Best Plan for the Big 12: Dissolution

September 29, 2016

by John “The 228” Furgele

Next month, the Big 12 will meet to decide if the conference should expand. This has been an ongoing circus; something the Big 12 absolutely loves.   The conference from top-to-bottom is quite weak, but expansion talk is keeping it relevant off the field because the on-field product has been struggling.

There are many rumors and many stories as to what the Big 12 will do. At first, it looked like the conference was going to add two teams, then four. Recently, reports say that the conference will vote NOT to expand and others say that conference might even dissolve. If they do expand, who should be invited? It appears that Houston would be prudent, but the non-Texas schools are afraid that Texas high-schoolers will choose Houston over Oklahoma State or Oklahoma.   Playing in Houston is a lot more glamorous than playing in Waco, or worse, Lubbock.

BYU is rumored to be a front runner and football-wise, they would be the most competitive. They can beat Power 5 schools right now and even though it was 1984, the university does have a national championship on its mantle.   But, there are issues with their candidacy. They are a religious school, they don’t play athletic contests on Sundays and the school’s Honor Code is said to be discriminatory against the LBGT population.  Those are serious obstacles, but ones that can be overcome.

Cincinnati is dying to join and everybody trots out that the Bearcats would give West Virginia a travel partner even though schools have never had those. After these three, there are the directional Floridas and other suspects, but the best option might be the third one from above and that would be dissolution.

The Big 12 is an aforementioned Power 5 conference, but is it? They do have two marquee teams in Texas and Oklahoma. Those two would be coveted by the other four conferences.   The Longhorns and Sooners are historical teams and are very important to the current blueprint of college football.   The rest of the teams don’t bring much cache. In fact, Kansas and Iowa State are atrociously bad. Kansas might be the worst Power 5 team in the land, so how do they make the Big 12 viable? Yes, they are great in basketball, but this is about football, and the Jayhawks are very bad each and every year.

Iowa State is only slightly better. The Cyclones would be a mid-pack finisher in the Missouri Valley Conference of the Football Championship Subdivision, so why should they remain a Power 5 team?  This season, they lost to Northern Iowa and it wasn’t the first time the Panthers won in Ames.

As for Kansas State, once Bill Snyder leaves, the Wildcats will go back to irrelevance. Snyder did an amazing job building the program—it might be the greatest coaching job in the history of college sports—but when he retired the first time, the program languished. The university begged him to come back to restore order and he did so, but he can’t coach there forever.  There was a time when the Kansas-Kansas State was a battle to see which team would win one game.

Dissolving the Big 12 gets the football schools closer to their dream which is four 16-team conferences with eight total divisions.  Each would have a conference championship game and the winners would automatically qualify for the College Football Playoff.  By then, the CFP will have eight teams and the playoffs would be epic. Dissolving the Big 12 makes college football stronger.  The good teams would move to a Power 4 conference, while the KU’s and ISU’s would find a conference better suited for them to be competitive.  And, it would finally force Notre Dame to abandon its longstanding independence.  Financially, Notre Dame is flourishing as an independent, but it really isn’t fair to the other schools, and even less fair to the players.  How does Notre Dame recruit against schools that can tell a player that they play for conference championships AND national championships?  At 1-3, the Irish really are done in terms of playing high profile games at the end of the year.  They won’t make the CFP; they won’t play in a New Year’s Six bowl game and if they’re lucky, they’ll finish 7-5 and play in the Pinstripe Bowl.  The Big Ten conference is waiting for them and Texas to get them up to 16 schools.

The SEC would then scoop up the Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, one blueblood and one good program.  If the SEC can have Mississippi and Mississippi State, it certainly can handle the Oklahomas.

The ACC would need two schools and they would add Cincinnati (from the American) and would take West Virginia. Both are solid in football and basketball and would help the conference going forward.  There would be some old Big East nostalgia with Cincy, Louisville, Syracuse, West Virginia and Pittsburgh all back together, possibly forever.

The PAC 12 would have to become the PAC 16 (kudos to them for being the only conference to change its name to reflect the actual number of teams that it has).  They would have the toughest time, but they would want Houston and BYU.  Reluctantly, they would add Texas Tech and Baylor, but they also added Utah so it’s not as bad as it might seem.  BYU would definitely add some flavor to the Pac 16.  They have a hated rival in Utah and would also have private school brethren with Baylor and Stanford.

Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State are going to be demoted, but hope is not lost.  All three will join the American Athletic Conference and the result would be a very solid league.  The American would lose Cincinnati and Houston, but with these three and Navy they would have 13 football schools and 12 schools for basketball.  They would hold their own in football and would be a serious player in basketball with Connecticut, Temple, Memphis, SMU and the others.  One would think adding Massachusetts (currently an independent) makes sense, giving the league 14 football schools and 13 for others.

Army would be the only independent left and given their unique characteristics, they should be able to survive as one.  Army has the toughest requirements and because of that, accommodations should be made.  The Knights tried Conference USA in the late 1990s and it didn’t go well.  Navy wanted to join the American and they have succeeded, much like Air Force has in the Mountain West.  But, Army is different.  They are an eastern school and many of their eastern foes play at the FCS level.  Let Army play two to three FCS schools each year and then schedule schools from the Power 4 and the Group of 5 as they see fit.  If they win seven games, put them into a bowl game and let them enjoy it.

