People Wanted a Triple Crown, and American Pharoah Delivered. Now What?

June 8, 2015

The crowd and nation loved what they saw; can it last?

by John Furgele

As soon as American Pharoah crossed the finish line, the experts were already busy assessing the long-term impact that a Triple Crown winner would have on the sport. The main question—will American Pharoah’s Triple Crown run “save” horse racing? Will more fans come to the proverbial horse racing table to become permanent fans?

Naturally, to dismiss those questions would be a grave error. The people who love the sport got the boost that they wanted. American Pharoah became the 12th horse to win the Sport of King’s elusive Triple Crown.  His performance in the Belmont was breathtaking, and the 90,000 in attendance who launched a deafening roar as he crossed the line brought a tear to my eyes and I’ll assume thousands more across the country.

And, for those desperate to see a Triple Crown for the first time since 1978–some to the point of calling for alterations for how it is conducted–a few years of silence has been bought. Winning the Triple Crown is hard and it’s supposed to be hard. We live in a society that no longer has patience. We want things when we want them, and we don’t believe in waiting. Last year, we were treated to California Chrome’s owner Steve Coburn saying that having fresh horses in the Belmont was the “cowards way out,” when one of them, Tonalist, drubbed his little colt in the last furlongs of the race.

Those in the know, and that includes winning trainer Bob Baffert, state that it takes a super horse to win the Triple Crown. By doing so, Pharoah now qualifies as one. His time of 2:26.65 is the sixth fastest Belmont of all time, and the second fastest of the Triple Crown winners behind Secretariat in 1973. The astonishing aspect is that American Pharoah ran negative splits. His first six furlongs were timed in 1:13.41 and his final six in 1:13.25. That is almost unthinkable, and he did it without any pace as he led from wire to wire.

In addition to having to be a super horse, you do need some racing luck on your side. It’s anything goes in the 20- (this year 18-) horse Kentucky Derby as we have seen horses get bumped, boxed and everything in between. Point Given was a great horse. He won the Belmont in 2:26.56 and before that the Preakness, but his Derby trip was not a good one. Afleet Alex had an off Derby then dominated the Preakness and the Belmont. Both were fantastic horses, but in order to be a legend, you need the talent and yes, some luck.

We have seen horses win the first two legs and for the most part, they usually stumble at Big Sandy, a relentless dream killer. My contention is that California Chrome, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown and all the others didn’t lose the Belmont; Big Sandy won it. Before yesterday, previous Belmont winners had at least raced at Belmont Park as a two or three year old and that isn’t easy to do. If you don’t race the previous fall as a two-year-old, you’re not going to be able to run the Derby, Preakness and race there before the Belmont Stakes, because nobody races at the big park from January to late April. American Pharoah proved that neither a race nor a workout at Big Sandy is essential.  Once again, a super horse is what we saw. And, as much as I have rooted for Big Sandy to blow up would-be Triple Crown dreamers, it has to be said that American Pharoah brought her to her knees, and the great thing is that Big Sandy acknowledged that. As relentless as she can be, she knows greatness when she sees it.

What will this win really do for Horse Racing? In the grand scheme of things probably not a lot. But the sport had to have gained thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of new fans. These fans probably won’t flock to race tracks, but if they watch the TV listings, they will likely tune in here and there to watch racing. Horse racing doesn’t need people to go to the track per se, but they do need people to open up betting accounts and do some gambling, and yesterday’s result should help there. Horse racing is gambling based, but it competes with casinos, illegal bookies and fantasy sports. In a case of clear irony, yesterday’s NBC broadcast was presented by Draft Kings, a fantasy sports company that offers daily competitions and cash prizes. This is just one example of what horse racing has to deal with.

The television rating for yesterday’s race was a 12.3 and the share was 27. That is very good, slightly below Game One of the NBA Finals which drew a 12.9. Sadly, it was lower than last year’s 12.9, but then again, a Triple Crown was also on the line. The key to the sport’s staying power will be the Breeder’s Cup, which will be contested on October 30 and 31. Love it or not, the Breeder’s Cup is the sport’s Super Bowl, and the Breeder’s Cup Classic will be featured near prime time on Halloween Saturday. History says the ratings will be low. Last year’s rating for the Breeder’s Cup Classic was a 1.8, lower than Serena Williams’ Saturday morning 1.9 in the French Open final. The key is to somehow burn this moment into our collective conscience so we will remember to tune in this fall.

The owner of American Pharoah, Ahmed Zayat, says that horse racing needs stars. However, the big money is in breeding, and that presents a dilemma. Billy Turner, the trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, says that it would be important to see American Pharoah run as a four-year-old before going off to stud. Seattle Slew did that, as did 1978 crown winner Affirmed; in fact, the two raced each other in 1978. That would the best thing for the sport, but would it be cost effective? Zayat has already sold the breeding rights to Coolmore Farms for a reported $100 million. For horses, every race could be their last; American Pharoah could break down in his next start and be euthanized. Nobody wants to think of that, but Zayat has to.

The likely scenario is to have American Pharoah get some rest and race three or four more times in 2015 and then head off to a life of making babies. It’s certainly not a bad retirement, but it will deprive the country of seeing this star run in the future. Does that help or hurt the sport? This is far from new. Secretariat didn’t run as a four-year-old, and the older horses that do run never won big races like the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

America is a fascinating place. We are obsessed with sports. Sports draw people in for many reasons. For some, it’s passion for their city. The person in Cleveland is going to root for the Indians, Cavaliers and Browns come hell or high water. For others, it’s about magical moments—like seeing Tiger Woods dominate in a major; Roger Federer win 17 Grand Slam tennis tournaments; and Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana win four Super Bowls. For most born in 1972 or prior, the signature moment of their sports lifetime was the “Miracle on Ice,” the 1980 United States hockey team beating the Soviet Union and then Finland to win an unlikely gold medal. This is why people watch sports, sometimes endlessly and often to the detriment of health and even family and loved ones.

The 2015 Belmont Stakes was one of those moments. One of those “where were you,” moments that frankly don’t come around very often, and if they did, well, they wouldn’t be magical or timeless. It put horse racing on the map for a period of yet-to-be determined time, but for 60 minutes or so on a sunny Saturday in Elmont, NY, the sport and the horse with the misspelled name shined brightly.

The key isn’t how long the moment will last, it’s having the moment, and that is what America got for the first time in 37 years.

Why Can’t Todd Pletcher Embrace the Preakness?

May 16, 2015

The nation’s top trainer has plenty of horses, but seems to have disdain for the second jewel.

by John Furgele

Today is the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown when the Preakness Stakes is contested at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. A solid field of eight will enter the gate and run for the Black Eyed Susans. The usual cast of characters will be there; the big name jockeys, the trainers and the owners. All except one. Todd Pletcher.

Pletcher, for many reasons, doesn’t like the Preakness. And, that’s bad for the sport of horse racing. As a trainer, Pletcher has sent 43 horses into the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby but only seven at the Preakness. He has never embraced the 1 3/16 mile race, even when he won his only Derby. After Super Saver won in Louisville, Pletcher’s less than enthusiastic response about heading to Baltimore was telling.

Pletcher is not ludicrous for not being overjoyed about running horses at Old Hilltop. He is a new school trainer, one who believes that six to eight weeks between races is suffice. To run a horse twice in two weeks doesn’t sit well with him. He is certainly not alone in his thinking. There are no more Woody Stephens in the world, guys that would run their horse once a week if they thought it was worthwhile. Pletcher’s mentor, D. Wayne Lukas is the last of the old guard, a guy who would do anything to get a horse ready for an American classic race.

Pletcher was thrilled to win the Derby in 2010, but only took Super Saver to Baltimore because, as Derby winner, Super Saver was the only horse that could win the Triple Crown. In that way, he was obligated to run the colt back in 14 days to see if history could be made. After the colt finished eighth, Pletcher’s convictions were cemented even more.

