Thursday, December 17, 2015

The AAC Must Play Like a Power Conference During Bowl Season

The 2015 college football season could not have gone any better for the American Athletic Conference (AAC). But for it to linger, the AAC must dominate bowl season.

houston temple aac
And they say bowl games don’t mean anything?

As a UConn football fan, I have had a vested interest in the success of the AAC. While most fans of AAC teams are desperate to get out, I’ve been far more intrigued by the potential of the conference. The keys to success are there. The conference encompasses half the country, with schools located in several of the country’s biggest markets. The AAC has a great deal with ESPN – in terms of exposure, if not money. And individual schools are showing their willingness to spend.

But until 2015, the AAC lacked the on-field results to back it up. The 2014 season marked a huge step back for the AAC in terms of national perception because parity overtook the league. In retrospect, it was actually a huge step forward because teams were recharging and reloading.

By the end of October, Temple was hosting College Gameday, Navy’s Keenan Reynolds was a Heisman contender, Houston’s Tom Herman was the hottest new coach in America and Memphis was on the fringe of the playoff debate. At least three of the four were in every poll through the end of the year.

However, looming over the AAC’s success, was a reminder of how far the old Big East had fallen – a lineup of bowls that appeared dreadful. The St. Petersburg Bowl? The inaugural Cure Bowl?? Sun Belt and MAC opponents? What was even the point?

Instead, when the bowl matchups were revealed, every team – with the exception of Temple – received an opponent that would lead to a statement win for the AAC. Think about it:
  • Houston plays Florida State in the Peach Bowl, which is obvious.
  • Memphis plays Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl, another opportunity to take down an SEC team in what will essentially be a road game.
  • Cincinnati plays San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl, a chance for the sixth-best AAC team to take down the Mountain West champion.
  • Navy plays Pitt in the Military Bowl, which would give Navy its first 11-win season in school history and would do so over a decent Power Five opponent.
  • Tulsa plays Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl, which will give the 6-6 team a chance to ruin Frank Beamer’s send-off and make a ton of national headlines.
  • UConn plays Marshall in the St Petersburg Bowl, which could result in a win by a 6-6 AAC team against a 9-3 Conference USA team.
  • USF plays Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl, a chance for the fifth-best AAC team to take down the Conference USA Champion.
  • Temple plays Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl, which is the most disappointing matchup for the AAC but a game Temple must win.
The reason why this bowl season so much for the AAC is what could be acheived.

On one hand, games against Power Five teams can showcase the AAC belongs on that level. On the other hand, games against Group of Five teams can show the AAC is clearly superior to those conferences.

The AAC does not currently have an automatic bid to the New Year’s Six, a huge change from the BCS era that many felt would cripple the conference. But in 2015, had anything really changed? It was a foregone conclusion since mid-October that the automatic Group of Five berth would go to the AAC champion, though USF did its best to ruin that.

By the time the first AAC title game came along, it was set in stone – the winner of Houston and Temple would play in the Peach Bowl. Through on-field success, the AAC became a Power Five conference, if only for one December Saturday.

The distinction of a Power Five conference is an arbitrary one. There are no requirements or benchmarks to hit. They had existing relationships with bowl games and ESPN and they made the rules. The AAC was left out. It doesn’t have to stay that way.

The goal for the AAC is simple: It must lock up the Group of Five berth every year. If that happens a couple years in a row, then everyone will start to look at the AAC differently. But since college football is an arbitrary sport – locking up the 2016 berth begins with the perception of the AAC from 2015.

Right now, the perception of the AAC is that it is clearly the strongest Group of Five football conference. Over the next few weeks, the AAC will have 8 nationally-televised opportunities to turn that perception into a reality that lasts until next September.

The bowl matchups broke just right for the AAC to make a huge statement. Every fan of every AAC team must pay attention. This is the AAC’s big chance.

The results of these 8 games could change the entire future of the conference – and that’s not hyperbole.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

How Once-Proud Sports Illustrated Stooped to Race Baiting for Attention

Race relations is a serious conversation that we must have in this country.

Race baiting is a serious problem that we must stop in this country.

serena muscle sexy
It saddens me beyond belief to lump the once-venerable Sports Illustrated with the Internet trolls of the world. But, here we are.