There it is, the complete overhaul of college football.  64 schools in four power conferences.  The Big 12, like the Southwest Conference would be a lasting memory, but would no longer masquerade as a power football conference. They won’t be missed and college football would be better going forward.

 

The Massachusetts Minutemen: A Team to Love

September 13, 2016

by John Furgele (Always the 228)

One thing I love about college football is that personally, I really don’t have a favorite team.  In most games, I choose a side, but I am not a die-hard of one particular team.  That makes Saturdays easy for me as I can sit back and watch relatively stress-free.

That said there are some teams I would like to see do well.  I grew up in suburban Buffalo; so naturally, I would like to see the Buffalo Bulls succeed.  They play in the MAC and for the most part, go relatively unnoticed by sports fans in WNY.  Buffalo is a small city, a cozy city; a city than bonds behind its sports teams.  In Buffalo, that means the Bills and the NHL Sabres.  The Bulls play at 29,000 seat UB Stadium, a concrete jungle that is as far away from intimate as a stadium can get.  It’s functional, but WNY sports fans will continue to support the pro teams regardless of how well the Bulls perform.  There are some in WNY that feel that the University at Buffalo would be better served playing at the FCS level because fan support will never rise to the level that FBS teams need and require.

Another team I root for is the University at Albany.  Since 2001, I have lived in the Albany area and it has always been my belief that one should support the local teams.  You don’t have to be a die-hard, but you shouldn’t root against them unless you graduated from the school’s archrival.

I also root for Army for obvious reasons.  Their players love the United States more than they love football.  That’s commendable.  In most games, they are undersized compared to their opponents.  For some reason, they can’t beat Navy anymore (14 straight losses), but something tells me the streak will stop soon.  I don’t root against Navy, but for some reason, I don’t always root for them.  And, I always take Army in the Army-Navy game.

But, if there is one team that we all should root for it is the Massachusetts Minutemen or UMass as they are commonly called.  Why?

For one, they are the team without a country…in this case a conference.  Some of that is their doing, some of it is not.  UMass is playing 2016 and the foreseeable future as an independent, and while BYU, Notre Dame and Army have chosen to be independents, UMass has not.  They were members of the Mid American Conference but the MAC wanted UMass to be a member in all sports, something they didn’t want to do.  And, you can’t blame them.  They play basketball in the Atlantic 10, a very solid league that sends multiple teams to the NCAA tournament.  The MAC is a decent conference, but it is a one-bid only league.

The MAC kicked out the Minutemen, so here they are, scrambling to find 12 opponents each and every year.  One might think there would be benefits to being able to call your own shots, but the great thing about being in a conference is you get 8 or 9 automatics when it comes to your schedule.  It is much easier to schedule three or four nonconference games than 12.

UMass is not only is conference-less, they also have a stadium quandary.  When the Minutemen were one of the best FCS teams in the country, Alumni Stadium was more than satisfactory to play in.  With 17,000 seats everybody knew that games against Villanova, Delaware and New Hampshire would draw well, but 17,000?  No way.  Now that they’re members of the FBS, there are requirements and having a 17,000 seater is not in compliance.  As a result, UMass is playing three home games at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough with the other three in Amherst.  That sounds okay, right?  Wrong.  The distance between Amherst and Foxborough is 93 miles and while die-hard fans might make the drive, how many students want to get on a bus for a 186 mile round-trip to see a team that continues to struggle?  Students like to drink before games and often, they like to leave games early to start drinking again.  Waiting to game’s end and then riding on a bus for 93 miles is more than a buzzkill.

Another reason?  The faculty at UMass is against them.  If it were up to them, the Minutemen would go back to the FCS or drop football altogether.  How can you not root for this team?  They have no conference, no one place to play and no support from the professors and the faculty senate.  When I was young, I rooted for Northwestern because they had lost 34 straight games.  My dad said I should pursue politics because I root for the underdogs.  I think if my dad was alive today, he would be supportive of me rooting for UMass and would probably root for them as well.

The last and final reason to root for the Minutemen is their schedule.  Because 12 games isn’t enough torture, UMass gets a 13th in 2016 thanks to playing at Hawaii. They opened at Florida, hosted Boston College (both losses) and even though there are few “easier touches,” by and large, it is a tough slate of games.

9/17:                Florida International

9/24:                Mississippi State

10/1:                Tulane

10/8:                @Old Dominion

10/15:              Louisiana Tech

10/22:              @South Carolina

10/29:              Wagner (FCS school)

11/5:                @Troy

11/19               @BYU

11/26:              @Hawaii

UMass doesn’t even get their bye week until November 12 and by then the injuries will have piled up.  The Minutemen are playing schools from the ACC, Sun Belt, SEC, American, Northeast, a fellow independent and a Mountain West team. As Jim MacKay used to say, that is spanning the globe to find a constant variety of teams.

Hopefully, there will come a day when things get sorted out and UMass will find a conference to play football in.  Notre Dame doesn’t need a conference, Army and BYU are surviving without one, but conventional wisdom says that UMass would benefit from being on one.  Last spring, the Sun Belt kicked out Idaho and New Mexico State effective after the 2017 season.  Idaho decided to move down to the FCS and go back to the Big Sky conference while NMSU is still contemplating what to do.

I’m not sure what UMass will end up doing, but if you can’t root for the Minutemen then you really have no compassion as well as no heart.