In contrast to Pletcher, is the above mentioned Lukas. Lukas is more likely to run a horse that might not be ready for the big stage because at 79 he, enjoys being on the big stage. For Lukas, it’s all about trying to win the big race, and in this land, there are four of them: The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and the Breeder’s Cup Classic. Sure, there are other fine races, with million dollar purses and tons of prestige, but to the American sports fan, those four are what matter. Lukas wants his horses to be ready for them. In fact, Lukas wanted Mr. Z to enter the Preakness so badly, he orchestrated a sale from Ahmed Zayet, who didn’t want to run him, to Calumet Farm, who will.

What is even more puzzling is that nobody has more horses in training than Pletcher. He has won numerous Eclipse awards as the nation’s top trainer and when newbie owners want to join the game, they turn to Pletcher. Mike Repole, Don Lucciarelli and Ed Stanco are just three examples. What I don’t fully understand is how Pletcher can send anywhere from four to six horses to the Derby, but zero to the Preakness? Once again, it is easy to explain away why his four Derby horses aren’t in Baltimore, but what about the rest of his stable? Isn’t there one worthy of an attempt?

One would think that Pletcher could go to his owners and tell them simply that it is his recommendation to save their horse for the second jewel rather than the first one. Yes, it is tough to tell an owner that the Derby isn’t in the cards because for most trainers, it is their dream to be one of the 20 to qualify for the Run for the Roses. To win it is almost unfathomable, but getting there can be a realistic goal. And, trainers want to be a Kentucky Derby winner. A win or two there usually is good enough for the Hall of Fame.

Bob Baffert, like Lukas, is the anti-Pletcher. He wants to be there, and has had great success with five Preakness victories. If one of his horses runs well in the Derby, there is a little doubt that he’ll bring him back in the Preakness. When Bodemeister lost in the stretch to I’ll Have Another in 2012, Baffert sent him to the Preakness, where he finished a heartbreaking second. When Lookin at Lucky struggled in the 2010 Derby, Baffert sent him to the Preakness, where he won convincingly. When Dortmund tired in deep stretch to finish third two weeks ago, Baffert had no reservations about bringing him to the Preakness where he will square off against his stablemate, the Kentucky Derby winner, American Pharoah. The trainers work for the owners, but something tells me if Baffert approached Kaleem Shah, the owner of Dortmund and asked him to not run in the Preakness, Shah likely would have respected the sentiment. But, to his credit, Baffert didn’t do that.

Pletcher is hurting the Triple Crown. Before the last hour sale of Mr. Z, there were only seven horses readying for the Preakness. That’s not enough. Eight horses is a nice number, but with Pletcher’s barn, there should be more. Why not run at least two? If you can run four at the Derby, why not one or two for the Preakness? A full field for the Preakness is 14 and while that is not necessary, it would be nice to have at least 10 each year.

Pletcher’s disdain for the Preakness has rubbed those at the Maryland Jockey Club the wrong way. They have mildly threatened to move the Preakness to July, well after the Belmont Stakes in an attempt to get more runners in the race. While this is not likely to happen, the message is clear: run the Derby, run the Preakness because it’s good for the sport. Some say that the mild threat is aimed at Pletcher and truth be told, because the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes are three separate entities, the Preakness could move and not face any sanctions, because there is no national governing body like an NHL, MLB, NFL or NBA. In fact, some owners—Pletcher for sure—would embrace the move because it would allow sufficient rest between races.

The Triple Crown is the magical time of the year for a sport that sits on the fringe. The big players need to do what’s best for the sport and that is to showcase themselves and their horses in the three signature events. There are only three of these races and to see perhaps the most talented trainer skip the race at will each year is disturbing. He can’t be forced to run horses in the Preakness, but he could and should be encouraged to do so because the sport needs him and his horses.

I’m sure the Maryland Jockey Club has spoken, encouraged and even begged Pletcher to bring a few horses to Pimlico, but he continually balks at the notion. Maybe somebody else can get to him, to convince him that the sport will benefit greatly with his presence at all three races, not just the Derby and the Belmont.

The Kentucky Derby Does it Once Again

May 4, 2015

Sport may not be at the top of the lists, but Americans embracing Derby more and more

by John Furgele

Horse racing may have seen its best days, but one thing becomes clearer and clearer each year, and that is that Americans love the Kentucky Derby.  The 2015 edition generated a 10.8 TV rating and 24 share and was attended by a record crowd of 173,000 plus.  On most days, the crowds are sparse and the off track parlors are filled with guys generally over the age of 60.  I went to an off-track betting parlor on Friday to make my Derby bet, and at age 47, I was the youngest by at least 20 years.  But, the Derby has taken its rightful place as a true American event.  I’m not sure why this is but as our lives become more hectic and more separated, I believe that many are trying to instill old American values into their kids and younger people in general.

The sport was much more popular in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and the 70s, when we saw three Triple Crown winners, yet there was never 173,000 people at Churchill Downs to see the classic races and the  horses like Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.    Now, when Churchill Downs resumes racing this week, the crowds might be lucky to reach 5,000, but an event is an event, and people want to be there and watch it.

The Preakness will be another classic event.  The TV rating will be lower, but there will be at least 110,000 at Pimlico on the third Saturday in May.  The city of Baltimore should look forward to the celebration.  The last few weeks have not shown Charm City in its best light, but those who know the city, know it’s a great town and Baltimoreans have always done right by the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown.  Furthermore, the right horse won the Derby in American Pharaoh.  For the first time, he was hooked and he responded, pulling away from the feisty Sunland Derby winner, Firing Line and another toughie in Dortmund.  Because he was the favorite and not some 50-1 shot, the country, at least until 7 pm on May 16 believes that he can win the elusive Triple Crown.   The belief brings the hype and for the next 12 days, it will be felt.

Horse racing has done many good things in the last 25 years.  More tracks have become family friendly, knowing that to exist long-term, they have to get younger people to venture out a few times a year and do some betting.  Another great thing is the creation of syndicates.  Most of us can’t plunk down $250,000 to buy a yearling, but through groups like West Point Thoroughbreds, you can pay a monthly fee and get in the game.  The sport will continue to get the wealthy involved.  These people have earned that right.  They’ve made their money and when you have money, there has to be something that excites you enough to spend it.  Despite that, the bluebloods and those of high society have seemed to have made peace with the commoners buying into a syndicate to get involved in the game.  The scions of American racing can’t live forever and we need the Mike Repoles as well as the syndicates to get involved in the sport.  The Sport of Kings is allowing the bishops and knights and a few peasants in and overall, that’s a good thing.

Many of the 173,000 at Churchill Downs might not have seen the race.  Let’s be honest, for many, it is a great party, a great excuse to get drunk, stumble around and have some fun.  And, does any country like a party more than the United States?  That said there is something for everyone.  For me, it was like Christmas Day.  I wake up excited and earlier than usual for a Saturday, but what I cherish is sharing the joy with others.  It is the one time of the year where I can profess my love for horse racing and my friends, colleagues, co-workers and even my mother actually seemed interested.  I received several texts from friends asking for my Derby winner (for the record, I picked Firing Line) and that never happens the rest of the year.  What does that tell you?  That people care enough to seek a horse racing lover and ask that question.  And, as those texts came in, my face lit up with joy because they were sharing—if only for one day—in the big race.

I don’t expect to get those same texts for the Preakness and if American Pharaoh doesn’t win, they surely won’t be coming for the Belmont, but as a fan of the sport, you take it when you can get it.  But, if Pharaoh pulls it off at Pimlico, then, once again, America will get jacked up for another run at the Triple Crown, which is never a bad thing.  The great thing is the resolve of Americans.  Twelve times since 1978, a horse has won the Derby and the Preakness and 12 times, they have been denied in the Belmont.  But, despite the letdown, Americans gear up and hope that the next time will be the charm.  They refuse to be deterred and say that it won’t happen.

