Sunday, April 6, 2014

Mortal Lock for NCAA title: Either Kentucky or UConn!

^
Well, I've embarrassed myself enough trying to make tournament picks, so I'll just slink away from basketball prognosticating for now!

Still, I do love the NCAA tournament. I love it when everybody is wrong, even when one of those everybodies is me. It is the one sporting event that never, ever disappoints -- and this year's tourney has been one of the best ever.

Funny that Kentucky and UConn, two of the most successful, big-time, big-name programs of the post-Wooden Era, have become underdog darlings, no?

Obviously, I wish Marquette had been one of the two darlings remaining, but we Warrior Eagle fans got our surprise a few weeks ago when Buzz Williams took less money to take an inferior coaching job, at Virginia Tech. There's way more to this story than we've been told, because that kind of thing simply doesn't happen.

Buzz gave us five excellent seasons (and one not-so-excellent season) and was an improvement on his predecessor, Tom Crean. And now I'm hoping our new guy, ex-Dookie Steve Wojciechowski, is an improvement over Buzz.

Awww ... who am I kidding. I'm just hoping I don't have to spell Wojciechowski too often! Let's go with "Wojo" from now on, OK?

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Finally, appropos of nothing, I received a bit of an honor a few days ago when a highly respected Seeking Alpha writer named me one of the 25 best authors on the financial Web site.

I'm not gonna lie: It's always nice to have folks say nice things about you!
^

Friday, April 4, 2014

NCAA hoops pick: Don't do as I say, do as I dont!

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I've been busy vacationing with my family in Vegas and Arizona. A lot more fun than blogging for free!

My NCAA bracket, like pretty much everybody else's, blew up a long time ago.

For the Final Four, I'm saying Florida handles UConn fairly easily while Wisconsin beats Kentucky in a close game featuring teams of contrasting styles. Then, Florida takes down Bucky Badger to win another title for Billy Donovan, the best coach (regardless of sport) that just about nobody talks about.

In other words, bet everything you have on UConn!
^

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Here's a Shocker: 40-and-oh!

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My NCAA tournament bracket is already garbage.

What? I can't possibly be the only one who had Mount St. Mary's going all the way!

Yeah, I know. With me, the hilarity never ends. So who really is going to win?

I'm going with the one team that just about nobody is picking, the one team that also happens to have not lost a single game this season.

Yep, Wichita State.

How 'Bout Some Love?

It's weird that a 34-0 team -- a team that has had only a few close calls all season long -- could be such an underdog. Most Vegas casinos have the Shockers' odds of winning it all at 12-1 or higher, behind No. 4 seeds Louisville and Michigan State.

All five of ESPN's main "experts" -- Dickie, Digger, Seth Greenberg and Jays Bilas and Williams -- picked Michigan State to win the title. And none of the five even has Wichita State reaching the Final Four. Wow.

Two Sports Illustrated basketball gurus (Seth Davis, Luke Winn) have the Shockers getting to the Final Four but neither they nor SI's other pundits (Brian Hamilton, Pete Thamel) have Wichita State winning the title.

The only two prognosticators I could find who agree with me that Wichita State will go on to be the first unbeaten champs since Bobby Knight's '76 Hoosiers are both from CBSSports.com: Gary Parrish and Wally Szczerbiak.

It reminds me of the lack of respect folks had for Larry Bird's 1979 Indiana State team. Of course, that team -- unlike this year's Wichita State squad -- didn't bring just about everybody back from a squad that went to the previous year's Final Four.

Gregg Marshall is still coaching the Shockers and will be the hottest name for every job opening this offseason. Fred VanVleet is still running the show, Cleanthony Early is still scoring from everywhere and Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton are still leading a deep, versatile supporting cast.

I mean, I know Wichita State is from the weak Missouri Valley Conference (as were Bird's Sycamores), but come on! Dismissing an unbeaten team is one thing. But dismissing one that has proven it knows how to win NCAA tournament games -- something few others in this field can claim -- seems outright dopey.

Shockers-Cardinals, Take 2

There is nothing easy about Wichita State's road to the Final Four. Just to make the Sweet 16, the Shockers will have to beat either Kentucky or Kansas State. Win that one and the next opponent figures to be Louisville, a favorite of many to repeat as champions.

Consider this, though: While Wichita State returns so many proven performers, Louisville no longer has three of its best players from last year's title run: Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanen.

