Sports

Sports (40)

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Baseball’s greatest lefthander ever

Written by

Monday, April 4, 2016, the greatest sportscaster ever began his 67th and final season.

Don’t take the word of two life-long Dodger fans that 88-yearold Vin Scully, the Voice of Da Bums since 1950, is the best. His awards and recognitions are way too numerous to list, so here are the greatest highlights. The American Sportscasters Association named him Sportscaster of the Century in 2000 and first on its all-time Top- 50 list later. Numerous halls of fame, a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, etc.

The reasons for that extend from his encyclopedic knowledge of the game and technical broadcasting skills to his modesty, casual friendly manner, and personal warmth, all conveyed in a lyrically descriptive style via a dulcet voice. His vivid yet simple description of a game has thrilled fans for years.

It all starts with his signature introduction: “It’s time for Dodger baseball! Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good day/evening to you, wherever you may be.”

When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, fans began bringing their transistor radios to the ballgame because he added so much to what they saw. Part of his charm is his mastery of baseball history and anecdote, which makes fans feel a special connection to him and the game.

He learned early on to be objective and understated, not a home-team shill and loud. And he always kept in mind that sportscasting is about the players and the game, not about him.

He’s witnessed more spectacular sports history moments than anyone. He was there (but not calling the action) for baseball’s most famous moment ever, Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning “shot heard ‘round the world” homerun in 1951 for the Giants that broke Dodger hearts forever.

Four years later, he called the seventh game of the Dodgers’ first World Series championship ever, which Scully recalls as his favorite moment. On the last out, he said simply, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world.” Then he turned the mic to the cheering crowd for an extended time in what became another signature move.

He explains that as an eighty year-old boy, he used to lay his head on a pillow under the large radio counsel in his parents’ home and let the sounds of the crowd and the game wash over him as ate crackers and drank milk. That memory comes back at every good baseball moment, and that’s what he shares with fans.

Other highlights? Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series walk off homer that’s widely viewed as the second most memorable moment in baseball history. Hank Aaron’s 715th homer in 1974 that broke Babe Ruth’s most famous career record. Barry Bonds’ 71st, 72nd and 73rd home-runs in 2001 to capture the single-season record.

Did we mention that he called “The Catch” on TV in 1982, when the San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Montana and Dwight Clark beat the Dallas Cowboys and started a dynasty? Yes, he’s great at television, too, plus football, golf and tennis broadcasting.

He’s called five baseball perfect games – no one else has two – beginning with Don Larsen’s in the 1956 Series, the first perfect game in 34 years. And 18 no-hitters, including four by Sandy Koufax, culminating with his perfecto in 1965. Two more perfect games in 1988 and 1991. Then, in 1999 he played himself in arguably the best sports (and date) film ever, For Love of the Game. As the hero takes the mound for the ninth inning, seeking to finish his perfect game, Scully says: “Billy Chapel is 40 years old, arm weary and aching. And you know, Steve, you get the feeling that Billy Chapel isn’t pitching against left-handers, he isn’t pitching against pinch-hitters, he isn’t pitching against the Yankees. He’s pitching against time. He’s pitching against the future, against age, and even when you think about his career, against ending. And tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer.”

Vin Scully used that dulcet voice to push the sun back up in the sky for one more summer for all of us.

 

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Ron Knecht is a contributing editor to the Penny Press - the conservative weekly "voice of Nevada." You can subscribe at www.pennypressnv.com. This is an edited version of his column which has been reprinted with permission. 

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Two huge upsets at Wimbledon

Written by Jon Cazares

A couple of shocking Wimbledon twists for tennis fans. The very well liked and number two ranked Naomi Osaka lost today 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 to Yolia Putintseva (currently ranked 39). This was Putintseva’s first time at Wimbledon. (Editor’s note: Osaka has been in a recent slump and during the Wimbledon match committed 38 unforced errors, to Putintseva's seven.) But the real stunner is that young tennis prodigy Cori Gauff (ranked 313) beat five time Wimbledon champion super star Venus Williams (ranked 10) in round one of the tournament. 

Gauff is fifteen years old playing in her debut tournament where she handedly defeated her tennis idol Williams 6-4 6-4. “It’s the first time I have every cried after winning a match,” Gauff told reporters after. 

Wimbledon is a little different than the other three Grand Slam tennis tournaments as it is the only one played on grass, the others play on hardcourt. 

The Australian Open plays on an acrylic topped hardcourt, the French Open and the US Open play on clay courts. 

Why does this matter, you might ask?  Well, clay courts slow down the ball and produce a high bounce in comparison to grass or hard which means it takes away any advantage of big serves. Acrylic hard courts can vary is speed but generally faster than clay courts but not as fast as grass courts. 

Grass courts, according to Wikipedia: 

 

“Grass courts are the fastest type of courts in common use. They consist of grass grown on very hard-packed soil, which adds additional variables: bounces depend on how healthy the grass is, how recently it has been mowed, and the wear and tear of recent play. Points are usually very quick where fast, low bounces keep rallies short, and the serve plays a more important role than on other surfaces. Grass courts tend to favour serve-and-volley tennis players.