 

The Gigglers and the Twinkie Eaters

August 24, 2016

by John Furgele (228)

Back in high school, the pot smokers went to parties.  They used to bring their pot and then, after a few beers, or perhaps even the 1980s phenomenon wine coolers, it was time.  The time had come to gather a few friends, get out the bag of weed and head behind the shed or the garden to fire up a blunt and get the buzz going.  I always found the art of pot-smoking funny.  Because it wasn’t legal, there was a certain shame in it and because of that had to be enjoyed secretly.  Sure, the rest of the high schoolers knew who smoked, but those who did the smoking tried to be discreet.  For beer, there was no shame.  The 15 and 16-year olds drank openly—and illegally—in front of everybody.  But, pot, weed, grass and any other name was done behind the shed.

The potheads tried to be discreet, but they were lousy at it.  They would come back glassy-eyed and full of giggles and before long, would eat anything they could get their hands on.  Doritos, Fritos, Twinkies, King Dons, you name it, if they could find it, they would eat it.  The giggles were followed by the munchies.  Ah, those were the days.

I wasn’t one of those people.  I went to the parties, but I was usually the guy who had the pound of Doritos (in the days before stealth inflation,  you got 16 ounces, not 10.5) Everybody laughed at me at the beginning of the party,  but by the end, me—and my Doritos—were everybody’s best friend.  This was high school and I guess drinking and smoking by the river was a fun and a cool thing to do.

In college, there was plenty of dope to go round.  You know how college can be.  It’s very tough.  You have to go to classes, study a bit and do your best to get a 2.0 or even a C+ or two on the old progress report.  After a few days, the old college students had to blow off some steam with some cocktails and then some dope.  By Saturday night, the dorm vending machine was usually out of Ho-Hos, so those who needed food had to resort to extreme measures.  When I was freshman my mom used to send me care packages and in it, there were Twinkies.  I never really liked Twinkies, but mom sent them anyways.  There were two “dopers,” who lived down the hall and were always willing to buy my Twinkies.  For me, it was win-win.  Because I didn’t like Twinkies, I made a few bucks on weekends in old Morgan Hall.

Back in the day, pot was a discreet drug.  I recall that even the fans of pot didn’t smoke it every day; they enjoyed it, made it last and used it more periodically.  Today, pot seems to have taken over the world.  It seems like everybody acts like pot is legal in all 50 states, when, in reality, it is legal in four states and a few cities.  That means that the drug is still illegal in 46 states.

I always thought that people grew up and out of smoking pot.  It was something to do in high school, in college to enhance the educational experience, but soon, when it was time to go to work, get married and have some kids, the pot-smoking “daze” would be gone.  Why, would a 9 to 5er continue to smoke pot?  I equated smoking pot to those who pre-determined that they were going to get drunk on beer days in advance.  But, drinking 15 beers at a fraternity party on a Saturday night usually was replaced by going out to dinner with your spouse and some friends where a couple drinks would suffice.

I was wrong.   Pot smoking might be more popular than ever.  Grown adults at adult parties continue to drift away from the mainstream and go somewhere away from others to get stoned.  It amazes me because I still think of pot as a little kid’s drug.  Not pre-teens, but high school and college kids.  Pot is now rationalized by those who smoke it.  The defenders argue that pot is no more harmful than beer, wine or other forms of alcohol.  Most of these people still drink in addition to smoking pot.  So, instead of dismissing pot as “something they did when they were young,” they continue to flame up and enjoy the buzz that goes along with it.

Athletes love pot more than ever.  They love smoking it.  Michael Phelps liked a bong or two with others using gas masks to get the full effect of the cannabis.  Most athletes think pot should be legalized, so when they get caught (test positive), they say they’re sorry, but beg their respective leagues to take pot off the banned substance list.  There are some NFL players that are so addicted to pot that they are thinking of taking action to make it no longer a punishable offense.  The NFL knows that they can’t do this because as we mentioned earlier, pot is still illegal in 46 states.  But the players vow to keep working for a solution.  In the meantime, we see players like Josh Gordon, Marcel Dareus, Lavion Bell and recently released running back Karlos Williams continue to use and get caught.  In the NFL a four-game suspension indicates a second positive test.  Browns receiver Josh Gordon loves pot so much that he was suspended for 4, 8, and then 16 games—an entire season—because he liked to get baked.

Williams was a peculiar case.  In the offseason, he gained 50 pounds.  He blamed the weight gain on his fiancée’s pregnancy.  She got cravings and he decided that it would be wrong for her to eat alone.  He came to training camp perhaps a few pounds lighter, but then failed to show up for a drug test and thus was suspended for four games.  The Bills decided to rid themselves of the pot-addicted Williams and as of today, he has cleared waivers, meaning he and his one-hitter are free to sign with any team.

What has gone wrong?  Why is pot so prevalent among today’s athletes?  They say that it helps with pain management, but that’s just an excuse, a cop-out for not realizing that pot is for 16 to 21 year-olds and not for those who work in the real world.  Am I naïve for saying this?  Probably, but to me, pot is for immature people, not for NFL and NBA players who make millions of dollars to play a sport.  For these players, the desire to smoke pot outweighs the desire to get in tip-top shape, put one’s team first and play to the best of one’s ability.