It didn’t need to be this way.

Over the summer, there were three singular athletes dominating headlines in their pursuit of feats thought impossible. Jordan Spieth won the first two legs of the Grand Slam, which had not been completed in men’s golf in a century. Serena Williams won the first three legs of the Grand Slam, which had not been completed in women’s tennis in 27 years. American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, which had not been completed in horse racing in 37 years.

The debate on who had the greatest single year seemed to fade by October, after Spieth and Williams merely had transcendent seasons. American Pharoah, of course, lifted horse racing to heights not seen in four decades.

I’m sure you’re thinking right now – how does any of this lead to race baiting? That’s where Sports Illustrated comes in.

Leading up to the announcement of its Sportsman of the Year, Sports Illustrated held an online poll. Horse racing fans, presumably energized by its first “Sportsman” award nominee in at least 40 years, made a mockery of the poll. American Phaorah won with nearly half the votes. Of the 12 finalists, only Usain Bolt received fewer votes than Serena Williams.

Let me be very clear – Serena Williams is a very deserving winner of this honor. If SI had simply put Serena on the cover without an online poll, no one would bat an eye. But they did not. They, once again, used Serena’s body and image against her.

It was only a few months ago that Serena’s body shaming reached an all-time high when the New York Times wrote a lengthy piece on how other female tennis players could look like Serena, but choose not to. The piece was roundly criticized by nearly everyone, including the aforementioned Sports Illustrated.

Sports Illustrated knew that Serena Williams’ body had been compared, unfavorably, to that of male athletes. Sports Illustrated knew that American Pharoah won the fan voting and horse racing fans were dying to get their hands on another SI cover.

SI put Serena Williams on the cover. Why? Because it will sell. Sports Illustrated has positioned the debate as Serena Williams versus a horse. Guess how the world reacted?

As I am typing this, NBC Washington went into break asking that very question – “Is a horse more deserving than Serena Williams?” – while Jim Vance, a legendary anchor, sighed heavily in the background.

It doesn’t matter that Serena won. It doesn’t matter that American Pharoah lost. It matters that Sports Illustrated purposely pitted Serena Williams against American Pharoah.

The social media backlash – ill-informed as ever – was fierce and swift. To most, the comparison of Serena Williams and American Pharoah was unsightly, at best. In today’s racial climate, it was an uconciousnable decision. Sports Illustrated set this entire thing up and are basking in unprecedented attention for an award that has the same cache as an ESPY, if that.

The Los Angeles Times, in attempt to capitalize on the sporting debate, tweeted out a poll for Serena vs. American Pharoah. This being 2015, the LA Times became a flashpoint for an online race discussion, as if the newspaper had purposely put the two together.

Sports Illustrated deserves all the scorn in the world for racing to the bottom with other journalistic outfits. There was no reason to pit Serena against a thoroughbred. They didn’t need the online voting, and they certainly did not need to tout the success of Pharoah in said poll for weeks.

It was a setup, plain and simple, and everyone fell for it. The horse racing crowd complained their voices – and by proxy, their sport – were being ignored. The ‘social justice warrior’ crowd picked up on the racist overtones of placing Serena in competition with a horse.

While the big loser here in Sports Illustrated, a final death knell in a painful journalistic spiral, it’s a symptom of a bigger problem in sports media. Sports Illustrated couldn’t just announce Serena as a winner. It couldn’t celebrate her for everything she accomplished this year.

Instead, it played upon a nation’s raw feelings about race and the feminine ideal to drive attention. It was a disgusting display of the type of race-baiting journalism we’ve come to expect and loathe. It has no place in 2015’s sports media.

I hope the retweets were worth it, Sports Illustrated. You’re now on the same level as Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. Enjoy the company down there.  

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Monday, December 14, 2015

The Lasting Impact of American Pharoah’s Walk-off Grand Slam

Finally, we watched a horse that could beat Secretariat.

No sport has been bound by its past like horse racing. Every spring, archival footage from the 1970’s would splash across smartphones, high-definition TVs and laptops as the Triple Crown chase began anew. It was a painful reminder that horse racing’s best days were long gone.

american pharoah walkoff grand slam
As an avid horse racing fan, I always found the “horse racing is dead” meme to be inaccurate and lazy. But year after year meant that it became accepted as gospel to mainstream sports media. Thankfully, that meme is now dead.

