ESPN: The Duke Broadcasting Network

February 26th, 2015

By Pete Williams

Last night I watched four hours of “Virginia” basketball on the Duke Broadcasting Network — aka ESPN. This consisted of Virginia’s win over Wake Forest, Richmond’s double-overtime win over VCU, and Virginia Tech’s near upset of Duke. (Actually, the Virginia/Wake game was on Fox Sports Florida via the ACC Network.)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching college hoops on ESPN over the last 28 years it’s that the network operates under two rules:

1. Duke is always the best team in college basketball.
2. When Duke is not the best team in college basketball, see Rule No.1.

It’s not enough that ESPN has a disproportionate share of Duke alumni analysts, led by Jay Biased, er, Bilas. There’s also Jay Williams and Shane Battier. It’s not enough that Dick Vitale, a terrific analyst and wonderful man, loses all semblance of objectivity when he’s assigned to Duke games, which is often, and that he talks frequently about “the Dookies” regardless of what game he’s announcing.

No, the worst part about ESPN’s treatment of Duke is that it has long given the basketball team the full Brett Favre treatment. This is what ESPN does to topics long after they’re the lead story. It’s why they will beat a story like Johnny Manziel or Alex Rodriguez forever. The Worldwide Leader leans on the familiar storyline – even when it’s no longer the news story or even a leading news story.

There’s no such thing as news judgment at ESPN. Something is the lead story because ESPN says it is. If it relates to the Northeast Sports Media Establishment, all the better.

Since Duke is chock-full of kids from the Northeast, it’s part of the prime ESPN demographic, even though there’s likely nobody at ESPN aware that Duke University is the namesake of James Buchanan Duke, who created the process for mass producing cigarettes (and lung cancer) and parlayed that dirty fortune into a consumer-defrauding, environment-destroying company (Duke Energy) and getting the former Trinity College named in his “honor.”

Any ESPN basketball studio show discussion inevitably circles back to Duke, even though Coach K – and with ESPN it’s always “Coach K,” never Mike Krzyzewski – pretty much blows off the network, unless he can chat with Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon, among the many longtime ESPN cheerleaders for Duke, though thankfully ESPN long ago took head cheerleader John Feinstein off the network. For years, Krzyzewski has refused to do those coming-off-the-court interviews with ESPN or anyone else, sending an assistant instead. Granted, these interviews are pretty useless, but every other coach in college basketball at least goes through the motions to provide some vague insight into what he changed or plans to change at halftime.

ESPN also has given Krzyzewski a full pass on his embrace of the one-and-done player, guys like Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafur, teenagers who have no intention of staying at Duke more than the one-year waiting period necessary to play in the NBA. Isn’t this a mockery of a school like Duke, which thinks of itself as one of the nation’s elite universities? Isn’t Krzyzewski compromising his standards – or at least his longtime adherence to a consistent team-oriented, defensive style of play – by letting these guys play however they like to pad their NBA resumes? How is he, at this point, any different than Kentucky’s John Calipari? Might ESPN think of asking Krzyzewski that question or at least raising it in one of the many fawning Duke-related columns on ESPN.com? (I’m looking at you, Myron Medcalf.)

Actually, Calipari is different than Krzyzewski in this respect: He’s still winning. Since Krzyzewski won the national title in 2010, his Blue Devils have been bounced from the first round of the NCAA Tournament — not the “second round” as the NCAA likes to say in this era of play-in, 68-team fields – twice in the last three years, including an embarrassing loss (with Jabari Parker) to the 15th-seeded Mercer Bears last March.

Duke lost Parker to the NBA and still, remarkably, ESPN entered the 2014-2015 season in full-blown, Duke-is-No.1 mode, even though Virginia was the defending ACC regular season and tournament champions, beating Duke in the title game, and returned the nucleus of its 30-7 team. Even now, with Virginia 26-1, 14-1 in the ACC, ESPN still goes full Favre on Duke – the No.1 college hoops story, all the time.

Take last night. Virginia played its sixth straight game without its injured best player (Justin Anderson) and its first without point guard London Perrantes, who suffered a concussion and a broken nose during Sunday’s game. Virginia was reeling and playing at Wake Forest, where it had not won in 15 years. The Cavs, down two starters, blew Danny Manning’s team off the court, winning by 36.

The game warranted barely a mention on ESPN’s studio shows, where as usual it was all-Duke, all the time. Also virtually ignored was Kentucky, which improved to 27-0. The ESPN party line there is Kentucky plays in the hapless SEC and, thus, maybe not as good as Duke, even though the SEC figures to land at least as many teams in the NCAA Tournament as the ACC.

Unfortunately for ESPN, it must not have considered the possibility last night of a double overtime game in Richmond, where the Spiders and VCU were hogging ESPN2 and keeping Duke’s game at Virginia Tech off the air. Not surprisingly, the Duke Broadcasting Network ran a yellow-highlighted constant crawl across the bottom of the screen urging viewers to watch online at ESPN3.com with a sense of urgency usually reserved for breaking news of natural disasters. You half expected to hear the emergency broadcast signal.