Wichita State led Louisville by 12 points with less than 14 minutes to play in last year's national semifinals before 'Ville rallied to win by 4. The Shockers were down 3 and had the ball with 6 seconds left when Luke Hancock tied up Baker for a controversial held-ball call. Louisville had the possession arrow and clinched the win on the free-throw line.

In other words, the teams were all but dead-even a year ago, when Louisville was better than it is today ... so it's not exactly far-fetched to give Wichita State a puncher's chance against the Cardinals this time.

After beating 'Ville, Wichita State will dispatch Duke for the Midwest Regional title and Final Four berth. Maybe then, at 38-0, the Shockers will be taken more seriously.

The Rest of the Final Four Field

Also making it to Dallas on the first weekend of April: Florida, Iowa State and Creighton.

Florida is the easy pick. The Gators are well-coached, supremely talented and playing well going into the tournament. Kansas certainly is talented enough to beat them in the South Regional final, but Florida is more likely to make the big play with the game on the line. Florida also is less likely to get upset in an earlier round.

Virginia is a No. 1 seed that won both the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, yet the Cavs are getting only a little more love than the Shockers are. I guess if it's not Duke or Carolina, it's not really a representative ACC team.

Practically everybody is saying Michigan State, not Virginia, will emerge from the top half of the East bracket ... which pretty much means I have to pick the Cavs to take down Sparty. In the regional final, though, I've got Fred Hoiberg's entertaining and talented Iowa State Cyclones beating Virginia.

Creighton has the best offensive player in the country, Doug McDermott, who can score from 30 feet, 3 feet and everywhere in between. He is surrounded by great shooters -- the Bluejays led the nation in 3-point percentage (.421) and also were No. 5 nationally in 2-point percentage and No. 16 in free-throw shooting. If the Bluejays enjoy a period of sustained excellence from behind the arc, they can beat anybody anywhere.

They will meet Wisconsin to get to the Elite Eight. The teams are similar but Creighton is better -- and has McDermott. In the regional final, Arizona would be an extremely difficult opponent, but I'm thinking that either Oklahoma State or San Diego State will keep the Wildcats from getting that far.

40-0? Why Not?

So that's two No. 3 seeds (Creighton and Iowa State) and two No. 1s (Florida and Wichita State) in the Final Four.

Florida is too good for Iowa State and Wichita State is too well-rounded for Creighton, which finally runs out of 3-point bullets.

And in the title game ...

Well, Wichita State has beaten everybody -- including 99.5% of the experts -- to get this far.

So why not beat Florida, too?

Forty-and-oh. It has a hell of a nice ring to it.
^




Friday, March 14, 2014

Coach Mike's favorite season (so far)

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After taking a couple of weeks to let it all sink in, here is a look back at my first year as a head basketball coach. My season at The Scholars Academy in Charlotte was amazing -- one of those rare life experiences that actually exceeds expectations.


I don't know if folks remember any of the things I posted months ago, but it was a rocky start back in October. And that was before the girl who was supposed to be our best player decided on the eve of our first practice to participate in Mock Trial instead of basketball. My wife said after I read that email from the girl's mother, all the color drained from my face.

I knew I had taken a job at a charter school for gifted students, but did I really lose an All-Conference player to Mock Trial? "What have I gotten myself into?"

Our Fine Nine

That left us with 9 girls, including four 6th-graders and one 5th-grader, to play in our 7th/8th-grade league. Four of them had never played basketball at any level. Several were soccer players, not accustomed to using their hands in sports. Our center, Celeste, was shorter than the guards on several teams in our league. Our guards were smaller (often significantly so) than their counterparts.

That being said, the improvement from the first day of practice to the end of the season was absolutely mind-blowing. Our little 5th-grader, Ritika, a tennis-playing basketball neophyte, turned herself into a good outside shooter. She had just 10 points in the first 13 games but was our leading scorer the last three games. Schuyler, who had trouble hitting the backboard on layup attempts -- I am not kidding! -- became a valuable contributor who made two big free throws in one game. Olivia, a soccer-playing 6th-grader who hadn't played hoops in three years, developed a nice short-range jumper. Margaret, who came into the season with some guard skills, took her game up several notches. She hit the winning shot in the final seconds of our next-to-last regular-season game and followed that by scoring 14 points, our season high for any individual.

