Will Idaho Moving Back to FCS Start a Trend?

May 22, 2016

by John Furgele

In March, both Idaho and New Mexico State were informed by the Sun Belt Conference that after 2017, their services would no longer be needed.  In short, they were kicked out of the southeast-based football conference.

Since then, New Mexico State has been quiet.  They will play the next two years as a Sun Belt member, so they won’t have difficulties scheduling opponents.  With eight conference games, it really isn’t a problem, and given their record of futility, the big boys will be more than willing to schedule them as homecoming fodder.

On the other hand, Idaho moved quickly and made a decision that had never happened before.  They voluntarily dropped from the FBS to the FCS.  For decades, institutions of higher learning did the opposite; they did everything in their power to move to the FBS (1-A) level.  Dreams of major bowl games, big-time guarantees by playing the Ohio States of the world were simply too enticing. Schools also counted on more donations from both alumni and community by playing big-time college football.

We have seen this many times.  Personally, I lived in the Buffalo area when the University at Buffalo went from Division III to Division II to Division 1-AA to their current standing as a member of the Mid-American Conference.  The administration saw the dollar signs and in fairness, playing Division I athletics has enhanced their profile.  Alumni donations did go up, seeing “Buffalo” on a crawl on a Saturday afternoon gave them pride—and incentive—to make a contribution.

Many schools have the dream.  But, in reality, moving to the FBS is a difficult process and unfortunately, the NCAA got very loose and allowed just about anybody to move up.  When Buffalo played at the then 1-AA level, they were lucky to get 5,000 people for games against Hofstra, Rhode Island and Maine.  Now, at the FBS level, they draw the same crowds for games against Bowling Green, Toledo and Central Michigan.  They might announce a crowd of 18,000, but those include tickets distributed and in Western New York, it is not uncommon to get two free tickets to a Buffalo Bulls game when you buy $100 worth of groceries at your local Tops or Wegmans supermarkets.  Those people have no thoughts of attending, but they count as part of the announced attendance.

Massachusetts was allowed to move up despite not having a suitable stadium.  The on-campus stadium is too small and Gillette Stadium is miles away, a bus ride that students are uninterested in taking.  The Minutemen will play 2016 as an independent and there have been calls by community, faculty and administrators to either drop back to FCS or drop football altogether.  UMass was a 1-AA/FCS football power.  They played in three 1-AA championship games, winning in 1998 and losing in 1978 (the first ever 1-AA title game) and 2006.  They were an eastern power, first in the Yankee Conference, then the Atlantic 10 as well as the Colonial Athletic Association.  Despite not being in a football hotbed—New England is not Florida or Texas—they found the right players and were very successful.  But, they decided in 2013 that they had to elevate to the FBS level and since then, they have struggled mightily.  They played football in the Mid-American while their other sports toil in the Atlantic 10 and that proved to be the wrong recipe as the MAC gave them the boot.  They are now a football independent, a designation that only works for Notre Dame.

There is nothing wrong with having dreams.  At the FBS level, you are going to get more exposure, you’re going to get TV money and you’re going to get better players.  But, you have to increase scholarships from 63 to 85 and it does cost more to operate a FBS program with travel, per-diems and more money for coaching salaries.  A FCS head coach might make $300,000 per year, whereas the defensive coordinator at Ohio State might make $2 million.  There is a reason why FCS head coaches leave for assistant coaching positions at FBS programs.

In the FCS, those 63 scholarships can be cut up.  You might give one player a half-scholarship, another a quarter.  A FCS program might have 90 players on the team, but only “63 on scholarship.”  At the FBS level, all 85 players have full scholarships.

The numbers are the numbers.  If you believe in FBS, you can make the numbers work for you; if you believe in FCS, you can make those numbers work, too, but the NCAA has done a poor job of allowing FCS schools to make the move without really enforcing the requirements.  And, in recent years, even more FCS schools are eyeing the FBS.  Former FCS powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern gave up FCS glory to play in the Sun Belt Conference.  Both have had immediate success, but in the Sun Belt, a 10-2 season doesn’t get you into a major bowl game.  It doesn’t get you into the College Football Playoff but it might get you more bodies in the seats, more donations and more national exposure.  There is a tradeoff.

When I see schools like Charlotte, Old Dominion and Coastal Carolina move up and others like Liberty and Eastern Kentucky contemplating a move, it makes me cringe because I don’t see these schools as rising to prominence in the FBS.  Boise State is the standard-bearer of former FCS schools that moved up and made a national dent in the FBS.  As good as they’ve been, with two undefeated seasons and two BCS bowl wins, they have never played in a BCS Championship Game nor have they qualified for the College Football Playoff.  For Boise State, the move has been a good one, so why can’t Georgia Southern or Coastal Carolina think the same?

I am an “FCS guy.”   I believe that less is more and that many of these fringe schools are better off at the lower level.  That said, try explaining the two levels of Division I football to a co-worker and casual sports fan.  When you tell them that Villanova can win the NCAA basketball title but can’t play in the Orange Bowl, it gets confusing and merits a long-winded answer.  That is one of the reasons why schools move up to the FBS level.  Confusion for the most part, is never a good thing, especially if you’re trying to fundraise.

There are some at Buffalo and Massachusetts that think going back to FCS and spending more money on basketball might be a better solution, but those in charge disagree.  Recently faculty and some staff at Eastern Michigan suggested that the school drop football; others suggested a drop to Division II and joining the Horizon League for all other sports.  That calling shows just how complicated this can be.  For starters EMU can’t play Division II football and play Division I in other sports; that is no longer allowed.  They certainly could drop football and join the Horizon League as that league doesn’t sponsor the sport.  From my perspective, the best idea would be to drop to FCS for football, join the Missouri Valley Football Conference and play in the Horizon League for their other sports.  Any idea of leaving the Mid-American Conference was met with resistance by both the president and the athletic department.  So, for now, the Eastern Michigan Eagles will continue to wallow in obscurity at the FBS level.  They don’t win, they don’t draw and when it comes to recruiting FBS caliber players they get what Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and the other MAC schools don’t want.  If they played at the FCS level, they might be able to take those same players, play against the Indiana States and be successful.  Sadly, it is something that we likely won’t see.

Is the decision by Idaho to drop to FCS an anomaly or a trend?  In fairness, it’s probably the former, but it did open up discussion at some schools that sponsor college football.  I would like to see the NCAA get involved and try to better legislate the FCS level of football.  Right now, the FBS is a separate entity.  It isn’t run by the NCAA, it’s run by a coalition and always has been.  If the NCAA had total control of the FBS there would be true playoffs, like there are at the football levels that the NCAA does run.  There are 24, 28 and 32 playoff teams at the FCS, Division II and Division III levels, and if the NCAA ran the FBS, there would likely be at least a 16-team playoff.

As we know, at the FBS, there are two levels; the Power 5 schools and the Group of 5 schools, and no matter how good Western Michigan becomes, they will never be Michigan or Michigan State.  Ohio could go 11-1 for five years, but they will never be Ohio State.  If the NCAA was really innovative, they would unite the FCS schools and the Group of 5 schools and form one division with nearly 200 members.  Those schools would have to agree on the right number of scholarships—63, 85 or somewhere in between—and they could schedule FBS opponents like they do now.  At the end of their 11 game seasons, they could have a 32-team tournament.  That way, the players at Bowling Green can compete for a national championship just like those at North Dakota State have been doing and winning for five straight years.