American Pharoah had nothing left to prove as the Breeders Cup Classic arrived. As someone who lost their mind at Belmont Park in June, he certainly had nothing to prove to me. I had witnessed what may be the greatest sporting moment of my life. Nothing will ever compare to the wall of noise that erupted when American Pharoah ended the most celebrated sports drought outside of the Chicago Cubs.

But Pharoah did have to prove at the Breeders Cup Classic that he belonged next to Secretariat, next to Affirmed, next to Spectacular Bid, next to all of the long-ago legends that dominate the horse racing landscape, decades after they ran.

In retrospect, we can act like it didn’t mean much. We can say his Triple Crown would have echoed for eternity regardless. We can say that history would be kind to him regardless. The truth is, it did matter. We know it mattered by our reaction.

As American Pharaoh hit the stretch at Keeneland and took off like Pegasus, I stood up in my living room, pumped my fist and yelled, “Let’s go baby!” I was sick and tired of people – particularly, non-racing fans – poking holes in Pharoah’s resume based on one devastatingly stinging loss in the Travers.

No, it wasn’t the same as the Belmont Stakes. It couldn’t be. This was different. This was more than a coronation. This was an affirmation of the thoroughbred.

Lost in the “Triple Crown drought” talk that had dogged the sport was lurking the very real possibility that we would never see another Secretariat. Breeding principles that focused on speed for the past 25 years would eventually ruin the Triple Crown. There would never been another horse to complete the feat and breathe that rarified air. There would be no heir to Secretariat's throne.

Every so often, it felt like those fears were becoming truths. Smarty Jones and California Chrome couldn’t win at 1 ½ miles. Triple Crown stars seemed to quickly flame out – whether it was Afleet Alex, Point Given or Rags to Riches – as they were never a factor come October, much less the following year.

These fears had become so ingrained in horse racing that some of the sport’s most respected handicappers – ahem, Andrew Beyer – lined up to take their shot at American Pharoah at every step of the way. The Derby would be his first real test. He wouldn’t have the speed to win the Preakness. He wouldn’t have the stamina to win the Belmont.

He passed test after test, and with it, American Pharoah developed new fans. It is hard to overstate the perfection of Pharoah’s timing. I wrote in February that 2015 was horse racing’s most important year and that had nothing to do with our future Triple Crown winner. It was all based on a sport that finally got its act together.

In 2007, neither the Travers or Haskell Invitational was on broadcast television. In 2015, both of American Pharoah’s races were on NBC – and they would have been if he raced or not. That is the type of traction the sport had made in the past decade.

But despite all of the sport’s best efforts to keep the public’s attention post-Triple Crown, the battle was a fruitless one. Everything in our culture is based on stars. It doesn’t matter if it’s a movie, a book, a TV show or a sporting event – you need an A-list star on the marquee for people to care.

Finally, American Pharoah was the one.

His impact on the 2015 racing season was never in doubt by the time the Breeders Cup rolled around. His impact on the future of horse racing, though, was still up for debate. If he doesn’t win the Breeders Cup, do those new fans suddenly tune out? Think about all those Smarty Jones or California Chrome fans that disappeared followed Belmont Stakes failings.

Instead, American Pharoah rolled through the homestretch at Keeneland like a rocket and gave everyone yet another indelible memory to keep in that select part of our brain where only the best reside.

american pharoah saratoga friday
That is why American Pharoah’s Grand Slam will echo along with his Triple Crown. The story didn’t end at Belmont. It continued through the rest of the year. It touched hundreds of thousands of people from June to October.

Most importantly, the archival footage next spring may be toned down by, oh, a million percent. Sure, we’ll always be reminded of the glory horses from the 1970’s. But there’s company now, in stunning HD. We’ll all see American Pharoah, striding away from Frosted in the Belmont and wasting them all in the Classic.

No sport was more rooted in its past. No sport needed a refresh more desperately. American Pharoah delivered in every way possible. He recalibrated everything.

For three decades, the younger generation of horse racing fans asked their elders, “What was it like to see Secretariat?” Now, they finally know the answer.

That’s why American Pharoah is 2015’s biggest sporting hero, person or otherwise.

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