We had incredible captains, Maddie and Sienna, and they set the tone for a group that was willing to work. If I told the girls to run, they ran hard, and they did so without complaint (mostly). They loved competing against each other in practice. They willingly dove to the floor when the situation called for it. Charlotte, one of our "littles," fearlessly stole the basketball from girls twice her size -- plays that thrilled her teammates (and her coach). Hannah was willing to mix it up with anybody, and our opponents had the bruises to prove it. Celeste and Sienna never got tired, and that's saying something because we used our 1-2-1-1 press almost every minute of every game.

Kids at Scholars are motivated, well-parented -- and smart. They loved to correct my grammar, and Maddie once raised her hand at practice to say, "I have an anecdote I'd like to share." You know, the kind of thing all athletes say. They like each other and have a great collective sense of humor. Also, and this is big, these girls care. A lot.

"AGGRESSIVE!"

Despite our improvement and our team chemistry, the Eagles had severe limitations. We had trouble rebounding because of our size. Our players rarely looked up when they dribbled. We often panicked when pressured, leading to lots of bad passes. And to say we shot poorly would be doing a disservice to the word "poorly." Still, we were able to compete because we played good defense -- and because we scrapped and clawed and out-hustled every team we played. 

Once I saw the makeup of our team, I thought we could be more aggressive than our opponents and force the refs to make difficult decisions; as a guy who officiates this age group myself, I'll say most refs don't want to call everything so they let a lot go. I told the girls that I didn't care if half the team fouled out -- I wanted our opponents to know they were in for a battle. These girls are really tough and competitive, and they loved pressing full court. Coming out of huddles, we often would yell, "Aggressive!"

We played a double-round-robin schedule against the other seven teams in the league. A couple were superior and defeated us decisively. Another team was better and beat us twice, but the games were closer. We were more skilled -- and far more physical -- than three of the teams, and we won both games against each. The other team, St. Michael's, beat us in two nail-biters. 

So we went 6-8 during the regular season, and I felt pretty darn good about it considering I had once worried we might not win a game. More than that, the joy that the girls got out of playing together trumped where we finished in the league standings.

A Game To Remember

In the first round of the playoffs, we met St. Mike's again. Margaret, who by that time was sharing point guard duties with Maddie and otherwise playing the 2 or 3, was out of town with her family. So I had to use Sienna, our 4, at the point quite a bit. She did well and we battled hard, but we barely made any shots (even layups) and we trailed by 5 with less than three minutes to go. Those familiar with girls middle-school hoops know that is like being down 15! Plus, our aggressiveness finally caught up to us; the refs were calling everything, and four of our eight girls had four fouls apiece. (St. Mike's also had trouble, and one of their best players fouled out.)

It didn't look good for us, but our press kept forcing turnovers, and finally a couple of shots fell. Sienna hit a layup. Celeste made a free throw. Ritika swished a sweet 17-footer from the baseline to tie it with about a minute left. She then stole an inbound pass and hit a layup to put us ahead, and we held on to win by 2. 

Afterward, during our celebratory meeting, the girls gave me a bunch of carnations they had brought to the game. They denied it, but I'm pretty sure they thought we were going to lose and our season would be over!

Battling Right to the End

Two days later, we did fall in the semifinals to the eventual champion. St. Anne's was better than we were, and we were still without Margaret, but we cut a huge deficit to 7 in the third quarter. We made them sweat a little before they pulled away from us. 

When it was over, I got a little choked up as I told the girls (for the zillionth time) how proud I was of them. Hannah said: "I think Coach Mike needs a group hug!" It was a special moment, but the actual execution of the hug was so funny we all couldn't help but laugh.

I already had decided I was going to return to Scholars -- as long as Mock Trial would return to school hours (where it had been in previous years) instead of after school (where it was at conflict with basketball). After all the hard work we put in, I didn't want to lose half of next year's team! I was assured that the decision already had been made to move Mock Trial back into the school day. 

We had our team party two weeks after the season. (The gathering was at Charlotte's house, and she and her family did the amazing chalk mural that is displayed at the top of this post.) When I announced I was coming back, I got a loud ovation. Parents thanked me for everything I did, and the girls gave me a gift card to a sporting-goods store. I presented each of the returning players with a pair of "dribbling glasses" -- specially designed plastic frames that force players to look up when they dribble. 

Roberta, who wasn't able to make it to any games because of her work schedule, was at the party and said "there was a lot of love in that room." I have to admit it was nice to feel so appreciated.

More To Come!

Had I decided not to return, could I have gotten a better coaching job?