It’s too bad viewers missed the first half since pesky Virginia Tech (10-17, 2-12 in the ACC) was lighting Duke up from 3-point range and leading at the half. But all the ESPN talking heads could talk about was Duke, Duke, and more Duke. (A frequent ESPN refrain is how Krzyzewski is getting by this season with just eight scholarship players. Left unsaid most of the time is that all eight were McDonald’s All-Americans and top 50 recruits.)

The studio guys even raised the question of whether a Duke loss to Virginia Tech would take the Blue Devils down from a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Any other team with Duke’s resume would be looking at a drop from a No.2 to No.3 seed. Actually, that’s probably how the NCAA Tournament committee views them. But Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s “bracketologist” (and how does one get that job?) was quick to point out that, at worst, Duke would drop to a No.2 – temporarily, the talking heads agreed, since Duke likely would win the ACC Tournament.

Lunardi is ESPN’s college basketball version of Mel Kiper Jr., a guy who sounds like he knows his stuff until you look back later and realize he’s just taking educated guesses like the rest of us.

Lunardi is trapped in ESPN’s Duke bubble, though Duke did hand Virginia its lone defeat, in Charlottesville no less, and beat highly-regarded Wisconsin in Madison. (ESPN never mentions Duke being blown out at home by Miami, a tournament bubble team; or its losses to North Carolina State or Notre Dame — three teams that, like Virginia, could face Duke in the ACC Tournament.)

But ESPN reserved its most fawning treatment last night and continuing today for Jahlil Okafur, who heroically returned from an ankle sprain and apparently was so hobbled he scored just 30 points against Virginia Tech, which fields the ACC’s smallest frontcourt and ranks last in rebounding. As in Charlottesville, Duke had to rely on lights-out three-point shooting by Quinn Cook to squeak out a win in Blacksburg. Cook, imagine that, is a senior.

Not everyone at ESPN has chugged the Duke Kool-Aid. LaPhonso Ellis, last night’s game analyst, pointed out that Okafur shoves off on most every post move, should be called for fouls, and won’t get away with that in the NBA. It would be nice to see Ellis (Notre Dame Class of 1992) assigned to Duke games more often, especially now that he’s curbed his habit of using the word “bigs” to refer to frontcourt players about 50 times a game.

Actually, it would be great to see ESPN promote Doris Burke to its lead announcing team with play-by-play man Dan Shulman or at least take Jay Biased off Duke broadcasts. Burke, who never played or coached men’s basketball, is arguably the best college hoops analyst in television. It’s a shame that for Duke broadcasts ESPN relegates her to interviewing a Krzyzewski lieutenant about halftime adjustments. If she were a man, she’d be on ESPN’s No.1 team. That’s a shame.

Depending on your point of view, the stock of Dan Dakich rose or fell last night. It’s tough to remember the last time someone on ESPN outright ripped Duke, but Dakich on at least two occasions called out Krzyzewski’s team from the Bristol studio for playing lousy defense. You got the sense Dakich was disgusted with Duke. After all Dakich, like Krzyzewski is part of the Bobby Knight coaching tree, a man schooled on playing relentless defense. Dakich, as a player, famously held Michael Jordan to 13 points during Indiana’s upset of North Carolina in the 1984 NCAA Tournament.

Now Dakich was making no secret of his disdain for a Krzyzewski team playing matador defense (165th in the nation in fewest points allowed) and relying on three-pointers to win a shootout. I’m guessing he probably has some thoughts on Krzyzewski selling out to one-and-done players, too.

It was compelling commentary, the type rarely seen on the Duke Broadcasting Network.

Dakich probably didn’t get the memo that such candor is not allowed regarding Duke.

He’ll be out of a job soon.

Feller: Sports Memorabilia Pioneer

December 16th, 2010

By Pete Williams

FellerWhen I was little, my Dad took me to a lot of Richmond (Va.) Braves games. One night in the summer of 1977, Dad pointed to an old guy in a Cleveland Indians uniform signing autographs and mentioned that the man was one of the best pitchers of all time.

“Dad,” I said. “Bob Feller played in Cleveland, right?”

“That’s right.”

“So what’s he doing here?”

Bob Feller, who died Wednesday at the age of 92, will be remembered for being many things: flame-throwing teenage pitching prodigy, Hall of Famer, decorated World War II veteran, outspoken baseball legend, a real-life Iowa farmboy combination of The Natural and Field of Dreams.

He also was the first Hall of Famer to realize it’s possible to make a comfortable living being a Hall of Famer. Years before the sports memorabilia industry exploded, Feller barnstormed the country appearing at minor league ballparks and other baseball-related events signing autographs, talking ball and just being Bob Feller.

Current baseball players can (and should) thank Marvin Miller for their $3 million average salary and $414,000 big-league minimum. Hall of Famers and other former sports stars can thank Feller for creating the post-career business model that provides comfortable six-figure incomes for many.

Feller signed more autographs than anyone who ever lived, many for free, many for fees. He signed so many that those in the sports memorabilia industry long have joked that anyone who doesn’t have a Feller autograph simply doesn’t want one and that unsigned Feller memorabilia is rarer than autographed stuff.

Feller recognized that he wasn’t just selling signatures; he was offering a chance to interact with a legend. Unlike most athletes who sign with their heads down at assembly-line card shows, rarely looking up at fans, Feller was happy to pose for pictures and talk baseball. He always asked fans for their hometowns. No matter how obscure the city, the well-traveled Feller could offer a quick anecdote about a visit there decades earlier. After all, he had hit the Richmonds of the world many times as a barnstorming player in the winter or during his decades on the autograph circuit.