Eventually, there will be another major change for college football.  Football is the engine that drives college athletics and as the money continues to increase, changes are inevitable.  Idaho did something bold, but they did the right thing.  They will play at a level of football that they can have success at, and at the end of the day that’s a good thing.  New Mexico State should follow suit so they too, can have more success.  They could be the pioneers of this movement, call it “The Realistic Movement.”

Let’s hope it catches on.

 

Re-branding Just the Beginning for University at Buffalo

April 16, 2016

by John Furgele

What’s in a name?  For those who support the University at Buffalo athletics; a lot.  When Danny White became athletic director in 2012, he wanted to broaden the scope of Buffalo and its athletic program.  He wanted Buffalo to be “The Ohio State University,” of New York.  In Ohio, much revolves around the Buckeyes.  If you’re a student at Bowling Green and you grew up in Ohio, chances are great that you would rather watch the Buckeyes play Purdue on television instead of attending a Bowling Green-Kent State football contest.

White wanted Buffalo to be the flagship university of the Empire State.  He wanted people in Poughkeepsie, Plattsburgh and Yonkers to think of Buffalo as the University of New York.  This ruffled the feathers of the scrap iron natives of Buffalo and Western New York.  These are people that endure criticism, snow, constant skies of gray in the winter and decades of no championships in their major sports of football and hockey.  They are both loyal and proud of their city and when White wanted to emphasize “New York,” over “Buffalo” on uniforms and for marketing they were hurt.

There are people in Western New York that didn’t attend the University at Buffalo, but because the school had Buffalo in its name, they embraced it.  It’s the Buffalo school, and because it has the Buffalo moniker, it appeals to those who live in the region.  That is similar to many communities across the country.  If you live in Boise, you embrace Boise State, if you live in Morgantown; you do the same for West Virginia.  Ditto for Pittsburgh, Louisville and Cincinnati.  Imagine if the University of Cincinnati changed its name—or at the very least its branding— to Ohio State-Cincinnati, or if Boise State became the University of Idaho at Boise?  The natives would be upset and justifiably so.

White didn’t do anything wrong; he hired a marketing firm which researched the issue and concluded that the school might be able to both broaden its reach and make more money by adopting what was called the New York Bulls Initiative, or NYBI.  By emphasizing New York, the thought was to lure in more support across the state, which, despite its troubles, is home to over 19 million people.  The Buffalo metro area is home to about 1.2 million people, so on paper, White’s vision was not necessarily, bad.

The problem is not the name or the NYBI branding; the problem is the athletic program itself.  Buffalo plays in the Mid American Conference, the MAC, a nice little sports conference.  The MAC has 12 schools and all are similar in size, scope and reach.  All 12 are public; all have enrollments between 18,000 and 30,000, they all play football and geographically, they are close enough to take buses over planes.  In this day and age of bloated conferences that expand two time zones, the MAC should be celebrated.

Some suggest that the MAC has the proverbial chip on its shoulder because many of the schools are directional like Central, Western and Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois.   But, with an enrollment of 29,000 is the University at Buffalo really suffering from an identity crisis?  The conference is set up beautifully.  In football, its members hold their own and once-in-a-while beat schools that play in the Big Ten or other Power 5 conferences.  They have success in basketball, too.  Kent State made the Elite 8 in 2002, but in recent years, their success has been limited.

Is Buffalo content in the MAC?  Many say that the NYBI was Buffalo’s attempt to see if a conference upgrade is possible.  Some think Buffalo, because of its academic excellence should be in the Big Ten.  It is a public university that has a dental, medical and school of law, all very impressive.  Others think that at the very least, they should be in the American Athletic Conference.  All athletic programs want to make money and improve their national images.  Having a successful sports program does increase contributions to the school.  When Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy at Boston College in 1984, applications and endowment increased.  Boise State is the role model for all the Buffalos of the college athletics world.  The Broncos have played in three BCS bowls, won them all, and increased their national exposure.  It’s tough to sustain and Boise State hasn’t seen its basketball program rise.  But the Broncos seem content to teeter on the edge of being a football power.   Let’s not be fooled; if the Big 12 came a calling, the Broncos would go there in a second.

The problem for Buffalo in the MAC is that it leaves them half-baked in the revenue sports.  The football conference will never see a team in the College Football Playoffs and right now, the basketball conference is nothing more than a one-bid league.  Buffalo has made the NCAA tournament in 2015 and 2016 and received a 12 and 14 seed respectively.

What should Buffalo do?  Option one is to stay in the MAC and there is nothing wrong with that.  They can stay there, put Buffalo on their uniforms and try to win as many MAC championships as possible in all sports.  Option two is to pursue membership in a better conference such as the Big Ten.  Academically they fit there and if Penn State, a remote outpost can play there, why can’t Buffalo?  And if Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey can do it, so too, can Buffalo.  Of course, the Big Ten has to invite Buffalo, something that right now, is nothing more than a pipe dream.

The other option is the controversial one.  Drop football to FCS and upgrade the basketball program to big-time status.  The model is Villanova.  The Wildcats were in the Big East when there was a divide between those who played football and those who played basketball.  Eventually, the league broke up and the current Big East has 10 basketball-centric programs.  Villanova and Butler play football but it is FCS football and doesn’t take precedence over basketball.  Villanova won the 2009 FCS championship, but that didn’t affect the basketball program one iota.  Villanova’s 2016 basketball title was a big one for schools that emphasize basketball, proving that you don’t have to be a Power 5 school to win it all on the hardwood

Buffalo could play football FCS football and that would free them up to pursue a “bigger” basketball program and conference.  The Bulls could play FCS football and basketball in the Atlantic 10, or another multiple bid league.  They would really have to commit and that means upgrading the basketball facilities, paying a coach at least $1 to $2 million in annual salary and really going for it.

Would the Big East take Buffalo?  On the surface, no, because the Big East is comprised of 10 private schools, all Catholic, so Buffalo doesn’t really fit the mission.  But, there is nothing wrong with trying is there?

The other thing Buffalo could do is form their own basketball conference.  Go and out and find schools that play FCS football but want to be big-time in basketball.  Massachusetts is in a similar situation as Buffalo.  The Minutemen moved up to FBS football, but didn’t want to give up Atlantic 10 membership.  The MAC dropped them as a football-only school and right now, the Minutemen are football orphans, playing as an independent for the foreseeable.  The higher-ups at Massachusetts saw the green that FBS football is and took the leap and thus far, it has not been a success.  In basketball, the Minutemen are fine, but what do they do for football?  Can they remain an independent?  Do they leave the Atlantic 10 for full-time membership in the American?  Conference USA?

Could Buffalo help them?  There are plenty of schools that play FCS football and Division I basketball that have the potential to be bigger players on the basketball stage.  Rhode Island.  Duquesne.  Robert Morris.  Delaware.  James Madison.  William and Mary.  Towson.  Those are eight schools that are located in decent metropolitan areas, play FCS football and could make the move to major Division I basketball.  But, in order to be play in such an affiliation, the schools would have to have a Villanova-like commitment to make it work.  If you’re going to form a new conference, you can’t pay the basketball coach $500,000.  As absurd as that seems, it takes a strong conviction to get that done.  And, maybe there aren’t enough schools to make this happen.

Buffalo has re-branded; back to the old brand.  And maybe that’s all they needed to do.  Downsize, go back to being just Buffalo and continue to play in the MAC where 15,000 fans constitute a good crowd for a football home game.  On the other side, playing FCS games in front of 7,000 fans followed by crowds of 8,000 for big-time basketball could also work.  The decision will be made by the persons-in-charge at the University at Buffalo.  At the end of the day, it’s about maximizing profit potential, attracting students and increasing endowment.