Well, I'm not sure how one should define "better." Could I be a high-school assistant coach or maybe a JV head coach? Could I go to a private middle school that pays good money and has top facilities? 

I don't know, and I won't know next season because I'm not looking. My players are awesome, the parents are wonderful and the administration is supportive. Though I'm an old man (OK, maybe only an old-ish man), I am a young coach, and Scholars is a great spot for me to keep growing.

Just as all of the girls became better players, I like to think I improved as the season progressed. Still, I can recount a couple of exact instances in which I was out-coached, and I hate that feeling! After every game, I wrote down things I could have done differently, and those hard-learned lessons will help me in 2014-15 and beyond.

Bottom line: I am psyched about next season. We're losing two valuable players in Maddie and Hannah, but we should be returning seven. That includes both of our All-Conference picks, Celeste and Sienna, and a good supporting cast that figures to get much better. Hopefully, the girls will "recruit" some classmates to try out for the team. (A couple of tall classmates would be nice!) It looks like I'm going to run a week-long basketball camp in June, and there might be opportunities to get more involved at the school down the line. It's all good!

So what started with me asking myself, "What have I gotten myself into? ended with me realizing that I got myself into something pretty special.

Before the season, the girls were assigned to state their goals in writing. In my welcome note to the team, I stated my goal, too:

I want this season to be such a great experience, both on and off the court, that each of us will look back months and years and decades from now and say, "I'll always remember the 2013-14 basketball season at Scholars Academy. It was one of the best times of my life."

Well, I can't speak for the girls, but I know that will be the case for Coach Mike.
^

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bald bits about Oscar flicks

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My wife and I just got home after a great vacation that included a 5-day Caribbean cruise followed by 2 nights in Delray Beach, Fla. So relaxing, such great weather ... and so much food. I am NOT looking forward to stepping on the scale!

I am looking forward to Sunday night's Oscars. I'm sure that Ellen DeGeneres will do a great job hosting the telecast -- and that a deserving film will win Best Picture.

On the last night of our vacation, Robbie and I saw Philomena, so I've now seen all nine nominated films. I'll give my ranking in a minute, but first a few thoughts about others awards:

Best Actor: I loved Bruce Dern (Nebraska) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), but Matthew McConaughey gave a performance of a lifetime in Dallas Buyers Club.

Best Actress: I did not see Blue Jasmine and that's too bad because just about every pundit out there says Cate Blanchett is a shoo-in. I saw the four films featuring the other nominees, and I'd rank Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) just ahead of Judi Dench (Philomena).

Best Supporting Actor: Four great candidates -- sorry, Jonah Hill, you'd be the one on Sesame Street's "one of these men just doesn't belong here" -- and my favorite performance was that of Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) as the leader of the Somali pirates who kidnapped Tom Hanks' character. Incredible to think that he wasn't even an actor before shooting started on the film. Most critics think Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) will win it, and it would be impossible to argue that choice.

Best Supporting Actress: Again, because I didn't see Blue Jasmine, I can't rate Sally Hawkins. I really liked the work of each of the other four. I laughed almost every time June Squibb (Nebraska) opened her mouth, but Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) had the most meaty role of all the nominees and was absolutely fantastic.

Now, here is where I rank each of the nine Best Picture nominees ...

9. The Wolf of Wall Street. I liked several films that weren't nominated more than this overly long, over-the-top silliness. Lots of critics liked it, but I didn't think it was one of Martin Scorsese's best.

8. Gravity. I almost feel like apologizing for liking this movie so much less than most experts do. I mean, I didn't hate it, and Sandra Bullock was fine as usual, but I was not wowed by either the special effects or the story. If it were a college basketball team, I'd be taunting it with chants of "Over-rated! Over-rated!"

7. Her. Quirky and interesting, with Joaquin Phoenix deserving of the Comeback of the Year award, if there was one.

6. Philomena. A well-written, well-acted film about an important but rarely discussed topic. Kudos to Steve Coogan, who adapted the screenplay and starred alongside the excellent Judi Dench.

5. Captain Phillips. Just as I was surprised I liked Gravity less than I thought I would, I was surprised that I liked this film more than I thought I would. It was a completely believable, edge-of-the-seat flick with outstanding acting by the two leads.

4. Dallas Buyers Club. Here's where it starts to get especially difficult for me, which is how it should be in trying to separate the Final Four. This film was superbly acted and presented, and I've got nothing bad to say about it.

