Buffalo Bulls Athletics: No Place to Go

April 22, 2015

Big city, small conference hampers efforts

by John Furgele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Better Way to Fix Baseball

April 13, 2015

The game is fine, but needs some minor tweaks

by John Furgele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to Put an End to Tanking

April 3, 2015

Tank talk only stains the game

by John Furgele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Should a Coach Move On?

March 29, 2015

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

by John Furgele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Shouldn’t Hate Christian Laettner

March 14, 2015

Former Duke star enhanced the college game greatly

by John Furgele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling for Boeheim to Resign is Easy Way Out

March 7, 2015

Hiring coaches for life is the problem.

by John Furgele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Soccer Continues to Climb

March 6, 2015

by John Furgele

In 1996, they tried again. The world’s game, soccer, was the only game that the United States didn’t want any part of it. There were many reasons for this, but I contend that the primary one as to why soccer had trouble gaining traction in this county was because it was not invented here. We invented the NFL version of football and no matter how dull it can be at times, we love it. The same can be said for baseball. It’s a game that came to prominence in America and even though we like to kick it and beat it up, it’s ours and we’ll defend it when the need arises.

Soccer was and remains an enigma. In the 1970s, the North American Soccer League took root and for a time, enjoyed some success. They brought in world class players and the New York Cosmos, with the likes of Pele, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer drew crowds in excess of 75,000 at Giants Stadium. But, the NASL was only as strong as its weakest links and with the Cosmos came teams like the Minnesota Kick, and Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The Cosmos threw the money around, got the best players while the rest of the league suffered. In 1985, it was all over.

It took 11 years, a World Cup and some vision, but American soccer got a second act in the form of Major League Soccer. This reincarnation saw the league own the teams, control player movement as well as salaries. Most MLS players made the same or perhaps less money than teachers, sales reps and office workers. As the league grew, the salaries grew, but even today with a new CBA just signed, the minimum salary is just $60,000.

At first, the atmosphere was sterile with 12,000 fans watching a game in a football stadium, but over time, teams started building soccer specific playpens. The Columbus Crew started the trend. Rather than play in 80,000 seat Ohio Stadium, they built one with 22,000, where fans could be on top of the action and where a crowd of 13,000 would still have a quaint feel to it.

The trend continued and now, most teams have their own stadiums and even the Seattle Sounders, who play in the same stadium as the NFL Seahawks, play to near capacity. Soccer has a lot going for it. The games take about 2 hours to play, which in this era of smartphones and short attention spans, plays well in today’s society. Sure, the action can bog down, but it is continuous. There are no timeouts, and the last three minutes doesn’t take 30 minutes to play like a college basketball game does. Soccer plays well in the suburbs with kids as young as four signing up for soccer tots and pre-K leagues. Parents like it because most league games are over in less than 75 minutes, so the whole weekend isn’t consumed by house soccer.

The average age of a soccer fan in the United States is 34 compared to 52 for baseball. While those numbers are often overstated, the soccer demographic is a good one. They’re young, they have a sense of purpose and because mainstream America largely ignores it, their pride shows through. Many fans sing throughout the games, giving it a fun, carnival like atmosphere.

There are now 20 teams in MLS; ten in each conference. And, because it’s America, MLS has playoffs, something that the European leagues don’t have and don’t want. But, America not only likes, but they require playoffs. So, even MLS was smart enough to cede to that American tradition. The season is long, going from March to December, but unlike the NBA and NHL where too many regular season games are played, each team plays 34 games and for the most part, it’s one game per week.

There are two new teams this year, the Orlando City SC and New York City FC and one that left in Chivas USA. The two newbies will be squaring off on Sunday, March 8 before 62,000 in the sold out Citrus Bowl in Orlando. The actual Citrus Bowl football game on January 1 didn’t draw that many. The people in Orlando are excited but the operators of the club know that 62,000 will not be the norm and next year SC moves into a downtown 19,000 seat venue.

There is considerable buzz in Orlando for the inaugural game. It can also be said that Orlando now has two major league teams because MLS is not a Triple A league. Is it as good as the English Premier League? Of course not, but it’s not too far behind and that comes from players who played there before coming to play in MLS.

If there is any indication of soccer’s popularity, don’t take my word, take that of the New York Yankees. The Yankees partnered with Manchester City (Premier League) and brought a second team to the New York metro. The team will play at Yankee Stadium while a new stadium is prepared, and demand for tickets has been strong. Nobody expects NYCFC to displace the Yankees, Mets, Jets, Giants and the others, but soccer just wants to find their niche and in the Big City, they certainly will.

The key for soccer in America is to keep the younger demographics, but also to find a way to get crossover fans. Take Philadelphia for example. Philly is a hard core sports town. They love their Eagles, Phillies, Sixers and Flyers. The Eagle fan roots for the Phillies for sure, but they likely don’t root and probably don’t care about the Union. If that can change; if the tough, brawny, Eagle fan can show some love to the soccer Union, then there is no telling how far soccer can go in this country.

The great thing about soccer is that it’s on its second generation of fans. The first generation back in 1996 has passed the game on to their kids and that’s a good thing. High school soccer is much improved and most colleges field soccer teams. The game has always been strong at the grassroots level, but now, it’s carried on to the professional level. And, unlike the halcyon days of Pele and the NASL, it’s not going away this time.

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.


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