Branding is just a part of the equation.

 

 

 

Villanova Win Could Be a Game Changer

April 7, 2016

For the first time since 1990, a school that doesn’t play major college football won the title.

by John Furgele

Villanova Has Done It.

Those words were coined by Brent Musburger after Villanova’s epic victory over Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA Championship Game.  Let’s give the university credit; it took them 31 years to get back to another title game, but when they did, they treated the nation to a scintillating, thrilling contest.  In 1985 they beat the defending champion Georgetown Hoyas 66-64 and Monday night the beat one of the blue bloods in North Carolina.

With their 77-74 triumph, Villanova now has two NCAA titles.  The students are happy, the players are happy, as are the coaches, alums and administrators.  But, nobody is happier than Big East commissioner Val Ackerman.  This was a statement game, a game that had tremendous meaning even though most didn’t realize it.

When Villanova last won in 1985, college sports was just starting to really become big business.  Even though UCLA won 10 championships in 12 years, that was before sports became a 24/7 obsession.  College basketball became mainstream in 1979 when Magic beat Bird in what still remains the highest rated NCAA title game.

The original Big East also formed in 1979, and soon, it became the most talked about basketball conference in the country.  I’m not saying it was the best conference, in the 1980s; the Big Ten won the most titles with three, while the Big East, ACC and the old Metro Conference won two each.  But the Big East changed basketball forever.  They received a major assist from ESPN.  Timing is everything and the Big East and ESPN were born at the right time.  The conference was looking for a platform to place their games and the fledging network was looking for alternatives to Australian Rules Football.  Truly, a match made in television heaven.

Money.  It is a word that has many layers.  It can be good, it certainly is needed and it can also cause great suffering, and money is what eventually did in the old Big East.  Well, money and college football.  March madness is loved by most and its postseason tournament has always been better than that of college football.  For years the two best teams in college football could never play each other because one had to go the Sugar Bowl, the other the Cotton.  But in college basketball, there was always a tournament, a tournament that grew from 16 to 32 to 48 to 52 to 64, 65 and now, 68.  Yes, the regular season gets lost by the bevy of games, but after the Super Bowl, sports fans start studying knowing that Selection Sunday is nearing.

And, as good as college basketball can be, they can’t put 105,000 people in a stadium six to eight times per year like the football heavyweights.  Eventually, the football money got stupid and conference realignment began.  The football schools wanted to be aligned with other football schools and the basketball schools wanted to be aligned with basketball-first schools.  The Big East was formed as a basketball-first conference.  The classic lineup featured nine teams and of the nine, only three played what was then called 1-A football (Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh).  Three others—Villanova, Connecticut, Georgetown—played 1-AA football and the remaining three—Seton Hall, St. John’s; Providence played no football at all.

The Big East tried to placate the 1-A football members by adding more football schools and for a while it worked, but eventually, the friction began.  When Syracuse played in the 1999 Orange Bowl, Seton Hall got a cut of that bowl payout.  The league bloated to 16 teams and geographically, was no longer the Big East and as the major conferences raided the smaller to get to 12, 14 and even 15 members, the old Big East could no longer survive.

The new Big East is built on old Big East principles.  There are 10 schools; none play Division 1-A football and even though there is a Midwest presence, most of the schools are in good-sized metropolitan markets.  In fact, the league did a fine job of finding good metro areas in Cincinnati (Xavier), Indianapolis (Butler), Chicago (DePaul), Milwaukee (Marquette) and Omaha (Creighton) to complement the original areas of Providence, Washington (Georgetown), New York (St. John’s, Seton Hall) and Philadelphia (Villanova).  The good thing about the current Big East is that none of these universities are thinking about playing 1-A football.  Only three play 1-AA football and only Villanova awards scholarships in the sport, with Georgetown opting not to and Butler playing in a league (Pioneer) that doesn’t allow them.

Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Connecticut are missed let’s not fool ourselves, but last night’s win by Villanova sets a strong foundation for the future.  This was a much-needed win for the schools that don’t play in the ACC, Big Ten, Pac 12, Big 12, and SEC, the so-called Power 5 conferences.  This win sends the message that a high-class recruit doesn’t have to go to North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky or Michigan State to win an NCAA basketball championship. Schools like Duquesne can now approach a recruit, a recruit who is thinking Pittsburgh or Syracuse and tell him you can win here.  And, when the kid questions him, the answer will be Villanova, 2016.  Before that, it wasn’t true, because since 1991, schools that play 1-A football won all 25-basketball titles.

The Bowling Green football coach can’t tell a recruit that their goal is to win the College Football Playoff.  Simply, it isn’t going to happen.  But, because of Villanova Monday night, the Bowling Green basketball coach can tell a kid that.  Sure, it’s a stretch for a Bowling Green to win the NCAA basketball title, but a Final Four is not impossible.  Just ask Butler (before the Big East), VCU, George Mason and Wichita State.  Butler was so good, they played in back-to-back title games and even though they didn’t win, they provided hope that the small schools–the basketball schools–could compete.  Villanova proved that winning it all is realistic.

Basketball is different than football, but until Villanova, basketball looked like football with the power schools from the power conferences bagging all the titles.

Villanova changed the landscape by coming from the second group, proving that you don’t have to play major football to win the basketball championship.

And while we’re speaking of Villanova and football, the Wildcat football team opens the 2016 season….. at Pittsburgh.

 

 

Major Implications for Tonight’s NCAA Championship Game

April 4, 2016

Villanova trying to win for those who don’t play FBS Power 5 football

by John Furgele

Not since 1990 when UNLV cut down the nets has a school from a non Power 5 conference won the NCAA basketball title.  Technically, you can count Connecticut’s 2014 triumph out of the American Conference as another, but I won’t do that.  Those Huskies were in their first year in the new conference and were really carrying on with old Big East talent; the old Big East that had football schools in it.

Many schools have reached the precipice such as Butler (twice), Utah when they were a Mountain West school and Memphis as a member of Conference USA, but none have been able to breakthrough.  And, truth be told, that UNLV squad was more of a glorified  conference affiliate under coach Jerry Tarkanian.  Those Rebel teams played solid nonconference opponents and then beat up on Big West opponents en route to their 103-73 dismantling of Duke in the title game.

The schools that win are the schools that play Power 5 football.  UNLV never did and still doesn’t play Power 5 football.  If you really want to get technical the last school that didn’t play Division I-A/FBS football and won the NCAA hoops title was Villanova in 1985—31 years ago.

People like to bring up parity, they like to trumpet the non-football conferences, and many of them have done well.  They will tout Wichita State’s Final Four appearance out of the Missouri Valley; Butler’s from the Horizon; Virginia Commonwealth from the CAA and Memphis from Conference USA, but those schools never won the BIG game.  The Atlantic 10 is a highly regarded conference, but other than Massachusetts’ 1996 Final Four run, the league hasn’t had a Final Four team since.

Most people say that in basketball all you need are five players and those five players can put a six game run together and cut down the nets, but unless you’re from the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC or Pac 12, it hasn’t happened.  There are many that call the SEC a football conference, but since 1990, three of their members—Florida (2), Kentucky (3) and Arkansas—have won basketball titles.  That’s the same as the more highly regarded ACC, which has seen Duke, Maryland and North Carolina win titles.