Grass courts were once among the most common tennis surfaces, but are now rare due to high maintenance costs as they must be watered and mown often, and take a longer time to dry after rain than hard courts. The grass surface, however, is the most physically forgiving to the human body because of its softness.”

Wimbledon continues and wraps up mid July with the Women's final on Saturday the 13th and the Men’s final on Sunday the 14th.

 

Update 7/8/19: Alas, Gauff's magical journey came to an end as she just lost 6-3 6-3 in the fourth round to former world number 1 and Grand Slam winner Simona Halep. 

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The National Spelling Bee ends in eight way tie

Written by Jon Cazares

The 92 annual Scripps National Spelling Bee wrapped up Memorial Day weekend. In the previous 92 spelling bees, there have been eight six winners and six two-way ties. This year was something else. After a Thursday evening round that went 5 ½ hours Bee organizers began to feel that there would be a large number of competitors at the top, which led pronouncer Jacques Bailly telling them, "We do have plenty of words remaining on our list. But we will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you, the most phenomenal collection of super-spellers in the history of this competition."

 

He was  not wrong. After another three rounds the eight kids at the top never missed a beat and went 24-24. Often times the parents of the competitors seemed rattled and seriously stressed out but for the most part the kids handled the pressure well.

 

For the first time ever, it was an eight way tie. Normally, the spelling bee champion wins $50 thousand dollars and the trophy. In the past, when there were two way ties, the money was split. This year, instead of splitting the prize money eight ways, bee organizers decided that each of the kids would receive $50 thousand and each will take home a trophy of their own.

 

As usual at the National Spelling Bee, the kids were largely supporting each other with high fives and hugs when their competitors friends got words correct. Sportsmanship at its very best, it’s actually really lovely to watch. The video linked to the front page is the very final round where they were told, if you get this final word correct - you’ll tie for the top spot as Bee Champion. Their were eight competitors left. All eight of them got their word correct.

 

One by the one the kids, in this order and the word they had to spell.

 

Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif.: auslaut.

Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala.: erysipelas.

Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md.: bougainvillea.

Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J.: aiguillette.

Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas: pendeloque.

Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Tex.: palama.

Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J.: cernuous

Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Tex: odylic.

 

I don’t get to watch the National Spelling Bee every year but ever since the fantastic 2002 Academy Award nominated documentary Spellbound hit the theaters, I would certainly say the Bee is always on my radar. You should check the documentary out. I believe you can watch it free on YouTube.

 

And to the 2019 winners, all eight of you - well done!

One joy of studying history, especially the 20th Century, is to see how life has changed. To my great satisfaction, our daughter Karyn has a fondness for the subject and especially the aspect of it that shows how people lived then versus now, particularly as reflected in popular culture.

As some folks know, I still collect sports and non-sports cards. I believe in the adage that he who dies with the most baseball cards, wins.  Such cards and related ephemera are a great reflection of the times when they were produced and a deep insight into the real history and culture of their eras.

Recently, I acquired a reprint set of the first issue of football cards, which included 35 National Football League players and the immortal Knute Rockne, who had coached at Notre Dame and shaped much of the early game.

The original set, produced in 1935 by the National Chicle Co. of Cambridge MA is too expensive for a non-corrupt former elected official, because it includes the most valuable football card ever, number 34 Bronko Nagurski, as well as number 9 Rockne.  They can command five-figure prices in near-mint condition.  My reproductions, easily distinguished from the real items, cost a few dollars.

Among other things, all the players are pictured in actual football poses, not with fur coats, bling and shades as some stars have been in recent years. The front sides are art, not photographs, and they use very bright colors, attractive compositions and simple designs with football backgrounds.

The text on the back of the cards, written by Eddie Casey, then coach of the Boston Redskins and formerly Harvard, shows how real sports and life were then as compared to today.

A few things really struck me.  The first was the line in Nagurski’s biography on the back that said: “A product of the wheat farm country, he stills works the soil between action on the football field and professional wrestling mat.”  This is a great example of a feature of many cards even into the middle-1950s: the discussion of the player’s off-season job.

Their pay was so modest that many had to hold an off-season job for a decent living.  Quite the opposite of the sometimes multi-million-dollar guaranteed levels even for rookies in some professional leagues now and the long-term contracts with mid-eight-figure annual pay for some stars.

After baseballer Carl Furillo won the National League batting crown in 1953, he returned to his winter job as an elevator repairman for Otis Elevators, according to one of his cards.  Perhaps more than any other fact, that illustrates what I mean about life being real then.

Another item is that the text on the first 27 cards is essentially a tutorial for kids and adults on how to play certain positions and actions, as depicted by the player on the front. From all aspects of kicking, passing, receiving and handling the ball both in the open field and when plunging into the line to the need for defensive ends on kickoffs to stay in their lanes and turn the ball carrier to the middle of the field, etc.

