Miracle on Ice: 35 Years and Still Going Strong

February 24, 2015

by John Furgele

LAKE PLACID—They gathered again to relive that magical time that was 1980 when a group of hockey amateurs pulled the historic upset of the mighty Soviet Union. For those old enough, the date was Friday, February 22, 1980 and the venue was the Olympic Center, a cozy 8,500 seat arena in the center of the small village. If you are old enough, you probably remember exactly where you were when USA won that game.

A history lesson might be needed for many. If you were born in 1972, you were seven or perhaps eight years old when the miracle happened. I’ve always believed that the age of reason for sports fans is eight and that’s from a personal point of view. I was born in 1968, and remember nothing sports-wise from 1975, but everything from 1976 on. It is possible to remember going to a sporting event as say, a four year old, but to remember the details from such an event is unlikely and perhaps impossible.

The hardest part to fathom about the “Miracle on Ice,” is that it took place 35 years ago. Has time passed that quickly? As an almost 12 year old, I remember it vividly. The first game was a last minute tie against Sweden; and then a surprising rout of Czechoslovakia, then three easy victories to get to the medal round. On the other side, the Soviet Union played five games, winning them all to come in to the USA game at 5-0. But, one of those wins was against a feisty Canada squad by a score of 6-4. For the most part, beginning in 1956, the Soviets ripped through Olympic play, so the tough contest against Canada often goes overlooked when documenting the journey taken by Team USA. More on this later.

Finland and Sweden were the other medal round participants and each team carried points into Friday. Because USA tied Sweden, each team brought one point into the last two games. The USSR beat Finland; Big Red had two points, and Finland none. Many believe that USA-USSR was a semifinal game and the winner would advance to the Gold Medal game on Sunday. In reality, that wasn’t true, even though all the Friday winner would have to do was win the Sunday game to get the gold. So, in essence if the USA-USSR winner lost on Sunday, the Gold medal could have been lost, too. Today’s Olympic hockey uses a standard tournament format with a preliminary round and then seedings, and from there, a single elimination tournament used to crown a champion.

On Saturday, the team was introduced numerically starting with #1 Steve Janaszak, the backup goaltender who didn’t play in any of the seven USA games. We did find out that even though he didn’t play, he met his wife, who was working as an interpreter. He spoke at the ceremony for a few minutes and his humble nature drew loud applause from nearly 6,000 people who came to Herb Brooks Arena on a cold and snowy night. He was lauded by his teammates including the guy who had the starting spot, Jim Craig.

Mark Pavelich, the recluse of the team also came back as did all surviving members of the team. Pavelich drove from Minnesota and it was the first time he’d been back to Lake Placid since the games. He was lauded by emcee Todd Walsh for his key plays, including an assist on Mike Eruzione’s game winning goal in the 4-3 win over the Soviets. But, true to his nature, he smiled but didn’t talk.

Some players talked, others didn’t. To nobody’s surprise, the captain, Mike Eruzione was a frequent speaker and his gregarious personality delighted the crowd. John Harrington, to many people’s surprise, also spoke frequently using humor to tell the story that he just might have tipped Eruzione’s wrister midway through the third period. Others did not talk at all, and when you think about it, with a team of 20 players, that means 20 personalities. Naturally, some are hams, some are shy, some are leaders and some are followers.

Walsh took us back to 1979 when the team was assembled under the late Herb Brooks. The players wove tails of Brooks’ brutal conditioning drills, the long 63 game pre-Olympic schedule against college, NHL, IHL, and national teams. Right before the team headed to Lake Placid, they talked of the 10-3 drubbing given to them by the USSR in Madison Square Garden.

The players talked about the relationship they had with Brooks, and for the most part, it was all business. Defenseman Jack O’Callahan wished he had gotten to know Brooks on a more personal level after the Olympics, before he died in a car crash in 2003 at the age of 66. Hindsight is always 20/20 but in 1980, Brooks had to keep a distance from the players and it was that distance that forged the bond that led to the Gold medal.

The 1980 United States Olympic hockey team had more talent that most of us are led to believe. The 20 players on that team totaled more than 1200 games in the NHL. Some like Neal Broten, who tallied 274 goals and 867 points and Dave Christian, with 193 goals and 417 points, had long and productive NHL careers. This team was not devoid of talent, in fact, its win over the Soviet Union was not a surprise to Clare Drake, one of Canada’s coaches. Two days before the USA-USSR game, Canada battled the Soviets to the end, losing 6-4, a loss that Drake said left his team “devastated.” After that game, Drake professed that the speedy USA team would not only hang with the Soviets, they would beat them using not only their speed, but also the “home ice,” that was the Olympic Center.

On that Friday, after the USA’s miracle win, Sweden and Finland played to a 3-3 tie. This left the USA with 3 points, the USSR 2, Sweden 2 and Finland 1. The Sunday USA-Finland contest was not an official Gold Medal game. For the USA it was, but had Finland won, they wouldn’t have won gold. Believe it or not, if Finland beat the USA and USSR beat Sweden (which it did, 7-2), the Soviets would have captured Gold despite their historic loss to USA on Friday. Based on the results, the USA and Finland would have finished with 3 points, and based on head-to-head, the Finns would have received Silver, the Yanks, bronze. And, when Herb Brooks told his troops that losing to Finland (they trailed 2-1 after two periods) would be something that they would “take to their f—- grave,” you now know why.

But that didn’t happen and that’s why after 35 years, there can be a reunion at Lake Placid with 6,000 people in an old school field house. It was an iconoclastic gathering. Some were at the 1980 game, some like me were kids, some were adults and some weren’t even born. The fact that the Olympics were on home soil, in a tiny village in Northern New York only enhances the legend. It might be the only time where people in Mississippi and New Mexico watched a hockey game—on tape delay no less—in its entirety. It was different time, a time where there was great hostility between the USA and USSR and a time where the United States was bruised and battered with high unemployment, 21 percent interest rates and overall self-esteem concerns.

I’ve said this before and I’m not alone, but most Americans recall the Miracle on Ice as the greatest sports moment of the 20th century, which is astounding because hockey is a distant fourth of the major sports in the United States. This was however, the perfect storm. The Superpowers. The fact that the USSR was using professional players, many of whom whipped the NHL All-Stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup and others who participated in the 1972 Summit Series, an eight game series against Canada which the Canadians won 4-3 with one tie.

The USSR was the big bear; the enemy while the USA was the rag tag bunch of youngsters looking to pull off an historic triumph. This was neither a script nor a movie; it was a slice of reality that moved the nation. The ceremony captured the moment with elegance and class. As the highlights were shown on the two big screens, the crowd erupted just like many Americans did in their living rooms in 1980. The only thing was missing was more talk about the Finland game. I know that the ceremony was to fete the USSR game, but wouldn’t it have been great to hear what the players did the day after that game? What did Brooks tell them at the Saturday skate around? As we know, many thought that the USA clinched the gold by beating the Soviets, but what was going through the minds of Mark Johnson, Mike Ramsey, Jim Craig, Eric Stroebel, and Steve Christoff and the others when they woke up Saturday? Here they were hours after the biggest moment of their life and somehow they had to reprogram for a game against a good Finland squad to actually clinch gold.

They only had 2.5 hours to tell the story, which is probably why the Finland game is left off. But, we know how the story ends. It ends with 20 young men draped with Gold medals around their necks, and little did they know that 35 years later, those medals would continue to shine.

Super Bowl 49 and the Greatness of Tom Brady

February 7, 2015

While America focuses on “the interception,” the greatness of Tom Brady is lost

by John Furgele

How good is Tom Brady? Is he the “Greatest of All Time,” when it comes to quarterbacks? Is he better than Joe Montana because they both won four Super Bowls, or is Montana better because he was 4-0 in the compared to Brady’s 4-2? Does Brady get more credit for getting to six even though he lost twice?

I always find the argument silly for many reasons; reasons we won’t get in to in this column, but Brady is certainly an all-timer for sure. The funny thing about Tom Brady and his New England Patriots is how much they’ve changed since their first Super Bowl title in 2001. That year, they were the underdog, an 11-5 team that lost starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe in week two to a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Enter Brady, who proceeded to lead the Pats into the Super Bowl against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams; a team that had won the 1999 NFL title was dubbed“The Greatest Show on Turf.”

