Archive for March, 2015

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.