Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Just Start Your Engines, Already!

I always look forward to the Daytona 500; being a NASCAR fan, I'm naturally amped for the start of the now-Sprint Cup season and the Great American Race.

But this year, I'm more excited than ever. Perhaps it's a desire to get away from all the scandal in sports right now. I've grown tired of Congress butting its nose into such matters as steroids and Spygate.

I no longer care what goes on between Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee. They're both unsavory sleazabags and they both deserve public scorn and possibly jail time. But I just don't give a damn anymore.

As far as I'm concerned, Arlen Specter needs to give Spygate a rest. The Super Bowl's over, the Pro Bowl apparently slipped past us (did anyone notice or care?), so why subject Roger Goodell and the rest of us to this poor attempt at espionage?

The NBA trades are somewhat intriguing, but given the marathon regular season, the overall lack of defense and the fact that the playoffs take about a decade to slog through, I just don't care enough to offer much in the way of time or opinion. So I'll just pick the Spurs -- until they don't win.

NHL players getting their necks and faces slashed by skates is too gruesome; it's sad that we only talk hockey when something bad happens. So I'll just pass on the ice boxing.

And until college basketball barrels into March (and with my Monarchs struggling this year with a young squad), I find myself needing an actual sports fix. Which makes NASCAR's return to the beaches of Daytona a godsend.

There is no cheating drama this year, as there was last February when Michael Waltrip got busted for using an illegal additive in his carbeurator. This year, the stories are more varied and much more interesting:

-How much has Toyota improved from its 2007 debut? The deal with Joe Gibbs Racing gives the Japanese manufacturer instant credibility -- and three week-in-week-out contenders in Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin -- and can only help the likes of Red Bull Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing.

-Can Jimmie Johnson join Cale Yarborough as the only Cup Series driver to win three consecutive championships? With Hendrick Motorsports' equipment and the genuis of Chad Knaus atop the pit box, why not?

-How far will Jeff Gordon's ascent in the record books continue? He's within reach of Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison on the all-time wins list, and another Cup title would give him five -- he's the only driver other than Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt to win more than three Cup championships.

-The Car of Tomorrow is now the Car of Today, and how will it handle speedway racing? The car ran 16 times last year, mostly on tracks a mile in length or less. With much of the schedlue running at venues 1.5 miles or longer, how will the larger, boxier car handle? And for that matter, how will the racing be?

-And of course, the biggest story coming into the season: Dale Earnhardt Jr., now free of his stepmother's clutches, joining the sport's most dominant team in Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick drivers won 18 of the 36 Cup races last season, and Earnhardt Jr. has already paid dividends, winning the Buweiser Shootout this past Saturday night.

Junior is a master of restrictor-plate racing -- just like his late father was -- and he won the 2004 Daytona 500, but Junior will be expected to contend for the championship this year. And why not? With the best equipment and people working with him in the business, there's no reason Junior can't return to Victory Lane at least four or five times this season. I won't come right out and say Junior will win the Sprint Cup this season, but he will make the Chase for the Championship and finish in the top five.

But mark this down: when the checkered flag waves on the 50th annual Daytona 500 on Sunday, Earnhardt Jr. will be the first to the line.

I knew there was a reason I was so excited about NASCAR coming back ...

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Monarch Signing Day

National Signing Day has come and gone, and while the rest of the nation waxes poetic about what some of the top teams in the country have done for 2008 and beyond, some of us look at the day for what it really is -- some of the top local high school talent deciding where they are going to further their educations and athletic careers.

In the case of Old Dominion University, National Signing Day was also the next step in the process of starting up a Division I-AA -- or Football Championship Subdivision, if you're so inclined -- program. Head coach Bobby Wilder announced the signing of 21 players, all of whom will redshirt the 2008 season in preparation for the program's first game in 2009.

Of the 21 players signed, 10 are from Hampton Roads, an area in which the ODU campus is situated in the middle. Southeastern Virginia is an area rife with football talent -- talent that often finds its way to Virginia or Virginia Tech, or even one of the state's Div. I-AA powers in William and Mary, James Madison, Norfolk State and Hampton.

So if ODU was to succeed, Wilder and his staff -- in which there are three assistants with local connections -- needed to place emphasis on recruiting in Hampton Roads.

They did.

Below is a list of the 21 players who will be among the first ODU football team in more than half a century. Hampton Roads signees will be in bold, and impressions will be given when warranted. The list and all relavant statistics are courtesy of the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.).

