Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Money Doesn't Talk, It Builds Luxury Boxes

Jon Chait has an interesting piece up regarding the question of paying revenue-generating college athletes.  In response to Taylor Branch and the chorus of writers who have used the Sandusky scandal to attack college sports in general, Chait makes the point that football and basketball players from high-revenue programs are subsidizing non-revenue athletes:

Branch's article, like most arguments for paying college athletes, focuses in great detail on the profits of television networks and apparel companies. But paying players wouldn't affect that revenue – the networks' cut is the networks' cut. The question is how to allocate the money that the university receives in ticket sales and television dollars. The sums are non-trivial: A big-time program like the University of Texas football team can generate more than $90 million a year in revenues, and still have nearly $70 million left after expenses. But even a glance at where the money goes shows the absurdity of this notion. The big-time sports programs that bring in more than they cost (usually football and men’s basketball) use the surplus money to fund sports that don’t (swimming, track, etc.) To the extent that there is “profit” in this arrangement, the man in the top hat and monocle who’s siphoning it off is … the gymnastics squad.

This is an excellent point and one that Branch does not address in his lengthy piece in The Atlantic.  The counter would be that a progressive like Chait should have some misgivings about football and basketball players subsidizing country club sports.  At major schools, the football and basketball players are more likely to be minority students from lower socio-economic strata.  They are also more likely to come from weaker high schools and are therefore less able to take full advantage of the free college educations that they receive in return for their labor.  In constrast, players from non-revenue sports tend to be more like regular college students in terms of their SES.  Thus, college sports resemble state-run lotteries, i.e. a system where poorer individuals subsidize middle class and upper middle class families, albeit through voluntary means.  One doesn't have to be Ron Paul to have an issue with this reality.

Additionally, Chait's explanation as to where the money goes is a little incomplete.  The millions of dollars that players in revenue sports generate do not just go to fund non-revenue sports.  There are at least two other outlets for that revenue other than the pockets of the individuals who generate the money.  The first outlet is coaching salaries.  If you can't pay the players who make the difference between winning and losing, then you pay the coaches who do.  Chait addresses this later in the article and advocates a cap on paying players, a position that Blutarsky notes would present antitrust issues.  (Question: if a cap on coaching salaries violates antitrust law, then why doesn't the prohibition on paying players, as well?)  To me, this seems like piling a second artificial cap on a market that is already distorted by the prohibition on paying players.  We already have a situation where the money generated by revenue sports teams cannot go to the players who are the biggest reason for the revenue.  Thus, the money flows to ancillary locations.  Chait suggestion is that we should divert the money away from one of the most natural ancillary destinations for the revenue. "Let's stick out finger in a second hole in the dyke" is usually just a good way to cause a third and fourth crack.

The second outlet is construction of palatial sports facilities.  Major college sports programs are engaged in a facilities arms race and they are using the revenue that would otherwise go directly to the players.  Now, one can view this as a form of compensation to the players.  Branch complains about players not getting paid, but he doesn't mention the fact that they play in beautiful stadia, they dress in locker rooms that rival anything they'll see in the NFL, they study in buildings specially built for them, they work out in million dollar weight rooms, and they eat at deluxe training tables.  I suspect that the players would rather take the money in their pockets, but it's hard to take the position that players are being exploited when the revenue they generate is used to treat them like royalty.  In the end, I come out pretty close to Chait's position, which is that Branch overstates the plight of revenue athletes, but there are potential reforms that would address the fact that college football and basketball players should see more of the money that they generate.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Revisiting Georgia's Winning Streak

Another week, another criticism of one of my favorite blogger's optimism about what Georgia has proved this year.  Here is Blutarsky on Georgia's mindset for the SEC Championship Game:

What I mean is that this is a game in which Georgia shouldn’t be burdened by timidity and uncertainty.  There’s no reason to wave Logan Gray out there to fair catch punts.  Richt doesn’t have to send a message to his team that they have to be tougher on third-and-short if they don’t want him calling for a field goal early against a CUSA squad in a meaningless bowl game.  No, they’ve proved themselves by regrouping and clawing their way into the title game.  They’ve accomplished their primary preseason goal.  In a sense, they’re playing with house money now.  They can afford to be a little loose.
Given the weak opposition that has provided the list of victims for the ten-game winning streak, I don't think that there is a strong case to be made that Georgia is playing with house money, unless one simply expected improvement this year.  Georgia has clearly shown that, but they have not yet shown the ability to beat top teams.  They don't need to beat LSU on Saturday, but they do need to show that they can play on the same field.  (Alternatively, beating the Big Ten Championship Game loser, Michigan, or Nebraska in the bowl game would do the trick, although Nebraska not quite as much as the other two and with bowl games, there is the inevitable "how much do these teams really care?" question.) 

