistance against a freshman QB last week. Yeah, Clemson Clemson'd real hard but they should have won last week by multiple scores. They were a superior team at the line of scrimmage, which surprised me and which they were not even close to a year ago.

Meanwhile, Florida State seems off. Maybe it's the Winston thing. Maybe it's the National Title hangover. Maybe it's the shock of playing a real schedule after getting 11 cupcakes and Clemson a year ago. Maybe they're already looking ahead to the Notre Dame game, which has the potential to be one of the biggest home games in school history.

Whatever the reason, I hate the look of Florida State right now. They think they've escaped the tricky part with the Clemson victory and are going to severely underestimate a pesky NC State team.

Arkansas (+8.5) over Texas A&M
I'm going to go against Texas A&M one more time before I believe. I hated them in the preseason and they proceeded to make me look like an idiot. They've played two cupcakes since. What will they do when a smash mouth team shows up?

Arkansas will not make the same mistake South Carolina and Steve Spurrier made in the opener, by abandoning the running game and playing into Kevin Sumlin's hand. This may be a high-scoring game but it won't be a shootout. I was high on Arkansas to start the season, but their defense wasn’t ready to go 60 against Auburn. I'm betting they are now.

david shaw conservative
Stanford (-7.5) over WASHINGTON *Best Bet*
David Shaw is the scariest coach to back. His conservative playcalling is a drain on the Cardinal and has posed significant problems. We should have known this when he lost the 2012 Fiesta Bowl by playing for field goals with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. He lost to USC twice by ultra-conservative playcalling. Their lack of urgency late in games last year cost them the Rose Bowl and nearly allowed Oregon to pull off a miracle comeback. David Shaw has to loosen up and let his talented players play.

That being said, it won't matter Saturday. Washington has given me exactly zero reason to believe they are on Stanford's level. A one-point win over Hawaii? Losing 14-0 at half to Georgia State? Giving up 52 points to Eastern Washington? Chris Petersen is a great coach but this is a rebuilding, restructuring year for the Huskies.

Cincinnati (+15) over OHIO STATE
This is where I remind you Ohio State was my preseason national title pick before Braxton Miller got hurt. I didn't think Miller was that big of a factor but, as has been proven many times before, I was very, very wrong. The loss to Virginia Tech looks worse by the second.

As for Cincinnati, Gunner Kiel has been a revelation so far at quarterback and the players will be treating this like their Super Bowl. I don't think the coaches, fans or players have been too happy that East Carolina has been the AAC poster child through September. Cincinnati wants to play in the Peach Bowl too dammit!

The Bearcats don't get my "Upset Special" nod because of the defensive concerns, but they should go toe-to-toe with Ohio State.

SOUTH CAROLINA (-5) over Missouri
South Carolina's win over Vanderbilt was ripped by Steve Spurrier but that was the ol' ball coach doing what he does best. The game wasn't that close at all, though the score was thanks to two Vanderbilt kickoff returns.

Missouri, on the other hand, embarrassed itself and lost at home to the 11th-best Big Ten team. They were probably looking ahead but a team needs to be able to look ahead and beat Indiana. They didn't. They are about to get rocked by the Gamecocks.

Duke (+7) over MIAMI
Miami is done. Al Golden is done. The talent level just isn't there. It's probably unfair since the NCAA killed their recruiting due to their botched investigation and years of inaction, but we live in unfair times. Duke getting a touchdown here is a gift from the gambling Gods.

Notre Dame (-12) over Syracuse
I believe Notre Dame will make the first college football playoff. And teams that make the playoff will beat a team like Syracuse by two touchdowns. Syracuse is not good. They just got smoted at home by Maryland. Notre Dame is miles ahead of the Orange right now.

The only thing that gives me pause is Notre Dame will clearly be looking ahead. They sleepwalked through the Purdue game and could very likely do the same here. They play Stanford next week. Most everyone thought Notre Dame had a 90+ percent chance of starting 4-0. They know that. Brian Kelly knows that. The real season starts in October. Still, a Top 10 team with championship aspirations takes care of business.