When Villanova won it all in 1985, the landscape of college sports was different.  Much different.  The Big East was the hottest basketball league, a league that featured small Catholic and private universities with two public universities (Pittsburgh and Connecticut) in its nine team configuration.  And, of the nine, only three played major college football and those three—Pitt, Boston College and Syracuse were proud football independents.  Villanova and Connecticut were members of the then 1-AA Yankee Conference and Georgetown was gearing up to join the non-scholarship Patriot League for just football.

Once Penn State gave up football independence for the Big Ten, the landscape changed quickly.  Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College became uneasy and soon that tension led to infighting in the Big East between those who played 1-A football and those who didn’t.  Little did we know that eventually, this skirmish would lead to 14, 15 and 16 team conferences, good for football perhaps, but women’s soccer?  Cross country?  Tennis?  Golf?

This is a statement game of epic proportions.  A Villanova win is a win for the Group of 27 conferences that don’t play major FBS football.  The MAAC, NEC, Atlantic 10, Atlantic Sun and Summit will all be pulling—hard—for a Villanova win.  A Villanova win will change the mind of some recruits, convincing them that you can attend a Viilanova, Providence, Gonzaga or Marquette and capture the ultimate prize that the sport offers.

For coach Jay Wright and his Wildcat team, they’re only thinking about how to defend the Tar Heels, the pick and roll and all the other essentials of playing a winning basketball game.  But, at the same time, the Villanova Wildcats are carrying the mantle for the colleges and universities who think basketball can be the number one sport and that you don’t have to have a 90,000 seat stadium on campus to succeed in the other revenue generating sport in college athletics.

The non Power 5 schools have gotten very close to the top of the mountain.  Now, it is time for them to reach the peak.

Binghamton Gets Their Chance

March 28, 2016

For 36-years, Glens Falls hosted the NYSPHSAA championships; Binghamton is up next

by John Furgele

Thirty-six years is a long time.  Think about it how different things were then as compared to now.  In 1981, Ronald Reagan began his first term as POTUS, people still used typewriters and peanut allergies at schools were unheard of.  1981 was also the time when the Glens Falls Civic Center stepped up to the plate to host the New York State High School basketball championships.  Known then as the Super 16, there were four classes with four games in each class.  On one day, you would play for the NYSPHSAA title and if you won, you came back the next day to play for the Federation title.  Strange, but as Cindy Adams says, “only in New York kids, only in New York.”

Glens Falls was there when the tournament needed somebody and for 36 years, the city and the Civic Center did just that.  For high school hoopsters, the first practice in November ended with two words:  Glens Falls.

Recently, there have been many who think it is time for a change and that other cities should get the opportunity to host the NYSPHSAA championships.  On the other side, there are the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” people who believe that Glens Falls should be the permanent home of the state basketball championships.

In recent years, Binghamton has been the one persistent city that has wanted to take a turn at hosting.  They have a downtown arena that is similar to that of the Civic Center; big enough to accommodate, small enough to be intimate.  They tried, but each time, tradition—and Glens Falls—prevailed.  In the fall of 2015, they voted again as to who would host the tournament for the next three years (2017-2019) and when the smoke had cleared, Glens Falls had won.  However, Glens Falls changed their bid after being awarded the contract and cries of foul were proclaimed.  In the re-vote, Binghamton emerged as the winner.

This is where it gets murky.  Did Glens Falls really change their bid, and if so, how much?  Why did they change their bid?  Is the new executive director, Robert Zayas, out to get Glens Falls?  Was Binghamton’s bid better than that of Glens Falls?

There are some that think it is only fair to move the tournament around.  The other high school sports do the same, so why shouldn’t basketball?  In college, the Final Four moves around every year for both the men and the women.  The College Football Playoff moves each year , so why shouldn’t New York State High School basketball do the same?

Those who wanted it to stay in Glens Falls cite tradition.  It has been in Glens Falls for 36 years and darn it, it should stay there.  The local paper, The Post-Star, covers it like big-city papers cover the Super Bowl.  But, it is 2016, is it wrong for other cities to get a crack at it?

The High School hockey tournament moved from its longtime home of Utica to Buffalo in 2016, so why shouldn’t basketball move?  There are many who are bitter.  On the tournament’s final Sunday, there were “Boycott Binghamton,” shirts visible in the crowd.  There were veteran tournament goers who vowed to never set foot in Binghamton for the 2017 tournament.   I understand their sentiments.  It is tough to leave one venue, especially if that venue has done an outstanding job of hosting something as important as state championship basketball.  Count me among those who will miss hearing about the Road to Glens Falls over the next three years.  The Road to Binghamton doesn’t sound all that bad, but it will take some getting used to.

I hope that the people will give Binghamton a fair shake and fair shot.  Binghamton is a city that is struggling.  Struggling to keep its residents, struggling to provide good jobs for those citizens and struggling to find its way in this the 21st century.  The city has tried for years to get the state tournament and truth-be-told were never really given a chance because of tradition and the Glens Falls lobby.  It was in the game, but it never really had the chance to win the game.  Now, they have their chance and let’s give them the opportunity to prove their mettle.  Let’s not “Boycott Binghamton,” because no matter where the games are played, the action promises to be exciting just like it has been in Glens Falls since 1981.  Boycotting punishes both the fans and the players.  The more fans, the better the games feel.

Can Binghamton do as good of a job as Glens Falls?  That will be the question that will be asked one year from now.  There will be skeptics and there will be journalists who will go to Binghamton to look for flaws, warts and other wrongdoings, so they can write, “told you so,” in their local papers.  Will the Post-Star send a reporter to Binghamton to get a perspective on the new host?  And, if they do, will they be fair or will they have an agenda when they get there?

I’m all for tradition, and part of that is because of my age.  I remember using a typewriter, I remember running to the phone when it rang and I remember listening to music and dee-jays on AM radio, something that we all did back in 1981.  But, I think Binghamton—and other cities—deserve the opportunity to host the NYSPHSAA championships.  But, I would also like to suggest a caveat.

Glens Falls should be a permanent rotation member.  Every three years, Glens Falls gets the tournament back.  Let Binghamton host the 2017, 2018 and 2019 editions and then send it back to the Glens Falls Civic Center for 2019-2021.  For the next three years (2022-2024), let another city bid on the festivities.  By then, maybe Rochester, Buffalo, Utica or even Plattsburgh might want a crack at it.  The opposite could also happen.  It might be too much work for the Binghamtons and Oleans and maybe it goes back to Glens Falls, but that probably won’t be the case.  There are always those who thrive on organizing such a tournament, but Glens Falls should never be forgotten.  Let the city host every three years (if that is the agreed upon bid cycle), but let other cities get a shot, too.  To me, it’s a win-win for all.

Glens Falls and its organizers are hurt, which is more than understandable.  They did win the right to host the New York State Federation championships from 2017-2019, which crowns the overall boys—and girls—champions in Classes AA, A and B, so there will be March basketball at the Civic Center for the next three years.  It might not be the same, but it actually provides 18 total games as compared to 15 for the boys’ tournament.

Thirty-six years is indeed, a long time, and when somebody needed to step-up, Glens Falls was there.  It’s fair to move the state tournament around, but it would be nice for Glens Falls to be allowed to host every three years, if the current cycle remains.

We know that life isn’t fair.  We know that politics and money too often guide the decision making process in New York State and beyond.  But, let’s remember that this is high school basketball and there should be some purity in it.  Binghamton deserves a shot as do other cities and Glens Falls should never be forgotten.  There is a fair way to legislate this.

Even in New York.