As much as fans of the sport want a Triple Crown, I have concerns about it if it happens.  America loves its suffering.  Red Sox fans suffered for 86 years, White Sox fans for 88.  Cleveland baseball fans have suffered since 1948 and Cleveland Browns fans for another 50.  If American Pharaoh wins the crown this year, what will happen in 2017 when another horse wins in Louisville and Baltimore?  Will we wave a collective hand and say, I just saw that?  As the drought gets longer and longer, the suffering becomes a rite of passage.

I believe that the sport receives more attention when the horse is denied because, invariably, the sports talkers and writers bring it up the Monday after the Belmont.  The failures generate conversations that last for a few days.  Would success generate as many?  Of course, most of us would like to measure that after one horse sweeps the three and joins that elite group.

All in all, we, as a country embrace the big events.  My dad wanted us to watch the Derby and I make my kids watch it because someday I’ll be gone and hopefully my kids will make their kids watch and pass on not a love of horse racing, but a love for America and its traditions.  And, May is good month for traditions with the Derby and the Indianapolis 500 at the beginning and the end of the month.

As we grow more diverse, there has to be something that can bring us together if just for a few moments, hours or days.  The Kentucky Derby did that again and for a nation, that’s all good.

Five Weeks of Spectacular

May 2, 2015

Horse Racing no longer mainstream, but America still likes big events

by John Furgele

For youngsters, Christmas may be the most wonderful time of the year, but in the sport of Horse Racing, the most wonderful time of the year is now. The next five weeks not only is a time for fans of horse racing, but the only time of the year where the sport takes it place on the national landscape. When ESPN sends a crew to cover the Kentucky Derby, you know that America cares.

What will we see in the next five weeks? As is always the case, there are many that are hoping that this is the year when the Triple Crown drought of 37 years will finally end and one of these colts will be able to string victories in the Derby, the Preakness and the stumbler of recent times, Belmont Stakes.

We all know how difficult it is to do and we all know the reasons why. Horses are trained differently and because they are, they can’t withstand the grind of three races in five weeks. Horses are bred more for speed, and to ask one to win the first two legs and then go 1 ½ miles in the Belmont is far too arduous a task. The answer to this is very simple and that is the reason why the Triple Crown hasn’t been completed since Affirmed in 1978 is that there hasn’t been a good enough horse.

The chase begins at Churchill Downs when 18 horses (El Kabeir was scratched) line up for the 141st time in the Kentucky Derby. It is an American tradition, always the first Saturday in May and even people in the Northeast actually believe that spring is indeed, finally here, so in a sense, the Derby is the start of something most look forward to. The Derby is hard enough as 18 of the 19 entered have never raced more than 1 1/8 miles. As good as Dortmund, American Pharaoh and others have looked in their prep races, can they get that last eighth of a mile?

We have seen great horses come and go. In 2004, Smarty Jones looked great in the Derby, even better in the Preakness but was gunned down in the final strides of the Belmont Stakes. A year earlier, Funny Cide had good fortune in the Derby, backed that up with a 9 length victory in the Preakness before fading to third at Big Sandy (home of the Belmont). Barbaro looked like the real deal in the Derby, but never even finished the Preakness after suffering an eventual fatal leg injury.

To me, American Pharaoh has looked the best. His victory in the Arkansas Derby was breathtaking. Jockey Victor Espinoza’s biggest challenge was to stay on the horse. The colt glided down the stretch and looked like he could run forever. To me, the others have to come and get him. I would never say he is the class of the field, nor would I call it an upset if he gets beat, but to me, he is the one to catch, the clear favorite.

Dortmund is another tough horse. Like American Pharaoh, he is trained by Bob Baffert, and is perhaps a bit more tested in his races. He has been looked in the eye, but each time he’s been able to thwart all competitors. It would surprise no one if he won the race.

The Derby is so tough for these horses. The first time going 10 furlongs, the crowd, which will exceed 150,000 and 19 horses to is a lot to deal with. America loves an underdog, but it would be better suited if one of the favorites wins the Derby. If that happens, America will begin to believe that a Triple Crown is in fact a possibility. When a longshot wins, it often doesn’t translate television wise to the Preakness because Americans think that the longshot was lucky to win the Derby and they don’t believe that the luck can continue. America believed in Smarty Jones, they believed in Big Brown and those horses ate up the competition at the Preakness and by Belmont, the hype was more than on.

The Derby is the best race of the three, but the Preakness is the most important. That sets the table and that’s why it’s so vital and of utmost significance. If the Derby winner wins there, the ballyhoo to the Belmont Stakes begins; if he doesn’t, than the Belmont is just another major stakes race on a Saturday in early summer.

A Triple Crown winner will not save horse racing, it will not rekindle interest and put the sport on the front of sports pages and websites. It can be argued that the sport is better off with the near miss. The close-but-no-cigar theory works because lamenting is good for business as any Chicago Cub fan will tell you. Think about it; if the Cubs win a World Series, what will Cub fans have to be miserable about? The near miss scenario keeps people hopeless, yet interested.

I will spare you with my predictions because unlike most fans, I don’t love the sport because of the handicapping aspect. Sure, I’ll wager a few bucks on Firing Line, the Sunland Derby winner, but to me, it’s about the event, and the Kentucky Derby, is an event. There will be 150,000 at the track and another 12 million watching on television, making Derby Day very much a part of Americana. The Preakness will exceed over 100,000 when it is contested in a hopefully healing Baltimore and depending on what’s at stake, another 50,000 to 100,000 will descend upon Belmont Park on June 6.

In the 1970s, we saw three horses (Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978) win the Triple Crown. It looked so easy and when Spectacular Bid won the Derby and Preakness in 1979, most thought a threepeat was in the bag. Little did we know how good we had it. If three could win it in a five year span, then surely it would keep happening with regularity. Obviously, that has not been the case, but tomorrow is the start of another year and another attempt at glory.

Buffalo Bulls Athletics: No Place to Go

April 22, 2015

Big city, small conference hampers efforts

by John Furgele

The Buffalo Bulls appeared to be heading in the right direction.  In football, they hired a proven winner, and more importantly, a program builder when they plucked Lance Leipold from Wisconsin-Whitewater.  In basketball, they got the big name in Bobby Hurley and even though he had no head coaching experience, the name alone was enough to get Buffalo basketball on the radar.  The only better hire might have been Christian Laettner.

We can dissect the Hurley departure any way we want do, but at best, Hurley would have been gone in two years. There are certainly no guarantees that the Bulls would have made the NCAA Tournament in 2016 because of the one bid nature of the Mid American Conference, but the odds would have been good for next year’s team to win at least 20 games.  And, each successful year put in by Hurley would have just led to more and more speculation that he would leave.

Personally, I thought Hurley would have stayed at Buffalo for one more season.  He certainly garnered enough attention and one would think that three years at Buffalo would have landed him the higher profile job that he would ultimate covet and want.  Fortunately, for Hurley, it only took two years.

We can also speculate how everything went down, too.  Did AD Danny White leak information about Hurley signing an extension? Did the Buffalo athletic department only offer him $1,000 more than the highest paid MAC coach was making? We might never know the true particulars, but ultimately, Hurley had to take the Arizona State job.  Let’s be honest; the Buffalo job is an okay job.  Bad league, bad winter weather and only one chance to make the NCAA Tournament.  At ASU, he walks into a program that spends money, wants to be good but for some reason, can’t seem to get over the hump in college basketball.  Believe it or not, the Sun Devils are adding Division I hockey next season, so their commitment to athletics is strong.

Buffalo had some advantages, too.  For one, even though WNY fans are a passionate bunch, the passion wanes for college athletics.  The fans here would never demand NCAA Tournament or bust each season.  They would be happy with a few appearances here and there.  We know where the passions lie; with the Bills and as evidenced by the two year tank fest, the Sabres.