Much of America rooted for the young Brady, the underdog Brady and the coach, Bill Belichick, who was trying to go from top notch assistant to Super Bowl winning coach. The Pats were the underdogs and after leading the game most of the way, saw the Rams tie it at 17 with under a minute left.

Most thought the Pats would play for overtime; in fact analyst John Madden insisted upon it, but Brady showed poise, drove the Pats to the Ram 30 where Adam Vinatieri kicked a 47 yard game winning field go as time expired. The Pats had pulled off the upset and were the darlings of the United States, and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks were aptly named, too.

As we know, the Pats would win and win a lot. Back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004, and countless appearances in the AFC Championship Games and of course, the 2007 team that went undefeated only to lose to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. Another loss to the Giants in 2011 would follow, but year after year, the Pats won and won at a dominating rate.

The more they won, the more they became hated. I guess that happens in American society. Rush Limbaugh started out as just a talk show host, now he’s vilified by many despite his high ratings. The Pats fell into a similar trap. When they were the underdog, they were liked, but the more they won, the more hated they became. They were accused and found guilty of filming practices of the New York Jets and surely, there were other teams that did this but didn’t get caught. Talker Mike Francesa might admire Belichick and Brady but says without hesitation that the “Pats take liberties.” Of course, the Pats are the only team that takes liberties because you can’t win every year without cheating. I guess having great players; a great organization and great leadership don’t count anymore. The 4-12 New York Jets surely didn’t cheat or take liberties because if they did, they would have had a better record, right?

Brady went from likeable guy to hated guy. I always get a kick when people watch a sound clip or a post-game presser and say things like, “he seems arrogant,” or “I don’t like him.” I’m sure these people have their reasons, but I’m not sure what their reasons are. These people have never talked to Brady and never will, but because he acts a certain way, people judge him. Because he wins and knows he’s good, people judge him. Because he beats your team year in and year out, he is hated.

Sure, he has the model for a wife and three great kids. He has the looks, the money and let’s face it, a pretty cool life. It’s not really jealously because most people don’t want his life, they just don’t want him to have his life. And, when you’re on top, people look for ways to bring you down. Brady has a son with actress Bridget Moynahan. The two never married, and they broke up a few months into her pregnancy, so naturally, Brady was a bad guy for that. Moynahan admitted that Brady wasn’t holding her hand in the delivery room or yelling push during labor, but she does say that he’s been a good father and her, Brady and Gisele communicate regularly.

There are people who call Brady a snake for leaving Moynahan as if they know that he was to blame for the breakup. That’s another thing that puzzles me about following celebrities; the fact that we can gather all the information by watching Entertainment Tonight or reading People. We all thought highly of Robin Williams when in reality he was putting on an act in public, hiding deep and dark depression that sadly caused him to take his life.

The other thing people fail to do is give Brady his proper respect simply because they don’t like him. Even though he wins every year, there are those who say “he’s not that good,” or “he’s overrated,” and even when he rallies his team to an NFL title, will say “that he got lucky,” or “Seattle gift wrapped the game for him.” No matter, it is what it is. There are those who honestly believe that Brady—and the Pats—cheated in every game and that’s the sole reason for their success.

Brady has the looks and the titles, but Peyton Manning is more likeable. It is Manning who slings the ball on Sunday and also sells insurance, pizza and a myriad of other products. Manning is the everyman, the ordinary looking fellow who you can have a beer with and because of that, he’s better than Brady. Brady had better players and Manning had to do it all by himself to win games. No matter what numbers you put up, you’ll never convince these people that Brady was better than Manning, because Manning is “their guy,” even though they’ve never met him.

The bottom line is this. Lucky or not, cheater or not, Tom Brady is a gifted—very gifted—quarterback. You would think that a sixth round draft pick would always be revered simply by bucking the system and becoming a star, but no, he’s the lucky, hated quarterback. In Super Bowl 49, the Seahawks had him on the ropes. Everybody will point to Pete Carroll’s decision to throw the slant rather than run Beast Mode Lynch from the New England 1, but the Seahawks lost that game to Brady in the fourth quarter. With 15 minutes left, Seattle, the defending champion was up 24-14. The Pats were on the ropes and another Seattle score would have sealed the deal, but what did Brady do? He took the Pats 68 yards to cut the lead to 24-21 and then got the ball back 65 yards from the go-ahead touchdown. Down three, most teams would settle for a field goal, but Brady (and Belichick) went for six and got it. Brady was 13 of 15 in the fourth quarter. The vaunted Seattle defense, when it had to step up during winning time, failed. They failed because they went up against the master and the master took Sherman and Company to school.

Brady’s fourth quarter heroics were more impressive because the Pats couldn’t run the ball effectively, and just about every play was going to be a pass. The Seahawks and the whole nation knew it, yet Brady carved up the Hawks like Uncle Jimmy carves up the turkey on the fourth Thursday in November. Most quarterbacks need balance to win the big game, but Brady didn’t; he won with a one dimensional unit on offense at game’s end.

As we know, Super Bowl 49 will be remembered for the interception, the gaffe or whatever words you wish to describe 2nd and goal from the one yard line, but I’ll remember it as a crowning achievement for one of the all-time greats, Tom Brady. You may hate him, but in 25 years, you’ll be telling the youth of 2040 just how great he was much like the 45 year olds tell today’s youth how great Joe Montana was.

Greatness is fascinating to see. As a young fan, I rooted against Joe Montana and his 49ers and I always wished that the Bengals, first with Ken Anderson and later with Boomer Esiason would have won one if not both of the Super Bowls contested between the two teams. But 30 years later, I’m glad Montana and his Niners won those games—and two others—because I can now tell a story of greatness. That’s the story I’ll be telling about Super Bowl 49. While most tell the story of Pete Carroll choking the game away, I’ll be there, reminding people that I saw greatness, the greatness of Tom Brady and the coach Bill Belichick. Players and coaches like these two don’t come around too often, so rather than hate, why not appreciate?

Can Glens Falls Get Over the Hurt?

February 3, 2015

Will Glens Falls hockey fans accept lower level ECHL?

by John Furgele

For the third time, hockey fans in Glens Falls feel spurned. First, it was the Red Wings, then the Phantoms and now the Flames. As expected, the AHL announced that five teams are up and moving west to create a new Pacific Division. The reasons are obvious: proximity to the parent clubs, easier flights when calling up a player, and reduced costs, but that doesn’t make the jilted Glens Falls hockey fan feel better. For the most part, the city of Glens Falls and the surrounding areas have supported AHL hockey and because of that, the fans feel that they deserve an AHL franchise.

It was an interesting announcement as well. On one hand, the city is losing its AHL franchise, on the other; they are getting an ECHL team, which will owned by the Calgary Flames. In essence, this is a swap; the current ECHL Stockton Thunder will become the AHL Thunder while the current AHL Flames will become the ECHL Flames or some other moniker.

There are many emotions here, and to summarize, there are three camps. First is the disgruntled, “I’ll never support the team again.” camp. These are the fans that felt that the Red Wings leaving was wrong, and didn’t support Glens Falls’ years in the United Hockey League from 1999-2006. They accepted the temporary relocation of the Phantoms, knowing that the team would move once an arena was completed in Lehigh Valley, PA. They figured if they supported the temporary Phantoms, they’d be rewarded with a permanent AHL franchise.

They thought they were right. The Phantoms departed, and in came the Flames. AHL hockey was not only back, but back to stay. But, the only certainty in life is uncertainty, and the groundswell for a western division continued to pick up steam, culminating in what happened last Thursday. The AHL Flames, as well as the AHL are gone in Glens Falls, and this time, it’s unlikely that it’s coming back.

