Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sports Round-Up, Volume 9

Only the Raiders: Apparently, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis has been interviewing potential head coaching candidates in the last two weeks, in case he decides to fire Tom Cable. If that seems backwards to you, that's because it is -- unless you remember we're talking about Al Davis. This is actually right up the Raiders' alley, though I gotta wonder ... if Davis is interviewing new candidates, hasn't he already made up his mind?

Not the Same: Some might ask how the situation in Oakland differs from that in Washington, where Redskins owner Daniel Snyder was talking to Mike Shanahan before Jim Zorn's firing. The situations are different because Zorn's dismissal was inevitable from the moment he had the play-calling duties stripped from him during the season. Cable suffered no such embarrassment, and quarterback JaMarcus Russell aside, there were signs that the Raiders might be on their way to respectability. Zorn never stood a chance; Cable did.

Journalism 101: In reporting a rumor that Tiger Woods has entered a sex rehab clinic in Mississippi on Tuesday, ESPN added the disclaimer that it "independently has not been able to confirm that Woods is at the clinic." I realize journalism has changed of late, but I remember learning in college that you never go with a story without either a) two trusted sources, or b) confirming with a source another outlet's report. If ESPN can't verify the report on its own, why is it reporting on it?

Shaq's on to Something: In light of LeBron James announcing he wouldn't compete in the NBA Slam Dunk contest -- despite claiming last season that he would -- teammate Shaquille O'Neal offered the following suggestion on Tuesday: get LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter and one other big-name NBA star to compete in the dunk contest, with half of the prize money going to Haiti relief efforts and the other half going to the winner. Not only would the cause be immensely important -- especially in light on a 5.9 magnitude aftershock on Wednesday -- but imagine those stars dunking against each other. The dunk contest is in serious need of an infusion of energy, and this would provide just that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kiffin a Sleazy Turncoat

Before I get into the bulk of this post, I feel I should acknowledge that I understand how big-time college sports -- football specifically -- work. I understand that coaches rarely work through the duration of their contract, either because they get fired or leave for a better job or what not. I also understand that recruits sometimes have to decide whether to stand by their commitment when the coach who sold them on the program bolts to another school.

Really, I get that. I understand how it works.

But still ... is there a sleazeball in college sports bigger than Lane Kiffin today? After one season -- and a myriad of promises -- at Tennessee, Kiffin is on his way back to the University of Southern California, where he will replace Pete Carroll after the latter decided to give the NFL another try with the Seattle Seahawks.

I have no problem with Carroll leaving; he gave USC nine glorious years, bringing the program back from irrelevancy to win seven Pac-10 titles, two national championships and turning the Trojans into a bonafide NFL factory. Kiffin was part of that fun, serving as offensive coordinator from 2001-06 before becoming the head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

What's more, Carroll waited until the season was over, and he was honest the whole way. There's a right way to leave one job for another, and there's a wrong way. Carroll left USC the right way; Bobby Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons two years ago the wrong way, bolting before his first season was even over. Nick Saban left the Miami Dolphins a couple years ago the wrong way, running to Alabama after two years in Miami -- and weeks of insisting that he would not be the coach at Alabama.

But Kiffin sets the new standard for screwing over a program. When Kiffin was hired by Tennessee in December 2008, he immediately embraced Volunteer traditions -- so much so, he promised to sing "Rocky Top" all night long after Tennessee beat Florida.

Florida beat Tennessee this past season 23-13.

Kiffin's energetic style and brash personality won over boosters and recruits -- if not necessarily in accordance with NCAA regulations -- and he made it known to anyone who would listen that he would eventually lead the Volunteers back to national prominence; a point he reiterated even after Tennessee lost the Chik-fil-A Bowl to Virginia Tech last month. Kiffin's whole tenure at Tennessee, sickeningly brief as it was, was predicated on the belief that he would be the man to return the Volunteers to the upper echelon of big-time college football.

Everyone at Tennessee ate it up, the passion of the SEC combining with the frustration of watching Florida and Alabama pass the Volunteers by leading the fan base to think Kiffin was going to do the things he said he would do.

But how does Kiffin expect to return Tennessee to national prominence from USC?

To be fair, Kiffin was a really good salesman -- so much so, recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron was reportedly on the phone with Tennessee commits while Kiffin was announcing his departure Tuesday night offering them scholarships to USC. Which is the whole problem; how can Kiffin look a recruit and his parents in the eye and talk about commitment and loyalty when he bolted Tennessee the second a better job opened up?

I don't blame USC for going after Kiffin; the Trojans needed a new coach, their first few choices passed on the opening and the school thought hiring someone who had been successful within the program in the past was a good way to go. The problem lies with Kiffin -- and every other college coach who thinks loyalty is just a buzzword to feed his players and not something he actually has to practice.

It says something that Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summit, one of the classiest and nicest people you'll ever meet, went on Mike & Mike in the Morning on Wednesday and expressed her own disappointment and outrage with regards to Kiffin's decision.

This isn't simply a case of leaving one job for another -- that happens all the time, in every facet of life. Kiffin made a commitment to the University of Tennessee, and he broke that commitment before the ink on the contract had a chance to dry. Considering everything surrounding Kiffin in the past year -- between the NCAA violations and this latest betrayal -- maybe Raiders owner Al Davis was right in firing him for cause.

When Al Davis is right, you know there's something horribly, horribly wrong.