When Buffalo made the International Bowl under Turner Gill, the WNY faithful got excited, but soon, Turner Gill was gone and by the time the Bulls played in the Potato Bowl in 2013, few outside the UB loyalists cared.

I don’t know Bobby Hurley, but my bet is he wants the Duke job when Coach K finally retires.  In theory, you don’t want to be the guy who follows the guy (where are you Gene Bartow), but in college basketball, there are only four or five programs who ultimately can win the NCAA title.  Duke is one of them.  Coach K is 68, he can’t coach forever and Hurley knew that jumping from Buffalo to Duke would have been very difficult, but jumping from Arizona State to Duke—not so much.

The writing was on the wall even before the wall was built.  Deep down, Buffalo did get shortchanged by Hurley but in a one bid league, paying him close to $1 million would have made no sense.  If the MAC were a four bid league, the high salary could be justified, but UB could go 27-7 next year and if they don’t win the MAC Tournament, they go to the NIT, CIT or some other alphabetical post season alternative.

I worry a bit about Buffalo athletics because they are clearly stuck in college sports purgatory.  Niagara, Canisius and St. Bonaventure know who they are; small schools content in the MAAC and Atlantic 10 respectively.  They view basketball as their high end sport and try to compete each year.  The Bonnies play the best basketball, a multi bid NCAA Tourney league.  If the Bonnies go 24-8, they’re dancing no matter what they do at the A 10 Tournament. Niagara and Canisius are the small, private schools, content to play games on campus and see what happens.

But, Buffalo is a different animal.  They are the big, public “city” university.  Branding aside, they carry the name Buffalo on the jerseys and when West Virginia and Buffalo came up in the brackets, America knew who they were and where they were from.  Ask somebody from West Virginia if they know where Canisius is, or even Siena for that matter.

They are the big guy, but they are stuck in a dreadful conference.  The MAC doesn’t produce national champions in any team sport.  Not volleyball, not cross country, not even bowling.  While the directional Michigans, Ball State and Northern Illinois are content where they are, Buffalo is the restful soul.  Competition wise, Buffalo isn’t ready to be a juggernaut–in any sport–but branding wise, they have bigger aspirations than the MAC.  Geographically, they’re a nice fit, and athletically, they are too, but there’s more to it.  If Buffalo wants to be THE public university in New York, they have to be more like Ohio State than Kent State or Murray State.  But, does anybody want them?

There are some that say Buffalo should pursue a bigger and better basketball conference and drop down to FCS in football and that might have been the route to take before MAC membership.  Buffalo could have tried to get into the Atlantic 10 or even the revised Big East had they stayed at the FCS level for football.  Villanova is the example.  They remained FCS for football, but stayed in the top flight Big East for basketball.  Once Buffalo went into the MAC, there was no turning back as Massachusetts found out.  The Minutemen didn’t want to give up A 10 membership, so the MAC, refusing to keep them as football only, gave them the boot after the 2015 campaign.

Buffalo may have found a great coach in Nate Oats.  And, unlike Hurley, he is a no-name who won’t parlay two good seasons for a Power 5 job.  Because life isn’t fair, Oats will have to bide his time and succeed mightily at Buffalo before moving on.  For the university, that’s a good thing.  But, the big issue is clear and that’s how does Buffalo escape college athletics purgatory?

A Better Way to Fix Baseball

April 13, 2015

The game is fine, but needs some minor tweaks

by John Furgele

This year, baseball is trying to speed up a timeless game. And, it’s not for the fans at the ballpark, who generally don’t keep of track of time when they’re there. It’s for the couch person, the person who wants to sit down at 7 pm, watch a baseball game and then be in bed shortly after 10 pm. Last year, with the average game running 3 hours 7 minutes, that didn’t happen. Personally, if they enforced rules rather than resort to timers and clocks, the games might have been shorter.

Baseball—like all sports—has problems. Foremost is the length of the season. The attention span of Americans has become shorter and shorter. You can blame high speed internet, online shopping, Smart and I phones, and the fact that we are addicted to them; but the bottom line is that it’s tough to devote three hours to anything unless it’s really, really important. TV ratings will never be great when there are 162 games over 26 weekends of action. If you miss one game, there are 161 more and then one becomes 30 and before long, it’s Thanksgiving. Basketball and hockey with their bloated 82 game seasons also suffer from this, so let’s not ignore them either.

Another problem with baseball is the sports refusal to showcase all the teams. They prefer to give you Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants regardless of record and even mid-season, they refuse to alter that strategy. In the NFL, they flex games, so if it’s Week 14 and the Eagles and Giants are 5-8, that game gets dumped from prime time for a better one. How many times did ESPN show you the Royals last year?

Offense is down in baseball and the sport continues to play by two sets of rules, even though there is interleague play every day. It’s time to ask for forgiveness from the purists and make the National League adopt the designated hitter. As mentioned, offense is down, and pitchers have enough trouble staying healthy just pitching. We don’t ask the field goal kicker to punt anymore, why make the pitcher bat? And, asking the American League pitcher to bat in a National League park is almost inhumane.

Watching the Yankees play the Red Sox 19 times and for that matter, Tigers-Indians is just too much. Baseball likes to think that’s what everybody wants, but it’s simply not true anymore. And, it’s also not fair. In the old days, where just the division winners made the playoffs, it made sense, but with two wild cards, the unbalanced schedule doesn’t cut it anymore. If the Yankees are competing against the Red Sox AND the Mariners, then they should have equal cracks at both teams. When baseball instituted the wild card in 1995, people scoffed, but after the Yankees and Mariners hooked up in that memorable Division Series—won by Seattle in five games—the skeptics and the scoffing stopped.

Baseball should steal something from the English Premier League and get out the table. Forget about the archaic divisions, and eliminate them. Line the American League and National League teams up 1 thru 16 and have a go at it. That’s right, 1 thru 16 because baseball needs to expand by two teams to get to 32. Put an National League team in Mexico City (18 million people) and an American League one in Montreal, a city you abandoned and divorced well before 2005 when they moved.

This would create a 16 team table and the top five or even six would make the playoffs. You can say what you what about expanding playoffs, but that’s really what America enjoys. Most of us monitor the regular season, but many of us watch the playoffs. We love the sense of urgency because as previously stated, our attention spans are short.

Montreal would flourish in the American League because they would have natural rivalries with Toronto, Boston and the Yankees and Mexico City would fare well with Miami, Arizona and San Diego. The table creates fairness because to make the playoffs you would get equal cracks at your opponents.

The table plan would eliminate interleague play on a nightly basis, obviously with an even number teams, it isn’t necessary. If I were the king, I would eliminate interleague play altogether because the Giants aren’t competing against the Yankees for the playoffs. If that was done, each team would play opponents an average of 10.8 times per season. My math skills notwithstanding, that would be tinkered with to make it 162. The Yankees would still play the Red Sox 11 times per year, but they would get the same amount of games against the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s.

If interleague play is maintained, league teams could play each other 10 times, leaving 12 games to play teams from the other league. The NFL, NBA and NHL have interconference games, so it wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep it going in baseball. However, forcing Yankee fans to watch Mike Napoli 19 times and Robinson Cano just six, to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Think about the table. You could take the top five teams for the playoffs, have 4 play 5 in the one game wild card, or, you could take the top six teams and give the top two teams a bye (rewarding the regular season) and have 3 play 6 and 4 play 5 in preferably a best of three. The NFL has 32 teams and takes 12 for the playoffs and before long, it will be 14. The playoffs are what get people excited. The ratings soar and the interest goes from marginal to substantial. The regular season serves a great purpose. It is a product and it provides entertainment for millions of people, but Americans can’t get enough of postseason action.

Few products can survive without evolution. Ketchup and mustard are two, but the mantra of change or die has never been more relevant. The great thing about the new baseball plan is that after 15 years, you could change it again. Nothing has to be permanent, but why not practice other ideas? Doing so will certainly at the very least, generate a lot of talk and buzz and even gain some new fans, which is the ultimate goal of any sport.