3. American Hustle. I smiled or laughed throughout the entire movie and I thought Christian Bale was wonderful in leading a talented ensemble cast. It was a little goofy at times, but I know that was intentional.

2. Nebraska. As I watched this quiet gem of a film unfold, all I kept thinking was, "This is my favorite movie this year." Bruce Dern was absolutely perfect in the lead role and June Squibb was a hoot as his wife. It was beautifully filmed in black and white, and the entire production was top-notch and moving. I know it has little chance to win because it was not a "big" enough flick, but I enjoyed it tremendously.

1. 12 Years a Slave. A powerful, important story that was exquisitely presented by director Steve McQueen. Often brutal and difficult to watch, it nonetheless was filled with astounding performances, especially by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o and the boo-and-hiss-worthy Michael Fassbender. This is the kind of film academy voters often favor -- and for good reason.

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I'm just now realizing that while I posted the final results of my basketball season on Facebook, I didn't here for my loyal tens of readers.

My Scholars Academy Eagles lost our semifinal game to a bigger, more experienced, and ... well ... superior team but I so enjoyed my first season as a head coach. The girls worked incredibly hard and played with such passion, the parents were wonderful, the administration was supportive. It was just a great experience, even better than I hoped it would be.

I'll probably write more about it after our team party on Friday.
^

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

One heck of a win for my Comeback Kids!

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Amazing come-from-behind victory for my Scholars Academy Eagles ... and now it’s on to the conference semifinals!

Playing without one of our starting guards, who is on a family trip this week, we only had eight players. And four of those girls ended up getting charged with four fouls each. Still, we overcame staunch opposition, plenty of our own mistakes and some horrendous officiating (and probably a little mediocre coaching) to score the game’s final 7 points and win by 2!

We were down by 5 with less than 4 minutes to go. Our 1-2-1-1 full-court press, which had been effective all game, really ramped up the pressure down the stretch. But what really decided the game – as it so often does in basketball – is that our girls finally started making some shots.

Celeste, our center, made a free throw. After a steal, Sienna, our power forward/point guard/do-everything girl, hit a layup. After another steal, Ritika, our diminutive 5th-grader – and the best shooter on the team – calmly swished a 17-foot jumper from the baseline to tie it with about a minute to go. Finally, Ritika stole a pass and made a layup with about 40 seconds left to put us ahead. We then survived a couple of late turnovers to hang on thanks to our defense and rebounding.

Phew! There were a couple times I thought I might have the big one – especially after the ref ignored an obvious 5-step travel on an opposing player and compounded the mess-up by calling a foul on us – but I lived to coach another game.

On Thursday, we play the top seed -- a team that defeated us twice, including once handily. But I’ve learned to never doubt the toughness and resilience of my girls. I know we won’t be out-worked or out-hustled. If we can make a few shots ... well ... as former MLB pitcher Joaquin Andujar famously said:


There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, "You never know."
^

Sunday, February 16, 2014

U.S. hockey win over Russia was great fun ... but not miraculous

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No matter how many flashbacks NBC showed or how many references its announcers made, yesterday's thoroughly enjoyable U.S.-Russia hockey game had pretty much zero relationship to the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

Thirty-four years ago, the U.S. team was made up of a bunch of kids either in college or fresh out of college. The Soviet Union team was comprised of mature, well-compensated (by Russian standards) professionals who had dominated international play for years. When Herb Brooks' squad prevailed, it was on the very short list of greatest upsets in sports history.

Today's U.S. team is made up of multimillionare superstar professionals. One could argue quite convincingly that the U.S. roster has more talent top to bottom than the Russian team does. Beating Russia, even on the road, was hardly an upset, let alone a miracle.

Having said that ...

The U.S. and Russia pros staged one of the most exciting sporting events I've seen in quite some time. The game featured drama, outstanding individual performances, controversy and just enough political intrigue to make for an extremely entertaining three hours. I only wish NBC had shown Putin and his minions after T.J. Oshie's fourth and final shootout goal -- as the network earlier had shown Putin celebrating Russian scores.

The game even had a nice little twist for me: The victorious U.S. goalie, Jonathan Quick -- who was accused of cheating by some Russians -- was born in my hometown, Milford, Conn.

So that makes five pretty nice contributions to society for our sleepy little burg:

Bic pens, Schick razors, Subway sandwiches, Jon Quick and Mike Nadel.

OK, maybe four.

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That game was only the first part of an extremely enjoyable sports doubleheader for yours truly.

