Friday, December 25, 2009

Bowl Season: A Little Hawaii, A Little Vermont

Boy were we all wrong about this one. SMU kicked the snot out of Nevada, the heavy favorite and the pick for everyone in our group. It was the school's first bowl appearance in 25 years. They made the most of it.

The current Hawaii Bowl has been around since 2002 but bowl games were being played in the islands as early as 1936, well before statehood. Be happy for the SMU and Nevada marching bands who got a free vacation in the sun.

We went on a quick snowshoe hike yesterday, just up to the top of our road and back. It is my unfortunate tendency to watch my feet when snowshoeing but I did take a moment or two to look up and admire the winter wonderland we call home. There are times when I wonder what madness drove us to move to Vermont but then I look around and the scenery never fails to take my breath away. I had a lot of things growing up where I did but my neighborhood was nowhere near as beautiful - not even in the same league. This is the childhood we have given our daughter. Deer and wild turkeys in the backyard and a forest of snow-frosted hemlocks for a decent portion of the year - this is her normal. Lucky kid!

Merry Christmas to all!

Peace on Earth.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bowl Season: Not a Flower

So, I finally got another one right as Utah beat Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl, held in San Diego since 2005.

In other news, NBC Bay Area has done a piece on Vernon Davis's creative works. Here is the link:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bowl Season: Las Vegas

I had Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl and crapped out again. I'm 1 for 4 so far, not too impressive. I take a little bit of comfort in the fact that Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel, who knows a lot more than I do, has picked every game wrong thus far. I didn't watch much of the game as the rout was on early but it was good to hear Mark May, a former Hog, doing color commentary.

The Maaco Bowl Las Vegas used to be the California Bowl, also known as the California Raisin Bowl, and was held in Fresno until 1991. There was also a Raisin Bowl in Fresno back in the '40s. While referring to these games as bowls has to do with the shape of the stadiums and nothing to do with crockery, I like it when the games are named for things you might actually put into bowls: fruit, flowers, etc. What are you going to put in a Maaco Bowl? Cans of spray paint? I had a friend in elementary school who came up with the idea of having the two worst teams in the country play in the Toilet Bowl.

I'm a sucker for lists and is doing its end of decade wrap up with bests and worsts of the past ten years. I highly recommend "The Decade in Sportsmanship": The softball story gets me every time. Victory comes in many forms.

In response to Roppongi Moose's comment about Vernon Davis's site (, I thought I would look into other well-regarded pro athlete Websites. Pro windsurfer Sean O'Brien created a top 25 list of his favorites at His favorite is Rafael Nadal's ( while his least favorite is Roger Federer's (

Monday, December 21, 2009

Checking in with the Redskins: In the Beginning

The Commish called yesterday to firm up our New Year's plans. The subject of this week's Monday Night Football game also came up. The Commish is a die-hard New York Giants fan and this week, they're playing my team: the Washington Redskins. He actually expressed greater faith in my side than I felt. As I write this, the Skins are being mercilessly pounded, certain to keep the Giants' playoff hopes alive.

Before tennis and even basketball, my sports interest began with professional football. To say that the Skins are a big deal in the DC area is putting it mildly. In perhaps the world's most contentious city, love for the Skins is the best hope for consensus. When I was 9 years old, the team shrugged off years of mediocrity and followed the great Joe Gibbs in only his second season as an NFL head coach to win the franchise's first Super Bowl. I was hooked for years afterward, never missing a game if I could help it.

Two more titles would come during Gibbs's first reign. His genius was manifold but his main contributions to the pro game were in the run offense. Gibbs favored a single-back set, allowing for an extra tight end on the offensive line. His plays and blocking schemes have become essential to the arsenal of any rush-heavy NFL offense. But perhaps even more extraordinary than his chalkboard work was his ability to win despite an ever-changing roster. He won his three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks and three different halfbacks. There were plenty of changes on defense and in the receiver corps as well. One thing remained constant. For 11 years, the Redskins had the best offensive line in football - perhaps the best the NFL has ever seen. When the Hogs were on their game, the Skins were unstoppable. Gibbs could put whomever he wanted in the backfield and still win. The results speak for themselves. And yet, none from that unit has made it to the Hall of Fame - criminal!