Forgive me for not getting on the “pot should be legal bandwagon.”  Do I think people should be thrown in jail for having a dime-bag on them?  Of course not, but right now, the drug is illegal and right now, the respective sports leagues have to treat it as such.  But the real blame is on the players.  They have to grow up and stop taking a drug that required sneaking around in their younger days.  The time has come for the Josh Gordons and the Marcel Dareus’ of the world to say that pot is for little kids, not well-conditioned athletes who are paid handsomely to not smoke it.

And, while these athletes are at it, stay away from Twinkies, too!

 

Johnny Furgele remains the one and only 228.  Don’t get confused by wannabes.

We All Assume

August 18, 2016

by John Furgele

We loved it—every minute, or second of it, 9.81 seconds to be exact. Usain Bolt’s 100 meter dash to glory electrified the stadium in Rio and millions more around the globe. And, while the world showed its adoration for the gifted Bolt, it also showed its disdain for American sprinter Justin Gatlin. One was feted, the other, scorned.  One cheered, the other roundly booed.

Why? The obvious reason is Gatlin’s doping suspension that lasted four years. The second is likely that at age 34, the 2004 Olympic champion is still running at a very high level. Once one is labeled a cheat, the label sticks—forever. As they saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Why would the world embrace a Gatlin only to have him test positive again down the road?  Are people convinced that he is competing clean in 2016?

This hasn’t happened and since 2010, he hasn’t been caught cheating but that didn’t appear to matter. And, even though Gatlin has admitted to his past mistakes, he still contends that he may have received steroids via massage, claiming that a therapist rubbed illegal cream on his body. Most people are selling this explanation because we all believe that athletes are so in tune with their bodies that they wouldn’t allow it to happen.

PED use is rampant in sports—all sports. And, athletes are reluctant to talk about it and them. When you get a bunch of athletes together and ask them point blank, “should drug cheats be given a lifetime suspension?” very few say yes. Most skirt it, others turn it into another question, with others like American sprinter Allyson Felix cite that “there are rules in place.”

Does that mean a Felix uses PEDs? No, but so many athletes use supplements and some of these may contain a banned substance. Others are prescribed medications that eventually end up on a banned list. For years, doctors prescribed Russian athletes melodonium. The drug is supposed to help people with angina or heart failure, but it also helps athletes increase exercise capacity and recover quicker. So, because somebody discovered this benefit, coaches were able to get doctors to legally prescribe it for athletes to use.

Melodonium is what got 5-time Grand Slam tennis champion Maria Sharapova suspended this past winter.   She was using since 2006—via prescription—but didn’t see that it was added to the banned list before she tested positive for it.

Adderall is used to treat ADHD, but because it is said to mask fatigue, pain as well as increasing arousal, it became a drug prescribed to numbers of athletes whether they had ADHD or not. It keeps athletes in the zone and several of them, including Orioles slugger Chris Davis and Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz have received suspensions for having too much in their bodies. Adderall is what led to Gatlin’s first “doping” suspension in which he received a one-year ban.

So, why wouldn’t people like Felix, swimmers and others call for a lifetime ban for positive tests?   The answer is complicated, but because most athletes take some type of supplements, they stay quiet. Today’s natural energy booster could be tomorrow’s melodonium.

Back to Bolt. We believe he’s clean, we think he’s clean and we certainly behave and act like he’s clean, but how do we know? Really know? Well, for one, he’s never failed a drug test. But, that hardly matters. Ben Johnson passed all the tests until the 1988 Seoul Olympics and then admitted to years of prior doping. And, never believe any athlete who says that they never took PEDs.   Remember the finger of Rafael Palmiero and of course, the years of denials by Lance Armstrong.

I must admit, I love Bolt and I am a fan. I want to believe that he’s never cheated and I don’t think he has. Unfortunately others have cast huge shadows of doubt and that’s not fair to the Bolts, Phelps (Lilly,) Kings and (Katie) Ledeckys of the sporting world. It’s the case of the innocent suffering because of the guilty—the few bad apples spoiling the bunch.

Many athletes convince themselves that everybody is “on something.” They use this to justify taking PEDs and as long as they don’t get caught, they can accept and live with it. When we see a Bolt run the 100 meters in 9.58 seconds, we want to be awed, but because of history, there is some doubt. For now, we have to hope that the process is fair and on the up and up.   If Bolt wins—and passes the tests—we have to believe that he’s clean. If we can’t, then why even watch sports anymore?

Tonight, we will watch Bolt get in the blocks for the 200-meter dash. We expect him to win and to put on a compelling show.  We want to be thrilled and ingest the good of sport. Let’s just hope we can celebrate for decades to come.

 

Johnny Furgele is the Original 228.  Don’t ever be fooled by impostors and impersonators

 

 

Did Horse Racing Do the Wrong Thing?

August 11, 2016

by John Furgele (The 228)

When a horse dies at Aqueduct, it is sad. When a horse dies at Saratoga, it is sad—and noticed. At this year’s Saratoga meet, nine horses have died while racing or training and the meet is not even at its midpoint. When this happens, everybody shows concern. Those that love the sport defend it and cite how rare racing deaths are. Those that think the sport is inhumane jump to criticize it with some even calling for it to be banned.

The question at hand is simple. Did horse racing do the right thing? Today, every sport says that they are concerned about their athletes. The NFL says that it is trying to reduce concussions by establishing protocol before a player can return to action. The movie “Concussion,” highlighted how CTE affects some that have played the dangerous game that is football. In the 1960s and 1970s, nobody cared about leading with your head so as long as the devastating hit was made. Times have changed.