I don't think that it's unreasonable for Blutarsky and other Georgia fans to overvalue the ten-game winning streak.  Normally, you would think that a streak like that in the SEC would inevitably involve taking multiple quality scalps.  This is just a bizarre year, one in which the SEC is Morganna-style top heavy and Georgia missed the busty part of the conference.  Try this stat on for size: Georgia has not played a team ranked in the top 20 for ten straight games this year.  The last time this happened was 1981.  Moreover, none of the teams that Georgia beat in its ten-game winning streak are likely to finish in the top twenty of either the AP poll or the good computer polls.  (The highest-rated team of the ten right now is, surprisingly enough, Vandy, which is #27 in SRS and #33 in the Sagarin Predictor.  That close win in Nashville looks better and better.)  This is an unprecedented run for the Dawgs, and not necessarily in a good way.

Now, the counter would be that Georgia has put up excellent numbers, above and beyond 10-2.  One way to show this is my favorite measure: yards per play margin.  Georgia is +1.53, which is very good.  (For comparison, LSU is 1.96, although against a much tougher schedule.  Bama is an off-the-charts +3.34.)  Another way is this excellent chart, which accounts for strength-of-schedule by showing that Georgia has held its opponents well below their average production on offense.  These numbers are encouraging, but coming back to the original point, the Dawgs need a good performance on Saturday to validate the season.  If they get blown out, then the "what does it mean to beat a bunch of average opponents?" question will resurface.  

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Ship Comes In

My apologies if I betray my orientation as a Southern college football fan a little with this post, but I was zoned in on the Michigan game at noon, then the 3:30 games were all blowouts and Mrs. B&B and I went out during the evening timeslot.  I have a meta-SEC premise that I'll get out later in the week, but for this morning, please forgive me if my attention heads north...

Please lord no - If Michigan would have lost that game, then I would have been asking the following question: my five-year old has not seen a Michigan won over Ohio State in his lifetime; now, I'm seriously wondering if the event will happen before his bar mitzvah.  There was a sense in the later stages as Michigan continued to struggle to contain a heretofore terrible offense that the Bucks' dominance over the Wolverines was not just a matter of having better teams.  When they are better (2005, 2007-10), they win.  When the teams are even (2006), they win.  When they are worse (2004), they win.  There was a major potential for "if not now, when?" as a legitimate question if Michigan would have lost a home game when favored by eight points against a 6-5 Ohio State team that had lost two straight and had a freshman quarterback, a green defense, and a lame duck coaching staff.  Thus, the feeling after the game was exhilaration tempered by a major feeling of relief.  It was not quite the unfettered joy that Dawg fans felt after beating Florida in 1997 or that Vol fans felt after beating the Gators in '98.

Oh, wide open - Also causing the major feelings of relief: Braxton Miller missed open receivers down the field on a number of occasions, most notably on the Bucks' last possession when DeVier Posey had a good two steps on J.T. Floyd for what would have been a truly soul-crushing touchdown.*  Michigan has seen good receivers this year - Michael Floyd, B.J. Cunningham, A.J. Jenkins, and Marvin McNutt all come to mind - without major damage.  Posey was a different proposition, which raises a few possibilities.  One is that Posey is a step above those other receivers.  (The corollary to this theory would be that Ohio State could have been an 8-9 win team with Posey on the field this year.)**  A second is that Michigan was not fully prepared to deal with Ohio State because they had so little film on the Bucks' offense with Posey in the mix.  A third is that Michigan could handle mobile quarterbacks and they could handle top receivers, but they couldn't handle both at the same time.  (Illinois technically has both, but they were in offensive freefall by the time they played Michigan.)  If the third is indeed the case, then maybe Brady Hoke and Al Borges need to think through the offensive transition that they envision for Michigan over the next several years.  They just finished the season second in the Big Ten and 19th in the nation in yards per play running an offense that is not their preferred mode of attack.  How much more conventional should they need to be?

* - The last time Ohio State played in the Big House, the Bucks won 21-10 and the margin would have been larger if not for Terrelle Pryor missing an open Posey behind Floyd.  That game convinced me that Floyd did not have the speed to play corner at a high level.  Floyd has played much better this year, most notably in a superlative performance against Illinois's A.J. Jenkins, but Posey abused Floyd on Saturday, just as he did two years ago.

** - Another pet theory: bad wide receivers don't get criticized as much because their failures happen off the screen.  With just about every other position on the field, it is obvious when a player fails to perform his role.  This is not the case when a wide receiver doesn't get open.  Thus, we might not have fully appreciated the struggles of teams like Ohio State and Florida this year.  We put the blame on the coaches, the quarterbacks, the offensive lines, and just about every other factor other than "the receivers can't get open and thus, the passing game grinds to a halt."

Feeling conflicted? - As I watched Ohio State suddenly unearth a functional offense, I wondered how Ohio State fans feel about Jim Bollman.  For most of the year, one of my little pleasures in life has been following the Twitter feeds of Buckeye bloggers as they deal with what seemed like one of the worst-schemed offenses in modern history.  All of a sudden, with his job gone with the wind, Bollman unleashes a diverse, dare-I-say threatening attack that takes advantage of the entire field.  The Buckeye reaction had to be similar to that of Michigan fans who watched the 2007 Capital One Bowl against Florida.  In that instance, Michigan deployed the spread passing attack that should have been the team's approach since, oh, I don't know, 1998 and marched up and down the field on Florida.*  The feeling had to be a combination of happiness with "where the f*** was this for most of the past decade?"**  If I had a nickel for every time Chris Spielman said something to the effect of "Ohio State hasn't shown this all year," then I would be as rich as Urban Meyer.***

* - The common thread in both games: Greg Mattison was the opposing defensive coordinator.

