Archive for March, 2005

Rick O’Shea and the NCAA Tourney

Rick O’Shea’s smile is so wide that his face must hurt. “So,” he says, “how far did you have Wake Forest going in your ‘for entertainment purposes only’ NCAA pool? I remember how you were making fun of me when Syracuse lost to Vermont, so I figured that I would check in.”

I might have had Wake Forest going all the way.

“All the way? And they didn’t make it to the Sweet Sixteen? Oh, that’s a terrible shame. To watch your national champion pick go down after two overtimes to West Virginia must have been tough. Your pool is pretty much useless now, huh?”

Yes, for the 15th year in a row I have burned my picks for heat. I’m getting a little tired of never being able to enjoy any of the “entertainment” from the NCAA basketball pool. I didn’t watch the game on Sunday, though, because I was at the South Boston parade.

Monday was a scheduled vacation day. As for the parade, I just want to say that I’m here to talk about the future and to be positive, not to talk about anything that may have occurred in the past.

“That seems to be a popular response to difficult questions lately, but you’re not talking to Congress here. Speaking of Congress, though, if they prove that McGwire and other players were taking steroids, their records and statistics should be removed.”

Ah yes, the Ben Johnson treatment.

“You bet. You don’t see Ben Johnson’s 100 meter time anywhere. He cheated in the Olympics and smashed a record. When he got caught, they removed his time from the record books and gave his gold medal to Carl Lewis. Baseball is all about numbers and records and history. Watching the record books smashed by guys who are on the juice drives me insane.”

There is the point that steroids weren’t banned by baseball until just recently.

“But they were ILLEGAL. Do you mean to tell me that the idea of a bunch of roid heads smashing records set by Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron doesn’t bother you at all?”

Oh, it bothers me. I’m hoping that the players who used steroids get arrested and sent to live at Martha Stewart’s house. They can’t leave until they can beat her in an Iron Chef cook-off. Imagine the reality television possibilities.

“Nah, they have to compete on Fear Factor, but without the ropes and safety harnesses. It might be fun to watch them eat bugs, then try to jump from speeding truck to speeding truck.”;

Does Fear Factor test for steroids?

“Steroids don’t make the bugs go down any easier. I do know one group that could have used some steroids recently.”

Who?

“Wake Forest. Doesn’t one of your friends pick all of his NCAA brackets by flipping a coin? And aren’t you currently losing to that friend in the pool?”

I’m not here to talk about the past. I’m here to test, I mean, stay positive and look forward to next year’s pool.

The Day to Day Grind Tim 25 Mar 2005 No Comments

Unhappy about the NCAA

I am unhappy with the NCAA, and no, it has nothing to do with the fact that they screwed up the brackets this year with BYU. Up until recently, I really hadn’t thought about the NCAA, other than that the football bowl system is ridiculous. Once every year I get wrapped up in filling out brackets and then watching my Final Four teams get eliminated by the second day of the tournament. The problem, I just realized, is that many of the schools I find myself rooting for are exploiting their student-athletes. It is these athletes who drive the multi-million dollar business of NCAA basketball, and it is these athletes who are getting a raw deal.

I realize ahead of time that it’s not easy to try to understand the plight of kids who have been pampered and treated as stars for their entire lives. There weren’t any NCAA division 1 level players at my college, but that didn’t stop our basketball players from acting as if they belonged to a higher plane of existence than the rest of the student population. I can only imagine the ego of a player good enough to rate the flattery and special treatment normally accorded to an NCAA division 1 player. These are not people who generally receive sympathy.

But, special treatment, egos and all, these players are getting seriously exploited. The special treatment for most of these players ends after their college basketball career, when I imagine that they find themselves in a real world they are hardly prepared to face. How many college players make it big in the NBA every year compared to the total number of players involved in major college basketball (I’m not talking about leagues like the Patriot League, where players need to focus on academics)?

Many of the big time college basketball programs use these players for the extreme amount of revenue and prestige that they bring to their schools. The problem with many of these schools is that they actually help these players to avoid the academic portion of college life, therefore robbing the players of the one benefit of playing college sports on a scholarship, the free education.

The tiny percentage of players who move on to the NBA don’t have to worry about facing life without a degree, but what about the much larger pool of players who aren’t talented enough for the NBA?

One of the schools with the lowest graduation rates for their players is Cincinnati, coached by Bob Huggins. The Cincinnati basketball team’s graduation rates are laughable (I don’t have them handy, but trust me), but I am not accusing Coach Huggins of academic fraud. I am accusing him of not placing a high priority on the valuable college education these players should be receiving while they are members of the Cincinnati team. Many of these players probably feel that Cincinnati is a stepping-stone for their careers in the NBA, eliminating the need for a degree, but I haven’t seen a proliferation of Cincinnati players making it to the pros.