-Chris Burnette (Gilman HS, Randallstown, Md.): 6-4 | 260 | DL | Had 78 tackles, seven sacks as a senior.
-Michael Colbert (E.E. Smith HS, Fayetteville, N.C.): 6-1 | 205 | LB | Had 144 tackles, 66 solo, as a senior.
-Vondre Combs (Warwick HS, Newport News, Va.): 6-0 | 215 | LB | Had 105 tackles as a senior in 2006.
-Bobby Cooper (South River HS, Davidsonville, Md.): 6-3 | 200 | QB | Despite leading a run-first offense, Cooper threw for over 3,100 yards and 28 TDs as a senior.
-T.J. Cowart (Ocean Lakes HS, Virginia Beach, Va.): 5-9 | 180 | DB | Undersized but speedy, doubled as running back as a senior; intercepted top national recruit and Florida State commit E.J. Manuel three times in a game last season.
-Carlos Davis (Friendly HS, Fort Washington, Md.): 5-10 | 170 | WR | Has 4.4 speed, caught 30 balls for over 600 yards as a senior.
-Reid Evans (Phoebus HS, Hampton, Va.): 5-10 | 175 | WR | Had 68 catches for 1,135 yards and eight TDs as a senior. Also used his speed to intercept seven passes as the Phantoms advanced to the Virginia Group AAA state semifinals.
-Drew Hareza (South Fayette HS, South Fayette, Penn.): 6-0 | 205 | K/P | Made eight field goals as a senior, with a long of 45 yards, and was 23-for-23 on extra-point tries.
-Deanthony Jones (C.H. Flowers HS, Hyattsville, Md.): 6-0 | 180 | DB | Played quarterback in high school but looks to be a free safety in college.
-Nick Mayers (Landstown HS, Virginia Beach, Va.): 5-7 | 160 | WR/RB | Rushed for 728 yards, had 484 receiving yards and scored 16 TDs as a senior. Versatile enough to fill both slots in college, and even played WB briefly for the Eagles because of injuries.
-Bryan Morrison (Broad Run HS, Ashburn, Va.): 6-2 | 260 | OL | This three-year starter was first-team all-district and all-region as a senior.
-Ricky Nichols (Maury HS, Norfolk, Va.): 5-11 | 175 | DB | ODU's first recruit, Nichols will reunite with assistant coach Dealton Cotton, who was once head man at Maury, a high school 10 minutes from campus. Nichols is small but quick and has a good eye for the ball.
-Tommy Raemon Jr. (Gloucester HS, Gloucester, Va.): 6-2 | 195 | QB | 13 TDs and 36 INTs might not sound like college material, but Raemon played for a poor Gloucester team, and he impressed scouts in summer camps. His father, Tommy Raemon Sr., is the coach at Gloucester and was once Michael Vick's coach at nearby Warwick High.
-Erik Saylor (Urbana HS, Ijamsville, Md.): 6-2 | 265 | DL | Had 71 tackles and seven sacks as a senior.
-Devon Simmons (Denbigh HS, Newport News, Va.): 6-2 | 180 | DB | Had 105 tackles, forced seven fumbles as a senior. Three-sport athlete.
-Andrew Turner (Kellam HS, Virginia Beach, Va.): 6-3 | 235 | DE | Played defensive end and tight end at Kellam, earned first-team All-Beach District honors at tight end. Had 60 tackles as defensive end, using a large, muscular frame to impose his will on shorter, flabbier offensive linemen.
-Charles Walls (Tallwood HS, Virginia Beach, Va.): 6-2 | 281 | OL | Committed to Kent State in August, but changed his mind in December to stay closer to home. Clogs up pass-rushing lanes and uses solid fundamentals.
-Joacim Wigfall (Woodside HS, Newport News, Va.): 5-10 | 210 | RB | Rushed for 1,467 yards and 16 TDs as a senior in 2006.
-Craig Wilkins (H.D. Woodson HS, Washington, D.C.): Had 103 tackles, broke up 23 passes and had eight INTs as a senior.
-Desmond Williams (Bertie HS, Windsor, N.C.): 5-11 | 188 | WR | Played quarterback as a senior, throwing for over 2,100 yards. His athleticism will likely move him to the wideout slot.
-Joseph Wills ( Westlake HS, Waldorf, Md.): 6-3 | 262 | OL | Had 49 tackles and nine sacks as a senior; an All-Southern Maryland Athletic Conference selection.

So although the Monarchs won't actually take the field until 2009, the reality of ODU football is growing clearer by the day. So many local recruits are a good sign, signaling that the staff knows just how important gaining a presence in the area is. This is important, considering Wilder's roots are in Maine.

For ODU football to succeed -- in the Colonial Athletic Association, the Monarchs are joining a conference that has won two of the last five Div. I-AA national championships -- the local talent needs to be utilized. U.Va. and Virginia Tech will still get their share of players from Hampton Roads, but if ODU can keep a solid stream of I-AA-caliber players coming to campus and playing, the Monarchs should be contenders sooner rather than later.