Just as my basketball sensibilities were formed by the Hoyas of the '80s, so too were my football concepts shaped by Gibbs. I worshiped the man. The whole city did. We were excused from school for the victory parade after they won in '88. I stood ankle-deep in a fountain on a ridiculously cold day just to catch a glimpse of the conquering heroes along with half a million fellow fans.

I liked Gibbs almost enough to care about NASCAR when he switched sports in the '90s. The organization hasn't been the same since his initial retirement in 1993. My interest quickly waned as well. The fact that I'd gone to college in another part of the country didn't help.

In May of 1999, the team was bought by Daniel Snyder for $800 million, at the time, the most ever paid for a sports franchise. While his pockets are plenty deep, Snyder has been a notorious micro-manager, running a long string of big-name head coaches out of town, including Gibbs himself in a return engagement. Always willing to shell out money for free agents rather than build a talent base over time, the Redskins never seem to fulfill their promise in a given season. What was once the organization's greatest strength has become a liability: a patchwork offensive line which can't protect QB Jason Campbell to save its life.

But this is the NFL and perhaps the league's greatest strength is the reasonable belief that a bad team will come around someday. As I have written previously, the NFL, with its Any Given Sunday philosophy, preserves parity better than any other American sports league. Every franchise has its ups and downs. Even Snyder can't hold the Skins down forever. He hired a new general manager this past week, the first person to hold the position during Snyder's tenure. He's a Redskins legacy: Bruce Allen, son of George Allen, the Redskins' coaching hero of the early '70s. Current head coach Jim Zorn is surely on his way out so there will be a fresh start there as well. One hopes that Snyder can learn from the George Steinbrenners of the world that meddling less might actually produce a happier and more effective organization. Plus, this year's miserable record will mean a decent draft position. Win or lose, the Redskins are one of the most powerful brands in sports. They've broken the NFL attendance record for eight years running. So, there is hope.

But not tonight. Game over. Giants win, 45-12. The Commish is surely happy.

Now, if we could please do something about the name of the team...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bowl Season: New Orleans

None of us had Middle Tennessee State in the New Orleans Bowl so no points for any of us. The Blue Raiders are quite an exciting team. Dwight Dasher (QB), Desmond Gee (WR) and Danny Carmichael (LB) are all top-notch college players. All too small for the NFL? Did anyone else notice that the end of their fight song sounds like "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"?

The New Orleans Bowl has been around since 2001. They were displaced by Hurricane Katrina in '05, playing the game in Lafayette that year.

Bowl Season: Wyoming Crashes the Party

So, the New Mexico Bowl between Wyoming and Fresno State was actually a pretty exciting game in the end - ugly, but exciting. If you like bad coaching decisions offset by inept special teams, this game had it all.

The question, of course, is how I could be led to care about a game between Wyoming and Fresno State at all. I have MOCK!, my colleague and fellow blogger (, to thank for it. He invited me to join him and his friends/cousins in a college bowl pick'em group. It's a small group with only six members. I only know one of the other guys as he is also a music teacher. I had an uneven day yesterday. We all picked Fresno State so we all came up goose eggs on that one. I did pick Rutgers over Central Florida in the St. Petersburg Bowl, though, so that will help.

I will not go on too long about how ridiculous the bowl games are. Many people have written very eloquently on the subject. I do think that the BCS is an absolutely absurd way to pick a national champion. However, the one thing more absurd is the United States Congress spending any time whatsoever legislating upon the matter. I think it was dumb for them to get involved with steroids in baseball, too. Come on, there's nothing more important for all of you to be doing with your time?!!