 

 

 

 

 

As Idaho and New Mexico State Can Attest, College Football Never Sleeps

March 8, 2016

by Johnny Furgele

As March Madness approaches, the office copy machine will be busy running off brackets so employees can fill them out and see if they can earn some cash and the bragging rights that go with it.  Most don’t know Iowa from Iowa State, but that’s what makes it fun.  There are some teams to avoid.  I certainly didn’t come up with this idea, but it’s always best to avoid directional schools.  That means schools like Northern Iowa and East Carolina (if the make the field) can’t be picked.  I also avoid state schools that are named after cities such as Kent State, Cleveland State and Kennesaw State, even though, Memphis, formerly known as Memphis State made it to Final Fours in 1973 and 1985.

All this said, football is still the dominant college sport and continues to grab the attention.  Last week, the Ivy League made news when it announced that players will not tackle during regular season practices.  Some of the old guard scoffed, but many schools limit tackling and full-scale hitting at practices and Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens hasn’t let his players tackle in practice since 2010.  His 2015 team finished 9-1 and shared the league title with Pennsylvania and Harvard.  The quest to reduce head trauma continues and even though football remains the most popular sport to watch, safeguards must be taken to preserve its long-term survival.

The other news came out of the Sun Belt, when the conference announced that they were kicking out football-only members Idaho and New Mexico State out after the 2017 season.  The Sun Belt currently has 11 football members with Coastal Carolina coming in officially in 2017.  After NMSU and Idaho depart, the conference will have 10 football members and 12 schools overall (Texas-Arlington and Arkansas-Little Rock don’t play football).  The NCAA recently announced that only 10 schools are needed to have a conference championship game, so the Sun Belt—should they choose—no longer needed Idaho and New Mexico State.

Both the Vandals and the Aggies never really fit in with a conference that lives in the shadows of the Southeastern Conference.  Add to this the fact that neither school was very competitive made the decision to cut ties an easy one.  For 2016 and 2017, the schedules for Idaho and New Mexico State are set, but where the schools land in 2018 will be interesting to track.

The intriguing part is that both schools hinted that they may drop their programs to the FCS (1-AA) level.  As a fan of FCS football, it is something I’d like to see.  When you think about it, where can New Mexico State and Idaho go?  The only league that makes sense is the Mountain West Conference which has 11 full-time members and 12 (Hawaii) for football.  That would give the league 14 football members, but again, both schools would have to likely move all teams to the MWC.  And, because neither school “does well,” in football, the MWC isn’t begging for them to join.

Idaho has a standing invitation to join the Big Sky Conference, a conference that all their other sports play in.  It’s the perfect choice for them, but it does require a shot to their pride.  If the university officials can get over that, there is reason to believe that the University of Idaho could flourish in the conference.  They would have a natural rivalry in Idaho State as well as playing the likes of Weber State and both Montana and Montana State.  There has never been a school that has moved down from FBS to FCS but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be.

New Mexico State would also benefit from playing at the FCS level and the Big Sky Conference.  Would the Aggies join just for football or would they move all sports to the Big Sky?  Currently, the Aggies play in the Western Athletic Conference, which dropped sponsoring football several years ago.  The Big Sky does have two football-only schools in Cal-Poly and California-Davis, so there is precedence for adding New Mexico State for just football.

Many schools think they have to get to FBS to increase their football profile and the for the most part, that’s bunk.  Yes, there is less revenue at the FCS level, but there is less expense too.  In 2015, Idaho coach and New Mexico State coach Paul Petrino and Doug Martin made $413,000 and $376,000 respectively.  Those salaries are at the bottom of the FBS level, but at the FCS level, they could pay coaches less and that would trickle down to assistants as well.  The NCAA should really stop the upward migration and work to strengthen the FCS level, but schools like Coastal Carolina and Charlotte dream of playing at the top level and going in to a Michigan or Notre Dame and pulling off the attention-grabbing upset.

FCS schools also allow for 63 scholarships compared to 85 at the FBS level.  Reducing 22 scholarships will save Idaho and New Mexico State money over the long run.  The problem with universities is that the see what they think they can make at the FBS level without considering what can be saved at the FCS level.

While basketball seems relatively stable, there will be movement in football in the future.  Like or not, the Big 12 will eventually expand from 10 schools as will the Pac 12.  The grow or die model never goes away in business and college football is huge business.  The Power 5 schools, truth-be-told really don’t want anything to do with the Group of 5 schools and that too, will work itself out in the coming years.

The Furgele model is still the best out there and it’s a very simple one.  The Power 5 schools will break away and form the College Football Alliance or CFA.  The CFA will have 72 schools.  Each Power 5 conference will have 14 teams for a total of 70.  Notre Dame and BYU would bring that total to 72.  Cry as you might, but there is no reason for Notre Dame to join a football conference and the CFA knows this and would be okay with it.  BYU could stay independent, but deep down; the Cougars would like to get back into a conference, so we’ll see what happens.

The Pac 12 would need to add two; the Big 12, four, so six schools would get a chance to stay at the CFA level of Division 1 football.  The CFA would have an 8 team playoff which creates seven more games for television networks.

The remaining schools would form the NCAA level of football.  This includes the G5 schools and all the current FCS schools.  Indiana State and Kent State would now be at the same level and they would compete for their own championship.  The NCAA would feature a 32-team field with 31 games for the television networks.  The bowl games–all of them—would be gone and though this would upset the folks at the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, things change and this is sign of the times.  The typewriter was a very useful product and so too, was the FAX machine and the coffee percolator.

Pasadena and New Orleans could still host playoff and championship games, but if college football wants to continue its surge, it has to do so by incorporating real playoffs like college basketball, hockey and baseball do.  It’s what America wants and going forward, will demand.

CFA schools could play NCAA schools in regular season, so the guarantee games could still take place when Idaho visits Alabama for both a beat-down and $1.2 million.

Fear not, Idaho and New Mexico State, your future is bright.  For now, play your final two seasons in the Sun Belt and then come to your new home in the FCS.  You will be happier, more competitive and more importantly, be primed when the next major move comes.

Don’t Feel Sorry For Pitino and Louisville

February 27, 2016

If you commit the crime, you have to do the time

by John Furgele

The NCAA College Basketball Tournament is nearing and soon, Americans—most of whom know nothing about college basketball—will be filling out their brackets for office pools.  As usual, there are 68 teams hoping to cut down the nets on the first Monday in April.  And, this year, there really is no clear-cut favorite.  Some of the experts feel that there are 20 teams capable of winning it all.

The most amazing thing about the tournament is that interest begins high and gradually decreases as the games march on.  As more and more brackets fall apart, the sense of resignation among Americans rapidly increases.  Still, the NCAA basketball tournament may be the best three weeks of the sports year, and with parity at an all-time high, interest should hold longer than normal this year.  With more parity, the signs indicate that there could be a Cinderella team making a Final Four run.

I was listening to Indiana coach Tom Crean talk to Doug Gottlieb the other day as his Hoosiers were on a bus travelling from Bloomington to Champaign, Illinois for a game against the Illini.  It was 5:30 pm on Wednesday and all the players were sleeping on the bus.  Is there anything wrong with catching a snooze on the team bus? Of course not, but the fact that all the players were sleeping does underscore the hypocrisy that is big-time college athletics.  Didn’t one player have any assignments to work on?  A chapter of sociology to read?  Some notes to take a gander at?  It wasn’t like it was 1:30 am and the guys were dead tired from a long day; it was 5:30 pm.