A few hours later, Robbie and I met a dozen or so fellow Carolina Marquetters at a sports bar to watch our alma mater's hoops team defeat Xavier. It was "National Marquette Day," and our Golden Warrior Eagles played one of their best games of the season.

Our lads had such a poor nonconference season that we're still looking at almost must-win situations for the rest of the season if there is to be a ninth straight NCAA tournament invitation.

But hey, every winning streak has to start somewhere. Marquette now has three wins in a row, and an upset of Creighton this coming Wednesday will go a long way toward determining how good this season still can be.

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One reason hockey is among my favorite Olympic sports is this: You score the most goals, you win the game. It's not a matter of some judge deciding whether or not you had a proper landing on your pretzel 270 or triple toe loop.

Although I enjoy watching figure skating, I freely admit I'm no expert. Still, I'm trying to figure out how Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu won the men's competition the other day after he stumbled and fell more often than I did during a typical Marquette weekend bender. I'm sorry, but it felt like the fix was in.

Any competition in which the champion is decided by judging rather than head-to-head competition is inferior and hard to be taken seriously.

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For the tens of folks who might be wondering about how the girls basketball team I coach did in the playoffs, well, we're still waiting to play.

Mother Nature dumped 8 inches of snow on Charlotte this past week, effectively shutting down the city and postponing our quarterfinal game until this coming Tuesday.

We face a team that has beaten us by only 4 and 6 points this season, so I certainly think we can advance if we play well. But the weather delay was costly, as one of our top players will be out of town all this week.

Darn weather. I moved to N.C. to get away from snow. I sure as hell didn't move here for its enlightened political scene!
^

Friday, February 7, 2014

Getting ready for a major sporting event, and saluting a great man

^
By next week, one of the most important sporting events in the world will be in high gear.

Yes, that's right ...

My Scholars Academy Eagles will be competing in the quarterfinals of the Charlotte Gastonia Athletics Association girls' basketball tournament.

Unlike the Olympics, our event doesn't have to pretend to be about sportsmanship, character and the spirit of pure competition. Because, unlike the Olympics, our event actually is about all of those things -- as opposed to being about the pursuit of big-money endorsement contracts and about the host nation trying to prove it is more than one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

With the Eagles, what I say goes, so I guess that makes me kind of a dictator. Nevertheless, I have yet to go shirtless while riding horseback and I have yet to threaten to jail people just for being who they are.

I also have yet to use my kids to make a political statement ... unless asking them to pass to their teammates instead of to the girls wearing the other uniforms is the equivalent of taking a stance against redistribution of wealth.

OK, enough about the trivial event taking place in Putinville this month. Back to an All-American event featuring the Eagles ...

After last week's massive 1 1/2 inch Snowmageddon, which closed school for 2 1/2 days and resulted in two games being postponed, we had a nice dry week and were able to make up those games.

In the first, we took a big lead but foolish coaching strategy contributed to a near collapse. I thought the game was in the bag in the fourth quarter and tried a lineup combination I hadn't used all season -- for one thing, it didn't include either of our two experienced point guards. We promptly gave up most of the lead, and by the time I rectified the situation, we had lost all momentum. Our opponent tied the game with about a minute to go and we were reeling, having scored only one point in the entire quarter. But with about 15 seconds to play, one of our captains, Sienna, stole the ball near the top of the key. Her 15-footer didn't go in, but her teammate Margaret grabbed the rebound, drove and made the tiebreaking layup with 5 seconds left. Our opponents were so dejected, they didn't even attempt a desperation shot.

I later apologized to the girls and explained that just as they make mistakes and referees make mistakes, coaches make mistakes sometimes, too. It is a coach's job to put every player in the best position to succeed, and I did the opposite of that! We were fortunate to come out with a victory.

The next day, things went much better. We got a big lead early and kept adding to it. We typically have at least one very good quarter and one very bad quarter every game, but this time, we scored 9 points in the first quarter, 9 in the second, 10 in the third and 10 in the fourth. It was nice to see.

With that two-game winning streak, we take a 6-8 record into the tournament. Given that on the first day of practice I was worried that my debut season as a head coach would be a winless one, I'll take it.

Our opponent Tuesday has beaten us twice -- by 4 points and by 6 points. The first time, we had a small lead but gave it away during a poor third quarter and couldn't quite pull even again. The second time, we fell behind 14-0 but used our intense full-court press to rally like crazy before falling short. If we somehow could combine the first game's first half and the second game's second half, we'd be in great shape!