He signed only in blue ink because when he reached the Majors, American League baseballs had blue and red stitching. (National League balls were laced with black and red.)

Feller signed hundreds of thousands (a million?) autographs in his lifetime and yet his penmanship never deteriorated. Take a look at your own signature from five years ago and you’ll understand how incredible that is.

Because Feller signed so often, he devalued his autograph. You never hear talk about Feller forgeries because, well, what would be the point?

If every ex-jock signed as frequently as Feller – and guys like Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, and Reggie Jackson seem hell-bent on breaking his signing record – the autograph industry would collapse. Would that be such a bad thing?

Feller understood that he was selling the opportunity to spend a few quality moments with a living legend, which is why rich guys pay big money to enter pro-am golf tournaments. It wasn’t about the autograph. Guys like Rose, Schmidt, and Reggie, along with Willie Mays and others, have reputations for being aloof, distant and occasionally rude at autograph signings. It’s a business transaction to them, nothing more.

It reached a point where most everyone had a Feller autograph, but people didn’t get tired of talking to Feller. Nor did he get tired of interacting with the fans, which is why he could keep signing and making appearances.

Since I’ve written two books on the sports memorabilia industry, I occasionally get calls from reporters upon the passing of sports legends. The media usually wants to know how much the value of a player’s signature will rise now that, presumably, he won’t be signing anymore. (It’s remarkable how many autographs Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams continue to sign.)

I have yet to get those calls today regarding Feller and my guess is I won’t. That’s because there’s plenty of Feller memorabilia out there. The man was as accessible as any sports legend ever. Plus he still was making the rounds until recently, drawing bigger audiences than he did in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

In 1986, Feller, Ernie Banks, and a couple of other ex-greats appeared at the Potomac Mills Mall in Northern Virginia. It was an odd setting, as I recall, with Feller and Banks seated at a table right out in the middle of the mall going largely unnoticed by Saturday afternoon outlet shoppers.

I paid a nominal fee — $3 or $5 tops – and got to chat briefly with two Hall of Famers.

Feller signed a photo – in blue Sharpie, of course – “To Pete. Best Wishes. Bob Feller. ’86.”

Think about that. Can you imagine Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux hanging out in a mall some time in 2035 mingling with the fans and signing autographs? Both made more than $100 million in their careers, so there’s no need, though neither is above doing lucrative private signings for memorabilia dealers.

They can thank Bob Feller for the opportunity.

Next on Storage Wars: Pete Sampras?

December 8th, 2010

By Pete Williams

StorageWarsPete Sampras is missing a lot of tennis memorabilia. According to The Los Angeles Times, thieves walked off with boxes of items he kept in two storage facilities.

He lost just one of his 14 trophies from winning Grand Slam championships, from his first Australian Open title, but also lots of awards from non-majors and other career mementoes.

It might seem surprising that a prominent pro athlete would keep memorabilia in a storage unit. After all, many pros have huge homes (if not several) with plenty of room to display and store trophies.

In reality, most pros don’t display the stuff. I’ve been inside several pro athlete homes while working on feature stories and usually there’s not much on display. If anything, athletes tend to display signed memorabilia from prominent players they’ve competed with or against. (I once visited Karl Malone at his massive Salt Lake City estate, where he had on display signed shoes and jerseys of each of his fellow 1992 Dream Team members, which was pretty cool.)

Not only that athletes tend to move more than “regular” people. They’re constantly getting traded or deciding on a whim to live somewhere else. If they take a hit on selling their homes, it’s usually not a big deal since they have so much money.

For years, I lived not far from the pitcher David Wells, who resided in a much, much larger home in a gated community. I once visited his home as part of a story for USA Today and was struck by how much Babe Ruth memorabilia Wells had collected. Though Wells played on World Series teams and pitched a perfect game, he had little David Wells memorabilia on display.

Perhaps Wells, who moved to San Diego, still has some of it in a storage unit in Florida. Maybe, like a lot of people who put stuff in storage, he’ll forget about it. Heck, he might find it featured on the new A&E series “Storage Wars,” where people bid on the contents of abandoned storage units.

How do we know Sampras’ stuff hasn’t already been filmed as part of an episode? Maybe Pete just forgot about it and stopped paying the storage bill.

Maybe he planned to sell it anyway. Sports auction houses routinely hawk Gold Glove Awards, MVP trophies, and other memorabilia that came directly from the source. People naturally assume the athlete is hard up for money.

That’s not often the case. Usually the jock no longer has much use for what are essentially large, gaudy knick-knacks from their past – especially when some collector is willing to pay five or six figures for the stuff. I can’t imagine Greg Maddux has, say, all 18 of his Gold Glove Awards lined up in a home office.

It’s impossible to put a price on athlete award memorabilia since you never know what it might sell for at auction on any given day. As the author of two books on the sports memorabilia business, I’m occasionally called upon to give estimates, and all I can do is look at the few comps that might be out there.

As for Sampras, were it not for the theft he might have forgotten what he had in the storage unit, just like most anyone else who has ever put stuff away off premise.

NASCAR: Most family friendly in sports?