This is not the 2012 Notre Dame team, which needs miracles and one-score wins every week. This team is better. At least, I think it is.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Into the Crevasse with UConn Football

"I was ice climbing when I fell into a crevasse and hurt my leg. There was only one way out, so fighting every natural instinct I have, I did the thing I hated the most. I climbed down into the darkness." - Jack Donaghy

There are many reasons why college football coaches get fired and none of them are good.

In some cases, coaches only have to fix one or two problems. Charlie Strong needs to change the culture at Texas, but the talent is still there. Brian Kelly needed to upgrade Notre Dame's defense, but the fans never stopped showing up.

chandler whitmer sack
In more extreme cases, a new coach has to fix everything. And that's where we currently stand with UConn football. There are no quick answers or easy solutions. For UConn football to get better, it's going to have to get worse.

From the moment he was introduced through this past Friday at 7:59 p.m., Bob Diaco seemed to be doing everything right. He was in full salesman mode all offseason. He got a victory in September. His team outplayed a very good Boise State team for three quarters. There were positives to be gleaned from the performances and it felt like hope had returned to the UConn program.

Then Friday night happened. There is no way to sugarcoat how UConn played. They put forth a pitiful performance on national television. They lost to a team that was non-competitive the week before against North Carolina State.

UConn committed too many penalties. They fumbled on their first drive for the fourth game in a row. They abandoned the passing game. They threw the ball one time to an NFL talent in Geremy Davis. They couldn't block a soul. It was a brutal, horrible, painful game to watch.

It felt like there were six wins on the UConn schedule in August, but South Florida probably needed to be one. A more realistic view now reveals UConn is not playing in a bowl game this year.

There were many UConn fans – and I'm as guilty as anyone – that put too much stock into UConn winning their final three games of 2013. Fans like to focus on the good and pushed aside the nine terrible losses that preceded it, blaming it on poor coaching and circumstances.

Following Friday night's debacle, there are those who are angry at Bob Diaco and that is warranted. The bigger problem is that we did not realize the full extent of how far the UConn program had fallen.

On Friday morning, ESPN Classic aired UConn/USF from 2009, as UConn was en route to a four-game winning streak to finish that season. It was an entirely different team, from the uniforms to the nearly packed house in a snowstorm. UConn had upperclassmen with talent that would play on Sundays and get drafted. They had confidence and swagger. They were a good football team.

UConn in 2014 is not a good football team. How can it? The roster has been absolutely gutted, with Paul Pasqualoni delivering three of the school's worst recruiting classes. Randy Edsall was routinely criticized for his recruiting but year after year, his recruits were drafted and successful on Sundays.

To make the poor recruiting classes even worse, the upperclassmen ranks are thin to non-existent. The depth chart is littered with freshmen and sophomores. It is tough for any college team to rely on young kids to win games, especially so when it's a rebuilding team void of superstars.

There have been flashes and glimpses of potential. Alas, that is all we have right now – flashes and glimpses. Even if the defense has been good to stellar for four games, it is impossible to win any football game with the quality of offensive line play UConn has put forth so far.

The damage from the Pasqualoni era will take several years to recover from. The on-field problems for 3 years have been compounded the peripheral issues, such as the fan apathy from losing and the demotion from a power conference to a mid-major. This isn't basketball, where conference affiliation essentially means nothing. Conference affiliation means everything and the American is not a strong brand right now.

I don't know yet if Bob Diaco is the answer. I know that it will be impossible to figure it out this year – first years for college coaches give almost no indication of future success. Charlie Weis and Brady Hoke, respectively, returned Notre Dame and Michigan to BCS bowls in year 1. Nick Saban lost at home to Louisiana-Monroe in his first year at Alabama. Brian Kelly piloted Notre Dame to a home loss against Tulsa.