UPDATE: An interesting -- and scathing -- opinion from Tennessee grad and national columnist Gene Wojciechowski can be found here. Give it a read.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

McGwire Admits Roid Use; Does It Matter?

Mark McGwire's admission to steroid use on Monday -- both to the Associated Press and to MLB Network's Bob Costas -- was neither shocking nor particularly revealing. It was widely assumed after McGwire's testimony before Congress in March 2005 that he had used; not just because he essentially pleaded the Fifth, but because his frame was nowhere near as bulking as it had been during the prime of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Which makes one wonder: why is it such a big deal?

If we all pretty much assumed McGwire used, then why are we foaming so readily at our collective mouths over his admission? There was no way McGwire could return to baseball as the Cardinals' hitting coach without talking about his past at some point, so Monday's story was largely inevitable. This wasn't a bombshell by any means -- not like it would've been had, say, Ken Griffey Jr. called a press conference to admit steroid use.

McGwire is on the Mount Rushmore of the Steroids Era, right there with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and take your pick between Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro. All he did on Monday was say what most people around the sport already knew. McGwire's admission is nothing more than a needless footnote in one of baseball's most sordid eras.

Not that McGwire's admission was completely pointless -- I will never discount someone unburdening themselves of a truckload of guilt. There's no doubt that McGwire is freer today than he was before Monday -- just like Rodriguez was a freer, more relaxed person after he admitted to Peter Gammons last February that he juiced.

Rodriguez went on to help the Yankees win the World Series. Something tells me McGwire's going to live a better, less stressful life now that he's unloaded everything. And that's not nothing.

But in terms of baseball, how McGwire's admission affects the game as it attempts to rebound from the "Steroid Era," that's more abstract. I don't care about the logical inconsistencies of McGwire's admission, nor do I really care when he did or didn't use. He used, and he (eventually) fessed up to it -- as much as we might want to go back in time and re-write the record books, this is really the best we can do.

McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998, which at the time was the single-season home run record. Purists may want the record, now Bonds' at 73, returned to Roger Maris -- who hit 61 in 1961. But that's a slippery slope; if you erase the records of McGwire and Bonds, then why not erase records set by everyone during this era? Without everyone who ever used doing like McGwire and fessing up -- or some foolproof scientific way to see who used and who didn't emerges -- how do we separate the users from the non-users?

It's the same concept with the Hall of Fame; if voters really want to keep out all steroid users, they might have to keep out everyone from the era -- which would eliminate players like Griffey. Again, how can we tell definitively who did and didn't use?

Ultimately, I don't see Monday's admission propelling McGwire to the Hall of Fame -- and I don't think he really cares. Aside from the personal relief McGwire feels now that he's finally admitted his past deeds, I can't really see how this affects baseball. The Steroids Era still happened; there are still players, current and former, who benefited from it who may never be caught. Major League Baseball has steroid testing now, but the policy is filled with loopholes and there's no test for human growth hormone -- arguably the drug of choice for athletes now.

Fact is, scientists who create these performance-enhancing drugs will always be one step ahead of the leagues and agencies tasked with finding and eliminating said drugs. The Steroid Era might soon pass, but it will only be replaced by the latest, strongest designer PED. The sooner we realize we will never again live in that utopic society where every athlete is completely clean, the better off we'll all be.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sports Round-Up, Volume 8

Hail to the (New) Chief: As expected, former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan was named Wednesday as the next head coach of the Washington Redskins, the seventh head coach hired during Daniel Snyder's tenure as owner. On the surface, the move looks good; Shanahan won a pair of Super Bowls at the end of John Elway's Hall of Fame career, but Shanahan only won one playoff game since Elways' retirement. Can Shanahan -- along with new general manager Bruce Allen -- be the guy to bring stability to a franchise that hasn't tasted glory since 1991? If Snyder backs off and lets Allen and Shanahan do their jobs, there's a good chance the Redskins could return to NFL relevance. But with questions on the offensive line, in the secondary and at quarterback, it's going to be a while before we see whether the hiring of Shanahan was a home run or a foul tip.

The Best -- But Still Not Good Enough: For the second time in four years, the Boise State football team won every game on its schedule -- including impressive wins over Pac-10 champion Oregon and in the Fiesta Bowl over No. 4 TCU. What will the Broncos get for their efforts? Thanks to the BCS, probably nothing more than a pat on the head. Never mind the fact that Boise State will end the year as one of just two undefeated teams in FBS, and never mind the fact that the Broncos can't really help how strong their conference -- the WAC -- is. Boise State might just enter next season in the Top 5 in the AP poll, which could position the Broncos for a national championship run should they go undefeated again, but at what point do we stop treating Boise State like they're sitting at the kids' table and realize they can play with anyone in the country?

Big Unit Hangs 'Em Up: Whether we ever see another 300-game winner in baseball doesn't really matter; all that matters now is that the latest pitcher to reach that milestone -- lefty Randy Johnson -- announced his retirement on Tuesday. His career took him to Montreal, Seattle, Houston, Arizona, New York and San Francisco, during which time Johnson won 303 games, wound up second all-time in strikeouts with over 4,800, won five Cy Young Awards and was Co-MVP of the 2001 World Series. Throw in two no-hitters -- and one perfect game -- and you have one of the best left-handed pitchers ever. From his 6-foot-10 frame to his mullet to that stare to his killer slider, Johnson is a surefire Hall of Famer. Just don't expect John Kruk to come to his induction ceremony.