The fact of the matter is that as long as the bowls continue to make gobs of money for everyone involved, they're not going anywhere. So, we might as well enjoy them for what they are. It's not a tournament. It's more of a three-week, nationwide football festival. I had friends in the University of Maryland marching band back in the day and I know they really enjoyed bowl games. They provided a chance for a free vacation in a warmer locale. Hawaii was the best case scenario, of course.

The New Mexico Bowl was born in 2006, primarily a means of assuring that at least one of the state's two FBS schools would be invited to a bowl game when eligible. Unfortunately, both the University of New Mexico (1-11) and New Mexico State (3-10) fell well short of the 6-6 win-loss threshold this season. Wyoming was not considered by the clearly useless experts to have much of a chance. The Cowboys did play horribly, as expected. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for me, the Fresno State Bulldogs played worse.

I had a more natural rooting interest in the St. Petersburg Bowl (in its second year of existence). I spent two years of graduate school at Rutgers and have been absolutely astonished by their rise to prominence over the past few years. During the two years I was in New Brunswick, the Scarlet Knights won a total of five games. There was much discussion of whether they actually belonged in the Big East conference or even Division I-A. But this season marked the fifth consecutive bowl appearance for Rutgers. They're finally capitalizing on being the largest university in one of the nation's most populous states. You'd think they could have a better men's basketball team, too, but one thing at a time.

If I were to build a football or a hockey team around a single athletic skill, it would be speed. You can't hit a player if you can't catch him. Rutgers is a very fast team and UCF always seemed about a step behind them.

I think the camera angles can do a lot to enhance a football game. The higher vantage point used in the New Mexico Bowl, and that most typical of football coverage, is great for watching plays develop. However, the lower angle used in the St. Pete Bowl is much better for exhibiting the skills of the athletes. There is not a sport in the world which benefits more from television than does football so I'm sure they've explored all of this. But I think the lower angle makes for a more exciting game.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Checking in with the Hoyas: Paying Homage

Georgetown defeated the University of Washington today, 74-66, in the John Wooden Classic. Two games every year are played to honor the The Wizard of Westwood, the greatest coach in the history of American sports, in my humble opinion: 10 titles in 12 years in an era when you couldn't even play freshmen.

I was worried about the Hoyas in the first half as they exhibited much of the same sloppiness they showed in the Butler game. But they really cleaned up their act in the second: fewer turnovers, fewer careless fouls, more patience in waiting for the offense to develop before taking shots, more offensive rebounds, etc. The adjustment is a strong testament to Thompson's coaching and bodes well for the rapidly approaching conference schedule.

There's no shame in winning ugly, of course, but the Big East is a completely unforgiving conference. It was a nasty league back in the '80s and it's only gotten worse since. Seven different teams in the league have won national titles: Connecticut, Cincinnati, Louisville, Georgetown, Villanova, Syracuse and Marquette. By comparison, the ACC only has four schools that have won it all.

As noted previously, Thompson's coaching pedigree is strong indeed. He learned from his father (JT2) and Pete Carril, both coaches who believe in disciplined execution. The trick, of course, is to convince talented players to buy into the system. Today's performance was encouraging.

Greg Monroe is going to be important this year, of course, but it's always good to see strong performances from the supporting cast. Today was a good one for junior forward Julian Vaughn who finished with a career-high 18 points. No seniors in the Hoyas' starting five, suggesting a bright future even when Monroe inevitably bolts early.