If you're a UConn fan, all you can hope for from this season is improvement. You can hope that the coaching staff identifies the talent that can grow, mature and lead the team in 2015 and beyond. You can hope the defense remains stout. You can hope the effort level stays where it's been. You can hope that wins do eventually come. You can hope that when the calendar changes to November that the season is totally lost. You can hope they beat Temple on Saturday.

Hey, maybe hope has returned to UConn football after all?

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Friday, September 19, 2014

My Descent into Madness on the DC Metro

“I feel great today.”

Those were my regrettable thoughts as I bounded from my apartment, headed to the Judiciary Square Metro station. I did feel great. I had worked out the night prior. My Frosted Mini-Wheats hit the spot. The weather was a postcard – creeping up through the 60’s with bright sunshine and not a hint of humidity.

I walked at a leisurely pace – I wasn’t just on time, I was early. I took a deep breath to soak in the beauty of the day. What did “About Time” teach us about life? We must savor every good moment, no matter how small.

As I walked past the National Building Museum, I saw people exiting the Metro station. This is always a good sign because if people are leaving the station en masse, that means people have been delivered en masse.

I felt so good I even stood to the right on escalator – why rush? Today is a good day.

Upon entering the station and swiping my SmarTrip, I realized I had gravely underestimated the Metro’s power to destroy. It was the Red Line to Glenmont was on time. But I take the Red Line to Shady Grove for a connection and that platform was too crowded. The upcoming train sign flashed the worst possible option. It was all blank. Terror takes over.

Ding! Ding! The PA speaker in the station grabbed my attention. “We are now experiencing delays on the Red Line to Shady Grove. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

The Metro is always apologizing. Much like the NFL, they always say sorry but never do anything to change.

I fire up Interpol on my iPod and hope for the best. I don’t have meetings at work until 10 a.m. so I have time to play with. My panic level is medium. It is not for others.

“What is happening?” one rider asks.

“Who the fuck knows?” answers his friend.

“Is a train coming?” a blonde woman asks the crowd.

“Who knows?” answers the previous friend, cleaning up his language for the lady.

Five minutes pass. I’m now listening to “No I in Threesome” and nervously pacing. The upcoming train sign still has no update. The loudspeaker apologizes again. The natives are growing restless. I’ve read this story before.

Ten minutes have now passed. The “Henreich Maneuver” is about to begin in my ears. I long for the West Coast. I realize I am now biting my fingernail. The descent has begun.

15 minutes have now passed. The upcoming train sign still has no update. There have been four apologies without any information. I am getting no cell service. I am cut off from the world.

The sign finally updates after 19 minutes. It says the next train will be there in…15 fucking minutes.

“Give me a break!” I scream to no one in particular. I’m done. I will walk to my Orange Line connection. I storm up the broken escalators – because of course the escalator is broken – and walk briskly back to civilization.

“The train is holding at Union Station,” a Metro worker tries to console me.

“So…” I stutter, “Who gives a…” I pause, “That doesn’t….” I give up. “It’s been 20 minutes! Ridiculous!”

The Metro worker seems unconcerned. I swipe my card again on the way out. I have paid WMATA $1.40 for the pleasure of waiting 22 minutes for nothing. They just stole my money. I am angry.

The sun greets me and the anger subsides. It’s still a beautiful day. A 13-block walk may do me good. I stride with pace but I feel my urge to kill fading. I will be okay.

I walk into Metro Center and hit a glorious Silver Line train as I enter the platform. It is now past 9 a.m. and the train is nearly empty.

“Ahh,” I audibly sigh. We’ve made it. Life is good.

For six stops it remains so. I will be late but not late enough to warrant the embarrassing “Metro Fail” email to work. I have surviv-

Nope. No I haven’t. Our train stops outside of Virginia Square and doesn’t move. It doesn’t move. It doesn’t move.