** - Bollman and Mike Debord can both defend themselves to a certain degree by pointing to the personnel available to them in their swan songs.  Debord finally had a healthy Chad Henne and Mike Hart in the bowl game, while Bollman finally had Posey and he also had Braxton Miller with a year's worth of experience.        

*** - Despite the complaints of some Michigan fans, I still like Spielman as a color guy.  For example, on Michigan's last touchdown, he noticed immediately that Michigan was using a formation that they had not used all year.  The fact that Spielman clearly watches lots of film to prepare for calling a game should not stand out, but it does.  Unfortunately, the rest of ESPN's broadcast was not up to Spielman's standards...

Talk about the game, please? - For those of you who didn't watch the game, let me set the stage for you.  Michigan and Ohio State are playing in a game that ESPN hypes as one of the great rivalries in all of sports.  Future star Braxton Miller has just led the Bucks to a touchdown to draw his team to within three at 37-34.  Michigan, wearing the albatross of a seven-game losing streak to its arch rival, has the ball with about seven minutes to go.  It's at this point that the guys in the production truck decide that it's time to put up a graphic on Urban Meyer's resume and Dave Pasch dutifully starts talking about the possibility of Meyer going to Columbus.  He's doing this in the fourth quarter of a very close rivalry game!  If ever there were a time to not go with your filler, this is it!  ESPN had clearly prepared to discuss Meyer and they were going to use their graphic, come hell or high water.  The producer was like the captain of a ship who decides "well, we're coming into port and we haven't had a chance to fire our harpoon gun at a whale, so let's fire at this family of four eating ice cream on the dock as we pull in."  And the stupidity of ESPN's decision is amplified by the fact that Pasch and Spielman called a game with Meyer last week and didn't ask him anything more than "are you going to Ohio State?"  So ESPN doesn't ask anything more than softballs to its own color guy and then they decide to explore his potential decision in the closing stages of an exciting, competitive game.  Bravo!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

If 9-6 is the “Lame of the Century,” then what is 38-35?

Random thoughts in the aftermath of “do any of you people want to go to New Orleans?” weekend:

Are you not entertained by corners who can stay within two steps of opposing receivers?:  All of you from outside the South who mocked LSU and Alabama for the “Lame of the Century” (and I’m thinking first and foremost of the Solid Verbal guys, who coined the phrase), please note the common thread running through the demises of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Oregon.  Oklahoma allowed 616 yards on 8.4 yards per play; their in-state rivals gave up 568 yards on 5.6 yards per play to Iowa State; and Oregon surrendered 462 yards on 6.2 yards per play.  These three teams all ended up in close games because they have suspect defenses.  It might be more fun to watch fights between combatants who only have swords as opposed to fights where the contestants have both swords and shields, but the fun amounts to empty calories.  (Sorry for the mixed metaphors.)  There is room to criticize LSU and Alabama on offense, but their offenses are way better than the defenses of their nearest challengers.  

SEC national title contenders, step forward.  Not so fast, Bobby Petrino:  I realize that pollsters have some unwritten rule that a team has to drop a certain number of spots after a loss, but someone give me a serious rationale for Oklahoma State being behind Arkansas, other than “Arkansas’s loss was to a better team.”  Oklahoma State has the same record against a significantly tougher schedule.  Arkansas had to rally from behind to beat Ole Miss and Vandy.  The Hogs’ only marquee win outside of the SEC came against Texas A&M, a team that the Pokes beat on the road.  Arkansas missed Georgia and played the post-Lattimore and Garcia version of South Carolina.  Oklahoma State’s yardage numbers are better and according to Sagarin, the Pokes would be a nine-point favorite on a neutral field.

My obligatory gripe about the team from Blacksburg:  And while we’re on the subject of overrated teams, congrats to Virginia Tech on their typical rise up the polls as they play tomato cans, aka ACC opponents, and the teams above them in better conferences pick one another off.  The notion that the Hokies are even being mentioned as being considered for one of the top two spots in the polls is an affront to any of us who value offensive competence.  Quick, guess how many Sagarin top 30 opponents the Hokies have played.  Those of you who said “one,” give yourselves a drumstick on Thursday.*  (Yes, I know that they beat Georgia Tech and I have the Jackets ranked.  To honor the Founding Fathers’ concept of competing interests in the political sphere, I’m giving a local team the benefit of the doubt.)  According to our favorite nerd named Jeff, the Hokies would be a 17-point underdog against LSU in the title game.  Admittedly, that would be an improvement over the last time the Hokies ventured to Louisiana to play the Tigers.  It would also match Tech’s performance when they made the title game in 1999.  So, by all means voters, reward Virginia Tech for abysmal scheduling and send them to New Orleans to play a team that played Oregon and West Virginia before going through the SEC.   