We will have to play well to defeat this opponent, but we know we can do it. We will outwork them and outhustle them and badger them and battle them ... all the while hoping that a few more shots fall than in each of our losses to them.

I have to admit to being a little nervous going into my first ever playoff game. At least I know that this time, I won't use a lineup without a point guard! Wish me luck.

+++

Today is the birthday of the greatest man I've ever known -- my dad, Jerry Nadel. If he were still alive, he'd be 95 years old.

Dear Dad:

You were such a warm, loving, intelligent, hard-working, funny, passionate, caring, talented man, and you set an incredible example for me and my brothers. Every time I think of you, I ask myself if I'm being as good a person as you were. It's an almost impossible standard for me to live up to ... but believe me, Dad, I'm trying.
^

Saturday, February 1, 2014

My Super Bowl pick, but first: The greatest NFL team nobody talks about

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It's time to make my 2014 Super Bowl prediction, but first ...

A look back at the 40-year anniversary of my favorite team of all time, a team that also is one of the most overlooked in sports history:

The 1973 Miami Dolphins.

"What?" you're no doubt saying. "Every time a team goes 5-0 or 7-0 or 10-0, all anybody talks about are the undefeated Dolphins. They are legendary."

Well, I'm not talking about those Dolphins. The 17-0 team was the 1972 model, capping the season with victory in the '73 Super Bowl.

I'm talking about the following season's team, which went 15-2 and repeated as champs.

What a lot of people don't know is that the '72 Dolphins had an incredibly easy schedule and still struggled to win several of their games. They had to rally to beat a mediocre Minnesota team, squeaked out a one-point victory over a Buffalo squad that would finish 4-9-1, and barely got past both the Jets and Giants, neither of whom made the playoffs. Some of the "struggles" -- if one can say an unbeaten team struggled -- came about because QB Bob Griese was lost in the fifth game with a broken ankle. Although Earl Morrall played superbly in his place, he wasn't Griese.

In the postseason, the Dolphins hung on to beat an OK Cleveland team, used a 37-yard run on a fake punt to get past Pittsburgh and needed to stop a potential game-tying drive by Washington in the Super Bowl. (Don Shula benched Morrall in favor of Griese at halftime against the Steelers with the score tied at 7; Morrall had thrown a TD pass in the first half. How many coaches would have the cajones to do that?)

Hey, I don't mean to tear down the accomplishments of those '72 Dolphins. They did go 17-0, after all, and no team before or since in the history of North American major pro sports has been able to get through an entire season unbeaten and untied.

Plus, it was that team that captured the heart of a 12-year-old kid from Connecticut who was just starting to become a big-time sports fan. (Like many kids, I chose to root for a winner.) So believe me, I loved the '72 Dolphins and respect them to this day.

Still, I needed to discuss how they went 17-0 to put things in perspective.

Confident, skilled and healthy, the following season's Dolphins were a steamroller. Yes, they lost their second game 12-7 to Oakland, but they avenged that defeat in the playoffs by crushing the Raiders. They also lost their next-to-last regular-season game when Shula chose to rest most of his stars. In their 12 regular-season victories, the Dolphins were never seriously challenged.

My aunt and uncle, who lived in Miami, regularly mailed me newspaper clippings so I could keep up with my team. (Note to parents: Please explain to your kids what a newspaper was and what mail was.) I cut out pictures of my favorite players and taped them all over my walls. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.)

The Dolphins began the playoffs with an 18-point rout of the Bengals at the Orange Bowl -- a game witnessed by a sellout crowd that included yours truly. I was visiting my aunt and uncle, and they knew linebacker Nick Buoniconti's secretary, and she delivered a game ticket for me -- one of my all-time thrills as a sports fan. That was followed by a 17-point beatdown of the hated Raiders for the AFC title.

And then came the almost anticlimactic 24-7 thrashing of the Vikings in the Super Bowl. The Dolphins led 24-0 before the Vikings knew what hit them and my all-time favorite pro athlete, Larry Csonka, rushed for a then-record 145 yards. The Dolphins so dominated the line of scrimmage that Griese only needed to throw 7 passes all game.

What a team. Csonka, Griese, Buoniconti, Paul Warfield, Mercury Morris, Jim Kiick, Bill Stanfill, Manny Fernandez, Jake Scott, Dick Anderson, one of the great offensive lines ever assembled (Wayne Moore, Bob Kuechenberg, Jim Langer, Larry Little, Norm Evans), Garo Yepremian, Larry Seiple and, of course, Shula.