Horse racing says that they, too, care about their athletes, but do they? In the early 2000s, it appeared so. Several tracks across North America replaced dirt with synthetic surfaces–either Polytrack or Tapeta–with the hope of reducing equine fatalities. It seemed to be working, but there was bellyaching. Trainers didn’t like it, owners didn’t like it and the claim was that neither did the bettors.   Places like Keeneland concluded that owners and trainers wouldn’t bring their horses to race there because synthetic was not the same as dirt. The Blue Grass Stakes, Keeneland’s Kentucky Derby prep race was diminishing in quality with star 3-year-olds taking their talents to places where the horses ran on dirt; at least that’s what was said.

For a time, it looked like synthetics would stick around. The California State Legislature passed a law that required all of its tracks to install a synthetic surface by the end of 2007 and they all complied.  Del Mar, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Golden Gate Fields would now run on polytrack. It appeared that safety was placed first and foremost in the horse racing game.  In addition to the California tracks, Woodbine, Presque Isle, Arlington Park, Turfway Park installed either polytrack or Tapeta.

When a Barbaro gets injured and eventually has to be put down, it gets noticed.  His story was chronicled from the moment he took a bad step at Pimlico until he died from laminitis.  For the older set, the image of Ruffian collapsing in her 1975 match race against Foolish Pleasure still resonates.  When this happens, the question for the leaders of the sport is “what are you doing to make your game safer?”  The immediate reply was the installation of synthetic racing surfaces.

From 2009 thru 2014, it seemed like synthetics was working.  Equine fatalities are based on per 1,000 starters and during this time, dirt surfaces saw 2.07 deaths; turf (grass) saw 1.65 and synthetics saw 1.22.  At Keeneland, deaths went from 1.98 on dirt to only 0.33 on synthetic.  Joe Drape of the New York Times reported that field sizes didn’t decrease, betting didn’t decrease and on-track attendance didn’t either, but for some reason, that wasn’t satisfying enough. The thought of bucking tradition and not running on dirt was too much for many to absorb.

Drape also tracked Santa Anita.  He reported that in 2009, when Santa Anita ran on polytrack, there 0.90 deaths per 1,000 starters.  From 2010-2013 when they went back to dirt, equine deaths were 3.45, 2.94, 2.89 and 2.11.  Clearly, running on synthetics was safer than running on dirt.

From 2009-2013 there were 1.22 deaths per 1,000 starters on synthetics compared to 2.08 per 1,000 on dirt.  Those numbers don’t jump out at you, but there are significant.  In 2014, there was an average of 24 deaths each day at America’s thoroughbred race tracks.  For some, that’s 24 too many.

Summertime is the time where people head to race tracks.  Saratoga averages 25,000 fans per day and Del Mar is where the turf meets the surf.  Del Mar had dirt, switched to poly and now runs on dirt again; Saratoga, the oldest race course in America has always run on dirt.  That’s where horse racing went wrong.  If those tracks would have made the switch and explained to its droves the reasons why, then the sport would have moved forward with a much more accepting audience.

To say that horses die because of the surface is a bit unfair.  How many horses are not sound when they head to the starting gate?  The answer:  plenty.  How many horses are placed in claiming races with an injury just so the owner can rid themselves of it?  The answer again:  plenty.  But, I’ll make the conclusion that more injured horses ran on synthetic because it was perceived as safer.  Horses don’t offer any value if they don’t race. Sure, an American Pharoah won’t run at less than 100 percent in a big stakes race, but Old Senator will surely run in a $17,000 claiming race if it is physically possible. Because synthetics were deemed to be safer, my hunch is that a lot of horse that shouldn’t run, did and the number could have been lower than the stats indicate if proper protocol was followed.

The sport dropped the ball.  If all tracks would have switched to a synthetic surface, then the playing field would be even.  The Kentucky Derby would be run on synthetic, making the Blue Grass Stakes a viable option as a prep.  If all tracks would have switched, the number of equine fatalities might have dropped more.  The historians and traditionalists would have balked, stomped and cried, but the younger people–critical to the future of the sport–would have applauded the move without thinking of nostalgia. Today’s kids are much more aware of the environment and of safety than their moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas.   They grew up with seat belts, bike helmets and car seats; safety first is their only reference point.  They cry when dad kills a mouse because they actually feel bad for the critter that is eating through your attic walls.  The sport surely doesn’t want to have the younger generation see horses break down in races.

But, that didn’t happen.  The Breeder’s Cup wouldn’t award you their event unless you had a dirt track and as result, by switching back, Keeneland, Santa Anita and Del Mar have or will be hosting the two-day world-class event.  Woodbine, a previous host, knows that by choosing to replace polytrack with Tapeta, the Breeder’s Cup won’t be coming north anytime soon.  In a stunning development, Woodbine actually put safety ahead of monies.

There are five remaining synthetics remaining in North America.   In addition to Woodbine, we have Presque Isle (PA), Golden Gate Fields (CA), Arlington Park (IL), and Turfway Park (KY) as the last bastions of putting safety first.  The rest will enjoy their racing seasons, have their big races and if lucky, secure a Breeder’s Cup or two going forward.