* – I’ve never understood why the drumsticks are always available at Thanksgiving. They have just the right amount of meat for one’s plate, they don’t suffer from dryness issues like the breast meat, and why pass on a chance to eat like Henry VIII?

Cue Divinyls: I need two sacks from Jadaveon Clowney and a Texas win in College Station to finish above .500 on Five Crazy Predictions, but #5 is damn good, if I do say so myself:

5. Virginia finishes second in the ACC Coastal. 18 returning starters, a promising new coach, massive instability at Miami and UNC, and a home game against Georgia Tech in a series in which homefield matters a great deal. A homer pick, but why the hell not?

Almost every preview had the Hoos tagged for fifth in the division.  Now, please ignore the Bama versus Nebraska pick for the title game.  It seems like this isn’t the best time to remember that I was high on the Huskers before the season.

In retrospect, the end of the game in Tallahassee was massively satisfying.  Virginia took the lead with 1:16 remaining.  In classic George Welsh fashion, they kept their opponent alive with a fourth down facemask.  Not content with their good fortune, Florida State then literally tried to give the game away by completing a pass inbounds when they didn’t have any timeouts and 12 seconds remained.  After Virginia apparently simulated signals to give the Noles five more yards, FSU missed the kick.  The ending was quintessential Florida State because they were dumb and can’t kick; it was quintessential Virginia by trying to lose a game that they had won on two different occasions.

By the way, the Hoos are #59 in the country according to Sagarin, so maybe I’m getting a little carried away by ranking them in the top 25.  That said, I might disappear in a flash of lightning Quantum Leap style* if Michigan breaks its duck against Ohio State at noon and then Virginia wins the division against Virginia Tech at 3:30.  Last year, my two alma maters each lost to the barbarian hordes 37-7.  Two wins would be quite the reversal.

* – Yeah, I just spent 15 minutes looking at old TV themes on YouTube.  I couldn’t eat just one.  Five facts that I had forgotten:

  • Blue Thunder featured not only Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus, but also a young Dana Carvey.
  • Stringfellow Hawke plays the Cello in the opening of Airwolf.
  • There is no meaningful distinction between Rick in Magnum PI and Face in The A-Team.
  • The full theme for The Fall Guy is over two-and-a-half minutes (over 5% of the show) and is about the main character’s sexual frustration.  Speaking of which… 
  • Heather Thomas > Heather Locklear.  

We’re moving Braxton Miller to linebacker, so plenty of playing time is available: Toward the end of the Michigan-Nebraska game, I started imagining Urban Meyer’s frustration that he was not seeing any useful material to use to get Michigan’s verbals to decommit, other than maybe “they have a good team and are returning 14 starters for next year, so you won’t see much playing time.”  There’s fun and then there’s the experience of watching your favorite team put together its best performance of the season in front of two color guys: the arch-rival’s coach-in-waiting and the arch-rival’s legendary linebacker.  And the crowning glory is that one of the prevailing criticisms of the teams is “Denard can’t throw” and then his last completion of the game was an inch-perfect deep ball to Martavious Odom to seal the win. 

The three best teams in Texas are, uh, uh, oops:  Congrats to the administrations at Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech.  Despite being endowed with the advantage of being the three pre-eminent programs in the Lone Star State (OK, maybe there’s a case that Tech isn’t third), they are all unranked, while Baylor, Houston, and TCU are all ranked.  One theme of this season is the revenge of the lower half of the SWC.  How much do Mack Brown and Mike Sherman have to be screwing up that their game this week will be for fourth place in the state?

The Bollman hypo: Question for Ohio State fans in light of the unleashed vitriol directed at Jim Bollman and the Walrusfense: assuming for the sake of argument that Urban Meyer chooses to stay retired and there are no NCAA implications for the return of the king, would you take Jim Tressel back if it meant keeping Bollman?

This week in ennui: I can’t remember the last Big East game I watched.  I had to look at that conference’s standings to have any idea as to who is going to win the league.  It turns out that everyone in the league has two losses.  In a related note, congrats to Boise State on accepting a bid to the January 2013 Orange Bowl.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cue the Wolf

Before the Alabama-LSU game, I kept finding myself reading previews and saying "yeah, but..."  This was especially true regarding the Alabama defense.  Inevitably, a writer would trot out a stat about the dominance of the Alabama defense and my mental response would be "yeah, but look at the offenses that they have played."  At least with LSU, one could say that they shut down Oregon and they did a good enough job against West Virginia, surrendering a ton of yards, but not that many points and they forced turnovers in the game.

I am getting the same sense about Georgia after the Auburn game.  The Dawgs dominated Auburn and now we're hearing variants of "playing the best football in America right now" and "man, if there were a playoff..."  People, the team that Georgia played Between the Hedges on Saturday may be wearing the same uniforms as the team that won the national championship ten months ago, but they aren't in the same league in terms of actual quality.  Auburn is currently fielding the worst defending national championship team that I can remember since I started watching college football in 1980.  (Maybe Penn State 1987 would give them a run for their money in that department?)  Beating up on the Tigers might feel satisfying, but it does not magically turn Georgia into an elite team. 