The second camp is the “I’ll support hockey in Glens Falls, because any hockey is better than no hockey.” Of course, that camp existed when the Ice Hawks/Frostbite came to town in 1999. At first, the crowds were pretty good, but as time wore on, they decreased and the UHL was gone, leaving the Civic Center dark for much of the calendar year. If the ECHL is to succeed in Glens Falls, this camp has to not only maintain, it has to grow. By all accounts, the ECHL is a vastly superior product to the now defunct UHL, but the fact is that most ECHL players will never play in the NHL and many more will not even be fixtures in the AHL.

The third camp is the casual fan, the “I’ll go to one or two games per year just to be entertained on a dark cold night.” These fans, for the most part, don’t really care about the level of hockey because, by definition, they’re casual fans. These fans have to keep going to their one to two games and for the good of Glens Falls increase from one to two, or two to three. The casual fan is the one demographic that any sports franchise covets, because this is a segment that has growth potential.

While I understand the bitterness, I don’t really understand camp one. Glens Falls is a city of 15,000 people, and for the most part, will never draw many fans south of Clifton Park. The more north you go, the less people, and more importantly, the less young people. The arena is beyond antiquated; yes, the sightlines are wonderful, there is a good feel to being there, but in today’s modern age, it’s all about amenities. To survive, they are needed and the GFCC simply doesn’t have them. The hard core hockey fan will state that it’s not a big a deal, but we live in the times of bells and whistles. Today’s fans aren’t very good at sitting in a seat for two plus hours. They want to walk around, have access to Wi-Fi, great food, and other entertainment while at the game. They don’t care really who wins the game, it’s more important to have a great time, and hence, come again.

There won’t be a new Civic Center and there won’t be a major refurbishing either. As they say, it is what it is. In many ways, the GFCC may not be that suitable for ECHL hockey, but for now, they’re in. The ECHL wants to expand its footprint to the east and Glens Falls fits the bill.

There is some smugness being displayed by the hard core fans. If Cincinnati, Toledo, Tulsa and Indianapolis can have ECHL franchises, why can’t Glens Falls? How can a city of 900,000 (Indianapolis) embrace a team, yet tiny Glens Falls thumb their collective noses at the league?

Fort Wayne is the best example. The city of 256,000 has a long storied minor league hockey history. Other than the Original Six teams and Hershey Bears, no team has played more consecutive seasons than the Komets, who began play in 1952-1953. And, like Glens Falls, the Komets have bounced around. They played in the old International Hockey League for decades, then played in the UHL, IHL again, and CHL before settling in the ECHL. They draw over 7,300 fans per game, and as good as Glens Falls hockey history is, it pales in comparison to the Komets.

Glens Falls fans should embrace the ECHL. They should change their first name from Adirondack to Glens Falls to give the team a true identity, one that won’t leave fans in Fort Wayne googling to see where “Adirondack” is. They should adopt the mentality that Double A hockey is better than no hockey and they should realize that if the ECHL leaves the GFCC, there won’t be another minor league venture replacing it.

But, this is a free society. The fans of the North Country will make the decision. They will support the new ECHL team or they won’t. If the team succeeds, it will be a source of pride for the community. If the team fails, then it fails. There is no gun to your head here. The fans can check it out for themselves. If they go to a game and render the ECHL as inferior, then so be it.

Life isn’t fair. The city of Glens Falls didn’t really have a say. They were told that an ECHL team is coming and there was no discussion or dialog to be had. Hopefully, after the hurt subsides, they will realize that Glens Falls and the ECHL can work, but it certainly can’t be forced down their throats.

I will hope for the best, hope that a proud old hockey town will embrace a new league and new era. It’s tough to be teased, and the AHL has certainly done some teasing the past few years. The operators of this ECHL franchise are going to have work, and if they take the savvy Glens Falls fans for granted, that would be a mistake. In the end, these are good hockey fans and they deserve to have a top notch team in this lower tier league. Moreover, they deserve some stability and a feeling that the new team will be here to stay.

Could Glens Falls, Utica Be Losing AHL Teams?

January 24, 2015

Western teams want their affiliates closer
by John Furgele

The winds of change are descending upon the American Hockey League. And, the change could result in a dramatic shift on which cities remain in the American Hockey League, the top minor league of hockey. The AHL All-Star Game is set for Monday at the Utica Memorial Auditorium and there is a Board of Governors meeting slated for the weekend. It is there where the board may decide to shift some franchises from the east to the west to benefit teams like the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose, Vancouver and Calgary. The talk of a five or six team Pacific division have been going for quite some time and there are reports that say the deal just needs a final stamp of approval.

The Norfolk Admirals, Worcester Sharks and Adirondack (Glens Falls) Flames are reported heading west to Ontario CA, San Jose, CA and Stockton, CA. For the Flames, it would be a one and done as the team just relocated from Abbotsford, BC to Glens Falls for the 2014-2015 season. Glens Falls lost the Phantoms to Lehigh Valley, PA after 2013-2014, but that was always a temporary situation while a new arena was being built in the area for the Phantoms, a team that originated in Philadelphia.

Utica has not specifically been mentioned as a relocation candidate, but with the Vancouver Canucks as the parent club, there has to be some concerns to those who reside in the Mohawk Valley. The Albany Devils, owned by the New Jersey Devils, play at the Albany Times Union Center whose lease expires after this season. Talks to extend the lease have been ongoing and TU Center manager Bob Belber is confident that the Devils will continue to call Albany home in the future.

Glens Falls could be the odd team out. The Flames play in the small, antiquated but cozy Civic Center and even though the arena capacity is 4,800 and the team has been averaging over 3,400 per game, the city of Glens Falls is roughly 16,000 population and though it is close enough to Saratoga, one wonders if that size of a city concerns AHL officials? The Devils play in downtown Albany and despite a great arena, the team has never been well supported with crowds routinely under 3,000 for games. It hasn’t been discussed, but could one see the Flames leaving, and the Devils moving to Glens Falls, leaving Albany team less? The answer is no, but with the ever changing situation, who really knows?

The Flames want their top affiliate closer; there is no hiding or denying that. The move from Abbotsford to Glens Falls was puzzling because British Columbia is obviously much closer to Calgary than Warren County, NY is, but there were issues that drove the Flames to Glens Falls. Now, it appears that the Flames have found a Western home and the Civic Center will be searching again for another hockey team.

The Flames are trying to keep hockey in Glens Falls. Reports of a swap are progressing with Stockton, CA leaving the ECHL for the AHL and Glens Falls getting an ECHL franchise. The ECHL is considered a AA league (AHL is AAA, so to speak). Most ECHL teams have AHL and NHL parents. The Buffalo Sabres for example has their AHL affiliate in Rochester and their ECHL club in Elmira. An ECHL team for Glens Falls would certainly be better than no hockey team, but there has been a degree of smugness with that in the past. After the Adirondack Red Wings left town, the Adirondack Icemen and later the Frostbite played in the United Hockey League. Glens Falls fans never really warmed to those teams and eventually the city was without hockey until the Phantoms needed a temporary home. There will be those in Glens Falls that will demand and not settle for anything less than an AHL team, but if the Flames do leave, it’s best to get over the hurt quickly and embrace having the ECHL in your city.

The ECHL is better than what the UHL was. It has 28 teams from east to west with Anchorage, Alaska even having a team. The Fort Wayne Komets, which began play in the 1952-53 season, are one of the longest running United States hockey clubs behind only the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and Hershey Bears (AHL). The Komets played in the higher International Hockey League and were also members of the UHL and the fan support has always been great—regardless of league. Their play by play announcer Bob Chase is 88 years old and still does all games in his 62nd season. The league is certainly good enough for Glens Falls and the city will hopefully celebrate and not moan keeping hockey in their city.

By Tuesday, the smoke should be clearer. The AHL wants to streamline itself and market itself better. There is also talk of reducing the schedule from 76 games to as few as 66, with 72 also being bandied about. The NHL would like to see fewer games, more development and practice and more NHL ready players. In a way, a further reduction seems right. Major League Baseball plays 162 games, but full season Double A and Triple A teams play 144. Having a 66 game schedule might leave time for teams to call up some players to get a look at them before the season ends. Of course, having fewer games might not necessarily mean that the AHL season ends earlier. The AHL badly wants to eliminate as many weekday games as possible and to play Friday-Sunday and have the season last the current 28 weeks as it does now. If the AHL had its way, they would play no weekday games until after Christmas because in the fall, crowds are sparse.