Before the 1972 season, the Dolphins were still called the No Names. By the end of 1973, every football follower everywhere knew who they were: two-time champions.

They could have made it three straight but they were seriously distracted in 1974 after Csonka, Warfield and Kiick decided to play out their contracts and leave for the fledgling World Football League. Still, the Dolphins went 11-3 before falling in the final minute to the Raiders in a game regarded as one of the best ever. By '75, with Csonka & Co. gone, the Dolphins no longer were among the elite.

I remained a Dolphins fan for about two more decades. I was energized in 1979 after Csonka returned for one more season. They went 10-6, including lopsided victories over Chicago and Green Bay -- which were important for my ego as a Marquette student surrounded by Bears and Packers fans.

In 1983, the football gods delivered Dan Marino, who somehow went undrafted until Shula grabbed him with the No. 27 pick. I loved watching Marino pass the football so flawlessly and accurately. With a flick of his wrist, the ball would go 50 yards into the arms of Mark Clayton or Mark Duper. I was living in Madison, Wis., at the time and on Oct. 30 of that season, I took my new bride Roberta to the garden spot of Rockford. Why? Because the Dolphins-Rams game wasn't on TV in Madison but was in Rockford. The Dolphins won, with Marino passing for 2 TDs and even running for one. (Poor Roberta had little choice but to be a Dolphins fan, and my kids would be, too, at least for awhile.)

In 1985, I went to Minneapolis to be AP's sportswriter there and, over time, I became less of a fan of the teams I had followed in my youth. I gradually dropped my allegiance to the Yankees, Knicks and Rangers, but it took quite a bit longer to get the Dolphins out of my system. When Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga forced out Shula so he could hire Jimmy Johnson after the 1995 season, I lost most interest in the team. When Marino retired after the '99 season, I was officially done with the Dolphins.

These days, I could give a flyin' hoot if the Dolphins win or lose. I'm a Panthers fan! But I will never forget the thrills I had watching Csonka and the rest of them -- my first "sports crush."

And I honestly do believe that the 1973 Dolphins were better than their undefeated predecessors.

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OK, that was one long introduction to my prediction for tomorrow's big game.

Seattle will control both lines of scrimmage and will make things difficult for Peyton Manning. He will end up with better stats than Russell Wilson, but Wilson will be named MVP after having led an efficient attack and having made a couple of big scoring plays.

Although I like Manning and won't mind being wrong about this, he hasn't seen a defense quite like Seattle's all season.

Seahawks 24, Broncos 19.

See, now wasn't it worth getting through all that stuff about the 1973 Dolphins and my history as a fan?

Now go call your bookie and get rich.

You're welcome!
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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Southerners are weather wimps!

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The wimpiness of Southerners when it comes to weather would be funny ... if it didn't mess with my plans. (Because, of course, it is all about me!)

My Scholars Academy Eagles are on a three-game losing streak, as we just played the three best teams in our league. We hung in there against the first two, but we were overwhelmed by our most recent opponent. Thankfully, in our final two regular-season games, we face teams we already have beaten, giving us an outstanding opportunity to take a little winning streak into the conference tournament.



Here I am earlier in the season, doing some serious strategizing and motivating.


Our first of those two games was scheduled for this afternoon ... until the weather forecast just got too foreboding.

My friends and family in Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Philly and other non-wimpy provinces will laugh at this, but panic set in because snow was forecast to start falling at noon today with accumulations of -- here it comes, folks; grab your kids and run for the hills! -- 1 to 2 inches possible. That's not a typo: 1 to 2 freakin' inches!

That forecast was enough to put the local media on DEFCON 1-to-2 -- which in turn was enough to make the private school we were supposed to play decide to close early, thereby canceling the game. (Later in the day, Charlotte public schools also decided to close early.)

In addition to this being one we had a great chance of winning, Roberta had arranged to get the day off work and was going to get to see her hubby coach for the first time. Plus, it being our last regular-season home game, we were going to honor our 8th-graders at halftime. For so many reasons, I hope it gets rescheduled. (See, it isn't all about me!)

Anyway, as I type this a few minutes after noon, the sun is peeking out through the clouds. The most recent forecast says the snow won't start until at least 5 p.m.

What a bunch of wimps. No wonder they lost the Civil War!
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