Time to Put an End to Tanking

April 3, 2015

Tank talk only stains the game

by John Furgele

The NHL and NBA have major image problems and it’s not because their athletes are getting arrested and doing other low life things, it’s the image that the games are being compromised. Sports are supposed to be an escape from the modern stresses of living in what I call the grind of everyday life. People work, child rear, pay bills, stress out over money and so on and so forth, but for many, kicking back at 8 pm to watch a hockey or basketball game provides some entertainment before going to bed and repeating the grind the next day.

The NBA has the problem of “resting” its stars. I don’t remember guys like Dave Cowens, John Havlichek, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan missing games when they were healthy. Now, the San Antonio Spurs travel to Miami and they leave Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker home to rest while they’re JV team plays the road game. That’s just one of the problems. Sure, the season can be a grind, but what about the fan who orders tickets three or six months in advance for that game? He or she might spend $300 per ticket and when the day finally comes, the stars are resting. We all know that players get injured and that’s entirely different than being a healthy inactive.

The NHL also has had a tough year. There are two can’t miss prospects in this year’s draft. One is junior star Connor McDavid and the other is Boston University forward Jack Eichel. In the NHL, the team that finishes 30th (last) has a 20 percent chance of securing the number one pick and is guaranteed the number two pick. If you finish 29th, all bets are off. Currently, the Buffalo Sabres are in 30th place, two points behind the 29th place Arizona Coyotes. The talk of tanking has dominated the talk shows in Buffalo and on Twitter and social media. When I see and hear professional journalists lament a win or talk tank, it makes me sad. And, how do the Buffalo Sabres players feel? The fans actually wan t them to lose so they can finish 30th. These are guys that live in town and go to stores.

The Sabres recently hosted the Coyotes and according to the people that covered the game, it was eerie. When Arizona scored, some cheered, knowing that each Coyote goal would help cement Buffalo’s 30th place standing. When the Sabres scored, there was mixed cheering. Most fans didn’t outwardly cheer against Buffalo, but deep down, they cheered against the team that a year ago lost so much that people wanted heads to roll.

In many ways, you can’t blame the fans. Fans pay good money (too much) for sports events and with salaries and revenues skyrocketing, don’t think your cable bill is going to stay the same either. The Sabres have never won a Stanley Cup title and that’s going back to 1970, when the entered the league. In fact, they have only played in two finals in 1975 and 1999, so their frustration has merit. It is easy to see why Sabre fan wants to finish 30th. The thinking is logical. Finish 30th, get one of these studs, build around him and contend for the cup for a decade. In true Easter fashion, it’s sacrifice now for the greater good.

The Philadelphia 76ers are doing the same thing, in fact, management has told the fan base that they don’t expect to contend for the NBA title for five more years. They have been accused of tanking, yet the league does nothing to dissuade them—and other teams—for doing so. Unfortunately for the 18-58 76ers, the Knicks have only won 14 games.

Players don’t tank, let’s be clear. They have too much pride and are much too competitive to do that. There’s a reason why they’ve made it to the NBA and NHL (NFL, MLB, too) so to suggest otherwise is silly. I also don’t think management encourages tanking one iota. What they do though is assemble as bad a team as they can so they won’t win many games. You could put the Triple A Buffalo Bisons in the American League East and though they’ll try as hard as they can, they might win 50 of the 162 games. As they say, you can put lipstick on a pig, but what remains is still a pig.

Once again, image is the issue. There will always be bad teams. Who doesn’t love the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers with their 0-14 record and then 0-12 to start 1977? Were they not beloved? But, we know that the one thing that Buccaneer team didn’t do was tank. They tried, but in a word, they stunk. When tanking becomes the subject of eight hours of sports talk (four in the morning, four more in the afternoon), that is wrong. We all know that sports talk radio has veered away from talking about games because that doesn’t provide enough flash anymore, so rather than talk about the quality of the draft, the talk is tanking, finishing 30th and getting McDavid or Eichel.

If you’re NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, you have to be going crazy inside. Love him or hate him, he has done the owners well. They have a decent TV deal in the United States and Canada, player salaries are up as is revenue, but tank talk stains the game. The image is that the Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers want to lose so they can get the future superstar. In sum, the league is rewarding awful and that hurts. The goal is to try to win each and every night you play. Yes, you might have to play the backup goalie some nights and the guy who has a slightly sprained ankle can take a few games off, but when you hear things like “three more games,” and we’re home free in 30th place has to gnaw at those that run the league.

The answer is simple. Don’t reward the 30th place team. In the NHL and NBA, 16 teams make the playoffs, 17 thru 30 do not. When it’s time for the draft, put 14 balls in the hopper and draw them out one by one. The first ball drawn gets the first pick, the last one gets the 14th. Many will say it’s not fair if the 17th team gets the number one pick to which I say, oh well. Life isn’t fair my friends. Doing this ensures that tanking will no longer be an issue and fans can go to NBA and NHL games knowing that trying to win is the goal. The Sabre fan can go to games not caring about 18th place or 26th place and not staying up late to see how the Coyotes do when they play the Los Angeles Kings.

The NFL should do the same thing, because tank talk also happens. When the Jets beat Tennessee and then Miami in the last game of the regular season, the talkers in New York lamented by saying there goes any chance of getting Winston or Mariota. Once again, this is both sad and absurd. Do you think Geno Smith, the struggling Jet quarterback wants the team to tank and get Winston? Of course not, but the fans; they do want that. The NFL should do the same. Put teams 13-32 in the hopper, all with an equal chance of getting the number one pick. Imagine what that would do on Draft Day? The 13th place team with the higher pick could trade down and the dealings on draft day would be off the charts.

The world will move forward if teams keep tanking for years to come, but if you’re running a league, there are enough issues to keep one busy and tank talk could be eliminated very easily. The NBA owners were reluctant to do away with the weighted lottery system where the crummier teams have a better chance of getting the higher and highest pick, and that’s a shame. Here’s hoping that they will come to their senses and realize that tanking takes away from what most sports fans want and that is a breather from the daily grind.

When Should a Coach Move On?

March 29, 2015

In just his second year, Bobby Hurley got Buffalo to the NCAA Tournament. Is it time to move?

by John Furgele

We see this time after time after time. A small school hires a new coach. The new coach does a great job and then is courted by major programs that can offer him not only the money but the resources to thrive. It happens in college football and college basketball every year and as much as we loathe it, it’s not going away.

Bobby Hurley is the latest example of the continuous saga called the courting of the coach. Hurley was the great player, the point guard on two back-to-back NCAA championship teams at Duke in 1991 and 1992. He was a fringe player in the NBA whose career ended when he nearly lost his life in an automobile accident. After years of living life and doing different things, he followed his DNA and started coaching. We know it’s in his blood. His dad is a legendary high school coach in New Jersey; his brother a successful college coach, first at Wagner and now at Rhode Island. Playing and learning the game from Coach K at Duke only added to his knowledge and thirst to be a coach.

Bobby helped brother Danny at Wagner and it was a bit of a surprise that an assistant coach would get the job at the University at Buffalo. Many thought that Bobby Hurley had not paid his dues to be a head coach at a Division I program. But, Danny White, the Bulls athletic director believes in branding and the Hurley name is synonymous with college basketball. Most 17 and 18 year olds don’t know who Bobby Hurley the player was, but their fathers do, so when Bobby Hurley sends that letter or makes that phone call, attention is given.

Today, Bobby Hurley is a hot commodity. DePaul University, a Big East member with eight straight losing seasons is courting the current Buffalo coach. The DePaul job has a lot going for it. It’s in a basketball hotbed, Chicago, where recruits are sitting pretty to be courted. It’s in a conference that saw six of its 10 teams get invited to the NCAA Tournament, and the pay is sensational. Oliver Purnell, who recently resigned was making $2.2 million per season and compared to Hurley’s $320,000 plus incentives, the bump in pay would make most of us make the move.