I begin pleading with God. “Just let me get off this train. Please. I beg.”

I have not been a good Catholic because the train doesn’t move. The conductor alerts me to the fact we are now holding so they can begin single-tracking.

I hang my head in shame. Our Love to Admire is finishing. I do what any sane man does when needing to unleash aggression – press play on Kanye’s Yeezus.

If I can go overboard complaining about train delays, then Kanye is my spirit animal – comparing himself to a slave while raking in millions and having his wedding televised. His anger is misguided and pure. I understand.

The train finally arrives at Ballston Metro after another lengthy wait. I show up in the office 53 minutes late. I left my apartment nearly two hours ago. It has been a long, terrible, awful morning. But I survived.

Or did I?

“Fucking Metro!”

That’s the text I receive as I walk out of the office to conclude my day. I am not fazed. She takes a different line than me in a different part of the city. When I arrive back in Ballston, a Silver Line train is arriving.

I plop down in an empty seat in the first car and lay my head back. It has been a long frustrating day but—

We stop.

“God dammit!!” I yell in the empty car.

“We are holding. We are awaiting further instructions. We apologize for the inconvenience,” the conductor says.

Jesus Christ. This is it. This is the end.

I start contemplating my life’s failures. What if I died right now? What if I never get home? My mind races a million miles an hour, thinking about how I should be a better man, or at least a less crappy version. I grab the fat on my side and desperately wish I was in better shape. I rub my forehead in an attempt to make the pain go away.

It is of no use. My descent is complete. That’s what delays do to you. They beat you down. They capture you alone with your thoughts. No one wants that. I want to be home.

But I couldn’t leave if I tried. The train is stuck in a tunnel. I have no cell service. The train car is nearly empty. Life could end in the most depressing way possible.

The train finally starts to move. It will start and stop frequently over the next 35 minutes to get me back to Metro Center. Every stop brings more feelings of doom. Every start a cruel tease of freedom.

Upon arrive to Metro Center, the weary Orange Line passengers – yes, the train somehow changed from Silver to Orange without notification – are greeted by an angry mob of delayed riders on an overcrowded platform. The Red Line is fucked up too.

I push my way out of the station, struggling to find room in the dangerous conditions – a brief thought of a fire overtaking the station urges me to leave even quicker.

I begin the 14-block walk home. I will stop at the McDonald’s by Gallery Place because, shame or no shame, I need a God damn cheeseburger and fries.

I wasted nearly four hours of my life on Tuesday traveling to and from work. For nearly half of that, I was waiting.

Yes, for 120 minutes of this precious thing we call life, I was standing or sitting still – awaiting a Metro train to move for me. This makes me very sad. This makes me very angry. This makes me mad.

If you like reading me descend into madness, here’s when I did so at the DMV.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hope Has Returned to UConn Football. Will Winning?

On Friday night, ESPN will televise a college football game between two teams that have yet to beat an FBS team in 2014. For most of the country, this is cause for outrage. For me, this is cause for unbridled excitement and unabashed anticipation.

Yes, UConn will play USF in football Friday night. And I cannot wait. For the first time since Randy Edsall left, there is actual, honest-to-goodness momentum around the UConn football program.

Stop laughing. Right now. I’m serious.

When I first called for Paul Pasqualoni to be fired shortly into his second season, it was due to the crippling apathy that had overwhelmed Rentschler Field. It continued in 2013, most notably at the Michigan game, when my Section 231 could never wrap our heads around UConn leading the ranked Wolverines. We waited for the other shoe to drop. Eventually, it did.

As the reporters covering UConn deliver competing theories about empty seats – as if it is some great mystery a team with 3 straight losing seasons can’t sell tickets – they are missing a great story. It’s the problem with the press box as you don’t get a feel for what’s actually happening.

In week 1, UConn played a Top 25 BYU team and lost pretty badly. Despite the obvious disparity in talent and experience, the crowd rallied around the Huskies. When Josh Marriner dove in from a yard out to make it 21-7, our section exploded with the same fury as back in 2009 when we beat USF.