These cards were meant for real fans of the time, not for kids ripping open packs to find a rare insert or special card.

A third aspect of how real everything was then is the height and weight statistics.  Only one of the 35 players tipped the scales above 220 pounds (number 11 Turk Edwards at 250) and none were taller than 6’ 3.”  Some colleges today have all their starting linemen at 300 pounds plus.

Perhaps the most endearing thing is that coach Casey knew his football, as shown in the final text on Nagurski: “He is as much a tradition to [his alma mater] Minnesota football today as Red Grange is to Illinois.”

The text on the next card ends: “Now, reaching the end of his professional career as a player he is following the footsteps of Red Grange in becoming an assistant coach to the bears.”

Illini fans then and now have always known that Grange was the greatest college football player ever.

Now, if only my daughter Karyn would develop a taste for card collecting.

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Ron Knecht is a contributing editor to the Penny Press - the conservative weekly "voice of Nevada." You can subscribe here at www.pennypressnv.com. His column has been reprinted in full, with permission. 

 

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Tony Romo and the Super Bowl

Written by Jon Cazares

Former Dallas Cowboy QB1 now CBS announcer Tony Romo blew minds and drew national headlines due to his uncanny “future reading” ability during the AFC Championship Game as he kept calling plays before they happened, during the Patriot’s victory over the Chiefs (37-31). And now he’ll be calling Super Bowl LIII (53).

Romo was so impressive that CBS immediately offered him a huge raise for him to return as a broadcaster for CBS because NFL teams were actually exploring the possibility of having Romo return to the league as QB. But … I don’t know about that. I mean, Romo is really great as a broadcaster and fans love him but as QB1 he was … well, he was good. Not great. But good. He was a starter for ten years, threw for 35k yards and went 78-49 in the win/loss category and was 50% in the playoffs (never made it to the Super Bowl). So, he was good. But he wasn’t THAT good. I mean, it’s not like he could predict the future during his games, as he appears to be doing as a broadcaster not only the AFC championship game but with numerous games in the past few years (go YouTube “Tony Romo predicts the future”). Which is precisely what the Onion joked about last week with their: “Tony Romo Realizes He Should Have Used Ability To Read Defenses Back When He Was Still Playing.

But not everyone is as impressed with Romo’s ability to read the game and seemingly predict the future. Former NFL tight end and now writer, Nate Jackson wrote Let’s All Calm Down about Tony Romo for Deadspin.com. In it he writes:

“Romo’s predictions were mostly about the Patriots’ offense, and almost all in the second half and overtime. He had a firmer grasp on the Patriots’ offense than he did on the Chiefs’. It seems safe to assume, based on his lack of “predictions” when the Chiefs had the ball, that Romo did not know what plays they would run any more than the rest of us did. This is because the Patriots’ offense is more predictable … As any football game wears on, the playbook shrinks. This is typical of any game: as the thing starts to shake out, a game plan that can be hundreds or thousands of plays shrinks to five or 10 bread-and-butter options. These are plays that are working. Plays that everyone knows. Plays that can be communicated with hand signals. Simple plays. Effective football plays. Recognizing this is not prescience, this is just science.”

This are fair points and Jackson's entire article is good; you should read it (linked above). So, I don't know if Romo is predicting the future or just calling predictable plays but I do feel he was a pretty good QB1 and is a very good announcer (even Nate Jackson agrees with this). This will be his first, but probably not his last Super Bowl appearance.

Sadly, the appearance will not be, as he one day no doubt hoped, as a player, but still. 

The NFL (at least the announcing booth) seems to be in good hands.  

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UCLA Gymnast Katelyn Ohashi Scores a Perfect 10 (again!)

Written by Jon Cazares

I am no gymnastics expert, but I certainly know a thing or two about a thing or two. In fact, back in the prehistoric age of the 90’s, I watched as Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller dominated American gymnastics and headed with high hopes into the 92 Barcelona Olympics. Alas, things didn’t work out for that team.

It wasn’t until the 96 games that the Magnificent Seven - Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes,  Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Jaycie Phelps and Kerri Strug became the first US team to win the gold medal, as well as winning individuals medals for Miller, Dawes and Chow. Of course that team is probably best known for Kerri Strug winning the team gold medal while landing her 2nd vault performance on an injured ankle. Sadly, Zmeskal, missed the 96 games with a torn ACL.

But I haven’t really paid much attention to gymnastics since the end of the 90’s. So, imagine my surprise when even my non-gymnastic following ears perked up at the name Katelyn Ohashi.

“Wait,” Said I, “I’ve heard that name before. Hasn’t she had, like, a few perfect 10’s in modern competitions?”

Turns out, she has.