Not bad for a basketball school.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Bowl Hangover

So what else is new?

Is Bob Knight's decision to resign from Texas Tech, effective immediately, hypocritical? Perhaps, but when have we expected anything less from the embattled hoops coach?

Knight claims he's grown tired of coaching, which I can get behind; he's 67 and has been coaching for 42 years. That's not even taking into account the fact that he's coaching basketball at a football school in a football state, and even when the team was at its best, the interest really wasn't there.

I can dig that. Really, I can.

But to bail with at least 11 games left in the season? To leave when the Red Raiders, who are 12-8 (3-3 Big XII) and on the NCAA bubble, as they enter the stretch run? That's low -- even for a man known for tossing furniture and choking his players.

I ripped Bobby Petrino when he bailed on the Atlanta Falcons with three games left in a dismal season, and I do the same to Knight, who had signed a three-year extension at Texas Tech before the season. I don't care how many times he talks about giving his son Pat a smooth transition into the head coaching seat and all that: fact is, Knight quit on his team, and that is inexcusable.

If Knight wants out, that's fine, but the least he could've done was wait until the end of the season.

Laker thievery

The Lakers made out like bandits when they lured Pau Gasol away from the Memphis Grizzlies. Only having to give up Kwame Brown and a pair of inconsequential draft picks? Probably the best deal in the NBA since the Miami Heat came away with Shaquille O'Neal.

Brown was as ineffective in Los Angeles as he'd been in Washington, only without the lying about having the flu during the playoffs. The home fans took to booing Brown, and he was even more of a sore thumb with the emergence of Andrew Bynum. So getting rid of Brown, a complete waste of a basketball player, was necessary for the Lakers front office.

Fortunately for Kobe Bryant, Gasol brings a solid -- if not somewhat soft -- post presence to fill the void until Bynum returns from injury. And once Bynum does get back, the frontcourt combo of him and Gasol could be one of the best in the West, and a reason to consider the Lakers a contender with the Spurs and Suns.

I still give the West to the Spurs -- they're merely bored and without Tony Parker at the moment -- but the Gasol trade makes the Lakers a serious contender.

Sign away!

Normally, National Signing Day barely registers on my sports radar, partly because of my distaste for college football. But this year will be different; with my alma mater, Old Dominion, starting a Division I-AA squad in 2009, the first crop of Monarch recruits will begin signing with the school on Wednesday.

And I'm getting excited.

Coach Bobby Wilder, a Maine alum, said from day one he would recruit from the graduating class of 2008 and redshirt everyone in preparation for the 2009 season. A good move, but not nearly as good as the fact that so many of the Monarchs' early commitments came from local talent.

Southeastern Virginia is littered with Div. I-AA schools -- Hampton, Norfolk State, William and Mary -- and the players who are solid I-A talent often go to Virginia or Virginia Tech. So for ODU to pull so many local kids into the fray right away makes a statement to the area, and a statement to Wilder's staff and its ability to recruit locally.

Consider the following local recruits (compiled from The Virginian-Pilot):

-T.J. Cowart, DB/Ocean Lakes (Virginia Beach)
-Nick Mayers, WR/Landstown (Virginia Beach)
-Ricky Nichols, DB/Maury (Norfolk); the first ODU commitment
-Andrew Turner, DT-TE/Kellam (Virginia Beach)
-Charles Walls, DT/Tallwood (Virginia Beach); originally committed to Kent State and changed
-Reid Evans, WR-DB/Phoebus (Hampton)
-Devon Simmons, DB/Denbigh (Newport News)

Seven local commitments, not including the potential announcement Tuesday afternoon from Gloucester quarterback Tommy Raemon Jr. His announcement will come on WAVY TV 10 at 6:20 p.m.; the signal-caller will choose from Missouri, South Florida, Buffalo and ODU, according to the Daily Press.

His father, Tommy Raemon Sr., is the coach at Gloucester and was Michael Vick's high school coach at Warwick.

Gaining a local footing early is important to ODU's success, both on and off the field. College football in Virginia is crowded enough, so for the Monarchs to make a local impression over a year and half before their first game could go a long way in making sure this program is a success down the road.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Perfect Waste

Tattoo removal, anyone?

I feel for that Rhode Island guy who before the Super Bowl who had "19-0 Patriots" tattooed on his arm.

Actually, no I don't. Anyone that arrogant deserves to be humiliated after the Patriots lost 17-14 to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII Sunday night.

The pursuit of perfection is over; the Patriots didn't make it to Mercury Morris' block after all.