If it appears as if I am ripping the horse racing industry that really isn’t the case.  What perplexes me is that the industry had a blueprint in place that was working.  Synthetics were installed and fatalities were decreasing.  One would think that it would catch on and more tracks would move to synthetics, but for many reasons that didn’t happen.  And, as a result, the industry has provided more fodder to PETA and those who despise the sport. To me, that doesn’t make sense.The Kentucky Derby is watched by over 10 million people.  Of that, 9,750,000 don’t know anything about the sport and couldn’t tell the difference between dirt or fake dirt.  Those are the people that the sport needs more than the 250,000 die-hards that watch no matter what.  When you get all of those new people watching, you want to be as safe as you can.  Synthetics was working and rather than expand it, they get rid of it.

Sad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Not Forget About Harness Racing

July 29, 2016

by John Furgele (The Original 228)

As the Saratoga meet is more than underway, let’s not neglect or sleep on harness racing.  Recently, I was explaining the difference between harness and horse racing to my girlfriend’s mother.  I compared it to eating filet of sole versus mussels.  That might not be fair, but I will preface by saying that I enjoy eating mussels, particularly if they are swimming in marinara.  That said, there are some that would never eat mussels, just like there are some that will never indulge in harness racing.  My angle is try it, you might like it.

 

Harness racing is on a slight rise.  That might be because the whole VLT and casino movement began at many harness racing tracks.  Places like Buffalo Raceway, Saratoga Casino/Hotel and Batavia Downs were the first to couple racing and video gaming machines.  For every quarter dumped in to a video gaming machine, a portion went to harness racing.

 

Buffalo Raceway just concluded its 2016 meet with handle up over 3 percent.  That may not seem like much, but consider all the betting options for those with discretionary incomes?  In Buffalo alone, there are two casinos operated by the Seneca Indian Nation as well as Finger Lakes Race Track, which offers both horse racing and video gaming machines.  And, because of New York State government’s recent fascination with opening as many casinos as they can, more options are on the way.  Saratoga Casino and Hotel has always done well and this year, opened up a hotel as well as a Morton’s Steakhouse.  In 2017, Schenectady’s Rivers Casino will open on the banks of the Mohawk River, a full-scale casino that is less than 20 miles from Saratoga.  More places, more options to take your money.

 

There might not be decided advantages in harness racing over horse racing, but there are some things that harness racing has over horse racing.  One is that the animals—the pacers and trotters—are more durable.  The standardbred can simply race more than the thoroughbred.  Most standardbreds can race at least once a week, and sometimes they will race twice on one day.  Consider the plight of Mohaymen, the fourth place finisher in this year’s Kentucky Derby.  He hasn’t raced since and his entry in to this Saturday’s Jim Dandy will mark 83 days between races.  In that time, a standardbred might have raced at least 6 to 10 times.  Compare that to the Hambletonian, which requires horses to run an elimination heat and then come back a few hours later for the final.

 

Let’s give the sport of harness racing some love here.  Last Saturday, the reigning horse of the year, Wiggle It Jiggleit came to Saratoga Casino and Raceway to run in the $260,000 Jim Gerrity Memorial.  He certainly didn’t disappoint, winning in 1:51.  The 2015 Little Brown Jug winner was pressed and pushed, but in the end, he came through with flying colors.

 

Harness racing is doing a much better job of having what I deem significant races. For years, as the sport struggled, race cards were littered with 13 races and $2,500 purses.  That has changed, mainly because of VLT and casinos, but also because gambling has become much more mainstream than ever before.  In the old days, one had to sneak out to the betting parlor to wager and people who often gambled daily scorned upon.  Now, sports shows talk openly of betting lines for NFL games, and casinos seem to be within 150 miles of everybody and online wagering is easier than online grocery shopping.  As more people wager, the better the purses, plain and simple.

 

When I study racing cards, I look for big races/stakes races and races with purses that catch your attention.  In horse racing, a race with over $100,000 is an eye-catcher and in harness racing, I look for $40,000 and over and this weekend, there are a few that caught my eye.

 

On Saturday, The Meadows (Washington County, PA, near Pittsburgh) offers two races for pacers:  the $110,950 Adios Volo for three-year-old fillies and the $400,000 Adios Final for males.  In the Volo, Dismissal is the morning line favorite.  In 2016, she has nine starts, with seven firsts and a third.   In the Final, Racing Hill is the early favorite.  He has three wins, four seconds and a third in eight starts and just finished second in the $750,000 Meadowlands Pace on July 16.

 

Speaking of the Meadowlands, the $150,000 Anthony Abbatiello Classic is Saturday with Boston Red Rocks, the early 3-5 favorite.  He owns the fastest time in the field with a 1:50.35 for a mile and will face four others.

 

Yonkers Raceway has two races on its Saturday card, each with $45,000 purses, so if you’re looking to plunk down a few dollars on harness racing, there are five options here for you.  There are plenty of websites to gather information and I would suggest www.ustrotting.com as well as www.harnessracing.com.  Never go in blind before making a bet and these sites will give you enough information to make at the very least, a half-baked educated guess.

 

The big day in harness racing is Saturday, August 5; Hambletonian Day at Meadowlands Racetrack.  The Hambletonian (for trotters) is the most prestigious and well-known standardbred race in the world and it will be featured with nine other stakes races on the final Meadowlands card of the summer.  In addition to the $1 million Hambletonian, the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks will be run as well as the Cane Pace, part of the Triple Crown for pacers.  The cheapest purse of the day is $110,000, so it behooves you to get a program before heading down or making bets online.  And, like they have done in recent years, CBS Sports Network will cover the Hambletonian live next Saturday.