If the Flames leave the AHL for the ECHL, the name Adirondack Flames name would remain as the Flames would be the parent club for an ECHL club. In some ways, it would be sad to lose the AHL because if they lose it this time, it is never coming back, but the ECHL would be a good substitute for the city at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. Something is better nothing and here’s hoping residents and hockey fans in Glens Falls feel the same way.

Penn State Can Embrace the Past and Move Forward with Pride

January 21, 2015

Accepting blame for Sandusky will go a long way

Penn State got a break, a big break, and now they can be a pillar, a beacon, a powerhouse going forward. In 2011, the country dropped its jaw in shock when the Jerry Sandusky child abuse allegations came out. As victim after victim came forward, it became apparent that Joe Paterno, Saint Joe, the patron saint of Pennsylvania State University football had harbored a criminal and harbored one for years. I’m sure Paterno heard whispers that Sandusky may have been involved in moral wrongdoing, but often, whispers are not followed up upon. It reminds me of the “gay whispers;” you know, people talk about somebody being gay, but nobody follows through and actually finds out. Paterno may have been shielded by those who thought Sandusky’s penchant for hanging around young boys was just Jerry and his inner child, but Paterno needed to be out front on this, and sadly, he wasn’t.

As a fan of college football and fan of Penn State, perhaps the last eastern power, like many I was aghast. How could this happen? Who is Jerry Sandusky and more importantly, how was he able to survive for 31 years doing what he was doing to young boys? Sandusky has to take the heat here; he was the perpetrator, the pedophile, the criminal. He formed The Second Mile as a front to find vulnerable boys from shaky backgrounds for his own pleasure and exploitation. That may be tough to read, but it’s an absolute.

Joe Paterno went from lovable two time national champion football coach to a shell of his self in the end. It is hard for many to accept that Paterno has blood on his hands. This is a man who did so much for the university and to think he looked the other way while Sandusky did those despicable things is hard for some to take. To many, this was a man who did so many good things, that it seems unfair that his entire reputation can be ruined by the one bad thing that he did. But, this isn’t Richard Nixon’s henchman stealing documents or Bill Clinton having consensual “relations” with an intern in the White House. No, this is far worse because it leaves an enormous scar on the victims, a scar that will last a lifetime.

The Lions were preparing for the 1999 Alamo Bowl when the university announced that Sandusky, after 31 years on the sideline was retiring. That move surprised many because Sandusky was often mentioned as Paterno’s eventual successor. Why would the younger Sandusky, the master mind of the 1987 Fiesta Bowl defense that intercepted the mighty Vinny Testaverde five times, step away now? After the Lions won the Alamo Bowl, Sandusky was carried off the field, a ride he certainly enjoyed.

Something smelled fishy right away. It didn’t make sense because those around the university knew that Sandusky had an interest in being the successor to Paterno, but as we know, Paterno had no plans to retire, in fact, he had to be fired in the wake of the allegations that broke in 2011. The likely scenario was that there were suspicions of Sandusky’s behaviors and he was called in and there it was suggested that he retire. There were no accusations, but the message was clear: you’re never getting the head coaching job and it may be best that you walk away while still revered. Sandusky did just that and as a state employee was able to receive a nice pension and an office at the university.

It was two years after Sandusky retired that the incident occurred, the shower scene where coach and former quarterback Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky having sex with a young boy in the locker room shower. We all know what happened after; McQueary reported what he saw to Paterno who then met with his superiors and the cover up began. Of course, that was 2001, years after the abuse began and years before it would come to the surface. Paterno was told of a horrific crime and for ten years kept on coaching and kept on winning games. The question will always be a simple one: how could this have happened and how could Paterno, knowing what he knew, just keep on living and working and coaching. Moreover, he saw Sandusky enough but never had the courage to confront him about these rumors. One can only hope that Sandusky was confronted, and at the very least, denied that he did anything wrong. That doesn’t excuse Paterno, but better to ask and be lied to than to never ask at all.

Paterno is revered by many in Pennsylvania. There are those that can’t come to grips that he knew what happened because they believe he would have done something. These people/supporters are in denial because they can’t believe that he had full knowledge, because Joe Paterno, Saint Joe had too much integrity to let a monster like Sandusky do what he did.

The other side is one of vitriol. These people blame Paterno for everything; they believe that he did nothing, he protected his football career over young children and they even believe that he got what was coming when he was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after losing his job as the football coach. This camp thinks taking away 111 wins was just even though it can never make up for what he didn’t do.

The pro-Paterno camp thinks that Paterno did far too much good and believe that when he told his superiors he did what was required of him. They think taking away 111 wins was unfair and unjust and the sanctions placed on the university were far too harsh. They state that the football program was punished because of what occurred after Sandusky retired. The old “why are you punishing the players on the team when they were in grade school when this all happened,” defense.

It is tough, emotional, and heart wrenching. It’s easy to live in New York, Ohio, Illinois, or California and have a strong opinion. It’s easy to say “make Penn State drop football forever,” when you live hundreds or thousands miles away. It’s a non-emotional response. Yes, just thinking of what Sandusky did sickens you enough to want to shut down the university, but what about the Penn State fan? What about the people that grew up in Pennsylvania and watched the Nittany Lions their whole life? The 1982 team that beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to win the National Championship, the aforementioned 1986 team that stopped Miami in the Fiesta Bowl; the undefeated 1969 team that didn’t get voted champions because Richard Nixon gave the honor to Texas after they won at then undefeated Arkansas?

As silly as this may sound, sports provides many things to many people. We become attached to sports, the players, the leaders. To say that many live and die with a sports team is hyperbole, but there is no denying that a fan feels better the day after a big win than they do after a big loss. If you have passion for Penn State football, the scandal hit you hard. It’s like having a brother that goes to prison for murder. The public sees a murderer, you see a brother who walked home from school with you, played ball with you, helped you when you needed help. The rest of society says lock him up and throw away the key, and even though you know it’s the right thing, it’s painful.

When Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death for bombing the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, I remember the pain that his father, Bill McVeigh went through. Bill knew that Tim had to face the music, but that was his son, his little boy that he tried to raise the best he could. It’s easy to stand miles away, without emotions, and call for brutal and harsh, but when you’re attached to something, it is gut wrenching. Penn State football bonded family, was passed down from generation to generation and was a major reason why students applied to Penn State.

Penn State suffered, but the victims suffered more. Penn State suffered when the NCAA placed the school on four years’ probation, took away scholarships and vacated 111 wins by Paterno. Once again, the victims suffered more. But, in the end, the sanctions are devoid of feelings. Does taking away the wins really help the victims heal? Many of the victims were fans of Penn State football and that’s why Sandusky was able to get to them. Does banning Penn State from the Liberty Bowl really do justice?

Part of history is telling the story—the whole story—and now that the NCAA has given Paterno back his win total to 409, the whole story can be told. Fifty years from now, Paterno’s story can be told fully; the 409 wins, the two titles, along with his cover up in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. To not have these wins doesn’t do anybody any good. If Paterno paid players, changed grades and accumulated wins, this would not be as big a deal, but because he allowed, or at the very least, covered for a man who was raping young children it is far worse. Like the sibling of a Tim McVeigh, the Penn State fan might feel a little dirty; guilty by association. That’s unfair. The fans did nothing wrong. They simply rooted for their Nittany Lions to win football games and for their coach to keep doing good things for the university. The best word to describe it is uneasy.

Numbers are just numbers, but now is the time for Penn State to shine. Please, don’t gloat, rejoice and celebrate because you can now go to bowl games, and that you have the all-time winningest coach back in your stead. This is the time to so the right thing. This is the time to advertise and advocate for the victims of child sexual abuse. The NCAA is making you spend $60 million in Pennsylvania on the behalf of sexual abuse victims. The easy thing for the university to do is to spend it quietly and in a few months or a year, report that they have paid restitution. That is the coward’s way. The best way to shine is acknowledge the past and accept that you did the wrong thing. It was hard for Germany to admit that the Holocaust was wrong; it was embarrassing for Germans to acknowledge that they supported Hitler, but eventually, they were able to purge themselves by acknowledging their past.