We know what the game did for the Giants -- particularly game MVP Eli Manning and coach Tom Coughlin. Two guys once on the verge of being run out of the Big Apple now find themselves in the same situation brother Peyton and coaching colleague Tony Dungy did a year ago: on top of the football world. Eli's cemented himself as a legitimate NFL quarterback, and Coughlin probably gets to keep his job for another couple years.

But what of the Patriots? They were expected to complete the perfect season; 19-0 seemed so inevitable The Boston Globe published a book about it before the game and the Patriots attempted to copyright the phrase "19-0."

Side note: the Patent and Copyright Office rejected the request, adding it would look into it further once the Patriots actually won the game.

Nice to see someone in Washington has common sense.

Tom Brady set records this season, Randy Moss was a model citizen. Coach Bill Belicheck was ... well, he was as surly and arrogant as ever (anyone see his post-game interview with Chris Myers? Awkward ...). But it all amounts to nothing, as a team many felt might be the best ever lost for the first time all season in the one game that truly mattered.

Generally speaking, 18-1 isn't a failed season -- just ask the 1985 Chicago Bears or the 1984 San Francisco 49ers. But those teams won the Super Bowl; the one loss came in the regular season. For the Patriots, the lone slip-up came at the worst possible time -- with the Vince Lombardi Trophy on the line -- and the result is eternal ridicule.

In years to come, look up the word "waste" in the dictionary, and you might just find the 2007 New England Patriots.

We normally don't remember who lost the Super Bowl, but we will this time. I won't say the Patriots choked, because the Giants played a fantastic game and just flat-out hit the Patriots in the mouth. But to dominate as the Patriots did the first nine games of the season, then to hold on when teams started giving it their all down the stretch, there was no way this epitome of teamwork would stumble in Glendale, right?


Belicheck and Patriot Nation better be glad they already have three Super Bowl rings this decade; otherwise, Sunday's loss would sting even more and the historical ramifications would cut even deeper. As it is, this season was a total waste ... just as one tattoo artist in Rhode Island wasted a lot of ink.

Mets steal Santana

How else to describe the deal in which the Minnesota Twins sent freak ace Johan Santana to the New York Mets for four minor leaguers -- none of which ranked as the organization's top prospect?

It was a steal, plain and simple.

It was also the best the Twins could get. Deals with the Yankees and Red Sox fell through when the Twins refused to budge. With the Yankees, Minnesota wanted Phillip Hughes -- a young arm Brian Cashman wanted to hold onto. With Boston, the dealbreaker was Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester. The Twins wanted both, but the Red Sox would only part with one or the other.

And after how they helped the Sox win their second World Series in three years, can you really blame them? Especially since Boston's starting rotation already reads like a fantasy roster?

The Twins' stubbornness led to the one-sided nature of this deal. And the Mets, still reeling from the September collapse that handed the NL East to the Philadelphia Phillies, picked up the best pitcher in the game, a guy who even before spring training turns the Mets into the frontrunner in a watered-down National League.

The Mets will win the division this season, and have perhaps the best shot of any NL club of reaching the World Series. With Tom Glavine back in Atlanta, Pedro Martinez aging and coming off major injuries and not much else in the rotation, Santana is a godsend.

Simply put, watch out for the Mets this season.

I'm ... fired?

Poor Gregg Williams.

One week he's interviewing four times for the head coaching position with the Washington Redskins. The next, the team fires him.

Which makes me wonder how bad those interviews were.

I'm not sure what owner Daniel Snyder is trying to accomplish here -- hiring new assistants before putting a head coach in place is an odd move. And I'm not crazy about Jim Fassel as a hire; sure, he took the New York Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000, but he's been fired from his last two NFL gigs -- including his stint as offensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens.

The Redskins have a young quarterback and a stout running game; they don't need an offensive retread running the show (I'm looking at you, Jim Zorn).

I have no issue with Snyder interviewing Steve Spagnuolo, the defensive coordinator who just helped the Giants win the Super Bowl. He seems like a smart football guy, and he'd help an already solid defense. If he helped a depleted and injury-riddled secondary get to the Big Game and shut down Randy Moss, imagine what Spagnuolo could do with the talent in D.C.

But my pick? Steve Mariucci, who currently works as an analyst at the NFL Network. I realize his stint in Detroit was a distaster, but let's face it: everyone in Detroit is doomed to failure so long as Matt Millen's in charge. But with the 49ers, Mariucci orchestrated a solid West Coast offensive scheme, taking the team to the playoffs four times in his six years with the franchise.

A record of 60-43 (including playoffs) in those six seasons is nothing to sneeze at.

More countdown

Twleve days and counting until the 50th annual Daytona 500. You have been warned.