November 22nd, 2010

By Pete Williams

BoysNASCARI did not grow up much of a NASCAR fan. But I’ve become one ever since my sons saw the Disney movie “Cars.”

I didn’t think that would translate into them following actual NASCAR, but they’ve become avid fans. I took my older son to the season-ending race in Homestead, Fla., in 2008 and for the last two years my wife and younger son have come along. Years ago, I attended races in Dover and Richmond, and I hope to take the boys to those venues.

You might think a NASCAR event is no place for kids. It’s loud. Smoking is mostly condoned and there’s lots of drinking. NASCAR never will be accused of having a diverse fan base, though it’s made some progress.

But I’ve come to realize that NASCAR actually is the most fan-friendly, family-friendly sport in America. As for diversity, it’s still a mostly Caucasian experience. I’ll say this, though. In recent weeks I attended the two World Series games in San Francisco and the Ironman 70.3 triathlon championship here in Clearwater and I saw far more people of color at Homestead Speedway yesterday than at either of those events.

I’d much rather take my kids to a NASCAR event than an NFL or Major League Baseball game. Let me count the ways:

LESS NOISE: It’s become impossible to carry on a conversation at an NFL or MLB game. That’s because teams feel it’s necessary to play LOUD music during any stoppage of play. Between walk-up music and the cancer that is “Stadium Click Effects,” the point-and-click digital software that enables stadium operators to plug in movie clips, advertisements, and graphics to incite the fans to make more noise, there’s not one moment of silence – ever. Plus, many teams have taken a cue from minor league baseball and hired some fledging comedian to serve as in-game host, roaming the stands with a microphone for god-awful promotions. Please, somebody make it stop.

It’s much louder at a NASCAR race, of course. But because there’s a caution flag every half hour or so, you get a break for five minutes to chat with those around you. During this time, NASCAR does not assault you with music and noise. That’s because, ironically, NASCAR events feature…

FEWER ADS: Remember when you could attend a baseball/football/basketball/hockey game and not have to deal with a video board on steroids assaulting you with loud ads during every stoppage in play? NASCAR doesn’t do that to you. That’s because the cars themselves are the ads. Soccer also gets this. In most parts of the world, soccer uniforms are emblazoned with logos since there are fewer stoppages in play than with U.S. sports.

Solution? Put logos on uniforms and stop the all-out ad barrage at the game.

BETTER ATHLETES: I’m not suggesting NASCAR drivers are better athletes than those in stick-and-ball sports, though guys like Mark Martin and Carl Edwards are in as good a shape as anyone in sports. I will argue that NASCAR drivers do a better job of behaving – or at least keeping their skeletons in the closet – than any other jocks in sports. That’s because they understand the direct link between their incomes and how they treat fans, sponsors, and the media. No group of athletes, with the possible exception of hockey players, is more accessible.

The two most dominant drivers of the last 15 years have been Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. And the worst thing anyone says about either of those guys is that they’re too clean-cut, polished, and boring.

God forbid we’d have more of those guys in the Big Four sports.

FEWER DRUNKS: I’ve never seen a fight in the stands at a NASCAR race. I’ve never seen a couple of guys carrying a passed-out buddy. I’ve never done a slow burn as drunks around me use foul language and act like jackasses with kids seated nearby.

Admittedly, this is less of a concern when there’s so much noise. Who can hear anyone? But for all of the drunken redneck stereotypes about NASCAR fans, they’re actually a pretty civilized bunch compared to your usual NFL crowd or baseball gathering featuring fans of the Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies. That’s probably because NASCAR fans are…

MORE PASSIONATE ABOUT THEIR SPORT: When was the last time you saw someone at an NFL or baseball game wearing headphones and listening to the radio broadcast? That used to be commonplace, but no more. At NASCAR races, at least 30 percent of the crowd is listening to the broadcast, if not tuning in to the communications between drivers and pit crews. Many people attend NFL and MLB games for the party. For years, teams have sold the “in-game experience.” Come pay $300 to sit in the club level and watch the game from a glorified sports bar. Or entertain the kids at a ballpark playground or interactive game center. Stick-and-ball sports sell the “entertainment experience” and wonder why kids have no interest in the sports themselves.

That is, when you can find kids at the Big Four sporting events. You’ll find many more kids and families at NASCAR events, even though tickets are not cheap. But here’s where NASCAR obliterates other sports leagues when it comes to value.

Homestead Speedway is 20 minutes from Joe Robbie Stadium (or whatever they’re calling it this week). At Joe Robbie, the lousy Miami Dolphins and Hurricanes charge $40 to park for regular-season games. Here’s what fans paid yesterday to park at NASCAR’s year-end, championship-deciding event:

$0.00.

Yep, free parking. NASCAR fans also can bring in food and non-alcoholic beverages. Here’s what my family of four paid yesterday for food and drinks during a nearly four-hour NASCAR race:

$0.00.

Even the souvenirs are reasonably priced. We bought our 5-year-old a Tony Stewart T-shirt ($5) and a $10 Tony Stewart hat. (If he didn’t have a big head like his old man, we could have bought the $7 kids lid.) We also bought both boys several matchbox-size cars of various drivers: $2 apiece. Good luck buying any of that equivalent for twice that price at a Big Four sports event.