Penn State should sponsor advertising and campaigns and openly admit that they were at fault for the handling of Jerry Sandusky. A commercial that says something to the likes of “We at Penn State allowed a sexual predator to do awful things to young people on our campus and we’re here to tell you……” This will take courage but no more courage than Sandusky’s victims have taken. Taking the blame will once again bring attention that some want to forget, but it needs to happen. The German born in 1950 had nothing to do with the Holocaust, but accepting and in some way embracing the past is required and at Penn State, they need to require that everybody acknowledges what happened in the past.

Penn State is getting its life back. The 409 wins, the restoring of scholarships and the chance to play in bowl games again is a return to normalcy. It is the hope that Sandusky’s victims are getting their lives back, too. These victims have to live with what happened to them but that doesn’t mean that they can’t live well. Penn State has to live with what happened, but if they embrace (yes, that doesn’t sound right) the past, they can enjoy the future. If they embrace and acknowledge what happened and get out in front of it, if they ever win another national championship, America will forgive them because they did the right thing. If they release a couple statements, silently donate money and then win a national championship, they will be reviled.

It is my expectation that The Pennsylvania State University will do the right thing. They will acknowledge that what they permitted was horrific and can never happen again. They will take the blame, acknowledge the past and in the same 60 second spot will state that they are moving forward with pride. It’s not going to be easy, but they can do it and what’s more is that they will do it.

NFL Championship Sunday Remains Unparalleled

January 17, 2015

by John Furgele

America loves football, the big game and of course, the Super Bowl. Last year’s Super Bowl game between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks was watched by 111 million people, and the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship Game was viewed by 33 million more. Be that as it may, is there a better Sunday of the year than conference championship weekend?

By 11 pm Sunday, we will know the participants for Super Bowl 49 and the hype will begin in earnest and will last for 14 consecutive days. But, the AFC and NFC Championship Games are in many ways, the last true weekend of the NFL season, and on this day, there will be two champions crowned.

I grew up in Western New York and lived in both the big cities, Buffalo and Rochester. It was during this time (1990-1994) that the Buffalo Bills started their magnificent run of AFC championships. As we all know, the Bills lost the Super Bowl four straight times and Western New York had to suffer the post-Monday hangover that came with losing that game. But, those Bills won AFC Championship Games four times in a row, beating the Los Angeles Raiders, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs in succession. The Bills kept winning conference titles and kept losing Super Bowls, and thus, in an unfortunate way, became the laughingstock of America. They lost their first appearance by one point, then were blown out twice and then lost 30-13 in a game that they led 13-6 at halftime.

I remember the first AFC Championship Game the Bills participated in during that four in four run. It was 1991 and it was a mild Western New York day. The week before, the Bills beat Miami 44-34 in a snowstorm and were the heavy favorites against the Raiders. My friends and I had tickets in the upper bowl on the 48 yard line, the result of camping out overnight to get those tickets in the pre-internet/order online era. The Bills buried the Raiders 51-3 in the early game we drove home to watch the NFC Championship Game featuring the New York Giants and defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, a game won by the underdog Giants 15-14 thanks to great defense and five field goals by Matt Bahr.

There was something magical about that AFC Championship Game. It was such a great feeling, a feeling of accomplishment by the players and one of pride for the fans. Even though the “Big Game,” was one week later (for that particular year), there was a surreal feeling of calm and appreciation of what just happened. Sure, it doesn’t last long. The next day, the players had to begin to refocus to get ready for the ultimate championship game, the Super Bowl. But, that’s what makes the conference title games very special. For a moment, there are two teams that can sit back, look at what they did and rejoice in what they did. Because it’s not the ultimate trophy, the ultimate prize, most fans and certainly most players can’t celebrate it as such. But, playing in one and certainly winning one is not that easy. Winning an NFC or AFC Championship Game is very hard to do. Think about it. There is the off season, training camp, four or five relatively meaningless preseason games, then 16 games over 17 weeks. To even play in a championship game takes a lot of things, one of which is luck. Teams that make it to a conference title game had to avoid major injuries to major players and with the sheer brutality that is the NFL, it is almost impossible to do.

The writers, broadcasters and others that cover sports and pro football in particular love labels. They enjoy labeling a player as the greatest, the most clutch, or the one who comes up small in the big moment, the big game. They also love lists. The top ten this and the top ten that. There are those that rank Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback of all time because he won four Super Bowls, and overrate Joe Namath with his 173 touchdown passes and 220 interceptions because he won one. Those same people will knock Dan Marino, who despite all the passing accolades never won the big one. Furthermore, he only played in three AFC Championship Games in his 17 year career which underscores my point of how hard it is to even play in conference title games, let alone the Super Bowl.

When he retires, Peyton Manning will have most of the passing records, but despite his brilliance only played in three AFC Championship Games. To me, that’s the litmus test: not how many Super Bowls you played in and won, but how many conference title games that you took your team to. Warren Moon never played in one and for that reason he loses points on the rankings scale. John Elway played in six, winning five and thus gets high marks for those accomplishments. We all remember the two Super Bowls he won at the end, but playing in six title games is a heck of an accomplishment. Say what you want about Donovan McNabb, but the man played in five NFC Championship Games, and though he won only one (and lost the Super Bowl) that, to me, bolsters his Hall of Fame campaign if there is one to bolster.

That’s why Tom Brady is to be lauded. Sunday’s game against Indianapolis will be Brady’s eighth trip to the AFC title game, and he is 5-2 in the previous seven. Brady was 5-0 before losing in the 2012 and 2013 seasons to Baltimore and Denver, so Sunday he will be trying to avoid a threepeat.

It’s tough for the fans of the four teams to think this way. They’re going to be rooting for their team to win the AFC and NFC Championship Games and part of them will be worried about winning the Super Bowl two weeks later. For some reason, losing the Super Bowl is devastating. It shouldn’t be, but it is. The teams that lose the conference championship game don’t get ridiculed like those who do the same in the Super Bowl. It’s almost as you go from conference champion to 32nd best team in four hours.

It is my hope that you, as a fan, enjoy “Championship Sunday,” and come 11 PM, sit back and enjoy what two teams accomplished in the cities of Foxboro and Seattle. Worry about the Super Bowl later, much later and take solace that two champions have been crowned in one day, a special day indeed.

These Are Games

January 6, 2015

by John Furgele

We’re at it again. Every year, as soon as the playoffs begin in every sport, it starts in earnest. The fact is brought up time and again that the playoffs mean everything and; if you don’t win in the playoffs, you must literally hide in a hole and be embarrassed at your existence.

During yesterday’s CBS broadcast of Bengals-Colts, Jim Nantz asked Phil Simms, the former quarterback if he remembers the scrutiny being this severe when he played. Naturally, Simms said no, that he doesn’t remember and moreover, doesn’t remember when the threshold was crossed and the scrutiny-mobile was alive and well.

Many of us love sports. For us, it’s an escape, something to look forward to after a tough day or week of work, balancing life, family and home and all things in between. Nothing better than sitting down in front of the TV with a cold beverage in one hand, and the remote in the other and clicking through the channels looking to escape for a few hours, or more. But, for some reason, in this win-or-you’re-nothing society, it has become paramount to win it all or stay in your room.

Despite all the rankings, critiques and circumstance, there is one truth that is evident.

These are games.

Games. That’s all they are. Games are supposed to fun, games are supposed to provide entertainment; games are intended to be a relief, an outlet, something to be enjoyed.

But, everything has changed, including the way that they are coached. The scrutiny is so severe that the head coaches are tighter and are genuinely afraid to be aggressive and to go for it when the time comes.

Take Jim Caldwell, the head coach of the Detroit Lions. His team came out firing, built a 14-0 lead and defensively was having its way with the vaunted Dallas Cowboy offense. Rather than step on the Cowboys’ throat, Caldwell took his foot off the gas and tried to massage the lead, and the end result was a tough 24-20 loss.