Don’t get me wrong, I like most, accept the hypocrisy that is college football and basketball.  It’s more of an upset if the players actually earn their degree and even when they do, you often wonder if they really earned it; or, was it handed to them.   College is hard, but it’s not that hard, but when basketball players are playing games on Mondays, Wednesdays and then on Saturday and Sunday, it’s really hard to keep up on the studying.  The experts lament that the true student-athlete is vanishing, yet on the other hand, they can’t get enough of the NCAA Tournament, so they eagerly await the field of 68 and excitedly fill out their brackets, trying to pick the one team that win it all and earn them at the very least, severe bragging rights.

One team that has no chance to cut down any nets is the Louisville Cardinals and once again, the hypocrisy has run amok.  The same people that think college athletics is overexposed are saying that Louisville is being unfairly punished by banning itself from the 2016 NCAA Championships.  Many use the tired line that the transgressions were done by coaches and assistants and the “current crop,” of players is paying an unjust penalty.

Let’s think about the situation.  A Louisville assistant coach hired strippers to entertain basketball recruits when they visited the campus.  These strippers were paid to have sex with the recruits in the hopes of luring them to play basketball at the University of Louisville.  The head coach, Rick Pitino, says that he didn’t know this happened and even if that’s true, does that exempt the university from being punished?

Pitino went on radio and sounded shocked that the team will have to miss the NCAA tournament.  He says that this players are crushed, particularly two graduate students who graduated from other institutions and were going to be playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time.  And, the broadcasters sympathized with him when they should have been taking him to task for allowing this to go on under his watch.  To be fair, no coach can control every minute of his players’ lives.  But, the assistant coach who organized the strippers and the prostitution?  He is an adult, a grown man who certainly knows right from wrong.  That’s the person who has to have the brain.  It’s like the 17-year old boy who has sex with his teacher.  For the boy, it’s a thrill, but for the teacher, who is supposed to know better, it’s  profoundly wrong.

If Pitino really didn’t know what went on—and there is reason to believe he really didn’t—that doesn’t immunize him from punishment.  What happened at Louisville was wrong and the school needs to be punished.  In fact, Louisville knows this because they banned themselves from this year’s postseason.  In the world of the NCAA that’s not only admitting your guilt, but it’s also an acknowledgement that stiffer penalties are forthcoming.  Pitino said when athletic director Tom Jurich told him that the school was banning itself, he asked Jurich if “it was really necessary,” and Jurich told him that yes, it was and this may be just the tip of the iceberg.

The NCAA can only do so much.  In the old days, they took away scholarships and they used to ban teams from the postseason and from being on television.  Those days are gone now because most teams broadcast all their games on some network and if Louisville is banned from TV, is that fair to Duke?

The NCAA also likes to take wins away from coaches.  They did it last year with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.  It’s like those games–wins and losses—never took place.  To me, that makes no sense.  The games were played, they were coached by Jim Boeheim and they should count in the standings.  Having seasons vacated isn’t fair to the fans that watched and paid to attend the games either.

The bottom line is that you have to try to follow the rules.  People will feel sorry for Louisville and so too, for Larry Brown and his SMU Mustangs who are also forbidden from postseason play because of academic fraud.  Most of the schools don’t get caught, so when you do, there is clear wrongdoing.

As America fills out their brackets the Monday after Selection Sunday, Louisville will be missing from the 68-team field.  Some will be saddened by this, others angry, while still others will shout vulgarities at the NCAA and its hypocrisy.

I will not be one of them.  Louisville deserves to sit this one out and if they pout, they should sit out the 2017 tournament as well.  If I’m Rick Pitino, admit your wrongs, promise to correct your program and take your punishment like a man.  That’s the best lesson you can teach your players.

 

All is Good With the NFL—For Now

February 7, 2016

by John Furgele

Football is America’s game and it has been since the mid-1970s, when the Super Bowls really started to become a big deal.  As a kid, the first Super Bowl I remember vividly was Super Bowl 10 when Pittsburgh beat Dallas 21-17 to win their second straight NFL title.  The game has become so big that many think the Monday after the Super Bowl should be a national holiday.

The NFL is the one league that can literally do anything it wants.  The term “print money,” is overused, but for the NFL it is an accurate statement.  Commissioner Roger Goodell has been roughed up a bit the past few years, but will make about $45 million in salary this year because he does what his bosses (the owners)demand and that is make them money.

It doesn’t really matter that the city of St. Louis lost its second NFL franchise.  Things have changed in these, the modern times.  When my favorite team (as a kid); the Baltimore Colts left in their Mayflower moving fans and headed to Indianapolis in 1984, many across the country were outraged.  When the Cleveland Browns left—ironically—for Baltimore—in 1995, people couldn’t believe that a passionate football town was losing its beloved team.  When the Rams—who believe it or not moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles—moved back to Los Angeles a few weeks ago, America was sad for about half-a-day and by mid-week, nobody seemed to care.

The league likes to trumpet and thank its fans, but if these fans in their respective cities don’t give the teams and their owners what they want, they will leave in what can be referred to as a “New York Minute.”  On the surface, Goodell states that he wants to find a way to keep the Chargers in San Diego and the Raiders in Oakland, but if these cities don’t placate the owners, they too, will be gone.  And, again, both the Chargers and Raiders once called Los Angeles home, so moving back there wouldn’t even be a major headline.

Eventually, teams like Buffalo and Jacksonville might have to move.  Buffalo has great fans and great history.  They were a charter member of the AFL where they won back-to-back titles in 1964 and 1965 and in the 1990s, went to and lost four straight Super Bowls.  Their new owner, billionaire fracker Terry Pegula says that a new stadium is not a high priority, but Ralph Wilson Stadium in suburban Orchard Park is 43 years-old and someday, the owner is going to ask for $600 million—or more—for a new playpen.  If the taxpayers can’t deliver, somebody else will; maybe even St. Louis.

Yes, the NFL sure loves it fans, but they will do what they have to do to keep making money.  This isn’t really a knock, it’s just business.  The Rams owner knows he can make more money in Los Angeles than he can in St. Louis, so he moves his business.  Businesses do this all the time.  If a clock manufacturer in Connecticut gets lured by a town in Alabama, they will move to help the bottom line.  The only difference is that the clock manufacturer doesn’t have 60,000 fans come to the factory on Friday to cheer on the work of its employees.

The NFL is envied by all the other sports leagues.  The NBA, MLB and NHL all have their moments when America pays attention, but the NFL has their moments every week they play games.  The machine just keeps on humming.

The NFL is good for many reasons and one of those reasons is how they can control things.  But, the one thing they can’t control is head trauma.  They are trying very hard to make the game the safer, but in the end, they can’t really do enough.  The players certainly know the risks of playing the game, and most play because they love it and they want to “get paid.”  The same goes for Auto Racing.  It’s a sport that has inherited risks and despite all precautions, drivers die in races and in practices.  Dale Earnhardt, the King of the Sport, died in what looked like just another crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.  You can try to make the sport safer, but you can’t control it and the NFL hates the fact that this is something that they can’t control.

Personally, I never cared about CTE and the players that play football.  My adage was “they know the risks and they’re making the choice to play the sport.”  Most Americans feel the same way and I would have no problem with my son playing football in high school.  After that, I would worry because the game at the college level gets more violent.  By and large, Americans love the hitting, the war in the trenches and of course, the highlight reel plays.