As we walked around the merchandise trailers, a racetrack employee spotted our older son wearing his Jimmie Johnson hat and offered him a lugnut right off of Johnson’s car. No idea if this was legitimate, but who cares? My wife and I did quick four-question surveys – no personal information required – and received miniature cars for the kids.

You can stomach high-ticket prices when you’re not slumped over a log Big Four-style for parking, refreshments, and souvenirs. But even here NASCAR gets it. For qualifying events and Nationwide races, the equivalent of Triple-A baseball games (were they to feature a half dozen big leaguers barnstorming for kicks), here’s what NASCAR charges for kids 12 and under:

$0.00.

Compare this to the NFL, which extorts its season-ticket holders to pay full freight for preseason exhibitions for fans of all ages.

As for tickets to the main Sprint Cup event yesterday, they started at $55 and those seats (first five rows) were few and undesirable. In reality, seats were $90 and up for people of all ages, which is high, even for a championship event.

Here, too, NASCAR gets it. NASCAR distributes reams of tickets to its sponsors, many of which go unused. They want to have a sellout, especially in these difficult times. In each of our three visits to Homestead, we’ve been offered tickets at 50 percent below face value – or less. The first two years, a group of South Florida employees of Home Depot saw us standing near the ticket office and sold us $90 seats for $45.

Yesterday a man and his son gave us four great seats and wouldn’t take a dime.

“They were handing them out at his school,” the man explained. “We just wanted to give them to someone who would use them.”

For more than three hours, our sons, 7 and 5, sat and watched the race. They did not ask to use the bathroom or for food and drinks. They did not say they were bored or ask to go to the interactive play area, which doesn’t exist at NASCAR anyway. Unlike baseball/basketball/football/hockey games, where they’re asking to get up within two minutes of the start of the game, they sat transfixed.

As we headed out, a group of Coca-Cola workers handed out free cans of Coke Zero.

More free stuff!

We headed back to our free parking space and headed home, having enjoyed perhaps the best family entertainment value in the world of sports.

Teaching the “Teacher”

November 18th, 2010

By Pete Williams

Teach In 2010

Teach In 2010

I love the “Great American Teach In” and jump at the chance every year a week before Thanksgiving to speak at my children’s school.

Today was my third consecutive year and I’ve learned to volunteer to go first, not only because the kids are more attentive but because there’s no way to follow soldiers, cops, and firemen – men with uniforms and cool props.

A guy with a few books and magazines talking about writing and working in the media can’t compete with that, though I’ve learned to bring a DVD montage of my TV appearances for backup once I see faces glazing over.

Talking to kids about sports and journalism is fascinating and if more sports and media executives did so, it would scare the hell out of them. I started by asking my older son’s second-grade class where they get their information from in the media and the results were predictable: the computer, television, radio, and IPhones. One kid – God bless him – chimed in with “books.”

No mention of newspapers, of course, nor magazines. Next we talked about sports and there was more interest in the topic than last year, perhaps because the Tampa Bay Rays rebounded from a disappointing 2009. It also helps that my sons go to the only school in the country adjacent to a spring training complex (Blue Jays). Home run balls land in their courtyard and during recess in March kids enjoy a knothole experience straight out of yesteryear.

Interestingly, a show of hands in both second grade and kindergarten revealed that many had watched the World Series. Perhaps that ballyhooed announcement of MLB moving the start of one Fall Classic game to 7 p.m. helped.

Surprisingly, there was little mention of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who usually dominate sports talk in this market. Of course, that was before the Bucs raised ticket prices 23 percent after the 2008 season when the economy crashed, saw their alleged 100,000-person season ticket waiting list evaporate overnight, and stripped payroll so they could pay off their Manchester United debts, a large chunk of which they took off the books earlier this week.

So now the surprising 6-3 Buccaneers play before a building less than two-thirds full and nobody else can watch because of league-mandated blackouts. Funny how sports works. A bunch of 5 and 7-year-olds have no recollection of when the (Devil) Rays stunk and when the Bucs were consistently good. Many kids (and adults) in this market hammered especially hard by the recession cannot attend games involving either team, but at least they can watch the Rays on television.

Perhaps they can read about the teams online, and in newspapers and magazines.

If not, who cares? By the time my guys are in high school, the media world will look much different, pro sports will be a ghost of what it is today, and soldiers, cops, and firemen still will be more interesting during the Great American Teach In.

How long will McDonald’s fries go untouched?

November 2nd, 2010

By Pete Williams

No takers

No takers

We live on a fairly busy road not far from fast-food restaurants. On weekend mornings when I retrieve the newspaper I often have to pick up wrappers, food remnants, beer cans, and liquor bottles tossed by drunks and stoners just hours before.

On Saturday morning there was what appeared to be most of an extra-large container of McDonald’s fries. Remarkably, the fries were untouched. We have plenty of wildlife in the area, judging by the raccoons, possums, armadillos, and stray cats that often end up on the side of the road, drive-by victims of those same drunks and stoners.

But the animals had left the fries alone. In light of the recent studies of how McDonald’s hamburgers apparently do not decompose over weeks – even years – I decided to let the fries remain on the side of the road. Surely animals or birds would eat the fries, wouldn’t they?

This morning, more than 72 hours later, the fries remained. They were a little soggy, but still intact.