Washington point guard Isaiah Thomas is not related to the NBA great but is named after him. The story of his naming is on Wikipedia and it's a good one. He got the name when his father lost a bet. Full story at

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Checking in with the Hoyas: The Season of Giving

First things first: the V Foundation for Cancer Research is one of many worthy causes which you should be keeping in mind during this holiday season. The bad economy has hit non-profits pretty hard. As you're completing the gift lists for your loved ones, don't forget those less fortunate. To give to the V Foundation, visit them at

Georgetown played their first ranked opponent tonight, the Butler Bulldogs, and came out on top, 72-65, in the first game of the annual Jimmy V Basketball Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was not a pretty game. The Hoyas are going to have to clean up the fouls and turnovers if they're going to be competitive in the Big East this year. Sophomore center Greg Monroe certainly looks a man among boys at the moment, averaging a double-double and leading the team in points, rebounds and assists. All signs point to an early jump to the NBA for him so they'd better make the most of his talents while he sticks around. Still undefeated and currently ranked #15 in the AP poll, Georgetown has three more games before the conference schedule begins on New Year's Eve against St. John's.

Follow Up: Vernon Davis, Painter

I found some of what I believe is Vernon Davis's artwork on his site (

I did write to ask if there's more anywhere. I can't help being intrigued. I'm impressed by anyone with talent in the visual arts as I have none. All this AND an NFL career. It hardly seems fair.

Monday, December 7, 2009

All Part of My Fantasy: Best 11th Round Pick Ever

Score for the Week: Squid 70.94, Baker's Dozen 49.04
My MVP: Drew Brees (QB, New Orleans) with 35 completions for 419 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 1 sack
Melodrama: watching my admittedly slim playoff hopes slip away

Despite this week's victory, I fell short of the playoffs. As previously explained, I needed some help in other matchups and it didn't work out. I suppose I can't feel too bad. I'm ending the season on a three-game win streak and am really pretty proud of the team I had assembled by the end. Without my double-quarterback-rib-breaking fiasco in the first two weeks, I might be singing a sweeter tune right now. So it goes.

There were rookie mistakes in the beginning, I'm sure. I could have drafted better and certainly could have made better roster moves in the early going. Amazingly, at the end of the season, I only have four players left from my original draft: Derrick Mason (WR, Baltimore), Kellen Winslow (TE, Tampa Bay), Matt Hasselbeck (QB, Seattle) and Vernon Davis (TE, San Francisco). All four have had MVP weeks for me.

Must say, I've had a blast. It was great to reconnect with old friends and, hopefully, make some new ones.

Time to hand out some hardware...

My MVP for the season: Vernon Davis

While I made a lot of mistakes early on, my 11th round draft pick could hardly have worked out better. I grabbed Davis as my backup tight end. Instead, he has become my most consistent point producer over the 13-week season. He is having the best season of his career, leading the league in receiving touchdowns and already breaking the 49ers' team record for touchdowns by a tight end in a season. He is the highest-scoring tight end in our league and seems destined for the Pro Bowl. My only regret is that I didn't play him every week. I almost traded him away one week - so glad I didn't!

Davis is a DC native and a Maryland Terrapin. He was the 6th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Before this year, Davis's performance had been steady but unspectacular. He had developed a reputation as a hot head, fighting with teammates at practice. But everything has come together for him this year as he has emerged as a vital weapon in the San Francisco offense.

Most interesting to me is the fact that he was an art major in college. He has an official Website ( and I was rather hoping that there might be some examples of his work. There's a question link. Maybe I'll ask him about it.

And so, the offseason begins.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Davis Cup Final 2009: Spain Again

So, Spain has won the Davis Cup once again. It's only fitting. Spain is, without question, the dominant nation in men's tennis in the current century. They've already won the Cup four times in the past ten years, including the past two. There are other countries that can field a formidable foursome on demand: USA, Russia, France and Argentina are all pretty reliable. But no one other than Spain could reasonably leave two such high-caliber players as Tommy Robredo and Juan Carlos Ferrero on the bench. Spain has won its last 18 home ties and its last 20 on clay. Home on clay? No contest.

Davis Cup is a far from perfect enterprise but of all the events on the tennis calendar, it does best by doubles. The doubles match is always on Day 2, meaning it is always a consequential match. If the two nations split the two singles matches on Day 1, whoever wins the doubles match has a huge advantage going into Day 3. If one nation sweeps the Day 1 matches, the doubles match becomes a matter of survival, as was the case today.