The frustrating part is what Hurley—and most coaches—say after the season. Hurley professed allegiance to Buffalo, stating that they had more to accomplish in the upcoming years. For the Buffalo sports fan, that had to be music to their collective years. Buffalo is a long suffering sports town. Except for Triple A baseball (2004, 1997, 1998), the city hasn’t seen a championship since the 1965 Buffalo Bills and that was in the AFL, which many felt inferior to the NFL. Buffalo has never been the king of any sport, in fact in these the present times they are rooting for the Buffalo Sabres to LOSE games to secure either the first or second pick in the upcoming NHL Draft. In Hurley, they got a guy who got the Bulls over the hump and into the NCAA Tournament and before the tournament even ends, he may bolt for DePaul.

The other unsettling part is that this will not end. If Hurley doesn’t get the DePaul jump, he will be courted for bigger jobs in 2016, 2017, 2018 and so on. In some ways, you can’t blame him. In the coaching business, you must strike when you’re the hot guy and right now, Hurley is receiving the accolades for guiding the Bulls to the MAC Championship. And, because the MAC is a one bid league, we all know that Hurley’s Bulls could go 27-7 next year, lose in the MAC tournament and get stuck in the NIT, ala Murray State (which won 25 straight games in 14-15).

Some guys do resist it. Gonzaga’s Mark Few is the prime example. He could have left the Zags many times, but always stays put in the little West Coast Conference and for the first time in his coaching career is in a Regional Final. But most take the money, the prestige and the breathing room that goes with being a bigger conference that gets multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament. Few is to the point where he doesn’t even get calls anymore because they know he won’t leave.

Hurley is a different case. He is not Mark Few. His track record consists of just two seasons as a head coach. He has recruited some good players, had success with junior college transfers and appears loaded and ready for another NCAA run. The fans in WNY are not thinking of just making the NCAA Tournament in 15-16, they believe that the Bulls might be one of those cinderellas capable of Sweet 16 run. If you have veteran players, it can be done. We’ve seen George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, Wichita State and Butler make Final Four runs and we all saw Gordon Hayward’s 50 footer roll of the rim against Duke in the 2010 title game.

Does Hurley owe the University at Buffalo more time? We know that Buffalo can’t pay Hurley what DePaul can, and as much as we like to think it’s not about money, it is. But, taking money out of the equation for just a moment, Buffalo took a chance on a guy who had not coached anywhere before and really, had minimal experience as an assistant coach. Saying that Buffalo stuck their neck out for Hurley is a stretch, but it was a curious move that so far has yielded tremendous results. Based on all this, should Hurley stay at Buffalo to see the Bulls through; to see if they can repeat as MAC champions? Of course, he may not get the DePaul job and he may be back, but how will that affect him in the future? Will he be coaching Buffalo with one eye, with his other on the prestigious, more lucrative jobs?

The Buffalo sports fan is a tough fan. They think Buffalo is a great place to live and work and raise a family. They defend their harsh winters even though deep down, they despise them. Jim Boeheim has always said that Syracuse is the greatest city in the world, and even though Central New Yorkers know that’s not the case, they love him for saying that. Hurley however is not from Buffalo. When he took the job, he was thinking that it was a place where he could establish himself, build up his resume and leave for allegedly greener pastures. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact, it should be admired. But, is two years enough? Is that really enough time to build up such a resume? And, if he stays, will the Buffalo fans turn on him, knowing that he had one foot out the door and eventually, it will be both feet.

Hurley could have said no to DePaul, that he has more work to do at Buffalo, but he didn’t do that. He might be using DePaul to get more money from Buffalo, but my thinking is that he believes that coaching the Blue Demons is a great opportunity. There is nothing wrong with Hurley doing that, but by talking to DePaul he has shown his cards, and though that’s okay, it might be wise for Buffalo to let him go and get somebody else to coach the talented Bulls next season.

Why You Shouldn’t Hate Christian Laettner

March 14, 2015

Former Duke star enhanced the college game greatly

by John Furgele

When one becomes interested in sports, it doesn’t take long for passion to develop. Many sports fans follow their fathers (mostly) or their mothers. As it goes, if Mom or Dad was a Yankee fan, most likely, child will follow suit. There is the anti-parent angle as well, that makes the child pick the Red Sox just to be the antagonist. The fascinating element of sport is the hatred. There is also the hate factor. While it’s natural for a Yankee fan growing up in Yonkers to hate the Red Sox or the Mets, why is that they hate the Cubs, or the Cardinals?

Fans tend to hate teams that have rousing success. In the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens remain the most storied franchise with 24 Stanley Cup banners, so it makes sense why they are hated by many. Success can bring that out in earnest and with that, comes not only hatred but passionate hatred. When I became turned on to sports in 1976, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in a four game sweep over the defending champion Philadelphia Flyers. The Habs would go on to win the next three Stanley Cups and with names like Lafleur, Lapointe, Pierre Mondou and Rejean Houle, I became a fan, but most of my buddies who I grew up with in suburban Buffalo quickly hated Montreal.

Baseball has the Yankees, perhaps the most polarizing franchise in all of North American sports. Not only do the Yankees win, their ability to outspend everybody else has made them the most hated in all of sports. But, love them or hate them, they were always able to bring viewers to the TV because America will always watch to root against the villain. The NBA had the Celtics, Lakers and in 1990s the Bulls to polarize and rile up their fans.

For the most part, I’ve always been the guy that roots against the team that wins the most. Sure, I liked the Canadiens, but I usually root against the teams that “win all the time.” In the 1990s, I rooted against the Chicago Bulls and believed that Michael Jordan always got the key call in the key games. I look back with appreciation for those teams now and when you consider what their legacy is, even the hater has to admit that what the Bulls did was pretty darn impressive.

The same goes for the New England Patriots who since 2000 have dominated the NFL, much like the Steelers did in the 1970s and the 49ers did in the 1980s. That’s how sports have always been and that’s why it’s appealing to so many.

Duke University is college basketball’s most hated team. They are loved or hated by most, but unlike most teams/programs, it wasn’t always that way. For decades, Duke was never a power and even though they made title game appearances in 1963 and 1978, they were were indifferent to America. That changed under Coach K and beginning in 1986, the Duke program set sail on what continues to be a remarkable run. Duke, though, still had trouble getting to the mountain. In 1986, they made the Final Four but lost the title game to Louisville. In 1988, they made the Final Four but were knocked off by Danny Manning led Kansas in the semifinal. The Dukies were climbing but had still failed to conquer the mountain.

On Sunday, ESPN is premiering its latest 30 for 30 called “I Hate Christian Laettner,” and it is the arrival of the Buffalo, NY native that helped turn the tide of the Duke basketball program. Laettner arrived in Durham in the fall of 1988, and with him, the Devils reached the Final Four in all four of his years (1989-1992). Once again, however, the Devils had trouble reaching the summit, losing to Seton Hall in the 1989 semifinal and then getting whacked by UNLV in the 1990 final.

Believe it or not, Laettner and I have a connection. We both grew up in suburban Buffalo and we actually competed against each other in sports. Now, let’s be clear; saying I competed against Laettner is the same as seeing an actor in an airport and claiming you’re friends. For the record I also sat next to Lynda Carter at a Baltimore Orioles game. When she was introduced, I leaned over and said, “I knew it was you,” but that doesn’t mean we’re friends. In fact, she only smiled at me and never said a word.

Laettner went to a private school called Nichols in North Buffalo. And, for that reason, many think he came from wealth and privilege. That wasn’t the case at all. His father was a pressman for The Buffalo News, his mother a schoolteacher, so spending summers at the family compound in the Hamptons or in Canada did not happen.

The Nichols School always had trouble finding opponents to play for its sports teams. Despite its relatively small size, they funded many sports. They had football, basketball, baseball, cross country, track and field as well as hockey team and a rink. In Buffalo, there were strict classifications for sports. The public schools competed in Section 6 and the section had championships for all its sports.