So when I read Blutarsky citing Georgia's success with turnover and big play margin or writing another post about turnover margin, my first response is "yeah, but..."  Blutarsky refers to Georgia's "surge" this year and is hunting all over for statistical support for the surge, but is it any more simple than this statistic: Georgia played a pair of top 30 teams in its first two games and has not played one since.  If Georgia started 8-0 and then played Boise State and South Carolina (the USC team with Garcia and Lattimore) and lost both games to drop to 8-2, then what would the narrative be now?  The discussion about the Dawgs just screams recency to me.

And then this reasoning is really weak:

Matt Hinton crunches the numbers to find that if Georgia wins on Saturday it will have faced a conference slate that amassed the lowest winning percentage of any group that played a SECCG participant. In fact, if Alabama beats Auburn, “Georgia will be the first team ever to reach the SEC Championship Game without beating a single opponent ranked in the final regular season polls to get there.”

Matt’s right to go and say so what, but it’s worth adding that it’s not like Georgia squeaked by this season. A win on Saturday means the Dawgs went 7-1 in conference play. That’s nothing to sneer at. The schedule may be weak, but there’s not much more you can do about it than to win as many of the games as you can.
"It's not like Georgia squeaked by this season."  Maybe I dreamed the Vandy game, where Georgia had to survive two throws into the end zone at the end to avoid a massive upset, that after a blocked punt that would have been the end of the season, practically speaking.  Or maybe I was having visions during the Florida game, when Georgia's special teams contrived to give the lead to Florida and then Georgia barely won in the fourth quarter against a badly weakened opponent, all while the Dawgs could barely complete a forward pass.  7-1 in the SEC is indeed something to sneer at when the league this year is a four-team league - LSU, Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas - and Georgia didn't play any one of the other three.  When the schedule is weak, there is indeed something you can do above and beyond just winning the games: win the games impressively.  Beat lesser foes in the manner that we would expect from an excellent team.  That's how one makes sense of a team with a weak schedule.  For instance, the manner of victory is the difference between the 2007 Hawaii team, which was a total fraud because they had a number of close calls in the WAC, and the Kellen Moore Boise State teams, which dominated inferior opponents.  At times, Georgia has looked great (see: Auburn and the first half against Mississippi State) and at time they have not (see: Vandy and the first half against Florida).*

* - I will acknowledge the possibility that Georgia deployed Evil Richt Magic Beans following the Florida game.  After the hard-to-explain 2007 season, in which Georgia was an average team for the first six games and then abruptly became the best team in the country for the last seven, I can't rule out a transformation.

Overall, this season has been a success for Georgia.  They have at least established themselves as being above the SEC's middle class, which was not the case for the past two years.  The defense has taken a major step forward, which indicates that Mark Richt made the right move when he replaced Willie Martinez with Todd Grantham.  The team has played well with only six senior starters, so the future looks even better.  However, the Dawgs' prospective nine-game winning streak has been nothing more than a good team holding serve.  It's important that they didn't get upset by any of the opponents on the slate, but they didn't prove a whole helluva lot, either, especially with the way they played against Vandy and Florida.  The real test will be the final three games.  If the Dawgs play well against Georgia Tech (a team roughly on the level of Florida), LSU (Georgia doesn't need to win, but they need to be competitive), and then in the bowl game, then we can start talking about a surge.  If they don't, then we're going to have another offseason of Mark Richt hot seat debate.  The recency effect is in Georgia's favor when they get to 9-2; it would not be if they end at 9-5.

Friday, November 11, 2011

I Come Not To Bury Virginia Tech, But To Praise Them

I constantly mock Virginia Tech for their inept offenses.  Admittedly, with my pro-Virginia rooting interests in the ACC, this comes off like complaining that Sofia Vergara doesn't have the best muscle tone, but I persist.  Generally speaking, the Hokies have dominated the ACC since it split into two divisions, helped in no small part by Florida State and Miami abdicating their presumed thrones in the Atlantic and Coastal almost immediately.  However, Virginia Tech has not made a splash on the national stage because their offenses have been hopelessly behind their defenses and special teams.  When watching the Hokies survive a 14-10 game at Duke (Duke!), I wondered whether Bud Foster was finally going to snap and strangle some combination of Bryan Stinespring and Mike O'Cain.  Foster should have spent the fourth quarter of that game getting a look at younger players and enjoying the sunshine of an October day in a half-empty stadium.  Instead, he had to be on edge to ensure that the Hokies didn't blow their embarrassingly small lead.