Relatively few of the doubles teams on the regular tour hail from the same nation but Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez (Left-Handed Spanish Cover Model #3) have played this role in Davis Cup enough to compete with anyone, especially since they can usually count on teammates like Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer to carry the load in singles. Even a well-tuned team like the Bryan brothers doesn't often see a team of two south paws with howitzer forehands. Today, they faced Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic. The Spaniards' strategy was both obvious and sensible: attack Berdych, the less experienced doubles player of the pair. The Tennis Channel commentators criticized them for trying so many lobs over Berdych but it's tough to argue with a straight-sets win.

Davis Cup is kind of funky as far as scheduling is concerned. Despite its high entertainment value, it doesn't draw anywhere near as much interest as the Slams do. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated has suggested golf's Ryder Cup might be a good model to follow but I think international soccer's format offers much greater possibilities: a Tennis World Cup every four years with zonal competitions in off years and qualification rounds interspersed throughout. It would still be a neat trick figuring out how to fit it all into the calendar but the ATP already has a team competition in Dusseldorf just before the French Open so a model does exist.

The aptly named, yet marketing-insensitive dead rubbers will be played tomorrow. But otherwise, the tennis season is essentially over. The tour begins anew on January 3rd in Brisbane, Australia. Davis Cup resumes in March. The USA will travel to Serbia which means having to contend with Novak Djokovic in singles and Nenad Zimonjic in doubles, most likely on clay if the climate allows. In other words, they pretty much have to win the doubles match to have a shot. It shall be a tall order.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sports Flicks: Hoosiers

"Welcome to Indiana basketball."

Friday night is Family Movie Night at our house. The three of us take turns picking a movie to watch together as we sit on the living room floor and eat dinner. Two weeks ago, my wife picked Totoro, the Japanese anime film. Last week, our daughter picked Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. This week was my turn and I picked one of my all-time favorites, a movie I watch every year as a matter of ritual: Hoosiers.

For me, basketball season doesn't officially begin until I've had my annual Hoosiers viewing. It is a lovable film for so many reasons: it is the prototype for the inspirational sports film, it is a classic underdog story and it really happened - sort of. But for me, what truly sets it apart from other sports flicks is the obvious affection which the filmmakers had for the subject matter. The love for the sport is abundantly clear, of course ("I know everything there is to know about the greatest game ever invented"). Equally evident is an affection for the setting: the time and most definitely the place. Indiana is as much character as setting in the story.

My wife is from Indiana. My own ties to the midwest are strong, too: parents from Nebraska and Ohio plus five years of my own life split between Iowa and Minnesota. Driving through small towns and cornfields in late autumn - I've done that. Granted, there is rarely a single trumpet calling out a song of yearning as I drive but I can certainly imagine how there might be.

If you own or have access to the Collector's Edition DVD, I highly recommend that you watch with the commentary. The creators have wonderful stories about the location scouting and also the casting of the film. They worked very hard to preserve the authenticity of 1950s Indiana.

I first saw the movie in the theater with an old friend whom I've not seen in years. We were about 13 at the time. I remember waiting in the lobby afterward for our parents to pick us up. I don't think we talked a whole lot. I remember pacing and thinking. It's the sort of movie that gives you a lot to think about at that age.

Over the years, I've probably watched it more than any but a handful of movies. Tonight was my first time to share it with my daughter. She seemed to enjoy it. I guess they started basketball in PE at school this week. She was pleased that she got to play with a basketball that was the right color (orange) while other kids had to settle for other colors. My wife tends to roll her eyes whenever I talk about the film - or inspiring sports movies in general - but I think she had a good time, too, as we talked the girl through parts of the story. The girl seemed genuinely pleased when the final shot snapped the twine.

"I love you guys."