Twice on balance beam in 2017, three times for floor exercise in 2018 and now, the ultra famous floor exercise that is currently skyrocketing across the internet. That’s five perfect Collegiate level 10’s in the last year and half. And Ohashi does it with the most charming dancing/playset I’ve seen/heard in gymnastics - maybe, ever. Which, as Rebecca Schuman describes in her delightful Slate piece, Ohashi’s exact set (meet?) could only happen at the Collegiate level. From Schuman’s “Why Isn’t All Gymnastics This Fun?” story:  

“You see, in the NCAA world, there are rules more befitting the humans of Earth … On floor, this means exactly three tumbling passes and a maximum start-value of 10. And because of this emphasis on execution rather than difficulty, NCAA gymnasts have the time and incentive to train in dance. Simultaneously, because elite gymnasts don’t really dance anymore as NCAA choreography has become more dynamic, with few notable exceptions (such as Dutch wood sprite Eythora Thorsdottir), elite choreography has become … belabored, which is the official gymnastics term for eeeeeeeeeech. The days of Bolshoi-trained masters of the avant-garde such as Svetlana Boginskaya or Olga Strazheva are as forgotten as a Yakov Smirnoff set.”

Wow! Schuman just name dropped Yakov Smirnoff! I forgot all about him. (No, seriously, I did). =)

Anyway, twenty one year old Katelyn Ohashi is at the top of her game right now and her delightful new floor routine shows it. I hope she continues strong and we can all cheer her on in the 2020 Olympic games.

I’ve only watched the video about a, ohhh, say - a dozen times, but I think her playlist from her recent 10 is as follows:

Proud Mary by Tina Turner

September by Earth, Wind and Fire

Maybe another song here but I can’t tell what or who because of the cheering

I Want You Back by The Jackson 5

Rhythm Nation by Janet Jackson

Remember the Time by Michael Jackson

The Way You Make Me Feel by Michael Jackson

Thriller by Michael Jackson

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Explaining the Delay of Implementing the College Football Playoff

Written by Anthony Varriano

I don’t need to tell you that the College Football Playoff (CFP) needs to expand to include at least eight teams. You and everyone else already knows that. But you might not know why it's taken 150 years for college football's power elite to even consider adopting a college football playoff worthy of the most popular collegiate sport and its most loyal fans.   

There were probably college football fans calling for a playoff back in 1978, when Division I-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS) was formed and debuted a four-team playoff. While Alabama and USC shared the Division I-A (now FBS) national championship, Division I-AA crowned Florida A&M champions following a four-team playoff. Division I-AA enjoyed 36 years of certainty while Division I-A named co-champions five times, but the four-team Division I-AA playoff wouldn't last for long, and for the same reason the CFP can't remain a four-team playoff for long.   

When it comes to determining a champion, a four-team playoff is only more right more often, not most right most often. The NCAA even realized this and remedied it rather quickly. In just its fourth season, the Division I-AA playoff was expanded to include eight teams. The very next season the playoff expanded to include 12 teams, and in its ninth season, the playoff grew to 16 teams. Now the FCS Playoff field starts with 24 teams. Meanwhile, in its fifth season, the CFP remains a four-team playoff despite FBS co-champions being listed in the NCAA record book last season, further frustrating fans longing for an NCAA-sanctioned, FBS playoff and national championship game.

The FBS remains the only NCAA sports division for which it does not sanction a yearly championship event. While North Dakota State University got one of those iconic NCAA National Championship trophies and another banner to hang in the Fargodome for winning the FCS Playoff in 2017, Alabama did not. The Crimson Tide took home the CFP National Championship Trophy, of course, and the NCAA did list them in their annual record book as a national champion—along with the undefeated University of Central Florida Knights, who were ranked number one in the country according to the Colley Matrix, a mathematical system used as a “selector” of national champions since 1992. It’s the same method that ranked Notre Dame ahead of Alabama despite losing the BCS National Championship Game 42-14 in 2013 because Notre Dame’s strength of schedule remained superior to Alabama’s if you ignore chronological order of the games.

Why and how it took the FBS so long to follow the FCS to the football playoff promised land is mindless, stubborn tradition that’s resulted from a messy start to the sport’s history. That tradition is responsible for the repeated failures of the NCAA to determine a champion upon which most can agree. Tradition is tunnel vision that limits innovation. The NCAA attempted to improve upon fatally flawed methods of selecting national football champions, and every time a new method of selecting champions was adopted, that method’s success was measured relative to its predecessor instead of relative to a possible playoff. And since the predecessor always stunk, the NCAA grew more and more content with simply being better than it was rather than the best it can be.

The Origin of the “Mythical National Championship”

Since colleges were almost exclusively developing and growing the gridiron game, we can forgive them for almost half a century’s worth of inconclusive seasons over the sport’s first 67 years. Six teams shared the national championship in 1921, and 49 seasons ended without a "consensus" champion. But to be fair, there were a lot of other things to work out first—like the rules of the game and how to safely play it. Had football’s founding fathers known we’d still be changing rules and still not know how to play the game safely over a century later, they might have addressed the issue of 49 seasons basically ending in ties. But crowning the right champion wouldn’t be a problem much longer if football kept killing kids.