So you can probably imagine my surprise when I experienced the sensation of being impressed by an aspect of the Hokies' offense last night.  That aspect?  Logan Thomas is huge and hard to tackle.  It's possible that this aspect of the Virginia Tech attack is underrated.  What made Tim Tebow such a great college player?  One factor was almost certainly the fact that he was money at converting third and short.  Ditto for Cam Newton.  We all remember Cam's big plays, but his best attribute may have been that it was impossible to get the Auburn offense off the field in anything other than third and long because Newton could consistently fall forward for four yards.  How did a slightly-inferior Michigan team upset Notre Dame in September?  Their ability to stop the Irish on a trio of third and shorts in the later stages of the game.  How did Michigan have a chance to tie Iowa on Saturday?  Again, because Greg Mattison is a ninja at coming up with ways to stop conventional running plays in short yardage situations. 

Maybe last night was a bit of an outlier because Georgia Tech has a smallish defense, but I came away thinking that Thomas is a major asset.  He isn't close to Newton or Tebow in the passing department, but in the ACC, he doesn't need to be.  He is unstoppable when the Hokies need a few yards, which means that Virginia Tech's drives are more likely to end in touchdowns as opposed to field goals or punts.  In other words, he is so useful that he can weak offensive coaches look smart.    

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

An Attempt to Explain Paterno and Curley Imitiating Colonel Klink

In consuming the same news stories and opinion pieces about Penn State's remarkably limp response to the football program's former defensive coordinator's unique way of expressing his commitment to children, I've been trying to make sense of the reaction of Tim Curley and Joe Paterno, among other.  Short of murder, child molestation is about as bad a crime as there is.  Jerry Sandusky committed repeated acts of molestation, such that he was observed at Penn State's football facilities on at least two occasions performing sex acts with boys.  This is not a case where authorities would have to rely upon the testimony of a child to determine whether a crime has been committed.  Sandusky was so brazen in his conduct that he committed these crimes in a place where he could be observed by adults, first a janitor and then Mike McQueary, who was a graduate assistant at the time.  Confronted with eyewitness testimony from adults on at least two separate occasions, Penn State's authority figures did nothing. 

This sin is especially grave because it is fairly common knowledge that individuals who commit acts of pedophilia are highly likely to perform the same crimes again.  The offense has a very high rate of recidivism because of the psychological pathologies involved.  Sandusky's crimes cannot be written off as a crime of passion that is unlikely to repeat itself.  Thus, the failure on the part of Penn State authority figures to act appropriately made future crimes by Sandusky a likelihood.  Every child who was assaulted by Sandusky after the 2002 incident can legitimately point a finger at Curley, Paterno, McQueary, and others at Penn State.  Almost certainly, those individuals (or, more precisely, their parents) will be hiring highly-capable lawyers (the victims will have their pick of the best plaintiffs' lawyers in the country) to point those fingers for them and Penn State will ultimately have to respond by writing some very large checks.

So how does this happen?  I would posit that athletic departments at major universities are places where the default response to any wrongdoing is to try to handle it in-house and to avoid reporting it to the appropriate authorities.  Major college football and basketball, the games about which so many of us choose to obsess, live a lie in at least two major respects.  First, those sports involve massive amounts of revenue paired with antiquated British rules enshrining amateurism as a defining value. The natural place for the money to flow is to the players who generate it, but the NCAA seeks to prevent that water from flowing to its natural destination: the players who create the revenue.  Second, colleges and universities have to lower their academic standards in order to admit the players who can make the difference between winning and losing.  They have to operate under the fiction that an individual with a 2.3 GPA and an 850 SAT score from a below-average urban or rural high school can compete academically with students whose credentials far out-strip those of the athlete and come from an environment that makes them much better prepared to process what the professor is saying, understand the assigned reading materials, and create coherent answers to difficult questions based on what they have learned over the course of a semester. 

Thus, the mission of athletic departments, unofficially, has to be to ignore reality. They have to look the other way when a star player is driving a car that is well beyond his present means.  They have to ignore the extent to which tutors assigned to the players are doing the players' assigned course work.  Athletic departments have to put in place compliance regimes that look good and act to stop the most obvious violations of NCAA rules, but at the end of the day, they cannot be cultures based on reporting all rules violations.  To use an analogy from another black market economy, la cosa nostra has to be the default rule.

If you want two illustrations of that culture at work, look at Ohio State and Penn State. Jim Tressel - a man with a sterling reputation prior to last December - received information from a former Ohio State player about NCAA violations made by his players. He did not forward this information as he was required to do by NCAA rules.  Various media outlets then found story after story of potential additional violations, each time leading Ohio State's Athletic Director, Gene Smith, to cut and paste a version of "this is all news to us" into the school's response.  When confronted with media reports that Tressel had sat on evidence of violations, Smith and University President Gordon Gee believed that a two-game suspension would suffice for Tressel.  It was only after a media firestorm that became hotter as a result of Smith and Gee's comical response that Tressel was fired, a fact that Ohio State later touted to the NCAA as evidence that it took the scandal seriously. 