Apparently humans are the only species dumb enough to eat McDonald’s food.

SUP!

October 30th, 2010

By Pete Williams

PeteSUPI have seen the future of endurance sports and it is stand-up paddling.

Today I was among 60 or so people to compete in the Fall Paddle Festival on St. Pete Beach. Most of us embarked on the 3-mile course, starting at the Postcard Inn and heading a mile and a half south before turning at the Don Cesar Hotel and paddling back.

The elites completed two additional laps for a total of 9 miles. Afterward there was food and drink and plenty of stories of dolphin sightings. I paddled alongside five of them for about 100 yards on the home stretch.

I finished in about 52 minutes. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad and it really doesn’t matter because I had more fun out there than during the 10 triathlons I’ve done this year combined. I wasn’t first or last and I managed not to fall off the board despite boats and jet skis kicking up some serious wake. Not that it would have mattered; the water was 80 degrees and the air 85.

Sometimes I wonder what it must have been like to be one of the two dozen or so people to attempt the inaugural Ironman triathlon in 1978. Today I got a taste of that. The sport of stand-up paddling is in its infancy and even though it has gained serious traction in Hawaii and Southern California, the thinking is that it has its biggest upside in Florida, where the water is warm nine months of the year and calm year-round.

I don’t know my way around a sailboat or surfboard, but paddle boarding is the easy-entry happy medium between the two. Cruising along the Gulf of Mexico, getting a phenomenal core workout, provides a vantage point you can’t get anywhere else. It’s no wonder SUP is considered so addictive.

This was only my third time on a board. What other sport can you enter a race with so little experience? I love triathlon, but it can be intimidating for newcomers and taken way too seriously by a lot of people, especially those involved in chasing an M-Dot logo. Running is all-inclusive, but it’s tough on the joints. Swimming, like learning a second language, is tough to master later in life. Surfing is contingent on the waves. With paddle-boarding, it’s preferable to have flat water.

That’s why I’m so bullish on SUP. I can’t wait to get out on the board again.

Look Hoo Was No.1 – 20 Years Ago

October 14th, 2010

By Pete Williams

T-shirt, circa Oct. 1990

T-shirt, circa Oct. 1990

On October 15, 1990, George H.W. Bush was president, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was creeping toward 3,000 and computers were little more than typewriters with a screen.

ESPN was a one-channel, one platform operation, the heavily-favored Oakland A’s were planning to steamroll Lou Piniella’s Cincinnati Reds in the World Series, and the best sports coverage came from The National Sports Daily.

On the deserted campus of the University of Virginia, with students home for a four-day fall break, the football team was named No.1 in the nation for the first time ever.

Twenty years ago tomorrow.

“I’ll always be able to say that at one time I was part of the number one team in the country,” offensive tackle Paul Collins said at the time.

“Twenty years. Wow,” Collins said the other day. “I was hoping somebody else would have matched us by now.”

The Cavaliers had begun the year 6-0, rolling over everyone, including ninth-ranked Clemson, which Virginia had never beaten in 29 tries. A Cavaliers team that posted just two winning seasons in 29 years before head coach George Welsh’s arrival in 1982 now stood atop the rankings, ahead of Miami, Tennessee, Nebraska, and Auburn.

Virginia had a powerhouse offense led by two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates (quarterback Shawn Moore and wide receiver Herman Moore), two budding sophomore stars in tailback Terry Kirby and defensive end Chris Slade, and a half dozen others who would have significant NFL careers: left tackle Ray Roberts, defensive backs Tony Covington, Greg Jeffries, and Keith Lyle; kicker Michael Husted, and back-up left guard Mark Dixon. (Three others – Mike Frederick, Ryan Kuehl, and Charles Way – were redshirted and did not play.)

The team led the nation in famous sons, including Jesse Jackson’s son Yusef (linebacker), golfer Calvin Peete’s son Rickie (defensive end), Bob Griese’s son Scott (special teams), and then-Kentucky coach Bill Curry’s son Bill Jr.

Former Georgia coach Vince Dooley’s son Derek, a former walk-on (and future Tennessee head coach) lined up opposite Herman Moore at split end. Joe Paterno’s son, Jay, was a graduate assistant.

This being pre-Internet, back when ESPN’s programming was mostly college basketball, lumberjack competitions, and soft-core morning fitness shows, Virginia’s rise went mostly unnoticed.

In 1989, the Cavaliers won 10 games and shared the ACC title with a Duke squad coached by Steve Spurrier. Even then, the ole ball coach talked smack, saying a team that never had defeated Clemson had no claim to even half a title.

By the fall of 1990, Spurrier was in Gainesville, but the Cavaliers did not forget the slight, following up their inaugural win over Clemson by traveling to Durham two weeks later and pounding their defending ACC co-champions 59-0.

Welsh served as his own offensive coordinator, though offensive line coach Tom O’Brien (now the N.C. State head coach) assumed the title in 1991. Either way, the offense was unstoppable.

“We could have put 100 on the board at Duke and at halftime we were begging George to let us run it up to 70,” Collins said. “Our offense was a machine. We could have scored against any program in the country.”

Next came a home win against I-AA William & Mary, which defeated Virginia just four years earlier during the redshirt seasons of the nine fifth-year seniors who remained, and a win over North Carolina State at home during which Slade recorded four and a half sacks.