The non-penalty on 3rd and 1 will be talked about for years in Detroit and the fans will yell the old refrain “We Wuz Robbed,” for years to come. But, Coach Caldwell forgot that these are games. After the flag was picked up, the Lions had a 4th and 1 at the Dallas 46. If they go for it, make it, they, at the very minimum run another three minutes off the clock, but Caldwell acted as if he was on the verge of deciding to ask Congress to declare war on North Korea or Cuba. He lined up, and had quarterback Matthew Stafford use the hard count in an attempt to draw Dallas offside. When the Cowboys didn’t bite, he sent out his punter, who promptly shanked a 10 yarder.

Why not go for it there, Coach? You’re at the Dallas 46, it is one yard. Make it, and you’re likely on your way to Seattle for another opportunity to make it the Super Bowl, something that the Detroit Lions have never done in their long history. Caldwell took the moment too seriously and forgot that football is just a game. Of course, I don’t want to minimize what Caldwell does for a living. He is a coach of an NFL team and there are only 32 of these jobs in the world. Too many losses get coaches fired. So, Caldwell punted and believed that his defense could hold down the fort. Unfortunately, the defense didn’t do the job and the Cowboys head to Green Bay this Sunday for an NFC Divisional Playoff Game.

Take Andy Dalton and his Cincinnati Bengals. For four straight years, Dalton has led them to the playoffs. In 64 career stats, he has 40 wins, 23 losses and 1 tie. However, in four playoff games, his Bengals are 0-4 and he hasn’t played well. The Bengals have been to the playoffs for four straight years, something that the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and many other teams would kill for. But, because Dalton has struggled, there are some that think the Bengals should trade him or at the very least, find another starting quarterback.

These are games. Down 26-10, the Bengals continued to have Dalton dink and dunk his way down the field. Why? Why not throw the ball deep on every play and at least try to score. Does it matter if Dalton gets intercepted one time or four times? The Bengals never looked desperate; never looked like they had the sense of urgency to at least try to go downfield. What’s there to lose? The Bengals are good enough to make the playoffs every year, but because they can’t win in the playoffs, many deem them, their quarterback and their coach a failure.

Herman Edwards once said, that “you play to win the game,” yet it was the same Herman Edwards who would see his team reach the red zone, and then run three conservative plays to make sure that he came away with the cheapie field goal. Coaches would rather be conservative and lose, then be risky and lose. If you don’t believe me about Edwards, google the 2004 New York Jets with kicker Doug Brien and the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Pittsburgh. In that game, Edwards ordered his offense to practically kneel down for three plays and settle for a 43 yard field goal try. At the time, nobody had ever made a field goal over 40 yards at Heinz Field, but Edwards, ever the conservator, kicked it—and missed. Edwards did this three times and Brien missed two of three kicks, and of course, the Steelers won 20-17 in overtime.

These coaches do not get these jobs by accident. They have forgotten more about football than most of us will ever know, but sometimes, they appear lost in the moment, or at the very least, lost in their scripts. Doug Flutie once said that football is simple. Make your read, find the open guy, throw the ball, but today’s coaches spend hours trying to make it harder than it should be. And, they’re succeeding.

These are games. And, true to form, teams play not to lose them rather than by trying to win them. You can point to the officials, the penalties and the poor quarterback play, but in the end, these are games and games are supposed to fun, full of risk and full of reward and joy. Yes, football and sports is a business—a big business—but in the end…….

These are games.

College Football Playoff: A Rousing Start

January 2, 2015

by John Furgele

The College Football Playoff is a hit. The ratings will be out soon and I’ll assume that they’ll be great. For starters, the Rose Bowl Game, always at 5 pm EST is a ratings winner for many reasons. For people living in the cold of winter, the scenery alone picks up and fosters a positive attitude/feeling about the New Year. And, the Rose Bowl is…..the Rose Bowl.

The game itself got out of hand, simply because Florida State, in an effort to keep up with the fast paced high scoring Oregon Ducks, made too many mistakes, and thus, their national championship streak ends at one. There is no shame in what Florida State did. This is college football, and while it’s increasingly more important to hang banners, the Seminoles did well in going undefeated, winning the ACC title and appearing in the CFP Semifinals.

The nightcap was a stirring affair. The Superdome always looks pretty on Sugar Bowl night, filled to capacity with the colors of the opposing teams. There was a time when it was 21-6 Alabama that the CFP was not going to live it to its hype; but the Buckeyes, poised beyond reproach rallied behind a powerful running game, timely defense and a very calm third string quarterback.

Let’s not do what many on Twitter did by referencing the “if this was the old BCS, Ohio State and Oregon would not have been able to compete for a national title,” thing; we all know that, and that’s why the powers that be changed the system. The CFP does add that drama, that sense of urgency that American athletes and fans love. We love our playoffs, our tournaments, and the theory of advancing and eliminating. Most soccer leagues around the world have a 38 game regular season and at the end of those 38 games, the team with the most points is crowned the champion. America’s Major League Soccer has a 30 game regular season and—-PLAYOFFS. That’s what we want because that’s what we like.

The College Football Playoff will be an asset to college football. Eventually, it will be expanded to six, eight, ten, 12 or perhaps even 16 teams unless the Power 5 schools do a clean break from the Group of 5 schools. But, let’s allow the four team playoff to breathe a little (and the TV contract is structured that way) before wild calls for the inclusion of more teams. The BCS was never loved, but it did do what the previous system didn’t and that was to try and match the #1 and #2 teams for the title.

I never took the BCS as serious as others did. I never referred to the BCS Championship Game as the “National Championship Game,” because there was no advancing and eliminating and too much exclusion. It was polling and a computer that spat out two teams and said here’s a trophy to play for.

The CFP is already better. There is plenty to play for. The loser of the championship game can still say that they finished 13-2 and won the Sugar or Rose Bowl. They have won something to get into the title game and that can be sold to alumni, recruits and of course, boosters.

The downside of the CFP is the harm that it will do the so-called Group of 5 schools. Let’s be honest, the Group of 5 schools are never going to get one of their guys in the CFP. The BCS never really allowed a Boise State, Texas Christian, Utah or Central Florida access to the tile game either, but the CFP is designed purely for the bluebloods. Marshall won their first 12 games of the 2014 year and never was ranked in the Top 20. Even the bluebloods have divisions of bluebloods. If you think the history of Ohio State didn’t factor in their selection over Texas Christian and Baylor, you’d be wrong and if you saw how their fans, and Big Ten fans in general travel to big events, then you’d be wrong twice.

The Group of 5 would dearly love to stay affiliated with the Power 5 schools, but as the CFP progresses, that is going to be difficult to do. Teams like Baylor, which scheduled SMU and Buffalo—and got ripped for it—will likely be pressured to schedule only Power 5 schools or face being omitted again from the CFP. Better to go 10-2 with losses to fellow P5 schools than whipping through the likes of Buffalo, SMU and Division 1-AA Northwestern State. Nick Saban went that far by suggesting nine game conference schedules and P5 only for nonconference games. Of course, that would mean Saban and the Tide would have to drop their yearly 1-AA opponent the week before the Auburn game.

There is nothing wrong with being a Group of 5 school, but they have lost a lot of cache over the years. Their success rate (winning) of beating P5 schools worsens each year, almost to the point where 1-AA schools are their equal. Indiana State and Ball State are closer in talent and ability than Ball State and Michigan State are and for the record, Indiana State beat Ball State in 2014.

The Sporting News suggested that there be two four team playoffs; one for the Power 5 schools and another for the Group of 5 schools. My suggestion is to let the Power 5 schools finish their breakaway and unite the Group of 5 schools with all the 1-AA schools. Each division could stage their playoffs, bowl games and whatever they believe would benefit them the most. The Power 5 would be 66 schools with independents BYU and Notre Dame being included and the best of the rest would include the remaining Group of 5 schools and ALL the current 1-AA (FCS) schools. The non-P5 schools would be near the 200 mark, which would leave the networks plenty of inventory for bowl games, a 24 or 32 team playoff and whatever else the creative minds might come up with.