There was the Monsignor Martin Association which was the governing body for the Catholic schools of which there were many and then there were schools like Nichols, which were independent and really had no home. In some sections in New York State, the private and Catholic schools were admitted members. This meant that they could compete in the sectional playoffs and the state public championships, but that was not the case in the Buffalo area (Section 6). Those who ran Section 6 felt that the privates and Catholics had an unfair advantage because they could recruit athletes, give them breaks on tuition and so on and so forth.

Nichols did a lot of traveling. They played schools in Rochester, Syracuse, and even ventured Canada to compete. When I was in high school (1982-1986) at Grand Island, we played in the NFL, the Niagara Frontier League, which in my time had ten teams. I never knew why, but the NFL admitted Nichols as a member during my high school career. The Vikings (their nickname) were allowed to play in our league, win titles, but once the regular season ended, they were still not allowed to play in any Section 6 championships. But, for Nichols, they now had 10 other teams to schedule games from and despite the public-private difference, the friction was minimal.

I graduated two years before Laettner and once again, to say I was an athlete is really a stretch, but as a 10th grader, I played junior varsity basketball. We had to play at Nichols which had a small, hole-in-the-wall gym. They were good and they had this eighth grader that Coach Gene Masters said was pretty talented. He was 6 foot 6 at the time and his name was Christian Laettner. I was a guard and played about half a game back then and I do remember him blocking one of my shots. He was an impressive player, but little did we know at that time how he would blossom.

The next year, the now 6-8 or 6-9 Laettner was a high school freshman and a starter on Nichols’ varsity team under coach Jim Kramer. Nichols graduates about 95 kids per class, so they were playing NFL teams that had classes in the 400s or 320 (my class). The Vikings also had the Torgalski brothers. The older was Ron (a junior) and younger Rick was a freshman. Ron Torgalski was the point guard and he was very good, good enough to play at Division III Hamilton College and make their Hall of Fame. Rick was quick and these three did lots of damage in the NFL. Because they were small, they only played about 8 guys, so even when they were blowing you out, there was a good chance that Laettner or one of the Torgalskis’ would be on the court.

As a high school junior, I was playing out the string. In context, I played for a 4-15 Grand Island team that had 14 players on it. I only played in blowout situations and I think I totaled about 20 minutes of playing time the entire year. Depending on the coach’s mood, I was either the 13th or 14th man off the bench, so believe me when I say that my basketball prowess was minimal at the very best. In fact, after my junior season, I retired from high school basketball and as a senior became the public address announcer for our games. Without me, Grand Island went 11-11 so clearly it was addition by subtraction. I did play about five of those minutes against Laettner in a blowout loss at Grand Island in 1985. I had the ball on the left elbow, and the ever cocky Laettner came out to challenge me, then backed off and said, “I’ll give you that.” Naturally, my shot clanged off the right side of the rim.

We played Nichols twice a year and each season, Nichols competed for the league title in what I would call a very good high school basketball league. At that time, there were three high schools in the city of Niagara Falls—Trott Vocational, LaSalle and Niagara Falls—and all were very good. The problem with the NFL was that the classes were all over the place. In the mid-1980s, there were four classes in New York State high school basketball, A, B, C, and D, with A being the largest and D the smallest. Nichols was a C school, while Grand Island and Niagara Falls were A schools. Trott was also a C school with Tonawanda and Lewiston-Porter being B schools, which went against most leagues which grouped As with As, Bs with Bs and so forth.

New York State has two state championships for basketball. They have the NYSPHSAA, the public school championship for members of each section. New York has 11 public school sections, and each section has playoffs, regionals and a Final Four that gathers at Glens Falls for the NYSPHSAA Championships. For a public school to win a state title, they have to win their sectional title, then at least one regional game, then two more at the state Final Four.

In addition to NYSPHSAA, there is the Catholic High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) for the New York City public schools and the Association of Independent Schools (AIS). Nichols was an AIS member.

The week after the NYSPHSAA championships, New York has what they call the New York State Federation championships. This is what one would dub a tournament of champions. The NYSPHSAA, CHSAA, PSAL and AIS champs would gather again at Glens Falls to see who is the best of the best. For the public schools, this is often a tough assignment. They just experienced the high of winning a state title, and now they are asked to try and win another. These Federation clashes are legendary because in New York, we know that many of the great teams and stars come out of the PSAL and it was always fun to see Kenny Anderson (Archbishop Molloy) play against the King Rice led Binghamton HS. In 1985, Binghamton won the NYSPHSAA title and then lost at Federations, but in 1986, they won both the NYSPHSAA and Federation titles. I’m not sure which title means more to the Binghamton players, but the fact that New York has two state championships up for grabs each year is indeed, a little odd.

As a freshman, Laettner and the Torgalski brothers led Nichols to the AIS and Federation titles at the Class C level. They repeated as Federation champs the next year and by then, the Dean Smiths, Coach Ks and Jim Boeheims were descending upon Western New York to look at the now 6-11 Laettner. Nichols was still playing in the NFL, but wanted badly to be admitted to Section 6. In a surprise move, the section admitted the Vikings but made them play up at the Class A level. Ron Torgalski was gone, but Nichols still had Rick and some very good role players. They made it to the Section 6 Class A final against legendary coach Romeo McKinney and the South Park Sparks, a Buffalo city school. In that final, Laettner threw an elbow that didn’t go over well. A brawl ensued and the game was called with a few minutes left in the 3rd quarter. Nichols was up by 19 or so and were declared the champions. They didn’t make it to Glens Falls and soon after, Nichols was booted out of Section 6, not because of Laettner’s elbows but because of the backlash of the public-private rivalry. Many thought that the Catholic schools would apply for membership and if they were denied, a court battle would emerge.

Laettner had the game, the looks, and the pedigree to be a great player. Buffalo, New York does not produce great talent in basketball and football. There are always exceptions like Laettner and tight end Rob Gronkowski, but to see Laettner get recruited by all the bluebloods in college basketball, love him or hate him, it was a huge deal. Laettner in many ways was a poor man’s Larry Bird. Many forget how athletic he was. He could move, shoot and his basketball savvy and IQ were off the charts. He also pitched in high school and at 6-10, that could be imposing. Bob Lanier is probably Buffalo’s greatest basketball player, but Laettner is not far behind. Cliff Robinson played at Buffalo’s Riverside HS and though he flies under the radar, it should be noted that he played 19 seasons in the NBA.

Laettner went to Duke and because he was great athlete, played right away. He was a clutch player in high school, and we all know that followed him to Duke. Everybody remembers the classic winning shot against Kentucky at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia. I was playing euchre in Rochester, NY when he made the basket and I remember as soon as he caught the ball that he would make the shot. What amazes me is how composed he was. With two seconds left, he caught the ball, dribbled once, faked right, went left and shot. The ball never touched the rim, it was nothing but net.

Two years earlier, in the East Regional final, he broke the hearts of Connecticut fans at the Meadowlands on a buzzer beater to get Duke to the 1990 Final Four. With 2.6 seconds remaining, he inbounded to Brian Davis, got it back, dribbled once doubled clutched and scored. And, that ball was all-net too. Of course, Duke would lose by thirty points to UNLV in the NCAA title game, but Laettner was only a sophomore and we know what happened during his junior and senior seasons.

Laettner became a household name because he played four seasons of college basketball, something that wouldn’t happen today. Not only did Laettner stay for four, so too, did Grant Hill, who would become an NBA star. By Laettner’s junior year, he was feted as one of college basketball’s best players and because of his looks, style of play and the fact that he played at private school Duke, was becoming the hated man of college basketball. The National Semifinal epic against UNLV put Duke—and Laettner—on the map for good. He scored 28 points, made the key free throws as Duke beat the 34-0 defending champion Rebels to propel them to the title game where he tallied 18 points as Duke beat Kansas for the school’s first national title.