But I am starting to become concerned about the head trauma and when you read about players like recently named Hall of Famer Ken “Snake” Stabler suffering from CTE related symptoms for over a decade, it does make you wonder if you should be enjoying the game as much as you do.  I watched Stabler play from 1976 until he retired in 1984 and he never seemed to “get crushed,” in his games, but what we’re learning is that even a love tap to the head does damage.  The old saying that one can be pin-pricked to death might, in fact, be true.

The NFL is the King, right.  Its long-term survival is not in doubt or is it?  Will there come a time where the fans turn their collective backs on the league like they have for boxing and other sports?  What will be the breaking point?  The league certainly has great staying power.  Daryl Stingley was paralyzed in a pre-season game back in 1978; Mike Utley was paralyzed in November, 1991, yet the game moved on with nary a hiccup.  Would a player have to die on the field for fans to begin to question their allegiance to the sport?

Today, the NFL celebrates 50 years of Super Bowls.  The innocence of the 1967 game, played before thousands of empty seats is over.  The game is more than a spectacle.  It is the most watched event in America and nothing is a close second.  But, when Roger Goodell and his braintrust gather behind closed doors, I wonder how nervous and concerned they really are about the game’s long-term survival?  They will be long gone before the NFL is, but do they think about its future at all, or are they too busy buying second homes and investing their monies?

The “first 50,” have been great for “The Shield,” but what will the future hold for the next 50?  Will there be a Super Bowl 100?  What will Super Bowl 75 look like?

No need to speculate right now.  Fans are too busy getting their dips in order and gamblers are deciding to bet heads or tails on the coin flip while others wonder if Lady Gaga will be over or under 2 minutes 20 seconds on the national anthem.

Today, the King is alive, but Kings don’t last forever.

The Pressure of Championship Sunday

January 19, 2016

by John Furgele

One again, the best football Sunday of the year has arrived and they call it “Championship Sunday.”  Two title games, two crowned champions and then, the two-week waiting period.  Are the AFC and NFC Championship Games more important the Super Bowl?  Of course not, but in many ways, they’re more relevant. It might be the toughest game to win in pro football.  For teams, the goal is to play in a Super Bowl.  In reality, the goal is to win the Super Bowl, but you hear players say and say often that making it to the Super Bowl was the goal at the beginning of training camp.  There are many players and coaches who won the Super Bowl and many more that never played in one simply because they couldn’t help their team win the all-important AFC/NFC Championship Game.

 

Ask Dan Fouts.  The San Diego Charger never played in the Super Bowl, going 0-2 in back-to-back AFC Championship Games.  Ask Warren Moon, who never even played in one AFC or NFC Championship Game in a 17-year NFL career.  Ask Donovan McNabb, who played in five NFC Championship Games and won only once.  Ask John Madden, the old Raider coach who roamed the sidelines for 10 years and won Super Bowl 11.  Madden will always say that if you make it to the Super Bowl, you have to win it, and Madden did go 1-0 in Super Bowl games.  But, he went 1-6 in AFC Championship Games.  Ask Dan Marino, arguably the greatest passer that the game has seen.  For all his glory and accolades, Marino played in just three AFC Championship Games, going 1-2.  Ask Chuck Knox.  The former LA Ram head man coached in three consecutive NFC Championship Games, but could never beat the Vikings or the Cowboys when it mattered.  He got the Seattle Seahawks to the 1983 AFC title game and lost to the other LA team, the Raiders.

 

This is game that can crush or elate.  In 2015, the Packers were so close, but blew a lead and lost to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.  This year, they didn’t make it back.  The San Francisco 49ers played in three straight NFC title games.  They lost in overtime to the New York Giants, then beat Atlanta to advance to the Super Bowl and then lost at Seattle in the dying minutes of the game when Richard Sherman intercepted a Colin Kapernick pass in the end-zone.  In both of those excruciating losses, the team that beat them went on to win the Super Bowl with the Giants beating New England and Seattle mauling Denver.  Imagine what it must have been like for 49er players watching the Giants beat New England and Seattle destroy Denver?  When you lose in the Divisional Playoffs, you know that there is plenty of work to do; losing in the AFC or NFC Championship Game just hurts.

 

Ask Cleveland Browns fans about the pain of losing in the AFC Championship Game.  The 1986 Browns led Denver 20-13 in Cleveland late in the fourth quarter, only to see John Elway march the Broncos 98 yards to tie the score and then win the game in overtime.  The Broncos were pounded by the New York Giants in Super Bowl 21, but the Browns fans would have loved that opportunity.  The 1987 AFC Championship Game might have been even harder for fans of the team that plays on the shores of Lake Erie.  Trailing for the much of the game—this time at Denver—the Browns were coming on and momentum was on their side.  Earnest Byner looked like he was heading into the end zone to tie the score only to fumble.  Denver held on for a 38-33 victory to head back to the Super Bowl for a second straight year.  They would lose again, this time to Washington, which certainly provided no relief to those in Cleveland.

 

The 1989 Browns were also beaten by the Broncos again in Denver and the Cleveland run was over.  In four years, the Browns played in three AFC Championship Games, won none, eventually saw the team move to Baltimore, waited five years to get a team in 1999 and haven’t been relevant since.

 

Ask Steve Young.  The highest rated quarterback of all-time was just 1-3 in NFC Championship Games, losing to Dallas twice and Green Bay.  And speaking of Green Bay, the gunslinger, Brett Favre won two NFC Championship Games, yet lost two games as well.  The late Ken Stabler played in five straight AFC Championship Games from 1973-1977, yet could only muster victory one time.

 

Playing in these games should be revered and celebrated, because simply, it is difficult—quite so—to make it to a conference title game.  Favre played 16 seasons in Green Bay and made it four times.  Aaron Rodgers, celebrated by most as the league’s best quarterback, has been the Packers starter since 2008.  In those eight seasons, he has played in two NFC title games, and has the same winning percentage as Favre (25 percent).

 

Donovan McNabb may never make the Hall of Fame, but his five NFC Championship Game appearances spanning from 2001 to 2008 warrant something don’t they?  He played in more conference title games than Dan Marino, Steve Young, Brett Favre and his five equaled those of Jim Kelly (4-1) and Ken Stabler (1-4).  While the Buffalo Bills’ gained notoriety for losing four straight Super Bowls from 1990-1993, the Eagles played in four straight “NFC Super Bowls,” winning once, in 2004.  Both teams should be lauded for many reasons, mainly because what they did is remarkably hard.

 

From 1969-1977, the Minnesota Vikings were regular guests in the NFC Championship Game and won titles in 1969, 1973, 1974 and 1976 while losing in 1977.  They had success in four of those games and gave their fans high hopes heading into the Super Bowl, where they just seemed overmatched and bewildered every time.  But, take nothing away from those Vikings teams.  Winning a conference championship game requires at least two wins in the playoffs and when you compile postseason records of coaches and organizations, you will see that the wins and losses are close to .500.  Even the great Tom Brady has lost more AFC Championship Games than Super Bowls by a score of 3 to 2.

 

As for the Vikings, it would take them 10 years to reach another NFC Championship Game when the Wade Wilson led team lost in the waning seconds to the Washington Redskins when Darrin Nelson dropped a pass at the goal line in a 17-10 loss.  They didn’t make it there again until 1998 when their 15-1 team led by Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter and Randy Moss led Atlanta 27-20 late and were a Gary Anderson 38-yard field goal away from salting the game away.  Naturally, Anderson missed; the Falcons tied the game and won 30-27 in overtime.  The 2001 Vikings got back and were blown away by the Giants.