In 2000, Rodney K. Smith wrote for the Marquette Sports Law Review that “in 1905 alone, there were over eighteen deaths and one hundred major injuries in intercollegiate football. National attention was turned to intercollegiate athletics when President [Theodore] Roosevelt called for a White House conference to review football rules. … Deaths and injuries in football persisted, however, and Chancellor Henry MacCracken of New York University called for a national meeting of representatives of the nation's major intercollegiate football programs to determine whether football could be regulated or had to be abolished at the intercollegiate level.”

The result was the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (IAA), later renamed the NCAA in 1910, when the organization went about creating national championship sporting events for collegiate sports—all except football—which is why it was dubbed the “mythical national championship” way back in 1923.

Even when there were so few colleges fielding football teams, scheduling enough games to determine an outright champion was impossible given travel difficulties let alone injuries and deaths to players. So, naturally, white men who thought they knew college football started ranking teams. Both football polls and Bowl Games predate the founding of the NCAA. The earliest college football poll dates back to 1901, when All-America originator Caspar Whitney and Charles Patterson published their rankings in The Sun. The first Rose Bowl was played in 1902 before 8,500 people, so college football was already popular prior to “organized” collegiate athletics. The NCAA was formed in an attempt to save the sport from being banned due to injuries and deaths that resulted from playing the game. 

The NCAA didn’t seem to mind that a system, however flawed, was already in place to determine collegiate football champions, and it still doesn’t mind the mythical end to the season of its sport generating more revenue on average ($31.9 million) than the other 35 collegiate sports combined ($31.7 million). The majority of NCAA revenue might come from its more-than-$700-million deal to broadcast its men’s basketball tournament, but when every conference gets its share based on its teams’ performances in The Big Dance, it still only accounts for 10 percent of revenues for Power Five conferences.   

Starting in 1936, multiple polls and mathematical ranking systems would determine college football’s consensus national champion. From 1936 to 1949 there were just two unanimous college football champions, with four teams receiving a number one ranking from at least one official selector in the inaugural season. Some selectors still acknowledged by the NCAA predate the Great Depression, but the one it employed in an attempt to give fans the national championship they wanted resulted in more controversy, not less.

B(C)S

The BCS was immediately met with criticism in its inaugural season of 1998 that forced a change to the system. One-loss Kansas State, the third-ranked team in the country, was denied participation in BCS games in favor of Ohio State (ranked fourth) and Florida (ranked eighth). The “Kansas State Rule” assured the third-ranked team a spot in a BCS game. It was used eight times in the 15 BCS seasons. 

The BCS was so inconclusive that only its final season ended without controversy according to the “Bowl Championship Series controversies” Wikipedia page. A Quinnipiac survey conducted in 2009 found that 63 percent of 1,849 respondents were ready to do away with the BCS, and a subcommittee in the United States House of Representatives even approved legislation that would make it illegal to promote a national championship game if it didn’t result from a playoff. It never became law obviously, but it likely motivated change.      

FBS Kicks BCS Off the ’ship

The BCS was so bad that in 2014 the FBS was content starting where FCS did in 1978 rather than implementing the 24-team playoff model FCS was employing at the time. It made sense for FBS to keep it simple at the start, having failed to crown a consensus national champion in five seasons since the FCS Playoffs began.

The NCAA never showed an interest in captaining a Division I-A college football championship from the start, and that hasn’t changed. The CFP National Championship is captained by those whose plundering funds the NCAA's institutions. The Power Five conferences and their 64 institutions (independent Notre Dame makes 65) get 75 percent of the $608-plus million annual installment from ESPN.

The remaining 25 percent is “shared” with the 57 crew members of the five “other” FBS conferences and three independents, none of whom’s schools stand to earn more by actually playing in the CFP or even winning the national championship, making it as monetarily mythical to members of the American Athletic Conference—like the UCF Knights—as the treasure they’d find captaining an actual pirate ship.

The trip to the CFP is all-expenses-paid, however, with $2.16 million per game played going to each conference represented in the game. Some FCS schools also get drippings of $2.34 million. In 2016, the FCS generated almost $4.5 million in revenue but had over $17 million in expenses, so every little bit helps.

ESPN would willingly renegotiate the $7.3-billion, CFP broadcast deal that runs through the 2025 season (2026 Bowl Games) for the opportunity to broadcast more games. The contract won't hinder expansion of the CFP. Some things that might thwart expansion include the addition of too many games, allegedly making the other bowl games less appealing to viewers, keeping student-athletes away from their families during the holidays, and increased injury risk. And the CFP in its final form won't likely grow to include 24 or even 16 FBS teams since the difference between the top FBS teams and the 16th-ranked FBS team is so vast, while the FCS enjoys a bit more parity despite its own dynasty that rivals Alabama's dominance of its division.   

Nothing in the 150-year history of blue-chip, college football has been done in a timely fashion. The FBS has proven to innovate off the field at the pace the National Football League (NFL) adopts college football innovation on the field. The FBS is finally emerging from the tunnel of tradition, leaving the BCS and the rest of the BS behind them. They're still blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel, having just emerged from a sea of money. But when their eyes adjust to the light and their pockets adjust for inflation, they'll discover the light at the end of the tunnel was really the FCS blazing the trail to the college football playoff promised land. 