Penn State's scandal involves conduct that is worse by several orders of magnitude than that committed by the Tat Five, but it follows the same pattern.  University officials receive evidence of wrong-doing, they try to keep the evidence in-house, and then their efforts to keep everything quiet are foiled when the criminal justice system gets involved.  And just as Gee embarrassingly claimed "I only hope that he doesn't fire me" when asked if he would terminate Tressel (a move that Ohio State was ultimately forced to take), Penn State President Graham Spanier issued a press release defending his recently-indicted administrators, another colossal miscalculation of how the media would treat the scandal.  Again, the default response to violations of NCAA rules or, in Penn State's case, the criminal of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, was not to report the violations to the proper authorities.  Instead, it was sit on the evidence in the hopes that the problem would just go away and then for the university president to defend those who did the sitting.  Given the environment in which athletic departments operate, we should be upset, but we should not be surprised.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

How Will the SEC Survive Inviting a New Member With Little Football Tradition?

Stewart Mandel lets the mask drop for a moment:

In its mad quest for television sets, the SEC, presumably intent on starting its own network, has irreparably diluted what had become the nation's premier conference. At its core, the charm of the SEC was that it really was one of the last conferences in which all 12 schools were geographically and culturally similar. The same scene we saw Saturday night in Tuscaloosa takes place in similar variations every week in Auburn, Baton Rouge, Oxford and Athens. Visiting fans make road trips in droves, because they can. Missouri, on the other hand, is an average 600-plus miles from the rest of the conference. Walk around an SEC tailgate lot or tune in to the Paul Finebaum Show and you'll quickly learn just how poorly this move is playing with the constituents.

New members Missouri and Texas A&M won't threaten the continued dominance of Alabama and LSU. They are likely the league's next South Carolina and Arkansas, the former of which took 20 years to reach its first conference title game, the latter of which made its first BCS bowl last year. But paired with the NCAA's recently approved stricter admissions standards and the SEC's own move last spring to cut down on oversigning, the league's golden era is likely drawing to a close.

Yes, Stewart, the SEC has irreparably diluted its brand because one of its fourteen members doesn’t have the same football culture as the others.  Apparently, the conference could survive with two football-light members (Vandy and Kentucky) out of twelve, but three out of fourteen is just a bridge too far.  If you pair Missouri with the SEC’s other new member, Texas A&M, a school that indisputably has a football culture that will mesh with the conference, then the case for dilution is really weak.  It’s almost like adding bourbon and water to … bourbon and water.

Mandel’s other arguments aren’t any better.  He cites the fact that SEC fans can drive to most of the other schools in the conference, but Missouri shares a border with three SEC states.  If you believe that this sort of thing matters, it was a border state in the Civil War (just like Kentucky) and its flag flies at Stone Mountain.  (That’s the best test of whether a state is in the South, right?)  Yes, Columbia will be a hike for the teams in the East, but is it that much farther than Fayetteville, which is buried in the northwest corner of Arkansas?

And speaking of the last two additions to the SEC, we all agree that the additions of South Carolina and Arkansas were a positive for the conference, right?  Neither of the new entrants have won a conference title in football.  They have combined for four trips to the SEC Championship Game and have lost by double digits all four times, with three of the games being total blowouts.  Moreover, while Arkansas brought a football tradition, South Carolina did not.  As of 1992, South Carolina had never won a bowl game.  They were 79th in all-time winning percentage, a tick over .500 and one spot behind Kansas.  Missouri comes with better (although not overly impressive) credentials and they are four years removed from playing in the Big XII Championship Game for a spot in the national title game.  Exposed to the competitive pressures of and revenues generated by the SEC, South Carolina has responded by hiring two brand name coaches – Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier – and enjoying the best extended period in the program’s history.  The goal for Missouri doesn’t have to be competing with LSU and Alabama for national titles.  Rather, there’s no reason why they can’t join Arkansas and South Carolina in the league’s middle class, with regular bowl trips and the occasional foray to the Georgia Dome when the stars align.  Adding a program that slots into the middle of the SEC doesn’t dliute the brand.

As for Mandel’s last point, there’s no reason why adding Missouri would damage the SEC’s “Golden Age.”  If Mandel is right that the Tigers won’t pose a major competitive threat to the elite of the conference, then how will they threaten the conference’s ability to produce national champions?  How will they stop Alabama and LSU from taking advantage of the rich recruiting regions in the South?  Mandel also cites the new NCAA admissions standards and the SEC’s oversigning regulations, both of which might have some impact, but they won’t change three basic realities: (1) SEC programs are rivaled only by the Big Ten in terms of generation of revenue, only the SEC programs plough the money back into their football programs whereas Big Ten programs use the money to ensure that their women’s field hockey teams have top-notch facilities; (2) SEC programs face more intense competitive pressures and therefore have a greater incentive to make moves that lead to on-field success; and (3) SEC programs sit in the most talent-rich region in the country.  Thus, the SEC won’t win every national championship like it has for the past half-decade, but it will still remain above the other BCS leagues, on average. 