A few hours later, top-ranked Michigan lost to unranked Michigan State, 28-27, after the Wolverines apparent game-winning two-point conversion was ruled incomplete.

“I remember watching that game in the Cavalier Inn (hotel) with my family,” says Slade, who played nine years in the NFL, all but one with the New England Patriots, and now is part of the Virginia football radio broadcast team. “It felt like we had just won the Super Bowl and the national championship at once, knowing we were going to be number one. The whole day was one big party.”

One of my roommates, a medical school student who owned a screen-printing business with his brother, went to work around the clock printing T-shirts that read “Look Hoos #1 in the Nation.” National championship fever swept the campus – or grounds as we say at UVA.

The season helped push me toward journalism rather than law school or a different career. I had interned with USA Today the summer before and spent the fall stringing for The Washington Post. Suddenly I was writing most every day, filing on a Tandy 102, which was considered modern technology at the time. It had a keyboard, five-line screen, and primitive modem, but did the job.

The Cavaliers had five games remaining on their schedule – all against teams they defeated the previous season. Virginia improved to 7-0 by blowing out Wake Forest on the road, 49-14, and after an off week faced No.16 Georgia Tech at home.

The Yellow Jackets were 7-0-1 with an All-American free safety, Ken Swilling, who seemed like the only player capable of stopping Herman Moore, even if the safety had missed two games with an ankle injury. Moore beat Swilling for five of his nine catches (for a whopping 234 yards).

Against Tech, Virginia led 13-0 and 28-14, but the defense faltered. Defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani (now head coach at Boston College) played a five-man front in a bend-but-don’t-break style. Against Georgia Tech, it came apart. Tech’s kicker Scott Sisson broke a deadlock at 38 with seven seconds left and Virginia’s bubble burst.

The Cavaliers rebounded to win at North Carolina the following week. But Shawn Moore broke his thumb in a loss to Maryland. Welsh tapped future NFL backup Matt Blundin as his replacement, but Virginia lost the season finale at Virginia Tech.

In this pre-BCS era, the Cavaliers accepted a Sugar Bowl bid weeks earlier, entering the Superdome against No.10 Tennessee unranked. After losing in New Orleans 23-22, the Hoos finished 8-4, wondering what might have been.

“When I look back at it, we should have won the Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Tennessee games,” says Covington, who played five seasons in the NFL, mostly for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and has worked for non-profit groups for the last decade. “It was the same formula where we attacked early and then came out in the second half and put on the brakes. I think of those three games a lot. Each time we took the foot off the gas and the other team grabbed the momentum.”

Once Virginia was ranked No.1, the national media descended upon Charlottesville for the first time. Before sports media blew up in the late 1990s, the Virginia football press corps was mostly a half dozen writers who showed up on Mondays and Saturdays.

“George tried to keep us focused, but I don’t think we quite knew how to handle it,” Collins said. “I went from doing one or two interviews a week to 20 and Shawn and Herman went from 20 to 100. These days a lot of schools have that kind of coverage all the time, but it was all new to us.”

Those of us that graduated in 1991, including Herman Moore, were the first Virginia class never to see a losing football season. Welsh never had another, retiring after 2000. Only Bobby Bowden has won more ACC games.

Welsh left his successor Al Groh with plenty of talent, including Matt Schaub, Heath Miller, Alvin Pearman, and Chris Canty. After some initial success Groh eventually drove the program back to the pre-Welsh era. Mike London is now picking up the pieces and rebuilding.

Watching YouTube footage of the 1990 Virginia-Georgia Tech game is startling and not just because of the dated CBS graphics. Virginia no longer wears generic white helmets or orange jerseys without names on the backs. Gone (thankfully) is the artificial turf at Scott Stadium, which has been expanded from 42,500 to 61,500 seats.

Collins, a Richmond-based sales manager who travels throughout the southeast, says his blood pressure still rises whenever he drives by Georgia Tech.

Slade, who lives in Atlanta and commutes to Virginia games, says he hears from Georgia Tech fans regularly about the 1990 game. He prefers to reminisce about the magical three-week span when the team was No.1 for the only time in program history.

“Going into that season, I knew we’d be good, but didn’t think we’d blossom so quickly, beating people by 40 points,” Slade says. “It was a helluva run, though. We soaked that 21 days up, enjoyed every minute and it hasn’t been done since. We’re definitely part of history.”

Ray of Economic Hope? Where?

September 14th, 2010

By Pete Williams

RaysseatsDick Vitale is a man who has made a career out of hyperbole. But Vitale, a Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays season ticket holder since the first pitch, was only speaking the obvious about the Rays lackluster attendance on ESPN Radio this morning.

“Embarrassing, totally embarrassing,” Vitale said. “If I owned the franchise, and I was Stu Sternberg, I would say, ‘Man, I’m out of here.’ If we can’t sell out for the Yankees with Sabathia and Price playing for first place with 19 games left, there is something wrong.”

Yeah, there’s a lot wrong. A helluva lot wrong. People are hurting down here.