Hope is a powerful, if very strange thing.

The performance against Stony Brook is best to be forgotten but it was a win in September – a feat that eluded UConn a year ago – and there were promising signs. There is talent on the field, if young talent. The team plays hard. The team believes. The team thought they could beat Boise State last week.

After three quarters, UConn was down 24-21 and was actually outplaying the heavily favored Broncos. For the first time in four years, there was a palpable sense that UConn could win the game. It is remarkable how the game slipped away just like that Michigan game, with Chandler Whitmer throwing an ill-timed interception.

In 2013, the crowd expected it. In 2014, the crowd was surprised it happened.

If you’re not a UConn football fan, you are likely reading this with befuddled look my dog gives me when a treat isn’t coming her way. “What do you mean?” she asks.

It is impossible to explain to an outsider – to someone who hasn’t sat in the emptying upper deck for three painful years – how toxic the culture around the program had become. People stopped going to games. People stopped buying season tickets. People threw in the towel.

That doesn’t mean they left the program entirely. They were waiting for a sign of momentum. They were hoping to see a spark that would give them pause about staying home. We may look back at Boise State as that moment. I saw multiple UConn players tweet their thanks to fans being loud. Even those covering Boise State felt it:

Before the season, many looked at the UConn schedule and saw six possible wins. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Bahamas on Christmas Eve or Detroit on a random Friday afternoon, a successful season for UConn means playing in any bowl game this year.

On Friday night, UConn travels to USF and plays a team that just lost by 32 at home to N.C. State. The week prior, USF became the first FBS team in three years to lose a game while being +5 in the turnover margin. It is the definition of a winnable game.

The AAC scheduling gods obliged further by providing Temple at home on Sept. 27 – that’s two eminently winnable games in a row. Of course, UConn could just as easily lose both. That’s thing with hope: it gets you through the day but it doesn’t win the day.

We still don’t know if UConn has what it takes to get to six wins. We don’t know if the young talent can grow up quick enough. We don’t know if the offensive line can figure it out. We don’t know if the defense can keep playing at such a high level.

All we know is that UConn outplayed Boise State for three quarters. That’s a step in the right direction. The hope is they take another step forward Friday night. 

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Week 4 College Football Picks: The Insufferable Conference Debate

When the NCAA Tournament selection committee meets every March to discuss the 68-team bracket, there is one thing they never discuss – conference affiliation.

Instead, the committee members look at the quality of teams played, whether those were conference games or non-conference games. This has become especially important in recent years as unbalanced schedules have made one team's slate in a 14-team conference drastically different from another.

oregon good
Contrast that way of thinking with what we've heard through the first three weeks of the 2014 college football season. It seems like every Saturday is another referendum on a conference. It's threatening to swallow the season though it should be meaningless.

In 2013, the ACC had two elite teams in Florida State and Clemson and a whole bunch of mediocre teams. Florida State cruised through the season at 13-0 beating only two teams that ended in the final Top 25 ranking. It was arguably the easiest slate of any BCS title game participant. Florida State won the National Title because they were the best team in the country. Their conference affiliation meant nothing.

Similarly, the biggest story of 2014 so far has been the complete and total failure of Big Ten teams in the non-conference. Many have speculated that the conference is already eliminated from playoff consideration, which is particularly peculiar considering many of those same people saw Michigan State go toe-to-toe with Oregon in Autzen Stadium for three quarters.

Why should Michigan State be punished for the performance of its conference mates?

This is the first year of the college football playoff and everyone is speculating, made worse by the lack of a true definition about what the committee is going to make their decisions based on. It has had the unfortunate effect of smothering the early season.

We should be learning who is good, who is overrated and who is going to surprise. There is so much to be gleaned from these first few results. You can see the seeds of future success or the harbingers of problems to come. We know so little, yet we act like we know so much.