 

The Conference Championship Game is an agonizing game to play, even more so than the Super Bowl.  The Super Bowl is the final game; once you’re there, you’re there and you know that the season will end around 10 pm ET.  But losing in the penultimate game–the conference title clash–can stick with players and coaches for years to come.  Two weeks later, you’re home while the team that beat you is playing in the final game of the season.

 

When teams play for the AFC/NFC Championship Game, they are in essence, playing for two championships; the conference title of course, and the NFL championship.  If you win the conference title game, you get a chance to win another title game.  So, in a warped way, the conference championship game is two championships rolled into one.  As we know, losing the Super Bowl is the ultimate downer, and falling back on the conference title, while not often celebrated is an achievement.  The loser of a conference title game can’t claim anything.

 

The conference championship game loser has nothing but despair.  A good season, yes, but no championship and no shot at another one.  That has to be tough, very tough.  The aforementioned Buffalo Bills never won a Super Bowl, but they did win four AFC championships and when that happens, it is banner-worthy.   The Cleveland Browns, as good as they were from 1986-1989 and have no such championship banners.

 

The two conference title games this Sunday offer interesting perspectives.  In the NFC, we have two quarterbacks who have never played in such a game, so something has to give.  Will the veteran, Carson Palmer, finally get a chance to play in the NFL Championship Game (Super Bowl) or will the up-and-comer, Cam Newton get his opportunity?  The loser can think they’ll get back, but it’s easier said than done.  Ask Dan Marino, who went to two straight in 1984 and 1985 and then waited seven years before reaching another.  And, remember the above-mentioned Warren Moon, who at least can claim five CFL Grey Cup titles on his resume.

 

The AFC offers us the two veterans, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.  Both have won AFC titles (Brady 6, Manning, 3) and both have won Super Bowls (Brady 4, Manning 1), and like the NFC game, something has to give here.  This will be the fourth time that Brady’s Patriots have played Manning’s Colts/Broncos with Manning holding a 2 to 1 title game advantage.  That gets overlooked because of Brady’s Super Bowl conquests, but in the back of Brady’s mind it is noted.  Brady will always be ranked above Manning because of his Super Bowl exploits, but if Manning’s team wins Sunday, the Manning backers would have significant ammo in saying that in four AFC Championship Games, Manning beat Brady three of four times.  That would make for a compelling debate, wouldn’t it?

 

The AFC Championship Game.  The NFC Championship Game.  They don’t have special names with a roman numeral behind it, but it’s a game that has two championships attached to it; the one Sunday and another one two weeks later.

 

That’s why it’s the best football Sunday of the year.

The Double Standard Rears Ugly Head—Again

January 10, 2016

Tom Brady gets killed; Peyton Manning gets a pass

by John Furgele

My dad told me long ago that life isn’t always fair.  I tell the same thing to my kids, because they often use that statement about how I parent, playing time in sports and treatment by teachers and friends.  In sports, it’s also true.  Some players are magnets; every move is followed, reported on and dissected, especially in this era of tabloid journalism where reporting on Twitter has replaced real investigative journalism.

There was a recent report that legendary quarterback Peyton Manning received shipments of HGH to help him recover from neck surgery.  The story was reported by Al Jazeera and right away was dismissed because of what many call a “credibility issue.”  Remember, most in the sports business don’t even know what Al-Jazeera is even though they have a cable channel just like “credible” news networks like CNN and Fox do.

Think about this.  When this story was reported, it was immediately sent to the back burner, but when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots allegedly deflated footballs, it was the talk of the town—for eight months.  Seriously!

CBS’ Jim Nantz refused to bring up the HGH report on last Sunday’s telecast of the Broncos-Chargers game.  And, that made sense at first because Brock Osweiler was the starter, but when Manning entered the game in the third quarter, Nantz stayed silent.  In some ways, maybe that’s not a bad thing, but come on, it had to be addressed.  All Nantz really had to say was “there have been reports that Manning received HGH while recovering from neck surgery a few years ago.  Details are at a minimum right now, but I’m sure that the NFL and CBS will keep following this story.”  Then, they could have got right back to the game, a game that the Broncos needed to secure home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs.

What makes a story these days?  Why is Johnny Manziel’s immaturity a story, yet a potential shipment to Peyton Manning’s wife not?  Why is deflating footballs a story and Manning’s HGH not?  And, why is using HGH to recover from surgery wrong?  If you or I had the surgery, wouldn’t a doctor consider prescribing HGH?  Why wasn’t that discussed at all on the games and pre-game shows.  If you were diagnosed with Lyme, you would be prescribed steroids.  Would that make you a drug cheat in sports?

When Mike Piazza was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, he was asked about the rumors that he used PEDs during his playing career, yet Peyton Manning receives immunity, or worse, he is believed without anybody digging in to the story?

The national sports media spent from January through September on Brady and deflating footballs.  The NFL lost in court, but said that it will appeal, yet they apparently will take Manning’s word over HGH usage?  Why and how does this make sense?  And, during the “deflategate,” mess, there were plenty of other sports to talk about like the NCAA tournament, the opening of baseball, the Kentucky Derby and the NBA and NHL playoffs, yet air pressure in footballs ruled the airways.  Why not focus on sports?  Why not, indeed?

The other problem is with social media.  Today, budgets are small and rather than devote the time and resources to investigative journalism, it’s hurry up and be first, get it on Twitter before the competition does.  If you watched the movie Spotlight, you saw the power of investigative journalism.  And, in the movie, there was a chance that the new editor was going to scrap that department to save money.

Remember Jerry Sandusky, now in prison for molesting young boys while coaching at Penn State?  That story was broken by the The Patriot-News, in Harrisburg PA.  The reporter, Sara Ganim won a Pulitizer Prize.  Today, the paper only delivers and publishes three days a week and relies on its polluted website for Central Pennsylvanians to get their news.  And, these websites are extremely frustrating to navigate.  Some stories appear to be new, but are actually several days old.  The print edition may feature one-day old news, but at least you can sort it out.  And, because they only print three papers per week, they only offer three e-editions or relipicas per week as well.  How much longer until they become online only, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer did in 2009?

The Detroit Free Press does the same thing, but offers seven e-editions per week.   The point is why can’t Al-Jazeera be credible?  They may have more resources and journalists than our respected newspapers do?  If the Patriot-News can’t afford to publish seven papers per week, can they afford to allow a reporter to spend months investigating a story and not writing her daily or weekly stories and columns?

Again, it comes down to being fair and even though we know life isn’t fair, we hold reporting at a higher level.  If the outlets can spend months reporting on deflated footballs, can’t they look into Peyton Manning and HGH?  Yahoo Sports sent Dan Wetzel to cover the Aaron Hernandez trial.  Was that necessary and cost effective?  ESPN did the same, yet gave over 300 workers the pink slip last fall.  Wetzel has written a column on air pressure for footballs for the Vikings-Seahawks game that will be played in frigid temps, yet has written nothing on Manning-HGH.  I’m not sure if that’s Wetzel’s fault or that he was told by his editor to avoid the topic, but the one thing that means nothing here is footballs for a playoff game.  This isn’t the first football game to be played in arctic conditions and it certainly won’t be the last.

The easy thing is to “turn everything off,” you know; if you don’t like sports talk radio, just listen to something else.  That sounds easy, but if you follow sports, you have to go to places to get news, so you have tune in, read websites and try to navigate newspaper websites.  The same goes for news.  You tune into CNN to get news, but if it’s Donald Trump all the time, you’re allowed to show frustrations whether you like him or not.

I better find Al-Jazeera and add it my favorites; at least they’re investigating stories.

 

 

 


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