A playoff for the Group of 5 schools would have a minor league feel to it, but even the smallest bowl games get over 1 million viewers. Americans have shown their undying love for football, so even a second class playoff system would likely generate interest. All that said if college football’s big boys continue to do what they’re doing, what is the alternative? If P5 schools are not allowed to play G5 schools, what’s the alternative? If playing a G5 school hurts your chances of making the CFP, what’s the alternative? My point is the 1-AA classification is not an insult; it’s a perfect way to separate Division I football.

The G5 schools will survive, but many 1-AA schools play a P5 school to pay for its athletic program and in many cases, if Western Carolina can’t play Alabama, they may not be able to afford to keep its football program. Deep down, I think the leaders of college football are good with that, a survival of the fittest if you will. Why would Alabama host Western Carolina when Jerry Jones will pay Alabama and Georgia Tech to play in Arlington? You’re seeing tons of neutral site games in college basketball and the impact has been great. Rather than have Duke host Texas State, we get Duke-Texas at Madison Square Garden. In football, Alabama versus Georgia Tech in Arlington is much more attractive to both schools than Alabama doing a home and home with the Jackets, because it’s very hard to win on the road in college football. And, it certainly is more compelling than Alabama-Chattanooga and will go a long way in selecting the teams for the CFP.

The CFP is off to a rousing start. It will grow, but the key to any business is to keep growing and keep making money. They can do this by eventually expanding and they can do this by scheduling more high profile games during the regular season. And, that’s what they’ll do, because the money for an Auburn-Michigan game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando will dwarf Michigan hosting Bowling Green. The P5 schools will still have their six and possible seven home games, but rather than play down, they will play up. The result might be more two loss teams in the CFP, but that’s okay, going undefeated doesn’t mean as much as winning the playoffs as basketball schools like UNLV and Wichita State can attest to.

The writing is on the wall. There will be nine conference games, which would leave only three nonconference games to be scheduled. The PAC 12 and the Big 12 already play nine, so it’s time for the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten to even the playing field. And, for schools like Baylor, they would have to step up their nonconference slate. Replace Buffalo with Iowa; replace SMU with a neutral site game against say, Mississippi, and then another game with another P5 school, perhaps a home and home if possible. It can be done; USC plays Notre Dame every year and still schedules a quality team in their remaining two slots. In the end, the product is better, because football succeeds because it is a quality product. College football can actually be a better product than the NFL. Sure, there is parity in the NFL, but because the game is so quarterback driven, there can be lots of mismatches and clunkers. College football involves schemes and styles and that’s why Georgia Tech with inferior talent can steamroll a Mississippi State. That doesn’t happen in the NFL.

This is a good time for the Power 5 and a time of uncertainty of the Group of 5. Remember, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech, a P5 school. Baylor beat three creampuffs and the committee decided that Ohio State’s loss was better than Baylor’s wins against Buffalo and SMU. That is why the Group of 5 schools should be worried. They were at a disadvantage in the BCS and even though they’re guaranteed a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game, the chance of making it the CFP is much less likely.

You could expand the CFP to eight teams, but that doesn’t guarantee a spot for a G5 school, all it does is give three more P5 schools a chance to win the national title. The future of college football is exciting and scary at the same time, but on the field, it’s never been better.

Michigan, Harbaugh and the Changing Times of Midwest Football

December 24, 2014

Is One Name That Big of a Deal?
By John Furgele

Jim Harbaugh is a name that elicits; a name that resonates. For Michigan alums and fans alike, they believe that he is the answer, the Wolverine State’s response to Urban Meyer and Ohio State. The Michigan followers truly feel that if they bring Harbaugh back to the place where he spent his undergraduate days that Michigan football will be reborn to that national power that it once was.

That said, Michigan is doing something that Michigan has never, ever done before. Beg. This is the proud university that wouldn’t allow Bill Frieder to coach the 1989 Wolverine basketball team in the NCAA Tournament because he had accepted the head coaching job at Arizona State. Because Frieder was no longer a “Michigan Man,” he was relieved of his duties immediately and replaced by assistant coach Steve Fisher. All Fisher did was go 6-0 and lead the Maize and Blue to the national title.

But things have changed in Ann Arbor and for that matter, across the country. Simply put, there is way too much money to be had and the longer a program suffers, the longer it takes to get that money. Michigan fans have always had a sense of arrogance and truth be told, it’s a good arrogance. That arrogance also exists at Notre Dame, Alabama, Texas, Ohio State and perhaps Oklahoma, too. These are the blueblood programs in college football. It’s that arrogance that reveals admiration, or deep seated hatred. We saw the arrogance when the four team College Football Playoff field was announced and Ohio State, the blueblood, leapfrogged Baylor and Texas Christian to garner the coveted fourth and final spot. If Texas was 11-1 and ranked third, and then blew out Iowa State 55-3, you think Ohio State would have jumped them? What if Oklahoma was 11-1 and did the same? You think those two would be fifth or sixth in the rankings? No chance.

Michigan is a lot like Notre Dame and in some ways Oklahoma. They no longer are true national powers, but they still think like ones. Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship since the 1988 season; Oklahoma hasn’t won since 2000. Sure, both the Sooners and Irish have played in BCS title games, but in many ways, their cache has diminished. At Michigan, it’s even worse. The Wolverines haven’t been champions since 1997, and that year, they shared the title with Coaches Poll champion, Nebraska.

Michigan reminds some as the old British Empire, clinging to its colonies and traditions while the nations they once controlled have broken away and declared independence. An example is little Boise State, which truth be told has done more on the national stage since 2000 then Michigan. Like Notre Dame, they think they can wave their wand and prospective coaches will come running to interview for the job. They’ve waived the wand at least twice with LSU coach Les Miles and both times, he never left Baton Rouge to interview in Ann Arbor. Now, the Wolverines are trying to summon their former, hard-nosed quarterback home, only this time, they’re dangling $49 million in addition to the wand.

How important is a good coach? Naturally, it is important and there is no doubt that Harbaugh is an elite coach. He won at the University of San Diego, a Division 1-AA school that does not offer athletic scholarships. He won at Stanford, a rigorous academic school where few players are admitted no questions asked, and a private school as well. He then went to the San Francisco 49ers and turned the team around in three seasons. In those three seasons, he reached the NFC Championship Game with Alex Smith (losing in overtime), then switched quarterbacks and came within a play of winning the Super Bowl, and then lost a tough road game in the NFC Championship Game against Seattle.

Harbaugh can recruit and more importantly, he can coach the recruits. He made Alex Smith a winner, and then allowed him to go to Kansas City, where he keeps on winning. He tutored Colin Kapernick into an exciting, winning quarterback and though he’s fallen back some this year, the potential still is there.

Things have changed in Michigan and that arrogance could get the Michigan leaders in trouble. For decades, the Midwest was chock full of blue chip talent. The steel and auto workers lived in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania and those states supplied generations of football players. The blue collar parents saw football as a tough guy sport and the supply of great talent seemed endless. But, then the shift began. The factories began closing, the population of these states began to drop and the demographics began to change. The laborers packed up and moved to the Sun Belt or to the West to raise their families. The blue chip talents no longer had allegiances to the Midwest anymore. They grew up in Florida; why not play for Florida, Florida State, Miami, Alabama or another SEC or ACC school? Why come east when you can play football in California or Arizona?

The other change was the type of people who remained in the rust belt states. Because the economy changed from manufacturing to service, the parents and priorities changed. Instead of working Monday-Friday from 6 am to 2:30 with perhaps some overtime, the workers were working swing shifts and on weekends. Now, the days off might be Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday and Sunday and that it makes it harder to take “Football Jimmy” to practice, watch his games and to watch on TV. For the new workers, Friday night was no longer the night to relax, it might be a night to work or a night where one has to get to bed for the 6 am Saturday shift. Even though Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are still top ten states in terms of population, the demographic has changed and the other states are growing at a much faster rate than these states. Census data suggests that for every one person Michigan adds to its population, North Carolina adds 10.

The service industry also includes more white collar jobs like lawyers, insurance agents, professions where nothing is produced, but the salaries are higher. The people who work in these professions have different mindsets. They may have been cross country and track runners, tennis players and golfers or soccer players. Because they work for themselves, they work when they want and have to, and as a result, they don’t watch as much college football on TV, and as a result, their kids are less likely to play the game of football and more likely to go for a run or swing a golf club.