The result of one game tells us only about the two teams involved. Oklahoma didn't prove Big 12 superiority by dismantling Tennessee; much like Boston College's upset of USC didn't prove the ACC is better than the Pac-12. It only revealed that Oklahoma may be really good and USC may not be.

The simplest explanation is usually the most accurate.

Overall Record: 15-20
Best Bet: 1-2
Upset Special: 2-1

The less said about last week the better. I missed out on two covers (Tennessee & UConn) due to late turnovers returned for touchdowns. Absolutely brutal beats.

Auburn (-8.5) over KANSAS STATE
Auburn has covered 13 games in a row against the spread, which is the most ridiculous streak I can ever remember. Think about it: the entire existence of Las Vegas is based on preventing that. Who beats the house 13 times in a row? It's absurd to the point of comedy.

gus malzahn sweater
That's not why I'm picking Auburn. I'm picking Auburn because I saw Kansas State give up 28 first-half points to Iowa State. I know they righted the ship and pulled out the victory, but Iowa State is no Auburn. The Manhattan crowd is going to be live and amped up for an excellent Thursday night showdown, away from the cluttered Saturday night slate, but I just don't see them slowing down the Auburn offense. I don't see anyone doing that.

And no, Auburn putting up 50 on Kansas State will not prove SEC superiority, even if that will be the major takeaway we hear about on Friday.

Uconn (+2) over SOUTH FLORIDA
Just kidding. I don’t care how much I’m enthused by UConn’s first few games; you should not place money on this game. Or even make a pick for fun. It’s just not worth it.

VIRGINIA TECH (-8) over Georgia Tech
Ah, the beauty of college football in September – we know absolutely nothing. Georgia Tech went up 35-10 on Georgia Southern and looked like a triple option machine straight from Paul Johnson’s fantasies. Then they blew the lead, only to win in the final minute.

Virginia Tech looked like a potential playoff contender in smothering Ohio State, only to be badly exposed by an East Carolina team that should have won by multiple scores.

So why am I going with Virginia Tech? Because their weakness lies in the secondary and that won’t be a problem in this one.

PITTSBURGH (-6.5) over Iowa
I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed the second half of the Iowa-Iowa State game last week as someone with no rooting interest. I could see the car crash coming. The Kirk Ferentz timeout at the end was just the icing – pun intended – on the cake. What a disaster.

An Iowa defensive player was on BTN Live this week and he was asked by Glen Mason, “What’s wrong with the running game?” After an audible sigh, he said, “I don’t know, man.”

Iowa is demoralized. Pitt may be decent. This could get ugly.

Maryland (+1) over SYRACUSE
I hate this pick and this line but I am going to ride Maryland one last time before giving up on them for good. Look, I said in the preseason they could be the new Texas A&M, so I am giving them one last chance. The defense was beyond atrocious last week against West Virginia but they still should have won the game and showed a ton of heart coming back from 28-6 to down.

As for Syracuse, I haven't forgotten that they needed overtime to beat FCS Villanova in week one. Yeah, sure, they beat up Central Michigan last week but Maryland is a huge step up in class for them. My gut tells me Maryland benefits from the tough game a week ago and is far more prepared for this game than the Orange.

Also, it's really weird to watch Maryland (Big Ten) play West Virginia (Big 12) and Syracuse (ACC) in back-to-back weeks. All three are now in the wrong conference.

EAST CAROLINA (-2.5) over North Carolina
In the preseason, I picked North Carolina to win the ACC. Then I watched in horror two weeks ago when San Diego State ran all over them and, if not due to one bad play late, would have defeated UNC. It is remarkable that UNC is actually ranked this week in the meaningless coaches poll. More proof that none of those voters watch the games.

ecu new years day
As for East Carolina, this caps their non-conference gauntlet and everything is there for the taking. They will return home to what should be an absolutely electric crowd. The AAC title appears to be a two-team race between them and Cincinnati. The Group of Five berth in a New Year's Day bowl should go to the AAC champion, unless Boise State beats BYU. Many projections already have ECU penciled into the Peach Bowl.