Coach Huggins has seen these players come and go since 1989, so I would expect him to pass along the hard reality that most of his players will need the education they are being offered. Instead, he churns out NCAA Tournament appearances, but not championships, and allows his players to drift off without degrees to their lives after Cincinnati basketball.

There are some coaches who get caught cheating. Former University of Georgia coach Jim Harrick and his son and assistant coach, Jim Harrick, Jr., were let go recently because the school reportedly found evidence of academic fraud, charges that some players received A’s in a class that Junior “taught”, despite never attending the class.

Georgia should not have been surprised. The Harricks have been linked to a number of rules violations and problems at other schools (Rhode Island and UCLA), but that didn’t stop Georgia from hiring them. Harrick delivered as advertised, and made Georgia a strong basketball team, and as a result quite a bit of money, but at what cost to the players? Did the students benefit from scheduling classes that they didn’t attend? Are the players better served by missing their postseason tournaments?

The school officials at Georgia then attempted to head off any possible NCAA sanctions by dropping out of the SEC and NCAA tournaments. These same school officials showed their lack of class by failing to inform the basketball team before announcing these decisions. The players heard of their exclusion from a reporter. If there are players on this team who were not involved in the Harricks’ alleged scams, they have been deprived of the right to play in the crown jewel of college basketball, and were not in any way consulted about the decision.

Also, according to NCAA rules, these players are also not allowed to leave the University of Georgia and play basketball for a different school without sitting out for a year. When questioned about that specific rule in cases where the school or coaches have committed misconduct, an NCAA official being interviewed on ESPN replied that the NCAA is “looking into” whether a change in the rule would be a good idea. Since a change in the rule wouldn’t generate more money for the schools or the NCAA, and only helps the students, it is unlikely that the rule will be changed.

In case there is any question that these players are anything more than cogs in a money making venture, it was reported recently that the University of Georgia’s decision to skip the SEC and NCAA tournaments will cost the school over a million dollars in revenue. How badly must the rules have been broken for the school to justify a loss of that magnitude?

Another scandal hit the news recently when officials at St. Bonaventure allegedly had a grade changed in an effort to keep a player eligible for the basketball team. When the NCAA found out about the infraction, St. Bonaventure was excluded from the Atlantic-10 postseason conference tournament.

The remaining, and presumably innocent, players at St. Bonaventure then voted to forfeit the two remaining games on their schedule. This fact made national headlines. A grade being changed is a fairly low priority story these days, but players exercising their only power and refusing to play? That was big news, and the players were vilified by a number of press outlets. St. Bonaventure was threatened with expulsion from the Atlantic-10, and the school was forced to compensate at least one school for the lost game revenue.

So, what’s the lesson here? Fixing the grade was bad, but if the school can’t get their players to line up and take the punishment for their coach’s indiscretion, there will be hell to pay. You would think that the punishment would have been to deprive the school of any revenue for the postseason tournaments, which hurts the school just as much but doesn’t punish innocent players.

In that regard, it seems that rules violations just aren’t a big deal. The late Jim Valvano, former coach at North Carolina State and former ESPN employee, is essentially worshipped by the talking heads on ESPN for his courage in his losing battle against cancer. Do none of these people remember that Valvano was fired from NC State in a cloud of NCAA rules violations? I’m sorry that the man died from cancer, and I understand that he created a foundation that helps many people, but why is he held up as such a sterling example if he broke the rules? Is it possible that the rules aren’t considered very important?

The money generated by a winning program must be worth the risks, however, because schools continue to hire coaches like Jerry Tarkanian (a renowned rules breaker) and Harrick to maximize the profit of their basketball teams. When the rules violations are revealed, the coaches are then fired or quit, and move on to their next job, while the players are left to bear the brunt of the resulting NCAA sanctions.

These players are adults, I admit, but the people they are listening to are giving them bad advice. There are millions and millions of dollars being made for the coaches, the networks, the schools, the shoe companies, the casinos, and the person who always seems to win our NCAA “for entertainment purposes only” pool (you know who you are). The only benefits for the players are 1) a chance to showcase their talents to the various professional leagues and 2) a free education. Unfortunately, many coaches seem to guide their players towards emphasizing the former, when it is the latter benefit that most of these players will need. Since money is what makes the world, and the NCAA, go around, it’s time that the NCAA tied the salaries of these coaches to their players’ graduation rates.