The 1991-1992 season, which saw Duke win its second straight title, was the end of an era. They beat Michigan’s Fab Five in the title game and as good as the Fab Five were, they would never win a title nor would their key players play four seasons of college basketball. College basketball became big business and chasing the NBA dollar became what many players wanted most. Laettner was a great basketball player who went to college for four years, whereas guys like LeBron James and Kevin Garnett skipped college, and entered the NBA draft right after high school. Now, players do the one-and-done and head to the NBA at the age of 19. Despite cries to make players play two or three years in college, the genie is out of the bottle and that won’t return college basketball to its glory days.

Laettner was the 3rd pick by Minnesota in the 1992 NBA draft and many say that he never dominated at the NBA level like he did collegiately at Duke, but the college and NBA games are vastly different. But, to say Laettner was a not a good pro is a colossal understatement. He played 13 seasons and except for one , played in most of the games, and for his career averaged 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game In his first five seasons he was a 17 and 9 guy, so he more than held his own at the highest level of basketball in the world.

It’s easy to see why Laettner and Duke were hated in the 1990s. Even today, Duke is a magnet, loved by many, hated by more, but 23 years later, you look back on what Laettner and Duke did and it has to make you smile. If you lived it, you know what I mean, if you were too young, it will serve as a great history lesson for you. I rooted against Duke in all of those games. I wanted UNLV to go undefeated because I was sick of hearing about the 1975-1976 Indiana Hoosiers coached by Bobby Knight. I wanted Kentucky to beat Duke in the ’92 regional final and was rooting for the Fab Five to beat them in the ’92 final. It was easy back then to root against them, but today, I’m glad that Duke won those games. Maybe that’s because Laettner and I were from the same area and even though I never said a word to him, his high school and my high school played in the same athletic league. I guess that means something. When you see a Buffalo, NY guy make it to the highest level, you root for him by affiliation if nothing else.

It was easy to hate Christian Laettner back in the 1990s; in 2015, the hate should be gone and the appreciation for what he did celebrated.

Calling for Boeheim to Resign is Easy Way Out

March 7, 2015

Hiring coaches for life is the problem.

by John Furgele

It has happened again, like it always does. Something major happens, and the catcalls from the pundits begin and begin in earnest. When allegations surfaced that Brian Williams embellished some events, many immediately called for his head on a platter. Thankfully, NBC took the calm route, suspending him for six months so they can ponder over the damage instead of making a quick, hasty decision. They still might show Williams the door but it won’t be due to lack of thought.

On Friday, Jim Boeheim and Syracuse University learned the penalties for cheating. It was a ten year investigation, so nobody was thinking that the punishment would be light and it wasn’t. The team loses 12 scholarships over the next four years, Boeheim is suspended for 9 Atlantic Coast Conference games in 2015-2016 and he—and the team—will have to vacate over 100 wins where ineligible players were used. I find vacating wins to be troubling. To me, it’s like saying that Germany didn’t lose World War I. The games were played; they’re part of history, and to pretend that they didn’t happen, is silly. That said Boeheim will have to live with that.

Since the announcement Friday morning, there have been numerous columns and pieces written for Boeheim to step down, retire and so on. Some of the pundits have glanced over the 94 page NCAA report and note that the term “head basketball coach,” is littered in the findings and they cite that Boeheim didn’t control his program.

I will not take a side, because I don’t want to come off as that guy, the guy that wants to stoke flames by saying something bold just to get attention. We all know that there are deep problems in college athletics. We all know that Jim Boeheim is not the only one that has had this happen and we all know that like the drug wars our nation fights, that the NCAA doesn’t have the personnel to go after all 360 plus basketball teams and another 135 in football. And, the schools and the boosters know that, so they do things that are not always on the level.

There is one issue about college coaches that has always bothered me and Boeheim fits it to a tee. I’ve never been a big fan of the coach for life philosophy for many reasons. Boeheim has been the head basketball coach at Syracuse since the 1976-1977 campaign; 39 seasons. When coaches coach that long at one place, simply, too much happens and most of time, it doesn’t end well. The program did have one Final Four appearance under Roy Danforth in 1975, but Boeheim took it to the next level. The Orange played in three title games, winning in 2003 and every year they’re a perennial contender. They helped form the dominant basketball conference, the Big East in the 1980s, and took the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden to a new level. Boeheim was “in on all that,” and for that he is to be commended.

The pros to the coach for life are there too. He becomes the face of the program, the chief seller and fundraiser, the most popular and well known person on the college campus. Even if they stay humble and don’t become arrogant, deep down, they know they’re untouchable. Those calling for Boeheim to retire know darn well he won’t and that’s because of his inner arrogance. It’s not his fault. When you’re at a school for 39 years, win nearly 1,000 games and make the school money, help drive admissions and build endowments, you become quite secure in yourself. Boeheim, like Joe Paterno, Coach K, Bobby Knight, Bobby Bowden and others became so imbedded in their jobs that the thought of replacing them is never discussed. They point to Indiana, which has struggled since Bobby Knight was relieved of his duties after the 1999-2000 season and that scares the leaders of the institution. These leaders are known for their intellect and now they’re overseeing millions of dollars and they sometimes don’t know how to handle it.

At Syracuse, Boeheim wields incredible power. He has been there longer than his athletic director, the president and many of the chancellors combined. These people are afraid to fire him, not because Boeheim is a bully, but because they’re just afraid. Will the program suffer? Will the endowment decrease? Will the Carrier Dome see a drop in attendance? Will the team struggle to make the NCAA Tournament? Will the community backlash be so great that the risk of letting Boeheim walk be just too scary?

We all know what happened at Penn State. Even before the Sandusky story surfaced, there were many inside the athletic program that wanted Paterno to step away and ride into the sunset. But, they were too afraid to confront him and moreover, make him retire. He lingered on and on and even though he kept winning, the ending was sad and even atrocious.

Look at Bobby Knight. He didn’t just start throwing plants in the office in 1999, his behavior was tolerated for years because the Hoosiers were winning titles, making tournaments and the school was on the map. Knight had more power than the chancellors, the regents, the presidents and the athletic directors and when the late Myles Brand finally fired him, he was treated like a villain, even though there was the video of Knight choking the late Neil Reed in a practice

Duke and the nation continue to celebrate Coach K but even he has been at the university too long in my opinion. And, I’m sure if Duke was investigated, wrong doings would be discovered because the NCAA rule book is three times thicker than the original rule book, the Holy Bible.

It never ends well. Most coaches leave because they’re forced to, and even if Boeheim sticks around the place known as The Hill for another five or six years, his legacy has taken a hit, a big one. But, that’s college athletics. We know it’s all about money. Making West Virginia’s soccer team travel to Oklahoma for a Big 12 game is beyond absurd. Having conference games between Georgetown and St. John’s start at 9 pm ET on a Wednesday is absurd. Conferences used to be regional and sensible, but that baby went out with the bath water long ago. The Ivy League model, where schools play football on Saturday (maybe a Friday) and conference basketball games on Friday and Saturday when school is not in session, is long gone for the big boys. The horses have left the barn, and they’re not coming back, so I’ll spare you with sentimentality.

The problem remains the power and once Coach K, Boeheim and a few others step away, hopefully the days of coaches for life will end for good. If Boeheim leaves and Syracuse basketball struggles afterwards, so be it. Ditto for Duke. Ditto for North Carolina. It is okay to replace coaches and to have them move on to different jobs. Syracuse is in a tough spot. Boeheim will dig in and his toadies will either dig in with him or face the wrath. But, please, writing that he should resign one day after the punishment was handed down is nothing more than a mail-it-in column. It’s almost too easy to write. You can also save your morality play too. The writers, the talkers and the fans have created the monster and just because it goes rogue, you can’t be two faced. You can’t turn on the morality card one day, and then turn on the NCAA Tournament the next.


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