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Timberwolves' Thibodeau Really Did Get the Best Deal for Jimmy Butler

Written by Anthony Varriano

Back in April I called for Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau to step down as head coach--but not necessarily as president. The Jimmy Butler trade provides additional evidence of his ability as a team-builder, and his inbounds “plays” provide additional evidence of his inability to coach offense.

Thibodeau Spits in the Face of Evolution, Again

Good coaches get their guys good looks on inbounds plays and before the end of quarters. Thibs doesn't; he is not a schemer. That's why he needed Teague instead of Rubio. He wouldn't know what to do on offense without players who can create their own shots. He did build a playoff team playing mostly isolation offense with very little ball movement, though. It’s the second time he’s spit in the face of evolution and managed to hold his own in the ensuing fight. The first time was when he dared to win with defense as teams made it more difficult to defend by spreading the floor and exploiting the three-point shot.

The Timberwolves still aren’t moving the ball. They were 23rd in passes made and received last season and are 23rd again this season. They aren’t playing particularly faster either. The Timberwolves had the second-slowest pace on offense last year and are third-slowest this season. So they’re still not moving the ball or running the floor, which means they have to be shooting more threes, right? That they are.

Thibodeau Finally Adapts, A Little

Thibodeau knew coming into the season what his team needed to improve. Minnesota needed three-point shooting. The Timberwolves were dead last in three-pointers attempted (22.5) and made (8) last season because their best three-point shooter happened to be their center, and the only other player connecting on more than 40 percent of his threes attempted less than three per game.

Thibs addressed the three-point shooting by adding Anthony Tolliver instead of retaining Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica is hitting more than half of his threes this season while Tolliver plays less and less, but given the lack of payroll flexibility, there wasn’t much more Thibs could do. And no one was up in arms over this deal. Bjelica was about to move back home and play in Serbia before Sacramento came calling.

Despite Bjelica finding his stroke in Sacramento, this season the Wolves are 21st in three-pointers attempted and 16th in three pointers made, which is directly related to the trade of Jimmy Butler and wouldn’t be possible had Thibodeau taken any of the other rumored offers from Miami or Houston. Only the 76ers had what the Timberwolves needed to win now, and Thibodeau managed to get it.

Last season Minnesota didn’t have one player average more than two made threes per game. This year they have one averaging three made threes per game, and it happens to be 2017-18 All-Defensive First Team honoree, Robert Covington. Covington is the very reason why I didn’t get bent out of shape like this guy when I heard of the Butler trade.

Covington’s under contract for this season and three more at a reasonable rate (just under $12 million annually on average). And not only is he an All-Defensive First-Teamer with length who can defend both guards and forwards and force turnovers. He takes a ton of threes and hits about 39 percent of them. He’s exactly what the Wolves lacked with Butler (three-point shooting) while providing Butler-like defense but with more length. And Minnesota got the bench version of Covington in Dario Saric, too.

Saric can’t defend guards for long, but he can assist Towns in the paint on forwards and centers. He too hit on 39 percent of his three-point attempts last season, but has struggled from long range thus far this season. Still, he provides additional length and depth Minnesota needed to alter shots.

Thibodeau Really Did Get the Best Deal for Butler

On the offensive end, Butler isn’t much help beyond the arc, and wasn’t expected to be when he was acquired from Chicago with Justin Patton for Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Kris Dunn. It’s only fitting that Patton, who’s played four minutes in the NBA due to foot injuries, was shipped out to Philadelphia along with Butler to start anew.

So LaVine, Markkanen, and Dunn basically became Covington, Saric, and a future second-round pick. More importantly, the Timberwolves rid themselves of a cancer that cost them games early in the season. Butler missed all but one practice of the preseason before posting an effective field goal percentage (EFG%) of 41.3 in Minnesota’s season opener at San Antonio. Butler’s EFG% was 51.2 in 2017-18. The Wolves lost by four. Butler then sat out a four-point loss at Dallas that saw 276 combined points scored in the second game of a back-to-back for Minnesota. Butler’s defense was missed as the tired legs of Karl-Anthony Towns played more than 33 minutes a day after playing more than 34.    

Butler was meant to be a sort of security blanket for Towns. His ability to stick with just about anyone on the perimeter meant fewer drives into the paint that forced Towns to move his slow feet and close out on the ball handler. In those situations, Towns is always going to be in a pickle because of his footspeed. If he commits to the ball handler early to make up for his lack of quickness, then his man is wide open under the rim, leaving little chance help could come to close the passing lane. If he commits too late, he doesn’t block or alter the shot. But that was before the long arms of Covington and Saric were swiping at ball handlers driving the lane. Fewer drives are actually getting to Towns, allowing him to avoid that lose-lose decision he has to time and defend perfectly to win. Covington alone is averaging three steals per game to go with his almost three threes made per game.