 

So, while we enjoy the sites and the quality thoroughbred racing that is Saratoga and Del Mar, it certainly is not a bad thing to pay some attention and throw some love to the world of harness racing.  It may not be as glamorous, but there is something for everybody.  And, if you can one watch one harness race this year, check out the Hambletonian next Saturday between 5 and 6 pm on CBS Sports Network.

 

 

 

Zika Concerns Nothing More Than a Smokescreen for Golfers

July 14, 2016

by John “The Original 228” Furgele

It happens weekly.   Each week, we read of a high profile male golfer choosing to skip the 2016 Olympics in Rio over concerns about the Zika virus. The concerns are genuine as nobody wants to expose himself or herself to the Zika virus if they don’t have to. But some of these golfers might go for a hike, a run in the woods thereby exposing themselves to Lyme disease. Yet, they probably don’t stop taking to the woods when they can.

And, if one has noticed, not one female golfer has withdrawn over fear of Zika. For golfers, the Olympics will never define a golfer’s legacy.   In golf, there are four majors and most sports followers can name them: the Masters, The U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the Open Championship, aka the British Open. For Dustin Johnson, Rory McIllroy, and Justin Spieth, they will be judged on how many majors they win, not if they win Olympic gold in 2016, 2020 or beyond.   If the Olympics meant more, they would all be there. But, simply, they don’t. If you ask Jason Day if he prefers Olympic gold or a PGA Championship, he won’t even let you finish your sentence before saying “PGA.”

Money is another factor. Nobody is getting $1.8 million for winning the Olympics and even LPGA golfer Stacy Lewis says money is a factor for so many men withdrawing. For a female golfer, winning an Olympic gold medal could pay dividends, particularly if the Golden girl is American. She could be marketed as “Gold medal golfer Michelle Wie or Stacy Lewis or recently crowned U.S. Open champion Brittany Lang.”   There is little more skin in the game for the gals then there is for well-compensated men. The males have the exposure, the sponsorship and the endorsement potential.

All this said, to me, golf is tough sell in the Olympics. No mater how you slice it, the Olympics will never be the big event in golf. In golf, it’s one of the four.   Same goes for tennis. Andy Murray won Olympic gold at the 2012 London games, but before reading this, did you remember that he had won? I can see playing basketball in the Olympics and other team sports because it is world versus world; country versus country.   Of course, LeBron James would prefer NBA titles to Olympic titles, but that’s okay. Playing on a team—for your country—evokes different emotions in the American people. In 1980, 75 percent of the country knew nothing about hockey, but when USA played (and beat) USSR, they both noticed and cared.

For sports like track and field, the Olympics are the premier event. The athletes—male and female—have to go there. For swimmers, it’s the same. The Olympics made Bruce Jenner, Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps and Carl Lewis household names. In addition, the Olympics made them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Golfers and tennis players don’t need the Olympics.   Kudos to Serena Williams for trumpeting the prestige and importance of representing your country in the Olympics, but deep down, we all know that she would choose another Wimbledon title over another Gold medal.

While the mainstream media outlets continue to focus on the Zika threat, we would do best to focus our attention on the sports that matter most in the Olympics. This includes, gymnastics, track and field, swimming, basketball, and the rest. As for golf, if you’re a golf fan, you’ll watch. If you’re not, you won’t. That’s the difference. The non-swimming fan watches swimming at the Olympics; the non-track and field fan watches track and field at the Olympics. Once every four years, those sports capture our attention; from 2017-2019, they won’t. Life isn’t always fair, but life is life.

When the Olympics isn’t the major event in a particularly sport, you can’t really blame the athletes for choosing rest over play.  Moreover, the financial incentive isn’t there for Olympic golf.  Believe me, if Gold medal prize money was $2 million, all the key players would be there.  Money talks, and in this case, Gold, Silver and Bronze walk.  Jason Day seems like a great guy.  Who wasn’t touched when his little boy ran to him when he won the PGA Championship last year?  Same for Dustin Johnson.  He is a father and he won the U.S. Open on Father’s Day.  Is there a better trophy to hoist than your toddler son?  Because these golfers have limited time to earn their millions, they will follow the money and they will follow it every single time.  If the Olympics offered a huge financial prize, I’m sure Paulina Gretzky would push Dustin Johnson to Rio.  The same would go for Day’s wife and many others.  As for bachelors like Spieth and McIllroy, they’d prefer some down time with their mates, probably some partying and living the good life before gearing up for the fall season.  But, $2 million?  Yes, they would being going for the Gold.  Gold and $2 million?  Nice.  Just Gold?  Not so nice.

For golfers like Spieth, Day, Johnson and McIllroy, they will enjoy their Olympic break on their yachts, vacation homes and private jets. They won’t miss the Olympics and we won’t miss them either.

Happy Summer!

For Clevelanders, Real Joy

July 1, 2016

by John Furgele

The Interception, 1981.  The Drive, 1987.  The Fumble, 1988.  The Blown Save, 1997.  In Cleveland and NE Ohio, those two word phrases/events resonate in every sports fan that was born in 1973 or before.  Cleveland is one of those towns; a town that loves its sports teams, that roots hard for its sports teams.  When they’re winning, the next day at work is a better one.  When the Browns win on Sunday, the workweek is more pleasant.  When the Indians are winning seven of ten, there is the so-called hop-in-ones-step.  Even non-sports fans follow sports in Cleveland.  They have to, because it’s part of the region’s culture.  Not every city is like this.  San Diego has never seen the Padres or Chargers win a championship.  They lost their basketball team to Los Angeles decades ago.  They have 75 degree, sunny days 345 times a year.  Simply, they don’t care as much.