What I'm trying to say is that this is a really, really, really big game for East Carolina. They are about to be this year's UCF, using a step-up in conference as a springboard to a program-changing season. For North Carolina, this is just a game. They will play many more important ones in the next two months.

Virginia (+14) over BYU
I don't have a good football reason for this pick. Virginia looked terrible at times at home against Louisville, but was gifted great field possession and turnovers for three straight hours. BYU looked incredible at times at home against Houston, but somehow sputtered away a huge lead to make it a relatively close game. Everything points to BYU winning by four touchdowns.

But I can't leave Virginia. They are 2-0 against the spread as underdogs, including the outright win last week. I picked them both times. It would be rude to jump off now, right?

ALABAMA (-14.5) over Florida *Best Bet*
Is the line for real? The crazy thing is that the line opened at -17 and has been bet down to what you see here. What is going on? Did I miss something where 15 Alabama players got suspended? Did Tim Tebow return to Florida? I am so thoroughly confused.

Usually, this would be cause for concern as I run away screaming for a sucker line. But I rolled with Nebraska in a similar spot and celebrated the cover before the first quarter was over. So we're doubling down on absurd lines.

I watched much of the Florida/Kentucky game and Kentucky was the superior team. It took a tremendous amount of luck for Florida to even get that game to overtime, much less win it. Now they're going to stay within two touchdowns of an Alabama team that is getting grief on a daily basis despite dominating opponents?

One last reason: Alabama's opening weekend win against West Virginia looks better than it did then. I don't know how good West Virginia ends up but they are not the 4-8 team they were a year ago.

MICHIGAN (-5.5) over Utah
This is the type of game Michigan wins every year by 21 points that gets the natives all excited about the season and how they’ve turned the corner finally. It’s very possible Michigan could get to 5-1 by the time Penn State comes to town in mid-October – consider this a warning, Michigan fans.

LSU (-10) over Mississippi State
You should only pick an underdog if you can see them winning the game outright, regardless of the spread. Mississippi State has beaten LSU once (!!) since 1991 and has not done so in the 21st Century. I’m not betting against history. In fact, Mississippi State has only lost by single digits once since 2000.

Clemson (+20) over FLORIDA STATE *Upset Special*
(Please note: This was written before Winston's first-half suspension was announced. Kudos to Jimbo Fisher for doing so. Regardless of changes to the spread, as in Vegas, I got in at +20.)

Do I see Clemson winning this game Saturday night? Yes, yes I do. I’ll give you five reasons

fsu vs clemson
1) Clemson is mad. They are mad about the second-half performance against Georgia. They are mad about getting embarrassed by Florida State last year. They are mad that Jameis Winston declared Death Valley was “our house” via tweet during baseball season. Anger is awesome motivation.

2) Clemson can score points. The Florida State defense is a major concern based on the first game against Oklahoma State. That defense smothered Clemson from the opening kickoff last year. Clemson will score points.

3) Clemson’s performance against Georgia is better than you think. Do you think Dabo Swinney wishes Mike Bobo had forgotten about Todd Gurley in week one? They went toe-to-toe against a Top 10 team in their house for three quarters. Yes, they wore down but Florida State lacks the horses to do the same.

4) I believe in Dabo Swinney. I didn’t always but he won me over last year. The way his program came back from a potentially crippling Orange Bowl embarrassment in 2011 to win the game last year has me in his corner. I am also a big fan of him pumping Jameis Winston’s tires all week.

5) “Nobody believes in us!” If you don’t think Dabo says those exact words Saturday night, you’re crazy.

NEBRASKA (-7) over Miami
I think Nebraska is better than people think. I think Miami is as average as people think. The Big Ten needs to win at least one primetime game this year, right? 

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