The deal Thibodeau swung with Philly isn’t just the deal he wanted most, but the deal the Timberwolves needed most. He got an upgrade on defense given the remaining roster, which is incredible considering Butler’s defensive prowess, but he also added three-point shooting to a team that needed it most. He got another three-and-D guy in Saric at an even more affordable rate than Covington’s (owed roughly $6 million over the next two years), and a draft pick to boot.

The team chemistry has also visibly improved. Covington is a natural leader, but a soft-spoken one who might connect better with the similarly silent assassins Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Most importantly, Thibs is playing the game his way again (offensive schemes optional). Since Butler was traded to Philadelphia, the Timberwolves have the NBA’s best defensive rating, climbing over Dallas by holding San Antonio to 89 points and tying their third-best margin of victory in franchise history with a 39-point win. The 76ers are 25th in defensive rating.

In short, Robert Covington is the most perfect replacement Thibodeau could possibly find for Butler, both on the court and in the locker room. Thibodeau really did get the best deal for Butler, but I’m still not convinced he should be coaching offense. We’ll let him live until the Trade Deadline, though. It’s the Minnesota nice thing to do.

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Sometime in the Next Week, the State of Hockey will have the NHL's Best Hockey Team

Written by Anthony Varriano

The Minnesota Wild have been one of the biggest surprises in the National Hockey League (NHL) this season, running out to a 12-5-2 record in their first 19 games—good for second place in the ultra-competitive Central Division, where just nine points separates six of the seven teams in the standings. But sometime in the next week, the State of Hockey will have the NHL’s best hockey team.

Wild Schedule

Last season, the Minnesota Wild had a brutal start to the season simply due to scheduling. They played five of their first six games on the road, but worse yet, they didn’t play for five days between their second and third game—both of which were on the road. There were six days off between their fourth and fifth game, too. Despite limping out to a 2-2-2 start, the Wild managed to make the playoffs and lose in the first round, as usual.

This season the Wild started on the road at Colorado in a rivalry matchup, but played four of their next five games at home. They again spent five days off between their second and third game, and the results were the same: a 2-2-2 start. But playing three of their next four at Xcel Energy Center helped the Wild to a five-game winning streak, including wins over Tampa Bay and Colorado.

Now the Wild get a week of teams they should beat, and they kicked it off by kicking the crap out of a Canucks (10-9-2) squad finishing a grueling, six-game road trip. Next up for the Wild is a visit from a Buffalo Sabres team (10-6-2) coming off a game against the unruly Jets (they lead the league in penalty minutes per game) in Winnipeg the previous night. Then the Wild visit the lowly Blackhawks (7-8-4) before returning to St. Paul to host lowly Ottawa (8-8-3).

Meanwhile, the Western Conference leading Nashville Predators (13-5-1) just dropped a one-goal game to the surging Coyotes (9-8-1), but more importantly, will be without two of their best players for quite some time. Nashville lost its second-leading goal scorer in Viktor Arvidsson for six to eight weeks, and P.K. Subban was placed on injured reserve as well. They host the sinking Kings (5-11-1) desperate for a win, followed by a visit from the East’s best Tampa Bay Lightning (13-5-1).

The Lightning, meanwhile, are at Philadelphia (9-9-1) on Saturday before visiting Nashville on Monday. They host Florida (7-6-3) on Wednesday and Chicago on Friday, but will likely be without top goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is out indefinitely with injury.

Wild Luck

It takes some luck to score goals, stop goals and win hockey games. The Minnesota Wild have been relatively lucky when it comes to goal scoring, and they are going to need that luck to continue. They’re a team that scores ugly goals. They rely on deflections like this one Eric Staal scored against the Blues for his 400th goal. They rely on redirects like this one by Nino Neiderreiter scored against the Canucks on Thursday night. Basically, unless the opposing goalie is standing on his head, the Wild are going to win games if they get a lot of shots on goal, because their defense doesn’t allow a lot of clean shots on goal, and their goalie hasn’t allowed much to get past him.

Devan Dubnyk hasn’t been lucky. He’s simply been pretty good at stopping goals (.926 save percentage is 13th overall), and he’s been pretty good for a long time (tied for 15th overall in goals allowed per game since 2014-15 season). But the Wild haven’t had to go without their goalie like the Lightning will. Dubnyk’s 18 games played this season is eighth amongst goalies, and since the 2014-15 season, he’s eighth overall in games started by goalies. The Wild have been extremely luck in this regard.

The Wild beat the Canucks without 34-year-old Zach Parise on Thursday, who took ill prior to game time. He’s expected back for the Wild’s next game against the Sabres. But to give you a sense of just how lucky the Wild have been health-wise, take a look at the injury report for the entire season. Not one of the eight reports has been to place a player on injured reserve. Two reports were simply to activate players coming off IR.