Deep down, Michigan knows this and that is why they’re making the hard press for Jim Harbaugh. Because the Midwest is no longer a football factory that produces enough to feed Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan, the Wolverine brass believes that coaching is more critical than ever. Ohio State knows that the demographics have changed, but they’ve had two coaches in Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer that understood that, worked with it and relished in it. Michigan State seems to have a guy in Mark Dantonio that also understands how it works, making the next coach of Michigan a monumental decision.

The only problem is with Harbaugh himself. Is he really interested in coming back to the college game? Is this the work of his agents, driving the price up so high that an NFL team offers him $49 million or more to coach their team? What will Harbaugh do if he comes to Michigan? Will he stay for five years? Ten? More? He was so close to winning the Super Bowl, could he really walk away from the NFL game without a Super Bowl title?

Nobody knows what Harbaugh is thinking, in fact, I’m not sure he knows either, but there is one problem. What is Michigan’s Plan B? What if Harbaugh signs with the Chicago Bears next week, or the Oakland Raiders or some other team that’s going to fire their coach on Black Monday? Do the Wolverines have a list of other coaches that can understand the landscape like Meyer and Dantonio do?

We’ll know the answer soon enough. Michigan has reportedly made the offer. They know that by New Year’s Day, Harbaugh will be somewhere. If it’s Michigan, then Wolverine Nation will rejoice. If not, then what?

In the End, Another Year of Mediocrity for the Buffalo Bills

December 22, 2014

by John Furgele

Most observers say that the Buffalo Bills have a nice little team. They have a great defensive line, very good linebackers, scrappy cornerbacks, a very good kicker and a solid punter. On offense, they have a potential star in wide receiver Sammy Watkins, an emerging Robert Woods, a decent tight end in Scott Chandler and serviceable running backs. Yes, the offensive line needs some reinforcements, but the Bills will never be a playoff contender until they find the one missing piece.

Quarterback.

The Buffalo Bills have been searching for this missing piece since 1996 when Jim Kelly retired. That’s 18 seasons of below average QB play. The Bills missed the playoffs in 1997 but did advance to the AFC Wild Card round in both the 1998 and 1999 seasons under, for the most part, Doug Flutie. Flutie sparked the Bills in 1998, going 7-3 as a starter and that team lost to Miami in the ’98 Wild Card game, 24-17. The next year, Flutie went 10-5 as starter, took the season finale off and then watched as Wade Phillips—and the Bills brass—benched him for Rob Johnson in the 22-16 Music City Miracle loss at Tennessee.

Some call this the Flutie Curse, or maybe the Flutie Flake Curse, but since 1999, the Bills have come up dry. They did have a shot in 2004, when all they had to do was beat a Pittsburgh team that was resting its starters, but the Bills with Drew Bledsoe, lost at home to finish 9-7 and out of the playoffs. Since 2004, the Bills have never had a .500 season until this year.

Have the Bills improved? Yes, but in the end, this was a wasted season, a season where there will be more questions than answers. The head coach, Doug Marrone took a gamble after the fourth game when he benched the struggling E.J. Manuel for the veteran Kyle Orton. Nobody can blame Marrone for making this decision. Be that as it may, it was a gamble, a risk and the only way the risk/gamble would be rewarded was with a playoff appearance. By delaying Manuel’s development or non-development, Marrone was saying that Orton was good enough to get the Buffalo Bills into the playoffs. He had to be right.

There are many that will backtrack here. They will say that the coach should have kept Manuel on the field so the organization could see what they have—or don’t have. But, after the Bills lost in Houston, those people were screaming for Orton and as we know, the backup quarterback is always the most popular player on a team when the number one guy struggles.

No one can blame Marrone for taking the gamble, but like a gambler who gambles away $10,000 hoping to win $100,000, Marrone came up with nothing, in fact, he lost the $10,000. The Bills are not only out of the playoffs, but they have more uncertainty than ever at the most important position in professional sports. What they do now is anybody’s guess, and there is not only pressure on Marrone and the front office, there is enormous pressure on new owner Terry Pegula.

The Bills could have done what the Oakland Raiders did and that is start their rookie Derek Carr for 16 games, take massive lumps, but at season’s end, see what they may have at quarterback. The jury remains out on Carr, but he may have played good enough to warrant 16 more starts in 2015. In fact, assuming he starts in Week 17 against Denver, he will have as many starts (16) as the second year Manuel.

The difference is pretty obvious of course. The Raiders know they’re in a rebuilding mode and sure, they could have played the veteran, Matt Schaub and made a run at 7-9, but in the midst of what will be a 3-13 or 4-12 season, they found that their rookie quarterback may be a decent, quality starter in the NFL.

What did the Bills find out? Well, they confirmed what we already knew and that is that Orton is a competent backup quarterback who will win half and lose half of his starts. He can hold serve, but he’s not breaking serve and upping his winning percentage to 60 percent, which is required to qualify for the NFL playoffs. Orton can’t move, and he’s not accurate enough to start full-time and help a team make a run. It’s not Orton’s fault. He is a backup, a decent backup and always has been. The Bills were hoping that he could find that magic season, and do enough to get the Bills into the playoffs. The good defense, coupled with the game manager quarterback and presto, an end to the playoff drought.

The Bills also found out that they have no idea whether Manuel can “do it,” in the NFL. He started 12 games in 2013, four in 2014. His 2013 season was broken up by a knee injury and his 2014 season was derailed before the train was set in motion. The Bills knew that this could happen; that they could bench Manuel, take the gamble with Orton and come up empty-handed, and that’s precisely what occurred.

Now, after one meaningless game at New England, the Bills will head into the always topsy-turvy offseason. They will lose key players on defense, they will have to plug holes on both sides of the football and they’ll have to determine what to do at quarterback. Eerily silent has been Terry Pegula, the new owner with all the money. As much as fans despise meddling owners, Pegula has to meddle this offseason. He has many things to meddle with. First, he has to decide to retain or dismiss Doug Marrone. Most think that despite some questionable game management scenarios; that Marrone will be back. In the end, Marrone will be either 8-8 or 9-7, an improvement from 2013. And, because he improved without a bonafide, quality quarterback, you can make an easy case for him to be back.

Pegula is going to have to weigh in on what to do at quarterback, too. If he leaves it up to Doug Whaley, Marrone and Russ Brandon, they may wallow again and go with Orton, another middle-aged backup, or Manuel. Pegula has to sit the brass down and lead the discussion. It’s very simple; Pegula has to look the three in the eye and ask if E.J. Manuel is the guy. If they say yes, then Manuel gets the entire season to show his goods. And, that might mean a 5-11 or 6-10 season if Manuel struggles. There can’t be panic or false hope like there was this year. The Bills have to do what the Raiders did and that is sink or swim with the youngster. If they say no, then Pegula has to tell the three to find another quarterback via free agency (slim), or the draft or through a trade.

Finding a quarterback is not easy. Of course, some teams get lucky. The Colts had Peyton Manning for 14 seasons, then, after going 2-14 in the year that he missed, they got Andrew Luck. They may go through two quarterbacks in 28 years, while teams like the Bills change them like you and I change our underwear.

They have to be out there, somewhere. Is it really this hard to find a decent enough quarterback to play in the NFL? Apparently, it is. Jay Cutler they say has the tools, but they said the same thing about Jeff George. Acquiring Cutler would be a colossal mistake. Mining in the draft is hardly a recipe for success. For every Aaron Rodgers, there is a J.P. Losman.

There is no proven formula when it comes to finding quarterbacks. Ton Brady was found in the sixth round. The Colts were torn between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, the Cowboys found Tony Romo at Division 1-AA Eastern Illinois and the Ravens found Joe Flacco at Delaware after he transferred from the University of Pittsburgh.

The Bills went for broke this year and it didn’t work. They missed the playoffs for the 15th straight season and are still looking for the guy to be the guy for a decade. Jim Kelly retired in 1996, and 18 years is a long, long time.


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