Sports Tim 25 Mar 2005 No Comments

My Pal

“Scuse me, scuse me,” Mr. C said, disagreeing with a point that someone seated at his picnic table had just made. He was in the middle of showing the error of the person’s ways when he noticed me standing in front of him. He stopped his argument and turned towards me.

“Hiya pal, whatcha got there?” It was a lazy Saturday afternoon and Mr. C. was wearing plaid golf pants, a bright green shirt, and white loafers while he relaxed in his backyard with a glass of lemonade. There was a cigarette in an ashtray on the table, and the smoke swirled above Mr. C’s wispy, graying hair. He was a thin man, but with a personality that always made him seem much larger than he actually was.

I was a bowl-cut wearing 8 year-old and I nervously held out my first wallet for inspection. The wallet itself was a novelty item made of stiff brown plastic, so stiff that it wouldn’t fold shut; it had “Tim” emblazoned in black letters across the front. My father had suggested that if I showed the wallet to my longtime neighbor it might be worth my while, so I had hurried next door to show off my prize.

I was not disappointed. Mr. C. quickly produced a crisp dollar bill and pronounced my wallet officially functional. I beamed as he laughed; a deep, throaty, smoker’s laugh that always sounded as if it was coming straight from his lungs.

Mr. C. was my pal, and I can’t believe that he has been gone for 9 years.

He and his family moved next door to my family in 1961. In the years that followed, each family raised 5 children and the C’s became much more than just neighbors.

Before moving to Northboro, Mr. C. grew up in Worcester. After graduating St. Stephens High School, he served in Japan as an Army clerk for 3 years during the Korean War and arrived in Korea just as the armistice was signed. He returned to the US and married Mrs. C. in 1955.

“When I first met him, he was really quite shy,” Mrs. C. remembers, “he even had one of his friends call to ask me to go out with him. I told the friend that unless (Mr. C.) was willing to call me himself, I wasn’t interested.” He called. It was the smartest thing he ever did.

Having Mr. C. described as shy is a bit surprising, however. Brash, fun, spontaneous, playfully mischievous, maybe even a little loud, he was, as my mother would say, “A hot ticket.” But shy?

The man may have been shy with Mrs. C. when he was 17, but he definitely grew out of it. He loved to be surrounded by people, and there was always something going on at the house: a cookout, open house, pool party, or at the very least, Mr. C. sitting in the backyard playing someone a game of spades.  It was the type of place where people would always be stopping by for a visit.

“We owned 8 cars in the family. It was Grand Central Station,” Mrs. C. explains. It was a wild time.

Some other things I remember about a man who always treated me as a friend and not like a kid:

• Mr. C. once allowed his children to have a pet monkey named Coco.

• He used to sneak up to our den window at night and change the channels on our cable box with his remote control.

• He would pull his car into our driveway and flash his high beams for no reason.

• Once, when I was particularly miserable about having to mow the lawn, he had his entire family line up lawn chairs so that they could watch me. They toasted me with their iced tea and applauded me, which just made me hate mowing the lawn that much more.

• Once when I was 6, I was afraid because my bedroom window was rattling in the wind. My father told me, “Don’t worry, it’s probably just Mr. C. on a ladder, tapping on the window to drive you crazy.” It made perfect sense, and I fell asleep immediately.

• Our phone would ring on random evenings and upon answering it, I would hear only, “Are you ready?” This meant that we were to come right over for fresh strawberry shortcake, or perhaps homemade ice cream.

• When I was a senior in high school (1989) and desperate for wheels, Mr. C. offered me unlimited use of one of his cars. It was a 1976 blue Chrysler New Yorker and it was slightly longer than most commercial fishing boats. When I turned on the radio in the car, the windshield wipers came on.

• Whenever anyone asked how he was doing, Mr. C. would look them straight in the eye and say, “Still smoking and drinking,” and laugh his throaty laugh. .

It was probably the smoking and drinking that eventually did it. Mr. C. suffered a stroke in 1993, and his health declined rapidly from there, but he never lost his sense of humor nor the glint in his eye.

By 1996 it became clear that Mr. C. wasn’t going to be with us much longer. My mother remembers sitting next to him when he whispered, “I’m going to die on your birthday, so that you’ll never forget me.”

“You’d better not!” She replied, not wanting to think about him dying at all, never mind on her birthday, which was many days away.

“You’ll see,” he chuckled.

Mr. C. was true to his word and died on my mother’s birthday. He was a man who, in the words of Thoreau, lived deep and sucked out all the marrow of life. I miss my pal.

Back in the Day Tim 25 Mar 2005 No Comments

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