In Cleveland, sports are part of the DNA.  It is woven into the fabric of society.  Most Clevelanders were born and raised there.  Cleveland isn’t Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, where young people flock to take a job.  It’s a nice place to work, raise a family and enjoy, but it isn’t sexy.  It’s Cleveland.  Sports is part of the region’s identity; when they win, there is pride, when they lose, despair.

In 1995, the Cleveland Browns left town and headed to Baltimore.  That season was a mournful one and many Clevelanders didn’t know what they would do without their football team.  There were fans who went to all the games, naturally they were despondent, but even residents who never went to games and who only monitored the plight of Browns were hurt by the team’s move.

The NBA Finals was truly a “Tale of Two Cities.”  Oakland, home of the Golden State Warriors, was the defending champion.  But, in 2019, the “Oakland” Warriors will be heading to San Francisco to play in a new arena.  It certainly isn’t a move from Cleveland to Baltimore proportions, but there is a sort of civic loss for Oakland as they move from gritty Oakland to glitzy San Francisco.  Couple that with the Raiders and A’s threatening to move unless they get new playpens and the case could be made that both cities were feeling the pressure of civic pride.

Before the Cavs win, the last time Cleveland won a major professional sports championship was 1964 when the Browns won the NFL Championship Game, punishing the Baltimore Colts 27-0.  As good as that title was it should be noted that this was before the Super Bowl and that the Buffalo Bills won the AFL Championship, so in effect, there were two football champions.  If Buffalo and Cleveland would have played, do we know that Cleveland would have won?

As Game 7 unfolded, you know what was going through the minds of the Cleveland sports fan.  Because of the history, much of the thought was negative.  When will Curry hit a big three?  When will LeBron have a key turnover?  When will Kevin Love miss a crucial layup?  It had to be agonizing as the game remained tied at 89 for seemingly 30 minutes.  Then, it happened.  Kyrie Irving hit the big three and the Cavs were on the brink of breaking a city’s 52-year old curse.  But 51 seconds remained and if you were born after 1956 (I always contend one must be at least 8 to remember sporting events), the Clevelander had to be waiting for something bad to happen.  With 10.8 seconds left and a four point lead, even the most pessimistic fan knew that the drought was over.  That Cleveland, the City of Light and Magic that Randy Newman sang about in “Burn On,” which was written for the movie “Major League,” was going to get its long awaited championship.

I’m sure Clevelanders had it all planned out.  Because they’ve never seen their team win, they likely had thought or even rehearsed how they would react when it would happen.  You’ve heard the lines.  “I’ll cry uncontrollably when it happens,” or “I’ll smile for weeks,” or I’ll hug every stranger I know in celebration.”  Then it happens and all that rehearsing goes out the window.  Being from Buffalo, I have visions of what I would do if the Sabres or Bills ever won that championship clinching game, but until it happens….

When Marreese Speights’ shot clanked off the rim and the clock read 000, it was all over and it was time for the Cleveland fan to react.  Most jumped up and down, screamed and hugged every person that they could find.  Many cried.  Many thought of their fathers and mothers who took them to games at old, crummy Cleveland Stadium to see Duane Kuiper play second base, Andre Thornton first base with Toby Harrah at third.  In the fall, they went to the same stadium to see Mike Phipps play quarterback for the Browns, and the Pruitts—Greg and Mike—run for touchdowns for the Art Modell owned team.  They might have driven out to the old Richfield Coliseum to see the usually bad Cavaliers play and if they were truly Cleveland sports fans might have been part of a small congregation that saw the NHL Cleveland Barons glide up and down the Coliseum ice from 1976 to 1978.

That’s when the tears come.  If you’re 48 like me, you think back to the mid-1970s when you were becoming a sports fan.  Instead of using baseball cards on the spokes of your bike, you were saving them, trading them and studying them.  You were asking your dad or mom to take you to a game or you were being conditioned by them to follow the local team.  You know how it goes.  It’s a Saturday, and dad or mom has the Indians game on the radio or TV, and you ask why they are Indians fans and the parent says, “I grew up here and have been a Cleveland sports fan all my life and if you’re going to live here kid, you best get on board.”  Some kids rebel and pick another team to root for, but by high school, they have been so swept up by the regionalism that they too, become Cleveland fans and someday, will pass that on to their children.

Those are the fans that cried.  Many of their parents have passed on and when they saw the Cavs bag the title, they thought of their childhood when mom and dad took them to games, watched games with them on a Sunday and they became sad because they didn’t get to see this.  Sad, yes, but many looked to the sky, smiled and said thanks.

Cities like Cleveland feel it even more.  As mentioned, most Clevelanders have been there since birth.  Their parents and grandparents grew up here and now they live here and so too, do their kids.  It is more ingrained than even Oakland and certainly cities like Miami, where LeBron James won two titles.  James certainly gets it.  He grew up in Akron and he knows the pain that Cleveland fans have suffered.  In fact, he cited The Drive, the Fumble, Jordan’s Shot and even though he was merely a baby, he knows the history.  Why?  Because he’s from there.

 

 

 

 

 

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.