Mandel has often opined that conference strength is cyclical.  On this claim, he is totally wrong.  There are structural factors at play that make some conferences more likely than other to succeed.  Over the past five years or so, a definite hierarchy has emerged.  The SEC is on top for the reasons described about.  The Big XII and Pac Ten are in the next tier, most likely because they draw talent from the two major recruiting bases outside of the SEC states: California and Texas.  This year will likely be the fourth straight year in which those two leagues supply the opposition for the SEC in the national title game.  The third tier is comprised of the ACC and Big Ten, which are the underachievers of the BCS.  The ACC has fertile recruiting areas and the Big Ten has revenue fan/media interest, but neither league can convert those blessings into on-field success.  The Big East is the last tier, representing the leftovers of the other leagues.  None of this is indicative of a cyclical situation, which requires that conferences are roughly equal.  The SEC’s recent dominance refutes Mandel’s concept of a cyclical world, so he has to predict doom around every corner.  That’s why he’s taking the implausible position that adding Missouri will cause Nick Saban to forget how to coach and Louisiana recruits to lose interest in going to Baton Rouge.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Paterno and Urkin

Random Thoughts from the Weekend:

  • The Penn State indictments unleashed a torrent of ill-considered opinions on Twitter, the likes of which I haven’t seen for a long time.  At least two otherwise respectable commentators were calling for the Penn State football program to receive the death penalty, as if: (1) there are provisions in the NCAA’s rulebook that cover reporting of child molestation; and (2) Penn State is a repeat offender in the department.  Short answer: the NCAA doesn’t concern itself with criminal law.  There are authorities in central Pennsylvania who are tasked with enforcing the state’s laws that seek to protect children from predators like Jerry Sandusky and require that certain authority figures report allegations of abuse; the NCAA’s province is to enforce its own laws, which generally have to do with enforcing the concept of amateurism and preventing programs from gaining an unfair competitive advantage.  I seriously doubt that anyone can make a passable case that Penn State received an advantage by virtue of Sandusky’s reprehensible conduct.
  • In a strict football sense, the indictments should get Penn State out of a sticky situation.  They have a legendary head coach who is grimly clinging to his position, regardless of his inability to perform the basic functions of the role, because he is afraid of dying shortly after retirement like Bear Bryant.  Now, Paterno’s limp response to a graduate assistant telling him that his former defensive coordinator – a man who still ran a football camp at Penn State – was raping a child in the program’s showers gives Penn State a solution.  And this doesn’t even require Penn State to deal with the fantasy that Paterno, the most powerful individual in the athletic department (or possibly the entire university), was unaware of the prior allegations.  In every other sense, this is a disaster for Penn State.  The program’s image is inextricably linked with that of Paterno.  JoePa always projected the impression of a man of unimpeachable ethics, which his defenders often used to distinguish him from Bear Bryant.  Now, that is all gone.  The program and its godfather have been embarrassed and the taint from this scandal will stick with all of them for a long time.  More tangibly, the fact that various decision makers at the school did so little to deal with an incredibly serious issue and as a result apparently allowed multiple assaults to take place on university property is going to expose the school to major civil liability.  These are expensive mistakes that Penn State’s brass made.
  • In the realm of “it’s pointless to ever make predictions,” how many people would have guessed that: (1) Nebraska, which has had an excellent recent defensive record coming into the Big Ten, would be able to stop Michigan State, but no one else in the Big Ten; or (2) Michigan, which was averaging seven yards per play coming into the weekend, would put up less yardage that just about every other team that Iowa has played?  Count those two results as reminders that we are dealing with teenagers whose performances will vary from week to week.  Except for LSU and Alabama, I guess.
  • I felt conflicted in making my ballot.  In my heart of hearts, I think that Alabama is the second-best team in the country.  With Stanford having played a weak schedule so far and Oklahoma State confirming my suspicions that they are a good offense-average defense team, I would take the Tide over either of those teams on a neutral field, probably by a touchdown in both cases.  On the other hand, if you go based on resume, then the Tide have to be behind the Cowboys and Cardinal.  The SEC just isn’t strong enough this year for the Tide to develop a national championship resume without a win over LSU, especially since they did not play the two best teams in the East.  Moreover, if LSU has one of the spots in the title game, then the Tide cannot make a good case that they should get a second chance at the Tigers when they blew the first chance at home.
  • I will admit that I have little interest in seeing Oklahoma State in the title game.  I have nothing emotional against the Pokes, but they just seem like Oregon Junior to me and we already played that game last year.  Team with a powerful offense and questionable defense, thousands of ludicrous uniform combinations that involve shades other than the school’s official colors, success as the result of a very wealthy benefactor…  Not again, please.
  • Ralph Friedgen has to be laughing his ass off right now.
  • Did Saturday night mark the most depressing home game in Tennessee history?  The Vols came in at 3-5, having gone 0-for-October.  Meanwhile, their most hated rival and another conference foe were playing in a one versus two matchup that Vols fans probably would have preferred to watch than their own wheezing offense.  And nothing says “this game doesn’t matter” quite like Bob Rathbun on the call.  But hey, at least they set up a true state title game with Vandy by beating Middle Tennessee State.

Separate thoughts on LSU-Bama to follow…