Wild Potential

With the Wild entering a three-game homestand over American Thanksgiving where they’re 6-1-2, it’s not inconceivable for them to be the NHL’s best hockey team in the near future. A three-game tour of Canada in the first week of December as part of a five-game stretch against strictly Canadian teams will test their resolve and let us truly know what to expect from the Wild. The best test of that stretch will come against the second-best team in the East, Toronto (13-6-0) on Dec. 1.

With the points the Wild have already amassed (27) and the way in which they’ve earned them (12 points won on the road) puts Minnesota in an enviable position. They don’t have to be great on the road given their success at home, so down the stretch they can lean on their home crowd to collect enough points to make the playoffs. Whether the Wild are hosting an opening round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will depend on their health, and specifically, the health of Parise, whose PDO of 105.3 (his team’s shooting percentage plus save percentage with him on the ice) leads the team. Translation: with Parise on the ice, the Wild are at their best on both ends.

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My First Love, Basketball, Has Returned

Written by Anthony Varriano

I’ve only just realized that I’ve never been a fan of any National Basketball Association (NBA) team, but simply a fan of fun basketball. The Minnesota Timberwolves helped me realize this by playing the least fun basketball I’ve ever seen on Friday night, while the Milwaukee Bucks repeatedly made me smile and laugh. My first love, basketball, has returned.

I gave up professional basketball for a long time after Michael Jordan retired a second time in 1999, but I never stopped watching Duke University men’s basketball. I’ve been a fan of Duke University men’s basketball for as long as I can remember. And I wasn’t a bandwagon fan like I was with the Minnesota Twins, with whom I took an interest because of a chubby, gleeful center fielder who carried his team to a World Series Championship in 1991.

Even though the Duke Blue Devils won it all in 1991 and got there on the back of Christian Leattner’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” I attribute by Duke fandom to my aunt’s indoctrination of me. She was a campus dispatcher at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and hated it, so she sent me a postcard featuring an overhead look of the Duke University campus surrounded by the Duke Forest. I think I checked their academic standards and immediately wanted to attend after high school, but when I first witnessed the energy at Cameron Indoor on television, I was hooked.

I was a nerd who was always a better coach than player, so I appreciated the idea of smart kids beating the talented kids with schemes and heart. I was bringing up the rear in the top 10 percent of my high school class of 88 graduates, so I’m relatively smart given where I grew up. My best friends were the two smartest kids in the state. But when I watched the 1991-92 Blue Devils, it felt like I was meant to go there. I didn’t have a very good concept of my family’s fiscal situation, however.

So while I relentlessly rooted for the Chicago Bulls of the ’90s, it was because they were so fun to watch. They played my kind of basketball—above the rim and in the paint on offense, and physical on defense. That’s why I came back to the NBA in 2009, when Derrick Rose arrived on the scene as Rookie of the Year, then All-Star, then youngest MVP ever. But I didn’t come back because of Rose; I came back because the Bulls were holding teams to under 90 points with physical defense.

Besides Michael Jordan’s final game at Target Center, it was Tom Thibodeau who got me watching the NBA for the first time in six years. It was Tom Thibodeau who brought Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves and got me to spend money on a 10-game, season ticket package. And it’s Tom Thibodeau who now has me watching anyone but the Timberwolves.

I had already put down a $250 deposit to retain my season ticket package with the Timberwolves, but it wasn’t difficult to find 10 games I wanted to watch. In the NBA, there are enough athletic freaks to go around that aren’t playing for the Timberwolves and would be worth seeing. Giannis Antetokounmpo is one. Antetokounmpo alone, scoring just 15 points, made the $80 I paid to sit a little lower than I sat when Jordan played his last game in Target Center worth every penny. That and seeing Sterling Brown get into the game and score some points. His jersey was the first NBA jersey I ever bought, not for his play on the court, but because of the way he handled himself when questioned and then tased by Milwaukee police for parking in handicapped spaces. Despite a vast Milwaukee crowd, I was the only one in the building proudly sporting Brown’s jersey.

LeBron James is obviously another one of those athletic freaks worth seeing regardless of your team’s ability, and the Los Angeles Lakers visit Target Center twice this season. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are another two. Anthony Davis another. Joel Embiid is another. James Harden another. Kawhi Leonard. Kyrie Irving and his coach Brad Stevens make the list. Speaking of coaches worth paying to see scheme, Gregg Popovich is one. And with all the hoopla over Jimmy Butler’s trade request, the Timberwolves’ home opener against the lowly, LeBron-less Cavaliers was must-see. That’s 10 games worth watching regardless of whether Jimmy Butler or anyone else plays for the Timberwolves.

Now I’m even planning a basketball/ski trip to Utah during the first round of the NBA Playoffs. I don’t expect the Timberwolves to be playing Utah, and couldn’t care less who does. I like Utah’s game. They play pretty good defense. I also like the Lakers’ game. They score all the points they can in the paint and as fast as they can to make up for their collective inability to shoot the three. It’s exactly what the Timberwolves should be doing, but Tom Thibodeau’s in the way. I won’t let it stop me from enjoying my newfound love of fun basketball, and I don't even like the evolution of the game via the exploitation of the three-point line.

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