The Rays drew only 26,907 last night in a first-place showdown pitting perhaps the two best pitchers in the American League. The usual sports radio debate will ensue about Tampa Bay being a terrible market and Rays fans being lame and the ballpark being outdated and in the wrong part of town. Props will be given, rightly so, for the Rays providing the best value in all of sports, with cheap tickets to a talented, hustling team that allows its fans to park (four in a car) for free, bring in their own food, and often watch post-game concerts on Friday and Saturday nights.

On some nights – not premium ticket nights like this week against the Yankees – it’s possible for a family of four to spend as little as $40 to watch the best, most exciting team in baseball, including parking and food (brought from home). Even on premium ticket nights, it can be done for as little as $70.

Throughout sports, team executives bemoan the economy, and with good reason. But the economy is a bigger factor in Tampa Bay, which even in the best of times has the lowest per capita income of any baseball market. The unemployment rate here is estimated at 14 percent, higher than the 9.8 percent national average, though even 14 percent probably is low because we have so many people who are self-employed or work as independent contractors. Their unemployment or underemployment generally doesn’t count toward those numbers.

Last month I spent a week back in my native D.C. area, a market blissfully ignorant of the recession. As I drove around Maryland and Virginia, I marveled at the building boom that has continued unabated in the last two years and at my government-employed friends who are tone deaf to how the economy has affected most of us whose incomes are market driven, as opposed to guaranteed by an employer that does not have to operate like a business. These are some of the same folks who continue to pay insane money to watch the Washington Redskins, perhaps the most dysfunctional franchise in sports.

Around here it’s impossible to drive by a strip mall and not see at least two vacancies. We’ve closed schools and community pools and some neighborhoods have more houses with for sale signs than without. That makes us no different than many parts of the country, but we’re the one with the best team in baseball so the attendance figures are more glaring.

Other contending teams like the Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres – both bigger surprises than the Rays – aren’t drawing especially well either and they have new ballparks.

Frank Sinatra claimed if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Bullshit, Frank. Try living in Florida, where six-figure corporate and government jobs do not exist, where homeowners insurance quadrupled – literally quadrupled – following the hurricanes of 2004 and where more than 50 percent of residents owe more on a mortgage than what their homes are worth. For the first time ever, more people are leaving the state than arriving. Yeah, we have no state income tax, but we have huge property taxes, which somehow continue to go up even as the assessed value of our homes plunges. How does that work?

Discretionary income? What’s that? The Tampa Bay Rays, Buccaneers, and Lightning, along with the rest of the teams in the Sunshine State, aren’t competing against other entertainment dollars. They’re fighting for money spent on gas, insurance, electricity, and the mortgage.

One of the great things about Florida is its entrepreneurial spirit. If you want to make it here, you’re not going to do it with a government or corporate job. This reality creates incredible success stories, along with plenty of shady characters that inspire Carl Hiaasen novels. These days, it’s a lot tougher to make it here.

The Rays are victims of unfortunate timing. Their tipping point as a worst-to-first franchise came in mid-September of 2008, right when the economy collapsed. Had it occurred in 2005, they’d have played to regular sellouts in ’06 and ’07 and Sternberg, had he been owner, likely now would have his new stadium under construction.

Instead, it’s hard to envision a new ballpark coming any time soon. Sternberg spends much of his time in New York, which like D.C. has not felt the brunt of the economic hammer we feel down here.

Still, Sternberg gets it. He won’t pile on when he hears Vitale comments or any of what will no doubt be countless columns next month from national media types who rip our community for its lackluster support. Sternberg is not just being diplomatic as he lobbies for a new ballpark. He honestly gets it.

Attendance is down everywhere, across all sports. The fact that the most exciting team in baseball, the one that provides the best value in all of sports, cannot draw more fans is just another reminder that we’re still far away from an economic recovery.

No More Turkey Days at Costco

September 9th, 2010

By Pete Williams

Discontinued Turkey Wrap

Discontinued Turkey Wrap

The Costco food court, admittedly, isn’t the healthiest place to eat. I take my sons there once a week after swim practice. Since they must burn well over 1,000 calories during practice, who am I to begrudge them a slice of pizza and a frozen yogurt?

There aren’t many healthy options. (I refuse to use the word “healthful,” which somehow has crept into our vernacular. When did that become grammatically correct? Have you ever heard anyone say “healthful?” Until that happens, I refuse to write it.)

I usually go with the turkey wrap – without mayonnaise, which Costco applies liberally. According to Costco, the turkey wrap (with mayo) is 810 calories and 38 grams of fat. That’s horrible, but presumably the numbers are better without the mayo. Thankfully, they usually have a few non-mayo wraps available.

Until last night, when I discovered the turkey wrap has been discontinued. How can Costco do this? I’m guessing the turkey wrap is one of the more labor-intensive preparations and perhaps one of the less popular items. Sadly, most Americans prefer the pizza and the chicken bake.

I love Costco. If someone didn’t already have a terrific blog called “Addicted to Costco,” I would create one. Costco’s “treasure hunt” philosophy of rotating inventory and products is one of its selling points. The downside is you grow accustomed to buying something at Costco only to have it disappear.

That never applied to the food court. Costco prides itself on providing the same food court options for the same prices. A couple of months ago, Costco magazine featured the food court and how families, friends, and even business associates have gathered at the food court weekly for years.

Now the turkey wrap is gone. I’ll still let the kids have their post-swimming binge, but we’ll have to stop at Chipotle on the way home.